New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

Imperfections IV: Necessary Parts
Part Three
by Dasha

See notes and disclaimer in part one.

It was a short trip to a warehouse just up the road. On the way, Blair tried to get a handle on how angry he should be. It wasn't like this was a complete surprise; Naomi had followed them before, after all. But it wasn't like her to lie about it. She'd been clear about going to visit friends; a premeditated lie at that. And Naomi was *bad* lying. How the hell had she fooled Jim?

Oh man, oh man. He'd thought she understood. This wasn't a game. This wasn't safe. She could have gotten hurt. She could have messed up the bust. Anything was possible. She could have--

She still might *yet* get Blair fired. But surely...oh surely, that hadn't been her intension.

But then, he would never have thought Naomi would have followed them today. Never. Anything was possible.

There were police cars and flashing lights everywhere. Blair looked around for his mother or Jim, but found only Simon, who looked up from his phone conversation long enough to wave at the warehouse and say, "Take your mother home. Jim can get her statement about the kidnapping this afternoon."

Kidnapping? Blair briefly considered the idea of Naomi kidnapping someone. It was a horrifying thought. It was much less horrifying than the thoughts which followed it. He ran in the direction Simon had indicated. He saw but ignored Francine being led away in handcuffs. He saw but ignored a cheerful wave from one of the detectives in Jim's unit. He found his mother at last, standing beside the Lamborghini, one hand resting on the hood and her eyes closed.

"Mom?" he said uncertainly.

She opened her eyes. "I don't understand, Blair. It's just a thing. A beautiful thing, but...I don't see how it could inspire all this greed."

"Mom. What happened?"

She looked faintly embarrassed. "Oh. Well. Sweetheart. Actually, that's almost a funny story." She bit her lip. "As I was heading toward my car, Francine showed up to try to renegotiate our deal. Sort of. She had a gun and..." Naomi trailed off and waved her hands helplessly. "In retrospect, passive resistance was clearly the way to go with this. I mean, if I'd sat down on the sidewalk what was she going to *do* shoot me in broad daylight in a busy street? But I was just so surprised, I wasn't thinking very clearly--sweetheart, are you ok?"

No, actually, he felt a little light-headed.

"I think everything's all right, though. I mean, we seem to have won. Francine and Gary have been arrested, and we even got their boss like Jim was hoping," she waved toward the other end of the warehouse and Blair turned to see a gorgeous black limo. Its entire front end was crumpled and embedded in--Jim's truck? "We even rescued the car they were stealing....Blair? Sweetie? What's wrong?"

"Jim," he gasped. "Where's Jim?"

"He was around here somewhere."

"Jim!" But he did not have the breath to scream. Surely, god, if his sentinel were in trouble someone would have *gotten* him. But looking at the broken truck Blair couldn't imagine how Jim could be fine. "Jim?"

"Yeah? Sandburg, Simon says--"

The voice came from behind him. Blair spun around, the thousand worries in his head coming out his mouth as "Your truck!"

"Blair!" Naomi said sternly. "It's only a *thing*. It's nothing to be angry about."

But apparently Jim had smelled Blair freaking out over him often enough to recognize it now. "Easy, Chief. I'm fine."

Blair's head snapped around. The whole front of the truck was bent in and twisted. Jim could not possibly be all right after that crash, and to think he must have been in so much pain that he had completely disassociated from it. Blair wondered if he was walking on broken bones.

He needed to stop freaking and do something. Jim was hurt--

"Chief, listen." Jim laid a hand on each of Blair's shoulders. "Listen. I wasn't in the truck when it hit. I'm not hurt."

Not hurt?

"Really. Everything's fine. I'm fine. Your mom's fine. Everything's good here."

"You son of a bitch," Blair rasped. He stumbled back a step and glared at Jim--looking sympathetic and reassuring--and Naomi--looking bewildered but kindly--and snarled, "I'm going to kill you both myself! I can't leave either of you alone for five minutes--"

"But Blair, honey, it wasn't my fault!"

"Sandburg, just calm--"

A young uniform approached then. He was trying not to look too interested, but his eyes kept lingering on Jim. "What?" Blair snapped.

"Uh, Captain Banks sent me to take you and Ms. Sandburg home?"

"Right. Fine. Wonderful idea."

But on the trip home things began to look less dire. All right, yes, Francine flipping out and taking a civilian hostage--no body had expected that. But Simon had had the area surrounded. Nobody got away. Nobody got hurt. They even had Petrie participating in attempted grand theft auto.

"Mom, are you sure you're all right?"

"Nothing two bottles of wine and an hour's meditation won't cure."

"No--really. Are you sure--"

"Honey, why should I be upset? *My* priorities are just fine. I'm not a criminal. I'm not obsessed with a car. I'm not violent. Seeing all those seriously messed up people, well...It's not as though I didn't know that sometimes people....I mean, Francine...." Naomi collected herself and took a deep breath. "All right, yes, I'm practically in bed with the pigs at the moment--no offense--but I never, never said that there should be no social order *at all*."

"Yeah, right." Blair wasn't convinced, but he wouldn't argue. He set about making tea while Naomi called the coop and explained why she had stood them up. While she sipped her cup at the table, Blair began to clean the loft. Order would make Jim happy, and Blair had adrenalin to work off.

"Sweetie, I sense that you're a little up tight."

Blair looked up from the pile of papers he was sorting. Naomi made a face at him. "Let it go," she said. "It's over."

"It shouldn't have happened." None of it should have happened. Naomi should not have been allowed near a case. Jim should have not been working with his guide practically in another zip code. None of them--

"If there is anything to learn from this, learn it and go on. But really, the only lesson I see is that we can't predict what will happen and we can't control it."

"Let it go."

"Yes, baby. Let it go."

His cell phone rang. If Jim is in trouble-- Blair thought, answering it. But it wasn't Jim. It was Jack. "I need you both at the department, Blair. Now," he said without preamble.

"Jim's not here--"

"The police are here. They're trying to arrest Marcia."

"Oh, shit--" Blair grabbed his jacket and headed for the door. "What happened?"

"I can't--Do not touch me. Stop. Just stop--I can't explain now Blair. Just hurry."

Blair was locking the door before he registered that Naomi was in the hall with him. "Mom--"

"Is this police business?" she asked, and then, "Honey is Jim ok?"

"Something's wrong at the department."

"Well then, I'm coming with you."

Of course she was. Blair didn't have time to argue. Basically any peace and sanity in Jim's life, they owed to Jack Kelso; there was no way Blair was going to let his advisor's sentinel get arrested.

Not that he had a clue how to stop it.

Why were the police trying to arrest Marcia?

At almost-noon, traffic on Route 12 and Faculty Drive was almost nonexistent. Blair and Naomi made very good time. The elevator in Hargrove was abysmally slow, so Blair ducked into the stairwell. As soon as he opened the door, sounds of venomous argument made him cringe, but he couldn't make out the words. "My goodness," Naomi murmured.

