New Arrivals
Author-Dasha
Titles

Imperfections I
Part Two
by Dasha

See notes and disclaimer in part one.

After lunch Blair had a meditation lab scheduled. The lab rooms were about a third the size of a regular class room, sound proofed, and with adjustable light levels. Each one held an exercise mat, a couple of bolsters, and a chair or two. The camera in the corner was only used to record a few sessions for the purpose of evaluating the instructors, and then only with student permission. A tape recorder by the door was turned on and off by the psych students as they came in and went out. The recordings were kept for six months and were only used to ensure that behavior between instructor and student was completely professional.

Arriving at the lab, Blair motioned Jim to take the only chair, and then dug in his backpack for his schedule and student roster. Today Jefferson, Dianne here for her third lab and then Martin, Stewart here for his first. Four labs were required of each student, but they could schedule those themselves in any open slot of the instructor they were assigned to. Blair kept his sign-up sheet on the door to his office.

"Hi, Blair," Dianne grinned as she hurried in. Blair smiled. Rapport was so much easier with girls, and they made such easy students. He was competent with guys, but they tended to be a little more stand-offish and were more easily embarrassed. Or maybe the girls just thought Blair was cute and harmless.

"Dianne, I've got an observer today, but I can ask him to wait outside if you like."

She dumped her books by the door and turned on the tape-recorder. "Nope, fine." She smiled at Jim and flopped down on the mat across from Blair. "What's today?"

"The first two are mandatory, straight relaxation. The next two depend on what you want to learn. I assume you read the little manual?"

She grinned. "Kundalini."

Blair laughed. "Nope. To me, that one just screams 'inappropriate.' "

"The catharsis circular breathing thing."

"Mmm. Good choice, but let's leave that for last."

"Pain control?"

"Got it. Ok, we don't do this sitting up." Blair snagged a bolster and stuffed it under her legs. "This is pattern breathing, so it's more complicated than what we've done before, but you have some choices." He demonstrated the options, and then did them with her. "Which one feels most comfortable?" He'd taught this dozens of times in the last two years. He could almost do it in his sleep, except he had to pay attention to the performance of each student. He led her through a quick full-body relaxation, and then started her on the breathing, at first doing it with her. "Yeah, you've got it. Keep your pace steady. Good."

"I feel funny," she gasped between cycles.

Blair looked at his watch. About five minutes: right on time. "This will lead to a minor altered state. That's what you're feeling. No, don't slow down. You've just reached the point where it's working. Now you have to sustain it for about ten more minutes." It was a long ten minutes. The mind tended to wander when it wasn't tied to the body, and when her mind wandered Dianne slowed down. "Come on, come on. It takes practice not to lose your concentration. Don't slow down." She lost the pattern, her lips and tongue tripping over each other as though she was doing a tongue twister. Blair started breathing with her again, throwing in encouragement and checking his watch. "That's good. You can stop now. Just lie there, keep your eyes closed. Slow, deep breaths... pause a little at the top. Relax."

"I'm tingly. Kinda."

"Don't talk yet. Just lie there and let yourself come down." He gave her a couple more minutes and said, "When you leave here, drink some water. Lots of water. Also, you can practice this alone, but wait a couple of days, and don't do it alone for the first few times. If you do it wrong, it can turn into one of the catharsis exercises, and you don't want to do that by yourself."

Dianne was slowly sitting up, scrubbing her face with her hands and sighing. "Wow, thanks," she muttered. She gathered her belongings and left, almost forgetting to turn off the tape recorder.

Blair turned to Jim. "Well, we have half an hour until the next one. I usually read, but we can take a... walk...." Blair frowned. Jim was sitting in the corner, his face turned away. Hell. What could be wrong? Trying not to jump to conclusions, Blair got up and stood behind Jim, putting his hands on Jim's shoulders without thinking to warn him. Jim didn't respond to the invasion of his space any more than he had to Blair's voice. "Hey," Blair said a little louder. "Jim?"

"Sandburg, is that... is that the way sentinels are usually taught?"

Not what Blair had expected, but he could follow Jim's lead. "Usually? I don't know. Probably not. Most of them learn this stuff in school, really. Special counselors come through and hold classes at regular intervals. Or there are summer camps. Or, you know, some parents hire guides as tutors. Like piano lessons."

"For a late bloomer like me. Is that how you'd teach me?"

"Pretty much, yeah."

Jim shuddered. Blair pulled him closer, so that his head rested against Blair's chest. "You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to. It's ok. It's ok, Jim."

"You need to know," Jim said, his voice quiet and distant. "I can't do that. Lee tried to teach me. It was months ago."

"He was a lousy teacher, Jim. It wasn't you."

"You need to know. He. He." Jim steadied. "He tried to teach it to me one night after work. We spent all evening. I couldn't keep the pattern. Lee got mad. He pinned me to the floor with one hand behind my back. He put his other hand over my mouth and nose. When I wasn't breathing right he" a tiny hesitation "wouldn't let me breathe at all. He finally gave up. Said we'd try again tomorrow. But the next day I got exposed to an illegal substance while searching a crime scene. I spent a couple of days in the hospital and Lee... just forgot."

Blair blinked back tears. "You don't have to learn this. We can get by without pattern breathing. There are other things I can teach you for pain. Five or six other things. You don't have to do this if you don't want to." He suddenly understood what Jack had meant about paying attention to Jim. Blair didn't care about Brackett any more. The man deserved to be beheaded and his body dropped in a ditch to be eaten by dogs, but that wasn't important. Jim--terrified and ashamed and hopeless--was important. Figuring out how to comfort him, how to teach him, that was all that mattered.

"Why are you a guide?" Jim asked.

Blair sighed, wondering why he was asking. "Aw, my mom."

"Sentinel?"

Blair managed a thin laugh. "Not at all. Flaky hippie. My whole life, she was always trying to save the world. She tried so hard and believed so much. But half the time she failed. She'd march and petition and make signs--me too. In the end we still might be looking at a new nuclear power plant or fifty thousand dead fish or whatever.

"It was a good thing to do, don't get me wrong, Jim. And sometimes she succeeded. But, it wasn't for me. I wanted to do something that had regular, useful, positive results. Maybe being a guide's not as spectacular as raising money to fight land mines or whatever. But every day I would be helping at least one person. Every day! And sometimes there would be more... finding lost children, working with doctors--hell, even sentinel meat inspectors save lives several times a week."

"You'll hate the cop thing. We fail all the time."

"Just a bonus anyway. Well, for me, not for you, obviously. We don't have to catch *all* the crooks for my job to be important and interesting and successful." He turned Jim gently. "We'll get you through this. It's going to be ok."

Jim began to cry. Blair pulled him close against his chest. This was probably a good thing, as long as it didn't mess up his senses. He was already so tired, so worn. States of high emotional arousal were a bad idea when a sentinel wasn't stable.

The door to the lab opened. A startled undergrad stared at them for half a second and then fled. A moment later, Jim chuckled faintly.

"What?" Blair asked.

"He just said, 'if catharsis is that bad, there's no way I'm trying it."

Blair laughed. "Sometimes it is this bad. Oh, man. Sometimes they just laugh a lot, though."

"Think I'll give it a pass, Chief."

"Cool." The high impact breathing patterns weren't recommended for sentinels anyway. Certainly not without special circumstances.

"You've got another one coming?" Jim asked after a few minutes.

"Yeah. 'Fraid so. I can cancel."

"Nah. I'll just wait outside."

