New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

Ordinary Magic Part 4: Feng Shui
by Dasha

Summary: Things get worse before they get better. OR, Blair can't quite manage it by himself. Rated R for language.

Notes: For Martha and Kitty, who had to beta it (and put up with my current tense-change issues). They suffered so you wouldn't have to.

Disclaimer: Jim, Blair, et al., belong to large corporate entities and not to the author.

This story follows the seldom-used original 4th season airing schedule: #401: Sentinel Too, Part Two; #403: Four Point Shot; #406: Real Deal; #404: Dead End on Blank Street; #402: Murder 101; #407: Most Wanted; #405: Waiting Room; #408: The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg.

The antibiotic wasn't working. I knew he was taking it--I could smell it on him, even right after a shower, even right now over the smell of salt and algae. But the thick, overripe smell of infection was there, too, and by the time we got to the top of the stairs, he was breathing hard and wheezing.

I was pretty sure the reason he'd taken the stairs was to avoid being alone in the elevator with me. Fair enough. I understood the impulse; the ride home in the truck hadn't been a lot of fun for me either, and I wasn't on the receiving end of the lecture. I'd read him the riot act over that stupid stunt, nothing creative, just What had he been thinking? As though things weren't bad enough already! As though Brad Ventress had been worth the risk! He was not a cop and apprehending fugitives was not his job. It went on. None of it was what I should have said, though I was damned if I knew what the right thing should be.

He stopped abruptly, and I stumbled into him, my hands bracing against the coarse blanket we'd borrowed from Simon. "What?" I snapped, and then regretted the tone.

He glanced back, utterly surprised and mouthed, "My mom's here."

I looked around. "Where?" But once I wasn't completely focused on Blair, I could hear somebody in the apartment. *In* the loft. My first impulse was to draw my gun and kick in the door, but Sandburg was right. Naomi's heartbeat was notably slow. If whoever was in there wasn't Sandburg's mom, he was comatose. "So. Basically, the alarm system is a piece of crap." I reached past him and flung open the door.

Naomi stood in the center of the room, wearing a sea-green caftan and smiling sadly. Blair dropped the blanket and dove for her and the two of them flowed together like water poured into a bucket.

I felt a sharp jealousy and resentment. How easily he opened to her--and not at all to me. He'd been mostly closed these last couple of months, even to Megan and Joel and Simon, so I'd had some success in taking his shutting me out not so personally. He wasn't overlapping his light with the city around him, so it could hardly be personal if he wasn't touching me. But here was his mother, and they glowed so brightly together that I had a hard time seeing them with my eyes.

Grinding my teeth, I picked up the blanket and shut the door. Selfish bastard, I thought. Maybe she's come to fix this. Maybe she's here to bail your ass out of this mess before Blair winds up in the hospital again.

Maybe she's come to take him away. To give him an out, since it was obvious he desperately needed one. I took a deep breath and, when I felt ready, said, "Naomi. It's not that we're not glad to see you, but, ah, how did you get in here."

She smiled and shrugged. "I just had a little talk with your door." She looked at my face and laughed. "I know what Blair would choose for an entry code."

"Sandburg, we talked about obvious, personally significant numbers."

"It's not the numbers," she said, "It's the shape your finger makes punching them in." She drew something in the air. "This is for protection."

I looked at Blair, who shrugged.

It had been over a year since I'd had that disoriented, twilight zone, 'dealing with new-age snake oil' feeling. I'd thought I'd heard everything. I thought I'd adapted. Now I find out he'd been putting protection gestures in the alarm system. Why the fuck hadn't he put one on his office?

I would have retreated, then. I needed to go make some coffee or get a beer or fold the blanket or something. I needed to get a hold of myself. But Naomi let go of Blair and came up to me and hugged me. I couldn't look her in the eye. Not after screwing everything up so completely. She hugged me harder, laying like a soft blanket around the edges of my center. I had the urge to hold on to her and cry, and I realized she was offering me the chance. I wondered if today could get any worse.

I offered to make dinner. But no, she had brought some kind of 'sea vegetable' to make into a quick soup. It was supposed to be good for the immune system. Blair went off to shower while she got it ready. As he went into the bathroom, he murmured, "I swear, Jim, I had no idea she was coming. I didn't tell her anything."

Which, I knew, was true. Naomi had called eight times in the last six weeks, and each time I had heard Sandburg tell her that everything was under control and improving and that he didn't need her to come.

Dinner was appalling. The seaweed soup was just nasty. She served it with gummy bread made from spelt or quinoa or something exotic or Biblical or endangered or something. I listened to the baby pigeons on the roof and tried to convince myself that the rubbery, tubey things in the broth had to be a plant or noodle and not the tentacles of some sea creature. I only managed to reassure myself because Naomi was a vegetarian and eating it herself. I didn't complain; Blair's immune system needed all the help it could get.

I formally offered to do the dishes since 'Blair had company,' and watched as they went into his room. Although I could not connect with him, I could see Blair--even through the wall since I wasn't using my eyes. It was difficult to watch, even worse than his smell or the sound of his breathing. His outlines were blurry, faded. The seven crystal vortices that should have made a glittering line up the center of his body were cloudy and somehow misaligned. Sometimes they ran backwards. The fit of his body and his spirit was... off. Incomplete. Like he hadn't settled in, after coming back.

I closed my eyes, but of course I could still see it.

I hadn't had any idea how bad things were, originally. Alex had had hold of me. She had hooks and lines on me everywhere. Even where I could see them, I couldn't fight them. She pulled and pushed and consumed, and basically made herself at home like a termite moving into a log. Blair did his best. But he didn't understand it either. He'd never seen anything like it before. He could only guess what she was doing with scent and with her mind and what was just automatically there in me because of my hardwiring or the circumstances. He shielded me desperately--and futilely. He was clueless. And probably frustrated and a little hurt. In the end, the only thing that saved us was that Alex had no idea what she was doing, either. She knew even less about how to use her strength than we knew how to fight it.

I didn't realize--I didn't even *notice*--how much trouble Blair was in until he passed out against me in the jeep on the way back to the city. He had used every resource he'd had to come back to me. Then, when he should have been concentrating on consolidating his place in his body and fighting off infection, he'd gone chasing off after me. Poor sleep, irregular meals, heavy exertion... and every scrap of strength he'd been able to muster, he'd used to try to protect me from Barnes.

He spent four days in the hospital before we flew back to Cascade. For a week or so, he'd seemed to be doing really well. He'd gone to the university, played basketball, gone to a couple of movies with some girl from geography. But he was sleeping badly, picking at his food, and getting more irritable. The light I saw around him remained faded and blurry. It rarely met anyone else's, and never with mine. Sometimes it closed up and wouldn't even meet the ground. He smelled like infection. Intravenous antibiotics had put a dent in it while he was in the hospital, but nothing had since. We'd seen a doctor almost every week. They couldn't make up their minds about whether it was pneumonia or not. The drugs they gave him always seemed to help for a few days, and then the fever would be back and the coughing would get worse.

I couldn't help him. I'd tried in the hospital. Although I could see the shape of his *self*, see the clouds of sickness swirling slowly through him, see how little light was moving in and out of him, I couldn't connect. I touched him. I talked to him. I ran my hand along the spongy surface of his light as it slopped untidily around his body like a bag of water. But I could not enter it. I could touch him, but not *touch* him. Blair, feverish, panting even on oxygen, had looked at me with exhausted, sad eyes and said, "S 'all right, Jim. Go on to the hotel. Get some rest. Be better tomorrow."

But it never got better. Blair wouldn't let me in, he wouldn't have me. He didn't get healthier. Two months had passed, and while there had been a few ups and downs, he wasn't getting well.

As I filled the sink with warm water, I kept glancing over my shoulder at the image of Blair in his room. When he disappeared, I jumped, but as I took a good look, I realized he wasn't gone, just obscured by Naomi. I could see her, if I looked really hard; golden, mostly, with little sparkles of rose and lavender. She was smooth and clear and *so* bright. It had been a long time since Blair was so bright to me. I bent my head over the sink and began to pile the dishes in the water--only to jump again when I heard her whisper, "Do you want to talk about it, sweetie?"

"There's nothing to talk about. It was a complete disaster. I screwed everything up."

"Who was she?"

"A... research subject. Not with the police. Something else." My hands froze. I shouldn't be listening.

"What happened?"

"She was seriously messed up. Crazy. I didn't see it. I just thought she was overwhelmed, that she couldn't cope. I knew it was bad, but I didn't... I kept thinking I could help her if she would just let me in, you know? She seemed to need so much. But she couldn't... I couldn't get in at all."

No, I bet he couldn't. The last thing Barnes would have wanted was genuine closeness with Blair. Telling so many lies, her soul would have been hard to penetrate.

"She messed me up. She messed Jim up. God, I made things worse. Mom, I almost got Jim killed. I *helped* her, and she was... you wouldn't believe how awful she was!"

"Honey, it made the papers. She was--did you try to stop her when she came to the university for the nerve gas?"

"It doesn't matter. I messed up everything."

"Shh. Honey, no." But Naomi was the one crying. "No, sweetie, you're here."

"Because Jim saved me. But now--" He stopped. Of course he would realize that I could hear everything. Surely the only decent thing to do was to leave them alone, give them some privacy.

"You know... you really scared me, baby. You were just--gone. I couldn't find you, I couldn't feel you. Nothing like that has happened since the day you were born. I didn't even know what was going wrong...." Naomi cried. Blair cried. If I'd been any good at, I'd have cried.

There wasn't any talking for a while. Whenever I turned from the dishes, I could see them, an egg-shaped cloud the color of grass. She was Doing something. I had no idea what. I really hoped it worked.

"Mom--what am I gonna do?"

"About what?" A pause, then, "This?"

"It hurts."

"He won't forgive you?"

"He says he has." His answer was so soft I wondered how Naomi could hear it. "He's said all the right things, done the right things, but...."

A drop of water fell from my face to disappear into the cooling dishwater.

They didn't say anything else. When Naomi came out an hour later, the clean dishes had been put away and I'd made tea.

"How's he doing?" I asked.

She sat down at the table, looked at me consideringly. "Sleeping."

I nodded and pretended I hadn't known that.

