Disclaimer: Applies as always.


Who Shall Guard the Guardians Themselves?
by
K. Ryn

kdkm@aol.com

 

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
(Who shall guard the guardians themselves?)
 Juvenal


Simon Banks reviewed the last of the paperwork and added his signature to the final page of the triplicate forms. With a sigh of relief, he closed the folder and placed it in his 'done-get-it-out-of-here' bin for Rhonda to file. His eyes strayed to the overflowing in-basket and he grimaced—the number of new cases waiting to be assigned was nearly double the manpower he had available.

He glanced up, studying the two silent men in his office. Jim Ellison leaned against the window casing, staring out onto the brightly lit morning. Simon could see the weariness in the detective's stance and in the dark shadows under his eyes, even if the face was as calm and unreadable as usual. Blair Sandburg was slouched on the couch, the young observer's normally ebullient personality dampened, his gaze fixed on the floor as he retreated into introspective silence. Simon shook his head. Ellison and Sandburg were his best team, but one look was all it took to see that their last case had pushed them both to the edge of their limits.

Simon's eyes flickered to the closed file. Major Crimes typically got more than its share of grim cases, but this one had been a nightmare. Every day, for ten long days, there had been a new murder to add to the jacket. Initially, nothing seemed to tie the brutal deaths together; the victims had ranged in age from sixteen to fifty-four, male and female, Caucasian, Hispanic and African American. They came from different social and economic backgrounds, and there had been no evidence that any of them knew one another.

The only consistent elements were the cause and location of death. Each of the victims had been stabbed repeatedly—one poor soul up to forty times, and all had died in their homes. The murders had been violent and bloody. Even the normally unshakable members of the forensics team had blanched every time they'd been called to one of the scenes.

Ellison, of course, had latched onto the case with a vengeance, treating the investigation as if the killer was taunting him personally. He'd driven himself hard, racing a ticking twenty-four hour clock, trying to find the murderer before he struck again.

And Sandburg had been with him, every step of the way. The case had been particularly hard on the young observer. Simon had seen the haunted look in the kid's eyes when they'd entered his office to hand off their final report.

At first, as if anxious to prove to them that he could handle it, Blair had planted himself at his partner's side, slipping into his role of Sentinel's Guide with practiced ease. Simon had privately wondered just how long the kid would stick it out, but by the fifth day—after Jim had begun to experience more frequent zone-outs as he pushed his overworked senses—Banks had quit speculating. The kid became Ellison's shadow, his dedication to the older detective unwavering. Blair had seen every bloody corpse, read every sickening report, had stood beside Jim as his partner questioned and consoled the grieving families.

In the end, it was Sandburg who'd discovered the lead which had broken the case. In sifting through the endless personal records of the victims, he'd come across a common entry in their checkbooks. Each had placed a classified ad in the Cascade Observer, a local shopper-style newspaper. The 'for sale' ads themselves proved to have nothing in common—a 'never worn' engagement ring for a 'steal' at $700.00, an infant portacrib for $45.00, a set of Bose speakers for $125.00, a "bargain basement" offer on a pair of matching love seats going to the first caller who came up with $200.00.

A quick trip to the paper's office, however, uncovered the unifying connection. The same clerk, a 'nice middle-aged man', by the name of Bill Haight had taken all of the orders. A subsequent visit to the man's home, with search warrant in hand, had given them everything they'd needed, including Haight himself. He'd offered no resistance, and thus far, no explanations for the murders, although the evidence they'd discovered in his apartment clearly pegged him as the killer. He was down in the maximum security wing now, waiting for transport to the nearest psychiatric facility for evaluation. No one had any doubt his defense would involve some kind of insanity plea.

What made it all so difficult to come to terms with was the randomness of his acts. The victims had been chosen simply because Haight had waited on them when they had placed their ads. If they had dealt with another clerk, they'd still be alive. Chance had decided their fates, and that's what made it so senseless.

It was finally over, even the paperwork, but the damage the killer had done would affect all of them for a long time. Banks shook his head and sighed. No matter how heavy the new caseload was, these two needed a break, even if it was only for a few days.

"Good job," Simon finally murmured, breaking the silence.

Jim's gaze swung to his captain and he nodded, then glanced at his quiet partner. Blair still sat motionless, lost in his own thoughts. Simon saw the worry in the older man's eyes, accompanied by the expression which often preceded the detective's shift into his protective mode.

"I think a couple of days off are in order," Simon continued softly.

He saw Ellison's eyes flicker to the stack of folders in the in-basket. The look the detective gave him was grateful, but questioning.

"It'll wait," Banks reassured him. He shot a look at Blair and then glanced back at Jim. "Get out of here and take that vagrant with you," he added in gruff exasperation.

A brief smile crossed Jim's face. Simon wasn't fooling anyone with his tone, especially not a Sentinel.

"Thank you, sir," he acknowledged. Moving to Blair's side, he placed a hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Hey, Chief. Time to go."

Blair shook his head and looked up abruptly, his eyes losing some of their 'lost' expression when he focused on the older man.

"Oh... we're done?" He cast an anxious glance toward Simon, abruptly aware he'd been lost in his own form of zone-out.

"Yeah, Simon's cutting us loose for a few days," Jim explained, tugging Blair's arm to help him to his feet.

A broad smile of relief filled the younger man's face. "Great! I mean... no offense, Captain, but I'll be glad to see something other than the inside of this place, or the morgue, for a while."

"No happier than I'll be not to have to put up with your rambling mouth, Sandburg," Simon growled. "Two days, then you're back on the clock."

"We appreciate it, sir," interjected Jim. He forestalled any additional comments from Blair by turning the younger man in the direction of the door. Simon's phone rang before they reached it.

"Banks... Ellison? Yeah, he's here... Who'd you say this is?" Simon glanced up and caught Jim's curious gaze, holding it for a moment before focusing his attention on the call. He grabbed a pen and began writing furiously. "And when did this take place?"

Jim moved a step closer to Simon's desk, trying to read past the concerned expression on his captain's face.

"Yeah, I got it, but we'll need some paper to back this up... all right... hold on." Simon put his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone and let out a terrific bellow. "TAGGERT!" Within seconds, Joel Taggert's bulky figure filled the doorway. "Check the fax. See if there's something coming through from the FBI's Seattle office," Simon ordered. Joel disappeared like a ghost and was back almost immediately, thrusting a flimsy sheet of paper into Simon's hands.

"Simon...?"

The captain cut off Jim's question with an abrupt gesture as he concentrated on the phone call again. For a moment, the Sentinel considered using his enhanced senses to listen in on the other end of the conversation, but he pushed the temptation away. Ethical considerations aside, he knew he'd be getting the full story from Simon shortly. He took a deep breath to settle his own growing impatience and was immediately aware of Blair shifting closer.

"What's going on?"

Jim answered the younger man's question with a shrug of his shoulders, his jaw tightening as he contemplated Blair's involvement in whatever was breaking. Maybe I can keep Sandburg out of it. He's done more than enough over the last ten days. He's practically out on his feet.

Simon's next words put an end to that hope.

"Sandburg? You want him, too?" Banks glanced up at Blair and then quickly to Jim, catching the nearly imperceptible shake of the detective's head. "Look," Simon shifted his attention back to the phone call once more. "I've got other officers who are accomplished in S and R besides... yes, Ellison and Sandburg are my best team, but they're just coming off a nasty... yes, I understand the seriousness of... no, the paperwork looks like it's in order, but... oh she did, did she?"

Jim could hear the angry frustration in his captain's voice and knew he was facing a dead end. Despite Simon's best intentions, he and Blair had just been assigned another case.

"All right... I'll have them up on the roof in fifteen minutes... yeah, I'm sure you do." With a snarl, Banks slammed down the receiver. He reached for a cigar, chomping down on the end of it as he studied the notes he had scribbled. Finally, he raised his head and met the inquisitive stares.

"FBI's got a joint effort going with Search and Rescue," he began, chewing the words out around the cigar. "They've asked for you specifically. Seems the mayor's office has decided that you two are the flavor of the month." He shook his head in disgust as he handed Jim the fax. "We've got a missing busload of grade-school kids. They were due at the Tiara Wilderness Camp up north, three hours ago. Some kind of field trip. One of the rangers remembers them checking in at the park entrance on schedule, but they never made it to the camp."

"I assume someone's checked the roads in and out," Jim said quietly, feeling a tightening in his gut as he scanned the fax transmission. "It couldn't be as simple as a mechanical breakdown, I suppose."

"No joy there. Weather's been bad all week and the roads in and out are a mess, but they've done a pretty thorough search and come up empty."

"I don't get it," Blair interjected, finally breaking his silence. "Why's the FBI in on this?"

"Standard procedure, Chief," Jim explained. "Whenever you've got an unexplained absence, particularly one with children, kidnapping is always a consideration."

"Kidnapping?"

Jim saw the younger man pale and reached out to put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "It's a possibility, Chief, but it's more likely that the driver tried a shortcut and got mired down. You know what that area's like. We went camping up there last year."

"Yeah, I remember. Lovely spot. Lots of high mountains and long vertical drops," the younger man muttered distastefully, rolling his eyes and nervously pushing his hands through his hair.

Jim turned away to hide a worried frown. That camping trip had almost been a disaster and it had been his fault. Neither of them had ever been in that particular area before and in his enthusiasm to break some new ground, he'd inadvertently led them up a trail that had severely tested his partner's acrophobia. He'd mentally kicked himself for months afterwards, remembering the look of terror in the younger man's eyes as he'd edged along a path which had dropped away at their feet, determinedly keeping up until Jim had finally realized what was happening and led them back down.

Closing his eyes for a moment, he focused on his Guide. He didn't need to see him to recognize the physical fatigue that Blair was feeling. He felt it in himself. What worried him was the damage the Haight case had done to the younger man's spirit. He'd seen the anguish growing in his partner's eyes every day. He'd wanted to keep Sandburg on the fringe of this kind of violence, but the demands of using his senses for so long and so intensely had ultimately required his Guide's constant, steadying presence. Even now, with the case over, he could feel the stress still eating away at his friend. To ask him to jump into this unknown situation was definitely far beyond what the anthropologist had signed on for.

"You know, Chief," he drawled casually, still half-turned away from the younger man, "this is likely to turn out to be just a dry run. Search and Rescue will probably have found those kids before we even get up there. Why don't you sit this one out?"

"Don't you think I can handle it?"

The raw emotion in Blair's whispered question caught him by surprise. Jim turned to face him, eyeing his partner intently. The younger man had drawn back a step and stood with his fists clenched at his sides. His gaze was angry, definitely challenging.

"I didn't mean that, Chief—"

"You're going. And if you're wrong and they haven't found those kids, you're going to have to use your senses during the search. You're going to need me." Blair's voice shook and Jim saw the fists clench even tighter.

"Blair, the last ten days have been ugly. I know how much sleep you've gotten lately."

"You're not in much better shape than I am, big guy. You're not the only one who can hear footsteps prowling the loft at all hours of the night, you know. I didn't stick with you through all this shit to get dumped aside just because you think I need a nap. What if it is a kidnapping and you get into a firefight? You think one of those FBI agents is going to know what to do when you have a zone-out, Ellison?"

Blair paled and turned away. Jim caught his arm and felt the tremors that were surging through him. Reaching out with his senses he heard the rapid pounding of his Guide's heart and he spun the younger man around to face him.

"What is it? What's wrong?" His gaze locked with Blair's. There was terror filling those familiar blue eyes. And more—there was the impression of immense sorrow.

"I don't..." Blair's whisper trailed off. He shuddered, then seemed to regain his control, the anger returning. "Nothing's wrong. I'm just standing my ground for once. Now are WE going or not?"

They glowered at one another for several long moments, until Jim finally nodded. "Okay," he said softly. "We'll do this together. Just like always."

Blair met his gaze evenly, relaxing as his anger melted away.

"If you ladies are finished...?" Simon glared at both of them, hoping his feigned anger would conceal his concern. Neither one of them is in shape for another assignment, especially if things get rough. Damn, I wish I had a way around this. When they turned to look at him, he shook his head and continued. "FBI's sending a chopper. Get your butts up to the roof. They'll equip you when you reach the staging area. The man in charge is Agent Anders."

"I'll meet you upstairs, Jim," Blair murmured, already headed toward the door. Stopping only to grab his jacket and backpack from Jim's desk, he moved swiftly through the bullpen and disappeared out into the hallway.

"Ellison..." Simon's soft call stopped Jim at the door. "Be careful. Both of you."


Blair let himself out onto the roof and slowly crossed to the helicopter pad. He was short of breath from his mad dash up the stairs, and he had a stitch in his side. Forcing himself to breathe evenly, he kept moving, desperate to get control over his racing emotions before Jim joined him.

"It was just a panic attack, " he whispered, trying to reassure himself. "That's it. Nothing more."

~You know better than that...~

"No, I don't... oh, shit!" He shook his head in irritation as he realized he was having a conversation with himself. "Man, am I the picture of mental health here, or what? Stop this. Get a grip." He took a deep breath, hoping to gain the upper hand on his subconscious, but the insistent voice within his head just droned on.

~Then what the hell was that all about? Why the panic attack? You've stood up to Jim before, so what gives?~

"Shut up, already. I am NOT in the mood for this conversation right now!"

He scrubbed wearily at his face. This is just stress, he told himself. And exhaustion. Jim was right, he hadn't been sleeping much. How could he, when every time he shut his eyes he saw the brutalized bodies of Haight's victims? In retrospect, he knew that it was a case he should have stayed out of. It was just too painful. But Jim's involvement really hadn't given him any choice—his Sentinel had needed him. He was the Guide. It had been just that simple.

~Be honest with yourself. You know what's really going on here.~

He stared down at the painted pattern that would guide the chopper in and shook his head in denial.

~You can't ignore what you are.~

"You wanna bet?"

He scrubbed his face again and closed his eyes, softly repeating one of his meditation mantras. "Find the center... find the center..." He felt one more tug of the almost violent sensation, then his breathing eased. Within moments, he felt better and he opened his eyes, glancing around the rooftop for his partner. Jim hadn't appeared yet, for which Blair was grateful.

~If he'd seen you like that again, he WOULD have sent you home for a nap,~ the voice reminded him.

"Yeah, and if he sees me standing here talking to myself he'll have me committed."

~Accept the truth.~

"No..."

He started pacing again, using the physical activity to release some of the tension he felt building inside. He swallowed hard against a nervous tremor and glanced wildly around the rooftop. "Where the hell is that damn chopper?"

~Accept the truth.~

"I said NO..."

"Sandburg..."

"What part of no don't you understand?" Forgetting that he was arguing with himself, Blair spun around angrily, ready to confront the nagging voice before he realized that he'd actually 'heard' that last response. His heart skipped a beat when he found himself face to face with Jim. How much did he hear? Man, he really will think I'm crazy!

"Sandburg, who are you talking to?" Jim's face was filled with an expression of concern as he reached out and touched Blair gently on the arm.

"Nobody, man," Blair forced a grin. "Just running off at the mouth as usual. I'm—"

The wave of terror and despair hit him so hard it tore the air from his lungs. At that moment everything around him ceased to exist; he could see nothing but blackness, feel nothing except the raging fear and overwhelming sorrow which threatened to engulf him, hear nothing except his own voice screaming Jim's name.

He gulped for air and the real world returned. He felt Jim's firm hand on his arm, pulling him forward and he looked up into his partner's face, expecting to see the Sentinel's blue-eyed stare boring into him. Instead, Jim's gaze was turned away, watching the incoming helicopter as it maneuvered into its landing spot.

