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He had his suit for tomorrow, resting on its hanger in the closet in Simon’s spare bedroom. He’d chosen something that he thought of as dark grey, (not charcoal) and cut along conservative lines. There was a blindingly white button-down shirt hanging alongside it, and a discreet tie with a grey base and a deep maroon pattern. Blair suspected that he wouldn’t get a lot of wear out of those things after tomorrow, but you never did know. He rubbed his palm against his face and sighed. You never did know, and that was precisely why the clothes were right for tomorrow.

He took the scissors out of his bag, and stripped them from their packaging. It had been easier to buy a cheap pair of scissors than ask Simon where he kept his and face the dark, assessing gaze that would follow the request. He wanted this to be something secret and completed before he presented it to the world. Standing in front of the mirror, he stared at himself. He didn’t look so different; a little pale, a touch shadowed under his eyes. There had been nights of hard partying in his under-grad days that had left him looking way worse than this. He pulled his hair back into a tail with one hand, and then considered Simon’s carpeted floor. “Bathroom, Sandburg. Let’s do this,” he told his reflection.

Simon’s bathroom had a smaller mirror but a brighter light. Blair stripped down to his undershirt, laying his shirt and sweater carefully over the side of the bath. Then he grabbed his hair with one hand at the back of his head and hacked through the resulting tail with rough slices. It took four cuts before the last of the long strands dropped. He gathered it into a pile, a disregarded rats’ nest on the floor, and then stood to examine his shorn self and grinned. Well, he thought, that can only get better. Starting at the back, he gathered strands between his fingers and, using his knuckles as a rough guide, trimmed his hair to something like a uniform length.

He only cut his knuckles once, when Daryl banged on the door. “Hey, Blair! You going to be much longer in there?”

“Yeah, yeah, I am. Sorry.”

“S’okay. I’ll use Dad’s bathroom.” More hesitantly, Daryl asked, “Hey. Are you okay in there?”

“I’m fine. I am supercalifrajilistic.”

This was apparently not convincing. Daryl’s voice grew careful. “Blair, do you want me to get Dad?”

“I’m fine, dude. Go use your Dad’s john. I’ll be out in a while.”

The bathroom light was uncompromisingly bright on the metal blades as Blair snipped the last few times behind the tops of his ears, and then stopped to examine his work. He’d seen worse haircuts, although Jim would give him beans over it. Would’ve given him beans. Blair saw his face begin to change, and he turned away from the mirror to stoop and kneel and try and clean up the mess. His hands swiped like bulldozer blades across the floor, putting as much hair as possible into one pile. Still, he’d need a brush and pan, and a plastic bag. Not your most organised moment there, Sandburg, he thought, and his eyes burned suddenly. He took a deep breath, and another, and when he figured he could step outside the door without bawling like a little kid, he did so.

Simon stood in the hall outside. His eyes widened in startled surprise, but his voice was level as he said, “This is a new look for you.”

Blair smiled. It felt terribly unconvincing to him, something that he judged by both the effort to move his facial muscles and by Simon’s expression. “I thought it would be better for tomorrow.”

“I don’t think that Jim minded your hair,” Simon said mildly.

Blair knew that. Hell, Jim loved his hair; he’d said it only a couple of weeks ago, a quiet admission in the dark. “It’s something –“ Blair bit his tongue. Simon was an old friend of Jim’s and Blair could see how explaining why he’d cut his hair would sound utterly presumptuous, unless Blair explained everything. Blair wasn’t ready to explain anything. “Anthropological. You know?”

Simon shook his head with slow melancholy. “I don’t believe I do, but it’s your hair.”

“Yeah.” Blair swallowed. “I made kind of a mess of your bathroom. If you can show me where you keep a broom and pan, and I’ll need a bag....”

“Sure,” Simon said, and gestured to Blair to follow him to the laundry room. Simon opened a closet door and placed a brush and pan in Blair’s hands. “Here,” he said. “Go clean up my bathroom. I’ll get you a bag.” He smiled as he said it.

Blair returned and swept up under the bright, harsh light. Simon came back, a plastic Target bag in his hand. “It’s not a bad job, but I could tidy it up for you. If you wanted?” It took Blair a moment to realise that Simon was referring to his self-barbering, rather than his housekeeping.

“Uh...” It shouldn’t be this hard to find the words. ‘Yes, please’, or ‘no, thank you’. He looked at the wavy tufts of brown hair in the dustpan.

“Blair?”

“Yeah, sure, thanks, Simon.” He turned to face away from the mirror. “Just a little off the top,” he joked.

“I think I can do that,” Simon said. He carefully tucked a towel around Blair’s neck and shoulders. “You need to put this undershirt through the wash,” Simon said. “You’ll prickle yourself to death with what’s left of all that hair otherwise.” There was a heavy silence, which neither of them broke with any more speech, and Simon began his tidy-up. He seemed to concentrate mainly on Blair’s nape and the strands over his ears, and spent only a few minutes on it. “There you go,” he said, and unwound the towel and shook it gently. “And now you can finish that sweeping.” His voice sounded fierce, but strained.

“Sweeping. I can do that.”

“I’ll put this in the trash for you.” Simon picked up the bag which held the bulk of Blair’s erstwhile hair. “Unless you have some deep and meaningful anthropological fate for it?”

“No, no, thanks, Simon.”

Blair worked until he was satisfied that Simon’s floor was suitably pristine, and then took his pan and brush and the debris that was left through to the laundry room where he knew the trash was. He passed Daryl in the living room along the way.

“Dude....” Daryl pronounced, long and low and awestruck.

“Kind of a change, huh?” Blair grinned. Daryl really did look utterly astonished.

“Yeah, you could say that.”

Blair finished his tidying, and then grabbed a beer from Simon’s fridge. He’d bought it, being a responsible guest and all, and he thought he was entitled to one. Just one beer, before he went to bed and had to face tomorrow.

“Where’s your Dad?”

Daryl shrugged. “Bedroom, I think.” He was trying not to stare, and not succeeding. “Hey, Blair, I know that I’m just some dumb kid, and all that, but if you want to talk to anyone, then I don’t mind if it’s me.” His voice was hesitant, but deep - a man’s voice.

“Thanks. I appreciate that. And you’re not a dumb kid. You’re a bright and considerate young man.” The grief welled up again, along with embarrassment. Was there anything that was going to make Daryl feel more like a kid than Blair calling him a young man? Possibly not, but any energy that Blair might have devoted to thought was drained. He lifted his bottle to Daryl in a sort-of salute. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” Daryl said, and watched Blair as he drank his beer and put the empty bottle in the trash to join the other detritus of the day.

“Well,” Blair said. “I guess it’s good night.”

Daryl nodded. He was biting his lip, looking upset suddenly, and Blair stooped to hug Daryl, his arms across Daryl’s skinny shoulders. Would Daryl grow up a big man like his father, Blair wondered. Or was there some slighter forbear that Daryl would take after? Jim had taken after his father in his long-limbed strength, but he’d inherited much of the structure of his face from elsewhere. His mother perhaps. Blair stood, and pondered genetics and potential. “Live a good life” Blair said, his voice unexpectedly thick. “It’s important.”

Daryl nodded, and Blair went to his bedroom and shut the door behind him. He leaned his forehead against the wood, feeling his eyes burn again, his throat tighten. “Keep it together,” he muttered, and stripped, ignoring the last remaining prickle of hair caught against his skin under his clothes. He laid the clothes over a chair, rather than dumping them in the corner the way he would have in the loft. What was it that Jim had said to him? Bitching about Blair’s untidiness, but with a good humour that had made the words sweet? “Just as well I am a sentinel. That way I won’t kill myself when you leave your dirty underwear lying all over the floor.”

“You should invite me upstairs more often,” Blair had told him. “I might be more careful in your space.”

“This is my space,” Jim had growled, settling himself with heavy, pleasurable intent over Blair as he lay in his bed in his little room in Jim’s loft. Blair wished, more than anything he’d ever wanted, that he was back there now but he wasn’t going to lie in that little room while Jim kissed him, ever again. He swallowed, and tasted smoke and ashes. Between the fires at the warehouse and the loft, he’d been left remarkably free. Untethered. He still had his notes, and most of his books at the university, but they were somehow unsubstantial. Unimportant compared to a lost place and time.

Blair hauled up the covers, trying to bury himself in the depths of the bed, dreading tomorrow. He wasn’t quite sure how he was going to do it, but he would. He had to.

His sleep was restless. He woke more than once, dream images spattered across his mind. The worst dream, an out and out nightmare, woke him just before dawn. He was running from one of the fire-people while it doggedly chased him, black as coal and trailing flames. Finally it caught him, its charcoal cracked arms wrapping around him, the flames a searing mantle covering them both; and it spoke his name with Jim’s voice, and looked at him with Jim’s eyes. He awoke with a great flinch and lay there in the dark, his heart pounding and his arms and legs prickling with horror.

Eventually he calmed, and with a sigh turned on the little clock radio by the side of the bed. Whoever had last listened to it favoured a talk-back show and Blair lay there, listening to the insomniac and the lonely have their moment of broadcast fame. At seven, he dragged himself from the bed and showered, distantly fascinated by how different it felt to wash his hair. He hadn’t had it this short in years. The funeral service wasn’t until eleven, so he dressed in last night’s flannel shirt and pants, and walked to the kitchen. Simon was already up, reading a heavy file with a frown creasing his face. Simon waved a hand towards the counters.

“There’s coffee.”

“Yeah, thanks.”

Blair poured coffee into a solid, blue mug and sat. “What time do we have to leave?”

Simon lifted his head, and pushed the bridge of his glasses firmly up his nose. “Ten-fifteen. To be on the safe side.”

“Think you’re ready?”

Simon understood this as a reference to the eulogy that he’d be delivering. “No-one is ever ready, but my notes are done, if that’s what you mean.” His hands rearranged the files on the table, before they were carefully placed into the briefcase beside his chair.

Blair nodded, and then devoted his attention to drinking his coffee before saying, “I’m glad that you’re doing it. The eulogy, I mean.”

Simon’s brows rose. “I’m glad that you’re glad, Sandburg.”

“I mean... you knew him. Better than Stephen and his Dad. It counts....” Blair’s voice trailed away. Stephen had asked him if he would like to speak, but Blair had declined.

“They knew him too. Just different parts of him.” Simon sounded gentle.

“Yeah.” Blair thought of what Jim had mentioned about his father – the efforts that they’d been making to mend the old rift. It had been a strain on Jim – spikes and zones had appeared in a way that Blair hadn’t seen since the very early days of their partnership. But Blair had been so sure that the immediate stress was worth it. Family was important, right? And now, Jim was gone, and Blair wondered if it was easier or harder for Jim’s family that Jim had renewed contact. Would it be easier for Blair right now if Jim hadn’t kissed him just one month ago?

The coffee slopped onto Simon’s table. “Oh, damn. Sorry, Simon. Sorry.”

Simon stood, and picked up a dishcloth from the sink. “It’s just a little coffee, Blair. Don’t worry.”

Blair wrapped his hands hard around the sturdy ceramic of the mug. It burned his palms but he didn’t let go, judging the burn less important than not showing his shaking hands.

Simon mopped up the small puddle on the table. “You want any breakfast?”

“No, no.” Blair summoned a smile, like a necromancer calling up a ghost. “No, man, I’m not really a breakfast kind of guy. Coffee is fine.” He lifted the mug to his lips, both hands still curled around it. “Coffee is fine.”

Daryl got up not long after, and made himself eggs and hash browns with starving teenaged determination. It smelled… okay – but Blair wasn’t tempted. Coffee was fine.

He dressed himself in his funeral finery, and at ten-fifteen Blair and the Banks men were on the road. Jim was being buried from St Paul’s on Jermyn Street, which was only the first trial Blair had to face. The last time he’d been inside St Paul’s was for Susan Frasier’s funeral service – but Bill Ellison had insisted. Blair didn’t know why. He couldn’t recall Jim even talking about religion outside of a case. Grace at St Sebastian’s, spirit animals – religion and spirituality were fine for other people, but applied to Jim they were a cause for jaw twitching and stubborn silence. Blair looked up at Simon, who was frowning at the small media cadre off to one side of the road. “Too much to hope for that they’d stay away,” he muttered, and guided Daryl up the steps with a hand under one elbow, Blair trailing in their wake.

The coffin was closed, of course, not like Susan Frasier’s funeral. Blair hoped that Jim hadn’t been frightened the way that Susan must have. He hoped that Jim had died zoned – seeking the source of the crackle of the electrical fault that caused the fire, perhaps. Maybe he’d been captured by the smell of the smoke, distractedly categorising scent and location. Or maybe, Blair thought, sitting and standing with automatic awareness of the rest of the congregation, Jim been felled by a spike in his senses, caught and disabled while Blair had drunk cheap wine and brushed the crumbs of bad canapés from his lapel at the Rainier mixer that he’d judged it politic to attend. Just once; you had to make nice with the rest of the faculty at least some of the time; one night was no big imposition. Jim had said as much with a gentle cuff across Blair’s head.

His eyes burned suddenly, and he started as he realised that Simon was no longer sitting but had moved to the front of the church and was speaking. “Jim was a uniquely gifted man,” Simon said, and Blair barely restrained a mad urge to call out, “Amen, brother!” He turned his head to see how Bill Ellison was taking that turn of phrase, and was discomfited to see Bill staring at him, a thoughtful, weary expression on his haggard face. Blair averted his eyes and bowed his head. Bill Ellison probably thought that Blair was going to show up in tie-dye and jeans with his hair blowing in the breeze. Blair considered the crease of his pants and the white of his shirt cuffs and knew a moment’s panic. Should he have? Was he somehow disrespecting everything that Jim and he had shared by showing up looking like some establishment drone?

Simon finished his eulogy. Blair was sure it was a very fine eulogy, but he couldn’t really say that he heard much of it. The minister said some words, the congregation sang something, and then there was the last ordeal. Six pallbearers: Stephen Ellison and Simon Banks; Blair Sandburg and Carolyn Plummer; Joel Taggart, sombre in his ‘A’ uniform and David Michelli, Jim’s CIA liaison friend, who’d flown back from the East for the funeral. Blair stared at Stephen’s back and clenched his hand around the smooth casket handle; he clenched his jaw against the rough, childish noises that he might otherwise make, playing his part in carrying Jim Ellison’s remains out of St Paul’s to the hearse waiting outside.

***

Blair took a leave of absence from Rainier for the summer. The university ran courses over the vacation, of course, and Blair should have shouldered the work along with everyone else, but he had enough with his share of the money that Jim left him to play hooky, staying with some old friends who ran an organic farm. He got lean and brown that summer, and grew his hair out into something less stark. It stayed above his collar, though. No-one could call him ‘hippie’ anymore.

He came back to a small apartment that looked more like a cell at St Sebastian’s, and finished his doctorate, combining some of the work he’d done with Jim and the subjects with only one or two senses, examining who chose work and chose ‘vocations’. It didn’t set the world on fire, but it moved him up the Rainier pay scale. Tenure was distant, and that was fine. He wasn’t sure that he wanted it, anyway. The year moved on, and Blair figured that he did, too. There were a couple of women, and one man, but they were just casual. Fun, sure, but Blair decided that he felt more comfortable splashing at the shallow end of the relationship pool. Simon Banks’s abiding tolerance extended to a few invites to social occasions – a dinner for Simon’s birthday, a couple of afternoons crowding around a tv watching basketball with Joel and other guys, cop and civilian. In his more cynical moments, Blair thought it was a pretty neat impersonation of a life.

Nine months after Jim died, Blair parked his car late on a Friday night and climbed the exterior steps to his apartment; he got as far as his bedroom before a sound behind him made him spin around. He caught a glimpse of a man, average build and height, brown hair, brown eyes, before he reflexively raised his hand to the sting he felt at his neck.

‘Well, shit,’ he thought, ‘this isn’t what I had planned for the weekend’, and then everything grew disoriented and heavy. It was too hard to think; his mind was as slack as his body, and he watched with confused detachment as he was bundled downstairs and into the back of a sleek sedan and driven away.

He thought that maybe he spent time in a plane, but he didn’t really start thinking clearly again until he looked out the window of the car he was travelling in and saw, past the solid bulk of the men sitting either side of him, a landscape that was more reminiscent of southern California than Washington. Blair sat quietly a while, trying to figure things out. He started with the easy things – the dryness in his mouth and the pounding in his head, and the loss of memory. He’d been drugged and abducted by someone with money, because he was riding in an expensive, spacious car.

“I’m thirsty,” he said eventually.

The man on his left-hand side bent and offered him a bottle of water. “It’s a side effect of the tranquiliser,” he said.

Blair stared at the bottle. “You guys can’t just point a gun at someone like normal thugs?” he enquired, and observed that this thug found him funny. There was a little lift of the mouth, a narrowing of the eyes.

“Tranks make people more docile than guns, and besides, Dr Sandburg, you come with a reputation.”

“Only if you work for Rainier’s admin office,” Blair said sourly, and cracked open the water bottle. He tilted his head back and tried not show how pleasurable the sweet flow of chilled water felt in his mouth. “I’ve gotta admit, guys, this is one of the nicest kidnappings I’ve experienced in a while.”

Blair turned his head, to check out Thug Two. He was taller, and narrower across the shoulders than Thug One, and he looked competently alert and thoroughly uninterested in Blair as a person. “Dr Sandburg,” he said, and no more. Blair returned his attention to Thug One.

“So, where are we going, and why couldn’t you guys just phone or send me a written invitation?”

There was a frosted glass panel separating the back of the car from the front. It slid open, and a man twisted around from the front seat. “Where we’re going isn’t that important. It’s why, and I think that you can guess why.”

New guy (Blair categorised him as Boss One, because of his front seat ride and the way that his two guards somehow sat more respectfully) was dark-haired and carefully groomed, and probably younger than Blair was. He reminded Blair of Francisco Rivera. It wasn’t even the physical appearance; this young man was bonier and longer-faced than Rivera of the evil, baby-faced good looks. But there was that same challenging element of ‘you’re not so much’ about him when he looked at Blair, and Blair felt his own temper, usually well-controlled, rise.

“Nope,” Blair said with insolent brightness. “Can’t say as I can.” Boss One turned his head away and the glass panel slid shut again.

Thug One gave Blair a sideways look. “Oh, yeah. This is going to be fun.” He sounded rueful, but Blair picked up a vibe from him of suppressed anticipation, and something that looked suspiciously like sympathy. Blair took comfort from it. He’d spent way too much time in the company of people who’d shoot him as soon as spit at him, and this guy, for all the easy competence he projected, didn’t have that stone-cold aura. He reminded Blair of Jim for a moment and Blair straightened his spine because Jim was gone, and whatever was going down here he was on his own.

They were travelling up a dirt road towards a small group of shabby buildings, built in the seventies and by the looks of it never painted since. Not a farm or ranch. Someone’s abandoned rural lifestyle, maybe. Whatever it was, it didn’t look promising. On the other hand, why bring him all the way here when Washington State boasted hinterland enough to hide a thousand bodies? None of it added up and Blair shifted in his comfortable seat, filled with deep frustration and resentment as well as fear.

The car came to a stop and Blair watched as the locks popped open, not through the action of anyone sitting in the back seat. Thug Two got out his side, Thug One got out his, and gestured to Blair to please exit the vehicle. Blair got out and stood, staring around him. The air was dry against his skin and mouth, and he wished he’d swallowed more of the water while he was still in the car. Then, without a word, he found himself hustled between Thug One and Thug Two, and pushed against a waist height aluminium framed fence, its chain link loose and sagging. One hand was hauled against the frame and plastic ties were looped around his wrist and the fence.

“Hey! Hey, what the hell are you guys doing?” Blair demanded.

Thug One smiled with that genial sympathy. “Sorry, Dr Sandburg. Paulie’s kind of theatrical about some things. But don’t worry, you won’t be here long.”

“Oh, I’m really comforted here.” Blair tugged hard, but with no purchase. The plastic tie bit into his wrist, and the sun felt like it was beaming right into the back of his skull.

Thug One watched him for a moment and then reached into the breast pocket of his dark suit, to draw out Blair’s pocket knife before returning it whence it had come. “You had it in your pocket, Doctor Sandburg. We’ll return it later.”

Blair suspected that his relief that there would be a ‘later’ was written all over his face, but it only increased his frustration. “Hey!” he called. “Hey, Paulie!”

Boss One, aka Paulie, approached with a sneer. He’d just finished yelling into a cell phone at someone, and he placed the phone in a pocket of his lightweight suit. It was, Blair noted, a very well-cut, expensive looking suit. Blair hadn’t worn a suit in nine months. He hated suits.

“Do I get to know what’s going on, now?” Blair said.

“He’s on his way. I’d give him shit, if I were you. He doesn’t seem to be in any hurry and here you are, all uncomfortable and tied up and everything.”

“Give who shit?” Blair said blankly. He felt like he’d been dropped into a surrealist play.

Paulie shook his head. “Maybe he thinks that the fact that you can keep your mouth shut doesn’t change the fact that he never should have told you anything at all.”

“Sorry, man. I can’t give you the next line because I still don’t have a clue what this is about.”

“This is about Ellison, and the fact that he doesn’t get to bull his way into the business while he’s breaking the fucking rules.”

Blair shook his head, trying to process too many things at once: Paulie’s sullen tone, like a student sitting in front of Blair’s desk presenting his grievance; that continuing sense that everything was tilting into weirdo land; the way that feeling jolted hot and cold in Blair’s gut at that name. “Hey, if you think that I was ever involved in anything to do with Ellison money, then you have another think coming. I barely know the Ellisons.”

Paulie got up in Blair’s face then. “We’re talking about Jim Ellison. You remember the guy? Sentinel?”

Blair felt his lips peel back in a snarl. The hand that wasn’t tied to the fence lifted and shoved Paulie hard in the chest. Blair watched with hot, furious satisfaction as Paulie staggered back, his expensive, shiny shoes scuffing in the dirt. “I remember Jim just fine. Past tense, because Jim’s dead, and this is one really sick fucking mistake, man.

Paulie straightened and took a step closer, but he stayed out of Blair’s reach. “Oh there’s been plenty of mistakes, Doctor Sandburg, but you know as well as I do that Jim Ellison is alive and well, and getting to be a pain in my ass.”

“I carried his goddamn coffin out of the church!” It was meant to come out with low sarcasm and disdain for the crazy dude, but somewhere along the way it turned into a ragged shout.

“I’m sure you had a touching reunion. “ Paulie shook his head. “Jim Ellison’s a sentinel, and you know what that means as much as the next person. A lot more than the next person.”

“Why don’t you tell me? Come on, you’re the big sentinel expert here. Enlighten me.”

Anger flared in Paulie’s eyes and he turned away, showing Blair nothing but a rigid back. Blair refused to believe anything he said. Jim was dead, and this was all some ridiculous con or terrible mistake. “Come on, Paulie, tell me what it means that Jim was a sentinel.”

Paulie walked away, staring down the dirt road. “About fucking time,” he said, at the sight of a car and its trailing dust cloud. The car drew up to park alongside the car that Blair had arrived in. Thug One approached it and opened the back left door. A woman stepped out, in her sixties, and as immaculately and expensively dressed as the rest of them. Thug One stooped to reach into the car, and then stood with a small video camera in his hands, before he walked back to Blair. The woman marched up to Paulie and slapped him hard across the face. “Tia!” Paulie protested, but she cut him off with a low, intense stream of Spanish.

Thug One, Blair noted, winced at the conversation, and then held the camera in front of his face, checking settings. “Ready for your close-up, Doctor Sandburg?”

“Sure, knock yourself out. Tell me, DeMille, what the fuck is going on?”

Thug One lifted an eyebrow. “You’re about to find out.” He looked toward the car. “Ready when you are.”

The woman approached now. “Hi!” Blair said brightly. “Come to join the party?”

“Please be quiet,” she said. Her accented voice was precise and educated, and tight with strain.

“Maybe I’d be quiet if I knew what was going on here.”

Her eyes were dark and, Blair realised, shiny with miserable, unshed tears.

“The end of a family. Now, for god’s sake will you be quiet!”

A car door slammed shut and Blair turned his head to see the last player in this crazy set-up walk towards him. Tall, athletic, dressed in another damned suit, player lucky last wore sunglasses against the glare. His hair was short and slicked back. He walked with a long, easy lope and Blair, standing under that hot sun, went cold all over and all the way through.

Blair’s mouth shaped a word but no sound came out. “Jim?” The woman reached out a hand and skimmed it across his cheek, and Blair flinched away. “Jim?” he said again, finding an actual voice.

Jim took off his glasses. “Chief,” he said. He examined Blair the way that Jim used to look at victims at crime scenes – courteous, sympathetic, and carefully dispassionate.

Blair stared back. “What is this? What the hell is this?” he demanded. His voice shook.

Jim ignored him and turned to the woman. “Are you satisfied, Zita? Between what you’ve seen and what you feel? Are we done with this?”

The woman nodded, five big tilts of the head, as if she couldn’t stop. Jim moved on to Paulie.

“I could almost feel sorry for you, Paul. But I figured out what sort of snake pit I was in after a day. If you couldn’t figure it out after living all your life in it, then that’s your problem. Enjoy your time at the local ranch. I hear it’s very nice out there.” Jim’s voice was smoothly arrogant, and he turned his back and headed towards his car. “Hey, Randall,” he said to Thug Two. “Please seat Paul in the rear of my car.” He kept on walking.

Paul began shouting, and so did Blair. “Jim! Jim! Don’t you go, man. This is crazy, and you don’t get to just walk away without explaining.” But it seemed that Jim did. Paul, swearing and struggling all way, was shoved into the back of the other car, the car that Jim was getting into, by Randall and Paulie’s erstwhile driver. Zita had burst into weeping and Thug One put the camera gently down on the dusty ground, and put an arm around her and escorted her to the front seat of the car that Blair had arrived in. Blair was ignored, which was no problem because Blair was busy screaming Jim’s name right now. He tore his throat with it, but the car drove away down the dirt road, ignoring him like everyone else.

Blair dropped to his knees, leaning his face against his free arm which he folded against the fence frame, in the grip of a full-scale panic attack. He shook, trying to breathe through the spasming gasps that had replaced the shouts. He was frozen through at his core but the surface of his skin twitched with itchy heat, and he felt completely dazed. There was blood trickling down the wrist tied to the fence – he hadn’t even realised that he’d been struggling that hard, until now. His breathing eased, but his heart still pounded in his chest, and his head felt like a balloon that was almost ready to burst.

“Doctor Sandburg?” It was Thug One.

“Yeah?” Blair said, his voice a worn, cracked thing.

“If you’d hold still, please.” Thug One carefully cut the plastic tie.

Blair grabbed the bar in both hands and hauled himself to his feet, swaying for a moment. “Oh, man.” He took a slow breath, to see if he could. “I need to use a bathroom.”

“Follow me.” Thug One led him to the house, a low, ranch-style building, and unlocked a door. “On your left.”

Blair walked down a shabby hall, brushing his hand against the wall and found the bathroom, small and dark and cool after being outside. He’d hardly drunk enough to really empty his bladder, but he forced a few trickles out, and then stood there, his head leaning against the painted wall, his eyes shut. He kept flashing on Jim, known and beloved and missed so much, looking at him with that impersonal concern. “Oh, god.” He thumped his head against the wall. “God,” he said again.

“Doctor Sandburg? It’s time we left.” Thug One’s voice. Blair guessed that he should really ask his name. He knew everyone else’s now. Randall, Paul, Zita. Jim. He flushed the toilet and washed his hands, blotting at the stinging gouges at his wrist, and then walked into the hallway.

“I’ve been calling you Thug One. In my head, I mean, but you do have a name?”

“You can call me Tony.”

“Hey, Tony.” Blair clenched his fist against his sternum. His heart just wouldn’t settle down. “Where are we leaving to?”

“I’ll make arrangements to get you home.”

“Definitely one of the nicer kidnappings. You guys do good work.”

Tony didn’t acknowledge the compliment. “If you’ll come out to the car.” Blair was escorted into the solitary back seat. Tony drove. Blair presumed that Zita and her grief sat in the front with him, screened behind the darkened glass partition. They drove for an hour and a half, until the landscape became gradually built up, filled with all the evidence of a city. San Diego, Blair guessed. Eventually, the car eased its way up the drive of a palatial home and Tony stopped, and exited, and opened the door for Zita. A man strode out the front door, and took Zita in his arms. It appeared that she was crying again, and Tony wasted no time in taking the car down the drive back to the street. The glass screen slid open.

“I’m taking you to the airport, Doctor. You should be home soon.”

“That’s great, Tony. Great.”

Tony was a good driver, just the right combination of careful and speedy, and the road signs told Blair that they were headed for Montgomery Field. Blair found he didn’t really care. He leaned his head back against the smooth, expensive leather of the seat, and held on to not caring with a clawing, desperate determination.

When the car stopped, Tony ushered Blair up the steps of a small jet, and set him down in a luxurious flight chair. He provided Blair with water and coffee, and a small plate of beautiful and expensive-looking finger food, and handed his pocket knife back to him. Blair checked his watch. It was only the early afternoon. “Hey, Tony,” he said. “Is it Saturday?”

“Yes,” Tony said pleasantly. “Would you like a newspaper?”

“Yeah, sure, why not.”

A copy of the Union-Tribune was offered him. Blair scanned the headlines. Yes, it was Saturday. No, the world had apparently not tilted on its axis. He thought that maybe he hated Jim. He stared at the clouds and the sky on the journey back, hating Jim all the way.

Tony left him alone for the flight, sitting down opposite only on the landing approach.

“I expect that you’ve figured this out, Doctor Sandburg, but let me make it explicit. You don’t mention this to anyone. You don’t discuss it; you don’t try to find Mr Ellison. If you do, the consequences will be unpleasant. You understand me?”

“I understand you fine,” Blair said. But they clearly didn’t understand him, because if they did they would have shot him and left him back in that California desert. Blair presumed that still living was Jim’s little favour. Screw Jim and his favours. And screw consequences. He nodded at Tony. “I understand,” he said, and they let him off the plane, and Tony escorted him to a taxi stand and handed over a wad of money to the driver, and then he walked away. The taxi took Blair back to his apartment, which looked just the same on Saturday as it had on Friday. Blair had trouble figuring out how that could be so, but you never knew, did you? You never knew anything.

Chapter Text

Jack looked well. “How it’s going, Blair?” he asked, his face quizzical and his voice gentle. Blair wondered if the gentleness meant that that the strain was showing and sat down beside him, slumped into the elderly chair that Jack kept for visitors, his hands fumbling with the folder he carried. Jack, he noted, had upgraded his wheelchair not so long ago.

“Still going for the sporty models, huh?”

Jack grinned. “Every man has at least one small vanity.”

“Oh, at least one,” Blair replied. “Thanks for your time. I know you’re busy right now. And sorry about this - I’ve got quite a few notes here.” He finally lifted the papers free, and started rifling through them, checking obsessively that they were all there. “I’ve only got the one set, although I’ve still got the tapes at home.”

“Tapes?” Jack asked.

“Yeah. I wanted to make sure that my recall was accurate, and I asked a friend to hypnotise me, just to help with the memory jogging.”

“The plot thickens. Blair, how about you start at the beginning with this?”

“Oh, man, if we started at the beginning then we’d be here longer than either of us has right now. Look,” - Blair proffered his sheaf of papers to Jack, - “can you just go through the information here, and try and track down anything to add to it. Car registrations, business connections, anything your intelligence brain thinks will fit?”

There was silence for a minute or so as Jack skimmed the papers. “I can certainly investigate, but it would help if I knew what this is for. Something academic? Or are you in trouble again?”

“Nah.” Blair shook his head. There was something tight and hot strangling his throat but his voice came out smooth as silk. “I stopped getting in that sort of trouble once Jim was gone. Y’know?” He smiled, and hoped it came out wistful and a touch sad, and not the manic snarl that always seemed ready to settle on his mouth.

Maybe it came out looking like a smile. Jack shook his head and said, “Jim certainly lived an exciting life. It’s coming up to a year now. How are you?”

“Weirder than I expected,” unexpectedly came out, and Jack’s gaze became penetrating. “Jim and I got pretty tight. It takes time to untangle all that. Emotionally speaking.”

Jack nodded. “Been there, done that. If you want someone to share a drink and some reminiscences with... call me.” He tapped a finger on the front of the papers, back to business, much to Blair’s relief. “You said that you’d been hypnotised to help with recall. The problem with being suggestible is that you’re – well, suggestible. How much of my tail could I be chasing here?”

“I picked someone I trust, and I worked out the line of questioning before I went under. It’s all pretty rigorous.” And Blair knew that Irene, an ex as well as a good hypnotherapist, had stuck to his rigorous questions and taped the session for him so that he could harvest every little detail of what he remembered. He’d upset her by crying as he’d described Jim’s car driving away, and later Blair had gritted his teeth and carefully transcribed and edited it all, and felt no urge to cry since. What he mainly noticed, when he dared to check out his emotions, was a small, tight package of rage, carefully tamped down like party streamers ready to explode out of a can, bright red streamers that would spread out and get everywhere. He shifted in his chair. “Hey, we’re all into rigour in academia, aren’t we? Line up our arguments in a row and dare someone to knock ‘em down?”

Jack put the papers on his desk. “I’m having trouble believing that you’re not in some sort of trouble when you haven’t said a word of what this is about. Besides, a little direction never hurt a poor researcher’s chances.”

Blair shrugged. “Sorry about the secrecy. I made some undertakings about confidentiality.” He spat out ‘confidentiality’ but it still coated the inside of his mouth like a particularly thick and loathsome glob of phlegm. “If it’s going to be too much trouble...”

“No, it’s not too much trouble. I’m intrigued, to be honest,” Jack said, and Blair wasn’t so caught up with his own issues that he couldn’t figure out that what Jack was intrigued by was Blair. “So basically: information, background, potential connections. Is there a time frame for this?

“I’m curious, and I’m always impatient when I’m curious, but this is a favour and I don’t expect you to put other obligations aside. Let me know when you’ve got something and call me, and we can get together and look at it over a meal, somewhere you like to eat.”

“Sounds good.”

Blair stood and shook Jack’s hand. “Thanks. I really appreciate it.”

“It’s not a problem, Blair. I’ll call you when I have something.”

Blair waved his hand as he left Jack’s office, and suppressed unpleasant, squirming guilt. The consequences that Tony had spoken of – they’d be visited on him, not Jack, assuming that anyone even noticed that Jack was investigating. Blair was keeping his promises, such as they were. He hadn’t screamed until the campus reverberated with it that Jim Ellison was actually alive and a motherfucking bastard shit-stain. He reckoned that was good enough.

The next few weeks dragged. Lectures dragged. The inanities of student essays no longer provided even comic relief. The only study that Blair found attractive was an obsessive review of everything that Jim had ever said and done and Blair acknowledged, in his more reasonable moments, that it probably wasn’t a healthy thing then or now that he’d been so thorough about recording James Ellison’s every action.

Blair found no answers. There was the Jim that he remembered from Cascade, and there was the man who’d faked his death (and just whose body had been recovered from the wreck of the loft?) and dealt with the crazy people from San Diego, and Blair couldn’t see how to reconcile the two. So he waited, and called Jack once a week or so, and received ambiguous answers about Jack’s progress. The thing that Blair feared most was that there would be no answers. He hadn’t even realised until Jim was gone how much he’d loved him - with all his heart and all his soul and all his mind; and now he held on to a desperate hope that he could let go of love and anger together if he could only know exactly the clay that made the cracked feet of his idol.

***
Blair was eating a sandwich out by the bay, and remembering the protests when someone in the Chancellor’s office proposed selling off the green space to developers to ‘assist’ with Rainier’s finances. They’d been good times for an undergraduate Blair Sandburg. Bonds forged in the white heat of righteous indignation had enabled a couple of quite pretty girls to look past the fact that Blair was younger than they were - and Rainier still had its green space out by the bay. Good times.

He lifted his head and saw Jack making his way towards him on the paved path. Blair rose, brushing off crumbs, and walked across the grass.

“Hey! Jack!” Blair smiled and controlled the thump of anxious anticipation in his chest. “Got any developments for me?”

“You could say that. “ Jack jerked a hand. “Go grab that bench and we’ll talk.”

Blair snaffled the bench in question and Jack wheeled alongside him, taking an envelope out of his satchel.

“Just to clarify things for me, Blair, do you believe that Jim Ellison was murdered or simply executed a very tidy disappearing act?”

Blair gaped like an idiot and then recovered some self-possession. “Guess they appreciated that razor-sharp brain in the Agency, huh?”

“I don’t know if it was such a razor-sharp deduction. We’re not buddy-buddy, but I think that I know you well enough to figure out why you might want info about a bunch of apparently random factoids.”

“Apparently random?” Blair snapped.

“Patience, grasshopper,” Jack said. “Murdered or disappeared? Which one is it?”

“Disappeared.”

“Interesting..... Okay, the first connection, and it’s pretty damn tenuous, is that the car rental company that provided the vehicles is a subsidiary of what’s essentially a shell company. But the shell company has links to a couple of other companies that are mainly medical and bio-tech, and one things that those two companies are notable for, according to a friend of mine in Arthur Anderson, is a dynastic approach to handing on the directorship reins.”

“What, you mean that Daddy actually lets sonny-boy run the show?” Blair asked.

“Or sonny-girl. Yeah. A higher than average number of successes at keeping everything in the family, and a core group of linked companies that either don’t go public or have been surprisingly resistant to hostile takeover.”

“And that’s it?” Blair asked blankly. “A couple of medical companies could own the car rental company?” He felt embarrassed, sending Jack on a chase through the highways and by-ways of the Securities and Exchange Commission. He’d envisaged something more... secret-agent like.

“There’s this, which may or may not be related. It was one of the things that matched the initials you gave me.” Jack shook what looked like a glossy newsletter out of the envelope. “Check out the Christmas message from the patroness.”

‘The Foundation for the Progress of America’s Hispanic Children’ the newsletter read, in both English and Spanish. The main office was apparently based in San Diego, and the Christmas message from the patroness was accompanied by a picture of a woman, named as Rosa Fernandez.

“Anyone you recognise?” Jack asked.

The initials that Blair had given Jack had been emblazoned on a very expensively done enamel brooch that ‘Zita’ had worn. And it was ‘Zita’s’ picture, her face smiling from the newsletter as she extolled the foundation’s achievements.

“Yes,” Blair said tightly. “Yes it is.”

“Mrs Fernandez recently retired from the board of directors of yet another company – this one more in the finance line, rather than the medical. She also has links to a variety of other companies, through either directorships or substantial holdings, including more medical manufacturing, and security and computer R and D. A surprisingly broad variety of interests. Names are all in the files if you need them.”

“I’d like to say ‘I see’, but I don’t see a fucking thing. It doesn’t make sense.”

“Why doesn’t it make sense?” Jack said, like one of Blair’s old tutors teasing clarity of argument out of him.

“It just doesn’t!’ Blair choked out.

“I’m wondering about the medical research side of things. Jim was an – unusual individual. Is it possible...?” Jack paused.

“Oh my god!” Blair exclaimed in horror. “I really was that obvious, wasn’t I? Brackett, and now you?”

Jack’s smile was wry. “I know you, Blair. And I was curious myself; I investigated you and Jim pretty thoroughly after Brackett and Oliver.” He tilted his head in almost-apology. Blair accepted it, but then he had more important issues to consider than Jack’s curiosity.

“It still doesn’t make sense. Jim isn’t strapped down being ‘investigated’ for science; that much I’m sure of.” Blair stood, tension jangling up his spine. “None of this makes any fucking sense!” His voice cracked on the last word. “Fuck!” He sat back down again, and buried his face in his hands.

“One last item. William Ellison has a tidy pile of shares in one of the companies that I found linked here. “

Blair shot upright. “You’re kidding me!”

Jack shook his head. “Nope, I’m taking this all depressingly seriously.”

Blair thought of the old man at the church – the way he’d looked at Blair and Simon. He’d seemed weary, but certainly he’d been stoic. Blair had chalked that up to simply being grief the Ellison way, but now his mind put a more sinister interpretation on that tight-lipped calm.

“That son of a bitch!” he spat out, not sure whether he meant the father or the son.

Jack’s hand gripped Blair’s forearm. “It may not be evidence of anything more than a solid business decision. Madison Clinical Tech has a good name for innovation and regular, generous dividends. It’d be a useful addition to a diversified portfolio. “

“Oh, I bet it would.” Blair couldn’t quite believe that explanation; he didn’t want to believe it. He took a deep breath. “So that’s it?”

“At this point. I can dig deeper if you want – but I’ll be starting to call in favours. Company law isn’t my forte.” Jack let go of Blair’s arm, and sat back in his chair.

“No, no, thanks, Jack.” Blair shut his eyes. Company law? What sort of companies abducted people to conduct interrogations out in the middle of nowhere? “I definitely owe you that dinner after this, don’t I? Pick somewhere expensive, man, I’ll be there with my credit facility.” He tried to grin. Jack smiled back, way too sympathetically for Blair’s comfort.

“I have some ideas. Here,” - he handed the rest of the envelope to Blair -“have the fruits of my labours.”

“Yeah. Yeah, thanks.” Blair closed his hands around the envelope – all of Jack’s ‘tenuous’ connections. “I’d better go. I have a phone call to make.” He walked off up the slope, past the Grantley Building, and the nest of lecture halls behind it, until he hit Hargrove and his office. There, he sat down and breathed, inhaling Hargrove’s scent – floor polish, the gentle moulder of books and old furniture, the sharp tang of photocopier toner from the admin room three doors down. Then he checked a directory and called a number.

“Mr Ellison, I don’t know if you remember me, but my name is Blair Sandburg. I was a friend of Jim’s.”

There was courtesy but no warmth in Bill Ellison’s voice. “Of course I remember you, Mr Sandburg. What can I do for you?”

“I need to talk to you.”

There was a pause. “Then you’d better talk.”

“What can you tell me about your holdings in Madison Clinical Tech?” Blair’s grip around the phone was sweaty, and he recognised with sharp disgust at his impatience that he’d jumped the gun. He should have waited until he could see Bill Ellison’s face.

Bill’s voice roughened. “How about you give me one good reason why I should tell you anything about my personal finances?”

“Look. I need to talk to you, and it’s probably better in person. It’s important.” Blair pushed his hair back with one hand, a habit that nearly a year of shorter hair hadn’t broken. “It’s about Jim.”

“With all due respect, Mr Sandburg, I’m not in the mood to reminisce about my son.”

