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This was my first TS fanfic begun, if not the first to be completed. I sent the first part out before "Crossroads" aired and thus it's pre-Megan and all that followed. It's pretty long as you might guess. =) Thanx for getting this far, hope you make it all the way, and I will answer any and all comments with cyberhugs and big bags of money (well, maybe not the latter, but hugs are worth something, aren't they!)
DISCLAIMER: Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, et al belong to Pet Fly and Paramount. I was obfuscating about the bag of money, suing me will just get you a big pile of student loans. Which you're welcome to, if you really want them. Though I own not a strand of Blair's lovely hair, I do lay claim on this story, (c) ERK 1998.
"Professor Sandburg?" the student called hesitantly from the door.
"Yes, come in."
He entered in a rush, panting a bit. "Sorry, I thought I was going to miss you, your office hours ended a couple minutes ago but I have my paper. Sorry it's late."
Looking up from his desk, the professor stood, putting his glasses down by his pen and brushing his short hair from his eyes. "It's not a problem."
"I was real busy, I mean, this weekend was sort of crowded, and I didn't get a chance to type it up, I had it written out honestly, and then the printer jammed—" his student rambled on, oblivious to the scrutiny.
"It's fine, it's barely a day late. No penalty." He approached the student, watching him closely as the boy—man, technically—jumped as his brain caught on to what his ears had heard.
The professor took the paper from his unresisting fingers. "You're from my Anthro 102? James Modell, right?"
James bobbed his head nervously. Released from gripping the paper his hands still shook slightly, and his eyes were etched with a pattern of swollen red capillaries. "Is everything okay, James?"
The student twitched. "Everything's fine," he mumbled, "just this weekend, and I didn't get a chance to finish it, I tried..."
"Here, sit down." The professor shrugged at the startled, frightened expression. "Or don't, but you look like you could use someone to talk to."
When his student was seated he leaned against his desk and faced him. "Now, what were you using this weekend?"
James's reddened eyes opened enormously wide. "Oh God," he gasped, "oh no, please, don't tell my folks, please don't tell them, I didn't mean to, I didn't know, I've been trying to keep up the work so hard, it's been only weekends, with the campus job I can nearly afford..."
"James," the professor spoke quietly over the torrent of words. "You aren't in high school. I'm not going to give you a detention or call your parents. But I'd like to help you."
The boy slumped in the plastic chair. "I'm not an addict," he whispered, "it was only weekends, I don't even know how it started, I didn't do nothing in high school except a little pot..."
From the way his hands shivered even while sitting Professor Sandburg correctly deduced that he'd moved onto substances more hard-core. "I can give you some people to contact, if you'd like, they're more equipped to handle this sort of thing. They can help you get off—"
James Modell looked up and his eyes flashed suddenly. "No, you don't get it, Professor—I'm off! This weekend, I avoided all the places, I stayed in my room, door locked, tried to write this paper." And suffered through withdrawal instead. Alone. The professor managed to contain his horror. The kid could have died, the addiction might have been more than he knew—must have been, if Monday he was still exhibiting symptoms.
But there was triumph in his red eyes. "I'm clean, I'm going to stay that way, I can do it myself," he announced firmly. "If I can keep away..." His mouth closed, but fear re-materialized in his face.
The professor understood why. Dealers were not known to easily or happily lose customers. If they decided to fetch their lost sheep..."Do you mind if I call the police?"
"Oh God, Professor..!" The student's eyes reflected full terror now.
"Call me Blair." The professor shook his head. "I'm not going to have them arrest you. But possibly try to get the dealers, if you can give us—give them names, appearances, places."
"But sir, Blair, they'll, what I was doing was illegal..." he trailed off, shaking bodily. "My parents..."
"They won't arrest you and they'll be discreet. I know a few people on the force personally," Blair assured him. "I...worked with them for a little while."
"Really?" Intrigued, James glanced up, only to catch an expression fly across his professor's face and vanish before it could settle, before he could identify it. Something resembling pain, maybe. "What did you..." and then his own troubles caught up with him again. "But if they, if they find out I reported them, they'll..." He wasn't exactly sure what they'd do, but his imagination could conjure up any number of hideous retributions.
"The police can protect you, too. I'm going to make this your call, but James—"
"Jim," the student corrected automatically.
This time the expression shifted faster, here and gone, leaving only a faint trace of grief in its wake. The professor blinked once and when his blue eyes opened again the emotion in them was gone, all of it, leaving them strangely dead in his living face. "Jim," he said slowly, "seriously consider it. Not just for yourself, but if you don't want other students to run into them—" He cut himself off, as if angry to be placing a guilt trip on his student.
The student didn't mind; he knew it was true. "I'll think about it, honest Prof. Blair. I understand, it's just going to be hard..."
The professor was nodding understandingly and James broke out into a grin. Blair smiled tentatively. "Mind letting me in on the punchline?"
"Nothing, really, it's just, I never thought I'd have this conversation, I mean, with you." The professor frowned and the student tried to backtrack, fix the blunt honesty into something kinder. "It's just, you always are so, I don't know, disconnected or something. I mean, you're a fantastic professor," he blurted out hastily, realizing that the blue eyes had locked onto him, alive again with a mixture of curiosity, confusion, and something else unreadable. "You're one of the best professors here, everyone agrees, your lectures are great, you grade fair, you even manage to pick interesting readings which is just incredible, everyone always comes out of Anthro 101 wanting to major in it. But, but..."
James was thinking of a conversation had heard, between his biology lab assistant and one of her friends. He probably shouldn't have been eavesdropping but they had been talking loud enough, and the subject of their conversation had been Professor Sandburg. It had become quickly obvious that the lab assistant had previously dated the professor, and James really had no choice but to listen; how else was he supposed to know what the women wanted? So he had heard her say:
"Blair, oh, he's about the sweetest guy on campus, student or faculty. So adorable, he looks so young—would you believe he's mid-thirties?"
The friend shrugged with a smile.
"He's a wonderful date," the lab assistant went on, "knows all the best restaurants, always listens or at least pretends really well, smiles at the right moments. Not a bad kisser, either. The only trouble is, you know it's temporary. It's not the reputation, either. He always makes it clear that it's not permanent."
She shook her head at her friend's query. "No, of course he doesn't come right out and say it. It's only...I don't know. Something about the way he talks, maybe, he won't mention the future, won't even make pretend plans, it's always living in the now, don't look ahead and don't look back. That's not exactly it, but sort of... Oh, he won't ever take you to his apartment either, I don't know, maybe he keeps it a mess. His office isn't that bad, but...
"I didn't exactly 'break up'--it was mutual, we knew it was over. I was upset, I cried a little, but there wasn't anything we really could do. He told me it was his fault, it sort of was, maybe, but it was me, too. It gets kind of tiring, never knowing anything for sure, except that it's never going anywhere in the end. But more, he wouldn't let me in.
"Not just into his home, I mean, that I could deal with, but it was personally, too. He's closed. He doesn't really come across that way, I know, he seems friendly, but you realize eventually that it's all surface. He never will say what's really in his heart, just what he's feeling at the moment. He's withdrawn. Yeah, it's weird, but if you watch him it's true. He doesn't have any real friends. He never talks, he says a lot but he never actually talks. He spends all his time on campus practically, and he teaches his classes, and he does some other work, but I don't think he cares about any of it, really. His heart's not in it. His heart's not in anything, really, and it's hard to handle after a while. That no matter how much he listens, he doesn't really care..."
But that didn't mesh with the Professor Sandburg he was talking to now, who certainly seemed to care about the plight of a single student in one of his massive lecture classes, a professor who knew his name amidst seventy other students and looked at him closely enough to see something was wrong. His roommate hadn't even noticed. True, he had been partying hard all weekend, and probably attributed his friend's stress to writing the paper, but all the same...
That same paper that the professor was accepting late, without any complaints, and he might even let him edit it if it was as bad as James suspected it was; he hadn't had the time to proofread it. The professor didn't seem to think the paper mattered; or at least he thought his student mattered more. Which probably explained why he was now watching said student like a hawk, waiting for him to explain his garbled opinions.
"It's nothing, man," James assured him. "Forget it. Thanks for accepting the paper and all. Really." Spoken with complete sincerity.
"No problem," Blair replied. "If you need help with anything, I'm usually in my office. Don't bother knocking, just come in."
"I will. Thanks. I mean, thank you." The student hesitated as if wanting to say more but unsure how to word it. "For everything," he added at last, then scooted out the door before he could stick his foot any deeper into his mouth.
Blair watched his departure and turned back to his desk. He didn't sit down, not right away, just leaned against it pondering the simple truth in his words. Usually in my office. Make that always, until the building was closed. Almost always.
He sighed. Should make a date or something. It's been a couple months. Get out at night, he tried to do it every once in a while, before the walls started to feel like they were crumbling down on top of him. Like they felt now, only of course they weren't actually. He was absolutely positive that if they shifted so much as half an inch inward he would notice. God, after ten years in the same room he'd have to notice.
Ten years, more than ten years. The thought made his head ache dully. He could maneuver this office blindfolded; hell, he could practically read the books on the shelves behind him blindfolded, all he'd need to do was feel the cover to know what he held and his mind would tell him the contents, word by word. Not that his memory was eidetic, but after so long they all were ingrained in his mental pathways.
What had happened to moving around, changing places, never fixing himself too solidly into any one position? Same apartment for over five years, same office for over ten, what had happened? Naomi worried about it, every time she dropped in for the few days out of the year she urged him to seek change, seek growth. Move out of the city with its dense mass of humanity and the consequent corruption. Leave Rainier, leave Cascade.
He should. What reason did he possibly have to stay in Cascade?
His soul offered answer unbidden, and angrily he shoved it away. That was no reason, staying for a dead man, sticking around like he was waiting for a ghost to come haunt him. Stupid, stupid, it doesn't help anyone to dwell on the past, and he tried his best not to. So why didn't he rip up his final roots and find somewhere else to plant them, some place safer, quieter, gentler, where he wouldn't have to dig so deep to take hold? Where he wouldn't be trapped by what was long over?
Why had he even stayed in this office, for that matter? What idiotic reasoning was behind that, when he got his promotion why didn't he demand a change of scenery?
After all, it was here that he had gotten the call. Seated in the very same chair that he leaned against now, working on correcting papers same as he had been when James Modell interrupted him. Seven years before, the phone had rung, and when he had answered it Simon Banks told him quietly, "There's been an accident."
As if there was no other way to say it except in those cliched terms. No other way to face it except with blunt directness.
They never even found the cause. The FBI had investigated, but no logical reason was ever given for the 747 to crash, for the giant airplane to tumble out of the sky and lie in fiery ashes on the ground in Montana. No survivors, whatever had happened it had been that sudden, that no one had a chance to escape. Half the bodies were never even found, burned away to nothing by the explosion of the impact.
One of the passengers of the plane had been Detective Jim Ellison, returning from a police conference in Chicago, leaving his partner behind only because it was finals week and Blair had too much to do even without his obligations to his Sentinel. A three day conference, and they had talked for only a few minutes long distance on the third day. Nothing had happened without Blair, no zone-outs, no crimes, but Jim sounded happy to be getting back to Cascade, relieved that the boredom of the conference was at last over, pleased to be coming home.
He didn't make it that far, not even in a body bag, his one of the corpses not recovered. They held the funeral anyway, erected a gravestone despite the lack. Blair had seen the tombstone once, during the service, a simply granite block with the name and date and a generic biblical quote he couldn't recall. He remembered wishing he had chosen it, picked one that applied to protection, that would have gotten across the essence of a Sentinel, the secret that was in truth Jim Ellison. But he hadn't been involved, he hadn't wanted to be, and that secret was gone now, not even buried.
Darker times back then; Blair hadn't wanted to acknowledge it, he couldn't believe what had happened, couldn't accept it. He thought he should feel something, not just grief, something deeper that would tell him it was truly over. He should have felt the bond snap, physically feel that it had ended, know even before Simon told him that his duty as Guide was over. They had been close, they should have been that close. He had thought they were.
But he hadn't known, and after a long time he finally understood that it had ended, and Blair had moved on as he had to, except that he couldn't seem to find his way out of Cascade.
And he was too young to waste time reminiscing. With a sigh the professor dropped the paper on the desk, pulled himself out of his thoughts and returned to his work.
Simon Banks waited twelve rings for the phone to be picked up, then at last set down the receiver with a sigh. Sandburg probably was still at the University, and he didn't want to interrupt him from his work.
He tried to call Blair about once a month. Just to check in, make sure everything was going well, to talk for a few short moments. The once-conversational anthropologist never had very much to tell him, but Simon still called. The first couple years, he had been in touch weekly, but time wore on and the amount diminished.
Still, if anything went down at Rainier he was the first to know about it, he made it his business to know. And he had a couple of contacts there whose prime purpose was to keep an eye on Sandburg.
At first it was because Jim would have wanted it, required it, would never have forgiven Simon for letting something happen to the kid. Finally Simon admitted, at least to himself, that it wasn't for Jim's sake as much as for his own. He had lost enough friends already. So he called.
It would have been easier if Blair hadn't tried so deliberately to cut him off. To cut everyone off. Joel hadn't spoken to Sandburg in over a year, yet every time the former bomb squad captain saw Simon eventually he got around to asking how he was doing, how he was holding up at the University, what classes he was teaching and so forth. Simon usually knew, if not from Blair himself than from the others.
Joel still cared. Simon wished Blair did.
He purposely looked away from the phone and back to the case files spread liberally over his desk. Wondered vaguely why he even bothered going into the office anymore; he had everything he needed right here at home. Maybe he should instigate an administration-through-e-mail policy...oh yeah, the mayor would love that, she was all gung-ho computers, did public officials really have to put in the dirty time in the city buildings? When they could do it all from the comfort of their own apartments?
Their own lonely apartments. Simon tried to remember the last time he had had guests over. With Daryl off at school, not very often. He accused Sandburg of shutting people out, when he himself only socialized at the station...no, he had gone to Joel's anniversary celebration a couple of weeks ago, that counted as getting out. Blair hadn't come; he never even answered the invitation, Joel had said. Why was he obsessing about Sandburg? So he had moved on. It happened. You broke ties and you make new ones, it was inevitable. Blair hadn't been an observer for even four years; he had been at the University for far longer, it made sense that as his connections there were strengthened the ones he had forged with the police would be weakened. Especially since he had no reason to maintain them.
Must be the rain, pouring down, turning everything gray and depressing. Simon recognized the relation between his mood and the weather but a lifetime in Cascade hadn't been enough to break him out of the pattern.
Oddly fitting, that just as his mind turned back to the issue of loneliness, he heard the sharp retort of knuckles rapping against the door. He had to shake his head to dispel the sudden sharp conviction of who was there—why would Sandburg possibly choose to come tonight, after dedicatedly avoiding him for six years?—and rose to answer the summons.
Just as Blair unlocked the door he heard his phone trilling inside. By the time it swung open the sound had stopped.
Good. He didn't really feel in the mood to talk.
Rainier's administration and his students were occasionally annoyed by his lack of an answering machine. He saw no need of one; people could always call back, and if they were desperate they could e-mail him. He tended to check e-mail compulsively, and had people praising his two-minute turn-around time.
It was so much easier to type up short, to-the-point messages than to speak on the phone. The written word was so much more direct, without the requirements of small talk or even manners—putting one's virtual signature on an e-mail was polite enough for a professor-to-student communique. Greater speed, greater efficiency, just plain simpler.
If Joel had given an e-mail address maybe he would have RSVP'ed the invitation. He felt slightly guilty about not showing or even responding, but he had been busy that week, and it had slipped past without him remembering it until after the anniversary. Then of course it was too late.
The steady splashing of rain outside was broken by a distant boom of thunder. Blair winced in spite of himself, his hands almost going to his ears before he caught them. No, he didn't have to worry about the sound, no one had to worry about the sound. Maybe it had frightened a few kids, but it couldn't hurt anyone by audio impact alone. No one's hearing was that sensitive.
Just as he didn't have to worry about coming in late, or bother quietly placing his keys in the basket instead of just tossing them. No one here to wake up with the slightest noise, no one to hear his movements through the dark rooms as he searched for the light switch. It was easy, living alone; relaxing. He didn't allow any casual girlfriend to interfere with the calm stillness of his apartment.
Blair wondered if he should begin another relationship. Thoughts like this usually precluded depressing stretches of emptiness in his life that he'd prefer to avoid. He had broken up months ago after, what, two weeks with that girl? And hadn't had a date since. There must be someone he could think of to call, for dinner Friday perhaps.
He didn't rack his brain. Instead he laid on his couch and stared out the unshaded window, watching the water drip down from the smoky black sky.
Whoever it was knocked again, harder, before Simon even made it to the door. He flung it open with a growl and then stared, loose-jawed, at the apparition before him.
Over six feet and big, broad-shouldered. Pale blue eyes to match the faded blue jeans, short dark hair plastered against his skull with rain. The water seeped off his leather jacket to stain the hallway carpet. "Simon," he said huskily.
"My God." Simon spoke reverently, tone hushed, as if afraid he'd frighten him away. "Jim?" Hesitantly, disbelieving.
But the man nodded sharply. "Can I come in?"
Simon took a couple of deep breaths, trying to force air back into his lungs. "Of course, come on—" He put his hand on the man's arm, guiding Jim inside while assuring himself of his friend's reality. That he was alive, not a haunting spirit but flesh and blood, resurrection, reincarnation, didn't matter, only that he was here and living...
The door closed and Jim put his hands to his face, rubbed it tiredly. "Thanks. Mind if I crash here? I feel like I haven't slept in a week."
"Of course..." Simon gaped. This couldn't possibly be happening, he must be having a dream. One of those unconscious fantasies in which the impossible happens, yet in your mind it makes perfect sense, is unquestionably reasonable.
Except he didn't think it was reasonable, not at all, not one bit. "Jim—Jim, you were dead, we thought you were dead, the plane crash..."
"I survived." Smiling slightly, as if it were the most logical thing in the world.
Of course it was. He was here, after all. But... "Jim, it's been seven years, that happened seven years ago, and since then...My God, Jim, I was at your funeral! They've been watering the plants at your grave for seven years!"
The other man blanched, even as he nodded, "I know, I know." But he hadn't, Simon saw; he had heard but it hadn't registered, perhaps hadn't hit home.
Somehow he found strength in Jim's naked shock; for some reason the situation righted itself, reversed, and it all made sense. Or it didn't make sense, but that didn't matter, and Simon found himself smiling, mouth stretched so wide it hurt, a sensation he hadn't felt in far too long. "My God, Jim," he said a third time, "you've alive!" And he pulled his friend into a hug, pounded him on the back and certified once again that he wasn't dealing with a ghost.
When he released him Jim was smiling broadly as well, and he took his extended hand and shook it heartily. "It's great to see you, too, Simon."
Tired though Jim might be, there was no way Simon was going to let him get much sleep tonight. He hustled to the kitchen to make the coffee, adding a liberal dose of brandy to each cup—he at least could use it. Once Jim had settled on his sofa and he had taken the armchair next to it the interrogation began. "What happened? Where have you been? Why didn't you tell us before? Why did it take so long?" Of everything he needed to know, the whys were the most important.
For a time his friend didn't answer, only stared at the coffee in his mug as he slowly swirled it around. "I was in a hospital," he said at last. "Georgetown Medical Center, in Washington. D.C.," he added for the benefit of his listener.
Simon opened his mouth, ready to pile on the demands, then thought better of it and closed it again. Instinctively he knew Jim had to tell this at his own pace, that what he was saying was possibly even harder for Jim himself to deal with than for his friend.
"I woke up there six months ago," the other man continued. "I'd been...in a coma for about two more before. And before that...they don't know. I appeared one day, that's what they told me. No identification, the medical forms were signed 'John Smith.' And because someone was paying the bills, they kept me there. Tucked the John Doe into a corner, plugged him into a respirator, filled the IV bags and ignored me until I decided to return to this world.
"They didn't know what was wrong with me. I had—have some scars. Something in my blood, too, they didn't know what. Took my immune system that time to fight it off, and when I first blinked...hell, it took me a month to remember how to walk again. I couldn't get past 'My name is Jim' for longer than that. It all came back slowly, I knew I was a cop, I thought I had been in military, then I started to get names, places. Being a Sentinel, when I finally remembered that I knew everything again. That was only a month ago, and I've been working my way back here since then."
"But..." Simon waited until the pause had stretched for longer than he could bear. "Why'd it take you so long? Why in God's name didn't you just call, write, something, when you remembered? And what the hell did happen to you?"
The questions seemed to overwhelm him; for a moment only blank confusion showed in his face. Then he straightened up and the confident, one-step-away-from cocky Jim Ellison that Simon recalled so well appeared. "For a while I wasn't sure how accurate my memories were; I was worried about contacting you, afraid what I remembered about Cascade would turn out to be some kind of hallucination," and he half-smiled ironically. "Then...it was seven years later." Jim sank back down, the weariness returning. "I didn't know what had changed. I didn't want to know, I just had to see for myself."
He glanced over at his friend. Smiled a little again. "Things have changed, haven't they, District Chief Banks?"
Simon waved it off, unwilling to let the subject be so easily altered. "Okay, I may not like it, but I can buy that. You're here now, that makes up for a lot. But you haven't said yet what really happened. Why you didn't die in that crash like we all thought."
Jim paled slightly, slumped deeper into the couch. "I wish I knew," he mumbled softly. "Damn it, you don't know how much—that hasn't come back. Everything did but that. I can remember being in the airport, vaguely. I can remember the conference too, the last speech was something about..." he screwed up his face with the effort of recall, "Street violence. Gang fighting. The speaker was a little Hispanic guy who'd run with gangs in his youth, he made it interesting. Personal. He reminded me of..." Jim trailed off, focusing on the empty space before him, then shook his head as if to dislodge the thought. "But nothing after that. No memories. No dreams, just nothing..."
Before he could fade again he brought his fist down, sloshing drops of warm coffee onto the sofa. Simon ignored them, concentrating on Jim. "I woke up six and a half years older," he was saying. "I lost more than six years of my life, and I don't know how to get it back. If anything was even there. For all I know I was just in another hospital..."
He didn't sound as if he believed that. Simon suspected that despite his words, Jim had some memory, some remnant of that time left in his mind. Something supporting his conviction that those years were not simply blank stretches of paralysis.
Before he could ask Jim looked up, met his eyes. His tone forced casualness, "So, what have I missed here? You can at least fill in those gaps."
Simon saw the unspoken plea in those blue eyes and put his questions aside. "Well, you've heard about my promotion."
Jim nodded. "Only because I had to track you down, though."
"Brown took over as captain of Major Crimes," Simon reported easily. As if he were just discussing gossip, catching up with an old friend, nothing as monumental as attempting to recover a loss of seven years. "Doing a damn fine job, no surprises there. Rafe's senior detective though he might be transferring, looks like the captain of Vice might be stepping down soon and they'll need a good man for that position.
"Joel retired the same week Brown and I were bumped up, two years ago. Had enough of getting blown up and is spending his golden years in wedded bliss—just celebrated his thirty-fifth. I think we're all jealous, even if he does complain about the boredom. Let me tell you, this promotion isn't worth the extra few bucks on the paycheck—I thought a captain had paperwork, but district chief? I can't get out of my office except to come home and work on it here." He gestured at his file-strewn desk.
"Huh, and I thought they'd all have it on computers by now," Jim remarked, eyeing the piles.
Simon groaned. "Don't get me started on the cessation of the Electronic revolution. Check that—don't get Daryl started on it."
"Where is he now?" Jim perked up, whether because he was truly interested or out of respect for his friend's son Simon couldn't tell.
Either way he was unable to prevent the pride from seeping into his voice. "Senior at Stanford, majoring in Computer Science. Can't seem to get off the Dean's list, either. All I ever hear from him is computers and his girlfriend—she's a great girl," he added immediately. "Can be intense about sociology but smart as anything and fun, too. They've been serious for over a year now, don't know how far it's going to go but they're enjoying it at any rate."
Jim nodded again, looked down at his coffee as if analyzing its contents. His lids shut tight and snapped open again immediately. Wrapping both hands around the cup and drawing strength from its resistance, he met his friend's eyes. "How's Sandburg?"
Simon leaned back in his chair, prepared for the question, understanding the clear intensity of the two simple words. Such a basic query, the final one, and in the end the only one that really counted, the one that Jim had been waiting for since he walked through the door. Simon had felt it coming from the instant his friend had reappeared, but understood its delay, recalling what Jim had said about not wanting to know what had changed. Able to guess most of his worries, this one especially.
"He's around," Simon said, keeping his tone carefully neutral. Impossible to miss the way Jim fell back, only a few inches but the tension in his entire body dropped notches, his grip on the coffee mug loosening, reduced again to a one-handed hold. "He's an associate professor at Rainier now," he went on, and decided he had no reason to draw it out, "and he got his PhD. It's Dr. Sandburg now."