Blair badly shortchanged the next student. He taught the simplest patterned breathing exercise and sleepwalked his way through the lesson. He was outside looking for Jim in thirty-five minutes.

He didn't have to look far. Jim was sitting on the steps behind Hargrove Hall. When the weather was warm, it was a popular spot, crowded with students studying, but Jim was alone when Blair joined him. "All done," he said cheerfully.

Jim didn't look in his direction. "Why did I let him do that, Blair? What kind of person... I didn't even fight him."

"Jim, it's ok--"

"It is not ok! I let some psycho hold me down and torture me, and until an hour ago, I thought it was because something was wrong with me!"

Blair waited to make sure Jim was finished, then said softly, "When the senses first come on line, especially when it happens all at once to somebody who's an adult, a lot of times, it's all a sentinel can do to cope with the input. Everything's confusing, senses all over the map, just getting by takes all of his attention and energy. It breaks up marriages sometimes, it ruins careers. It's not just about your conscious mind learning how to make decisions about all that input--often the brain has to build new connections in order to process the incoming data!"

Jim still wouldn't look at him. "You're very kind," he said politely.

"You said a doctor gave you a lecture. What did he tell you--go out and find a guide quick and do everything he said? I bet the book you read pretty much said the same thing."

"Yeah...."

"Were you eating regularly then? Sleeping well?"

"No...."

"So you're exhausted and feeling crappy and overwhelmed all the time and--oh, yeah--undernourished, and everybody keeps telling you to obey the guide, no matter what. The things is, it's normally good advice. There's a lot of things a new sentinel doesn't know, and you just weren't in a place to evaluate the situation. That is not your fault."

Jim nodded slowly.

"Now you have to unlearn a lot of garbage and learn to trust the guide." Blair took a deep breath. "Jim, sometimes I'm going to have to ask you to do things you don't want to do or that are gonna be hard or scary. Not now. I know we're not there yet. I know you don't trust me that way--"

"I trust you--"

"It's not personal. I know that. But first you're going to have to trust yourself... to know when things are really wrong, and that you will stop them if they really are bad."

No answer, except to stare hard at the cars in the lot behind the biology building.

"Jim, Jack thinks you need to see that doctor as soon as we can get it scheduled. Did he talk to you much about that?"

"He's probably right. But. You're not legal yet. I'll have to go alone."

"That's not true. I can't make decisions for you, but I can be there. It won't be like a trip to the emergency room. It'll be unpleasant--a lot worse than it ever was when you didn't have the senses--but it won't be as bad as you think."

"Ok." Jim sounded flat and empty.

"I know this is not something we have the trust for yet--"

"It's fine, Sandburg. I'm not a little kid." Jim stood up briskly. "What now?"

"I gotta stop by my place, then we're done here for the day."

"Great. Say, where do you live?"

"The Smythe Quad. It's a freshman dorm. I'm lucky to have it--normally they don't take mid-term contracts, but housing took pity on me because my last place exploded."

"Oh, right. I guess Joel told me about that. You're lucky you weren't home when it went."

"No kidding! So anyway, I'm in Smythe, sharing a room with a fifteen-year-old genius so obnoxious that nobody else will live with him. It was the only opening they had."

"Um. Wow. That's...."

"Yeah, isn't it?"

Blair collected clean clothes, shuffled around his textbooks, stuffed his illegal hotpot under the bed, retrieved a box of his favorite tea, and announced, "OK, we're good to go."

Back at Jim's place, Blair got out apples to snack on and pulled out a tablet to take notes. "Studying?" Jim asked.

"We have work to do."

"But... you do have to study. I mean, your coursework--?"

"I can fake it for a couple of days before anybody notices. We have to talk about pain management." He motioned Jim to sit.

Jim sat, casting nervous looks at the notebook. "Were you, ah, serious? When you said there were other things I could do?"

"Yes. Which is why we have to talk--we need to make some decisions."

Jim nodded, picking up a piece of apple.

"The most effective choice is probably an induced zone. For right now, though, that's out. You're not comfortable with your abilities, your senses are still unstable, and I don't know how your zones go."

"Ok."

"I also think guided visualizations should wait."

"Why?"

"We need more time. You need to be used to me."

"I need to trust you," Jim said, challenging Blair to refute him.

"That too. I think acupressure is the best choice, if that works for you."

"It might not?"

Blair shrugged. "For some sentinels, no. Some can't stand to be touched like that, so it isn't the first technique we offer."

"Oh."

Blair moved around the table to sit beside Jim. He started small--pressure points in the hands to make headaches retreat. First he explained what each was for, then he showed Jim what it would feel like when Blair administered it, and then he showed Jim how to do it himself, at least for those points he could reach. Jim was amazingly patient with this, and Blair spent over an hour, carefully exploring Jim's body with his hands, finding the tiny places that marked his targets.

"Now the thing to remember is, when I do these for real, some of them take a lot of pressure. Some of them hurt, but believe me, if you need them, you're not going to notice."

"Wait--show me that spot again. I'm not going to remember--"

"We'll practice this a lot. Don't worry. If you need to, you'll be able to do this under stress. Now *this* is a shiatsu trick, but it works on the same meridians, really--can you turn a little--yeah, there--good."

At dinner time, Blair called a halt. Blair was looking at boiled chicken and fruit again, but Jim suggested Wonderburger, so they went out. Afterward, Jim looked over the materials Blair had collected for him about guide complaint procedures, and Blair read the assignment for sentinel medicine.

When Jim came out of the shower, Blair asked, "You need any help?"

"No, I'm ok," Jim said, and went upstairs by himself. Blair wasn't completely convinced, but he had to take Jim at his word *sometimes* or the man would have no boundaries. He did go up to check a half hour later. Jim was sound asleep. Blair returned to the couch and turned in himself.

The next day, Jim had things to do at the PD, so Blair went to class alone. Sentinel medicine took on whole new dimensions after having been in Jim's hospital room. Statistically, hospitalizations showed up about once every four years, not counting injuries. In under a year, Jim had used up his quota for the next thirty-six years.

Blair was bordering on hysterical.

He shouldn't think like that. Given effective education and some motivation, most late bloomers were classified as 'stable' with regard to their sensory functions in nine to fourteen months. Their bodies usually returned to their pre-manifestation health much faster than that. Even given that he was a late bloomer--and therefore considered high-risk--the odds were better than nine to one in Jim's favor. With some support finally, there was no reason Jim wouldn't get on top of his situation pretty quickly.

Except that Brackett hadn't just delayed Jim's progress, he'd actively messed him up. Jim needed counseling. If Blair couldn't get the whole eating-thing turned around soon, Jim would need to be fed intravenously. In the mean time, he needed testing and extensive training, but first he needed to get used to Blair. To get used to Blair not being Lee.

Blair had only one lab scheduled later that morning. He tried to focus. It was good practice; it was a given that guides had to work when they were upset. At the department lounge, there was a message in his mailbox from Jack, who wanted to see him.

"How's he doing?" Jack asked by way of greeting.

"I need to get him to eat, Jack."

"His likes and dislikes may have changed. Maybe he needs more variety? He might find something he likes."

"Right now, the primary problem is anxiety. And it's not just *his* problem at this point. I think about him eating--not eating--and I start to sweat. I'm trying to be casual about the whole thing, but..."

"No progress at all?"

"Well, we've gone from practically nothing to junk food. Which is not a long term solution."

"Don't hurry him, Blair. It's been months since he's felt safe. Let him have the crap. Just give him vitamins."

"Ok."