“I don’t give a damn what you’re in the mood for,” Blair snapped. The end of the connection was his only answer. “Better be leaving town, old man,” Blair muttered. “It’s the only way that you’re going to avoid me.” He ran his eye over the afternoon calendar, decided that there were no appointments that couldn’t be postponed, scrawled an apology note to stick to his door, and left Hargrove behind him.

He felt oddly focused as he drove to Bill Ellison’s house. Focused and energised; rage as fuel, he considered. He’d met it in psychological and historical contexts, but it was the first time he’d really been aware of the truth of it, the way it ran through his veins like the rush of a drug.

Purpose propelled him up the neat path of Jim’s childhood home, and he pushed heavily on the door bell, hearing it distantly echo somewhere inside the depths of the house. He gave it another burst, stabbing at the button with a vindictive finger. When there was still no answer quick enough for him he pounded hard with his fist against the wood of the door, debating whether he should try the back entrance. Maybe he’d find Bill Ellison making a run for it across the immaculate lawns and hedges of his neighbours. Finally, there was a shadow of movement inside, and Bill Ellison opened the door.

“I figured you’d be on your way. Jimmy didn’t say much about you, but I never got the impression that you stopped for much once you got a head of steam up.” He sounded disdainful and rueful, an old man mourning mannerless youth. “Sally’s here, and Jim was fond of her. I let you inside, you damn well behave. Or do I just call the cops right now?”

“I’m here to talk, not make trouble.”

Bill shook his head. “Son, you should know as well as anyone that talking makes trouble too.” He paused, staring at Blair. Whatever he saw, he appeared resigned to letting Blair inside. He opened the door wider and stood aside. “Come in. It’s the door on the right behind the stairs.”

Blair stepped inside, and tried not be too obvious about looking around. This was definitely silver spoon territory. Not the Kennedys and not the Vanderbilts, but still, a rich kid’s home. It had amused him in the aftermath of the Foster case, when Jim had been working towards some rapprochement with his father, trying to work out if the Ellisons were old Cascade money or nouveau riche. Looking at Bill’s buttoned-up plaid shirt and grandpa cardigan sweater, Blair was inclined to believe in new money.

Bill had directed him to what was clearly a study, and a room that was well-used. “Take a chair, Mr Sandburg.” His intonation wasn’t as satirical as Lee Brackett’s had been using that form of address but Blair heard condescension there, which did little for his temper. He sat down, trying to centre himself. He was here for a purpose, and he had to remember that, even if he suspected that finding out everything he needed to know would be like falling over Niagara in a barrel.

“Did you see Jim’s body?” Blair demanded, watching Bill’s face carefully. Blair was pretty good with gauging mood from someone’s face – sex, and jobs, and a bed to sleep in had counted on the skill before now, and this was far more important than those mundanities.

Bill’s face went very still, before an expression of shocked distaste crossed it. “I want to remember my boy the way he was, not as some burned piece of meat.”

The bluntness was like a punch to the gut for Blair, but he recovered as best he could. “So, how do you know for sure that the body recovered from the loft was Jim’s?”

Ellison Senior eyed Blair the way he might eye a rattlesnake discovered on a walk on a woodland trail. “Where are you going with this? Because I’m finding this conversation damned offensive.”

“Jim’s not dead,” Blair said, eyes locked with Bill’s, watching, measuring. “And you’re not that surprised, are you?”

“I’m astounded,” Bill said, with flat irony. “I think that you should take your conspiracy theories to a good psychiatrist, young man.”

“I saw him,” Blair ground out. “I saw him, large as life, and twice the asshole.”

“You saw him?” Raw hurt flashed across the stern face. “He... contacted you?”

Blair laughed. Something analytical inside him noted that it was an ugly sound. “No, he didn’t contact me. I was dropped in his lap like a hot potato, and he dumped me as fast as he could. Which was nanoseconds, by the way.”

“Do you need a drink as much as I do?” Bill asked.

Blair heaved in a breath. “Oh, hell yeah.”

Blair didn’t regard himself as a bourbon drinker, so he probably didn’t appreciate Bill’s liquor, but this was absolutely not a beer occasion. So he sipped at the bitter, subtle drink in his glass, and recounted the basics of his unplanned trip Southern California. Bill listened attentively, and started on his second glass of bourbon before he began recounting his own story.

“Those shares, Madison Clinical Tech? My ex-wife gifted them to me. My first ex-wife,” Bill said sourly.

“Wait... wait a minute. Was that Grace?”

“No, that was Peggy. Peggy was Jim’s mother. He never talked about her?”

Blair shook his head. “He mentioned Grace – not warmly. Definitely not warmly.”

“Grace never did know how to deal with Jim, but she wasn’t as bad as he probably made out. Jimmy wasn’t always an easy kid.” Bill stopped, swirling the bourbon in his glass, round one way, then the other. “He wasn’t mine.”

“Excuse me?” There was a buzzing sensation in Blair’s ears. Bourbon, or shock?

“I met Peggy on a vacation – we were both of us young. Green as grass. She was the prettiest thing you ever did see, and we struck up a romance. Dinner and dancing. And when it was nearly time for us to go our own ways, she told me she was pregnant. Oh, not like that,” Bill said, in response to whatever was on Blair’s face. “You had to wait for the damn rabbit in those days. She was straight as a die with me. Told me it was another man’s child. She just wanted someone to talk to about it.” Bill took a healthy swig of his bourbon. “I asked her to marry me.”

“Whoa!”

“Didn’t think I looked the type for the grand gesture?” Bill said, a combative look in his eyes.

Blair literally rocked in his chair. “Well, to be honest, no.”

“She said yes. And when that baby was born, he was my son. Always was.” The combative light still burned.

“So, what happened?”

“You were studying my boy, weren’t you?”

“Yes, yes I was.”

“You have a name for what he was? Jim talked a little bit about it, but not much.”

“Sentinel. What Jim could do – it made him a sentinel.”

Bill shut his eyes – looking back at some memory, perhaps. “Well, what Jimmy could do, he got from his mother. She was fine through the pregnancy, but after Jimmy was born, she started getting sick. Headaches, hearing voices. Days when she couldn’t bear to be touched. It got bad. And one night she made a call, and a day later this big car comes up the street, and two men took her away.” Bill shifted in his chair, before he stood, and poured himself a third drink. This one he merely left in his hand, as he continued speaking. “Before she left.... she was crying. She told me she was sorry and that they’d help her, but that she didn’t know if she’d be able to come back or not.

“I was angry. I figured that she’d take Jimmy with her, but she promised me that I could keep him – if I wanted to. Christ. Yes, I wanted to keep him. And she made me promise that I’d give him as normal a life as I could.”

“I – wow. Just wow.” Blair sipped the liquid fire in his glass.

“I bet he told you about the Foster mess. When he found poor Karl Heydash?”

Blair nodded.

“I screwed up. I seem to be good at that. But I was scared. Scared that if Jimmy got too ‘special’ that he’d get sick like his mother. Scared that some expensive car would drive up the street and I’d never see him again.” Bill laughed, a low, rusty sound. “But he ended up running from both of us. I never told him that I wasn’t his natural father. Peggy told him, when he was a few weeks shy of turning eighteen, and he ran from us both.

“Christ, I was angry with her. Never a word for years, and she showed up after school one day, looking fit and healthy, too, from what I could get out of Jimmy, which wasn’t much. If I was angry with her, that was nothing compared to how angry he was with me.”

Blair looked at the old man opposite him, spilling out his painful family history to a comparative stranger. “Jim never told me any of that.”

“Jimmy was good with secrets. Good at keeping his peace.” Bill smiled. “Until something riled his temper.”

“Stephen doesn’t know?”

Bill shook his head. “No. And if Jim wanted him to know, he would have told him.” It was a warning.

“So, why did you tell me?”

Bill lifted the glass towards Blair in a salute. “Because you’d have ripped my house apart if I didn’t? And because if you saw Jim, then I guess you deserve some explanations.”

“Explanations aren’t the same as answers.”

“No, they’re not.”

“Really not the same,” Blair said, with desperate confusion. He had a far deeper picture of Jim, and of his family, but it still didn’t explain a damn thing, including why Bill Ellison kept talking about his son like he really was dead. “Do you know how to contact her? Peggy?”

“No, no I don’t. Peggy called me a couple of times – not that time when she contacted Jim, of course. And the shares came with a lawyer’s letter attached, and I thought, what the hell. If she wanted to buy me off, I could be bought.” It was immensely bitter.

“You still love her.”

Bill shook his head. “I don’t even know her. But I can’t seem to let go of that girl I went dancing with. No fool like an old fool.”

Blair thought that a young fool could give him a run for his money.

***

Blair heard the door to his office open but kept his gaze directed to the notes he was working on. If his visitor couldn’t be bothered to knock then they could wait on his convenience. Blair didn’t see himself as above exercising the occasional dominance ritual or two. “Be with you in a moment,” he said, in a token offer of courtesy.

He caught a glimpse of colour and movement from out the side of his eye – female, clothes a discreet grey and mauve. There was the creak of his visitors’ chair and then a mature, beautifully modulated voice told him that he was stubborn and incredibly stupid.

Blair’s head shot up, the papers on his desk forgotten. The woman’s appearance matched her voice. She was older than Naomi by maybe ten years, and the ideal of an immaculately presented professional woman, from the carefully groomed and flatteringly dyed hair to the toe points of her shiny black pumps.

“If you’re going to insult me then maybe we should introduce ourselves,” he said, a belligerent, hot little ball developing in the pit of his stomach. “Hi. I’m Blair Sandburg.”

“I know who you are,” the woman declared. “You’re the young man who can’t follow very clear instructions.” Straight, sharply defined brows lifted in exasperation. “And that means that I have to waste my time, and trust me, Mr Sandburg, I have far better things to do with my time than hand out scoldings to fools and idiots.”

One of Blair’s hands rested on the top of his desk, clenched tight, tight the way that his lips were pursed to keep words back until he actually knew what he was going to say. With his right hand he tapped his pen against the top of his desk. “Well, I’d hate to keep such a busy woman from her important business. Why don’t we just regard me as severely disciplined, and you can be on your way.”

She drew in a quick, hard breath through her nose, averting her head from him in clear anger. She must have been a very pretty woman in her youth, Blair thought. The sharp-cut lines of nose and jaw were unblurred by age. She’d had work done, he realised contemptuously.

Blair’s unwelcome visitor leaned forward in her chair, blue eyes staring at him with narrow-eyed intensity. “Dr Sandburg, I’m sure that you were told to keep your mouth shut about what happened outside San Diego. And instead, we find that you’ve quite callously put people’s lives at risk. Jack Kelso. Irene Bolton. William Ellison.”

Blair kept tapping his pen against his desk, a steady tattoo that was a dead giveaway and that he couldn’t stop. “It’s not me that’s putting people at risk-” he began, but the woman stood up from her chair and leaned over him, her knuckles pressed against the desk.

“Yes, it is!” she said, quiet but harsh. “You don’t have the first clue what’s going on here, what sort of pressure is being exerted, just how damn lucky you are to be alive right now.”

Blair leaned back in his chair. “Yeah, you’re right, I don’t have the first clue what’s going on, so do you blame me for wanting to find out? I don’t have the first clue what you people are getting your panties in a bunch over. I don’t have the first clue about anything except that Jim’s alive, and it wasn’t anyone’s detective work that revealed that. That was your people’s screw-up.”

“Jim Ellison is dead.”

“No, he’s not.”

The woman straightened, obviously reining in her anger. “Jim’s dead. Did you see Jim in San Diego? Your Jim?” It was almost gentle. Persuasive. Jim is dead, let him rest, forget that off-hand stranger.

The blood drained from Blair’s face but he rallied, and straightened in his chair, trying to figure out why this woman would choose to describe Jim in that intimate way. Your Jim. Sitting magisterially behind his desk wasn’t working for him anymore. He shoved his chair back and stood. His adversary stared at him – assessing, angry. Unsure. She tilted her head a certain way, and Blair felt as if he knew her – as if he’d known her for years, and he turned away, as baffled and irritated as she, to stare out his window to the service lane and the concrete wall of the building next door.

“Dr Sandburg... Just let it be. What happened was our mistake, of course it was, and I don’t want you to suffer for our mistake. Neither does Jim.”

The concrete wall in front of Blair was blank, a white board for his thoughts to write on, and the writing was on the wall right now. “Then why isn’t Jim here to tell me that himself, instead of sending Mommy here to do his dirty work?”

There was a long pause. Blair knew he ought to turn around and look at her, at Peggy, but he couldn’t. He stared blindly out his window.

“Jim Ellison is dead. It would cause quite the stir for him to walk around in Cascade like Lazarus, don’t you think?”

Blair did turn then. “Do you prefer Peggy or Margaret?”

Her face was carefully blank. “I don’t think that we need to bother with names.”

Blair’s hands were held at his waist. He flicked his fingers back, splayed them wide in negation, in denial of games and bullshit. “If you people want me to exercise discretion, then here’s the deal. You tell Jim that I want to see him. Just once, for a proper farewell. You set that up, and I’ll shut up. I won’t take any more stuff to Jack Kelso, I won’t bother Bill Ellison, I’ll let Jim play dead. But I want to see him first. That’s the deal.”

“No deal.”

Blair advanced on her. She looked him in the eye – she was reasonably tall for a woman of her generation – and didn’t flinch and didn’t back away, not one step. He half expected her to pull a gun on him, but she didn’t. She simply waited for him, and returned him glare for glare.

“It’s yes deal. Or else you can just call out the hit men now, because I don’t give a shit.”

“God damn you. Jack Kelso is your friend.”

“Yeah, and Bill Ellison’s your ex-husband. And even if Jim doesn’t care about me, I think he was fond of his dad, despite what went down between them. So tell Jim what the deal is.” Blair swallowed. His armpits were soaked, and he felt light-headed enough to faint. That was what bluffing with the big boys (and girls) did to you. He waited.

He won. ‘Peggy’ stood straight, she stayed resolute, but somehow, something indefinable about her sagged in defeat. “I can pass that message on – but there’s no guarantee that Jim will agree.”

“Then he can tell me that himself. I’m sure he can find the time to call.”

“I wouldn’t depend on it. He’s a busy man.”

“Tell him to fit me into his schedule.”

One eyebrow arched. “You’re a stubborn bastard. It’s not always a survival characteristic.”

“Sometimes it’s not about survival.”

“If you say so,” she said dismissively. “I’d best be on my way. I have an ultimatum to pass on. Good morning, Dr Sandburg.”

“Yeah, sure,” Blair said, as she walked out the door. “Have a nice day.” The sound of her footsteps on the wooden floors faded away, and Blair turned and fumbled his way to his chair and sat down. “Oh god,” he said, hauling in air like a fisherman hauling up a heavy net. “Oh god.” He leaned forward, his head bowed. There were marks on the wood of his desk where he’d stabbed his pen into it. The pen was broken. “Well, fuck,” he said shakily, and wondered how long he had to wait.

***

Blair had to wait a week, which was far longer than he needed to remember what Bill Ellison had told him – that Jim got his sentinel abilities from his mother, the woman who very likely could have heard his little meltdown as she trip-trapped down the hall.

That was a thought that scorched Blair’s face with embarrassment the first time it blew through his brain, but the heat was washed away by the coldness of waiting. He felt nearly sick with it sometimes, and sick with anxiety that the not so veiled threats against Jack and Irene and Jim’s father would be carried out. All his fault.

A week later he received a neatly written note on plain white card stock in a plain white envelope, in a hand that he knew, delivered to him through the Rainier mail system.

6/4. 1502/324 Edgewater Road. 7.30 pm.
J

Blair laughed, looking at the small bit of card he held. The terseness struck him as funny somehow, one big continuing joke on Blair Sandburg. The date was not quite two weeks away, and three days shy of the anniversary of Jim’s ‘death’. “It’s a date, asshole,” Blair said quietly and then, despite the way his better judgement sneered at him, gently ran his index finger over that short, inked message.

***

The address that Blair had received from Jim was a block of swanky apartments at Whitman Bay that loomed imperiously over the waterfront. The appointed evening, Blair was buzzed into the foyer and directed to ‘that elevator, sir’. ‘That elevator’ was layered with mirrored surfaces that showed Blair to be just as nervous on the outside as he was on the inside. One glance at his strained, wide-eyed expression was enough. For the rest of the journey up, Blair kept his eyes down, and his hands stuffed into the pockets of the leather jacket he’d grabbed against the cool of the evening.

He walked out of the elevator into a cream painted hall, his footsteps muffled by a luxurious blue carpet. An end table sported a tasteful flower arrangement. It was exactly 7.30. Jim must know he was there, or suspect it, but the door marked 1502 remained shut, and would do so, Blair knew, unless he knocked. He swallowed hard and lifted his hand to bang on the wood (real wood, with a polished grain to it, no textured crap for this building) and waited.

The door opened, and there was Jim. He wore dress pants, and a white business shirt with the top button undone and the sleeves rolled up his forearms. He looked tired, sure, but really, really good for a dead man. “Come in, Sandburg.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Blair muttered, and stepped over the threshold. ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,’ he thought nonsensically. Jim shut the door behind him, and Blair turned and stared at him.

“You look good,” he said accusingly.

“So do you,” Jim said. One hand gestured towards Blair’s shorn hair. “That’s a new look for you.”

Blair smiled, triumphant at the opening. “That’s what Simon said. You remember Simon? The guy who presented this incredibly moving eulogy at your funeral?”

Jim’s face went blank, which Blair counted as another triumph, but there was no other reaction. Jim merely directed Blair into an expensively decorated room with a stunning view out over the water. “Drink?” Jim asked. “Coffee, or something alcoholic?”

“Oh, for this conversation, I think that I definitely need a beer.”

“Sure. Take a seat.” Jim left on his domestic errand, and Blair settled himself onto a pale beige leather couch. Jim came back with two beers in tall glasses that frosted with condensation, and placed one on the low table in front of Blair.

“Wow. We are la-di-dah tonight, aren’t we?”

“Drink your beer. Or don’t drink it. It doesn’t bother me.” Jim sounded weary rather than angry. He took his own glass and sat down in a chair set at right angles to Blair’s, and said nothing more. He took a single sip of his beer and then placed it upon a side table and ignored it.

Blair, on the other hand, downed half of his drink in three swallows. “Who was he?”

“Who was who?”

“The dead man in your apartment. Who the hell died so that you could make the great escape?”

“Nobody.”

Blair barely controlled the urge to throw his glass right at Jim’s face. “Oh, I get that, but he deserves a little commemoration, don’t you think? Seems kind of harsh on the poor guy.”

Jim stood, anger clear on his face. “Nobody died, damn it!” He paused, and the anger subsided. “I promise you – that piece of meat they found never was anything more than a piece of meat. Christ, Chief, what sort of man do you think I am?”

“Once, I’d have told the whole world that I knew exactly that sort of man you are. But now I don’t know a damn thing.” Jim’s anger was only slightly reassuring. “Whoever – whatever - they found in your apartment was convincing, Jim. You want to tell me how you did the magic trick?”

“I could, but then I’d have to kill you.” The old joke, but not so funny anymore. It wasn’t much consolation that it looked like the words sat as sourly in Jim’s mouth as in Blair’s ears.

Despair washed over Blair. “This is a waste of time, isn’t it?”

“Depends on you wanted.”

“What I wanted was you!” Blair burst out. Humiliation bloomed in him, and the sudden gentling of Jim’s face only worsened it. Jim took a step forward and Blair shifted in his seat, ready to rise and run if he had to. He put out a hand, and Jim stayed his movement forward. “Jesus, Jim,” Blair pleaded. “What is this? What is all this crap about?”

Jim shrugged. “Guess you could call it family business. “

Blair tried to steady himself, and swallowed through a burning, constricted throat. “Family business, huh. Funny how you never told anyone about it.”

“We’re not really a talkative bunch.” Jim turned away and walked to the window, lifting an arm to lean against the glass. It was still daylight outside, even if it was dulling now, and the light limned Jim almost in a halo. Blair stared, derailed for a moment by the sight – Jim; but it wasn’t so hard to get back on track.

“I don’t know. Mommy Dearest had plenty to say, but yeah, actions speak louder than words, and what we’ve got so far includes death threats and abduction, and something that apparently isn’t murder but sure produced a fucking convincing corpse. Oh, and we also have you in a suit in the ‘family business’, which is as weird as all the rest of it, because the Jim Ellison I knew? He loved being a cop. Helping people, bringing the bad guys to justice.” Blair drew in a deep breath. “And now you look more like one of the bad guys, man, and I just don’t... get it.”

Jim turned to Blair. “Being a cop was shades of grey, like anything else. Don’t romanticise it.”

“It was still a lighter shade of grey than whatever this is. Come on, Jim!”

“You don’t know what the shades of grey here are, and you weren’t supposed to. You were getting on with your life and Paulie had to screw up.”

Resentment rose again. All these things that Blair wasn’t supposed to know about, including something that he’d thought was his baby. “Yeah, Paulie sure had a bee in his bonnet, especially about you being a sentinel.”

“Paulie’s an idiot.”

Blair smiled. Unwillingly, but he smiled, because that sounded so like the Jim that he knew. “So, the family business knows about sentinels, then?”

“Yeah. We have about four generations of sentinels in the family.”

It was like laying his hand on a live wire. “Four?”

Jim made a vaguely apologetic motion with his hands. “Count back from me, and you’ve got it.”

“But then why did you need me?” Blair asked dazedly.

Jim came a little closer. “Technically, I didn’t. But it wasn’t time for me to move back into the business. There was unfinished business in Cascade, and I was interested to see what you’d come up with.” He smiled. “You did pretty good at reinventing the wheel, Chief.” It was kindly, and condescending, and Blair wanted to spit in Jim’s face.

“So I was just a... convenience? And those last few weeks before you ‘moved back into the business’? Were they a convenience too?”

Exasperation from Jim, then. “Don’t put words in my mouth. No you weren’t a convenience. It wasn’t convenient putting my health and my sanity in the hands of somebody who was winging it most of the time. But I knew that I had backup if I needed it, and we worked out okay.” Jim was trying to soften his tone by the end, and that infuriated Blair even more, as if he was being patted on the head for doing such a wonderful job at winging it. God, the times he’d agonised over how he was helping Jim, whether he was helping Jim, and covered up his anxieties with breezily cocky arrogance. And all the time, Jim had ‘back-up’. All the time, Jim was lying to him.

Blair stood and walked around the solid, expensive occasional table to approach Jim, who watched him warily.

“We did... okay? Well, that’s certainly a comfort. I hope that we did the sex ‘okay’ too. Or did you have a back-up for that as well?” For the first time since Blair had stepped into the apartment, Jim’s self-assurance truly cracked, just for a moment. Just enough for Blair to smell blood in the water. “Why did we end up in bed, Jim? Did you want to give me some beautiful memories to treasure? Or did you figure that the time was ripe for some mid-life sexual exploration, with a convenient cut-off date? If it was just a few weeks then it didn’t mean anything? Was that it? Just a little aberration?”

“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Jim said.

Blair laughed. It was ugly, jeering. “That seems to be a theme, here, gotta admit. I mean, hell, Jim! There you were making your sweet good-byes to me, and I didn’t have a clue. Not a fucking clue.” He took another step forward, and observed Jim’s posture change, saw that big, beautiful body square up as if for a fight. Another couple of steps, slow and steady, until Blair was close enough to put his hand on Jim’s forearm and feel the little shiver run across the skin. “Come on, man.” He pitched his voice low and saw something in Jim’s eyes that boosted recklessness and resentment, as well as sex, into orbit. “I’m entitled to a good-bye fuck too, don’t you think?” Jim’s gaze shifted to Blair’s mouth, and it felt like Blair could feel every little stretch of sensitive skin across his lips as he shaped his words. There was a silence between them. Blair ran his hand up Jim’s arm, crossing from skin to cotton, before he closed one hand into the join between shoulder and neck. Again, there was that little shiver under Jim’s skin, and Blair smiled.

“Yeah,” he said quietly, but with deep satisfaction, and lifted himself towards Jim’s mouth. Jim met him more than halfway, his arms wrapping around Blair in a grip that was just short of crushing, kissing Blair with no finesse but a desperate hunger that turned Blair on far more than some fancy seduction ever would have. Here was something ‘okay’, more than okay, even. Here was something true.

Jim’s hands were everywhere, his mouth likewise, and Blair stood quiet under the onslaught, his own hands shifting across Jim’s back, to his neck, stroking across Jim’s hair, until Jim returned to his mouth. Then Jim’s hands lifted hold Blair’s head between his hands, and Jim paused. One hand pulled gently at the short locks of hair. Blair smirked.

“Sorry, man. If you had a thing for my mane then you’re out of luck. I cut it myself. The day before we buried you.” A flush that wasn’t desire appeared in Jim’s face. “But don’t stop.” Blair ran a hand firmly up that muscled, gorgeous back, and leaned in to lick along Jim’s neck. “Don’t stop.”

Jim straightened, although he didn’t let go of Blair. “We should stop.”

Blair leaned in close, and inhaled Jim’s familiar smell. “People should do a lot of things, but they don’t.” He pulled away, but only to point at the doors at the other end of the room. “Which one of those is a bedroom? Or we could test-pilot those couches.”

He watched Jim struggle, and lose. “The left,” Jim said roughly, and they walked briskly into a hallway. Jim steered Blair to a door at the end, which opened onto a bedroom with an enormous bed in front of a picture window.

“It’s one-way glass,” Jim said.

“No problem. I’m not shy,” Blair told him, and stripped off his clothes, nude before Jim had finished unbuttoning his shirt. “You are not backing out now, no way,” Blair said, and dragged the shirt down Jim’s arms to drop it on the floor. Jim’s hands came to rest across the back of Blair’s neck, heavy and warm, and Jim sighed as Blair’s hands went to the waist of his pants. “I’m not used to you being so shy.”

“If you’re going to do this, Sandburg, then shut up.”

“Me?” Blair reached into the open pants fly to fondle Jim. He was hard. “This is us, all the way, this is us.” To prove it, he used his other hand to bring Jim’s head down so that they could kiss again. Blair broke off the kiss and dropped to one knee to help Jim shed shoes and socks and the rest of his clothes. He stayed there, face to face with Jim’s cock, but he didn’t touch it. Instead, his hand closed around one firm buttock and then the edge of a line of fingers travelled down the crease of Jim’s ass. He felt the muscles tense as he reached the anus, and then Jim’s hand enclosed his and gently pulled it away. It wasn’t something they’d done before – hand-jobs, frottage, oral, yes, but not actual fucking.

“Did you bring any lube with you, Sandburg? Condoms?”

Blair shook his head.

“Then no matter how much you think I’ve screwed you over, you don’t get to do the same to me. Come here.” Jim hauled him up and held him close, his hands passing all over Blair’s skin – his back, his ass, before he pushed him down to the bed. “How do you want to do this?” Jim rasped, as they squirmed their way up the mattress.

In answer, Blair took Jim’s cock in his hand. The angle wasn’t the best, but the distracted look that crossed Jim’s face suggested that the angle would do, and there was something terribly satisfying to Blair in holding Jim like that, feeling the hardness, the heat, listening to the catch of Jim’s breath. “Yeah,” he murmured. “I think this’ll work.” Jim lay half on him, snugged up hard alongside Blair, his face buried in Blair’s hair. “You’re smelling me, aren’t you?” Blair asked, his hand finding a rhythm a year forgotten. “Aren’t you?”

A soft grunt was the only answer and Blair shifted, his hand slowing, lifting to push Jim onto his back.

“What?” Jim whispered.

“I want to watch you. I want to see your face.”

The idea didn’t please Jim, that much was clear, but Blair put his hand on Jim’s cock once more. The way that Jim’s eyelids fluttered down suggested that it was a convincing argument, and Blair pushed on, strengthening his grip and watching Jim start to fuck up into his fist as he got closer to coming. “Yeah, that’s it, let me see it, Jim,” he crooned. His cock was pressed against Jim’s hip, not forgotten precisely, but waiting its turn, until one of Jim’s hand’s dug into Blair’s shoulder while the other clenched into the comforter, and Blair watched as Jim came, semen smearing Blair’s hand and Jim’s belly.

“Well, at least I can get that out of you,” Blair said whimsically; the words wiped the afterglow right off Jim’s face, and Blair wasn’t sorry for that one iota.

“Guess you’ve only got half of what you wanted, Chief.” He rose, and straddled Blair’s legs, handling Blair’s cock before he leaned down like a big cat lapping at water and licked Blair’s flesh.

“You’re the one that commented on the lack of condom thing,” Blair said, but without any real protest. If Jim wanted to go down on him he sure as hell wasn’t going to stop him. After a few more slow, sloppy licks, Jim got down to serious business, curled over Blair almost protectively. Blair watched for a while, watched the bobbing head and busy hands, before he fell back against the pile of pillows. The urge to thrust grew overpowering, and Blair gave in, letting Jim worry about managing it. Blair concentrated on riding out the pleasure, the bitter satisfaction that he was coming fucking Jim’s mouth. He hoped that Jim tasted him for a long time after.

Jim lay on the bed afterwards, curled halfway down the mattress, his head leaning against Blair’s hip, one hand snaked possessively across Blair’s body. Blair lay still, staring at the ceiling, one of his hands resting against Jim’s head. He felt quite, quite empty.

“This is it, isn’t it?”

Jim let go of him, and rose up on an elbow. “What did you expect, Chief? I think we made it pretty clear that we wanted you to lay the hell off. What did you think was going to happen?”

Blair shifted across to the edge of the bed and sat up, his back to Jim. “I don’t know. I don’t know. What are you going to do now?”

“Stuff,” Jim said, from a million miles away.

“Ah,” Blair said. There was a door that no doubt led to a well-appointed bathroom. He ignored it, and stood and picked his clothes up from the floor and began to dress. The room was bare of personal items aside from the clothes strewn across the floor. There were some flowers on top of a dresser, and something that made Blair pause in his dressing, and walk over to examine. There was a book lying on top of the dresser, a very familiar book. Blair reached out and opened the cover. ‘The Sentinels of Paraguay, by Richard Burton’.

“This is – is this my book?” He turned to look at Jim, who looked unsure. Shifty, even. Then Jim shrugged.

“Yeah. It’s yours. I didn’t know if you’d want it back or not.”

Blair stared at the book a moment or two. He was never going to understand this. Never.

“No.” He stopped, cleared his throat. “No, it’s okay. I’m done with sentinels.” He didn’t look at Jim.

“Sure. Fine.”

Blair finished dressing, and let himself out.

Chapter Text

If there was one thing Margaret Turlough knew from when she was a very small child, it was that she was a princess; rich, beloved, a member of an elite circle of young people who could have whatever they liked, on the understanding that the kingdom needed its royalty to learn to guard and rule, and to keep its secrets. Her family was huge and sprawling, linked by marriage and inheritance, mergers and amalgamations, any number of lines drawn to define who was in and who was out. And if you were ‘in’, you didn’t share with someone who was ‘out’. The family decided what it bestowed and where – knowledge, technology, influence, money.

The family gave, and the family took away. Twenty year old Peggy Turlough found out exactly how that worked in the year 1958.

***

Her dad slumped on his elbows. She could see the reflection of his suit jacket in the highly-polished wood of the meeting room table, and it was easier to look at the table surface than it was to look at her daddy’s face – his disappointed, anxious, angry face. None of the other faces around the table were easy to look at either. There was Dr Andersen, and Bobby’s mother with her pinched face and red eyes, and Peggy’s Aunt Marnie, her namesake, who’d never married and was something big in one of the companies.

“I did warn you, Len,” Aunt Marnie said but her glare was directed towards Dr Andersen, who was wilting under it like a lettuce leaf under a blow torch.

“There was no reason to believe that such a thing would happen,” Dr Andersen protested. “It was completely outside Robert’s profile...”

Bobby’s mother put her handkerchief to her mouth. “Of course it was outside his profile! It wasn’t his fault. Bobby would never do anything like that in his right state of mind.”

“I don’t care what his state of mind was,” Peggy’s dad ground out. “He did what he did, and my girl has to take the consequences of it.” It had taken time for Peggy to understand what everyone thought happened. She liked Bobby, she liked him an awful lot, and that night he’d come to her… she sat on her chair and blushed all over her body at the memory. She’d tried to explain to her father that it wasn’t Bobby’s fault, that she’d wanted it as much as he did – and her father, her beloved Daddy, had struck her across the face and shouted at her to shut up, shut up, shut up!

Aunt Marnie turned from Dr Andersen and looked at Peggy, with a look that was both exasperated and sympathetic. “There’s enough documentation about the phenomenon that people really ought to have been aware.” Aunt Marnie was the one like Peggy, the one who saw and heard and felt more than anyone else. The one who could pick out every ingredient in a meal, the one who’d once discovered someone hiding in her house because she smelled them out. Peggy wondered if Aunt Marnie knew how Peggy had sat up in her bed, hearing Bobby coming to her, hearing his footsteps, knowing that Bobby could hear her, knowing that he could smell her, smell the way her body welcomed him even before he was in her room and in her bed.

“Don’t you sit there and tell me to my face that there’s any mumbo-jumbo that excuses this, Margaret, because it won’t fly!” Her father was so angry. “I want her to have an abortion,” he demanded of Dr Andersen.

Bobby’s mother stood up, her voice shrill but muffled behind the lacy white handkerchief that she held against her mouth. “You are not murdering my grandchild!” she squawked, a ruffled, hysterical hen. Peggy reflexively wrapped her hands across her stomach. Kill her baby? No. Not ever.

Dr Andersen’s voice trembled. “The whole point of introducing Peggy and Robert was the possibility of sentinel babies. Admittedly, not in... these circumstances-”

“These circumstances?” her father said, and Peggy shivered. “These circumstances?” He stood, her tall, proud Daddy, looming over the table. “My little girl is... assaulted, and pregnant, and you’re going to talk to me about the circumstances?”

“It wasn’t Bobby’s fault!” his mother shrieked. “It wasn’t, it wasn’t!”

“You shut the fuck up!” her daddy roared, looking like he might leap across the table and hit her, the way he’d hit Peggy. “If your boy feels so damn bad about what happened then why isn’t he here to face the consequences like a man?”

“Len!” Aunt Marnie snapped. She stood in her turn and placed a warning hand on her father’s forearm. He looked at her, his face haggard. “This isn’t helping anyone, least of all Peggy.” Aunt Marnie walked behind Peggy’s chair and placed her hands on her shoulders. “Do you want to keep the baby, Peggy?”

“Yes,” Peggy said, trying to copy Aunt Marnie’s crisp, assured tones. “Yes, I do.”

“Well, then, we’ll have to see what can be done.”

Aunt Marnie’s tone was so cool, so comforting, it never occurred to Peggy that she might have issues with what Aunt Marnie suggested. Peggy always knew that she’d marry in the family, that she’d meet some eligible boy, (Bobby had been eligible, and so sweet, even that night when both of them were wildly driven by forces that seemed almost dreamlike now), but Peggy had always assumed that she’d still have a choice. But in 1958, even when the family already moved outside some societal norms, Peggy was still damaged goods. The young men who were prepared to take on another man’s child might have been eligible to her Daddy and to Aunt Marnie, but they gave Peggy the cold shivers, with their patronising sympathy to her face and their dismissive, ugly comments when they thought she couldn’t hear them. ‘Poor old Bobby.’ ‘Think he’s really on the run or did they send him to the ranch and not admit it?’ ‘Stupid slut.’

“Daddy. Is it okay if I take a little break? A vacation? Just for a couple of weeks?”

Her father paused over the papers on his desk. “You have to make a decision soon, sweetheart. You do understand that?” He was gentler now that marriage and a father for the baby were on the horizon.

She smiled bravely. Eddie Monticello, with his sly grin, or Joe Andersen, Dr Andersen’s nephew, who was kinder than Eddie but had sweaty hands. Those, it seemed, were her choices. “Yes, Daddy, I know.” She did know, and she wanted to forget for just a little while.

And then, on her break, her escape, she met Bill Ellison, and discovered that not of all her choices had to lie with the family. It was heady, almost as intoxicating as Bobby’s arms around her and Bobby’s mouth on her skin, and she said yes to Bill with no more doubt than she’d said yes to Bobby.

***

Things went so well for a while there, as well as they could go when her father had told her with ominous calm that if she ever wanted to return to the family that she could forget about bringing her husband with her. She tried not care about that. She loved Bill, she did. He was kind, and he loved Jimmy, and he didn’t press her about the family that he’d never met and never would. It was odd being outside the family, sometimes, the little things that the family kept to itself in the way of gadgets and medicines. But she learned how to look after herself and the house, and she delighted in her son, and loved her husband as best she could.

She watched Jimmy very closely. Her father, and her mother before she died, had been full of stories about what a difficult baby she was, how they had to be careful about what they fed her, how helpful Aunt Marnie had been. But Jimmy was fine, fractious sometimes, like any other baby, but normal. Bill was bouncing Jimmy on his knee when the first headache started. Jimmy’s happy baby crow pierced her head like a cold spike, and she actually swayed in her chair.

Bill saw it. “Honey? Are you all right?” She tried to speak and found that her own voice hurt her head as much as Jimmy’s.

“It’s a migraine,” she whispered. “Runs in the family.” But Bill had to help her to bed, their footsteps echoing in her head like thunder, and she barely convinced him not to call a doctor. The third headache she didn’t get a choice, and Dr Winick leaned over her and offered useless medications that only made her sicker, and spoke seriously to Bill about hysterical reactions in young mothers; not in the same room as her, of course, but she heard it all and fought with Bill about it afterwards.

She tried, she tried so hard. She’d done so well for nearly ten years, ever since that terrible time after she turned thirteen, when everything had bothered her, had made her sick, when her gift had become a curse. The family had drugs that worked, that cut off the stimulus. The family had a room that was insulated from the noises of the outside world, that had bedding that didn’t make her want to scratch until her skin bled – but the family didn’t have Bill and it didn’t have her baby. So she tried, but one day, shaking, needing to scream but too exhausted for it, she dragged her way to the phone and dialled Aunt Marnie’s number.

“We’ll be there soon,” Aunt Marnie soothed. “How’s your baby?”

“He’s fine.” Spots dappled the air in front of her. Bill was walking with Jimmy in the garden, and she could hear his sweet baby breaths from here, roaring in her ears. “Leave him with Bill. Please. He’s normal, and I can’t look after him. Bill’s his daddy. Please....”

“Peggy. He’s family. Your baby is family. He should be with us-”

“When I’m well. Let him stay with Bill until I’m well. Please, Aunt. I trust Bill. Please. Jimmy’s normal, and I haven’t told Bill anything. It wouldn’t be fair. Please.”

“We’ll be there soon,” was all Aunt Marnie said. Peggy hung up the phone with clumsy hands that dropped the receiver into the cradle. At the hard, plastic thunk, she couldn’t control the nausea. She leaned forward and threw up into her lap. She hadn’t had anything to eat, only a few mouthfuls of water, and the bile-stained liquid marked her housecoat, yellow patches darkening to brown as it dried.

Bill came in and found her. “Peggy, this is stupid; you need a hospital.”

“No, it won’t help.” She started to cry. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’ve asked them to let you keep Jimmy. It’s probably better if you’re not here when they come.”

“When who comes?” Bill said urgently. His voice hurt her ears and she whimpered, and with a clear effort he lowered his voice. “When who comes?”

“My family. They can help.” She thought back to when she was younger. “But it might take a while. I might be gone a while.” She wanted to touch his face, but she knew it would hurt – hurt them both, probably. She saw the realisation dawning in Bill’s eyes. “If Jimmy’s normal.... they may not care so much. I tried to make them understand that you’re his daddy, that you love him. I’m sorry.” She sat there, as the occasional numbness overtook her. It never lasted and too often it was as debilitating as the hyper-sensitivity, but it was a blessing in its way. She put out a hand and stroked Bill’s face, and thought of the long history of the family. Alignments, deals, negotiations, and in her innocence she’d always assumed that they worked for all sides. Bill stared at her, frustrated, angry. Afraid.

She knew that her father would want her back, and she knew that he’d rather not have to deal with the reality of her baby.

Maybe she could make a deal. It was in her blood, after all.

***

The gradual restoral of her health and control gave Peggy time to think and create an aim, an aspiration: the transformation of herself from Princess Peggy to Queen Bitch Margaret - a bitch apparently being someone who felt free to speak her mind. So her father didn’t quite get his little girl back, and he never entirely forgave her for finally being brave enough to ask after Bobby and try to undo some of the petty vengeances that Len had wreaked. Len’s resistance to the fact that Peggy didn’t regard herself as raped or taken advantage of meant that trying to help Bobby took time. Bobby never forgave his fall from family favour, nor did he take an interest in their son despite a couple of letters that she sent him containing photographs of Jimmy.

The grudge against her she could regret, but understand. The lack of interest in Jimmy was an unexpected gift. Queen Margaret spoke her mind to herself as well as others, and she knew that she was relieved that Jimmy remained, in that sense, all hers. Her father was happy enough to leave Jimmy with Bill – her baby was a reminder of an episode that had humiliated Leonard Turlough both emotionally and socially. There was surveillance to ensure the child’s safety and to check whether he showed any signs of his sentinel heritage, and there it rested for a long time.

***

Karl’s smile was as warm as always as he looked at her out of the screen. “Hey there, Peg of my heart,” he joked.

“Flatterer,” was all she said, before she chuckled. “Oh my god, look at you. Wearing the folksy look well, Mr ‘Heydash’.”

Karl flicked at the collar of his plaid shirt. “What would you expect from a guy who remembers the good old days of his college football glory? Correct to the last detail, including my underwear.”

“Oh, stop, we are not discussing your underwear.”

Karl put a hang-dog pout on his face. “You, my sweet, are no fun at all.”

“And happy in that. Save it for your pretty boys. They appreciate you.” Peggy took a breath. She always had to settle herself emotionally when she talked about Jimmy. “How is he?”

The jokey flirtation was gone from Karl’s face, replaced with thoughtful deliberation. “He’s a good kid. Bright. Handsome. He has your smile. Respectful, but with a hint of vinegar sometimes, just enough for spirit. So far so good. He talks positively about school. Seems to get on well with his little brother.”

“And his senses?”

Karl stroked at his lip, a habit when he was unsure of something. “Now, that’s the interesting thing. I think that there might be something there, but he’s not going to show off in front of me quite yet. I’m still too new a quantity for him, even if I am impressing him with my skills with a bike and a football. Still, I’ve got Bill’s seal of approval. He wandered down one night and gave me the third degree. I was very convincing in my manly sadness over my wife taking the kids the other side of the country. Very humble in my small business man status next to big-wheel William Ellison. If Jimmy and I keep going as friends, he’ll be fine with it. A little jealous maybe, but that’s his problem. Things have taken off for him in Cascade.”

