Disclaimer: The Sentinel and its characters are the sole creative property of Paramount and Pet Fly Productions. I'm only borrowing them for awhile to pay homage, and this fiction is offered to those for whom an episode a week does not feed the need.

Blind Sided
(a sequel to Remote Control)
-by Mackie

Part One

They rode home from the hospital in a taxi. Jim could have called Simon for a ride, but he figured everyone had been through enough in the past 36-hours and deserved a little rest. Besides, he knew Blair was eager to get out of the place, so a taxi was the logical choice. Dimly, Jim figured he'd left his truck at the police station, but he really couldn't remember, and it just didn't seem important enough to worry about.

They sat together in back, tired and silent. The driver, however, wasn't so thoughtful. "Boy, you two look like six miles of bad road."

"Wreck," Jim agreed absently, deliberately leaving the driver to misinterpret.

"Yeah?" the man went on. "Boy, I had a good one on the Cascade Narrows Bridge - twenty-three cars piled up in the fog, and me right in the middle - " He rambled on, unaware he didn't have an audience.

The building was just stirring to life when they arrived, the few tenants on their way to work or school, putting out the day's mail or the trash. Most were used to the odd goings and comings of the detective who lived on the top floor, but the two of them still got a few odd looks as they crossed the lobby and stepped into the elevator. Jim ignored them all, easily falling back into the old, defensive habits of his Army days; the tenants were no longer people at the moment - they were simply obstacles to be avoided.

The lab crew had locked the door behind them, so Jim fished out his keys, weariness making his fingers clumsy. It took longer than it should have to get the door open, and still neither of them had spoken a word. Once inside, Jim tossed his keys on the small table by the door, dropped the paper sack containing their dirty clothes on the floor, and gave the place a cursory once over. Surprisingly, Sean and his team had cleaned up after themselves, leaving only a few traces of fingerprint powder and some displaced objects behind. Someone had thoughtfully righted the chair that had been knocked over in the struggle between Blair and his assailants - when? -- only the night before last?

Jim glanced at Blair, who looked very young and vulnerable bundled inside Jim's down parka. He seemed a little out of it and hadn't moved since walking through the door. "Hey, Chief, wake up."

"Huh?" Blair mumbled, rousing himself from his stupor.

"Shower or sleep?" Jim asked.

"Both, in that order," Blair agreed, finally motivating himself toward his room. "Wake me next month." He plodded across the floor and managed not to bump into anything important, then disappeared through the door to his room.

Jim stood where he had stopped on entering the loft. He'd never admitted how much sheer exhaustion could affect his thinking, but he had to admit it now. Still, inside he was jumpy, the aftereffects of shock and too much caffeine. He knew he wouldn't be able to sleep for awhile.

He turned up the thermostat to an indulgent 70 degrees and started a fire in the fireplace. The latter was more for appearance than heating. He seldom lit it except for special occasions, and almost never during the day. Still, its cheerful crackle and dancing flame were welcome right now.

He went into the kitchen and started some hot water for tea, resolutely turning his back on the beckoning coffee maker. Checking the freezer, he found two containers of chicken stock from his last frenzy of soup making and put them in the refrigerator section to thaw. Beyond a few staples and some sour milk, the cupboards, as they say, were bare. Without hesitation, he picked up the phone and called deSimone's Market, located just up the street and probably the only independent market left in Cascade. Their bread-and-butter, so to speak, was specialty gourmet foods, and Jim frequently selected his wine from their enormous cellar. As a favor to the neighborhood, the market also stocked a good selection of everyday grocery items. Furthermore, they delivered without fuss and charged Jim only a portion of their usual fee since he'd helped them update their security system just days before a couple of high-tech thieves had tried to make off with several thousand dollars worth of caviar. The teenage boys who worked for the market were always eager to fill Jim's orders, few though they were, because he tipped generously.

Jim traded the obligatory small-talk with Mrs. deSimone, a robust septuagenarian who still hefted boxes of canned goods with more vigor than any of her younger employees, but for once he had trouble with her heavy Italian accent; mental synapses on the blink, he figured. Then he placed a large order for all the odds and ends he'd allowed to run out - milk, eggs, bacon, sugar, cereal and the like. Upon hearing he was thinking about making some soup, she became enthusiastic about the good selection of winter squash the market currently stocked. Jim pictured a bowl of thick, creamy comfort food, and immediately ordered two of everything. After he hung up the phone, he knew he'd indulged in overkill. The kitchen wasn't big enough for all the stuff that was about to descend on it. Obviously, he wasn't thinking quite as rationally as he'd like to believe.

He poured hot water into the tea pot and swished it around. His mother had showed him years ago how to brew tea, and she insisted he always warm the pot first. Now, with his heightened senses, he could actually feel the rising and falling of the temperature across its surface in perfect rhythm with the swirling water. He dumped the water down the sink, threw in some tea bags, poured fresh hot water, and set it aside to brew. His mother, of course, always used loose tea, but Jim seldom bothered unless he was trying to impress a date.

He heard Blair come out of the bathroom. "That was quick."

"No hot water," Blair told him, sagging onto a stool at the counter. He was wearing sweats under his bathrobe. "Is that tea I smell?"

Jim had never understood the expression "seeing red", but just for a moment, he felt a fire behind his eyes that turned his world an ugly crimson. Anger, unexpected and intense, roared through him and he clenched his jaws lest it break free.

"Jim, you OK?" Blair asked anxiously.

Jim took a cautious breath to make sure he was back in control. "Yeah," he said a little tightly, taking down a mug with trembling hands and cautiously filling it. "Here."

Blair accepted the tea, but his expression was worried. "What happened just now?"

"Nothing. I'm fine."

When Jim had that tone of finality in his voice, there was no point in going on. Damn, I only said there wasn't any hot water. I wasn't even complaining... "Guess I'll get some sleep," Blair said, getting up, the mug cradled in his hands. "You should get some rest, too."

"In a bit," Jim promised. When his partner had returned to his room, Jim poured a cup of tea for himself and leaned on the counter. What had just happened? He was no stranger to rage - hell, he'd lived in a constant state of barely contained anger for the last two days, and lost it a couple of times - but there had always been a good motive behind it. Now, the sheer stupidity of his reaction frightened him. If there had been a sledge hammer within reach, he knew the offending water heater would have been reduced to scrap within seconds. Even worse, he knew he would have been completely out of control, beyond sanity or reason. He'd always had a temper, but this bordered on sheer madness. Worse, Blair obviously thought the anger had been directed at him.

He shook off the last residue of emotion, took a long sip of soothing tea, and reached for the phone book. A minute later he had a promise from a local plumber to be at the loft within the hour - at emergency service rates, of course - to look at the water heater.

Just as he hung up the phone, he heard the elevator and went to meet the grocery delivery boy at the door. There were two this time, both laden with sacks and boxes. "Hi, Mr. Ellison," one of them greeted. "Planning a big bash?"

Jim shushed him. "My partner's not feeling well; and, no, I just ran out of everything all at once." He helped them stack everything just inside the door, tipped them amply with most of the cash left in his wallet, and sent them happily on their way.

For the next twenty minutes, he busied himself with putting away the groceries. Then he looked in dismay at the variety of squash taking up every spare inch of counter space. It looked like a fall festival run rampant. He rummaged around for his lasagna pan and a cookie sheet, oiled both, and fired up the oven. He was still slicing gourds and scooping seeds when the plumber arrived, so he rinsed his hands and showed the workman where the water heater was located. Since there wasn't enough room in the kitchen for the two of them, Jim retreated to the living room, where he began to tidy up Blair's scattered test papers. A cold, half-finished cup of tea was poured down the sink, the cup rinsed and put aside for washing, the test papers were stored neatly in the book bag, which he placed just outside Blair's bedroom door. The coat Blair had thrown on the floor by the sofa so many hours before now hung neatly on its hook by the front door. The paper sack of dirty laundry went to the hamper.

Jim was just wondering where he'd put the dust cloth and furniture polish when he abruptly sat down on the sofa. "God," he murmured, leaning back into the cushions, "I've turned into Martha Stewart."

A clatter of tools against the kitchen tile took him to the plumber. "Could you manage a little less noise, please?" he asked with barely restrained annoyance. "Someone's trying to get some rest."

"Sure," the plumber said agreeably. "Got a sick kid home from school?"

Jim frowned at the question, felt an absurd giggle threaten to burst free, and managed to turn it in to a cough. "Something like that," he answered. He wondered if any jury would convict him for murdering a plumber while in a fit of dementia. Plumbers were like lawyers, weren't they, unloved and unappreciated until they were needed? Or maybe like cops.

"You falling asleep on your feet?" the plumber asked idly, smashing around inside the water heater some more.

"Rough night," Jim admitted.

"Yeah, a sick kid'll do that to you," the man went on, fiddling and adjusting here and there, finally tightening a couple of screws. "There you go," he said a moment later, closing the access panel on the water heater. The unit obligingly roared to life.

It had taken under fifteen minutes. "That's it?" Jim asked, surprised.

"Thermostat was stuck," the plumber said, grinning smugly. "Let's see - " he entered some calculations on his worksheet. "That's the minimum sixty bucks for the first thirty minutes, plus an additional sixty for the emergency response. That's - "

"A hundred and twenty dollars," Jim obliged wearily. "I'll get my checkbook." Yep, no jury would ever convict him...

With the plumber safely on his way, Jim went back to his squash. When they were cut and seeded at last, he coated each piece with a little olive oil, spaced them evenly in the pans and put them in the oven to cook. Then he cleaned the kitchen from top to bottom, using an old toothbrush to get into all the tiny, stubborn places that seldom got touched. By the time he was through, the squash was nearly cooked, so he pulled out a large stock pot, added a few tablespoons of olive oil, and diced up an onion to sauté. In a separate pan, he cooked up some finely diced bacon, then put it aside to drain while he washed the skillet. The water was barely lukewarm, so he used some extra soap and scrubbed harder. When the onions were translucent, he tossed in the bacon. The chicken stock, which had started this whole soup extravaganza, was still frozen in the refrigerator - it probably wouldn't thaw for a couple of days - so he stuck it back up in the freezer and opened a can of chicken broth instead.

The squash was done. He peeled off the skin and started to put the chunks in the blender before he remembered Blair was asleep. Without pause, he dumped the pieces into a large bowl and attacked them with a potato masher, reducing them to pulp in no time. Then everything went into the stock pot along with some spices. He brought it up to a boil, then turned the heat down to simmer. Satisfied the soup could take care of itself for awhile, he returned to the living room and sprawled on the sofa. Damn, but all this domesticity was hard work. He knew his cooking and cleaning frenzy was just the aftermath of Blair's kidnapping, the letdown after hours of adrenaline and endless cups of coffee. Times like these made him wish for a house with a garage or a workshop. Some people, like Blair, could sleep it off. Others, like Jim, couldn't sit still in spite of the body's demands for rest. But he'd finally hit that wall of total exhaustion beyond which he could not go, so he lay back and closed his eyes, willing his mind to shut down - please! -- so he could sleep.

He dozed fitfully for awhile, then jerked awake, certain something was wrong. He listened for a long moment, heard only the gentle burble of the soup and the steady rhythm of Blair's heartbeat from the bedroom. No, this time the nightmare had been his own, although he couldn't recall any of its details. With a sigh, he went back to the kitchen, stirred the soup, and checked the tea pot. He'd forgotten to remove the bags, and the resulting brew was black and filmy. He poured it out, reheated water, and brewed a fresh pot, standing there until it was finished and making sure to discard the used bags.