"Are you interested in changing advisors? Angela isn't in a position to evaluate you any more. She doesn't have a clue what you're doing."

"You instead? Yeah. Yes. Please." Blair smiled, but Jack regarded him almost sadly and produced a file from the bottom of a pile on his desk.

"Most of this is still classified. You can tell Ellison you've seen this--you have to tell him. Don't tell anybody else." He flipped through the file and passed several pages to Blair. "I'm surprised I didn't remember the name. It made the news at the time: five years ago Jim was retrieved from Peru after spending eighteen months listed as missing when a mission went sour."

"Oh my god," Blair whispered.

"That's what everybody knows at this point. What you are holding, nobody knows. It's a copy of the debriefing report along with a very irritated memo complaining that the fact that James Ellison was a sentinel was left out of his file and this kind of disorganization can't go on."

"What--but Jim wasn't--I mean, he *wasn't* was he?"

"Not before he disappeared. And not after. But looking at the medical records.... In the spring of 1989, definitely."

"Is that possible?"

"Oh yes. Frankly, a stress induced manifestation brought on by traumatic isolation, and repressed makes more sense than his turning late bloomer *now* with no triggering incident."

"All of the literature says triggering incidents are overrated. It's just flashy and memorable, not necessary."

"No, Blair. Not necessary for most people."

"My god.... Jack, how did you get this?"

"Blair, I'm a good guide. I was an even better spy." For just a second the Jack Kelso Blair knew--a pleasant, sensible man who was charming at faculty parties, performed creative and meticulous research, and remembered the names of all the graduate students in the program--disappeared. The man who took his place behind Jack's eyes was shrewd and dangerous and very, very angry. I see we have some spook issues here, thought a distant and nervous part of Blair's brain. Then Jack frowned, and it was just a social scientist who was frowning, not some kind of cold and deadly stranger. "Jim's had a rough time. Brackett would have known how to manipulate someone who was ex-army."

"Yeah, thanks."

"Has he made the doctor's appointment yet?"

"Not yet."

"Soon, Blair."

Jim was already home when Blair got to the loft--which was good, he realized belatedly, because he didn't have a key. But Jim opened the door when Blair was still getting out of the elevator, gave a quick wave, and vanished back to what he was doing.

What he was doing, it turned out, was assembling the bed in the spare room. There were mattresses now, and clean sheets were piled in the laundry basket by the door. "Wow," Blair muttered, "you've been busy. You didn't have to do all this!"

"Oh--no. It's not--I mean, this doesn't mean I think you *have* to stay here. Not. Not permanently--"

"Jim, you're a heck of a lot more fun than my *other* room mate. It's fine. I'll stay as often as we need me to. I meant, the couch was fine."

"This is better. I, ah, I know there's no privacy, but there's a door. I'm way too tense about this, aren't I?"

"That's ok, though. We're in a weird place, trying to balance your need to define and control your territory and our need to be together--a *lot*--until we get through the rough spots."

"I'm not--I don't mind."

"Yeah. I know. Listen. We need to talk about something else. Jack, um, he did something kind of obnoxious. I can't excuse it. I want to say he's always really... thorough, but this was almost paranoid...."

"What did he do?" Jim asked, sitting down on the unmade bed.

"He looked through your army records," Blair said, feeling embarrassed. "He told me about your being a sentinel in Peru."

Jim drew back slightly. "I was a sentinel in Peru?"

"It's not true?" It was hard to imagine Jack wrong.

"No, it may be true. It would explain a lot...."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't remember much about Peru, actually. I mean, I know *what* happened, I just... it's like it happened to somebody else, you know? And whoever it was turned in a really vague report with all kinds of weird editorial comments."

Gee, Jim, carrying some traumatic baggage, are we? But Blair didn't say that out loud. He didn't run away to hide either, even though for a moment it almost seemed like he might as well because there was no way in hell he was equipped to cope with so much.

"You ok, Chief?" Jim asked, and Blair realized that he might have kept his mouth shut, but he hadn't done any editing on his face.

"Yeah. That's all--you know--kind of awful."

Jim shrugged.

"I'm sorry about Jack."

"It's not a secret. Not to me. You know--I might never have put it together." He sighed. "Blair, by my count, Jack's going to be watching us for the next fifteen months. That's not always comfortable... but it's better than some other things."

"Yeah. I guess." Jim had already given up a lot of his privacy and control. He was hoping it would buy him sanity or peace.

***

"So, what do you want for dinner?"

"Pizza. We can order out."

Blair bit his tongue to keep from asking if Jim was sure. Yes, this was probably going a little fast, but if Jim was feeling confident and motivated, they could use that. If it didn't work, no big deal. Jim could eat something else. As long as they were calm and relaxed and persistent.

At first things went pretty well. Jim smelled the Canadian bacon and hamburger pizza while the delivery guy was still on the street. He was halfway through his first piece before Blair had carried the box to the table. "Sausage next time, Chief."

"Sounds good to me." I like pizza, Blair thought to himself. Pizza is great.

"Simon's agreed to put me behind a desk until you're accredited. Once I get back to work."

"We need to see that doctor."

"Yeah, ok. If you say so."

"Tomorrow I've got nothing. Do you want to work on the complaint?"

"Sure." Frowning, Jim put down his pizza and looked away from the plate. He couldn't be finished. This was only the second piece and it was barely half gone.

"Jim?"

"Not now, Sandburg."

"You don't have to finish the pizza. I picked up ice cream on the way home--"

"I said not now." Surprised, Blair put down his own slice and wiped his hands on his napkin.

"Jim. What's going on?"

"Nothing. I'm sorry. I'm not mad at you. I just need a minute."

"Jim...." Blair stood slowly and started around the table. Jim was sweating. Maybe he was having trouble with temperature regulation. It happened sometimes. "Talk to me."

"My throat's swelling a little. It usually goes away in a few minutes."

Holy crap. "What do you do when it doesn't?"

"If my fingernails turn blue, I call an ambulance."

"That's interesting. Let's keep that as the back up plan, hmm?" Blair fought to keep his voice soft. "I think we can do better than that. Come with me. Slow and easy." He took Jim by the hands and drew him into the bathroom.

"It's not the pizza. This just happens sometimes."

"Uh, uh. No more pizza ever. Close the lid and sit there. Good." If Jim had had proper training--if Blair had worked with him for months and knew how to manage Jim with subtlety--he could just talk him through setting aside the problem or redirecting blood flow. Most sentinels had amazing control over their 'involuntary' functions. Learning from biofeedback that other people couldn't perceive, they had an advantage when taking up body disciplines. Which was good, since they seemed to need them more than the average guy did. But Jim wasn't there yet. He hadn't even reached the point where he asked for Blair's help.

Blair soaked a washcloth in cold water, wrung it out and slowly began to wipe Jim's face. The terry was rough, very vivid to a sentinel , and Blair was looming in Jim's personal space. Enough, hopefully, to make him just a little bit uncomfortable. Come on, Jim. Pay attention to me.

"How is me being clean going to help?" Jim's breathing was becoming noticeably labored.

Blair refreshed the cloth and started on the back of Jim's neck. "It isn't about clean, it's about body temperature." A lie, but casual enough that he'd thought he might get away with it.

Then Jim said, "You don't have to tell me. Just say so." He swallowed hard, wincing.

"Will you shut up and let me do guide stuff?"

Jim's eyes flicked over Blair's face and away repeatedly. Blair took one of Jim's hands and began to clean it with the cloth, concentrating on the sensitive fingers. Pay attention to me.

