New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

Imperfections IX: Unexpected Places and Other Strange Roads
Part Two
by Dasha

See disclaimer and notes on part one.

They had to stop at the loft to pick up the present Sandburg had gotten. Jim waited in the truck, his fingers tapping on the wheel, while Blair ran upstairs. It had been over a month since any of their missing sentinels had been taken. A recent case, a fresh scene to examine was what they really *needed* but he couldn't bring himself to wish for another kidnapping and anyway--

It had been over a month. Had they gotten all the sentinels they wanted? Had they done...whatever and now it was all over? Were things just in a different phase now?

Damn. One good lead, just one!

Sandburg tossed the gift onto the seat between them and hopped into the truck. "You okay?"

"Peachy."

It turned out that the protocol for a sentinel surprise party was utter silence. Sheppard had reserved a side room of a restaurant they ate at frequently. The guests could park in the lot--McKay was oblivious enough to other people not to bother noticing their cars--but had to greet each other without words. Jack was there, Marcia and Joel, Stephen, a couple of people from McKay's department at the college.

Jim went to Jack first, opening his mouth to apologize and ask how he was doing. Jack shook his head and held up his hands. Jim let himself be caught and drawn in--and maybe this was better than words, because like this there was no confusion about the fact that Jack was fine and Jim was forgiven.

And in silence, Jim didn't have to say aloud that they had no leads on the case. Jack already knew they'd been searching for Brackett all summer without a single trace, and that all the kidnappings were dead ends.

Jack already knew just how screwed they were.

When Jim looked up, Marcia was watching them, and she didn't need words, either. Jim had brought her best friend home sick and miserable. If there was anyone in the world Jack should have been safe with, it was Jim, and he had let them both down.

She turned away.

Well. An apology wouldn't have helped anyway, even if Jim had been able to make one. You couldn't talk your way out of consequences you'd behaved yourself into.

"How about our usual table? It's free." McKay. With no one talking, Jim's hearing easily settled on the familiar voice. "Where are we going?"

"Rodney, just go with it."

"Go with what? Oh, my god, that's the party room. John, what have you done? John?"

"Smile and move it, McKay. Look happy."

The door opened and Sheppard propelled McKay through. "Surprise!" everyone whispered. You didn't have to shout at sentinels.

McKay looked both pleased and freaked out. He smiled, but crossed his arms over his chest, refusing to shake anyone's hand with a sentinel finickyness that Jim usually only saw from Adrian Monk. John stayed right behind him, and Rodney seemed to have no hesitation about taking advantage of that reassurance. Every once in a while, Jim saw him cant slightly backward and brush against his partner. Jim wondered if he was so visibly dependent on Blair--or if you had to know something about sentinels to realize what was going on.

The wait staff brought in some starters--platters of pale cheese dip and onion rings and little herbed toasts. This took some of the attention off Rodney, and the conversations that had been suspended for the silence began to pop up around the room.

Stephen came over. As always, the first look he gave Jim was a worried one. "How's it going?" he asked.

Jim shrugged. "Busy. You?"

Stephen grimaced. "About what you'd expect. I mean, you know what it's like, trying to prosecute a white collar crime? There are lawyers everywhere, looking over everything. And federal investigators, now." Savagely, Stephen scooped up some cheese dip on a bit of bread and bit down. "Two hundred thousand dollars in bad concrete, never mind what it's going to cost to rip it out and replace it. The stock? Plummeted, obviously. And the only bright spot? If I had not been giving Rodney the deluxe tour, trying to convince him what a sleek operation we're running....It would be costing us ten times this. More."

Jim had been the first person Stephen had called, once he had the proof of undercutting in his hands. He'd been furious, almost incoherent. Or what he'd been saying was so weird and complicated that the effect was the same. Curious, Jim had gone out to the race track, getting past the security guard with his badge. Standing in the infield, listening very carefully, Jim had managed to hear the weird popping sound Rodney had described to Stephen. Like breakfast cereal, but softer. So soft that when the wind blew, the sound of its vibration passing over the new railings drowned the crackling out. And wasnít that strange, because Jim's hearing was much better than McKay's. And yet the soft sound that Jim nearly missed in the silence of night, McKay had heard during the day, with heavy traffic outside and the clatter of workmen and equipment all around him.

"How are you going to come out of it?" Jim asked.

"Possibly with my boss's job, since she was the one skimming money from the track renovation." He glanced over Jim's shoulder and winced slightly. "Happy birthday, Rodney," he said.

Rodney looked confused for a moment. "What? Right, thanks. But have you looked at the specs you brought us today? What's the matter with Steadman, anyway? Is he trying to waste money? And his safety features are a joke."

"Rodney. You know I agree with you. But the law is very clear on--"

"The law is decades out of date," Rodney grumped. "Well, a decade, anyway."

Stephen patted his arm. "We can make an appeal through the courts. It'll take a while, but since it isn't like we're ready to break ground, that won't be a problem. Rodney, relax. Enjoy your birthday."

The long-bodied rodent appeared out of nowhere. It raced across the floor, staggered to a stop at Stephen's feet. It fell and lay there, shaking.

Jim wondered if he...ought to do something about it. For it? But none of the animals he'd been seeing lately had seemed to hear him when he talked to them.

The fur on the strange rodent was patchy and dirty. Jim sniffed--surely it would smell rank, the state it was in--but it left no trace in the air.

He didn't remember the conversation he'd lost track of until Stephen was excusing himself to go check out the appetizers. To Jim's surprise, McKay didn't follow him. Instead, he was looking at Jim. "What?" Jim asked, wondering if he'd broken some sentinel etiquette.

"You see it, too," McKay said. His eyes drifted to the floor next to where Stephen had been standing.

Jim looked down. It was gone. "See what?" he asked cautiously.

"The meerkat," McKay answered irritably. "The one that was right there. Don't deny it."

No, Jim wouldn't deny it. He just wasn't sure what he should say. What had he seen? "Like a long, skinny rat with a funny face?"

McKay rolled his eyes. "They're African. Like from the posters. The ones that stand on their hind legs and look cute."

"Oh. Yeah, I guess." He'd wondered what it was.

McKay's eyes were round and his smell was edging toward scared. "Oh my god." He took a step backward. "No. It's just a hallucination. A little brain glitch."

Jim hated to think about what it might be, but his profound ambivalence was just nothing on the frank shock and fear in McKay's eyes. "It can't hurt us," he said.

"Well, obviously. We're--we're dreaming it. It must be something we ate." Except neither of them had eaten yet. "Or breathed."

Jim looked at the place where the animal had been. "We're fine." The creature had been sick or suffering. Meerkat. But Jim and McKay were fine.

"My," McKay stuttered, collected himself, tried again, "My doctor says a lot of us have been seeing animals lately. Even him. It doesn't mean anything bad."

Jim's jaw dropped. Seeing animals with McKay, that was kind of embarrassing. But if sentinels were seeing them all over the country--! That was both reassuring and horrifying. And absolutely fucked up, because nobody--nobody--seemed to understand what it meant. There were sentinels out there in such extremis that their pain was reaching out to sentinels who had never even met them, and nobody had a clue, except for Jim and he didn't know what to do about it--

He really, really, didn't want to think about what it meant, that this was real.

McKay touched his shoulder. "This isn't your first time, is it? I mean, you're not going to freak out, are you?"

"No," Jim managed. "I'm not going to freak out."

"That's good. Because freaking out always makes it worse. Except, I guess, you've already figured that out."