Blair took the stairs two at a time, leaving his mother slightly behind. By the time he hit the second floor landing, he could make out the loudest of the voices as the psycho graduate secretary whom Jack had said was working out her two weeks notice. When Blair turned onto the last flight, he saw she was accompanied by a middle-aged man in a CPD uniform and the new head of university security, a small Asian woman who'd given several talks the previous fall on parking lot safety.

The Asian woman headed Blair off at the stairs. "I'm sorry, the anthropology department is closed for the moment--"

Blair held up his guide ID and the security badge he used at the police department. "I understand you have some sort of problem involving a sentinel?" He tried his best to sound official and authoritative.

The security officer rolled her eyes. "Believe me, the sentinel isn't the problem. The man *she* attacked is willing to drop the assault charges if she won't press charges against the sentinel for defending him, but," she shrugged, "Miss Dennis wants us to throw the book at both of them."

Blair looked at Rachel Dennis leaning against the wall at the top of the stairwell. She was now softly and methodically cursing out the cop who just looked bored. "Right," Blair said. He nodded his thanks, and followed by Naomi, who had caught up to him, pushed open the door that lead to the Anthropology Department.

There were more university security in here too, as well as two EMTs, another cop, and a cluster of anthropology professors clustered in the corner. An undergrad was hunched up on the battered orange couch. She was crying a little. The division chair Hal Buckner and an EMT were arguing with Jack by the coffee machines, and that's where Blair went.

"Jack, there's no point in being difficult about this," Buckner was saying. "You're going to have to have stitches and probably a tetanus shot. You might as well get it over with."

"You've been working with guides for twenty years. How the hell did you not notice that we have only one priority?" Blair had never seen his advisor lose his temper before. He handled even the most appalling situations with a cool distance Blair had always envied. Most of the time you wouldn't even guess that he was even capable of being rude, let alone violent, but just then he looked ready to haul off and hit Buckner if the other man came in reach.

"Um, Jack," Blair said quickly.

Kelso's anger, along with his interest in his opponents, seemed to vanish. When he turned his chair to face Blair he was reasonable and worried, not furious and dangerous. "Things have gotten a little out of hand. I was hoping you might be in a position to intercede with the police."

"What happened?" He could see Jack's left arm, now. The sleeve had been cut away and a gauze bandage covered most of his forearm. Whatever wound it covered was still bleeding; the gauze was already spotted red.

"The graduate secretary got into an argument with one of the workstudies. I came out to see what the problem was in time to catch *her* chasing the girl with a pair of scissors. I managed to disarm her, but not neatly," he shrugged the bandaged arm. "Unfortunately, Marcia was coming to meet me for lunch. She was in the elevator. She heard everything, Blair. She came out of the elevator and I was bleeding. It wasn't her fault--"

"God, Jack! What did she do?"

One of the security people milling around piped up, "According to the loudmouth in the hall, attempted murder."

"No! Blair, believe me. If Marcia had tried to kill Rachel--"

"What did she do?"

"Grabbed her by the hair and threw her into the wall. It...it might have gotten worse, but Hal and Rita were coming back from class, and they managed to separate them. The workstudy," he glanced at the weeping undergrad, who was currently snapping at one of the cops to leave her alone, "had already called the police and Hal called security....Blair, if Rachel presses charges, they'll both be arrested. I don't know if she could cope with that."

"Yeah, I get it." He knew only the bare outlines of Marcia's health problems, but sentinels in general had trouble with confinement. "I'll call Jim," he said. But Jim's phone was busy. And so was Simon's. Damn. He glanced around. "Where is she?"

"They have her in the library. Blair--"

"I know. I know. Look, at least I can stay with her. If I could arrest her myself...." He couldn't, but even so, his ID said 'Major Crimes.' It would get him at any crime scene, give him access to any part of the police station (although there were a few places he wasn't allowed to go alone). "I can keep an eye on her until this is sorted out."

"Will you check on her now? They won't let me near her."

"I could talk to the officer in charge--"

"Later. Just go make sure she wasn't hurt."

"Yeah...Ok."

The department's small library was crowded with a short table, a copier machine, the automatic grader, and the file cabinet that held graduate reserves . Low shelves lined the walls. The books were mainly faculty cast-offs, although there were a few classics like Malinowski's *The Sexual Life of Savages* and Mead's *Emotional Dependence in Samoan Sentinel-Guide Pairs*. Two guys in uniforms--one from the PD and the other from Rainier Security--lounged in the doorway talking about baseball.

Marcia was seated in a battered wooden chair against the far wall. Her head was leaned back against the books and her eyes were closed. She was still.

Blair had seen that kind of stillness in Jim a couple of times, when he was exhausted and spiking and worn to the point when all there was left to do was conserve his strength and endure. Even then, though, Jim had projected an aura of irritability. He had been *there*. Marcia was blank, almost empty. She made no reaction to Blair's arrival. He could barely see her breathing.

Blair handed his ID to the policeman who looked at it curiously. "A guide? I don't get it."

"Have you ever arrested a sentinel before?"

"No."

"Have you ever met anybody who'd arrested a sentinel?"

"No."

"You need me." Blair took his ID back and squeezed around the table to squat beside Marcia. "Hey," he said softly. "It's Blair."

The ripple of expression might have been a scowl. "What, really?" But then she added, "Jack?"

"He's ok, I think. He's trying to figure a way to get you out of this." She was pale, and--what? Distant? Hollow? Blair didn't like it. "Marcia, I'm going to touch you, ok?"

A small movement that might have been a shrug. Her skin was very cool and dry. Gently, Blair took her wrist and checked her pulse: very fast and irregular. There was some kind of problem. "Were you hurt in the fight?"

Her eyes flickered. The brief expression in them might have been contempt. "No."

"Hey, come on. Cut me a break. It's not my fault I'm not Jack." Nothing. "Are you spiking? Are you reacting to something in the room?"

"It's an unventilated copier room. What do you think?" she murmured.

"Did you tell them?" Blair asked, but that didn't matter. He managed to stand up calmly and turn around. "You can't keep her in here," he said.

"Why not?"

"Because to knowingly expose a sentinel to a chemical agent they react to is assault with a deadly weapon, and if I don't take her out of here, I'm going to have to arrest all of us." It wasn't their fault. They didn't know. And even if they knew, how could anyone understand. The important thing was to stay calm. Freaking out would just be one more hostile stimulus Marcia would have to cope with.

God, they were in trouble.

Marcia didn't resist as Blair hauled her to her feet. She moved slowly, but she moved. When they cleared the table, Blair put a hand around her waist. She neither leaned on him nor flinched away. With small, slow steps, he guided her to the battered orange couch in the communal area of the department. Jack was there, suddenly, waiting for them. He caught Marcia and eased her onto the couch.