He noticed the moment the anxiety left Jim's eyes. He was focusing fully on Blair's face, no longer snatching uneasy, curious glances. The tension left him almost all at once, like a wave going out at the shore. "Swelling going down?" Blair asked.

"Not yet. But I'm ok."

"Close your eyes?" When he did, Blair moved to stand to one side. He braced the back of Jim's head with one hand and laid his other thumb against Jim's forehead. The posture wasn't quite right, so Blair wasn't sure this would calm him. But then again, that might be balanced out by Jim *knowing* what he was doing. Suggestion was a wonderful thing. This was one of the pressure areas they had gone over yesterday. After a moment, when Jim didn't resist, Blair eased him sideways to lean against his chest.

"Is it over?" Jim asked at last.

"How do you feel?"

"I'm ok."

"Then I think we're good." Blair gently released him, and Jim sat up.

"How do you do that? Stay so calm? Will you teach me that next?"

"That wasn't a trick. I was calm because I really do believe that you're not all that touchy. The problems you've had up until now haven't been because you were fragile, but...."

"Because of him."

"Yeah."

"How did you *know* it wasn't that bad?"

"I think I knew it in the hospital." Blair sighed. "You were sick, but you weren't panicked. You weren't thoroughly out of touch with the world. I didn't want to believe it, when Joel told me his story. I kept thinking that if, well, if a sentinel were completely intractable--hysterical and touchy and not cooperating at all, then maybe it would just *look* to an outsider like the guide wasn't doing enough. I didn't want to believe that anyone could...." He wouldn't go there. Jim didn't need to think about that right now. "I mean, some people *can't* make the adjustment. But you were... in there, if you see what I mean. You still knew what ok was, sort of, and you were holding on to it. You were trying, and really, you were doing so well, even by yourself! And you talked to me. You responded so quickly."

Jim looked at him doubtfully and Blair sighed. "Listen. Let me go out first. I'll clear off the food so you're not smelling it so strongly, and then we'll go for a walk. Sound good?"

Jim was exhausted. Instead of the walk they wound up on the couch, Jim asleep with his feet in Blair's lap. There was nothing handy to read, but Blair didn't really mind. His head was spinning, full of Jim. Mine. My responsibility. My place.

How the hell had anyone ever thought there could be any professional distance in this? Ok, true, most sentinels probably weren't as brave and persistent as Jim. How could Blair not get attached? It helped that Jim saw Blair as his first real chance in a situation he'd given up as hopeless. Some sentinels saw the necessity of a guide as an intrusion or an usurpation of their personal autonomy. If Jim were responding with resentment, no doubt Blair would feel differently.

Jim had trusted him tonight. That felt better than *anything*, but there would be times when things didn't go so well. Blair would be disappointed if he thought everything would be this easy.

And while Jim *had* trusted him to take care of things tonight, he hadn't asked for help. He had tried to conceal his distress, hadn't admitted weakness. There were definitely times when Jim seemed to think Blair might disappear at any moment. There was a lot of trust yet to go.

After a couple of hours, Jim stirred. Blair gently shook his ankle. "Want to move up to bed?"

"Nah."

"Ok."

They rested, motionless, in the dim room for a few minutes. After a while, Jim asked, "That kind of thing, it happens to other sentinels?"

"Spontaneous non-allergic edema. It happens to about thirty percent, at some time or other."

"*Was* it the pizza?"

"No, I don't think so. It's a brain-body thing. You most often see it early on, when the brain is trying to figure out all those new inputs from the body. It's like the bugs haven't all been worked out of the program."

"So... we just wait and hope it goes away?"

"No. Those body checks you do before bed? As you get comfortable with that, we'll start making them a little more ambitious. We'll move control of this to your conscious mind. It will stop happening."

"Oh."

"How about some ice cream?"

The next day Blair had no classes. They spent the morning working on the complaint. Blair set up his laptop at the table and typed, Jim paced behind him alternately dictating and chewing over the particulars of descriptions. "It doesn't have to be perfect," Blair said. "The Accreditation Board will investigate. This isn't your only chance to say your piece."

"Yeah, yeah. I hate reports. What does Simon's documentation say about June?"

But Jim was tense and unhappy and Blair--there was only so much about how Jim had spent the last few months that he could take hearing. At noon, he saved the current file and stood up. "Let's go out for lunch. Wonderburger if you want--"

"Steak."

They didn't even make it to Jim's car--a huge green truck with a high cab and extraneous lights--before Jim caught Blair's arm and stilled him. "I don't believe it."

"What?"

"That bank branch on the corner?" Blair nodded. It was more than a block away. "It's being robbed."

"You're kidding."

Jim shoved a cell phone into Blair's hand. "Speed dial three is Simon. Tell him what's going on. Stay here." Then, appallingly--although Blair had no idea why this was worse than the rest of it--Jim reached down and produced a small gun from a tiny holster over his shoe.

By the time Blair was sure Jim's boss understood what was happening, Jim was pressed against the wall beside the door of the bank.

Blair did not have a clue what to do. The last thing he wanted was for Jim to *do* anything dangerous, but there was no way to stop him without getting in the way or attracting attention to Jim. Obviously, he shouldn't have let him walk away, but it was too late to notice that now.

He had to be closer. No matter what happened next, he had to be closer.

He crossed to the same side of the street as Jim and walked slowly in the direction of the bank. Too slow, too far away, and totally unprepared. He'd spent the morning despising Jim's last guide and here he was blowing it himself out of sheer stupidity.

While Blair was still on the wrong side of the intersection, the door of the bank opened and a man carrying a bag backed out. Jim stepped smoothly forward and pressed his gun to the man's head. The man dropped the bag and passed his weapon to Jim. Blair sagged with relief, holding himself up with the brick wall of the building beside him--

Suddenly, there were police cars everywhere, swamping the street from both directions. One or two let out short, sharp bursts of siren.

Jim dropped like he'd been clubbed.

The man he'd been holding turned on him. Jim made no move to defend himself as the robber kicked him in the gut and then turned and ran. That was when Blair lost sight of everything as men in blue uniforms swarmed up over the sidewalk.

It took him too long to get to Jim. Police were everywhere, in and out of the bank, all over Jim, piled in a heap pinning the robber about ten feet away. Jim was kneeling, hunched over, shaking slightly. One of the officers was trying to touch him, but Jim kept flinching away. Blair threw himself down beside them. "It's all right. I'm his guide. Leave us alone." A technical lie that might get him in trouble if anyone bothered to take exception. Blair didn't care. Jim was white with pain.

Blair put himself between Jim and the sun and cupped his hands over Jim's ears. "You were great. That was amazing. But you're done, now, Jim. Just relax. It's all over."

Jim squinted up at Blair in puzzlement. "Where is he--I lost him--"

"No. The police have him. He's in handcuffs. It's over."

"Yeah. Ok."

"Sandburg. Is he hurt?" Blair looked up. And up. Captain Banks was looming over them.

"I'm fine." Jim leaned hard on Blair and got to his feet.

"You know, I seem to recall you're on medical leave."

"Tell that to the bozo making the withdrawal." Jim's eyes were still closed and he had a hand on Blair's arm, but he seemed in possession of himself. Of course, he'd had a lot of practice in working while pretending he wasn't spiking or sick.

"I'm going to need a report."

"I'll do that, sir." They walked back to Jim's truck in silence, and then Jim said, "Lunch first."

"Wait a minute. Are you ok?"

"Sure. Fine. Little headache, but not bad." Jim shrugged and unlocked the door, not really paying attention.

