Slaver – Steven

By: DoggyJ

EMAIL: DoggyJ

Third in the ‘Slaver’ AU series.

SUMMARY: Jim becomes an agent, moves back into his loft, reunites with his brother, and solves his first case. There.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: I took ‘The Debt’ and ‘My Brother’s Keeper’, threw them into a blender, and this is what I ended up with. Some scenes and dialogue taken from these episodes. So, thanks, Paul DeMeo and Danny Bilson. And thanks to Pet Fly, UPN, and Paramount. What? You want to sue? Hahahahahahahahaha! Oh, that was a good one. I’ve got two dachshunds you can have.

***

 

"They’re the only family you’ve got, Jim. You owe it to them to at least let them know you're alive," Blair persisted, not for the first time.

"Why?" Jim’s smile was not a pleasant thing to see. "They never cared before, why should they now?" The two men were in the break room at the compound, empty except for them.

"I’m sorry, I don’t understand," Blair said slowly, trying to sort out the complicated tangle of emotions from his sentinel.

"Simple, Chief. My dad never accepted the possibility that I could be a sentinel, a ‘freak’, he said." Jim paused, a far away look in his eyes. "The only contact I’ve had with him since I left home was before the Split, when I was named ‘Cop of the Year’ in Cascade. He called me the next day, when he saw my picture in the paper. Of course, they mentioned that I was a sentinel. He said, ‘How could you do this to me?’ That was it. If he ever finds out I was captured, collared…" Jim’s voice trailed off.

"He won't find out. How could he?" Blair paced in the small break room at the compound. The two men were alone for the moment.

"He has contacts - business contacts - all over the world. Hell, he probably already knows I'm back." Jim stared at the cup of coffee cooling on the table in front of him.

"And your brother?" Blair asked.

Jim was quiet for a long moment, staring beyond the walls of the compound into the past. ‘My father raised us after my mother… left," he began. "His idea of child rearing was to make us compete for everything. For example, one year he bought season tickets to the Jags. But he only bought two, you see. So whoever was in favor that week would get to go."

Blair listened carefully with both his ears and empathy. "Sounds harsh, man," he commented.

"I guess he figured the competition would toughen us up for the real world but in reality, it just drove us further apart. He never allowed us to be weak, or… different." Jim's voice was tinged with old anger, combined with longing and regret.

"Like a sentinel?" Blair asked quietly.

Jim seemed to ignore the question; only the tensing of the muscle in his jaw gave him away. "He had a car, a ’65 Cobra. Man, that was a sweet car."

"Oh, yeah, yeah." Blair said, encouraging Jim to continue while wincing inwardly at the old pain these memories seemed to bring out in Jim.

The other man absently turned the cup in front of him around as he probed at the wounds of his past. "If my dad was in a good mood, he'd let me drive it every now and again, but only when he was with me. Once I backed it out of the garage myself. He popped up out of nowhere. He was so angry, he forbad me to even go near the car again."

Jim chuckled humorlessly. "That doesn’t sound so bad, just saying it. But you should have seen his face. It was one of the only times I was ever physically afraid of my father. It was almost like he was crazy."

Restlessly, Jim stood up to get some fresh coffee, then sat back down at the small table across from Blair. "He was going to go on this business trip. Japan, Australia—I don't know where it was, but he had promised Steven that he was going to take him on this trip if he kept his grades up. One day Steven comes home with a ‘B.’ He took one look at that report and said, ‘'Steven, sorry, the deal's off. Jimmy, pack your bags.’"

Blair nodded, beginning to understand. "So he punishes Steven by rewarding you."

"Yeah," Jim nodded. "I guess Steven was pretty pissed off, jealous. He was really hurt. I don’t know if he was trying to back at our father or me, but he took a crowbar to the Cobra. My dad must have figured I'd taken it out for a joyride and dinged it up. I tried to tell him I had nothing to do with it, but he didn’t believe me. I wasn't going to rat Steven out." Jim paused. Bitterness had replaced the regret in his tone. "He never came forward and told the truth."

"So, he got to go on the trip?" Blair guessed.

"Yeah," Jim answered. "And I got to go on one of my own."

"I see," Blair said. "Join the army, see the world."

"Something like that," Jim agreed. "But you know, when I was in Peru, I had a lot of time to think. I finally realized that I couldn't change the relationship I had with my father. It was what it was. I couldn't make him trust me. We just couldn't communicate."

Blair sipped at his coffee. "So, what about your brother? Steven?"

"What about him?" Jim frowned.

"Kids do stupid things," Blair said thoughtfully. "How old was he when you left? I mean, haven’t you changed in the years you’ve been away?"

"They never even called," Jim said softly, turning his coffee cup around as he stared at the table. Blair could feel the loneliness and bitterness in his sentinel’s words. "When I came back from Peru. No ‘glad you’re back, son’, ‘good to see you’re still alive, bro’, ‘go to hell’, nothing."

Blair leaned across the table, closer to Jim. "It hurts, doesn’t it?" he said, so very softly that even the sentinel had to strain to hear him. "You love them so much, and it hurts."

Even though he expected it, the blast of rage and pain threw him out of his seat. Over the roaring in his ears, Blair could hear the coffee cup as it smashed against the far wall. It was followed by a chair and then another cup. Blair struggled to his feet, trying to fight the pain and pressure inside his skull, trying to reach Jim before someone got hurt.

Two guards rushed in, guns drawn. Confused, they slid to a halt, but kept their weapons trained on the man standing in the middle of the room, bellowing in his anger. They knew all the personnel assigned to the compound, and that this was the newest arrival. They just weren’t sure what his status was.

"No, no!" Blair yelled. "Stand down! Stand down! It’s okay, right? Everything’s fine." Slamming his mental shields up as strongly as he could, Blair turned frantic eyes to Jim. The sentinel had sunk to his knees on the floor, body curled in on itself in pain. His hands were clasped tightly over his ears; eyes squeezed shut as tears of pain leaked from them.

"Get out," Blair ordered the guards, not daring to take his eyes off his sentinel. "Out, now!" he repeated when the men didn’t move. Reluctantly, the two men lowered their weapons and moved out into the hallway, staying where they could observe the occupants of the break room.

Cautiously, Blair crept toward the other man, lowering his barriers only enough to try to send comfort and reassurance across the bond. What he got back was a maelstrom of emotional pain encompassing abandonment, anger, rejection, despair, and an all-pervasive sense of loneliness.

"Jim, its okay, man. I’m here," he said softly. Reaching out carefully, Blair laid his hand on the taut, trembling back. Jim was rocking back and forth, gasping as he fought his spiking senses and emotional distress. "I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you."

"They’re all gone," Jim whispered. "They left me. My mother… Dan… Dan left me." Jim shuddered and raised his head. He turned desolate eyes to Blair. "He was my guide, how could he leave me?"

"I don’t think he wanted to, Jim," Blair said soothingly, trying to pull the distraught man closer.

"Everyone I love; everyone I need. They always leave. What’s wrong with me?" The question was asked with such a sense of loss that Blair had to catch his breath before he could answer.

"There’s nothing wrong with you. I’m right here, with you. I won’t leave you. You’re my Sentinel." The whole time Blair had been talking, he had been striving through the bond to calm Jim down, to insulate his senses from the overload Jim’s misery was causing. He felt the tension drain from the bigger man’s body as Jim sagged against him.

Jim took another deep, shuddering breath and pulled slightly away from the guide. "Shit," he breathed, easing his hands away from his ears. He wiped irritably at his face, surprised at the moisture he felt there. Embarrassment flooded the bond as Jim realized where he was, and that Blair had his arms around him like he was a child.

Blair let him go but stayed on the floor beside him. Jim looked around at the destruction in the break room. "Shit," he said again.

"Yeah, that pretty much sums it up," Blair agreed.

"What the hell happened here?" Simon’s bellow broke the spell. Jim flinched, but calmed as Blair touched his arm again.

Blair turned to face his captain. "Poltergeist?" he offered.

"Poltergeist my ass," Simon snapped.

"Simon," Blair said before Jim had a chance to speak. "It’s a sentinel thing," he added lamely when his tired brain refused to come up with a better explanation.

Simon just grunted. He turned to the guards. "Anyone hurt?" They shook their heads. "Well, get someone to clean this up and return to your posts. I want a full report," Simon snapped as he turned and headed down the hall.

"Yes, sir," Blair said to the empty doorway.

Jim looked around the room again, the turned his gaze on Blair, checking for any injuries. "I’m sorry," he said.

"Well," Blair chuckled, "I did kind of ask for it."

Horrorstruck, Jim stared at Blair. Then the corner of his mouth twitched. He sobered quickly, however. "No, you didn’t. You just told me the truth." Closing his eyes, Jim reached out, grabbing Blair behind his neck. He pulled the younger man close. "I’m sorry," he said again.

"Don’t be," Blair said seriously. "I pushed you. It’s just as much my fault as yours."

Jim started to reply, then just stopped and shook his head. He knew he wouldn’t win this argument with his guide. Tiredly, he pushed himself to his feet. Blair rose easily beside him.

"Headache?" Blair asked.

"Yeah," Jim grimaced, running a hand around the back of his neck.

"So, you gonna see your brother?" Blair couldn’t resist asking.

Defeated, the immovable object capitulated to the irresistible force. "I guess."

***

Blair checked out an SUV but he let Jim drive to the loft. Several days had passed since Jim’s meeting with his ex-wife and the discussion about his family. Jim had been generally quiet, thinking; processing as Blair called it. For his part, Blair gave Jim some space while he worked on the clearances needed to allow Jim more freedom off base.

"Do you always stay at the compound?" Jim asked as they drove toward town. The compound had been converted from an old military base that had been shut down by the former government and was located about twenty miles outside of Cascade. The road through the mountains was quiet this morning with little traffic.

"Only when I’m on an assignment," Blair answered.

"So I’m an assignment?" Jim asked, wry amusement coloring his tone.

"Yeah," Blair grinned. "My final assignment."

Jim looked sharply at his guide. "But… I thought… I wanted to…"

"No, man, no. We will go back, if that’s what you want and if they let us. What I mean is that you were an assignment, but now that we’re bonded, you’re constantly my one and only mission." Blair answered.

"Oh," Jim replied thoughtfully. " ‘One and only’, hm? I like that."

"Whoa, whoa, slow down there, big guy," Blair said, sitting up straighter in the passenger seat. "This is not like we’re married or anything, right? I mean, I can still date, and all that, right? Right?" he persisted when Jim failed to answer immediately.

Jim chuckled at the alarm in Blair’s voice. "I don’t know, Chief. I mean, with the bond and all, don’t you think that’d be… well… a little voyeuristic?"

"Voyeur… oh, shit… you mean…" Blair groaned, verging on panic.

Jim broke into outright laughter. "Calm down, I’m just messing with you. Yes, you can date and ‘all that’. Just make sure your shields are up. Way up," Jim grimaced.

Blair looked at Jim, eyes narrowed in thought. "So, when you and Dan were bonded, did you ever?"

"No," Jim sighed. "Carolyn and I had already gotten divorced before my senses… came back. She said I was emotionally distant or some shit, and she couldn’t live with a man who couldn’t talk to her." The warm, close feeling of just a minute ago faded away. The barriers between the two men strengthened.

"Don’t do that, man," Blair pleaded. "I didn’t mean to upset you."

"Sorry, Chief. It’s just… it’s not a very pleasant subject for me." Jim stared straight ahead, hands gripping the steering wheel tightly.

