Disclaimer: The standard. Not my characters, not my original concept. No money made. Less sleep lost than usual, but that's about the only profit in this one.

Author's Notes:


Out of Harm's Way
by
K. Ryn

kdkm@aol.com

 

Cascade
Friday Morning
8:00 a.m.

Jim Ellison tucked the last items into his overnight bag and zipped it shut. A quick glance around the neat bedroom assured him that everything was in order. The soft sound of shuffling papers from downstairs brought a grin to his face.

Order above, chaos below, he mused good naturedly.

Grabbing the bag, Jim moved to the top of the stairs and paused. Papers and books were strewn across nearly every available surface. In the midst of the clutter was his roommate, Blair Sandburg. Perched on the arm of one of the sofas, the grad student seemed to be surveying the disaster with the confidence of a man who had everything under control.

"Think I should call Joel, Chief?" Jim called out as he descended the steps.

Blair's head snapped up in startled surprise, practically dislodging his glasses. Intense, but confused blue eyes stared at the Sentinel.

"Huh?"

"Looks like a bomb went off in here, Sandburg," Jim explained, gesturing to the mess.

Blair's head swiveled and scanned the room before turning back to the older man. Confusion changed to amusement. Blair shoved the glasses back into place with one hand while running the other through his curly locks.

"Working styles vary, detective," Blair answered with a laugh. "Not all of us operate in your perfectly ordered world."

"The question is, Chief, how you manage to operate at all."

"Give it a rest, Jim. I have my own system," Blair answered with affronted dignity. "Which, I feel compelled to add, I have put to work for you on more than one occasion."

Jim held up both hands in surrender. "Point taken, Chief."

Blair's eyes sparkled with mischief. "Besides, you agreed to suspend the house rules until I finished this paper."

"Only because I'm not going to be here, Sandburg," Jim shot back.

"Yes, Mr. Clean," Blair retorted. "All will be back in proper order by the time you get back on Tuesday." The younger man eyed the bag that Jim had dropped next to the door. "Hope the weather's better in Denver than it's supposed to be here. You all set to meet Simon?"

Jim was reaching for his coat and hesitated for a moment before answering. He'd been avoiding this conversation, anticipating the argument that it was certain to provoke.

"Actually, there's been a slight change in plans." Seeing the sudden wariness in his partner's eyes, Jim hurried on with his explanation. "Joan was called out of town for work this weekend, so Simon's got his hands full with Daryl."

"Oh..." Blair's gaze flickered across the stacks of books and papers. He gave an almost imperceptible shrug and in the blink of an eye was on his feet, headed toward his own bedroom. "Okay, just give me five minutes to throw some stuff in my pack and I'll be ready."

"You don't have to do that, Chief."

Jim's words froze Blair in mid-step. The younger man turned slowly, his normally expressive face a tight mask.

"You can't handle this extradition by yourself," Blair objected softly.

"I'm not. Brown's taking Simon's place," Jim countered evenly.

"Brown." Blair's voice was flat, but his eyes glittered with anger. "We're talking Henri Brown, right? Tall, black man, nice guy, average poker player, but with absolutely NO clue as to how to guide a Sentinel. Have I got the right person, man?"

"You left out the part about him being a MORE than an average cop, but other than that, yes," Jim answered, feeling his own stubborn streak kicking in. "Sandburg, this is a simple extradition. We fly in, do a mountain of paperwork, pick up the suspect and fly back. Sentinel senses not required."

"So what are you going to do?" Blair asked heatedly. "Just turn them off for four  days? Damn it, Jim, it doesn't work that way. You know that!"

"Sandburg..."

"Your senses are an integral part of you, Jim," Blair argued, visibly struggling to get his anger under control. "You've got great control now, but what if you run into something that trips one or more of them up? You need someone with you who understands what to do if that happens."

"Nothing's going to happen, Chief."

"Yeah, tell me about it." Blair shook his head and crossed his arms over his chest. "I am not the only trouble magnet in this partnership, Ellison. You need backup and since Simon's unavailable, I'm going."

"I don't need you with me on this one, Sandburg."

The words were out of his mouth before Jim could take them back. The stricken expression on the younger man's face and the abrupt shuttering that dampened the light in his eyes had the detective scrambling to form an apology or at least a believable explanation.

"Look Blair, I know you're behind on this research paper because of all the time you've been putting in with me at the station and the last few weeks of stakeouts. You told me you've already gotten two extensions and that Monday's D-Day. You put enough of your life on hold because of my senses, Chief. I can't let you jeopardize your academic career, especially when there's no need. It's basic detective work. Brown and I can handle it. I promise, no zoning in your absence."

He'd offered the last part as a joke, hoping that it would temper his partner's ire, but one look at Blair's expression told him that it had generated the opposite effect.

"Guiding isn't only about watching for zone-outs, Ellison," the anthropologist answered angrily. "There's a lot more... oh, forget it."

Blair shook his head and marched into the kitchen. Snatching up a stack of folders from the counter, he headed toward the door and yanked his jacket off the hook. Jim reached out and grabbed his arm as Blair struggled to pull the garment on.

"Chief..."

Blair shrugged off the touch, backing a step away. He didn't meet the older man's eyes as he dug in his pocket for his keys.

"No, Jim, you're right," Blair murmured. "This is cop stuff and as I've heard far too often, I'm not a cop. I am a student, however, and I do have to get the paper done if I'm going to remain one. I've got to head down to the University and pick up some books. I'll drop these case files at the station on my way back later this morning."

Jim didn't need Sentinel hearing to pick up the bitterness in his friend's tone. "You don't have to do that. They can wait 'til next week," he said softly.

"I need to stop there anyway," Blair countered, looking up finally. "I want to pick up some of that new tea that I bought yesterday. I filled the canister at the precinct, but didn't bring any home."

Jim frowned. He unleashed his senses, studying the younger man's vital signs intently. "I thought you said that stuff was for settling upset stomachs, Sandburg. You coming down with something?"

"I said it had healing properties, Jim," Blair rebuked him gently. He grinned up at the Sentinel, but Jim could see that the effort was forced. "I'm fine. Just a scratchy throat. I promise to return the loft to its normal state of efficiency and cleanliness by the time you get back. You and Brown have a good trip."

Without another backward glance, he slipped out the door, leaving a slightly guilty Sentinel in his wake.


Cascade
Friday
8:15 a.m.

Mindful of his partner's ability to hear a fly on the wall at a range of several miles, Blair kept his mouth shut and his whirling thoughts to himself as he guided the Volvo out into traffic. It wasn't until he found himself slipping the car into a space at the University that he finally gave vent to the anger he felt.

"Stubborn, pig-headed, anal-retentive cop... that's what you are, Ellison," he hissed, pounding the steering wheel with both fists. "Simple pickup, right. Just like transporting Quinn was simple. 'Sentinel senses not required,' what a laugh. And taking Brown as backup. He's a nice guy... I mean, I like him even if he did succeed in completely trashing my love life with Sam when he wouldn't let me buy back that present, but as a Guide? He doesn't even know you're a Sentinel, man! How's he going to know what to watch for? Will he remember to remind you to turn down your hearing when the plane engines start up? Will he know to watch what kind of mineral water you order to make sure it wasn't processed with chemicals that'll send your sense of taste out of whack? No, of course he won't! It would serve you right if you did zone. Big time. See what Henri does when you go catatonic in the middle of the street. See if he pulls you out of a firefight..."

Blair froze, suddenly realizing what he was saying.

"Shit!"

He scrubbed his face with his hands and forced himself to take deep breaths, all the while praying to every deity he could think of to counter the ill wishes he had just sent in his Sentinel's direction.

"You are a real piece of work, Sandburg," he muttered, leaning his head against the steering wheel. "What the hell is wrong with you? You're acting like a spoiled brat—throwing a temper tantrum because you didn't get your way. Now settle down and get a grip!"

A few more deep breaths and he raised his head. Wounded pride and bruised feelings aside, he knew exactly why he had reacted the way he had. It was a Guide's duty to keep his Sentinel safe. He'd been responding to instinctive patternings that had been in play well before Burton wrote his first journals.

Blair had memorized every word that the explorer had written. In Burton's time, the man responsible for protecting one of the ancient Watchmen kept an eye out for poisonous animals, insects and plants; watched for enemy tribesmen; provided for the Sentinel's meals and generally kept the warrior focused.

Privately, Blair thought they'd had it easy. Being a Guide to a twentieth century Sentinel was a more than full time job. He had dozens of journals stuffed in a box under his bed that outlined the hundreds of things that adversely affected his Sentinel—cold pills, pheromones, pesticides, strobing lights, designer drugs, even women and memories from his past. And those were only the things that he had written down. Who knew what else there was that either Jim hadn't bothered to mention, or that they hadn't yet encountered?

"Give me a poisonous mushroom to take on any day," Blair muttered, sliding out of the car and heading to his office.

Complicating the picture was his Sentinel's line of work. It made perfect sense that being a cop would be the natural avocation for a modern-day Sentinel,  but like all the other factors, it just made things that much more dangerous. Cascade's tribal protector faced an incredible range of lunatics on a daily basis, armed with the most sophisticated weapons money could buy—a far cry from some primitive tribesmen equipped with bows, arrows and blow- guns.

"It wouldn't be so bad if all that weren't matched with Jim Ellison's damn stiff-necked stubbornness," Blair grumbled, unlocking his door. "Doesn't the man EVER listen to me? You'd think after all we've been through over the past couple of years he would learn that a Sentinel needs his Guide by his side. But no, he's got that incredibly thick skull, which, I have to admit, has certainly saved his life a time or two. Still, it makes it impossible to pound ANY sense into him..."

Blair flipped on his tape player and the soothing rhythm of drums filled the small room. Still irritated, he shoved a pile of papers aside and slumped miserably into his chair. Leaning backward he stared up at the ceiling. Slowly the frustration and anger ebbed away, leaving him drained and exhausted. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on the repetitive beat of the music and let the chaos of his world and emotions slip away for a while.


Cascade
Friday
11:45 a.m.

Blair awoke with a stiff neck and even scratchier throat.

"Great, just great. This WOULD be the time to come down with something. Hope that new tea's as good as it's supposed to be."

Berating himself for having fallen asleep, he set about gathering the books and files he needed. Glancing at his watch, he realized it was nearly noon. Promising himself he'd stop on the way home from the precinct for something to eat, he headed out to his car, locking the door to his office behind him.

The trip to the station was surprisingly quick given the lunch time traffic, which lightened his mood somewhat. He parked the Volvo in Jim's spot and cruised up to the sixthth floor, case files tucked under his arm. He caught sight of Rafe as soon as he entered the bullpen. The young detective was nearly hidden behind a desk stacked with a dozen piles of old report jackets.

"Hey, Rafe, you look like you could use a hand," Blair called out as he threaded his way between the desks.

"A new ankle would be better," Rafe grumbled. "This damn sprain's got me saddled with desk duty. I swear Simon's found every file from the last twenty years for me to enter into the database."

Blair eyed the crutches that leaned behind the detective and hid a grin. He'd had his own battles with the wooden torture devices.

"Looks like you and I are both on paper patrol," he chuckled. "I'm only going to be mobile long enough to drop off these files for Jim and head back to the loft."

"That's right, you've got a major paper due on Monday, don't you?" Rafe responded sympathetically.

Blair found himself momentarily at a loss for words. When his brain and tongue started working in concert once more, the resulting comment was far from his normal articulate patter.

"You... did... how did you know about that?"

Rafe shrugged. "Jim said something a week ago when the two of you were assigned another round of stakeouts on the Tate case. He wasn't very happy about you having to delay your work on it. I won't even tell you what the expression on his face was like when Simon announced he couldn't make the trip this weekend. Good thing Henri volunteered to go along on the prisoner pickup. I think Jim and Simon would have come to blows if the captain had suggested he take you instead."

"Jim actually said something about it? About the paper I mean?" Blair asked in surprise.

"Yeah. He talks about your classes and stuff all the time. Man, I don't know how you do it. It's got to be a real grind balancing the hours you spend here with the three classes that you're teaching, the four you're taking and the dissertation. You still holding office hours three days a week on top of that?"

Blair would have sworn that his brain had stopped working except for the fact that it was spinning madly, churning out rational, but surprising thoughts at breakneck speed. Rafe had just rattled off his exact teaching and class load. There was no way he would have known that unless Jim HAD been talking about it. The paper was important, but he'd tried to downplay the fact that he'd gotten so behind on it because of the extra hours he'd been putting in with Jim. From Rafe's comments, it sounded like his partner had been ready to take on his superior in order to make sure that Blair got the time he needed to finish. A warm glow started to spread through him, dissolving the irritation and the doubts that the confrontation in the loft had left behind.

"Sandburg, you okay?"

"Uh, yeah... I'm fine," Blair stammered, meeting the other man's concerned gaze with a smile. "The schedule's a bear sometimes, but that's life in the nineties, man. You sure you don't need some help with that paperwork? I could stick around a while."

"And have Ellison chewing on me when he gets back because you didn't finish your paper? No way!" Rafe cringed in mock horror and shooed Blair away.

Blair sketched a salute and headed over to Rhonda's desk, dropping the files he'd brought into her in-basket. Buoyed by Rafe's words and the new insight he'd gained to his partner, the normal bounce returned to his step. Turning toward the doors, he swallowed hard, fighting to contain the shit-eating grin that threatened to split his face. The scratchiness in his throat reminded him that he'd had another reason for stopping by and he made a quick detour.

Stepping inside the immaculate break-room, he chuckled good-naturedly. Ever since the department had hired the new cleaning service, even the Sentinel had no cause for complaints about the tidy little eating area. Blair opened a drawer to the right of the sink and pulled out the wooden container that he'd brought for his personal supply of tea bags, taking a moment to admire the craftsmanship.

He'd picked up the beautifully carved canister at his favorite oriental grocery store because the clerk had told him that the canvas bottom would allow the contents to "breathe". The young woman's beautiful smile—and her assurance that the tea would stay fresher—had convinced him that the purchase was necessary. When he'd brought it into the station, Jim, of course, had mumbled the usual "table-leg" comment. Blair had ignored the jibe and tucked the container into the drawer where it would be safe and still accessible to anyone who wanted an alternative to the acrid coffee that seemed to be the life's blood of every cop's existence. Having something that was uniquely 'his' occupying space at the station made him feel a little more connected to a world where he was often decidedly out of step.

He poured half of the bags out onto the counter and was about to replace the canister when he noticed a stain on the paper at the bottom of the drawer. Frowning, he checked the container. The canvas was wet to the touch and a quick check of the contents revealed that the remaining bags were damp.

"Damn, this tea's expensive. It'll never last if they don't dry out," he mumbled.

He glanced at the pile on the counter and then dug in another drawer for a plastic bag. With a deft motion, he dumped the tea bags from the container into the zip-lock plastic and scooted the first batch back into the canister.

"I needed to take some home, anyway. I'll just use these first." Pleased with the solution, he returned the container to the drawer and headed for the loft.


Airborne
Friday
1:00 p.m.

Wedged into the middle seat with Brown on his left and an elderly woman on his right, Jim rolled his shoulders and tried to find a more comfortable position. Airplane seats, he decided, were simply not built for anyone over five feet tall. He stole an envious glance at Henri, who was napping peacefully, his long legs  stretched out into the aisle.

"That's usually my spot," he noted grumpily. "Sandburg normally takes the inside seat."

Thinking of his younger partner reminded him of their heated conversation. Jaw clenching in annoyance, Jim turned to look out the window, hoping the view would provide a quiet distraction. Unfortunately, the silver-haired woman to his right had other ideas.

"I'm a grandmother, you know," she whispered smugly. "I've got nineteen grandchildren. Twelve girls and seven boys. Would you like to see their pictures?"