He checked the soup one last time, turned off the flame, and left it. With a hot cup of tea in his hand, he dragged his weary body upstairs to his bedroom, where he peeled off the clothes he had slept in the night before - God, he must stink like a locker room! -- and went to take a shower in the newly finished master bath. There really wasn't anything "masterful" about it, although the designer had talked him into twin sinks and a separate bathtub and shower instead of a combination unit. It would make for better resale value, she had insisted. He didn't plan to sell anytime soon, he had insisted. They had compromised - resulting in a very nice but not overly luxurious bathroom. The water heater produced hot water at last, and he set the shower head for maximum massage. The water pulsed against his stiff back and shoulders, relaxing him, and he savored it until the water began to cool. Guiltily, he turned it off, hoping Blair would sleep a few more hours to allow time for another batch to heat. He toweled himself dry and went back into the bedroom. He barely managed to pull on a pair of clean shorts before sprawling on top of the covers, sound asleep before his weight even hit the mattress.

 

Part Two

He woke with a start several hours later, drenched in sweat and aware that he'd had another nightmare. Its content still eluded him, leaving only scattered threads behind. Outside, an overcast Cascade dusk had flattened the view to somber shades of gray. Jim scowled; he hadn't planned to sleep for so long. Now he'd be up all night. His sweat, however, was not from the bad dream. It was uncomfortably hot in the room, a natural phenomenon when he left the downstairs heat turned up. He got up from his bed, pulled the chain on the overhead fan to circulate some of the warm air back down, pulled on a tee and some cotton draw-string pants, and padded downstairs.

It was just as warm down there. "What the hell," he muttered, "don't tell me another thermostat is going out."

Blair was sitting at the counter, still in sweatpants but with only a light tee shirt on top. "No, you left the oven on and the door half open."

"Shit."

"It's OK, I turned it off," Blair assured him. He didn't mention the two partially thawed containers of chicken stock he'd found in the cup cupboard. It would have been funny under other circumstances, but Blair figured Jim had a need to feel in control just now, and pointing out his mistakes was no way to bolster him. "I shut off the fireplace, too. You want it back on? Your gas bill is going to rival the national debt."

"No kidding." Jim gestured toward the cup his partner was sipping from. "That tea fresh?"

"No, but it tastes OK reheated. Want some?"

"Once upon a time, maybe, but not with these taste buds." Jim walked into the kitchen and filled the coffee maker with water, dumped in the grounds, and started the brew cycle. "Besides, my caffeine low level light just kicked on."

Blair nodded to indicate the room. "You did all this? It looks like a bevy of merry maids went over the place with a toothbrush."

"One not-so-merry maid," Jim corrected.

Blair flushed guiltily. "I would've helped."

"I know. I was feeling compulsive." He tried to put together his thoughts. "I had to make it feel like home again, I guess." Blair didn't know about the contents of the second video Jim had received - a video from a camera hidden in the loft which showed every detail of the evening when Blair had been kidnapped. But Jim didn't feel like lengthy explanations for now, so he poured a cup of coffee instead.

The silence lengthened, and Blair finally realized Jim didn't plan to continue. "Soup's good."

"You had some?"

"A taste."

"It's not done yet."

"It's still good."

Jim turned on the fire under the pot to warm it up, and slowly stirred in a pint of cream. "Now it's done." He saw something on the counter. "What's this?"

Blair feigned offense. "Come on, man. I followed the recipe on the box - it can't be that hard to identify."

Jim grimaced. "Well, I see the usual conversational gambits aren't going to work today," he murmured. With exaggerated precision, he said, "Blair, you've made corn bread. How nice."

"Yeah, well, the oven was already on - "

"Don't push it."

Blair went back to his magazine for a few minutes while Jim fussed with the soup, then looked up to watch him. Casually, he asked, "So, how are you feeling?"

Jim's hand paused a moment from stirring. "Fine."

"Sooner or later, we're going to have to talk."

"Later." Jim looked up and met his partner's eyes with a gaze as veiled as a shuttered window.

Blair felt completely closed out. "Just tell me one thing," he said uncertainly, "was it something I did?" Do you think I'm a coward? Is that why you can't talk to me?

Jim closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again. The shutters were gone, compassion in their place. "No, Chief," he almost whispered. "Something I'm feeling."

"What?"

Jim grimaced. "Anger." He tapped his gut. "I've got this huge, molten lump of anger boiling right here, and it won't go away."

"Anger about what?"

"That's just it, I don't know," he admitted with a sigh. "Maybe it's like the doctor at the hospital said - some days I'm just going to hate the world. Anyway," he added, giving himself a mental kick in the butt, "if I do something stupid like throw crockery or punch a hole in the wall, don't take it personally, OK?"

"OK, but when you're ready to talk - "

"I know, you'll be here." Jim dished out a bowl of soup. "Water heater's fixed. Go take a shower."

"You got the water heater fixed today?" Blair said in amazement. "A clean house, a stocked refrigerator, home-made soup, and hot water. You really have been domestic."

"Yeah, well don't count on it as a permanent condition."

"Would now be a good time to ask for a puppy?"

"I'm about to throw crockery," Jim threatened.

"I'm outta here," Blair laughed, heading for his bathroom.

Jim just shook his head in amusement. Even after all this time, the kid still managed to surprise him.

He broke his own rule about eating only at the table and carried his soup, cornbread and coffee into the living room, where he propped his feet on the coffee table as he ate. The early news was over, and the TV schedule would be cluttered with game shows and old sitcoms, two things he never watched whether old or new, so he didn't bother to turn on the set. In fact, he seldom watched anything but news and sports, maybe the occasional biography or history program, the odd movie. Blair was responsible for the TV Guide; he pretty much knew every show in primetime, network and cable included. Jim only had the vaguest notion about Ross' romantic problems or what Buffy was supposed to be slaying; he was hopeless at TV trivia.

The loft was surprisingly Spartan in both furnishings and individual mementos, which was the way Jim liked it. He had no use for the academic clutter and personal memorabilia that seemed to spawn around Blair, threatening to engulf everything in their path if not kept firmly confined within the boundaries of the loftmate's room.

Jim preferred to read, but even his current library was sparse, just a few books he'd bought but hadn't read yet. Instead, he'd usually buy a book, read it, then donate it to the local library. It kept things simple. He almost never read fiction - he'd enjoyed The Hunt for Red October, but it was the only Tom Clancy book he'd ever picked up. Mostly, he liked biographies, true stories that ranged from world leaders to serial killers, but almost never celebrities.

Finishing his soup, he did something else totally out of character - he put down the empty bowl instead of taking it immediately to the sink. He picked up his current book, John Douglas' Journey Into Darkness, which he'd started a long time ago but had put aside, annoyed with Douglas' rise to celebrity and his apparent bad judgment in both the Atlanta Olympics bombing and the Jon-Benet Ramsey murder. Jim felt Douglas should have stuck to what he did best, working behind the scenes to compile information for suspect profiles, and kept his mouth shut.

At the thought of criminal profiling, Jim's mind shifted to Doctor McMahon, the psychologist who had been a co-conspirator in Blair's kidnapping. She'd had an important role to play in the ugly game she and her lover, Malcolm Hicks, had concocted, and she'd played it well. Jim slapped the book closed and put it aside. Damn, this thing wasn't going to leave him alone. He got up, retrieved his dirty dishes, and carried them to the sink.

Awhile later, Blair came out of the bathroom, a robe on over his sweats, his hands vigorously towel-drying his hair. He plopped onto the sofa. "What are you doing?"

"Dishes," Jim replied from the kitchen.

No kidding. Still, ask an obvious question... He turned around until he could watch his roommate at work. Jim finished with the dishes, found some large Tupperware tubs and poured them full of soup. The stockpot filled a lot of containers. Jim muttered angrily to himself as he tried to make room for it all in the refrigerator. "You want a beer?" he asked. "There's no room in here."

"Do we have any soda?" Blair returned.

"Sure." Jim returned with a soda for his partner and a beer for himself, then settled into the sofa. He looked calm and relaxed, but there was a hint of tension in his voice as he asked, "How are you feeling?"

Blair thought about it, not sure he was ready to get into things too deeply just yet. "Like I've been slimed by Darth Vader's evil twin."

Jim blinked. "Whoa, Chief, I'm getting a serious cinematic metaphor overload here." He'd seen Star Wars once with a date; twice, if you counted its ninety-second rerun on TV when he'd felt too lazy to hunt for the remote.

Blair decided to approach things from a clinical angle instead of a personal one. Maybe that would help him ease into the more terrifying memories.

"Jim, I no stranger to violence - ." He chuckled suddenly. "Hell, I sound like Dirty Harry, don't I? I mean, historically, the saga of mankind is one long litany of war, whether territorial or cultural; human sacrifice to appease one god or another, the torture and enslavement of the vanquished, and it's been that way forever. And it's that way throughout nature. Studies have shown other animals can make and use tools, rage war on their neighbors, even enslave other species - there are examples ranging from mammals to insects."

"It's a jungle out there," Jim agreed.

"OK, OK, I'm lecturing again," Blair admitted with a wry grin. "You want me to get specific?" he went on, the grin vanishing. A brief shadow of remembered pain came and went so quickly as to be unnoticeable to anyone else but Jim, and he hadn't needed any sentinel abilities to see it. "David Lash."

"We've discussed Lash," Jim pointed out, a little more coolly than he'd intended, and saw Blair's eyes flicker for a moment with surprise.

"I only meant to say that even Lash, in the midst of his mental derangement, had a ritual. His goal was not to cause pain - "

"No, his goal was to kill you," Jim pointed out, anger making his voice tight. "And he damn near succeeded."

"I know that, Jim," Blair insisted, confused at the flare-up in his friend. "Why are you so defensive about this?"

"Defensive? We shouldn't have to try to understand someone like David Lash - hell, he was screwed up from childhood, beyond our ability to help or redeem. A sad fact, maybe, but one we just have to accept - and then move on. All your liberal bullshit - "

"Liberal?" Blair interrupted, his own anger surfacing. "Are we back to labels again? OK, I'm liberal, I'm conservative, I'm left-wing, I'm right-wing - it all depends on the issue, the circumstances, what I ate for breakfast and the phase of the moon." He stopped himself, took a deep breath. This wasn't where he wanted the conversation to go.

Jim held out both hands in a placating gesture, a tapping heel the only evidence of his agitation. "Sorry, I guess that's just one of the buttons I didn't want you pushing right now," he said mildly. He appeared to become aware of his nervous movement of his foot and stopped it, once again the picture of calm reserve.

In a moment of clarity, Blair realized Jim had sucked his emotions down into some black hole deep inside himself and wasn't going to let anything escape. All of his calmness, his pleasantness, his agreeability since the evening before had been only a facade, a defensive mechanism to subvert his feelings. He's shut everything out.

He spoke quietly. "I only meant to use Lash as a comparison to - " Blair faltered a little, realizing how difficult it was going to be to talk about Hicks. He couldn't do it, not yet. "You knew him before, right?"

"Hicks?" Jim nodded. He explained about the course he'd take at the naval base, Hicks' crime and subsequent conviction.

Blair listened to the barren report, picked up a hint of the tension beneath the words. "A cold water survival course? Did that involve a very big ocean and some very deep water?"

Jim's eyes narrowed a bit. "Yes, to both. If you're going to ask if it was difficult because of my fear of deep water, the answer is also yes. It was the worst week of my Army life, and Hicks didn't make it any easier."

"A sadist can become very adept at picking out the most vulnerable member of the group and exploiting him for his own pleasure."

Jim clearly didn't like the words "vulnerable" or "exploit" when applied to himself. Blair had chosen them deliberately, but Jim didn't challenge their use. "Whatever," was all he said. "Hicks finally got what he deserved."