“How is Bill?” Peggy asked, almost ignoring the little twist of guilt in her chest.

“Quite the handsome devil. You know me – usually I like to be the one sweeping them off their feet, but for Bill I’d make an exception.”

“Karl!” she exclaimed, in laughing horror. “You just leave Bill alone. Oh my god, you’d give him a heart attack.”

“But he’d die happy.”

“Stop, just stop right now.” But she was laughing still. Karl always made her laugh. “I’m serious, how is he?”

“Busy. Paying alimony to his ex. I don’t think that Jimmy thinks much of Grace, but he’s too polite to say anything. If he has a mom these days, it’s Bill’s housekeeper, and she seems like a nice woman. Like I said, he’s a good boy.” Karl’s face grew serious. “If Jimmy is a sentinel – if the senses start causing trouble for him – it’s going to be harder if we wait for things to hit crisis level, Peggy. If you don’t think that Bill would be, how shall I put this? Amenable? If he won’t co-operate then maybe we ought to take Jimmy out of Cascade sooner than later.”

Peggy frowned, her face downcast as she thought. “He’s happy with Bill?”

“Seems to be happy enough. But happiness isn’t enough sometimes, is it?” Karl’s voice was gentle.

“Jimmy’s a boy. A lot of my problems were hormonal. Marnie wasn’t so bad. Neither was Bobby.”

“Peggy. If he’s a sentinel – he’d be better off inside the family. We’d be able to help him-“

“Make use of him,” she said tartly.

“Being in the family has its obligations but there’s a lot of privilege to sweeten the deal. He’s young, and you’re his mother. He’d adjust.”

It was odd how small a temptation it was. Peggy had chosen to be family, through and through. For all the failings, they were her people, her history; but there was a sweet satisfaction in knowing that Jimmy was growing up outside the family, with a different background, different experiences. And she owed Bill.

“Let’s have some more data. You admit yourself that it’s just a suspicion right now. Get some definite information together.”

Karl shook his head – doubt rather than denial. “Okay. It’s not a hardship. He is a nice kid, and I know you worry about him. But I worry about you.”

Peggy smiled. “I’m fine.”

“Operation Eggs go okay? No hormonal bullshit with the senses?”

“I had a headache like you wouldn’t believe for two weeks, but the little suckers are harvested and fertilised.”

“Congratulations, Mommy.”

Peggy smiled again, but this time it was more a stretching of her lips. “Don’t you start. Hooray for in vitro is all I can say, and six little sentinels coming up for the family to play with, and more down the line if they want them. They don’t need Jimmy.”

Karl shook his head again. “They’re your kids just as much as Jimmy is.”

“No they aren’t. I won’t carry them, I won’t need to have anything to do with them and that suits me fine, Karl. That suits me fine.”

Karl looked at her, and decided not to argue the point. “If you say so. Does it suit your dad?”

“Daddy and I came to an accommodation a while ago now.”

Karl rather obviously shivered. “It’s gotten frosty around here all of a sudden.”

“Karl...”

“It’s okay, Peg. I should have known better. It’s time for me to have fun before I go back to Cascade tomorrow. Next contact will probably be from there, so I’ll just phone. Look after yourself.”

“You too, and look after my boy for me.”

“Always, Peg o’ my heart.”

***

The fake Irish brogue – that was the last she heard from Karl. Two weeks later he was dead and she was frantically pulling strings to find out what happened, both to him and her son. There wasn’t much in the way of answers. Careful enquiries of a contact in the police department yielded nothing more than the assurance that Jimmy was a nice boy and it was a real shame that he had to see something like that. It was certainly a comfort in the broader scheme of things that Cascade police officers kept their counsel over a minor child, but no comfort at all to Karl’s family and friends.

Peggy missed Karl – but she had work: the oversight of two companies, the progress of the sentinel children, the reviews of wider family holdings, the usual jockeying for position and prestige. She couldn’t tell anyone in the family her occasional heartache over Jimmy – that would have been a blatant invitation to helpful schemes to bring him into the fold, and she was increasingly invested in letting him have his own life. Sublimation, Peggy girl, she would think sometimes. Sublimation.

The trouble with sublimation was that occasionally the ignored emotion bubbled up to influence unwise choices, like the decision to approach Jimmy just before he turned eighteen. He’d heard her out, but with a hard, contemptuous expression that had sat wrongly on his handsome, youthful face. “So I’m adopted, am I? That certainly explains things,” he’d told her, but not bothered to elucidate any further than that. And then, god damn it! he joined the army. The army! At least he’d gone into officer training, because the idea of her boy as an enlisted grunt or NCO all the days of his career had twisted her guts.

She sent him a letter when he turned twenty-one, detailing the basic history of sentinelism in the family, what he could expect if his latent state should change. He’d returned her careful notes with ‘I’ll keep it in mind,’ neatly hand written across the front page. She could have wrung his neck. She really could.

She sent occasional notes and cards; she didn’t bother with traditional Christmas and birthdays – it seemed stupid when she’d missed so many already. When he went MIA in Peru... that was a bad time. There was even talk of retirement, which focused her mind and her pride. Retirement was for the incompetent and the old, and old was an elastic concept in the family. And then he returned from the dead, and in an excess of jubilation when she found out he was leaving the army she put out gentle feelers as to his career plans. He sent back a brief letter, hand-written on plain writing paper. Thanks, but no thanks was what it amounted to, although he did enclose a photograph of himself in uniform. She wasn’t sure what to make of that. It smacked of a subtle sarcasm – but it was a still a picture sent by a son to his mother. She put it away safely in a drawer. With a beret covering the soft, brown hair he’d inherited from Bobby, he looked startlingly like her father at the same age.

James Ellison, former elite soldier, now Cascade cop; if that was all he was, then the family was willing to let him rest outside its boundaries, noting his comparative success in life as nothing more than should be expected from a family scion. But James Ellison, sentinel? That was another matter entirely.

***

Peggy examined herself in the mirror of the hotel bathroom. It was an expensive hotel (of course) and a large, well-lit bathroom and her reflection declared Peggy to be every inch a poised and self-controlled woman. The mirror lied, while the flutter of tension in her stomach and the tight neck muscles told a more truthful story. She was about to completely overturn her son’s life – destroy it from his perspective, she didn’t doubt. But she didn’t have a choice anymore. Jim’s choices were spiralling down to a very few, and she hoped that she could convince him to choose the least damaging option.

She heard the elevator doors open and soft footsteps down the carpeted hall, and tried to pull back. Letting her senses have that much free rein always gave her a headache but it was hard to not listen, to not try and prepare herself. The knock at the door jolted her heart into her throat and she took a slow, deep breath and walked with stately calm to let her son in. He loomed in the doorway, a tall man with a stern face. He smelled fresh from the shower; a light tang of nervous sweat sat atop the blandness of washed skin and recently applied deodorant. “Mother.” She imagined he might say ‘Captain’ to his boss in the same measured, wary tone.

“Come in, Jim.” She stood aside and gestured him towards one of two couches by a faux-fireplace that flickered with gas flame. “Can I offer you something? A beer? Or I could order coffee.”

He sat, leaning into a corner of one of the couches with a calm that she knew was just as false as her own. She was a sentinel after all, and she could hear the hammering of his heart and see the small tell-tales of stress – the touch of sweat at the hairline, the twitch of muscles in his jaw. If she listened, she’d probably hear his teeth grind together. “No, thanks,” he said. It was ridiculous. Both of them could see so easily beneath the surface, and yet the surface remained pristine; she chuckled.

Jim raised one eyebrow. “Something funny?”

“Yes,” she told him. “Us. Never mind.” She sobered, and went to sit opposite him. “I’m sorry, but there’s no point beating around the bush. I have bad news for you.” She could imagine the wince of her family compatriots. A wonderful opportunity – bad news? Preposterous.

“And this would be different from the other times you’ve contacted me, how?” She didn’t let herself show that the sarcasm stung.

“Believe it or not,” she said dryly, “genetic gifts and prestigious family connections are not bad news, however much of a surprise they might be.”

“And yet here you are, in person for the first time in nearly twenty years, with bad news.” Jim leaned forward, his eyes searching her face. “So tell me.”

“The family wants you back, Jim, and the bad news is that they’re not going to take no for an answer.”

“That’s kind of unfortunate, because I don’t think I’d be inclined to say yes even if I knew what the hell you were talking about.”

“What I’m talking about... I’m taking about a life that’s full of potential, that offers you wealth and privilege and opportunity, where you won’t have to hide your gifts.”

Jim stared at her, a dismayed crease forming between his eyebrows. “That sounds like a very gracious offer, but I think I’m going to decline.”

“Did you miss the part where I said the family isn’t taking no for an answer?” she said sharply.

Jim hunched forward to rest his elbows on his knees, the frown deepening. “The family. As in the family business that you wrote to me about when I came back to Cascade? Who the hell is the ‘family’ to be making demands of me? Who the hell are you, lady? Just because you pushed me out and then dumped me with Dad, you do not get to call the shots about what I do with my life.”

She’d expected the bitterness. It still burned, like lye spilled on her skin. “I’m not trying to call the shots, I’m trying to give you some choices.”

He turned his head to stare at the flicker of the fire place. “I’ve made my choices – they may not have always worked out that well, but they were mine, and they’re going to stay mine.” He gestured at himself, at the leather jacket and dark sweater and khaki pants. “Do I look like a corporate drone? I like what I do, I like the life I’ve developed for myself, and I’m keeping it.”

“No,” she said steadily, “no, you’re not. But you can have some say in a new life, or you can have none at all.”

Jim stood. “Are you threatening me? No, really, is that what you’re doing here? Family is code for what – high class gangsters?”

“Our activities are generally legal,” she said.

He barked out a laugh at that. “Generally? Well, you can take your generally legal activities and stuff them up your well-preserved ass.”

To acknowledge the crudity was only to give it more force. Peggy stood too. She was closer to the door than he was which was good as it enabled her to stand in his way. “Jim. You’ve had the opportunity to make your own choices because I gave it to you.”

Contempt lifted one corner of his mouth. “And now it’s payback time?”

She shook her head. “No. It’s backs against the wall time, mine, as well as yours. As long as you were just an ordinary man, then the family was willing to let you go your own way. But it’s clear as day that your sentinel abilities are well and truly in play, and it’s simply not acceptable to the broader family for you to be on the outside now.”

She’d thought his face was hard before. “Not acceptable?” The comment was forbidding. Threatening. She was reminded that her son was a dangerous man.

“I don’t expect you to like this; but there’s a wave coming, and you can drown in that wave, or you can get up on your board and ride it to shore.”

“That’s a really pretty image, Mom. How about I fight?”

“Fight what? You and Bill don’t even know my real name. Whereas the family knows a great deal about you. Who your friends and contacts are: policemen; old army buddies who moved into the CIA; Bill’s cousin out on his island in the middle of nowhere. I’m not the only one who’s built a dossier on you. They’ve always known that I was overly partial in what I reported about you. I tried, Jim. I wanted you to have your own life. I wanted Bill to keep looking after that little boy he loved.” His face was stricken, only for a moment, and then he rallied and stared at her. She stood still, letting his gaze range over her face, knowing that he was listening to her, smelling her, using skills honed in listening to a thousand liars to try and sound her out. “I want you to have what choice you can. I want you to choose the best choice out of admittedly limited options. I want you to trust me.”

He stood still. She could imagine the baffled fury bubbling in him, like magma pushing up from the depths. “Trust you? Even if I did, what makes you think that you have anything to offer me that I want?”

“We can offer you a lot. I can offer you a fuller family history for a start. Names. Histories. Blood relatives you can meet, talk to.” His eyes flicked away from her at that. She’d landed a hit – whether it would serve her or not, she wasn’t sure.

“And what do I have to offer in return?” he snapped. “My services as the family’s tame sentinel?”

“A successful organisation doesn’t waste its resources.” She sat poised in indecision for a moment; to tell him about the other family sentinels, or not. He would have to know – but not now.

Jim turned his back on her, and lifted a hand to cover his face, just for a moment. “This is crazy. People don’t do this, they don’t just walk into people’s lives and demand shit like this.”

“Maybe ordinary people don’t. But you’re not ordinary, and neither are we.”

He went to the wide windows that looked out over the Cascade street below, staring out and saying nothing.

“There would be other sweeteners, of course.”

“Spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine go down?” The tension in her changed – like an angler watching a fish nearly reeled in. His mouth twisted, as if he tasted the medicine and found it bitter – but he was tasting it. “What was it that I did? You’ve always been watching me; I know that, but what...?” He swallowed. “It always comes back to the senses,” he said tiredly.

“The Juno case. That was what made people besides me sit up and pay attention. When you know what you’re looking for, you and that young man of yours aren’t very subtle.”

Jim whirled at that. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

She’d like to be sure herself. It had been easy to check out what Blair Sandburg had stored at Rainier, harder to be sure of their domestic situation. She drew the line at driving past her son’s home and eavesdropping on him, and arranging an ‘inspection’ of a sentinel’s home required careful planning. “Sentinels and their back-up people – it can be a complicated relationship.”

“Complicated.”

“I’m sure that we could make a place for him in the family if we needed to.”

His eyes widened in uncontrolled shock, and his voice rose again. “No! No fucking way! We’re leaving Sandburg out of this.”

“Are you sure you want to do that? You’re dependent on him.”

“Like hell I am,” he sneered, and she felt her eyes widen slightly despite her best efforts at control. This was what really roused his temper? But, of course, when she’d sent him that original information the others were all still only children. Certain patterns hadn’t yet emerged, and he’d stayed latent for so long. Blair Sandburg and Jim Ellison were clearly still too busy seeing the trees to figure out the forest. “Sandburg helps me out, yes. That is not the same as dependence, and it doesn’t mean that we need to drag him into your generally legal activities.” He paused a moment. “Who are you ‘dependent’ on?”

“My situation is entirely different. “ She wasn’t going to explain herself – not the years of struggle, the determined shutting down of her abilities because the price was too high. She threw a sop to his pride. “I’m not as powerful as you are,” she said, “but there’s a price to power. There always is, and in your case, you need support.”

“Someone to watch my back. Make sure I don’t zone. I know that. But who says it has to be Sandburg?”

She paused. She’d been close to drawing him in on his own account, but if she insisted on Blair Sandburg’s role, she had a feeling that she’d lose him. He’d take his friend and run, she was suddenly sure of it. They might succeed and Jim would be entirely lost to her. And if they didn’t, her boy would enter into the family without power or security. Queen Margaret was honest with herself. That would be a blow to her standing, as well as hurtful to Jim. “Someone else could be trained, I suppose,” she said. If there were problems later down the track – well, the family had dealt with those issues before now.

“I’ll think about it,” he said, and she had the sinking fear that all he’d think about was how to run hard and fast.

“Before you go, let me give you one more thing to think about,” she told him. He watched her, poised in wary suspicion. “Bill has prostate cancer.” He couldn’t hide his shock, although he tried. “It’s been found early, he’ll probably recover, but treatment leaves a man impotent or with other nerve damage more often than not. We could ensure a more certain therapy, as well as a gentler one.”

His eyes narrowed, and his voice was arctic. “You are one stone-cold bitch, lady.”

“Perhaps I am. You can think about that along with everything else.” She pressed a card into his hand. “You can reach me at this number – once you’ve done your thinking.”

He took the card as if she’d pressed a maggot into his hand. Then his shoulders jerked as if he felt a chill, and he headed for the door and was gone.

Peggy allowed herself two indulgences. She listened, as hard as she’d listened in years, following him in his departure from the hotel, even though she knew she’d pay a cost in nervous pain later. When she was sure he was gone she sat down on the luxurious couch and she cried, snivelling like a silly child for a few minutes, before she stood and repaired Queen Margaret’s visage. She had a report to make, and arrangements to organise. One way or another, her son was coming home.

Chapter Text

Jim left the interview with his mother to hit a bar two miles further down town. It smelled like every other bar – booze and cigarettes, and people whose scents were thick with colognes and perfumes and the subtle and not so subtle organic mixes that their bodies made. Once there, he ordered a beer and sipped it slowly.

“Would you like some company?” It was a beautiful voice, belonging to a beautiful woman. She was tall, and blonde, and dressed on the restrained side of sexy.

“Sorry. I’m not in a company mood,” he said, trying to sound courteous. She flushed, and walked away, and Jim stared into the depths of his glass and tried to figure a few things out.

Did he believe his mother that if he was a good boy and followed instructions, that all would be well? Just follow orders? The crash of a helicopter resounded in his head, and he took another few slow sips, concentrating solely on the taste of his drink. His mother wasn’t Oliver, but that didn’t mean that she was entirely trustworthy either. Join her, or run. Those were his two options, as sharp in his mind as the yeasty, sour taste of the beer was in his mouth. But running had a sub-option. Run alone or take Blair with him.

Jim stood and headed back to his truck. He stopped for a moment and looked around him. It was night, orange with the sodium glow of municipal lights, fogged with the smell of car exhaust and coming rain. His city. His, and if he followed Peggy he suspected he wouldn’t see it too often. He drove back to Prospect. The rain was coming down by the time he got out of the truck, a fine mist that dewed the leather of his jacket and skimmed lightly on his hair and skin. He climbed the stairs to his apartment, up the wooden stairs, down the hall to the door of his home. He opened the door and looked around him like it was all new – a converted industrial building, warm brick and rough-hewn wood, and to the side of him the kitchen bright with light, and Blair doing something at the sink.

“Long workout,” Blair said, like it was the most natural thing in the world for him to keep tabs on Jim and Jim’s whereabouts. Jim considered the possibility that way too many people kept tabs on him instead of just leaving him be.

“I went for a beer afterwards,” Jim said.

“That’s not like you.”

“Make a note on page whatever of your notebook then. The subject display aberrant behaviour in having a goddamned beer.” He swung off his jacket and hung it on the hook, aware of Blair’s slightly shocked expression.

“Hey, hey, that is really not like you. What’s going on?”

Jim walked across the living area and sank onto the couch, leaning his head against the back and shutting his eyes. He felt the give of the upholstery as Blair leaned on the back. If Jim opened his eyes and turned his head, he knew that Blair’s hands would rest exactly where he guessed they were.

“Nothing,” he said tiredly. “It’s been a long day.”

“Is this about Lila?” Blair asked.

Jim grabbed onto the easy lie, and nodded. He sat up and turned his head. He’d been right about where Blair’s hands were.

“It’s not easy losing someone, even if you weren’t close,” Blair ventured.

“Can’t be close to someone that you never even knew, Chief. But I feel sorry for her – the waste of it all. Figured she was worth a beer.” He twisted and looked at Blair, who had a dish towel slung over his shoulder and tendrils of hair escaping the tie at the back of his neck. “I’ve told you before that a dish towel over the shoulder is a disgusting habit, Sandburg.”

“Yeah. Whatever.” But it was good-natured, despite the muttered ‘anal bastard’ as Blair went back to the kitchen. “I made stew – enough for dinner and enough to freeze. You want any?”

“I’m not hungry. Just freeze it.”

“Your wish is my command.” The sarcasm was softened by a note of affection. “Do you want another beer?”

“Are you getting it for me?”

“I figure that just once won’t spoil you.” Blair brought the beer over, and handed it to Jim, pointing to his shoulder as he did so. “See. No dish towel. Don’t say I never do anything for you.”

That was the question, wasn’t it? What would Blair do for Jim? Jim considered his friend, Blair, with his long hair and his earrings and flannel, and he tried to imagine Blair in the hotel suite where Jim had met with his mother. Amusement rose briefly in him, only to be dampened once again. His mother had implied that Blair was something to be packed up and carried along for Jim’s convenience. Resistance stirred in him – resentment on his own behalf, at the assumption that Blair was so essential, his ‘young man’, (and what the hell did his mother mean by that) and resentment for Blair, who surely didn’t deserve to be dragged into Jim’s family soap opera. Belatedly, he realised that he hadn’t made any reply to him.

“Thanks. Thanks, Chief. Sorry. Wool-gathering.”

Blair shook his head with gentle forbearance. “So I see. Drink your beer, man.” He went and sat at the table for a while, an island amid a sea of student essays, and Jim listened to the scribble of his pen and the murmur of encouraged and despairing comments at what Blair found in his students’ work.

Jim wondered what his mother and her ‘family’ knew about sentinels and their back-ups, their support people, their guides, because Peggy’s throw away remark had touched on something that Jim had noticed for a while now, and had tried not think about. He liked Blair a lot. Hell, he loved Blair. But it was more than that. He loved the way Blair looked. He loved the way Blair smelled, he loved the timbre of his voice. Over the last few years, Jim’s senses had thoroughly investigated and catalogued every aspect of Blair Sandburg, including elements that shouldn’t have been of any interest to a man who’d thought that his occasional bisexual curiosity was exactly and no more than that – simply curiosity.

He loved Blair. He knew that Blair was his friend, and he knew that Blair had been more than just curious about bisexuality before now. The problem was that Blair was curious about so many things - including sentinels. Jim’s sexuality was not going to be a footnote in Blair’s damned dissertation. Jim didn’t want that, but there were other things he realised he wanted, especially when he was on the cusp of losing them.

He drank his beer, and thought about what he was prepared to lose.

***

Jim did several things over the next week. He memorised the number his mother gave him, and tore the card into tiny pieces and threw it into a trash bin on Lincoln Street. He bought a cheap, pre-pay cell phone. He knew that he worried and pissed off Blair with his preoccupation and irritability.

He visited his father.

His father gestured Jim inside the big house that had been built in the first flush of success in Bill’s contracting business, along with what sometimes seemed like half of Cascade. “Jimmy. How are you?”

“Fine. Fine.” They sat down in the living room, and Sally brought them coffee. Jim ignored the cup in front of him. “How much do you know about my mother?” he asked his father, and examined him with the intuition of a cop and a sentinel rather than a son.

“Peggy’s been after you again, has she?” Bill’s exasperation was easy and unschooled, unlike Jim’s calm. “If I couldn’t keep you in my world, I don’t see why she expects you to jump into hers. Although I understand there’s damn good money there.”

“Not everything is about money, Dad.”

Bill drank his coffee, before he looked over the top of the cup with a surprisingly bitter expression. “So I’ve been told.” Jim opened his mouth but his father lifted his hand. “To get to the nitty gritty – I don’t know much. I told you everything I knew back when you were a kid. Were you so pissed off at me then that you’ve forgotten it all?”

“No,” Jim said. “I remember.” There was a silence. Things hadn’t been good with his father for years in his adolescence, and the discovery that Jim was adopted had been the last blow. “You didn’t tell me that she was a sentinel, too.”

His father looked acutely uncomfortable. Shame. Fear. They were well hidden, but Jim was a cop, and he was used to identifying those two emotions. “It didn’t seem to cause her anything but pain. I didn’t want that for you.” Bill cleared his throat. “And I worried that she’d want you back because of it, I can’t deny it.” The shades of Bud, and Aaron Foster, and denial might as well have stood between them. Bill leaned forward in his chair, suddenly intense. “Peggy – she didn’t talk much about her background, but I knew it wasn’t a happy one. She hoped that I could do better for you.”

They stared at each other across twenty years’ worth of anger and then Jim stood, and grabbed his father’s shoulders in a rough hug. Bill reached up, big hands patting rhythmically across Jim’s back.

“Damn it, son. Sit down again, I need to tell you something.”

“Another big family secret?” Jim said through a tight throat, but he braced himself, knowing now that his mother had told the truth about one thing at least.

“I’ve got some issues with my prostate – old men’s troubles,” his father said.

“Are we talking cancer issues, here, Dad?”

Bill paused. “Yes, yes, but it’s been found early, and you know what they say. More men die with prostate cancer than of it.”

“Jesus.”

“There’s no need to panic over it. My doctor’s hopeful; he’s given me a referral to some fancy specialist. It’ll be fine.” He was gruff and dismissive.

Jim wasn’t fooled. “I hope so.”

“I’ll be fine. I haven’t told Steven yet – but since you and I have been talking family business, it seemed as good a time as any. Let me tell him, won’t you, Jim? And then you two can commiserate about that son of a bitch your father later.”

“He doesn’t know about me, does he?”

“Well, you never told him. And I was grateful for that, that you didn’t throw it in his face when things were bad.”

Jim chuckled. “God, I was tempted. But I just couldn’t. I suppose I should tell him. But we’ve only just gotten to be friends again.” His fists clenched in his lap. He’d been too shocked talking with Peggy to go after any details of what exactly a return to the bosom of her family would mean, but the distance she’d kept from both Bill and Jim didn’t bode well. “Tell him your news first, Dad. Mine isn’t exactly news, and it can keep.”

His father nodded. They drank their coffee, and by mutual, unspoken agreement, the conversation turned to a pointed conversation as to the incompetence of certain Cascade elected officials, an issue where Jim and his father found substantial common ground.

***

His mother nearly lost him when she laid down the conditions and he suspected that she knew it, from the strained note in her voice and her actual apologies when she gave him the news.

“I’m sorry. But people want a clean break.”

“A clean break! That’s bullshit. It’s a fucking power trip.”

“I won’t deny that. You’re quite right, but there are reasons behind that. The family has sensitive connections, and they need an assurance that once you’re in that you’ll be – committed.”

The street was quiet and Jim was in his truck with the windows wound up. He felt free to speak his mind, loudly. “I’ll tell you who should be committed, and it’s the bright boys who came up with this idea. Faking a death is not actually that easy.” His fingers were cramped hard around the plastic casing of his phone. He couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing, even though at one level it didn’t surprise him.

“It would enable your speedy transfer into the family, and to be honest, Jim, I’d appreciate that. There are pressures building at the moment that I don’t like, and I could do with your support.” Jim’s mouth twisted at that. It was blatant manipulation, but he didn’t doubt his mother’s sincerity. “Any other convincing detachment from your life in Cascade would take time to set up. This may be brutal, but it would be surprisingly easy.”

“My background means that there are people who’ll ask questions when there’s no body.”

“We can provide a body.”

Jim’s mouth gaped in shock. He recovered enough to ask roughly, “Just what business are you in, lady?”

His mother had been stressed earlier in the conversation, but she was all business about her explanation, now. “We have a very high-tech medical arm. Dolly the sheep is old news, Jim. When you were about ten, I set up what I guess you could call spare parts for you. It’s a piece of meat, nothing more. But it would look like you, and it would DNA test as you.”

“Well, isn’t that just dandy,” he said.

“Think of it as an example of some of things we can offer you. Our health care plan is excellent.”

Was that a joke? Jim wasn’t quite sure, and he shook his head. “Do I get a secret hideout under a volcano as well?” he asked sourly.

“Is this a yes, Jim?” He hadn’t made any agreements yet, had made it as clear as he could that he was thinking it over.

“I thought that my yes and my no weren’t really relevant. You’re coming to get me regardless.”

He could hear the hope and the enthusiasm in her voice. “A yes would make all the difference. I’ve explained that. It would make so much difference to you.”

“I’m sure it would. I’m in, then,” he said, his voice firm and giving no indication that he was still very much measuring his options.

“Oh, thank god,” his mother blurted, honest relief if ever Jim had heard it.

“I want some time to put things in order – and I want to know exactly how this is going to be stage-managed. Exactly.”

“Of course, of course,” Peggy said. “Oh, Jim, I know this has been hard for you, but I’m so glad. So glad.”

It was great that his mother was glad. Jim just felt sick to his stomach.

***

Clayton Falls was ideal for more than one sort of get away. It was quiet and peaceful and had great fishing. It was only six miles from the Canadian border. It was away from all the familiar things of his daily life – his city, his work. Blair. Blair had been deep in writing what he described as the introductory chapter to his thesis the last few days, something guaranteed to make Jim feel like running for the hills (or Canada, even) anyway.

Jim’s great escape to Clayton Falls ended in danger and farce, which he supposed shouldn’t have been a surprise. The farce smacked him in the face with Blair’s nervous peek through the glass door of the little motel inn where Jim had bedded down. Simon had tracked him to his hiding place, and if Jim had been in another sort of mood he would have had spiteful things to say; like how Simon was misusing government resources over fish, for one thing. Like the complete impossibility of Blair affording the rent on that downstairs apartment that he was offering to move into, for another. Surprise and stress spat out a few extra truths instead, things that were true and were maybe easier to bitch about because Jim was getting closer and closer to acknowledging that he wouldn’t have much longer to tell his friends any truths at all.

He knew he offended Blair and Simon but they made it up on their way to the little Clayton Falls diner. Jim watched Blair chomping ice-cubes like a cartoon beaver chowing down on a tree trunk, and tried to convince himself that there was no way he’d even think about going to bed with someone with Blair’s table manners.

The danger... when Fisker’s truck bounced off the side of the train engine and exploded, Jim didn’t give a damn, any more than Fisker and his men had cared about the people they’d hurt and threatened so they could get their hands on riches. But Blair had winced as he’d watched the truck burn. Jim had put a hand on his shoulder and felt how Blair was shaky with illness and the aftermath of adrenaline, and said, “The explosion would have killed them, Chief. Not the fire.”

“And that’s supposed to make me feel better? We’re kind of responsible for this, Jim.”

“Their own greed is what’s responsible,” Jim snapped.

“If you say so,” Blair said tiredly, and left the cab to sit on the edge of the engine the side facing away from the fire.

Jim could see him through the cab windows. Blair sat hunched with his knees drawn up, nursing his gut which was probably still queasy. The wind pulled at his jacket and his hair, and even though it was blowing towards the fire, the train cab was still filled with smell of burning. Jim shivered. He’d come to Clayton Falls alone to try and make up his mind, but he found it made up for him as he watched Blair sit cold and ill in the cool wind. He looked weirdly beautiful to Jim – familiar and familial, and too important to risk.

Blair had plenty to lose if Jim ran and took Blair along with him. And if Jim ran and left Blair behind, then Blair would be leverage – there was no point in denying that. Jim didn’t want Blair dragged into any more danger, however inadvertently it had happened here in Clayton Falls. Maybe the only menace in his mother’s ‘family business’ would be the risk of turning into a rich prick like too many of Bill Ellison’s country club associates but Jim had his doubts. Fisker and his associates had been willing to go to extreme measures to get money and influence. Everything that Jim had seen of life assured him that most people were willing to go to extremes to keep money and influence. His mother’s family was certainly willing to go to extremes to get Jim.

He spent two days fishing and weighing his options after Simon and Blair returned to Cascade. When Jim returned to Cascade there were worried messages from his mother. He called her, and reassured her. Two days later he had a call from a woman he didn’t know who was full of very competent ideas as to how to manage Jim’s exit from his life in Cascade.

***

Jim was cooking that night: steak, baked potato, and a salad that didn’t involve iceberg lettuce and so would be guaranteed to get on Blair’s good side.

Blair happily inhaled over his plate. “He can be taught!” he declaimed. “Low fat sour cream and only a small serving of it? We’re going to live until we’re ninety.” He grinned cheesily. “That still means that you’ll go first, old man.”

“Seniority has some perks, then,” Jim said, his tones suggesting that leaving an earth containing Blair Sandburg behind him would be a blessed relief. He loaded his own fork, and imagined the Oscar that he must be eligible for by now. “Just eat, Chief, forget about the nutritional analysis.”

Blair took this advice enthusiastically, humming once with satisfaction at the first bite of his meat. Silence reigned for a while as they ate.

“Want a beer?” Jim asked.

“Sounds good.”

Jim got two beers from the fridge and sat down again, passing one bottle across the table to Blair. He took a sip of his drink, and then took a deep breath. Blair was looking straight at him at that moment and he said, somewhat belligerently, “What is it, Jim?”

“You remember you told me once that you regarded yourself as being, and I quote, ‘on the bisexual spectrum’?”

Belligerence turned to caution. “The way I saw it, my diss wasn’t worth hanging out with a raging homophobe. Which are you aren’t, because I’m still here.”

“Yeah, you’re still here,” Jim said, fond despite Blair’s sudden prickliness and his own nerves. The tension seemed more promising than a bland curiosity. It implied that Blair was invested in rather than merely supportive of whatever motives were behind Jim’s enquiry. “And pretty much chasing women.”

“I like women. Women are great and also a lot less likely to create awkward discussion at the PD.”

“So you’re denying part of yourself to protect me, or yourself?”

Blair shifted in his seat and stared narrow-eyed across the table. “Why do you care, Jim?”

“I guess I’m just wondering why you never told me you were going out with Malcolm rather than Margaret.” Jim was glad Blair wasn’t a sentinel. His hand was sweaty around the beer bottle, and his mouth felt dry.

“You’re okay with it. At least, I’m assuming that you’re okay with it, but that doesn’t mean that everyone around you is going to be so liberal. So I guess I was protecting both of us, because if it was just me, yeah, I would have been fine about being in someone’s face about how sexuality is a lot more fluid and constructed that some people would have you think. But it wasn’t just me. And since you basically just nodded when I told you and said ‘that’s fine, Chief’” – Blair growled in presumed imitation of Jim – “I figured that wasn’t quite a ringing endorsement even if you were ‘okay with it’, and I decided to stick to women. It’s not exactly a hardship....” Blair’s voice wound down. No surprise, Jim thought. He must have been running out of breath. “So like I said. Why do you care?”

Jim’s answer to that was to stand and to take a very long walk around the table to where Blair was sitting. Blair watched Jim’s approach with the look of a person who knew what was coming, but he made no effort to move. He simply sat there and observed, and when Jim reached him and threaded his hands through Blair’s wealth of hair he tilted his head so that Jim could easily kiss his mouth.

It was the end of the day, and Blair’s whiskers were rough against Jim’s skin. His lips were soft, though, and his tongue rubbed smoothly against Jim’s, graciously exploratory. Interested, but not aggressively so.

I just kissed a guy, Jim thought, and straightened, leaning his ass against the table, his legs stretched out beside Blair’s chair, his arms crossed against his chest. Blair sat there, his eyes shut for a moment. His heart was going just as fast as Jim’s, and a swirl of input that only a sentinel could recognise rose from his skin. He’d liked it when Jim kissed him, of that Jim was sure, but the face that Blair lifted to Jim’s gaze was troubled.

“Jim, you’re my subject.”

Anger burned Jim’s skin. “And I know that I told you that I don’t want to be treated like a lab rat.”

Blair swivelled away to stand and face Jim. “You’re not my fucking lab rat. But there are ethics attached to these things, and yes, I’ve sure as hell been playing fast and loose with them with you, but boning you is definitely outside of accepted guidelines.”

“That’s bullshit,” Jim said quietly. He gathered patience to himself – he only had a while left in Cascade, and only so long to get what he wanted from Blair.

“Oh come on!” Blair protested, his hands spread wide.

Jim stood. “No, I mean it, because you and I have been inside each other’s space right from the start. Would sex change anything that much? Would your work be any less compromised – from your side of things, I mean? I get, objectively speaking, that if you told your advisor that we’re fucking that you’d be in trouble – but would it change that much for you?”

“Of course it would change things. We’d be fucking, man!”

“And fucking is so much more compromising than living under my roof for three years, or jumping out of planes to help our friends, or borrowing my t-shirts when you run out of clean laundry?” He stalked a little closer to Blair, who stood his ground despite obvious nerves.

“You and I are friends. Friends get in each other’s space.”

Jim was close enough to curve his hand across the back of Blair’s neck. “Yeah. We’re friends.” The heat of Blair’s skin felt like it was burning into Jim’s palm. “And if we were friends who had sex, would it change how you felt about me? Make you any less ‘objective’ than you are right now?”

“No.” Blair’s mouth twisted to one side – a literally wry expression of his feelings, and then he smiled and shook his head at the same time. “No, it wouldn’t change a damn thing.” He shrugged under Jim’s hands. “Except that we’d be, you know, having sex.” His face turned thoughtful and slightly suspicious. “Is this why you’ve been so weird the last few weeks? You’ve been working through your mid-life sexual crisis?”

Jim averted his face briefly. “More or less. And there’s family stuff that we don’t need to talk about now. Just because Dad and I have made a start doesn’t mean that it’s all plain sailing.” There – an answer for Blair that was truthful enough.

Blair’s dilemma at his choice of potential investigations – Jim’s proposition and potential sex, or Jim’s family situation and a vicarious scratch of Blair’s own daddy issues – was written all over his face, and was almost funny. Almost. Jim decided to focus Blair’s attention on the more urgent matter, and he pulled him closer and kissed him once more. It was surprisingly, scarily easy. Exciting, especially when Blair pushed his tongue into Jim’s mouth, drew himself close to Jim’s body, and let his hands, broad and strong, spread out across Jim’s back.

“Jim, I don’t want to be your lab rat. You understand? You need to be sure about this.” Blair Sandburg at his most earnestly passionate, and that was when Jim knew that if hell was real, this was the point in his life that would send him there. He’d killed people, he’d turned a blind eye to dubious business in the army and the PD, but always with at least the hope that something of worth might come out of it. Doing this with Blair was selfish and stupid and cruel, but Jim wanted it so badly.

“You have to be sure, Jim,” Blair mumbled, his eyes lowered now, maybe aware of what he’d given away.

Til death us do part, Jim thought bitterly. So about three weeks, Chief. But what he said was, “I’m sure. I’m sure. I promise.”

“Sure enough for us to go upstairs?” Blair lifted one eyebrow. “What? Your bed is bigger than mine.”

“You don’t want to talk any more about this?” Jim asked. He tried to sound teasing, but it came out more anxious. Wanting this was one thing. Doing it was maybe another.

Blair pressed one very gentle kiss against Jim’s throat. “Absolutely. But later. We can take our time for talking, and we can take our time working out this whole deal. But before you tell me again how sure you are, let’s see what happens when you’re actually looking a dick in the face. So to speak.”

“I thought I was looking a dick in the face,” Jim said, but he softened the gibe by gently cupping his hand across Blair’s cheek and jaw and tried to pretend, just for a moment, that they had all that amazing time that Blair thought they had.

“Ha-ha.” Blair backed away but only to walk towards the stairs. “Are we doing this?”

It was hardly the first time that Jim had hurled himself at a bad decision. Besides, Blair looked good, standing there with his hair mussed and his face flushed. Jim knew how his friend kissed now. Blair wasn’t completely hard, but the fuller bulge in his jeans looked promising as well as scary. “Yeah,” he told Blair, and returned the smile that spread across Blair’s face. Jim followed him up the stairs, wondering how he’d started this but was somehow following Blair’s lead anyway.

Neither of them was a lights out for sex sort of person. Jim wanted to see the terrain. Blair most definitely wanted to see the terrain, and map it with his hands and comment on it. Blair wanted to watch Jim’s face while he handled Jim’s cock, kneeling astride Jim’s thighs with a frown of concentration creasing his brow, his lower lip caught between the neat, white teeth.

“Blair...” It was only a hand job – something that Jim hadn’t regarded as the main event for twenty years, but he remembered Kaye McGuire, his first girl, and he was damn sure he was never going to forget Blair Sandburg.

“You’re okay? You’re close?” Jim grunted an assent, and arched into Blair’s slippery, heated grip, working for it, fighting for it. It was Blair, though, who made the triumphant noise when Jim came with his heart running at what seemed like a hummingbird’s rhythm. He stared at Blair, who grinned like a loon. “I guess that worked for you.”

“Yeah,” Jim said, pushing a stray strand of Blair’s hair back from his face. He hooked his hands under Blair’s arms and pulled him forward, acutely aware of the hard bar of Blair’s erection against his stomach. “What’ll work for you?”

Blair gazed at him with eager delight. “At this point, just about anything.”

“Is that so,” Jim said softly and deftly flipped them so that Blair lay underneath him. He didn’t miss the hitch of breath, and stored the knowledge away before he slid down the bed, at an angle where he could take Blair’s cock into his mouth if he chose. “Face, dick,” he said and watched Blair’s face for the reaction. Blair chuckled, but his hand regretfully blocked Jim’s approach.

“Face, dick, condom, man.” Jim’s disappointed distaste must have shown clearly because Blair’s voice grew apologetic. “I know, and I’m careful, but I’d still prefer wearing a rubber.” He laid a hand against Jim’s hair. “I can get tested, I will, and then you can do what you like. But I don’t want to risk anything spoiling this later. It’s important. You’re important.”

Jim swallowed a comment. He’d been less careful than Blair in some of his partners; and if there was one thing he didn’t want, it was for Blair to look back on any of this with regrets. He got off the bed just long enough to hunt in his nightstand drawer for a condom packet, and flicked it between his thumb and forefinger. “Happy now?”

Blair smiled, and gestured to his cock. “Ecstatic. Want me to put it on? The angle might be a little different to what you’re used to.”

Jim gave the little packet to Blair. “Go for it,” he said, nervous again but determined and fascinated to watch Blair’s fingers deftly roll on the condom.

Blair pulled Jim closer and kissed him when he was done. “Mmmm. Now show me what else you can do with your mouth.”

Enough. Jim could do enough although he felt awkward as hell and he hated the latex taste in his mouth, but he loved the little noises that Blair made and the sated look on his face and his heaving chest when he made Blair come. Blair’s hand fumbled across the bedding to rest against Jim’s head – he’d studiously kept it clutched in the sheets until Jim had finished. “You can stay here,” Jim told Blair. “It’s a big enough bed.”

The difference was immediate. Blair had been lying down, legs spread out across the bed, but there was something poised about it. With Jim’s words, everything about Blair slumped into loose, post-coital relaxation.

“Thanks.”

“Tired you out, have I?”

Blair grinned, an indulgent, mildly irked turn of his mouth. “Keeping up with you in any shape or form requires amazing energy reserves – which I luckily possess.”

“Are you telling me I’m hard work, Sandburg?”

Blair’s eyelids closed, and his body settled contentedly into the bedding. “Hey,” he said. “If the shoe fits, man.”

Jim switched off the light. “I can still kick your ass out of this bed.”

The mattress bounced slightly as Blair wiggled closer. “But you won’t.”

“No,” Jim said. “I won’t.” He unerringly laid a kiss just above Blair’s brow. Blair smiled in the dark, a blissed-out grin that he had no reason to assume that Jim had seen, and guilt shoved Jim’s after-glow aside. That small, unselfconscious smile reinforced that what he’d done was cruel. Wrong. But it was too late now, and Jim’s stupid, selfish side couldn’t, wouldn’t, regret Blair’s weight and warmth alongside him.

***

It was like a countdown, only without the numbers, and without that crucial last-second halt before everything exploded that always happened in the movies. Blair was fare-welled to his Rainier mixer. A large crate was brought up in the elevator and its uncanny contents unloaded and laid artistically on the floor. Jim crouched before his ‘spare parts’ and swallowed back nausea. The face was his but vacantly soft and with a little more hair than Jim currently had, and the body had no more than a basic muscle tone. That wouldn’t matter – the plan was that this poor simulacrum would be badly enough burned that those discrepancies wouldn’t matter.