Without waiting for his consent, she began digging in her voluminous purse. Jim allowed himself a silent groan and pasted a mindless smile on his face, prepared to suffer through the upcoming pictoral journey the same way he had survived countless hours of kitchen drudgery in the military.

As the old woman chatted away, his thoughts returned to his partner. If the younger man had been there, he would have been matching her comments word for word, delighting in the opportunity to trade stories and entertaining her with some of his own.

And I'd be sleeping soundly, Jim realized abruptly. He'd be diverting her attention so that I could catch some Zs, even if he were half asleep himself.

And that wouldn't have been the only thing his Guide would have done, he mused. Sandburg would have reminded him to turn down the dials long before they'd gotten near the terminal—his head was still pounding from that sensory assault. Once on board, Blair would have undoubtedly made some caustic remark about the food and then grilled the air steward about the ingredients—with an entirely separate, but intense line of inquiry into the quality of the ventilation system.

Jim felt a genuine smile play across his lips. Sometimes he forgot how lucky he was to have met Blair. Not only because the anthropologist had the answers to the problems that his senses generated, but because he was a friend in the truest sense of the word. Brilliant and armed with a tongue that could just as easily flay as enlighten, the younger man filled a place in his heart and in his life that he'd never realized was empty. Blair's good-nature and generous spirit— combined with a seemingly endless energy reserve—had brought a reserved and cynical cop out of his shell.

If only I could keep him out of the line of fire, Jim thought grimly. His Guide's sense of duty tended to override his common sense, especially where his Sentinel's safety was concerned. We're a fine pair. What we need is a joint "Blessed Protector" contract. He's pulled my ass out of the fire as many times as I've saved his. The whole Sentinel/Guide connection aside, he's certainly the best partner I've ever had. Maybe I should tell him that more often.

An image of Blair's face, filled with the expression of hurt and betrayal that he'd glimpsed at the loft filled his mind. Jim cringed, acknowledging that he'd handled the whole situation badly. Nodding absently at the ramblings from the woman beside him, he settled back in his seat, determined to call and apologize as soon as they landed.


Cascade
Friday
1:15 p.m.

Letting himself into the loft, Blair dropped his backpack onto one of the kitchen chairs and surveyed the waiting piles of research. It would take some pretty intense work and there would be very little sleep between now and Monday morning, but he knew he could get the paper done. It was just a matter of getting into the right mindset.

He pulled the plastic bag from his pack and shook the tea bags out onto the counter. Filling a kettle with water, he set it on the back burner to boil and dropped four of the bags into a ceramic teapot. His stomach growled, reminding him that he'd forgotten to stop for food. He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a carton of Chinese carryout. Satisfied that there was enough left for both a quick lunch and a later dinner, he scooped a generous helping onto a plate and slid it into the microwave.

With those preparations underway, he crossed the room and loaded several CDs into the deck. As the soft earth-music filled the room he wandered back to the kitchen table and flipped open his laptop. It hummed reassuringly as it booted. Blair smiled and kicked off his shoes, his fingers flying over the keys as he opened programs and files.

The ding of the timer on the microwave had him on his feet once more, padding into the kitchen to retrieve both his meal and to finish fixing his tea. He filled the teapot with boiling water. Watching the steam rise in waves set his mind to wondering what it would be like to have Jim's senses, just for a few hours. It was a fantasy he'd indulged in countless times, imagining the colors and scents and sounds that the Sentinel experienced.

Ruefully he shook his head and forced himself back to reality, which, at this moment was to grind out his research paper. Shifting some books he made room for the teapot and his favorite mug next to the computer and settled down to do some serious work.


Denver
Friday
7:55 p.m.

Jim sank gratefully onto the bed and scanned the hotel room wearily. Between weather holdups and some vague mechanical problems, they'd arrived too late to head to the precinct and start the paperwork for the transfer—which was a dubious turn of luck. He was in no mood or condition to face the bureaucratic red tape. The headache that had started in Cascade still pounded in his skull and his throat felt raw.

Probably coming down with Sandburg's bug, he thought grimly.

He glanced at his watch. It was only eight o'clock. Still early enough to call, although it would probably be safe to try at almost any hour. He'd seen Blair in full study mode before—the younger man had a concentration level that rivaled a zone-out. He'd probably fall asleep right at his computer, if he slept at all.

Not to mention forgetting to eat.

Frowning, Jim considered calling Simon and asking his captain to check in on the grad student over the course of the weekend. He contemplated the possible fallout from that move and decided against it.

You've hovering, Ellison. Sandburg's an adult, not a kid. He pulled all- nighters for years before you met him. He'll be fine.

A burst of pain flared as the headache grew in intensity. Hoping that a shower would help, Jim headed toward the bathroom. Somehow, Blair always knew when his senses were out of whack. He wanted to get a handle on his discomfort before he made the call, or he'd be dealing with a justifiably angry Guide again, this time at long distance rates.


Cascade
Friday
8:45 p.m.

Ear shattering sound screamed its way through Blair's awareness. His head snapped up abruptly and searing pain shot up his spine. His eyes flew open, but he was blinded by the burst of lightning that arced inside his head. Pounding waves of agony that shifted from brilliant white to an explosion of unimaginable colors, matched the beat of his racing heart.

He toppled from the chair, clutching his stomach as the pain shifted to his abdomen and then blossomed again in his skull. He swallowed convulsively and tasted bile in the back of his throat. Struggling to his knees, he crawled across the floor, barely making it to the bathroom before the contents of his stomach spilled forth.

The sounds of his own retching merged with the piercing scream that pulsed with a demanding relentlessness, shattering his fragile grip on the universe. His stomach heaved once more and pain ripped through his body, propelling him through another maelstrom of kaleidoscopic colors before dropping him headfirst into a pit of unending blackness.

He never heard the answering machine kick in.


Denver
Friday
8:45 p.m.

"Sandburg, if you're there, pick up."

Jim curbed his own impatience when there was no answer after several long seconds.

"Okay, you're either out, which is unlikely, or you're asleep, which is probably just wishful thinking on my part, since it's not even ten o'clock yet. My guess is that you've got the stereo cranked and you're oblivious to the world. Turn down the jungle music for a minute and answer the phone, Chief."

Jim paused, waiting to see if there would be any response, but only silence met his sensitive ears.

"We got delayed by weather, so we just checked in an hour or so ago," he continued. "I'm in room 1231. I left the phone number for the hotel on the pad on the refrigerator. You need to call, you can reach me here, or at the station. That number's there, too."   Still no answer.

"Look, Blair, I'm bushed. I'm heading for bed. I'll try to give you a call in the morning. Take it easy, buddy."

Jim slowly returned the phone to its cradle and rose to his feet. The familiar tingle of danger teased at the back of his mind. As tired as he was, he wasn't sure whether it was connected to his Guide or not.

He's working or he's still pissed. Either way, he's safe in the loft and out of harm's way. You've just got a guilty conscience, Ellison.

He crossed to the balcony and opened the doors, suddenly needing some fresh air. The sounds and smells of a strange city surged into the room, nearly staggering him. Cursing, he closed his eyes and reached for the mental dials, cutting back the sensory input until the wave of dizziness was gone. He felt oddly disconnected from his body. He opened his eyes and gazed at the shimmering lights that stretched to the horizon and meshed with the twinkling stars that filled the velvety jet sky.

He pulled himself away from the seductive lure of the glittering lights with a hard shake of his head—and regretted it as the pounding headache that he'd managed to subdue earlier came back full force. Stretching out on the bed he took a swipe at the light switch and plunged the room into darkness.

He found himself tensing, and then realized he was listening for a sound that was a thousand miles away.

Even YOU'RE not that good, Ellison, he reminded himself. The Sentinel closed his eyes and pretended that the throbbing beat of his own pulse was the heartbeat of his Guide.


Location Unknown
Time Suspended

Blair knew he was dreaming the moment he opened the loft's front door. First, because he had no memory of why he was standing there; second, because the hallway that stretched before him bore no resemblance to the real thing; and third, because the doorway behind him disappeared the instant his foot crossed the threshold.

Propelled by a strange sense of urgency, he padded forward, his stockinged feet making soft squishing noises in the thick carpeting. The pattern in the rug seemed to shift and come to life when he stared at it. He quickly looked away, chiding himself for reading too many Steven King novels late at night. Turning his attention to the hallway itself, he frowned. The corridor stretched as far as he could see. On either side were doors, dozens of them, all identical in size and color. Green—just like the door to the loft.

He paused beside the closest, listening intently. There were muffled voices inside. Curious, he knocked at the door. The sounds stopped immediately. Blair waited a moment, then moved on to the next one. He caught the distinct murmur of conversation, the tinkle of glassware and the soft swell of music.

He tapped on the shiny metal surface, wincing at the ringing echo that reverberated in his ears. The voices and sounds from inside stopped once more.

"Hey! Anybody in there?" he called out. Grabbing the doorknob he gave it a sharp twist, but it refused to open.

"Fine," he muttered, glancing down the hallway. "Go ahead and keep the party to yourselves. Lots more options to choose from."

The rhythmic sound of drums beckoned to him from another door farther down the hall. He moved toward it, but this time the music stopped before he could even reach out to knock. Angrily, he pounded on the door. The only result was a bruised fist.

"This is nuts," he muttered, striding down the corridor, head swinging from side to side. As he passed each door the voices or music died away. Finally he stopped, frustrated and breathing hard. "I've had just about enough of this," he growled at the empty hallway.

He closed his eyes and took a deep breath and then another. As the air filled his lungs he felt himself grow calmer. The image of his Sentinel filled his mind and he started to smile, abruptly feeling less disoriented and alone.

"That's better... now, it's time to wake up..."

An anguished scream shattered the peace that had been building. Blair's eyes flashed open in horror and he was running before he knew it. Desperately searching for the source of the sound he tore down the corridor, pounding on doors, staggering against the wall for support as a wave of dizziness rolled over him.

He found himself leaning against one of the doors. Blearily he glanced up, trying to focus his blurry vision on the four numbers that danced in front of his eyes. Suddenly a voice from inside the room called out a name. His name. He raised both fists to hammer on the door. Before he made contact he felt himself falling forward into oblivion.


Cascade
Saturday
2:30 a.m.

Cold.

Blair found himself staring at a blurry pattern of small white geometric shapes. He blinked, straining for focus and the shapes gained definition.

Tiles. Bathroom.

He shivered and his earlier thought resurfaced.

Cold.

With a groan he managed to push himself off the floor. He leaned back against the tub, not trusting himself to stray too far from the toilet in case his stomach had plans that it hadn't informed his mind of yet.

"What the hell happened?"

The vision of a long hallway filled with doors flickered briefly in his memory, but the surreal images slid away when he tried to hold onto them.

You got blindsided by a killer virus, his mind informed him sarcastically. Its just been waiting until you got complacent. What better time to get deathly ill than when you have a paper due and no hovering nursemaid?

Blair squeezed his eyes shut and winced at the pain that surfed against the lids. Another shiver rippled through his body. Aching muscles forcibly reminded him that he'd just spent who knew how long trying to expel every major organ into the porcelain throne. Wrapping his arms around his throbbing abdomen, he tipped his head, enjoying the coolness of the tub against the back of his neck.

He sat there, concentrating on breathing until he worked up the nerve to move. Gritting his teeth he managed to get to his feet, grabbing the edge of the sink to steady himself. The image in the mirror made him freeze in shock.

Red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes—pupils dilated to the point of masking nearly all of the ocean blue iris—stared out of a face that was as white as the tiles on the bathroom floor.

"Man, this sucks," he whispered, watching the blue tinged lips in the mirror mimic words that felt like they were torn from his burning throat.

He fumbled for his toothbrush, suddenly far too aware of the vile taste in his mouth. Awkwardly he smeared toothpaste onto the brush and began to attack every crevice. Several gallons of water and mouthwash later, he felt cleansed enough to grab a facecloth and began to scrub at his face and arms with cold water. He contemplated a shower, but he wasn't sure he was steady enough for that degree of gymnastics.

The sponge bath refreshed him enough so that he felt safe to leave the bathroom. With one hand on the wall for support, he lurched into his bedroom. It took him ten minutes to don a new pair of sweats and three layers of shirts. He was sweating by the time he was finished and the headache was still threatening to split his skull, but he managed to make his way back to the chair that he fallen out of earlier.

He reached for his cup, thinking the tea would settle the last of the upheaval in his gut and soothe his raw throat. He frowned when he saw that it was empty. The furrowed lines creasing his forehead grew deeper when he checked the pot. The remains of the four tea bags sat forlornly in the bottom.

With a long-suffering sigh he grabbed the pot and staggered into the kitchen. Mechanically, he filled the kettle and turned on the stove. Fishing out the used bags, he dropped four new ones inside the pot and then leaned against the counter, watching the slow accumulation of bubbles as the water began to boil and filling the teapot once it was ready.

He waited impatiently for the tea to steep, glancing at the clock on the microwave to time its progress. He was surprised to find that it was nearly three o'clock. A quick look out the balcony doors revealed a black starless sky. Three o'clock in the morning. He had only a vague memory of checking the time when he'd sat down at the computer, but he was sure it had been early afternoon.

Shit, how long was I out?

He shuffled back to the table and glared at the laptop screen.

Page 22... well, at least I made some progress before this stuff hit.

Keying in the commands to save the file, he shut down the computer. The congealed remains of his reheated lunch caught his eye and he felt his stomach do another slow roll. With a shudder, he picked up the plate and dumped what was left into the garbage before setting the plate in the sink. Deciding that the tea had brewed long enough, he poured a cup. Wrapping his fingers around the steaming mug, he drew in the comfort of the heat.

Blowing across the top he took a sip and sloshed half of the contents down the front of his shirt. He lurched to the sink and spat out the foul tasting liquid. Shaking his head in disbelief, he sniffed at the tea, wrinkling his nose at the odor.

"Ugghhh. Smells as bad as it tastes. I didn't really drink a whole pot of this without noticing, did I?"

Eyeing his computer and the stack of notes that he'd obviously plowed through already, he managed a tentative grin.

Man, I must have been really focused not to have noticed how awful this stuff is. Guess Jim's got a right to all that ribbing he gives me about my concentration level. Wonder how he's doing? I'm surprised he didn't call.

Blair glanced over at the phone and saw the blinking light on the answering machine. He groaned out loud, realizing that he'd missed a call some time during the night.

Probably Jim. Just my luck. He's probably in "Blessed Protector" overdrive right now.

He crossed over to the machine and rewound the tape, crossing his arms over his stomach when a sharp pain reminded him to take it slow.

//"... or you're asleep, which is probably just wishful thinking on my part, since it's not even ten o'clock yet. My guess is that you've got the stereo cranked and you're oblivious to the world. Turn down the jungle music for a minute and answer the phone, Chief."//   Despite his discomfort, a smile spread across Blair's face as the Sentinel's voice filled the room. He hit the rewind button again to catch the beginning and played the entire message. The smile changed to a grimace. It was too late to return the call. He'd have to wait until morning. Out of habit, he hit the save button, storing the call automatically, and crossed back to the kitchen.

"Good thing I didn't go along," he muttered. "The last thing Jim would have needed was me chasing to the bathroom every five minutes. That would have certainly turned the trip into something less than 'simple'."

He picked up the still steaming mug of tea and studied it warily. He'd bought this particular blend on the recommendation of a student who claimed that it was the herbal answer to practically every ill on the face of the earth. He knew her well enough to respect her judgment, but he was definitely going to deduct points for taste.

Raising the cup to his lips he took a quick sniff and turned his head away. He thought longingly of the honey-lemon Chamomile blend that was one of his favorites, but he pushed that temptation aside. The cupboards were bare of anything except this. He'd just have to swallow it and try to ignore the taste. If it settled his stomach, and did anything to relieve the burning in his throat, it would be worth it. He made a mental note to never try this particular variety out on his Sentinel and gulped down the contents of the cup.

