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The Path of Strangers

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Prologue:

1998: Geneva, Switzerland.

The brown folder fell shut with a soft slap. Even when most things arrived electronically, Nemesis still generated an enormous amount of paper, not least because of one of the quirks of its head, Richard Barrett. His opinion was, it might be old fashioned, but it did make it easier to keep the older files up to date. And so, knowing his quirks, he got most things the same way as ever, but just as the world seemed to become smaller, so the pile on his desk got bigger. There were more reports every year, and all of them seemed to cross his desk at some point, usually sooner rather than later. This one though... this was not an official report. A contact -- a friend of a friend who now knew just enough to be a threat, had emailed it to a supposedly private account just hours before its official withdrawal. If a man in his position ever had such a thing as privacy. It had appeared within scant minutes of the first media frenzy, and long before its author had withdrawn it in a depressingly sordid press conference, declaring it a fake, a fictitious fraud. He'd read most of it in the last three hours, riveted, letting his perception of the world shift and remold to include things he had no idea were possible.

It would have made fascinating reading no matter what. He had lived with extraordinary abilities for so long - hidden them so long, that this external validation was mind-blowing. He didn't even care about the retraction, the truth shone through every word of the stolen thesis. And it was merely one of those unpleasant ironies of life that the author was one Blair Sandburg: a boy who had been of interest since before his birth, because of who his mother was. There were always levels and levels of importance. And this one... This one didn't even have a code. Just a couple of names, flagged to alert agents anywhere if they came up. Certain words. An eye to be kept on a small, unremarkable city. The file was large, but only because he had kept everything since the very first day, because of her. And now he didn't know what to do. It was never supposed to be needed. He'd never wanted to use any of it.

Barrett turned his chair away from the file on his desk, absently watching the sunlight dance on the waves of Lac Leman. The mild spring day had brought some sail boats out, and they lanced across the lake, red and white sails bright against the darkness of the deep, blue water. Far beyond, the Jungfrau loomed, the Ice Maiden of the Alps standing with her blued mountain range. For once she stood sharp and clear, no clouds to obscure the view. In all the time he had been based in Geneva, the view was never the same twice, always something new to startle or catch the eye, but at the same time it didn't change, the great mountains standing guard over the neutrality of one of the smallest, and richest, countries in the world.

Once he had watched those mountains from the other side of this same desk. Back in the seventies, Robert Tremayne sat where he was now, to give him and his fellow agents missions. He'd been young then, only thirty. Still almost innocent, but so sure he'd seen it all, knew it all. Tremayne was long since retired, and Barrett had seen other directors come and go, quietly working and waiting. He'd returned to his homeland, moving out of Nemesis fifteen years ago, only to be invited back, some eight years later, to take over at the top.

It was a compliment, to be sure. Sometimes he wondered who disliked him enough to put such 'compliments' his way, but all in all, he would not be anywhere else. Who else could he trust with the reports of the strange and unpredictable. No one else would touch them. They were too embarrassing to the individual countries concerned, something they would rather cover up, pretend had never happened. He was the clean up man, the one who went in where sanctions and action had failed, who cleaned out wasps nests before they took over the world. To him, agencies like the SIS, the CIA, they were foot soldiers. Good people, but small thinkers, not interested in the bigger picture. His team were. He was. It was his job, more than anyone else's, to see the whole picture - and unify it. Nemesis had no allegiances except to the UN, and to the greater well being of mankind. If anything, his teams were the truly special agents. And to be frank, he enjoyed it, sending out his people to fix the random strangenesses that no one else wanted to deal with. The clues that no one else had put together. Assignments so secret that as far as the world was concerned, they barely existed. And so dangerous that the fate of the world rested on the cusp of their success or failure. His agency and his agents so classified that they were almost a myth -- and among those who did know, more than a legend.

Sunlight glittered off the water, and he blinked, half blinded, his train of thought broken. For all the seeming peace of the waters, it was a ready metaphor for his life, for his work. What lay beneath was hidden and dangerous, and yet he knew those secrets. He knew what lay beneath those waves. What lay below the city he lived in, and cities around the world whose inhabitants worked and lived in careless peace, human waves upon deeps they had no understanding of. And these were the easy secrets. Others were better hidden, and still he knew them.

This report... He drew a deep breath, and deliberately relaxed the tension in his shoulders. Some things went too close to the bone these days. Maybe he had learned to care more, not less. Whatever it was, he found himself -- concerned. Not afraid, but this, of all the secrets and all the lies, was the one that had to be kept hidden. He wondered briefly, not for the first time, if it would be so bad to reveal all. If the paternalistic attitude of lies and secrecy in reality did more harm than good. These days, it was his choice. He was the man, ultimately, who chose what versions of reality were seen by the outside world. And yet, he was merely a man himself. One with a thirty year old secret that was dangerously close to becoming public knowledge. And however much he wondered, he kept the secrets, repeated the lies.

If it had been anything else - any one else, he would have acted instantly, ruthlessly eliminating the problem. This indecisive hesitation was uncharacteristic. His dilemma was perfectly balanced between fear for himself, and fear for the boy. Chilled, he wondered how many others would see this fiasco and look deeper, maybe even find some of the secrets, and wondered if this was what truly held him back, not the danger implicit to the boy, but the dangers that it might bring on himself, rocking his safe existence.

Or was it just that he was unexpectedly, still only human. He shook his head. Could he still believe in compassion, decency -- in miracles, despite the many hard, cruel decisions he had been forced to? In a sense, he had to. His own extraordinary abilities were a constant reminder of extreme possibilities. His work the reminder of what humans could do to people like him and to people who had so little in common with him he could only attempt to protect them from the evil that engulfed their lives. And so, when he did what he had to, it was always for a greater good. He could not always acknowledge, or forget, those who were lost, or died, or stolen away, whether his own people, or innocents caught up in a world they could not be permitted to escape. Sometimes incarcerated, treated for non-existent mental disorders, imprisoned for fictitious crimes, or simply locked away, far from the danger that they should ever speak of what they knew. Simply because the secrets still had to be kept.

To paraphrase an old friend, he kept the world smelling, if ever so faintly of roses. Something like this should be either a problem to be suppressed, or an advantage to be used. Not a problem to be dithered over. He knew what should happen. A couple of agents could be diverted from a closing operation in Asia in a matter of hours. It would take no more than a few key strokes. A scant few seconds. An order to pick up and deliver for evaluation... An accident or some other simple way to engineer a silent disappearance would be no more than routine. But he couldn't. There had to be another solution, but he couldn't see it, couldn't think to judge clearly what the consequences might be. This one reminded him of promises, of a hard, cruel choice made years before and always regretted. And of a debt owed. This one was different.

Exceptions could be made, even from duty. Had been made, for less worthy reasons in the past. Ultimately, it was his choice - no one would ever ask him why this one and not that, it was his power to use, or abuse. Even if they did speculate in private that the old man was losing his touch. Thirty years before, the man then at the top of Nemesis should have eagerly assigned Barrett to a lab. Yet if Tremayne had ever suspected that his best team had more to them than met the eye, he never mentioned it, never questioned it, and never allowed it to be questioned. Shortly after Barrett took over the agency, he had pulled everything that Nemesis held on him - the reports, the transfer requests - the curt demands from their respective governments for the summary return of Richard himself and the other two members of his team. Tremayne had protected them. Craig and Sharron were both safely in new lives, well hidden from those who might use them, and as for he himself, he was out on open ground, playing a man nearing sixty, hiding the healthy hair and unlined skin with smoke and mirrors - and a good working knowledge of cosmetics...

It didn't mean they were safe. When he had broken thirty year seals on some reports, he discovered the contents long gone, fictional accounts of missions in their place, hiding any evidence that there was something more. Whether Tremayne, or some unknown other had taken them, well, who could say. Even if it all came back to bite them it wasn't as if they were unprepared. Trails, pockets of misinformation and unexpected payments had been laid long since. Contacts had been well paid to give out or not give out, information that ultimately led nowhere. A Swiss bank account was set up, the anonymous account just visible enough in the half hidden records that it could be found.

A double blind, to distract interest from -- other things. They set it up, leaving a path that led, by circuitous and many layered routes, back on itself, in a loop that would keep anyone well away from the real secrets. Paranoia, honed by the instincts of a thirty year cold war, held strong, and even now they kept it up. Eventually, inevitably, someone would want to investigate them, so they gave them something to investigate, making it just odd enough to look underhand and just legitimate enough to hold someone digging for a long, long time, looking for the dirt that wasn't there, but looked just out of reach.

They had always known there was a danger. They'd been horrified when she told them about the child. The two men wanted her to abort it, but she had been deep undercover, investigating a complex arms running operation, and by the time she came back out from under it was too late. He hadn't felt this indecisive since that day more than thirty years before, when she'd handed him the child, minutes old, and told him to go. He shouldn't have even been there - Tremayne would have had a fit if he'd known.

He'd been an agent back then, on active duty with Nemesis, but he'd dropped everything, he and Craig both dangerously close to breaking their own covers. She'd been in too deep to come out from under, so they had gone in too, against Tremayne's express orders. Orders that he had given knowing what would follow if she were left in Taley's organization. Nemesis was not, he had snapped curtly, to be abused for petty personal concerns. Much too late, even if she had not been reluctant to make such a cold choice. And then it was too dangerous to let anyone know, either on their side or on the enemies - the child's father's side... No. More than that -- If their own abilities were best kept secret, what would happen to a child born with them... back then they had no idea even if he would be born with them.

Richard frowned and closed his eyes, tired. The boy had never shown signs of the taint - the gift of the mysterious Tibetans who had rescued and healed them after that catastrophic plane crash more than thirty years before. If it carried in the genes, then all hell would break loose eventually, there was no doubt of it. And perhaps today was the one he had feared. No, not feared exactly. More, held at the back of his mind, waiting, poised to deal with it. In a strange way it was a relief to start acting, stop waiting.

He turned back, eyes slitted open as though tired, tilting the chair until he could stare at the ceiling. The comb bound document tucked inside the anonymous folder, thick and weighty, sat on his desk, remarkably silent for something that had caused such agitation. He had not missed the irony, the very thing they most feared, blared across the media and the net, but not connected to them. Probably not. Not unless someone dug long and hard.

Enough odd things crossed his desk that one more would not make a difference. Maybe. The crucial thing was not to show his hand officially, not show an interest... If he intervened it could be worse, not better. Uneasily he rolled the pen round his fingers, and back again. The lines deepened on his forehead, as he considered and he tapped at the report thoughtfully. This wasn't something he could entrust to anybody in Nemesis.

His eyes rested absently on an old photograph, then focussed, widened, and a slow smile spread over his face. It might have been a few years since he had been out in the field, but he wasn't nearly as out of practice as his agents liked to think. He grinned a little viciously. No, there was a lot his agents didn't know about him... He reached for his mobile and hit a number on his speed dial.

"It's me. That marker you owe me - I have a use for it..."

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

1969: Somewhere in Europe

"There must be another way!" Sharron was weeping, pale and exhausted after the birth. She cradled the tiny infant on her raised knees, tracing the small face with tender fingertips. The soft down of hair was fair, and the eyes blue, like her own. Her son watched her solemnly, one fist waving randomly until Craig slipped a finger into the tiny fist and smiled as the child gripped tightly.

"Sharron..." Richard didn't even need to finish the sentence. They had agreed to this. None of them were going to risk their lives, and that of the baby, by letting any word of this get out. He swallowed though when she looked directly at him. "I know..."

//I don't want to lose him... He's so little. Can't we keep him safe? Craig?//

//You know we can't.// Craig shifted to put an arm around her, cuddling her close as much for his own comfort as for hers.

She almost lost control of her face, tightening her lips in an attempt not to beg.

"I know," Richard said softly, coming round to the other side of the bed. "I love him too, but you're not going to miss him that much Sharron--no," he said quickly as sensed her anger. "Can't you feel him?"

She stared at Richard for a moment, then at Craig, who nodded encouragingly. A moment's hesitation, then she dropped her eyes to the unfocussed blue of her son. She closed her own and reached -- and found him, a formless bundle of wonder and curiosity, seeing through his eyes her face, and feeling the burn to learn, know, understand.

"Is that him, or all children?" She asked softly, eyes opening again to watch him. "Do you suppose they all feel that instinct to learn?" The two men gave no reply, knowing it was rhetorical. "Amazing child. Will you be like us, baby? Or will you be like we used to be?" She leaned forward and pressed a kiss to his forehead. "Don't lose that urge to learn, baby mine, maybe even one day you'll figure this out and find me. Take care." For a moment she clutched him tight, silent tears running down her face, pouring love and comfort into the tiny mind. "You're loved. Whatever happens little one, you're loved..." One last kiss, then she lifted him a little and passed him to Craig.

"We'll look after him, Sharron. Even if we can't be with him, we can watch out for him," the tall American said hoarsely. He held the child away from him for a long moment, reaching into the formless mind. //remember me...// He swallowed. "We'll keep your baby safe," he promised, and he kissed the child too. Richard reached out and Craig reluctantly passed him to the shorter Englishman. Richard gently folded another blanket around the small form.

"I'll look after him. Trust me. He'll be as safe as I can make him." He held Sharron's eyes for a long moment, then leaned down to kiss her forehead and left as her eyes closed, leaking slow tears.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Cascade, Washington - Three months later

Jim grunted and turned over, unwittingly tangling the blue sheets even tighter around his legs. He kicked in protest, just awake enough not to tear them, and freed his feet. He rolled over again and burrowed deeper into the comfortable pillows. The open windows, air conditioning, and fans fruitlessly moved the air around the open plan apartment, leaving it still muggy and hot. He thumped at his pillow, and drifted slowly back into sleep, allowing his senses to sweep his home briefly before relaxing completely. All was well. In seconds he was deep asleep despite the humidity of the sweltering June night.

Below him the silence spread and lengthened, until the faint, slow sounds of sleep were the only noise inside. The sound of late traffic broke in from the street with a single engine roar, and the distant sounds of sirens, echoing in a city which was never fully silent.

Slowly, so slowly that it was more like the drift of darkness across the room, a black clad shadow uncoiled and moved. Soundlessly, barely even breathing, it glided away from the half open balcony doors, its very silence more unnerving than any footfall could ever be.

The man paused as he reached the center of the room, head cocked, listening. The restlessness had faded from upstairs. Ellison was asleep. He frowned: he could hear the uneven breathing of waking misery in the small room off to the side. He shrugged fractionally, the thought clear in his body language. If Sandburg was still awake, he wasn't listening to anything beyond his own troubles. He stumbled in the dark, the soft scuff of his foot against the floor harsh and loud. Breath held, he froze. There was no sound from up the stairs, nor movement from the other room. He untensed, and crouched by the coffee table.

A small flashlight flicked on, half shielded by his hand, and danced across the cluttered surface. Books, papers, and magazines were ignored, the little circle of light stopping only when it passed over a closed laptop. The man grinned and eagerly reached for it. He ran his fingers over the case. They caught on a sticky patch, the peeling corner of a label. The light slid over it, 'Property of Blair Sandburg' and a neatly printed phone number were illuminated black on white. He instantly snapped the light off, scooping the computer up and tucking it under one arm. He headed back to the balcony doors, which hung open, the warm breeze pushing them gently to and fro.

As he reached them, he hesitated, thinking for the space of a few breaths. He drew a deep breath, and quietly he turned to one side, to the closed French doors. He held still, cautious, before cracking the curtained doors open a little way, and peering through into the darkness there.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Blair was not asleep. The loft was quiet and dark, and three in the morning was way past time for any self respecting cop to be in bed. It wouldn't have been so strange for a student, but ... He turned restlessly in his bed, further rucking the damp sheets, and he kicked at them angrily, knocking half of them to the floor. His brain felt sluggish, had done for weeks. He should be fast asleep, exhausted as usual, instead he lay curled up, eyes unseeing, staring at the wall, only the slow movement of his chest and the noiseless trickle of tears to show he was even alive. Maybe it was just too hot to sleep, the humidity almost unbearable. Maybe...

Maybe it wasn't really as bad as it seemed. Maybe he could wake up and it would be a dream. "I wish I had drowned," he thought slowly, tiredly. He hadn't panicked like this for weeks - months. He'd been too busy to stop and freak the way that the back of his mind insisted he should. Now, safely out of university, through the academy, ensconced in Major Crimes as though nothing else had ever existed, he could fall apart.

He crooked his arm and pushed his face into the warm hollow. He still had a home. He even had a job for when his student loans fell due. But he didn't have what he most wanted. Most days it was okay, working with Jim 'properly'. There was nothing stopping him being an anthropologist, he told himself, again, he just couldn't study with others, couldn't publish... would never have the respect of colleagues and students that had seemed so important, once. Sometimes it still did. Sometimes... like now, 3 am and alone in his tiny room, the books and tools of his former trade around him, looming large in his mind's eye, malevolent ghosts, haunting him.

Oh, to have it back... he let himself touch the core of it, his heart's desire: the endless days where he had had it all. There hadn't been much money, and he'd been terrified half out of his mind sometimes -- and in real danger of his life sometimes. But he'd been happy, helping Jim in every way he could, but still teaching and learning at the university. He didn't want it to end, had never wanted it to all blow up in his face.

He choked back his misery. That wasn't going to do any good. Besides, Jim would hear. He didn't know which would be worse - if Ellison came down and asked what the matter was - or if he didn't.

He straightened, scrubbing his face on his arm, and lying back. He took a deep breath. Another one. He was just starting to relax, thinking carefully of nothing at all when a tiny sound froze him. He held utterly still. It was probably just Jim. Just Jim in the kitchen. His back crawled. Someone was watching him. He barely even breathed, and could have sworn that he heard a faint laugh.

Casually he rolled over again, letting one arm end up across his face where he could squint out from under it, seeing without being seen. A dark shadow was right next to his bed, leaning over his desk, carefully sorting through the untidy contents.

"Hey!" He sat up and grabbed for the man. A pair of dark eyes glinted, and lips parted in a small white smile.

"Go to sleep, it's okay. Shhh."

Blair's hand touched the stranger's sleeve, meaning to halt him. His eyes widened when he saw his laptop tucked under one black clad arm, and opened his mouth to yell to wake Jim.

"Uh uh. You go to sleep," the other said firmly, and Blair found himself falling sluggishly back to the bed.

"Drugged me... must have drugged.." was his last thought, chased into oblivion by a quiet laugh, and a man's voice saying, "Well, let's hope we're done here. Good luck, kid."

Blair was almost too far under to recognize the kiss pressed onto his forehead. Panic caught at him, but he tumbled headlong into oblivion, terrified of what he might find when he woke.

The intruder waited quietly until Blair was deep asleep. He left the flashlight off, unwilling to risk it in such proximity, but lifted the curtain slightly, so that moonlight poured across the face of the young man in the bed. Blair was sprawled out on his back, snoring jerkily, a pale sheet dragging half on the floor, half over his calves and feet. He smiled, and tugged it up, draping it over him, and watched silently until a restless movement broke him out of his fascination. Then he shook his head abruptly, turned on his heel and left. It had been a chance he should not have taken, but he couldn't resist. He slid the small computer into a bag slung over his shoulder and left the way he came in. Minutes later he was pulling away from Prospect, the stolen laptop safely in the seat beside him. He reached over to the hands free and autodialed a number. "Got it. You want me to investigate?"

"Affirmative. Keep me apprised. Out," the voice on the other end said dispassionately.

"Out." The dark haired man disconnected and smiled. A good night's work, he thought, and headed home.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

"Rise and shine!" Ellison rapped sharply on the door of Blair's bedroom, then stuck his head round the frame to check he was moving.

"Sddff," Jim wasn't quite sure what the words were but he got the general message.

"Shift starts in fifty-five minutes and counting. You wanna explain to Simon why you're not there or shall I?"

There was an even less intelligible growl, and Blair's head emerged, blinking and wincing, into the light.

"God, who turned the halogens on?"

"What?"

"Turn the damn light out!"

"Feeling a little fragile, Sandburg?" Ellison grinned as he started to pull the door to.

"Fuck off," the younger man growled, eyes tightly shut. He reached up cautiously, rubbing at his head and eyes, "God, I feel like someone's trampled all over the inside of my head, and topped it by leaving a jackhammer behind. Since we both just had the one beer last night, if I ever find out you think it's funny to spike my drinks you are going to be in a world of pain, Ellison."

Jim frowned. "You okay?" He stepped into the tiny bedroom and half reached to touch Blair, who didn't notice, too busy clutching at his pounding head.

"I feel like shit. What's your problem?"

"Take it easy. You want me to call you in sick?"

"No, no. I'll be fine. Let me get up, and I'll be okay."

Jim hesitated, "You sure?" he asked, starting to back out of the room.

"Sure I'm sure. See, almost there already." He swung his legs out of the bed and grabbed some clothes, heading for the bathroom.

"Breakfast in ten, Sandburg," Jim called after him, and grinned at the wave of one hand that was startlingly effective at indicating that Jim could take his breakfast and insert it where the sun don't shine...

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Sandburg staggered out twenty minutes later, dressed, but rubbing half heartedly at still damp hair. He grabbed the mug of coffee waiting for him on the side and inhaled it. "Thanks, man. Needed that." He glanced around, then frowned, eyes moving back to the middle of the room.

"What?" Jim asked, coming up beside him.

"Man, I wish you wouldn't do that."

Jim shrugged. "What is it, Chief?"

"Did you tidy my stuff away last night?" he asked anxiously. Jim began to worry, barely aware that his guide's heartbeat speeding up had started a similar reaction in himself.

"I went to bed before you, Sandburg. And if you think that's tidy..." He gestured at the mountain of deforestation littering the coffee table and surrounding area.

"No, c'mon, Jim, pay attention here. Where's my laptop?" he said urgently, rummaging through the clutter, and spreading the scene of devastation wider.

Ellison stared at him for a moment, then swept the loft with a long, searching look. "You sure you didn't put it away in your room? In your bag?"

Blair was already looking. "I can't see it - where is it - all my stuff was on that!"

Jim stiffened. "Stuff? You mean the sentinel stuff!! For fuck's sake! It's been three months! You're kidding, right? Shit, Sandburg, you mean after all that crap you put everyone through, you didn't destroy the damn thing?!" His voice rose until he was almost yelling.

"I was going to!" Blair was tearing his room apart. "I swear, it's all encrypted and protected. I was going to strip it down as soon as -- there hasn't been time, I can't believe this -- Jim?"

Ellison was sniffing around the coffee table. He straightened and headed towards the balcony doors. "Here. He got in here."

"Fuck!" Blair swore, coming out of his room, tugging distractedly at his hair. "I mean, shit, man." "Just one of them. Came in through here." He opened the doors. "Look, there's the marks. Grappling hook." He pointed to the fresh scarring on the rail. "But no scratches here," he said, examining the door frame, "they didn't force the lock. Must have had a skeleton key. Pro job." He walked slowly back in, Blair watching intently from his left as he took a deep breath. "Stand still, Chief. Let's see if I can pin this down." He drew in another deep breath. "We shouldn't have moved around so much. Air's all messed up. Okay. Okay, I'm getting this now."

"The a/c and fan'll have messed it up too. Focus-- " Blair said softly, stopping when Jim shook his head sharply, once.

"He waited here, leaned on the wall in the corner for a while, the smell is stronger there. He went over to the table..." Jim frowned. "I can smell him here too, but not up the stairs... I think he came into your room, but only just by the door. Touched your curtain too," he added, walking into the small room and sniffing intently. Blair tried not to grin at the sudden comparison that leapt to mind. "Seems he stood there for a while - not long."

"Great! Great!" Blair said sourly, "Our friendly neighborhood cat burglar is some kind of pervert too. And I thought getting murdered or kidnapped was bad enough!"

"Calm down, Chief. Maybe he came in here first, looking for the laptop," Jim suggested, peering at the curtains and floor in the hopes of finding physical evidence of the intrusion. He crouched, and used a handkerchief to lift a short dark hair from the ground.

