Rating: PG-13 (some bad language)
Notes: Major spoilers for "The Switchman" since this is a "what if" Blair and Jim hadn't connected in the hospital. I've ignored much of the first season eps which would've occurred in the year Jim was on the fishing island, although I shamelessly used bits and pieces of those same eps for my own devices.
Disclaimer: The Sentinel and the guide and the captain and all the regular characters are not mine, though I do play with them on occasion. *G*
Major kudos to my beta Kathleen (Dolimir) for all her time and expertise in making this story as smooth as possible. She went above and beyond with this monster.
Blair Sandburg awoke disoriented. His left cheek rested against something flat and cool. The low hum of a motor and the slight bouncing told him he was in a moving vehicle. He blinked and brought the world into focus, only to find the view muted by dusky light outside the passenger window.
Truck. Jim. Cascade. The confusion faded with the recollection of where he was and who he was with.
He lifted his head and turned to look at Jim Ellison, almost startled to see him.
"Did you think I'd disappear?" the ex-detective asked with a note of dry humor.
Blair smiled sheepishly. "The past couple months do feel a little like a dream."
Jim's gaze flickered over him. "More like a nightmare." He clenched his jaw and stared straight ahead.
Blair sighed inwardly and raked his hair back from his face. When he had first seen Jim on the dock, he had known there was something unique about him. Later, he had discovered he was a sentinel, a man with hyperactive senses -- the object of his original dissertation study. Unable to find a sentinel in over five years of searching, Blair had reluctantly changed his topic to closed societies and had chosen an isolated island fishing village for his subject. It was there he had stumbled across Jim.
"How much farther?" Blair asked, shifting his numb backside on the seat.
"Another half hour."
Blair crossed his arms and settled back to stare out the front window of the five-year-old Ford pick-up. The day had been a blur, starting with Jim's unexpected announcement that he was headed back to Cascade. After Blair had bullied him into revealing why, there had been no hesitation in the anthropologist's decision to accompany him. Veronica Sarris, better known as the Switchman -- and the main reason Jim had exiled himself -- had returned from the dead. Jim had believed that she'd been killed a year ago when she had blown up a bus, murdering eleven men, women and children -- deaths which heavily burdened Jim's conscience. Yesterday she had destroyed one of the fishermen's boats with a bomb just to get Jim's attention, then had sent him a note telling him to return to Cascade or people on the island would get hurt.
The supply boat from the mainland had brought Blair and Jim in from the island. The anthropology student had been surprised to find Jim had left his truck in storage in the British Columbia port city. After retrieving it, the two men had begun the six hour drive back to Cascade.
The lights of the city grew clearer and Blair sat up straighter. Now that their destination was in sight, he was uncertain as to what role he would play in Jim's life in the coming days and weeks. Though living in separate cabins on the island, the disparate men had spent all of their waking hours in each other's company over the past two weeks. Jim had needed Blair's help in learning how to control his senses, and though Jim had come far, there was still the very real possibility of a sensory overload, or zone-out. Blair's unique ability to draw him back and help the sentinel work the "dials" of his senses was still required. For how long he would be needed was a question neither man knew the answer to and was a sore point for the fiercely independent older man.
"Where's your place?" Jim asked, breaking the silence in the cab. "I'll drop you off."
Blair searched his mind frantically. "Just drop me off at my office at Rainier. I need to pick up some things."
Jim glanced at him. "Can't it wait until tomorrow?"
"No." Blair didn't meet his eyes.
A fragile silence sprang up between them.
Blair hoped the office was still his. He had planned to remain on the fishing island for at least six months and he'd returned after three. He had also given up his warehouse apartment, figuring he would find a new place when he returned instead of going through the hassle of subletting it. Returning early had disrupted all his carefully arranged plans.
If he knew Jim better, he might ask him if he had a spare bed, but the man was still an enigma. Blair sighed. If his office was empty, he would merely spend the night there -- he had done it before -- and look for an apartment tomorrow.
Jim entered the campus grounds and Blair directed him to Hargrove Hall. Stopping in an illegal parking spot in front of the quiet building, Jim frowned. "I'll wait for you."
"No, that's all right." Blair forced a smile. "I'll call a friend to come get me."
After a moment, Jim nodded reluctantly. "All right." He fixed his gaze on his hands which gripped the steering wheel. "Do you want to get together tomorrow?"
Blair frowned. "I thought that was a given."
Although Jim's granite expression remained in place, when he faced Blair his blue eyes appeared relieved. "Well, I was kind of hoping, but I didn't want to just assume... "
"Look, you're a sentinel. You need someone to watch your back, help you keep your senses under control until you can do it yourself. I told you I'm more than willing to do that and just because we're back here doesn't mean I've changed my mind."
A smile teased Jim's lips. "What time and where should I pick you up?"
"How about eight o'clock, right here?"
"It's no problem to come by your place."
"I know, but there's some things I'll have to take care of here in the morning."
"Don't forget to get some sleep, Chief. I'd like to go into the station tomorrow and we'll need to figure out how to handle this sentinel thing with Captain Banks," Jim said.
"Are you going back to being a cop?"
Jim shrugged and shadows cut valleys in his somber features. "I don't know, but I'll have to tell the captain about Sarris' note." His jaw muscle clenched. "We'll have to be prepared for her next one."
A shiver swept through Blair. "How do we prepare for a madwoman planting bombs around the city?"
"I don't know, but I'm not going to let her get away this time."
"We won't," Blair reassured with more confidence than he felt. He reached behind the seat to grab his duffel bag and opened the passenger door. Blair hopped out of the truck, his backpack over a shoulder and his duffel in hand. Before he shut the door, he leaned into the cab. "If you have any problems with your senses, call me."
Jim nodded and reached into his jacket pocket to withdraw a little notebook and pen. "What's your number?"
Blair gave him his office phone and hoped it was still working, then asked, "What's yours?"
"No phone yet." He scribbled something on a piece of paper and handed it to the student. "Here's my address."
Blair glanced at it -- 852 Prospect Ave. #307. "Thanks, man." He stood awkwardly for a moment. "Well, I guess I'll see you in the morning then."
"Yep." Jim paused. "I, uh, I just want to thank you, Sandburg. I know you didn't ask for this babysitting job."
Blair grinned. "If you recall, I was the one who practically threw myself at you. Believe me, Jim, it's no problem. Really."
The worry creases in Jim's brow eased. "Good-night, Chief."
"'Night, Jim." He started to close the door, but stopped. "You might want to turn on your headlights. Not everyone has sentinel vision."
Though Blair couldn't see him, he knew Jim was blushing.
"Uh, right, headlights." He flicked them on.
Blair chuckled and slammed the passenger door shut. As Jim drove away, the student lifted his hand in farewell. He couldn't tell if the sentinel returned the gesture.
The anthropology student watched until the truck's taillights disappeared from view, then turned and trudged toward the building, feeling unsettled. It was strange being back in a city after the quiet of the village. He paused to glance up at the stars but they were obscured by civilization's lights and the restlessness intensified. For a moment, all he wanted to do was drop in at Joel's pub and nurse an ale while listening to Peter or Gar or any of the other fishermen spin a tall tale.
He shook aside the melancholy. There was work to be done. He wanted to find his box of books which he had collected while researching sentinels and use the night to reacquaint himself with the material. Now, if only his office was still unoccupied, he'd be set.
Jim stopped by the grocery store after dropping Blair off at the university. He hated to go into the market with all the smells and colors and lights, but his fridge and cupboards would be bare. He had been lucky his renter had moved out two weeks ago and no one else had moved in. It was almost as if fate had intervened, except that he didn't believe in fate. Even though Blair had made some mention of destiny with the two of them meeting on the island, Jim thought it was plain dumb luck. It was a whole lot easier for him to swallow than some weird karmic alignment, or whatever the hell Blair had called it.
He parked the truck and got out. The light he'd parked under made him blink and the city noises were harsh after the village's quiet. Recalling Blair's lessons about the dials, Jim managed to turn his sight and hearing down enough that the lights and sounds were bearable -- barely. He hurried into the supermarket and picked up only the essentials -- milk, bread, eggs, butter, salt and pepper, coffee and filters, peanut butter, toilet paper and a roll of paper towels. Fortunately, he remembered where everything was located so didn't have to spend any more time than was necessary in the store. Still, the stink of blood from the meat counter and the reek of fresh seafood turned his stomach. A brat four aisles over was throwing a tantrum about some breakfast cereal his mother wouldn't buy and the screams nearly pierced the sentinel's skull. He managed to pay for his items and escape without getting sick. Once outside he breathed deeply... only to start coughing from the pollutants which burned his nostrils.
In spite of being doubled over, he managed to hang onto his grocery bags and make it into the truck. He leaned his head back against the seat cushion and closed his eyes. The faint scent of Sandburg lingered in the cab and he concentrated on it, but not too deeply. He couldn't risk a zone-out. Using Blair's scent as an anchor, he managed to turn the dials down one or two notches. A headache pulsed in his temples and he massaged his brow, but it did little good. If Blair were here, he could erase the worst of the throbbing. Hell, if the student had been with him, he wouldn't have been so overwhelmed.
He can't be with you 24/7, Ellison, so you just better get used to it.
Jim snorted. Get used to sounds and smells and sights that only some science fiction character should be able to sense? Right.
Blair had tried to convince him otherwise and he had even begun to believe it. But it was true -- he was a freak.
This morning in his cabin on the island, it had seemed possible with his newly controlled senses to track down Veronica Sarris once he got back to Cascade. However, if he couldn't do something as mundane as grocery shopping, how could he manage to find a bomber in a city of a million?
Welcome to reality.
Stifling a groan, Jim started the truck and drove to his loft apartment. Parking in his usual slot, he remained seated behind the wheel, staring at the building. Deja vu washed across him, along with the bitter taste of failure which had consumed him when he had left Cascade months ago. It seemed as if that had been only yesterday and Joel's isolated cabin as unreal as a dream.
Sandburg's presence on the trip back had kept him from diving into a tailspin. Without him now, Jim could feel the madness creeping back, devouring him like some goddamned black hole.
"Get a grip, Ellison," he muttered to himself. "Sandburg said your senses are natural and that you can control them. You were controlling them."
Swallowing back the rise of fear, Jim took a deep breath and let it out slowly, just as Blair had taught him. He closed his eyes, continuing the exercise until he felt a modicum of control return. Before he lost it again, he snagged his duffel and the bags of groceries, then headed to his apartment. He stepped inside the building and was almost driven to his knees by the stench of frying meat coming from one of the other tenants. Choking back the bile, he climbed the flights of stairs and arrived in front of 307. It looked exactly the same as it had a year ago.
He fumbled for his keys and unlocked the door. Slipping inside, he quickly closed the door behind him and leaned against the solid wood with his head tipped back. He breathed through his mouth so the smells wouldn't overwhelm him and after a few moments, he was able to move without nausea washing through him.
Straightening, he looked around the loft. There was the scent of cleaning solutions from the former renter, but it had faded enough that it was tolerable. The place appeared to be in good shape, though empty. He'd forgotten -- all of his belongings were in the basement storage. If he wanted to cook a meal or sleep on a bed, he'd have to move some of his things up tonight. Damn.
Could he do it? Could he turn his sense dials down and hold them there long enough to carry some boxes up from downstairs without getting sick from the smells and sounds? What about the possibility of a zone-out? Shit, he didn't need one of those tonight.
Okay, Ellison, settle down. Hell, you spent eighteen months surviving in a jungle in Peru. Surely you can survive the first night back in your own apartment, for God's sake.
He dropped the bag of groceries on the kitchen island then walked down the hallway and used the bathroom. When he returned to the cavernous living room, he stepped over to the balcony windows and stared out into the night. The city's lights were spread out before him, blinking and twinkling at him like they were his private laser light show. Traffic lights -- green, red, yellow -- and the white lights blazing from the buildings and the airplane lights in the sky beckoned him, mesmerized him. Suddenly the smells didn't bother him, nor the unfamiliar sounds. Only the lights remained and those were... beautiful... soothing... hypnotic...
Blair held his breath as he turned his key in the lock of his former office. The door opened and he flicked on the light switch.
"Yes," he exclaimed, pumping his arm as if he'd just won an Olympic event.
Only the things he'd boxed up were inside with no sign of another occupant. The powers-to-be must have decided not to assign anyone his office over the summer. Blair was certain it wasn't because it was his, but because it was the smallest and farthest one from the anthropology department. He had never minded the isolation -- he could play his somewhat unorthodox music whenever he wanted and as loud as he wanted.
Tossing his travel bag to the side, he moved to his desk chair and settled in it. He leaned back, groaning in satisfaction. As ancient as the chair was and as much as it creaked, Blair was accustomed to it and his body sank into it like it was an old friend. The months in the somewhat primitive conditions of the fishing village had been nice, but it was great to be back in the familiar office. It was the same after every excursion.
Maybe I'm thinking of this place as home. The thought brought a sardonic smile to his lips. He remembered what his mother Naomi had told him years ago -- the Sandburgs didn't have a home, merely rest stops on the journey through life. Blair had no choice but to adopt the credo himself, but lately he had felt a different kind of restlessness. An almost anti-restlessness which tugged at the piece of his heart where the little boy searching for a home remained.
He shook aside the deep yearning with practiced ease, but the restiveness remained.
With the most pressing of his problems solved -- a place to spend the night -- Blair figured he should get something to eat. On the trip back, Jim had stopped only for gas and they had each gotten a sandwich from the cooler of a convenience store. Remembering the taste of the quick meal, Blair shuddered. He needed a salad -- a good salad -- and he knew just the place.
An hour later, Blair returned to his office, his hunger appeased. He had also bought two bagels from the deli for his breakfast and lunch tomorrow. Next on the agenda was to find the box of books about sentinels.
Removing his jacket, Blair tossed it on his desk. Since he hadn't labeled the boxes, this would be a long search. He settled cross-legged on the floor and opened the first one. Pulling out a stack of books, he suddenly froze. The presence of someone in the room made him turn slowly. There was no one there. His heart thundering in his chest, Blair laughed shakily. He was beginning to believe in Peter Monahan's ghosts.
A low growl behind him sent his heartbeat skyrocketing again and he scrambled to his feet. Spinning around in a full circle, he spotted... nothing.
"What the hell is going on?" he demanded, his voice resounding in the tiny office.
Blair caught the shadow of some animal moving around him. He whirled around and three feet away a large cat stared at him with piercing blue eyes. His heart pounding, Blair stepped back reflexively, expecting the animal to pounce and rip out his throat with his long fierce claws. The student blinked and the black jaguar disappeared.
He raked a hand through his curly hair. "Oh, gods, I'm losing it here."
A sound by the door behind him made him spin again and the animal was back, but this time it didn't appear menacing, only... impatient. It growled again and turned, its body moving through the door as if it were incorporeal.
Blair stumbled back against his desk and his backside dropped onto it. Had it been real? Or was it only a figment of his imagination? Or was it both?
The urgent agitation he experienced the evening Jim had tried to kill himself returned with blinding force. Had the cat been trying to tell him something about Jim?
Intellectually, Blair had no evidence to support such a wild supposition. All he had was a gut instinct -- the same gut instinct which had brought him to Jim that night on the cliff. Without even questioning his sanity, Blair grabbed his jacket and threw it on. He fumbled in a pocket and withdrew the piece of paper Jim had written his address on. Although Blair wasn't familiar with the area, he had heard of Prospect and knew it was on the bus route.
He slung his backpack over his shoulder, locked the office door behind him and ran out of the building toward the bus stop.
The hour-long bus ride seemed interminable and Blair imagined a hundred things that could have happened to Jim -- a traffic accident, a robbery, a mugging, a zone-out. Why had he let him go by himself? Jim's hypersenses had barely been controlled on the quiet island -- what would all the sensory input of the city do to him?
Cursing his idiocy, Blair nearly missed his bus stop. He quickly disembarked and went back down the block to find number 852. The door to the apartment building was next to a place called Colette's. One of the anthropology professors had brought in a dozen muffins from Colette's one time -- they had been especially good. Blair entered and glanced at the mailboxes -- under #307, it was blank. That made sense since Jim had just returned. He climbed the stairs two at a time.
The premonition of something being terribly wrong increased as Blair drew nearer to his destination. The shadowy figure of the cat appeared near a door down the hall and Blair ran toward it, no longer fearful. The animal disappeared through the door of 307 as Blair approached. The student knocked on the door. "Hey Jim, it's me, Blair. You in there, man?"
Dumb question since Blair had seen his truck parked on the street.
"Jim?" Blair called again.
No answer. Blair's lungs felt tight and he flexed his hands into fists. If Jim were only sleeping inside, Blair would feel like an idiot. But then, embarrassment was a small price to pay for what might have happened.
He turned the knob and pushed, shocked when it opened under his hand. Even on the island, Jim had been adamant about locking his door and had reminded Blair to do the same. It had amused Blair, but he had done as Jim asked. The fact that his door was unlocked didn't bode well for what lay on the other side.
Blair stepped inside hesitantly, half-expecting to see the elusive black jaguar. Darkness met his eyes and he automatically reached for a light switch. His fingers found one and light flooded the large, high-ceilinged room. An open loft upstairs with a skylight caught his eye.
He turned and spotted Jim frozen in place in front of a large balcony window. Blair's eyes widened and his heart skipped a beat. He forced his legs to carry him across the room to stand in the front of the sentinel. The non-seeing stare and lax face told Blair what he feared.
Blair took a few deep breaths to calm himself, then gripped Jim's arms snugly. "All right, Jim, it's time to come back. You're in a zone-out, buddy, and you need to return. I know those colors are probably pretty cool, but you can't stay there forever."
Blair continued to talk in the soothing modulated voice he'd automatically adopted when dealing with the sentinel. He didn't know where the voice had come from, but it had worked before and he hoped it would again.
After a minute or two, Jim's eyes lost their vacant look. He blinked, then blinked again and sagged against Blair. The student backed him up to a nearby wall and lowered him to the floor, using the wall as a support for the sentinel. Blair squatted down beside him.
"Are you back with me, Jim?" he asked softly.
Jim closed his eyes and scrubbed his face with his palms. "Yeah, I'm back." He leaned his head against the wall and angled a narrowed gaze at Blair. "It happened again."
Though it wasn't a question, Blair nodded, feeling guilty as hell. "I'm sorry. I should have figured this would happen. A city has a lot more sensory input than a small town. I shouldn't have left you alone."
"You're not my keeper, Sandburg," Jim growled. "This wasn't your fault. It was mine."
Blair settled back on his heels. "How do you figure?"
"You said my senses were natural. I should be able to control something natural, right?"
Blair studied him a moment, wishing he knew how to get Jim to understand. He thought for a moment. "Even though your senses are natural, it doesn't mean that you have full control of them naturally. Think of a child who's just learning how to use the toilet. The function is natural, but he or she has to learn how to control it."
"So what you're saying is I'm still not potty trained?"
Blair snorted and began to laugh. He was glad to see a twinkle of amusement in the ex-cop's eyes. "Yeah. I guess my job is to potty train you."
Jim's humor faded. He pulled his knees up and wrapped his arms around them. "I couldn't take the smells in the hallway, Chief. I looked out my balcony window and got lost in the lights. How the hell am I going to function out there if I can't even control my senses in my own home?"
"How many times have I told you -- you can control them. You just need to practice." Blair's hands moved with his words. "On the island, you were at a point where you didn't need me most of the time. There were a lot less sounds and smells and sights to tune out than there are here. We just have to step up the training a bit and you'll be fine." He smiled. "Trust me."
Jim ran a hand across his eyes. "This trusting thing is tough, Chief. I'm working on it, but it's not easy for me." The words were strained, as if someone held a gun to his head.
Knowing how difficult the admission had been for Ellison, Blair shrugged nonchalantly. "We have a lot of time to build up that trust." He smiled. "Besides, we're already halfway there."
"How do you figure?"
"I trust you."
Jim licked his dry lips. "I can't promise I won't let you down."
"I'm not asking for promises." Blair's grin grew. "Hey, it's not like I'm asking for a diamond, big guy."
Jim chuckled in spite of himself. "I probably couldn't afford you anyhow."
"You're so right, man. I'm high maintenance."
With tacit agreement, the two men stood.
"I like what you've done with the place," Blair commented, his eyes dancing with mischief.
"Pre-Neanderthal," Jim deadpanned.
"Definitely you. Where were you going to sleep tonight?"
Jim frowned. Should he ask Blair if he could spend the night at his place so he wouldn't have to move anything up tonight? No, he had already imposed enough on the student. "My things are in the basement. I was going to bring some of the necessities up."
"Since I'm here I can give you a hand. Besides, we could use the time to work on some controls."
Though relieved, Jim merely nodded. "Sure, if you don't mind."
"Do I look like I mind?"
"No. You look like you're scheming -- figuring how many tests I'll let you get away with."
Jim didn't like being Blair's lab rat, but he had to admit the tests on the island had helped. Besides, with Blair beside him his senses had come back under control.
"Before we start moving, I want you to set your dials," Blair said. "Close your eyes."
Jim did as he was told.
"Take a deep breath through your nose and hold it. Now let it out through your mouth. Do that three times and concentrate only on your breathing."
Jim found himself calm by the last exhalation.
"Keeping your eyes closed, I want you to imagine your sight dial. Turn it down to a two for me, okay?" Blair commanded in a voice Jim couldn't imagine disobeying.
The student walked him through each sense, then had him do three more deep breathing exercises. After that, Blair had him open his eyes. Jim blinked, surprised to find his five senses at normal settings. The smells were there, but they were only faint odors; the sounds were merely background noise; the lights were no longer seducing him.
"It worked," Jim announced.
"Did you doubt me?" Blair asked cheekily.
"I'm learning not to, Chief."
Two hours later, Jim and Blair collapsed at opposite ends of the couch they had just brought up.
Blair turned his head, glaring at Jim. "Remind me to charge by the pound next time."
"You said you didn't mind," Jim said with feigned innocence.
"That's when I thought it would only be a few boxes."
"Sorry. I guess I got carried away." Jim glanced around the loft, gratified to see his furniture all in place. Boxes had been piled in the small room across from the bathroom. It had been his work-out room after Caroline had moved out. Right before leaving Cascade, Jim had sold all of the equipment. He figured he could use the room for storage now.
"Yeah, well, it's going to cost you," Blair said.
Jim narrowed his eyes, suspicion flaring in his features. "What do you mean?"
Blair laughed. "Relax. I meant a pizza and beer."
"Oh." Jim glanced away. "We'll have to go out -- no phone."
"How far away is the liquor store?"
"Just around the corner."
"Why don't we walk over to pick up the beer and order the pizza from there?" Blair suggested. "That way we can try a brief foray outside to test your dials."
"Okay." Jim grabbed his and Blair's coats from the coat rack by the door and handed the student his.
The two men walked down to the corner. Again, Jim had little trouble controlling his senses and he knew without a doubt it was because of Blair. Though he was grateful, the nature of any dependency rubbed him the wrong way.
"How did you know?" Jim suddenly asked.
Blair frowned in confusion. "Know what?"
"That I was in one of those zone-outs tonight."
The student kicked a stone and Jim watched it skitter out onto the street.
"I just knew," Blair finally said.
Jim halted, grabbing Blair's arm. "What do you mean?"
The anthropologist shrugged. "It was a feeling I had -- like when I found you on the cliff on the island."
The ex-cop glanced away, startled by Blair's admission. The sentinel stuff was weird enough; he wasn't certain he wanted to hear about some strange connection between him and the long-haired student. But even as he dismissed the link, he "sensed" Blair wasn't being completely honest. He rubbed his brow, unable to deal with this right now.
He continued on and heard Sandburg fall into step beside him and a measure of calm settled within him.
At the liquor store, they settled on a twelve pack of Coors. While Jim paid for it, Blair called in the pizza order at the phone by the front door. They walked back to Jim's place in the darkness, their path lit only by the sparse streetlights, but Jim had no problem seeing in the dim lighting.
"What are you seeing?" Blair asked, his hands stuffed in his pockets.
Jim shrugged. "What I normally see."
Blair paused as they crossed an alley entrance. "What about down there?"
Jim stopped and peered down the alley. "A dumpster, some boxes with--" his nose wrinkled, "--rotting lettuce and cabbage in them. A cat sniffing around. There's some broken glass and old newspapers on the ground."
"You see all that?"
Jim turned to see Blair staring at him in wide-eyed astonishment. "Yeah. So?"
"So?" Blair laughed and threw his arms in the air. "I look down there and it's pitch black. I can't see the dumpster, much less some broken glass on the ground. Did you have to consciously focus your vision? Or did it just automatically work?"
Jim frowned, glanced back at the alley so visible to him but hidden in darkness for Blair. Had he consciously focused or had it come... naturally? "I didn't have to think about it." A smile tugged at his lips. "I guess the potty training's already working."
Blair hooted in reply. "Damn, Jim, this is amazing. There is so much we don't know about your senses. We have no idea what kind of parameters we're looking at here. Can you see in total darkness? Or do you need some light? And what about distance? We did a little of that on the boat, but I have a feeling you can extend even farther than either of us can fathom. And taste and hearing and--"
Jim clamped a hand over Blair's mouth. "Enough, Chief. You get this worked up, you're never going to get any sleep tonight." Jim grinned wryly and removed the hand he'd used as a gag. "And neither will I with you firing questions at me."
"Sorry, Jim. You warned me about the trust thing. I guess I'd better warn you about my enthusiasm thing."
"If you can handle my issues, I can handle yours."
Jim started walking again and Blair, with a wide grin, joined him. With the student beside him, Jim allowed his senses to roam a little. He listened to a conversation in an apartment they passed by. He opened his smell a bit, but the stale liquor and smoke odors from a bar down the street inundated him and he quickly dialed back.
"No fair, man."
Jim glanced at the student to find dark blue eyes twinkling. "What?"
"You're playing without me."
"How did you know?"
"You tip your head when you're listening and once you got this look on your face like you just bit into a sour lemon," Blair said.
The kid was observant -- Jim had to give him that. "Sorry, Sandburg. I was seeing what I could do on my own."
"Don't be sorry. I'm glad you're at least trusting me enough to know I'd bring you back if something happened."
Jim stumbled slightly at Sandburg's comment. The student's presence gave him confidence to expand his senses, to test his boundaries himself, and Jim knew instinctively the anthropologist would never abandon him if he zoned. How had that happened? Why did he have so much confidence in someone he'd met a month ago?
Back at Jim's apartment, the two men set up the television as they waited for the pizza to arrive. When they were done, Jim sat in a comfortable yellow chair. He took the remote and turned on the TV, gratified to see the cable hadn't been disconnected.
"No Jags games yet. Too early for the season," Blair said with a sigh from where he'd plopped on the sofa. "Maybe there's some pre-season football on."
"If there was, it's over."
"What time is it?" Blair asked.
"Eleven." Jim switched the tv to a local station for the evening news.
"So much for getting anything done in my office tonight," Blair said.
Jim eyed the student suspiciously. "I thought you just had a few things to pick up. I didn't know you were going to work."
Blair shrugged, keeping his gaze on the newscaster. "There's always something for a lowly grad student to do."
"So, what do you do at the college?" Jim had never really thought about Blair's academic life.
"Write papers, teach a couple intro classes and work on my dissertation, which will now have to be totally reworked."
"Because of me?"
Blair nodded. "Don't worry. You'll remain anonymous -- I'll only refer to you as the subject in my notes."
Jim gritted his teeth, but remained silent.
Remember the deal, Ellison? Control of your senses for being a lab rat.
"What's wrong?" Blair asked quietly.
Jim scowled. "What makes you think something's wrong?"
"You have that look."
"You're imagining things, Sandburg." Jim lifted his head and his nostrils flared. "The pizza's here." Jim rose and crossed to the door, opening it before the delivery boy could knock.
"Cool," he heard Blair murmur behind him.
Jim paid for the pizza and set the box on the table they had carried up from the basement earlier. Blair came in from the living room as Jim was rinsing two plates he'd found in an appropriately marked box. The student slipped past Jim and retrieved two beers from the fridge.
After they each put a couple pieces of pizza on their plate, Blair picked up his beer and headed back for the living room. Jim grabbed the tail of his shirt. "Hold it, Sandburg. No food in the living room. We eat at the table."
"Are you serious?"
Jim glared at him.
"Okay, okay, man. Your house, your rules. Pretty territorial, but then that might go along with you being a sentinel." Blair sat down by the table, his expression suddenly lit with animation. "In fact, that makes a lot of sense. Hundreds of years ago when sentinels were the watchmen for their tribes, they would have to have some sense of territoriality -- protecting their own property, which would include the people of the tribe. From infancy on, the sentinel would be establishing the boundaries of his or her territory and the people living within it. It would be a genetic advantage for the sentinel to live in one place, and his or her natural protectiveness would have evolved into territorialism."
In spite of his skepticism about sentinels and being one himself, Jim was intrigued by the kid's monologue. "What about nomadic tribes? Did they have sentinels?"
"Sentinels probably evolved differently, depending on what part of the world they lived. Those with the most evolved territorialism probably stayed in one place. Where'd you grow up, Jim?"
"Here in Cascade," he replied after a moment's hesitation.
Blair paused to take a bite of his pizza. "Weren't you in the army?"
Jim nodded. "For eight years."
"So why did you come back here?" Blair asked too innocently.
"It was as good a place as any."
"I think it was better than any other place for you. Something called you back, didn't it?"
"Yeah, I heard a little birdie calling my name." Sarcasm oozed from his voice like grease from the pizza.
"You leave Cascade for eight years, become a soldier. What's a soldier's job? To protect civilians. You come back to the place you grew up, get a job as a cop. To protect and serve. This sounding at all familiar, Jim?"
"No. Eat your pizza, Sandburg."
Blair smiled and his eyes sparkled despite Jim's glare and accompanying growl. Damn, he was getting soft if he couldn't manage to scare a student. But then, Blair wasn't like any other student he'd ever met.
"How old are you, Sandburg?" Jim found himself asking.
"You're older than you look."
"And that's supposed to mean what?" Blair asked, arching his eyebrows.
Jim frowned and said impatiently, "Just that. No Freudian overtones or implied psycho-babble."
The student chuckled. "Now there's a concept I would've never thought I'd hear you say -- Freudian."
Jim squirmed in his seat. "I went to college, Chief."
"Then why do you put on this dumb cop front?" Blair asked fearlessly.
I'm definitely losing my touch, Jim thought. "First off, I didn't realize I was. And secondly, you're supposed to be studying my senses, not psycho-analyzing me. My hang-ups are my own, Sandburg."
