New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

Imperfections III: Visiting
by Dasha

Summary: AU. It's a holiday. They have time off. What can go wrong?

Author's Notes: Ugh, it just gets worse and worse. No plot to speak of, not even a case story and--Egad! It's a Christmas story besides. How can I live with the embarrassment?

Disclaimer: The characters belong to large corporate entities and not to the author.

Blair's mom called the next morning. "Hi, honey! Happy Solstice! Are you and your new sentinel doing anything for the holidays?" Naomi didn't watch the news, although she did read three independent newspapers and listened to the BBC on computer when she had the chance. She probably knew about the sentinel kidnappings, but she wouldn't know about Jim's involvement or how close they came to losing him.

Blair didn't tell her. He downplayed the whole cop-thing. That could sink in slowly. Or not at all, that would be fine. Naomi didn't know what police sentinels did, and she didn't really understand the kind of commitment being a guide involved. Blair didn't believe in lying, but his mom wouldn't freak out about what she didn't fully appreciate. He told her he was fine. He told her he was getting ready for the exam and that didn't leave much time for anything else. He told her he missed her.

By the time he got off the phone, Jim was out of the shower and checking the kitchen for breakfast. There wasn't a lot fresh; they were supposed to go shopping two days ago. The bread was stale. The milk was past due. Jim finally settled on apples and poptarts.

Blair blinked. "Did you always eat crap? Or is this a post-sentinel thing?"

"What, this?" Jim pointed at the apple.

"That." Blair pointed at the poptart.

Jim shrugged. Blair sighed.

Henry came over at nine. He had questions for Jim. About the abduction. About the men who had held him. About his treatment. Jim answered in brief sentences. Blair listened with his teeth clamped together, doing one of the primary relaxation breathing patterns. Of course this was upsetting. It was reasonable to be upset. Being a little freaked was normal.

At noon they went to the federal building for more meetings. They waited for ten minutes at an office on the ninth floor before a suit came out and asked Jim to come in. "Mr. Sandburg can wait out here."

"He stays with me," Jim said.

"Legally speaking, he isn't your guide. Our normal procedures--"

"I don't think so," Jim said softly, and Blair *so* did not like that tone of voice. Jim could only be pushed so far, and apparently this was it.

"Mr. Ellison, I hope you're not--"

"Afternoon, Wade." The FBI sentinel was standing in the doorway. "Everything going all right?"

"Just fine, Agent Mulder."

"That's nice, Wade. I'd like to commend you for showing such polite consideration to all of the sentinels involved in this unfortunate incident. We wouldn't want to be anything less than completely sensitive to everyone's needs. I mean, it would be a shame if the local Bureau got a reputation for being total assholes."

There was a short silence. Blair imagined what Agent Wade's fury smelled like to the sentinels. "If you gentlemen will follow me?"

The interview took almost two hours. Jim spoke in short, precise, emotionless sentences. His eyes were very hard. If Blair hadn't seen him with Henry earlier, he would have been very worried.

In the lobby, Blair couldn't wait to flee the building, but Jim laid a hand on his shoulder and stepped into an alcove near the elevator. "Just a moment, Chief."

A moment later another elevator opened and Fraser, flanked by both Rays and the small white wolf stepped out. Blair grinned. "Hey. Guys!"

Fraser smiled, looking completely different from the pale, exhausted figure in grey sweats Blair had caught a glimpse of the night before. In his red uniform he had a completely different presence. Large. Open. Fearless.

Fraser handed his hat to Ray -- Veccio -- and held out both hands to Jim. Jim, who rarely shook hands and then only briefly, reached out without hesitating and took the hands. Then, he leaned in slightly and sniffed Fraser. If Blair had blinked he would have missed it, but it was very significant all the same. Unless it involved a case--and there was very little of that with Blair still unaccredited--Jim never scented anyone but Blair, not even discretely.

It was a completely normal behavior, something he'd assumed Jim would grow into eventually. It was amazing to see it so soon. Wonderful.

"Would you like to join us for lunch?" Fraser asked. "I've been thinking about Chinese for eleven days now."

Jim smiled. "I know a place."

***

They didn't talk about recent history. Nobody wanted to think about that. They talked about past cases--weird places the Canadian and his team had been, weird people Jim had chased down and arrested. Cop shop-talk, Blair realized. It was his first extended taste of it; there hadn't been much time for socializing with Jim's coworkers. It was time that changed.

"Ray mentioned that you haven't been at this very long," Fraser said almost too casually. "I wouldn't have guessed."

Jim blinked. "Um, yeah. I kind of... exploded in January."

"I can't imagine coming on line in a city like this. It must have been very difficult."

"I'm not exactly over it all yet."

Fraser nodded thoughtfully. "You drive, though? You're already doing things I can't."

"You're kidding."

"Not at all. Well. Obviously, I *can* drive. I just can't drive, sort out urban overload, avoid other cars, and navigate at the same time."

"We tried teaching him last year," Veccio said. "Some godforsaken nowhere in Oklahoma."

"Tulsa," Kowalski said.

"Right. He managed not to kill us all, but he wasn't good for anything for two days afterward."

Jim looked faintly surprised. That a sentinel who was so clearly functional and in control might still have one or two problems apparently hadn't occurred to him. And why not? The only other sentinel he saw even occasionally was Monk, who had serious emotional and social issues on top of his senses. There was no way to build a clear picture of sentinel 'normalcy' from him. Rainier had two sentinels on the faculty. They would have been at the anthro department party last week. Blair should have taken Jim. He should have introduced him to other people like himself.

"Fortunately, Ray and Stan are both excellent drivers."

"Oh, here we go again," Veccio said.

"I didn't say anything," Fraser said. "Did I say anything?"

"What happened to the Riv was not my fault."

"I never said that."

"I did," Kowalski said cheerfully.

"It blew up. How was that my fault?"

"It wasn't the first time."

"Gentlemen, please."

"How do you manage without a consistent territory?" Blair asked, hoping to change the subject.

"There are two ways of looking at it. In the first, I do have a primary territory, I'm just not there at the moment. In the other, my territory is just very large."

"But--constantly having to adjust to a new geography and environment! That's got to be exhausting."

"It's not new, Blair. All places are basically the same." At Blair's disbelieving look, he added, "The laws of physics are the same. The chemistry is the same. It's all the same *planet* so everything is always related to what I already know."

It was almost impossible to believe; he must be constantly surrounded by uncountable differences and constant changes that Blair wouldn't even notice, let alone process finely enough to discern the trail of, for example, a lost poodle in a city. Yet Blair could already see the cracks. It wasn't as easy or as open as it looked. Fraser traveled with three companions, which had to lend a lot of stability to his world. Also, the smell of that wolf had to cover up a lot of less familiar scents. The dress uniform, which might be a concession to a meeting with the feds, might also be a way of grounding himself in an unstable environment.

Fraser and the Rays couldn't chat long after lunch. They were catching a plane to Akron to consult on a series of arson cases. The local sentinels couldn't agree on whether the crimes were related or not. Good-byes were brief and cheerful, but Blair was sorry to see them go. They were likable, but more than that, exposure to Fraser had probably been very good for Jim.

"I want to stop by the PD, Chief, you mind?"

"Nope," Blair said, turning to head for the truck. "What are we doing?"

"Just some research. You can study if you brought the book."

Blair hefted his backpack. He always brought the study guide for the accreditation exams with him everywhere. They were only at Jim's desk for about twenty minutes though, when Jim printed whatever he was doing and shut his station down. It was barely time for a dozen practice questions. "Ok, that's it."

Blair suggested stopping at the store on the way home, but Jim shook his head. This meant Blair spent the trip home worrying over whether this meant something: Had Jim lost interest in food again? Was he just too tired? Or was he starting to overload--shopping could be pretty draining on anyone, let alone a sentinel coming off a traumatic experience.

If Blair was obvious about his fretting, Jim didn't notice. He grabbed the phone and headed upstairs. Right. Ok. Jim had something on his mind. Nothing was wrong. Well, he had a right to have things on his mind, didn't he? Blair shut himself in his room and got out the study guide, picking up where he left off.

A sentinel tracking in the rain is most likely to rely on:

Cone of scent.

Ground trail.

Sight.

Heat traces.

Blair wasn't good with tracking theory, but 'heat traces' could be automatically crossed out. Being able to detect heat traces in any reliable way was a rare ability among sentinels even when it *wasn't* raining. But he couldn't remember what rain would do to a cone of scent....

Jim poked his head into the room. "Hey, Chief? What are you doing for the next few days?"

"This. The learning center is closed until January fourth, so I'll study until then. Why?"

Jim came the rest of the way in. "Could you study somewhere else?"

"Uh. Sure, I guess. You need some privacy for a few days?" Damn. His official residence was an undergraduate dorm, which would be closed for the break starting tomorrow. This was a little late to line something else up.

"Oh, no. No, I--look, I have to go in tomorrow, but after that I have some time off. A few days. I'd like to go visit someone. It might not be a lot of fun, though. For you, I mean. It's pretty remote."

"So, we're both going? Is that ok? Does your friend know you've got a guest?"

"He understands about guides. He's a sentinel. My cousin, Rucker."

"Oh," Blair said stupidly. "Your cousin. You never mentioned."

Jim's gaze roved over the wall beside Blair's face. "We haven't seen each other in over twenty years."

"Oh."

"So? Are you up for it?"

"Uh, yeah. Sure."

They left at nine in the morning on December 23rd. First, two hours by car to a central coast guard hub near Canada, then three more hours in a helicopter which made multiple stops, dropping off mail and special supplies. Jim, who hadn't said much for the past two days, didn't say much in the car either. After the first quiet hour, Blair gave in to his burning curiosity far enough to say casually, "So. Twenty years."

Jim frowned. "Longer, actually."

"That's a long time."