"Yes, he did," Blair agreed calmly.

"Oh, so it's OK if I killed Hicks?" Jim asked with a hint of aggression.

Blair was baffled. Forget the black hole analogy. Jim's emotions were more like a dormant volcano, internal pressures building until the inevitable eruption. He wanted to help, felt almost a desperate need to help, but he didn't have a clue where to begin or what was driving Jim's feelings toward meltdown. "Hicks or Lash," he answered quietly. "You did what you had to do."

The gaze Jim turned on Blair was flat and cold. "I killed Lash because I knew you were upstairs, drugged and maybe dying. Lash wouldn't stop coming at me until I'd dropped him, and killing him was the most expedient method. I killed Hicks because I chose to."

"Is that supposed to shock me, Jim?" Blair countered. "Hell, I wanted to kill him myself."

"But would you have actually done it?" Jim challenged.

"To save you? I'd like to think so."

"You weren't in any further danger, remember?" Jim shot back, his tone still quiet but tense. "I was listening. A minute or two longer tied to that chair wouldn't have mattered."

It would have mattered to me. "OK, but Hicks was a trained killer."

Jim held out his arm, his fingers curled under so that his hand was flat, the joints of his fingers a solid ridge of bone at its front. "So am I," he said. "One hand, a single blow. It crushes the larynx, causes a man to suffocate." He unflexed his fingers, relaxed his arm. "It's not designed to disable."

Blair felt a tremor inside, covered it by shifting his weight on the sofa. "So a good medical examiner will recognize that you intended to kill Hicks."

"Yeah."

"Is that what you're worried about?"

Jim shook his head. "I'm not worried about anything. In the end, it was justified."

Blair was frustrated. "Damn it, Jim, something's bothering you, but you won't give me a clue here. I want to help!"

"I don't want your help!" Jim shot back harshly. It took a long moment to compose himself. "Sorry, I didn't mean that."

"Quit apologizing!" Blair said. He managed a slight smile. "That's part of my job, remember?"

Jim grimaced at the attempted humor. "Sorry," he mouthed silently.

"OK, then." Blair sighed, speaking barely above a whisper. "Hicks was evil, Jim. I'm not using that word lightly here, either. He knew what he was doing, he understood the difference between right and wrong. He tortured people because he liked it. Being that close to him, helpless under his control, being -- touched...by him - I felt - "

"You felt contaminated?" Jim asked gently.

Blair shook his head, felt himself trembling with remembered dread. "Not so much contaminated as...consumed. I was drowning in his power, losing consciousness of who I was. I knew - hopelessness."

Jim was absolutely rigid in his chair, his face so carefully expressionless it spoke volumes. Inside, his gut burned with churning acids, and his chest felt tight. What he wanted to do was enfold Blair in protective arms, to be the buoy that lifted him above all the pain and hopelessness. But he just sat, unable to move, knowing that to move would cause him to shatter into a million pieces, to drown in his own well of despair. That was his nightmare, he realized suddenly, the utter certainty he would not arrive in time - this time - to save Blair from the monsters and demons that walked in Jim's world.

"I'm sorry," he whispered.

"No, Jim, it's OK - "

"It's not OK! I can't do this any more."

Blair nodded. "Yeah, it was a little rougher than I thought - "

"No, Sandburg, I'm not talking about our conversation."

Blair felt a chill to his bones. "What then - you can't do what? Be a cop, be a sentinel, be my friend? What?"

"Some of it, all of it, I don't know!" Jim fired back angrily. "Can't we just give it a rest? I don't want to talk about it, I don't want to analyze it -is it OK just to not want to share my god damned feelings right now?"

He might as well have hit Blair as yelled. It wasn't the complaint about Blair's need to talk things through; no, it wasn't that simple. Blair knew he had to shut this whole thing down right now, or a delicate balance would be tipped, perhaps irretrievably. Perversely, he felt his mouth opening. "Do you want me to move out?" he heard himself whisper, the words spoken and impossible to take back. He braced himself for the response.

But Jim just shook his head. "No, this is your home," he answered quietly.

Blair wasn't going to tempt fate any further. "All right, then, we'll drop it for now, OK?" he mumbled awkwardly, too off kilter by the unexpected revelations to make any sense of it right now. He started to get up.

This time, it was Jim who couldn't let it drop, much as he obviously wanted to. "You've got all the information you need for your dissertation, don't you."

"Yeah...why?" Blair asked suspiciously.

"I was thinking that, maybe, you don't need to do so much fieldwork any more."

Blair felt a rising panic. "Are you trying to dump me as your partner?"

"You're my best friend and my roommate. I don't want any of that to change. But, yeah, would it be so terrible if I didn't want you as my work partner?"

Blair got up and paced the floor in agitated strides. "It's because I lost it with Hicks, isn't it? You think I'm a coward!" God, where had that come from?

Jim stood up and grabbed the younger man, forcing him to stop and face him. "No! Look at me and listen - " Blair looked up at him with angry, tear-filled eyes. "Just listen. You aren't a coward. I never once thought you were. Hell, the first day I met you, you saved my life. A coward would have stood on the curb and made excuses about why he didn't do anything, but you just charged in and saved me from being run over by that truck. You've never lacked courage, or tenacity, or inventiveness when we've been up against it, but you don't have the training or instincts of a police officer." He stepped back, releasing his grip on Blair's arms. "And you never will," he finished quietly. "It's not in your nature."

Confused, Blair tried to understand. "You want me to carry a gun or something? Go through the Academy?" He waved his arms angrily. "I thought it was one of my students at the door the other night! Did you want me to answer it with a gun in my hand?"

Jim rubbed his face, irritated he couldn't make his feelings clearer. "This isn't just about the other night. It's about all the times your trust has gotten you into trouble when we've been working on a case."

"Yeah, and I've picked up hitchhikers, stopped to help stranded motorists, left my car unlocked in bad neighborhoods, and done a thousand other stupid things that you weren't there to tell me were wrong."

"That's what I'm trying to say," Jim insisted. "You're too trusting. You don't have the instincts to be a cop, and I can't keep putting you in danger on the job. I'd gotten used to working alone before; it's time I got used to it again."

"I never expected you to look out for me, Jim"

"No - I expect me to. It's just gotten too damned hard, and I can't do it any more." He turned away, too embarrassed to have Blair see the emotion in his eyes. "Don't you see? I care too much about what happens to you," he said quietly. "You're more than just a partner."

"God, Jim - "

Jim cut him off. "I need to 1get out of here for awhile, take a walk or something. You gonna be OK here?" he asked awkwardly.

Guess that means I'm not invited. Blair just nodded numbly and headed or his room.

Jim reached for his parka, but it wasn't on the coat rack. He remembered Blair had it, and chose a lighter jacket instead. He probably wouldn't be going out for long anyway.

When he stepped back through the door an hour later, the loft was quiet. Blair was sitting at the table, his back to the door, grading the test papers he'd been working on the other night. Before. But his pen was motionless in his hand.

Jim hung up his jacket and saw the parka hanging on its hook. He didn't know why, but it bothered him to see it there, as if Blair didn't need it anymore...didn't need him anymore. It's only a coat, Ellison, don't psychoanalyze it to death.

"You OK with this, Blair?" he asked finally.

"For now," came a flat reply.

Jim felt a surge of acid in his stomach and automatically reached for the antacid tablets that had become habitual the last few days. He chewed one, waiting to see if Blair would turn around or say something else.

Don't shut me out. But how could he ask Blair to open up when Jim himself had dropped the barriers between them? "I'm going up to bed," he said at last, heading for the stairs. "Good night."

"Good night."

Strangers exchanging social niceties. Shit.

 

Part Three

Things were just as strained the next morning, although they both tried to pretend everything was normal. Jim buttered some toast, not wanting it, knowing he had to eat despite the indigestion that would surely follow. "Simon called while you were in the shower. IA wants to see us this morning."

Blair looked up from his coffee, his reserve dropping away in an instant. "Internal Affairs? What do they want me for?"

"They want to ask you about Hicks' death."

"What do I tell them?" Blair asked nervously.

"You tell them the truth," Jim answered calmly.

"But I didn't see anything!"

Jim shrugged. "Then that's what you tell them." He ate part of his toast, poured more coffee. "We're due in an hour. Better get dressed."

"Oh, yeah," Blair muttered, looking down at his robe. "Right." He scurried toward his room.

Jim almost smiled. It was good to see the kid hyper over something again.

The drive to the station was anything but quiet as Blair fired questions. "What are you going to tell them?"

"The truth." Jim's tone was calm, virtually without emotion.

"Yeah, but you won't tell them what you told me, right?"

"And what's that?"

"The part about you wanting to kill Hicks. You won't tell them that, will you?"

"No. I don't fancy the thought of jail time."

"Jail? You're kidding, right? I mean, they wouldn't - would they?"

"Probably not," Jim agreed, "but it's ultimately up to the DA, and we've crossed paths before."

Blair sat back in the seat, stunned. Jeez, not more payback. He closed his eyes against a sudden wave of dizziness. Why couldn't anything ever be easy?

"You OK, Chief?" Jim asked with sudden concern.

Blair opened his eyes. "Yeah," he answered, adding bitterly, "You saved my life, Jim. Isn't that part of your job description or something? To protect and serve, right? Why are they giving you a hard time about it?"

"Saving your life isn't the issue here," Jim replied reasonably. "It's about killing Hicks."

"OK, OK, I get it," Blair grumbled angrily.

When they reached the squad room, Blair was surprised and touched by the enthusiastic welcome he received from everyone. He fumbled to express his gratitude, but they shrugged it off, the whole 'just-doing-our-jobs' routine. Still, Blair knew they'd all worked extra hard to find him, and he was grateful. He realized he would miss this place and everyone in it if Jim carried out his threat to terminate the partnership.

Jim had pretty much ignored the enthusiasm of his fellow officers. He poured a cup of coffee, saw Simon signal him, and headed for the office.

Simon closed the door. "Jim, you OK with this IA interview?"

"Sure, Captain," Jim answered, slouching into a chair when Simon waved him to sit down.

"It was a clean incident," Simon went on. "It doesn't matter what you were thinking - the bottom line is you had no choice. The man was a trained killer. You feared for the victim's life. You did the right thing."

"You're the second person who's told me he thinks I'm going to blab that I intended to kill Hicks all along." Jim looked faintly amused.

"Well, are you?"

Jim shook his head. "No. In the end, I know I had to kill him. That I'd also intended to really doesn't matter."

Simon studied his detective for a long moment, realizing Jim had taken a giant step backward to a time when Simon had first met him. Rookie detective James Ellison, older than other new detectives because of his detours through college and the Army, more mature because of it, but possessing a cool reserve that initially made Simon distrust him. Banks was a veteran cop; he could read people the way others read a newspaper, but he couldn't read Ellison. Jim gave nothing away, not in his expression, his eyes, his voice, his body language. It was a skill he'd learned in the Army, a technique to survive enemy interrogation, but Simon thought such total control bordered on the psychotic. He'd eventually come to realize it was just a mechanism to help Jim keep his emotional distance. It had taken a long time for both men, but especially Jim, to lower the barriers enough to trust each other, to finally call each other 'friend'.

Now the defenses were firmly back in place.

"So how's the kid?"

"He'll do fine."

"I don't mean the IA interview. I mean, how's he doing?"

Jim shrugged. "He wears his emotions on his sleeve, Captain. When he's ready to say something, he'll say it."

"Yeah, OK," Simon said with a note of aggravation in his tone. "You'd better get down to IA. They're expecting you in fifteen minutes. Send Sandburg in here."