"What about where he kicked you?"

"I'm fine."

"Turn around. Turn around, Jim." Looking puzzled, Jim complied. Blair pulled up his shirt and laid a hand on Jim's belly.

"Hey--"

The skin was a little red, but not swollen or coming up in bruises. "Does this hurt?"

"No."

"Check again." Jim was probably all right, but stress and adrenalin could confuse his perceptions even if inexperienced sentinels weren't as prone to misplacing sensory information as blowing it out of proportion. Then, too, Jim was used to ignoring his own pain. "Check again."

Jim didn't answer. Blair glanced up. Jim was pressed against the cab of the truck, staring at Blair almost fearfully. Blair stepped back. "Sorry, man. Let's just... calm down."

Jim watched him narrowly for a moment longer, then leaned down and sniffed him. "You're really freaked out about something."

"Well--yeah! That, that, that was a bank robber. He had a gun. He *hit* you."

"Blair, that was just my job."

"Right. Right. Sure.... You do that all the time," he said numbly. *This* was Jim's job.

Jim didn't deny it. "The only hard part of that was the sirens. My hearing was still on high."

"The rest of it was just your job...."

Jim continued to stare at Blair, more thoughtful now than nervous. "I really am ok."

"Ok, then. Right. Never mind. Lunch."

Jim ate a sixteen ounce steak. And the potato. And the salad. And a large slice of pie. Blair picked at his lunch and thought about what he considered normal. Jim got freaked out by little sensory glitches which Blair considered common growing pains, but that wasn't because Jim was particularly high strung or easily frightened. For example, he was totally cool with pointing a gun *at* someone. Or being physically attacked by an armed man. Jim could learn to manage the senses, too.

"Do you mind coming down with me while I write up this morning?" Jim asked as they left the restaurant.

"Nope. Fine. Say--can I see where they do strip searches?"

Jim snorted. "Wiseguy. If you're that curious, I'm sure I can find somebody to demonstrate--" Jim stopped, looking around and frowning.

"What is it?" Blair asked.

Jim turned a full circle, looking puzzled, then shrugged and unlocked his door. Instead of getting in and reaching across to unlock the passenger door, Jim slammed the door shut and leaped backwards, his gun somehow appearing in his hand.

"Jim, what's wrong?" Blair came back around the front of the car. Jim was fully alert, trying to scour all directions at once with every one of his senses. As a technique, it wasn't very effective, but Blair was impressed that Jim was coordinated enough to manage it at all. "Jim?" He put a tentative hand on Jim's back.

With his free hand, Jim grabbed Blair's wrist and made an abortive move to shove Blair behind him. Jim was still turning, unsure what direction 'behind' him was. "Go back to the restaurant, Blair. Now."

Jim was right behind him all the way, his gun still out. When they were in the foyer of the restaurant, Jim said, "Dig my phone out of my pocket and call Simon." Jim shoved Blair into a corner and penned him in. He was still holding the gun.

When the phone rang on the other end, Jim retrieved it. "Brackett's stalking me." A pause and then, "He broke into my car and dumped at least three ounces of 'Uninhibited number 3'.... The second hospitalization in July, right.... Yes, and forensics. I'm not going to be able to go over the truck myself." Jim snapped the phone shut without saying good-bye and looked out over the parking lot.

"Uh, Jim?"

"You ok, Sandburg?"

"Uh, fine. Jim--" But then the real meaning of what Jim had said to his boss washed over him. Brackett was trying to kill Jim. There was an evil psycho out there trying to poison Blair's sentinel. The salad and grilled chicken that Blair had eaten threatened to come back on him.

Jim 's hands were on him suddenly. Strong and irresistible, they pushed Blair down until he was sitting on the floor, then they folded him over so that his head was between his legs. "Blair, it's ok. I don't think he stuck around. He knew I'd be looking. He's not here--and he wouldn't get past me if he were. It's ok."

He'd gotten into Jim's car. How the hell did he protect Jim from somebody who knew more about how his body reacted than Blair did and could get to him *anywhere*?

"Blair?" Jim looked more worried than he had when faced with the personalized poison. Right, Blair realized. He's afraid I'm going to evaporate. He trusts me not to hurt him, but he isn't quite sure I'm going to *be* there.

"Right. Ok. Not panicking."

Two businessmen coming out through the vestibule shot them a funny look and went on. Blair stood up and took a deep breath. He kept a hand on Jim's arm while they waited for the police to arrive. It didn't take long. First a black and white (no siren). Then a van that looked kind of imposing. Then a sedan with Jim's boss. Finally a battered station wagon which Blair would have assumed had nothing to do with the investigation, except the occupants--one of them holding his nose--went straight to Jim's truck with the others.

After a few minutes, Jim's boss, glowering, came to join them just inside the restaurant doors. "Nothing yet, but we'll take it to the impound and take it apart."

"Simon, we already know who's behind this. Now we need a strategy."

"We don't know it was Brackett."

"You've got to be kidding," Blair said.

The Captain gave him a dark look. "Jim, a lot of people hate you. It's your job to make people hate you. Particularly people who are not very nice."

"He's right, though." The two people who'd come in the station wagon came in. The one who spoke was a man, small and dark and jittery in a way that screamed 'persistent borderline intractable' to Blair. "This was Brackett. There's no question."

"You found something?"

"Uh, no."

Simon scowled some more. "Look, perfume sensitivities are pretty common for you guys. This could just be some petty revenge or a warning."

The woman who'd come in with the new sentinel rolled her eyes. "A warning? When he isn't on any cases? It doesn't wash. Anyway, it's not a very good warning. This is barely an inconvenience. The car has to be professionally cleaned, forensics gets tied up for an hour--it's expensive and time consuming, but how is that worth the effort? Or the risk of getting caught?"

"Sharona's right," the other sentinel said. "This is... well, it qualifies as annoying. I assume you didn't stand around sniffing the stuff? But that's about it. There is only one person this could come from and really mean something, really be worth the effort." He leaned toward Simon. "To know that *your guide* wants you dead. That the person who knows what would hurt you most would use that against you if he could. That would pretty much derail anybody."

"Brackett isn't my guide." But Jim's hands were clenched. Blair slid an arm around his waist.

The other sentinel was working himself into a tizzy: "You know, I said he was crazy. But did anybody listen to me? Of course not, nobody ever listens to me...."

"Hush, Adrian. The important thing is, you don't go home tonight."

If anything, this agitated Adrian even further. He stopped pacing. "You know--she's right. You can't go home." He turned to Jim earnestly. "I know. The last thing you want is to give any ground there. For any reason. But Jim. Don't give him a chance."

"Are you recommending protective custody?" Simon asked.

"No!" Jim said.

The argument swirled around them, everyone talking at once. Blair was way over his head. Defensive Guide Tactics (anthro 561) dealt with people trying to deceive or distract your sentinel. Blair had aced the course--and that wasn't going to be a damn bit of use against someone whose primary goal was to attack the sentinel, who wanted to see him scared and maybe wanted to see him dead.

"Come on, Chief. Simon's giving us a ride to the PD."

Blair followed numbly, got into the back seat, tried to follow the conversation. He recognized all the words as English, but the meaning never sank in. He kept thinking about a case--seven, ten?--years ago. A sentinel had been a material witness in some mafia trial. When the defense tried to take the witness out, they hadn't needed to get close enough to shoot her or had to put up with the collateral damage of a bomb. They'd used chemical attacks that the average people guarding her wouldn't even notice. The witness had been hospitalized twice before she finally died.