For a split second, Blair hovered between trying to cover his reaction to the attack or crumpling into a terrified heap. Part of him wanted to grab Jim's arm and drag his partner downstairs—anything to keep them off the helicopter and away from whatever they were headed into. But as he drew in another ragged breath, Ellison's attention shifted to back to him, the Sentinel's eyes filling with concern.

He managed to meet Jim's searching stare with a level one of his own, grimly considering the irony of the situation. For all the times in the past two-plus years that he'd tried, and failed, to beat the man's perceptive senses, he finally had the opportunity—and he didn't really want to take it. But he knew he would. Seeing the determination in his partner's face, Blair managed a rueful grin and a shrug, pointing to the aircraft as if to indicate that it had startled him.

For a moment he wasn't sure Jim was buying into his act after all. The grip on his arm tightened and the gaze grew even more intense. Buffeted by the gusts of wind kicked up by the milling rotors, Blair fought to hold his ground both physically and mentally, driven by the instinctive duty he'd felt during the last ten days.

"Are we going or not?" he finally yelled, breaking their silence.

Jim's reluctant nod and the release of the almost painful grip on his arm was the older man's only answer before he turned and stalked toward the helicopter. Trailing in his wake, Blair struggled to keep his heart from climbing into his throat, grateful that he'd have his normal fear of heights, and the objects which flew in them, to occupy his thoughts over the next few hours.

He managed to avoid his partner's inquisitive gaze as they strapped in and donned their headsets. The pilot was all business and short on chatter. They had a three hour trip ahead of them and they would be updated on the situation upon arrival. Immersed in his own whirling thoughts, Blair wasn't even aware the chopper had left the roof until they were speeding out across the bay in a wide, banking arc.

Jim settled back, stretching his legs as far as the cramped space would allow. "It's going to be a while, Chief. Why don't you try to get some rest?"

Blair nodded. Shifting into a more comfortable position himself, he closed his eyes gratefully. He could feel the vibration of the rotors through the seat-back like a gentle massage. Sleep was definitely in order and it meshed nicely with his current avoidance strategy.

~Accept the truth.~

With a resigned sigh, Blair opened his eyes and stared out into the clouds, unable to ignore the challenge that his own mind had posed for him any longer. It would be easy to write the attacks off to frayed nerves and exhaustion. His emotions did tend to rise to the surface when he was tired, and after what they'd been through for the last ten days, he figured he deserved the right to be a little ragged around the edges.

But deep inside, he knew it was more than that. He'd felt this before. Oh, nothing as drastic as what he'd felt in Simon's office or on the roof. Not that full body terror and soul-wrenching sorrow. The previous episodes had been little nudges, gentle love taps compared to the assaults he was experiencing now.

He shuddered and took a deep breath. He'd been enduring these bursts of emotional trauma for the past ten days and he'd originally blamed them on the stress of the case. The incidents had become more frequent, although not necessarily more severe, as the investigation had dragged on. He hadn't paid much attention to them because his concentration had been centered on helping Jim. He'd never felt so helpless, watching his Sentinel slip into one zone-out after another. Toward the end, he'd been terrified that if he left Jim's side for even a minute, he'd lose his friend to the trance-like state forever.

But the case is over now, he reminded himself. So why is this still happening? And why is it worse? Post-reaction let-down or something? That would make a certain amount of sense. The explanation was valid, so why did he feel like it was the easy way out? Probably because it is. Be honest with yourself, Sandburg. These sensations started manifesting long before the Haight case.

And that, of course, was the truth that he had been trying to avoid. In his heart, he knew exactly what was going on, but he hadn't let his head in on the secret yet—although his subconscious was doing a pretty good job at trying to ruin his plans. He refused to admit it to himself, much less say it out loud. It was too terrifying. Far too big a paradigm shift to deal with right now. He needed time to process it. Time to sort it out piece by piece. Time to figure out a way to talk to Jim about it.

~Accept the truth.~

Not now, he told himself firmly. Now I need to be in control as Jim's Guide. I know that role. I can do that one. I can't handle the other yet.

This time there was no demanding response. Stifling a sigh as he settled back and closed his eyes, he realized that the ominous silence in his mind was as disturbing as the nagging voice had been. It was a long time before he drifted off into a troubled, fitful sleep.


Jim's own internal clock woke him a few minutes before they reached the staging area. He glanced at his still dozing partner and automatically reached out with his senses, monitoring the younger man's life signs. Reassured that the anthropologist's slower pulse and respiration were only the by-products of a deep sleep, he shifted his gaze out the window.

As he watched the forest slip away beneath them, his thoughts returned to his partner and his brow furrowed in concern. Something was wrong and it was more than the stress and horrors of the last case. There had been signs of increasing distress and uneasiness in his friend over the past several months. Why hadn't he paid more attention? Why had it taken Blair's outburst in Simon's office and what he'd tried to hide up on the roof to open his Sentinel's eyes?

The obvious answer made him extremely uncomfortable—he'd grown so used to Blair's presence, that he was no longer really 'aware' of his friend.

Except of course, when he isn't around when I need him. Pretty selfish, Ellison. You've been treating him like an extension of yourself, or worse, like some obedient guide-dog who's always supposed to be at your beck and call—not like your best friend. He's been hurting and you didn't even care enough to notice.

The revelation brought with it a heavy dose of guilt. He, of all people, knew better than to accept the 'nothing fazes Sandburg' persona which his friend used as a facade to keep the real world at bay.

It had always annoyed him when Simon or someone else in the department discounted Blair's contributions to their work. The realization that he, too, had begun to take the younger man for granted, was a painful blow to his own self image. How could he have done that? It wasn't part of the hard-nosed Ellison profile to admit to weakness, but he knew what he owed the younger man—how much he'd come to depend on Blair not only as his Guide, but as his friend.

Jim straightened in his seat, vowing that as soon as this newest assignment was over, he would get to the bottom of what was wrong. It was time Blair saw this as an equal partnership, at least as far as their commitment and respect for each other was concerned. It might take some fast talking on his part, particularly in the face of the dedication that the younger man held for his perceived role, but Jim knew he could be as persuasive as the grad student when he set his mind to it.

The pilot's blaring voice yanked him from his own thoughts. Wincing, he felt a flash of irritation as he dialed down his hearing. Damn, that was loud! He shot a quick look at his equally startled partner and felt his annoyance increase. Blair looked like someone had jolted him awake with a cattle prod. The younger man was shaking his head, blinking furiously as he tried to clear the sleep from his mind. Jim didn't need enhanced hearing to know that the anthropologist's heart was pounding in fright.

"Say again!" Jim requested, still eyeing his partner in concern.

"We're on final approach. ETA three minutes," the pilot answered.

Jim stared out the window, scanning ahead in an attempt to pick out their landing site. A puzzled frown creased his face at the sight of the unbroken forest below.

"I thought we were meeting Agent Anders at the entrance to the park," Jim objected, recalling the details on the fax.

"New orders, sir," the pilot responded. "We received a revised target destination an hour ago."

"Why the change in plans?"

"Beats me, sir. I just fly this thing where they tell me."

Jim glanced over at Blair and saw that the younger man had recovered enough to roll his eyes expressively at the exchange. Ellison answered with a mock frown at his partner's impertinence before turning to study the terrain once again.

"The growth looks pretty dense. Where are you going to put down?" he asked.

"I'm sorry, sir, but there's no place to land this bird at the coordinates they gave me. We're going to have to drop you."

"Drop us?" Blair's choked response rang in the Sentinel's ears.

"Not literally, Chief," Jim assured his stunned partner.

"Well, that's a relief," Blair muttered, wiping at his face. "I thought for a minute you'd gotten me into something dangerous again. I already jumped out of a plane with you once, Jim. It's an experience I'm not eager to repeat."

Jim frowned at the memory that the younger man's words evoked. "You don't have to go along this time. This one's not about friendship."

The eyes that met his were filled with determination. "You're wrong, Jim. That's exactly what this one is about," Blair whispered. He held Ellison's gaze for a few seconds and then shook his head. "We've already been through this. You're going, so I'm going. Just tell me what to do. I presume there's at least a rope or jungle vine for me to slither down?"

"Nothing quite that primitive, Tarzan," Jim grinned, falling into the light-hearted banter which had seen them through other tense situations.

Slipping out of his seatbelt, Jim rose to his feet and began uncoiling the bundled nylon rope and plexiglas ladder which was attached to the door-side of the aircraft. "Once we get into position, we'll open the door, toss this out and head down. You just hold on tight until you hit bottom."

"Wonderful choice of word pictures, Jim," Blair responded sarcastically.

"I'll go first and steady the bottom for you. I'm serious about hanging on tight, Chief. There's probably a pretty stiff crosswind at this elevation, not to mention the gusts the rotors are going to be kicking up. You sure you're up for this?"

The pilot's announcement forestalled Blair's answer. "We're set to go. Can you handle the door?"

"Yeah, I've got it," Jim assured the pilot, his attention still on his partner, awaiting his response.

"You heard the man," Blair said quietly, stripping off his headset as he rose to his feet. He grabbed his backpack and settled it in place, giving the straps a tug to make sure they were secure. He crossed the few steps to his partner's side, struggling to keep his balance when the helicopter caught a small down draft. Jim hauled him closer to the curved inside wall, gesturing for him to take hold of one of the handgrips.

"Door's opening now," Jim called into the headset before he pulled it off. Anchoring himself with his left hand, he slammed the locking lever upward with his right, releasing the door to slide free on the track. He gave it one shove to push it fully open and immediately stepped back away from the sucking rush of air, using his body to shelter Blair from the worst of the dragging wind.

Leaning forward he took a quick look below. The chopper was hovering at least sixty feet above a small clearing. Jim picked out the shapes of a half-dozen trucks and double that many men before he pulled back inside, turning to meet Blair's level gaze.

"You ready?" Ellison had to yell over the roaring of the helicopter's engines. Blair gave one terse nod, and Jim patted him on the shoulder. "I'll see you downstairs!" He tossed out the rope ladder, feeling the reassuring jerk as it unrolled. With a 'thumbs up' signal to his partner, he grabbed on with both hands and swung himself onto the rungs. He lowered himself down two steps and then paused, staring up at his partner. "One more thing!" he yelled.

"What?" Blair screamed back, edging closer to opening as he strained to hear Jim's words.

"Don't stop on the way down to admire the view!"

He waited long enough to see Blair's face contort in an expression of disgust and then continued his descent.


When Jim dropped out of sight, Blair automatically leaned forward to check on his partner's progress—and immediately regretted it. One quick peek at Jim working his way down the swinging ladder was all it took to send the whole world spinning into confusion. Twisting back away from the opening, Blair pressed himself into the side of the chopper's fuselage, immensely grateful for the reassuring solidity of it against his spine.

"Breathe... Breathe..." he ordered his already over-taxed lungs. "Come on... you know how... this... works... Air in... Air out..."

Hyperventilating was not a good idea here. Screwing his eyes shut in hopes of fending off the whirling attack of vertigo wasn't the way to go either. With a determined shake of his head, he gritted his teeth and vented his irritation at the closest target.

"'Don't stop... and admire... the view... ' huh, Ellison? What... a sense... of humor... Just wait... until I get on the ground..."

Surprisingly, the anger seemed to help. He was breathing easier, and most of the giddiness was gone. He allowed himself a small grin. Jim had said that on purpose, anticipating that Blair would probably freak the minute he was alone. Sly move, Ellison. You know me pretty well, don't you?

Feeling a little more confident, Blair decided to risk another look over the edge. He took a few deep breaths and pulled himself to his feet. Still holding onto the handgrip with a white-knuckled grasp, he peered down, trying to focus on his partner and ignore the rest of the spinning view. Jim was only a few feet from the ground. If he meant to follow, now was the time.

"This sucks!" he announced to any major deities that were listening. He reached out and grabbed the swaying ladder with his right hand. He felt the tension in the nylon cord increase and knew that Jim had reached bottom and was steadying it for him. With one more deep breath, he released his hold on the handgrip and swung outward at the same time, feeling for the rungs with his feet.

A gust of wind nearly shifted him from the rope, but he hung on, forcing himself to keep moving. Remembering that anger had cleared his mind before, he launched into a litany of vengeful promises every time his feet touched a new rung.

"You're going to pay for this, Ellison," he whispered, hoping that Jim's hearing was tuned to the max. "When we get home there are going to be tests... tests in the lab, man... I know how much you hate those... tests on a daily basis... Taste tests to start, I think... yeah, we'll try out your reactions to every spice known to mankind... and then when you're not looking, I'm really going to turn up the heat... I'm going to dust your lasagna with so much red pepper that you'll be putting out the fire for days... I'm going to switch the covers on the tupperware in the fridge..."


Jim felt the strain of aching muscles and automatically dialed down his awareness level of the pain, his eyes never leaving his partner. Despite his inexperience, the younger man was making good progress in his descent. It was just nerve-wracking to watch. The Sentinel knew what the effort was costing his Guide in both emotional and physical terms. He'd been shaking himself by the time he'd touched the ground, a reminder of how much the stress and activity of the last ten days had taken out of him.

"... and then we're going to do smell... yeah, a trip to the dump... that'll be perfect..."

Despite the gravity of the situation, Jim couldn't stop the grin that tugged at the corners of his mouth. Blair was on a roll. Well you gave him the incentive, Ellison. If he does hold to his threats you'd better just ride it out. You owe him at least that much for all he's put up with from you. Knowing that the venting was partially for his benefit, Jim kept his hearing attuned to his partner as the younger man lowered himself another step.

"... it'll be worse than the sour milk, believe me... shit!"

Jim's breath caught in his throat as Blair's handhold slipped and the younger man slid downward, catching himself with a white-knuckled grip three rungs lower. There was silence from his Guide for a minute as Blair hung onto the nylon rope for dear life. Knowing that the noise from the chopper would wipe out any words that he might scream out to his friend, Ellison tightened his grip, trying to stabilize the swinging ladder while he sent waves of mental encouragement upward. Finally, Blair muttered a curse and started moving again, the diatribe picking up full steam once more.

"Your anal house rules? Yeah, lets talk about those..."

Jim gritted his teeth, his jaw clenching in anger. Whoever picked this landing site was going to get a piece of his mind once Blair was safe on the ground. It didn't bode well for the success of their efforts if the organizational skills of the men in charge were this poor. There had been other sites, not too far away, where the helicopter could have landed. Jim had done a quick surveillance of the area as he'd made his own descent, automatically scanning the terrain, using the higher vantage point to pick out landmarks so that he'd be able to pinpoint their location later. They were far from the entrance of the park, at least a dozen miles northwest, if he remembered the area correctly. The sudden shift in plans irritated him, although not nearly as much as the unnecessary risk to his partner did.

He realized that his thoughts had drifted and he focused his attention on Blair again. The younger man was nearly in reach. Only fifteen feet to go, and his Guide would be out of danger.

The sudden, faltering whine of the engines was all the warning he had before the aircraft dipped and swung to the right. The nylon cord burned across his hands as the ladder was wrenched from his grip. Jim lunged forward trying to regain control of the swinging lifeline, but he overextended, and landed on his knees. He could only watch in horror as Blair lost his grip. The anthropologist swung one-handed for an agonizing moment before losing even that tentative hold. As he plummeted downward, the Sentinel scrambled to his feet, knowing there was no way he was going to reach his Guide before he hit the rocky ground.


Blair knew he was going to fall the second he felt the rope slip in his hands. He gulped for air and had a flash of deja vu—he'd done this falling thing before and he'd wound up breaking his arm. Gonna break more than that if you don't do something, Sandburg. Another childhood memory kicked in and instinctively he pulled in his flailing limbs, tucking himself into a ball. He hit the ground hard, but rolling, his arms wrapped over his head.

