New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

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

See disclaimer and notes on part one.

*** Detour***

The familiar scrape and click of the lock was followed by the staccato beeps of the alarm being disarmed. Joel paused in his packing and called, "Is that you, or have the men in black come to collect me?"

"That's not funny," Marcia snapped, already on the stairs of the narrow townhouse. "I mean, *really* not funny."

"Sorry...."

"So, have you heard from the Canadian yet?" She plopped herself down on the leather ottoman he used to reach the hatch to the crawlspace under the eves.

"No, apparently they're off doing a rescue in the mountains. They might be out by tomorrow afternoon, but...." But he couldn't wait that long. Sighing Joel looked down at his hiking boots and his sneakers, hoping they would be adequate. He didn't have any experience with the rain forest. Except for a couple of fishing vacations to Canada, he hadn't been outside the United States since the army. When he'd been stationed in Iceland. "I've got an FBI agent meeting me for the connecting flight in Dallas, though. And an ex-U.S ambassador to Taiwan, or something. The Gatling girl's father."

"Listen, I've brought you something." She took a folder out of her suspiciously large purse. "It's an indictment for Bud Torin. He's on his way there now. As a cop on official business, you can take your gun, as long as it's packed as baggage." She smiled, "And we have extradition with Sierra Verde. You don't have to convince the local authorities of anything now."

Joel flipped open the folder. The arrest warrant was on top, but it was also full of affidavits about--was that espionage? Tax evasion...smuggling...bribery? "He has his fingers in a lot of pies...." Joel said admiringly. "He must have three or four hands. How did you get this?"

"Jack has friends who have friends. They've been sitting on the arrest, waiting for Torin to do something they could get a clean conviction on. Kidnapping and conspiracy are really good ones." She shrugged, an economical gesture that didn't even ripple her hair. "One of Jack's old partners has been following the Brackett case for us. Oh, and according to McCall, don't take this to the local police at the capital. They're probably in Torin's back pocket; they're on the take from everyone else. Make your claim to the army. Ask for Colonel Philippe Armand."

"He's not on anybody's payroll?" Joel asked, shutting the folder and slipping it into his carry-on.

"He's on our payroll," she answered wryly. "Joel--" she stopped and looked away.

"What?" he asked, squatting down beside her and taking her hand.

"Oh, no, I promised myself I wouldn't give advice."

He hugged her briefly. "I'll pretend you're not," he said.

"The only break you have at all is that Torin is so greedy he's gotten careless here and there. The people you're fighting have resources, they're organized, and they don't care who dies. Be very careful."

"I promise," he said.

***End Detour***

~Sunday

Morning came fast, when it finally came. Under the canopy of trees, it didn't get *very* bright quickly, but as soon as they could move, Blair and Simon were following the road again, picking their way carefully and trying not to grab at the branches around them for balance on the uneven ground. The air was cool enough to be uncomfortable, and patches of thin fog were forming where the warm ground met the cooler air.

The chainlink fence seemed to appear out of nowhere, stretching up a good three feet above Simon's head and topped with some kind of wicked barbed wire. For several long seconds, they stared at it in silence, their eyes going up and down the barrier and back and forth to the area beyond.

"Do you think this is it?" Blair whispered, unsure what to do.

"Well, were we expecting any other secret compounds in the bush?" Simon asked.

The remains of the road ran right under the fence and ended in a squat tumble of rocks about the side of a king sized bed. "I think I've seen pictures of arches," Blair whispered. "At the edge of Mayan cities or ritual sites. I don't see a wall, though...." he remembered a joke he'd heard somewhere, that archaeology was mainly a series of small walls. He stifled an hysterical laugh.

Simon grabbed his arm. "Listen," he whispered.

"Helicopter?"

Simon nodded. They looked up, but though they heard the chopper grow closer and lower, they couldn't see it. "It's landing. Come on. We have to find a way in."

"I don't suppose you bought wire cutters?" Blair asked hopefully.

Between them they had three guns, a wicked hunting knife, Blair's Swiss Army Knife, and a pair of miniature screwdrivers, but no wire cutters. They just scaled the fence, using the rain ponchos they'd slept on to pad the barbed wire on top. The exercise shredded the bottom poncho, of course. They could only hope that nobody came along and saw the scraps of torn plastic still caught in the teeth of the wire.

Staying low, they crept to the heap that was probably what remained of an entry arch and peered over. On the other side was a raised, flat-topped stone building. It was old and damaged, but the encroaching trees had been cleared away and the near wall had been shored up with stone. It was hard to guess about the interior, but surly it would hold a couple of dozen people. If it were even in use. There was no door on this side.

The camp didn't seem very crowded or busy. He couldn't see any people at all. Beside the ruin was a tarpaulin shading a pair of hammocks, and beside that a small, easy-up tent.

"The chopper came down over there," Simon whispered, indicating the other side of the stone building. There were trees, but no low growth. Not a lot of cover. Simon looked around one more time and made a dash for the wall at the base of the building. Blair waited a moment and followed. Creeping to the corner, they could see part of the helicopter, two much larger tents, something that might be a latrine, and a small, cement block building. A grubby man in cut-off jeans and carrying a rifle was headed right for them.

Simon pulled Blair back, pushing him against the stone wall. He waited for a moment and then, almost casually and without looking, reached out and snagged the armed man as he passed. Continuing the momentum, the two spun, Simon clapping a hand on his opponent's mouth just before crashing him head-first into the uneven stone blocks.

It had all been completely soundless--at least as far as Blair could hear. But that was the issue, wasn't it? One of Torin's hired thugs was a sentinel, and they no longer had the noise of the helicopter for cover.

Simon pointed at the fallen man, and then turned to peek back at the stretch of compound they could see. Blair, following the silent instruction, made sure he was alive, removed his weapons, and tied him with some thin nylon rope from Simon's pack. When he joined Simon at the corner, it was just in time to see a man come running across the compound. He didn't look around, only darted into one of the tents, yelling something that Blair couldn't make out.

After a moment, something flew out the front of the tent and landed a few yards away. Blair was at completely at the wrong angle to tell what it was, but a moment later it was followed by something else.

Simon came to a decision, and tugging Blair by the shoulder, led him back slightly, and around behind the busy tent that had things flying out of it. Blair felt terribly exposed, but they made it to the far side of the further tent without being spotted. The last bit--around the front to the door--Blair didn't breathe at all, but at last they were under cover and in what appeared to be....

