New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

Imperfections VII: Running up That Hill
Part One
by Dasha

Summary: AU. Crossover. Sometimes you get all the breaks. This isn't one of those times. Warning: Strong language.

Notes: Kitty remains a careful and thorough editor, although I think I may be getting weirder and fuzzier every year. She envisions blocking and set decoration. She keeps track of flow. She keeps me honest. And without her help, Iím sure the dog will never get a name.

Disclaimer: Jim, Blair, Simon, and The Sentinel belong to Pet Fly, UPN, and Paramount and no copyright infringement is intended. So: not Mine. Not even rented, really. Just sort of borrowed. I'll give them back when I'm done.

Monday

Law enforcement was a popular career choice for sentinels. It was popular enough that Rainier offered a few courses for guides. In addition, several classes over in Criminal Justice were recommended as electives. Blair had taken none of them. His electives had been in psych and nutrition and first aid. Heíd wanted to be a good guide. He hadnít given much thought to what his sentinel would do for a living.

That last was just as well. Blair would never have imagined heíd work with a sentinel in law enforcement. If he had, he probably would have gotten ready for forensics, not detective work. Since October, though, heíd had months to get used to police procedures, odd hours, intermittent physical danger, and the physical layout of public buildings downtown.

The meeting on Monday morning in the DAís office wasnít because Jim was a police officer preparing for one of his cases that was coming to trial. It was because he was a crime victim himself. None of Blairís classes had prepared him for taking on a sentinel who had been abused by a previous guide. Blair had learned that on the job, too.

Monday morning Blair played it casual, hoping that was the way to go. On the drive in he chatted about the new grocery store going up on Patterson Avenue. "Iím not saying Iím not sort of looking forward to all that variety. And, yes, it would be nice to get some really good bread. But do we really need a luxury grocery store? Is that what we want for our community?"

"It could be another Walmart," Jim shrugged. "Or fast food. Youíd go on about that for days. Say, if they have a fair selection of organic vegetables we wonít have to race to the farmerís market on Saturday morning. Or miss it completely because we spend most of the morning sniffing dumpsters."

"Oh, great. Thatíll make me feel much better, putting the local farmerís market out of business."

The conversation was like that-órelaxed and friendlyó-up until they reached the third floor of Urban-County Government Courts Annex B and the secretary said, "Ms. Sanchez is ready for you now. You can go on in."

Jimís face froze. "The meeting was with Mr. Miller."

The secretary smiled blandly. "He was called away on a case. Ms. Sanchez will be acting as his assistant on this case."

Stiffly, Jim turned to Blair. "Chief, why donít you go on over to Major Crime and wait for me there."

"But-óI was going with you."

With a hand on Blairís shoulder, Jim led him back out into the hall. "IóSandburg. I know her. Sheóweíve worked together. Weíre not friends, but, sort of, sheís not a stranger." Inwardly, Blair winced. Heíd tried to set Jim up with Beverly several times. "I canít talk about this stuff to her with you there, too. I canít deal with you both at once."

"Jim, Iím your guide." Your ally. Your partner. How could having me there make a problem worse? But he didnít say it out loud. It didnít matter *why* it would be a problem, it just mattered that Jim thought it would. "Right. Okay. Iíll wait for you in the bullpen." He smiled, not bothering to be too convincing about it (because Jim could tell he was worried anyway) and headed back down the hall.

For half an hour he tried to turn Jimís messy notes into a set of coherent reports. He couldnít concentrate, though. The small, hard knot in his gut that had been there when he woke up that morning had turned to a churning mass the size of a basketball. What was she asking him? Was Jim okay?

It was useless. Blair closed the file he was working on and went to the break room. Sugar, he thought. In the long run that was *not* a sustainable way to cope with stress, and if he ever caught Jim doing it, he would read him the riot act. But. Blair got peanut butter cups out of the candy machine and a coke and sat down at one of the tables.

When Joel came in a few minutes later, Blair still hadnít opened his snack. He jumped as Joel said, "Hey, Sandburg."

"Oh. Hi. Whatís new?"

"Nelson got promoted."

"Oh, cool. He having a party?"

"Donít know yet." Joel hesitated, hovering over the seat next to Blairís. After a moment, he sat down. "So... youíre an expert on sentinels."

Blair blinked. "Thatís the theory everybodyís working under, yes."

