New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

Imperfections II: Believing in Fairy Tales
Part Two
by Dasha

See notes and disclaimer on part one.

They brought Blair's prisoner in on assault and carrying a concealed weapon. He refused to say anything at all, even give his name. While Blair waited in Simon's office, the police ran his prints, tried to talk to him. Simon wanted to kick him and give him a tail. The FBI thought he'd see through it and wanted to try to cut a deal.

Blair slipped down to holding and took a look. The man was calm--he barely looked interested. This wasn't going to go anywhere. The whole thing was hopeless.

Blair went home. Well, he went to the loft. With Jim missing, it didn't feel like home. Blair stormed from room to room, not looking for anything, not putting anything away, just--unable to sit still. Wanting to destroy something. God. Jim. He'd been right there, not fifteen feet away and Jim had been taken out from under him. Blair shoved the coffee table out of the way and threw himself onto the floor, not even bothering to take off his shoes. He let the breaths rip into him, one after another. His rhythm was mechanical, almost harsh. He had no watch, but just about the time he began to feel bored the tingles started in his fingers and lips. He gripped his resolve and kept breathing. This was when he always had to remind the students to keep the rhythm up. It was easy, when you were feeling a little floaty and detached, to let your mind wander or just enjoy the weird relaxed moment.

But the moment wasn't tempting, not when he thought of Jim. The FBI had lost him. Jim had no hope. Blair had no options except this hopeless one.

Tears prickled at his eyes. At the back of his mind, Blair observed that this was generally too early for tears. Faster. Keep it even. Don't stop. Don't stop.

The world tilted under him. His body hardly seemed to exist. Everything burned.

Keep it even. Don't stop.

When his ears changed shape, it *hurt*. Blair let himself scream, didn't let himself stop breathing. His feet turned into paws. Reluctantly. It hurt, hurt. Turning into animals happened sometimes and wasn't, *damn it*, what he was looking for. He wanted to stop, to just try to cope and figure out what the hell animal he was, but he wasn't here for that. This wasn't a game. This wasn't an exercise. He was looking for Jim and there was no place else to look.

He kept breathing. The breaths burned dryly. The body burst around him like a dropped water balloon. Blair screamed, between breaths.

Something heavy pushed on his face, something with cool, blunt points, and Blair opened his eyes. The cat beside him was huge, and somehow Blair was surprised. He hadn't thought this would work. Not really. "Jim--" he choked.

Jim's blue eyes peered at him out of the cat's shiny black face. Blair sobbed. "Jim, tell me where you are!" But hadn't Jim said all along that the animals wouldn't talk to him, couldn't say where they were? Blair reached for the cat, and his arms connected with nothing.

He was in a small enclosed area, tall enough to stand up in, wide enough to lie down. There was a mat at the back and a bowl of cold oatmeal. The walls were transparent but slightly distorting, and trying to focus out hurt a little. The outer space was long and narrow, filled with many more enclosures. Each enclosure had an occupant, not all of them were asleep. It was late, but the room was bright. To the right, lying on a thin pad, was a young woman, quietly crying. It was a face Blair knew from the files, the missing college student.

He could smell the tears--each cubicle had a small vent. The air was too warm and reeked of tears and sweat and fear and hopelessness. They weren't taken out to wash every day, and the stench of misery built up and up. If he let himself think about it the smell threatened to choke him. The air was hot and thick, and every breath was full of death....

Oh, god, Jim. Don't think about it. Let it go.

Far down to the left he could hear an unfamiliar voice murmuring, "You're not sweating, Adrian. You need to drink. It's the right kind of water."

"I can't. They might have drugged it. Poisoned it. Anything."

"They didn't poison the water. They want us alive."

"They want you alive, Ben. They've figured out I'm useless by now."

"Adrian. Listen to me. It's the right water. It's not opened. You're having a hard time with the stress, but you're not paranoid."

"Call it a new phobia. I can't drink their water."

"Can you drink mine?" the calm voice asked. Then, a little louder, "Pardon me. If you wouldn't mind, we would like to trade water."

Footsteps. Someone was coming. Blair tried to squint against the bright light, the distorting glass, but he couldn't see the face. Around him, the cubicle fell away into a haze. No, Blair thought. Not yet. Where are you? Who are these people?

But it was gone. Blair was lying on the floor at the loft, his throat dry and aching, tears on his face. He still didn't know--

God. Jim.

He had to go back. That was all. He had to go back. But his head was pulsing with something that didnít hurt but wouldnít let him let go and he couldnít control his breathing, which was mostly sobs. Oh, god. All that and he still didnít know where Jim was.

Jim didnít have the training the others had, even poor Adrian who was so messed up after his first guide died. Jim had police training, and yes, that would keep him from freaking, help him to think. But he wasnít coping well with the smell of the terror and pain of the others.

Blair sat up and rubbed his face. He had to do something. He couldnít just do nothing while Jim--

No, donít think about it. Just do something. Blair lurched to his feet and staggered to the fridge. Ideally, you should eat after one of the more extreme breathing patterns, drink lots of water, rest. He downed several swallows of orange juice out of the carton, wiped his mouth on his hand, and retrieved his backpack.

When he opened the door, both Rays were standing in the hall. Veccio blinked. "Get your hearing upgraded?"

"Are you ok?" Kowalski asked at the same time.

Blair dropped his backpack and pounced on Veccio, pinning him against the opposite wall. "Theyíre real, arenít they! The goddamn animals are real!"

"Well, that kind of depends on your definition of real."

"Frobrisher sees them," Ray Kowalski said.

"Constable Frobrisher is certifiable."

"The animals are real." Blair hardly knew what he was angry at, except that way too casual Canadian policy made it possible for two guys who had probably never had a class in sense perception or brain chemistry to be in charge of a sentinel. A trained guide would have known that the animals being real *meant* something, that it was important, that it was goddamn *earth shaking*!

Blair sagged. A trained guide would have just been wandering around hoping that his sentinel was having not-too-dangerous delusions. A trained guide wouldnít have a fucking clue.

If sentinels at the turn of the century had been seeing each other as animals and talking to people who werenít there, no wonder the establishment had thought they were responding badly to altered states. Hell, given the worldview at the time, the *sentinels* probably thought they were responding badly.

"Iíve seen them," Blair whispered miserably. "I know where they are."

"What--?"

"Where--?"

"I donít know. I mean I saw them, but I donít know how to get to them." About five minutes into his story, Blair realized that he must still be half out of his mind. It couldnít have been real. Things like that didnít happen to him. Mom, yeah. People in India, maybe. Jim. They happened to Jim, apparently. Now anyway. But Blair wasnít a sentinel or a mystic. The breathing exercises were for personal development, stress relief; visions didnít happen to him. But he remembered the choking smell of despair and fear.

"A long, narrow room. Like the back of a big truck?" Veccio asked.

"Yeah. Maybe."

"We might be able to use this," Kowalski said.

***

It took about an hour to set up. Kowalski was an employee of the federal government, and he managed to get an interview with the prisoner. Blair watched from the observation room. Anyone with even basic information about Jim would know he was a probationary guide and in no way a cop. His presence would subtract credibility.

Kowalski brought the prisoner in and sat casually to one side of the table. Veccio made an entrance, strutting in and looking smug. "My, my, *my*," he said, smiling wolfishly. "Mr. ...King isnít it?" He pretended to look at his folder.

"I ainít answering no questions."

The smile got bigger. "Iím not asking you any questions. Did you hear me ask you any questions? Iím just here to straighten out the paperwork. Now, letís see. Conspiracy. Two counts second degree murder. Ten counts assault. Ten counts kidnapping--"

"You donít got nothing!"

"Letís talk about your little portable zoo. Letís talk about at least one of your accomplices. I expect there will be prints, and if not, well, as a rule sentinels make excellent witnesses--Ray, can you schedule a line up? We know about everything, Mr. King. If you wanted to answer any questions, youíd have to get in line."

