Disclaimer: The Sentinel is the sole creative property of Pet Fly and Paramount. I'm just passing through...

Layers of Dark and Light
(Epilog to Prisoner X)
-- by Mackie

Blair hadn't wanted to leave the fight cage, not without first talking to Jim. But Doctor Wilder had been badly upset by her ordeal. She probably suspected she'd have been killed within minutes after the end of the fight because of her investigation into the illegal operations at the prison.

Blair had encouraged her snooping, practically directed it, and now he was the only familiar face amid the chaos and confusion. He'd felt obligated to find her a quiet place to compose herself, assure her everything was all right now, get someone to look after her while he hurried back to Jim and Simon to make certain for himself everything really was all right.

He found Simon talking to a SWAT officer and one of the prison guards. There was no sign of Jim.

"Captain?"

"In a minute, Sandburg."

Blair wasn't in the mood to be ignored. "Simon, where's Jim?"

The Captain looked at him in irritation, saw only concern, realized its cause, and relented with a nod of sympathy. "He's OK. He just needed to go outside and get some air."

The younger man felt another rush of anxiety. "Outside! Simon, he's - "

"Still in prison clothes, I know," Simon interrupted smoothly. "I've already put out the word. Nobody's gonna mistake him for a prisoner. And Jim's too smart to go very far and risk running into a civilian."

"I should go find him."

"He needs a little space, that's all," Simon insisted. "Why don't you wait for him by the car and take him home when he's ready? I can get his report tomorrow. OK?"

Blair nodded. "Thanks."

He headed for the door, his concern moving him quickly along the linoleum hall, his footsteps echoing dully off the painted cement block walls. God, this was a depressing place. He found a cop he actually recognized at the exit, asked if he'd seen Jim, and received an affirmative. Glad to know he was heading in the right direction, he went outside and paused on the asphalt between the building and the rear gate, open now since the raid. Jim certainly would have gone that way, out through the gate, rather than back into the prison somewhere. The SWAT van, police cruisers, and Blair's department car were clustered there, blocking the exit. Several more SWAT officers stood on duty just inside this perimeter, and Blair walked past them a little nervously, expecting to be challenged. But they remembered him, and let him go.

He paused beside his car and looked both directions down the road. There was no sign of Jim. Contrary to what Simon had said, was there a chance Jim simply had walked off, forgetting how he was dressed, how he looked after the fight? What if some trigger-happy civilian spotted him in his prison garb and tried to make a capture? The morbid scenario played out in Blair's imagination as he fidgeted, but there was no point in going off on a random search.

Reluctantly, he leaned against the driver's door of his car and tried to quell his disjointed thoughts.

Jim would be all right...

******

The night was never truly dark. Beams from the searchlights that constantly prowled the prison grounds after sundown were reflected off the moisture-rich air, where they glittered like luminescent fog. Still, the air smelled piquant as Jim Ellison walked through the gates of Starkville Prison, turning his back on its walls forever. He knew he couldn't venture far - the others would be waiting for him - but for now, he felt compelled to escape the building's grim confines. On the other side of the road rose a narrow stand of trees, and he walked under their welcoming canopy. The soft carpet of decaying leaves formed a cushion beneath him as he sat down. The trunk of the tree he had chosen felt rough and damp against his back, but he didn't mind. It seemed like the first living thing he'd touched without violence in days.

It felt good to be free.

He closed his eyes against the glow that softened the darkness even here and tried to slough off the layers of Jim Curtis to reveal the Jim Ellison he hoped to find buried beneath.

The first veil was the vague anxiety he had worn since leaving the jail in his undercover guise as a prisoner bound for Starkville. It was an alertness that kept him sharp, suspicious of everyone, keenly aware of the dangers inherent in his new role, no matter whether he was an undercover cop or a legitimate inmate. Every person confined or working within those walls wore a similar shield. It was as fundamental as breathing.

Beneath it, however, lurked the other strata of Jim Curtis that would prove more difficult to peel away. There was the sense of helplessness at his loss of simple personal freedoms, taken way by prison officials who dictated his every waking moment and then told him when to sleep. There was the helplessness he'd felt when he'd been unable to save Liotta, knifed to death practically under his nose by a vicious inmate named Vincent.

Deeper still was the sense of isolation, even in the over-crowded mass of fellow prisoners. There had been no one he could trust, no one to count on beside himself. The feeling had intensified dramatically when he'd realized his sole link to the outside world - hastily scrawled messages to be retrieved from his laundry bag by Sandburg - had been compromised and severed by circumstances he had not yet fathomed.