It was fleeting, but there was no mistaking the expression of pride that crossed Jim's face. "I never doubted it would be," he murmured. "So what was the dissertation on, finally?"
"Sentinels." No uncertainties there. "'An analysis of their purpose, history, and general characteristics, past and present'. He does mention you by name a couple of times, because, well, we didn't think it mattered."
"'We'?" Jim raised his eyebrows. No hint of surprise at the other revelations, no signs of anger at the secret let out.
"We," Simon agreed. "He got permission from me for every word he wrote. I'm mentioned in there too, after all. I read the final draft before he gave it to the board. It's quite a piece of work. Brilliant, even. They couldn't have rejected it no matter how far-fetched they thought the theory. I kept a copy." Not a bound one but the final draft, in the bottom of his desk drawer. He was unsure if he wanted to show that to Jim, though. Some of the pages were blotted with tear stains, and not all of them were Blair's.
"He's not still an observer, then." Something flickered in Jim's eyes, but Simon couldn't tell if it was hope or despair or in between.
"No," he confirmed. "He stayed around the station for a year..." Less and less as that year passed. Though his true duties might have been over, his public reason for the position remained, making observations on the social networks of the men and women in blue.
Of course by then most of Major Crimes had figured out that his real purposes had been completely tied up with Jim Ellison. You can't pull the wool over a crew of detectives' eyes for three years. But by then they didn't care, either. Sandburg had become one of their own; civilian or not he was a fellow detective, and had earned their respect, long hair non-withstanding. With Jim gone they tried their best to incorporate him anyway, putting his not inconsiderable abilities to good use, continuing to rely on his resources which they had come to depend on.
But despite this Blair drifted away, began to gravitate back toward his original place at the University, taking up his research again as he dropped his police duties. He remained living in the loft, keeping watch over the place as devotedly as a priest guarding a sacred shrine. He still carried a cell phone and the station could always reach him, but he stopped making more than a weekly token appearance.
And then a year later, precisely, on the anniversary of the plane crash, he disappeared. Abandoned the police entirely, left his cell phone behind. The two officers sent to the loft found it emptied of every possession of Sandburg's, cleaned out as thoroughly as if he had never set foot in the place. He must have started the process some time before, to have achieved the end result so quickly.
Simon had panicked momentarily, thrown off-guard and off-balance, lacking even a guess as to where he had gone. At last frantic calls to Rainier ascertained that Professor Sandburg had put in for a sabbatical of indeterminate length. Taking time to finish his dissertation, had been the reason given.
But he hadn't quit outright. Simon held onto that hope, put in off-duty time doing private detective work. Finally tracking Blair to various anthropological sites scattered across the globe.
He didn't make an effort to bring him back, knowing that if and when he was ready he would return. But he kept an eye on him from afar, tried to stay on the trail, losing and finding him again halfway around the world, a Peruvian jungle, an African savanna, an Alaskan tundra, skipping like a stone over the oceans.
Ten months and the journeys were over. Blair found a small apartment back in Cascade and settled in, returning to the University on a regular basis. A month later he brought the draft to Simon, and soon after he was awarded his doctorate. It was only a matter of time before they offered tenure and his position became permanent.
Simon related this all to Jim now, including the names of where Blair had gone, who he had worked with, what classes he taught, the other few articles he had published. "It sounds like he's done pretty well," Jim acknowledged with quiet relief.
"He's managed." Simon decided not to mention every detail. How he never came to the station and missed Joel's party. How Blair's last article had been printed over four years ago and all of them had been started before the accident, fulfilling prior commitments. How long it had been since Simon had had a real conversation with the younger man.
"I'm glad to hear it." Jim's sincerity was blinding in its honest power. "I thought—I knew he would." He put down the coffee, tried ineffectively to block a yawn. "Simon, I'm sorry—"
"No, my fault, it's late. You can take the guest bed—I have work tomorrow anyhow. We should get to sleep." He hesitated. "You don't have anywhere you're supposed to be?"
Stretching, Jim shook his head. "I'd just as soon sleep in. If you don't mind."
"Of course not." As long as he didn't fade away with the morning sun, Simon was fine with it. He headed off to his own room. His final thought before nodding off was that it would be a damned shame to wake up from this dream.
When his alarm did drag him out of sleep a few short hours later he was surprised at the clarity with which he could recall the previous night. Could it really..? Stumping out of his room and grumbling like a bear recently finished hibernating, Simon made his way to the kitchen.
And paused at the two coffee cups on the drain board.
Doubling back down the hall he cautiously opened the door to the guest room and peaked inside. Jim was stretched out on top of the covers, still fully dressed, dead to the world but very definitely breathing.
Simon nearly cracked the lintel gripping it so tightly, but for a moment it was the only thing solid enough to support him. Shrugging it off he quietly shut the door and returned to the kitchen.
Jim must have been exhausted, if he had slept through the alarm clock as well as his friend up and around. Simon clearly recalled Blair complaining about his roommate's insistence on complete silence for sleep—and Jim's expectations for silence were of course more stringent than anyone's.
It also occurred to him that Jim lacked a change of clothes, or indeed any luggage at all. But he must have traveled with something...on his way out the door Simon nearly tripped on the green sports bag. 'James Ellison' on the baggage tag. He brought it inside and placed it by the guest room door. Jim must have been tired to leave it out in the hall. Not that he ever had evinced much care for the material but from the way he had spoken last night the bag probably contained every possession he now had in the world...
Simon found himself fidgeting at work, a most unusual activity for him. Half a dozen times he picked up the phone and put it down again, before he could dial Brown's number, or Joel's, or Rafe's, or even Carolyn's for that matter—still in San Francisco and re-married but she'd like to know that the funeral she'd attended had been premature.
What was he supposed to say? 'There was a mistake, Jim's not dead, he's back'? There had to be a better way to word it, but damned if he could find it. And he couldn't shake the feeling either that when he returned home his friend would have vanished, disappearing back into the ether. It wouldn't do for people to start believing that the district chief was hallucinating dead men.
Besides, he didn't think Jim was quite ready for reunions just yet. Sure he'd been tired last night, but judging from that brief interaction there was far more going on than mere fatigue. His whole attitude, speech, body language, everything seemed quieter, subdued, almost deferential. A far cry from the brash detective of before. A lot could happen to a man in seven years. A lot had happened, he suspected, whether or not Jim remembered it all.
He hadn't broken under it, Simon couldn't imagine Jim breaking under any strain, but he had bent and was still in the process of springing back. Best to give him time and room, allow him to slide cautiously back into life at his own pace. Relationships could be renewed gradually; Sandburg could help handle that, spread the news without alarming or startling people too badly. Once Blair got over the shock himself, of course.
Alone in his office Simon smiled slightly to himself, picturing their reunion. For all he knew it was going on this very moment; he had told Jim where to find Blair and didn't think the Sentinel would waste much time tracking down his Guide. Probably give Sandburg six heart attacks when he learned but he'd recover and it would be something to see the expression on his face.
In spite of his expectations Simon breathed a silent sigh of relief when he reached the end of the day and returned to the apartment to find Jim still present and still living. He had the radio playing softly and was using some of Simon's exercise equipment, which he put down after the other man's entrance. "Hope you don't mind," he asked belated permission quietly, "it was set up already, and I'm in the process of working back into shape..."
Simon nodded and waved it off. "No problem, most of that stuff doesn't get used enough anyhow." He looked his friend over. For an average man he was in peak condition, but this was Jim Ellison. He was thinner, Simon decided; muscles stringier, more corded, and it wasn't age so much as an indication of health, poor conditions he still was recovering from.
Beyond poor conditions. His arms were bare in the white t-shirt and marks ran up and down the biceps. Without looking too closely, Simon recognized scars, slightly pink and furrowed. Burns or slashes, he couldn't tell and doubted it mattered. From the accident, or the blank time after? Not that that mattered, either. "So you've been working out, done anything else today?"
Jim shrugged. "Slept in," he confessed. "Ate your last eggs when I got up, sorry. Spent some time with the TV set and more with your old newspapers—you ever throw them out?" Simon shrugged and he went on, "and worked out. That's it." He spread his hands. "Lazy I know, but it was a long trip. I think I'm still recuperating."
Simon nodded, not mentioning his surprise, Jim admitting to exhaustion? And giving into it. No, that was pushing it, the man deserved a rest. Far be it from him to disturb it, but he had to know—"Have you contacted Blair yet?"
Jim looked away deliberately. "No."
"Come on, then." Simon indicated the door. Jim glanced at him, perplexed. "I'll drive you to the University," Simon explained. "It's not even six, he'll still be there."
"No," Jim repeated.
Now it was Simon's turn to be confused. "Listen, Jim," he said patiently. "I know you're tired out, I know this is a mess, how overwhelming it is. And I can understand why you'd want to keep your distance for a while. I haven't told anyone yet—"
"Thank you," Jim interjected.
"You're welcome. And I won't tell anyone without your say-so. This is your life that you're coming back to, not my business. You can handle how you deal. But you have to at least let him know you're alive. We're talking about Sandburg here—he was your partner and you have some responsibility to him. Not to mention he's still Cascade's only resident expert on Sentinels; I can't help you with that no matter how much I've read about them."
"Don't worry about that," the other said quietly.
"Do you want Blair's office number? You can call now—"
"No." The third time most adamant of all. "I'm not going to call, and I'm not going to see him. He doesn't need to know I'm not dead."
Simon felt his jaw drop. "What are you talking about?"
"What I said," Jim answered calmly. "He has no need to know."
"Maybe he doesn't need to—" though that was a matter of contention—"but he'll most certainly want to!"
"You told me he's doing all right without me."
"He's managed," Simon said cautiously.
"He can keep managing." Jim began to pace, throwing himself into rapid laps around the room, jaw set and eyes unfocused. Simon wondered if he was even consciously aware of the movement. "Blair always could snap back from anything, I imagine he recovered pretty quickly."
Simon's eyes narrowed as they tracked his friend's progress across the floor. This wasn't some bizarre form of jealousy, was it? He couldn't possibly be angry at Blair for moving on, for seeming to pass him by, though truthfully...
No. He couldn't believe Jim Ellison would be so petty, no matter how many years had changed him. And last night Jim had sounded, well, not pleased, but at least relieved that Blair had 'recovered' and continued with his life, such as it was.
Not understanding, he fell back to more concrete reasoning. "Jim, I meant what I said, I can't handle all the Sentinel matters. Blair is the only one who can help you with that, if nothing else I think you need him for that."
"No, I don't." Jim halted, shaking his head. "That's over with, Simon."
"I mean it." He opened his arms wide. "Gone. Suppressed, repressed, just plain lost, I don't know. But since I woke up in that hospital I haven't felt or heard or seen or sensed anything beyond the normal range."
"So you're not a Sentinel." Very carefully and quietly.
For a moment Simon pondered this new development. He hadn't asked before, had just assumed that aspect of Jim remained unchanged. It had taken him three years to become comfortable with the notion of a supercop, and then Jim was gone. Now he found it made him equally uncomfortable to have Jim back but minus the abilities. "If you suppressed them," he mentioned, "maybe they'll return like they have before. You have to be careful..."
"It's been six months and I haven't noticed a single thing out of the ordinary," Jim replied. "And I've tried, believe me, Simon. I might not have fully appreciated them but I got accustomed to what I could do. When I first woke up it was a real shock, I kept trying to listen to people outside the room and I couldn't. See details from my window but they'd be too far away."
"That's why it took you so long to remember," Simon realized.
"I thought I was going crazy," Jim recalled, "the doctors assured me there was nothing wrong, and eye tests, hearing tests, everything showed me perfectly normal. And so I believed it." He looked down, thinking. Simon could guess what was going through his mind, how it had happened before, when his senses had first re-emerged in Cascade, none of the doctors had any clue. Only a lone anthropology student had understood what was occurring and how to help...
"Listen, Jim, Blair might know what's going on now," he remarked. "At least he'll be able to make an educated guess. Why don't we—"
"I don't need his guesses," snapped Jim. "It's over, I'm not a Sentinel, so I don't need a Guide. And what he doesn't know can't hurt him."
"Hold on!" Simon shot back. "He was your Guide, but he was also your partner, your roommate, hell, what'd he call you that time? His 'Blessed Protector'? You owe him more than—"
"Exactly." Making the word sound like the epitome of reason. "And that's why."
Simon rocked back on his heels. "What?"
"Look," Jim said patiently. "What's happened in the last seven years? How much trouble has Sandburg gotten into, not just trouble, actual danger?"
Simon thought back. The hostage situation in the library, Blair had been only one of a hundred, and no one came out of that with so much as a bruised elbow. He hadn't been anywhere near the chemistry lab explosion, and the theater fire had missed his apartment by a good two blocks. "Nothing, actually," he admitted. "Cascade may be hitting the rocks but Rainier's remained safe as far as campuses go."
Jim nodded. "You know the three years before that, how many times he ended up in the hospital. Shot, poisoned, beaten, abducted, dammit, the whole incident with the Golden."
"But he always pulled through," Simon argued. "And it never scared him off."
"It should have," Jim said grimly. "Eventually he would have pushed his luck too far, and..." He didn't finish the sentence, couldn't.
"Police work is dangerous," protested Simon, "there's no way to change that. He knew that, he accepted the risks—"
"But he wasn't a cop," Jim returned. "And the only reason he had to risk it was because of me. Because I needed him to function as a Sentinel."
Maybe that was the only reason he was actually required, but that certainly hadn't been the only reason Sandburg had gone ahead and followed Jim until the day he thought he died. Simon opened his mouth to point this out but Jim held up a hand to silence him.
"I don't need that help any more. He doesn't have any reason to be in that kind of danger."
"Then why not see him?" Simon exploded. "You don't have to be partnered with him if it's not a necessity, but at least stop by and tell him! Why not?"
"Because I know Blair." Jim smiled slightly, almost sadly. "Unless he's changed more than you've told me, he'll want to come back. Whether or not I need him as a Guide. Whether or not it's safe, whether or not I can protect him. He'll want to be my partner again, and I won't have any way to stop him."
Simon tried to answer that, but there was no denying truth. It wouldn't matter if he was refused observer status or barred from the station or hell, given a restraining order. Once Blair found out Jim was alive nothing would stop him from retaking his place by the side of his Sentinel.
And it would be dangerous. Especially if Jim were in fact reduced to normalcy. Without those incredible abilities. How many times had he used his senses to locate, rescue, protect his partner? How many times had Simon witnessed the way they focused with unnerving intensity if Blair was threatened, almost psychically connecting Sentinel and Guide? If that was gone, all of Jim's protective instincts on full might not be quite enough...
Simon knew that Blair would grasp this but would willingly, cheerfully risk it anyway. And though the police officer in him worried about endangering a civilian, a larger part couldn't help but believe that, danger or not, Blair's choice would be the right one.
Two days later he still hadn't thought of anyone to call. Blair pushed the personal thoughts away as he mounted the podium before the class. Not classroom; auditorium. Anthropology 102 was vying to be the largest course offered, and judging from the sea of eager faces awaiting him, one of the best-attended, too.
All ready to hang on his every word. He must be quite a professor—yeah, probably the easiest grader of all the gut courses. Smiling with a touch of irony he began to speak. "Today we're heading into Africa. Keep your hands and cameras inside the safari vehicle and make sure you have plenty of water, because you'll get pretty thirsty in the Kalahari Desert." The casual introduction earned him some grins and a general mass chuckle before he sank into the meat of the lecture.
He gestured as he spoke, pausing briefly to scrawl important words and names on the whiteboard behind him, glancing at his notes if he sensed himself straying from the topic, answering various questions as they came up. After almost a decade giving the same course he should be bored, but the routine relaxed him and he never tired of the teaching. Every year the students changed, the questions were different, even the material evolved. Anthropology was in no terms an exhausted science; keeping up with the new discoveries kept him on his toes.
His eyes swept the rows, making eye contact as a good speaker should, noting those listening, those whispering, those scribbling on notebooks or laptops. Not judging; sometimes the ones who never wrote a word remembered it all the same. He caught sight of James Modell, watching him, perhaps nervously, notebook unopened in his hands. A slight cock of the head to acknowledge his presence was rewarded with a hesitant smile.
In the back he made out a few wary students hiding in the dimmer light. Hard to see from that distance without his glasses. He had heard the door close a couple of minutes before, someone had just entered. There was a man in one of the rows closest to the entrance in back, tall man even when seated, something achingly familiar in his ramrod straight posture...
Blair faltered in the middle of a sentence, squinting at the shadowy man, trying to force his vision beyond the bright light of the projector. Almost, he could nearly see him well enough to identify. In a way he didn't want to see him that closely; from this distance he could almost believe it was... No, don't make yourself crazy, Sandburg.
The students were gazing at him expectantly, not yet concerned, waiting for more about the hunting and gathering methods of the !Kung. He took a deep breath and pressed on, his eyes only occasionally darting to the far end of the auditorium, trying to get a better view of the man there.
At the end of the class he made his way off the stage and attempted to push past the students clamoring about their research papers. But there was one he couldn't ignore. "Professor Sandburg? Can I talk to you?"
"Sure, James. Jim, I mean." He risked glancing away to peer at the exit.
No man in the seat. The door was filled with students racing to their next classes or to lunch. He had a sudden urge to run after them, see if he might catch a glimpse of whoever it had been.
Get a grip, he admonished himself, and turned back to James Modell. "Let's go to my office."
"Okay." Their walk to the anthropology building was uneventful. James seemed anxious, nervous talking in public. Blair couldn't help but scan the campus, searching...he didn't know for what. Something that didn't exist. A hallucination. Wishful thinking.
James continued to fidget once the office door closed. He wouldn't sit down. "Professor, I thought you should know, I—" The words got stuck on the way out.
"What?" Blair extracted them patiently.
"I went to the police." It came out in a rush. "No, I didn't quite, I called them though, I didn't give my name but I said I was a student here, and I told them about what had happened, who I knew, what I had gotten, and they listened."
Blair imagined they would. Any possible lead on something drug-related they'd pursue, if they had the manpower. If they didn't already have a thousand other leads. Which they always did. A thousand leads and a hundred thousand crimes, no way to keep up with them all. The police did what they can, but every leak they plugged produced a crack elsewhere.
It wouldn't be too long before the dam gave way entirely. Now there was an optimistic thought. Rainier had remained a relatively safe spot in an increasingly violent and criminal city, but if or when the Cascade police force lost the last remnants of control the University would be flooded.
But he didn't have to burden this boy with those concerns. He'd graduate before that would happen anyway. "It's good you did," Blair told him honestly. "I'm sure they'll do what they can. How are you doing?"
"Okay. Fine," James assured him. "It's weird, they were almost my friends, sort of. And I went and told on them, and you know, I don't feel guilty about it at all. I want them off the campus and out of here, I'd like to see them in jail. Gone."
And separated from him. Blair wondered if his student was in jeopardy. As a rule of common sense dealers didn't like being reported to cops, but how they handled it was determined by the individual. If James's former acquaintances were into revenge it could get nasty...
He was a bright kid, though; he must have understood the hazards. It said good things about him that he risked it to do what was right. "I know what you mean. I'm glad you've told me, I would have wanted to know. If you get into any more trouble, if this comes up again, I want to hear about it, okay?"
"No problem, man." James flashed him a quick grin and darted out of the office.
Blair felt his return smile fade the moment the door closed again. Did James Modell truly understand, or was he just telling himself that to soothe his own conscience? Cascade was going to hell in a handbasket but most of the people dwelling in it were blissfully unaware of that basic fact. They thought that it couldn't happen to them, that the police would keep them safe, that maybe there were bad sections but they were easy to avoid.
Simon Banks was a good man and one of the best district chiefs the city had ever had, but even working twenty-four seven and pushing himself to his absolute limits he couldn't keep up with the dry rot. Every time Blair saw him on the news he swore he could count new lines on the man's face. Strange that most citizens never noticed that stress.
But Blair knew the truth. Why didn't he just get out, escape the corruption before it finally reached him? Maybe because he had hope. That good would triumph in the end, that once they hit bottom there was nowhere to go but up. He guessed that had been true for him. Somehow, the city would be saved yet.
Touching naivete, he complimented himself sarcastically.Do you wish on stars and look for gold when you see a rainbow, too? Everything around here is going to the dogs and if it gets much worse even a Sentinel won't be able to put it right again.
He regretted the thought the moment it slipped out, fiercely relegated it once more to the back of his mind. Get a little control, Sandburg. One glimpse of a shadow and you're mentally raising people from the dead. It isn't going to happen, ever. He's gone, he's been gone for years, and where he went he can't be followed. Accept it.
He almost convinced himself. In spite of the pain.
"I saw Sandburg today," was the first thing Jim said after Simon returned from the station.
"Good." He made no effort to hide his relief. "How—"
But Jim was shaking his head. "I didn't meet with him, I just saw him. I snuck into one of his classes and left before the end. I don't think he noticed me."
Simon wanted nothing so much as to grab him by the shoulders and shake him profoundly a couple of times. Instead he restrained himself to asking neutrally, "Why not talk to him?"
Hard blue eyes glared. "I explained already. It's better this way. Believe me," and the request was almost plaintive. He sat on the sofa and rubbed at his eyes with the palms of his hands. "I shouldn't have gone, I don't know why I did. Just wanted to see for myself how he was doing, but it wasn't necessary..."
Maybe not necessary in one sense; the Sentinel gone had no need for a Guide. But Jim Ellison was more than his lost senses... "He looked fine," Jim continued, "so in his element. I always used to forget that he was a professor as well as a student and—whatever else he was. He really fits, speaking from a podium in front of a blackboard. He's where he belongs."
And if Jim actually believed that...Simon felt like shaking his own head. The man was trying so desperately to convince himself of a half-truth. "He fits, but I don't know if he's happy to be there, Jim. You remember Blair, he never quite fit in at the station and he was perfectly content that way. He was too energetic, he didn't like being locked into one thing. That's one of the things he liked most about police work, I swear, the variability. A new and different challenge every day."
"New and different and dangerous," Jim snapped. "He sure enjoyed being taken by Lash. Or dosed with Golden. Or getting trapped in a falling elevator." Though that hadn't been a result of the police work, Simon didn't think it time for that observation. "He might have had fun on the roller coaster sometimes but it would have gotten him killed eventually. He's safe now. He's fine, now."
"And it should be his choice to stay that way or not," Simon argued quietly.
"He did choose," Jim insisted. "You told me that you didn't kick him out of the station, that he left willingly. No interest once his dissertation was over. He's stayed out of your way since then, hasn't he? Devoted his time to being a damned good professor. It's where he belongs, his abilities are an asset anywhere but that's where they're supposed to be."
"Blair left us, yes," Simon shot back. "He went and hid in the University, and like you said, he can make himself useful anywhere, he's got the skill to do anything. But I don't know if that was where he was supposed to be. I don't know that that's where he belongs.
"You can't force him to stick to his choices without offering him the other options. You can't blame him for what he decided then. He wasn't thinking clearly, Jim, I don't know if he's really thought about much of anything for the last seven years.
"He's resilient, you know that, Blair always could bounce back from nearly anything. But this...in one instant, he lost his partner, his roommate, his dissertation subject, his Blessed Protector, practically a brother, his Sentinel, and his best friend. If you think that he could rebound completely from that, if you think he could get over it in seven years, you are dead wrong. And I can't believe that you're willing to let him continue on grieving for you when it's not necessary. Yes, grieving—I don't care how well he fits into Rainier, something broke in his heart seven years ago and it won't be repaired until he knows the truth."
Jim had the decency to look shocked at Simon's outburst and what he was saying. The blood drained from his face, leaving it bone-white, and he mumbled, "I don't know, he looked fine, I thought he was doing okay."
Something had broken in two hearts, Simon amended silently, and neither wound would heal until they were rejoined.
Jim accompanied Simon to the station the next day. It was so strange to be there, new and different and yet overwhelmingly familiar at the same time. Simon's office as chief was larger, several floors lower and with wide windows to let in the sunlight as well as offer a view of the city it was his duty to serve and protect. My duty too, he reminded himself, gazing at the panorama of skyscrapers and streets. Though no longer a Sentinel he had never retracted his oath to the police.
Simon had a new secretary as well, a young man too new to the station to recognize Jim. They passed no one in the halls who he had known, for which he was profoundly grateful. Though it felt cowardly to hide in Simon's office, he couldn't face his former acquaintances, coworkers, friends. Not yet. Not until he was re-acclimatized to this hassled, busy world. The hospital had been peaceful, doctors and nurses always running but as a patient he could sit and let life flow around him.
Unnatural. That wasn't him, that wasn't Jim Ellison, and he knew it. Part of him wanted more than anything to get back to this, to reenter the action. But not until he was ready. Not until he felt whole again.
And Simon didn't push, allowed him to stand quietly in the background of his office and observe. He mentioned visiting Major Crimes but didn't even comment on Jim's refusal. Dropped Joel's name a couple of times but didn't stress the point.
