Disclaimer: The Sentinel and its characters are the property of Pet Fly, Paramount, and The SciFi Channel.

Much appreciation goes to Shallan for her initial beta work, and to Sheila Paulson and L.A. Carr for their editing... thank you!

Originally published in The Comfort Zone #1.

Rating: PG

Warnings: None

Spoilers: None

*feedback welcome*


DARKNESS



Carole






As the early morning sun begins to brighten my room, I wearily drag myself to my feet, having spent yet another night tossing, turning, and contemplating a darkness as black as the night sky. Making my way slowly toward the bathroom, I discover, despite the fact it was my turn to cook, and despite the fact he had planned to leave for the station early, Jim has prepared our breakfast and placed it on the table. Not only that, he's waiting for me. He could have headed for the station by himself, expecting me to catch up with him later, but there he sits.

"Be out in a few minutes," I mumble, before taking refuge in morning rituals of showering and shaving, knowing full well that I am only postponing the inevitable. Heading for the kitchen almost fifteen minutes later, and not yet ready to broach the subject, I take a quick sip of the still too hot coffee as soon as I sit down. My eyes are on anything and everything except him. My food, the kettle on the stove top, the thread hanging from the hem of my blue flannel shirt, all of these capture my attention, or at least I pretend they do.

"Thanks for making breakfast, Jim. I'm sorry that--"

"Chief," Jim interrupts before I can finish my apology. His voice is gentle, but he sounds a bit exasperated, and I don't blame him. He has wanted to talk for several days, and I've kept putting it off. "I know you didn't sleep again last night. We need to talk about this."

Finally meeting his gaze, I nod my reluctant agreement. It's not that I haven't wanted to talk about it. I'm just not sure I can explain what I'm feeling when I haven't even come to grips with it myself. But I can try.

"I'm just... I'm just having a hard time dealing with..." I bite my lip in frustration when I can't even finish my sentence. It's not often that words fail me like this, but I don't know how to put what I'm feeling into words. My mind has defined this feeling as darkness, but it's a darkness that's perceived as opposed to seen. While that term usually depicts the lack of light, the absence of radiance, in this case it has very little to do with the visual. Instead, it's an all encompassing impression of gloom, an overshadowing sensation of despair. And this feeling affects everything I say and do.

"I know," Jim responds simply. "I know." He sighs, and takes a sip of his coffee, his eyes not leaving me for an instant. I know he can see the dark circles under my eyes, irrefutable proof of my lack of sleep. They'd be clearly visible to even non-Sentinel eyes and he's got vision that can magnify every pore to the nth degree. "Blair..." he begins, his expression filled with both warmth and solicitude, "I--"

His next words are cut off by a shrill ring that startles both of us. With a sigh of frustration, he moves to the phone on the wall.

I return my attention to the neatly sliced and cream cheese slathered bagels on my plate, but before I can take more than a couple bites, Jim has hung up the phone and returned to the table.

"Chief." Jim's tone serves as a warning of the bitter words to follow. "That was Simon. There's been another murder." His face is drawn, emotionless, but I can still see what he's feeling. His worry, his frustration... because of what this case is doing to me.

I can feel his eyes on me, his senses evaluating my heartbeat and breathing, as I take a deep breath. There's nothing quite like having a friend who can discern everything I've done, every place I've been, solely by using his senses. At times I resent the fact that most, if not all, of my privacy has been lost, but this time, I know his scrutiny is inspired by his concern. "I'm ready." I try to sound certain, try to reassure him, but I know I've failed by the look of sorrow that crosses his face.

"You don't have to go with me," he says softly.

"Yes, I do." It's not that I think he'll be unable to do his job without me, quite the contrary. He's an excellent detective. But, there are times when my presence, and my touch, can make him more focused, more effective. I watch as he closes his eyes and sighs. I'm ready to meet his gaze when his blue eyes open and rise to meet my own. There's still sorrow written there, but acceptance and understanding as well.

"We do need to talk."

I nod once, and faintly smile. "I know. And we will." His answering nod is a pledge.


The two police cars parked sideways in the road are a picture of incongruity in this normally quiet middle-class neighborhood. The yellow tape, flapping in the light breeze, sets this house apart from the others. Neighbors wait and talk in soft voices as they watch the drama unfold. Jim parks at the end of the driveway, and I follow him up to the front door. Bending to fit under the tape, my eyes are already seeking what's ahead. The scarlet red bloodstained clothes. The chalk outline that is being drawn around another small, still form. The flash from the camera that will forever memorialize the day's events in living color.

The soft murmur of voices draw my attention away from the body, and I see tragedy embodied. Eyes that are filled with grief, shoulders that hang in despair, fingers that are repeatedly drawn into fists that tighten and release with each sobbing breath.