He felt firm hands on his shoulders, heard Jim calling his name, but he was too committed to the basic activity of filling his lungs to answer right away. The hands shifted him gently to his side and almost immediately his breathing eased.

"Am I there yet?" he managed to whisper.

"Hell of an entrance, Sandburg. I think you lost points for style on the take-off though."

Blair heard the relief in Jim's voice, and ignored the teasing jibe. "I think... I did that... out of order..."

"What's that, Chief?" Ellison asked soothingly, his hands still running over his partner's smaller frame, searching for injuries.

"Supposed to be stop first..."

"Sandburg, what are you talking about?"

"Stop, drop and roll..."

"That's what you do in case your clothing is on fire, Chief," Jim answered, fighting back a smile. It never ceased to amaze him how Blair could find an instinctive answer or action to fit almost any situation.

"Seemed appropriate at the time."

"Yeah, it was. You going to open your eyes now?"

"Just as soon as the ground stops moving."

"It'll be better if you open your eyes, Chief."

"Easy for you to say."

"Just do it, Sandburg," Jim growled.

Blair caught the undercurrent of worry in his partner's exasperated comment and followed his Sentinel's orders. His eyes flickered open and he found himself blinded by a curtain of his own hair. He started to raise his hand to brush the strands away, but a firm hand on his arm stopped the movement.

"Don't ."

Blair obeyed that one word command and lay motionless. Gently, Jim brushed the hair away from his face and tilted Blair's head slightly. Gazing up into his partner's eyes, Blair could almost feel the invisible touch of Jim's extended senses as the Sentinel anxiously checked him out.

"I'm okay, Jim." The barely whispered comment didn't alter the intense look on concentration on the older man's face. Abruptly aware of movement behind his partner, Blair hissed in warning. "Don't zone, man. We've got company."

"My God, is he all right?"

Blair ignored the new arrival, still focusing on Jim's dilated eyes. He saw his partner shake himself free of the zone-out and he breathed a quick sigh of relief—relief which turned to concern as the detective's face darkened with anger when he became aware of the other man's presence. Sensing Jim's protective instincts surging to the attack, Blair reached out and snagged his fingers in the Sentinel's jacket.

"Jim..."

The warning tone in his voice halted the building rage. Blair watched Jim struggle for control and cringed at the cold anger in the sky blue eyes, even though he knew it wasn't directed at him.

"Just lay still for a few more minutes," Ellison cautioned.

"No problem."

Still kneeling at Blair's side, Jim shifted positions slightly, turning his icy gaze on the man who stood next to them.

"He is all right, isn't he?" the newcomer asked.

Blair allowed himself a quick glance at the man before fixing his attention back on Jim. The man's tone was filled with concern, but Blair felt a shudder ripple through him, a fleeting sense of terror flashing behind his eyes.

"Are you the one responsible for picking this drop site?" Jim snarled the question through clenched teeth. Blair tightened his grip on his partner's jacket, fearful that the Sentinel was going to tear off the man's head if he didn't derail this immediately.

"Yes, I'm..."

"Hey, Jim. Give me a hand here," Blair interrupted, struggling to sit up. Sometimes Jim's 'mother-hen' mode could sometimes override the 'Blessed Protector' instincts. He hoped this was one of those moments.

"Damn it, Sandburg, I told you to stay put!" Jim's attention immediately swung back to him, just as Blair had hoped.

"I want to sit up, man," Blair assured him, his own hold shifting to grip the older man's arm and give him a reassuring squeeze. "I'm okay, Jim," he said softly, holding his partner's gaze until the Sentinel nodded.

"Are you Agent Anders?" Blair directed his words and his attention to the waiting man, who nodded and stretched out a hand, offering to help him up.

Ellison reacted then, not brushing Anders offer aside physically, but edging between the Agent and his Guide. Realizing that the Sentinel's need to protect him was still operating, Blair allowed Jim to pull him to his feet . Following his own instincts, he shifted into position slightly behind the older man, only then letting his gaze return to Anders' face. A warning shudder rippled through him and he forced himself to clamp down on his reaction.

Don't go there, man! This is NOT the time or the place.

Struggling to deal with the revulsion he felt crawling over his skin, Blair took one step closer to Jim, finding relief in the protective aura which was emanating from his partner.


With Blair in his familiar place at his back, Jim's attention focused on the FBI agent.

"I'm Ellison," he said tersely. "This is my partner, Blair Sandburg."

"Frank Anders," the agent said quietly, hesitantly extending his hand and then withdrawing it when he saw the set of Jim's face. "I apologize for this. The cross-winds up here are trickier than we thought." Anders shifted his gaze to Blair and he shook his head in admiration. "You must have a lot of experience in high level descents."

Jim sensed the shudder that ran through his young partner and his jaw tightened even further. "Why the change in plans?" he asked roughly.

"We've made some progress tracking the bus since you left Cascade," Anders answered, meeting Jim's gaze again. "The last sign of a trail that we found is just a mile or so down below us. We're only going to have six or seven hours before we lose our daylight. Given the need to resolve this quickly, I thought we'd be better off picking you up here."

Reminded of the reason they were present, Jim relaxed slightly at the agent's explanation, the part of his mind which wasn't still seething at the danger that his Guide had faced accepting the rationale behind the decision. He pushed away the flash of anger and studied the man closely.

Anders was nearly his height and build, but slightly older. Jim guessed late 40's. Definitely some military background, Jim judged, noting the ramrod straight posture. Salt and pepper closely cropped hair topped a face which had seen its own share of traumatic experiences. There was a long-healed scar trailing down the man's left cheekbone, and a spider-web pattern of discoloration around the right eye which Jim suspected was the result of some kind of powder burn. Again, long-healed.

The man's eyes caught his attention and he found himself automatically dialing up his senses. He'd had the feeling there was something shuttered behind that pale gray stare. After a moment's monitoring, he let himself slip back into normal range, having found nothing to explain the uneasy feeling which had flared in the pit of his stomach. He felt Blair shift behind him and decided he was simply picking up on his partner's odd behavior.

Or maybe you're just at the edge of your limits, Ellison. You know your senses tend to be less trustworthy when you're tired. Just get the job done, so you can both go home.

As if guessing that he'd just passed some kind of test, Anders extended his hand again. "I understand from your captain that you're coming off a pretty ugly case. We really appreciate your joining us."

Jim finally took the outstretched hand and shook it, nodding his acknowledgment, noting that his partner made no move to do the same. The absence of the gesture was apparently lost on Anders who pointed toward one of the supply vehicles.

"Make your choices from the gear in the truck and we'll head out. You can ride with me and I'll fill you in. Oh, and sorry again, for the rough entrance." Anders shot Blair an apologetic smile and moved off to join several of his men at one of the jeeps.

"Let's go, Chief." Jim touched Blair on the arm and started toward the vehicle the agent had indicated.

"He's lying. It wasn't an accident..."

Jim spun around at his partner's angry whisper. One look at Blair's bloodless face and he was back at the younger man's side. "Sandburg..." The younger man didn't respond, his gaze still fixed on Anders. Jim shook him gently. "Blair... look at me."

Eyes filled with rage swiveled in his direction. When they locked with Jim's, the violent emotion suddenly dissipated, replaced with a dazed expression of confusion and fright—the same look which had filled them earlier that morning in Simon's office, and on the roof before the helicopter had landed.

"Blair?"

The familiar blue eyes blinked and refocused. "What? Did you say something?"

"No, you did," Jim countered.

Blair ran his hand through his hair and shook his head, giving Jim one of his disarming, wry smiles. "Oh. Sorry. Guess I was just kind of stunned there for a minute. I'm not used to being treated so nicely by the FBI. They're usually ready to kick my ass OUT of the party, not invite me to it and apologize when I trip on the welcome mat."

Jim studied his young friend suspiciously. The smile was still plastered on his face, and his color was improving, but Sentinel senses revealed a different picture. His partner might be a master at misdirection where other people were concerned, but he never fooled Jim. Blair's heart was pounding, his respiration was fast and he was starting to squirm under the intense scrutiny. There was definitely something wrong—and for some reason it felt dangerous.

"What the hell's going on?" Ellison hissed, tightening his grip.

Blair ducked his head and tried to pull away, but Jim wasn't about to let him go.

"Answer me, Sandburg, and don't forget that I can hear it when you try to bend the truth."

"Jim—"

"This is the third attack of some kind you've had today. Now, either you tell me what's going on, or I'm packing you out of here."

"No, Jim. You can't. I have to stay with you!" Blair gasped. He grabbed onto the Sentinel and stared up into his face, stark fear filling the wide blue eyes.

"Then tell me what's going on," Jim said soothingly, all traces of anger gone from his tone.

"I don't... I can't..." Blair shook his head and shuddered.

"Tell me." Jim pitched his voice even softer, betraying none of the anxiety he was feeling.

He felt Blair stiffen abruptly and realized that the younger man was once again staring at Anders. There was a sharp intake of breath and he almost missed Blair's whispered comment.

"Not here. Not with them watching."

Blair's eyes flickered up to meet his. There was a desperate plea in them which Jim couldn't refuse.

"As soon as we're alone, then," the detective agreed, finally releasing his hold on the younger man.

Blair nodded and started walking toward the truck. Trailing in his wake, Jim began to doubt his decision. It was obvious that Sandburg was in no shape for this. His partner was normally the last person who would make a spot judgment about someone. Why had he reacted to the FBI agent that way? Jim stopped and glanced over his shoulder at Anders, his eyes narrowing thoughtfully. As if aware of the Sentinel's scrutiny, the agent raised his head. Their gazes locked for a brief moment and Jim found himself tensing, as though he were preparing for an assault. The odd spell was broken as Anders nodded and looked away.

Sandburg's anxiety attacks must be contagious, Ellison told himself uneasily. You're on the same side, remember? Don't go jumping at shadows. You're tired and you're worried about your partner. Rubbing his neck in puzzled contemplation, Jim hurried to catch up with Blair.

When the ex-ranger saw the assortment of gear and provisions, he gave a mental nod of approval, losing some of his initial reservations about the operation. They may not be able to choose a decent landing site, but whoever outfitted them knows his stuff. Grabbing an empty backpack, he began filling it with his selections, glancing at Blair occasionally as he monitored the younger man's choices.

The anthropologist had declined the use of one of the FBI's packs, opting to hang onto his own, slightly smaller one. Well at least that aspect of his behavior is normal, Jim mused.

It was almost impossible to imagine Sandburg without his backpack. It was more than just a convenient carryall—it was like a detachable part of his anatomy. Early in their association, Jim had razzed him about it, referring to the bag as Blair's substitute American Express card. After one such comment, the anthropologist had given him a wary, searching look and then shrugged his shoulders, responding, "Just trying to be prepared, Ellison. Ford Prefect favors a towel, I prefer a backpack."

The suspicion that there was something important hiding beneath the surface of that cryptic comment had stuck with Jim for days. Ultimately, it had nagged at him so much that he'd put on his detective cap and started digging. One call to the reference desk at the public library had uncovered the literary source of his partner's strange remark. He'd waited until Blair had left for a night class that evening, and then, feeling somewhat guilty for intruding into the younger man's privacy, he'd dug through the still unpacked cartons of books in the anthropologist's room, unearthing an obviously well read, dog-eared copy of 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.'

Several hours later, he'd returned the book to its box, troubled by the insights which he'd gained. It had been strange, relying on a 'Guidebook' to help him better understand his own Guide, but it had helped. Even the writing style had reminded him of his friend: seemingly disjointed ramblings on the surface, flashes of brilliance and gentle humor underneath.

Jim had found the reference to Ford Prefect and the towel within the first thirty pages, but he'd continued to read, amazed at the parallels between the fictional character and the young grad student. Armed with his towel, Ford Prefect, hitchhiker on the highways of the galaxy, was ready to move on at a moment's notice; backpack on his shoulder, Blair Sandburg, self-confessed wanderer with itchy feet, was apparently prepared to do the same on this planet.

That revelation had set in motion a night of intense, personal scrutiny on Jim's part. It had been the first time he'd admitted to himself just how closely the anthropologist had wormed his way inside his carefully constructed walls. He'd realized then, that if he wanted their friendship and partnership to continue, he was going to have to work at it and give the younger man a reason to stay. The jokes about the backpack had dropped off significantly after that.

The canvas bag had taken on a whole new meaning after they'd returned from Peru. Stuffed to overflowing with his student's term papers, his own research textbooks and Jim's case files, it had come to represent Blair's ability to shift into any of the roles of his multi-layered life—grad student, teacher, Observer, Guide and friend—at the blink of an eye. It still symbolized Blair's readiness to take off at a moment's notice, but Jim no longer worried about watching for flying saucers.

With the fleeting thought that hitching a ride on a UFO might be less dangerous than the descent his partner had just made, Jim returned to the task at hand. Recognizing that both of their energy reserves were down, he paid special attention to packing a quantity of high-protein ration kits and trail bars. He tossed several packages of dried jerky over to Blair, who packed them into his own bag without comment. Ellison raised an eyebrow at that and gave his partner a hard look. Any other time, Sandburg would have launched into at least a ten minute lecture about the questionable origin of the processed meat.

The younger man was still silent and withdrawn, although his heartbeat and respiration had returned to normal. Promising himself that he was going to find a way to get the two of them off alone soon, so that Blair would make good on his explanation, Jim closed up his own pack and slung it to his shoulder.

"You ready?"

Blair nodded, still not meeting his eyes. Ellison started to turn toward the jeep that Anders was occupying. A tug at his jacket sleeve stopped him.

"Jim... wait..."

Looking down into his partner's face, he could see the younger man's expression shifting back and forth between stubborn determination and uneasiness. Sandburg's gaze flickered to Anders before coming back to meet his.

"Look," Blair whispered, "I know this is going to sound crazy, but I can't shake the feeling that something is wrong here."

"In what way?" Jim asked quietly.

"I don't know... it's just..." Blair shook his head, uncharacteristically at a loss for words. He glanced over at the agent again and shuddered, quickly looking away. "That guy Anders. He makes me nervous."

"Maybe it's just because he's FBI," Jim offered, intentionally keeping his tone light. "Your past experiences with the Feds wouldn't necessarily engender a positive reaction."

"Jim, I'm trying to be serious here," Blair retorted, lowering his voice even farther. "Just do me a favor. Be careful about using your senses in front of these guys, okay? I mean, I know we're all supposed to be on the same team and all that, but..."

"But be careful. I got it, Chief. With any luck I won't have to use them at all."

Jim gave him a quick pat on the shoulder and ushered his Guide toward the jeep. Blair's whispered response was so quiet that even with his Sentinel hearing, Ellison almost missed it. The foreboding twinge he felt at his partner's words made him wish he had.

"Somehow I don't think luck's on our side today, man."


While Jim eased into the passenger seat, Blair settled himself in the rear, positioning himself so that he sat directly behind his partner. He was less than enthused about the close proximity to the FBI agent, but grateful to be sitting down. It was going to be a long day—he was sure of that. A long day on top of too many long days.

As unobtrusively as he could, he rolled his shoulders, trying to ease already stiffening muscles. He was certain he could feel the heat of a good sized bruise forming across the top of his right shoulder blade and countless smaller ones along his right side, testimony to the force of his impact with the ground. Relieved that he'd managed to come out of that little adventure with only some new bruises—the way his luck was running, he was surprised he hadn't broken his neck—he vowed to remain silent, no matter how uncomfortable he became.

That's all Jim would need to finally decide to keep me out of this, and there's no way I'm going to let that happen.