"Whatever, man." Blair finished his piece of pizza and started in on his second, interspersing it with sips of beer. "But for the record, you have more than your share of hang-ups. Take this no eating in the liv--"
"Sandburg," Jim warned.
The younger man's expression didn't change, but his eyes twinkled with laughter.
In spite of himself, Jim found his own lips twitching with a smile. After they finished the pizza -- bringing up the furniture and boxes had definitely built up their appetites -- and drank two more beers each, they cleaned up the kitchen.
"I should head back." Blair glanced at his watch. "Damn. The buses stopped running ten minutes ago."
"I'd take you back, but after the beers--" Jim shrugged. "Why don't you spend the night on the couch? We'll stop by your place before going into the station tomorrow so you can change." For the first time, Jim noticed a nervous hesitation in the younger man's expression. "What's wrong?"
"It's just that I needed to get some things done at my office in the morning." Blair glanced at his backpack lying beside the door. "I have a clean set of clothes with me along with a toothbrush and razor. Maybe I could just shower here in the morning and that would save us a stop at my place."
Blair's heartbeat increased slightly and Jim frowned, wondering what was wrong. Maybe the kid's place was a dump. He remembered some of the places he'd lived while going to college. If his father had seen them, the old man would have thrown a fit and tossed some money at him... like money solved everything.
"Hey, Jim, you with me, man?" Blair's worried voice broke into his dark thoughts.
Jim rubbed his brow. "Uh, yeah, I'm here. It wasn't a zone, at least not a sensory one," he finished bitterly.
"Must've been a memory zone." The anthropologist nodded somberly. "I have those myself."
Again Jim was amazed at this deceptively young-looking man who possessed wisdom beyond his years. "You can use the shower here in the morning. Let me find the box with the bedding in it. I have to make my bed, too."
Blair followed him into the small storage room below the stairs which overflowed with boxes, their contents clearly labeled on each one. "Good thing you're so anal."
"Thanks, I think."
Chuckling, Blair helped Jim find the boxes with the sheets, blankets and pillows. Jim wrinkled his nose and sneezed a few times as he pulled them out.
"We should wash these before you use them," Blair suggested, his forehead creased. "I can run over to the store and see if I can find a detergent that's--"
Jim settled his hand on Blair's shoulder. "Don't worry about it tonight, Chief. I can handle it for one night."
"It'll be okay."
After handing Blair a pile of blankets, a sheet, and pillow, Jim took his own bedding upstairs. Jim set to work with military precision making his bed, folding the corners just so.
"I'll bet you could bounce a quarter off yours when you're done," Blair called up, laughter in his voice.
Jim couldn't help but grin. "Try a dime."
"Smart ass," Blair muttered.
"I heard that, Sandburg."
Jim glanced over the railing to the living room below and saw blankets thrown haphazardly across the couch. Blair's shoes lay askew beside the couch, his socks tossed near them. His flannel shirt started another pile on the coffee table and the jeans were being removed to join it. Jim hoped the kid lived alone -- he doubted if a roommate would be able to handle the wake of a Sandburg tornado.
He finished with his bed, then trotted down the stairs. Sandburg had already slipped under the covers and was laying on his back, his hands stacked under his head.
"I really appreciate your letting me spend the night here, Jim," Blair said quietly.
Jim paused at the end of the couch and gazed down at Sandburg. He smiled at the tangle of curls across the pillow which made the student appear even younger. "No problem, Chief. I'm just kind of surprised you didn't want to spend your first night back at your own place."
Blair shrugged. "I would've had to drag stuff out of storage myself. At least this way one of us is on the road to getting settled back in."
Jim glanced at the floor. "By the way, uh, thanks for your help, Sandburg."
"Small price to pay for beer and pizza."
Startled, Jim looked up to see Blair's infectious smile and grinned back. "You must be a cheap date, Chief."
The student waggled his eyebrows. "My girlfriends never kiss and tell."
Chuckling, Jim went to use the bathroom. When he was done, he double-checked the door to ensure it was locked -- all three locks -- then turned off the lights. As he passed the couch, he noticed Sandburg's eyes were closed and his heartbeat and respiration had slowed. The kid had fallen asleep.
"Good-night, Chief," Jim said quietly and climbed the stairs to his bedroom.
He slid between the sheets, grimacing at the rasp of the material against his sensitive skin. How was he going to sleep when every movement felt like sandpaper across his skin?
A gentle rhythmic sound slipped into him and he immediately recognized it as Sandburg's heartbeat. Concentrating on the even peaceful beat, Jim felt the irritation of the sheets retreat and fell into a restful slumber.
Though he wasn't typically a morning person, Blair awoke well-rested before Jim and rose quietly. A shower, shave, and clean set of underwear and fresh shirt later, Blair heard Jim move about upstairs.
"You done in the bathroom, Sandburg?" Jim called down.
"Yep. You want eggs and toast for breakfast?"
Dressed in boxers, Jim descended the stairs as he scratched his morning whiskers. "As long as there's coffee to go along with it."
Blair grinned at his friend's tousled appearance. "I'll have to find the coffeemaker first."
Jim scowled. "I'll find it."
"Nah. I can do it. With your labeling system, even Larry could find it."
"A Barbary ape. A year ago, I did this study on how tv violence affects--"
"Later, Chief. I need a shower," Jim said, holding up a hand.
Blair wrinkled his nose deliberately. "Yeah, man, you do." Jim cuffed him lightly on the back of the head and the younger man ducked. "Watch the hair, man. Watch the hair."
Jim angled a look at him. "About six inches off all around and you'd look almost like a real human being, Chief."
"Ha ha. You're such a comedian, big guy."
A smile tugged at Jim's lips as he turned to the bathroom. "Sunny side up, Sandburg," he said as he walked away.
Blair rolled his eyes. "Same thing every morning for the last two weeks. You'd think he'd want to try something different," he muttered.
Jim stuck his head out of the bathroom. "You make me an algae shake and I won't be held accountable for my actions."
"Relax. I don't have the ingredients," Blair said as he walked into the small room across from the bathroom to search for the coffeemaker. "Yet," he whispered.
A damp towel smacked him in the back of his head and the bathroom door locked behind Jim a moment later. Laughing, Blair removed the wet towel from his shoulders.
Fortunately, the coffeemaker was in a box at the top of the stack and Blair had coffee brewing less than five minutes later. He found a frying pan and the toaster in another box. He had to admit Jim's organizational skills were definitely an asset.
The shower was still going when a knock sounded on the door. Without a second thought, he undid the locks and swung the door open. A tall dark man wearing a long tan greatcoat stared at him. Gold wire rimmed glasses framed wary brown eyes and an unlit cigar hung between his lips.
The visitor removed the cigar. "Who the hell are you?" he demanded.
Unruffled, Blair leaned against the doorframe and crossed his arms. "Who the hell are you?"
"A friend of Jim Ellison's, who happens to live here." The man looked over Blair's shoulder, which wasn't too difficult considering the stranger was nearly eight inches taller than him.
"I'm a friend of his, too," Blair said, not relinquishing his stance in the doorway.
The man eyed him closer as if cataloguing him, placing him into some category that fit what he thought Blair was. "Please don't tell me you're Blair Sandburg."
Though surprised the man knew his name, Blair said, "Give the man a prize. He got it in one." He gazed at the visitor and his cop radar finally shrilled. "Captain Simon Banks, I presume."
"Where's Jim?" Banks demanded.
The captain made the question sound like an accusation. Yeah, like Blair could overpower a man like Jim. If he zoned I could, a little voice from within whispered. He sobered, suddenly chagrined. "Jim's in the shower. He should be out in a minute." He stepped back. "Come on in. Have you had breakfast?"
Banks appeared surprised. "Just some coffee."
"How do you like your eggs?"
Blair smiled. "Make yourself at home. I'll get breakfast ready." He closed the door behind the police captain and returned to the kitchen. After a moment, Banks followed him, his suspicious gaze keeping tabs on the student.
"Don't worry. The family silver is still packed," Blair remarked dryly.
Banks leaned against the kitchen counter. "Joel told me you were a student at Rainier."
Blair glanced over at him while he buttered a piece of toast. "Grad student working on my dissertation."
"That's right." Blair didn't bother to correct him since he wasn't certain if Jim wanted this man to know about his senses.
"So how did you get hooked up with Ellison?" Banks was turning this into a police interrogation.
Blair shrugged. "Just lucky."
"Yeah. Looks like that luck got you a place to stay last night." The accusation was clear.
Most people weren't aware that for all his outward easy-going manner, Blair's temper could ignite with the right provocation. And Captain Banks had just hit upon the "right provocation." Still holding the butter knife, he stepped in front of Banks. "Jim Ellison is my friend. I helped him last night. By the time we were done, it was late. He offered me the couch. I accepted. If you want to read more into it than that, go right ahead, but you're wrong, man. Dead wrong." Blair's chest heaved with pent-up anger.
Banks grabbed the wrist of the hand holding the knife, his grip bruising. The man's dark eyes narrowed dangerously. "I don't like anyone threatening me."
Another hand shot out to take hold of Simon's forearm. "With a butter knife?" Jim asked, his soft voice menacing. "Let him go, Captain."
Banks' eyes widened at the sight of the ex-cop who wore only a towel around his waist and hips. "Ellison," he said in cautious greeting, releasing Blair.
The student stepped back, absently rubbing his sore wrist. More than a little shocked by Jim's display of protectiveness, he observed the two men who looked like tomcats about to fight over their territory.
"Are you all right, Sandburg?" Jim asked, not taking his eyes off his former boss.
"I'm fine," Blair reassured. He kept his voice calm. "Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes. Just enough time for you to get dressed."
Jim nodded once and went up to his room.
"Would you like a cup of coffee, Captain?" Blair asked stiffly.
"I think that would be a good idea," Banks said.
"Could you find the box with the coffee cups and dig out three of them?"
The captain glanced sharply at Blair who shrugged innocently. Banks' flinty expression eased. "Knowing Ellison, all the boxes are properly marked."
Blair couldn't help but laugh. "You do know him, don't you?"
"I heard that," Jim shouted down.
Blair arched an eyebrow and a reluctant smile lifted the captain's lips.
Five minutes later, the three men sat around the table, eating eggs and toast, and washing the meal down with strong coffee. Blair picked up the empty plates and carried them to the sink, then ran some water to cover them. He carried the coffeepot back to the table and refilled all three cups and resumed his seat.
"It's good to see you, Ellison," the captain said. "You look a helluva lot better than when you left Cascade."
Jim glanced at Blair, then back at Banks. "I'm feeling better. How's Daryl?"
Banks smiled. "Fifteen and going on thirty. Now that he's gotten used to the divorce he's not quite so belligerent."
"Fifteen's a tough age," Blair interjected.
Banks' gaze flickered over him, but there was more puzzlement than hostility this time. He gave his attention to Jim. "Joel emailed me to let me know that you left the island yesterday, but he didn't say why." He paused, fingering his coffee cup. "I have a feeling it's related to the reason you asked me to check on Sarris' death."
"She's not dead," Jim said quietly.
Blair watched as Jim tugged out the message he'd gotten yesterday morning -- gods, it seemed longer ago -- from his shirt pocket and handed it to the cop. Only everyday sounds -- the fridge motor, the gentle whir of the fan, and the whisper of the street traffic below -- filled the silence as Banks read the note.
"This has to be a copycat bomber," Banks finally said.
Jim shook his head. "It's her. I recognized the bomb right before it exploded on the boat."
"How the hell did you get that close to it? Geezus, Ellison, you could've been killed."
"We weren't that close," Jim said quietly. "We were about a quarter of a mile away."
The captain pulled the cigar from his pocket and tucked it between his lips, again unlit. "You expect me to believe you recognized it as one of hers from a quarter of a mile away?"
Bafflement filled the cop's face as his gaze darted between Blair and Jim. "You said 'we', meaning you and, uh, Sandburg?"
"That's right," Jim replied.
Blair tensed at the break in Jim's voice. He remembered how difficult it had been for Jim to accept his senses. It would be even harder to tell someone about them, but it was Jim's call. He would go along with whatever the older man wanted.
"Care to explain to a stupid cop how you could see a bomb from that far away?" Banks asked, his voice dripping sarcasm.
Jim smiled bitterly. "My senses are hyperactive, Captain."
Blair restrained himself from touching Jim's arm in reassurance. He hadn't realized how much he'd come to rely on touch to help Jim with his senses until he was suddenly self-conscious about it.
"Hypersensitive. What does that mean?" Banks demanded.
The hand that Jim used to scrub his face trembled and a grimace twisted his lips. Blair leaned close to him and gave in to the instinct to lay a hand on his knee. The muscles quivered beneath his touch. "Are you okay?"
"Can you tell him?" Jim asked hoarsely.
Blair gave his leg a quick squeeze and released him. He sat up and faced Banks who had witnessed their quiet communication with returning wariness.
"It means that Jim can see, hear and smell things that you or I would never notice. He can taste individual spices even in the minutest form. His sense of touch is so sensitive that his clothes can feel like barbed wire digging into his skin." Blair paused, sending a concerned look over at Jim who was too pale. "Imagine how it must feel to be able to hear a conversation two blocks away or see an airplane a mile up. And remember, we're not talking about just one sense, we're talking all five which are constantly receiving a thousands times more data than yours or mine. Can you imagine trying to process that much information with the same efficiency as when your senses were normal?"
Banks' mouth gaped as he stared at Jim. "How did it happen?"
Jim's bleak expression told Blair a killer headache had lodged itself in the older man's head and instinctively he knew the ex-cop wouldn't want Banks to see his weakness. Jim didn't like anyone to see what he perceived as a weakness.
"He didn't catch it like a person catches a cold. He's had these senses all of his life, built into his genetic make-up. Something triggered it." Blair shrugged. "We haven't figured out what the trigger was."
"Is there a trigger to make it go away, too?" Banks asked impatiently.
"No," Jim answered for himself. "Like Sandburg said, it's natural, a part of me. He's helping me gain control of them, filter out data, turn the dials down so I don't have to deal with so much at once."
Banks jumped to his feet and paced from the kitchen to the end of the couch and back. "So what does this all mean? Can you come back to work?"
Blair gazed at Jim, mentally asking him to meet his eyes. Slowly, Jim raised his head. Impatience, pain, and frustration all swirled within sky blue eyes.
"I don't know," Jim replied hoarsely. "There's something else, too. I have these blackouts -- zone-outs -- when one sense overwhelms the others." He swallowed hard. "I had one last night. If Blair hadn't come to check on me, I'd probably still be making like a zombie." He laughed harshly as his eyes turned hard and cold.
Blair's fingers curled into his palms as he watched the Jim he'd coaxed out of his shell during the last few weeks crawl back into it.
Banks stopped in front of Jim and stared down at him. "I'm going to need your help to stop her."
"Yes, sir. I don't know if I can be a cop again, though."
Anguish washed through Banks' expression, but he quickly masked it. "Officially, you've been on a leave of absence. When you come into the office, I can give you back your gun and badge."
"I can't risk having a zone-out when I'm out on the streets." The pause was ripe with anguish. "It's the reason Sarris was able to blow the bus right in front of me."
Banks' mouth gaped, his cigar sagging at the corner of his lips. Silence seeped into the corners of the apartment and Blair thought he'd never heard anything so deafening.
"What if I ride along with him until Sarris is caught?" Blair asked.
"Why would that help?" Banks demanded.
"He's my control," Jim said in a low voice. "He can keep me from slipping into a zone-out and if I do, he knows how to bring me back."
"Can't a cop partner do that?"
"No, sir," Jim said flatly. "Only Sandburg. Believe me."
Something warm flared in the student's chest. He hadn't expected Jim to defend him so staunchly. Maybe there was a level of trust already established. Or maybe Jim was simply desperate. It didn't matter. Blair wanted to be with him. The unexpected connection they had experienced on the island hadn't disappeared; it had merely been muted by the city's influence.
Banks studied Blair like he was mold under a microscope. "He won't fit in."
"Hey, I'm an anthropologist which makes me a chameleon," Blair spoke up, keeping his voice light.
"You're a goddamned hippie," Banks shot back.
Blair flinched, but refused to be cowed. He opened his mouth to reply, but Jim beat him to the punch.
"That's enough, Captain," Jim said sharply. "If Sandburg can't ride with me, I'm not coming back. I'll find Sarris by myself."
"You'd throw your career away for... for him?" Banks asked incredulously.
Jim laughed but there was no humor in the sound. "My career was over when that bus exploded."
Banks glared down at Jim. "You were a good cop, Ellison. A little rough around the edges, but you had excellent instincts." He looked deliberately at Blair. "Now I'm beginning to question those."
"Maybe you should go before one of us says something we'll regret," Jim stated, his voice deadly calm.
"I think it's already too late," Banks said in a low voice. "Call me if you hear anything from Sarris."
The police captain grabbed his coat from the rack and marched out, slamming the door behind him.
Jim's hands flew to his ears as he flinched. Deep creases in his brow attested to the agony of another migraine. Blair went to his side, took hold of his shoulders and helped him stand. "Go lie down on the sofa. I'll get some aspirin," he said quietly.
Jim nodded faintly and shuffled to the couch. He laid down, curling his knees into his belly. Blair quickly dug some aspirin out of his backpack, then filled a coffee cup with water. He sat down on the coffee table by the sofa and whispered, "Here's the aspirin and some water, Jim."
Slitting open his eyes, Jim took them from Blair's outstretched hand and washed the pills down with the water. When he settled back on the couch, he crossed his arms and hugged them close to his chest.
"How bad is it on a scale of one to ten?" Blair asked.
"Twelve," Jim replied, keeping his eyes closed.
Blair's gut clenched in empathy. "Will you let me help?"
For a moment, Blair thought he would say no, then Jim painstakingly nodded.
Relieved that Jim had given his permission, Blair stood and raised the older man's head and shoulders slightly as he slipped beneath him to sit on the sofa. He settled the pillow he had used last night on his lap, then eased Jim onto it. With tender ministrations, Blair began to massage his temples and speak in his modulated guide voice. "I want you to dial everything down, Jim. Let's start with your sense of taste. Find the dial. Put your hand on it and turn it down to a one. That's right, just take it slow and easy, buddy."
Blair walked him through each sense, ending with touch. After Jim had turned down all the dials, his muscles relaxed and his body seemed to sink deeper into the sofa cushions. The furrows in his forehead remained, but they had lessened. When Jim's even breathing told Blair he was finally asleep, the student stopped talking. His voice was hoarse after the non-stop monologue, but it had worked. He kept rubbing Jim's brow gently, the motion soothing him, too.
He glanced at Jim's arms and noticed some faint reddish marks splotching his skin. Having seen them before, he recognized the rash. Today he would buy some new clothes detergent and wash Jim's sheets, as well as all of his clothes as they were unpacked. Blair was determined to make Jim as physically comfortable as possible so he could concentrate on the mental dials. Without the physical manifestations, he had no doubt the sentinel would gain control of his senses in the days ahead.
The loft's quiet seeped into Blair, but with the silence the student found his thoughts shifting into high gear and with those musings came uneasiness. Unable to sit still any longer and seeing that Jim slept peacefully, Blair eased out from under the pillow. He stood over the sentinel for a moment, debating whether to cover him or not. No, it was warm enough in the loft and even though Jim's sense of touch was turned down, Blair didn't want to risk bringing the dial back up with a blanket's rough texture.
The breakfast dishes were still soaking in the sink and Blair sighed softly. He wasn't keen on clean-up duty, but it would give him something to do. Fifteen minutes later, he finished wiping the last piece of silverware and hung the damp towel over the oven handle. The kitchen, though fairly bare, was spotless, at least for a non-sentinel. Blair smiled to himself -- he had no doubt Jim could find more than a spot or two he had missed.
He glanced at his watch -- 9:54 a.m. It seemed like it should be later. The confrontation between Jim and Captain Banks had been unexpected. The way Jim had talked about him, Blair thought they were good friends, but Banks' narrow-mindedness had driven a wedge between them. The police captain had taken an instant dislike to him.
A whisper of guilt nudged Blair. From what he had observed, Jim had few friends. On the island, the ex-detective had intentionally distanced himself from everyone, afraid he would hurt someone in what he perceived as growing insanity. It was Blair who had convinced him he wasn't going crazy, but Jim had still chosen to keep to himself, except for the occasional visit from Joel Taggert. Once back in Cascade, the one man Jim had talked about who even remotely might be a friend had hurt him with his suspicions.
Blair closed his eyes momentarily. He hated to see Jim throw away his career as a cop -- if nothing else, Simon Banks had held that door open for him. There had to be some way to get the captain on their side. Besides, it wasn't like Jim would need him forever. They would both secure their part of the bargain -- Jim would gain control of his senses; Blair would do his dissertation. Then Jim could have his life back and Blair would move on, maybe go down to South America to study one of the indigenous tribes which harbored legends about sentinels.
The sound of movement brought Blair's attention back to the loft and he was startled to see Jim pushing himself to a sitting position. Blair crossed the room and settled on the coffee table in front of him, his clasped hands dangling between his knees. "How are you feeling?"
"Like I went ten rounds with Ali." Jim smiled wanly. "But better. Thanks."
Blair shrugged, embarrassed. "No problem, man."
Jim searched his expression for a minute, then glanced away. "I'm sorry for the things Simon said. In a way, I understand. I've been there."
"He's your friend."
Jim brought his gaze back to Blair. "You are, too."
The words were spoken so matter-of-factly, Blair couldn't speak for a moment. "He's worried about you." He forced a laugh. "You can't blame him. I'm sure you're not in the habit of striking up friendships with guys like me."
Jim smiled crookedly. "Can't argue with you there, Darwin."
Blair shifted on his hard seat. "I think you should talk to him again. Maybe go to the office."
"I-I don't know if I can. My senses..."
Blair laid a hand on his shoulder. "Let's work on some controls today. Maybe you'll feel better tomorrow."
"Don't you have work to do at your office?"
"To be perfectly honest, nobody was expecting me back for another three months." Blair shrugged and tucked a strand of curly hair behind an ear. "With the new semester starting in less than two weeks, I'm too late to get a TA position."
Jim's jaw clenched. "Why did you lie about the work at the office?"
"I didn't exactly lie; I obfuscated." He laughed nervously. "I mean, there's always work I can do, but to be perfectly honest, I'm planning to spend the next few months working as close to you as you'll let me."
The bigger man pushed himself to his feet, his eyes icy. "So this trust thing you were talking about is purely subjective?"
"What're you talking about, man?"
Jim aimed a forefinger at him. "You expect me to trust you when you've lied to me, or at least, omitted telling me the truth?" He shook his head. "You have a helluva way of defining trust."
Blair jumped up. "Look, I didn't want you to think you had to look out for me. I've been on my own for over ten years now -- I'm not used to sharing every aspect of my life with someone."
"And I am?" Jim threw his arms and whirled around. "After three weeks you know more about me than my ex-wife did after a year of marriage."
Blair swallowed back his indignation. Jim was right -- he had screwed up. He couldn't ask for something from Jim if he wasn't willing to give it himself. "I'm sorry." He took a deep breath, determined to come clean. "I don't have a place to stay either. My stuff is in storage until I can find another apartment."
Jim stared at him. "So where did you plan on sleeping last night?"
The student shrugged. "My office. It's not like I haven't slept there before. I was going to hit the want ads to find a place today."
"Geezus, Sandburg, you could've told me. My apartment isn't that big, but hell, you could sack out on the couch like you did last night until you find a place."
"I don't need your charity, man. I'll be fine."
Jim took a deep breath and moved to stand in front of Blair. "You wouldn't even be back in Cascade if not for me. You said yourself you were planning to stay on the island six months. It's no big deal to crash here until you get yourself set up." He smiled bleakly. "Besides, I'm not sure I can handle this sentinel stuff by myself right now."
Blair considered Jim's offer and the reason behind it. He wasn't certain about having a roommate again -- it had been close to four years since he'd shared space with someone unless he counted the week he'd stayed in Jim's cabin while he had pneumonia. Jim had needed him then, too... and had hated needing him.
However, as roommates went, Jim wasn't as bad as some. He glanced at some neatly stacked boxes with their contents listed precisely on each one. Smiling, Blair nodded. "Just until I get another place. I don't think I could survive your neatness any longer than that." He snorted. "I bet you even have a system for storing leftovers in the fridge."
Jim appeared startled, then a slow smile tugged at his lips. "How'd you guess, Sandburg?"
Blair groaned in mock agony. "I'm doomed."
Jim laughed, startling Blair. It was good to see the older man relaxing.
"Don't worry, Sandburg. I'll cut you some slack." He paused deliberately. "The first day."
Grinning, Blair said, "We definitely have to work on your sense of humor, big guy."
Jim swatted Blair's head playfully and the younger man danced away, laughing.
"Are you doing okay?" Blair asked.
Jim nodded as he followed the student down Hargrove Hall's empty hallway to Blair's office. He sneezed once. Twice. "What's that smell?"
Blair sniffed the air. "I don't smell anything."
"It's kind of dusty, old."
"This is the anthropology and archeology building," Blair said. "Where people study artifacts of ancient civilizations. Y'know, old things."
Jim should have thought of that. "Very funny, Sandburg."
"Can you turn down your smell dial?" Blair asked.
Jim concentrated for a moment and the mental dial turned easily. He smiled in triumph. "Got it."
Blair's answering grin told him he understood the value of the small victory. As he and Blair had unpacked his boxes throughout the day in Jim's apartment, the student had patiently worked with him, urging him to turn his dials up and down at will. When the neighbor next door had put some Metallica on his stereo, Jim had nearly been driven to his knees. Blair had talked him into dialing down and his faint headache hadn't graduated into another migraine. When the diesel fumes of a truck floated up from the street, Jim had gagged until Blair guided him into turning down his sense of smell. When Jim had nearly lost himself in the rainbow of light through a crystal goblet he had unpacked, Blair's touch had brought him back.
What if Blair hadn't been with him? Jim would've experienced at least two zone-outs and his headache would have incapacitated him. Asking the kid to stay with him had hardly been an unselfish offer -- it had actually been damned selfish. If Blair was with him, Jim had a safety net for his senses.
Blair stopped in front of a door like any other with a sign that read Artifact Closet on it.
"Your office is a closet?" Jim asked.
Blair shrugged. "I don't need much."
Jim followed the student into the claustrophobic room, puzzling over his simple answer. In his experiences, everybody wanted more than what they had. The country's credit card debt and the glut of bankruptcies illustrated that fact clearly; then there were those who got a little too greedy and that's why cops and soldiers were needed. So why was Blair so different?
An open box sat in the center of the small area and a brown bag lay on the corner of his desk. Blair reached for the bag. "Want a bagel?"
"I stopped by a deli last night and picked up a couple bagels -- they were going to be my breakfast and lunch today."
"Uh, no, that's all right." Jim glanced at the duffel bag Blair had brought with him from the island. "What else do you need besides your bag?"
Blair dropped to his knees beside the box on the floor. "I want to find the box with my sentinel research books in it."
Jim's heart kicked against his ribs. "You actually have books about it?"
"Sure. You didn't think I made it all up, did you?" Blair angled a puzzled look at him.
"No, but I didn't realize there were actually books written on the subject."
"There was and I need your help." Blair grinned. "I need your muscles."
"So you're saying you only want me for my body?"
"What can I say? I'm shallow," Blair bantered.
For the next half hour, Jim carried box after box to Blair who opened each one and spent at least five minutes talking about something within the box. He seemed to have a story for everything and Jim found himself listening in spite of himself. The kid had led an adventurous life and he knew how to spin a tale. Or maybe it was just the voice -- the same voice which Jim had begun to respond to on an almost subconscious level.
"Yes!" Blair's exclamation told Jim he found his treasure trove. He held up a hand for a high five and Jim automatically slapped it. The student reverently lifted a large brown tome out of the box and opened it to a page that had been marked with an index card. "This is a sentinel."
Jim glanced over his shoulder to see a grainy photograph of a dark-skinned man wearing some kind of tribal outfit with a headdress. The warrior held an archaic spear in his hand.
"Richard Burton was the first to write about sentinels," Blair said.
"The actor?" Jim asked, bewildered.
The student smiled, his blue eyes sparkling. "No, the anthropologist. He spent time in South America with a native tribe who told him of men who had these enhanced senses and were the watchmen of the tribe."
The enthusiasm in the student's voice brought a bittersweet tang to Jim's mouth. Blair had obviously been obsessed with these so-called sentinels for a long time. No wonder the kid had been so excited when he had explained to Jim what he was. If only Jim could find the same enthusiasm for his so-called gifts.
"Since his discovery, there have been speculations about them from other anthropologists. The phenomena seems not to be isolated to one area of the world either." Blair took a breath and his brow puckered in consternation. "But all of the recordings were from at least a hundred years ago. Among the anthropological community, it's generally believed that sentinels died out since they were no longer needed."
"But you didn't believe it," Jim said quietly.
Blair's bright blue eyes turned to him and there was a hint of apology in them. "That's right."
Jim sat on a corner of Blair's desk. "I've never been called a phenomena before."
"Don't let it go to your head."
The ex-cop chuckled. "Not likely with you around to keep me in my place."
Blair smiled absently as he stared at the picture for another minute. "I bought this book from an antiquarian shop when I was twelve years old. The first time I saw this picture, I had the strangest feeling. Do you believe in predestination, Jim?"
"Didn't we have this conversation on the island?"
"Not exactly. We talked about fate."
Jim shrugged. "Same thing. We make our own destinies, Chief. If we didn't, we wouldn't have free will."
"Free will is only the acceptance or denial of our destiny. I accept it; you deny it." The student sighed. "It doesn't matter at this point."
Jim sensed something was bothering the younger man. "What is it, Sandburg?"
"Sometimes I wonder if we weren't supposed to meet earlier, that somehow we got off track for a little while."
"We'll never know, Chief. Like you said, it doesn't matter at this point."
"But what if we'd met before the Switchman blew up the bus?"
Jim gritted his teeth. "It happened. It's history. Let it go."
Blair eyed him closely. "Like you're letting it go?"
The memory of the bus exploding sent Jim's heart thundering in his chest. Eleven men, women and children dead because he had zoned. Black helplessness threatened to strangle him as the death cries echoed in his head. The screams of terror, the overwhelming scent of burning flesh, the bodies wrapped in the fireball as it rose above the bus...
Bile climbed up Jim's throat and he fought it down. His own breathing filled his ears, sounding like a jet taking off. Heat rolled across him and the nausea increased.