They looked at each other for a moment. Then McKay nervously looked around the room. Apparently, there were no more non-existent animals, because he nodded in satisfaction and excused himself and headed over to the hors d'oeuvres.

Jim wondered if you could do some kind of survey; find out who had seen animals and what kind and if they'd said anything useful. But no. It would take too long. And anyway, getting a straight answer on animals was harder than getting a straight answer on sex. Even as matter-of-fact as Fraser was, he didnít *talk* about them. And mostly, both sentinels and guides tended to be embarrassed or afraid or pretending nothing was happening.

He wondered who the meerkat was--Eppes? Stewart?--and hoped that a spirit animal racing across the room was proof that whoever it was was still alive.

"Hey, are you okay?" Jim hadn't even noticed Sandburg coming over. He nodded. Sandburg looked at him critically. "Right. But you're looking a little peaked. You've been under a lot of stress. Are you coming down with something--?" He reached out to brush the back of his hand on Jim's forehead.

Jim ducked. "If I were sick, I wouldn't be here, sharing my germs with two fragile sentinels and Jack. Would I?"

Maybe he was trying to pick a fight. He did feel almost disappointed when Sandburg didn't rise to the bait but only nodded sadly and patted his arm. "How about we get something to eat," he suggested.

Jim didn't argue. He took the small plate of snacks that Sandburg put in his hand. Over at the small table where they had piled the gifts, Rodney was declaring that it was better to open presents now rather than wait until after the main course.

The first package held a small crystal bowl from one of Rodney's engineering colleagues. Useless, but beautiful. Very beautiful, actually; it did things with the light. Rodney was smiling when he put it down, and the giver was looking very relieved.

What happened next was a lot like one of Sandburg's split-attention exercises. Two songs playing at once or two people talking to him and one of them lying, or the headphones that told a different story in each ear. Except this time there was Rodney ten feet away, unwrapping three pounds of expensive coffee beans that Sandburg had given him *outside*, and a blue dream on the *inside*.

It wasn't a jungle this time or the soft Canadian forests, but an expanse of glittering sand. A beach, and on it, struggling, heaving, helpless, an orca. Jim was standing close, and it was big. He could feel heat from its body, see the tension on the surface of the skin as it dried. It was looking at him.

"I don't know how to help you," Jim said. Obviously, it needed to be in the water, but the animal was a long way up the beach. Experimentally, Jim laid his hands along the flank and pushed. Nothing, of course. He couldn't shift it.

In the outer realm, the party was still going on. Rodney was stumbling awkwardly over his thanks to Marcia. She wasn't any more graceful about receiving the thanks than he was at giving it.

A hound bayed, and the dog that Jim had seen pacing him when he visited the morgue came racing across the beach, kicking up a shower of sand. Barking, it ran in circles around the orca. Jim looked around for something that would help, but there was only barren beach and the pound of surf a dozen feet from the closest part of the whale.

The dog began to dig along the whale's flank. Growling, snarling, tearing at the sand, it began to dig a trench. Cautiously, Jim stepped closer. To his surprise, there was a trickle of water in the trench. Dropping to his hands and knees, Jim began to dig, too. The sand went from dry to wet to puddle. Yes, there was water here, but the digging was slow and the orca was huge.

The hound threw back its head and howled. It seemed, somehow, to *break* the beach. Jim found himself falling backwards as the sand gave way. For a moment--just a moment--he was floundering in water, and then the blue dream was gone and he was standing in the restaurant watching McKay open the imported chocolates Stephen had given him.

The plate in Jim's hand tilted and one of his onion rings slid onto the floor. Jim quickly adjusted his grip and caught himself on the back of a nearby chair. He blinked repeatedly, trying to recapture the dream, but it was gone.

The chocolates slid out of McKay's hand and thunked on the floor. The color drained from his face, and at the same time his heart began to race so fast that some of the beats might have been out of order. He fell backwards into the table of gifts before sliding to the floor.

Sheppard was the closest to him, but, caught by surprise, he was too slow to stop McKay from ending in a heap on the floor. He followed his partner down, hands ranging swiftly over his body, searching for injury or external symptoms. Rodney was conscious, but incoherent. He fought Sheppard feebly, gulping for air. He didnít respond to Sheppard's attempts to quiet him. Without looking, Sheppard shoved the box of candy across the floor to one of McKay's colleagues. "Read me the ingredients."

"But--he didnít even open it," the man protested.

"Read the damn box!" Sheppard's voice had turned to ice. "Jack. His kit is in his briefcase."

Jack was already moving. He pulled a small, blue, plastic box out of the briefcase and tossed it neatly to Marcia, who passed it to John.

"Sugar, whole milk, cocoa butter, chocolate liquor, lecithin, dairy--"

"No fever. Rash, but no swelling. Rodney, tell me what the hell is going on."

"--cream, pecans, cashews--"

Sheppard pulled McKay up so that he was sitting braced against Sheppard's shoulder. Jack, who had had to go the long way around the tables, swung down onto the floor beside them and took some of McKay's weight. He hiked McKay's shirt up, baring his shoulder while Sheppard opened the little box and opened one of six color-coded syringes.

"Blair," Jack said calmly, "Get Jim and Marcia out of here. And take everyone else with you."

At once, Sandburg put an arm around Jim's waist, caught Marcia's wrist and, without waiting to see if he was followed, propelled them from the room.

The main floor of the restaurant was fairly crowded. Sandburg led them around the corner, into the short, tiled hallway that housed the bathrooms. Looking horrified and embarrassed, the other guests formed a silent clump behind them.

Marcia jerked away from Sandburg's grasp and folded her arms over her breasts. Her face was blank and her eyes were hard. Almost timidly, Joel laid a hand on her shoulder. "Do I need to take you home?" he asked.

"No," she said shortly.

"But--Jack wanted you away. You shouldn't be listening."

She spun on him. "An allergic reaction is not contagious!" She wrestled her temper down and explained, "Being a guide is very difficult. You can't control all the factors. You can't predict the outcomes. Sometimes nothing they do helps. So they get really anxious. They're superstitious. They think being fragile is some kind of communicable disease."

"To be fair," Sandburg said tightly, "some sentinels can worry into a stress-related--"

The patience she showed to Joel did not extend to Sandburg: "Right," she said with open contempt. "And you'd have something to worry about if either Jim or I had a history of that. Jack is being an over-protective pain in the ass, and you are just being stupid. They could have used Jim, at least, in there. He's good with bodies--"

Joel snaked an arm around her waist and pulled her close. She sighed miserably. "Aw, damn it, McKay."

One of the engineers cleared his throat awkwardly. "Is it possible that he actually reacted to something inside a sealed box?"

Sandburg started to pace back and forth across the tiny hallway. "A sentinel could, yeah. If the sensitivity was severe enough."

"Oh, lord. I left his gift on my desk. I left it alone. Could someone have *tampered* with it? Could this be deliberate?"

Sandburg was shaking his head. From under a shower of curly hair he said, "Theoretically, but they'd have to know his list--"

Again the engineer said, "Everyone knows his list. He gives us a two-page handout at the department meeting every semester."

Stephen looked completely horrified. Jim stepped in before it could go any farther. "Not because of the track. There's no point, Stephen. I've been following the case, a little. They donít need his testimony. The evidence is all in paperwork and bank accounts and lab results. Nobody in your office has anything to gain by poisoning him now. The day before he visited, yeah. But not now."

