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Jim woke up feeling the effects of too little sleep but he slapped the alarm and sat up. It underlined his fatigue that the alarm had actually had a chance to ring. Usually he was awakened by his internal, and oh-so-punctual, alarm. He yawned and rubbed his face. It didn't help.

As he started to work on stretching out his cramped muscles, his thoughts necessarily focused on the meditation session Blair had coaxed him into last night. It was all well and good for Blair to turn himself into a human pretzel, but next time he could leave Jim out of it. He couldn't seem to work the knots out of his muscles this morning, and he prided himself in keeping in good shape. Maybe yoga would be a good thing to add to his workout - or maybe not, if he felt like this the next day.

He didn't even remember falling into bed last night, which was a little odd. He must have been 'very' tired. He felt mentally tired, too, like his subconscious had been working on his latest case while he was asleep. The stress of the case must have stayed with him and hadn't allowed him the rest he sorely needed ...

... or ... just maybe ... it was Alex.

He muttered, “Damn!” grabbed some clothes and headed for a much needed shower. Maybe it would wash the cobwebs out of his head and ease the knots in his muscles at the same time. He needed to focus on the case. He'd need his wits about him if they were going to catch the kidnapper ... now murderer. The child's body had been found, and Jim wanted this guy. The evidence showed the kidnapper had drowned the boy ...

Jim's stomach gave a queasy roll, and he swallowed hard as he came to a halt at the bottom of the stairs. He couldn't get the image out of his mind. It hit too close to home. He didn't know how Sandburg had held it together because he knew that Blair remembered his own drowning: from the lonely desperate fight for breath and life; to the shared vision with Jim; to coughing up the water that had drowned him. He remembered every bit of it!

That was probably the reason he'd forced the issue with Jim last night. It had been the last thing Jim had wanted to do after the day they'd had, but Blair had walked into the living room last night and had flat-out demanded that they were going to try to work out their problems over Alex whether Jim wanted to or not.

Blair said they needed to clear the air about their meeting with another sentinel; to dispel the negative emotions; to rid themselves of their guilt; rebuild their karma - or something like that. That neither one of them would be any good to anyone until they did ....

Well, it was nice to hear the old Sandburg in action. A 'pushy' Sandburg wasn't to be thwarted ... and wasn't that about time! And a relief. He'd been afraid that this case might be the last straw. If Blair wanted to stay and work on it, then Jim 'had' to say yes despite all the time and effort he'd put into avoiding it. Blair had just started back to work, just a week after coming back from Sierra Verde, and he'd foolishly thought that they'd be too busy now. He should have known better. Sandburg never left any sore spot alone.

It was just too much to hope that one session would 'fix' things. But he had to admit that - just maybe - he did feel a little better about the whole situation, so he hoped that Blair did, too.

Walking by Blair's door he knocked gently, and then again more forcefully when he heard Blair snore again.

“Come on, Chief. Rise and shine.”

“Oh, man. It can't be morning already.”

“Don't even start, Mr. I-can-keep-this-pace-up-all-night. You said you wanted in on this. If you've changed your mind, just tell me, Chief.” Jim didn't wait to hear the answer, because he already knew what it would be, and because as a sentinel, he could have heard Blair whisper the answer from down the block.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

What he couldn't see was the finger that Blair slid out from under his comforter.

Their morning routine was so well established that sentinel and guide were ready to depart in half an hour, with breakfast bars stuffed in Blair's backpack, and relying on vending machine coffee at the station, or Simon's brew-of-the-day if they were lucky. They then proceeded out the door.

It was Saturday, and officially a day off for Jim, but not since the Peterson case was still open and had taken such a tragic turn. They exited the door of their apartment building at 852 Prospect and were engulfed by a crowd of reporters.

“Mr. Ellison, what does it feel like to be a sentinel?”
“Mr. Sandburg, when will you be defending your thesis?”
“Mr. Ellison, when did you know you had super senses?”
“Who will be playing the part of the sentinel on UPN?”
“Mr. Sandburg, have you had any offers for a movie deal?”

Jim had stumbled back when the microphones were shoved in his face. He was speechless in his shock and had inadvertently stepped back and almost caused Blair to trip backward and fall through the doorway. Blair almost went down but Jim managed to grab one of his arms and hauled him up. Blair was pulled behind him as he forced his way through the crowd. He totally ignored the reporters as he dragged Blair to the driver's side of his truck, and none too gently pushed Blair up into the seat and told him gruffly, “Slide over, Sandburg. Move it.”

They pulled away slowly so as not to run over someone as they surged around the truck. Jim clenched the wheel and kept going. He knew he was too close to losing control of his anger to stop now.

Blair looked at the crowd as it parted around them and then at Jim, “What the hell was that?”

Jim answered bitterly, “You tell me, Chief. What the hell did you do? Huh? What the HELL did you DO?”

Blair slumped back against the door looking stunned, “Me? I didn't do anything, Jim. I don't know how they found out about the sentinel stuff. I'm not even close to defending the thesis. You should know that. You just read my first chapter against my wishes, just before the mess with Alex! ... Movie rights? I don't know what they're talking about!”

Jim pulled up at a stop light and turned to Blair, “I thought you had enough for ten papers, Sandburg. Tell me, if you didn't tell them, then who did? You're the one that talked about your Holy Grail and movie rights and making a pile of money. You tell me the truth Sandburg!”

Blair looked stricken, “Man, you've got to give me the benefit of the doubt here. I would NEVER hurt you. Don't you know that? I'd never betray you. Never. Not for any amount of money. You know me better than that.” Blair was shaken and hurt and it showed. He shook his head as he whispered, “Tell me, man. Tell me you know I wouldn't do that.”

A whisper, a memory, caught him before he could speak. Something about “... listening to the whispers of his own heart?" Jim's sentinel senses had been trained by Blair himself to listen to the hearts of others. He could hear 'them' just fine. He could hear lies. He could hear truth. But that's not what Blair had asked, was it? He asked if Jim 'knew' him.

He knew Blair well enough that he'd reached out to him at the brink of death to pull him back. So, how could he have doubted Blair? He realized he was gripping the steering wheel fiercely, so he consciously eased up, and with a sigh he let go.

But it was still difficult to keep his voice steady, “I know, Chief. I know you wouldn't do that. I'm sorry. It's just that somehow the secret is out. It's possible it was an accident, but it's possible it was intentional, too. But not you. Not you. It was just that they 'couldn't' have known ... and now they do. I guess I'm just at a loss about what to do. We've got to get to the PD to work this case, but they'll be hounding us now everywhere we go. We can't work that way. And - and the sentinel thing ...”

Blair rubbed both hands down over his face, and released a little sigh. Jim could see that the hurt had faded but not disappeared, but Blair's mind had already turned elsewhere. “Well, first we have to tell Simon. Tell him what's going on. As for the case, Henri and Rafe were briefed last night after it became a ... murder. Maybe they can take over.”

Jim reached over and gripped Blair's shoulder, “I am sorry, Blair.”

“I know, Jim. This is - like - your worst nightmare,” said a shaken Blair.

Jim was grateful for Blair's levelheadedness and for his understanding. “Yeah, Chief, it is. But you're right. We'll head over to the station first. Check in with Simon, hand over the investigation, and see what's going on. We need to make some decisions, and fast, and for that we need some information.”

...

Beverly Sanchez, Assistant D.A. in Cascade, Washington, hurried with as much decorum as she could muster. She was the lead investigator for a top-secret task force that was formed two months after the retrieval of Alexandra Barnes. The 'sentinel problem' was dropped in their laps after the Barnes woman was brought back to Cascade in a catatonic state. Her abilities, and what she'd almost accomplished with them, could still make Beverly shiver with dread.

She didn't know who was behind the formation of the task force, or who had sent them the information on Barnes. The source was supposed to be anonymous, but her own investigation suggested a link to a rogue agent. Her evidence pointed to the FBI, but a hunch said it was some quasi-governmental organization.

Barnes's arrest and return to Cascade had been in the news, and was well known in law enforcement circles ... but at the time nothing had been known publicly about her genetically enhanced abilities.

It had not been a surprise when the investigation of Barnes's case had included the lead Detective, James Ellison, but what her assistants had discovered about his partner, Blair Sandburg, had been a shock. When his research had come to their attention she'd been appalled to discover that he was an expert on sentinels, that he had known Barnes and helped her, although he seemed to have been unaware of her crimes at the time.

She'd known from personal experience that Jim Ellison could be as charming as hell when he wanted to be, but he could also be very intense. Before he had met Sandburg he had held himself apart from others. It had been a surprise when he'd teamed up with, even lived with, Blair Sandburg.

Sentinel. Guide. Beverly knew she was good at taking unconnected events and making sense of them. Ellison's actions during the Juno case were understandable now. Sandburg was Ellison's guide, and he had tried to guide Barnes. Was Barnes catatonic because she lacked her own full-time guide? What did Blair get out of working with her? With Ellison, for that matter? Were guides interchangeable? How much of a concern should they have for those with less than five enhanced senses? Those were some of the things they needed to know, and soon.

Today her haste was because someone had leaked Ellison's name and the 'sentinel' information to the media before their investigation was complete. For all she knew it could have been one of their own assistants. Some had worked on Barnes' background, and some had been recruited to work on Sandburg's and Ellison's. She continued to hurry on grimly as she planned interrogations of all those who had worked on the latter.

Unfortunately they were still formalizing recommendations to be presented to the FBI and the current administration. Political alliances would be critical, but they hadn't been solidified yet, and they'd need allies to handle the problem properly. Hopefully it would just need a few adjustments to the timetable.

...

Every entrance to the station proved to be swarming with news crews, even the underground garage. A uniformed officer recognized Detective Ellison and allowed him entrance before his vehicle could be stopped by the crush of people.

The other officers in the area stared, but said nothing as Jim and Blair made their way to the elevator. Blair held his breath as it approached every floor, but they remained the only occupants till they reached Major Crimes.