A kitchen? Blair looked again and blinked. They'd captured the damn camp kitchen. And some guy cooking--

Blair took back all the uncomplimentary thoughts he'd had about Simon's usefulness as he neatly poked a gun into the man's forehead and motioned him to stay still while Blair picked up a nearby roll of tape and bound and gagged him with it.

Simon looked around, his eyes clearly asking, 'now what?'

Blair pointed at the little camp stove and all the nylon tenting. "diversion?" he mouthed.

Behind them the tent flap flipped open. A tall, blond woman was standing in the doorway, an automatic handgun covering them. "Well, well," she said. "This is unexpected. Also convenient. We can dispose of all of you at once."

Simon, his gun politely pointed at the packed ground, said in his best cop voice, "Now would be a good time to cut a deal. You're going to need one. Sierra Verde has the death penalty, and American extradition isn't going to be much better; international kidnapping--I don't even know how we're going to prosecute that." Blair added, "Forget that, experimenting on involuntary human subjects, that has to violate all kinds of international treaties going back to Nuremburg. Take the deal."

Pointing her weapon at Blair's head, she motioned Simon to put his down. "You boys really should play closer attention to the research. It's not the severity of the penalty that works best as a deterrent. It's the calculated likelihood of getting caught." She smiled.

"You've just been caught," Simon pointed out.

"And somehow, I'm still not motivated." She looked over the man still taped up on the floor. "He never was worth much. Untie him anyway. Please."

Slowly-- Pissed off-- Desperately trying to think of something to do--

Blair knelt down and reached for the tape. Nothing. He had nothing. He didn't know where Jim was or how Jim was or what the hell he was supposed to do--

Bannister flinched, half-turning away. Simon leaped, his hands closing around her wrist, forcing the gun up and away. She brought her knee up, hard, twice. The first time she caught Simon in the crotch, the second in the chest. Simon didn't let go.

Blair launched himself from his crouch on the floor, letting his weight unbalance her. She squirmed as she went down, her elbow crashing into Blair's head.

The gunshot wasn't close, but it froze them all for a moment. Simon recovered first, ripping the gun from Bannister's hands and clouting her hard on the side of the head. On all fours and swaying, she made a grab for Blair. Simon kicked her hard enough to knock her over.

"Shoot her if she moves," Simon snapped, passing Bannister's gun to Blair. He retrieved his own from the floor and poked his head out the door. "Well, hell, where are they going? Stay here," he threw over his shoulder, and took off.

Blair gaped. Simon--Simon couldn't mean for Blair to stay here! He stepped toward the door and froze. They couldn't leave Bannister free at their backs. They couldn't. And Blair couldn't exactly kill her.

She was glaring at him from her position on the floor. Her hair had come loose from its ponytail, and a handful of the blond hair was matted with blood from where Simon hit her. "Mind if I sit up?" she asked, turning over and stretching her legs out.

"Don't try anything. I will shoot you. I will."

"Of course you will. Shame it's too late to do any good."

Blair swallowed. "Don't underestimate Simon."

She shook her head. "It's already too late for your friend. Brackett killed him yesterday."

The world seemed to tilt, but Blair kept the gun level. "I don't believe you," he said.

"We were trying to get information out of him," she said evenly. "Find out just what he knew and how many other people knew it. But Brackett never did know the meaning of restraint."

"No...." Blair whispered. "Stop. I don't believe you."

"Suit yourself. You'll find out one way or the other."

Blair wasn't fooled. He knew she was trying to distract him. He knew that she would move. She had to. But that didn't mean she wasn't telling the truth.

***

Dinner the night before had been beans, fresh fruit, and very good bread. The operation had learned something since the last time Jim had been kidnapped. Sentinels under stress tended to have trouble eating, if the food was too complicated or poorly prepared. The food was fine, but Jim wasn't hungry. He drained the bottle of spring water and lay back on the narrow bed. He wasnít tired, either, but he pretended to rest. He'd read about the trances that were as refreshing as sleep, but they'd never seemed very likely before. Now...now it was different. He was different. Jim just let his focus go and passed the night listening, ready, alert. The time passed very quickly, but without the gap in awareness that would indicate sleep. Just after dawn he heard the bone-familiar drum of rotors pounding air. Show time.

The others were awake. They glanced at each other occasionally, as though they were having a silent conversation. Jim ignored his own rising adrenaline and made himself stand calmly with his hands on the transparent door of the cell.

The helicopter touched down. Over the wind of the rotors, he could hear someone shouting, "Just give it a chance! The program's pre-recorded. Just put the head phones on and pop them in. In twenty minutes, it's over!"

In the far cell, Eppes, panicking, leaped to his feet and crashed into the plastic. Spencer, beside him, made helpless, calming motions with his hands. "Easy. Don't lose it now. You've kept them out better than any of us. Don't lose it now."

Under the slowing beat of the helicopter the argument continued, a second speaker barking, "I don't have twenty minutes to give you. This site is about to be compromised. We'll re-create the grotto somewhere else--"

"That will take months! Just give me one--"

"Tempie," Spencer murmured, looking at Dr. Brennan.

She nodded. "Lie down," she whispered, dropping her shoulders, looking suddenly dazed and disinterested.

Jim couldn't quite follow their example. He sat sullenly in the corner furthest from the door, the cot between himself and the exit. Spencer and Brennan seemed to want their captors to come *in* for them. A risky plan--if you could even call it a plan--but better than nothing.

The boss was close to the building now, and his voice carried clearly. "Well? What do you have to say for yourself?"

There was a short pause, and Bannister answered with a stiff politeness that Jim heard as a warning, "Lee still can't form a coherent sentence. The doctor got him to eat, but...he doesnít have a clue what went wrong. He's been over the results of Ellison's EEG. They don't differ profoundly from the other subjects who entered stage three. That is as far as we got before we started packing up the research."

The boss grunted. "Everything that's not currently on disc, burn. We don't have time to be shipping out boxes. I want this place clean by this afternoon."

"What about the research subjects?" she asked.

"The left-hand ruin has a room big enough for several people, doesn't it? Well put them in there and set a small charge. No one will ever find them unless the Antiquities Board gets around to funding a restoration."