Marcia gasped softly and turned her face toward the private room. Jim re-oriented his hearing, ignoring the clatter of cutlery and the patter of voices, and centered his attention on the familiar ones. McKay was making noise, sort of. Not words. Sheppard was spitting broken instructions at Jack. None of it made sense. "What?" Jim asked.

"He's seizing," she whispered.

Blair snatched Jim's phone off his belt and thrust it into his hands. "Call 911," he instructed, running off to help.

It took four and a half minutes for the ambulance to arrive. Joel went out to meet them and take them in the shorter route through the side door. Stephen and the engineers stood silently, the engineers staring at the floor, and Stephen sneaking glances at Jim. It wasn't hard to guess what he was thinking. Stephen hadn't been around in the days when Jim averaged slightly more than one trip to the emergency room a month, but he knew enough to be able to guess that it had been pretty bad.

It's not an illness, Sandburg always said. And he was right. He was. But sometimes it felt like an illness.

Ten minutes after they arrived, the medics took McKay out on a stretcher. Sheppard was right beside them. Jack came up to Joel and asked him to give Marcia a ride home, since he was following along to the hospital. He smelled badly upset.

"Is there anything we can do?" Sandburg asked him.

"Handle things here," Jack said. "I--I'll call if--"

"If you need anything," Sandburg finished for him. And then--weirdly, because he didn't usually--he leaned down and hugged Jack hard.

Jim followed them out and watched the ambulance leave. Then he went back to the site of the abandoned birthday party and began to search through the gifts. One at a time he lifted the packages and sniffed them. The coffee smelled like coffee. The chocolate smelled like chocolate. The little lamp meant for burning olive oil...didn't really smell like anything but the cotton wick, which was a hard smell to notice.

Sandburg went to he waiter to settle the bill. He just handed over his emergency credit card, not worried about when he'd get paid back. When he returned, he surveyed the wreckage and asked, "Well? Any sign of what caused it?"

"Everything smells just they way it's supposed to, Chief."

He frowned. "Maybe I should toss it all, anyway?"

"McKay would kill you. Let's save it and ask John, later."

He nodded and began piling up the gifts. "Jim...you didn't notice anything did you? Before--? I mean, did anything unusual happen?"

"Not to him," Jim muttered.

"Huh?" he glanced up.

"*I* had a massive audiovisual hallucination. Right before he went down. I dunno. Maybe it was a warning...." But that didn't sound right. The vision on the beach wasn't something that *was going* to happen in a minute, it was something that was happening right then. "I don't think he saw it, though. I mean he kept right on talking and opening presents."

From somewhere, Sandburg had found a plastic bag to stuff the presents into. "Why would he see your 'hallucination?'"

Jim debated how much he wanted to say about this now. "Fraser and I went to the same place, once."

Sandburg hesitated. "McKay doesn't seem the type." For a moment, Jim was afraid a hail of questions would start, but after a long, hopeful pause he turned away and gathered up the rest of the gifts.

*** Detour***

It was Shawn Spencer who managed to escape. Katie followed the rustle of the brief struggle--only one guard, and he went down quickly--the crunch of feet on the hard path, the chang of weight against the fence....Of course it was Shawn, she thought, Shawn who never shut up, who never showed fear, who laughed his way through his sessions in the tank. Their captors were sharp and they hadn't relaxed their guard, ever. But Shawn had been relentless, too. His feet hit the ground on the other side of the fence, and he was running--

He'd never make it. Of course. *She* was a tracker. He wouldn't get away. If they were lucky, he would be dragged back alive. Katie found herself gasping. She had never seen a body, but she could imagine Shawn dead.

Benson used to say that fear wasn't something that was caused by the world. Fear was the brain's response to the world. Fear wasn't inevitable. Not even particularly useful. And fear was something Katie could control.

She could still hear Shawn's feet. She could also hear a crowd of pursuers, not very far behind.

In the bed to the left of hers, Charlie was curled loosely into a ball, staring at his picture. He was hopeless and apathetic, but it was working for him, and, as much as Katie would have liked a kind--or even sane--word from him, she couldn't begrudge him his little victory. Across the way Dr. Stewart was asleep. How a sentinel could sleep through Shawn's escape, Katie had no idea, but in Stewart's case she really didn't think it was any kind of victory. His moods were volatile and his senses were more out of control every day.

Dr. Brennan, for her part, was folded inward. Again. Still and silent, eyes unfocused, she showed no response to the hunt outside. Katie was starting to think that she might be paying attention, though. As the days went by, Temperance Brennan spoke less and less, but she paid attention to every detail, every moment.

"Hey! All right! You win! Hey-- no hitting! I'm valuable--"

Shawn had been caught. Whatever the guards who caught up to him said in response wasn't shouted, and Katie couldn't make it out. Katie bit her lip and waited. The trip back took longer than the trip out.

They brought him back in leg irons. Actual leg irons. The crummy cement-block building and the bars on the windows and the tall fence were all just shabby enough and damp enough to be real. Leg irons, though, that was...impossible, somehow. Over the top. Medieval, almost.

Charlie looked up long enough to say, "You had to know it wouldn't work."

Shawn shrugged. His face and chest were scratched: there was barbed wire on top of the fence. As far as Katie could see or smell, though, he hadn't been badly hurt. He said, "But it was so much fun." He didn't bother to grin, not when it was only them to see it.

Charlie sighed and turned over. Ever since the woman had produced a grainy picture of his brother on the grounds of some rehab hospital, he'd stopped crying, but he still spent most of the time wrapped up in his own misery and hopelessness. It covered him like a thick cocoon, and, in its way, was very good at keeping other people out. Not that Katie thought he was faking it. He reeked of heartbreak. But neither the harsh reality of their captivity nor the disconcerting sessions--at least, they were disconcerting for everyone else--seemed to be able to reach him through the pain and grief he clung to. Katie sort of envied him.

Benson would have been disappointed at that, after all those years teaching her to master herself. At eight, she had learned to control her breathing. At nine, her heart rate. By ten, she'd stopped zoning by accident, and, by twelve, she hadn't needed to do it on purpose. Patience. Endurance. Control. Focus. He had devoted ten years to teaching her to be healthy and free. The day she'd left for college, Daddy had broken down and cried, but Benson had just smiled and kissed the top of her head, satisfied that she was ready for the world.

Benson would have thought of a way out of this by now.

The door, heavy but badly fitting, clattered open. Everyone flinched but Dr. Stewart. *He* came in, the nasty guide. He pointed immediately at Katie. "We're really tired of pussy-footing around. Let's have some results this time, hmm?" And for some reason that just really pissed Katie off, because it wasn't like they were told what 'results' they were supposed to be producing. She wasn't even sure the captors knew. Both of the hired scientists smelled like confusion and frustration most of the time. If the damn tanks weren't working, it wasn't Katie's fault.

He looked around for someone else to take. There were two tanks inside the temple; last week someone had decided that was significant and started testing them in pairs. It was less scary that way, but didn't seem to make much difference otherwise. It was wet. It was ominous. Often...it was weird.

He opened Katie's transparent door and then started for Charlie's. On the other side, though, Dr. Brennan stood up. "Brackett," she said. "I'll go."

He shrugged and unlocked her door. Dr. Brennan came out quietly. She followed Brackett across the shadowed compound to the moldering temple without showing either resentment or fear. Katie tried to imitate her.

In the dim interior, Katie stripped off her sweats and stepped into the tank without being told. The water was warm. She paused before lying down, though. Brennan was still dressed, crouching beside the low wall of her own stone tank. There were shallow shelves set into the thick sides, and each of these held a plain stone block just small enough to it neatly inside. Brennan was running her hands over these rocks, wiggling them gently in their niches.