Anders pulled two manila folders off his clipboard, handing one to each of them before starting the jeep. "That's what we've got so far," the agent explained, raising his voice so that they could hear him over the sound of the engine. He waited until two of the other vehicles had pulled out ahead of him before dropping into gear and following. Blair shifted sideways in order to hear better, inching forward until his right shoulder rested on the back of Jim's seat, . Feeling every bump of the tires through the thin padding of his jacket, he gritted his teeth and flipped open the file, scanning the information.

"We've got nine people missing," Anders began. "Seven children, ages seven to eight, the bus driver and one of the teachers from KinderEdge Institute. It's a private school... pretty upper crust, if you know what I mean. They should have checked in at the camp early this morning. When they didn't arrive, the park rangers did a quick search on the roads thinking that the rough weather might have delayed them. First thing I knew about it was when my director told me to get a team assembled and get my butt up here. More than one of the kid's parents has some pretty high-up clout, I guess. I brought a few of my men and borrowed a couple of teams from SAR. Most of their more experienced personnel are assisting in the fire relief efforts down in Santa Anna, so when I found out we were short-handed, I called your captain on the Seattle Office's recommendation."

Anders paused and gave them both a quick look before turning his attention back to the rough trail they were following. "You two have a pretty amazing track record. The Bureau gave you a glowing endorsement and they're a hard bunch to impress."

Blair grimaced at the compliment and tried to focus on the stack of papers in his hand, struggling to keep his balance as the vehicle lurched from side to side. Anders cranked the wheel around to avoid another pothole and Blair bounced against the seatback, clenching his teeth against the pain which jolted through his bruised shoulder. With a string of his more inventive curses running through his head, he stopped trying to read and looked up, peering ahead to survey their surroundings.

They had passed from the small clearing where the helicopter had dropped them, into dense forest. The 'road' they were following was little more than a beaten down path, barely wide enough for most of the trucks. He was jolted forward again when Anders abruptly angled the jeep to the right. Blair heard the scrape of branches on the sides of the vehicle as they passed between two huge trees, moving much faster than his suddenly pounding heart considered safe.

Great... this little excursion is turning out to be a visit to the amusement park from hell. First the death-defying helicopter drop and now the tree-smash slalom course. What's next? Must be a river somewhere that I can jump into. No trip into the great outdoors would be complete without a water ride, now would it?

Making a silent vow to never again leave the safety of his bedroom, no matter what his inner voices demanded, Blair turned his attention back to Anders' briefing.

"We managed to pick up a track on the bus and followed it up here. From what we can tell, the driver left the main road not too far from the park entrance. We did find a tree blocking that stretch and we thought at first they were looking for a quick detour and just got lost. But they several opportunities to pull off onto other roads which would have led them to the camp and they didn't take them. It looks like we have to assume the worst."

"You did a background check on the driver?" asked Jim, still studying the files intently.

"Right away. Richard Heckt, age 29. No priors, no skeletons in the closet that we could find. The Bureau's still digging, but so far we're coming up empty. He's been with the company that chartered the trip for six years. Good work record and, if we can believe his boss, pretty well liked."

"And the teacher, Amanda Sims? Anything on her that's not in here?"

At Jim's question, Blair flipped back to the pages on the missing woman. There was a fax copy of her photo attached to the documents and Blair found himself immediately drawn to the young teacher. Amanda Sims, age 27, red hair, blue eyes, 120 pounds of pure fun, if her picture did her justice. Even through the blurring of the printout, her eyes sparkled and the smile was infectious, implying a mischievous sense of humor and love of life.

Lucky kids... wish I'd been so fortunate in second grade, he thought to himself, remembering the towering older man who had tried to inflicted his own brand of strict discipline on a free-spirited, scraggly-haired, seven year-old boy. Fortunately he'd only had to endure the man's attitude for a few months, while they stayed with some of Naomi's friends in Fort Lauderdale. The constant switching from school to school was usually painful, but in this case he'd been happy to leave. Any longer and he and the teacher certainly would have come to blows.

"No troublesome boyfriends, no bad habits as far as we're been able to determine," Anders answered. "She or the driver could be involved in this—hell, almost anyone could. It would be easy to discover how loaded the parents are. The kind of money you could pull down on just one of those kids would buy a small island somewhere."

Troubled by the agent's words, Blair extracted the photograph he'd passed by earlier. It was a group shot of what he assumed were the missing children. Looking at the smiling, guileless faces, he felt a surge of anger at whoever would be callous enough to destroy their innocence with the terror of an abduction. He raised his head and studied his partner. Noting the clenching of Jim's jaw, he knew the older man was feeling the same emotions.

They both understood the ramifications of Anders' words. There were lives at stake—innocent victims who needed to be rescued from the whims of fate and whoever was heartless enough to place more value on money, than on life.

Lives which the Sentinel could protect: that was what he was born to do, what his code of honor required him to do, no matter what the cost, with no thought of the risk to himself. And Blair knew with a certainty deep in his heart, that if he tried to keep Jim from using his gifts, kept him from following that sense of duty, it would destroy the bond between them. There was no way he was going to allow that to happen—not on the basis of some irrational, emotional episodes. Jim had a job to do and so did he. He was Guide and partner...

~And something more...~

No! He denied the seductive whisper inside his head with a vehemence born of weariness and fear. I am Guide and partner. I didn't ask to be anything else.

~Accept the truth.~

Blair felt the flood of terror and sorrow building deep inside and he fought it with every ounce of willpower he had.

~Protect your Sentinel.~

I will protect him, Blair pledged desperately. I swear I will keep him safe... but I cannot accept this... not now... Now I need to remain who I am. That's where my strength lies...

~Strength wears many faces, young one.~

The voice and the wave of emotions faded abruptly, leaving him drained and exhausted. Grateful for the support of the seat in front of him, he leaned into it, concentrating on regaining his control and suppressing his own fears. Blair took a deep breath, focusing his thoughts on the missing children and their adult companions. They would find them. Jim's skills and senses would make the difference. Blair had absolute faith in that.

And when he finds them and they're safe, maybe it will make up for the lives that we lost last time... maybe I'll be able to sleep again... maybe we both will...


The jeep finally shot out of the dense forest onto a stretch of broken, paved road. Jim breathed a small sigh of relief—he'd endured every jolt and bounce of the vehicle and he knew his partner had felt them, too. The Sentinel had easily heard the small gasp of indrawn breath every time the anthropologist had bumped against the seat. Jim began to wonder whether he should have checked the younger man more thoroughly for injuries. He shuddered at the memory of Blair's falling body—well beyond his reach—and the heart-stopping sound his Guide had made when he'd hit the ground.

If he hadn't instinctively tucked into that rolled-up ball and protected his head...

Pushing away the horrifying possibilities of what could have happened, Jim concentrated on the reassuring lifesigns of the young man behind him.

... pulse is rapid, but not bad, considering the roller coaster ride we've just taken... respiration's fast, but that's pretty normal, too. Better than a few minutes ago...

He'd almost turned around in his seat to check on Blair when he'd sensed the younger man's distress, but he hadn't wanted to confront his partner in front of Anders. If it had been another panic attack, it hadn't lasted long. Maybe it was just the close calls with the trees, he told himself hopefully. The surging heartbeat had coincided with several near misses as the jeep had careened through the thick growth.

Yeah, and maybe it'll take a fifth episode with him collapsing into convulsions to convince you that this is serious, Ellison. Who are you trying to fool?

With a frustrated sigh, Jim took one more quick sensory peek at the anthropologist. Satisfied that for the time being that Blair was all right, Jim turned his attention back to the road, scanning ahead. He'd already picked out three more parked vehicles and six more men before Anders pulled the jeep to a stop a few minutes later.

"This is where we found the last tire tracks. I'll give you a minute to stretch your legs while I check with my people," Anders commented, sliding easily from the driver's seat and moving off to join the small cluster of waiting men.

Jim nodded and climbed out of the jeep himself, feeling the stiffness of his own muscles, and the ache in his joints which signaled the beginning stages of exhaustion. He shook his head and dialed down his senses a bit more, knowing it would be only a short term cure. Get your head into the case, he reminded himself. Squaring his shoulders in grim determination, he took a quick look around, his sharp eyes picking up a myriad of details as he stretched out the kinks from the rough ride.

He wasn't sure of the elevation, but the slight laboring of his lungs and the crispness of the air gave him the impression him that they were fairly high up. His own internal clock—a carryover from his time spent in the military—told him the same thing the position of the hazy sun did—they were just past midday. Jim turned in a slight arc as he stretched again. He let his hearing drift around the assembled group, picking up snatches of conversation, all pertaining to the mission at hand. He searched for Anders and found him engaged in what looked to be a fairly intense discussion with another, taller man. Jim was just about to eavesdrop when they broke apart.

There was a small frown on the Sentinel's face when he turned back to the jeep to retrieve his pack. The expression deepened when he realized Blair hadn't moved. The anthropologist was still sitting hunched in the back seat, head down, the long flowing curls throwing a curtain across his face. Taking a step forward, Jim peered over his shoulder and saw what was holding his young friend's attention. The folder in Blair's hands was open and on top of the sheath of reports was the photo of the missing children.

The muscles in Ellison's jaw clenched in anger. Of all the cases he worked, those involving children were the hardest for him to keep in perspective, and he knew how painfully they affected his partner. The Sentinel's protective instincts flared, not just for the missing kids, but for his Guide as well. He reached out and gently touched Blair on the shoulder, not wanting to startle him.

"Chief?"

The blue eyes which looked up at the soft inquiry were filled with confusion and an emotion Jim couldn't quite identify. The odd, unfocused expression was gone with the next blink and the familiar wry smile on the anthropologist's face made Jim wonder if he'd really seen it.

"Just catching my breath," Blair murmured.

"Good. I thought for a minute you were having a 'zone-out' of your own," Jim responded just as quietly, his eyes narrowing in concern.

"More like lost in thought."

"That's been happening a lot lately, hasn't it?"

Blair's smile faltered at the implications of Jim's casual question and he turned away, busying himself with stuffing the folder into his pack. Grudgingly, the Sentinel took a step back to allow the younger man to climb from the jeep, wincing at his Guide's sharp intake of breath when he moved too quickly. Jim started to reach out to take Blair's arm, but his friend's quick shift backward and almost embarrassed shake of the head, stopped him.

Sliding his pack onto his shoulder, Blair tugged at his jacket to straighten it before finally looking up to meet the detective's eyes. "I'm all right, Jim. Just a little stiff."

Ellison stared down at him for a moment longer, then nodded, the frown never leaving his face. Blair broke his gaze away and pointedly stared off toward the rest of the search party. Realizing that he was facing his partner's usual stonewalling tactics, Jim backed off and pulled his own pack onto his shoulders.

"You know, Jim, one thing has me a little confused."

"Only one?" the detective asked lightly, recognizing the inquisitive tone in his observer's voice and hoping that it meant his partner's uneasiness was finally dissipating.

"Unless I missed it, Anders didn't say anything about a ransom demand," the younger man continued smoothly, ignoring the teasing jibe. "Is that normal? I mean, the kids have been missing for over five hours. If this is a kidnapping, shouldn't someone have been contacted by now?"

The comment brought Jim up short. He did a quick search of his memory and realized Blair was right. Once again, the observer had picked up on something the detective had missed. Running his hand through his close-cropped hair in frustration at his own fatigue induced dull-wittedness, Jim placed a hand on Blair's shoulder and gently propelled him forward.

"You didn't miss anything, Chief. It's a good question. Let's get an answer."

As they made their way through the knots of clustered men, Jim sensed his partner's increasing nervousness. When they were within a few feet of Anders, the anthropologist's pace slackened and Ellison moved ahead, letting Blair shift slightly behind him.

"We're ready to go whenever you are," Anders reported, glancing up from the clipboard in his hand at their arrival.

"We're ready," Jim said quietly. "Just one question. From what you said about the affluence of the children's parents, I assume we're expecting a ransom demand, but you didn't mention one."

"We haven't been contacted by anyone yet. There are agents standing by at each of the kid's homes and I've got one of my men monitoring the satellite up-link. He's got orders to report to us immediately, if anything comes in."

"Satellite up-link? That's pretty expensive technology," Blair observed, one eyebrow raising in mild surprise.

"The Bureau's got pretty impressive resources," Anders answered with a casual shrug. "Besides, without it we'd never get a call out over these mountains. Cell phones won't work up here. Not unless you get well above the tree line."

Jim could almost feel Blair's shiver at the reference to the elevation and quickly shifted the subject. "Where's the track you found?"

"This way."

Anders led them past the assembled vehicles. The paved portion of the road ended about fifteen feet beyond the cluster of trucks, changing to gravel for another thirty yards before it became simply dirt and grass. The ex-ranger eyed the ground carefully as they trailed behind the FBI agent, his gaze sweeping left and right, hunting for clues. When Anders stopped just short of a heavily churned patch of mud, Jim moved a few steps farther, kneeling at the side of the depression.

As he studied the impressions in the dark, rain drenched soil, he felt the sudden warmth of Blair's hand on his shoulder. Reassured by his Guide's steadying presence, the Sentinel reached out, extending his sight to probe the tire tracks that were evident in the mud.

"Normally, I'd be complaining about the weather, but in this case, it's working in our favor."

Jim glanced up at the unknown voice, meeting the hard, cold gaze of the man he'd seen Anders arguing with earlier.

"Detective Ellison, Blair Sandburg, this is Dirk Bailey," the agent explained. "Dirk's our best tracker. He's the one who got us this far."

"Detective." Bailey's voice was as cool as his eyes, as he gave the briefest of nods in acknowledgment of the introduction, his gaze flickering to Blair for just a moment before returning to regard Jim almost challengingly.

The Sentinel automatically stiffened, but a firm squeeze at his shoulder reminded him of his promise to his Guide and he forced himself to relax.

"Bailey." To his own ears, Jim's curt response was nearly as frigid as the tracker's had been, but neither the tracker or Anders seemed to react to it. The increase of pressure on his shoulder however, told him that his partner had noticed, and he quickly turned to study the muddy impressions again.

"These tracks aren't regulation size for a school bus," Jim observed, leaning forward to run his fingers lightly over the rigid indentations.

"It's one of those small models," Anders interjected. "Carries about 30 passengers."

Ellison nodded absently, his sharp eyes continuing to examine the marks. A puzzled expression began to form on his face. He glanced back over his shoulder at the path they had just walked and abruptly rose to his feet, turning to gaze beyond the puddle once more. The 'road', if you could call it that, branched out into three rough trails just beyond where they were standing. Each was as rugged looking as the course Anders had followed from the drop site, and all three trails disappeared into the overgrown forest. Even given the smaller-sized vehicle, any of the directions would have posed significant obstacles for the missing bus. Jim began to admit that the case was playing out more and more like a kidnapping. None of the obvious options would have been an intelligent choice, if indeed the driver had simply gotten lost.

"There's been more than one vehicle through here since the rain this morning," he announced abruptly, his gaze meeting Blair's for a moment before shifting to the other two men.

Bailey stiffened in surprise at his words, but Anders seemed to take the announcement in stride. "How do you know that?" the agent asked quietly.

"There are at least three different sets of tracks," Jim explained. "One five-tread pattern, probably an ATV of some kind. The impressions are several inches deep, so I'd guess commercial or military issue. It's carrying some weight, too."

Jim knelt back down next to the tracks in the mud and ran his hand along the surface again. He felt an oiliness to the soil and brought his fingers to his nose for a moment before glancing up. "There are two more tread patterns here. Both six-rib tracks, probably 36 to 40 inch wheels. That's consistent with the tires used for the size of the bus we're looking for, as well as about a dozen other models of trucks and vans. One of those vehicles is leaking transmission fluid. I saw some drops on the pavement. Any chance of finding out when the bus was last in for service?"