Grabbing the pot and a stack of folders, he settled himself on the couch. Wrapping himself in the afghan, he poured himself a second cup, determined to at least organize his notes so that he could begin again fresh in the morning.

Two hours later another attack of nausea struck from out of nowhere. Curled up in agonizing pain, he rolled off the couch. This time he didn't make it to the bathroom before passing out.


Denver
Saturday
11:00 a.m.

"Hey, Ellison... you all right?"

Jim blinked and looked up in surprise to see Brown studying him from across the desk. "What?"

"I asked if you were all right, Jim," Henri murmured softly. "You've been staring at the same report for the past half-hour."

The Sentinel shifted in his chair and glanced down at the open file he held in his hands.  "Yeah... I'm fine. Just didn't sleep too well last night."

"Jet lag, huh? Glad that never affects me. I slept like a baby."

"Thanks a lot, H. Kick a man when he's down. Just for that, I think I'll let you handle the next round of paperwork."

Brown grinned and rose to his feet. "I'll go down to holding and see if they've got the transfer orders filled out yet. You take it easy. Hair Boy will never forgive me if I don't bring you back in half-way decent shape." He laughed at the scowl that Ellison flashed in his direction and made his way out of the bullpen.

Jim set the folder down on the desk and rubbed at his eyes. The previous day's headache was still with him, his throat still felt scratchy and now his stomach was acting up.

Aggravated no doubt by the barely edible hotel food and coffee that could corrode even Simon's intestinal tract, the Sentinel thought sourly. And my elusive partner.

A fragment of the dream that had plagued him during the early hours of the morning surfaced in his mind. He'd sworn that he'd heard someone knocking on his door. He'd ignored it at first, but the pounding had become insistent. He'd finally crawled out of bed and checked it out. There had been no one there, but for a moment he'd been certain that he'd heard his Guide's heartbeat in the corridor—so sure that he'd automatically called out the younger man's name before he'd opened the door. The feeling that something was wrong had prodded him to call the desk, checking for messages. All he'd succeeded in doing was annoying the drowsy attendant.

Blaming his hyperactive senses, he'd dropped back into bed hoping to find sleep once more. His mind had other plans. After an hour of restless turning and tossing he'd succumbed to the nagging need to investigate the disturbance further. He'd pulled on his jeans and a sweatshirt, slid his gun into the waistband of his pants and pocketed the room card before slipping out. After thirty minutes of roaming the empty hotel hallways, he had returned to his room. Disgusted, he'd flopped onto the bed. When sleep had come it was fitful and filled with odd images of Blair and the snarls of his spirit guide.

The insistent ringing of the phone and a far too cheerful voice delivering his requested wake-up call had woken him—an hour late—at 7:00 a.m. He'd managed a quick shower and after tossing on his clothes, he'd tried calling Blair again. The answering machine had picked up after the fourth ring.

Feeling less than human and distinctly annoyed with his younger partner, he'd hurried downstairs to meet Brown. They'd wolfed down a fast breakfast before heading to the station to begin the paperwork on the extradition. They'd been immersed in the anticipated piles of forms all morning.

The desire for some fresh air pushed the Sentinel to his feet. He scribbled a quick note for Brown and headed to the elevators. Once outside in the sunshine he began to relax. Denver's air was crisp and with only a faint hint of moisture. A far cry from what was probably a rainy Saturday in Cascade. Jim began to walk, letting his mind wander as well.

Had he zoned staring at the report? He didn't think he had. He'd been conscious of time passing, of people talking and moving around him in the bullpen. Those weren't the symptoms of a normal zone-out. He did remember feeling the same odd, disconnected sensation that he'd felt the previous night at the hotel, but he'd pulled out of it when Brown's words had reached him.

If he concentrated, he knew he could find the sensation again. It was waiting, lurking in a corner of his mind. Dangerous. Threatening.

The Sentinel shook his head in irritation. Divining the messages behind the mystical aspects of his gifts was Sandburg's domain. He'd have to be careful and keep a tight reign on his senses until he could talk to his Guide face to face. From here on out, he'd be just Detective Jim Ellison. After all, he'd assured Blair that this detail wouldn't require his unique talents. Dialing everything back, he retraced his steps to the station.


Cascade
Saturday
4:00 p.m.

Cold water spilled into his face, reviving Blair enough to fumble for the knob and stop the flow. Shivering, he leaned against the tile wall, trying to figure out what had happened. He didn't have any clue as to how he'd ended up in the shower, fully clothed, but the spottiness of his memory was the least of his immediate worries.

His entire body pulsed like one exposed, tortured nerve ending. His skin felt as though the entire epidermal layer had been removed with a blow torch. His eyes, nose and throat burned every time he blinked or drew a breath. The pains in his stomach had diminished to a throbbing ache, but he remembered vividly how much agony he had been in only a short while ago—how the pain had driven him off the couch and onto the floor where he'd lost consciousness.

At least he thought he had only been out for a few hours this time. He'd dreamed again, he knew that. Several times, or maybe it had been one continuous nightmare. About that damn hallway. Searching his sketchy memory, he remembered that something had been different. Each time he'd found himself in the weird corridor, there had been fewer voices and sounds. And fewer doors.

He trembled as the screams from the nightmare echoed in his mind . They'd led him to the same door, the voice calling his name. He'd tried to force his way inside only to fall into the abyss once more.

Cold.

A small voice deep inside his head nagged that he had to get out of the shower and into dry clothes. Somehow he managed it, moving slowly through air that felt as coarse as sandpaper. Peeling off his wet shirt and jeans was like removing another layer of skin. He stared down at his bare torso, expecting to see blood and was relieved when he saw only an angry red rash and bruises.

Pain flared from his stomach, doubling him over. Clutching fingers closed on something soft and he pulled the fabric closer. The pile beneath his wrinkled fingers felt like velvet and he wrapped it around his body, snuggling into the warmth and comfort of Jim's robe.

His outer needs met, he staggered out of the bathroom and collapsed on the couch. His hand knocked against something cool and hard. With trembling fingers he unearthed the mug he'd been using earlier from among the pillows. He fumbled with the lid of the teapot and sloshed the remaining liquid into the cup. With one long gulp he swallowed the tepid tea, grimacing at the effort that it took. It helped, but it wasn't hot enough to do the trick.

The thought of something warm soothing his throat became obsessive and he pushed himself off of the sofa. Papers and books scattered in all directions. The phone was another casualty, dropping unnoticed to the floor as he lurched toward the kitchen. His hands seemed to move of their own volition and he felt like he'd stepped outside of his body as he watched himself go through the necessary preparations.

When the water had reached a boil he grabbed a handful of the teabags and dropped them into the kettle. He watched the contents darken to a dull brown and scooped up a mugful. He drank quickly, the searing heat of the liquid burning with a matching vengeance to the fire that already ravaged his throat.

A roll of thunder pulled his gaze to the balcony. Wind and rain beat against the glass doors, sending sheets of water coursing down the panes. The dark clouds boiled and thunder rumbled ominously. Mother Nature released the full fury of her power with a sonic boom of thunder and jagged streaks of lightning that lit the sky to diamond-white brilliance. The force of the assault rattled the glass doors and sent an answering tremble vibrating through his aching muscles.

Another volley of violent thunder and an ear-piercing strike of lightning nearly rocked him off his feet. The power went out and the loft joined the rest of the universe in an instantaneous plunge into darkness. Blinded by the afterimage of the flash that danced madly across his retinas, Blair stared out into unending night, swamped by an overwhelming wave of terror.

Alone.

His vision returned at the same time the lights and the CD player came back on. Blurred, the world shifted into a foggy version of the real one. He stared at his ghostly reflection in the glass doors, too dazed to question how or when he had moved from the kitchen. The rivulets of water cascading down the panes mirrored the tears that streaked down his cheeks.

Lightning flashed again and the thunder rolled in a counter point beat to the drums in the music. His focus shifted outward, following the swirling masses of clouds. Pain flared behind his eyes and the sensation of being physically removed from his body grew stronger. Suddenly he was in the dream again. The hallway still stretched before him, doorless this time except for two green rectangles at the far end.

He knew he needed to reach them. Something was terribly wrong, his mind screamed. He needed help. He moved forward, but the corridor began to fill with mist. Drifting tendrils clung to his legs, changing into heavy ropes that wrapped around his aching torso. Holding him back...

"No... I have to reach them... him... I need..."

Lightning flashed at the same time the pain exploded in his stomach. The screams in his dream echoed those ripped from his own throat.


Denver
Saturday
7:00 p.m.

Pulling the last of the forms from the printer with an irritated tug, Jim stalked back to the desk he'd claimed earlier and dropped the papers on top of the rest of the completed pages. He pounded on the keyboard, closing down the files and hit the escape key with a viscious stab.

"Now I know why Simon's so keen on Hair Boy doing your paperwork, Jim," Henri laughed. "You're too hard on the office equipment."

Ellison turned a baleful stare on his substitute partner. Brown flinched at the animosity that was directed toward him.

"Take it easy, Ellison," he said quietly. "I was just joking. Didn't mean to bring up a sore subject."

Jim straightened, abruptly aware of the rigid set of his jaw. Forcing himself to relax, he managed a weak smile.

"Sorry, H. Guess its just been a long day."

"Yeah, it has. I don't enjoy this red-tape any more than you do. I'm glad we're done. You want to hang around and check out some of the sights at the department's expense or head back tomorrow?"

I'd like to head back right now, Jim thought grimly. I'd like to get my hands on that stubborn partner of mine. Why the hell hasn't he picked up the phone all day?

"Jim?"

"I'd rather fly home tomorrow, if you don't mind, H," the Sentinel answered slowly.

"No problem. I know you're worried about Sandburg."

Jim glanced up in surprise, one eyebrow raising quizzically.

Brown shrugged. "You've tried to reach him a half-dozen times since lunch. What's up? I thought he was camped out at the loft working on some paper?"

"He's supposed to be," Jim answered, his tone tinged with annoyance.

"Maybe he decided to work in his office instead," Brown offered.

"It's possible..." Jim acknowledged. "It's also possible that he's sulking. He wasn't too pleased when I left."

"Thought you needed minding, and didn't trust me to do it, huh?" Henri grinned at the startled look on the Sentinel's face. "Don't worry. I'm not offended. I've never met a cop who was satisfied with someone else watching his partner's back."

"He's not..."

"He's your PARTNER, Ellison. Cop or not, he's got all the right instincts when it comes to the important stuff."

Jim grinned at the accuracy of Brown's statement.

"You don't know the half of it, H."

"So, give him another try. If he answers, make nice," Henri ordered with a mock growl.

"Yes, Dad," Jim answered sarcastically. "I'll call and leave a message for Simon. Let him know that we're heading back early. You want to check on the flight schedule for tomorrow?"

"Yeah, the earlier the better, I suppose?"

Jim nodded and almost laughed at the expression of distaste on the other man's face when he turned away. Brown didn't like early mornings any better than Sandburg did.

Jim reached for the phone and punched in the number for the loft. The annoying tones of a busy signal pulsed through the ear piece.

Damn it, Sandburg. First you're not there or not answering, now you're either tying up the lines with your computer or you've taken the phone off the hook.

The Sentinel pushed the cancel button with more force than necessary. He took a deep breath to get his anger in check before dialing the captain's direct line. He was surprised when he got Simon instead of his voice-mail.

//"Banks."//

Jim winced at the familiar growl. Simon was NOT happy. Good thing they HADN'T decided to take advantage of the department's travel budget.

"Simon, it's Jim. Just wanted to let you know that we managed to wrap things up faster than we thought. We'll be headed back in the morning."   //"I could use the two of you right now,"// the captain grumbled.

The Sentinel tensed as the hair on the back of his neck prickled in warning. Instinctively, he dialed up his hearing. He could hear the sounds of a storm raging in the background. His premonition of danger grew even stronger.

"What is it, sir?" he asked tersely.

//"We're sitting in the middle of a major storm front. Half the city's dark. The emergency crews are swamped with reports of downed power and phone lines..."//

Maybe that's why Sandburg's not answering, the Sentinel mused. "Sounds like a mess," he responded, his jaw clenching in frustration. His city was in trouble and he wasn't there.

//"It is. I've got every available man out just trying to keep a lid on things."//

"Brown's checking on flights right now. You want us to try to come in yet tonight?"

//"Better stay with tomorrow. The airport's been threatening to close if the storm gets any worse. They've been rerouting most of the flights to Seattle as it is."//

Jim heard the low roll of thunder in the background, sounding far too much like the unhappy rumble of his spirit guide. He heard the crash of a lightning strike and the blurred image of his Guide's face appeared in his mind. He blinked and the vision was gone, but the feeling of undefined danger remained.

"Understood. Look, Simon, I know things are pretty chaotic there, but..."

//"That's an understatement, Ellison,"// Simon growled. //"Hold on a minute..."//

The solid thunk of plastic hitting wood carried through the ear piece. The Sentinel gritted his teeth in frustration, waiting for Simon to pick up the phone again. The police captain sounded even more harried when he finally returned to the line.

//"Jim? I've got to go. There's a huge accident on the bridge."//

"But, Simon..."

//"Call me when you have the flight schedule. I'll have some uniforms meet you at the airport if I can."//

"Simon, wait!"

The dial tone was the only reply he got to his outcry. Shaking his head, Jim set down the phone. He scrubbed at his face. Damn. He'd hoped to convince Simon to send someone by the loft to check on Blair. He didn't know how or why, but all his instincts were telling him that something was wrong. His Guide was in danger. Not an unusual occurance considering the younger man's ability to attract trouble, but this time the Sentinel wasn't there to protect him.

His eyes swept the bullpen, landing on Brown who was still on the phone. How to explain to the detective that it was imperative that they leave tonight, now? If it were Simon sitting there, he'd argue the logic, but ultimately he'd agree. And, of course, if Blair were here, there would be no need to go running to find trouble.

The Sentinel's jaw clenched even tighter as he rose to his feet. Sandburg had been right—he needed someone with him who understood who and what he was. He still owed his Guide an apology. He wanted to make it in person and as soon as possible.


Location Unknown
Time Suspended

Alone.

The hallway had no doors. Not any longer. There had been one left, a few seconds ago, but now it was gone. All that remained was the featureless gray corridor. Even the shapes that had writhed underfoot in the pattern of the carpet had disappeared.

Alone.

"Jim... where... are... you...?"

Another burst of agonizing pain pushed him back into the darkness.


Denver
Saturday
9:55 p.m.

Staring out onto the tarmac, Jim waited impatiently for his flight to be announced. His own reflection glared back at him—eyes hard, jaw clenched. He was grateful that Brown had handled the arrangements. He wasn't sure whom the detective had bribed to get him on the flight back to Cascade at the last minute, but he knew owed the man. It was a debt he'd gladly repay.

The nebulous feeling that his Guide was in desperate trouble had continued to build to an ominous certainty. It had taken every once of his control not to run screaming for the phone and demand that Simon investigate. He glanced at his watch. He'd be home by 1:00; to the loft by 1:30. Would that be soon enough?

His gaze shifted back to the window and he froze. Blair's face stared back at him. The blue eyes were nearly black and rimmed in red, wide open and staring at nothing. Tangled, matted curls were pasted against the pale, contorted face.

The vision abruptly vanished. So did his control.


Cascade Overlook Bridge
Saturday
10:00 p.m.

//"I need you to send someone to the loft, Simon. Something's wrong with Sandburg."//

Turning away from the wreckers that were clearing the remains of the pile-up on the bridge, Simon gripped his cell phone tighter and wished fervently that Ellison was within arm's reach so he could strangle him personally.