"Move it, toots," He said, just to be irritating. Dr. Brennan shrugged and stood up, but Alex, the sentinel working for them suddenly came over. *Her.* Katie squeezed her eyes shut. She wouldnít go out of her way to be nasty, but she was cold and dangerously alert. If Dr. Brennan was up to something, Alex would spot it immediately, and not be particularly gentle about putting an end to any games--

But she only squatted beside the wall, looking where Dr. Brennan had looked.

"They're not worth anything," Brackett said. "They're not even decorated."

Alex watched while Dr. Brennan gently coaxed one of the heavy blocks out of its niche. "It's magnetic," Alex said.

Dr. Brennan bent the rest of the way down and set the block on the floor. "You people have no idea what you're doing at all, do you." She turned away and stripped to her underwear.

Alex swapped out two more of the heavy stones, apparently randomly. Katie wondered if Dr. Brennan really had figured out something important.

One of the weaselly little scientists produced the usual cup of bitter tea. Katie grimaced and drank and leaned back into the water.

It hit her fast, this time. And it was going to be one of the weird ones.

A red dream, for a start. She hadn't had those before coming here, and they were never good. In the red world she was Shawn, escaping, running, away, away. Over the fence and out into the trees. And how stupid had that been anyway? There was no place to go, no road to follow even. Never mind that you'd never find a town, the water had parasites in it and there were animals in the rainforest that would happily eat a person. And--rainforest? That was a pretty euphemism. It was a jungle out there. Literally. Katie was a grad student. She didn't know shit about survival, and she bet Shawn hadn't either, but he'd put this idea into her head and she was running over rough, mushy ground, her face slapped by trees--

Swimming, under water, fast. And deep. More like piloting a bathyscaph than swimming, except she wasn't very good at that.

Different venue, same action. Katie was still fleeing. Kelp, now, not trees, but the dream was still red, still nearly on fire and Katie was still trying to escape.

She heard a voice behind her, maybe Tempie Brennan's voice, except she didn't talk much. She was shouting for Katie to stop, to get a hold of herself. Her instructions were only a pale idea beside the burning need to get away.

"Calm down!"

If Katie could have paused in her rush, she would have turned back and screamed her own warning: No. Run. Hurry. Even though in reality their captivity wasn't so awful that it made dying in the jungle seem like a good idea. Sometimes, in the tank, Katie dreamed of great cats, lions and leopards. She was in the tank now, wasn't she? All the more reason to get away.

It took her long seconds after running aground to realize what had happened. She hurt. She couldn't move. She felt crushed, pressed by a weight so heavy she could barely breathe. She'd run out of ocean to flee through and washed up on red sand. She ought to be able to just get up and keep running, but she couldn't lift herself even a little with her arms. Too heavy. Too stiff. Her own weight ground her into the sand. She couldn't even breathe.

Hot and bright, the air seemed to burn her skin. Going to red places--Katie should have found a way not to do this, not to come here. The red dreams were always worse than weird. She tried to remember what Benson had taught her about lucid dreaming, but she'd never had a problem with dreams before being brought to this temple in the jungle. She hadn't paid much attention.

There was a panther on the beach. Katie wondered if the red dreams could get as bad as being eaten alive. Then Dr. Brennan's voice came from the other side. "Katie. Forget him. Pay attention to getting loose. Turn toward me and get up."

"I can't move."

"Yes, you can. Turn toward me and get up."

"I can't!"

Dr. Brennan seized Katie almost roughly and hauled her to her feet. For a moment, Katie balanced against her awkwardly and then pitched sideways. She landed not on the beach but in the tank, her ears muffled by warmish water, the smell of mineral salts heavy in the air, and her body tingling with the after-image of the red dream's burn.

Alex and the nasty guide and one of the scientists were arguing. Their voices echoed off the walls horribly, and Katie pressed her hands over her ears as she struggled to her knees.

***

"Mum! Mummy!" The shriek was at a volume and pitch that Duncan had never heard, not even at work. Even if it hadn't been his own Mary's voice, the sound would have struck him to the bone. He shot out of bed, legs tangled in the sheets, and slammed face-first into the carpet. He was on his feet again in a moment, but the delay put him behind enough that Tessa made it to Mary's room first.

There was no scent of an intruder, no scent of blood, no scent of sickness. Before his hands touched her, Duncan knew there was no fever. She was hunched against the headboard, pale with terror, still shrieking. "Lions! And rats! And sharks! Mum!"

"Sweetheart, what's wrong? You've had a bad dream--"

"Lions! And wolves! They were going to eat me!"

Duncan's blood ran cold. "Tessa, go get Joe."

"Mac, what--?"

"This is a...sentinel thing. Go get Joe."

Tessa went, more worried than she'd been a moment ago. Duncan couldn't deal with that right now. He sat on the edge of the bed, running his hands over Mary's skin, reassuring himself that *physically* at least, she was fine....

He wondered if he ought to call Conner. But he was hours away. And Joe might know what to do. If, indeed, anything needed to be *done*.

It occurred to Duncan belatedly to scoop Mary up and carry her downstairs. They met Joe, half-dressed and rushing anxiously, in the front hall. "She's seeing animals," Duncan announced, holding his daughter out where Joe could see.

Joe stumbled a little and gaped in confusion. He leaned around to look at Tessa, who was just behind him, closing the front door. "Is that what this is about?"

"I don't know. I think she had a nightmare, but Mac is frantic."

"It wasn't a nightmare!" Mary gasped. "They were there. They were real. Lions and rats and snakes and--and a big black and white shark, and they were going to eat me."

Joe sighed and scrubbed at his eyes with his free hand. "All right. Let's sit down and figure this out." He took the wingback chair and patted his lap. At once, Mary slipped free of Duncan's grasp and darted over to take cover in Joe's arms. "Now tell me about these animals. Why do you think they were going to eat you?"

Mary stilled, thinking. "They were making a lot of noise...."

"Did they hurt you? Snap at you?"

"N-No."

"Did they talk to you?"

"No."

Joe sighed. "Angel, sometimes...people like you just see animals. They're not real. They can't hurt you. It doesn't mean anything. It just....happens."

"It's never happened before." That wasn't quite a challenge, but she was watching him shrewdly.

"No, and I can see that it would be scary, waking up with a room full of animals--"

"They weren't in my room. I was on the moors."

Joe nodded. "Very scary, for your first time. But it's normal. Possibly even healthy. And it doesn't mean anything." He sang "Teddy Bear's Picnic" to her, and then "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." When Mary was rosy and mellow, he sent her off with Tessa, back to bed.

When they were gone, Duncan leaned across and said very softly, "How sure are you that it doesn't mean anything? Connor sees animals. And that detective in America talked about them."

"Oh, I'm sure it means something. Sentinels who paint almost always paint animals. Sentinels who write always have poetry about animals. She may spend her whole life questing after what they *mean*. An artistic outlet would be good for her. But she doesn't need to get into all that right now. All that matters right now is that they can't hurt her."

"But--Joe. You know what I'm asking. You should have heard her screaming. I've never--" Duncan swallowed. "And I have to wonder...if so many of us see them...I have to wonder why."