Unlike his arguments on Blair's behalf. Why was he so adamant about that one issue? It seemingly didn't both him that Jim had yet to contact Taggart or Brown or Rafe or any of his old friends; he hadn't even brought up his brother yet. But Sandburg...
It wasn't the same, he answered himself, you know that, and Simon knows it. But that's over now. He doesn't need to guide a defunct Sentinel and he doesn't need a research subject and he doesn't need to be in danger again.
Jim flipped randomly through some of Simon's files, surprised by the magnitude and number of felonies reported daily. They were in the midst of some kind of a crime spree, judging from what he saw and read. No wonder his friend looked so troubled; Jim thought Simon had gained a bit gray and this explained it.
Simon returned from a conference with two division captains frowning grimly. Jim would have asked him about the files but he raised his hand to forestall talk. "I've heard enough cop speak in the last hour to last the rest of my life. My head is killing me. Want to go to lunch and forget the police exist for half an hour?"
"Sure," Jim agreed readily, not caring about the break himself but understanding his friend's wish. "Is that Thai place still around?"
"The one up the block? Yeah, it hasn't moved or changed a bit." Simon glanced at his desk, the papers piled on top of the computer, and frowned. "On second thought maybe I should just order out."
"I get the idea you need to get out more," Jim told him. "Come on, let's—"
From under a stray file the phone rang. Simon scattered the papers and grabbed the receiver. "Banks here."
He listened intently before responding, "Okay. I'm heading over," and hanging up.
"Lunch is delayed, I take it."
Simon nodded and headed for the door. "There's a situation at Rainier," he explained. "It might be bad. Blair just called for police assistance."
Though Jim had no memory of following him, or of the drive to the university campus, he soon enough found himself climbing out of the passenger seat of Simon's car, squinting at the surprising sunlight.
Simon returned after checking with the uniforms and campus security. "Blair's fine," were the first words out of his mouth.
Jim felt every muscle in his body relax with unavoidable relief, and hated the betrayal, his emotions displayed so openly. His friend made no comment, however, and quickly explained, "Apparently one of his students just got off the drug bandwagon, and the dealers have decided to retake him by force. The boy didn't show up for his class and Sandburg's been coaching him on this or something; anyway, he was concerned and asked around, and some witnesses had spotted a trio of toughs accosting him. This was about an hour and a half ago, which means we could be too late—but we have to try."
"Are we talking abduction, assault, or straight murder?"
Simon frowned. "It all depends on who the dealers are. But from the little I've gotten—this might be amateur day."
And amateurs were more likely to panic and make mistakes. Lethal mistakes, too often. They had to find this kid, no easy matter without a clue of where they might have gone. Someplace close, that was what they all were here hoping. Some hiding place not too far away, that they could possibly locate.
He caught Simon eyeing him oddly. Questioningly. One didn't have to be psychic to read his thoughts; he recognized that look. "I can't sense a damn thing. I'm sorry, I'm not a Sentinel anymore."
Simon sighed. "Sorry, Jim. I just...well, you can look, at least. You were one of our best before those powers ever materialized; unless you've lost your instincts too—"
"I'll help look." The police and security officers were spreading out from the reported abduction area, combing the grounds for any sign of the people involved. Students walked and played on the quad, for the most part oblivious to the drama of the search.
Jim scouted the edges of the buildings, checking for old doors, any place that might provide concealment. Also avoiding the bright sunlight quadrangle, all the people there. Some that he might know; he thought that a couple of the officers were familiar. And Blair was out there too, close, much too close. Maybe talking with Simon, or working with some of the officers. If he asked he could probably find him...
No. He ruthlessly suppressed the impulse, recollected himself. You've made that decision, now stick to it. And anyway, this search was more important. Save this boy's life.
If he were still a Sentinel...without meaning to he found himself trying to extend his senses, unconsciously trying to listen and look and smell for clues beyond his range. Just as he had when first awake, only by now he should know better. But his inner self insisted that it was his duty, his obligation to hunt in such a fashion, whether or not it remained within his abilities to do so.
Out on the quad four students amused themselves between classes with a frisbee, tossing it over the heads of busier pedestrians. Jim stared at the blue disk, memories flashing at the sight. It should be red, came the thought unbidden, as he tracked its arc through the air. One of the students caught and flung it out again. Bright, it should have been, glowing scarlet against the sky, brilliant enough that it had captured his attention so completely that he hadn't even perceived the garbage truck barreling toward him.
If Blair hadn't—but that was ten years ago, and this frisbee was blue. Yet still it captivated him, the precision of its simple form, the elegance of its flights, and as he watched it from across the quad his vision began to tunnel, closing in on the cyan plastic.
Until he could make out the words engraved on the disk, glittering fake gold, Acme Throw Toys, as easy to read as if he had been holding it in his hands. Some vaguely conscious portion of his mind screamed protests, tried to tell him that it was too distant to make out, that he couldn't see this far, that he was imagining or hallucinating or dreaming, and that he couldn't, not now, not here—
He ignored the objections, disregarding them easily in favor of his fascination, but he couldn't ignore the sensation that shook him, a terrible low growl penetrating every barrier and every haze. With a start he stared around his surroundings, seeking the source of the cat-like snarl. No sign of any animal, but the glimpse of a blue uniform reminded him of his purpose, the search.
Without thinking he opened his hearing, and staggered at the noise that poured into his ears from everywhere, jabbering of dozens of people over the thud of their many footsteps over high whistles of birdsong, mixed with the rumbles of engines and the creaks of doors and the rustle of wind through leaves.
It all ripped through his brain like a hurricane, and for a moment he felt blown away by the sheer power of sound. Then he mastered it, re-invoked old learnings, concentrated on diminishing the intensity and forcing the extraneous noise away. Focusing on humans, on their voices, speaking, conversations, not students chatting, not professors lecturing, not Simon giving orders—there.
Under the general tumult, a distant, muffled voice, "I didn't, I swear, I didn't call them," and a reply, "Don't bother lying, it won't help you," and a too-familiar click, a handgun being cocked. He could only hope that the second click was the hammer being brought down—if they hadn't killed him yet then maybe they wouldn't...
Jim turned slowly, trying to locate the sound, not worrying about how he could be doing this, only concentrating on the faraway voices. Cautiously he took a step forward, determined it to be the correct one, began to move faster, heading toward what only he could hear. Training commanded him to raise his voice, to shout, "Simon! Over here!" and raise his arm as he ran, pointing toward the large squat brick building on the corner of the campus.
The sounds grew louder as he approached, clearer to his ears, the emotions in the words now audible. The voice he had picked up first, shaking, "No, man, please, I didn't, I've got cash, oh please." Another one, angrily, "Where'd you get these wise-ass ideas?" Another metallic click, the gun cocked again.
The kid's fear was palpable, terror echoing in his broken phrases, "No, please, I didn't, I swear, oh man, please don't..." The others were speaking but he was talking over them, a continuous stream of nonsense, begging, incoherent pleas. Difficult to make out his words through the others' more measured speeches; Jim closed his eyes to concentrate, screening out other distractions, trying to listen and understand. Had to hear them, if they should be the boy's last words, had to know what he said.
He picked up heartbeats, quick regular thumps in the background, under the resounding echoes of their voices, the kid's beating faster than the others', but unless it stopped beating, not dangerously, and his voice was going softer, so it took every ounce of Jim's concentration to make out the ramblings, don't shift because the position must keep constant, don't breath because the wheeze of air is too loud...
Thunderously loud and at the same time distant he heard his name called, repeated, and something tried to move him. He resisted the pressure, fought to keep balanced and focused, but then a second voice spoke. This one was too near, almost in his ear, blocking out the voices inside the building. Speaking in tandem with the other, much quieter but so close. "Jim."
And he felt, not the motion, but hands gripping his arms, rocking him, shaking him out of the trance. He gasped, pulling oxygen into his starved lungs, suddenly perceiving the pressure of his knees against the grass. Looked up and into indigo eyes.
"What did you hear, Jim?" He recognized Simon's deep voice but the words washed over him as meaningless babble. Then a soft tenor voice picked them up, repeated them, made them make sense. "What are you hearing?"
"I—" He swallowed, closed his eyes, only to wrench them open again and meet those other blue ones. "They're in there," he waved in the direction of the building. "All four. Second floor, right side, small room. Maybe even a closet." He could still hear them, their threats, the boy's pleading. But he could listen without falling into the sound, if he kept his other senses focused on the presence before him. "They're thinking of killing him but haven't yet. They have at least two guns."
Vaguely he could hear Simon giving orders, the urgent questions of the others, the police chief's short reply, "Trust him." Doors opened, swift footsteps on stairs, down hallways. Clearer to his attenuated hearing were the voices of those already inside. "What's that?" "This building's not in use!" And then, "We better move!"
Urgency drove him to rise, forcing his legs to stand him up, carry him toward the scene. The other man, his Guide tried to follow, but he remembered the guns cocking and turned on him, "No! Stay out of the way!" He registered him falling back and then Jim was through the doors, running down the long hall, listening to jumbled steps racing down stairs.
A door slammed open and four figures hustled out. "Freeze!" he shouted, and though he was weaponless, out of shock they briefly obeyed. Long enough for a uniformed officer to appear at the other end of the hall and aim his gun as reinforcement.
One of the men threw up his arms but the second wrapped his arm around the youngest's neck and pressed a revolver to his temple. The final raised his piece in one swift movement and pulled the trigger.
The gunshot jarred his eardrums and he saw the officer drop as he shook off the effects. The four were running, one resisting and crying out as he was dragged along. Jim charged after them, almost reaching them by the time they burst out of the main doors, and he tackled the one who had fired, the gun thrown from his hands as they crashed down the stone steps. Outside more officers converged, and the second released his hostage to increase his expediency. He fired overhead and kicked a security man aside, dashing to his escape. Two officers pursued but Jim could tell they would fail. The third man had been quickly collared upon his exit.
The student, the freed hostage, sat on the ground where he had been dropped, hunched in a ball, gasping in a vain attempt to hold back sobs. "I thought I was going to die, I thought they were going to kill me," Jim barely heard the tiny whimper. One of the unoccupied officers crouched next to him, patting him on the shoulder comfortingly.
A security guard emerged from the building supporting an officer; Jim recognized the man shot and observed with some relief the slim kevlar vest under his shirt. He surveyed the aftermath calmly, approvingly; it had perhaps been close, but in the final scoring they came out successful, with no casualties and two of the three perpetrators snared.
His accounting of their side came up one short, to his relief. Out of danger and away from him. He backed away from the gathering crowd of curious students and faculty, intent on getting back to Simon's car before he was brought to attention.
Then his route was blocked by the imposing bulk of the chief, a more solid and ungiving wall than the brick of the building. "He's gone to his office," Simon told him.
"You're going to go talk with him. Now that he's seen. There's a lot he should know. As Guide to an active Sentinel." Simon didn't even interrogate him about that. Only folded his arms and waited for Jim to give in to the inevitable.
Blair couldn't sit in his chair. Instead he paced the confines of the office, circling around the desk, trying and failing to slow his breathing. Inhale, exhale, breathe, don't pant. He couldn't.
He'd flipped, he'd lost it, he'd gone around the bend and couldn't find his way back and what should have worried him the most was that he didn't care. Jim was okay, one of the officers had mentioned it in passing as he retreated from the scene. James Modell had made it.
And what of James Ellison, the dead man?
He had heard the shout, seen the tall figure racing across the grounds toward the old science building. But it hadn't registered, hadn't hit home until the man stopped, immovable as a statue, staring blindly forward.
Then something inside Blair had clicked, dormant instincts came into the fore, and he had pushed past Simon and taken Jim by the arms and brought him out of the zone. As he always had done before. Voice calm, soothing yet commanding. Gaze steady, keep him focused, keep him present. Give him the anchor from which he could control his senses and save a life.
Even when Jim had held him back, ordered him to stay put, he obeyed without question and without surprise. Too naturally falling into the old regime, accepting it as if nothing had ever happened to interrupt it.
Had anything happened? Could the last seven years have really been a bad dream?
No, more likely the last half hour had been, one major hallucination. It's okay, man, just leave me in the loony bin, I'm probably better off here. Much more content.
He looked up, and silhouetted in the doorframe, jaw clenched, arms folded, stood Jim Ellison. Staring at him with the same unreadable intensity with which he had regarded Blair a decade before, when he was dealing with newly recovered senses and a neo-hippy grad student last encountered as a medical doctor.
Living. As if the last seven years hadn't happened. Alive.
Blair tried to say something but no words emerged and as the entire world whited out he felt himself falling.
Jim lunged forward, but his Guide had sense enough to collapse into his chair and drop his head between his knees. His breath was coming in short gasps and his face was paler than the papers on his desk. Understanding the reasons didn't alleviate Jim's concern, and automatically he reached out, clasped his fingers around the wrist and felt the reassuring steady pulse beneath the warm skin.
Blair inhaled hugely and blinked up, the brilliant blue of his eyes undiminished by the shock filling them. "My God." He extended his own hand, trembling, to grab the arm once again, squeezing the muscle as if testing its solidity. "You're real," and his voice held the innocence of a child's. "You're real, you're alive." In one abrupt, unplanned moment he threw himself from the chair, and Jim caught him and wrapped his arms around him, feeling the other's hold envelope him in return. Blair's head pressed against his chest as if to listen to the heart beating and his own cheek resting on his soft hair, feeling every cropped curl. Testing the reality of each other and finding it true.
It was Blair who first broke free, staggering a little when released and steadying himself against the desk. Jim took his pulse again, found it racing but even, and then Blair pulled his arm away, frowning. "Why are you doing that?"
"I—" Jim tried to hide his surprise, his hurt; he had no honest reason to be so protective, not when he shouldn't be here at all—
But Blair noticed, as he had always been able to, saw through his walls as if they were glass, and shook his head, alarm obvious on his own countenance. "No man, I just wanted to know why you aren't listening to my heartbeat."
"Because I—" and stopped, confused. In his ears, faint but obvious, and devastatingly familiar, sounded the rhythm of his Guide's heart, still fast but slowing even as his breathing did. His eyes were still on Jim, wide and blue and stable despite the surprises rocking him. "I lost my senses," the Sentinel said slowly, "but they seem to be coming back."
"You lost them? When? How?" The questions came quickly and eagerly, Blair hurrying to hear every explanation, Jim obliging as swiftly as he could and still be thorough enough to satisfy the anthropologist. He had barely begun when someone knocked on the door of the office, entering before a response came.
Blair grinned. "Simon!" he cried, "You already knew, I take it, how much have you heard—"
"Some of it," the police chief replied. His face was serious but Jim could see a smile tugging at the corner of his lips as he watched Blair, the younger man rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, his hands gesticulating even when he was silent. "I'm sorry to interrupt you, I know you've got a lot to talk about," and his eyes flicked to Jim, "but there are some matters that need to be dealt with."
"Of course," Blair nodded. "I heard Jim's fine—James Modell, I mean," flipping an apologetic glance at his Sentinel. "But he must be shaken up, if I could talk with him—"
"There's a counselor from the college with him now," Simon reported. "He's actually taking this pretty well, but he's determined to speak to you."
"Right away," Blair said, "just lead the way, I'm there. He's a good kid, bright student, he didn't need any of this. I've been trying to help him with it since I caught on, only a few days ago, and anthropology's not psychology but I'm doing what I can—" He kept up the chatter as the three walked, himself leading, being the most knowledgeable of the campus.
Jim couldn't stop listening to the stream of words, couldn't keep himself from basking in the familiarity. He managed to tear his vision away from the smaller man striding ahead long enough to look at Simon, whose focus as well was on Sandburg. Looking closer he was surprised to see what might have been water glittering in the corner of his eyes.
Simon turned his head away, forcing the emotions inside again, but Jim caught his mumbled words, too low for any ears but his own to hear, "Never thought I'd see him as a kid again."
Once at the main offices Blair guided them to the counseling department, where an extraneous security guard and uniformed policeman fidgeted. They ducked into the spacious, prim office. James Modell was seated in a chair, the counselor facing him a few feet away, talking calmly, smiling when they entered.
James did as well, a quirky nervous grimace. "Professor—Blair, I'm sorry," he said immediately.
"For what?" Blair's voice was smooth, comforting, and Jim relaxed under it, not caring that it wasn't directed to him, responding involuntarily to his Guide's tone.
"They were going to kill me, they said they were, they were, and I couldn't help it, they kept asking me these questions, I didn't want to answer—"
"I understand," Blair consoled him, "it wasn't your fault. They didn't hurt you, that's what counts. What did you tell them?"
"I said..." the student lowered his head, refusing to meet his professor's eyes, shivering slightly with reaction. "I told them you made me," the words rushed out, tumbling over each other in their haste to escape and be denied, "I told them you got me off and then you made me call the police, I told them it was you, because they wanted to know and I had to say something and I even said you did it, I said you called them, that it wasn't just your idea, that you actually did it..."
Blair spoke over him, dammed the torrent with reassurances, until James gasped, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," and went quiet, allowing his professor to accept his apologies and offer his understanding.
Simon slipped out the door, indicating with a quick crook of his hand for Jim to follow. Once outside the office he said, low-voiced, "You go home with Sandburg tonight."
"Simon, no," Jim protested. "This isn't going to work, it's not over—"
"Damn straight it's not over," Simon growled. "Remember the one that got away? He took this 'confession' with him. I've squeezed a little from the two we did catch, enough to get what side they're on—they're going to be out for revenge. We know a little of this crew. They don't like to let reporting slide, and if they're moving onto Rainier, they're going to be out to make an example."
"Out of Blair," Jim grasped instantly. "Dammit." He swung his fist against the wall, listened to the hollow thump without satisfaction. "I tried, Simon, I wanted to keep away and I couldn't—"
"This has nothing to do with you," barked Simon. "It was Sandburg's decision all the way, we haven't been involved until now. It's not your fault that he saves people whether or not it's dangerous to himself. He's his own man, just like you, and it's part of who he is to protect, to help. Whether or not he's a cop, whether or not he's your partner. It's one thing you always had in common. You think your being dead changed that in him?"
"You could assign a real cop to guard him," Jim asserted, "one with a gun, who could actually—"
"Actually what?" Simon demanded. "Do a better job then you? Forget it, Jim. I saw you together, you haven't lost any of your partnership. Or your protectiveness. You want a weapon, take my piece, I have a backup. You're going to be back on the force soon anyway, I know it. And besides," a smile crossed his face, "you need him. Sentinels need Guides." Jim could see the triumph in his eyes, hear it in his tone. The foolproof argument reinstated.
"Simon, I..." Trying to balance his instincts with his reasoning with the demands of his heart, all telling him something different, but so much agreeing with his friend, no matter what he had previously decided.
The door behind them opened, and Simon's smirk changed to a gentler expression. "Blair, you heard what the boy told them, would you be opposed to a protective escort?"
Blair glanced at the chief and focused on Jim, eyes widening as if still disbelieving he was truly here. "No problem, Simon, I understand the need..."
"Good." He nodded decisively. "Your classes are over for the day, right? They why don't you take Jim home, let him look your place over before it's dark."
"Yessir!" Blair mock-saluted, Simon tried to look stern, and Jim was cut with a seven-year-old feeling deja vu. Blair had never asked who his escort would be, Simon hadn't told him, yet he had automatically understood who it was. Never mind that he no longer had a badge, never mind that their partnership had ended long ago.
"Come on, Jim, unless you want the whole force to catch on that you're here we better split." Blair gave him a nudge toward the door. Jim followed, unresisting, shaking his head. And how had Sandburg known that most of the police were still ignorant?
His car was a little hatchback Chevrolet, only a couple of years old, a solid, dependable vehicle. It gave Jim a pause. "What happened to the Volvo? I thought it was a classic..."
"Classics got me late to classes," Blair shrugged off the loss. "Sold it when I needed to keep more regular hours on the campus."
"Oh." His new apartment had probably helped those hours, too, being only a few blocks away. Jim found himself equally disturbed by it upon entering. Small but not cramped, clean, no rats or even roaches this time. It looked neat, ordered, utilitarian...
That was the problem, he realized: though it might look lived in, it didn't appear as if Blair were the one to live there. Nothing of his vibrant personality littering the floors or scattered across the walls. A couple of shelves of anthropology books and the woven throw rug on the couch were all that indicated the individuality of the owner.
Oblivious to the scrutiny his domicile was undergoing, Blair moved into the kitchenette, took a jar of sauce from the refrigerator. "Spaghetti okay with you?"
"Sure..." He explored the place cautiously, circling the rooms, ducking down to take a closer look at the texts on the bookcase. Pulling back when he realized how prying he must appear, trying to relax. Trying to discern why he couldn't.
"I know it's not the loft," Blair prattled as he put the pasta on to boil. "I couldn't really afford it by myself, I didn't need all that room. This works out okay, you can take my bed tonight—"
"I'll sleep on the couch."
Blair began to protest, then bit his tongue back, then shrugged and plowed on, "Sure, man, if you don't mind..."
Jim sat on the item in question, tested its springs. Recognized it. "This is—was—my couch, wasn't it?"
Blushing slightly, Blair bobbed his head. "Yeah, about that, we sold, Simon actually handled that, Simon and Stephen, they sold some of your stuff. But we've kept a lot of it. I have your CDs in the closet, most of them. Daryl's got your recliner at school. He's going—"
"Simon told me." Jim settled down into the familiar cushions. So some of that exercise equipment of Simon's had been his originally; he had wondered. Comforting, to know he hadn't lost everything.
Hadn't lost anything, really. Nothing important, at least. His eyes strayed to the kitchen, Blair dumping the spaghetti into a strainer, domestic as any mother. Such a very simple action, a very ordinary task. So why was there an odd heavy lump in his throat?
To clear it he stood, paced to the window. "Fourth floor, everything's locked—I don't think you'd be in much danger around here."
"Yeah, well, you don't know the Cascade neighborhood anymore." Blair's quiet resignation caught his attention, but when he turned to call him on it he was setting the dishes on the little table. "Dinnertime!" with a small grin.
They ate in silence. Blair slurping down the noodles as if he hadn't eaten in a week, his eyes flicking to Jim and sliding away, trying to avoid meeting his but wanting to watch; Jim slower, listening to the overtones of cutlery chiming against the plates. The taste was powerful, intense enough that all other food seemed bland in comparison—he realized that it wasn't the cooking but his heightened perception of it. If he concentrated he could have identified the proportions of every spice.
When they were finished Blair dropped the dishes in the sink and sat Jim on the couch, perching on the arm. "All right, man, we've eaten, you've determined we're safe, and now you're going to talk."
"About?" Jim affected innocent confusion, falling into the pattern of teasing without thinking.
And Blair rolled his eyes, groaned, "Oh, nothing much, just the last seven years." Responding to the tone eagerly, but following the demands of his ravenous curiosity.
He heard something in his friend's ensuing silence, reached out and tapped his shoulder lightly. "Come on, Jim," he urged, "you were going to tell me before. Begin at the beginning and go on from there."
So Jim did. Told him everything, about before the flight and the hospital and the great gap in between, about regaining his memory and coming back to Cascade. At first he tried to tell it as he had related it to Simon, direct and short, but Blair demanded details, drew out the underlying currents, the hazier occurrences. He recounted it up until his arrival in Cascade and meeting Simon, then hesitated. At last went ahead and described going to the Rainier campus, how it happened that his senses returned. Leaving out only his resistance to seeing Blair again, knowing that his Guide wouldn't appreciate what he had tried to do. No matter his reasons.
It took several hours and by the time he stopped speaking he was exhausted, drained, yet somehow at peace. For the first time he felt everything lifted from his chest, the seven years no longer a weight but a memory. Sharing the burden had not just diminished it; it was obliterated, not an obstacle or a concern, only fact.
"So you don't remember anything?" Once completed, Blair brought back parts of the story to check and verify. "Not one instant from those past six years?"
"Nothing." Jim shook his head definitively. "It's a blank."
Blair frowned, wrestled with that dilemma before returning to more significant matters. "How are your senses now, Jim?"
"Fine." Knowing his Guide wanted more, he expanded, "for me, I mean. For a Sentinel. And I'm not having any problems controlling them now. Haven't felt myself start to zone for the last few hours." Not since I've been with you.
"And they seem up to speed? Not any greater or lesser? Not spiking or anything?" At Jim's affirmation he cocked his head, running his hand through his short hair. "And you didn't have them before, they were lost when you woke up. Weird. From the biological-physiological angle, the best bet would be that some new stimulus today induced a response."
"Well, the frisbee maybe, triggering a flashback. But..." He hesitated. "I don't know, if you'd like to hear some crazy anthropologic Guide sort of mumbo-jumbo..."
Jim couldn't stop himself from grinning at that. "If you knew how long it's been since I've heard real professional mumbo-jumbo, Chief, you'd—-" And broke off as he heard Blair catch his breath. "What?" Concerned.
"Nothing." But though he was smiling wide enough to crack his jaw his eyes glistened. "Nothing," Blair said again, swallowing and turning away, "Just the first time you've called me that..."