From the observation room, Blair could see the suspect pale.

"You kept them isolated. No human contact. Some of them for weeks. Sentinels are very sensitive about that sort of thing. I donít think weíll have any trouble convincing a judge that prolonged physical isolation counts as assault, possibly torture."

Kowalski, who hadnít spoken at all, grinned like this was very funny. "Iím thinking eight counts of attempted murder."

"And the oatmeal. Not nutritionally complete. What do they charge starving your prisoners under in this state?"

"Federal crime," Kowalski corrected.

"I want to make a deal!"

"Did you hear me offer you a deal?"

Got him. A shudder ran through Blair and his eyes filled.

"Blair? Are you--Whatís wrong?" Sharona asked from the door. It couldnít even be seven in the morning, but like Blair she may well have been up all night. Blair pulled her into the room and motioned her to be quiet. This was it.

"I canít make you any promises. Wouldnít if I could," Ray Veccio was saying.

"Iím just a little fish here. Iím nobody. I can give you the big guys! Iíll tell you everything. From the beginning."

Veccio reluctantly pulled a tape recorder from his pocket, looked at it for a moment, and reluctantly put it on the table. "Go ahead. From the beginning."

So he started from the beginning; how heíd been hired, what he knew about the ringleaders, where theyíd bought the guns, their contact in the records department of the sentinel testing facility who sold them the names of most of their victims. He told where they had rented the truck, how they had gotten their medical supplies, how they had picked up each of the victims. He didnít know every detail, but he knew quite a lot.

Through it all Veccio looked patient and not terribly impressed. He gave no indication that it was the end of the story he was fishing for: where the truck was now. Blair was leaning against the window frame, his hands leaving sweaty streaks on the cream paint. Hurry, hurry, just get to it already. But there could be no hurrying this.

Simon came in, then Henry and Carolyn. They watched the scene play out in silence as King gave names and dates. Minutes crawled by.

The FBI sentinel assigned to the case came in with his guide. They were both perfectly dressed and perfectly polite and so professional with each other that it gave Blair the creeps. The guide stepped up to the mirror and inclined her head. "Looks like you were right."

"What did I tell you? Donít mess with a pissed off guide." His eyes scanned the small crowd and settled on Blair. "Howíd you get him?"

"We made a guess about the condition of the captives and bluffed."

The sentinelís eyes--quick, intelligent, knowledgeable--flickered a smile. Blair just wasnít good enough to be lying to sentinels. "No, really. Howíd you get him?"

"It doesnít really matter," said his guide impatiently. "His lawyerís not here. Heís already declined to speak. Everything will be thrown out. Weíll never get a conviction."

"Not his," Blair said, "But weíll get everybody else and the sentinels back." Then, because he was nervous and the FBI was irritating, "I asked the animals."

The sentinel smiled at Blair. "Youíve seen animals."

"Donít. Start," his guide muttered, folding her arms.

"Yes. Have you?" Blair asked. He wanted to piss the woman off. He wanted to make the world shake. He wanted to go into the next room and strangle the man who had helped capture Jim.

"No. I always wanted to. I collect sightings."

"Theyíre a hobby of his. Iím only going to say this one more time. Theyíre a myth. There are no animals. Itís just a story sentinel children tell each other at camp."

"Yup," the sentinel said, looking at Blair but clearly speaking to her. "If your guide doesnít take care of you, the animals come and make you crazy."

Blair hadnít heard that. Heíd never even wondered what little sentinels whispered to each other after dark. He should have....

In the other room King was explaining how theyíd taken the Canadian. The airport theyíd been passing through hadnít been designed for efficient security-most of the food vendors were outside the area screened by the metal detectors. When Veccio, Kowalski and the wolf had gone off for food and left Fraser with the baggage, a voice (from well out of reach) had whispered that an accomplice had a gun trained on Fraserís unarmed friends, and if he didnít quietly and quickly head for the door, all of them would be killed.

That would be how they got Jim. Someone had told him that King was standing next to Blair with a gun. Jim would have gone. He knew by then that these people didnít care if somebody died. He would have just walked out. Blair felt sick.

The sentinel from the FBI leaned over and whispered, "The thing is, guides donít see animals."

"They donít try hard enough," Blair whispered miserably.

It took another forty-five minutes to get the last location of the truck that was transporting the sentinels. The captors had rented a large house outside of town. The plan had been to wait there another two days and then take them out in a private plane, first to Alaska and then to a final destination King didnít know.

As soon as they had an address on the house, Blair was out the door. Simon was right behind him. He caught Blair by the arm and handed him to Henry. "Brown, keep a leash on the guides. I do *not* want them in the way."

So when they got to the house, Blair, Sharona, and Veccio were in the back seat of Henryís car at the end of the caravan. It was too late anyway, of course. The truck was gone. The tire tracks of the eighteen wheeler left dark scars in the grass behind the house and there were dirty dishes in the sink, but the sentinels and their captors were long gone. Probably they had left right after King had been arrested.

Never mind, Blair thought. It doesnít matter. We know where they rented the truck. We have the license number.

We will find him. He will be fine.

Blair sat on the hood of Henryís car watching the FBI sentinel walk the crime scene for nearly an hour before disappearing into the house. Finally, Blair let himself be taken back to the PD. He sat on the sofa in Simonís office, too tired to put two words together into a thought. His hair was dirty-practically sticky when he ran his fingers through it. Blair hadnít showered since the evening of the day before yesterday. Jim would be revolted when he smelled-

Blair closed his eyes, not trying to think any more. He fell asleep there. He had fuzzy hopes of dreaming of Jim. Or of animals. But there was nothing but sleep.

***

In the cage just forward of Jim was the girl--young enough to be one of Blairís students, damn it. She had no business here--had a rash on her arm. It was sandpapery and pale red, except for the bright streaks where sheíd scratched it. It ought to be nothing; Blair would shrug over the rash saying Ďcontact dermatitis.í Heíd wash it and slather it in aloe or antihistamine cream and it would go away by the next day.

There were no guides here.

Looking at sentinels from a distance over the years, Jim had always assumed that they were pampered prima donnas, fussed over and given their every whim because what they did made them so valuable. Looking around now, Jim could see everything heíd missed.

Adrian Monk was to Jimís left, in the first cage by the doors. He was sleeping now, not deeply. Despite Fraserís patient coaxing, Monk had eaten almost nothing in days and only taken a little water. He wasnít doing well. Regardless of appearances, neither was Fraser. He was friendly and unfailingly polite, but under all that was a racing heart and such a stink of stress hormones that Jim couldnít figure why the man wasnít screaming out loud.

Beside Fraser were the two Search and Rescue women. They were awake, huddled together against the plexiglas wall that divided their cells. Whispering, telling each other stories, comparing childhoods, Jim thought, although he wasnít really listening. They smelled like anger and unshed tears.

On Jimís other side was Cindy, scratching occasionally in her sleep. Beside her, along the center of the front wall, was Diego, zoned on an ant that was crawling up the central aisle. In the first of the longer, narrower boxes that lined the other side was Mark. He did quality control for ice cream. He was engaged. He liked to bowl. To Jim, he smelled like despair.

All of them smelled like despair. Why not, in this rathole with dim prospects? All but Cindy had been separated from their guides, besides. He understood now, what a difference a guide could make even when things were really bad. He wished Blair-

He wasnít going to think about Blair. He wasnít. It wouldnít help.

If he listened, he could hear outside the truck. It was nearly morning out there. Birds were screaming. It wasnít a dawn chorus so much as a dawn riot. The truck was still now, but theyíd driven most of the night. Not highways, so they couldnít be too far from Cascade, but Jim didnít know exactly where. They werenít near the ocean, but Jim couldnít tell much else. Maybe if Blair-

Heíd dreamed of Blair. How pathetic was that? Heíd dreamed Blair had come to him, looked around the little glass zoo full of sentinels, and whispered to Jim that everything was going to be fine, that he shouldnít pay any attention to the smell, the fear around him. Heíd dreamedÖ.

