New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

Imperfections V: Passing Through the Underworld
Part Five
by Dasha

See disclaimers and notes in part one.

The little house was clearly a vacation cabin, if by 'vacation' you meant going off to nowhere with your buddies to spend the early hours fishing and the later hours drinking beer. The striped couch was sagging, three of the chairs in the dining area didn't sit flat on the floor and the windows had no curtains. It was not a place you would bring your family.

"Snacks" was Nutella sandwiches and bottled iced tea. Blair wasn't hungry.

Koren put a hand on his shoulder. "The thing is," he said, "gold is heavy. This project gets much easier if you are carrying some of it. At the moment, I'm in a very bad mood. If I were to work some of that off on you, you wouldn't be very helpful getting the gold to the bottom of the lake."

Blair ate the sandwich. When he was done, Koren had no comment, so Blair took the remains of his tea to Adam who had been dumped in the corner by the fireplace.

"Adam," Blair whispered, mostly to see if he was conscious. "You ok?"

"Fine, thanks."

Blair offered the tea, and he drank gratefully. Blair thought for a moment, then de-layered enough to remove his inner shirt. With the changeable and usually cool spring above-ground and the dirty chambers below, he had been layering old shirts at the dig. The shirt ripped when he pulled, which meant he didn't have to ask a favor of the big guy with the knife. Not that he was worried. Koren had all but promised there wouldn't be any torture until after the gold was moved.

Not, he thought angrily, that it mattered. Torture now, torture later. Survive and he would be as unbalanced as Adam. Probably. Though he would not survive. Jim would still be dead.

Blair squatted back down and began wrapping the mangled remains of his clothing around the double wound in Adam's arm. It had started bleeding again, and the cloth was quickly damp and red.

Panting, Adam asked, "What are you doing?"

"Direct pressure? I know it's not sterile--"

"Maybe you've noticed, I'm better off bleeding to death."

Blair thought about that. Adam had a point. But Blair couldn't do it. He pulled the cloth tight and knotted it. "Let me see your side."

"Please don't. I think I've cracked a rib."

Blair might have argued, but just then, Koren stood up and tossed a roll of tape to Hal. "Tie up Pierson. Not too tightly. I just don't want him wandering off." He went back outside then, leaving them alone with Etz.

Blair found his eyes going to the small, slightly rusted hatchet that sat beside the fireplace. Taking on Hal would be no problem. In fact, Blair would enjoy it. Etz was two steps further away. There might be time.

But Silas Etz was using his huge knife to whittle on a short stick. From his record, he was a very competent killer. He wouldn't hesitate if Blair charged him.

Still.... He couldn't be used if he were dead. This way, it would leave all kinds of messy physical evidence. Blair considered, watching the big knife cut along the stick, flicking away occasional chips with a flash of light. If he waited too long, he would lose his chance.

But he wasn't sure he really wanted one. He had no idea what the best way to proceed was. If one way was, ultimately, better than another. If Jim were somewhere it might have been clearer. He would know what to do, if Jim--

Abruptly, Etz put away his knife and went to turn on the lights over the stove. Blair hadn't realized how dark it was getting. Not much longer now, surely.

Hal started to pace. Etz rumbled softly, and he stopped.

There was gunfire outside, a shallow popping in the open air. The exchange lasted a couple of seconds and then Koren yelled--something Blair couldn't understand. More gunfire. Blair realized he should probably get down.

Etz picked up the little hatchet from the fireplace and turned around with a smile that suggested what Koren had said was, "kill the hostages." His free hand reaching, Etz bore down on Blair. He was grinning.

Backing up, Blair's foot caught on the leg of the couch. He went down backwards, landing hard on his butt, looking up at the huge man who was drawing the hatchet back for a swing.

Etz jerked and began to fall. Blair rolled out of his way, his eyes on the rusted weapon. Somewhere he could hear the musical clatter of falling glass. Somewhere there was shouting and banging. As Etz crashed to the floor behind him the thought finally came to Blair that this was a rescue. Simon had found them, or someone else had.

From the shooting going on out front, Koren was still alive. Blair started toward the door; he ought to bolt it or lock it or something, to keep him from retreating here. He hadn't crossed more than a couple of feet when the sound of more breaking glass behind him brought him around.

Jim was coming through the window.

Blair, mid crawl and turning around, nearly fell on his face. He had to look again.

Jim was standing in the room.

The shooting stopped and there was silence outside. There was silence everywhere.

Jim stepped to Hal, said softly, "Lie down. Don't move. If you resist arrest, I'll probably just shoot you."

Megan followed Jim in through the window. She went to Etz, checking the body with a professionalism and coolness that seemed out of place in this unreal moment.

Jim put up his gun and squatted beside Blair. "Chief? You hurt?"

Unreal. Impossible. There was an initial rush of tears that stopped almost at once. Blair shook his head.

Jim grasped Blair's shoulders and then leaned forward to press his face into the top of Blair's head. Scenting him. Apparently whatever he smelled he didn't like, because at once he began to run the palms of his hands over Blair's hair and face, almost trying to wipe him clean. Blair had read about this response, but Jim had never done it before. He must... he must be pretty upset. Weakly, Blair said, "It's ok. It's me. I'm fine." He captured Jim's hands, pressed them hard. "I'm ok." Then tears threatened again. "Oh, god, it's you. You're--you're ok. *Jim*--"

"All right. All right. Breathe." Jim was shaking. Or Blair. One of them.

"My god, how did you find us?"

Jim laughed weakly. "Jack tossed Buckner's office."

Blair gently punched Jim's shoulder. "Teacher's pet."

The front door flew open. Blair jumped, before he realized it was Simon coming in, MacLeod right behind him. Blair settled his arms around Jim and watched the world unfold around him. Simon paused by the door: cop, assessing the situation. Mac went right to Adam, still bound on the floor near the corner.

"The cavalry," Adam whispered, "Who would have guessed?"

MacLeod silenced him with a touch, lightly pressing here and there in a much more thorough and delicate examination than Blair would ever be able to manage. Megan passed MacLeod a knife, and he cut the tape with one hand while reporting into a small radio, "He's here. He's not badly hurt." Without elaborating, he picked Adam up and carried him to the ancient, striped sofa.

Blair closed his eyes. "Koren's dead," he whispered. "Right?"

"No," Jim said. "He's badly hurt, but he's alive." He frowned, listening. "The local ambulance is on the other side of a big wreck. It'll be a while."

"Ok," Blair said. "Fine." Koren was alive. He supposed he would learn to cope with that. Unless they got lucky and he died waiting for help.

Damn, but Naomi would be ashamed!

"We're sitting on the floor," Jim said.

"Right," Blair answered briskly. But he had trouble getting up.

There were a couple of cops Blair didn't know in the room now. One of them had a camera. The other was talking rapidly into his radio. Strange, how normal this behavior seemed. How had he gotten used to it?

