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Ricochet of Sounds

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Ricochet of Sounds

by April Hackett

PetFly has them; I want them. Unfortunately I can't afford them, so I write. No infridgement is intended.

This is my offering for Tammy's winning bid in the Moonridge Auction. With her statement of 'I like long stories with plots', I watched this little PWP I had been playing with suddenly morph. Muse had definite ideas for this story and continuously hit me over the head until I complied. <g>
Thanks to everyone who looked this over for me. All suggestions were helpful. Any errors are mine, as I can't leave my work alone. <g>

This story picks up a short time after Colors.
I've written Jim a bit softer than cannon. Hope this doesn't put anyone off - I have plans and need him more receptive. <g>

This story is a sequel to: Colors


I shift off my knees, leaning slightly away from my truck to look around the opened driver's door, scanning the immediate area. No motion is detectable around the front of the small strip mall. I had jerked my truck to a squalling stop only a few moments earlier, joining several other patrol cars spread out around this developing crime scene.

Chink, chink, chink.

"Great," I growl, jerking back when several bullets impact against a nearby abandoned car.

God, I'll never forget the sounds of this particular rifle. Some idiot got his hands on an M-16 military rifle, loaded with armor-piercing rounds. I viciously suppress the memory of my last run-in with someone firing a gun like this. I managed to survive it; several of my squad didn't.

Chink, chink, chink. Crash. Chink, chink, chink.

I hear the almost silent, muttered expletive Simon breathes as he flattens himself against the driver's side of his Chrysler LHS, his heart racing. That round of fire came too close, ventilating his car's right quarter panel, as well as the trunk and back window of the sedan parked beside him.

"You all right, Captain?" I ask, just loud enough for him to hear.

"Yeah, just perfect, Ellison."

I grin, briefly amused. That's my boss, throwing sarcasm no matter the circumstances. I quickly scan the big man and note that other than his system pumping double time on adrenaline, everything seems to be fine.

I look right, checking on my partner. Blair is lying across the seat on his side, head toward me as he squirms to stay out of sight of the shooter. He didn't even have time to get exit the truck before we were attacked. To be honest, I prefer he stay there. With the engine block between him and the shooter, my guide's somewhat protected from the waves of bullets fired our way.

Chink, chink, chink. Chink, chink, chink... Crash. Chink, chink, chink.

"Shit!" The pair of patrolmen crouching behind the last car in our little blockade suddenly hit the dirt as the .223s burst through both closed front car doors, hitting vulnerable, human flesh. I hear a low, guttural groan just before a sharp cry for help rises above the general noise on site. Someone yells for an ambulance, as a quieter, but no less intense call of officer down goes out over the radio. Several cops converge on the wounded patrolman, doing what they can until medical help arrives.

"Jim..." A new odor is mixing with Blair's normal scent, bringing a sharp bite to the tang of adrenaline driven emotions drifting off him. A moment's consideration and I identify it. Duty: his sense of responsibility and a strong drive to help have joined the mix, urging Blair to rush where angels fear to tread. I enjoy the benefits when this facet of his character is focused on me, but it also makes it hard to keep him on the sidelines and out of trouble.

"Not yet, Chief. It's not safe." I know what he's asking me even though the words haven't been expressed. Instinct flares to protect the Guide.

"Safe." Add annoyance to the fragrant sensory mishmash coming from Blair.

Chink, zing, zing.

I duck instinctively, hoping those misses don't ricochet toward us. "Yes, safe," I growl, annoyed primarily at the shooter, but to a lesser extent, at my partner's insistence. I ease closer to the body of the truck, determined to make Blair think about this. "That suspect is shooting off armor piercing rounds. You start bouncing between the injured and you're going to get hurt." God, if only I could make use of that wounded puppy look that my partner has down pat. "Let the guys on hand deal with it for now."

The intense blue stare Blair nails me with telegraphs his carefully banked anger and indignation at what he calls my smothering tendencies. I don't want to fight, swallowing my relief at avoiding a confrontation when I see the anger fade from his gaze. It's his teaching voice I hear when Blair very calmly states, "Jim, you can't protect me from the world. If there's something I can do to help, then please man, let me." I sigh, nodding slightly in acknowledgment that I heard him. I had better find a solution before Blair decides he's waited long enough, because I'm not sure I can do what he's asking.

I appraise our small gathering of support. Our choices are nil to handle this situation head-on considering the resources on hand, especially with the shooter using the ammo he has. "How long has this guy been shooting up the place?" I shout down the line.

"Not sure, sir," a young voice answers off to my right. I glance over the bed of my truck and see a new face teamed with a veteran at patrol, Sergeant 'Deuce' Rougman. "Reports of shots fired inside the store were the reason we responded in the first place. He's emptied several clips at us since we arrived." The young officer looks up as he answers, then hastily ducks again when Rougman growls at him to get down. "We were first on the scene, Ellison. He's packing more than enough to take us all out," Rougman grunts in response to my question.

Chink, blam, zing.

Rougman and the rookie scramble towards the front of their car as the rear settles with a flat tire. It won't be long before someone's killed at this rate.

I look at Blair and see him reach for the hand mike. He softly talks to dispatch, amazingly calm with all this chaos whirling around him as he obtains answers for me. I hear other officers in our little standoff talking and estimate that this crazy we're containing has fired a couple hundred rounds into the parking lot since this thing started. Just how much ammo does he have in there?


"Yeah?" I turn my head. Blair's scared but in control.

"SWAT's been called. All the stores are empty. Patrol's set up behind the mall. They're evacuating any remaining people they find in the stores further down the mall. He looks hard at me for a moment, his concern evident by the small frown darkening his features. "Can you hear anyone inside the convenience store other than the gunman?"

'Time for the Dog and Pony show...' I sarcastically think to myself, my mood dropping.

I sigh softly and turn to peer cautiously round my truck door. Blair would verbally admonish me for that internal remark if he knew it had surfaced. He's pushed me hard to change my outlook concerning these senses. And to be honest, my opinion has begun to swing more toward the positive side. I can see where they could be an essential asset to my work. A slight smile threatens to break loose as I consider; one of those essential moments is now.

I take a deep breath and try to relax, letting my guide's soft voice anchor me as I begin the search. Peripherally, I hear the familiar beat of Blair's heart, it's rhythm so much a part of me I don't consciously register it most of the time.

"Remember our tests, Jim. Sight, then piggyback sound. I know you can do this," Blair whispered confidently.

'I know you can do this.' God, I hope so. Our success so far has been me holding two senses together just long enough to know it's possible, then blowing up like a volcano when everything spikes massively. 'I know you can do this.' Shit Okay, I can do this. I have to do this. I don't want anyone to die here, so I will do this. I take a deep breath and try to settle my sudden nerves. 'I know you can do this.'

With that mind-boggling phrase whispering with Blair's voice in the back of my mind, I scan the surrounding area, letting sight slowly dial up with hearing supporting at a lower level. I've located everyone in our immediate area by the time my sight has notched in a couple of levels above normal, taking particular note of each officer's location. I hear Simon on the radio to my left, though I don't pay that much attention to what he's saying. He's the Captain - I'm secure in letting him lead us, even to trusting him with Blair. To my right, Blair is murmuring reassurances and suggestions, using his voice to ground me as I scan the area. I notice there are a few curious spectators in the sparse treeline to the North, which I pass onto my partner. I consider letting my sight go higher, just to be sure about these people, but hesitate, not willing to push yet. They should be safe there as long as they don't drift any closer. With the surrounding area checked, I focus on locating my main target.

