New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

Imperfections VII: Running up That Hill
Part Two
by Dasha

See part one for notes and disclaimer.

Tuesday

That night Blair slept badly. Every time Jim turned over or sighed in his sleep, Blair found himself wide awake and listening for any sound of distress. Morning came, with no sign of trouble. Breakfast was mostly normal. Jim didnít eat much, but he ate some. The trip downtown wasnít unusually fraught with stress or worry.

They parked as usual in the PD lot. The reporters haunting the steps to the court building and the lobby were the usual reporters, not a giant crowd of rabid carrion eaters searching eagerly for a scandal. As a police detective and his guide, Jim and Blair didnít have to stand in line for the metal detector with the visitors.

As they were walking past the waiting line, Jim halted in surprise and turned to one of the men standing there. Blair had to skip sideways to keep from running into him. "Hey, try hand signal--" Blair began, but at the look on Jimís face he hesitated. Neither protest nor teasing seemed right. Jim was staring in astonishment at one of the people waiting in line. As Blair watched, Jimís surprise faded to a chill amusement that didnít really seem to find things funny. "Well, what brings you downtown? Donít tell me youíve been indicted? I always knew you were heading for a bad end." The words were friendly, almost chiding. Jimís tone was setting Blairís hair on end.

Disconcerted, Blair turned to the man Jim was talking to. He was a business man; youngish, well-dressed, handsome. Not as tall as Jim, he was looking up as he gulped and fumbled. "Jimmy. I-I read the newspapers. I wanted to see for myself...." He blinked, tried to smile. "I was concerned."

Jim nodded slowly, the icy smile still in place. "Itís quite a scandal. I can see why youíre concerned." The smile got bigger. Blair was nearly shivering with the chill of it. "Iím afraid I donít have good news." He leaned forward slightly, creating the illusion of intimacy. "Itís all true. Every last bit of it. Iím a sentinel. A real, live freak of nature. And my first guide was an abusive psycho who nearly killed me. Itís going to be in the news for *months*." The smile got even bigger. "And best of all, sentinelism is hereditary."

The man gaped. So did Blair. Heíd never seen Jim like this before. He didnít understand why he was being this way now.

"But Iím being rude. Please excuse me. This is my guide, Blair Sandburg." Without looking, Jim reached out and propelled Blair forward. "Chief, this is Stephen, my younger brother."

"Pleased to meet you," Blair squeaked, wondering if he was.

Jim ostentatiously checked his watch, "Iím sorry. Weíre running late. Enjoy the show." Jim turned away, headed on toward the employee entrance next to the security checkpoint.

Blair gaped at both of them, then scampered after Jim. From behind, Stephen asked, "Are you all right, Jimmy?"

Jim flashed his ID at the guard and continued through the checkpoint and down the hall without a backward glance. He turned a corner half-way down the hall and ducked into the menís restroom.

Blair hesitated. Men didnít follow each other into the menís room. It was weird. On the other hand, Blair had met Jim the day after Joel had found Jim collapsed on a menís room floor. He couldnít afford to take chances, weird or not. Blair gulped and charged ahead.

"Jim?" he asked.

Jim was at the sink, calmly washing his hands. "Be with you in a minute, Sandburg."

Blair glanced at the stalls. There was no sign of feet. "You okay, Jim?"

"Sure. Fine. Iíll be right with you."

Okay. Okay. Right. Because they had ten minutes to be in the courtroom, and they had to be calm. Blair nodded calmly and went to wait in the hall. Because, really, the best thing to do right now was pretend that had not happened.

Right. Jimís estranged younger brother had not just appeared in line. It never happened. And, by the way, had that been some really nasty form of sabotage? Or was Stephen Ellison just really very clueless? He hadnít looked angry or hostile. There had been no gloating or mockery. Heíd seemed at a loss more than anything else. Maybe he hadnít meant to cause trouble. Maybe he hadnít meant to be noticed at all.

Blair just didnít know enough about Jimís family to guess. Jimís cousin Rucker had mentioned a younger brother briefly, but Jim had never elaborated and Blair hadnít taken time to look into the question. It was all they could manage to cope with Brackettís damage and work on Jimís new senses.

Jim appeared a moment later. He seemed perfectly calm and contained. Blair was impressed. Or worried. He tried to look serious but confident. If Jim could fake it, surely Blair could manage.

