Priorities

Thank you to Angela, Kitty and Cindy for their generous help. Any lingering typos or inconsistencies are my own fault. Feedback gratefully received & more fanfic available at www.sandramcdonald.com


PRIORITIES



Sandra McDonald






"Sandburg," Jim Ellison suggested, "what do you say we ditch this experiment and go get some bagels instead?"

Blair Sandburg yawned from a few feet away. "Stop complaining and concentrate," he said good-naturedly.

Jim bit back a retort and instead tried to follow his partner's order. The young anthropology student took fiendish delight in designing experiments that analyzed Jim's Sentinel abilities - tests of every way, shape and form, dizzying challenges of his naturally enhanced senses which often made Jim's teeth ache with irritation but which often proved valuable in solving crimes. Toward that end the Sentinel and his Guide had set out early in the morning on bicycles and followed winding trails deep into Fraser Park. They currently sat on a slope overlooking the ocean with an old Army blanket protecting their jeans from the dew-wet grass, the air cool and salty and bracing against their skin. Jim had let Blair blindfold him, robbing away his Sentinel sight.

"What is it you want me to do?"

"Just tell me everything you smell, man," Blair said. Jim heard him click his ballpoint pen. "Let's see if we can get to one hundred."

"One hundred!" Jim groaned. "We'll be here all day."

"Nah. An hour, maybe. I've got faith in you, big guy."

"Great." Jim forced his shoulders to relax from their tensed position the way Blair often nagged him to during meditation exercises. Jim noted with a certain satisfaction that he'd already adopted the calm, in-through-his-nose, out-through-his-mouth breathing Blair had worked weeks to drill into him. The very close ocean sounds distracted him in a dozen different ways, from the distant throb of ferry engines to the flap of seagulls hunting in the surf. He pushed them out of his head to a place where he could monitor them indirectly and focused instead on his sense of smell.

"Salt," he said.

"That's an easy one."

"Fresh cut grass."

"You're killing me here, Jim. Let's go for something a little harder, okay?"

"Diesel fuel," Jim added. "Dead fish."

Not only dead fish, but rotting crabs, bird droppings and raw sewage as well. The smells piled one on top of the other quickly and viciously. Their full-out assault made his nose wrinkle as tightly as if someone had shoved a skunk up into his sinuses.

"Easy, now," Blair said, his voice low and calm. "What's going on?"

"The smells are too strong."

"Turn down that nose dial, big guy. See it in your head. Twist it down. The smells can't get to you. They're just like little faded party streamers flapping in the breeze, growing fainter and fainter."

Party streamers? Where the hell did the kid get party streamers? Jim envisioned the dial, one of many that helped him control his senses. The smells faded a little, then returned with a vengeance. Distress abruptly overcame his willingness to participate in the experiment, and he pinched his nose closed.

"That works too," Blair said.

But it didn't work. Jim could smell the rubber from the bike handles on his fingers and the soap he'd washed with at home. Both odors slammed their way into his head and down into his constricting lungs. He tore off the blindfold, scrambled to his feet and began walking away, desperate to clear his head.

"Damn it," he muttered, covering his face with both hands, stumbling in the new blackness. "Sandburg, I'm going to kill you - "

"Hey, calm down!" Blair said, snagging his arm, dragging him to the ground. Jim knelt and gasped for air. The twin anchors of Blair's hands on both of his shoulders kept him precariously rooted to the spot. Blair's voice wavered in his ears. "Come on, man, just take it nice and easy. Don't scare me."

Despite his near-panic, Jim almost laughed. Don't scare him? Not since the early days of their experiments had Jim lost control so quickly and completely. As a test subject, he was a dismal failure. He didn't tell Blair that, though, choosing instead to focus on staying conscious. He might as well have been hanging by bloody fingertips from a twenty story building, his legs kicking uselessly over the fatal drop while the world pushed down on him with more salt, more oil, more rotting fish corpses, more feces -

"Jim, look at me. Look at me!"

Blair's voice snapped with authority. Jim clung to that confidence and lifted his head. He could see the anthropology student's face dimly before him, only inches away, his eyes wide with worry.

"Now listen to me. There's nothing out there, okay? Nothing. No smells. Just blankness. You can hear my voice, you can feel your knees getting wet, you can see my face. But there are no smells."

Jim gulped in air and tried to believe him. The coldness of the dew soaking through his jeans gave him a little shock and temporarily overshadowed the stench emanating from the ocean. He regained a little of his confidence and ability to control the Sentinel senses. By degrees the smells fell away into the blankness Blair kept describing, and Jim sagged to a seated position. Blair disappeared for a moment, then reappeared to wrap the dry side of the blanket around his trembling shoulders.

Jim had no idea of how long he sat regaining his composure, Blair at his side. The Guide had trailed off with his reassuring words to let silence take reign. Finally Blair's hand moved to Jim's arm and pulled gently at his sleeve. "How are you doing?"

"Okay." Not as confident as Jim would have liked to have sounded, but clearly articulated.

"I'm sorry, Jim."

The Sentinel turned to examine Blair's guilty expression. "Not your fault."

"It has to be. I demanded too much of you."

A wave of weariness swept through Jim. He felt edgy, unsettled, shaky. "Sandburg, quit it. You couldn't have known that would happen."

"But I should have had more controls or something. I thought the ocean would be a good test because of its complexity, but I didn't account for just how many there were, their intensity- man, you almost zoned out completely-"

"Fine," Jim snapped. "It's all your fault. You screwed up. Can we go now?"

As Jim rose and went to his parked bicycle he caught just a glimpse of Blair's crestfallen expression, enough to make his gut twinge but not enough to make him take back the harsh words. He knew in his heart that Blair couldn't be blamed for the experiment going wrong, that the failure stemmed from his own lack of self-control, but embarrassment kept him from facing the issue. He waited impatiently as a silent Blair packed the blanket into the basket of his own bike and walked it up to the asphalt path. The first joggers and dog-walkers had appeared, some wearing stereo headsets that poured out tinny pulses of rock music to Jim's ears. He pedaled slowly away from them, turning north onto the course that ran up toward the zoo and miniature trains. He checked once to see if Blair was behind him, then sped up to a faster pace.

It seemed a shame to waste such a pretty day in the park, and he really shouldn't have treated Blair so brusquely. Jim forced himself to slow down. After weeks of heavy classwork for Blair and several high-profile cases for Jim, they'd cleared their Friday schedule for this outing. Captain Simon Banks had given Jim the day off with his blessings, telling him to get some sun and relax. He had forbidden him to bring his cell phone or pager, and freedom from the tyranny of the little devices did feel good. The morning as a whole might not have been relaxing so far, but Jim didn't have to write off the entire expedition.

At the next path crossing he circled around Blair's bike to come up behind him.

"Sandburg."

"Yeah?" Blair sounded wary and defensive.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have snapped. It wasn't your fault things went wrong."

Blair stopped his bike in order to consider the older man. His flannel shirt flapped in the breeze from the bay and he pushed a hand through his long curly hair. "So why the hissy fit?"

"Hissy fit?" Jim asked, raising his eyebrows. He turned another circle on the path, treading a fine line of balance as the bike began to wobble.

Blair didn't back down. "Yes. Hissy fit. It's a scientific term."

Jim sighed and stopped. He looked his partner directly in the eye. "Because I'm a big dumb Sentinel who doesn't like losing control."

"Oh." Blair's expression eased and the corner of his mouth turned up slightly. "I knew that."

"I bet you did."

Jim pedaled away again, up the sloping path. Blair followed and slid past him on the right, narrowly missing a hedge. The younger man pulled into the lead with a laugh, calling out, "You're getting old, Jim."