Jack examined her quickly, his hands checking pulse and joints, then opening her mouth so he could check her color an look for swelling. Too quietly for Blair to hear, they murmured to one another, and then Jack turned and signaled to the EMT who was packing up to leave.

It was really bad, then, if Jack's first move was to ask for help.

Blair backed away. This was a 'learning experience' he couldn't afford to miss; Jack Kelso was the best guide Blair was ever likely to see in action. But Jack and Marcia were also friends, and Blair had an idea how bad things might be. He backed to the wall beside the coffee machine and closed his eyes.

He knew how he would feel if this were Jim.

"Blair, sweetie, what's going on?"

Amazingly, until he heard her whisper beside him, Blair had forgotten Naomi was there. "Jack's partner is having a bad reaction...probably to the fumes from the copier."

"How awful. How serious is it?"

"I dunno. She's been sick for a long time."

"How awful...."

Yeah. Awful.

When Jack called him Blair bounced away from the wall and hurried over.

"Blair, her blood pressure's dropping. She needs to go to the hospital. I can't...ride in the ambulance with her. I'll be right be hind you, but she needs a guide with her, and you're the only one here. Angela and Isabella aren't even on campus today...."

The EMTs were already positioning the stretcher. There wasn't any time. "Ok. Yes. What do I need to know?"

Jack put a laminated card into Blair's hand; Marcia's list of chemical don'ts. "I will be right behind you."

Blair nodded. The EMTs were checking Marcia's IV line, getting ready to transport her. "Just hurry, ok?"

***

The trip to the hospital lasted four and a half minutes. Blair knew because when he wasn't looking at Marcia, he was looking at his watch. There wasn't much for him to do. At that point the EMTs were only treating her for shock, which was difficult to mess up, even for a sentinel.

He talked to her. Jack had told her to stay conscious, and she made an effort to listen. She was still blunted by that same, terrible stillness, though, and when the EMTs spoke to her, she refused to respond.

In the emergency room, the doctor hadn't even finished his examination when Jack appeared. He motioned Blair away, and Blair went gratefully.

Naomi was pacing in the waiting room. Blair didn't know what to say to her. She patted his hand and led him to one of the square, naugahyde seats. "I gave your friend a ride. He didn't seem to be in a good place to drive."

The emergency room wasn't crowded; an elderly couple sat in the corner. A small, fretful little girl sat in her father's lap over by the door.

"I don't understand," Naomi said. "Something in your department made her sick?"

Blair nodded.

"But, I mean, all sentinels can't be that...sensitive, can they?"

"Not usually, no. But some of them...have trouble controlling their body's reactions. And she's been sick for a while."

Naomi was silent for a moment. "And Jim?"

"Mom, I can't...talk about Jim. You know him, and, I mean--"

"It's private. I hear that." But she did not let the subject drop. "From what you've told me, dealing with reactions to the environment is a big part of a guide's job." Blair nodded. "Generally... on average, I mean, how often does a sentinel react badly enough to something to have to go to the hospital?"

"On average, once in every three to five years. I know one, though, a guy from Canada, he's only been to the hospital once for chemical sensitivity. That's really rare. And sometimes things are bad enough that it happens once or twice a month."

"That can't--I mean, how could that be sustainable? That can't go on for very long."

"Usually, it doesn't."

Something in his tone or face made Naomi swallow and look away. "Oh. I see. Blair, will your friend....?"

"I don't know. I don't know what's happening. She went right into shock. That's not a good sign. And I'm not sure, I mean, she's been really sick, on and off. Just being in shock is dangerous. It may be too much for her, even if they can get the reaction under control. And they may not be able to."

"Oh."

***

Jim had been on the phone with Beverly Sanchez when Brown tapped him on the shoulder and told him that Naomi Sandburg was trying to reach him. He'd taken the call hoping she only had some questions about the case and wasn't going to call on him to referee some disagreement with Blair. Or something. You could never tell with those two.

She was on her way to the hospital. Marcia had just been whisked off in an ambulance, and Blair was with her, and Naomi was somehow concerned that there might be some sort of legal problems.

What? He'd wanted to ask, but he'd already been on his way to the door. What legal problems? Where was Jack? Why was *Blair* with Marcia?

He found Blair and Naomi in the waiting room of Cascade General. He could have told by the smell alone that it was the hospital of choice for sentinels; the disinfectants it used weren't based on ammonium chloride. Jim had been here himself a couple of times, but Lee hadn't usually been picky.

Blair didn't notice him until Jim was standing right beside him. From the way Blair smelled, things must be pretty bad. "Hey," Jim said softly.

Blair stood up and hugged him. Ok, then. Definitely very bad. "What happened, Chief?"

Blair shook his head miserably.

"Were you with them?"

"Late. I got there late. There was fight at the department. The crazy secretary finally lost it. Jack was hurt, not badly I think, but Marcia--there was a chemical exposure afterward, and if that's all it was, then ok. But Jim, if she's reacting to *stress* now--"

Gently, Jim laid a hand over Blair's mouth. There was a lot of ambient sound in the emergency room: people talking, machinery, air conditioning, even a cheap white noise generator. It took Jim a moment to focus in onto a familiar voice. "There's some swelling," he reported. "The doctors are trying to decide if it's localized or some kind of general edema. Jack's worried about her heart."

"Um, are you supposed to be listening?" Naomi asked softly.

Jim found himself smiling without warmth. "Definitely not. They're talking about immunosuppressants. There's some disagreement about what kind, I don't understand...."

"Never mind. It doesn't matter."

For a moment Jim hesitated. He wasn't sure he wanted to know. "Why not?"

"The anti-immune drugs are all pretty toxic to sentinels. When they talk about using them...it's because they think things can't get any worse."

"Oh."

"Come on." Abruptly, Blair stepped back and brushed his hair out of his face. "Let's get out of here."

"We should stay," Naomi protested.

"No. We shouldn't. Jack would understand."

"Blair," Jim said gently, "It's not contagious." He frowned. "We owe Jack a lot."

"Of course it's not. And, yeah, I owe Jack everything. But I can't do anything for them now. I'll come check on them later, when they've moved her to a room. He'll need a gopher then. Or whatever. Come on."

There was no point in arguing with Blair when he was like this. Jim and Naomi followed him out almost meekly. Naomi clearly didn't understand why they were leaving, but Jim thought he did. Michaelson's Syndrome--and even though Blair wouldn't say the words aloud, Jim knew enough to guess that this was the fast kind of Michelson's, the great boogey of sentinel illness--wasn't contagious, except that guides seemed to think a sentinel could get it by *thinking* about it. Jim knew the difference between his body being sick and someone else's body being sick, and he had paid enough to Blair's visualization training to know not to imagine what it felt like. But there was no point in arguing about this with Sandburg.