Joe arrived. He ignored the chaos in the room to go sit on the edge of the couch next to Adam. His fussing seemed somehow guide-like, and Blair found that familiar and reassuring, too. Rallying, he edged Jim out of the way into the shabby kitchen area. "Are you ok?" he asked, trying to think like a guide.

"Good enough," Jim said, smiling faintly. "Not up to your standards, but..."

"What happened? I mean, I was sure I saw--Hey! What were you zoned on that you didn't get out of the way?"

"I wasn't zoned. I was just upset."

"Uh, huh," Blair said, not sure how to interpret the answer. Jim got upset--well, fairly frequently--but that didn't mean he made mistakes. On the other hand, now might not be the time to press for specifics Jim wasn't ready to talk about. "Then what happened? You didn't react to the gas?"

"No, I.... It was pretty bad, Chief. Bad." He stopped and Blair nodded. "Dawson, well, did something. It hurt like hell, but it made me shoot out enough of my own adrenalin that I stopped reacting."

For a moment Blair was puzzled, unable to picture what must have happened. Then he winced, understanding just how bad things must have been for Joe to try something so desperate and hopeless that Rainier didn't even bother to teach it.

"I went to the hospital," Jim added quickly. "I got the shower and the shot...."

"And then you left."

Jim sighed and visibly braced himself for a reaming-out. "It's not like there's much point in going to the hospital without you. You know what those places are like."

Blair blinked. "Right. Yeah. Obviously my fault. I should have been there, but I was busy getting kidnapped." Jim clearly didn't think that was funny, so Blair added hastily, "Ok, you discharged yourself, and so far you're fine."

"Mostly," Jim said carefully. Blair waited. "I had some trouble with control before. When we were getting ready to approach the house. I was kind of unsettled."

Unsettled. Unsettled, after a tear gas attack and his guide's abduction. Blair closed his eyes, wondering how bad it was, grateful that Jim seemed to have recovered. "What happened?"

"I'm not exactly sure. I think Dawson may have hypnotized me."

Blair's eyes popped open. "What?"

"Yeah. I didn't know guides could do that."

"Are you sure?"

"Well, we were talking and then things get sort of fuzzy. I felt mostly ok. And really calm." Jim smiled, bemused. "I had no idea."

"But you're ok? You feel all right?" Blair asked anxiously, even knowing the question was meaningless.

"Yeah, I'm on top of it."

"Good, that's good." Blair patted his shoulder gently, managing to hold back the wave of rage until he had turned away.

"Blair--what's wrong."

"Nothing, Jim," Blair growled, bearing down on the couch where Joe was still seated beside Adam. "What the hell did you think you were doing!" It came out at about twice the volume Blair planned, but there was no stopping the words once they started. "Civilized people do not turn off a sentinel's warning signals before sending him into a dangerous situation."

He looked up in such innocent astonishment that Blair wanted to slug him. Multiple times. "Goddamn military training always shows in the end, doesn't it?" Before Blair could swing, Jim seized him from behind, lifted him off his feet, and carried him about two feet back before putting him down.

"Jim, let go."

Jim didn't.

"It wasn't safe for you to work sick. If anybody there should have known that, it was him."

Jim's arm was like a steel band around Blair's stomach.

Duncan MacLeod appeared standing in front of Blair as smoothly and silently as if he'd teleported. He and Jim exchanged a silent, inscrutable, *sentinel* look over Blair's head, and then Jim said, "I don't know how to explain it."

Mac nodded. "I do." He held out a hand. After a moment, Jim passed Blair over. Angry but unresisting, Blair allowed himself to be drawn aside. A temper tantrum really was out of place here. Jim had been right. This was not the time, and surely not the way. He could file a formal complaint later.

"Coming after you was Detective Ellison's choice. He is a grown-up. He understood the situation."

"What he did could have gotten Jim killed."

"What Joe did was make it possible for Jim to work and not have his body turn on him. Which it was very close to doing."

Too angry to risk answering, Blair ground his teeth together and stared at the floor.

"He was coming after you. We could not have stopped him."

"His job was not more important than his life!" Well, there went his promise to keep his mouth shut.

"This wasn't about his job. Or his duty. It was about you."

"He doesn't owe me his life. Not like this--"

"Blair, no. It's not about debt. It's about the kind of trust you have to have when you put your life into someone else's hands every day. It's about just not being able to bear the thought of you being gone. Going after you was dangerous, but he couldn't have done anything else."

Blair closed his eyes. "You don't understand--"

"I've seen enough of his records to know he's had a very bad year, and that you are very afraid."

"*Yes*."

"I know he almost died today."

"Yes." It physically hurt, even thinking about that.

"Joe fusses for days when I scare him."

"Ah." Blair's eyes were burning. He closed them.

"He's not in trouble. Not now. I promise you, Joe didn't hurt him."

Silently, Blair nodded. After a moment, he turned away. At the couch he paused to mutter, "I'm sorry," before retreating into the cold spring night.

Outside a couple of spotlights had been set up and a dozen cops from three or four jurisdictions swarmed between the cabin and the driveway. An ambulance was just arriving, siren off, but lights flashing.

Blair stepped out of the way and leaned against a wide tree.

After a few minutes, Jim joined him. "I'm not sure you're doing that right," he said.

"What?"

"The tree hugging thing. I think you're supposed to turn around."

Blair managed a thin smile. "Oops. Well. Don't tell my mom."

"Sure. If you don't tell Jack about the hypnotism thing."

"That was not your fault. You didn't know." Blair waved a hand. "Don't worry about it. We probably won't get into trouble for any of this if the doctor agrees you're ok, and I can get you on vacation ASAP."

"That's blackmail."

"Only if you were completely unreasonable and didn't want to do those things anyway."

"Right. Silly of me. Blair--"

"Just tell me you're ok."

"I'm ok."

To his surprise, Blair's eyes filled again. He would have thought he'd used up all the tears he had hours ago. "Is that true?"

"Yeah."

Blair wrenched himself away from the tree and took a deep breath. "Let's see if Simon will let me take you home."

"I didn't bring the SUV."

"Oh. Right. Ok." Blair looked around, spied Megan. "Hold on." It was the work of a minute to get her keys, and another minute to announce to Simon that he was taking his sentinel home. Both of them gave in quickly, but then Blair had to talk one of the local deputies into giving them a lift back to where the car had been left earlier.

"I could drive," Jim said.

"Bad enough you have to navigate until we reach a main road. I have no earthly idea where we are."

As it was, Jim lasted barely long enough for them to find the highway before falling asleep.

***

Jim woke on the couch, dimly remembering Blair coaxing him out of the car and into the building, and not surprised that he hadn't managed to get any farther. He could hear Blair nearby, talking, but could not follow the conversation. He took a deep breath and stretched, and froze in agony a moment later. Every muscle in his torso hurt. It felt like he had pulled his shoulder working out, only inexplicably the injury had spread across his body, turning muscles he hadn't known he *had* into immobile knots.