"Why? Look, the computer was on top of everything on the table - it was the last thing I used last night, and it was right here." He gestured at the empty space, turning agitatedly back to his friend. "And for that matter, why didn't you hear him? What the hell happened? Were you off line? You not telling me stuff again?"

Jim glared at him, "Me? Who the fuck leaves sensitive material out in the open? It's been months, and you still 'hadn't got around to getting rid of it'. Your trouble is, you don't think, Sandburg!" He found a sandwich bag and slid the hair into it, sealing it. "This better not be one of yours, Sandburg," he threatened.

"I thought it was safe here! It was as safe as I could make it, and it was right under your nose! You can't tell me you wouldn't have thought the same thing. You always wake up, even if it's just me, and you're used to me wandering around. You tune me out. So why the hell didn't you wake up? What's wrong?" he asked worriedly, and went on more thoughtfully, "For that matter, why didn't I wake up? I mean, you're telling me this guy waltzed in, stole my stuff, and hung around to get a good look at me in bed. Which by the way totally creeps me out." He shook himself exaggeratedly, and Jim glanced at him sharply.

"Calm down. Okay?" He took a deep breath. "Could they break into your files?"

Blair shrugged, "I guess. If they had the time and resources it probably wouldn't take long. It wouldn't do them much good if they're careless - there're trips in there to destroy it if it's hacked into."

"So we've got some time then."

"Maybe."

"Okay. I'm calling Simon. We need Forensics here, and see if the street camera picked up anything."

"Right. Okay." Blair walked to the door and glanced back. "You want me to--" his voice trailed off. "Is there anything I can -- ?"

"Not wandering around over the evidence would be a start, Sandburg."

"Right, right. Look, Jim, who would do this? Why would they... "

Jim stared at him grimly.

"Oh man. God, I am, like, so so sorry. You don't think--? You do?" Blair ran a hand hard through his hair, pulling it back tightly. "Who?"

Jim shrugged somberly. "God knows. We'll find out soon enough."

Both men jerked in surprise as the phone rang.

"Ellison," Jim snapped.

"Jim, it's Simon."

"Simon, can you send--" he started, but was interrupted.

"Jim, you better come over to Rainier U. ASAP. There's been a break in and theft--"

"Blair's old office, right? Damn!" Jim finished.

Blair paled at his words. "God, no..." He said softly.

"His transcripts, files from the academic office - everything on him -- how did you know?" Simon asked sharply. "You and Sandburg better not be--"

"No. Someone turned over our place too. It's got to be connected. I'm betting our machines at the PD have been dumped as well. You might want to get Forensics to have a look at it, hang on -- what?" he growled at Sandburg who was waving frantically at him.

"They wouldn't need to physically access it. Get Serena's team to check for hacks into the building mainframe. But, Jim, they wouldn't have found anything, I wiped both those machines and rebuilt them myself."

Jim nodded curtly. "Blair says to check for hackers getting into the network."

"Damn, Jim, my leg's only just healed from the last time," Simon complained. "Is this going to be the same thing over again?"

"I hope not," Jim said grimly. "I don't think anyone bought that little display of Sandburg's." He glanced at the man who had been thrown out of his beloved academia, and met Blair's eyes squarely, "No one with any inkling of Sandburg's reputation and previous work that is."

Blair smiled faintly at him.

"If you thought Zeller was bad, you wait till every goon in DC gets here."

"What can I do, Jim?" Simon said, voice concerned.

"Check out Rainier. It's going to be a circus down there if anyone in the media puts this together. And get someone from Forensics over to the apartment--"

"Already on their way," Simon interrupted, the brief grin evident even over the phone.

"Thank you. Then I guess we'll just have to keep the wolves off."

"Hey, I resent that remark," Blair muttered.

"Yeah, well, I'll speak to you later." Jim hung up. "You got that, right?"

Blair nodded. "Most of it. It didn't make any difference, did it?" he said philosophically. "I gave it all up. Humiliated myself, dragged you and Rainier and the department through the mud, and I might as well not have even tried."

Jim looked helplessly at him, wishing there was something he could say. Any comfort would be a lie. "You tried. Don't think I don't appreciate it. Even if this blows up around our ears, you'll have done your best."

"Yeah. Best. If I'd really done that we wouldn't be in this mess." Blair muttered. "Dammit!" He hit his fist into the wall. "Are we going to survive this?"

Ellison half grinned at him. "Oh, we'll survive. We might not enjoy the ride or the results, but we'll survive."

Blair stared at him, then the moment passed, and he contented himself with a thump to Ellison's upper arm. "Glad one of us is an optimist," he smiled.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Forensics had been and gone, and the two men were just heading in to HQ when the radio crackled.

"Armed robbery in progress, Prospect and Twelfth." The two men glanced at each other.

"Show unit responding," Jim said curtly into the handset, flipped the siren and lights on, and dragged the truck round in a shrieking turn that left streaks on the asphalt.

"Acknowledged. Shots have been fired, repeat, shots have been fired."

Jim grunted, "Acknowledged, Control."

"Is this a good idea right now, Jim?" Blair said, frowning.

"It's Mrs. Benson's store." Jim said quietly. "We're barely a minute away."

"What? God, Jim, they're barely in business as it is!" Blair said in dismay. A moment later they were pulling up outside the little grocery store to join a patrol car already there. "What's happening?" he asked urgently.

Jim focused inside the building. Mrs. Benson herself was nowhere in sight, but her granddaughter, Mary-Jane was behind the till, her hands raised. Since Mrs. Benson had been widowed almost a year ago her granddaughter had quietly taken to doing the morning shift, letting her grandmother step back a little from the family business. He could hear her sobs. There were three men, in ski masks, the one closest to the till was carrying what appeared to be a sawn off shot gun. Ominously they were silent, the other two emptying the till while the third watched.

"Well?" Blair demanded.

"Mary-Jane's inside, and I can see three men, all armed."

"Is she okay?"

Jim quirked an eyebrow at his friend. "Bit young for you, short-eyes."

"For cryin' -- she's nineteen. I spent last summer coaching her through anthro 101, and they said shots were fired. Not everything's about sex, Jim."

"She's fine," Jim reassured him. He squinted, trying to see deeper inside. "Can't see, or hear, Mrs. Benson."

"She'll be at the clinic this morning," Blair informed him, and Jim nodded.

Several more police cars pulled up, and Jim got out of the truck. "Stay put," he called to his friend as he slammed the door. Blair shook his head, and slid out the other side.

"What've we got?"

"Three perps, mid to late twenties from witness reports," the police officer jerked his head towards a woman being comforted perched half on the back seat of one of the black and whites. "Ransacked the till and then holed up when they saw us get here."

"Right," Ellison nodded thoughtfully. "No demands?"

The other cop shrugged. "None yet. Still waiting for the negotiator to get here."

"Alternative routes into the shop?"

"We're guessing a back door."

Ellison just looked at him.

"Right. I'll get someone to check that now."

"I'll go," Jim said.

"Yeah," said Blair, popping up beside him.

Jim just sighed. "Fine, but put a vest on."

"You too."

"Fine."

Blair just grinned.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Two minutes later, they were sliding warily around the corner of the building, Jim first, gun out, listening. The girl's muffled sobs and the chime of loose change were the only sounds coming from the building. The door was shut, but only latched. He tried it and paused when Sandburg touched his shoulder.

"Anyone inside it?" Blair hissed, tight behind him.

Jim tilted his head. "No," he murmured and gently slipped the door open. It creaked horribly, and both men froze, Jim hearing their own cessation of movement echoed inside, and then the soft sounds of two of the criminals inside silently moving towards them.

"This is the Cascade P.D."

Jim flinched as the negotiator out front announced the P.D. presence through his megaphone. A hand on his back drew his attention away from the roar in his ears, and he nodded once.

"Okay?" Blair whispered.

"I'm fine," he nodded. He focused carefully, filtering out the sounds from the far side of the building, just concentrating on the soft, almost imperceptible footsteps approaching the back door. "They're coming up fast - be ready. Going in on three. One, two, three." He slammed the door wide open, knocking the first man off his feet. The second reacted instantly, lifting his gun. At barely four feet, he could hardly miss, the sound redoubled with Jim's gun nanoseconds later. Ellison grunted, and frowned. The man had fired a tranquilizer dart, not bullets.

"Get back, Sandburg, get back!" he yelled. He hastily yanked the dart out of the trauma plate in the vest, where it had embedded harmlessly directly over his heart, and chucked it to one side - they could retrieve it later. Right now he couldn't risk so much as a scratch without knowing what was in it. He couldn't be taken out of the fight. Sandburg would never be able to take all of them. He backed away, Blair still behind him.

"Jim!"

Ellison looked round at the gasp, his hearing still fuzzed out from the blasts of sounds. A van, black with heavily tinted windows, was pulling up, blocking off their exit from the alleyway. Blair grunted and wrestled away from the first man, who had gotten back up off the floor, and had caught him around the chest and stomach. Jim hesitated for a second, about to assist his partner when three men tumbled out of the van's side doors. He stepped to face them, bringing his gun up, but they were faster. Two grabbed him on either side while the third wrapped an arm viciously around his neck. They began to drag him struggling wildly towards the open door. A hard chop to his wrist knocked his gun away, and it slid across the ground, almost to Blair's feet. Blair dropped his head and bit the arm still wrapped around his chest, kicking back hard, followed up with a hard stamp on the man's foot. There was a grunt of pain, the arm loosened, and he shoved back hard, spinning away from his attacker, then dropped swiftly to the ground for the gun. He moved to a crouch, back to the wall, gun up.

"Let him go!" he yelled at the men holding his partner. They ignored him, and he lined up the weapon, trying for a clean shot where it would do most good. Jim was fighting wildly, but almost without effect; as fast as one man lost a grip the other two would take up the slack, and Blair didn't dare fire lest he accidentally hit Jim. He caught the glint of a hypo needle, and without thinking snapped off a shot, catching the man high in the right arm. He dropped the needle and swore, grabbing at the wound with his other hand. Jim took his chance and wrenched away from the man to his left, and slamming backwards against the one behind him. His head connected hard with the man's face and the chokehold around his neck loosened by a fraction.

He twisted hard, and kicked the legs out from under the man behind him, and gripped and twisted the other's arm until he had to let go or have the shoulder dislocate -- and then turned a little further. Blair flinched at the sharp crack as the shoulder popped, not noticing the last of the armed robbers emerging to his left from inside the building. By now there was a rush of police to the back, running up, and holding off as they saw the fight in progress.

"Drop your weapons," someone yelled, and Blair looked across, catching sight of the perp drawing a bead on Ellison's back as he broke free of the first one.

The negotiator tried again, "You are surrounded, put down your weapons and place your hands on your head!" as Blair pushed away from the wall, and ran, shouting a warning.

"Jim, look out!" There were gunshots, and he was thrown sideways across the alleyway, hitting the wall hard. One of the men in black stopped in his tracks, and turned on his comrade, a direct hit through the head dropping him where he stood. More weapons fire broke out, some from the police crouching behind their cars.

"Don't just stand there," the turncoat yelled. Jim wrenched away from the men trying to pull him into the van and scrambled to Sandburg, while the unexpected ally covered him. He crouched in front of him, and took aim with his backup as the cops at the front of the alleyway took control of the situation.

It was over in moments, five of the six men down, two dead, three injured, and the last one still standing, the one who had turned on his companions, waited for the cuffs, hands behind his head.

Jim ignored them, crouched over Blair, swearing as he realized that the Kevlar had done nothing to protect him. "Fuck." He pressed his hands over the entry and exit wounds, and tried to ignore the way his hand nearly slipped into the torn flesh where the bullet had left Sandburg's body.

The paramedics ran up, and moved in.

"Get the one on this side of him first," Jim snapped. "The exit wound's worse. I think these were armor-piercing bullets."

"No fucking kidding," muttered one medic as they turned Blair and caught sight of the injury.

"What's his name?" The second asked as he lifted away the clothes and taped a pressure bandage over the entry wound.

"Sandburg. Blair Sandburg."

"Right; Blair, can you hear me? I'm Mike, and I need you to answer me if you can." He pressed one eyelid open and shone a small light in. "Non-responsive. You got a pulse, Tyler?"

"Ahuh. 137. BP down as well, judging by the flow." He carefully placed a wide swathe of bandaging over the gaping hole, staunching the sluggish stream of blood. "Has he been unconscious long?"

"Since he was hit I think - but he was thrown into the wall, I think his head took a crack. Two minutes? No more."

Careful fingers gently felt through the hair. "Yeah, got a nice lump coming up. Okay. Let's get him up out this muck."

Jim slid an arm under his shoulders and hips, and felt Mike doing the same.

"On three," Mike said, and Jim nodded.

"One, two, three," they chanted together, and Blair was gently lifted onto the gurney. In moments, the paramedics were back at the ambulance, busy around him.

Jim watched, paralyzed, as Blair's heart-beat began to drop from the rapid fire stutter to something far, far slower.

"Pulse dropping." A pressure cuff was just fitted around his arm. "BP dropping. Going into VF."

"I'll get us moving." The doors were slammed shut in Jim's face, and the ambulance raced off, sirens loud and urgent.

"Ellison? Ellison!"

Jim became aware of a hand shaking him. "What?"

"Ellison, you're needed back at the P.D."

Jim shook his head. "No. Where did that ambulance go?"

The cop blinked at him. "The one with Sandburg? They arrived at County General about half an hour ago, according to the RT. Look, I've got Banks on the line, and he's demanding you get into the P.D. immediately. Seems one of your perps just killed himself. M.E.'s thinking cyanide at this point."

"Damn," he breathed.

"Yeah. Anyway, you want a lift?"

"No. I'll go in, then head out to C.G. -- check on my partner."

"Whatever. Sure. And hey, Ellison?"

"Yeah?"

"Take care driving. You were really out of it when I got here."

"Yeah. I'll do that." He nodded, and walked away.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

"Nice of you to drop by, Detective," Simon said sarcastically.

"Was thinking. Got lost in unfamiliar territory," he said amiably, message getting through loud and clear. "You wanted me? Only I wanted to get over to--"

"Sandburg's in surgery," Banks said quickly. "They're going to update us on him as soon as they know anything." He could see the protest looming and forestalled it. "There's nothing you can do to help him there, Jim, and you might be able to figure out why he ended up there if you stick around."

Jim nodded reluctantly. "Yessir."

"We've got the uninjured one in room five."

Jim nodded, and they started walking down the corridor together. "Any ID on him?"

"We've run his prints, but haven't had anything back yet. We're running him through the system as John Smith. I know," he said at Jim's incredulous look, "I know, but what can we do. It's the name he gave, and until the prints come back, or we get an alternate ID, we just have to run with this one."

Glancing into the room he recognized the man sitting there. "He saved Blair," Jim said abruptly.

"Huh?"

"When shotgun man took a blast at him, he took him down." He put his hand on the door.

Simon put a hand up, halting him. "Let me see if I get this straight. The guy we're holding in there, right, took down the guy who shot Blair?"

"Yeah."

"Why?"

"How the hell should I know?"

"Then find out, detective."

Jim pulled the door open and stepped through. Simon's hand on his arm stopped him for a moment.

"And Jim?" he added, so softly that the patrol officer on the door didn't hear. He waited till he caught Ellison's eyes, "Take it easy. I don't want to have to explain anything to IA."

Jim walked in and nodded to the policeman waiting in the corner, noting his badge. He sat across the table from the perp and stared at him. The man was maybe early thirties, dark hair unmarked by gray, face thin to the point of gaunt, brown eyes watchful. Everything about the way he held himself put Jim's hackles up.

"Have you been read your rights?"

The man nodded.

"And do you understand those rights as they were read to you?"

"Yes."

"Okay. Would you like to explain what the hell was going on out there, Mr. Smith?"

The man just looked at him, and said nothing.

"You break into a small-time grocery store, with two of your buddies. You've got tranq guns and armor piercing bullets in your rifles. Seems a bit of overkill?"

Smith ignored him.

"Okay, so you break in. It's the beginning of the day, and I know Mrs. Benson hasn't got much money in there. Why them? Why not the 24/7 store across on Main?" He paused, then went on. "So, you take the place apart, and when the cops show up at the front door, you take the owner's granddaughter hostage. Not thinking too clearly, were you? There's something going on out the back, and so two of you come to see what it is. With me so far?

"Good," he went on without pausing. "And bam! Up out of nowhere comes a van and three more would-be ninja's, all hell bent on taking me down, and getting me into that van, while taking out my partner. Now, that says to me, 25 to life, Mr. Smith. That says, not nickel and dime store robbery, but kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon. Maybe even attempted murder."

The other kept silent, a slight crinkle in the corner of his eyes betraying possible amusement.

"Funny, huh? Well, here's funny. My partner's shot all to hell, thanks to one of your gang, pal, and whether he lives or dies, you're going down for it, big time," he leaned forward, his voice dropping menacingly. "Even if I have to see to it personally."

"Blair's badly hurt?" The man abruptly looked almost agitated.

"If you mean Detective Sandburg, he's in surgery right now. I'm waiting for word."

The other paled slightly and closed his eyes, a look of strain tightening the thin face.

"Was it me? Were you after me?" he asked in a voice made more dangerous by its softness. "If it was me you wanted, why the hell didn't you leave him alone?"

Smith shook his head, eyes still shut. "Too far, too far," he mumbled under his breath.

"Too far? From where?" The detective snapped. "It's true then," Smith replied, fixing his eyes on the angry detective. "You are a sentinel."

"I don't know what you're talking about." Jim said stolidly. "But I'm guessing that this supposed 'Sentinel' deal that was all over the place recently is the reason behind my partner nearly ending up dead."

Smith shrugged.

"Look, you bastard, something's going on, and you're the only one who we might get an answer out of before the end of the day. So give. If nothing else, if we get a full confession, I'll put in a good word for you with the DA - I saw how you tried to help us. Killed one of your own guys when he took Sandburg down. Why'd you do that? Not in the deal to damage the merchandise? Didn't want him to talk, maybe try to cut a deal?"

"I have nothing to say. Either charge me or release me." The man's voice sounded off, but Jim didn't have time to notice. There was a knock on the door, and Simon walked in, followed by Inspector Connor.

"Jim--" Simon hesitated, and Jim read every word that the older man feared to say in his eyes.

"Wrap this up for me, Connor, would you?" he said calmly. "I'll be at County."

Megan nodded, "Let me know -- call us when you hear something, won't you?"

A perfunctory smile accompanied his nod.

"Ellison!" Simon barked as Jim headed for the exit.

"Sir?" Jim didn't quite meet the captain's eyes, his attention somewhere else entirely as he brushed past and headed for the elevators.

"Jim, he'll be fine. He's in good hands."

"Thanks, sir. I appreciate that," Jim said stiffly, shoulders back, visibly in control. "Was there anything else?"

"Shouldn't you - do you want me to contact his mother?"

Jim nodded curtly. "Naomi. Of course, yes. Her details should be on file - Blair just updated them this week..." His voice trailed off painfully.

Simon bit at his cigar, "I'll get on it. Just get out of here, Ellison."

Jim let a smile flicker over his lips briefly. "Thanks, Simon."

The door opened, and he stepped into the elevator, mind already half a dozen miles away.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

"I'm here for a Blair Sandburg? He came in a little while back -- a shooting. I was asked to come in - there was some problem?"

Jim presented his ID and leaned against the receptionist's desk, polite, remote, and wholly immovable. She ran her fingers over the keyboard in some arcane sequence. "Hmm." She snapped her gum, and resumed chewing, prodding ''page down'' repeatedly.

"Sandburg...Sandburg...not obs...not gynae...surgical. Blair Sandburg, hmm," the smooth forehead wrinkled, and she popped her gum again in the stress of the moment. "Can I see your identification, sir?"

Patiently he pulled it out of his pocket again, and placed it open on the desk. "Okay," she said brightly, "if you'd like to take a seat, I'll page Dr Thekston."

"How soon will that be?"

"I'll page him, and he'll get the message to come and meet you as soon as he picks it up."

"I need to know how my friend is!" he all but snarled.

"I appreciate that, sir," she replied, unexpectedly not backing down an inch, "but I have to page him first, and as soon as he can, I'm sure he will be with you. If you'll just let me --"

"Whatever," Ellison drew a deep breath and stalked over to one of the plastic chairs opposite the desk. It gave him little satisfaction to listen in to her.

"Kate, this is Marnie on ER reception. There's a Mr. Ellison here to see Dr Thekston, he left a message for him with the PD, and he's sitting here looking like his best friend died and he's waiting to find the culprit so he can shred him, and failing that, I'll do. -- Would you? That's great! Thank you!" She cut off the call and smiled at Jim. "We're just getting hold of him now."

Jim simply nodded, his world too shaken to attempt anything but waiting now.

Two hours and three yelling matches later, a young woman in doctor's whites emerged from the 'Staff only' area to the far end of the waiting area.

"Detective Ellison?" she asked, a hand held out. He stood and shook automatically. "Jane Thekston."

He mumbled, "I was expecting a man." He could smell blood on her, but there was no sign of it. Blair's blood...

She gave him a sharp look. "Not a problem, I hope? Would you like to come this way?" She led him through a number of corridors, until the smell of disinfectant and the underlying stench of sickness had all but swamped his senses. They turned a corner, and it all cleared, and Blair's scent, his heartbeat, faint but sure, steadied him.

"Okay, I need to explain a few things to you, Mr. Ellison." They turned one last corner into ICU. "Mr. Ellison?!"

"Yes," Jim tore his attention back to her. "How is he?"

She glanced up, and then fixed her eyes on the patient. "Well, he's young, fit and healthy, and that all counts in his favor--"

"But?"

"Gun shot wounds are serious, Mr. Sandburg was hit twice, and one of them was like nothing we've seen before."

"But -- I only saw the one - it went through his stomach..."

"Right. Well, that first bullet passed straight through him, laterally, while the second lodged in his left shoulder. Although we needed to go in to remove that second one from him, that was not a problem. He'll need some therapy to regain full mobility, but it was a normal bullet, and it shouldn't be long before he gets full use back. This is assuming," and she met his eyes squarely, "that he survives that long." Jim closed his eyes briefly and took a steadying breath. "Do you want to sit down?" she asked quickly.

"I'll be fine. Go on."

"Are you sure you want to hear this? I don't need to go into details.."

"Just tell me," he ordered quietly.

"Well, the problems are mostly with that second bullet. It was disastrous in terms of Blair's lower torso. It entered on the upper left side, and exited on the lower right, passing transversely through his belly." She indicated with a finger dragged across her stomach, and Jim gritted his teeth. "It spread as it--"

"I know the kind of damage it can do. What was hit?"

"It seriously damaged both his kidneys, part of the small intestine, and his stomach. He was extremely lucky it didn't do too much harm to his liver - it just clipped it, but the liver is a strange organ - he might be fine, or it might shut down out of shock. The wounds were dirty when he was brought in, which isn't going to help. In any case, there was a lot of bleeding," her eyes flickered to her well scrubbed hands and arms, "and we're still transfusing him. Mr. Kanalos, the surgeon, has done an astounding job of repairing things, but there are limits to what we can do right now. It's quite possible that the kidneys may fail in the next few hours."

"You mean permanently? But you can deal with that - right? Dialysis?"

"Possibly, as short term solution, yes."

"What does that mean? What's the long term? Transplants? Is there a long term?"

"I didn't say that," she hedged. "As I said, he's otherwise in good health, but there are a number of factors involved in his recovery. We're going to have to keep a very close watch on him. You have to remember when you go in, it's not going to be a pleasant sight," she warned.

Jim nodded grimly. "So he has what, a twenty percent chance? Less?"

"Better than that I hope. Right now we just have to wait and see how he deals with the trauma."

"But if he gets past that, he'll be okay?" he asked hopefully.

"I can't promise that, Detective," she shook her head and started walking again. "He's not good right now. We'll do everything we can, but a lot of it is up to your friend." She looked ahead at the curtained off bed. "He's stable for now. If you want to visit with him--?"

He nodded again. "Thank you. Is there anything else I can--"

She shook her head, then paused, "Look, you might want to donate."