The outer door opened. Bud Torin, at last. Jim kept his shoulders hunched so that if his inward grin managed to escape, it wouldn't be noticed. Torin stepped into narrow access way and heaved a sigh. "Damn it. We were so close."

A short, thin man at his heels inserted, "Please. Just one. It will take twenty minutes. The results--"

"Won't do any good because we won't be able to sneak the subject out of the country alive." He pushed the smaller man back out the door and followed, saying, "Wallace, Baker, bring them out. Let's get this over with. Bannister, go get Brackett. He's too much of a liability to leave lying around."

This drew another protest from Torin's psycho little scientist. The tank shouldn't have affected normal people, and they needed more data and so forth.

Jim didn't bother to listen. They were being taken out. All together. Alive. It was a better chance than he'd hoped for.

The morning was cool and damp and a little foggy. Jim took a deep breath, smelled aviation fuel, kerosene for the generator, the whiff of the latrine even though it was downwind, empty beer cans, gun oil, old coffee--

Katie kicked him gently in the foot, derailing the catalog of scents before it could become a full blown zone. The two guards were herding them towards the cluster of funny, narrow hills. They weren't natural, Jim realized. They were ruins, so overgrown with bushes and vines that you couldn't tell until you found the door that it was manmade.

They were alone with the two guards and Torin; the little scientist had gone off to help with the packing up and Bannister still wasn't back with Brackett. One more guard trotted up and handed Torin a roll of rope and a small detonation rig. Torin sighed again. "See what's keeping Bannister and that doctor. We're on a schedule." He handed the rope to one of the guards. "Get them in and secure--"

With no warning or change of expression, Spencer turned and ran. The guards were surprised, the sentinels weren't. Before the first could aim his gun, Brennan had him disarmed and on the ground. Jim got the second and looked up to see that Spencer had headed *towards* the guard Torin had sent to check on the others. The man turned back towards the yelling just in time to have Spencer's fist nearly take his head off.

Torin was the last, then, but even as Jim turned toward him he heard the click of the safety coming off a gun. Katie and Eppes had gone for him. They were both heavily motivated, but they were also both thoroughly civilian. Katie was on her knees bleeding from her nose and Eppes was being held by his hair. Torin had a gun to his temple.

Panting, Torin ground out, "Now, let's try this again."

Spencer laughed out loud, though he didn't smell at all amused. "You're holding one of us hostage? You're going to kill all of us. What are you planning to bargain with."

Eppes ignored the exchange. His eyes were on Brennan. "Tempie, help me," he whispered.

"How?" she demanded. "I can't--" Her eyes flashed from Jim to Torin. Then her hand flashed out, snaring Jim by the wrist. Her grip was incredibly strong and completely irritable. It wasn't until she had *done* it that Jim realized that she had, in fact, pulled him into a blue dream.

The dream was only a little different from reality. They were still standing in the fenced camp, but the ruins were young again and the sun was high in the sky. Brennan was the hound dog. Eppes' meerkat looked, if anything, thinner and more mangy than before. For Jim, the body of the great cat was beginning to feel familiar. But Torin--

He wasn't, really, an animal. Not quite. He had fur. And paws. And wicked, sharp teeth. But it didn't really have a shape, or even edges, and mostly what it was made up of was emptiness and want.

"Charlie, I don't know how to kill it," Brennan cried. "I can't. I don't know how."

That was why she had brought Jim, though, wasn't it? Because Jim had stopped Brackett, and Jim could show Eppes how to stop Torin.

Eppes didn't seem to need any help. He'd hesitated only a moment before turning on the weak half-animal, tearing at it with short, sharp claws and small sharp teeth.

Unimpressive as the meerkat was, it didn't seem to need any help. It tore into the creature holding it with efficiency and thoroughness. He had used his grief and fear to keep him clear of the dream for months, but whatever his reasons had been, they hadn't included weakness or incompetence. The furred hunger tore and writhed, trying to pull away but too uncoordinated to move--

And then it was gone. The dream shivered, the blue light that colored the landscape shifting to grey and then to red. With a shout, Brennan collapsed the twisting dream and dumped them back into the sunlight morning of the real world.

The first thing Jim saw was that Torin was down. He'd fallen on top of Eppes, and they were both covered with bits of Torin's brain. Katie Gatling was standing over them holding a gun she'd taken from one of the downed guards. "He wasn't stopping," she whispered. "He was still--he was still--"

Jim took the gun and pushed Katie into Spencer's arms. "Stay here and watch them," he ordered, not adding 'the ones who are still alive.' "You can use the rope to tie them up. Eppes--"

Charlie Eppes had crawled out from under Torin's corpse and was stripping off his bloody tee-shirt. "The helicopter," he said. "If it takes off, we're stuck here."

"Yes, go," Brennan said. She turned to Jim. "There are four other guards. The doctor won't fight. The researchers are both--I'm hearing too many people."

Spencer, listening to the exchange, raised one of the liberated guns. He said worriedly. "Barnes should have made an appearance by now."

Before he had finished speaking, Eppes altered course and turned to the side. Several people were coming at a run. They came around the corner of the small prison, the staff and only two of the remaining guards. Jim raised the gun to meet them. The doctor and the two scientists stumbled to a halt, but the guards, seeing the prisoners, raised their weapons to fire.

"Cascade Police. Freeze!"

For a moment, Jim assumed that Simon's appearance around the corner of the building was some kind of hallucination, but the guards, caught between the escaped sentinels and the armed cop, stumbled to an angry stop.

"Who is he?" Brennan demanded, her voice hard and frightened.

"It's Simon--It's okay. It's okay. He came with me." Jim stumbled a little as he crossed the weedy ground to where Simon was disarming his prisoners. "This is--" Jim ran the count in his head again. "This isn't all of them. Two more guards. And Bannister, the sentinel--"

"We got the other two guards," Simon answered. "I left Sandburg covering the woman."

"Blair--" But Jim was already listening. Sandburg would be talking. He was never *quiet*.

Jim heard the background whisper of breeze and branches and insects. He heard a bird struggling to get away from a snake. He heard feet. Running.

Jim took off, back the way Simon had come, unable to explain--or even admit--his sudden panic. As he cleared the corner of the little prison and entered the main area of the compound, he smelled blood. Human. It was like a glowing trail, vivid and impossible to miss.

