New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

Imperfections VII: Running up That Hill
Part Three
by Dasha

See part one for notes and disclaimer.

Sandburg had only been working with the PD for a few months, but it turned out he already had a number of funny cop stories. Most of them were also sentinel stories. Canadian guide licensing procedures (and the Canadian sentinel who managed for a couple of years with a wolf as his acting guide) were a source of appalled hilarity. So was the story of the guy Jim had pulled over for speeding last month, who, when he saw Blairís badge that identified him as a guide, pissed himself and confessed to possession.

As Jack had promised, the food was very good. Sandburg and Sheppard ate quickly. With half his food still on his plate, Jack began to flag. His breathing was fast and shallow and he was holding himself very rigidly. Jim set aside the table with his plate on it and then retrieved Jackís tray and placed it on the dresser. "What do you need?" he asked softly.

"I canít put off using the facilities any more. And then I need to lie down," he murmured.

"How do you want to do this?"

"Iím vain enough not to want John involved, and youíre stronger than Blair."

Jim straightened. "Clear out, kids," he said, cheerfully waving them away. They collected the detritus of dinner and were gone in half a minute. "You in any pain, here, Jack?"

"No, Iím okay."

"Will I hurt you if I just pick you up and carry you to the bathroom?"

"It will be the most fun Iíve had all day."

It took longer than Jim would have guessed, but it was also less awkward. That was entirely Jackís doing, of course. He handled his own weaknesses with the same grace he gave to everyone elseís. He gave simple instructions and didnít seem to notice issues of intimacy or embarrassment, even while Jim was helping him change clothes.

"Set me on my stomach, but only set the alarm for an hour. I mean it, Jim. Donít be Ďkindí and let me sleep too long like this."

"No, I wonít," Jim whispered. It was too much work for Jack to breathe on his belly like this. Jim already didnít like the way he sounded. "Are you all right?" "I have to change positions. Iím spending too much time being still. The stitches...." The stitches limited his movement to practically nothing, risking bedsores or pneumonia. Almost as bad, the limited exercises he could do werenít enough to protect his muscle mass. Beneath the serene, reasonable exterior, Jim could smell frustration and fear.

Jim removed Jackís glasses and set them aside. "Just a few more days, and then you can start to work recovering. The stitches smell fine."

In the kitchen, Jim found Blair and the other guide feeding the puppy. "Everything all right?" Blair asked worriedly.

"Yeah, actually. Heís doing better even in just two days. But Marciaís right not to leave him alone."

Sheppard folded his arms and studied the floor thoughtfully. "Whatís with the dog?"

Blair shrugged. "Marcia said she thought Jack needed something affectionate."

"Right. So she chickened out and bought a puppy." He began to pace. "She has to learn to relate to people. For herself even more than for him. Instead of taking a risk, she goes to a pet store."

"How is she going to live with that in the house?" Blair asked. "I mean, thatís a huge sacrifice for a sentinel."

"Itís not so bad," Jim said. "I mean, I could learn to live with that. I learned to live with algae shakes."

"Rodney has a cat," Sheppard said. "The litter box is on the balcony. Thereís a little pet door in the window. Actually, the cat has been very useful. Marcia might get as much as Jack will out of-ówhatís his name?"

Jim glanced at Sandburg. They both shook their heads. "No idea. ĎHey, you'?"

They looked at the mud-colored puppy, which was now making a mess of his water.

"This could be a good thing, in the long run." He sighed. "Iíve got to go. Rodneyís been alone for more than two hours by now."

***

It had started to rain. Blair spared a thought to hope Joelís plans for the date didnít include a walk on the wharf or something.

It turned out Jim had never seen "Smillaís Sense of Snow." Besides being the best sentinel movie ever made, it had some very nice discourse on identity construction, marginalization, and minority relations. And besides, the babe playing Smilla was really hot. Blair popped Jackís copy in the VCR and settled with Jim on the couch. He wondered how Marcia was doing on her date.

About twenty minutes into the movie Jim frowned and glanced in the direction of the bedroom. Blair paused the movie, but he didnít hear anything. "Iíll be back in a minute," Jim said, calmly. He was moving pretty quickly, though, and Blair wondered if he should be worried.

He still couldnít hear anything, and Jim didnít call for help. Blair sighed and flipped through the copy of American Anthropologist Jack had given him. Jim could handle it, whatever was wrong.

It was odd, thinking of Blairís sentinel and Blairís advisor. It wasnít usual. Of course, it wasnít as usual for Blair to be as involved with his advisorís life as he was. Or vice-versa. Until Jim had come to the anthro department at Rainier, Jack Kelso had just been the Graduate Director, one of a dozen professors Blair had had in class.

Jack was a better guide than Blair. He had a lot more experience. Jim and Jack shared a lot of ugly covert operations background that Blair could only guess about. They had a lot in common.