"Yes, sir." Jim sauntered from the office, to all appearances a man without a care in the world. Simon watched through his office glass as Jim went to Sandburg, touched his sleeve and said something, nodding toward the office. Blair looked anxious, said something back, but Jim just shrugged him off and left the bullpen.

Damn, he's shut out the kid, too, Simon realized with a start.

"You wanted to see me, Simon?"

"Yeah, Sandburg. Come in and shut the door."

Blair did as he was told and sat in the chair Jim had recently vacated.

Simon felt concern; Blair looked anxious, fidgeting in his seat. "So, Sandburg, how are you feeling?"

Blair laughed a little nervously. "Like a hundred-and-fifty-five pounds of Jell-O," he admitted, a little embarrassed.

"About what happened or the IA thing?"

"Both, I guess."

"Did Jim tell you what's going to happen at your interview?"

"Not really. He just told me to tell the truth." Blair looked a little desperate. "But I didn't see anything, Simon. I didn't see Jim kill Hicks."

"Then that's exactly what you tell them."

"They'll accept that?" Blair still looked uncertain.

"Of course not." Simon sighed. "Look, Blair, all they're supposed to ask you about is what you saw or heard when Jim killed Hicks, the time immediately preceding and following. If they try to ask you anything else, anything about what happened to you or anything you don't feel comfortable talking about, you don't have to answer. If they get really pushy, you yell for a lawyer."

Blair looked relieved. "Good. I'm not sure I'm ready to talk about - everything." His worry returned. "But I want to help Jim."

"Then you tell the IA team three things," Simon went on firmly, ticking the points off on his fingers. "Hicks threatened to kill you. You feared for your life. Jim rescued you."

"It sounds simple when you say it like that," Blair admitted.

"Keep it that way," Simon insisted. "IA can't handle complications. They'll only get confused."

"OK." Blair stood up to leave, hesitated.

"What is it, Sandburg?"

"Jim said - " he began awkwardly, then took a deep breath. "Did Jim say anything to you about our partnership?"

"No, were you expecting him to?" Simon replied. Then he understood, and his expression softened. "Just give it some time, Blair. Jim's shut us both out right now. It's how he copes."

"Yeah, I know." Blair sighed.

"You'd better get going," Simon urged gently.

"OK, Simon...and, uh, thanks. For everything. I mean it."

"I know. Go on." Simon was uncomfortable receiving gratitude. He watched Blair leave the squad room. IA will eat him alive, he thought glumly, then shook his head. The kid was tougher than he looked. A lot tougher. He'd proven it time and again.


"So you were yelling, afraid for your life." "Yeah." "What was Hicks doing to you that made you scream?" "He was throwing acid in my face." "Acid? I don't see any burns." "It was lemon juice, but I didn't realize it at the time." "So he assaulted you with lemon juice?" "I was tied to a chair, for God's sake! He hit me. He had a goddamned cattle prod!" "What did he do with it?" "You want all the lurid details, asshole? Go jerk yourself, man, because I'm not going to give you the satisfaction!"

Blair threw up again into the toilet, wiped his sweating face with tissue, and flushed for the fourth time. God, when was his gut going to stop heaving? He climbed shakily to his feet and braced his arms against the sides of the stall.

He thought he'd done OK in the interview, but it had been much more intense than he'd anticipated. One of the investigators had seemed obscenely interested in the details of Blair's ordeal, but Blair had managed to avoid most of the toughest parts. He had told them about seeing Iola Cruz and Eric Holder murdered in cold blood by Hicks (although he hadn't known their names at the time), how he'd been screaming in terror only moments before Jim's arrival (so Jim had to believe Blair was in imminent danger of death), how he hadn't actually seen Jim kill Hicks (but that he was very, very grateful it had happened). But he'd only been out of the interview room a few moments before reaction had set in and he'd had to lunge for the nearest men's room.

He left the stall and shuffled wearily to the sink. Splashing cold water on his face revived him a bit. He was grateful the restroom was still vacant; no one had heard his pitiful retching. He peered at himself in the mirror and whispered at the pale image, "You could mime for quarters on the street corner and never even have to put on whiteface." This made him smile a little, a smile which turned into a grimace as he became aware of a throbbing headache building in his temples. He needed aspirin.

Where was Jim?

Blair had sat outside the IA interview room for a long time while waiting his turn. Jim had been inside for almost an hour; Blair found himself growing more and more nervous as the minutes crept passed. What could be taking so long?

When Jim finally had emerged, he'd looked totally relaxed and cool. "Your turn, Chief," was all he'd said, pointing Blair toward the door.

"But, Jim - "

"Go on. It's OK."

Well, it hadn't been OK, damn it! And Jim hadn't even waited around for him afterward.

Blair wasn't going to go looking for him either. If Jim had a need to shut himself down right now, then fine. Blair wouldn't go crawling to him like some kind of emotional basket case. He couldn't take the rejection. Not again.

He fumbled for his wallet. Why the hell didn't he ever seem to have any cash? Maybe he had enough for the bus.

Jim was waiting for him in the hall, and Blair started guiltily.

"You OK, Chief?" For all his coolness, there was concern in the mild blue eyes.

Blair shook his head and winced. "You got any aspirin?"

Jim handed him a bottle. "Lately, it's become one of the five major food groups, right in there with caffeine, donuts, antacids and chocolate."

Blair took a couple of pills, washed them down at the water fountain. "Thanks for being here," he mumbled, remembering his recent angry thoughts.

"I didn't want to hang around outside the interview room," Jim said a little awkwardly. "I didn't want you to think I was eavesdropping."

"It's OK." Now, anyway. "Who was that big cop with the attitude?"

"Anson Miller. He's a jerk."

"I seriously considered decking him."

Jim smiled slightly. "I don't think the Seahawks could deck Lieutenant Miller, so it's probably a good thing you didn't try."

Blair nodded. "Saner thoughts prevailed."

"You ready to go home?"

"Yeah."

"OK, I'll drive you."

"You're coming back to work?"

"Yeah." Jim shrugged. "I'm on desk duty for a couple of days until IA makes its ruling, but otherwise, it's business as usual. It'll give me a chance to catch up on my paperwork."

"So, I guess you don't need me around for that," Blair murmured uncertainly.

Jim tensed, kept his voice reasonable. "You need to get some rest. Eat a gallon or two of the soup that wouldn't die." Blair nodded miserably. "It's only paperwork, Chief. Honest. I'll be OK here."

"OK." Blair was only slightly reassured., but he felt like hell anyway. Going home to bed was the only logical solution.

Once in the truck, he said, "Jim, I need to know what happened. I mean, I know what happened to me - hell, the whole world knows what happened to me," he amended disparagingly, then took a breath to calm himself. "I need to know what happened to you."

"OK," Jim agreed reluctantly, not relishing the prospect. "Can it wait until tonight, after dinner?"

Blair thought about it. "All right. Tonight."

Jim reached out and touched his sleeve unexpectedly. "The whole world doesn't know, Blair," he said quietly, "Just Simon and me and a couple of others I'll tell you about tonight. The rest may suspect, but they don't know. Simon has the videos locked up some place. Even I don't know where they are. I'm betting when this case is officially closed, he'll destroy them."

Blair released a sigh of relief. "God, that makes me feel better," he admitted gratefully. "Pretty shallow, huh?"

"I don't think so." Jim started the engine. "Let's get you home."

 

Part Four

Unable to muster any enthusiasm for dinner, Jim pushed the food around on his plate and sipped at his beer.

"You really don't want to do this, do you?" Blair asked.

Jim looked at him, startled. "No, it's a good idea. We need to put both halves of this story together, understand what happened. Maybe then we can figure out why - " he faltered a little, frowning as he searched for the right words, couldn't find them.

"Why you're having such a hard time with it?" Blair supplied.

"No." Jim shook his head. "I'm fine."

Sure you are. Blair didn't push it, didn't want to start an argument or give Jim an excuse to weasel out of his promise to discuss the events of the past few days.

When they were through, Blair quickly cleared away the dishes, stacked them in the sink, opened another beer for Jim, a soda for himself, and sat down on the sofa. Jim opted for the chair and slouched low against the cushions, long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. He took a drink from the beer bottle. "OK, where do we start?"

"The first video," Blair said. "We both sat here and watched it. You took it down to the lab. Then what?"

"The lab wasn't any help, but I suddenly got this weird feeling that you were in trouble. I called, and got an outgoing message Hicks put in the answering machine. I called for a lab team, then called Simon. I asked him to get a psychologist to meet with us."

I might as well be reading the police report, Blair thought. "Then what?"

"Her name was Sylvia McMahon," Jim went on.

"The same Doctor McMahon who's head of the psych department?" Blair asked in surprise. "Wow. I hear she's really good at criminal profiles. She's worked with various police departments before on tough cases."

"Yeah, well she made sure her name was on top of the roster for this one," Jim said bitterly. "They waited until Doctor Ebersole went on vacation, planned everything perfectly. They even had a backup plan in the event I didn't request her help."

"Wait - you're saying she was in on it?"

"She helped plan it with Hicks. I don't know why. Maybe she was tired of just playing kinky. Maybe she wanted to do something really perverted." Jim rubbed his jaw, drank some more beer. "Thankfully, that's an answer for someone else to figure out. She had an assistant with her, a grad student named Russell. She called him CB. He was some kind of computer nerd."

"Was he in on it, too?"

"No, I don't think so. I probably should make sure someone's checking him out - " Jim scowled. "I didn't even get his last name."

"Is that important?"

"It means I wasn't doing my job. This whole thing had me so off balance, I ignored the details. Details can make or break a case...you know that."

"Yeah, and Simon probably has it all under control," Blair answered. "He has a whole room full of detectives to help with all the little bits." He didn't want Jim to get sidetracked into self-recriminations. "OK, I guess this is the part where I got kidnapped. Two guys knocked on the door-"

"I know. That was the second video."

"Get out!" Blair exclaimed in disbelief.

"There was a camera hidden in the loft. It showed everything - you coming home from the university, me getting in awhile later, the dinner preparations, eating, me watching the first video and leaving again -- "

"You saw a video of yourself watching a video?" Blair interrupted. "Didn't that make you feel like you were in some sort of time warp or something?"

You don't know the half of it yet, Jim thought, recalling his weird zone out. Time for that later. "No, it gave me a headache. You want me to go on with this?"

"Heck yeah."

"OK. The video showed the whole kidnapping, ended when you all left the loft." Jim sighed. "I should have heard the camera running," he said. "I meant to ask the lab about it - about what kind of camera it was, whether it was turned on by a remote when Hicks saw you enter the building, or if it could record for several hours and Hicks just turned it on when he hid it." More details he'd neglected...

"Anyway," Blair hurried on, "they took me downstairs to the alley, shoved me in the trunk of a car. Where did I finally end up? I wasn't thinking too clearly right after you saved me."

"The old naval base south of the airport."

"Oh. Well, it's your turn again - you pretty much know everything that happened to me."

"McMahon set up a large monitor in Simon's office - so we could watch the videos in private, she said. She had a camera hidden in one of the speaker holes. It was filming all of my reactions to watching the videos of you." At the memory of this, Jim felt another flush of anger. How could he have been so stupid? "They would have edited the best parts from all the videos together to make one really disgusting movie."

Blair looked a little sickened by the thought. "That's really perverse. So you watched all the videos?"

"Hicks said he would give clues on the tapes. It was a ploy to make sure I'd watch them. And McMahon was there to urge me on when I hesitated; she made sure I felt guilty if I wanted to go out and work on the case. I fell right into it. I figured if you were the one who was really suffering, I should at least have the guts to sit there and try to pick out the clues Hicks had promised."

