New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

Imperfections II: Believing in Fairy Tales
Part One
by Dasha

Summary: AU; multiple crossover. Sentinels are disappearing all up and down the West Coast. This is not a good thing.

Author's Notes: I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to Canada. It was necessary for plot reasons that Canada not employ a guide accreditation program. Although normally I loathe portrayal of an exotic other based on national or ethnic lines, I also normally loathe AUs. My standards have gone down considerably lately.

This is still an AU. Ahem. Also, now it's a multiple crossover. Sorry.

Also--I almost forgot to mention--some mystical bits leaked in. I tried to keep it to a minimum, but, well, accidents happen.

Martha was very supportive and Kitty is an excellent editor, but neither of them is responsible for my ongoing rule-breaking. Or--no. Do blame them. It's all their fault. I was hardly involved at all. Wasn't even there, really....

Disclaimer: Not my characters.

"You're, um, you're sure you're ok with this, right?" Simon asked.

"We're fine. Well, unless Sandburg finds out. In which case, *your* ass is grass." Jim shrugged cheerfully, trying to ignore the small knot in the pit of his stomach.

"I'm not taking the rap for this."

"Then you'd better be discrete."

Simon pulled over and Jim realized they'd arrived. Monk's townhouse was in a fashionable neighborhood overlooking the harbor. Very nice. There were two black and whites and Sharona's station wagon parked along the street. He could identify the house by the small cluster of people standing impatiently on the steps.

"Nobody gone in?" Simon asked as he came up the sidewalk.

"Just me," Sharona answered. "I came right out." She looked calm and completely together, but Jim could smell her fear. "Where's Blair?"

"He's taking a final," Jim answered. "His last one, and he's going to finish it. It's ok. I'll be fine."

Sharona caught Jim's arm and planted herself in front of him. "Not by yourself," she said. "I don't care if 'everybody does it sometimes.'"

Jim sighed, all his arguments folding under him. Sharona Fleming was one of a very short list of people in a position to have figured out the grim details of his life. "I worked crime scenes with Him," Jim whispered. "I can do this one by myself."

Sharona smiled a smile completely without cheer or amusement. "Then I guess you're flexible enough to work a scene with me."

Jim didn't bother to argue. He went in first, Sharona hovering at his elbow, Simon two steps behind. He paused in the doorway and listened. It was unlikely that Monk was, for example, hiding in a closet or the back of the pantry, but not impossible. He wasn't, though. Except for the appliances, the place was quiet.

"Can you smell anything?" Sharona asked.

"Not much. He uses a lot of charcoal. I can smell you from when you were in here before, but just barely." Like most guides, she had a very low scent impact. "I can smell Adrian." Clove and witch-hazel aftershave, mild mint gum he used to combat odor issues out in the world. Jim stepped further in, breathing slowly, dimly aware that he was on the edge of a zone, amazingly unafraid of it. There had been someone else here, but they were as ephemeral as a guide.

Jim checked the bathroom. It didn't take a sentinel to tell it hadn't been used that morning. The bedroom--

"There, see!" Sharona said miserably. "He would never leave the bed like that. Never!"

The bed was a mess, the sheets tangled, one of the pillows on the floor. Jim donned a vinyl glove and gingerly picked up the sheet. It smelled sweet. Too strong to be a fabric softener, even if a sentinel would use one. "Sharona, did--" Jim broke off, surprised. It was like a blanket had dropped between him and the world. His senses clicked down to almost nothing, leaving the room looking dim and washed out, completely odorless, silent--he had to turn to look to see if Sharona and Simon were still with him, and they were, but Jim could hear no heartbeats, feel no heat from them. It was a little frightening.

Then he saw Monk. Strangely, he had decided to turn into a small, brown fox, but probably that wasn't any of Jim's business. He was standing beside the window, head down, teeth bared, frightened and angry. "Where have you been?" Jim asked him.

"Where has who been?" Simon asked impatiently.

"Monk. He's--" The room tilted abruptly, dumping Jim on his ass. Monk was still there, looking around nervously, but he wasn't alone. There was a raccoon beside the fox now, and a small bobcat with tufted ears. "Stop that," Jim said. "You're going to shed all over everything."

***

Blair had finished the first essay question when his beeper went off. At the front of the room, Dr. Collins looked up in irritation, and Blair shrugged at him apologetically before looking down at the tiny screen. Simon's cell number followed by 911.

Blair paused to check that his name was on the blue book and took it to the front of the room. Collins was glowering now. Blair tried not to look disrespectful, but at this point he didn't care about the test any more. Jim would not have forgotten about this exam. It had to be an emergency. An emergency bad enough that it was Simon calling and not Jim at all. Blair fairly ran from the room.

A police car was waiting outside. It took him to St. Joseph's Hospital. On the way, he called Simon's cell number. The short trip was enough to get the story--Jim had gone down at a crime scene. Nobody had a clue why. It was more than twenty minutes later, and he was still unresponsive.

Simon met him outside the emergency room and took him straight to the treatment area--a feat Blair couldn't have achieved by himself without AG(A) credentials and a card with Jim's picture on it. To his relief, Sharona was there, holding one of Jim's hands, tracing shapes on his palm with piece of ice. A nurse stood to one side, talking into a phone on the wall. Jim was--

God, Jim was still. Blair couldn't even see him breathing. "Sharona, what's happening?"

Sharona flinched, wouldn't meet his eyes. "Some kind of chemical exposure. We don't know yet. His CNS is depressed. Blair, it looks like an uptake distortion response to me, but he's not fighting it at all, and I can't get him to respond to me."

"Yeah, ok." He nudged Sharona away and took her place in the metal chair. "Jim? Hey?" Blair took the cold, damp hand and squeezed it hard. "We need to talk, Jim. Wake up."

Jim's eyes opened slightly and then drifted shut again. According to the monitor, Jim's heart was far too slow, and Blair couldn't find a pulse in the wrist. But Jim was hearing him. He had to engage Jim's mind somehow, get his attention. Jim was a powerful sentinel, he could overcome whatever was sedating him, but he had to try.

"Ellison! Wake up, right now." The only response was a slight movement in Jim's hand. "Don't ignore me! Wake up, damn it."

He saw Jim's blue eyes again. They stared out at Blair in confusion and hurt. Blair's resolve faded. "Jim, I'm not mad at you. You haven't done anything wrong. I know you're tired and what I'm asking is hard, but you have to. Jim...."

Jim's eyes closed. Talking just wasn't working. Pain? By the book, pain was clearly the best shot, especially since Jim still had so little pain management training. But there was no way. No way. Jim couldn't cope with his guide hurting him. There was no reason in the world. It would be just too much.

Fear, then? Jim could hear; scare him, get some adrenalin moving? He had a pretty good idea of what would do it--'wake up now, or I'm leaving.' No doubt that would get Jim's attention, but there was no question of trying it. Yet, being reasonable wasn't getting Jim's attention. He leaned closer and whispered, "Jim, I *know* you can beat this if you really tried. Simon said you barely smelled it, there's just not that much in there. You're embarrassing me, you know." Nothing.

Blair wondered how much it would take to panic himself. Not a lot, at this point. This was also a dirty trick, but at this point it wasn't a dishonest dirty trick. "Jim, you don't understand. If you don't come out of this on your own, the doctors are going to start talking about stimulants. Jim, man, I know the statistics, and you do *not* want to take your chances on them getting the dosage right! Quit playing around, partner. I need you to wake up. I know it's hard, but you can do it if you try, and I need you to try." Blair removed the oxygen mask and held his hand where Jim could smell it. The fear was real enough.

