Summary: Alternate ending for The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg. Rated PG for mild language.
Disclaimer: The characters aren't mine. I just borrow them now and then, and derive nothing but vicarious pleasure/pain from their stories.
Feedback: On or off list is ok.
Naomi knew her son was upset the moment he walked in the door. Shadows darkened his usually brilliant blue eyes, and anxiety clouded his youthful features. Instead of bouncing energetically, his steps dragged, as if lifting his feet was too much trouble to bother with. Naomi felt a pang of regret and sadness for her son's obvious distress, and she started forward, intending to comfort him as she had done when he was a small boy.
He hardly even glanced at her as he dropped onto the sofa, tilting his head back against the cushions and closing his eyes wearily.
"Blair?" she asked hesitantly. "Sweetie? What's wrong? Has something else happened?" She perched on the edge of couch nearby, reaching toward him but stopping short of contact.
Blair breathed a short, humorless laugh and rolled his head toward the sound of her voice as he forced his eyes open. "Something else?" he repeated dully. "Gee, Mom, what else could possibly happen? The Sentinel story is being splashed all over every newspaper and TV newscast in the state, reporters are getting in the way of a major police investigation, this assassin Zeller tried to kill Jim today --"
"What!" Naomi clutched his arm, her long fingers pressing urgently into the skin and muscle beneath his shirt. "Is he all right?"
"Yeah, Mom, he's fine. But Simon and Megan are in the hospital. Jim is blaming himself, and he's pushing everyone away, including - no, make that especially - me. He needs me, Mom. It's going to take everything he's got, including his senses, to get Zeller, but he won't admit it because he's so freaked out and pissed off about everything that's happened." He broke off, his voice cracking with emotion, and covered his face with both hands. A strangled, wordless sound of frustration filtered from between his taut fingers.
Naomi rubbed a soothing trail along the length of his arm. "Oh, baby, I'm so sorry. I had no idea that any of this would happen."
Blair sighed and lowered his hands. "I know you didn't, Mom." He bit back the impulse to say more. His words last night hadn't done any good, and berating her further wouldn't lead him any closer to a solution to his and Jim's dilemma.
"Sweetie, this will all blow over in a few days, and then you and Jim can go back to your..."
"No, Mom!" Blair interrupted, flinging himself off the couch and pacing the room in agitation. "It's not going to just blow over. Not this time. Weren't you listening to what Jim said this morning? He wants to go back, all right, back to being the kind of cop he was before he met me, back to not being a Sentinel." He tucked his arms around himself as if he were cold, ducking his head and breathing heavily as he struggled to rein in his runaway emotions. After several silent moments, he raised his head again, his eyes dark with misery. "It's all my fault, Mom. I promised Jim that I'd find a way to keep his identity a secret, that he'd be safe from this sort of thing. And I let him down."
Naomi stepped in front of him, stopping his pacing by placing both hands on his tense, folded arms. "Blair, that's not true," she protested. "I'm the one who sent your book to Sid. Maybe if I talk to Jim, make him understand that none of this was your doing..."
"It won't do any good. You were wrong to send Sid the manuscript, Mom. But I'm still responsible for it. Jim's right about that. I wrote the thing. I used his name throughout the entire book, not even trying to disguise who he was. And I left the computer disk unsecured where you -- or anyone else, for that matter -- couuld find it. I was careless, and now Jim's the one paying the price for that."
Naomi's heart broke for her anguished son. "You're paying, too, Blair," she said softly. "Anyone can see that. And if Jim Ellison is too pig-headed to recognize that fact, then he isn't as good a friend as you've always thought he was." Her voice had taken on a faint edge as she desperately tried to defend him.
Blair exhaled a long sigh and dropped his arms to his sides. "Mom, you don't understand. This year...a lot of things have happened that you don't know about. Things have gotten a little tense between Jim and me, and this is just sort of the final straw." He swung away from her and resumed his pacing. "You know, I'm not even surprised that he's reacting this way. I know how his mind works. I know what scares him. I know what makes him angry. He's not someone you can back into a corner. And, oh, man, is he feeling backed into a corner right now!" Blair emphasized his words with a sharp gesture, finishing the move by burying his fingers deep in his already disheveled hair. "He feels betrayed, Mom. He feels like I betrayed him."