"Were there any clues?" Blair asked softly, trying to comprehend the magnitude of the insidious plot. It was just too weird.

"Not any planted by Hicks, but yeah, I managed to pick up a few things, but nothing much of importance." Jim sounded irritated with himself, shook the feeling off. "That Russell kid, though, he was sharp. He came up with a lot of good ideas - turns out McMahon didn't know her assistant did a lot of on-site research at the S-and-M and dungeon clubs. He stole her thunder, and she didn't like it."

"But what led you to the naval base?" Blair persisted.

"The bodies of Iola Cruz and Eric Holder were dumped near there," Jim answered. "When I saw her and the naval base, something clicked, and I knew where you were." Jim's eyes were as empty as his voice. "The rest you already know." He sighed wearily. "Look, I know it's still pretty early, but I'm going to turn in, OK?"

"OK," Blair answered. "You going to need me tomorrow?"

Jim hesitated just a little before saying, "No, it's still paperwork patrol for me. You stay home and get some rest. I don't want you getting sick or anything."

Blair nodded unhappily and watched his partner go up the stairs to his bedroom. What could he do to help? Jim had shut down his emotions so thoroughly, Blair didn't have a clue where to begin. He'd have to do a lot of thinking...about a lot of things.

He went to his room and sprawled across the bed, rooting around on the floor for a journal article he'd been trying to plow through for many days. If anything was going to numb his mind, the convoluted prose was surely the ticket.

He was sprawled across the metal table, his arms and feet tied to the table legs. Helpless and naked, he shivered in the cold and trembled as hot hands stroked his back, moving down to clutch his buttocks...

"Damn it, Blair, wake up!" The strong hands grabbed the back of his shirt and hauled him upright. Blair took a swing at his opponent, but he was facing the wrong way and only managed to thump himself in the ribs. Then he was turned around, sitting on his bed, the hands on his shoulders. Desperately, he shoved them away. "Come on, Chief, it's only me."

Blair blinked away the nightmare. "Jim." He looked around his room. He was still in his clothes and had fallen asleep atop the covers, the open journal article wrinkled beneath him. "Sorry. I'm OK."

"You're sure?" Jim stepped back uncertainly. He looked shaken. "Damn, I didn't know what to do. I'm afraid to touch you, afraid I'll trigger some sort of flashback - "

"It's OK," Blair said shakily. "I don't know how I'll react, either, but like you said before, whatever happens, don't take it personally, OK?"

"Yeah, OK. You're sure you're all right?"

"Yeah. I guess I haven't had much time during the day to work through what's happened, so my subconscious is working a little overtime."

"Yeah. I know."

"You're having nightmares too?"

"Sometimes. Lately." Jim sighed, relenting a bit. "I've been having nightmares about not been able to find you. About not being able to save you."

Blair smiled slightly. "That's a nightmare I live with, only with the roles reversed," he admitted. "I'm always afraid I won't be there when you really need me."

"Not this nightmare, though."

"No, not this nightmare."

Jim shook his head. "You don't have to worry about me so much all the time," he said finally.

"Yeah, I do. I'm your Guide, remember?"

Jim tensed, looked away guiltily. "I can't talk about this right now."

"When?"

"I don't know." He backed toward the door, toward escape. "Go back to sleep."

Blair hated feeling so shut out. "You know, you don't have to be so strong all the time."

Jim stopped in the doorway, looked at him for a long time. "Yes, I do," he whispered finally. Then he turned and left.

 

Part Five

"Captain, I don't want Sandburg for a partner anymore."

It was two mornings later when Jim finally screwed up the courage to go to Simon with his problem. The previous day had been spent uselessly fiddling with paperwork, getting nothing much done, fidgeting with tension and whirling thoughts. Simon had suggested then that he go home, but Jim couldn't face the thought of further confrontation with Blair. So he'd stuck it out at his desk like a coward, putting in the hours, finally going home late and creeping through the door silent as a thief. He'd breathed a sigh of relief when he'd realized the kid was sound asleep. The next morning, he'd crept out just as quietly, leaving a brief note about his plans - more paperwork at the station - and gone in to work. The threatening storm clouds had finally unleashed their burden with a vengeance. The streets were flooded, stalled cars littered the intersections, traffic signals were blinking red or were out altogether. All in all, it was a commuters nightmare. The first major storm of winter always seemed to be the worst.

Simon had been expecting Jim's outburst, but that didn't make it any easier. "Why?"

"You were right from the beginning, when you said it wasn't a good idea. Sandburg's not cut out for our kind of work."

"Don't try to push this all on me!" Simon snapped.

"No, sir, I only meant - "

"I know what you meant, Detective - and as your captain, I don't think it's a good idea to break up the team right now."

Jim was stunned. He hadn't expected this kind of resistance, and it unbalanced him a little. "Sir - Simon - you're forcing me into a decision I didn't think I'd have to make."

Simon frowned. "You'd quit over this?"

Jim fumbled for words. "It's too hard - trying to look out for him. I don't want to be responsible for him any more."

"Jim, Sandburg can take care of himself." Off Jim's look, he amended, "Well, most of the time, anyway. He's proven he can handle it."

Jim slumped in his chair, tried to force words past a sudden constriction in his throat. "But I can't," he said quietly. He looked up at Simon, his defenses crumbling a little. "Don't you see? I'm the one who can't handle it any more."

Simon felt unaccountably guilty for pushing him this far. "OK, Jim, OK. I'll put the kid on sick leave for a few days, give the partnership some distance. Is that all right?"

Jim nodded. "For now."

"Just give it some time."

"All right, but I won't change my mind." Jim looked almost weary after his effort to retrench his emotional equilibrium. "Thanks."

I'm going to lose a good friend and my best detective, Simon realized with sudden clarity. He's going to self-destruct, and I don't know if there's a damned thing I can do about it. Jim certainly needed something more than paperwork to keep himself busy, to keep his thoughts off his problems. "Look, Jim, you've been pretty useless around here for the last couple of days - "

Jim sighed. "I know. Sorry."

"It's OK - I just meant I have a job for you." Simon held out a slip of paper. "There are a bunch of witness depositions at the sheriff's station in Bickley. The DA needs them by tomorrow morning. The forms can't be faxed, and Bickley doesn't have a messenger service. Here's a list of the stuff you'll be picking up."

"You want me to go get them?" Jim thought this sounded a little lame, even for someone stuck on desk duty.

"Sorry, the uniforms are overwhelmed with this damned weather - the first big storm of winter suddenly reminds most people why they want to move back to California."

"Be nice if they went," Jim said.

"Yeah, I can see you're a huge asset to the community today," Simon commented wryly. "Get out of here, Jim. Consider it a drive in the woods."

 

Part Six

Blair read Jim's note with numb acceptance, fixed a fresh pot of coffee and thought about his day. There was no point in staying home. He was rested, the aches were gradually disappearing, and short of staring mindlessly at the walls all day, there was nothing for him to do. He decided to go in to work, glanced out the window at the driving rain, and grimaced. The weather fit his mood perfectly.

The Volvo's engine started smoothly. The car was safe in bad weather, but Blair still drove carefully, aware that other drivers were not so cautious. Evidence of their lack of skill at driving in wet weather littered intersections and curbsides. A slick road surface could be unforgiving to the careless.

He shrugged into his heavy parka and dashed for the basement. Normally, his little nook was a haven, a place of clutter and comfort, at once familiar and safe. But not today. Today it looked alien, unwelcoming. He knew why; he just refused to think about it at the moment. Maybe if he went upstairs to his office, which was a bit more professional, a little less personal...

But his thoughts were persistent, demanding to be addressed, so he finally gave up his attempts to grade test papers and went to find a decent cup of coffee.

A few minutes later, he sat alone at one of the coveted tiny tables by the windows facing the water. The myriad sounds of a hundred different conversations, the clatter of glassware and cutlery, the intrusive squawk of the public address system were all amplified by the poor acoustics of the cafeteria. He'd hoped the noise and bustle would distract him, but they only served to amplify his feeling of isolation.

Not loneliness, but aloneness; when the mind turns inward to dwell on problems that seem too monumental to comprehend, much less overcome. Change, the only constant in life, loomed before him like an unwanted visitor on the doorstep, and as someone who normally welcomed the unexpected as a challenge to his resourcefulness, he felt abandoned and adrift.

Life, went the trite phrase, is what happens while you're busy making other plans.

Well, life had intruded on his comfortable little world in a big way. Or maybe it should be the realities of life had intruded.

His dissertation was dead. Sure, he had all the research he needed, but so what? His thesis would be scrutinized and challenged by experts. His test subject - hell, his best friend - would be subjected to some carefully constructed double-blind study to prove that he was living proof the myth of the Sentinel was actual fact. He couldn't ask Jim to undergo that kind of testing, and even if by some wild stretch of the imagination Ellison agreed, what then? The suits from some alphabet agency in Washington knocking on the door to recruit him to use his skills in unthinkable ways? Or would they simply spirit him away some night, just one more implausible conspiracy theory? Blair could see the headlines in the tabloids: GOVERNMENT KIDNAPS GENETICALLY SUPERIOR HUMAN TO USE AS NEW SECRET WEAPON. Yep, it would fit right in with all the alien babies and Elvis sightings.

His theories had looked good on paper, but they couldn't be applied to real life. It made him suspicious of all academia. How well did any of it reflect the realities beyond campus?

He sipped his still-warm cup of Costa Rican coffee and stared out across the flat, gray waters of the sound. So much gray! Even the grass verge looked colorless through the mist. The rain would start again any minute, he knew, and his parka was already damp. He really needed to invest in a decent raincoat.

He was reluctant to go back to the office. It was just a bitter reminder of his failure. What now? He was almost 30, time to decide on a real career, get a real job. He couldn't remain a part-time student, part-time instructor, part-time Guide any longer. It would take another two years of intensive work to complete another thesis, get that magical Ph.D. that would open doors he no longer had any interest in opening. He didn't want to be a full-time teacher, much as he enjoyed the few classes he taught now. No, he wanted to stay in the real world, despite all its turmoil and dangers. He knew exactly what he was, but he had no clue as to how he could make an actual living at it.

Blair Sandburg was a Guide. Pity it was a category that never showed up at high school career days or college job fairs. The position offered no salary, no insurance coverage, no retirement plan. As socially acceptable careers went, it really sucked. It wouldn't be so bad if he could pursue it somewhere like a university or a monastery, where grants and endowments kept food on the table and clothes on your back, but a Guide was part of the real world, where a man was expected to labor and produce or risk becoming a societal outcast, a freeloader.

He knew he couldn't live off Jim's generosity forever. Change was inevitable. One or the other could fall in love, get married, have children; Jim could be hurt or killed on the job. Whether separated by miles or continents, Jim would always be the Sentinel, and Blair would always be his Guide, but what good was he under those conditions? And Jim had already made it clear he didn't want Blair around on the job any longer. Blair had finally found the true path his life was meant to follow, and Jim had knocked him off it as surely as if he'd slugged him.

So he was back at the beginning again, just as confused as when he had begun. For someone who had always prided himself on his independence, his emotional self-sufficiency, he certainly felt mentally off-kilter now. He was a Guide without a Sentinel, a grad student without a dissertation, a teacher without tenure.

He was nothing.

This is your life, Blair Sandburg. How do you like it so far?

Overcome by a wave of self-pity, he finished his cold coffee and shrugged back into his parka. It wasn't in his nature to wallow, so he knew the feeling wouldn't last; he wouldn't let it. For now, though, he needed a diversion. The test papers in his office still needed to be graded. No matter how much confusion and turmoil flowed around him, life still went on. Oddly, this fact was somehow reassuring.