While Jim typed up his report, Blair sat in a chair beside his desk. The prospect of losing Jim... *not*, when they'd only just started, when Jim hadn't even had a *chance*.

It wasn't going to happen. It just was not acceptable. No. They would damn well think of something! By the time Jim was printing out his report and headed for his boss's office, Blair was moving from despair to determination. If Blair didn't have a clue what to do and didn't have any faith in the police, then he needed more options. He picked up the phone and called Jack.

"Don't let him go home tonight," Jack said when Blair had explained. "Brackett knows the territory too well. Jim is too vulnerable to handle an attack there."

"Jack--I just want to grab him and run. I don't care where."

"My place. It's sentinel friendly."

Blair looked up. Jim was standing beside him. "I'll see what I can do." He put down the phone.

"Chief, I--I know this isn't what you signed on for. I--I understand if you don't want to stick around."

Blair stood up and moved closer, speaking very softly. "You don't understand, Jim. I can't protect you from this. I haven't had enough time. I shouldn't admit it; I'm supposed to be strong and reasonable and confident. I'm supposed to make you feel safe, I know--but--" Blair stopped miserably.

"You want to go to Jack's?"

"Unless you have a better idea."

Jim sighed and sat down. "Simon sent a couple of guys to check out the loft. They found a running white noise generator in the middle of the floor."

"We didn't--"

"No. We didn't. We don't know what else Lee might have done that they didn't notice." He took a deep breath. "The good news is, Simon's agreed to an APB on Lee. The charge for a chemical attack on a sentinel is assault with a deadly weapon."

"That's good news?"

"If we can arrest him, yeah. We have to find him first. His apartment was completely cleaned out." Jim had that cool, vacant look again. Blair took his hand. For a moment, Jim clung to him, and then he looked around and let go.

Blair didn't try to hold him, but he said, "People will just think I'm your guide. It's normal."

"Sentinels are weird," Jim said shortly. "So. Jack's, I guess."

"Thank you."

Joel gave them a ride, when they finally left. They had spent the afternoon trying to trace Brackett. He hadn't used a credit card in two days. None of his neighbors had seen him. All in all, it had been a weird afternoon, sitting at Jim's desk. Several of Jim's coworkers had cast him funny looks, until Blair asked, "What? Do they not like guides?"

"Generally, no. But the last one..."

"Ah, right." They'd had a psycho under their noses for months. How did they know Blair would be any different?

Joel, though, was glad to see him. In the twenty-minute trip to Jack's house, he told five or six funny cop stories--none of them too scary, which after this morning Blair was sure had to be deliberate. It was kind of amazing that there *were* any non-scary stories.

Jack's house was close to downtown, an old neighborhood with brick houses and wide yards. Blair had been there a few times before--traditionally, the graduate director hosted the spring party for faculty and grad students. Ideally it was supposed to be a picnic on the stone patio out back, but it always rained, and about fifty people wound up crammed into Jack's living room watching Indiana Jones movies and Smilla's Sense of Snow.

"We'll try to make this as easy on you as possible," Jack said when Jim was standing uneasily in his living room. "I'll put you in Marcia's room. It won't be familiar, but it shouldn't be uncomfortable." The room was pretty much a model of sentinel-friendly design. The room was done in natural fabrics in neutral colors. No carpet: hardwood floors (shellac, no doubt, not polyurethane) and a wool area rug. "Marcia was my last sentinel. She's retired from the game now. Fish and Wildlife. She visits sometimes. Ah. Blair, I'm going to put you in the den next door, not the guest room."

"Thanks, Jack."

Kelso withdrew, leaving Jim and Blair alone. Jim glanced at the open door, and then at the simple, spare room. "Have you met her?"

"Yeah. Marcia came to visit last year. Her current guide was at her sister's wedding, so Marcia took some time off too."

"The soundproofing in here is really thorough." Jim looked impressed. "How messed up is she?"

"She's pretty sick."

"But she's still working."

"Yeah...." She'd been jumpy--jumpier than that guy Adrian from forensics. There had been a brittleness about her, nothing Blair could put his finger on, but sitting in the same room with her had felt like some kind of guide nightmare. "So. What is it with the other guy?"

"Monk? He's one of the best forensic sentinels on the west coast."

"Really? He seemed a little...."

"Borderline? His last guide was killed a few years ago. I didn't know him then, I was just barely out of the academy. It was two years before he could leave his house."

"Wow."

"I honestly didn't understand what the big deal was--" Jim stopped and glanced down. "Losing a guide didn't seem like a big deal, you know?"

Blair wanted to say, 'I will protect you from him.' But that would be a lie. Even right now Lee was hurting Jim. "I'm... gonna give Jack a hand with the sheets."

Dinner that night was a profound learning experience for Blair. Jack called them into the kitchen and handed them both aprons. "Jim: mushrooms?"

"Uh, yeah."

"Olive oil or butter?"

"Olive oil."

He checked each ingredients with Jim as he got them out, and then passed them to him to check for quality. When Jim shook his head slightly at the bottle of olive oil, Jack threw it out and got a new one from the shelf. "Jim, you trim the vegetables, Blair, fill this pot with water for the pasta."

It all seemed very casual and chummy, but Blair didn't miss that Jack was watching Jim very carefully. Dinner was very simple--pasta with vegetables and tiny amounts of dried herbs and broiled ostrich steaks. Blair shot Jim an anxious glance when Jack showed him the meat marinating in white wine and trace amounts of garlic, but Jack shook his head. "You can't make things taste the way they did before. As long as that's the plan, he's going to be disappointed. Continually. Start with something completely new."

It seemed to work very well. To Blair, dinner was hopelessly bland--he found himself dumping salt and pepper on everything, and even Jack was liberally using steak sauce--but Jim finished two large plates.

As they were starting to clear the table, Jim's cell phone rang. He went to take it in the living room while Blair and Jack loaded the dishwasher. Peeking out the door to make sure Jim was fully occupied, Blair said, "Thank you. For everything, Jack."

Jack sighed unhappily. "I'm doing this as much because of Brackett as for you, Blair."

"I'll take it for any reason. But Jack--this guy is crazy. Are we getting you in trouble?"

"I'm not a sentinel, Blair. And I'm not as defenseless as I look."

Blair did a double-take. "You're *armed*?" He lowered his voice. "You're armed?"

"I'm sure Jim knows. According to his file, he's good enough to smell it." He held Blair's gaze for a moment, then gathered up the silverware to rinse in the sink before loading. "The point is, Brackett isn't. He's not a sentinel. Apparently he isn't even thinking very clearly any more. Whatever has happened in his head, all he seems to be interested in now is getting off on controlling and hurting his sentinel. He's not going to be as hard to stop as you think."

"Yeah, maybe."

They were both quiet for a few minutes. Jack loaded in the silverware. Blair scrubbed the saute pan in the sink. "Blair, will you take some advice?" Jack asked at last.

"Sure! All the advice you've got."

"Touch him more. He's way too tense. He needs physical reassurance."

"Jack, he's not entirely comfortable with touching."

"Late bloomers often aren't. That's one of the things you should be teaching him."

"Brackett... it wasn't just neglect."

"Ah." He didn't look surprised.

"Jack, he's trying so hard. And he's... afraid of disappointing me, I guess. I'm not sure he'd say no."

"You're underestimating him, I think."

Blair couldn't take that chance. What had happened to Jim, it was just too much. On the other hand.... On the other hand, Jack was no doubt right. Jim was overstressed and tired and in a strange place. It was Blair's job to be familiar and reassuring. "Look, I'm just gonna...."