"I was just wondering... I mean, except for the senses, Jimís mostly a normal guy, right?"

Blair sat up. Joelís body language was way off, but other than a really obvious and inexplicable nervousness, Blair couldnít read the signals he was sending. "You know I canít discuss Jim with you."

"Right. Of course not." He paused. "But speaking in generaló-sentinels in generaló-sentinels are just like normal people."

Blair ruthlessly squashed the buzz of irritation. "Sentinels are normal people. The differences in their sensory input and brain structure are well within the range of normal human variation."

Joel nodded. "Right. Okay. But. There are some differences. They donít... their average life span...."

"Can be as much as twenty years shorter than for other people living in the same society and social class. Yes." He managed to say that calmly and evenly. He couldnít stop himself from adding, "That doesnít mean they all die twenty years early across the board. It just means that some of them die early enough to bring the average down."

Joel nodded, looking past Blair. "And they can do all the things other people can do. They go to school. They live in regular houses and apartments. They have jobs."

"Well, they canít work without a guide. But you arenít asking me about Occupational Safety and Health Administration directives."

"They can get married." Joel still wasnít looking at him.

"Yeah. In America not all of them do, but thatís about culture, you know, and expectation. In Japan and India the marriage rates for sentinels approach 95%."

"And they can date."

"Well, sure. Of course." Not that Jim *had* dated. But Blair would wear him down eventually.

"If *you* were dating a sentinel... I mean, if someone were dating a sentinel, what would they need to know?"

Blairís eyebrows crept up. "Jimís not your type," he laughed.

"What? Oh. Yeah. Very funny. But, uh, really. If someone were dating a sentinel, is there anything special....?"

Still clueless about where this was going, Blair gave in to Joelís seriousness and gave him a serious answer. "That depends entirely on the sentinel. Most sentinels are highly functional and generally very physically stable. All youíd need is the guideís phone number in case of emergency."

"What if it were someone whoíd had...problems?"

"Okay, well." Blair thought very hard. "You have to understand that even for a lot of non-sentinels, dating is stressful."

"And for sentinels, stress is bad," Joel said heavily.

"Sometimes, yeah. For a fragile sentinel, stress can really mess things up. In really embarrassing ways, on a date. If I were dating a sentinel, especially one who was having problems, Iíd try to keep things as low key as possible. Take things slow. Donít make the individual outings too long. Cut things short if she shows any signs of distressó-"

"Like what?"

"I donít know. Youíve been on dates before. If she says or does anything thatís completely new and unusual, that might be a sign."

"You have to have more than that," Joel said a little sharply.

"If she zones more than twice. If itís hard to end a zone. If sheís disoriented. Rash, trouble breathing, sweating when itís not hot. Strange mood swings."

"Okay. Good. What else?"

What else? Blair hadnít ever planned to date a sentinel. "If she doesnít eat, *donít* notice. Sentinel appetite is, well, itís affected by a lot of factors. Just donít make her feel self-conscious for not eating. If she gets tired, donít fuss, just take her home. If she needs space or air or stops a conversation in the middle, donít take it personally. She might just be spiking and need a moment to bring her senses in line."

"Right. Okay. That doesnít sound too bad."

"Mostly, itíll be just like any other date. Oh. Except for the sex."

Joel actually seemed to blush, although it was hard to tell. "Sex," he squeaked.

"Talk about it first. I mean it. Communication is necessary for *everybody* but for sentinels, without communication you have a disaster." Blair broke off. This was not something heíd gone into detail with for Jim. Maybe it was a really good thing he hadnít started dating again yet. Because, hell, unprepared he was set up for an awful experience.

"Sandburg?"

"Right. Talk about it. Everybodyís body and--and experience varies, right? But for sentinels the variations are just so *huge* that if you donít do the right thing or do do the wrong thing, it can be spectacularly awful."

"Gee, thatís comforting."

"Itís not a problem if you are communicating." Weirdly, it felt like he had turned into somebodyís dad, explaining the birds and the bees. "So whatís this all about, anyway?"

"Oh. Nothing. I was just curious."

"Oh," Blair said. Joel left, not quite bolting from the room. Still mystified, Blair turned back to his candy.

***

Jim showed up at 12:15, which only felt like an eternity later. He poked his head through the door and said, "Lunch, Chief. And after, letís drop off Jackís data."