"Put your head down, Jim. C'mon, man, all the way down between your knees." Warmth between his shoulder blades, a familiar timbre rolling across his mind, a cool hand on the back of his neck -- Jim was faintly aware of all these things above the lightheadedness. He concentrated on the student's steady heartbeat.
Jim lifted his head. "I'm okay," he said and was surprised by the tremor in his voice.
"I'll be right back," Blair said. His touch disappeared, leaving Jim bereft and the sickness returning. He focused on the kid's heartbeat as he moved away. There was the sound of water running, then the increasing volume of his beating heart and the return of Blair's hand on his back. He gently dabbed Jim's sweaty face with a damp paper towel and the coolness allowed the sentinel to bring the dials back under control.
"I'm sorry," the anthropologist said quietly. "I shouldn't have pushed you like that."
"No, you shouldn't have," Jim said flatly.
Hurt was quickly masked in Blair's somber face. Jim regretted his bluntness, but he wouldn't apologize. He meant what he said. As much as he needed Sandburg for control of his senses, he wasn't going to let him get into his head. The student had tried to convince him it wasn't Jim's fault those people on the bus had died, but Jim knew better. He could have taken the Switchman out before she detonated the bomb, but he had frozen... zoned. And now she was out there again, planning to kill more people because of him -- Jim Ellison, whom she blamed for her father's death.
"It wasn't your fault, Jim," Blair said firmly, uncannily guessing Jim's thoughts.
The sentinel stood and waited a moment until his stomach stopped churning. The air had grown heavy, too heavy to draw breath into his lungs. He had to get out. Now. He grabbed Blair's duffel bag. "I'll take this to the truck."
He nearly ran out of the tiny office and down the hallway. Had to escape...
Blair stood in the doorway, watching Jim disappear down the corridor. His fingers curled around the doorframe. He ached for Jim and the horrific memories he lived with day-in and day-out. For a sentinel to lose members of his tribe in an act he blamed himself for would be akin to treason -- he had betrayed his tribe with his inability to protect them.
Blair took a deep breath and turned back to his office... only to see the black jaguar sitting on his desk, his tongue lolling but his eyes accusing. Blair stumbled back, startled but not frightened like he had been last night. Instead, the fear came from something else. The cat had come the previous night to warn him of some danger to Jim. Why was it here now?
The jaguar gracefully hopped to the floor, padded around Blair and moved to the doorway. It opened its mouth and let out an explosive roar, then bounded away.
"Shit," Blair mumbled and chased after the animal. He knew with certainty the jaguar was connected to Jim -- the fearful foreboding was again tugging at the connection between the sentinel and himself.
He raced down the hall and out the door. In the late afternoon, he spotted Jim standing in the middle of the road, Blair's duffel in hand. He had his head tipped to the side and seemed to be watching a bright yellow remote model airplane flying across the campus lawn, controlled by a nearby student.
An ambulance came barreling down the road, its siren blaring and its lights flashing. Surely Jim would see it and move... except Jim remained motionless.
"Jim," Blair shouted, even knowing as he called it wouldn't help. He dashed across the lawn, his heart nearly jumping out of his throat.
The ambulance hadn't slowed and Jim hadn't moved. Blair wasn't going to make it in time -- the realization sent a spurt of adrenaline coursing through him and he threw himself into a diving tackle. Hitting Jim was like crashing into a stone wall, except there was enough give that Blair managed to shove him out of the ambulance's path. Blair's shoulder impacted with the concrete and he heard the sickening thud of Jim's head against something hard.
"Oh, God," Blair murmured, his entire body shaking like an aspen leaf in the wind.
The ambulance screeched to a halt and the driver jumped out. "God almighty, are you two okay?"
Jim moved beneath him and Blair felt him nod against his chest. "Yeah, we're fine."
"You sure?" the man asked, his face pale. "We're on a run but we can--"
"No, go. We'll be all right," Blair reassured, motioning with his free hand -- the one not trapped beneath Jim's body.
The driver reluctantly returned to his ambulance and sped away.
Blair's knees were the consistency of pudding so he didn't even try to stand. He managed to tug his arm out from under Jim and rolled to a sitting position. He urged Jim up beside him. The older man sagged and Blair wrapped an arm around his shoulders to keep him upright. He ducked his head to look up at Jim's face and immediately spotted the scrape on his left temple. It bled but not as badly as most head wounds though it was already swelling.
"You could have a concussion here, Jim," Blair said, his voice trembling as his fingers ghosted over the injury. "I have to take you to the hospital."
"No," Jim said more forcefully than Blair would have thought possible. "I'm okay. I didn't lose consciousness."
"No. Can't take the smells there. I want to go back to the loft."
Blair wanted to argue but one look at Jim's icy blue eyes dissuaded him. He nodded and helped Jim up. Once standing, Jim pulled away from the student. "I'm fine, Sandburg." He spotted Blair's duffel bag and walked over to it. "I'll put this in the truck while you go get whatever else you need from your office."
Jim's flinty voice sent a chill down Blair's spine. Without another word, the student walked back to his office, his shoulders hunched. He had fucked up again and it had nearly cost Jim his life. If the jaguar hadn't shown up...
He shivered. Could the jaguar be an animal spirit? Jim's animal spirit? Sentinel lore always included mysticism and shamanic rituals and interpretations. Blair had assumed those stories were merely a tribe's way of explaining the sensory gifts. What if sentinels were closer to the spirit world than so-called normal people? What if a sentinel's guide was also his shaman? What did that make him if, in fact, he was Jim's guide?
The anthropologist's world tilted on its axis. No, it was only because he had studied sentinels that he was able to help Jim. Blair Sandburg was no guide or shaman -- he was simply an enthusiastic overachiever with too much curiosity.
His hands trembling, Blair placed Burton's book back in the box then closed it up. He slipped the bag containing the two bagels into his backpack and tossed the strap over his shoulder. Picking up the box of sentinel-related books, he carried it to the doorway, turned the light off and locked the door behind him.
He kept his mind blank as he trudged over to Jim's truck and placed the box in the back end beside his duffel. Noticing Jim was in the driver's seat, Blair debated whether to force the issue about him driving in his condition. Because Jim hadn't lost consciousness when he had hit his head, Blair decided not to and climbed into the passenger seat without a word.
"Is that everything?" Jim asked curtly.
Jim eased the truck out of its parking space and the two men traveled back to the loft in silence. Blair cast a few sidelong glances at the sentinel, relieved to see the injury on his forehead had already stopped bleeding. But the swollen lump was black and blue around the edges.
"Do you have ice in your freezer?" Blair asked.
"No," Jim replied.
"We should stop and get some."
Blair fought his rising temper. "You need it for that bump."
"If this is more of that damned martyr crap--" Blair began. He sucked in a deep breath when steely eyes pinned him. "Look, Jim, why don't we stop at a grocery store? You can stay in the truck while I run in and get the ice. Besides, we need something for supper."
A muscle jumped from Jim's jaw up into his cheek. "All right."
Though shocked by his acquiescence, Blair merely nodded. "Thanks," he said in a low voice.
Fifteen minutes later Blair paid for his items at the grocery's check-out and returned to the truck. As he neared the vehicle, he noticed Jim's head was tipped back against the seat and his eyes were closed. For a moment, panic clouded his thoughts then Jim opened his eyes and looked directly at him. Gasping slightly, Blair opened the truck door and climbed into the passenger seat.
"Are you okay, Chief?" Jim asked.
"Isn't that my line?"
Jim shrugged. "Your heartbeat shot up."
"Oh." Blair would have to be more careful -- maybe start practicing some of the old biofeedback exercises. "I, uh, I thought you were unconscious." Or dead.
Jim studied him a long moment, his face untelling of his thoughts. "I was resting." He turned the key in the ignition and started the truck, his gaze moving forward. "Were you afraid you had lost your dissertation subject?"
Blair turned sharply toward the sentinel who wouldn't meet his eyes. "No. I was afraid I had lost a friend," he said quietly.
Jim's jaw muscle clenched, but there was no other visible reaction. He glanced over his shoulder and pulled into traffic.
The student sighed. One step forward and two steps back...
As soon as they arrived back at the loft, Blair made Jim sit down with an ice pack pressed to his forehead while he stripped Jim's bed to wash the sheets with the special detergent he had bought at the grocery store. The three communal washing machines in the basement were empty so Blair put the other two to use washing Jim's clothing with the same gentle detergent.
The quiet in the loft continued into the evening as Blair made stir fry vegetables with chicken while Jim slept fitfully on the sofa. When the meal was ready, Blair went to wake Jim.
The student squatted down beside the couch. "Hey, man, time to eat."
Jim roused immediately. He glanced around wildly as if uncertain where he was. Blair rested a hand on his shoulder. "Easy, buddy. You fell asleep."
The ex-cop laid back and scrubbed his face with his palms. "Sorry, Chief. I was dreaming."
"Her," he replied in a low voice. "Sarris is here."
Blair shivered at the certainty in the sentinel's tone. "That's why she wanted you here."
Jim shifted around and sat up and Blair moved up to perch beside him.
"I know, but it's almost like I can sense her presence," Jim said, his voice shaky.
"Did you sense her yesterday when we got into Cascade?"
"But you can now." Blair rubbed his hands across his thighs. "Do you realize what this might mean?"
"That she's going to strike again soon."
"Besides that." The student paused and licked his suddenly dry lips. "Maybe you have a hyperactive sixth sense, too."
Jim shot Blair a glare then stood and paced. "Damn it, Sandburg. I don't even believe in a sixth sense and now you're telling me I might have a hyperactive one." He seemed to deflate in front of the younger man. "I didn't sign up for any of this crap," he said hoarsely.
Blair took a deep breath, wishing he could ease the sentinel's frustration. However, Jim's intuition only confirmed what the student had been considering earlier -- that the sentinel was somehow connected to the spirit world. With the familiar thrill of a challenge, Blair realized he would have to make a trip to the library and research spirit animals and spirit worlds.
He stood and laid a hand on Jim's back to usher him toward the dining room. "Let's eat before it gets cold."
After they ate the meal Jim washed the dishes while Blair dried. Thanks to the combined effort of the two men during the day, all the boxes bearing the kitchen items had been unpacked.
"I'm going to empty a few more boxes," Jim said as he hung up the damp kitchen towel on the stove handle.
"I'll give you a hand," Blair volunteered.
Jim sent him a nod of gratitude and they moved into the small room beneath the stairs where the remaining boxes were stacked. Finding the ones with living room items in them, Jim and Blair carried them out to the open area and began to work.
It was fifteen minutes later that Blair unwrapped a picture of a younger Jim and an older man. Looking at it closer, he noticed Jim had an earring in his left ear and his sky blue eyes danced with mischief. He chuckled.
"What's so funny, Chief?" Jim asked as he joined the student.
"I never figured you to be an earring man. Who's the guy with you?"
Jim tugged on his left ear in an unconscious gesture. "Jack Pendergrast. He was my first and only partner in Major Crime."
Blair heard the fondness in his voice. "Is he still working there?"
Jim took the picture from Blair's hand and studied it for a long moment. "No. He... he disappeared three, four years ago."
"His body was never found. Everybody thinks he stole a million dollars and skipped town."
"Everybody but you?"
Jim stared at the picture for so long Blair thought he had zoned. "Jack was a good cop. Got me to lose the attitude when I came over from Vice, but he wasn't perfect."
Blair studied the sentinel and spied the grief lurking in his features. The man had lost seven fellow soldiers in Peru, had been married and divorced, and had a partner who had disappeared without a farewell. Then Simon Banks -- a so-called friend -- had waltzed into Jim's home and basically accused the sentinel of having lost his mind. All of them had betrayed Jim in one form or another -- no wonder he didn't trust easily.
A knock sounded on the door, startling them. Jim's brow furrowed. "Cigars. It must be Captain Banks."
Protectiveness surged through Blair, surprising him by its strength. "I'll get it."
Jim's hand clapped down on Blair's shoulder. "No. I'll handle this."
Blair searched Jim's clear blue eyes then nodded reluctantly. "All right. Don't let him get to you."
Jim gave his guide's shoulder a squeeze then released him and walked to the door.
"Good evening, Captain," Jim said, his voice coolly polite.
From his cross-legged position on the floor by the bookshelf, Blair watched the two men closely.
"Ellison," Banks said with a curt nod. "Do you have a minute?"
"That depends on what you have to say." The sentinel's stance blocked the doorway.
Blair smiled inwardly. Way to go, Jim.
"I'd like you to come back to work," Banks said without preamble.
After a moment, Jim stepped back and motioned for the captain to enter. As soon as Banks came inside, he noticed Blair, but except for a slight widening of his eyes, there was no other reaction. "Sandburg," Banks said stiffly, but it was obvious he was trying to mend a fence or two.
"Captain Banks," Blair greeted. "Would you like some coffee or tea?"
"Coffee would be good."
Blair stood and moved past the two men to enter the kitchen. "It'll be ready in a few minutes."
"Have a seat." Jim motioned to a dining room chair.
Banks sank into it with a heavy sigh. "Thanks. It's been a rough day."
Jim sat across from him, his fisted hands on the table. "Yeah, it has."
"What happened?" Banks asked, pointing to his forehead.
Jim absently touched the tender bump. "Just a little accident."
Banks stared at him a moment, then removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. "I'm sorry, Jim. I--" He glanced at Blair then back at Jim. "I was surprised. You refused to be partnered for three years, then suddenly you have to have the kid with you."
"For my senses," Jim said firmly. "And he's not a kid."
"I figured all that out today as I was kicking myself for making such an ass of myself this morning." Simon smiled sheepishly. "My daddy always said to think before I speak or I'd be looking like a jackass. He was right again."
Though he had his back to the two men, Blair shamelessly eavesdropped on their conversation. He smiled at the captain's apologetic admission. Maybe this was one friendship which could be salvaged -- he hoped so, for Jim's sake.
"We've all had our share of doing that," Jim said.
"I suppose we have." Banks shifted in his chair. "I talked to the commissioner about getting an observer's pass for Sandburg. He okayed it after I used my wonderful persuasive skills on him."
Blair spun around, tossing away his pretense of ignoring them. He locked gazes with Jim and understood the ex-cop wanted him to remain quiet. He nodded slightly, acknowledging the unspoken request.
"What reason did you give?" Jim asked evenly.
Banks frowned. "I thought you'd be overjoyed."
"I told him that Sandburg was doing a study on closed societies, which in this case is the police department." He shrugged. "I figured that was more believable than super senses."
Blair perceived the relief in Jim.
"Thank you, sir," Jim said. "You, Joel and Blair are the only people who know about my senses and I'd like to keep it that way."
Simon huffed a laugh. "I doubt if many people would even believe it."
The coffee finished brewing and Blair poured three cups. He carried Jim's and Simon's to the table, then joined them with a cup of tea he had made from himself. He wrapped his cool hands around the hot mug, allowing the steam to warm his face.
"So what do we do?" Jim asked.
"Come into the office tomorrow and you can pick up your badge and gun; then Sandburg will have to fill out some paperwork. Once it's been approved -- which I can do immediately -- he can get his observer pass," Simon explained.
"For how long?" Blair spoke up for the first time.
"Thirty days," the captain replied.
"That may not be enough time," Jim said hesitantly.
"You should have enough control at that point to function without me," Blair said. A part of him wanted to work beside Jim for as long as he was needed, but another part of him -- the part which was accustomed to leaving at a moment's notice -- didn't want to be tied down.
Jim gazed intently at Blair. "And if I don't?"
Blair squirmed uncomfortably on his chair. "We'll figure it out when the time comes."
"Then it's settled," Banks said. He finished his coffee and stood. "I should get going. I have an early morning meeting with the commissioner."
The abrupt brrrring of a phone interrupted and Simon grabbed the phone from his belt. "Banks."
His eyes widened as he brought his gaze to Jim. "I'll be there in fifteen minutes." He slapped the cell phone closed. "There's been a bombing."
Blair's stomach flip-flopped but one look at Jim's marble-like face made him forget his own distress.
"I want to go with you." Jim's tone brooked no arguments.
"We don't know if it was the Switchman's," Simon said.
The police captain studied Jim a moment, then nodded. "All right."
"And I'll need Blair," the sentinel added.
This time Simon's nod was less enthusiastic.
Jim and Blair jerked on their coats and followed Simon down to his car. With the lights flashing and siren blaring, they headed north on Prospect.
"Details?" Jim asked grimly.
Blair, in the back seat, leaned forward between the two bucket seats to hear them.
"It was a funeral home," Simon stated, then added reluctantly. "The same one which held Sarris' memorial service after everyone thought she was dead."
"Damn it, Simon, it was her," Jim said. Banks didn't bother to argue. "Was there--" he couldn't finish.
Simon shook his head. "Empty except for the owner. He was in the back office and only sustained minor injuries."
Jim closed his eyes in relief and Blair gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
"From what I can recall about the case, she did all the previous bombings to destroy Jim because she blamed him for her father's death," Blair said quietly. "Now she's resurrected herself by destroying that which entombed her. She's probably likening herself to a savior, a messiah so to speak, to punish the guilty. Mainly Jim."
Simon shot a startled look at Blair. "That's all very interesting supposition, Sandburg, but it doesn't help us catch her."
"It will if we can get into her head, figure out how she thinks and predict her next target," Blair said evenly.
"Sandburg's got a point, Captain," Jim said. "Except maybe instead of a messiah, she sees herself as an avenging angel."
Simon slowed as he approached the pyre which was surrounded by official vehicles. Orange flames and red and blue flashing lights lent the scene a bizarre unreality.
Blair leaned close to Jim. "Dial your senses down, buddy. You don't want to experience this with them wide open."
By the time Simon stopped the car, Jim had done as Blair said. With his senses dialed down to a normal setting, he could tolerate the stimuli surrounding him. The three men stepped out of the vehicle and surveyed the chaotic scene.
"Stay close to me," Banks said. "Until you have your badge back, you're a civilian."
"Chief?" Jim asked softly, a wealth of questions in the one word.
"I'm your shadow," Blair reassured.
Knowing Blair would be with him, Jim was able to relax. His cop instincts which had never left him, jumped to the fore. With Blair slightly behind him, Jim followed Simon to examine the area and talk to the witnesses.
Two hours later, Jim's control had grown ragged. Smoke burned his nostrils and the flashing lights were stabbing into his brain. The cacophony added its own torture to his abused senses. He had been able to restrain a full-blown migraine but his temples throbbed in rhythm with his pulse.
"Are we almost done, Captain?" Blair asked.
Irritation shown in Banks' expression. "Getting tired of police work already?" he asked sarcastically.
Blair's eyes narrowed and Jim felt the heat of anger radiating from his stiff body. "No, but it looks like we've done what we can here. It was a long day and I'm tired."
Jim frowned. Maybe Sandburg wasn't as tough as he had made out. If he was going to work with Jim, he'd have to gain a helluva lot more stamina for the rigors of police work.
Banks looked like he wanted to argue, but glanced at Jim then nodded. "All right." He strode toward his car.
"What the hell was that about, Sandburg?" Jim demanded.
Blair smiled slightly. "Just the guide taking care of his sentinel," he said quietly and steered him toward Simon's car.
Jim stumbled slightly and the student took hold of his arm. Somehow Sandburg knew he was losing control and had covered Jim's ass by making himself the fall guy. What the hell was it with him? Why didn't he act the way Jim thought he should?
Because he's not like the others, a tiny voice whispered within him.
Blair opened the front passenger door for Jim, then slipped into the back seat. The detective glanced at the clock on the dashboard -- almost midnight.
"What do you think?" Simon asked as he drove back toward the loft.
Jim kneaded his forehead with his fingertips. "It was her welcome home present to me," he said bitterly. "This is my case, Captain."
Banks pursed his lips together. "The press is going to have a field day with this and you're going to be caught in the spotlight."
Jim's heart hammered in his chest. God, he didn't want to have to face the vultures again, but then, maybe it was his penance for screwing up. "It doesn't matter. She's mine, sir."
Simon pulled up to the curb in front of Jim's building. "You've got it, Jim. Tomorrow morning."
"Thank you, sir."
"Don't be thanking me, Ellison. It's going to be damned rough on you."
Jim clenched his teeth together. "It's less than I deserve."
He opened his car door but Banks' grasp on his arm stopped his escape. "You don't deserve any of this, Jim," he stated. "You were doing your job to the best of your ability."
"My ability was fucking little, wasn't it, sir?" Jim tugged out of Simon's hold and stepped onto the sidewalk. "I'll see you in the morning."
Blair followed Jim up to the loft, his presence comforting to the sentinel. The student's silence, however, bothered him. Once the two men had hung their coats on the rack, Jim turned to Blair. "What's wrong, Chief?"
"Nothing." The younger man headed to the kitchen. "I'll make us some tea. It'll help your headache."
Although concerned, Jim didn't have the energy or clear-headedness to pursue the matter. He lowered himself to the couch and laid his head back, thinking about Veronica Sarris and the lives she'd taken because of him. Because of something that should never have happened in the first place. No child should have to lose a parent that way, but that didn't excuse her murderous acts.
"Here's your tea, man," Blair said.
Jim opened his eyes to find the student standing in front of him, a steaming cup in his hand. He sat up and accepted the tea. "Thanks," he mumbled.
Blair sat in the loveseat across from him to drink his cup. Only after they were both done did Blair break the silence. "We need to go back to the scene of the crime tomorrow."
Blair set his cup on the coffee table and leaned forward, his forearms resting on his thighs. "With your senses you'll be able to pick up things others will have missed."
"What could I find that the forensics team couldn't?"
Blair shrugged. "I'm not sure, but I do know you're a walking organic crime lab, Jim. You can use your senses at the scene itself and find clues the normal everyday Joe would totally overlook."
"An 'organic crime lab'?"
"Hey, it fits."
As much as Jim hated to admit it, the term did fit. It was a helluva lot better than freak. "That'll be our first stop after getting things squared away at the station."
"Good. How's the headache?" Blair asked.
Jim concentrated a moment and realized the ache had receded. "Gone. Thanks, Chief."
Blair smiled. "I told you that tea would work. Why don't you hit the sack? It's going to be a tough day tomorrow."
A corner of Jim's lips tilted upward. "Still doing the mother hen routine, Sandburg?"
"Somebody has to look out for you," Blair said flippantly.
Jim toyed with his cup as he stared into it. "I've looked out for myself for years, Chief. I know you mean well, but I'm not sure I can get used to having somebody else doing it for me."
Sandburg's smile was obviously forced. "I don't expect you to get used to it, Jim. I'm not going to be around forever. Three months from now, you'll have control of your senses and I'll be a memory."
The faint howl of a wolf startled Jim and he swiveled around to look out the window, even knowing he wouldn't see anything. "Did you hear that?" he asked Blair.
Jim frowned. "My hearing must've dialed up by itself. I thought I heard a wolf's howl."
"Are you sure? I mean, the nearest wolf would be at least a few miles away."
"I know what I heard, Sandburg," Jim said impatiently.
Blair held out his hands, palms out. "Fine, whatever, man. I think we're both tired."
Jim scrubbed a hand through his short hair and sighed. "We'll go into the station early tomorrow and get things squared away."
"How early is early?" Blair asked suspiciously.
"We'll leave here at seven thirty."
Blair groaned. "Wake me up." He headed down the hallway to the linen closet and pulled out the blankets he'd used the night before.
Jim watched him toss the bedding across the couch and add his pillow to the top of the rumpled pile. Shaking his head, Jim walked down to the bathroom. Ten minutes later he emerged to find Blair already settled in his nest.
"Good-night, Chief," he said quietly.
"'Night, Jim," came the unexpected reply. He thought Blair was asleep.
He started up the steps but was stopped by Blair's sentinel-soft words. "We'll get her, Jim."
The older man stared at Blair for a long moment, then nodded and continued up the stairs.
A herd of butterflies flitted around Blair's stomach as Jim drove to the station. Both men had been quiet that morning, each one nervous for different reasons.
"I'll pick up a paper today and check out the rental ads," Blair said, wanting to think of something other than the upcoming meeting with Banks.
Jim shifted in his seat and the fingers of one hand fiddled with the curved brim of his Jags cap. "I was doing some thinking last night."
The student smirked. "Hope you didn't hurt anything."
Jim snorted. "Very funny, Sandburg. I was thinking that maybe we could turn that small room under the stairs into a bedroom for you. I mean, just until you get all the research data you need."
Blair turned to Jim. "Where'd this come from?"
Jim's knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. "If you don't want to stay, that's fine. The room is pretty small and like you said, you're used to being on your own. I mean, it's not exactly what you're used to and I am pretty anal, like you've pointed out more than once, but I thought, I mean--"
Blair reached out to grasp Jim' shoulder. "Whoa, take it easy, Jim. I thought rambling was my thing, not yours." He smiled, hoping the sentinel knew he was teasing him. "I wouldn't want to put you out or cramp your style. You're not used to having anyone underfoot either, y'know."
"Yeah, but we get along okay and it's the least I can do considering what you're doing for me. Besides, the room will just be sitting there empty once all the boxes are out."
Though Jim's voice was gruff, Blair heard the thread of vulnerability woven through it. His lungs suddenly felt too tight, like a rope constricting his chest. Blair glanced out the front window, unable to meet Jim's eyes. "All right," he replied with a husky voice. "As long as you don't mind and knowing it'll only be until I get the data I need for my diss."
"And I have control of my senses," Jim added.
Jim steered into the police department's underground parking lot and slipped into an empty space. He switched off the engine and pulled the key out of the ignition, but didn't make any movement to leave the truck.
Blair watched him, noting the pale lines of tension near his thinned lips and the fearful but defensive gaze aimed at the building. He looked like a kid going up against the class bully. "You okay, man?"
A muscle jumped in Jim's cheek. "Fine."
Like hell he was, but Blair was coming to understand this enigmatic man a little more each day. Jim would put on the good soldier front until the mission was complete, then he would talk about it. Maybe.
Blair was an anthropologist, and an anthropologist by definition of his vocation was patient. For all his over-enthusiasm, he could wait and watch for hours, days, even weeks and months if he had to. He had done so with indigenous peoples he had observed; he could do so with one sentinel, too. It was also already obvious that Jim Ellison could keep his secrets as well hidden as a tribe hiding ancient rituals from outsiders.
Patience, Blair. Patience.
Jim finally opened his door and got out of the truck. Blair followed suit, locking his door behind him. He automatically fell into place on Jim's left side, slightly behind him, as they walked to the building's entrance. Blair had been in a police building once when he was an adolescent. He had been trespassing and the patrolmen had taken him in only to teach him a lesson. It had worked. Blair had never set foot in a police station again until now.
His heart thrummed in his chest and he hoped Jim would ignore it, simply putting it down as a nervous reaction to the upcoming meeting with Banks. He followed Jim up concrete stairs to the main level. More than a few police officers gave Jim a second and third glance, then they turned away to talk among themselves. Blair frowned, suspecting what they said wasn't particularly complimentary.
He glanced at Jim to find the granite facade firmly in place. Only a tic in his jaw told him the ex-cop wasn't made of stone. They entered an empty elevator and the door swished shut behind them.
"What were they saying?" Blair asked quietly.
"They were welcoming me back," Jim said.
Blair grimaced at the bitter cynicism packed into his words.
The elevator stopped on the seventh floor and Jim walked into the hallway with Blair close behind him. Two glass doors with the words Major Crime on them loomed ahead. Only Blair noticed Jim's slight hesitation before the older man pushed the doors open with a flat palm.
Conversation came to a stumbling halt and the large office grew eerily silent. All eyes were on the two men. For a brief moment, Blair thought he felt the glide of a large furred animal against his legs but when he glanced down there was nothing there. He lifted his gaze and people looked away, talking among themselves in low buzzing voices. And, if possible, Jim's face became even more inscrutable.
Something was going on here, something Blair wasn't privy to and it was bugging the hell out of him. Jim had been gone for over a year, yet no one was coming over to welcome him back. He had been cleared of all charges so why the cold shoulder?
Keeping his gaze aimed straight ahead, Jim wound his way between the desks to a door marked Captain Simon Banks. He knocked twice -- short, curt staccato raps -- then entered. Blair followed him, puzzled and wary.
"Good morning, sir," Jim greeted the captain.
"Ellison." Banks glanced at Blair, a crease in his brow the only evidence of his lingering disapproval. "Sandburg. Sit down."
Jim took the chair in front of Simon's desk, sitting with his back ramrod straight. Blair moved to a chair by the conference table.
Banks pulled open a desk drawer and withdrew a revolver and badge. He set them on the desk, but kept them near him. Flipping open a file, Banks lifted out an official looking piece of paper and set it in front of Jim. "You sign this and you're back on active duty."
"For how long?" Jim asked, unmoving.
Banks frowned and leaned back in his chair. "As long as you want to be a cop."
Blair watched, worried, as Jim stood and walked to the window overlooking the city. He stared out across the vista, but Blair knew what he was seeing wasn't out there among the tall buildings and dirty streets.
"They don't want me here," Jim said quietly.
Puzzled, Blair glanced at Banks, but the captain didn't seem to have a problem understanding.
"They'll get over it," Banks said.
Jim turned away from the window and met Simon's level gaze with his own. "Will they? It's been over a year and they still haven't."
Simon sat up and planted his elbows on the desktop. "It's the first time they've seen you since then. Give them some time to get used to you again."
Jim's smile held no warmth and his eyes were equally as cold. "And in the mean time, can I expect back-up when I need it?"
Banks glanced down. "You know how it is, Jim."
Totally bewildered, Blair spoke up. "I don't know how it is, so would somebody please explain what the hell is going on here?"
Awkward silence filled the office, making every little sound from outside obscenely loud.
Jim looked at him. "I told you what happened the day the bus blew up. About me--" he paused, his throat thick. "--About how I froze."
Blair nodded impatiently.
"The rumor mill made sure everybody in the department knew, too," Jim said bitterly. "A cop who freezes is a liability to everyone."
"But that was because of your senses," Blair argued.
"So you say. But no one else knows." The sentinel pinched the bridge of his nose. "An unreliable cop is a dead cop. Nobody wants to take the chance that he'll freeze while covering their ass."
"So they shun you?"
Blair swallowed hard, not knowing what to say. He had spent time with different cultures where shunning equated a death sentence. Blair didn't approve of it, but intellectually he understood those societies weren't as advanced as his own and that was how they dealt with those who broke the tribal laws. Now Blair couldn't help wondering if maybe the police culture of so-called civilized society was so advanced after all.
"Not everyone feels that way," Simon spoke up. He picked up the unlit cigar resting in the ashtray and tucked it between his lips. "There's a lot of people who understand."
Jim shoved away from the window, his expression dark. "Then I wish they'd explain it to me, because I sure as hell don't."