He wasnít going to think of Blair. There wasnít any point.

To the left, the younger of the S&R sentinels was whispering voicelessly, "No, I was a city girl all the way. Los Angeles. God, I would have given anything to get out, you know, those places you see on television? Mountains. Rivers. I didnít see any of that until sentinel camp, when I was twelve."

"God. I was so scared my first camp!" a soft southern accent answered.

"Why? Was it awful?"

"I didnít know any other sentinels. You were from LA, but I was from nowhere. In my whole county there was just me and some girl about four years behind me. We had a facilitator come through for an afternoon every two weeks and that was it."

Jim nodded to himself. Most school systems had only one or two sentinels at most, not enough to hire someone full time. St. Agnesí had brought in a monk who went from private school to private school all over the state supervising the testing all children took and teaching the sentinels he found. Jim remembered him; tall, kind of old, gray hair. Not a bad guy. Heíd kept his temper, even during that horrible fight with Jimís father.

The thin mattress seemed to tilt under him, and Jim closed his eyes on the vertigo. *Heís not a sentinel. No son of mine is a freak.*

But no. That couldnít be right. That couldnít have been a real memory. He hadnít been a sentinel until last February. That was fact. It wasnít the kind of thing you could make go away or forget.

Except Blairís supervisor had told Blair that Jim had been a sentinel in Peru. Jim had pretty much forgotten that, hadnít he? Jimís stomach knotted, and he pressed one hand to his mouth, hoping he wasnít about to vomit the half-bowl of oatmeal that had been dinner.

"Naw. It wasnít so bad. Turned out everybody was as scared as me, and we could all smell it on each other."

On his right, Cindy stirred, scratching her arm even as she joined the quiet conversation. "When I was a kid, it was cool, you know? Being a sentinel. Special." She laughed sadly. "I used to feel sorry for people who were Ďnormal.í IÖ Iíd give anything to be normal now."

No one answered for a moment, and then from the other side came Fraserís murmur. "My grandmother was a sentinel. And my half sisterÖ And my fatherís partner."

"Your father was a guide," Jim said, more thinking out loud than answering. He tried to picture his own father as a guide. Something about the thought made him flinch away.

"Yes," Fraser said. "No. Well, yes. But not a very good one." There was a short pause, and Jim, cold, pulled his legs in and wrapped his arms around his shoulders. His stomach still felt uncertain. Distantly, in the grayness, Fraser added more quietly, "No, you werenít. You were a terrible guide. Constable Frobrisher is certifiable." Jim remembered what Blair had said about Fraser hallucinating for years. God, they were all so screwed. Jim had been the last hope.

There wasnít any hope now. The big man Jim only knew as Doug had pinned Jim in a headlock while his partner had patted him down and removed his wire. Jim had been so sure of the plan. He had been sure that when they made their grab, the FBI would be able to move in. He had expected to have some warning, to go down fighting. He had never imagined quietly walking out without a peep. "Do you see that man by the yogurt? He has a gun pointed at your guide."

Damn, damn. Sandburg probably felt just awful about this mess. Worse if he knew he had been used as leverage. He took this whole thing so seriously. Ernest. Hopeful. Jim had seen it before, in the army, back when heíd spent a month at an orientation class at the police academy. Kids who believed in what they were doing, dedicating their lives to some ideal. Jim had been looking to use that earnestness. Professor Kelso had explained that the young man Jim had met hadnít finished his classes, let alone passed the national exam. That hadnít mattered. Heíd been sincere and kind. Jim could trust sincere and kind. If he didnít know everything, well, Jim needed someone with a clue. Heíd settle for less than perfect. Heíd had no idea how things would work out; maybe he didnít care. Heíd needed some kind of guide and Sandburg-for whatever reason-had wanted to *be* a guide. Even more incomprehensibly, heíd wanted to be *Jimís* guide.

As it turned out, Sandburg hadn't just been well meaning, he'd been competent beyond Jim's wildest dreams. He made a bigger footprint in Jim's life than Lee had--he slept over almost nightly. His stuff kept creeping out of the spare room. His long hairs got everywhere, even into the clean laundry. But Jim didn't mind that so much. He sort of liked the guy.

Which, all right, maybe wasn't a good idea. The whole sentinel-guide relationship was way too complicated to make forming attachments anything but a disaster. Blair already held way too much power in his hands without Jim *liking* him, too. It would be as bad as trying to be friends with the department shrink. Worse. Wouldn't it?

It was hard though, sitting in this tiny cell with its distorting almost-transparent walls and the smell of suffering around him not to miss Sandburg.

There had been a night, not long after they'd started working together... they'd been eating pizza, and it had been great, because Jim hadn't even been near a pizza since April or May. But halfway through, everything went to hell. Out of nowhere Jim's throat started to swell, one of the things he really hated about the whole sentinel crap. It wasn't painful or visible--it hardly qualified as an inconvenience, really, when you compared it to, say, a really bad zone or depth perception turning inside out. But it was scary, because he never knew when it would end. Maybe it would just go on for an hour or two, irritating and bewildering and then go away. Or maybe it would keep getting worse, fast like lightening striking, and suddenly he'd be choking. It happened every once in a while, and Jim never knew just how bad it would get.

The worst part of it just then had been knowing that Sandburg was right there. He'd wanted the kid to have just a little respect for him, although given everything he'd seen so far, it was probably too late for that. He hadn't wanted to fall apart while Blair watched.

Not that Jim was expecting him to laugh or criticize. He knew he wasn't Lee. Despite Sandburg's careful dance trying not to set off the negative associations Jim might have about guides, Jim had known that they were nothing alike. But in Jim's experience, people confronted with the messy sides of being a sentinel responded with either pity or revulsion, and Jim hadn't been up for either.

But Sandburg hadn't seemed appalled. He'd just been a little worried. He took Jim into the bathroom and, well, even now, Jim didn't quite know what Sandburg had been doing. But when Jim questioned him about it, he'd been firmly told to cooperate and let Blair do his job. Jim had still been puzzled, but he'd been reassured, too. Nobody was giving him incomprehensible instructions or throwing up their hands in disgust. Or laughing. If things had gotten *bad* Jim wouldn't have to call for the ambulance himself. For that alone, Blair justified what the department paid him. Would be paying him. He didn't have the job yet. He hadn't passed that damn exam.

Blair had to pass that exam.

Of course, if Jim was shipped to South America in the next two or three days, it wouldn't really matter. At least, not to Jim.

Blair would be upset if Jim never reappeared. He was a little flaky about, say, where he put his keys (never in the same place twice, and never where he could find them on the first try the next morning) but the sentinel thing he took seriously. He saw Jim's safety as his personal responsibility, which was reassuring if the issue was just using the right dish soap and, yeah, touching, ok. But he'd feel bad about this too, and getting captured had been Jim's own screw up. What a mess.

Jim was thirsty, but he had finished his water, and the guard who usually sat on a chair in the corner across from Monk's cage had left shortly after switching Fraser's and Monk's waters and hadn't returned. The little prison had gone quiet again. To Jim's left, the women had fallen asleep, still leaning on the partition. Trying to touch each other. Blair was always saying how important touch was.

"Detective Ellison? I was wondering... that is, in your opinion... the room isn't, well, shrinking, is it?"

Jim sat up, suddenly alert. Fraser's voice was quiet and even, but something under the voice seemed taut, very close to breaking. "The walls are just the same," Jim answered, knowing it was inadequate. "Everything's fine."

"Ah. Yes. Just as I thought. Thank you."

"You have a problem with claustrophobia?" Jim asked carefully.

"No. Well, not exactly. Not small spaces. Just--confinement."

He had been here over two weeks. "It doesn't show."

"Well, no. I know it's all in my head. I mean, I am perfectly aware that we haven't, for example, been dropped in a hole and buried under tons of rubble. I know that the world outside this-box," his voice nearly broke, "still exists just the same. I can hear..."