Holding very still, breathing shallowly, he performed a body check. Arms and legs seemed to be ok. No headache, which felt like a miracle. His skin felt a little raw. Not swollen or itchy, not even as bad as a mild sunburn, but still, Jim wouldn't be surprised if a lot of it flaked off. His breathing? It felt like he had a chest full of sand. It was heavy and there wasn't room for a deep breath. Actually, he had felt at least that bad a couple of times a week before Sandburg, so probably it was nothing to worry about.

Body check finished, Jim tried to sit up. The same soreness that made chest and stomach and ribs and back ache when he breathed wouldn't let him move, either. Jim gave in and stayed still. He closed his eyes and tried to find Blair's voice.

"--slept for about twelve hours now, altogether. There's no fever. His pulse is sixty-four." A short pause. "Yeah, I understand." A longer pause, but Jim didn't feel like trying to sort out the voice on the other end of the line. "Ok.... Ok.... Yeah, I'll call you later."

Blair hung up the phone and began to putter around the kitchen.

Jim tried again to sit up. Slowly, he made it this time. It was easier to breathe sitting up. From here he could see the beanbag chair and nest of blankets on the floor beside the couch. Blair hadn't gotten to his bed either. For the millionth time, Jim wondered why the hell anybody would become a guide.

Blair crouched beside him, fussing with the sheet and blanket, watching Jim with a guide's knowing eyes. "Headache?"

"No, everything else." Jim moved a hand helplessly over his chest. "Did I get hit by a car and not notice?"

Blair sighed and shook his head. "No. You're sore from coughing."

"Oh. You've got to be kidding."

"This is after the cortisone shot, which would have done a lot for the pain. In the future, you really ought to avoid tear gas."

"I'll remember that."

Blair disappeared for a moment, returning with a glass of water and two aspirin. "Try this, then we'll work on breakfast."

But the clock on the VCR said it was nearly ten. "We have to go in."

Blair shook his head.

"It's my case--"

"Jim. You got taken off the case when your guide got kidnapped. Sorry. Simon wants a report, but we don't have to hurry."

"Right. Damn. Brown?"

"Sorry."

"Well, that's it, then. You can't get abducted any more."

"Oh, I am so down with that!"

Jim frowned, snagged Blair's arm, and drew him closer. "What happened?"

For a moment Blair didn't seem to understand. Then he blinked rapidly, smelling a little like fear and a lot like relief. "Koren didn't have time to do anything. He was in a hurry and he wanted us to carry his booty. Whatever. He didn't touch either of us."

Jim nodded, waiting. There was more.

Finally, Blair said, "I thought you were dead."

Jim very nearly had been. For all Blair's tales about a long, healthy life, the senses had damn near killed him. Everything after Megan Connor tackled him was a blur, until the pain of whatever Dawson had done had cleared the cobwebs from his mind and he'd realized that he couldn't breathe. He pushed the memory away and said, "Remember that next time you're about to put me in a position to defend you from a sentinel who's *not*sick."

"What?" Blair asked.

"Chief, what do you think would have happened if you had landed one on Dawson?"

He blinked slowly. Bingo. "Oh, shit."

"Right."

Jim went off to shower while Blair started breakfast. Delightful images of hot water pounding his sore muscles and loosening his heavy chest quickly dissolved. Each individual drop from the shower stung as it hit his tender skin, and the bath he finally made do with was only tepid, because even moderately warm felt like being boiled alive.

Breakfast and several cups of hot coffee did help quite a bit. When Jim went upstairs to change clothes, he didn't have to stop on the way to get his breath, which was good. He sat down on the bed to rest for a moment before dressing and woke up half an hour later to the sound of Blair apologizing. "This was the only time your doctor could squeeze us in. It's go to him now or go to some clinic to have you looked at later, and that won't be fun for anybody."

Jim gave in. As always, the doctor was polite. As always, the exam was a nightmare of needles and touching and cold medical instruments. The doctor, naturally, would not give him anything stronger than Tylenol for the pain. The bright spot was that the unpleasant period was followed by the doctor handing Blair a tube of anesthetic cream and explaining how to dilute it with aloe into a concentration that was usually safe for sentinels. When the test spot didn't show any reaction after five minutes, Blair obligingly spread it *everywhere.* For the first time since waking up that morning, Jim's skin stopped feeling naked and fragile.

While they waited for the bloodwork to come back, a nurse dug out a couple of heating pads. Heating up slowly and cushioned with towels, the warmth didn't bother Jim's newly anesthetized skin, but the sore muscles began to relax at last. Jim took a deep breath. For the first time since waking up, there seemed to be enough air. As an added bonus, he could move a little.

He felt well enough to grouse. "Look, Chief. How 'bout you just hypnotize me? It would be much simpler than all this doctor crap."

"How 'bout we just work on relaxing you? Little body check, hmmm?" He walked around the head of the table and laid a thumb along the pressure point in the center of Jim's forehead. "Actually, I'm kind of impressed. I didn't know you had the focus and balance for really advanced altered states."

"He was just talking," Jim said, worried about where this might be headed. "And then things got fuzzy."

"No, that's good. I'm impressed. I would have thought you had too many guide issues to go ahead and trust anyone that much. But if you're ready, you're ready. We should work on this."

"Oh, lord," Jim sighed. "He has a new toy."

"Ok, ok. We won't start today. Just take a slow, deep breath and relax."

Perhaps Blair thought he'd fallen asleep, because a few minutes later when the doctor came back, they slipped out into the hall to talk, and always before, Blair had made a point of including Jim in medical discussions, even when he didn't understand them.

There were two white noise machines in the room and one in the hall, and they were high quality. Jim didn't hear what was said when they stepped away from the door. Sighing, Jim roused himself to sit up, and was dressed again when Blair returned. "Well?" he asked.

"Bloodwork: good. Vitals: good. Lungs: mostly ok."

"Good to know."

"I'm to watch you. *You* are to take it easy. We are to be careful of dehydration."

"Can we go to the station?"

"You can go to the station. You can't chase criminals."

***

Nothing the doctor said had been a surprise. Jim was very, very lucky, but he was not only alive, he appeared not to be facing any permanent damage. He was sore and tired, but his body had stopped reacting. His lungs were still irritated, but they weren't flooding with fluid. His immune system seemed to be completely normal.

Blair took him to a late lunch at IHOP and pressed orange juice on him. Jim, for his part, seemed to continue to improve. He perked up considerably when they got to the station. He homed in on Brian and Henry as soon as they got to Major Crime and eagerly began to critique their progress on the case.

Blair was really not interested in being drafted into doing the paperwork, and looked around for someone else to talk to. Mac, Joe, and Megan were at the conference table in Simon's office, surrounded by piles of paper of their own. Blair winced inwardly and steeled himself to poke his head in the open door. "Hi," he said brightly. "How's it going?"

Megan looked up. "It's unanimous: as bad is this is, you Yanks don't get the prize for frightening paperwork. We're going with France. But chin up. You can always compete again next year."