"I'll have one of my men contact the charter company right away," Anders answered, turning to Bailey curiously. "How'd you miss that, Dirk?"

"I don't know," the tracker replied flatly. "Guess it's time for me to get my eyes checked," he added humorlessly, his eyes flashing with a glint of anger.

"Can you tell which way they went from here, Jim?"

Blair's question broke the building tension between the men and the Sentinel straightened, shifting a step closer to his partner in response to his Guide's nervous heartbeat. Placing his hand lightly on the younger man's arm in a sign of both reassurance and direction, he gestured with a lift of his chin.

"The smearing on the side of the top tread pattern indicates that it bore to the right," he explained, staring down the rough trail for a moment before glancing back at Anders. "Looks like it leads south. Is there another road in that direction? One that leads back down to the entrance?"

"Nothing on the map," the agent answered. "That's our bearing, then?"

Ellison started to nod, then glanced over at Bailey. The tracker's face was unreadable.

"It's a place to start," Jim acknowledged.

"Assign Fredericks and Dunn to two of the other parties," Anders ordered the tracker. "That way you can work with Ellison and Sandburg and we'll still have six teams."

Jim caught the briefest flicker of satisfaction on Bailey's face before the man's gaze shifted to meet his. At the same time, he heard the sharp intake of breath from his partner.

"Sandburg and I are used to working on our own," Jim interjected smoothly. "There's no need to alter the arrangements you already have set up."

Anders froze, his glance shifting quickly from Bailey to Jim. There was a flash of uncertainty in those gray eyes. The Sentinel reached out with his senses to try to get a better read on the man, but whatever he had seen was gone immediately.

"Of course. Dirk, grab a couple of headsets for Detective Ellison and his partner, please."

After a second's hesitation, Bailey gave a terse nod and stalked over to the supply truck.

Anders gave the tracker a thoughtful stare before turning back to Jim. "I guess I should apologize for Dirk. He's not used to being outdone. He really is a good man. This case may be hitting a little too close for home. He's got kids of his own."

"Too close for everyone," Jim responded quietly.

"Isn't that the truth." Anders gave Bailey one more quick look, and shook his head. "You take point. I'll have Dirk align the other teams accordingly. Good job, by the way. I can see why you came so highly recommended."

Anders gave them a final nod of approval and headed back toward the waiting vehicles and men, shouting orders as he went. Blair had remained silent during the entire exchange and Jim heard him release a sigh of relief once the agent had moved away. Ellison turned to study the anthropologist carefully and saw the furrowed brow which was typically a warning sign of his partner's irritation. With a flush of guilt, he knew the emotion was directed at him.

"Well, that was pleasant," Blair growled under his breath. "I can see that we're going to have to work on your interpretation of 'being careful'."

Bailey's return forestalled any other comments. He handed over the headsets, his expression skeptical when Jim assured him that they were familiar with their operation.

"It's not going to be as easy, following that trail in the grass, Ellison."

The sneer in Bailey's voice irritated Jim. I've had about enough of this guy, he thought angrily. He turned to face the tracker, only to find Blair planted between them, his back to the Sentinel, his head tilted slightly upward as he addressed the taller man.

"Maybe we'll get lucky." The adversarial stance and the sharp tone of his Guide's voice stopped Jim from interfering, although he watched the tracker carefully.

"Yeah... maybe you will..." Bailey finally responded, his scathing gaze shifting from Blair and then to Jim. With a final glare, he turned away abruptly and headed back toward the waiting teams.

"Friendly sort, isn't he?" Jim murmured.

"Probably is until he gets put in his place by someone better equipped," Blair responded in a whisper, turning slightly to look up at Jim. "Show-off!"

The Sentinel started to smile at the accusation, but the anxious expression on his Guide's face reminded him of what he'd just done. He took a deep breath and glanced toward Bailey, wondering silently what had possessed him to feel like he needed to put the man in his place.

"At least you have the good grace to look embarrassed," Blair muttered under his breath.

Jim grimaced and immediately felt Blair's hand on his arm. His Guide's gentle touch and the soothing timbre of his voice when he spoke again, took the sting out of the curt reprimand.

"Jim, I'm not asking you not to use your senses. Just tone it down a little, all right? We don't have to impress these guys, just find the missing kids."

Ellison nodded in silent apology and began to adjust the younger man's headset, giving him a quick review on how the communication device worked. Once Blair's was rigged and clipped to his belt, Jim settled his own on his head, cocking the earpiece aside slightly, so that it wouldn't interfere with his own hearing. Flipping the unit on, he spoke softly into the transmitter, watching Blair's reaction to gauge how well his partner's was working.

"Better turn yours down, Jim," Blair suggested, his voice carrying none of the irritation it had contained just a few minutes earlier. "It sounds like you're shouting in my ear. You don't want to get blasted. Do we really have to use these things?"

"The search teams will spread out beyond visual range," Jim explained, adjusting the audio levels downward another notch. "We'll need these to keep in touch."

"We?"

Jim glanced up in time to see a mischievous grin flicker across the younger man's face.

"Yes, we, Sandburg. You wanted unobtrusive, remember?"

The abrupt departure of the smile and the worried look in his partner's eyes made Jim regret his remark immediately.

"Chief—"

"No, Jim. It's all right," Blair answered, reaching out with a feather-like touch in reassurance. "Any other time, I'd be happier than hell at the way you made that guy eat your dust. You did an amazing job, you know, with those tire tracks. They never would have spotted what you did. I meant to tell you that."

"Thanks. I have a good teacher," Jim responded softly.

"Yeah, one that needs to constantly keep you in line. I'll allow an A+ for achievement, but you're still getting an 'unsatisfactory' grade for how you play with others."

Jim grinned back at the friendly banter. It was a familiar pattern and it reflected their ability to put their differences aside and merge into the resourceful partnership they enjoyed.

"You ready to do this?"

"Ready as I'll ever be," Blair answered. "Lead on."


As Jim moved forward, following the direction that the tracks had indicated, Blair fell into his accustomed place, several paces behind him. Mindful of his partner's almost anal approach to proper procedure, Blair automatically lengthened his stride, trying to step only where the Sentinel had trod, and found himself grinning despite the seriousness of the situation. Jim really had trained him well, although he knew that sometimes his older partner despaired of ever getting him to follow his orders.

Seeing the Sentinel glide purposefully across the rough ground, brought to mind the image of a panther on a hunt. Blair knew Jim had all of his senses dialed up, searching for any evidence which would help them find the missing bus. He felt a warm surge of pride in his friend and allowed himself to relax a little. This was Jim's area of expertise—Sentinel abilities not-withstanding—and Blair had every confidence in his partner. He felt a smug sense of satisfaction at the way Jim had out-classed Bailey, even though the action had probably earned them the man's everlasting enmity.

After a few minutes of walking, the open ground gave way to denser forest, although there was still enough room—barely—for the small bus to have been driven between the trees. As Jim wound a seemingly erratic path through the dense foliage, Blair slipped from Guide mode into his observer role and studied their surroundings. The sunlight flickering through the trees held the marginal heat of early afternoon and he frowned, realizing the day was slipping away quickly. At this elevation, it would start to get cold long before the sun went down. He shivered, wishing he had more than just his lightweight jacket and two layers of shirts to keep him warm.

And those kids probably don't have much more. Another reason to wrap this up as quickly as we can, he thought grimly.

Noting that Jim's longer strides had increased the distance between them, Blair picked up his own pace a bit, scanning the terrain anxiously. The last time he and his partner had been in this area, they'd found that the deceptively gentle forest gave way without warning to deadly ravines. He found himself hoping that the bus hadn't been driven into one of those.

He intentionally turned his thoughts away from the children and their adult companions, seeking a distraction to keep the fears for their safety at bay. In another fluid role shift, he drifted from observer to anthropologist, pondering the evils that seemed to permeate modern society; the consequences of a monetary-based value system; and finally, the mentality behind kidnappings in general.

The diversion helped until he heard a familiar muffled curse in his headset. Jim had come to a halt a few feet ahead, and from the cocked head and tense posture, Blair knew the Sentinel had either momentarily lost the trail, or that he was straining to pick up on some elusive lead.

His own progress faltered as a high pitched squawk shrieked in his ear. With a savage flip of a switch, he shut off the com unit. Shaking his head vigorously at the electronic feedback which reverberated in his skull, he glanced anxiously toward his partner. The transformation from detached anthropologist to concerned Guide was instantaneous. With a worried gasp, he shot forward at the sight of his friend, hands to his ears, nearly doubled over in pain. Blair was murmuring soft reassurances even before he reached the Sentinel's side. Crouching next to the older man, he flattened his right hand against Jim's back, using the physical contact to help his companion focus.

"Easy, man... just dial everything back for a few minutes. Concentrate on my voice."

A terse nod was all the response he received. Blair continued to whisper softly, using his voice as a safety line to draw the Sentinel out of the sensory chaos that the sonic blast had triggered.

Finally, Jim raised his head and Blair watched him closely. There was still residual pain reflected in the blue eyes that met his, but it was fading quickly. "You okay?" he asked softly as they both rose to their feet.

"Yeah... I just had everything wide open when that damn thing went off," the older man answered, his voice a low growl, filled with irritation.

Blair's eyes suddenly went wide with fright and he grabbed at Jim's com unit, letting out a gasp of relief when he saw that it was turned off.

Thank God, Anders didn't hear any of that! he thought gratefully.

Backing a step away, he stuffed his hands into his coat pockets, hoping to hide their shaking. When he raised his gaze to meet Jim's he knew he wasn't fooling the Sentinel. With a grunt of frustration, he pulled them back out, running his fingers through his unruly curls, pushing a stray strand behind the earpiece in irritation.

"These things are nothing but trouble," he mumbled. "Another example of techno-crap. I'd rather rely on your senses any day."

"Wish I could rely on them right now," Jim said softly.

"You can," Blair said firmly, responding to the edge of doubt in his friend's voice.

"I'm not so sure, this time, Chief. I don't like to admit it, but maybe Bailey was right..."

"Bailey's full of shit," Blair snapped angrily. Shaking his head at his own outburst, he dropped his tone to a more soothing level. "You're tired, and you're worried, that's all. You're pushing your senses so hard that you're working against yourself. I know you, Jim. I know that you can do this. Now talk to me. Tell me what the problem is."

Blair watched as the Sentinel took a deep breath and closed his eyes, obviously trying to follow his Guide's suggestion. "Just before the feedback hit, I thought I'd picked up on something, but it's hard to filter through all the input."

"So Mother Nature has a loud voice. You can cut through it. You've done it before. Let's figure out what it was," Blair directed. "Take another breath and step back in your mind. Replay the sensation. Was it sight, sound...?"

"Smell." Jim's eyes flashed open and he turned abruptly to his right. "Gasoline."

Ellison was off at a run with Blair hard on his heels. As he leaped awkwardly over a fallen tree, the thought flashed through the anthropologist's mind that they were going to have a hard time explaining this mad cross country dash, but the hope they'd find the bus pushed that concern from his mind. Blair ignored the protest of his own tired muscles and stepped up his pace, trying not to lose sight of his partner in the heavy growth. He plowed blindly through a stand of brush and felt firm hands grab onto his arms, yanking him backward.

Startled, he drew in a ragged breath as he stared down into a yawning ravine.

"Easy, Chief." Jim pulled him another step away from the edge. "We'll have to find another way down. It's too steep here. Maybe where the truck went over."

"Truck?" Blair forced his shuddering mind to disregard the rolling pitch of his stomach at the close call and focus on his partner's confusing words. "What truck?"

"That one."

Blair followed the direction of Jim's pointing finger. It took him a few moments to identify the tailgate of what had once been a good-sized pickup.

He felt a tug at his jacket and followed Jim wordlessly, his eyes flickering back to the truck as they worked their way along the ravine edge. It was immediately obvious where the pickup had gone over—the soil was churned into ruts and broken branches littered the ground.

"Looks like it was driven full speed over the edge," Ellison observed, gesturing toward the swath of destruction leading up to the ravine.

Blair turned to look, grateful for the opportunity to catch his breath. When he turned back, his heart skipped a beat. The detective was perched at the very edge of the chasm, his attention focused below.

"Uh, Jim..."

"Went in head first, that's why we can still see the tailgate. Must be about 75 feet down," Ellison added, seemingly oblivious to his partner's distress.

Swallowing hard against the nauseous feeling in his stomach, Blair edged a step closer. He took a quick peek over Jim's shoulder and drew back shuddering. "Are you getting anything?" he managed to ask, his voice faint even to his own ears.

"I think there's a body in there, but there's so much debris that I can't be sure. I'm not sensing any movement, or any trace of a heartbeat."

"What about smell?"

"The gas and pine pitch are overwhelming everything else," Ellison muttered, the frustration evident in his voice.

Blair shut his eyes and took a deep breath. He stepped forward, gently laying his hand on Jim's shoulder. "Try the piggy-back trick," Blair suggested quietly, closing his eyes again so that the spinning scene below wouldn't interfere with his own control. "See yourself at the cab and open up your sense of smell."

He felt Jim's body tense and then relax under his grip. Blair held his breath, counting the seconds loudly in his mind to keep his thoughts diverted from the drop just inches from his feet. He'd just reached 30 when he felt Jim shift slightly. Blair took a step back himself and opened his eyes, keeping his gaze fixed on his partner's rising form. The clenching of the older man's jaw told him they'd found trouble.

Jim flipped on his com unit and motioned for Blair to do the same. "Anders, this is Ellison."

"Ellison, what the hell's going on? Why did you cut contact?" Anders' shout reverberated through the headsets, making both men flinch.

"We had a little feedback problem," Jim answered evenly.

Blair raised his eyebrows at the understatement, but kept quiet at Jim's warning gesture.

"We'll check out the units as soon as we can." Anders tone was less slightly less aggressive, but not at all apologetic to Blair's ears. "Have you found anything?"

"No sign of the bus, but the tracks led to a wrecked pickup down in a deep ravine," Jim answered, pacing back to the edge. "I'm sure there's a body in there. We'll need to check it out."

Blair's eyebrows crept upward another notch at Jim's words and he found himself wondering if he'd go home with them plastered to his hairline.

"We've got your position locked," came Anders' reply. "The rest of the teams will meet you there in a few minutes."

"Acknowledged."

Jim glanced over his shoulder at Blair and made a quick cutting motion. "I think we're having a few more technical problems, don't you, Chief?"

Blair grinned and flipped off his com unit as the older man did the same. The grin faded as his gaze flickered to ravine. "You said there's a body down there? he asked worriedly.

"There's blood." Jim answered tersely. "A lot of it."

Blair staggered as a cold current of shock swept through his body, draining all his energy and breath in one quick rush. Gasping for air, he closed his eyes against the horrifying images which flooded through his mind. His knees buckled and he felt himself collapsing, barely aware of the hands that grabbed him and broke his fall, easing him to the ground.

"Blair... come on, buddy... breathe for me..."

He heard the words and struggled to pull himself out of the red, roaring tide which tried to draw him under, but its grip was too powerful.

I can't! There's no air here! Just blood...

"Damn it, Sandburg, listen to me!" The raw command was punctuated with several hard shakes. "Breathe and open your eyes!"

Responding automatically to the authority in his Sentinel's voice, Blair's eyes snapped open and he inhaled noisily. The air rushed into his lungs and he found himself sagging forward, nearly choking as his body tried to reestablish its normal functions in one overpowering effort.

"Easy... take it slow..."

Blair allowed himself to relax into the warmth of both the voice and the embrace. After a few more ragged breaths, he felt the overwhelming emotions fading, releasing their stranglehold on his mind and body. When he reached the point where he could draw two lungfuls of air without shuddering, he lifted his head and met his partner's gaze.