"Yeah." Just when Blair was sure Jim wasn't going to say anything else on the subject, he added, "His parents and my father had some kind of quarrel. I'm not sure I even knew what it was about at the time. I mean, I know there was something. Dad was always upset about something when we saw them. One Thanksgiving there was this huge fight--and we never saw them again."

"Wow."

"When I was in high school, my grandfather mentioned that Rucker was in the Coast Guard, but I wasn't even sure of that until day before yesterday."

"Oh."

And that was all.

The second leg of the trip, by helicopter, was exhilarating. Blair had been worried that it would be 'scary' or 'downright horrible,' but between the door and the solid seatbelt he wasn't afraid he would fall out and the dim anxiety that the entire aircraft would crash added just enough tension to make the ride thrilling, like a trip through a haunted house or a really scary movie. The helicopter soared like a fat bird between the gray water and the gray sky, the world around them spread out endless and open in all directions.

They had dropped in on two small islands and a large boat before Blair noticed that Jim was sitting absolutely rigid and staring at his lap. Embarrassed that he could be so stupid and cold, Blair nudged Jim's arm and shouted, "You ok?"

Jim nodded tightly, clearly anything but ok. "Spike?" Blair mouthed. "Airsick?" Jim shook his head and patted Blair's arm dismissively. Ok, fine. There wasn't anything Blair could do anyway, except have an airsickness bag ready. But still. Even if he couldn't do anything useful and guide-like, he really should have *noticed*.

When they landed Jim fled the cabin as soon as it was safe to open the door. Blair followed more slowly, watching to see if he needed help, but Jim stood very still facing away from the shore. After a moment Blair turned and retrieved their baggage.

A woman about Jim's age came jogging up the path. She was tall, with short, brown hair poking out from under a baseball cap. Everything else was hidden by her heavy coat and scarf. She went to the pilot first and shook his hand. "Merry Christmas, Max! You're running early today. Do you have time for coffee?"

"Nope. Long list today. This is for you." He handed over a stack of newspapers, several pieces of mail, and a sack of nuts. "And I hope those are your passengers."

"If one of them's not cousin Jimmy, they can swim back later." But her eyes had gone to Jim without hesitating. Blair wondered if she recognized a resemblance or if she could identify a sentinel just by his body language.

They waved goodbye to the pilot and hurried off along the path while the rotor picked up speed. Cold, Blair set down their gear and dug his gloves out of his pocket. A man was coming toward them from the other direction. He was older than Jim, shorter and heavier and with curly, graying hair. They looked nothing alike and Blair had nearly dismissed him as someone else who wasn't Jim's cousin when he caught sight of his eyes. Grey, not blue, but the same in every other respect.

For a moment the two men stood very still, scenting each other, then Jim stripped off his glove and held out his hand. "Ruck," he said.

Laughing, Rucker took Jim's hand and pulled him into a loose hug. "Andy, look! This is my baby cousin, Jimmy."

Andy was grinning, but she stepped no closer and made no move to shake hands with either of them. She wasn't being standoffish, Blair realized. It was protocol. Military guides kept their distance from sentinels they weren't assigned to; military sentinels tended to be tense and slightly suspicious (Jack would say 'paranoid, sleep-deprived, insecure, and possessive') and sentinel-guide relations were often downright dysfunctional. A misunderstanding could quickly get out of hand and sentinels and guides were both too valuable to continually court-martial for insubordination, conduct unbecoming, and/or assault (depending on the nature of the misunderstanding and the stability of the parties involved). While the Coast Guard wasn't, for example, up there with the Marines or the CIA, almost all armed services and federal guides trained at the same army base in Kansas, and they were taught to be circumspect. Even the FBI guide, a medical doctor, had asked *Blair's* permission before touching Jim, although she had to know Blair had no legal standing.

If Jim noticed the subtext of his cousin's guide standing several feet out of reach he gave no sign. That was revised to 'definitely didn't notice,' as Jim grabbed Blair by the arm and pulled him *between* himself and Rucker. "This is my guide. Blair Sandburg. He's saved my life."

To Blair's relief, Rucker only looked faintly startled, and Andy actually laughed. "It's nice to meet you, Blair. Welcome to our rock in the middle of nowhere!" But she glanced at Blair before shaking Jim's hand.

There was a lighthouse at the top of the low hill and a little cottage in a slight dip at the base. The cottage was cozy, but it was also a working Coast Guard station. The living room doubled as an office and was packed with radio equipment and a large computer. The kitchen was tiny. Two doors led to what might be bedrooms, but from the size of the building, they must have been tiny. A small tree was set up in one corner and white lights had been hung around the window.

"We've been here for, what, Andy? Two years now? I was afraid it would be boring, but maybe I'm getting old enough to appreciate boring. We'll take you bird watching tomorrow morning down by the shore. You'll love it." He dumped the grounds out of the coffee maker and began making a fresh pot.

"The peace and quiet is great, something interesting happens about every two weeks, Ruck's a fantastic cook - all in all, it almost makes up for the climate."

"Her last assignment was Florida."

Blair laughed. "So, then you've actually seen the sun."

"Oh, yes. Of course now it's just a dim memory."

The pause stretched out and teetered on the edge of awkward. Then Rucker said, "Jimmy, on the phone you told me that you'd recently come back on line. How are you doing?"

"I'm ok. Mostly. It's stopped being one long, nasty surprise. Blair's been great."

Blair thought he'd been no such thing, but there was another, more important point here. "What do you mean, 'back on line?'"

"You didn't tell him?" Rucker frowned. "I'm sorry--"

"Ruck--I didn't know what to tell him. I'm not sure I'm remembering it right. I was kind of hoping...."

Rucker frowned, thinking. Blair's stomach sank. Jim just never got a break. They were visiting *family*, damn it. There shouldn't be this ominous aura of More Bad News. "I don't know what I can tell you, Jimmy. I was a teenager. I know one summer we came down for the Fourth of July and you were definitely a sentinel, sharper than me, all five senses. But you weren't getting any training. My parents were absolutely scandalized."

"How was that even possible?" Andy asked. "Federal law requires that sentinel children get training, even when they're home schooled."

"He kept me home when they did the testing. I think I remember someone talking about that afterward."

"Sooner or later," Rucker said, "someone would have noticed."

"That last Thanksgiving--do you remember what they were arguing about?"

"Yes."

"What was it?"

Rucker sighed. "It was us, Jimmy. Me, mostly. We went to the garage to look at my rock collection and I was showing you how to identify minerals by taste. You were good--I mean, you were what? Nine? Ten? You were picking it up *fast* and I was proud of you. I came in and told everyone how well you were doing." Rucker went silent, and Blair wondered if he was assembling memories or editing. "Your father was angry with me. He said I was a bad influence. Then he and my dad got into it. And then your dad took you and Stephen and left and we never saw you again."

"And that was it...."

"No. No, that wasn't it. My mom and your mother were friends. I used to hear them talking on the phone. Are you sure you want to hear this? You know your father played games with the custody. He used to change dates on her without warning. Cancel. Or wait until she wasn't free or was living somewhere too small and then nag her for not seeing you enough. Or at least that was her side of it."

Jim nodded stiffly, unable to speak.

"Not even a month after Thanksgiving--that Thanksgiving--something terrible happened. To you. I don't know what. I think somebody you knew died, but that wasn't all of it." He paused, thinking. It was all such a long time ago, Blair supposed it was a miracle they were getting details at all. "It messed you up. You hardly spoke. You stopped doing your homework. The senses went away. Your mom wanted you in therapy. She wanted you in sentinel training. She blamed your father--I don't know why. She got a lawyer and tried for custody."

Jim shook his head. "No. No, she never wanted.... She thought she was a bad mother. I heard...." He swallowed. "She didn't win."

"No. Your dad got sole guardianship. He shut her out." Rucker sighed. "My parents were furious. Grandpa was furious."

"We almost never saw him."

"Yeah. There was a lot of anger there. I don't know much after that. The next year I went to California--special training, the Coast Guard, you know...." He looked away. "I'm sorry, Jimmy. I should have at least *tried* to speak to you. Something. I shouldn't

have just... I shouldn't have."

"It wasn't your fault," Jim whispered. "Look, I think I'd like a minute." He motioned vaguely at the door and stood up.

"Are you ok?" Blair asked, because he had to.

"Yeah. Yeah. I just want some air."

When he was gone, Andy slid closer to Rucker and leaned over to kiss his cheek. It wasn't just a 'friendly' kiss and it occurred to Blair that they might want some privacy too. Not sure where to go, he ducked into the tiny bathroom and stayed there, staring at his watch for five minutes.

God, Jim. That story had been awful. Just awful. God. What kind of parent wouldn't want his kid to get sentinel training? If the senses came on line gradually or if it happened at an early enough age that they were incorporated in 'normal' sensory development then things might not be too bad. Zones and spikes might happen occasionally, but it wouldn't be completely out of control, and while there might be some problems distinguishing present reality from realistic memory, that usually passed without direct intervention. Even so, it took training and practice to develop focus and concentration. Sentinel children had notoriously short attention spans. Those were the ones with the easiest time of it. Children whose abilities manifested in grammar school or later often had intermittent problems with depth perception, memory, and sound identification. Without intervention, they sometimes developed speech pathologies, poor reading comprehension, difficulty distinguishing relevant or important sensory input from useless 'noise', and anxiety disorders.

Even if you didn't like the idea of your child being a sentinel--for whatever crazy reason--the training was still necessary. Never mind the social support they'd get, the answers....

Jim had never mentioned his family, even in passing. Here he was, a sentinel again. *Again*. Blair had had no idea, hadn't even asked about Jim's family or his history.

Blair left the bathroom and retrieved his jacket before heading out to find Jim.

"I'm fine, Chief."

Blair spun around. Jim was seated on a bench under the window.

"I'm fine."

"Yeah," Blair said. "I know."

