New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

Imperfections VIII: One Warm Line
Part Two
by Dasha

See disclaimer and notes on part one.

The details of the traffic in endangered animal products were the stuff of nightmares. Really. Too many days of this and Blair would find himself a vegetarian. Hunting for sport? Completely incomprehensible. Hunting illegally for sport? Pissed him off. But that was small potatoes in the files Blair was reading now. Rhino horn? Four or five thousand dollars a pop. Not an issue here in Washington, but it turned out that a single bowl of bear paw soup would cost hundreds of dollars in parts of Asia. But the bear's gall bladder--gram for gram--had a street value twenty times that of cocaine. Then there were the bear bladders.

Bought by sick people, desperate people trying to get better. Blair was *right there* when it came to toting up the shortcomings of Western medicine, but damn!

"You okay, Chief?" Jim asked without looking up from his computer.

"Fine. Just thinking what Naomi will say when I tell her about this case."

"Hmmmm. For or against the brutal killing of cute and defenseless animals? I'm thinking against."

Blair managed a laugh. "You might be right there, Jim. Sometimes they just hack off the parts they want while the animal is still alive...."

"Yuck," Jim said. "Thanks."

Jim seemed okay. Probably was okay. Of course, after the meeting with Dr. Grissom, Blair was rethinking his idea of "okay." There had been a confidence about Dr. Grissom that Jim just didn't have. That none of the sentinels Blair saw every day had. Mike at the department, he seemed to have a whole 'regular guy' thing going that worked for him. By local standards, Mike was doing very well. Adrian was terrified of everything and, despite being right most of the time, the least certain person Blair had ever met. Marcia mainly bounced between angry and exhausted. Whatever strength she might have had, had been worn down by very ugly work and ignored illness. Rodney McKay, although possibly the most arrogant person Blair had ever met, somehow managed to have very little confidence at all.

Compared to that crowd, Blair had thought that Jim was doing very well. Even in the worst days working with Brackett, Jim had managed to function as a cop. When he wasn't in the hospital, he was doing competent work for Major Crimes. Aggression. Intelligence. Courage. Jim had kept all of that. Blair had watched him under cover, in car chases, tracking in an urban center, testifying. Jim was good. He was unbowed by authority and unhesitating in the face of danger. But. But mostly he was covering anxiety and weariness and confusion.

The certainty, the confidence that Blair had seen in Grissom's eyes, Blair had seen that in the FBI agent from Washington DC, and in Duncan Macleod. Sometimes in Ben Fraser. There was a way to be a sentinel and be strong and confident. Having enhanced senses didn't necessarily mean being uncomfortable in your skin. But Jim wasn't there yet. Not yet.

Blair closed the file on armadillo purses and logged out of the computer. Grissom and his guide had stayed very close together. She'd hovered. Lately, Blair had been paying very close attention to other sentinels and their partners. If he had had to guess, he'd say that Grissom was having trouble with his senses or his health. Even so, he'd been confident. Surprised by Blair's questions, unsettled by the idea of Lee Brackett, he'd still been centered and secure.

Confidence. Certainty. Not just control over their senses but not fighting their bodies. Blair had seen it too many times for it to be a freak accident. What Blair didn't know was how to get Jim there.

"Come on," Jim said suddenly. "Time to go. Wouldn't want to keep those wild and crazy Canadians waiting."

Ben and the Rays had a set of connecting rooms in one of the big hotels downtown. Ben opened the door, but Ray Vecchio pounced on them at once. "You like pizza, don't you? I don't want Chinese again."

Jim, looking very unwilling to be drawn into an argument, said, "Either is fine."

Ben looked at his partner narrowly. "Pizza is fine. I'm sure delivery--"

"Can't just pick some random delivery place. Yuck." Ray Vecchio seized Blair by the sleeve. "We're going to find some decent pizza. Be back in no time. You go ahead and get started."

In the blink of an eye, Blair was being hustled down the hall toward the elevator. Huh. Vecchio stabbed the down button four times and bounced on his toes.

"You know," Blair said experimentally, "The PD gets delivery from Watkins Pizzeria. I think we're in their area."

"Watkins?" Vecchio repeated. "You buy your pizza from a guy named 'Watkins'? I think I've heard everything now. What? Do they serve it with little cups of ranch dressing you can dip the crust in?"

"No, it's good pizza. His mother's from Chicago--"

The elevator dinged and Vecchio nudged Blair forward even before the doors had finished opening. "You know what? Never mind. Whatever. Watkins' pizza is just fine."

"So, I'm guessing you've been stuck at the hotel for the past two days?" Blair hazarded, going for light and friendly. "Bored much?"

"What? No? Why?"

"Oh, well then. Watkins delivers--"

Vecchio caught Blair's hand as he reached to halt the elevator on the next floor. "Yeah. Thanks, kid. Great. I need some advice."

"Oh," Blair said, surprised. "What about? Sentinels?"

"No, women. Of course, sentinels! Women are a piece of cake compared to sentinels."

"Oh, okay. Sure." Vecchio charged out of the elevator, and Blair scampered after. "Um, you realize, I've been doing this for--it's not even a year. Half a year. I'm not the best--"

Vecchio turned, pausing long enough to say, "I know three guides with actual training. The other two won't talk to me. You're it."

"Okay, right, wait a minute." Blair took out his cell phone. Watkins Pizza wasn't on speed dial, but Blair called from the station about once a week and knew it by heart. He ordered one vegetarian deluxe, one 'lottsa meat,' and one onion and pepperoni. He had it delivered to the hotel bar. "Let's talk."

Blair ordered a beer. Vecchio ordered a diet coke. "Benny's got a hell of a nose," he explained.

"Should I--?"

"Nah. He's too polite to ask you any awkward questions."

Blair wondered if he should say something. Instead, he just waited while the bartender passed their drinks over.

Vecchio folded his hands and looked down, his eyes on the condensation collecting in the tiny napkin under his drink. "Benny's hit a rough patch," he said. "And I don't know how bad it is."

"What's happening?"