Blair hurried to his feet, relieved to see his partner. "Do we have time?" he asked, snagging his jacket.

"Yeah. Brown doesnít need us to talk to his suspects this afternoon. He got a confession."

"What, they heard you were on the case and caved?" Blair teased as he joined him in the hall.

"Actually, yeah. Sentinels scare the shit out of the guilty."

"You are the man." Jim smiled at him thinly at that and Blair said, "How did the meeting go?"

"Fine," Jim said shortly, stabbing the button for the elevator.

"And you donít want to talk about it."

"Got it in one," he said.

Blair laid a careful hand on Jimís arm. "You know, whatever--"

Before Blair even realized Jim had moved, Jim had caught him by the lapels of his jacket and slammed him into the wall beside the elevator. Blair was more shocked than afraid. He gulped back his yelp before it was half-out and held very still.

Jim released him and staggered back. His eyes were wide with panic. Blair, seized and then released so abruptly, nearly lost his balance. Jim started to reach for him, and then jerked away as though Blair was too hot or too sharp to touch.

Down the hall, Simon and Joel came out of the conference room, Simon grousing over a case, Joel listening tolerantly. Blair looked up. The elevator was hung up on the third floor. Blair pointed at the door to the stairs. Jim took the hint and fled. Blair followed.

The heavy door clanged shut behind them. Jim retreated to a corner of the landing. Blair considered his options and sat down on the stairs. Waiting.

After a few moments, Jim said heavily, "These stairwells are monitored."

"So? A guide takes his sentinel into a quiet place to do some breathing and settle out a bad spike. Not a big deal."

Jim nodded stiffly. He looked utterly miserable. Blair wanted to touch him, to ask what was wrong. He was fairly sure that either approach was a bad idea.

Finally, Jim said, "I apologize. I was out of line." He said the words distantly, as though they didnít really touch what had happened. They didnít.

"That would mean a hell of a lot more if I thought it was me you... um..."

"Slammed into a wall," Jim said.

"Iím not hurt."

"I know."

"And it wasnít me you were thinking of."

Jim closed his eyes and pressed himself further into the corner. "I know youíre not him. I know... You are nothing like him. Ever."

Blair winced. "You have some guide issues--"

"I spent six months in uniform. Weíd get called on these domestic... " he paused, "And I understood those scum knocking their families around. That was pretty much a no-brainer, understanding them. But the--the victims. I never got how anyone could let someone... How things could ever get so bad. Only. I was." He panted a little as he forced himself to go on, "Lee Brackett. I *let* him."

"I know," Blair whispered, unwilling to watch Jim fighting himself over saying the words. "I know."

"You knew from the moment you met me."

"No. I knew when I met him." He was on firmer ground here. "Itís no great mystery how things got that far. He had all the advantages. He spent years learning how to control and manipulate sentinels. It wasnít your fault, Jim."

"No. Well. Itís never the victimís fault, is it?"

He meant it ironically, Blair thought, but the words were true none the less. "We have police because there are some problems individuals canít solve alone. Even very competent individuals. Jimó-you survived it. Brackett didnít beat you."

"He didnít beat you," Jim corrected.

Shit. Damn. Crap. Blair ground his teeth. "Lee Brackett is a sadist and a violent psychopath. In any civilized system, he never would have been allowed to work in an animal shelter, never mind being given sentinels to take care of. You put him in jail. Heís going to pay for his crimes." Crimes, Jim, crimes. Oh, god, let this go. You can see it. It wasnít about you being weak. It was about him having all the advantages. But Blair clamped down on his desperation. Jim had to come to his peace himself. Blair couldnít simply give it to him.

"Simon has seen some of the....Heís gotten updates on the case. He feels responsible."

Blair said, "To be fair, I canít blame him. But nobody ever expected a guide.... " He sighed. "Jim, what can I do?"

Jim sighed. "Letís go to lunch."

"Okay. Sure. What do you want to eat?"

Jim frowned. "Not actually hungry," he muttered.

"Right. Okay. We drop off the data first, and then I bribe you with toxic junk food."

"Your mind control techniques are mind boggling."