"Oh, so you want to race, is that it?" Jim taunted. He had longer, stronger legs and used them to pump up the hill past Blair. At the top he declared himself a winner, and Blair promised a real race some day. They set off again in a better mood, circling past the train stop and children's petting zoo toward the parking lot. The park had begun to fill rapidly.

"Why aren't these people in bed?" he asked plaintively, as a skateboarding teenager in a helmet nearly cut him off.

"They're enjoying the fresh air," Blair answered from slightly behind him. "Take the hint."

They came to one of the park's beautiful water fountains. Several old men sat on a wooden bench beside it, while joggers and rollerbladers flitted by without stopping. Graceful arcs of water jutted up over a bronze statue of the city founders, falling to a descending terrace of blue-green pools. Jim could see hundreds of coins glittering in the bottom basin and wondered, idly, if the park had a theft problem. The childish, whimsical urge to make a wish rose up in his chest, and he was about to turn around and ask Blair if he had any pennies when a loud crash startled him into a skidding stop.

Reconstructing it later, Jim determined that a woman on rollerblades had swerved abruptly into the path of a skateboarder, who slammed into the side of Blair's slow-moving bicycle and tumbled with him over the low walls of the fountain. At the time the Sentinel turned, though, all he could see was a tangled heap of bike and bodies in the water. He leapt clear of his own bike and scrambled to the mess as the old men rose in concern with a clamor of voices. The skateboarder, a red-haired teen with freckles plastering a path across his face, pulled himself free on his own. Blair lay motionless beneath the bike, submerged, injured, the water around his head turning pink.


"Someone get an ambulance!" Jim yelled as he tried to pull the bike free. One of the pedals snagged on Blair's jeans. A female jogger with a blonde ponytail freed the metal, and Jim tossed the entire bike aside. In his peripheral vision he saw a man walking two poodles pull out a cellular phone and dial. Every action seemed to be conversely happening in excruciating slow motion and with heart-clenching speed. Five seconds, ten seconds, fifteen seconds....

Jim waded into the cold water. He knew moving Blair risked aggravation to any neck or head injuries he might have, but otherwise he'd drown in seconds. The female jogger lifted Blair's feet while Jim carefully reached for his shoulders. They carried him out of the fountain to the concrete-covered ground, and Jim felt numerous hands reaching to help him when he almost stumbled.

"Ambulance is on the way!" someone said.

"There's a ranger!" someone else yelled. "Over here!"

Jim heard the words, but they didn't register with actual meaning. Blair began to choke and vomit water. Jim cradled his head and carefully turned him on his side to aid the process. Blair's hacking, wheezing screeches for air made Jim's own chest ache in sympathy. Blair's respiration evened out, although his eyes remained closed. Jim carefully felt his head and neck, years of medic training taking over the movement of his hands. A gash marked the back of his partner's skull where it had rammed into the fountain, but Jim found no other breaks or injuries. The bleeding had already stopped, and Blair's vitals seemed steady.

A tall African American in a park ranger outfit knelt at Jim's side. "How's he doing?"

"Needs a hospital," Jim said. He kept one hand on Blair's forehead to keep him from moving unnecessarily and lifted his gaze to pin the wet teenager who'd been skateboarding. Angry words blasted out before he could stop them. "What the hell do you think you were doing? You could have killed someone!"

His accusation brought a rise of defense from some of the witnesses, who all immediately tried to recount their points of view to the ranger. Blair stirred beneath Jim's hand and his eyes fluttered open. Jim bowed down close. "Blair, you hear me? You with me?"

Blair's blue eyes looked dazed and confused, but showed no telltale signs of neurological injury such as pupil dilation. "Gross," he gasped. His gaze shifted in bewilderment from Jim to the ranger to the crowd around them. Jim wrapped his fingers around his hand, offering a reassuring grip.

"You're okay," he said. "Just took a nasty fall, that's all."

"Hurts," Blair answered. He tried to sit up, but Jim held him down.

"What hurts?"

"Gotta go home," Blair said.

"In a little bit." Jim could hear the approaching wail of a siren. The ambulance would have to cross the parking lot and drive over the grassy embankment to get to them. "Stay still."

"Home," Blair insisted. His grip on Jim's hand tightened and he squeezed his eyes shut. "Oh, crap. My head hurts. My neck, too."

"I know. Just take it easy, okay?" He held Blair's hand until the ambulance appeared. Two paramedics asked Blair his name, the date, what had happened. He knew his name but sounded fuzzy on the other details.

"How long was he unconscious?" one asked Jim as the other wrapped a cervical collar around Blair's neck to immobilize him.

"About forty five seconds. A minute tops." Jim blinked at the growing crowd. Didn't people have anything better to do than gawk at the misfortune of others? After years of police work he knew the answer to that, but aggravation made him complain to the park ranger anyway. The ranger, whose nametag read Peter Wright, tried to persuade the crowd to move on. Wright also had a talk with the skateboarding teenager, and as Jim climbed into the back of the ambulance with Blair the ranger said, "It looks like an accident, Detective Ellison. I hope your friend's okay."

"Yeah," Jim said sourly. A stupid accident.

"Hey, it's no one's fault," Blair said from where he lay strapped in the gurney. He seemed more aware, more cognizant of his surroundings than he had been, and his color had improved from its earlier pasty-white appearance. "Stuff happens."

"To you. A lot," Jim said pointedly. He sat on the low bench beside the gurney and shook his head. "Sandburg, sometimes I think you're a walking accident."

"Be nice," Blair warned, closing his eyes. "My head hurts."

"Humph," was all Jim said to that. He shook his head in fond exasperation and held tight to Blair's hand as the ambulance bounced over the hill back to the main road. After they got out of the hospital he was going to take Blair home to the loft and lock themselves in for the weekend - no cases, no phone calls, nothing more dangerous than pizza with anchovies and jalapenos. He figured they'd had just enough excitement for the day, and things could only get better.

He was wrong.


Mitch Bolger reported to work early Friday morning with a surprise for his bosses.

A big surprise.

A dynamite surprise.

For weeks he'd been biding his time, waiting for the perfect opportunity to reward Kilgary Construction for the horror they'd put his family through over the previous two years. Ever since his older brother Mike had been killed in a crane accident across town, Mitch had been plotting and waiting for the time when he could claim justice. Kilgary's bloodsucking owners had covered up the accident, claiming Mike was drunk at the time, denying insurance claims to Mike's widow and three kids. Mitch's father had grown ill after the funeral, and his mother had never recovered from the shock of losing her older son. By blowing up Kilgary's latest project Mitch hoped to bring attention to the firm's illegal practices and shoddy workmanship, focusing the media's full attention on the company. Sometimes he thought he might be thinking and acting recklessly, that there might be a better way, but he'd stopped taking his prescription medicine and cut off contact with his psychiatrist after Mike's death. Better to be clear-headed when his chance came; better to be in his full senses.

On Friday, June 18th he woke with the full conviction his day had arrived. A shipment of steel rods had been held up in Chicago, causing work site delays that meant most of the crew had a forced holiday. Mitch dressed and drove to work with his lunch box at his side. He knew the guard and often went drinking with him. He told him he had work to do on the upper floors, some minor welding. Mitch took the elevator up through the shell of walls and floors and watched the sun come up over the city. Early morning traffic began snaking down the expressways. Mitch finished his large Dunkin Donuts French vanilla coffee, crushed the Styrofoam cup and tossed the litter to the ground. He rode back down to the third floor, opened his lunchbox, and set the timer on the bomb.

A dozen or so men mingled on the ground below, which made Mitch feel faintly guilty. Many of them probably had wives and children like Mike. They had futures. But better to sacrifice a few for the good of the many, he decided. Once Kilgary was forced to close down and admit their wrongdoings, hundreds of workers would benefit across the city.