When they walked in, everyone stopped what they were doing and just watched silently. Expressions ran the gamut. Some obviously hoped the whole thing was a joke but knew that Ellison was going to be furious about the situation so they kept their distance. Others looked wary, and Jim cringed inwardly. He knew that some would hate him, with their reactions driven by fear and envy. Still others looked confused, even hurt. Those last were their closest colleagues. He hoped these friends would understand why he'd kept the secret from them. He was pretty sure he'd find out how they all felt about that soon enough. All this went through his mind as Jim strode across the bullpen. He didn't hesitate as he strode to Simon's office, knocked, and entered, with Blair right behind him.

Simon slammed down his phone, reached behind the phone and unplugged it. “There! That's the only damn way it'll stay silent. You two, sit down! How bad is it out there? I've heard that the reporters are circling like vultures. I came in early to work on the budget report, but I've been answering calls from the Mayor, the Chief of Police, the Commissioner, the District Attorney and I-can't-remember-who-else. I didn't even get to make coffee this morning ... and believe me, I could really use some right now.”

Jim said, “How bad is it?”

Simon sat back and chewed grimly on his unlit cigar, “Well, I'm still here. They haven't fired me yet, but I think it's only a matter of time.”

Blair blurted, “Simon, I didn't ...”

Simon scrutinized Jim's Observer, knowing immediately what he meant, “You didn't?”

“No.”

Simon's anger visibly deflated, but was far from gone altogether. He sighed, “Well, I sure as hell know Jim didn't. So who did? Any clues?”

Jim started tentatively, “... only us three knew ...”

Blair paled, “Not exactly. But Eli wouldn't! He's the most ethical man I know.”

Jim gently pushed Blair to a chair, and made him sit. He took the other chair. He sighed, “Chief, it might be someone that overheard you, or someone that works for Dr. Stoddard. Someone that overheard 'us' for that matter. At this point, I don't know if it really matters, unless there's some way of putting this genie back in the box ....” He looked with scant hope to his guide.

“I - I ...”

Jim shook his head, “Don't, Blair. I know better than to ask, to expect the impossible, but I guess I 'had' to ask.”

“I'm worried that it might be Brackett again.”

Jim thought for a moment, “I'd think his style would be a lot more cloak-and-dagger than this. If the secret is out, he can't use that to blackmail us but he's had a long time to think up some complicated game of revenge ... and maybe the leak wasn't even his idea.”

Simon sighed, “Well, this is a fine mess. One of the calls I received was from the Mayor. He was definitely unhappy about the leak. He revealed that a secret task force ... a Sentinel Task Force! ... had been formed two months after Barnes was returned to Cascade. Someone knew about her abilities besides us, and Connor. Brackett would fit the bill.”

Blair sighed heavily, “Sentinel information isn't widely available. I've had to dig out bits from some pretty obscure materials. I even added to it myself with my early research into enhanced senses. I'm so sorry ...”

Simon interrupted, “You can't blame yourself, Sandburg. We all knew this could blow up in our faces. Jim, you'll never guess who's leading the task force now ... Assistant D.A. Beverly Sanchez.”

Jim felt the betrayal hit him hard, “I - I don't know what to say. I thought ... we were friends.”

He glanced at Blair and met an equal level of shock. He sighed again, then straightened his shoulders, “Sir, perhaps I should take a leave of absence until this settles down and we see where we stand. And, uh, the Peterson case, I think Henri and Rafe should take over now. They just cleared their major case and were brought up to speed on this one last night. Hopefully a new perspective will help. We'll never be left alone to work the case, and time is running out to catch this guy.”

“Damn. Right. The Peterson case. I'll tell them. Wait here.”

Blair fidgeted for a moment then pushed himself up to pace, “What are we going to do, Jim? We never had plans for this ... this is just crazy! They have the info on sentinels ... they know what we look like. They certainly know where we live! Oh, man. The University!”

“Is Rainier going to be a problem, Chief?”

“Well, I don't think I'll be able to just walk quietly into my office, and what about teaching my classes? This is a nightmare!”

“Blair, you should call Eli. He's you're thesis advisor. Maybe he can handle Rainier for you.”

“Man, I hate to even ask him. He'll want to know who did this, too. 'My' ethics will be questioned, for sure. This could ruin my reputation if we can't find out who did this. They'll blame me for not protecting my source.”

Jim seemed surprised, “This could come back on you? I didn't realize that.”

“Oh, yeah. I could be censured. Forget about the PhD. Oh, man, what am I saying! The doctorate is the least of my worries. Sorry, Jim.”

Jim came to stand in front of him, forcing him to stop. “I'll stand by you, Chief. I'll tell them the truth. You're my guide. You wouldn't do that to your sentinel.”

Blair had to fight to keep his emotions in check. He said, “I'll stand by you, too, Jim. Look, I don't think this is a good time to be separated, do you?”

“We both know that it could get pretty hairy. Maybe it would be best if we put some distance between us. You've trained me to control my senses. If I need you, I'll know where to find you.”

“No way. I'm where I'm supposed to be.” Blair swallowed hard then said, “Jim, I know you can handle your senses under most circumstances, but something weird is always popping up. We both know you're going to be under a lot of stress. Maybe you don't think you really need me all the time, but 'I' need to be there with you. I know that you'd probably be fine, but I'm asking you to let me do my part. Don't try to protect me. What I need most is to be your guide.”

Jim nodded reluctant acceptance. When Blair's relief became apparent he realized that he felt relieved, too. He forced a smile and said, “Maybe you're right. Whatever goes down, we should stick together. I've certainly never had to face this kind of thing on my own. The last few years, you've always been there to back me up. A cop needs his partner, and I remember 'someone' telling me that a sentinel needs his guide.”

Blair returned the smile.

Jim's cell phone rang and he flipped it open, “Ellison.”

Blair heard Jim's voice change to concern, and listened to Jim's side of the conversation without remorse.

“Dad, what is it?” ...

“The reporters are there, too? ...

“Steven? What about Steven?” ...

“No, I haven't heard from him either, but I'll let you know as soon as I know something.” ...

“What did your lawyer say?” ...

Jim glanced at Blair and shrugged half-heartedly, “No, Dad. We don't know who leaked it, or how. We came right to the station, and it's a mess. Simon seems to be in trouble with the higher-ups, but we don't know how bad it is. I think he's doing his best to protect us.” ...

“Yeah, he's a good friend. He's known about my senses as long as Blair.” ...

“I'll talk to him about the lawyer, and I'll let you know what's going on here as soon as I can.” ...

“Thanks, Dad. I - I appreciate your help, and please, try to be careful.” ...

“But Dad ... I'd feel a lot better if you called in some bodyguards, at least for the short term. It's going to get worse before it gets better.” ...

“Good. I'll call you at least by tonight. I think we should check in with each other at least a couple times a day, just to be on the safe side.” ...

“Yeah, long overdue, hunh, Dad?” ...

“Dad? I'm sorry ...”

“I know, Dad. Call you later.”

“Jim? Do you really think ...”

“It's going to be bad, Chief. Stick close, okay?”

“What did your Dad say?”

“The lawyer is assembling a 'team' as we speak.”

“What!”

“There's the very real possibility of lawsuits; maybe criminal charges, too. We have no idea what IA is going to do yet.”

“But Jim, we didn't do anything wrong!”

“We?”

Blair looked hurt but stubborn, “Of course, 'we'.”

Jim sighed and clenched his jaw, “It doesn't have to be, Blair. I'm the one with the senses. I wish you'd hang back and let me take the brunt of this. At least until we know what IA is going to do.”

“Didn't we just settle this? I don't know where this will end up, but it would be better if we handle this together. Internal Affairs isn't going to forget about me being your observer ... for three years! We 'need' to stick together.”

“Chief, I just can't help but wish ...”

“Well, forget it ... unless ... you really want to walk away from the partnership.”

Jim wanted to say yes, knew he should say yes, for Blair's sake, but that would be wrong in so many ways. Blair had always stood by him, and intended to do it again. There was no way he could hurt him like that; not again.

He took a moment to collect himself, “Okay, Chief. Okay. I just don't know how bad ...,” Jim stopped speaking, and started listening.

“What's up, Jim?” and Blair came closer to place his hand on Jim's forearm.

Jim's muscles clenched and he quickly stepped in front of Blair, “Sandburg, it's starting. Stay behind me.”

“What?” Blair turned to look out of Simon's windows into the bullpen, but it was empty. It looked like everyone had dropped their things and left quietly, obviously, because Jim hadn't noticed. Of course he and Jim had had other things on their mind.

Blair gulped in dread as police in riot gear swarmed from both sides and into the bullpen.

Captain Maxwell was quick to take command of the situation, “Come out with your hands up, then clasp them behind your heads. You know the drill, Ellison. Don't make us do this the hard way.”

They walked out of the office with hands in the air, Jim leading the way.

“Captain ... I don't understand.”

“Do it. Then we'll explain.”

“Captain, Sandburg isn't quite as familiar with the 'drill'. Cut him some slack, and 'he' isn't armed.”

Blair already had his hands behind his head as he stuttered, “Except f-for my S-swiss Army knife.”

Jim was holding his fury in check, but just barely. “What is this all about, Maxwell?”

“That's 'Captain' Maxwell, Detective Ellison ... and surely you've seen the news.”

Jim's disgust was evident, “Do you think this is really necessary? You've got to be kidding me!”

“Just following orders.”

“From who? Why didn't you just tell me to come down for questioning, if that's what this is?”

“Would you have come peacefully?” Maxwell asked with what Jim perceived as honest doubt.

Jim's shock and dismay were also honest, and he saw that Maxwell could read him, too. Jim could only hope that he'd begin to doubt some of the rumors that were running wild.

“Sorry, Ellison. But it 'is' orders. Just questions, at least for now. You answer to IA. If they're happy ... well, you know how that goes.”

“If they're happy ... Maxwell, no offense to you or IA, but Sandburg and I want our lawyers present.” He turned to Blair, “Remember that, Chief. Everything's crazy right now. You make sure you don't say 'anything' until Dad's lawyer gets here. From Briggs, Briggs, Gunderson & Greene.” Blair met his eyes, and Jim was proud of him. He could tell he was scared, but he was also determined, so Jim squared his shoulders and did what he was told. They'd get through this somehow.