The hearing lasted only twenty minutes and proceeded without delays or surprises. Paperwork passed back and forth. Court dates were scheduled. Lawyers chattered in three-part harmony. Blair kept still, unable to concentrate for the furious storm in his mind. Lee Brackett was sitting less than five yards away. He was dressed in a suit, looking well-groomed and satisfied. He had a small, confident smile. He didnít look guilty. Or sorry. Or *worried* about anything.

Blair tried not to look at him. He tried to keep his shoulders relaxed and his breathing even. He tried not to think about the fact that Jim was still fragile and traumatized and the sick fuck who had abused him was pleading not guilty and mounting a defense.

If this could happen to Jimó-a cop, a confident and educated man who knew how to defend himselfó-it could happen to anyone.

Jim laid a hand on Blairís arm. Blair swallowed and tried to relax. Brackett was here looking confident and ready, but Simon was here too. And Joel. And Adrian and Sharona.

So Blair kept still and calm while the formulaic words floated overhead. Although the individual moments were excruciating, it was over very quickly and Brackett was soon being led away by the bailiffs.

"You okay?" Blair whispered as he stood up.

Jim didnít answer.

Blair tapped his hand casually. "Jim?"

"Later," Jim said firmly. His bland expression was still in place. He headed toward the rear of the courtroom. All Blair could do was follow. Jim didnít stop until he was standing in the back stairwell with the door shut behind them.

"Jim? How you doing?" Blair asked softly.

Jim canted his head slightly, looking hard at Blair. "I canít hear anything."

"Fuck," Blair muttered. "What happened?"

Jim shrugged and shook his head. Either he couldnít make out the question or didnít know the answer. Not that Blair needed Jim to answer. Stress wasnít a hard diagnosis to make, not under the circumstances.

"You okay? How you feeling?"

He either didn't get the question or ignored it. "How did the hearing go? Any problems?"

Blair shook his head. "Itís fine."

"Good. Thatís good." Jim took a deep breath. "Still no bail? Still no deals?"

Blair nodded. "Itís okay. Itís all okay, Jim."

"Okay?"

Blair nodded, wondering if this would be the moment that Jimís calm façade cracked. It wasnít. He took out his cell and handed it to Blair. "Call Rafe. Find out if he has any work for us."

"I could take you home," Blair offered. Jim blinked at him and shrugged. The sentence was too complicated to lip read. "Home?"

"No. This will pass in a few minutes. I want to get some work done. Yesterday was a write-off." When Blair didnít move, he added, "I donít need my ears to look at a crime scene or go over a body."

So Blair called Brian, who turned out to be on his way to look at an abandoned car that had been used in a series of hold-ups the previous week. One convenience store robbery wasnít a Ďmajor crime,í but five in five days, in nice parts of town, and all of them in the late afternoon so they were Ďbreaking storiesí during the evening news was close enough to get bumped to the sixth floor.

Jim let Blair drive, which was reassuring (donít think about driving with someone who was currently undergoing hysterical deafness and might lose one or more other senses) but worrisome (Jim had to be in real trouble if he was accepting help). Blair was surprised to discover that it wasnít only Jim he was worried about. He was also bothered about the case. If Jim was enough of a mess that his senses were cutting out, what kind of job would he be able to do on the evidence? Worse, knowing a sentinel had been over the car, the evidence people might not look too closely. Why bother? Overlooked trace evidence could make a difference in getting an arrest or conviction. It was robbery, not murder, not a big, flashy case, but that wouldnít matter. Jim would be more than upset if a mistake he made screwed up the case. Blair, the guide responsible for keeping Jim functional, wouldnít be thrilled about it either.

As it turned out, Blair was probably worried about nothing. Jimís ears werenít working, but his nose was fine. He listed off two peopleís worth of personal care products and dug a dirty sock out from under the seat. "Tide with bleach and untreated athletesí foot," he announced.

No one noticed that Jim didnít answer questions. Sentinels were famous for narrow concentration and apparent absentmindedness. They had all worked a scene with sentinels before. Ignoring people didnít even register as rudeness, let alone as suspicious.

So. Things were going just fine. There was nothing to worry about.

***

Jim unfolded himself from the back seat of the Toyota and stripped off the latex gloves. "Hungry, Chief?"