When I turn back to the store, I feel the muscles in my neck tightening from stress, the pre-ache of a migraine tickles against my temples and the back of my head. No, not now! The sound of Blair's heartbeat in my head gains in volume, its calm beat surrounds me with its steady cadence, blocking out all distracting stimuli. Feelings of utter strength and total devotion flood through me, washing the growing tension to the background where I need it to be. I don't know how my partner is doing this, however I'm positive that he is doing it... And for once, I'm willing to accept, not question or challenge. My senses sharpen further as my anxiety lowers, just as Blair has insisted would happen if I'd only relax. Truly trusting in my Guide, I loosen my guard and try to let my senses work together as they should.

The front of the store had several large panes of glass, which have all been shattered by gunfire. I push hard, punching my eyesight past all the debris and pulverized stock that before this incident had been neatly displayed against the front windows. The room is dimly lit, with pieces of the overhead lighting hanging down from the suspended ceiling by its wiring. Zeroing onto a silhouette pacing deep within the store, I focus my sight a little higher, unconsciously soaking up my partner's softly rambling reassurances while I labor to harness my unruly talent.

Our perp is a medium sized man, near Blair's height, but lacking my Guide's mass. His oily, dark hair looks like an unfinished bird's nest on top of a lank, pale form. He's dressed like an army supply refugee, though there's nothing about his military utility jacket or the B.D.U. pants that would single him out of a crowd. The functioning M16 he's cradled against his stomach, it's carrying strap draped securely over his right shoulder does that most effectively. The suspect's gesturing wildly with his left hand as he rants aloud. His agitated pacing takes him to the end of the store aisle where he spins tightly around, facing fully toward me. I can see clearly his right hand is tightly wrapped around the pistol grip and his forefinger is curled inside the trigger guard.. We definitely have a problem.

"Can you hear him, Jim?"

Blair's voice filters through my senses like softly melting snow. The resonance and cadence soothe, wrapping me in support and strength without offering any interference. I don't miss a beat as I narrow my focus further and piggyback hearing with sight, working to catch the perp's tirade.

"...turn up, anyway! I woulda caught Sheila, just like I planned."

I almost fall over in shock when the shooter's voice suddenly becomes clear. Everything surges wildly as my concentration slips. I blink and take two steadying breaths, using Blair's lessons to reach the calm center within me and focus outward again. I'm ready this time when I tame the fractious gift into obeying my demands.

"Now I'm gonna have to rethink my whole plan!" an angry, nasal tinged voice snarls.

I watch the perp glance toward the police barricade, a nasty sneer turning the little man's face ugly.

"Damn cops. Who do they think they're dealing with?" The shooter jerks his left arm out at a shelf full of chips, knocking everything to the floor. "Goddamnit! I had everything planned!"

"Jim, what's going on in there?"

The worry in Blair's voice is evident so I pull my concentration back enough to answer him, keeping just enough awareness centered on the perp to stay aware of him. "Turns out this isn't just a robbery." I wave a hand toward the store, explaining, "Evidently, this guy planned to catch someone named 'Sheila' here. He's acting pretty strung out about not finding her too." I feel a tight grip on my biceps and notice he's still stretched across the seat of my truck, though he's squirmed more onto the driver's side than when this started. He's also rolled onto his belly to better reach out to me. I quirk a quick smile of thanks at him, guessing his touch provided me with additional sensual grounding while I scanned the prep.

"You mean you heard him?" Blair blurts out, a brilliant smile blazing from him. Even lying down, he's almost vibrating he's so excited. "Man, that's great! What about a headache?

With nothing but nonsense being ranted by the suspect, I ease my senses down to normal and let my smile grow bigger, enjoying his enthusiasm. "No headache."

"Wow." He gives me an intense look, though his pleasure at my success is still evident. "We need to devote time for more practicing... and tests. I have to come up with some different tests to measure this." He starts to rise from his prone position then freezes as he remembers where and why we're here. I can almost see the thoughts flying through his mind as he resettles on the bench seats.

Tests... Swell... "We'll talk about it... " I hear a snort of amusement from Blair at my meager attempt to divert him. Tests or no, what would I do without this man, I silently acknowledge if only to myself. Maybe once this crisis is over, I'll finally approach him about some of the details I haven't been willing to explain or talk about concerning the senses... and other things too. Giving myself a mental shake, I concentrate on the scene. "Captain?" I call, wanting to get Simon's attention without broadcasting to the whole area.

I know Simon is uncomfortable with this sentinel stuff, but he tries to be supportive and suspend his disbelief in what he can't physically explain. Now I have to lay one more unsupported bit of information at his feet.

Captain Banks turns slightly toward me while he finishes relaying his orders into the car's hand mike. His eyes lock with mine and I say just loud enough to be heard, "I don't think we have much time, sir." Simon hesitates, then signs off and lays the mike on the car seat. He carefully maneuvers himself across the open space between our vehicles until he joins Blair and I. "What can you tell me, Jim?"

"Sounds like this guy is after someone named Sheila. She wasn't in the store when he showed up, so he lost it and started shooting up the place."

Chink, crash, zing

"Damn lunatic if you asked me," Blair mutters into the seat upholstery then raises his head. At the twin stares the Captain and I give him, he blushes and murmurs a soft, "Sorry..."

Simon gives my Guide one of his 'I'm the Captain so don't do that again' frowns, letting it serve as a voiceless reprimand for his comment then turns back to me. "Is this coming from..." he vaguely waves his hand in a loose circle at me.

"Ahhh, yeah, Cap."

"Oh." Simon looks at the store front, his frown growing stronger, then looks back to me. "You sure, Jim?"

"Yes, sir," I reply, confident in what my senses have revealed.

"Maybe the store manager might be able to help us?" Blair asks, his rapid-fire mind moving through potential solutions a little faster than ours at this moment. I offer my partner a quick grin in appreciation of his assimilation of police procedure after only limited exposure.

"Yeah, that's a good idea. Several witnesses who managed to slip out of the back were taken down to headquarters for statements by one of the patrolmen. We need to know about this girl," Simon replies. I think he's glad to have something procedural to fall back on instead of only relying on the intangible. Simon gives my partner a long, intense look. "Good work, Sandburg."

Blair beams at the praise and reaches for the mike. As he starts to transmit our request for a line to Major Crimes, Simon suddenly interrupts him. "What are you doing, Sandburg? Give me that," Simon demands, holding his hand out to my partner, giving his fingers a little wiggle when Blair hesitates in surprise. I know that Simon isn't really mad at Blair, he's just hyped about the siege we're dealing with, but hell, his timing really sucks.

"Sandburg, you're doing a great job with Jim, but you've got to remember... you're not a cop." With that statement, Simon takes over the radio.

I hear the sad sigh that slips from my partner. Willing Blair to raise his head, I look him right in the eyes when he does return my gaze and try to impress as much support onto him as I can. I know he doesn't think I realize how these little jabs at his status with the department hurt him, but I do. There's only so much I can do though, officially. I foresee some partner building time once we're safely back at the loft. He gives me a little nod to show he's all right, so I turn my attention back to our situation.

Chink, chink, zing. Chink, chink, chink. Shatter, zing, shatter.

We all instinctively duck as our shooter gifts us with another round of fire. Simon turns his attention back to the radio when a familiar voice echoes from it. I give a minuscule shudder as the usual annoying tinny quality our communication system seems to have lately rubs against my over-stretched nerves. I force my hearing to drop a notch lower in self-defense. "Mr. Carter says he has a cashier by the name of Sheila: Sheila Bannister. She didn't report for work today, though," Joel states, finishing the brief report of information headquarters has managed to run down so far.

Zing, chink, zing.

"You got an address yet?" Simon queries, glancing up and down the line, checking on everyone after the latest round of bullets.

"Yeah, Rafe and Brown are following up on that right now. A unit has been dispatched to the address DMV has listed as her residence. It shouldn't be long before we hear something."