"Slow down, Jim. What do you mean something's wrong?   //"Blair's in danger, Simon. I know it!"//

Ellison's voice was filled with desperation. Taking a deep breath, Simon sent a silent plea for patience winging upward into the stormy sky. Not only did he have a city in disarray, his best detective had picked this particular moment to go over the deep end.

Even with Ellison in Denver and Sandburg tucked safely away in the loft, they're still finding a way to make my life miserable. What is it with these two?

"How do you know that, Jim? Did you talk to him?" Simon countered.

//"No... I've been trying since yesterday, but I can't get through."//

"Jim, the phone's probably still out..."

//"Simon, please. I've got a flight leaving in just a few minutes, but even with the best of luck it's going to be three hours before I land. I'm afraid that's going to be too late."//

There was an edge to the detective's voice that Simon had only heard a few times before—always when a certain observer was in the middle of something nasty.

Jim Ellison panicked? Not a good sign. Damn. This has got to be some new Sentinel/Guide dilemma. He hasn't talked to the kid since he left. How does he know there's trouble? Some sixth sense kicking in? Weren't five hyperactive senses enough?

//Simon?"//

A vision of the detective pacing the waiting area in the Denver airport like a caged panther flashed through his mind.

"All right. I'll stop by as soon as I can get away from this mess. But I'm warning you, Jim. If this turns out to be some kind of weird psychic misconnection between the two of you, I'll have both your heads on a platter, " Simon growled.

//"If it turns out I'm wrong, I'll gladly do the beheading myself, sir."//

"Just get on the damn plane, Ellison. I promise to go check on your partner."


Airborne
Saturday
10:15 p.m.

Closing his eyes, Jim forced himself to sit back in the seat. He was in the air, headed home. Brown and one of the Denver detectives would be bringing the prisoner back tomorrow. Henri hadn't questioned the abrupt change in plans. He'd simply shrugged, made a soft comment about friendship being more important than anything else, and taken care of the arrangements.

Jim drew in a deep breath. He'd done everything he could do to this point. Now it was a waiting game. Simon had promised to check on Blair...

The Sentinel winced as the strange, disorienting sensation hit him. His head pounded, his throat burned. He fought against it, focusing on building an image of his Guide in his mind—Blair in his "study" mode—glasses perched on his nose, vivid blue eyes scanning the page; his agile mind absorbing every word, thought and inference like a sponge; slender fingers absently tucking a stray lock of hair behind one ear...

The wave of dizziness hit again, accompanied by the anguished scream of the panther. The vision of his Guide blurred and shifted into a picture from hell. Jim stifled a groan and pushed the terrifying image away. It was the same specter that had prompted the frantic call to Simon.

"Sir? Sir, are you all right?"

Jim opened his eyes and met the worried gaze of the flight attendant. He managed a nod, not trusting his voice.

"Is there anything I can do for you?"

"Just get me home. As fast as possible," he whispered.

"We'll do our best, sir."


Cascade
Time Running Out

It hurt too much to move—to do more than just stare up at the ceiling waiting out the next wave of agony. He'd tried. He was closer to the front door. He had to be. That had been his goal. Reaching it had, at one point, been worth braving the pain that crawled like living fire across his skin; the stomach clenching heaves that ripped him apart, bringing up blood and the vile smelling liquid that coated his skin, robe, and hair.

Alone.

One foot in reality and one in a nightmare. It had become nearly impossible to know where one began and the other ended. There was unimaginable pain in both. Physical anguish in one, spiritual emptiness in the other.

Alone.

When the last door in the dream hallway had disappeared, he'd known that his only remaining hope was the dull green rectangle in the real world. Getting to it had become the only clear thought in his otherwise muddled mind.

Alone.

He didn't want to die alone. He was sure that was the direction that this was heading. It had to be. The thought released another flood of hot tears that he made no effort to stop. He couldn't. He didn't control his body any longer. He was only mind, and even that was slipping away.

Alone.

Not just him. His Sentinel, as well. Jim would be alone when he was gone.

Alone.

"NO..."

He wanted to scream his denial, but he had no voice, no throat left to carry the sound. He settled for the whisper of air over swollen lips. Leaving his Sentinel unprotected was simply not acceptable. He willed himself to move. To slide another inch toward the door. Toward help.

Pain.

Sound, sight, taste, touch, smell—all five senses surged to what he imagined was Sentinel intensity as the next thrust of pain hit. The violent sensory barrage was too much for the failing Guide and as the world exploded, it took him with it.


Cascade
Saturday
11:45 p.m.

Simon leaned wearily against the side of the elevator as it made its slow climb upward toward the loft.

You'd better be here, Sandburg. And with a good excuse for not answering the phone, he groused.

It had been a long day and an even longer night. Wrapping up the mess on the bridge had taken lmore time than he'd anticipated and then he'd had to detour back to the station to retrieve his son from under Rafe's watchful eye. Whether the detective had been a good influence or not was questionable, judging from the frenetic energy flowing off the young man. Daryl bounced and fidgeted in the corner, the palms of his hands tapping in disjointed rhythm against the elevator wall. Simon wondered just how many cans of soda and bars of chocolate his son had ingested over the course of the night.

The elevator announced its arrival at the third floor with a 'ding' that would have set Simon's teeth on edge if they hadn't already been mangling the remains of an unlit cigar. Still in hyper-drive, Daryl bolted through the doors before they were fully open. Wishing he could have an intravenous shot of whatever it was that energized teenagers and certain anthropologists, Simon pushed himself away from the wall and stepped out into the hallway.

Daryl was already at the loft door, pounding and yelling.

"Hey, Blair! Wake up. It's me!"

"Daryl, keep it down!" Simon hissed as he joined his son. "It's almost midnight. There's no need to rouse the entire building."

The teenager had the good grace to look momentarily abashed. "Sorry Dad. You sure he's home?"

"That's what we're here to find out," Simon growled. Tossing his cigar aside in irritation, he gave the door a sharp rap with his knuckles. "Sandburg. It's Simon. Open the door."

The order was delivered in the tone that usually had detectives, staff and sometimes even police observers jumping to do his bidding. This time, however, there was no response. Annoyance started to give way to concern and Simon pulled out the key that Jim had given him months earlier for just such an occasion.

The smell hit him before he had the door fully open. Vomit. Blood.

Then he saw the body.

Blair was laying on his back, his legs bent at awkward angles, one arm wrapped across his stomach, the other limp on the floor. Wide blue eyes stared vacantly upward, hard dark orbs in an otherwise deathly pale face.

"What the hell...?"

Two long strides had him at Blair's side. He knelt down and reached for a pulse, stunned when he actually found one.

"Sandburg...?"

A quick glance revealed no bullet or knife wounds, but Simon lifted his head and scanned the apartment. No sign of a break-in, although papers and books were scattered everywhere.

"Blair, answer me," Simon demanded, tapping the younger man's cheek gently.

Nothing. The motionless form could have been a corpse.

Will be, if you don't get some help here, Banks, he berated himself.

Keeping two fingers on the pulse point at the younger man's throat, Simon pulled out his cell phone and punched in the 911 code.

"This is Captain Banks, Cascade PD. I need an ambulance at 852 Prospect, apartment 301. I've got a man down. Cause unknown. Caucasian male, age 29. No apparent signs of injury, but he's unresponsive and he's been vomiting blood... yes, I want a unit here to contain the scene... I don't care, just get someone over here as soon as possible. It's Ellison's partner, damn it."

With a snarl, Banks snapped the phone shut.

"Dad?"

The soft, horrified whisper made him turn in surprise. He'd forgotten about Daryl. The teenager stood transfixed in the doorway.

"He's alive, son," Simon said gently. "But he needs our help."

"What... what happened?" Daryl stammered, his eyes wide and filled with glittering tears.

"I don't know, Daryl. I've called the paramedics. They'll be here soon." Simon could see the shock setting in and knew he had to keep his son occupied. "In the meantime, we need to make him as comfortable as possible. Can you go to Blair's room and get a pillow and one of the blankets off his bed? You know how much he hates to be cold."

"He's... he's cold...?"

Simon could feel the unnatural, clammy coolness of the anthropologist's skin under his fingertips. "Yes, Daryl. He's cold. A pillow and a blanket. From his room. Now," he urged.

Much to Simon's relief, his son nodded and shifted into motion. Cautiously picking his way across the room, Daryl disappeared inside the lower bedroom. He reappeared at his father's side a few moments later with the requested items bundled in his arms.

"Thank you," Simon murmured, forcing a slight smile onto his face as he looked up at the frightened teenager. "There's something else you can do to help. Go downstairs and wait for the ambulance."

"But dad, I want to stay here," Daryl objected.

"I know, son, but I need you to go downstairs," Simon ordered gently. "You can bring the EMTs straight up here when they arrive. That'll save time. That's the best thing you can do to help right now, all right?"

Daryl looked unconvinced.

"I'm going to stay right here with him, son. I promise."

"He looks so awful, dad. I've never seen him so still."

"He'll be up and around in no time," Simon countered, hoping desperately that fate would not prove him a liar. "You'll see."

Daryl handed the blanket and pillow to his father. "Okay. I'll bring them up as soon as they come. If Blair wakes up..."

"I'll tell him you're downstairs," Simon promised.

With a final glance at Blair, Daryl slipped out of the room and Simon turned his attention to the stricken young man on the floor.

"Come on, Sandburg, wake up and talk to me," Simon muttered as he tucked the blanked around Blair's body and gently lifted the younger man's head to place the pillow beneath it.

An almost imperceptible sigh escaped the anthropologist's lips and his eyes slowly closed. Grimly, Simon forced himself not to panic and concentrated on counting the beats of the pulse that beat weakly in the motionless body. Slow. Too slow.

"Damn it, Blair, don't you die on me. Help's coming. You just have to hold on a little longer. Jim's on his way..."


Location Unknown
Time Streams Converging

The gray mist that had swirled around him dissipated, revealing the hallway once more. Blair turned and walked back the way he had come, stopping in front of a familiar green door with three numbers. He could hear a strong, deep voice on the other side, but he couldn't quite make out the words. He waited, not daring to break the spell of safety and hope that had enveloped him.


Simon almost gasped aloud at the sudden surge of life under his fingertips. It took a few seconds to realize what had happened, but once he understood, he leaned forward, speaking softly into the younger man's ear.

"That's right, Sandburg. Jim's coming. He's going to be here soon..."


The lights in the hallway brightened. The voice behind the door grew stronger, more insistent. Blair reached out to touch the door, surprised by its solidity.


Blair's pulse throbbed even stronger.

"Jim needs you, Blair," Simon whispered. "And he knows you need him. You have to hang on."


Blair tried turning the knob, but it resisted his efforts. He didn't have the strength to force it. Behind the door the voice droned on.

Your Sentinel needs you...


The lines of agony that furrowed the observer's face deepened. Wrapping his fingers around Blair's wrist, Banks played his trump card.

"You have to wait for him, Blair," he repeated, putting every ounce of persuasion he could muster into his words. "It's your duty as his partner. You can't leave him alone."


Duty.

Alone.

Not acceptable.

Blair's balled fists pounded on the door in frustration and despair.


Simon tightened his grip as the younger man's body arched and an almost silent scream of anguish tore from Blair's throat.

"No..."

It was a plea. A denial. A promise.

"Stay, Blair. Wait for Jim," Simon ordered.


With a sharp click that echoed through the hallway, the lock released, the knob turned on its own. The door stood ajar, a thin sliver of warm, soft glow running around the frame. Physical pain entered this universe along with the light. Exhausted and hurting, Blair slumped to the floor, the voice on the other side of the green panel hard and demanding.

Stay, Guide. Wait for your Sentinel.


Blair's eyes opened for just an instant. The intensity of the pain that glimpse revealed almost made Simon scream. Instead, he hung on tight and kept up the litany, hoping the words would provide the lifeline that the younger man so desperately needed.

"Help's on the way, Blair. Wait for Jim..."


Wait for your Sentinel...

Legs curled under him in a half-lotus, Blair settled himself on the carpet, soothed into peaceful stillness by the promise implied in that command. His Sentinel would come—he always did. Neither of them would be alone.


Cascade
Sunday
12:05 a.m.

Help arrived in a flurry of flashing lights and screaming sirens. Simon heard his son's voice in the hallway, the sound of running feet and then the loft was filled with people and equipment. He barely had time to blink before Blair was surrounded by a team of EMTs. They barked questions and the older man answered them as quickly as he could, slightly dazed by their frantic, yet efficient movements. Strong hands eased his fingers away from the young Guide's wrist. Before Simon could object, they were lifting the anthropologist to a stretcher and whisking him out of the room.

The moment Blair was out of sight, Simon lurched over to one of the sofas and sat down hard. Leaning forward he rested his elbows on his knees. Head down, he forced himself to breathe slowly, struggling to regain his composure. His son was immediately at his side, one small hand laid comfortingly on his shoulder. He raised his head and managed a brief smile which Daryl returned tremulously.

"We're going with him... to the hospital, aren't we, Dad?"

"Yes, Daryl. I just need to take care of a couple of things here," Simon answered, his voice rough and hoarse to his own ears.

"I understand," Daryl said softly, glancing over to where the uniformed officers stood, obviously waiting for instructions. "I'll be in the car." He gave his father a quick hug and headed for the door.

Simon watched his son leave, amazed again at the resilience of youth. He scrubbed at his face and pushed himself off the couch.

"Simon?" The familiar bulk of Joel Taggert filled the doorway.

Banks beckoned to the larger man, grateful for his unsolicited presence. Joel would take over the scene and leave him free to follow the ambulance to the hospital.

"I heard the 911 call," Taggert explained. "How's Sandburg?"

"Not good," Simon responded. In short, clipped sentences, he brought Joel up to speed. "Ellison's on his way back," he added, waving off Joel's unspoken question. "Don't ask me how he knew there was a problem, he just did. I need you to call Brown in Denver. Find out exactly which flight Jim is on. We'll need to send somebody out to the airport to pick him up. I don't want Ellison driving himself to the hospital. You understand?"

"Rafe's still down at the station," Taggert offered, nodding his head. "Outside of you or I, he's probably the best choice."

"Send him," Simon agreed. "Have forensics go over this place with a fine tooth comb. I don't know what the hell happened, but we're going to need some fast answers. I'm going down to the hospital. I'll keep you apprised. Call me as soon as you have that flight number."

"You've got it, Simon," Joel assured him.


Airborne
Sunday
12:45 a.m.

Jim watched the co-pilot make his way down the narrow aisle. His heart thudded in his chest and he sat up straighter as the man stopped beside him.

"Detective Ellison?"   Jim nodded.

"There's an urgent call for you. From a Captain Simon Banks. He said it was police business. You can take it in the cockpit if you'd like."

Wordlessly, Jim rose to his feet and followed the co-pilot back down the aisle, his gaze fixed firmly on the cockpit door. Simon. Calling with news that couldn't wait until he landed. Police business. Translated, at this moment in time, that meant Blair.

Once inside the cabin he took the empty seat that the co-pilot indicated. His throat was tight and he had to force himself to swallow several times before he could even reach for the phone. The deathly spectral image of his Guide flashed through his mind once more. He took a deep breath and picked up the receiver.

"Is he alive, Simon?" he whispered, not bothering with pleasantries.

//"Yes. He's in bad shape, and the doctors aren't making any promises, but he's alive."//

The Sentinel slowly released the breath he'd been holding. "What happened?"

//"They're not positive, but from the first round of tests they've run, it looks like he was poisoned."//

"Poisoned?" It was the last thing Jim expected to hear. "By who? What...?"