"I forgot all of that. Or I never thought about it. Ever." He laughed sourly. "It wasn't until I heard the other sentinels talking and some of it sounded familiar."

"What do you remember?"

"I don't really remember the fight at Thanksgiving. I don't remember what happened after that. I remember the guide that came in to teach at the school. He was a monk, I think. He was nice."

Blair sat down on the bench beside him.

"I didn't get it, you know? I didn't know there was anything really different about Rucker and me. I didn't understand."

"You weren't supposed to. You were just a kid."

"You know, Chief, you don't have to smell quite so worried. I'm not going to fall apart here."

"Oh. Are you sure? Because I don't have anything else scheduled." Blair leaned sideways and brushed his shoulder against Jim's.

"Not right now. Maybe next week." He smiled slightly. "Look, it's all been good news. I'm not hallucinating; those were real memories. Rucker didn't stop coming to visit because he wanted to, and mom didn't- -" Jim stopped and looked away. "Everything's fine. Right?"

"Yeah. Yeah, everything's fine."

They spent the afternoon playing cards with Jim's cousin and his guide. After dinner, Andy had to do a systems check and update the logs, but Rucker put It's a Wonderful Life on the very small television and made popcorn.

After the movie they made up the sofa and an inflatable mattress in the main room. Jim tested them both before settling on the mattress on the floor. The sheets were high quality, the blankets were cotton and plentiful. Blair was amazed how dark and quiet it was. You forgot, living in Cascade, just how calm the world could be. The wind made the walls creak a bit, but there was no traffic, no barking dogs, no sirens on the street.

Jim wasn't quiet. He tossed and turned, making the mattress squeak a little. Blair wasn't sure he should interfere; Jim had had a hell of a day. If his head was going round and round on it, he might just need privacy. But after ten minutes or so Jim was still restless and Blair said softly, "You ok?"

"Fine," Jim said in the tone that said he wasn't.

"What's wrong?"

"Little spikes. Nothing major." Jim paused. "Hearing's going up and down. Sometimes I can smell your sneakers over in the corner-and god, Sandburg, when was the last time you changed your odor eaters? There goes touch. The salt in the air itches. Damn."

Blair slid off the couch and crouched on the floor in the narrow path between the couch and the air mattress. The room was cool, and while he was wearing sweats, his feet were bare. Blair folded up his legs and pulled a couple of the blankets down around him. "You know," he whispered, "you could just tell me when something's wrong. It's way more efficient."

Jim was silent. Blair sighed. "You can't tell me." In moments like these it was tempting to think resentfully of Lee Brackett, who had taught Jim that asking for help would only make things worse. At times like this it was hard not to be frustrated with Jim, for somehow not noticing that Blair wasn't his enemy. But that wasn't fair. It wasn't Jim's fault. So Jim needed time, so what? Was that so much to ask?

"It's not that bad."

Right, Blair thought. Why ask for help? Not being able to sleep wasn't 'important' or 'serious.' "It's an opportunity for practice. A learning experience."

"At 11:30 at night," Jim said sourly.

"Well, if 11:30 at night is when you need to be *doing* it, practicing then will probably help instill good habits."

"Fine. Whatever."

Blair laid a hand on Jim's shoulder and was pleased to find that he didn't flinch. He seemed to be getting used to Blair. "Calm down and let yourself settle. Nice, slow, deep breaths. Yeah, better. Don't try to control your senses right now. Just let the input come in, and let it float away. You've had a long day. You're in a new environment. It's ok to be a little tense. Don't worry about it."

It was so dark Jim was only a shadow. The light wasn't ambient, just a couple pinpoints of green from the Coast Guard equipment at the end of the room. "Are we keeping them up?" Blair asked, remembering that Jim's cousin was also a sentinel.

"He's got a buzzbox. Not a big one, but whispering won't wake him."

"You can hear that?"

"Yeah. My hearing's better, I think."

"Ok, good. Let's just keep going. Nice and slow. Just relax. You're doing fine."

But suddenly, Jim wasn't doing fine. The shoulder under Blair's hand went rigid and at the top of the next breath Jim froze and held it in. "Jim? What's wrong?" Jim quaked slightly. Worried, Blair reached for his face. The skin was cool and slightly damp. Crap! What had they eaten? Could there be some chemical here? "Jim, what's wrong!"

"All I can hear is water," he whispered.

Huh? "Well, yeah, Jim. We're sort of on an island in the middle of nowhere. That's all you're going to hear," Blair answered shortly. It was the middle of the night, they were a long way from home and something was wrong. Maybe something was seriously wrong, and Blair couldn't do anything to help unless Jim stopped playing resistant sentinel games and told Blair what was going on. The air mattress shook as Jim shivered. Damn. They weren't getting anywhere. It occurred to him then that maybe Jim wasn't trying to misdirect him. Maybe this was a real problem. "Ok. I know you're used to hearing a lot of stuff at night. But it's ok. You're fine."

"I have this... thing... with water." It scarcely sounded like Jim's voice.

Oh, god. "What do you mean, 'thing'?" The hair at the back of his neck stood up.

"It's kind of a phobia."

"No," Blair said. "No. I took you to the beach. You were fine. You were fine."

"Different."

"You surf. You said so."

"It's different, when you're out... and all there is is water, and there isn't any land and it's deep...."

"Geeze, Jim, why didn't you tell me!"

"Never told anybody." He was trembling erratically. "It's all I can hear. God, Chief. There's nothing under the waves. It just. Goes down. And out. It doesn't stop."

It sounded like agoraphobia. Kind of. That wasn't uncommon with sentinels. Open air could mess up orientation, why not open water? Hell if this was the time for anxiety theory, though. All the desensitization techniques and talking cures and input classification exercises in the world weren't going to help Jim tonight, and the pulse at his throat was hammering so fast Blair could barely tell the beats apart. "Could you pretend that we're at the beach?"

"The w-water was shallow. A long way out. Not like this."

"Imagine- -"

"It sounds different!" Jim gasped. "The waves make a vibration as they come in against the bottom!" He put his hands over his ears and curled onto his side, shuddering. "There isn't any bottom."

"Of course there is." Oh, shit. "Jim, we're on a rock. You need to listen down, not out. It's rock, Jim. Hundreds of feet. Miles. Absolutely solid." He had thought the little building was fairly sturdy, but the walls weren't thick enough to protect Jim from the sound of the waves. Would there be a white noise generator, something with more weight than the one Rucker was using for privacy? But no, if Jim *was* feeling vibrations, hiding the sound wouldn't be enough. "Jim, you were fine all day. What you're hearing, it isn't a threat. It's just a sound."

"Wasn't listening. God, I thought looking at it was bad-"

"Jim. We're on rock. The ocean is hundreds of feet away. We're solid, man--"

Jim whimpered almost soundlessly, and Blair knew he wasn't getting through. He had no idea what to do next. "Chief. Make it stop." Blair could barely hear the rough whisper. "Please. I'll do whatever you want. I'm sorry." Begging. God. Blair wondered, desolately, what was worse; that Jim somehow thought Blair wasn't particularly trying to help him now or the horrible certainty that Brackett had made Jim beg when he'd had him at his mercy. "Please. Make it stop."

"Up," he said. "Get up. Get up." He pulled off the covers and dragged Jim to his feet. Jim clung, his hands getting tangled in Blair's hair. "Listen to me," he said, speaking for the first time at a normal volume. "I don't care what else you hear, listen right here, to me. What do you hear from me?"

Jim shook his head, pulling back.

"No. You listen to me. What do you hear?" He grabbed Jim's hand and pulled it against his chest. "Me, Jim. What do you hear?"

"Blair." Jim unbalanced and nearly fell. He was heavy, but Blair didn't want to let him drop back to the air mattress. It would transmit sound in unfamiliar ways and to Jim's whole body. It might even have been making things worse. He managed to turn and push Jim onto the couch without falling in the darkness. "Blair."

"I'm right here, Jim. Listen to me." He pressed Jim's left ear to his chest and covered the other with both hands. "Just me. Just me," he whispered. "I'm on rock, Jim. I'm standing on rock. We're ok."

Jim's arms crept around him and locked on with a grip so tight it was hard to breathe. He was still shaking. Jim's fear was in control of his senses. If he'd *had* training as a child, there would be habits in place, programmed responses that a guide who understood them and who Jim trusted could use to *demand* his attention.

Blair didn't have anything. Jim had no experience and only the most basic grasp of control techniques. Blair couldn't remove the stimulus. He couldn't talk Jim down. Even if sedatives weren't dangerous, he didn't have any. "Jim. You're on rock. You're on rock, man."

"Rock..." It was an echo more than an answer, but something in Blair leaped at this sign that Jim could hear him.

"Yes," he said, "The only thing that matters is in this room."

"Rock." The arms capturing Blair slackened slightly.

"Talk to me, Jim. Keep talking."

"I hate this," he said, sounding almost lucid.

Relief made Blair's eyes burn. He loosened his grip on Jim's head. "Easy. You're ok."

"Sorry, Chief."

"Don't. Don't. It wasn't your fault. I screwed up, Jim. It wasn't you."

"You." Jim stopped and tried again. "You weren't the one almost pissing himself because the damn ocean was scary."

Blair sighed and let one of his hands stray to ruffle Jim's hair. "I shouldn't have brought us here. We've only had three months. You were just starting to settle down, and then there was all that stress from--from what happened. I didn't even think about what a completely new environment might do."

"It was my idea."

"It was a good idea. We just weren't ready. This wasn't your fault."

"I'm tired."

"Yeah. I know." He was probably also cold; Blair was. He'd lost the blankets somewhere along the way and he didn't have a free hand to try to grope around for one. They sat for a long time, until Jim began to sag and Blair began to hope he was too tired to follow sounds to the edge of the world again. "Here, Jim. You take the couch."