"You never did tell me how you and Dan ended up together," Blair said, trying to change the subject. Jim visibly forced himself to relax. Blair felt the sentinel’s shields easing and tried to send support and reassurance through the bond.

"Life story, huh?" Jim grinned weakly at him. "Let me start back at the beginning. When I joined the Army, the testing showed that I had sentinel abilities, but they were dormant. I’d always come up with ambivalent scores before, when I was tested. My father never pushed it, didn’t want his son to be a ‘freak’." Jim struggled for a moment not to let his feelings about his father sidetrack him as he turned the SUV onto the main roadway leading into town.

"Then I was sent to Peru," he said evenly. Blair nodded.

Jim grunted. "You probably know as much about that mission as I do," he mused, glancing at his guide. Just to look at Blair, it was hard to realize that he was a highly rated covert agent in his own right, with a top-secret security clearance.

"Not the whole thing," Blair admitted. "A lot of records were lost, of course, but when things started looking bad in the east the people in charge here tried to save what they could."

"We were shot down. The rest of my men died immediately, or soon after," Jim continued. Even if Blair already knew this, he needed to say it. To talk about it. "I was the only one left. The Chopec, a local tribe, found me. Their shaman, Incacha, was able to make my abilities active. I don’t really know how he did it. There’s … a lot I don’t remember about that time."

Blair nodded, sending reassurance and encouragement along the bond. He could feel how difficult this was for Jim to talk about, could all but see the heavy weight pressing down the memories.

"But when I got back, the enhanced senses were gone, just like they’d never existed. I started to believe…" he trailed off.

"To believe they never were?" Blair inquired softly.

"Something like that," Jim admitted. "So, anyway, I came home, got discharged, kicked around for awhile then joined the police department. That’s where I met Dan. He knew right away what I was. Never really said anything about it, but he let me know that he knew."

The two men were quiet for a moment before Jim continued. "Then came the bombings. They started at a post office in Tacoma. The targets were either related to government buildings or public transportation, like a bridge or ferry. We found out later the bomber was part of a group working for traitors in the east. I had a lead on the suspect and camped out in the woods for a week or so. That’s when my senses came back on line."

"Isolation," Blair murmured.

"What?" Jim asked.

"Isolation, that’s what the primitive tribes used for sentinels and guides to activate their senses. They’d send the potential sentinel out into the wilderness with his or her guide. When they came back, they were bonded and the sentinel was fully active," Blair explained.

"What if the abilities didn’t show?" Jim wondered.

"They didn’t come back," Blair said simply.

Jim grimaced. "I didn’t have a guide. That’s probably why I lost the suspect. Anyway, the old mill I was watching had been rigged to blow. At least I detected the bomb in enough time to get everyone out of there. The suspect was getting away on a motorcycle, and I jumped on back of it. I had her, had her right in my hands. Then I zoned," he finished angrily.

"Did you know what was happening?" Blair asked.

"No, not really. But Dan knew. I had picked up some evidence so I dropped it off in forensics when I got back. Dan took one look at me and said, ‘Damn, took you long enough, Ellison’." Jim grinned at the memory. "He grabbed my head and bonded me right then and there."

"He must have been amazing," Blair said in awe.

"He was. He was a hell of a guy," Jim said sadly. "He’d been trained by his tribe all his life to be a guide. Said he was just waiting for me to come to my ‘senses’. It was a big joke to him. Hell, he loved to laugh."

Blair nodded. He had read the case file regarding the bombing and knew that Jim had finally caught the suspect, only to find that she was the daughter of one of the men that died with him in Peru.

"And you were already divorced from Carolyn when this happened," Blair said. Jim nodded. "What did she think about you being a sentinel? Or did she know?" he asked.

"Oh, yeah. I told her. Dan kept us civil. You know, she worked for the department, too. Just a regular soap opera, that place," he added dryly. "Anyway, she said she thought that answered a lot of questions, but wasn’t interested in getting back together."

"So, the dinner you had with her, you didn’t really expect anything to happen, huh?" Blair pushed.

"No, not really," Jim sighed. "I just wanted to see, to make sure she’s okay. That she’s… happy."

"Part of your tribe," Blair said, sounding out his idea.

"What?" Jim asked, puzzled.

"She was your wife, man. How much more ‘part of your tribe’ could she be? Of course you’re concerned about her. You wouldn’t be a sentinel if you weren’t." Blair thought for a moment. "You think she suspects you might have your senses back?" Blair, the operative, asked.

"If she does, she’ll keep her mouth shut. I assume, since she works for you guys now, that she’s been checked out seven ways from Sunday." Jim looked over at the agent, one eyebrow raised.

"Yeah, she’s okay," Blair answered. He knew that Simon had already had a talk with Carolyn and had emphasized the need to keep Jim’s abilities secret.

"You never did answer my question," Jim said pointedly, maneuvering the vehicle surely through the city streets.

"What question?" Blair asked.

"When you’re not at the compound? Where do you live, what do you do?" Jim looked curiously at the other man.

"Oh, yeah. No biggie. I lease some space in an old warehouse here, workspace and living area all in one. I’m associated with Rainier as an adjunct professor. Depending on what we have planned with the agency, I run seminars, teach classes when the enrollment outnumbers the faculty, and fill in for other profs if they’re on a study or leave of absence or whatever," Dr. Sandburg answered.

Jim grinned. "You’re just full of it, aren’t you, Professor? Mild mannered anthropologist by day, secret agent guide by night. Where do you keep your tights?"

"Hardy har har. Oh, yeah, that was funny. I just forgot to laugh," Blair joked back, happy and relieved that Jim’s earlier bleak mood had lifted.

Jim turned a corner and pulled the SUV into a parking space. "Well, here we are. The old homestead."

Blair got out of the SUV eagerly, more than ready to see what kind of life Jim had led before. He faced the row of connected buildings, noticing the shops on the first level. Jim headed toward the building at the end.

"You live over a bakery? How cool is that?" Blair said, grinning.

"Best alarm clock there is," Jim grinned back. "Bert would start those doughnuts and I’d be up like Pavlov’s dog."

" ‘Bert’?" Blair asked.

"Yeah, guy that runs the bakery," Jim answered, walking toward the door just to the left of the small shop.

"The sign says ‘Colette’s’," Blair said, puzzled.

"Oh, that," Jim waved his hand in the air as if that answered Blair’s question.

Blair hurried to catch up with the long-legged sentinel who was standing in front of the glass entrance to the apartment complex. The other man’s mood had changed again to one of trepidation. As Jim hesitated at the door, Blair quietly stepped up beside him, lending him support just by his presence. Taking a deep breath, Jim opened the door and entered the foyer.

"Don’t bother," Jim said as Blair stepped toward the elevator. "It only worked part of the time before, and it doesn’t look like it’s in any better shape now." Turning away, Jim led the way to a door marked ‘stairs’ and started up.

"So," Blair puffed. "You live on the third floor, huh?" He tried to engage Jim in conversation, hoping to distract him from his obviously – to the guide – bleak thoughts.

" ‘Lived’, Sandburg. I lived on the third floor," Jim growled. With each step up, Jim seemed to sink deeper into bitterness. Without any further words between them, the two men reached the third floor and pushed through the door into the hallway.

Jim walked resolutely forward, as if marching to his execution rather than going to look at his once and future home. Blair followed quietly, trying to give Jim the space he needed to come to terms with his reemergence into his own life.

Pulling the key Carolyn had given him out of his pocket, Jim took a deep breath and opened the door marked 307. The two men stepped into the loft apartment and looked around.

"Oh, wow!" Blair exclaimed. "What a place! I gotta confess, I didn’t expect this out of you, man. It’s got so much… character!" Blair bounced with enthusiasm as he turned to inspect every wall. The interior of the loft had exposed brick and piping, giving it an airy, outdoor feel. The walls that were not brick were painted a dark forest green, offset by a large red painted square behind the stand-alone fireplace with a white number ‘4’ painted inside.

"White," Jim said in a quiet voice.

"Hey, neat fireplace. And I like that poster over there, the red heron. Goes with this red square. Who’s idea was that? Yours or Carolyn’s?" Blair walked around the open living area, looking at the exposed brick walls and pipes running along them up to the ceiling.

"Well, not white, really, but this kind of cream color, vanilla sort of," Jim muttered as he stared around the apartment.

There were several large pieces of furniture covered in sheets in the middle of the living area. Blair started lifting the covers to look underneath. A rolled carpet was shoved up against the brick wall off to one side. He walked over to a table, uncovered, with a light coating of dust surrounded by several red chairs. "I like the way you used the red and green together," Blair commented, nodding.

"White," Jim said again.

Blair finally registered his sentinel’s state of mind. "Hey, what’s wrong, man? You okay?"

"It was white." Jim stood still in the same spot. He hadn’t moved any further into the room. The look on his face was reminiscent of a deer caught in the headlights of a rapidly approaching Mack truck.

"Jim? Are you alright?" Concerned, Blair walked over to the stationary man, putting his hand on Jim’s arm. The sentinel was trembling slightly, his breath somewhat faster than normal. "Come on, Jim, you’re starting to scare me here."

"I’m telling you, it was white." Jim turned to look intently at his guide. His eyes had a lost, confused look in them. "Why would someone do this? It was white."

"You lost me, big guy," Blair said, keeping his voice calm and soothing. "Come on over here and sit down." He led Jim to the sheet-covered couch and guided him down. "Now, what was white?"

"The loft. It was white. Well, not white, exactly, but, certainly not," a look of distaste crossed his face, "green."

Blair looked around. "The walls? Are you talking about the walls?"

"It was white," Jim repeated once again, waving his hands around at the interior. "Light and airy. Open. Not dark, not… green."

"Oh, man, are you telling me you’re zoning over a paint job?" Blair laughed in relief.

Jim glared at his guide. "I am not zoning. And it’s not a ‘paint job’. It was my home," he finished softly, sadly.

Blair sobered immediately. "You’re right. It was your home. It is your home."

He watched quietly as Jim stood up impatiently and began stalking around the loft, cataloguing the changes. The sentinel stopped in front of a set of French doors leading to a smaller room, fingering the wood absently. Blair could feel the shock and outrage Jim originally had experienced fading into something cold and gloomy.

Jim turned suddenly and climbed the stairs along one brick wall. Blair hurried after him. They emerged on a half floor open to the main room below. Thankfully, the walls were still painted a light cream color, but the frame of the window was the same dark green as below. A framed Audubon poster hung on the brick wall above a wooden dresser, the only piece of furniture to be found up there.

"This was my bedroom," Jim said, gesturing toward the safety rail and cables. "I had the bed right there. Made me feel free, not closed in."

As quickly as he had climbed the stairs, Jim turned and went back down to the lower level. He stood for a moment staring at the few pieces of furniture that sat covered in the living room. "It’s all different now, isn’t it?" he said as Blair joined him.

"Yes. It is," Blair agreed. He knew Jim was speaking of more than just the apartment.

Together the men began uncovering the furniture, taking stock of what was left of Jim’s home. The found a long white couch and a comfortable if somewhat retro yellow chair. Sneezing at the dust they stirred up, Jim stepped to the balcony to open the doors. Out there they found two wooden deck chairs, painted the same dark green as inside, a table made out of an old door, and several pots with long deceased plants.

Jim stood for a long moment, staring out over the bay that was visible from the balcony. "I used to stand here for hours," he said. "Just watching the boats out there. Carolyn never did get it. But Dan did."