They were searched and cuffed, and weapons were confiscated. They were taken to separate interrogation rooms.

Representatives of Internal Affairs awaited both of them. The questioning went on for almost forty-eight hours - after the arrival of the lawyers. It stretched on for case after case. Any actions taken during fieldwork and stakeouts were dissected; crimes they witnessed were questioned; and evidence gathered was challenged.

Jim was well aware of what they wanted, and the actions he and Blair had taken to prevent the charges they were trying so hard to make. He wasn't too worried about the cases, and he knew that Blair had written most of the reports. He was a smart kid, and he was doing fine, in fact he talked circles around them. Since they had irrefutable evidence for their cases, they thought the cases were airtight. But crooks had lawyers, too. If they even 'thought' that their clients civil liberties had been infringed upon then it was going to be a circus, and the sentinel and his guide were going to be the main attractions, no matter what IA decided.

One thing that did bother him, and he received no plausible answer to a direct question: How did they get this information together so quickly? They'd questioned them on three years of cases that they'd worked together, but had pretty much ignored anything earlier. Why didn't they ask questions about his time in Vice? Or in the military? What did they know, and when?

...

The investigators finally let them go. They seemed to have calmed their inquiries down from righteous indignation, to grudging resignation, compelled no doubt by the threats from their representatives from Briggs, Briggs, Gunderson & Greene. Still, they were put on notice that they could be pulled in anytime for more questioning. Jim didn't doubt that it wasn't just a threat, but a real possibility.

It was close to another dawn when they finally reached the loft. Jim thought he might have to carry Sandburg inside but he rallied enough to make it up the stairs, without a word spoken. Jim had known they were close to reaching their breaking point, and they couldn't afford mistakes. But still, the hours of questioning - interrogation - had dragged on. They'd only been interrupted by a few breaks, and only when the lawyers insisted.

As they headed home, Jim had been careful not to lose their surveillance, and no matter how tired he was, he still took a moment to do a sensory sweep of the area before unlocking the door. When they were safely inside, he engaged all the locks, checked the emergency exit, the windows, even his skylight. He was surprised that the loft hadn't been searched, and he would have noticed.

He came down the stairs and drew the drapes, and pulled the white noise generator from his pocket where he'd put it when checking his bedroom. He saw Blair's look of momentary confusion as he set it on the dining room table and turned it on. Then he gestured for Blair to sit while he put the water on for tea. He wondered if he looked as wiped-out as Blair did. Unfortunately, neither of them could sleep for a while. They had things to discuss.

He looked at the message light and saw that it was full. He checked the phone numbers that showed and only recognized Simon's and his Dad's. He grabbed the phone and called his father. Then called Simon. Neither had much to report but he waited to tell Blair because he looked like he was checking emails on his laptop. When the water was hot, Jim made tea and sat down wearily, passing one cup to Blair.

Blair finally looked up, “Naomi hasn't answered my last email from almost three days ago, before all this hit the fan. When she's on the grid, she almost always checks her mail every day.”

Jim offered, “Maybe she's heard the news. Would she come here, or contact you first?”

“I think she'd contact me first, especially where cops might be involved,” and he gave a half-hearted and fleeting grin.

Jim answered in kind, then took a sip of his tea.

“Jim, what did your Dad and Simon have to say?”

“Dad's worried, and not just about us. Steven still hasn't called in. His plane should have landed at the airport the day before yesterday, but the company jet is still sitting in Sacramento.” Jim sighed deeply, “It isn't like Steven to change his plans without at least informing his office. The pilot said Steven called to cancel the flight. He was told he'd be contacted when needed, and that was the last he'd heard from him. That was around noon, three days ago.”

“What about his hotel?”

“He signed out.”

“Does he have friends he would visit there?”

Jim sighed again and shrugged tiredly, “Chief, I just don't know. Even Dad doesn't know for sure. He's called the police, but they won't do anything. There's no evidence of foul play and Steven's a grown man.”

“And the brother of a cop. Doesn't that mean anything?”

Jim looked troubled as he answered, “A cop that's ... well, is a tabloid sensation and has IA crawling all over his old cases.”

“I'm sorry, Jim.”

Jim grimaced, “Bad news travels fast. I listened to as much as I could while we were at the PD. It didn't sound good. The cops are either scared to death of what they think I can do or are envious of my 'advantage'. The angry and the jealous ... a very bad mix if they feel they have common cause to band together. The few that we can still call friends are worried about us - but they're probably scared and envious of the 'freak' to various degrees, too.”

“Jim, don't. Quit with the 'f' word.” Blair sighed, “It's only natural that our friends would wonder about your abilities. You did keep a secret from them. I did, too. After this mess, they must see the reasoning behind it. Give them some credit and give them a little time to sort it all out.”

“We may not have time. If someone took Steven and ...”

Blair gasped, “You think he was kidnapped? Because of the sentinel thing?”

“Blair,” he said gently, “they may have taken Naomi, too.”

As Blair tried to bolt up out of the chair, Jim grabbed his arm to hold him in place. “I'm sorry. I'm probably way off base here.”

Blair looked like he was going to be sick. “What if you're not?”

“Is she in the States, Chief?”

“Y-yeah. In Arizona.”

“Is there someone you could call, to see if she's alright?”

Blair hastily dug in his backpack for his phone. After several calls, he finally turned back to Jim. His face was white with shock. “Jim, she's missing, too. They didn't know how to contact me. She went into town to help with the groceries. Junie said she was there one minute, then gone the next. They searched for a while then they called the sheriff, but he didn't take them seriously at first, just told them there was a forty-eight hour wait before a missing persons report could be filed. Junie was furious that he wouldn't do anything! Jim, I didn't know what to tell her.”

Jim felt helpless. What could he do from here, in their situation?

Jim couldn't hide his frustration and anger, “Dad couldn't get any help from the PD for the same reason. Forty-eight hours! At least that was the reason they gave. I understand the reasoning, but when you 'know' something isn't right ... Somebody was on top of the situation within minutes of us finding out there 'was' a situation. From what I heard, Captain Maxwell had his orders within minutes of us arriving at the station. It's possible that the sheriff may have had his orders, too. He might not be able to do anything even if he wanted to, so he may just be trying to keep them quiet until he knows which way to jump.” Jim sighed heavily and swiped a hand over his tired face, “Chief, I don't think they'll harm her, or Steven, but I don't know for sure. It's just a guess.”

After a moment of reflection Blair asked, “What about us? Will they - whoever 'they' are - come for us, too, or do you think they're, like, hostages for our cooperation, good behavior, whatever?”

Jim had no answer, only more and more questions. Was there more to the leak about his sentinel abilities or was it simply a 'seven day wonder'? Was there a power behind the scenes that was manipulating the situation? If there was, what 'were' their intentions? He was more than a little afraid what the answers might be.

He wanted to scream his frustration, pound the walls until they got some answers, or better yet, make the whole sentinel thing just disappear. Over the last few years he'd tried to convince himself that Blair was right, that he was a man with enhanced senses, not Superman. He wasn't worth a conspiracy theorist's time. But the memory of Colonel Oliver was always with him. That man had wielded enough power to order the deaths of everyone on his mission to Peru, and what Brackett had been able to compel them to do still angered and frightened him. What would they do, how far would they go, to control a sentinel? And then what would become of them?

...

Simon arrived at their door at 6 am. He had a chance to knock because Jim had finally made it upstairs to his bed, and had tried futilely to get some sleep. Blair wasn't asleep yet either so he made it to the door first and, exhausted as he was, almost opened it without thinking. He glanced quickly at Jim, who nodded and whispered 'Simon'.

When Simon came in they could see that he was exhausted, too. Jim had thrown on a robe and had come down the stairs quickly. He put a hand on Blair's shoulder to prevent a comment. Simon didn't look in the mood for 'pleasantries'. He looked decidedly grim, almost ill. He looked like a man who'd had too many shocks in too short a time.

Simon began with an abruptness that was unusual even for him. He began with an extremely terse introduction, “Look, we don't have much time, so just go along with this for now. You can make your complaints later, and I'm sure they'll just add them to mine and forget about them.”

Jim's sleepiness evaporated quickly. He cast his senses outward, sensing nothing untoward except for an unusual number of heartbeats on the street level and several vehicles left running and parked near 852. It was also unusually quiet for that many people. “Just tell us, Simon. What's the plan?”

Simon spoke with a gravelly, tired voice, tinged heavily with bitterness, “Unfortunately, I've not been advised of their plans. If there is one, they aren't telling me, or you. What I was 'told' is that your neighbors have supposedly joined together and made one huge complaint to the city administration. Anyone that knows anyone, has been getting a steady stream of harassment from your dear neighbors.” Seeing the look of dismay on their faces, Simon tried to backtrack, “Oh, not so much from 852, but up and down the street, and across the way. Complaints that you invade their privacy, stuff like that.”

Jim looked angry one second and gave it up the next. He was too tired. He thought for a minute and began to look worried, “Are you here to evict us? I own the loft.”

Simon looked deeply apologetic, “I'm sorry, Jim. It's even worse than that. Look, I know you got in late and you haven't seen the news reports. If I know you, you were probably avoiding them. I can't believe how badly it's gone to hell in just a few days.”

Simon averted his eyes for a moment before regaining his courage, “If my opinion means anything, and I do have a few friends out there that owed me favors, our Ms. Sanchez is in this, if not for the glory, then for the power. I don't know how she got the position, but she's managed to bend or break half the laws that she was sworn to uphold. She claims not to know who leaked the information about you to the media. I don't think it was deliberately done by the task force. From what I could find out they've been trying to suppress this - this mess! But I think it's gotten out of hand even for them.

“I have no idea how bad things are going to get but the situation has gone down hill rapidly since the leak. I'm sorry that I have to be the one to tell you, but you're not being evicted, you're both being placed in protective custody for your own protection. We're all being put under 'house arrest', but not here. Your belongings will be moved for you and held in storage until this is settled.”