"The idea," Jim requested gently, unsure of how else to handle the situation.
Ineffectually Blair rubbed his eyes, breathed deeply. "Yeah. I was thinking," and he was animated again, hands tracing patterns in the air as he balanced on the couch arm, "Sentinels protect their tribe, their village, their city in this case. That's the whole point to having their senses, for protecting their own.
"Well, inherent in that is this concept of possession. You have to accept the tribe, the city, whatever, as your own to protect. Maybe until you make that acceptance, your senses don't have a purpose, so they keep dormant. It would explain why you've lost them before, like when you first came back to Cascade, it took you a while to stop thinking of the jungle as your protectorate and start seeing the city as yours instead. And when you were gone for this time, not protecting anything, they shut down, and it wasn't until you began to settle in again that they came online." He ran out of steam and fell silent, waiting for Jim's response.
Jim absorbed this, fascinated as he often was by his Guide's explanations, theorizing so much from so little and yet sounding so assured, so accurate. More so now than ever. "You've really been doing some thinking about this, haven't you?"
Blair shrugged. "I couldn't perform any tests, I couldn't make any observations—hypothesizing was about the only option left. You should read my dissertation, probably the longest piece of bullshit ever accepted."
"Bet it all sounds good, though." And he seriously doubted they would have taken it if the science and observations and honest truth hadn't been included as well. All the same—"This explanation sounds good too, Chief, but I'm not sure it's right. I mean, me, possessively protective?" He smiled innocently. Blair blinked and then laughed, his short sharp chuckle of surprised humor. "Seriously, though," Jim added.
"So what do you think?" asked Blair eagerly. "I mean, what are your instincts telling you about what happened?"
He looked away from that brilliant gaze, glimpsed their dark reflections in the window, the two of them mirrored in the glass. "I don't know," he heard himself say, watching his mouth move in the image on the window. "I was thinking, I've been awake for six months, and I've been in Cascade for a few days before this, and nothing, no senses. Then I go to Rainier's campus, I'm close enough to sense you, and suddenly everything's 'back online' like you said."
Blair fidgeted. "No, man, there's a lot of factors, I mean, until that time you didn't have any real need for your senses, and then your tribe was endangered. And the campus was someplace familiar, a place you knew before—"
"So was the station."
"But, there wasn't any reason there," Blair returned. "You don't protect the station, you protect your city, the campus..."
"My Guide," Jim said softly.
"But I wasn't in danger."
"But maybe my senses didn't catch on to that," Jim replied. "Or maybe they knew it was safe, I knew I could use them again, because you were close. To bring me out of the zone. Could Simon have done it?"
"He wasn't having much luck," Blair admitted, ducking his head.
"He kept insisting I needed to see you," Jim mused. "Because you know the Sentinel thing inside and out..." He shook himself before he said more, not wanting to get into that issue tonight. Perhaps later he'd tell Blair...or perhaps not. What would be the reason? He knew now that Jim lived. It still might be possible to convince him he wasn't needed as a partner. A Guide, yes, a friend definitely, but not out in the deadly field...
It was getting late. He saw Blair block a yawn and the thought made him sleepy himself. "Is that enough for tonight? Can we go to bed now?" Purposely making his voice peevish, and winning a quick grin from his friend.
"Sure, do you want me to tuck you in?" Blair hopped off the couch arm, stretching. "You're sure you're okay with the couch, Jim?"
"Fine, Sandburg. At this point I'd be happy sleeping on the fire escape."
Blair retrieved some blankets from a tiny closet and spread them over the couch. Sighed and looked away once the action was completed.
"Nothing," and Jim briefly wondered how many more times they would have that exchange. Blair went on, "I don't have guests much, other than Naomi. And I never—I didn't think I'd ever see you again, Jim. You've eaten dinner here and now you're going to sleep on my couch, and I—it's just unbelievable, man!"
"Glad I made your day."
"Bit more than that, Jim." Blair grinned. "A lot more. Good night," and once Jim had answered he headed to his bedroom.
Jim drew the shades, switched off the light and laid down on the couch. He'd have to get his bag from Simon tomorrow. He'd have to go shopping soon, pick up more than a week's change of clothes.
Strange, last night he'd fallen asleep trying to stretch his senses, frustrated when they wouldn't respond. Trying on the verge of dreams to remember his lost time, only to fail and meet with a void. Wondering where he would go next, what would he do, wondering if he could be an ordinary cop again, wondering if he could even stay in Cascade, and coming to no conclusions.
Now he was dropping off pondering what he had to wear. No worries. No fears; his concerns might still exist, but they weren't bothering his rest.
And his senses gave him all he asked. Closing his eyes he shut out the streetlights glowing through the shades, but he could still hear the traffic of the eternally active city. Feel the smooth cotton fibers of the sheet over him, smell the blanket's mustiness.
Without conscious intent he extended his hearing and latched onto the sounds of life in the other room, coming through the closed door. Rustle of bedclothes, creaking of mattress springs, and the faint heartbeat, always keeping regular time.
He heard as well when the breathing changed, grew ragged. Sat up abruptly, listening intently to the quiet harsh choking of tears. He threw aside the covers but before he could rise he heard a voice speaking through the swallowed sobs, soft but audible to his ears, "I'm sorry, don't worry, Jim, it's nothing, I can't help it. I'm fine."
Obeying the unspoken plea for privacy he slid down again and drew the blankets back into place, but still he waited until the other's breathing slowed and evened out before giving into sleep himself.
...Cold blackness all around him, under him, over him if he tried to stand, smooth hard freezing surfaces, angles and sharp planes intersecting in bizarre corners. He couldn't see through the darkness but he could hear the distant purr of electric lights, behind the walls, vision if he could but smash through them. Slammed his fists into the unyielding partitions, again and again, until his broken skin bled invisible warmth and pain, but to no effect.
He screamed but the sound reverberated off the metal, bounced back to him a thousand times over, and he clamped his jaw down to keep from crying out and adding to the agony. A long time before he had begged for release, begged for assistance, but none had come; and then he had plead for anyone to end the solitude, but still was ignored; and finally he had cried for the one man he would do anything to keep from this place, he who should be protected above all else, but he needed him for one brief instant, to help, to bring control and peace, to guide him through this ordeal. No one had answered.
He had given up on all of that long before, and now he wrapped his arms around his knees curled under him, hunched in a corner. Not waiting, because there was nothing to anticipate. Not anxious, because nothing that could appear would be more terrible than this void. Not even hoping for the end, because this was eternity, forever, and the end would never come.
And then it did end. But not as his memories told him it had, with lights more blinding than the darkness and prying objects sharper and more painful than the needle-corners. Instead a warmth pressed softly on his arm and a gentle voice murmured his name and rocked the dreams away.
Jim awoke with the gasp of a drowned man surfacing. Blair drew back the moment his eyes snapped open. "Easy there."
Slowly he uncurled from the tight ball he had rolled into during the nightmare, stretching his limbs beneath the covers, willing the muscles to unclench. "Thanks." It was all he could say.
Blair nodded, retreating to the chair next to the couch. "Are you all right?" he asked quietly.
"Fine." He concentrated on slowing his breathing. "Just a dream."
"I think 'nightmare' is the term," Blair corrected, risking a small smile. It faded when a response was not immediate. "So you do remember something," he mused.
"What?" Jim's gaze snapped to him.
"Just a thought." Blair shrugged. "All I know is, you didn't do this before."
"What was I doing?" He tensed again. Out of control, moving in his sleep, maybe shouting—he hadn't meant to do anything of the sort, he wouldn't have disturbed his Guide if he could have helped it...
"Nothing major," he was assured. "I don't know why I woke up. Maybe you—I don't know, you whimpered or something. I came out just to check, and you were shivering. I figured that where ever you were in your psyche, you didn't want to be there any more..." Blair's lips curved upward again. "Role reversal, man. I thought I was the one with the bad dreams."
"I seem to recall waking you out of a few," Jim agreed, accepting the calming tone.
"Yeah, bang on the floors a few times, 'Sandburg, cut that yelling and lemme sleep!'" Blair sobered too quickly, as if the lightness was more than he could handle so late. "Protecting me, Jim, like always. Some of those dreams were terrors."
"Consider the debt repaid." Jim dropped his head back down.
"So." Blair's voice was soothing. "You want to tell it or not?"
"Maybe tomorrow," speaking muffled through the cushion. "Not tonight. Please not now, just let me sleep."
"Of course." With more patience than he ever would have credited to the younger man.
He heard no rustling, no footsteps, nothing but the steady heartbeat staying close. Rolling over he saw his Guide settling in the chair. "Hey, you going back to bed?"
Blair shook his head. "Later," he conceded, "just thought I'd make sure those dreams aren't waiting in the wings."
"Maybe you should get me a nightlight, too," Jim grumbled. But not loudly or strongly enough to send him away. Letting the quiet pulse and breathing lull him into a light doze.
One which he broke out of shortly. Opening his eyes he saw through the darkness Blair seated, his chin resting on his chest and his shoulders evenly rising and falling.
It wasn't instinct that made him reach out his hand. It wasn't really much of anything, only a vague desire to check the reality, verify with every sense where he was and who he was with. Jim wondered if Blair had felt a similar impulse, if he had woken not to chase away his Sentinel's nightmares but merely to see him, hear him, breathing, living.
Before his fingers touched the contact sparked a fleeting thought, a half-recalled realization. Of its own accord his hand met the wrist, feeling the flutter of the pulse as he had earlier, the folds of the skin, and something else as well, something terribly wrong...
He caught the minute change in the breathing tempo, glanced up to find vibrant blue eyes open, watching him. But Blair didn't pull away, allowed him to press his fingertips against the oddity and then snatch back as if burned.
"You can feel it, can't you?" his Guide inquired softly. Stretching out his arms before him he regarded his slim pale wrists. "No visible scars, but I guess nothing heals all the way."
"Who—who stopped..." He couldn't articulate it, couldn't understand it. Who saved you? To acknowledge that he had come so close, how nearly he had been lost, and he had done nothing, hadn't stopped it. To have failed so completely...
"Myself." Blair shook his head, dropped his hands back into his lap. "I couldn't go through with it. No one ever even knew, not Simon, not anyone at Rainier...no one. You're the first," and he tried to smile. Failed. "It was three years ago, I'd broken up with a girl a little before, I was waiting for tenure and for a time it didn't look like it would come through. And I'd lost a student, I was her advisor—she OD'ed. Smart with her learning but not her social life. Old story. I just hadn't heard it enough times, and then it was too much."
"But, you..." Still he found it impossible, incomprehensible. Too difficult to reconcile with the man he knew, his friend, his Guide. Not something he would ever do, ever attempt, and yet he had, and he had not stopped it. "Blair, I'm sorry. I'm sorry." Inadequate, because there was nothing to be said, there was no way to ever recompense for the crime. He hadn't been there. "I'm sorry..."
Blair looked up from his contemplation, brow furrowed. Straightened at the shadowed glimpse of Jim's face, his expression. "No, Jim, don't. It wasn't your fault, it didn't have anything to do with you, it was my own choice and I decided against it in the end. Obviously."
"No." His breathing came too harsh to his ears, almost masking his Guide's heart, beating now only because of a whim, because of random swift decisions. That it might have stopped... "I wasn't there."
"Jim." Blair sounded patient, soothing, but the insistence in his voice, the power, was too commanding to ignore. "I looked at myself in the mirror, when I did it, and you know what? The only reason I didn't finish, the only reason I grabbed a towel and backed away from the sink was that I thought of you, I had this image of your face, what you'd look like, how you'd react. All the guilt and the blame and the anger and the pity, and the revulsion too. And I couldn't face that. That was the only thing I was afraid of. Not dying. Not damning myself, not oblivion. Just what your expression would be."
He choked, a weird twisted noise that Jim only belatedly recognized as a chuckle, strangled as it was. "And you know what? My mental picture wasn't a hell of a lot different from your look right about now."
Blair woke the next morning to Jim's quiet call. Jerked up and blinked at him, orienting himself. Yesterday was real, then, the improbable and marvelous happenings. His Sentinel sat on the couch before him, large as life, sharp blue eyes focused on him. "You'll get a crick in your neck sleeping like that."
"Too late." Blair rubbed the spot of pain absently. "Should've warned me sooner."
"Sorry." He sounded too serious, and Blair regarded him thoughtfully, noted the swift passage of expressions through Jim's cool eyes. Guilt, anger, grief, pity, hard to tell where any of it was directed—internally, or at him, or at random circumstance...
He regretfully remembered his confession last night. It had been too late and he hadn't been thinking, hadn't monitored what was occurring or what he was saying. He hadn't intended to tell Jim, certainly not so soon. To be honest he hadn't intended to tell him at all. It didn't matter now. That was long over with, said and done, no matter if Jim could still perceive the marks.
Blair himself could recall the situation, the issues leading to it, even how surprisingly painless it had been. But he couldn't recreate the thoughts that had surrounded his decisions; thinking back, he realized his mindset had been so completely different that for all the world he might have been another person. Possession suddenly didn't seem so far fetched, not when he could so clearly recollect the act but his own motivation was a blank.
He shook off the thoughts, pushed himself out of the chair and broke the growing silence. "What do you want for breakfast? Sunny-side up or poached?"
"Blair..." The exact same tone, he recognized it after seven years without trouble, and shied away from the serious talk it precluded.
"Jim, it's nothing. It's over with, it's morning, you know, dawn and new leaves and the bright side of life. Which is blinding right now, man. I haven't felt so..." he paused, reaching for the most fitting adjective. "So..." There weren't any, not in English at any rate, maybe in one of the obscure lexicons filling his office but he needed a word now. "So complete," he settled on. "Not for a while."
Jim frowned slightly at that as if trying to comprehend, but his abrupt decisive nod agreed with and wholeheartedly seconded the emotion. "So 'complete', generally speaking, is a good thing."
Blair joyfully snatched the mischievous tone and ran with it. "Oh, yeah, definitely. Like when it's 5 in the morning and you have a paper due 9 AM sharp and you complete it and still have those whole four hours to sleep—my students could tell you all about that. Or when a statuesque blond fashion model with a nice smile tells you that you complete her—"
"Sandburg," Jim growled mock-threateningly, and Blair grinned, bounced on his toes. Rediscovered how enjoyable the exercise was and repeated it, heedless of how idiotic he might appear. Falling back into old patterns with more ease then he would have thought possible, every recovered moment bringing its own individual satisfaction.
He started for the kitchen to fetch the eggs but was interrupted by the trilling of the phone. "Blair Sandburg, hello?"
"It's me, Blair." Simon. "Since you don't have class I wondered if you could come to the station. You and Jim."
"Sure, don't see why not—"
"Could you come to Major Crimes?" the chief continued.
Blair glanced over at Jim, aware that he no doubt had heard every word. He raised his eyebrows questioningly. Jim shrugged. "All right with me."
"It's Saturday, but everyone's still going to be there," Blair reminded him. He hadn't missed Jim's subtle movements yesterday, avoiding crowds, avoiding the police, except when necessity pushed him. Abnormal, but until Jim opened up to him he had decided to respect the unacknowledged wishes. Probably didn't feel quite ready for the shock of reintroducing himself to the world.
But now he merely stood and stretched, shaking off residual drowsiness and answering, "I know. Tell him we'll be there after we eat, unless you want to just pick up a box of donuts on the way."
"Give us time for breakfast and then we'll come," Blair told Simon. Hanging up, he rolled his eyes. "Donuts? To start the day? How about an omelet, I've got an Indian recipe I've been meaning to try."
"As long as there's a pot of coffee to go with it, Chief, I'll be a happy man. A completely happy man," and he smirked at his Guide's amused acquiescence.
Blair noticed it the moment they walked through the station's double doors, the way Jim drew himself up, thrust his shoulders back and lengthened his strides a hair. Back in his element, the cop's sharp blue gaze commanding attention, empowered by the significance of the walls around him. Jogging to keep up with his Sentinel's longer legs, Blair discovered a similar feeling in himself, a mix of contentment, security, and strength. It felt good to be back after so long, righting something amiss in himself. Filling a gap he hadn't realized was empty.
Jim only faltered in the hall outside Major Crimes, staring transfixed at the plastic plaque denoting the entrance. Wary of a zone-out Blair nudged him, put his hand on the doorknob. "You ready?"
Jim nodded. "Well then, come on, man," and he opened the door.
Even his own normal ear drums felt assailed by the sudden burst of noise and energy that composed the bullpen. He glanced at Jim, concerned, but the Sentinel narrowed his eyes and Blair could see him concentrating, toning down his hearing to compensate. They proceeded inside.
Everything could not have halted simply because of their presence, but Blair was positive the decibel level dropped the moment they stepped through the door. Certainly it grew quiet enough for him to clearly hear the resounding crack of Rafe's coffee mug as it shattered, the steaming liquid pooling on the floor tiles.
The detective's mouth hung open as he stared at them, oblivious to the wreckage at his feet. In fact every eye in the bullpen was trained on them, and more than a few mouths were gaping.
Captain Brown emerged from his office. Blair noticed Simon behind him and guessed the impetus, but the captain hadn't been fully prepared for he froze as well, stepping back involuntarily.
"Hey, H, Rafe, Simon, everybody," remarked Jim, shrugging one shoulder in a futile attempt to appear casual. Blair bit the inside of his cheek to keep from beaming, offered a quick wave to everyone.
Captain's prerogative, Brown was the first to charge forward, stopping just short of them. "Oh my God," he stated, "Jim!"
"Does everyone have to say that?" Jim muttered, mostly to Blair, but the others heard and cracked up and the spell was broken. The men and women milled around him, the few senior detectives explaining to the newer ones precisely who Jim Ellison was, sparing a couple words to account for the smaller man behind him.
Blair hung in the background, listening to the greetings and questions and Jim's careful avoiding of the latter. He got a few smiles, a couple of token handshakes and pats on the back, but the attention was nearly exclusively on Jim. Which only made sense; after all, he hadn't been dead for over half a decade. He was joined by Simon, who skirted the others to stand by the wall next to him, eyeing the mob of detectives. "Should've warned Crowd Control."
"I'm sure Jim would appreciate the tear gas on his behalf," Blair agreed solemnly, grinning when he observed Simon fighting to keep the corners of his mouth from turning up. Actually, Blair reflected, Jim might very well thank him for it—surrounded by his eager former associates, he was beginning to look trapped, whipping his head around to try to face everyone at once. On the defensive and searching for an escape route, though he still smiled and thanked the curious officers politely.
Simon too must have noticed that it was becoming too much; he stepped forward and commanded, "All right, that's enough, you're all still on duty." Obediently the detectives dropped away to return to their desks, leaving behind Rafe and Brown, who somehow had managed to snare Jim deep in conversation despite the distracting others. The captain nodded at his chief's instruction and indicated his office for further talk.
Inside, Simon, after judging Brown's upkeep of his former domain, called them to order. "I know, there's a lot to discuss, but what we talk about on the job is what pertains to the job. In particular yesterday's little exploit at Rainier. I called Jim and Blair in because of their involvement, especially Sandburg's; not for a welcoming party." Though obviously he had been expecting one. No way would he have thought Jim could walk in as if nothing was different.
Captain Brown and Rafe exchanged glances, clearly debating whether or not to point this out. They were detectives, after all. But duty won out over curiosity for the moment, and they nodded, training their attention on their chief with only sideways looks in Ellison's direction. "Thank you," Simon acknowledged. "They're here because yesterday was a dealer-related incident, and we need the full story—"
"Hold on," Jim interrupted, frowning at both Rafe and Brown. "Why Major Crimes? Drugs are usually covered by Vice."
Rafe shook his head and Brown answered, "There's been changes in the last few years, Jim. Right now since the majority of major crimes are drug related..."
"I can explain that later," Blair called from his place near the door. He leaned against the frame, placidly returning the looks of the four other men. "Hey, maybe I'm not with the police, but I read papers. I know a lot more than Jim does about the last seven years; I'll fill in some of the holes."
"You're the professor, Doc," Brown agreed with a nod. "What's important right now is the two factions in Cascade, the two sets of drug traffickers. Most dealers are affiliated with one or the other. The first is big, organized, mostly cocaine, heroin, the basics; the feds think they're backed by the Colombian cartel. The second is independent, looser, a bunch of alliances between smaller dealers out to break the monopoly. They're younger and more aggressive, looking to push into new markets ahead of the organization."
"That's who our Rainier boys run with," Rafe chimed in. "The university is new territory to them. Which is why they're so defensive about it."
"The organization wouldn't have cared about losing a buyer or a couple of dealers," Brown continued. "But the alliance takes things personally. And from what we've gotten out of the two we grabbed, the gang they belong to is out for revenge too. 'Specially because we got them. They're mad and looking for someone to sting."
"And that boy told them Blair was responsible." Jim threw a glance at his friend, still standing apart and quiet, but paying close attention. Blair saw his eyes unfocus for a second and wondered what he was concentrating on. Hearing perhaps, guessing from how his head was cocked. He soon shook out of it on his own but watched his Guide for a few more seconds, and his stance shifted minutely into a tenser, more ready pose. A defense position. Blair's personal bodyguard, his Blessed Protector was starting to emerge. Fascinating, how old habits slowly, unconsciously resurfaced, and how easily they were accepted once more as ways of being.
Jim's guarding attitude was subtle, and Blair doubted the others even noticed. Simon maybe, because he understood it, but the two detectives kept speaking without realizing the altered attention in their listener. "We've got someone with James Modell," Rafe reported, "it might make him uncomfortable in class but he's savvy to the danger. And Simon put you with Sandburg..." He trailed off, eyeing Jim with an expression of disbelief that Blair could easily recognize and sympathized with.
"Smart move, since you aren't a ghost," Brown joked weakly. "If you aren't a ghost. Chief here told me he had it covered but didn't give the specifics—Jesus, Jim how long have you been back, anyhow? Yesterday there were rumors floating around downstairs, someone thought they recognized you, but I didn't buy a word of it."
"People are always seeing Elvis, too," Rafe seconded with a swallowed giggle. "You didn't happened to find Jimmy Hoffa or Amelia Earhart?"
"Wish I knew," Jim muttered, and then louder, "I've only been here a few days. Sorry I didn't drop in sooner, I was getting my footing back."
"No problem," Brown assured him. "At least you did come by in the end." Blair wondered at the meaning of the look Jim shot Simon at that. Surely he had intended to show eventually; how long could he have avoided Major Crimes? Policework had been his duty, his career, his life for as long as Blair had known Jim. And judging from the manner in which he had fallen in here, it wasn't a life he was going to abandon now.
As before, Simon dragged them back to the trouble at hand. "The ideal solution to this mess," he said, "would be to collar the whole damn alliance. But since that's not an option, we'll keep up the protection of those at risk," he angled his head in Blair's direction, "and do what we can about the threat. What's the game plan, Captain?"
Brown sighed. "I need more than what you just said? Other than grabbing anyone who makes an attempt on them, there's not much. We don't have a chance in hell of finding this whole gang. Even with the kid's description nabbing the third dealer is practically impossible."
"You might be able to manage that, Jim," Blair remarked. "You saw him too, you heard him..." He trailed off, recalling that neither Brown nor Rafe were initiated to the secret of the Sentinel.
Simon caught on, though. "I give full permission for you to investigate, as long as everything you learn comes to me." He leveled a long look at Rafe and Brown. "This is unofficial, of course, but—"
"Chief, no protests from me," Brown agreed instantly, raising his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Jim's returned and I won't drop anything about Cascade's best detective being back on the case. Might sleep a little better, though." He eyed Jim askance. "But report to the chief like he said, Jim, I'm sort of hairy about being your superior..."
At that Jim smiled a bit. "Not a problem, H. It'll be kind of strange to be your inferior," and his smile broadened to make the joke clear.
"Glad to have you back," Rafe exclaimed, slapping his shoulder on the way out of the office. "Now go solve this thing!"
"You heard the man," Simon said, "get on it. The captain here and I have some things to discuss while you start looking."
"Yes, sir," Jim consented, heading for the door. Brown caught him as he passed. "Jim. Welcome back."
"Thanks," and he nodded sharply before pushing out, Blair following.
Before he closed the door behind him Brown called, "Hey, Hai—Blair. It's about time you got back here, too."
Blair turned back, returned the captain's grin, saw Simon echoing it. "Thanks," he replied, adding honestly, "it's good to be back." Acknowledging the truth as he said it, multiplied by the confirmation that he wasn't alone in feeling it.
Jim jumped on his Guide the moment they pulled out of the station. "All right. What's been going on here that I should know about? What happened to Cascade?"
Blair glanced at him out of the corner of his eye before concentrating on the traffic again. "You're the detective, man, and the Sentinel. You haven't picked up the negative energy?"
"Bad vibes, Chief?"
Blair shrugged. "Naomi's phrasing, but it fits."
"To answer your question then," Jim replied, "no, I haven't had enough time yet to tour the slums."