"Chief--don't--"

"Look, I'll pull the airbed up against the couch. I'll be right next to you. Here--" He held out a blanket. It was hopelessly tangled, but of course Jim could see. He sorted and straightened the blankets while humming slightly under his breath.

"Jim, this isn't your fault. I should have been more careful."

"I'm ok. As long as I just pay attention to the inside of this room. I'm fine."

"Sure. Ok." But he waited until he heard Jim softly snoring before he let himself fall asleep.

It was still dark when they woke the next morning. Blair grumpily rubbed his eyes, only dimly remembering Rucker's offer to take them bird watching. Apparently you had to get up before god to do that. The only bright spot was that Andy made a thermos of coffee and they took along a loaf of homemade raisin bread. Andy had been right about Rucker's cooking.

Bundled up, they tramped through the woods towards the north side of the island. The trees were mostly pines, thin and often twisted by the wind. Jim walked ahead with Rucker, and Blair, thinking they might want some privacy, let himself fall behind with Andy.

"You had a rough night last night," she said softly.

Blair shrugged. There was no point in denying it.

"Ruck's worried. We all hear horror stories about late bloomers who never settle out properly."

Blair glanced at the figures up ahead and realized that he'd been had. Of course Rucker would know how to distract a less experienced sentinel so that he wouldn't notice a conversation right behind him. He sighed. "Jim's ok. He's handling it. Mostly, you know. He needs time."

"Blair, if he's still having uncontrollable spikes-"

"Look, I know you and Rucker have probably seen a lot of bad crap go down, but Jim's only really had about three months of real training. Frankly, letting him leave a familiar environment was probably a mistake. But he's not in real trouble. He's just starting to improve."

They caught up with Jim and Rucker in a pocket of broken boulders atop a modest cliff. The stones made a kind of natural bird-blind, and although the rocks were too sharp to sit on very comfortably, it was roomy. Andy uncapped the thermos while Rucker dug a bird book and a pair of glasses out of his backpack. At Blair's surprised look, he smiled and said quietly, "I still correct out to five em." Five on the Morgan scale meant his vision was about 20/10 or a little better. Not fantastic for a sentinel, but without the glasses his vision was probably at least as good as Blair's own.

"Of course, this is the worst time of year for birds. Almost everybody's gone south. We've got gulls, now, and we might still have an eagle," Andy said softly. "Last summer we had a shearwater."

Blair ignored the very quiet, very convoluted discussion of birds that followed. Mostly, he watched Jim who was quiet but apparently interested in what his cousin was whispering about birds. Every once in a while, Jim took off one of his gloves and laid a hand on the chilly stone. Damn. Blair looked out and down over the low rocks that separated them from the cliff and the ocean. The drop was less than twenty feet, and not sheer. The ocean to the north and west was a dull green-grey. The water was calm, but the tiny waves and swells that looked so peaceful to Blair were probably endless, trackless chaos for Jim.

There was a discreet pointing and hissing over something called 'Brandt's cormorant'. Blair looked, but it was a speck on the horizon. He sighed. Jim shouldn't have been here. Familiar surroundings. Concentration practice. *Rest*, for pete's sake. He could picture what Jack would say when he got back from Colorado. When was Blair going to understand that he had someone's life in his hands? When was he going to start thinking?

Jim tapped his hand, and Blair realized they were moving. Not back into the woods, but along the top of the cliff; apparently they wanted a better look at some bird. It had been cold sitting still, though, so he wasn't going to complain. He moved slowly, clinging like a crab to the uneven rocks, watching his feet and hands.

Given that he was being so careful it was baffling and damned unfair when he managed to tear both his jeans and the flesh along his left calf on a small, sharp protrusion. Blair was cursing inwardly, barely bending to get a better look when Jim spun around and grabbed him.

Jim's weight swept him backwards and onto a flatish rock. Blair landed hard on his butt, momentum nearly carrying him all the way onto his back, a tendency that was enhanced when Jim lifted Blair's left leg and ripped the short tear in his pants into a long vent.

"Jimmy? What's wrong?" Rucker's head appeared over Jim's shoulder.

Without looking, Jim reached behind him and pushed his cousin back. "Leave us alone," he said shortly.

"Jim?" Blair said, feeling slightly annoyed.

Jim turned Blair's leg and planted his hand on the inside of the thigh, high, near the groin. The strength behind that pressure surprised Blair. It hurt. It really hurt. "Jim, what the hell--?"

"It's all right, Chief," Jim whispered. "Don't worry."

"Jimmy? What's going on? How badly is Blair hurt?" Jim didn't answer and Rucker added, "Andy, he doesn't smell right."

"Jim? Come on, buddy. Talk to me here."

"It's ok, Blair." Jim's eyes didn't lift from Blair's calf. The tear didn't hurt nearly as much as it had, but the tips of Blair's toes were beginning to tingle. Jim had cut off the artery, Blair realized. Geeze, was it that bad?

"Blair?" Andy said softly. "He's zoned on your injury. I think he's lost perspective. He doesn't know how bad it is." She was drawing her partner away. Blair couldn't blame her.

"Jim?" Nothing. "Jim. Pay attention." Blair reached up and put one gloved hand over Jim's eyes. Jim pulled back, trying to free his eyes, and Blair took the opportunity to slide his leg out from under Jim's grip and catch his shoulders. "Jim. Pay attention."

"No--You're hurt--" Jim looked frightened and uncertain, which *itself* was frightening, given how much pain and injury he saw on the job. Blair looked down at his leg. The cut was almost two inches long but shallow. The bleeding had already stopped.

"Jim, I'm ok. It's just a little cut. It's ok."

Very slowly, Andy held out a small packet of tissues and a battered roll of electrical tape. "Stay calm, Blair. Right now, you're probably all the order in his life."

Right, thank you, Blair thought. As if things weren't already bad enough, Jim's source of stability and hope is bleeding. Wonderful. He took the supplies and made something like a bandage over the cut. Jim watched silently and then helped Blair up.

Nobody was in the mood for more bird watching. They headed back to the station, Jim staying close, one or both hands on Blair at all times. Blair was cold and tired and he hadn't gotten nearly enough of the coffee. Also, his leg hurt where it didn't feel half-frozen. And he was cold. Very damn cold.

Back inside, Jim hustled Blair into the bathroom without even taking time to remove their jackets. Blair didn't know how he *would* argue, even if he had the energy, so he went along as Jim pushed him onto the lid of the toilet seat and squatted down to strip off the tissues. The tape pulled at the hair on his leg, but Blair, unsure of Jim's state of mind, kept his mouth shut.

"Sandburg, am I losing my mind here?"

"No, Jim."

"But I was sure... there was blood everywhere. I smelled...."

"You were upset."

Jim laughed bitterly. "No shit."

"It was a really bad week. Hey, it's been a really bad year."

"I hate this," Jim whispered. "God, I wish I weren't--"

Blair leaned forward and put an arm around his shoulders. "I know I keep saying this, but it does get better. Maybe if you had a real guide--"

Jim's head snapped up. "Don't. *Don't you dare*."

Blair flinched. What had Andy said? The only source of order in Jim's life? "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. I didn't mean that. I will pass that test. I will get that piece of paper."

"Chief... It's not like I don't know how difficult this is. I turned into some kind of psycho out there today, I'm not even sure you got any sleep last night. I mean, we both know the only reason you're here is--" he stopped.

Blair forced a laugh. "What? Because nobody else would have me?"

"Because it was me or nothing," Jim said softly.

Oh, god. "Oh. No, Jim. That's not why I'm here, it's not. Remember what you said that day in Jack's office? I'm here because we've got a trust thing. It's all about rapport. Jim. You're not going crazy and I'm not giving up. It's all going to be ok."

"Trust thing."

"Yeah."

When they came out of the bathroom, Andy and Rucker had the newspapers the helicopter pilot had brought spread out on the couch between them. Rucker held up a page 2 headline: KIDNAPPED SENTINELS FOUND ALIVE. "Want to talk about it?" he asked.

"We had a hard week," Jim said.

Rucker and Andy had Coast Guard things to do until lunch. Blair sat on the couch and read his study guide. It was becoming somewhat battered. Jim sat down beside him with a book of poetry, but very quickly fell asleep.

Lunch was soup. Jim ate with every appearance of interest, a sight that Blair always found tremendously reassuring. After lunch they made cookies. Christmas cookies, which had to be rolled and cut out and placed carefully on sheets. The already complicated enterprise was further encumbered by the tiny alcove that served as a kitchen, the fact that neither Rucker nor Jim were small men, and the small pans that fit into the oven hardly held a dozen cookies. Rucker and Andy both had stories about cookies and holidays. Blair had no strong memories of Christmas himself. He knew that some Jewish kids grew up getting a really weird vibe from the whole thing, but somehow he'd bypassed all of that. Naomi celebrated everything, in a respectful but secondhand way. She honored all life affirming rituals, and theoretically it was all cool, but most of Blair's own significant experiences had been spontaneous. Weird, to think of a big, emotional deal arriving every year on schedule.

It was kind of powerful, though, listening to them. If he'd had the energy, there were probably all kinds of anthropological observations that would make sense of it all, but Blair, as always, watched Jim. He was very quiet and appeared absorbed in placing colored sugar on the cookies--red and white in stripes on the candy canes, green on the trees, mixed on the balls, little chocolate sprinkles on the reindeer, the scatter of color always spread evenly and never crossing the lines. Very precise. Very focused. A zone, Blair decided.

He hadn't seen Jim zone much. Early on there'd been problems: zones that sucked Jim so far in that Brackett hadn't been able to call him out. Well, if Brackett had been calling Blair, he wouldn't have come back either, but a couple of times it had gotten so bad that things had ended up in the emergency room. Apparently, Bracket had found this inconvenient; he began using more ruthless methods of bringing Jim around (smelling salts, vinegar, pins) and told him horror stories about zones that spiraled down into a kind of fugue so completely disassociated that the sentinel died. It was bullshit, of course, there was not a single confirmed case of a zone itself being fatal. By the time Blair got into the picture, Jim was almost automatically resisting any consuming concentration. He didn't relax and allow himself to get absorbed by what he was doing or observing. When working a crime scene--a time when focus and attention to detail were critical--he often shifted quickly from one sense to another or talked continually or, lately, held on to Blair.