And wished he hadn't. The blue eyes which locked with his were filled with a mixture of concern and determination—plus a healthy dose of anger.

"That's it. As soon as the other teams get here, I'm sending you back to Cascade," Jim announced.

"Jim—"

"Not another word, Sandburg. I'm not watching you go through another one of these attacks."

"That's not what it was," Blair argued, his own anger surging to the beat of his pounding pulse. "This was different."

"Don't give me 'different', Chief," Jim growled, his eyes flashing with annoyance. "Rapid pulse, minimal respiration—"

"And a propensity to make contact with the ground, I know," Blair interrupted. "But I'm telling you it wasn't the same—"

"The same as what?" Jim pounced on the unintentional opening, intending to get to the heart of the problem, right then and there. "What's going on inside that head of yours, Blair?"

Blair knew that the shaft of blind fear that rocketed through him had to be evident in his eyes. ~Tell him!~ screamed the voice, deep in his mind.

"No..." Blair gritted his teeth and held onto the words that begged for release.

"Then you're going back," Jim snapped. "I'll have Anders—"

"I'd sooner take a walk right off the edge of that cliff, than get into any kind of transport HE arranged," Blair hissed. "Besides, it's your fault. You caught me by surprise and I just... flashed on something."

"What?" Jim asked skeptically.

"Patty Hammond."


The whispered name rocked Jim back on his heels. The image of a smiling, confident, eighteen year-old girl filled his mind. That's what she'd looked like in her graduation photos, the face that Jim tried to hold onto—not the way she'd looked after she'd become Haight's tenth victim. He closed his eyes against the horror that memory evoked. Her death had been the worst of them all. There had been so much blood...


"Jim... snap out of it, man!"

The desperation in his Guide's voice shook him out of the zone-out. He raised his head and met the same haunted look that he knew must reside in his own eyes.

"I'm sorry, man. I didn't mean to..."

"It's okay," Jim answered gruffly. He took a deep breath and let the memory and tension drain away. Still holding his young partner's eyes, he touched Blair gently on the cheek. "I'm sorry, too. I should have remembered."

... remembered that the anthropologist had experienced the same reaction after the coroner had taken the girl's body away... remembered that Blair had been the one to find her, awash in her own blood... remembered that there had still been a spark of life in that ravaged form and that the young man had feverishly tried to stop the bleeding, screaming in outraged denial as she died in his hands... remembered carrying the exhausted, blood spattered body of his Guide to the truck, listening to the ragged sobs which had shuddered through him...

"It's still just too fresh, man," Blair whispered. "When you mentioned the body... and the blood..."

"I know." Jim reached out and squeezed his Guide's arm in understanding. They sat silently for a few minutes, each deep in their own thoughts, trying to regain the balance they'd need to go on.

"I don't want to leave, Jim," Blair finally whispered. "I need to help find these kids."

Jim studied the younger man's face for a moment before he nodded in agreement. Rising to his feet he glanced back to the ravine and then met Blair's gaze once again.

"Stay here."

He was only slightly surprised when the younger man agreed.

"I'll watch for the others."

Easing his way over the edge, Jim began to pick his way down the steep incline. Blair dragged himself upright and started to walk the edge, alternating between concerned glances down at his partner, and anxious scans of the woods for their reinforcements.

Twenty minutes later, Blair's nervous pacing came to an abrupt halt when the Sentinel climbed back into view. Ellison met his questioning gaze with a shake of the head and whispered softly, "It was the driver."


Jim shifted restlessly in the passenger seat of the jeep, his dark, brooding silence broken only by his terse replies to Anders' occasional questions. The Sentinel kept his answers short and to the point, mindful of the subdued presence of his Guide in the back seat. Given the few facts they had, any discussion at this point was going to be purely speculation and he was determined to keep that to a minimum until Blair had a chance to regain some of his equilibrium. Understanding his young partner as well as he did, Jim knew that the anthropologist would find a way to drag the details out of him soon enough.

And Blair was going to need all the emotional balance he could manage. They all were. Things were going from bad to worse in a rapidly collapsing downward spiral. Up until thirty minutes ago the 'case' had still been a search and rescue operation. With the discovery of the driver's body, it had turned into a murder investigation. And there were still eight people missing. The potential for the whole scenario to get very ugly had just increased drastically.

The worst part was that they still had no real answers. Anders had left one of the teams behind to contain the crime scene and look for further evidence, but the Sentinel had already done his own sweep of the area and come up empty. Even with his senses extended to the limit, the search of the wreckage had turned up little of tangible value. Besides the beginnings of what threatened to become a raging headache, all he had gained were a few insights into the bus driver's personal habits. He'd learned nothing about who was behind the apparent abductions and murder.

Well, not exactly nothing, Ellison. You know they're very professional. The slick disappearance of the bus and its passengers, the expertly laid trail to the ravine and the absence of prints or any other identifying evidence in the pickup confirm that. And they obviously have no qualms about killing. After all, Heckt didn't slit his own throat and then calmly drive that truck over the edge.

The question of whether the driver had been an innocent victim, or an interested participant who'd made a bad choice in partners, was irrelevant this point. What was important was the fate of the missing children and their teacher. Eight lives, hanging on their next move.

My next move.

His eyes flickered upward, automatically tracking the location of the sun as it moved across the sky, ushering them toward mid-afternoon. They'd used up precious time only to find a dead end. Now they were headed back to square one with two possible leads yet to follow. With less than four hours of daylight left, there was no time for another mistake.


Blair eased out of the jeep and watched Jim cross to the depression which held the tire tracks. Leaning against the side of the vehicle, he studied the older man anxiously. Blair didn't need to see the clenched jaw or the intense, cold blue eyes to know that Jim was blaming himself for what he perceived as their failure to this point.

With a resigned sigh, Blair accepted that, as usual, his partner was going to take the case personally and push himself to the wall until he solved it. Unfortunately, that kind of effort usually resulted in a tendency to over-extend one sense or another, which of course, led to a 'zone-out.'

And that was precisely where Blair feared his partner was headed now. All the little indicators he'd learned to watch for were there, and the worried Guide catalogued every sign of strain and distress: the tension in Jim's shoulders as the detective crouched to examine the impressions; the furrowed brow and the squint of the older man's eyes as he winced against what was undoubtedly a blossoming headache; the aggravated shake of the Sentinel's head as he tried to focus his hearing.

Yep, definitely a zone-out in the making... and this is NOT the time or place for that to happen.

Taking a deep breath, Blair stretched gingerly to ease his own cramped, aching muscles. With as casual a glance as he could manage, he let his gaze drift over the assembled men and equipment. When he saw Bailey and Anders standing together, he stiffened, reminding himself to take several deep breaths. From his perspective, they seemed to be watching Jim, their eyes following the detective's every move.

This is not the time to go over the edge with your paranoia, Sandburg. Ellison needs you. Get it together and go help him. You can watch his back just as easily from over there.

He pushed away from the jeep and circled to the other side of the depression. Kneeling across from Jim, he stared down at the tread marks. The sun and increasingly brisk wind had dried the malleable mud to the consistency of hardened cement and Blair found himself wondering how, even with his enhanced vision, the Sentinel could possibly read the remaining evidence.

"Which are the ATV's?" he asked curiously.

"The five-treads," Jim answered, tracing the outline of the tracks in question with his fingertips.

Squinting, Blair leaned even further forward, but it didn't help. Even with his partner pointing them out, he still couldn't distinguish the individual tracks from the other seemingly indistinct ridges. Focused on the ground, he felt a gentle tug at his jacket pocket and looked up to see Jim handing him his glasses.

"You keep up all that midnight reading, Chief, and you're not going to be able to see the coeds in the front row of your lectures."

The teasing comment was softened by the concern in Jim's pale blue eyes. Recognizing the razzing for what it was—a means of putting the two of them in sync with one another—Blair forced himself to play along. With a feigned expression of affronted dignity, he took the glasses and settled them in place, turning his attention to the ground once again.

"Not a problem, man. Why do you think I always insist on one-on-one conferences?" He heard the amused snort from the older man, but didn't look up, unable to manage his normal wry grin as he gathered his courage to whisper his next question. "What did you find in the truck?"

"Basically, what I told Anders."

"And beyond basically?" Blair pressed, raising his eyes to meet his partner's. He held the Sentinel's probing stare with a level, unflinching one of his own and caught Jim's soft sigh of resignation before the older man answered.

"Whoever killed him knew how to handle a knife."

"So that give's the FBI something to check out," Blair responded after a moment, swallowing convulsively against the acid tang of bile that had risen in his throat. "They can look for priors for that kind of assault and weapon use, right?"

Jim nodded, his eyes never leaving Blair's face.

"What else?"

"Not much that will help us here. No evidence as to who killed him. There was a strong smell of cigarette smoke in the cab, but I'm sure that came from the driver. Heckt's clothes reeked of it. From the odor, and the stains on his fingers, I'd guess it was some kind of unfiltered brand, but there were no butts in the ashtray."

"Which means it wasn't his truck."

"Probably not. Whoever's behind this knows what they're doing. The agency will run the make and VIN code, but it'll probably come up stolen or abandoned."

Blair fell silent, his gaze drifting back to the obscure evidence at their feet. "The ATV... can you tell anything about it from the tracks? You said earlier it might be military."

"The tread pattern is consistent with tires which are designed for off-roading, but that opens up a lot of possibilities, including a dozen or so recreational vehicles that you'd easily find used in a national park like this. We can't even be sure if it's a part of this case. As to the vehicle itself, I'd guess it's a little larger than the jeeps we've got—maybe one of those wide-bodied trucks like the national guard uses. From the depth of the impressions, it looks like it's carrying an extra four- or five-hundred pounds of mass."

Blair looked up abruptly. "If they took the kids and the teacher off the bus—"

"That might account for the extra weight. I know." The muscles in Jim's face spasmed as he ground his teeth in frustration. "But it could also be a case of some well-fed mid-westerners out for a scenic drive. Until we find it, or the bus, it's just speculation and guess-work."

"It's never just guesswork with you, Jim." Blair waited a moment for that compliment to be acknowledged with a rueful smile. "What do your instincts tell you? Which one do you think we should follow?"

Jim glanced down at the tracks, then swiveled slightly to gaze toward the two possible paths that they could choose. "I'd stay with the bus. And hope it's not another red herring."

Blair nodded and let his gaze drift back toward Anders, his eyes narrowing as an idea began to form.

"What if we split up the search and track both of the vehicles? Not that I'm doubting your abilities for a minute, but with two sets of teams out, it would improve the odds, wouldn't it?"

"It would make sense, although if we do run into trouble, we'll be short-handed. But it's not my call, Chief. Anders is in charge of this show, remember?"

"Yeah, but you're the only one that's got a clue here, man. You aced Bailey out of the spotlight, so take advantage of it. You're in the position to do some major manipulation if you just put your mind to it. Get Anders to put Bailey in charge of the second group. Better yet, have Anders go with him. They can track the ATV and we'll go after the bus."

"We've got to figure out which one went in which direction before that happens," Jim muttered. Rising to his feet, he moved forward through the calf-high grass in a careful, ever-widening search pattern.

Blair reached down and plucked a blade of the long, fibrous growth, flexing it thoughtfully between his fingers. The tough, wiry strand bent easily, but straightened almost immediately when he released the pressure.

"Great," he groused, not at all amused by the irony of the situation. "You could drive a herd of elephants through this stuff and an hour later you'd never find a trace of their passage. Wouldn't you know that we'd get lucky and find a species of grass that's highly resistant to damage and blessed with adaptive regenerative properties. Guess survival of the fittest applies even to high altitude plant life..."

With a discouraged sigh, Blair straightened and trailed after his partner, absently wondering where they'd picked up such bad karma. Even mother nature seemed to be conspiring against them.

"What we need here is a fresh perspective," he mused, his agile mind chewing on the perplexing puzzle.

"What?"

The tinge of irritation in his partner's tone made Blair realize that he'd actually spoken the thought aloud and broken the Sentinel's concentration.

"Sorry, man. I was just thinking and it got louder than I intended," Blair apologized, lengthening his stride to close the distance between them.

"Mouth moving faster than your brain as usual, you mean," Jim growled. "Welcome to the 'Sandburg Zone', ladies and gentlemen. The expert on altered states and skewed perspectives will be with you shortly."

Blair took the sarcasm in stride, recognizing it as another sign of his partner's growing frustration, and plunged on with his train of thought.

"Jim, remember how you felt that first day in my office? Your whole focus was on fighting your senses, not on figuring out how to make them perform to your advantage. When I dropped the whole Sentinel concept on you, it turned your world upside down. Granted, your reaction was a little more intense than I'd anticipated, but you have to admit it worked. It made you stop and look at the same facts in a different light. That's all I'm suggesting here, man... a fresh perspective... a different point of view."

Blair reached up to sweep a stray lock of hair out of his eyes and caught sight of something unusual in the forest just ahead. His patter ceased abruptly, eyes widening in surprise.

"Standing on my head isn't going to find that missing bus," Jim snapped in irritation, his own gaze still fixed on the ground. "Drop it down a gear, and come back to earth, Chief."

"No... I don't think so..." Blair whispered softly. "I think you should join me instead."


The Sentinel glanced up, startled by the barely masked excitement in his Guide's voice. Seeing his partner frozen in place and staring into the trees, Jim followed the direction of the younger man's gaze and immediately caught sight of the damaged branches that had captured Blair's attention. Quickly focusing his vision on the overhanging limbs, he found scrapes of yellow paint.

Jim patted the younger man on the shoulder in approval as he scanned ahead for further traces of proof that this was indeed the passage that they sought. He almost grinned when he picked out another trace of yellow on another branch a hundred feet beyond the first.

"I'm going to have to take back that crack about your eyesight, Chief."

"Just remember that the next time you accuse me of missing the invisible grunge in the tub, man."

"Don't push your luck, Sandburg. The statement about the skewed perspective still holds."

Ellison gave the younger man a soft cuff on the back of the head and watched as Blair's face broke into a pleased grin. Dropping his hand to his Guide's shoulder, the Sentinel propelled him toward the waiting search teams.

"Time to get this investigation on track, Chief," he murmured. "Let's give your theory a try and test our hand at a little exercise in the fine art of manipulation."


To Blair's surprise, convincing Anders to split the search into two separate efforts was accomplished with astonishing ease. As he watched Bailey and his three teams disappear into the woods along the western path, Blair found himself breathing a sigh of relief.

Not that he was entirely pleased with the way things had worked out—Anders had opted to remain with Jim's group. Blair dealt with the inevitability of Anders' presence by increasing the physical distance between them, choosing to wait for his partner under the canopy of broken branches which marked the beginning of the trail they would follow.

But even distance wasn't enough to stop the shudder which ran through him as the agent approached Jim for a final tactical discussion. Feeling his body fill with the anxiety that occurred every time Anders was in the Sentinel's proximity, Blair gritted his teeth and sought the solace of his favorite meditation mantras and breathing exercises. Closing his eyes he leaned back against the tree, focusing on the sensations of rough bark against his spine, the wind ruffling his hair, the cool earth under his legs. Finding his 'center' was becoming more and more difficult, and it was harder to ignore the unexpected, insistent flashes of raw emotion which were pushing at the limits of his control.

Jim's on the right track now, he told himself determinedly. We'll find the kids, and their teacher... what was her name?... oh yeah, Amanda... we'll find them and they'll be all right... they have to be...

"You ready, Chief?"

Blair's eyes snapped open and he found himself looking up into Jim's measuring stare.

"Yeah... just taking advantage of the downtime, man," he dissembled, grabbing his pack and scrambling to his feet, hoping the Sentinel hadn't heard his startled intake of breath. He turned away, intending to start down the trail, but the older man seized his arm and gave him a gentle shake.