"Let me know as soon as possible. Out." Simon looks up at the two of us as he hands the mike back to Blair, worry evident on his face. "Keep an ear out, Jim. If we can stay ahead of this guy, maybe no one will get killed." More shots sound out, but this time it appears he was shooting at something inside of the store. "He's staying so far back inside the store, nobody can get a decent shot at this guy," Simon grumbles, frustrated at the situation.

We turn as the squall of tires screams behind us. A dark green Chevy Impala rolls to a stop, barely wedging into the space between my Ford and Rougman's patrol car on my right. As two plain clothes detectives jump from their car, our perp suddenly opens fire again. This time he keeps his finger on the trigger, sweeping a repetitive trio of shots back and forth across the crowd of vehicles that is our only protection against his hate until he completely empties the magazine. Cries of pain rise from several locations in the ringing silence that follows the attack. Simon slips around the back of the truck, heading toward the Impala's downed driver.

My hearing unexpectedly kicks into overdrive and I detect a loud, distinct clicking sound that I'll always associate with my past military life. This asshole has doubled his clips, taping them together for quicker loading. Knowing what's about to happen, I fight the dials, forcing my senses down to manageable levels so I can function through the strafing I know is about to happen. My stomach clinches in near nausea as I jerk around, feeling fear for my Captain, who's unprotected as he crosses the open area between my truck and the Chevy next to it. "Simon, get down!" I scream out, just before a second barrage of bullets sweeps across our line.

"Jim, what's ugh..." wheezes from Blair as I fling myself into the cab of the truck, landing on top of him. I hope a lucky shot doesn't wing its way through the motor to hit either of us. The perp continues to unload the clip upon us, tearing through sheet metal and plastic to hit vulnerable flesh, dropping more policemen to the ground. Finally silence reigns around us except for the moans of pain and the careful whispers of support.

The fast, frantic heartbeat thundering under me scares me breathless. "Chief," I whisper, anxious to ensure my partner isn't hurt. I push off the still form, easing my way out of the truck while staying out of sight. I silently cuss the idiots that did the pavement squalling entrance for drawing the shooter's attention down on us again and then curse the wacko in the store. Please, God, don't let him be hurt! "Blair?" I touch my Guide's shoulder, feeling body heat and a fine tremor ghosting through his form. "Jim?" Finally, I feel movement under my hands as the muscles in his back flex. I know it's only been seconds since the last strafing, but it feels like a lifetime has past. Blair lifts his curly head, his blue eyes focusing upon me intently. "You okay, Jim?"

"Me!?" I take a deep breath. Stay calm, Ellison. I know he's just as protective about me as I am of him, though I won't admit it aloud. "Yeah. What about you, Chief?"

"I'm okay, Jim." The low sounds of pain can be heard around us, drawing my Guide's attention. "We have to help, Jim." I realize that I can't stall the inevitable. I have to let him be himself.

"Come on, then. Let's see what can be done." I help my partner out and we move around the rear of the truck. Simon is kneeling beside someone I don't recognize, pressing a makeshift tourniquet to the man's leg as Richards, a detective out of Robbery ties a bandage around my Captain's left biceps.

"Simon? You all right?" Blair asks, concerned as we kneel down near our friend.

"Yeah, though it's just damn lucky I wasn't killed. Collins here took a hit." Simon eases closer to me, letting Blair slip past to check on the downed detective. "Thanks for the warning, Jim," Simon quietly acknowledges. I nod slightly in response, glad my friend wasn't badly hurt - this time. As things momentarily quiet down, the sounds of pain become more distinct along the barricade. Glancing at me, Simon mutters pointedly, "I wish that damn ambulance would get here!"

I take the hint and let my hearing course out, checking for our medical assistance. I push through the transit noise that is building up several blocks away from our location. I can tell that traffic has ground to a standstill on the connecting roads leading to our location. Standard procedure would have included traffic control setting up detours to insure civilians stay out of harms way. I wish this time they hadn't been quite so quick on the draw since it now means that no one is getting through to us by roadway. Where is that ambulance?

The horns and discord make me frown as I work past them, listening for the ambulance that should be heading this way. "Jim, don't focus so hard. Remember the siren is going to be blaring. Be ready to pull back if necessary," Blair mutters sentinel soft. I do as suggested and just in time too. The shrill shriek hits my ears like a dog whistle, making me wince in pain. I pull back with a pained sigh, needing to escape from the noise before I head into a world class migraine, or worse, a zone-out.

"You okay, Jim?" The lyrical voice that I've come to depend on blankets me, pulling me back from a painful sensory spike.

"Yeah." I glance down the line of cars, noting that nearly one quarter of the cops pinned down by the suspect are injured. It's obvious that Simon has made the same observation. He motions me back behind my truck and moves to follow me. Blair's throws a quick glance at Simon's retreating back before he returns his attention to the young detective he's assisting. I expect Blair will be joining us as soon as he's finished what medical aid is possible with the limited supplies on hand.

"What did you hear, Jim?" Simon sort of groans his question as he settles against the truck bumper, supporting his arm carefully against his side.

"Traffic is at a standstill. Any support expected isn't going to get here anytime soon." Blair slips in to crouch beside me. "The ambulance is stuck some distance away. It's going to be a long while before it arrives."

"What about SWAT?" Blair asks. "Did you hear anything of them, Jim?"

"Nothing. If they're trying to get to us by vehicle, it's not going to happen." I glance over the area with a helicopter assault in mind. "You had better warn SWAT not to try it by helicopter, Simon. The suspect," I state with a slight nod toward the store, "has a unobstructed shot across this lot. Anyone dropping in will be a clear target."

Simon sighs despondently. "Are you sure, Jim?"

"Even considering the accuracy he's shooting with, that gun evens the odds in his favor."

"All right." Simon looks down the line. I know he's worried about everyone getting out of this situation alive. "Do you think there's a way this guy can be taken down safely?" Simon finally asks. "We're getting cut to pieces here. Heaven help us if this guy thought this action through enough to have brought any protective gear with him." He glances at the cops trying to help all the wounded, then looks back at Blair and I. "Can you imagine the carnage if he has and decides to leave that store? We'll have an incident the likes none of us have ever seen before."

"The only two options I would recommend now are either wait for SWAT to arrive and have them use one of their sniper rifles..." I frown as a thought occurs to me. "You think one of these guys might be packing heavy equipment in their trunk, sir?"

"Richards!" Simon hisses, trying to stay quiet and not draw any more fire. Richards glances up, then slips behind the truck at Simon's gesture.

"Yea, Cap?"

"See if you can determine if anyone is carrying a rifle in their trunk. We need something with enough range to make an attempt to take this asshole out."

Richards gives a quick nod and moves back to his car. I watch the question work its way down the line, already pretty sure what the answer's going to be.

I turn back to Simon. "The only other option is to slip a couple of men through the back of the store and take him that way." I feel Blair shudder slightly as I say this. I'm sure he knows which option is going to be taken and by whom. I'm also sure my Guide is going to insist he go along, whether I want him to or not.

Simon grimaces as he considers that idea. I knew he wouldn't like it, but we don't have many choices here. Richards scurries behind the truck, bumping up against us when the perp flashes several more rounds at us. "Shit, I'm sick of this," Richards curses. "Sorry, Cap, nobody's got what you need. The closest we came was a .22 Perkins carries to handle any rabid problems he finds when he's patrolling the north ridgeline." There's always a couple of calls a day of some kind of wild animal wandering into the new neighborhoods that have strung up against the national forest that backs Cascade. I know Perkins; he's no hotshot playing target practice with a gun.

"Thanks, Richards," Simon says, dismissing the detective.

Simon sighs, resigned. We all know the .22 is basically useless in this circumstance. "I don't see what else we can do, Simon," I push after Richards has left. Blair stirs restlessly against me, drawing Simon's attention.

"I take it you want to be the one to go."

"I am the best qualified, sir," I state.

Simon glances around again, then looks from Blair to me then back again. "Jim, I don't like the idea of a civilian going into a situation this dangerous."