Grip tightening, Blair hunched over the wheel. Jim wondered what he had said, maybe just the reminder of his time missing; regardless he regretted it without knowing how to take it back. But his friend's answer was calm enough. "Not the slums, everywhere. The whole city—geeze." He took one hand from steering to rake it through his hair. "Don't know why this should be hard. It's like I'm feeling guilty about it."
"You shouldn't be. It's not your fault," Jim assured him.
"Just keep telling me that." Blair laughed slightly. "As if you'd even know. But it's not, and it's not the police's fault either. I don't want to see you jumping down Simon's throat about this later, he's doing everything he can."
"I won't," Jim promised. Pondering the defensive note in his Guide's voice.
"Well then." Blair took a breath, lapsed into his lecturer's mode. "You got the quick rundown of the two gangs in town. They're the only real issue—but it's big. You should hear a couple of the national media reports, they make Cascade sound like Chicago under Al Capone. Only worse." He sighed, the air hissing out from between his closed teeth. "And they aren't that far off.
"It started, we don't know exactly, a while ago. With the Golden, really. We—you brought them down, but it gave other, smarter enterprisers ideas. A few started producing, cautiously, kept it under wraps but dispersing their stuff, and that drew attention to Cascade. Pretty soon there was a lively organized trade going on under the police's nose, in the alleys, the back streets. Professionals, not the Mafia but they knew what they were doing, how to threaten those who would talk...
"Those enterprisers, some of them joined the party, but others didn't want to share the profits. They got worried, and that was how the alliance got started, these designer drug makers, white collars a lot of them. Meeting and setting up their own rules, enforcing the monopoly. This isn't all speculation, just so you know; a couple of those beginners are behind bars, and they were perfectly willing to talk for privileges. Businessmen, not hoodlums.
"The gangs didn't come into the picture right away, they were on the drug scene, sure, but freelance, occasionally joined the organization to get someplace but they didn't like the percentage owed, either. It was when the organization decided it wanted a bigger slice, when they started pushing on the private sellers—that's when it all went down. Little over five years ago, that was the first battle."
"Battle?" Jim raised an eyebrow, curious at the word choice.
"Battle," Blair confirmed grimly. "The organization heads and the producers of the alliance as the generals and street kids as their soldiers. It went beyond gang wars. Twenty-eight dead the first night, when they established their territories. If they hadn't been worried about the cops still back then it would have gotten worse. Couple of random murders every night for the next week, more wounded, and then it all culminated in the destruction of one of the organization's homes. Killed three of the heads, plus a girlfriend, a wife, and two kids.
"Somehow they struck a treaty out of that, maybe it was the cops covering the site, I don't know. They never have found any of the people responsible, not the ones who ordered it, not even the ones who planted the bomb. They've never gotten justice, and I think that's why the opponents could make up so fast. Because they had a common enemy."
"Yeah. Working together, they could cover their tracks, and it didn't take them long after to figure that they could own this town." He let that fall without adding the obvious, 'and now they do.' Changing topics abruptly, "We're here," and he swung the little Chevy into one of the university parking lots.
"I don't know what Simon expects me to find," Jim murmured as they headed toward the old science building. "He's already had someone go over the scene."
Blair rolled his eyes. "But not a Sentinel, man! You're back now and he's going to use you for all you've got."
"I'll try not to disappoint him." He meant that literally. Because he wasn't sure it was possible. Simon had high hopes, after what Blair had told him he could understand where they were coming from, but he wasn't a superman. Far from. A few talents beyond average, abilities only recently returned, and not wholly under his command, not as if they ever really had been.
Except Blair lead him up the stairs to the closet that James Modell had been held in and then stood back expectantly, as if he thought Jim had all the answers up the sleeves of his jacket and now would reveal them. "Come on, what do you sense?" All eager impatience.
Jim frowned. "I don't know. A storage room."
"I can sense that, Jim," without a hint of a Guide's helpful placidity. "I want what you sense. Give."
"I'm trying, Sandburg," Jim shot back, shutting his eyes, trying to reach with other perceptions through the dimness, unable to separate the jumble. "I'm out of practice, I'm doing my best."
Blair's voice came to his ears, painful, as subdued as if he'd been slapped. "I'm sorry, Jim, I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking—take a deep breath. Keep your eyes closed, that might be the right idea. Use your sense of smell, maybe they left a sign that the other detectives missed."
Falling into the now-calm tone he obeyed, breathed in the air around him, let it flow over the nasal membranes and absorbing the traces carried by it. "Cleansers," he picked up immediately. "Chemicals." He sneezed, ridding his nose of the stinging, rubbing his tearing eyes.
"God, I'm sorry," Blair hastened to him. "You all right? I'm sorry, I should've known they'd store stuff like that in here—"
"It's okay," Jim assured him. "Caught me off-guard too. Guess we both need to study up on this again," and he offered a weak grin that went unacknowledged.
"My fault," said Blair instead, "it's my responsibility...could you try again? If you're sure you're okay?"
"I am." He closed his eyes again, opened his sense of smell. Listened to his Guide's commands, "Relax again, when you get the scent of those chemicals block them out. Focus on what's fainter, left over from yesterday. Get beyond the obvious, into the elusive."
He tried, it sounded ridiculous, impossible, he was no longer accustomed to it, and yet it worked. At first there was barely a whiff, and then as he recognized it, locked on, it became clearer, sharper, until he wondered that he hadn't noticed it the moment he entered the closet. "Well, they were smokers," and he suppressed a cough from the cigarette residue, "either all three of them or one of them lit up in here—no, it'd be stronger then. Smells like more than tobacco, too." A taste of something cloying, dizzying. "Marijuana?"
"Maybe." Blair shrugged. "But students probably light up here during the weekend."
"It's too faint for that. I think I'm getting what was in their clothes." He shook his head slightly, amazed at his own regained perception.
"Anything else?" His Guide sounded soothing but there was pressure behind the calm.
"Shampoos. Aftershaves. One of them used Old Spice." He opened his eyes. "Nothing. My turn to apologize, Chief."
"That's okay." Blair's enthusiasm didn't quit until they had worked through vision as well, and touch, guiding his hands over surfaces that might have left behind telling dirt, meaningful ashes. When it all came up blank, then he seemed to deflate, sinking into himself, a light in the blue eyes fading to leave them gray. Still he assured Jim, "It's fine, I mean, we've done everything we could. Not our fault they left nothing. Must have heard there was a Sentinel back in town."
The quip fell flat even to Jim's sensitive ears. He almost swore Blair dragged his heels on the walk back to the car. "So where to, the station?"
"No," Jim told him, with a decisiveness he didn't feel. "Can you take me to the battlefield?"
"What? Where?" Blair perked up immediately, blue eyes meeting Jim's again.
"The bomb site," he elaborated. "Where the organization lost its heads and they made that treaty you talked about."
"Got a hunch?"
"No," honestly enough. "Just a desire to see some history. So I understand enough of what's going on to get hunches."
An explanation any scholar would buy in a second. "Right on," Blair asserted, and forged back onto the streets with renewed determination.
Jim, observing him accelerating past other vehicles, marveled at his uncanny and unnatural direction. What was this place to him, that he knew the route so intimately?
Or perhaps it was the general sense of purpose animating him again. His Sentinel requested and he leapt to obey, unhesitantly as before and always. What was Jim to him, to inspire such confidence?
A Sentinel, but a Sentinel's just a man with some hypersensitivity. A genetic advantage that comes and goes on the wind and can only be harnessed by another person altogether. A watchman, protector of the tribe, that was how Blair had originally described it. A guardian, not a savior.
So why did Blair look at him now with an expression that implied that whatever was wrong with the world Jim would right? As if all the evils besetting Cascade could be cleared away by one sweep of the Sentinel's mighty hand, and Blair was trusting him to make the gesture. Believing that nothing was beyond his power.
But nearly everything was, even his own abilities, his own senses barely submitting to his will. And yet somehow, knowing Blair was there, backing him, offering him total confidence no matter his success rate, that almost could convince him. With that slim, undeniable, unchanged knowledge to support him, nothing seemed quite impossible.
As they turned the next corner Blair withdrew a credit-card-thin cell phone from his pocket, handed it to Jim. "Call Simon, tell him where we're going," he instructed.
Jim took it unwillingly. "It's not necessary. I told you, I don't have any feeling about this. No intuition. I'm just curious."
"I know, I know." Blair bobbed his head vigorously. "Humor me, okay? Simon was going to catch up with us, I think he wants to keep us—you—in sight if possible." His eyes slid to the side towards Jim and then snapped back to the road. "I understand the impulse," he admitted in a still-audible undertone.
Sighing, Jim obeyed, reporting their destination and closing the cellular before he could be asked to explain. Blair took back his phone with a grimace. "Talkative as ever, aren't we?"
Before Jim could formulate a proper response Blair applied the brakes, coasting them into a neat parallel park in the middle of the block. "What?"
"This is the place." They disembarked. Blair indicated the building before them. "Six years ago there was a fairly nice townhouse here. A year later it was a burnt-out lot, and a developer decided to fill it in."
Jim eyed the cement apartment block doubtfully. Somehow it managed to appear squat despite its height, pressed between two taller brick buildings who also took on an oppressive, squalid air. Its dull gray tones matched perfectly with the day's bleak sky, the dreariness broken only by the lurid scrawl of graffiti cover covering the first story. The scribblings spread over each other to the point that it was impossible to make out individual swears or threats, yet the violence was conveyed nonetheless.
Nothing here of interest, the street seemed quiet enough. No pedestrians, even, and the few automobiles lining the sides were universally wrecks, lemons probably older than their drivers. Not one of the wealthier neighborhoods, and he wouldn't want to be here after dark...
He missed the footsteps; it was Blair's gasp that caught his attention, only the tiniest abrupt inhalation but he heard and spun around, dropping into a defensive stance before he even saw the danger.
They materialized like spirits, ducking out from behind cars, striding out of the alleys, emerging from doorways. Their movements were individual but with a coordination nonetheless, a group decision shared by all, to reveal themselves and encircle the intruders on their turf.
Twenty of them at least, and more still in hiding. Varying ethnicities, all male. Boys; the oldest was probably younger than most of Blair's students. Their faces were still rounded and they were almost all shorter than Jim, mostly lean, narrow-shouldered. But old enough that their threatening glares were dangerous, that the leather jackets were more than costuming and the switchblades weren't mere toys.
Not role-playing Lost Boys, more than street punks, and their brazen swaggering in daylight was disturbing. Without speaking Jim drew closer to Blair, unable to protect him from all sides but taking precautions.
"Hey, 'sup?" one of the boys inquired breezily. Jim focused on him, one of the oldest, average height, oily black hair pulled into a braid—that was a new look. He exuded such a casual air, eyes half-lidded and arms loosely crossed, no obvious anger or in fact any emotion toward them whatsoever. The leader.
"Not much," Blair replied, and Jim shot him a glance, surprised at how casual he sounded, for all that his heart was pounding at triple time.
"Goin' 'nwhere?" The words sliding out as if the kid lacked the energy to lift his tongue and pronounce them.
"Heading out since we've seen the sights." But he didn't make any motion toward the car.
A couple of the boys shook their heads, monkey grins stretching across their lips. The leader blinked once, asked, "Off to?"
"Rainier." Blair glanced at Jim. "I'm a professor, so my wallet's empty."
"Huh." The leader pondered this for a moment. "Him?" The slightest angling of his head toward Jim.
"My friend?" Another glance in his direction. "I dunno, got any cash?"
"No." Jim leveled his iciest stare at the leader, who returned it lazily, glittering black eyes still squinted against the cloud-shrouded sun.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Blair slip his fist into his jacket pocket. Listening he heard a series of faint taps on the buttons of the cell phone within. Smart thinking, though he couldn't compliment his Guide now. Good thing he could touch-type an emergency number by heart. Not particularly surprising, however, Sandburg being Sandburg. Rote memorization, if you do something enough times...
The gang was still watching them, undecided, but as Jim glared back one of the other boys slunk forward and whispered into the leader's ear.
Jim tuned into them as they waved over a third and began conferencing. They spoke softly but directly, and when addressing his underlings the leader's words, even whispered, gained a commanding edge.
"He said from the U," the boy who had approached insisted. "That's him."
"You sure?" The leader was sharp.
The leader disregarded his insistence, turned to the other. "You think?"
"Right place," muttered the one summoned. "Looks like they said. Stupid to come to us. What do we do?"
"Take him." No doubt in the leader's hiss. Not an answer; an order. "Rid the badass and we'll take him, to them, not the ups. They're our level and they want him more."
A hand on his shoulder jerked him out of the near-zone he had fallen into, concentrating on their whispers. "What are they saying?" Blair quizzed, equally soft.
"They—" The huddle broke up, the two members dispersing and gathering others around them, beginning the advance as their leader surveyed them calmly. "Just stay close, Chief." Aloud he asked, "Problem, guys?"
"No." The leader's tone had fallen lax once more.
Two of the larger ones almost casually came forward and grabbed Blair by the arms, gripping tighter when he tried to shake them away. "Lay off—" When they didn't release him he stamped one's foot and elbowed the other in the stomach. "I told you to let go." Keeping his voice cool yet forceful.
Two more took their comrades' places, but this time they moved faster, wrapping Blair in a headlock before he could react. "Let him go," Jim commanded, and shoved the one away, grabbed the other's collar and ripped him loose of his hold. Feeling strangely trapped, uneasy about using his strength against smaller foes, and they were so young. Not men he could lay into without a qualm, only boys, beating some of them would count as child abuse. Hard to think of them as a real threat, not when their knives were still sheathed.
Then the leader raised his head and opened his eyes, announced in the same laid-back voice but with more precision, "Get him and hold the badass."
And they all rushed forward, whooping, battle cries of boys playing cowboys and indians, only this wasn't a game. Some of them surrounded Blair, contained him in a tight circle, but more charged Jim. He didn't have enough warning to brace himself; they flooded into him, the sheer mass of their numbers pushing him back, smashing him at last into the brick wall of one of the buildings along the street.
Individually they might have been weaker, but they were many against his one. Two at each of his arms, grinding them into the rough red wall; more wrapped about his legs so he couldn't even move, like some hideous wrestling match gone wrong, and then one of the free ones slammed a fist into his stomach. He was held too tightly to curl around the injury, and the pain refused to dial down as he tried to force it away. The hard platform he was strapped to pressed against his arched back, and though he fought to yank his hands free they remained firmly fixed in place. A shadow-figure stepped before him, hazy in agony's twilight, and white hands raised before his eyes, tapping lightly against the side of a vial, a silver drop of liquid glinting at the needle's tip.
He screamed, as it was the only motion left to him, the only defense he had, he screamed his lungs aching but he never heard his own voice, and it never stopped them from continuing.
Frowning, he ordered the patrolman at the wheel to head for the street. He got a raised eyebrow before the requisite, "Yes sir," and changing lanes.
His instincts were going haywire on this one. True, Blair hadn't been in any trouble for the last seven years, but circumstances being what they were now, Simon laid even odds that the record was going to be broken. Which is why when the second time his cellular rang he didn't hang up, though there was no answer at the other end. A creeping suspicion had him turn up the volume, and he faintly made out a whisper. Blair speaking under his breath, "Send help, we're here, some backup would be great, send help..." He repeated his request a couple more times before asking a question, to Jim most likely, because that was who replied unintelligibly and then asked aloud, "Problem, guys?"
Simon didn't care one bit for Jim's tone, that hard cop edge boded badly for whomever he might be addressing. But Jim wasn't a cop currently, he didn't even have a gun, and how many would they be facing...following Sandburg's suggestion he radioed the nearest patroller and ordered them to the site as well, two sets of sirens being better than one. There weren't any officers walking a beat anywhere in the vicinity; there never were. Even cops in vehicles covered those blocks with minimum detail and a great deal of expediency.
Over the cell phone he heard Blair and then Jim's protests, followed by a chorus of banshee-like shrieks. Sounds of fighting, exclamations of pain, and then in the background a high loud cry, like a wounded animal's. Over it Blair shouted, panicked and breathless, "Come now! Officer down! Officer down!" Though the anthropologist knew few words galvanized the force so effectively, the desperation in his voice hinted at truth, and that cry...dear God, could Jim have made it? Even over the cellular's tinny speaker it sounded inhuman in its anguish.
At the other end of the line Blair's shout was silenced by the sickening low thump of flesh against flesh, fist against bone. Simon flinched and willed the cruiser to move faster, though he knew that the pedal was flat against the floor.
As they reached the street they heard the wails of the other cruiser's siren and saw it arrive at the other end. Both raced to the center, where a knot of boys scattered under the flashing blue strobes. Leaving behind two figures, one hunched against the wall of a building, the other kneeling in the street, holding himself upright with his arms.
Simon was out of the vehicle before it stopped rolling, heading for the closer, bodily lifting Blair up and onto his feet. He tried to examine the redness spreading across the cheekbone but Blair batted his hand away. "Jim! Where's Jim? How's Jim?"
"Right over there," and he indicated where the two officers were headed, "Sandburg, what—"
He got no farther; Blair surged out of his steadying grip and dashed toward the man pressed into the wall. Blocking the pair of policemen with outstretched arms he ordered them back.
Bewildered, they looked to their chief, who nodded and gestured them away. Then watched, concerned, as Blair continued to his Sentinel.
Not to pull him from a zone, as Simon had first assumed. Jim's eyes were wide and staring, but his face was far too pale, and he was flattened against the wall as if an invisible force held him there. His mouth moved silently, and combined with that frozen expression of blank terror he looked as if he were pleading or praying. Not a zone out. This was something else, something worse.
Blair moved his hand across his line of vision, and when that got not a blink he took Jim's arms, gently forced them down to his sides. Talking all the while, a meaningless murmuring Simon couldn't make out. He wondered if the anthropologist were aware of it, any more than he was of the tears on his darkening cheeks. The Guide's face was a mask of concentration, the familiar old look that signified his own type of zone out, all faculties focused solely on his Sentinel.
Jim shuddered suddenly, heaving a great breath and sliding down the wall to squat against it. Blair crouched beside him, his hands on his shoulders holding him steady, until finally Jim lifted his head, light eyes taking in his surroundings. Only then did Simon approach, waving the other officers back to the cruisers.
Blair helped Jim stand, one arm securely around his waist, watching anxiously as he rubbed his forehead. Lowering the hand he looked into his Guide's face and frowned, pulling free and running sensitive fingers over the developing bruises.
Before he could pursue that Simon interrupted the inspection. "What the hell happened?" he demanded of them. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," they answered simultaneously, then glowered at one other. "This doesn't look fine," Jim growled, indicating the injury.
"A little ice and it'll be gone," Blair returned. "But you—"
"I'm with Blair on this one," Simon said. "What was that just now?"
"A flashback." Blair provided the answer through Jim's silence. "That's what it was, I should have known, that nightmare, night terrors—"
"I don't know what happened," Jim cut him off, "I don't know if anything happened—"
"You lost it, man," Blair insisted, "they triggered something, grabbing you like that. Out of control, you have to dominate, you've always been like that, when someone else has power—"
"Hold on." Simon raised his hands to forestall the rushed explanation. The anthropologist was almost choking on his words in a frenzy to explain, contrasting with Jim's reticence. Incredible how quickly their roles reversed, as if Blair had absorbed that awful blind panic and was releasing it in his own manner. "I need to know what happened first, who'd you run into?"
"Other way round, Simon," Jim replied, a hint of disgust creeping into his voice. "They ran into us, a gang of juvenile delinquents, a bunch of kids."
"One of the day-gangs," Blair asserted, and proceeded to describe the encounter, Jim adding relevant details. Before they got too far Simon suggested a change of location; the uniforms were all too anxious to return to their duties and their chief had no strong desire to remain here himself. He appropriated one of the cruisers to take them back to the station, leaving the two officers to partner in the other. An unusual circumstance; long gone were the days when there were enough cops to patrol in pairs.
During the ride Jim relayed what he had heard motivate the attack. "They recognized Blair; from the way they spoke it almost sounded like they were on the hunt for him."
Simon nodded. "No surprises there. Lots of groups wouldn't mind getting on the alliance's good side." They both looked to Blair, seated in back propping his arms against the front seat.
He shrugged, unaffected by the revelation. "So I'm a wanted man. We knew this already."
"I don't want you underestimating the danger," Simon warned. Stunts like this one, diving headlong into the riskiest situations...
If Blair was nervous, it didn't enter his calm tone. "I'm not. But come on, we've always known Guides are trouble-magnets." He nudged Jim's stiffened shoulder. "That's what we've got Sentinels for. And a whole police department."
"Lot of good we can do," muttered Simon, acknowledging their inadequacies to these two at least. Other citizens would be more content in their shells, illusion of security intact. But they needed the truth in order to alter it. "Now you know why Joan took Daryl to Chicago. The nighthawks are bad, but the day gangs can be almost worse."
"Chicago?" Jim sounded as if he welcomed the change in conversation.
"They moved four years ago." Simon wasn't going to accept the avoidance, no matter his friend's wishes. "The streets are dangerous no matter what time of day it is. They can be deadly. Those kids aren't playing games. Jim," and he made certain that his voice was low, not demanding but allowing his concern to show, "what'd they do to you?"
"Nothing." He stared straight ahead, rigid, arms locked at his sides.
Simon met Blair's eyes in the rearview mirror, exchanged an anxious glance. Blair leaned back, mimicking his Sentinel's pose, unconsciously or perhaps deliberately. Quietly he recounted what he had observed, up until when they had struck him. How they had mobbed Jim and thrown him up against the wall. And how they had released him when he screamed, how they had retreated, still holding Blair but all eyes watching him in fearful incomprehension. Until Blair's struggling and shouts caught their notice and they reacted. Jim neither denied nor added to it, only turned his head to the side, away from both of them.
"What did you see, Jim?" Blair asked, very softly, gently.
"Nothing." His voice was strangely tight but detached. "Nothing that was there. I'm sorry, Blair—" He wouldn't look at the bruises decorating his Guide's face.
"What, you were going to defeat all twenty of them?" Blair demanded mockingly, still quiet. "I'm okay now. You're the one I'm worried about. Jim, we have to know what this was, you have to tell us. If we don't deal with it now, it could happen again, and it might not work out so well."
Jim's head lifted at that, sudden dread on face. Simon wondered if Blair knew that none of that fear was personal, that it was all for him and what could have happened. Looking back at Blair's set expression he saw how well he did, and marveled at the connection, how closely they understood one another still in spite of the time separating them. Willing or not, Jim would follow his Guide, and between them they would get to the bottom of this matter.
Jim slumped in the chair, and Blair felt his own shoulders slouch in sympathetic response. Getting this far had taken much persuasion, fast talking on Blair's part, serious considerations from Simon. If he hadn't been convinced of the necessity Blair never would have insisted, not after the way Jim had reacted, not when he so obviously opposed it now. But they needed to learn what had happened, and he knew of only one method to find out.
At last Jim had submitted to the suggestion and they had gone ahead with the hypnosis. Talking Jim down into the trance had been more difficult than he remembered; holding his voice to the soothing monotone, evoking the appropriate imagery hadn't come as easily as it onetime had. Out of practice with that as well, too long since he last had meditated, walked that quiet path himself.
When he was completely under Jim finally relaxed, the tension flowing from his shoulders, his entire body. Simon watched from the corner of the room, slightly skeptical, slightly mystified, fascinated in spite of himself by the power of words and voice. Blair concentrated on Jim, lead him through his mind and memories, subverting the conscious to reach the subconscious.
He took him back seven years, to the conference, to the airport. As Jim had said his memories were clear; uninhibited by future experiences he easily recalled the topics of talks, the appearance of speakers at the event. The airport itself, the plane delayed. Impatiently waiting; he even could remember the smell of stale airport coffee, toning down his hearing to deal with the screaming roars of the planes taking off and landing.
But he frowned when he began to describe boarding the plane, and even with Blair's coaxing the memories did not come easily, the basic facts forced out, questions repeated. Was it a steward or stewardess? What did he or she tell you? Fasten seatbelts, emergency exits, but that could be so simply confabulated from previous flights. What was the meal? Who sat beside you?
And finally, when did the plane go down? Blair had to catch a breath before he asked it, a tremor coursing up his back. Even with the reality of Jim's living presence the thought burned coldly in his chest, the visions he had always imagined blending with the images that had flashed across TV screens. The blackened broken shell of the airplane, the many many body bags hiding charred corpses. He felt a tingle of guilt for his gratitude, for taking relief, joy, from only one out of so many surviving. But he had grieved for seven years, and he shook off the emotion, matched his breathing with Jim's resting rhythm and waited for the response.
It never came. Jim only hesitated, pausing as if the query made no sense, and when pushed he mumbled a confusing array of nonsense. Asking what followed was equally unproductive; his brow furrowed and eventually he began to speak of the hospital, waking up from a supposed sleep of seven years. Except his body tensed again, muscles clenched so tightly they trembled, and Blair had to bring him away from the memories to calm him.