"Donate?"

"Blood."

"Oh. Oh, right. We've got the same blood group, I'll do that once I've seen him." Jim said distractedly, his eyes already on the still form under the thin sheets.

"Good. Thank you." She shook herself and nodded briskly. "He's just in there." She gestured at a glass walled room just ahead of them. "Talk to him. Hearing is the last sense to go, and the first to come back. He's going to be confused and afraid and in considerable discomfort; he won't know what's going on, so he'll need frequent reassurance. As long as you don't make a nuisance of yourself and don't hang around here all the time, we shouldn't have any problem stretching the rules a little. ICU is different anyway," she added sadly, looking around her.

Jim barely caught her last words. He hurried to the small room, and looked more closely at his friend. Blair looked terrible, but the machines and his own eyes and ears said clearly that he was alive. Even if a respirator was breathing for him. Even if three different bags hung from the IV stand on the far side of the bed, letting slow drips into Blair's right hand, the vein terribly distended by the needle. His hair had been partially shaved and tufts stuck out from around the bandaging covering the small knot where he'd been flung into the wall. And most horrible of all, the tubes disappearing up under the sheets, some leading away to blood tainted drainage bags clipped almost out of sight. But he was breathing, and the blood was washed away, and the wounds had been sutured, and he was going to be okay. He was.

He dragged a chair from the waiting area, and sat down, his back to the door. "Hey, Chief. Howya doin'?" he asked softly. "Doc says not so bad, a hole in your shoulder, one in your stomach. You'll be better in no time. Running around and scaring seven years growth out of me again. Damnfool thing you did, if you ask me. You know better than that. Not that I didn't appreciate the headsup, but, dammit kid, you could have just yelled. Running through the middle of a gunbattle isn't the brightest plan you've ever come up with.

"Not that I should be surprised, but we are going to talk about this once you're well again." He paused, unconsciously expecting the usual half grumpy, half laughing reply, but only the machines spoke. "You did pretty good, okay Sandburg? We arrested the ones who survived, they're down at booking right now. Left Connor with one of them, dunno who's got the others. We only took three of them. If it's any comfort, the guy who did it is dead. Weirdest thing. He does you, and one of his buddies turns round and does him, straight through the skull. Don't ask me why.

"Tried talking to 'em before I came over, you were still in surgery, and Simon wanted me to be there. Rather'd been here. Anyway, couldn't get a damn thing out of those guys. One of 'em took poison before anyone got around to questioning him, so we're down to two. Now that's an intell trick - old fashioned, but effective. Strip searched the others, but if they're determined, there ain't a whole lot we're going to be able to do." He shifted in the uncomfortable plastic chair. "We've got a real wasps nest going on. I half wish I was back there, stirring it up, but..." There was a long silence.

"I'd rather be here," he whispered. "You know? Now, you gonna get better, or am I going to have to kick your ass, Sandburg?" He stroked one of the few remaining long strands of hair back. "You want I should chop it all off, even up this weird patch effect you've got going?" he offered with a half grin, half expecting the blue eyes to snap open, with an instant, "Don't you dare, Ellison, don't you dare," from Blair, but Sandburg refused to co-operate. "I won't, kid, you know that. Not until you're awake and I can get the full effect of your reaction." He sat back, and watched. Waiting.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

"...You touch my hair, and I'll kick your ass, Ellison," Blair winced, and shifted uneasily. The water seemed awfully cold, really, and he couldn't quite make out where Jim was - he could hear his voice, so it had to be near, but these caves echoed so. And the waterfall distorted everything into reflections of its own roar as it pounded over the cliff edge, blocking his way out of the cave system.

He sat up carefully, and prodded at his stomach. "Last time I remember, this was in several chunks, and there was blood on the walls," he muttered, macabrely fascinated with his injury. "Nope, not a mark. Damn."

"Hello-oo" he yelled. "Anybody like to come and explain this?" He shrugged. "Okay, fine, I'm dying. Poor Blair, all on his own," he said, mock mournful. "That's what it is. I'm dying. This is all a metaphor for limbo. Or it is limbo. I'm pretty sure no one mentioned the whole damp problem though. Explains hell though. They're probably just trying to dry out. Hey! Guys? Anyone listening?! I'd settle for a nice hellfire right now! Although my luck it would turn out to be ice." He added in a mutter, "that, or nothing at all. Alive, dead. The end. Finish. Nada. I suppose I ought to go with the one chance only explanation. Anthropology is, after all, inconsistent with belief. And if you believe that, then you're really fucked... All hail the great god Levi-Strauss..."

He heaved himself to his feet. "Okay, for my amazing mythic, mystic journey, shall I go forward to the waterfall, or back into the caves?" he asked. "Well, duh. Caves of course," he said, heading out towards the entrance and the pounding water. "I spend my last days in the coldest, wettest, most miserable environment, bar none, so naturally, where do I end up?" It was a moment or two before he realized he was still walking, despite the lack of actual ground or other underfoot support. He hesitated for a Wily Coyote second before the panic that had gripped him eased, and he took a few more steps forward. The wall of water drenched him to the skin as he walked through, almost knocking him off his feet at one point, "And since my feet are the only thing holding me up from a death worse than, um, the first one, that would be a bad thing," he advised himself. "I think I might not be thinking very straight," he added, addressing the wolf waiting for him on the other side of the water.

"I'd say so. Blair-man, you are in trouble. Again."

"Hey, you're the ones who set me up to be a Shaman. Package trips to the astral planes are part of the deal, the way I figure it." The wolf half shrugged and became himself.

"Now that's freaky. You know, I had a guy come after me, tried to do that once. You do a much better Blair Sandburg than he did," he observed, walking interestedly around the illusion.

"Does this make you uncomfortable?"

"Yeah, but that's part of the deal too, right? You're not going to change anything for my benefit..."

He watched as the form shifted into Naomi's.

"Is this better?" She smiled.

"Well, yeah. Thank you."

"You are the source of this environment, but, because you are the shaman, you may also shape it, a little."

"Just a little. Okay, I hear that."

"Why are you here?"

"Because some dick shot me, and I'm about to punch my return ticket."

"Why are you here?" It repeated firmly.

"So that's a wrong answer, okay - you know, actual dialogue, me ask question, you answer question, would be really helpful here. Though why should I get helpful? Everyone else I have to deal with is taciturn and repressed. Okay, I give, I don't know. So tell me, why am I here? And while you're thinking about that cryptic answer I can pretty much hear you thinking about from here, can I have a look at the Akashic Records, cos I've got this theory about Jim and me, and I'd love to be able to..."

"Enough!" But the spirit guide was laughing. "Even half dead and incarnated, you don't change!"

"You know me? I mean, do I know you?!"

"That is not why you are here."

"Okay, we're back to the spirit android. Sooo, I repeat, why am I here?"

"Because you are, Shaman. If you would ease that burn for knowledge, look around you."

Blair nodded, and opened his mouth to reply, but the guide was already gone. "Okay, fine, I'll just carry on." It felt oddly familiar, and he groaned. The last time he'd said something like that, had been to Jim. "Only I would get another Ellison as a spirit guide."

He looked around, and for the first time, really saw the land. It stretched out maybe a hundred feet below him, and he gasped, waiting for the vertigo to paralyze him. It didn't. Better than that, he could see for miles. Miles and miles, in excruciating detail. It was, he could see, a path. Long and meandering, sometimes forced one way or another by things he couldn't control. A book wrongly shelved falling into his hands...a teenager standing at a mail box, weighing which school to attend... A woman patiently teaching that same boy, younger still, everything that his state schools failed to... A wrench in the path, blood and gunfire in a small green land. A strange blonde woman, giving birth to a small child, who didn't scream and cry like other newborns, but instead watched his mother's tears without understanding. Further back, he saw two men and that same woman dying in a plane crash, healed by a mysterious people, and their own paths coming forward, splitting far from his own. And then the choices he had made, each one, good or bad, forking and some rejoining his path to bring back what was needed, other paths lost, fading into the mists, possibilities that had never been. Many of the forks were accompanied by Naomi, and he recognized her for a stranger, a friend on his path, always mean to be, but thrust in, in the same splatter of death that had dragged his path towards his Sentinel. Every path led, eventually, to Jim.

He smiled. "Then it was destiny." He could see the point when he first died and discovered a branch forking in, not out, two becoming one, and he followed the other fork backwards, saw the joy and sorrow of a marriage; the deaths in Peru; the murderous work of a Ranger; the teenager's rage at an unjust world forcing the man down each new, violent path, until the anger was expiated, and further back, to the child driven to hide himself, to the toddler, charmed by a world he didn't know was only his for the seeing... And back...

"Enough!" A heavy head butted into his stomach, and pain sliced through him. "Look forward."

The paths met, traveled alongside each other, and then, at his death, and he understood now, he remembered the vision and he understood, their paths became one.

"Together or apart. It makes no difference."

"Yes," the wolf said solemnly. "Or no. Depending on how you wanted the question answered," it added slyly.

Blair grinned, "What about the future. Is that there too?"

"If you can see it."

"Clouded the future is," Blair muttered, and suppressed a snigger.

"Indeed," the wolf replied repressively.

"I'm looking, I'm looking. What the hell?!" He stared at the wolf. "That can't be right!"

"Remember, all these are possible paths only. You may follow them, or others yet undreamt of may emerge, and you will follow."

"That's helpful. No, really, I mean it," he said sarcastically.

The Naomi-wolf just grinned at him. "Not all are real. They are just possibilities."

Blair began to grin, "Just wait till I tell Ellison about 'em though. Won't he be happy."

"You may not remember."

"May not, as in am not permitted, or may not, as in might?" he asked quickly.

"Either."

"Will I really change that much?" He stared, bemused, at another possible future-track, where he left Jim, and sentinels behind, and became a teacher to those who wanted to become 'sentinels'. "That'd make me more of a fraud than I am already."

"It's a --"

"Possibility. Then nothing is fixed. I still have free will." The path faded, and another replaced it. "Can I influence it?"

Naomi considered this for a moment, and said, "Think of your life and those around you as a river. There are easier and harder paths to take, and the water will always tend to flow in the direction the landscape carves for it. The externals will push you one way, but if you really choose, you can go another."

"Okay. I can work with that. And I guess that means others can push too. Try to take my choices away..." He watched one path where a man he didn't recognize touched him, and in some mysterious way, he changed. He looked the same, but there was something different... "Yes. And you are vulnerable, especially now."

"Because I'm dying?"

"Because you are here, between places, and not in your body, protecting it."

"So you're basically saying I need to go back, right?"

"I didn't say that," she reproved gently.

"So I just give up and die, and this whole thing was a waste of time? I suppose you didn't say that either."

"That's up to you."

"Well, what do I do? What can I do?"

"Nothing." The fatalism was wholly unlike his mother, and he recoiled.

"What's the point of it then?" he asked frustratedly.

"Whatever you choose to make the point."

"Argh!" Blair stomped away muttering dire things about unnecessarily impenetrable so called guides under his breath. A couple of minutes later he came back, thinking hard. "Okay, so I have free will?"

"It's the same thing."

"As what!!!"

"If no matter what you choose, that was always the way you would choose, is that free will or destiny?"

Blair blinked. "But the future, any of those futures," he waved his hand vaguely at the vista below them, "is still only possible?"

"Yes."

"Okay. I have no idea how that works, but I'll take your word for it. Anything else you want to impart?"

"Ask yourself this: who are you?"

"I know that one. I'm Blair. Me. The I inside."

Naomi nodded, and fell forwards into the wolf, and Blair felt pain rip through him as his eyes opened.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

"Blair?" Ellison's voice was soft and concerned.

"Shit, it must be bad," he tried to say, and gagged. He panicked, unable to breath or speak. He grabbed at his face, only for more pain to paralyze him from his shoulder and stomach.

"...steady, calm down, Chief...it's okay. Don't fight it, you're on a respirator, they'll sort it out in a minute, just relax..." Jim's voice finally reached through his panic, and he became aware of the big, hard hands gently holding him down. He slumped, letting go of most the tension, and met his friend's eyes.

"The doctor's on his way, you'll be fixed up in a minute. Hey, this is great, we weren't expecting you back for a while yet," Jim said cheerfully, though the look in his eyes suggested something different. Blair blinked then tried to see himself reflected in the dark pupils.

"What?" Jim said, unnerved by the intense stare. Blair shifted his hands and frowned when tugs on his left elbow and right wrist prevented him from moving either. "Your left shoulder had to be operated on to take the bullet out. Just an ordinary, common or garden variety."

Blair blinked, and glanced towards his right. "Okay, that one's restrained because you've got IV's in it, and we didn't want you to pull them out accidentally."

Nervously, Blair looked up at him, and mouthed, 'What else?' "I don't know what you remember, Chief, but one of the raiders shot you in the stomach."

'Kevlar?' Blair mouthed.

Jim shook his head. "Looked like one of them had heavy duty bullets loaded - went straight through the Kevlar, you, and the wall behind you."

Blair tried to swallow, couldn't, and shut his eyes.

"Hey, hey, don't go to sleep on me here, Sandburg," Jim said roughly.

He opened one eye at him and Jim ruffled his hair approvingly. They just watched each other peacefully, until the hubbub of nurses and Dr Thekston broke the calm. Jim stepped back, but Blair's eyes followed him, ignoring the fuss as he was extubated, had lights shone into his eyes, and was asked inane questions.

"Hi Jim," he said hoarsely, and grinned, "Water! Water!" He parodied, and Jim grinned back. Ice chips were spooned into his mouth, a chip at a time, and he sucked blissfully on them.

"Thanks, man," he said with a smile. Jim smiled back.

"How are you doing?" he asked awkwardly.

"You know. Same old malingering over a couple of bullet holes. You?"

"Three."

"Huh?"

"Three holes."

"Jim, man, tell me you're still talking about bullets."

"I'm still talking about bullets," Jim said obediently.

"Okay, I'm confused."

"Two entry one exit."

"That helped. Really."

"Sorry."

Blair laughed, then coughed painfully. Jim grabbed another ice chip and held it helpfully in front of his face.

"No <cough> ice, laughing," he wheezed.

"Lie back. Don't talk. I'll go, um, clean up, okay? And you rest." He gently pushed Blair back into his pillows.

"Jim--"

"Sssh."

"No, Jim, what -- am I --" his voice cracked and he stopped, throat dry and still sore from the extubation. Jim spooned a couple of ice chips into his mouth, and he sucked slowly on them. Jim thought he'd gone to sleep, when he whispered, "It's going to be all right, isn't it?"

Jim paused for what felt like a desperately long time. Blair's eyes opened and pinned him.

"Truth." Blair's tired eyes held his.

"It's not good. Not fatal, but not good. The injury through your stomach," he looked over at the wall for inspiration - or maybe to avoid seeing the look in his friend's eyes. "It's made a hell of a mess of your insides," he hedged.

"But I'll live?"

Jim half grinned. "Yeah." He ruffled the shaggy hair. "Yeah, you'll live."

"Cool," Blair nodded, and his eyes drifted shut again. "An' you okay?" he said tiredly.

"Yeah." Jim rubbed at the Band-Aid on his left arm. After all, an armful of blood was hardly an injury. Not when Blair had lost four times that much.

Blair nodded, and yawned. Jim watched him until he fell fast asleep, and got up from the uncomfortable chair to find a doctor.

Twenty minutes later he met with success.

"Mr. Ellison! I wanted to speak with you," Dr Thekston re-emerged from the depths of the hospital with a smile and a whirl of white coat. The smell of blood was gone, and she looked like she had slept. "I'm going to be Blair's doctor while he's in ICU, and I gather you've his power of attorney?"

"Yeah. Yes I am. Why?"

"Nothing sinister, just, I was hoping," she bit her lip and paused, "Do you want a coffee?"

"I'm fine."

"Well, I've only been up 40 minutes, and I'm running on empty. There's a kitchen down this way." She led him off down a side corridor and into a small pantry, where she filled two plastic cups with black coffee. "You sure you don't want one?" she said with a sigh as she finished the first cup in two gulps. He shook his head. She perched on the counter, and started sipping more slowly at the second. "Fine."

"Can I help you somehow or can I go back to my friend?" Jim asked impatiently.

"Sorry, sorry," she put the cup down. "I needed that. Okay. You're down as Mr. Sandburg's next of kin." Jim nodded impatiently. "But you have different surnames?"

"He's my partner."

"Domestic?"

"Police."

"Hey, easy, I wouldn't ask if I didn't need to know. So you're not related in any way?"

"No."

"Do you know if Blair has any close relatives nearby?"

"If he had, would I be down as his next of kin? Sorry," he shook his head. "I'm tired, and that wasn't called for. Blair has a mother, we're trying to get in contact, but they -- she travels a lot. She may be a little tricky to get hold of."

"Brothers, sisters?"

"Not so far as I know."

"Damn." She frowned, kicking her heels against the cabinet under the counter.

"Why?"

"His blood work's coming up with high levels of uric acid."

"And that means?"

"His kidneys aren't dealing successfully with the trauma. We can put him on dialysis for a while, see if the function comes back, but it doesn't look very good."

"And you were hoping to find someone compatible?"

She pulled a long face, "Pretty much. Unrelated donor matches do happen, but not often. He'd always be at risk of rejecting it."

"We're talking about a transplant here," he said flatly. Thekston nodded. "Worst case?" he asked grimly.

"His kidneys are going to fail. Probably in the next ten to fifteen hours. Probably permanently. The sooner we can start looking for alternatives, the better chances he has."

"Could--" Jim shook his head.

"Could you donate?" she asked with a faint smile. He looked startled. "It's the first question most people ask after we tell them." She shrugged. "I can only say 'maybe'. We can type you and check. You'd have to go downstairs and let the bloodsuckers at you again," she smiled briefly.

"I donated a couple of hours ago." He lifted his arm at her, as if to confirm his statement.

"I'm afraid you'll have to donate a little more. It's a different process."

"Fine. Where do I go?" Jim said shortly.

Dr Thekston smiled. "I'll take you there. And then, detective, you can go home and get cleaned up and sleep. Deal?"

Jim nodded reluctantly. "Let me check in on him first, and we have a deal."

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

"I'm looking for Detective Ellison?" A courier hovered near the main desk at the PD front entrance.

"What's the nature of your visit?" Officer Karen Sobodu asked, taking in the kid in one comprehensive look.

"Delivery."

"Put it through there please," she gestured at the machine marked 'All bags and packages to be placed here'. The boy rummaged in the bag, and finally pulled out an oblong, unmarked package.

"What is it?"

The kid shrugged. "Picked it up from a hotel on Thorpe Street. Guy said it was a laptop computer that Ellison had lent to him." The machine hummed as it ran the conveyor belt through to the other side of the desk.

"Okay." Sobodu eyed the little computer suspiciously. "It's probably that Sandburg guy's toy. I'll send it up. Hey!" she called as the courier turned for the door.

"Sign this off please. Name, name of company, pickup address, pickup name, and sign here," she reeled off quickly.

"Sure," the boy scrawled through the various boxes. "Okay?"

"Thanks. Have a nice day."

"You too." He turned and left. Karen barely even remembered the exchange five minutes later. She dumped the package into the internal mail and forgot about it, absently filing the paperwork in the wrong folder.

Two hours later she was desperately wracking her brain for information as Captain Simon Banks and her own supervisor glared at her.

"It was just a courier!" she repeated. "I see dozens of them in a day! How was I supposed to know this was special?"

"You could have called upstairs," Banks growled. "Anything for one of my detectives - and I mean anything, should be rung up immediately. We'd've sent someone down."

Her lips thinned, and she looked to her supervisor for support.

"Captain Banks," Sergeant Heeny began, "you may recall that this was an issue raised at the last internal meeting. Even when we call items up, no one comes to fetch them, and the lag is even worse than putting it immediately through the internal mail. Policy is now that only items clearly marked 'Urgent', or 'Evidence' will be called up. As you can see, he gestured at the torn packaging, "This was not marked urgent, so we checked it for dangerous items, and sent it up as per policy."

"Fine, fine, but who delivered it? Can you tell me that?"

"The form was filled in - I remember it distinctly," Karen repeated wearily. "But I don't really remember what the courier looked like. Just a kid -- like most of the couriers. He may be a student, he was kind of scruffy looking..."

"That's not enough, dammit," Banks slapped his hand on the table. "The video cameras have a very convenient glitch for the five minutes we presume that the computer was delivered, and no one noticed?"

"That's Central's problem. Look, we can't do everything, we've a massive throughput rate on the front desk,. and the last thing anyone wants is for it to slow down so we can run full id on every Tom, Dick and Harry that walks through those doors!" Heeney snapped back.

Banks sat back, lips thinned. "Fine. I'll put it through with IA then."

"What!"

"You can't!"

"Since you seem to feel that it's okay to provide the minimum possible--"

"Captain Banks, are you threatening us?"

"No, no," Simon said genially, "Just making an observation."

"Look, captain, I don't remember! It's as simple as that." Karen said helplessly.

"But you didn't even run a check, Sandburg reported his laptop stolen yesterday morning, shortly before he was critically injured in a shoot out."

"Well, I'm sorry about that, sir, I really am, and if I could remember, I would! I'm trying to help here, sir, and you're not helping!"

"In other words," Heeney added, "Back off. We'll let you know if anything more comes up. I understand you're worried about your man, and I'll assume that's why you're pushing, but frankly, like Karen said, you're doing more harm than good right now."

"Talk to one of the people upstairs, anyway. If we can get a composite -- anything," the captain reminded them as they all stood.

"Yes." Heeney agreed. "Now if you'll excuse us?"

Simon headed back up to the seventh floor. The laptop and the checkin form could be examined for prints, but it was weird about the video. He shook his head. Round Ellison and Sandburg it was always weird. He shrugged mentally as he got into the elevator. He'd let Jim know about the returned computer, and let him worry about it.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Dr. Thekston had kept him to his side of their deal. Jim paused as he rummaged for his keys, then slowly opened the main door to the block. The stairs seemed unusually long and he climbed them like an old man, each step heavy and tired. They still wouldn't give him any real hope, no promises, nothing. Nearly two days, and Blair was still more often asleep, or unconscious, than not, and he hadn't wanted to go, but he had to eat, had to shower. Had to pick up the stolen equipment from the pd. Simon's call had caught him as he pulled in, and it was yet another thing he didn't want to think about. The whole thing was just too damn complicated.

"Jim!"

His head snapped up as his thought process was interrupted, wincing as his neck cracked in protest at the sudden movement. "Naomi. Simon managed to get hold of you then. That was quick." He yawned, and begged pardon. "Been a long couple of days--"

"Tell me, Jim." she said firmly, gripping her holdall with both long fingered hands. "What's happened to my son?"

Jim suppressed a groan, and opened the apartment door, ushering her in. "I'm glad you're here," he said politely, taking her coat and bags from her. Naomi's eyes narrowed. He closed the door, and put the bags down, then hung the coat up, stalling as he tried to think of a 'good' way to say it.

"Naomi, look, why don't you have a seat; and can I get you a drink? Blair's got some great herbal teas--"

"What happened to my son," she said quietly, every word murderously crisp.

"Naomi, sit down."

"Jim, I am not some feeble Victorian maiden. You're making it worse, not better. Just tell me."

Jim sat and stared at the floor for a long moment. "We were on the way into the PD, and we heard a robbery in progress. We went to try to help, and Blair got shot protecting me."

"What! How badly! Why wasn't he wearing protection? Why was he with you at all!!" she said furiously. "Where is he?"

"At County General, but--"

"Right, we're going there now.

"Naomi--"

"No buts." She shook her head firmly. "You got my son shot, don't you tell me what to do."

"He's--"

"What, you're going to tell me it's a minor injury? When your captain was the one asking me, me of all people, to hurry here." She drew a deep breath, visibly composing herself. "How badly is he hurt?"

"It's bad," he said brutally blunt. "He was wearing Kevlar, but some of them had hollow point bullets -- they went straight through it." Her hand went to her mouth, and she paled.

"Where?"