After a few minutes the two men went back inside and finished examining the furniture. As they left, Blair could tell that Jim’s spirits were lifting somewhat. The glitter had come back to his blue eyes as he pointed out the other changes, talking about what he might change when – if – he moved back in.

As they reached the first floor, Jim stopped and turned back. "Hey, let’s see if the building manager is here. Carolyn might have put some of my stuff in the basement."

The manager was unfamiliar to Jim but knew Carolyn, who had told him to expect her ex-husband to come by one day. He quickly showed Jim and Blair to the basement and told them to look around all they wanted. Anything they found, they could have. An hour later, Jim was finally ready to leave.

Blair again let Jim drive, knowing that the other man needed to have as much control over his life and events around him as he could. After a few minutes, Blair said, "You want to see my place?"

Jim agreed and Blair gave directions to the old warehouse district. Some of the old buildings were in the process of being renovated into an ‘arts’ district. Unfortunately, they were several blocks away from where Blair purported to live.

"Geez, Chief," Jim exclaimed as they climbed out of the SUV. "You actually live here?"

"Yeah, when I’m in town," Blair shrugged casually. "Ten thousand square feet, eight fifty a month. Can’t beat it."

Pulling a ring of keys from his pocket, Blair unlocked a door in the side of the building. As they stepped inside, Jim sniffed and rubbed his nose.

"You okay?" Blair asked, glancing at him.

"Yeah," Jim sniffed, looking around. "Just a little… musty in here, is all."

"Well, I’ve been gone for about three months. Place is empty," Blair said.

Jim turned his head sharply as he caught a skittering sound from a far, dark corner. "Oh, I wouldn’t say it’s empty," he muttered, following Blair through the interior.

"Oh, hey, I got something to show you," Blair cried eagerly. "Come on over here." He headed toward a garage door set in another wall, and car-shaped lump covered by a canvas tarp. "You ready to meet my baby?"

Blair could feel Jim’s amusement at his enthusiasm, happy that he could restore some of Jim’s good mood from earlier. "Voila!" he exclaimed as he pulled the tarp away.

Jim whistled. "What is that? A Corvair?"

"A ’66," Blair answered proudly. "It’s a classic."

"It sure is," Jim said, walking around the vehicle. He knelt down and peered underneath, spotting the small puddle of oil on the concrete floor. "You’re leaking a little there, Chief."

"That’s just because I haven’t driven it lately," Blair said. "I only drive this car when I’m ‘in town’, working here. When I’m off on an assignment, I leave it locked up. It is kind of a distinctive vehicle," he admitted.

"I’ll say," Jim murmured.

"Huh?" Blair asked.

"Nothing," Jim hastily answered. He wandered over to a couple of large cages. "What are these for?"

"Oh, I’ve done a few primate studies. You know, short term effects of concentrated television violence on primates, stuff like that." Blair watched Jim process his ‘research speak’.

A sudden snap followed by a high-pitched squeal interrupted Jim’s response. "What was that? A mousetrap?"

"Oh, no. Mice are small and cute. But these…" Blair just shuddered and shook himself.

"And you like living here?" Jim asked.

"Oh, yeah. It’s great. Lots of room. And I’m an eccentric professor, gotta remember that. But nothing I need from here right now. You ready to go back?" Blair struggled to get the tarp back over the Corvair.

"I guess so," Jim said as he helped Blair cover the car.

They headed back for the smaller door they had entered through. Just before they reached, Jim stopped again, rubbing at his nose. He frowned, looking around the warehouse.

"Jim? Are you okay?" Blair asked, stepping up next to him.

"Yeah. It’s just… this smell. It seems familiar, but I can’t quite place it," he answered.

"Probably rat droppings," Blair snorted.

"I am not and never have been familiar with rat droppings," Jim stated with a great amount of dignity.

Blair laughed and led the way outside again. "Well, if you’re finished sniffing my home?" he asked.

Jim looked around outside the warehouse. A cloud seemed to settle over him suddenly. "I’m a little tired," he admitted. "Why don’t you drive?"

***

"How are you feeling, Jim?" Simon asked from the head of the conference table.

"Fine, sir," Jim answered from his place along the side, next to his guide.

"And your neck?" Simon pressed.

"The plastic surgery went well and Meagan says I’m actually ahead of schedule a little," Jim replied.

Ethan Howard, one of the military analysts that had participated in Jim’s debriefing, leaned forward. "Captain Ellison," he began, "I’m here as a representative of the government. As you know, the military, what was left of it, was completely reorganized when we formed the Alliance. Although I know this is far short of what you’re entitled to, I have a check here for you for seventy-five thousand dollars. It is our hope that this will serve to help ease your way back into freedom." He slid an envelope across the table.

Blair watched as Jim eyed the envelope. The sentinel was tense but not overly anxious, as if he had expected this day to come.

"Along with that lump sum payment, we are prepared to offer you a position with the military." Ethan glanced at Simon, than back to Jim. "I understand you’ve already expressed a wish to join Agent Sandburg and the Special Operations branch, but I’d like you…" he paused. Taking a breath, Howard looked at Blair and Jim. "I’d like both of you to considered becoming military advisors to the Joint Forces."

"No," Jim said simply.

"Well," Howard gave a little nervous laugh. "You can’t just dismiss the offer out of hand. I haven’t even told you…"

"No," Jim said again. He leaned over the table, pushing the envelope back toward the official. "Never again."

Blair sighed with relief, not even aware that he had been holding his breath. He read a steely resolve within Jim, as well as a trace of amusement. He had been afraid that Jim would prefer the military life to that of covert assignments. But if that was what Jim wanted, Blair would have gone willingly.

"Neither my guide nor I are remotely interested in being part of any military organization," Jim reiterated.

Howard knew when he had heard a final answer. He pushed the envelope back at Jim. "The money’s yours," he said. "You’ve more than earned it. And good luck in your future endeavors." With a nod at Captain Banks, Howard picked up his briefcase and left the room.

"Well, now," Simon said, unable to hide the note of glee in his voice. "This calls for a celebration." He led the other men into his office. "I have here a new brew and a fresh box of cigars. Welcome on board, Jim."

Jim frowned at the box Simon held out to him, then frowned harder as Blair took one of the cigars.

"What?" Blair asked. "I won’t smoke it around you, I promise." He grinned as Jim just shook his head holding out his cup for some of the gourmet coffee that, oddly enough, had not been offered to Howard. While Simon filled their cups, Blair studied Jim. The sentinel seemed more relaxed and at ease than he had since they had first brought up the subject of contacting his family.

The two had been to Jim’s loft apartment several times to clean it and take inventory of what was still there. Inside the loft were the white couch they had found as well as a yellow chair and a dining table and chairs. Rolled up along one wall was a rug with a brightly colored block pattern. In the basement they had found several small tables, some extra chairs, and a couple of metal shelving units with glass shelves. Slowly, the apartment began to take shape. Then Jim had surgery on his neck to reduce the scarring from the removal of the collar and the work came to an end.

Now Jim was cleared medically, and it was time to make some hard decisions about his – no, their - lives. First had been a clarification of Jim’s legal status in the Alliance, with all the paperwork that entailed, and his plans for the future. Blair had been quietly non-committal; allowing Jim to make his own decisions.

"So, Chief," Jim was saying, "you think you can put up with me on a more or less permanent basis?"

Blair could feel his face stretching into a wide grin. "Oh, I think maybe I can."

***

They had been shopping before, for clothing and some personal items for Jim. But Blair had never been ‘sentinel’ shopping. And that was a whole new world. They were in the third mattress store when Blair’s phone started vibrating. His first thought was ‘Oh, thank God! I hope it’s something serious.’

Jim looked over at him, quirking an eyebrow. Blair checked the number and seeing that it was Simon’s office quickly dialed back and walked to a quiet corner of the store.

"Yeah, Simon, what’s up?" he said, looking up as Jim joined him. "My what? It what?" He could feel Jim coming to attention beside him, alerted by Blair’s reaction. Through the bond, Blair could all but feel Jim sharpen his hearing to listen in to the conversation.

"Oh, shit! Okay, okay. We’ll head over there now." Blair disconnected the call and looked at Jim with stunned eyes. "My warehouse blew up," he said.

Jim drove quickly though the streets of Cascade, needing few directions from Blair to find the way. Several blocks from Blair’s building, they were stopped by a cordon of police barricades. Jim parked the truck out of the way and he and Blair got out.

Approaching one of the uniformed officers, Blair called out to him. "Excuse me?"

"Yes, sir?" the officer replied.

"I’m Blair Sandburg, I live – used to live in one of those buildings. Is there someone I can talk to, to find out about the condition of the building and the contents?" he asked.

"Just a moment, sir," the officer said, turning around to call on his radio.

Blair turned to Jim, who was frowning and looking down the street intently. "What is it, man?" he asked.

"Semtex," Jim said. Blair’s eyes narrowed at the information of the explosives used. So, this wasn’t just a random accident. This was deliberate.

"Sir?" The young officer called to Blair. "You can go through. Look for a Lt. Williams."

"Thank you," Blair said. He felt a sharp jolt through his bond with Jim, and sent the sentinel a sharp glance.

Walking past the barricades toward the emergency equipment gathered down the street, Jim leaned over to speak quietly in Blair’s ear. "If this Lt. Williams is who I think he is, I know him from before."

"Did he know about your sentinel abilities?" Blair murmured.

"Yeah, he did," Jim sighed.

"Ellison? Jim Ellison?" A thin, well-dressed black man with a mustache came toward them. Blair could read honest surprise and a hint of anxiety from the other man. "I thought you were dead," he exclaimed, holding out his hand for Jim to shake.

Jim took the hand and clasped it firmly. "Yeah, there’s a lot of that going around. I thought you gave up smoking," he replied.

Williams chuckled, taking the cigarette from his lips and looking at it. "I did. Several times since you left. Problem is smoking didn’t give up on me."

"Are those Turkish?" Jim asked, sniffing slightly.

"Yeah, they’re cheaper now than they used to be," Williams laughed slightly.

A younger black man, straight from the ’hood by his appearance, came up behind Williams. The older man turned. "Jim, this is Earl Gaines, one of my best men. I don’t know if you knew him or not."

"No, but I knew of you," Jim said, turning his attention to the other man. "I remember your game winner against Oregon. Hell of a catch."

Blair watched them all carefully. Jim was cautious but not alarmed, careful about what he said to these men. Williams was all hale-fellow-well-met on the outside but anxious and a bit fearful beneath the good-humored exterior.

"I’ve heard of you, too, Detective Ellison. An honor." Gaines was earnest and honest, a little awed at meeting an apparent police legend.

"Not a detective any more," Jim disclaimed. "Just trying to get my feet back under me."

"Yeah, what happened to you?" Williams asked, peering at Jim intently.

While Jim gave the agreed upon explanation about his disappearance and return, Blair studied the detective closely as he focused on Jim. Something about Williams’ interest seemed somewhat predatory to the empath.

"Sorry about Wolf, he was okay," Williams said. "So you don’t have those senses any more? Pity."

After apparently satisfying Williams, Jim turned their attention back to the issue at hand. Blair let him take the lead. He could tell that, as a former member of the brotherhood, Jim had already established a rapport with the officers.

"So, what do you have so far?" Jim asked.

Williams answered before Gaines could speak. "We’ve id’d two of the bodies, both known gangbangers with extensive rap sheets."