Beneath the cloak of isolation lay the first layer of anger, born of his outrage at the depravities perpetrated against inmates by each other and by the officials. He was outraged that a civilized society could turn a blind eye to such a breeding ground for alienation and violence.

Further down, near the core of his anger, was the helpless rage against the people who had locked him in a cage to be beaten to death for the amusement of paying spectators. It was the most ignoble fate he could conceive. He'd hated them all - his adversary, the corrupt prison officials who had put him there, and the rabid spectators screaming for his blood. In one moment of cold fury, he could have destroyed them if given the means.

And that brought Jim Ellison to the darkest emotional levels of his alter-ego persona and which anchored Curtis to him more snugly than a second skin: He was angry at himself for being infected by the distrust and hate, angry that he had become like them, on the brink of beating a man to death with his bare hands. He was appalled by his own fury, at how easily he'd fallen into the pattern of life at Starkville.

He knew his shock at this rage had been one of the reasons he'd dropped his knife when Turner had come at him as Part Two of the night's entertainment. That, and because he'd be damned if he would perform on command for the bloodthirsty crowd. His willingness to die to end the nightmare had been the most frightening realization of all.

He looked bleakly around the little grove where he had taken shelter. No more than twenty minutes had passed, but he knew they'd come looking for him soon. With nothing resolved, he stood up, his fight-stiffened muscles protesting, and headed for the car.

Jim Curtis was still an emotional shroud over his thoughts.

******

He saw Blair was alone by the car, his fingers tapping nervously on the metal door as he waited.

"Jim, are you OK?" his partner asked anxiously, relief at Jim's reappearance evident in his voice. "Simon told me to take you home."

Jim didn't look at him as he walked around to the passenger side. "Good." Avoiding eye contact was the first rule of prison survival. Eye contact invited an invasion of either your emotional or personal space; worse, it could be perceived as an invasion of someone else's space. If you didn't look at someone, you couldn't give anything away, and maybe you could avoid trouble.

Perplexed by something he couldn't quite grasp, Blair climbed behind the wheel. He had a good look at Jim for the first time as the car's interior lights came on, and he was shocked by the numerous cuts and bruises across his friend's face. "Jim, we should go inside and find Doctor Wilder. She can bandage those cuts for you."

Jim just shook his head. "No."

"Then we'll go to the emergency clinic in Cascade - "

"No." For the first time, Jim looked over at his friend, and Blair was confused by the blankness he saw in those normally mild blue eyes; he might as well have tried to read the expression on a dead man. Then Jim turned away and stared out through the windshield. "Do you want me to drive?"

Startled out of his thoughts, Blair shook his head. Shutting the car door, he started the engine and backed into the street. As he started toward Cascade, he wondered at the changes that had come over his friend in a few short days. Of course, they hadn't seemed short, he amended; they had felt like years. He wanted to ask questions to find out what was bothering Jim, but when he glanced over, he realized his partner had leaned back in the seat, feigning sleep to avoid conversation.

Alternately irritated and concerned, he drove a little faster than was absolutely safe, but the streets were quiet and the freeway clear. The journey home was made without incident.

Jim climbed out of the car without a word and trudged up the stairs ahead of Blair. He stopped in front of the loft door; too late, he remembered he didn't have his keys, so he was forced to wait for his roommate. He felt a sudden rush of irritation. Prison life was a series of standing and waiting for someone with authority to direct your footsteps, unlock a door so you could pass through, lock it behind you so you couldn't leave again.

Blair sensed some of the animosity and was at a loss to account for it. He unlocked the door and pushed it open, permitting Jim to go inside first. For some unsettling reason, he didn't feel completely comfortable turning his back on Jim, and it bothered him deeply.

Jim was home. He stopped inside the door and looked around at the familiar setting, hoping finally to shed the last of Jim Curtis amid the surroundings of Jim Ellison. But the loft felt strange to him, alien and unwelcoming. How could this be home?

Blair saw the flicker of sadness come over his friend and automatically reached out a hand in concern, but Jim stepped aside smoothly. It was as if he wanted to avoid contact.

"Jim, what's wrong?"

"Nothing." Jim started for the stairs. "I'm going to bed."

"You want something to eat first?" Blair asked, almost desperate to initiate some sort of communication, if only about food. "There's some leftover Chinese in the fridge."