"If Jim goes, I'm going too." We both can hear the determination and stubbornness in my partner's voice. "Chief..."

"No!" Blair vigorously asserts, jerking his hand in a quick cutting motion. "You need me, man. You both know it. End of story." Blair's practically crackling with what I assume is frustration at us and anger at the situation. I just want to protect my Guide. He lays his hand on my forearm to gain my full attention. "Protect the tribe, Jim. That doesn't mean shielding me from what you have to face to get the job done." Damn.

I turn back to my Captain. "Simon, it's a little late to challenge Blair's position as my partner. He's already been in several dangerous situations." I watch as worry and concern flicker across my boss' face. "I don't like it either, but he's right. I need him." Unfortunately, as much as I'd wish Blair would stay safe, I already know if I do this, he's going to be right there with me.

"Simon, I have to be there," Blair presses. "A unexpected flash of light or sound could sent Jim into a zone-out. He could be killed if it happens without backup that knows what to do." Simple, uncomplicated and succinct: it's no wonder my partner's a great teacher.

Simon sighs and gives us both a long look. I've heard talk around the station concerning the poker face he presents to the public. For the most part, it's true too. However, since becoming Simon's friend, I've become better at reading my boss. Worry, for me and especially for Blair are paramount on his mind while he decides whether to okay this risky action. The change is minuscule on his face and in his body movement, but I know the moment he decides to let us go. "All right, Jim." Blair and I start to move off to the left, away from the besieged barricade when Simon's voice halts us. "Just make sure you both come back." The bare hint of a smile slips out. "I don't want to deal with the paperwork if either of you is hurt. Understand?"

Gruff covers worry. I can certainly relate. I glance down at my partner, seeing his nervous resolve then look over my shoulder at my boss. "We will, Simon."

We carefully advance toward the front of the building, shielding ourselves behind the parked vehicles in the lot. I have my gun out, ready to use. Reaching the last car in the lot, we sprint across the remainder of the asphalt until we reach the overhang of the building. I feel Blair's hand brush against my back offering tactile support and soaking up any reassurance he can from the contact. I offer a brief grim grin in response, then hurry us down the sidewalk and slip around the corner of the building. "Chief, we're going to have to be very careful. This guy is totally unpredictable."

"I know, Jim." Soft, confident, only slight elevated breathing showing my partner's nerves are stretched tight.

Turning toward my partner, I try one last time. "I wish you'd reconsider..."

"Don't EVEN say it, man!" Blair hisses at me, growing angry. "I'm NOT staying back with Simon. Come to think about it, I'm NOT staying quietly in the truck every time there's trouble anymore and I'm not staying HERE either. Get over it." He takes a deep breath, trying to settle down. I watch him as a bit of calm settles over him, diluting the anger of a moment ago. Blair looks me in the eyes and quietly but firmly states, "You need me. I know it and you know it. Deal with it, man." I knew he was going to jump me for pushing the Blessed Protector attitude, however I won't apologize for wanting my Guide to be safe. We continue to lock stares until I finally break contact. Damnit. I note the little smirk Blair tries to smother at my retreat. Worry flares my annoyance at him and I level a glare at my partner, which provokes a full wattage grin in place of his amused smirk. Who said bigger was always the winner? Suppressing a sigh, I continue leading the way toward our target, with my Guide following close behind me.

I pause at the back corner of the mini mall, checking to make sure the patrol car is still there. Two officers are crouched against their car, guarding against our perp slipping out the back door. One notices our approach and points his gun to cover our approach. Stepping away from the building, I carefully pull my badge and state, "Detective Ellison. This is my partner, Sandburg." Now we have both officers' attention.

"Yes, sir," one states as soon as he spots my badge. I up my sight just a little to catch his name tag: Carson. They stay where they are, waiting for us to join them behind the car. "Any trouble, Carson?"

"No sir. Once all the witnesses were taken to headquarters, things calmed down." This statement comes from the young brunette. His tag names him Grissom.

"We're going in to try and contain him. Make sure to stay out of the line of fire, in case he gets past us." As I rise, a thought occurs to me. I turn back to the two young men, adding, "And please make sure who's in the doorway before you fire. There's going to be shooting. I can almost guarantee it. Stay calm and stay down." They both nod, though Grissom has a slight annoyed look at the reminder. I don't care if they're annoyed to the point of sullen, just so long as they don't shoot us if the ensuing skirmish spills out the door into their laps.

I pull my gun from its holster and slip round the car, Blair a silent shadow behind me. We brace against the building and I ease the back door slowly open. A small streak of late afternoon sunlight punches into the shadows of the unlit room. "Stay behind me, Chief," I whisper and feel a hand grab hold of my belt at the small of my back. "Ready?"

"As I'll ever be, Jim," whispers back to me.

I nod and shift quietly into the store's storage room. Glancing upward, I note the skylights that would normally serve as a source of natural light offer only muted, faint illumination. The panels are coated in debris, bird droppings, and other things I won't let my sight clarify. I let the back door snick shut, shutting us off from any support.

"Remember to be ready to dial it down, Jim. Don't get caught with your senses too high," Blair whispers. I rumble an acknowledgment and begin to prowl toward our goal.

We slip through the haphazardly stacked boxes and crates that fill the room, following a created path that wanders through the clutter. Dialing up my sight, I can see tall metal shelves lining the walls, some filled, some empty of supplies. Sight declares no threat, so I decide to pull hearing into action, just to be sure. Using Blair's heartbeat as my center, I open my hearing up a couple of notches, trying to locate not only the perp, but also any unknown bodies that might be a threat. The slightly fast drumming swamps me momentarily, the life beat of my partner pounds through me before I anchor my Sentinel abilities solidly with his body's cadence, bracing myself upon the steady foundation I've come to depend on. Scanning outward, I can tell no one is here except the pacing suspect in the next room and us.

I tighten my emotional controls when I feel my aggression swirling higher, trying to explode into overdrive. The scent of Blair's tension, the spike of adrenaline moving through my Guide is acting like spurs to a bronco, pushing me to protect at any cost. I can't let things get away from me. Since Sandburg came into my life, I've noticed these spikes hit me whenever Blair's been in danger. I can just imagine the tests he'd want to run to analyze this new phenomenon if he knew.

We walk through the mess that masquerades as a stockroom and finally reach a large open area fronting split double doors that lead into the main store. Erratic pacing becomes obvious even to normal hearing as we pause. I feel Blair's hand tighten briefly on my belt, then let go completely as he frees me. "Stay out of sight," I whisper back to him and grab the door to slip through them. Protect the Guide

I begin to squeeze through the double door when a horrid shriek pierces the quiet. I freeze immediately, fearful the perp has been warned we're coming. I tense in preparation to defend Blair and myself.

"What's the matter, Jim?" my partner whispers from behind me. I don't hear any increased heartbeats from the immediate area.. I keep an uneasy ear on the heavy-footed pacing that's happening deeper in the store and take a moment to check the dials on my senses, just in case my control has slipped and the noise wasn't as noticeable as I first feared. Blair must have reached the same conclusion for my stopping, as I hear a sub-vocal, "Check your dials, Jim. Make sure everything is set to just above normal."

Damnit. Hearing is surging erratically. Tapping that sense down I notice that touch is beginning to creep upward too. I ease everything toward what is normal for me then sigh softly when everything stays there. Luckily during those few distracted seconds, the suspect hadn't moved from his location on the other side of the store. There's no hint that our quarry is aware of danger, so I slip into the room and kneel at the end of the first aisle. Blair stays behind the doors, serving as my back up and lookout. I glance back at him, catching a brief glimpse of blue as he peers through the narrow opening he's made by leaning slightly against one of the doors. I flash a quick wink to reassure my partner then return my focus to the main target.