***

Jim didnít see why his pending nervous breakdown needed to be his guideís problem. Blair was doing a fine job. He was competent and kind. As far as he could see (and, to be fair, Jim still didnít know much more than the basics about what a guide was supposed to do) he was doing it right. But even a really competent guide couldnít compensate for Jimís own shortcomings. Jim wasnít much of a sentinel. Nor, it had turned out, much of a man. Months after letting himself become a victimó-months after being rescued by a half-trained pacifist grad student who didnít have any of the qualities Jim had always identified as strength--he couldnít cope with stuff that was already over and should be forgotten.

A hearing tomorrow. Jim would have to go. He wouldnít have to testify, but the DA wanted him there. In four or five months there would be a trial, and Jim would have to testify at that.

Heíd thought things had been going well. Heíd thought things had been getting back to normal. Okay, it was a weird kind of normal, and it involved having a new roommate who talked a lot and fed him way too many vegetables, but it hadnít involved pain or exhaustion orĖ-or--

Jim stumbled on the thought, freezing with the keys to the truck halfway out of his pocket.

"Jim?" Blair said softly, hovering behind him.

It hadnít involved pain or exhaustion or ....

"Why donít you drive, Sandburg?"

"Sure."

Jim didnít recognize the man who opened the door at Jack Kelsoís house. He could hear Marciaís voice coming from the living room to the right, and while she sounded upset, she didnít sound threatened or upset *at* someone, so Jim figured everything was all right.

The stranger holding the door didnít step back to let them in. His eyes swept over them in one scornful flicker. "Dr. Kelso isnít seeing visitors," he said shortly. "He was shot last week."

Blair blinked, rallied. "Yes, I was with him. When he got shot. Iím Blair Sandburg."

The stranger, although no taller than Blair, managed to look down his nose at him. "Oh. The teacherís pet. Heís not holding office hours."

"Heís expecting us," Blair said. He was being more patient with this asshole than Jim would have expected. "He called me last night. I have his data." He held up the box of discs. "We pulled them out of his office. When we found out his computer had been hacked, we were afraid...."

The doorman looked surprised. "Oh. That was actually good thinking." He opened the door wider and bellowed, "Company."

From the living room a male voice called, "Well, *handle* it, Rodney. Weíre a little busy." The voice dropped in volume. "Frankly, I think youíre freaking out over nothing."

This time Jim could make out Marciaís words. "Heís changed. And Iím not prepared. I think heís going to need so much more from me than I know how to... I just... Itís different."

"Yeah? So?" It was a guide speaking, Jim realized. He didnít know how he could tell. There was nothing special that gave it away. "Itís hard on you both. And youíre sacred. But heís not going to ask you to do anything he hasnít been modeling for all of us for several years now. If you ask me, gentleness isnít that hard to learn, and itís about damn time we all did."

Blair lightly tapped the back of Jimís hand to get his attention. "Jim, this is Dr. McKay. Heís loosely affiliated with Rainier."

"Rainier is loosely affiliated with me."

Blair shrugged. "Heís a structural engineer."

"I get paid obscene amounts of money to keep ugly buildings from falling down." Dr. McKay smiled tightly and looked Jim up and down. "A pleasure to meet you, Detective. Jackís awake. Donít stay too long." Dismissing them from his attention, he turned and headed for the kitchen. Blair blinked, looking a little bemused and then headed down the hall toward the bedrooms.

Jim followed. "Well, heís a winner," he muttered.

"Hush. Donít be rude. Jackís been researching sentinels since he left... you know, his last job. He knows everybody."

Jim nodded vaguely. He was already listeningó-almost involuntarilyó-for Jack. He wondered how normal it was, this impulse to watch everyone all the time. He had a firm intention, this time, *not* to rush and get his hands on his friend, not to sniff and listen and *pry* his way into the personal and private business of Blairís advisor just because he was a sentinel and he could.

Jack looked tired and pale and he reeked of pain meds and antibiotics. Jim pressed his back against the door frame as Blair went forward, the box of discs held out like a holy offering. Jack smiled thinly. "Itís unsalvageable, you know," he said by way of greeting. "My computer at the school. Even if it werenít federal evidence at this point. If I hadnít disconnected the computer here, I suspect it would have been wiped, too."

"Where do you want these?" Blair asked.

"Set them there. I have another set of back-ups here, but today Iím feeling paranoid enough to ask Marcia to put one set in the safe deposit box. It would take me a year to reconstruct those results from my paper records." Jackís eyes tracked the box of discs even as he paused to breathe. "I appreciate your thinking of them. I donít suppose youíd consider sneaking in my laptop so I can work on it?"