Jim was furious. He wanted to strike out, to hurt someone, but whoever was behind this was far from his grasp. No wonder they hadn't bothered to search the place. They were just going to come in and take everything. They'd be able to sift through every bit of 'evidence' at their leisure, and this place - this loft - their home - would be taken apart, stick by stick.

Blair sank into the nearest chair. When he finally glanced up at Jim, he asked disbelievingly, “Can they really do that?” Simon said nothing, just stared at Jim. When Blair realized that was all the answer he'd get he blurted, “Wait a minute! We can't leave. Steven and Naomi are missing ...”

Jim interrupted flatly, “... presumed missing ...”

“What! Why am I just hearing this now?” spluttered Simon.

Blair said, his anger unleashed for the moment, “Presumed. Yeah, right. Neither of them have been heard from since ... uh, three days ago now ... No one's taken a missing person report yet! We just found out this morning from Jim's Dad, and a friend of my Mom's. Simon, man, can you at least check this out for us?”

Simon looked positively sick now, “I - I would, if I could.”

Jim and Blair shared a look. Jim said, “Tell us what else is going on.”

Simon walked heavily over to the table and sat. He didn't even glance their way when he began without further preamble, “You're suspended without pay for the foreseeable future, Jim, and your cases are still being scrutinized. I know you're well aware of that, but believe me, they've only just begun. Blair, you're fired from Rainier and your studies and grants, student aid, scholarships, everything, even the degrees you've earned, is under review. Any bank accounts or credit cards either of you have, have been frozen. Your lawyers will contact you both, soon I'm sure.

“As for me, well, I'm fired, too.” He went on sarcastically, “But wait, there's good news. We're all going to be seeing a lot more of each other. We're going to be 'protected' in the same safe house. It won't be in Cascade though, but out in the country. All they'd say about that is that they can't allow more chance for invasion of privacy or other illegal use of your senses, Jim.

“Oh, yeah ... you have thirty minutes to pack.” He glanced at his watch, “Make that twenty minutes.”

Silence reigned for several minutes. Blair reached over and turned on the white noise generator and asked nervously, “Do we have time to burn ... 'it'?”

Jim snorted, “Hell, you might as well try to get an independent publisher for the thesis. We 'might' need the money.”

Blair couldn't look at Jim. He bit his lip and stared down at the table.

“Chief? Sorry. What does it matter now? They know. At least, they think they know. Look, can you contact Jack Kelso? You trusted him with a copy of the rough draft and your statistical data for safekeeping. He's probably one of the few men with the connections to manage it. Now that the secret's out, Kelso has probably already guessed what he has in that lockbox you gave him. Maybe if the truth is out there, it will help. It'll at least be our side of it.”

“I'll try his home number.”

“Wait a minute.” When Jim came back, he had another phone. “Use this one. It'll be harder to trace. Hopefully impossible to trace, but I wouldn't take a bet on anything right now.”

Blair took a deep breath and accepted it.

Arrangements made, and belongings packed, they had just a few minutes left before the deadline.

Jim said, “Well, it's been a pleasure, gentlemen.”

Simon said, “Same here, my friends.”

Blair looked back and forth between them. “You make it sound like we'll be facing a firing squad!”

Jim grimaced, “Not that obvious an ending, Chief. Much more legal I'd think. But our freedom? I don't hold out much hope.”

Blair gulped audibly and said, “I guess none of us really thought this was going to end well, but I was trying to be optimistic. Or maybe that's naïve.”

Jim said, “It's not a bad thing to want to think the best of your fellow man. I'm just glad you haven't seen what I've seen, been where I've been, had to do what I was ordered to do. I'm glad you can still 'be' optimistic.”

Blair's voice wavered a bit as he said, “I'm - I'm glad to have known you both, you know. I hope they let us stay together, but even that's probably too much to hope for in the long run. Jim, whatever you decide to do, just remember to make arrangements for two ... if you can ... and if you can't, then just get away however you can.”

Simon asked with considerable trepidation, “Should I make that three?”

Jim rejected Simon's question/plea as gently as he could, “Maybe not three, but you know you'd be welcome. I really don't know what's in store for us, or what opportunities will come our way, but you have Daryl to think of, too.”

At the mention of Daryl, Simon's fear was obvious, but he asked, “What about Steven and Naomi?”

Jim sighed, “A lot depends on that. Naomi's friends and Dad are still trying to work with the authorities.” Turning to Blair, he warned, “I know you've been careful, but it's only going to get worse, Chief. After we leave here we have to be even more cautious about what we say. We don't need to give them any more information than necessary.”

A knock was heard at their door, and Blair quickly whispered, “Downplay them, Jim, by twenty percent. Play up the zones, and your vulnerability. The statistics in the thesis were from before your hearing increased. I never updated them. Brackett scared me, man.”

Jim looked at his friend with admiration and respect. Sandburg was always doing something to surprise him. He definitely wasn't as naïve as everyone expected.

When a firm knock was heard once again, they opened the door and were surprised to see a very tense couple of friends, Henri and Rafe. They'd come to escort them down. Henri explained that a temporary Captain had reassigned the Peterson case to Joel and Megan.

When they exited 852 Prospect, Jim looked up and down the street. It was too late to wish they'd risked running for it when he saw what was waiting for them. Despite the very early hour, many of their 'neighbors' lined the sidewalk on the other side of the street. When they were spotted, an angry rumble of voices began to fill the air. Shouts and catcalls were heard, and an entreaty by Blair that confused Jim for a moment.

“Easy, Jim. They're just voices. You can control their effect on you. Dial it down.” This was combined with a firm grip on Jim's forearm.

When Jim looked at Blair questioningly, he saw him give the barest nod toward the crowd and the other members of their escort. Jim understood. Blair was playing up his 'insufficient' control, and maybe his need for his guide, too, suggesting that Blair led him vocally and physically.

Jim decided it would be worth the risk to make sure their escort understood that the guide was 'necessary', so they wouldn't be separated. He locked down his emotions, pushed aside his exhaustion, and set his senses and experience to evaluating the size and makeup of the rest of the escort while seeming to try to control his senses. It wasn't the number of officers and vehicles that frightened him, it was the fact they'd brought an armored prisoner transport.

Overkill it might be, but it seemed to reveal a massive overestimation of Jim's 'real' abilities, although it could have been a more or less honest effort to protect them from a public that now feared them. Whichever it was, Jim had never been an optimist.

It seemed probable to Jim that Simon, Henri, and Rafe might have been sent in first to alleviate their fears ... make them hesitate to make an escape attempt with their friends in harms way. Simon had also been shocked by the 'escort', so he hadn't known about it either. Henri and Rafe looked angry and frustrated, so they must have known, but must have believed their presence would send a message to the 'powers that be'. Jim hoped they wouldn't be sorry about backing them up.

They didn't wait long to get underway. The crowd was getting louder, and some were having to be physically restrained. Jim only recognized a couple of the angry, shouting people, yet he could see that lights were going on up and down the street in apartments above Prospect as people awoke to the near riot. Jim wondered bitterly where the crowd had come from if they weren't the 'neighbors' who now stared in shock from their windows.

Once the procession started to move, Jim used his senses to track their progress, but after leaving the city it was surprisingly difficult. Endless vistas, smells, and sounds of forest left few obvious markers. Jim could tell direction, and length of travel, even elevation, but that still didn't tell him 'where' he was. Before the day was out they'd traveled through some of the least populated byways of the state of Washington.

Unfortunately none of them knew what to expect when they arrived at the safe house, so their trip was spent in a state of nervous tension. Their first glimpse of the place was disheartening. It looked like it had previously been a military compound. It certainly would have been a better description for the place than 'safe house'.

It was obvious to Jim's senses that most of it was underground. Jim didn't like the implication. Was this truly a protective detail, or a quasi-military operation? At least Jim's senses told him that the underground facilities were unpopulated and seemed to be in lockdown mode.

When they all exited the transport and saw the safe house for the first time, Blair had simply said in fear and confusion, “Jim?”

Blair's fear pushed all of Jim's 'Blessed Protector' buttons. He pushed Blair behind him and asked sharply, “Henri, what is this place?”

Henri was very subdued but tried to give what encouragement he could, “Jim, I know it looks bad, but Rafe and I have been assigned to the staff here. We're kinda' on loan. We'll split the guard duties with two other men 50-50, so if something's not right or if you need anything, you let us know.”

Jim glared but when Henri didn't flinch he said stiffly, almost formally, “We'll take you at your word H. You too, Rafe.”

“Sure thing, Jim. We volunteered to be here,” said Rafe firmly.

Jim relented and relaxed a bit. Being among friends would have to be better than being among strangers. “Thanks. We all appreciate that.”

The inside of the facilities were no more encouraging. The walls were a stark military green, with bare walls and the barest of amenities. When the guards stationed at the gate had inspected their belongings, Blair's laptop had been confiscated, as well as anything that might conceivably have been turned into a weapon. That hadn't left much except for soft clothing, and a few unframed pictures and books, but their protests fell on deaf ears.

As they moved into their new quarters, Jim used his senses to scan the area. There were no vehicles in the compound, which in itself, was a deterrent to any escape plans. There were barracks, office buildings, and a parking area just outside the south gate, but those had only been seen from the transport.

There were recording devices everywhere, even the bathrooms. There were almost the same proportion of them inside as out. They were being watched, obviously. He wondered who was getting the reports.

Simon had a quick conference with H and Rafe, to tell them about Steven and Naomi. Their friends were quite concerned that they'd been stalled in such a way, and Henri left for a short time to pass that query on to their new boss immediately. They promised to follow up on the investigation with their friends in Major Crime when they were relieved.

...

It didn't take long for protective custody to wear on the three of them. They were comfortable enough, and the food they were served was perfectly adequate if uninspiring. They weren't confined to the building but they weren't allowed to wander far, since once outside, they were always within sight of the massive fence that surrounded it. It certainly looked like prison to Jim.

There were just two gates and both were guarded. Two K-9 units patrolled day and night outside the fence, while a pair of guards patrolled inside the fence, too.

It didn't take long for Jim to realize that H and Rafe were effectively under lockdown, too. When they were on guard duty, no information passed through those gates. What was happening outside? Why were they kept uninformed? It was worrisome. Jim could tell that Henri and Rafe chafed at the need to be tight-lipped. He could only hope that if there was something going on that would be detrimental to them, that their friends would try to give them a clue.