"What have the doctors said?"

"They don't know. It was probably more than one kind of bacteria. The last time, they took samples, but this antibiotic isn't working either. He, um, he had a really hard time, and then he followed me to Central America--" But no, that sounded like I was blaming him, like it was somehow his fault.

"Has he been to see an herbalist?"

"No, he's been pretending it's not serious. He's been teaching."

"How are you doing?"

I shrugged and shook my head. It didn't matter.

"Jim, I don't want to interfere. I know that what you and Blair have is very special. You're the best friend he's ever had. But I think--I think there's some tension between you, and you'd both do better... Jim, right now, Blair isn't in a good place to manage stress--"

"His mana isn't moving and maybe it's my fault."

Her eyes widened. She backed up and reconsidered, and when she spoke again, her words were like the timid toe testing the water. "The terms you're using... aren't exactly accurate."

"I don't like to talk about it at all, ok? He's taught me things, but, if I think about it too much, it starts to get... unreal, you know?"

She nodded. "I imagine it's been quite an adjustment."

"Blair hasn't talked to you about it?"

"No." She looked at me for a moment, poured herself a cup of the tea I'd made. For Naomi, she wasn't talking a whole lot. It was making me nervous. "Have you tried to help him with it? I realize you probably don't have a lot of experience--"

"I--I can't," I whispered.

She nodded thoughtfully, turning the cup in her hands. "Why not?"

"I've tried, Naomi, God! But he keeps freezing me out. I can't reach him, I can't--" She was slowly shaking her head. I stumbled to a halt. "What?"

"He's not freezing you out."

"Who is?" I had a sudden nightmare that Naomi, having decided Blair's association with me was unhealthy, had erected a wall between us. There was no way I could take on Naomi. I was screwed.

But she was looking at me sadly, her lips compressed, shaking her head again.

"No," I said. "No, I am trying."

"Jim, I don't know very much about what happened, except that you were both hurt pretty badly. What I'm getting from you right now is mainly fear. I think that maybe your ability to be open, to create a channel--"

"No," I said. I caught her hand and captured the small star in her palm. It was hot. I laid it next to mine and, when she made no move to stop me, opened the door between them so that I mixed with her.

"So it's just Blair whose aura you can't touch."

"No. No." I pulled my hand away. "Naomi, I wouldn't leave him like that. You know I wouldn't."

"Jim, something very powerful happened to the two of you," she said sadly. "For someone who wasn't ready, maybe--"

"No. No. I tried. I didn't abandon him!"

I fled. To Blair's room. It was only as I shut the door after me that I questioned what I was doing. Even if Blair were awake, would I be welcome here? Could I hide in here forever? What was I going to do now?

He was asleep. A better sleep than he'd had in weeks. I snaked the small, round buckwheat pillow from under the desk and plopped down beside the bed. Perhaps it would have been better if I'd waited--maybe Naomi had a solution for what I was doing wrong. Sandburg said she taught this kind of thing.

I was stopping me. *I* was. That was what she'd been telling me. Blair wasn't freezing me out, I was choking.

I closed my eyes. He was right there, all the colors shifted slightly down the spectrum, all of them pale. I could, if I let my gaze linger, make out several layers of his--well, use the word. Say it: aura. I could see all the layers of his aura. If I looked another way, I could see the energy streaming in dozens of tiny rivers. The flow of his chi.

The rivers were slow and nearly dry. I laid my hand on his breastbone. Several of the rivers came together there, making a deep pool. Until this spring, there had been a small stream connecting him to me from that point. Now the pool was stagnant and cloudy.

Just put your hand in the pool, Ellison. Touch the water. But it was like touching glass. My hand slid off.

His eyes opened. He coughed. It was the dry cough that just irritated his lungs more, so that he kept coughing until it exhausted him. "Hey, Jim. What's the matter?"

I swallowed. "It's me. It's not that you... can't connect right any more or that you're mad at me. It's me. I'm not... I can't...."

For a moment he looked at me sleepily, and then he took my hand gently and moved it to the bed. "You don't have to, Jim. It's not an obligation. If it doesn't feel right... Jim, you can't force it. If you're still too angry with me, or--"

"No." I stopped, closed my eyes, reached for him, missed.

"Shhh," he whispered, taking my hand again. "Relax. Let's think about this." He coughed, hard, and curled onto his side, still holding my hand. He was tired. I could see the places where this latest mess with Ventress had hurt him, was still hurting him. The bruises, yes, but also the angry orange streaks in the air above him. One of his students raped, two others criminals, the university abandoning him. I had been no help; impatient because he shouldn't have been teaching summer school, shouldn't have been doing police work, he should have been resting. He should have been getting better, and he wasn't, and I'd been *angry* with him. But look, look how much of him was tied up with that university. Of course all this had hurt him. It wasn't his fault he couldn't just absorb this kind of crap and go on like he used to. He was full of clouds and scorched places, some of them new, some of them almost two months old. Negative energy. "Hey," Blair said softly, drawing me back out to see him with my eyes again. "Ok. Ok. Talk to me."

I'm sorry, I thought. Don't leave me. I miss you. "Blair, I've tried. I keep--I can't reach you!"

A thin smile. "Yeah. I'm getting that." His hand squeezed mine. "Why?"

"Your mom thinks--" I stopped. Well, hell. Might as well 'own' my own issues. "I'm scared."

"Ok." He waited, but I didn't know what else to say. "You can still see me?" I nodded. "Is it so scary in here, you're afraid to touch me?" He lifted a hand to indicate himself. Horrified, I shook my head. "Ok. You're afraid you won't be welcome?"

I thought about it and said, "Yes, but I don't think that would stop me."

"You're afraid you'll hurt me?"

"No! I--I couldn't--" But I had hurt him, hadn't I? Maybe it was something I should be afraid of.

"Mmmm. Would you let me see something?"

"Sure," I whispered.

He frowned, reached out to touch my face. Nothing happened. "Jim, you've been hiding from me. I can't feel you properly."

I was? I didn't know I had been. I didn't know how to stop. "Push," I said. Whatever barriers I had, just let him crush them.

He smiled sadly, squeezed my hand. "What will I see if I push, Jim?"

I flinched.

"I'm scared too," he said. "I'm scared I'll see that you can't forgive me. I'm scared that you're still hurt from her and I can't fix it."

"What if I'm so messed up I can't help you? What if I'm so messed up you--won't have me? What *if* I'm so messed up I hurt you?" What if I gave it my best shot, and I saw that he was dying? I'd told myself I couldn't be so afraid of seeing him suffer that I would leave him to face it alone--but maybe I just wasn't admitting what a coward I was. Maybe--

"I trust you," he said.

"Are you crazy?" I hissed. "How can you trust me?"

He held in a laugh that turned into a barking cough. "I'm not--" he gasped "Not very smart!"

Suddenly there was a tiny line between us--tingly, cool, bright. But also oddly angled, poorly tethered, weak. A few months ago, we'd fit together perfectly. Now, it seemed awkward, uneven. I put my hand against the solid warmth of his body, reminding myself of what I'd said to Naomi. I wouldn't abandon him. Maybe my help wasn't worth much. Maybe I *was* going to have to watch him struggle and suffer from a much closer position than I could bear. Fine. I would try.

The line was Blair. It had the taste of him. But it was so... off. Shaky. Uneven. I could remember how he ought to feel. I had learned about these impossible things from the sense of Blair. From the beginning, he had been a rush of warmth, a cushioning between me and an overwhelming, exhausting world. Every time I'd felt like I was about to fly apart, to shatter into a million pieces, Blair had settled me, shored up my collapsing sanity. The dependence should have scared me. When I realized just how many of his exercises and tests were thinly disguised opportunities for some kind of mystical buddy-breathing or transfusion, I should have freaked. But I had felt utterly safe. Then I had begun to put together an idea of how he was doing it. There were times I felt him touching me, when he was several feet away. There were times when I was sure he was watching me, while he was just sitting beside me on the couch, his nose in a book. In my dreams, there was a thick rope between us. I began to see colors with my eyes closed.

All the times I had touched him before came back to me. They made a bright, beautiful comparison to this thin shadow of my friend. The first time I had reached for him on purpose had been when he'd been shot. Even then, he had not felt so desperately fragile as he did now.

"Shhh." He brushed against my heart, spilling a little comfort over into me. "'S' ok, Jim."

I tried to hold the brightness he'd just given me and give it back. It splattered and slipped away from me. I could touch Blair, now, but I still couldn't help him. I pushed my teeth together to keep from groaning aloud.

"Easy. Just relax. It'll come," he said, like he had all the time in the world. I squeezed his hand hard, and he sighed. "Breathe. Open up. It'll come." Our connection was fraying. I clutched at him. "For pete's sake, stop panicking!" he snapped.

I backed down from his anger--and lost him completely. "It used to be so easy!" I whispered. He coughed, curling over his stomach, sore from the bruises he'd gotten from Ventress' thugs. Coughing hurt. "Here, sit up," I said, pulling another pillow behind him. I started to rise. "I'll get some water."

He shook his head and held on to me with his free hand. I shifted to sit on the bed, holding his hand back. I couldn't *touch* him, but I could touch him.

He was scared. So tired and so uncertain. "Chief--" The connection was back. A sweet warmth slid out of me. I felt it go. Blair looked up at me in surprise, his eyes going wide, and then closed as he relaxed. He leaned into the pillows, his breathing evening out.

I tried not to think. I didn't want to jinx it. I didn't want to get in my own way. I could feel Blair, pulling on me lightly and unsteadily. His eyes were closed, but he had turned his hand so we were palm to palm. My hand burned.

It ended in just a couple of minutes. The warmth started backing up around us. The air was fairly vibrating with it. I tried to adjust my 'grip' on him. Blair had not taken nearly enough.

"Jim," Naomi said from the doorway, "ground."

I didn't answer her, and she brushed against the edge of me, bright gold and worried. "Jim. He can't take any more. Let the extra drain off. Blair--how did you teach him to ground?"

"Trees," Blair whispered. "Think of trees, Jim." He only had to say it, and suddenly I had roots and the shimmering in the air was sinking away. The bright rope between us faded to a thin fishingline.