Jim's eyes opened, wider this time, and found Blair's face. Blair thought about Jim going into a coma versus Jim's body responding to a very modest stimulant by reacting like he'd overdosed on speed. Once there were uptake distortion responses going on, even caffeine was iffy, let alone the stimulants Sentinels couldnít ignore. Doctors never understood sentinels as well as they thought they did.

Oh, yeah. That did it. Blair had a nice panic worked up now. "Jim, sit up. Sit up, come on. Please."

Jim seemed almost too disoriented to figure out how to sit. He struggled weakly, managed to push himself upright. Blair kept him from falling back. The nurse, standing by Sharona in the corner, nodded, and Blair prodded Jim some more. "Good. That's so good, Jim. Now I need you to breathe for me, nice big breaths. Focus on me, pay attention. I need you to be awake."

"'m up," Jim mumbled. "Patronizing little shit. I'm up." He tried to lie down again.

Blair held him upright and was as irritating as possible. He recited platitudes about cooperating with the guide, and when Jim growled a miserable curse, lectured him on manners.

The nurse took Jim's blood pressure and temperature, and then handed Blair a cold, wet cloth to wipe Jim down with. That was the final straw, and Jim began a continuous grumble, resentful and petty and not quite lucid. It lasted about three minutes, according to the institutional clock on the wall.

"What's goin' on?" Jim said, after his grumble had petered out.

"Hey? You in there?"

"I don't feel good, Chief."

"Yeah, I bet not." Blair put the damp cloth down, pulled Jim into his arms. "You got exposed to some shit at a crime scene. It messed you up pretty good, but you're handling it."

"This is handlin' it?"

"Yeah, you're doing great. Keep talking to me. What were you doing?"

"Monk's gone. Sharona got there this morning, he wasn't there. He's always there."

Monk hardly ever went out without his guide, and he never broke routine. Blair could see why everybody panicked. He looked up, but Sharona was gone. Her sentinel was missing? Crap. Blair couldn't imagine....

He kept Jim talking for the next half hour. It wasn't a particularly coherent or fast moving conversation, but Jim seemed lucid for the most part. Every ten minutes, a nurse came in and took Jim's vitals and sometimes a little blood. The third time she left, Jim swung his legs over the side of the bed and leaned toward Blair, the most animated he'd been yet. "Oh--God. Blair, I saw *animals*," he whispered urgently.

"Where?"

"At Monk's place."

"There were animals?" Monk just didn't strike Blair as a pet kind of guy, certainly not a guy who'd have pets that scared Jim.

"No! I *saw* animals." Jim closed his eyes. He seemed defeated and desperate. Blair wondered if this was a new chemical reaction. "Blair, I saw animals."

Blair hopped up onto the bed beside him. "You saw animals? What, you hallucinated animals? You dreamed animals?"

"It's what they say happens when sentinels lose it. They see animals. They say, those two years Monk never left his house, he was talking to some kind of pet bird and there wasn't any bird there. Blair, you have to know about this...."

"Jim, that's just a... an old wives' tale. I mean, ok, yes, sometimes sentinels see animals. But it doesn't mean anything. It just happens sometimes. It doesn't mean anything."

"But they say--"

"They're wrong, Jim. Come on. You remember all the shit you heard about sentinels before--was any of it true? Really? You got into some kind of drug, something they used to subdue Adrian. It knocked you out and gave you some bad dreams. That's all."

Simon came in then. Blair waved at him tiredly before he remembered the near miss they'd just had. He opened his mouth to ream Simon out, but Jim caught Blair's arm and shook his head. "Anything on Monk, sir?"

"Not on him specifically, but our problem is bigger than we thought. The Pacific district has lost five sentinels in the last six weeks."

"Lost?" Blair repeated, horrified.

Simon sighed. "A customs inspector and a forensic sentinel from California, two Oregon search and rescue workers, and a high-profile Canadian tracker. That we know about."

"Have we got anything?" Jim asked.

"The MOs don't match--they range from a kidnapping in broad daylight as one of the rescue sentinels came out of a deli to vanishing in the night with a packed suitcase leaving a note saying, 'I need a vacation.'"

"That's awful," Blair whispered.

"Nothing?" Jim asked.

"Just to get worse: they found the forensic investigator dead three days later from some kind of massive allergic reaction. There hasn't been a sign of any of the others."

When Jim was released they went back to the PD, not home. It didn't thrill Blair, but if sentinels were being abducted, then he had a vested interest in finding out everything he could about what was going on.

Rhonda handed a stack of faxes to Simon as they walked in. Simon turned to Blair. "Do you mind joining us? We could use an expert in sentinels, and I don't think Sharona is up to it."

Blair had been spending afternoons at the PD twice a week since November, but 'at the PD' usually meant out somewhere with Jim doing something Jim couldn't do alone. Since Blair wasn't accredited, it was very close to an OSHA violation, but the law didn't require a licensed guide be in Jim's presence all the time and anyway Rainier--in the person of Jack Kelso--was closely supervising Blair. Personnel had just handed Jim a bunch of waivers to sign. All of which meant that even after almost two months getting oriented to police work, Blair still hadn't spent much time at Jim's desk or with his coworkers.

In Simon's office, the three of them were joined by a young detective named Henry and the head of forensics, Jim's ex-wife. "Carolyn, have you got anything off that sheet at Monk's yet?"

Carolyn shot a pitying glance at Jim. "We're not finished yet. Sam says it looks like some kind of sedative cocktail, but she's having trouble identifying the less common constituents. That's all we've got--no prints, no fibers. The place was spotless." She sighed.

They got to work, sorting out the stack of pages faxed over from eight different agencies. No one had figured out there was a pattern going on until less than forty-eight hours ago--if, in fact, they were all connected--and nobody had a working analysis of the situation or even a coherent organization of data. Simon started making a chart, age, sex, location, employer. They had three women and three men, including Monk.

Blair found himself in possession of the pages on the forensic sentinel from San Francisco. Her name had been Cassie Wells. The grainy black and white picture showed a beautiful woman with light hair and dancing eyes. The nine pages of her employment file had arrived backward and one of them was unreadable. Her medical file was apparently incomplete, although there was just so much of it, it might be mixed up. The forensic report on her apartment showed no useful evidence, her guide reported nothing unusual in the days leading to the disappearance, her neighbors saw nothing. It was scary, to hold so much detail of this woman's life in his hands and still realize they had no idea why she died.

"Wow," Carolyn said suddenly. "The missing Canadian--it's The Canadian."

"You're kidding," Jim said, looking at her for the first time.

"No, apparently he was on his way to hold a tracking seminar in southern California. Disappeared between planes while his entourage was getting food."

"What do you mean, 'The Canadian?'" Blair asked.

"There's this guy," Simon said, "Practically a law enforcement legend. He can find anybody, anywhere, with a trail that's several days cold."

"They say he once tracked a lost poodle twenty eight blocks in downtown Chicago," Carolyn said.

"You're kidding," Blair said. Hardly anybody could track in urban areas--the input was just too overwhelming. If you could avoid a sentinel in a city for an hour, he'd never find you.

"Apparently he's quite a character," Simon added. "He's technically RCMP, but he takes 'impossible' assignments all over the United States and Canada--and twice he's been sent to Russia. He travels with an American-trained guide, a formal American liaison, and a wolf."

"Wow," Blair said. "How do you lose somebody like that in an airport?"

"You know," Jim said, "I've got Mabry the Customs Agent. He was also considered pretty hot stuff. Ninety-ninth percentile, all five senses, and that's compared to other sentinels."

"Wells had the best record in San Francisco, apparently. I don't know how they rate forensic sentinels," Blair said slowly, "but apparently she was a local phenomenon."