Mitch looked out at the streets, the parking lots, the ambulance pulling in to the hospital next door. The sun rising in the east painted a picture-perfect summer day, and the sounds of the city rose to him with faint honks and beeps, the dull roar of car engines, the music of life.

Within a few hours everyone would know Kilgary's name and crimes.

He'd be watching from the comfort of his own living room when it happened.


The emergency room doctor who treated Blair checked him for symptoms and signs of concussion, skull fracture, subdural or epidural hematoma, brain contusions or bruises, and tearing of brain tissue. Blair thought he might be a little overzealous before remembering an article he'd read that said half of all head injuries that showed up in emergency rooms eventually required neurosurgery. But within two hours of their arrival at the Sisters of Angels hospital, the physician seemed reasonably certain Blair's could be classified as minor.

"How minor?" Jim pressed from the corner of the cubicle where he'd been allowed to stand based on his police badge and rather forceful request.

Dr. Everett scribbled several lines on Blair's chart. "Minor enough for him to go home."

Blair smiled from where he lay on the exam table. "See? No problem." Maybe now Jim could relax from his damn Blessed Protector stance and release that grim clenching of his jaw. Wound any tighter, the man might explode.

"He didn't say 'no problem,'" Jim said firmly.

Blair sighed. He knew that even minor head injuries could result in headache, mood swings, dizziness, irritability, fatigue or impaired concentration for several months or even a year. All of those symptoms had plagued his Uncle Henry, who'd once fallen off a camel during an expedition to Egypt. He just wished Jim, Mr. ex-Army guy, didn't know so much about medicine.

"You might have headaches for awhile," Everett conceded. "See your regular general practitioner when you get a chance, so he can follow up with you. I'll give you a copy of my notes."

Blair fingered the sleeves of the gown the emergency nurses had slipped on him after cutting away his wet clothes. He'd suffered several large scrapes across his arms, legs and shoulder blades from going over the fountain wall. He had a sore neck and back which would probably get worse before getting better, but the X- rays had shown no bone damage. All in all, he'd been very lucky. Jim had said he'd swallowed and choked up about half of the fountain water, which Blair only vaguely remembered. That perhaps accounted for the residual ache in his chest and throat. He realized belatedly the physician was speaking to him and tried to pay attention.

" - at the pharmacy for you to pick up. Next time, Mr. Sandburg, wear a helmet. Save yourself the expense of a hospital visit."

With that the doctor swept out of the cubicle. Blair felt his cheeks begin to burn. He supposed he really should have been wearing a helmet, but the precaution seemed silly at the time. The next time they went to the park Jim would probably make him wear full body armor.

"I need pants and a shirt," Blair said, rising up on one elbow. "Where's my stuff?"

"Your jeans are wet, but still in one piece. The shirt's not so lucky." Jim held up the shreds of flannel for inspection. "I'll go get you some stuff, you can't walk around in wet jeans."

"Naw, that's okay. Just let me borrow your jacket and I'll be fine."

Blair slowly, carefully maneuvered himself upright on the table. With Jim's steadying hand he got to his feet. "I hate this collar," he muttered, tugging at the foam brace around his neck.

"Leave it on. You heard the doctor. For a week at least."

"I still hate it."

"Are you dizzy? Room swaying?"

"Nope," Blair said. He rose to the tips of his toes and then back down again. "Let me get dressed and we'll be out of here."

Jim frowned.

"Come on, man," Blair said. "Wet jeans never hurt anyone."

"All right. I'll go make sure the paperwork is filled out." Jim pulled the privacy curtain closed and went down the long twisting hall to the main emergency room. It had filled up with patients, including crying children and babies. Jim found the admitting nurse who'd helped him earlier with Sandburg's insurance forms and asked her if she needed anything else.

"I think he's all set," the young brunette answered, giving him a bright smile. Too young for him, he sighed, but a guy could look. "Just sign this bottom part."

As she handed him a clipboard the entire building heaved itself out of the ground and lurched several feet sideways.


A whoosh like the roar of a thirty-foot ocean wave washed through the room, nearly deafening him. Jim lost his balance and went crashing to the floor as the lights flickered out overhead. His head rapped sharply on the edge of a chair. Earthquake, he thought in confusion. In Cascade? Possible, but rare. Dust rained down on him as groans filled the air, and in a daze he clambered to his hands and knees. He choked on a chest full of grit and found himself bumping up against another human body groping in the darkness.

For several panicky moments his sense of direction and orientation twisted like a broken compass needle, but finally he found his way to his feet. Sunlight filtered in through thick waves of floating dust from somewhere off to his right. The groans had given way to a chorus of desperate voices, someone yelling for help, someone else crying in great gulping sobs. Jim helped a body at his left toward the sunlight and into the parking lot. The blinding yellow light hit his eyes like razor blades. He went back into the damaged building, helping out other victims, only dimly aware at some point of firefighters in yellow coats helping him. One of the firefighters caught him by the arm and tried to escort him to safety.

"No!" Jim snapped, wrenching free. He knew he had something to do inside, even if he couldn't quite remember what.

He plunged back into the dust, into a damaged hallway blocked by pieces of falling ceiling. The hospital's emergency generator kicked in and white light lit up from the few units that hadn't been damaged. A broken sprinkler leaked water in waves down the floor, and Jim dimly wondered if he stood a chance of electrocution.

What the hell was he supposed to be doing? Something important. Something desperately important-

"Blair!" he yelled, as memory broke back through the thick layer of confusion in his skull. "Sandburg!"

Someone yelled back - a woman's voice. Jim hurled himself at the debris, tearing at broken tiles and rods, flinging away chunks of concrete. The doorway ahead had partially collapsed, but he wriggled underneath it on his stomach and found himself in the maze of treatment cubicles nestled behind the emergency room. No windows let in sunlight, and the emergency lights only worked in scattered areas.

Confused, injured patients and nurses wandered in the darkness like ghosts. One sturdy nurse with a bouffant of blond hair on her head had taken charge despite blood trickling from a cut above her right eye.

"What happened?" she demanded of Jim. "What's going on?"

"The firefighters will be here in a minute," Jim told her. "They'll help. Where's Sandburg? Blair Sandburg? He was in that cubicle right there."

"I don't know," she said. "What happened?"

"Earthquake," he answered.

"That wasn't an earthquake," someone said. "That was an explosion!"

Jim supposed that made more sense, but it didn't really matter - earthquake, volcano, gas main, invading aliens from space - he didn't care. He needed to find Sandburg, to make sure he wasn't hurt or dying. With the nurse's help he rounded up the seven patients in the area and had them cluster together for safety to wait for rescue. Blair wasn't among them. Jim got down on his hands and knees and crawled through the rubble and mess. He found one body pinned beneath an overturned medicine cabinet and shouldered the weight away. A teenager lay underneath, his head turned at an impossible angle, his eyes wide and accusing.

Jim sat back abruptly, the air gone from his chest as surely as if he'd been sucker-punched. After a long moment the nurse came to check on him, and together they spread a dusty sheet over the teenager's body.

"I need to find my friend," Jim ground out, and stood up unsteadily.

His Sentinel senses worked, but only sporadically. Jim wondered if he himself had a concussion, but didn't stop to worry about it. His vision flickered from normal acuity to searchlight-intensity and back again regardless of his intentions, and his ears felt wedged full of cotton. Dust clogged his throat and nose, muting his sense of smell. Ignoring the nurse's advice to stay put and wait for help, he waded through more debris to where a short corridor led to an elevator and stairwell before dead-ending in a cracked wall.