Gaines spoke up. "The others are also members of the 357s."

Turning sharply, Williams snapped, "How do you know?" Blair could tell he was angry that Gaines was sharing the information with all of them instead of reporting to Williams privately.

"So this is part of a gang war?" Jim asked, old habits surging back to the surface.

"Not exactly," Gaines said, glancing at Williams, as if afraid the other man would stop him. "Since the split, terrorists from both the Empire and other hostile countries have actively been recruiting gangs to their cause. The 357s have been among the most actively involved in drugs, weapons and explosives."

"So these are not some wannabes," Jim observed.

"All indications are that this was a major storage facility for them. Something got out of hand and they place blew," Gaines finished.

Williams scowled. "You say you lived here?" He turned toward Blair.

"Yes, when I was in town," Blair answered. He felt something from Williams; not hostility or suspicion exactly, but a calculating regard.

"You been in town lately?" he asked.

"I was over here about a week ago," Blair said, "with Jim. But I haven’t been staying here for the past couple of months."

"Oh? And why was that?" Williams asked.

"I’ve been working with Jim, studying the repatriation process. What kind of damage is there? When can I see my place?" He tried to turn the conversation away from himself and Jim.

"Not much to see. What’s left is either burned or soaked," Gaines said.

Blair’s face suddenly paled. "My car! What about my car? Did you find a turquoise ’66 Corvair?"

Gaines and Williams exchanged a look. "I’m afraid the car didn’t make it," Williams said.

"Oh, man, oh, man," Blair moaned, straining to see around the officers.

"Take it easy, buddy," Williams said, pushing Blair back a step. "We’ll let you in when it’s safe. Now, in the meantime, where can we reach you?"

Williams asked Blair a few more questions, then Jim lead him back to the SUV. "Come on, Chief. There’s nothing else you can do for now."

When they reached the vehicle, Jim stopped Blair just before he got in the passenger side. "That’s what I smelled last week," he said. "The explosives. I just couldn’t place it at the time, I think it was covered by something, some kind of oil."

Blair thought for a long moment. "Let’s get back to base, do some research on this gang. Then when they let me go back to the warehouse, we can look around some. Maybe you can pick up something." Jim agreed and they headed back to base.

After riding in silence for a while, Blair spoke up. "This doesn’t mean you have to give up on the loft, man," he said. "We can still get it fixed up and you can move on in."

A sudden thought seemed to hit him. "Hey, maybe I could stay with you for a couple of weeks or so. Of course, I have to get my own place sometime, got to keep up appearances and all that. But that way we’d still have the contact we needed instead of one of us having to run back and forth to the base. I mean, until we’ve got a strong enough bond that we don’t need daily contact. I don’t need much room. Hell, I don’t even know what I’ve got left. I could take that room under the stairs…"

"Breathe, Chief," Jim laughed. "You don’t have to sell it so hard. You can move in, temporarily."

"Oh, sure. I know you’re anxious to have your space back. And I totally agree, I really do. Man, this is gonna be great!"

Blair was allowed back into the remains of his warehouse/apartment the next day. Not much was salvageable, just some clothes, a colorful afghan, and a few sealed boxes containing books and pictures. During his younger life, he had moved around quite a bit with his mother, so had left many of his belongings packed if they were not needed. Other than that, the place was pretty much totaled.

"You do have insurance, right?" Jim asked.

"Tenant insurance, sure, and full coverage on the car. But where am I going to find another car like this?" Blair said sadly, in mourning for his beloved Corvair.

"Well, if you need any help with anything, I’ve got that settlement check just sitting in the bank," Jim offered.

Blair seemed surprised and genuinely touched by the offer. Even though he and Jim were bonded as Sentinel and Guide, they were still fairly new friends. Jim was already offering him a place to stay other than the government compound and now he was offering financial help as well.

"Thanks, man. That really means a lot." Blair strengthened his barriers a little; he could tell that his gratitude was embarrassing the other man. "But between my government paycheck and what I get from the seminars and the university, I’m doing pretty good. It’s just going to be a hassle to find a new car."

"Well, as long as you’re looking," Jim started hesitantly, "I thought I might get something for myself, too. I sold my Explorer when I got called up, just figured I’d get something new when I came back. That is, I guess, if I’m allowed."

"Why wouldn’t you be?" Blair asked, puzzled. Then understanding dawned. "Oh, man, you have got to get over this. You’ve been completely cleared, I told you that. We’re just waiting to make sure you’re one hundred per cent physically fit and get you up to speed on our procedures and equipment before we put your ass to work. Of course you can get a car. Hey, this will be fun. Both of us car shopping." Then muttered under his breath, ‘I just hope it goes faster than mattress shopping.’

"I heard that," Jim said. "A mattress is a very personal thing."

The next couple of days were very busy for the two men. Lt. Williams called Blair down to the station to answer some more questions and even called Jim in for questioning as well. Jim renewed some old ties at the police department but was careful to make sure no hint of the return of his senses got out. Henri and Rafe began their own investigation from Special Operations to make sure Blair wasn’t the target, while Simon had a few discrete words with the current chief of police.

When they weren’t answering questions at the station, they were working at Jim’s loft; cleaning, salvaging furniture from the basement, and moving their few possessions. They managed to do some shopping for odds and ends and visited several dealerships. Jim seemed more drawn to the new vehicles while Blair preferred to prowl the used car lots.

On the third day after the explosion, Blair and Jim were sifting through the remains of the warehouse to make sure they had gotten all of Blair’s salvageable belongings when Blair’s phone again went off. After checking in with Simon, Blair and Jim climbed into the government SUV and headed back to the police station. Once there they were shown into a conference room.

They were introduced to Captain Sloan, a tall thin man with silver white hair who was impeccably dressed and looked to be somewhere in his mid-forties, despite the hair. Lt. Williams and Earl Gaines were also there, as was Simon, who had told them he would be there when they called.

Capt. Sloan introduced everyone. "Captain Banks is here representing the Department of Special Operations that has an interest in this bombing. He and I have worked together before on several other cases involving the threat of terrorism. Mr. Ellison, as you know, is a former Army Ranger and police officer. He is currently – attached – to the Division of Special Operations and has been requested to attend by Captain Banks. Dr. Sandburg is also a consultant to the government as well as a direct victim of this incident."

He turned to Williams. "Lieutenant, where are we in this investigation?"

Williams sat up straight in his seat. "We know that the men killed in the explosion, who were inside the warehouse, were members of the 357s. This particular gang was suspected of fronting for Empire terrorists, moving guns, explosives, that kind of thing. Before the split, their biggest rivals were the Deuces. It’s possible that the Deuces felt the 357s were getting too strong, tried to take ‘em down.’

Earl Gaines was shaking his head. "Not likely," he said.

"Why not?" Simon asked. "The Deuces were their main rivals."

"I've known the Deuces' leader, Antoine Hollins, most of my life," Gaines said. "After the split, he made a promise to stop the killing. Wanted his gang to stick close to home, protect his own people. It's hard for me to believe he would just throw that away."

"People change," Williams said, watching Gaines intently.

Gaines was shaking his head. "I think we would have heard sooner than this."

Simon turned to Capt. Sloan. "Why don’t your people keep on the gangs and let us work on the explosives. We need to track where they came from and how they got here, see what else there might be in the city."

Sloan agreed, and after a few more questions they all got up to leave. Williams called out to Jim as they walked out of the room.

"Hey, Ellison, you working with Special Ops now?" he asked.

Jim frowned. "No. They brought me out of the Empire and have been debriefing me, but I’m not really working for anyone at the time."

"Ever think about coming back to the department?" Williams asked, watching Jim closely.

"I think it’s still too soon to make any decisions," Jim answered smoothly. "See you later." And with a wave he joined Blair and Simon by the elevator.

They were quiet until the reached the basement parking lot. The three men stood by Simon’s sedan talking about their next step. Jim turned to Blair and asked, "What do you think of Williams, Chief?"

Blair thought about the question for a moment. "When he first saw you, at the warehouse, he seemed anxious, almost scared. Now I get the sense that he’s hiding something," Blair finally answered. Jim was nodding. "He’s all surface, with a really strong shield beneath. He may be a latent empath with a natural barrier, but something just doesn’t feel right. His emotions seem manufactured, rehearsed. I just don’t know."

"Something feels wrong to me, too," Jim agreed, turning back the captain.

"I’ll have Rafe and Brown check him out," Simon said. Jim and Blair headed to their SUV and followed Simon out of the garage.

By the end of the week, Jim and Blair were pretty much moved into the loft.

"It’s not a party, Jim," Blair patiently explained. "Simon and the gang just wanted to come over and help us get settled in. They’ve more or less put the team on stand-by for active cases. Besides looking into the explosion, we’re also developing some protocols for a sentinel/guide team in the field, and we’ll need to do some testing to see what your abilities really are, ranges and all that."

Jim grimaced as he put away some towels in the linen closet. "All that should be on my records already," he complained.

"Yeah, what you were able to do before, with Dan," Blair agreed. "But think of all you’ve been through since then. There may have been some changes in your baselines and active abilities. We’ll have to do it all over again." Blair grinned and fairly bounced with enthusiasm.

"You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?" Jim turned to him with a mock scowl.

"Oh, yeah," Blair answered.

Jim was going to say something else, then stopped and cocked his head to one side. "I think the non-party is here," he said. A moment later a loud knock sounded at the door.

Simon was the first to arrive, lips clamped over a still smoking cigar in his mouth. He was carrying a crock-pot in a box to protect his hands from the heat. "Don’t worry, I put it out," he said around the cigar. "Where can I plug this in? I made my world famous chili." The pride in his voice told them that they would like the chili whether they did or not. Blair and Jim exchanged rueful, amused glances.

Blair took the pot from Simon and set it on the kitchen counter within easy reach of an electrical outlet. Simon had put his cigar in a cup to let it cool. Jim headed for the door again, opening it before a knock sounded.

Joel stood in the doorway with a large pot in his hands, grinning. "I hope you don’t mind, I made my grandma’s famous chili." He passed Jim and headed toward the kitchen, giving Simon a curious glance as the other man glared at him.

Before Jim could close the door, Brown and Rafe came down the hall. "I brought chips, cheese dip, and salsa," Brown said, putting his bags down on the table.

"And I actually brought something healthy," Rafe added. "I have a vegetable and dip tray."

"What’s this?" Joel called from the kitchen. The five other men turned toward him. Joel was glaring at the crock-pot and another large pot that was already on the stove.

"Well," Blair said with a small smile. "The crock-pot is Simon’s world famous chili, and the other pot is," he paused, "my own ostrich meat chili. Very low fat."

Brown started it first, with a small snicker. Rafe followed after with a low chuckle. Soon, all six men were laughing loudly. Jim shook his head and went back to the door. He opened it to find Megan standing there with a large casserole dish in her hands.

"Hi, guys," she called as she walked in. "I brought –"

"Chili!" a chorus of male voices called out.

"No," she said, looking puzzled. "It’s Swedish meatballs."

Some time later Blair found Jim standing on the balcony with a half-empty bottle of beer in his hands, gazing out over the bay. "How you doing?" Blair asked softly.

"I’m good, Chief," Jim turned to him, a genuine smile gracing his lips. "I had begun to think that I’d never have this again; a home, friends. And a great guide."

Blair smiled back. "Pretty incredible, isn’t it?" he agreed. He turned around and leaned back against the wall. "They’re a great bunch of people. And very diplomatic," he added with a laugh.