"Ladies and gentlemen," Simon said happily, "we might have us the beginning of a pattern. Oh. Sandburg, I think I have your autopsy." He paper-clipped several sheets together and passed them to Blair. "It doesn't say anything useful, though; systemic allergic reaction, trigger unknown."

There were pictures too. The eager eyes were swollen shut. There were welts--layers of hives, the kind that come with a couple of days of raging hypersensitivity. It looked like rings of smaller rings, like drawings of pearl necklaces on her skin. It must have hurt. "This is the part that doesn't fit. Whatever they want these people for, Cassie Wells was a bad bet."

"What do you mean?" Simon asked.

"I'm not sure everything's here, but I'm counting at least six hospitalizations a year. She was a touchy sentinel. Her senses were stable, but her body was a mess. Whatever they're doing, she can't have been worth the risk, the effort."

"Blair, I'm in the hospital more than that."

"Yeah, but picture it happening if you'd been identified in diapers, had the best training all your life, not to mention a competent guide. This woman was fragile for years. There was no way...."

"Maybe they don't know very much about sentinels?" Simon suggested.

"No, but see, they did!" Blair said, passing back one of the pages. "They treated her with cortisone shots. She was loaded with it when she died."

"Yeah. So? They had a first aid kit."

"For a non-sentinel there would have been epinephrine in there somewhere. Probably pretty early. But nine sentinels out of ten--their bodies know the difference between fake adrenalin and the real thing. Not only does it not work, but usually they react to it, the kind of systemic allergic reaction that kills people. Somebody worked on her for a day or two, and they did the right things."

"Except let her go," Carolyn said sourly.

"You're saying it's a guide," Jim whispered.

"Maybe. Or a guide school drop out. Or a doctor." Although even some doctors made mistakes. "It's somebody who knows sentinels. And someone who didn't know enough about this one."

"What do you think they want them for?" Carolyn asked, and Blair remembered that she was Monk's boss.

"I donít know. You can't force a sentinel to work--they couldnít for very long under such stressful conditions anyway." A number of other options flitted though Blair's mind--to horrible to mention. Too horrible to even think.

They sorted out the last of the bundle of paper into neat folders, and then Blair collected Jim, who had been quiet and slow-moving for the last half hour. "Come on, we're going home." The loft *was* home, he thought as he collected Jim's keys. Originally, he'd thought he'd just sleep over occasionally, when Jim was having a bad time or when they wanted to do some practice after dinner. Somehow, though, it had always seemed more convenient to stay, and a few weeks ago Jim had actually suggested that Blair drop the housing contract at the end of the semester. He'd be an employed guide in the new year; he could save up for a place of his own, eventually. In the meantime, there was a lot Jim needed to learn. Living together would give them more time for that.

Blair, who'd found that he didn't sleep very well staring at the concrete block walls of his dorm room and wondering if Jim was ok and getting enough rest, had been relieved. It wasn't all that unusual. A lot of sentinels and guides lived together. Even if one or the other was married, they tended to live close by.

Blair drove the truck. They could pick up his car from the U tomorrow. Jim closed his eyes and tipped his head back, not paying attention to Blair's driving. "You feeling all right, man?"

"Yeah, fine." A lie. Jim ought to know better.

"So what was the deal this morning?"

"Monk was gone. You know with a scene like that, you have to get a sentinel in before everybody else."

"No, why didn't you call me?"

"You were taking a test. I didn't want to bother you."

"Yeah? Well, guess what; I left the test early anyway, only instead of going to a crime scene I wound up at the emergency room."

Jim glanced at him, then turned his face to the window. "Sorry to bother you."

"You almost died, do you understand that? Do you have a fucking clue? You were about twenty minutes away from a respirator, Jim. Unless they decided to go in for stimulants. Jeeze."

"Blair. I can't apologize for doing my job."

"I'm not asking you to apologize. I'm asking you to cut me a break!" Blair took a deep breath. "Iím not mad--"

Jim looked at him in astonishment.

"Ok. I am mad. I'll get over it. But how did it not occur to any of you that something happened in that house to make a sentinel disappear?" Jim shuddered, and Blair felt some of his anger seep away. "It doesn't matter. I'm done with school, now. There's no more excuse for you to be by yourself."

"Gonna babysit me all the time, Chief?"

"Until you settle down a little more, yeah, Jim, I am."

"What... what do you think that cocktail did to Monk? Do you think he made it?"

"If he didn't panic, he would have fought the drugs. It might not have kept him out for very long."

Jim grew quiet again. He spent the rest of the ride with his eyes closed, and on the way up to the loft he stumbled on the stairs. The second time, Blair stepped up and put an arm around his waist. Jim was heavy and shivering.

"You gonna let me sleep?" Jim asked as Blair lowered him onto the couch.

Blair pressed his fingers to Jim's wrist. The pulse was strong and a little fast. "Yeah, you can sleep." But he didn't think Jim would be able to.

There was beef broth in the freezer. Blair heated it up with a little left over rice and brought it to the couch in a cup. "No," Jim whispered. He was holding very still.

"Headache?"

"Yeah."

Blair exchanged the soup for a cold towel and sat on the end of the couch, easing Jim's head into his lap. Jim cursed softly. "I know," Blair said. He took Jim's hands and found the pressure points for headache, but Jim shuddered when Blair squeezed the soft flesh. "No?"

"No. Sorry." Jim tried to smile. "Is my head going to explode? Just that I'd like some advance warning...."

"That's what the towel is for. Jim, do you think you could slow your breathing down? In nice and slow, hold it until you count to four, and then let it out very slowly?" Jim stiffened, and Blair hastily added, "It's not pattern breathing, Jim. It's nothing like that. It's not hard, it doesn't matter if you don't do it 'right.' It's no big deal."

"Then why are we doing it?"

"It's supposed to be relaxing. Which means if it makes you uncomfortable, we won't do it."

"No, I can... I can do it. Just, ah, count for me. Ok?"

Blair counted, pleased that Jim was willing to try, relieved that he'd gotten away with the lie. It was pattern breathing, just not one of the hard ones. The lie was justified, though. It wasn't pattern breathing that Jim had trouble with, it was *learning* pattern breathing. The first guide the police department had hired for him had been, well, evil was accurate, but not specifically descriptive. He'd been interested in Jim's performance, but not in his health or comfort. It had been almost three months since Blair had first read Jim's file, and he still could barely bring himself to think about it. As long as Jim ate, Brackett hadn't cared what he ate, or if it was nutritionally adequate or if he ate enough. When Jim didnít eat, Brackett--at least when he noticed--badgered and belittled him. Jim showed up at the station and worked crime scenes, so it didn't matter that he couldn't sleep. If Jim was spiking so badly he couldn't do the work, then he might get a little support. If he was taken to the hospital with a reaction, Brackett usually showed up every once in a while to make sure he wasn't being poisoned. It was completely inconceivable, but in a way, the bigger surprise was that Jim had survived at all. The final straw--such transparent negligence that Jim's coworkers couldn't pretend that nothing was wrong--came when Brackett abandoned Jim at the police station while he was having a global systemic reaction. Seizures. Respiratory failure.

Brackett's attempts to 'teach' Jim pattern breathing had resulted in terror and hopelessness, not new skills.

But he's mine, now, Blair thought. Very soon he'd be able to back that up with formal documentation. Jim would be his responsibility. Blair could protect him.

Except--it turned out that six sentinels had been kidnapped. Poof, gone. Snatched out of their beds, out of airports. Jim was probably as strong as any of them. Jim hadn't taken the formal tests, but Blair knew what the average sentinel could do, and when Jim was on top of his game he was incredible. Fortunately nobody but Blair knew that. Jim couldn't be a target--he hadn't even been a sentinel long enough to have an annual performance rating at work.