Jim listened for any comments from the guards, but they were eerily quiet. One night Jim saw and heard one pair of guards speaking quietly as they crossed paths outside the fence. When one of them noticed that Jim was watching, he shut up quickly, nodded toward Jim, and tapped his ear. Neither guard said anything further.

Even in the barracks outside the compound the guards were reticent. When they did chat, they kept it impersonal and practical. Jim thought it very odd that they didn't have a radio or television, although he did hear music from cd's. They were being very cautious around the sentinel in their 'care'.

...

The three friends under house arrest developed a routine governed more by Jim's habits; probably aided by an unconscious decision to stay close. They woke early, usually with the sun. Then they went for a run around the perimeter, no matter the weather. After they returned, they showered and ate the breakfast that was provided.

Meanwhile, Jim could only watch and wait while Blair wore himself out trying to devise meaningful ways to pass the time. It hadn't taken long for boredom to overtake Blair, especially since his laptop had been confiscated, but Sandburg had kept his temper better than he'd expected. He did yoga and meditated, but his concentration wasn't what it used to be. He spent a lot of energy badgering Henri and Rafe and the other set of guards trying to arrange for television, radio, newspapers - anything - but nothing changed for the time being.

Even though information on current news was denied, Blair was supplied with any books he requested, but the last thing he wanted to do was research on sentinels. He told Jim it would feel like he was aiding the enemy. But Jim could see that he was too stressed to concentrate on anything else for any length of time. When his anxiety level continued to climb, Jim dragged him outside for more exercise. Blair was less than enthusiastic but took to it without much complaint since there was little else to occupy his time unless he wanted to spend it going crazy from inactivity, or just from worry.

They did receive some other materials they requested, and so they tried to include some normal activities, but it was strained. Sometimes H or Rafe would join them in activities like basketball, or they'd play endless rounds of poker. They were excited at first when they were finally allowed taped games of their favorite sports teams, but there was no color commentary, not even commercials. The censorship was beyond upsetting. It was getting truly frightening.

Rafe and H stayed on duty twenty-four/seven, alternating four days on, four off. They offered their regrets often, but they made it clear that no meaningful information was allowed to pass between 'any' of them or their duty would end. No one else came through the gate except the other set of guards. Those other guards had no social interaction with them at all except for comments about the weather, and that soon stopped, too. Jim could only guess that they deemed even those comments suspicious. They were kept totally in the dark about any events outside the compound.

Blair had mood swings, as did the others, but Jim and Simon usually took out their frustrations physically. Simon one day let it slip that he was glad that Joan had custody of Daryl. After all the terrible things that had happened, that one statement shook Jim badly. This shouldn't have happened to Simon. He'd only tried to help them, but he was caught up in this as surely as they were.

One day after the three week mark, Henri delivered yet another 'no progress' report on locating Naomi and Steven. Blair flew into a rage at everyone and finally removed himself, setting up a run around the perimeter. He made it clear he didn't want, or need, company so he was the only one of them that was outside at the moment. Even Henri and Rafe thought it was better to let him vent his frustration 'alone', though they all knew that Blair would still be surrounded by guards.

He was still running as 'anger management' when there was an explosion at the north gate. Gunfire preceded the arrival of an armored Humvee. When it roared through the opening, Blair dove for the scant cover an old maple afforded.

The Humvee pulled up to the tree and a camo-clad man jumped out, aimed his gun at Sandburg and shouted, “Get UP Sandburg. Get yourself on board if you want to see your mother.”

Blair stood but got no farther than asking, “Naomi?”

The guards used those few seconds to good advantage and converged on the Humvee, firing at will. Blair once again threw himself behind the tree while shots were being exchanged. More vehicles had already arrived to block the destroyed gate and gunfire tore through the area, kicking up dust and tearing into Blair's cover, until the Humvee's occupants were laying in the dust.

Jim hurried to Blair's side, “Chief! Are you hit? Talk to me!”

Blair lifted his head up off the ground and asked, “Jim? Do you think they really have Naomi?”

Jim sank down on both knees beside Blair, and sighed in relief. The kid was covered in dirt and dead leaves but otherwise looked fine. He shook his head in mild disbelief at Blair's question.

“I don't know, Chief. Maybe they said what they knew you wanted to hear.”

“What if they told the truth? What if they have Steven, too? Man, it's been over three weeks!” and Blair's previous anger surged to the fore once again.

“I know. Believe me, I know.”

“Jim ... why me? Why did they want me?”

“I don't know, Chief. Maybe they were just waiting for the right opportunity to grab someone - anyone. You were out here by yourself, and nobody wanted to crowd you because you were so upset. Usually we stay close. Even Henri and Rafe were giving you some space, and that hasn't happened before. Probably the only way we'll find out the answer to your question is to find out who did this.”

Jim had hoped that he would be allowed to search for evidence, but he was to be disappointed. His services were unwanted, but he observed in ways that only he could. None of them had observed the actual attack, but Jim now had evidence of his own, and it didn't add up.

Jim knew live ammo when he heard it so he didn't doubt the attack as it was happening. Later, when he knew Blair was safe, he thought about the mop up after the attack. There were sounds and smells that didn't fit. For one thing, the men in the Humvee weren't dead. They were wearing body armor, which wasn't unexpected, but they weren't wounded either ... they weren't even unconscious, and there was no blood at all except from a couple of scrapes on Blair.

Was it a mock attack? What possible reason could there be to stage a failed attack on this compound? He kept all of this information to himself, afraid of being overheard by their 'watchers'.

Before Henri and Rafe left on their rotation, they promised to find out what they could about their attackers, and about the continuing investigation into Naomi and Steven's disappearance. When they didn't return on schedule, Jim, Blair, and Simon made inquiries about them, but despite their persistence they never saw Henri or Rafe at the compound again, and the guards outside the gate were doubled.

...

At the six week point, the senior partner in their lawyer's firm made an appearance. He had some impressive stacks of papers for them, but Jim was more concerned that he could smell fear on him. For some reason, Mr. Aaron Briggs, Sr., didn't want to be here and seemed to be in a hurry to leave.

Briggs, Sr. began, “Mr. Ellison, I have some news for you about your family situation.”

“Has Steven ...”

“Ah, no. I have no information about Steven, or about Naomi Sandburg, but your father wanted me to assure you that every avenue of investigation is being utilized. He has also asked me to inform you that Ellison Enterprises and all it's subsidiaries have been put in Trust until the outcome of the lawsuits have been determined.”

“Lawsuits? In Trust? Can they do that? ... What would so many lawsuits have to do with my father's business?”

“The individuals involved have claimed fraud and privacy violations made possible by genetic advantages borne by your family. These charges have caused an impasse in negotiating settlements, and it seems there will be a lengthy hearing before the Supreme Court before this can be settled.”

“That's ridiculous! I'm the only one with enhanced senses! Are you saying that they've argued for damages from my father?”

Mr. Briggs, Sr. sighed, “I'm afraid so, Mr. Ellison. They're claiming that either William also has one or more enhanced senses and used them unethically in his business dealings by not revealing them, or that you aided your father with your enhancements.” He sighed wearily, “I am sorry, Mr. Ellison. When William first approached me, I had no reason to doubt that this could be handled judiciously without detriment to the Ellison family and fortune. It's now my understanding that 'law' and 'justice' are two terms that have little relationship in this case. I have done my best for you both, but there are things about this case that I have no power to affect. The best advice I have to offer you is to acquiesce to their demands.”

“Just give in? Give up? What exactly are you suggesting that we do?”

Mr. Briggs, Sr. glanced around surreptitiously, “To live to fight another day, Mr. Ellison.” He stood abruptly and gave a deep bow of respect. He said gravely, “Good luck to you, sir. I will tell William that I saw you were well.”

Jim stood slowly, as did Blair. Simon still sat, in shock, perhaps.

As soon as Mr. Briggs, Sr. left, an escort arrived for Simon. He had fifteen minutes to pack before Joel and Megan arrived to take him to a separate safe house. “... to minimize the possibility of damage if another attack should occur.”

...

Later in the week the guards informed them that Beverly Sanchez would be arriving soon for a meeting with them. They were taken to a formerly private area which must have once served as a conference room. They were kept waiting for nearly an hour before she arrived. Jim didn't know whether to be glad to finally face her, or dread what she'd come to tell them.

Beverly's serious demeanor did nothing to ease their minds. “Well, a sentinel, and a guide. I never suspected anything, but then, there aren't any experts around except for Mr. Sandburg ... at least right now ... but we're working on it. We were lucky to have a head start on this 'sentinel story'. The Task Force had been informed of Barnes's abilities and her criminal activities just a couple of months after you returned from Sierra Verde, but you ... you surprised us.”

Jim and Blair glanced at each other. These revelations confirmed Simon's information. It seemed to be correct as far as it went, but they were sure that other revelations were to follow.

Beverly continued by chastising Blair, “You should have kept Kelso out of it. He did manage to get a publisher to accept your paper. With all the media attention, that's not surprising, but now he's wanted under a federal warrant, and we'll catch up with him soon. As for Berkshire Publishers and Sid Graham, they'll be lucky if the key partners and Graham don't end up in federal prisons for inciting civil unrest.”

“What!” said Blair in disbelief.

“I'm sorry. You didn't know about that, did you? You see, in the beginning the media only knew about Detective Jim Ellison and a sentinel's enhanced senses. They learned about Alexandra Barnes from the research notes released by Graham, and remembered her criminal exploits and the nerve gas. Two sentinels in one city. That was two, too many, for most people. What if there were even more out there? Her criminal tendencies were evidence of the potential abuse that could arise from someone sense-enhanced. We'd been trying to quash the information about Jim, but the information about Barnes forced our hand. We had to take action when the public learned that Jim was 'not' unique. You have no idea how violent the protests became when your research about partial-sentinels was reported. We controlled the situation the only way we could, by classifying your dissertation and related materials. Now no one can study it without authorization, and I think that's for the best.