"One lodged in his shoulder, one through his stomach. The shoulder will be fine, it's the other one that's the problem." He hesitated, but she wasn't even looking at him, and he went on. "It went through him, messed up his gut, stomach, liver. And his kidneys. They think he's going to lose the kidneys."

"Can't they--"

"They've operated, tried drugs. He's been on dialysis in the hopes that it would ease the stress on his system, but the tests came back today and it's not helping. Not enough."

"He's going to die?" Naomi asked bleakly.

"They'll keep him on full dialysis till they find a donor."

"That's not what I asked."

Jim looked up and found the clear blue eyes fixed on him. "I know," he said hoarsely, and swallowed to clear his throat. "I -- they're checking him against tissue donors. I've given, and they're screening. I probably won't match remotely, but it's a better chance than none at all." "Hmpf. He's alive for now though."

"Yes," Jim grasped the one good fact. "Yes, he's still alive."

"And they're looking for a donor. I'd hate to think of someone else dying or suffering for my Blair, but at least ..."

Jim's eyes narrowed, and he suddenly heard the echo of Doctor Thekston's words: 'Could you donate? It's the first question most people ask after we tell them.' But Naomi wasn't even beginning to ask.

"Look, if we go over to the hospital, you can look in on Blair, and then we could get you typed too. Dr Thekston said the best match would be a blood relative."

"No!" Jim was startled by her vehemence.

"But, Naomi, it's Blair!"

"I know that. And I would if I could I just-- I just can't, all right? Don't ask me." Her voice and face were pain-filled, and he hesitated. But only for an instant.

"This is more important than any new age lifestyle choice. If he doesn't going to get a donor he's going to be tied to a machine for the rest of his life. Do you want that?" He'd been checking on the probable lifestyle and expectancy of patients with little or no kidney function. "He'll be in hospital for a day every three days for the rest of his life having his blood removed and filtered and pumped back in. How the hell is he going to be able to get any kind of job like that? Have any kind of life?"

"You underestimate my son," she retorted fiercely. "He won't give up, like you seem to have." Her face twisted with contempt.

He grabbed her arm. "Oh no, don't you make this about me, it's about you. You and your chronic inability to do the best for your son -- ever."

She blanched as the ugly words ripped up new formed scars. "I don't -- you can't! I only..."

"You only what? Ruined his life? Made a life altering choice for him instead of talking to him asking him? Well, some things never change, do they?"

"No! I--"

Jim stopped himself as tears sprang to her eyes. "I'm sorry. You've made your peace, and it's not my call. But please, please consider letting them type you. See if there's a chance. You could give him his life back."

"Jim, I would. I will. It's just..."

"Just what?" he snapped, out of all patience.

"I'm not his mother."

There was a long, stunned silence.

Jim Ellison stared at her in disbelief. "You've lost your mind. You--I--" stuttered to a halt, trying to get his head around the idea. "Or I have."

"No. I, it's true -- it's a long story, and it won't help anything if I tell you everything, but I adopted him. I couldn't lie about this, " she said to the dawning contempt and strengthening distrust in Jim's cold, blue eyes. "He was about six weeks old at the time." She sat down.

"If this is to get out of helping him, at a time when he needs your help the most, Naomi," he warned her, "You won't get away with it. What do you mean, you're not his mother?"

"He was tiny. So tiny. And I'd never seen a baby, not to touch or hold, not before then. I was overseas." She shook her head. "It doesn't really matter where. Anyway, he -- became my responsibility, and I lied at the consulate. Told them he was mine. That I didn't know who the father was." She half smiled, "Well, I didn't know who he was. Come to that, I didn't know who his mother was either. He was all on his own, like me, so I took him home. Looked after him." Her voice was very soft as she remembered.

"You know, I was only sixteen. And I'd run away from home, run as far and as hard as I could. And when I came home, they took one look and decided to throw me out. It didn't matter that the timing was wrong. I'd only been gone for five months." Her voice was bitter. "They called me a whore, and threw me out." She looked up. "Jim, you have to understand, I would do anything for him. I've already given up my life for him. I just don't think I can help." She sniffed. "That unrelated donor match thing you were talking about. That's me."

"Why don't we go visit with him. And then we can find out?" he said gently.

"Yes. Yes. Thank you."

"No. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have--"

"But I understand why." She blinked, and stood up. "I'd do the same, if I only knew who they were. Where they were."

"His parents?"

"Yes."

"You have no idea at all?"

"None. Jim, it was in Ireland, and he was barely a month old the first time I saw him. I don't even know if that was where he was born for sure. Nothing. And the only people who might know are probably dead." Her eyes turned cold and hard for a moment.

"Do you know anything, anything at all? We could check, run a search--"

She shook her head tiredly. "I've tried before." She picked up her wrap, and asked, "Blair?"

Jim sighed, thought longingly of the fresh clothes and hot shower that had been so nearly in his grasp, and headed back out the door again.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

"Jesus fucking Christ on a stick! Craig, I didn't ask for much! What the fuck happened!"

'John Smith' hesitated. "Rich, I did the best I could with the information you gave me."

"What the hell am I going to tell her?"

Craig flinched. "Thanks for getting me out," he said quietly, and Richard drew a deep breath.

"You know there was no question of leaving you in jail. Sooner or later someone would have noticed you."

"I know. I do. I appreciate it. Look, I don't know what went wrong, but I'm going to find out."

"So?"

"I've a pretty good idea someone's mined my network. It has to be. I took out Austin, the one who shot subject one, but someone armed at least two of them with heavy duty weaponry. They were supposed to have tranqs only - I swear, I checked their kits myself! My god, you think I'd take a chance on this?"

"No, I know, but..."

"I know how important this is. To all of us. I'm going to fix this, okay?"

"Can you?"

"Sure. I'm out, aren't I?" he said with cocksure arrogance. "I'll locate subject one, and remove the problem."

"You'll be careful? Right?"

"Like a nun." Craig grinned.

"Later then."

Craig hung up the phone without replying and leaned back against the underpass pillar. It was possible his call had been monitored, but it was a new phone, and he hadn't been followed, so... He could only hope. Keeping everything in the air was not as difficult as he'd expected, and no one seemed to realise that some of those balls that were spinning up and down weren't, strictly speaking, supposed to be there. He grinned. He'd always been good at juggling. He straightened and got back in his car. Not for the first time, he wished they could discuss this in person, but there was no way to achieve that privately. And he was supposed to be dead anyway.

He grinned, slipping the phone into his pocket and starting the car again, muttered, "Just resting."

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

"Mr. Ellison. And?" the doctor looked questioningly at Naomi as they both took a seat in her tiny office.

"Naomi Sandburg." Naomi replied, holding out her hand. "I hear you saved my son's life. I owe you a debt of gratitude."

"A very great many people saved your son's life, Mrs. Sandburg, but thank you." She pulled a file towards her and tapped it lightly. "I expect Mr. Ellison's filled you in on Blair's condition?" Naomi nodded, "But let me give you a quick overview. Blair's condition is serious." She flicked a quick look at Jim. "In fact, I have to say that he appears to be deteriorating."

"What!"

"Oh goddess," Naomi said softly.

"I'm very sorry, but there's no doubt that his renal function will fail soon. And it appears that his liver is also shutting down. We're starting to see abnormally high glucose counts, and, well, we're doing all we can but I'm afraid you might have to be prepared for the worst."

"Jim said there might be a transplant, could that--"

The doctor shook her head, feathers of brown hair coming loose from her neat French braid. "If we get a donor in time, then possibly. But we haven't had any matches come back yet."

"What about me?" Jim asked curtly.

"As I said, I haven't had the results back yet. I'm expecting them through any minute." she added, taking the wind out of his sails before he could demand that she instantly go and find them.

"Right. Good. And Ms Sandburg wanted to get typed as well, if that's--"

Thekston smiled. "Yes. If she wants Mrs. -- Ms, Sandburg could come down with me, while I get your results."

"Thank you. I'll do that. Jim, you go and sit with Blair for a while." She managed a smile. "I'll be there soon."

"You're sure about this?" Jim asked.

Naomi nodded. "If you can, I can. And who knows?"

Jim nodded silently, and left.

"If you'd like to come with me then, Ms Sandburg--"

"Oh, please, 'Naomi'. Ms Sandburg sounds like my mother!"

"Naomi. And it's Jane. Then we can get you sorted out straightaway."

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Jim settled in the familiar plastic chair next to Blair's bed. "I hate these damn things. You know, sooner or later they're going to get sued for inducing terminal back strain in some unsuspecting visitor, and we'll see whose laughing on the other side of his vertebrae!"

He settled back, stretching uncomfortably until his spine crackled. "I was supposed to be getting some sleep right now. Or call Simon back, or---" He yawned. "I'll get there in a minute." But in a minute he was fast asleep.

Maybe ten minutes had passed when a dark haired man walked in. He wore a white doctor's coat, which neatly disguised the lack of jacket. If Ellison had been awake, he would have recognized his one surviving prisoner from the burglary and attack on Blair. He shifted restlessly, but not even his honed instincts were adequate against the man who frowned a little, and relaxed as Jim was moved, physically lifted, fast asleep, chair and all, to the far side of the room, well away from the bed, without so much as a hand laid on him.

Craig looked back out into the main ward as he stepped up to Blair's bedside. <Clear.> He stretched out a little, and relaxed when all he felt was vague curiosity from the nursing staff. They wouldn't come in while he was there. He smiled as he turned back to look at the man in the hospital bed. He perched on the crisp sheets, and rested a hand on Blair's.

"Hiya," he said softly, as he started working. "Been a while hasn't it?" The mind hiding from the pain of injury flinched, then shielded. "Hmm. None of that." Craig pressed harder, until Blair began to moan softly in pain. The square face was thin and lined, and he could see him half way to waking. "Okay, okay," he brushed a gentler touch against Blair's mind. "I'll try another way."

//What are you doing?// a cool female voice echoed in his head.

Craig let his eyes drift shut, mind snapping to attention. //Sharron! Long time no hear--//

//What are you doing?//

//This// He showed her a welter of plans and thoughts, and waited. He could feel her sifting through, and threw up a blanket of faked embarrassment, hiding some of his mind, keeping some things private. He felt a chuckle echo, and to his satisfaction she backed off the area he was protecting.

//This one.// One of the schemes was lifted out of Craig's thoughts and examined. //Yes, this one.//

//How?// Craig frowned. It was the least likely plan, he'd only barely considered it, and now she wanted him to meddle with basic DNA?

//No. Not you.//

//But--//

//*But I'm a doctor, and a bio-med tech too these days. I can see what they did, you know.// A picture of the long haired, gray bearded man who had healed them in Shangri-La flashed into his head. //I've been studying this for a decade, near enough. I think when he said we all had the potential for this, he was being literal. We can all be Champions, it's all held in one strip of DNA. It's just masked in most people. All I have to do is strip away the mask.//

//That sounds dangerous...// he replied doubtfully. Blair flinched and moaned again. On the far side of the room Jim stirred restlessly, and stilled, held into deep sleep by Craig's will.

//If I don't do something he'll die. And--//

//And?//

//And I can't not do anything, Craig. I've stood aside too long. Besides, he's started broadcasting. It's how I knew the moment you starting messing with his head.//

//What?//

//I've been watching this for the last three days, and frankly Craig, I'm not impressed.// Her mental voice held a note of -- something, and he buried his private plans and thoughts deeper than ever.

//How's that possible? He's never...// He stopped, unpicking the sequence of events.

//His NDE last year. Did you see that in the report? I think when he was killed something changed. Dying does odd things to brain chemistry. NDE's are a poorly understood, highly subjective study area. Very fringe.//

//Are you telling me he's one of us already?//

//No. Just that it might not be as hard as you think to push him a little further along a path he's already on.//

Craig chuckled, //You're more right than you know about that path. Did you get to see that dissertation of his?//

//Yes. You did too, I take it?//

//Picked up his laptop for our mutual friend, and cleaned it up. He's pretty safe for now.//

//Well -- I appreciate it, but, be careful. He's not just anyone.//

Craig's mental tone turned serious. //I know. I really do understand, Sharron. Look, couldn't we just heal him?//

//Try.//

Craig touched a hand to Blair's abdomen and reached. And snatched his hand back as though scalded. Across the room Jim stirred again, his eyelids half lifting against Craig's faltering compulsion. With Sterling's attention elsewhere, he was beginning to wake.

//I thought so. If he's been broadcasting, he's probably receiving -- and that means he had to have shields of some sort or go insane.//

//Which is why I couldn't get inside,// Craig replied, nodding. //Can you do any better?//

//Perhaps.// There was a long silence. //I'll try. It would be easier if we could get him to my lab.//

//I don't think that's an option here, Sharron. Far too many variables to risk. I doubt we could pull it off, frankly.//

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Ellison's head hurt. Like a concussion had developed a taste for drums, and was practicing, loudly and painfully, in the basement of his skull. He let his eyes open a slit, and flinched at the bright light flooding his eyes. His head was heavy and sleep filled as he turned his wrist to check the time. He blinked. Only a few minutes, fifteen at the most, had passed, and yet he felt like he'd slept badly for a month. He shook his head, trying to clear it. Most of all he wished whoever was talking would just shut up!

...couldn't get inside," a familiar voice said softly. Why did such a quiet voice seem so loud? Jim winced as the voice echoed in his skull, counter point to the drums, and opened his eyes a slit, trying to spot the person talking. "Can you do any better?"

"Perhaps." There was a long pause, and Jim's fuddled mind slowly connected the voice to the identity. Smith. The one who'd put Blair here. Or at least one of the attackers, whether he helped them out or not. "I'll try. It would be easier if we could get him to my lab."

'Lab'? Jim froze, his mind clearing fast.

"I don't think that's an option here, Sharron. Far too many variables to risk. I doubt we could pull it off, frankly."

He realized he was staring at the wall and wrenched his eyes towards the bed, confused. Why was he was on the wrong side of the room? In the second it took for him to take in the picture in front of him he was on his feet and round the bed. Smith was leaning over Blair, one hand on the bedstead, the other on Blair's forehead. Smith's eyes were closed, he had no time to react as Jim dragged him away from the bed, forcing him roughly to the floor, pinning his wrists high behind him, Jim's knee planted firmly in the small of Smith's back.

"What the hell are you doing here, Smith?" Jim growled. "I thought I left you safely in custody."

"I got bored, and left," the other said snidely.

"Came to finish the job?" He snapped cuffs around the pinned wrists and pushed himself to his feet. "Could I get a doctor here to check on Mr. Sandburg," he called urgently as two nurses rushed up to the door, attracted by the disturbance. "And please phone Captain Banks at the police department. Tell him I've found some missing property of his." He stepped over the prone body, and leaned in to check on Sandburg, his head pounding harder than ever. Blair was breathing, and the tightness choking him began to ease. He'd been afraid, when he saw the perp they'd arrested earlier leaning over his friend, maybe suffocating him, maybe... He turned back to his captive. "What did you do to him?"

"Nothing."

Jim reached down and dragged him to his feet. "Don't give me that! You get him half killed, and then you get out of a secure building, and come here? What are you up to?"

"Mr. Ellison?"

"What?" he roared at the nurse by the door.

"I have Mr. Banks for you."

"Put him through. Thanks," he added grudgingly, as the phone by Blair's bed rang. "Yes, Ellison." he snapped.

"Ellison, what the hell's going on down there? I thought you were going home!"

"What's happened to the guy we pulled in yesterday?" Ellison asked urgently.

"I've been trying to get hold of you for hours! Look, standard procedure, no one charged him, and he demanded to be let out after 24 hours and--"

"And you let him go? Simon--"

"I know. I'm sorry, Jim, I couldn't believe it either. It hit my desk about two hours ago, we've been trying to get hold of you ever since. Somehow, someone got their priorities seriously fucked up, and turned him loose. We've been trying to track him down since we found out, but he's vanished."

"No, he hasn't, " Jim said grimly. "He's right here."

"What the--?"

"In the hospital. I woke up to find him with his hands on Blair."

"Shit! Did you -- do I send some men round, or do we pick him up from the morgue?"

"I didn't kill him." He rubbed at his forehead as the pounding grew.

"Well, bring him in then."

"Sir I--"

"Is there any change with Sandburg?" Banks asked abruptly.

"No." He watched the sleeping man for a long moment. "I'll bring him in."

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Simon stared at the phone. He was pretty sure it was just a normal, run of the mill phone. There was nothing about it that said 'hotline to hell', so why the hell did every call end up with his ass in a sling. "Ellison and Sandburg, that's why," he growled at his coffee, and then dialed Rhonda.

"Yes, Simon?" His assistant asked.

"Tell someone to get Ellison out of interrogation room one. Make sure there's a man on the door there though. And see if someone's available to sit in with the suspect until Ellison's back."

"Sure. I think Conner's free."

"Good. Ask her to sit in with Jim's perp, would you? Thank you." He leaned back and sighed. When Ellison stomped into the room, he was tilted back, fingers pressed together, eyes closed. "Close the door behind you."

Jim kicked it shut. "Well, what was so important that you pulled me out of talking to our assassin?"

Simon opened his eyes and glared at his detective. "Sit down, Jim." Jim hesitated, and Simon snapped, "Sit."

"Stay," Jim mumbled, and pulled up a chair.

"If I thought it would work, God knows I'd've sent you to obedience school years ago. Have you got anything on this guy in interrogation room one?"

Jim leaned forward, "Not yet, but I heard him, Simon, I'm pretty sure he was talking about Blair's research - about the contents of the laptop that was stolen. I've got at least a probable on that." His voice dropped. "I heard a woman as well, he must have been on the phone, and I picked up the other end of the conversation as well as him. We need to check his mobile records, contact the phone company, maybe. And she said something getting him to a lab -- her lab..."

"And you?" Simon asked, worried.

"No, not by name. There was something I didn't quite get. I think maybe they don't know who Blair's subject was -- I didn't understand all of it, Simon; it was like he'd drugged me somehow."

"But they haven't connected you? Let's keep it that way, okay?" Jim nodded. "Good, we're agreed then, that you'll release our John Smith, and no charges will be pressed by him or by us."

"WHAT!"

"Ellison, sit down." He glared, wholly unintimidated by the man leaning over his desk, hands slammed down on the desk.

"Jim, is anyone listening to us?"

Ellison frowned at the non sequitur. "Sir, I--"

"Just answer the damn question."

Ellison concentrated. "I don't think so, but there's no guarantee."

Simon grunted, and folded his hands together. "Have you ever heard of an organization called Nemesis?" he asked, carefully avoiding the sharp blue eyes.

There was a long moment of silence. "I can't discuss that, Simon," Jim said as he slowly resumed his seat.

Shit. Abruptly Simon sat forward. "If we're going to get at what the hell is going on here, then you are going to have to discuss it."

"Sir?" Jim's carefully blank face said more than enough about his opinion of that.

"Jim," Simon replied, waiting.

"I -- I can't."

"Your partner's life is at stake."

"I swore an oath, Simon," he said, torn.

"Fuck." Simon swung the chair round to stare out the window. "Okay, forget any personal history you might have with them. What can you tell me? Who are they? Government?"

"Bigger than that." Jim shook his head, looking almost -- afraid... Simon felt a chill develop in the pit of his stomach. "They - Nemesis, are a UN organization. They are," Jim cleared his throat, frowning. It was easier while Simon wasn't looking. He closed his eyes. "They are a secret force, they -- they do whatever is necessary. I was seconded out of the Rangers there for six months, long before Peru--" he trailed off considering what to say next. "They're spies, assassins, scientists, soldiers. Top of their fields, capable of anything, and I mean anything. They go anywhere, take on anyone, from crackpots to G7 security forces who pick the wrong game to play -- and anything in between, if need be. We --I -- they do the kind of operation that should be done, but isn't anyone's responsibility. The stuff that nobody talks about, nobody knows about, because it's too dangerous, too impossible to be real..."

"Even here." Simon nodded slowly. He leaned back in his chair, and swung away from his desk, staring thoughtfully out into the bullpen through the frosted glass windows.

Jim nodded curtly. "Anywhere. Jurisdiction doesn't have any meaning for them."

"I see." Jim watched silently as Simon drummed his fingers against each other in thought. "And their interest in Sandburg?"

Jim shrugged, although he didn't sound half as nonchalant as he meant to. "They'll want his subject - a Sentinel would be the kind of man they need."

Simon turned back abruptly, and eyed his best detective speculatively, "Would you go back?"

Jim half shrugged. "I like to think I'm needed here."

"Can you refuse?" he asked sharply.

"Oh yes. If I have to, I can call in a favor or two," Jim said, his eyes turning cold and grim. "There are plenty of people who would rather help me than see me as their enemy." He considered for a moment, putting the connections together. "So, what's Nemesis got to do with our prisoner?"

"He's apparently an operative." Simon growled.

"Shit."

"No kidding. I've had five separate agencies, three of them international, call me since you ran his prints yesterday, starting with the NSA and moving upwards, wanting me to release him to their custody. Of course, he wasn't in my custody when they called, but since you went and hauled him in again..."

"What are you going to do? He saved Blair's life -- I owe him something."

"You shouldn't have dragged him back here then, should you," Simon snapped. "I've put them all off, but that will only hold until the first one gets here with a federal warrant."

Jim nodded sharply, then cocked his head to one side, listening to something that Simon could not.

"Ellison? What is it?" Simon asked, guessing it was more bad news.

"I think that warrant just got here."

Simon glanced at his watch. "Shit, not quite twenty eight hours. They must want that guy."

"Simon, I need more time." There was a knock on the door from the Bullpen.

His boss nodded curtly. "I'll stall them as long as I can. Go out the other way. Release him, and see if you can get something out of him unofficially. And Jim? I know nothing, right?" Jim grinned ferally, and slipped out. "Just try not to kill him," the captain muttered, sure Jim would hear, as his door opened. "Can I help you?"

Jim ambled down the hallway. The NSA goons were lurking by the main bullpen door, but obviously hadn't heard about the other exit from Simon's office. He took them in quickly. Standard suits, and intentionally ill concealed weapons. A quick glance, and he kept walking, not too much interest, not too little. He had little doubt they knew who he was, a suspicion confirmed as the two men looked at each other, and one peeled himself away from where he was leaning against the door jamb.

"Detective Ellison," he said, sticking out his hand. "I've heard so much about you." His smirk implied that much of it had entertained him.

Jim stopped, reluctantly, and shook hands. "Pleased to meet you--"

"Simms. And this is Hallam."

Jim nodded at the other man and pulled his hand away. "If you'll excuse me, I'm just going along to the men's room."

"Of course," Hallam agreed, with a perfunctory smile.

He could feel their eyes on him all the way down the corridor, and round the corner. Then he broke into a jog to the central corridor, to the interrogation suite. Conner was waiting inside the room with 'Smith', a uniformed officer was outside.

"Jim," Conner began.

"Mr. Smith, you're free to go," Jim said quickly. "But I strongly recommend you stay with me - unless you want to go with the NSA or some of their buddies."

The lanky, dark haired man lifted his eyes calmly. "I'll be perfectly safe, Detective." There was a weird echoing effect to his words, and Ellison shook his head.

"No, you won't. We ran your prints, and you need to get out of here like now -- and that's going to be almost impossible."

"Not for me," Smith said, with a small smile.

"What's going on, Jim?" Megan asked.

"He's in danger. I've put him in danger by holding him here--"

"What, him? I thought he was under arrest for attacking Sandy?" Conner blinked.

"Yes. No time, come on, we've got to get him out without half the PD telling the other half!"

"But, Blair--"

"Ms Conner," the dark haired man met her gaze squarely, "Detective Sandburg is in more danger than you know. If I am free, I may be able to help."

Megan glanced between the two men, both clearly in deadly earnest. "This town gets weirder the longer I stay here. Okay."

"Okay?"

"What do you need?"

"Cover for us, right, and we'll go. If we're careful, and casual, we can probably make it a long way before anyone guesses."

"I can help with that impression," Smith said softly.

"Let me take him. Anyone will know it's trouble if you do it, Jim, you're too high profile," Megan pointed out practically.