Everyone had tried all three types of chili in an impromptu chili contest. Jim and Megan had voted for Blair’s chili; Simon and H had voted for Simon’s chili, and Joel and Rafe had voted for Joel’s. All eyes turned to Blair.

"I liked the meatballs," he said with a shrug.

***

Monday morning dawned bright and clear. Blair and Jim checked in at the office where Blair submitted his draft for the Sentinel/Guide field protocols. Jack Kelso was going to help them develop some of their procedures and would also be on hand when Jim and Blair began the more intense field training.

Jim went to the gym to work out with Rafe, still trying to get back in his former physical shape, while Blair met with Jack.

"So Jim’s agreed to go see his brother?" Jack asked.

"Yeah, though he’s not really looking forward to it," Blair answered. "They didn’t exactly have a good relationship growing up."

"Part of your job is to provide emotional stability for your sentinel," Jack said, folding his hands on top of the table. "I get the feeling that between moving back into his old place and the explosion at your warehouse he’s feeling a lot of stress. To add a reunion with an estranged family member is only going to add to that."

Blair grimaced. "Tell me about it," he said. "He zoned on the dryer the other day. Took me twenty minutes to pull him out of it. But he wants to go ahead with this. And I get a feeling that if he doesn’t do it now, he never will."

"Just keep an eye on him," Jack cautioned. "And call me if you need anything."

***

"I still think you should have called him first," Blair said. Again. "Just showing up like this…"

Jim didn’t answer him, looking around at the chaos. Scaffolding and workmen were everywhere. The whine and buzz of drills and saws was a constant cacophony; the air smelled like paint, glue, and a hundred other scents common to a construction area.

Blair could feel the sentinel’s struggle for control against the onslaught of sensory input and stepped closer to the other man. Putting his hand on Jim’s arm, Blair leaned close. Anyone looking at him would surmise they were trying to converse over all the noise in the area.

"Close your eyes for a second, Jim. It’s all background, not important. Just let it wash over you for a moment, and then screen it out. Picture your dials; set them all to about three. You got it?" Jim nodded and Blair could feel some of the tension draining out of him. "Okay, big guy?"

"Better," Jim allowed with a faint smile.

"Hey, you guys! What are you doing in here? This is a hard hat…" A man somewhere between Jim’s age and Blair’s had started toward them. The sleeves of his white button down shirt were rolled up to his elbows, and the yellow hard hat he wore contrasted sharply with his blue striped tie. "Jim?"

The man stopped, then took a step closer. "Jimmy? Is that really you? My god, I thought you were dead!" Suddenly the man had his arms wrapped around Jim, hugging him tightly. Jim stood still, rock solid, neither hugging the man back nor trying to evade him. Blair had not missed the grimace that crossed Jim’s face when he’d heard the nickname ‘Jimmy’, surmising it must have brought up more unpleasant memories.

Blair lowered his barriers, reading this other man effortlessly. He found shock and surprise along with genuine joy and relief. But darker emotions threaded through Blair’s impressions of Jim’s brother; shame, sorrow, and a tinge of fear.

Embarrassed at the lack of response from Jim, the other man stepped back, looking around uneasily. "Sorry," he apologized. "It’s just such a shock… I mean, I didn’t know…" Trailing off, the man just stepped back, his expression turning bleak as he watched the other two men in resignation.

Jim turned to Blair. "Blair, this is my brother, Steven Ellison. Steven, this is Blair Sandburg," he said coldly, offering no other explanations.

Blair turned his attention to Jim, who had closed himself off from his guide emotionally. But the bond allowed Blair glimpses of Jim’s emotional state. He was wary of his brother, and surprised at such a show of affection. Unwilling to trust the overt display, Jim was staring at the younger man with quite a bit of suspicion and just a hint of longing.

As Steven shifted uncomfortably, Blair took a step forward. He held out his hand. "Hi, Steven, nice to meet you."

Somewhat surprised, Steven automatically shook the offered hand. "Likewise," he murmured.

"So, you guys are getting ready to open back up?" Blair waved his hand at all the work.

"Yeah, yeah," Steven answered, relief at the distraction flooding his voice. He looked away from his brother to the man he had just met. "These are just the finishing touches. We’ll be ready for our grand reopening in about two weeks."

Jim stepped away from them, looking critically around at the work in progress. Blair listened as Steven told him about the tasks that still needed to be done, all the while keeping a close eye on Jim. The other man cocked his head in a way that Blair was quickly becoming familiar with. Shifting his attention back to Jim, Blair took a step towards him. Steven noticed Blair’s focus, and fell silent as he watched Blair walk over to his brother.

"What is it, Jim?" Blair asked, glancing nervously back toward Steven. "What’s the matter?"

"I'm hearing this sound. I can't identify it. It's annoying as hell," Jim said, rubbing his forehead.

"Can you describe it?" Blair briefly touched Jim’s arm, hoping to help his sentinel cope in the overwhelming environment.

Jim thought for a moment. "Well, it's a cracking sound like rice krispies in a bowl of milk, only softer. Different from the regular construction noise."

Steven had joined them. "Jim, are you alright?" The older man turned and stared at his brother, as if just now remembering that he was there.

Making a sudden decision, Blair turned to Steven. "Is there somewhere – quieter – we could talk?"

"Sure. I’ve got an office in the finished portion. Just give me a minute." Steven turned away and pulled a small radio from his belt. "Pat?" he said into the mike.

The radio crackled. "Yes, Steven?" a female voice replied.

"I’ll be in the office for a while. Can you send Tony to finish the inspection over here?" Steven said. Getting an affirmative, Steven motioned them to follow and led them away from the noise and confusion.

***

"So, barring any delays, we’ll be set to open the Sunday after next," Steven finished proudly. Sitting in Steven’s office, Blair and Jim sipped the bottled water Steven had offered them.

"How many of these threats have you gotten?" Jim asked, referring back to something Steven had mentioned earlier.

"Not too many," Steven waved the subject away. "Just the usual kooks. Seems to be a lot more of them these days."

"Still, have you notified the police?" Jim pressed.

Steven looked at his older brother with barely concealed impatience. "Of course, Jim. That’s standard procedure. They said they’ll keep an eye out on opening day, have a few plainclothes officers here and all that. But we do have our own security, you know."

Jim sat back, angered and embarrassed by his brother’s attitude. After an awkward silence, Steven cleared his throat.

"Sorry, Jim. It’s just that I’ve been over this several times already with the police and my manager, Pat Reynolds. She’s been rather obsessive over the placement of security teams and the police involvement; wanting to know every move they’re going to make. She’s taking this way too seriously, if you ask me."

"Maybe you should take it just as seriously," Jim all but snapped.

Steven sighed, rubbing his forehead. "Jim, I don’t want to fight with you the first time I see you in years." He stood up and walked over to the windows that faced out toward the track. "Have you talked to Dad?" he finally asked.

"No," Jim answered shortly.

"You want me to tell him you’re back?" Steven turned back toward his brother.

"Like he doesn’t already know," Jim snorted, looking away.

"I won’t tell him if you don’t want me to," Steven said quietly, offering his brother a show of solidarity they had never experienced as children.

Jim looked at his brother for a long moment. Blair watched both of them, almost holding his breath. "Thanks, Stevie," Jim finally said. "I’ll call him. When I’m ready to face him."

Steven just nodded. Blair let out his pent up breath. They hadn’t exactly bonded as brothers, but they seemed to have declared an amicable truce at least.

***

As they left the track Blair’s cell phone rang. Simon was on the other end, ordering them both to the compound immediately.

Joel led them directly to the conference room. Blair stopped in surprise when he saw Earl Gaines sitting across from Rafe. Jim gently pushed Blair in the door and they both sat down.

"All right, Earl," Simon said. "He’s here. What have you got to say?"

"Jim, you’ve got to listen to me," Earl began, shooting nervous looks at the others sitting at the table. "They killed Antoine and set me up. I think they’re trying to kill me, too."

"Whoa, slow down there. Who’s Antoine and who do you think killed him?" Jim held out his hand and spoke seriously.

Earl took a deep breath and visibly tried to get himself under control. Blair struggled to protect himself from the almost overpowering fear rolling off the young officer. Almost subconsciously Jim rested his hand on Blair’s shoulder. Immediately, the sentinel’s shielding slid into place, bolstering Blair’s barriers.

"Just take it from the beginning," Joel said kindly. "We’re listening."

Since the Special Ops division had been working with the police department, they already knew the basics of the case. Earl picked up where their information stopped. "Me and ‘Toine, we grew up together. He knew that playing ball was my ticket out. He saw to it that nobody messed with me, made me hit the books, that sort of thing. After I blew my knee out, he made sure I didn’t blow my life on crack feeling sorry for myself. After the split, all he talked about was about how the Alliance was making the same mistakes America did. He said that this country couldn’t go no further than its young black men could help carry it, or we’d all go down together."

Joel raised his eyebrows, exchanging a look with Simon. "No, it wasn’t like that," Earl said. "It wasn’t a threat, ‘Toine was trying to make things better. He negotiated a truce with the 357s, but kept the Deuces together to try to keep things safe in his part of town, keep them out. The 357’s were bad news, man, real bad. He wouldn’t do anything to start any kind of war with them."

"What if he found out they were manufacturing explosives?" Rafe asked. "Would he try to stop them?"

"No, he would’ve come to me," Earl said, believing every word of it. "In fact, I was talking to him just before he got killed. He had some information for me. But they made it look like the 357s hit him."

"But if he did do something, or one of the other Deuces did, then doesn’t it stand to reason that the 357s would hit him?" Blair asked. "I mean, this all goes back to dominance and submission of subgroups. In all male-dominated, power-based subgroups, antagonistic action by one group is usually met with equal to or greater antagonistic action by another. It’s a classic scenario."

Earl was shaking his head. "What did he tell you?" Jim asked, trying to get the discussion back on track.

Earl took a long look at the group of men gathered around the table. He examined them all as if trying to weigh their sincerity. "He told me a cop was involved. He was going to get me a name, but they killed him first."

Jim, Joel, and Rafe were former police officers. Their first instinct was to disbelieve the young man, to find a reason, any reason, to prove it was not a cop. But Earl was also an officer, and Blair was an empath. "He’s telling the truth," Blair said quietly, "as he knows it."

Jim sighed and nodded. "I agree. He’s not lying."

"But what if Hollins lied to you?" Rafe asked.

"No, Antoine was no saint, but he never lied to me. Not to me." Earl shook his head again. "There’s more."

The Special Ops team listened grimly to the rest of the story. "We got the autopsy reports on the victims," Earl continued. "Two of them were shot before the explosion. The bullets matched two guns taken from police lockup. I got a tip off from, of all people, one of the 357s, that Williams was coming for me. He raided my place and found plans for homemade bombs. I am not a terrorist!" he asserted, looking desperately around the room.

"Okay, son, just calm down," Simon said. "What happened then?"

"Well, I just laid low, trying to think what was the best way out of this. That’s when I thought of you, man," he looked at Jim. "But first, I wanted some more information. So I went to talk to a couple of the 357s. I recognized the metal bracelet one of them was wearing when Antoine got hit, a guy named Leron. Jason’s his partner so I hit him up. I was trying to find out who was behind them."

Earl stopped and heaved a deep sigh, shuddering slightly. Blair got up and got him a cup of coffee. "Here, this might help," he said.