Almost instinctively, Blair rose and moved to Jim's side to place a steadying hand on his arm. "You zoned because of your senses, but we can make sure that doesn't happen again."
Jim pierced Blair with his sharp blue gaze. "Can you guarantee it won't happen again?"
Blair wanted to say yes, but he couldn't lie -- wouldn't lie -- to his sentinel. "No, but this time you won't be alone, Jim. I'll be with you."
Jim's eyes softened slightly and he lifted his hand as if to place it on Blair's shoulder but stopped short and let it fall back to his side. He stepped away from the student's touch and went to the captain's desk. He picked up a pen and signed the form, then looked at Simon. "I'll work as a cop to get Sarris back, but I won't promise anything beyond that."
"I understand," the captain said, his voice rough. He held out Jim's revolver and badge. "You can have your old desk."
"You never filled it?"
Banks shook his head. "Cutbacks. But then I always had a feeling you'd return."
Jim blinked, startled, and accepted his gun and badge from the captain. He didn't thank him, but simply nodded. Jim clipped the holster on his belt at the small of his back and the badge on the front. The weight of the objects felt foreign, unlike a year ago when they had been as much a part of him as an arm or leg.
Simon handed him a thick file. "Sarris'. You know what the explosion did to the bodies. Well, since no formal IDs could be made, it was just assumed that Sarris was killed, too... " He trailed off, anger sparking his dark eyes. "With the new bombings, the file has officially been reopened and it's yours."
Jim took it from his outstretched hand. He stared at it a moment then looked up at Banks again. "I haven't seen Caroline yet."
Simon cleared his throat and shuffled some papers on his desk. "She's gone, Jim. Took a job in San Francisco about four months back."
"Oh." Jim had no idea how he should feel, although relief was struggling for a foothold. She had been privy to his decline over a year ago and it still embarrassed him to remember the incident in the restaurant when he thought someone was trying to poison him.
"Jim," Simon said.
The reinstated detective paused by the door.
"Take Sandburg down to Personnel and fill out the requisite paperwork for his observer pass. Once he's done, I can approve it immediately and he can start working with you."
"Yes, sir." Jim glanced back at Blair and motioned for him to follow.
"One other thing," Simon said. Jim arched an eyebrow in question and the captain smiled. "Welcome back."
Blair squelched a grin at Jim's flustered expression.
"Thank you, sir," Jim said.
Then Blair was ushered out of the office with Jim's hand at his back. The detective unerringly strode to a desk with Blair on his heels. Jim stopped abruptly and Blair nearly bumped into his back. Jim skimmed his fingertips across the dusty desktop as if reacquainting himself with it.
"It's different," he said quietly.
"How?" Blair asked.
"Feels different, not as smooth, colder."
"That's your sentinel touch, man. You had it before but weren't aware of it."
Jim accepted the explanation with a curt nod. "Let's get that paperwork done so you can ride with me."
"I'm down with that."
Jim grinned for the first time since they had entered the police building and playfully tugged one of Blair's curls. "Let's go."
Smiling and feeling a weight lift from his own shoulders, Blair followed Jim down to Personnel where a plain-looking woman worked. If not for her drab clothes and severe hairstyle, she might have been kind of pretty.
Jim leaned against the counter and sniffed. "What is that?"
The woman tilted her head quizzically.
"What's that smell, Vera?" Jim reiterated.
Vera glanced up shyly. "White Shoulders."
Jim sneezed once... twice... three times.
"Dial it down, Jim," Blair intoned, resting a hand on Jim's back.
The detective concentrated past the irritation which settled at the back of his throat and turned the dial down. He took a deep breath and though he could still detect the perfume, it didn't send him into another fit of sneezing. He managed a smile for the startled clerk. "Sorry. My grandmother used to wear that brand before she died."
Vera's expression became downright hostile. "What did you need, Detective?" she asked shortly.
Jim frowned at her response. "Uh, we need the paperwork for an observer to ride with me."
She spun around and marched back to a row of file cabinets. Jim glanced at Blair to find him covering his mouth with a hand but his eyes twinkled with laughter. "What?" he demanded.
"Your dead grandmother? Geez, Jim, besides helping you with your senses, I'll have to give you some tips on picking up women, too," Blair said in a low voice filled with mirth.
Jim glared at him but before he could retort, Vera returned. "Here you are, Detective. Have him fill these out, then get the proper signatures and bring them back here." She hadn't warmed an iota toward him.
She turned away before he could apologize or thank her. Blair jabbed him in the side. "Come on. Let's get out of here before she gives me needless paperwork just for spite."
Rolling his eyes, Jim steered Blair back toward Major Crime.
The next hour was spent at Jim's desk as Blair completed his paperwork and Jim re-read the information on the year-old case. He stared at the picture of Veronica Sarris and could see his former first sergeant in her -- the auburn hair and blue eyes had come from her father. Jim had gotten drunk with him when her father learned she was following in his Army footsteps. He rubbed his eyes -- she had idolized her father and when Jim had survived instead of him, she had fixated her need for vengeance on James Ellison.
Detectives and suspects came and went, and Jim catalogued each one with only a glance. Three or four people had stopped by his desk to welcome him back which had surprised him. Though he knew not everybody could be against him, he was startled but pleasantly warmed by their greetings.
The door to Major Crime opened and two detectives came through, arguing about some restaurant. Jim did a double-take when he recognized one of them and came to his feet as the other man halted in mid-sentence to stare at him. Then Henri Brown was striding toward his desk, a wide smile on his dark face.
"Look what the cat dragged in," Brown exclaimed as he shook Jim's hand enthusiastically.
"Good to see you, too, Brown," Jim said with a crooked smile.
"So when did you get back?"
"Today's my first day." He glanced at the younger well-dressed man standing beside Brown. "This your partner?"
"Oh, yeah, hey, Jim Ellison meet Brian Rafe," Brown introduced. "He started in here about six months ago."
"Nice to meet you, Rafe," Ellison said.
"Same here, Ellison. I've heard about you."
Though Rafe's voice was neutral, Jim heard the cautious undertones and silence surrounded them.
"Uh, I'm Blair Sandburg," the student introduced, dispelling the uncomfortable impasse. He held his hand out to Rafe.
Jim blinked. He had forgotten all about Blair.
Rafe then Brown shook Blair's hand.
"You're not his new partner, are you?" Brown asked, his eyes narrowed.
Blair glanced helplessly at Jim.
"He's a student who's going to observe me for a while. He's doing a study on closed societies," Jim replied smoothly.
Brown snorted a laugh. "Don't believe those cop shows on tv, Hairboy. Police work is mostly paperwork."
"Sounds a lot like college," Blair said with a grin. "Except we don't have to carry weapons." A slight shudder went through the student.
After a promise to have lunch together soon, Brown and Rafe moved off to their own desks.
"You about done with that stuff?" Jim asked, motioning toward the form Blair had been working on.
The student nodded. "It just needs Captain Banks' signature."
Half an hour later, Jim and Blair were driving across town to the latest bombing site. Blair's new observers badge hung from a black string around his neck and the guide kept studying it, his brow furrowed.
"You okay with this, Sandburg?" Jim asked. Was the kid already regretting his decision to help already?
"This observer thing?"
"I'm cool. I just keep thinking about my mom and how she's going to freak when she finds out I'm riding with a cop."
Jim's worries eased only slightly. "What was the thing about carrying guns?"
"I don't like guns. Never have."
"It comes with the job."
Blair shrugged. "I know, but doesn't mean I have to like it."
"So if push came to shove, you wouldn't use one?"
"I'm not the cop, Jim. You are. I don't have to use a gun."
"What if--" Jim stopped, unable to finish the question.
"What if what?"
"Nothing." Jim couldn't ask Blair to do something which went against his beliefs. The kid had already done too much for him. He turned into the parking lot of the gutted funeral home. "Here we are."
"You ready?" Blair asked, eyeing the sentinel closely.
Jim forced himself not to squirm under the intense blue-eyed gaze. "As ready as I'm going to be."
The two men hopped out of the truck and walked across the pavement to the yellow taped area. Ducking beneath it, Jim and Blair paused on the outer perimeter of the building remains.
"I'm going to be right beside you the whole time, Jim," Blair said quietly. "You can move your dials up and down at will. If they go too high, I'll know and have you bring them back down, okay?"
Jim nodded and rubbed his damp palms against his denim-clad thighs. "All right, Chief."
Walking so close their arms brushed, Jim and Blair entered the blackened rubbish. The stench of burnt cloth and carpeting and plastic nearly overwhelmed Jim and he stumbled back. A hand on his arm steadied him physically, then helped him steady his senses.
"Dial down the smell for now, Jim," Blair said. "We'll get that one later."
Jim nodded and did it, finding it easy to slide the dial down. His stomach queasy with nervousness and dark memories of other bombed sites, Jim moved through the rubble. He used his sight as Blair talked him through turning the dials up and down and sorting through the visual input. He used his sense of touch on some of the ashes, amazed to find ash from plastic felt different than ash from wood. But neither sight nor touch yielded anything they could use.
"Now we're going to catalogue the smells in here," Blair said in his low, mesmerizing voice as they stood in the middle of the carnage. "Raise your smell dial slowly, don't let the odors overwhelm you. Recognize them and filter them out one by one."
Jim closed his eyes, concentrating on Blair's voice first to anchor him, then letting his sense of smell take over. He sorted through the ashy smells, nearly choked on the embalming fluid which underlaid it, separated the car exhaust fumes from outside, and he was left with one faint smell. The remaining scent was barely there -- lilacs and ginger and something else. It tickled his memory, telling him this wasn't the first time he had smelled it. Where had he smelled it before? He reached further into his mind, comparing the fragrance with those housed in his memory. It didn't match any of them.
"C'mon back, man. Jim, can you hear me?"
Blair's voice sounded worried and Jim immediately opened his eyes to find Blair's troubled countenance directly in front of him. "I didn't zone, did I?"
"Not exactly. You came back right away." Blair's cheeks reddened. "You just seemed far away."
"There's a scent, Chief. Something familiar but I can't remember from where or when," Jim explained.
"Do you think it could be her?"
Jim thought for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah, I think it is."
Blair's wide grin warmed Jim clear to his bones. Nobody had ever looked at him with such open pride and approval before.
"Cool." The student's smile disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. "Remember that smell, Jim. We might get lucky."
Jim nodded somberly and sighed. "I wasn't able to do much, was I?"
"You didn't zone and you picked up a scent that probably belongs to Veronica Sarris. I'd say that's pretty damned good."
The two men walked back to the truck.
"Where to from here?" Blair asked.
"It's basically footwork now. I'll have to go talk to all of Sarris' old acquaintances. See if anyone has seen her lately," Jim replied.
"We'll have to go," Blair corrected. "Besides, I have another theory."
Jim groaned and started the truck, then pulled onto the road.
"C'mon, man, my theories have been working pretty well, right?" Blair asked.
Jim had to admit to himself they did, but he wasn't certain he wanted to tell Sandburg. The hold the kid had over him was frightening enough as it was. "What's this theory?"
"You know how lie detectors work, right?"
Jim nodded, baffled by the reference. "It detects a change in the heartbeat." His eyes widened with comprehension. "You're thinking that when I talk to Sarris' friends, I should listen to their heartbeat to see if he or she is lying?"
Blair's brilliant smile flashed. "Got it in one."
"That just might just work, Chief." Jim worried his lower lip between his teeth for a moment. "What if I zone?"
"That's why I'm going with you." Blair crossed his arms and sat back, looking too damned pleased with himself.
"Don't let this go to your head, Chief. Once I get a handle on this sentinel stuff, I go back to working alone. Got it?"
Blair held up his hands, palms out. "No arguments there, big guy. But until you do have control, you can think of me as an extra appendage."
"Don't even go there, Ellison," Blair said, his blue eyes glittering with laughter.
Blair's office phone rang, startling him. He nabbed the receiver, expecting the caller to be Jim. He was right.
"What're you doing?" Jim asked without preamble.
"And hello to you, too. I'm fine, thank you," Blair said. He could actually hear Jim's teeth grinding over the phone line.
"There's been another bomb."
Blair sat up quickly as his stomach rolled. "Where?"
"The supermarket we shop at."
He scrubbed a hand through his unruly hair. "Shit. You want me to come back to the loft or meet you there?"
"Meet me there." Then Jim hung up, the click echoing ominously loud in the void left behind.
Blair gathered the papers he had been working on and shoved them into his backpack. It had been over a week since the bombing of the funeral home and though Jim and Blair had talked to all of Sarris' known acquaintances, they had come up empty. Even the APB had yielded nothing. The only good thing to come out of the last ten days had been Jim's growing control of his senses. He didn't need Blair around all the time which gave the student time to revise his thesis proposal. He had also planned to stop at the library and learn more about spirit animals, but that would have to be put on hold for the moment.
He locked his office door then ran down the hall and out to his old Corvair in the parking lot. He had kept it at a friend's place while he was on the fishing island and had picked it up the previous weekend. In it were two more bags of clothing, as well as some artifacts. Between that and the books in his office, it was all he owned -- all he had ever needed.
Though it was a Saturday, the college was fairly busy. The new semester started on Monday and the professors and TA's were scurrying around to get organized. It had been the first time in three years Blair himself wasn't scrambling to pull class notes together. It felt strangely disconcerting, but he wouldn't have traded finding and working with Jim for anything.
Unlocking his car door, he heard his name called and glanced up to see a red-haired woman approaching. He blinked -- it was Katie from the fishing village.
"Katie, what're you doing here?" he asked.
She smiled, her green eyes twinkling. "And here I thought you'd be glad to see me."
He grinned. "I am. I'm just surprised. I thought you'd be back in college."
The young woman brushed a strand of red hair from her face. "I am. I transferred to Rainier. You told me so many good things about it that I decided to look into it myself and here I am."
Surprised pleasure shot through Blair. Since he was no longer doing a study on the village and its inhabitants, Katie was no longer off-limits. "When did you get here?"
"Last weekend. I spent the week orienting myself." She moved closer. "Maybe you could show me some of your favorites places Friday night."
Blair nodded, remembering her lively company when he had first come to the island. "Sounds good. You want me to pick you up?"
"Why don't we meet someplace? I have some errands to run."
"How about seven o'clock at my office?"
"Sounds good. I'll see you then." Then Katie leaned forward and kissed him -- long, slow and hard. "That's just a preview of Friday night." She winked and walked away, her swinging hips capturing Blair's appreciative gaze.
He shook himself and quickly got into his car. Fifteen minutes later he parked beside Jim's blue pick-up and held up his observer's pass as he walked past a uniformed cop. He joined Jim and Simon who watched the firemen douse the fire.
The caustic smoke curled into Blair's nostrils, settling in the back of his throat to leave an acrid taste. "When did it happen?"
"Forty-five minutes ago," Banks replied.
"Casualties?" Blair had to drag the one word question out.
"None. She called in a warning. They had just enough time to evacuate."
Blair closed his eyes in relief, then found his attention focused on his sentinel. If the smell bothered him, he could only imagine what it must be like for the older man. "Jim?"
The detective drew his gaze from the fiery ruins. "Everything's dialed down, Chief, especially smell."
"Good." Blair was continually amazed by Jim's growing mastery of his senses. Part of him was proud that his friend was doing so well; the selfish part of him wished Jim would need his help for a while longer. Despite Jim's rigid rules, Blair enjoyed the companionship at the loft and the easy routine they had fallen into within a few days of living together.
Banks scowled. "What're you two talking about?"
"It's a sentinel thing," Blair replied off-handedly.
"Oh." Banks' expression told him any more information would be too much.
For the next two hours, Jim and Blair talked to people who had been in the supermarket before it had been demolished by the explosion. Everyone was shown the picture of Sarris but no one had seen a woman matching her description. They had come up empty. Again.
Frustrated, Jim raked a hand through his short hair. "Where the hell is she?"
Blair sighed. "I wish I knew." He glanced at the building's blackened guts. "Do you think we can go through it now?"
Jim nodded tiredly. "May as well get it over with."
During the entire time, Blair kept his hand on Jim's back or arm, constantly talking to him, telling him when to raise and lower his dials. He guided him as they moved around blackened piles of concrete and shelving and cans which had once held soup and vegetable labels. Knowing smell would place the most strain on Jim, Blair waited until last to have open that sense. There were more odors to work through than the last bombing because of all the burnt food.
"The smell's here again, Chief. It's a little stronger this time," Jim said.
"Probably because not as much time has elapsed since the explosion," Blair said.
Jim rubbed his brow. "That's all I can get again."
"It's okay, Jim. Don't force yourself into a zone-out. That won't help anyone, especially you. Dial your senses down again, then we'll head back to the loft."
The two men strode back to their vehicles where Simon stood waiting for them.
"Find anything?" the captain asked.
Jim shook his head in frustration. "There's got to be something I'm missing here."
"She's just as thorough as she was before," Simon said. "It was a lucky break that we caught up to her on that bus last time."
Jim flinched. He could never think of the bus bombing and lucky in the same sentence. "Did Brown and Rafe have any success with the demolition companies?"
Simon shook his head. "Nobody had any explosives missing or had anyone approach them wanting to buy it."
"What about construction companies?" Blair suddenly asked.
Jim and Banks swung their gazes to him and the student felt his face warm under their scrutiny.
"I worked for a road construction gang when I was twenty-one. They used explosives for leveling sides of hills," Blair explained.
"I'll have them checked out," Simon said almost reluctantly. He turned back to Jim. "You can get started on this bright and early Monday. Take the rest of the weekend off to rest. You look like hell."
Jim's lips twisted in a caricature of a smile. "Yes, sir."
Blair rolled his eyes. I come up with a suggestion and I don't even get a thank you from Banks. Instead, the captain acted like he was doing Blair a favor by considering his suggestion. And Jim wasn't any better, ignoring him like he was a piece of furniture -- useful when needed, but ignored otherwise.
"C'mon, Chief. Let's head home," Jim said.
Home. Blair's irritation fled. He liked the sound of that, even though he knew it was only temporary.
The two men went to their respective vehicles and Blair followed Jim back to the loft. Once in the apartment, Blair gently shoved Jim in the direction of the bathroom. "Go shower. I'm sure your own stink is driving you crazy."
With a weary nod, Jim headed to the bathroom. Blair searched through the refrigerator and cupboards for something to throw together for supper. Spotting angel hair pasta, extra virgin oil, and garlic he set to work making a naked pasta. He had a feeling Jim wouldn't appreciate anything too shocking to his taste buds this evening.
Jim came out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around his hips and trudged up the stairs to his bedroom. A few minutes later he returned wearing gray sweatpants and a CPD sweatshirt. He took the pasta box from Blair. "Your turn, Chief."
Blair didn't even have to tell him what needed to be done for the meal. The two men had become so attuned to each other since they had begun to live together that often times they instinctively knew what the other was thinking. In a way, it frightened Blair. In other ways, the student was awed by the weird connection between them that only seemed to grow in strength the longer they were together.
He went into the small room under the stairs where he kept his things and halted abruptly in the doorway. Where there had been his clothes bags and a few of his boxes now sat a futon all made up, a dresser and a bookshelf.
"Jim?" he asked slowly.
He felt the presence of the sentinel behind him. "I hope it's all right," Jim said, a hint of nervousness in his usually firm voice.
Blair turned to look at him. "Why?"
Jim shrugged and a pale pink flush covered his cheeks. "I figured you were getting tired of sleeping on the sofa. Besides, I'd been meaning to turn this into a spare bedroom for a while now."
Blair saw through the white lie easily and had to glance away before Jim saw how affected he was by the detective's thoughtfulness. "It's great. Thanks."
The vulnerability in the single word made Blair smile. "Yes, really," he said softly. "Nobody's ever done anything like this for me before."
Jim cleared his throat and gave Blair's shoulder a quick squeeze. "Well, don't let it go to your head, Chief. You still have to clean your hair out of the sink every morning. And don't forget the shower, too."
Blair laughed. "I wonder if all sentinels are as uptight about cleanliness."
"Only if their guides are as sloppy as you."
Blair punched him in the side playfully. "I think I hear the water boiling, oh great sentinel."
Chuckling, Jim returned to the kitchen. Blair entered his -- his -- room and ran his hand along the smooth desktop then sat down on the futon. It wasn't a cheap one -- the mattress was thick and firm. He skimmed his palm across the heavy blanket and smelled the freshness of the material.
Did all this mean Jim didn't want him to leave? Or was Blair reading too much into the permanency of this room? It wouldn't be the first time he thought he was welcome, only to be told to pack up and leave a few days later. Swallowing a lump in his throat, Blair glanced at the duffel which always remained half full -- his escape bag. Between that and his backpack, he had everything he needed.
Except now he had a feeling his needs were more, revolving around a certain sentinel and the new and strange relationship developing between them.
Surely finding a sentinel was a gift in and of itself. That the two of them seemed to click on some deeper plane was an added bonus. But nothing lasted forever, Blair reminded himself. Sighing, he stood and placed his duffel under the futon, set to go at a moment's notice.
He dug out a clean pair of sweats from another bag and carried them into the bathroom. Not allowing himself to think, he stripped and tossed his dirty clothing into the hamper. He showered quickly, knowing the hot water would run out. After he dried himself with a new fluffy towel -- all natural cotton to less aggravate Jim's sentinel skin -- he dressed and picked up the clothes hamper.
Pausing in the kitchen only long enough to grab the clothes detergent, Blair said to Jim, "I'm going to throw the laundry in the washer, otherwise you'll be bothered by the smell all night."
"Thanks," Jim said, clearly startled.
When Blair returned from the basement where the washers were, Jim was just putting a loaf of garlic bread in the center of the table which was already set.
"Dinner's ready, Chief," he announced.
Blair's stomach growled on command and the two men laughed, then sat down to eat. Once they were done, Blair pressed his plate back and clasped his hands together to still their nervous fluttering. "Thanks for the bed and everything," he said and wondered why his voice was so husky. "You didn't have to do all that. I mean, I won't be here all that long."
Jim shrugged. "Like I said, I planned to turn it into a spare room anyhow. It's no big deal."
Blair stared at the detective, wondering how somebody who appeared so forbidding could be so damned considerate. But then, from what Blair had gleaned, Jim's past hadn't been one that nurtured thoughtfulness. He was estranged from his father and had been in Covert Ops, an organization that viewed compassion as a flaw. The police department had hardly been conducive to sensitivity -- seeing what they did on a daily basis only made them more adept at keeping their emotions under deep cover.
"What are you looking so serious about?" Jim asked.
The sentinel's wariness made Blair grin. "Since you're off tomorrow, how about some tests?"
Jim tipped his head back and groaned. "God save me from overenthusiastic anthropology geeks."
Blair stood and picked up their empty plates. "Sorry, big guy, but you're stuck with this overenthusiastic anthropology geek, no matter how much you bitch and moan."
As Blair rinsed the dishes in the sink, he glanced at Jim whose lips were twitching to hold back a smile.
"On one condition, Chief. You cook every meal this week."
Blair pretended to contemplate for a long moment -- he already did most of the cooking. Then his eyes widened slightly at the implication. He would be here at least another week. Hiding his relief, he said, "All right. Tomorrow we'll start testing bright and early."
Jim scowled. "After I read the paper and drink my coffee."
Blair turned back to the sink and smiled. He didn't plan to start until after noon, but teasing the big man was fast becoming one of his favorite pastimes. "A deal's a deal."
Jim merely sent him a feigned glower and stood to help Blair clear the table. Then Jim washed and Blair dried the dishes. Once they were done, Jim grabbed two beers from the fridge and handed one to Blair.
They settled in the living room sitting on the couch as Jim surfed through the cable channels.
"Hey, whoa, that looks good," Blair suddenly piped up as Jim passed by the History channel.
"'The History of Women's Undergarments'? Is there something you haven't told me, Sandburg?"
"This is fascinating stuff, Jim. I mean, from an anthropological view, what people wear mirrors the society in which they live. In the days before the fall of the Roman Empire, very little was worn under the outer clothing because--"
Jim held up his hand. "Enough, Chief. I get the picture."
They watched the parade of corsets and drawers for a few minutes before Jim spoke again. "She hit the supermarket because of me."
"What?" Blair asked, wondering what supermarkets and lingerie had in common.
"Sarris. She's getting more personal this time around," Jim said quietly.
Blair's eyes widened behind his wire-rimmed spectacles and a shiver slid down his spine. "Do you think she knows where you live?"
"I'd say that's a pretty good bet." Jim turned his attention from the tv, shifting his body around on the couch to face Blair. "If she's been watching me since I got back, she knows you're living here, too. She might make you a target."
The blood drained from Blair's face and he forced himself to breathe deeply, to override the nausea stirring through his gut. "Shit." He met Jim's somber eyes. "Why didn't you say something earlier?"
"It's only a theory I came up with when the call came through this afternoon. It's too much of a coincidence that she would destroy the one market I shop at."
Blair sorted through the panicked flotsam in his mind. "So what the hell do I do? Hide until you catch her?"
Jim reached out a hand, paused in mid-motion uncertainly, but then continued until his fingers clasped Blair's shoulder. "Take it easy, Chief. I want you to stick with me until she's caught. That way I can protect you."
"What if we never catch her?"
"That isn't an option."
Blair leaned into the older man's touch as Jim massaged his tense shoulder muscles. "Do you really think she'll come after me?" the student asked.
"I don't know," the detective replied honestly. "But if she does, I don't want your death on my conscience, too, Chief."
Blair studied the hard glint in Jim's eyes, but knew the anger wasn't directed at him, but at himself. The student knew what the deaths of those eleven people aboard the bus had done to Jim. He wasn't certain Jim's conscience could survive any more guilt.
"You're a sentinel. I know you'll take care of me." Blair put all his faith into the words, realizing he believed them totally. Jim would protect him even if it meant his own life.
However, the thought of Jim's death only made Blair more fearful.
Grateful for the gods' indulgence, Blair reveled in the warm sunny autumn afternoon. When he had told Jim after breakfast that the tests would be outdoors, even the grumpy sentinel hadn't complained too much. Of course, Blair had softened him up by making Belgian waffles and bacon that morning.
Note for dissertation: the way around a sentinel's stubbornness is through his stomach.
"What're you smiling about, Chief?" Jim asked as he walked beside the younger man in the busy park.
"Just making mental notes for my diss."
"Mental, huh?" Jim's eyes twinkled.
Blair laughed, glad to see the lighter side of Jim Ellison again after last night's somber discussion. "No cracks from the peanut gallery."
Jim cuffed the back of his head and Blair danced away with a bright smile.
"Careful who you're calling a peanut, Sandburg."
The sentinel raised his face to the sun and Blair watched him open his senses as naturally as he breathed. Jim's head tipped slightly to the side as he listened and his nostrils flared as scents were identified and catalogued. Then he lowered his head and looked out across the park, to a building on the outskirts of the city.
"What do you see?" Blair asked in a voice so low only a sentinel could hear it.
"I see a man watching golf on tv and in the next apartment, a woman is--" Jim cleared his throat. "Entertaining." Blair smiled at Jim's slight flush and watched as the sentinel shifted his gaze. "At the far end of the park a man is playing catch with his son."
Profound sadness flitted across Jim's features and Blair wondered what memories were evoked by the scene. Without thinking, he laid a hand on the sentinel's arm to draw him back. "What else, Jim? What else do you see?"
The sentinel tipped his head and a smile replaced the melancholy. "A bird -- a goldfinch -- is lining a nest with shredded paper."
"Where's the bird?" Blair asked softly.
"In a tree over there." He pointed across the park.
Blair tried to see what Jim did, but couldn't. "How far away?"
He watched as Jim dialed down his sight as disbelief crept across the older man's face. "Close to half a mile."
"Holy shit, Batman," Blair exclaimed. He bent over his notebook and scribbled onto a sheet of paper, his mind turning the discovery over and over in his head. "Wow! We'll have to do some more with distance, but I also want to test your range of color. Do you see shades of the spectrum the normal human being doesn't? Or is a sentinel's sight simply like a telescope, bringing an image closer? No, can't be, since you can see in darkness, like a cat. What about your hearing? I wonder how sensitive that is; what the distance and decibel ranges are. I think I can get permission to use the physics lab some evening and we can do some testing with both sight and hearing."
Blair finished jotting down his notes and glanced up to find himself alone. Startled, he looked around and found Jim slumped on a park bench fifty feet away staring at a gray jay that scolded him noisily. The student trotted over to the bench and plopped down beside him. "Hey, what's wrong, Jim?"
The sentinel continued to look at the raucous bird. "Nothing."
More and more Jim found himself forgetting that Blair was only living with him to study him. Blair's own personality made it easy to forget. When they worked at the station, Jim was amazed at his willingness to help and the steel-trap mind behind the often times flighty persona he projected. Blair had helped H and Rafe find a perp who had been robbing convenience stores merely by reading through their notes and asking some off-the-wall questions. Questions that had led to discovering the perp's identity. Blair was tireless when it came to helping Jim keep his senses under control at the station and a crime scene and in restaurants and anywhere else where the input was especially debilitating. Words spoken in his low timbre easily brought Jim back and centered him. The seamless way he and Blair had fallen into being roommates had surprised Jim. He hadn't lived with anyone since he had been married and that transition had been much rockier than Blair's inclusion into the loft.
He had come to think of Blair as his friend and his guide. It was because of his growing friendship with the student that Jim was frightened that Sarris would hurt Blair to get to him. Yet Jim had no idea what the student thought of him. Sometimes it seemed the friendship was a two way street; other times, like now, Jim was reminded too much of Blair's true interest in him -- as a research subject.
Anger sifted through him -- why the hell did he care? He didn't want a friend -- it was easier to remain aloof than get close to someone only to have him betray or disappoint him later. Blair would get all the information he needed for his dissertation and he would leave Jim, allowing the older man his peace and quiet once more.
Except there won't be any peace and quiet when I'm alone again with the black memories of my failure and my crazy senses .
"We don't have to do any more tests," Blair suddenly said. He leaned back on the park bench and tipped back his head and closed his eyes. "We could just enjoy the sunshine."
Jim heard the sincerity and apology in his voice. Without an exchange of words, Blair knew. If Jim wasn't so grateful for the reprieve, he might have been a little more puzzled over the often silent communication they shared.
"I like that idea," Jim said quietly. "Ever since my senses started acting up, I haven't been able to just sit back and enjoy a day. I know the tests are important, but sometimes I just want to forget I have them." He couldn't stop the bitterness underlying his tone.