Strange though, when he thought about it--how did whoever was behind this pick their victims? Four of them in law enforcement--but from different jurisdictions, different countries, even. Two from the National Parks Service. It wasn't like they all hung out together, had the same rumor mill. The employment records weren't centralized. Of course, sentinels identified as children were evaluated by their home states' DHS in order to prove compliance with federal laws that required adequate education for sentinel children until the age of eighteen. Most adults paid the hundred and twenty dollars the Princeton testing people charged for the eleven part comprehensive evaluation so that they had a quantified report to show potential employers.

But Jim hadn't taken those tests; he'd already had a job. Nobody knew how good Jim was, except maybe Simon Banks and a few other people at the PD. Maybe Jack could tell. And maybe--

God, too many people knew. But none of the others had been taken while their guide was present. Even if Blair couldn't keep Jim hidden, he could certainly keep him escorted. Besides, there were nine hundred other sentinels in the state of Washington. Ok, many of them were inappropriate, but Cassie Wells had been inappropriate.

"Not supposed to lie, you know," Jim muttered.

"Don't stop, three, four," Blair said.

"I've read the psych handbook."

"Oh. Right. Well. We're allowed to lie. The rule is, don't get caught in a lie that's not in the sentinel's best interest. Mostly, we don't bother, given, you know. Not being able to get away with it. I may hop on that bandwagon. How are you feeling?"

"Better. I'd like to try the soup."

While Blair was reheating the soup, Carolyn called. She wanted to know how Jim was doing. Blair looked over at the couch and raised his eyebrows. Jim shook his head, and Blair said that Jim was doing better, but sleeping. "In fact, they teach us to lie," Blair said after he'd hung up. "Aren't you glad I'm good at it?"

After they'd eaten, Blair stood outside the bathroom while Jim showered. Blair suggested bed, but Jim came back to the couch and turned on the TV. Blair settled on the loveseat with the study packet for the accreditation exam. He was doing practice tests continually. Now that he didn't have any coursework to do, he could give it even more time.

Which of the following is least likely to be the problem if the symptom is hives?

Orange juice Grapes Coffee An apple

This was a bad question: it didn't say if the apple was organic or not. About ten percent of sentinels were allergic to orange juice, but apples were considered safe unless they were carriers of some kind of pesticide or preservative. On the other hand, contaminated apples didn't cause hives.

Blair checked orange juice and glanced over at the couch. Jim was asleep. Probably a good thing at this point.

Statistically, which is the least likely clothing material to provoke a reaction?

Silk Cotton Wool All are equally likely to be irritating

Well, cotton, but the margin was very narrow. Individual sentinels varied a lot.

A sentinel with a VPR assessment of less than sixty percent would mostly likely:

Zone frequently on sound Have trouble making sense of chaotic visual input Have a poor memory of visual input Have high odor detection, but poor odor recognition

VPR was visual pattern recognition, so--

"I don't know where they are," Jim whispered.

"What?" Blair asked, looking up.

"I'm sorry," Jim said, "I can't help you." He was crying.

Blair leaped for him, scattering books everywhere and landing with a thump on the floor beside the couch. "Jim! Wake up. Wake up."

But his eyes were open, streaming with tears. "I don't know."

"Jim!" Blair shook him.

Jim froze abruptly, going stiff and pale in Blair's arms. His lips formed, "Oh, crap," but there was no sound.

"Jim, you're ok. You're ok. Jim?"

Jim shuddered a little. "They're not real. They're not real."

"What arenít? Jim?"

"Animals--God! The room was full of them. They were--sad. And so angry. They wanted--"

"What did they want?"

"I don't... I don't know. They wanted me to find...."

"What?"

"I don't know. Damn it. I'm seeing animals."

"Jim, it's a stress reaction. It's nothing. You were drugged today, one of your friends is missing. This is nothing...."

"Don't lie--"

"I'm not. Jim, if this was a problem, we'd be fixing it. Animals happen sometimes. They're not correlated with anything. It just makes a good story. Creepy and exotic."

"Hallucinations--"

"Hallucinations only count when you're awake. That crap today messed you up. Jim! It doesn't mean you're going crazy, and even if it did, today doesnít count."

Jim didn't believe him. He didn't argue, but Blair could tell. He freed himself from Blair and got up from the couch to pace. "It's just a dream. Like any other dream."

"No! This wasn't like--anything. They were so...."

"Jim--"

"You're not listening!"

"Ok. Ok. This is me listening. Tell me about your animals."

But Jim just looked at him, shaking his head a little. Frustrated, confused, scared. Blair patted the seat beside him. Jim glowered in irritation and misery. "Come here," Blair said gently. Jim sat, swallowing his anxiety and resentment, only giving in because submitting to a helpful guide was better than the alternatives which haunted Jim's nightmares. Blair hated that. "I donít think there's anything wrong with you. I really don't." Jim dropped his eyes. "Do you?"

"I...."

"Are you having trouble following conversations? Thinking clearly? Remembering things?"

Jim shook his head.

"Hear disembodied voices?"

Jim laughed reluctantly. "Yeah. But they're all real."

"Yeah. They are." Blair put a hand on his shoulder. "Jim, I don't think anything's wrong with you. You're a new sentinel, and that's hard, and you've had a hard time, I know. But you're settling out so nicely! Aw, Jim. I really think you're ok."

"It's nothing," Jim whispered.

"Let's go to bed," Blair said. "Come on. We'll do a body check."

Jim nodded, let Blair take him up to bed, listened while Blair talked him through his body one part at a time. Blair stayed long after Jim fell asleep, looking for... he didn't know what. Seeing animals? That was just nonsense. There was nothing wrong with Jim. Blair wasn't failing him. Jim was so much better than he'd been. He was going to be fine.

The next day at the police station there was news on the case--bad news. Three more missing sentinels. The first was a college student who'd been gone for two weeks, but had been fighting with her parents and was known to be moody, so no one missed her until a couple of days ago. The other two worked in the private sector: quality control in an ice cream factory and inspection in an aircraft factory. There was no obvious evidence of foul play, they had no enemies. No one had realized it might be connected to something bigger.

The same mixture of sedatives that knocked out Jim was found at four of the other scenes. Whether or not there were any other real clues, well, it was hard to be sure at this point. Nine people had been kidnapped. For each case, there were bags of 'evidence' which might, as far as Blair could tell, just be random carpet fluff. For most, there were interviews with family or friends or guide. For one, there was a video--airport security in St. Lewis showed the Canadian walking out with a woman in a trench coat. Looking at a copy of the picture, Jim said, "A disguise. That's a man." But they didn't know anything else. They left at the end of the day with no real pattern beyond the fact that all the victims had been extraordinarily gifted even for sentinels.

The FBI had taken charge, was 'coordinating' the investigations. Blair would have thought coordination would be a good thing, but it just seemed to annoy Jim's colleagues in Major Crimes

On the way home, Jim dropped Blair off on campus to pick up his car. Blair dashed inside Hargrove and up to the department. He snatched his mail on the way past and knocked on Jack's door. "Got a moment?"

"One," Jack said. "I'm grading undergraduate finals."

"Ouch. Sorry. I've got a quick question. Ah. Jim's seeing animals."

Jack looked up. "You're kidding. What kind?"

What kind? "Uh. A fox and a raccoon. I donít know what else."

"Interesting." Jack stared into the middle distance, frowning.

"It's not anything, is it? It's just Jim's heard, well, things. He's pretty freaked out."

"What? No. No, it isn't anything." He was frowning. "Marcia's also seeing animals."

Jack didn't say anything else, just stared past Blair's left shoulder. "How is Marcia? Otherwise?"

Jack took a deep breath. "I... I meant to call you about that. I won't be available over the break. As soon as I get my grades in I'm flying to Colorado. Marcia's sick again."