“Better not get seriously ill for a while,” Tony said. “It takes time to grow those beauties.” He sounded just as grossed out as Jim felt.

“Have you got one of these?” Jim waved his hand at the thing on the floor.

“Nearly.” Tony grimaced. “Only another three years before I can go out and get a heart attack like my old man.” He grinned, and Jim found himself smiling back. “Okay, let’s get this show on the road.” Tony strode into Blair’s room and activated the very careful sabotage inside the wall. Fire caught and smouldered, and Tony clapped a hand gently on Jim’s shoulder. “This won’t take long to catch. It’s time to go, Mr Ellison.” Jim stared helplessly at the beginning of the end of his home, and then nodded.

“I’m ready. The car’s in the alley?”

“Yes. I’ll go ahead. I figure a man with your advantages won’t have any issues with making sure you’re not seen leaving the building.”

Jim coughed. The fumes were barely there, but they were building fast. Tony left smartly, and Jim waited only a brief while longer. Burton’s monograph lay on Blair’s bed, partially covered by discarded clothes, and on an impulse Jim scooped it up and left, walking down the hallway as lightly as he knew how. He’d been assured of a heroic pizza delivery girl to give the alarm to the other occupants of the building, but he had to be out first so that she could save the day, and he moved a little faster until he stepped out onto the dark street. A woman immediately got out of a small car parked across the road, two flat boxes balanced in one hand, and Jim turned the corner into the alley, his hands clenched around Blair’s book.

Tony saw him coming and opened the door. Jim got in and sat, still clutching ‘The Sentinels of Paraguay’ as if it would save his life.

“Do you want to do up your safety belt, Mr Ellison?”

“No,” Jim ground out. He doubted he could have, anyway. His hands felt stiff and numb, and his hearing reached out to the crackle of burning – the sound of all of Blair’s personal effects sacrificed to Jim’s disappearance: his photographs of family and friends, his books, the shirt Blair had worn earlier that day, before he changed it to go out. Blair’s masks and gourds were going to burn, and the bright quilt and cushions on his bed that he’d bought to replace the things smoke-damaged in the old warehouse. Jim turned his head and saw a flicker of moving light reflected on the brick of the building alongside 852. Tony had been right – it hadn’t taken long. They were moving by then. Their motorway route took them along the back of the local firehouse, and Jim saw the flash of red light as the engine deployed to fight its way through city traffic. But there was only a brief flash of red to see, before Jim was gone.

Chapter Text

“Ready to meet the family?” Peggy asked. Her tone was light but Jim could hear the nerves under the control. She was dressed in a shot silk cocktail dress in burnt orange tones, and her hands sparkled with some very beautiful rings.

“No,” Jim said. “But that won’t change so we might as well get on with it.”

“Prêt toujours prêt?”

“Not my unit,” Jim said, smoothing a lapel that was already sitting in perfect alignment.

“No, but the sentiment is useful,” his mother replied. They walked down a graceful staircase, Jim placing his feet carefully. “Remember, anyone that I thought might be support material is wearing a carnation. Don’t feel limited to approaching just them, but they’re at least familiar with sentinels and interested.”

“I’ll keep it mind,” Jim said, hearing the buzz of conversation through the double doors leading to the first floor reception room. It would be a cold day in hell before he took on a ‘support person’, whatever the family’s viewpoint was on the necessity of it. Maybe Blair didn’t know everything there was to know about sentinels, but Jim wasn’t convinced that the family was the fount of all knowledge either.

Peggy reached for the door knob to open the door ahead of him. “Just one hundred and fifty of my closest friends,” she murmured, and unwilling amusement lightened Jim’s resentment. Now that she’d done the heavy lifting of convincing him to join her, his mother occasionally revealed an unexpected sense of humour.

He entered the room and immediately spotted Junie Wilson, Peggy’s PA. She stepped forward, her hands out to greet him and said, “Jim. How lovely. Let me introduce you to a few people.” He was expertly guided through the throng, which he noted was predominantly over forty in age. Carnations, either button holes or corsages, appeared on a disproportionate number of the younger attendees. Jim was offered fine wines and delicate hors d’oeuvres, and he made polite, stilted conversation.

The evening wore on. Jim survived it by treating it like an undercover assignment. He was here to learn and learn he did, but he was glad to duck into a small niche along a hallway which was grand enough to be regarded more as a gallery. The space was furnished with a couple of compact easy chairs and a table which supported a handsomely geometric, low-lit lamp. Jim sat, feeling cold suddenly, despite the heat of the rooms around him. He looked up in displeasure as a man joined him – younger than the average of the gathering, no more than thirty-five, Jim judged, but not wearing the carnation that would have marked him as one of Peggy’s ‘candidates’.

“It’s nice to meet you, Jim. I’m Nick Berends,” the man said pleasantly, and sat down. “Quite the shindig out there, isn’t it?”

“That’s one word for it,” Jim replied.

“They’ve been working hard. All those people standing around doing their best to impress each other. Are you impressed?”

“At this point, I’m mainly tired,” Jim said bluntly.

Nick Berends laughed. It was engaging, surprisingly so. “Here, have my card, Jim. I know that Peggy will want to start you off gradually, and she’s a good person to begin with. Unlike too many in the little gerontocracy known as the family, she’s still capable of appreciating fresh ideas. But you may decide to move out from under Mom’s shadow once you’ve had time to find your feet, and my business division could use a man of your skills.”

Jim took the card from Nick’s carefully manicured hand; there was what looked like a gold and platinum dress ring on the middle finger. “And what exactly do you think my skills might be?” Jim asked.

“Your greatest recommendation is that you know how people think outside the family. Sometimes, we’re a closed circuit. When your mother is one of the most outward-looking people I know with actual influence, then I worry. Besides,” – Nick’s hands spread in front of him in a quick, star-fished gesture of emphasis that oddly and painfully reminded Jim of Blair – “you’re a sentinel. By definition that adds a whole list of skills to the mix. An ex-cop, a former Ranger? Jim, I can see scope for you like you wouldn’t believe.”

“You’re very well informed.” It was brusque. Nick Berends looked nothing like Blair – he was tall where Blair was average height at best. His hair was short and sandy, and the sophisticated dress ring was no jewellery that Blair would ever choose, but there was a passionate enthusiasm in his voice. Put it together with the word ‘sentinel’, and within four sentences Jim knew he’d had enough.

“And you’re very succinct.” Nick stood. “I can take a hint. You did say you were tired, after all. But keep me in mind, won’t you.” He and Jim turned their heads to the doorway at the same time. “Peggy. You’ve been showing your organisational flair once again this evening. It’s been lovely.”

“Thank you, Nick,” Peggy said. Jim knew, straight away, that his mother didn’t trust Nick Berends. He’d watched his mother as much he’d watched anyone this evening. Peggy’s tone was pleasantly civil, but no more. With Nick, she was on guard.

Nick left, and Jim listened as he walked up the gallery. There was a burst of sound as the doors to the reception room opened, and then shut.

“Your absence is getting noticeable, Jim.”

“Is it? Does it matter if I was busy networking?” The tiniest frown appeared on Peggy’s face at this riposte, and was then wiped away.

“With Nick Berends? I should have known he’d be waiting his chance. Even by family standards he’s notably ambitious, his sister too.” Unlike me, Jim thought. “I’d watch him carefully, Jim.”

“Would you like me to infiltrate his side of the business? Report back?” Jim asked with level sarcasm.

The idea appeared to disturb Peggy. “I’d rather you kept your distance from young Nicholas.” She shook her head. “Young Nicholas. More like Old Nick, that man.” She extended a hand. “Come on. We have a little more work to do yet.”

“No rest for the wicked,” Jim said under his breath as he stood, and received a light whack on the fine woollen sleeve of his expensive suit.

“Remember who you’re muttering around,” Peggy said.

“I’m not likely to forget, Mother.” It was probably wrong of Jim to take gratification over Peggy’s there and gone glare of displeasure.

***

Jim’s first contact with the rest of his blood relatives came out of a spat with his mother. She’d provided Jim with a small album which Jim put away and didn’t bother with for a while, and Peggy queried it.

“I’m just surprised, that’s all. I’d have thought you’d want to know who you are.”

Jim’s temper flared at the assumption. “I know who I am, okay? I don't need you or anybody else to help me define that.”

His mother had stared at him, and Jim watched her move out of maternal mode into something more simply and distantly civil. “Perhaps I misspoke. But you still might care to see where you came from. Your grandmother is getting older. Even with the family’s best efforts she can’t live forever.”

Jim waited a few more days before he checked the album out. It wasn’t even all pique, as he was being introduced into aspects of family business and there’d been things he’d felt he needed to get up to speed on. He finally sat down one night, in his comfortable and soulless LA living room, and traced the history of his face. His eyes and nose were like his mother’s, and the long jaw he traced to her father, Len, dead in a plane crash. He shook his head at that; live by the corporate jet, die by the corporate jet. Len and Peggy had springing, very dark hair that they hadn’t passed on to Jim. Instead he had his father’s finer brown hair; the length of arm and leg was courtesy of his father too. Jim’s father, however, was as absent as Peggy’s father, apparently missing somewhere in Central America after travelling there to oversee family interests.

Inside the album, traced carefully onto a plain page, was a family tree. Jim’s portion of the family didn’t seem to be particularly prolific. He had an uncle, Bobby’s brother, and a couple of first cousins, and a great Aunt Margaret that Peggy spoke of with decent warmth. The family tree itself went back nearly five generations, back to the genesis of the family as it stood now, and Peggy had given Jim to understand that their forebears had been well off before that. They’d also produced a small but consistent number of sentinels, coded with a simple asterisk that tended to jump generations until Peggy, Bobby and Jim.

He wondered what Blair would think if Jim ever had the chance to tell him all about his family history. It wasn’t hard to imagine Blair’s face: the mix of enthusiasm and cynicism. Hey, Chief, Jim thought, do I have some conspiracy theories for you. He wished, very briefly, for Blair to be sitting opposite him and working out some weird-ass theory, before he put Blair’s image and voice away somewhere at the back of memory. He also wondered what Bill Ellison would make of the combination of robber baron behaviour, cartel techniques and industrial espionage that seemed to constitute the family’s business practices both within and outside of its own structures. He couldn’t help but feel that Peggy’s people had made a mistake in not bringing Bill in. Bill would have had a ball as a corporate warrior.

The next day Jim made a call, with the vid system that was ubiquitous in family communications. Jim understood it entirely on a cynical level – he’d want to see facial tells as well as hear the vocal ones too. The woman on the screen was Jim’s age, maybe a little younger: his first cousin, Eleanor Knight. She was brunette, poised and as coldly brittle as the spikes of a lawn under a hard frost.

“Jim. How nice to finally talk to you. I’m sorry that I couldn’t attend Peggy’s little party, but you know how it is.”

“I’m beginning to get the picture,” Jim replied. Peggy had apologised for the lack of immediate contact with his father’s family, wryly pointing out that there were ongoing ‘issues’. “My mother’s implied that there’s a point to making contact with you, despite the fact that you guys haven’t exactly rolled out the welcome wagon for me.”

“Gran is frail, and I’m busy. But of course we’re glad that you’ve approached us.” Eleanor’s gladness was so carefully restrained that Jim nearly cut the connection in disgust right then. He had never been a man to court people, except for his relationships with women, and maybe there was a reason that those never seemed to end well. It was so much easier to deal with people who simply took him as he was.

Jim’s clenched fist very gently tapped against the edge of his desk. “I’m sorry to hear that Mrs Knight isn’t well. If any contact with me would be too tiring for her at the moment – well.... You know where to find me.”

“Gran has been hoping to catch up with you.”

“Then perhaps talking with her now might be a good place to start.” Jim could see in Eleanor’s face that she wasn’t enthusiastic, and a tired heaviness settled in his chest. Whether Eleanor worried about where ‘Gran’s’ assets were going to go when she died, whether she was concerned that Jim would be competition for the spot of favourite grandchild, Jim didn’t know; he only knew that he was going to change things, and Eleanor didn’t like it. He’d worked out these sorts of connections and motives in his work – people killed and stole for the damnedest reasons – but that was work. And so, he tried to rationalise, was this, and he waited patiently for Eleanor to say something to the point.

“She said that she’d prefer to have it all happen in person rather than talk to you over the phone.” There was a touch of bafflement and indulgence there that made Jim believe the truth of it. “So this means that we need to work out a time that will work.”

“My schedule’s flexible. Name a time.”

A time was named, Thursday, 3 pm, and Jim drove to the Knight residence, situated, unsurprisingly, in Bel Air.

Eleanor was nowhere in sight, and Jim was guided by a maid to a room that might pass for cosy in such a substantial house. The furniture was traditional and the upholstery chintzy, and dainty ceramic ladies and gentlemen in eighteenth century fashions adorned the occasional tables and the mantelpiece. An elderly lady, as dainty, big-haired and porcelain faced as her figurines, sat enthroned on a carved sofa with red velvet cushions before she rose to greet Jim like Queen Elizabeth meeting plenipotentiaries.

“Mrs Knight.” It sounded ridiculous in his ears – but he didn’t know this woman, and she didn’t correct him or offer a more informal suggestion. Mrs Knight it was. ‘Gran’ clearly was to be saved for a later occasion, if it was ever to be used at all.

She smiled carefully. “Jim. It’s lovely to meet you at last.”

“I brought you these,” Jim said, proffering a bouquet of flowers. Her face lit with polite appreciation and she took them and placed them on a nearby table. “Thank you. They’re lovely. Now, sit down, please.” She returned to the sofa, patting a spot beside her, and Jim sat, immense and out of place next to this tiny woman. There were no offers of hugs or kisses which relieved him, and he found himself adjusting his trouser legs with more attention than usual just to have something to do with his hands. Blair’s voice murmured in the back of his head, ‘Just breathe, Jim.’ Jim did so, with shallow care. He’d faced down murderers and psychos. One lightly-scented, little old lady shouldn’t be such a trial.

There was a beautiful inlaid table at knee height next to his grandmother, and on it there was probably the most expensively ugly silver coffee service that Jim had ever seen, along with delicate cups adorned with a band of yellow roses. In the corner, away from the service, was a small photograph album.

“How do you take your coffee?” Eudora Knight asked tranquilly, but Jim saw the slight tremble of her hand as she lifted the cup, and lost some of his own tension at the show of anxiety.

“With a little cream, thank you.” It was handed to him. Her hands were very white, the knuckles swollen with age. She wore only one ring, a slim wedding band, but she wore earrings that Jim assumed weren’t costume and that must have cost a small fortune.

“I’m sorry that we couldn’t attend Peggy’s meet and greet for you.” She smiled, providing evidence of excellent dental care. “But I don’t have the energy to get out and about these days, and I know you’ve been busy finding your way in a new situation.”

“Yes,” Jim said. “It’s been quite a change.” There was a silence, and Jim said, “This is good coffee.”

“Yes,” Eudora said. “Eleanor runs the household for me these days, and she’s very efficient at it.” She laughed, a nervous little trill. “I couldn’t tell you if it was the worst coffee in the world. I never knew what to make of Bobby and his fussiness about food.”

Jim looked at the costly, delicate cup in his hands. “I suppose the sentinel thing took some getting used to.”

“It was your grandfather’s side of the family. Some of his cousins. Bobby was a surprise.”

“And when you combine that with my mother’s side of the family...” Jim suggested, partly out of genuine curiosity, and partly to see just how deep the ‘issues’ that Peggy mentioned ran. Eudora tensed, and her pink-painted mouth pursed.

“I hope you haven’t had some of the troubles that Bobby had. He did manage surprisingly well most of the time. We were very close, he and I. He told me everything.”

Jim wondered if his father had been that much of a mommy’s boy, or if time had blurred some of the edges.

“My mother told he went missing. I’m sorry.”

“It was fifteen years ago. I miss him very much.” The pale blue eyes blinked, and then settled upon Jim with a sharper look. “You don’t look very much like him, I’m afraid. Much more like Len. Leonard Turlough.” Looking like the wrong male relative was clearly a black mark.

“So I’ve gathered,” Jim said, gentleness laid over the top of the irritation. She was so very small, an imperious little bird perched on her sofa.

“When I look at you I see... elements, I suppose you’d say. Your hair, your build. You have his hands, at least. Bobby had long fingers.” She patted Jim’s knee. “You can’t help who you look like, I suppose, now can you?”

“No, ma’am, I don’t suppose I can,” Jim said, slipping almost without thought into a professional demeanour. Just the facts, ma’am, he thought to himself, and repressed a smile. He felt like he’d come here to bring bad news. ‘I’m sorry to inform you that your grandson and you have nothing in common.’

“Would you like to look at some pictures?”

“Of course,” Jim said. Eudora picked up the album and started at the very beginning - a baby, a small boy in corduroy shorts and a button down shirt, a young man with slicked back hair surrounded by other grinning young men standing in front of heavy draperies. Looking at him, Jim noted that Bill Ellison and Bobby Knight had been at least superficially alike. Coincidence, or did Peggy have a type? There was no evidence of a man in her life now that Jim had seen.

“I wasn’t a young mother when I had Bobby. And his brother of course. We had great plans for them both,” Eudora said. “I understand that you were a police officer before you came back to us.” Is that what I did, Jim thought.

“Yes, and a Ranger before that.”

“It’s an elite unit, the Rangers, isn’t it?” Her voice was both hopeful and slightly disdainful.

“Yes,” Jim said, a touch of frost entering his voice despite himself. “The Rangers are elite soldiers, and I was recognised in my police career as well.”

He received another gentle pat to his knee. “You did well for yourself, all things considered. I would have taken you in, you know.” Her jaw squared in determination. “Brought you up, but Peggy and Len between them.... Well.” She shrugged. “They had their reasons, I presume.”

Thank god, you didn’t, was all that Jim could think, but he clasped the tiny hand and said, “Thank you. I appreciate that, but I’ve had a good life.”

“Ah, well, you don’t need me now, of course, but I’ll keep an eye on you.” She squeezed his hand and then withdrew her own. “More coffee, dear? Or should I ring for something to eat? Men are always hungry, aren’t they?”

“Thank you, but no.”

His grandmother looked him up and down and shook her head. “I think that you can call me Eudora. Your cousins call me Gran, but I remember them when they were squawking babies, and I suppose I still think of them like that to a degree. You’ve come to me as an adult, Jim, and I believe that we’ll take it to that level. So I’ll be Eudora.”

Jim nodded in agreement at this decree from on high and drank his coffee. He eventually made his escape back to the apartment organised for him in Brentwood, in a building filled with young family hopefuls, and received a call later that night from his mother.

“Eleanor called me, so I knew you saw Eudora today. How did it go?”

Jim, sprawled out on the sofa with ESPN going in the background, stared blindly at the tv screen and said, “It was... interesting.”

“She’s a sad old thing,” Peggy said. “I know it won’t have been a scintillating afternoon, but I don’t want you to regret missing out on meeting her. She lives in the past a lot, according to Eleanor. I think she was worried you might do something to upset your grandmother.”

“I presume that you pointed out that even outside the family you can be brought up not to be cruel to frail, elderly women. “

“I doubt she’d listen. Bobby and his mother were close and Eleanor’s been well indoctrinated. She probably sprinkles herself with holy water when she has to deal with me.” It was said with bitter laughter, and then in odd segue, Peggy said, “How are your senses behaving?”

“Things are quiet.” This wasn’t quite true, but the spikes and the headaches were usually ignorable.

“Well, I wish I could say it’s a pity, but since you don’t have any support at the moment, it’s probably just as well. There isn’t anyone....”

Jim frowned at the tv set. “No, Mother, I can’t say that there is.”

“It’s early days,” Peggy said, presumably convincing herself more than her son. “And, Jim. Can I ask you a favour?”

“You can ask,” Jim said warily.

“I’ve heard that ‘Mom’ is a perfectly useful expression. Would you consider using it?”

Jim paused. He’d tended to use ‘Mother’ if he had to address Peggy. ‘Mom’ was a whole different word, and Jim wasn’t sure about the shape of it. “Mom,” he said.

“Keep practicing,” Peggy said. “It may even come to sound natural.”

“If you say so,” Jim said, feeling that he’d had enough of family for one night. “Did you get the report on Oberon Security?”

“Yes, I’ve passed it on. It’s a pity you can’t go to Cascade for the follow-up – but....”

“Yeah. We can’t screw up all that effort in killing me off.”

Peggy’s voice became very crisp. “Precisely. There’s something I need to discuss with you before you start getting deeper into the business . Dinner? Sometime next week?”

“Yeah, sure. Next week. Let me know your calendar.” They hung up and Jim went back to his tv watching, but he fell into an uneasy doze. He started awake from a dream of Blair, who wandered the burnt out shell of the loft, circling round and round, picking up debris and throwing it aside. A pointless, stupid dream, that left Jim disturbed and guilty. He hauled himself off the sofa, and went to bed but he slept no better, whether he dreamed or not.

***

“When you offered me blood relatives I didn’t realise just how generous you were going to be,” Jim said over a light meal that he’d barely touched. For a moment, the disarranged sophistication of his food was blurred with memories: a cold, damp street and hotdogs, with Blair by his side; Stephen, arguing with him over comic books when they were young; his father after they found Bud’s body, Bill’s face harsh with what Jim now recognised as fear, not anger.

Peggy wearily attended to her fancy chicken salad. She didn’t have much appetite either. “There’ll be reports coming out correlating the information we have about you compared to the development we’ve seen in the others. I thought you might appreciate a heads-up and an explanation.”

Jim’s beer bottle clunked forcefully on the table. “A heads-up? Forewarned about an awkward situation? These are my siblings we’re talking about. You didn’t think that I’d care?”

“I knew you’d care. I considered mentioning them when I approached you in Cascade, but you were getting pissed off enough as it was.” Peggy gestured with one hand in half-apology. “I didn’t know if they’d be the leverage that brought you in, or the last stress that made you run for it.”

“You knew I’d care; but you don’t care? Happy to dump them like you dumped me?”

Peggy’s cutlery dropped to the table with clatter. “You are very lucky that I’m not a woman who gets satisfaction out of giving a good slap, Jim, because that remark thoroughly deserved one. I left you with Bill because I couldn’t care for you and you deserved care with a parent who loved you, whatever his failings. And you’re surely not fool enough to think that I didn’t have to offer quid pro quos for leaving you your life outside of the family.” Her voice trembled towards the end – a rare display of vulnerability for her. “Damn it, I’ve splashed dressing on my blouse.”

“Was that crop of little sentinels a quid pro quo?” It was; Jim knew it was and felt sick.

Peggy recovered at least a veneer of calm. “We’re an interesting set of genes, but they’re hardly lab rats. They were placed in good families; some are adoptions plain and simple, with documented fathers who didn’t want to be directly involved, but are willing to be identified if their children need contact. Some are living with their biological fathers, have full siblings.”

“Do I have any full siblings?” Jim demanded with an edge of sarcasm that cut him as least as much as it cut his mother. Her poise had recovered from that spike of earlier distress but Jim knew she must be as perturbed as he was.

“No. The family was just starting on understanding the high points of assisted reproductive technology when Bobby disappeared. And I doubt he would have been cooperative.” Jim found himself in sympathy with his biological father.

“A full set of trained sentinels for the family business? You’re assuming that they’ll feel a responsibility to the tribe, are you?”

Peggy’s voice was calm, but her hand fidgeted at her marked blouse. “They’ll be individually assessed as the time comes. Of the two eldest, one is working inside our companies, one is being encouraged into other endeavours. We’re not as romantic about our assumptions as Dr Sandburg.”

Blair’s name, and the dismissal of some of his dearest theories, stung Jim. He choked back an angry defence.

“How many more are there? After the two eldest?”

“There are eleven in all, ranging in age from twenty-six to fifteen,” Peggy told him evenly.

It was too much. Jim rose explosively from his chair, anger a hot, tight wire winding through his chest. “Cheaper by the dozen?” It came out of him like an expletive. “I… Jesus, Mother, this…”

“Is what it is. They’re safe, they’re loved, and they have tremendous opportunities in front of them.”

“Oh, you’re a great person for accepting the inevitable, aren’t you? It is what it is? So why was it so important to you that I stayed outside the family? Maybe there’s a little bit of you that acknowledges your almighty fucking family and its Doctor Frankenstein business is actually pretty screwed up. Did you want that little piece of your life that got to go its own way? Pity that my genes and Blair’s ‘romantic’ notions got in the way.”

“Yes,” was all Peggy said. Her face was frozen in a parody of control. “Damn it, Jim, I know that this isn’t anything that you would ever want to know. But not knowing would be worse.”

“Knowledge is power, Mother? Especially when everyone around you is jockeying for the lead position, right?”

“As you say.” She rose from the table too. “I should change my blouse,” she said and she left the dining room, leaving Jim feeling sick, and slightly ashamed, and angry at everything. Peggy didn’t hide very long. She came out in a new blouse, as good as her word, and approached Jim where he stood looking out a window. Below him were city lights, and spread out across the country were nearly a dozen young men and women connected to him whether he liked it or not.

His mother stood quietly by him a while, not talking, and then her head dropped lightly onto his shoulder, just for a moment. Jim permitted it, before his mother stood straight again and took a few steps away.

“I know it’s something you’ll need to think about, but let me know if you want more information, or to contribute. Your experiences could be useful.”

“Oh, I’m sure,” Jim said, but there was more consideration than sneer in it. He didn’t know if he’d ever want to meet those half-brothers and sisters, but there was a reluctant curiosity, and a reluctant sense of responsibility, that meant that he’d make a show of thinking it over and then request that he be copied in on whatever information they might let him have. He knew it and Peggy knew it, and she did him the courtesy of not presuming his involvement was a fait accompli.

***

Jim was in Los Angeles - the birthplace of American surfing culture, famous beaches, all that good stuff, he thought sourly, and even with some fairly heavy duty ‘orientation’ going on one of the privileges of the family was leisure time. He could immerse himself in forty hour weeks, and still have evenings and weekends free. Money making and research and development in the family echelons Jim was learning to move in kept more civilised hours than the kind of crime that Cascade PD tried to keep on top of. Money, even conservatively managed money, bred money, and Jim had plenty for a visit to the Malibu Surf Shack and similar stores. He bought decent mid-range items, and spread his patronage around. He didn’t want to be anything other than an ordinary Joe when he hit a beach, and while he knew that spending money was what made the family go round and was no more than his due as Peggy’s son, he also didn’t want to be any more ‘kept’ than was necessary.

If the weather permitted he surfed, and his hair bleached in the sun and salt water. He tried out beaches all over the area, both the fashionable and the less popular, some easy to reach and some not so easy. He increasingly found that riding a wave was the only time he felt anything akin to peace, or ease in his body. For that reason, he was less than happy to hear a familiar voice one early morning at Topanga Beach.

“Jim?” It was Nick Berends, solid and square-cut in his wetsuit. He sounded diffident.

“Nick.”

Nick smiled that easy smile he had. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“Coincidence, huh?”

“Yes, believe it or not.” Nick sounded quite relaxed now; he might even have been telling the truth. “I windsurf. And you,” - his gaze flicked to Jim’s board – “surf. Obviously. Do you come here often?”

“I spread myself around, but I like Topanga.”

Nick outright grinned at that. “Yes. So do I. Well, I’ll leave you to it. Enjoy your surfing.”

Jim watched him walk away, suspicious despite himself. It would be nice to see someone and assume that they were just a friendly acquaintance. People did presumably have friends, even inside the family. Nick was as good as his word that day – he did his thing, Jim did his, but a couple of weeks later he called Jim, the old-fashioned way on an ordinary phone, to ask if Jim would be interested in sharing a car for a Sunday morning trip to a beach.

“Planning to pump me for business secrets in the car?” Jim asked, more or less jokingly.

“At this point, you have more to gain pumping me,” Nick riposted. “Of course, once you’re more familiar with your side of things, I’d expect reciprocity.” It was said with great good humour, like they were two guys hitting it off in some bar over a shared love of a sports team, and that warmth decided him (that and Jim’s contrary streak, which he was self-aware enough to acknowledge if not always deny).

“Name a time, I’ll let you pick the beach,” he said.

It wasn’t a bad day. Nick dropped various small pieces of information and gossip along the drive. He mentioned his father and mother and sister, and their roles inside the wider family and its holdings. He didn’t ask anything about Jim’s family, inside or outside the inner circle, nothing about sentinels or guides; he didn’t raise any conversational gambits that might alarm Jim. He was pleasant, with a sly sense of humour, a very simple taste in beer, and a more sophisticated taste in whiskey, and he genuinely seemed to enjoy Jim’s company. The shared trips became not quite regular, but came often enough that Jim and Nick swapped tips on each other’s skills.

“I knew a guy who did this,” Jim said as he stood in shallow water with Nick’s gear in front of him “He shared enough info that I do at least know where the tack end of the sail is.

“Then you’re off to a flying start already. Feet either side of the mast, yeah, that’s it. Hand over hand on the boom, pull her up slowly, keep your body at a V angle with the mast.”

“Or I’ll lose my balance, yeah I get it. I do surf, Nick.”

“So you do,” Nick said calmly. “I’ve always liked the windsurfer better – I’m more a gone with the wind guy than gone with the waves.” He grinned at his pun, and Jim rolled his eyes. He managed to tool the windsurfer around and only fell off once which he thought wasn’t bad for a first try, especially when Nick found himself less than graceful on a surfboard.

That was a good day, and driving back, in Jim’s vehicle this time, Jim was aware of a sense of physical ease that paradoxically bothered him. He’d gotten used, he realised, to a low grade malaise, and today he felt… good.

A few days later he read up more on the family sentinels. The family had interpreted what Blair had called guides to a concept that they called baselines. They did the same job in terms of distracting sentinels from the effects of zones especially, but there was a lot less of the coaching that Blair had done. It was different, of course; these kids had known what they were and what it meant since they were tiny. The baseline concept came out of what some family researchers posited was their essential role – to give sentinels something ‘normal’ to reset themselves to. Comparative dials, as it were, and remembering that unexpected physical comfort in the car, Jim began to skim the notes looking for ‘baselines’ in relation to words like ‘shared’, ‘transfer’, ‘reset’, and ‘relationship’.

He really didn’t want Nick as his guide. Nothing against the guy, for family he was okay, but Jim would prefer to keep his distance. Sometimes the voice in his head telling him that he couldn’t expect to live like that forever sounded like his mother. Sometimes it sounded like Blair. He ignored them both.

***

The Oversight Committee was more like a congress – a large auditorium, nearly one hundred participants and an equal number of observers, and an agenda list that broke down into an ants’ trail of sub-clauses.

Jim sat towards the back of the auditorium. His mother he could see down towards the front, as befitting someone of her senior status. He made eye contact with her once, across the rows and rows of seats and she’d lifted an eyebrow, and said quietly, “Listening hard too, Jim?” He’d saluted her ironically, his index finger to his brow, because that was exactly what he was doing and he had hell’s own ringing headache to prove it. As with any large organisation what was happening outside of the agenda was at least as important as what happened within, and Jim might not always care about the dynamics of a group but he didn’t care to be ignorant of them. Not with this group.

The Committee adjourned until the next day. The Chairman, nicknamed The Godfather in some irreverent family circles, departed the stage, and Jim let his gaze wander the auditorium as people stood and stretched, and made plans for their evening. On the far right of the room, he saw Nick Berends heartily shaking hands with a young man with dark eyes and olive skin and yet another carefully groomed head of hair in a space filled with people who had money to burn on their appearances. On an instinct that Jim had long ago learned to follow, sight and hearing zeroed in.

“Paulie, how are you doing?”

‘Paulie’ smiled, clearly at ease in Nick’s company. The two of them settled into their seats in a friendly way, Nick leaning over the back of one, Paulie leaning forward. “I’m good. Got a few things to deal with, but it’s all coming together.

“Keeping up with that sentinel competition for R and D money?” Nick asked, jovial, like it was no big deal, when Jim had seen just how big a deal it was to lay hands on those extra little pots of family money. As if all this crowd didn’t swim in lucre like Scrooge McDuck.

Paulie had his back almost entirely to Jim, but the posture of frustration was clear. His voice came out in a semi-discreet mutter. “Peggy pushes it hard, but then she’s got personal reasons. That’s what burns me. Her div has developed some good stuff, sure, but how’s that project going to benefit the wider family, huh?”

“A sentinel in every division, eventually, with all their sensitive senses. There’ll be uses,” Nick said, but he had a doubtful tone to his voice at complete odds with his assurances to Jim at that first meeting that Nick could see scope like Jim couldn’t believe. One attitude for Jim, one attitude for Paul.

Paulie shook his head. “They give me the creeps. Fuckin’ lock-stepped with their baselines. All except for the favoured first son, of course. He seems to manage just fine without.”

Jim controlled a near physical recoil, and refocused on the conversation with an effort.

Nick’s voice grew musing, and the intuition crawled over Jim that there was a very specific aim to this conversation. Somehow, he couldn’t see himself bringing this subject up with Nick in casual chat over a burger and fries in some coast-side bar and grill, so he listened. “Yes. He is quite the anomaly with how he manages on his own. But then so does Peggy.”

“Everyone knows she turned herself off years ago. The report they waved around up there implies that he’s still at full-power.” Paulie’s voice grew vehement, and Jim wondered what his problem was. Maybe it was a simple as a bunch of freaks getting what Paulie thought was an undue share of the family business’s cash.

The crowd was thinning, and Jim’s observation was going to be obvious very soon. He stood and turned for the farthest exit, still listening, the booklet of notes rolled tightly in his fist.

“Quite the puzzle, our Jim,” Nick said. Were you trying to solve the puzzle with beaches and surfing, Jim thought, unexpectedly disappointed at the thought even though he perpetually reminded himself that he was surrounded by users. Nick made his excuses to Paul to catch up with his sister in the auditorium and Jim followed the stragglers past security and found a quiet patch of wall to stand by as he called his mother.

“Any chance of us touching base soon?” he asked, with no preliminaries. “Somewhere private?”

“Eight pm in my suite is the best you get,” Peggy replied crisply.

“Eight on the dot it is,” Jim said, and ended the call and gathered up the observer’s notes and reread them, looking for references to anyone called Paul.

***

“I guess you know that your pet project isn’t popular,” Jim said, over a plain glass of chilled water. He’d sat with his mother on some of the meetings about the younger sentinels, gradually gathering information; Blair Sandburg would have killed for most of it.

“No more so than anyone else’s competing pet project. Many in the family can see advantages – it’s not as if the work we’ve done with them didn’t lead to a lot of useful developments as well as interesting ones. And call me biased, but they’re a likeable, talented bunch of people.”

“In lock-step with their baselines.” Jim said, hating the bitter scorn in his voice. Paulie and Nick’s casual discussion had cut somewhere Jim had always been tender.

Peggy’s calm took on a chilly aspect. “That has the tone of a quote. From whom, do you know?”

Jim averted his gaze from the woman across the table. “Nick Berends was talking with someone he called Paulie. They seemed to take a lot of interest in how I don’t fit in with the rest of the family sentinels.”

“Paulie! As in Paul Medina?” At Jim’s shrug of ignorance Peggy said, “Young, cheekbones you could cut glass on, thinks he’s God’s gift?”

“The description could fit.”

“He has issues with sentinels, does he?” Jim nodded. “What a little hypocrite; or maybe not so much. No-one should be investigating freaks, in any part of the family, apparently,” Peggy said, her tones sardonic.

“You’re not saying there are sentinels on Paulie’s side of the family?” Jim asked, barely keeping the disgust out of his voice.

Peggy snorted. “Hardly. Let’s just say that it has its own talents, which they’ve been notably loathe to have investigated. Of course, they haven’t needed leverage recently. Sitting on their goddamned laurels.” The burst of irritation subsided. “And you say Nick was talking to him?”

“Yeah. Nick has been very enthusiastic about the sentinel project to my face, and also very eager to sympathise with Paulie’s doubts about it in the committee room. Which one do you think is real, and what’s the son of a bitch up to?”

Peggy’s face grew thoughtful. “Nick’s family area was always medical and chem, his mother and his sister have notable scientific talent, but the gene-tech side of things is our baby even though it has obvious applications for most of our divisions. But Zita, Paul’s great-aunt… well, let’s say that she has her doubts about some of our gene-tech but she and Nick’s mother, Helen, never did get along. Despite that, there’ve been signs Nick has been ‘cultivating’ Paulie. Building bridges. Clearly, he has plans.” She sighed. “Nick’s always been competent. He should be higher up in that division, his sister too, but Zita has her blind spots, and Paulie is one of them. He’s not really business material. Bright enough, but impulsive, and too sure of himself. God’s gift, like I said.”

“Nick’s been cultivating me, as well.”

“So I’d noticed. Well, if it’s any consolation, Jim, I’d bet he’s gotten more pleasure out of it than sucking up to Paul Medina.”

“Yeah, I’d hate to think that he didn’t enjoy my company while he’s using me.”

“Think of it as networking,” Peggy said, with just too sharp an edge.

“I didn’t like this bullshit in the army and police. What makes you think it would be any different here?”

“Because you don’t have to like what you do in the name of survival!”

“I only have to survive here because of you, Mother.”

“No, not just because of me. I want you to do well, of course I do, but I told you, Jim, god damn it, I told you they’d bring you in one way or another once they knew you were a full-fledged sentinel! So yes, because of me, I suppose, although I think it’s only fair that Bobby take fifty per cent of the blame as well.” Peggy’s colour was high, and if the heat running through him was any indication, then Jim guessed he was flushed with anger too. “Jim. I’m sorry. How many times do I have to say it?”

The heat was gone, with only a leaden heaviness remaining. “Leave it. I know.” One hand moved through the air, as if Jim could push resentment and grief away and let it crash on the floor like a broken glass.

“I am sorry. I’m on edge, I guess. We had a minute’s silence for family members passed away at the start of committee; it’s been a bad year, and one of them I was fond of, a distant cousin but we worked together on a regular basis, and we’d have lunch. Just for fun, you understand,” she said with an arched eyebrow. “Stella McIvor. She was younger than I am.”

A sarcastic comment about how the family’s medical plan hadn’t been up to scratch hovered in Jim’s throat. It was unworthy and he managed to control it. “I’m sorry.”

“Thank you.” She sighed. “No-one likes to be reminded of their mortality, and we do fight it so very hard.” She looked at him, the sharpness in her face that of observation rather than temper. “Look after yourself, will you. And cultivate somebody, whether it’s Nick or anyone else. It’s good to have friends, and allies.”

“You don’t like Nick.”

Peggy shrugged. “You do, despite yourself, or you wouldn’t have gone surfing with him or be quite so pissed off now. You need contacts in the family that are your own, Jim, whatever you do with them. Nick could certainly introduce you to people.”

“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer?” Jim asked.

Peggy’s smile was tired, but warm with the humour that would make unexpected appearances. “It’s one time honoured strategy.”

Maybe it was at that, but Jim had already decided to spend less time with Nick even before he overheard that conversation in the auditorium.

Chapter Text

The ring-tone of the phone jangled into Jim’s sleep. He would have picked it up and thrown it against the wall, but the sound was the one that signalled a connection through the family’s own private internet and video connection. His mother, most likely, and she wasn’t the sort to call her son because she thought she’d heard a noise in the cellar. With a groan he dragged himself out of bed and walked to the computer terminal, shrugging on a robe.

It was indeed his mother and she looked quite incandescently angry.

“That stupid shit, Medina, has made his move, and you need to get a suit and tie on and be ready for a flight, pronto.”

“It’s two a.m. As in morning. What the hell is going on?”

“He’s got your friend, Sandburg.”

Jim drew back from the monitor, as if the movement would bring the world into focus and sense. “What? Why?”

“I’m sending a car for you. We’re flying down to San Diego, and I’ll explain once we’re in the air. Be ready, and be immaculate, Jim. “

“We’re talking Sandburg’s… what? Kidnapping? And you want me to worry about my clothes?” His voice rose in outrage, but he was already figuring out the game plan. Paulie had done something stupid, oh yes, he had, and Peggy and Jim were going to impress people with what an upstanding credit they were to the family’s values, starting with a carefully-groomed display of crazily expensive clothing.

“A car is on its way. Be ready.” And with that the connection was ended.

Jim knew how to get ready for any sort of action with speed. He dressed in a suit that he knew had cost a couple of grand, a pale grey shirt (silk) and discreetly patterned tie (also silk), and was standing impatiently in the apartment foyer with a neatly packed and stylish overnight-bag well before the driver sent by his mother had buzzed at the entrance to the building. In the reflection of the plate glass doors he looked every inch the collected, authoritative, rich man. Beneath that exterior he strained like a trip-wire on a bomb.

His bag was taken off his hands and he was driven with smooth speed to a private hangar and a small jet. His mother rose from her seat when he came on board. She strode to him and put her hands on his arms, gripping him through the expensive wool and silk with the strength of desperate anger. “This is important. Tell me right now. Have you ever, ever, had contact with anyone from your old life in Cascade, since you left? Anyone, especially Blair Sandburg?”

“No! Christ, you know that! I’ve been angry enough over it.”

Peggy was still electrically tensed, but something in her face relaxed the smallest bit. “Yes, I know,” she said ruefully. “But Paul is quite convinced that you have had contact. How and why is the question.”

“I’d have thought the important question was how we get Sandburg out of whatever mess he’s in.”

They sat and strapped themselves into the spacious leather flight seats, and began a council of war without any wait for takeoff.

“You said he’s got Sandburg, and you didn’t exactly correct me when I asked if it was a kidnapping, did you?”

“I cannot believe that Paul could be this much of an idiot. I always thought Zita’s confidence in him was… misplaced, shall we say, but this!”

“Is he safe? Sandburg?

“So far as I can tell from what I’ve been advised. Paul has some overly dramatic idea of a grand confrontation. The more I think of it the angrier I get.”

“You’re not exactly alone in that. And even if Sandburg is safe from Paulie what about from the wider family? I’m dead, remember? Everyone that I give a damn about is supposed to believe that, and that’s not going to happen if Paulie boy is throwing wild accusations around, now is it?” His mother averted her face just a moment, and Jim wondered if it was in thought, or because the nuances of his tirade hadn’t escaped her. It was a mean, petty thing to imply, that he cared nothing for anyone inside the family, but he was in no mood to measure his words against the possibility of hurt.