The shooter is still gesturing and ranting to no one as he strides back and forth three rows over from me in the dimly lit store. If this guy had been operating with a full deck, I doubt that he would still have been uselessly wasting time here. Who in their right mind would storm into a room, guns drawn, then stay there after they find their target wasn't where they expected? Incompetent.

I let instinct lead me and silently stalk toward my prey. I have to be very careful. For all the professional weaponry on hand, this guy acts like a rank amateur. That fact alone makes his actions extremely difficult to predict. The pacing suddenly stops and I freeze, becoming as still as my spirit guide just before the killing strike is delivered. I hear the perp heading my way so I glide up the next aisle to go around him. His heartbeat is pounding a frantic pace making it easy for me to keep track of his location. I can also hear my Guide's heart behind the split doors. Amazingly, Blair is staying put, at least for now.

The shooter suddenly stops. His heart rate shoots up even higher as he remains quiet, motionless. Something has this guy spooked. I know he didn't hear Blair or me, however, he's suddenly suspicious. With a silent move, I'm around the end of the next aisle, trying to keep an ear on the suspect as I work myself closer. I have to get him subdued before he can bring that gun up and fire it. Protect the Guide.

Chink, chink, chink. Chink, chink, chink.

"Goddamn cops! Why`re you still here? I don't want you here!"

I drop into a tight crouch as more shots ring out, violently echoing through the store. I grab my head and hope the ringing in my ears will ease quickly as I dial my hearing slightly below normal. The perp screams more obscenities and strafes the barricade of cars again. Neither his tirade nor his actions make sense to me, which in my mind makes this guy even more dangerous to deal with.

As if he could read my thoughts, the shooter spins wildly around, and strafes the inside of the store. I dodge back quickly, sinking down into a deep crouch to make as small a target as possible. My Guide! I can't tell if the shots angled toward Blair's location from here. Frantic heartbeats echo and re-echo in my head, confusing as my control slips because of my sudden building apprehension for my friend. A faint scraping sound seems to echo in the deafening silence, then I hear a low, barely audible thump from the back room.

No, no, no... Please, let that sound have only been heard by me? I glance round the end of the aisle and see the perp, gun raised as he advances on the back room, his movements stiff, but determined. A low, inaudible growl vibrates through me at the sight of this... this human stalking my Guide. I'm moving before I even think about it, an inhuman roar of rage spilling out of me as my prey pops off another round across the back wall, including the double doors. I hear a suppressed groan of pain escape Blair seconds later.

I give up silent movement for more speed and burst into the open area next to the cash register, tackling my target as he spins to meet my threat. The perp and I both hit the ground, but he rolls away before I can secure him. Rolling to my knees, I reach out and grab the back of his jacket. He breaks my grip and throws a solid punch to my side, trying to drive me back. Both of us quickly regain our footing. I lash out with a quick right cross, catching him on his jaw solidly. When he stumbles back in reaction, I make a quick grab for the rifle and miss. The perp quickly recovers and braces his legs, then snarls a string of cuss words at me as he aims the machine gun at my chest. A swift step forward and a burst of bullets thunders over my shoulder, crossing the ceiling of the store as I sweep his gun arm upward. The bullets pulverize what's left of the lighting fixtures, raining small fragments down on both of us. I ignore the debris and immediately follow through with a stiff forearm punch to the solar plexus that drops my opponent to his knees, the air knocked out of him momentarily. A solid knee under the chin quickly puts the shooter down on his back, gasping. I kick the machine gun loose and watch it skid across the linoleum floor until it slides partially under the shelving on the far wall.

I quickly glance around the room, noting the slender metal pole that anchors the end of the counter that houses the register. It's length runs from the floor through the broken ceiling into the bones of the building, serving as one of several support beams located in this structure. Handcuffs go round one scrawny wrist, then I grab the front of the field jacket and drag my prisoner to the end of the counter. Pulling his loose hand beyond the pole, I snap the open cuff closed, securing the oblivious man. The perp is slow to wake, moving sluggishly as I quickly search him for more weapons. I pull a knife Jim Bowie would have been proud of from a sheath down one boot, a .45 caliber Colt pistol and several clips loaded for the M-16 from different pockets on his jacket. Reaching around the guy, I jerk a loaded Glock 9mm from a waist holster hidden in the small of his back. Just how many times did he think he needed to shoot this woman?

I glance toward the storeroom, noting the unobstructed view of the double doors from the register. I should be able to keep an eye on my prisoner while I'm checking on my Guide. I grab all the armament and dump it near the M-16 as I rush toward the back of the store. Pushing open the double doors, I see Blair leaning on his left elbow as he struggles to rise from a prone position. The scent of blood is fragrant in the air, shooting my anxiety through the roof.

"Blair!" I drop to my knees on the floor in front of him, jamming one of the double doors open with my left hip. "Where are you hit, Chief?" I ask, reaching out to grasp his right arm, wanting to help steady him as he slowly maneuvers into a sitting position.

"Yowl!" Blair complains, jerking his arm loose from my grasp. "That hurts, Jim."

"Sorry." I release him, but still get another hiss of pain because of the arm's movement.

That aggressive surge flares up again. Protect the Guide I smother the irrational urge to go beat the bloody hell out of my prisoner for hurting my partner. I glance over my shoulder as thoughts of my prisoner surface. He's finally awake, sitting leaning against the counter. If looks could kill, we'd all be dead. The feelings are mutual, fella.

Turning back to my partner, I quickly grab his shoulder when at the loss of my support, he starts to sag. He eases into a more comfortable position, settling securely into a lotus position. "Look at me, Chief," I soothe as I tilt his head upward and move the loose hair back from his face. There are several deep scratches across his right cheek, with a dribble of blood dripping down from another scratch that crosses his right temple and disappears into his hairline. These wounds don't look bad, so I begin to peel Blair loose from his jacket.

"Jim, quit it." He pulls his arm away from me, though whether it's because he doesn't want me fussing over him or because it hurts, I don't know... yet. "Jim, shouldn't you call Simon to let him know things are under control?"

"In a minute, Chief. Let me check you out first, okay?" Damn, talk about misdirection... However, he's right. I do need to call Simon and give the all clear. Blair sighs when I reach for him again. "Will you let me do it? I'm okay. Really..." my partner huffs. I'm not letting him get away without a good look though.

"Then take the jacket off." My worry from the blood smell hasn't settled yet and probably won't until I know he's all right.

"I will if you'd back off a little. I don't mind the help, Jim. Just stop trying to take over. Okay?" He glares at me until I nod slightly, not really agreeing, just trying to get his arm down to skin as quickly as possible. If that means capitulating, then so be it.

I ease the loose sleeve of the jacket gently down his arm as he cautiously works the bulky item off his shoulders. A soft hiss of pain wheezes out of Blair as he manipulates the long sleeved shirt off that he wore under his jacket. The edge of a bloody looking welt peers out from under his t-shirt sleeve. I grasp his arm carefully, supporting it from underneath, and check to make sure there is no other damage. It looks like he lucked out with only a bullet crease across his arm. Painful, but a minor wound only. "Looks worse than it is. Anything else that needs attention?"

Blair gives me a strange look, his mouth opening for a totally spontaneous response to tumble out, only to have the unusual moment to pass. What was he going to say? Now I'm intrigued. What was going through my Guide's mind to produce that look? Whatever it was, I would hazard to guess he's not going to talk about it, so it's time to get moving.

"Come on, let's get you up off the floor. Then I can get the troops in here." I slip my hand under his left elbow and give a tug. Blair leans forward, rising up on his knees in preparation to stand, then suddenly throws himself across me, knocking both of us to the ground just as a shot blurs by impacting against the wall behind my partner. I roll us both away from the open door and reach for my gun, rising up on one knee, ready to attack. Several smaller boxes tumble loose from a nearby stack that had been balanced near the far wall and wedge the door I had been leaning against tightly to the wall, open.