"The latest theory is that sentinels use more of their brains than other people. And part of what they evolved using their brains for was looking out for large things that move. So...a little random misfiring? Some stray neurons setting up a short cut? Who knows. Case studies go back to the 1890s. Until the thirties, it was taken as evidence that sentinels had a tendency to be mentally unstable. But they did a study that showed that sentinels who saw animals were--statistically--slightly healthier and more emotionally durable than those who didn't. So we stopped worrying about it. And so should you." He lifted himself out of the chair and onto his legs. "I'm going to bed. I'm so glad we moved to a semi-detached. Makes things much more convenient. Feel free to wake me up with pounding and yelling any time you need to give me good news about the kid being healthy and normal." He shook his head, smiling a little. "Really, Mac. She's fine."

***

"I don't understand. He can't see much of anything either, right?" Kowalski's voice was tight and a little nervous, and, as usual, not nearly quiet enough to keep Fraser from hearing him.

Ray's answer didn't bother to be quiet. It was also interspersed with gasping and cursing. He'd been fine on the flat land of the valley, but now that they were headed up toward the pass, he couldn't seem to put his feet right two steps in a row. "Don't worry about it. He knows what--shit--direction to go in, he's going in it, we'll get there--crap--when we get there."

"But how good is he? At this flying on instruments thing? Because--"

"He's only messed it up once. Damn."

Fraser glanced back. Ray was scraping animal scat off his boot with a stick. "These are brand new," he complained sourly. "And this is the second time I've stepped in dog doo."

"Deer," Fraser corrected, continuing forward.

"Huh, what?" Ray asked.

"Deer 'doo,' not dog 'doo.' Both times. They don't look anything alike."

"Oh. Well. Okay, then." He tossed the stick away and scrambled to catch up.

"But what about The Time?" Ray asked.

"What time?"

"*The Time* he messed it up and got lost. Geez, Vecchio, you could pay attention."

Ray sighed theatrically. "Hey, Benny. You got a head injury?"

"Not that I'm aware of, Ray."

"Are you blind?"

"Well, with the fog and all, my vision isn't--"

"There, see? No problem. Hey--don't step in that."

"It's just mud, Ray," Fraser said patiently, but he walked around. Around him the forest was a flat grey, only the nearest trees rising out of the fog like topless columns.

"It's 'just mud' until you track it back to my car."

"I never track mud anywhere, Ray," Fraser chided gently. Ray's endless and pointless complaints were a good sign. Finding fault with the wilderness was his way of coping with how nervous it made him. Ray--unlike Ray, who was comfortable with admitting that he felt a little out of his depth this far from 'civilization'--managed best when he could pretend that he was in control of the situation.

Fraser paused, resting one hand against a tree, closing his eyes. He didn't know for sure where the American scout troop was, he just had a very good guess. That he was heading toward where he thought they were, he could be sure of that. That they would be there when he and his partners arrived, no guarantees. Ray stepped up behind him, laid a hand on his bicep. "You okay there, Benny?"

"Yes, Ray."

"You need a break? The fog getting to you?"

"I'm good."

Behind them, the radio squawked. "*Base Camp to Team Three, over.*"

"This is Team Three, over," Ray answered.

"*It's getting dark. You all ready to head in for the night?*"

Ray held a silent conversation with Ray before answering, "Um, negative, base camp. Fraser thinks it's going to get cold tomorrow. We're just going to push on through. Um, over."

"*Your call, Team Three. You know the Mountie is crazy, right? Over.*"

"Say that again when we bring you the kids. Over." As he secured the radio to his backpack, he added, "You're not crazy, Frase. You know that right?"

"Thank you, Ray. I believe you may not be an unbiased--" Somewhere beyond the grey wall of mist, Diefenbaker yelped. His feet made a muffled gallop against the soft ground as he appeared, running full tilt, and dove into the center of their little group.

Fraser looked from him to the fog-shrouded trees, wondering what could have scared him so badly--and what kind of threat would make and arctic wolf run instead of fight.

Dozens of faces stared back at him. Fraser gasped, his first thought that they were too late, the scout troop had died, and these were their ghosts. He blinked and they were gone.

"What's the matter with him?" Ray asked.

A young woman, screaming, ran out of the trees. She was running straight at them, and for a moment Fraser thought she was real until she ran straight *though* him and was gone. Chilled to the bone and unable to focus, Fraser swayed. On each side a Ray caught him and Dief braced himself against his legs. Dear Lord. Fraser forced himself to look up. They were surrounded. In the same direction the woman had appeared the forest was alive with animals. They were moving silently, streaming past on all sides, numbering in the hundreds or thousands, going--Fraser had no idea where they were going. He knotted his hands around Ray and Ray's jackets and held on tight as the animals migrated past. Timberwolves and buffalo and wolverines...an eagle flying impossibly slowly. A lot of animals that had never been native to this environment: a cobra, three parrots, an emu.

On his left, Ray cursed softly in Italian. "Is that real?"

Fraser wondered what he was seeing. Ray asked, "Is what real? Frase, what's wrong?"

He didnít answer, just held them still until the last of the animals had gone past and vanished from sight into the fog behind them. When he finally spoke, he said, "We should get a move on. It'll snow tomorrow before two. We might make it, if that scout troop will stay put."

"Right," Ray said. "Okay. Let's go."

***

Robert McCall sipped the excellent espresso and leaned back in his chair. "So. Mickey," he said.

Mickey smiled pleasantly. "So?"

"So...why are we here?"

"I thought it was your favorite restaurant," he said innocently. The innocent look had been more affective when Mickey had been thirty and charming. Now it just made him look like he was up to something.

"I see. You just felt like inviting me out to dinner? Have a little chat? Old times' sake sort of thing? That would be more convincing if it happened more often."

To Robert's astonishment, Mickey looked stricken. "McCall--"

"I'm *teasing* you, Mickey. If you've lost your sense of humor it's time to retire because you're getting old."

Mickey managed a thin smile and passed him a photograph. Robert fished out his reading glasses. "Oh. My," he said. The picture was of three people in an airport--LAX, possibly, but he couldn't be sure--and one of them was Lee Brackett.

"That your man?" Mickey asked.

"Oh, yes. This is he. When was this taken?"

"A couple of months ago. Don't start. I don't have the manpower to put your cases on the front burner."

"I don't have cases anymore," Robert said absently. "Who is the woman? Do you know?"

Mickey produced a file. "Alicia Bannister. Ex-army, dishonorable discharge. For most of the last decade, she's been a very successful criminal."

There were pictures. Blond hair. Red hair. Raven hair. Curly hair. Straight hair. Age. Pseudonyms. She was a sentinel--interesting. "Sniper?" Robert asked.

"Art forgery. Go figure. The man with them is Bud Torin, a vice president at Cyclops Oil."

Robert flipped through the woman's file. There were pictures of some of her forgeries. "Which of them were you following?"

Mickey hesitated. "Torin. He's suspected in making some...questionable investments."

"Mickey. Donít tell me The Company is investigating insider trading, now," McCall chided.

"Not stocks. Classified documents."

"Ah." Robert said. "What is he doing with Brackett and Bannister?"

Mickey winced. "I hoped you might have an idea."

Robert snorted. "Oh, yes. Because I have a habit of holding out on you. No, Mickey, I don't have any idea--"

There was a spotted jaguar crouching in the corner. Its tail was whipping back and forth and its mouth was open, muzzle wrinkled to reveal, long, glistening teeth.

"McCall?" Mickey muttered out of the side of his mouth. He was subtly scooting back his chair, one hand hovering over his gun. "Where?"

Robert glared at the corner until the phantom disappeared. "Sorry, Mickey. Nothing. My mind wandered...."

Mickey sighed and leaned back. To McCall's trained eyes, though, he still looked worried. "You all right?"