//"We don't know yet, Jim. He was completely out of it when Daryl and I got to the loft... he was laying on the floor not too far from the door. He looked..."//

Jim heard the tremor in Simon's voice as it broke and he closed his eyes drawing in a shuddering breath of his own. The hellish vision floated through his mind again and he knew exactly what the older man had found.

//"He looked like he was dead, Jim. I couldn't believe it when I found a pulse. I don't know how long he'd been lying there... he'd been vomiting up blood. From the mess I'd say he'd been pretty out of it for some time."//

The memory of the dream he'd had the first night—someone knocking at his door, sensing his Guide's presence in the hotel hallway—hit the Sentinel full force.

"Since Friday night," he murmured guiltily.

//"Look, Jim, we sent Rafe to the airport to pick up your truck. He'll be waiting at the main entrance. Maybe we'll have more to work with once you get here."//

"Stay with him, Simon. Tell him I'm coming. Tell him to hang on."


Cascade
Sunday
1:15 a.m.

Jim saw Simon waiting at the hospital entrance. With a mumbled thanks he had the truck door open before Rafe had a chance to bring the vehicle to a full stop.

He unleashed his hearing, sending it ahead of his running feet, searching for Blair's heartbeat. The flood of noise that surged out of the open doors of the hospital nearly sent him reeling. He felt a firm pressure encircle his arm and looked up to meet Simon's concerned gaze.

"Any change?" he gasped, his voice weak and gravely to his own ears.

"They're working on getting him stabilized. He's in ICU."

I could find my way up here in my sleep, the Sentinel thought grimly as they headed to the third floor. Blair had been a patient here far too often in the last few years. Gunshot wounds, drug overdoses and concussions were the price his Guide paid for their partnership. And now he'd been poisoned.

The part of Jim Ellison that was a cop had a thousand questions to ask, but the pieces that were friend and Sentinel were struggling with emotions that kept him silent. The familiar vibration he'd sought earlier pounded rapidly in his head, guiding him out of the elevator and down a short corridor. Without hesitating, he thrust open the door of Blair's room and crossed to his Guide's side.

"Hey, you can't just barge in there!"

Jim dimly heard Simon's voice, trying to placate an outraged nurse. He ignored the dispute and focused on the younger man in the bed. Blair's face, two shades lighter than the sheets that covered him, was creased with lines of pain. Jim was almost thankful that his friend's eyes were closed—he had no desire to see the blank, staring gaze that had haunted his visions. What he could see was bad enough—oxygen, IVs, banks of monitors—there was enough equipment surrounding and connected to his partner that even with his medic training, he almost lost it. He clenched his jaw and forced himself to take several deep breaths.

The Sentinel reached out and placed the palm of one hand against his Guide's forehead. Gripping Blair's wrist with his other hand, he turned up his sensory dials. The younger man's skin felt cold and taut. He willed warmth into it. He strained to filter through layers of hospital smells—starch, bleach, and the stringent odor of ammonia—trying to find the scents that were an intrinsic part of his Guide. The faint, herbal aromas of Blair's shampoo were overlaid with the stench of blood and bile. Shaking his head, Jim refined his focus. His friend's battered spirit was in there. He had to reach it.

"I'm here, Chief," he whispered.

There was no trace of response in the banks of monitors that surrounded the silent young man, but the Sentinel was certain he felt a change in the rhythm that throbbed beneath his grasp.

"You're not alone, Blair," he murmured.

A wave of dizziness swept over him and Jim leaned into the side of the bed to keep from falling. He tightened his grip and the warmth of his Guide's presence flowed into him. The Sentinel listened to the strong, increasingly steady beat of Blair's heart and a tentative smile curved the corners of his mouth.


Simon took a step toward the bed, alarmed at the sudden beeping of the monitors. Expecting the worst, he was startled to see the pleased expression on Jim's face.

"What's going on here?"

Simon swiveled around and found himself face to face with a woman whose appearance matched the authoritative voice. White coat and stethoscope marked her as hospital staff. Short, wavy dark hair framed an intelligent face. Of below average height, she appeared tiny in contrast to the two detectives. Her lack of stature didn't diminish the intensity of the gaze she fixed on them, however. Dark, almost black-brown eyes flickered around the room, sparking in vexed irritation.

"ICU access is restricted, gentlemen. Who let you in here?" she demanded. Brushing past Simon, she stalked across the room, obviously intent on pulling Jim bodily away from the bed.

Simon cringed when he saw the gaze his detective leveled on the woman, only marginally surprised at the expression of equal ferocity he saw on her face.

Not her, too, Simon groaned. What is it about Sandburg that makes people so quick to jump to his defense? How many 'Blessed Protectors' does this kid have?

"Hold on," Simon interjected. He managed to slip between them, gently easing the woman away. Jim released his hold on Blair, but stayed where he was, his jaw muscles working overtime, blue eyes flashing dangerously.

"I'm Captain Banks, Cascade PD. This is Detective Jim Ellison," Simon rushed the introduction, hoping to diffuse the antagonism between the two.

"That doesn't explain what you're doing in a restricted room with my patient," the woman snapped, shirking off Simon's restraining hold.

"Sandburg... your patient... is Detective Ellison's partner," Banks answered. "Jim's been out of town on a case. This is his first chance to see..."

"If you're his doctor, then tell me what's going on," Jim interrupted impatiently. "What caused this? What kind of poison? Do you know? Have you established a course of treatment or are you just here to enforce the rules and regulations for visiting hours?"

Simon shuddered at the sarcasm. Yes, Ellison was definitely in full protection mode.

"If you're not out of here in ten seconds, I'm calling security!" she sputtered.

"Stop it! Both of you!" Banks snarled. "This isn't doing Sandburg any good."

Simon shot a withering glare at the Sentinel who immediately subsided into seething silence. Turning to the woman, who had also backed off at his angry words, Banks altered his voice to a more reasonable tone. "Now then, Doctor...?"

"Henderson," she answered curtly, her attention diverted by the beeping monitors. "Just a moment." The doctor flipped open the chart that she'd brought into the room with her, mumbling under her breath as she alternately checked the readings on the equipment and made notations in the file.

"If you could just explain..."

"I said, just a moment!" she hissed in annoyance, cutting Simon off. She scribbled a final set of numbers and snapped the chart shut. Banks saw her square her shoulders as she looked up to meet Jim's gaze.

"Your partner was poisoned. We haven't yet determined the precise nature of the toxin, so we've started him on a general course of treatment. Oxygen to support his respiration. IV fluids to flush the inert substances as quickly as possible and, because he'd been vomiting, to keep him from dehydrating any further. He had surface burns across his abdomen and those have been addressed.

"We've also administered a broad-spectrum antibiotic. His temperature is a degree or two above normal and we want to stop any infection before it has a chance to grab hold. He's still comatose, but his condition has improved drastically since he was brought in an hour ago. And yes, detective, I will enforce the visiting hours," she stated icily. "My patient's welfare is my first priority."

"Good," the Sentinel rumbled darkly. "Because Blair's welfare is also my first priority."

"Nice to see you two can agree on something," Simon muttered, breaking the standoff. "What else can you tell us, doctor?"

"The first reports are back from the lab," Henderson answered, her voice brisk and professional. She flipped open the chart and studied it for a moment. "His blood and urine workups have been completed. There are traces of a viral infection. Probably that new strain of influenza that's had us hopping."

She pulled a set of papers from the chart. "The initial tox screen indicates the presence of several different chemicals frequently found in either household or industrial strength cleaning solutions, so for now, we're assuming an ingestion of caustics."

She handed the report to Simon who stared at the long list of entries, recognizing only a handful of them. "What about the rest of these items?" he asked, passing Jim the report.

"Some of them are simple herbs, others are byproducts of the digestive tract. Pretty standard stuff. However, there are several that we haven't been able to identify yet," she admitted. "We've got poison control on a direct line, hoping that they'll be able to help. We've already done an endoscopic examination. There are some esophageal lesions, but fortunately they are small and less severe than his initial condition might have suggested. There are also some lesions in the stomach, but the risk of perforation looks minimal."

"Worst case scenario, doctor?" Simon hated to ask, but he preferred the facts now, rather than an unpleasant surprise later.

"It depends on the poison and the amount ingested, captain. Cerebral edema, renal failure, cardiac arrest—they're all possibilities. I don't think he's going to go that route, however. The toxin he's ingested is potent, but he's young, in generally good health..."

"He's in pain," Jim interjected, glancing up from the report. "What are you doing for that?"

Banks heard the sharpness in the Sentinel's tone, but he also saw the anguish in the pale blue eyes—a reflection of the agony that his Guide was suffering. When the doctor responded in a surprisingly soft, gentle tone, Simon realized that she must have seen it, too.

"Until we know precisely what the poison was, there's very little we 'can' do for the pain. We don't want to risk a reaction between the drugs and whatever's already in his system."

Ellison nodded and handed the report back to her. Simon imagined he could hear Jim's teeth grinding as the Sentinel started to pace the small room. "Maybe figuring out who did this will lead us to what it was. Did forensics find anything Simon?"

"No sign of a break-in or of anything suspicious in the loft itself. I figured once you'd seen Sandburg we'd head over and your could check things out yourself. Joel was going to go back to the station and run your old cases. See if he could turn any leads."

"And in the meantime Blair just lies there..." Jim stopped next to the bed and shook his head in exasperation. "Damn it, Simon. He was home working on his paper. Out of the line of fire, for a change. What the hell happened?"

"You're assuming that this was some kind of an attack, Detective," Henderson said quietly. "That someone with a grudge against  Mr. Sandburg or yourself orchestrated this. But what if it wasn't?" Henderson asked quietly.

The accusatory tone in her voice flipped Jim's protective switch back to the 'on' position. "Just what are you saying, Doctor?" he growled.

"I'm suggesting that there might be another explanation that we need to consider."

"Such as?"

"Mr. Sandburg has chemical burns in his mouth, throat, esophagus and stomach. There's also some damage to his sinus and nasal passages. The injuries suggest that he might have ingested the poison intentionally."

"Suicide?" Simon asked in disbelief.

"It's possible," she nodded, turning to the older man. "I've seen other..."

"You're wrong." The terse, clipped delivery didn't mask the Sentinel's rage. "Blair would never do that."

"Detective, I'm only..."

"You're suggesting that my partner tried to take his own life. I'm telling you you're wrong," Jim snapped. He took a step toward her, but Simon blocked his path.

"Take it easy Jim, she doesn't know him like we do," the older man said evenly.

"No, she doesn't," Jim murmured. He glanced at the motionless form of his Guide and his facade crumbled enough for Simon to see how desperately afraid he was. The cracks in the dam were shored up quickly, through long practice, and when Jim turned back to meet the doctor's gaze, the blue eyes were flashing fire once more.

"The man in that bed has stood right beside me and looked death in the eye far more times than I care to remember, Doctor. He has an incredible appreciation—no, love of life. He would NEVER choose to end it. Not unless he was buying another life in return. That he would do. Faster than you could blink. But suicide?" Jim shook his head. "You don't know my partner."

"You're absolutely correct, detective," she retorted. "I DON'T know him. I'm sure he's everything you say he is. What I DO know, however, is that his injuries match hundreds that I've seen before, in people from all walks of life. People who've chosen to swallow a bottle of industrial strength cleaning solution in a frantic attempt to end it all."

Simon grabbed Jim's arm, certain that her harsh words would push the Sentinel's control over the edge. Instead, Ellison stared at the doctor, frozen motionless for the space of several heartbeats.


Seemingly random pieces of information whirled in the Sentinel's mind, fighting to attain some kind of order.

... swallow... burns to the throat... scratchy...

"Let me see that toxicology report again," Jim demanded. Henderson frowned, puzzled by the sudden change of attitude and passed him the chart. He scanned it eagerly, looking for the items that he was sure he would find.

... star anise... oils of Angelica root... lemon grass...

"Tea," the Sentinel announced abruptly. "He was drinking tea."

He looked up to find Simon and the doctor staring at him as if he'd lost his mind.

"Not just any tea. A special herbal blend he picked up from one of his favorite health food stores. Just before I left, he said something about a scratchy throat. He was going to stop at the station to pick up the supply he'd left there. Said it had 'healing properties'. I'll bet that several of your unidentified substances on this list were a part of that tea."

"Are you telling me that Sandburg poisoned himself on one of his home remedies?" Simon asked in amazement.

"Not intentionally, but it could explain how he ingested the poison," Jim explained. "Sandburg drinks tea by the potful when he's sick or if he's studying. He's always got a mug within reach, although half the time he's so preoccupied doing three things at once that I don't think he even realizes that he's chugging it down."

"Sounds like a long-shot, but it's worth checking out," Simon said firmly. "The forensic team didn't report anything unusual, but they were looking for evidence of foul play. I can send someone back over to the loft..."

"That might not be necessary," Henderson broke in. "Poison control did a sweep of the apartment right after he was brought in. They would have picked up anything that they thought might need to be analyzed. Their list would typically include foodstuffs. I can call down to the lab..."

"I'd like to check it out myself," Jim interrupted, glancing at Simon meaningfully. "I know what we're looking for. I was with him when he bought it."

"The lab's down next to pathology. That's the first level below the lobby. Take a left out of the elevator. I'll let them know that you're on the way."

"Do you want some company?" Simon asked softly as the doctor moved to the phone.

Jim hesitated, his gaze shifting to Blair once again.

"Rafe's out in the waiting room," Simon offered. "He could just as easily cool his heels in here."   Grateful that the older man understood, Jim nodded. "Thanks, Simon.  I'm going to have to push my senses to find the answers we need and I'm a little frayed at the edges right now. I'd appreciate the backup. I just didn't want Blair to wake up and find himself alone. Not after what he's been through."

"All right, I'll play Guide for a while," Simon agreed. "Just as long as you realize that this is a temporary situation. Once Sandburg's back on his feet, the job's all his."

"No offense, Simon," Jim replied with a faint smile. "But I wouldn't have it any other way."

Their quiet exchange was interrupted as the doctor rejoined them. "They're expecting you downstairs, gentlemen." She met Jim's still slightly hostile gaze evenly. "I'm sorry if what I said upset you, detective. I didn't mean..."

"I know," Jim answered, his expression softening. "I didn't mean to jump down your throat either. I'm just..."

"Worried?" She smiled. "I understand. Believe me. We'll do our best to pull your friend through. I'm going to contact a colleague of mine who specializes in alternative medicines. If you're right about the tea, he might have some insights that will be valuable regarding the course of treatment. He'll want a sample to study, I'm sure."   "And if there is a poison out on the street, we need to put a stop to any further distribution," Simon added grimly. "Who knows how many other people might be affected by this?"   The doctor nodded and headed for the door. "Let me know if you find anything. I'll be in my office or in here checking on your friend. Just have them page me from the nurses station."

"I'll get Rafe. Take a minute," Banks ordered. He gestured with a lift of his chin toward the bed and followed the doctor out.

Finally alone with his Guide, the Sentinel took the younger man's hand and squeezed it gently.

"I'm going to leave for a while, Blair," he whispered. "But you're not going to be alone. Rafe's going to stay with you until I get back." Jim reached out and brushed a stray curl away from the younger man's forehead. "I won't be long, buddy. I'm going to find out what caused this and we're going to get you well. Don't worry. Simon's going to be looking out for me, but between you and me, I think he's a little nervous. He knows he's got big shoes to fill."

The Sentinel paused, hoping for some sign that his Guide had heard him, but the blue eyes that he so eagerly wanted to see didn't open. He heard the sound of uneven footsteps in the corridor and knew that it was time to go. With a sigh, he released Blair's hand. Nodding to Rafe as he hobbled in on his crutches, Jim headed out into the corridor to join Simon at the elevator.


Location Unknown
Time Streams Conjoined

The door was open.

Light, warmth and safety poured out into the hallway, enveloping the Guide. He had waited and his Sentinel had come, sweeping away the soul crushing emptiness and terror with his presence.