"You can hear the birds," Jim whispered back.

"Yes. Sea gulls and terns. And song birds. Some species of starling, I think."

"You just have to hold it together. Everything is still out there. And they're looking for us. It won't be much longer now."

"Is that what he said?"

Jim blinked. "What who said?"

"Your wolf. Did he say they were coming?"

"My wolf?" Jim repeated stupidly, as though he had no idea what Fraser could be talking about.

"He was here a few hours ago. Do they know where we are?"

"No," Jim whispered leadenly. "They have no idea where we are. Blair was nearly frantic."

"Ah."

The silence stretched out, broken only by eight heartbeats, the soft rush of breathing, and the sounds of birds in the distance.

***

Afternoon sun was flooding Simon's office when the FBI sentinel nudged Blair awake and held out a Styrofoam cup of coffee. "Meeting in fifteen minutes."

Blair swung his feet down and sat up groggily. "Thanks. Any news?"

"Nothing. I'm sorry. You?"

Blair blinked, swallowed some of the coffee. "Uh, no."

The door opened and the FBI guide poked her head in. "Hey, Mulder? I just got the test results back on Mabry's body." Blair realized that her badge read "MD" as well as "AG(N)."

"Michelson's?" her partner asked.

"Probably not. There are some indications of increased immune activity, but nothing I can link to a direct cause of death. I did find extremely high levels of norepinephrine, cortisol, and CRH."

"Dangerous?"

"Not very. For someone who wasnít a sentinel."

"Wait a minute," Blair protested. "You're saying he went toxic on his own fear? That doesn't actually happen."

"It's happened three times," she said, "that have been documented. At the moment, that's my best bet."

The FBI sentinel laughed at her. "You're reaching. You're so far out on a limb, squirrels are cheering."

"When you have a better idea, let me know."

"I did. It's Michelson's."

"I meant one with some actual support. There was no sign of--" They left, still arguing.

Blair set the coffee cup on the floor and rubbed his face with both hands. God, Jim. Jim. How awful could the situation be, if people were dying of fright? But Jim knew all about fear. He was used to coping. And he was a cop, he wouldn't just--

The FBI sentinel poked his head back in the door. "Hey? You coming?"

The meeting was in the big fourth floor conference room. About half of Major Crime was there, a bunch of feds in suits, and some captain from the State Police on the speaker-phone. The house had yielded some trace evidence, but it was all in analysis still. They had identified the truck using King's confession--they had the description and the plate, but no sign of it so far. They might have changed trucks by now, or run to ground. The good news was that the ship the kidnappers had been planning to use had been identified and was under surveillance, so the prisoners couldn't be taken out of the country that way, and they might even get them back, if the men holding them didn't panic and change plans.

The bad news was, another sentinel was missing. A doctor working in a suburban hospital had disappeared that morning between leaving home and arriving at work. There were no witnesses, no sign of her car.

Blair sat between the two Rays, staring at the battered conference table and feeling slightly sick. The coffee sloshed mockingly in his stomach, and Blair wondered when Jim had last eaten. God, they had just gotten him to put on a little weight.

The room tilted, and suddenly it was twice as crowded, packed with furry faces that made Blair think of a zoo or a Disney movie. Blair jumped, prevented from rising from the table by Veccio's chair wedged in on his left. Desperately, he looked around. Fox. Caribou. Horse. There, finally, crouched by the door, the big, dark cat. Jim. Blair tried to rise again, but his legs were unsteady, his stomach was trying to rebel, and the crowd of animals flowed away like water down a drain.

"You ok?" one of the Rays whispered, and Blair wanted to scream.

The other Ray answered, "He hasn't eaten since yesterday. As soon as this is over, we'll get him some food."

At the front of the room, the doctor FBI guide was arguing with the State Police captain about truck inspection procedures and the feasibility of roadblocks.

Something was pushed into Blair's hand, and obediently he ate. It was dry and hard, like leather, but fibrous and redolent of soy sauce. Blair chewed slowly--there was no other way--and by the time the meeting broke up his head was depressingly clear. Jim might be able to see animals all the time, but clearly Blair had to work at it. He should have been fasting deliberately.

Yeah. No more food. And he'd stop sleeping.

As cops of every variety strode past them, Ray Kowalski pointed at the remains in Blair's hand. "What is that?"

"Turkey jerky," Ray Veccio said shortly.

"You're kidding."

"No. I go everywhere with desiccated meat."

Miserably, Blair got to his feet and headed for the door. He almost bumped into the FBI sentinel standing in his way. "Excuse me," Blair muttered.

Mulder gently caught his arm. "What did you see?"

"It doesn't matter."

He leaned closer urgently. "It matters."

"They didn't tell me anything. It doesnít matter."

"Mr. Sandburg. Blair--"

"This isn't some cool thing. It's not another story for your collection. It's not *interesting*. Those people are dying. Jim--" Blair pulled his arm free and fled. It wasn't that he didn't understand: this sentinel was looking for meaning, truth, something with a purpose. But Blair's only purpose was finding Jim, and--although he knew he wasn't quite rational--everybody else could take their priorities and go to hell.

***

"Tell me about your guide," Jim said, hoping to keep the conversation going. When the stillness went on too long, Fraser's heart rate tended to climb. Around them, most of the others were awake, but they had fallen into a blunted, hopeless silence. At this point, most of them didn't have much left to say to one another.

"He's a good man," Fraser said slowly. "He doesn't always think so, but he's a good man. Over the last couple of years, I've asked much more of him than he could ever.... That's not a criticism. I mean, given his background, I could hardly expect.... Well, could I?"

"Uh, no," Jim said, having no idea what he was talking about. That might be his own fault. He'd only gotten about three hours' sleep before waking to Cindy beside him restlessly pacing her tiny cage.

"But you know, he never condemned me and he never pushed me away." For a moment, Jim thought he smelled tears, but everything had reeked of tears since he'd gotten here. "Besides which, he never let the fact that he knows absolutely nothing about sentinels stop him from being a guide. I have to respect that."

Toward the front, Mark roused himself to say, "And people wonder why the Canadians have such lousy statistics."

"We consider the relationship personal, and not a matter for government supervision."

"I think Sandburg might be with them," Jim said. "Your people." Mentioning Blair made something burn behind his eyes. There were things he wanted to say to Blair, things he couldn't think about in this place.

"They'll take care of him. They're good men, both of them. Well, except that neither one of them has a clue about nutrition. They'll feed Diefenbaker anything. He's getting fat on donuts...." Fraser trailed off sadly. It took Jim a moment to remember that Diefenbaker was the wolf.

Voices outside gave them only a moment's warning before the doors of the truck clanged open and made all of them wince. Doug was back, pushing a woman ahead of him. She was very tall and very dark skinned, very beautiful--and she smelled very clean. There was fury and contempt in her eyes, not fear. Doug opened an empty cell on the other side of the truck and shoved her in.

Speaking so softly that their captors couldn't hear, Fraser made brief introductions and explained what was going on. The missing sentinels were all over the news, she said, and raised her voice to add, "Five states and two countries are looking for them. Everyone's wondering who could be stupid enough to think any of this could work."

Doug ignored her. He opened the foot-square slot at the bottom of each cell and passed in water, dry granola, and clean sheets, and exchanged the full waste receptacles for new ones. He worked his way slowly up the aisle, snapping at the prisoners to hurry.

When he came to Jim's cell, Jim was ready, holding the full jar. When he held it out, though, he didn't hand it over. He dropped it and snagged Doug's arm instead. He had a good, solid grip, and though Doug tried to heave himself away, Jim overbalanced him and slammed his head into the plexiglas barrier.

It should have been a shocking blow, but the plexiglas was more bounce than blunt instrument. They struggled for a moment, then Doug's other hand came forward. There was a hiss. A scalding pain soaked the sweatshirt they'd dressed him in and burned his arm--it felt like to the bone. The air was suddenly scalding too, and Jim staggered backward, unable to see, unable to breathe.