He tried a second time, working backward from the hospital, but whatever it was Jim had faced before the coma was a blank gap in his memory. Empty, except for the reaction it initiated, that tightening, as if preparing for blows, as if anchoring against a hurricane.
Finally he brought up the nightmare, the flashback of the day. And those Jim could speak of willingly in the trance. Calmly, understanding that they were mere dreams, detailing what he had seen, what he had experienced in his visions. Blair listened with growing horror, a hard knot twisting in his stomach, making him sick. He cut Jim off, sent him back into sleep before he was completed.
"Dear God," Simon whispered. Blair had half-forgotten the other man was there. Looking around he saw how drawn his face was, wondered if his own expression mirrored that grimness. "Is that what happened to him? Are those real memories?"
"I don't know," Blair answered. "They might not be. They could be imaginary, escapist fantasies—hiding from something else. Worst terrors realized." Psychologically sound theories, but he too clearly could recall Jim's frozen terrified stare when trapped in the flashback, his shivering in the nightmare. "But they could be real."
Either way it was certain that something had happened beyond what Jim consciously knew. Seven years he considered empty rather than relive what had filled them.
Jim Ellison was not a coward; on the contrary, he was the bravest man Blair had ever known, little frightened him and what did never stopped him from doing what was necessary. What could have terrified him or hurt him to the extent that he would block it out, refuse to acknowledge what had happened...
"Blair," Simon broke through his dark thoughts. "He's not making this up." Before he got a response he came forward. "Wake him up."
Since there was nothing more to be gained from the session Blair obeyed, drawing Jim up through the gauzy layers of sleeping and waking dreams. He stretched, rubbed his eyes. "Sorry you didn't get anything useful."
"What you saw, Jim..." Simon shook his head, not finishing whatever thought he had. "Roll up your sleeves," he requested instead.
He didn't miss the sharp look Jim shot the chief at that, but he obeyed, pushing up the cotton shirt sleeves to display the corded muscle on his arms, as well as the scars marring the biceps. No mistaking the wounds however they had aged. Blair should have examined them closer, learned how they were inflicted, but he couldn't look at them, not the confirmation of the evil Jim had suffered.
From a distance he heard himself speaking, babbling on as usual, taking refuge in verbalizing the world. "You weren't on the plane at all, they took you before that, they took you away and maybe they arranged the crash or maybe they just knew it would happen, and they had you declared dead so they could do what they would. Because no one would be searching for a dead man—" If he had known, if he had trusted what his soul had known, believed in the living bond though all told him his Sentinel was dead...
"Stop, Chief," Jim quieted him. "You don't know any of this, who's 'they'?"
The faceless 'them', that which always existed in opposition to we, to us. Human beings structure their psyches around dichotomies. "I don't know, whoever did this to you, whoever could do it. Experimenters, psychopaths, what about Brackett?"
"Dark government forces. Why not little green men in UFOs?" asked Jim. "The fact is, I don't know, I don't remember. We don't even know what happened—"
"We know." Blair gestured slightly at his still-bared arms. "You didn't do that in a coma. They did that, they hurt you like that..."
"And I have worse marks than these." Jim's soft words silenced him. "But they're healed, too." With one hand he reached out and snagged Blair's wrist, rubbed his thumb along the artery and vein. Making his point through the contact and with blue eyes boring into him. "We're living, we heal. I survived and I made it back."
"But you can't remember..."
"Maybe because I don't want to remember." Jim didn't release the hold, a warm steady pressure around his wrist, reminder of what was regained. "Because it doesn't matter, I can't change it, if I can't do anything about it why should I let it bother me?"
"The nightmares," Blair protested. "Today, the flashback. It's still affecting you."
"Maybe because I haven't let it go."
"Maybe because you're so afraid of facing it that you hide from it," he blurted out. "Until it find you and breaks you down. And you were never scared by anything, I can't even imagine it, what they could have done. I don't want to know, I want it never to have happened, but it did, and it still can hurt you..." He fought for breath, felt a heavy gentle hand rest on his shoulder and Jim's touch maintained with all its reassurances.
"Easy, Blair," Simon rumbled, and he wanted to shake off the contact. He wasn't the one in pain, he wasn't the one tortured for so many lost years. The only blood he shed had been of his own volition and all he bore was the shame of that, yet they were comforting him now as if he had been the one to lose part of his life.
It was the wrongness of it, the unfairness, that forced him to regain control and face Jim calmly. If nothing else he could still be his Guide, make some small effort to recompense for his betrayal, for abandoning him to that unknown horror. "Jim, you don't know if it was your choice to forget. They—" he saw Jim frown, Simon's grip on his shoulder tightened, but neither of them drew back, "they could have done something purposely, deliberately blanked your memory. So you wouldn't remember them, but maybe now you're fighting it. They..." There were ways to do it, drugs, electric shock, hypnosis could suppress memories, the same techniques he had used, what could expose could as easily block.
"Unless it comes back to me," Jim said, "we don't know, and we can't find out. Any more than we can figure out who was this 'they' you're insisting on."
"And meanwhile you keep reliving it—" He couldn't live, didn't he understand, he couldn't manage with these thoughts dwelling in the back, emerging only to torment him. This wasn't something Blair could solve, no Guide trick could change what had happened...
Jim only shrugged. "Yeah, but I can deal with it now. I know what it is now, and I can start to put the pieces together."
"You must have understood already," Blair argued. "That couldn't have been the first nightmare last night. You'll keep having them—"
"You're right about that," agreed Jim, "but the difference now is I know I'm not just imagining it. Chief, in the hospital, when I didn't sleep well they'd give me a pill. I'd talk to shrinks but they all thought there that I had been in an accident, that the scars were from a car wreck or something. I didn't remember enough to know I had lost seven years until only a month ago. Even then—they told me the nightmares were a result of the trauma, that I was projecting my fears, shell-shock from being the only one to survive the crash I couldn't remember."
"Which you weren't in." He wouldn't have forgotten that, he hadn't before. The only reason that disaster had slipped from his mind was because he hadn't experienced it, Blair would stake his life on it. But he shuddered at the vaguest concept of what Jim had undergone instead.
"They didn't know that," Jim replied gently. "I didn't even know that, not until you got it out of me now. And besides, at the hospital it was different. I didn't have anyone to wake me up from the nightmares there."
And Blair would give what help he could, even if it was so little. He didn't know how to make the nightmares stop; he wouldn't force Jim to recall what he wanted to remain forgotten. But he could stay by his side now as he had been unable to for so long, and perhaps eventually he would earn the right to that position.
His resolve was strengthened by the rest of the day. Jim moved through the station confidently, but he was wary to talk for more than a few moments with anyone. Sudden sounds startled him, not obviously, he wouldn't jump; but Blair could see him tense, the shoulders jerk under his jacket, the eyes scanning swiftly until they found the source of the noise. If he were a cat he would be laying his ears back. While the alertness was normal for a Sentinel, the nerves were not, no matter that he kept them hidden.
He caught Simon watching Jim once and realized the chief was not oblivious to it. Strange, though, how Simon's gaze would invariably turn to him, as if he thought Blair held some key. Not me, never me, I haven't anything to do with it. I wish I had, he assured him silently. If he had been there with his Sentinel, even if he hadn't been able to stop it, if he could have experienced it he would know what to do. Jim wouldn't have been alone and Blair would be able to understand the burden he carried now.
Simon took them both out to dinner, a meal at one of Cascade's more expensive restaurants. They chatted while they ate, not serious conversation—avoiding discussion. Simon mentioned a few of the high-profile cases from the past year and Blair related some stories from his classes and students. Jim listened, responded with the appropriate commentary, chuckled at the right spots. Absorbing what they said with a small smile curving his lips, taking true enjoyment from their presence.
He had little to say himself; even afterwards when they returned to Blair's apartment he stayed quiet, allowing his Guide to chatter on companionably. Catching up on the lost time. Before they retired for the night he had one request. "Chief, could I see the dissertation?"
"My doctorial dissertation?" Blair bit his lip, considering. It was of course Jim's right, only fair that he should see what had been written about him. Yet he felt strange lifting the bound copy from the shelf. Gazed down at the red-brown cover. He hadn't held it or opened it for years; he knew it intimately from the care he had put in it but had never rethought the labor.
But he had thought the words worthy when he had submitted them. Without hesitation he placed it in his Sentinel's hands. Jim hefted the volume, measuring its weight. Read the neat white script on the binding. "'The Myth and Reality of Sentinels: An analysis of their purpose, history, and general characteristics, past and present'. I don't know, Chief, I thought it would be more like 'General Care and Feeding for Your Sentinel'."
"That's what Random House is planning for the best-seller edition," Blair told him straight-faced, and ducked Jim's swat with a smirk. That faded when he saw the contemplative look Jim was subjecting the dissertation to, staring at the cover. "Most people open books before reading them," he teased, the banter hiding his unease. These pauses, not zone-outs, but he wasn't entirely present...
Jim shook himself out of whatever thoughts had involved him, quirked a smile up at Blair. "Thanks for the advice," he answered wryly, then more sincerely, "and thanks for the reading, too. Should be interesting."
"Just don't stay up the whole night," Blair instructed him, affecting a stern mother's tone. "And don't try reading under the covers—I did that once and burned a hole in my blanket." He grinned, patted the couch's brightly patterned throw rug. "This is a genuine Peruvian weave, so I'd be pretty upset."
"G'night, Blair." Jim grinned. "I'll do my best not to light the carpet on fire."
"It's a rug." He rolled his eyes. "But thanks. Good night, Jim." Blair stood in the hall for a moment, just watching him, then shook himself and proceeded to his bedroom.
Jim settled on the couch, book in his hands. Despite Blair's advice he didn't plan to sleep much. For one thing, he wasn't tired; he had been resting enough these past months and finally he was sufficiently energized, batteries recharged. It was a very good feeling, much missed; he didn't want to spoil it by giving into to nightly routine. He did want to read the dissertation, after the years Blair had put into it it had to be interesting at least, and he figured so prominently in the research. No telling when else he would have the peace and solitude to study it.
And he didn't want to sleep. Not with the nightmares gibbering in the back of his mind, those flashes from a time he had no desire to remember. Blair had been so insistent on recovering it but his Guide didn't understand, hadn't had those visions himself—visions, hell, that thing today had been a full-scale hallucination. He didn't know for certain if it really was memory or just a terror of his own invention—Blair believed memory and that felt right, but if so he was probably better off with six and half blank years. Emptiness couldn't hurt him...
He realized he was trying to bend the volume he clutched and forced his hands to loosen their grip. Too thick for his efforts to have any effect—it looked like a dictionary, not a research paper. Even with single-sided double-spaced pages it must have taken forever to write. Finally he got around to lifting the cover, read the title page. That mouthful of a title and then neatly printed beneath it Blair Sandburg, PhD. First time he'd seen the little letters written out, and he experienced a rush of emotion reading them, black on white.
Pride, certainly, and a degree of awe; though he never told him so Blair's devotion to his education had always amazed Jim. But also unease, something that had been building since first hearing of his achievement. This was the dissertation, that goal which he had been striving toward for as long as Jim had known him. Accomplished six years ago.
So what now? Blair's excuse was gone. Of course the dissertation had not been the only reason he had been partnered with Jim; it had become evident early on that it wasn't even the prime reason. But all the same, it had been his purpose, his benefit. What did he get out of being a Guide now? Jim needed him, as a Sentinel, now more than ever to control his abilities. And if the flashbacks returned, as they very well might, he would need him for that as well.
Friendships aren't based on needs. They shouldn't be; they should be about liking and respect and fun and everything else they shared. But what would hold the partnership together, when Blair had no need for him now, no reason to be a Guide beyond duty to his Sentinel? A very one-sided partnership this would be, him dependent with nothing to offer in return.
Frowning down again at the dissertation, he turned past the table of contents to the introduction and began reading as if the answer was written within.
Several hours later he came up for air. The opening had been very easy going, lucid, with a straightforward, almost conversational style that reminded him of Blair lecturing. He could practically hear his friend's voice reciting some of the phrases. It began with an account of how Blair had originally stumbled across Richard Burton's old texts and his subsequent fascination and investigation. The narrative concluded with his discovery of and partnership with James Ellison of the Cascade Police Department, until Detective Ellison's death three years later.
That sentence sent shivers down Jim's spine, not only because he was reading of his own demise (even if the reports had been greatly exaggerated) but because of the coldness, the brutal truth directly inscribed. There was nothing in the least emotional in the telling; it was scientific in its clinical brevity. Yet perhaps because it was so chill, so different from the warm anthropologist he knew, it shook him profoundly. Enough that he glanced up at the bedroom door and listened to the even breathing behind it, reassuring himself that it exactly matched the rhythm he remembered from before.
Returning to the dissertation proved a problem, because the scientific aspect had emerged full-force in the body of the work. He found himself caught in a morass of anthropologic jargon, truly interesting details and stories of Sentinels from various tribes hidden behind vocabulary he knew he wouldn't understand even with a dictionary's aid. Not to mention the dates, cross-referencing, footnotes, and passages of native dialects.
He pushed through it, gleaning tidbits here and there of his predecessors of long ago, and then he was confronted by the true science, the biological/physiological treatise on Sentinel abilities. The first couple pages might have stopped him immediately, with their hypotheses regarding genetic mutation transference and adrenal cyclic reactions. Except that many of the facts came from experiments that he had undergone, and he forced himself to read it, encountered tests he had taken, trials he remembered. He was amazed again by Blair's observational skills; nothing seemed to have escaped his eye or his mind, every talent Jim had ever displayed seemed to be covered eventually.
Interestingly enough in this part he was never mentioned by name; it was always "Subject experiences such-and-such," "Subject senses whatnot." There were several confessions made of the problems with the data, apologies for the small—singular—sample size. It wouldn't be too difficult to piece together who the subject was from the introduction. Jim found himself wondering who precisely had read this work. The doctoral review board, certainly. Blair's advisor. Simon. Had it gone farther? It hadn't been published, but a University would have a copy in its archives, accessible to the public...had Joel ever thought to read it? Brown or Rafe?
By the time he reached the end of the biological discussion it was past midnight. He considered putting it down, plodding through the rest later. But the next section's title caught his eye—"The Function of the Companion: a Sentinel's Guide." Turning the page he expected to be greeted by another mass of terminology. Instead he was surprised by what he read.
"Whether in the jungle or the desert, one element common to every Sentinel history is the companion, a man or woman partner, whose duty was to watch the Sentinel's back. They are often described as having a symbiotic relationship with the Sentinel, to the point that several tribes' words for 'Sentinel' literally translate as 'Watchman and Guide.'" It went on to give examples of such words and legends about the companions, Sentinels and Guides working together to do great deeds. The language remained understandable, well-written and direct without the confounding vocabulary. Perhaps because there weren't so many terms for the topic. Or maybe because it was closer to the author's heart, and he hadn't wanted to obscure the truth he told...
But there were still aspects Jim found confusing or worse. In the midst of speculating on the exact purposes of companions, Blair wrote, "It must be seriously questioned if Guides were a necessity to the Sentinels. Since these individuals were gifted with great will and determination, it seems unlikely that once they were taught to harness their senses they would need assistance controlling them. In the field a Guide, less physically adept than a Sentinel, would be a hindrance more than an asset. More likely the Guide was a need of the tribe, a way of insuring the Sentinel's continued protection by instilling in them a psychological and emotional dependence on a tribe member."
Despite the hour he almost wanted to awake his own Guide and have him explain what he meant by that cryptic comment. Rather than that he kept reading, perusing more histories, as well as some specific references that he recognized from cases they had solved together. A passing mention of reforming the connection between mind and vision. Basic coaching on hearing. And a surprisingly vivid description of pulling a Sentinel out of a zone. It almost became personal there. He could tell that Blair had written it first person, perhaps without meaning to, and then changed it to the ambiguous third. A general summary of Guide duties. Never revealing that he himself had performed them.
There was more on the dependency, the interaction of Sentinel, Guide, and tribe. Near the end, Blair imparted the more morbid aspects, the darker problems a Guide could encounter. "Loyalty to a Sentinel was not without consequences for the companion; at times it could be deadly. Even with all senses sharply tuned a Sentinel could be too late, miss a crucial sign or not give a warning punctually. A Sentinel so unfortunate to lose their Guide, whether through incompetence or simply by chance, was given only two choices from the tribe: to take on a new companion, or to be banished. In many cultures banishment was synonymous with death or suicide. Obviously tribes refused to have a Sentinel without the manipulating influence of a Guide.
"What is perhaps of even more interest is the number of Sentinels who willingly took the latter option. Whether because of the dishonor of having failed to protect their companion, or due to unwillingness to place trust in a new Guide, many Sentinels ritually suicided following their partner's death." He explained a few of the ritual murders and then covered the more common ways a Guide could be "lost" out in tribal territories. None of his examples were from modern-day civilization, Jim noted with relief. Not one gun or psychopath so much as hinted at.
On the final page of the section he read, "Guides deprived by accident or battle of their Sentinels were not forced to make the same decision. On the contrary, they usually were greatly respected by the tribe with or without their partner; their wisdom was highly regarded and they would sometimes become teachers, both of companions and of new Sentinels, though it was unknown for a companion to become Guide to a second Sentinel.
"This was not always the case. A Guide who loses his Sentinel is not faced with loss of life but loss of purpose. Without a way to fulfill their true duties to their tribe, and lacking what gave their lives meaning, most Guides willingly choose to follow their Sentinel down the final path."
There were more sections after that, yet Jim found himself unable to turn the page, running his eyes over the small black words again and again, seeing them without reading them, understanding them without visualizing them. At last he shut the volume and shoved it aside, eyes closing before he saw it fall to the floor.
Blair found the dissertation laying there the next morning; he nearly tripped over it, then frowned at the spine-breaking angle it rested at. Jim's own spine must not have been in much better condition; he had apparently fallen asleep while reading and had never quite managed a horizontal position on the couch. Of course Blair only caught a glimpse of that before Jim awoke, snapping to instant and enviable alertness.
"Good morning," Blair told him, swallowing a yawn and trying to imitate Jim's wakeful attitude. "Nice to know I wrote such a good bedtime story."
"'Morning," Jim answered. Then, "Honestly, Sandburg, it was interesting. Little dense on the anthropologic-scientist stuff—"
"C'mon, you think they'd have read it at all if I didn't sound legit?"
"I know, and I got it, once I got into the swing of it. You have a lot of ideas in there."
"But you liked it?" For crying out loud, he sounded like a puppy whining for a biscuit. Or a kid fishing for praise. But he couldn't keep that hopeful note from his voice. "You thought it was good?"
"It's not something I ever could have written," Jim said. "It was good, I think. I don't know much about that kind of thing but yeah, I thought it was really good." He paused, and Blair soaked up the praise, working to keep the smile small. "The last part I got to was the one on Guides," he went on.
Blair nodded. He didn't recall that chapter as well as the others; he hadn't gone over it so many times. Only once, actually, when he had written it. Let Simon check for mistakes and revisions. He knew it wasn't the most objectively scientific writing, but it was too important to excise, and he had gotten away with sandwiching it between more acceptable sections.
Jim had probably liked it for the non-scientific aspects. "You have some interesting things to say in there, I don't know if I follow them all but I remember them..." He trailed off. Blair would have to reread that chapter and try to figure out what he might be referring to. It wouldn't be painful now; before it had hurt, thinking about it, reminded him of what he had lost even more than the rest of the work, but now it was a dim memory and an uplifting thought.
"How'd you sleep?" he inquired. "No nightmares?"
"No." Jim shook his head, a decided negative. "Probably didn't have time."
"When did you drop off?" Blair asked suspiciously, but Jim only shrugged. "Don't have a watch." Before Blair could become more mothering he patted his stomach. "Though right now I can tell you it's breakfast-time. Let's get some donuts, Chief."
"Donuts?" Blair echoed doubtfully.
Jim nodded. "Like we didn't have yesterday. You know, they look like bagels, only sweeter. A box of buttermilk donuts from the cafe I saw on the way back here last night." And hyper-sensitive ears or not he was deaf to Blair's sigh.
It wasn't until the girl charged them that it occurred to Blair that he didn't know where Jim's money came from, or even if he had any. Though he paid he thought to ask as they left, "Do you have any cash?"
Jim blinked at him. "A little bit, I used most of it up getting back to Cascade. I did some work at the hospital; the rest was charity. About the rent, I'll reimburse you for food, room and board, whatever, soon as I have the income again—"
Blair shook his head. "No, that's nothing, you know that. I can cover it, I'm a professor now, I actually make more than I spend. But I should have thought of it sooner, let me spot you some. You don't want to be caught broke on the streets."
"I don't need it, Blair." He refused the twenty offered. "Unless you want me out..."
"No, never," Blair replied instantly, then wondered if that sounded too glib. Too late to unsay it and he had meant it regardless, so he continued, "You need enough for cab fare, and it helps to have something to offer if you run into a group."
"The ones yesterday weren't after our wallets," Jim reminded him.
He laughed, a touch shakily. "Yeah, I know, but some gangs are appeased by petty cash. You keep them happy, give them what they want if you can afford it, and it helps if you can."
"Do what it takes to live," Jim muttered, and muted anger flashed in the blue depths of his eyes. Blair jogged his arm.
"That's the way it is now," he confirmed, "but it doesn't mean it can't be changed." He almost grinned at the response he saw burning in his expression, seeing that whatever else had happened to Jim Ellison he still was very much the Sentinel, Cascade his protectorate despite its alterations.
Which is why on the walk back he wasn't particularly surprised when Jim clenched his fists, glared down the street. "What do you hear?"
"Some guy accosting a woman. Asking—demanding money. She doesn't want to pay him." He threw a glance at the sky. "On Sunday in broad daylight?"
"Welcome to Cascade." He ignored the glare turned on him. "Keep listening, man, does it sound bad?"
Jim concentrated, eyes unfocusing and then clearing. "It doesn't sound good, at least. She's scared...they're alone and he might hurt her..."
Blair patted him on the shoulder, snapped him from the beginning of the zone. Jim's gaze was angry, his voice low and intense. "Someone should do something."
"You're the Sentinel." And as if he had given Jim permission he took off down the street like he'd been shot from a sling, homing in on the disturbance, at last ducking into a shop. Should follow him, Blair thought, but he had moved too fast, and more than likely he'd do better on his own. He'd be able to hear if the guy was wielding a gun and if he wasn't he wouldn't stand a chance against a former Army Ranger Sentinel duty-bound to protect honest citizens. At any rate Blair would be more distraction than assistance, and Jim had sounded pretty clear that it was a lone thug.
Nevertheless he headed toward the place to verify what he was convincing himself. He was most of the way there when a dark sports car pulled up alongside him.
Hearing the ominous click and looking over he saw the gun aimed squarely at his chest. "Stay quiet and get in," the cool voice behind it commanded.
Without any other options that he cared to consider Blair obeyed. As he climbed in he said, as loudly as he dared, "Jim"; then they slammed the door and the car continued racing down the street.
He acted more on instinct than reason, charging down the sidewalk, halting by the correct door. Peering through the dirty glass Jim looked into the shop, shelves of dusty ceramic figures and paraphernalia. Not the sort of place normally held up. But the girl behind the register had tears in her eyes as she stared at the man before her. Big, back to the door, huge fists spread on the counter, menacing but weaponless. "Then give it here," he snarled, deep and harsh.
"I can't," and her voice trembled, "I don't have anything, not here—"
The man leaned over the counter and one meaty hand seized her wrist; she shrieked but couldn't pull free. A bell chimed as Jim pushed open the door, and the girl turned frightened eyes to him. "Sir, please, we're closed—"
Without turning around the man rasped, "Get out of here."
Jim crossed the shop in three steps, grabbed him by the collar and rammed him into the counter. "After you."
"Why?" The man brought up his knee; Jim dodged it easily but had to release him due to the knife thrust in his direction. The girl screamed and the man grinned. "You'll call the cops?"
"I am a cop." Jim kicked the jackknife out of his hands, heard it hit the tiled floor without even touching a shelf. He wrenched the man's arm down with one sharp twist, feeling the stress on the bone and stopping before it cracked. "But call them anyway," he requested of the girl, who only gaped at him. Wishing Blair would hurry up, knowing that he was coming, Jim gestured toward the phone with his chin. "Can you get some backup for me?"
Eyes wide, she backed away from both them and the telephone. Jim was trying to figure out if she was in shock or wary of the police when he heard the call. Not loud; the only reason he caught it was because it was his name.
And because it was Blair speaking it, a soft anxious plea. Jim shoved the man away, didn't wait to see if he would stay down before dashing outside.
The auto screeched away from the curb but through the shaded back windshield he could see his Guide's face, peering behind, open-mouthed in surprise or fear. He ran halfway down the block before he convinced himself that it was impossible to keep up on foot, and his eyes could only track the car until it turned a corner out of sight.
He had to call the police, tell Simon what had happened. But for a moment he only stood on the sidewalk staring after the vehicle, mouthing the numbers and letters of its license plate. Verbalizing to preserve them, because his mind and memory were numbed by the suddenness of this real nightmare.