"Iím game any time," Sandburg said, watching Jimís face closely. "Steak?" Jim winced. Sandburg never offered steak unless he was worried about emotional stability and basic calories.

"I was thinking Leoís, actually," Jim said, waiting for the cheerful teasing that was bound to follow. Leoís was a new-age deli. Not quite vegetarian, it served no red meat and specialized in drinks involving wheat grass. Jim had never suggested it.

All Sandburg said was, "You donít have to humor me."

"They have good bread," he explained. And they did have good bread, but what he felt silly mentioning was that he was in the mood for a turkey club with bacon and avocado. Until a few months before, avocado was just the green background mush you added spices to in order to make blistering guacamole which had been edible before the senses and was impossibly out of reach now. The mushy, pale background hadnít even registered before. Now he kind of liked it. Actually, really liked it. Fru-fru new age pansy vegetable or not, the taste was really good.

"Youíre the boss," Sandburg said. If he was drawing conclusions about the lunch request, he didnít mention them. "Howís the hearing?"

"Coming up very slowly. Like I have water in my ears. The less I pay attention the better it gets."

"Right. Talking about something else. Momís speaking at an environmental conference in Arizona next month, did I mention?"

"Is she still working the Ďsentinelí angle?"

"Yeah. But itís tasteful, I promise. Besides, sheís trying to protect everybody here. Weíre all sharing this planet together."

"Relax. Iím not criticizing."

Sandburg was a saint at lunch. He didnít ask Jim any questions. He didnít hover. He kept the conversation light. Mainly, he griped about politics, which was safely impersonal, if boring.

They spent the afternoon helping Monk sort through garbage for some case. Jim was never sure why they were looking for an old dishtowel that smelled like human blood, catnip, and Neem toothpaste. As always, Monkís thinking was convoluted and a little weird. The work itself was gross but sort of absorbing. Every half hour or so, Blair would pull him aside and hold out a cup of coffee grounds for him to sniff. Once or twice they ran into rotted meat or mushy fruit, and Jim had to pull back, gagging. Rancid baked beans sent him completely out of the room.

Each time he got overwhelmed, Sandburg was there with a plastic cup of very cold water and very firm instructions on relaxing and letting go of the nasty stench that wanted to cling to the inside of his nose.

Jim consoled himself that at least he was coping better than poor Adrian, who was wearing three layers of sterile gloves and continually fretting that one of them might be leaking and poisoning him with toxic sludge.

At four-fifteen, Monk found his dishtowel and raced off with Sharona shouting that he had solved the case. Feeling not the least bit guilty, Jim left the mess for Carolineís people to clean up and headed home.

It was raining a little. The streets were crowded and gray and it took forever to get to the loft. When they finally got in and took off their damp jackets, Sandburg cut loose with the hovering heíd been concealing all day. "You want some beer, Jim? How about a shower?"

Jim checked the lock on the door and then lowered himself carefully onto the couch. "Sit, Sandburg," he said.

Blair sat on the coffee table. "Do you want to talk about it?" he asked softly.

Jim sighed and rested his forehead in his hands. "Thereís nothing to talk about. You already know everything."

A soft sigh. A restless shift slightly closer, so their knees were almost touching. "Jim, you havenít said anything all day. I donít know anything if you wonít talk to me. Cut me a break. Donít make me guess. Itís too important."

Jim flopped back and let his head drop over the back of the couch. "I donít want to talk about it. Donít do this, Sandburg. I know you understand. I can smell it."

"You can smell it," Sandburg whispered. "Okay. I guess I know everything I need to." He shifted so that he was sitting beside Jim on the couch and laid a hand on his arm. He tugged gently, and before he knew it, Jim was lying with his head in Blairís lap and his feet sticking off the end of the couch.

It felt oddly normal. Weird, but Jim reminded himself that *this*--whatever it was--was just a sentinel thing. Right and common and okay and actually normal. What Lee had shown him was vile and cruel. Having a guide was supposed to be about trust and reassurance, and if he was going to get past the horrible half-year where a criminal had tried to kill him slowly he was going to have to try it Sandburgís way.

He took a deep breath and let it out. Blairís hands gently fluffed through Jimís hair, and then the afghan was tugged down over Jimís shoulders. "I donít know what to tell you, Jim. I wish I could just make all this go away. Itíll be months before this is over."