Just when he'd been sure things couldn't get worse.

Cursing himself, shutting his eyes on the vicious sting, Jim groped for Doug. Too late, of course. He'd lost his hold already. One arm was on fire. The air was on fire, too, making him gag and choke. Damn. Damn.

What would Sandburg tell him? Get his mind off the problem by focusing somewhere else. A lot easier said than done, especially without a guide here to talk him through it. But he could cope with this. He could. It was just a little overload. Sight was out, so was touch, but he should be able to focus on hearing. Could he hear anything at all?

Yes? He could hear a lot of yelling. And crying somewhere. The snap of a bolt being slammed back.

Hands were on him. They stripped off the sweatshirt and hauled him across the cold floor. More yelling. More burning. Every breath hurt and he had to force himself to try.

Hands were on him, light, gentle. Somehow he registered another sentinel. "Detective Ellison?" Fraser's voice. "As bad as things feel right now, everything is under control. Dr. Morton is right here. You just need to hang in there for a while."

Small, fast hands pinned his arm and water sluiced over it. Water--it must be water, he told himself. It felt like acid dissolving his flesh. Jim gasped, but there was no air. Behind his eyes, the world turned red and then gray.

"Losing blood pressure," Fraser murmured.

The doctor snarled deep in her throat and snapped, "He's going into shock. There's swelling. Your moron may have just killed him. Do you have--" But Jim couldn't follow what she was saying. The grayness surrounded him now, it was in his ears, in his head, blocking out the pain on his skin. Dying. Jim fought for another breath; one thing at time. Nevermind the pain, just live.

Less than three months ago he'd been *waiting* to die, he'd gotten comfortable with the idea, and now--now--when he was finally starting to get the sentinel thing to work for him, now the senses were going to kill him? No way. Slowly, he got another breath in.

Pain in the other arm. Like a serrated knife going in. An injection of something? "Ak--" it wasn't what Jim meant to say.

For a long time there was only grayness and breathing. When the world began to impinge again nobody was close to him. The burning had faded to an enveloping sting. He was on a thin mattress, not the one he'd been on before. There was a blanket, but he was still cold. He could hear the sentinels around him, but they weren't speaking.

Outside the truck things werenít so quiet. "What the hell did you think you were doing?"

"It was just pepper spray!"

"You fucking idiot!" A thud, the grind of bone.

"I have a right to defend myself!"

"Alive, that sentinel is worth three million dollars. Dead, he's not worth anything." Another thud, this time a crack as bones broke. "You're not worth anything dead *or* alive."

The ceiling above Jim's head was a gray blur, but because he was having trouble focusing and compensating for the darkness, not because his vision had shut down completely. Across the narrow aisle, Cindy started to cry again. Outside, the beating went on. Jim breathed; that was still taking a little work on his part.

Sandburg would have a fit. He was a stickler for rules. Pepper spray wasn't on the approved list. Hell, it was completely illegal in four states because sentinels couldn't handle it. Sandburg would have a fit.

It had taken a few days to get used to that, Sandburg's anger. But unlike Lee's temper and impatience, Sandburg's anger was nothing to be afraid of. He was all bark and no bite, or, at least, teeth had never closed on Jim. Even when he wasn't walking on egg shells, obviously worried that he might set off some baggage Jim was carrying from his last guide, Sandburg went out of his way to be patient and encouraging. Even when he was angry, he repeated again and again that whatever was wrong wasn't Jim's fault.

It was almost funny, how gentle this neo-hippie, pacifist graduate student was with a veteran cop who outweighed him by at least fifty pounds. This time last year, Jim would have thought he was the last person to need it.

Aw, god, Chief. Jim managed another breath. He was going to have to hold things together by himself for a little longer. He could do this, even without Blair. He could keep it together. He could.

The truck started up. They were moving again. Not much speed, but the road twisted. A minor highway, Jim guessed. He didn't know which. The jarring made him slightly nauseated.

***

Blair was driving in hopeless circles with the Ray contingent when the call they were all waiting for finally came. Veccio was explaining what one of the best sentinels on the RCMP payroll was doing being farmed out hither, thither, and yon to the yanks. Apparently he'd exposed some kind of serious corruption involving his superiors and was persona non grata up north. "I have to wonder just how pissed they were, you know what I mean? 'Suggesting' he stay in Chicago? Up until that point, his biggest assignment was Moose Ass--"

"Moose Jaw," Kowalski corrected.

"And he had to be transferred out for stress in a month." He shook his head. "Chicago."

"I don't wonder," Kowalski said. "He'd be dead if he hadn't found a guide."

"Might have been nice if he'd actually told me--"

The police scanner Veccio had set up on the dash announced that the State Police had the truck--license number confirmed--in sight. It was refusing to pull over, heading north on Old Highway Seven, back-up requested.

It turned out that Veccio drove like a maniac. It wasn't the speed that Blair found shocking, actually. After all, Jim drove fairly fast when they were on the way to a scene. It was the way the Toyota fishtailed around corners and the way Kowalski shouted conflicting advice from the passenger seat.

Even with all of this speed, they weren't going fast enough. "Sandburg, is Route 3 a shortcut?"

"No, take Bird Road. Up here, on the left!"

Kowalski was trying to read a map while being repeatedly tossed against his seat belt. "Did she say they were up at Winston Point already? We're never going to make it!"

*"Suspect vehicle is exiting Old Seven heading for the Mumford Bridge."*

"Oh, crap," Blair yelled. "We do want Route 3!"

The Toyota swung wildly as Ray aborted his turn and nearly missed a minivan. Diefenbaker bounced into Blair's lap. "Where the hell is Route 3?"

"Up there, on the left, on the left! Not the gas station!" Kowalski hollered.

With another of those horrible swerves, they were blasting north on Route 3, a four-lane highway with a low median. Blair realized he was holding his breath. Up ahead, he could see three police cars, lights flashing.

*"Suspect vehicle has entered Route 3, southbound; repeat, southbound."*

Southbound. Blair was excited and terrified at the same time. Veccio pulled into the lefthand lane and flew past the other cars until he was just behind the police. Blair counted four black-and-whites and a dark sedan covered with antennas that had to be the feds.

The chatter on the radio was almost continuous and in some kind of shorthand Blair didn't understand. He had no warning when three cars, sirens screaming, roared past on the other side, and the cops in front of them suddenly jumped the median into the southbound lanes and Ray followed. The world spun horribly and then slammed to a stop.

Blair spit out a mouthful of wolf fur and looked. Beyond the scattered cop-cars, the highway was clear, except for a huge eighteen-wheeler bearing down on them from the bottom of a small grade.

Blair was surprised. He would have thought a moment like that would stretch out into forever. It was the kind of thing, he thought fleetingly, that *ought* to be in slow motion. But he had hardly blinked before he heard the tires of the truck screaming--and then it was stopped.

The silence was awful. Blair blinked. Ahead of him, the cops were out of their cars, leaning over roofs and over hoods with their guns pointed. The truck was at a slight angle, bent a little at the junction where the tractor met the trailer. Beyond the truck, the pursuing cop cars were also scattered like tacks across the highway. There would be men on the other sides of those cars, too, and they would have guns.

Please, Blair thought. Please let it be ok.

The Rays were out of the car. Blair disentangled himself from the seatbelt and the wolf and crept out after them. Veccio nodded once and caught Blair's shoulder, hauling him up to the next car.

The silence continued, then someone ahead shouted, "Hold your fire!" and the passenger door of the truck opened. A man got out--unremarkable with brown hair and a brown suit--and walked slowly around to face the cops who had pursued him.

He said something Blair couldn't hear, but the FBI sentinel crouched at the car ahead of them repeated, "We all know you can only send me to the chair once, so we don't have a lot to lose." A pause. "We have nine very valuable hostages and very few options. You have five minutes to get rid of the road block and release our ship, or my man in the back of the truck starts shooting the sentinels one at a time, starting with the locals."