"Right. Your sentinel can break my arm without breaking a sweat."

"Do not be derailed by unimportant details." His eyes shifted to Jim. "Howís she doing?"

Jim listened. "Itís quiet," he said after a moment. "Heís got her doing a breathing exercise." Jim smiled slightly. "Is it kosher to have me spying on her for you?"

"Itís abysmal behavior on my part," Jack said gently. "But Iím both wounded and disabled, and I cheat. I am also about to take advantage of you both shamelessly. And stop standing way over there. Iím tired of shouting."

Obediently, Jim came over and sat on the bed. He didnít bother to resist the impulse to press his hand against Jackís stomach.

"Well?" Jack prodded.

"Different antibiotic since the last time I saw you." Jim closed his eyes, trying to sort out the smells. He was dimly aware of Blair watching patiently. He knew what Blair would say, but he didnít need to hear it. Paying attention to the moment was easy when it was people. People were more real than anything else. "Itís not the antibiotic; this one doesnít work as well. But you smell stronger."

"I couldnít keep anything down with the last one." So they had changed it, and it wasnít as good, but he could eat. Jim nodded, seeing it clearly.

It was like submerging his hand in water; Jim could feel the pull of currents against his palm: the swift ebb and flow of breath, the quick and uneven rhythm of a heart that was still working harder than Jim liked.

Better, though. Much better. Stronger.

"Satisfied?" Jack asked softly.

"Better," Jim answered. Reluctantly, he let go. "What do you need us to do?"

"Iíll need you to babysit. Marcia wonít leave me alone. She canít go shopping. She has a job later this weekó-she canít work if she wonít leave me."

"Working?" Jim asked.

"Part time security," Blair reminded him. "The rich and famous pay a lot to have a sentinel on staff, even when they donít need it."

"Especially when they donít need it," Jack corrected. "The security company already has a sentinel on staff, but he wants a night off now and then. I think it will be good for her."

"Stressful, though," Jim said.

"Yes, but not relentless worry. It took her a week to talk me into this, so donít talk me out of it. Donít cause trouble in paradise. Iíll need you to give her some time off occasionally. Free of me."

Jim nodded.

"Good. Now, tell me how your meeting went this morning."

Jim sighed. "He wonít deal. His lawyer is a scumball. So itís going to trial."

"Itís early yet--"

"Itís going to trial, Jack." There was no point in hoping otherwise. "Theyíll want you and Blair both to testify when the time comes."

Jack nodded. "It will be my pleasure."

"Really? What do we have on him? I mean really? That the man was bad at his job? That he was an asshole?"

"I witnessed attempted murder once. Blair witnessed it twice." Jack sounded so reasonable that for a moment Jim felt hopeful.

Then he remembered. "Theyíre going to say... the defense will probably make their case around me being a sentinel. How could I reallyó-reallyó-work with a criminal, a sadist for months and not know? Theyíre going to say this was a personal feud that got out of hand. Theyíll say Iím greatly exaggerating the threat he represented. And that if heíd been that bad a guide, one of our colleagues would have noticed."

"No," Jack said firmly. "They wonít get away with that. Iíll testify that any sentinel with basic education would have fired Brackett in the first week. Iíll tell them that by the time the abuse became overt you were already sick and emotionally traumatized."

Yes, Jim thought, it would be worth it. It would be worth being shown to the whole world as a victim in order to bring Brackett down. "Except you canít, Jack."

"Iím an expert in my field. They will believe me."

"I put away a serial killer under Brackett. Two rapists. A major arms dealer. Most of the Sunrise Patriots. I worked those cases. More. Jack, you canít... you canít cast doubt on my judgment. I did good work. Some of those cases are coming up to trial. If my testimony--"

"I know you did--"

"If you cast doubt on my competence, some of those people will walk."

Jack shuddered. "No. He is not getting away with this--"

"You can tell them I was ignorant. You can tell them I was sick. But you canít say I wasnít in my right mind."

"No! That sick bastard is not getting away with this--"

From the living room Jim could ear Marcia rousing. "Ellison, youíve upset my guide, and Iím going to kill you."

"Goddamn it, he is not getting away with this. Bad enough it happens under federal jurisdiction, but I am not allowing it out here."

The guide in the living room: "Settle down. Marcia? Whatís wrong?"