"We have to-ówe canító-Sandburg--"

"I know. We have to make sure he doesnít get near anyone else. Ever."

An image flashed through Jimís head and he laughed thinly.

"Whatís so funny?"

"Everybody does this, right? The bonding thing?"

"Everybody healthy and sane, yeah. Or getting there."

"So... Marcia." Jim smiled to himself. "I canít picture it."

Blair hugged Jimís shoulders gently. "I imagine sheís had to unlearn a lot of bad habits. She got her advanced training from the psychos who trained Brackett."

Right. So MacLeod did this. And Frasier. And those nice sentinel monks. And speaking of monk, Adrian did this. Or at least he had, with his wife. He could barely stand Sharona touching his shoulder. "Ha. And that other guy. McKay. That is hard to picture."

"Are you kidding? McKay and Sheppard, theyíre legend, man. When Jack first started publishing his work on sentinel health and guide attachment, the old-school Ďstay objectiveí crowd fell on him like a ton of bricks. So McKay and Sheppard came forward and identified themselves as one of the case studies."

"What, you mean they voluntarily identified themselves as research subjects?"

"Yeah. Apparently, it wasnít a big deal to them."

"Huh." Jim could never picture doing that.

"Youíll be relieved to know that being a huge pain in the ass is no barrier to mutual attachment, you know, with compatible personalities and a lot of good communication."

"Oh, very funny."

Sandburg hugged him again. The hand in his hair was still petting, but more slowly now. "Iíll tell you anything you want to know," Jim whispered.

"Okay," Sandburg said. "Later though, huh?"

"Okay. You know... I think Iíd like to see it."

"See what?"

"Some of Jackís work."

"Yeah, sure. Whatever you want." Sandburgís thumbs were pressing along Jimís skull behind his ears. It felt remarkably good. It was a pressure point thing, he realized. "Deep breath for me, okay? And again."

The phone rang. Sandburg jumped, but carefully stilled himself. "Itís all right. Let the machine get it."

"Could be work."

"Yeah. It could be."

"*Blair, itís Jack--*"

Jim lifted his head up and Sandburg scooted out from underneath.

"*I need a fav--*"

"Here, weíre here," Blair said, scooping up the phone and turning off the machine.

"*How are you doing?*"

"Not bad. Court went well."

"*I heard. Jim?*"

"Heís good. Coping." Sandburg glanced over at Jim, who was sitting up and rubbing his face. "Weíre good."

"*I called because I need a favor. Marcia needs to go out tomorrow night, and Iím going to need that babysitter sooner than I thought.*"

Jim could clearly hear, in the background, Marcia say: "*I donít need to go. Youíre blowing this way out of proportion.*"

"Sure," Sandburg said, clearly unaware of the mutiny. "Anytime. You know that. What time should we show up?"

"*Really. Jack. This isó-it was a stupid idea.*"

"*Five-thirty would be perfect. But if you canít manage that because of work--*"

"Weíll call if we run late."

"*Thank you. This means a lot.*"

"No problem." Sandburg said goodbye and hung up. "I hope you donít mind. I can go alone, if you donít feel like it."

"No. Thatís fine. Itís not just that heís our friend. Jackís... important."

Sandburg nodded. "So, hungry? We can do spaghetti. Thereís sauce in the freezer."

***

Wednesday

Blair woke from a sound sleep to the sound of a guttural yell that had him out of bed and out the door before he realized why he was moving. Half-way up the stairs the yell choked off and was replaced by a wretched mewling that sounded like both anger and heartbreak. "Jim!" he shouted. "Iím coming. Iím coming."

In the ambient light from the skylight he could see Jim tangled in the sheets, thrashing and struggling but unable to free himself.

"Itís okay, itís okay," he babbled frantically, reaching out but not touching. "Jim, itís me."

Jim oriented on his face and opened his mouth to speak or cry out but nothing came.

Unsure what to do, Blair held out his arms. Jim surged toward him, but he was still caught in the sheets. He would have fallen from the bed if Blair had not caught him and shoved him backward. "Easy. Itís okay."

"Bastard," Jim choked. "Bastard."

"Yes," Blair said, grateful for a coherent word. "What? What?"