"Blair..."

His Guide instincts responded to the Sentinel's worried tone immediately, overriding the fears and uncertainties of the terrified grad student who wished himself anyplace, but where he was. Their blue-eyed gazes locked and Blair felt Jim's compassion and concern reach out, enveloping him like a blanket, wrapping him in a cocoon of safety. In return, he managed a small, but genuine smile, trying to send back some reflection of the overwhelming trust and confidence he had in the older man.

"I'm not going to lie to you, man. I'm not fine, but I still need to do this," he whispered, hoping that Jim would understand and not press him further.

With a soft grunt and a look that warned that further discussion was simply postponed for the moment, Jim released his hold and held out a new headset. "We'll take the lead again. The rest of the search parties will be strung out on both flanks to make sure we don't miss anything. Anders strongly suggested that we try to stay in touch from now on. He gave me his word that they've been checked over. No more feedback problems."

Blair rolled his eyes to indicate what he thought of that promise. "At least Bailey's out of our hair," he muttered, taking the new headset and settling it into place. "One less set of prying eyes is just fine by me."

"Forget about Bailey, Chief." The stern command was delivered in what Blair had learned to recognize early in their relationship as Jim's 'listen and obey without question' tone—the one he used when things were about to get dangerous.

Blair acknowledged the reprimand with a quick nod, but apparently that wasn't enough to appease his partner. The Sentinel wrapped his hands around the straps of Blair's backpack and pulled him a step closer, fixing him with a look that brooked no argument.

"Stay close, keep your eyes open, and your head into the reason we're here," Jim ordered roughly.

Blair realized that he was nodding again, mesmerized by the intensity of the older man's glare. As if satisfied that he'd made his point, Ellison's gaze softened and his grip on the straps eased a bit.

"And if you need something else to occupy that frenetically active mind of yours, Chief, concentrate on dampening down that magnetic field you generate that attracts trouble. I don't want you stumbling over something nasty behind my back."

Blair responded with his best "Who me?" expression and Jim finally released him, a ghost of a smile flickering across the older man's face. Settling his own pack into place, the Sentinel started down the trail with a renewed sense of determination, unaware of how prophetic his last comment would prove to be.


Following the yellow paint trail was like child's play after what they'd been through tracking the truck, and after a cautious start, Jim had pushed the pace as hard as he dared, hoping to make up for lost time.

At first he'd been suspicious at the ease with which he'd found each scrape and broken limb, wondering if he was leading the search party into a trap. After thirty minutes of painstakingly checking every overturned rock, he'd finally begun to relax and give a little credit to his Sentinel-enhanced senses. It was easy to forget that what he saw and heard so clearly was obscured to everyone else. He'd even tried dialing everything back to what would pass for 'normal', and realized that without his special abilities, the evidence would have been very difficult to find.

Following the path deeper into the rugged forest, he'd found other traces of the bus' passage—a churned rut where the wheels had slipped on a downhill slope, a recently uprooted sapling that had been battered to the mossy ground, the broken shards of rock that held the slick odor of spattered oil—all indications that someone had driven the vehicle through the dense foliage in a hurry.

He paused, fingers running lightly over another scrape of yellow on the trunk of a fallen tree, while he waited for Blair to catch up. Stretching out his senses to monitor his Guide, he frowned at what he found—Blair's breath was coming in rough, noisy gasps and his heart was beating rapidly as his already stressed body battled the affects of the higher elevation and the strain of the pace that they'd been maintaining.

Still keeping tabs on his partner, Jim scanned the trail ahead, anxiously. The next paint marker was another fifty feet uphill, glowing in the shaft of pale sunlight which filtered through the leaves, seductively beckoning him forward. He closed his eyes, forcing himself to resist the urgent need to keep going. Feeling the painful throb of the headache that pounded against his eyelids, he struggled to dial down his sensitivity one more notch.

Blair isn't the only one who's struggling, he thought irritably. We've been on the move for well over an hour and a half and Anders still hasn't called a break. No one's going to be in any shape to do anything, much less take on these murderers, if we don't do it soon.

"Ellison, do you copy?"

As if in answer to his angry thoughts, Anders' voice thundered in the headset. Wincing at the increased pounding it set off in his skull, Jim had to take a deep breath before answering.

"I copy."

"I just heard from Bailey. They found the ATV. Turns out it belongs to a group of vacationers. They claim they went through the area where we found the tracks early this morning and one of them remembered passing a small school bus on the road. The Bureau's checking them out now, but it doesn't look like they have any involvement in this. Looks like you called it correctly."

Jim allowed himself a small sigh of relief. They were on the right trail after all. Maybe their luck was starting to change. "I've spotted the next marker, but there's still no sign of the bus." Jim glanced uphill once more as he continued his report. "I think we should regroup and give everyone a rest."

"Agreed, as long as it's a short break. If we don't find them soon, we'll have to take another look at our options."

"How much air support do you have available?"

"Not much. Two choppers sitting on standby and one medivac unit..."


Blair's eyes had been fixed on the rough trail, listening to the discussion between Jim and Anders almost absently, more worried about stumbling over a hidden tree root than their exchange. But as the voices in his headset began to break up, his attention shifted back to the conversation.

"How much... air... do you... availab...?"

With a crackle of static, the sound faded out altogether. He stopped and checked the connections, thinking that he might have pulled something loose. He played with the volume control as well, but nothing seemed to have any affect. Frustrated, he gave the unit a hard shake and was rewarded with a low level buzz, under which he thought he could detect whispers of sound.

I'd need Jim's hearing to use this technological wonder. Impressive resources, huh? Guess these were bought with whatever was left over after the government paid 1.2 million for that last hammer, he mused darkly, tapping the earpiece in frustration.

He glanced uphill and saw that Jim was waiting for him next to a fallen tree, apparently still deep in the conversation with Anders and unaware of his partner's 'technical' difficulties. Blair opened his mouth to call out to the older man, then snapped it shut as he realized what he had almost done.

Jeez, Sandburg, you are brain-dead. There's no need to yell at the top of your lungs and draw a crowd. He's a Sentinel, remember? He can hear your heartbeat from six floors away from a locked elevator, for crying out loud.

"Uh, Jim? I've got a little problem here," he murmured, still shaking his head at his own foolishness.

He watched Jim spin around abruptly, the older man's hand going instinctively for his weapon.

"Whoa, man. Don't shoot. This thing's already on its last legs." Blair tapped at the headset and added a 'thumbs down' gesture for good measure, as he moved forward to close the distance between them.

A garbled whisper of sound reached his ear and he shook his head.

"No go, Jim. I can't hear you. The volume's all screwed up," Blair explained as he joined the older man.

Disengaging himself from the unit, he handed it to his partner, dangling it by the cords like a dead mouse. The Sentinel's face tightened in annoyance, already in the midst of a heated discussion with the FBI agent.

"Anders, I thought you said you'd had these headsets checked out..."

Blair watched as Jim did a very good impression of his own patented eye-rolling dismay, and chuckled softly, imagining the agent trying to explain away the problem.

"Well, Sandburg's is out of commission... yeah... okay, I'll send him over."

Jim shook his head in disgust and touched Blair on the shoulder, turning him slightly to the left as the Sentinel focused into the distance. "You see the stand of brush to the left of that granite boulder?"

"The one on this side of the mountain or two passes over?" Blair responded innocently. He cringed a step away dramatically, as Jim glared at him, waving his hands in surrender. "Just checking, man," he grinned, enjoying the aggravated look on his partner's face. "Yeah, I see it... even without my glasses on. Is this a test? Do I get a prize for the right answer?"

"You're already a prize, Chief," Jim muttered, trying unsuccessfully to keep a similar grin off his own face. "Just hoof it over there and pick up a replacement, wise guy. Agent Dunn will swing over and meet you just beyond that rock."

"You know, Jim, this really isn't worth the trouble. I'd be perfectly happy without—"

"Go see the man, Sandburg," Jim growled, giving him a gentle shove to get him moving.

Blair shot the older man an offended glare, and made a show of stalking off in a huff. "Yes, Sahib, I go... I run... I stagger to do your bidding," the Guide whispered, knowing full well the Sentinel would hear every word of his good-natured harping. "'Go see the man,' he says. It's like being sent to the principal's office or something. What I put up with... me... an almost full professor... sent off on yet another errand..."


Ellison watched the younger man pick his way across the rough ground, shaking his head in wonder. Blair's resilience never ceased to amaze him. Minutes ago, Jim would have sworn that his partner was ready to drop like a stone from exhaustion. Now he was making wise-cracks and pushing all of the Sentinel's buttons, practically bouncing over anything that got in his path.

Winding his way through the trees, Blair passed out of Jim's line of sight for a moment, and the Sentinel felt a shiver run up his spine. He dialed up his hearing and relaxed when he picked up his Guide's playful, bantering monologue. Absently rubbing the back of his neck, Jim turned to look uphill again, his eyes drawn to the paint scratches that marked the trail.

A soft, fitful gust of wind brushed his left cheek. He watched it ripple through the trees, his gaze flowing with it, carrying his sight to another yellow patch, even further away. Eyes narrowing in concentration, Jim sought to bring it into focus, drawn by a sudden awareness that something was different about what he'd just seen. The headache flared with a sharp burst of pain and he pushed it away in annoyance, dialing down his sensitivity to the throbbing ache. Straining against his own limits and fatigue, the Sentinel zeroed in on his target, the rest of the world fading around him.


Blair wasn't sure where his new burst of energy had come from, but he made the most of it, hurrying to the appointed meeting spot. He paused at the boulder and cast a quick look over his shoulder, immediately disconcerted by the older man's unusually still pose.

"Don't go zoning on me now, man," he whispered. "You hear me, Jim?"

He'd expected the older man to turn toward him or show some response, but there was no movement. Nothing to show that he'd been heard. Growing alarmed, Blair tried again, raising his voice slightly.

"Damn it, Ellison, when are you gonna learn to wait until I'm with you to play superman? Can't leave you alone for a minute, can I? Come on, man, pull out of it!"

Panic flared and he swallowed hard to contain it when there was still no response. Glancing around wildly, he looked desperately for the agent he was supposed to meet. Where the hell was the guy? He felt the soft caress of the breeze on his face and for a moment, he thought he caught a whiff of perfume. Pushing the irrelevant sensation aside, he turned toward the Sentinel again, nervously running his hands through his hair as it shifted in the wind, trying to keep it from obscuring his sight.

"Jim, you've got to listen to me... hear my voice..." he murmured, pitching his tone with an urgency that he hoped would reach his friend.

The breeze buffeted him from behind and he nearly allowed it to carry him toward his partner, before he realized that the sweet fragrance that he'd smelled before was back. Distracted, he turned into the wind and took a deep breath. Yes, it was perfume, but there was something else, too—a sour, almost metallic smell. Puzzled by the elusive odor, he took two steps forward and parted the hedge of bushes.

And froze.


Whispers of sound stroked across the Sentinel's awareness, slowly pulling him back from the void. Sound became vibration, growing more intense, more compelling. Vibration which transformed finally into a single, comprehensible word, whispered by an anguished soul.

[Jim... ]

The tortured cry of his Guide connected itself to the sense of urgency and the real world returned in a rush of overloaded sensation.

Gasping for breath, Jim whirled, driven by the desperate need to locate his partner. The stench of blood-drenched wind staggered him. Shuddering, he wrenched at his imaginary dials in a frantic attempt to bring his flooded senses into line, nearly dropping to his knees as his controls slammed into place.

Bolting forward, he savagely thrust away the overwhelming awareness of the deadly, metallic smell. He focused on the place that he'd last seen Blair, and sent his hearing ahead, like an arrow, speeding through the trees. He crashed through a thicket of brush, straining for the familiar heartbeat of his young Guide, and was rewarded with the thundering of a trip-hammer pulse. The sound had barely registered in his ears when he caught sight of his friend, standing motionless near the granite boulder, just where he'd been told to wait.

He almost screamed at the relief of finding the anthropologist alive and apparently unharmed, but then the whisper reached him again, accompanied by the smell which he'd tried to evade.

[Jim... ]

The Sentinel crossed the remaining distance already knowing what he would find, fearing only the degree of the horror which had transfixed his Guide. A quick glance into the brush imprinted the scene on his own mind forever—the glimpse of red hair was all that he needed to see to identify the body. They had been too late to save Amanda Sims. Turning to Blair, he started to reach out to draw him away, but the look on his partner's face halted him and his own heart lurched in fear.

It was as if Blair's mind had found a way to shut out the horrifying scene, but had forgotten to tell his body to do the same. Blair's eyes were open, staring toward the bloody corpse of the young teacher, but unfocused, the brightly lit windows to the anthropologist's soul tightly shuttered from within. His face was so pale that it was almost translucent, the throbbing veins at his temples pulsing wildly in time to the pounding heart. His lips were moving, repeating Jim's name over and over again, but there was no sound beyond the whisper of air that flowed in and out of the painfully laboring lungs.

"Ellison? I thought... What the hell?"

A fatigue-dressed figure rounded the boulder, and Jim jerked in surprise. It took him a moment to recognize the FBI agent Blair had been sent to meet.

"Get Anders and the rest of the teams here, now," Jim hissed, moving between Dunn and his stunned partner to shield Blair from the man's prying stare.

"But—"

"Move, damn it!" Jim shoved the agent backward, his building anger pushing him to unleash his frustration on the closest target.

The man hesitated for only a second and then stumbled away to carry out Jim's orders. As soon as the agent had passed the boulder, Jim turned back to his partner, entirely focused on finding a way to bring the younger man out of his shocked trance. Easing in front of his Guide, he gently placed his hands on Blair's shoulders. He felt the younger man's trembling and kept them there for a few moments, then stroked his palms lightly down the anthropologist's arms, stopping to grip Blair's upper arms lightly before returning to hold the slim shoulder's.

"Blair..." he whispered his Guide's name, feeling the trembling increase, but seeing no change in the vacant stare.

He gave a light squeeze to the shoulders again, then slid his hands up the side of Blair's neck, resting his thumbs for a few seconds on the pulsing veins before cradling the pale face in his palms.

"Blair, it's Jim... I know you're in there, buddy... I need you to listen to me... just hear my voice and let me lead you back." He breathed the words out like a prayer and then tipped the younger man's head back slightly so that he could look down into his Guide's eyes.

He had to fight his own shudders at the black glassy circles that reflected his own image. Blair's pupils were so far dilated that Jim could hardly see any of the iris, and what blue he could see was flecked with brown.

"Come on, Chief. You always find a way to reach me," Jim pleaded. "I need some help here, buddy. You're the Guide, remember?"

He felt a shiver ripple through the younger man and then another. Slowly, the long dark lashes swept down, shuttering the eyes completely. When they raised again, a few seconds later, the familiar blue eyes of his Guide stared up at him in startled recognition, and Jim felt the sudden tensing of muscles as Blair started to pull away.

"Jim...?"

The strangled gasp was like music to the Sentinel's ears. He tightened his grip to hold the younger man in place and tried to pitch his voice in imitation of his Guide's soothing tones. "Easy... It's all right..."

Another blink and this time it was confusion that filled Blair's eyes. "What... what happened?"

"I think you just had a Guide's version of a zone-out," Jim said softly, letting his hands drop back to the anthropologist's shoulders in support.

"A zone... no... not me... you..." Blair stammered, a flicker of fear darting across his face. "You were zoning. I saw you. I tried to talk you out of it from here, but I couldn't reach you. I was going to head back to shake you out of it, but I smelled something... perfume and something else. It was right here..."