Blairís supervisor and Blairís sentinel.

His thoughts shied away. Blair ruthlessly dragged them back. This ugly, unsettled feeling was jealousy. Completely inappropriateó-repulsive and potentially disastrous besidesó-and senseless. When the hell had he developed this controlling, possessive streak? Not growing up with Naomi, that was for sure. It wasnít like Blair had any kind of claim on either Jim or Jack. And Jack really needed as many sentinels as possible watching out for him just now. Jimó-it wasnít like there was any question that Blair would be enough to solve all of Jimís problems. It wasnít like Blair wasnít constantly pushing Jim to make more friends and get closer to people.

And it wasnít like Jack had an eye on snaking Blairís sentinel. Jack had a sentinel of his own (and wasnít she a handful?). Jack was mostly interested in working in research anyway. It wasnít like he *could* work in the field with Jim, even if heíd wanted to.

Which he didnít.

All of which was true and none of which made that anxious little Ďmineí feeling go away. Crap. Where had Blair picked up this nasty impulse that wasnít good for anyone? And what was he going to do about it? Andó-hey!ó-how come nobody had *warned* him about it? Heíd been warned about federally trained sentinels and guides, and how they tended to be subject to weird, controlling, co-dependent, and otherwise dysfunctional relationships. Heíd been warned that sometimes when one or the other of an established team started to date it brought up any lurking abandonment issues. But this situation had never come up.

On the other hand, how often would it happen? Most supervisors read a report every month and did a couple of site-evaluations and that was it. Inexperienced guides like Blair didnít get assignments as difficult and delicate as Jim. Because of his research and expertise, Jack had more friends who were sentinels and guides than most people did, so he was more used to having a large pool of colleagues than most guides. No doubt, this situation was unusual.

Blair's reaction, though, was improper. And dangerous. Blair needed Jackís help and so did Jim. And right now Jack needed them. This shameful anxiety-óthat, what, they were going to abandon him?--was just unacceptable.

Unprofessional.

Immoral.

Wrong.

The pause timer expired and the movie started again. Blair hit stop and turned off the TV.

Jim came back and sat on the couch without a word.

"Is he okay?" Blair asked softly.

Jim nodded. "He canít get scared in front of her," he whispered. "And heís a lot less scared than I would be, in his place, but heís having a hard time."

"Do we need to do something?"

"What? Oh. No. Heís sleeping. I think... Heís not in danger. Heís... heíll be all right. Itís justó-you remember what Pierson said? About guides not being able to live normally because theyíre being cheerful and gentle all the time. Blair? Are you--? I mean, how much are you not letting me see? Or letting yourself feel--?"

"Jim. I freak out regularly. And you usually know about it. They teach us how to cope with stuff. Stress and anxiety and, ah, being really *really* stupid. Itís part of the job. So donít worry."

Jim sighed and flopped backwards into the couch cushions. "This whole sentinel thing..." he said sourly.

"Not all of the problems come from that," Blair said.

"No, no, there are plenty of problems--" Jimís head shot up. His eyes widened with horror and he slapped his hands over his ears.

"What? Whatís wr--"

Jim clapped a hand over Blair's mouth. "Sheís home," he mouthed broadly, and then cringed. "Goodnight kiss."

Oh. TMI. Blair really wouldnít want to hear Marcia and Joel ending their date, either. He hoped she wouldnít screw things up too badly. She wasnít a bad person. She deserved a nice date.

When she came through the door three minutes later, she was smiling. Maybe things hadnít gone badly. He wasnít going to ask Jim for details, though, no matter what. It was rude. Besides, there were things he really didnít want to picture Joel doing. He had to work with the man.

"You werenít out very late," Jim said, giving no indication that heíd heard her come home.

"His beeper went off. Apparently, thereís been a break in one of his cases." She shrugged. "How are things here? Did you trash the kitchen?"

Thursday

At ten oíclock a new folder landed on their desk. A series of home invasions in Elwood, a retirement community overlooking the sound, had gone from a robbery case to a homicide case with a messy double murder when a couple of residents woke up and caught the burglars in the act.

Since Robbery had had no luck so far and murder was now involved, the case was passed to Major Crime. The crime scene was a disaster. The elderly couple had put up a struggle, and even Blair could see that the intruders hadnít come prepared to kill. Theyíd used a fireplace poker and a plaster bust of Mozart as murder weapons, which didnít show a lot of advanced planning. Theyíd found the family jewels (hidden in the flour), but missed cash (locked in the desk), and dropped the coin collection, which meant a couple thousand dollars in small, highly portable items were scattered under the couch, television, and china cabinet.