"Yes. Go on. I'll get the rest of this."

Jim was sitting in the living room, still on the phone, angrily disagreeing with whoever was on the other end. Blair came up behind him slowly enough for Jim to have time to warn him off if he wanted to. Jim nodded once at Blair and went back to his argument. Encouraged, Blair came closer and laid a hand on Jim's shoulder. To his surprise, Jim leaned into it at once, continuing his sentence without interruption. Automatically, Blair's turned to give Jim more area of contact.

"No, I don't want them involved. Name a case that got *better* after the feds got involved. That kind of help we don't need!"

That didn't sound too bad to Blair. The government had made Brackett. Let them have him. Blair reached around with his other arm and gently cradled Jim against him. Jim relaxed slightly, giving Blair more of his weight. Blair slipped his left foot back to even out his balance and held on more tightly. By the time the call ended, the ear that wasn't occupied by the phone was pressed against Blair's chest.

"What is this, exactly?" Jim asked after a few moments.

"It's a sentinel thing." Which wasn't an answer.

"So...*this* is normal. Guides are supposed to...."

"Not always the guide. Parents. Spouses. Someone. Jim, about twenty percent of sentinels don't... do this... with anyone. They tend to be the ones with the most problems." But he was already losing. Jim was tensing in his arms.

"This feels right to you."

"Yeah, Jim. It does." Blair realized that this was what he'd wanted to do when he'd first seen Jim in that hospital room. He wanted himself between Jim and the world. "How does it feel to you?"

Jim shook his head. "I'm sorry. I can't."

Blair let go. It was almost physically painful. Jim slowly moved away, casting Blair uncertain looks. "It's ok. You're doing fine, Jim. It's ok." Then, more softly, "I'm right here."

But Jim shifted uneasily. "Look, Chief. I know you're not him. I--you smell nothing like him. Your sound, the way you move, the way you touch me--You're nothing like him!"

Blair nodded, trying to look neutral, wishing he hadn't pushed quite so hard.

"He made me helpless when he touched me."

"I understand."

"You don't! You really don't! My body turns on me. For no reason. Or for stupid reasons! I'm fine one minute, and then suddenly--"

"It was his job to teach you not to be helpless."

Jim stood up and paced in front of Blair. "I know you're not him--And when I'm not paying attention, it feels normal. But I--"

"When you think about it?"

"I remember."

"You'll get over that. We'll have time."

Jack came in a few minutes later. He discussed the security system, the panic button in the hall, stuff Blair never thought normal people had. Then Jack and Jim spent the rest of the evening talking about strategy. It was pretty appalling. Ideas for trapping Brackett--most of them using Jim as bait--whipped back and forth. When Jack finally suggested bed, Blair was relieved.

He woke just after midnight, sweating from a nightmare of Brackett going after Jim rather than his car. He'd walked into the steakhouse carrying an air pump water rifle full of perfume. The stream struck Jim and spattered, bringing up raw welts immediately and throwing up a cloud of poison....

Jack was in his robe, but still up, sitting at a laptop at the kitchen table. "Oh," Blair said. "Sorry."

"Come on in. You're not interrupting anything. Unfortunately. I haven't been able to come up with anything we can use."

Blair sat down. "You know how this guy thinks. Will he find us? If Jim and I run away?"

"I honestly don't know. When he was in the game, he was just a sociopath. I would have thought he was way too self-centered for revenge. I'm surprised he's indulging this statistic streak. An old friend of mine thinks he's just trying to set himself up as a very special kind of hit man."

"Huh? Oh my god! Sentinels?"

"He obviously isn't going to get a job as a guide anywhere. What else are his skills good for?"

"That's worse than the actual nightmares I'm having!" It nearly came out a squeak.

Jack closed his eyes and said, so quietly that Blair could barely hear him, "It's a hell of a job, Blair, trying to create such an emotional commitment with someone who'll probably die too soon. But if you don't do it, he'll die a hell of a lot sooner."

"I know that. I'm not trying to give up!"

Jack studied him for a long minute. "You need to go reassure him. He'll know you're up, that you're agitated."

"Yeah, ok."

"Brackett's here." Jim was standing in the doorway. He had his gun. "He's outside now."

Blair surged to his feet, charged to run, absolutely clueless about where to run to.

"He's on the west side of the house," Jim said, "Messing with your heat pump. I assume he's trying to get something nasty into the duct system. You can go out through the garage, get Blair away from here."

"No," Blair whispered.

"No," Jack said, and Blair was relieved until he added, "This is our chance."

"I could get out, slip around behind him."

"He might be monitoring the security system. The windows are wired."

Jim looked up. "The crawl space is pretty big. A vent--"

"I have no idea. I've never been up there."

"We have to turn off the heat!" Blair said.

Jim shook his head. "Right now he doesn't know we know he's here. He thinks his white noise generator is covering him. That's our advantage."

Jack was already dialing 911. "They won't get here in time."

"Damn. He's finished," Jim said. Then he gagged.

Before Blair could move, Jim was unlocking the back door. When he opened it, the alarm let out a peal that shook the walls, but Jim didn't even flinch, only charged out. For just a moment, Blair was awash with relief: Jim was outside--

Then he realized that he was going after Brackett, not escaping whatever was in the air ducts. He went racing after Jim. When the alarm went off, all the outside lights came on, so he had no trouble seeing, no worry about where he'd put his feet. But where was Jim? How could he be out of sight so soon?

Blair heard the first gunshot as he cleared the corner of the house. It was followed by a second, and the sound of something large colliding with something soft. Jim cried out. Blair saw them then, two figures in the front yard, outlined in the stark glare of the floodlights. Even as Blair watched, Jim went down, caught in a strange hold that Blair hadn't seen before but somehow made his training scream 'wrong,' in his head.

He ran faster, crashing into both of them. A strong hand caught Blair by the hair and tossed him to the side. By the time he got to his knees Jim had one arm free and was struggling again, but Brackett was digging in his pocket. "Aw, Jimmy. Why do you bother? Everybody knows you don't have what it takes."

Jim twisted sharply and his knee connected with Brackett's chin. As Brackett fell backwards Blair saw something glint in his hand. He snatched at it--too late, too far away. Brackett's hand convulsed and Jim screamed. There was another gunshot, and Blair screamed too, giving up on Brackett and trying to get to Jim.

Jim grabbed him and flipped them both over before shoving Blair away and screaming "Run! Go!"

"Jim--" But Jim had collapsed against him, shivering, clawing at his clothes. Jim's back was to the lights, and Blair couldn't see his face. He couldn't see Brackett either, and someone had a *gun*--

"Don't move." It was Jack's voice, so calm and reasonable that he might have been lecturing in class. "A flashy trial sounds like a lot of fun, but if you move, I'll shoot you again."

"Oh god. Jim...." Blair whispered. Shakily, he tried to get his knees under him.

"Blair, he's been hit with a squealer. He can't hear you," Jack said in that same even voice.

Jim was moving, finally, pushing laboriously up onto his hands and knees. Blair reached for him, but Jim lurched away, his eyes on Brackett. "Jim, it's all right--" but of course he couldn't hear. Blair caught him gently by the shoulders, and Jim stilled. In the distance, Blair could hear sirens.

Suddenly nauseous, Blair began to shake.

"Blair, you're too close. You need to get Jim away." Right. Yeah. They were way too close to Brackett, who was moving. Blair could see blood now, glittering blackly in the lights. He was down and bleeding, but he was still alive.