Blair wanted to move—to rise to his feet and step through the doorway, but pain held him pinned to the floor.

Something was still wrong. The dream hadn't ended.

Desperate to re-enter his own world, his immobility panicked him for a moment, but the Sentinel's clear, deep voice chased it away.

He wasn't alone.

Jim had promised he would return.

His Sentinel never lied.

He would wait.


Cascade
Sunday
1:40 a.m.

The elevator ride down to the lab was made in silence. Simon watched Jim carefully. Behind the detective's stoic facade, he was certain that there was a raging storm of emotions, battling for release. Normally it was Sandburg who rode the eye of that hurricane, keeping Ellison grounded both professionally and personally. With Blair out of action, the duty fell to him. He just hoped he was up to the task.

Banks was no stranger to shouldering responsibility—he wouldn't have made captain, otherwise—but he knew he'd just volunteered to substitute in an area where he was painfully ill prepared. He'd gotten used to taking for granted that his best detective would stay focused and get the job—whatever it was—done. What he hadn't truly realized until now was just how big a role one long-haired anthropologist played in making that happen. It made him more than just a little bit nervous.

Especially now that you're the one responsible, not just for Jim's sanity and safety, but for Sandburg's life as well.

Simon knew he was only pinch hitting. There was no way he could take Blair's place. The young man filled a void in Jim's life and played a critical role in the Sentinel's. As strange as it seemed on the surface, their partnership was almost symbiotic. It was imperative that they find the answers they needed to help Sandburg—and soon. If they didn't, the Sentinel's control would crumble. Without Blair...

Don't even go there, Banks, he admonished himself. Just concentrate on what you're supposed to be doing, which is guiding Jim.

Following Ellison out of the elevator and toward the lab, Simon found himself wishing he'd paid a lot more attention to the anthropologist's rambling explanations of how Jim's Sentinel senses worked.

Just how the hell does the kid do this? What does he do?

Lost in his own thoughts, Simon nearly collided with Jim who had paused at the door of the lab, one hand on the knob. He took a step back and watched as the Sentinel closed his eyes and took several deep breaths.

Like he's preparing for something, Simon mused. The significance of the action hit him abruptly. Of course, he is! There are probably a hundred or more things inside that could overwhelm his senses if he isn't ready to handle them. Damn. Was I supposed to do something... say something to remind him?

Before he could question himself or Jim's actions any further, the detective was in motion again, turning the knob and thrusting the door open. Simon scrambled to join him.

The lab was large and brightly lit, the overhead lights bouncing almost painfully off of the sterile white counters and gleaming metal appliances. Simon glanced at Jim who was focused on the only occupant of the room. Relieved to see that the Sentinel appeared unaffected by the shining brilliance, Simon turned his own attention to the young man who suddenly looked up from the slides he was preparing.

He was young, no older than Sandburg, with short cropped brown hair and hazel eyes. Dressed in a t-shirt and jeans, he had the rumpled look of someone just pulled from his bed. He probably had been, considering the hour, Simon realized. Seated on a stool in front of one of the counters, he was surrounded on both sides by bottles and cans of varying shapes and sizes.

"You must be the officers that Dr. Henderson called down about," the younger man called out in greeting, waving them forward.

"Captain Simon Banks, Detective Jim Ellison," Simon offered in introduction. "The patient, Blair Sandburg is a friend and Ellison's partner. You're the one doing the analysis?"

"Yep. Me and the staff down at poison control. My name's Dave Tilman." He laid the last of the slides he was working on aside and looked up at them quizzically. "Doc said you thought there might have been something in the tea that he was drinking?"

"It's a theory," Jim answered. "I'd like to take a look at whatever was brought here from the loft."

"Sure thing." Tilman slid off the stool and gestured for them to follow him. There were a half-dozen cardboard boxes on a counter on the far side of the room. "I've already gone through most of the non-food items. These are all the dry or packaged goods. I've got another box in the lab cooler that was collected from the refrigerator. The black trash bag over there's the garbage that was in the apartment. We looking for loose tea or bags?" he asked as he peered into one of the boxes.

"Bags," Jim answered absently. Grabbing a pair of latex gloves out of a dispenser, he started sorting through the familiar items. Simon donned a pair as well and opened a third box.

"I hope you're right about the tea," Tilman murmured. "It doesn't happen often, but to tell the truth, this has me stumped."

"Did you do the initial tox screen?" Simon asked.

"Yeah. I usually work the straight research end of things, but they called me in because of the nature of the emergency. I'm sort of the resident 'specialist' on caustic poisoning. I worked for a couple of big chemical companies before I went back to school to get my doctorate."

Simon noted that Jim had finished one box and was starting on another. He watched the detective's jaw clenching with a vengeance. There were no overt signs that the Sentinel was using his extraordinary senses, but Simon knew differently. He went back to sorting his own box, wondering again if there was something he should be doing on the 'Guide' end to help.

Does Sandburg ever feel this way? The kid always seems so confident—so sure that there's a reason for every new wrinkle with Jim's senses. So fast with the right answer...

A sharp hiss made Simon look toward Jim in concern. The Sentinel had his eyes closed and was shaking his head in distress. In his hands was an open, quart- sized ziplock bag filled with tea bags.

"Jim?"

"This is it," Jim wheezed, handing the bag to Simon. "This is the tea he bought last week. I recognize the smell. But there's also a heavy chemical odor."

"Tilman, run a test on these," Simon said tersely.

He handed the bag to the younger man who scurried back to his workstation eagerly. Banks reached out, grabbed Jim's arm and turned the detective toward him. The Sentinel's eyes were tearing and he seemed to be having trouble breathing.

"Jim, are you all right?" Simon asked anxiously. He grabbed a box of tissues and thrust them toward the detective.

"Yeah," Jim rasped, wiping at his eyes gingerly. "Just got a stronger whiff of that stuff than I should have. The fumes were pretty intense."

Simon grimaced. "I should have been paying more attention."

"Not your fault, Simon," Jim answered with a shake of his head. "Blair's run me through tests on sealed evidence before. I should have turned down the dials a little further before opening it. I'll be fine. Let's see what Tilman can tell us," he suggested, moving toward the younger man.

Tilman had torn apart one of the bags and was busy examining the contents. Separating the solid ingredients to one pile, he took the wrapper and placed it in a beaker.

"Looks like there's a residue of some kind on the paper itself. There's a quick test I can run to determine the presence of caustics," he explained as he worked. "I can run a similar test on the tea separately. It'll just take a minute to set up."

Tilman filled another beaker with water and placed it in the lab's microwave. "I want to see what happens when the bag's immersed as well. I'm going to use regular tap water to start with, since that most closely parallels what your friend would have done when he brewed the tea. That way I can test both the solid substances and the liquid."

"Whatever poisoned Blair is there," Jim said firmly. "Will you be able to determine exactly what it was?" Jim asked.

"Not with this test, but it'll narrow the field a bit," Tilman answered with a shake of his head. "I'll have to run a full spectrum analysis to determine the specific chemicals that show up. Then we'll compare it to the original tox screen."

Simon leaned against the counter and removed his glasses, rubbing at tired eyes. One look at Jim told him that the Sentinel was as exhausted as he was.   "You seem pretty familiar with the procedures for this kind of situation," Simon remarked to the younger man as he watched Jim begin to pace off his frustration.

"Painfully so," Tilman sighed, busily setting up the samples he wanted to run. "I've seen far too many cases, most of them children. The colors and shapes of the bottles are just too tempting for the kids to pass up I guess. That and the fact that a lot of parents aren't very good at either locking the stuff up, or educating the munchkins on what should or shouldn't go into their mouths."

The tech looked up to meet Simon's gaze. "Obviously that wasn't the situation with your friend. Still, the incidence of accidental poisoning by caustics in adults is staggering." He gestured to the assortment of containers on the counter. "Even with the diluted household brands like these, the opportunity for serious medical problems exists."

Simon nodded and glanced at Jim. He could see the Sentinel's gaze flickering over the items on the counter and thought that he saw an expression of guilty recognition in the detective's eyes.

"These are all from the loft," Jim said softly.

Tilman nodded. "I've seen most of these commercial brands before. The chemical compounds are pretty easy to identify. There are a couple that I'm still testing. Mostly organic mixtures, though. Actually this is a pretty unusual collection considering the circumstances."

"Why do you say that?" Simon asked.

"Because it suggests that your friend is very conscious of the products that he brings into his home. For example, most of these have little if any scent to them, particularly the organic-based stuff. There's nothing here that comes close to the level of chemical potency that the tox screen revealed."

Score another point in Sandburg's favor, Simon mused. He was getting a much clearer picture of just what lengths the young Guide went to in order to ensure his Sentinel's comfort and safety.

"So you're saying that whatever contaminated the tea bags isn't present in these," Jim prompted, gesturing to the containers on the counter.

"Assuming the bags are contaminated..."

"They are," Jim interrupted grimly.

Tilman raised an eyebrow at Jim's assertive answer. "You're awfully certain about something we haven't proven yet, Detective."

"Let's just say that Detective Ellison's got good instincts," Simon interjected hurriedly. "Especially where his partner is concerned. You still haven't answered his question."

"My instincts say no. Let's see what the tests tell us," Tilman said, turning back to the counter.

Simon nodded and turned to look at Jim. The expression of blind rage on the Sentinel's face brought Simon to his side. He took Jim's arm and dragged him across the room.

"What is it?" he demanded, standing his ground against the cold blue glare and the almost palpable animosity that was flowing off Ellison in waves.

"How could they?" Jim hissed. "How could someone we know do this to him?"

"What are you talking about?" Simon asked in confusion.

"The tea bags contain the poison, Simon. Tilman's test will confirm it."

"I'm not doubting your senses, Jim, but..."

"Simon, Blair bought that tea on Thursday afternoon. It wasn't contaminated then. I know. He made a big deal about my testing it to see if I could identify what the ingredients were."

"So that means that it was tampered with after he bought it," Simon murmured, struggling to follow Jim's train of thought. "But we didn't find any sign of a break-in at the apartment..."

"The tea wasn't at the loft, Simon. It was at the station."

"Jim, you can't be suggesting that someone in the department did this!" Simon gasped in choked surprise.

"Give me another explanation that fits the facts, Simon," Jim snarled. "I know the tea was all right when he bought it. I saw him put it into his container in the break room. All of it. Someone tampered with it at some point between Thursday afternoon and Friday when he stopped in the station to drop off our case files. You tell me, Simon. Who, besides the people that we work, with has access to that room?"

"Hey, Detective, looks like your instincts were right!"

Tilman's excited shout brought both Simon and Jim back to his side. The younger man was pointing at the two beakers. Simon could see a slimy scum floating on the top of the liquid in each one.

"Definitely chemical residue in both the wrapper and the tea," Tilman jabbered. "The tea bags are definitely the carrying agent. I'll start the spectrum analysis right away." He leaned over the beakers and took a cautious sniff of each. "Wheww... ugly stuff. Smells like an antibacterial cleaning solvent of some kind."

"How long before we'll know exactly what it was?" asked Jim anxiously. "Henderson said that she can't do much until she knows precisely what Blair was dosed with."

"It'll take a half-hour or so for the final results. Once we have those, we'll be able to track back the compounds. Poison Control should be able to give us a list of the products that match."

"How long a list?" Jim demanded.

"Depends on what the analysis reveals," Tilman answered. "Could be five possible matches, could be fifty."

"Fifty?"

Simon had been silent throughout the exchange, trying to connect what Jim had theorized with something that Tilman had said. The shock and despair in Jim's voice was the catalyst that brought the pieces together.

"Wait a minute. You said it smelled like a cleaning solvent?"

"Yeah," Tilman replied. "Pretty weird, I know, but I've kind of got a reputation for my sensitive nose. I'm right about 90 percent of the time, just by the smell. I'd bet my next paycheck that it's a cleaning product—the kind that's used in an eating or food preparation area. Probably an industrial strength concentrate by the amount of scumming."

"Would a janitorial service use something like that?" Simon prodded, not at all fazed by the younger man's mention of a sentinel-like ability.

"Even if I'm wrong about the anti-bacterial additive, it could match a number of products that a building contract services crew would have on hand.  But I thought these tea bags came from your friend's apartment," Tilman said, frowning in confusion.

"They were brought to the loft, but he kept them at the station," Jim explained, his voice tight with barely controlled rage.

"Jim, if you're right about the time-frame, that could be the answer," Simon said, meeting the Sentinel's glaring gaze. "The new janitorial service would have been in Thursday night. I know that the break room's on their list of areas to clean."

"What's the name of the company?" Tilman asked, reaching for the phone.

"Teraris Services," Simon answered. "Who are you calling?"

"One of my buddies runs a cleaning service," Tilman replied. "He knows everyone in the business. It's a pretty tight group. At this time of night he'll be able to track down the owner faster than we could by calling their office. I'm also going to call Poison Control and fill them in on what we've got. Most of the janitorial companies file a list of their chemicals with them in case of an accident. With the results of the spectrum run we should be able to get a faster match to the actual product."

"It's just speculation at this point," Simon cautioned.

"It fits the facts and right now, that's good enough for me, Captain," Tilman murmured. "I'd say we're looking at an accidental poisoning. Somebody got careless and your friend's paying the price."

"I want to talk to the owner personally," Jim stated coldly. "And I want a list of the crew. Specifically, the name of the person who was in charge of cleaning the break room."

Simon hastily jotted Jim's cell phone number on the back of one of his cards. "You can reach us at either of these two numbers."

"I'll contact you as soon as I've got anything," Tilman assured them.

Simon gestured toward the door and with a final thanks, Jim followed him out into the corridor. The Sentinel's face was still hard and unreadable.

"You're not buying into this being an accident, are you, Jim?" Simon said quietly.

"There's one way to be sure," the Sentinel replied grimly.

Twenty minutes later Jim pushed open the doors to Major Crimes, with Simon right on his heels. He stalked through the bullpen, targeted on the break room. The chemical smell nearly overwhelmed him when he walked into the enclosed space.

Lips curled in a soundless snarl he crossed to the counter and jerked open the drawer. Another gust of the stomach churning odor wafted upward and he dialed back his senses. Shaking his head to clear it, he grabbed Blair's wooden container. The bottom was damp and he felt a burning sensation in his fingertips. He ran his hand lightly over the counter top and traced the path of the spill by using the pain of his reaction to the chemicals as a guide.

"Anything?" Simon asked, breaking his concentration.

Jim held up his hand. It was red and starting to blister. With a hiss, Simon turned on the faucet and thrust Jim's hand under the running water. The Sentinel was barely aware of the older man's manhandling him out of the room and into a chair in the bullpen.

"Damn it, Ellison, what the hell were you thinking?" Simon raged, angry at Jim and at himself for not anticipating what might happen.

"There must have been a whole gallon of that poison spilled in there, Simon," Jim whispered. "It's all over the counter and down the front of the cabinets. The bottom of this is still wet."

Blearily, the Sentinel handed the canister to the older man. Simon set it on one of the desks and crouched down in front of his distraught and dazed friend.

"So it was an accident," Simon said quietly.

"An accident..." Jim stared down at Simon and then started to laugh. The sound was ragged and strained even to his own ears, but he couldn't stop himself. "It's funny, don't you see, Simon? I've always been worried about Blair's safety because of his involvement with the department—certain that some nutcase is going to come after him for revenge because of something that I did, or that he'll get shot again, or find himself in another damn elevator with a bomb. I have nightmares about not being there in time to stop him from getting killed. But in all that worrying I never expected that I'd fail him like this."

"Jim, take it easy," Simon pleaded. "You didn't fail anyone. You figured it out, just like you always do. We know what happened now. As soon as we track down the owner of the cleaning service we'll have the name of the chemicals they use and they'll be able to treat Blair. He'll be all right. He's made it this far..."