Jim followed the reek of blood into a sagging tent. There had been a fight--two of the tent poles had been knocked askew, and the floor was scattered with forks, apples, and dried beans. One of the guards was here. Conscious, he glared at Jim past the layers of tape that kept him immobile and silence.

For a moment Jim stood frozen, surveying the damage, refusing to drop his eyes just a little further because he knew what he'd see. When he finally did manage to force himself to look, for a moment he couldn't process the colors and shapes before his eyes. It was red, mainly. And red was bad, bad. Jim tumbled to his knees and started to reach out. He didn't finish reaching. He didn't know where to touch.

The blood was still flowing, he realized. That--finally--snapped the rest of reality into place. Jim clamped his hand down on that terrible leak and raked his gaze across the slack body.

Breathing. Blair was breathing. The blood was coming from a very small wound high on the inside of the thigh. Jeans and ground were both soaked, and Blair was terribly pale, but his heart was strong and even and Jim wasn't smelling death.

Jim ran his free hand over the rest of Blair's body, looking for heat-clues that would hint at another injury. He found a small lump growing just above the ear. Head injury. Damn.

Jim didn't know what to do but wait. Pressure was the only thing he could offer, he didn't even have a clean bandage. Only his hand, to keep Blair's blood inside his body.

Eppes arrived first. He yelped at the gory mess on the floor, but quickly began clearing empty pans and broken glass away so that Jim could sit down and take a more stable position. Simon and Brennan arrived not long after. Simon cursed succinctly and turned on Brennan. "You said there was a doctor--"

"That bastard is not touching Blair," Jim whispered.

"No. He doesn't get near anyone," Brennan agreed. "But I'll see if there's anything we can use in his supplies."

Simon squatted down beside Blair's head. "Jim? How's the kid doing?"

Finding the words and dragging up sound took several seconds, but Jim finally managed to answer coherently. "It's tidy. I've got the bleeding. It doesn't smell too bad."

"What are you talking about? Even to me it smells like--" Simon broke off, deciding against finishing that sentence.

Brennan returned and dropped down on the other side of Blair. She spread a clean towel on the ground and began to lay out first aid supplies. "Charlie, cut away the tent. We need more light than this."

Jim roused himself enough to say, "We can't fix this. The cut's only about an inch and a half long, but it's sliced the artery where it passes close to the skin."

"That's not a defensive wound." She frowned. "She cut him. To keep us here. She did just enough damage not to kill him but to make it impossible for us to follow her."

Jim tried to take a deep breath. It didn't help. "If I keep the pressure on, he'll make it until we can get this sutured."

Brennan shook her head. She seemed very pale, only her dark eyes showing color and life. "You're cutting off most of the circulation to his leg. And if help takes too long to come.... Jim, this is still leaking a little."

"So--what? You want to try to suture it? Here?"

"I know the anatomy," she said calmly. "I know the theory. We have the sutures."

Jim swallowed. "I was trained as a medic. I've," Oh, this was hard to say. It was even hard to think about. "I've sutured in the field before."

"Right," she said. "You're in charge. I don't usually work with live people."

The next twenty minutes were pure nightmare. Brennan cut away Blair's jeans and poured antiseptic all over everything. Then, as Jim moved his hand, she did it again. Before Jim could even pick up the gloves, her hand flashed out. She darted in with a blunt probe and a pair of forceps and gently snagged and closed off the torn blood vessel. She had been incredibly fast, but even so, the first well of blood made a puddle obscuring the wound. Jim used a handful of the gauze to soak up the mess. Then he took up the needle.

He tried not to think about Blair, unconscious and helpless and needing real help. Which Jim wasn't. He tried not to think about the clamp Brennan was using, which was completely wrong, and nearly crushing the little blood vessel. He tried not to think about how filthy this tent was. He tried not to think at all: Do. Just do.

Brennan had a tendency to kibitz, but her knack for handing Jim just what he needed and keeping the damage conveniently exposed made up for that. The tiny repair seemed to take forever, and when it ended it was with a startling suddenness that left Jim's hands shaking and his vision blurred over.

Jim heard someone bandaging the wound. He didn't know who. Someone also stripped off Jim's gloves and sluiced his hands with water. Jim didn't know who did that, either. When the world came back into focus again, he was sitting against an over-turned table, Blair slumped in his lap, and Simon somewhere close talking on a phone.

Jim took a deep breath and ran his fingers over Blair's face. Still unconscious. The repair was holding, though. That was good.

Simon cursed suddenly and tossed a heavy satellite phone out the tear in the tent wall. "Battery is out," he griped. "Never mind. Help is on the way." He rooted in a cardboard box and produced a bottle of water. "Here," he said. "You should drink something."

Jim took the water mechanically and sucked half the bottle down. "So?" he asked, circling the compound with his index finger, "How are we doing?"

"Well, Spencer is taunting the prisoners. If he starts actually poking them with sticks, I'll have to step in. Charlie found some paper and a pencil and he's calculating where to put the explosives to destroy this place, starting with the cells. Katie and Tempie are watching him, though, so I don't think he's in danger of destroying evidence." He sighed. "Help is about forty-five minutes away."

Jim nodded. Blair was all right. He could wait that long. He ran a hand over Blair's tangled curls.

"Jim--?"

Jim looked up. Simon shifted uncomfortably, but didn't say anything. "What?" Jim asked.

"Are you all right?"

Oh. "I wasn't hurt, Simon."

"Jim--"

"Not now, okay?"

Simon sighed and turned away.

It was very quiet. Or maybe it was only Blair who was quiet. Probably--probably, it was better this way. That leg would hurt like hell when he woke up. There weren't any heavy duty pain killers in camp, at least not that Brennan had found. Not even in the Doctor's supplies. Probably, this was not an accident, not that it mattered anymore. That doctor wasnít touching anybody.

Brennan came. She checked Jim with her hands and nose, then turned her attention to Blair. She checked the dressing, felt his pulse, laid her left ear against his skull. Jim wouldn't have thought to *listen* for bleeding there.

She rocked back on her heels and sighed. "We were lucky, I think."

Jim nodded. After a few minutes she wandered away.

He'd probably been looking at the wolf in the shadows beside the stove for several minutes before his eyes registered what they were seeing. That part of the tent was still intact, and the shadows seemed disproportionately dark.