"He's stopped talking to himself." Blair thought about that. He must have been too slow, because Vecchio took an angry gulp of his soda and said, "He's stopped talking to people who aren't there. He's stopped seeing invisible animals."

Blair gasped, "Oh, my god. You're kidding."

"See?" Vecchio nodded. "That right there is the other reason I can't talk to anybody else about this. Nobody else would see this is a problem."

Blair leaned closer. "What happened?"

"I don't know. If I knew, would I be asking for help?"

"You know something."

Vecchio deflated a little. "That's the thing. I can't. I'm not sure. It's been really hard, these last few months. Benny's had a bad time."

"The kidnapping messed him up?" In December, Jim and Fraser had both been part of a group of sentinels kidnapped for sale overseas. They hadn't been held gently, and Fraser had been a captive for a couple of weeks.

"No, no, he was okay after that. Better, anyway."

Blair nodded seriously.

"We went back to Chicago after that. For Christmas. I have family there, and Kowalski keeps an apartment. It's home base."

"Okay?" More nodding.

Vecchio took a deep breath. "So, we were out shopping. In a mall. Fraser sees some guy commit a misdemeanor. Only it turns out the guy is connected. Big time. Fraser decides to use this misdemeanor as, as, as a wedge? You know? A lever to take this guy down."

"Okay. Um, how?"

Vecchio shook his head. "We couldn't see it either. We had no idea what he was doing. Not me, not the Bag Lady, not the guys down at the PD--"

"Bag Lady?"

"Oh. Kowalski. Anyway, we fucked up. We all fucked up. Left Benny hanging with his ass uncovered and he got the shit beat out of him. You know?"

"How badly was he hurt?"

"Stitches. Bruised ribs. Bruised everything, he pissed blood for three days. But it wasn't the fight that got him down. It was the fact that we had no clue what he was doing at all. It was like we didn't know him. See, Benny, he saw through Warfield. He knew how to break him. He knew exactly what he was doing, but we didn't back him up."

"Wow," Blair said, "I guess that was really bad." Because what could you say when a guide messed everything up that badly?

"Benny never got mad about it. He couldn't figure out why we couldn't see what was going on. He didn't think he was being subtle about the plan. But he never... he's very forgiving, you know?"

"Yeah." Ouch.

"He's a good guy. The best. Never complained. Never got mad. Went right back to work."

"But you think he was mad?"

He shook his head. "I think he was depressed." He signaled for another soda. "But that's not all of it. Last month we had a big case. Huge. The kind that makes careers, you know? If we hadn't had three of those already?"

Blair nodded, waiting.

"There was nerve gas. This stolen Russian sub that turned up in the Yukon."

"You're kidding? That was you?" It had been all over the news.

He sighed. "That was us. There were a lot of Mounties. Some terrorists. An arms dealer that had been doing nasty stuff in Canada and the US of A for the last twenty-five years."

"Wow."

"He'd gotten away from Fraser's father. The arms dealer. Years and years ago. He killed Fraser's mother and then got away from his father. He was a Mountie, too, Fraser's father." He was talking fairly fast, his voice hard. This wasn't an easy conversation for him.

"Damn."

"Fraser brought the arms dealer in and turned him over, pretty as you please. And then he stopped talking to people who weren't there."

"What happened?"

"I don't know. I don't know what happened, but it messed him up."

"Have you tried talking to him?"

"He says he's fine. He's not fine, Blair. He doesn't sleep. He doesn't tell Inuit stories. He eats. He goes to work. He takes the wolf out, he's conscientious and everything, but he's not happy."

Blair thought of Ben, tried to compare the man he'd seen these past few days to the man he'd met in December.

"I know you know the animals are important."

Blair could only nod.

"But I can't go to the doctor or whatever and say, 'we've got a problem, my partner has stopped seeing the dead,' you know what I mean?" Vecchio leaned forward, spoke more softly. "I'll be honest with you. It happened to me a couple times. My father, he's been dead eight years. Except every once in a while he shows up and is *not* helpful at all. I can't imagine coping with something like that all the time."

"No," Blair agreed, wondering if everybody else got to see the dead and talk to spirit animals but him.

"But Benny--he seems to need it."

Blair nodded. "It's a good thing, I think. Seeing animals."

"So, um, do you...?"

"Just that once," Blair said, feeling ignorant and left out.

"So?" Vecchio asked, eyes burning.

Right, Blair thought bitterly. He thinks I'm an expert. "Does he have any friends who are sentinels? Have you talked to any of his former guides?"

"No. Well, yes." Vecchio sighed. "Buck Frobrisher. Not that he's ever what you call 'help.'" He paused. Blair, who was working up to an advanced state of horrified and astonished, didn't try to say anything. "He's a sentinel, used to work with Benny's dad, back in the day. He was with us when we caught up with Muldoon and the Russian sub. After the arrest, the whole way back, he was weird. He treated Benny like somebody died."

"Will he talk to you?"

"Not coherently." He sighed again. "The RCMP and the Canadian government spent a week debriefing us. After that, we went to see Fraser's sister. By dogsled, no less. And that was also weird, you know? When we came over the hill, she was outside waiting for us."

"Waiting for you?"

"She's a sentinel, too. She heard us coming. She starts crying. Benny starts crying. They were still both a mess when we left three days later."

"But, you don't know what--?"

"They didn't *say* anything. They told stories about their old man. They ate deer jerky. That's it. Except Benny's hurting. And it's not getting better."

"Look, all I know is that animals are important. Spirituality, it's a help."

"So what do I do?"

"Make sure he knows you're there. That you *want* to help, even when you can't."

"That's your hot shot advice, college boy?"

"Until you can get him to tell you what he needs, I don't see what you can do. I mean, I don't know what his spirituality is like. Is he protestant? Catholic? Hindu? Wiccan? Does he need Great Unction? A fast? A Blessing Way? A Sweat?"

"A sweat?"

"You know, a sweat lodge."

Vecchio gaped. "That's a spiritual thing? A religious thing?"

"Yeah," Blair said, lost and newly re-horrified at the idea of a guide with no anthropology training.