Jim hesitated for only a split second. "Right. Take the stairs to the parking garage. I'll be down there waiting for you."

"No worries."

"Okay," Jim said, "Conner, go. I'll see you in the parking garage. We'll take your car, but I'm driving!"

"Let me get the keys, meet you at the bottom of the stairwell in five," she said. She flipped a cheeky salute at the two of them and hurried from the room.

"Thank you," Smith said once the door had closed.

"I won't ask your name," Jim began.

"Craig Sterling," the other said, quietly. Jim stopped in his tracks.

"That's not--"

"Not possible? I know," he said with a wry grin, "Look, I need to talk to you, somewhere private, as soon as possible."

"But - Blair--"

"Someone else is dealing with him."

"What do you mean, 'dealing'?" Jim grabbed Sterling out of his chair and slammed him up against the wall.

"No time." Craig's eyes seemed terribly blue, and Jim's hands fell open, letting the other slip out of his grip without his volition.

"No ... time... No!" He snapped his head in denial, snapping out of the oddly foggy daze that had let Craig get to the doorway without Jim so much as noticing, never mind stopping him. "What did you do?" He glared, taking two long strides to grab the other's shoulder. "What was that?"

Sterling's face was impassive. "We need to go."

Jim hesitated, then, as Connor came back in, nodded. "But later--" he warned.

"Sure. Whatever you say, Sentinel."

Jim's face blanked. "I told you, none of that was true. Sandburg just got reality confused."

Sterling's face darkened. "Maybe you need to protect yourself, but don't do it by putting that kid down."

"Why, what's it to you?" Jim replied angrily.

"We don't have time for this, guys," Megan insisted, shoving the two men apart. "And what are you doing hanging around here anyway, Ellison? Time's a-wasting! Go. We'll see you downstairs."

Jim nodded curtly and waited until he could hear their footsteps echoing in the stairwell before heading to the elevator.

"Mr. Ellison, how nice to meet again," a tall man who carried the afterimage of military uniform over his plain gray suit.

"General." Jim said politely.

"I would love to have a chat with you, today, Captain," he added.

"Yessir," Ellison said reflexively. "I am late for another--" he let his voice trail off, but the other made no effort to fill in the uncomfortable silence, merely watching him, far too closely for Ellison's liking.

Jim turned and headed in the opposite direction, eyes straight ahead, ignoring the goons lurking on every corner. Mentally he swore. Thank god for Megan. There was no way he was getting out without someone noticing. He marched back into Major Crimes and knocked on Simon's door.

"Sir, I've got word from the hospital, and I'm heading out." Obfuscation, sure, lame, sure, but if it worked...

Simon stared at him expressionlessly. "You tell that boy to get his ass back here as soon as he's well enough," he said, and turned away dismissively to the NSA pair sitting across from him.

Good enough. Jim took the stairs to the fourth floor, then the elevator to the basement. Connor was already in the car, revving the engine impatiently.

"Where's Smith?" he asked as he swung himself into the vehicle and fixed the seatbelt.

She grinned at him, "In the back seat."

It took every bit of self control not to check over his shoulder as they left the building. To his considerable surprise, the black cars waiting outside ignored them as they pulled away.

He caught Megan frowning at them, and they exchanged puzzled glances.

"We're a lot less noticeable than usual," a strained voice came from the back. "You're going to have to drop me off somewhere, it doesn't matter where. Just get to Blair. It's extremely important that he isn't left on his own right now." He gasped for air and was silent.

"How do you know Sandy?" Megan demanded.

"He -- we go back -- a long way." Sterling stopped for a long time, and both cops thought that he had finished. "His mother and I used to work together," he said tightly. "Please don't ask me any more questions, this takes a lot of effort, and we don't have the luxury of making mistakes."

"Naomi? And Nemesis?" Jim said incredulously. "Naomi?!" But there was no reply.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Cascade Airport was relatively quiet. Midweek, at ten in the morning was too late for the commuters, and too early for the tourists. Thus the tall, elegant woman walking across the concourse attracted more attention than she might otherwise have done. She was young, maybe late twenties, with her hair cut in a fashionably layered mop, and the chic, pale turquoise suit she wore screamed class and money. Behind her trailed a porter pushing a trolley of luggage, where she had found him was anyone's guess, possibly he had simply materialized from thin air from the force of her expectation of such a person. At the taxi stand she smiled sweetly and tipped him, then settled herself serenely into the back of the car, waiting patiently until the driver and porter had finished silently struggling to put her luggage away.

"Cascade Hospital, please," she said as the driver sat at the wheel. Her voice was clear and almost English accented, some unidentifiable overtone suggesting it was not a first language for her.

"Which one, lady, we got five. Englewood General, County General, Cascade Mercy, Rainier and Conover. I don't recommend Conover. Unless you're looking for a criminally insane psychopath, that is, which we can arrange for you at no added cost. Load of crazies up there, and that's just the staff!"

"Which is to the north?" she asked after a moment's thought.

"That'd be County General. It's up by the Heights, which is pretty much north of here. Now Englewood's more north-west, over by Harrinton, and the rest are off to the south and east, so I guess it's County you want," he said garrulously.

"County General, then. Thank you." She sat back and closed her eyes.

The driver watched her in the mirror as they moved through the traffic. There was something odd about her... It wasn't until she was safely out at the other end of the journey that he realized that the traffic had parted for them, every light in their favor, moving through the city streets as though it were pre-dawn, not mid-morning. She paid him and walked away.

"Hey! You forgot your luggage!" He called after her, and she blinked.

"How silly of me," she said softly and half turned back. The driver saw her frown a little, and found himself halfway between Fifth and Hayes, with no recollection of how he got there. Try as he might, he couldn't remember her face either. There was only a lingering memory of a sweet voice and an air of the exotic that was already fading.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Sharron Macready walked briskly into the hospital, and paused. A brunette in security uniform glanced up disinterestedly and away again, and Sharron smiled. Without hesitation, she walked through the main foyer, past the corridors to Hematology and Physiotherapy, to the elevators. Five minutes later, unchallenged, she was walking through to the ICU. She did not need the signs on the walls directing her through the hospital's maze-like corridors, but was instead following the beacon that had called her, weakly, from halfway across the world.

The door was ajar, an armed officer sitting outside it to the left, who ignored her completely as she stopped outside the room. She slowly took in the room, and her eyes immediately seized on the occupant of the bed. He was pale, and the hair that had been long and curly in the last set of photos was mostly gone, shaved away and the stubbled remnants hidden by bandages. His hands were pricked with the large needles of IV shunts, and more tubes vined across his face, taped to cheek and into his nose. She shuddered, once, then stepped into the room and hurried to the bed. She brushed a gentle hand over the unmarked side of this face, and smiled.

"Blair," she murmured, as she touched her son for the first time in nearly thirty years. "Blair."

He slept on, oblivious to her, and to the red headed woman sitting beside him meditating. Sharron concentrated, and her eyes snapped open. She hastily rose to her feet, stepping forward several paces. "Who are you? How did you get in here? Who let you in?"

The man guarding the door sat still, obliviously unresponsive to Naomi's panicked words.

"I owe you a very great debt of gratitude," Sharron said in her softly accented voice, smiling sadly at her. "And I know it has been hard for you. I'm only sorry I could never help you more."

"Who--" Naomi whispered, stepping protectively between the stranger and Blair.

"You know who I am, Naomi." She turned her gaze back to Blair. "You've done very well. He's a good man, and most of it was because of you."

"He was born like it," Naomi replied hoarsely. "Can you-- can you help him? He needs a donor." Her eyes were filled with sudden hope, and Sharron shook her head, and watched it die.

"No," Sharron said, just as softly, "No, he doesn't."

"How can you say that! You owe him! You owe both of us! I have been his mother in every way that counts for twenty-eight years! Thirty! I was only a child, only sixteen, and I have spent my life being stigmatized and persecuted for one act of charity."

"I'm sorry, I -- Did you hate it that much? Hate him?"

"No! No, no I didn't," she took a step back and leaned on the side of the bed, one hand possessively brushing over Blair's shoulder, above the bandages. "I -- he was, is more my son than he has been yours. I love him more than anything."

"I know. I can see it. And I am not trying to take him away from you," Sharron tried to calm her.

"Good! You couldn't! You never contacted him, not once!"

"You never told him, either." Sharron replied gently.

"I ... I couldn't. It would have caused too much --"

"Hassle? Explanations? Distance between you?" She lifted one eyebrow in faint disbelief.

"Pain," Naomi snapped back, and took a deep, calming breath. "Too much pain for him. Perhaps you wouldn't get that, since you're the one who dumped a tiny, little, baby boy in a war zone! It was bad enough having to explain to a four year old what a 'bastard' meant, telling him that he didn't have a Daddy - that I didn't know who his father was. And as he got older? Hearing not just my contemporaries, but his, calling me a slut and a whore. Was I supposed to completely orphan him? You abandoned him! You have no right, no right, to question me!" She stopped, breathing harshly, trying to let go of the sudden rage that had seized her, equal parts of long-festering anger and present fear.

Sharron nodded in agreement. "I know. I'm sorry." She closed her eyes for a moment. "Would it help if I told you that I helped when I could?"

Naomi looked up, green eyes hard, and a shudder ran through her as she visibly controlled herself. "I wondered. We sometimes seemed to have a guardian angel watching over us. Even in the worst times," and she looked sharply at the young blonde woman, "And they were very bad, sometimes, when everyone seemed out to get us, no money, no food... but something always turned up -- a place to go, someone to look after us," she smiled weakly. "I figured it was good karma," she added, with a sound that might have been a laugh.

"I have friends who knew to make sure you and the child were safe." Sharron said softly, and half extended a hand towards Naomi, hesitating before they connected. "I think sometimes it made you more of a target than you already were, but mostly it worked for the best. I couldn't keep him and be sure he would be safe. I just wanted you both to be safe. Safe and well." She couldn't prevent the flicker of her eyes to the man lying silently in the bed, the machinery supporting him beeping in soft counterpoint to their encounter.

"I'm sorry." Naomi turned away, suddenly deflated, a lost expression on her face.

"Don't be," Sharron closed the distance and cupped Naomi's face in her hand. "You always meant for the best. You couldn't predict that others would be less altruistic than you."

"Aren't you angry?" Naomi said, almost childlike in her surprise.

Sharron shrugged a little. "I have seen worse. He is still alive..."

"But he's dying," Naomi blurted helplessly, tears coming to her eyes.

"You didn't fire the gun," she said simply. "Naomi, whatever anger is between you and others for this is for you to resolve. You have far more to forgive me, Blair has far more to forgive me than I, you. I am the last one who should point fingers." She walked around the bed and settled on the chair there, positioned so she could watch the door. "If I had been a practical woman, if I had followed everyone's advice, including my dearest friends', he would never have been born," she said reflectively, a hand on Blair's quiescent wrist. "He would have been aborted before ever getting the chance to live. But I wanted him, and loved -- love, him, as much as any mother. Giving him up was the only thing I could do to keep him safe," she repeated defensively.

"Safe! Do you know where I found him?"

"In a commune in the Gaeltacht. You left and presented yourself to the consulate in Dublin as Naomi Sandburg and Blair, a son born out of wedlock. They made a temporary addition to your passport and sent you home. Your parents refused to take you back, and you have spent the next sixteen years wandering with him. And the twelve that followed his acceptance at Rainier drifting." She took Blair's hand, careful to avoid the taped needle on the back of it, "Even if I could not be there physically, I always watched over him. I have photos of most of his life. I did manage to be there for his graduations, high school, bachelor's, master's -- all of them. You have to understand that it was never because I didn't want a son. I wanted him so much. I missed him so much. The only way to keep away was to ensure I knew everything I could find out." She shrugged, "it also meant I could protect you both. Consider this: even if you had been taken in that commune, things would have happened much the same. You would simply have been repatriated after the raid and asked not to return to Ireland or the UK. There was never any chance that you would have been injured or the baby harmed." She smiled faintly.

"You look so young," Naomi said wonderingly. "Is it really you?"

Sharron shrugged. "Good skin. Yes, it is really me."

"What's your name?" Naomi asked eagerly, "Where have you been? Oh, I wish--"

"Do you really need to know?"

"Maybe not, but Blair does."

"The less he knows, the better." But her eyes flickered longingly towards Blair. "You were wise in that."

"Unlike everything else, you mean," Naomi said, caught once more on the quick.

"No. I said you did a good job, and I meant it."

"It wasn't a job!" She caught herself, and closed her eyes, "I am letting this go, I am letting this go..."

"I know. I'm sorry. I'm not here to judge you. Please don't think that." Sharron said quietly.

"No, I --" she smiled. "I'm not taking this very well am I?" She shut her eyes and drew a deep breath, and another.... another... Slowly she slipped into a calmer frame of mind.

When Naomi re-opened her eyes, feeling more peaceful and centered, she saw the other woman sitting quite still, one hand resting lightly on Blair's wrist, her eyes shut, and her expression blank in the serenity of deep meditation. Naomi wondered for a moment where the hospital staff were, and shrugged, letting the world slip away again, as she watched their son slipping away from the world.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Ellison watched through the glass for long, silent minutes. He'd left Sterling at the entrance to the hospital with Connor. She said she would come up later. He couldn't help but wonder whether there would be a later... The sounds of the hospital repeatedly broke his concentration, and he glared in irritation at the hapless nurse that walked by him and into Blair's room. She quietly ran through the series of monitors and tests, drawing a small amount of blood, changing the catheter bag and sealing the old one. Changing the shunt and drain. Without even trying, he could see the blood in it. She tried to rouse him, but he just moaned, and tried to pull away from her touch.

Blair had lost ground. Even in the few hours he had spent away from his friend's bedside, he could see him slipping. The man normally square and stocky, sturdy framed and full of energy was thin-faced, with a yellowish cast to his skin, almost fragile looking. Without trying the heart monitor warned that Blair's heart beat was slow and unsteady. If he chose to listen more closely he could hear the unhealthy gurgles and hiccups in his bloodstream. He nodded tensely. Well, there was a choice he could make. He glanced at the paper the doctor had handed him not ten minutes before. A partial match. Enough to be worth taking a chance on.

There really was no choice involved, he thought, the solution really was simple enough. If Naomi couldn't, or wouldn't, he would. He would survive, and Blair could survive too. In an odd sort of way it was fitting. He'd repeatedly led Blair into danger: it was about time he made a real, physical reparation for that. Besides, how much closer could they get without actually swapping internal organs? He grinned, laughing silently at that thought. Sort of kidney buddies - like blood brothers, but deeper. About four inches deeper, by what Jane had said. The chuckles shook him harder, and he choked them back, not quite sure if they'd stayed safely on the right side of not crying.

He'd told her to start the wheels in motion already. At least she'd promised him he could go into Blair's room for the three days he'd need after the op.

He drifted closer to the bed, watching intently, not wanting to disturb him. Blair was deep asleep, his eyes flickering under the lids, dreaming. The nurse brushed past him on her way out and smiled a 'Good morning,' at him, which he barely even registered.

"Jim," Naomi said quietly from inside the room, and he wrenched his eyes away from his guide.

"Naomi," he acknowledged.

"There's someone here you should meet," she added, nodding across the bed.

Ellison looked up again, and was startled to find another woman sitting there, in full view, where he could not possibly have failed to see her.

"How the hell--" he asked, startled.

"Jim, this is Blair's mother," Naomi said bluntly, with barely a shake in her voice to show how hard it was for her. "Sharron, this is Jim Ellison, Blair's -- friend."

Jim looked at her disbelievingly. "That's real convenient," he nodded cynically. "Yesterday you'd didn't even have a name, and today, here she is, and here you are, and we're all one happy family. Naomi, what did she tell you? Have you got any proof of this? Did you check anything she said? Has she threatened you at all?"

"No, no, Jim. I just knew her when I saw her. It was in her aura."

"Ri-ight," he jeered, "Do you have any proof of this claim?" he demanded of the blonde woman.

"None whatsoever," the stranger stated softly, and he stared at her, then reached for his gun.

"I know your voice. You're the woman Sterling was talking to. You wanted to put him in a lab! I don't think so, lady! Put your hands where I can see them." He edged around the bed, gun trained on her at all times. "Naomi, call Banks, get him over here ASAP. Your hands up, now!"

"Jim, it's all right," Naomi protested, as Sharron said, "Mr. Ellison, I am no threat to Blair, or his family. Please put the gun down, and we can discuss this."

He desperately wanted to believe her, but something kept telling him that his sudden need to obey her, listen to her, wasn't right. "What ...are... you ... doing?" he gritted out, hand shaking around the gun. He steadied it with his other hand.

She took a long, hard look at him, and suddenly, his hand flew up, losing the gun. He grabbed for it, but it was in her hand. He stared in disbelief as she pulled it open and emptied it with professional speed. "There. I have no gun, and now, neither do you. Mr. Ellison, you must understand, I am helping your friend. Not hurting him. I have no reason to harm him, you see, I really am his mother. If you want, get some tests done, investigate me, whatever, as you please, but I promise you, you will only be wasting time that Blair doesn't have if you do. Naomi adopted him when I was unable to look after him. That is the truth." The look in her eyes added to Naomi, 'And if you prefer it that way, that's all anyone ever need know...'

"It doesn't feel like you're helping him!" he snapped, then frowned. Where did that come from? He could, almost feel the pain, pins and needles jabbing worse than the steady ache above his hipbones and his shoulder. "What the hell?! What are you doing?" He rubbed at his stomach painfully

Sharron sighed with relief. "You must have picked us up before, when Craig was talking to me. I should have thought of that. You're almost one of us anyway, it makes sense that you would have more perhaps to you than even Blair realized. You're feeling his hurt. That's good - he must be stronger if he can pass it to you. Now I just need to convince his body it wants to heal before everyone in the hospital starts to feel it."

"What the f-- hell are you talking about?" he asked aggressively. "Quit the mystical crap, and start making some sense before I take you downtown and book you."

She smiled wryly. "What for?"

"I'll think of something."

"Jim, if she can help Blair, why don't you let her, and stop putting out all this negativity. It isn't helping Blair--"

"Don't you start on who's helping Blair here, Naomi. You're the last person with a right to an opinion on that."

Naomi's lips opened, but before she could say anything, Sharron spoke. "Jim, if I can prove that I can help, will you believe me?"

"Yes. If you can prove it."

"Then watch." She closed her eyes and her face became blank. A moment later he took a hasty step back as the water jug on the bedside table lifted, drifted across the bed to her hand, and without touching it, tilted, leaving a pool of water on the floor. She opened her eyes to watch it for a moment, then reached out and plucked it from the air. "Do you believe me now?"

"So you can move his water jug," he said dismissively, a small part of his brain screaming 'did you see what she just did?!!! Omigod did you see that?'. "When he stops being nil by mouth he'll be thrilled. It doesn't prove you can heal him."

"I can't prove it without hurting him, or someone else first."

Jim nodded. "Okay." He dragged his finger along the edge of the sheaf of papers by Blair's bed. "Ow!" The paper cut was bleeding freely. "Enough?"

Sharron nodded. "This is energy I could be using on him, you know."

Jim shrugged, "If you want to touch him you're going to have to come up with more than I've got so far."

"Very well." Her eyes closed and Jim watched as the cut edges of skin pulled together, sealed and knitted seamlessly, only the globule of bright blood left to show that there had ever been an injury there. She gasped for air, "Have I convinced you?"

Jim nodded wordlessly, and she said, "Good. Now, let me be."

"He'll be better after?" he asked suspiciously.

"Yes. Do you want to help?" she asked, and smiled as he stepped closer. "Hold onto him. He does know when you're here."

Hesitantly, Jim touched Blair's arm. "What good is this?" he asked, willing to believe that there might be something, but still uncertain.

"Are you so afraid of a simple touch?" Sharron asked mockingly.

"No, I--"

"Then hold on." She sat down again, and closed her eyes. Jim's eyes flicked to Blair's mother.

"It's all right," Naomi encouraged. "Visualize him getting well, he'll be able to feel the energies and use them."

His face showed his skepticism, and she smiled. "Just hold onto him then. He'll know you're there."

He ignored her and concentrated on his friend, still a little puzzled as to why he wasn't freaking out completely.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Blair moaned in pain and opened his eyes to find the wolf licking at his face. "God, what is that?" he asked, clutching at his skull as though he could drag it apart and pull out the pain by main force. He opened his eyes to a tiny slit and moaned again. The light around him was brilliant but wavering horribly, rippling and shaking like water in an earthquake. The effect was nauseating, and with the thought he helplessly vomited.

He crouched, panting hard, and wiped his mouth. "I thought I couldn't be sick here," he complained plaintively and retched again. His skin itched, and he frantically began to scratch, first though the clothes, tearing them off, then directly at his skin, which tore away in long bloodless ribbons. He groaned helplessly as the itch escalated, pricking at his very bones, and deeper. He slumped, and the wolf curled over him. He was distantly aware that it too was whimpering, short, breathless little sounds that merged with his own voice.

"Blair. Blair. You've got to wake up now."

"Don't wanna, Mama," he mumbled.

"Blair, look at me."

He eased one eye open. "My head hurts," he complained. "You made it do that before, and I don't like it. Stop it," he ordered plaintively.

"I know, we didn't mean to, Blair, but you've got to help me here."

"Wha'?"

"Blair!"

He jolted upright, and looked blearily at the woman crouching in front of him. "You're new 'round here," he said hazily.

She smiled, "No, I just didn't let you see me."

"Oh. So who are you--" he caught and smothered a yawn, "are you anyway?" He leaned into the big cat curled up behind him, and let his tired eyes close, still petting absently at the wolf curled around him.

"You've got to stay awake." //It wasn't this hard last time//

"What wasn't hard?"

"You heard me?" //You heard me?//

"Ow. Yeah. What's happening?" It was getting harder to focus, until she lifted his chin with one hand.

"I cannot help you any more. You can finish this now. You're ready."

As she spoke her face and body became withered and dry. She jerked her hand away, and stared at the striations that were visibly running up it, reducing her arm to a desiccated skeleton. "I must go."

She blinked out of existence and he swallowed hard. Suddenly he felt remarkably well, and was uncomfortably certain that it was at her cost.

His attention was distracted from her as his stomach throbbed with pain. He rubbed it, harder and harder, in time with his pulse. He resolutely didn't look down as his hand became slippery as stuff sloughed away under the pressure of his touch. Eventually, it hurt too much, and he stopped, just holding onto his midriff, doubled over around it. He tried to visualize light, taking away the pain, closing up the ugly holes in his sides...anything to stop the pain... and gradually he became aware of heat pouring from his hands where they were clutched against his belly.

The wolf whimpered, and without thinking he reached a hand to it, pressing at the marred shoulder, then at the torn and bloody gut. Pins and needles spiked all over, and he shivered, the power a curious doubled sensation, running through him from the inside and the outside. He groaned, then gagged, coughing horribly. Oddly, there was no strain to his belly-wound, and he straightened cautiously. For a long time he just stared, mouth open. It was rebuilding. Right in front of his eyes, the wound was raveling together, neatly joining as though it had never been, and behind it, he could catch glimpses of his insides smoothing over...

He closed his eyes and swallowed, controlling the sudden nausea. "That was way, way too much information," he muttered, and then, fascinated, peered at it again, but there was only smooth skin, itching now as the hair began to grow back.

He sighed as the pain eased, and passed completely. He relaxed, only then realizing how tense he had been. He heard an approving rumble from the cat lounging behind him, and he turned in towards it, snuggling into the warm fur. A tongue swiped at his hair. He smiled at the brusque cat-bath, and fell asleep, comforted by the gentle strokes.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Jim, Sharron and Naomi were still sitting quietly with Blair hours later. Various nurses had flitted in and out, fiddling with medications and charts. Banks had been by, as had several others, friends of Blair's from Major Crimes. Even one or two from the university, despite the whole dissertation debacle. None had stayed long. Jim was unpleasantly reminded of the death watches he had endured for others, colleagues and friends. But this wasn't a death watch. This was going to make everything better.