And the other sentinel: "Marcia, heís fine. Theyíre just talking."

"Get out of my way."

"Now, Marcia, thereís no reason to get all emotional. Hey! She hit me. She hit my nose. Does this look broken to you?"

Crap. Jim jumped up and retreated across the room to hide behind Blair.

The door to Jackís bedroom wasnít shut, but Marcia managed to slam it open anyway. The door bounced off the wall. "What is the matter with you, you fucking idiot?" Her voice was ice. Jim wondered how out of control she might be. He wondered how out of control he would be if Blair were recovering from a shooting and somebody upset him this much.

Jack was pale and panting now. "Stop it. Stop it. Stop it." He repeated the words in a voicelessly litany. "Stop. Marcia."

Marcia wasnít listening. Her hand flashed past Blairís shoulder, going for Jim. "Are you a complete idiot?" she asked. "I get that youíre really pathetic, I do. His big charity case. But you are not worth it."

The guide from the living room seized her wrist and hauled her around. Jim could guess at her training, and if sheíd labeled this guy as a threat he would probably have been toast, but she didnít resist as he shoved her toward the bed. "Stop acting like a four year old. Being a jerk isnít going to solve anybodyís problems."

She folded her arms and stood stiffly over Jack. "Get them out of here," she snarled.

"Right, wonderful idea. Letís go. Iím John, by the way. Nice to meet you. Letís give them a few minutes, hmmm?"

Jim found himself firmly hustled back into the hall.

They almost ran into Dr. McKay. He had a wad of tissues pressed to his nose. "That woman is a lunatic. She ought to be locked up. But Iíve said that before." He removed the tissues. "Is this still bleeding?"

His guide sighed. "It was never bleeding."

McKay waved a tissue with two drops of blood on it. "Hello, bleeding? Weíre supposed to be in Texas right now. I had three more days in Texas. On an expense account."

"One, you were finished with the actual work," John said. "Two, it was your idea to come back." He turned to Blair. "What the hell happened in there?"

Blair blinked, carefully didnít look at Jim and said, "Thereís a court case they both have an interest in. He asked Jim how it was going."

"The Brackett trial going that badly?"

Suddenly protective, Blair slipped in front of Jim. "How much do you know about it?"

"Only generalities." His eyes flipped to Jim, oddly sympathetic. "Itís gotten a little coverage in the paper." He added, "I washed out of the federal guide program," as though it would explain everything. Maybe it did, except Jim didnít really understand.

"Donít believe it," McKay said. "He told them to go fuck themselves in such eloquent terms that they discharged him from the Air Force and told him to drop dead."

"How are they doing?" John asked.

McKay shrugged, but motioned them further down the hall. "Jack is asleep. The psycho bitch has gone all protective and is sitting on a chair thatís up against the door."

Automatically, Jim listened in to check the pronouncement. He distinctly heard the whisper: "Look who's talking, you anal-retentive, insensitive freak."

McKay smiled a little, and like a ten-year-old, whispered back, "I know what you are, but what am I?"

His guide punched him firmly in the shoulder. "Stop that."

McKay shoved back. "Make me. Besides, everybody hates her. You guys hate her, donít you?"

Jim realized that McKay was looking at him, but he couldnít answer. The friendly, helpful guide had just socked his sentinel in the shoulder. It was nothing. A little roughhousing. Jim knew what it looked like when people goofed around, but somehow it felt as though the ground had tilted beneath his feet. His balance was gone. All he could think of was that you couldnít tell from the outside what was good and what was not. How did you know, watching a sentinel and guide push and shove at each other... how did you know when it was normal and safe and healthy and when someone was being systematically abused?

How would anyone know?

Jim didnít have any idea what normal was, even, let alone how someone would recognize it.

Very softly, John said, "Rodney, go wait in the living room."

"Jim? You okay?" Blairís voice. Jim realized that he had his eyes closed.

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Donít touch him. No matter what. Jim? You zoned? Hey, come on. If Jack comes out and catches me screwing up a zone, heíll file a change of grade and give me a retroactive F."

"He wonít," Jim whispered. The short conversation had exhausted Jack. Jim felt a flash of sympathy: how would he cope in Marciaís place? How would he manage a guide who was helpless and hurting?

"Jim? What do you say we go get some lunch? I promised you Wonderburger."