Jim never turned around, never stopped climbing toward his bedroom. "No."

"OK," Blair said with a helpless shrug. "Good night."

There was no answer.

Irresolute, Blair just stood there for a long minute, wondering what the hell had gone wrong with everything and what he could do to fix it. There weren't any ready answers, so he finally turned around, closed and locked the front door, turned out the lights, and went toward his room. A few steps from his doorway, he paused again. Perhaps Jim had a need to be alone. After all, life in a prison community couldn't have been easy for someone like him, someone who could hear every snore and belch and probably worse throughout the entire cellblock.

But leaving went against Blair's nature to want to be there in case he was needed, in case something had happened that might cause Jim's heightened senses to go awry during the night, or in case Jim simply had a bad dream and needed someone to help him through it.

Except it seemed clear Jim didn't want him here right now. He tried to think of something to do, someplace to go. Then he realized even at this late hour, he could do something useful - he could go down to the station and pick up Jim's personal effects, which he'd left behind when he'd gone undercover.

After taking care of a couple of things, Blair left his own loft key on the table by the door, locked the door behind him, and went back downstairs to the department issued unmarked car - a plain-wrap, they called it - and headed for the station. He'd grab some food from the break room vending machines and catch a little sleep in the locker room. It wouldn't be the most pleasant night he'd ever spent, but it wouldn't be the worst either.

******

Jim slept fitfully, his mind churning with images. The sense of helplessness returned. He remembered hearing the rape in the cell at the end of the block - the frightened, muffled cries of the victim and the whispered threats from the two perpetrators. But his cell door had been secure. He could not go to help. Later, he wondered if he would have gone had he been able - to interfere invited retaliation, and he was there to investigate a murder, not attempt to fix the ills of the prison system. In the morning, he'd been unable to determine the identity of the victim or the participants; their voices had been too faint.

Days could be filled with work detail, exercise, recreation, eating and a hundred other minor events scheduled to keep the prisoners occupied and out of trouble. But the nights - never dark because of the incessant sweep of the searchlights across the walls - the nights were the worst. Nights were filled with sounds - routine conversation, snores of sleeping prisoners, quiet sobs of despair, angry mutterings and screaming nightmares. There was never a moment of silence; never a moment of peace.

In his uneasy rest, he relived the deaths of Liotta and Miller, imagined the death of Mattie Temple, the high-school friend whose murder had been the catalyst for Jim's undercover role. He recalled every moment with Vincent, whose capacity for evil seemed to have no boundaries. He relived the fight, felt every blow received and returned, felt the sting of pepper spray in his eyes, remembered the fury that had driven him to nearly kill his opponent.

******

He woke to the distant, comfortably familiar sound of the coffee maker tending to its morning business. Except for its gentle gurgle, the loft was quiet. Sandburg was gone; dimly, he remembered hearing him leave right after their return the night before. He hadn't said where he was going, and Jim had been too wrapped up in himself to ask. He felt a sudden rush of anger toward his roommate - why hadn't he retrieved the second note, where Jim had written that his cover had been blown and he needed to be pulled out immediately?

Except that was Curtis thinking, not Ellison thinking. Jim knew there would be an explanation, one which would either deserve his anger or not; until he heard it, there was no point in placing blame.

Irritated with himself, annoyed he would have to examine every thought, every action for lingering traces of Curtis, Jim took a shower and dressed. At the foot of his bed, he saw the prison clothes he'd stripped out of the night before. The shirt bore traces of blood - Vincent's and his own. With a scowl, he carried the whole lot downstairs and shoved it into the garbage.

Pouring himself a cup of fresh coffee -- the stuff from the huge prison urns had tasted like sludge - he slouched into a chair at the dining table. He immediately saw the notes where Blair had left them, probably intending to give them to Simon at the earliest opportunity. Placing them side by side, he saw the unfamiliar second message, printed in the same block letters he'd used to write the first, and realized why Blair had not been alarmed. With a sigh, he shook his head and felt more of his tension draining away; he'd known there would be a simple explanation for the foul-up. Damn Curtis for his suspicion and doubt!

Finishing his coffee, he carried the cup to the sink and rinsed it, taking pleasure in this habitual behavior, realizing small things would have greater significance for awhile until he felt comfortable again.

He turned off the coffee maker and looked around the deserted loft. Too keyed up to think about watching TV or reading, he grabbed a jacket off the coat rack, then saw Blair's keys on the small table and wondered why he had left them there.