It was almost five when they got home, but even though there was no point in going back to the station, there was still work to do. Naomi still hadn't made a statement about what had happened that morning. Jim got her story at the kitchen table while Blair made dinner. Parsley potatoes, sautéed collards, and something called 'tempe.' Jim would have preferred a steak, but the only meat in the house was that boiled tongue which Jim would not touch on a dare. The tempe didn't taste too great, but the texture was....absorbing. Kind of pleasant, in a smooth, sticky, springy way. Blair had to tap his arm twice to keep Jim from zoning on it.

After dinner Naomi asked to borrow Blair's computer for a while. Blair went back to the hospital--alone, which left Jim to amuse himself. He found a rerun of Bonanza on cable and tried to watch. He kept thinking, though, about Jack and Marcia. He felt a little bad about not liking her, but also relieved. She was probably dying.

Of course, she might not always have been abrasive and difficult. Hell, any number of people probably thought Jim was abrasive and difficult at this point. When the senses were out of control there wasn't a lot of energy left to devote to being charming and polite. Five or ten years ago, Marcia might have had a sparkling personality. She might not have been so thin and harsh and short tempered.

Jim wished it were over for her one way or another.

Blair was back in just under two hours. He made a bee line for the fridge and beer, and then joined Jim on the couch. "Mom still on the computer?"

"Yeah." Jim tried to smile. "She's not looking for scary recipes or anything, right? Or does she cook organ meats in the face of tragedy."

"You should try the tongue. You'd like it."

"Thanks anyway." Jim sighed. "How are they?"

"Marcia is stable. Jack is hoping he'll be able to take her home tomorrow. In a non-threatening environment there are breathing exercises and altered states that might help."

Jim nodded and moved slightly closer to his partner. "How's Jack?"

"Calm," Blair said shortly. He turned toward the TV. "What are we watching?"

Jim turned the TV off and faced him straight on. "See, Chief...The thing is, I keep imagining you in his place. Not for a while, yet, but in four or five years...that'll be you, trying to make those decisions for me. And we won't be able to talk about it then and I know--"

"Stop. Just stop." Sandburg's eyes had gone hard and distant, and Jim didn't like the way he suddenly smelled. Sandburg always smelled like this right before he reamed Jim out for doing something stupid and dangerous. And then he smelled guilty and apologized....And this time, damn it, it wasn't fair. Jim was trying to do the right thing. Blair was always nagging him to *talk* about things, to pay attention to the sentinel stuff, even when talking wouldn't do anything about it. And here Jim was *trying* and Blair looked ready to blow a gasket. "Is that what you think?" Blair asked in a voice as clear and hard as glass. "That in a couple of years you're just going to get sick and die? Is that what you think *I* think?"

Jim took a deep breath. Sandburg *really* didn't want him thinking about this, but there was no point in being dishonest. Before he'd met Blair, Jim had expected things to be over pretty quickly, and deep down, it had been kind of a relief. Yes, he was going to die horribly, but it wasn't going to take forever. Lately, though, as it became clear that he had a little more time and that there were things that could be done to postpone the end and make the wait easier, Jim had begun to actively resent his fate. But just because he didn't like it...that was no excuse not to face it. And if there was anything to be honest with his guide about, this was it. "Blair, I'm not a child. We can talk about this. Maybe I...want to talk about this."

"Jim," Blair said, his voice dangerously soft, "do you really think, if you were dying, that we would be just *sitting here*?"

Jim didn't understand.

"Jim, if your job or this city were killing you, we would be working Fish and Wildlife right now. Or inspecting farm animals. Or watching cars in some godforsaken spot on the Canadian border--" Blair broke off, reining in anger and something else. "I promise you, if you were in trouble, if you were sick, I would not just....sit here and watch you die."

"It's not always...There isn't always something to do."

"I would try. I would try. But Jim--you're not fragile. And you're not in trouble here. It's going well--"

Jim shook his head. "You're always so careful and so picky. You watch what I eat, what I *think*. And I appreciate that, I do. But come on. You're just trying to...put off the inevitable."

"No."

"And I'm not complaining. You're doing a good job--"

"No. No. I'm trying to give you all the training you should have had growing up in addition to keeping you efficient and comfortable." He closed his eyes. "God. I'm trying to teach you good habits...because you're going to be a sentinel for a long time, Jim. And those can be good, comfortable, happy years or long miserable years and I was, you know, going for the comfortable and happy."

Years, Jim thought. And then "How many years are we talking about?"

"Thirty? Forty? You might lose some hearing and smell after sixty. It's not uncommon. But mostly, your senses will still be there."

"*Forty years*?" Jim almost shouted. He remembered Naomi, but there was no answering movement from Blair's bedroom. "Forty years?"

"Well, I can't promise," Blair said quickly. "You *could* have a fatal reaction tomorrow. Or, hell, you could get shot on duty. Or hit by lightening. Anything can happen. But it's not likely. Odds are you'll work for another twenty years or so, retire, and get old just like anybody else."

Blair was looking at him expectantly, like someone who'd just brought good news. And it was good news, of course it was....

But Jim had never imagined having to live with the damn senses for another thirty or forty years.

Not that he wasn't grateful. He was. Sandburg had just handed him his life back. Or rather, had spent the last several months retrieving Jim's life from the jaws of hell. But--

Jim had gotten used to the problems he had had. He hadn't liked the idea of suffering for a few short, bleak years until the senses killed him, and he'd really hoped it happened quickly (say a bullet in the head some night while he was zoned or really quick anaphylaxis rather than slow Michaelson's), but he had faced up to it. The sentinel-thing was just something that had happened to him. It was terrible, but there was no avoiding it, and the best Jim could hope for was to make some kind of difference in the world before he died.

Now all of that was gone, and he was going to have to re-plan everything.

Change his expectations.

Pick up some areas he'd let slide because he'd assumed he wouldn't be around to see them through.

No wonder Blair had been pushing expanding Jim's social life so hard. If Jim was going to be around in ten years or more, he'd need friends....

Jim's mouth went dry. "Sandburg, are you...um, are you committing to twenty years?"

"Jim, when I joined the Guide Program at Rainier, I committed to a lot longer than that." He spoke calmly, watching Jim with thoughtful eyes. "I'm very happy working with you. I...like you a lot. I think you know that. I can see doing this job for at least twenty years, and at the very least, I'll stay as long as you need me--" He stopped abruptly. "No, I can't promise you that. Jack never left Marcia willingly. I can't promise it won't be me...hit by lightening. Or whatever. But you'll be ok. All you ever needed was a halfway competent guide. That's part of what I'm telling you, Jim. I've been telling you for months. You got off to a bad start, but really, you're ok. And you're going to be ok."

Jim closed his eyes. He tried to imagine getting older. He tried to imagine forty-five, with his hair mostly gone and his knees starting to go. He'd have to transfer to forensics, then. He would need a year and half of continuing ed to be a forensic sentinel. There hadn't seemed to be any point in starting the training before. He wondered if there were any classes Blair would have to take.