Blair sagged onto the couch again, this time to lean forward and rest his elbows on his knees, forehead resting on his clenched fists. "The ironic thing is that in a way, I did betray him."
"Blair! How can you say that? None of this was your fault!"
He answered her with a shrug. "Maybe. Maybe not. But that's not what I'm talking about. I betrayed him by not being honest with him. I should have told him what was going on as soon as I got that first phone call from Sid Graham. That way, he wouldn't have been so completely blindsided when Sid leaked it to the media. I should have warned him."
"Honey, it was bound to come out sooner or later," Naomi soothed. "No one can keep this sort of thing hidden forever."
"We were going to try," Blair's voice was sad and subdued, and he looked up at Naomi with wistful regret. "I was going to try. See, Mom, I've known for a long time that I'd never be able to submit the Sentinel dissertation. Not in Jim's working lifetime. It's too dangerous for him. Hell, that nut-case Lee Brackett put two and two together almost from the start, long before I ever committed a single word to paper specifically about Jim! No matter how careful I am, even without ever mentioning Jim's name in the final document, there will be enough information for anyone with half a brain to figure out who my research subject is. Jim was right about that, too. If the diss were ever published, there would be no way to guarantee his anonymity."
"But you went ahead and finished the manuscript anyway."
"Yeah." Blair nodded, his eyes focused on the floor. "Yeah, I finished the damned manuscript. I did that for myself, and for Jim, and for whoever might end up being his guide after I'm not in the picture any more." He looked up again, his eyes glimmering with the emotions that churned beneath the surface of his words. "I changed my dissertation topic months ago, Mom. But I didn't tell Jim that because I wasn't ready to take myself out of the picture. I was...I was afraid that if he thought the research was over, that he'd figure there wasn't any reason for me to be here any more."
Naomi knelt in front of her son, resting one hand gently on his knee, reaching up to curve the other one against the side of his face. "Oh, Blair," she murmured, stroking his cheek and bending slightly so that their foreheads touched. "I'm so sorry, sweetie. What are you going to do now?"
Blair shrugged, despair and defeat written in every line of his posture. "I don't know. Right now, I can't even think straight."
"Maybe you should try to get some rest," Naomi suggested. "You've hardly slept at all since I got here."
"Not right now, Mom," he said with a grimace. "If I fall asleep now, I may not wake up till next Tuesday. And I've got to figure out some way to straighten this mess out."
Naomi tilted her head and smiled encouragingly. "A little meditation then? Maybe that will relax you enough to let your mind work out what to do."
Blair gave a slow nod. "Yeah. Yeah, that might help." And he set about gathering the candles and other things he would need.
"Do you want me to leave?" Naomi asked quietly. "I can run to the market and get something to make for dinner tonight. Or I can..."
"You don't have to go anywhere, Mom," Blair assured her. "It's not like you haven't ever seen anyone meditating before."
She smiled faintly at that. "Maybe I'll even join you. If you don't mind, of course."
"No, Mom. I don't mind."
Ten minutes later the loft was filled with the low, throbbing rhythm of drums and the subtle scent of the candles arrayed on the coffee table. Mother and son sat cross-legged on the floor facing each other, hands resting lightly on knees, palms up, fingers curling inward with thumbs and middle fingers just touching. Their eyes were closed, their faces serene despite the turbulence in their hearts. Weak sunlight danced across them, casting patterns of highlight and shadow across the still forms.
Naomi was known for her meditation marathons lasting hours on end. Today's session was nowhere nearly so long. It seemed that she had scarcely begun to drift through the silver haze of nothingness before a light touch on her shoulder brought her back to herself. She opened her eyes to see Blair's face near her own, his statement determined and more hopeful than she had seen it since the dissertation fiasco began.
"Call Sid," he said firmly, "and have him set up a press conference as soon as he can. I think I know how I can put a stop to this."
She couldn't help but answer his smile with one of her own. "Of course I will, Blair. But what are you going to do?"
"I'm going to answer all their questions," Blair replied. "And then I'm going to throw the monkey back on Sid Graham's back where it belongs." With one strong push of his bent legs, he rose to his feet and went to his room to get ready to meet the press.