“You and I have the length of this flight and the drive in San Diego to a family meeting to work that out. So maybe an hour and a half, at most, to make sure that we present the best possible front and get what we want, which is more than just Paul Medina’s head on a plate.” Peggy shut her eyes a moment, as if praying for strength or patience. “So what do you want? You’re right; your friend is almost certainly going to be told you’re alive. Depending on what we orchestrate, he may end up with the proof in front of his eyes. Back in Cascade, I offered you the option of bringing Blair in. That may yet be our best bet at this point. “

“I don’t think so!”

“Why not?”

“Well, I don’t know, Mother. Maybe he might have issues joining an organisation that faked my death and arranged his kidnapping! I followed family orders like a good little scion, and that should have been the end of it. Sandburg will have made a life for himself, and it gets screwed up through no fault of his own? No!” Jim tried to calm himself. “This isn’t my fault; it sure as hell isn’t Sandburg’s.”

He looked out the window as the plane climbed. The city lights were gradually veiled by wispy, moonlit clouds, and he laughed, short and sharp-edged.

“Tell me the joke,” said Peggy. “I’m not seeing much that’s funny right now.”

“Congratulations. I’ve been so assimilated into the family that the idea of calling the cops to arrest Medina’s ass never crossed my mind.” No justice for Blair’s distress and fear that he might understand or see. Jim pushed shame aside and tried to focus his thoughts on practical options.

“Given that the ultimate family sin is letting outsiders know what they shouldn’t… let’s leave that particular crime to Paul, and nail him with it, shall we?”

“Certainly,” Jim said pointedly. “How?”

“Zita will be there. This is her legacy, her baby, in every sense of those words, on the line. We prove that Paul’s accusations are false, then he’s finished in the business side of the family, and Zita loses prestige and power along with him.”

“And if we don’t prove it, then at best you and I are under a cloud, and at worst you lose control of your projects, and what else?” Jim remembered a phrase he’d heard once or twice. “Sent to the ranch?”

“Where did you hear that? Oh, never mind.” Junie Wilson appeared from up front. “Tea or coffee, Jim?”

“I suppose it had better be coffee.”

“And for me too, thank you.” Junie discreetly disappeared once more. “Yes, I could be forcibly retired. Forcibly sequestered, even. You too. There was an actual ranch once. Now there are just places where the family… deals with its own. Paul won’t get off scot-free. That much I promise you.

“And Sandburg?”

“He’ll be watched at best. Jim… I know that you want him to have his own life; I do understand that, truly. But I’m not at all sure that it’s feasible.”

Jim’s mouth tightened. “We play the outraged innocence card for all we’re worth, and we let him go.”

“Are you willing to let him go?”

“What?”

“You’re still using him as a support, aren’t you? He taught you well, but if you’re not bringing him into the family you have to let him go. You can’t support a baseline on memories and training indefinitely.”

“But I have. And that was the problem, wasn’t it? I’ve done better than anyone expected and… son of a bitch.” Jim stopped short with a gutting intuition. “Nick Berends has been encouraging Paulie’s little delusions and resentments to help bring him down. I’d lay good money on it. What a credit to the family he is.”

Peggy ignored Jim’s bitterness, and even the urgent reasons for it, to lean across the space between them. “I’m serious, Jim. I’ve been waiting for you to wind down, and you’re not. If you don’t wind down, you’ll break under the strain. Trust me on that one. “

“I’ll worry about that later, when we’ve dealt with this mess. You said that Zita would be there, like that was significant to us and not just her.”

“Zita has her own gifts. She can read emotional mood to the extent that she’s to all and intents and purposes a lie detector.”

“You and I could do that.”

“Not with certainty and in my case not without making myself ill. I’ll say this for Dr Sandburg; he got you to a surprisingly integrated state - which won’t last forever.” At Jim’s glare, she returned to their immediate concerns. “You can judge bodily stress and guess a likely reason, yes, but not specific emotion. Zita can.”

“So she’ll know that we’re telling the truth.” Jim pinched the bridge of his nose. “Will she admit that she knows, or is it going to come down to our word against hers?”

“That’s rather the question, isn’t it?”

Junie reappeared with coffee. Peggy sipped at hers, wrapping her fingers around the cup as it cooled, seeking the warmth. Jim ended up ignoring his. It smelled wrong, but he wasn’t stupid enough to comment on it and have his mother go off on her tangent of worry about his senses. They had other concerns right now.

***

A luxurious car met them at the airport in San Diego and drove them through early morning streets to a hotel. They ascended in a high speed lift lined with marble to a suite containing a meeting room which was furnished with a large and blindingly polished glass topped table. Twelve men and women were already seated there, as polished as the table, and armed in their individual ways in couture clothes and scents. There were two seats for Jim and Peggy, not together. Divide and conquer, Jim thought. They could try it, but he’d faced down power games before, and played them too. He could even enjoy it in better circumstances, but for Blair he would play the game whether he liked it or not. First move was to dial down his sense of smell, as the melange of scents became sickening.

Power games, indeed, Jim realised. His place at the table was right beside Zita, who looked frail and tired under a desperate hauteur. She ignored him as he sat down. Peggy gave her a serene nod across the table from her seat, which went unacknowledged. Zita was anxious, that much was obvious. Normally, Jim would have felt uncomfortable at the idea that someone could read his mood as thoroughly as his mother claimed this woman could, but if she was getting a head full of Jim’s anger and contempt then he thought that might be all to the good.

Not all his emotion was for Zita. This little cabal around the table was undoubtedly made up of the men and women who had decreed that Jim return to the family, and who’d insisted on the destruction of the loft and Jim’s separation from his old life and friends. The mask of calm attention he was trying to cultivate froze on his face. He would like to rant and shout at these men and women, all of them at least twenty years his senior. He’d like to pick a few of them up by the lapels of their jackets and scare the shit out of them. But that would not help Blair, or his mother, or himself, for that matter. He didn’t clench his fists, even. Instead, he sought authority within himself: the military officer who said the word and saw his commands carried out as a matter of course; he channelled the echoes of successful businessman he’d seen in Bill Ellison when he was younger, and the irony of that didn’t escape him; and there was a memory of Blair, telling Jim to breathe and to concentrate.

The meeting passed in a cold peace for Jim. Electric rage would occasionally jolt him but he let it earth and disperse and returned to peace again. Watching the recording of Paul Medina’s frankly melodramatic challenge tried him hard though. He and Peggy utterly denied the accusations, and Jim turned to Zita.

“Well,” he asked her. “Am I lying?”

He wondered if the temptation on her face was as clear to the rest of the meeting as it was to him. She swallowed convulsively, and said, “No.” But then she said, “He’s a very strong sentinel. He’s capable of a great deal of bodily control, and we don’t know exactly how this works for me.” That ignorance of process didn’t apply to the family’s sentinels, of course, who had been thoroughly investigated.

“Oh, come on!” Jim protested.

“What about me, Zita. My limitations are rather clearer. You and I have dealt together before. Am I lying?” Peggy’s voice was an Arctic current flowing across the table.

The man at the head of the table – the Oversight Committee chair, the Godfather himself, Edward McCutcheon, said, “Dr Sandburg isn’t a sentinel. A skilled baseline support, yes, but entirely normal. I don’t approve of Paul’s little performance, but perhaps it can serve a purpose.”

“Ed,” Peggy began, but McCutcheon put his hand up. “Paul wants a confrontation. We will give him one. Jim. Zita. We’ll provide you with appropriate staff and support, of course.” There was a brief silence around the table. Jim looked across the table at his mother. She was still looking at McCutcheon, and her expression was… displeased.

“Ed!” Zita’s self-possession cracked well and truly. “You can’t be serious.”

Jim stood, his own calm in danger of breaking. “What about Sandburg?” he said, loud in anger rather than attempted persuasion. “What happens to him after your planned confrontation?”

“That rather depends on him, doesn’t it?”

“Which means precisely what?”

“Family business stays confidential. Can Dr Sandburg keep his mouth shut? Will he involve the police?”

For the man that Blair had thought Jim to be? Jim didn’t doubt that Blair would have done a lot for that man. For the man whose face was reflected in the glass as Jim bent his head a moment, the man colluding in these extralegal and humiliating plans? Jim wasn’t so sure. His mother’s gaze was on him, waiting.

“Sandburg won’t make a fuss if he knows what’s at stake.”

“He’s lying!” Zita shouted.

“You’re very sure of that, but not sure of Jim’s denial of Paul’s accusations? How does that work, Zita?” McCutcheon asked, almost kindly. Nobody in the room was fooled and Zita, who’d stood up beside Jim to make her claim, sat abruptly.

“What if Dr Sandburg does make a fuss?” McCutcheon asked.

”Then I’ll deal with him. I’m owed that. I held up my end of the bargain when I came back into the family. I deal with him.”

McCutcheon nodded. “I suggest that you make full use of family resources in that contingency.” Or else, Jim understood. McCutcheon was well-disposed to absolutely no-one who’d forced him into this meeting and display, regardless of blame attached. “Peggy will advise you.”

Jim let himself have one moment of fantasising about throwing McCutcheon headfirst out the windows and then nodded like a good soldier.

Jim second-guessed himself all the way to Paul’s rendezvous point. He knew that Blair Sandburg never let anything go. His mother had already vehemently but quietly protested a second time against the idea of letting Blair return home when this debacle was completed, which was certainly a circumstance that increased Jim’s determination to see Blair free and clear back to wherever he lived these days. The lengthy ride in the air-conditioned comfort of the car cemented it. Jim simply couldn’t imagine Blair in these trappings without imagining his contempt of them, and his anger at the ‘goodies’ that the family withheld from the wider public. His eyes burned unexpectedly, and he blinked behind the sunglasses he wore. There was nothing more that he’d wanted these past months than to see Blair again, and now he had that wish, for what it was worth. They’d thought that Blair was valuable enough for him to break his word and put his mother at risk – and yes, he was. Jim should have run, way back, but now his mother, for all the awkwardness between them, was a potential hostage just the way Blair was.

He waited in the car while Zita got out, thankful for the car’s partition, and sound-proofing. It provided at least the illusion that Zita couldn’t get into his head the way she was looking to get into Blair’s while the security team filmed it all. He leaned against the seat, eyes staring blindly at the car roof, hands clenched into fists, not listening to Blair who was mouthing off to everyone out there. Not listening at all.

He had to get out of the car. Showtime. Disdain for for Zita and for Paul and nothing for Blair except the dispassionate concern he’d show any crime victim. Blair would be fine, he was a resilient guy. He’d yell out all that anger and be fine, which was more than could be said for Paulie; his voice was approaching levels of frenzy as he was forced towards Jim’s car. Dumb, Jim thought contemptuously. He’d never had much patience for stupidity. And because he wasn’t stupid, he tuned out Blair’s shouts, the cracked voice, and didn’t listen, not at all, to Blair’s outraged distress.

They’d been on the road some five minutes when the car pulled over. He turned in angry question to his driver; he didn’t want to be here with Paul in the back any longer than he had to. The driver’s mouth moved. He touched Jim’s shoulder lightly with some concern, and Jim realised that he couldn’t hear anything at all right now. It was fortunate the car was pulled over. Jim shoved open the door and stood out in the dry, SoCal air and breathed with as much discipline as he could. Slowly in through the nose, slowly out through pursed lips. After a minute or two he could hear the driver, Tommy, one of the senior family Security guys. His voice sounded like he was underwater, but at least Jim could hear him.

“Sorry,” Jim said. “I needed some air there. I don’t think there’ll be any more delays.”

Tommy nodded, his eyes showing nothing, and Jim got back in the car and they continued back to San Diego.

***

The basic facts of Zita and Paul Medina’s fall from grace ran round the family like wildfire, along with any number of rumours. Such a tumultuous change of power necessitated a family meeting, smaller than the congress, larger than the cabal in that hotel in San Diego that had sent Jim and Zita out to face Paul and Blair Sandburg. Zita was ‘retired’. Paul was apparently being provided with every luxury except that of freedom. New positions were announced, platitudes were pronounced, and once it was all over Jim made his way to Nick’s hotel room. Nick’s sister, Julie, passed him in the hall with a distantly courteous nod. Jim would lay good money that they’d had a cosy conference on the new opportunities this mess presented for their ambitions within their division of the business. He knocked on the door to Nick’s hotel room with a sharp rap of knuckles.

Nick didn’t look surprised; more almost relieved.

“Jim, come in.”

Jim did so, but refused the offered seat and drink.

“I can’t blame you. I owe you an apology, don’t I?”

“That,” Jim said tightly, “depends on what you think you’re apologising for.”

“I was trying to provoke Paulie into something that would damage him, not create one of the family scandals of the decade.”

“Well you certainly succeeded at that. It’s a pity about the collateral damage.”

“You and Peggy have actually come out of it well…” Nick began, but recognised the wisdom of silence with a gesture from Jim.

“Someone I care about was terrorised and hurt, and put in danger because he knows about our loving family when he was never supposed to. Tell me how well my Mother and I have come out of this, again? But Zita and Paulie are out of your hair and that’s all that counts, isn’t it?”

Nick’s hands lifted in what even might have been genuine apology. “What happened was distressing for everyone involved, I don’t deny it, but come on, Jim. I don’t think that I can be blamed for underestimating just how stupid Paul could be.”

“When you were deliberately setting out to manipulate him? You have to know your mark, Nick. Let me make one thing clear. I am not your mark. My mother and her side of the business is definitely not your mark. If you want to take an interest in the wonders of sentinels, you try some other members of the family and forget about bothering me.”

“Jim. I am truly sorry for how this turned out for you and your friend. I didn’t intend that when I was ‘chatting’ with Paulie.” Nick’s expression turned even more abashed. “Nobody else seems to have put the dots together about that side of it.”

“So now you owe me.” And Jim owed his mother for accepting that this mercy was his to offer. “We can work out some reciprocity another time. I want to get back to LA – and I understand that you’ll be pretty busy with Zita’s labs down here. You’re moving up in the family. Congratulations.”

“Yes. Thanks. For not hanging me out to dry, I mean. There would have been knock-on effects for my mother and sister too, and I wouldn’t have that new role in the labs if McCutcheon had me in his sights as well. I appreciate that.”

“Think of it as your investment return on those weekends on the water.”

“Damn it, Jim! I know that we’re what we are, but that was no way as quid pro quo as you’re making it sound.”

“Everything’s quid pro quo in the family, Nick, and I was a fool for forgetting it. See you round.”

Jim left, glad to be heading back to LA even if all that waited for him there was his sterile apartment. At least there he could be alone after a rotten weekend.

***

There was a loud banging on the door. It shocked Jim blearily upright off the couch. His sleep hadn’t been good recently, and after yet another restless night he’d dropped into a heavy, unrefreshing afternoon nap.

“What?” he barked, leaning against the wall. “Who is this?”

“Jim? It’s Tony Moore. You remember me; I’m with our security division?”

Jim opened the door. “To what do I owe the honour?”

“May I come in?”

“Sure,” Jim said and stood aside.

“I’m sorry, but I did try to contact you. This is a situation of some urgency, so I’ll get to the point.”

Jim gestured to a chair and sat down opposite Tony. He knew him all right, the man who’d helped engineer Jim’s departure from Cascade, who’d abducted Blair at Paul Medina’s request. He’d seemed to have survived the fallout of that mess but then, he seemed competent at what he did. The family did value competence.

“By all means, let’s get to the point.” Out of the corner of his eye Jim could see the message icon flashing on the video comm. He’d slept through the notification, which wasn’t particularly quiet.

“Your mother has requested that you be attached to an investigation that we’re carrying out, into the unexplained deaths of two family members.”

“Unexplained?”

“A healthy man and woman in their fifties don’t both die the same night in the same bed unless there’s something going on, and Peggy has asked that you be permitted to apply your skills – both cop and sentinel.”

“That’s very generous of the powers that be to agree to that. Let me get my things.”

They travelled to the nearest family helipad through the mess of LA drive time traffic. Tony had more patience with idiots on the road than Jim ever did. The flight above the snaking traffic took long enough to give Jim an earache, which he didn’t really get. A headache, yes? An earache? They were hardly that high up. He tried to put the pain aside as they came to a piece of land by the coast that probably counted as an estate. Certainly there was plenty of room for the helicopter to land. There were stables, and the noise of unsettled horses mixed weirdly in Jim’s perception with the rush of the nearby sea and the last wind-down of the chopper engine. The site was eerily calm to Jim’s police trained eye - no ambulance, no sirens, no black and whites or patrol staff, no forensic staff wandering in their overalls.

“Has the family ever considered that not everything should be dealt with in-house?” he asked, as they walked into a hallway and up a rather lovely dark wood staircase. His voice was too loud in his own ears, but he saw no sign that Tony thought he was speaking more loudly than he ought.

Tony only grinned. “Jim, why waste your time with silly questions?”

“It must be my quixotic streak,” was all Jim said. He didn’t need the woman standing deferentially by the door to know which room was the one where the bodies were. He paused a moment before he entered the room, and took a good look around.

“Nothing’s been touched?”

“They were found by my staff. The Morrises missed a video conference and we were sent out. There might be a few finger prints on the door and on the light switch. Otherwise, not so much as a blind was twitched.”

The pair, Trudy and David Morris, lay in their bed; at first sight they were only sleeping, albeit in the early evening. Jim had a cop’s working knowledge of rigor mortis and post-mortem lividity, and careful inspection and a few gentle touches suggested that they’d probably been dead since the previous night.

“Tell me how this works, Tony. When I was a cop I knew the links in the chain. Are we bringing in any county people at all? A coroner?”

“In-house all the way.”

Jim shook his head “Why am I not surprised? Who do you answer to in the family?”

“I used to answer to the woman who approved Medina’s operation. You remember that one.” Tony’s face was apologetic. “Now I answer directly to McCutcheon. The Oversight Committee. But of course the whole point of my div is to provide support and service to the other divisions.”

“You still like to be hands on.”

“Yes I do, but my supervision was also a condition of agreeing to Peggy’s request.”

“Well, thanks for permitting me some supervised access. I take it you don’t think that I was involved.”

Tony ignored this sarcasm. “I never make up my mind that quickly, but until I do we can bounce a few ideas off each other, right?”

Jim looked around the quiet bedroom before his eyes returned to the huddled, pitiful corpses in the bed. “Yeah, sure, let’s bounce.”

***

Peggy and Jim sat together over a computer screen and a sheaf of papers.

“Three senior people in related divisions, all dying within the last twelve months? It makes me itch. And if it wasn’t for poor Trudy, we probably wouldn’t have noticed the pattern until further down the track.

“You think that David Morris was the likely target?”

“Trudy and David were both my friends, but David was the one working projects with me. Trudy was more on the general finance side of things. Stella McIvor also worked in the family’s bio-science divisions. She died of a heart attack, supposedly.” Peggy flipped paper through her hands in a nervous tic. “Kevin Bailey passed away late last year, accidentally in a car wreck or so we thought, along with his driver. Well, at least we know how the Morrises died if not why, and that happened faster because of you.”

Jim shrugged. He’d wandered the house, making various suggestions to Tony who was sound on scene security but not so much on forensic investigation. Tony’s crew would have found the glass on the bench with its two sets of finger prints but David Morris had been a cognac fan with more bottles in his liquor cabinet than he could have drunk in a lifetime. Jim’s skills at least quickened the identification of the bottle in question and that it had been doctored and was the source of the cognac the Morrises drank. Jim could see the little domestic scene in his head – David Morris offering his wife a sip or two of something he was particularly enjoying, or asking her if the drink tasted odd to her, instead. Either way, they’d both drunk poison. Either way they were both gone together, and the wider family was alerted to something rather more sinister than a man dying unexpectedly in his sleep.

“Why would get us a long way closer to who. Any ideas? Someone with a grudge, or someone looking to get on the fast lane of their career path?”

Peggy sighed. “Who knows?”

“Tell me something. Given that the family likes to keep everything to itself, I take it this isn’t the first time that family security has dealt with murder?”

“We look after our own, we deal with our own.”

“So the answer is yes.”

“Find me any family that doesn’t have skeletons in closets and black sheep. But it’s a generation since a takeover within our business arms included possible murder.”

“A whole generation. I’m amazed.”

Peggy didn’t even protest this sarcasm, but simply sat there with her hands still fiddling with the paper.

Jim sought something useful rather than bitter to say. “Is there anyone else with Zita’s abilities in the family? Would she be willing to come out of retirement? Helping with this might improve her standing.”

“Zita is unwell. I suspect that unwell is a synonym for vindictive, but she has very little to lose at this point.”

Jim nodded. “And that is why keeping things within the family circle is one hell of a risk. A pity we can’t ask the godfather to make her an offer she can’t refuse. How scared will people have to be to volunteer information rather than digging their heels in all the way in the name of division autonomy?”

Peggy sighed. She was looking her age this evening. “Well, that depends on how good they think their chances are of not being taken out versus the opportunities that will open up when there are a few crucial gaps.”

“So where are the potential patterns in the gaps that have opened up?” Jim asked, and they bent their minds to the task. They might even pass it on to Tony if they found anything useful.

***

“I would have appreciated a heads-up that Blair Sandburg has ties to an ex-CIA whistleblower, Jim.” Peggy’s voice was tart.

“Why?” Jim asked, even though he knew perfectly well what had brought on this acid comment. Blair was being Blair – curious, tenacious and doing as he damn well chose. Of course he would have asked Jack Kelso for help after the events outside San Diego.

“Please don’t play games with me. I’d have only one reason to mention Mr Kelso. He’s making inquiries and connections, and he’s obviously making them at Blair Sandburg’s behest.”

“Is this is an official complaint, Mother?”

“Damn it, Jim!” She sat down in front of him. “Are you going to insist on Dr Sandburg’s independence again? His right to go his own way?”

“His right to not have his life put at risk. How about that one?”

“His life is already at risk. Not from me, but I’m not the only one involved here, Jim. The family values a low profile; discretion. We don’t get that when a man who’s published a book exposing government shenanigans starts digging around in our affairs!”

“Especially when the family’s hip deep in its own shenanigans right now. I said that I’d deal with it if Blair caused trouble.”

“And now you do have to deal with it. I tried talking to him.” She looked as if she was about to say more, but Jim cut her off with a gesture.

“You did what?”

“I went to Cascade to try and convince him for the need for discretion. I didn’t handle him well. I’d gotten the news about the Morrises not long before I saw him, but I’m not sure anyone could have handled him well. I wasn’t surprised by his attitude or by his condition for even thinking about shutting up. He wants a meeting with you.”

Jim sat in numb silence for a moment, unsure whose neck he’d like to wring most – Paulie Medina’s? Nick Berends’s? Blair Sandburg’s?

“Jim, if you want him out, then you need to be very convincing. If he stays out, he has to keep his mouth shut.”

“Is that a threat?”

“You know it is, but not from me. If you want him in… well in some ways I’d be relieved.” Jim could believe that. She’d stop worrying about his ‘unsupported’ state, and have Jim in top form as they felt their way through the investigation of the deaths in the family. Jim thought of David and Trudy Morris lying together in their bedroom. David Morris had lain on his back, the way that Blair often did in sleep, and Jim’s imagination occasionally carried out an unsettling transmutation: Blair’s face for Morris’s. Jim might be a target in his own right, or simply because he was helping his mother direct her side of the family inquiries, and if Jim and Peggy were targets then wouldn’t anyone else close to him be one too, and a softer, more undefended target?

“I’m not bringing him into this mess to settle the family’s misgivings. I’ll just have to be convincing, won’t I.”

“Can you be that? Convincing? He’s a very angry, bitter man.”

“He’s angry and bitter because I was convincing in Paulie’s little charade too. I know how to discourage Sandburg.”

“I hope so. This isn’t a good time to be seen to be failing. Everyone’s on edge.”

“So far as I can tell, there’s never a good time to be seen to be failing inside the family.”

“Oh, now that’s true enough.”

“Is there anywhere discreet in Cascade you can recommend for meeting him? Suggested travel arrangements?”

Arrangements were made, and the days ticked down to confrontation. Jim’s mother continued worried, and there was an underlay of sympathy behind it that flicked on something unpleasant and contrary in Jim. He’d left Cascade behind him thinking that at least Blair might get on with his life and remember him fondly now and again, and now Jim knew that Blair’s fondness was the last thing he needed. Affection and understanding would lead to a Blair who insisted on bulling his way into Jim’s mess of a family. He had to encourage Blair’s contempt and if he knew Blair Sandburg, which he did, then the only way to get him to leave this alone would be to convince him that Jim didn’t need him. That Jim had never needed him.

Jim considered a moment; the best lies always had some truth behind them, and what had the family been but one unpleasant truth after another? This probably wouldn’t be so hard to orchestrate after all.

Orchestrating was one thing. Facing Blair, entirely another. Jim opened the door to a man shockingly changed from what Jim remembered, and not because of the cropped hair. Blair carried a contained anger that came off him like smoke on a smouldering fire. That threw Jim for a moment because it wasn’t at all an emotion he associated with him, despite his mother’s warnings, despite the disillusionment and confusion Jim knew Blair must feel.

Disillusioned, confused company, and careful conversation; Jim’s script went to plan, even allowing for the improvisation with the sex, which was a huge mistake on several levels, but certainly hadn’t derailed the planned objective. Mission accomplished. There were no mysteries left to Blair – except for the identity of the dead body in the loft. Jim Ellison was a rich and criminal piece of shit who’d played with the things dearest to Blair’s heart like a curious but ultimately destructive child. Blair wouldn’t forgive him for that, and Jim had noted Blair’s avoidant moments before now. It would work. It had to work.

The sex was still a huge mistake. Lying here in a room redolent with the smell of them both mingling in the bedding and the air, Jim could feel his senses thrum like a plucked guitar string waiting for the rest of the chord; but there was nothing else to come. He rolled over and shut his eyes against the empty room and the book left lying on the dresser. Blair was finished with sentinels, he’d said it in a very final manner. The thought still hurt and Jim instead concentrated on smell, on the endorphins that still ran through him, on the taste of Blair’s sweat and semen against his tongue and palate. Peggy had told him that he couldn’t manage forever on training and memories, but he could last a while longer. The senses were inextricably bound up with better memories of better times, and Jim wouldn’t let them go. Not yet.

***

The family was a true business in one very specific way. When the going got tough, the hurdles faced could always be made more onerous with a meeting.

There were a number of division heads and trusted seconds and advisors, and Tony, of course. He was good natured and imperturbable as ever, but Jim had spent enough time with him now to see the stress tells. Peggy had never made any bones about her concern, but she kept focus at least. To give his mother her due, she was genuinely invested in solving the murders and preventing any more, rather than matters of petty politics. Not everybody present shared that focus, like Gregory Evans.

“I’ve got serious concerns about the way that Peggy and Jim have been into co-opted into our security arm.”

Jim shifted in his seat but kept silence.

Tony spoke. “Jim’s consulting, as a representative of the most severely affected division and someone with relevant skills. Peggy is no more ‘co-opted’ than any other department head. If you feel that I haven’t given a sufficient hearing to your department’s concerns, then I wish that you’d brought it up more directly with me first.”

“She has an undue opportunity to influence the direction of the investigation.” Evans’ role in accounting oversight meant that he was far more likely to have ‘undue influence’ in Jim’s opinion. Jim Ellison had only the senses and an attitude to offer; Evans had access to something far more valuable in the family – money.

“Yeah, sure, my mother brought me into this all the better to cover up her devious murders of people who were her friends.”

Evans made a noise of exasperation. Peggy shook her head, but her comment of, “You don’t need to defend my honour, Jim,” sounded amused.

“Of course I don’t think that Peggy murdered anyone but it makes a good excuse to get you somewhere pivotal.”

Nick broke in then. “If you don’t think Peggy killed anyone then either point out whoever did to the rest us, or let her and Jim do their share of the work. You can worry about getting them out of whatever you think is ‘pivotal’ later.”

McCutcheon intervened. “Now is not the time for worrying about the more usual family concerns. We all agree that we’re entering a difficult situation – we are all going to have to extend trust until we find specific evidence against that.”

A fine sentiment, except that McCutcheon was putting pressure on the family’s security arm as much as anyone. Expensive and well recommended security firms outside family control were getting a lot of business right now, and McCutcheon considered that as big a risk to family cohesion as the murders proper. Jim knew that because he’d overheard Tony talking about it one day. Jim wasn’t stupid enough to give away that sort of information to anyone (except his mother. Peggy and he might not always be easy with each other, but he trusted her as his one ally in this mess), but Tony wasn’t stupid either. He’d politely suggested to Jim a day later that Jim make specific appointments, or else approach him over the family comm system. No more eavesdropped tidbits.

Jim went for a walk after the meeting drew to an acrimonious and unsatisfied end, shouldering past his mother with a look that said ‘not now’. Hers said ‘later’. There was a bar down the street, catering to upmarket trade with its décor and its prices. He paid an expensive price for a cheap beer and sat at a corner seat, staring into the drink like he was staring into the depths of an abyss. Whether it was a new habit or an old habit revisited, he’d placed himself to see who entered the bar. Nick obviously knew or had least guessed he was there. There was no hesitation in his approach to Jim.

“Mind if I join you?”

“Why not? Misery loves company, right?”

Nick huffed out a low laugh. “I don’t know if I’m miserable. I think that what I am is scared.” He took a seat and ordered a whiskey which was speedily produced.

“Is that why you backed Mother and Tony up in there? Because you’re scared?”

“And because I’m not stupid. My div has the kind of know-how and connections that put me and my people up fairly high on the suspect list.”

“I’m not going to disagree with you.”

Nick laughed again; the friendly joviality that was one of his best used social tools was warping under the strain.

“It looks like you’re finding your own feet in the family with this investigation.”

“Yeah.” Jim took a sip of his beer. It tasted of very little which he knew wasn’t entirely the fault of the beer. Conversely, the chill of the glass spiked into his hand and fingers like he’d grabbed a snowball. “A friend of mine floated the idea that sentinels have the urge to protect built into them. If the family is going into the promotion by assassination business, do you think that there’s scope for us as watchdogs and food tasters?”

“It’s not the scope that I would have chosen. But perhaps Peggy should have introduced you into the security arm a while ago.”

Jim took a good swig of beer. “Protecting the tribe and its money? You’ll have to wait for the baby sentinels for that role. But I don’t want to see people die, and if I can stop that I will. Not that we’ve stopped anything yet.”

“No.” Nick fiddled with the glass in his hands, turning it round and round. “I kept hoping that there’d be a grand solution. And now the best I can assume is that people are keeping information back and that’ll it come together eventually when someone gets scared enough or sees their chance. Are you keeping anything back?”

“No.” Jim took a look at Nick’s face. Whatever was going on his head was telling on him, but that was hardly unusual in a murder investigation. “What about you, Nick? Are you keeping anything back?”

“No.” Nick couldn’t even summon the energy for offense, and that flat defeat put a chill through Jim.

“But then you would say that, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes, I would, and so would everyone else. It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye, right?” Nick bolted the rest of his drink. “Take care, Jim. Good luck.”

Jim made his beer last longer than Nick had his liquor. Nick was right – it was too late to fully investigate the earlier deaths, but the type of poison that was used to kill the Morrises did point towards people with either knowledge or contacts in his areas of expertise. But the family was an odd mix of specialists and generalists – the fact that Nick’s division was a useful source of chemical knowledge didn’t yet spotlight Nick Berends and his people, any more than Nick’s harried expression. Jim wasn’t discounting anyone barring Peggy and that was for his sanity as much as anything; Nick was justly afraid but fear could be guilt as easily as it could be anything else.

Jim should take Nick up on his occasional gestures of atonement. A few more weekends on the water would give Jim a better feel for the man’s tells and what he avoided talking about and what he drew Jim’s attention towards. It would be good strategy on several levels. The only problem was Jim might not trust Nick further than he could throw him but he did still, however reluctantly, harbour liking for him. He could accept Nick’s overtures and manipulate a potential friend. He could discover that someone who could have been that friend, maybe even more given the way that Jim had felt at physical ease with him, was looking to kill his way to the top. Both options repulsed him. The family was a mess, and Jim’s hands took far too long to get warm again after they froze against that not so cold glass of beer.

The next time Jim saw the head of the family’s security division, it was after Tony forced the door into Jim’s apartment when Jim wouldn’t answer any contact. They had feared he was dead. He’d been zoned, lost deep in the noise of the apartment building’s infrastructure, the rush of its pipes, the hum of its wires, the gentle wind through its ducts. It was the first serious zone since he’d left Cascade behind. It wasn’t to be the last.

***

It hadn’t been the best of days, and Jim knew that his mother would be checking in with him soon and he’d have no good news to tell her. Had he eaten something? Well, he’d tried. Had he slept? Yes, he’d slept half the day away and still felt exhausted. Did the new batch of painkillers help with the blinding headache? Well, the headache was gone, but he had a sickly, dizzy feeling instead. And his hearing was odd, up and down at erratic volumes, when he wasn’t very close to deaf.

He went to the window, restless, and saw a car coming around a bend of the road before it was lost in the shadow of trees and the fold of the land again. His mother was going to check on him person this time. Jim felt his heart sink. He knew she loved him, would even admit that he loved her in an odd, uncomfortable fashion, but he hated looking weak in front of anyone and he hated the worry that she couldn’t keep out of her face. He could figure out that he was badly off for himself without confirmation in the strained lines around Peggy’s eyes.

He turned from the window and headed to the kitchen, his hand against the wall and furniture for balance along the way. He poured himself a glass of filtered water and drank it with slow, steady sips, trying to clear the dizziness before Peggy walked in the door. His hearing spiked as the car came closer. The engine was a discordant roar, and then it dropped almost into nothing even as he hastily dumped the glass on the counter and pressed his hands to his ears. He felt the vibrations of his mother’s footsteps through his own feet more than he truly heard her, and his hands dropped.

“Mother,” he said as she came through the door, but immediately realised that something had happened. His mother didn’t carry the usual burden of not-quite concealed worry. Instead she held herself like someone marching into battle, and when Jim looked past her he knew why.

She’d brought Blair with her.

Blair stood just outside the kitchen door, a cheap canvas hold-all in one hand, his face sullen as he looked at Jim with no sign of greeting or pleasure. Jim could hardly blame him. He’d worked hard the last time they met to make sure that Blair would never want to see or think about him again, and the only thing that had made that bearable was the knowledge that they wouldn’t meet afterwards, and that he would never know the full measure of Blair’s contempt. Jim was going to know it now.

“What the hell?” he snarled.

“You need help,” Peggy said bluntly. “This was the best I could do.”

Jim took a step back, but his balance was lost as the dizziness came back worse than before. Another step became a collapse backwards onto the floor; black spots blinded him and the deafness became complete.

Chapter Text

The last person that Blair expected to see was Peggy, nee Ellison, and now of unknown surname. She was also pretty much the last person that he wanted to see and his arm twitched with the urge to slam his door in her face.

“What do you want?”

“A hard decision from you. May I come in, Dr Sandburg?” She was dressed more casually than the first time he met her – jeans and a jacket rather than the tailored suit she’d worn before, but she was still carefully styled and expensively presented.

“You’re not showing much in the way of negotiating skill, Ms…. What should I call you, anyway?”

“Peggy will do.” She lifted one brow. “May I come in, Dr Sandburg?”

Blair rolled his eyes, rude and making it clear he was being imposed upon. “Okay. Come in and make it quick.”

He indicated a chair at his dining table, which wasn’t large and was stacked with paper at one end. He sat opposite her, and spread his hands in a ‘get on with it’ gesture.

“Like I said. What do you want?”

“The last time I saw you, you were digging into matters that weren’t your concern, and the price of stopping was a meeting with my son. What did he tell you that convinced you to leave well enough alone?”

“That’s none of your business,” Blair said flatly. His heart was beating fit to burst his chest, but if Peggy noticed that she gave no sign.

“It is now. Jim’s in trouble with his senses.”

Blair laughed in her face. “I’m sorry. Not my problem, in any way. He made it very clear his family had all the answers about sentinels.”

“Whatever he told you, he lied.”

“Well, that wouldn’t be anything new, as far as I can tell.” Blair stood. “The answer is no. Time for you to go.”

“You’re angry with him. I’m not surprised. But he’s ill, all the time, vulnerable; maybe even in danger. You don’t strike me as the sort of man who’d leave even someone he disliked in that situation if you were the only person who could help.” She put a cell phone on the table, along with a little pouch that contained its charger, even. “There’s one number in the contacts. Think it over and call me. Yes or no, but I want you to think it over first.”

“And when would you like me to call? How long will convince you that I’ve given this the attention it deserves?”

“Sleep on it at least.”

“Okay. You’re the boss.”

She shook her head, a wry smile appearing. “Oh, I wish, Dr Sandburg. I wish. Sleep on it.”

She showed herself out – it wasn’t as if Blair’s little place was difficult to navigate – and Blair sat there, looking at the phone. It was a Motorola, common and widely-used, nothing special. He picked it up and walked on shaky legs to put it in a drawer in his bedroom, and then returned to marking student essays. He’d been about three-quarters through, had figured that he could give himself one more day, but now he pushed on into the small hours. Some of the work he read while pacing the floor, restlessly tracking a route through the familiar disorder. It was 3:30 am when he finished and finally thought about bed. He eyed the stack of completed grading before he walked back to his bedroom and opened the drawer to look at the phone. He put one finger on it, like it was some foreign, unknown substance that needed investigation.

He knew why he’d finished the essays, and he cursed, and hid his face in his hands. Ill; vulnerable; in danger. That was Jim’s situation, supposedly. Blair’s situation was clearly that he was an easily manipulated loser who couldn’t say no to Jim Ellison if his life depended on it. He set his alarm for eight, lay down and tried to sleep. If he was going to set up an alliance, even a temporary one, with Jim’s mother then he figured that calling her at nine o’clock would be late enough to give the impression of ‘sleeping’ on his decision.

Confirming arrangements with Peggy left him making other arrangements with the University which burned a serious amount of good will; admittedly he’d done that before, but more responsibility was expected of sober PhD-possessing teachers than aging wunderkind students doing field work. He made his excuses and drove away with Peggy anyway.

***

“So what are we looking at here? How do you expect me to help Jim?”

“In Cascade you developed a connection that enabled Jim to operate very effectively as a sentinel and he hasn’t successfully turned that connection off or sought out a close enough relationship with anyone else. And if he knew I was telling you all of this he’d probably strangle me.”

This made no sense. “Why the hell hasn’t he made this break or whatever it is? He seemed pretty sure you guys had all the sentinel answers.”

Peggy’s face was drawn. “Jim isn’t happy, and you spent enough time with him to see psychosomatic reactions, especially early in your association, before the connection between you fully developed. He isn’t happy with his situation, and that’s why he pushed you away, even though I tried…. She paused. Blair could see the tension in her face. “I tried to convince him that this could be an opportunity, but he never really did see it that way, and he didn’t want you involved.”

“Yeah, not wanting me involved was made very clear...” Blair stared down the I-5, one hand caught in his hair in frustration. “Whatever connection we have is already broken as far as I’m concerned.”

“Then come back and make him see that, if that’s what you need! He’s like a man falling into machinery. At this point I don’t give a damn if you can pull him away, or if you’re the one that cuts off the hand that’s caught before it sucks him all the way in. What’s important is that you do it!” Blair caught his breath in shock, while Peggy angrily dashed the back of one hand against her eyes. “Let’s leave the discussion for now. We don’t need an emotional scene on the interstate, now do we?”

“I guess not,” Blair said tightly, frightened a little by Peggy’s ‘scene’. Sure, she’d been terse, even scornful in earlier dealings, but it had felt like part of a game where he knew he’d never be picked for the team. She was the woman in the know, the one with connections and power outside the norm and no patience for an ordinary man outside her extraordinary circles. The brief loss of control pointed to someone who was genuinely scared. He kept his silence, even though he had a million questions. He was making the unsettling deduction that he’d been deceived (and, oh, what else was new?) in an entirely different way to what he’d assumed, to what Jim had let him assume. Entirely different yes, but certainly not any better.

A long day’s drive saw them in parts of Oregon closer to the California state line than Washington, before Peggy turned the car off the highways and into hilly, forested country.

“Property out in the middle of nowhere in every state, huh?” Blair asked, the memory of that shabby building outside of San Diego sharp in his memory – the sun, the chafe of the ties on his wrist, his utter confusion and dismay. He should put that memory behind him, except that in facing Jim he was going to relive the worst part of it.

Peggy had regained her business-like veneer during the drive. “We have something nicer here than that derelict land in San Diego; close to Klamath Falls for basic services, easy access to National Forest Parks, easy access to some of own farming and forestry interests.”

“All the comforts of home,” Blair said softly.

“As you say.”

“What if I can’t help Jim?”

“We’ll deal with that when we come to it.”

“So long as dealing means that I get out of this alive, I’ll be happy,” Blair said, and looked out the window for the remainder of the drive. One thing you could say for Oregon and Washington both – they had a lot of trees.

Peggy’s description of their destination as ‘nicer’ than the buildings outside San Diego proved to be quite the understatement. In fact, Blair thought, looking at the Frank Lloyd Wright knock-off in front of them, it was a honking enormous understatement. “Even large log cabins are déclassé, I suppose,” was all he said as he took his bag out of the trunk. Peggy’s lips thinned, but she kept back whatever retort was on her mind and led Blair inside. They entered a beautifully proportioned space – Blair had hobby courses in art and interior decoration under his belt, and whoever designed this place had talent of their own quite aside from any obvious influences. There was no sign of Jim though, and Peggy kept on through a dining area and towards what looked like a substantial kitchen.

Jim greeted his mother, and at the sound of his voice Blair’s hand tightened around the handle of his bag. This was a mistake; this was one of the biggest mistakes that Blair had ever made in his life but he stepped into the doorway so that there were no doubts that he was here. He couldn’t quite bring himself to step over the threshold.

“What the hell?” Jim snapped. And hi to you too, asshole, Blair thought.

Peggy’s back was to Blair and it was very straight. “You need help and this was the best I could do,” she said, notably terse herself.

Jim looked outraged and he backed up, the better to remove himself. But then the step turned into a fall and Jim toppled to the floor and didn’t move.

“Holy shit!” Blair exclaimed. The bag was thrown aside, and he knelt beside Jim, Peggy across from him and placing her fingers urgently against the pulse point in Jim’s neck.

“I think it’s just an ordinary faint,” she said. “Lift his legs, will you. Let’s get some blood flow back to the brain. If he doesn’t come round in a few minutes I’ll call for help.” Blair grabbed a chair and laid Jim’s bent legs over the seat.

“Why not call for help now? Jim isn’t exactly the fainting type, and it’ll take a while to get someone here.”

“I have a helicopter on call, Dr Sandburg, and a selection of sentinel-capable doctors. We were experimenting with something to control the headaches, and I’m hoping between that and the shock he’s had…” She ran her hand over Jim’s head. “You’re here because he’s in trouble. Did you think we were dealing with just a few random spikes and zones?”