The living room, hall, and kitchen looked tossed, which they had been. The house also looked like the scene of a fight. Ditto. Outside there were footprints, a cut in the eight-foot fence surrounding the neighborhood, and motorcycle tracks in the dirt beyond the fence. It was a very complex, confusing crime scene. It took Jim three hours to locate and tag all the bits of evidence for Carolineís people on their sweep.

On the way back to the SUV Jimís hands began to shake. Blair sat him in the passengerís side and dug out a baggie of granola from his backpack. "We missed lunch. Headache?"

"Not bad," Jim said. "That was kind of intense."

"Hmmm. How long were we out there?" Blair asked neutrally.

"I dunno. Forty-five minutes?" He glanced at his watch. "Itís after one?"

"Huh," Blair said. Jim didnít usually show this much extended focus. A three hour controlled zone was a nice bit of work. "Letís go get some lunch."

The afternoon went just as well. They did surveillance work on a suspect of Joelís. They came up with nothing, but not a useless nothing, since this probably wasnít the guy they were looking for after all, and they could stop wasting time on a dead end.

It was after six when they got home. Blair was exhausted, much more tired than he had any right to be after a normal-length day of just watching Jim walk around in circles or sit still, listening. He slumped onto the couch and undid the tidy ponytail he kept for the PD. Today was Thursday, and they were scheduled for a weekend off. Although, really, you couldnít count on that, not when spectacular and horrifying crimes didnít take weekends off.

He could still see the blood on the floor of that tidy little bungalow. The nice old couple who had tried to fight back. Ew.

In the kitchen, Jim put water on for pasta and took two pints of frozen sauce out of the freezer. They were going to have to cook again soon. This weekend would be good, if they did have the time off.

One day until the weekend, but that was sketchy. Two days until Jackís stitches came out. Seventy...three, two, one... seventy-one days until Lee Brackettís next court date. Seven months until the probationary period was over and Blair was a guide working without a netóand wow, wasnít he ambivalent about *that*?

"Five minutes, Chief," Jim called from the kitchen. "You want to set the table?"

Blair grunted agreeably and stood up. When he was half-way to the kitchen there was a knock at the door. "You expecting somebody?" Blair asked. Jim only gaped at the door in astonishment, which Blair took to mean, no. He reversed himself and went to open the door.

Stephen Ellison was standing on the other side. "Oh," Blair said, his mouth going dry. "Hi. Stephen, right?"

"Mr. Sandburg," Stephen said, smiling thinly.

"Stephen," Jim said, coming out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dishtowel. "How nice of you to stop by. Do come in."

On the other side of the threshold, Stephen shifted and stammered. "No. No, that is, youíre about to sit down to eat. I donít want to--"

"Nonsense. Thereís plenty. Sandburg, get an extra plate." Jim smiled. It was a genuine enough smile, but it was cold and rather predatory. Confused and not a little worried, Blair got another plate. Jim came over and took his brotherís light raincoat and hung it up. "Why donít you have a seat? Dinner is almost ready. We could open some wine? Or beer?"

While Blair got out the good parmesan cheese, Jim served his brother beer in a glass. Jim never bothered with a glass, not even for company. It was like heíd suddenly been possessed by Martha Stewart. Except, somehow, Jimís genteel service seemed to have nothing to do with either hospitality or domestic vanity.

Blair couldnít help but think of all the questions this was *not* the time to ask. Everything heíd wanted to know about Jimís family and childhood. Where the heck Stephen had been all this time. What Rucker had said at Christmas just wasnít enough.

But now was not the time. Jim, serving up the sauce in one of the chunky pottery bowels, was asking casually, "So what are you doing these days, Bro?" Jim had the same look he had when he was asking suspects questions to which he already had the answers.

"Woodward and Goldman is refurbishing the racetrack. Iím the project manager on that. And, of course, weíre finishing up the Bear Island job. Iím splitting my time right now."

Jim nodded. "Enjoy your work?"

"Iíd rather get back to marketing, actually. It was more creative work."

Jim nodded. "Cheese?"

Stephen was sitting very stiffly. "No. Thanks. Iím fine."

"Iíll take some," Blair said, regretting that he couldnít think of anything to say that would have broken the tension. Jim passed him the cheese without looking away from Stephen. Blair took some, reflecting on the irony that he wasnít actually hungry at this point.

"Chloe is graduating kindergarten this spring, Jimmy. Iíd like her to know you."

"How is she doing?" Jim asked thoughtfully.

"Very well." Stephen smiled almost shyly. "She likes shapes. And animals. I think kindergartens are much more exciting than I remember. Ah. St. Anneís is an excellent school."

"Have they tested them yet? Itís hard to be conclusive until about the third grade, but itís better to get an early start. From what Iíve read, the Pendleton Evaluation is very effective for younger children."

Stephen looked startled and a little uncomfortable. "Tested. You mean, for... for heightened senses."