Naomi laid a hand on my shoulder. "Enough," she said. I looked down. Blair was asleep.

I let go of his hand and calmly followed Naomi into the living room. When there was a little space between us and Sandburg, I planted myself in front of her and snarled, "It wasn't enough. He's dying--"

"Stop right there," she said softly. I rocked back on my feet, uncertain what she had just done, but feeling like I'd been slapped in the head with a pillow. "Do *not* give in to the worrying voice now." Her eyes were level. There was no fluttering about her, no backing off, no sweet flakiness. It occurred to me that I had never seen her operating in her world, only mine. She didn't fit very well in my world. I supposed I had noticed that, but I'd never thought about what she would be like in a context where she did fit. "I know it's frightening, but he does not need fear from us. He needs our help and he needs *time*."

I glanced at Blair's room, the faint outline of his dim glow clearly visible to me through the wall. I'd lost so much time! "He needs--"

"Jim, if you push in more than he can take, you'll just shred him. Jim, you've got gentleness in you."

I stepped back, suddenly appalled by where this conversation was going, having no idea how to handle it. I found the column behind me and leaned against it, closing my eyes. I could still see Blair, and now I could see Naomi too. With my eyes closed, while I was faced away from them. God.

"It will take a little time. You have to be patient. We've done all we can tonight."

I put her in my bed and slept on the couch. Even asleep, I was half listening for Blair to wake up coughing--he usually did. But he slept through the night and woke up without a fever. It was Friday. I made breakfast and went in to the station, leaving them together. I think if it hadn't been the Ventress case, I might not have bothered to tidy it up personally--it was Joel's case, anyway--but promising to make sure everything was under control was the only way to keep Blair home. So, I went in, I did paperwork, I checked in with Joel and read the final report. I pretended to be really interested in the work and left early.

When I got home, Blair and his mom were making bread. Somehow, I had expected something more... dramatic. I wasn't sure what. Something. But the whole weekend was like that. We cooked. We told stories. We played 'Trivial Pursuit.' On Sunday it was warm and we had a picnic in the park. It was pleasant. It was normal. The only thing special about it at all was that one of us was almost always wrapped around Blair. He leaned on us, taking from us very slowly. At night, before bed, Naomi would pull cloudy, stagnant gunk out of Blair's tepid light.

She left on Monday morning. I wasn't comfortable with that, but Blair didn't argue. She gave me a number and promised to come back soon--sooner if I got worried. So I coped.

Blair was... better. He fitted into himself again, mostly. He'd been sleeping and eating almost normally. The infected smell was nearly gone. But I wasn't sure he'd continue getting better with just me. I was staring pensively out the window, worrying about that, when he came back from walking her to her car.

"All right, what's wrong?"

I spun around, but Sandburg was only looking tolerant and faintly amused.

I shrugged. "I just... I dunno, she could have stayed a little longer."

A smile quirked. "So, I probably shouldn't have asked her to leave?"

"You what?" I backed off. "You're kidding."

He shook his head.

"Why?"

"Mom and I are all right with each other. You and I aren't."

"But--Blair. You're sick."

"We can manage that."

"Well, I'm glad you're so sure, because I'm not. Jeeze, Sandburg. You--you're--"

He came closer and neatly hooked himself into my stomach with a click I could almost hear. He looked up at me thoughtfully. "I just need a little help. It's nothing you can't handle for a few days."

"Your mom could do it better. No. Blair, we're all right with each other now."

He smiled. "We're getting there. We're not there until you trust yourself with me."

I closed my eyes. He was right there, of course. Not so blurry, not so faded. I missed my simple, concrete world where doctors cured diseases and you looked for fingerprints in a crime scene, not visions.

And you didn't follow your best friend into the afterlife and drag him back?

Well, no. Not that.

"Look--can't I trust myself with you next month? What's the rush? You've been..." He was looking at me. Calmly. With... certainty. There hadn't been certainty in his eyes since just before I melted down and ordered him out of 'my' house. "I'm scared."

"We'll be fine." He gave me a huge smile and backed off. "I'm coming to the station later--say about one." He scooped up his backpack. "This morning, I have a meeting on campus. Wish me luck. Call me if you want me to bring lunch."

When he showed up that afternoon, he had good news. Probably good news. He thought it was good news. As far as I could tell, he would be better off without Rainier. Or maybe I'd just have been happier if Simon had had to go through with his promise to find him some kind of employment with the PD. But he loved teaching. He wanted that degree. So probably this was better.

He arrived just in time to go on a call with me, then we got a very late lunch. Except for the fact that I was wrapped completely around him, things seemed pretty normal.

Over the next couple of weeks, Blair got better. He didn't smell like infection or stress. He stopped feeling fragile when I touched him. He was rarely moody, he almost never woke up in the middle of the night coughing. He was strong and connected and deeply embedded in everything again--the university, the station, the city around us. It was good.

There was only one close call. Ten days after Naomi left, Blair got gassed while we were working on a case. It was supposed to be 'harmless,' but Blair wasn't sturdy enough to just shake it off. It fuzzed up his nervous system. It blunted his breathing. He was still sleepy and unfocused six hours later, and then, that night, he couldn't sleep. It didn't help that both of us were torn up about Lindsey's missing baby and worried about Harry--or feeling guilty because we'd trusted him.

At two in the morning he was pacing the living room, scowling, exhausted, his light flaring orange and sickly hot pink.

"I'm *sorry*, Jim," he said as I came downstairs. "I know I'm making too much noise--"

I sat down on the couch, tired myself, afraid of what I might find when I really looked at Sandburg. I motioned him over, and he came, sitting beside me a little cautiously.

"Jim--" More apology was coming. Sighing, I pulled him into the crook of my arm, angled toward him, and closed my eyes. He smelled acidy even though he'd showered. The gas still in his system. As his light slowly seeped into mine, it felt a little sticky. I wondered how I would clean it out.

"What can you see?" The same tone he used to talk about my senses.

"Every model you've ever used to explain this? I can see all of them." I sighed. "Sometimes at the same time."

"Oh."

"And, ah, some you didn't tell me about. Little dots, like those ugly paintings, pointillism. Or pixels. Like you were on a computer screen, but three-d."

"Wow. Cool."

Oh, yeah. Cool. That was my first thought too. "Right now, I see, you know, those lines. Meridians. You've got, like, bubbles in them."

"Bubbles?" he murmured.

"Like kids' bubbles--small, round, transparent--but colored. They float, though, they don't blow away." I extended a finger, snared a bubble tangled in Blair above his ear, and gently tugged it out. It came away, slowly, with a popping sound Blair gave no sign of hearing. I scowled and complained, "The gas was a physical attack. Why is it messing you up all the way out here?" I caught another bubble, untangled it from Blair's light, let it go with another pop.

"Right. It chemically dulled and dirtied up my nervous system. How could that stay out of my energy?"

I wasn't in the mood to be reasonable. "Doesn't seem fair." I caught another, pulled it out. Beside me, Blair seemed slightly less jittery and restless. He was leaning on me, letting my strength flow into him. His colors were less strident.

"Jim, when you got shot in the shoulder--" I didn't hear the rest of his little lecture on mana and the human body. Thinking of getting shot made me think of Alex and brought back any number of things I had not wanted to think about: Guilt. Terror. All my concerns about his ongoing recovery. In the wave of anxiety that washed over me, I lost most of my grip on Blair.

"Damn," I said.

"What happened?"

"I just...." I shrugged. It didn't matter. I took a deep breath, tried to come back to this moment. Behind my eyes, the image of Blair with soap bubbles caught in his guy-wires came back into focus. I snared another one.

"Jim?"

Without meaning to, I said, "When we pulled you out of the water, your light was leaving you. I couldn't hear your heart, and your light--" I stopped, appalled with myself. He was in no shape to deal with this.

"It's a good time," Blair murmured. I felt him looking at me, trying to find the pain I was holding. "Let's do this now."

I wondered what it was like for him--if he was searching through tight, firm onion-layers or if he was seeing an image of the world-tree. Shapes, he'd said once. My blocks and baggage were all objects he groped at blindly--slopes and textures and shapes. I had to concentrate to find shapes in him, usually. It was so much easier to just *see* him.

His breathing slowed, his hands caressing my chakras one at a time, rooting around in my subconscious, in the projection of my body, in my soul. He touched something that *hurt* and I felt a little afraid. That would be painful, coming out. But no, he didn't pull. He just laid himself against it. If I closed my eyes, I could see the color changing. I felt--something. Like a flush. Or a wave of grief. My eyes prickled. "Chief--"

He lowered his forehead to rest against my shoulder. "Enough," he said. "We'll work on this. It's ok."

I wrapped my arms around him. The bubbles were still there, but beneath them, Blair was brighter and much clearer. I blew on the bubbles and they began to float away. Blair sighed.

As the agitation dissipated, he gave in to his exhaustion. By the time I took him to bed, I had to half-carry him to his room. By the next day he was better. No acidic smell. No dazed look or jumpiness. We went back to work on the case and although Blair still wasn't perfectly the way I remembered him, I figured we were past the worrying stage.

Not.

Two weeks later I caught the flu that was going around the station. I sat at my desk, watching used tissues accumulate in my trash, reluctantly admitting that it wasn't an allergy. I was sick.

Since my senses had come online, I had been sick exactly twice. In a world where the average was four or five colds a year, I had just written it off to my good luck. Clearly, I had been a little stupid. I hadn't been lucky, or even strong. Blair had been... well, he'd been doing something. Coaching my immune system. Attacking the germs' chi. Erasing the symptoms. Something. I didn't even know what was possible, let alone what sly, subtle thing he'd done to take care of it.

Aw hell. I rubbed my hands over my face. It shouldn't be a surprise. I knew he often kept the allergies in check. I would get in trouble sometimes, especially when the problem was something at the station. The confined space and puny air conditioning system combined to concentrate the pollen from a basket of flowers or the animal dander from contraband pelts into a toxic haze that made my eyes and sinuses burn and run. Once a good allergy attack got started, it would pick up speed, like a snowball rolling downhill, until I could neither smell nor hear properly and my sinuses felt like they were going to swell right out my eye sockets. But Blair almost always managed to stop those reactions before they got too far out of hand. He'd stand behind me, pretending to read over my shoulder while balancing me and suddenly the escalating reaction would taper off, just like he'd hit a reset button. That kind of intervention was easy enough to see. With a hint like that I should have guessed just how involved in my health he'd been.