“One good thing did come out of this, the current administration was given ample evidence that Jim is incapable of protecting himself or his guide. That 'would' be you, Blair, is that right?”

Blair finally found his voice, “Uh, yes, ... I mean no! I 'am' his guide, but Jim doesn't need to protect me! And if he did he is perfectly capable of ...”

Beverly easily overrode Blair's dismayed attempt at dissent, “Blair, please. The information from police reports and medical documents concerning the time you 'observed' Jim have been released to the Task Force and the administration. Your injuries were quite numerous, and severe, and what about the attack just a few days ago ...? Please, don't deny the obvious.” Beverly's patronizing tone was infuriating the sentinel as well as the guide, but she wasn't done, “What I'm really curious about is your personal diary where you claim to have formed some type of bond. It isn't clear from your notes if it's physical or simply emotional, but it's clear that Jim actually 'needs' you to control his senses.”

Jim didn't know how to fight Sanchez's attitude and assumptions. There was no way he could express the terrible feeling of betrayal that weighed on him. His own father's label of 'freak' may have been at the heart of his inability to defend himself. How could he fight the accusations about 'what' he was? He could only watch as Blair tried to force calm on his racing heart while Jim tried to brace himself for the coming battle. He knew that Blair must be fighting the same internal battle to reorganize his scattered thoughts to defend them against what they both deemed outrageous statements.

This was the result of the risk they'd taken to stay together. They'd encouraged the idea that Blair was 'necessary' to Jim, and unfortunately for Blair, he was necessary. He was Jim's guide, and his friend. Jim now regretted their attempt to mislead 'them' about his vulnerability. His need for Blair only cemented the assumptions Sanchez was now verbalizing.

“He doesn't 'need' me,” Blair denied hotly. “He was a great detective long before I ever met him. His work has always been exemplary. You certainly must have his record, too. He's saved my life many times ...”

“Yes, yes, but you trained him in the use of his enhanced senses, and your own data support your theory that the bond does significantly affect Jim's efficiency. You're a scientist, so you understand the imprecision of words, Blair. Jim's control is influenced positively by your presence. You made your point admirably. The proof is in the numbers. You control him ...”

“NO! That's not true!”

Beverly continued as if she hadn't been interrupted, “... even if your control of him is inadequate. Your own research makes the case for the guide as a sentinel's companion. Some of the source materials you quoted noted a lifelong relationship.”

“But it isn't 'necessary'. Jim is certainly capable of independent and individual action. You make him sound like a puppet ... that if the bond were nonexistent or severed that he'd be unstable! That just isn't true!”

Blair was fighting this fight all alone, as Jim fought his own personal demons and struggled with his own doubts about his continued stability without Blair.

When Sanchez continued, her contempt was obvious, “We've gathered some very knowledgeable people, from Rainier and elsewhere, with doctorates in the fields of anthropology, medicine, and psychology. They've studied the material, and they disagree. It's true that only two sentinels have been studied in modern times, but the case of Alexandra Barnes is incontrovertible. She 'was' unstable by your 'own' estimation. The public has a right to be protected from the criminally insane. She was viewed as a threat to the public welfare. She was a thief, a murderer, and a terrorist. She even tried to kill you, a guide; someone that tried to help her control her senses ... as misguided as that was,” she added disdainfully.

With a look of triumphant satisfaction Beverly stated, “Now. Let's continue shall we. Emergency sessions of the House and the Senate were called to ratify our recommendations. A federal law has recently been enacted that dictates that sentinels identified in the future will be declared Wards of the State. Guides, when bonded, will become their sentinel's legal guardian.”

“Unfortunately there was a problem with the new regulations concerning the two of you since you were identified before the enactment of this law. Since I knew both of you, and because of my position on the task force, my opinion was requested. I argued against making the law retroactive. My opinion is that you both would be highly resistant to such a change in status, unlike those raised under the law and yet to be identified. Therefore, the main reason that I came here is to inform both of you that separate legislation has been passed to appoint a legal guardian for both of you. I ...”

Jim knew that protesting to Sanchez was futile, but he couldn't stop Blair.

“That's not legal! It can't be! You can't just take away all our rights! Beverly, you must know this is wrong!”

Beverly was as calm as ever, almost smug, as she replied, “I know you two very well. You're willful, obstinate, and unmanageable. Consider this, in the present situation you have no home, no money, no resources at all. Without the State you would be homeless, destitute, and in constant danger because of what you are and the perception that you are a danger to normal human beings. There's no way that you would be able provide for, or protect yourselves.”

She spoke directly to Blair now, “Jim 'can't' control his senses adequately on his own, and you can't control Jim. The experts believe that he will never allow you to fully control him. He would continue to be a danger to himself, to you, and to the public. It would be a tragedy if Jim couldn't protect you or someone else because he was out of control. What if he did something that caused harm to someone? If he was free to act, could you say with any certainty what his actions would be? Would he protect the tribe? Probably, if he could. Would he protect the guide? We both know that he'd try. But what if he was out of control? Someone could be harmed. Am I wrong?”

Silence greeted her. Shock. Fury. Impotence. All present but unspoken. What was there to say when their words would be unheeded?

At this point Beverly seemed especially proud of her words. “I'm not wrong, am I? I know you well. That was one reason I was enlisted in the task force from it's earliest inception. We hope that one day sentinels can be trained to be useful without being a threat, but until then, my plan was seen as a necessity. It passed unanimously. Sentinels don't always have the best interests of the public in mind, so the public must have some way to control 'them'. It was my suggestion that your family members be held for ...”

Jim thought the best part of this whole farce was to see her cringe in fear as he lunged toward her. Jim knew it was the wrong thing to do, but he couldn't help it. Blair stopped him before their guards had taken more than a few steps, but they continued to move to a more protective position, just in case.

Jim stood stiffly with Blair's hand the only restraint, and he could read her plainly. She knew she had it now. She had the control she needed. That was the point she had been making, that they now had no control over their own lives. If he lost control of himself, others would suffer. The threat to those dearest to them was beyond his control. They were done. It was time to surrender. That was Beverly's point. She held all the cards. They couldn't act against her.

When Blair stopped him, that was the point at which he gave up. He let Blair see it. Jim regretted the despair he saw in Blair's eyes, but it was important that Beverly believed that surrender was total. And she did believe it because it was what she wanted and needed, so they'd make it work, for as long as it took. But the worst blow was yet to come.

She had recovered quickly and sat supremely confident in the actions taken against them, “I see you finally understand. All right then. There's one more thing. This installation will be your base. You will be housed here for the present. As Wards, physical guardianship will be overseen by Chancellor Edwards of Rainier. She will coordinate several departments at Rainier, working in conjunction with the branches of the military that have expressed an interest in certain tests. Sentinels have to be detected before they become unstable, so we have to be able to identify them. Guardians have to have training too, so both of you will be valuable research subjects. It's your civic duty. You will begin tomorrow.”

...

Jim had felt a cold knot of desperation growing slowly within him since their encounter with the reporters outside their home. He had been working on their escape from the first minute he'd seen their 'prisoner transport' parked outside 852 Prospect Avenue. He'd just been waiting for the right time, and enough information ... and a bit of luck.

He'd been hoping for some slip in vigilance, but the guards were quite good at their jobs and he didn't want to risk their own lives on something that didn't give them the best chance possible. He thought he'd missed that chance when the guards were doubled after the 'attack', but Sanchez's arrival and revelations had given him the signal that the risks might now be worth it. They just needed the right moment, and that bit of luck.

During the previous attack, they'd used an armored Humvee to get past the gate. Jim had doubts he'd ever have that kind of advantage. They'd never once left the compound since their arrival, but there were vehicles parked outside the compound. That would have to be close enough.

From the beginning he'd followed Blair's suggestion to downplay his senses. He'd made himself appear more vulnerable at times with fake spikes and zones. 'No one' was an expert except Blair, and Jim had learned the 'art of obfuscation' from a master. He'd wondered at times if it had helped to seal their fate, but he didn't question it anymore. Sanchez, and others like her, would have found a way, enough evidence ... or faked it, like the 'attack' ... to make this happen no matter what they did.

Blair was a smart guy. He was well aware that their guards and the new techs would be learning on the job. They had a long way to go to understand and react to the senses. Reading reports and statistical data was far from being 'in the field' with a subject.

The tests initiated after Sanchez's visit did eventually take their toll, though. They were much more invasive than anything that Blair had devised, since he had actually cared about his test subject. The only good thing was that they remained in their above ground quarters, but Jim wasn't sure how long that would continue.

The new techs were eager for results. The tests were scheduled to last twelve hours a day, but Jim usually faked results (bad results) well enough to end them hours earlier. At first they were always tested together. Those tests were grueling but at least Jim was able to control his senses according to plan, faking spikes after intense intervals, and zones as often as he dared. It would be no use to their own plans to wear himself out.

It was when they were eventually separated for certain tests that things - the senses - really went out of control. At those times Blair was removed from the compound and driven away in the prisoner transport. With his guide at different random distances, the techs would stress Jim's senses in turn, and then all of them together. Those tests only ended when Jim faked a zone, and he never let Blair get too far.

In one especially painful series of tests, he'd learned that he could mini-zone. Jim privately thought of it as a last-ditch-zone. The techs tried to substitute Blair-sounds and Blair-scents for Blair, but he discovered that he could track Blair's presence and only allowed a return to full consciousness when Blair was brought back to him. It was another one of his consciously decided upon risks to enforce the idea that a guide was 'indispensable'. The techs were beginning to believe there was some kind of empathic or telepathic connection they couldn't detect. Yet. They should have asked the expert. Blair would have laughed.

Unfortunately, the headaches that followed were rarely fake. The techs observed those, too, and the relief Blair was able to provide was duly noted. They'd been quite excited about Blair's techniques. Jim thought they invented more tests for him just to test Blair's abilities and his own recovery times. It wasn't long before the researchers had driven Jim to the point of exhaustion even with his senses turned down.