Someone stood up from behind a State Police car and answered by bullhorn: "No deals."

"You don't have much choice. If those sentinels die, you'll lose the confidence of--"

The rear doors of the truck slammed open to the sound of screaming. For a moment nobody moved, everyone straining to see what was going on, and then a single figure flew--apparently from the back of the truck--in an awkward arc and landed sloppily on the center line. Blair had an impression of stockiness and maleness and red hair, but it was hard to tell; the figure was still trying to crawl away on its belly.

For a second more the cops sheltered by the ring of cars were still, and then the man who'd gotten out of the cab started to run. The police swarmed over him like bees descending on a hive.

The first gunshot sounded like a little pop, and for a second Blair couldn't tell where it came from. Then he saw another man running away from the cab of the truck. He was trying to get across the road to the trees beside the highway, and he was firing--Pop. Pop.-- into the roadblock.

A dozen guns close at hand returned fire with a roar that sounded like cannons and the man staggered and went down. There was a moment's pause, and then the collected law enforcement troops, still with their guns drawn, began to close on the truck.

It was mayhem. The highway was shut down in both directions, but the sirens of more police came slowly up the median, followed by ambulances and then by a camera team on foot.

Blair tried to get closer, but he was separated from the Rays and he'd left his department ID in his backpack back in the car. The State Police wouldn't let him get any closer than thirty feet.

The police cuffed and removed the first man who'd left the cab of the truck, then the man who'd gone tumbling from the rear. The second man wasn't bleeding, but he had livid bruises on his face and he offered no resistance. In fact, he seemed hardly aware of the arresting officers at all as they led him away.

From his place a huge distance away, Blair watched Adrian Monk climb slowly down from the truck and into Sharona's arms. After him, a tall, light-haired man who Blair recognized as the Canadian. Both Rays closed on him and hustled him away from the crowd.

Police, rescue workers--nobody moving fast or being loud, made a steady stream in and out of the truck. Every once in a while a figure in gray sweats would be helped out of the truck, sometimes on a stretcher. The glimpses of haggard, pale people Blair saw hardly matched the pictures of the missing sentinels he'd been staring at for days.

He counted eight. None of them was Jim.

The FBI sentinel appeared at the mouth of the truck. His eyes fastened on Blair at once. "Mr. Sandburg?"

Blair ran, terrified, pushing past the State Police man even as he stepped out of the way. Agent Mulder reached down to give him a hand into the truck. "He's fine. He just wants to talk to you first."

Blair managed to nod, managed not to scream and scrambled up.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the sudden dimness. The arrangement of cages was familiar. So was the smell, although it wasn't so strong now that it wasn't being filtered through Jim. Blair swallowed.

Jim was in a narrow cage, halfway up the cargo box on the left. He was sitting on a thin mat, his back to the wall behind him and his knees drawn up. He was shirtless and huddled under a blanket. Slowly--because he was afraid, not because he had any strength left to worry about Jim's response--Blair crept up the central aisle and stepped into Jim's cell.

"Hey, Chief," Jim whispered hoarsely. He tried to smile. "Did you remember to get eggs?" He broke off, shuddering, panting, and Blair dropped to his knees and fumbled for Jim's hands. "I'm... I'm ok, Chief."

Blair clung, relief making his eyes fog. Thank you, god, he was thinking, but he could only nod his head silently.

"I just didn't want to embarrass myself out there, you know?"

"I know. It's ok." Blair laughed and hugged him. He replaced the blanket which had slipped and rested his forehead against Jim's temple. "It's ok."

"Out," Jim said. "Please."

Blair stood and then pulled Jim up after him. For a moment Blair just blinked at him before trying to remember how to be a guide and smiling reassuringly. Jim clung to his arm as they made their way down the aisle. At the opening, Blair kept eye contact as he detached himself and went down first, then reached out to brace Jim as he climbed down. Jim turned into Blair's arms and rested against him. Even that small exertion had left him breathless. They were still until an EMT approached and Jim flinched away. Blair shook his head.

"Blair?"

"Hey, Joel," Blair said. Joel and Simon had stopped a good ten feet away and were looking on fearfully.

"We're out of ambulances. It'll be a few minutes before more get here. How about I just take you to the clinic in my car?"

Blair glanced at Jim, who nodded. "Sure, Joel. Clinic?"

"Across the street from Memorial. The FBI made arrangements for the sentinels to be examined someplace quiet first."

"That's good. We'll do that." He glanced up at Jim, squinting in the late afternoon sunlight and put an arm around his waist. "Close your eyes. It's all right." He guided Jim through the bustle of emergency personnel to Joel's car. It was a dark sedan, not the SUV with "Bomb Squad" on the side. Blair slid into the back seat and, one hand on Jim's head, guided him in after.

For a minute, Blair wasn't sure what to do. Jim looked like hell. He was gaunt and exhausted. His eyes weren't quite tracking, even within the shadows of the car. His breathing stuttered a little, as though he were trying not to cough.

"Blair--"

"I'm here, I'm here." He began a guide check, running his hands over Jim's skull, his face.

"I dreamed you came."

Blair's hands froze. "It wasn't a dream."

"I... I know."

Blair slid his hands under the blanket. He kept his touch light, but still Jim winced when he grazed the upper arms. "What?" He pushed the blanket aside to look.

"Injection. Cortisone, maybe."

"Why?"

Jim held out his other arm.

A deep red welt two inches wide stretched from just above Jim's wrist to the elbow.

"What happened?" Blair asked, almost choking on the knowledge that no words Jim gave him could convey 'what' had happened.

"Pepper spray."

"Wh--what? Why?"

"Stupid," Jim muttered. He closed his eyes, and Blair didnít ask for more.

"It's gonna be ok. Capsaicin poisoning doesn't bring on a generalized allergic reaction. Once the initial exposure is over, it won't get worse. You're going to be ok."

Jim nodded. Blair wondered how bad the 'initial exposure' had been. He squeezed Jim's hand. "It's going to be ok."

"I can't feel it."

"The wound? That's ok. That's normal. Your body's taking care of you. We'll get the feeling back later, if it forgets to come on its own." It was ok. It was all ok.

Blair didn't notice the trip, didnít realize they had arrived until Joel said, "Wait. I'll help you get him out." Inside the clinic, they were shown to a small examining room and left alone.

Jim sat sideways on the examining table, his legs dangling, his head down. He shivered a little, and Blair adjusted the blanket. God, he was such a crappy guide. His sentinel was in trouble, and it was all Blair could do not to cry all over him. He ought to be helping somehow. Not standing here uselessly. God. Angela had been right all along. Blair had no business--

Jim's hand snaked out and caught Blair's wrist, an automatic gesture Blair recognized, one that was usually followed by a slightly-surprised noticing of the action and a firm release. Even after nearly three months, Jim was uncomfortable about the idea of touching his guide. He'd gotten over being apologetic about it, and if they were working or if Blair initiated it he didn't resist, but it still didn't seem natural.

This time, though, Jim lifted Blair's arm and held it with both hands. Tightly. Blair put his free arm around Jim's shoulders. "Cindy's mom's not here yet," Jim said suddenly. "She's freaking. Zoe's trying to calm her down."

"Zoe?"

"Zoe O'Malley." One of the search and rescue sentinels.

"Jim, should you be listening to this?" Jim had enough stress on his own, without every other sentinel's distress pouring into his ears.

"They don't mind. Everybody knows everybody's listening."

Of course. They had been listening to each other for days, some of them for weeks. God. Blair knew absolutely nothing about the dynamics of sentinels in groups. Nobody deployed more than one at a time. Almost never. Who could afford it? There weren't enough anyway, even if you could afford to pay them. So there was no data on adult sentinel interaction, not anywhere.

What would they say to each other? Feel toward each other?