"I'm fine." Not very convincing. "Mickey. The senses throw up a glitch now and then. I can always tell the difference. And I promise you, when I'm *not* fine, it will be you that I call."

Mickey leaned across the table. "If you need me, and you don't call me, I will never forgive you."

Robert smiled at that, and Mickey sighed and shook his head.

"Well, come on, then," Robert said. "I need the rest of it."

"The rest of--come on, McCall. I can't give you the file on Torin."

"You know whatever I find out, I'll share."

"You aren't going to pursue this yourself. No. No, I mean it. I'll try to find the woman. I'll put some people on it. All right? Bannister. But that's the best I can do. All right?"

Robert tapped the picture. "You know how dangerous Brackett is. And the bottom line is, whatever he is doing, he is our responsibility."

"I'm not arguing with you. Am I?"

McCall shrugged apologetically. "No."

"But you're worried."

Robert glanced back at the empty corner. "I'm very worried," he said.

***

"Sam? You all right?"

"Fine," Sam said, breathing shallowly.

"You look like you're going to puke. It wasn't a bad flight...do you need to sit here a minute?" Because Donna and Sammy Jo couldn't hear them here on the plane, but the moment they stepped into the causeway, they wouldn't be concealed anymore.

Sam shook his head. "Not the vibration. The smell." Thinking about it made his stomach tighten.

"Okay, right. Hurrying, then." He shoved his way into the packed crowd retrieving their carry-ons and scooted back enough for Sam to fit into the aisle in front of him. It was borderline rude, but there wasn't any reasoning with Al when he was thinking like a protective guide.

The only carry-on they had was Al's backpack stuffed under the seat. Although Sam usually flew pretty well, Al didn't complicate life with luggage. Just in case.

As they got closer to the front of the plane, Sam could smell more and more of the cool New Mexico evening and less and less of the gagging combination of old sweat, airline chicken, and baby vomit.

In the causeway the air was cool and sweet and there was enough room for Al to step up beside him and put an arm around Sam's waist. Sam sighed. "Almost there."

"Look happy."

He didn't smell them until he and Al turned the last corner, and they were in sight. When he did smell them, he didn't have to force a smile. Sammy Jo was standing on a chair, waving and laughing. The scent of her was dizzying. Sam nearly tripped over his own feet. My little girl, he thought.

Abigail Fuller, Sammy Jo's mother, leaned over to her partner and whispered, "How's he doing?"

"I'm fine," Sam said firmly, but Donna--Oh, she was beautiful. Seeing her, smelling her, it turned his brains to mush. Apart for a couple of months, it was easy to forget, or to think, maybe, that he'd made it all up. The incomparable Donna Elesee. He pinned her with his eyes. "I'm fine. Really."

Donna clearly heard him, but shook her head anyway and said sadly, "He smells like it was a hellish flight."

And it *had* been, but already it was fading. Sammy Jo launched herself off the chair and dove through the crowd. Sam let go of Al so he could catch her. She was an armfull at nine. And, he thought, not nearly done growing yet; she'd be taller than Abigail. "Guess what, Dad, I made dinner, guess what we're having?"

She smelled like tomato sauce and basil and ricotta cheese. "Hamburgers and French fries," he said.

She laughed. "No."

"Tamales."

"I don't know how to make tamales! Da-ad. Lasagna. Hi, Uncle Al. Did you bring me anything?"

Grinning, Al patted her head. "I dunno, Sam. She seems kind of listless to me. You think maybe she's sick?"

Sam laughed.

They'd reached Donna and Abigail. They hugged Al, but didn't try to hug Sam, not when he was still overstretched from the flight. Their eyes said enough. Abigail had a bottle of water in her bag, and Sam accepted it gratefully. "So? Ladies? How is the world of high energy physics?"

Donna laughed. "It looks more like magic every day."

"It's not magic," Abigail said irritably. "We'll figure it all out. And by 'we' I mean 'you,' of course."

Donna poked her. "Not this fiscal year. And not with this supercollider."

"Nag, nag, nag," Donna was low-maintenance enough a sentinel that Abigail also worked on the project, keeping track of their budget. It was a good life they had here. They were happy with the work--happier than they'd been at MIT. Though that had been a much shorter commute for visits.

But it was hard with them being so far away. It was hard when people asked about Abigail's picture on his desk and Sam had to say, "She lives with my ex and her sentinel out west."

He hadn't meant to think those things. Donna could always smell when he was unhappy about something. She moved in close on the other side from Al and slowly slid her arm through his. Sam thought, fleetingly, of just moving his clinic. The hospital in St. Johnsbury --The hospital had other competent doctors. For that matter, there were other hospitals. Or he could take a couple of years off--now, while Sammy Jo was still a kid--and be a stay at home dad. He could afford it.

Sammy Jo was going first, walking backwards, showing off. She never bumped into anyone. "Amy Gardner got sick," she said grinning. "So now I have her solo in addition to mine."

Sam tried to look stern, but was saved from having to be the bad guy by Abigail, who was always quick. "You don't need someone else's misfortune in order you to excel. Amy must be crushed. And also pretty embarrassed, considering--"

Donna screamed. Shrieked. It was a sound Sam heard from time to time in the Quiet Ward or the Emergency Room, and--once--in the operating room, when the patient had metabolized the anesthetic and woken up on the table with his appendix half-out. So close to Sam's ear, it wasnít a sound so much as a pain. He nearly fell trying to untangle from Al and *reach* for her, and she was already right there--

Al and Abigail were fast. They caught Donna before she hit the floor. Al lowered her from above while Abigail slipped in under and braced Donna's head in her lap. Sam, far to slow on the uptake, followed them down. "Al, take Sammy Jo." He didn't smell pain, he smelled fear. "Donna? Can you hear me?"

She was silent now, staring with wide eyes.

"Donna, honey, you need to tell us what's wrong." Sam brushed his hands over her, searching for rash or heat. He could only smell fear, not sickness, not poison. "Any ideas?"

Abigail shook her head.

Donna reached up, dug her fingers into Sam's shoulders.

"What is it?"

Her eyes filled and ran over. "Sam, can you see it?"

"See what? Donna, talk to me."

She gasped, then, and sagged back into Abigail's arms.

"Donna?"

"Nothing," she whispered. "I saw the space between. The nothing." Shuddering, she sat up and buried her face in her arms. "It was awful. So empty."

"You can't see the space between particles--" Abigail protested.

"What is she talking about?"

"Physics," Abigail said helplessly. "Atoms are mostly empty space. Particles in a huge field of probability. But we can't see that. She's hallucinating--"

Sam turned around to where Al was talking to airport security, explaining that he was going to need an ambulance for a sentinel. "Hold it a minute." He gathered Donna in his arms, pressed his nose to the soft skin under her ear. No bitterness; no waste products from bacteria. No raw, sour sweat; no immune response. No suspicious, unfamiliar smell; she hadn't picked up a pesticide or petroleum distillate. "No hospital. Let's just get her out of here. It's...it's probably just the crowd...." He had no idea, of course. Idiopathic hallucinations? She didn't have a history of anything that looked like this.

They accepted the little golf cart airport security offered. And the help with their baggage. Donna was conscious and tracking--subdued, but not impaired. Sam had a hand locked around her wrist, the thunder of her pulse pounding reassuringly against his palm. It had been a zone, he told himself. Atypical, but not unheard of. She focused her attention internally quite a bit in her work. Her mental bandwidth was full of sub-atomic particles and theoretical mathematics. Intuitively constructing such a vivid image of something completely beyond sensory experience--it would be alarming to encounter that. Especially when what you were encountering was a reminder that most of existence was an illusion. That would scare anyone.