"He knows people who make sweat lodges," he muttered to almost to himself. "I thought it was a sports thing or, I dunno, an Indian thing. Damn." He drained the soda. "I can't remember where they came from. I only know their first names."

"I'm sorry I--"

"No, no, kid, this is good. This is a start. As soon as we finish this case we... He'll know how to find them. It'll be all right." He sighed.

"I don't know if it'll be that simple," Blair said.

"No. With Benny it won't be simple. But this is the first time I've even had a clue about where to start."

***

"Yeah, I know," Kowalski had jumped right in on the case, laying out photos and reports. "Polk and Marshall were small potatoes. Why would anybody waste The Mountie on a couple of two-bit lynx poachers?"

"Puma," Fraser corrected.

"Right. Whatever. And bears. But the point is, we're not after the little fish. We're after the big fish." He passed Jim a photo. "Know this guy?"

Jim took it. "Ho Ng?" he asked, impressed.

"A top banana among fish," he said, badly mixing metaphors. "Fish and Wildlife has been after this guy for years, but nada. He's sharp. So we're starting at the bottom."

"Or were, until we messed up your buy," Jim said.

Fraser shook his head. "Marshall was the 'brains.' Polk was of limited usefulness after his partner died."

"So, what do we know about Ng?"

"Well, here's where we run into a whatchercallit. A hitch."

"It's not what we know," Fraser said, "so much as what we think we know."

They had great documentation. Jim wondered who took care of that. Kowalski struck him as hyper and disorganized. Fraser was probably patient enough, but he might not be willing to lay down the law for organization. Vecchio? If he was going to take charge of the filing, Jim guessed it would be a weirdly idiosyncratic system. He flipped through the file on Ho Ng, the maps showing what the feds were guessing about the movement of illegal furs through the Northwest, the lists of arrests over the past year.

They were still going over the case when he heard Blair and the other Ray step out of the elevator. "No, I've never heard of that, either. But we need to stop talking. We'll be overheard," Blair said.

"Benny's hearing isn't that good."

"Jim's is."

"Oh. Right. So, how are things with you?"

"Long, long story, Ray."

***

On the way home, Sandburg asked, "How does Ben seem to you?"

"Kind of strange. But I think that has as much to do with being Canadian as with being a sentinel."

"Heh. No. Did he smell okay?"

"Are you asking if he's sick?" Jim asked, trying to think back.

"I don't know. Maybe. Why?"

Blair didn't answer and Jim prodded, "Something you're not supposed to tell me?"

"Guides consult. You know. It's not gossip. But we get advice. From each other."

Jim thought about Fraser. His movements had been fluid. His eye contact had been good. He'd smelled mostly like the furs and organs in the lab at the PD. "Vecchio need advice?"

"Oh, yeah. Big time."

"I won't ask you to break a confidence," Jim said. "You can ask Jack Kelso."

Blair laughed limply. "No, I couldn't. Jack would so not get this." He paused. "Ben has stopped seeing animals. And other things. Ray is worried."

Jim's stomach knotted slightly. "In a fair world, *not* seeing hallucinations wouldn't be a problem."

"It works for him."

"Yeah," Jim agreed. He wondered if all of the spiritual, psycho-drama shit 'working for him' was something he should envy. When he had parked the SUV, he caught Blair's hand before he could open the door. "I saw him. Fraser. Fraser's animal. In the woods the other day." Jim paused to breathe, wishing this didn't sound so stupid. "So he still has an animal, even if he's not seeing it."

"What? Oh, you said you saw a moose. That was him?"

"Caribou," Jim corrected. "Yeah. That was him."

"Wow."

Jim laughed, shattering the mood. "Well, if you can't do better than 'wow,' I give up." He got out of the car.

***

For having spent the last three days officially "off" they hadn't gotten a lot of rest, Blair thought, stuffing down a hurried breakfast. They weren't going to take all of Saturday off, either. Jim was a secondary on a series of home invasions. The pattern was unusually clear: Saturday mornings, posh neighborhoods, perps who efficiently took out the alarms and always went for the most expensive stuff. Jim wanted to get a feel for what went on in the neighborhoods on Saturday morning. Obviously, they couldn't put that off till after the weekend.

So they spent the hours between eight and noon driving slowly through really *nice* parts of town. They saw people washing their cars, kids playing in parks, a fistfight between two teen-age boys, a couple of really young kids and their inept dad trying to fly a kite with not nearly enough wind.

After the first half hour, Jim had Blair drive while he concentrated on the view out the window and took notes. When Blair glanced over, he saw a couple of license plates and the names of a couple of businesses written on Jim's note pad. "Why those and not others?" he asked.

Jim just shrugged, so Blair chalked it up to sentinel intuition.

When Jim called the weird patrol off, they went shopping for next week's meals and Monday's barbeque and then returned to the house to do the advance cooking. As it became clear that Kowalski really was going to keep calling every ninety minutes to ask if the bait had been taken yet, Jim gave up and asked them to dinner.

They arrived brandishing a newspaper-wrapped package. Ray Kowalski showed it proudly until Jim turned away the pointy end with the tip of his finger. "That's it?" he asked doubtfully. Blair had to admit, it didn't look like the most valuable thing in the world.

Kowalski grinned, waving it again. "Narwhal tusk. It's from our confiscation warehouse. This is worth about six thousand dollars."

Jim leaned forward and sniffed it. "You got to be kidding me. For a piece of bone?" Blair, unable to keep his hands off of it, gently took the white coil from them. "No, Jim, it's reputed to be an aphrodisiac." He wondered if his karma was being contaminated just by touching the thing. He wondered if it actually *worked* as an aphrodisiac. He wondered if it could be synthesized.

Not that *that* mattered. Blair hadn't dated in months, and there was no telling when Jim would be secure enough to share him.

Jim, looking a little irked, took the tusk away and handed it back to Kowalski. "Is that so? Do me a favor, Ray, and keep it away from the kid. He's liable to field test it. Sandburg, get them something to drink. I have to check on the sauce."