"They're admitting Adrian. Dehydration. He's not too thrilled with that, but Sharona's not letting him argue."

Blair held Jim a little tighter. Things could be a lot worse.

The door to the examining room cracked open and Ray Kowalski timidly poked his head in. "Uh, Blair? Ray wanted some advice?"

Blair looked up, took a deep breath. "Yeah. Sure." His arms were still tight around Jim.

Kowalski swallowed. "He's got this rash? On his back? Like big rings made out of smaller rings? Ben says it's no biggie, but Ray's never seen anything like it. Not in person."

Blair swallowed. "How big?"

Kowalski held out his hands, palms side-by-side. "Yea big." He frowned. "He doesn't scratch it. He says it hurts."

Blair relaxed. "Take him someplace that feels safe. Get him in his own clothes and on his regular diet. Have him drink lots of water. Use whatever topical ointment usually works and cold compresses."

Kowalski and Jim didn't look any more reassured, and Blair knew they were still thinking of Welles' autopsy pictures. "Fraser isn't a touchy sentinel. It isn't going to be like that. When was the last time he was in the hospital?" Blair was willing to bet at least five years.

"There was a stabbing," Kowalski said slowly. "And about two years ago Ray shot him."

"That a Canadian guide technique?" Blair asked. When Kowalski only blinked, he realized it hadn't been a joke.

Jim said softly, "He says he was hospitalized twice in--Moose Jaw?--but that was it for the senses. Nothing else."

Blair managed a thin smile. "See? Not touchy." Almost inhumanly so. "He'll be fine."

Ray disappeared, closing the door after him.

"Warm enough?"

Jim nodded. Blair pulled him closer. "Soon," he promised.

The door opened and the FBI guide bustled in, snatching a pair of gloves from a dispenser on the wall. "They're a little short-handed, so I thought I'd lend a hand. If that's all right with you, Mr. Sandburg."

On the one hand, she was a fed, and while the FBI's sentinel program wasnít as pitiless as, say, the army's or the CIA's, Blair didn't quite trust it either. On the other hand, even Jim's doctor wasn't an AG(N) as well as an MD. And it had the added attraction of getting them out sooner. "It's up to Jim," he said.

Jim nodded.

She took his blood pressure and temperature, then tilted back his head to look into his eyes. "I hear there was an attack with pepper spray?"

"Two of the others touched me--Fraser and, ah, Rachel--"

"Minor, secondary exposure. They both have enough experience to handle it." Jim winced and glanced at Blair, who had moved out of the doctor's way but was still holding his hand.

The doctor listened for a long time to Jim's chest. "Your breathing getting better, or worse?" she asked him.

"Better."

Frowning, she continued her examination. She found a camera in one of the cabinets lining the room and took a picture of Jim's arm. Then she smeared something white on the raw welt and wrapped it in gauze. "Leave this alone for about 24 hours, then nothing stronger than aloe, ok, Blair?"

He nodded.

"I don't have to tell you to watch him," she said.

"No," Blair whispered. "I'll watch him."

"The police will want a statement. Tell them to wait; take him home and get him clean and in his own clothes."

It seemed to take forever, but at last she finished the exam and Blair was leading Jim out into the waiting room. Joel was still there--Joel who had always been kind to Jim--and Blair felt a wave of relief.

Before they made it to the door, though, the doctor's partner stepped casually in front of them. "Everything all right?" he asked politely.

"Yes, thank you," Blair said.

"The case looks pretty good, so far. I thought you'd want to know. The only minor glitch I see at this point is that the gentleman who was so anxious to exit the truck seems to be trying for 'mental incapacity.'"

He was talking to Jim, but Blair said quickly, "I'm sure everything will be fine," and tried to nudge his partner toward the safety of Joel standing by the door.

Jim stayed still, gazing levelly at Agent Mulder. "How interesting."

"He claims to be hallucinating. Wild animals; claws, big teeth, that sort of thing." There was nothing at all urgent in his voice, no loaded looks behind his friendly eyes.

Jim shrugged. "I bet that would be very stressful."

"I wouldn't worry about it. There isn't a judge alive stupid enough to fall for that."

"If there's nothing else, Agent Mulder, I'd like to take my partner home," Blair said tightly.

"Of course. Excuse me." He stepped politely out of the way.

Blair led Jim to the door, trying not to run.

Epilogue:

A dog was barking, fighting for scraps behind the House of Hunan on the next street. For a few moments Jim froze, reminding himself with the smell of his own sheets and the sound of Blair's light snoring that he was home.

Home. Not a dream. Really home.

By the time Blair had gotten Jim bathed and re-examined and settled on the couch (not a simple task when they had needed to keep the dressing on his arm dry and all Jim wanted to do was sleep anyway) Simon had shown up with a pizza, a six-pack of beer, and a tight, worried smile that belied his claims that he was *not* checking up on Jim.

Surprised at how hungry he was, Jim had jumped on the pizza. He downed six pieces one after another, not really listening as Simon and Blair rehashed the case. It was like the food was some kind of drug--the slide of grease on his tongue, the way the crust began to sweeten as he chewed it, the way the seasonings popped, one at a time, to the top of his perception. Basil. Oregano. Rosemary. The flavors rotated between delicious to mildly unpleasant, but it was completely absorbing, and he shoved the pieces in one after another. He must have fallen asleep after that, because he couldn't remember Simon leaving, just Blair coaxing him upstairs.

That must have been hours ago. It was very dark now and mostly quiet. All that pizza felt like lead in his stomach. Jim lay still, shivering, for a moment, then slipped out of bed and crept quietly downstairs. When he nudged Blair, he roused immediately--if not completely. "Jim?" he muttered. "You ok, man?"

Jim was unsure. "Yeah," he said cautiously.

"No pain?"

"No. I'm ok."

"Good. Good, ok. Go back to sleep."

Right. It was the middle of the night. What was he doing? Jim turned toward the door.

"Jim." Not loud, but definitely more awake, and Jim felt acutely guilty. Blair had had a hell of a day on Jim's behalf and the poor kid hadn't even cleared firearms testing yet.

"I'm fine, Sandburg. Go back to sleep."

"No. Come here." Reluctantly, Jim turned around. Blair patted the bed and, meekly, Jim came and sat. "You ok?"

"Yeah. I'm fine."

Blair sat up and folded his feet under himself. "You breathing ok?"

"Yeah. Chief, I don't know--"

"Shhh." Blair laid his fingertips on the top of Jim's head and started doing that after-action exterior exam that guides apparently defaulted to when they were stressed. Even with the 'light duty' Jim had been working in the absence of the full-time supervision of an accredited guide, they'd wound up doing this about once a week. Sometimes the examination provided a necessary couple of minutes Jim could use to collect himself when the senses were freaked out. Usually, though, it was just another thing to put up with.

This time the light touch was very reassuring. Blair's fingertips somehow reoriented Jim, reminding him of just where he was in relation to the rest of the world.

Settling. Focusing. 'You are here,' the touch said. 'You are ok, and your boundaries are safe.' Jim swallowed hard. He remembered, vaguely, that there was something he didn't like about all this touching being a sentinel seemed to involve. He couldn't remember what.

Blair completed the check and then went to the top of Jim's head and started again. Fingers ghosted over his face and neck, clearly no longer searching for injury. 'I'm right here,' the hands said this time. 'You matter to me.'

Jim said a little desperately, "They prepare you for this in guide school?"

"Shockingly, Jack never mentioned your partner getting used as bait." His voice shook and Jim felt horrible. It felt unfair to take Blair's friendship as well his competence. He opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Blair's hands stilled. "Jim?"

A gulf seemed to open beneath Jim's feet. "Oh, god, Sandburg. Everything's fucked up. I never wanted to be a freak."

The hands stilled, then pulled Jim into a hug he didn't have the strength to pretend was unnecessary. "What the hell are you talking about?" Blair asked gently.

"I don't--god, I don't even know. I just feel--so ashamed and so angry. I--I donít know."