While zoning at the wrong time or place could be dangerous, the focus zoning out provided could be very useful. Psychologists had studied zoning extensively. For every sense, speed and accuracy of identification and pattern recognition (although usually not perception threshold) dramatically increased. An experienced sentinel could usually avoid zoning at inappropriate moments, but by the same token, it was sometimes difficult to reach the higher levels of concentration in environments that didn't feel *safe*. Blair doubted that most of Jim's avoidance tactics were conscious.

Jim decorating cookies appeared to be a very mellow Jim. Apparently, he had managed to put the ocean and his difficult family baggage aside. Or maybe outside conditions didn't really matter as long as he was with people he trusted. Jim continued his patient, precise cookie-decorating until the second batch came out of the oven. Then he straightened, frowned slightly, and said, "Ruck, is that your mom's recipe?"

"Yes, yes it was."

Jim nodded slowly and took off the apron he'd been wearing. "We're just about done here. I, ah, think I'll take a little walk."

Just like that, he was gone. Blair blinked after him for a moment, wondering what was going on. Wondering *if* anything was going on.

"Yes," Andy said.

"Yes what?"

She sighed. "Yes, go after him."

"Right." Blair got his jacket and scurried out the door.

Jim hadn't gone far, just down to the dock. He was sitting on some kind of equipment locker staring out at the water. Slowly, giving Jim time to wave him off, Blair walked out to stand beside him. The wind off the water was very cold. It had clouded up and the sky was mostly gray. Blair wondered if he should comment on the weather. Without speaking, Jim leaned slightly sideways so that his shoulder brushed Blair's arm and consciously slowed his breathing. Blair smiled. Jim had caught that his partner could be used as a tool to manage his state of mind. Even better, he had taken the initiative instead of waiting for Blair to suggest something.

"Well, you smell happy about something."

Blair slid an arm around Jim's shoulder. "It's nice here."

"You were right," Jim said softly.

"About what?"

"It makes a difference when the guide gives a shit."

To Blair's surprise, that made his eyes burn. For a moment, he couldn't talk. He should say something encouraging. Maybe this was a moment Jim could believe, if Blair told him he was doing really well, if he pointed out how rapid his progress had been.

"Chief, I don't see it. Don't take this the wrong way, but I thought I would. I looked. I don't get it."

"Why I was washing out," Blair said, and Jim nodded. "Not sensitive enough, I guess. Not gentle enough." Blair sighed. "There was some inappropriate humor."

"Like-what? You had one of those hats that looks like an arrow passing through?"

Blair managed a smile, but his stomach knotted slightly. "I'm a little flip. And I tease. Then there's the arrogance thing. You know. Not always worrying enough, just assuming I can handle whatever."

Jim laughed, which was not the response Blair had expected. "Not worrying *enough*?"

"Well. For example. Just for example, we shouldn't be here. You're not ready to adapt to a completely new environment. After what happened this week- -"

"Blair, this week wasn't a big deal."

"Yeah. It was, Jim. It was a huge deal. Besides that, you seem to be trying to sort out your entire life here. And I didn't even think twice."

"Blair, I hate to tell you this, but it wasn't your decision. *I* wanted to come here."

"So I shouldn't worry about my basic incompetence because you wouldn't have listened to me anyway? Sorry. Inappropriate humor. Jim, right now, how much of your bandwidth is taken up cataloging the sounds of sea birds and listening for traffic noises you're not hearing? Is anything you've smelled in the last twenty-four hours familiar?"

"It's not that bad."

"Well, no. It's not horrible. This is a nice place and your family are nice people, but Jim. You're sweating." Blair waved at the ocean. "Now is not really the time for this."

"I guess." Jim glanced away.

"No. Don't do that. *You* didn't do anything wrong here. I should have made this easier for you. I should have thought things out. I shouldn't just have assumed that anything that might come up I could handle."

"You did handle it."

"You think that's because I'm some kind of fantastic guide? Jim, if you were genuinely touchy or fragile or if you were uncooperative.... You're not doing so well because of me. You're doing so well because of you."

Jim was quiet for a long time, thinking. "Sandburg, I don't need you to foresee everything or protect me from my life. I just need you not to turn on me."

"Jim. If you're ready to talk about Lee, it doesn't have to be to me."

"You suggesting therapy now?"

"It's not so bad. My mom was a great believer in aggressive mental health. I've seen it all, and some of them are ok. But no, it doesn't have to be a professional. I think Rucker would listen. And you have friends."

"Blair, some things you need to know. I get that. But I don't *want* to talk about it."

"It's up to you." Blair hugged him gently. Their coats squeaked slightly as they rubbed together.

***

The wind was numbingly cold, but Blair was a warm and reassuring shelter at his shoulder. Jim wished Sandburg wasn't *quite* so reassuring. It was tempting to trust that reassurance.

It was tempting to give in and hand control of his life to Blair Sandburg. It would be so easy to stop protecting himself and accept Blair's answers and comfort and control. It was true that Blair had never demanded Jim's obedience, never physically restrained him, never threatened him. But even though Sandburg was surely well meaning and kind and competent-

The idea of being helpless in his hands was more than Jim could bear. Perversely, knowing that last night he *had* been in Blair's hands and survived it only made it more important that he keep some of his own control.

Yet, looking out at the endless grey water, Blair beside him was more solid than the stone of the island. Also cold. Blair was clinching himself trying not to shiver. "Come on, Chief. Let's go on in."

It was time to start dinner. Andy had to check some equipment in the lighthouse and she offered to give Blair a tour. This left Jim and Rucker with the kitchen. Jim washed and sliced potatoes while Ruck trimmed a lovely little roast. The air was still redolent with sugar and toasted butter from the cookies. Smelling it, he remembered Aunt Lois--not just her cookies, but also her eyes and the way she laughed. Jim sighed and paid attention to his potatoes.

"Sandburg getting ready for the NGAE?" Rucker asked.

Jim nodded. "He was eligible the last day of the semester, but they're not offering it until after the holidays."

"How are you managing to work?"

Jim sighed. "I'm on restricted duty. I can't wait till he's legal." He glanced up, wondering if he ought to explain. "A mutual friend introduced us. He's very good. He seems to know everything about this sentinel business--and he acts like it's the most normal thing in the world."

"He seems very civilian."

Rucker hadn't said it harshly, but something in Jim went sour, and he said, "My first guide wasn't a civilian. He's currently under indictment for two counts of attempted murder and some miscellaneous assault, trespass, and B and E." He was, he realized, having the very conversation he'd just firmly told Blair he didn't *want* to have at all.

Very carefully, Rucker put down the knife he'd been using to trim the meat. "You're kidding."

"Well. He wasn't actively homicidal until after I'd fired him."

"Jesus, Jimmy. You--" He stuttered to a stop, staring hard. Jim realized that Rucker was scenting him and wondered just how transparent he was.

"It's not--" Jim started, but he looked into Rucker's eyes and saw that it was. He breathed in and held very still, not daring to move or speak, afraid that if he gave anything away it would all come out. He couldn't let that happen. He hadn't broken for Lee's viciousness. He hadn't broken for Blair's kindness, although it had been close a couple of times. He'd made it this far; he wasn't going to give in now.

Rucker snaked a chair with his foot and slid it behind Jim. "Sit, Jimmy. Do I need to get Sandburg?" Jim shook his head. "You need to breathe. Are you tracking me, Jimmy? Are you here?" Jim managed a nod, refusing to let go. He was still in control. He was ok. He wasn't going to fall apart. No.

He breathed finally. Slowly. Shallowly.

By the time Andy and Blair got back, the roast, surrounded by potatoes brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with fresh rosemary, was in the oven and Jim and Ruck were peeling carrots and parsnips.

Dinner was nice, very pleasant. It didn't feel terribly 'holiday-like' to Jim, but the last four Christmases he'd spent on duty taking calls for domestic disturbances and robbery. The Christmas before that he'd been at a base on Bali. Those had been understandably depressing and surreal. Even his Christmas with Caroline had been spent with both of them working fourteen hour shifts, trying to catch a man who'd just offed his ex-wife, children and in-laws.

This was different from all of that and different from the holidays he'd known growing up. He couldn't put his finger on what the difference was, and didn't feel like thinking about it too hard. Blair chatted about the history of various customs and cultural holidays. Andy and Ruck exchanged what they probably thought were subtle steamy glances-or maybe it was only the scent of their affection that gave them away. Mostly, Jim was occupied with eating. The meat was an excellent cut and although the texture had been slightly altered by freezing, the taste was nearly perfect.

While Jim showered, Blair made up the couch and inflatable bed. After dinner they had played canasta for a couple of hours, munching on cookies and warm cider, but Andy had finally taken Rucker out to get his opinion on some equipment up at the lighthouse, and Blair and Jim had decided to go ahead and get ready for bed.

Jim sat on the couch to dry his hair. His impulse was to go to the window, to check on things outside before going to sleep. But this was Rucker's place; he would take care of that. Besides, he was fairly sure that if he listened hard enough he'd hear what was going on at the lighthouse, and only some of it would be work. Not that he blamed them. They had had no privacy to speak of since Jim and Blair had arrived. But it would be wrong to let himself hear them. It was none of his business.

He didn't want to listen to the ocean swelling against the rocks.

Not a good thing to think about, no. It would be better not to think too hard about last night, to remember all that water surrounding the little island. The thing with the water was a bigger deal than he'd thought, now that his senses were super-three D Dolby Surround. Last night it had almost completely derailed him.