Everybody but Ben wanted beer. Blair kept two brands of premium water on hand; 'Sierra Springs' for Adrian (who only came over rarely, but wouldn't drink anything else) and 'White Mountain' so that Jim and visiting sentinels would have a choice.

While Jim was putting on his apron, Ray Vecchio laid his sports coat over the back of a chair and peeked into Jim's pot. "You know," he drawled, sniffing the sauce, "We're probably wasting our time here. It takes months to set up a sting like this."

"Well, you might be right. If that's the case, we'll just enjoy the evening and have a nice meal." He took the lid back and nudged Vecchio out of the way. Blair smiled his best non-threatening smile and handed them both a beer.

Vecchio didn't relent. "You know, you didn't have to go to all this trouble."

"Speak for yourself," Kowalski called from the living area. "We had desiccated meat for dinner three times this week."

Jim looked up to answer that, and Vecchio dipped a spoon into the sauce. "Mmm. This needs oregano."

Jim took the spoon back. "It's got oregano in it."

Vecchio smiled, and Blair wondered if he was being difficult on purpose. "I like oregano. Anyway, I'm Italian. You really wanna argue?" He handed Jim the bottle of dried oregano. "See? International cooperation." Blair, feeling like a terrible coward, ducked out of the room to deliver drinks to the others.

Kowalski was checking out the stereo setup, flipping through the CDs. It occurred to Blair that somehow, his and Jim's collections had merged. If Blair moved, they'd have a heck of a time separating out their stuff. "Where's Ben?"

Kowalski pointed at the doors to the balcony. Carrying the water and his own beer, Blair went outside.

Ben was out of uniform, a leather jacket replacing the screamingly red coat. He leaned against the low wall with a perfect stillness that said he was very far detached from the immediate environment. "Ben?" Blair said softly, wondering if he was all right. Fraser was resilient and capable and experienced. He was famous across the continent as an indestructible sentinel. He wasn't going to get messed up or endanger himself zoning out at a dinner party.

On the other hand, focus was one thing, letting someone come up behind you was something else. Usually not a good something else. "Ben." Blair moved up beside him. Still no response. He let the cold water bottle brush against the back of Ben's hand.

Fraser jumped as though it had been scalding, and then dropped his eyes. "I. Er. That is."

"Hey, it's okay," Blair said gently.

"The water sounds completely different at home." He was still wide-eyed and breathless, his eyes on the flat, blue bay.

"I bet it does," Blair said.

Still not meeting his eyes, Ben opened his water and gulped half of it down. By the time he'd finished, Blair knew what to say. "I need your advice."

"Ah," Ben said. "Poaching?"

Blair looked casually away, watched a sailboat out on the water. "No, sentinels."

"I'm sure you know more about that than I," Ben said blankly. "I never studied it formally."

Blair plunged on, even more certain than before that this was the right way to go. "There are some things we don't talk about down at Rainier. It's bullshit, but," he shrugged. "Some things are easier to ignore."

"Hm. Such as?"

"Animals."

Ben drained the rest of his water.

"Jim doesn't have the background to understand. Or fit it into his life. You know?" No answer. Blair plodded on. "What my mom taught me about spirituality was mostly about searching for it. Not what to do when it pops up and says, 'hi, want an invisible friend?'"

Level, patient, Ben said, "What is Jim's background?"

"Oh. Well. You know. Pretty much upper class WASP. Except Catholic, not Protestant."

"Ah," Ben said, an edge to his voice. "Very nearly soulless then."

Blair winced and hoped Jim wasn't listening. But even if Ben didn't need to talk to somebody, this was a conversation Blair needed to have. "Yeah, that about covers it."

Ben softened slightly, his eyes pitying. "He's afraid," he said softly. "Not being in control of his life? Or not being sure he will know what is 'real' and what isn't?"

"Both, I guess," Blair answered.

Ben nodded. "When I first came to Chicago...." He paused for a long time. "Well. I know those fears. But 'invisible animals' aren't a threat to autonomy or reality. Not really. They can't make you do things. They aren't hallucinations, or half as overwhelming as, say, an ambulance siren. The people from that other world, they're just people."

"People," Blair said doubtfully.

"Materially challenged," he conceded, not sounding the least bit ironic. "But not all knowing. Or all powerful. Or particularly wise." He sighed. "Sometimes wise, but not always."

"Oh," Blair said, suddenly thinking about Naomi's friend Angela, who channeled. Blair had long suspected that Angela's spirit guide was a nut job, although when he was very young he'd wanted to believe that he was wise.

"You've been there," Ben said patiently. "Where the animals are *us*. Were you any wiser?"

Blair took an involuntary step backwards. He had been there, once, chasing animals. When Jim had been kidnapped, Blair had tried to find him, but that had been more like 'soul loss' than 'spirit walking.' What good was the other world to him if he could only get there when he was half-mad with terror and heartbreak, practically chased out of his body by his own desperation? "I'm no sentinel," he said.

Ben's eyes were disappointed, but his words were still patient. "We don't see them because we're sentinels. We see them because we're human. Because we're sentinels, it's just harder to ignore." He closed his empty water bottle and went into the house, leaving Blair to trail after him.

In the living room it appeared to be story time. Jim had gotten out chips and salsa, and was alternating chips--one for him and one for Diefenbaker. The Rays looked on pityingly and jealously guarded their own bowl. They were telling a story about bodyguarding Tracy Jenkins for part of her American tour earlier in the year.

"Perhaps you can help us," Ben said when the story was finished. "We're looking for a public pool." He hadn't settled on any of the furniture, but was restlessly moving around the room.

"Hell, not again," Vecchio whispered. Kowalski put his head in his hands.

"The Seventh Street Y has a deal with the PD," Jim said. "Anything special you're looking for in a pool?"

"We're teaching Ray to swim," Ben said resolutely.

Ray Kowalski raised one hand. "I can swim." He added miserably, after a moment. "I can dog paddle okay."

Ben looked at him for a moment, then turned his back to him and said to Jim, "So, the Seventh Street Y, you say?"