Blair opened his eyes and met Jim's gaze squarely. "And you will, Jim. Once you have complete control, it'll be second nature to use them. Just like when a person is blinded and learns to read Braille -- it takes time and a lot of stumbling around, but finally he'll be reading without even thinking about all the little dots."
"You make things sound so simple."
Blair huffed a laugh. "I'm only pulling rabbits out of a hat, Jim, and hoping I don't pull a snake out by accident."
Jim chuckled. "You got that one right, Chief. You are a magician."
The student's cheeks flushed with the rare compliment as he stood. "Come on. Let's walk."
Blair gave Jim a friendly hand up and the two men walked side by side, hands tucked into their jacket pockets. Despite the crowd that was also taking advantage of the cool but bright fall day, Jim didn't feel overwhelmed by the stimuli. He allowed himself to take pleasure from his senses, to see each individual feather on a nuthatch, to smell steaks cooking on a grill clear across the park, to hear each separate note of children's giggles then combining them into a refrain of innocent joy.
Blair had said his senses were a gift -- maybe it was time to look at them as such instead of seeing them as a bane which had cursed him for over a year.
"How about a little one on one?" Blair suddenly asked.
Jim turned to the student who was spinning a basketball on his finger. "Where'd that come from?"
He shrugged. "Someone must have forgotten it."
Jim grinned crookedly as he canted an eyebrow. "One on one, short stuff?"
"You scared?" Blair challenged, his eyes twinkling.
"It's not the size that counts, man; it's the moves." The anthropologist waggled his eyebrows.
Jim snorted with laughter. "You're on, Romeo."
The two men removed their jackets and left them on the bench beside the court. Blair surprised Jim when he tossed the sentinel the ball.
"You're going to need the advantage, big guy," Blair said.
"Cocky little bastard, aren't you?"
"Nah. Just confident."
Jim chuckled and dribbled the ball, feinting right then moving left. Blair read his motions and jumped up a split second before Jim, knocking the ball back to the asphalt where he nabbed it and went in for a lay-up.
"Two for big Lew!" Blair crowed and pumped his arm. "Yeah!"
Realizing he had underestimated the student, Jim got serious. The ball went back and forth between the two men who ended up being equal opponents despite the obvious height difference. Before long their shirts came off -- Jim in his black tank t-shirt and Blair in his white v-neck tee as they raced back and forth, jumping and dribbling and throwing blocks with raised arms. Sweat rolled from Jim's brow and he used his arm to swipe the moisture away. Blair wiped his face with the bottom of his t-shirt.
With a score of eighteen to eighteen, Jim went in for a lay-up and Blair planted himself directly in his path; it was an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object and both men went down in a tangle of arms and legs.
Laughing, Blair rolled onto his back and stared at the sky, one hand resting on his chest which moved up and down with his panting breaths. "I suggest... we call this one a draw."
Winded, Jim drew himself up to a cross-legged position beside the student, twirling the ball between his hands. "Forfeiting Sandburg?"
Blair rolled his head to fix Jim with a feigned glare. "I was only thinking of your advanced age -- wouldn't want you to have a heart attack or something."
"Gee, thanks, kid."
Blair wrinkled his nose at him and struggled to sit up.
Jim lent him a hand as he smiled smugly. "Who's out of shape, Chief?"
"Bite me, Ellison."
Jim threw his head back and laughed, reveling in the simple pleasure. How long had it been since he had enjoyed himself so much? The kid -- student, he corrected himself -- was an even match for him in both physical and mental agility. He looked at Blair and found he had given up the fight and was laughing with him.
"Thanks, Blair," Jim said sincerely after he had regained his breath.
Blair retrieved their shirts and handed Jim his. "For what, man?"
The sentinel stood and donned the sweater. "For the game." He met Blair's bright blue eyes, hoping the anthropologist understood the wealth of meaning behind the three words.
Blair smiled and clapped him on the back. "You're welcome, Jim."
Jim moved away to gather their jackets, his throat tight and achy. Who would have thought a geeky anthropologist could burrow past the detective's defensive strongholds without Ellison even knowing until the deed was done? Blair Sandburg had given Jim back his life in more ways than one.
As Jim zipped his coat, his attention was captured by a sound made more evident because of its harshness amidst the gaiety. He tipped his head, and identified the raspy screams of a woman. Flesh against flesh, men's sneering laughter, and tearing cloth galvanized him into action. Thrusting his cell phone at Blair, he shouted, "Call 911. Request back-up."
"What--" Blair began but Jim was already sprinting across the park toward a stand of thick bushes and trees at the far end.
He heard Blair make the call, telling them Detective Ellison needed assistance and giving them the location. Then Jim's attention was fixed on the struggle ahead of him. He burst through the brush, following the sounds and stopped abruptly. Three young men were gathered around a woman who was desperately clutching her torn shirt in one hand and gingerly touching the bruise already forming on her cheekbone with her other.
Jim withdrew his gun with smooth efficiency and pasted on his stoic mask. "Halt! Cascade P.D."
For a brief moment, the tableau remained motionless, then action came too fast. The man closest to the woman dropped to his knees behind her and looped an arm around her throat. He pressed a gun to her temple. "No, you drop it, cop!"
The man's two unarmed cohorts stared at Jim, their eyes glittering like sharks who smelled blood. The only sound now was the woman's tearful hiccups and the harsh breathing of the men. The arm around the victim's throat tightened and she let out a yelp of terror as her face reddened.
"I said drop it!" the would-be rapist ordered.
The woman's rapid heartbeat thundered in Jim's ears, threatening to carry him into a zone-out, and he fought to notch his hearing down. Finally he succeeded and left with no choice, Jim tilted his gun's barrel upward and lowered the weapon to the ground where he set it down deliberately. He raised his hands slowly, knowing he had to stall until back-up could get there. He had seen a patrol car cruising past the park just moments before he heard the attack, so it shouldn't be long.
He used his senses to scan his captors. Their heartbeats were rapid and the stink of fear was strongest from the one closest to Jim. He examined that man closer, noting the sheen of sweat on his face, the opening of capillaries beneath the skin which flushed the criminal's cheeks, and the dilated black pupils surrounded by a thin ring of brown. Jim aimed his words at him. "Look, you don't want to do this. Right now all you're looking at is attempted assault. You go through with it and you'll be facing years in prison."
The man's heartbeat elevated even higher and his fear rolled across Jim in waves.
"Shut up, cop. You spoiled our fun," the one holding the woman said as he stood. He sauntered toward Jim, holding his gun like a kid with a new toy, and stopped just out of Jim's reach and perused the detective like he was a cherry on a hot fudge sundae. "Maybe we'll have some fun with you, too. See how loud a pig can squeal."
Jim hid his anxiety beneath a calm visage. "You're being stupid if you think you can kill a cop and get away with it."
"Jim, man, if you can hear me, blink twice," Blair's sentinel soft voice met his ears and nearly sent the detective's control skittering out of control. Damn it! What was Blair doing here? He fought the urge to look for him and blinked twice. Then he cast his senses out to search for his guide and found him not more than five feet from the nervous man on Jim's left, hiding behind a tree.
"Good. On the count of three, I'm going to create a diversion," Blair whispered and Jim heard him take a deep breath.
The leader took another step closer to Jim as if daring him to try something. "What's wrong, cop? You don't seem so tough now without your gun or any of your buddies."
Shit, where was his back-up? They should have been here by now.
"One," he heard Blair start his count.
"I tell you what, cop. You entertain me and my buddies here and we'll leave the woman alone. How's that for a deal?"
Jim divided his concentration between Blair's countdown and his captor's taunting words. "How about you and your buddies give yourselves up now and I won't charge you with threatening an officer?"
"Two," Blair continued in a voice only Jim could hear.
The leader barked an ugly laugh. "I don't think so. You see, we're holding the guns."
Blair charged out from behind the tree, a thick branch in his hand as he let out a holler. Even though Jim knew it was coming, he still froze in place for a split second. Blair swung the branch, catching the man closest to him across the back and sending him to his knees with a cry of pain.
The leader holding the gun wavered long enough to give Jim time to kick the weapon out of his hand. The gun flew ten feet and the man scrambled after it, but Jim grabbed the back of his shirt and swung him around. The detective got in the first blow, then a fist landed on Jim's cheek. He stumbled back, but righted himself. As Jim parried punches with the leader, he was peripherally aware of Blair doing a fair job of holding his own against his adversary. He turned back to concentrate on his attacker, giving him another hard jab to the jaw. The leader stumbled back, lost his balance and fell to the ground.
A wolf's howl shocked him and he spun around to see the animal standing beside him, his hair bristling. The wolf was watching Blair who caught a sharp jab to his gut and dropped like a marionette. The student's opponent moved in quickly, jerking him up and landing more blows to Blair's face and torso.
Rage coursed through Jim and he pulled Blair's attacker off him. He caught a glimpse of Blair's bruised and bloody face and his anger sharpened to something tangible -- something primal and uncivilized. Each time Jim's knuckles struck Blair's opponent, satisfaction coursed through his blood. Nothing existed except the need to protect Blair and punish the one who hurt him.
"Jim, stop it! Stop it!" A familiar voice penetrated the red haze in Jim's mind, but it wasn't the characteristic soothing tone of his guide. It was frantic and fearful and brought clarity rushing back.
Blair's arms were wrapped around his chest from behind, trying to pull him away from the semi-conscious man who Jim held upright. "Let him go, Jim. You're going to kill him," Blair cried.
Isn't that what he wanted to do? Kill him for daring to hurt his guide? Shocked by his rationale, Jim released the perp who slumped to the ground in a heap. Awareness returned, bringing the sting of reality and the sight of the near-dead body at his feet. He had almost killed a man with his bare hands. He stared down at his bloodied knuckles as if they didn't belong to him.
"Jim, man, come back to me," Blair intoned in a husky voice. Smaller hands clasped his gently but firmly. "It's okay, Jim."
The detective took a deep breath and lifted his gaze to the student who had moved between him and his fallen opponent. He sucked in a lungful of air at the swelling on the left side of Blair's face and the blood oozing from his split lip. He cupped the swollen cheek gently in his palm. "Are you okay, Chief?"
"I-I think so," Blair replied.
Jim remembered the wolf and cast his senses out to search for the animal, but it was gone... if it had even been there.
He felt the tremors run through the younger man's body and steered him toward a tree to lean against it. "Just stay here. Take it easy. I'm going to check on the victim and make sure those three are down for the count."
Blair nodded as he wrapped his arms around his waist.
Drawing on all his experience, Jim shoved down his lingering rage and forced himself to act like a professional. He cuffed the perp -- the nervous one -- who Blair had hit with the branch, but was fairly certain the other two wouldn't wake up anytime soon. Then he removed his jacket and squatted down beside the terrified woman, mantling the coat over her shoulders. "Are you all right, ma'am?"
She stared at him with wide eyes and nodded in jerky motions. "They d-didn't--" She broke off and clutched Jim's jacket around her snugly. Her shoulders shook with suppressed sobs and he awkwardly patted her back.
After a few moments, he glanced up to see his back-up had finally arrived. New anger surged through him and he rose to his full six feet one inch. "Nice of you to stop by," he said with enough venom to stop the patrol officers in their tracks.
"We just got the call," the older of the two snarled.
Jim heard his heartbeat increase and saw the younger officer look away guiltily. Son-of-a-bitch! They had sandbagged, knowing it was Ellison who needed the back-up. He had known this would happen. Hadn't he warned Banks?
"Call in for additional units and a couple ambulances," he said in a low voice, afraid if he spoke any louder, he would lose his tightly-held control. He turned away, the rage he had recently reined in too damned close to exploding once more. With one more reassuring touch on the victim's arm, he joined Blair by the tree and deliberately kept his back to the two uniformed patrolmen. "How're you doing, Chief?" he asked softly.
Blair managed a crooked grin. "If I don't breathe or move, I'm fine."
Jim's fingers ghosted across Blair's ribs and he ground his teeth. "It feels like you have a couple cracked ribs. Looks like one of those ambulances will be for you."
"No way, Jim. No hospital. You told me you used to be a medic -- you can wrap the ribs up as well as someone at the hospital."
"You need a doctor to check them out."
"I need insurance for that."
Startled, Jim met Blair's challenging gaze. Shit, he should have thought of that. Sandburg probably went to the student health clinic when he got sick. He nodded reluctantly. "All right, Chief, but if its worse tomorrow, I'm taking you to the ER."
The two men remained standing shoulder to shoulder against the tree until more police units showed up, as well as two ambulances. One of the EMTs returned Jim's jacket from the victim and the detective shrugged into it, grateful for its protection against the chilly air.
Jim smelled the familiar scent of cigars and spotted Simon striding toward them. He was wearing blue jeans and a sweatshirt with a casual jacket thrown over it.
"What the hell happened, Jim?" Simon demanded. His gaze flickered across Blair. "And how did your observer get hurt?"
"It wasn't Jim's fault," Blair spoke up immediately. "He was outnumbered three to one and I was the only one there because the back-up didn't come fast enough, even though we saw them less than two minutes before on patrol around--"
"Enough," Simon said curtly as he held up a hand. "Ellison, the short version."
"I heard the three perps assaulting the victim," Jim said, his flat voice free of emotion. "Sandburg called for back-up but before they got here, the perps were getting ready to rape her. I announced myself, the leader got a hold of the woman and I had to drop my gun. If Sandburg hadn't gotten involved, I'd probably be dead." Blair's eyes widened. "I believe there was an unaccounted lag time to our back-up, sir," Jim added stiffly.
"Are you telling me they held back because it was you?" Simon demanded.
Jim shrugged. "Read it any way you want, sir, but I saw the patrol go by the park less than two minutes before Sandburg called it in. Maybe you have another reason why it took them nearly twenty minutes to get here." He had banked his rage, but like embers it only burned hotter than the fire itself.
The captain rubbed his brow. "Damn it. I thought when it was all said and done, everyone would just do their jobs."
Some of Jim's rigid control shifted and severed. "C'mon, Simon, you've been a cop longer than I have and I can read the writing on the wall. They don't trust me and without trust, I'm alone out here." He glanced at Blair. "We're alone out here."
Simon looked like he wanted to hit something. "It will get better, Jim. You have to believe that."
"Sorry, sir, but I'm not sure I can afford to believe it. If it wasn't for Sarris coming back from the dead, I wouldn't be here. We both know it."
Simon's helpless gaze shifted from Jim to Blair and back to Jim. "Take your partner to the hospital. You can write up your report tomorrow."
Jim nodded then lent a hand to Blair. The two men moved slowly away from the crime scene. By the time they arrived at the truck, Blair's face was sweat-coated and Jim had to help him into the passenger seat, feeling each of the younger man's twinges and grimaces like they were his own.
"Are you sure you don't want to go to the hospital?" Jim asked, worry creasing his brow.
Blair shook his head. "I just want to go home."
Home. The word sparked a warmth in Jim's chest. For the first time in years, the loft felt like a home again and it was undoubtedly Blair Sandburg's presence. But before Jim could savor the sentiment, a little voice reminded him that Blair would be safer out of Jim Ellison's life.
This incident hadn't even been related to the Switchman case yet Sandburg had been hurt because of him. The sooner Jim got his senses under control, the sooner the student could go back to his safe world of academia. Jim's stomach clenched at the thought of Blair leaving. But it was Blair's safety that was important -- it didn't matter what Jim wanted.
Jim Ellison had no right to want anything.
"Owowowowow," Blair chanted as Jim wrapped his ribs snugly. "Watch the chest hair, man."
"I can't help it if you have a rug there," Jim growled.
"Yeah, well, I can't help it either so be careful."
Jim tucked the ends of the wrap between Blair's back and the material. "There. All done."
Blair moved to hop down from the island countertop, but Jim stopped his motion. "Stay there so I can clean those cuts on your face." He went to the bathroom to grab some first aid supplies.
"Geez, Ellison, you'd think I never got hurt in my life before," Blair groused after him, but didn't try to escape. Truth be told, it gave Blair an odd fuzzy feeling that Jim cared about his welfare. Naomi never seemed overly concerned about the cuts and bruises he had received in his youth.
The detective returned with a damp washcloth and the first aid items. Blair closed his eyes as Jim cleaned his face with the cloth first.
"You shouldn't have followed me, Chief," Jim said quietly.
Blair's eyes flew open. "What?"
"All you had to do was call it in. You shouldn't have gotten anywhere near those three thugs. They could've killed you."
"Yeah, well, it seemed to me it was you they were planning on killing."
"That's my job, Sandburg."
"Your job isn't to get yourself fucking killed, Ellison." Blair's breath stammered angrily in his lungs. "Unless you're still working on being some goddamned martyr."
Jim drew back, shocked by the vehemence in the student's voice and expression. "You know damned good and well that wasn't the reason. Jesus Christ, Sandburg, they were going to rape her. I wasn't going to let that happen."
"No, you weren't. Instead, you were going to either be assaulted or killed yourself. Sorry, Jim, but that wasn't an option in my book. I couldn't let that happen to you."
Something big and suffocating filled Jim and his throat wouldn't work. With shaking fingers, he picked up the antibiotic cream and squeezed some out, then gently rubbed it on the cuts on Blair's face. All his concentration focused on the simple task, but it was all he could handle at the moment.
Blair's own emotions were overwhelming him, throwing him into chaos. All his life he had kept his distance from people, giving and taking as little as possible so when he moved on his shallow footprints would quickly be erased by time's tide. It was never his intention to grow close to someone, only to have to say good-bye a few months down the road.
But all his good intentions had been discarded when his path intersected Jim Ellison's. After he had called for back-up at the park, he had every intention of waiting for them, but the black jaguar had made another appearance. There had been no doubt, no question -- Jim had needed him and Blair had responded.
Jim drew away as he capped the tube of antibiotic cream. "You need to put some ice against that cheek and eye."
Blair picked up the washcloth sitting beside him and snagged Jim's wrist. "Have you checked out your own face?" he asked.
"You've got a gash or two youself, big guy." He reciprocated, cleaning the sentinel's facial cuts and applying the cream then two butterfly bandages. "And I'll bet you also have a mother of a headache."
Jim didn't bother to deny it. He took the cloth, cream, and bandages back to the bathroom. When he returned, he handed Blair two aspirin and retrieved two bottles of water from the fridge. He handed one to Blair, then opened the other to take his own aspirin. With the medication taken, Jim helped the student down from the island.
Blair hissed at the jab of pain. He had forgotten how much his ribs hurt, though it wasn't nearly as bad as before Jim had wrapped them.
"Go sit down, Sandburg. I'll bring the ice packs," Jim said.
With an arm curled around his ribs, Blair hobbled into the living room and sank onto the sofa. Jim joined him, pressing a bag of frozen carrots against the younger man's cheek.
"This is your idea of an ice pack?" Blair asked, his hand moving to hold the vegetables in place.
Jim shrugged. "We're out of ice." He leaned back and rested a bag of broccoli and cauliflower on his forehead.
With a sigh of resignation as well as a small smile, Blair eased back against the couch. Jim turned on the tv and set the volume on low, though not so low Blair couldn't hear it. The local news was on and after a couple minutes of watching, they showed a shot of the park where the assault had occurred.
"Do you think it'll get better?" Blair asked softly.
"You'll be as good as new in a week or so," Jim replied.
"No, I mean with the other cops."
Though Jim understood the reason for the shunning, he still felt the sharp ache of betrayal. His headache renewed its throbbing. "I don't know." He kept his gaze on the tv. "It's an unwritten rule in a cop's handbook. Once a cop is deemed unable or unfit to back up another, the others make sure that he doesn't get any back-up either."
"That's not fair. It wasn't your fault."
Jim snorted. "C'mon, Sandburg, you know life isn't fair. You make do with what you get handed to you."
"And if life hands you lemons, you make lemonade."
"I hate to tell you this, Chief, but the world isn't defined on the front of a t-shirt."
"Oh, I don't know, Jim. You strike me as a 'Runs with scissors' type of guy."
Jim couldn't help but chuckle and felt some of the day's tension slip from his shoulders. He glanced at his watch and saw it was nearly six o'clock. "How about Chinese for dinner and the ball game on ESPN?"
The evening passed uneventfully and when Blair fell asleep during the football game and slumped against Jim, the sentinel only shifted so Blair's head rested more comfortably on his thigh.
The phone's abrupt ring startled Jim out of his sleep and he fumbled for the receiver beside his bed. "Ellison," he muttered.
"Uh, is Blair Sandburg there?" a man's voice asked.
Jim lifted his wrist to see the time -- five fifty three a.m. He rolled his eyes. "Hold on."
He threw back the covers and pushed to his feet, no small accomplishment as his body made every year of his forty years apparent. Muscle aches and pains, as well as the dull thudding of the headache he hadn't been able to lose overnight, robbed him of his usual agility. Padding down the stairs on bare feet with his knees cracking on every step, Jim carried the cordless to Blair's bedroom. He leaned over the student who was sprawled across the bed with one leg sticking out from under the covers and snoring with little airy rasps.
"Hey, Chief. Phone call," Jim said, shaking Blair's shoulder.
The effect was instantaneous as Blair shot up to a sitting position, but it was quickly followed by a loud groan. "Oh, shit!"
"Take it easy. Those ribs aren't going to heal with you moving like that."
Blair glared at Jim but the effect was lost as his curls spilled across his face, making him look like a ragamuffin. "No shit." He took the phone for Jim's hand. "Hello."
Jim left the small bedroom and stopped in the bathroom to relieve himself. He lifted the robe off the hook behind the door and shrugged it on over his boxer-clad body. He considered listening in on Blair's conversation, but his sense of honor wouldn't allow him. Besides, God knew the kid had very little privacy living with someone who could distinguish even the most trivial sound and scent within a hundred yard radius.
Jim's alarm was set for six fifteen so it seemed a waste of time to go back to bed. Instead, he went into the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. His vision adjusted to the darkness so he didn't turn a light on.
Just as the coffee started to brew, he heard Blair's quick intake of breath followed by movement into the bathroom. A few minutes later Blair emerged and trudged into the kitchen.
"Something wrong, Chief?" Jim asked quietly.
Blair started, eliciting another groan of pain. "How come you don't have the light on?"
"Didn't need it."
Jim clearly saw the smile form on the kid's face. "I forgot."
Jim's irritation at being awakened before six a.m. abated. Blair was here to study a sentinel, yet he had forgotten that for a moment. "So?" Jim prompted.
Blair continued into the living room. "Watch your eyes, man. I need some light." He flicked the small lamp on, creating a pool of illumination in the middle of the darkness. Sinking into the couch with a hissed grimace, Blair sat uncomfortably hunched over. "That was Professor Stoddard. He's the head of the Anthro department at Rainier. Ann Parker, the TA scheduled for the Anthro 101 class had to go into the hospital for an emergency appendectomy last night. Professor Stoddard asked me to take the class for the semester."
"Why you?" Jim demanded.
"I usually teach it." Blair gazed imploringly at Jim who had settled himself on the other couch. "I couldn't say no."
Jim's jaw muscle clenched. "How the hell are you going to teach when you can hardly move? And besides that, how can I protect you when you're standing in front of a class?"
"The class is only two hours three days a week"
Jim stood up to pace angrily. "Look, Sandburg, we have a crazy bomber running loose and she could be making you her next target." He stopped and leveled a finger at the anthropologist. "What if she decides to blow up the classroom where you're teaching?"
"That's not going to happen."
"How the hell do you know? Can you foresee the future now?"
Blair struggled to his feet and pinned a forefinger against Jim's terrycloth-covered chest. "You'll know, man. With your senses, you can scan the room and detect the scent of the explosives and hear the ticking of a timer."
Jim's eyes widened in comprehension, then they shuttered just as quickly. "What if I can't pick up the smell or sound? What if I zone like before?"
Blair's blue eyes blazed with conviction. "I'll be with you. You won't zone."
Jim wanted to believe him, but the thought of a roomful of students and Blair being blown to bits made his stomach cramp with dread.
"She won't have time to set anything up today since I just found out myself that I'll be teaching," Blair added.
"That only leaves the rest of the semester." Sarcasm dripped from his voice.
"Damn it, Jim, I owe Professor Stoddard. He believed in me when every other professor was laughing at my sentinel thesis proposal. He's done more for me than I can ever repay and I'm not going to refuse just because something might happen."
Frustration warred with gut-deep anxiety. Though it hadn't been intentional, he had pulled Blair into his world and made him a target. He hated that it had happened, but now that it did, he wasn't about to let Blair out of his sight. If he had to sit through some boring lectures, he would do so. But he sure as hell didn't have to like it.
"All right. You can teach your damned class but I'm not letting you out of my sight. I'll call Simon and tell him we'll be in late." Jim spun away from Blair and strode to the phone on the kitchen wall. He was aware of Blair's gaze drilling into his back and it only made him madder. Damn the kid for not taking the threat seriously.
Jim woke Simon and told him he would be in around ten thirty, after Blair taught his class. He could tell Simon wasn't happy about it, but he didn't argue. He only reminded Jim he had a report to do concerning the assault at the park yesterday and he needed it done ASAP.
When Jim turned around, Blair was gone and he expanded his hearing to listen to him move around in his room. His motions were interrupted by the occasional exhalation of breath when he aggravated his bruised ribs. Jim shook his head and returned to the bathroom to shower.
When he came out, he smelled eggs and toast. "I could've made breakfast this morning, Chief."
Blair shook his head even as he held an arm against his ribs. "I don't renege on my deals."
Exasperation was Jim's first reaction, but he shoved it aside in lieu of a new and stronger emotion -- taking care of his guide. "I never said you did. It's just that with those ribs, you've got to be hurting. And I'm sure you have some notes to go over or something for your class."
"I know the lectures by heart. All I need is five minutes to review the lesson plan." Blair slid two fried eggs onto Jim's plate and one on his own, then sat down at the table.
Once they were done eating, Jim picked up his and Blair's dishes. "Go shower, Chief. I'll take care of these."
"When you're done, I'll rewrap your ribs."
Blair tossed him a grateful nod then disappeared into the bathroom.
Half an hour later, they left the loft and drove to the university. Jim followed Blair down the basement corridor of Hargrove Hall. He expected to be inundated by scents again, but he was amazed to find he had automatically dialed down.
"You okay, Jim?" Blair asked with uncanny perception.
Blair flashed him a bright smile, recognizing Jim's own amazement. He unlocked his office door but before he could walk in, Jim grabbed his jacket and tugged him back. "Let me go first," Jim said.
After only a moment's hesitation, Blair nodded and stepped aside. "Use your senses, Jim," he instructed. "Do you hear anything?"
Jim cocked his head, heard nothing and shook his head.
"What about a smell that shouldn't be there?" Blair continued.
Jim's nostrils flared as he sniffed, identifying Blair's imprinted scents, the mustiness of artifacts and books, and some lingering cleaning odors. There was nothing that smelled like explosives. "It's all right."
Once inside the office, Jim cleared a chair of books and papers and sat down while Blair found his class notes in a file. It was fortunate the anthropologist had taught the class before so although he was a last-minute fill-in, he didn't have to frantically learn the material.
As Jim waited, he kept his senses dialed higher than normal, scanning for danger. The harsh clatter of something hitting the floor made Jim's head reel and he slapped his palms over his ears, but the damage had been done. He lowered his head between his knees as his stomach churned from what felt like a physical blow.
By small degrees he became aware of firm fingers massaging the back of his neck. A low melodious voice urged him to ease his hands from his ears and he did so cautiously. The tone became soothing words and the words sentences.
"That's right, Jim, ease it back. Breathe deep," Blair was saying.
Jim raised his head and Blair's hand stopped its motions, but remained resting on his back.
"What happened?" Blair asked.
Jim rubbed his brow, hoping his headache wouldn't balloon into a migraine. "I was listening, making sure Sarris wasn't anywhere close. Then there was this loud noise. Completely threw me."
The student's expression was grim. "That's one of the side effects of using your hypersenses -- laying yourself open to overload. There's got to be some way we can counteract it."
Jim could almost see the cogs turning in Blair's head. "If there is, you'll figure it out." He was unprepared for Blair's sudden retreat and the loss of contact made him flounder for a few seconds.
"I hate to tell you this, but I'm pretty much making it up as I go," Blair confessed.
"But what about all your books and studies?"
Blair scrubbed a hand through his unruly curls. "It's all theory, Jim. There's no sentinel hotline I can call. The best I can do is hope I'm not hurting you."
Jim sifted through his words. "So everything you've done to help me with my senses has been seat-of-the-pants guesses?"
Blair squirmed in his chair. "Educated guesses."
Jim waved a hand. "Whatever." He studied Blair, astounded by the student's intuition. "That's pretty amazing, Chief."
Blair snapped his head up and bewildered blue eyes met Jim's gaze. "I thought you'd be mad."
"Geezus, Sandburg, why would I be mad? You saved me from a one way trip to a psych ward."
"Come on, Jim, that wouldn't have happened."
"Yes, it would have, Blair," Jim said somberly. "You saw me on the island. I was certain I was losing my mind and was ready to kill myself before that happened."
Jim almost felt the shudder that rippled through the anthropologist. "You wouldn't have killed yourself," Blair stated, his voice trembling. "You're too strong a person to do that."
"The night you found me all my strength was gone. You loaned me yours to continue; you gave me hope, something I had given up on." Jim glanced away, suddenly feeling uncomfortable after the heartfelt confession. He tried to take a deep breath but his lungs were too tight. Finally he was able to meet Blair's eyes. "As much as I'm a sentinel, you're a guide, Chief."
"No," Blair said quickly. "I'm only a student who has some knowledge about sentinels."
Jim detected a rise in his heart and breathing rates. "What are you scared of, Blair?" he asked softly.
The student laughed nervously. "You're imagining things, Ellison. I'm not scared of anything." He glanced at the clock on the wall. "I need to get to the lecture hall."
Jim pressed his lips together but didn't take Sandburg to task on his obvious topic switch. For some reason the idea that being a guide was as inherent as being a sentinel was terrifying the student. If Jim could accept his role, why couldn't Blair?
At the door to the lecture hall, Jim did a survey with his senses as Blair guided him. Once he gave the all-clear sign, he followed Blair down the steps to the stage where a podium was set up. About ten students were scattered in the seats already and Blair greeted them with a friendly smile and hello. Once Jim did one last scan from the stage, he clasped Blair's shoulder. "I'm going to sit in the back row so I can keep an eye on things."
Jim climbed back up the stairs and found a chair which gave him a good vantage point. By eight o'clock the hall was over half full and the scent of coffee permeated the air. It seemed everyone needed a caffeine jumpstart the first day of the semester. Blair waited until three minutes after eight before starting, then began by explaining why he was there and not the TA who had been listed in the prospectus. Once finished with that, he asked, "What is anthropology?"