He tried to imagine retiring. He'd need a hobby. Fishing, maybe. Or wood carving. No power tools, not with his senses. Little tiny knives, maybe, and sharp, pointy awls.

Blair's hand on his face felt strangely hot. "Hey, easy, there," he said gently. "How about some deep breaths, Jim? That's good."

"I don't know if I can do this for twenty years, Chief."

"Sure you can. It won't always be like this. You need time to practice. And you need to get used to the senses. And you need to get used to not being scared all the time."

"I *am* scared all the time!"

"Are you?" Blair asked, looking into his eyes.

Yes, always--but as Jim opened his mouth to say it he realized that the vague anxiety that hovered at the edge of his life most of the time wasn't really like the panic and desperation that used to ambush him several times a day. Yeah, the knowledge that things might to horribly wrong any minute was wearing....but not like the fear that came when walls that obviously weren't moving seemed to close in. Or like suddenly not being able to see or hear. Or like not being able to breathe.

Actually, lately, things had been pretty tame. And even when dizziness or mysterious welts or spikes had ambushed him, knowing that Blair was less than an arm's reach away had kept him from panicking.

It was possible that the vague anxiety would eventually go away too. Maybe soon.

Maybe very soon.

"It's ok," Sandburg whispered. "It's ok. It's going to get better. And in the mean time I'll do everything I can to make it as easy on you as possible."

Jim swallowed hard, unable to speak, unsure what to say. He didn't resist when Sandburg hugged him hard. He knew the gesture was meant to be comforting, and that alone was enough. The strong, competent arms of his guide weren't even needed.

Blair followed him upstairs at bedtime and tucked him in. That would be irritating and frustrating and kind of sad, except, apparently, Blair didn't see himself as some kind of caregiver to the suffering and hopeless. He wasn't--really, really wasn't--just tying to make his partner comfortable and effective in whatever time he had left. Apparently, when Blair said 'sustainable' he didn't mean, 'good enough to get by for a couple of years' but 'a pattern you can live with for twenty years.'

Maybe Blair was in denial.

Blair adjusted the covers and sat on the edge of the bed. If Jim wasn't dying, maybe he ought to resent being treated like he was four. But just then, Blair leaned down and whispered, "I'm right about this. I've been right about everything else, haven't I?"

Well, crap. On the possibility that Blair really was right, Jim was going to have to learn to be a sentinel. Not the kind that got by and made due for a couple of years. The kind who was a sentinel day in and day out for twenty.

He tried to picture Rucker. Or Benton Fraser. Or Monk--except Blair kept insisting that he wasn't a useful model of sentinel practices.

Blair brushed his fingers across Jim's forehead, silently offering him pressure points that would help him relax. "Will you sleep for me, Jim? We can talk more tomorrow. Everything's going to be all right."

"You shouldn't make promises you can't keep," Jim said. That was in one of Blair's textbooks. For preserving trust, keeping promises was more essential than telling the truth.

"I can keep this one."

***

Blair wouldn't have thought he could sleep. Even while talking to Jim, it had been hard pushing images of Jack and Marcia out of his mind. Well. Guide programs stressed empathy. It turned out that the same skills that were so good for getting you to imagine trying to drive with a sensory spike were also good for imagining what your advisor was going through while he watched his best friend's vital signs swing further and further off kilter. Blair could not imagine, if he were in Jack's place, being nearly so calm, so rational, so sturdy....

And then there was Jim. And wasn't *that* a lovely little bombshell. Because apparently Jim had been assuming that Blair and Jack were in the same position all along. The surprises never stopped.

But as soon as he slid between the cool sheets he'd lain out on the longer couch, Blair felt himself begin to let go. He didn't *want* to think about Marcia. Better to be asleep then to go there. And as for Jim--

Jim was upstairs. He was safe. He was healthy and looked after. Whether he understood it or not, he had a guide who would cushion and protect him. Whatever damage Brackett had done, he wasn't here now and would not get near Jim again. Jim just needed time and kindness, and Blair could see that he had both. As long as he was upstairs...and safe...and healthy...and looked after.

Everything would be fine.

The next morning at breakfast Blair offered to give Naomi a brief tour of the police station. Jim would be spending most of the morning doing paperwork on the case and Blair thought he really should make an investment in some quality time. But Naomi shook her head, "Oh, thank you honey, but I really need to go the library. Or--say, does Rainier let non-students into their library? That would be perfect."

"Uh, sure. But you can't check anything out."

"That's ok. I just need to do some research." And then she had hopped up to collect the next batch of pancakes and refill everyone's orange juice.

Blair drove, much to Jim's irritation. Blair just snorted, "Look, you totaled *your* truck. This is my car, and I'm driving," and dropped Jim off at the station to do paperwork. Blair and picked up a bag of organic fruit at the coop before making a quick trip to the hospital. When he had gone over the night before and offered help, this was the only thing Jack had asked for. Marcia had already tried going macrobiotic and Raw Food, and it hadn't improved things, but eating the processed god-knows-what the hospital served couldn't be a help.

Blair knocked on the door frame outside Marcia's private room and poked his head in. They were sitting several feet apart, glowering at one another in sullen exhaustion. It felt like he'd interrupted a fight. Marcia closed her eyes and turned her head. Jack looked up and murmured a polite "hello."

At first glance Marcia looked much better. The stark thinness that had made her look so sharp and harsh had blunted into something softer and more attractive. At the second glance, though, Blair realized that she wasn't *fatter*, she was just puffy. Retaining water, which might be a sign of either Michaelson's or heart failure. Take your pick.

Jack, for his part, looked almost as bad. He clearly hadn't slept and his hair was lank and dull. His eyes--

Hurriedly, Blair held out the bag: "Not a huge selection this time of year. Apples. Whole grain bread. Frozen strawberries."

"Thank you. Isabella is stopping by later with some things from home. But I'm still hoping we're not staying long."

"Is anyone taking your classes?"

"Rita. She's not a guide, but she knows the material." Rita was Jack's research assistant. She was a graduate student in anthropology getting ready to start her dissertation work on sentinels and primary school education.

Without opening her eyes, Marcia muttered, "He could give you a ride."

Jack sighed, gently took one of her hands. "No," he said softly. "Just no. I'm not going home. We'll go home together soon, or we'll both stay here. It's all right."

A single tear slid out from under one of Marcia's pale lids and rolled into her ear.

"Jack--" Blair fumbled, looked away.

"I don't know if I've done the right thing," he said, and Blair wasn't certain if Jack was talking to Marcia or to him. "She grew up in a city. Colorado wasn't working, I thought maybe....someplace that felt more familiar. But I don't know. Maybe it was selfish, bringing her here to me."

Blair felt slightly sick.

On the bed, Marcia slitted heir eyes open. "Bad guide," she whispered. "No biscuit."

To Blair's surprise, Jack smiled and reached out to squeeze her hand. "I believe we've talked about this in class, Blair. The point where you second-guess yourself so continually that absolutely no action is possible?" He sighed. "So. Your mother's visiting. How is Jim handling that?"