The damage to this part of the building looked almost but not quite as extensive as to the emergency waiting area. Jim guessed Blair might have wandered off to find help or escape. He tried to focus his senses to something that would distinguish his Guide from the hundreds of other people who must be in the building, but nothing worked for him. Pounding from inside the elevator distracted him from his attempt. Panicked voices shouted for help, any help at all.

He wanted to ignore the calls. He needed to find Sandburg.

But duty, training and his general sense of responsibility kept him from walking away. Jim found a broken pole in the litter at his feet and used it to pry open the elevator doors. He freed two orderlies and three patients, one of whom had suffered a broken leg when the car's cable had snapped and sent it plunging down three stories.

"God, what happened?" one of the orderlies asked Jim.

He didn't know.

But he knew he had to find Sandburg.


Roof. Had to get to the roof. Up on the roof, Garret Kincaid and his men had Jim hostage. They would handcuff him to a strut of their helicopter and fly him out over Cascade, then throw his body down a tree because the plastic surgeon from the airport hangar said so. Blair clung to those disjointed thoughts and half- remembered cases as he fought his way up the tilting stairway beneath his bare feet, moving ever-upward. Jim was his partner and best friend. If Blair didn't save him, who would?

Something wrapped around his neck chafed at his skin and made swallowing difficult. Blair fumbled for the encumbrance, pulled at a Velcro strap, and threw the hated thing aside. Dizziness caught him unexpectedly and made his knees weak. He sat without conscious decision and leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes against the red and white lights shining on floors above him. A fire alarm shrieked out a warning that sent strobes of red pain between his ears. It occurred to him that he had somehow lost his clothes, and wore only a thin flimsy gown. Embarrassing. Humiliating. He could feel the gritty stairs beneath his naked bottom, and desperately wished for the comfort of underwear.

Underwear. He was worried about boxer shorts, when he should be worried about Jim on the roof with the bad guys. Jim, who needed his help.

Blair used the wall as a support to stand and started up the stairs. People descended next to him, on their way down - some guy with an armful of pill bottles, another inexplicably carrying a computer monitor. Blair asked them if they'd seen Jim, but they didn't stop to answer. At the next landing Blair almost stumbled into a nurse in a pink sweater.

"You shouldn't be walking around," she said.

Blair blinked, hurt at the accusatory tone of her voice. "I'm lost," he admitted.

"Sit down," she said, helping him toward a bench in the hallway. "Help will be here soon, okay? I'll be right back."

Blair blinked after her receding form. His gaze settled on sheets covering up lumps on gurneys. The distinctly chilly thought that there might be bodies underneath made him shiver and turn his attention to several patients in wheelchairs sitting in the dimness nearby, one breathing noisily into an oxygen mask. He knew he wasn't as badly hurt as they were. Besides, Jim needed him. He lurched to his feet and back to the stairway. Twelve steps later he ran into a spray of water that nearly drenched him. He backed away, confused at the indoor rain, and then moved through it anyway. Up on the next floor he could see a small blaze licking at the nurse's station and several figures battling at it with fire extinguishers. Behind them, staff and patients clustered in the hallway, frightened and confused.

One saw him through the chaos. "Stay there, sir! We'll come and get you."

Blair shook his head. No way, not with a fire burning, not with so much negative energy hanging in the air. Despite the nauseousness beginning to churn his stomach Blair forced himself up one more flight of stairs and stopped, gasping, on that landing beside a large painted "4." The floor seemed deserted. Bright, colorful animals leapt and danced on the walls - a tiger, an elephant, a duck. A giraffe. A panther. That last animal seemed a unique omen sent for Blair to recognize, and he happily thanked the Sentinel gods who'd provided it.

He padded down the evacuated hallway, as quiet as a mouse. Ceiling tiles had fallen down in some places and a few of the fluorescent lights hung at odd angles. He thought he heard a child talking, but dismissed the sound as part of his imagination. He came to a set of windows, one hanging in jagged shards and letting in gusts of air. Blair stopped at the panes and looked out. The east wing of the V-shaped hospital looked mostly undamaged across the way. He dropped his gaze down to the parking lots full of fire engines, police cars, news vans. From his vantage point he could see hundreds of people, a party maybe. A birthday party?

God, he must be thinking crazy. The wind sent goosebumps up and down his body beneath the wet gown, and his soaked hair hung in his eyes. Blair put a hand to the unbroken glass as vertigo tried to take him down again. "My name is Blair Sandburg," he said, the words ringing in his ears. "I live at 258 - no, 855 - no, dammit, 852- Prospect Ave. My roommate is Jim Ellison."

There. He wasn't losing his mind. He remembered he had to rescue Jim from the roof and turned back to the hall. The high, singsong voice of a child came to him again, too distinct and loud to ignore. Blair searched through the empty rooms until he found a little boy curled in one bed, nearly lost in the sheets, his round face wide but calm. A cute kid.

"My name is Timmy," the boy said. "What's yours?"

"Blair."

"Want to play a game?"

"No," Blair said honestly. "No games."

He was so tired. So damned tired. Surely Jim would wait for him, right? Make the bad guys wait for him? Blair climbed into the bed, pain spiraling up his back at the movement, and let himself sink into the mattress.

"I'm hungry," Timmy complained.

"Me too," Blair sighed. He'd only eaten an apple before taking Jim to the park. Park? A fountain. Jim mad at him. Flashes of memory teased at his brain, but he couldn't put them into sequential or understandable order and gave up trying. The shriek of the fire alarm began to fade away from his awareness. With the last of his fleeing strength he took the little boy in his arms, as much for his own comfort as the kid's. He would take a very short nap before taking the boy to safety and finding Jim.

Vaguely aware of the child murmuring against this chest, Blair let his mind drift into troubled sleep.


Captain Simon Banks of the Cascade Police Department had been pouring a fresh cup of Brazilian Nut when he heard the news that the Sisters of Angels hospital had blown up. The resulting spill of coffee scalded his leg, but he didn't even take the time to grab a cold cloth on his dash out the door to a squad car. Only seven minutes later did he learn the actual explosion had been at a construction site next to the hospital, but the point seemed moot anyway. The hospital had been critically damaged in the blast, and hundreds were dead or wounded.

As the first senior officer on the scene, Simon took immediate charge of the rescue efforts. He also instructed some of the arriving cops to set up cordoned areas for victims, witnesses, the media, friends and family, general spectators. Within minutes of his arrival he knew the blast would rival the Oklahoma City disaster in terms of news coverage, and that Cascade would become a zoo for days to come. He ordered a general recall of all off-duty police officers and alerted his bosses at City Hall of the damage. Within a half hour the Superintendent of Police was on scene and took over for Simon, leaving him the dirty work and none of the credit.

Not that Simon wanted credit. He wanted to help in the best way possible, and couldn't care less about the politics. The injured poured out of the hospital faster than summoned ambulances could take them to the nearest facility two miles away. The fire marshals obtained prints of the building and marked off the areas of the worst damage in the west wing, which had absorbed most of the blast. The emergency room had been hit especially hard. A hospital administrator reported the successful evacuation of the pediatric and neonatal wings, thanks to several quick-witted doctors and nurses, but the oncology floor was full of trapped patients and the surgical theaters desperately needed help.

Fires had broken out on the third and eighth floors but were being contained. Power had been knocked out on every floor, and water poured out of broken mains in the basement. The back-up generators were beginning to fail. The marshals had a genuine concern over the safety of the oxygen, nitrogen and other conduit gas systems built into the walls for quick access by the staff. Getting patients out of the ICU and surgery became the first priority, with small teams of police officers, firefighters and hospital personnel sent out to evacuate all the other wards as quickly and safely as possible. Wards empty of patients and staff would be marked by police tape to ensure no duplication of effort.