"Thanks, man," Earl said, sipping at the coffee while he gathered his thoughts. "It all went wrong. Me and Jason got in a fight. I lost my gun," he confessed. "Jason ran off and someone shot him. With my gun." Despair took hold of Earl and he lowered his head almost to the table.

As an empath, Blair’s instinct was to go to the hurting man, do something to alleviate his pain. Jim’s firm grip on his arm kept him in his seat.

"Where’s Jason now?" Jim asked.

"In the hospital, last I heard," Earl said quietly.

"Do you have anything else?" Simon asked.

"Yeah," Earl took a big breath. "I had gone back to the warehouse, looking for anything that might clear the Deuces. I found this, but didn’t have time to turn it in before I got wind of Williams’ suspicions." He pulled a crumpled, partially burned piece of paper from his pocket and handed it over to Jim.

Jim frowned, wrinkling his nose at the smell that clung to the paper. Blair leaned closer as Jim tried to read the words through the dirt and smoke.

"What does it say?" Blair asked.

"It looks like a list," Jim said. He began to read slowly. "Cascade Arena, Northwest Mall…"

Blair felt the shiver of fear just before Jim raised his eyes. "Lastings Park," he said, staring at his guide.

They decided to keep Earl at the compound while they checked out his story. Simon called the police chief to alert him that they may have identified several terrorist targets. Joel and Brown took a team to make their own inspections of the sites, while Rafe got back to work investigating possible ties to the weapons and explosives.

"What are we going to do?" Blair asked. "Head for the racetrack?"

"No," Jim answered. "We’ll let the other team check it out first. I want to visit a sick friend at the hospital."

***

Jim pulled into the parking lot at, his sharp eyes spotting a parking space not too far from the entrance. He pulled into the lot and sat for a moment, lost in thought.

"What’s up, man?" Blair asked after a moment.

"Just thinking how familiar this all is," Jim said with a small smile. "Like riding a bicycle."

"Do you miss it?" Blair opened his empathy, trying to get a better feel for Jim’s emotional response.

"A little, I suppose. But then again, it all ties back to the same thing. The Empire." His voice hardened, anger and resentment at his treatment from the Empire flooding his presence.

"Hey, easy there," Blair soothed. "If there is a tie in, we’ll find it. Our team is the best."

Jim sighed, struggling to rein in his emotions. Blair reached over and laid his hand on Jim’s forearm, feeling the muscled corded and taut beneath his touch. "Okay, just breathe, slowly. Close your eyes for a minute and let everything even out. Make sure you have everything under control, all right? The hospital is sure to be full of smells and sounds we don’t really want to experience up close and personal, do we?"

"What’s this ‘we’ business, paleface?" Jim joked, smiling weakly. He opened his eyes and looked at his guide.

Blair turned away, realizing what this might mean for him. "All that pain and suffering," he murmured. "I can almost feel it from here."

And suddenly it was Jim’s hand on his arm. "Don’t worry, Chief, I’ll shield you. That’s how this works, remember? We’re a team. Together."

Blair drew a deep, shaky breath and nodded. "Okay. Let’s do it. What are we doing, anyway?"

"We’re going to have a little chat with Jason." Jim’s grin was not really a nice thing to see.

After getting directions at the visitor’s desk, Jim and Blair made their way to the correct floor. Stepping out of the elevator, they turned toward the end of the hall where Jason’s room was located. An orderly passed by pushing a cart filled with dirty linen. Jim wrinkled his nose at the odors that emanated from the bundles. He slowed then turned, watching the orderly as he pushed the cart around a corner.

"What?" Blair asked.

"Something about that cart smelled familiar," Jim mused.

"Oh, man, I don’t even want to know," Blair snorted and pushed ahead of Jim, leading the way to Jason’s room. Jim followed slowly, almost bumping into Blair who had stopped in the doorway.

Blair stepped back, forcing Jim to take a step back as well. He looked at the number beside the door. "Is this the right room?" he asked.

"Yeah, that’s what they said downstairs." Jim frowned as he peered around Blair at the empty bed in the room, now stripped of sheets. Sniffing, he stepped inside.

As a nurse passed by Blair he caught her attention. "Excuse me, but we’re looking for the man who was in this room?" He felt the wave of pity that rolled off her, somewhat muted thanks to Jim’s shielding.

"Oh, I’m sorry. Was he a friend of yours?" she asked. "He passed away about half an hour ago. They’ve already taken his body."

"But – they told us his room number. Just now," Blair replied.

"Sometimes it takes a while for the records to catch up with events. I am so sorry that you had to find out like this." The earnest young woman mistook Blair’s confusion for grief. She grasped his shoulder lightly. "I know it’s a shock, but he was in serious condition. He just – stopped breathing. At least he wasn’t alone. His friend was with him." With one last sad smile, she continued down the corridor.

Before Blair could call her back or question her further, Jim called him. "Chief, come on in here." Blair went to stand by Jim, noting the frown of concentration.

"Help me out," Jim said, closing his eyes. He breathed deeply then held his breath for a moment before releasing it. Blair stepped closer, resting his hand on Jim’s back. "Turkish cigarettes," Jim said, opening his eyes. There was a hard glint within the blue.

***

Earl took the news that Jason was dead with outward calm, but Blair could feel despair and hopelessness take hold of the other man. "Well, I guess that’s it, then," the young officer sighed. Simon, Jim, Blair, Rafe and Earl were once again in the conference room at the compound. Joel and Henri were still out checking the possible targets.

"Williams was in the hospital room." Jim enjoyed the looks of surprise that crossed everyone’s face except Blair’s.

"Williams?" Earl sat up. "Lt. Williams? My boss?"

"I - " Jim hesitated, looking around the room.

Simon sighed and turned to Earl. "Do you, Earl Gaines, solemnly swear to keep all you are about to hear in this office confidential, and to not breathe a word of any of this to any other person?"

Earl swallowed nervously, looking at the deadly serious faces around the table. "Yes, sir," he said, looking straight at Simon.

"We’ll have you sign a statement later. In triplicate. Go on, Jim," Simon said.

"I smelled his cigarettes in the room and on the linens they took from the bed," Jim said.

Earl stared at Jim and Blair could all but feel the pieces clicking into place for the intelligent officer. "You’re still a sentinel," Earl breathed. "Oh, man."

"Not a word of this to anyone, you understand?" Simon reiterated.

"Oh, no. No way." A big grin split Earl’s face. "A sentinel. Cool."

"And I’m on your side don’t forget," Jim added with a feral grin. "Don’t make me have to kill you later."

Blair hid a smile as Earl gulped and nodded earnestly. He could tell the former Ranger was joking, but the young officer wasn’t quite so sure. However, Blair could feel the sincerity of Earl’s pledge and his honest commitment to finding the truth of the situation.

"All right," Simon said decisively. "Rafe, you concentrate on Williams. I’ll get some people working on any other connections. Any word back from Joel or Henri yet?"

"They’ve checked out the arena so far and are still at the mall," Rafe said.

"Simon, could Blair and I check out the racetrack?" Jim asked.

Simon considered the idea for a moment. "You don’t think it might be difficult?"

"No," Jim answered. "I want to do this."

"All right," Simon agreed. "You’re on it."

***

This time they called to let Jim’s brother know they were coming to the track. Jim pulled the SUV up to the main entrance and parked between two pick-ups that appeared to belong to construction workers. Blair silently supported Jim while he looked around the parking lot, noting the nicer vehicles some distance away from the rougher, dirtier trucks.

While Jim was studying the lot, Blair was studying him. Jim seemed very focused and intent on the surface, but underneath his emotions were more confused. It was as if Jim longed to see his brother again, to establish some kind of connection, but was afraid of the possibility of rejection and betrayal. Blair moved closer.

"Ready to go in?" he said softly.

"I guess," Jim sighed. As they headed into the main lobby area, Jim observed his surroundings carefully. Gone was the whine of drills and saws. The main work seemed to be done; all that was left was the painting and the finishing touches on the betting windows.

"Hi, Jim, Blair," Steven called as he came through a door marked ‘Authorized Personnel Only’. He seemed tense and wary, his blue eyes, so much like Jim’s, carefully guarded.

"Steven," Jim greeted him. They didn’t shake hands.

"So, what’s up?" Steven finally asked as neither of the two other men spoke. "I take it this is not a social call?"

"Steven, we have information that leads us to believe the track may be a possible target for a terrorist bombing," Jim said.

"Oh?" Steven said in a skeptical tone. "And who is this ‘we’? I didn’t know you were back on the force."

Blair blinked at Steven, narrowing his eyes. Gone was the man who was pleased, if a bit wary, about seeing his brother returned from the dead. In his place was a man who was tense and very much on edge, angry and confused and ready to lash out at the next available target. Which seemed to be his brother.

"I’m not," Jim answered, an edge of tension creeping into his voice. "I’m on – temporary assignment with Special Operations."

"Is that right?" Steven all but sneered. "And your first assignment is, what? Look up your long lost brother and screw up his life? I swear, Jim, if you interfere with the scheduled opening of this track..."

Jim turned his head and held up his hand, trying to silence Steven. "Oh, don’t give me that," Steven started.

"Stevie, shut up! Blair?" Jim turned to his guide.

"What is it?" Blair said, shooting a cautious glance at Steven. He was prepared to take the other man apart at the first sign that he hurt his brother.

"It’s that noise again," Jim complained, looking around the large room.

"Noise? What noise?" Steven said. "Don’t tell me you’re starting that crap again."

"Steven!" Jim snapped angrily. Then, "Get back! Get away from the pillar!" He pushed the two other men away from a large square pillar they had been standing close to as it cracked and began to crumble. When the dust and debris settled it was clear to see a body within the concrete inside.

"Oh, shit! Is that a – Is he dead?" Steven asked then winced at the looks he received from both Blair and Jim.

Work was stopped for the day while the police were called and Steven began to make calls of his own. In a few minutes, a woman with dark blond, shoulder length hair and a man with dark hair and a somewhat sparse moustache and beard joined him.

Steven made the introductions stiffly, indicating the woman first. "Jim, this is Pat Reynolds, my general manager, and Tony Grant, head of security. This is my brother, Jim, and his – uh, Blair Sandburg."

As they shook hands all around, Blair noticed how Jim stiffened as he took Grant’s hand. A superficial read told Blair that both Pat and Tony were tense and suspicious, wary of the two newcomers and mistrustful.

"Jim here seems to think the track may have been targeted by terrorists," Steven said, his tone disbelieving.

"I knew it," Pat said, turning to Tony. "I told him we needed to take those threats more seriously."

Tony looked at Jim, "Like I told your brother, we’re well aware of the threats and have taken all possible precautions to prevent any attack. I don’t think you need to worry about us."

"All the same," Jim grated, "I’d feel better if you let me look around."

"Mr. – Ellison?" Tony looked at Steven for confirmation. "I assure you, I know this track better than you ever will. If there was anything to be found, I’d know about it."

"What about the body? Did you know about that?" Jim challenged.

Blair could feel Tony’s temper rising as he started to answer Jim’s challenge when his attention was diverted. A marked squad pulled up out front followed by a brown four-door sedan, one of the non-descript types of cars issued to government employees everywhere.

A brief flash of recognition registered on Blair’s senses before it was smothered in a clumsy attempt at emotional shielding. Blair turned to stare at Tony and Pat as Lt. Williams came into view.

"Ellison, seems I’m running into you everywhere," he said jovially. "I was in the area and came on over when I heard that an ‘Ellison’ was the complainant on the call on the radio." His emotions however showed him to be more upset and on edge than genuinely pleased to see his former colleague.