Blair blinked at the change of subject and said quickly, "Good. Mom's really....flexible. And Jim is trying really hard." It would have been nice to talk about Jim's panic attack that first night. Or Naomi's hostility to the whole idea of Blair working with the police (never mind that in *practice* she was getting along with the law enforcement lifestyle very well). But he couldn't lay any of that on Jack just then. He had his own problems.

As quickly has he could manage, Blair headed off. "Ground support" from friends and colleagues was helpful--even necessary--but in the end, a sentinel and her guide had to work things out themselves.

He sat in the car in the dim, underground parking lot and closed his eyes. He would have liked to talk to Jack about that mess last night, but that was *way* out of the question. Well. Never mind. Late Bloomer adjustment wasn't Jack's area anyway. There wasn't a lot written on it, at least that Blair could find. He certainly hadn't been prepared--

"You're always so careful and so picky. You watch what I eat, what I *think*. And I appreciate that, I do. But come on. You're just trying to...put off the inevitable.

Blair hadn't caught it.

He had *noticed*--of course he had noticed--that except for a brief period around in December, Jim had shown almost no interest in other sentinels. No curiosity, no resentment, no excitement, no nothing. Finding out you were a sentinel in your thirties, it had to change your whole identity. Didn't it? Like finding out your parents had lied to you about your ethnicity. Or changing your sexual orientation. Or maybe converting to a new religion--except involuntary. But while Jim had dabbled briefly with issues like "normalcy" and "freak" and made some sentinel friends, he had never made the leap to thinking of other sentinels as "us."

Blair had thought Jim was having issues, probably anti-sentinel prejudice from his upbringing. Or maybe he just didn't have enough exposure to other sentinels to see what his new role consisted of. But no. Jim had skipped the whole identity thing because he was seeing his senses as a fatal disease rather than the defining characteristic of a social category.

Blair had missed this. For four months he had missed this, and he'd feel like a really shitty guide, except....

Jim had never complained. Not once. He had assumed he was dying, and he'd just set himself and gone on.

So, no, reaming himself out for being stupid would just be a self-pitying little side trip and no use to Jim at all. But--

Jim, I'm so sorry.

Blair really wished he could talk to Jack about this.

What would Jack say? Well, mostly what Jack said about everything was, "It's going to take time. You *have* time. Be patient. Be gentle. Don't rush him."

Jim. I'm so sorry, man. I'm so sorry.

But it wasn't Blair's fault. And it wasn't unfixable. And it was early yet. They were just starting.

Blair realized his eyes were burning and immediately shoved Jim out of his mind and started the truck. He could not go to his partner smelling like tears. Jim didn't need Blair to be sorry, he needed him to be patient and persistent and gentle. Jim certainly didn't need to be worried about Blair's emotional state.

He got to the station cheerful and ready to work. They spent the rest of the day interviewing witnesses--some for Jim's own cases, but most for other detectives. Monk wasn't real good at interrogations. He disliked being around people too much to calm down and focus they way he should. And, anyway, forensics wasn't *about* interviewing--as he pointed out when anyone asked him to sit in on an interrogation.

Jim was good at it. He knew when to push and when to be nice. Sometimes he sat back and let someone else ask the questions. Sometimes he loomed over a suspect like an annoyed bear. He was like a dancer. Or an artist of words and silences and facial expression. The high point of the afternoon hit when Henry Brown introduced Jim and his guide to a witness--who, realizing that he was about to be questioned by a sentinel, burst into tears and confessed. Blair chuckled about that the rest of the day, but Jim just rolled his eyes and said, "Moron. It's not like a sentinel's opinion of whether someone is lying is admissible in court."

For the most part, Blair didn't pay too much attention to the cases. He watched his sentinel. He watched the focus and finesse he brought to each interview....and he watched Jim withdraw after each one, standing quietly in the hall, collecting himself. After the third one, Blair maneuvered him into a corner and planted himself between Jim and the world. He experimented a bit. Jim relaxed more if Blair faced away from him.

He felt safe with Blair keeping watch. Safe enough to relax and settle himself. Every once in a while, Blair reminded himself to ask, "How you doing, big guy?" but it was to remind Jim that he cared, not because he hadn't been paying attention to how Jim was doing. Jim was doing great.

Also, by 4:30, quite tired. They could have stuck around for another hour doing paperwork--there always seemed to be plenty--but Blair collected his sentinel and took him home instead.

In the elevator heading up to the loft, Jim frowned and looked around. "Is Naomi having a party?" he asked.

Blair's head snapped up. "What?"

"There are *people* in the loft." He frowned. "It doesn't sound like a party."

When they stepped out of the elevator, Blair couldn't hear anything. Naomi didn't usually have parties, but the parties she went to were often pretty loud--

No. It was ridiculous. She didn't know enough people in Cascade anymore to put together something big on short notice. Even if she would--And she wouldn't--

The door to 307 opened and a couple came out, holding hands and talking to each other excitedly.

Shocked, Blair watched as they were followed by Wiggy and Elizabeth, two old friends of mom's. Before he could decide if he was angry about this, Blair watched his ex-advisor Angela come out his door. Followed by Mike, a sentinel on faculty at Rainer, and John and Shelly, two guide students a year behind Blair.

Jim tugged him out of the way so they exiting crowd wouldn't walk directly into him. Angela smiled politely as she passed.

Like fish swimming upstream, Blair and Jim made their way to the door. People continued to exit the apartment--eerily, like a clown car, the loft seemed to hold more people than could actually fit in it.

In the dining area, Naomi was saying her good-byes to Hal Buckner and tall thin woman with ankle-length grey hair that Blair didn't know.

Before Blair could digest what he was seeing, the last of the stragglers left, closing the door behind them, and the three of them were alone.

"Hi, sweetie," Naomi said on her way to the living room to collect coffee cups. "You're home early. I haven't had a chance to tidy up."

Before Blair could answer, Jim said, "Um, that's ok. Naomi...who were those people?"

Oh, crap, Blair thought. Strangers in his house. We're going to spend the evening sterilizing everything with vinegar.

"Everybody," Naomi said brightly. "I can't believe we got such a wonderful turnout on such short notice."

"Turn out for what?" Jim asked.

But Naomi didn't seem to hear the question. "Blair, your department is absolutely wonderful. I ran into that nice Shelly in the stacks at the library while I was researching sentinels. It turns out you actually have a database on just what I was looking for. And she knows everybody. Not that I'm pushing, by the way, but you could do worse--"

"Mom! What's going on?"

"Worse for what?" Jim asked, but Naomi didn't seem to hear him. Which was just as well; Naomi playing yenta was something he really would rather Jim not see.

"Well--you know, I'd call it a 'consciousness raising,' but more than half the people there were already experts. Well, obviously. I guess it was more of an 'initial strategy session.' If you have to give it a name."