It was growing more and more difficult for Blair, too. He could barely contain his growing fury. It didn't help that he had known some of the researchers at Rainier. He couldn't understand their lack of ethics, their willingness to experiment on unwilling human subjects. He tried to convince them to contact Eli, to no avail. For all his efforts he was ignored, or actively reviled, almost as a traitor. As the stress on Blair grew, he slowly withdrew from Jim. Jim didn't like it when Blair got quiet.

One day Jim heard the researchers talking about eliminating Blair from the tests altogether, to see what effect the loss of a guide would be to a sentinel. A few of them argued against it, claiming that they might induce catatonia. They didn't need another subject like Alexandra Barnes. Jim felt sick to hear their various theories about how detrimental it would be to his physical and mental health, as well as disgusted at the idea that they'd use a helpless patient for their experiments, even if it was Alex.

Jim hadn't been able to tell Blair much of what he'd learned throughout their stay. He didn't want 'them' to know how much he'd picked up. But Blair had been quick to pick up signals. What Jim heard now, he kept mostly to himself, but knowing Blair, he probably had a much better idea of the direction the tests would eventually take. They'd have to risk making a move soon.

They'd endured nearly a month of nonstop experimentation when they received a visitor, Jonathan Bradley.

“Mr. Sandburg, Mr. Ellison, we haven't met before but I work for the Governor in an advisory capacity. I've come today to notify you that a request has been made for your appearance before a legislative hearing. It's scheduled for tomorrow.”

Despite his exhaustion, Jim allowed himself a glimmer of hope, “A legislative hearing. What do they want from us, Mr. Bradley?”

“The public has been clamoring for more information about the threat of sentinel abilities to the public, especially with reports on Mr. Sandburg's list of the many variations among the partial-sentinels he studied.”

Jim and Blair shared a startled glance. Blair looked devastated.

Jim's fury took over. He snorted, “Threat. Do I look like a threat?” Blair elbowed him in the ribs. Jim looked at him and grimaced. He knew Blair was reminding him that there was more at stake than just the two of them. He began more calmly, “Mr. Bradley, I was a good cop. My guide was a respected teacher, researcher, and a consultant. 'We' are not a threat and never have been. We only tried to do what was right. We kept the sentinel senses a secret to 'continue' to be able to do the right thing and not be hampered by media exposure. You see what that has done to us. Can you honestly say we were wrong?”

Mr. Bradley didn't even have the decency to look embarrassed, as he informed them coldly, “I was on the original Task Force to study the sentinel problem. I'm afraid that your argument will not carry much weight when weighed against other data. It's quite appalling to most people that you and a woman like Alexandra Barnes were allowed unrestricted access to the public, and for you to handle such sensitive cases without adequate supervision.”

Blair jumped in with a pressing question, “We had supervision. What have you done to Simon Banks?”

Mr. Bradley looked annoyed at the interruption, but answered readily enough, “Mr. Banks had been relieved from his position when he was sent to this safe house. His trial has been postponed until after the legislature has deemed that they have adequate information about your actions and his part in the conspiracy.”

Jim felt a feeling of horror sweep over him, “Wait! ... Simon was only trying to ...”

Blair pulled at his sleeve, and shook his head. Jim tried to breathe in an adequate air supply, and buried his emotions. Blair was right. Anything they said would probably only hurt Simon right now. He needed to see his lawyer, but hadn't even been allowed a phone call since his last visit. It was probable that Briggs, Briggs, Gunderson & Greene were not interested in his business any more, but it was worth asking about.

Mr. Bradley seemed surprised at the question. He answered, “Why, they are no longer your attorneys. The Attorney General of the State of Washington appointed a guardian ad litem until one was chosen for you as Wards of the State.”

Jim knew he was going to hate the answer, “Who - is our guardian?”

“Why, it's Ms. Beverly Sanchez. I know that she came to inform you of your new status.”

Jim stood so abruptly that he startled Mr. Bradley, and the guards yet again, but he didn't care. He listened as Blair asked Bradley what time they needed to be there, who would arrange transport, and what would be required of them upon arrival.”

Blair tugged on his arm until he was again sitting, then Bradley told them plainly that they might not be required to testify, but their presence had been requested - in case. Jim figured that they didn't want them to testify before the committee. It was just a dog-and-pony show; parade them around under heavy guard before the public eye before they made their pronouncements.

The next day came all too soon, with some of the researchers gathered to see them off. Jim could hear whispers of concern that this break in testing might invalidate their findings. They were quite concerned about the research, but not about them personally, and it was certainly no surprise to Jim. They might be researching sentinel phenomena, but a comparison between them and Blair was impossible. There simply was no similarity.

With the hope of escape more urgently felt than ever, Jim had hoped to map the area again with his senses during their trip. He knew that their knowledge of the area was still insufficient. They only knew what little Jim had discovered during their one trip to the compound; intel that was weeks old.

Jim's current level of exhaustion had made him susceptible to very real zones, so Blair had discouraged his use of his senses to their full extent for a while but this chance couldn't be passed up, so Blair did his best to anchor Jim as he insisted on pushing past even his 'normal' limits. The result was information that was sparse and fragmented. Jim tried to console himself that it was better than nothing as he dealt with the physical results. He had a migraine by the time they reached the state capital in Olympia. When they reached a waiting area close to the hearing room, Jim's senses began spiking, with nausea adding to his misery.

Blair insisted to the guards as they waited, “You have to turn the lights way down, and he needs a doctor. He could also use something for the pain.”

The guards sent with them from the compound were useless. They answered only to the head researcher who had accompanied them, a Dr. Davenport. Unfortunately he was taken directly before the legislative panel to testify and was not to be disturbed.

It was almost three hours later before they were called to appear before the committee. Blair was frazzled. Jim's control of his senses was fluctuating wildly, and he was skirting a zone. When they entered the room, Jim could feel what little control he had begin to slip.

Bright lights burned from every angle; odors from dozens of people, equipment, and furnishings lay heavy in the air. When they entered the room a wave of sound inundated them from the audience, then the air was pierced by the thunderous rap of a gavel. Jim screamed in pain. Guards approached within reach but held off from trying to touch Jim by order of Dr. Davenport. The Doctor told Blair to handle his sentinel, but Jim was out of control and the pain was pushing him toward a zone. The situation was perfect for misunderstanding.

Jim had reached his limit. He was exhausted. A babble of sound surrounded him. The news media had their lights focused on him, all of which aggravated his migraine. His hearing had spiked with the strike of the gavel, so when Blair touched him, even as gently as he knew to do, it was too much. He shoved Blair aside in a reflexive move to end that additional spike caused by Blair's touch.

Only then did Davenport order the guards to move in to contain him. They weren't gentle, but then they knew his background as an Army Ranger, Covert Ops Agent, Major Crimes Detective - and some kind of superman. James Ellison was a wild card in more ways than one. He had the ability to hurt them, or any of the people they were there to protect. They 'had' to stop him; contain him. At least they managed it without guns, although, when they were done he was bruised from head to foot, unconscious, and deeply zoned besides, and the guards hadn't faired much better.

The hearing was in disarray, but the cameras had kept rolling, getting the story of a deranged sentinel that had to be controlled like a wild animal ... because his guide couldn't.

Both Blair and Jim were taken to get medical attention in an emergency medical services office within the capital building. Jim was sedated with medicine approved by the head researcher, a medicine that Blair protested because he knew it would be too sedating for Jim. He knew that Jim would be unconscious for hours and unable to return to the conference room or the legislative hearing. He would be unable to defend himself, from anyone, to anyone.

Dr. Davenport had been recalled for questioning about Jim's behavior while Jim and Blair were held at the EMS office. Hours later they were returned to the prisoner transport. Jim was still unconscious from the sedation, but he was still restrained with heavy bindings to the gurney. Blair walked stiffly beside him, trying to walk with dignity despite the bruises he'd received when Jim had pushed him aside and in the melee with the guards. Perhaps it was for the best, because the crowd was loud, unruly, and angry. They were barely kept in check.

When Jim awoke, back in the compound, he realized bleakly that he'd given Beverly Sanchez all the ammunition she'd ever need for her campaign against them, and against all sentinels and their guides.

Testing resumed the next day. A scheduled twelve hours of hell that ended after seven with a real zone that lasted much longer than usual, and badly shook Blair's confidence in his ability to help Jim.

Back in their bedroom, Blair massaged Jim's temples, and whispered softly to him throughout. Jim finally seemed to get the pain under control. It was a technique that they had used almost every evening. Jim hadn't told Blair that he used this time to 'listen', but he thought that Blair knew anyway. The sound and touch, just the closeness of his heartbeat, grounded Jim better than any other technique.

The extremes of the testing worried Jim. He needed to know what they planned next, and when they planned to implement it. What he heard made him almost physically ill.

Jim's out of control behavior, even with his guide at his side, was seen as a possible error in Blair's thesis. Perhaps a guide can't control a sentinel, and therefore isn't as necessary to the sentinel as Sandburg thought. The techs thought Blair's methodology might have been affected by 'wishful thinking' on his part, and his results had been skewed, perhaps intentionally. It might be that Blair's 'interference' had only delayed Jim from becoming like Alex. Perhaps the 'bond' was only an emotional attachment after all. It had to be tested, and as soon as possible. The next step had been decided. The step he most feared: total and prolonged isolation from his guide.

Jim knew they had to make a move, tonight. At the rate he'd been losing control, he wouldn't last much longer anyway without Blair's grounding presence. He really would go insane or go into a terminal zone.

They had to make a move, but was it fair to Blair? Jim didn't have much hope of a successful escape, but at least it would give him more information about their surroundings. Could he risk Blair's safety for that? But what if they did make it? He thought about the new 'tests' and decided they had to try.

That night, during the deepest hours of darkness, Jim woke Blair with a hand over his mouth. He gestured to the clothes he'd laid out for him. Blair was wide awake in an instant. He pulled on his clothes in silence and followed Jim out the door. Their room was dark, but Blair was able to follow with one hand on Jim's back. When Jim stopped, so did Blair. It was something they'd done many, many times before.

At one point Jim gently pushed Blair against the wall and left him there for what seemed like hours, but was only minutes. When Jim came back he led Blair past guards that were now unconscious - or dead. Jim didn't try to explain, just pulled him along passed the guard's deactivated surveillance equipment.