He wasn't up to those sorts of calisthenics now. I wasn't even sure about his ability to protect himself yet and -- damn it, that was the real problem: Blair probably couldn't fight off an infection, and he sure as hell couldn't afford to have one. Not after the mess the drowning had made of his lungs. He hadn't healed enough. We needed more time.

I tried to keep my cool and use my head. I took the twigs 'n berries hocus-pocus he gave me. I tried not to stand too close to him, and, inwardly, I kept him at a distance.

It was a shame. The case was getting weird. I could have used some close order support. Or, hell, even handholding. The night before, Blair had come across a murder victim. Hard on him, but not impossible to deal with. Murder cases were often our job. Then, right after that, things went pear shaped. I started seeing and smelling and feeling things that weren't there. No. Worse than that. I was seeing the aura of someone who wasn't there.

Blair was fine with it. For all I knew, he'd known lots of ghosts. No biggie. Honor diversity, man. He calmly checked out some parapsychology equipment from the psych department and got to work trying to document my apparition. I spent the day racing back and forth between my worry about Blair's health and my worry about this new side trip in the road through the twilight zone that had become my life.

But what if this became a trend? What if I started seeing ghosts all the time? What if every murder I investigated came with a spectral victim complaining about how I was handling the case? I really didn't want to live like that. The testimony of the deceased probably wouldn't be admissible in court. And what if they didn't go away after the case was over?

I sure as hell did not want to share the twilight zone I was living in with the guys down at the station. But while Blair was a genius at covering for my senses and he'd managed to only let enough of his world view leak out to label himself as a bit eccentric, he seemed to forget that the only people who believed in ghosts were the ignorant and the stupid. Or, oh joy, the crazy.

The guys thought it was a real riot. When Joel called to say that there was a disturbance reported at the murder scene, I should have known he was plotting something. He hadn't gotten past that whimsical bomb squad sense of humor.

But after the little party had broken up and the clowns had left--I saw it again. Her again. She had a lot to tell me this time. She'd witnessed the murder I'd been investigating. Too bad she couldn't write up a statement.

When it was over, she left and didn't come back. After a while, Blair and I gave up and headed home. We were stopped at a light when he said, "How are you doing with all this?"

I shrugged.

"So... you're ok?"

"I don't see what difference it makes if I'm ok or not. It's going to happen either way." He waited, and I sighed. "I guess I'm ok."

"So you're not... mad or anything."

"Um, no."

"A little spooked, maybe?"

"Not that much." "Mad, maybe, at me?"

I looked up in surprise. "No. Why?"

"Well...." He waved an arm at me, prodding my light. "You've gone all clam on me."

"I'm not mad." He waited some more. "Look, I'm sick."

"Yeah? So?"

"So, I don't want you catching it."

"Jim, you can't transmit germs with prana," he said reasonably. "Anyway, it's been in the station for a week. I've already been exposed."

"I know, but--look, what if mixing up with me makes you more vulnerable? Or what if your body starts to show symptoms from my cold?"

"Jim, not sharing a coffee cup makes sense. Washing our hands, yeah. But I'm not going to show symptoms from your cold."

He sounded so reasonable, it was tempting to just let myself feel silly and give in. I glanced at him, making myself see the fading frailty that meant he still wasn't ready. "You, um, you take my crap into you sometimes. I've seen you."

"Jim. Taking shortcuts like that would be dangerous and stupid and pointless. I wouldn't do something like that." Utterly reasonable. Also, utterly untrue. I spared a glance from the road to glare at him. "Anyway, if I did it, I have enough experience to cope with that. And I wouldn't do it now."

"Blair, I don't--look, I don't want you giving up energy you *need*. I'm ok."

He was silent for a few minutes. At the next light, he said, "Having energy doesn't solve anything. Energy has to move. If I hold it, it just stagnates and rots." I didn't say anything. "Jim, do you realize that you keep trying to shut yourself down? You keep skipping out, not taking energy from anywhere. Hardly any. That's not healthy."

"I don't know how to keep you out. Ah. On purpose. I'm not good at it."

"You're doing well enough." A pause. "Jim, it's... hard, when you do this."

"Chief, I don't want you to get hurt. I feel pretty crappy. I don't want... it would be tempting to lean on you."

A pressure beside me. Hard. Unpleasant. Blair, pushing. I pulled into a parking spot and turned off the ignition, but didn't open the door. The pressure was like an itch, but also like a pinch. Maybe like a cat being petted the wrong way. "Jim, I can't force it. See? You can keep me out. You choose what happens. It's ok." Not strictly true. The unpleasant itch turned into a pleasant... something. Nice. Warm. Like music. Like the smell of bread baking. Like that feeling you get after you finish off a big steak and a baked potato with full-fat sour cream. Nice. It was easy to resist the unpleasant push. This though....

"Stop it, Chief."

He stopped. "You're being an idiot."

"And you're being... look, it's just a few days. Why can't you leave it alone?"

"Ok. You're right. Ok." He started for the door.

"I'm not mad. I'm just worried. Ok?"

He nodded. "Ok."

"Blair--"

"It's ok. Just a little uncomfortable. Um, you really should open up your roots, though. Maybe do flowers and rain."

That was all he would say about it. I gave up apologizing.

It was four days before I was sure it was safe to connect with Blair. By that time I'd gotten mostly over my cold, and we'd solved the case we were working on and the forty-year old murder of the, um, the ghost. Molly. That second case was the harder one. Besides Molly, there had been another witness. Robert Dunlop. He'd seen Trent kill Willis. He'd also seen Molly's murderer leaving the scene and disposing of the gun he'd used to kill her years before. Dunlop had been eight years old at the time. He'd lived in the building, down the hall from Molly. After she died, he continued to see her in the hall, looking out the window and waving as he came home from school, or tending the little patch of flowers underneath the tree out back.

I wondered what would have become of me, if Bud had haunted me, afterward. Dunlop never finished high school. He was in and out of mental hospitals for years, sometimes employed and medicated, usually not. He had been given seven different diagnoses. There were two arrests for vagrancy; people like that made people nervous. Who could tell if they were dangerous?

Blair had said that heightened senses were a symptom of some mental disorders. Interesting and scary, but think about it. What if the 'hallucinations' and inability to participate in normal society weren't the *cause* of some heightened senses and his experiences with Molly. What if it were the other way around? Would I be any better off than Robert if Blair hadn't found me? What would it have taken to get tagged as 'crazy' and medicated? Just how well would I participate in 'normal' society if I'd spent a total of six years in mental hospitals.

But I didn't know. Maybe Robert Dunlap had just been broken by carrying around the image of his dead neighbor and the man who'd killed her. Maybe he had some kind of brain imbalance, and the rest of it was just coincidence. Maybe. I didn't know.

I was thinking about it on Thursday night while Blair and I got ready for the poker game. We were hosting. Here I was, having a normal life. Sane. Employed. With a house. Friends. Vacuuming, and taking it for granted. There was a difference between me and Dunlop, but I didn't know what it was that *made* us different. I felt close to him. Sorry for him. And deeply, shamefully grateful not to be him.

Blair popped a forkful of something slightly warm and very rich into my mouth. "Well?" he said.

"I can tell the difference," I said. It was a chocolate cream pie made with tofu. Blair was just going to 'happen to have it around.' The guys, who didn't get elaborate stuff like that every day, would fall on it like locusts. After the big, macho men made fools of themselves fussing over it and complimenting him on it, he'd tell them they'd voluntarily been eating something <gasp> good for them. As revenge plans went, I didn't think it quite matched the attempt with the haunted house last week. But Blair thought it would be funny. Maybe it would. It wasn't bad pie. He'd used the silk tofu.

"Jim. Jim, hey... it's not that wonderful."

"Not zoning," I said.

"It's the whole ghost thing, isn't it," he said. A small coil of light extended from him, tested my boundaries. I decided I didn't need to keep him out any more, and suddenly he was all around me, close and warm. Sandburg visibly relaxed. Although he didn't smile, a tightness around his eyes disappeared.

"No. That wasn't so bad. Dunlop, though...."

"Jim, there's some help out there for him, but he has to want to take it."

I sighed. "He might, now that Molly's problem is solved. He can get on with his own life."

"Do you want me to talk to him?"

"What would you say?"

He shrugged. "I have no idea. I'd have to start by listening. He may want nothing to do with anything."

"Yes. Please. I'll... I think I'm going to have a talk with social services. Maybe." But nothing would give Dunlop back the years he'd lost to his memories and his illness and his ghost. "Chief--thanks."

"Sure. No problem." He headed back to the kitchen with his fork.

"No, I mean--for me."

"Huh," he said absently.

"That could have been me. Dunlop, I mean."

He turned around. "No. You were never close to that. Never, man."

He wasn't lying. But just because he believed it didn't mean it was true. When the senses came back three years ago I had gotten a really good look at how close I was to losing everything.

"Jim. You. Were. *Never.* Close to that. Never."

I felt like I should say something, but I couldn't agree. I shrugged.

"Jim, it's not going to happen."

"Yeah, I... I know. I just...."

"I was never worried about that--anything like that--happening to you."

There was something at the edge of him when he said that. "What were you worried about?"

"Well." A frown. "Occasionally, I'm afraid you'll get killed. I mean, I know you can handle just about anything, I know it. I know it. You're good at your job and you're tough enough to handle it even when I screw up. But. I mean, at first, especially, I wasn't used to the sorts of things you do. I mean, you know. Getting shot at. And stuff. Ok, yeah, I still worry a little."

I had to smile. Getting shot at was no biggie compared to the whole sentinel thing. I'd take an armed robbery over a sensory spike any day.

Blair's plan for revenge didn't go over as well as he'd hoped. The guys knew his cooking too well to be surprised by anything he served. My intentions for Dunlop didn't work out either, really. A few days after his release from the hospital, he disappeared. There was no indication of foul play--he said goodbye to Charlie Perkens down at the center and took off. Nothing to keep him there any more, he said.