He could remember being very small, taken by his parents to see the ocean for the first time. He'd walked to the edge of the waves, astonished at how horrible it was. Never had he imagined something so large, so completely saturated with chaos. It was powerful, purposeless. He had cried. He didn't have the words to explain what was wrong with that terrible water, but he hadn't had the strength to stop crying, either. His father had walked him back to the parking lot, lecturing him about not being a crybaby, about not being ungrateful, about not ruining the family's lovely day out. He'd gotten a spanking and had spent the afternoon numb with fear and helplessness.

Years later he'd dimly remembered that there was something scary about the shore, but he didn't have those raw feelings. He'd gone to beach parties, learned to surf, even done a little modest sailing-and everything had been fine. It wasn't until long after high school when he'd been on amphibious training maneuvers that he had caught a glimpse of the open sea and the horrible comprehension of the endless chaos came rushing back.

Of course the root of it was a sensory thing. Of course. All the worst parts of his life went back to that. Now he knew what he'd been frightened of all those years. It really was as bad as he'd thought, an unstoppable power he couldn't beat, couldn't even fight-

Jim rubbed his hands together and climbed between the sheets. Blair would be out of the shower in a moment. He wouldn't be alone. He could distract himself until then. That was the trick, not letting himself think about it.

He could hear it. From every direction, it pounded, a soft, inexorable rising and falling.

"Hey, Jim? Should we leave the light on for when they come in?"

"Uh, sentinel, Chief." Jim swallowed, realizing that he had broken out in a light sweat.

"Yeah, but would it be rude you think?"

"Aren't you the expert?"

"Your sentinel host coming in late from taking his guide out for a little down and dirty never came up in the ethics seminar."

"You know, he might be able to hear you." Jim tried to sound irritated.

"Man, he is so not listening. At least, I hope so for his sake." Blair grinned wolfishly and flipped off the light. Moving slowly in the dark, he came to sit on the edge of the couch. It was narrow, and he wasn't completely on the cushion. "You ok?"

"I'm fine."

"Yeah?" Jim heard the uncertainty there. Of course. So often when Jim wasn't comfortable admitting how badly things were going, he just lied. Usually, Blair caught the lie before things got completely out of hand, but more than once he'd turned around to find his sentinel blinded by a headache or spiking. Now his fingers wandered over Jim's arm, searching for the pulse at his wrist.

"I'm ok. I just need to keep my attention in this room."

"Can you do that?" Blair's fingers were pressed against his wrist, and there was that tempting reassurance again.

Jim swallowed. "I can do that, Chief."

"Will you wake me if you need a hand?"

"I'll be ok."

"That's not what I asked. I know you'll be ok. We're not going for ok. We're going for fantastic. We're learning here, right? We might not always get everything the first time, or get it perfect, you know? We're working on it."

It didn't disturb him so much that Sandburg would manipulate him. What made him itchy was that he was so good at it. What was worst of all was that Jim was pretty sure he needed all the help he could get, even the help that was unfairly stolen from his reluctance. "Ok. Sure, if we need to work on it, I'll call you."

Satisfied, Blair slid off the couch and onto his bed on the floor. Jim listened to the mattress echo softly with his movements.

It was much later when Rucker and Andy came in. They moved almost silently, Andy following, one hand on her partner's shoulder as he led her through the darkness. Damn. Jim wished he'd made it asleep as quickly as Blair. He needed to get some ethics and etiquette lessons and soon. He really hated smelling what he was smelling from someone he was related to, and he really hated the fact that Ruck *must* know he was awake. Hyperactive senses took all the uncertainty out of everybody's intimacy. Jim held very still until they made it into the bathroom.

The next morning, Christmas continued to be a new and surprisingly pleasant experience. Jim remembered not believing in Santa Claus. He remembered never getting what he wanted unless it was also what his old man wanted him to have. He remembered fighting with Stephen--sniping maybe or sulking or quietly sabotaging each other. They always went out to a lunch at the Country Club, because Sally had the day off and Dad, of course, wouldn't cook.

Breakfast was bacon and eggs and grapefruit and toast. It was good. Afterward, calmly and with no desperate hopes to dash, they exchanged gifts. Blair and Jim had gone to the mall the night before coming out to the station. Blair had picked out thick woolen socks, some kind of expensive coffee and a historic novel ('Anthropologists read science fiction and mysteries, guides read science fiction and historical novels. Don't ask me why.') for Andy. Then Blair had led him to a gourmet store, asked Jim's budget for the enterprise, and quickly picked out a tiny bottle of truffle oil, five pounds of chestnut flour, and a bottle of special bay leaves. The bay leaves Jim understood; when Blair started seasoning the food he cooked at home, the bay leaves were the first spice he'd added in.

But while the rest of it was a mystery to Jim, Rucker was clearly impressed and pleased. Ruck broke the seal on the little bottle of oil and shook it minutely so the aroma rose into the air. The scent was mellow and slightly pungent. It filled Jim's whole head and spun the room dizzily.

Blair was behind him at once, a large, strong hand on his shoulder. "Hey."

"I had no idea. That's incredible."

"Yeah. Well. Overwhelming food experiences don't increase appetite, so I wasn't in a hurry."

"That's--that's really *good*. My god."

Andy laughed. "Your own guide never spoils you." She held out a small package. Jim took it gingerly. The bottle was closed now and the scent was fading. The power of it had almost been a little frightening, actually.

"Go ahead, open it," Blair said.

Jim unwrapped a small tin of tiny crackers sprinkled with little bits of brown and green. It smelled perfectly normal: toasted wheat, sesame, something vegetable-y.

"Oooo," Blair said. "Very nice. Homemade?"

"My sister's recipe; she's a forensic guide in Los Angeles."

"He doesn't get it," Rucker said, watching Jim's puzzlement. "Taste one."

Jim glanced at Blair who was watching calmly and nibbled the corner of one of the crackers. They tasted the way they smelled--normal and familiar--but *good*. So good. Jim crammed the tiny cracker into his mouth and reached for another. Toasted wheat was amazing stuff. Jim was shoving in a handful more before he realized what he was doing. Startled and a little embarrassed, he looked at the broken crackers in his hand.

"Seaweed crackers," Blair said gently. "The green stuff on top is full of naturally occurring MSG. It's a sentinel thing." Jim chewed slowly, not sure what to think. Blair squeezed his shoulder. "Unprocessed glutamate is considered a very low risk food, Jim."

Jim smiled politely and thanked Andy. Then he dug into his bag for Blair's present. He had asked Monk, weeks ago, what you got a guide for Christmas. "I always get Sharona a selection of vinegar. You know, nice vinegar. She mentioned she liked it once." This was no help. Rainier's bookstore sold mugs that said "World's Greatest Guide," but that hadn't seemed right either. Before Jim could make up his mind this last big case had come up and there hadn't been time to think about it. This left Jim having to give Blair a Cascade PD sweatshirt and pretending it was well thought out. The fact that Blair was clearly pleased with the gift somehow made Jim feel even more awkward. He felt like he had cheated somehow.

Blair's gift to Jim turned out to be a book on acupressure and a book on zone theory. Jim glanced at the table of contents. The chapter on use of altered consciousness for pain control had a tiny red star beside it. "Thank you," Jim said. There had been some thought in this, even though it wasn't even Blair's holiday. Jim glanced at the sweatshirt and winced inwardly.

While Jim and Blair cleaned up the torn paper and breakfast dishes, Rucker and Andy did some Coast Guard things--first in the office area of the main room, then outside. When they were alone, Jim turned to Blair and said, "Um, thanks for not making a fuss about the crackers. I appreciate that."

Blair, picking up shreds of paper under the small table, poked his head out and asked, "What fuss about the crackers?"

"You know. Because somebody else infringed on your prerogatives or something."

"What, I'm supposed to be put out because somebody else taught you something?" He looked at Jim in surprise. "Jim, I was right there. They didn't give you anything dangerous--not that I would assume your cousin and his guide *would* give you something that would hurt you. But I was right there, and if I thought it would cause a problem, I would have discreetly asked you to wait. Or something. But I'm not going to go all difficult because somebody else--I mean, why would you think I would?"

By this point, Jim was too confused to give anything but the most obvious answer. "You're a guide."

Blair glanced away quickly, but while Jim couldn't see his eyes, he could smell that Blair was thinking of Brackett again. Slowly, Blair climbed out from under the table and stood up. When he spoke he still wasn't looking at Jim and his voice was very quiet and even. "And a guide has to control every aspect of your life."

Jim sighed. It wasn't something he liked to think about, but they needed to be honest about it. "Blair, by this time next month you'll be legally able to make decisions for me when I'm in the hospital. It's you they'll ask to sign the forms, not me."

"Yeah. That's right. The next day, when you check out, you'll see all of the decisions I made. And if you're not satisfied that they were in your best interest, you'll be able to fire me."

"Yeah. Right."

"What do you mean? You will be able to fire me. If I did badly enough, you'll be able to report me."

"And then what?" Jim snapped, surprised at how angry he sounded. "There's nobody else!"

"Of course there is! What, have you only been noticing sentinels? All of the guides we've met this week were good people. Good *guides*, Jim. The world is full of competent, compassionate guides who are not sociopaths."

"Sure," Jim said. "That's what they say."

"There are tests, Jim. Six hours of psych profiling before you get into Rainier's guide program." Jim didn't answer. What could he say? "Jim? Do you think Sharona abuses Adrian? Really? Come on, Jim. You smelled Ray and Fraser together; were either one of them afraid or angry? Do you really think Ray treats Fraser the way Lee treated you? Do you think Andy has ever--"

"No!"

"No. That's right. I'm sure they all make mistakes sometimes. But they're not control freaks who terrorize their partners for being inconvenient. You could replace me."

"I don't want to replace you."

"That's different."