He couldn't stop the snort of disbelief. He didn't care that it had been 'proved' to him. Nothing was going to make all of this better. The laptop had turned up at the department, but Blair was still unconscious and hooked up to a drip. Even if the woman was right about healing him - and how bizarre was that? Even that wasn't going to fix the high level spooks wandering around Cascade. If anything it made things worse. they were right there, in the public glare, and about to do yet another improbable feat. And there was no change. Still no change. And if there were...

He groaned. It would all be there in the doctor's notes. There would be proof... He'll be as much a target as me, he thought, and for a moment he was meanly pleased at the idea, then swallowed. No. They'd been through enough. If necessary he could -- for a moment he thought about throwing the woman who claimed to be Blair's real mother to the wolves, but even as he thought it, he was certain that they had already covered themselves. "Why else reveal yourself?"

Sharron nodded, as though she had been following his thoughts. She probably had been, he thought grimly, and blanked his mind.

"No, there is a danger. But it's only to me." She spoke softly, and Jim looked up, startled. He hadn't expected any response from her. He took a quick, worried look, but Naomi was still asleep in her chair, and he jerked his head towards her.

"You do that?"

"No." She shook her head. "She is tired from travelling, and from holding in her emotions. She needs to rest." She shrugged. "I don't interfere unless there is no other choice."

"Like now."

"Like now," she agreed. She watched Jim's frowning face for a couple of minutes, then offered, "My cover is good. Perfect, you might say. No one would ever connect me to him."

"They will now."

"I'm a doctor."

"You are?"

"Yes." The smile was genuine. "I have real qualifications from a real university."

"Sorry, I just--"

"I know."

"I suppose you do," he said ruefully. He glanced at the still form on the bed. "He really will get better?"

Sharron smiled. "it's already starting." She smiled at him, "You can cancel that operation you were thinking of having, Mr. Ellison."

"How did-- no, never mind." He smiled ruefully, "I'm starting to understand how my boss feels some days."

"He knows?" She laughed lightly.

Jim nodded, then looked back at Blair. "When--"

"I don't know. Soon, but it depends chiefly on him. I've started the process, shown his body how, but he's taking energy from the rest of his body to heal himself, and that takes time."

"He won't, I don't know, kill himself trying?"

"No. He can't." Her face turned sad, "There's a point beyond which you can't go, no matter how much you want to, no matter how hard you try."

"You knew someone who tried--"

"Yes." she replied softly. "Yes, I did."

"They--"

"He."

"He died?"

She looked away, and whispered, "yes..." There was a long, cold silence. "He couldn't heal himself fast enough. And I couldn't -- I couldn't give enough without killing myself. It was my fault."

"You--" Jim stopped. He didn't even know her full name, and he wanted to defend her to herself.

"Thank you," she seemed to understand what he was trying to say, "But I came to terms with my limitations a long time ago."

"How do you survive?" he asked, not really meaning to speak at all.

"What, with this?" She waved her hands in a vaguely mystical way.

"Yeah."

She shrugged, her mouth forming a moue. "I hide a lot. And I have an edge no one ever gets near."

"How long--"

"Me? I've been hiding since the day he was born," she nodded towards Blair. She caught his quick frown. "I was undercover, long term assignment. By the time I came out, I had too many enemies to stay--"

"You were in Nemesis too," he interrupted, realization spreading across his face.

"Nemesis?" Her face was innocently curious, and he wondered for a moment if he'd got it completely wrong.

"You weren't? I mean, I thought, Craig said..."

"You met Craig? He trusted you to tell you that?" she asked incredulously.

"Well, not exactly trusted," he said quickly. "We pulled him in when Blair got shot - he killed the man who did it, and ran his prints."

Her face went white. "You did what!"

"I know." He stared at his feet. "If I'd known--" he took a chance. "7551-X3-27010."

"K2 1 119 1," she responded almost automatically, then grinned. "You too. What a small world we live in."

"You're K2?" he said incredulously at the same time.

"Craig's K3," she added softly.

"You can't -- is this--"

"It's safe. I guarantee you." For a moment he saw the ruthless steel in her, and, for the first time, truly believed that this woman was an agent of Nemesis. "So, you were in too?"

Jim nodded. "A long time ago. I was a CIA liaison for a while." He shrugged, as though that was enough to explain his connection.

Sharron glanced at Naomi, still dozing in her chair. "There are too many innocents in this."

"Yes." Jim's eyes rested on Blair's motionless body. "Yes. There are."

There didn't seem to be anything left to say.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Long before he woke, somewhere, deep in his lizard brain, he was aware of weights pressing on him. Of a lighter pressure on his shoulder, and of a burning brand leaning into his stomach, unrelenting, forcing him to take shallow breaths, to not move, transfixing him to the uncomfortably lumpy bed as though staked through the gut.

"Blair?"

It drove him upwards towards consciousness, the pain too much to resist. Perhaps if he could only move away, throw the weights off, he'd be able to breath again. Instead it seemed to narrow and dilate at the same time, focusing in tighter on his body, but spreading aches everywhere, until he wanted the thrumming agony to stop. It dragged him higher, he was awake now, and the pain seemed bigger than his awareness, looming larger and cloudier than anything his drug-puzzled mind could defeat. Slowly, it trickled through his single minded concentration that he could hear. The rustle of clothes as people around him moved, breathed, shifted, was suddenly ridiculously loud and annoying. The background percussion of some electronic monitor, its relentless chirp, chirp, was steadier than the drumming of his heart in his ears and it abruptly made him want to scream at them to shut it off, turn it off, let him get back to the silent, ferocious concentration that fought off the exquisite, unyielding pain dominating his world. Another sound -- someone was breathing close to him. He could feel the air on his face, and he sniffed, lightly, smelling onion, mustard, salty fries...

<Jim...Wonderburger> he thought slowly, and a smile twitched his lips. <*Bad Jim...>

"Blair? You awake?"

He recognized the voice now, and wondered, vaguely, if he should open his eyes. It seemed like a lot of effort, and while he was considering it, a rush of air across the room made him shiver. More people were talking. All of them at once. He couldn't find Jim... couldn't understand them. He hesitated between opening his eyes, just a slit, just to see what was happening, or going back to sleep, where no one would bother him. The darkness seemed much more comfortable. But the pain was there too. Fuzzily he frowned. There had been something else there, as well. Something... not the wolf, or the Chopec, or any of the things he was used to, though they might have been there too.

"Come on, baby, open those pretty, blue eyes of yours..." his mother. He could smell her, sandalwood and flowers, and connected the slim, cool hand touching his cheek with her voice and fragrance.

"mom?" His throat was sore, and for a moment he thought perhaps he was seven again, waking up from a throat infection, and Naomi would be there with juice and soup, like the last time, her hands gentle as she lifted him. But when he opened his eyes, just a little bit, just to check, she looked older, and the present snapped back into focus - he wasn't seven. He'd been shot. And how the hell did Naomi have time to get here?

"Blair, honey, how do you feel?"

He smiled at her, unaware that his lips barely moved. "fine."

A shadow loomed to his left, and he shifted fractionally, stopping instantly as his wounds protested. Instead he turned his eyes, and found his partner, a wry look in his eyes, and a smile on his face.

"That's my line, Sandburg." Jim said, lowering his voice at Blair's surprised start.

Blair tried to shrug, and managed half a one. "Getting better?"

"That's what they say, kid," Jim was smiling, and Blair frowned, trying to decide if he was telling the truth, or telling one of those comforting lies that was going to get Ellison's butt kicked -- just as soon as he could find someone to kick it for him. But the smile reached all the way into those eyes --<<He looks like shit, but it's unbelievable!>>

Blair frowned. "Wha's un'leivable?"

"You--" Jim looked startled, and he looked away for a second to something - or someone, that Blair couldn't see behind him.

"The docs say you're getting better." He shook his head, "I mean really getting better."

"How--"

"Long?" You've been here a week, now," Naomi said from the other side of his bed, and smiled at him. "They've been monitoring you, and you've been proving them wrong by leaps and bounds."

"Wrong?" He pulled a face, "One of you jus' tell me, all right?"

Jim grinned. "Medical science is baffled. You're going to get completely well."

"Completely?" Blair whispered. He might have been drugged and injured, but he remembered the last conversation with Jim more clearly than he wanted to, when he'd been left looking forward to a lifetime of ill health. "But how--"

Jim slanted a look across at the open door, and said, "We'll explain later." He stood. "Look, I'm heading over to the PD -- we've got some-- oh, hey," he interrupted himself, we got your laptop back!"

"Oh. Oh, good." It was more a question than a statement, and Jim shrugged slightly, his eyes flickering almost imperceptibly to Naomi.

"If you want to say something, Jim, why don't you just say it?" she said calmly.

His mouth twisted, "I don't think so, Naomi. You don't have the best track record on confidential information."

Naomi went white, and Blair gasped, "Jim!" hoarsely.

"We've sacrificed enough, don't you think," he said with an eyebrow tilted. "I'll fill you in later. There's someone who's pretty keen to see you for now. Don't stay up too late."

Naomi bit her lip as Jim moved away from the bed, incidentally revealing a woman who had been sitting in a chair on the far side of the room. Blair's eyes tracked Jim as he left, then drifted back to the stranger.

"In... dream," he said uncertainly.

Sharron rose to her feet and smiled, "Hello, Blair. I just wanted to make sure you woke up okay."

"Who?"

"A friend of your Mom's," she said, smiling at Naomi. "At least, I hope so."

Naomi, oddly, was silent. Blair simply took it as shock at Jim's cutting remarks, and ignored it.

"Saw, you." he coughed, trying to clear the hoarseness from his throat. "While I was sleeping."

"Wasn't that a film?" she said with a smile. She stepped closer, brushing a hand other his forehead. "I've got to go. There's no point me staying too long, it puts all of us in danger."

//Don't understand...// "I don't understand..." he whispered, a split second after his thoughts reached her with bright clarity.

"We'll speak later. Now, concentrate on getting well, yes?"

He nodded, exhausted.

//Craig? I'll meet you over at the Memorial Park.//

//Twenty minutes.//

The two voices echoed in Blair's skull, and he frowned, bewildered, and too tired to figure it out.

"Goodbye, Blair." She left before he could protest.

"Naomi -- who is--"

Naomi had recovered her color, and was taking deep, calming breaths. "Blair, please. Not now."

"But I had this dream -- more like a vision, and she was healing me, and I wake up and I am getting better, aren't I? What happened? Is she a shaman?" he asked eagerly, the thought occurring to him suddenly. His questions were choked off by another coughing fit.

"Lie back, sweetie." Naomi pressed him back into the pillows. "Here." She offered him a sip of water from the cup she had quickly poured. "Just a little. that's it, that's better, isn't it? One thing at a time, okay?"

"Need <cough> to know--"

"I hear that, but you have to stay calm and quiet or the doctors will make me leave, and you won't get any answers."

"don' play fair..." he whispered, a sleepy smile on his face, his eyes half-lidded shut.

"That's what mom's do, baby," she said softly, and brushed a kiss over his forehead, where Sharron had touched.

//My poor baby... he is mine. She won't have him.//

Blair frowned again. "Who won't, Mom?"

"Who won't what?" she asked, confused.

"Have me. Who won't have me?"

"I don't understand." She gathered his right hand, unhindered by IV lines, into both her own. //I only thought it, god, I didn't say it, did I? It's the last thing he needs now, don't freak. Gotta say calm, peace, peace, reflect, clouds over water, this is clouds over still water, oh god, what if she did this to him?//

"Mom!" he coughed again, and she grabbed for the water, but he waved it away. He blinked, the rapid fire, panicky words stopped when she let go of him.

"Mom?" he asked doubtfully, and reached a hand to her. She took it quickly, but he snatched his hand away as her thoughts - that's what they were he realized with hazy shock, his mother's thoughts, this was amazing--he could. He came to an abrupt halt as he caught the look of hurt on her face. She was smoothing her scarf with quick, restless strokes.

"I've got to tell you something, Blair," she said softly, not looking at him, watching her long fingers slide over and over the soft silk.

He waited, her last thought before he broke the connection //he knows// still echoing in his head, the images and feelings with it confusing and terrifying.

"I-- she---" She looked up and met his eyes. "I don't know how to start."

"Beginning's good," he said.

"The beginning... well. Then it starts in Ireland."

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Ireland, 1969

Moonflower wasn't impressed. Sure, she had expected the small Irish commune to be isolated, but she'd had no idea that back to nature meant no plumbing. And they all spoke Irish, all the time. She'd picked up only a half-dozen words if that, but they didn't make any effort to talk English. And it was cold and half the time it was wet, and now she was supposed to play nursemaid to some brat. Diarmuid handed her the child when she snapped some remark about shutting the brat up as it wailed miserably, as it had done for the past three weeks.

"Here, Red, you have the child. Maybe he will teach you something." Moonflower scowled. "Yeah, right." She held the child awkwardly, trying not to let it get to close to her clothes. "He stinks. And I just know he's going to spit up all over me."

"He needs changing. The nappies are in the bathroom. Don't forget to rinse out the used one, and put the mess in the slop bucket to be thrown out." Sioned, Diarmuid's girlfriend had very little patience with Moonflower.

"You're kidding? No way!"

"The child needs care, and you are holding him. Who do you think cleaned you when you were small?"

"My mother. This one's mother dumped him on our doorstep. She didn't want him, I don't want him. Why bother? Give him to social services - you do have social services here, don't you," she said in sudden doubt.

Diarmuid sighed. "Yes, we do, but why should we do that to him? I didn't turn you away, did I?"

Moonflower scowled, "That was different! I can at least make my own way if I have to. I did all right before you. This one, stick him in a field for a couple of days and he'll be dead." She paused, slightly shocked at herself, and finished abruptly, "Anyway, he's pretty useless all round and I don't want to have anything to do with him. So!" She said defiantly, holding the child out.

"He's not even a month old, and his mother gave him to me because she knew he'd be safe and cared for. We share the good and the bad, child, now, go and change him," Sioned said firmly, then relented slightly. "We'll do en together. Then I'll show you the feeding of him, and the washing, and then he'll settle a little." She petted the small head, "Hush mho cridhe, shhh. We'll look after ye."

"Mo cree?"

"My heart. Now, come along with me." She pushed Moonflower ahead of her into the small bathroom. "You'll need to fill the basin with warm water - dip your elbow in it, not your hand, your hand's not sensitive enough to judge for a babby. Now, one of the rags. And get a nappy from the basket. There should be pins and liners and pants there too."

"You mean one of these?" Moonflower asked, lifting a rough toweling square.

"That's him. Now the liners are in the box - that's them. And the water..."

Moonflower sighed, "I'll get some from the kitchen."

"That's it. We'll wait for you."

"They'll wait for me. I'm overwhelmed with gratitude," she grumbled as she wandered across the passage to the big stone kitchen. A pan was boiling on the wood fired stove, and she gingerly tipped out a measure into the small enamel bowl, adding some cold from the tap until it stopped steaming. She pushed her long red hair back over her shoulders and lifted the heavy bowl carelessly, water slopping over the edges and scalding her wrists. "Ow. Shite!" She dumped it on the side, the water sloshing over the sides again, and shoved her wrist under the cold tap. "How the hell is a baby going to manage that? Oh." Sioned's warning came back to her and she added more cold to the bowl, testing it with her elbow until it reached a bearable temperature.

"Here," she thrust the water at Sioned. "You'll have to do him, I burned myself."

"No, I'll show you, but you will be doing it." Sioned disagreed mildly. "Take a towel, and put the child on your lap. And unpin the nappy... Yes, there mho cridhe, take that off you, yes, fold it up, that's it, careful."

"Believe me, I'm being careful." Moonflower gingerly folded the gruesome contents into the diaper and dropped it. "What if he does something!" she asked, suddenly panicking.

"You start agin. Moving fast is also a good way to avoid getting mess on yourself."

"Okay, okay." She cleaned the child carefully, and patted him dry with the towel as he watched her, big, dark blue eyes fixed on her face. "Better, baby?" she asked him, smiling into the small face.

"Talcum."

"Huh?"

Sioned handed her a bottle of baby powder. "On his bottom before you wrap him up again."

"Okay." Clouds of white gusted through the room, and the two women flapped at it to clear the air. On her lap the baby started to cough, and Moonflower scooped him up and hurried out of the bathroom, laughing at the half naked baby in her hands.

"Hey baby, I dropped the powder, didn't I? Didn't I? Come on, we've got to clear this up and get sorted, okay?" The baby's eyes squinted at her, and then the small face broke into a delighted smile in response to the girl's own. "Wow," she whispered, smiling widely back. "You've got such pretty eyes." She peered into the clear blue. Her face reflected in the pupils, and she smiled again, admiring the way her eyes almost matched his.

Her pleasant reverie was snapped by the crash of the main door and shouting. Eyes wide she pulled back against the wall, clutching the baby tightly as three of the commune's senior members shoved past her.

"Stinking English Protestant pigs!" The man who had come in so precipitously whirled and slammed the door behind him, "They killed Aedan! The bastard English killed him, and he only a lad." His left arm hung limp and bloody, his shirt torn at the shoulder with a neat hole, spattered with red.

"What?! What happened - who--"

"James, what happened?" Chris Mahoney snapped out sharply.

"I'm tellin' yer, they killed Aedan and opened fire on me - they never said a word, but you can see 'em - that's not the RUC. SAS I'm thinking - all masks and blacked out."

"Shit!" Diarmuid tore open James' shirt. "Feck! Where's Sioned? Sioned! We need a hand here!"

"No! No!!" Moonflower could see Oonagh, Aedan's girlfriend, weeping, crumpled against Pat Mulcahy's shoulder.

"Cease yer howlin'! Someone get the door! Get the women out the back. Git!" Diarmiud ordered.

James grabbed the heavy bar that had never been used in the six months Moonflower had lived in the commune, and awkwardly slotted it into place across the front door. "It won't do us any good if we don't barricade the back and the windows," he gasped. Diarmuid nodded.

"Get the ground floor, Mike, I'll--"

There was heavy banging on the door. "Saint Brighid preserve our souls! They're here!"

"Already?!"

"Jesu, Maire, Padrig! They're here! Mother of God, it's all -- they're coming here, they're--"

"Wasn't I just tellin' yer? Go! Go on, before they kill us all!"

"Won't the men be back now? Where are--"

"Gone. No counting on any on 'em but ourselves..."

"Michael? Patrick?"

"An' O'Flannery... All on 'em. Betrayed, we were betrayed! Filthy British!"

Moonflower froze, cowering as heavy booted feet pounded back down the corridor towards her. A hand landed on her shoulder. "What about her? Girl's American, she'll do to get us out!"

"No!" Diarmuid shouldered through the growls of agreement. Moonflower shivered, clutching the almost forgotten small boy closer and tighter, until he wailed. "No. Look, she's got the baby - she's only a child herself. If we keep her and they die, we'll be worse than them. And they'll do worse to us for it...

".. And the money'll dry up for the cause too," some other voice offered, pragmatically.

There were a couple men who grumbled dissension, but they backed off.

Diarmuid grabbed a heavy duffel. "Get some shoes on yer feet, girl." Moonflower stared helplessly, and he slapped her face, hard. She gasped and jerked away. "Get moving, woman. Or do you want to die here with us for the Cause?"

"No! No!" She pulled the coat over her hopelessly inadequate long skirt and thin top. She crouched, scrabbling for her boots.

"Take any that'll fit well enough. There's no time!"

Outside there was an unfamiliar crackling sound.

"Christ, the cops brought the bloody army down on us."

"I'm tellin' yer, that's no' the army - nor the pigs."

"They said he was an Ulster man that fingered us." James leaned against the wall by Diarmiud, face pale and drawn.

"Dead?"

A short nod.

"Well, that's one less for us to kill later. Has the damn woman still not got those boots on?"

"I'm done, I'm ready," the frightened girl blurted.

"Then go out the back, through the walkway to the byre, trap door at the end, runs out to the hills." he ordered brusquely. He softened slightly at the panic on the young face. "Walk to Dublin if you have to. You'll be safe enough. Got your passport?"

"No - I--" her voice spiraled up hysterically, "I don't wanna die! I wanna go home! Tell them I'm here, they'll let me out! Let me out!!"

Sioned pushed through the men. "Go, all o' yer. Here. " She shoved a small shoulder bag at the girl. "Use your real name, get yerself to Dublin, and go to the American consulate. Tell them anythin', anything but where you were, who you were with. They'll only extradite you back and jail you."

"I'm an American citizen, they can't..."

"You're a sympathizer, living with armed forces. They can." Sioned said with deadly earnest. "Now go, and look after the baby, you promise me!"

Moonflower stared helplessly at the child, "How - "

"I don't care, just go damn you, and keep him alive! His mother'll come for him..." The crack of machine gun fire came closer. Sioned's head snapped towards the front of the house. "No time. No time. My own fault, Nemesis, that's what it is. Nemesis..."

"What? Sioned, I don't--"

"GO!" Sioned groaned as the front door took another pounding and the windows shattered. Stinging gas started to leak through under the side doors. "Before you die, you stupid girl!"

Moonflower stared for a moment more, then turn on her heels and fled.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Naomi sighed. Blair had fallen asleep, finally. She was pretty sure she would have to tell him some of it again, and it was going to be a wrench. But not as hard or as bad as the first time. He was snoring faintly, a small, deep sound, and she blinked back more tears. He'd always done that. Though when he was tiny they'd been lighter and cuter -- she grinned, it had made her think of a cat sneezing at the time, and maybe now, it was just a bigger cat. She gently shifted the pillows to let him lie more comfortably and his breathing steadied into soft sighs. He really was getting better, she thought. She wasn't going to lose him - this time.

Thirty years. Well, nearly. And for all the times that she had longed for someone to take the unexpected responsibility away, there were more -- far, far more, when she had been terrified they would. When social services called on a 'single mother', or strangers stared at her beautiful boy too long, or the wrong way. So now it was over. She'd told the one person that she had feared knowing, more than any other, the truth. Her eyes closed, and she brought the memory up again, to treasure. Blair, smiling at her sleepily, pulling her close, brushing away the tears she couldn't help but cry, and saying, 'but you were always my mother. In everything that matters, you're my Mom. Nothing's gonna change that.' His voice had been so soft and hoarse she could barely hear it, but the words might as well been emblazoned in letters twelve miles high, or etched into her heart with diamond.

It seemed almost an anti-climax, after all her fear, her worries lingering in the back of her mind, that it should come to so little. The weight, so great and terrifying, ever-present, tiring her beyond her years, beyond her ability to bear, simply gone. She smiled, dazed, happy. They were safe. And his real mother, the bogey-man at the back of her mind, had gone too. Oh, she might be back, physically, and Blair still had to meet her, but he wouldn't leave her. There would be no accusations, or anger.

She wasn't going to lose him.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Ellison groaned.

"I'm serious, Jim. If we don't get these spooks out of this building, and out of my city, I'm going to kill somebody. Right now, you're the favorite, so get out there and do something!"

"Sir, I've told them, you've told them--"

"Every mutha's done gone tole 'em," Megan muttered, sing song, and just grinned at the two of them when they both glared at her. "What?"

Simon shook his head, "I'll ignore that, Connor. In fact, I'll even go so far as to ignore the fact that you shouldn't even be here, since this is a national security problem, and we shouldn't have an Australian citizen - respected police officer or not," he added with a warning hand and a glare at Megan, "wandering around in the middle of it!"

"I already know all about it, though," she pointed out. "Bit pointless throwing me out at this late date."

"We're going to have to get a clearance for it as it is," Simon grumbled, but it clearly was not the biggest worry on his mind.

"We don't have anything to give them," Ellison said.

"I know that. I also know, and so do the goons currently bugging my office," he added with a sharpness to his usually smooth bass that boded ill for those same 'goons', "that you released our one and only suspect, who, it turns out, is supposedly MIA, as well as an operative for an agency I know nothing about, plus, it's been strongly hinted he's been engaged in un-American activities, possibly terroristic, and I'm expected - this is coming from the highest levels here, Ellison, to make him magically re-appear."