My aversion to dead bodies is well-known, and probably has been the object of ridicule at more than one 'shoot the bull' session at the station. But this... this atrocity has touched my very soul. It only takes that one look, at both victim and survivors, and the now-familiar minute trembling starts in my hands. Soon it moves into my whole body, and I'm shaking like a leaf. I clench my jaw tight as I close my eyes, trying to draw a curtain between me and the oppressive darkness that surrounds me.

Flinching as Jim grips my shoulders and steers me away, I open my eyes to see the worried visage of my partner.

"Why don't you wait in the truck," he suggests gently. "I'll handle this one by myself." At my nod, he takes my arm and escorts me back to the truck. He waits until I'm seated on the passenger side and the door is closed before returning to the crime scene.

I find a place of solitude, there in the truck, with my head back and eyes closed. I breathe very deliberately, forcing the air in through my nose and then out through my mouth. It's a struggle to find my center, my grounding. And just beyond, I sense the darkness waiting to beset me again.

"Chief?" Jim pauses beside my window as he returns to the truck, but my eyes remain closed.

I feel the slight sway as he takes his place behind the wheel. His hand rests on my shoulder for a second, then he starts the truck. "We have to head for the station, but after that, we talk."

Words fail me, but I manage to nod. As Jim pulls out into traffic, I begin to organize my thoughts, grateful for the time. I'm determined to find a way to express exactly how I'm feeling. My partner deserves that much.


The low hum of voices, accompanied by ringing phones and the faint buzz of electronics, is a welcome sound as we enter Major Crime. Henri and Rafe are seated at their respective desks; as usual, the two detectives are buried under a load of paperwork. Rafe's head is down, but Henri aims a grin in our direction. Joel, the Bomb Squad captain and our friend, gives us a welcoming wave as he exits Simon's office and heads across the room for the door.

There's a stack of folders and an overflowing inbox awaiting his attention, but as soon as we're both seated, Jim looks across the desk at me in expectation. "Talk to me, Chief," he encourages. He's leaning forward in his chair, arms folded and resting on the desktop, eyes on my face. The posture of a man who's prepared to listen.

Just as I'm about to speak, out of the corner of my eye, I see Simon open his office door and take a step out into the bullpen.

"Ellison. Sandburg. My office, please."

Jim and I sigh in unison, and as we rise from our seats, he frowns. I know it's because our talk, as much as it's needed, will have to be delayed. I push my backpack under Jim's desk, and follow him into the office.

"I got a call from the FBI a few minutes ago, Jim," Simon says as we come through the doorway. "Two of their agents are on their way down. Apparently they have some information regarding this case."

"I hope so, sir. At this point I'd appreciate even their help," Jim admits.

Simon motions toward the chairs set around the large table, and we both take a seat. I tiredly rub my eyes as the police captain lifts a manila folder from his desk, then takes the seat next to Jim. "Forensics just sent over the photographs from the last three murders."

As the pictures are displayed on the table in front of me, I close my eyes and swallow hard before taking a deep, shuddering breath.

"Chief?"

"Sandburg?"

I know that they are calling my name, but I can't respond.

"Chief?" Jim calls again. "Are you okay?"

No, I'm not okay. Even with my eyes closed I can still see the pictures on the table in front of me. Images indelibly traced upon my memory. Pictures of children, children who have been senselessly murdered, torn from their families, denied their futures.

Sounds of concern pass between Simon and Jim, but for a moment I'm unable to bring meaning to the words. I am spiraling down into the darkness and I don't know how to stop my fall.

The chair legs scrape against the floor as Simon pushes his chair back and moves around the desk. "Take him home, Jim."

"What about the FBI, sir?"

"I'll take care of it."

Jim's hands are on my arms, and he tightens his grip as he pulls me to my feet. "Come on, buddy." My stance is unsteady, and it is his strength alone that keeps me from falling back into the chair. "Open your eyes, Chief," he directs gently. "I need you to open your eyes."

I respond automatically to his voice, and I open my eyes to look into his worried gaze.

"Let's go home," Jim says, as he wraps his arm around my back. He picks up my backpack as we pass his desk, and then leads me out of the bullpen.


"Jim..." He looks at me as I finally break the silence that has hung over us since leaving the station and all the way to the loft. "Jim, I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Jim answers quickly, still supporting my weight with one hand around my waist. Changing his grip to a firm hold on my arm, he unlocks the door. I think he's afraid to let go, afraid that if he does, I'll shatter into pieces. Once inside, he takes my jacket and hangs it next to his own as I cross the room to drop heavily on the floor in front of the fire. I pull my knees up to my chest and wrap my arms around them, rocking slightly in place, wondering if my body or my soul is colder. As I stare into the crackling flames, I find myself wishing that the darkness I feel could disappear as easily as the smoke that is rising lazily up the chimney.

"Blair." Jim's voice is gentle, the kind you use with a skittish or injured animal.

I look away from the fire as he moves to kneel in front of me. Studying his face, I expect to see disappointment, but the compassion that fills his eyes tears at my heart.