Blair dropped into a chair. "How bad is it?"

"It's... it's pretty bad, Blair. She can't work any more. I'm going to try to talk her into coming back with me." He took off his glasses and rubbed his face.

"Her heart?"

"No, that's a little better. But she's been running a fever. For a while now."

"Damn, Jack. I'm sorry."

"Don't," he whispered. "Don't, Blair. Jim doesn't need you thinking about this. You can't afford to be hurting for someone else, or taking that home." He took a deep breath. "I'll be gone for about three weeks. If you need advice while I'm gone, call Isobella. She's seen pretty much everything."

"Ok."

"And don't worry about the animals. It happens sometimes, stress-linked, probably."

"Thanks. 'Night Jack.... Have a safe trip."

When Blair got home, Jim was on the phone and in a much better mood than when he'd seen him last. "It's the best idea we've had yet. It's just too bad the FBI thought of it. How soon can we get things rolling?"

Blair set his backpack in the spare room and perched on the couch to wait for Jim to finish. Jim was grinning when he put down the phone. "Chief, you know what you've been saying about somebody having access to sentinel scores? The FBI has been thinking along those lines too, and we've come up with something."

"Yeah? What?"

"We're inserting a new target into the database. Somebody irresistible."

"Why?" and then, "As bait?"

"The FBI is working up a fake set of scores for me. They'll insert the file tomorrow morning with the last batch from Tacoma."

"You? What do you mean you?" Blair asked, appalled.

"Well, it has to be somebody who checks out. They can't give somebody already in the files this sudden, fantastic score. But I'm prefect--I haven't taken the test yet."

"But, Jim! That could make you a target."

"Well, we're hoping. Chances are they already have their victims picked out. But it's the best idea we've had yet."

Blair choked. "You can't do this."

"If this is about lying about the scores, they'll be removed when this is over--"

Blair fled to the tiny, spotless bathroom. God. They were going to use his sentinel as bait. Jim was going to--

Jim was going to do his job. This was Jim's job.

Outside the bathroom door, Jim said, "Blair, if this is about me agreeing to this without your permission, I'm not used to having a guide. Not really. I'll try to do better."

Blair slung the door open. Jim stepped back. "Jim--these bastards kill people like you."

"And it's your job to keep me alive. You take your job pretty seriously. But Blair--I might be in a position to stop this. Look, Chief, I know what you've seen of me isn't all that inspiring. I mean, hey, you had to teach me to *sleep*. But my job... I'm very good at my job. Somebody out there is hurting innocent people, and this might be our chance to stop them."

"Yeah, I know." Blair swallowed. "You, ah, do this all the time."

"All the time."

***

The phone woke Blair, but not before Jim had time to get up and was answering it. It was dark in the loft, but Blair didn't have a clock in his room. Jim had been his alarm these last few months. Hearing steps on the stairs, Blair got up and poked his head out the door. "What's up?"

"They've got a body. We have to go."

Obediently, Blair grabbed his jeans. "A body? What--?"

"They think it's Aaron Mabry, the Customs agent."

"Hell."

"Come on. We'll have to hurry if we're going to snake the feds."

It was not a sentence Blair had ever expected to hear.

It was very cold, and Jim wouldn't run the heater in his truck because he said it stank. Blair huddled in his coat, trying not to think about another dead sentinel. Simon Banks was waiting when they pulled up at the overgrown vacant lot. "Come on, people let's go."

Jim hesitated as he got out of the car--police lights were flashing at two or three different rhythms and the street was crowded. Blair walked around and took Jim's arm. "You ok, man?"

"Yeah, I'm good." He stalked off after Simon. "Coroner here?"

"No, he's tied up. Double suicide on South Penn."

"Is he here? Hop to, folks. We don't have all night." A thin, fast moving man darted by clapping his hands.

Simon sighed. "Gentlemen, this is Ray Veccio, Fraser's guide."

Veccio made shooing motions. "Well. Come on. Work the scene. Which one of you is the local sentinel?"

Blair stepped between Jim and the man who was way too twitchy for a guide. "Ignore him."

Jim smiled. "Done. Stay close." Jim started out across the uneven ground of the vacant lot, Blair following just behind. "The place is full of footprints. I'm not going to be able to get anything."

"Teenaged girl sneaking back in from a date," Simon said from somewhere behind Blair. "Thank god I've got a boy."

Then there was the body. They were almost on top of it before Blair realized it wasn't just old debris. Jim circled slowly, combing the ground for clues. There were bits of trash here and there--a candy wrapper, a bottle top. Jim ignored them, but did take a little sample of mud smeared on a rock and bag it for Simon. When he started to bend down over the body, Blair caught his arm. "Stay back. I donít want you touching it."

"Have you got an obvious cause of death?" Jim asked.

"No," Simon said. "Homicide got here first, they got a good look before they realized it was one of our missing people. They couldn't find any obvious problems, but then they know squat about sentinels. Blair? You want to take a look?"

"Oh! Yeah. Sure." The last time Jim had taken him to a murder scene, Blair had wound up disgracing himself behind a nearby bush while his poor sentinel held his hair.

"Here, Chief," Jim pressed a pair of gloves into Blair's hands.

"Oh. Thanks."

"You mind?" said Veccio, squatting down on the other side of the body.

Blair shrugged, wondering what he was supposed to do. Veccio, Simon and a few people standing to the side focused flashlights on the body. "No rash," Blair said, realizing that he'd been expecting this body to look like the last one. "But his face looks kind of puffy."

"That happens sometimes," Veccio said.

Blair checked for injection sites. If this had been an allergic reaction, they would have given cortisone. There was only one tiny dot that he could find. It was odd. How had he died? "Jim? Can you see anything?"

"He smells sick."

"What? Do you mean some kind of disease?" asked one of the men with a flashlight.

"No," Jim said slowly, "I don't smell a disease. All I smell is that funny sweet background smell, the one that doesn't change."

"Michelson's syndrome," Blair said.

"No way," said Veccio. "Michelson's takes years. His records don't include any history of that."

Blair swallowed an unkind comment about Canadian guide training. In a way it was a good thing Canada produced so few viable sentinels, since they didn't have a coherent system for either training or deploying them. Maybe there was cause and effect there--how could you have a system for dealing with what almost never happened? "Usually it takes years. But if you pile on enough stress it can go global in just a few days."

"Michelson's?" Simon asked.

"It's an autoimmune disorder," Blair said. "The body begins to randomly attack its own cells. Chronic Michelson's has a better outcome statistically than the sudden kind. It doesn't respond too well to drugs, you treat it with the more extreme breathing patterns. Circular breathing. Kundalini."

"I guess it didn't work," Simon said soberly.

"No, he probably didn't know them. We don't teach sentinels advanced breathing patterns unless they need them. Their bodies are too responsive to play around with that stuff." Blair sighed. "It would take a guide, somebody he trusted. If it were going to work at all."

"Frase knows them, though, right?" said one of them men circled around them.

Veccio's answer was very soft: "Yeah, Ray, Benny knows everything."

"Jim, can you give us a guess for time of death?" Carolyn's voice, remembering a question Blair should have thought of.

"Not more than four hours," Jim said. "I'm, ah, more used to smelling people who are. Alive."

The FBI arrived then, icily polite and well dressed and very annoyed. "Perhaps in your commendable zeal you've forgotten that kidnapping is a federal crime? And what is that dog doing here?"

"Wolf," Veccio corrected, but in the end everyone was chased off. They moseyed out of the vacant lot grumbling about jurisdiction and the time it would take to get the autopsy results. Only when they were back at the street did Carolyn turn on her heel and plant herself in front of them. "Simon, you know what that means. They're here somewhere."