Ellison shrugged. "That's not going to happen. Unless Sterling turns himself in, I don't see how we're going to achieve anything the spooks aren't."

"Maybe we're looking at this from the wrong angle," Megan said thoughtfully, and Simon raised a eyebrow.

"Yes?"

"But maybe not--" Megan stopped significantly, her eyes flickering about the room.

"If you don't have anything useful to say, Connor," Simon snapped, catching on instantly, "keep the mysterious remarks to yourself."

"Sorry, sir," Connor said, voice suitably chastened, but her eyes twinkling. "I'll try to bear that in mind next time I have something to say."

"What do you have," Simon said tilting his chair back and rolling his cigar between his fingers.

Jim leaned forward. "Sterling's gone, possibly out of the country. No records at airports or the port, but we didn't have the time to set up road blocks, and unless someone notified the Canadian authorities, he'd've had free run into there. The computer was returned. I suspect that they discovered that Sandburg had been writing his 'story', not a dissertation, and they gave up in disgust."

"This is that 'Sentinel' rubbish that was all over the papers a while back?" Simon asked intently.

"Yes sir. That's right." Jim continued steadily. "I believe that whoever stole the laptop saw the press conference, but believed they would find some kind of evidence to the contrary on his computer." He shrugged. "Sandburg's file system seems to be pretty clear. He had his dissertation under a folder called 'diss', on the mythological status of Sentinels in primitive cultures, a huge amount of documentation on closed societies and the police, and a separate folder with his fiction in it."

"Including the 'Sentinel' story that got mistakenly leaked."

"Yes," Jim nodded hardily. "Including that one."

"And Sterling was involved--?"

Jim shrugged. "I don't know for sure, but best guess?"

Simon nodded for him to continue.

"Best guess would be he was instructed to examine the evidence, and did so, and returned a report that I was not the superman that the media had held me out to be."

"And Blair's injury?"

"A bungled robbery."

Simon's eyebrows twitched, but he nodded firmly. "Very well then. Let's get the reports done, and get back to some real work here."

"Right you are, sir," Megan said with a grin that was almost audible in her voice.

The two detectives headed for the door. Jim opened it as Simon added, "And tell Sandburg I'll be over to see how he's doing later."

"Yessir." Jim nodded, holding the door for Connor. He nodded to Simon. "I'll keep you apprised," he said meaningfully, and gently closed the door behind them.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

"So, Jimbo," Megan began, as she poured sugar into her cream topped, sprinkles-covered hot cocoa.

"How can you drink that?" he asked with morbid fascination.

"Don't change the subject. If I'm springing for Starbucks, it's my choice of drink," She tilted the big cup towards him in salute, then took a hasty sip as the cream threatened to slide clear off the top. It left her with a frothy white mustache, which Jim grinned at, but forbore to mention.

"What was your idea?"

"Which one?" she said, eyeing the walnut brownie on her plate, before picking the walnuts out with long, orange painted nails, and nibbling at them with every indication of orgasmic enjoyment.

"The 'aren't we looking at this from the wrong angle' idea," he replied patiently, in an appalling mock-up of an Australian accent.

"Eat your bagel," she said firmly, and took a delicate sip of her cocoa, the attempt at lady-like elegance marred only by the swipe of her tongue at her growing cream-mouth problem. Jim silently passed her a napkin, and she dabbed it away. "Well," she added. "Go on. Sandy's gonna have your neck if you work yourself into the ground with worrying. Eat."

He took a bite of the cheese bagel, realized how very hungry he really was, and wolfed it down in about three bites. He looked up to find a second bagel on his plate, and Connor snickering helplessly.

"Glad my hand wasn't anywhere near! My idea?"

Jim looked up. "Yes?" he said around a mouthful of food.

"Don't talk with your mouth full. Look," she leaned forward, incidentally shielding her mouth by leaning her head on her free hand, and lifting her cup to her lips. "If we can't do this from the bottom up, let's try from the top down."

"Yes?"

"Have you got any contacts inside Nemesis? You said they out-weighed all the other agencies, that they pretty much had jurisdiction over whoever and whatever they bloody well choose, right? Well? Is there anyone you could trust there to come back with real information?"

Jim tilted his head in thought. "Sterling, but he's out. Maybe Mikawi. I used to know the guy at the top, but he was replaced a few years back by some guy from CI5. Barrett. Bennett. Something like tha-- wait a minute--" he stopped, arrested by a sudden thought. "Wait a minute. Barrett, Sterling and Sharron Macready. Sterling, Macready..."

"And Barrett? Yes? This means what, exactly?"

"K1. Shit. K1."

"You're losing me here. Are we talking Himalayan mountains or something?"

"Or something. Damn. How did I miss it?"

"Natural stupidity? Miss what? You're starting to piss me off here, Jimbo, and that's not a good thing."

"I've got a favor to call in," Jim said with a nasty smile, "and someone out there knows it."

"Phone call not brightest idea ever, Ellison," Megan warned. "If they bugged Bank's office, they've probably done your place."

Jim shrugged. "Then I'll find a place they haven't bugged.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

"Are you out of your mind?" Connor hissed. They were in the main foyer of the local FBI offices. There was a row of three pay phones off to one side in a small alcove, and standing at one, trying to look insouciant and full of relaxed carelessness, were the two of them. Covert Ops Cop Man and Australian Cop Girl, all inconspicuouslike. Not. Megan snarled silently, sending an unwary member of the public scurrying for the shelter of the armed, front door security men.

Jim was dialing a series of numbers from memory. "Where're those quarters?"

"Here." She handed him a bank bag of the small silver coins. "Ellison!"

"It's not bugged, right?"

"Probably, but -- look, your telco probably records the whole shebang anyway. Up to two weeks of conversations. How do you think you get all that nice evidence?"

"Not this line, they don't."

"Then someone else does! You--"

"Bonjour, madam," he said, waving at Connor to hush. "Puis je parler à M. Barrett, s'il vous plaît. C'est une question d'urgence. Merci."

She could just about hear a woman's voice on the other end, but couldn't make out the details. "Oui, oui, je comprends. Non, je me tiendrai." He grimaced. "On hold." Tinny muzak floated out, and Megan grinned.

"Hey, it could have been a cuckoo clock!"

"Thank you for that thought. And when I-- Oui? Certainement, je m'appelle James Ellison. J'étais avec le service il y a environ douze ans. Je dois parler à M. Barrett instamment."

A different voice barked over the phone, this time male, and Jim made several attempts to interrupt, before simply saying, "Il considère K deux."

There was a long, long pause. Megan held her breath, wondering if they would just hang up the line. Jim's tense expression of concentration suggested he was listening to some conversation that, even if she had been the one pressing the earpiece to her head so tightly her skin showed white around it, she would not have heard. She grinned. Whoever these Nemesis guys were, they had no idea what they were going up against.

"Shit!" Jim hissed.

"What?"

"They've just switched on a white noise generator."

"Is that normal?" Megan frowned.

Jim shook his head tersely. "It stops... sensitive instruments listening in on conversations," he said obliquely. "Shit!" Megan repeated with feeling. So much for that supposed advantage.

Even she could hear the next voice: "C'est Barrett."

"Monsieur, j'ai besoin urgent de votre aide." Jim said quickly, his words clipped and low. Megan strained to make out the blur of words. "J'ai aidé K deux et K trois departir ... d'une situation, ici en Cascade, mais ils y ont des personnes des organismes gouvernementaux désireux de m'être incroyant. Je pense que peut-être vous me devez ceci, monsieur."

"Use English, Ellison. Your French is execrable." Megan snickered as she overheard the firm admonition.

"Yes, sir. I should warn you, I am not alone, and this call may be monitored." There was a long pause when she could hear nothing, and then Jim said, "It's been a while since I used it --yes sir. Yes. That's correct." His face went white. "He's nothing to do with this-- no sir. No sir, that is not the case. Absolutely not. Sir? you-- I-- that's impossible!"

He swallowed, and Megan watched the bobble of his adams apple with anxious fascination. Had this been a mistake. The last thing she wanted was to involve Sandy, but it sounded like...

"Yessir. Yes, absolutely sir. Thank you." He glanced at Megan, and hissed "Pen! I need a pen!" She scrabbled in her purse for a moment, and fished out a ballpoint and an old receipt. He scribbled a series of numbers down. "Yes, I've got that. Thank you. And thank you for your help."

"Uh, you too sir." Jim put the phone down, and stared at it bewilderedly for a long moment before turning to Megan.

"Well?"

"Perhaps we should leave the fibbies' building first?" Jim suggested.

She bit her lip for a moment, and nodded.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

They were safely in Connor's car, Jim flinching at Megan's driving, and halfway across town, before either spoke. It wasn't that she was used to driving on the wrong side of the road. She'd got used to that remarkably quickly, Jim reflected. It was that she was a complete lunatic on the road. His face closed. Blair used to tease them they were as bad as each other, competing for the PD's write-off award... Blair wasn't going to be teasing him about that for a while.

"He'll be fine, Elly," Megan said, with a little pat to his knee, following his thoughts with startling accuracy. "Here should be good." She pulled over, and Jim winced. They were next to a demolition yard. While he couldn't fault her logic, the constant crashing and screeching was, at best, distracting.

"Well?" she asked.

Wordlessly he gestured to indicate they should leave the car. After a fractional hesitation she dumped her purse and coat in the trunk, and reached for Jim's coat. He slipped out of it, and thought feelingly of anyone listening in to a bug in any of the items stashed away as Megan slammed the trunk shut - hard.

They walked in silence towards the yard. No one so much as blinked at them, and Jim fleetingly wondered if this was the favorite local anti-bugging conversation point, and if so, would the ducks recognize the difference between American and Australian sandwiches?

"Well?" Megan asked a second time, one hand on her hip, looking up at him quizzically. "I've never really gone for the cloak and dagger thing, but hey, if it would help, I can probably find something in a fancy dress shop somewhere."

Jim laughed softly. "Thanks for the offer, Connor, but you're strange enough without adding to the effect!" She swatted him, and he raised his hands in surrender. "Okay. Right. Barrett."

"The top guy?"

Jim nodded. "He's one of the original K team of Nemesis."

"Good?"

"More than good. I heard stories you wouldn't believe," he eyed her doubtfully for a moment and then grinned, "Or maybe you would -- psychic Jim springs to mind here."

"It wasn't an illogical conclusion based on the evidence I had," she said defensively.

"You came closer than anyone else at the PD in four years," he acknowledged fairly. "Barrett, he left, mid eighties I'd guess, and joined a British outfit, CI5."

Megan's eyebrows lifted, "I've heard of them."

"Nemesis are better." Jim said flatly, and Megan nodded, absorbing that idea silently.

"He was invited back to head Nemesis, some time in '93."

"So, the K team?"

"Were Richard Barrett, Craig Sterling, and Sharron Macready."

Megan's face lit with understanding. "We've got two of them, then."

Jim shook his head. "All three. Macready showed up day before yesterday, claiming to be Blair's mother." Megan swore under her breath. "That's not all. Story goes, they were supposedly lost in the Himalayas, once, on a mission that went bad; and when they got found again, they were, well, different. He, Barrett, said something--" He drew a deep breath. "I still can't believe this. He said: I will help you, Sentinel, from one freak of nature to another..."

Jim paused and Megan shook her head.

"That seems pretty rude of him. Or am I missing something?"

"Sandburg reckons my senses were triggered into reactivation after suppression, by a long traumatic period of isolation." He waited.

"And they were isolated--"

"After a plane crash--"

"In the Himalayas." Jim nodded. "I'm not the only one," he said, wonder in his voice. The next second, the wonder was gone, replaced by bleak stone. "And-- what he said. They have to have been monitoring me for years. He was quoting part of a conversation I once had with my father."

Megan drew a sharp breath through her teeth. "Your father called you a freak? That's pretty damn harsh."

"I was ten..." Jim whispered, momentarily lost in the remembered bewilderment and pain.

"Jim! Jim! Not now!" Megan swore, and pulled a hand back.

"I'm fine. Just catches me on the raw sometimes."

"Share later. Covert ops now," she insisted with a half-smile.

Jim snorted with laughter, and nodded. "You've got it. He gave me this code, and a phone number. Told me to use it asap, but not from a traceable phone."

"That means a wiretap."

"Not a problem, I just need a line and access to a couple of pieces of hardware."

"You're a talented man, Jim Ellison," Megan said after a stunned moment.

"If you tell anyone--" He grinned.

"You'll have to kill me, yeah, yeah, yadda, yadda. Next?"

"Next, is a chat to an old friend, and a quiet trip to a utility pole somewhere."

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

"So this Macready, she's like the woman in Blair's room?" Megan called up the ladder. The dark boiler suit hung on her, but at least she didn't look like a police inspector, and right now that was the main thing.

"Yeah." Jim's voice was muffled. Not only was he dangling from the top of a utility pole in a painfully uncomfortable harness arrangement, his mouth was occupied with a small flashlight.

"And she's one of the alphabetti spaghetti guys?"

Jim blinked, staring at the mess of wires in front of him, trying to turn the sentence into something that made sense.

"You know, like, um, Will Smith in Independence Day. No, sorry, X-men. Was he in the X-Men? No, I'm thinking of something else. I've got it! Men in Black!" she finished triumphantly. "Or was he 'J'," she mused.

Jim pulled the flashlight from his mouth and shone it down at the woman who could talk more, and to less effect, than Sandburg. Mentally he apologized to his partner for ever complaining.

"Yes. That was she," he said precisely, then replaced the light and continued wiring himself into Pacific Bell - or whoever they were these days.

"Right. Okay. And she's what, related to Sandy? That makes sense. Cos she was bloody narked about him getting shot. So was that Sterling bloke. And he's one of them too. I wonder if he's Blair's father?"

"I have no idea. Catch!" He dropped a well wrapped bundle of tools and she deftly fielded them without deviating from her monologue.

"And they're both these K-team -- they sound like some kind of shop. The K-team K-mart team. Team. K."

"Done."

"That was quick."

"Only eight minutes," he said with justifiable satisfaction as he unsnapped his harness and shinned down the pole. He hadn't lost the touch.

"And you've got to make the call now?"

"Made it."

"Oh." She sounded disappointed, and Jim shone the flash into her face again. She squinted, raising a hand to block the worst of it. "What'd they say?"

"Acknowledged."

"Acknowledged? That's it?" Jim stripped his boiler suit and bundled that, and the tool kit into the unmarked dark sedan he'd acquired from somewhere. Megan took her overalls off too and chucked them in after. Jim closed the lid gently, with barely a sound. "So this is how you black ops people operate? You just grunt at each other every now and then?"

"And check our code books," Jim said mildly, and settled into the driver's seat. He turned the engine over, and was moving before Connor had completely shut the door on her side. "Gently. This is supposed to be a secret operation."

"We didn't mention this earlier, but that was illegal, wasn't it?"

"Very. Now shut up, and let me concentrate on the road."

Megan was about to take offence when, "Uh, Jim? About the lights?"

"Remember that covert thing we were discussing?"

"Yeah?"

"How covert would we be with our lights on?"

"How arrested will we be when we get caught by traffic cops?" she snapped back.

"Not at all. We covert types have a special arrangement with the cops," Jim said seriously.

She almost bought it for a moment, and then thumped him.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Simon was about to go away again, when he saw Sandburg's eyes open. He smiled, then straightened his expression, and sauntered in, pretending he hadn't considered sneaking in and staring at his unconscious detective.

"Hey, Simon," Blair said, his voice was rough, and Simon grimaced.

"Hey kid. Howya doin'?"

Amazingly Blair smiled. "Everyone asks that. Why is that? I'm better. Much better. Medical-Science-Is-Baffled better," he finished around a yawn.

"You look like you could use a little shut eye. I'll just--"

"Sit down."

Simon pulled up a chair, and was sat before he had time to think about junior detectives giving senior captains orders. He opened his mouth to say something sharp, and stopped.

"No, go for it," Blair murmured, with a twinkle. "It'll make the place feel more like home. Jim hasn't yelled at me since it happened." One hand waved vaguely at his hospital-sheet covered body. "I start to go into withdrawal after so long."

Simon smiled. "You really are better, kid, if you're sassing me."

"Go on, yell just a little," Blair begged, eyes wide with mock-innocence.

"It's nearly midnight. I have to consider your fellow inmates." Simon said sternly.

Blair's face fell comically. "Inmates? You make a perfectly ordinary surgical ward sound like a lunatic asylum."

"I wonder why that doesn't seem like such a strange place for you, Sandburg," the captain teased.

Blair chuckled, then coughed. The movement caught at his shoulder and stomach and he winced, lying back carefully. Simon half rose until Blair waved him back. "Water, in cup." Simon handed it to him, and Blair took small sips until his throat settled.

"All those tubes they stuffed down my neck. Kind of hurt coming out."

"Ouch," Simon said sympathetically.

Amazingly, Blair grinned. "That was nothing to the catheter..."

Simon's eyes shut and he lifted one hand to halt Sandburg's no doubt detailed description. "No. I can live without hearing about it. I've been there, and my eyes are watering thinking about it."

Blair shook his head, and leaned towards Simon. "It's still in," he whispered conspiratorially. "And I tried to roll over."

Simon really did flinch that time. "Can we discuss something other than your injuries? Or is this your attempt to see how much it'll take to get me to pass out?"

"But cap, I thought you came to see how I was. I was just telling you..." Blair's voice rang with innocence.

"Bullshit. I wanted to make sure Ellison wasn't bugging you."

"Ah. So you don't know where Jim is either?" Blair said quietly.

"You're too quick for your own damn good, you know that, kid?"

"What's happened?"

Simon sighed. "What hasn't? It's never simple with you two. A robbery becomes an international covert operation..."

"What! Sim--"

"Excuse me," the young nurse smiled pleasantly at the two men. "It's time Mr. Sandburg was asleep."

"You're right. I'm sorry, but I only just got off work," Simon apologized.

"Don't worry about it. Now if you don't mind, Mr. Sandburg needs a little privacy-" She drew the curtains firmly around the cubicle. Simon gathered himself to his feet, and paused to pick up his coat as he reached the door. Then he hesitated. Something didn't quite fit.

He stuck his head around the curtain to find the nurse efficiently clothing Sandburg's unconscious body. "What the hell!" The woman who looked up was neither kindly nor sweet faced any more. A gun, barrel lengthened by the silencer at its muzzle appeared in her hand without so much as a twitch, and Banks flung himself to one side. A dull thud warned him how close the shot had come to getting him, and he jerked himself around the door frame, out into the corridor. He grabbed his mobile, then swore. It was disabled by the anti-cell generators that the hospital had installed for patient safety. He scrambled to his feet, and the 'nurse' was right behind him, gun pressed into his neck.

"Not a word. Not a word, captain, and you might live."

He froze, utterly still, no doubt in his mind that the woman would shoot- and that no one would hear a thing.

The muzzle pulled away from his neck, and even as he thought of diving into an escape, he was expertly clubbed with it over the back of the head, hard.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

"Captain Banks!" He didn't recognize the voice, and he rolled, striking out as he did so.

"Cap! Stop it!"

Simon halted, and opened his eyes to meet his exchange detective. Connor sighed with relief, and the hand gripping his wrist let go. Banks sat up, and closed his eyes briefly. "Ouch," he muttering, rubbing at the back of his skull.

"Concussion. Dr. Macready says you'll be fine."

"Macready?" Simon tried to place the name.

"Captain Simon Banks, Major Crimes. Dr Sharron Macready, ex-Nemesis agent and Blair's mother. Can we get on with this," Connor said impatiently.

"Slowly," Macready smiled. Simon smiled reflexively back at her - she was young and pretty, and "--Blair's mother? What about Naomi?!"

"Long story. Another time."

"No, Connor. Make time."

"No sir. Jim went after the kidnappers, and you've got to stop them before Sandy gets killed."

Simon groaned. "Sandburg's been kidnapped? A*gain?"

"U-huh." Megan nodded encouragingly. "Now you're getting it. And we need to haul ass if we're going to rescue anyone apart from you."

"I thought rescuing Captain Banks was a fairly creditable effort," Macready smiled faintly, and Simon caught himself on a laugh.

"I like your priorities!" He pulled himself to his feet, with both women helping, and hanging onto the wall. Even so he weaved on his feet. "Okay, where's Sandburg?"

"Are you sure you should--"

Simon speared Connor with a look. "I'm done. Not a word. Not me. Old silencio mio. Zippo." She mimed zipping her lips together.

"I wish."

"Here," Macready handed a tablet.

"What's that?"

"It'll wake you up."

"You might not want to do that--" Megan was too late, Simon knocked it back and blinked. "--sir. She is an experimental medical researcher..."

"Will it kill me?"

"Absolutely not. You might not enjoy the low that comes in a few hours, but it will keep you alert and awake for twelve hours."

"Hey, can I have one of those?"

Macready smiled sweetly at Connor. "No. It is experimental."

Banks suddenly looked more worried, and Macready laughed. "Now, I can track Blair anywhere they take him, so if you'd like to follow me?" She walked briskly down the hospital corridor. Banks blinked for a moment at the cleaning equipment around them, and stepped out of the janitor's closet where his attacker must have thrust him, and followed.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

"Who took him?"

"Someone who believed your detective's press conference as little as I did." Sharron called over her shoulder. Banks was folded into the rear of Connor's car, and somehow Macready had gotten the other front seat. His back was already starting to ache, but, he thought grudgingly, at least his head was clear. That pill of hers had really worked. He felt like he could beat Deep Blue if he had to.

He chose to ignore her reply, and went on, "And just how are you planning to find them?"

//Like this, captain,// she said directly into his skull, and all the color he had regained with the medication drained from his face again.

"Shit!"

"You all right, Cap?" Connor said, her head turning curiously to see what was wrong.

"Watch the road!"

"Sorry sir." She straightened the car. "What happened?"

"She -- you -- that's not possible. I imagined it." He shook his head. "I'm hallucinating. That thing you gave me, what was in it?"

"A neural enhancer. It'll wear off in twelve hours as I promised. Until then, however, you will be measurably more intelligent, quicker thinking, and--" she paused to throw an amused grin back at the cramped man sitting behind her. "And much more receptive to telepathic and telempathic communication.

"What!" Connor and Banks' voices merged in outrage.

She shrugged. "It is very experimental, and for some reason works better on people with higher body mass. We're still researching that. If I gave you one," she looked at Megan apologetically, "it would almost certainly cause major organ failure."

Simon thought about that for a moment, and grinned, "I guess you can comfort yourself with the thought that you might be dumber, but you're sure skinnier. In Ms Macready's professional opinion." He grinned largely and settled back.

"At least I'm not the one she thought needed chemical assistance in order to think straight," Megan muttered.

"Left here."

Megan turned in a screech of tires and a blare of protest from the traffic she'd brought to a near stand still.

"Indicate. Connor, indicate."

"They got out the way, didn't they? Where next, ma'am"

"We're heading west."

"Not for long, the docks are up ahead," Simon said, leaning forward and staring ahead the road.

"They are still travelling west, wait--" //Blair? Blair, where are you?//

Simon gulped, then froze as a distant, very familiar voice replied...

//I'm not sure. I can't seem to get conscious ... it's moving up and down--//

//Like a boat?//

//Could be...// the 'voice' grew weaker, and Sharron interrupted him.

//Go to sleep. Rest. I will find you. I promise.//

//I know// Simon could almost see the sleepy smile that came with that thought, and smiled in response.

"Was that--"

"Wait!" Sharron stopped him with a wave of her hand. "I need to concentrate."

There was a long silence, and Sharron spoke, "They've got him on a ship. The Princess Helaina... she's leaving now. Can you stop her?"

Simon nodded, accepting the information without questioning its source. The thought crossed his mind that his sentinel had gotten him well trained, and he shook his head ruefully. "Connor, get me your radio." She passed it back, and Simon began barking quick orders into it. They reached the docks before he'd finished, and he was left in the car as the two woman hurried to the waterside, peering out to sea.