He left them there for you, stupid, he thought with an inward grimace. After your reaction last night, he's probably retreated to someplace that feels a little more hospitable.

Automatically locking the door behind him, he trotted down the stairs and out into the brisk morning air. It was chill and crisp, with a salt tang coming off the bay and the cry of gulls overhead. Turning left outside the door, he tried to empty his mind of troublesome thoughts and started walking aimlessly.

******

Blair came home a few minutes later, letting himself in with Jim's keys. Just for a moment, he felt a stab of panic at the sense of emptiness, but reason told him Jim was an adult, perfectly free to come and go as he pleased. He saw the mug draining by the kitchen sink, noticed the coffee maker was switched off, and took comfort that these routine things were indications Jim was behaving normally.

But where would he go? He thought about it, finally decided to test his theory, and dumped the envelope containing Jim's personal belongings on the table by the door. The keys he'd left the night before were gone. Good. It was another indication Jim was thinking clearly.

Well, why wouldn't he be thinking clearly? Don't kid yourself, he was like a total stranger last night.

Keeping Jim's keys, Blair locked the front door behind him and headed down the stairs. The place he had in mind was about a half-mile away, a patch of ground at the edge of the bay, open to sea and sky, unkempt and an unlikely spot for tourists or joggers. It would be quiet there. Jim had witnessed a murder from there, his acute vision seeing a body dropped into the bay from a helicopter, but Blair didn't think the unpleasant association would keep Jim from seeking the wide open solace of the place.

He was right.

As soon as he saw his friend was safe, Blair stopped and relaxed against the fender of a parked car. Jim's back was to him, but if he had his senses turned up at all, he would know his roommate was there. Once again, Blair debated with himself about just leaving Jim alone and letting him deal with whatever he felt he had to deal with. But the long hours of worry and concern were weighing heavily on him now, and he wanted at least to speak to Jim, to know if everything was going to be all right.

A few minutes passed, then Jim turned away from his solitary contemplation of the blue-gray waters of the bay. Blair didn't know if it was significant that Jim came to him rather than the other way around; psychologists would say it was. As for what it meant - a desire to open communication or a need to take control - he didn't have a clue.

But Jim looked mild and relaxed as he stopped beside his roommate. "You went out again last night."

"Yeah, figured I'd go down to your office and pick up your stuff." Blair held out Jim's front door keys. "Trade you."

Obligingly, Jim handed over Blair's keys and accepted his own. "Thanks. It took all night?"

Blair dug into his coat pockets and pulled out his gloves. "Well, I guess I was pretty tired. I fell asleep at your desk." Not exactly a lie - he really hadn't planned on falling asleep at Jim's desk. He omitted mentioning where he had intended to sleep.

Jim nodded slightly, then thrust his hands into his jacket pockets. The breeze off the bay had a sharp bite. "I'm sorry about last night," he said quietly.

"It's OK."

"No, it's not." He sighed, searching for the right words. "I don't want you to think - I mean, I know I was a little weird last night, but I don't want you ever to feel that the loft isn't your home, that you're not welcome there."

"I know that," Blair answered lightly, concentrating on adjusting his gloves so his eyes wouldn't betray the doubt and fear he'd felt last night. "Are you ready to talk about what's bothering you?"

Jim shrugged, waited until Blair glanced up after fussing with his gloves, then nodded for Blair to join him as he started walking slowly along the packed dirt path that paralleled the water. It led around the edge of the bay and ended at a deserted pier fronting one of the old, abandoned fish-processing plants that dotted the coastline as evidence the Cascade economy wasn't quite as booming as city officials liked to proclaim. Morning traffic passed on the road just a few yards away, but they had the path to themselves. Pedestrians were not plentiful in this part of the city.

Jim was quiet for a long time, and Blair didn't push him. It was enough for him to know he wasn't being shut out any more, closed out by a stranger who'd actually made him feel afraid.

Finally, after they had covered most of the mile to the old pier, Jim said, "I guess I'm bothered by how easy it was to slip into the skin of Jim Curtis and how hard it is getting rid of him."

Blair frowned. "You talk like he's a separate person."

"No, I know he's not," Jim assured him. "It's just easier to divide my feelings into his and mine."

"OK, I can follow that easily enough. What's so troubling about Curtis?"

"His wariness, his distrust of everyone," Jim admitted, feeling his jaws clench and forcing himself to relax. "His anger."