The wolf was standing very still. His head was lowered warily, and he leaned back slightly, as though he was preparing to bolt. "Hey," Jim said softly. "Come on over." He patted his thigh as though he were coaxing a pet.

The wolf, nervous, stepped back, his eyes never leaving Jim's face.

"Here," Jim whispered. "It's all right."

The wolf huffed and shifted his feet. Jim considered climbing out from under Blair and going over to it, but when he started to move, the animal flinched and began to pace the cramped space between the portable stove and the water barrel. "Right. Okay." Jim made a show of not getting up. "Easy there."

He came to the edge of the shadow, head still down, tail tight between his legs.

"Why don't you come on back over here," Jim coaxed, patting Blair's chest. "It's all right, come on home."

With reluctant steps, he left the shadow and crept forward. He moved obliquely, keeping over turned coolers and a fallen set of shelving between himself and the humans. When he finally inched forward the last few steps, he stretched out his muzzle and sniffed at the smears of blood and mud on Jim's knees.

"Yeah, I know," Jim told it. "Pretty scary. But it's okay now. It's going to be fine. Come on home."

The wolf looked up, faintly suspicious and accusing, and refused to move.

"Oh, for pete's sake, Chief!" Jim hissed in frustration, "Don't give me crap. I'm doing the best I--"

To Jim's utter horror the wolf disappeared. Before he could call out a frantic apology, though, Blair stirred in his lap and grunted.

"Oh, thank god," Jim gasped.

Blair's eyes popped open. "Jim. Man. You okay?" he croaked.

"Me?" Jim's laugh almost sounded like a sob. "Christ. Yes, I'm fine."

Blair made an aborted move to sit up and yelped weakly. "Ow. Shit. What the hell?"

"Hold still. It's okay. Here, let's get a little more comfortable." He slid out from under so that Blair was lying flat. The ground was soft, but he groped around and found some kind of towel to slide under Blair's head.

"Jim, when did we--Bannister! I was--" He started to move again, but Jim pinned him with a hand on his shoulder.

"I'm sorry, Chief. She got away."

Blair sagged. "Oh. Crap. Sorry. Sorry, man."

Jim sighed. "She was a trained killer, Blair. You couldn't have...you couldn't have stopped her. Simon--" Simon should never have left Blair alone with a suspect like that. But Simon hadn't had any choice. "It's not your fault."

Blair took a deep breath and tried to start over. "Ow," he said. "Jim--?"

"Head injury, maybe a mild concussion. And she cut you on the leg."

"Oh. Yeah. I feel that." He reached for the bandage, but Jim intercepted his hand. "I donít remember that."

"We think she did it after you were already out." Jim didn't say they were lucky it wasn't worse. Luck had had nothing to do with it. The only reason Bannister hadn't killed Sandburg was that if his guide was dead, Jim would have had no reason not to hunt her down immediately.

Blair cursed softly.

"Yeah," Jim said. "Just relax. Help is on the way. We'll get out of here soon."

Blair nodded. "Thirsty," he complained.

Jim weighed the head injury--and the chance that it might lead to nausea--against how much blood had been lost. "We'll try half a swallow," he conceded, and picked up the bottle Simon had given him. There was still a little left; from his reaction, not nearly as much as Blair wanted.

"Wait a while. You can have more in a few minutes."

"What about the--the other sentinels?"

"It's all good, Chief. They're fine." Jim got up to find some more water. At the edge of his hearing, he could hear the blunted roar of distant helicopters.

***Epilogue***

The waiting room was long and narrow, and off to one side of the emergency room. The walls were painted plaster, not drywall. It was in good repair and probably clean enough, but it didn't *look* right, and Joel found it unsettling.

The hospital didnít have a helipad, either, which meant that the rescued captives would have to be brought in by ambulance after they landed. Which should have been about--Joel looked at his watch--about four minutes ago. The wait was excruciating....

All their information was third-hand. Joel and the others had been standing in Colonel Armand's office when the call had come in that Simon had managed to liberate the kidnapped sentinels, but they needed someone to take charge of the suspects, and they had no transportation back to the city.

They had been shuffled into an outer office to wait. It was a domestic issue at the moment. Agent Booth had protested. The man had a very polished, persuasive and intimidating protest, but it hadn't done any good, and over the last two hours they'd been shuffled from one office to another, until a junior police lieutenant suggested that they might want to wait at the hospital.

Through all of this the ambassador--former ambassador--had been strangely silent. He wasn't much like any politician Joel had ever met. When he had first met Ambassador Gatling and his assistant in the Dallas airport, he had assumed the man was subdued and distracted because his only child had been missing for weeks. Halfway through the flight he noticed that the assistant--an older Black man who was vigilant enough to be a bodyguard rather than secretary--was slipping the ambassador crystallized ginger and peppermints. Sentinels tended to run in families. Joel revised his guess from 'security' to 'guide.'

The ambassador was still subdued and quiet. He sat in the far corner, his arms folded, his eyes unmovingly on the floor. His guide stood close enough to just brush against his shoulder. Joel didn't try to make conversation.

He did try talking to Agent Booth, who was stalking the length of the narrow waiting room in a limping pace and releasing a stream of icy criticism against the local police, the army, the government (both local and American), the hospital, and himself. Joel could see that he was absolutely terrified, and once or twice tried to distract him. It didnít work, of course.

The ambassador suddenly jumped to his feet and raced out through the heavy doors into the emergency room entryway. He continued, without slowing, through the outer doors. Hurrying after him, Joel was in time to see the ambulance come to a stop in the looped loading zone.

It wasn't an ambulance so much as a converted van, and sentinels were pouring out of it like clowns out of a Volkswagen. "Daddy!" One of them--Joel had time to only register 'female' and 'filthy' before the girl climbed through the others and launched herself at the ambassador.

"Katie....Katie." For a moment there was silence. The ambassador's guide turned away, weeping. No one else moved.

The emergency room doors opened again, disgorging a nurse and a couple of orderlies. A tall, thin woman picked her way carefully through the crowd. "Booth? I'm right here," she said softly.

"Bones--I didn't believe them. Iím so, so sorry--"

Joel looked around, then looked again. He didn't see Simon. He didn't see Jim or Blair. His gut twisted. He'd been assured that they were all right--

The front passenger door of the van opened, and Jim hopped out. "Hey, Joel? Want to give us a hand?" He turned around and leaned back in. As he came up behind him, Joel could see that he was trying to scoot Sandburg out, and the process wasnít going smoothly.