 

Part Seven

The two-lane road climbed gradually through the forested valley. The mountains ahead were shrouded in cloud and mist. Rain beat steadily on the windshield, but it didn't affect Jim's visibility. Now that he was out of Cascade, where streetlights and traffic signals reflecting off rain-slicked pavement could almost blind him, Jim felt a lot more relaxed. Darkness was falling early under the lowering clouds. This storm gave every indication of sticking around for awhile; it would be the first of many lengthy storms defining the coming winter. Someone had coined a phrase describing this area of coastline, and Cascadians had adopted it as their own: Cascade has two seasons, the saying went -- the rainy season...and the first two weeks in August. But this was coming up on the winter rains, when serious weather settled in for the long haul, icing roads, flooding storm drains, creating havoc up and down the coast.

Jim could actually see better with the headlights off, but he kept them on as a courtesy to oncoming traffic. Glumly, he thought about the old truck he was driving. It was wholly unsuited to the Cascade weather. Not equipped with four-wheel drive, it was dangerous to drive on icy city streets, and it had a habit of stalling out in flooded intersections unless speed was reduced to a snail's pace. Then there was the too-light rear end, which tended to slide when cornering quickly, an almost inevitable occurrence during high-speed pursuits.

Besides, Jim knew springtime would bring an urge to get out into the wilderness - to camp and hike through the forests surrounding the city. Wet weather was a certainty, not just a possibility, and the open bed of the truck was an invitation to soaked gear and soggy clothing. Already, one such foray had led to Jim checking into a motel overnight rather than pitch an already sodden tent at his chosen campsite.

No, it was definitely time to trade in the good ole' truck - if vehicles were the extension of a man's self-image, had he been going through some wannabe cowboy phase when he'd bought it? -- and get a real truck, something that could handle the road and keep him dry. Another sport utility, maybe. He would start checking the car magazines for comparative test data. He actually found himself looking forward to the prospect.

The road started climbing a little more steeply now, having left the valley and entered the foothills. A sign read: Narrow Bridge Ahead - Single Lane Only.

Immediately thereafter, the truck plunged into a thick bank of mountain fog, and Jim backed off the accelerator. Damn! He really hated fog since his heightened senses had kicked back on after their five-year hiatus. Again, he could see better with the headlights off, but such an option was unthinkable. An oncoming driver could plow right into him.

He increased the wiper speed - the rain had dropped off to a puny drizzle that settled over the windshield like a semi-opaque skin, and he needed to keep his view as clear as possible. His headlights, even on low beam, reflected back to too brightly, and he concentrated on tuning down his sensitivity, seeking a level where the light would not assault him so harshly but would permit him still to see the road.

The center white line had nearly vanished - he could only see a bit of it directly ahead of the left fender. Why did I let Simon talk me into this? he groaned to himself, then, It's only a little fog, Ellison, quit complaining.

Yeah, his inner voice contradicted itself, but you have to drive in it with heightened senses whose centuries-old genetic code hadn't taken artificial light into consideration.

In a sudden moment of panic-induced clarity, he realized he no longer smelled the pine forest or heard the rhythmic chug of the engine. He had zoned out, concentrated on his vision to the exclusion of everything else.

The truck wheels rolled onto the bridge, but he didn't hear the change in surface. Instead, oncoming headlights glared suddenly into his straining eyes, cutting like twin lasers straight into his brain. Involuntarily, he screamed against the pain of sudden sensory overload and spun the wheel to escape not only the lights but a certain head-on collision.

The truck hit the right side of the bridge, bounced off with a shriek of protesting metal, and slammed into the left railing, which gave way under the impact after slowing the vehicle to a near standstill. The pickup tottered for a moment, then the heavier front end tipped inexorably toward the rain-swollen river below. Through eyes nearly blinded by a steady flow of blood from a gash on his forehead, Jim saw the rushing water rise toward him in agonizing slow motion; then the truck completed its somersault and landed upside-down in the torrent, where it was immediately swept back under the bridge and hurtled downstream.

 

Part Eight

Back in his basement lair, Blair sat at his desk grading the last of the test papers. Too bad he preferred testing with essay questions rather than the ubiquitous true/false or multiple choice administered by so many other instructors. No, he liked to know what his students thought, not just how much they knew.

A blinding flash of light stabbed painlessly into his vision, and he looked up, absently noting the time on his small desk clock - 2:17. He was in the basement, so there was no source of exterior light. The harsh overheads and the more subdued glow of his desk lamp beamed with steady reliability.

The flash of light had been imaginary, a trick of his eyes. Don't tell me I'm getting a migraine, he grumbled to himself, searching inward for any other symptoms. No evidence of impaired vision, no first inklings of pain.

Where the hell had the flash come from? He realized he had the telephone handset halfway to his ear, and stopped himself. This is ludicrous, he told himself. Then he heard Jim's voice inside his head. Just go with your instincts, Chief.

He dialed the cell phone number and got the recorded message that it was unavailable or out of range. Then he called Simon. "Where's Jim?"

"And a good afternoon to you, too, Sandburg," Simon retorted.

"Oh, sorry," Blair apologized, calming himself. "Hi, Simon. Where's Jim?"

"He's gone up to Bickley to pick up some depositions we need to give to the DA tomorrow," Simon explained. "Why?"

"Nothing, I just need to ask him something."

"He should be back around eight or nine."

"Oh, OK." Blair started to say goodbye, felt a chill snag his gut. "Simon, have you got a number for him in Bickley? The cell's out of range."

"Sure, I've got it here somewhere." Blair chafed impatiently as he heard Simon rummage around on his desktop. "Here it is," Simon said at last, reading off a phone number. "What's up, Sandburg?"

"Uh, nothing, Simon, really," Blair replied awkwardly. "I just - I really need to talk to him."

Simon sounded sympathetic. "If it's something I can help with - "

"No," Blair cut him off quickly, then quelled a rising anxiety. "No, but thanks, Simon. It's just a silly feeling, that's all. Nothing important."

He hung up and immediately dialed the number in Bickley.

"Sorry, he hasn't arrived yet," a woman replied in answer to his question. "There's a ton of fog on the road, so it may have slowed him down. Our only two cruisers are out checking fender benders already."

"Thanks," Blair said unhappily. He hung up the phone and sat quietly for a minute, pondering his options. Bickley was two hours away up a narrow mountain two-lane. Three hours if the fog and rain were really bad. So he'd blow maybe six hours on the road, so what? The damn feeling wouldn't go away; he had to do something.

He put on his heavy parka and took an umbrella, but he was still soaked by the time he dashed to the Volvo. Jumping inside, he shed the coat, stowed the streaming umbrella, and started the engine. The heater didn't start to cut the chill until he'd reached the eastbound freeway.

The lanes were jammed with afternoon commuters, and Blair cursed his inevitably stop-and-go progress. With uncharacteristic impatience, he illegally cut down the shoulder to the next off ramp, where he entered the maze of crowded surface streets. He thumped the steering wheel in frustration. Even the city seemed to be conspiring against him.

He took some calming breaths and suffered through the next several miles of heavy traffic. After what seemed like an eternity, the number of cars began to thin, and when he made the final turn onto the national forest road toward Bickley, he had the road to himself.

The windshield wipers made a valiant but doomed effort to sweep aside the rain. He really had to replace the wiper blades before another major winter storm hit. Jim kept reminding him, but he kept forgetting to do it.

The Volvo had all-wheel drive, so Blair made good time despite the bad weather. He passed a temporary sign that read CAUTION: TRUCKS ENTERING HIGHWAY, and caught a glimpse of a graded logging road on his right as he sped by. He felt a flash of irritation toward the logging industry, which couldn't farm trees fast enough to satisfy hungry foreign markets and had turned a greedy eye on the old-growth forests of Washington and elsewhere. It's not about spotted owls, Rush-bo, he thought angrily, it's about an entire ecosystem your concrete-loving soul wants to wipe off the face of the earth. How's that for liberal bullshit thinking, Jim?

Behind the narrow band of thick forest lining the road to keep the tourists happy, Blair knew there would be evidence of clear-cutting, gaping open wounds across the mountainsides.

He entered the fog with barely enough warning to slow his speed. Thick with moisture, it rendered the road virtually invisible, and Blair could barely see where he was going. A barrier of flashing yellow lights loomed ahead, and he coasted onto the shoulder off the pavement. Damn, the road was closed. He could make out flashing red lights to his left, and the emergency blinkers of a big rig, so he put on his parka and went to investigate.

A forest service ranger and a civilian were sitting in the seat of a forestry truck, the red lights Blair had seen rotating on its roof. Two other forestry trucks sat empty behind it. The ranger rolled down his window a bit, but he didn't invite Blair in out of the weather.

"Bridge is closed," he said succinctly. "You'll have to go back the way you came. The dam to the north looks like it could go at any time."

Blair put on his most disarming expression. "Thanks. What's going on here?"

"We had a vehicle go into the river," the ranger replied. "Search and rescue are searching both sides of the riverbank for the bodies now."

Blair felt a sense of dread all the way to his toes. "Uh, do you know what kind of vehicle?" he asked casually.

"Old pickup truck," the civilian answered bitterly. "I blew my air horns before I pulled the rig onto the bridge. Any damn fool within half a mile woulda heard 'em, but no, that damned pickup just came right at me like it owned the road. The idiot driving swerved at the last second or I woulda smashed him flat, but the truck went through the railing."

"No one's blaming you, Hal," the ranger soothed for what was obviously not the first time. He looked at Blair. "River's running at high flood levels, and Hal said the truck went in upside down. Not much hope for whoever was inside it."

"What color -- ?" Blair began, then took a deep breath to stop his tumbling thoughts. "What color was the truck?"

"Light colored, two-toned maybe," Hal answered. "That's all I saw."

The ranger's hand-held radio buzzed, and he thumbed the transmit button. "Base."

A voice crackled over the receiver. "Search One. We've found part of the pickup on the west bank about half a mile from the bridge. The truck bed must've broke off and be god knows where by now. The cab's buried on its side in a deadfall."

"Any sign of the driver?" the ranger asked.

"No. The water's rising, and we can't get to it. Jake tried, but it's just too damned dangerous. Current's running hard, and the debris is damming up here. The windshield looks broken out. Can't get a license ID either - the wreck is pretty much covered over."

"Can he be sure the truck cab is empty?" Blair asked anxiously.

The ranger looked at him oddly, but relayed the question.

"Can't tell for sure, but I'd guess yes," came the reply. "I can see the seat belt's undone. The driver's body must have washed downstream."

"Damn," the ranger muttered. "OK, Rescue One, you and Rescue Two get back to base. You'll never find anyone in that fog and rain. Alive or dead, the folks in that truck'll just have to wait for a break in the weather."

"Roger, base," came the reluctant replies from the two search parties.

"I need to see that truck," Blair said urgently.

"Not a hope in hell 'til the weather clears," the ranger insisted. "Why? You think you know who was in it?"

Blair quickly explained about Jim's planned visit to Bickley, and the ranger contacted the sheriff's office there on his truck radio. There was still no sign of Jim, and the dispatcher had already called Cascade to tell them the bridge was closed. Apparently, the dispatcher continued, Detective Ellison had left Cascade hours ago and should have been in Bickley by now. Did the Forest Service know something the police should know?

Blair was back in the Volvo and firing the engine long before the conversation finished. The tires spun in the soft mud of the shoulder before finally getting a grip and moving the car back onto the pavement. He made a U-turn and headed back the way he had come until he found the logging road, then he turned left and checked his odometer. A half mile, the search and rescue guy had said. Praying the road paralleled the river, he watched the tenths click over on the gauge.