"I realize itís a bit of an embarrassment, but pretending the problem doesnít exist will only make it much worse in the long run."

Stephen stared at his plate for a long moment, then put down the fork he hadnít used yet.

"Embarrassment. Being a sentinel. You know, Jimmy, I really donít understand." He stopped, uncertain and unhappy. "I donít understand. Of all the things you would be mad about, why are you acting like Iím ashamed of you? Like youíre some kind of dirty little family secret. Iíve spent my whole life trying to live up to you--" He shoved back the chair and stood up, fleeing to the windows.

Blair glanced at Jim, but he was unreadable. "Okay," Blair said softly, unsure if he should interfere, positive that things couldnít get too much worse. "Anybody want to tell me whatís going on here?"

"We have issues." Jim took a bite of spaghetti, chewed, swallowed. His calm was deliberate and controlled, but didnít quite reach his eyes. "When we were growing up, Dad kept us in line by making us compete for things like affection and approval. It was a hell of a motivator."

Blair felt his stomach sink. "Oh," he said. It wasnít really a surprise, not completely.

With his back still to them, Stephen said, "Whenever I screwed up-óand it seemed to be all the timeó-Dad threw my perfect, brilliant older brother in my face. And I hated him for it."

Yes. Of course. It hadnít just been Jimís sentinel abilities his father had totally distorted. Emotional abuse... .

"Sometimes," Stephen said, "I used to wish heíd just disappear. Well. And then he did."

Jimís hand began to shake. He nearly dropped his water glass as he put it down.

"Right," Blair said. "Okay. I think Iím going to go for a walk--"

"No," Jim said. "This is your home."

"Right. And if any of my relatives show up wanting to unpack twenty or thirty years of really nasty emotional baggage, I hope youíll be kind enough to, oh, for example, call Marcia and see if she needs any shopping done. Or anything." Blair snagged his jacket and backpack. "Iíve got my cellphone." He ducked out the door and shut it behind him.

In the hall he paused to breathe. God, what a mess. He wasnít sure he ought to abandon Jim like this, but he wasnít going let Jim use him as a shield to avoid confronting his brother. And he wasnít going to be a pawn in some argument about sentinels.

Well.

He would clean up the mess later.

He got into the car and called Marcia. She didnít need anything from the store. To fill the time, he drove to a pancake house and got out the journal Jack had lent him. Thinking regretfully about Jimís homemade spaghetti sauce, he ordered a sandwich and decaf.

"Recent research which has linked sentinel health and professional performance to perceived emotional attachment of the guide has drawn attention to several very important and potentially hazardous problems, but the solutions proposed to correct ongoing failures in American guide technique will not resolve the most serious issues and, in addition, carry serious dangers of their own. It is not in question that how safe a sentinel perceives himself to be in the hands of his partner has a concrete effect on sensory acuity, physical health, emotional balance, and focus. If a guideís skills are mediocre, then a committed, emotionally involved guide is more likely to inspire confidence than an apathetic one. Rather than risk clouding a guideís judgment with wild emotionalism, however, it would be wiser to address sentinel anxiety with guide competence. A sentinel doesnít need a guide who is affectionate or sentimental. He needs a guide who is careful, knowledgeable, and observant."

Jack hadnít given the article to Blair for content, specifically. It was the author he was interested in. The article itself was more an essay than a research report. Blair wouldnít have taken it seriously at all if the man werenít a sentinel himself, supervising four, and acting as a guide in an official capacity as well.

He cited some interesting research from India that suggested that anxiety played a role in disruption of sensory control and physiology. The Singh and Patel studies were longitudinal studies sponsored by a prominent university, so they might be worth something. On the other hand, there might be cultural differences in the manifestation ofó-or measurement of-óanxiety that made their research inapplicable to American sentinel experience.

The article was better than the usual old school conservative-guide grumbling. Even though Blairís concentration was shot (his thoughts kept straying to Jim and Stephen) it took only half an hour to finish it. Blair ordered more coffee, flipped through and read a report on Asmat friendship patterns and the construction of gender and object choice in south-central New Guinea. Then a study reporting new evidence that supported the hypothesis that Australopithecus was a scavenger.

After two hours, Blairís anxiety and curiosity finally overrode his discretion. If they were still hashing things out, he didnít want to interrupt, but if they had fought it was probably over, and Jim would need somebody there.

The lights were off when Blair opened the door. Jim was sitting on the couch, in the dark. That would have been more worrying if Jim werenít able to see perfectly well. He probably didnít even notice.

Blair hung up his jacket and came over to sit on the love seat. Not too close. Not saying anything. Telling himself, donít push, donít rush.