"But I can't--You said you would have to be in charge."

Blair stepped closer, watching Jim's eyes very closely. "I said there would be times when I would ask you to do things you didn't want to do, and that you would have to trust me. That's true. There will be times when you will have to trust me to be right and when you will have to trust me to get you through it. Yeah, some of those times you'll be in the hospital. That's going to be pretty awful. Although, afterward, you can fire me. I'll even promise you this: you can fire me during. No matter what. You ask me to go away, and I will, right then. I'll send you anyone you want. Jack would come. Sharona might, in an emergency."

"But--Blair, you're a *guide*."

"So?"

"You have to be in charge."

"Ok, to be fair, some guides work like that. They want all the control. And some sentinels don't want to deal with the world or themselves and give up all of their power. But Jim, I don't need you to obey me. I need you to take it seriously when I tell you something is dangerous. I need you to learn and try and--"

The only warning Jim had was a moment of claustrophobia. Everything was suddenly *nearer*, but the resonance of the little cabin had a more detailed echo, making him think the size had expanded, despite the unlikely imminence of the walls. Jim looked at Blair, found himself staring at a speck of dust on one of his eyelashes. He could smell the dirty laundry waiting by the washer out in the utility porch, the truffle oil, Blair's anxiety. He could hear Rucker on the dock, proposing to Andy.

From all directions he could hear the waves crashing against the rocks.

"Jim," Blair said, and his voice rocked Jim like thunder. "Zoning is not an appropriate way to avoid confrontation. If you want to let this go for now, you just have to ask."

"Not--" Jim whispered, but the hiss of his voice *hurt* and he stopped. He'd had spikes like this in the beginning. They'd laid him out for hours, and when they ended and Jim found himself coherent again in the break room or on the couch or --once--on the floor in the kitchen he would be weak and exhausted and shivering with cold.

"What's spiking?" Blair asked. His voice wasn't unbearably loud, but the echoes of it had weird harmonics. Jim could not see him. There was a smudge on the window behind where Blair ought to be standing. The smudge seemed as large as the hood of a Volkswagen. Jim looked down, trying to pull his focus in. The grain of the wood floor seemed inches in front of his face.

"Jim, I need you to pay attention to me for a minute." Impossibly, the world receded. It was still too loud and too bright, but it was normal enough to navigate in. "Yeah. You with me? Ok. Jim, we're going to go sit down." He held out a hand, and Jim took it and let himself be led to the couch. "Just relax, ok? You've been under a lot of stress. You're in a strange environment. It's messed up your control. Perfectly understandable. Nothing we can't handle, right? Jim, are you paying attention?"

We have a habit, Jim thought, surprised, as the room seemed to take on normal proportions. Blair asked him to pay attention and Jim remembered how. Like 'left face!' made you move without thinking. Like seeing a red light made you push the brake down. He'd read about this, but he hadn't really thought it would ever work for him.

"You're ok, Jim. You can handle this." Blair was speaking very softly, one hand at the back of Jim's neck. It all felt normal. Or at least, what passed for normal now.

"Rucker's heard us. They'll give us a little more time to get ourselves together." Jim sighed. "Damn."

"Jim, he understands. I promise you, he's been there." He eased Jim back so that he was lying down. "It's ok."

"It's stopped."

"That's good. We'll just sit here for a minute. Or you can sit here, and I'll go finish the dishes."

Blair started to get up. Jim snagged his hand. "I haven't spent a night in the hospital since I met you."

"What? Oh. Jim, let's not finish this now, ok? We don't have to work it all out this minute, and really--"

"I haven't spent a night in the hospital since I met you."

Blair sighed. "Ok. And that's kind of hard, I guess. I mean, you don't know how I'm going to handle it when it happens, and really, it is *way* unpleasant and maybe I won't make it better, and it must be like waiting for the other shoe to drop to see how this turns out. I get that--"

"I haven't *needed* to."

"Oh." Blair paused. "And you... what? Think that's because of me? That you owe me something?"

Jim opened his eyes, although he didn't sit up. "No. Yes--"

"It's not because of me."

"It is. Geeze, Blair--"

"It's not because of me. Even if it were, so what? I don't want to-to-to-own you. I see you trying, sometimes, to put me completely in charge. It's not going to work. You can't do it."

"Maybe I should." It was a horrible thing to contemplate, but Jim could be big enough to admit that it might be necessary. Never mind that Blair had the answers and experience Jim didn't. Blair asked for Jim's attention and Jim *stopped spiking*. In the face of that, did he have any choice?

"Aw, Jim." Blair sat down on the floor, his arms slumped over his bent knees. "Save us both the headache, huh? I've seen how you are with authority." He shook his head. "You're very polite. You take Simon's opinion seriously. You never dis him behind his back. But when it's all said and done, you do what you wanted to anyway."

"I don't--"

"When it's important. Come on, Jim. How many car chases have we been in the last three months?" Three. And a half. But Blair didn't wait for an answer. "I know damn well that you're not cleared for that kind of duty. But you just look Simon in the eye and say, 'the situation kind of got away from me, sir.'"

"It did--"

"I can respect that, in a way. You're a good cop. Simon knows that, you know that. You're breaking rules, but you're not being *stupid* so no biggie. Right? Except you're a lousy subordinate, and what I do *not* want is a partner who is going to pretend that I'm in charge and then ignore me when it suits him. So if you're not going to follow my advice, just tell me, ok? So we can move on to the nagging and bribing part of the discussion."

It felt as though the world had slipped and tilted, even though his senses were fine. Experimentally, Jim glanced out the window, quickly shifting focus between a tiny fault in the glass and a small bird in the top of a tree outside. Yep, fine. And yet, he was not entirely sure which way was up.

"Jim? You with me?"

"Yeah."

"We will work this out. Chill, ok? Just relax for a few minutes."

"Nagging and bribing?"

"Well, I'm kind of persistent."

They were silent for a few minutes. Blair sat on the floor with his head in his hands, Jim closed his eyes and felt guilty for not being better at relaxing. "How do we do this, if you're not in charge?"

Blair sighed. "Truthfully, Jim, I thought we were doing pretty good now. We practice stuff. I watch your back when you're concentrating. You ask for help when things get out of hand... actually, you could do a little more of that. We stay the same people we are, we just get more used to each other."

"And that's it."

"Mostly."

***

Jim fell asleep. After a while, Blair got up and started on the dishes. By the time Andy and Rucker got back, the dishes were dry and Blair didn't feel like crying any more.

Andy and Rucker looked frozen, but they didn't comment on the cold as they came in. It may have been a long, uncomfortable wait, but they really would understand. The first six months or so with a new guide were often rife with misunderstanding and awkwardness even when both of the people involved had similar expectations and had gotten the proper training in making those relationships work. Blair didn't think they knew that Jim's first guide had been abusive, but really, there was nothing about what was going on that couldn't be explained by their brief acquaintance and Jim's adult manifestation.

Rucker and Andy played chess. Blair tried to study for the damn exam. By this time, he'd read the advice section from beginning to end and taken all the practice tests twice. It was, by now, boring, and even the knowledge that in a little over a week he would be taking the exam for real didn't make it hold his attention.

He had fucked up with Jim again. Somehow Jim had gotten the idea that this could only work if Blair appropriated all of Jim's independence and initiative. Apparently he'd been struggling with himself all this time over whether he could force himself to do that.

Actually, it explained a lot. All the signs were there, now that Blair knew what he was looking at--Jim's eagerness to say that he trusted Blair. Jim's reluctance to argue, the continuing rarity of his questions, the vacillation between complete unwillingness to discuss his history one day and the horrifying detail he might go into on another. Even his intermittent reluctance to ask for help when he was having problems, which Blair had assumed had been a product of Jim's gender training or Lee's disregard, might be tied up in this. Blair should have seen it in his eyes, along with the fear and the hope and the desperate determination not to give up.

He'd known the sentinel thing was in no way a source of joy in Jim's life. He'd known that having a guide was a big part of that; a walking list of "don't, it's too dangerous," a pair of eyes constantly watching him, a living reminder that his life had changed forever. He had thought Jim wasn't holding that against him.

I thought he trusted me, Blair thought, feeling bitterly (unprofessionally, unethically, unfairly) hurt.

But Jim had trusted him, hadn't he? He might have assumed that Blair was going to snatch away his independence and smother his identity, but he seemed to have faith that Blair would be nice about it. Oh, yes. After all, Blair wouldn't demean Jim in public. He wouldn't punish disobedience by withdrawing his help. His teaching methods didn't include torture or terror. Blair might get angry, but he wouldn't express his anger with a bottle of poison poured out onto the seat of Jim's truck.

Perhaps Jim had consoled himself with that: at least Blair would be a congenial master. Hey, having no autonomy and no boundaries was unpleasant, but it was better than being dead or locked up in the sentinel ward at Conover.

Sighing, Blair closed the book and found Jim awake and watching him. He went and squatted beside the couch. He wanted to ask Jim how he was doing, but that might come across as a demand for information. Yes, as a guide, Blair needed to know and there was no sensible reason for Jim not to tell him, but Blair couldn't ask.

Jim's eyes searched Blair's face, and Blair could see deep worry. "We'll work it out, I promise."

"I'm sorry, Chief," Jim murmured. "I'm screwing up here, I know--"

"Shh." Blair brushed Jim's cheek with the back of his hand and then regretted it. How could he comfort Jim without threatening his identity?

Across the room, Rucker stood up suddenly and suggested that they all take a walk. It was cold and bright outside, and Jim looked up, sniffing. "What is that?"

"Snow tonight," Rucker said. "Not much."

The trees were mostly evergreens, and the ground was softened with golden needles. There was a wind, and Blair had some hope that the soft hiss of the branches would mitigate some of the water sounds for Jim. Again, he could only shake his head at the idea of bringing an inexperienced sentinel with an ocean phobia to an island. Aw, man. He hadn't asked any of the right questions.