He knew he was ill-equipped for this little foray into the woods. His flashlight batteries hadn't been changed in ages, he had only his damp parka for warmth and leather athletic shoes hardly suited for trekking over rain-slicked river rocks on his feet. Still, he had to know.

Anxiety was a huge knot in his gut, and he gripped the steering wheel so tightly his fingers began to ache. It was Jim's pickup in the river, he knew. Everything pointed to that certainty. But where was Jim? If he'd survived the plunge into the icy river, he could be hurt and helpless somewhere on the riverbank.

Somewhere, Sandburg, chided a voice in his mind. It's a long river.

A half mile went by on the odometer, but the muddy road seemed to be running fairly straight, so he decided to venture a bit further. Another half mile clicked by. Suddenly, something sleek and black dashed across the road directly into his path. Slamming on his brakes, the car skidded badly. He couldn't correct in time, and the Volvo slid off the side of the road and down an embankment. Several yards later, it reached the bottom of the gully and leveled out, rocking to a halt.

Shakily, Blair turned off the headlights and still-running engine. The sudden blackness was unsettling. Rain pounded on the roof, and wind rattled tree limbs and the last of the fall leaves on the deciduous trees growing between the pines.

"Just great, Sandburg," he said aloud. "Now you need rescuing, too."

But what had run across in front of the car? Had it been the black panther, Jim's spirit guide?

No matter, this was as good a place to start as any. He emptied his backpack onto the back floor, resolutely snugged all the snaps on his parka and climbed out into the rain. It was difficult just getting to the trunk of the Volvo. What would it be like when he actually ventured into the woods?

Shifting through the jumble of useless junk and oddments cluttering the trunk, he found an old first aid kit, a thread-bare blanket stained with oil and road grime, a roll of masking tape, an extra-large sweatshirt he'd been given for donating blood - and a sleeping bag he'd meant to take to the cleaners. The first three things went into his backpack. The sleeping bag and sweatshirt he shoved onto the back seat of the car. He'd need something dry when he got back.

Providing he could find his way back in the pitch black. He tested the flashlight from his glove compartment - bright and steady illumination, thank goodness, but for how long? He slammed the trunk lid and car door, then headed in what he hoped was the direction of the river.

Within a few hundred feet, he knew he was in trouble. The flashlight barely penetrated the blackness of the forest. The narrow trees grew close together, making progress difficult. The tape, which he'd planned to use to mark his path, refused to stick to sodden bark, so he had to tear off larger strips to wrap around branches. It wouldn't last long at that rate.

Still, he pushed onward, walking steadily downhill, doing his best to maintain a straight course. Branches lashed at his face and hands, snagged his hair and clothing; huge droplets of gathered rainwater dropped on his head and down his collar as he passed. And through it all, the impenetrable darkness, pounding rain, and moaning wind through the pines. His parka, water-resistant but never claiming to be water-proof, quickly became sodden, and the wet drove through to his skin. His leather shoes couldn't keep out moisture either, and his feet grew colder with each passing step.

He had no idea how far he'd stumbled through the dark, but finally he could hear the river ahead. There was no rocky river bank to warn him, so he almost fell into the raging torrent. The water level was almost up to the tree line. He gaped in amazement at the incredible sight racing past the narrow beam of his flashlight. The river was a maelstrom of thrashing logs and brush, all tumbling over one another in the violent current. The rushing water seemed to create its own wind, lashing rain in all directions, proclaiming its dominion over the land.

Blair had never seen or heard anything like it before. This 'up close and personal', he hoped never to see again. He shined the light upstream and down, then bellowed Jim's name as loudly as he could against the mocking cacophony of the river. Surely, Jim would see the light or hear his voice, make some signal Blair would recognize. If he's alive and conscious, jeered the little negative voice inside him.

Angry with himself for his pessimism, he screamed Jim's name more loudly. He saw movement to his left and eagerly swung the flashlight toward its source.

A wolf stood atop a tumble of fallen trees. A black wolf. Heedless of the rain, the animal studied him curiously, no doubt chuckling inwardly at the maniac's vocal challenge to the mightier voice of the river. Too surprised to be scared, Blair nearly laughed. He hadn't followed a spirit guide; he had followed a wolf.

"Go home," Blair told it. "Put on a dry fur, snuggle up with a warm bone. Just please, don't think it's gonna be one of my bones, OK?"

Obligingly, the wolf leaped from the log and loped into the forest.

That's when Blair saw something fluttering at the base of the deadfall in the weakening beam of his light. It couldn't be a rock, it didn't look like a bush. It looked like - cloth.

He ventured closer, and the cloth became a sodden parka, which turned out to be wrapped around a body.

"Oh, God, please let him be alive," he whispered, plunging heedlessly forward over fallen trees and rock.

"Jim!" he shouted desperately as he fell to his knees beside the motionless figure. He sought a pulse at the throat, and started as a hand grabbed his wrist. Jim struggled to rise, but he was weak and disoriented, eyes darting about wildly.

"Easy, Jim, it's me," Blair soothed, but Jim only continued to fight his way up until he sagged back against the fallen logs. He didn't let go of Blair's wrist, but he relaxed a little, his ragged breath slowing, his eyes closing briefly and opening again without their haunted look. His voice was deceptively calm as he said, "Sorry, friend, but I've had a helluva knock on the head. I'm blind and deaf as a post."

Oh, shit, Blair thought, his mind racing off in all directions at once. Now what?

Carefully, he pulled Jim forward into his arms, enclosing him in a hug. Jim resisted at first, but Blair was firm and gentle. He held onto his friend. Come on, man, he urged silently, you know the rhythm of my heartbeat; you should recognize my scent even through all the wet. You don't need your eyes or ears to know it's me.

After a moment, the shivering body accepted the embrace, and finally Jim seemed to focus his remaining senses. "Sandburg? Is that you, Chief?" he whispered in disbelief.

Blair just hugged him more tightly in acknowledgment.

"I can't believe you found me," Jim said, exhaustion and emotion making his voice break. "I've never been so cold in my life."

"Me, too," Blair agreed. He freed one hand and began a cursory examination for injuries, a difficult task through wet clothing and with his own fingers numb from cold. Jim had a bad gash over his right eye, but it had stopped bleeding. There was a huge knot behind his left ear, however, and Jim flinched when Blair's fingers touched it.

"I don't think anything's broken," Jim said through his violent shivering as he tried to be helpful, "but so much of me is numb, it's hard to tell."

Blair patted his shoulder to let him know he'd understood, then used the flashlight to examine for any other outward signs of injury. One of Jim's pant legs was badly ripped, and Blair could see a nasty gash in the calf. It was still oozing blood, and Blair started to reach for his backpack to get the first aid kit.

Jim suddenly tensed in his arm. "Something's coming, Chief," he cautioned. "Something really big. I can feel the vibrations."

Without doubt or hesitation, Blair stood up, dragging his injured partner up with him. Jim tried to help, but he was virtually defenseless from shock and cold. Blair used every ounce of strength he possessed to support the larger man as they staggered into the trees.

Seconds later, he heard a roar even louder than the raging river, and the magnitude of it drove him even harder to strive for high ground. He knew the dam the forest ranger had mentioned had finally given way; a wall of water was rocketing down upon them, scouring everything before it in its inexorable passage.

Had they been in a narrow canyon, they would have been doomed. As it was, the newly released torrent spread out, expending strength against rock and tree, losing velocity as its path widened. Still, a surge knocked them off their feet and threatened to topple them back down into the main current. As they fell, Blair wrapped his legs around Jim and held on for all he was worth. He slammed into a tree trunk with enough force to drive the air from his lungs, and his next gasp took in nothing but water. Gagging, he grabbed the tree and held on, certain his shoulders would be wrenched from their sockets.

But it was over in seconds; the tree held, the water swept past, and the two men were left tangled together and thoroughly waterlogged in its wake. Jim struggled onto his elbows, then retched and threw up. Blair managed to get to his knees and supported his friend until the heaving passed.

"God," Jim murmured weakly, "every inch of my body that isn't numb hurts like hell." He managed to sit up, leaned gratefully into Blair's embrace. "I take it you're the entire cavalry?"

"Just me, podner," Blair agreed, giving Jim's shoulders a squeeze in response. He checked the flashlight, surprised he'd managed to hang onto it. The light was so dim, it was almost useless. He stood up clumsily and reached down to help Jim.

"Sorry, Chief," Jim murmured, sagging back to the ground. "I know I've been saying that a lot lately, but I mean it this time. I can't take another step."

You have to, Blair thought wildly, tugging at Jim's coat, urging him to rise, finally falling to his knees when Jim didn't respond.

"You'd better leave me here, go for help. I won't be going anywhere."

"Damn it, NO!" Blair raged, his anger giving him the strength to haul Jim up by his parka until they faced each other on their knees, Jim's hands clutching at him weakly for balance. "If you stay here, you'll die from hypothermia, and you know it!" he screamed, heedless that Jim could neither see nor hear him. "Don't be such a self-sacrificing bastard!" He heard himself crying but didn't care. He slumped into Jim's arms. "Don't give up on me, Jim," he whispered despairingly. "I never gave up on you. So don't you give up on me, OK?" And then he hugged him tightly, his body heaving with sobs. Jim returned the hug, feeling the hotness of Blair's tears in contrast to the cold drops of rain on his cheeks. He thought it was goodbye.

Instead, Blair took a deep breath and staggered to his feet, Jim firmly in his grasp. He slung one arm around Jim's waist, hauled Jim's arm around his shoulders with his other, and dragged him the first few steps up the slope. "I'll do this alone if I have to," he said, gasping with the effort, "but a little help wouldn't be rejected. But it's gonna be OK," he continued, more to reassure himself than anything else, "we just gotta go uphill until we reach the logging road."

After a moment, Jim stretched out his free hand, found a tree trunk, and used it to help take the next step.

The gash in Jim's calf was obviously causing some problems, because he limped badly, his balance shaky. At least there was no evidence of hypothermia yet, Blair thought with relief. Though both were shivering violently and having trouble controlling their trembling limbs, Blair felt no mental confusion or disorientation. Of course, he realized, that was the insidious thing about hypothermia - how would he recognize if he became disoriented? Still, Jim had been coherent, hadn't he? Or had they both been swept into the river and drowned -- ?

 

Part Nine

Blair opened his eyes. He was lying face down on the logging road, his arm wrapped around Jim's unconscious body. He had absolutely no recollection of reaching the road or falling down, just the memory of a slow, endless climb through utter blackness. He moved gingerly, and every cold, stiffened muscle in his body protested . Grimacing against the pain, he felt for Jim's pulse, found it strong but a little irregular. Alarmed that his earlier fears of hypothermia were being realized, he lunged to his feet and looked up and down the road.

Where was the damned car?

He realized he could actually see through the dimness and rain. Dawn had arrived unheralded, and though gray and dreary, it was still the most wondrous feeling Blair had experienced in days. Well - maybe that first hot shower after leaving the hospital...

Cut it out, Sandburg. Do something.

Nothing looked familiar. Reluctantly leaving Jim's side, he stumbled to the edge of the muddy road and looked both ways along the gully. There! The Volvo was only a few hundred feet away.

Hurrying back to Jim, he grasped the unconscious man under the arms. God, the big guy weighed a ton. With difficulty, Blair managed to drape the dead weight over his shoulders and stagger upright. Thank God he knew the fireman's carry, or he never would have be able to lift the larger man. One step at a time, he told himself, placing one foot in front of the other with grim determination.