"We'll need a checklist of patients," Simon told the hospital administrator. "Any way to salvage your computer data?"

The man promised to check on it. A half hour later he returned with a thick sheaf of printouts. "The hospital's connected by modem to the mainframe at our parent corporation for billing purposes. This is a list of all the patients treated, admitted or already in-house during the last twenty four hours, the smallest window I could get."

Simon assigned several of the Major Crimes detectives to start tracking down the patients. They needed to find each and every one before calling off relief efforts.

"Jesus H. Christ," he heard Detective Henri Brown say some time later.

"What's the matter?" After nearly two hours at the site of the tragedy, Simon had begun to feel numb from drained emotions. Nothing could surprise him, or so he thought until Brown showed him the patient list with a circled name.

Simon blinked. Rubbed his eyes. Felt a migraine threaten to explode at the back of his head. He finally said, "That can't possibly be the same Blair Sandburg. Our Blair Sandburg."

"You really think Cascade's big enough for two?"

Simon looked to the left of Blair's name. "The emergency room. Jesus."

Brown shook his head in mutual dismay. "And you know where one is, the other is. Jim's gotta be around here somewhere."

Simon glanced up at the damaged building beside them, the broken and bruised hospital filled with the dead and injured, with fires and other dangers. The line with Sandburg's information showed a check-in time, but no check-out. "Take one guess where," he said quietly, and inwardly prayed for the safety of both the Sentinel and his Guide.

He gave the prayer ten seconds before turning back to Brown. "Don't just stand there! Go find them!"

The detective hurried away.

"Simon," Joel Taggert said, coming up behind him. "We've got a possible lead on the bomber."

"Say what?"

"I've been over at the construction site. It's pretty ugly over there." Taggert ran his hand over his face, streaking dust through sweat. "One of the guards was hurt pretty bad, but he remembered seeing a member of the crew go in this morning, go up into the building, come back down again and take off. The guy's got a history of having a bad attitude, and his brother was killed a few years ago in an accident on a site owned by this same company."

"What's his name? Where is he now?"

"Mitchell Bolger. The FBI is going out to look for him. The ATF guys are on their way in from the airport."

"Let me know what happens. If it is the guy, I want a piece of him."

Taggert paused as two paramedics raced by with a wobbling gurney between them. A bloody child lay unmoving under safety straps. "Me too, Simon," Taggert said softly. "Me too."


Jim avoided the emergency crews. He knew they could possibly help him in his quest to find Blair, but chances were higher they would tell him he was injured himself and try to make him leave the hospital for his own safety. He knew he was injured - a quick glance in a broken corridor mirror showed him the nasty bump on his forehead that hurt like a sonofabitch - but he had no intentions of going anywhere until he found his partner. He felt reckless and desperate enough to fight anyone who tried to make him leave, and briefly considered that the bump on his head was affecting him more severely than he'd first thought.

Was that possible? Jim stopped mid-stride. He knew that down below, his fellow police officers would be compiling lists of the blast victims and matching them against hospital rosters. By procedure, he should go find Simon and alert the rescue teams to Blair's wandering presence in the building. But a nagging premonition told him that if he did that, he would be too late to save his partner. Call it a side effect from the bump on his head or an offshoot of his Sentinel senses - he just couldn't convince that his leaving the hospital even for a minute was in Blair's best interest.

The third floor swarmed with firefighters and doctors evacuating patients, many of them wedged in gurneys, wheelchairs or makeshift cots. Jim had to circle around the chaos. He stopped dead when he heard two men talking about a bomb. Someone had inflicted this damage deliberately? His fists clenched with rage as he forced himself to concentrate on the task at hand and move toward an unguarded stairwell. He needed to find his partner by using his Sentinel senses and without the help of the crews, even if said senses still seemed to be about as reliable as the intermittent emergency lighting above.

He tried to find Blair's familiar heartbeat, but hundreds of cardiac rhythms surrounded him from all directions and he only got confused at the loud beats. He knew the odor of Blair's herbal shampoo, but his sense of smell had been chancy since the ordeal at the ocean's edge and the smell of dust and smoke overrode everything else. His hearing had gradually shaken off the worst of the initial blast, but expanded and receded at inopportune times. One moment he could hear cockroaches skittering through the walls, but the next he would be standing under an emergency alarm and barely hear it.

Someone finally cut off the annoying siren system, which left Jim profoundly grateful. He reached the labor ward on the end of the fourth floor and found firemen evacuating babies from the newborn section. Frantic new mothers who'd been lucky enough to be holding their babies when the blast went off asked Jim for help. Jim found it impossible to turn down their pleas and personally walked three of them down the stairs, one at a time, each step hard on their recovering bodies. Each time he turned them over to rescue personnel and returned to the ward. Only when the babies and mothers had been all safely escorted out did he slip away to search the rest of the fourth floor. The pediatrics wing had been completely emptied, although for a swift moment he thought he caught a whiff of Blair's herbal soap in one room. The odor left his nose quickly, though, and he couldn't be sure he was on the right path.

Jim searched the entire fifth floor and found no sign of the anthropology professor. He went to the windows twice, trying to spy Blair in the crowd below. Maybe his partner had already gotten out. But although he saw Brown and Taggert below, and thought he saw Simon, Jim couldn't see the familiar mop of long hair that would single Blair out from the crowd.

They already got him out, a voice said inside his head. They took him to another hospital. There's nowhere up here he would go.

That much sounded true. Jim couldn't imagine why Blair would want to stay inside the building. The smart thing would have been to find an exit and use it. But if he was mentally confused or seriously injured, he might still be wandering in the rubble and debris, lost and alone. Or worse, trapped in some small space Jim hadn't found yet . . . His hearing zoomed out before he could finish the awful thought, and a child's voice floated to him in the eerie quiet of the deserted rooms.

"My name is Timmy. What's yours?"

Jim's blood chilled at the image of a child lost in the nightmarish death maze the hospital had become. He turned in a circle, trying to get a bearing, but the voice seemed to be coming from outside the windows. He went to the glass. At some point his search for Blair had brought him to the eastern wing of the hospital. As he looked back across to the more damaged western section, he heard his partner answer the child's question.

"I told you already," Blair said, sounding irritated. "Will you please stop asking me? Don't you understand English?"

Jim looked up. There. Standing on the eighth floor, at a window that had fallen out, a figure wearing a hospital gown with a blanket around his shoulders. Blair. He was looking down at the emergency crews and had a child's speaking toy clutched to his side.

"Blair!" Jim yelled, pounding on the glass. "Sandburg!"

Blair couldn't hear him, of course. Not through the window, and not with three floors and considerable distance between them. Jim tried to narrow his gaze to the details of his friend's face to gauge his state of health, but his Sentinel sight refused to cooperate and Blair abruptly turned away from the window.

Jim raced out the door of the room, straight into the arms of two huge firefighters in full protective gear.

"Easy there," one said, gripping his arms. "You're okay. We'll get you to safety."

"No!" Jim shouted. "There's someone else! My partner! Up on the eighth floor. His name is Blair Sandburg-"

"We'll get him too," the other firefighter promised.

"Come on, this way-"

"No!" Jim yelled, and wrenched away. The firefighters lunged for him. He knocked both out of the way, and punched the one who tried to follow. He heard them get on their walkie-talkies to radio for more help. Jim sprinted up the stairs past the sixth and seventh floors, taking them two at a time. He ran into another group of firefighters carrying gurneys down from the eighth floor and had to retreat. He found another stairwell and raced up to where he'd seen Blair, but Sandburg had already left and taken his doll with him.