Turning to my partner, I whisper, "You okay, Chief?"

"Damnit, that hurt," Blair growled lowly, as he struggled back to a sitting position.

I thought my protective impulses were bad before. They're nothing to what I'm feeling now. That man in the other room just tried to kill my Guide!

"Yeah. You?" he replies, concern making his voice timbre rough and deep. I run a quick sensory check over Blair and find that he was right. No new injuries seem to have occurred. I nod affirmative to his inquiry and concentrate on what I can scope out on my so-called prisoner. The perp is mumbling what is at best incoherent garbage as he twitches and fidgets. The clickety-click of the cuffs and chain as it rattles against the pole is clear to me, as is the deeper metallic chime ringing from the firearm each time he bumps it against the support. How the hell he obtained a gun I haven't a clue? However, I'm determined to find out. No one threatens my Guide. No one...

I shift closer to Blair now that I'm sure the shooter is still cuffed. I reach out and gently touch his shoulder, just to assure myself he's okay. With the physical connection, concern and affection wash over me. I give my partner a long look and face the inevitable - we're going to have to have a talk about Sentinels, Guides, and emotions that seem to be getting stronger after this situation is finished. Oh and let's not forget a little ole thing like a mental link that wasn't there last week. As the emotional wave fades, I watch a shy, sweet smile warm Blair's face, hitting me square in the heart. I'm not sure why I receive that reaction from my Guide now, but it calms the hammering beast that wants to go into the other room and pound the suspect into a bloody mess.

As the Hunter within calms, my protector side strengthens. I can't always count on Blair to follow my requests, but I guess this time he sees something in the game face that I know has darkened my features to a facade of granite because he resettles himself on the concrete storeroom floor out of harm's way. Protect the Guide

"It's okay, Jim," he says, as he leans back against the wall, his legs crossed into his favorite lotus position, injured arm supported with the other against his stomach. "Go get him," he growls, spurring me into action.

I move toward the partially open double doors like I've been released from mental chains. Hunter has joined with Protector to insure the life of my Guide. I will just have to trust my basic personality and the veneer of civilization that covers modern man will be enough to control the caveman mentality. If possible, I'll try to take my prisoner alive. However, the perp won't be allowed to make another attempt on my partner.

I ease to my knees behind the protection of the closed half of the doors and take care not to touch it since I don't want the perp warned of what's to come. What I plan to do is a calculated risk; one I'm sure both Blair and Simon will ream me for taking, but I just don't see another way.

Blood pounding, nerves revved for battle, the feelings are reminiscent of my Black Ops days. I make sure the gun's safety is off, grasp it tightly, and throw myself into the open area Blair and I had just escaped. Sliding on my side, I glide across the doors' threshold into view of the perp, surprising the restrained man who manages a shot that wings high, completely missing me. I return fire, my shots ending only when my momentum abruptly stops when I impact against the far wall. Protect the Guide

Four shots fired in quick secession drill precisely into the perp's chest, dead center. The wiry body is repelled backward hard, with the cuffs being the only thing holding him up as he limply slumps. The revolver drops to the floor with a loud crack as he wilts to the ground, dead.

I rise cautiously, wrangling my cell phone out of a suddenly bulky jacket pocket with my left hand. The other hand is steadily aimed at my adversary, just in case.. My senses give no hint that the shooter will manage to ever rise again, but he's surprised me already this afternoon. I flip open the phone and hit speed dial as I cautiously move closer to my motionless prey.

"Banks." Low toned, brisk, and sounding frustrated, the deep baritone voice of my Captain was very welcome right now.

"Simon, it's clear. You can send in the reinforcements," I reply as I walk cautiously toward the unmoving suspect.

"Jim! Everyone okay?" I hear Simon snapping his fingers at someone, then the rustling of cloth, the sound reminisce of a gee snapping during a particularly good karate kick. I dial up my hearing a shade more and detect many bodies moving rapidly away from the phone. I suddenly have a mental image of Simon gesturing to those officers still healthy in a snapping go, converge, and contain motion. It's as probable a reaction to my call as any he'd make.

"Yeah, we're fine. Blair was scratched up some, but I'm sure he'll be okay." The sounds of activity multiply as they grow closer to the store. I squat down and press two fingers firmly against the shooter's carotid artery, waiting for a palpitation signaling life. The tenacious drive to take the perp between my hands and mangle him is practically a subliminal but powerful impulse I fight to control. That's all I need -- this aggressive tendency trying to overtake me. I'm a cop for Christ sake. I will handle this responsibly. Yeah, right...Protect the Guide

"Okay, Jim. We're heading in now." Simon's voice echoes his relief - that we're alive, that this situation is contained. I completely agree.

No beat, no sound of life... "I think we can call this one done," I mutter sarcastically to myself as I rise back to my feet. With the realization that it's over, Hunter eases back to my subconscious, to sleep until instinct flings that part of my Sentinel make-up back into the light. I already know that 'Blessed Protector' won't retire for the night until the Guide has been seen by the doctor and is declared fit and hale.

"What did you say, Jim?" Damn, I didn't mean for Simon to hear that. Rustling sounds drift out from the back room telling me my partner is coming to join me. That suits me just fine.

"You hear anything on that ambulance?" I inquire into the phone, turning toward the storeroom as Blair shuffles out holding his arm stiffly against his body. My Guide is alive, but I definitely want to get someone to look him over soon. He walks over to stand next to me and gives the blood soaked deceased a sad, slightly nauseated glance.

"Yeah," Bank's voice booms from the phone's speaker, "they expect to be here within the next 5 minutes or so." Concern hints strongly in his voice again. The front door of the store swings open, setting off that God awful dingdong sound I detest and in strides my Captain with several officers ranging behind his shoulder as support. "Why? I thought you were okay in here," Simon continues, not missing a beat as the conversation transfers from the phone to in person.

"We are, Captain," Blair replied confidently, leaning against me. I place an arm across his shoulders, taking care not to bump his injured limb.

Simon glances from Blair to me, then back to Blair. He's subtle about his appraisal of us both, though I note his obvious review of the visible marks on my partner. I have no doubt our captain has deduced that there probably is more damage on my Guide that he can't see. I catch the rebounded glance back to me. Simon frowns slightly as he gives me a moment's hard stare. Though I'm not rampaging like a out-of-control bull elephant with my 'Blessed Protector' cap settled firmly on my head, he's become proficient at recognizing the 'protect the guide' signals that I put out.

"Sandburg..." Banks growls. His eyes narrow into one of his annoyed glares as he tries to stare my partner into admitting how he really feels. Blair doesn't blink however. "Hmm... I think a secondary opinion on the condition of our young observer would be an excellent idea." He pulls his cigar case out and extracts a rolled specimen. Once Simon has clamped down on one of his favorite vices, he turns back to me. "I'm sure you're going to see to that, aren't you, Detective?" It wasn't really even a question, because he knew the answer before he turned to me.

"Captain..." Blair starts to interrupt, but I override him.

"Yes, sir. I had planned to do just that." I can't really call up a smile yet, but I feel amusement tickling faintly as my partner tries to maneuver his injuries past Simon's notice. He should know it's not going to work.

"Let me know what's going on, Jim." Simon turns one final intense look at the both of us, then heads over to check on the officers securing the scene for forensics.

I maneuver Blair slowly toward the door, my arm still around his shoulders. He's trying to be nonchalant about the support he's borrowing from me, but I can feel his fatigue. The minute tremors vibrating through him aren't the least bit surprising considering the shock that hits after the first raw pain from the bullet's burn fades and the rush of adrenaline disperses from the system. Glancing over my shoulder at Simon just before we head outside, I catch the lingering scrutiny that he's giving us. The worried glance tells me Simon isn't fooled by either of our acting abilities.