"Bastard. Everyone said to trust him. Obey him." Another yell, not as loud, but still guttural, almost animal. "He never helped me. He never--"

Oh. Well. "I know. I know. Youíre right."

"He said it was my fault. My own fault when I got sick. I deserved it."

"Wasnít true."

"Bastard."

Blair told himself there was no reason to panic. This was about the worst heíd seen Jim, but heíd been waiting for this, hadnít he? This was normal. Necessary. Yes, Jim was soaked with sweat and possibly hyperventilating, but this would pass. "I know, Jim," he whispered, trying to offer his voice, his presence since he couldnít solve this problem. "I know."

"He had control over whether I worked or not. My career was in his hands. My life. He nearly killed me."

Blair felt his eyes fill. "I know." He tried not to think about how close it had been. Very carefully, as heíd grown closer to his partner, Blair had tried not to imagine the scope of the loss. He tried not to think about what might have happened, of how near they had been. But sometimes he couldn't help it, and denial gave way to ugly recognition of just how much danger Jim had been in. Dear God. He might have died. He had come close to it more than once.

To never have met Jim. Or worse, to have met him and lost him. Jim had been sick and basically helpless by the time Joel went looking for help. If Jim hadnít recovered....

"I would have let him. I almost let him kill me." Jim groaned. "You never called me on it. Why do you smell like this?"

"Like what?" Blair asked, not sure if he should expect an answer.

"Like you care! How can youó-God, Chief, how can you respect me? You know what I let him do--"

"Oh. Oh, Jim. You know... the big surprise that day in the hospital," Blair stumbled, took a breath, and went on, "I was ready to like the work. IóI never expected to like you so much."

Jim laughed. It was a terrible sound. "Youíre saying that to increase my life expectancy."

"Hell, yes. But I canít lie. Not to you." Jim was shaking. He might be cold; he was soaking wet. Blair tried to free up some blanket to cover him. "Iím not him. And you are recovering from what he did to you. I know itís not okay yet, Jim, but itís going to be."

Perhaps that was the wrong thing to say. It was unprovable, and, anyway, absolutely no help now, when Jim was only feeling pain and shame and anger. "Breathe, Jim."

"I kept trying to do what he told me to. It didnít make any sense. And it all hurt."

"Breathe. Breathe."

Jim was clinging, rigid and panting. His grip on Blairís arms was painfully hard. Blair held him in silence, trying to remember everything Jack had told him about patience, and everything his mother had taught him about grounding and centering. And wishing he had learned the Prayer for Mercy the monks at St. Sebastianís used at the start of Afternoon Meditation. This was horrible, but good. Much better than Jim knew. The choice was to deal with the pain or carry it around inside, and this crap had all but killed Jim once already.

At last Jim said, "What time is it?"

"Dunno." Blair leaned to see the alarm on the other side of the bed. "Fiveish."

"Hell. Fine. Letís get dressed, go grab some breakfast. IHOP? Fredís Diner? My treat. You know, to pay you back for the sleep deprivation."

"Oh, please. This isnít sleep deprivation. Mid-terms TAing for Hughes, thatís sleep deprivation. Thirty hours grading discussion questions. This is nothing. But Iím up for breakfast."

***

They spent most of the day preparing for a political rally at the civic center. Somebody wanted to impeach the mayor or something. Bribes were involved. Or possibly a sex scandal. Jim couldnít concentrate on the buzzing of complicated allegations. Whatever. People were mad. There had even been a small riot a couple of weeks before, while Jim and Blair were out of town - if you could count two broken windows and a flipped-over car as a riot. Jim had seen riots in South America, and wasnít impressed.

As a detail went, it was fantastic. Jim didnít have to talk to people or smell the blood and terror of a crime scene. He didnít even have to pick through anybodyís garbage. All he had to do was walk circles through and around the building, listening and smelling for bombs. Somebody had recently urinated in the west stairwell, which wasnít a lot of fun. But other than that, the assignment was both distracting and uneventful.

The rally kicked off at three. Jim went up to the roof, which got him away from the loudspeakers and gave him a view of the parking lots and buildings on all sides. The crowd was small, or a lot smaller than estimates. Jim didnít smell any explosives or drugs. Weapons were everywhere, but that was because the police were wearing them. And anyway, metal detectors had been set up at the entrances.