“You’ve been medicating him? With his history of drug reactions?” He’d almost forgotten who he was speaking to, but then didn’t care. Peggy gave him a look that was one half a woman on her last nerve, and one half a disdainful, sarcastic expression of ‘nooooo, drug reactions?’. It made her look very like her son for a moment.

“When he suffers week long migraines and can’t sleep, yes of course we’re going to consider medicating him.”

“Then why isn’t he in care somewhere instead of out in the middle of nowhere?”

“Because he’s a very stubborn man but that you already knew. He finds this environment more soothing than the other options available.” Peggy’s voice had remained soft despite her irritation and now gentled as Jim’s hands moved in an aimless flutter. “Jim? Jim, it’s Mother. Are you with us?”

“Feel sick,” Jim muttered.

“Recovery position, I think. Jim, Blair and I are going to put you on your side, and then we’ll see how you go. Okay?”

Jim’s eyes opened a moment and fixed on Blair. “What are you doing here?” It sounded confused, as if Blair’s presence was a brand new fact and not the catalyst for this ridiculous and frightening situation.

“Rolling you over, buddy,” was all Blair said, and did the work involved. It was lucky that Blair had kept himself fit – Jim was no lightweight, even in this state. Now that Blair was looking with eyes that assessed a sentinel rather than someone that Blair was completely and miserably pissed off with, he could see that Jim had lost weight, a lot of it. His face was blotchy red where it wasn’t doughy white in the aftermath of his faint and his hand closed around Blair’s wrist with a grip that was weak and clammy.

“I’ll get a pillow and a throw,” Peggy said. She returned with them and they made Jim as comfortable as might be.

“I think he’s sleeping,” Blair said, trying to sit comfortably on the floor. Jim’s hand remained around his wrist which unsettled Blair, but given Jim’s state it felt cruel to try and move it. Blair had seethed in anger for months but any cruelty in him ran to callousness rather than active vengeance.

Frowning, Peggy looked at the two of them on the floor. “His colour is better. I think you’re probably right.” And then, as if all this was a normal state of affairs on coming into a strange house, she asked him, “Coffee?”

If Blair thought he felt awkward sitting on the floor sipping coffee while Jim slept on with his hand loosely circled around Blair’s wrist, that was nothing to the awkwardness involved when Jim woke. Blair was watching Jim, and the moment of sudden tension was painfully obvious. Jim blinked a couple of times, and then his hand was withdrawn at speed.

“Hi,” Blair said with false cheer. “Feeling any better?” He scrambled to his feet and put his coffee cup in the sink for something to do that didn’t involve looking at Jim.

“Yes, thank you,” Jim said, as if Blair was some stranger.

Gathering what courage he had, Blair turned around. “Do you need a hand getting up?”

“I’ll let you know,” Jim said, and pushed and pulled himself upright in a series of leans against cabinets and the countertops while Blair tried not to look like he was hovering. Finally Jim was upright, if at something of a tilt, and looking at Blair with an expression that was hard to read in everything except its negativity.

“I think I should go to my room. If you’ll excuse me,” Jim said, and left. Blair followed him through the house to an area that opened onto bedrooms. Jim entered one and shut the door with no look back.

“I’ll still be here when you come out, Jim. We need some closure to this bullshit however we end up defining it.”

Peggy appeared, Blair’s hold-all in her hand. “I set up this room for you,” she said, and led him to a room that was right next door to Jim’s.

“Nice,” Blair said. “How long do you think I’ll be staying? After that auspicious beginning?”

Peggy shrugged. “We’ll have to see, won’t we?”

“He lied to me about a lot of things. And the number one thing he lied about was wanting to have anything to do with you and his goddamned family, wasn’t it?”

Peggy’s face was serene. She didn’t have Jim’s obvious telltale of the jaw clench but Blair would have bet good money that the calm cost her. “I think he’s grown fond of me in his way,” she said. “But you’re right in the essentials.”

“Oh, great, I’d hate to have made a mistake in the essentials.”

She ignored the sarcasm and said, “I’m making myself a meal – most of what’s here is pre-prepared or frozen, but nutritionally very sound, and I brought some fresh greens in a cooler. Would you like anything to eat?”

“Yeah, sure.” Blair waved a hand. “Nuke me something. Have you got internet in this getaway? Cell phone reception?”

“That drawer has the information you’ll need, and an interim password. I wouldn’t commit anything too personal to the line here, however.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Blair said, and unpacked his bag.

He left the internet alone and instead spent the evening taking a walk on a trail at the back of the house – the fresh air smelled good, and it got him away from the atmosphere inside which was ripely tense with Peggy’s hope and Jim’s pointed withdrawal. Blair wasn’t exactly relaxed himself, and he sat a while on a slope with a view of the roof of the house and tried to figure out some sort of game plan.

What he wanted was an argument, something vicious and loud, but while the Jim he’d known in Cascade could have given that to him, the frail man below was another matter. There could be no satisfaction in unloading Blair’s complex weight of anger and grief on a man who couldn’t give back as good as he was given. Peggy had used the metaphor of an industrial accident – pull Jim away from the machinery that threatened to chew him up, or else cut off the limb that trapped him. The problem there was that Jim wasn’t the only liar in this mess. Blair had claimed in the drive down that the connection was broken so far as he was concerned but he was here, wasn’t he? Just who exactly needed an amputation?

He went back to the house. Peggy was working on a laptop in one of the lounge areas, with an enormous television screen broadcasting the colour and light of CNN, but barely even a murmur of sound.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Do you want the volume turned up?”

Blair’s memory flashed on nights in the loft apartment back in Cascade and Jim saying just the same thing or grinning in disingenuous apology when Blair asked for it, as if he couldn’t understand why it would be necessary.

“No, no,” he said. “Thanks.”

She looked oddly at him but then went back to her work. “There’s a smaller tv system in the north lounge, if you want.”

“Thanks,” Blair said, and went and checked it out. He wondered if Jim was sleeping all this time, or watching tv in his own room, or staring at a ceiling, or zoned.

That last thought bothered him. He went to Jim’s door and knocked, loudly. It was barely eight o’clock, and he didn’t care if Jim was asleep. There was no answer and Blair banged on the door again, this time with the side of his fist rather than his knuckles. “Look Jim, if you want to sulk in your bedroom, that’s fine. Just confirm that you’re not dead or zoned and I’ll go watch tv.”

There was another silence and Blair was wondering if he should just barge in when Jim answered, “I’m fine, Sandburg. You don’t need to break the damn door down.”

“Good, that’s good, man,” Blair said, feeling like a total idiot. He returned to the lounge for an hour or two and explored the entertainment system which had more channels than he’d ever suspected existed. Did these people have their own satellite? He hadn’t seen a dish.

These people… Just how deep did he want in with ‘these people’, these dangerous, arrogant people, when they included Jim? With a sigh, he stood and went to bed. That was a mistake because he wasn’t particularly sleepy. He had a couple of journals in his bag, because Blair seldom went anywhere without reading material, and on an impulse he sat up and leaned against the headboard and said, “Jim. I’m going to be reading aloud. If that’s going to bother you, just tell me, okay?” Then, unsure if this was guidely altruism or the worst sort of passive aggressiveness, he began to read from The American Ethnologist.

If Jim heard him there was no indication, and Blair read in a quiet mumble for nearly an hour, with asides such as, “Okay, Jim, if this sounds disjointed it’s because there are a lot of footnotes,” and “This bit is going pretty quickly because I can’t figure out how to read these graphs out loud,” before he decided that he’d had enough. He had a couple of swallows of water and turned his light out. The darkness was complete, the silence nearly so except for the occasional cry of an owl. And Jim Ellison was lying in a room just a few feet away from Blair, and Blair had no idea what to do about that, or anything that might come tomorrow, really.

What came in the morning was the sound of a man and a woman having a loud argument. Blair figured that Jim must be feeling at least somewhat better. By the time he’d showered and shaved and dressed and stepped out of his room there was silence. Peggy sat in the main lounge once more, sipping a cup of coffee.

“He’s outside,” she said. “And pissed.”

“So I heard,” Blair said. “Is there any more coffee?”

“In the kitchen. It’ll still be hot.”

Blair drank a cup of coffee leaning against the counters in the kitchen. “Okay,” he told himself, “let’s do this. Assuming I can find the bastard of course.”

He went out the front entrance.

“The bastard is over here, Sandburg,” Jim said. He sat on a bench under an ornamental tree. The view looked down the hill. Jim didn’t shift to make room on the bench and Blair wouldn’t have sat there if you’d paid him a million dollars.

“Well, your hearing is okay.”

“It’s okay today. My hearing was screwy yesterday, or I would have come out to greet you and not expected you to wander all the way through the house.”

“What, would it have been politer to faint out here rather than inside?” Blair asked.

A small, thin smile came to Jim’s face. “I don’t think that many people appreciate just how sarcastic you can be sometimes.”

“Yeah, well bringing it out takes a special gift, Jim, and you have it in spades. “

“I’m sorry.” Jim stood. “I mean that, Chief. You’ve had a shitty deal out of this, and it’s not the way it was supposed to be.”

Blair’s mouth dropped open. “Nicely said, Jim, but the shittiest part of the deal came directly from you – right from the start. Fucking me and fucking around with me, like I was some sort of experiment. So why do you even care. Why the fuck am I here!”

“You’re here because my mother brought you here. Give it a couple of days and she’ll take you away again. It’s a big house; you won’t have any trouble avoiding me.”

“No. No, I’m here and you owe me some explanations. What the hell is going on?”

Jim turned away and started to walk up the slope towards the trails, and Blair leapt after him, grabbing him around the wrist. “Oh no, you don’t! You talk to me, god damn it, Jim you talk to me! Why the fuck won’t you just talk to me?”

Jim froze, his head bowed and the tendons of his wrist hard within Blair’s grip as he clenched his hand into a fist.

“If anyone has the right to hit someone, guess what, I don’t think it’s you.” Blair kept his grip, wheeling his way to stand in front of Jim without ever releasing his hold. He was going to bruise him. He didn’t care.

“Blair…” It was barely a sound. Jim drew in a breath with something that looked like desperation, and said, “Stop this. Just… stop. Let me go.”

“If I could do that then why would I be here in the first place? It’s pathetic, I know that, but here I am, and you owe me. You owe me, Jim.”

Jim’s arm was starting to shake. He covered his face with his free hand, and for one terrifying moment Blair thought he might cry. But then the hand came down to show a mask of icy calm, and Jim said, “Okay. Let’s walk a little further up the trail, and we’ll talk.” He looked as if there was nothing he wanted to do less. Too bad, Blair thought.

“Okay,” he said, and let go of Jim’s wrist.

Jim led the way, walking slowly, but steadily enough. After about twenty minutes of invalid’s pace they came to a lookout. There was even a small shelter, tables and benches. A picnic area.

Jim leaned on the lookout railing, looking down the slope to a view of a stream and trees, and a few dots of colour of wild flowers of some sort or other. The landscape was very peaceful. Blair, alone with Jim for the first time in months, felt fear now. He’d demanded this, but he was utterly certain that he wasn’t going to like any of it. No more bitter supposition or hypotheses built in the middle of lonely nights and discarded with the business of the daytime. He was going to have facts.

“So, where do you want me to start?” Jim said. He kept his back to Blair but his voice was clear enough. Blair sat on the picnic table, his feet on one of the benches and tried to think. The first question was obvious but where did he go from there?

“Who was the dead man in the loft?”

“I told you. A piece of meat.” A rusty chuckle came out of Jim. “My mom didn’t bake brownies; she was in the running for godmother of the Mad Scientist Mafia. They have great toys, cloning included. My spare parts were sacrificed to the cause, that’s all.”

“Cloning. As in…” Blair stopped.

“It looked like me because it was grown from my cells. Minimal brain development. An ethical minefield, yes, but not technically murder. Next question?”

“Would you ever have fucked me if you didn’t have a convenient escape hatch?”

“Escape hatch, Sandburg?”

“Oh, I get that you’re not the high rolling piece of crap in a suit that you tried to convince me you were. But you still thought that you could fuck and run. That must have been convenient, for sure.”

Jim turned around, fury on his face. “None of this was convenient.” He spat out the last word like it was poison.

“No, it was cruel. What the hell were you thinking! I mean…” Blair stopped, because everything was backing up in his throat like bile, bitter and distilled. Thinking that Jim was dead? That had been terrible, but it had been far better than what followed. Jim dead had been part of Blair gone, but with a clean cut. Now, too much festered under the surface.

Jim shut his eyes, clearly working to calm himself. “Like I said, I’m sorry. I know….” The words came out in a rush. “I knew that was the part you’d really find unforgiveable.”

“As compared to faking your death, pretending that you didn’t give a shit about me, and telling me a bunch of lies about how great your ‘family’ was with sentinels so that I’d stop trying to figure out why I was fucking kidnapped!”

Jim flushed. “The sentinel part wasn’t lies.”

“More like obfuscation I presume since it doesn’t seem to have done you any good.” Blair tried to be professional about this. Jim was a sentinel, Blair knew about sentinels (this sentinel anyway), Jim needed help; it was Blair’s responsibility to help if he could. Responsibility, nothing more. “I was thinking about that last night; how to get you on an even keel. That’s what Peggy brought me here for. I should try to do that, right?”

“No, you should not try to do anything! What the hell did she tell you that made you think this would be a good idea?”

“She told me that you were in trouble, and here I am - doormat Sandburg, the man who can’t detach with or without love even when he really, really should.”

“I…” Jim stood speechless a moment. “You’re not a doormat. You’re a good man who’s been seriously jerked around, and you’re still willing to help.”

“Yeah, apparently so.” Blair hopped down from the picnic table, but he kept his distance. “The sentinel thing wasn’t lies. And none of this was convenient. So they… what? Brought you in under duress? But why were you ever out?” He drew together his memories of his conversation with Bill Ellison and the few facts that Peggy had given him, but it was no more than a concept sketch when what he needed was a blueprint.

Jim, unsurprisingly, didn’t add any details. “Family relationships get complicated, Sandburg. At this point that’s all you need in the way of background.”

“I don’t recall getting any background at any point! You just made a decision and left everything behind. Wham bam thank you, man.”

“And yet here you are anyway.” Jim sounded exhausted, but he finally chose to look properly at Blair rather than the world beyond. “I just wanted you to be able to get on with your life, and I still want that, which means that you’re better off without any additional information. After a while we can both say the right things and you can go back to Cascade and I’ll go back to learning the family business, and that’ll be that.” Jim warily came a little closer. “You came to help, when you didn’t need to. So, we should just get on with establishing if that’s possible. I suppose you have ideas. Tests?”

Blair ducked his head and pushed aside the questions of the abandoned friend. Resigned, for now, to a researcher’s questions instead, he said, “Some, but I need to know where we’re starting from here. I need some answers before I think about tests; about your senses and your health, I mean, and the progression of this… thing.” Jim shrugged. “You seem better this morning.”

“I got some sleep last night, it helped.”

“You did sleep okay? I didn’t disturb you?”

Jim looked sidelong at him then. “No, you didn’t disturb me.”

“Because I was reading out loud to myself a while there, you know, focus…”

He waited for Jim to comment on the clumsy, transparent lie, but Jim simply repeated, “You didn’t disturb me.”

“Maybe we should go back to the house. I presume that you have access to your medical records, drugs and treatments you’ve been using.”

“Yeah. Let’s get you your paperwork, Sandburg.”

The walk back to the house was also slow, and once Jim slipped and ended up on his backside on the ground.

He put up a hand at Blair’s query. “Nothing’s hurt except for my pride.” A sharp, “I can get up on my own,” forestalled any hand that Blair might have offered. Jim stood, clumsy and clearly tired, and they continued on. Every now and again Jim would brush a hand against a tree trunk or branch, not in a grip that suggested any steadying of his balance but still, there was some sort of balancing happening, Blair was sure.

“Did you pick this area for a reason?” he asked. “I’m presuming it’s an environment that has meaning for you?”

“I like forests. That won’t surprise you any. And there’s a family house here. It’s as simple as that.”

“Okay.” There was no more talking until they reached the house. Conversation there was very… business-like. Jim kept his withdrawn calm and Blair made no effort to break it, because it was easier to keep his own calm that way. The need to bring things further to a head warred with a dread of the consequences, like someone who knew they needed to throw up but desperately swallowed the impulse down anyway.

He worked through Jim’s medical information and his own questions like it was a boring faculty meeting. He assessed Jim’s condition based on his knowledge of his previous abilities and health information. The contrast was fascinating to the scientist in him and terrifying to the man who had known Jim vital and strong in Cascade. The family had done CAT scans. Blair had colour coded pictures of cross-sections of Jim’s brain, with comparisons to a ‘normal’ brain of a man of similar age and fitness but no sentinel senses.

It was funny – Blair could literally look inside Jim’s head, for all the good it did him. He worked out various drills and exercises, which Jim dutifully performed under Blair’s gaze without ever giving a clue as to why, why, why. Why he left. Why he’d pretended that the family had everything he needed. He ate regular meals and apparently slept better at night and took walks in the woods while Blair reviewed notes over and over and played too many games of computer solitaire. If Jim had always been the Jim that Blair remembered from the loft instead of the man of those awful encounters after the faked death, then Blair could certainly begin to guess some of the why; but he was so tired of guessing.

Blair wasn’t foolish enough to say it out loud, but he was fascinated watching Jim and Peggy interact. The stiff, combative relationship was so different to what he shared with Naomi, but one thing he could see was their loyalty to each other, even after a lifetime mainly spent apart. He wondered idly at the factors involved there – whether it was a sentinel quality, or intrinsic to the personalities of the two of them. He speculated, based on what little he knew, whether they’d bonded in fighting against common enemies in the family, even if Blair was murky on what the enmities involved.

He was going to have to rethink quite a few of his ideas, but the loyalty he inferred that Peggy had to her own tribe didn’t completely undermine them.

Blair had been under the same roof as Jim not even a full week when Peggy declared her intention to leave them to it. Sink or swim was the implication and maybe there was some tact there too. Peggy was a sentinel as well, and a potential eavesdropper on any ‘discussion’ between Blair and Jim. Blair truly didn’t care, but he suspected that Jim would.

Peggy set off down the road in her car, and Jim watched her go for a few moments before he turned back to the house. But then he stopped, and turned his head. Blair knew that look – the look of sentinel concentration. Jim took a few steps and sank to one knee, wiping his fingers over the fancy paving of the drive before he lifted them to his nose and sniffed.

His face changed – concentration was banished by stern urgency. “Come with me,” he snapped and set off for the garage at a run. “Damn it, Chief, come on!” he shouted back over his shoulder, and Blair followed without a thought. The garage was still open, and Jim rapidly punched a combination into a metal box set against one wall and took out some keys, which he threw towards Blair.

“You’re driving,” was all he said, and pointed out the car, one of two left in the garage.

“Okay,” Blair said, his tone making it clear that he was completely in the dark. But they threw themselves in, and Blair started the car and tore out of the garage and down the driveway because that was what was needed.

“Her car is leaking brake fluid,” Jim said. “You have to catch her.”

“Oh, you have got to be kidding,” Blair protested. Not at the ‘why’, but at the ‘how’. He was a good driver, but it was a difficult road ahead of them with areas both steep and winding, and Peggy didn’t have much of a head start but she had enough. “Okay, let’s see what we have in the way of automotive engineering here.” He wrenched the car around a bend and felt the wobble. “Jesus, Jim, I’m going to kill us both.”

“You drive,” Jim ground out, and then he was silent, unnervingly so. Checking ahead with his senses, Blair realised. “She’s not that far in front,” Jim said. “That next bend we should both see her.”

Blair only grunted and concentrated on keeping control. Jim was as good as his word - they saw Peggy’s car in front of them after the next bend, which was thankfully gentle.

Jim began to speak, but not to Blair. “We’re going to try to get in front of you.” It might have been creepy, to hear this urgent half-conversation, except that Blair had other things to worry about. “She says that there’s a straight stretch after the next twist in the road. If you can’t get in front of her there she’s going to purposely crash the car anyway. The road drops away too much after that.”

Blair nodded. Less of a drop, sure. Any fewer trees for her to wrap her car around? No. He was catching up, not quite tail-gating the other car. They hit the straight, and Peggy veered right to the point where Blair thought she was going to crash – but she was leaving room for them to pass, driving in the sternest of lines (until those tyres find a soft patch of road or the edge of a fallen branch, so get past her, Sandburg, get – past – her!)

“Good,” Jim said, as if Blair’s competence at terrifying driving manoeuvres was only to be expected. “We’re going to ease on the brakes.” He wasn’t talking to Blair, but Blair tapped the brakes anyway, and yelped when Peggy’s car banged into the back of theirs. “Hold it steady...” Jim muttered, probably to both drivers.

Easy for you to say, Blair thought. Sweat was soaking him, and he was afraid he’d lose the grip on the steering wheel. There was another loud bang and sickening jolt, followed by two lesser bumps and then the shove of extra weight grinding behind them. They were going to run out of straight road, Blair thought. They were down to thirty. Twenty, ten, and stop, right on the curve.

“Oh my god,” Blair said, and leaned his face in his hands. Jim was gone from his side of the car, but Blair could only sit there, breathing, breathing, as he tried to wash the terror out of his bloodstream. He looked in the side mirror and saw Peggy enveloped in Jim’s arms while Jim rocked them both. Maybe Jim felt something of Blair’s gaze. Maybe he was using his senses on him just as he’d used them to communicate with his mother, but he gently released her and left her leaning against the side of her car, her arms wrapped around herself. He opened Blair’s door and crouched down beside him on the road.

“How are you doing there?”

“Oh fine. Fine. Once the adrenaline rush wears off I’ll be grouchy as hell but that’s stress hormones for you, right?”

“It sounds familiar.” Jim sought to stand but had to lean against the car. He grunted in exasperation and gathered some reserves. “Let’s get my mother back up to the house and then look at dealing with this mess.”

Jim precariously secured Peggy’s car by dint of turning the wheel towards off-road and steering it into the trees as Blair pulled away the other car’s anchorage. This didn’t improve the damage to Peggy’s car, but Jim drew close to its drunken lean and angled himself to look up into the wheel wells.

“If I didn’t know better I’d say that you’d driven this baby through salt water flooding every day for a year and then neglected any checks on your brake hoses.” He turned back to lift one brow sardonically at his mother. “But that seems unlike you, somehow.”

“Yes, yes it does rather.” Peggy had her self-possession back, but she was pale. Blair doubted that he was any better a colour. “Let’s go back to the house and make some arrangements.” She smiled. “One last little driving job for you Blair. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. It was Jim really. He realised what was wrong.”

“Yes, yes he did.”

They turned back to the other car and its crumpled rear. “Oh man, what a mess.”

“I think,” Peggy said, “that I might break the rules of road safety and sit in my son’s lap on the way back. I’m not entirely sure that the back seat is either safe or comfortable.”

They made their way back to the house, with Peggy as good as her word so far as perching on Jim’s lap went. They neither of them seemed bothered by the intimacy – Jim looked too exhausted now to be bothered by much at all - and Blair made a couple of silly jokes about how this took him back to his undergrad days. He didn’t bother garaging the car, just left it there in front of the house when they returned, in all its damaged glory. Peggy climbed out of the car stiffly, as if she was in pain.

“Are you okay?” Blair asked.

“Nothing that some strong, sugary coffee won’t fix,” Peggy said as they headed for the entrance. “And then I’ll make some calls. I can make the coffee myself, it will help settle me. You two?”

Jim shook his head, and Blair said, “I think the last thing I need right now is coffee.”

“There’s plenty of alcohol if you’d prefer it. Jim can show you.

Blair could almost see the way that Peggy drew competency around her like a cloak on her way to the kitchen. That left Jim and Blair alone in the lounge.

“Are you okay?” Blair asked. Jim didn’t look good and Blair knew he’d be just as wrung out looking once the last of the adrenaline crashed out of his blood.

“You wanted to know why I never told you anything, Sandburg? That’s why!” Jim gestured towards the door and the ruined car sitting in front of the house. His arm flailed as if he was trying to ward off something in a nightmare. “Somebody tried to kill my mother, and you’re wondering why I don’t want you anywhere near this nest of snakes? What if you’d been in the car with her when the brakes went?” His voice was hoarse, and Blair saw a nervous tension as raw as any that had ever set Blair into a ranting, pacing frenzy. But Jim didn’t rant or pace, he just bottled it down and used it to make decisions that hurt him just as much as they hurt Blair.

“Yeah, I’m getting a glimmering as to why you practically wired your jaw shut rather than tell me anything. But that doesn’t answer my question. Are you okay?” Blair tried to keep his voice level and no-nonsense.

“I’m goddamn fine,” Jim snarled. His hands twitched and then clenched as if he could fight off the emotions riding him, but there was nothing there to fight. He stared at Blair as if he still couldn’t quite believe that he saw him there, before something broke. Blair could almost convince himself that he saw it, like lightning grounding, before Jim threw his arms around Blair and hung on with all the strength he had. His cheek pressed hard against Blair’s head, and Blair could only accept that he was crazy because all he could think was ‘don’t let go, don’t let go.’ That heavy, clutching hold should have been the pull of stones in the pockets of a drowning man, the final drag into rending, metal teeth. Instead, Blair felt light and free. Crazy, completely so, and he saw the same conclusion in Jim’s face, Jim’s judgement against himself rather than Blair, as he pushed them apart again.

That was the moment that decided Blair. He was crazy, yes, so he’d embrace it. He’d follow Jim back to the bosom of his murderous family and he’d discover the answer to every bitter question he’d ever asked himself and a few more besides.

Chapter Text

Jim drank a glass of water that Blair brought to him and promptly fell asleep on the couch. Blair took a shower and changed his sweat-drenched clothes. He saw Peggy through a window, sitting in a sheltered courtyard area with a cup in her hands. This relative repose was interrupted too soon by the family response to the aftermath of attempted murder. There were helicopters first and then vehicles and a swarm of strangers – barring Tony, whose face Blair hadn’t forgotten. “Dr Sandburg,” he said with a pleasant smile, like they’d last met over a faculty meet and greet, before he went into a huddle with Jim and Peggy. They were all checked out by a doctor; Peggy complained of a headache and was given an injection rather than a pill, something that Blair made mental note of because it didn’t sit with what he’d seen of her. Tow trucks were summoned. The last car in the garage was carefully inspected, a process that Jim insisted on supervising. Blair stuck close and found Jim’s hand on his shoulder more than once before the car was pronounced safe. Peggy finally truly left along with everyone else, but in a helicopter rather than a car. Actual law enforcement was apparently deemed unnecessary.

Jim sank onto chair when everyone was gone. He might have put on a show of energy but that had ebbed away along with the crowd. A few days of less pain and better meals couldn’t rebuild the lost muscle mass and condition that had worn away in weeks of exhausting illness. The tendons stood out on his hands and wrists, and Blair saw keenly how Jim’s bodily strength had been built on a relatively narrow frame that right now was too close to gauntness.

“Alone at last,” Blair joked, awkwardly aware of the truth of it.

Jim’s eyes were shut and his head lolled on the sofa cushions. “Look, Chief, I think that it’s time for you to go too, don’t you?”

So Blair’s decision hadn’t made itself known when they’d clutched at each other. Words would have to do. “No. “

“Just because my mother is gone doesn’t mean I’m not maybe a potential target, and it’s nice and lonely up here.”

“That didn’t worry anyone before. Why should it make any difference now? So now that it’s just the two of us how about you tell me what the hell is going on instead of leaving me to figure things out from a very small pool of data.”

“You don’t need to know a damn thing, Sandburg. If I’d wanted you here, you would have been in the know before now.”

“Jim, I may not understand all the ins and outs of this situation, but telling me that you don’t want me here is a big fat lie and I have absolutely had enough of those.”

Jim leaned forward, feverishly energetic. “But I don’t want you here!”

“You don’t want me here, which I get, because you compared your family to a mad scientist mafia and I haven’t seen anything to argue against that. You may not want me in this particular situation but you do want me and you do need me, and here I am, and I’m not going to let your issues get in our way any longer.”

“What does that mean?” Jim asked. Suspicion darkened his voice.

“A sentinel needs someone to watch his back. I told you that, way back. I’ve had the chance to think about this, man, and draw some lines between the dots. You didn’t lie about the sentinel knowledge but you were in a mess when I got here, you still are. Are you telling me that Peggy never said anything to you about whatever concept the family has about guides, because I’ll bet it has something? It never occurred to you that you needed… somebody, somebody whether it was me or not, and that the James Ellison hard-ass pride wasn’t a little wounded by that?”

“I managed for over a year without help, Sandburg.”

“Yeah but it all went to shit in the end, didn’t it? You didn’t want to take me along because, yeah, sure you wanted to protect me,” – Jim’s wince suggested that he felt the bite of how ‘protected’ Blair felt – “but you also didn’t want me to see the freak in amongst his freak-ass family but oh, damn, you needed that back-up after all. Am I hitting a nerve, here, Jim?”

Jim’s face was at its blankest. “You’ve got all the answers, Chief. So why bother with the freak and his freak ass family?”

“Because I have this strange aversion to walking away from a situation that could end up with people dead, when I could maybe help? And come on, your mother is stinking rich, and there are – what? Four generations of sentinels in your family? That’s what you told me. There could be a lot of side benefits to this gig.” Maybe Blair had a cruel streak after all. Maybe Jim could bring that out in him along with the sarcasm and the craziness and the desperate need.

“You said you were finished with sentinels.” It looked like Jim hadn’t left the memory of that luxurious, toxic Cascade bedroom behind, either. Blair’s pleasure in that fact was no doubt also a little toxic.

“I can change my mind.” Jim had tried to have things his way, and it had messed them both up. Blair saw no reason why he shouldn’t have his fair share of potentially disastrous decision-making.

Jim’s face morphed from blank to stubborn, and Blair tried again. “Look,” he said, with utmost reasonableness. “There’s a concept called sunk cost fallacy. It has applications in both economics and psychology, and it basically equates to throwing good money after bad. You made a decision. It was the wrong decision,” -Jim’s jaw clenched-, “the wrong decision, Jim, and we can’t afford to be invested in that decision any longer.”

“So we make a stupid new decision?”

“Onwards and upwards, man.”

“Why?”

Blair spat out angry challenge. “You know why! You wanted to protect me, I want to protect you. If you could have let me go, you’d probably be sitting pretty with a family approved guide right now. Are you going to tell me any differently?”

After a long pause, Jim shook his head.

Blair was relieved to be sitting down right now, because his legs felt hollow and shaky. “Well, I seem to have trouble letting you go too. I’m not going to promise anything, because we’re in a pretty messed up situation here, and I don’t mean my imminent induction into the American Borgias. But I want to try. I’m going to take my chances, and see if we can’t work something out.”

Jim made a gesture of ‘whatever’ and held his peace.

Blair gave them a few hours to let the spat settle and to watch Jim, who was sullen and withdrawn but consciously civil. Blair passed his open bedroom door and saw Jim seated on the bed with a couple of dumbbells set neatly on a chest at the bed’s foot.

Jim sighed. “I used to train with weights heavier than that all the time, multiple reps and sets. And now I do one set and feel like I have wet noodles for arms.”

Blair eased himself through the doorway. He’d seen into Jim’s room but he hadn’t actually entered it since he came. It was tidy, of course, to the point of impersonality. Blair’s room showed more evidence of habitation, even with him trying to contain his tendency to take over spaces.

“You’ll get stronger as you get better.”

“I know. This is the first time I’ve been up to one pathetic set in weeks. My mother’s experiment worked. Hooray for my mother.”

Blair had never imagined that he might be moved to defend Peggy, but he still said, “I think it was more than an experiment for her. She really was worried about you.”

Jim looked Blair in the eyes, uncomfortable and apologetic over his display of pique. “I know. I could wish she was slightly more traditional about it but I figured that she loves me in her own weird way. I just keep wishing she hadn’t involved you in this mess.”

Blair crouched before Jim, balancing himself with a hand on Jim’s leg. It was more casual than their desperate hug, far more calculated than the lock Jim had put on Blair’s wrist in his faint in the kitchen, but a tremor entirely out of scale to the simple touch ran through Blair.

“But she did, and I came, even though I thought I hated you.”

“Thought?”

“I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have a lot of processing to do, but no, I don’t hate you, Jim. I wouldn’t come back with you if I hated you.”

Jim shook his head. “I don’t get why you don’t. I half wanted you to.”

“That was obviously the plan but I always have been good at swimming against the tide. Try to make me hate you, and here I am.”

“Here you are,” Jim said, and enclosed the hand that Blair had on his knee within his own. “I guess I have to let you make your own stupid mistakes, Sandburg.”

“Yeah. Yeah, you do.”

Blair left then, to take a walk outside. Oh, he was crazy, he knew that, but there was no veering from this determination. He kept on pointing towards Jim like a compass needle towards north.

***

“Let me show you how to play with one of the family toys,” Jim said

The family toy turned out to be a videophone – not what Jim called it, but Blair was going to call it that for as long as it amused him. “Very Star Trek,” he said.

“Yeah, we’re all about the mod cons.”

There was a musical chime and Peggy’s face appeared on the screen.

“Jim! How are you?”

“Holding on to the improvement. It’s not fast but it’s happening. And you?”

“It’s a good thing I like most of Tony’s people; I seem to be seeing a lot of them at the moment. I have a lot I’d like to talk about to you, but I’m not entirely comfortable with trusting it to the family system. I was thinking I’d come and see you again. Unless you’d be able to come and see me, if you’re feeling at least somewhat better?”

There was a brief silence. Blair could only see Jim’s back right now; it was rigidly set, as if he was trying to sit at attention. Peggy looked out of the screen and said “Jim?”

“Related to that,” he finally said, “Sandburg has something that he wants to talk to you about.”

Blair leaned over Jim’s shoulder to place himself (he presumed) within view.

“Hi,” he said brightly. “I’m in. Not that I exactly know what that involves besides money and potential death, but I’m sure that you can put a great orientation package together for me, right?”

Peggy’s poker face was good, Blair gave her that. There was only a moment of surprise before she got down to the business of asking questions. “Are you sure? This isn’t a decision you get to change your mind about.”

Blair could only presume that Jim got his contrarian streak from his mother. They both knew that Jim needed Blair but there was a poise to Jim that suggested he might back up his mother’s doubtful question. Certainly the angle of Peggy’s gaze suggested to Blair that she was looking at her son rather than him, and Blair squeezed Jim’s shoulder. Half support, half warning. This was the point where Jim stood and Blair took his seat.

“I’m sure, on one condition,” he said. “I don’t have to die to walk in the gates of your family heaven. I bow out of my old life without disappearances or dramatics, and I get to stay in contact with my mother and my friends. Otherwise, it’s no deal.”

Peggy was totally controlled. If the family was that business-oriented she must be used to negotiations. Blair waited with a dry throat and sweaty hands.

“That’s rather a concession. Why should we run the risk of people outside the family knowing more than they should?”

“Because you, you personally, need me in because you want help for your son. Because the family owes me - it’s your own bullshit fault that I know about you in the first place. Because Jack Kelso is a friend of mine and he doesn’t know the whole story but he knows enough to ask questions, and mounting body counts do get noticed eventually. As you’ve found.” Blair gestured as if to say ‘isn’t that enough?’ “The last year or so I wouldn’t say that I’ve been focused or happy. Nobody would be surprised if I left Cascade.”

“I can’t say I expected this but it would be stupid to pretend that I didn’t consider the possibility either. We could give you a story for your family and friends – especially Mr Kelso. Outside of that story you maintain complete confidentiality.”

Blair nodded. “I can do that. Roll out the welcome wagon.”

“I’ll oil the wheels. Welcome to the family, Blair.”

“Thanks.” the basics of return were arranged, and the connection ended. Jim sat silently by the desk, his head bowed.

“Jim?”

“You’ve won. Congratulations.”

“This is not about winning and losing, man.”

Jim shook his head, subdued even for his current state of recovering health. “You don’t get it, Sandburg.”

“Are you… angry? That I made the condition to not just disappear?” Because he’d had to try. He didn’t want to imagine his mother attending his fake funeral.

“No!” Jim shook his head again. “No, I’m not going to get pissed off that you could get a better deal than I could. Although I’m left wondering what would have happened if Mother wouldn’t play ball.”

“I’d have dealt with that if I had to.” Would he have agreed in the end? Agreed to hurting his mother and friends the way the family had forced on Jim? He didn’t quite know the answer to that question, and he was glad of it. “Look, I get it, Jim, I really do. You made a choice that turned out wrong and that hurts. But you need to find out who tried to kill Peggy and you can do that better if the senses aren’t driving you crazy. And I can help you with that. I can help.”

“And put a target on your back.”

“I had a target on my back just by standing next to you in Cascade. It didn’t bother me then,’ –Jim tilted his head in mocking disbelief- “okay, it didn’t bother me often. Same thing applies now.”

“Then I guess we shouldn’t waste any more time.”

“Was I the one doing that?” Blair asked. Jim only glared.

They gave it a couple of days for Peggy to make whatever arrangements were needed. Blair had some acrimonious discussions with the Social Sciences Dean at Rainier that cemented his lack of position back in Cascade. He also did all the driving back to LA and found the distraction and responsibility welcome. At the forest house, he and Jim could come together or separate to their own spaces as needed. It was a day’s easy travel with plenty of time for breaks and stop-offs but a car was never going to be anything other than a small, enclosed space, and Blair might be sure of his decision but being sure didn’t make it less momentous. He was driving them both into territory that was unknown to him in every sense, and he would occasionally look at Jim out of the corner of his eye, just to convince himself that he was doing this. That was Jim in the passenger seat, dozing more often than not. The exhaustion was so utterly unlike the man Blair remembered but he supposed it was better than continual pain or zones.

They were to have dinner with Peggy when they arrived; that was one arrangement that had been made with Jim’s input at least. Blair hadn’t been in Los Angeles since he was a young teenager and he traversed the tangle of the traffic, reacquainting himself with names and trying to orient himself in a new geography. Jim woke up and directed him with no reminiscent jokes about past navigation mistakes.

Eventually they presented themselves before a set of ornate gates and Jim, the bastard, smirked at Blair’s silent, wide-eyed astonishment at the house set behind them. “My grandfather built this, Sandburg. Leaves my Dad’s place in the dust, huh?”

“It’s certainly impressive.”

“Yeah, the NYC place is only an apartment but you know what Manhattan property values are like.”

“I can’t say I do but I look forward to finding out,” Blair said, regretting his moment of obvious amazement and trying for something a little more nonchalant; that there was serious money in this set-up had been clear from the start. Jim refrained from any further commentary on his family’s property portfolio.

Dinner could have been pleasant. They ate in a relatively small, informal room and the food was good. There was a simple arrangement of flowers in a rather beautiful vase, and a view out the windows over an extensive garden.

The finer details of negotiation left a sour taste however. Peggy didn’t belabour the point but she made it clear that Blair’s access to his identity and his mother and his friends was an enormous concession on the part of the family. Jim said very little, played with his food, and divided his time between looking at his mother and Blair when he wasn’t finding the garden fascinating. Jim liked camping and fishing, had a respectable store of knowledge about which wild plants were good for what, and couldn’t give a red cent for decorative horticulture.

“You’ll be sharing accommodation?”

Jim’s face was unreadable, but when Blair said “If Jim’s happy with that, then yes,” something in the air loosened. That ‘yes’ pleased both mother and son. Jim certainly seemed to be accommodating himself to Blair’s fait accompli. They adjourned to a pleasant sitting room for coffee and little pastries. Blair saw Jim’s calm turn to restlessness again before he stood, “You two still have a few things to work out. I’m going to take a walk in the garden.”

“Check out the security arrangements?” Peggy asked.

“I think a walk is about all I’m up to right now,” Jim said stiffly.

“I agree. I can see the progress you’ve made even in this short while – I don’t see any point in overtaxing it.”

Jim left.

“He will totally be scoping things out,” Blair said.

“He’s a stubborn man. That makes two of you.”

“I’m guessing that he’s left because you want to talk to me about something he doesn’t like hearing.”

Peggy nodded at this. “You might say that. If it doesn’t work out with you continuing as Jim’s… guide, I want you to know that you have other options within the family.”

There was a lot to consider in that offer; Blair tried not to assume that Peggy thought he and Jim might not be able to get past the challenges they faced. The hesitation over describing him as a guide was easier to note and store away for consideration. “And I need those options within the family because I won’t be exiting it.”

“Because you won’t be exiting it, yes. I presume you know that Jim and I aren’t the only sentinels in the family.”

“Jim said something about the senses going back four generations.” While doing a sterling job of convincing Blair that the family had all the answers and that Blair had been, at best, a pleasant diversion. Jim was apparently an excellent liar when he found the motivation.

“Sentinels go sideways, so as to speak, as well as back. The family is good at in-vitro techniques. I donated some eggs to members of the wider family, and we have another eleven sentinels, of varying ages.”

Blair choked on a swallow of coffee, and coughed inelegantly into a napkin. “Eleven? As in Jim’s siblings?”

“Half-siblings, yes. I assume that you’d be interested in their development; and you’d bring a new mindset and insights to our understanding.”

“Yeah, sure, sure.” It looked as if a lot of Blair’s hypotheses about sentinels were about to get a serious workout. “Was this Jim’s idea?”

“It was his expressed wish that you know about the family sentinels as soon as possible. This specific offer is mine.”

“But he knew you were going to make it?”

“We haven’t discussed it, but it’s a logical option.”

“I get the impression that there are a lot of things that you didn’t discuss with Jim that maybe you should have,” Blair declared waspishly.

Peggy laughed at that. Blair was vigilant in his attention to her, and it looked more nervous than amused. “Oh, I think that he’d agree with you.”

“I bet he would. I take it that there’ll be some serious detail about my ‘options’ in any upcoming orientation package.”

“It’s under way, yes.”

“You’ve given me a lot to think about, and I want to talk to Jim about it. I might take a walk in the garden myself.”

“By all means. Don’t worry about your privacy.”

“I’m not worried. And if you did listen in, well, eavesdroppers seldom hear any good of themselves, do they?”

That needled her. “Not every sentinel has Jim’s capacities. The trick we did talking between the cars was for an emergency only. You’re safe enough.”

Blair nodded and stored that snippet away for consideration too. There were doors out into the garden in the next room, and when he stepped into the security-lit evening he could see Jim only a little ahead of him, coming back from whatever garden route he’d wandered. Blair came down the steps to meet him, and suggested, “Let’s take a walk further away from the house.”

“Sure,” Jim said, and turned back the way he’d come. “Got some more of the big picture, Chief?”