"Come on, Jim, aren't you being a little hard on yourself?" Blair countered calmly. "Jim Curtis was the personification of your own survival instincts. They - or he, if you insist - helped keep you alive."

"I think he personified a lot of other things, too," Jim said. "If he's me, then I guess I've just realized there's a lot about myself I don't like."

"Like what?"

"Like right now, this minute, I could chuck it all and go live in a shack somewhere in the wilderness."

"Sure, in Starkville you were surrounded by vicious, evil people."

"And most of them weren't even inmates," Jim finished bitterly.

"You're talking about the warden and the crooked guards?"

"I'm talking about a crowd of spectators who expected me to die for their amusement." Jim's voice took on a hard edge as he battled with the anger trying to resurface. "I'll bet most of them are just normal businessmen and women - with families, Sunday cookouts, the PTA and the whole routine."

"The line between the good guys and the bad guys got a little blurred, didn't it?" Blair asked sympathetically. "They were the people you took an oath to protect."

"I'm not that naïve, at least not usually," Jim confessed. "I know there are only degrees of good and bad; but hell, while I was in that cage, I felt - I don't know - betrayed? The hate and the rage - I was infected by them. I know I could have hurt them the same way they wanted to see me hurt."

"And you think that makes you no better than them? Jim, you survived, and however much you think you wanted to kill, you stopped yourself."

Jim grimaced. "I stopped because I realized a killing was what the crowd wanted. It shocked me enough to realize what I was about to do."

"There were some good people in there," Blair pointed out. "Doctor Wilder risked her life to smuggle out evidence of what was going on. Doctor Spencer was killed trying to do the same thing. Not everyone in there was corrupt."

"No, but I'm part of the system that makes it all possible." They'd reached the end of the path, and Jim leaned against one of the old pier pilings.

"OK, Jim, maybe some of the people you arrest go to a place like Starkville and wind up worse than when they went in. Prison reform is a huge issue, and maybe it's not something you've given a lot of thought to before. But it's not the key to what's bugging you now." Having said this, Blair waited silently beside his friend, feeling the cool breeze on his face, letting his gaze roam freely over the discouraging sight of the abandoned processing plant and the assorted trash littering the ground around it. A few yards beneath his feet, an oil slick eddied sluggishly atop the water. All in all, it was a depressing place for a heart to heart, and could only serve to darken Jim's already dismal mood.

Jim stood still for a long time, feeling Blair beside him, knowing the truth now but not certain he wanted to say it. But he owed it to them both to speak. "Curtis is who I was before."

Blair frowned, surprised by the words. "Before what?"

"Curtis is who I was eight years ago," he explained, finally facing the other person inside him. "Before Carolyn - god only knows why she married me, but it's clear as hell why she divorced me; before Simon made me dare to call him 'friend' - " He stopped awkwardly, then grinned in self-deprecating awareness. "Before you came along and shredded all the layers I used to keep my feelings carefully monitored and controlled."

Blair was almost stunned by Jim's words. He knew how difficult it was for his friend to express tenderness, although Jim demonstrated it every day through thoughtful acts of consideration. He suddenly felt a warm glow of affection that drove away the chill in the air.

This was a definite Kodak moment, a snapshot for the soul.

He was even more surprised when Jim turned to him and gave him a completely uncharacteristic hug, which Blair returned with natural devotion and a rush of love.

After a moment, Jim stepped back, but he didn't entirely release his hold, instead transferring his hands to Blair's shoulders. "Jim Curtis - the old Jim Ellison - could never have done that," he said quietly. "I think I like the new model better."

"Me too," Blair murmured with a smile.

Jim finally dropped his hands and returned them to his pockets. A couple of hundred yards offshore, two sea lions were frolicking around a swaying buoy. He watched them while he pondered what he had just done and said. Expressing genuine affection, hugging another man in public (albeit a virtually deserted "public") were alien behaviors to him.

Still, he realized he really hadn't much liked the person he'd been before Sandburg had stumbled into his life. Perhaps falling back into the old habits by pretending to be Jim Curtis, whose dire circumstances had made all the old behaviors exaggerated and more extreme, had only made him more aware of how far he'd come in a few short years.

Rousing himself from his thoughts, he said, "Are you hungry?"

Blair nodded. "We'll have to cook - your wallet's back at the loft, and I'm broke as usual."

Jim turned his companion around and pointed him back along the path. "Then we'll cook," he agreed mildly.

THE END

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