He joined them as a coastguard vessel pulled up scant minutes later. "Captain Banks?" A man in the uniform of the US coastguard bellowed over the engine's roar.

Simon yelled back, "Can we come aboard?" fitting words to action, helping Sharron and Megan down into the boat, and jumping in himself.

"Welcome aboard. Lieutenant Kernow," the man waiting for them introduced himself.

"Banks -- Connor -- Dr Macready," Simon waved at each of them in turn. "Where's the Helaina?" he asked urgently. "Can we catch her?"

"Not a problem," Kernow said with bright optimism. The boat pulled away, turning slowly out to open water. "She started out of harbor, and then ran aground." He grinned, "Someone made a real pig's ear of getting past the sand bars, and she won't be moving until the tide changes. Catching up is not a problem," he repeated, and his insouciance didn't seem half as offensive the second time.

Simon began to grin too, but Megan beat him to it. "I'm guessing Jim's at the wheel then. Only he could crash a ship. Hey, does this count in the office compo?"

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

By the time the coastguard boarded the Princess Helaina, someone -- Banks strongly suspected it was Ellison, had already shot dead two of her crew, herded the rest into close confinement in the mess, and locked them in. They left the coastguard dealing with them, and moved out through the ship.

"Jim?" Simon called, sticking his head into each cabin they found on the left, while Macready did the same on the right.

"Simon?" A voice called back, echoing hollowly in the ship's depths.

"Ellison? Where the hell are you?"

"Here sir," Ellison's voice echoed back at them.

"Not the helpfullest man in the world." Megan observed acerbically.

Jim's head popped out of a door halfway down the corridor. "I heard that, Connor." The two cops and Macready hurried to Jim, and hopefully, Sandburg.

"Good -- I see it meant you did something useful instead of bellowing like Banquo's ghost." Megan snapped, peering around the lintel. "Good, you found him."

"Can I have some help here?" Jim said irritatedly.

He'd gone back to the bunk where Sandburg was lying. "He's unconscious, I don't want to move him, in case I injure him worse--"

Sharron pushed forwards. "Let me take a look," she said softly. There was a long hesitation, until Jim nodded. Megan and Simon moved out of the way and let her in.

She ran a quick, professional eye over her son, checking his temperature with a touch, and gently lifting his shirt to palpitate his stomach. Both Simon and Megan gasped. Jim had already suspected what he now saw, but was still impressed. The skin was whole again. A line of black stitches ran neatly along the length of a thin white scar, the only indication that the wound was more recent than it looked.

"Jesus! How the hell did that--" Simon swore, and Megan choked.

Sharron smiled and pulled Blair's shirt back down. "Help me turn him," she said to Jim. They lifted him onto his side, where she did the same for his back. The scarring there was wider, but again the only sign of the recently gaping wounds were the staples holding the healed flesh. "Looks fine to me." She smiled quietly, and stood. "If someone wants to give me a hand we can carry him out."

"Mother of god," Megan murmured. "If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have believed it!"

Jim glanced at her, "Cool it, Connor" he muttered. "We're going to have to act normal, remember?"

"Normal? How is that normal?" she hissed.

"Just deal, okay?" Jim growled. "Simon, get his feet?" Simon squeezed past the other two into the already cramped cabin. "Ready?" Simon nodded. Megan and Sharron moved quickly out the way. "On two: one, two." They lifted smoothly and backed carefully out, carrying him at shoulders and knees.

"He should be lighter than this," Simon puffed. "And how the hell are you going to explain that?" he hissed at Jim a couple of minutes later, as they carefully lowered Blair onto the stretcher the Coastguard had produced from their cutter.

Jim shrugged. "I have no idea. He's had one doctor through most of this. Maybe we can talk to her... get her to sign him out."

"Get his care signed over to me, as his personal physician?" Sharron suggested with a surprised look. "It's the only sensible way, isn't it?" She tagged on in explanation, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.

Jim looked doubtful. "No offence, Ms Macready--"

"Sharron," she insisted.

"Sharron," he agreed, "But I don't really know what your involvement in this is. And why Nemesis is suddenly all over the place, chasing around after me and my friend." He lifted a hand as she began to speak. "Wait. I know that you're supposedly," he glanced at the other two, and hedged, "supposedly related, but until I have actual evidence of that, and proof that you're not planning on spiriting him away yourself, you don't seriously think I'm going to sign him over to you in any form?"

"I told you before: you can perform all the tests you have to," she said resignedly.

Jim shook his head. "I want to know what's going on. Tests are not important. I want information."

They watched as the stretcher was lowered to the coastguard vessel. "Stay with him, Jim. Don't let the quacks get too excited." Simon told his detective. "I'd better stay here. Try to figure out who - or what, was behind this attempt." Sharron and then Megan slid down the ladder onto the cutter, and Simon put a hand on Jim's arm as he prepared to join them.

Simon shook his head. "If they wanted to get their hands on you, how much more are they going to want to run tests on him?" Jim's face lit with an evil grin for a moment. "What?"

"It'd make a nice change from me being the guinea pig!" he explained.

"You really want that?" Simon said quietly, looking at the pale, injury-thin face.

"No." he said with a quick frown. "Not really. But you have to agree it would be what he'd call cosmic justice!" he grinned, and dropped down before Simon could reply.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

"This is amazing!" Dr Jane Thekston couldn't believe her eyes. She'd already said it twice, and every time she examined Blair, her face got more and more bewildered. "It's not possible." She'd said that three times now, Blair had been counting, and was waiting for...

"I don't believe it!" She said, right on cue, and Blair sighed.

"Couldn't you just pretend it wasn't as bad as you thought? You can tell me it's healing nicely, and I should be fine in a couple of weeks if it makes you feel better?" he suggested helpfully.

She prodded at his bare, fully healed torso with considerable force, and he muttered, "Ouch!"

"Did that hurt?" she said excitedly.

"Of course it hurt! You tried to put your nail through my skin." he complained.

"At least you're responding the way you should to something. Maybe there's internal bleeding. We should get you down to x-ray - or maybe just take you into OR--"

"What's the point of that?!" Blair squawked, and hastily slithered up the bed till he was sitting, arms protectively around his torso, back to the wall. "I'm all better, can't you just accept that some things are weird, and let me go home?"

"But--"

"What's the point of cutting more holes in me? It took enough effort to close the last set! Though to be fair, you didn't cause the last set, but that's hardly the point!"

"But, you're not well. I've got your chart right here," she waved it as a banner in the campaign for rationality, "and you should be half dead."

"Don't sound so cross about it! I'd've thought you'd prefer a patient who was all alive instead of half dead."

"But you can't be! It's not possible!"

Blair rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, it's amazing and you don't believe it too. Look. If it makes you happier I'll sign myself out AMA, and go home to, um, die. I even have my own personal physician-- don't I, Doc?" He grinned at Sharron, who was standing, a picture of silent professionalism, off to the side. "Then you can be amazed at my miraculous recovery when I come back for my follow up appointment in, oh a month or so?"

"You can't have a follow-up if you sign out AMA," she said automatically, clinging to procedure in an attempt to make the world make sense again.

"But--"

"Doctor Thekston?" Sharron stepped forward to take mercy on the unhappy woman. "Maybe I can help?"

The young woman looked at her helplessly, "What can you--"

"Perhaps I can help you make a decision?" Sharron said neutrally, and offered a small white envelope to her. The doctor recoiled.

"I don't take bribes!"

"It's not a bribe. What would we be bribing you for?" Blair said exasperatedly. "It's not a bribe, is it?" he asked Sharron, suddenly worried.

"No. It is not a bribe." Sharron smiled at him, then turned back to his doctor. "Ms Thekston, I have been authorized to make you a job offer. Please read the contents of that envelope at your leisure. There are contact details inside. As for Blair," her voice turned hard, brooking no refusal, "He will sign out to my recognizance, and will be under my care, as an employee of Moirai Inc."

Blair blinked. "I am?" "You are," Sharron smiled wryly at him. "There have to be some benefits to this, no?"

"I--I can't--" the doctor was stammering at the contents of her letter.

"She probably doesn't believe that either," Blair snickered.

"This is probably best as a private conversation," Sharron said firmly. "If you will just sign here..." Dr Thekston scrawled her signature onto a standard medical release form, "And Blair you sign-- Good. We will go and discuss this, while Blair and Mr. Ellison organize themselves, and go home?"

Thekston swallowed, glanced at the letter again, and nodded weakly as she was led away firmly by Sharron Macready.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

"Careful!" Jim leapt from his side of the truck and hurried around to the passenger side.

"I'm fine," Blair growled, sliding out of the truck and landing with a little bounce. "See?"

"I just don't think you're up to --"

"You're going to give me a complex if you don't quit it!" Blair marched past Jim and through the doors of 852 Prospect Avenue.

Jim pushed the door open just before it swung into his face. "Why don't you take the--"

"If the next word is elevator, Jim Ellison, you are going to regret it for a short but excruciatingly painful period. Capice?" Blair somehow looked taller when angry. Of course, it could have been to do with the way he was standing on the first landing, glaring down at Jim.

"When did you turn into a Mafia boss?" Jim muttered, but trailed after his guide, who bounded with seemingly limitless energy up the stairs to the third floor.

"Tea?"

"Beer." Jim fell into the soft comfort of his sofa, and groaned. "Forget the beer, I'm going to bed. In fact, I may just go to sleep right---" he yawned hugely, his jaw cracking audibly. "Here." He worked his shoulders deeper into the cushions and closed his eyes -- just for a second.

He woke to find the apartment quiet and dark. He was curled on the couch, and he flexed his back and shoulders, grimacing as the kinks in his muscles pulled and complained at the unnatural position he'd left them in. He sat up, yawning, and looked blearily around. The door to Blair's room was shut. He concentrated and found the soft susurration of sleeping breath, and yawned again. He sat back into the cushions and closed his eyes, enjoying the unfamiliar peace and quiet.

His stomach grumbled, and he suddenly realized how very hungry he was. He couldn't actually remember when he last ate, and between all the running around after people, and the worry over Sandburg... He was on his feet and peering in at his partner without intending it. He stared for a while, shaking his head slowly at the healthy color in Blair's face. He let himself see a little deeper, and grinned like a kid at the steady, strong sounds of a healthy, living body.

"He's doing well, isn't he?"

Jim jumped, and whirled to find Naomi had crept up behind him and was looking in over his shoulder.

"Sorry, Jim. Did I startle you?" she looked concerned, but her smile was breaking through, and he couldn't help responding.

"I should have been paying attention," he said with a sheepish smile. "Where were you hiding?"

"I was upstairs. I got in from the hospital, and found you boys fast asleep." She smiled at Blair again. "He does look well, doesn't he?" Happiness filled her face and voice. Jim nodded, and she took his arm and moved towards the kitchen. "You on the other hand, look just terrible!"

Jim ran a hand self-consciously over his stubbled jaw, and then attempted to smooth the tousled spikes of his hair into some kind of order.

Naomi laughed. "I made you some food." She let him go by the counter, and moved round, quickly putting together a meal. "Some bread, I'll just zap the lasagna--" her fingers dashed over the microwave, suiting words to action, "And you can have some multi-fruit juice," she finished, taking a carton of something unfamiliar out of the fridge. "No beer," she said sternly as Jim looked about to protest. "You'll fall over and hurt yourself, and I couldn't allow that. Blair would never let me hear the last of it."

"Can I help?" Jim said meekly.

"Sit." She put a plate out as the microwave beeped, and filled it. Crusty, warm bread joined it, and a salad appeared from somewhere.

"Where's Sharron?" Jim asked as she arranged the food in front of him. Naomi looked away uneasily.

"She said that she had to go. She would put him in danger if she stayed, and she'd done what she had to do."

"Shit!" Jim swore, pacing restlessly. "I wanted to talk to her -- and Blair's going to want to talk to her too--"

"She left contact details."

Jim looked dubiously at her, and she handed a slip of paper to him. It was a business card announcing one Dr Helen Roberts, Consultant physician and researcher to the Moirai Medical Foundation. "Thank you," he said softly, and Naomi smiled uncomfortably.

"I can't stop him talking to her, can I? It would be a terrible burden on my karma. Now, sit! Eat!"

Jim sat. His mind was buzzing with all the unanswered questions, wondering if anyone knew the answers - even Macready. He doubted Sterling's part in all this too - and how had Barrett fitted in? Why had he gotten access to the man himself so easily?

"Jim? You all right? Can I get you anything?" Naomi's anxious voice called him back, and he smiled briefly at her, and dug into the dinner before him. The food was delicious, and he finished it in minutes, looking up from wiping the bread around the plate in mute appeal. Naomi laughed.

"Did you ever consider auditioning for 'Oliver!'?" She dished another helping of the pasta onto his plate.

"I-- hey chief!"

Blair looked, if anything more disheveled than Jim felt. He emerged from his room, rubbing at his eyes, and yawning. "Hey Jim. Hi Ma."

"Food." Naomi diagnosed, and set a second place.

"Coffee," Blair disagreed, and detoured to fill the kettle. He spooned instant into a mug, and after a moment's reflection, added a second teaspoon to the first.

"Blair Sandburg! That's not going to help you get better!" Naomi said, reaching to remove the mug. Blair grabbed it away from her, and dipped his finger into the mug, licking off the granules with a blissful expression.

"Mmm-mm. Crunchy," he said happily, and did it again, swinging the cup out from Naomi's reaching hand without even looking.

"Caffeine freak," Jim observed, between mouthfuls.

"Pig," Blair shot back cheerfully, correctly interpreting the two-thirds empty lasagna tray. "Feeds six, huh?"

"You too," Jim pointed out. "Am I the only one who scarfs food like the last day of a three week diet? I think not."

"Boys," Naomi said in a warning voice, and then smiled. "If you don't stop arguing I shall have to spank you."

"Promise?" Jim said, then flushed scarlet, as he remembered who he was speaking to.

"Jim!" Naomi said, mock indignation exuding from every pore. Blair was rocking with laughter, whooping helplessly at Jim's pole-axed expression.

"I--I--"

"Why, Jim," Naomi smiled sweetly, "I had no idea..." Jim went even redder.

"Watch it, Mom. That blush is going to go critical mass any second now!" Blair advised her.

Jim took a big mouthful of pasta, and munched stolidly, staring at his plate until the pink receded from his ears and neck.

The kettle whistled, mercifully distracting Sandburg junior, and Sandburg senior returned to her attempts to prevent Blair drinking the loaded coffee.

"Mom!" Jim jumped. Blair sounded almost out of patience.

"I am fine! I am over twenty-one. Considerably over. I am out of hospital, in one piece, and perfectly safe. Back off some, okay?" Naomi looked stricken, and Blair's face softened. "Mom, I understand, I really do, it's just--" he blew on his black coffee to cool it, and moved round the counter to sit down to eat. "Look, I know it's been hard. but you need to just let it go, okay? Just--"

"Blair. You came that close to dying. And it was because of this stupid cop thing - again."

Jim winced, and looked regretfully at his remaining food. "I'll just go..." he began.

"No!" Blair snapped, as Naomi said, "Perhaps that would--"

"No." Blair repeated firmly. "Jim. Sit. Eat."

He waited for a long moment to make sure Ellison was following orders, then looked at his mother. "We don't have to do this now, Mom. It can wait."

She bit her lip.

"Do you want to wait?"

"Haven't you waited long enough?"

"Twenty-eight years, give or take," he smiled lopsidedly at her. "I can live a little longer, I expect."

There was an awkward silence. Jim squinted out the corner of his eye at Naomi, trying to look without appearing to gawk. She seemed to be frozen by Blair's words. Probably thinking that 'living a little longer' was not a guaranteed thing, these days, he reflected, suddenly depressed.

"I told you what I could. I -- Sharron -- I--"

"Mom. It's okay. Really, I understand. It wasn't your fault. Okay?"

She nodded once, awkwardly.

"The cop thing though." Blair shook his head. "Where do I start? I'm not having a go at you, right? Whatever you did, whatever happened, you meant it for the best, I know that. But," he paused, thinking, "Before you start objecting to my life, now, remember, in the beginning, it was your fault. All of that 'cop thing' you dislike so much. If you hadn't decided, over my express wishes for confidentiality--"

"You never said," Naomi broke in.

"Naomi, I told you that you couldn't read it. That there was material in there I had to clear. That Jim and my committee needed to see it first." He waited. "You would agree that is what I did, what I said, right?"

Naomi shrugged, face half hidden by her hair, for all the world like a scolded child.

"Mom?"

"Yes, alright!" Naomi snapped.

"And you then sent it to a publisher? What are you? Deaf? Insane?" Blair bit his lip. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said--"

"No. Get it into the open," she said unhappily. "You obviously wanted to say these things to me. I know-- I didn't mean for it to go so horribly wrong! I thought Syd would just check it for you, make sure it was the best it could be. That's all I asked him for! I told him it was confidential."

"Yes, but Mom, if you hadn't sent it to him, if he had never had it in the first place, he couldn't have caused the mess he did."

"Maybe you should have passworded the file," Jim pointed out, defending Naomi.

"It didn't occur to me I needed to! " Blair said furiously. "She was the only person, the only one who knew I had finished. I thought I could trust her. You of all people, Naomi, I thought you would understand about secrets! About trust! I had no idea you would betray me like this!" he stopped with an odd choking sound. He looked like he wanted to take it back, but instead he stayed silent, letting the words gather weight.

"If you'd only asked," he said sadly, eventually, into the frozen still. "Or thought. I don't understand. You let me go - you detached with love when I was sixteen, for gods' sake. Why did you have to come interfering now?"

Naomi was crying noiselessly. "I thought I could trust him!" she said painfully. "I know you don't, can't -- Blair, as much as you thought you could trust me, I thought I could trust him!" She wiped as her face, her light makeup smearing. "I thought he-- I never thought he-- I suppose he read it and couldn't hear his conscience over the dollar signs ringing up in front of him," she finished bitterly.

Jim poked desultorily at the remains of his food. All of the calm and content that he had woken with were gone. More than anything in the world, he wished they would go away, both of them. Take their arguments and their anger and leave. He could think of nothing he wanted more.

"Is there anything left to say?" Naomi said quietly.

Blair wouldn't look at her, and Jim found himself wishing that Blair's miraculous recovery had not been quite so thorough. Maybe then he'd have an excuse to throw Naomi out, send Blair to bed, like an unruly child.

Blair's shoulders slumped. "If you can't think of anything, then no, there's nothing left to say."

Both mother and son started when Jim stood and began to clear his food away. He tipped the leftovers into a box, sealed it carefully, placed it on his shelf of the fridge, and ran the hot water to wash up. The middle of his back prickled, as though the two others were staring at him, and he shrugged uncomfortably. As he swirled the water to encourage suds, he bit his lip to keep quiet, and not say what he was thinking, the ringing mantra of 'Just apologise, dammit! You love him, he loves you. Apologise, and he'll apologise, and maybe I'll apologise, and we'll stop this screaming silence!'

But the silence lingered on. There was the chime of cutlery on china, and, after a moment, the bland, polite tones, "This is nice. Thank you."

"It was no trouble."

"It was delicious, Naomi," Jim said quickly, seizing the trite words as an unspoken truce with alacrity.

"I, um, I could let you have the recipe. If you wanted?" she replied diffidently, turning to Jim with relief.

"That would be great."

"Well, then. I'll write it out for you."

"That would be, um, great," Jim repeated awkwardly. Blair was steadily working his way through the heaped plateful of food, and Jim wondered how he could, surprised that Blair had any stomach for food, never mind food his mother had cooked.

"Is there any more?" Blair said abruptly, and Naomi froze, then hurried to find the lasagna tray. Jim had emptied the remains of that too into a box, and he silently retrieved it from the fridge, and passed it to her. She heated it, the beeps of the microwave annoyingly loud in the chill silence of the apartment.

"Thanks," he said, not looking at her, as she piled his plate high. "It's very good. Thanks, Mom." He chanced a quick look at her, and found her doing the same to him, and he smiled unexpectedly. Her smile hitched, and reflected his. Jim held his breath.

"I'm sorry, baby," Naomi said simply.

"Me too, Mom." And they were hugging almost silently, arms wrapped tightly around each other, and Jim breathed again.

He grinned, wickedly, and reached into the 'everything else' drawer, and found a small disposable camera.

FLASH!

"It seemed like a Kodak moment to me," he grinned. Naomi laughed, and Blair reached for a cushion and threw it.

*~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*

Epilogue:

Geneva, two days later.

"Mr. Barrett will see you now," the receptionist smiled perkily. Sharron stood, unsmiling, and walked through to the large office beyond her desk. The room had those big picture windows she remembered, and she was briefly thrown by Barrett's face, as he rose, smiling to greet her.

"I always expect Tremayne too," he said perceptively. They brushed a kiss lightly in the air above each cheek, and he smiled at her. "It's lovely to see you. I'd say you look no different, except--"

"Except, of course, I do." Her head tilted. "Richard. I don't know what your involvement with that fiasco was, but I want it stopped," she said abruptly. She walked over to look out of the full wall window, her back to him.

"We never did get around to ageing, did we?" He smiled whimsically at the backs of his hands. They were smooth and unlined, and most people assumed that it was vanity and heredity that kept his skin young looking.

"No. We didn't."

"Did you ever find out why?"

She inclined her head. "Very good, Richard. Not many people would understand my research as you do."

"Not many people are as -- familiar-- with your subject matter, and interests as I am."

"He's one of us, now."

"I suspected as much. Did it happen when he died?"

She shrugged enigmatically. "Maybe."

"Craig tells me he couldn't heal him. That implies some ability before you arrived."

"Maybe," she said again, her face inscrutable.

"Or perhaps you helped him along earlier?" he suggested, and shrugged himself when there was no reply.

"Why did you speak to Craig on the phone? Why not mind to mind?"

"Why are we speaking out loud now?" he countered.

Sharron smiled thinly. "Do you have any idea where he is? Who he is truly working for? What would you think if I tell you that if I find Sterling anywhere near my son again, I will remove him."

Barrett raised his eyebrows.

"I do understand, you see, that you were afraid I would overhear you if you used our other method to communicate."

"Perhaps I knew that. Perhaps I counted on that?"

Sharron nodded slowly. "Then I think we understand each other."

"I am on your side, Sharron." He placed a gentle hand on her elbow.

"No." She turned to look fully at him for the first time. "No, you are not. You are on nobody's side but your own. And Nemesis', of course. At least you are consistent. But Craig... Craig is not one of us any more."

"Well, it's been a long time since we worked as a team, he has his own concerns now, and--"

"You do realise he was listed as a terrorist, as well as a Nemesis agent, when those policemen arrested him."

"I think you're over-reacting. Agents never are taken off the active list, regardless of their internal status or records. You know that. Craig's work with ..."

"He tried to kill my son," she interrupted fiercely. "Stole his research. He set up that whole botched robbery, forced me into the open, then attempted to kidnap him for his employers, and while I understand your motives, I also understand his."

"I'm afraid I don't quite follow you--"

"It's very simple, Richard. He's never forgiven us for refusing to save his son."

"But-- that was years ago."

"But Lee needed us as much - maybe more, than Blair ever did. And Craig will continue to put Blair in harm's way until we have to bring Lee back."

"Blair never broke the law!" Richard said sharply.

"No. And how much of that do we owe to our intervention?" she riposted, and he paused. She could see him calculating the options, faster now than he used to be, and he had never been slow, running out the ramifications of multiple scenarios.

"You think I made a mistake, turning him down?"

Sharron smiled wryly. "No. I think you made the right decision. And Blair is suffering for it. But, Craig does not see the bigger picture, as you must. As I do."

Richard shrugged. "I cannot concern myself with these details."

"I know. But perhaps you could concern yourself with this?" She reached into her handbag as retrieved a sheaf of papers. "There is a little matter of protection from reprisals..."

"An application form?" Richard frowned as his eyes ran over the familiar forms. "You want to--"

"Not for me." She turned over the top sheet, and pointed to the name. "For Blair."

*~~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~~~*