Right.

He and Al and Sammy Jo waited with her in the cooling New Mexico night while Abigail went for the car. Sam angled Donna and Sammy Jo away from the lights and chaos of the street. He couldnít conceal his worry from either of them. They couldn't conceal theirs--although Donna seemed more afraid of the universe falling apart than getting sick.

Al was standing several feet away, checking his voicemail while watching for Abigail. "Uh, Sam," he said. "You should hear this. We've got a problem."

****

This time, Grissom felt the 'tick' through the floor a half-second before the air conditioner cycled on. The burst of air still felt like being slapped across the back, but at least this time it didn't make him jump.

He might have given some sign, though, because Sara gently pressed his arm and rapped on the table with her free hand. "Greg. Slow down, start over."

Greg made a show of reining in his excitement. From the smell of things, Grissom was willing to bet that his energy was coming as much from caffeine as from the case. "As usual, it has all come down to me." He grinned smugly through an artistic pause. Grissom would have loved to smack him, but Sara had just told him to slow down, and they couldn't have it both ways. "If you want my personal opinion--no, wait, my *professional* opinion as a chemist and a trained sentinel--Warrick has it."

Grissom felt a slight, unexpected warmth at that. Since he'd gotten back last week, everyone had been tiptoeing around him and giving him sad looks. This was the first time Greg had yanked Grissom's chain over *anything,* and it felt reassuringly normal. "Warrick's sample from the suspect's--yuck--garbage is going to be an exact match for the explosive we're looking for, case closed. Since we're waiting for the test, though, I can't give you the final verdict for another two hours. The test takes two hours, I just put it in...how about we all go have some lunch? Or dinner. Or whatever people eat whenever now is?"

Slowly, Grissom looked from face to face. "Nobody else?" he asked. "No other ideas?" They shook their heads. "All right, take a break," he said. "But don't call it a day until Greg's results come back."

Greg muttered something at that, but his head was tilted down enough that Grissom couldn't tell what it was. He sat back in the chair while everyone else got up and filed out. Their feet set up a wave pattern of vibration on the floor that quickly dissolved to chaos as multiple interference patterns interacted. The movement of their bodies in the confined space set off a small wind storm. Grissom lifted his feet from the floor.

When they were gone, Sara slid his chair back and hopped onto the table in front of him. "Concentration. Problems. Questionmark?" she asked in her slow, precise ASL.

"Tired," he signed, evasively. "Everyone is." Down the hall, a door slammed, making the air shake. Needles on his skin. Again.

When sound had been taking up so much of his attention, Grissom had never noticed the much fainter impressions vibrations made against his body. Now that sound was gone, all the bandwidth his brain had devoted to processing noises had shifted to other stimulations. "I keep thinking about Ellison," he said aloud. He hadn't meant to say it at all.

"Who?"

"That detective in Washington. The late bloomer. It's been almost a month, and I can't handle a major change in even one of my senses. How could someone adjust to all of them...?"

She answered that, but Grissom didn't see what she said. He briefly considered just letting it go, but no. That was no habit to get into. "Again," he prompted.

"It takes time." She fingerspelled out 'time' helpfully.

How very deep, he thought bitterly. But he didn't vent his frustrations on his guide. Instead he showed her the completely intuitive sign for 'time' and, for good measure, added 'patience.' He was reasonably sure she wouldn't have to be shown these again. Sara's vocabulary was coming along very quickly; her memory was excellent. Her deficiencies were in the subtleties of syntax and nuance. Most of her statements were word-for-word transpositions of spoken English. It would be embarrassing--except, of course, for the fact that he was the only one she was talking to. Grissom was getting very good at understanding her, crude sentence construction notwithstanding.

"Are you hungry?" she asked. "Iím starving."

Right, yes. He hadn't eaten since about four this morning, more than twelve hours ago. Much more, actually. "Sandwiches?" he asked. "Or they say the veg tamales at Tia Rosa are fantas--"

Sara's head snapped around. She leaped off the table, one hand snatching at his shoulder. Grissom barely managed to avoid tripping over her heels as he followed her out the door.

Their destination was the locker room. Most of the rest of the night shift had been preparing to go on break, but instead of people changing into spare clothes or digging out their cash for dinner, it was chaos. Katherine was pinned in the corner, struggling with her guide, Holly. Greg was standing in the middle of the room, apparently having some kind of panic attack. One of the guide interns was trying to haul him out of the way of--

Nick and Warrick, who were both on the floor. Without stopping to think, Grissom shoved Sara toward Warrick. "Fix him," he ordered, and fell to his knees beside Nick.

At the first touch, Nick's eyes flew open and he squirmed backwards until he fetched up against the leg of a bench. The locker room was a terrible place to try to make sense of smells, but this close, Grissom could tell he reeked of terror. "Nick. It's me. I'm not going to hurt you."

He reached out again. Nick flinched and tried to retreat again, but he'd already gone as far as he could go. He began to babble far too fast for Grissom to follow. "Nicky, stop it." Probably, he was shouting. Nick stilled, though. Grissom laid a hand on his stomach.

Pulse and blood pressure were both high, consistent with panic. He didn't feel the vibration that marked a large hemorrhage, not that there was any reason to expect one. No scent of sickness, no scent of toxins. Not that any of the current cases had indications that extremely toxic chemicals would be involved. And besides, Nick had spent the last eight hours in an office with a junior detective, reading thousands of emails in search of something incriminating.

Nick grabbed his arm, shouted slowly: "There's girl. She's scared. In trouble. She can't get away."

Grissom could not have read that right. "A girl?" Nick nodded. "Where? Here?" In the chaos of even a good day, it would be possible for someone to hide here without scent giving her away.

"No, not here." Nick looked suddenly confused. "I don't know. Gris. We have to help her. She was trying to get away, and she--"

A hand on his shoulder. Grissom looked up. Katherine, damp-eyed but calm, now. She said, "I saw her, too. A young woman. She was...scared."

Grissom looked at them. "You both saw a young woman, just now, who's not here." He pressed his lips together. "Holly. Get over here and tell me what the hell happened."

Holly, at this point looking more freaked out than Katherine, squatted on Grissom's other side. "I was on my cell phone. And Kath started yelling. And I turned around and she was crying. And Nicky tripped over--something and fell down. And then I heard something else fall behind me, and when I turned, Warrick was on the floor...."

Grissom looked at the disaster area the locker room had become. "What about Greg?"

"He came out of the men's toilet and saw everyone and...freaked out. I was thinking...I dunno, airborne toxin, I guess. I was trying to get Kath out, but she wouldn't listen."

"Right. Okay. Do that. Take both of them out of here, just in case." He gestured both Nick and Katherine into Holly's care. "No further than the parking lot, if you need to go outside. We're all getting checked out."

Katherine tried to protest that, but Grissom cut her off by the simple expedient of turning his back on her. Greg was still hysterical, and now so was the intern. Grissom yelled at them both and ordered them out into the fresh air. He ignored Ecklie and the crowd that had gathered and dropped to his knees beside Warrick. Sara had moved him into the recovery position. His skin was hot and coming out in welts.

Grissom ran his hands over Warrick's skin and clothing, leaned down and sniffed. Sweat. Coffee. Motor oil? Vinyl. Something distantly related to chlorine. If this was a reaction to some contaminant Grissom couldn't place which one. He breathed more deeply, risking secondary contamination. Grissom was more durable than Warrick, and if he could identify an antagonist before succumbing to exposure from transfer, there would be a treatment.