“You could say that. Peggy’s told me about the eleven other sentinels – thanks for getting that information front and centre by the way. I’m hoping that they weren’t quite bred like stock on a farm.”

Jim’s mouth twisted at that. “Not quite. But it seemed a little close to that for me too.”

“I… she’s your mom, Jim, and I get that her upbringing had its… alternative elements, but, my god, I feel like I just stumbled into a dystopian novel right now.”

“You chose it, Sandburg.”

“So did you.”

“None of the choices I had were what I would have picked.” Jim sighed, and bent to gently rub the glossy leaf of a shrub between his fingers. Sharply pungent scent rose on the air but it didn’t seem to bother him. “I suppose that’s why I got over-invested about letting you have all those normal life choices that you ended up not wanting.” He barked out a laugh. “You know, whether you judge it by nature or by nurture, I don’t think the apple’s fallen far from the tree. For me, I mean.”

Blair waited a moment, but Jim said nothing more. “You’re being cryptic, man.”

“The other sentinels were part of the price that my mother paid to keep me out of the family as long as possible, for all the good that did in the end.” He took a sidelong look at Blair. “And Dad, doing his best to scare me out of being a sentinel for pretty much the same reason even if he didn’t understand that, but just screwing me up. History repeats, huh?”

“I guess it does at that.”

Jim paid more attention than was due to rubbing away the last trace of plant sap and scent. “We’d best head back to my place. I think we’ve all had enough and could do with a night’s sleep. If you haven’t changed your mind? We can book you a plain or fancy hotel room, whatever you prefer.”

“I haven’t changed my mind.” Blair was overcome with unexpected apprehension at just how close the quarters could be in comparison to the Oregon house and its living areas and forest surrounds. “So, am I sleeping on the couch?” he joked.

“I have a spare bedroom, Sandburg. With a real bed and not some crappy little futon.” Recalling the loft was a false step for them both. The shadow that crossed Jim’s face and the drop in Blair’s gut proved that. “Come on, we’ll go make our goodbyes.”

***

Not only was there a separate bedroom, there was a separate bathroom. Disturbingly, once more the entire apartment was as impersonal as a hotel suite except for the surfboard that Jim with an apology moved into his own bedroom. “Guess I’ll have to rearrange the closets,” he said. Blair doubted that much rearranging would be necessary - the sterility of the rooms was a painful reminder that it was truly Jim’s home that had been destroyed in the loft fire and not some rich bastard’s playhouse.

“Why?” Blair asked. “I mean, why did they insist on you faking your death? When they let me in.”

“Because,” Jim said shortly. “Because other members of the family wanted to make a point that my mother couldn’t buck the system forever. Not that I understood that at the time.”

“So what kind of price is due for me coming in, then?”

“I don’t see that any price is due. You said it yourself; it’s the wider family’s fault that you ended up knowing anything about us.” Jim shrugged. “And they’ve got all their sentinels inside their bounds now. That’s payment enough as far as I’m concerned.”

Blair looked around his spare but luxurious room and determined to spend some of the family’s resources on upending it all. Jim and his pride had obviously taken no more than the minimum. Blair would pick up the leavings from the gravy train and make something here that was more than a cave for Jim to lick his wounds in.

“They insisted you come back because you’re a sentinel and sentinels are family business. If I hadn’t come along-“

“If you hadn’t come along I’d have gone crazy and they would have picked me up anyway. They’ve been watching me all my goddamn life.” What was Jim most angry at, Blair wondered. The senses or his family? “Look, it’s been a long day, and we’re tired. Good night, Sandburg.” But Jim delayed, looking Blair up and down with a look that Blair couldn’t read.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Jim said roughly, and left for his own room.

It was a gloriously comfortable bed but sleep was a long time coming for Blair. Bit by bit, he had his answers, the big picture and the details, so different to what he’d thought but no less ugly. He woke to daylight and a quiet apartment. His place in Cascade certainly wouldn’t contribute much in the way of personal touches – he’d accumulated pathetically little after the loft fire. In the meantime, Blair had a bag to unpack and a shower to take, and he discovered that his libido, recently stressed into absence, had chosen the heat and steam of the shower for a triumphant return.

“Well, hey,” he muttered, “at least I have my own bathroom.” No worrying about whether Jim could smell the residue of self-sex, certainly no worrying about running out of hot water if he lingered a while. He stroked himself and bit his lip, and sank down to the floor of the stall. Knee tremblers had their charm but this was good, the steady beat of the water on his back, the touch of his hand. The thought of Jim’s hand on him flashed in his thoughts and through his nerves and he gasped. Jim’s unreadable look of the previous night was suddenly not so hard to interpret, and why not? Blair had followed him despite all Jim’s arguments and moods (and lies), and they’d been good together back in Cascade. Memories of just how good hurried Blair along, and he pressed the back of his free hand hard against his mouth to guard against noise. He came with deep shuddering breaths and the memory of thrusting into Jim’s mouth.

That was a mistake that soured his buzz afterwards. The last time he’d come in Jim’s mouth was that awful meeting after San Diego. Had Jim planned the sex along with the rest of that set-up? Blair didn’t like raising up that particular shade; recollection mixed shame and harsh anger together and painted them hotly on his skin but in the end he excused Jim of that particular manipulation. The sex had been Blair’s bright idea and, knowing what he knew now, he hurt Jim far more than he’d ever dreamed at the time. Good, proclaimed a hard, unforgiving murmur somewhere not too deep inside.

He got out of the shower and turned the fan on high. He shaved, and dressed in cheap jeans and a t-shirt and flannel, and walked out to further explore his new domain.

***

“Yes, yes, I would be more than happy to put that in writing. Yes, thank you. No. Goodbye, Doctor.” The family’s vidcom did not allow for smacking down a receiver. Between that and cell phones, there was a satisfaction that future generations were going to have to do without.

“Do you know what that bastard told me? That given that I don’t even know half of my parental medical history that I was particularly unwise to decline my spare parts! They could even fix any obvious genetic defects so that I wouldn’t have to worry about health issues recurring. Never mind the fact that I don’t actually want people examining my genetic template, thanks all the same! God!”

“I might have heard some of it,” Jim said with gentle sarcasm. “I’m getting the notion that you feel pretty strongly about this.”

“Do not be a smart-ass about this! Do not!”

“Okay, okay. But you’re going to give yourself an aneurysm there.”

“With no spare parts available, and that would be terrible, right? Do you have an additional ‘you’ to replace the one they so inconveniently had to sacrifice to the cause?”

Distaste crossed Jim’s face. “No. I told them that I didn’t feel comfortable with it. They have the starter material thanks to my loving Mother, so I might have to turn down some offers in the future. We’ll see.”

“Yeah, you’re so ‘don’t give yourself an aneurysm, Sandburg’ about this but the only reason you’re all calm and collected is because it’s old news.” But the spasm of anger was already wearing down. “It’s just – the family believes in keeping the goodies in house, and I keep thinking about people out in the big wide world who might like to have a guaranteed match for a kidney or a heart.”

“Yeah. The family’s got money and it’s generous with it, but you still need to gate-keep those extra goodies to help keep people’s mouths shut, right?”

“It does sound depressingly likely.” Blair flopped onto the couch beside Jim. If he tilted his head back he’d see the Kathiyawadi-styled embroidered wall hanging above them in brightly contrasting reds and greens. It had cost all of a hundred and fifty bucks from a fair trade shop and Blair had neatly tacked it on the wall with a quite disproportionate sense of ‘take that.’ The gesture seemed very small next to the knowledge that sitting in labs somewhere were – what? Vats? Tubes? Places where human spare parts were cultivated like rows of corn. “I’m glad that you decided you didn’t want that particular extra.”

“I figured you might be.”

They sat there in silence. Blair had dropped himself very closely into Jim’s personal space without even thinking about it, and found himself thinking about it now with unexpected, intense concentration. Jim was still way too thin compared to Cascade days, but even this short time had seen improvements in energy and body mass. Jim’s senses had tuned into whatever the readings of Blair’s body and presence represented and were resetting themselves with startling speed. He was warm and solid alongside Blair, who’d begun some tuning and settling of his own. Jim’s laconic confirmation that they were on the same page about this medical ‘extra’ only cemented that feeling of things fitting back together again.

Maybe Jim felt that too. He lifted an arm and placed it across Blair’s shoulders and it was only natural to turn towards him. Jim kissed him then and it would have been so easy to kiss him back. So easy, but something squirmed in Blair’s gut that wasn’t pleasure and instead he put his hands between them and stood up.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Jim stared up from the couch, frowning. “Since when do you not think that a chance at sex is a good idea?”

“We’re still settling in,” Blair said doggedly. He tried to make it sound reasonable and off-hand but anger, with himself as much as Jim, rose like poison gas from the bottom of a swamp. It was unjust, he knew it, but Jim’s approach, especially after he’d argued to keep Blair from following him, only reminded him of past manipulations. “Hell, your mother did offer me some other sentinels for study. Maybe she’s not so sure that you’re going to need me permanently.”

“I guess I deserve that,” Jim said and stood. He reached for Blair, who didn’t have the sense to step back, and his fingers pinched around Blair’s arms. “But why be here with me if you’re not going to stay? You’d really just see that I‘m stable and then walk away?” The warm skin of Jim’s face met Blair’s in a nuzzling touch, but the fingers stayed clenched, and Blair didn’t move. He could lift his hands and take Jim’s face in his. They could kiss again, caress, find pleasure in each other; just like in the past when Jim had been lying to him every time he touched him. Blair stood caught between two different flares of heat, and knew he and Jim were both lost if Blair let them merge.

“Jim. Don’t.”

“Why not? You want this. I can smell it on you.” One hand released an arm, but only to rest lightly over Blair’s crotch. “You’re getting hard.

It was true, but Blair finally found the strength to twist violently out of Jim’s hold and step back and away. “You remember the last time we had sex?”

Jim’s face changed from confusion and anger to a wary irritation. “Why bring that up? Things are different now.”

“No, they’re not.” (No matter how much you think I’ve screwed you over, you don’t get to do the same to me…)

Jim didn’t like that answer, (he would have liked the memories inside Blair’s head even less) but then he drew his dropped jaw up with a snap that looked like it might sever his tongue. “What the hell does that mean?”

“I’ll stay here. I’ll stay here with you, your mother doesn’t have to dangle other sentinels in front of me but, Jim, you have to understand, man. First I thought you were dead, and then I thought you were some piece of shit user and that I was nothing.” He pressed a hand hard against his mouth, because his voice had cracked on that last word. That was bad. He shouldn’t have said that, he should have kept his explanations to Jim’s actions, not his own sometimes still raw emotions.

Jim made a wordless noise of denial and reached to take Blair’s shoulders in his hands. He made no move to pull Blair close, but it was still too much and Blair backed away again. “Look, I know, I get it now that none of those things were true, but that doesn’t change how I felt when I thought that they were. You don’t just work through that shit just like that, Jim, and I’m not sure that I can go to bed with you without wanting to punch you in the face, and I don’t know how long I’m going to want to …hurt you. And until I’m happy that I don’t we’re not having sex. That’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”

There was silence and then Jim said, “I’ll take it.”

Blair dropped to the couch once more and tried to calm himself, to quieten the bang of his heart and the rasp of his breath. It had needed to be said, to be made clear, but the distress that filled the room was like pus squeezed from a wound, something necessary but still nauseating to see.

“So, uh, what do you want to do about dinner?” Jim asked.

“I’m not really hungry right now.”

“If you change your mind there’s food in the kitchen, and we have a twenty-four hour catering service on tap. Like take-out but a lot more fancy.”

Blair hid his face in his palm. He’d driven Jim to what counted for babbling. It was quite a victory in its way, but not any that he wanted.

“You order for yourself if you want, or make something. I’m fine. I’m fine.”

Chapter Text

Peggy had been quite matter of fact that there would an official family function to welcome Blair whether he wanted it or not. Life went on, even after attempted murder. Jim had spread his hands in resignation over the necessity. Blair remembered from Cascade how much Jim appreciated official, formal, social functions of any sort, which was to say that he was bored with them at best and hated them at worst. Blair had always enjoyed big gatherings – you could engage or stay on the outskirts and observe, and there was always opportunity whichever option you chose.

He was getting a salary – he was apparently in the books as Jim’s PA, which filled him with amusement. So much for his doctorate. It was a generous salary, though, far more than Rainier had paid (so much for his doctorate, indeed), and while part of him disdained it Blair had noted that display was important in the family. He bought some quite expensive clothes that were very definitely to his own taste, with the sense that he was buying costumes for a play. He’d chosen expensive slacks, closely woven cotton shirts that felt like silk, quirky but beautifully made sweaters and jackets and boots and shoes, like a kid playing with toy money. But none of what he’d bought was suitable for a meet-the-family soiree, apparently. Jim escorted him to a family approved tailor and sat with him in a pleasant room while suits were modelled, and samples discussed; Blair ended up with a dark blue suit and all the necessary accessories.

There was dance practice.

“You have got to be kidding,” he said, when Jim brought up the subject with a distinct smirk.

“I kid you not. By family lights you and I are together. Maybe long-term, maybe not,” Jim said with a look that declared that he would neither presume nor assume, but Blair was here, wasn’t he? Sex as an addition to their current co-habitation was an acknowledged possibility for the future, wasn’t it? “If you were Carolyn” - (“Which I’m not,” Blair rejoined with some heat, but Jim carried on) - “then we would have danced for an occasion like this.”

“Wow. Just how did your mother convince you to do this?”

“It was my idea. The family’s more relaxed about its gay members that you might expect – one of the early founders was fond of his brother, who was very fond of men and also a gifted engineer. They decided that maybe they could put up with a few ‘peccadilloes’ rather than waste resources.” ‘Yes, and?’ Blair declared with his eyebrows at this lead-in. “But there are other sentinels in the family, and we don’t know for sure yet how much of this is just you and me, or a broader sentinel thing. I’d like to set a tone, and surprise! My mother is in total agreement with me.”

“A tone. Dancing. We’re not an engaged couple, Jim.”

“If we make this work then a couple is exactly what we are and that’s how we’re going to be perceived. Come on, Chief. I’d have thought you’d be all about working in with the native customs.” Jim spoke more heavily. “You’re sharing my home and helping me with the senses… you came back with me even if a chunk of that is dealing with the family’s little crime wave. If you’re in then we take it seriously and this is part of that, Sandburg. Should I tell Mother to call the shindig off? Or leave me out of it?”

“No, no.” Less desperation would be good there, Blair thought. “I said I was in, I’m in. But this was not what I expected.”

Jim relaxed a little. “This is Machiavellian in its way. It doesn’t all have to be murder and corporate manipulation.”

“Yeah, so I’m seeing.”

And that was how Blair ended up holding Jim in the traditional dance grip, remembering the formal dance practice in the school gymnasium before the Prom. Not that he’d had a date, and several of the boys and girls there were in the same dateless state; but a school sanctioned excuse to touch the opposite sex? Who was passing up on that?

A family sanctioned excuse to get Blair and Jim inside each other’s personal space? Blair was pretty sure that playing along was acceptable to them both.

“So, uh, I hear that it’s traditional for the taller guy to lead?”

“I don’t know. You’re the guide,” Jim said. I am being courted, Blair thought. Jim is courting me. A pity that the last time Jim behaved this way, he was planning his last chance fling with Blair before faking his death.

“Yeah, so I am,” Blair said, and adjusted his hold from Jim’s shoulder onto Jim’s waist and started to move, because it was just that awkward standing there, touching Jim. Once they got into the groove, however, they moved well together.

“So is it all fox trots and waltzes, or do they update themselves and play a little disco? “

“Some people might let their hair down towards the end of the evening. “

“Oh, always a good stage from anthropological points of view.”

Jim just smiled, and broke off from his role of ‘led’ rather than ‘lead’ to twirl Blair around under his arm. Certainly, that move was more suited to their respective heights and Blair went with it just the once. Just the once, being goofy with Jim, before he got back to the business of making sure that they didn’t step on each other’s feet in front of a probably judgemental crowd.

The evening Blair prepared for the actual grand occasion he spent a lot of effort trying not to have flashbacks to the morning of Jim’s unnecessary funeral whenever he looked at the suit hanging from the top of the wardrobe door. He put it all on and reached for a tie, and found his hands trembling. He stared at his reflection in the mirror, at his pale face and pale shirt and dropped the tie. He shrugged out of the jacket and took off the dress shirt, and looked through his closet for something that wouldn’t make him queasy if he wore it. There was a shirt, button-down and plainly styled, but made of silk and dyed an amazing copper red with a dull sheen to it. It had been hellishly expensive by the standards of Blair’s pre-family experience, and was probably regarded as a modest purchase in the circles he was running in now. Oh man, yes, are you running in circles, Blair thought, and then put on the copper-coloured shirt, left the top button undone and put his suit jacket on over the top.

In Cascade he’d have thought he looked pretty cool. Here and now… he’d do. He made sure to put his earrings in, and went out to the living area with as much swagger as he could.

Jim was standing, staring out the window at the view of LA street outside. His own suit was a discreet grey pinstripe, properly accoutred with a plain shirt and expensively discreet tie, and he looked just as good as Blair would have expected. Jim turned, and saw Blair. His eyes widened a moment and then he just nodded.

“So I pass inspection, do I?” Blair asked.

“I like the shirt,” was all Jim said, and they both grinned. They might be smiling, but it was a nervous reaction for both of them.

“Am I about to disrupt Peggy’s plans to launch me into the family?”

“It doesn’t matter if you are. But why this outfit, Chief?”

Blair decided that Jim didn’t need another unpleasant reminiscence, not tonight. “It’s not like I ever wore a lot of suits or ties. And I like this shirt, man. It’s a good colour on me.”

“True.” Jim put out his arm in a gesture of ushering Blair out the door and they left for Blair’s formal introduction.

Jim drove them there; he took a pleasure that was very nearly joy in having the concentration to drive again and Blair took unspoken pleasure in it too, even if his silence was a balance to his misgivings about this whole ridiculous situation.

The rooms that Jim ushered him into on their arrival were certainly beautiful and spacious, and apparently filled with people. Blair had been taking slow breaths ever since the valet had taken Jim’s car away (Jim surrendering his vehicle to valet parking sent it home to Blair that this was real in a way that none of the other preparations for the night had) and now he braced himself for some serious socialising.

Peggy lifted one eyebrow when she saw them. “I did have the impression informality is your preferred mode,” she said. Then she smiled. “Let me introduce you to a few people, Blair. Jim, Eudora did make it in the end, I think she should be first, don’t you?”

Jim looked startled and then nodded. “Let’s go introduce you to my grandmother, Chief,” he said, in the tone of voice Blair associated with unpleasant tasks best dealt with speedily.

Blair almost regretted his informal appearance when he saw the tiny woman dressed to the nines and ensconced all by herself on a sofa, but he braved a brief conversation with Eudora. He was judged a regrettable necessity by her looks and when Peggy rescued him he was grateful. Jim stayed behind a little longer and Blair didn’t envy him.

The night passed in nervousness, expensive food and drink, observation, and one dance. “I’m in an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” Blair murmured into Jim’s ear at one point and surprised a brief laugh out of him, which made him unexpectedly proud of himself. He put some pressure into Jim’s side to turn them in a complicated little circle, and Jim went with it to a small ripple of what Blair hoped was fond laughter from some of their watchers. Jim looked unfazed, even pleased, and Blair decided that was all that mattered.

In the restrooms he was washing his hands when a man somewhere in his late thirties looked him in the face via the mirrors, and said, “Welcome to the family, Blair.”

“Thanks. I don’t think that we’ve been introduced yet.” He dried his hands on the scented cloth towel and dropped it into the hamper.

“Nick Berends,” the man said and extended a hand. “I work in one of the family science divisions, sort of a merge between chemistry and bio-tech. Sideways from sentinels but I take an interest.”

“Great, great,” Blair said, trying to remember where he’d heard the name. Nick’s grip was textbook the perfect handshake - firm, dry, not lasting too long.

“How are you finding the evening so far?” Nick asked. “Peggy knows the best caterers. I don’t know if it’s a sentinel skill or an experienced hostess skill.”

Blair smiled back. “I’ve gotten the impression that all the family enjoys having access to the best. It’s been interesting. Lots of new faces, new situations. It’s all cool.”

“Well, as you find your way around, don’t be afraid to approach me if you think I can help. I like Jim, I’d like to see you both established.”

“Uh, thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”

Nick looked past Blair. “Jim. I was just introducing myself.”

“So I see.” Jim stepped into the restroom, and stood at Blair’s shoulder. The facilities were roomy, but they seemed to shrink slightly.

Nick looked back at Blair. “Do you surf, or windsurf? It was Jim’s regular thing for a while. Well, the surfing, but he picked up the knack for windsurfing pretty quickly too.”

Blair tried to maintain the small-talk spirit despite the change in atmosphere. “No, no, can’t say as I do.”

“You should get Jim to teach you. It’s a lot of fun.” Nick looked towards Jim again. “Invites are still open if you wanted company or a lift.”

“Yeah, sure.” Jim sounded pleasant – if it wasn’t for the looming behind his shoulder, Blair would have expected imminent plans and bad jokes about Mr Zog’s Sex Wax.

Nick left, and Blair and Jim followed but then diverted left as he turned right into the main function room. Blair and Jim remained in the hallway.

“So why did you magically appear? Do you have a problem with that guy?”

“Nick knows the value of being friendly, Chief, but he never gives up plus he’s in my top ten of likely suspects for the recent ‘unexpected’ deaths.” Jim’s voice mocked his own euphemism, before he said, “Watch your step with him, okay?”

“Sooo, okay, you can explain that to me somewhere that’s not here.” Somewhere in the bio-tech divisions, Nick Berends had said. The reminder of the threat facing them cooled Blair’s ardour for the new experiences of the evening. “I guess we should mix again, right? Show the family what your official guide looks like?”

“Yeah, let’s go mix.” Jim laid his arm over Blair’s shoulder as they walked back into the main room, and Blair wondered who the possessive gesture was for – the assembled men and women, or for Blair himself. Jim’s messages now that Blair had inserted himself into the family mess were a far cry from his efforts to distance himself before and Blair found that he might know in his head what was going on, but his emotions were still labile under a calm surface, easily confused and easily irritated. Gently, he extricated himself, but softened the rejection with turning to Jim to ask, “So, okay. Who should I cultivate next?” His eye landed on a group of young people. A gaggle even, although that impression maybe was because they were clearly more relaxed and less on guard than Blair had so far seen. “Oh, look,” he said with mock surprise. “The younger generation.”

Jim smiled tightly. “In more ways than one. There are a couple of the family sentinels over there.”

There was something in his voice that made Blair check his face. “I’m on my own for this mission, aren’t I?”

“They’re all younger than I am, and we have pretty different approaches to the senses. I take an interest from a distance.”

“Well, I don’t think distance is going to work for me,” Blair said, and made his way to the group. There were seven of them.

“We haven’t been formally introduced,” Blair said drolly. “I’m guessing that you know who I am, though.”

“Hi, Dr Sandburg,” one of them said. The family was big on a hierarchy of etiquette, Blair had noted. “I’m Selina.”

No surname, but then Blair could probably call up a database if he had to and trace her back several generations. “Call me Blair,” he said encouragingly. ‘Dr Sandburg’ brought back uncomfortable recollections of the Rainier students he’d abandoned with barely a backward look. The others introduced themselves with varying degrees of self-possession and interest. Selina was the most personable and friendly of them, but her interest wasn’t flirtatious. Her hand remained firmly grasping that of the young man next to her. They all made a few minutes polite chit-chat – how did everyone like the party, had Blair lived in Los Angeles before, how long had Blair known Jim?

At that point Selina’s gaze moved from Blair, to Jim at another point in the room, to her own handclasp with the young man beside her. She was eighteen at the oldest, Blair realised, which made her the youngest of the crop of Peggy’s offspring. She definitely resembled her. He looked at her, fresh and still figuring out her life. Was she making guesses as to what possible similarities there could be between her and her distant, possibly intimidating half-brother and Blair, based on her own feelings for that equally young boy standing with her? Blair felt a bitter taste in the back of his throat.

He made his excuses, and walked through the room. He knew that some of the family sentinels used relatives as baselines, but that more often focuses and relationships had moved to others on maturity, and those relationships were often sexual. Everyone here believed essentially what Selina had – that Blair could go home with that tall, handsome man still a way away from him, and take him into a bedroom and peel his expensive clothes off and do whatever the hell he liked with him. A flush heated his skin. Jim would let him – and there the heat turned to cold. Yes, Jim would let him, and Blair’s hands itched.

He’d made a deal with himself and he meant to keep it. Nothing sexual was going to happen with Jim until Blair was sure that anger wasn’t fuelling it. He was not going to awaken any echoes of that awful, despairing encounter in Cascade.

“You okay?” It was Jim, right in front of him, and Blair had been so caught up in that moment of emotion that he’d been completely unaware of his approach.

Blair put on a smile. “I guess I’m getting tired.”

Jim nodded. “Hang on just a while longer, and we can make the great escape.”

“Sounds good,” Blair said. The throng of people that had seemed an interesting challenge at the beginning of the evening were now nothing more than oppressive. So you want go home with Jim, who started all this mess, he thought. Brilliant, Blair. Just brilliant.

***

Settling in continued. Dealing, as Jim put it, had its ups and downs. Often they were easy with each other, comfortable as they’d been in Cascade, and other times awkwardness or anger descended and it was hard to know what would trigger the drop. They worked out the progress of Blair’s ongoing ‘orientation’, and Jim did take him surfing. Blair enjoyed his lessons, enjoyed the sun and the beach. Neither of them enjoyed the way that Blair learning the family structures came illustrated with the gaps that the murders had created and knowledge of who might benefit from them, who might have had access via expertise or contacts or theft to the chemicals used in those murders; they didn’t enjoy it, but the puzzle had to be solved and was also a strangely safe topic of conversation.

Jim was working with Tony again, doggedly undertaking interviews. Blair attended on these often as not, since the idea was for Jim to use his sentinel abilities as much as any cop interrogation skills. Everyone had already been interviewed. Everyone was being interviewed again, and not everyone appreciated the necessity. Blair was unexpectedly stung to anger on several occasions – not at the raised eyebrows at his presence, but at the clear resentment from some people that using Jim’s senses was somehow ‘unfair’.

“It’s as if they don’t actually want to find out who the killer is.”

“Maybe some of them don’t. It has to be someone known in the family, maybe more than one person. Even if there’s no active conspiracy there are people that are going to have been manipulated into helping or covering for the killer. That stings for anybody, and looking like a patsy in this crew is especially unforgiveable. If Tony and I can’t find who did it, then we look bad in our turn, and so it goes.” Blair knew he still looked as unbelieving as he felt. “Not everybody sees what I do as a gift, Chief. For some of them I’m a reminder that there could be a new order coming. Not just me, but the rest of my siblings, all of us upsetting the dynamics people have gotten used to.”

Blair understood that intellectually. Emotion did one of its corkscrew twists and was abruptly furious at people who saw sentinel gifts as a threat.

Blair’s orientation also included an opportunity to visit what was unofficially known as ‘Sentinel Camp’. “I think they’ve been belated about encouraging some Westermarck effect, but hey,” he told Jim, “It’s going to be fascinating regardless.”

Jim occasionally strayed onto the unconvincing side of calm and encouraging over this arrangement but Blair went, on his own at Jim’s insistence, and had a great time for an occasion that he felt vaguely guilty about. He was going to be forced to review some work and hypotheses, but Blair had always been willing to rethink things. Some things at least.

When he got home (and was thinking in that term a wise choice or not?) he walked in the door and stopped short with an exclamation. “What the hell did you do to yourself?

Jim sported a neat sling, and within it what looked like a bandaged hand.

“Did some surfing and had an issue when the waves got frisky with my board. It’s a bone bruise and strained tendons, Chief. It’ll heal. I’m even dialled down but not too far, for safety.” Jim cracked a small smile. “And now you know everything that you need to. I’d offer you a cup of coffee to welcome you home but only if you don’t want it in a hurry…” He gestured, lifting his hand in its sling.

“Yeah, maybe I’ll make it rather than expect to be waited on.”

“So how was the camp?”

“You really want to know?” Blair tried to keep the hope out of his voice. It was a just a question, neutral, seeking information.

“Yeah. I don’t feel like they’re family to me, but I take an interest.”

“Peggy tried to bribe you with a tribe, did she?”

“My mother doesn’t stoop to anything as common as bribery, Chief.” It was almost prim, and Blair snorted in genuine amusement.

“I’m not sure I believe you, Jim, given that she was clearly trying to bribe me with sentinels.”

“And did it work?” Jim asked, too casually.

“It was interesting, very interesting, but I came back here, okay, and the fact that you’re a sentinel is incidental to that. And that’s as far as I want to go in that specific direction, man, so ask me something else.”

“So. How was the camp?” Jim asked again, still too casual, but Blair would take what he could get.

He took a beer out of the fridge and surveyed the shelves’ other contents. “I’ll tell you once I’ve eaten. You want anything?” he asked Jim.

“If you want to make something, I could do with a meal or a snack or whatever.”

“Sandwiches it is,” Blair said and made them, careful to make sure they weren’t too unwieldy to be eaten one-handed. Jim lifted one rueful eyebrow at the neatly quartered portions. They sat at the table and ate, and reviewed Blair’s experiences in a variety of discussion tangents.

“There’s one thing that’s making more sense to me. All those new sentinels really are tied in with their guides. Their baselines, whatever.” Blair wasn’t sure how he felt about that term. At one level it was completely accurate, and that was maybe part of what was bothering him. “It worries me, and I’m pretty sure that my concerns are not actually directly related to Paul and any lingering trauma about his incorrect assumptions about how the baseline/guide thing worked between us.” He took a sip of water to clear the sourness of his tone. “I know that there’s an assumption that these kids could turn themselves off, do what Peggy did, but what if that’s not how it works?

“I spent a big chunk of my life with the senses dormant. Why couldn’t they if they needed to?”

“Yeah, man, but your experience was completely different. You had to be self-sufficient out of necessity as well as natural inclination.” He gave Jim a look, which Jim blandly ignored. “So far as I can tell you didn’t even know that much about the potential of your senses until you were nearly an adult. It wasn’t until I came along that they featured much on your landscape. These kids have been trained within an inch of their lives, and yes, they’ve got fine-tuned control like you would not believe, including dialling down…”

“But they’ve never actually had to do without their guides, have they. A lifetime of using their senses and building a relationship with someone that they don’t actually know if they can do without.”

If they can choose to do without, Blair thought. He was certain now that Jim had made a determined, conscious choice to keep the senses sharp, and wasn’t that an irony. If he’d successfully suppressed them or transferred a focus for his control, Blair would never have been an issue for the family. Jim could have attached himself to Nick and their shared surfing interests – or maybe Tony the security guy. Both men seemed competent, calm sorts of personalities. Jim could have gotten along fine with either of them. A new idea, and a welcome distraction, struck him. “Did Peggy ever have a guide?”

“Not as far as I can tell. She’s never mentioned anyone. I know that she had a lot of trouble with her senses, especially when she was younger.”

“I know, your dad said as much.”

“You spoke to my dad?”

“Oh yeah. Research needs primary sources, man. I didn’t expect Jack Kelso to do all the running around for an interesting puzzle and a good dinner.”

“You spoke to my father,” Jim said, with a flat resignation. “Of course you did.”

“Yeah.” Blair shrugged. “Sorry.”

“No, no, it’s not like I should be surprised. This is you we’re talking about. “

“Yeah, this is me we’re talking about. I thought we were talking about the family sentinels.” Nettled, Blair stood and took the plates to the kitchen area. “Maybe I’m just projecting here. I don’t like a lot of what the family has done so I’m going to doubt their approach with sentinels and their guides. “

“Not baselines?”

“I think I like guides better as a term,” Blair said, and put the plates into the dishwasher.

“Fair enough.” Jim paused, and then said, “Dad was okay?”

“He wasn’t pleased to see me, I wasn’t on my best behaviour, but yeah, he looked okay, he didn’t play any poor, frail, old man cards dealing with me. He mentioned someone called Sally?”

“Yeah, Sally. Did you meet her?”

“No, sorry, man. “

Jim shrugged. “It’s not like I can’t have some discreet investigation done if I wonder how they’re doing,” he said but his disappointment, and distaste for the idea of checking up on them, was clear.

Later, getting ready for bed, Blair realised that he was running out of toilet paper. He’d declared his bathroom off limits to the cleaning staff – if this was his home and not a hotel, then Blair was going to clean his own damn toilet. Jim had made no more than the most token of complaints at Blair’s boycott of the cleaning service; indeed, Blair had a feeling that Jim found it amusing.

Well, that was fine, but Blair still needed toilet paper and he was sure that Jim’s bathroom would have at least one spare roll, so he called out towards the living area, “Jim, I’m stealing a roll of your toilet paper,” and made good on the intention in Jim’s own unsurprisingly immaculate space. He placed his prize under the sink and got on with brushing his teeth and was about to leave the bathroom when something about the mirror that he was looking into made him stop, uneasy for no good reason.

He wandered back into the living area where Jim was reading a book, the tv on but turned down very low in the background.

“Mission accomplished?” Jim asked mildly, and that uneasy feeling in Blair increased. Jim was just a little too alert for something as unimportant as a roll of Charmin (or whatever the hell they used).

“Yeah”, Blair said absently, and got himself a glass of water. He drank it and waited for that feeling to go away but it wouldn’t, so he went back to his mirror and stared at it. It was the same old mirror it was before he went away, the mirror-image (oh, so witty, Sandburg, he told himself) of the one in Jim’s bathroom suite. And that was the point where he got what was bothering him.

Back to Jim’s bathroom. Blair had seen what some of the family regarded as tasteful display, and this room and apartment was, by family standards, practically Spartan. Roomy but plain, decorated in cream walls and ceramic tile; no polished stone, no artisanal design, no original art hung where you could contemplate it from the can. But this mirror wasn’t exactly the same as Blair’s. The proportions were slightly different and a nose applied to the wall confirmed just a hint of paint smell. Of course, in a sentinel’s apartment you’d use something remarkably low-odour, something that wouldn’t bother a sensitive sense of smell, or alert anyone else living there with ordinary senses that there’d been some unplanned decorating done in Blair’s absence. For one terrible, paranoid moment, he imagined cameras and surveillance, and then he figured it out.

Back to the living room, where Jim continued to look at his book while clearly paying attention to Blair, who drew up a chair from the dining table. He dropped it with a thump in front of Jim’s chair and sat in it.

“What happened to the mirror in your bathroom?”

The smallest flinch, and then Jim put his book down in his lap and said, “It got broken.”

“Uh-huh. How did it get broken?”

“Accidents happen,” Jim said, with quite infuriating evasiveness.

“Mirrors. Your hand. Everything had accidents while I was away. Man, what a bunch of coincidences, right?”

“That’s right,” Jim said, but the edge of sullen anxiety was showing. He’d been caught, and he knew it, but he was still determined to keep up the front. Everything was just fine, let’s not tell Blair anything, Blair does not need to know; except that what Blair knew now was that he was very, very pissed.

“Do not do this to me. Do not keep me in the dark for my own good and your fucking convenience!” He stood, unable to bear Jim’s changing face one moment longer. “Jesus, you say you’re sorry and then you keep on doing it, man! What the fuck am I supposed to do with that?” He stormed through to his bedroom, and stood there while his chest heaved for breath. “Fuck!” he yelled to the ceiling and then turned, knowing that Jim was standing there. “You threw a punch, didn’t you? Why?” he demanded. “Did you throw a temper tantrum because I was checking out other sentinels?”

Jim leaned against the doorframe, but the miserable face was at odds with the nonchalant pose. “You said it yourself, Sandburg. You want us to keep some distance until you don’t feel like hurting me. Well, you’re not the only one who feels like punching my stupid face sometimes.” He peeled himself from the frame and went to his own room. Blair threw himself on the bed and tried to calm down. He’d been looking forward to getting back to Jim, he realised. Not simply as an ally and a familiar face; surrounded by healthy, enthusiastic young men and women with amazing gifts, he’d wanted… Jim.

“Oh damn it,” he muttered to himself, and stripped down to his undershirt and boxers and went to Jim’s room, the pillow from his own bed under his arm.

“This is not the big seduction scene,” he said, at Jim’s startled turn and uncertain look. “I just have a feeling that we’ll sleep better tonight if we’re in the same room.”

“Okay, so it’s guide thing,” Jim said, with only minimal sarcasm. “It’s 10.30 Chief; a little early for you isn’t it?”

“I was up all last night writing notes. And now I’m going to bed, to sleep,” Blair said, and climbed into Jim’s bed which was more than adequate for two, and laid his head on his pillow with determination rather than sleepiness

Jim turned down the lights, disappeared into his own recently repaired bathroom and did whatever he needed in there and came back to bed. The lights went out, and there was a soft, “Good night, Blair,” which Blair didn’t answer. He slept better than he might have expected, and woke early. Jim wasn’t there in the bed, but then he came in sipping a glass of water and sat on the bed rather than getting back into it.

“Good morning,” was all he said.

“Morning,” Blair replied. “How’s the hand?”

“Okay. It’ll take about three weeks before it goes back to normal, even with the family’s medical. I get the impression that a bone bruise is worse in some ways than a plain break.”

“Shame you didn’t know that before you smashed your hand into the mirror,” Blair said, and regretted it as soon as it was spoken, the way that Jim probably regretted hurting himself in the first place. “Sorry, sorry, man. That was out of line.”

Jim only said, “I can make coffee one-handed if I go slow. You want some?”

“Yeah, yeah, thanks.” On impulse, Blair put one hand around Jim’s arm above the bandages. “Jim… you know that I want to know about the others, but it’s not… I’m not shopping for a replacement. There isn’t one. Couldn’t be.”

“I know.” Jim shut his eyes, and laid the unhurt hand over Blair’s. “But I know that I made bad mistakes with you, and you were there with a bunch of people you could make a fresh start with, even though you were mine first. My friend, my guide.” The grip of Jim’s good hand tightened. “My Blair. Damn it!” Then he let go and lurched up from the bed but paused at the doorway, his face flushed with what Blair suspected was serious embarrassment. “I’ll make that coffee,” Jim said, and escaped.

Blair leaned up in the bed, beset with conflicting emotions again. Jim could say that after he’d left Blair behind. But he had said it – ‘my Blair’ – and for this moment Blair’s gratification overwhelmed any resentment. He got out of bed and went to his own bedroom for a quick shower and some clothes, but he went via the kitchen to gently pat the small of Jim’s back in passing, while Jim kept his attention on making coffee.

***

The family had graciously permitted Blair to retain his own identity. As far as Blair was concerned there was no ‘own identity’ without a library membership; the Charles E. Young at UCLA was as handy as any of them. He would leave Jim behind and go out on his own to browse the stacks and computer carrels, updating some areas of broader social science knowledge and indulging idle daydreams of what sort of papers could be written about his current environment. Environment, he thought. Now there’s a euphemism.

The library environment was restful in its familiarity and the buzz of academic endeavour a welcome reminder that there was more to life outside the family’s concerns. Blair could wear his accustomed clothes to the library and feel like he wasn’t acting out some undercover persona anymore. Was that how Jim had coped, those first months after they’d dragooned him ‘home’? Pretending that it wasn’t quite real? It still didn’t feel quite real to Blair sometimes until he would come home and step inside the door and see Jim, comforting and sometimes infuriating, and the Jim that he’d fallen in love without even knowing it until it seemed it was far too late.

Blair was coming back from one of his library breaks, locking his car behind him in the apartment building’s garage level when a young man with a gun stepped out from behind one of the pillars.

“Hand over the keys!” he demanded. His voice shook along with his hand.

Blair raised his hands. “Sure, sure,” he said. “No problems. Take it easy.” This he was familiar with too, in a way he wished that he wasn’t; the terrible stretched relativity of the crisis time, the cold on his skin and the skip of his heart. “Well, come on,” he said, stretching out one hand with keys in it before he dropped them to the concrete. “Take your loot and go, man.” Don’t get impatient with the mugger, Blair, he reminded himself, before he understood the wild, fixed stare better.

He’d thought he was cold before. “Oh come on. You don’t want to do this.” And that must be true at least a little because the gun hadn’t fired yet and Blair was breathing and talking and backing away a step or two. Possibly not wise, but no sense of tactics could overcome the desperate need to be away from the dull metal that still pointed not quite steadily at him. Blair wasn’t even thinking anymore, just saying the first thing that came into his head. “Whatever they’re paying you, it’s not worth it, man. Just take the car, you can boost that, and I promise you I won’t give a damn, I won’t go to the cops.”

He could run; he could try to wrestle the weapon from his attacker. Both options would likely get him killed and he was running out of time to choose. The sound of another car driving up the ramp startled them both and Blair recovered first. He leaped forward, almost flying in his panic, and pushed the young man to the ground. The gun went off and Blair froze a split-second before he rose uninjured from their shared sprawl, aimed a kick at his would be attacker’s head and hit him high on his arm instead, and sprinted for the entrance to the stairwell.

Another shot sounded as he desperately punched in the lock code. He wrenched the door open and shut and kept on running up the flights of stairs. He was still running on carpeted hall floor when Jim charged out the apartment door to meet him, a gun in his hand.

“Sandburg?” It was soft but urgent and Jim looked past him as Blair scooted behind his back and into their apartment. The door slammed and Blair looked towards it long enough to check that it was Jim and Jim alone with him. That confirmed, he dropped to his knees and panted for breath in the middle of the floor while cold sweat ran down his sides under his shirt.

Jim knelt beside him. “Are you okay? Are you hurt? Damn it, Blair, what happened?”

“There was a man. In the parking garage. I think he was supposed to kill me but he lost his nerve. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

“Stay here,” Jim commanded and rose. He paused briefly by the door before he opened it and quietly slipped through. Blair gathered some strength once more and promptly disobeyed Jim by following him out of the apartment. Blair justified his actions by noting Jim’s pause – there was no-one there in the hall, he’d have known that body language. He took the elevator down to the parking level and followed the sound of Jim’s voice. He was talking into his phone to Tony by the sound of it, and he did not sound happy. Blair’s car was still there, his keys on the ground. There was no sign of anyone else, just neatly parked vehicles and Jim stuffing his phone back into his pocket.

“You don’t listen to anything I say, do you?” he said.

“Uh, sometimes, just not this time?” Blair said.

Jim rolled his eyes. “Tony and some of his crew are on their way. Tell me exactly what happened.” Blair leaned against his car, arms around himself. He still felt cold. He recounted events. At the mention of the distraction of another vehicle, Jim marched briskly from bay to bay, sniffing, occasionally touching the hoods of the cars.

