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.