"Gee, thanks. So how's Adam?"

"We didn't get out of that tiny little hospital in the middle of nowhere until one this morning, but he's at the hotel now, asleep," Joe said. "He's going to be fine."

Blair found he couldn't quite meet Joe's eyes. Hell. "Look," he said, "Can I talk to you for a minute?"

Joe started to rise, but Mac waved him back. "Megan, let's go get some coffee."

Megan took in the awkward silence that radiated from Blair. "Am I missing something?"

"Yes, we're missing guide-talk. Hurry up, or we won't miss all of it."

When they were gone, Blair took the seat at the table that Megan had abandoned and said, "About what I said last night. It was really nasty, and it wasn't true--"

"Forget about it. It doesn't matter."

Blair nodded slowly. "Yeah. Yeah. It's just-- You saved his life. I can't begin to thank you for that."

Joe sighed. "No, you can't. If our positions were reversed, there wouldn't be anything I could say, either. If it helps, I do understand."

"Yeah. Yeah, that helps."

They sat in silence for a long moment.

"So," Blair said. "What are your plans?"

Joe sighed again, shoved the papers around on the table, and said, "Your DA is trying to decide whether to charge Adam with interfering in an ongoing investigation. That's where Captain Banks is now, trying to convince his boss to step in on our behalf."

"If there's anything I can do--"

"Believe me, if there were, I'd ask." He smiled briefly. "Now go on. Some of us have work to do."

Blair took the graceful retreat.

**** Epilogue

Sandburg only let him stay at the PD for an hour. When he showed up at Jim's shoulder with a casual, "Ready to head home?" Jim wasn't deceived into thinking it was anything less than an order, and he didn't bother starting a fight he would lose in the bullpen.

Anyway, he was more tired than he wanted to admit. When Blair asked if they should stop and pick up the Expedition, Jim declined. Home. No hot bath, probably, but he could lie down.

"So," Sandburg started, "We've got some time off coming. You mentioned a while back you liked camping. There's this great wilderness area. You have to get there by ferry, but it is way worth it. The hiking is incredible--do you like hiking? Or is it just about fishing for you?"

Jim thought about hiking. The last hike he'd taken had been near dark, and he'd been trying to be quiet while wishing desperately that Deputy Markoni would move faster and straining to hear any hint of Blair's voice on the other side of the ridge. Afraid that if he did hear Blair, it would be the sound of screaming.

All the while, around him, the other cops, nervously creeping through the woods, and behind them, quietly, Dawson singing, trying to give his partner a focus point so he wouldn't zone.

"No ferry," Jim said. And no hiking. Not yet.

"Right. No ferry. Well, there's this monastery about three hours from town. The Franciscans train their guides there. A couple of years back one of their teachers guest lectured at Rainier. He was really great."

Jim roused himself to look at Sandburg. He wasn't kidding. "A monastery. For vacation."

"Well, as a retreat. It's quiet there, and sentinel friendly. It's only ten dollars per person, per night. They have golf."

"Golf?"

"Well, it's a cow pasture. But some of the guests play golf there. The thing is, it's comfortable, it's safe, and they won't make big complicated demands."

"Monks have guides?" Jim asked. He was dubious about the whole enterprise.

"Who do you think works in the parochial schools?"

"I'll think about it," Jim said, wondering how Sandburg had parked the car, gotten out, and come around to Jim's side before he could even get the seat belt off.

Upstairs, Blair settled Jim on the couch and handed him more orange juice. "We don't have a lot here for dinner. If you're ok, I thought I'd go shopping," he said.

"Gee, do you think I can be left alone for five minutes?" Jim asked.

"Probably," Sandburg conceded graciously.

Jim attempted to look pitiful. "How about steak?"

"You wish," he replied, laughing. But Jim figured the chance of steaks being in the basket were at least fifty-fifty. He tried not to look smug as he meekly drank the juice.

***

There was a policeman standing guard outside the door. Megan handed him her ID, both her own from New South Wales and the little card Captain Banks had given her. After a moment, he handed them back and reached behind him to open the door.

Megan entered the hospital room. Koren was pale and, with his jaw wired shut and swollen, hard to recognize. At least, someone else might have a hard time recognizing him.

In her head Megan counted up the bodies again. The ones for whom he was formally wanted, and the ones in which he was only suspected. She stood for a long time by the door, hoping he would wake up. He didn't, and she finally gave up and left.

Back at the hotel, she took a card from her wallet and dialed a lot of numbers. The phone sounded like she was playing a sonata on the keys before she got a ringing at the other end. "Jackson residence."

"Betty, it's Megan. We got him."

There was silence on the other end, then, "Dead? Or alive?"

"Alive. In Washington."

Betty already knew the kind of crimes Koren had been wanted for, and she already knew that Washington was a death penalty state. "Good," she said.

"It doesn't--" Her voice gave out, and Megan had to start again. "I can't believe it's over." She couldn't. When she closed her eyes, Megan saw what had been left of Ron Jackson after Koren's bomb. She had been a constable less than a year when this monster had killed her partner. Hunting for him had consumed her whole career.

On the other side of the line, continents and oceans away, Betty said, "It is over for you. You did everything Ronny could have asked for. He would be so proud of you."

For a few moments there was only a damp silence as they both wept a little. Megan could not remember the last time she'd cried. "Anyway, I just wanted you to know."

"I'm glad you called," Betty said. "We'll get together when you come home."

Megan hung up the phone and sat for a long time staring out the window at the sunlight glittering off the buildings of Cascade.

***

Duncan hated elevators. The vibration wasn't quite enough, as he passed each floor, to drown out all the telling noises that laid out brief glimpses of four or five lives at a time. It was more irritating than channel-flipping. His focus wasn't *quite* good enough to follow five or six conversations at a time, and besides that, they were moving, making him sea-sick.

"You know," Joe said softly, "here's a really wild thought. The case is closed. We're off duty. How about you try relaxing?"

Duncan scowled. "Can't," he said.

"You can't? I know what your control is like. You could zone out a hurricane. So the question is, 'why *won't* you?'"

Duncan was saved from having to answer by arrival at their floor. He shrugged and exited the car, but made it no more than three feet before pausing. On this floor, the voices were familiar. Maybe this was what he was listening for.

Adam: "--don't know. I never thought that far ahead. Maybe it doesn't matter."

Tessa: "Adam! Of course it matters. You have to know--"

Tessa's voice was gentle and chiding; she was treating him the way she would Mary, which might be just what he needed. Duncan steered Joe into the ice and vending machine alcove tucked in beside the elevator. "They're having a talk," he said. "I think we should give them a few minutes."

There was no place to sit in the little alcove, but Joe perched on the edge of the of the narrow, gray heating box. "How's your hearing?" he asked.

"I'm not listening," Duncan answered.