"Who's where?" Blair asked, looking back over his shoulder at the FBI agents taking their turn to explore the sad relic that used to be a forty-year old divorced man with two children and a classy apartment overlooking the bay.

"The body's less than four hours old," Simon said. "He died in Cascade."

Blair turned to Jim to ask if this was true, but Jim had stepped away and was staring into the darkness. "Hey? You ok?" Blair whispered, putting a hand on Jim's arm.

Jim lifted the hand, patted it gently, and let it go, all the while never taking his eyes off of whatever he was seeing. Blair was elated; usually when Jim didn't want help he put up with it anyway, too insecure about his own abilities and too uncertain about what would happen if he insulted the guide to follow his own inclinations. For his part, Blair hated having to guess what Jim needed from him, but more than that, it was good to see Jim manage a polite 'no, thank you,' without being assaulted by anxiety about how Blair would take a refusal or worried that Blair wouldn't come back.

Raised voices brought Blair back to the argument going on behind him. "It doesn't make sense," Simon was saying. "They've got, what? Seven people? Are they hauling them from state to state in the back of a station wagon? There has to be a central location somewhere."

"No, wait, maybe," said Veccio. "Generally speaking, the abductions have been moving north, right? This is about as far north as you can go in the United States. And you've got this nice port--"

"Oh, crap!" someone yelled. "We're running out of country."

"Ray, for the last time, calm the hell down," Veccio muttered.

"Why would anybody take sentinels out of the country?" Simon asked. "Blair? Anybody? I thought you couldn't do anything with sentinels."

"You can't! You can't make them work." Blair lowered his voice, unable to say the 'worse' things loudly: "Even if it was for research--there's nothing you can learn from sentinels that are being held captive somewhere. The stress would change the results of *anything* people were trying to do. I mean, unless they--unless they're breeding them." Despite the dozens of people swarming around them, the silence enveloping the tiny group was so profound that Blair's whisper sounded like a bullhorn.

"Okay," Simon said. "They might be here. If they are here, we are damn well going to find them. Carolyn, come with me."

Blair glanced over at Jim. He was still intent, possibly listening to the feds discuss the case. Blair wrapped his arms in tight to ward off the cold and prepared to wait.

"Were you serious about that breeding thing? That's creepy and a half. Benny'll think that's funny, though. I keep telling him everybody wants him for his body."

"Shut up, Ray," said the other man.

"I thought you were Ray," Blair said to him.

"Ray Kowalski. That's Ray Veccio. He's the guide, I'm the liaison officer."

"His job is to feed the wolf."

"Actually, the wolf gets his own food. I got pulled into the picture because a couple years back Veccio slugged an INS guy in New Mexico."

"He deserved it," Veccio said.

"Actually, that's true."

"So you're Canadian then?" Blair said to the first one.

"Nope. Chicago born and bred."

"Then you got your guide training in America." Blair felt slightly disappointed--Canadian guides were notoriously bad (what few there were) and Blair had been curious.

"No guide training."

Uh. "Then how did you get accredited?"

"I'm not. I'm working for the Canadian government, and they don't test, just add you to the registry."

"Right, right," Blair said, trying not to look down his nose too obviously. "But who decides if you're competent?"

"Benny. Who else's opinion counts?"

Ray Kowalski chuckled. "You think that's bad? Before Ray here, ol' Frase was making do with the wolf."

Blair looked doubtfully at the animal on the other end of Kowalski's leash. Before he could figure out how to continue this strange conversation, Jim turned around and said, "Ready to go, Chief."

"What did they say?" Veccio asked.

"Who?" Jim asked, looking slightly surprised.

"The feds."

"Oh. I wasn't listening," Jim said absently. "Would have been a good idea though." He started toward the truck, leaving Blair to trail along behind.

"Jim?" Blair said after they'd gotten back to the main road. "What *were* you looking at?"

For a long time Jim didnít say anything, and when he spoke it wasn't an answer. "Blair, what's Michelson's like?"

One of the reasons the American guide system worked so well was that there were some things a sentinel needed to look out for that he was better off not thinking too much about. Their bodies tended to be very responsive, not only to direct control, but to emotional states and expectations. Blair didn't want Jim dwelling on the details of Michelson's Syndrome. On the other hand, he didn't want Jim thinking Blair was trying to keep him ignorant either. "For Mabry, it probably felt like the flu--fever, some minor pain, maybe a little disorientation. There would have been some internal swelling. It can take just a few days."

"What about the other kind?"

"Depending on which tissues are most affected, it can look like other autoimmune disorders. Sometimes it responds to medication. Sometimes it changes. It's one of the things we had you checked for in October. You're fine."

"And you treat it with pattern breathing."

"Sometimes." Blair tried to think where this conversation was going.

"But you don't teach sentinels the patterns. Why?"

"It didnít work out."

"It has to be a surprise to work?"

"No. Ok. When Burton first did his research with non-Western sentinels, in most of the societies he looked at, the sentinels were in altered states once a week or more. He brought that back with him."

"When he started telling people that all those 'crazy' people just had heightened senses."

"Yeah. Then. By the turn of the century, sentinels were all the rage and America and most of Europe had guide programs and everybody was studying the heck out of techniques to put everybody in altered states. There's this one picture from 1910 I saw in a textbook, a gymnasium full of sentinels in old fashioned work-out clothing lying on mats all doing circular breathing at the same time. But it was a bad idea. American culture just doesn't support all that ecstatic experience. At least if you're not drunk. There's no context for it. All the sentinels hated it, some of them had nervous breakdowns. It got taken out of the curriculum."

"But guides do learn it."

"Yeah. But it's different for us. Guide is a choice. And yeah, some of us hate it, but we only have to *do* it for about a semester. After that, we just have to remember."

"But if it's so awful--"

"Sometimes when a sentinel is in an intolerable situation--"

"Stress. Burn out."

"Sometimes. Sometimes it's a physical problem that the body can't deal with. Sometimes the body attacks itself. Or just pulls in and stops trying. Or weird, random stuff happens. And then...." Blair shrugged.

"So, the altered state thing is a last resort."

"Jim, I can't tell you why it works. When it works. Maybe it makes the conscious mind and the subconscious mind sit down face to face and work out who's running the body. Maybe it releases the pressure so the system isn't overwhelmed any more. I don't know."

"How bad is it? What you do for Michelson's? The pattern?"

"Well. Usually disorienting. Pretty emotional. Some people find them painful. Sometimes there are hallucinations--not bad. You know at the time it isn't real. You can stop, if you really need to. It isn't like a bad trip."

"I can see why this is unpopular."

"Jim. I'll teach you, if you want. I mean that."

"No. Thank you. I'm having enough trouble with reality."

They went back to the loft since Jim didn't have to be at work for about four hours. Blair sat down on the couch and fell immediately asleep. When he woke the sky was light and Jim was standing by the windows sipping coffee. "Sorry for checking out on you," Blair said, yawning.

Jim smiled slightly. "Yeah. What is it with you? You sleep almost every day."

But Jim hadn't slept. He was beginning to feel the pressure. "Want to stop for donuts on the way in?"

"We're taking separate cars today, Chief."

"Why? Oh, crap." No one had been taken while their guide was nearby.

"Blair," he said gently. "By this afternoon I'll have a tail. I'll be wired."

"That's. Good."

"I'd like you to sleep on campus for a couple of days."

Oh, god. "Yeah. Sure."

The day sped by, except for the twenty-three minutes Jim spent going to the deli down the street to pick up lunch. He went alone, except for his FBI tail. Blair spent the time in Simon's office, staring out the window and chewing on his fingernails. In the afternoon, Jim interviewed witnesses for another case. Blair went along, trying not to think about Jim's name in a file somewhere and the FBI two blocks behind.