Jim recognized the offer of escape. "Yes," he managed. "Iím starved." But heíd have to open his eyes. And move.

Swallowing hard, he reached for Blairís shoulder. Found it. Solid under his hand. Jim forced his eyes open. Blair was watching him worriedly.

***

Jim held on to Blairís wrist all the way out to the SUV and only let go when they got to the awkward moment of having to get in. "You donít have to eat," Blair said. "I mean, if you canít handle the smell...."

"You promised me Wonderburger. Donít try to weasel out of it now." But when they pulled away from the drive-through, Jim ignored the hamburger, and only nibbled on a few of the fries.

Blair parked at the lot overlooking Donnaly Park and started on his own salad. He was playing it casual, making a point of not staring at what his partner did or didnít eat.

"That was interesting," Jim said after a while. He was using a cold fry to play with the ketchup.

"Which part? The part where Marcia came to kill us or the part where you nearly passed out in the hall?"

Jim winced. "Actually, I meant you donít often see one guide being a designated hitter for another like that. I mean, I know Dawson filled in for you once, but youíd just been kidnapped and I was pretty much a goner. This seemed... different."

Blair shrugged. "Maybe itís not so professional. Maybe theyíre just friends. I mean, I know Isobel has been keeping her eye on them. And while Sharona was out of town, we checked on Adrian a couple of times. Everybody has friends, right?"

"McKay and Marcia arenít friends," Jim snorted. "You should have heard what she called him." Jim tried to think of sentinels heíd met who were reasonable, polite people. Frasier. Michael from the Anthro Department at Rainier. Macleod. Some of the monks at St. Sebastianís. "Mostly, weíre real jerks, arenít we?"

"Well... McKay is famous for being, ah, difficult. He never teaches more than one seminar at a time, but every fall he and Sheppard give a lecture to the incoming guide class. Itís the Ďreally, youíd rather be in ethnography or researchí talk. All about how awful most sentinels are to work with. I hear it is very memorable."

"You never went?"

"That year, the only time they were scheduled to spend in Washington, McKay spent in the hospital with a broken wrist."

"In the hospital for a broken wrist?"

"You donít want to know," Blair said reflexively. Although, actually, bad reactions to pain of that order of magnitude didnít appear from nothing. If Jim were susceptible to OPS shock the tendency would have surfaced by now. "Anyway, heís very famous. Both for being obnoxious and for designing these really ugly sky-scrapers that donít even crack in a Richter 7 earthquake. And he does this thing with metal fatigue and geometry. And bridges. He gets mentioned in text books."

"Gee, you should have asked for his autograph."

Blair laughed. "So," he said carefully. "You want to tell me what happened back there?"

"I didnít almost pass out."

"That wasnít a zone."

"No. I just...."

Blair realized that the back of Jimís left hand was resting against Blairís hip. He put down his salad and gently took the hand. "Flashback?"

"No. Not...exactly."

Blair wondered how far he could push. "Jim, if you were in trouble, youíd tell me, right?"

Jim smiled. "No, Iíd probably lie about it and say I was fine until I collapsed."

Blair grimaced. "That would be very funny, if that wasnít exactly what I was afraid of."

"How would I know?" Jim whispered. "How would I know if I were...if my guide were," Jimís breath caught, "abusing me? I didnít know before...."

Blair swallowed dryly, dimly aware that he was sweating all over Jimís hand. They had danced around this uncertainty before. "As you deal with what happened to you, as you recover, youíll, well, youíll learn to make those judgments effectively. Youíve already learned a lot about how it is supposed to work, between a sentinel and a guide. I really donít think it will take all that long before you start to rebuild some confidence here." Blair paused, breathed, breathed again. He had known that things would probably get worse before they got better. "In the meantime, Simon and Joel and Adrian are all watching me. Jack is watching me, and he is one of the best guide researchersó-one of the best guide teachersó-in the country. He makes sure you regularly get seen by a competent doctor. Jim, even if I wanted to hurt you...even if I wanted to--"

"No, Sandburg--"

"People are watching you, Jim. People who care about you."

"You care about me."

"Yes," Blair whispered. "But how do you know? I mean, youíre not able to take something like that on faith right now, right? So how do you know?"

Jim didnít answer.

"Itís okay, if youíre not feeling trusting right now. I know I said that trust was important. But this isnít about me."