"To me? Or to them? Don't answer that. Talk to me." He knew how hard it was for Duncan to filter out his wife's voice. Almost any other sound in the world, for the most part, he could ignore, but not his wife's voice, not his guide's voice, and not Mary crying.

"Neat trick, that hypnotism thing. Could you do it to me?"

"I've put you under two--no, three--times already."

"You're kidding," Duncan said sharply. "I'd remember."

Joe snickered. "Remember your third date with Tessa?" He hummed the opening of "All you need is Love."

Duncan gaped. "You're kidding."

"You were in a baaaad way. What gets me is you didn't even notice anything unusual about how fast we took care of it."

On their third date, Tessa had invited Duncan to her place for dinner. Although she hadn't been a bad cook even then, she'd been nervous and they'd distracted each other, and before either the chef or the sentinel noticed, there'd been a small kitchen fire. It wasn't bad. It never got out of the pan. They'd had a fire extinguisher. Dinner was ruined, but there'd been no danger of burning the building down.

Except it turned out that Duncan was allergic to whatever was in the fire extinguisher. In five minutes, every square centimeter of his body had been covered in puffy, red hives, including the parts of his body that were under his hair or normally covered by underwear. Embarrassed and a little worried, Duncan had rung Joe. By the time he arrived, the hives had spread to the inside of Duncan's mouth and were chaining into thin, angry, red lines everywhere else. He looked like he was covered in interlocking bead bracelets. Tessa had been in tears, and Duncan, unused to severe reactions and completely knocked off his center by his anxiety over the date anyway, could not get his reaction under control.

Joe had commandeered Tessa's bathroom and popped Duncan into a tepid baking soda bath where he'd sung Beatles songs for a while before pronouncing Duncan fine and suggesting they try a movie.

"You--you hypnotize me with Beatles covers." It was somehow demeaning.

"Well, I wanted it to be something I would never sing accidentally. In case you developed a conditioned response."

"You never told me!"

"Pardon me for assuming you'd eventually notice."

Duncan started to answer, couldn't. "Wow. I'm really thick," he said.

Joe laughed at that, as he was meant to. But he glanced anxiously down the hall. "Still talking?" he asked.

"Ah, nope. Let's go on in."

As Joe moved past him, Duncan smelled, well, nothing he hadn't smelled for days, really. But he couldn't ignore it any more. The physical pain wasn't actually as bad as it might be, given their recent schedule. Exhaustion was something Joe could fix himself easily enough. But the smell of despair.... Duncan held out his hand.

Joe hadn't been trained with British Isles guide protocols, but almost all of his civilian career had been spent among sentinels who expected them. Automatically, he placed his palm on top of Duncan's. The formal gesture was far more intimate than it looked. Joe's hand was cool and stiff with tension. He caught Duncan's eye and tried to pull away. "Hey," he protested. "I'm fine."

Duncan smiled. "Sure. That's not the point." He lifted their hands. "I have a right to this. You made promises. There was a ceremony and everything."

Because they processed such a high volume of tactile input (and much of it was threat analysis) the reassurance and comfort of touch went a long way with most sentinels. After more than twenty-five years as a guide, Joe had the subtleties of this communication engraved on his soul. The comfort of this formal, intimate gesture nearly undid him. "Mac, I'm fine."

"I agree."

"Look, when this is all over, when we're home, you can take me out and get me thoroughly drunk. Or we can all go to the beach. Or Glenfinnan. Your parents have been after us for a visit."

Duncan had no doubt that his *mother* had been trying to coax Joe and Tessa to bring him home for a visit. Duncan's dad had probably stayed out of it. He hadn't been close to either of his sons since they were babies. In Connor's opinion, he couldn't forgive his sons for manifesting the sentinel talents that had skipped over him. At the moment, the main issue was that Connor and Duncan had both taken guides which were, to Ian's very conservative, very Protestant, very ethnocentric prejudice, 'inappropriate.' Both Rachel and Joe were the wrong religion. Bad enough, but Rachel was the wrong gender (which could have been overlooked if Connor were married to her, even in police work, but he wasn't) and Joe was from some foreign country, also unforgivable. Things actually went downhill from there.

Duncan had not been home for more than two years. The last visit had been for Christmas, and Ian had started in on Joe. After the marines, Joe had spent most of a year playing jazz in sleazy bars until being tapped by a colleague to do some guide consulting in London. Ian had sounded triumphant, attacking with this information more than twenty years later, and he didn't stop there.

Duncan had been down by the lake playing with Mary when it happened. Running, it had taken far too long to get back to the house. Panting and furious, but not so far gone that he would quarrel in front of the child, he had given Mary to Joe and said, "Find Tessa and Adam and pack. We're going home."

Afterward, he had talked about it with Connor, who had said it was probably just a distancing technique. After all, was there a more effective way to alienate Duncan than to accuse his guide of being a 'bad influence' on a small child? It didn't matter why his father had said those terrible things. He had said them. Mother had gotten Ian to apologize, but Duncan hadn't been home since.

"All right," Joe said. "That was the wrong thing to offer if we wanted to relax." Duncan managed a smile. "I'm holding it together now, but if you keep being *kind* I'm going to fall apart right here."

Duncan wasn't sure that would be a bad thing. Adam's complaint that guides were expected to be too calm and impossibly reasonable and endlessly supportive had more than a little truth in it. But he let go of Joe's hand and stepped back.

Although Koren was injured and in custody, Tessa had kept the deadbolt on the door. They had to wait while she unlocked it for them. Duncan hugged her as they came in. She smelled sweet and clean and much less worried than she had these last few days.

Adam was sitting on the couch in the living area. He looked up at them for a moment, then set aside an empty bowl and spoon and composed himself. Even from half way across the room, even over the stink of his pain medication, Duncan could smell his distress. There were so many kinds of upset he couldn't begin to sort them by type.

Joe looked Adam up and down and sighed. "The hospital released you on the condition of bed rest."

Adam's heartbeat spiked and a fresh wave of anxiety wafted off of him. His voice, however, was unwavering and faintly contemptuous. "I was hungry. Do I need to ask permission to eat?"

The acid tone dissolved the last remains of Joe's reasonableness. "No, but it would be nice if you sent us a memo before you baited a serial killer!"

The words echoed off the bland, cream-colored walls and then sank away to silence. For a long moment, Adam sat very still. Then he climbed laboriously to his feet and started for the bedroom door. The best speed he could manage was not fast enough to qualify as dramatically storming off, making the moment particularly sad.

Joe closed the distance between them and said, "We would have listened, Adam. We would have helped you."

Adam stopped, turned. This time he was moving so fast he nearly stumbled. "I didn't want your help!"

"What, you had to do this yourself? Of all the stupid--"

"Koren took everything from me. Including *me*. He was not, by god, going to get you or endanger your sentinel."

"Oh. So you just got somebody *else's* partner almost killed. Much better."

"Stop it," Tessa cried. "Both of you. Stop it. It was bad enough that Koren was ripping us apart when he was free. But he's in custody now. It's over. This has to stop."