Blair stepped up behind the podium and looked out into the sea of reporters that had gathered in response to Sid Graham's call and promise of the full story behind the Cascade Sentinel. Camera lights filled the small conference room with heat and glare, and Blair blinked under the intense illumination. He was glad then that he didn't have Jim's enhanced vision. He cleared his throat and adjusted the microphone to a more comfortable position.
"Thank you for coming," he said, his voice surprisingly steady, considering the swarms of butterflies that were staging dogfights in his stomach. "For those of you who don't know, my name is Blair Sandburg. For two days now the city of Cascade has been abuzz with the incredible story of a modern-day Sentinel right here in your midst. The source of the story was presented to you as excerpts from a dissertation manuscript. In fact, that work was never intended for the public eye and was made public without my knowledge or consent.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the media, as the author of that manuscript, I am the only one qualified to fully illuminate the speculation and sensationalism this story has generated, and I intend to do just that. I have a prepared statement, and then I'll answer those of your questions that I can." He paused, taking a surreptitious deep breath and lightly tapping the note cards between his hands on the podium's wooden surface. Only Blair knew that the cards were blank. He didn't need prompts to recall what he intended to say. But they gave him something to do with his hands to disguise the nervous tremors running through his entire body.
His gaze swept over the assembled media vultures, never meeting the eyes of anyone, coming to rest finally on an indeterminate point just slightly above their heads. He carefully avoided looking at Sid Graham, standing off to the side with Naomi. Neither Blair nor his mother had told Sid exactly what he planned to do; the man was in for a shock.
"There is a very simple reason why 'The Sentinel' by Blair Sandburg was never submitted for publication, or even for review by my dissertation committee. It is a work of fiction and therefore unworthy of that attention." A murmur ran through the room, and Blair held up a hand to forestall the questions that rose above the general din. "Please, hold your questions. I think everything will be made clear by the rest of my statement.
"My research on sentinels - ancient tribal watchmen who were gifted with enhanced senses - is real, and it was the subject of my master's thesis, which I completed six years ago. It has always been my intention to expand upon that earlier work for my doctoral dissertation, and I did, in fact, submit my original dissertation proposal on that basis. In the course of researching my thesis, I found several individuals who exhibited enhanced sensory acuity. In those individuals, the enhancement affected only one or two senses - most often smell and taste. For the completion and validation of the dissertation, however, I knew that I would have to identify and document at least one fully functional Sentinel with all five senses enhanced." Blair paused, his eyes once again sweeping over the expectant and sometimes skeptical faces of the reporters. His tongue swiped moisture over dry lips, and he drew in another fortifying breath. "That I am unable to do, and it is for that reason that I recently submitted to my committee an alternative dissertation proposal focusing on contemporary hierarchical sub-cultures, including those of modern police departments, as dynamic representations of archaic, tribal societal structures."
The low murmur grew to a roar as the reporters began to clamor to have their questions heard above the confusion. This time they refused to accept Blair's requests for a return to order. Questions continued to fly at him from all directions, but the gist of all of them was the same. "What about the examples detailing Detective Ellison's use of enhanced senses cited in the manuscript?"
Blair glanced down briefly, then looked up at the eager faces. "The genuine cases cited in an otherwise fictitious manuscript were cleared and closed based on evidence gathered and verified by conventional investigative procedures. The arrests and trials resulting from those investigations are a matter of public record, and they contain no mention of enhanced sensory capabilities. My references to the use of enhanced senses in evidence gathering and identification were fabrications extrapolated from supra-normal sensory functions observed in past research subjects."
"So you're now saying that Detective Ellison is just an average guy, not this Supercop described in your book?"
"Average guy?" Blair shook his head. "No, I wouldn't say that Detective Ellison is 'average.' He is an extraordinary man, and an extraordinary cop, but not by virtue of enhanced senses or any other superhuman attributes. His training and experience, his intellect and instincts, his dedication and his determination to protect and serve the people of Cascade...those are the qualities that make Jim Ellison the consummate law enforcement professional that he is."
Another wave of tangled voices surged and crested, drowning out individual questions. Blair took advantage of the opportunity to take another deep breath and steel himself for more interrogations.
A youngish woman waved her arm above the crowd to draw his attention and managed to shout her query into a momentary lull. "Mr. Sandburg, if you've only recently submitted your alternative dissertation proposal, how is it that you've been associated with the Cascade Police Department for more than three years now?"