Hell. I hoped he was looking for something. I hoped he found it.

Over the next three weeks, things got back to normal. We worked two murders and a suicide, but none of the victims showed up wanting to give me a statement. At first I was relieved; I'd had no idea how I'd cope with huge numbers of dead people. Live people were enough of a challenge. But then I began to worry; what if I were doing something wrong?

I asked Blair casually about what was happening and why we didn't see a repeat performance of the Molly episode. He just shrugged and said that not everybody who died had a lot to say and, even if they did, it probably wasn't easy to get through--even to someone with a threshold as low as mine. So I let myself relax. If Blair wasn't worried, things were probably fine.

What happened next... we might have avoided it if we had told Naomi the truth. She knew Blair was anxious about his dissertation. She thought it was an ego problem, that he was stressing over his writing ability.

Even if it had been about the CPD, what Naomi did about the problem would have been disastrous. Blair had had a very close-up and personal view of a number of cops that went way beyond dirty. With our luck, Blair wouldn't have changed the names in the first draft of *that* either. But Naomi was picturing a dry, academic work on male bonding or something. So she sent it to a friend for some professional editing.

Sid Graham.

He wanted to publish it. As it was. In that "brilliant, paradigm changing" first draft. He announced Blair's discovery. He gave excerpts to the press.

I was so angry. With Blair. I'd never imagined I could be that angry with him. He tried to explain. An accident, he said. A misunderstanding. It was NOT an accident that should have been possible! Had he somehow *not noticed*, over the last *three* years that it was kind of important to me that my coworkers *not* find out I was some kind of freak? Did it escape him that my family life was bad enough without adding this kind of pressure? Surely we were both pretty clear about the fact that if the crowd on the *other* side of the thin blue line figured out I relied on being able to hear them and a white noise generator or a sonic rodent repellant would pretty much take care of me one way or another, it would be a bad thing? He should have put enough effort into keeping this quiet to actually be successful at it!

But no. I had not heard the worst of it. I got that the night after we got back from botching the trap at Barkley's speech. He had promised to let me read the final version before submitting it. But this--this-- was a draft. Nobody was supposed to see it, not even his chair. In *this* version he'd included a lot of personal stuff, including a basic outline of his theories on the management and healing of chi in Sentinels.

Well. That explained it, didn't it. I mean, from the few bits of the dissertation I'd read... it just wasn't that interesting. Not to somebody who didn't know me or care a lot about sensory input, and maybe not even then. An inconvenient genetic anomaly that potentially affected, according to Blair's best guess, less than one in 200 people, and most of those would be latent. It would be useful for anthropologists looking at the organizational structures of very small societies, doctors, psychologists who specialize in the senses, and a tiny handful of people with out-of-control senses and no explanations.

But no, again. The draft Sid had gotten hold of was full of mystical connections, deep cosmological meanings, and tributes to my 'courage' and 'emotional durability.' Dear God.

Blair told us this in a miserable whisper. Feeling nasty, I had him read the parts in question out loud. Naomi just nodded, totally cool, neither awed or amused, not even surprised--not by the senses, not by the discussion of my occasional difficulties moving energy, not even by the mention of my visions (which was, thankfully, brief, and not among the excerpts given to the press anyway). She was fine with all of it.

I was ready to puke.

I fled to the balcony and cut myself off from Blair. Behind me, I heard him shudder. Naomi muttered an excuse and slipped into Blair's room--either so she wouldn't have to watch or to give us privacy. I didn't need privacy. I had nothing to say.

"Jim...."

"Not now, Chief. I'm just too angry right now. I really don't want to hurt you. And I might."

"I didn't do this on purpose--"

"That's not enough! Did you hear them in the bullpen today? How the hell can I do my job?"

"I talked to a lawyer this afternoon. They should be able to get an injunction against Graham sometime tomorrow."

"It's a little late, Chief."

"Jim, I'm sorry."

"That's not going to give us our life back."

None of us ate dinner, and we all went to bed early. The next morning, Naomi tried to build some sense of normalcy by making breakfast, but nobody ate very much of that either. I was still very angry, Blair still had not thought of a magic solution to make it all go away, and Naomi was still horrified and heartbroken.

That day was worse. It's bad enough when the other cops make superhero jokes. When the perps think you're so cool they don't take being arrested seriously, you might as well forget it. I was just screwed. There was no way around it.

All that evening and the next morning, Blair tried to be reasonable. I wasn't interested in being reasonable. I didn't see how being reasonable would help. I didn't see how *anything* would help. Talking about it just made me crazy, but Blair kept apologizing until I couldn't take it any more. Finally, half way through another uneaten breakfast, I handed Naomi back her tea and stormed out.

All the way to the station a little voice in my head kept saying that I was being unreasonable. Blair really hadn't done it on purpose. Even if he had, well, I owed him everything, didn't I? If it weren't for him, I'd have been locked up like Alex or on the street like Dunlap, wouldn't I? So he had a right to anything. After all, given a choice, wouldn't I have taken three years of sanity and safety, even if I'd known that the price would be... this?

The thing was, it wasn't about who owed what to whom. Never mind the professional relationship. After what had passed between us over those three years, I would have thought he'd have protected me, just because it mattered. As things stood, he had either been too stupid to protect me or he hadn't cared to try. My God, was I really supposed to believe he was so inept he didn't know how to password protect a damn document?

When I got to work, I asked Simon to pull Blair's credentials. It was all over anyway. There was no point in pretending otherwise. Before we'd finished discussing it, Zeller, thinking he'd finished his business with Bartley, opened fire on Simon's office with an armor piercing bullet. Almost before I knew what had happened, there was glass everywhere. Wind. Screaming. The smell of blood.

I was on the floor with Simon, but we had taken cover too late. Simon was groaning and gasping, an entry hole and an exit hole leaking blood onto the industrial carpet. I called for help. The air around Simon seemed to be screaming--although that could have been a ringing in my ears from the broken glass. Dear God. "Just keep breathing," I said. "Relax." I managed to get some pressure on it, and I tried to collect myself enough to support him from the inside. His light was streaked in neon yellow and red and it was horribly faded along the path of the bullet. Washed out. Drained. The ruined patch was slowly growing. I wished desperately for Blair, but while I could hear his voice, he was in the bullpen taking care of someone else, his energy focused on forestalling some tragedy out there. I wondered who, but could not take my mind off Simon.

An eternity later the medics came. I was still half-attached to Simon when they took him away. I just sat, stunned, on the floor and looked at the sticky blood dripping from my hands.

Blair squatted beside me. "C'mon," he whispered.

"What?" I said.

"Hospital. We're following them. Come on." He got me on my feet and led me to the men's room. As he ran my hands under the cold water I slowly re-connected with the world.

"Fuck. Zeller--we have to--"

"Joel's on it. Minutes ago. There's nothing we can do. Come on."

We waited outside the emergency room until Simon and Megan were taken into surgery. Megan had lost a lot of blood, and Simon probably had damage to his liver, but they weren't sure yet.

"No one was expecting this," Blair said.

I had recovered enough to realize that it was all my fault. If I hadn't been so wrapped up in my own problems, I would have understood that Zeller, having taken out his primary target, would be coming after me. I would have used that, been ready for it. Instead, I'd left him with a clear field. He'd gotten the drop on me, and Simon and Megan had been in the way. "I should have been. I'm so off my game, Chief, with all this media crap. That bullet was meant for me." There was a tiny line of light between us. It wound around me in a warm, protective coil. "Don't. Don't block out your senses. This is when you need them most and I can help you."

It *hurt*, tearing myself away from Blair, and I didn't do a very good job. He hovered at my edges like tattered fog, soft and supportive. Shit. He was going to stay with me. We were both mad, but he had still followed me to work, still brought me to the hospital... and I wasn't sure I was in any shape to beat Zeller. He'd gotten past me twice, and Blair-- "Take a look at that man. That happened because of me. I don't think it's a good idea to be around me right now. The only chance I have of getting Zeller is if I'm on my own."

So I headed out. To find Zeller. As if we had a single lead. I wound up visiting hotels with his picture--something we'd had uniforms doing for three days. It wasn't likely to be productive, and it wasn't distracting enough to keep my mind off the problems that had messed me up in the first place.

I kept thinking about the way Blair had *felt* to me in that hospital corridor that morning. The thing was--he'd felt normal. He'd felt right. Surely, after what happened, after what he'd done, after how angry I'd been... surely things should feel different. How could he have felt good and safe and strong to me now?

I wanted to just write the whole morning off and get on with my job, but after Clayton Falls I was developing a minor phobia about not listening to my gut. That one time when I had not trusted my intuition *enough*. I hadn't listened to my senses, I hadn't listened to my inner compass, I hadn't listened to my awareness of Blair. Despite the fact all signs indicated that he'd been exposed to an untested biological weapon, he hadn't smelled that sick. Scared, yes, and off, but not massively invaded. He hadn't smelled that sick, and when I'd touched him, he hadn't felt to me like he was fighting for his life. But I'd paid attention to the evidence, not to my heart and actually handed him over to a bunch of thugs who were keeping the town alive not because they cared if they lived or died, but because the plan was 'cleaner' if there were no casualties. I had let them *take* him because I wouldn't listen to me.

And now, Blair felt right to me. He felt right. My inner voice was telling me that pushing him away was a mistake. But surely--

Surely, this time, it was just wishful thinking. My inner voice just wasn't strong enough to face the fact that Blair had been careless with me, that he had kept the danger we were in a secret for almost a day, that everything we had had and all the work we had done was over now, finished.

I was making no headway on the case, so I went round and round on this. Hating Blair, looking for a reason not to hate Blair, wishing I had been hit by a car last week so I'd missed all this. Around 2:30 Joel called. He was coordinating the case now that Simon was out of action. He had a lead, he said. He gave me a place to meet him.

Joel and I watched Zeller arrive for his meet with an arms dealer. We had barely made up our minds whether to bother waiting for backup or not when the entire shop exploded with an inrush of wind and then a stunning wave of heat and noise.