He still had that blankness in his eyes, his expression, when Simon arrived minutes after he made the call. The first thing he told him was the plate; a quick check showed that the car had been reported stolen the night before. Unsurprised by that discovery the chief put out an APB and turned back to Jim for more information.
"I went to help—" Jim lead Simon and the uniformed officer accompanying him back to the store, but the thug had already vanished onto the streets. The salesgirl eyed them shakily, pressing back behind her counter.
"Nothing was stolen," she assured them in a quavering voice, "nothing happened..."
"He was threatening you," Jim argued.
"Who was he?" Simon asked with a sigh of sad experience. "Your dealer?" The girl's confirmation came with her failure to deny it.
Too old a story to distress them much, for all the anger that burned in Jim's face. Simon took him out of the shop, had him point out the direction the car had taken and talked him through precisely what had happened.
"I don't know," Jim told him. He had been too focused on what had gone on inside the shop; until Blair had called for him he hadn't realized the situation outside. Of course that didn't prevent the guilt that tore his throat and turned his voice ragged. "Simon, they got him, I wasn't protecting him. We have to find him, they're going to..."
"I know, it's possible." Simon stopped him from completing that thought. "But we'll get to him before anything happens. All we have to do is find—"
The uniform ran up to them. "Just came over the radio, the vehicle's been discovered, it was abandoned only a few blocks away. They must have switched cars."
"Let's check it out," Simon instructed, and they proceeded to the cruiser. There might be a clue at that scene, some hint about where they might be taking him. But even if there was nothing at least they would be doing something, taking action. Better that than to be paralyzed by helplessness. Better for Blair and Jim both.
He should be terrified, he knew. He should be in a cold sweat, ready to wet his jeans, cowering back from these dangerous men with guns awaiting the proper time to kill him. Instead he was fighting an overwhelming urge to laugh in their vicious faces, tell them, you think you can scare me? You think you can threaten me? I've been abducted by your type before, dealers are nothing new to me. Heroin, cocaine, designer, whatever your game. Nothing special, not when I've had a psychopath tie me down and run his hands over my cheeks. I overdosed on Golden before you even got into drugs, and I'm supposed to fear you?
Blair didn't say any of this, didn't even smile when they looked away, wary to meet the eyes of a man they were supposed to kill. Didn't ask them what the deal was with the minivan—how can you take criminals seriously who drive a black Plymouth Voyager six years old? He sat still on the middle bench seat, unfazed by the men with guns in front of him, behind him. If they fired through the seat—but they wouldn't. They had to plan this out first.
They argued as they drove. "Why take him there first? Why not do it here?"
"In the middle of the street? Yah, that's bright."
"Why not to the U then? That's where we're haulin' him anyway, right?"
"Not 'til they take a look, we do what they want first." That shut the others up.
The object of their discussion offered nothing. If pressed he could have told them that it was a moot point. No way they were going to get away with this. Yes, in the past they did as they pleased, and no one could or would stop them. But times had changed. Jim Ellison was back from the dead. And though his abductors and would-be killers didn't know it, they had a Sentinel on their trail, sharper than a bloodhound and fiercer than a panther, who had never failed his Guide before, and Blair knew he wouldn't now.
And however he tried to hide his confidence from his captors, it was impossible to fear them with that knowledge in mind.
Lacking any leads from the abandoned kidnap vehicle, Simon and Jim went to Rainier to try another source. "James Modell, we need to talk with you."
The boy looked back and forth between them. "It's Professor Sandburg, isn't it, what happened?"
"He's been taken." Simon explained the situation. James's eyes widened into circles. "Oh God, they're gonna kill him, they want to kill him—"
"We know," the chief interrupted, not unkindly. "We need to find him before that happens—"
"Do you know where they'd take him?" cut in Jim. "Any hangout or hideout they'd go? You knew them for a while, where'd—" Simon's touch on his shoulder quieted him. The kid was pressed into his chair, staring at Jim, shaking his head and babbling, "I don't know, I don't know of anywhere..."
"Easy, son." Simon took a deliberate step back, lessening the pressure on him. "Stay calm, just think. Anywhere any of them might have said or mentioned."
James took a deep breath. "I might be able to find out something," he said, and Simon's slightly raised hand was the only thing that kept Jim from lunging forward and demanding more, faster. "There's this club, I went there a couple of times to..."
"Tell us the way."
"They're not going to tell you anything, sir, maybe if I talked to them?"
Simon might have protested the danger but Jim spoke over him. "I'll drive," he ordered, "you tell me where." The chief began to shake his head, then, catching the Sentinel's eye, wordlessly handed him the keys.
It was difficult to drive, difficult to concentrate on the street, the traffic, pedestrians and the student's flustered directions. He kept having to slow his breathing, consciously dial down his hearing and sight to keep the multiple sensations from overwhelming him. They barely remained under his control, and struggling with them while at the wheel in the middle of the city was no easy task.
In spite of the early hour on a Sunday afternoon the club was open and active. The transition from sunlight to shadowed interior pained his eyes, made him dizzy. He pushed beyond it. Blocking out the obnoxious heavy beat of the music strangely attired teens danced to, he watched James approach a small group by the bar, tuned in to their talk.
"What are you doin' here, worm?" Neither welcoming nor aggressive.
"It's the day of rest, ain't it?" The student's tone was sarcastic, tough; but if they could tell how pale he was in the dim light they wouldn't buy the display.
"Thought you'd found other ways to have fun," one of the others pointed out.
"I'm not looking for any stuff," James told them. "Just passing. Is what they're saying at the U true?"
"What?" Suspicion heavy in the query.
"About my prof." Now accusing. Jim mentally shook his head—don't antagonize them, don't show sides, not if you're looking to snare some useful data.
But James Modell hadn't cop experience. And obviously he was worried for his mentor. "That they're going to use Professor Sandburg for a lesson."
"Sandburg's your teach?" Clearly they hadn't known. "No shit, are you that student? You're sorta a target too..." His acquaintances sounded more awed than upset. "Man, you're in it way deep, you should lock yourself away. They want you."
"They want your prof more, though," another acquiesced.
"I'm cool, but I like my prof. If they got him where'd he go?" James demanded.
"Hell, we wouldn't know that, and we wouldn't tell you anyhow," he was lazily informed. "We tell you now, get out. Can't get on their bad side by hanging with you."
"Good luck." And they all turned away.
James Modell did an about face and marched out of the club. He glanced at Jim but made no sign of recognition, continuing past through the doors. Good kid; with a little training he wouldn't be half-bad at this kind of thing. And he knew enough to let Jim do his duty without interruption.
The boys James had spoken with kept up the rambling chatter, nothing important, posturing slang and careless insults, standard socializing of teen males. Jim tuned them out—
And heard the more important conversation occurring nearby. One of the voices the student had talked to, addressing others. "It didn't sound like he knew."
"Hell, no one knows, none of us are part of it," he was answered.
"But they're saying it's already done." For a split second every vein in Jim's body ran freezing cold; then the speaker went on, "they took him this morning, that's what I heard."
"Half the damn world's asking about him and the other half is telling, you noticed?" The first one talking again. "One of his students just now—I dunno, if all the jacks like him, everybody's gonna be pissed with this. Is this bright? 'Cuz it's sounding pretty stupid now."
"They want 'em mad. Lessons, you know? Anyway they don't know what they're doing."
"Snuff him, I thought—"
"Yeah, that's what they said, except I heard..." He lowered his voice, but not enough to obscure his words from a Sentinel's ears. "Someone wants him, and they're bargaining. That's what my friend said. Might be a change. Until they deal they're just gonna hold him at the enemy's lair."
"Maybe they should just kill him," muttered one. "If they..."
"Shut up, before someone hears," he was silenced by an older voice. In louder, boisterous tones they began to discuss different business. Jim waited long enough to assess that they were not going to return to their previous topic, then slipped outside to rendezvous with Simon and James Modell.
"They've got him," he reported shortly. "They haven't hurt him yet."
"How—" the student began to ask.
Jim turned to him and James's mouth clicked shut. The Sentinel continued, "They're holding him in someplace they called the enemy's lair. Know where that is?"
James shook his head. "No, sir. I've heard it mentioned before but I've never been there..."
Not lying, his pulse was fast but steady, for all that he couldn't seem to look Jim in the eye. Jim nodded minutely to the chief. Simon put one large hand on the boy's shoulder. "Thank you for your help, James. We'll take you back to the dorm now; it's not safe out here."
"Sir, I could find out more," the student protested. "I want to help Professor Sandburg, maybe I can find this lair—"
"We don't want you in danger, too," Simon told him.
"But I'm willing—"
"You'll go back to the dorm," Jim said. "If you think of anything you'll contact us."
Swallowing, James nodded. He offered no more arguments during the drive back to Rainier, obediently returned to his dorm room and locked the door.
Jim was wondering how long he would stay put when Simon paused opening the cruiser door. "You sure scared him into submission."
With a frown, "What do you mean?"
"The way you spoke, that look..." Seeing Jim's incomprehension he shrugged, climbed into the driver's seat. "Never mind, it's nothing new. So you overheard something about Blair?" Jim filled him in on both James Modell's conversation and the one following. "But they didn't say anything else about this enemy's lair?"
"No," he was forced to admit. He wasn't a mindreader, he could hear words across a noisy club but he couldn't understand what they meant unless they said it outright. Of course a detective was supposed to be able to piece together clues so gathered, but he wasn't a detective, not anymore. Not a Sentinel, either, though he still had the abilities of one—a Sentinel's duty was to protect, but he had failed in that, was failing in that, and it was probably only a matter of time before he lost those senses. An unguided Sentinel could not last...
"Jim. Jim!" Simon's hail penetrated his thoughts. He blinked, turned to see the chief regarding him closely. "We're at the station. Someone might have encountered this thing before."
"Good." He started to get out, only to have Simon grab his arm and hold him in place. "Jim, you're going to find him. He's going to be fine." The confidence in his voice was unmistakable.
"I'm going to try," Jim agreed, shook off the grip.
"You're going to succeed. Like always. I just want to be sure you remember."
"Afraid I'm going to give up?" He couldn't quite hide the bitterness or the fear.
"No," Simon denied it quietly. "You'll never be a quitter. But I spent the last seven years watching a good friend self-destruct. I won't watch it happen again."
And it was because of Simon's close observation that Jim held so tightly onto his composure. Even when the detectives of Major Crimes and Vice had nothing to offer. Even when most of them exhibited an air of resignation, as if there was nothing to be done but search for a body. Even after several hours, and he knew as well as the rest that every passing minute could be the time of death of his onetime partner.
There was something terrifyingly wrong about this. Wrong that he should find his way home after so long, only to lose his position, his responsibilities. He had thought there was a chance, when his senses had returned, he thought there was the possibility that his life could continue as it had, that somehow he could pick up where he had left off and ignore those seven years. Stupid to ever think he could manage that without Blair, not when Sandburg had become such a crucial part of his life before.
Except he had endangered Blair, though he had tried to avoid doing so, he had dragged him into a case that wasn't even his right, and now he had lost him, possibly forever. Twice failed him, seven years ago when he supposedly died, and now again... He had but one more chance, and though he would fight until the end he knew that he might not be up to the battle.
But Simon kept a steady eye on him, ready to chastise any hint of despair. The chief didn't realize or refused to acknowledge Jim's past failures or the changes in him now. In his view he was a Sentinel always, with all that title implied. Success was the only potential, and he would not allow that legend to be broken. With everything else so destroyed, Jim could understand the reasons for that faith. He only wished that it was deserved, and that he would not betray it as well.
Nearby a phone trilled, discordant to his too sensitive hearing. He winced, listened as it was picked up. Heard his name requested and then the answering officer called him over.
Taking the receiver reluctantly, "Hello?"
"Mr. Ellison? It's Jim Modell," as if the voice wasn't unmistakable. Quavering, even panting a little. "I've, I've been talking to some guys, they've heard of the enemy's lair, I think I know where it's around..." He gave a couple street names. Jim recognized them, but he wasn't paying as close attention to those as to the sounds in the background, faint noises coming over the line. Sounded like traffic, people speaking—not muffled reverberations from an enclosed place like a dorm, but echoes of outside.
"James, where are you?" he demanded.
The student hesitated. "Someone, I can't tell you who, he wouldn't tell me where exactly but he gave me a lift to the right area, so I can look around..."
"James," Jim commanded, "get back to Rainier now."
"Sir, I'm just going to see if I can find where he is, I'll call back. Can you come over or send someone?"
"I'm coming, with backup," Jim assured him, "but return to your dorm. We won't need your help—"
"I wanted to do something," James replied, "I'll be careful."
"James—James!" He was answered with a click and a dial tone. "Dammit," Jim swore, and headed to Simon's office. The chief was speaking with a pair of uniforms but he dismissed them upon Ellison's entrance. Jim wasted no time getting to the point. "Simon, we got a lead, and we also have a problem." Shortly he described the situation James Modell had placed himself in.
"Dammit," the chief agreed whole-heartedly. "Where is he? I'll send the closest cruiser to check for him but we better get over there ourselves."
Jim told him the block and then frowned, suddenly struck by recognition. "Simon, I bet I know where they are—that's the bomb site, isn't it? Where Blair and I were assaulted before."
"The enemy's lair," the chief repeated, understanding. "It was the enemy's, until they blew it to hell—makes sense. At least it's a good guess."
"I'm right." He knew he was, with a burning certainty that couldn't be false. He couldn't afford a mistake, there wasn't room. "We better get over there now." No time to waste, not with two lives on the line.
He knew his Guide was still alive. It couldn't end, not like this, that strange bond they shared wouldn't be broken after he'd only just returned. And he'd know if it were.
Jim had to trust his instincts, believe what they were telling him. At this point that was all that kept him going.
The room was in the interior of the apartment, no windows. The door to the bedroom and balcony was firmly shut, only a bit of sunlight seeping under the crack. At least there was a dim bare bulb suspended from the ceiling, so he wasn't stuck in the dark. Blair didn't care about the artificial lighting, but a window would have meant a possible escape, maybe a call for help.
Some furniture would have been nice, but judging from the scuffed floor the last pieces had been removed long before. So he sat on the bare floorboards and thumped his head against the plaster walls, almost convinced he could hear mice or roaches or larger creatures scurrying about their business within.
Barely five years old and the building should already have been condemned. Had anyone ever lived in this apartment? The gangs must have moved in fast, made it their nest the moment the construction crews relocated. No landlord around to kick them out—or perhaps someone was paying rent. There probably were a few honest citizens living somewhere in the vicinity, though more out of financial necessity than choice.
He didn't need to guess where he was. He had seen it when they dragged him out of the minivan and into the building, a gun pressed to his back. Doubtful any who saw that would have thought it worthy of a police call. People in the area—hell, in Cascade in general—were all too aware that minding one's own business was the key to survival.
Not that there had been anyone on the deserted street. Sunday afternoon and all was quiet as a ghost town. Seven years ago there would have been kids playing on the street, hopscotch or tag or whatever children do for fun outside. Now the only youth skulked in dark alleys and hid from older ones, wary for their personal safety.
That he had seen the emptiness at all was a worrisome point. Let alone that he hadn't been blindfolded for the trip upstairs. Not only did he know the faces of his abductors but he now knew the location of their hideout as well.
They might not be the brightest in the world and they weren't terrified of the police, but they wouldn't be so brazen if they thought he would ever get a chance to report them. More than any threats, this told him they were serious.
But serious about what? Ear by the wall he could barely make out their conversation in the hall. The door guards, arguing, and the topic of debate was obvious.
"That was the plan, we leave the body as a message."
"But now they're saying—"
"Who's saying it?"
"They're in charge. Just 'cuz you got the gun doesn't mean you decide. If they agree to this..."
"Why do they even want him? Just who are they?"
"They won't say why, or I haven't heard them. And who..." His voice dropped low.
Blair strained to listen, pressing against the wall, but heard only unintelligible whispers and mumbles. Not for the first time in his life he wished for the abilities of a Sentinel, the briefest taste of those near-omniscient senses. At the very least it would help to have Jim here.
The thought sent a small thrill through him, the triumphant re-realization that his Sentinel could be here, that it was within the realm of possibility. Not wishful thinking but hopeful. Again at last Jim existed outside of his memory, in reality, and most certainly he would be on the trail. Comforting; he didn't dwell too long on it but whenever the conviction surfaced a tiny unavoidable smile danced on his lips.
"Are you serious?" The need for secrecy had apparently ended. "And they're actually gonna deal? Damn, that's messed."
"Tell me about it," the other agreed. "He'd be better off dead, if anything they say is true..."
"You think, maybe..?"
"No." Well, the assured rejection was slightly relieving. "They want him alive."
"But he's seen us—" the other fidgeted.
"Who's he gonna tell? Don't worry about that, just steer clear of them and listen good—" A momentary pause after breaking off mid-sentence, then, "What's this?"
Heavy footsteps and then someone's fist thudding against the door. "Move back so we can give you some company," called one of the guards. "Don't try anything, we're all armed and mine's cocked."
Obediently Blair scooted back, stood patiently still while they unlocked the door, opened it and shoved a figure through before slamming it shut again.
The kid landed hard on his knees but scrambled quickly to his feet, whirling toward the again-locked door and then facing his new roommate. Blair blinked at who he saw, ran his hand through his short curls as he pondered this development. "James?"
James Modell began to babble. "Professor, are you okay? Everyone was scared, we know they're gonna kill you, we've been looking for you and I thought I knew where to look but I didn't think I was going to find you, at least not like this—"
"Okay. Okay," Blair gestured for him to slow down. "I'm fine, they haven't hurt me yet. How are you? Why are you here?"
"I'm okay." Rushing his words so fast he tripped over them the student gave an account of how he had arrived, starting from Jim and Simon going to him for help and ending with being on the street himself, where he had called the station and then had a gun stuck in his back before he was finished.
"So Jim—Detective Ellison knows where you are, approximately? Where we are?" He tried to keep the eagerness out of his voice, not wanting to raise false hopes. Not easy; this was the best news he'd heard today.
"I think so, maybe," James hedged. "I mean, I told him the street, but I didn't know the building or anything..."
"The street should be enough." No need to describe how Jim had heard James Modell across the campus. Once the Sentinel was in the vicinity Blair would have no doubts and no worries. He should already be on the way. Meanwhile, "Shh, quiet for a second, I think they're talking." Without explaining further he returned to his position by the door and listened.
"The kid they won't want, and he's seen us too. We can rid him, make him the message. Maybe not as strong but better than nothing—and it'll make other students careful about playing games with us."
"What are they saying?" James asked in a stage whisper. There wasn't room for both of them to listen through the door.
Blair pushed away, turned and leaned the back of his head against the wall, trying to avoid his student's earnest gaze. "Nothing. Just junk." How was he supposed to admit they were planning his murder?
It was a moot point anyway. Jim was coming, and he would make it in time to save the day, like always. There was too much at stake for him to fail; he always did work best under pressure.
Glad you're back, Blair addressed his partner's absent presence. This city's been in dire need of a Sentinel. It's about time we can rely on you again.
Jim's expression was unmistakable. Simon examined his visage out of the corner of his eye. The lost years hadn't altered it in the slightest, locked jaw, brow slightly lowered, blue eyes steel-cold and penetrating. The police chief had opted to drive; Jim might get them there quicker but the odds of being wrapped around a streetlight would be much higher. As it was he had the pedal to the metal, himself wanting to get there as soon as possible and also to avoid being speared by that laser sight.
If he stopped the cruiser Simon was convinced Jim would get out and make a beeline on foot to Blair's hypothetical position. His look screamed it; nothing short of atomic weaponry would stop the Sentinel now. Not that Jim was anything less than determined usually, but this was a special circumstance. These thugs were going to be very sorry they messed with either student or professor.
Simon tried not to smile. Completely inappropriate given the situation, but he couldn't help but feel a sense of rejuvenation. For years he had been fighting a losing war but he knew that this battle at least would be won. The tide could be turned yet.
Before he had been concerned; Jim had returned, but he hadn't been entirely back, still partly gone. The man Simon had known before was faded, missing—that hesitation, that quiet, that nervous energy, so unfamiliar.
Not so now; this mood was one the chief knew well, admired with a little caution. Unarmed but definitely dangerous, and wholly on his side.
And as usual the focus was on the kid, on his partner. Simon had yet to figure out what it was in Blair that brought out the best in Jim in so many different ways. He had decided long ago not to question it; now he was overwhelmingly relieved to learn that that fact hadn't changed. He felt a touch of guilt, to be thankful that Blair was in danger and thus Ellison's focus had returned.
But he couldn't help but be grateful that it had.
Of course the street was empty, no one in the few parked cars. No sign of James Modell, either. Simon knew better than to hope that the student had gone back to campus as instructed. The only question was where he had been taken.
He parked in front of the apartment building, stared out of the window at its squat bulk. Jim got out of the passenger seat and stood in the sidewalk, gazing up at it.
"Sense anything?" asked Simon. When no reply came from the statue-like figure, "Jim? Jim. Jim!"
At the third summons Jim started, snapped around to face the chief. "There's lots of people around, but they're all indoors," he said. "I'm trying to filter through them..." With a few rapid steps he climbed the cement steps and passed through the entrance of the building. Simon hurried after him.
Another warning to move back, then the door of their jail apartment swung open. Two men entered, both somewhere between James's and Blair's age, both holding small but deadly handguns. "Come here," one instructed, his voice recognizable as that of one of their guards, "Come with us," and he waved his weapon at James Modell.
The student hung back. "Where we heading?" he demanded breathlessly.
"Just a ride. Back to your U." The grin the man flashed revealed the will of his intentions, none of them good. Even without having heard their plans James understood the meaning, face going white as he pressed against the wall.
"What about me?" Blair queried, not so much out of curiosity but stalling for time.
Both guards shot him a brief glance. "You gotta wait your turn. Until they decide what they're going to do."
The lock on the inner door had been broken long before, but Jim probably wouldn't have noticed had it been intact as he burst through the foyer onto the first floor hallway. Pausing, he cocked his head like a setter, concentrating, listening. Simon no sooner reached him when he shot over to the stairs, charged up a flight and stopped on the landing. Listened again then climbed to the third floor.
Right behind him, Simon didn't gasp for the breath he needed, unwilling to disrupt the Sentinel's tight concentration. He only hoped Jim wouldn't zone; he never had much luck bringing him out of those and they couldn't afford the wasted time.
As he often had in the past, he wondered what precisely Jim was listening for, what he was hearing. A familiar voice? Footsteps and human motion? Something as subtle as a heartbeat or breathing? Or was it more subconscious, a recognizable presence, something he sensed more than simply heard? Jim always seemed to instinctually pick up Sandburg, detect him from distances amazing even when one considered his abilities. Tuned into his partner in a way most of the detectives on the force had been quietly envious of.
It had worked in both directions, Simon reflected, as he watched Jim slowly turn in place, zeroing in on something silent to his own ears. Blair had always known that he wasn't dead, had believed deep inside that he would guide his Sentinel again.
And dammit, he wished that Sandburg was here to do that now. "Jim!" That blank stare, he was no longer seeing what he looked at—not now. Simon didn't dare shout like he had outside but he jostled his arm, again hissed, "Jim!"
Something in the stark emptiness of his face, a frozen mask pale in the dim cement stairwell...this wasn't just a zone out. His expression was much too close to that when he had flashbacked yesterday. What had triggered—
Like that Jim fell out of it, before Simon knew it he was heading down the hall. Stopping in front of apartment 37 he whispered to the chief, "They're inside."
"Who? The kids?"
Jim shook his head. "No, they're around I think, but here—they're talking about Sandburg. Like he's a bargaining chip, negotiations. They want him, badly."
"Why?" This didn't fit with the alliance; they liked to get their business done with a minimum of fuss and the greatest expediency. "Who?"
"I don't know." Except that almost sounded like a lie. "We have to stop them." Making no effort to hide his agitation.
Simon rapped his knuckles on the door. After waiting a moment he knocked again, still with no response.
"They're in there," Jim assured him. "But they don't want visitors."
Simon nodded and drew his gun. Jim stepped to one side as he mouthed a count. On three he kicked the door open and aimed his piece, commanding, "Police, don't move."
The three occupants froze. Two younger men in jeans glared at him from where they leaned against the wall, slowly lifting their arms. The third, a balding man wearing a neat suit and seated in a wooden chair facing the others, only folded his hands in his lap, coolly returning Simon's sharp regard.
The chief began cuffing the first man to a cabinet but it was the third he kept his eyes on. The man was dangerous; even sitting there so quietly he radiated threat.
Then Jim entered, and the man bolted to his feet, staring at the Sentinel, both eyes and mouth round with shock or amazement. The emotion faded almost as swiftly as it had come but the man's composure was obviously hard-won, and Jim's own was none too complacent. The glitter in his friend's eyes might be anger or surprise or the beginning of a glaze; at any rate, whatever connection the two had there wasn't time for it now.