Warrick's heartbeat was irregular. "Tell me you called an ambulance, Sara."

"About two minutes out."

"Did you notice anything? In the meeting earlier?" She shook her head helplessly. She hadn't seen any sign of problems. But she didn't watch Warrick and Nick very much now. She was too busy watching Grissom.

Two ambulances arrived. Grissom dispatched Warrick and Sara to the hospital right away. He had Greg and Nick both evaluated at the scene--they'd didn't appear to be in distress, but he wanted a record of their vitals. That also gave Grissom enough time to pin down a lab tech and give her enough instructions to keep the current case from completely getting away from them. Then he corralled every sentinel currently on duty at the department--himself included--and packed them into the second ambulance.

Katherine spent the entire trip protesting that nothing was wrong with her, and this was a waste of time. Grissom pretended to pay attention, since it was easier than arguing, but he had no intention of backing down. Something had happened to Warrick. And yes, all right, he had a history of dangerous idiosyncratic reactions. But something had radically affected Katherine's and Nick's behavior, too, and for several minutes. Grissom was supervising the forensic sentinels, he wasn't going to take stupid chances.

Desert Palms was waiting for them. Within three minutes of arrival, Grissom was sitting in a small, high-walled cubicle holding a clipboard with his paperwork on it. Presumably, his people were all neatly ensconced in similar rooms, and with luck, Katherine and Nick were already being examined.

Grissom felt fine. If it weren't for the others, he wouldn't stay. He needed to set an example, though, and the doctors would probably want samples for comparison....

He hadn't thought out how miserable the emergency room would be. The noise he couldn't hear was a trembling chaos of vibration slapping against his skin. Even worse, the smell of disinfectant and vinyl and sterile packaging was making him a little nauseated. That wasn't a symptom of a current problem, of course. It was a conditioned response to this particular environment. The last time he'd been here was a month ago, right after the surgery. He'd spent three days vomiting from the anesthesia.

The operation had been such a spectacular failure....

A familiar, three-part step rattled against the floor, and Grissom looked up. He wondered--for only a moment--if he was hallucinating the coroner appearing here in the emergency room. "Al. What--you, too?"

Al frowned. "Me, too, what? Oh. I'm not here for me. I'm here for you."

Well, that was nonsense. "Would you repeat that?"

"Your guide is looking after Warrick."

"I don't understand."

Al spoke more slowly. "I'm here to help you. I'm not Sara, but I know something about sentinels."

"Dwayne vs Morton Correctional Institution established that for legal purposes, a medical doctor is not equivalent to a guide."

"Right. Iím not covering the department's ass, legally. Iím here for you."

Oh. Grissom looked down at the clip-board he was still holding. Al took it away from him and waited patiently until Grissom looked up. "Symptoms?"

"Me? Nothing."

"According to Ecklie, you called this as a disaster--?"

"One of my people was unconscious, and two others were having hallucinations."

Al shook his head. "Nicky tends to be...high strung."

As far as it went, that was an understatement. Nick bounced back and forth between the kind of dangerous machismo you pick up as Texas cop and a sloppy over-involvement in his more emotional cases. "Getting a little tense occasionally is not in the same basket as having hallucinations. And even if you could make the case for Nicky--not Katherine."

Al sighed. "No, not Katherine. All right. Let's have a look at you."

Grissom briefly considered teasing Al about how his patients were usually dead, but it was obvious and hardly worth the effort. "You're sure we shouldn't get *you* looked at?"

"I haven't seen any of your people since night before last. I wasn't even in the building when everybody else went down. Hold still."

"Not everyone else; I'm fine," but Grissom held still, bracing himself for the exam he couldn't avoid.

Al didn't put on gloves, but touched him as a guide would, barehanded along skin. "You didn't see any hallucinations?"

"No, I didn't have a hallucination. I was talking to Sara. We were...deciding about dinner."

"How have you been eating lately?"

"Don't start. That has nothing to do with the question at hand."

Unlike most doctors Grissom had been subjected to, Al didn't grab, he stroked. He slid a hand beneath Grissom's shirt and splayed warm fingers against his chest. With his free hand, he motioned Grissom to breathe. "Well, your lungs are clear, but you need to calm down. Your heart rate is about ninety-five."

"I'm a little worried about Warrick. But mostly, it's just all the noise."

Al froze. "Noise?"

Grissom gestured helplessly at the air. "On my body."

He saw Al understand. "It must be pretty bad in here," he said. He gently tugged Grissom into the circle of his arms. Since he'd stopped practicing as a guide in the field, Grissom hadn't touched anyone but Sara, and she didn't touch him with any particular affection. It was a choice, he knew, to make him feel safe. He had told her--almost in so many terms--that he could trust her with his life as his guide or with his heart as his lover, but not both. She'd been completely professional since; both shield and safety net, guarding him carefully. After the disastrous surgery, she hadn't left his sight for two weeks.

Grissom had been too busy hating his dependence to miss the closeness he'd had with the other sentinels.

Al held him firmly and began to vibrate. It wasn't a prickling tease against his skin, but a solid, deep thrum that went to the bone. It blocked out the random buffeting that saturated the hospital, and the relief was like giving up a heavy weight. Grissom's shoulders relaxed and he took a deep breath. "You're humming," he said.

Al didn't answer. Probably because Grissom couldn't see his face anyway. The rhythm that resonated through their bodies all but obliterated buffeting of air currents and biting vibration. It was like resting in the shade, after hours in the scalding, relentless, afternoon sun. It was like fresh air, after spending half the night in the morgue. It was like taking off his tie, after hours of court....

The ER doc finally came in. Grissom let Al speak for him as a guide would. It wasn't compliant with protocol, but Grissom didn't have the energy to defend himself from a strange doctor's quirks. Anyway, if Al was satisfied that Grissom was fine, that was all the answer he needed. He did give a blood sample, to be compared with the others' to help refine the investigation, but after that he signed himself out and went in search of Sara and Warrick. He didn't object when Al shadowed him.

Warrick was on an exam table, dressed in cotton hospital gown, apparently asleep. Sara was looming over him, arms folded, fierce scowl of concentration. She looked up as they entered the cubicle, and motioned them to be still. She checked, but Warrick didn't stir, so she chased them back out into the hall where they held brief meeting pressed against the wall so that they wouldn't block the busy rushing back and forth of doctors and nurses.

"You remember a year ago last summer? Weeping welts, fever, swelling inside the mouth?" She was speaking very quickly, but she enumerated the symptoms in AMSLAN. Grissom had no idea where she'd learned the obscure medical vocabulary.

"Sulfur compounds and perfume," Grissom said.

"It looked like it was going that way again. We'd started to spray him down with cortisone, we were two minutes away from intubating--and the whole reaction just...fizzled. The hives went down, he regained consciousness. He looks like he's stable."

"Surely, they're keeping him overnight," Al said.

Sara nodded.

"You're staying, too," Grissom said. She wouldn't want to turn Warrick over to the new hire.

She opened her mouth, shut it hard, nodded. "You shouldn't be alone."

"I'm deaf, not sick," he answered patiently. The day she was having, she deserved break.

"We don't know what happened, and it might have happened to Katherine and Nick, too. You spent the night on Katherine's couch when they repainted your condo in December--"

"All right, you win. Just...text me if there's any change, all right?"

****

Continued in part three...