His speaking doll. Jim pushed at his sense of hearing and nabbed the sound of the tiny recorded voice moving somewhere above. Where the hell was Sandburg going? Two more floors and he'd be on the roof.

Jim could think of several times in recent months when both he or Blair had ended up on rooftops chasing or stopping criminals. Maybe in his confused state, Blair thought being on the roof meant something important.

How confused was he? Confused enough to stumble off to his death ten stories below?

Jim started upward again.


Rafe heard the firefighter's report about a violent, confused man on the fifth floor of the east wing. The teams had encountered several disoriented patients and staff during the morning, but none had become aggressive with their rescuers. The physician was claiming to be looking for his partner, Blair someone, words which flagged the police detective's attention in no uncertain way.

He raced to find Simon, who was fending off a CNN news team. He told him about the incident. Simon bit off the end of his unlit cigar and personally took a team into the building.

"Damn it, Jim," Simon cursed on his way up the stairs. "What the hell is going on up there?"


Blair woke in a wet bed with a pounding headache. Pain pulsed up and down his body as he pulled himself upright. He didn't think he'd slept for more than a few minutes, but found it impossible to tell for sure. Every single muscle in his back and neck felt overtight and cruelly wound, like piano wires twisted into unusual contortions. He would have paid good money for a strong aspirin, or even a shot to make the aches go away.

Timmy hadn't moved from beside him. The child complained about being hungry. Blair scooped him up in his arms - how oddly light the kid was - and carried him down the hall, wondering where the nurses and doctors and other patients were. He knew he was in a hospital, but darned if it wasn't the emptiest one he'd ever known. Bright yellow tape marked off some corridors, decorations of some sort, but he easily brushed the barriers aside and continued on his way.

He heard babies crying. Blair peered through the window of a connecting door and saw women sitting in the hallway with their arms wrapped around bundles of blue and white. He clutched Tommy closer to his side and considered joining them, but vague memories about getting to the roof prompted him toward the stairs instead. He had to stop several times on the way up when the floor shifted beneath his bare feet. His gown had dried to an annoying dampness during his sleep, and in addition to being drafty it rubbed in odd places. He considered ripping the whole thing off but the idea of being naked seemed ludicrous, and despite the warmth of the stuffy air in the halls he felt distinctly cold.

"I'm thirsty," Timmy said in his arms.

"I know. Me too." Didn't the kid ever shut up? Blair had grown tired of the complaints. He passed the fifth floor, then stopped on the sixth. In one long hall he found a water fountain, but only a few dirty spurts came out of the faucet. Voices drifted toward him, and he rounded a corner to find a nurse and a firefighter herding four patients in wheelchairs.

"Hey," he said, surprised and somewhat relieved to find other people. He held Timmy out for them to take. "The kid needs help."

"Someone sure does," the firefighter responded. "Buddy, what are you doing wandering around up here?"

The nurse came to Blair's side and shone a pencil flashlight over his face and eyes. He tried to look away, but she held his chin straight. "Are you bleeding anywhere?" she asked.

"No, I'm fine," he said. "Where is everyone?"

"You need to come with us," she replied. She grabbed a folded blanket from a laundry cart at the corner and wrapped it around his shoulders. "We'll get you to somewhere safe."

"And the kid, too," Blair prompted.

"And the kid," she promised.

Blair followed them toward the elevator. Maybe they could help him find Jim, too. He was about to ask when one of the men in the wheelchair started bucking and twisting. Within seconds he was spasming on the floor, with the nurse and firefighter frantically administering CPR. The radio on the firefighter's hip distracted Blair for a moment with its squawking. After a moment he couldn't remember why he was waiting around. Blair left the group and began climbing upward again, determined to find his partner and get the hell out of the twisting, turning halls that confused him with each new step.

On the eighth floor he found his way to another window. The party below continued full force, with more people than ever before. Blair turned away from the merriment and dragged a shaking hand over his face. He'd begun to feel ill, flu-like ill. He wanted to lie down and sleep for days. Vaguely he realized he still had the kid in his arms, and the boy was whining again about being hungry.

"I don't have any food!" Blair snapped at him. "If I had any, I'd give you some."

He felt immediately ashamed for speaking in such a manner to a child, but Timmy seemed unfazed by the response. Blair went up, up, up more steps. Water trickled down beneath his feet from a broken sprinkler on the wall. Only the thought of Garret Kincaid holding Jim hostage above kept him going. At the top of the stairs he found a solid metal door protected by an emergency bar. He pushed it open and clasped two hands over his head to block out the screech of noise. He stumbled out into the dazzling sunlight of a summer Cascade day, the rough tar and roofing cutting at his bare feet.

"Jim!" he called out, spinning in disorientation. "Where are you? I'm here now!"

The familiar thump of whirling helicopter blades caught at his frazzled nerves. Blair whirled, barely conscious of the blanket slipping to the rooftop. His gown whipped up around his legs. He squinted at the chopper hovering near the building and knew, with an awful sinking certainty, that he'd been too late to save his partner.

"Come back!" he yelled in desperation. "Come back!"

The helicopter circled around. Waves of heat pulsed at Blair, direct challenges to the icy coldness in his bones. He realized he needed help and stumbled toward the parapet so that he could summon aid from the birthday party revelers, call them to his side in the quest to save Jim.

He leaned over the stone edge. The hardness of it cut into his stomach. Blair blinked at the shiny fire engines and police cars spread like toys. "Hey!" he shouted. "Up here!"

"Cascade Police! Stay where you are! Help is on the way."

Blair spun around at the unexpected, thunderous voice. Where the hell had it come from? The chopper? Kincaid?

"Blair!" Another voice, ripped with desperation. "Sandburg, get away from the edge!"

Blair squinted at the form who'd appeared on the rooftop. Someone familiar. One of his students from the university? One of the bad guys? He backed away from the form, shaking his head.

"Blair! It's me, Jim. Come here to me."

"Jim?" Partially aware of the parapet digging into the back of his bare knees, Blair tried to focus on the man's face. If only the sun didn't hurt his eyes so much. . .

"Yes, it's me," Jim answered. He took a step toward his partner, then froze when Blair shrunk back. The younger man looked pale and ill in the brightness of day. The gown flapped around him in the stiff breeze, and the next gust of wind might easily push his unsteady frame off balance and over the side. It was obvious to Jim that his partner suffered from disorientation and shock. At one time in their career Jim had broken through a strong haze of psychedelic drugs to bring Blair to safety, and as he reached out a pleading hand he desperately tried to remember how he'd done it.

"Hey, buddy," he said, making his voice soft and gentle. Not hard, considering the headache thundering in his own skull and the roar of the helicopter circling above. Jim waved the craft off. "What are you doing up here, Sandburg?"

"Looking for . . . Jim."

"I'm Jim, remember?"

"You are?" Blair tilted his head in puzzlement.

"In the flesh, Chief. Want to go home?"

Blair's expression abruptly turned wistful, full of longing. "Yeah, man. Home. But I can't." He turned toward the city below, the labyrinth of buildings and alleys and streets that stretched to the horizon.

"Why not?" Jim took a cautious step forward. No sign of panic from Blair. Another step. Three. He could hear Blair's heartbeat and breathing over the sounds of the helicopter. "Will you look at me and not out there? Please?"

"The kid . . ." Blair waved his right hand vaguely at the skyline. "I lost him, I think. Little boy. Out there. Or maybe in here."

"Oh." Jim had found the doll discarded on the stairs right before the entrance to the roof. "Timmy, right?"

"Yeah."

"He's okay. He's with the doctors." Six steps. Jim could almost touch his partner. He held his breath and reached out, every inch a prayer. "Blair..."