"You two know each other?" Tony asked abruptly.

"Ellison and I used to work together," Williams said smoothly, almost too smoothly, "years ago." Turning to Jim, the police lieutenant said, "I did some consulting with Mr. Grant on the security for the track. In fact, I recommended him for this position."

They turned their attention to the body in the concrete and all that the discovery entailed. Williams seemed very interested in Steven’s description of how Jim had noticed that the pillar was crumbling before anyone else, but didn’t question Jim about it directly.

After the coroner’s wagon had left with the body the crime scene people moved in. Blair, Jim, and Steven, had given their statements. When Williams pulled Tony off the side for a private conversation, Jim tried to listen only to be interrupted by his brother.

"Jim, why don’t you come to my office? I have something I want to talk to you about anyway," he suggested. When Blair started to follow, Steven turned back pointedly. "Alone, if you don’t mind?"

"Blair comes with me," Jim stated flatly. Steven seemed to deflate just a bit then nodded.

In Steven’s office, Blair made himself comfortable in a chair while Jim stood and watched his brother pace. Steven glanced at Blair a couple of times, and the empath could feel the other man’s struggle with whether or not to trust them.

Finally, he began to speak. "You’re still a sentinel, aren’t you?" Steven asked.

"Yes," Jim said before Blair could stop him.

Jim looked at Blair, who just shrugged. Steven watched them both and groaned. "Don’t tell me, Sandburg is your guide," he said.

"Got it in one, Steven," Jim said. "You have a problem with that?"

Steven sighed and seemed to sag a little. The hostility of earlier was gone. "No, of course I don’t. I never agreed with Dad on that issue anyway. I mean, so you’re a sentinel, so what? It doesn’t make you a freak. There’re lots of sentinels around. Or, there used to be. I guess they’re all gone, now."

Blair watched Steven closely. The man was rambling and his anxiety was clear to Blair even without lowering his barriers any. "Steven," Blair said, trying to give the man an opening, "I work with Special Ops, too. That’s how I met Jim and became his guide. If you have a problem and you think it’s in any way related to the threats against the track, we can help you."

Steven studied the two men intently. Blair could feel when he reached his decision and leaned back into his chair. Jim came over to stand protectively behind his guide, resting his hand on Blair’s shoulder. The contact with the sentinel allowed Blair to relax and lower his barriers, reading the man before him deeply. Steven focused on his brother.

"Jimmy, I’m in real trouble here," he confessed. "The man in the pillar is – was – Pete Winslow. He was in charge of the grandstand renovation, but then halfway through the job just disappeared. I guess now I know why. At the time, there were some discrepancies found in the paperwork and I suspected he was skimming money off the orders for supplies. I told Tony to look into it." He paused.

"Pat got another contractor to come in at the last minute to finish things up. But more and more money seemed to be disappearing, and all on projects or orders that I personally okayed. Jim, someone’s setting me up to look like I’m embezzling money from the track."

"Blair?" Jim asked.

"He doesn’t seem like he’s lying, Jim. He’s genuinely worried and concerned, about both himself and the track. I believe him." Blair answered.

Steven also seemed to relax, as if a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders.

"Question is, why?" Jim mused. "And how do we prove it?"

"And how does it tie in with the threats?" Blair asked.

"And Williams," Jim added.

"Williams?" Steven asked, puzzled. "Lt. Williams, the cop downstairs?"

Jim was looking at Blair as he answered. "I smelled the same smoke from a Turkish cigarette on Grant when we met. He’s been in close proximity to Williams recently, probably within the last few hours."

"Jim, do you think the threats are real?" Steven asked.

"I think they’re real enough," Jim answered. "But what are they designed to do? If they really wanted to create an incident, they’d just blow the place up and not send the threats ahead of time. So, are the threats related to the warehouse explosion or something else entirely?"

"Warehouse explosion? What warehouse?" Steven asked.

"I used to live in an old warehouse a few blocks away from the renovation district," Blair explained. "Shortly after I took Jim there the place exploded. Turns out a terrorist cell was using the space on the other side to construct bombs."

"My God!" Steven exclaimed. "So this could be the real thing. Damn it! We’re supposed to open in a week. If the opening is delayed, the company will lose a huge investment. I can’t believe this is happening to me!"

"I don’t think it’s personal, Stevie," Jim commented wryly. "Now, tell me what’s been going on here?"

About an hour later, Jim and Blair rose to go. "Steven," Jim said, "you look through all those invoices, copy everything you think is suspect. And I want a layout of the track, a copy of the blueprint of the grandstand, and the specs for the renovations. Think you can do that for me?"

"Sure, Jim," his brother replied. "What are you thinking?"

"I’m not exactly sure yet, but I’ll let you know when I come up with something," Jim answered.

As they started out of the door, Blair turned around. "Steven, how much money do you think you’ll have on hand on opening day?"

"About two million," Steven answered. "In cash."

Blair just nodded and followed Jim out to the SUV.

***

"Okay, Chief," Jim said as they reached the roadway. "What are you thinking?"

"What do terrorist need to operate successfully?" Blair asked.

"A bunch of loonies willing to blow themselves up?" Jim guessed.

"No, seriously," Blair said.

"Weapons, explosives, cars..." Jim’s voice trailed off.

"They also need to live. They need rent money, food, clothing; all the everyday stuff, too. So how do they get that?" Blair continued.

"They need money," Jim answered. "And two mil would go a long way."

"Now, what if the target isn’t to destroy the track so much as to cause a distraction to cover up a robbery? How would that work? I mean, it looks like someone is already skimming money from the operation. Set a few bombs, rob the place, blame it on terrorists and what do you want to bet that the office area and those records will also be destroyed?" Blair thought out loud.

"You may be on the right track, Sandburg," Jim said. "We can’t rule out a terrorist strike completely, but the money angle is certainly worth looking into. Why don’t we head back to the compound? I want to look into Pat Reynolds and Tony Grant a little more."

"Sounds like a plan," Blair agreed.

Later that evening, Jim sighed and stood, stretching sore muscles. "I’m beat, how about you?"

"Yeah, my eyes are starting to cross," Blair said, leaning back and rubbing his eyes. The two men had spent the past several hours along with Rafe and Brown doing as thorough a computer search as they could on their three suspects; Williams, Reynolds, and Grant. Jim had also looked into his brother’s life during the past few years, especially the financial aspects, while Blair had researched Gaines’ history. Since the split, many records from companies based on the east coast or in the mid-west were harder to obtain. Company branches along the west coast had backed up and downloaded what they could, but the information was far from complete.

"Why don’t we all take a break and meet up in about an hour to compare notes?" H suggested. "I don’t know about you guys, but I could go for something to eat about now."

"Sounds good to me," Rafe agreed. "Let me just print this out and I’ll be down to the break room in a few minutes. Who’s going to call the captain?"

"I’ll call him," Blair offered. "He’ll just love coming back out here tonight." Simon had gone to his home in town earlier, citing some chores he needed to do. The four men went their separate ways, planning to meet in the break room for dinner.

Blair stopped to check in on Earl. He knocked softly at the door. "Hey, man, how you doing?" Blair asked when the officer answered the door.

"Going crazy in here," Earl answered honestly. "Am I under arrest?"

"Just think of it as protective custody," Blair said dryly. "If it helps any, I checked you out and you look clean. If Simon agrees, he might bring you in on this from our end of it."

"I sure hope so," Earl said vehemently. "If Williams is involved, I’ll take him apart with my bare hands. Nothing worse than a dirty cop."

"Have you eaten?" Blair asked, changing the subject.

"Yeah, I got something just a little while ago. Thanks, though," Earl answered.

"Okay. Just take it easy, don’t sweat anything. I think we may have enough to move on soon. We’ll let you know." Blair couldn’t help a pang of pity as he turned away from the door to the room Earl was currently housed in. The man’s life had been turned upside down, and the inability to do anything about it was eating at him. Blair hoped they could bring him in on the final action. He nodded to the guard stationed down the hall as he headed toward the break room.

***

Rafe pushed the papers across to Simon. "You can see here, a lot of money has passed through the accounts of both Williams and Grant. It never stays long, but all the transactions were done by cashiers check or cash. They always kept it below the ten thousand dollar limit, though, to avoid sending up any red flags with the financial institutions or the tax authority. Some of these have notations like ‘gift’ or ‘loan’. They’re trying to avoid any penalties."

"So you think they’re moving the money for someone else?" Simon said.

"It makes sense," Brown answered. "If both men are tied to the terrorists, then they’re funneling the money to them."

"All of it?" Jim asked.

"Well, it’s hard to be sure," Rafe answered. "The numbers don’t match up exactly but they’re close enough. Neither one seems to be making any money off this deal."

"But if they’re dedicated to their cause," Blair observed, "then they’re not in it for the money. They’ll be driven ideologically."

"The amounts are substantial, but not nearly enough to mount an operation of the kind they seem to be planning," Brown frowned. "It just seems like we should be finding more. Maybe there are others who are working with them, moving the money."

Simon was nodding. "But what about Pat Reynolds?" Jim asked.

"Now, that lady is making money somewhere," Rafe said, sliding another set of papers around the table so that everyone got a copy. "Some of the money must be coming from Grant, there are several matches between his withdrawals and her deposits. So if he’s giving her money, it isn’t going to their cause, whatever the hell that is. But she’s got money coming in from somewhere else, too."

"The racetrack," Jim said.

"What?" Simon asked.

"My brother said someone had been skimming money off the rebuilding of the racetrack. He thinks someone is setting him up to look like it’s him," Jim answered.

"And we’re sure it’s not?" Simon posed the question carefully.

Jim frowned. "Not that we can tell. No unusual deposits, purchases, nothing. He looks clean."

Simon glanced at Blair. "He seemed sincerely worried about the missing money and the possibility of theft. I didn’t get the feeling that he was hiding anything," Blair said.

"Oh, shit," Jim groaned.

"What?" Simon looked sharply at the sentinel.

"Steven," Jim said, looking over at Blair. "I asked him to make copies of the suspect paperwork. I may have put him in danger."

"We also think the bomb threats may be a diversion," Blair answered. "They may be setting the racetrack up for a robbery on opening day. With all the betting going on, they’re going to have a major amount of cash on hand."

"And Grant," Jim added grimly, "is the head of security."

All five men were quiet for a few minutes until Jim’s cell phone rang, breaking the silence.

"Ellison," Jim answered.

Beside him, Blair turned as he felt Jim’s tension mount.

"Hold on, Steven. You’ve got the documents with you? Where are you?" Jim checked his watch. He glanced at Blair. "Okay, stay put. We’ll be there in twenty, twenty-five minutes."

Together, Jim and Blair stood. Blair looked at Simon intently. "Armed?" he asked.

Simon turned his gaze to Jim, who returned the look steadily. "Yeah. I guess you’d better. Rafe and Brown, you follow ‘em."

Jim started to protest, but Blair’s hand on his arm stopped him. They all went quickly to the arms locker and got their weapons. Jim grimaced a little as he secured the holster to his belt then slid the Sig Sauer in.

Since he had turned down the offer as a military advisor to the new government, he had been completing the training to become a fully certified officer of the Special Operations Division. Several years of not being allowed to handle a gun had taken its toll. His accuracy was still near perfect, but his hands were out of shape. After a session at the range, his hands were often sore, the sensitive area between the thumb and first finger red from the grip. When Blair, laughing, had tossed him a squeeze ball to help strengthen those muscles, Jim had growled at him. But Blair had noticed that he often brought the ball to meetings with him, squeezing it absently while he listened to the discussions.