"You all right, Chief?" I ask softly, walking him toward my truck. I will be escorting him to one of the EMTs personally.

"Yeah, Jim. I'm fine, just tired." He gives me a little look out the corner of his eye, which I blandly return. 'Like hell, Chief,' I think, knowing my Guide's propensity for obfuscation. I know exactly how he feels and he knows it.

"Man, all right, my arm feels like it wants to fall off," he mutters Sentinel soft.

"I'm not surprised, Chief. It may only be a slight wound, but they hurt," I reply, as I ease him into a sitting position inside my truck. Blair props his feet onto the running board and leans his good shoulder stiffly against the back of the seat. I brace my hip against the corner of the seat, the front of my leg just brushing against Blair's right knee and quirk a slight smile. "I ought to know."

"Right. I know you've been here, done this." Blair sighs and slumps, relaxing marginally as he props his left arm across the top of the seat. The injured right arm is carefully balanced across his lap. "At least we stopped the guy."

We can hear the quiet murmur of voices as several officers continue to administer aid to those policemen injured. Blair glances at me with a sad demeanor and asks, "Did he kill anyone, Jim?"

"I don't think so, Chief," I soothe, glancing through the truck's passenger window scanning for signs that any of our wounded didn't make it. I see several prone figures, but none of them are covered with a blanket shroud. I give a silent thank you and look my Guide in the eye. "I haven't seen or heard anything to make me think the worst." A painful sensation jabs through my head suddenly and I physically wince in reaction.

"What's going on, Jim?" Blair asks, jerking upright. He reaches out to grab hold of my left arm, grounding me against an auditory spike caused by what I think is a siren. It's shrill squall eventually becoming audible to me, filling my head with high-pitched noise. I feel my partner shift against me as the shrieking surges through my head. "Dial it down, Jim. It's probably the ambulance. You know their noise, now dial it down and tune it out." Easier said than done, believe me! Some day I'm going to have to tell him just how hard it is to simply breathe, much less concentrate when one of these things hits me broadside like that.

Okay, Ellison, deep breath then concentrate. Breathe through the pain, you've lived through worse than this. The half formed thought, 'like when sight and hearing spike together', ghosts through my mind as I struggle to visualize and control the dials.

"That's it, Jim. Take it easy... nice and slow..." Blair's voice murmurs smooth as silk against my nerves.

An elusive sensation travels up my forearm to impact with my other senses, adding strength to what I'm trying to accomplish. I can hear my Guide's voice, his cadence soft and deep as he talks to me. His voice gives me a starting point to work from; his touch adds dimension. Throw in his scent and I'm cooking with gas here. I barely slit my eyes open, not remembering when I even closed them. No new pain hits as light and my surroundings impact on my optic nerve. The throbbing pain recedes to a simple headache, something I can tolerate until I can take something to ease the minor ache away. I feel a tingle developing in my forearm. A zing almost like a strong jolt of static electricity sparks, feeding along the nerves to course up to my shoulder before it shimmers out.

What was that! I glance down and see Blair's uninjured hand gently stroking back and forth across my shirtsleeve. Even through the cloth, I can feel the pleasant sensations rising all along the path of Blair's touch, raising goose bumps all along my skin. "Wow..." I whisper, in awe and apprehension. I don't understand why everything is 'on' with my senses today. After all the difficulties I've had getting this Sentinel stuff to work, I will definitely need to think through these reactions and sudden improvements as soon as I have a bit of quiet solitude.

"Wow?" I can literally hear Blair's curiosity.

My head jerks up as screaming screeches coming from the main street behind me suddenly intrude. The noise of many vehicles is rapidly approaching us. "Company's coming, Chief."

What?" Blair jerks back slightly, his lips tighten into a firm line of pain with the movement as he tries to look behind me. I note his frown and reach up to gently skim my fingertips across his temple. I could easily zone on the tactile sensations coming from contact with my Guide's skin. "Concentrate, Jim. Remember what we've practiced. No zoning." I give him a slight nod of acknowledgment and back my sense of touch down slightly. Even with it dialed to normal, I barely even have to touch him to feel the slivers of wood that are embedded under his skin. That shooter's bullet came way too close when it impacted the door my partner was using as protection. I realize I have increased the pressure of my touch too much when I feel one of the bits of wood move slightly under my slight pressure.

"Yowl! Jim, don't..." my partner barks, jerking away from my hand.

"Sorry. It feels like you have several splinters buried there." I nod toward his temple and meet his glare with a straight face. God, I hope his luck always runs this good when in dangerous situations. I feel worry and despair stirring as I consider - as long as he hangs out with me, I know he'll be threatened again.

"Stop it!" Blair snaps angrily as the first of several ambulances skid into the mall's parking lot, their screaming sirens switched off. "It wasn't your fault that I was hurt." We watch several more follow the first ambulance into sight, careening around the tree lined corner, with several patrol cars following close behind.

Did I let my facade slip or is he getting that good at reading me? Another thing to think about during that quiet moment.

"Jim, it's just the way things work. Either of us could be hurt while we work. It's just the nature of the job." He gives me a hard stare to hold my attention. "Don't take on the blame for things neither of us can change. I'm not leaving you and you can't run me off. Therefore, scrapes are going to happen."

Yeah, all right. I may understand, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

He gives me a full strength glare, waiting for what... a response? Not happening, Chief.

"Don't go looking for trouble, Jim. We have enough on our plates as it is." Blair continues to stare at me, prompting a rising desire to fidget, though I strongly control it. The fiery stare finally begins to taper down to a general Blair frown. I can live with that.

Speaking of full plates reminds me of this tentative connection I've sensed with Blair throughout this situation. It's almost like there's a link, or maybe bond would be a better word, developing between us; one that enables him to perceive my general moods. This it possible? Is it part of the Sentinel thing? Yet another thing to deal with in this growing world of Sentinel mysticism. Oh, joy... Time to throw a little misdirection in front of my Guide.

"I can live with scrapes, Chief. It's bullet holes that I would rather do without."

I can't stop a smile from slipping out when my partner levels a flabbergasted stare on me at my statement.

"Will wonders never cease..." Blair deadpans, trying to be serious, though the grin struggling to escape is ruining the mood he's trying to project. "Jim Ellison actually loosens up enough to show his sense of humor."

"Jim Ellison has a what?" a familiar voice booms from behind me. Both Blair and I jump at the unexpected intrusion and I turn around so we both can see Simon, who's walking up to us.

"All lies, Captain," I reply with a quick grin, giving into my happiness that we all came through this situation relatively healthy. I lay my hand casually on Blair's nearest shoulder.

"Ahem," Simon rumbles in response, then offers a small, pleased smile before his professional demeanor resumes.

We all watch as the rescue crews deploy among the downed officers and the newly arrived policemen quickly work to cordon off the area. I see Rafe and Brown moving through the growing crowd slowly working their way toward my truck. While watching them approach, I suddenly realize the siren induced headache that had continued to thump in the background of my mind has melted away. Well, what do you know...

"Are you guys okay?" Rafe inquiries immediately upon rounding the rear of the truck.

"Yeah, we're fine," Blair instantly replies, giving me a quick glare to comply with his wishes of my continued silence. As if, buddy, I chortle to myself.

"We heard that you had been banged up, Blair," Brown insists as he stops beside Rafe, giving my partner a quick look. The big detective lets his glance wander toward my Guide's forehead, then casually takes note of Blair's tight body language, which offers hints of hidden hurts. He gives my partner a narrow-eyed glare, which Blair tries to head off by insisting, "I'm fine, Brown. Really..."

A subvocal murmur comes from Rafe, our immaculately dressed one. It's a shame only I heard it - it was quite imaginative.

"Did anyone figure out where the perp found the gun?" I ask the Captain, feeling my anger trying to grow again. "I left him cuffed to that pole. He shouldn't have been able to reach his..."