Slowly, slowly, Adam made his way to Tessa and kissed her formally on the cheek. "I am so sorry. I promise, no more," he said, and resumed his retreat to the bedroom.

In the aching silence that followed, Duncan pointed toward the closed door.

Joe shook his head.

Duncan narrowed his eyes and mouthed, "Now."

"You." Joe returned, as silently.

Duncan stalked over and hissed in his ear, "He won't listen to me. Get in there and talk to him."

Joe went. The closed door, of course, was no barrier to following the conversation. "So, there's good news, anyway," Joe started out. "You're not going to be arrested by the local police."

"Ah. How did you manage that miracle?"

"I saved Captain Banks' sentinel. He was very, very grateful."

"Oh. I wondered." A pause, then, "I suppose I owe you a thank you."

"I don't want a thank you. I want you to stop acting like an idiot."

"Right. I'll get right on that tomorrow. In the meantime, I'm a little tired."

Duncan sighed. This was *not* going well.

"Hey," Tessa said, punching his shoulder gently. "I suppose you eavesdrop on me, too? Behave. Anyway, I have been in this hotel for days now. I haven't seen America at all. You need to change so you can take me out to dinner."

Duncan glanced at the closed door. "Joe and Adam--"

"Are not interested in going out tonight. I am." That was not precisely what Duncan had meant. But just what *was* he worried about? It wasn't like Joe was going to start a fist fight, not with Adam recovering from a bullet wound. They would be fine.

In any case, Tessa was already propelling Duncan toward their bedroom. "So," she said, making sure to distract him from the other conversation, "how is the other sentinel, Detective Ellison?"

"I saw him today. He's all right, actually." He pushed away the memory of Jim lying on the comparatively dry ground beside the collapsible work table, his body eerily silent and still except for the stumbling race of his heart as it weakened and failed. He had never seen another sentinel go down like that before. While he had been in school, three of the other students had died suddenly, but Duncan himself hadn't been present when the disasters happened. Right about the time Mary had been born, Connor had been exposed to tear gas, but his reaction had not been nearly as severe, even at the beginning, and by the next day, when Duncan had visited the hospital, the only symptom still present was an itchy case of contact dermatitis. He'd seen plenty of mild, persistent problems over the years. He'd even had some of them. But nothing, ever, like that. "I can't imagine," he said, opening the room's small closet to see what he could wear to a restaurant.

"Neither can I," Tessa said, brushing her hair. "To wake up one day and discover you're a sentinel? There are days when it keeps three of us busy, and you grew up learning how to do it."

That wasn't what he'd meant, but he wasn't going to clarify. There wasn't much in the closet, but Tessa had packed a pale blue shirt she liked to see him in, and he selected that one. "I haven't had a lot of the problems sentinels often have."

"How is his guide? He seemed to be a very nice young man."

"How is he after the rescue, or how is he as a guide?"

"After the rescue."

"Fine, we found them very quickly this time." Duncan paused, frowning, and pushed images of Richie out of his mind. "He's not a bad guide. A little nervous, I suppose. It must--"

At this sudden silence, Tessa looked up from putting on her good shoes. "What's wrong?"

"Adam just started crying," he reported.

"Good. He's needed a good cry since September. How's Joe?"

"Handling it." Joe was also crying, now. "You were right. I should let him take care of this. Are you ready to go?" He wouldn't be able to listen to this for very long without interfering, and that would be a bad idea. After his escape from Koren last fall, Adam had focused his anger (inwardly, invisibly, politely) on Duncan, the sentinel who had not been good enough to find him. Until he had begun to truly cope with what had happened, however he needed to do that, there was nothing Duncan could say that his friend could hear.

But logic could not hold out for very long against the sound of his guide's distress. Duncan led Tessa to the door. "What kind of food did you have in mind?"

"I hear the Americans are very fond of steak," she said. "When in Rome?"

****

Since Jim wasn't with him, Blair stopped by the dry cleaners. Just to be safe, he un-bagged the clothes and aired them out with the car windows half-way open. It felt very good to do the normal, every-day chores. He decided that before the store, he'd stop by the department and finally pick up his mail.

His box was beyond full. It was so jammed with papers that Blair had to tug and wiggle to get the first handful of department memos and lecture advertisements out. The second handful burst free so fast that half of it crashed to the floor. Sighing, Blair bent down to pick them up.

"I'm glad you came in. The secretaries were starting to get annoyed about the state of your box. I have to warn you, getting the secretaries around here annoyed at you is a very high-risk behavior."

Blair rose very slowly, composing himself. He had not heard Jack Kelso come up behind him. Taking a deep breath, he turned around. "Hi." He wasn't sure he should smile.

"How's Jim?"

This was not necessarily a bad sign; 'how's Jim' was always Jack's first question, even before the disagreement over the golden.

"Better. The doctor says there may be some flaking on his hands and face. His lungs are a little irritated still, but not badly. He's sore. I hope that right now he's asleep."

"That's what the doctor says. What's your opinion?"

Surprised, Blair looked around for a chair and sat down. "I would never have expected him to recover from something like that so quickly. I wish I could learn how to--but who would I practice on? You have to do it exactly right, or you might as well not do it at all." Jack nodded for him to go on. "So I'm not worried about the gas exposure. But he's exhausted. So much is going on in his life right now. Oh--this is new, you haven't heard. He's having flashbacks to Brackett. One flashback. Jim says there's nothing to panic about and *maybe* he's right, but we have *got* to have some quiet and some space and some *time*, you know? I need to get him to stop running for just five minutes so I can figure out--so we can figure out--" Blair stopped, looked away. "I don't know what he needs. I don't know if he's ok."

Jack watched him narrowly. "So you're panicking."

"Yeah. Mostly. I think... I think maybe you were right. I wasn't being careful enough before--"

"Stop."

"But I really think--"

"Stop."

Blair shut his mouth.

"Blair, I had three partners before Marcia, and I worked them all sick. I worked Marcia sick." Jack stopped, gazing down at his hands folded in his lap. "Getting the job done was 'more important' than protecting them. What I said to you--I wasn't mad at you. I was mad at me. For what I did to them. I'm sorry."

"But--Jack. I think you might have been right."

"About what?"

"The golden messed Jim up a lot. He shouldn't have been working."

"Ah. Tell me something, Blair. *Why* didn't you ground him?"

"Because I was afraid if he had too much time to think, or had to face how vulnerable he was, he'd panic. He's just barely getting some control when he's not panicking. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe he could have dealt with that. It was hard on him, trying to work that way."

"You're missing the point," Jack interrupted. "Maybe letting him work was the right thing to do and maybe it wasn't. Sometimes you are going to make mistakes. No matter how much we teach you, we can't change that. But as long as you make the decisions you do for the right reasons, even if they're the wrong choices, then the consequences can be dealt with."

Blair thought about that. "No," he said. "This is Jim's life. I can't make mistakes."