"I can smell it," Jim said. "Thatís the truth, what I can smell. I can smell how scared Marcia is. Sheís trying not to be, but she knows what I know. Jackís in trouble. And I can smell." He breathed in. "I can smell. When Sharona is impatient with Adrian. It doesnít smell like Lee being impatient with me. You told me there were good guides--" without warning, Jim let go of Blairís hand, threw the door open and stumbled into the parking lot. He got almost three steps away from the SUV before he bent over, vomiting.

Blair got out on the other side and slowly went around the back. He made a big loop, making sure that Jim could see him coming.

Jim stepped back and leaned against the car.

Blair waited, not sure what to do.

"None of them smelled like Lee. *You* donít smell like Lee."

Blair crushed the surge of hope. "Iím not going to tell you...Jim, you donít *have* to push this. I make mistakes. Itís okay if--"

"You donít feel contempt when Iím afraid. If I disagree with you, you donít smell *satisfied* when I get sick. I knew that. I know that."

"No."

"Youíre angry. When Iím in trouble, youíre angry. Because nobody helped me. When I couldnít. When I couldnít protect myself."

Blair managed to shrug. He had really not expected this breakthrough to take place next to a park over lunch. "Yeah. Thatís a mistake, actually. As Jack repeatedly points out. You donít need my anger."

"Itís not...so bad," Jim said.

Blair stepped over the little puddle of vomit Jim had left on the asphalt. Jim didnít flinch as he came closer. "Youíre going to have to do a very hard thing tomorrow," Blair said.

"Lee Brackett is a criminal," Jim said. "Iím going to put him away. And youíre going to help me. Youíre going to make sure I donít screw this up."

"Thatís actually a very good plan, Jim."

"Thank you," Jim said. "I think maybe you should call me in sick. I canít see anything."

"Er, what?" Blair said faintly. He was close enough to touch Jim now, but his hands froze.

"I can see light, but the focus is all gone."

"Like with the golden?" Blair asked, feeling a little sick.

"No, this is stress related." Jim sounded very calm.

"Stress related?" He leaned up, looked into Jimís eyes. They didnít track the movement. "It happened before. A friend of mine, another cop, had been killed. It was a professional hit, and I almost blew the case. My senses blinked on and off for a couple of days."

"Ah. Right." There was a brief mention in Jimís medical record. It hadnít required hospitalization, and Jim hadnít talked much about it, so Blair didnít have a lot to go on. "Are you experiencing any other symptoms?"

Jim didnít answer that. "Lee told me I was just being a wimp. He told me to shake it off."

"He wasnít just a bastard. That was blatantly incompetent. Youíd just come online. Itís barely been a year; youíve *still* just barely come online. As new as you are, flickers arenít a big deal. Theyíre not unusual. But theyíre not a sign of weakness. As stress goes, I mean this is serious stress."

"Iím not freaking out, Chief. I just canít see anything."

"Yeah. I know. Iím going to call Simon. Then Iím going to take you home and put in a movie. And fix some soup. This will pass."

"Okay."

"Letís get you back in the car."

He got Jim home and settled on the couch with a ginger ale. There was a Clint Eastwood movie on cable. "Feeling any better?"

"I feel fine, but I still canít see," Jim complained. "What if itís not better tomorrow?"

"Weíve done the blind thing before. We can fake it."

"It wonít look good, me holding on to you."

Blair patted his shoulder. "Itíll look fine. Itíll show youíve managed to enter into a healthy relationship with a guide."

Jim laughed.

"What?"

"Well, from where Iíve been sitting, most healthy relationships between sentinels and guides are pretty weird."

"Hey! At least we donít have a wolf."

"Not a real one anyway."

"Or an entourage."

"So, what? Youíre saying weíre normal?"

"Very. Average. Dull. Common as grass."

"Only you, Sandburg." Jim leaned sideways, so that his shoulder rested against Blairís.

Jimís vision and appetite came back together at around six oíclock. Blair produced the promised soup and then sent his partner off to shower. Simon called while Jim was in the bathroom. "Do we need to talk about administrative leave?" he wanted to know.

"Not today," Blair said. "If tomorrow goes well, maybe not at all. Jimís sort of coping."

"Heís sort of coping, except for you calling him in sick," Simon said doubtfully.

"Except for that, yes."

"Your call, Sandburg." Yes. It was.

***

Continued in part two...