Vecchio sighed. "You know he's right. We may be in town for days and this case isn't moving fast."

"I swim fine."

Vecchio shrugged, "You 'barely avoid drowning if you have a lot of help' fine. You know he's right about this. Let's just get it over with."

Jim got up to put the pasta on. His cell phone rang just as he was checking the water. The atmosphere of the room shifted. Jim waited two unhurried rings and opened the phone. "Hello." He listened for a moment, then his grin lit the room. His expression was at odds with his hard, unimpressed inflection. "Yeah, I'm your man. Number one man in the northwest. Get you anything you need." He snatched the shopping list pad from the fridge and scribbled down an address. "We'll be there," he said, clicking off.

Blair wiggled his eyebrows. "They took the bait? They took the bait."

Jim shrugged modestly and went back to the stove. "We've got a meet tomorrow morning."

Most of dinner was spent on a protracted argument over who was going to make contact. The conflict wasn't bitter or anything, but Blair should have expected that a bunch of cops would be competitive about this. Jim was absolutely adamant about going. Blair didn't have a prayer of getting onto the field here. He wasn't a cop. He'd never trained for the game. Still, he'd really rather not send Jim out without him.

But no, that was just his own separation anxiety talking. Or his own over-protectiveness. Jim was a cop. He had to do cop things. Do his job. Live his life. No, it wasn't safe, but there wasn't a cop who was safe undercover. It wasn't different for Jim than for anyone else.

Judging by the way the Mountie and his entourage were scrapping over who would be going with Jim to meet the next buyer up the chain, Jim had made his own case for 'inter-agency cooperation,' but that only settled half the question. Everyone wanted to go with him.

Both Rays agreed that Fraser was less than stellar undercover, and there was no way he could pass as a slimeball who sold the pathetic remains of butchered endangered animals. (Ben maintained that he could play as cold and ruthless as anyone, but no one else seriously considered it.)

Kowalski and Vecchio told progressively more embarrassing stories of each other's undercover disasters and then dissolved into open argument. "Stan, this is going to take some polish. Some class."

"Hey, there. I can do class. I can also do subtlety, which you should try sometime."

Blair had made brownies for dessert. While he was cutting them up, Vecchio and Kowalski arm wrestled for the second position. Blair considered suggesting they both go, but giving that even a moment's thought made him cringe. He wouldn't wish them both on Jim for hours at a time. They were nice guys, but kind of vivid. He did wonder why *they* didn't think of both going. Possibly, they were unwilling to leave Fraser alone.

Kowalski won the wrestling match, but Blair suspected that he'd cheated. From the dirty looks he was giving, Vecchio thought so, too.

The rest of the evening was spent making plans for the operation the next morning. Fraser was urging the use of a tracking device. Jim was sure he wouldn't need one, and he didn't want to risk tipping off the suspects. Kowalski repeatedly pointed out that the back-up included a sentinel who could track through cities; even if the tail car lost them, Fraser could find them. Vecchio sided with his sentinel, pointing out that if Benny was worried about losing them in traffic, they ought to take that seriously.

Ben sighed, rubbing his forehead with a thumb. "We appear to have a tie," he said.

Kowalski shot him a dark look. "The wolf doesn't vote."

Everyone turned to look at Blair. Horrified, Blair looked at Jim. Jim looked back. His gaze was level but not certain. He wasn't sure Blair would side with him. He wasn't sure Blair would accept his judgment. Blair, of course, had only opinions, not judgment. What did he know about sting operations? Or tracking devices? It wasn't his area. His area was keeping Jim safe. As interesting and important as the case was, it was Jim's safety that mattered most to him. He'd do anything for that. Trouble was, he didn't know how. "No homing device?" he asked, wanting just one more reassurance.

Jim nodded.

"Okay."

***

Later, when they'd gone and Jim had showered, Blair slipped up the stairs to the loft and sat down on the bed. He passed his hands over Jim's face and chest, indulging his own need for information.

"You talked to him," Jim said. He captured one of Blair's hands between his own and held it lightly. "How did he seem?"

"Tense," Blair answered. "Wound so tight I felt like he'd crack in half. How did he smell?"

"All right. Not as bad as he did after spending a couple of weeks in a five by four cell, anyway. What did you talk to him about?"

"Animals."

"Fuck," Jim muttered, turning his face away.

"I'm sorry. I know you wish the whole thing would just go away."

"It isn't you that's forcing the issue, Chief. It isn't you that can't use it worth a damn."

"What do you mean?"

"I missed the message. That's what happened. I saw the reindeer, but I didn't know what it meant, that Fraser.... I mean, if I have to live with this crap, that's bad enough, but I'm messing it up."

Blair sighed. "Yeah. Ben was talking about that. Apparently they're not always helpful. You know? It would have been nice if Ben's animal had descended from the ether to give you a message, but right now I suspect it was just dropping by to say, 'hi,' or something."

"Oh. Lovely. Because the whole senses-thing wasn't like one long, mostly pointless trip to Weirdville already."

Blair laughed before he could stop himself. "Sorry, sorry. But, jeez, Jim. Life mostly *is* Weirdville."

"Maybe for you."

Right, because chaos for Jim was a full-body sensory assault, a continual rain of uncontrollable input that might, at any moment, be interrupted by horrible pain or life-threatening sickness.

"Whoa, Sandburg. I didn't mean anything by it. Don't--don't smell like that."

"Sorry. Hey." Blair took a deep breath. He tried to take his hand back and move away so his distress wouldn't smell quite so vivid, but Jim held on tightly. "Sorry."

"And don't apologize. Hell. I sound like an ungrateful prick, I know that. You gave me my life back. You let me do my job. Really well. Better, probably, than when I was normal. I'm not... I'm not an ungrateful prick. Blair...."

"It's okay. It's okay, Jim. You're doing great."

"Thank you. I'm grateful. I know what you did for me. I do."

"It's okay. It's okay."

They were silent together for a few minutes. "Can you relax?" Blair asked. "Get some rest?"

"Will you tell me something?"

"Sure. Anything."

"Sentinels need guide attachment."