The younger man turned around as Jim's fingers grazed his elbow. For a moment they stood mere inches apart, Jim's hand firmly gripping his partner's elbow. Blair stared him in the face as if memorizing the Sentinel's every feature. Jim heard footsteps on the stairs behind him, the scrape of police-issue boots and radio static on Cascade's main dispatch frequency. At least the damned helicopter had moved off.

"I was too late," Blair said brokenly. "Too late to save Jim."

"No, you're not too late," Jim said softly. With a sudden rush of relief he pulled his partner tightly into his arms. "Now let him save you, okay?"

"Okay," Blair said, and he lightly patted Jim's back. But Jim could sense his attention still on the retreating chopper, and guessed that Sandburg's mind was still muddled.

"Jim? Sandburg?" Simon appeared in the corner of Jim's vision. "Everything okay here?"

"Yes, sir," Jim said roughly. He released Blair but didn't let him get one inch closer to the edge. Jim turned to fully face his captain. "Everything's going to be okay, I think."


The rest of the day passed in an unpleasant blur for Jim. He remembered Simon and Brown walking him and Blair down from the roof. Blair made it to the fourth floor before he fainted and had to be carried. In the parking lot a Chinese-looking paramedic sent Blair off to City General in a crowded ambulance and told Simon that Jim's bump needed to be thoroughly checked out by an on-site physician.

"I'm fine," Jim insisted. He looked at Brown. "Will you drive me to City General?"

Simon said, "Jim, if the man says you see a doctor, you see a doctor."

Jim almost fought the order, but most of his energy had been sapped by the events of the morning. He found it easier to sit, numb and exhausted, in the makeshift ward that had been set up in a bank across the street. People crowded in from all sides, spouting out words he just couldn't bother to listen to anymore. His Sentinel senses had mostly shut down, a relief, but his brain had gone numb too. Luckily Simon had ordered Brown to sit with him, and the other detective tried to reassure him that Blair was fine and being taken care of at the other hospital.

"I need to see him," Jim said.

Brown patted his knee. "I know. Soon."

After more than an hour a harried doctor gave Jim a twenty-minute examination. The doctor didn't think the bump merited concern, but she did swab clean the dozens of scrapes Jim had accumulated and pronounced him as well as could be expected. "Take him home. Give him aspirin. He'll be fine."

"That's it?" Brown asked incredulously. "That's all you're going to do for him?"

The doctor didn't even pause as she moved on to her next patient. "He'll be fine," she repeated. "There are people here who've been hurt much, much worse."

Brown grumbled a response and took Jim outside. "If you have an aneurysm or something we could sue her," he said, and Jim couldn't tell if he was joking or not.

On their way out the door Jim asked him again to take him to City General. Instead Brown took the doctor's words literally and drove him to the tidy, empty, quiet loft. "Just get a few hours' rest," Brown said, forestalling an argument by picking up the phone. "I'll check on Hairboy."

"I'm not tired!" Jim snapped.

"Well, the least you can do is take a shower, Jim. You're covered with grime and blood. You're going to scare people if you go out like that."

Jim growled a retort but took the advice. After several long minutes in the hot shower he wrapped himself in thick towels and decided to lay down for just a second, until Brown got off the phone. Sandburg's bed was closest and he climbed into it stiffly, aware of the kid's smell on the dark sheets and pillows, grateful for the comforting presence. He fell into a deep dark silence unbroken by dust or alarms or desperation, comforted by the fact he'd found Sandburg in time.


Mitch Bolger sat at home in his favorite old armchair, a six-pack of Miller beer at his side, watching the continuing television coverage on the bomb blast with a mixture of horror and fascination. He had meant to blow up Kilgary's construction site, not the hospital beside it, and the unexpected side effect filled him with guilt. He had no grudge against hospitals. He hated the thought of innocent patients hurt or killed. But at the same time...

At the same time . . . .

At the same time, each camera shot of a bleeding victim or of the damaged buildings sent a triumphant surge through his heart. I did that, he'd marvel, and knock back more beer. No one can ever say now that I did nothing with my life.

He toasted the photo of Mike, Trish and the kids that sat on top of the tv. "I did it for you, big guy."

Mitch flipped through a dozen channels with his remote control, then paused to take a bathroom break. He stopped in the spare bedroom, eyeing the scattered materials on his workbench that he'd used to build the bomb. Such harmless-looking parts that made one big, wonderful mess. Back in the kitchen, he rummaged through the cabinets in search of a snack. A loud, angry knock on his door made him straighten up too quickly, and he almost whacked his head on the overhanging shelf.

"Mitchell Bolger! This is the FBI. We need to speak with you."

Panic shot through his gut. FBI? But how? He stood, paralyzed by indecision, flooded with fear, as the knock came again.

"Open up!"

Mitch slammed open his kitchen window. In the far distance he could hear sirens. A gray haze had blotted out most of the sunshine, and even from a few miles away he thought he could smell dust and smoke. He shoved himself past the splintering wooden frame to the fire escape outside. Two men stood on the sidewalk below.

"FBI!" One of them yelled. "Stop!"

They had guns. He could see the small black objects in their hands. He froze where he was, only vaguely aware of loud cracking noises from his apartment as agents there broke down his door.

"I didn't do anything wrong!" he said.

Neighbors began to appear at their windows and on their porches, drawn from the tragedy on their television sets inside to the more exciting prospect of police drama on their very own street. Their faces looked like blurs in his peripheral vision. He wanted them to understand what he'd done and why. He wanted all of them - the police, the reporters, the American audience, the President - to know he'd done it to expose the crooked construction company that had killed his brother.

So he began to talk.


Simon squinted at his watch. Six p.m.? It couldn't be. He rubbed his eyes twice, but the hands stubbornly remained in place. He had broken away from the ruined Sisters of Angels site for a few minutes and hitched a ride to City General to find Sandburg. He'd called the loft and learned from Brown that Jim was sleeping, no doubt exhausted from the events of the day. That left it up to him to make sure Blair was settled okay and in proper medical hands. He did it not only because the kid was Jim's unofficial partner, but also because Simon had come to think of him as one of his own.

Scary thought, that - Sandburg as a police officer. He had good instincts, but too big and trusting of a heart. His natural enthusiasm and energy propelled him into one disastrous situation after the next, either following Jim or with the detective close on his heels. Simon preferred his men a little more jaded, a little more suspicious, a lot more ready and able to defend themselves against bad guys.

He supposed those preferences said more about him than they did about Sandburg, but after a long day of blood and fire and death, Simon was in no mood for introspection.

After a long search through the hospital he found the kid parked along the side of a second-floor hallway filled with doctors, other patients, beeping equipment, loud voices. Nurses and orderlies tried to navigate the mess with supplies. The entire hospital looked less like a care facility than a human zoo. Blair lay neglected and alone on his gurney, his eyes closed, an IV running into his arm. Dirt still marked his legs and arms, although someone had bandaged the worst of his cuts. He didn't even have a sheet over him. Simon knew the hospital personnel were doing the best they could under the circumstances, but at the same time he managed a little righteous anger at the pitiful sight.

Well, he had hands. He had freedom of will. Simon went back to the hall, found a medical cart parked near the payphones, and liberated a folded white sheet. After a second's hesitation, he took another. He went back to Sandburg's side and spread the cloth over the kid's bare legs. Blair stirred and opened his eyes.

"Captain," he rasped out.

"Take it easy," Simon advised. "You're in the hospital."

"Jim . . . the bad guys . . . "

Blair began to cough. Simon thought he needed water. He found a Poland Springs water cooler and one last paper cup hanging precariously from the rack below it. By the time he returned to Sandburg's side the kid had stopped coughing, but he took the water gratefully. Simon even went so far as to hold up his head, though he was sure he hadn't been Florence Nightingale in a previous life and had no plans to be her in this one, either.