It was a hot, fast fire. The fire department showed up and dumped water on it, but in less than half an hour, there was only a steaming, charred shell where the hobby shop had been. Forensics and bomb-squad and arson were poised to descend as soon as it cooled off enough. Joel and I went back to the station, feeling oddly unsettled and unsatisfied, although neither of us could put a finger on why.

Eventually, Dan called to say they had a body. No ID on it yet; it had been cut into two pieces by a flying glass countertop, and it was charred. Joel told them to rush it, although obviously it had to be Zeller. Obviously.

Rafe leaned around the door. "Hey, guys! Sandburg's on TV. He's giving some kind of press conference."

Joel and I followed Rafe into the briefing room. I wasn't prepared for what happened next. I didn't even understand it, at first. What Blair was saying just wasn't true. I tried to fit his words to what I knew was reality, and he was nearly finished before I understood that he was lying. He wasn't saying random things that had no bearing on the world. He was telling lies. He was killing his dissertation. His career. The idea of 'sentinel.'

I wasn't too clear on what happened next. I stayed upright. I talked to people. Somehow, I got down to the parking garage and the truck. I know I went looking for Blair, but when I finally found him, I had no recollection of deciding to look there. He was standing in the hallway outside of Simon's hospital room, watching the orderlies bring him back from recovery.

When he saw me, he drew in on himself, his boundaries politely solidifying into a tidy egg. I could see him, despite his attempt to close himself off. He was strangely luminescent. Not joyous or energetic, but bright and steady.

He approached a little uncertainly, and tried to talk about neutral subjects--Simon and Megan, the case. For my part--I didn't know what to say. He was a little scared and embarrassed. So was I. I waited for him to reach for me; it was always easier without words. But he didn't, and I realized what he was scared of was that I wouldn't get past this. "I saw your press conference," I said. "Oh, yeah. You saw it?" He glanced away, not reaching for me. "It's just a book."

"It was your life."

I reached for him, pushing my boundaries past my skin, the way he'd taught me. For a moment, I brushed against him, before he flinched away. "Yeah," he said. "It was." He tried to gather himself. "You know, you were right. I mean, uh, I don't know what I was expecting to do with it, and, uh... I mean, where do I get off following you around for three years pretending I was a cop, right?"

His light shivered slightly, the beautiful luminous haze muddying. I pushed against the smooth curve of his outer edge, spreading myself over him so he would *hear* me, and then I told him it hadn't been a waste, that he hadn't failed as either my teacher or my partner. "You've been a great friend, and you've pulled me through some pretty weird stuff."

He accepted that. I pressed against him and, tentatively, he opened. The wall parted and I tested that luminescence, that certainty. He was sure, I realized, that he had done the right thing. Even when he wasn't sure I would forgive him or that it could ever give us back what we'd had, he'd been sure it was the right thing.

I took him to the station with me. His car could sit in the parking lot at the hospital for a while. When we got to the sixth floor, nobody gave us a second look. They were almost weirdly casual. Rhonda asked if we'd heard any news about Simon and Megan. Rafe walked past us with a careless 'hi.' Joel nodded politely to Blair and then started to grumble about Barkley, who'd taken over Simon's office and was trying to stage his grand resurrection party. Brown and St. Croix took a moment to carefully not look at us as they rushed about their work. Well. They were giving Sandburg less trouble over being a fraud than they gave me over being a comic book character. Apparently, they would only rag someone about something they thought was true.

I looked at Barkley and wondered if the owners would risk sending someone else after him. Even if I had evidence that some new hitman had been brought in, I was sure we couldn't keep him out of the spotlight tonight short of arresting him.

Dan called, then. He had Zeller's medical records, and they didn't match the body he had. Hell, hell, ok. We had to get Barkley back under cover and get the manhunt moving forward again. Before I could even begin all that, though, Zeller came to us. He walked into the bullpen dressed as a cop and opened fire with two fully automatic weapons.

There was noise and glass and screaming and blood. My mind narrowed down to the smell of Zeller, the sound of him reloading. There were people between us, half of them unarmed support staff, some of them wounded.

Zeller emptied another couple of rounds in a careless spray, screaming for Barkley. I could smell his insanity. God, what a mess. He took off and I followed. The stairs--up, not down. Not a good sign.

He took out the door to the roof with a small charge that echoed in the stairwell and burned my ears straight through to the brain. My hearing wasn't up to locating him as I followed him out the door, so I dove for cover behind the air conditioner and hoped I wasn't making a good target. He fired. I fired and missed, unable to take time to aim, still not using my hearing for targeting.

"You missed Barkley again!" I shouted.

There was a noise of something rattling. I hoped it wasn't a bomb. "You're lying!"

Backup would be nice about now. "Might be time for you to consider another career."

His answer was another round. Something slammed into my left leg, hard enough to drop me and spin me around. The blood running down my leg felt scaldingly hot, and for a moment, I couldn't right myself. Damn. Damn. I could hear him escaping. He was going to get away from me again. "Jim. Jim, you all right?"

Panting, I looked up at Blair. Of course, Blair. Who else? "I'm all right. Zeller went over the edge."

He shuddered. "Yeah, no kidding."

"No, I mean he went over--" Aw, hell. "Here, give me a hand."

He caught me in strong hands and hauled me to my feet. He took me all the way to the edge, although I could tell he was almost as worried about falling with me as about Zeller. A rappelling line extended over the low rail and down the side of the building to Klaus Zeller, hanging about two floors below us. "What are we going to do?" Blair asked. "Pull him up or knock him off?"

I wondered if we could get somebody below him before he landed. Zeller snarled up at us, and I pulled Blair back just before he fired. With the flat sound of the shot came a higher vibration. The broken line snapped as it lost tension and split the air with its resonance. Below us, Zeller was falling. He hit a parked car with a squeal of bent metal and a wet and crunchy sound I could hear well enough. Then there was silence.

Blair and I stared, stunned, unable to believe it was really over. How could it be over?

Behind us the door opened again, and Joel tore out at the head of a bunch of uniforms. "Over the side," Blair said, hauling me out of the way. There seemed to be a whole army up there, suddenly. Their footsteps sounded like thunder and the world seemed to shake as they passed us, fanning out. I began to fold, and Blair braced himself, lowering me to the pebbly surface of the roof. There must have been pain; I'd been shot. All I could feel, though, was a silvery haze. It rose up around Blair, covering both of us, blotting out the sky behind him. One of his hands was palm to palm with mine, shoving that silver into me. The other hand was unclipping my cell phone so he could call for an ambulance. When he finished, he put the phone down and fished in my pocket for a rubber glove. He had to let go of me, briefly, to struggle into it. "Sorry, Jim. It's not sterile, but it's cleaner than I am."

Holding my hand again, he wiggled down so he could place his gloved palm over the hole in my leg. "Breathe, Jim. Keep your attention on me."

Like I could look anywhere else. He was glowing white, now, instead of silver. He was like the sun. Surely, some of the uniforms still milling around the roof could see him. What would he say when they asked him about it? He didn't seem worried about that, though. He was talking to me. On the chance that he might say something important, I tried to pay attention, but I couldn't have repeated any of it later.

When the EMTs came, they pushed Blair out of the way. His hand was still connected to mine by a thick, shining cable. I tried to relax. I'd been shot before. None of this was new. They wouldn't let Sandburg come in the ambulance with me, and that was hard. The ER was hard too; I wasn't the only casualty from the PD brought in there, and there was more blood-smell and rushing and misery in the air than usual. Pressure bandage and IV and x-ray. Familiar, and not a lot of fun. I began to feel pain from that little lump of metal in my leg.

By the time they wheeled me off into surgery, Blair still hadn't appeared. I didn't like that, but I didn't have a lot of choice.

The next thing I knew, Blair was tugging on my hand, pinching me gently and demanding that I wake up. I felt like shit and had no desire to wake up. I kept my eyes closed and tried to retreat.

Sandburg was pitiless and insistent. He was thumping me, now. I turned my head away, but he kept at me, and at last I relented, moving my hand so he would see I was awake. Maybe he would leave me alone....

My hand was empty. I froze. "Mr. Ellison?" A voice, not Blair's. My eyes popped open, despite being held down by a thick sludge. A nurse in a white sweater hovered over me, leaned down to take my pulse. Her fingers seemed to touch me very lightly, and the bed under me seemed vague and unreal, too.

Blair? But no sound came out and I coughed without force. I felt heavy and slow and a little confused. I looked around the room. He wasn't there. "Blair?" I got a whisper out this time.

"Mr. Ellison, you're in the recovery room. You've just come out of surgery. You're going to be just fine."

Shit. Where was *Blair*. I couldn't hear him in the room. But--it felt like I was touching him. I looked at my hand, and yes, there was the silver line, the only thing that seemed truly solid and real. I closed my eyes and wrapped my hand around that cord. The nurse was talking again. My tongue stumbled over itself when I tried to tell her to leave me alone, so I turned my head away and focused on the warm line in my hand. He would be at the other end of it. Where--?

It was Naomi's voice I heard first. She was several walls away, in a fairly large room. Waiting room? "Blair, honey, you know distance doesn't matter. We don't have to stay here."

"Distance doesn't matter if I believe it doesn't matter." Blair, tense and a little annoyed.

"Sweetheart, somewhere a little more private--"

"Mom, I just can't--"

"Ok, ok. Just relax."

A long pause. I wished he would speak again. It was hard to stay focused on that spot when I only heard an occasional snatch of breathing. Footsteps were a surprise, and for a moment I thought I'd lost them until I heard Joel's voice, "Any word?"

Blair sighed unhappily, and it was Naomi who answered. "They say the surgery went all right, but they're having trouble bringing him out of the anesthesia."

"Have you seen him?"

"No. They won't let me near him," Blair said softly. "Stephen's coming. We're hoping maybe family will be able to... you know."

"Blair, you know, if there's anything I can do--"

"I know, I know." A deep breath. "So. How's Brian?"

"Thirty-eight stitches. They're releasing him. I'm taking him home here in a minute."

"Oh, god. Listen, tell him...."

"Yeah. I'll tell him." A wave of anger danced across my hand, then, and deep hurt. Echoes of Joel, I thought. He must have touched Blair. I was too heavy and tired to either broaden the contact or block it out. All I heard for a moment was silence, and then Joel's feet retreating down the hall.