"Where's Simon?" Joel asked, trying not to stare at the blood that covered both of them.

"The police needed a statement, and he was the only one not headed immediately for the hospital."

In the end it took both of them to lift Blair down from the van and settle him in the wheelchair one of the orderlies produced. The other sentinels had already been whisked into the emergency room. Blair reached out and grabbed Joel by the arm. "Listen. The others. They don't have guides to speak for them. I'm sure they know their limits, but if the doctors don't listen--"

"I'll take care of it," he promised. Blair looked like hell; pale and filthy as well as covered with blood. Joel would have promised anything to calm him down. Jim managed a brief, grateful smile as they were shuffled away behind an examining room door.

Katherine Gatling and Dr. Brennan both had guides who could handle them, but that left two others. Joel, unsure what to do, called out, "Mr. Eppes? Mr. Spencer? I'm a friend of Blair and Jim's--Can I--"

A head--curly, dark hair, very dark eyes--poked out of the nearest door. "You don't have to yell," he said. "We're sentinels."

Joel thought of Marcia, imagining her alone and hurt in some foreign hospital, and said, "Is there anything I can do to help you?"

Scowling, he opened his mouth, shut it abruptly, and said softly, "My brother. I want to talk to my brother. Please."

It took a little explaining and a lot of desperation: the hospital was not, after all, a hotel, and the staff was very proud of that fact. Joel wound up handing over thirty bucks of the cash he had on him, but ten minutes later he was using his calling card to place a call to California while Charles Eppes hovered at his shoulder nearly shaking with anticipation. When the phone began ringing, Joel handed it over and went to see if Spencer was all right.

He was fine, if fine could be defined as, 'eating some kind of pastry and flirting with two nurses while getting his blood pressure taken.' Joel retreated to the waiting room and buried his face in his hands. Just a moment. He'd sit here a moment and get his shit together. And then he'd go see if anyone had gotten hotel rooms for these people.

***

It would have counted as "made it back to civilization" that morning, except when they reached the base camp the rescuers set up, they found it abandoned. Cleaned out. Gone. Apparently, while they'd been out of communication during the freak ice-storm on Wednesday, they'd been written off as dead. Nice.

Fraser had paused only for a moment. He was angry as well as surprised, but he tucked it away quickly and, spouting a cheerful Inuit parable, continued on down the trail. He was carrying a scoutmaster with a broken leg. Even after carrying him for two few days, Fraser barely seemed to notice the weight.

Ray was so tired by this point that he felt like he was watching everything from outside his body. His boots had held up, and Fraser and Dief had made sure there was enough food to go around (as long as you didn't think about what you were eating) but his coat, which hadn't been quite warm enough on the cold days, was sweatingly warm now that the early storm had passed over.

Kowalski wasn't doing much better. He'd gotten punchy last night, and the little sleep they'd gotten in the scout-built lean-to hadn't done much good. By midmorning Sunday, he'd started singing. It wasn't pleasant.

When they finally reached the road, Ray planted himself in the middle and sat down to wait for the next car. Fraser had tried--briefly--to talk him into continuing down the road. "Every step is that much closer to home, Ray. 'A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.'"

"Nice. That Inuit?" Ray asked.

"Chinese, actually. Ray--"

Kowalski settled it by--for once--siding with Ray and sitting down beside him in the pitted road. After milling around tiredly, the scouts stumbled out and dropped around them.

It was only a twenty minute wait until a car came along. It wasnít large enough to take them all, of course, but the driver was carrying a cell phone that still had juice in the battery. By late afternoon, they'd had a hot meal and a shower, and they'd moved on to the part where the local RCMP post was making noises about another commendation, the American press were clamoring for interviews, and Fraser was whispering sternly, "Ray, you're looking smug."

Somewhere in the chaos, a secretary handed over a note that a Joel Taggart in Cascade was trying to contact them. Worried, Ray retreated to the back office and commandeered a phone. Not that it did much good. He couldn't reach Taggart. Or Jim and Blair. Or Captain Banks. Talking to a junior detective in Major Crimes, he was able to get a garbled report that they were all working on a kidnapping case somewhere in Central America.

When he finally gave up and hung up the phone, Fraser was standing in the doorway. "You heard?" Ray asked.

"Enough."

"All right." Ray heaved a sigh and rubbed his eyes with his hands. "How close is the nearest airport? We can sleep on the plane--"

Fraser was shaking his head. "It's done."

Ray thought about that. "Did it end...very badly?"

Fraser closed his eyes. "Bad enough. But it's done."

"Do we know what it was?"

"Not exactly, no." Fraser wouldn't meet his eyes.

"Oh." Ray thought some more. "Come on. There must be a motel in this town."

***

John really, really hated seeing Rodney in the hospital.

Rodney was asleep when John got back from the latest meeting with the doctor on duty. John closed the door and leaned against it, watching his partner drool on the pillow. He took a cleansing breath, forcing down his anger and frustration and profound fear. Rodney couldn't cope with John's upset--he could barely cope with his own.

Rodney stirred and opened his eyes. "Am I paying you to just stand there and stare at me?" he asked. The vicious teasing was comforting. John supposed it was meant to be.

"Yes, actually. It's a cushy job." He went over and sat on the bed. "How are you feeling?"

"Curious." Rodney yawned. "What did the bloodwork say?"

"Normal. Your immune system is fine, your kidneys are fine.... "

"Well." Rodney's mouth tightened. "That would be very encouraging, except early Michelson's doesn't always show up in the blood tests."

John smiled. "It's not Michelson's. No joint pain. No mysterious swelling. Normal EKG."

"Fever," Rodney argued.

"Your fever went down yesterday."

"Which just leaves 'mysterious collapsing' on the list of symptoms--"

"Rodney. Sam Beckett says there hasnít been a new case reported since Friday night. Your tests are all normal. I'm taking you home tomorrow."

"They haven't figured out what's wrong with me yet."

"At this point they have dozens of other sentinels to use as guinea pigs. Iím taking you home."

"And when I get sick again?"

John lifted his hand. "*If* you get sick again, I will be with you. Rodney." He took a deep breath. "Rodney, your whole life has been one long series off inexplicable and terrifying medical events. You have never let that get in your way. This....latest epidemic hasn't changed anything. Not really."