They pulled up in front of Jack Kelsoís at 5:45. Marcia met them at the door. She looked irritable and smelled nervous. She handed Blair two timers. Pointing to the one with forty-five minutes left on it, she said, "This goes off every two hours. You need to help Jack change position. Youíre a little scrawny, but Jim can probably handle it. Itís important. This one," she pointed at one with two and half hours left on it, "means take the puppy out into the back yard so it can make scat. It is also important."

Sandburg blinked. "Do what? Puppy?"

Jim sniffed and winced. "I think she means that, Chief." He nodded to a pair of brown eyes peeking out from under a chair in the living room. Jim smirked at Marcia. "You got a widdle puppy wuppy."

"Up yours," she said without heat. "The animal is clean and healthy. Anyway, I got him for Jack. He needs something cute and soft, and itís just not me. Iím late. My cell number is posted by the phone. Donít screw up. I mean it." She left in a swirl of jacket and a slamming door.

In the silence, Sandburg wiggled his eyebrows and whispered, "See? My life could be so much worse." He raised his voice, "Jack? You okay?"

The puppy-óa dull brown ball of fur with floppy earsó-darted past Jim as Sandburg headed down the hall.

"Come on in, guys. Letís make some decisions about dinner. Thereís a lot of leftover turkey. Or we can order out."

Kelso was still in bed. He was looking perkier, and every square inch of the blanket was covered in journals and loose papers. Jim closed his eyes and sniffed experimentally. Two days had brought some improvement. The wound was clean. The pain medication was at a lower dosage.

Not bad, really.

When Jim opened his eyes he caught Jack watching him avidly. Jim smiled just slightly, and Jack nodded, accepting the silent report. "So Tropical Storm Marcia has left the building?" he asked.

"Yeah. Sorry we were late. Was this an assignment for the new job?" Sandburg said.

"Nope. It was a date."

"Youíre kidding," Jim said, belatedly realizing that he has said it out loud. "I mean, Iím sure it will be good for her... er... mood." In retrospect, that wasnít an improvement.

Sandburg rolled his eyes. "You are *such* a caveman. A woman is grumpy and you assume she needs to get laid--"

"Well thank you for that image," Jack interrupted. "Sheís practically my sister. I do not need to picture her, ah, being...."

He blushed and skidded to a halt. Quickly, Sandburg asked, "So whoís she seeing? Another sentinel?"

"Your Detective Taggart. If he breaks her heart, by the way, Iím holding you two responsible."

Jim gasped. "Joel?" He couldnít picture it. Joel wasnít a stupid man.

Sandburg just nodded. "Actually, that answers a lot of questions."

Jim wondered if the question Blair was thinking of was, "why has Joel been exhibiting symptoms of insanity?" but he didnít ask it aloud in front of Marciaís guide.

The puppy whined and nudged at the side of the bed. Sandburg leaned down and picked it up.

"Donít let him on the bed," Jack said quickly, motioning to the scattering of papers and books and magazines heaped around him.

Sandburg turned the puppy over so he could pet its stomach and said sympathetically, "I bet youíre counting the days."

"Until the stitches come out? Hell, yes. You realize that is what is freaking out Marcia so badly; I cannot move without risking tearing something. Sheís afraid Iíll get impatient and...." He sighed and shook his head. "Iím starting to have some real energy, finally, and it still hurts too much to try to type. Oh!" He brightened suddenly and began to dig through the piles of paper. "This may be what youíre looking for."

Sandburg passed Jim the dog and took the journal Jack handed him. It was open to an article titled, "Muddied Perspectives and the Danger of the Touchy-Feely Guide."

"Ouch," Blair said, skimming the first page.

"What is it?" Jim asked. It looked like gibberish.

"A really nasty slam on an article Jack published last June."

"Flip over two pages. Iíve marked a section," Jack said. "I think this might be a man you want to talk to."

"Wow," he said after a moment. "Welló-is this true?" He turned to Jim. "This guy runs a crime lab in Las Vegas. It says here he has four sentinels in his department." He turned back to Jack. "Nobody has four sentinels. Not in the same department. Itís too expensive. Not even New York or LA does that."

Jack held up his hand, fingers spread wide. "Five," he said. "The author is also a sentinel."