Blair met her challenging stare without flinching. "Ms. - Rawlings, is it? - there's a well known cliché that applies here: Once bitten, twice shy. For some time I've been afraid that the Sentinel research I could document and present would prove inadequate for an effective dissertation. And, though I was reluctant to abandon that research altogether, I developed the sub-culture project as an alternative if my fears were realized. That research has been conducted and pursued on my own time and without benefit of University resources, but with the cooperation and support of the Cascade Police Department, especially Detective Ellison, Captain Simon Banks, and the other officers of the Major Crime Unit. After failing to sufficiently develop my original line of research, I wanted to be certain that the alternative would succeed before presenting it to my dissertation committee." He graced the crowd with a self-deprecating half smile. "Nobody wants to look like an incompetent more than once in his career."
"Mr. Sandburg! All this sounds very plausible, but I have one question. Why submit the Sentinel manuscript to a publisher if you didn't intend for its contents to be publicly released?"
"I did not submit the manuscript," Blair answered flatly, angling a momentary glance at Sid Graham and Naomi. He could tell that his mother was physically restraining the red-faced editor. "That was an unforeseen and unintended result of a small subterfuge that my mother misinterpreted as author's insecurity. In a misguided attempt to help, she sent the manuscript to Sid Graham and asked him to review it and make editorial suggestions for future drafts. She didn't know that there weren't going to be any future drafts. Mr. Graham, in his enthusiasm and certainty that I would jump at the chance to sign a lucrative publishing contract, took it upon himself to release excerpts from the manuscript, even after I made it clear that I had no intention of publishing it."
The familiar voice of Robert Drake from Channel 2, rose above the continuing hum of voices. "This story broke yesterday morning, Mr. Sandburg. Why have you waited more than 24 hours to refute it?"
Blair pinned the slick TV newsman with a glare that even Jim would have been proud of. "Mr. Drake, if you will remember yesterday morning when you and several of your - colleagues - accosted Detective Ellison and myself on the sidewalk, we tried to deny the validity of what Mr. Graham had sent you. No one was listening. Your station, among others, went ahead with the unsubstantiated reports on your midday newscast, without bothering to mention our denials."
That actually shut them all up for a few seconds, until an intrepid young man - Blair thought he might be from the campus newspaper - piped up, "Mr. Sandburg, you mentioned a subterfuge with regard to your mother. Can you explain that?"
Blair slid Naomi another glance, noting with satisfaction that she had taken such a firm grip on her editor friend's arm that the man couldn't have moved to save his life. "She knows now, so I suppose there's no harm in it," he conceded. "I didn't want to admit to her that the manuscript she saw me finish was not the culmination of almost fourteen years of college and graduate study. Think about it. After spending that many years in school, would you want to admit to your mom that you've, in essence, scrapped everything you've done to date and started over?"
That earned a chuckle from those whose own college careers had dragged on longer than intended. Even Naomi smiled in silent support of the lies and half-truths her clever son had concocted.
"All right," Blair said, huffing out a long breath and tucking the blank note cards into the pocket of his jacket. "The simple truth is this: the manuscript you were all led to believe is fact is, in actuality, a fabrication born of frustration at not being able to complete the research to which I had devoted years of time and effort. It was a cathartic exercise in what might have been. But that is all it was. Ladies and gentlemen of the media, the story you have been pursuing so diligently these last two days simply does not exist. Beyond that, I can say only that I deeply regret the confusion and disruptions that this has caused in the lives of the people affected -- particularly Detective Ellison, his family, and his colleagues in the Cascade Police Department. To each of them, I offer my sincerest apology."
Blair stepped back from the podium, intending to leave before the reporters could think of any more questions. His pulse was pounding and his nerves beginning to fray under the intense scrutiny. Before he could complete his escape, though, another question rang out, echoed more than once in one form or another.
"Mr. Sandburg, how did you come to select Detective Ellison as the leading man in your private Sentinel fantasy?"
Halting mid-step, Blair turned back to face the reporters again and smiled, though to anyone who knew him well, the statement held more than a little sadness. "The answer to that one is simple. Since beginning my research with the Cascade PD, I've been associated most closely with Detective Ellison. He is a man I respect and admire greatly, and someone it has been my privilege and my pleasure to call 'friend.'" The smile slipped a little, then reasserted itself, albeit somewhat shakily. "Every fantasy has a hero. And who better to fill that role than your best friend?"