Sliding down the muddy slope to the Volvo, he barely managed to keep his footing. He opened the passenger door and eased the burden from his shoulders. Jim sagged, but Blair caught him between his own body and the car. As carefully as possible, he tumbled Jim into the seat, lifted his legs inside, and closed the door.

Weary in every muscle, he leaned on the car as he shuffled around to the driver's side door and climbed behind the wheel. He started the engine, then struggled to get Jim out of his wet clothing. Frustrated and exhausted from his efforts, he finally had Jim's coat and shirt removed. He rubbed the frigid skin briskly with the blanket he'd stowed in his backpack, then pushed Jim's arms through the sleeves of the sweatshirt he'd left in the back seat. After that unwieldy exercise, slipping the fleece over Jim's head and down his torso was a cinch.

The engine had warmed enough by now, so Blair turned on the heater. The warmth was tepid at best, but he had to get heat to Jim's feet and legs. He lacked the energy to get Jim out of his shoes and slacks. Instead, with his last ebbing strength, he unwrapped the sleeping bag, unzipped it, and tucked it around his partner's body. Jim stirred and moaned a little, then, "Chief?"

"Right here," Blair assured him, then remembered Jim couldn't see or hear. He gave Jim's shoulder an affirmative squeeze. Struggling out of his own useless parka and shirt, he wrapped up in the blanket and snuggled close to Jim. Maybe they could keep each other warm until help arrived.

If help arrived.

Stupid, Sandburg, he thought as Jim obligingly rearranged himself to allow Blair to share the sleeping bag. By now Simon has the whole search and rescue team out looking for us. It was only a matter of time. The Volvo's gas tank was still half full, warmth was finally streaming from the heater, and they were out of the rain for the first time in hours. He cracked the driver's side window a bit to insure some fresh air got into the car.

"I am so tired of being wet and cold," he murmured.

"Me, too," Jim mumbled in agreement.

"Jim - you can hear again?" Blair started to sit up in surprise, but Jim held onto him.

"'Pears so," came the faint reply. "Vision's still a little weird - just lights and shadows."

"You took a helluva wallop in the head," Blair said. "Probably gave you a concussion."

"I was zoned out," Jim said. "It was the fog."

"You'll be OK," Blair assured with more confidence than he felt. A concussion while zoned out? Maybe that's why his sight and hearing had shut down. Sensory overload. It was something to think about later. Jim's previously irregular heartbeat had scared him half to death; he checked it now and found it strong and steady. Full-blown hypothermia appeared to have been prevented. But what if there were other injuries he hadn't detected? Already, he could see Jim's face was black and blue with bruises he hadn't noticed before. What else had he missed? "How much does your head hurt?"

"A lot," Jim admitted.

Blair reached for the first aid kit, surprisingly still intact inside his battered backpack. "Acetaminophen, just what the doctor ordered." He placed a couple into his partner's open palm. "Water," he murmured. "Shit, we don't have any water."

Jim actually chuckled. "I've had enough water to last a lifetime," he said, swallowing the pills dry. He sagged back against the passenger door and closed his eyes. For a moment, Blair thought he had gone to sleep. But then Jim spoke softy. "I said some pretty terrible things to you. Back in the loft, when I said you were too trusting, too impulsive."

"You were right, though," Blair answered truthfully.

"Yeah, but those aren't flaws, Chief, they're part of your strength." Jim shook his head at his own stupidity. "There were a dozen reasons why you shouldn't have come looking for me, and only one reason why you should. I owe my life to your impulsiveness and optimism. Thank you."

Blair blushed from the praise. "You're welcome," he said simply, feeling another surge of emotion but determined this time to control it. He teased himself, God, I must have absorbed a gallon of rain through my skin to produce so damned many tears! "You know, Jim, it's taken awhile to realize that being your Guide is not just something I chose to do - it's something I was meant to do."

"Yeah?"

"I mean, how does that look on a resume? As a sentinel, your job as a cop is enhanced. How do I reconcile being your Guide with twentieth-century society? It has no modern job equivalency."

"You want me to pay you a salary?" Jim teased, managing a smile even through his weariness.

"I don't know," Blair answered seriously. "I've done a lot of thinking about it lately, and we've got to talk about it sometime. I don't want to be some kind of social misfit or a freeloader. But in the last few days, my world has changed drastically, or at least I finally accepted the changes that have been happening all along."

"I'm not following you," Jim admitted.

"I'll fill in the details later, but in essence, all the goals I'd set for my professional life have gone up in smoke - the dissertation, the teaching, everything. It's all in a bit of a shambles, you know? It's gonna take some time to reconstruct."

"Then we'll take the time," Jim said simply. "Whatever. It looks as if we're in this for the long haul."

Blair nodded gratefully, growing tired as the tension drained from him.

Jim opened his eyes and tried to focus. "You can't be comfortable sitting like that."

"Beats freezing to death," Blair responded, not with absolute certainty as a stitch cut through his lower back.

Jim shifted around some more, trying to make enough room for both of them on the passenger seat. Blair was able to twist around, his back to Jim, and get his bottom off the center console and onto the edge of the seat. Jim wrapped his arms around him to keep him from slipping off. "There's something wrong with this picture," he murmured as Blair folded his legs onto the driver's seat. "You get the leg room while I'm wedged in here like a sardine."

"There's always the back seat," Blair replied drowsily.

"Maybe later," Jim said, "after we know each other better."

Blair heard himself laugh, but he fell asleep in the middle of it.

 

Part Ten

"Christ, Chief, you're gonna have to move," Jim complained later. "My whole body's gone to sleep."

Blair woke with a start, reached out and grabbed the steering wheel to pull his body over into the driver's seat, whacking one knee in the process. He shut off the badly overheated engine and used his palm to rub a hole through the condensation on the windows. The rain had stopped, although the sky remained gray and threatening. The interior of the Volvo was warm and dry, however, and he felt remarkably content.

He looked at his partner. "How are you feeling?"

Jim grimaced. "I'll let you know after the pins and needles go away," he groaned, trying to stretch cramped, protesting muscles.

"I'm sorry, Jim," Blair murmured, desperately trying to stifle a laugh. "You look like hell."

"So do you," Jim countered. "You look like you tried to go native. I've never seen long hair stand up that straight before."

"Then I take it your vision is back to normal?"

"Yeah, I think so."

"And the head?"

"Still hurts, but not so bad."

Blair fished out two more acetaminophen and handed them over. "Still no water."

Jim swallowed them with a grimace. "Yeah, but I've got a water problem that's gonna be embarrassing if I don't get out of this car in a hurry."

"Me, too," Blair realized with a start. "Let me come around and open the door." Slipping in the mud, he made his way around to the passenger door, hauled it open, and helped Jim get untangled from the sleeping bag and out of the car. Jim realized for the first time that the car was stuck in a ditch. "How did you manage to do this?" he asked with a scowl.

"Sheer good luck," Blair answered with a grin. "Which tree do you want?"

"The closest one."

Back to back, they tended to business, then climbed the few feet back to the stranded car. Blair got his charge settled back into the passenger seat. "Can you pull down your pants?" he asked.

Jim gave him one of those looks. "I was joking about getting to know each other better," he said.

"Your leg. I want to take a look at it."

"Oh." Jim glanced down at the gash in his calf. "Slacks are ruined anyway," he muttered, ripping the tear longer. Blair crouched down and examined the wound.

"The first aid kit is on the floor on the driver's side." Jim silently reached over and handed it to him. "I'm only gonna rinse it with antiseptic and put a light bandage over it," Blair said at last. "You'll need stitches to do the job properly." Jim gasped as the antiseptic flowed into the wound. He was surprised how light-headed and nauseous he felt as the pain flowed up his leg.

"You OK, Jim?" Blair asked anxiously. "You need to be sick or anything?"

Resolutely, Jim shook his head. "I'm fine," he said, grateful when the burning eased. Blair finished bandaging the leg and stood up, only to get tangled in the blanket he was using to cover his naked torso. He fell on his butt in the mud. "You OK?"

"Yeah, swell," Blair muttered, gathering the blanket around him. "I'll just sit here for awhile."

Jim held out a hand. "Too cold. Come on, get up."

Blair grasped the offered hand and stood up. "What time is it, anyway?" he asked, looking down at Jim's watch. The crystal was broken, the watch face frozen. He stared at it for a long time, feeling his strength drain away.

"Sandburg, what's wrong?" Jim asked anxiously.

Blair looked at him. "Your watch."

"What about it?"

"It's broken."

"Yeah?"

"At two-seventeen p.m."

"Come on, Chief, you're scaring me here. What are you getting at?"

"Two-seventeen. That's when the big rig blinded you with its headlights and you went off the bridge."

"OK, all that's a little fuzzy, but I'll take your word for it," Jim admitted, still concerned. "What's your point?"

Blair took a deep breath. "I saw the headlights, Jim. I felt the cold water as you went in."

Jim looked confused. "That's too weird, Chief."

"Two-seventeen. I saw the time on my desk clock. I knew something had happened to you."

Jim needed to take a deep breath of his own. "OK," he said at last. "Get back in the car. It's getting cold in here." He clearly didn't want to pursue the subject any further.

Blair helped Jim get his legs back inside the car and closed the passenger door, then went around and climbed behind the wheel. He felt scared and excited at the same time. Not only were the two of them bound together by their unchosen roles as Sentinel and Guide, but there was a psychic link as well, a deeper connection than either had thought existed. Go with your instincts, Chief.

He looked over at Jim, who was gazing back just as uncertainly. "You know what this means, don't you?"

Jim nodded briefly. "It means I'm stuck with you," he said, his tone so gentle the words held no offense. "It means that I need you in my life, on the job as well as off, that I can't do my job without you, and I either accept the danger you'll have to face or else I look for a different line of work. Hell, I can't even take a drive in the fog without you to keep me from zoning."

"You've driven in fog lots of time without a problem," Blair pointed out logically. "You just had a rough couple of days - not enough sleep, eyestrain from watching those damned videos, too much to think about - that's probably why you zoned."

"Regardless, if you'd been along, it probably wouldn't have happened," Jim said. He sat back in the seat and closed his eyes. "Do you have any idea how much the thought of that much dependence on another person frightens the hell out of me?"

"Do you have any idea how much the thought of that much responsibility for another person frightens the hell out of me?" Blair countered shakily. "I'm no shaman. I want to be your partner, Jim. I want to be your Guide; it's what I know in my heart I was meant to be. But I haven't a clue how to do it, to be what you need me to be."

Jim opened his eyes and looked at him. "You've been doing just fine, Chief. I'm the one who folded in the crunch. I let my fears about risking your life blind me to the simple fact that I'm incapable of doing this alone. We're bound by something way beyond friendship or partnership. I don't pretend to understand it. I just know I have to accept it."

"Does it bother you that much?" Blair asked.

Jim shrugged. "Yeah, it does. Not because I have doubts about you, but because I have doubts about me. I don't want to lose you because one of us did something stupid. I'm afraid I'm going to get you killed."

"Then we'll both try to avoid doing anything stupid," Blair said reasonably.

Jim smiled. "Simple," he agreed. "Does this mean you're not going to stop for stranded motorists or give rides to hitchhikers anymore?"

Blair shrugged. "OK. Does this mean you're not going to keep me on the sidelines whenever things gets hairy?"

Jim was slow to answer. It was a hard promise to make. "OK," he said at last. He shook his head. "Thousands of square miles of wilderness, and you found me. How did you do that?"

Blair grinned. "Instinct, and a little matter of misidentifying a wolf."

"What? A wolf?"

"Later. There's an old candy bar in the glove compartment. I'll split it with you."

"Forget it. I've been listening to a chopper coming this way for the last few minutes. Think you can get out and wave something at it, Partner?"

THE END

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