The Sentinel's grief-stricken laughter stopped abruptly and anger took it's place. "It shouldn't have happened, Simon. If I'd been here..."

"You would have detected the spill. That's true," Simon answered bluntly. "But even you might not have thought to check the drawer. That poison could have sat in those bags for weeks. It could have affected someone else—you know that Blair shares his stash with anyone who wants it. It was an accident, Jim. The important thing is that when Blair needed you, you got there in time.

"No, I didn't. You did."

"Because you called me," Simon countered.

"You don't understand, Simon. I knew... I knew Friday night that something was wrong and I didn't do anything about it. He was in agony and he was alone. Damn it, Simon, he nearly died..."

"But he didn't. He's still alive," Simon reminded him. "We're going back to the hospital. I want them to take a look at your hand."

"I'm fine, Simon. I just want to get back to see Blair," Jim said wearily, pushing his guilt into the back corners of his mind for a little while longer. The stress and exhaustion was catching up with him fast. It was just a matter of time before he hit the limits of his endurance; he wanted to be settled in a chair at his partner's side before that happened.

"Emergency room first, Ellison," Simon growled and hauled the Sentinel to his feet. "Believe it or not, I take my responsibilities as substitute Guide seriously. Besides, Sandburg's going to have my hide when he sees that burn. I want you well on the way to being healed before he's awake enough to use that knife-edged tongue of his."


Cascade
Sunday
4:23 a.m.

Time—which had been alternately moving either too fast or too slow from Jim's personal perspective—settled back into its normal pace when Simon announced that he was satisfied with the emergency room's treatment of Jim's hand and ordered the Sentinel to his real Guide's side. When Jim reached the third floor, he found Doctor Henderson coming out of Blair's room. The smile on her face told him the news was good. The strong, steady heartbeat emanating from the other side of the door confirmed it.

"We got confirmation on the chemicals a few little while ago," she told him. "There are still a number of unanswered questions about his reactions, but we've started a treatment protocol. If his readings are any indication, he should be waking up soon. Why don't you go in and get comfortable."

Jim's surprised expression made her chuckle.

"Don't worry, Detective. I'll keep an eye on the clock and let you know when visiting hours are over," she said with a smile.

"Thank you," Jim murmured gratefully.

"Have the nurses page me when he wakes up. And keep him quiet if you can."

"Doctor, you definitely don't know my partner," Jim said with a grin. "Keeping Sandburg from talking is almost an impossible task. Believe me, it's been tried before with minimal results."

"Well, try again," she responded. "The less talking now, the faster his recovery will be. Oh, and ice chips only, if he's alert enough to want something. It's going to be a few more hours before his throat can handle fluids."

"Will there be any permanent damage?" Jim asked anxiously.

"As I told you before, the lesions aren't too severe or numerous. If all goes well, he should be back in full voice within a few weeks. He may have to lay off the spicy food for a while to let his stomach heal, however."

"One of his favorite foods is tofu," Jim replied with a wry grin. "Guess I'll either grow to like it or lose a few pounds until he's up to other things." He nodded his thanks and slipped past her into the room.

Rafe pried himself out of a chair and hobbled forward on his crutches as soon as he saw Jim. He gave the older man a pat on the arm and responded with a pleased smile when the Sentinel murmured his thanks.

"Not a problem, Jim. You'd do the same for me if my partner were down." Rafe flashed him another quick grin and wobbled out into the hallway.

Sinking into the chair at Blair's side, the Sentinel extended his senses and studied the younger man carefully. His Guide was still pale, although there was some color in his cheeks and the bluish tinge to his lips had nearly disappeared. The lines of pain around his eyes were still present, though, and Jim reached out to soothe the furrows that creased his forehead.

"Time to wake up, Chief," he whispered.


Location Unknown
Time Stopped

Blair smiled and rose to his feet.

There was still some pain, but the waiting was over.

He stepped forward toward the voice that drew him into the warmth across the threshold.


Long lashes swept upward. The Guide's pain-clouded blue eyes instinctively sought the Sentinel's.

"Hey, Chief, welcome back," Jim murmured encouragingly.

Blair blinked and his partner's face slowly came into focus. He smiled. Or at least he thought he did. His face felt funny. As though he hadn't used the muscles for a while. He rummaged in his foggy mind for a good explanation, but all he could come up with was a vague memory of a hallway filled with doors. One in particular that he'd been sitting in front of for what had seemed to be an awfully long time. Maybe that was why he felt so stiff and sore. He swallowed and pain blossomed in his throat.

"Easy, buddy. Swallowing and talking are going to be a little difficult for a while."

Panic started to flare in his gut, kindling other memories of pain and desperation.  Blair stared up at his partner in confusion. The Sentinel's face was lined with exhaustion, the dark circles emphasizing the concern that was written in his eyes.   "Jim..." the word that should have come out as a shout was a strained whisper of breath.

"Shhh... no talking, all right? I know that's hard for you, Sandburg, but just listen for a change. You're in the hospital. ICU should look pretty familiar to you by now, right?"

Blair's eyes flickered around the room and then zoomed back to the older man's face. He started to ask another question, but reconsidered when he remembered the pain that one word had caused. Maybe silence was a better choice—at least for the time being. He settled for a nod and was rewarded with one of Jim's brilliant smiles.

"Good choice, partner. Just hold on a second while I get the nurse."

Blair heard the faint sound of a buzzer from his left and realized that Jim had used the call button. He managed a half smile in answer to his partner's and wondered at the brief surge of irrational fear that he'd felt when he'd thought Jim was going to leave him there alone.

Alone. Now where did that thought come from? Jim's always at my bedside whenever I wake up from... Wait a minute, just what 'am' I waking up from?

The panic was back with a vengeance. It must have shown in his eyes, or in his tripped out heartbeat, because Jim was suddenly gripping his hand, his voice soft and soothing.

"There's nothing to worry about, Blair. You've been pretty sick for a couple of days, but you're going to be fine. You just need to rest."

Blair searched his mind again. Sick he remembered. Pain he remembered. In fact, some of the pain was still there. He closed his eyes as a new stab of that particular sensation knifed through his stomach.

"How's our patient doing?"

Blair opened one eye and saw a warm smiling face hovering over him. An attractive, female face. He tried for a charming grin, but it came out as more of a grimace.

"He's still in pain," Jim replied to the newcomer.

"We can do something about that now," the woman in white replied. "This will help him relax so he can fall asleep on his own."

Blair caught sight of a syringe and started to shake his head. He didn't want to sleep. There was too much he needed to know. The firm pressure of Jim's hand wrapped around his held him immobile. And silent.

"Don't fight it, Chief. Sleep is what you need right now. Don't worry. I'll be right here when you wake up again."

He felt the prick of the needle and the room suddenly got much grayer. He struggled against the swirling clouds until he heard the Sentinel's voice once more.

"You're not alone, Blair."


Ensconced in a chair at Blair's bedside, Jim snapped awake the moment he felt the younger man stir.

"Go back to sleep, Sandburg," he growled softly.

"Not... sleepy... just tired..."

"I knew it was a mistake to let you take that mid-afternoon nap," Jim teased as he watched his Guide struggle to focus through the haze of drugs and lingering pain. He squeezed Blair's hand briefly and was rewarded with a tentative smile.

"Funny..."

The Sentinel grimaced. The soft, raspy whisper was only a shadow of the fluid, almost musical voice that he knew so well. Jim desperately hoped that Henderson was right about the poison's damage being minimal and that a full recovery was only a short time away. He grabbed the cup of water that was sitting on the bedside stand and offered it to Blair, angling the straw so that his friend had to move his head only slightly to drink.

"Thanks..." Blair murmured after a few painful swallows.

"You can thank me by going back to sleep," Jim suggested. One look into his partner's anxious blue eyes and he knew it was wishful thinking.

"Jim... I need... to know..."

"You need to rest."

"... please..."

Jim sighed, accepting the inevitable—he'd managed to put off this conversation for nearly 24 hours after all. A full day of waiting for the brief moments when his Guide would awake, look around in confusion and then retreat into sleep. Blair had grown increasingly lucid—and therefore more difficult to keep quiet—with each subsequent completion of that wake/sleep cycle.

"All right. I'll give you the abridged version, but only if you agree to my rules."

"More... rules? No... way..."

"My way or no way, Chief."

"Fine... just... talk..."

"That's rule number one, buddy. I talk and you listen. Rule number two says that you rest when I say it's time." He held up his hands to stave off the protest that was already forming on the younger man's lips. "My rules, remember?"

"How... about... a compromise?"

"And that would be?"

"Short... sentences... one or two... words... at a time..."

"I don't believe you can do short, professor."

Blair rolled his eyes to the ceiling in mock disgust, but Jim recognized the raw emotions that lurked behind his partner's actions.

"I'm not trying to hide anything from you, Blair," he said gently. "I'll agree to your deal as long as I don't hear any more strain on that throat than I'm picking up now. I promise, we'll discuss this in as much painful detail as you want when we get back to the loft, all right?"

The younger man nodded and Jim was pleased to see that some of the fear and uncertainty had left his friend's eyes. He wished wholeheartedly that the explanation he was about to offer would remove the rest, but he knew Blair too well.

Jim shifted uneasily in his chair, trying to find the right words to begin. Blair needed answers, but he was determined to keep them brief. There was no way the Sentinel was going to even hint at what had sent him racing back to Cascade. Not until his Guide was back on his feet. Even half awake and groggy on painkillers, the anthropologist's sharp mind would be picking at that puzzle. And it was obvious that the kid was already 'worrying' at issues of his own.

Something beyond the physical trauma that he'd experienced was haunting his partner. Jim had seen glimpses of it ever since Blair had regained consciousness, but he hadn't been able to pin it down. Whatever it was, it surfaced without warning, glittered in the depths of his Guide's eyes for a fraction of a second, and then disappeared just as quickly.

"The truth is, we still don't have all the answers," Jim finally said with a sigh. "We've got a rough idea of what happened before Simon and Daryl found you, but you're going to have to fill in the details—once you're up to it."

"I am... up to it... I was sick... flu bug..."

"You were sick all right, but the virus was only part of it," Jim said gently. "You were poisoned, Blair."

"What... how...?"

"Just take it easy, Chief. The worst is over. You're going to be fine," Jim assured him. "It all started at the station. The janitorial service was short handed Thursday night. The young man who was assigned to clean the break room had never mixed his own chemicals before. His name is Robert Perry. Simon ran a full check on him and he came out clean. No ties to you or me. Anyway, Perry claims that he didn't realize he was handing highly concentrated solutions. He used everything full strength. I could still smell the fumes when I checked out the room."

Jim shook his head at the memory. "Although it created a hazardous situation, it wouldn't have been life threatening to anyone," he continued quietly. "Would have probably given me one hell of a headache every time I walked in there, but unless someone had decided to eat off of the counters, there shouldn't have been a problem."

"Then why...?"

"An accident. In his hurry to finish and move on to his next assigned area, Perry spilled a bucket full of one of the solutions on the counter. He says that he mopped it up immediately, but some of it must have dripped into the drawer where you kept your tea canister. Simon interrogated the guy personally, Blair, and Joel sat in on it. They're convinced that it was an accident. Taggert said that Perry was horrified when he heard what had happened to you."

"There was... a stain... in the drawer," Blair rasped, his eyes widening as he realized what had happened. "When I saw it... I checked... the container... The bottom... was wet..."

"I examined the tea bags that poison control brought in from the loft. They were pretty heavily contaminated." Jim answered grimly. "Oddly enough, the ones still at the station aren't as bad."

Blair groaned. "... I took the ones... from the... bottom of the... canister... They were... damp... and that tea... was expensive... I didn't want... to waste it..."

Jim squeezed the younger man's hand reassuringly. "You didn't do this to yourself intentionally, Blair. There's no way you would have known. If I'd been here..."

A renewed sense of guilt swept through the Sentinel. If I'd been there, or if you'd gone with me, none of this would have happened.

The warmth of his Guide's hand pressing his brought Jim back to the present. He stared into blue eyes that held no anger, no accusation—just calm acceptance.

"Jim... you said it... yourself... It was... an accident... There's no blame... to assign, man," Blair whispered, the words barely audible. "So when... I brewed the tea..."

"The residue that had impregnated the tea bags began to dissolve. That actually reduced the potency of the caustics, but when they combined with the tea water, there was an unusual reaction. It created a new toxin—something like what you get when you mix ordinary household cleaners without checking the labels first. The chemicals reacted—maybe with one of the herbs in the tea, or maybe there was enough chlorine in the water to set it off. We don't know yet."

Jim met Blair's searching gaze again and sighed, making a mental note to check the water heater and plumbing at the loft, no matter what the lab ultimately found.

"You probably would have been all right if that damn virus in your system hadn't chosen to kick in at the same time you ingested the poison. Even in their most concentrated form, most of the chemicals are primarily comprised of inert substances and you would have passed them without too many complications. You would have had the typical poisoning symptoms—fever, rash, light headedness, an achiness in your muscles, stomach cramps—but it wouldn't necessarily have been life threatening. It was the vomiting that aggravated the situation."

"That and my... pouring... more of that shit... down my throat... every time... I was conscious enough... to move." Blair's faint voice was filled with disgust and self-incrimination. "Why the hell... didn't I realize... what was happening?"

"Chief, that virus was strong enough to flatten you out on its own," Jim said soothingly. "With the poison in your system... you were a mess, buddy. It's a miracle that you were able to hold it together at all."

"I don't think... I did..."

Jim frowned. "Your instincts were right on target, Blair. If the tea hadn't been contaminated, it probably would have helped. As it is, it looks like it might have lessened the severity of the chemical burns—the doctors are still trying to figure out why there's so little damage. Maybe it does have those 'healing properties' you were raving about. The important thing is, you didn't give up. That's pretty amazing considering how sick you were. And you were trying to get to help. Simon told me he found you only a few feet from the door."

"Instincts... I wonder..." Blair's eyes took on a familiar pensive gleam.

"Uh, uh... Keep those ideas in your head, Chief," Jim admonished gently. "You've talked enough for today."

"But Jim..."

"Doctor's orders, Sandburg. And mine. That golden throat's got to show some serious improvement before they spring you, and it won't, if you don't give it a rest."

"With my luck... it'll probably... take a week before... shit!"

Alarmed at the sudden outburst and the expression of dismay on his friend's face, Jim tighten his grip on Blair's hand and dialed up his senses.

"What is it, Chief? What's wrong?"

"What... day... is... it...?" Blair demanded.

"Monday... very early Monday," the Sentinel answered in a firm tone. "I don't even think the kitchen help's here, yet, so I wouldn't be looking for breakfast anytime soon."

"Monday... then there's still... time..." Blair gasped. His eyes flickered around the room in a desperate dance.

"Time for what?" Jim asked, confused.

"My paper... it's due... today... I have to finish it... I only got... a third of it done... before..."

The Sentinel abruptly found himself arguing with a handful of squirming Guide. He shifted to his feet and placed his hands on Blair's shoulders, using his own weight to keep the weak, but determined young man in the bed. "Will you just lie back and forget the damn paper, Sandburg?" The exasperation was clear in Jim's voice, but Blair didn't seem to hear it.

"You don't... understand... I have to get it done..."

"You will get it done. Just not today."

Blair opened his mouth to object, but Jim fixed him with a hard stare. Once he was satisfied that his Guide was going to remain silent, the Sentinel softened his gaze.

"You've already been granted another extension, Chief. The Commissioner took care of it."

"The Commissioner?"