Even with Jim's scans, they still knew little about the area outside the compound, but the guard's timetables were well memorized. After a K-9 Unit reported in from their section, Jim took out the gatehouse guard and shoved Blair inside. He'd timed the attack carefully. Shipments had been arriving with supplies and equipment for the 'tests'. Usually they were ordered after plans were set for the next day and a truck arrived in the middle of the night for unloading. Jim had donned the uniform shirt of the gatehouse guard and accepted the bill of lading casually, then knocked out the driver and the vehicle was theirs.

Neither of them let early success go to their heads. Once on the run, the whole country would be after them, but both were desperate to leave. The invasive tests had long since crossed the line into torture. They felt there was little left to lose.

The only sure thing they knew about their whereabouts was that the compound was east of Cascade, higher in the mountains, and extremely isolated. Jim had never seen or heard any signs or sounds of civilization beyond the compound itself. The road to the area was barely two lanes wide, and the only traffic he'd ever heard was official. As they escaped, with headlights off, they followed the winding road through a night lit by the waning crescent of the moon. Jim would have preferred a dark moon, but there was no time to wait.

The road wound back and forth as it descended through the mountains. There were no side roads, not even logging tracks. Leaving the vehicle was not an option. Transportation was vital. They needed to get far away, and fast. They were too vulnerable to discovery on a lonely road, or even on foot with no supplies in wilderness. So they drove on, with Jim handling the vehicle with quick precise movements, while Blair clutched the dash as the darkness flashed by in an indecipherable blur.

Jim caught Blair grinning once when Jim had held him back with one hand when he thought he could spare it from driving. It was such a 'normal' thing between them that Jim grinned, too. Then he heard Blair sigh, and the normalcy was blown away in that instant. Both knew their absence might already have been detected. Someone could be following or they could have set up a roadblock up ahead. Or they could crash before they were caught.

“Jim, when - if - they catch up to us are you going to give up or are you going to try to keep running?”

Jim didn't feel he could spare a glance right at that moment, “Keep going. Why? What are you thinking?”

“They've got Steven and Naomi.”

“We have no idea where they are. If we manage to stay free, 'then' we might accomplish something for them. Do you really think they'd let them go ... for any reason? They're not just hostages for our good behavior. It's about genetics, Chief. If they can't control us, or the partial-sentinels, then they'll try to make sentinels and guides of their own. They'll keep them, no matter what happens with us.”

“I know you're right. I just wish there was some way to help them, Jim, but I don't want to go back. You can't go back.”

Jim drove on in silence. He swerved around yet another curve, where a river paralleled the road. It was in shadow but he saw a reflection of lights on the water below. He quickly checked the road ahead, and knew they'd run out of time. He jammed on the brakes. He'd had just a moments warning. If they'd gone just a few more feet they'd probably have been detected.

“What's wrong, Jim?”

“Across the bridge. They've set up a roadblock,” he said tersely.

Blair whispered, “We can't go back, and there's no way to keep going. It's over.”

Jim answered grimly, “Not yet. We turn around. Maybe we'll have to ditch the truck and try it on foot.”

“With no supplies? ... No. You're right. We have to try. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the saying goes.”

“Always the optimist, huh, Chief?”

Blair tried to grin as Jim slowly backed around down the road. He'd just gotten turned around when lights flashed toward them around a sharp curve. Jim tried desperately to swing around them, but then the oncoming vehicle tried to ram them.

“Jim!” was all he heard before they were forced off the road. The ravine was so steep they picked up speed before they hit the water.

“Blair! I'm sorry,” was all he had time to say before the water washed over him. He reached out to pull his unconscious guide to him ...

O
o
O
o
O

Jim gasped deeply as he sat up in bed. His back muscles spasmed painfully. When he climbed out of bed his leg muscles felt stiff, his ribs hurt, and he shivered with cold. His first steps were shaky. He looked around wildly until he was able to fasten his senses on his guide in the room below. He stumbled down the stairs, managed a controlled, sliding fall, and finally leaned into the door frame of his friend's room.

He entered the room as silently as he was capable of doing and knelt reverently beside Blair's bed. His hand hovered in desperate need to touch, but the hand was jerked back as Blair sat up, gasping violently. He looked around blindly until Jim whispered, “Blair”. Which was answered with a confused, “Jim”. Jim leaned closer and was grasped and pulled hurriedly into a hug which he returned with bruising force.

Calm eventually returned to their racing hearts, but confusion still ruled their heads.

Jim breathlessly asked-stated, “That was some nightmare ... ?”

“Nightmare ... ? It was ... Was it ... ?”

“We're here. It couldn't have been real ... ?”

Blair gasped his denial, “But I felt it. It felt real. Tell me it wasn't. Tell me it wasn't real, Jim. I remember the car going over ... hitting the water ...”

Jim held on tighter, “... and I - I saw you. Unconscious and drowning. You were drowning again and I tried to reach you but then I needed to breathe so badly ... and then everything just faded away ...”

Blair looked stricken, “I felt you touch me. I wasn't unconscious, I just didn't want to see you drowning, too.”

Blair swiped at tears on his face. The movement elicited a murmured, “ow, ow.”

Jim released Blair from the hug, “What? Am I holding you too tight?”

“My ribs hurt.”

Jim set gentle fingers on his ribs, tracing them through the fabric of the soft tee shirt. “They feel bruised. Let me see.”

Blair sniffed and tried to keep still as Jim pulled up his tee. By now he was well used to Jim's need to make sure that all was well with the guide.

Jim was puzzled, “Chief, there's a long red welt across your ribs. I feel the heat of deep bruising. It hasn't even purpled yet.” Jim suddenly looked horrified, “Did I do that just now?”

Blair stilled, then his confused gaze sought Jim's, “It was the seatbelt. In the car, when we were drowning.”

Jim shook his head in denial, but he laid his spread hand over his own unseen bruise, “That's not possible, Chief.”

“Isn't it? Jim, we had the same dream. We both drowned. We - we were escaping, remember?”

Jim couldn't deny his own memories as he added another fragment to the story, “We were lab rats. Both of us, because we were sentinel and guide.”

“Beverly said we were Wards of the State.”

“No! That just isn't possible!” Jim said harshly. He stood abruptly and walked out of Blair's room but Blair followed, if a bit more slowly.

Blair said tentatively, “Same dream. It was horrible.”

Jim just shook his head and whispered hoarsely, “Worse than my worst nightmare. It's just not possible.”

“The same dream, Jim. Remember the guys in the Humvee, with guns?”

Jim breathed shallowly as he considered what was unthinkable. He whispered, “Naomi and Steven were missing. Steven was in Sacramento, Naomi was in Arizona.”

“Yeah. The same dream. What about Briggs, Briggs, Gunderson & Greene? They were your Dad's attorneys, right?” said Blair.

“oh, my God,” whispered Jim as he slid down the wall by Blair's door. He put his head back, and his breaths came short and quick, making him shudder violently. Blair quickly slid down beside him and held him, rocked him, until the sobbing breaths subsided.

“Blair, what does it mean?” Jim whispered; pleaded.

“Last night, we were meditating together. Do - do you remember it ending? I don't. I think the meditation became this - waking nightmare. I don't want to believe this, but I think it might have been a warning.”

Jim felt drained, but he didn't deny his guide's words. He only had one question he wanted answered at the moment, “But was it a warning of what could happen, or what will happen?”

Blair pulled Jim closer and they sat together, offering mutual comfort. “Don't worry, Jim. It isn't going to happen. I won't let it happen.” He suddenly turned and took hold of Jim's shoulders. He shook him gently. “Jim, are you with me?”

Jim looked confused, “What do you mean? Of course I'm with you.”

“Then get up. Now. Come on.” With that Blair stood and pulled on Jim's arm until he stood uncertainly, not understanding what Blair had in mind.

Blair shoved him gently, but urgently toward the living room, “Go get that untraceable phone. I need to call Jack Kelso.”

Jim murmured, “Untraceable ... right,”

Jim still stood in the same place when Blair returned. He watched as Blair came out of his bedroom with a box full of papers, with computer disks stacked on top, and some journals under his arm.

“Come on, Jim. If it wasn't 'real' - then we have to treat it like a warning, and if it's a warning, I don't want to run out of time. The Task Force won't be formed for nearly five weeks from what I remember, so we can't count on more than a week, maybe two, to decide if we can stop this. Go on! Move! I need that phone.”

“Stop it? How?”

“Well, we'll need Jack's help,” Blair said thoughtfully as he dumped his burden unceremoniously in front of the fireplace. He turned to Jim and said, “I hate to say this, after that nightmare, but we need to tell Jack. We need any help he can give us. He has connections neither you nor Simon have. Jack can find out where Brackett is, what he's doing, maybe who 'his' connections are. If he's behind this, Jack's our best bet for finding out.”

Jim took a long, trembling breath. Once again Blair's levelheadedness was keeping him grounded. His guide's words were sensible, and Jim didn't really need to be persuaded, he just needed to get over the shocks the night had brought. “You're right. Blair ...” Jim shook his head, “You're right. We need Jack's help and he needs to be fully informed ... need-to-know ... I understand that.”

Blair smiled tightly, “Alright. I have lots of questions that need answers ... so go get that phone.”

Jim sighed and still didn't move. Blair looked at him in concern. “Chief, we might lose everything if we stay. Can ... can you give all of it up?”

Blair's breaths started to come short and shallow, then stopped altogether just for a moment. When he lifted his eyes to Jim, he took a deep steadying breath. “Man, don't you know it's not 'everything' if we're together? So, go-get-that-phone. Move it. And while you're doing that ... I'm going to start a fire. There are some things that are better off as ashes.”

...

End

In case you've never heard of it: Humvee
(HMMWV) High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle
The HMMWV was designed primarily for personnel and light cargo transport behind front lines although "Up-Armor" kits were designed and have been installed on many of the vehicles during their deployment in Iraq.
"Humvee" refers to military vehicles. "Hummer" refers to civilian models.

Quote: “... to the whispers of his own heart?"
From the episode: Neighborhood Watch