"Wow." Rodney said. "That's true. No, really. I've been living on borrowed time since grade school."

"That's the spirit," John answered, hoping Rodney couldn't smell how heartbroken he felt. "Anyway, the Senior design fair starts on Tuesday. You don't want to miss ripping their stuff to shreds." He smiled thinly. "It will be fine."

"You'll be right there."

"I promise."

***

Don watched his father absently count rolls of socks twice, and then return to the dresser for Charlie's favorite pair of jeans and a set of ragged sweats. "He doesn't usually get airsick, but just in case, keep him in ginger ale. Remember, not Sprite."

"Yes, Don. Not Sprite. I've got it."

"If you get there and he's not ready--If you don't think Charlie's up to traveling. Wait. Take the extra day or five. I'll be fine, here. A little anticipation won't be the end of the world for anyone. And make sure he eats. Fresh fruit, if nothing else. But don't wash it in--"

"I'm sure I'll cope. I've been his father for a while now."

"It's just..." Don sighed. "I wish I could go with you."

"Believe me, so do I. But your brother on the plane will be bad enough, without trying to manage you in the airport."

Don twisted at the waist, just enough to call up a thin sliver of pain. It would be several more weeks before he could move like a normal person. A trip to Central America was out of the question, though he would have sold his soul to go after Charlie himself.

Not a small irony, considering that, growing up, the *last* thing he ever wanted to be was a guide. He'd only taken that intro sentinel science course as a way of moving on. He'd thought if he understood Charlie....he could somehow let all the weirdness of their childhood go. Forgive and forget, right? Except by the end of the first week he was completely laid out by the astonishing idea that, "Donny, your little brother could really use your support" wasn't just a shortcut for nagging. When you understood what it meant to live in a sentinel's world...Charlie was a miracle.

"Anyway, Larry's coming along. We'll be all right."

"Yeah." Don shifted restlessly in the chair and immediately regretted the movement. "About...Fleinhardt."

Dad smiled briefly over his shoulder. It barely covered the anger. "Yes?"

"Look, donít get me wrong. I like the guy. I do. But he's not...the most, well, stable person in the world."

"He's not crazy. And he's your brother's best friend."

"Yes. I know. And he's a great guy, really. But--"

"The bottom line, Don, is that I donít need 'stable.' *I* can do stable. What I need is an extra pair of hands. Someone comforting. Charlie trusts Larry, and given what he...what he must be going through right now...." Dad broke off and fled the room. He hadn't cried once since Charlie was taken. At least not where Don could see.

Well, hell.

And Don had to admit he had a point. Charlie did trust Fleinhardt. Completely. Once a year Charlie let Fleinhardt use a ten pound hammer to break a cement block on his stomach as part of a physics demonstration. Yes, 'quirky astronomer' didn't begin to cover it. He was as much on another planet as Charlie was most of the time. But while it wasn't the *same* strange planet, Don had to admit that their separate idiosyncrasies had given them a special connection. With Don unable to travel, Fleinhardt might be a good second choice.

Dad bustled back into the bedroom carrying Charlie's toothbrush, toothpaste, and floss. "Look, when Larry gets here, I don't want you giving him any--"

"No, I won't. I promise."

"He's a good guy. And he's always been good to your brother."

"Right. I give...."

"I've called Mrs. Helman. She'll check on you tomorrow afternoon. And Tuesday afternoon, if we're not back by then. Meanwhile, that fed friend of yours, Megan, she said to call if you needed anything. Your own personal shopper--"

"Yes, Dad, you told me."

"Look, I just want you to...."

"Yeah, I get it. I'll be fine."

He turned around and looked at Don sternly. "You just make damn sure you are."

"I'll be fine. Just. Go get him. Bring him home."

***

Greg 'knocked' by tapping his foot on the floor. Polite. Grissom suppressed a sigh as he looked up. "You're in early."

"Yeah...I was...I wanted to..."

He didn't bother suppressing this sigh. "You have to look at me, Greg."

Embarrassed, he faced forward. "I wanted to talk."

Obviously. "About a case?"

"No, about the other stuff. Have you seen the news? Two hundred and seventy-three sentinels down in the last week. No warning. No history. One death confirmed."

Grissom wiggled his jaw so that he wouldn't give in to the impulse to grind his teeth. "Yes. I donít need the update. I just got out of a meeting with Mobley and Ecklie where I had to convince them that every sentinel on staff didnít need to be taken off active duty. As it is, the guides are going to have to sign off on all our paperwork for the next week."

Greg swallowed hard and looked away.

"Greg? Have you had any problems?"

"I feel fine." He didn't smell sick.

There was a good chance the danger was over. There hadn't been a new case reported in two days. "But something is bothering you." Something he'd come to his supervisor for, not his own guide. It might be important. Grissom tried not to look impatient.

"Do you ever have really weird dreams?"

"All the time. It comes along with the enhanced senses."

"About animals?"

Grissom wondered if this was some kind of trick question. "Sometimes," he said.

"Do you ever--Do you know what it means? When you dream about animals?"

Grissom ran that twice and decided he must have misread that. The question just didn't make any sense. "Can you repeat that?"

"Do you know what it means, when we dream about animals?"

"Well--I know what it means when *I* dream about animals. I don't know what it means for anyone else." Maybe it was some kind of trick question. It didnít make any sense otherwise.

Apparently that was the wrong answer, because Greg stood up and paced the office twice before facing Grissom and saying, "When kids are talking--they always say seeing animals means you're losing your mind."

"Kids say a lot of things just to be cruel. Or because they're afraid."

"So it doesn't...."

"If you can't tell whether the dreams are real or not, you have a problem. But that's true for anyone. And any kind of dream."

"But what causes, um, *it*?"

"That's the wrong question. Our neuroscience isn't far enough along to answer it. Whatever the mechanism behind them, Greg, your dreams are *your* dreams. The relevant question is, 'What do they mean to you?' Worrying about anything beyond that...is just a way of avoiding yourself."

"So, what? It's just about my subconscious?"

Grissom shrugged. "Maybe. I donít know. You have to figure that out yourself."

Greg laughed. "Man, you are no help--"

Grissom nodded, pleased. "Yes, that's what I've been saying."

***

Marcia managed to snag the phone on the first ring. Jack didn't even stir in his sleep. "Hello?" she answered softly, retreating from the living room where Jack was sacked out on the couch.