"There was a holster hidden under the counter," Simon answers, cutting me off. I wasn't going to get graphic... much. "I doubt any of us would have seen it without an in-depth search." Glancing back at the store, Simon returned his attention to us as he continued, "In fact, it should have been impossible for the guy to reach it cuffed like he was. I think they're going to find plenty of ligature marks on his wrists where he fought the metal to reach that weapon."

"That means Jim's not in trouble, right?" Blair turns a worried expression onto the gathering.

"It should be okay, Blair. The review board will have to investigate this since the suspect was shot, but I don't think anything will come of it," Simon soothes, giving my concerned partner a little smile in reassurance. I know it will be more than that, just because FRB is involved. They always get wound up in their procedural protocol, in my opinion.

Simon pushes his glasses a little firmer onto his face and sweeps his two recent arrivals with a 'back to work' look. "Report, gentlemen. Please," Captain Banks states, leaving Simon, our friend, in the background for the moment.

"Yes, sir." Rafe starts to recount what they've learned in the last couple of hours. "We received a report on the girl this guy was hunting just before we left headquarters. Seems Ms. Sheila Bannister had filed a harassment complaint against the shooter two weeks ago. He had been stalking her everywhere she went, scaring the crap out of her. Evidently, him trying to break into her apartment was the last straw, prompting the complaint.

Brown picks up the recital. "Traffic called in that her apartment has been trashed. The door was broken in, furniture smashed; someone had a real tantrum according to the report.

"What about Ms. Bannister?" Simon questioned.

"No one has seen her since yesterday. The officers said that it looked like someone packed up then left like the devil myself was pursuing." Brown finishes, glancing from Banks, to Jim, to Blair, then back to his Captain.

"Was an APB put out for the Bannister woman?" Simon's concern for the Bannister woman was audible.

"Yeah, Captain. Everything's done on that end. All we can do is hope she's okay," Rafe chimes in. A call for assistance within the circle of cars behind us draws our attention and Brown, Rafe and Simon hurry over to help.

I'm watching the progress the ambulance crews are making, noting that several of the more seriously injured parties are finally being loaded. Brown and Simon help load the last critical care patient, signaling the okay to pull out with a quick bang on the door. A couple more ambulances rumble in to take their place as the filled ones speed around the corner. I could hold back on rushing Blair over there since I knew there were several needing immediately medical attention. However, as they've now been seen to, it's time to get my partner's hurts tended.

"Come on, Chief. Time to face the music." I pull gently on his good arm, urging him up.

"Oh, come on, Jim. It's not really that bad," Blair insists, proving again he intense dislike for any medical personnel focusing on him when it could mean a trip to the hospital.

I remember the grief he gave me upon waking up in a hospital bed after dealing with Lash. "No sirree, you're not pulling that this time. You need those splinters removed and that wound on your arm dressed properly. Now come on." I pull a little more insistently.

Blue, true blue eyes gazes fully on me, gaining my undivided attention. A determined feeling of resistance tickles at the edge of my consciousness, flavored with a little hint of fear. Could this possible link work both ways? I feel the impulse to sigh and roll my eyes as I realize talking is definitely going to be in both of our futures.

"Come on, Jim. Couldn't you handle things? You said it yourself; they're basically minor injuries. You are a trained medic, after all..." I can feel as well as see the pleading that can't be verbally expressed. I hate to refuse Blair this, but I have to.

"I'm sorry, Chief. No can do." Stand firm, Ellison.

"Why not?" Confusion is mixing with the apprehension of a potential hospital trip. His emotions are faint, but I sense them anyway. The scent rising from my Guide just reinforces his mood.

I audibly sigh, easing back on my pull on Blair's arm. Looking my Guide in the eyes, I state with all the feeling I can summon, "Because I won't cause you pain, if I don't have to, Blair." I really didn't want to get into this now. 'Why can't he just do what is asked for once?'

"What?" I watch the confusion overshadow everything else as Blair tries to process what I've just said. "What do you mean? I don't understand." A small frown begins to furrow between his eyes. I've added worry to the mixture of emotions my Guide is feeling right now.

"Just what I said. I would have to hurt you, physically, to treat your wounds. It's not necessary for me to do that as there are medical personal right over there." I nod my head slightly at the activity going on behind him. "It's just something I feel very strongly right now." I know I'm not making any sense, not articulating things so he can understand my viewpoint. Maybe another approach will work better.

"What has..."

"Blair. Please..." I feel the urge to growl. Leave it to my partner to force things to a head, even to getting me to express feelings. 'Shit' "Why have you always got to be so damned hardheaded?" My blood pressure is rising. "You want to know why it bothers me to hurt you." I'm purposely keeping my voice low, even though the urge to start shouting is building. I don't want a neighborhood group session breaking out here.

"Yes." Blair's heart rate is starting to climb, though he still has control of his expression.

"All right." I have this God-awful urge to pace, I'm so worked up. Control, Ellison. Slow things down. "All right, I'll tell you." Bringing my attention fully onto my Guide, I look him solidly in the eyes and say, "It's because I care about you." Oh, man! I cringe mentally as I realize what I said. I couldn't say it. Even to Blair, I couldn't say the Lo... Shit! I can't even say the word to myself.

"You care." He gives me an unreadable look. "You care how? As a friend? As a partner? Or could it be more along the lines of brotherly love? You think you could be a little more specific in your declaration, Jim?"

I knew this was the wrong time to let this rabbit out of the hat. I should have just lied my ass off and let things go as usual. "Do we have to do this here and now?" I ask, almost whining in my desire to take this conversation indoors. So far, no one else has heard us, but it's only a matter of time.

"Yes! We have to do this here and now!" Blair pushes me back so he can gain his feet. He wobbles slightly and I quickly grab his arm to help steady him. "Thanks," he murmurs, an undefined look developing, as his eyes develop a slightly vague, glassy appearance.

"Chief! Are you all right?" I grab hold of him firmly, both hands finding a hold to steady my partner as he takes a sudden shaky breath.

"Yeah, I'm fine, Jim," he replies faintly, but the glassy look is fading. In its place is a look of such happiness, that I don't know quite how to respond. "I'm feeling great, in fact," Blair continues, his voice gaining strength, the tones reflecting his gaining exuberance. He turns his head, looking me straight in the eyes, holding my gaze completely. "I'm letting you off the hook for right now." Each word he speaks is precise and clear, warning me he's deadly serious. "However, once we're home, we're having a long, detailed, talk." His hands come up and grab my forearms. "Agreed?" Blair questions, giving me a little shake for emphasis.

I'd agree to go to the moon on a rocket if it got me out of discussing our relationship in the middle of a parking lot. "Yes, once we're home... after you're checked over." Can't give in completely - that's contrary to the Sentinel handbook. I'll quote chapter and verse if we ever find such a thing. A small smile sneaks across my face at my addendum and Blair gives me a little glare out the corner of his eye before we begin to move toward the ambulance.

"Don't think you're getting out of anything, Jim," my Guide continues determined not to lose ground in our discussion. "I'm going to hold you to your agreement."

"All right, Blair. We'll talk about it after you're cleared to go home."

"Stubborn sentinel," he mutters so lowly, only I can hear him. He settles on the ambulance's bumper, still grumbling as I let go of his arm and step back. I watch carefully as the EMT sets to work on my Guide. I'm glad he's not badly hurt. I don't know what I'd do if I lost Blair now. He's become an important part of my world. I'm apprehensive about our coming talk, but a spark of exhilaration is growing. If what I've felt is coming from a connection between the two of us, then maybe there is hope for the two of us together in the future. I rock slightly on my feet, then grin at myself. I'm definitely letting my guide influence me -- I'm bouncing in anticipation.

End Ricochet of Sounds by April Hackett:

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