"Right. You, alone, in all the world will not make mistakes? That's your first mistake right there. Things will go wrong. Sometimes, things will go wrong because of you. When that happens, are you going spend what time you have beating yourself up because you've made a mistake, or are you going to shrug, move on, and fix it?"

He was probably right. Blair almost hoped not. He would rather *not* make mistakes.

"So, how are you doing?" Jack asked. "Were you hurt?"

"No. They didn't have time. Thanks, by the way. Jim says you really came through for him."

"Not just for him."

Surprised and moved, Blair closed his eyes. "Thanks, Jack."

"Take your mail and go home, Blair," Jack said gently, "And take your partner on vacation."

****

Adam was asleep. He had cried himself out and curled up on top of the covers with his injured arm held tight against his chest. He didn't look all that comfortable, but it was probably the best sleep he'd had in months.

'I did this all wrong,' Joe thought. But he had done his best, and still did not know what would have been better. Since he'd been released from the hospital last September, Adam had fought any attempt to comfort or help him. He had refused therapy. He had refused vacations. He had pushed away his friends. Compassion and anger alike had been met with indifference or icy resentment. It hadn't helped that, as support staff assigned to the case, Joe knew the extent of the torture, knew exactly what Koren and Kaspari had done. He could not pretend that nothing had happened. He could not ignore the mood swings and sleeplessness. He had been, for so long, so desperately worried about Adam, afraid that he would do something stupid.

When he finally *had* done something stupid, Joe had handled it so poorly. "I want you to stop acting like an idiot." Oh, yes. Very compassionate, there. You'd think a professional guide could do better. Not that, on the times Joe had done better, Adam had been any more receptive. Patience had also been pushed away, every time. But still.

The words hadn't died away before he was regretting them, but Adam just scowled and said, "Right. Skip idiot. I'll get right on that tomorrow. In the meantime, I'm a little tired. Why don't you go fuss over your sentinel or something?"

Wincing, Joe managed to rein in his temper, even as he ran into the wall he had already run into so many times already. "It wasn't your fault, you know," he said gently. Much better, even though it wasn't appreciated.

"What do you mean, it wasn't my fault? You said it yourself. I nearly got a sentinel killed. That was unforgivable. All of it was unforgivable." Joe started to answer, and he hurried on, "What *would* you be saying now if it had been Mac instead? If I had killed him, would you even be speaking to me?"

Joe set aside the picture of Duncan lying on the cold ground, ravaged from the inside out, slowly choking to death. "What Koren did to you," Joe said slowly, desperately committed to sticking to his point this time, "was not your fault."

"No," Adam said blandly, looking away. "Of course not. I was a crime victim. Next announcement?"

Wearily, Joe sat down on the bed next to him. He didn't know what to do next, not really. He put a hand on Adam's shoulder.

Adam gasped and pulled away. At once he froze and composed himself. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I didn't mean *that*, Joe."

But Joe, watching very carefully (whatever complaints Adam had about guide training, it was serving them well now), had seen what he *did* mean. Slowly, Joe put his hand back on Adam's shoulder.

Adam held very still, enduring the touch.

"Say it," Joe said.

"I'm fine," he ground out.

"The words you're holding in. I want to hear them."

Adam shrugged, gave him a sour look. "All the touching, again. Guides--"

"No," Joe used his free hand to push himself closer. "What you're really thinking." He leaned in, slowly.

Adam managed to hold his position for almost two more seconds, then with his good hand, shoved Joe away. "Don't touch me!" he hissed. "Get *away* from me."

Joe moved out of his intimate space. "Much better," he said. "But it's not me you're thinking of, is it?"

Adam's eyes narrowed. "No. I can stop *you*."

"You couldn't stop him."

"No. I didn't try." Adam dropped his eyes, but not before Joe saw the tears begin. "I didn't dare." He began to cry in earnest.

Joe folded his arms and stayed very still, his own eyes filling up. "It wasn't your fault," he whispered. "What you did. It wasn't unforgivable. It just made everybody do things the hard way, that's all. We'll get over it."

Between his horrors and the pain medication, Adam had cried himself to sleep while Joe sat beside him not daring to offer comfort either by word or by touch. He supposed he should be grateful that they had gotten even this far, that Adam had admitted there was a problem.

Joe supposed he should get up, go find something to eat, visit the head, something. He was just so weary, and after sitting so long, when he did finally stand up, it was going to hurt like hell. Maybe they could all take tomorrow off. Koren wasn't going anywhere. The chief constable couldn't expect them to turn around and fly home right away. As much as he hated to give in, even a little, claiming a sick guide was a very effective excuse for a sentinel.

The phone rang. Damn, damn. Even at his best speed, the damn thing was on the fifth ring before he made it to the living room. Joe desperately hoped it had not woken Adam. "Dawson," he whispered.

There was a short pause, then, very softly, "Hi, Uncle Joe."

"Mary? It's..." He did some rapid math but wasn't confident of the results. "The middle of the night where you are. What are you doing up?"

"I had a bad dream, and I wanted to talk to mom."

"I'm sorry, sweetheart. I think she and your dad went to dinner. Do you want to tell me about your dream?"

He didn't follow very much of the convoluted account she gave. Long after most average children shifted to telling more or less linear stories, Mary was talking more and more in circles and spirals and segues. She wasn't always incoherent. When discussing thoughts she was quite clear and articulate, but her communication (and it wasn't only speech, but also drawing and play) about experiences often disregarded time and cause/effect relationships in favor of other kinds of order altogether. She talked the way a lot of sentinels thought.

It took almost five minutes to assemble the content of the bad dream, which was even more fragmented than most of Mary's descriptions. Apparently, she had dreamed that one of the kittens inside Connor's cat Aife had died. It was, Joe agreed, a very bad dream, but it wasn't necessarily true. If Aife was in any trouble, Connor would know.

But even as he said all this, Joe wondered if she was right. Even if she weren't, what were the chances that she was dreaming about the inside of cats because her subconscious was trying to process information about the inside of cats?

"Aife will be sad," Mary said, dragging him back to the present conversation. "And cats don't talk English, so she can't cry properly."

"Sweetheart, even if Aife has lost one of the babies, she'll never know."

"Of course she'll know!"

"But since she doesn't talk English, we can't *tell* her, so she won't know." Eventually, after going around on it for a while, Mary came to understand that Joe actually meant to say that a cat could not know how many kittens she had inside her. She thought this idea was bizarre and deeply funny. Mary knew what was inside *her* body. Her body was inside her body. How could you not know who was inside your body with you?

When Mary finally rang off she was in a much better mood. As always, Joe wasn't sure what she'd gotten out of the conversation. But inside-out and circular stories aside, Mary was functional in the world. Her grades were a little below average, but that wasn't unusual for sentinels. She had friends and she was usually happy enough. She was a normal height and weight. She ate and slept and played. Most of the time she didn't have bad dreams. In the middle of the night, halfway in a dream, she was essentially on another planet, but her interface with other humans functioned adequately most of the time.