"*Marcia, it's Sam Beckett. Is Jack available?*"

Marcia extended her attention to the even breathing in the other room. "I'd rather not wake him. Unless you have news."

"*No, actually I called to say I don't. I've been collating patent data, but nothing useful is floating up. Iím at a dead end....*"

"How's your family?" She'd never met Sam, but Jack and John had mentioned him often enough.

"*Fine. Good. None of us have had a problem since Tuesday. How's Jack?*"

"Well, how do you think? His students are freaked out. One of his best friends might drop dead at any moment--oh, and most of his other friends are sentinels, including you and me. And just because we haven't gone down yet doesn't mean we won't. And he doesn't have a clue why or when it will end. Oh, and he's still in really rough shape from the most recent time he was shot. So, tell me, *Doctor*, how would you guess he's doing?"

The pause on the other end of the line was so long that she began to regret losing her temper. "*Marcia, is he sick?*"

"I don't know. He doesnít smell sick--" Not that she was sure she would know. Marcia could categorize forty-three different kinds of explosive by scent alone, but human smells weren't nearly so clear.

"*How does he smell?*"

"Um...."

"*Just stressed? Or kind of like fruit?*"

"*What?*" Marcia couldnít decide if the question was incoherent or some kind of nasty crack.

"*Sweet? Like apples?*" he coaxed patiently. "*Or maybe sour, like grapefruit?*"

"Oh. No. Not like fruit."

"*Like cabbage cooking?*"

"No!" but she knew that one, now that he put words to it. It was a really bad sign. "No."

Beckett sighed. "*All right. That's good. If you're worried, well, you probably have a reason. But it doesn't sound like we're looking at an emergency. When he wakes up, have him call me. I'll...have a word with him. All right?*"

She swallowed hard. "Thanks."

***

"Man, I just can't believe it. Four sentinels held captive for *months* and they all get discharged. Meanwhile, I come in on the last act, and *I* spend the night in the hospital."

Jim widened his eyes and said with sarcastic sweetness, "Aw, Chief. I'm disappointed. Surely, you don't begrudge those poor sentinels escaping a stay in the hospital!"

Blair sputtered while Jim laughed at him. "Man, I so want to go home?"

Jim shook his head, still chuckling. "Not hardly, Chief. The local authorities, the feds at home--there are a lot of people who are going to be writing reports about what happened down here."

"Oh." That thought sobered both of them. "Are there going to be questions we can't answer?" Blair asked. He didn't mean questions they didn't *know* the answers to.

Jim shrugged. "I was completely obsessed with finding Brackett. Driven. A sentinel on a mission, chasing wild speculations."

"Right. So, the truth. Is that going to cut it? Because, Jim, be both know a lot of what was going on was...way off the map."

"Nobody's going to ask if I came down here chasing visions. And even if...somebody was inclined to question my sanity, Katie, Charlie, and Tempie are all connected in high places, and the people who have them are...very glad to get them back."

"This is not going to be fun." Blair sighed and leaned back into the pillows. His eyes popped open mid-relax. "Crap. This is going to be all over the news. My mom--"

"Do we know where she is?"

"Well...she was invited to be one of the speakers at an environmental conference in Athens. But--it's not October yet, is it? She's still in Sedona, shop-sitting while Juniper takes some time off after having the baby." Blair grinned inwardly. As always, discussing the simplest of Naomi's activities made Jim look a little shell-shocked.

"Tell me it's not a head shop."

"Oh, man, no! High-end art. Sculpture, mostly. Very posh."

"Right. Of course."

Jim's bland expression made Blair laugh out loud, which shot a spike of pain right through his head. Jim re-focused immediately. "Hey, easy, there. You need anything?"

"No, since I can't go home!" Jim winced at that, and Blair added quickly, "Sorry. Sorry. I can do patient."

Jim sat down on the edge of the bed, close enough to Blair that their hips brushed. "I smell dinner coming. Beans and rice, you like that. And I'll break you out of here tomorrow."

Blair nodded. If he listened, he could hear the cart in the hall and the aid talking to other patients. The window was open, and the evening breeze coming in was warm and a little salty. "Jim, about Brackett--"

"Not yet, Chief. Okay?"

"Your call," Blair said. He felt a little shut out. He also felt sore and exhausted and more than a little fuzzy-headed, even after a long nap.

"Sandburg--I--I just--"

"You're processing." Blair gestured limply. "God knows you've got a right. I just...well, that doesnít matter. Even if I could fix it for you, I couldn't make it all better tonight."

Jim digested that in silence. Out on the hall, the dinner cart crept closer. "The thing is, it should be all better. He can't hurt...anyone anymore."

"It can't be that simple. You're carrying a lot of baggage about--"

"How I did it," Jim whispered, and Blair was suddenly wide awake and very cold. "How I stopped him. And I'm going to have to tell you. I don't know who else we should tell...about what they did to us. If we should tell anyone. The experiments didnít work the way Torin wanted them to, but, Blair, it was so *dangerous.* The idea of someone else fucking with people's brains like that...."

Blair frowned, trying to understand. "The animals themselves aren't bad, Jim. I--we--know that."

"But taking shortcuts to animals? Forcing them? Is that okay, even if the sentinel volunteers to try? If we tell people too much, they might...get curious. Not that we can keep it a secret. I mean, obviously, I can't go to Simon and say, 'Boss, the reason Brackett is too incompetent to prosecute is because I went into a dream with him and ripped his soul to pieces.' But I can't pretend Torin wasnít putting sentinels in half-assed sensory deprivation tanks and feeding them hallucinogens until they saw things. They never got a chance to destroy the records. We can't hide that."

"But *you* know," Blair said. "And you'll have to cope with it while lying about...everything. It won't be easy."

"Dinner's here," Jim said, rising to meet the aide at the door.

"Jim--"

"You should eat. And get some more rest. You smell exhausted."

Right. Okay. Blair let it go. This wasn't the place, and Blair wasn't thinking clearly enough for it to be the time. "What about you? Have you eaten today?"

"Simon brought me some ice cream when he dropped by while you were asleep. Don't look at me like that; it's what they had in the gift shop. I'll head over to the hotel later, get something to eat, check on the others." He pulled around the table and set down the tray.

Blair somehow managed to keep from reminding him to be careful.

End