And with that Blair launched into teaching with unbridled enthusiasm.
In spite of Jim's expectation of being bored stiff, he found himself as enthralled as the students who listened with rapt attention to the bundle of energy on stage. It was odd seeing Sandburg in his natural environment. Jim himself felt like a fish out of water, yet if Blair could integrate himself into the police culture, then surely Jim could make an attempt to understand this side of Sandburg's life.
He drew his gaze away from Blair and scanned the hall. A steady click-click-click caught his auditory attention and he tilted his head, zeroing in on the sound. He spotted his objective -- a woman toward the front of the room clicking a pen in her hand. Nothing too dangerous about that, except the rhythmic sound lulled him, tugged at him and he unconsciously centered his hearing on the hypnotic click-click-click....
Blair Sandburg was a natural born teacher. He loved being in front of a group of students, opening windows to worlds few of them had even cared to imagine. In the past, his anecdotes alone had won him many converts to anthropology who had only taken the class to fill in a needed box. As he stood at the front of the lecture hall, expounding on different cultures and philosophies, he soon forgot about his injuries and the threat of Veronica Sarris, but not once did he forget about the sentinel doing what he did as natural as breathing -- watching over his tribe.
Blair glanced at the clock on the wall and noticed he had ten minutes left. He looked over at Jim and what he saw made his heart miss a beat. Jim was staring unseeing, unmoving -- he had fallen into a zone-out.
"All right, class. Read the first chapter and answer the questions at the end for Wednesday," Blair said, his hands and knees trembling. He had to get rid of the students before they noticed Jim.
"When are your office hours?" a pretty blonde coed asked with an especially bright smile.
Any other time, Blair would have been happy to play the flirting game, but not now. "I haven't set them up yet. I'll let you know Wednesday. Class dismissed."
His first instinct was to race up the stairs to Jim's side, but common sense intervened -- he would only draw more attention to him. Instead, he fretted and paced and answered a couple more questions with uncharacteristic brusqueness. Finally, the last student exited the hall and Blair, oblivious to his aching ribs, hurried up to the sentinel. He knelt in front of him, placing his hands on Jim's knees.
"Jim, you have to come back now," he began, his low calm voice in direct contrast to the panic that threatened to rob his breath. "Come on, buddy, I don't know which sense you zoned on so I'm not sure what to do here. Did you see something? Or was it smell? Maybe hearing?"
Jim didn't so much as twitch an eyelash but continued to stare glaze-eyed at nothing.
Blair raised one hand to the detective's face, resting his palm against the too-cool cheek. How long had he been in this fugue state? What had set him off? He rubbed Jim's whisker-stubbled cheek gently. "I want you to follow my voice back, Jim. Can you do that? Come back to me, buddy."
Jim's breathing stuttered and grew stronger. Finally he blinked a few times and was startled to see Blair kneeling in front of him. Comprehension struck a split second later. "Damn it!" He stood so fast, Blair had to scramble out of his way, hissing in pain at the pull to his damaged ribs.
Jim quickly squatted beside him. "Shit. Sorry, Chief." He helped Blair up as the student grimaced. Jim's hands ghosted over his torso. "Are you okay?"
Blair nodded as he pressed his lips together and breathed through his nose, gathering his composure. "Yeah, yeah. I'm okay." He lifted his gaze to Jim. "How about you? Do you remember what you zoned on?"
Jim swallowed, his Adam's apple dipping up and down his tanned throat. "A girl was clicking her pen."
The anguish in Jim's expression brought a wave of sympathy, but Blair knew better than to express it. Instead, he said, "That's understandable."
"God, Chief, how can I live like this? I mean, I thought I had gained control and something as simple as a pen clicking throws it all out the window."
Blair grasped his arms, feeling the rigid muscles beneath the layers of cloth. "You are gaining control, Jim. Remember when we got back to Cascade? You couldn't leave your apartment without zoning. Think how far you've come, Jim."
"But will it ever be far enough?" Jim asked, his voice husky.
The student wanted to reassure him and tell him that total control would happen in time, but he would be lying. As he had admitted earlier, he was flying by the seat of his pants -- following some weird intuition to help the sentinel. "I don't know," Blair finally answered honestly, and added with more than a hint of reluctance. "Maybe a sentinel will always need someone to help them with his or her senses."
Jim rubbed his brow, his expression a study in frustration and despair. "Just because I'm some kind of throwback doesn't mean you or someone else has to be dragged down with me." He spun around. "Come on. We have to get to the station."
"I need my stuff, man."
Jim paused, but didn't turn around. "I'll wait here for you."
Troubled, Blair stared at the sentinel's broad back for a long moment, noting the tension in his stiff shoulders and locked knees. Never in his life had Blair even considered settling down. His life was like the proverbial tumbleweed. He didn't know how to commit to anything. He had never had a relationship with a girlfriend last longer than a month. How could he think he could give Jim any more?
Because he's my sentinel and I'm his guide .
Blair dashed the ludicrous thought away and walked down to get his notes from the podium. He couldn't be Jim's guide -- the sentinel needed someone who wouldn't desert him, not a twenty-seven-year-old graduate student who broke out in a cold sweat if he had to sign a lease for longer than three months.
No, he would help Jim gain the mastery he needed over his senses and Blair would write his paper, get his dissertation and those three letters after his name; then it would be good-bye Cascade.
And good-bye James Ellison.
Jim finished his report on the incident in the park. He rubbed his brow, fighting the same headache which had been teasing him since his zone-out during Blair's lecture. The lapse frightened him in a way different than past zone-outs. If he couldn't control his senses by himself, he would be destined to madness. There was no way he could ask Blair to surrender his whole life and become his guide.
"How's the headache?" Blair asked in a low voice.
"It's there," Jim replied off-handedly. "I'm all right."
The midnight blue eyes which studied him were too steady, too unnerving and Jim stood to escape them. "Cup of coffee?"
Blair nodded. "Sounds good."
"Be right back."
Jim stopped by Rhonda's desk and handed her the completed report. She assured him she would give it to him as soon as the captain returned from a meeting. Before he made it to the breakroom, Brown ambushed him.
"Hey, Jim, want to get some lunch with Rafe and me?" Brown asked.
Jim glanced back at Sandburg, who looked smaller, more vulnerable in the bullpen. "Uh, well..."
"Bring your partner, too," Brown said, reading him too well. "We haven't had much chance to get to know him."
Jim smiled, relieved. He didn't want to leave Blair by himself, but wasn't certain how Brown would feel about bringing him along. "Let me grab him."
He returned to the desk and Blair looked up. "Where's the coffee?" he asked.
"How about lunch with Brown and Rafe instead?"
Blair's gaze flickered over to the two detectives who were waiting more or less patiently for them. "They don't mind?"
"No. You're my partner," Jim stated. He turned to grab their coats, afraid of what he would see in Blair's face -- disapproval or gratitude? Or something else?
Blair stood and Jim's senses detected his nearly inaudible gasp and the increase of his heartbeat from the painful movement. He held up Blair's coat. "Put an arm in, Sandburg."
The student gingerly put first his right, then his left arm in the sleeves as Jim carefully lifted it over his shoulders. "Thanks, man."
Jim shrugged into his own coat. "No problem."
They joined Brown and Rafe and headed for the sandwich shop across the street which was frequented by many of the CPD. The four men went down the cafeteria line and found a table secreted in a corner.
After some comments about the food, Brown said, "We heard what happened yesterday."
Jim's jaw clenched and he forced himself to relax. "You know how it is, H."
Brown leaned across the table. "It's not right, man. If I woulda been in the area, I would've backed you up, Jim."
"I know, but you're in a minority."
H snorted. "Gee, did you just notice?" His double meaning was obvious and the other men laughed.
"Is that practice common?" Blair asked in the lull that followed. "I mean, it seems to me you're all in the brotherhood, y'know?"
"Where'd you find him, Ellison?" Brown asked. "He fall off a turnip truck or something?"
Blair's face flushed. "I never thought about there being divisions between officers due to behavioral transgressions."
"What exactly is your dissertation subject?" Rafe asked curiously.
"The sub-cultures of a closed police society."
Brown whistled low. "Sounds impressive." He looked at Jim. "How'd he end up being paired with you?"
Jim blanked. What lie could he give?
"Actually, it was Joel Taggert's fault," Blair broke in. "I was visiting this fishing island where Joel owns a bar and through him I met Jim. We got talking and since Jim was coming back to Cascade, I asked him if he would mind me tagging along. He said no problem."
"Who are you? And what have you done with the real James Ellison?" Brown teased Jim.
Though Jim laughed, a part of him asked the same questions. Who was the real James Ellison? Before his senses came on-line, he knew who he was. Now, he wasn't certain of anything except that Blair helped him when no one else could.
The four men visited and joked as they ate and when it was time to return to the station, the foundation of new friendships had been forged.
The next two days passed uneventfully. Jim accompanied Blair to his class on Wednesday morning, but this time he didn't zone. The same young woman began to click her pen, but Blair had given Jim the mental tools to escape a zone-out. Ten o'clock came faster than Jim would have imagined. He had enjoyed Blair's lecture, learning some new things himself. It was obvious Sandburg was a master storyteller and the younger man wove his spell around his students, enlarging their minds and challenging them to think outside the box.
Once the last student had left the lecture hall, Jim trotted down the stairs to join Blair. "You're a good teacher, Chief," he said.
Blair's smile was instantaneous. "I love doing it. It's kinda like a drug -- makes me high."
"Ready for some boring down-to-earth policework?"
Before Blair could answer, Jim's cell phone rang abruptly. "Ellison." He listened to Simon's words then said, "We'll go over and talk to him." He clicked his phone shut. "Acme Construction Company said they sold some explosives to a private party last week."
Blair closed his backpack and swung it over a shoulder. "I guess my suggestion wasn't so stupid after all, was it?"
Jim frowned and grabbed Blair's forearm as the student tried to sweep past him. "What?"
"Nothing," the anthropologist replied, not meeting Jim's gaze.
"You're upset so it's obviously something."
"How can you tell?" Blair challenged.
"I can just tell."
"It's something with your senses, isn't it? Is the scent different? Heartbeat? What?"
Jim shook his head and studied Blair's face which was now mottled with fading purple and yellow bruises from Sunday's fight. "No dice, Chief. This isn't about my senses. This is about why you're pissed off."
Blair's shoulders slumped. "It's nothing, Jim. Really. Just me being stupid." When Jim's steady eyes didn't waver, Blair sighed. "Remember when I suggested the construction companies?"
Jim nodded, his worry giving rise to impatience. "I remember I felt like an idiot for not thinking of it myself, and that it was a damned good idea."
Blair's blue eyes widened almost comically. "You didn't tell me that."
Jim shrugged. "Why should I?" Comprehension struck him alongside the head. "You're pissed because we didn't thank you for your help."
Blair's red face confirmed Jim's guess.
"I didn't even think about it, Chief. I mean, it's just part of doing our job."
"But it's not my job." He raked a hand through his unruly curls. "God, I feel like a little kid who didn't get picked for the soccer team."
Jim wrapped his arm around Blair's shoulders, surprising them both. "I'm sorry, Chief. It was a good idea and I should've said something earlier." He grinned. "And it netted us a lead."
"Not bad for a college student, huh?"
"Don't let it go to your head, Darwin." Jim glanced at Blair, hoping he took his words in the teasing way he had meant them. The smile that tugged at the kid's lips told him he did. "Let's go. Maybe we can finally put an end to the Switchman once and for all."
Half an hour later, Jim and Blair entered the Acme Construction Company office. They were shown into the manager's office and shook hands with the barrel-chested man who looked like he had spent more than his share of time on the front lines of the construction business.
"We're interested in the person who bought the materials for explosives," Jim began after he and Blair had sat down.
Leo Callahan shrugged beefy shoulders beneath a wrinkled dress shirt. "Not much to tell. He had a permit to buy explosives so we sold him what he wanted."
Jim frowned. "It was a man?"
"Yeah. Went by the name of--" Callahan shuffled around the papers on his desk and snatched one from the bottom. "--James Ellison. Hey, isn't that strange? Another James Ellison?"
The blood drained from Jim's face and he struggled to regain his composure. "Can you tell me what he looked like?"
"He was kinda small, like your partner there. Seemed awfully young, but he knew his explosives. I could tell. Been an explosives man myself."
"Hair? Eyes? Any distinguishing characteristic?"
"Other than being small and young looking, nothing out of the ordinary. Blue eyes, brown hair about collar length. Wore a ball cap and a heavy coat that seemed kinda strange since it was warm that day, but I figured he just got cold easy."
Jim forced himself to remain professional. "Is there an address or phone number for this, uh, Ellison person?"
Callahan nodded. "I'll have Helen make a copy of this for you." He rose and strode out the door.
Blair leaned close to Jim. "Sarris has a hell of a nerve."
Jim nodded, his jaw muscle taut. "She knew I'd show up here sooner or later. She's just playing with me, like she did last time."
Blair gave his forearm a quick squeeze. "But this time you have an edge, man."
Callahan returned and handed Jim a photocopy of the order for the explosives. The detective scanned it, noting the address was in an old warehouse district.
"Thanks, Mr. Callahan. We appreciate your cooperation," Jim said as he rose. He shook the manager's hand.
"No problem, Detective. I'm always glad to help the police."
Jim and Blair left the office and didn't speak until they were seated in the truck.
"Can I see the address?" Blair asked.
Jim handed him the paper and started the truck. Abruptly, Blair's heartbeat spiked and Jim instinctively reached for him. "What is it?"
"That address -- I used to live there," Blair replied hoarsely.
Jim shifted the truck in reverse and backed out of his parking place then headed for the address. "What were you doing living in a warehouse?"
Blair spread his arms. "Where else could I get ten thousand square feet for 850 a month? How the hell did she find out?"
"Got into public records. An old phone book. Maybe she talked to people at the university."
Blair's tight fists rubbed his thighs. "Wouldn't somebody have recognized her? I mean, her picture was all over the news."
"That was a year ago, Chief. People forget."
Fifteen minutes later they arrived at the address where dilapidated buildings populated the area. "Geezus, Sandburg. How the hell could you live here?"
The student shrugged. "It wasn't so bad, except for the rats." He shuddered and held up his hands two feet apart. "Biggest damn rats you've ever seen."
Jim rolled his eyes. "Only you, Chief." He opened his door and stepped out. Blair immediately joined him. "I want you to stay close. No telling what we'll find in there."
"No problem, man. Remember -- extra appendage?"
Despite the situation, Jim couldn't help but grin. His humor faded as he reached behind him to lift the revolver from his holster. With Jim leading, they moved stealthily towards the door. "Where does this lead?"
"Into a big open area with stairs on the right. At the top of the stairs was my place."
The security lock had been broken and the door opened under Jim's hand. The inside was lit only by skylights which cast rectangular boxes of light downward, dispersing and withering as they reached for the floor. Dust motes flitted in and out of the sun's rays and Jim looked away before he zoned on the particles. He scanned the large area, but spotted nothing but old crates and evidence of four-legged rodents.
He continued toward the stairs and started upward. The wood creaked its complaints but held his weight and Jim climbed to the top, always cognizant of Blair's presence behind him, a steadying hand on his back.
"That's the door into my place," Blair said softly.
Jim nodded and tilted his head, listening for anything that might be on the other side. He heard a faint electronic ticking sound and dialed up his sense of smell.
"Bomb!" He wrapped an arm around Blair's shoulders and half carried, half dragged him down the stairs. How much time did they have? The door they had entered had swung shut and a white piece of paper tacked to the back of it caught his eye: SARRIS EXTERMINATION.
For a split second, he thought the door had been locked behind them, but the knob turned and he shoved Blair out, following and shielding him as they escaped the warehouse. The first whoosh nearly deafened him and he dialed down -- not a moment too soon as the concussion caught them. A blast of heat and compressed air knocked him forward against Blair and the two men tumbled to the ground. Jim blanketed Blair with his body as debris rained down upon them.
Their world shrank, consisting only of heat and fire and falling wreckage. The smell of gas lines rupturing and wood burning threatened to choke Jim and he forced himself to concentrate on Blair's scent -- sweat and herbal shampoo and fear and the Mocha Java he had drunk on the way to the university that morning.
Finally after what seemed like an eternity, Jim was roused by the sound of sirens drawing nearer. His entire body ached but he was aware of the warmth emanating from the figure beneath him. Stifling a groan, he rolled off the student and managed to sit up. Blair gingerly pushed himself up, holding an arm around his ribs.
"You okay, Chief?" Jim asked, surprised by his raspy voice.
"I'll live." He used a dirty hand to shove his long hair back from his face. "How about you?"
"I'll live," Jim echoed with a grim smile.
"What about your senses?"
"They're okay, Chief. I had them dialed down when the bomb went off."
"Good." Blair lifted his gaze to the warehouse which was now engulfed in flames. "How did you know?"
"I heard a ticking and smelled the explosives."
"We would've been killed if you didn't have your sentinel senses," Blair said quietly, his gaze steady on his friend.
With a start, Jim realized the student was right. He shuddered as he was struck with the realization of how close Sarris had come to killing him and Sandburg. Fear punched the air from his lungs. It wasn't his death that terrified him, but Blair's. The student had his whole life ahead of him, and if Jim was any judge of character, it would be a life full of discovery and sharing newfound knowledge with others. It would be a tragedy if his young life was snuffed out before he could fully realize his potential. If that happened, the fault would be Jim Ellison's alone.
"Jim," Blair spoke in a low voice.
"Blame yourself for this. I chose to be with you."
How in the hell had Sandburg known what he was thinking? He stared at the student and his image blurred and was overlaid by a wolf's. The detective blinked and Blair became Blair again. This was the second time he had imagined the damned animal -- what did it mean?
Jim ignored the comment and rose to his feet, grunting at the complaints from his forty-year-old body. He lent Blair a hand and aided him up, careful of the student's bruised ribs. "I hope I didn't hurt you."
Sandburg shook his head. "You saved my life, man."
Sirens became audible to Blair and the two men watched as two fire engines, a rescue squad, and two patrol cars as well as an unmarked CPD vehicle pulled in around the warehouse. The firemen set to work efficiently and Jim guided Blair toward the unmarked car. Simon Banks jumped out of the car, followed by another man -- one they hadn't expected to see here in Cascade -- Joel Taggert.
"Are you two all right?" Simon demanded as he ran over to them.
"We're fine, sir," Jim reassured.
"What the hell happened? How did you know she'd strike here next?"
As Jim answered his questions, Joel joined Blair and wrapped an arm around the younger man's shoulders. "You look like you went one on one with a grizzly bear," Taggert said, his brow creased with concern.
Blair grinned. "Nah, just a perp in the park three days ago."
"Perp? You are getting into this police stuff, aren't you?" Taggert asked, half teasing.
"It's amazing, Joel. I never knew what it was like to be on the other side of the law." Blair shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "Not that I've broken the law..."
Joel smiled. "I understand."
"What are you doing back here? Not that I'm not glad to see you. Are you rejoining the department, too?"
Joel smiled wanly. "No. I can't ever rejoin, unless I'm willing to take an administrative position and I couldn't do that. After you and Jim left, life got a little boring. I thought I'd come back to visit and see how things were going."
"I'm living with Jim in his spare room at the loft. Man, he has got so many house rules, you wouldn't believe it, but we get along." Blair smiled brightly. "It's kind of amazing since we're so different."
"Oh, I don't know. I could tell on the island that you were good for him, Blair. You brought out a side of him that I'd never seen in all the years I worked with him."
"How are you doing, Joel?" Jim greeted as he joined him and Blair.
Joel slapped his shoulder. "Good. And I don't even have to ask how you are -- I can tell you're doing a lot better now."
"I am, thanks." Jim glanced at Blair, the acknowledgment there in the older man's eyes.
Blair glanced away as the smoke made his eyes water... or at least that's what he told himself.
"One of the Switchman's?" Joel asked somberly, inclining his head toward the conflagration.
"Yeah. A present for Sandburg and I," Jim said through thinned lips.
Banks scowled. "So you think Sarris set this trap for you?"
"Yes, sir. The note on the door said Sarris Extermination." Jim gritted his teeth. "It was definitely a set-up."
"Damn it! We have to get a step ahead of her instead of trailing after her. Did the form have any other information?"
"A phone number." Jim withdrew the paper from his breast pocket. "555-5433." He reached into his jacket and pulled out his cell phone, then punched in the number. It rang four times and a recording came on.
Hello Captain Ellison. I'm sorry I'm not here to take your call but don't worry, I'm never far away. Just listen for the explosions. Then came the sound of maniacal laughter followed by the emptiness of a dial tone.
He clapped the phone shut and expanded his vision, searching for her among the rooftops.
"What is it?" Blair asked quietly.
"There was a recorded message. She said she's never far away," Jim replied.
Joel and Simon remained silent, watching Jim use his sentinel senses. Finally, Jim shook his head in frustration. "If she's out there, I can't find her."
The men remained together, watching the firemen battle the flames into submission. Jim had talked Blair into sitting in his truck since he knew the younger man had to be hurting. Jim himself only wanted to soak in a hot tub for a few hours, but he couldn't leave until he had gone through the rubble, searching for clues to Sarris' location.
It was five o'clock when Jim and Blair finished going over the scene. A piece of the bomb's casing yielded the faint scent Jim had smelled at the other sites. Forensics still had a team gathering physical evidence, but Blair was certain they would find nothing Jim had overlooked. After deciding to meet Simon and Joel at Charlie's Steakhouse at seven, Jim and Blair left.
The drive to the loft was made in silence and once there, Jim made Blair take first crack at the shower. Though he knew there probably wouldn't be any hot water left, Jim figured the student needed it more than he did. However, when Jim finally stepped in the shower, he was pleased to find Blair had left him some. The pounding warm water massaged his stiff muscles and when he came out of the bathroom to go upstairs to dress, Jim felt almost human again.
The supper at the restaurant was spent in pleasant company, with Blair sharing anecdotes of the many trips he'd taken while working on his anthropology degree. Jim sat back, saying little but enjoying the flow of conversation around him, especially Blair's voice which was both calming and vitalizing. The sentinel was glad to see Simon relaxing around the observer, but he suspected much of it was due to Joel's influence. Taggert genuinely liked Blair and since Simon trusted his instincts, some of the camaraderie spilled over onto the student.
By nine thirty, dessert had been eaten and the men called it a night. Joel said he would be in town for a little while and hoped to get together with them again. Blair assured him they would.
Back at the loft, Jim and Blair stumbled off to their beds, with the sentinel falling asleep to the rhythm of his guide's steady breathing in the room below him.
Blair awakened with a jerk in the middle of the night -- not the groggy I-haven't-had-my-coffee awake, but the wide awakeness that came with something being out of place. He listened intently for what had brought him out of his slumber.
If he hadn't been expecting it, the black jaguar would have scared the hell out of him. He stared into the cat's glowing eyes. "Does Jim need me?" Blair asked, his voice steady.
The jaguar growled and tossed its head. Feeling like he was walking in a dream world, Blair rose and followed the eerily silent cat up to Jim's room. Halfway up the stairs, Blair paused. What the hell was he doing? He could hear Jim snoring quietly -- why did the jaguar think he needed Blair?
As he stood on the staircase Jim began to toss and turn, and words Blair couldn't understand drifted down to him. Though he couldn't comprehend Jim's ramblings, he could fathom the desperation and fear in his tone. Blair hurried up the remaining steps, ignoring the complaints of his ribs as he leaned over Jim's flailing figure.
"Jim, can you hear me? You're having a nightmare. Wake up."
The sentinel's movements increased and his muttered ravings gained volume. Blair could catch a word here and there: "no... don't... don't hurt him." Then the man hollered and Blair stumbled back in surprise. The anguish resonating through Jim's tone drew Blair close again and he perched on the edge of the mattress and laid a hand on Jim's sweat-sheened shoulder. "Jim. Wake up! It's only a nightmare."
Finally, Jim's eyes flew open as he sat up, his frantic gaze darting around the room.
"It's okay, Jim. You're safe here."
Panting, Jim grasped Blair's arms. "Oh, God, you're all right." The last vestiges of the nightmare faded and the detective released the student with an embarrassed look. "It was only a dream."
"More like a nightmare." Blair peered into Jim's haunted eyes. "You want to talk about it?"
"It might help," Blair said softly.
"And it might not. Look, I'm all right, Chief. I appreciate you coming up here, but I'm all right."
Obviously the nightmare had frightened him badly and Jim Ellison didn't like to admit to fear. But Blair also suspected the nightmare had been about him. And there was the black jaguar... "I was in trouble, wasn't I?"
Jim scrubbed his face in his palms. "Please, Blair. Don't."
Blair grasped Jim's wrists, pulling his hands from his friend's face so he could look in his eyes. "You're a sentinel, Jim. That means you have heightened senses. You could have unknowingly picked up some smell or sound that your subconscious is trying to warn you about."
A bead of sweat rolled down the side of Jim's face and dripped onto his chest. "I saw your office, Chief. You were in there and she was there, but you didn't recognize her. I was standing behind her, yelling at you to get away, but you couldn't see me. Then she pulled a detonator out of her pocket and it was like the bus all over again. I zoned and she flicked the switch and it was your body being burned."
Blair didn't need super senses to know Jim's heart was thundering out of control. He leaned close, his lips a hairsbreadth from Jim's ear. "I'm here and I'm alive and I trust you to keep me safe."
Jim yanked out of his grasp. "Don't! You can't trust me, Blair. You know what happened with the bus."
Blair dropped his fisted hands into his lap and tamped down his impatience. "But you have control now. You won't zone. Trust me when I say I trust you."
Jim studied him, his expression giving away none of his thoughts. "Go back to bed, Sandburg. I'm okay."
Blair opened his mouth to argue, but one look at the sentinel's stubborn expression and he stood. "All right. Good-night, Jim."
"Good-night," Jim whispered after a second's hesitation.
His eyes accustomed to the moonlight streaming through the skylight, Blair went down the stairs without turning on a light and returned to his bed. He lay awake for a long time afterward, wondering why the jaguar had deemed Jim's nightmare serious enough to appear to him.
An hour before dawn when Blair fell into a restless slumber.
In the morning Jim was unusually quiet -- his somber mood making him irritable and his fuse shorter than normal. Fortunately, Blair didn't have a class to teach that morning. However, the appearance of the jaguar had reminded Blair he had to do some research into spirit animals, which required a trip to the library.
"I'd like to stop at the university library this morning," Blair announced as they ate breakfast in strained silence.
Jim shook his head. "I have to go in right away and get that report done."
"Can't it wait?"
The curt answer grated on Blair's own stressed nerves. "Then I'll go by myself and meet you at the station later."
Jim's blue eyes flashed. "You're not going anywhere by yourself, Sandburg. You'll just have to wait."
"I can take care of myself for a couple hours. In fact, I've been doing it for years."
"No, and that's final, Sandburg."
Blair simmered in silence. He had never had a father, and Naomi had put few restrictions on him. There was no way in hell he would allow Jim Ellison to order him around when he was an adult.
He stood and picked up their empty dishes, carrying them to the sink. "Fine. Let's get going then."
Blair threw on his jacket, grabbed his backpack and threw it over a shoulder, wincing only slightly. He stood by the door, tapping his foot impatiently because he knew Jim didn't like it. The sentinel didn't even look at him as he snatched his own coat from the rack and jerked it on.
At the station, the two men worked at Jim's desk though the typical comfortable silence wasn't there. In its place was the loud hum of anger vibrating between them. Blair hated it, but he had no intention of backing down. When he volunteered to help Jim, he hadn't planned to give up his life. He had a date tomorrow night and had no intention of canceling. Maybe he and Jim had been around each other too much -- working and living together for the past two weeks was bound to put a strain on any friendship. But especially two men so radically diverse in their views.
Joel showed up in the bullpen around ten and Blair welcomed the diversion from his murderous thoughts.
"Couldn't keep away?" Jim asked when Joel stopped by their desk.
"I told Simon I'd drop by and let him know my plans for the day."
"So what are your plans?" Blair asked curiously.
Joel shrugged. "I don't have any yet."
Blair arched an eyebrow but didn't say anything more.
Simon came out of his office and motioned Joel to join him.
"I'll catch you guys later," Joel said and strode into the office.
Jim stood. "I'll be back."
Blair frowned as he watched the tall man weave gracefully through the maze of desks. Those had been the most words Jim had spoken to him since their argument at breakfast. The student glared down at his class notes -- he had lesson plans up through the fourth week. He thought of the black jaguar and curiosity seized him, making him restless to find the answers he sought.
Joel came out of Simon's office and approached the desk. The big man smiled and shook his head. "Now I remember why I'm glad I'm not a cop anymore."
"So you don't miss it?" Blair asked.
Joel shrugged, sobering. "I don't miss the politics, but I do miss the detective work, putting the pieces together to solve the puzzle. I miss helping people."
"But at your pub, you do help people. Bartenders used to be as close to counselors as the average person got to and often times customers will spill their guts to a bartender rather than a loved one. Since it's believed that merely talking about problems can help a person work through them, bartenders are in effect helping people whether they know it or not simply by listening."
Joel shook his head in tolerant amusement. "Is there anything you don't know something about?"
Blair's cheeks heated with embarrassment, but he smiled cheekily. "Fixing toilets."
Joel's booming laughter filled the bullpen, causing more than one person to look at he and Blair.
"Can I ask a favor?" Blair asked after Joel's humor faded.
"What is it?"
"I want to go over to the university library but Jim thinks I need a babysitter with the Switchman running loose."
"He's got a good point, Blair," Joel said somberly.
"Maybe. But he's too busy to take me today."
"And you want me to go with you."
Blair nodded. "Please. I'm going to go crazy sitting here all day and I really really have to do some research."
Joel considered his request and nodded. "All right. But you'd better leave a note for Jim."
"Meet me in the hallway when you're done. I've got to make a pit stop," Joel said.
"Gotcha." Blair tore a corner of one of his pages of notes and told Jim he had gone to the library with Joel and they would be back by noon. Then he placed it in the center of Jim's desk where he wouldn't miss it.
Blair stood, grabbed his jacket and swung his backpack over a shoulder. He trotted out of the bullpen, not noticing the scrap of paper that fluttered off Jim's desk in the zephyr he left behind.
Jim strode into the Major Crime bullpen. He hadn't expected his task to last more than fifteen minutes but he had been gone for nearly two hours. Not seeing Blair beside his desk, Jim searched the bustling room for the student, but couldn't spot him. His eyes caught the empty place beside his coat and his gaze dropped to the floor where Blair's backpack had been. Nothing.