Jim said, "The newspaper coverage of Brackett. It was buried on page forty. But it gave a few details about, ah, about the negligence. Not a lot of details, but it mentioned that Iíd been hospitalized several times with uncontrolled zones and systemic reactions." Jim paused, a heavy, thoughtful silence. "You remember that reporter who kept pestering you in November? She wrote a general piece, outlining some of the medical conditions that kill sentinels."

"Oh. And Stephen read that."

"He came by because he wanted to apologize to me for... some things. He wanted to make things right. Before I died. Again."

"Oh," Blair said, deeply appalled. "Um. Youíre not dying."

"I explained that. I told him youíd taken care of that."

Blair nodded, wishing he could see Jimís expression. "Did you forgive him?"

Jim sighed. "How could I forgive him? We were just kids. Ió-and he didnít....I mean, how can you be angry at the shit kids do? Neither of us understood what was really going on then."

"Oh." So were things all right or not, Blair wondered.

"Sandburg, can you administer a Pendleton?"

"Yeah. Rainier has a contract with the public schools in the Martindale district. The graduate students do most of the work. But, Jim, at five you can get a Ďpositive,í but you canít get a reliable Ďnegative.í At five, sensory control is as patchy as motor control, and theyíre barely living in the same mental universe as everyone else most of the time. They canít always understand what youíre asking of them and even when they do, half the time theyíre playing a different game of their own. Itís not like giving a development test."

"Iím not demanding a miracle," Jim said.

They sat in silence for a few minutes more, then Blair got up and went into the kitchen, turning on one of the shaded lights as he passed. The dinner remains had been cleared away. The dishes had been washed and were drying in the rack. All the spaghetti had ended up in the garbage. Of course. "You hungry?" Blair called.

"No, thanks."

Of course. Blair poured a glass of milk, cut an apple, and spread peanut butter on the slices. Jim drank the milk without complaint and ate three pieces of the apple. It would have to do.

"How was Jack?" Jim asked finally.

"Fine. They didnít need anything."

"Oh. Good. Look, itís a little early, but I think Iíll turn in."

"Shower first," Blair reminded him.

Friday

Friday was all surveillance. Jim used to do this a lot when he was working with Lee. In one of those quirks of law, you needed a warrant for a wire tap or a search, but you didnít need a warrant to have a stake-out on a public street. Even when the sentinel was much more effective than Ďequivalentí technology. These days, the clever and/or paranoid criminals kept a white noise generator around, and that was legal. People still had a right to privacy, after all. If they closed their blinds and didnít carry on somewhere that could be heard by an unaided human in a public place.

All day, Sandburg was within armís reach and watching him. Partly, of course, this was because they spent most of the day parked in an ancient unmarked Chevy. In a bad part of town. In the rain. Mostly, Sandburg really *was* very alert and attentive. Maybe recent reminders of Lee were coloring Jimís perception, but Blair wasnít only unusually present. He also seemed unusually kind.

Heíd brought coffee and snacks. Every forty-five minutes or so, he handed Jim something to eat: buttermilk donuts (yes, really, from Sandburg!), pretzels, cheese sandwiches, peanuts, an apparently endless supply of small, black, organic plums.

Jim wasnít hungry, but the thought of food didnít actually make him feel ill, so what Blair put in his hand, he ate.

It wasnít just the food. As Jim sat nearly motionless, tracking Skerrit by ear so he couldnít sneak out the back, periodically Sandburg would crack or shut the window, changing the temperature slightly in the car and shifting Jimís attention. On and off he held Jimís hand. Not like a date trying to send a positive signal. He took Jimís hand palm up in both of his, hooked his thumbs around Jimís pinky and thumb, and gently opened the hand, spreading the center. Apparently he hadnít taught Jim all his pressure point tricksó-not that Jim could have used this one on himself. It relaxed him, first his hand, then the rest of him, his muscles going slack and long. A couple of times, he rubbed Jimís arm and whispered, "Deep breath. Come back for me, just for a minute. Again, Jim, nice and deep."

"Iím not zoned," Jim groused the second time Blair gently roused him with demands to breathe and make eye contact. The clock said 2:30, but it felt like heíd been sitting in that car with the rain tinkling on the roof listening to Skerrit watch television since the dawn of time.

Sandburg frowned interestedly. "No, it doesnít look much like a zone. But youíre in some kind of altered state. Your heart rate has been hovering in the low forties and youíve only been breathing about six times a minute."

Jim did the math. A breath every ten seconds hardly seemed possible. "Is that a problem?"

"It doesnít seem to be. Does anything hurt? Are you having trouble concentrating?"

"No."

"Whatís Skerrit doing now?"

"Pissing," Jim answered. It was the most interesting thing heíd done in an hour. The target had been alone all day. The only phone call had been a telemarketer. It might take days before the man contacted his partner, and if it continued like this, Jim would die of boredom.

"You hungry?"

"No," Jim said, wondering if this would stop his guide from feeding him.