Blair approached Simon about getting the feds to let him join them that night on watch, but Simon only grumbled that his own people weren't even allowed join the stakeout and Blair should leave police work to the professionals anyway.

After work, they went to the loft in separate cars and ate dinner. Blair tried to be a good sport--confident, relaxed, supportive. When it was time to go, he didn't hesitate by the door or say anything unusual. He probably smelled like an anxiety attack in progress, but that was ok. Jim would know he could handle it.

The balding Ray was waiting in the dorm lobby when Blair arrived. He motioned Blair to follow and headed for the courtyard. He kept going through the cafeteria on the other side and out the side door to the employee parking lot. "What's going on?" Blair asked, more puzzled than worried.

Ray waved at a Toyota which Blair saw held the other Ray and the wolf. "We thought we'd stake out your partner's apartment and thought you might like to join us."

Blair thought briefly of what Simon Banks had said about leaving it to the professionals. "Sounds good to me." He climbed into the back seat with the wolf.

They parked several blocks up the street from the loft. They could see the van the feds were using. Blair had been on a couple of stakeouts already. This felt completely different, even when one of the Rays offered him a Styrofoam cup of coffee as they hunkered down to wait.

Blair's cell phone rang. Jumping, he fumbled it open. "Sandburg."

"Chief, is that you?"

The hair standing up in the back of his neck, Blair said carefully, "I just said so...." But Jim didn't mean was it him on the phone.

"Damn it, Sandburg--"

"I'm staying out of the way. I'm just close. You know."

Jim sighed.

"So--what? Did you hear me?"

"Not exactly. Kind of."

"That's incredible. I'm several hundred feet away."

"That's great. I can't tell you how proud I am. You shouldn't be out there by yourself--"

"I'm not. I've got the Canadian's entourage. They brought coffee."

"Fine. Stay out of the way. Watch your ass. And if they tell you to do something, do it. They both used to be cops."

Meekly, Blair agreed and hung up.

Both of the Rays looked at him sympathetically and Veccio said, "He's good."

"Oh, yeah. Give me six more months and he'll be unbelievable."

They sat in silence for a while. Cars went by, not many. It started to drizzle. "Uh, Ray, what do you know about seeing animals?"

Ray turned in his seat to look back at him. "Sentinels, you mean? It's a pain in the ass."

Kowalski snorted. "It's not seeing them that's the problem, it's talking to them."

"Nah. Talking to ghosts is way worse."

Trying not to sound shocked or disbelieving, Blair said, "Constable Fraser talks to ghosts?"

"Oh, yeah. Before I figured out he was a sentinel, I spent half a year thinking he was just kind of spacey and talked to himself a lot. He's neither. Although I'm not making any promises about his sanity."

"Oh. Is that usual? For Canadian sentinels?"

"Not from what I've seen. But I don't meet many Canadian sentinels. Not usual for Americans?"

"Uh, no. Not really."

"I meet American guides sometimes, but we don't talk much. They've got this whole attitude thing going. You know. All that education."

Blair felt awkward, as well as confused and a little appalled. "I haven't graduated yet. I'm not even official."

Veccio chuckled. "That's ok. You can be obnoxious later."

Blair didn't know what to say to that, so he let the silence go. After a while, Kowalski said, "How do you think they're transporting them? Plane?"

"I dunno," the other Ray said. "That's pretty exposed. Minivan caravan? Could they keep them drugged all the time? Fraser's pretty touchy with drugs."

"A lot more would be dead. From what I've seen of his file, your Fraser is unusually durable."

"Boat?" asked Ray Kowalski. "Really big truck?"

"This is costing somebody big bucks," Blair said. It wasn't a new thought. Blair and Jim had spent the morning with Simon and Henry trying to figure out who was behind the abductions. Some ambitious dictator? Or an arms dealer who was hoping there would be a market for sentinel children a decade or two down the line?

Apparently the entourage had been having the same conversations. "I'm telling you it's the Russians," Veccio said. "The communist countries decimated their sentinel populations in the fifties and sixties. They had all these scientifically efficient programs - sentinels dropped like mayflies."

"Everybody's short of sentinels," Blair said. "Burton estimated that in aboriginal populations the frequency was about 1 in 220. Right now, the highest frequency is about one in a thousand, and that's for Japan, the Philippines, and Sweden." In America it ran 1 in 5 or 6 thousand, and there were places that had even fewer. Not all of them were as nice as Canada.

"Wow. Is it something in the water?" Kowalski asked.

"No, it's in the genes, how our ancestors dealt with sentinels. In the West, first we thought they were possessed or making pacts with devils. Then we thought they were crazy. Colonialism spread our misconceptions everywhere, even to places that had strong, functional sentinel traditions. There were places in Central America where the local churches were advocating stoning sentinels into the 1920's."

"Anybody ever tell you you're a barrel of laughs to have around?" Veccio asked.

"It's not India. Plenty of sentinels, fantastic training. They barely need guides. If emigrating were easier, they'd put us all out of business." But almost nobody would let their sentinels emigrate. Some countries didn't even let them take foreign vacations. "It's not Japan--they have more sentinels per capita than India, and they think theirs are better than everybody else's. Russia--their numbers are coming back up slowly. They have all they can handle." But the world was such a big place. For every country that was civilized and competent in their treatment of sentinels there was a cheapo dictator who could never get enough for the secret police.

They took turns sleeping. The rented Toyota was cramped and even with the wolf across his lap, cold. Still, Blair got more rest than he would have in the dorm.

Nothing happened that night.

The next day the FBI sent Jim on a series of errands. Without Blair. There were no new leads. At least no new bodies turned up.

That night Jim turned to Blair as they came in and asked, "Will you teach me circular breathing?"

Blair frowned. Circular breathing wasn't something you did casually, even if you *liked* pattern breathing. "Yeah, if you want."

"Tonight. After dinner," Jim said firmly.

"Ah, if you want to do it, you don't want to do it on a full stomach."

"Ok. Now?"

"Jim, are you--yeah. Ok. If you're sure. Um. You might want to shower first. Relax a little, stop smelling the day? I'll get ready out here."

Well. This was a bad idea. There was no way in hell Jim was ready for this, and no reason Blair could think of why he would want to do it. None of this stopped him from laying out a clean sheet on the rug, turning on a white noise generator, and turning down the lights. Brackett had kept Jim ignorant of basic strategies and warnings. That Jim was asking questions frequently and openly--that was good. But Jim still felt very vulnerable. Maybe this was just an attempt to work out the boundaries, to test how far Blair would go. Which still left this a bad idea.

Jim came out in his bathrobe, and Blair patted the nest he'd made. He slid a pillow under Jim's head and snagged another to sit on. "You sure?"

Jim nodded. He didn't look sure. He looked scared out of his mind.

"You know, there are easier patterns. We don't have to--"

"I'm sure."

Why? Blair thought. But he described the pattern, and then held Jim's hands to his own chest and stomach. "Feel that. Your muscles have to move just like that."

"That fast?"

"Yes, that fast. It doesn't change. You, um, might feel some strange physical sensations, that's normal, when you do it right."

"What happens if I do it wrong?"

"You hyperventilate and pass out. Don't worry. I'll be watching for that. Just remember, you can stop any time."

"Ok. Let's do it."

Jim reached for Blair's hand, but Blair pulled away. "I'm sorry. For this to work, I can't touch you. But I'll be right here."

Jim closed his eyes. "Ok."

Blair kept one eye on Jim and the other on his watch. Three minutes slipped by. "Don't slow down, Jim. Keep your speed. You're ok." It was hard not to touch him. But even if that wouldn't interfere, his senses might spike a little. Blair's touch would be painful. "Doing great, Jim. You should be feeling a little funny now. That's ok. Just keep your speed."