Jim's fingers curled into his palms. "Damn it, Sandburg, if you left..." He shoved the papers around on his desk, hoping Blair had left a note, but again there was nothing.
He barreled into Simon's office, pausing only to knock once. "Have you seen Sandburg?" he demanded without preamble.
The captain glared at him, showing Jim his displeasure at the abrupt intrusion. "Not lately. Why?"
"He's gone." Jim paced in front of Simon's desk.
"Didn't you tell him he could be a target?"
Jim stopped to glower at his captain. "Of course I did. We need to put out an APB on him."
"For what? Running away from James Ellison. C'mon, Jim. Have you talked to Brown or Rafe or any of the others? Maybe he said something to one of them."
Jim spun around and left the office without a word.
"I saw him get up and leave a little after nine," Brown replied to Jim's terse question.
"Was he with anyone?" Jim demanded.
Brown shook his head. "He was alone."
Simon walked up behind him. "He probably went to the university."
Jim recalled the argument he and Sandburg had that morning and another muttered round of expletives followed. He snatched his coat from its hook. "He wanted to go to the damned library this morning."
Jim stalked out of the bullpen, oblivious to everything except finding Blair and ensuring he was unharmed. Of course, Jim couldn't promise the student would remain that way after he found him.
Blair picked up the four books he decided upon. There had been quite a collection that referred to spirit animals since the phenomenon was common among many different cultures, both past and present. Three of the ones Blair chose were books specifically about South American peoples and their beliefs concerning spirit animals -- or guardians --while the fourth dealt with the appearance of said spirits among Native American tribes.
Joel, who had been reading Cigar Aficionado at Blair's table, stood and stretched. "Did you find what you were looking for?"
Blair grinned. "More than what I was looking for. I'm hoping I can find some answers now."
"I'm not even going to ask."
"That's probably a good thing."
A hand gripped Blair's shoulder and spun him around... bringing him face to face with an enraged sentinel. Jim grabbed his upper arms with a vice-like grip.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Jim's voice, though not loud, thundered across the library's hushed silence.
Blair's lungs sought air as his heart hammered in his chest. "Doing research," he finally managed to say.
"It couldn't wait until this evening? Damn it, Sandburg, don't you have any common sense at all?"
As Blair regained his aplomb, anger washed through him. "What the hell's your problem, Ellison? I left you a note."
"Geezus, Sandburg, you could come up with a better lie than that. There wasn't any goddamned note."
"It was on your desk. I left it there."
Joel stepped up and grabbed one of Jim's arms. "Settle down, Jim. Blair's telling the truth. I went to the restroom while he wrote you a note, then I drove him down here. I've been with him the whole time." Joel glanced around deliberately, noting the small audience which had assembled. "I suggest Blair check out his books and the three of us leave before we're kicked out."
Jim's jaw muscle clenched and unclenched. Blair could feel Jim's fingers pressing into his skin even through his three layers of shirts.
"Let go of me," Blair said in a low intense voice.
Jim blinked as if coming out of a zone and released Blair. He took a step back and crossed his arms, but didn't speak. Instead he merely tried to freeze the student with his icy blue gaze. However, Blair wasn't intimidated. He stalked past the sentinel to the circulation desk, where the librarian couldn't scan the books and his library card fast enough.
Ignoring Jim, Blair spoke to Joel, "Let's go."
Joel joined the student and they walked out of the library together, though Blair was aware of Jim close behind them. They stopped at Joel's car and Blair allowed himself to glance at the detective, only to find him using his senses to scan the area. Unexpected pride arose in Blair as he watched -- Jim was following his true path, the path of sentinel and protector. He was using his genetic gifts as it had been ordained hundreds, maybe thousands of years ago.
"I'll follow," Jim said brusquely and spun on his heel.
Blair took a deep breath and let it out in one long frustrated sigh.
"He's worried about you, Blair," Joel said softly.
"I know, but he has a helluva way of showing it."
"Maybe it's the only way he knows how to show it."
Blair met Joel's thoughtful brown eyes and nodded slowly. "Maybe."
From his truck, Jim had listened to their quiet words and his knuckles whitened as he gripped the steering wheel.
After dinner was eaten and the dishes done in tense silence, Blair retired to his room and settled on the futon with one of his spirit animal books. He tied back his hair and put on his glasses, much like a stevedore rolling up his sleeves before beginning his job. The student lost himself in the knowledge which flowed with the words. The various legends and lore of numerous cultures attributed almost everything to one animal or another. Blair read where many peoples believed that the paths of animals and humans often crossed, with animals teaching humans some new trick or bestowing a new piece of knowledge to their two-legged cousins.
He found a chart of animals and their "powers". The closest Blair could come to the black jaguar was a black cat which represented independence, grace and courage. He had to admit those qualities matched the James Ellison he knew. However, he could also see the moose's headstrong quality and the goat's stubbornness in the man, too.
Some time later, he heard Jim in the bathroom, then the silent thud of footsteps as he made his way upstairs to his bedroom. Blair glanced at his clock -- eleven thirty. Another half hour and he'd call it a night.
At three fifteen, Blair finally closed the last book and rubbed his eyes. The information he gleaned swam in his head. He learned that in most cultures, it was the shaman of a tribe who was the conduit through which spirit animals spoke to humans. So why did Blair see what he believed to be Jim's spirit animal? He was no shaman. Hell, he wasn't even a guide.
Or was he? And what if the two were connected?
"Whoa, overload, Sandburg," he muttered to himself.
He didn't have time to factor guides, shamans, animal spirits and sentinels into his work with Jim. It was enough that he was helping Jim gain control of his senses. Anything beyond that was pure fancy.
Blair stripped to his t-shirt and boxers, and crawled into bed. He fell asleep immediately but his dreams were filled with black jaguars and shamans and tribes protected by sentinels and guides.
Jim peered into Blair's room and barely suppressed a shudder at the chaos within the four walls. He had called Sandburg twice to get up and the student still slept. He picked his way carefully through the anthropologist's debris-littered floor and leaned over the sprawled figure to give his shoulder a shake. "C'mon, Sandburg, you're going to be late."
"Yeah, yeah," Blair muttered and pushed ineffectually at Jim's hand.
"Now, Sandburg. Up!" Jim yanked the covers off him.
"Okay, okay." Blair groaned as he sat up. "You're a bastard, Ellison. You know that?"
Jim grinned ferally. "I pride myself on it. Up and at 'em, Chief. You have a class to teach this morning."
Satisfied Blair wouldn't go back to sleep, Jim took a step back and his heel landed on a book. He picked it up and glanced down at the title -- "Discovering the Paths of Spirit Animals." A shudder of foreboding trickled down his spine and he fought to keep his voice even as he asked, "What's this?"
Blair squinted at the book Jim held up, then glanced down. "One of the books I picked up yesterday." He stood. "Did you leave any hot water?"
"No," Jim said automatically, unable to tear his gaze from the book.
He was only peripherally aware of Blair's glare. The student grabbed clean underwear and headed across the hall to the bathroom. Jim shook his ominous feeling aside and tossed the book back on the bed. Didn't anthropologists ever read things like Sports Illustrated or Tom Clancy novels?
Jim returned to the kitchen, but there was little to do since he had already eaten and cleaned up after himself. He refilled his coffee cup and leaned his shoulder against the kitchen post to stare out at the dawn's coral glow through the balcony windows. His thoughts returned to his reaction to the book on spirit animals and his slender fingers clenched the coffee cup tighter.
Although he didn't want to admit it to Sandburg, much less himself, Jim knew why the book had frightened him. He had had a dream last night, a strange dream in a place he had tried to forget and a world he had never quite understood -- Peru and Incacha's world of spirits. Despite having few memories of his eighteen months stranded in Peru, in his dream Jim had seen the jungle in shades of green so rich he could taste, smell and touch them. He had been running through the brush with fear and helplessness goading him faster and faster until the greens ran together in a thick goo and time slowed. A black jaguar appeared by his side, mewling and growling with equal amounts of ferocity, spurring him to continue on. Jim had been caught like a fly in a spider's web, unable to move -- feeling the terror grow within him.
Then he had seen it -- a gray wolf lying on its side, its ribs moving up and down in shallow painful breaths. He had to get to it, save it. He didn't know why, only that his very existence depended on the wolf's life. Jim turned to the jaguar and whispered, "Help me."
But it was too late. The wolf now lay still and unmoving, its eyes open but no longer seeing. Jim had thrown his head back and roared, his cry joining with the keening cry of the jaguar....
The memory of the dream overwhelmed Jim and he could smell the redolence of the jungle and feel the moisture seeping into his skin. But it was the absence of the wolf's heartbeat and the utter silence that cast its spell upon him...
"Jim, c'mon, man. We don't have time for a zone-out. Come back to me, buddy. Listen to my voice, concentrate on the touch of my hand." Blair's voice washed across him, drawing him back to reality and a reassuring heartbeat.
Jim closed his eyes against the sharp jab of pain in his brow. "Son-of-a-bitch."
"You okay?" Blair asked softly.
"Yeah, I'm fine." He opened his eyes to find compassionate blue eyes filled with concern aimed in his direction. Jim rested a hand on Blair's shoulder, wanting -- needing -- the physical connection. "I'm sorry, Chief."
Blair's eyes widened and he shook his head. "It's not your fault, man. These zone-outs are a side effect of being a sentinel." He paused, searching the detective's face. "What did you zone on?"
"I-I was remembering the dream I had last night," Jim replied, unable to lie.
"Was it the same nightmare you had before?"
"You want to talk about it?"
"No." Jim took a deep breath, forcing down the desperation which clawed at his insides. "Drink your breakfast, Sandburg." He steered the reluctant student toward the table where a glass filled with green glop sat.
"Oh, wow. Thanks, man," Blair said, then gave Jim a teacher's scolding look. "But don't think you're getting out of talking about what caused your zone." He took a drink then set the glass down, a green mustache above his upper lip. "I didn't know you knew how to make these."
"I don't. I guessed from the smells."
"Really? You could tell the amounts of the ingredients just by smell?"
Jim shrugged, almost embarrassed by the student's enthusiasm. "It's no big deal."
"No big deal? Two weeks ago you couldn't go into a grocery store without getting sick and you're saying this is no big deal?" Blair stood and shook his head. "Don't you realize how far you've come?"
Jim's stomach churned. "I'm sure the families of the people on the bus will be happy to see how far I've come."
Blair grabbed his arm and with surprising strength, jerked him around to face him. "I'm sorry those people died, but that's in the past, Jim. You did what you could and you even saved some lives that day. And in the future your senses will allow you to save even more."
The too-familiar blackness threatened to suffocate Jim. "But the price was too damned high," he whispered hoarsely. He dumped the rest of his coffee down the drain and spoke gruffly, "Let's go, Sandburg."
Blair stood frozen in place, torn between compassion and angry frustration. He stomped into his room and grabbed his backpack, then joined Jim. The two men made the drive to Rainier in silence.
"Have a great weekend and don't forget to read the next two chapters." Blair dismissed his class.
He jammed his notes into his backpack with more force than necessary, overly conscious of Jim's presence in the top row overseeing his territory. Blair sighed; that wasn't fair. The sentinel was only trying to keep him safe. At first, he had been warmed by Jim's concern for his safety, but as the week had degraded, Blair was feeling suffocated by the man's overwhelming role of protector.
Blair climbed the stairs and met Jim at the top. "I have to stop at my office for something," the anthropologist said firmly, intending to argue if Jim didn't agree.
The older man's acquiescence surprised Blair, but he quickly covered it up and led the way to the artifact room which served as his office. He held out the key, intending to unlock the door, but Jim's hand on his arm stayed the motion.
"What?" Blair demanded.
"That smell -- the same one I smelled at the bombed sites -- I smell it here."
Blair's heart climbed into his throat. "Is there a bomb in there?"
Jim shook his head. "I don't know."
Blair forced himself to be calm. "You need to expand your sense of smell, see if you can detect any explosives." He laid a hand on Jim's forearm. "Go on, man. I'll guide you back if you go too deep."
After a moment of hesitation, Jim closed his eyes and lifted his head as he sniffed the air.
Blair gave him a minute, then said quietly, "Okay, Jim, dial it down and come back to me."
Jim opened his eyes, no hint of a post zone-out in his expression. "I didn't smell anything, but I'm not going to take any chance, not after the warehouse." He swept Blair behind him with one hand. "Stay back."
Blair didn't argue. Jim drew his gun, and with his weapon in his right hand he unlocked the door with his left and slowly swung it open. Blair peered around Jim's body. "Do you see anything?"
Jim shook his head. "No. Looks clear."
A folded paper on the floor caught Blair's eye and he scooped it up, recognizing Katie's handwriting. He shoved the note into his backpack.
"What's that?" Jim demanded.
"Just a note from one of my students," Blair obfuscated. He wasn't about to tell Jim about his date -- the anthropologist needed a break and going out with Katie would provide him the needed distraction. He hadn't figured out what he was going to tell the sentinel yet, but he knew he would come up with something.
"Sarris obviously knows where you work," Jim said bitterly. "She probably came down here just to check it out."
"What's she planning?" Blair asked rhetorically.
Jim shook his head. "I wish I knew." He paused. "Better get what you needed so we can get back to the station."
Blair pulled two books from one of the shelves and joined Jim at the door. "I'm ready."
"More stuff on animal spirits?" Jim asked.
Blair's expressive face shut down.
"What's the big attraction?" Jim pushed.
"Nothing." Blair locked the door behind them and started down the hall as he called over his shoulder. "I thought you were in a hurry."
He wasn't about to tell Jim that the sentinel had his own personal 911 in the form of a black jaguar. The pragmatic detective would get a laugh out of that one... after he stuffed Blair into a wraparound white coat.
However, once in the truck, Jim wasn't about to let Blair off the hook. "Come on, Chief. Spill. Why are you so interested in spirit animals?"
Blair rubbed his jaw as he stared out the windshield. If he didn't tell him, Jim would razz him to death about it. "Remember our first night back in Cascade when you zoned?"
Jim nodded warily.
"I was in my office going through one of my boxes when I got this feeling someone else was in the room with me. Then I saw this big black cat, a jaguar, I think."
Jim swerved the truck slightly as he snapped a look at the student. "What?"
"Yeah, I was pretty blown away myself. I figured I must've lost it, but it wasn't like it was threatening me. It was then I knew you were in trouble. The cat disappeared through my office door and I didn't see it again until I was right outside your apartment."
Jim hard gaze was aimed straight ahead and his hands were locked on the steering wheel. "What kind of drugs were you on that night, Sandburg?"
Unbidden anger rose in Blair. "Damn it, Jim. I knew you were going to be an asshole about this."
"About what? Figments of your demented imagination?"
Blair turned on the bench seat to face Ellison as he struggled for control of his temper. If Jim didn't understand something or if he was afraid, the detective would lash out. Hadn't Blair learned that the evening he met Jim on the high cliff? When Blair had tried to explain the sentinel's senses, Jim had come out fighting.
"First off, even my imagination isn't that good. Secondly, I have not nor do I intend to do drugs." Blair took a deep breath. "And thirdly, I saw the jaguar again right before you almost got hit by the ambulance and a third time at the park after I called 911. Each time you were in trouble."
A slab of granite had more expression than Jim Ellison.
The silence was broken by the soft patter of raindrops on the glass and metal, the swish-swish of the windshield wipers and the low whine of tires on wet pavement.
"So you think this, uh, jaguar is a spirit animal?" Jim finally asked.
"I think it's your spirit animal."
"Is this another sentinel thing?"
Blair shrugged. "I don't know. Probably. That's why I've been doing research."
Jim turned into the underground police parking lot and the sudden cessation of raindrops on the cab made for deafening quiet. The detective pulled into an open slot and turned off the engine. "I think it's a bunch of crap."
First startled by his tone, Blair's surprise quickly turned to irritation. "Because it can't be quantified? Or because the great Jim Ellison is afraid to admit there might be some truth to it?"
Jim's eyes blazed. "What do you expect me to say, Sandburg? First you try to convince me these sentinel senses are some god-given wonderful gift, then you start spouting off about invisible animals. Hell, I didn't even believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny when I was a kid."
"I'm sorry," Blair said gently, his own anger defused by Jim's confession.
"I don't need your goddamned pity, Sandburg." Jim got out of the truck and slammed his door.
"I'd never pity you, Jim. Never," Blair said softly. He jumped out of the truck, closing his door with a bit more restraint. He followed the stiff-shouldered sentinel into the police building and up to the seventh floor.
The morning passed with Jim making phone calls and Blair rereading one of his books on shamanism and frantically jotting down notes. At noon, Joel stopped in, and he, Simon, Jim, Blair, Brown and Rafe went to a diner down the block to have lunch.
By the time they returned to Major Crime, Blair's stomach was complaining bitterly about the chicken sandwich he had eaten. It had been greasier than what the student was accustomed to and wasn't sitting well. As the five cops talked shop in the bullpen, Blair excused himself and nearly ran into the bathroom. He swallowed convulsively a few times and managed to keep the food down. He splashed cool water on his face and felt a little better, though now a headache was making itself known.
The door to the bathroom opened and a uniformed cop entered. He seemed startled to see Blair, but then the man gave him a friendly nod as he strode to a urinal. "I hear you're an observer."
Though the man didn't sound malicious, a tendril of unease wound through the student. "That's right."
"Too bad you got stuck with Ellison."
Blair's unease increased and righteous anger joined in. "Why?"
The patrolman tucked himself back in and zipped up. "Word is he's lost his nerve. Left the force for almost a year after he messed up and got people killed."
"That wasn't his fault."
"Then whose was it? He could've taken out the Switchman before she blew up that bus." The cop finished drying his hands and tossed the paper towel in the garbage. "You seem like a good kid so I'll give you some friendly advice. Find somebody else to ride with before he gets you killed, too." The man pushed out the door, leaving Blair alone once more.
The student's stomach churned, but it wasn't due to his lunch this time. How many others believed the same thing about Jim? If the patrolman's attitude had been that of a jerk, Blair would have been able to dismiss him and his warning; but the cop had seemed genuinely worried about his welfare.
No wonder Jim wore such a stoic expression around the department. He had to hear what was being said about him. Blair let out a shaky breath and sluiced some more water across his face. If only Blair had found him before the Switchman had succeeded in nearly destroying James Ellison...
Jim had automatically traced Sandburg's location by the sound of his heartbeat. He listened in on the warning the cop gave Blair and ice-cold fear coiled around the sentinel's chest. Would he be the cause of Blair's death, too? Sarris had found out where Blair used to live; had been to his office; she knew where he worked and where the two of them lived. The only reason she would target Blair was because of him, James Ellison, the man who had failed her father and six other men in the jungles of Peru; the man who had allowed eleven people to die in a bus on a bridge in Cascade.
No, he wasn't going to let her get Blair, too. The student's life had become far too precious far too fast for a loner like Jim. He had to insure that Blair would live long enough to earn his PhD and gain a professorship at some prestigious university. Sandburg had a hell of a future ahead of him as long as Jim kept him alive.
And I will, Jim vowed. No matter what.
Blair returned to the bullpen, his face too white and little tremors skittering through him.
"You look like hell Chief," Jim said.
Blair folded his arms over his belly. "I'm never going back to that diner."
"You want me to take you back to the loft?"
"I thought you were behind on your work."
Jim shrugged. "I am, but if you're not feeling good..."
"Blair's not feeling good?" Joel asked as he joined them.
"Must've been something I ate," Blair said. "Why can't Joel give me a ride home? Then you can stay here and work."
"No," Jim exploded. "She knows where we live."
"How about if I take Blair over to my hotel room? Then you can pick him up on your way home this evening," Joel suggested.
"That's a good idea," Blair said.
Jim eyed the student who seemed almost too anxious to leave. But, then, could he blame the kid? He recalled the warning Blair had been given in the bathroom. Hell, the student had signed on as a babysitter, not as a pawn for a mad bomber to use against Jim. The tall detective nodded. "Yeah, it is. Thanks, Joel."
Blair seemed taken aback that Jim gave in so easily. It wasn't that Jim didn't want or need him, but it wasn't fair to the kid. After Sarris was caught -- and Jim would do so one way or another -- he planned on cutting Blair loose. Jim would then resign from the force for real this time and disappear, maybe return to Peru. He had felt a sort of peace there among the Chopec -- it would be more than he would have here after Blair left.
Jim forced a smile. "Go on, Chief. I'll be all right. I should be there around eight to pick you up."
After Blair and Joel left, Jim settled down at his desk. He had three unsolved cases besides the Switchman's and all of them required some old-fashioned boring police work, which was about the only kind Jim could do without his guide beside him.
As soon as they arrived at Joel's hotel room, Blair headed for the sofa, but Joel grabbed his arm and steered him toward the bed that was in a separate room. "Lie down here. You'll be more comfortable."
"Thanks, man." Blair dropped his backpack beside the bed and removed his shoes before lying down.
Joel grabbed a spare blanket from the closet and tossed it over the student. "Is there anything else you need?"
"No, this is great."
Joel patted his shoulder. "Get some sleep."
Blair yawned and closed his eyes. He listened to the big man return to the front area and turn on the tv, lowering the volume to a point to where Blair could hear the set, but couldn't understand the words. He tried to sleep, but his thoughts wouldn't decelerate even though his body had powered down to standby.
His life had changed dramatically since stumbling across Jim Ellison. His world, which had revolved around the university and his student friends now seemed shallow compared to the relationship he shared with Jim. Joel, Brown and Rafe were also a surprise to Blair. Although he knew they probably wouldn't have looked at him twice on the street, they accepted him and the student was fairly certain it wasn't simply because he was Jim's unofficial partner. That may be Captain Banks' reason, but not theirs.
Jim had become a far more important part of his life than Blair had ever imagined, but not because of what he was, but more importantly because of who he was. Jim had opened his home to Blair and had even bought new furniture for "his" room. Although Jim had argued that he had planned to turn it into a spare room, Blair knew it wouldn't have happened if he hadn't been there. Nobody had ever bought him furniture for his very own room before. Jim hated Blair's algae shakes, yet he had made one for him for breakfast. It wasn't something a hard-assed cop would do for a long-haired student -- it was something one friend did for another. Or maybe something a sentinel did for his guide.
The numbing fear which usually came with the supposition that he was genetically traited to be a sentinel's guide didn't make Blair break into a cold sweat this time. As long as he was supposed to be Jim's guide, he might be able to handle the responsibility. After three weeks of living with the sentinel, Blair felt more at home than any other place he had dropped his backpack. He couldn't imagine moving back into a cold warehouse like the one he had lived in before he went to the island.
He shivered, remembering how close he and Jim came to being blown up with his old residence. What if Jim had been killed? Filaments of dread tightened his chest -- the despair of a guide losing his sentinel? Or a friend losing a friend? Or both?
Taking a deep breath, Blair knew he stood at a crossroads. He had two choices -- either continue the haphazard path he had followed all his life or take the new trail blazed by his sentinel. By choosing the former, he would travel alone just as he had done since he was sixteen years old. The latter choice would give him a companion -- possibly a lifelong companion -- to walk beside.
The decision was astoundingly easy to make. All his good intentions not to get involved with Jim other than as a subject for his dissertation flew out the window. He would stay with Jim until the sentinel kicked him out of his life.
It was his destiny and Blair finally chose to embrace it.
With his decision made, the student fell into a peaceful slumber.
Blair arrived two minutes after seven and spotted Katie immediately -- her bright red hair was hard to miss. He smiled and wished he could stay, but he couldn't take the chance. They hugged briefly.
"Have you taken your vitamins for the night ahead?" Katie whispered in his ear.
Blair regretted even more than he had to cancel. "I'm sorry, Katie, but I can't stay. I just came to let you know we'll have to reschedule."
The woman's expression fell. "Oooh, and here I was looking forward to having you all to myself tonight."
"Me, too, but I just can't tonight."
Katie stepped back and sighed heavily. "Let me take my name off the waiting list."
Blair nodded and she hurried over to the host. Blair surveyed his surroundings, looking and wondering if Sarris was in the crowd watching him, just waiting for her moment to strike. That was foolish -- how would she know he was here?
Katie returned and hooked her arm through his. "Where's your car?"
"I rode the bus." He smiled ruefully. "Long story."
"Why don't you tell me while I drive you home?"
"Thanks, but I can't impose--"
"It's no imposition." A mysterious light flared in her green eyes. "Believe me."
Suddenly uneasy but unable to ascertain why, Blair said, "No, really, I'll just take the bus back."
Katie's hold tightened on his arm as they walked down the nearly deserted sidewalk in the growing darkness. "No. I insist."
A sharp jab in his side made him yelp and he glanced down to see a revolver pressed against his ribs. "What the hell are you doing?"
Insanity glittered in her eyes and her lips were curled into a cruel smile. "I'm going to finish what I started over a year ago."
Blair's world tilted and he stared at the woman he knew as Katie. "Who the hell are you?"
"Tsk, tsk. You're a smart man, Blair. You figure it out."
As she forced him down the street with the gun barrel jammed into his side, Blair studied her profile and the terrible knowledge dawned in one moment of crystal clear clarity. "You're her -- Veronica Sarris, the Switchman."
"Give the professor a prize."
Son-of-a-bitch! He had walked right into this one. If Sarris didn't kill him, Jim would. "Why didn't Joel recognize you?"
She stopped by a dark colored sedan, so typically average no one would look twice at it. "Drop you backpack and assume the position."
With the unwavering gun aimed at his gut, he did as she ordered. She kicked apart his legs, then snapped a handcuff bracelet on his right hand and wrenched that arm behind him. Blair inhaled sharply at the sharp pain that erupted in his shoulder. By the time he recovered, the other wrist had been cuffed behind him.
Sarris jerked him around to face her. "You try anything and I'll kill you. Do you understand?" She spoke to him like he was in the first grade.
"Yeah, I understand," Blair said, glaring at her.
She smiled coldly. "Like I said, you're a smart guy."
She unlocked the front passenger door and motioned him inside with her revolver. Once he was situated, she grabbed his backpack and tossed it into the back seat. Blair kept eye contact with her as she moved around the front of the car and slid behind the steering wheel. She withdrew a small box and laid her gun on the seat between them. "See this?"
Blair drew his gaze away from the so-close weapon to look at the black box and a cold chill swept through him. "What is it?" he asked even though he knew the answer.
"That's right," she replied, reading his expression too easily. "One touch of this button and the downtown Y goes boom. All those people working their little hearts out to stay beautiful will die a terrible ugly death if you try to escape."
Blair tried to swallow but his mouth felt like sawdust. Why hadn't he listened to Jim? Why had he gone out alone after all of Jim's warnings? Now, because of his idiocy, he was going to die and maybe take an untold number of lives with him. He closed his eyes briefly, fighting to steady his breathing. "What do you want?"
"I want Jim Ellison to watch you die, then I'm going to kill him."
Her tone was so matter-of-fact Blair wanted to throw up. "The helicopter crash wasn't his fault."
"He lived and my father died. It should have been Ellison who was killed. He was the CO."
Cold sweat sheeted Blair's skin as the horror of her words sunk in. She wanted Jim to feel loss like hers before he died. "Jim doesn't care what happens to me. I'm just a student renting his spare room."
She laughed coldly. "Don't try to fool me, Blair. I watched you two on the island -- I saw how Ellison was with you. He treated you like some prodigal little brother who finally returned home. And you--" She snorted in disgust. "You acted like he was some fucking hero. But you're wrong, professor. He's a murderer and he's been sentenced to die by my hand."
"You're the murderer. You murdered eleven people on that bus -- eleven men, women and children," Blair stated, fury and fear vying for control of his racing heart.
She shook her head violently. "No, that was Ellison's fault. If he hadn't shown up--"
"If he hadn't shown up, you would have killed even more." Blair narrowed his eyes. "How did you survive?"
Her lips formed a thin slash across her face. "When Ellison froze, I ran before I threw the switch. But it wasn't far enough. In the mess that followed, I managed to get away, but I needed a doctor. Fortunately, I knew one who made house calls and kept his mouth shut. My face had been burned badly. I needed cosmetic surgery so I went to Los Angeles and had my face re-done. After the surgery, I tracked Ellison down. Knowing he still might recognize me even with the new face, I dyed my hair bright red and wore green contact lenses." She inclined her head smugly. "That's why Joel didn't recognize me."
Blair's brain kicked into high gear. The smell Jim had detected outside his office this morning had been Katie, aka Sarris, from when she had left the note. Blair felt like a fool, and if he didn't come up with a plan, he would be a dead fool.
Sarris kept the detonator in her hand as she started the car and put it in gear. Flashing Blair a cold smile, she pulled out onto the road.
Jim, where are you?
Jim rubbed his forehead, the headache he'd been fighting since his zone-out that morning was fast becoming a migraine. He left the office a little after seven, earlier than he had planned. Unable to sit still and his nerves stretched taut, Jim jumped at every little noise and with his hypersenses, there were a lot of "little noises." Something was out of whack, but Jim couldn't pinpoint the reason for his unease. Maybe it was the aftereffects of his nightmare. He shivered anew at the memory of the jaguar and wolf.
He shouldn't have been such an asshole, arguing with Blair that spirit animals were nothing more than the ravings of peyote-induced dreams. What if there was some kernel of supernatural truth to Sandburg's claim that Jim's spirit animal was a black jaguar? And what if Blair's was a wolf? Jim snorted -- supernatural truth -- what an oxymoron.
No more X-Files for you, Jimmy.
He drove to Joel's hotel, driving more by instinct than thought. Suddenly a huge gray dog appeared in his path and he hit his brakes, jerking the car to the shoulder. He stopped a few feet shy of the animal which he recognized as a wolf -- the same wolf from his dream. The animal let out a bloodcurdling howl and bounded across the traffic lanes. A car sped toward the wolf, not even slowing and Jim watched in horror... only to see the wolf run through the car and disappear on the other side.
Jim scrubbed his face with his palms. What the hell was that? One of Sandburg's animal spirits? Yeah, right. It was simply the stress of the long day manifesting itself in the creature which had been in his nightmare last night.
Or was it warning him that something had happened to Blair?
Jim jerked the steering wheel and got the truck back onto the road. He flicked his siren on and dropped the visor with the flashing lights. His stomach twisted into a square knot and his clothes felt like coarse sandpaper across his skin. Oncoming headlights nearly blinded him and he squinted so his eyes were mere slits. He wrestled with his controls, but they kept sliding away from him. Damn it! He couldn't deal with this now.