"How about some coffee?"

At five-thirty, just as they were about to pack it in for the day and turn the watch over to another pair of detectives, Skerrit put on his shoes, picked up his keys, and dashed out the door through the rain to his battered truck. "Donít get your hopes up," Jim said, starting the engine. "With our luck he is just going out for pizza." One of the bonuses of a sentinel doing the surveillance was that you didnít have to park within a direct line of sight.

But, no, they got lucky. Skerrit met up with Bradford at a seedy pool hall downtown. They didnít say anything specific enough to be incriminating, but when they went their separate ways at seven-thirty, each one had his own personal tail. Jim, happy to turn them over to the next shift, took Sandburg home.

Saturday

Blair woke up alone in the loft. It was ten-thirty, long after they usually got up. When he found no sign of Jim downstairs, he crept up to the loft. If Jim were asleep, he would probably stay asleep through Blair's bed check. From the beginning, Jim had shown an amazing ability to sleep through Blair's movements around the loft.

Jim wasn't upstairs, either.

In the kitchen, he found the shopping list missing. Ah. The store, then. Well. Blair couldn't remember the last time Jim had been out of his sight. Days at least. More than a week? Maybe it was good to give him a few minutes alone.

By the time Blair had taken a shower and fixed himself a bagel and tea, Jim was back with the groceries. It took them three trips to bring them all up. Jim had bought beef bones and chicken necks to make home-made broth, cans of crushed tomatoes and tomato paste to make sauce, a large pot roast, a frozen turkey breast. While they unpacked, Blair sipped at his cooling tea. The prospect of a long Saturday cooking was very appealing.

Jim laid out recipes in order of cooking time and oven temperature. Cooking with Jim was a model of efficiency.

The phone rang just as Jim was pre-heating the oven to bake the bones before boiling. Beef stock took twelve hours. "Hello?" Blair said.

"It's John Sheppard. I'm at Jack's. We have a little problem. Jack says Jim is trained as a field medic."

Before Blair could answer, Jim had snaked the receiver from his hand. "What's happened?" he asked. "No, that shouldn't be a problem.....Yes....Yes. We'll be right there." Jim hung up and swept over to the oven to turn off the heat. "Get your coat, Chief."

"What happened?" Blair asked, opening the door.

"Marcia was trying to remove the stitches and freaked out with it half-way done."

"*Marcia* was trying to do it?" Blair asked, surprised.

"That part doesn't make much sense to me," Jim said. He shut the door and locked it in one smooth motion. "That's not usually 'do it yourself.'"

"Oh. It's a weekend," Blair said. "It's one of the things they teach us in school. If your regular doctor doesn't work weekends, try to avoid clinics and hospitals. The regular staff isn't on duty. There tends to be more mistakes. But it's been ten days and he wouldn't have wanted to wait, not if Marcia had enough training to manage it."

When they arrived McKay opened the door and waved them in. "Welcome to the madhouse. Iím sure you'll feel right at home."

Jim grunted (his polite grunt, not his contemptuous grunt) and charged past him through the entryway and into the hall. Isobel from the department was leaning against the closed door to Marcia's room speaking softly. John stood a little way away, his arms folded, staring at the floor. "She smelled a little blood," he said. "She got hysterical. Jack called us, but we can't calm her down. And I don't want to deal with doctors if we don't need to. As you can imagine, transportation is a big production right now. And we don't want to have to contain Marcia in a doctor's office."

Jim sighed at the closed door, then turned the other way and headed for Jack's room. The door was open. Jack was in bed, lying on his side, propped tightly in place with pillows. The bandage was off, and the healing wound revealed in two thin, red puckers. Without a word, Jim went to stand beside the bed, just behind Jack's shoulder. He leaned down and sniffed. "It's time," he decided. "These can come out. It looks like she got two already. You want me to do this?"

"Yes. Thank god. Jim, I appreciate--"

Jim silenced him with a hand on the shoulder. "It's a down payment, and you know it. Blair, come over here and hold the light."

"Are you having trouble seeing?" Blair asked, picking up the lamp from the bedside table and shifting the angle experimentally. It was more light than Jim normally needed.

"No, but I don't want to be fooled by uneven shadows." He looked over the first-aid kit someone--Marcia--had laid out on a TV table and tugged a pair of latex gloves out of the box.

Marcia came in with John holding on to her shoulders from behind. "Jim won't hurt him," John whispered. "You need to let him do this."

Jim tore open an alcohol swab and gently dabbed at the healing skin. Blair swallowed hard. His own extensive first aid training covered sentinel illnesses and reactions, not wounds and injuries.