Blair excused himself and stepped down, only to find himself immediately surrounded by those who wanted to get in more questions. He waved them off, asserting that he had said everything on the matter he intended to say. Once he gained the relative safety of the hallway beyond, he found himself face-to-face with Chancellor Edwards. The woman's sharp features were set in a scowl, and she fell into step beside him when he didn't so much as slow down.
"You might have mentioned all this yesterday in my office," she said accusingly. "The University has been made to look foolish by appearing to accept the truth of your little fiction."
"I'm sorry, Chancellor," Blair replied. "This whole thing got so far out of hand so fast..." He broke off and merely shook his head, not really knowing what the woman expected him to say.
She wasn't ready to let him go without conducting her own sort of interrogation. "I trust that you were telling the truth about submitting an alternate proposal?"
Blair stopped then, forcing her to stop and turn back as well. "Yes," he said simply. "You can verify that with Professor McKinley."
"Very well." Edwards didn't appear much mollified, but she really couldn't fault him, at least not fairly, when he had been as much a victim of other people's machinations as anyone. "I trust that this situation is over now, and you can devote yourself to completing your real dissertation."
"Believe me, Chancellor Edwards, I'm as eager for this to be over as you are."
And when it was, Blair wondered, would he still have a place at his Sentinel's side, guiding him, guarding him from the unexpected dangers his senses could sometimes present? Unable to escape the nagging question, he retreated to the solitude of his office, glad that afternoon classes were still in session, reducing the number of people he ran into along the way. He vaguely heard a couple of passersby speak to him, but he neither altered his path or acknowledged their hails.
He hung the quirky "The Professor is Out" sign that one of his students had given him on the door before closeting himself in the tiny office. He didn't bother to turn on the lights, not wanting to give the lie to the sign's message. Feeling as tired as if he had run a marathon, he collapsed into his chair and willed the tension in his body to recede.
Had he succeeded in diverting the media's attention from his uniquely gifted friend? Were his obfuscations enough to convince them that there was no truth in the tantalizing tidbits of his manuscript that Sid had fed them? Was there more he could have said or done to protect Jim's secret?
No, he decided. Short of denouncing all his sentinel research and the dissertation as a fraud, he had gone as far as he could. Had he thought it necessary, he would have gladly trashed his own academic reputation. But in the end that would have gained him nothing. With his own credibility destroyed, he would stand no chance at all of retaining his place as Jim's guide, even if Jim were willing to take him back. He would face dismissal from the university, censure for the work he'd already submitted, and total disgrace. And without his research as a reason to retain his police credentials, he would lose his ride-along privileges as well. No, he thought with a shudder. Martyrdom wasn't the answer.
A light tap at the door preceded its slow opening and the appearance of Naomi's concerned face peering around the edge. "Blair?" she asked hesitantly. "May I come in?"
"Sure, Mom," he replied, waving her inside and getting up to clear off a chair for her to sit. He glanced behind her half expectantly. "Um...where's Sid?"
"On his way back to New York, I hope."
For a moment Blair's anger surfaced. "Yeah, well, if there's any justice in the world at all, he won't have a job to go back to. I'm going to be sending his boss a nice, long letter about his part in this mess. He had no right releasing the contents of that manuscript, or representing himself as my publisher."
Naomi made no comment on that. She made an indeterminate fluttering motion with her hands, then brought them down to rest twined together in her lap. "So, do you think it's over now?"
Blair shrugged in reply. "I hope so. I've done everything I know to do to get the spotlight off Jim. Whether it's enough...I guess we'll find that out when the evening news breaks."
"How soon are you going to talk to Jim?"
"I don't know." Blair sank lower into his chair and skimmed his hands over the smooth, wooden arms. "I guess I'll catch up with him at the station later. I want to swing by the hospital first and check on Simon and Megan." With a sigh, he pushed himself to his feet and reached for the backpack he'd left there before going to the press conference. "In fact, I'd better get moving. I'll see you back at the loft later."
Naomi stood, too. "Do you want me to go with you, sweetie? You know, for moral support?"
Blair gave her a quick hug. "No, Mom. It's ok. This is something I need to do alone." He released her and turned quickly toward the door, leaving her to watch his departure in silence.