"They need to know about guide attachment," Blair corrected quietly.

"Right. Okay. What do guides need?"

Startled, Blair laughed. "I don't know. Jack didn't research that. I'm pretty sure he doesn't give a shit."

Jim waited. Even in the dark, unable to see Jim's eyes, Blair felt carefully scrutinized.

"They have a whole list of characteristics it takes to make a good guide. Tests you have to take, psych profiles and things." He sighed. "I failed some of those tests, Jim. So I don't know."

"I'm not asking what it takes to be good. I already know that you're good, Chief. I'm not sure what I'm asking. Maybe I'm asking what you need to be happy."

Blair felt like the floor had disappeared beneath him. Sudden, this was sudden. Good, but fast. Jim was paying attention to more of his world. He was engaging a really subtle question, a connection-with-other-people question. It was a very good sign, something important to support. But Blair hadn't seen it coming, and he didn't know what to say. "I'm... I'm happy."

"What do guides need?"

Blair scrambled for an answer that wouldn't be too flip or carry too much pressure. "I think it must vary a lot." He choked off, realizing that a bland answer--true or not--would kill Jim's exploration. "I think it must be like art," he whispered. "Doing the work is the reward. Looking at the result. I like my job."

In the dimness, Blair could see Jim turn his head away. "There's something. Isn't there? A rule. You can't tell me what you need."

"There are some demands I can't put on you. There are things it isn't fair for me to ask. You aren't responsible for meeting my needs in the same way that I'm responsible for meeting yours."

"Because it is presumed I'm not capable?" Jim spoke very slowly and carefully, as though he was choosing every word individually.

"No. Because it's not your job. Or because you getting your needs met can't be contingent on doing what I want you to do. Does this make sense?"

Jim didn't answer.

"Hey? I'm not suffering here. I have asked a lot from you. Mostly about not giving me extra shit or keeping problems from me. Both of which are really hard for you, and you've--"

"I get it, Chief. It's okay." He took a deep breath. "I just. I know you've--"

"I've what?" Blair coaxed. When Jim didn't finish the thought, Blair guessed at the right thing to say. "I've--what? I've been happy. Maybe the department was right, and I'm not the right guide for most people. But I'm the right guide for you. I'm good. And I'm happy."

Jim nodded. "Okay."

"Can you sleep?"

"Yeah. I can sleep. Big day tomorrow."

***

It was almost deja vu, being in the back seat with the wolf, staking out Jim. He'd exchanged Ben for one of the Rays and it was daylight, but other than that it was very familiar. Even the thermos of coffee was the same.

The ancient green Riv was parked by the pier just north of Sampson's point. Vecchio had a pair of binoculars. Blair had a camera. So far there had been nobody to take pictures of except for Jim and Ray Kowalski, who waited besides Jim's SUV. Ray was pacing, which made Jim's stillness look even more calm and unruffled.

A limo zoomed up. Blair couldn't get a clear shot of the driver, but he snapped the license plate as Jim and Ray got in.

"Cool," Vecchio muttered. "Stay cool."

Ben picked up a laptop from the seat beside him and woke it up. Blair glanced down at the screen and nearly choked. Ben was logging onto something called "FBI Global Tracking System."

"What are you doing, man?" Blair yelped. "Jim said no transmitters."

Ben's fingers didn't slow. "I'm not tracking Jim. I'm tracking Ray."

"What if they got detectors?" "Don't worry. We borrowed this equipment from the FBI. It's state-of-the-art and undetectable." A flat schematic with a blinking red dot appeared on the screen. "We have them."

"Kowalski is going to kill you, you know," Vecchio said, slowly pulling out after the limousine. "He's going to kill you and turn you into jerky, and I'm not going to stop him this time."

"You're exaggerating, Ray. Stan is going to do no such thing."

"You say that now. He's going to go ape shit. I hate to say this, but he's right. If you pulled this kind of shit with me--oh, wait, what am I saying? You do pull this shit with me."

"Now, Ray. I really think." He froze. "Oh, dear."

"What?" Blair demanded, not liking the sound of that 'oh, dear' at all.

"Oh, dear."

Blair looked over the seat. The blinking red dot was gone. "What happened? I thought you said that thing was undetectable."

Ben slammed the computer shut and stuck his head out the window. "Right at the corner. And right again."

***

Jim didn't like the smell of expensive leather. He wasn't sure why. Maybe it was a sentinel thing? Certainly, people were supposed to like the smell of expensive leather. Jim found it oppressive, depressing. He wondered what it was processed with.

In any case, concentrating on the depressing smell made it easy to fake bored.

Bored.

Rich.

A front man who sold very expensive contraband.

Jim didn't bother to look around the lushly appointed penthouse apartment. He didn't watch the suited henchmen with his eyes. Nothing here was new, and nothing was dangerous, nothing was even particularly interesting, not to him.

Kowalski was sitting on the edge of his seat. He was practically a poster child for 'jumpy.' Judging by the smell, though, not all of that edginess was real. Whatever. It seemed to work for him. A cop undercover would surely be pretending to be all slick and calm, not enthusiastic and twitchy.

They weren't left to wait for very long. A young man--Asian, average height, clean-smelling--came over and looked them up and down. He smiled coolly. "We have a problem here. One of you is wearing a transmitter." Jim wondered where this was going. "Now, why would we go and do something stupid like that?" "The signal's already been jammed. So, no one's coming to your rescue. Give me the transmitter or I'll have my men find it."

With a show of willingness, Jim stood up and spread his arms, opening himself to the bodyguard. "Help yourself." He tried not to think about some unknown thug pawing over him. He could already smell the man's cologne. Cloying, raw. God.

The smooth young man looked Jim over and pointed to Kowalski. "Him first."

Kowalski's eyes widened and he stood up. "Okay, fine." Then something shifted. Jim barely registered the hesitation, barely smelled the surprise. Kowalski sighed, nearly covering his agitation, and dug in his pocked for a handful of change. He selected a dime and handed it over. "Here it is."

"Clever," their host said. "I think you better leave. I don't deal with the police."