Finally, Jim arrived and he screeched to a halt directly in front of the door. A hotel employee glared at him and Jim flashed his badge. The ride up the elevator seemed to take forever but once he was off, he found Joel's room quickly. He pounded on the door and waited... and waited. He managed to turn up his hearing and found one heartbeat on the other side -- it wasn't Blair's. The dark foreboding in his mind rolled and pitched like black clouds heralding a twister.
"Joel, open up. It's Jim Ellison."
Muffled movement and a pause as Joel looked through the peephole. The chains slid off and the door swung open. "Hey, Jim."
Jim shoved past Joel. "Where's Sandburg?" Even as he moved into the bedroom, he knew...
"He's taking a nap on the bed." Joel followed Jim.
The blanket lay in an untidy pile in the middle of the bed.
"Oh, God," Joel murmured. "He must've slipped out while I was sleeping."
Jim's fists ached to hit something to relieve the helpless frustration. He reached deep inside himself and donned his stoic police mask. "When did you see him last?"
"Around five forty five. I looked in on him and he was sound asleep. I swear it, Jim."
The detective rubbed the back of his neck. "It wasn't your fault, Joel." He glanced down at the bed and spied a piece of paper buried within the blanket. He grabbed it and the scent hit him immediately. He staggered back and Joel caught his shoulders, steadying him.
"Are you all right?" Joel asked in concern.
"Uh, yeah, yeah, I'm fine," the sentinel replied absently. He held the paper between two fingers like it was a poisonous snake and scanned the note. Fury filled him and he managed to fight back the savagery that demanded he find his guide and tear apart the enemy who had taken him.
"He went on a date?" Joel demanded, reading the note over Jim's arm.
"The paper. It smells like her."
"Sarris. The Switchman."
"How do you know?"
Jim turned to Joel, saw the threads of doubt in his expression. "I smelled the same thing at the areas which were bombed."
"Are you sure?"
"Positive." Jim fought the urge to crush the note within his fist. "And now Sarris has him." He strode out of the room and toward the door. "I'm going after him."
Joel grabbed his coat and followed him. "You need back-up."
Jim allowed a slight smile. "Thanks."
As they rode down the elevator, the detective punched in Banks' cell phone number and the captain answered in a gruff voice after three rings. "Yeah, Banks."
"Sarris has Blair," Jim stated. "Meet me at The Sea Shanty. I'll explain there." He clapped the phone shut and strode across the lobby, Joel huffing slightly to keep up with Ellison's long legs.
Fifteen minutes later, Jim double-parked in front of the popular seafood restaurant on the wharf lined with trendy shops. The waiting crowd parted as the unstoppable force dressed in jeans and a brown leather jacket marched through them. At the hostess stand Jim pulled out his badge.
"Detective Ellison. Cascade PD. I'm looking for a man and woman who would've been here around seven. The man is about five eight, 150 pounds with long curly dark hair." Jim plucked the picture of Sarris from his pocket. "And this is the woman."
The hostess frowned and shook her head. "I don't remember seeing them."
"When did you start your waiting list?" Jim demanded, reining in his impatience by sheer force of will.
"I need to see it."
She passed the tablet to him and he flipped back until he reached the check-in time of 6:45. He scanned the names, trying to read them through the line dashed through them. One name practically leapt off the page. Sarris.
"Do you remember her?" Jim asked, pointing to the name.
The woman glanced at it and shook her head. "I'm sorry, Detective, but I was on break. It looks like she left before getting a table. The handwriting is Mike's, one of the assistant managers."
"I want to talk to him now."
The hostess gulped, the sound audible even to those without sentinel abilities. She picked up the phone and punched in two numbers. After a few moments where Jim kept shifting his weight from one foot to the other, the woman spoke into the receiver. "I have a detective asking about a name on the waiting list. Sarris." She listened for a moment and nodded. "I'll tell him." She hung up the phone. "Mike'll be right out. He says he has something for you."
Jim's senses went on high alert. Could this Mike be working with Sarris?
A dumpy man with a nervous smile approached him. "Detective Ellison?"
"Yes. Did you talk to a woman named Sarris?"
Mike nodded, his jowls flapping. "She said you would be stopping by and to give you this." He handed Jim an envelope. "Said you would understand."
Sarris' scent was like a punch to the gut and Jim gasped for air. He was shocked to find his hands were trembling as he opened the envelope and pulled out the note.
Jim's gut cramped with dread and red-hot fury. The final showdown was about to be played out, with Blair as the winner's prize. Why the hell had he gotten the student involved in this? It was too dangerous. He should be safe in his cluttered office with his books and his weird artifacts and weirder music. He shouldn't be caught in the middle of a deadly game of cat and mouse.
"Was there anything else, Detective?" the man asked tentatively.
Jim brought himself back to the present and held out the picture of Sarris. "Was this the woman who gave you the note?"
Mike's eyebrows puckered as he studied the picture. "No. Ms Sarris had bright red hair and her nose was a little narrower."
"Are you absolutely sure?" Jim demanded.
"Yeah, pretty sure." Mike wrinkled brow. "The shape of her eyes looked similar to this woman's and the jawline might be close to the same."
"What's going on?" Joel broke in.
"He said it wasn't Sarris," Jim replied, huffing in frustration, then spoke to Mike again. "Describe her."
"Like I said, bright red hair, green eyes, about five seven, five eight."
"That sounds like the girl who worked at the pub this summer," Joel interjected. "The note for Blair was signed Katie." The big man grabbed Sarris' picture from Jim and stared at it. "Son-of-a--" He looked up at Jim. "It could be Katie. There's the obvious hair and eye color differences, but..."
"What're you saying? That this Katie and Veronica Sarris are the same person?"
"It's possible." Joel rubbed his chin. "Sarris disappeared for a year. Why? Why didn't she just take you out right after the bus explosion?"
Jim frowned. "She couldn't for some reason." His eyes widened. "That's it, Joel. She must've had been injured, maybe burned, and ended up having plastic surgery."
Jim turned to the assistant manager. "Thank you for your help. When a Captain Simon Banks arrives, tell him to sit tight. We'll call him."
Mike nodded eagerly. "All right."
Jim grabbed Joel's arm and propelled him toward his truck. "The note said I was to go by myself. If I don't, she'll blow up a downtown building." Jim's teeth ground together. "I have to park and walk two blocks. I want you to stay in the truck, Joel. Give me an hour. If I don't come back, give Simon the note and have him bring in a SWAT team."
The two men piled into the truck and Jim jammed the vehicle into gear. The wheels squealed on the damp street. Five minutes later, Jim exited the vehicle, leaving Joel hunkered down in the seat. The eerie sense of being watched invaded the detective and he glanced around casually as he surveyed his surroundings with his enhanced vision.
Something brushed against his leg and Jim looked down to see the gray wolf in Blair's usual place at his left side. Jim stumbled in shock. He sniffed the air, but there was no scent of a wild creature. The wolf suddenly broke away, running ahead of him and without thought, Jim slipped into a jog to follow him.
Blair tested the bonds holding his ankles to the chair legs, but there was no give in the rope. Being insane didn't seem to hinder her knot tying ability. He didn't know Sarris' exact plans, but had a feeling he was the chicken to the fox. Fortunately, the fox had an advantage -- five advantages.
Blair turned his head to see Sarris framed in the doorway. Gone were her green contact lenses and red wig. Without them, and even with the plastic surgery, Blair could see Veronica Sarris in the cold expression. The ever-present detonator was held in one hand and his eyes lingered on it.
"I have a confession," Sarris suddenly said.
"Find a priest. I'm not even in the same neighborhood."
She chuckled and strolled over to stand three feet in front of him. "I always did like your sense of humor, Blair. It's a pity I have to kill you."
Blair gazed at her and put as much contempt into his tone and expression as he could. "Yeah. A pity."
Sarris fingered Blair's curls and he tried to pull away from her. She grabbed a handful of hair and tugged hard, jerking his head back so he was staring up into her face contorted with boiling hatred.
She tossed the detonator aside and it skittered across the rotting wood floor. "I lied about the detonator. There's no bomb downtown. There's only one and it's going to take care of you and Ellison in one fell swoop."
Blair couldn't stop the small moan of helplessness that escaped his lips. "Please, don't do this!"
"Give me one good reason."
The student frantically searched his mind. "Your father wouldn't want you to."
Sarris' thin lips parted and her nostrils flared. Abruptly she backhanded him, snapping his head to the side. The slap stung and when he drew his tongue along his lower lip, he tasted blood.
"Don't you ever talk about my father again," she hissed, some of her spittle striking Blair's cheek.
Definitely a contender for Conover.
"Why all this drama? Why didn't you just blow Jim up on the island?"
She shrugged. "Too easy. Besides, I wanted to end it where it began. Did you know my father and Captain Ellison both grew up here in Cascade? If my father had lived, he would have returned here. He always loved this area."
"Is that why you returned? So you would feel closer to him?"
"Yes." She glanced down at her watch. "It's time to begin." From her jacket pocket, she withdrew a syringe, held it up and flicked it with her forefinger a couple times. "I'm sorry I have to do this, but I'm afraid you won't cooperate."
Blair tried to shrink away from her. "What's in it?" he demanded.
"Nothing that'll kill you." She pressed his shirt and coat sleeve up. "This won't hurt a bit."
Blair tensed, his heart racing. The needle broke the skin on his forearm and pressed into the stiff muscle. He let out a yip of pain, but clamped down before any other sound could escape. He could feel the cool liquid enter his vein and with it came a chilling lethargy. His eyelids drooped and he forced them open. Right before he lost his fight with the drug's lure, he saw a jaguar and wolf standing in front of him.
Jim found slip seven easily and boarded the rocking boat cautiously. He extended his senses as far as he dared without Blair and couldn't detect anything other than the usual scents associated with boats and marine life. Seeing nothing on deck, Jim went down the narrow steps into the galley where Sarris' scent drifted. He didn't need a light to see the note lying on a counter. He unfolded it and read it quickly.
Jim shoved his cuff up to check his watch -- 8:59. His breath came out in a gasp and he grabbed his cell phone to call Joel. The big man answered on the first ring.
"Joel. Get down to the pier at the end of Lilith. Sandburg is in one of the five warehouses and we have thirty minutes to find him. Call Simon."
Jim scrambled out of the boat and back onto the dock to scan the five huge warehouses behind him. He groaned. It would be impossible to search each one thoroughly for one lone anthropologist in thirty minutes.
If he could use his senses, he might be able to save Sandburg. He opened all five at once. A boat's horn sounded behind him and he dropped to his knees, cringing and covering his ears with his palms as the sound nearly split his head in two. The dials spun out of control and he fought to bring them back on-line.
"Jim, are you okay?"
Joel's voice was close and although he wasn't Blair, Jim managed to use the familiar timbre to recalibrate. Jim drew his hands away from his ears slowly, glad to find the dials were all set pretty close to normal. He shot out his wrist, frightened to find over five minutes had passed while he had struggled with his senses.
Without his senses, how could he find Blair in time?
"Simon's on his way with back-up." Joel grabbed Jim's arm to help him up. "C'mon, Jim, snap out of it. We have to find Blair."
Jim tugged out of his grasp. "Yeah, yeah. I just don't know how," he said helplessly.
"Blair said you have hyperactive senses. Use them."
"I tried, but I j-just don't have control yet. I need Sandburg."
"You don't have him so we have to do this the old-fashioned way," Joel stated firmly. "Let's go."
In spite of his bulky form, Joel could move when he needed to and Jim was grateful for his steadying presence as he ran beside him.
A wolf's howl made him stumble to a stop and he searched the dark area around them. A flash of gray caught his eye. "This way, Joel," Jim called out.
"Can't explain. C'mon."
Jim kept his gaze steady on the wolf, afraid he would lose his only chance to save Blair's life. Suddenly the wolf winked out of sight. Jim's eyes widened and he frantically searched for a sign of the gray fur. The animal had been loping toward the two far warehouses. Which one?
"Why'd you stop?" Joel gasped out.
"I lost it. He's in one of these two but I don't know which one," Jim said, his voice harsh with frustration. "And we don't have time to search both."
Jim licked his dry lips and he closed his eyes and concentrated on picturing Blair's twinkling blue eyes and bright smile. A slow steady beat grew in volume and Jim automatically shifted his whole body in the direction of the sound. He caught a vision of Blair tied in a chair, his head drooping and his chin touching his chest... where explosives were strapped.
His eyes snapped open and his mouth tasted bitter with horror. "Come on." He ran toward the warehouse without hesitation. He knew Blair was in that specific one. Pausing by the warehouse door, Jim scanned for any booby traps, but it was clean. Joel followed him inside and up the stairs. Jim's heart matched the rhythm of his guide's. At the top of the steps, he was met by the gray wolf and black jaguar. Before he could even open his mouth, the two animals were leading him further into the bowels of the old warehouse. Back to a corner room where the door stood ajar.
The wolf and jaguar disappeared through the wall and Jim listened for a moment. Only one heartbeat and it was Blair's. He pushed the door open and stepped into the room to find Blair exactly as he had pictured him in his vision -- unconscious with enough explosives to destroy a city block wrapped around his chest. A timer with a little over eight minutes left blinked steadily, drawing the seconds down with each flash.
"My God," Joel breathed when he came in behind Jim. The sentinel heard his heartbeat thunder out of control.
Jim shook his own mind-numbing terror aside to focus on the still figure of his guide. Blair's heartbeat was slow but steady; the same with his breathing. She had probably drugged him. As he listened to Blair's heart, it began to speed up, announcing his return to consciousness. Following his instincts, Jim hurried over and knelt in front of him, his palms cupping Blair's face between them.
"C'mon, Blair. Wake up. I need you," Jim said in a low but urgent voice.
Blair shifted, groaned and raised his head.
"That's right. Come on back, Chief."
The student's eyelids flickered open and widened at the sight of Jim. "Shit. What--?"
"Take it easy. Don't make any sudden moves," Jim said soothingly.
Blair glanced down to see the explosives attached to his torso. His heart triple timed and his blue eyes widened even further. "Oh, God."
"Are you hurt?" Jim asked.
"N-no, I'm okay." He laughed with an edge of hysteria. "Okay for a guy with C4 strapped to his body."
Jim's hands moved down to Blair's shoulders and gave them a firm squeeze. "We'll get you out of this." He turned. "Joel."
The big man joined them though the stink of fear permeated the air around him. "I can't, Jim. I just can't."
"You have to," Jim snarled. "If you don't, Blair's going to die. And me along with him because I'm sure as hell not leaving him here alone."
"B-but you d-don't understand."
"We have seven minutes and counting. I can help but I don't have the knowledge you do, Joel," Jim said, his voice low and emotion-laden.
"You can do it, man," Blair said in his guide voice, the one Jim could never ignore. "I know you're scared, but that's okay. We're all scared. But you can rise above it, Joel. You've been trained for this. You know what to do."
Joel didn't seem immune to Blair's tone either and though he still continued to tremble, he moved closer. His gaze passed over the C4, the timer and the vest which held the explosives on the student. "We can't take it off him without triggering it," Joel whispered. "The bomb has to be disarmed."
"Then we do it," Jim stated.
"I need wire cutters," Joel said quietly.
Jim stood and searched the room but found nothing but cobwebs and dust. "Damn it."
"I have my Swiss army knife. It's in my pocket," Blair volunteered, shifting slightly to the side.
Jim squatted down and retrieved the knife. He handed it to Joel. "You can do it," he said in a voice filled with confidence.
Joel stared at the knife for a long moment. Finally, he reached out with a trembling hand. He knelt in front of Blair and examined the device more closely. "Same as what she's used in the past," he muttered to himself.
Jim couldn't remain still and stood to pace in front of Blair. This was his nightmare. He was helpless, unable to help the wolf who was dying in a snare. Suddenly a cat's roar filled Jim's ears and he spun around to find Veronica Sarris standing in the doorway, a revolver in her hand.
"Move away from him, Joel," she ordered.
The former bomb expert got to his feet and took a step away from Sandburg. "You sure had me fooled, 'Katie.'"
She laughed. "Don't worry. Even my own mother didn't recognize me." She turned her attention back to Jim. "I'm a bit surprised you found him so fast."
Jim forced his body to relax and shrugged. "Lucky guess."
"Somehow I doubt that, Captain."
"I'm not in the Army anymore, Ronnie," Jim said softly.
Her expression sharpened. "Don't call me that. Only Daddy called me Ronnie."
"I know," Jim said in the same quiet voice. "He talked about you all the time. Showed me every single picture of you at least a hundred times. He loved you very much." Even as he spoke, he used his senses to watch for an opening, a lessening of her guard.
"Shut up! He's dead because of you!"
Jim shook his head and he carefully slid his foot a few inches along the floor, moving closer to her. "He was my friend, Ronnie. One of my best friends. Did he tell you about the time he and I learned how to water ski?"
Sarris blinked and Jim could tell she was remembering. He pressed his advantage as he continued his careful forward movement. "He kept telling me how he was going to teach you how to water ski when he got home. He said you were always a good swimmer. He used to call you Otter."
Sarris swallowed hard and moisture filled her eyes. "He taught me to swim before I could even walk. Mom didn't like the water, but Dad and I used to go to the beach or pool whenever we could."
"That's right. He had a picture of you holding your swimming trophy in high school." Jim was only about six feet from her now, his body between her and Blair. "He was so proud of you when you joined the military."
"I know." Her finger pressure on the trigger eased fractionally and the gun was held more loosely in her hand. He had to make his move but he still wasn't close enough. He needed some kind of diversion.
Suddenly Blair let out an earsplitting holler and Sarris' attention wavered. Jim moved in, but Sarris had been trained by the military, too, and managed to get a shot off. It went past Jim but he heard Blair's soft exhalation of pain a moment after the bullet plowed into soft flesh. Jim couldn't risk looking behind him. He grabbed Sarris' gun hand and applied pressure to a spot on the back of her hand. The gun clattered to the floor, but the woman was a fighter, using well-placed kicks and quick moves instead of her fists which would be easily deflected by the bigger man. With a heavy boot, she struck his diaphragm and Jim struggled for air as he stumbled back. Sarris scrambled to grab her gun from the floor before Jim could recover. Hunched over, Jim reached for the gun in his ankle holster and brought it up at the same moment Sarris retrieved hers.
"Drop it," he ordered.
"You drop it," she retorted.
He sighted and pulled the trigger. The bullet entered her gun barrel and the revolver kicked back from the bullet's force. The gun slipped from her numb hands. He kept his weapon aimed at her, seeing the bodies consumed in the fireball after the bus exploded. This woman had murdered men, women and children indiscriminately. She had kidnapped his guide and strapped a bomb to him like he was some goddamned piece of garbage. She had to die.
"Don't do it, man," came Blair's voice.
Jim started, shocked that the younger man had read his thoughts so easily. "She deserves it."
"You're better than she is, Jim. You kill her and she wins," Blair continued hoarsely. Jim heard the pain in his tone and sniffed, catching the heavy odor of blood -- his guide's blood. Though the sentinel wanted more than anything to check on him, he couldn't. Sarris had to pay for her sins. "She already won," Jim finally said.
"No!" Blair gasped and Jim smelled his fear mingling with the blood. "I know you, Jim, and I know you'd hate yourself if you killed her."
Jim already hated himself for allowing innocent people to die; for allowing his guide to be hurt.
"You're a sentinel, Jim -- a protector, a guardian."
Jim had to dial up to hear Blair's faint but poignant words. Blair believed he was something special because of some genetic mistake. Or maybe the anthropologist saw something else in him -- the compassion which he had worked so hard to bury when he was with Covert Ops and later with Vice. If he killed Sarris, Blair would finally know the real Jim Ellison.
"You're not a killer, Jim. Please, don't do it."
Jim's arms trembled at Blair's plea. For the first time in years, he cared what someone thought of him. It was important to Jim that Blair Sandburg respect him, not because he was a sentinel but because he did the right thing. Even knowing he had to separate himself from Blair after this, he didn't want the student to remember him as a killer.
Jim pulled his handcuffs from his belt and grabbed Sarris, shoving her against the wall and clapping on the cuffs. Keeping an arm pressed between her shoulder blades, Jim finally turned to meet his guide's eyes, startlingly dark blue within his pale face. Blood from an arm wound puddled on the floor as it dripped from his fingers.
Joel was on his knees in front of Blair, fat droplets of sweat rolling down his face as he examined the timer and bomb. The numbers read one minute and some seconds. It was too late for anyone to escape. If Joel couldn't defuse it, all four of them would be blown to hell.
"Tick, tock, tick, tock," Sarris taunted, insanity gleaming in her overly bright eyes.
"You're doing fine, Joel," Blair said softly. "Just concentrate on the wires. Remember what you were taught."
Jim was amazed at his guide's calmness. If he didn't know better, he would think Blair did this every day. He watched Joel's resolve grow, his motions becoming more certain. The red numbers showed 17... 16... 15... Jim forced himself to remain still, not wanting to distract Joel.
9... 8... 7... 6... 5...
4 and holding.
Blair's chin dropped to his chest as Joel's whole body sagged. Jim's heart finally remembered to beat.
Jim heard footsteps on the stairs and he stuck his head out the door and hollered, "Over here. Call an ambulance."
A few seconds later, he thrust Sarris into Simon's arms after locating the key to the handcuffs which held Blair. Jim rushed over to his guide and leaned over him, carefully unlocking the cuffs. Blair groaned as the injured arm shifted with its release.
"Can we take the vest off him?" Jim demanded.
Joel straightened. "Give me a minute. I have to take care of the switch on the clasp." Moving with infinitely more confidence, Joel took care of the last barrier to freeing Blair. Working together, Jim and Joel eased the C4 vest off him and handed it to two members of the bomb squad who had shown up with Simon.
Joel climbed to his feet and moved away, leaving Jim to hunker down in front of Blair. He did a quick exam of the bullet wound through Blair's arm, and though it bled freely, it didn't appear to have broken the bone. He cupped Blair's chin in a hand. "How're you doing, kid?"
A familiar spark lit Blair's eyes. "I'm not a kid, old man."
Jim cuffed Blair's head lightly. "Old man, is it?" Using Blair's lifesaving Swiss army knife, Jim cut the ropes holding the younger man's ankles to the chair legs. He rubbed Blair's ankles and calves, bringing the circulation back into his feet.
"Don't ever l-let... anyone tell you... a flesh wound d-doesn't hurt," Blair said, then quietly passed out, falling forward into Jim's arms.
Jim caught his guide and held him, reassured by the steady beating of his heart and the warm breaths whiffing across his neck. Only when the EMTs appeared did Jim release his precious charge.
Simon gave Jim a hand up as they watched the paramedics take care of Blair.
"Joel told me the short version," Simon began. "I'll want the long version from you later. And we'll need to talk to Sandburg, too."
"After he's feeling better," Jim said, his gaze never leaving Blair's wan features.
Banks withdrew a cigar from his coat pocket and twirled it between his fingers. "I'm pretty certain I'll be able to extend his observer's pass for as long as you need."
Jim shook his head. "No need to."
"You have control?"
"I'll never have complete control."
"I'm resigning from the force, sir."
Simon's mouth dropped open but before he could argue, the EMTs were taking Blair away and Jim wasn't going to leave the young man's side.
Jim sat beside Blair in the back of the ambulance. He brushed a strand of damp hair from his guide's brow as the salty scent of Blair's sweat wafted around him. His hand settled on Blair's forehead, his thumb brushing his brow soothingly.
"I'm sorry, Blair," he whispered, his throat raw and aching.
Blair pushed back his plate and smiled at Jim. "Thanks, man. I could've cooked tonight, though."
"You better take advantage of it while you can," Jim teased.
Blair merely shook his head, enjoying his friend's company and relaxed mood. Ever since Blair had awakened in the hospital, Jim had been there for him. Keeping him company, insuring his medical bills were covered, calling Professor Stoddard to have someone take his class for a week, and generally being a good friend. Blair suspected much of it was Jim's guilt over what had happened with the Switchman, but every time Blair broached the subject, the sentinel would clam up.
Now it was Sunday evening, over a week since the Switchman had been captured. Tomorrow Blair would begin teaching his class again and he assumed Jim would go back to work. "What time do you have to be at the station in the morning?" Blair asked.
"I don't have to go in." Jim stood and gathered their dishes. "Did you want dessert now or later during the football game?"
Blair frowned. Jim was the master of changing subjects if he didn't like the one they were on. "During the game. What's going on?"
"What do you mean?" Jim asked as he walked to the sink.
There was definitely something Jim didn't want to talk about. "Quit answering my questions with a question, Ellison, and tell me what the hell is going on."
Jim's shoulders slumped as he finished running water over the dirty plates. He grabbed the towel and wiped his hands. "Let's talk in the living room."
Uneasy and concerned, Blair allowed Jim to guide him to the sofa. Jim walked to the balcony window and stared out into the growing darkness. "I quit the force."
Blair hadn't expected that bombshell. "Why? Wouldn't Banks let me ride with you anymore?"
Jim shook his head, but didn't meet Blair's eyes. "No. He even said he could extend it for as long as I needed." He chuckled. "I think he might have developed an abiding tolerance for you."
Blair smiled absently. "Then why?"
"You saw how it was, Chief. I can't count on back-up. Nobody trusts me anymore."
"What about H and Rafe? They trust you. And so does Captain Banks."
"That's three out of hundreds. I won't take that chance."
Blair studied him. "You're not worried about you."
"What do you mean?" Jim demanded, but found he couldn't meet Blair's too expressive eyes.
"You're afraid I'll get hurt again, or even killed."
Jim didn't comment, but he did join Blair on the couch, and slouched slightly, his fists balanced on his thighs. "You have your whole life ahead of you, Sandburg. Hell, you're going to get your PhD and go on to do great things."
In spite of the glow Jim's words gave him, it couldn't quite touch the frozen lump in his gut. "You want me to move out."
"No, you can stay here as long as you want," Jim reassured him.
Blair's eyes narrowed. "So that means you're moving out. Where are you going?"
Jim plucked at a thread on the sofa arm. "Back to Peru."
"You don't belong there, Jim. You belong here -- Cascade is your territory."
Jim turned his body on the couch so he could face Blair and leaned forward. "If you're worried about your dissertation, I'll do as many tests as I can before I leave." He smiled grimly. "And I'll try not to complain too much."
Blair grabbed his wrist. "Damn it, Jim. It's not the dissertation I'm worried about. It's you. Even though you say you have control, we both know you don't. If you zone at the wrong time or if you go into too deep of zone, you could die. And what about your migraines? I know you had one four days ago even though you denied it."
"Look, Chief, I appreciate your concern, but you have your own life." He huffed a dry laugh. "And we both know you're not my guide."
"I was wrong!"
"No, you were right. I won't shackle you to me. It's not fair."
Blair counted to ten. "Let me decide what's fair. I searched for a sentinel for over half my life. I found one -- you. But you know what else I found? I found a man who overcame tragedies with a strength of will I can't even begin to imagine. I found a man who opened his heart to a stranger when he was hurting himself." Blair took a deep shaky breath. "I found a friend I don't want to lose."
Jim's eyes glistened as he turned away, but Blair wouldn't let him hide. He cupped Jim's cheek and turned his face back to him. "You're a good man, James Ellison. Being a sentinel is only another facet of that man."
A tear trailed down Jim's cheek and he angrily scrubbed it away. "If I'm a good man, it's only because of you, Chief. I would've killed Sarris if you hadn't been there."
Blair shook his head and smiled gently. "No, you wouldn't have. I know the you--" he tapped Jim's chest, "--in here."
Jim swallowed the lump which threatened to choke him and gathered the smaller man in his arms, heedful of his healing arm. He rested his cheek on Blair's crown, breathing in the scent he had come to associate with contentment and affection and security. Blair wrapped his uninjured arm around Jim's waist.
"I am your guide, big guy," Blair said, his face buried in the curve where Jim's neck and shoulder met. "I was just too scared to admit it."
There was a moment of silence before Jim said, "And I believe in spirit animals. I was just too scared to admit it."
Blair pulled away to stare up at the older man. "When did this miracle happen?"
"When your wolf and my jaguar led me to the warehouse where Sarris was holding you."
Jim grinned. "No shit, Sherlock."
Blair stood. "I'll be right back." As he nearly ran to his room, he was muttering, "Awesome. This is so totally cool."
Jim leaned back against the sofa, staring at the ceiling. Who would have thought a geeky anthropologist would save his life, then turn it upside down and inside out? The only problem now was what could he do? He had enjoyed being a cop. Simon had argued with him for over an hour to stay on the force, but Jim was adamant. Nothing was worth Blair getting in the way of a bullet again.
Blair returned to the living room, notebook and pen in hand, but his bounce had diminished. "I was thinking."
"Scary thought," Jim murmured.
"Ha ha. You'll always be a sentinel and with that comes the instinct to protect and serve."
Jim rolled his eyes. "Not that again."
Blair punched him lightly in the side. "You need a job where you can utilize the skills you learned as a cop and use your sentinel abilities." A small smile played on Blair's lips. "I was talking to Joel at the hospital. He was telling me he doesn't want to go back to the island. At least not until he's closer to retirement. He'd like to be a cop again, but can't. I suggested he get a private investigator's license. He said he wouldn't want to do it alone, that he'd like to have a partner." Blair sent Jim his most innocent look. "You wouldn't happen to know any out-of-work detectives, would you?"
Jim thought about it... for all of five seconds. "I kind of like that idea. We'd be our own bosses and we would only take the cases we wanted." He frowned. "But we'd need a bookkeeper and a secretary."
"Did I ever tell you about the time I worked as an administrative assistant?"
"Oh, no, Sandburg. You have a PhD to get."
"And I will because I'll be working very closely with my dissertation subject."
"Don't you mean your lab rat?" Jim's words came out more bitter than teasing.
"Only if you're seriously into cheese and even though I happen to know you love Wonderburgers with cheese, I doubt you'd qualify as a lab rat."
Jim laughed as his tension melted away. "All right, Chief. If Joel's really interested, I think we should take a shot at this."
"He is, believe me. Why don't we take him out to lunch tomorrow and spring it on him then?"
"Sounds good. Ellison, Taggert and Sandburg Private Detective Agency. I kinda like the sound of that."
"Don't you mean Sandburg, Taggert, and Ellison?"
"No way, Sandburg. That's not even alphabetically correct."
"This coming from a man who doesn't even know the meaning of pc?"
"Personal computer," Jim said smugly, crossing his arms over his chest.
Blair rolled his eyes. "You're hopeless."
Jim's smile softened and his eyes twinkled. "That's why I have a guide."
Blair's brilliant smile chased away the remaining shadows in Jim's soul as sentinel and guide finally stepped onto their true path.
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