John had an arm around Marcia's waist. He was expertly handling a sentinel who wasn't his own. Blair spared a thought to be impressed. "Actually," John said to her, "this is how we got to be friends with Jack. I had appendicitis. No symptoms, but I woke up at five in the morning to find Rodney pacing the bedroom frantically and calling an ambulance. I felt kind of crummy, but no big deal. He wouldn't take no for an answer. All the way to the hospital he berated the paramedics. In the emergency room, he jumped all over every doctor and nurse who tried to touch me. He was a complete basket case. We'd only been living in Cascade for about a year then, and with all the traveling we do, we didn't know many people. But we'd been interview subjects for Jack, and he was a competent guide. He came down to the hospital and practically sat on Rodney in the waiting room until I was out of surgery."

"Left with the light," Jim muttered. Blair glanced down and watched as Jim snared a tiny, blue knot with the medical tweezers and then snipped a stitch with the bent scissors in his other hand.

In John's arms, Marcia shivered. John continued, "Rodney's instincts were right. I went bad unbelievably fast. The appendix burst on the way to surgery. Your instincts are right, too. Jack isn't quite safe right now. You aren't upset over nothing. But if you let your feelings of fear keep him from getting help....You have to keep your head. Panic is not helping either of you."

Blair was watching Marcia. He saw her eyes go wide and her jaw go rigid. She turned in John's arms and began to weep. What the hell?

Beside Blair, Jim set down the instruments and firmly pulled Blair out of the way.

"What's wrong?" Blair asked. No one answered him.

On the bed, Jack began to cough very quietly. Almost at once, he gagged and choked, unable to clear his lungs. "Relax, relax," Jim whispered. "It's all right." He shoved the pillows away and lifted Jack onto his stomach. It didnít seem to help. The spasms that shook Jack were weak and almost completely silent. Jim slid an arm under Jack again and shifted his weight slightly. Jack coughed a little harder.

"Sandburg, give me some tissues," Jim said.

Blair pulled a wad of tissues from the box on the bedside table and held them out. Jim braced himself with one knee on the bed, rocked Jack back against him, and snatched the tissues in order to catch the tiny amount of thick mucus Jack managed to spit out.

Marcia was sobbing. She had sunk to the floor and was being held firmly between Isobel and John. She didn't fight them.

"Don't rush it," Jim was whispering. "Just relax. You're all right."

Jack didn't sound all right. He was coughing, but feebly, his abdominal muscles too weak to brace against. Jim shifted Jack's weight forward again. Jack choked, heaving silently for several long seconds before bringing up more mucus. He gasped and panted, exhausted, and slumped in Jim's grasp.

Jim tipped his head to the side, listening. "We're good here. Just relax. Sandburg, I need those pillows. Hurry, this is a really bad position for him. Let's get this finished." Despite his hurry, Jim's hands were gentle and confident as he positioned his patient and changed his gloves. "Light, Blair. Move it to the left. Just relax, Jack. We're almost done. Just three more. I'll be quick." Somehow, Blair had not expected Jim to be so calm and fearless in the face of mess and pain. In the field he was hard and uncompromising and dangerous. Focusing on his work, he gave no sign of this competent gentleness. Careful and certain, he snipped the sutures and tugged them free.

Before cleaning the scar again, he lifted Jack onto his back and sat him up. "It looks good. There's no tearing. Just rest for a moment here." Jim shoved a couple of pillows behind him, securing Jack in a position that made it easier to breathe.

"I've been waiting days," Jack whispered, turning his head so Jim could reach his neck with the alcohol swab. "I have a whole list of things I was going to do as soon as they were out." He closed his eyes and dropped his head back against the pillow.

"Soon," Jim whispered. "No rush. Just breathe." He pressed the heel of his hand against Jack's forehead for a moment, then turned away to clean up the instruments and bits of spent suture.

Blair set down the lamp. His hands were shaking a little.

John coaxed Marcia up off the floor and brought her to the bed. She crept on and curled herself into a little ball pressed against Jack's hip. Without a word, Blair and the others left them alone. In silent accord they trooped into the kitchen.

Rodney was assembling lasagna, carefully unfolding wide noodles and laying them in perfectly straight lines in a nest of sauce. "Nicely done," he said to Jim. "And better you than me."

Jim turned his head toward McKay slowly. Before he could say something rude--and Jim had the baleful look that often preceded something rude--Blair said, "I didn't know you cooked."

"Yes. Well. Marcia doesn't. You should see the soup they've been living on. One hundred percent nutritionally complete and completely inedible. Rather like cat food, except I wouldn't have fed her soup to my cat." He began to ladle sauce over his neat noodles. The puppy, waiting hopefully between Rodney's feet, was chewing on his shoelaces. "You can't have it either," he added.

"Well," Isobel said. Whenever Blair had seen her at the department, she had been well-dressed and poised: cheerful and pleasant, but tidy. Now she looked like a truck had run over her. She was wearing old sweats, no make-up, and her hair was coming down. "What do we do next?"