"Better?" he asked, when Sandburg slumped back down to the pillow.

The kid nodded. Tears filled his eyes, and he turned his face to the wall. Awkwardness swept through the police captain.

"What's the matter? Do you need a shot or something?"

"Jim. I'm sorry. I meant to get there in time . . . "

"Sandburg, what the hell are you talking about?"

"Jim."

"He's fine. He'll be here soon."

Blair looked up at him. The pain etched on his face almost made Simon take a step backward. "I was too late," Blair insisted. "The chopper took off without me."

"What chopper? Too late for what? Sandburg, I know you have a head injury, so I'll repeat myself slowly. Jim is fine. He'll be here soon."

Blair stared at him for a long moment, then turned away again. "I'm sorry."

Simon patted his arm. "It's okay," he soothed, in the same way he'd done after his son Daryl had woken in the middle of the night with bad dreams. "Everything's going to be fine."

Bracing himself for a few unpleasant confrontations, he went off in search of a doctor. Someone was going to tell him what was wrong with Sandburg. And someone was going to find him a bed in a regular room, as well. Members of Simon Banks' team - men he called his own - did not sleep in hospital hallways.


An awful sawing noise dragged Jim back to full awareness. He lay in Blair's bed for several long moments, trying to orient himself to the darkness and noise. He finally lurched out of bed into the moonlit living room and found Simon snoring on the sofa. Jim stood over him and blinked at the wall clock several times before urgently waking up his captain.

"Simon! It's one in the morning!"

"Hummm?" Simon squinted up at him in confusion. He wiped at a bit of drool at the corner of his mouth. "What are you going on about?"

"It's one in the morning!" Jim repeated. "Where the hell is my partner? Why did you let me sleep so long?"

Simon turned over grumpily, putting his shoulder to Jim's face. "Who's been sleeping so long? I just got here a half hour ago."

"Where's Sandburg?"

"Where he's been all day," Simon yawned. "City General. He's stable and not up for visitors. Go back to bed."

Twenty minutes later they were on their way to the hospital, Jim driving Simon's car, Simon making inarticulate grunts from the depths of his borrowed blanket at every traffic light. From the all- news radio station, Jim learned that the death count was up to fifty- two people, with three hundred injured. A man named Mitch Bolger had been arrested for planting the bomb.

"I could kill that son of a bitch myself," Jim said, clutching the steering wheel hard.

"There are a lot of people ahead of you," Simon mumbled. "At least you and Sandburg made it out alive."

City General looked like an army camp in the middle of a battlefield, with lights blazing and halls filled with patients, victims and relatives even at that hour. Gurneys lined all the walls and equipment carts blocked almost every intersection. Flashbacks to the wreckage of the Sisters of Angels threatened to tear at Jim, but with mammoth will he kept focused on the struggle to find his partner in the huge, chaotic maze.

"I thought you said he was here!" Jim said angrily to Simon.

"He is - somewhere. We moved him upstairs. I just can't remember where." Simon finally found a nurse who directed them to a four-man room on the third floor. Blair lay curled up in twisted sheets, his eyes wide open but staring at nothing in particular in the small pool of light from the overhead lamp. He looked, in a word, miserable.

"Hey," Jim said, surprised to find him awake. He lowered his voice in deference to the sleeping patients behind closed curtains.

"Jim?" Blair's blue eyes shot up to fix on him. They looked glassy and dulled with pain. "You're here!"

"Yeah. Me and Simon." Jim moved a few inches aside so that Simon could step forward.

"You're looking better, Sandburg," the large police captain yawned.

Blair reached for Jim's hand. His fingers felt cold to the older man's touch. Blair said, "Man, I thought you were gone."

"No, I'm here."

"He thought you were dead," Simon clarified. "Do you remember when we talked about this earlier, Sandburg? The doctor said you were going to be confused for a little while. You have a concussion. Two hits on the head in one day are not good for anyone."

"I guess I remember," Blair mumbled. His expression took on a guilty edge as he turned his head toward the pillow. "Sorry. Everything's fuzzy and confusing. I keep remembering stuff like Kincaid... "

"It's okay to be fuzzy," Jim reassured him. "I've had my share of fuzziness today, too."

Simon put his hand on Jim's shoulder. "I'm going to go get some coffee. You want some?"

"Sure."

The captain left them alone. Jim hooked a chair with his right foot and dragged it over, unable to do more with Blair's death grip on his hand. He sat close to the bed, studying every line in his partner's face, every bruise and tiny little cut. "You're going to be okay," Jim said. "Things might be a little scary right now, but you've got to trust me on this."

Blair nodded minutely. He closed his eyes, obviously weary. Jim wondered what drugs they were pumping into his system. He adjusted the sheet over Blair's hunched shoulder and took a deep breath. Events could have gotten much, much worse at several points during the day, and in the relative peace and quiet of the room he could reflect and be thankful they hadn't.

"I'm tired but I can't sleep," Blair murmured. "My brain won't shut up."

"What's it saying?"

"Park. Bike. Something blew up. I remember - I hit the floor pretty hard. Then I had to get to the roof. I don't know why, but it was really important."

"I'm sure it'll come back to you," Jim said, unsure if the detail actually mattered much.

Blair opened his eyes. "How many people died?"

"Fifty two." But at least, as Simon had said, he and Blair had made it out alive. Somewhere in the city, fifty two grieving families couldn't even cling to that much solace. Jim marveled at how easily he could think of Blair as family, with all the responsibilities and burdens and rewards a relationship like that offered. At some point over the years, the kid had gone from an annoyingly energetic grad student to someone as vital to Jim as his own flesh and blood. Even more vital, considering his relationships with his brother and father. Blair's safety and well being had become a priority in his life, one of the select few that guided Jim every day when he had to make decisions about his life and career.

"Jim? You zoning?"

"No. Just thinking."

Blair cocked his head slightly. "About what?"

"About how lucky we are."

Blair gave a little snort of disbelief. "Lucky. Getting stuck in a blown-up building. Me wandering around like an idiot. Is it true I was carrying around a doll?"

"We can talk about that tomorrow." Jim allowed himself a small smile. "How's that brain? Quieting down?"

"Not really."

"Why don't you try one of those relaxation techniques that you're always after me about? Close your eyes and imagine yourself somewhere nice."

Blair's eyes slid shut. The lashes looked long and stark against the dark circles under his eyes. "The park?" he asked, with a tiny smirk.

"If you want," Jim chuckled. "Let's just start the day over again, okay? You and me, sitting in the park. Nice and dark. Quiet and peaceful. Can you see it?"

Blair nodded slightly.

"No experiments," Jim said. He almost said 'stupid experiments,' but caught himself at the last minute. "No tests. Just the sounds of the ocean, a few buoys, maybe a seagull or two. You and me with no one else in the world."

Blair cracked open one eye. "You're pretty good at this imagery stuff, you know."

"I have a good teacher."

Jim kept up the steady words, watching carefully as Blair's tense body shifted and relaxed on the hard hospital bed. In a few minutes he started to snore slightly. Jim fell silent but kept the image of the park foremost in his head. The green landscape did sound nice and relaxing, as long as he kept out the memories of those awful smells. He propped his chin on the mattress and rested his head and neck, glad that Simon had apparently gotten lost on the way to or from the coffee machine.

Bike accidents. Bombs. Desperate searches, lucky rescues. And a happy ending, at least this time.

Jim closed his eyes in well-earned relief.

Just another day in the life of the Sentinel and his Guide.

THE END


Back to The Loft