"Take care of him." Simon shoved the second thug toward Jim and went to the suit himself. Patted him down, unsurprisingly finding him weaponless. He spoke for the first time when Simon roughly yanked him over to secure him with the others, "You don't have anything; false arrest won't look good on your record, Chief Banks." His voice was even colder and harsher than his words.
"Yeah, well, I'm sure we can find something." Ignoring the man's shrug he turned to the others. "Now, where'd you take Blair Sandburg and James Modell?"
Their closed-mouth silence revealed nothing; far more telling was Jim's lifted head, scanning for something invisible above them. He rose like a puppet drawn up on strings, and his exit was hardly more coordinated, an awkward run out the door. Simon swore under his breath. After briefly surveying their prisoners and hoping they'd stay put until backup arrived, he followed the Sentinel, closing the door behind him. Whatever Jim was pursuing, urgency seemed to be called for, and the chief wasn't going to question it.
"I don't want to go," James Modell murmured, valiantly trying to sound collected though the protest came out more like a whimper. "Let me stay, I haven't done anything, I promise I won't—"
"Too late, buddy boy," the speaking guard said. "You're coming." He cocked the gun. "It don't matter if you're breathing or not."
Without thinking Blair stepped in front of his student. "You're gonna have to kill both of us," he announced, while an inner voice screamed incoherently, what did he think he was doing? It wouldn't do a hell of a lot of good if they both ended up bleeding their life onto the floor. On the other hand he couldn't very well sit and watch James die. And another voice told him that this was the right thing, what Jim would do—God, where was Jim, he must nearly be here, only a little more time...
With a sinking heart he realized that the gunman was unfazed by his proposition—what was one more cold-blooded murder to him? But his companion pushed the gun aside, hissed, "You can't."
The first guard—or killer—frowned. "They want him alive and intact," the other reminded him urgently. "We can't shoot him."
"Then get him out of the way." With a shrug the man moved, grabbed Blair and wrenched him aside before he could react. The first raised his gun, taking careful aim. James stared at the barrel, frozen in place, disbelieving. This couldn't be happening, was clearly written on his young face, he had never intended to get involved in such disaster—
Urgency, a protective instinct, a renewed duty, and the tension of the situation all crashed inside Blair Sandburg, propelled him to kick his assailant low and lunge out of his grasp, interposing himself between James Modell and the other man just as the gun went off.
There was a crack and a shout and then complete and silent darkness.
Simon might not have been able to pick up whatever else Jim had been listening to, but he certainly heard the gunshot, muffled though it was by the thick walls. He was close enough to hear Jim gasp, see him jerk and falter before continuing upward, taking the steps three at a time.
On the sixth, top floor he dashed into the hallway, just as another shot resounded through the building. Simon at his heels made out an unknown male voice shouting, "You're gonna get it, you killed him!" before he saw the man in the hallway, backing away from an open door. Then, "Shit!" as he saw the two policemen charging toward him.
He didn't bother to use the gun he held; he just ran. Jim was close behind. When the second man emerged right behind his cohort, Simon was there and tackled him without difficulty, though he felt some of his joints complain. Getting too old for this, but the thug was down and out for the count. Must have thumped his head; his handgun fell from his nerveless fingers. Simon swiped it up but didn't have time to examine it, not after what he had glimpsed right inside the door.
James Modell was sprawled only a few feet inside, red flowing from his shoulder. As Simon bent over him, pressing the wound tightly to slow the bleeding, the boy tried to lift his head. His face was paper-white and his pupils were fully dilated with shock, the black almost engulfing the hazel iris.
Beyond him in the middle of the room Blair lay crumpled on the floor, scarlet blood trickling from his temple and beginning to pool beneath his head. Simon couldn't see the injury clearly, couldn't even tell if he was still breathing, but he couldn't go to him, not with James so badly hurt. The warm blood pushed under his hands; if the boy lost more he wouldn't have much chance of surviving. For Blair it might already be too late.
Backup was on the way but help was needed immediately. "Jim!" he shouted desperately. James responded, looked at the chief and then tried to twist his head to see behind him. Drawing a labored breath he gasped, "Sir, is...how's Professor Sandburg—Blair, is he—"
"He's fine," Simon lied. "He'll be okay." He tried to sound reassuring, with all his strength willed it to be true. The arrhythmic thuds of footsteps heralded Jim's hurried return, dragging the captured man, who was thrown down next to his comrade as the Sentinel hurdled into the apartment. Dodging Simon and James he dropped to his knees beside his fallen Guide. Passed his hands uncertainly over him, dangerous to move or disturb a head injury but needing to learn the extent of the damage.
But he didn't need to take a pulse, not when he had other ways of sensing, and he stared down at Blair, seeing lord only knows what, listening for something so intently that he dared not even turn his head for fear of disrupting his hearing.
"Jim," Simon called aloud, no need to whisper; James's head had fallen back, eyes closed not in sleep but he wouldn't be able to hear in any case, "how is he? Is he..." Couldn't ask the final question, didn't know if he could hear an affirmative. And Jim would be lost again, for good now, there would be no return from this. "Jim?"
Then the Sentinel looked up, met the chief's eyes, icy blue piercing through to his soul, and in his expression was the answer Simon needed.
James Modell turned off the TV when he heard the knock on the door.
He had been receiving visitors steadily for the past couple of days. His dad had already arrived from LA by the time he had woken up from surgery; his mother was currently on her way from Dallas. They made time for their son when the affair was as serious as this.
He was half-convinced they wanted to see him out of sheer disbelief. A gunshot wound? He didn't believe it himself, even when he felt it aching through the painkillers. He had been shot. He couldn't legally purchase alcohol but he had bought drugs and broken an addiction and been shot by vengeful dealers—eventually the whole story would come out. But not yet. He didn't want to explain it to his folks yet. He was appreciating their concern now; their anger could wait.
Popping in with more frequency than his parents were friends from the University, classmates, guys from his dorm, a few of the people he worked with—James was surprised and gratified by how many of his peers dropped by just to see how he was getting on. He had more friends, good friends, than he had known.
They knew more of the facts and seemed to consider his actions either quite brave or quite stupid. The consensus was fairly evenly divided. Risking his life was a bad idea, they all agreed, but half of them thought that it had been a worthy risk as he had been trying to save Professor Sandburg's life. Since a good number of those that thought him heroic were girls, James figured that all in all he came out ahead.
He had also seen Chief Banks. For all his size and gruff attitude James found his questioning remarkably gentle, inquiring if he was in pain and stopping when he thought he was tired. James explained all that had happened to him and the chief in turn filled him in on what he hadn't experienced.
There was one thing that James couldn't quite believe, couldn't take anyone's word for until he saw for himself. Which is why he was so relieved when after knocking Professor Sandburg entered the room, followed by another man.
As they all had assured him Blair looked fine, much better than what his student saw when he looked in the mirror. He had a large bandaid—not even a real bandage, just a flesh-tone plastic strip—on his forehead but otherwise showed no sign of his injury. He smiled when he saw James. "Hi, how are you holding up?"
"I'm doing okay, Professor—you're all right?" He peered at him anxiously for signs beyond the obvious. Blair to all appearances was totally healthy—better than healthy. His countenance somehow implied a sense of well-being, both mental and physical. Though he had heard the expression, James had never seen someone's eyes actually sparkle, had never really noticed anything in eyes beyond the basic physiology, pupil, iris, white. But Blair's blue-gray gaze almost seemed to glow, caught the light and multiplied it and offered it out again. He had seen people high, had been high himself, but this was completely different.
The professor confirmed this, "I'm fine."
"You—you looked..." He hadn't gotten too clear a view, trying to escape or at least avoid being killed, but his imagination added what his memory lacked of Blair's pale face, the blood, the way he lay unmoving. Death; he had seemed dead...
"I know," the professor answered his unspoken conclusion. "But it wasn't that bad, the bullet only grazed me. A minor concussion, nothing I haven't had before," with a slight smile that didn't quite make it clear if he was joking. "Head wounds usually look worse than they are."
"You took the real damage," added the man behind the professor.
James looked at him again, not having recognized Jim Ellison until he spoke. The baseball cap accounted somewhat for that, but it was more his expression. His broad smile changed his entire appearance, not only because he looked happy, but it made him so much more approachable—more friendly, more human. The man James had encountered before hadn't seemed capable of smiling. The man here now was hard to picture any other way.
To keep from staring he turned back to his professor. "I'm okay, the doctors say it'll all heal. I'm just glad you're good." He risked a glance at the other man, and was instantly snared by bright blue eyes. "Chief Banks was here, he said that you caught all of them, Mr. Ellison?"
"Your two attackers, yeah," Ellison nodded. "And a couple of their bosses."
"It was a great collar," Blair enthused. "Jim's just embarrassed to have a big deal made out of it. They aren't going to go after you again, not after this. He and Simon—the chief—got two of the major players in the alliance. One of them even had stuff on him. We've got enough to charge them and make it stick." His grin was proud, and the look he gave his friend was oddly proprietary. "Detective Ellison," distinctly stressing the title, "has a few leads to follow up, too. We could get the biggest bust in years out of this."
"Awesome," James agreed whole-heartedly. "Listen, if there's anything I can do or something..."
"You've done enough." Blair's smile was kind, though with a hint of mischief. "What you told Simon was good, that's going to help. We might have a few more questions later but all you're going to do is lie there and heal."
"If you don't," Ellison spoke suddenly, "we'll have to send in a couple of officers to make sure. You look kind of old for a baby sitter to me, but after these last few days..."
James was surprised to detect humor in his voice, even more startled when the detective actually winked at him. He began to smile in return before he could help it. "Yes, sir!" Not that the doctors or the bandaging gave him much choice but he appreciated the thought. Glancing back at his professor, "They say I'm going to be in here for a while, I'm going to try to do my work but I probably won't make it back to class this semester."
"I'll help coordinate your workload," Blair volunteered instantly, "I think your other professors will understand. I certainly do." Still smiling.
"Yeah, thanks," answered James. "It's just, I don't think I'm going to be able—well, I was just wondering how much you'd mind me in your Anthro 102 again next year..."
Professor Sandburg hesitated, and James berated himself for sounding like he was begging. He'd understand if Blair wanted to keep his distance but he had been quite interested in the course, had even been contemplating majoring in the field before all this came up. Possibly even asking the professor to be his advisor. Now...
But Blair was shaking his head at the doubt he saw in his student's face. "No, I'd love to have you back, you're a good student and I can tell you're into anthropology. Only I'm not sure I'm going back to Rainier when this year is done."
"Professor?" James swallowed, suddenly realizing how serious this might be. Even if he was no longer a target, the professor still could be. Or maybe it was the stress, he had been so calm during their imprisonment that James had almost thought the entire experience hadn't bothered him, but after being shot, he might want out...
"I'm taking a position with the police," Blair explained.
"Professor?" James repeated, this time out of surprise. Of all possibilities this was one he hadn't expected. "You're going through police academy and everything?"
"No," the professor denied it immediately.
But his friend spoke over him. "I don't know, Chief, sounds like a plan to me. And after all your major objection to the academy seems to be missing." As if to clarify that cryptic comment Detective Ellison reached over and tousled Blair's short hair.
"No way, man!" Blair clapped a protective hand over his dark curls. The glare he sent at the detective was hopelessly unconvincing, however. "You don't want to see me with a buzz cut, believe me." Turning back to James, "I'm getting a position as a consultant, partnered with Detective Ellison. A paid advisor. I might still teach a course or two, I handled that before. But someone else is going to take the intro anthro classes, and I don't know if I'm going to have time to even manage a seminar."
"Because you're going to be working with the police." James mulled this over, trying to imagine the quiet professor on a stakeout or in a car chase. Not to mention working alongside uniformed officers, in cruisers...did consultants have guns? He couldn't picture Blair with a gun somehow, not even on a firing range. He didn't match James's mental image of a policeman, certainly, either from movies or personal experience.
Then he remembered Blair with the dealers, Blair stepping in front of him and almost daring them to try something. No fear, he'd moved so quickly to protect James, without hesitation, the other men couldn't stop him. And he seemed so comfortable around Detective Ellison, taking his teasing, returning it. He wasn't half so quiet as James's initial impression of him, and he was far stronger than he appeared given that he was two inches shorter than James and even smaller when compared to Detective Ellison or Chief Banks. James would bet that he could stand up to them, and they might lose such a confrontation.
Only a few days ago if someone had told him Professor Sandburg was joining the police force he would have thought they were crazy, but a lot had happened since then. He had learned more and seen more than he really cared to have. And the professor...maybe he hadn't changed; maybe James had just gotten a better look at him. All he knew was that the Blair Sandburg talking to him now wasn't quite the same man he had passed in his paper to last week.
It crossed his mind suddenly that perhaps Blair's sudden career move might have another explanation, that it could be because of what had occurred, because of what he had dragged his professor into. He'd be safer working closely with the police, wouldn't he? And Detective Ellison could be a bodyguard, almost. He did seem protective. Not a witness protection program exactly, but not only his own choice. "Professor? Blair?" When he had the professor's full attention he lowered his voice a bit, purposely, not sure if the detective should hear. "Is this what you want to do? I mean, you really want to join the police and all?"
Though he didn't appear to be listening closely, Detective Ellison looked up at that, met James's quick glance with a sharp but unreadable stare before gazing down at the back of his new partner's head.
Invisible to him Blair smiled, a blinding wide grin that darkened his eyes to pure blue. "I know, I always was content as a professor. I do like teaching. But this isn't totally new to me—I think I mentioned to you before, I did work with the police for a couple years. And actually I was Jim's partner then."
"Really?" He glanced at the detective again. "And you want to be again?"
Without hesitation Blair answered, "Yeah. I want this. It's is my choice, and however much I enjoyed being a professor, I couldn't decide any other way." Briefly he turned back to his partner, then looked directly at James. "I've been waiting a long time for this. It's what I've always been meant to do."
There was no doubt in his voice, nothing but commitment and dedication and triumphant satisfaction glowing in his face. James saw a man successful, Blair had won something, somehow, achieved some personal goal with this new assignment. The student didn't know what it was, didn't understand all the details, but he grasped enough to smile sincerely, "That's great, Professor. Too bad you won't be teaching—but still, that's great. I bet you'll make an awesome cop." And he meant it.
Blair grinned at that, and over his head James saw Jim Ellison had the exact same expression, no more subdued than his partner's, and he realized that whatever victory had been accomplished, they equally shared that joy of success.
Upon reaching Blair's small apartment Jim sprawled on the couch. While Blair chatted about their visit to James Modell that morning and how his arrangements were going at Rainier—they were willing to let him go but were not especially happy about it—Jim mentally reviewed the ups and downs of the past few days.
He had been glad to see James Modell awake and talking and not in too much pain. Apparently it had been touch and go in surgery and he was satisfied it had worked out right in the end. The boy was looking pretty good, considering he had at least another couple weeks to spend in the hospital. Resilient kid, and he had even said something at the end of their visit that implied he might go in for police work when he got out of school. You never know.
In all honesty Jim had been pleased more for Blair's sake. He would have been devastated by the loss of his student, and Jim was happy enough to avoid that disturbance. He sneaked a peek at his Guide now, perched once more on his sofa arm, talking with animated mouth and hands.
So different from his paralyzed form a few days before, when Jim had returned at Simon's shout to see him on the floor, bleeding from the scraped temple. Catching those dealers and attempted murderers would have meant nothing had Blair been seriously injured or worse. But unlike Simon Jim had been able to hear his heartbeat, still strong, and had known nothing was seriously wrong. Still, his own heart was in his throat until Blair blinked, tried to sit up. Before the ambulance even arrived.
Jim had steadied him, hand on his shoulder while the paramedics slid James onto the stretcher and rushed away. Knowing Blair was pleased to have him there to give comfort. Pleased himself that he was there once more to give it, back where he belonged. He had been there too to share Blair's relief when James was reported out of danger.
The next day Simon wasted no time starting Jim on the process of getting reinstated onto the force. He allowed him to join the interrogation of their prisoners, another success. Blair's two guards had folded fast, and one of the bosses they had caught gave in soon enough when they showed him the ten kilos of cocaine and designer drugs found among his possessions.
The other proved to be far more stubborn. He alternated between silence and insolence and they got nothing on or from him. That is, until Jim leaned across the table and stared him square in the eye, "You're lying."
"Prove it," snapped the man.
"Your heartrate just about doubled, you're starting to sweat, and your pupils contracted. You've lied through your teeth like that five times before and I'm sick of it. If we don't get anything on you now you aren't going to stay free for long, because I will track you until you slip up, and when you do I'll see it and haul your ass back here so fast you'll bite your tongue in half. And I'll insure that they lock you away in a different place than your buddies, and don't ask for any privileges; your new cellmate will have kids screwed up by what you deal. Or you can answer us now and skip all that."
He didn't raise his voice or his hand. He simply stared at him steadily, unblinking, and the man tore away from his eyes with a garbled exclamation and began blurting out names, places, "It ain't worth it, what do you want?"
The cops observing cheered him when he left the room, Brown enthusiastically clapped him on the back, but Blair only gave a quick thumbs up from where he leaned against the wall. He grinned in a manner that showed he had known precisely what would happen from the moment Jim was allowed to join the interrogation. And hadn't been disappointed.
Regarding the third man they had secured, the suited one, Simon gave them the bad news shortly after. "He's gone. We couldn't pin any charges fast enough and then some colleagues of his—government, maybe—showed up and escorted him off." The chief must have already described Jim's reactions to the man to Blair, because his Guide looked to him immediately. Must have seen the uncontrollable way his jaw clenched but didn't press the issue until that evening.
"So do you know who he was?" Quiet and off-hand, but he didn't bother clarifying to whom he was referring.
"No." Shortly, to end the issue he didn't want to delve any deeper into. He hadn't recognized the man. Not consciously. But even the mug shot made his stomach tighten, his muscles tense defensively.
Even unmoving he exhibited something that his Guide could pick up on, for Blair murmured, "He's in your nightmares, isn't he."
"Maybe." He honestly couldn't remember. But he could remember what he had heard them discussing, when he had been searching for his Guide. Their bargaining, the man negotiating, "We need Sandburg, he's worth more to us than to you. You can use anyone for your posturing, but he's a unique individual as far as our purposes go. What do you want for him?"
And he had sounded willing to pay, might have, had not Simon and Jim burst in on their transaction before it could be carried out. They could be grateful to the man for that, at least; the lack of guards, the lack of weapons had been at his insistence, so said the two bosses they had. But neither dealer would say more about that stranger; neither even knew his name, and what they knew of his origins remained behind tightly closed mouths.
He had to tell Blair this, eventually. When the following day Simon started to talk of offering Sandburg the position of paid consultant Jim realized it couldn't wait, that he must know of all the dangers. He didn't have to say much, only what he had heard, and the Guide understood. "They want me now, since they're through with you?"
"I don't even know if he's related to my—" What word, abduction sounded cheesy, disappearance too vague, death obviously false. "We don't know what he wanted you for, Chief."
"We can hypothesize," Blair shrugged. "Sounds like trouble, at any rate."
"I'll protect you," Jim affirmed fervently, "they won't take you."
"I know." He grinned at his partner. "Can't feel much safer than inside a police station guarded as one of your own." And that was the end of it; he wouldn't admit anything Jim might say to the contrary.
But Jim couldn't accept his casual words until he heard Blair answering James Modell, heard him verify that it was his own choice, and the one he wanted, and listening to the happiness in his voice could tell that Blair was every bit as grateful to have their partnership renewed as Jim was. He smiled to himself now as he leaned against the couch cushions, talking with his friend, partner, Guide, just like old times.
When Blair stopped speaking, Jim took the opportunity to bring up the final step of his reintegration back in Cascade. "It's a pity the loft was taken, I have to admit I kind of miss it."
Blair nodded agreement. "Yeah, I'd have liked to stay there, but on my salary...and it was a bit lonely, too big just for me."
"Well, this apartment's too small for both of us." Jim stretched his legs in example, bumping the little wooden chest that was taking the place of a coffee table. "I was thinking, since I'm not officially a detective until next week, maybe spending tomorrow looking for a new place?"
"Oh." Blair's gaze slid away from his, studied the ragged carpet indifferently. His energy seemed to have suffered a fast and unpredictable death.
Jim hadn't become entirely accustomed to this, though he was getting used to sudden mood changes in his friend. Odd short spurts of almost-depression that faded as swiftly as they arrived. He didn't like them; they were unnatural, they worried him, but he didn't know what to do for them. Besides they seemed to be lessening. Seven years, well, he hadn't escaped unscathed from that time either. So they had to make a few adjustments for each other's altered behavior. It was a small price to pay.
On the other hand he wasn't patient enough to endure too long a pause. "Well?"
Blair glanced up, brow furrowed in puzzlement. "Yeah, what?"
Jim took a moment to ponder how his Guide could have such a high intelligence, be as smart as he was, have that uncanny ability to understand senses he didn't have and instantly come up with solutions to problems Jim could barely grasp; and still occasionally find it impossible to comprehend the most basic of concepts. "Are you available tomorrow to run around town checking for rental signs?"
Blair's blue eyes widened. "You want me along?"
Now it was Jim's turn to frown in confusion. "Unless you trust me to pick out a place for both of us. I thought this time you'd like some say in where you live."
"You mean..." Blair trailed off.
It didn't occur to Jim until that moment, the massive assumption he was making. It had been so ingrained in him, that everything could be as it had been before, and that included a roommate as well as a partner and friend. But Blair had been living fine on his own, he could prefer it, Jim hadn't even asked his opinion.
He was about to apologize, try to make amends, but Blair had already jumped off the sofa arm. "Man, this is great, I mean, tomorrow's perfect, I don't have any classes. I know some places we could look, one of them's even a loft—oh, hold on, I think I got last Sunday's classifieds around here somewhere—" He began to rummage through a stack on one of the bookshelves. Between the flurry of papers and of words Jim couldn't get another phrase in.
At last deciding that Blair wasn't faking his eagerness for this quest he took the ads tossed to him and began to read them over, skimming for something advertised at the right size and within their price range. There were quite a few candidates; they'd have a busy day tomorrow. Blair meanwhile gave him a pen and instructed him to circle what looked especially promising. "Think I have an old Cascade Report in my room, they had an article reviewing of some of the better parts of the city, we should talk to Simon too about crime level. This neighborhood's not too bad but with two incomes we can afford more, and I'm going to be glad to get out of here, I can tell you, this is kind of cramped, I didn't even like to bring dates here. Oh, that reminds me, there's this nice single professor I know, she's pretty and bright, I was thinking maybe we could make a double date, I've been chatting with a cute grad student in my night class lately. I'm not trying to push you, I was just wondering—" His voice grew muffled as he headed to his bedroom seeking the magazine.
Jim automatically cranked up his hearing to compensate, then almost unconsciously raised it a little more. Beyond the stream of words and the clatter of shifted junk was the rising and falling hiss of breathing, and beyond that the steady constant patter of his pulse, beating the resolute tempo of life.
His half-aware gaze fell on the dissertation resting on the shelf in front of him, recalling that he had yet to finish it. He was reminded of the final section he had read, those strange theories on the purpose of Guides. And the paragraph that had stated so clearly what happened to Sentinels who lost their Guides. The tone in which it had been written, as if surprised that a Sentinel would give up their life for such a reason.
He tried to imagine what he would have felt, had he returned and Blair had indeed been gone. It had been difficult to stay away from him, and impossible now to see how he even could have thought he could manage without him. Perhaps if his abilities hadn't returned, there would have been a chance. But not as a Sentinel.
Jim could easily understand those ancient Sentinels, long dead now, who refused to continue without their Guides. It wasn't an option, to go on alone. For the Guide maybe, but never for the Sentinel. They couldn't simply take a new Guide, that wouldn't be conceivable. He understood that. It wouldn't have been a solution for him. Even after seven years he had remembered that heartbeat instantly, recognized the uniquely individual rhythm. Fast, slow, older now, he would always know it.
Impossible to ever memorize another heartbeat as familiar as the one he now listened to, after so long restored.
Firstly I must acknowledge The X-Files, not only for introducing me to the wonderful concept of fanfic and to TS fanfic in particular (aren't x-overs grand?) but also because the basic idea for "Restored" came from a TXF fic (hey, if you can't steal from your own fanfic, what can you steal from? ;)
Also I owe something to my marvelous Anthro 102 professor, of whom Blair's lectures, classroom, papers, whatever are basically modeled after. He looked more like Peter Wingfield than GM, but he was every bit as great as I imagine Prof. Sandburg is!
Last but most certainly not least, an enormous THANK YOU to everyone who ever wrote to me, from one quick note to continue to those who sent me commentary after every part (you know who you are ;) You guys all rock, I wouldn't have gotten it done without you. And extra special thanks to my biggest fan, my sister, without whom it probably never would have gotten off the ground to begin with. Love you, sis! =)
hope you enjoyed the ride, I'd love to hear what you think,
Love to know what you think!
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