He tugged Jim's shoulders, pulling him back. Jim complied, crabbing awkwardly backwards on the grass. God, this was....

Jim looked up suddenly, and Blair saw flickering lights at the corner. "Blair, the police are coming. Sit down. Keep your hands in sight." His voice was too loud and oddly flat.

Then there were the police. Everywhere. Again. Blair couldn't imagine what they thought of the scene--the bright lights, the bleeding man lying on the grass, two more men in their underwear, Jack sitting calmly in his chair holding a gun.

Jim did the talking. He couldn't hear the questions, but maybe he didn't need to. An ambulance arrived, Simon arrived, somebody handed Jim and Blair blankets. Blair was only just realizing how cold it was.

"Blair? Is Jim ok?" Blair blinked stupidly down at Jack. "You need to check him."

Right. Right. He should have done it already. Between stress and adrenalin, a sentinel didn't always know he'd been hurt. He put a hand on Jim's shoulder. "I need to borrow him now." He motioned Jim to come away.

There were no steps to Jack's porch, so he set Jim on the hood of one of the cars. He had read about doing this. A couple of years ago Jack had demonstrated it in emergency strategies (Anthro 533). But Blair had never done it. "Nod if you can hear me at all."

Jim just looked at him, a little curious, a little dazed. It occurred to Blair that if Lee had ever bothered to do this, he wouldn't have made it a pleasant activity. If Jim couldn't hear, Blair couldn't explain. He squeezed Jim's shoulders briefly. "It's ok." Jim couldn't hear.

He ran his hands over Jim's head, feeling for heat, wetness, lumps. Under the blanket, Jim's shoulders and chest. Blair had heard shots. Surely they would have noticed before now if Jim had been hit. On the bottom of Jim's left foot, Blair found blood. He'd stepped on something sharp. Blair's hands began to shake.

"Sandburg?"

Blair held out his hand, Jim's blood smeared on his palm.

"It's not bad."

Blair nodded.

"The... the hearing comes back, right?"

Blair nodded vigorously.

"That was a squealer, right? They're dangerous."

They were as illegal as all hell is what they were. Ultrasonics, loud. Not enough to do physical damage, but the overload would shut down a sentinel's hearing for hours. Sometimes the experience was so overwhelming it put them into shock. Another count of assault with a deadly weapon for Brackett--how nice. But whatever damage they did, it showed immediately. If Jim wasn't in trouble now, he wouldn't be. "You're ok. It's fine." He tried to smile.

They couldn't go back into Jack's house. It was contaminated. They went back to Jim's loft, escorted by Jim's boss and another cop. They entered slowly, Jim taking cautious sniffs--Then Jim looked startled and laughed. "He was trying to scare me to death. God. It's fine, Simon, go on."

Reluctantly, the police left and Jim sent Blair for the Odorkiller under the sink. "What is it, Jim?" Louder, "What? Jim, what?"

"He pissed in my bedroom."

Blair swallowed hard. Jim looked like a man who was annoyed, not like somebody who was being terrorized. Halfway up the stairs, Jim paused and looked back. "Sandburg? What is it?" He put down the paper towels and the bottle of Odorkiller and came back down. "Chief?"

Blair shook his head and held up his hands. He was fine. Really.

Jim touched Blair tentatively, then pulled him close.

Epilog

They got the doctor's appointment for the following Monday. Blair had class, but when Jim protested he answered, "Hey, would I rather learn about being a guide or actually do it?"

The doctor was heavy and well over sixty. He talked very fast, and when he listened, he looked at Jim and Blair like he was cataloging every breath and tiny movement. He was arrogant, and clearly only patient because that was his job. Blair didn't care. As long as the man was as good as Jack said he was, he could be Attila the Hun. Whatever, as long as they made sure Jim was ok.

Jim didn't enjoy the first hour. Blair sat beside him, not quite touching, not interrupting, as the doctor asked Jim detailed and probing questions about his health and senses. He asked for details Blair hadn't because he had been trying to get Jim's mind off how damn scary everything was. He'd wanted to move forward, to get Jim past the stress.

But the doctor was a doctor. He asked about zones, how often? How hard? How long? How would Jim rate the disorientation afterward?

Joint pain? Unexplained body pain?

Did his senses ever cut out completely?

How often did Jim have headaches?

"Now? Or, ah, before?" Jim asked, frowning.

"Both."

"About half the time now. Before... I dunno. I kind of got used to it. Usually."

"Always, I think," Blair said softly. Jim shrugged.

Then the discussion of what brought them on, what made them worse. Careful and patient, Jim answered the questions. How much did Jim eat? What caused him the most trouble? What had Jim eaten last?

It went on, frightening in its spectrum. Spikes, vertigo, trouble breathing: how often, how severe? The doctor was calm--focused, but distant--as Jim answered that he had spikes about twice a day (down from four or five), vertigo only once or twice a week, trouble breathing every couple of days. "But it's better than it's been."

"I need to speak to Jim alone for a few minutes," the doctor said.

And *then* Jim, who had been so cooperative since they'd arrived, shuddered and turned to Blair fearfully. "It's ok, Jim. He needs to ask you about things you might not want to say in front of me."

"Why would I--Blair, you're not..." Jim's voice dropped. "You're not hurting me."

"I'll be right out side the door. He will not touch you while I'm gone. Believe me, this is necessary."

In less than two minutes the door was opened again. It was time for the hard part to start. The physical exam was thorough and not very pleasant. Jim shuddered when the doctor touched him. The nurse took blood--four tubes full--which hurt like hell. Jim kept his hand on Blair's arm, his fear making a sweaty handprint on Blair's shirt. Then hearing tests and a vision test. An MRI. A stress test. It took most of the day. They went back and forth, all over the medical complex.

When it was over, Jim dressed in his own clothes and they waited in one of the examining rooms for the doctor to make an appearance. Blair tried to look patient and reassuring. When the doctor finally came in, he was smiling, and something tight and hot in Blair's stomach finally dissolved.

"I only have the preliminary results for most of the tests, Jim, all but things considered, I think you're in very good shape." Blair didn't mean to sigh, but it slipped out. "I'm going to write a prescription for a very mild dietary supplement. It's very low dose, Blair, so he'll need to take one four times a day. I assume you know how to watch for reactions?"

Blair nodded.

"I am a little concerned that his anxiety levels seem very high. Blair, do you think you're making adequate progress with that? Or should we think about Ahalarin?" Ahalarin was an antidepressant which actually worked for sentinels. Usually. The problem was it often had serious liver side effects. It was only used when the risk from the effect of unrelenting stress and anxiety on overly responsive sentinel bodies made not taking the drug even more dangerous.

"I don't think he needs it." Blair glanced at the clipboard the doctor was holding in his lap. "He's coming along very quickly. I think if you'd done this last week, he'd have been evaluated as almost borderline."

"I want you back in a month. If you're not satisfied by then, we'll need to try something else."

That was pretty much it, finally. They gathered their paperwork, stood in line at the exit desk, collected the prescription for vitamins, and finally, finally, stepped out the side door into the parking lot.

Jim took a couple of breaths of the cold, fresh air and slumped slightly. "You understand, right?" Blair asked him anxiously. "You're ok? We're not looking at permanent damage with anything. We're good."

Jim nodded, his eyes closed. "Yeah. Ok. Ah.... Blair, suddenly I don't much care how weird it is, I could use one of those hugs."

Blair let his backpack slide to the ground at his feet and gently enfolded Jim in his arms.

-end-