"He's in there," Blair whispered. "Mom, he reacted to Joel."

Damn. I wished he had the sentinel hearing. But if I could call out, he'd never hear. The cord--I tugged at it, but not strongly enough to budge it. I strained to hear the waiting room, wishing they would speak again--

A spear of light interrupted the careful zone I'd developed. I gasped, tangling myself in my IV line trying to defend myself before I realized it was just a nurse, checking my pupils. She asked me a question. I think I was telling her to go away when I fell asleep.

I woke in a different room. Dimmer. Smaller-feeling. I could smell tears. I turned my head--too slow, too heavy--and tried to focus on the figure standing in the corner of the room. The shadows defeated me, but by then I knew him by sound. "Stephen," I whispered.

He jumped and spun around, but he caught himself and crept toward the bed almost fearfully. "Hey, Jimmy. How're you feeling?"

I felt blunted and numb, far away from everything and buried under tons of heavy clay. I croaked non-committally.

"Here, wait a minute. They said you could have some water." The water was tepid and tasteless. My mouth fumbled on the straw. As I sucked at it, Stephen ducked his head, wiping his cheek against his shoulder. "Sorry. I just--they had some trouble. Waking you up after surgery. Scary." He shut his mouth hard. "I'm just--not ready to do it again. The first time you died was bad enough."

What? When was I dead? Oh. Peru. Damn. "Sentin'l thing. Little goes a long way. S'ok. Blair woke me up."

Stephen froze. I could see him trying to brace himself for a fight. Hell.

"Stephen, where's Blair?"

"I had him sent home. I didn't want him near you until I found out what you wanted."

"'Kay," I said tightly. "Want him here."

"Jim, he--"

"Didn't. He didn't. Stephen, please." Not the most well-reasoned argument, but the best I could do.

"All right. All right. He'll be here in the morning." A short pause. "So will Dad. He, um, went up north. Visiting Rucker. You know, getting away from--everything. He said to say he was sorry." Stephen recited the message without inflection. I wondered how he felt about it.

I sighed heavily. There was no way I was up to coping with Dad. Never.

Stephen held out the water again. "It's going to be ok. They had to clean up a lot of soft tissue damage, but, um, you're going to be fine in a few weeks."

I woke again to the glow of sunlight on my eyelids. Slowly, I pried them open; the room was too bright, despite the fact that the shades were down and the lights off. Blair was back. I could feel his warmth in my hand again. It took me a moment to realize he was there--solidly, physically present--and not just a phantom of his intent reaching out for me.

I turned my head, wincing at the light, and saw him seated beside the bed, his legs tucked up under him, his free hand in his lap. "Hey," he said softly. "Look who's up."

I squeezed his hand. Blair rummaged in his backpack on the floor between us and produced a pair of sunglasses, which he slipped over my half-shut eyes. Then he raised the bed slightly and passed me a bottle of the good water from home. All without letting go of my hand.

"Pain?" he asked.

I moved my leg experimentally. It was as heavy and stiff as stone, but it didn't really hurt. I shook my head. "Blair, we have to get out of here. My father's coming."

A wry smile. "Been. He was here for an hour this morning."

"Guess I missed it."

"Um, no, actually. You were very polite, although not terribly coherent. Well, he was crying. I don't think you would have yelled or anything."

"Losing time?" That didn't sound good. I wondered if I should be worried. I felt thick--hard to move, hard to see, hard to think. Something was wrong.

"It's the pain meds. You'll be ok."

Pain meds. If I was noticing that I felt this dulled, I was probably stunned to the gills. I reached inward toward Blair, pulling hard on his connection with me.

He let go--physically let go. "No," he said.

"Don't like it," I said.

"Jim, I have no doubt that between the sentinel abilities and the energy work we could clear out the medication, but in case you haven't noticed, it is actually *working*. That's a good thing."

He offered me more water. While I drank, another thought floated to the top and waited for me to notice it. "Crying?"

"They gave you a general anesthetic. You... had a hard time."

"Dad?" Stephen had been crying. I didn't believe it of Dad.

"He, um. He was a mess, Jim. Devastated. And--weird. When Stephen told him that you wanted me here, he was all over it. I don't know if he bribed somebody or what, but visiting restrictions have been lifted for me. He didn't do that because he likes *me* all that much. Jim, maybe you should give him a chance."

"You think he deserves a chance," I whispered.

"No. You do. Jim, you need some closure. Your inner child just isn't up to it. It's time your adult stepped up to the plate. Your dad didn't know how to love you. He fucked you up. Ok. But hating him for that isn't helping you. You've got to stop reacting as the child you were."

"We have nothing in common." I didn't want to talk about this now. I was polite. Even doped out of my mind, apparently. Surely he didn't have the right to ask more of me than that. I'd even sent a card for Dad's last birthday.

"You have nothing in common. And he's going to screw up again and again and he'll never understand you and he'll never be what you want him to be. But he adores you and he's desperate for you not to hate him."

"He's ashamed of me. He ran away--all the way to Rucker, apparently."

"Jim.... I won't make you." Relenting, not agreement.

I looked away, annoyed. "I'm ready to go home."

Blair sighed. "How about some jello?"

I went home the next day. Blair credited Stephen--apparently he was gifted at bullying medical personnel. It was Blair and Stephen who took me home, supporting me in the elevator and half-carrying me through the door. The world was still blunted and distant and I had trouble following longer conversations--the drug was still muffling me. Blair and Naomi fed me, medicated me, and helped me to the bathroom. I slept on the couch, or on Blair's bed--when I woke up I was never sure where I was.

I had weird dreams. I spent an eternity trapped in a repeating dream where I was awake, but unable to move and Zeller was in the hall. He loaded a rifle which he pointed through the wall at Blair, who was reading at the table or at Naomi, who was humming Crocodile Rock in the kitchen. I was cold from my own sweat as I struggled to get up or call out to warn them. When I finally woke up and found out it was Sunday night--when the last clear memory I had was of the PD roof Thursday evening--I staggered into the bathroom and flushed the pills.

"Tell me those weren't the antibiotic," Blair said quietly from the door behind me.

"When the hell did you get so thrilled about Western medicine?" I turned too fast, and had to grab the sink to keep from falling. "The last time I got shot, I didn't take anything."

"A lot's happened since then."

"Oh, you're scared so *I* have to take this crap?" I tossed the empty bottle at him.

He caught it and managed a thin smile. "So it's making you irritable?"

It was making me inarticulate. I grunted and shoved past him, weaving toward the couch in what I knew wasn't a furious stomp. Humoring me, they fed me and put me to bed. In the wake of the pain pills though, I couldn't sleep at all. The dial was turned way down, but my leg ached a little. My hearing, which hadn't extended much past the loft for the last few days, kept picking up weird snatches of conversation and the music from a bar down on Easton Ave. I had gotten used to not having to ignore sounds. Amazing, really, how busy and loud the world was. I lay awake until nearly dawn, looking up at Blair's ceiling and thinking about nothing and everything, unable to decide what I wanted.

Joel came by the next day. Naomi served tea and he brought us up to date on how everyone was doing (Megan already home, Simon home at the end of the week, Jones finally out of ICU), the case (somebody at the shipping company had started to sing, confirming much of what we already knew and adding in quite a bit of new stuff), and Major Crime (he had less than a dozen people on duty, including Rhonda, and he was running the department out of an empty office in IA until the damage to the seventh floor was repaired).

Then he asked to speak to me alone, if I were up to it. Blair and Naomi very politely excused themselves and went shopping. Joel had been talking to Simon, and there were some things they needed my opinion on. About me. About Blair. About the official position on Things. What it mostly came down to was, could we maintain the denial Blair had made, and if we could, what were our options? When Joel got up to leave a short time later, no decisions had been made--the decisions weren't up to me. But I had told him what I could.

"You were right," I said, as he picked up his jacket.

"About what?"

"I could have told you."

Blair and Naomi came home about half an hour after Joel had left. They'd picked up take-out sushi for dinner. My leg, stretched out beside me on the couch, hurt like hell, but I didn't say anything about it. Partly because eating sushi 'later' is a bad idea, but mostly because Blair had been acting a little weird about the whole pain thing lately, and I wasn't sure what he would do.

We ate in the living room because moving me to the table would be a huge production, and then Naomi gathered up the dishes. Blair perched on the arm of the couch and began talking softly. Before Naomi had finished the dishes he had me so tranced I felt half out of my body, and then he told me that the pain wasn't bothering me.

Of course, I had known Blair was *good*, but when he brought me back out, I felt a little awed. Also a little embarrassed that I had thought I could keep anything from him. "Thanks," I muttered.

He shrugged casually, and suddenly I had a glimpse of another world--the world where Naomi made her living (when she found a need for money) teaching yoga and working as staff at new age retreats and expensive spas--she'd funded a second 'career' as an expert environmental activist that way. And Charlie Spring certainly had a--well, not a normal life. But a life anyway. What he did wasn't any weirder than what Blair did, and Charlie wasn't any more talented than Blair. I swallowed. "You're, um, really good at this, Chief."

He smiled with surprise. "Thanks."

"No, I mean... really good."

He started to laugh, but paused when he saw I was serious. "Not really. I mean, yes, with you, I'm good. But what we just did--I couldn't do that with Simon. Or even Naomi. I was never good at it until I had to be, and a lot of what I know, I learned working with you. I think a lot of it is pretty specific. Besides, *you've* had a lot of practice with this, too. I don't think anybody could do with Simon what you and I just did."

"Oh." I thought about it. I dug for something to say. "So you're not taking this act on the road, then."

He laughed. "Well, I'd need a prettier assistant than you. I'm thinking long, dark hair and a sequined bathing suit." The doorbell rang, and he got up to answer it. "Of course, I'd have to learn to levitate her." He opened the door.

My father was on the other side. He had a huge vase of tropical flowers, which Blair swiftly fussed over and then took into the kitchen. Dad blinked after the flowers, smiled hesitantly at me, and stepped forward. Naomi shook his hand and led him in to sit in the chair across from me, before following Blair onto the balcony.

As Blair shut the door behind them, Naomi whispered with a new age cattiness that she usually hid with me, "Cut flowers! Why doesn't he just pelt the poor man with dead kittens?"