Maybe he could get Jim to sit in on one of the undergrad sentinel studies classes next term. It would only take about three hours a week, and he would get somebody else's perspective. Mike was teaching Role and Competencies of the Professional Guide, wasn't he? That would give Jim an interesting angle; Mike was a sentinel himself, who'd gotten his degree in sentinel studies after illness forced him to retire from wreck-diving in the great lakes. Of course, with Isobella going on sabbatical, Sidney was teaching History of the Sentinel in Western Society. Sidney was very low key and non-threatening in class, although mostly he taught ethnographic methods and Indians of North America.

Suddenly they broke through the trees and were standing on a narrow, rocky beach. Well, damn. How much had Rucker perceived about Jim's reaction to the ocean, and what the hell was he thinking by bringing them here? Without the woods, the wind was fast and bitterly cold. Blair looked out at the grey water, trying to get his mind around how Jim must perceive all that moving mass. Casually, he stepped between Jim and the surf, not expecting that his body would provide much protection. To his surprise, Jim moved up behind him and rested his jaw against the back of Blair's head.

"I swear, Ruck, I don't know how you stand this all the time."

Rucker shoved his hands in his pockets and looked out over the waves. "It's just water. It's predictable, if you know it. Being *out* there takes about all my attention, Jimmy, and after about four hours I start to loose my hold on things."

"He's the most amazing pilot I've ever seen," Andy said, and Rucker swatted her playfully on the shoulder. "Look, Jimmy. If all of you processed things the same way, you wouldn't need living, thinking guides--Just a handbook and a watch that beeps to remind you not to zone too hard."

Jim was leaning against Blair's back now, one hand clamped on to Blair's hip. "Come on," Blair said. He turned, taking Jim with him, and walked inland. When the shore was out of sight, he leaned Jim against a tree and tried to look calm. "We're standing on rock, right? The island isn't going anywhere."

"No, I'm ok. I'm getting used to it. Anyway, it smells nice here."

Blair was sweating under his gloves. He pushed back his hood and took a deep breath. "Jim, tomorrow we're going to have to fly out over that."

"Yeah. I'm ok."

"Ok. Sure."

"Chief? Are you ok? Cause I get the feeling...."

"What, Jim?"

"You're upset. About the--about what we were talking about before."

"Well, *yeah*, Jim. It turns out we haven't been on the same page the whole time. I have no idea how to fix this or help you." He stared down at the scattering of soft needles. "I don't know what to do, Jim. Tell me what to do."

"You're asking me?"

Was he? "Yes. Yes, Jim. Tell me what to do. Tell me what *we're* going to do, because I just don't know."

It was a long time before Jim answered, but his voice was level when he did. "Sandburg, you have all the power here. That's not going to change. You're not the one who's vulnerable. You're not the one who can't legally work without a babysitter. You've got all the knowledge--"

"I've taught you everything you asked for. Even the dangerous, unpleasant things I'm supposed to discourage you from thinking about. I am *not* keeping you ignorant," Blair said quietly. "I've tried to figure out what you wanted even when you wouldn't tell me. I've offered to leave any time you want." Jim scowled at that and Blair leaned forward. "What?"

"How could I let you go? You--They were pushing you into research, and I owe you... everything already."

"Are you even listening to yourself?" Blair closed his eyes for a moment. "Anyway. Do you know what I'd do, if I left you? If you needed me to leave? I'd go work for the accreditation board. Lee Brackett is not the norm for American guides, but he *can't* be the only sociopath who slipped through the system and I--I would have no problem with spending the rest of my life making sure that what happened to you never happens to anyone else."

Jim closed his eyes and rested his head against the tree trunk behind him. "This would all be easier, you know, if I didn't like you." He tried to smile and didn't make it.

"Yeah, I see how that's a problem," but that one didn't make sense at all. Jim looked away and sighed. Ok. "We're not stuck with each other. We both chose to be here, Jim. You can choose to ignore my advice any time you want, man."

"And you can start with the nagging and bribing?"

"Possibly also begging. I give a shit, remember?"

"Yeah." Jim swallowed. "I remember."

Anxiously, Blair peered up at his face. "It's gonna be ok. It is, Jim. It's getting better."

"That's true," Jim said. He heaved away from the tree and headed back toward the house, Blair trailing close behind. They caught up with Andy and Rucker above the little dock. It was time to go inside and start cooking again; turkey breast this time, with cranberry sauce, dressing on the stove, and green bean casserole. Because of the size of the little galley, Blair was exiled to the doorway where he read aloud from the cookbook while the others handled the actual food. It was domestic and very Middle America. Verging on boring, actually, except watching sentinels cook was novel and intense.

Rucker and his guide shared none of Blair's anxiety over what and how much Jim was eating. The little group was fascinatingly planless as they discussed cooking times, spices and seasoning, and temperature. It was an attitude Blair wished he could emulate.

After dinner (which was good--god! Despite the going rate of a sentinel chef, a lot of sentinels didn't cook well for other people, but Jim and his cousin were apparently talented), Andy brought out a puzzle. Five thousand pieces, brown bear on a brown background. It was both frustrating and boring, although Blair would have said he liked puzzles ok if anyone had asked. It was all shades of dark brown and blurry fur. But then, the activity wasn't meant for him. Jim and Rucker placed five or six pieces for every one Blair found, and they seemed to enjoy it. Watching them was more fun than looking at bits of brown bear; Jim was clearly working on color recognition (he was working on four isolated patches scattered all over the picture) while Rucker seemed to be able to recognize fitting shapes at any rotation.

By 11:30 the puzzle was finished. Andy had fallen asleep in a chair and Blair couldn't even pretend to have added much to the outcome.

It was barely light when he woke the next morning. The house was quiet except for Jim snoring just behind and above him. Softly, Blair turned over. Jim, in sleep, was very still and undefended. It was good that he was resting although, frankly, he looked more tense than Blair liked.

Mine, Blair thought, and while he couldn't quite refuse this sign of his own attachment he knew it was the wrong thought. At most the job of protecting Jim belonged to both of them. Jim might well belong *with* Blair, but it was clear that belonging to him would tear him apart.

Jim's eyes opened and for a moment they shown with naked fear. Blair reached up to the blankets covering him and whispered, "You're ok." We're going home today, he thought. You just have to hold on a little longer, Jim.

"It's still snowing," Jim said.

"Bad enough that the chopper won't come?"

"No. It's almost stopped." His hand came out and touched Blair's lightly. "It hisses through the trees... and then it lands... like little parachutes touching down... so many... I'm about to zone, I think."

"Don't," Blair answered softly. "This isn't a pattern you can figure out. Stay in here."

Jim blinked, his eyes focusing again on Blair's face. "Yeah, ok."

"You ready to go home?"

Jim nodded. "Thanks. For letting me come...."

"Thank you for bringing me," Blair corrected. "I had a good time. Your family's nice."

"Yeah." Jim smiled. "Who knew?"

"You ok? With all that?"

Jim nodded slowly. "Ruck handles it really well."

"He was very lucky."

Jim turned onto his stomach and leaned on his elbows. "And I wasn't."

"No. I'm sorry. I...." But what could he say? Jim's childhood had been horrendous. It should have broken a young sentinel. But sympathy wouldn't solve any of the problems he had now.

"I'm supposed to be able to have a relationship with you, aren't I? I'm supposed to know how to trust you and, and I don't even know what I can't do right."

"Set boundaries you can live with, tell me the truth even when it's ugly, know when it's ok to let me handle things for a while. Theoretically anyway. But Jim--don't think everybody out there is doing it perfectly but you. Most guide relationships don't last more than seven to ten years. That's shorter than a lot of marriages. All the interpersonal training in the world doesn't keep people from screwing up regularly."

"Thanks. That's encouraging." And then, "Ruck's awake."

Breakfast was oatmeal, canned fruit, and lavender tea, and then--poof--before Blair knew it they were all in their coats and on their way down to the dock. The snow had stopped, but the air was cold and the sky above was a shining white, not grey. Jim and Rucker hung behind, talking softly to one another. Blair was a little curious about what they might be saying, but on one level (the one at the front of his mind, panicking about all the ways he might be screwing up his innocent sentinel) he just hoped it didn't lead to any more surprise mine fields.

The helicopter landed on the wide bench a bit above the beach. The wind of its rotors blasted the little party with icy air, and it was a relief to climb inside and wave to Andy and Rucker from behind the closed door. Jim tightened his seatbelt and leaned his head back in preparation for takeoff.

Blair leaned over. "You ok?"

"What the hell," Jim shouted back, looking grim and bitterly amused. "If we crash into the ocean, we won't survive anyway."

"What?" Blair yelled. "Crash?"

"Choppers don't glide. Drop like bricks." Then Jim's eyes snapped open and his head swung around. "What?" he bellowed.

The helicopter lifted, and Blair's stomach seemed to go through his feet. Involuntarily, his hand snagged Jim's.

"Chief?"

"Not real fond of heights, ok? Damn it!" Blair closed his eyes. They were going up fast and he did *not* want to look out the window, not when he was picturing falling that distance like a 'brick.' Seatbelt, he thought. Door. Not going to fall out, and not, not *not* going to crash. He'd been fine on the way in, really, would be fine now if he could get the idea of that damn *brick* out of his mind.

Jim was squeezing Blair's hand, but he was saying something Blair couldn't quite hear, and he opened his eyes again and looked at him anxiously. Jim was laughing. "What?" Blair shouted, afraid he might be a little hysterical.

"Can I pick vacations, or what?"

Blair laughed, burying his eyes in Jim's gortex covered shoulder and not looking down. Jim still had his hand, one finger pushed up past the cuff of the glove so that it contacted bare skin. Blair wasn't, at that point, sure who was comforting whom, but as long as they were both coherent, maybe it didn't matter.

~End~