"Jim..." I breathe out softly.

"I'm sorry, Chief. I should have known that you... that this case would just be too much."

My first instinct is to hang my head in shame, but as I do, I feel his hand on my chin, carefully tilting my head up until my eyes meet his.

"I'm not saying you're weak, Chief. You're one of the strongest men I've ever known. But you're not a cop. You weren't trained to deal with this." His tone is not one of ridicule, rebuke, or even contempt, but understanding, and suddenly I come to the realization that he, too, has faced his own share of demons in this case.

With that knowledge, I'm able to begin, to put to words what I've been feeling. "I've faced man's inhumanity to man before, Jim, but this... God, this..."

"Blair..." Jim whispers, his hand coming to rest on my shoulder.

"Let me finish," I plead. As hard as this is, I need to continue now that I've found my voice. When Jim nods, I take a deep breath, fortification for the words still to come. "These are just kids. The most innocent of the innocents. How many more kids are going to die before we stop this guy?" There it is. My guilt, my fear, both coming to the forefront at last. It isn't just the murders, or the outrage I feel at the loss of those young lives. It's knowing children have died, knowing more children could die, because we haven't found the perpetrator. That's the cause of the darkness.

"Blair..." Jim tries again, but I wave him off.

"In the academic world, failure means anything from bad grades to rejected grant proposals. But, failure in your world can be the difference between life and death."

"You think we've failed?" He's not questioning me, not really. Just stating a fact.

I shrug. "Haven't we?"

"No." Jim's response comes easily, with conviction.

"But..." I shake my head in doubt.

Jim lightly squeezes my shoulder. "We only fail if we give up. And we're not about to do that."

At that moment, I feel a change within me. It's as if I suddenly caught a glimpse, just a hint, of splendor, the promise of what's ahead when the long night is finally over. I'd forgotten something important. I don't have to face this by myself. I've got a partner, one with whom I should have been sharing my anxiety all along. A partner who would have reassured me that we'd keep trying until we succeeded.

"Jim, I--"

Both of us jump as the phone rings.

"It's okay," I reassure Jim, nodding toward the phone. With an answering nod, and his hand still on my shoulder, he gets to his feet. I keenly feel the absence of his touch as he pulls away, heading for the phone on the end table.

As Jim answers the phone, I stand up and make my way to the balcony windows. Gazing out at the bay, Jim's words fade into the background. I'm taken by surprise when he appears at my shoulder.

"That was Simon."

I swing around, half-expecting to hear another murder has taken place. His tone isn't bitter this time, not the way it was after Simon's last call, but before my mind can register that fact, he goes on.

"We've been taken off the case. And that's not--"

I don't let him finish. My eyes open wide as his words sink in, and I'm wavering between relief and fear. "Because of me? Tell me it's not because of me. Please, Jim."

Jim's tone is low and reassuring, revealing that he can see the anguish in my eyes. I'm not trying to hide it this time, it's right out there for him to behold. "It's not, Chief. Turns out the FBI is investigating a series of similar murders along the West Coast, and they've asked to take over our investigation."

"You always hate it when they do that," I comment softly.

Jim's response is almost too quiet to hear. "Not this time." He takes a deep breath and, with his hands on my shoulders, turns me to face him. "That's not all," he says. There's an unexpected look of satisfaction on his features.

"What is it?"

"Based on an anonymous tip, agents in Seattle took a suspect into custody late this morning. He confessed, Chief."

"What?" Disbelief colors my tone. "You mean that..."

Jim nods. "It's over. It's over. He won't be able to kill anyone else."

As I feel the gentle squeeze of his hands on my shoulders, tears suddenly blur my vision. Before I know it, I have a two-fisted grip on the front of his shirt and my face is pressed close into his chest. His fingers come up to stroke through my hair, and as I let out a long breath, the darkness finally gives way to dawn.

"Chief?"

Reluctantly I lift my head and push away.

"I have to go back to the station," Jim says with a sigh. "Simon wants me to turn over all of our case notes. I won't be gone long." His face is troubled. "Will you be okay?" His tone tells me that if I say no, he'll stay with me for as long as I need him.

I look up to meet his eyes, and slowly nod. "Yeah, Jim. I'll be okay." I can feel that same satisfaction now. It's tempered by a profound grief that so many children had fallen victim to such atrocity, but it's satisfaction nonetheless.

His eyes study me, and I know that his senses are tuned to every nuance of my being. I smile, and his relief is clearly seen in the echoing smile on his face. He pats my cheeks gently, and then turns toward the door. "I'll be back as soon as I can. We can talk some more then."

Watching him grab his jacket from the hook by the door, I whisper, "Thanks, Jim." He doesn't respond with words, but his face, as he turns to face me for just a second, still wears a bright smile.

I return to the fire as the door closes behind him, sitting close and reveling in its warmth. But this time, instead of darkness, all I see is the light.

~end~


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