Blair had a sinking feeling that his life was about to get more complicated. "Strategy for what?" Jim asked.

Naomi picked up a piece of paper from the couch and handed it to Blair. "Honey, did you realize that almost fifteen percent of sentinel hospitalizations are caused by artificial fragrances made from petroleum distillates? Well, of course you know--"

Blair knew. Actually, fifteen percent was the conservative estimate. You could take a sentinel to a mall, but you couldn't let him go into the department stores. A few high profile accidents involving sentinels and people with multiple chemical sensitivities had embarrassed some stores into not ambushing people with squirts of perfume, but it was too big a chance to take. Jim had been hospitalized once already for a reaction to a particular obscure perfume and a part of Blair's brain never forgot that it could happen again.

Blair looked down at the paper in his hand. It appeared to be a list of general sentinel 'don'ts': formaldehyde, benzene, aspartame, organophosphates, synthetic pyrethroids--It was a long list and the chemical names included were mainly technical, but Blair knew them just the same. He didn't need to read the whole page. Pesticides. Preservatives. Fungicides. Artificial sweeteners. Fertilizers. This was the stuff that killed sentinels.

Blair closed his eyes. "Mom." Oh, god. "Mom, people have been fussing about this stuff for ten years. You--you don't know what you're fighting here. They've made some progress, at least with the worst stuff, but the industry has been pushed as far as it's going to go. You can't--you can't do anything about these."

Jim took the paper from Blair and began to read. Naomi frowned and shook her head. "We're not going for legislation with this. We're going for education. To start with. Blair. Honey. A friend of yours is in the hospital right now because of a chemical exposure she got at Rainier. One of the top guide schools in the country. Blair, that's wrong. Sentinels ought to be safe there."

"Mom--"

"And it's not just sentinels. You know that. These things are poisonous to everyone. But cancer or chronic fatigue is less dramatic than being whisked off in an ambulance--"

"Mom, you can't--"

"Naomi, what *are* you doing?" Jim asked, waving the paper at her.

"Well, we're starting with a demonstration on Monday morning. On campus. That's when we'll start circulating the petition. We aren't quite sure yet, just which products to include on it, but we have all weekend and a bunch of sentinel experts to finalize the list. And we're going to ask for changes in the ventilation on campus, since obviously you can't completely give up Xeroxing over night. Or figure out how to make the methods non-toxic."

Blair opened is mouth, shut it again. Tried to get a grip on his temper. "Mom. It won't work."

"It has to work. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Blair. Not being poisoned is not only a civil right, it's a human right. We have to try."

"But you aren't even staying--"

"I come through a couple of times a year. Besides, Wiggy has lots of experience with civil disobedience, and your friends from the department seem highly motivated. Oh. Look how late it's getting. What do you boys want to do about dinner? I have some lovely collards..."

Naomi bustled into the kitchen, muttering about dinner.

Blair turned to Jim, who was staring at the list in stunned silence. "Um. Sorry about the mess, Jim."

Jim grunted.

"Are you ok? Jim?"

"I don't think I've ever been...a protest project before," he said slowly.

Blair tried to smile. "Oh. Well. It's not that bad. Really, after a while it fades into the background."

"Really?" Jim said looking doubtful.

"Sure. When I was in school mom started protesting school lunches. No nutrition. The Reagan years, you know. Ketchup was a vegetable. Anyway, after a while it just becomes routine. And eventually she'll give up and move on to something else."

"How long was she on the school-lunch thing?"

"Oh, not long. I dunno, about two years, I guess."

Jim choked. "Two years!"

"Definitely less than three. Definitely."

"What did it?" He looked at the kitchen speculatively.

"Well, we moved."

"Oh, God!"

"Jim, man, chill. It's not that bad. And she means well--"

"Of course she does--" Jim froze. "It's really very kind. I mean that. It's just...weird."

"Naw. It'll be no problem. You'll see. Here, why don't you sit down? Hey, how 'bout a beer? This is no big deal, you'll see--" Any further reassurance was interrupted by the phone, and Blair went to pick it up. "Hello?"

It was Isabella from the department. The hospital was releasing Marcia tonight, and she was wondering if Blair could come help get the pair home. "She's stable enough that Jack thinks it's safe, and he doesn't want to wait. I have to agree it would be best for both of them, but transport is going to be a bit of a production. Could you lend a pair of hands for an hour or two?"

It took closer to three. Blair and another student packed up the room while Jack and Isabella got Marcia dressed and ready. Everything was slow and disorganized, and would have been even if the hospital paperwork had been ready. Marcia was optimistic and cooperative, but Jack, usually calm and methodical, was sluggish and unfocused. He looked like hell.

Somehow, eventually, the little party got out of the room, out of the hospital, into the car.... Isabella was resolutely patient and cheerful; before teaching she'd worked twenty five years in the field as a guide. She'd done all this before. Back at Jack's house she sent Jack off to shower while the students unloaded the car.

"I'll settle Marcia first," Jack protested. "You've all done enough--"

"No, now. While we're here and you can leave her with me. She's just getting undressed again, not climbing Everest."

Blair would have expected more argument; he could not imagine himself turning Jim over to anyone else under these circumstances. Still, Isabella was an experienced guide. Blair got busy putting the laundry from the suitcase in the washer so it would be ready to go when Jack finished his shower.

When he finished he went to Marcia's room to see what else needed to be done. It was the room Jack had given Jim the time he and Blair had tried to spend the night here to avoid Brackett. The door was open, but Marcia, wearing pajamas now, was sitting half in Isabella's lap, crying.

Blair backed hastily away, but Isabella's voice caught him. "Blair? We need your opinion."

"Oh. Ok. Sure." He glanced around. The other students had gone out to do some quick shopping. Jack was still in the shower. He was on his own.

"How long have you been a guide?"

"Um, legally?" He tried to smile. "About a week, now."

"No," Isabella said gently, "really?"

"Four months or so."

She nodded, absently handing Marcia a tissue. "And what is it worth to you, being a guide? What would you do for your sentinel?"

"Everything," Blair whispered. "Anything."

"And why is that? Because it's a good job? Respected? The pay isn't bad and the hours are convenient?"

Marcia was watching him very closely. Blair did not know that had brought about this conversation or what to say. He was surely being used as an example for something, but for what--? He smiled thinly. "The hours stink. The rest is ok."

"Because you think you can save him? Your sentinel?"

"No, I--No, it isn't like that. Well, sometimes it is. But mostly, I just want to give him a *chance* you know?"

Blair, worried that he might be saying the wrong thing, shut up, but Isabella motioned him to continue. "Why?"

"All we've got in the world that matters in the world is other people. It's all anybody's got really." He gave up. There was no way to explain. He was good at being a guide. Or good at being Jim's guide, anyway, and together they could accomplish amazing things.... But he could not say that aloud to the miserable woman in Isabella's arms.