"But that doesnító" He flipped back to the first page and pointed to the initials following the name. "M.A.," he said. "LG(A). Heís a guide. Is that allowed? You canít be both."

Jack shrugged awkwardly. "Thereís no law that says a sentinel canít go to guide school."

"Right. No. But he canít get around OSHA and guide himself in the field."

"No, every year he takes a new graduate doing practicum."

"A different guide every year," Blair whispered. "A different novice guide every year."

"And heís listed as the guide of record for a sentinel in the local coronerís office."

"Holy crap," Blair whispered. "How can he-óbut of course, thereís no rule against it. But....sentinels donít work in groups."

Jack shrugged with his good shoulder again. "So they say."

"Have you met this guy?"

"No, but I would like to."

Jim didnít quite understand what they were talking about. Or rather, he understood, but he didnít see why they seemed so excited. "So, about dinner?" he said. "How about I go pick up some Chinese?"

Jack looked up. "Oh. Right. ĎHarold Wooísí is very good. Vegetarian, but itís sentinel quality food, and Marcia wonít read me the riot act when she sees the empty take-out boxes."

Jim got directions to the restaurant and left the two guides talking shop.

When he got back with mushroom dumplings, tofu chow fun, stir fried mixed vegetables, and fried rice there was a strange car in the driveway. He was out of the car with his weapon half-out before the sound of Blair saying, "folding tables around someplace. We can drag in a couple of chairs and set up for dinner in the bedroom."

Jim stopped so short he nearly tripped over his own feet. What the hell was that? He'd gone straight into a search and rescue state of mind. He hadn't noticed being stretched quite so tightly. Talk about a hair trigger--

But. Surely. It was only natural to be protective. Kelso was almost completely defenseless right now, and Sandburg, while smart and creative, was also small and untrained. Neither of them was in a position to fight off an intruder. It made sense that Jim would be cautious.

Which was bullshit. Resolutely, Jim turned back to the car and retrieved the bags of dinner. He was being paranoid. No big surprise. The whole thing with Brackett was fucking with his head. Heíd had years to see what happened to peopleó-victims of war, victims of crime. Being any kind of victim tended to mess people up. Sometimes badly. Possibly, Jim shouldnít be walking around armed.

In the house, Sandburg was saying, "ó-sort of thing has to happen all the time."

"Thatís just the problem. It does happen all the time. Or it did, until he got fed up with it and stopped trying." Jim recognized the voice, the guide from the other day, "Then this damn water park came along, and he just couldnít resist."

A normal conversation. Peaceful. See? Nobody was a threat to his guide. The background sounds were moving furniture, not violence.

Kelso sighed, "And heís been passed over again."

"Oh, worse than that," Sheppard said. "Wordís gotten around that they didnít even *look* at Rodneyís designs. His reputation is so bad they were afraid that it would Ďscare away investorsí to have his name on the project. Damn it."

"Wow," Sandburg said sympathetically. "Thatís really cold."

"I saw the CAD drawings," Sheppard said softly. "It was incredible. Thereís nothing like it ever before, and they canít possibly match...." A long pause. "He had roller coasters. In water, roller coasters. He designed sluices and jets pushing water uphill fast enough to carry a three-hundred pound person uphill at fifteen miles per hour. He had a wave pooló-not like other wave pools, believe me. *Impossible* wave pools. One was half the size of an Olympic swimming pool, but you could have surfed in it. Another was in sort of a cavern with colored lights. There was a flume more than half a mile long, through canyons and fountains. It was magnificent, Jack, and-ódid I mention, under budget? I ran the numbers for him. His costs were only two-thirds what the developers wanted to spend. And they wouldnít look at it."

"Rodney must be devastated," Jack said sympathetically. "John, I wouldnít leave him alone too long."

"*What*? Jack, heís not going to do anything stupid! He isnít--he isnít going to hurt himself. This is Rodney McKay. But after this, he has earned the right to have a tantrum and throw things if he wants to without anybody there to watch."

Somehow, it wasnít shocking to discover that when guides were alone they spent it fretting over sentinels. Jim rang the bell when he got to the door so that they wouldnít feel crept up upon.

"Hi," Sandburg said, opening the door. "It was open."

"Iíll forget you said that, Junior," Jim said. "Letís pretend you have some common sense and an impulse toward self-preservation. Everybody hungry?"

***

Continued in part three...