Kowalski snorted. "We're not police." Jim pulled out a charming smile and said, "That narwhal tusk is worth $6,000. Now, that's an awful lot of trust for some people we don't really know. That locator is just an insurance policy. I'm sure you can understand that."

***

On the way out, Kowalski chatted up the guard, giving Jim a chance to listen behind them. Jim heard enough to know that their host wasn't alone and that the second man was the one giving the orders, but Jim still didn't have any names, any evidence, any new leads.

In the limo on the way back, Jim concentrated on looking calm and unimpressed. Only after they had been dropped off and Blair and the others were slowly coming around the corner did Jim drop his posture and turn around to say, "What the fuck was that with the transmitter?"

Kowalski sagged as though he'd sprung a leak. His head dropped back. "He tagged me. The son of a bitch tagged me this morning when he refilled my coffee." This first he said to the sky. The rest he said to the chase car that was slowly and casually driving past. "That ain't buddies, Fraser. That ain't buddies, and it ain't partners. I am *so* going to kick you in the head! Do you hear me? And you're paying for the damn transmitter."

Sighing, Jim got into the car.

***

Even after returning the undercover car to the station and having a short meeting at a coffee bar on the corner, it wasn't even noon by the time they got home. Jim changed into jeans and a sweatshirt and dragged Sandburg off to the sentinel gym on Rainier. Although it was too weird to admit, he wasn't being dutiful. He wanted--actually wanted--to be blindfolded on a balance beam maze while Sandburg played haunted house special effects through the sound system.

He was getting some control. Most days the senses were more help than inconvenience. They hadn't made a *serious* attempt to kill him in months. He liked that. He wanted more of that. While he wasn't sure exactly what Sandburg wanted him to learn from all these sentinels he kept exposing Jim to, one thing he *had* learned was that life could be very good or very bad and the outcome wasn't completely out of Jim's control.

Creaky door. Blood-curdling shriek. Sound of water dripping.

Jim's toe came to a cross-section in the maze. Jim listened, straining to hear not the sounds, but the echoes and voids. There would be more maze in one direction. In the other, it would drop off in a few steps. But no. If there was a difference, Jim couldn't hear it. He selected a direction and slid his foot forward.

A racing heartbeat suddenly blotted everything else out. It was far too loud, and Jim tried to pull his hearing back, drop the volume. Instead of the heartbeat receding politely, all the rest of the sound in the room abruptly vanished. Vertigo struck like a punch in the gut and Jim was falling--

It wasn't a long fall. He landed mostly on a mat. Both of which were *good* because he landed badly, not catching himself at all, not rolling.

He jerked when Sandburg touched him, even though he knew by scent who it was. Blunt fingernails seemed to rake his face as the blindfold came off. The light that replaced it was painfully white. Christ, and maybe he'd broken a rib falling half-across the little balance beam, because it hurt to breathe.

"Don't move, don't move." Sandburg's voice sounded far away and under water.

Jim grunted an acknowledgment.

"Be still. You're okay."

"What the fuck--" What the fuck happened? Where did it all go, all of a sudden? Why was everything off?

"Easy. Just breathe." Hands on his scalp, lightly on the back of his neck. "Jim, I need to know where it hurts. Did you hit your head?"

"No. Maybe. No." The headache wasn't from being hit. It was from the senses going wonky. Shit.

"Wiggle your toes."

Slowly, very carefully, Jim got an arm under him and pushed off the balance beam. Three inches off the floor. Five inches wide. Padded, a little. Damn near a deadly weapon.

"Hey, easy. Jim? What happened, man?"

"Oh. I dunno. I think somebody came into the room. There was this heartbeat, only I could really *hear* it, you know? It was louder than yours--"

Sandburg was shaking his head. "That was the sound system, Jim. A heartbeat is one of the special effects. What happened, did it throw off your sense of scale?"

Jim sagged. "Yeah. Shit. Scale."

"That's okay. The unexpected threw you." An arm around his shoulders. A light hand on his arm. "You were doing great up till then. This is pretty advanced stuff."

Jim rubbed his side. He could feel the heat from the rising bruise, but now that his perceptions were settling down, he could tell that the bones were whole. "All right. Let's try it again."

"Nah. Let's call it a day. Jim. We've been here for three hours. Usually we don't even stay more than one. Come on. Usually, you're the one watching the clock."

***

The next day was Memorial Day, and Jim and Blair were having a barbecue. The guests weren't arriving until two in the afternoon, and Jim had a couple of open cases he wanted to make some calls on in the morning. They headed home at eleven-thirty because there was a lot they hadn't finished.

Drinks they had. Ice--picked up on the way home. Jim was going to grill hotdogs and hamburgers, so there was lettuce and tomato to slice. And potato salad, both German and with mayo and mustard.

Blair thought about food and tried not to think about the party. There was a lot riding on it. Way more than he wanted.

Simon arrived first. He brought Daryl and homemade cookies. Blair sent Daryl in to taste the potato salad for quality control and pointed Simon to the balcony where Jim was trying to get the grill to light.

He didn't make it back to the kitchen. Jack and Marcia were at the door. Even in a sundress, Marcia looked stern and superior. Jack looked all right, to Blair's practiced eye. His color was good and his shoulders were relaxed. Jack held out a casserole dish he'd been carrying in his lap. "Baked beans," he said--and then Marcia smiled a little, adding, "I had nothing to do with it, so they're actually edible."

Jack swatted her gently. "They're better than edible. Are we too early, Blair?"

"No, perfect," Blair said, finding Jack's steady presence grounding. Normal. Fine. Everything was normal and fine.

The doorbell rang again. Blair repeated it again (Normal! Fine!) and opened the door on Jim's brother and sister-in-law and niece. Blair smiled (Normal. Fine.) and took their fruit salad with one hand and Chloe in the other. This was the reason they'd had the barbeque in the first place; showing Jim's family a room full of sentinels. Or, at least, why Blair had pushed for it. Stephen had brought the family over for dinner, and it was clear they were all behind the *idea* of sentinels.