Suddenly Jim realized where his partner's thoughts were taking him and he shifted to try to block the hideous view which lay only a few feet away.

"Blair, don't!"

But both his warning and movement were too late. The younger man's eyes widened in shock at the sight of the ravaged body. With a curse at his own stupidity, the Sentinel spun his Guide around, propelling him away from the murder site. With a despairing groan, Blair jerked out of the older man's hold and stumbled forward for a few steps before falling to his knees. Jim was at his side immediately, gently pulling him back to his feet and leading him a few yards further, easing the shaking body down to rest against a massive fallen tree.

Blair curled into a huddled ball, his fingers laced behind his head, the long, tangled curls draping his face as he rocked rhythmically, his breath catching in sobbing gasps. Jim knelt beside him, one hand on his Guide's shoulder, anchoring the younger man with a reminder of his physical presence, just as Blair had done for him so many times. They sat that way, Sentinel sheltering his Guide, until the tears stopped.

Blair's breathing had began to ease when Jim heard a crackle in his headset. Before Anders' voice could intrude on the small patch of safety and sanity he had created, he shut the unit off. Glancing over his shoulder, he caught sight of the approaching teams. Even without the headset, he could hear Anders asking where they were, demanding an explanation of what they'd found.

He looked down at Blair and hesitated. He didn't want to leave his young charge, but he knew that if he didn't go back to meet with the agent, Anders would come looking for him and he wanted to give his partner as much time as he could to get himself together before facing the man again. Jim wanted nothing more than to send Blair out of this mess and away from Anders' disturbing presence, but after what they had just gone through, there was no way he was letting his Guide out of his sight unless he could accompany him. And there was no time to do that—especially if he was right about what he'd discovered, just before he had zoned—that the distant splash of yellow that he'd seen was far too large to be another scraped tree limb. There was a good chance it was the bus.

He squeezed Blair's shoulder gently. "I should go take care of things. Will you be all right?"

Wearily, the younger man unclasped his hands and raised his head. Drawing in a slow, deep breath, he nodded, wiping away the traces of tears with the back of his hand.

"Yeah... I just need a few minutes..." came the hoarse reply.

"Okay. Stay put. Drink something if you can. It'll help." Giving the younger man a soft pat on the arm, Jim rose to his feet. He gave his Guide a final measuring look, then headed toward the waiting men.


Blair shuddered as he watched Jim walk away, knowing that every step he took brought the Sentinel closer to death. What he didn't know was whether it was the young teacher's bloody body or Anders' smiling presence which promised that certainty to his soul.


With light tendrils of awareness still wrapped around his young partner, Jim approached the waiting group of searchers. His jaw clenched angrily as he picked up Anders' urgent questions and Dunn's rapid responses.

"Maybe you overreacted. Are you sure Ellison was—"

"I'm telling you he was nuts! He was in my face and pushing me away from Sandburg like some avenging angel or something. I thought for a second he was going to kill me if I took another step. And the kid looked like he was a zombie, just standing there staring."

"So Sandburg found the body, then?"

At the eagerness in the man's tone, Jim's ambivalent feelings toward Anders crystallized into intense dislike, bordering on hatred. He had to fight to keep his emotions under control and his words civil.

"He found it," Jim snapped, stalking up to them. "The question is, why didn't you?" he hissed, taking a step forward to place himself in Dunn's space, his eyes flashing ice-blue fire.

For a second, Dunn drew back, his eyes widening in startled fear, then he pulled himself together and leaned back in toward Jim, his posture totally aggressive.

"Why you—"

"That's enough," Anders ordered, stepping in to pushing them apart.

"What the hell kind of sweep were you doing?" Jim snarled, shaking off Anders' hand, but not backing off. "That was your section. There's no way you should have missed that body."

"Listen you freaking—" Dunn growled, shifting forward again, his hands balling into fists.

"Dunn! Shut it!" barked Anders, his glare silencing the other agent. Still keeping his eyes on Dunn, the older man spoke quietly, directing his words to both of them. "This case is getting to everyone. Let's just try to keep a handle on our emotions and our minds on what we're here to do. Go cool off, Dunn."

For a moment, Jim wasn't certain the agent was going to back down, but finally the man shrugged and turned away, shooting him one more glare. The Sentinel's response was automatic, stepping forward to finish the confrontation, but Anders' hand on his chest stopped him.

"Let it go, Ellison," Anders said quietly.

The Sentinel's anger shifted to the older agent and he brushed off the hold in irritation. More than ready to take on the man, Jim suddenly paused and turned slightly in Blair's direction, sensing a change from his young partner.

Seeing Blair on his feet and staring at them, Jim took a deep breath and physically stepped back, shaking his head. He forced himself to get a handle on his temper, all too aware that if he didn't, he'd have his Guide by his side in another few seconds—and that was the last thing he wanted.

"Just make sure he does his job from now on," Jim warned. "Make sure they all do. I don't like accidents and I don't believe in coincidence. There's been too much of both on this case."

"Just what are you implying, detective?" Anders asked, a hint of challenge coloring his own words.

Ellison looked the older agent in the eye and found himself staring into that cold gray gaze, wondering what was really going inside the man's mind. A warning shiver ran up his spine and the tone of his answer carried that coldness.

"I'm not implying anything. I'm stating a fact. I don't make it a practice of putting either myself or my partner in jeopardy. If I had a choice, I'd pull out of this right now. We're hunting some very dangerous people. We can't afford to be making mistakes at this point."

Their gazes stayed locked and Jim's body tensed until the older man nodded.

"I agree. Look, I'm sorry about your partner finding the body, but Dunn's not to blame. Everyone's doing what they can here. We're stretched pretty thin—"

"Too thin to be thinking and acting professionally?" Jim muttered in disgust.

He shook his head and stepped away to kneel beside the body. He closed his eyes for a moment and took several deep breaths to focus himself before opening up his senses, absorbing the sensory assault for a few seconds before dialing everything back. Without moving from the side of the corpse he glanced up, staring across the short distance to where Blair still stood next to the fallen tree. He 'heard' the increase in his partner's heartbeat and shot him a firm stare, silently ordering the younger man to stay where he was.

"You sure you don't need me there?"

Jim shook his head again in answer to his Guide's whispered question. To his surprise, Blair followed his instructions, although Jim could still hear his pulse racing. Turning his attention back to the body, Jim tried to look at the dead young woman objectively, but it was difficult. He had to keep pushing away the memories of their last case, especially the image of Patty Hammond's body which his mind kept superimposing over this one.

There were certainly enough similarities, he mused darkly—two lives ended far too early, both killed with knives, both corpses bathed in blood. He shuddered, realizing that the common elements of the deaths were probably what had triggered his Guide's response. God, why did it have to be Blair that found her? He felt another surge of anger and fought to channel it into a more productive direction.

He sat back on his heels for a moment and closed his eyes, concentrating on the evidence that he had. Throat slashed, just like the driver, so probably the same killer. Strong smell of perfume, skin still slightly warm...

His eyes flashed open and he looked up at Anders.

"The Bureau confirm anything on our vacationers yet?" he asked quickly.

"Still sorting them out, but so far, nothing out of the ordinary. Why?"

"Something doesn't make sense. This body's still warm. I'd guess that she was killed less than two hours ago," Jim replied, frowning as he rose to his feet. "That should mean that we're getting closer, but the evidence trail we've been following is older than that."

"If that's true, then they would have had to double back on their trail to leave the body here," Anders observed. "Doesn't seem likely."

"No, it doesn't." Jim shifted his gaze and stared off into the distance, focusing on the paint scrapes he'd found. "We need to get moving. You might want to call up that air support and have them standing by. I've got a feeling we're not too far from finding the bus."

"Already done. I had Fredericks contact them as soon as Dunn reported the body. I've got Bailey on the move as well. He's left a team with the people at the ATV and he's headed our way. Should be here within an hour or so."

"He'll have to catch up with us. We can't wait that long. Tell them to keep it quiet. I don't want to alert anyone to our presence. And tell him not to make a move until he's cleared it with me."

Jim's tone brooked no argument as he took command of the situation. He didn't care if Anders liked it or not. He'd all but told the man that he didn't like the way the operation was being run. If they were as close as he thought to the bus, then they might also be close to the kidnappers and the killer. He didn't want Bailey charging in and putting anyone—particularly his partner and the missing children—at risk.

"All right, you're on point. It'll be your call," the older agent agreed. He slipped off his own headset and handed it to Jim with a small shake of his head, as if in apology for the earlier malfunctions. The Sentinel accepted the unit without a word, turned on his heel and went to join his waiting, anxious Guide.


Blair tried to find out what had happened as soon as Jim rejoined him, but the older man waved off his comments, taking him by the arm and steering him back toward the search path, away from the grisly murder scene. He started to protest, but the grip on his bicep tightened, matching the clenching of his partner's jaw, so he allowed himself to be towed along. Once they were well ahead of the others and partially masked by a heavy stand of trees, the Sentinel swung him around abruptly, holding him tightly by both arms and glaring down at him.

"Jim—"

"Quiet!"

"Jim, come on—"

"Damn it, Sandburg, just be quiet for a minute," the older man hissed, his sharp gaze fixing Blair in place as firmly as his hands were.

He fell silent and still, waiting out the scrutiny, knowing that Jim was 'reading' all the physical signals he was sending out. Under that measuring stare, Blair felt like he was being examined inside and out. As stretched and exhausted as he was, he was certain that he was going to fail the Sentinel's sensory test, so he was amazed when the vice-like grip on his arms eased and the gaze softened slightly.

"You're all right?"

"After what you just did, you shouldn't have to ask," Blair said softly.

"I'd feel better if one of my senses could get inside that head of yours, Chief," Jim responded, shaking his head. "Then I'd know for sure."

"Trust me, Jim. You DON'T want to go there," he responded with a slight grin.

"You're wrong, Blair," Jim countered, his voice flat and tinged with anger. "That's exactly where I want to go. What we're doing here is dangerous. Somehow I need to drive that point into that thick skull of yours and I know from past experience that half of what I say goes in and the rest you divert off into some other plane of existence that only you're aware of. This whole thing could get out of hand without warning and where will you be? Right in the middle of it without engaging your brain first."

"If that's where you are, then that's where I'll be," Blair said determinedly, his grin evaporating, but his gaze remaining steady.

"If I had the option I'd get you out of here now, but I can't," Jim growled, giving him a hard shake. "That's my fault. I never should have let you come. You're in no shape for this, physically or emotionally and your sense of self-preservation seems to have disappeared completely. I told you to stay put back there, to keep out of it, yet ten minutes after I pull you out of some weird trance you're ready to jump back in with both feet like nothing happened. Don't bother to deny it. I saw that look on your face. What the hell were you thinking?"

"Jim, you should know me well enough by now to accept that it's not my head that makes those decisions for me, but my heart," Blair said quietly, his eyes not leaving the older man's. "Especially where your safety is concerned."

"We're not talking about my safety here. We're talking about yours."

"Well, since they're intertwined at the moment—"

"Damn it, Blair, you're too important to me to lose because you won't take this seriously."

"I am taking this seriously!" Blair snapped, pulling from the older man's hold. He stepped back a pace and glanced back the way they had come, then turned to meet the Sentinel's confused and angry glare. "And you're wrong. This isn't about me, it's about you. I know it doesn't make sense, Jim, but there's something about all of this, and particularly about Anders, that scares the hell out of me."

"This is about the panic attacks isn't it? How can it make sense when you won't talk to me about them?"

"I said I would—."

"When?"

Blair opened his mouth to answer and then closed it with a snap, whirling away from the Sentinel. He took two steps, intent on running like hell, but instead, he grabbed onto the fragile reins of what was left of his willpower and came to an abrupt stop. With his back to the older man, he closed his eyes, clenching his fists at his sides. He felt the warmth of Jim's hand on his shoulder and he opened his eyes, staring straight ahead. "I don't understand it, and I'm afraid to try," he whispered.

"Then we'll tackle it together," Jim said softly, turning him slowly so that their gazes met once again. "Right now, I need your promise that you'll do exactly what I say, when I say it. You don't go anywhere, or do anything without a signal from me first."

"I thought that's what I agreed to when we first started working together?"

"Yeah, and I'm still waiting for you to follow through on it."

"Okay. Observer rules. I got it," Blair muttered softly.

"Just see that you remember this time, Chief."

And the second you get in the line of fire, Ellison, all rules are off again, you remember that, too, Blair thought grimly as he nodded, acknowledging his partner's comment.

Jim squeezed his shoulder once more and prodded him forward, quietly explaining what he'd found and what he thought they we headed into.


Joel Taggert looked up in surprise as the outer doors to the Major Crimes Unit offices crashed shut with a deafening bang. Glancing out through the blinds of his own office windows he caught sight of a dark visage stalking through the bullpen and grimaced. Closing his eyes he started to count slowly under his breath—he'd seen the lightning flash, now he was waiting for the roll of thunder to see just how close the storm really was. He grimaced when he heard another crash of rattling glass and wood—the door to Simon's own office. Eight... usually takes 'til ten to get through the bullpen. Must have been a 'bad' meeting, he thought to himself.

Joel glanced at his watch and shook his head. 3:30, no wonder he's bent out of shape. Wonder who's program got the ax this time. Hope it wasn't one of ours. With surprising agility for a man his size, he eased out from behind his desk, picked up his coffee cup and headed to the break room. He managed to suppress a smile, observing the sudden increase in the level of activity in the bullpen. Everyone knew that dealing with the upper levels of bureaucracy was Simon's least favorite thing to do. Budget days were the worst and judging from the length of this meeting and the Richter scale level of the door slamming, the captain's patience level was exhausted. Looking busy was key at this point—evacuating the scene until things cooled off an even better option, if you could create a plausible reason for it.

Joel filled his cup and peered through the break room blinds, eyeing Simon's office intently. Banks was pacing, the anger flowing off of him in waves. Joel frowned. This was more than just frustration for the bureaucratic process. Simon never let his impatience with the bean counters get this far out of control. No, it had to be something else. He was worried about something or someone. Or, more correctly, two someones—Ellison and Sandburg.

Joel shook his head again, his own concern for the two men resurfacing. He admitted he had a soft spot where Sandburg was concerned, but during their last case, he'd also seen the toll it was taking on Ellison. He'd seen them when they'd come in that morning, looking like death warmed over, the kid's usual bounce and energy missing, the detective even more closed down than usual. He knew Simon had seen it. He'd been certain that Bank's had planned to give them a break, even though the waiting caseload was overwhelming. Simon demanded a lot, but he took care of his people and Ellison was more than just the unit's best detective—he and Banks were good friends. And, although Joel was sure he'd never admit it out loud, Simon liked the young grad student as well. He made less than tolerant noises about Sandburg's presence, but underneath that, Taggert could sense a growing respect and trust.

"Kid does have a way of getting under your skin, doesn't he?" he murmured, grinning at his own reflection in the glass for a moment.

The grin turned to a frown as he considered Simon's current mindset. Banks hadn't been happy about sending the partners off on that search and rescue mission. Word was the mayor had approved it over his head. Maybe that's what had him steaming.

He refocused his attention on Simon. The big man was standing behind his desk now, phone in his hand. Something in his frozen posture made Joel uneasy and he slipped out of the break room. Crossing to Simon's office, Taggert hesitated outside the captain's closed door, waiting until the other man put down the phone before pushing the door open a few feet. The angry expression on the captain's face told him that whatever the call had been about, it wasn't good news.

"Simon?" he asked softly, not sure whether his interruption was welcome. Banks looked up abruptly and Taggert saw definite worry in the captain's eyes. "What is it?"

"Joel... come in and shut the door. We've got a problem." Simon said softly.

Continue on to the Conclusion...


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