"Very nice, Blair. Thank you. I think we're almost done here. Why don't you go home now?"

So Blair went home. He wanted very badly to get back to Jim.

The lights were turned down when he got in and the tv was off. For a moment Blair thought they might have gone to bed (although it wasn't quite 8:30 yet) or gone out (although it was nearly 8:30), but then he heard a soft laugh from the direction of the single pool of light made him look again. From his angle he could just see the tops of their heads. "Mom?"

Jim chuckled and whispered something and Naomi answered, "More tongue, Jim?"

"I'd love some." He whispered something else and Naomi laughed again.

"Okay, now, look, here he is. This was his third grade year and he was playing Richard Nixon and for weeks he was running around going 'I am not a crook. I am not a crook.'"

Blair hung his jacket up and came around to the front of the couch. Jim and Naomi were sitting shoulder to shoulder with a wide book open across their laps. "What's going on?"

Naomi looked up brightly. "Blair, look! He's eating tongue. He likes it."

Jim said--with far too straight a face-- "Uh huh. You hear that, Chief?"

Blair looked down at an upside-down picture of himself running around naked at a women's folk festival in Michigan. He looked about three. "Yeah, I hear that," he said.

Jim held out the plate of sliced tongue and crackers. "Come on, dig in."

"Have some, honey. We waited dinner, but then we got hungry."

"Right. Hey, hungry is good." He took a piece of the cold tongue. Actually, he was starving. Also mortified. "I think I'm gonna need a drink. Give me the wine."

Naomi held out her glass.

"Cheers," Jim said, entirely too happy. "Next we'll have some esophagus." He paused dramatically, not seeming to notice that Blair wasn't laughing. "I think I like this one best. You in the rutabaga costume." Then, innocently, "Why were you dressed as a vegetable again?"

***

That night, while Jim was in the shower and Blair was making up the couch, Naomi paused before going into the bedroom. "Honey," she said, "I've been thinking about what you said. About not all the evil in the world being done by big corporations and governments. About it being individuals, too, sometimes."

Blair nodded. "Yeah. I remember."

"I think maybe I understand the other half of that, too, now." She leaned in and kissed his cheek.

"What do you mean? The other half of what?"

"Sometimes it's the individual you have to protect. Not everyone at once, just one at a time."

Blair closed his eyes. "Oh. Yeah."

"'Night, sweetie."

"Good night, Mom." Blair climbed between the sheets and pulled the covers up. After a few minutes, Jim padded out of the bathroom, swiftly went round turning out the lights, checked the door, and then started towards the stairs.

He paused in front of the couch.

"You ok?" Blair asked.

Jim took that as an invitation and sat down in front of the couch with his back to Blair. Thrilled, Blair propped himself up on his elbows and waited. Whatever Jim came to say, the fact that he was coming voluntarily was enough.

"Your mom's really weird," was what he finally said. Then he stuttered, "I didn't mean that--"

Blair smiled. "Sure you did. Naomi is *way* out there."

"You don't mind?"

"Why should I mind? I lucked out. I mean, yeah, it's been a ride and not all of it the fun kind....But she kept me from being an ignorant dickhead." He laughed. "Think what you would be missing out on if I were *conventional*."

Jim did not laugh that. After a while, Jim said, "Last spring....there was this case. A cop was killed by a sniper, a friend of mine." Jim stopped again and Blair was afraid he wouldn't go on. He inched closer and rested his forehead against Jim's rigid shoulder. "I was a, um, a key witness because I had seen the shooter, only...the whole time we were trying to put the case together....my senses kept fading out."

"What? Like you were flopping back and forth to, um, normal?"

"No, I was flopping back and forth to completely gone. I spend a whole evening deaf. And my hands and arms went numb a couple of times."

"Oh. Hell."

"Yeah. Anyway." And Jim stopped again. "Don't freak, ok Chief?"

"Ok."

"I told Brackett."

"In theory a good idea," Blair said neutrally. Jim had to be able to discuss his former guide without his present guide freaking out.

"He said....one of the things he said was that....a lot of times....sentinels who don't wind up in a box wind up in Conover."

Dead or crazy. Some choice. Since Jim seemed to expect something, Blair searched his soul for something calm and reasonable. "That was a shitty thing to say."

"Was it true?"

"No!"

"But there is a sentinel ward--"

"Yes. Yes, there is."

"Adrian--"

"Is not a good example, Jim. Ok, listen. It's true that Sentinels are six or seven times more likely than the average American to be in treatment for emotional or mental health problems. Part of this is because sentinels have guides to notice when they need some help and the average American doesn't. And part of the problem is, well there just aren't many antidepressants sentinels can tolerate. And the ones they can take, the side effects are usually not worth it. But even so, yeah, sentinels do tend, I mean, they're under a lot more stress than the average American, even just crossing the street. So yeah. There's a problem."

Jim nodded stiffly.

"Wait," Blair said. "I'm not done. Proportionally there are more. But in absolute numbers, there aren't very many. Sentinel wards are generally pretty rare, Jim. And they tend to be small. Also, compared to the total number of sentinels, the number with really serious mental problems is only a tiny portion."

He waited for a response. Jim didn't offer one.

"I know what you've probably heard, Jim. Most sentinels admitted for help--it's not even really a psychological issue. The senses get a little out of control and they need someplace really quiet for a few weeks. A nice camping trip usually works as well. That's Isabella's research, actually. You can ask her; I'm sure she'll be at the protest. Jim, the bottom line is, you're not going crazy. The alternative to being dead is *not* being nuts."

"I look at your mom," Jim whispered, "she's not like anybody else, and I can't imagine--"

It took Blair a moment to realize that Jim wasn't changing the subject.

"You can't imagine living your whole life ninety degrees from normal?"

"She seems happy. She seems like a good person."

"Come on, it's not that big of a surprise." Blair wondered if he should feel insulted at this point. Maybe getting irritated with Jim would actually help. Before he made up his mind, Jim was moving forward.

"For *other* people."

"And now you're picturing it for you."

"Yeah," Jim said.

"You're picturing you living for years very, very different from the way you assume everybody else is."

"And it's weird."

"You don't have to be Naomi, Jim. You just have to be you. And if this is any help, I think you'll always be pretty conventional, no matter what. And as for the rest of it, you're a pretty normal sentinel."

"Oh, so for a fragile, unbalanced throwback, I'm normal." But he was smiling when he said it, so Blair let it slide. "Chief....Nobody's weird issues look like my weird issues."

Blair laughed. Immediately Jim flinched away and started to rise. Blair grabbed his arm and pulled him back down. "No, no, it's not you," he whispered. "It's just--I've been trying to get you to think about these things for four months and now...I just wish I could get you to stop thinking about it and relax. Listen to your gut. You're doing fine. Trust me, I know. You're fine. And it's gonna get better."

"You keep saying that."

"It's true."

Jim sighed and sat back down. They stayed that way for a long time, silent in the dark.

End