"Well, the explanation I have came from Taggert. Seems that Simon told the Commissioner that your hospitalization was the result of accidental poisoning which occurred while you were in the precinct on police business. Apparently, the Commissioner was less than pleased at the thought of a potential lawsuit. Simon suggested that he didn't think that you'd be looking to file any damages other than your medical bills, but that you were going to be very distressed that you'd missed a deadline for an important paper. Next thing you know, you've got an extension. It appears that the Commissioner and Simon both know people on the Board of Regents at the University."

"But how..."

"I didn't ask any more questions, and I suggest you don't either. Just be suitably grateful when the opportunity presents itself," Jim advised sternly. "Now rest. You've broken rule number one already. I wouldn't try for rule number two. You won't like the consequences."

"Threats... now... it's threats..."

"Just remember who your nursemaid is going to be when you get home, Chief."

Jim leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms over his chest and scowled. He had to struggle to maintain the pretense of anger when Blair shot him a weak grin and settled back into the pillows.


Cascade
Friday
3:00 p.m.

True to form for Cascade, it was raining the day Blair came home from the hospital. The drizzle that had begun just after midnight had turned into a steady downpour. Jim parked the truck and ushered Blair into the building while he struggled with the plants and presents that the young man accumulated during his stay. The detective grumbled good naturedly about the quantity of treasures, but he was pleased at the significance of the gifts—they were a tangible indication of just how many friends his partner had in his corner, both at the department and at the university.

Blair helped him load everything into the elevator and hit the 'hold' button when they reached the third floor. He bent down to grab a box, but Jim waved him away.

"I'll get this stuff. You get the door," he ordered.

Blair muttered something under his breath about 'hovering Sentinels' and headed down the hallway. Jim grinned and started pulling the paraphernalia out into the hallway. He'd just released the elevator when he heard a change in his Guide's heartbeat. He glanced over his shoulder and saw Blair standing motionless in front of the loft door. The expression on the younger man's face was a mixture of uncertainty and fear. Grabbing two of the plants, Jim quickly joined him.

"Chief?"

"I couldn't open it," Blair murmured, his eyes still fixed on the door. "I had to wait for you."

"Your keys are probably inside." Jim set the pots down and dug out his keys. "Here, let me get it."

The Sentinel unlocked the door, but before he could reach out for the knob, Blair had his hand on it.

"No... I... I can do it."

Jim watched in concern as Blair took a deep breath and gave the handle a quick twist. There was a moment when the door, slightly swollen from the humidity, refused to move and fear flashed openly across the anthropologist's face. Then the panel swung freely inward. The younger man's expression changed to one of relief as he crossed the threshold. Feeling like he'd missed something important, the Sentinel followed his Guide into the loft.

Jim automatically did a quick scan of the apartment. He could still detect the faint smell of cleansers and deodorizers. The Sentinel had never seen the evidence of his Guide's traumatic illness. Simon had arranged for someone to come in and clean the loft while Jim had been with Blair at the hospital. They'd done an amazingly thorough job, although his sensitive nose could still pick out the faint odor of blood and vomit.

The Sentinel repressed a shudder and instinctively sought out the comforting presence of his Guide. Blair had disappeared from sight, but his jacket lay over the back of the couch and the steady beat of his heart thumped from the lower bedroom. Vaguely bothered by his friend's reaction at the door, Jim used his senses to monitor his partner while he retrieved the rest of the younger man's belongings from the hallway.

Closing the door behind him after the last load, he found Blair standing at the kitchen table, one hand resting on his closed laptop, the other thumbing through a hastily stacked pile of his research papers and books.

"Sorry about the mess, Jim," Blair said softly. "I know I promised to have things back to normal before you got back."

"Not your fault I decided to come back early."

Blair flashed him an inquisitive look.

"And why, exactly, did you come back early?"

"Sandburg..."

"Come on, Jim. You've put me off on this long enough. You said once we were home we'd talk about it."

Jim headed into the kitchen, and grabbed a mineral water out of the refrigerator. He glanced at Blair who nodded and handed a second bottle to the younger man.

"You're not going to let this drop, are you?" Jim asked, leaning wearily against the counter.

"No, I'm not. There were, and are, some weird things going on in my head, Jim. I need some answers to help sort it all out. Answers from you. You came back two days early. In the dead of night..."

Jim barely managed to hide the flinch at the phrase the younger man used. It was too accurate.

"Not that I'm at all sorry you did, man," Blair rambled on. "I needed you. But you couldn't have known..."

"I did."

"What?"

"I knew something was wrong."

"How?"

Jim shook his head, regretting the admission he'd made. "Later, Chief. Go take a nap and I'll figure out something we can both handle for dinner."

"I'm not tired." Blair's hoarse voice belied the petulant objection.

"You're practically asleep on your feet," Jim pointed out.

"And you're avoiding the question. Again."

"I'm not avoiding anything. Just delaying the conversation for a bit."

"Semantics," Blair grumbled.

"That's an interesting comment coming from an expert in obfuscation."

"I'm not budging a foot toward my bed until you talk to me, Jim," Blair insisted stubbornly.

"Sandburg, your knees are shaking, your heart's beating like a hummingbird's and your voice sounds like coarse sandpaper rasping over raw timber. You're in no shape to get into this conversation right now."

"I'm fine, Jim."

"So fine that you practically freaked out in the hallway when the door wouldn't open?"

Blair's head snapped up and he stared at Jim with the same expression of fear that the Sentinel had seen earlier. He opened his mouth and then shut it with a snap. Pivoting precisely, he stalked into his bedroom and closed the French doors firmly behind him.

Strained silence filled the loft, broken only by the patter of rain hitting the windows. With a deep sigh, the Sentinel nursed his bottle of water and wondered when the demons inside his Guide were going to break loose.


Cascade
Saturday
2:30 a.m.

The Sentinel woke and stared up through the skylight, tracking the paths of hundreds of water droplets as they were chased helter-skelter across the pane by the driving wind. He slipped quietly from his bed and into the pair of sweats that he'd laid out before he'd gone to sleep.

A flash of lightning illuminated the loft, accompanied by a slow roll of thunder. With practiced ease, Jim turned down the dials and waited for the strike. It came as expected, after a slow count of ten. The massive storm front that he'd sensed building in his sleep was nearly upon them.

He moved to the top of the stairs and paused, waiting. Another lightning bolt zigzagged across the sky, brightening the downstairs living area and revealing what the Sentinel had already seen through the darkness—his Guide, standing motionless in front of the balcony doors.

Night returned to the apartment, cloaking the blanket-wrapped figure in another layer of obscurity. Still the Sentinel didn't move. He'd anticipated this. The early hours of the morning and the raging storm outside seemed imminently appropriate for the upcoming exorcism.

"Do you believe in fate, Jim?"

The soft whisper carried upward through the darkness and the Sentinel smiled. Almost soundlessly he padded down the stairs, stopping at the bottom step.

"You're the one who's always reminding me that I'm genetically pre-disposed to these Sentinel abilities, Chief. What do you think?"

There was an odd scraping gurgle from the still figure, the sound that Jim had identified as his partner's sore-throated version of a chuckle. The sound died as quickly as it had begun and the loft filled with the sounds of the storm once more.

"Maybe I should rephrase that, " Blair whispered, his words cutting easily through the noise of the wind and rain. "I wasn't talking about predetermination, although between you and me, I'm starting to think there might be something to that..."

The younger man's voice faded away as though he were indeed considering some cosmic connection. The Sentinel remained silent, something deep inside telling him that it was his turn to wait.

"I guess I'm asking about... choices," Blair murmured after a few minutes.

"Making them or not making them?" Jim asked softly.

"Both... neither..."

The Sentinel heard the confusion in his Guide's voice and crossed the room to stand behind the younger man. He didn't touch him. He just stood waiting, offering the support of his physical presence if Blair needed it.

"You said something in the hospital... about instincts..." Blair turned slowly and looked up at Jim, his eyes wide and straining in the darkness for a glimpse of his Sentinel's face. "It made me think about Incacha."

"Incacha?"

"About his gift... about being a Shaman. Your Shaman. You know, we've never really talked about what that means."

"I know."

"I've thought about it. Before this... wondered what he really meant, what I was supposed to do..."

"Blair..."

"I think I took a walk."

Blair's incongruous statement caught Jim off guard.

"A walk. When? Tonight?" The Sentinel reached out to touch the flowing curls to see if they were wet.

"No. Then. When I was sick."

"Blair, there's no evidence that you ever left the apartment," Jim objected gently.

"But I did. A part of me did, at any rate. I wasn't here the whole time."

The memory of feeling his Guide's presence outside of his hotel room door flashed through the Sentinel's mind.

"Then where were you?" Jim asked softly.

"I'm not sure." Blair's delivery was hesitant, but his voice was filled with conviction. "There was a hallway, filled with doors. It was carpeted, and I remember thinking that the pattern was moving. Lots of little shapes and figures chasing each other endlessly. It was pretty weird at first. There were voices and sounds behind the doors, but none of them would open when I tried them."

"Sounds like a dream, buddy. Maybe something brought on by the virus and the reactions of your body to the poison."

"I thought it was a dream at first, but it kept reoccurring. There was one point where I know I was awake. I was standing right here looking out into the rain and suddenly I was there, in the hallway again, walking the length of it, searching for something... someone..."

"What else happened in this 'dreamwalk'?" Jim asked after a few moments of silence.

"Not much. It changed a little each time. The hallway I mean."

"In what way?"

"Fewer doors. There was a point where there was only one left. And then it disappeared as well. Funny... I remember it being green, just like the door to the loft. But it had four numbers on it, not three."

"Do you remember what the numbers were?"

"No... I do remember thinking that door was really important. I kept being drawn to it. I was even sure that I heard someone call out my name from the other side once."

Jim stiffened, remembering the hotel corridors that he'd stalked that night. Long, carpeted hallways with green doors. His room had been at the far end of one of the wings. Number 1231.

"I'm pretty sure the voice was yours," Blair whispered.

A sudden streak of lightning flooded the loft with light. In that instant, Jim was certain that Blair's eyes looked right into his mind and found the disturbing events that the Sentinel had kept hidden.

"It was your room, wasn't it? It was you I was searching for—your door that I kept seeking." His Guide's voice was filled with wonder. "The dreamwalk led me to you... connected us, somehow. That's how you knew something was wrong and that I needed you. You admitted as much yesterday afternoon. That's why you came back, isn't it?"

"There are a probably a dozen logical explanations for what happened, Chief," Jim countered evenly.

"Name one."

"I called you Friday night. When you didn't answer, I left a message on the machine with the hotel room number. That was probably what your subconscious picked up."

"And my mind created the dream hallway to explain it? That's a pretty good hypothesis, Jim. You sure you haven't been taking some psych classes behind my back?"

"Just learning from the master, Chief," Jim growled in annoyance.

"It still doesn't explain how you knew something was wrong, or why you called Simon and demanded that he come to the loft that night. He told me he'd never heard you so desperate."

"Simon's got to learn to keep his mouth shut," Jim muttered.

"It also doesn't explain why you had a headache, a sore throat and an upset stomach at the same time I was suffering similar symptoms from the poison."

"How did you know about that?" Jim asked in shocked surprise.

"One of the nurses told me. I woke up one time when you were gone. She said that Doctor Henderson had ordered some tests for you."

"And I suppose you charmed the details out of her in no time," Jim snorted. "I had a touch of the same flu bug you did. That still doesn't prove your point. "

Blair was silent for a long time, then he shook his head and turned to look out into the storm.

"You're right. There are lots of rational reasons for what happened. But I know that this was something beyond coincidence or my overactive imagination. I also know that you have a hard time accepting the mystical aspects of being who you are—you won't even admit to the number of times you've seen your own spirit guide. It must be driving you crazy to have felt some kind of psychic connection to me."

"Sandburg..."

"Just think about it, man. Why did this happen when it did? I was safe, I knew you were going to be okay with Brown watching out for you..."

"That's not the impression you gave me when I left," Jim argued.

"Guides have their own protection modes, Sentinel. You should be used to my ravings by now. I did overreact a little. I realized that after you'd left. The point is, my propensity for finding trouble aside, it's too much of a cosmic joke to think that all of this was just coincidence—or the result of an accident."

"So we're back to discussing fate," Jim said softly.

"Maybe. Most earth shattering events tend to be pretty circular in nature and I confess to feeling a little like a hamster on one of those round treadmills, lately," Blair admitted with a dry chuckle. His demeanor turned somber again and he turned back to face the Sentinel, a look of determination and calm acceptance on his face.

"You're the one that took the trip, but I think that I started on a journey. A first venture into the world that Incacha's bequest opened up for me. A Shaman walks in more than one world, Jim. I think that's what my dream was all about. Stepping into an alternative universe, manifested as a hallway filled with doors that represented choices. Options that I tried along the way and abandoned. The door that I sensed you behind beckoning to me because deep down inside I knew that you of all people would hear me calling for help, even though I didn't realize that I needed it. Waiting for you at that final door..."

"The final door?" Jim asked in confusion. "I thought you said that in the dream all the doors disappeared."

"They did for a while. Then one reappeared. A green door with three numbers."

The Sentinel's eyes widened as he realized the significance of his Guide's words.

"The final door that led me home," Blair confirmed, his voice so soft that Jim had to strain to hear the words. "Before that door appeared I was lost. Alone. It was terrifying. I was ready to give up. I was sure I was going to die, man. I think, that for a time, I even forgot who I was..."

"What made you remember?" Jim voice was nearly as quiet as Blair's.

"A voice. Ancient. Fierce. It was pretty demanding, really. Reminded me of you in one of your over-protective modes."

Jim ignored the teasing jibe. "And what did this voice have to say?"

"It said you needed me. It reminded me that our lives were tied together as Sentinel and Guide."

And as friends and partners, Chief, Jim added silently.

"That's when I realized that I wasn't alone—that whether you were physically present or not, we were connected. That gave me the courage to wait."

"For me. How could you be so sure that I'd come, Blair? That I'd be in time?" How can he trust me that much?

"Hey, you've got a great track record in that department, man." Blair pushed back a stray lock of hair and grinned up at Jim. "Your timing's always superb, Ellison. Must be all that military training."

The lightning flashed and the thunder rumbled, but the special effects were less spectacular than they had been a few minutes earlier.

"Looks like the worst of the storm is over," Blair murmured. "I don't know about you, but I could use a cup of tea... chamomile, this time, I think. I know there was some in the basket that Joel sent from the station."

He brushed past Jim and picked his way across the darkened room, avoiding all but one minor collision with the couch. He flipped on the light in the kitchen and Jim heard the running water as he filled a kettle.

Somewhat dazed, Jim dug through the boxes of presents and found the basket Blair had mentioned. His partner never ceased to amaze him. One minute he was talking about walking on an astral plane and the next he was puttering around making tea. He carried the basket into the kitchen and placed it on the counter. When Blair reached for it, the Sentinel stopped him, long fingers wrapping around the slender wrist and tugging gently for attention.

Wide blue eyes met his curiously.

"Where does this leave us, Chief?" Jim asked quietly.

"Right where we are, man. Nothing's changed. Not really," Blair answered with a smile. "You're still the Sentinel of the Great City and I'm still your Guide."

"And this... connection?"

"It was always there, Jim. Just like your senses have always been a part of you. Whether we acknowledge them or not, some truths remain constant. Sometimes we need to take a journey to see what's right in front of our eyes."

Correct as always, partner, Jim mused.

"I think I'd rather take the next trip together," the Sentinel replied with a smile of his own.

His Guide's eyes danced with enthusiasm. "Deal!"

Blair raised his hand and Jim delivered the 'high five' with a snap that stung both of their palms.

"Ouch... jeez, Jim. Take it easy, man. I'm still recuperating, remember?"

~ End ~

Author's Additional Notes:


E-Mail K. Ryn at kdkm@aol.com
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Page last updated 8/15/03.