But they were awkward. Uncomfortable. Politely weirded out. Blair hadn't blamed them; sentinels were an idea for Jim's family, not people. An idea they didn't reject, but you couldn't have a relationship with an idea. A party full of 'normal people' and sentinels had seemed like just the thing to humanize Jim for them. Show them what Jim's life was like. Not a bad thing for Jim, either, to have friends over for something social and human.

They'd invited the Mountie and entourage when it became clear they'd be killing a few days waiting for the next contact from the smugglers. No, they weren't particularly normal (as far as proving the 'sentinels are people, too' point) but they were friendly and polite, which Blair had always thought was better than normal anyway. Ben was charming, a gift which Blair wasn't above shamelessly exploiting. Diefenbaker was a conversation starter all in himself. Better, when he trotted in the door, little Chloe came racing over with a fearlessness that would be dangerous, unless she was a sentinel herself and could tell by scent when an animal was a threat. Dief, obviously, wasn't. He head-butted her firmly, which knocked her on her tush, but then she leaped on him and they were rolling at once like a pair of puppies.

Rodney and John arrived at the same time as Joel. As soon as Joel set foot in the door, Marcia--who had been on the other side of the room with her back to the door--stiffened and retreated to the bathroom. Which could potentially become a problem, since they only had the one. Jack looked after her and sighed, deflating visibly. Blair didn't dare say anything to him out loud. Even in a crowd like this, a sentinel with Marcia's hearing could follow several side conversations at once.

On the balcony, Jim handed off the grill to Stephen and went to Jack like he was being drawn on a string. Blair, on his way to get out more plastic cups, stepped to the side, out of the way, so he could watch. As deeply as he approved of Jim connecting with people, as badly as Jack had needed Jim's help while he'd recovered from the shooting, Blair couldn't quite reconcile himself to the sight of the two of them together: Jim's hand on Jack's shoulder, the swift descent to smell the top of Jack's head. Blair's sentinel and Blair's teacher-- was it any wonder they seemed to bond so quickly with each other? They had much more in common with each other than either one did with him.

Blair had no business feeling affronted. It wasn't like they were being unkind to him. Or like Blair had any kind of exclusive claim on either. Besides--Jim had problems with authority, deep ambivalence and a lot of ugly baggage, and as far as Jim was concerned, it was *Blair* who represented authority. Blair had the final word over when Jim worked and what medical care he got. Jack Kelso had authority over Blair, but as far as Jim was concerned, he was just an experienced, knowledgeable friend. It made perfect sense that the casual affection Blair had had to work to build between them would come much more easily for someone Jim saw as more of an equal.

It was good for Jim, to have access to Jack's experience and knowledge. And his strength. They were almost peers, much closer in age than Jim and Blair, although Jack had a few years on Jim....

It wasn't only Jim who benefited. Jack had been having a hard time. Marcia hadn't been up to caring for her partner alone after the shooting. She'd been emotionally overwhelmed. Anyway, her ability to handle physical aspects was limited to the most basic first aid. She didn't *understand* bodies, not the way Jim did.

Damn, that was another sore point, too. A part of Blair was angry that Jim had gone into police work and not search and rescue or EMS, because Jim was good with bodies and gentleness and biology. He knew pain--by smell, surely--and could tell when it had to be fixed by medication and when a change of position would be enough. He could predict--with shocking accuracy--when exhaustion would strike. When they'd been staying over with Jack and Marcia that first hard week, several times Jim had woken from a sound sleep and charged to the bedroom half a minute *before* Jack had started to choke on the mucus he wasn't strong enough to bring up without help.

Watching them together, his sentinel and his teacher, Blair felt both envy and shame. He had to get a hold of himself.

He was still trying to figure out how to do it when Ben materialized in front of him and asked, "Are you all right, Blair?"

"Sure, fine." He managed a smile. "How's it going?"

"Actually, I was hoping I could ask your advice."

Ben was polite and a little bit hesitant. Blair hastily dragged his attention back to the sentinel at hand. "Sure. What about?"

"Birthday presents."

Blair blinked. "Birthday presents?"

Ben looked--Blair checked--glum and a little embarrassed. Ben glanced around, leaned closer, and whispered, "I have three weeks to Ray's birthday. Kowalski. It... I choose bad presents. Notoriously bad presents. It has become something of an inside joke. Which really is better than raw disappointment. But still."

"Uh, yeah, that's a problem," Blair agreed. "What do you usually get?"

Ben put his hands behind his back and patiently explained that at first he'd carved figurines for his friends for birthdays and holidays, and at first they'd been well received, but after a while they seemed to make people nervous. "Then I tried other handcrafts. A dreamcatcher. A bathouse. But, of course, the gift isn't about the object itself but the symbolism, the message communicated."

"I see your point," Blair said. "Maybe you're just putting too much symbolism into the gift. Maybe it can't carry, you know, that much serious thought."

Fraser was shaking his head. "The gag-gift experiment was, well, disaster is probably too strong a word."

Blair nodded encouragingly.

"A few months ago we returned to Chicago for a visit. We all have friends there. I tried a more humorous..." he sighed. "I gave Detective Huey a sextant I'd made from a whale vertebra."

Blair snorted, nearly doubling up with laughter.

Fraser nodded. "Yes. Exactly. It was the funniest thing I could think of. But Detective Huey just thanked me politely and put it in a prominent place on his desk."

Blair stopped laughing. Damn. Poor Ben. "I think your problem is one of cultural milieu."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, if you've never seen a sextant before, you're not going to find one made of whale vertebra funny."

Ben blushed. He looked away. "Oh," he said. "Obviously."

"Ben, traditional gag gifts...."

"Are vulgar and disrespectful in the extreme."

Right. Ben could understand the crude and contemptuous, but he couldn't fake it himself. "Look, what about something useful? Something related to daily life?

Ben nodded slowly. Then, he shook his head. No ideas.

"Well," Blair thought hard. "You all travel a lot, right? New luggage? Toilet kit?"

"It would speak to our common experience."

"Right." Blair smiled. "There you go."

***

Continued in part three...