She was basically ok, and a sweet person besides. And she was his responsibility.

When Mary was two days old, Mac had gone to pick Tessa and Mary up from the hospital, and Joe had let himself into their little townhouse with his key and cleaned up the kitchen and changed the sheets. There wasn't much to do, sentinels tended to be tidy, and Mac was no exception, but he didn't want Tessa to come home to any kind of mess at all. He'd been on his way to get his coat and head home when mom and dad arrived with their new addition.

"Sit down, Joe," Mac said, setting down the car seat and freeing the baby from the restraints.

"I'm just on my way out. There's sandwiches and lemonade in the fridge--"

"Sit down." This time it was an order, and wondering why, Joe sat. Mac picked up the baby, gazed down at her for a moment, and then passed her to Tessa. "It would mean more, coming from you," he said.

It wasn't until Tessa planted herself in front of him and paused awkwardly that Joe finally realized what was happening. "Hey," he said quickly. "I'm not from around here. I don't expect--you don't *need* to--" Something in Tessa's face stopped him.

"This is usually a formality," she said. "Four times out of five, nothing ever comes of it. But with Mac's family history, the odds are close to fifty-fifty. I know it's asking a lot. But if she is a sentinel--I'm so scared, Joe. I couldn't do this without help."

Before she could start crying, Joe held out his arms. Mary was light, and very small. He had seen her from a distance, in the hospital. She had been beautiful then. Joe had been so proud of Mac.

Here, in his arms, she was beyond beautiful. Joe trembled slightly with awe. Such tiny breaths. Such tiny eyes. Such tiny fingernails.

He closed his eyes, trying to remember if there was something he was supposed to do now. British guide customs were very formal and ritualized, even though the role was barely a hundred years old. The purpose of this ceremony was to minimize jealousy and conflict between a sentinel's guide and family. It also helped to reduce some of the anxiety sentinels or their spouses might have about being parents of a potential sentinel. By taking the baby, he was, in a way, making the same promises to her that he'd made to Mac the day Mac had knelt and placed his life in Joe's hands.

He glanced up. Tessa was watching nervously. Joe petted Mary's cheek with one finger and said quietly, "You're not going to give us any trouble at all, are you, angel? No, you're going to be just fine. Your momma has nothing to worry about."

So far, he'd been right. Mary's problems had generally been of the usual kind. In a lot of ways, she was a completely normal child. Her brain was still developing, though, and as her thoughts got more sophisticated they began to resemble a sentinel's more and more. If she waited two years to manifest the full range of heightened senses, Joe could retire at three-quarter pay and home-school Mary--which meant that the boarding school would never separate Mary from her family the way Duncan and Connor (not close enough in age to be placed at the *same* school) had been separated.

But there was still no telling how far behind Richie's head injuries would finally put him. Even two years might not be enough time for him to graduate. Duncan couldn't work with just any guide. If he shut out part of the world, an earthquake couldn't get his attention. His precise and stubborn focus of concentration was worse than the involuntary and pointless zoning of most poorly trained sentinels, and without someone who could bring him out in an emergency, he was very vulnerable.

There was no point in borrowing trouble. They hadn't had to make that choice yet. It was barely possible that it would never come up at all.

Joe yawned and leaned back. He could fall asleep right there, forget food, forget a shower. But then he pictured what Mac and Tessa would say when they found him in the living room. Both of them tended to fuss.

The thought galvanized him into action. He heated up some of the soup Tessa had made. It was good, if a little bland. Tessa had gotten used to cooking for a sentinel, even if Joe still hadn't gotten used to eating like one.

After showering, he was faced with a dilemma: there was only one bed in the second bedroom. He and Adam had been sharing peacefully enough up until now, but that was before Adam's second abduction and the painful confrontation just an hour or two before. Would Adam freak if he woke up and discovered he wasn't alone? Would he feel dismissed if Joe gave up and bedded down on the couch? He had known Adam for more than two years, and as close as they'd gotten, he was damn hard to predict.

While Joe was hesitating, the object of his circular fret opened his eyes and looked up. "Are you angry?" Adam asked.

Yes, Joe realized. He was furious. But not with Adam. "No," he said. Although the sun had only recently gone down, the room was quite dark. It was hard to make out Adam's expression.

"Then come to bed and stop looming," Adam muttered. "I won't bite."

Joe sat down on the edge of the bed to finish undressing. "That's not what I've heard," he answered softly.

"Lies." The slurred voice was barely understandable. "All of it. I swear on my mother's grave."

Joe set his legs in front of the nightstand and slid beneath the covers. "Very funny. I've met your mother. And your stepmother." But Adam was already asleep, and didn't respond to the teasing.

****

Jim woke up when Blair stepped off the elevator. He heard the crunch of bags and sniffed for steak. His sense of smell was still pretty shot from the tear gas, so he couldn't make out whether or not Blair was carrying any real meat.

Jim didn't quite make it to the door in time to open it for Blair, but he took one of the three bags he was balancing and rescued the dry-cleaning Blair was holding with his teeth. "You yell at me for putting stuff in my mouth. You don't know where that's been."

"Bitch, bitch, bitch."

Now that he was this close, Jim could smell contentment and relief on Sandburg. "It's after eight. Where have you been? Something happen?"

"Got the dry cleaning. Then I stopped by the department, and had a talk with Jack."

Here the happy smell spiked. "Which went well?"

"Fine. I seem to be off his shit list. But what took so long was going out to Whole Foods."

Jim scowled. "Where they have the fresh sprouts and the dried grapefruit."

"Dried mango," Blair laughed. "And organic beef." He produced a football-sized package wrapped in white butcher paper.

Jim was suddenly starving. "You are a saint. A prince among men," he said. He frowned, suddenly suspicious. "You're going to make me pay for this, aren't you? Vision tests with the letters moving? Or those earphones that play two songs at once?"

"Yes. But not till we get back. I really do mean it about the vacation."

"Right. The vacation at the monastery. It'll be a ball."

"Better than tests." Sandburg was not, apparently, going to let this whole vacation thing go. In theory, time off was a fine idea. He had it coming. His only hot case had just closed. Why not a long weekend practicing his back swing in the cow field behind a monastery?

Because that wouldn't be all there was to it, that's why. Nothing since this sentinel thing started had been easy, and as upbeat as Sandburg was, as optimistic as he seemed to be about Jim's chances for a reasonable life, everything was still a big production.

Nothing was a little deal. Everything was hard. The vacation surely would not be fun. Or relaxing. Or normal.

Then Sandburg caught his eye. The sympathy Jim saw there made his breath catch, although Sandburg wasn't a mind reader and could not *possibly* know what Jim was thinking. But he smiled encouragingly and began to unwrap the steak. "So, Jim? Potatoes with your steak? Or olive bread?"

Jim managed to smile back. "Both," he said. Maybe the monastery thing wouldn't be so bad.

~end~