“None of these have been driven recently. So where’s the car you heard coming?”

Blair shrugged his shoulders. “You expect me to know? I was busy running for my life; hearing the engine was about as much as I was up to.”

Jim joined him by his car. “You’re nothing in the family so they were trying to get at me. That means that either I already know something or I have a chance at it, and I don’t know which one it is.”

Blair was going to say something sarcastic about Jim’s assessment (entirely correct but that didn’t make it sting any less) of his lowly place in the murder totem pole but when he turned his head to blister him with a few choice words he bit them back. Jim was standing there, head bowed, eyes shut, tightly drawn in upon himself like he hurt.

“Guess we need to figure that one out.” He didn’t really believe it but he said tentatively, “Maybe it was just a mugging gone wrong.”

“Shock is making you stupid. There’s a gate tuned to authorised cars, key cards and codes for the pedestrian access. Random muggers don’t just wander in here.”

“Shock’s making you an asshole.” Jim looked at him at that. “You’re allowed to hug me, Jim. As a matter of fact, I think I might appreciate it right now.” Blair suited words to actions and turned, wrapping his arms around Jim’s waist.

Jim’s response was to press his cheek against Blair’s head while he held Blair tightly enough to make it difficult to breathe. He muttered, “God, my god, we have to find this fucker, we have to.”

“We will,” Blair said. “We will.” He pushed his face into Jim’s shoulder as if he could burrow into him.

They stood there like that a while but then Jim gently pushed him away. “The building supervisor’s office keeps the security cam footage. Let’s go.”

The building supervisor wasn’t in the office and Jim visibly chafed at the wait for access until Tony appeared. Tony was officially welcomed as a representative of the building owner; he fortunately didn’t have to explain what the nature of the ‘incident’ was that he needed to examine the tapes over and he, Jim and Blair adjourned to their apartment once more. Blair certainly felt that there were worse uses of an afternoon and evening than trying to figure out who’d tried to kill him.

A couple of hours of flickering, head-ache inducing review were carried out over coffee, beer, and, at Blair’s insistence, a meal with vegetables as a major component rather than the takeout pizza that Tony would have preferred.

“Keep that up and you really will be following in your old man’s footsteps,” was Jim’s cryptic comment to Tony. Blair was reminded that all that time he’d thought Jim was dead that he’d been here instead.

The tapes indicated his attacker didn’t enter through the pedestrian accesses – but there was a car with its number plates obscured that entered about an hour after Blair had left with a passenger as well as a driver and reappeared in shot leaving with only one occupant. The driver wore a hooded top and not even Jim could tell whether it was a man or a woman.

“We have cars that make in the security pool,” Tony said, his mouth twisting like he tasted something bad.

“There’s a lot of that make around,” Blair said. Jim gave him a sharp look and Blair shut up. He knew what was going on in his head and it wasn’t helpful. He wanted this to be a mugging. He did not want this to be a targeted attempt on his life. He was completely terrified right now, and after all his bravado to Jim back in Oregon.

“I’m sorry,” Jim said. “But it was always on the cards that some of your people might be involved.”

Tony nodded and moved the tape back to the time of the attack on Blair. They watched. The camera angle showed only the back of the attacker’s head.

“God damn it!” Tony exclaimed. “He’s been primed to know the angles away from the cameras. God damn it.”

There was Blair facing the stranger, his face mask-like between shocked fear and the camera resolution. He gestured, he took a step back, they both froze, and Blair leaped and ran.

The same car that had dropped his attacker off sped into camera shot. The door jerked open, the attacker scrambled in and the car departed, again at speed, again with its plates obscured.

“Oh man,” was Blair’s only comment.

Jim’s fists were clenched. “I didn’t hear the shots.”

“It was several floors away in a building with good sound-proofing,” Blair protested. “You can’t be on alert for everything. It would drive you nuts.”

Jim shook his head. “The driver must have wrapped and uncovered the number plates nearby. It’d be too noticeable otherwise.” He looked at Tony and said in sardonic tones, “What a pity that there isn’t some sort of organisation with the authority to question the general public.”

Tony grinned at that. “I’ve ‘represented’ security and private investigation firms before now. People will talk to almost anyone.”

“Gossip does reliably stay a medium of human exchange,” Blair said.

“Yes it does, except for when it would actually be useful.” Tony stood. “I think we have everything we’re going to get from the tape. I’ll send you my proposed schedule for the next set of interviews. There are a lot of Berends’ people on it.”

“I knew they were coming up again on the go-round, but there’ll be others too,” Jim said. “Watch yourself. It’d be a shame to have your glittering career in family security cut short.”

“Oh, I agree, and you do the same. Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow, and bright and early. Don’t worry about sending any of your people over. I’ll attend to apartment security myself.”

“Ouch, but understandable. Tomorrow then.” Jim saw Tony to the door and double-checked the locks.

“What if he’s involved?” Blair asked when Jim came back to the living area.

“Then we’re screwed but I don’t think that he is. We’ve been working on this pretty much from the point where we realised it was a series of murders and he hasn’t slipped. Moods, knowledge, reactions… he’s got the usual family blinders on but he’s not sociopathic.

“You were right. They wouldn’t come after me unless they were scared. So who has reason to be scared?

“Everyone’s unsettled. Tomorrow we start all over again with Nick Berends and his people. McCutcheon is getting desperate enough to let Tony’s people get full computer access.”

“That… hasn’t been an option up to now?”

“The family believes in a little in-house competition, Chief. That means keeping some items ‘private’.”

“Gee, what a shame that there isn’t some organisation with the authority to investigate private citizens’ files and communications, huh?” The humour turned to anger. “If I wasn’t in the firing line I’d say it served them right.”

“Us,” Jim said. “We’re both deep enough in this mess that it’s us.”

“Yeah.” Blair leaned forward, head in his hands. “Talk about weird stress reactions.”

“Which one?” Jim asked. He sounded genuinely interested, and gentle.

“I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am completely glad to be alive, but I’m stupidly affronted that I got the incompetent murder attempt.”

“Ah.” Blair looked up at the awkwardness in Jim’s voice. “That would be that in-house thing again. Some things the family doesn’t contract out for. But they had to this time.”

“A cleaning service,” Blair said, with inappropriate amusement. The stress reactions had come out to play again.

Jim’s eyes burned with fury. “They could always hope that I’d be stupid enough to think it genuinely was a mugging gone wrong. And if I wasn’t that stupid….” Jim paused.

“We know you’re not stupid, so?”

Jim came and sat beside Blair and took one hand in his. He turned it palm up and held it to his nose, where Jim inhaled, slowly and carefully, like he was savouring – what? A rose, some other rare and precious scent, not Blair’s well-used, end of day hand. Jim’s grip was careful, but his tone was harsh, a voice ready to rip someone to shreds. “They figured that I might smell them on your skin, or hell, their scent on the concrete floor, or your car. Anything that might let me identify them. They were scared of me and made a mistake, and that’s the only reason you’re still alive.” One hand tightened the grip on Blair. The other cupped around Blair’s head and drew them together; not for a kiss, but a touch of foreheads. Blair imagined their mingled breath. “Stay in my room tonight. Just sleep there, that’s all, but stay.”

Jim was keeping to the letter and spirit of Blair’s law – Blair wished he could do the same. Jim’s touch and the stress of the day together dragged needy desire out of Blair’s groin and guts and set it thrumming over his skin. Jim could hardly miss it. He didn’t miss it, but he hesitated.

Blair shut his eyes but he couldn’t shut out the heat that flushed his body, or the simple desire to hold on to strength and warmth and achieve a peak of feeling that wasn’t anger or fear. He leaned forward to kiss Jim, clutching at his shoulders. Jim made a noise that was as needy as anything that Blair could have uttered, wordless and quietly desperate, before he put his mouth to better use. They exchanged kisses while arousal jolted through Blair like electricity. Jim began tentatively but he soon abandoned care for hunger. His lips, his tongue, travelled across Blair’s face, his eyes, his throat, but he always returned to Blair’s mouth. His fingers threaded through Blair’s hair, all the better to hold him, while Blair simply clung on. For long moments the proof that Jim wanted him, that he was needed, was as pleasing as any physical sensation. But that was a dangerous direction for thought. Blair didn’t want to think.

“Making out on the couch is fun, but I think I want to spread out a little. And get naked.”

Jim leaned into him, breathing deeply, and then stood and gestured with wry irony. “You know which way the bedroom is.”

“So I do,” Blair said and led the way. Jim was close behind him and already beginning to strip off his clothes as he walked through the door. Blair sat on the bed the better to enjoy the regrettably brief pleasure of Jim disrobing.

Jim caught his eye, and grinned. “You said you wanted to get naked. I assumed it was supposed to be mutual.”

“Yeah, very mutual.” Blair affected a yawn. “But damn, I feel kind of tired after this shitty day. Maybe you could do the honours?”

Jim lifted one amused eyebrow and approached the bed. “So I guess I should help you with your shoes first.”

“Go for it,” Blair said, as if the matter was of no interest. Jim wasn’t fooled, but then Blair wasn’t exactly putting effort into his acting here.

The view of Jim’s bowed head and broad shoulders as he took off Blair’s shoes and socks; the gentle hands tugging at Blair’s light sweater and his t-shirt? They were good things and Blair took Jim’s face in his hands for a couple of kisses before he let him carry on. Maybe Jim saw a touch of brightness in Blair’s eyes, but he made no comment. Instead he drew the rest of Blair’s clothes away and they lay back together on the bed.

“Hi,” Blair said, quietly nonsensical.

Jim made his own interpretation of that. “It has been a while,” he said. He laid one hand under Blair’s neck and kissed his face, before he said, “There hasn’t been anyone else.”

“I can’t say the same.”

A small, regretful expression pulled up one side of Jim’s mouth. “You thought I was dead. Or an asshole.”

Blair pushed his palm against Jim’s mouth to hush him. “This isn’t the time to talk about this. Oh, god, come on, Jim. Kiss me, come on, let’s do this. I want to suck you.”

Jim’s sudden inhale against Blair’s palm suggested that sucking was a plan that Jim could totally get with. If there were men out there who didn’t like someone’s mouth on their cock, Blair hadn’t met any who’d declare that. But Jim – it had been one of those discoveries when they’d been learning each other, that Jim adored getting sucked off. It drove him quietly, intensely crazy and Blair had always liked finding that point with sexual partners where they were totally lost in the moment. He’d been haunted for weeks after that time he’d found Jim and Laura McCarthy in a cloakroom – not by Laura’s slim, strong legs or pale shoulders, or the line of breast barely covered by her dress and lingerie, but by Jim’s closed eyes and open mouth and the fact that he was utterly somewhere else and having a very fine time there.

Getting Jim to that point in a night-club cloakroom had required the disinhibitory effects of pheromones, but Blair had managed it once or twice in the dimness of the loft and getting Jim there again was an ambition that burned and fed off Blair’s physical arousal.

“Come on,” he said again, and turned and twisted beneath Jim to leave Jim the one lying on his back, and Blair the one very much in triumphant possession. He didn’t waste words or time, just relaxed his jaw and went to it, while one hand wandered teasingly between Jim’s balls and the base of his cock.

Jim made a surprised sound, as if he hadn’t been watching every moment of it as Blair took him in, and his hands rhythmically clenched at the sheets. Blair waited for the moment when that desperate anchorage came adrift. Jim’s hands lay open and helpless, and his breathing grew noisier and he came, and Blair didn’t regret the lack of condom. He wanted it all.

He rubbed soothingly over Jim’s skin, the thighs and the belly, until Jim came back to himself a little. His face was dazed but he brought Blair close and asked, “What do you want next?”

“I like your hands on me. Always did.” Blair sat up and propped himself against the headboard and spread his legs so that Jim could kneel there and wrap his big hands all over Blair’s cock. He watched while Jim handled him, and that controlled strength coaxed him into a shouted orgasm, a far noisier sound than any that Jim had made.

Jim ended up with his head in Blair’s lap, after a very cursory wipe of his hands on the bed sheets. Both actions charmed Blair and he lay there, buzzing with peaceful satisfaction.

“So does this mean I’m forgiven?” Jim wasn’t looking at Blair, and his voice was very matter of fact, very even. Just a guy asking a question.

Peace for Blair always meant no filters. “For right now, yeah,” he said.

Jim lifted his head, hurt disappointment on his face, and disapproval too. “I thought…” he began.

“Yeah, sorry, sorry. Flippant at the wrong moment, but true too. Things are a process, and sometimes processes take time. You know about the five stages of grief?”

“I’ve met the concept. Obligatory group counselling one bad year at the PD.”

“Sometimes processes aren’t always linear. You go back and forth between stages, whether they’re grief or anything else. I think that’ll happen with me. I, uh, guess I’ve forgiven you enough?”

“Enough is fine. Enough is good.” Jim lay back down again. “I guess it could be hard to believe, given everything, but I did miss you. All the time, Blair. All the time.”

“Yeah. I missed you too, Jim. All the time, even when I wished I’d never met you.”

A long sigh was the only answer. But Jim was absolutely forgiven for this moment, and Blair only shut his eyes and gently petted Jim’s hair.

Chapter Text

The follow-up investigation of Nick Berends’ people and division was yet another reminder for Blair that money was no object in family circles. They flew from LA to San Diego which Blair thought was frankly ridiculous given the comparative time the drive would have taken. He acknowledged (to himself) that some of his irritation at the display was tangled in memories of the flight back from San Diego to Cascade. Tony’s presence only made those memories the more vivid. Maybe he was ready to forgive Jim but the family in general? That might take a while.

The arrival at Nick Berends’ division was a lengthy and strained process from the beginning, but Blair was partially distracted from that by the realisation that he was seeing the actual work of the family, the activity that contributed to the money that bulwarked the insularity and the arrogance. Site security was courteous enough but there was a sense of polite obstruction, of detail that was only there to make a point, before they were escorted to the offices that sat amongst storage tanks and other, neat, functional looking structures.

Nick Berends and a woman waited for them in a meeting room. “Jim, Tony. And Blair too. I wish the circumstances were different. I would have liked to give you the grand tour without our current troubles hanging over us.”

Blair nodded. “Thanks; but we are kind of stuck with the troubles right now, aren’t we?” The attempt on Blair had been kept out of wider knowledge for now. That was a good tactical policy on Tony and Jim’s part but it was also just the day before yesterday, and try as he might Blair knew he missed the mark with his tone. He didn’t even need Jim’s warning glance to tell him so.

Nick tactfully ignored the awkward moment. “Jim, you’ve met Julie. Blair, this is my sister Julie, my good right hand in the business.”

Blair shook hands with Julie Berends. She had Nick’s colouring, but a sharper face than his, and broad, raw-boned hands neatly cared for but without the elaborate manicures worn by most of the women Blair had met in the family. Hands of a working scientist, Blair thought, and looked her in the face. Any one of the people he was about to meet today could be the one who’d tried to have him killed, who’d tried to kill Peggy. She nodded at him, and they exchanged polite banalities.

Nick said “So here we are again.” Speaking of banalities.

“Yes,” said Tony. “Here we are. I have Bennett and Van Dorp with me.” Jeanie Bennett and Harve Van Dorp – Blair knew nothing of them other than their names and that they knew computers.

“I feel sorry for them.” Nick said this with a rueful smile, like he genuinely did feel sorry. “They’re going to be regrettably bored.

“Come on Nick,” Jim broke in. “You know it’s only a matter of time before the Oversight fiat comes down.”

“And when it does, I will be more than happy to hand our computing systems and files over to their very capable hands. I doubt they’ll find anything because I think we can grant our killer is bright enough to have covered their tracks. But regardless of that I’m exercising my traditional rights within the usual conventions of divisional cooperation.”

And so it went over the course of the day. Computer access per se wasn’t allowed, but there were print-outs of emails, of web searches, to be pored over, the rechecking of statements, all the minutiae of a complicated investigation that Blair recalled from the Cascade PD but that he’d seldom been part of.

Jim did his part in the detailed, boring work, a frown of concentration creasing his forehead, but now and again he’d gesture and say, “I’m going for a walk. You want to come along, Sandburg?” Yes, Blair did want to come along and they’d wander the complex. Blair stayed close; he knew that Jim found him useful as an anchor amidst conflicting sensory information, but also, he liked being physically close to Jim. Something had been unlocked with the recent sex, and not even the knowledge that Blair really did have a target on his back could put that awareness aside. Sometimes Jim would stop and say a few formal words explaining his presence. Mostly though, he simply walked, with an abstracted look on his face that Blair associated with deep attention to his senses.

They stopped on the fringe of the plant area. “You’re going to be okay in there?” Blair asked. This branch of Nick’s division had a promising line of hospital grade solvents under production, and the scent was light but pervasive on the air.

“Probably.”

“What’s the mood like?”

Jim shrugged. “Some people are enjoying the vicarious thrill of it all. A good number resent us for the interruption to the smooth running of business.”

“Well, I guess money is important,” Blair said sourly.

“They like their work, Chief. I wish I could say the same.” Blair’s answer to that was to squeeze Jim’s forearm.

“Picked up anything useful?” he asked.

“Maybe. Maybe not. And if I had would I admit in the middle of enemy territory?” Jim spoke lightly, but there was a set to his jaw as he said this that put Blair’s anxieties on alert.

Without McCutcheon’s ‘fiat’ there was a limit to what new information could be confirmed. They left early in the afternoon, riding with Tony, and in the car Jim said, “Julie Berends smells like gun oil, but she’s not carrying anything and there’s nothing in her office. No weapon, but just a trace of scent.”

“They’ve got their own security - could it be traces from their own staff?” Blair asked, but Tony was already shaking his head.

“Plant security uses Ballistol,” Jim explained. “Julie and her spaces smell like Hoppe’s no. 9. It’s not strong but it’s strong enough that we’re talking recent contact.”

“Sentinels and their fine-tuned noses. “ It sounded like an appreciative joke but Tony’s hands tightened around the steering wheel. He was like Jim, Blair had noted. He liked to drive himself.

“How many of your people have been doing the rounds with Nick’s people?” Jim asked.

“Nobody recently. Nobody on record anyway.”

“So who’s been off record, then?”

“Let’s see if I can figure it out.” Tony flashed a brightly bitter smile over his shoulder before he returned his attention to the road. “I don’t need permission to access my own damn division’s records, now do I.”

***

Jim and Blair could have had a hotel suite and room service on tap. Instead, given the options, they’d chosen an ‘executive apartment’ – opulent by Blair’s standards but also practically equipped with a working kitchen. There was a concierge who was delighted to arrange the delivery of Blair’s grocery order – lean meat, favourite vegetables, and his preferred sauces and spices for a stir fry.

“Slice this,” he said, passing a red bell pepper to Jim. It was good to work together. Also, Jim insisted on monitoring their food anyway.

“Sure thing, Chef Blair,” Jim said, and began chopping the pepper into thin, very even pieces.

“So Julie Berends is now suspect numero uno.” Blair’s right palm itched. He had a stupid urge to wipe it on his pants, even though it was hours ago that he’d shaken her hand.

“Looks like it.” Jim was non-committal and Blair knew why.

“You told me at Peggy’s meet the family soiree that Nick was one of your top suspects for the murders. He could easily be working with her, they seem to have a good relationship.” A pause. “But you don’t want him to be involved, do you?”

“He’s likeable in his way. He wouldn’t be the first killer who was.” Jim passed the bright slivers of pepper back across the counter, and Blair spared a look for the shape and strength of Jim’s hands. Blair gathered the pepper up and put it aside to combine with the other raw vegetables in a bright, appetising medley. He hoped he’d actually feel like eating when the meal was ready.

“I get the impression that he finds you kind of likeable too, if it comes to that. He’s always seemed…” – Blair sought for a suitable word - “cordial.

Jim chuckled at that. “Cordial. Yeah, that’s Nick.”

Blair put all thought of meal preparation aside. “You were friends. So why aren’t you friends now?”

“People don’t make friends in the family, Sandburg. They network.”

‘”They’re still people, Jim. Come on, there’s history here. Give.”

Jim looked away. “You know, right this moment I’m betting good money that Nick isn’t involved. Nick kind of figures himself better at reading people and what they’re capable of than he actually is. Paulie was the one who set up your kidnapping, but he got the idea in his head because Nick was using Paulie’s dislike of the family sentinels to try and manipulate him into showing his ass.”

“Well, hey, mission accomplished, right?”

“Not funny, Chief.” Jim leaned against the counter, his hands caught on the edge like he was trying to brace himself. “But yeah, I guess Nick and I counted as a near miss as friends so I didn’t pass that little tidbit on. But if Nick didn’t read Paulie right, who’s to say he’d see the signs if Julie is our killer.”

“Damn it, Jim,” Blair said, and put his arms around Jim, trying to loosen that stiff, defensive posture. “Man, those grand plans of yours to keep me out of family clutches really were doomed from the start, weren’t they?” It wasn’t sarcasm; more an acknowledgement of uncomfortable fact.

Jim returned Blair’s embrace, but the tension remained. “I guess Nick screwed himself more ways than one there. You’ve read up about the transfer process, right?”

Jim referred to the process where family sentinels transferred their focus from one baseline to another; where they chose another guide, possibly while discussing good surf beaches and the best brand of board. Blair’s turn for tension. “Yes?” he said in terse inquiry.

“Maybe I could have gone there with Nick, once I got my head out of my ass about not really wanting to be returned to the family bosom.”

So Blair’s stupid jealousy hadn’t been entirely unfounded. “For what it’s worth, I think the head in assery was understandable.”

“Maybe. And here you are anyway so the point is moot.”

“Here I am. Here I could have been all the time if you’d let me.”

“Yeah.” Jim sighed. “I feel like sort of an idiot over that sometimes. And sometimes I still think I was right to try and keep you out of this.”

Blair clenched his hands in Jim’s shirt. “A lot of things are a process. “

“Two steps forward and one back,” Jim said.

Blair nodded at this wry assessment. He didn’t let go of Jim, though. All through this particular process of truth and touch, he’d been soaking in Jim’s scent, his warmth, the way that the muscles of Jim’s back were solidly strong underneath his hands. Blair was the one standing in this kitchen with his arms wrapped around Jim, not anyone else. “I can think of a way we can help make it up to each other.”

The tension altered. “Subtle, Chief. I can see that you’ll fit right in. Negotiation. Quid pro quo.” Jim lifted one brow with obvious, quizzical amusement.

Blair shrugged. “When it comes to you, I went native a long time ago. I’m adapting. Besides, we are practically engaged by family lights.”

Jim smiled at that, and Blair figured that dinner could wait.

***

Jim roused Blair at 2 am, which was easy enough to do because Blair had been sleeping beside him. “The board’s come down with broader powers for the security arm until this is dealt with, and Tony’s done fucking around. We’re doing a raid.”

“As in…

“Nick’s residence, Julie’s residence and the plant.”

“Holy shit.” Blair was thoroughly awake. “And what role are we playing?”

“We head to Julie, we keep her at her home if she’s there, if she’s not we meet at the plant.”

Blair swung himself out of bed and grabbed some pants. “Why now after all the turf-wars and pussyfooting around?”

“Because I’d bet the farm that Tony’s made a connection between one of his people and Julie Berends, even if he’s not prepared to say anything over a comm line. It’s time we were out of here.”

“Got your Halligan bar in the trunk?” Blair meant it as a rough and ready joke but Jim’s answer stopped him short.

“I figure a gun and the senses will be enough.” They were talking about a woman that they were almost certain had, at the least, conspired to kill Blair and Peggy. Jim had excellent reason to take that personally.

“Get that look off your face, Chief. I was a cop, not judge, jury and executioner.”

Blair nodded, only a little reassured. He’d already observed that justice was another of those things that the family kept very in-house.

La Jolla was well-suited to that mix of family display and pragmatism as both an area of affluence and the home of prestigious scientific institutes, so of course it was where Blair and Jim were based. That also meant that the drive to Julie Berends’ home was short, even allowing for Jim having to stick (barely) to the speed limit. It was still a long enough drive for Blair to talk. Nervously.

“So is this Tony just not wasting resources or is it a test? I mean, Jesus, Jim, she’s probably our killer.”

“It’s both for all I know. Or maybe Tony’s doing me a favour from his point of view.”

“A favour. Oh, sure, that makes total sense. ‘Here, Jim, I’ve got other stuff to do, *you* can bring in the probable murderer.’” Did Tony expect Jim to be judge, jury and executioner? Was this Tony looking to deflect attention from any of tonight’s potential fallout away from himself? Family politics were going to turn Blair into a paranoid mess.

Jim pulled up and turned off the engine and the lights. Julie’s house was, from what Blair could tell in the dark, a charming suburban casita – there was a Spanish style roof and the glimmer of decorative tiles showing under the streetlights. Judging by its size it offered no more than two or three bedrooms; by La Jolla standards it was modest. There were no sea views, but then it was only a short walk to those.

Jim sat still a moment, listening. “She’s there, alone, and she’s awake.”

“There’s no security.”

“No obvious security. Why would she need it, Chief? All the murders and near misses were people further up the hierarchy, aside from you, and she’s not supposed to know about that. Julie’s side of the family might have a pedigree but she’s not anybody that important. Yet.” Jim’s voice was soft and bitterly cold.

“So why is she awake then?”

“Let’s find out.”

“Jim, be careful. You don’t have an edge with her; she’s read the same reports as everybody else. It’d be stupid to get taken out by a faceful of perfume.”

“I get it, coach.” Then Jim kissed Blair, speedily, and directly on the mouth. “For luck,” he said, and they both got out of the car.

They approached the front door and Jim gingerly tried it. It was locked, so they walked down the narrow path at the side. There were security lights and a patio and chairs and a little metal table upon which sat a smudged, empty wine glass and the butt-end of a joint. Did the family grow its own, Blair wondered, or had Julie contracted out for that too.

The back door was unlocked.

Jim walked in, soft-footed and cautious. Again he paused and made a gesture demanding continued quiet from Blair, and also some physical distance; the latter was reluctantly given. Then Jim pushed open a door with the hand that didn’t hold his gun.

“Good morning, Julie.”

She had two laptops stacked together carried in her hands. She wore a jacket and sensible shoes, and when she saw Jim she let the laptops fall to the floor and reached for one of the jacket pockets.

“Freeze!” Jim shouted with a reflex that belonged to a past life; Julie ignored him and Jim fired. The gun was fitted with a silencer, but the noise still seemed to shatter the air. It was the event that Blair had feared would come out of these circumstances from the moment Jim woke him. Julie fell but even on the floor she desperately fumbled for the pocket of her jacket. She had little time for the attempt – Jim had always been quick and he turned her, ignoring the cry of pain, to deftly take away a pistol.

“Find some towels, Sandburg.”

Blair did so, scrambling up the hallway and throwing open doors until he found a bathroom. He dumped the two towels he found there at Jim’s feet and then hunted for a linen closet and ransacked that. Jim was ruthlessly pressing towels against Julie’s side; his phone lay on the floor when Blair came back to what he finally registered was a living room.

“I’ll call an ambulance,” he said.

“No you won’t, Blair.” Jim concentrated on his work. His hands were bloody now. “I called Tony; he’ll arrange everything that’s needed.”

Shock was catching up fast with Blair. “Live by the family, die by the family, huh?”

“You could say that. Could you put Julie’s toy somewhere safe for me? My hands are busy.” So they were. Blair stooped and retrieved the gun and put it on a shelf at the other end of the room.

Julie’s face was bone-white. “I thought I had another hour.”

“I think you were supposed to think that.”

“God, Ryan.” It was said with weary exasperation.

“Ryan McConnell?” Jim shook his head at the look of surprise. “He’s the only Ryan among Tony’s people, and it would be obvious to feed fake information to a suspect.”

Julie had fallen not far from an armchair. Blair sat in it and looked down into her pale, strained face.

“Why?” he asked.

“Why you?”

“Why any of it?”

“Nick and I, we’re good. But were we going anywhere? No. Nick was trying to play the game, but he didn’t get that it isn’t a game.” The declaration left her panting, and Blair could see the futile effort she made to control her breathing.

A growled, derisive noise came from Jim. “You’ve got money to burn and a career where you could use your skills at something you loved. You killed at least four people; tried to kill at least two more because you weren’t appreciated.” The last word slipped out with a venomous twist.

“What would you know? Peggy Turlough’s long-lost baby freak... her Crown Prince and you don’t even want it.”

Out of everything that had happened recently, that was what sparked rage in Blair. He stood, unable for once to find words, filled with a simple brutal urge for violence, a sick impulse to kick the woman lying wounded on the floor.

It wasn’t in him. Jim wouldn’t want Blair’s violence anyway. He supposed that Julie had successfully got a hit in after all, but Jim’s hands stayed steady and gentle at their task of staunching Julie Berends’ blood despite the frozen, blank face that actually shooting her hadn’t put on him.

The noise at the front and back doors was discreet but Blair was stretched taut. He flinched and moved for the door to the hallway.

“Stay still, Sandburg!” Jim snapped, and Blair obeyed, the knuckles of his clenched fists pressing into a tabletop as men and women - family security, not police - burst into the room. There was a whirl of quiet, competent activity, but never any police. Jim went to wash his hands, and then he led Blair away from Julie’s living room and the bloody towels that still lay on the carpeted floor.

They got in the car and Jim turned on the ignition.

“We’re just going to drive off now?” Blair asked. “You’ve shot someone, admittedly someone who was trying to shoot you and… what? We go home now?”

“We meet at the plant. I figure Tony will need an update. Then, yeah, we go home.”

“And what happens then?”

“The family Star Chamber will make some decisions and hand down judgement.”

“And are you going to be included in that judgement?”

“I did what was necessary, no more.” Jim gripped Blair’s hand a moment. “Let’s get through the rest of tonight before we borrow trouble, Chief. Okay?”

“Yeah, sure.” Blair made a jittery, shooing motion with one hand. “Drive. Let’s go give Tony his update.”

The activity at the plant was far less discreet than outside Julie’s house and this time they were waved through the gates without any delay. Harve Van Dorp met them and escorted them to a part of the building that Blair remembered from the other day (less than twenty-four hours, my god, he thought), and opened the door into a meeting room.

Jim made to step through and then stopped short. “I think you’ve made a mistake,” he said to Van Dorp, and walked briskly down the hall towards a cubicle area. Blair looked in the door and saw Nick and an older woman. Nick looked shattered. His face was haggard and his eyes red, as if he’d been crying. The woman stared at Blair with a self-possessed, steely hatred. She was, Blair realised, almost certainly Helen Berends, Nick and Julie’s mother.

He hastily shut the door and hissed at van Dorp, “What the hell do you think you’re doing!” At the man’s nonplussed look, Blair hauled him by the arm down the hallway in the wake of Jim’s retreat and spoke more loudly. Too loudly, he knew it, but he couldn’t keep his voice down. “Go and update your briefing and find somewhere for Mr Ellison and me to wait that’s *private* and away from the Berends family. And do it right the fuck now!”

Van Dorp nodded and backed off, leaving Blair and Jim to sit very much at loose ends inside someone’s office cubicle.

“Well, that was awkward,” Jim said quietly. He sat bowed forward, his elbows resting on his knees, his hands clasped. Blair couldn’t sit, not in a chair anyway. He leaned against the desk and looked over the cubicle divider, on alert and on edge.

“It was more than awkward. Are you okay?”

“Okay as I ever am after this kind of thing. I’m thinking of doing some calming breathing. How about you?”

“I’m fine.”

“The hell you are,” Jim said, straightening in his chair. “Come on, sit down with me here.”

Unwillingly, Blair drew up another chair and sat opposite Jim. Their knees touched and Jim reached out and took Blair’s hands in his. Jim’s hands were cool, and Blair’s no better.

“What’s up with you? I’ve seen you calmer after bigger messes.”

“You said it yourself before. The family Star Chamber.” Jim squeezed his hands. “How do we know how all this will work out? If you’d been a cop, IA would have signed off on what happened, it was plain self-defence. There would have been a process that I’d understand. But this? Jesus, Jim, I’m just kind of lost right now, and that’s so damn selfish of me, but I’m scared for both of us.”

“It’ll be okay. I saw some of how this works out with Paulie. It will be okay, Blair. Just relax, just breathe.”

Breaking out my first name, Blair thought. That was always a momentous sign, for good or bad, on Jim’s part and there’d been a lot of it recently. But he was no use to Jim or himself in a state of panic, and he concentrated on the cool, steady hands in his and tried to breathe, just breathe.

***

The family had its own form of due process, but not any form that Blair was permitted to observe. Everything he learned of it he got from Jim. There would apparently be a dry, coded review for a slightly wider range of eyes at the next family oversight meeting. Blair wouldn’t officially be party to that either.

What he did learn was unsatisfying, especially when it came to Julie Berends’ fate.

“Oh for fuck’s sake. If she’d gone through the justice system she’d probably be on death row. I wouldn’t want that, but come on!”

“She has a brilliant mind. For chemistry at least.” ESPN flickered on the tv screen and Jim stared at it even though Blair knew his thoughts were nowhere near football.

Blair leaned on his elbows on the back of the chair and stared at Jim’s handsome but uncommunicative profile . “She’s dangerous, and the higher-ups know that. Give her a cushy number and some opportunity and she’ll be back assassinating people for revenge instead of gain, and you’ll be right at the top of her list!”

Jim glanced towards him a moment before he returned his gaze to the NFL summary. “That hasn’t escaped me. So what would you like the family higher-ups to do instead?”

“I’d like to see her ass in jail. I’d like to see her in a prison uniform eating prison slop.”

“So would I. But that might get me killed if I arranged it, and maybe you as well. The ultimate crime in the family is always going to be bringing in outsiders where they don’t belong.”

“You can’t tell me Peggy is okay with this!”

“My mother expressed strong reservations about sequestering Julie. She wasn’t alone in that. As I understand it.” Jim shrugged. “California is a death penalty state, and some of the family were pretty eager to take a lead from wider society for a change.” Jim rubbed his forehead. “Some of them probably wish that I’d aimed better. It would have made for a more palatable set of complications.”

Blair’s arms moved from the chair-back to around Jim’s shoulders as he pressed his face against Jim’s. “No! No way! You are nobody’s executioner.”

“Calm down there, tiger,” Jim said. “I agree with you on that.” The words were light; Jim’s hands reached up to keep Blair’s arms wrapped around him and they leaned together for long moments.

Blair sighed and carefully untangled himself. “Dinner is ready. I don’t have any family business to deal with because anyone with any authority is tied up with this mess.” He raised his hands, trying to dismiss the worst of the anger and the stress. “I wonder how many people not in the hierarchy still end up with the details anyway because their significant others and their friends spill the beans.”

“Do I need to give you a lecture on in-group dynamics?” Jim asked.

Blair snorted. “There could be entertainment value in it whether or not you knew what you were talking about. We might as well eat.” He walked to the kitchen and Jim followed him. “It could afford to wait, I made a casserole, but still, it’s probably waited long enough now.”

Jim only nodded, but he got out the plates and silver ware. Dinner it was, chicken and vegetables slow-cooked in a Provencal style. It tasted good and they both finished their meals.

After dinner Blair called Naomi. He tended to email her more than call – it was easier that way. He feared the day that she rolled into LA and he’d have to lie to her, but that was still a better option than cutting her out of his life. He was glad he didn’t have to hurt her that way.

“Hey, Ma.”

“Blair.” She was as delighted to hear from him as always. “You sound a little tired, sweetie.”

Lying to her was going to need a very convincing set-up. They had the start of it arranged but that was something else Blair would need to review. “A crap day with colleagues, that’s all. It was time I caught up with you, and maybe some maternal love and wisdom will cheer me up, right?”

She laughed at that, and Blair steered the conversation to Naomi’s life rather than his own, although he told a couple of stories about idiot students at the Charles E. Young for local colour. When the call was done, he did feel better.

Jim had sat down opposite him about halfway through the conversation, necessarily silent as the grave.

“Naomi sounds like she’s well.”

“Yeah, she’s having a good time. The current guy sounds decent; she’s found her niche with his business. She might even stay put in Maryland a while.”

“That would be convenient, yes.”

“I was thinking about that when I was talking to her – the fact that she’s eventually going to end up here in LA. Do you think that Tony can put a convincing friend cohort together for me?”

“If anyone can, he can. And you’re thinking about doing a little real anthropology. That would give you some local cover.”

“True.” Blair stared at his feet a moment and then said, “Your dad knows you’re alive. And the hierarchy must know that too because Peggy was pissed over it back when you were trying to keep me away.”

He got a very pointed “And?” expression from Jim.

“I can see how you and Peggy have worked it out, but Bill was the one who brought you up, and I know you had your issues, but he isn’t getting any younger and he’s not going to get access to the best family goodies.”

“I’m officially dead, Chief.”

“Sure, you couldn’t visit Cascade but there’s no reason that he couldn’t visit LA. LA is a big place.”

Jim shrugged. “There are always deals in the family, you know that. And my dad isn’t part of the deal.”

“He should be.” Jim actually smiled. “What?” Blair demanded.

“It was just something that I thought sometimes – that Dad would have been an asset.”

“I am not talking about the dubious at best business practices that keep us luxuriously fed and clothed, Jim.”

“I know, I know.” The humour was gone. “You’re right, he does know, it’s stupid to pretend he doesn’t, but rewriting the original deal would be …complicated.”

“Especially since you’ve got me now. Bringing yet more outsiders into the family compound would be stretching the rules even though you were a sterling support in tracking down Julie?”

“That didn’t necessarily make me popular. I don’t see Nick scheming for a weekend on the water any time soon, unless he plans on drowning me. But yeah, it’s a balance. It’s enough that you’ve got Naomi, and I don’t mean that the way the broader family would. I mean that that I’m okay with you having that. I’m okay.”

“Yeah, I hear you. But it would be cool if you could have a little something extra too. So how do we get you the influence to rewrite the original deal?”

Jim’s tension had noticeably increased throughout this conversation. Blair figured that his had too, but he needed to know where this trail of thought might lead and he leaned towards Jim and tried to look encouraging.

“You know what influence means in this set-up.”

“I know that it presents some difficult moral questions.”

Jim laughed – it was a darker amusement than when he’d contemplated Bill’s presence in the family. “Moral questions. We’re hip deep in those now, and you want us up to our necks or deeper? And what if we go under, professor, what then?”

“Well, we learn to swim or else we drown, I guess. But if we stay… Jim, I know what we’re up against here, but the only other option is running.”

Jim nodded heavily. “I knew that back when Mother first approached me. I knew that if I did run I had to take you with me.”

“But you didn’t.” It would always be a sore point, for both of them.

“You had things to lose. You still do.”

“We both had things to lose. Both of us.”

“So I should take up the mantle of Peggy Turlough’s Crown Prince? Work for my seat in the Star Chamber? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Let’s face it – Peggy would be glad of it. And I think that we could be an influence for good.”

A tilt of Jim’s head acknowledged that Blair had a point. “If we don’t drown in all that money. I get what you’re saying but I don’t have to like it.”

“I don’t have to like it either but I still have to say it.”

“Let me think on it.”

“Sure.” Blair stood. Jim looked at him, as unsettled as Blair but there was something openly resigned in his face. “If you need any help with the thinking you know where to find me.”

Jim smiled at that, rueful. “You made sure of that, didn’t you.”

Blair shrugged. “I think we do better together. We always did,” he said and headed for the safety of the kitchen. He knew he needed an escape when the prospect of cleaning looked good but Jim followed him.

Blair turned, not wanting to hurt Jim but aware that he needed some space. Moral questions. Legal questions. Ethical questions. They’d face all those and more no matter what they chose.

Jim, unexpectedly, kept a little distance. “You cooked. I can clean up, play to our respective strengths.” He was gently droll, and held that tone as he continued. “Go for a drive. Or read one of those anthropology journals. We can think later, you know?”

Blair nodded. “Yeah, yeah. I figure I’ll go for a drive, that’s a good idea.”

Jim leaned in for a kiss on his temple. “See you later, honey.”

“Bastard,” Blair said, but he had a stupid grin on his face anyway.

***

Blair sat cross-legged on the floor, sorting though his files and Jim was stretched out in an armchair, reviewing the current crop of general family updates. A printout of Blair’s most recent review on the progress of Jim’s half-siblings was near the top. Blair had somewhat shyly asked for Jim’s input and Jim had agreed, although with some mocking fear when he’d seen the tables Blair had laid out. ‘Trying to scare me off with maths?’ he’d queried, but Blair knew that he’d looked once at it and was letting some questions digest.

“Sentinel camp’s coming up soon,” Jim said.

“Hence the paper. I have a standing invitation for camp; I think I should take advantage.”

Jim looked up from his work. “I was thinking I should go with you this time.”

“Really? “

Jim grinned at Blair’s shock. “Yeah, really, Chief. I’ve spun my wheels long enough. I chose to come into this shit show, and the younger sentinels are literally blood-family. I did care about what happened to them from the start, even if I didn’t get up close and personal.”

“An up close and personal view of what it’s like to be a sentinel outside of the current family expectations might be useful. You could give them something to aspire to,” Blair joked.

Jim grimaced at that but the distaste settled into something more thoughtful and more troubled. “Things are getting busier in the labs, Chief. There might not just be my mother’s direct sentinel line coming up, and I want some sort of supervision that’s not just about how useful the genes could be.”

Blair had been allowed to see that particular report. He also knew that there was agitation for both physical and psychological profiling for the guides of the more successful pairings, successful meaning the pairings where the sentinels were notably skilled with their abilities. Blair was not comfortable at the idea of being investigated and wasn’t comfortable with the irony of that either. “You want to set a tone.”

“Damn straight I do.”

“Well, then, something to look forward to.”

“That’s one way of putting it,” Jim said dryly.

He put one set of papers aside but before he could pick up the next Blair had stood. He straddled Jim’s legs and leaned down, his hands on the chair arms.

“Oh, I get it. We talk about sentinels and you get hot.” Blair could only presume that was how Jim wanted him, because he’d leaned back in the chair, openly relaxed and openly on display.

Blair went for a different sort of openness. “It’s more you purposeful and protective. That always did have an effect on me.”

“Is that so?” Jim said. One hand closed around one of Blair’s wrists in a warm, possessive grip that jolted through the desire building in Blair. The clasp was strong and sure, but there was something uncertain in Jim’s face. It showed now and again, the look of a man who couldn’t quite believe the evidence of his senses; that Blair was there, that he wanted Jim.

Blair could understand that. Sometimes people needed reassurance. He leaned in and watched how Jim’s head tilted back, the hopeful expression in his eyes, and offered up some reassurance in the form of a kiss. There was plenty where that came from.