"Yeah. Ok. Just keep talking."

"There was something... those other sentinels. Like me. I mean, I knew a couple in the army, sort of...."

"Not a good place to start."

"And Monk. I mean talk about scary. Oh, god."

"He's a special case, Jim. Really unusual."

"But Kathy and Mark and Zoe are just people, with lives and they're not... they're not freaks." It felt dirty to even say the word in relation to them.

"Of course not--Uh. Jim, did, did Lee--?" Blair swallowed hard and forged on gently, "Is this more of his toxic bullshit?"

"No. No...."

"Where is this coming from?"

Jim shook his head. He didn't know. Sighing, Blair guided Jim down until they were lying beside one another on the futon. There wasn't quite room, and Blair wound up on his side, wedged between Jim's shoulder and the wall. "I don't... I don't know what to do right now, Jim. But we're both really tired. Look, is it enough if I just promise you that everything is ok? There's nothing wrong with you and you're not--you're *not*, ok? You're home and everybody's safe and it's all going to be ok."

They didn't talk any more, although it was a long time before either of them got to sleep.

***

For a moment Ray wasnít sure whether it was morning or not. But nope. The glow splashing in through the balcony doors was only a reflection of Cascadeís light pollution. Shivering, he slid from between the sheets and snagged his faded fleece jacket from the back of a chair. The sliding glass doors were already about a third of the way open, explaining why the room was so cold. He crept to the threshold and looked down.

He could make out Kowalski, awake and uncomfortable in the corner. The lump beside him might be Ben's head. Or it might be part of Diefenbaker. Ray nudged Kowalski with his toe. "Switch," he whispered.

Kowalski started to shake his head and Ray scowled at him. "Get some sleep. It's my turn. It's only fair."

Slowly, carefully, and still looking doubtful, Kowalski slid out from under the blankets. Shivering, Ray took his place. His legs wouldn't quite stretch out, and Dief grumbled as Ray nudged him sideways. Damn. Ben, sleeping in a tight ball, wiggled over to press the back of his head into Ray's thigh. It would be at least three days before they would be able to coax him back inside onto the floor, let alone into a real bed. Sighing inwardly at the fact that he was never, ever, going to figure out his life, Ray gave Kowalski a thumbs up and sank back into the pillow that cushioned the base of the rungs of the banister behind him.

It was cold and damp, and Ray was grateful for the wolf cuddled against his feet. That part of him was, at least, warm. After more than four years with Nanook of the North, he still didn't like the cold, still hated to sleep outside. It would be nice if he did like those things, since he would probably retire to North Nowhere, Canada when it was all over. Maybe he could get hypnosis or something.

Fraser stirred. "Where's Stan?" he mumbled.

"In bed. Sleeping. Like normal people," Ray grumbled good naturedly back. "Can you hear him?"

"No." Ben's hearing, like the rest of his senses, tested out as barely over the line separating sentinels from everyone else. It was how he processed the data he received that made him such a 'phenomenon' in two countries.

"It's ok. He's fine. Go back to sleep."

"Thanks, Ray."

Ben was already asleep again. Ray turned over and pressed their backs together for warmth. He might not get any sleep out here, but it wouldn't hurt to try.

***

Mulder opened the adjoining door without knocking. "I could have been doing something personal," Dana said, not looking up from the computer cradled in her lap.

"You'd turn the white noise generator on."

"What if I forgot?"

"You never forget." He would be smiling that charming, innocent smile that would melt her heart and make her want to slap him. Instead of looking, Dana turned to dig through the pile of medical reports on the rescued sentinels that were on the bed beside her. He sighed and gave up trying to be cute. "Any chance we can leave tomorrow?"

"I don't know. There's a lot to tie up here. Why?"

"There's a rain of frogs in Chattanooga."

"Oh, not another rain of frogs. The last three were just--"

"This time they landed in some congressman's mother's backyard. He's calling out the EPA. Scully. We can't let the EPA--"

She shook her head. "Anyway, we're scheduled for some down time."

"*Don't* go all 'guide' on me."

"That's my job."

"You're a federal agent. Your job is to find the truth."

She sighed. "Come here."

For just a second he almost smiled, showing that he knew he was gaining ground. He came over and sat beside her on the bed while Dana closed the computer and set it aside. She took his hand, an intimacy they never indulged unless they were alone. They were silent for a moment and then he released a tiny sigh. "I want the truth, Mulder. Are you ok?"

"I'm good. I promise." His physiological control was amazing, even for sentinels. Once, on a bet while he was in training, he'd slowed his heart down, made his blood pressure undetectable, and held his breath for six minutes. When he was tired, though, or after extended stress, all the pinpoint control disappeared. His vital signs swung wildly with every change in mood or attention. When he was overworked he zoned, although normally he could scan with two senses concurrently and carry on a conversation. Dana's rules about time off were very strict, but Mulder was very good at being able to talk her into extensions.

Sometimes into too many extensions, and she would wind up half-carrying him out of a crime scene, hating both of them for being idiots.

He smiled an innocent, charming smile that made her want to hit him. "Please. It's a rain of frogs. Non-native species, did I mention that?"

Dana rolled her eyes. "Sleep late tomorrow and I'll think about it."

"We have to be at the federal building at 8:30."

"You'll come in at noon. If everything goes ok, we'll leave for Chattanooga on Thursday. Ok?"

"Ok!"

"Now, go to bed."

"Gone, gone." He shut the door behind him.

***

It wasn't insomnia, Jack told himself. It was jet lag. In Cascade it was only just after midnight, not just after one. He often stayed up till midnight.

He shuffled the printouts spread out on the table. Had he broken down cause of death by age of guide? No. Damn. He didnít expect to find a relationship, but he needed to rule it out.

He didn't hear Marcia come up behind him--she was always as silent as a cat--but he knew she was there just the same. He held out a hand, and she came forward and took it. "Nightmare again?" he asked.

"No. They've stopped. Even when I try, I can't see them."

"See what?" and then, "The animals?"

She nodded, and her hair, which she had never kept long when they were in the game, swung hypnotically. She'd changed a great deal in the ten years since they'd met.

"One of my students... his sentinel was seeing animals. I'll have to ask if they've stopped when we get back to Cascade."

"Maybe animal sightings correlate with sunspots," she teased, smiling a little. Her migraines correlated with sunspots, a mystery Jack had solved in three months. Her previous guide had castigated her for goldbricking for three years.

"Nothing's random," he said softly. "Nothing's meaningless. Everything can be figured out." He didn't add 'and made better,' but the promise hovered between them. It might be a false promise; the hand Jack held was hot. She was still feverish, despite the fact that Jack had medicated her as much as he dared. The doctor in Estes Park hadnít been able to find any signs of infection, but he was hardly a specialist in sentinels. There might be something... He pushed the thought aside. Marcia wasn't as sharp as she used to be, but she still might smell his heartbreak and that wouldn't exactly be encouraging. "Hungry?" he asked. "How about some warm milk?"

***

It was past one when Jim finally turned on his side and fell asleep with his head pressed against Blair's chest. Blair nearly sighed aloud. Instead, he let one arm gently drape over Jim's shoulders. He'd known Jim had major issues. It just turned out that there were major issues in addition to the ones he *knew* about.

No, it shouldn't be a surprise. Lots of effort went into making sure that little sentinel children turned out well-adjusted and comfortable with themselves. But of course people who were *not* sentinels, who didn't really know anything *about* sentinels would have weird ideas about it. Jim had had thirty-two years to learn god knew what.

'What must he think of me,' Blair thought. 'So comfortable with this. So eager, even.' But Jim probably hadn't given it much thought. Sleeping and eating and breathing took up the biggest chunk of his energy.

Which was a shame. It could be a good life. There were dozens of examples. There was a lot to enjoy, once you'd learned a few techniques for dealing with chaos and pain. Jim was strong and durable. They could make this work, he knew it. He closed his eyes and sighed.

-End-