Jim's hands opened and closed, but he kept breathing. The first spasms, when they came, were fairly mild, but nearly three minutes early. Blair kept prodding Jim to keep his speed even, but more quietly. When Jim released a low moan, Blair leaned forward and whispered, "Not yet. Not yet. Stay with it. Not yet." But he wasn't sure. He'd taught this to undergraduate psych majors, not to sentinels. The semester he'd learned to do it himself, well, mostly it had been fun. Except for the times it made him cry and that one time he'd hallucinated he was a rock. That kind of hurt. But surely his experience couldn't have any useful bearing on Jim's. "You're doing great," he whispered desperately. "Just hang in there a little longer." This was a mistake. Jim couldn't have known what he was getting into. Blair should not have gone along with this.

It was too late. Jim's eyes opened, focused on nothing. He lost the pattern, gasping with long pauses in between. His back arched, his hands curved into claws. "Jim? Easy. Just let it go. You're done. Just let it go." Blair chewed his lower lip while Jim writhed weakly on the floor.

Another long minute went by as Jim stilled. Blair swallowed hard and made himself sit quietly. What Jim needed now was time. Jim rolled onto his side and began to cry. Blair crawled closer. "Jim? Oh, god." He laid the sheet over Jim's shoulders. "Jim? It's ok. It's almost over."

"They won't talk to me!"

Blair went cold. "Who won't talk to you?"

"I can't," Jim sobbed, "get them to tell me where they are."

"Animals? You're seeing animals."

"All the time, but I can't.... Blair! I can't!"

"Jim, it's not terrible, seeing animals. It's ok. It happens sometimes." Jim shuddered. Blair laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. "The Canadian sees animals, Jim. For years, apparently. And he does just fine. Jim--it's ok--"

Jim laughed, sounding semi-hysterical and completely heartbroken. "The Canadian is one of the animals. A big caribou or something. He's trying to look after the others, but Adrian's having panic attacks, I think. God, Blair. I don't know where they are...."

Blair eased closer, and when Jim didn't shrink away Blair cuddled him in his arms. This probably wasn't as bad as it looked. Although Jim falling apart over an ongoing delirium *looked* pretty bad. But almost everybody was a little messed up after this pattern. "I'm so sorry, Jim. I shouldn't have let you do this."

"I didn't know what else to do." Jim began to come down, the tense muscles going slack, his breathing slowing. Blair checked the carotid pulse. Not bad.

When the storm seemed to be over Blair got up and fetched a glass of juice and some crackers. Jim sat up and took them, refusing to meet Blair's gaze. "Um. You know, that was pretty much a standard experience. You did fine." No answer. "Jim?"

"Iím ok, Sandburg. I'm, you know, sorry."

"That's ok. It's fine." Blair tried not to worry. He told himself that if it was, for example, his mom who decided to solve her problems by seeking visions he would have thought nothing of it. Hell, she did that two or three times a year anyway. It was just because this was Jim. But Jim had had a rough year. A lot of his old techniques didn't work any more. He was just expanding his options. It showed great adaptability, really.

Blair fried up some lean pork chops for dinner. Jim ate obligingly, and when it was time for Blair to leave, he promised that he was fine and that he would get some rest. "You call me if you need me," Blair said.

"I'll call."

Blair spent another night in Kowalski's rental car. He was prepared this time--he brought a blanket and some granola bars. It was another quiet night. Blair was almost sorry; if this was going to happen, couldn't they get it over with?

Jim looked worn when he got to the station the next morning. Blair snagged him before Simon and took him to the breakroom. He shut the door. "Jim, can you give me a body check."

"I'm good," Jim said unconvincingly.

"Yeah. Obviously. Jim. We don't just do body checks because we need information." He nudged Jim to sit at the table and then laid a hand on the back of his neck. "Come on. Just a little one."

"We don't have time."

Blair leaned around to meet Jim's eyes. "Ok. I try really hard to give you as much control as possible. But when it's important, I have to be the guide. Give me this, or I will tell Simon you're not fit for duty."

Jim's eyes widened. "You can't--"

"I can't *make* him bench you, no. Do you really think he'll let my lack of credentials get in the way?"

"You don't understand--"

"This is what I understand. You are my job. I take that every bit as seriously as you do you job. Do you understand?"

"Blair, I can't live this way."

"Really?" Blair said, thinking they had pretty much established Jim couldn't live the other way. But Jim didn't look trapped and resentful. He looked ashamed. "Don't bullshit me, Ellison. This is not about you having control issues. This is about you feeling guilty about being out here while a bunch of sentinels are prisoner somewhere."

"No! This is about me not *finding* them."

"So you don't care if you're hurting. You deserve it. After all, you're failing."

"Don't!" Jim snapped, but when Blair didn't flinch he sagged in the chair. "Believe it or not, I don't usually get so personal."

"Jim, it's hard not to be personal. *I* feel really bad about what's happening, and I'm supposed to try to keep some distance from your work so that both of us aren't freaking at the same time. But, Jim, you will do a better job if you're not strung so tightly. So just give me a damn body check! Ok?"

Jim had gotten pretty good at it, once Blair showed him what to do. The body check quickly put him into a light, functional zone. Blair kept a hand at the back of Jim's neck and talked him through relaxing. Blair tried not to worry.

They spent the day at the big shipping port. The FBI had gotten search warrants for the most likely possibilities, but Jim and Blair walked up and down the docks, smelling, listening for some trace of *something* that warned of trapped sentinels. They came up with a big fat zero; maybe the kidnappers had already sailed off. Or left by car. Or maybe they were still in town, looking to replace the two who had died.

After work, Jim and Blair went grocery shopping. "I can still smell dead fish," Jim said.

"Ew. I hope it's the dead fish from the dock, not the dead fish here!"

"Thank you for that image. Really. Thanks a lot." But Jim was smiling slightly. "So what are you doing for Christmas?"

"You're kidding! What's the date?"

"The nineteenth."

"Wow." Grades would be posted. Blair really should call and find out just what skipping out on that test did to his final grade. Not that it really mattered, at this point. "Um. About Christmas. You noticed Iím Jewish, right?"

"Ah, right." Jim colored. Apparently he'd forgotten. Gosh, what could possibly distract him? "It's still traditional for students to go home for the break."

"Nah. Mom comes into town at the end of January. She teaches at resorts in California during the holidays."

"Oh. That'll be nice."

"Hey, you pick out some steak or something. I'm going to look at cheese." Cheese was the latest phase in Blair's ongoing campaign to get Jim enthusiastic about food. Cheese could be very mild and complicated, but it wasn't just the meek cheeses that were sentinel favorites. Some of the stronger ones were overwhelming in a good way.

Something growled across the aisle, and Blair looked up, expecting to see some kid playing a game. There was no kid. There was no Jim, either. Dropping the cheese, Blair stepped forward looking around. He spotted Jim almost at once, at the front of the store and heading for the door. Horrified, Blair sprinted after him. After only a couple of steps, though, Blair tripped over something high against his shin and tumbled forward on his face. Blair bounced to his feet. He couldn't see Jim. He didn't know what the FBI tail looked like. But someone was hurrying away from Blair, headed toward produce.

That thing he'd tripped over. It was a shoe. Blair leaped, coming down on his assailant in an awkward tackle that made Blair wonder what people saw in football. As they hit the ground, a gun skittered away. For some reason, this made Blair even angrier. He grabbed the guy by the hair and shoved his head into the floor.

The store security guard came over and then one of the FBI agents. "Where's Jim?" Blair demanded.

"We lost him."

Concluded in Part Two...