John pulled out a chair and sat down at the table. "The question is, can we leave them alone?"

Rodney, abandoning his lasagna to go check some vegetables he had roasting in the oven, said sourly, "Only if we don't actually care if they are both alive on Monday or not."

"Is it that bad?" Blair asked.

"Marcia is exhausted and sick," John said. "Emotionally, she doesnít know how to handle Jack. She's been faking it so far, but even if her own physical state weren't an issue, she couldn't cope with what she's feeling now." He looked from Rodney to Jim. "It may be moot anyway. As much as we all hate the idea, it may be time to put Jack back in the hospital. How bad off is he?"

"It's not pneumonia," Rodney said softly. "He smells like stress and exhaustion, but he doesn't smell like germs."

Jim's eyes were half-closed. "He needs to sleep for a couple of hours. Then he needs to move around. And drink a lot of water."

"Oh, speaking of!" Rodney went to a little teapot on the counter, peeked under the lid, and poured a cup of something so pungent that it made Blair's nose wrinkly half-way across the room. Rodney handed the cup to Isobel. "They're still awake. Make sure he finishes this. Now, while it's hot," he said briskly. He gave Isobel a stern look until she obeyed. "We can stay until after the doctor's appointment on Monday afternoon."

"We have to be in Florida by Monday afternoon," John said.

"We'll be there by Tuesday morning. Their stupid bridge isn't going anywhere. When you change the tickets, don't forget to change the rental car." He turned to Jim. "Isobel is great, but she's not a sentinel."

"We'll take care of it," Jim said. Blair nodded, although the decision had apparently been made completely without his input. None of the guides had been consulted at all. Blair wondered what that indicated, if it indeed indicated anything.

They left not long after that. As they went down the walk, Jim caught Blair around the waist and pulled him in for a brief hug without breaking stride. A little surprised, Blair asked, "Are you all right?"

"How are we supposed to cope, Chief? How are we *supposed* to handle...." Jim sighed. "I remember when it was you, dosed on the golden on that damn pizza, and I...."

"You understand why Marcia lost it today."

Jim nodded. "I'm surprised she held it together for so long. Jack is what keeps her world safe and reasonable. They're very close. If she lost him--"

Blair stopped and turned toward Jim. It was midday and sunny, but cool. "Jim, if something happened to me, you would be all right."

Jim stepped back, turned to flee.

Blair caught his arm. "You would miss me," he whispered. "You would miss me. But everything I have ever given you, *everything*, you would still have. And you would be all right."

Jim ground his teeth. "If you say so," he growled.

"Aw. Jim. You have to be able to think about this. I don't want you...I don't want you hurting. If I were to get into serious trouble, I'd want that really competent, calm guy I saw today. You were amazing, by the way. Jim...." But he didn't know what to say.

"Guides don't have the option of flipping out," Jim said.

"No," Blair agreed. "We have to be present."

"Can you teach me? Because I donít want to fall apart and endanger you."

"Sure," Blair said, having no idea how he'd keep this promise. How did Blair cope when Jim was sick or spiking? When Jim was in real trouble? Hell, sometimes Blair wasn't nearly as calm and reasonable as he ought to be. "We'll figure it out."

Jim turned toward the car. "There's no way we are going to get the broth done today. Should we freeze the beef bones?"

"We could boil them overnight. Twelve hours is twelve hours."

"We could give up and eat pizza next week," Jim teased.

"Or not. It won't kill me to spend the night dreaming about soup. Or you either."

But they didn't get any cooking done when they got home. Simon was waiting outside the door.

"You have a key," Jim said.

"And you have a cellphone," Simon said sharply, "which you are supposed to keep with you. Anyway. We've got a problem."

"What happened?" Blair asked.

"Brackett's escaped," Simon said.

Blair felt his breath leave him all at once. Escaped. Lee Brackett, not in custody, but out there somewhere. "What the fuck--" he gasped.

Jim, expressionless and swift, unlocked the door and ducked into the loft for his phone and gun.

"How did this happen, Simon? How did we lose him?" It was all Blair could do not to yell.

"I donít have all the details yet. He was being moved. I donít know why or to where. We found the vehicle two hours ago. The driver was dead. Rafeís got the case. When he couldnít reach you, he called me. Sandburg--"

"Damn it, Simon--"

"Chill, Chief," Jim said, shutting the door and locking it again. "Weíre on the clock here. Keep it professional. Who was transporting him, Simon? The Sheriffís Department? I want to see the van."

"Jim, Iím not sure you should work this case."

"I can handle it."

"It might be better for the case if you didnít."

"Simon, heís a fugitive. Heís facing trial. Weíre not building a case, nobody can claim Iím doing anything improper. Now, whereís the van?"

***

Concluded in part four...