Blair swallowed a chuckle and responded, "Remind me to put them on the balcony before Jim starts sneezing."

Dad looked at his hands, then at the floor. "How are you feeling?"

"I'm all right," I said.

"Do you... need anything?"

"No," I said. Not from you.

He was sweating. He'd had a couple of bourbons. I wondered if it had occurred to him that I would notice these things. The silence grew embarrassing. I wished for an earthquake.

"Sally... ah. She was disappointed that you never did come for dinner."

"I've... been busy."

"Yes. Well," he said. "You know... I, ah, I've been rehearsing this conversation in my mind for several days. I still don't know what to say. I'm sorry for what I said the other day. On the phone. I wasn't angry with you. I was just... worried." He looked at me searchingly. "Jimmy, I know... I know I did a lot of things wrong. Everything wrong. But you have to know I loved you--"

"I know you were ashamed of me," I whispered.

"I was afraid. If the newspapers had ever gotten a hold of what you'd seen, they would *never* have left you alone. I mean, my God! Look at things now--"

"Don't you dare."

"I was trying to protect you!"

"I don't want to have this conversation now. Not now! I got over that. I left it behind me. I have a life. I have a job that matters. I help people. I have friends. I don't need this now. I don't--" I don't need you now. That's what I was thinking. I wanted to say it, so he would be hurt badly enough that he would go away and be gone and I wouldn't have to drag through this again.

But I could see him from the inside out, cracking, leaking something dark and acrid. I couldn't pretend he was the hard, cold man I remembered. I couldn't pretend he was lying to me. The looming judge I could never please had been replaced by a sad old man who knew about regret and shame and loneliness and pity.

I don't need you. But that was just a lie, a weapon of words, and while I could see how marvelously they would work--I couldn't force myself to use them.

"Son, I know I can't make it up to you."

I gaped. "No," I said. He couldn't. Those years when I *had* needed him--that night when every time I'd closed my eyes I'd seen Bud's face slack and blue, smelled his blood, his void--and all the times before that, when I'd needed his approval, craved his affection. There had been ten years of hoping for his love before that afternoon when my hope had been broken along with my senses. *Then,* I had needed him. Then--

No, damn it. I had gone on with my life. I had learned not to need him.

No.

No. I did not need him. I did not need to forgive him. I did not need him to love me--

I could feel him--stiff and narrow and not very strong. He shimmered in the air in front of me, brushed against me like a light wind. I had not meant to reach for him--not even to be open for him to reach for me. He was--familiar. I had never seen his light before, not consciously, but I would have known him. Mostly. There wasn't the brittle taste of disappointment in him, though, no disapproval....

Daddy. I swallowed hard on tears. I was confused, too exhausted to fight, not even sure who I was fighting anymore.

"I'm sorry, Jimmy. Walter told me it was a mistake to push things."

I swallowed again. "Walter?"

"My therapist." A tired shrug. "He warned me. I'm sorry, Jimmy. I didn't mean to make things worse."

"When did you start seeing...?" I felt as stupid and slow as I had on the drug.

"I started again in February. You know, after...."

"Foster. Yeah." Again. "Again?"

He licked his lips slowly, his eyes fixed on a point above my head. "When you were listed as--as Missing, there was some... Stephen stopped talking to me. He blamed me for everything."

What? I mean, I'd known Stephen was angry, but it seemed to me that he'd mostly blamed himself. At least by the time we'd talked. But then--we'd talked so little. Not enough, obviously. I didn't know what had gone on nine years ago.

"He was right, it didn't take me long to figure that out. It was all my fault. I--I had a kind of breakdown. Not... spectacular, but... that was when I retired." A long pause. "I finally started seeing someone."

"I had--no idea."

He shrugged.

When I'd come home, I'd sent his letters back unopened, trying to forget that I'd even received them.

"Jimmy--I guess I, I just want you to know that, I'm glad you've, well, learned to be who you are. To find your place in the world. And I'm sorry for all the mistakes."

"Daddy--" The whisper escaped, and once it was out, I didn't know what to do with it. Worse, he'd heard me. He had frozen and was staring at me, frightened, hopeful. I wanted to get up and go to him. I wanted to run to the balcony and hide behind Blair. If I tried either, I was likely to fall on my ass. "I just--I need some time, Dad. This is... a lot. I don't know--"

"That's ok." A hesitant smile. "I can wait." He took a deep breath. "If you, ah, need anything..." he waved toward my leg, "just let me know. Anything."

Then I was alone, sitting on the couch and feeling giddy and nauseated. God, I had not wanted to do this. I did not want to see him. I did not want to work things out. I did not want to be in a position where he could hurt me. I did not want to need him.

I was dimly aware of Blair and Naomi coming back in. Blair turned on the TV--a baseball game, so quiet only I could hear the announcer, and sat on the floor with his back to the couch. Naomi made tea and engaged in motherly, benign puttering in the kitchen--the only hint that it was all an act was when she firmly grounded me while handing me the hot mug.

"You don't owe him anything," Blair whispered.

"Chief--how can I trust him?"

"I don't know, Jim. What does your gut say?"

"My gut--has a lot of sympathy for him. I mean--I could have been... well, that. Him."

"But you're scared."

I thought of that scrapbook, his reverent record of my life. "I--believe he means it when he says he's sorry, but I'm just...." I wasn't sure what I was.

***

The next day I went to see Simon. I had Blair on one side and a cane on the other, and still it took a lifetime to walk down the hall to Simon's room. Simon looked good--alert and not in too much pain. The energy through and around him moved fairly quickly, which was a good sign.

After the small talk, I sent Blair down to find us some coffee.

"You all right?" Simon asked. "I heard there were some... problems."

I shrugged. "Sandburg took care of it."

He winced, trying to hide his unease. The sentinel thing scared the piss out of Simon, although he would never admit it. He sighed. "The chief of police was here this morning. Said his secretary was sure our statistics were ten percent better than everybody else's because we had a psychic on retainer."

"Ouch."

"I'd been hinting that our secret weapon was the volunteer anthropologist."

"Simon, I--"

"Save it. You did good work." A pause. "They're still going into your old cases."

I nodded. I'd expected that.

"I'm not worried. We documented everything."

"Everything that got submitted as evidence," I said.

His voice got hard. "That's what they got convicted on." I wondered about that conversation with the chief. I was sorry. I'd never thought things would come to this. "It's all solid."

"Is it? I've been over the line from the beginning. Those high-wire burglars I tracked down by smell. Not SOP."

"And it's not over the line to use a dog to track a criminal by smell." He winced. "Sorry. But you know what I mean. If they can do it, you can do it."

Despite myself, I chuckled. "Yeah. I know what you mean." I laughed. "If I were a police dog, I'd get more junk food than Blair lets me have now."

Simon closed his eyes and leaned into the pillows. "I told him he'd be a damn fool to let either you or Sandburg walk away. That ten percent? It turns into eighteen percent if you compare the length of time it takes to close a case."

"So?"

"I don't know yet. I'll keep you in the loop."

I could hear Blair out in the hall, then, and Simon and I switched to talking about football.

I spent most of the next few days sleeping and eating and trying not to scratch the stitches. Stephen came over with a bunch of movies. Rhonda came over with cookies. Jack Kelso came over with a bunch of books he'd borrowed from Blair and they spent a couple of hours on the balcony drinking beer.

Thursday night Simon finally called. Everything was in place. I asked Sandburg to give me a lift down to the PD the next morning--said I had some paperwork to file on the second floor. He mentioned he hadn't cleaned out his locker--which was perfect. We would ambush him there.

Sandburg gave us the slip in the locker room. Rhonda called in a sighting from MC, and we sent Joel racing for the elevator to pin him down while the rest of us hobbled after him.

Blair's response was everything I'd hoped for. More. He was doing his best to project an aura of 'cool, but not ungrateful,' but 'deeply touched and happy' hovered just under the surface, and I was sure everybody could see it.

The party was brief--Major Crime was still understaffed and over worked, and everybody who wasn't actually on duty was still recovering. Before we left, though, Blair managed a quiet word with everyone. It was only in the parking garage, after Naomi had left us for the visitors' lot, that he turned his sad eyes to me.

"Jim. If I'm working here, we might as well send a telegram to the press saying I'm not a fraud."

I nodded. The press had grown tired of the story before I had flushed the pain pills, but just because they had found new tragedies to exploit didn't mean that they had forgotten us completely. "The department is prepared to cope with that."

"What does that mean? Who *cares* what that means!" He stopped and turned to me. "Are you prepared to cope with that? It's not safe. Jim, if I'm not a fraud, then you're a sentinel. Hello? Fishbowl? Mockery from your peers? Crooks carrying bottles of patchouli? Is any of this familiar?"

"It's better than the alternative."

"What alternative? Peace? Sanity? *Safety*?"

"You disappearing."

He was suddenly very still. "Jim, I did not do *that* for nothing. What matters is protecting you. I made promises to you. You were an informant--I owed you." His voice dropped and he leaned forward. "And you are absolutely crazy if you think I am going to let my best friend be destroyed because of me!" He started to storm away.

"Chief--" I caught his arm, but even with the cane, my balance wasn't good enough that I could stop him if he struggled at all.

He didn't fight. "Jim, that little... pageant upstairs was... it was really, really kind. I can't thank you enough, or Simon enough, or Joel... but. But. We both know this isn't going to work."

I looked into his eyes. He was unmovable. Miserable, but absolutely sure. I was disappointed, but not really surprised. "Ok, then," I said. "What are we going to do?"

His breath caught and one hand lifted up to hover at my throat. "We?"

"You mentioned wildlife management once. Do you see us as game wardens?"

He gulped, and his light flickered at my edges. "Maybe."

"Or maybe private investigation."

"I've heard that's really boring. You'd hate it."

"Naah. We'd get all the weird ones."

"Oh. Yeah, ok. No badge, though."

"No IA. No reports."

He smiled timidly. "Keep dreaming. There would still be reports."

"You'll do them."

"Ok. Yeah."

"Yeah?"

He nodded. Somewhere around my middle, a warmth expanded and washed over us both. Blair smiled. "You know, I think you're ready for the weird ones," he said.

~end~