Armed and ready, the four men headed to their vehicles. Jim and Blair got into the Explorer while Brown and Rafe chose a non-descript sedan. They headed for the racetrack. When they arrived, Jim and Blair pulled in to the main parking lot near the front entrance. Brown and Rafe disappeared around by the employee’s entrance off to the side.

Jim and Blair got slowly out of the vehicle, looking around the area carefully. Jim turned toward a car parked a short way from them. "Steven," he said as he started toward the car.

Blair, barriers lowered so he could read the area better, felt a spike of triumph and vindictive pleasure. He turned his head, trying to pinpoint the source. Just at that moment, the bright lights of the car Jim was heading for came on. Jim cried out in pain, throwing his arm up over his eyes. Blair snapped his focus back to Jim as several shots rang out, peppering the pavement around them. Jim grabbed his gun and began shooting toward the biggest threat to him; the lights. Blair had also pulled his weapon, but was facing away from the car, toward the grandstand.

"Shots fired, shots fired," Blair called into the small microphone that projected toward his mouth from the earpiece of the miniature radio he wore. All four of the agents had been fitted with communications equipment. "Got one shooter in the building," he added, then turned his attention toward Jim.

The sentinel was on the ground, one hand holding his gun, the other rubbing at his eyes. The car sat silent, the lights shot out along with the windshield. Blair hurried to him, reaching through the bond to assess any damage Jim might have sustained. The shots had stopped and Blair could hear Brown and Rafe calling directions to each other in his headset as they searched the area.

"Jim, you okay? Jim! Can you hear me?" Blair called.

"Yeah, I can hear you," Jim said, pushing himself to his feet before Blair reached him. He blinked his eyes, turning his head this way and that. "I heard shots. Where did they come from?" He kept his gun trained generally in the direction of the car.

"From the building," Blair replied, reaching out to lay a hand on Jim’s arm. "How are your eyes?"

"Still seeing bright spots, but clearing up," Jim grimaced. "I can’t believe he did that to me."

"Who?" Blair asked, puzzled.

"Steven. He’s in that car," Jim answered grimly. With a scowl on his face, he stalked toward the car, his gun still out and ready although pointed toward the ground. Blair, his weapon still out also, followed closely, looking around the dark parking lot for any further threats.

Jim stopped suddenly, sniffing. "Oh, god! I smell blood. Steven!" He broke into a stumbling run. Blair directed his empathy toward the car, but felt only the faint presence of someone who was unconscious. He hurried after Jim.

Pulling the door to the car open, Jim froze, staring at his brother who lay across the seat, bleeding from what appeared to be a bullet crease across his forehead. "Steven?" Jim said hesitantly.

Blair appeared at his side, cell phone in his hand. "I need an ambulance at Lastings Park, in the front parking lot," Blair said. "I have a gunshot victim, he appears to have been creased on the forehead. He’s unconscious, but his breathing appears normal." After answering a few more questions from the dispatcher, he hung up and called Simon.

"I’m going to need a team out here, sir," he said. "Jim’s brother’s been shot, probably by Jim, but someone else was shooting at us, too. No, Steven wasn’t shooting at us. He was just sitting in the car. No, Jim didn’t shoot him because... Look, sir, it’s kind of a long story. I’ve already called an ambulance so I guess the police will be here, too. I need you here to deal with the locals for us. Yes, sir."

Steven had woken up, groggy and disoriented. "You shot me," he kept saying, staring at Jim with a lost, hurt look in his eyes.

"Why did you turn on those damn bright lights?" Jim growled.

"So you’d see me," Steven answered simply.

"You idiot," Jim sighed. "I’m a sentinel, remember?"

Steven just blinked owlishly at him. Then, "Shit." He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the seat. In the distance, Blair could hear sirens as they approached.

Jim looked up nervously, checking the area. He turned as he heard footsteps coming through the parking lot. His vision had cleared enough so that he could identify Rafe and Brown, even if Brown’s cologne hadn’t already announced his presence.

"He got away," Rafe said, jogging up to them. "But we found some shell casings. He was up in one of the offices with the window open. Probably had a rifle up there."

"What happened here?" Brown said, taking a step toward the car.

"Jim’s brother’s in there, got hit," Blair answered, not giving any further details. "Looks like just a crease, but I called an ambulance just in case."

Brown grunted, already thinking of the explanations they would have to make. "You called the captain yet?"

"Yeah. Look, Jim, Steven’s going to be okay. While the EMTs check him out, why don’t we go take a look at that office? See if you can find anything out?" Blair suggested.

Jim clearly didn’t want to leave his brother, but knew that Blair was right. The sooner he could see the office the better. And Steven’s accusing silence was getting on his nerves.

"I’ll be back in a minute, Stevie," he said, receiving no reply.

Leading the way through the darkened building, now that his sight was back to normal, he found the door to Steven’s office open. Inside, drawers had been pulled out and their contents scattered haphazardly about. "Looks like the scene of the crime," he said wryly.

Blair watched Jim prowled about the debris-strewn floor, but more importantly, felt the sentinel wrestling with guild and recriminations. "Jim," he finally said, "it was an accident. Wasn’t it?"

Jim continued to look around the office, ignoring the question. "Jim," Blair said more firmly.

"What do you want me to say?" Jim whirled angrily. "That I shot my brother? I did it. I shot him, Blair! I shot Stevie." His voice faded into almost a whimper. "Oh, god, I shot my brother."

"Jim, he’s going to be okay," Blair repeated. "Tell me what happened."

"I knew he was in the car," Jim said, looking at the parking lot from the open window. "I could see him there, watching us. Then he turned on those damned lights and the shots started coming... I thought he was pinpointing us for the shooter."

"That’s a logical assumption, Jim," Blair said reasonably. "I don’t think anyone can fault you for taking action. In fact, I think we’ll have to rule that out."

"He’s my brother!" Jim snapped.

"Yeah, but you don’t really know him, do you?" Blair pointed out sadly. "I think we have to investigate all the angles here, don’t you?"

The two men were quiet as they made there way back into the parking lot that was now lit up with red and blue flashing lights. Simon had arrived and was speaking to a plainclothes officer that seemed to want to take control of the scene. Steven was being treated in the back of the ambulance.

"Here are my other two men," Simon said as Jim and Blair walked over to him. "Agents Sandburg and Ellison. Now, you need to contact Captain Sloan and have him call me ASAP. I’ll cooperate with the department, but this is a Special Operations case. Clear?"

The officer glowered at them for a minute then stalked off toward his car, phone held closely to his ear. Jim headed over to the ambulance, Blair following closely behind. As they approached the MICU, Jim’s steps slowed.

"Hey, how’s he doing?" Blair asked, taking the lead.

"He’ll be fine," the EMT said. "I don’t think stitches are going to do any good, just took a chunk out of the skin there. His vitals are strong and he’s oriented times three, so it’s up to him whether he’d like to be transported and talk to a doctor of be released here at the scene." She finished taping the bandage to Steven’s head and stepped back.

Steven’s eyes met Jim’s as the brothers exchanged a long look. Blair could read no accusation in Steven’s attitude, just a weary resignation underscored with a mammoth headache.

"Steven, I’m sorry," Jim began, still angry but also contrite and somewhat ashamed.

"No, it was my fault," Steven said tiredly. "I should have remembered, but I was so upset at..."

"In a minute, Steven," Blair broke in, earning sharp glances from both men. He looked significantly at the EMTs and officers standing around. Simon was a little ways off, talking now on the plainclothes officer’s cell phone. In a moment, he came over to the ambulance.

"I spoke to Captain Sloan," he said as he approached. "He’s going to take care of things from this end. I promised we’d send him a report first thing in the morning, so we’re all on the same page here," he looked straight at Blair.

"Yes, sir," Blair sighed. He knew all to well what he could and could not put into that report, especially considering that Lt. Williams would have full access to it. It would be a long night of very careful wording.

"Jim, how’s your brother?" Simon asked, turning to the sentinel.

" ‘The brother’ is fine," Steven growled, trying to get out of the back of the ambulance. Jim reached out a hand to help him. Steven stared at the hand for a moment, then reluctantly let his older brother help him down. It was a good thing he did, because he swayed when his feet first hit the pavement. Jim steadied him then let him go.

"Sir, do you want to go to the hospital?" the EMT asked.

"No, no, I’m fine," Steven answered. He signed the paper on the clipboard and handed it back to her. "Thanks for you help," he added. She smiled and turned away, closing the ambulance doors.

"You need to come with us, Steven," Blair said.

"What? Why?" He turned angrily to face Blair.

"For your protection. You’ve obviously become mixed up in a very dangerous situation. You may be a target yourself, or used to get to Jim," Blair explained.

"Am I under arrest?" Steven demanded.

"We’re not the police, Steven," Jim said, trying for a calm tone of voice and coming up short.

"Steven, I’m Captain Banks, with the Special Operations Division," Simon stepped forward. "Like it or not, you are involved with a possible terrorist organization and have just witnessed the attempted murder of two of my agents. Now, none of us here believes you’re part of this," he added as even he could see the man bristling at the description, "but your life may be in danger. We can protect you."

Steven stared at the three men surrounding him. Blair could feel his indecision as Steven tried to decide whether or not he could trust his brother and the men with him. Finally, he agreed to go with them. Jim led the way to Steven’s car and they gathered the box of papers he had in the back seat; his proof of the embezzling scheme at the racetrack.

Simon decided Steven should ride back with Rafe and Brown, giving the brothers some space from each other while they tried to come to terms with the night’s events. Blair and Jim climbed tiredly into the SUV.

"You sure you’re okay to drive?" Blair asked. "No problems with your sight?"

"Got it all under control, Chief," Jim snapped, turning the vehicle on.

"You sure about that, Jim?" Blair asked softly.

Jim cursed softly and steadily, hitting the steering wheel several times with his fist. "I just didn’t think it would be like this," he finally said, looking away from Blair.

"Like what?" Blair asked. He had a feeling he knew what Jim was talking about, but he also knew that the sentinel needed to say it out loud, to acknowledge his feelings.

"I thought once I was back here, once the collar was gone, everything would be okay. There wouldn’t be any more problems. Not... not like this. Seeing my brother again, getting shot at, hell, shooting him. Blair, I shot my own God damned brother!" His voice had steadily risen until he was almost shouting.

"Did you mean to hurt him?" Blair asked softly.

"No, of course not! But the shots... I thought he was spotlighting us..." Jim’s voice trailed off as he continued to reproach himself in his thoughts.

"So, we were being shot at, you thought Steven was spotlighting us, and you still just barely wounded him. Jim," Blair said, "you could have killed him if you wanted to. You and I both know that. You only did what you had to do to protect the both of us. Steven will be all right. And we need to find out what’s behind all this."

Jim sighed. "You’re right. I just hope he forgives me."

"I’m sure he will. I didn’t read any blame from him, mainly just confusion and hurt feelings," Blair reassured him.

Jim drove carefully back to the compound.

***

Simon insisted that everyone get some much needed sleep. Steven was relegated to the infirmary where Megan wanted to keep an eye on him. He and Jim exchanged a few words, but neither was up to an extended discussion of what had happened that night. The next morning, after breakfast, the team once again assembled in the conference room.

"Well, this is very interesting," Rafe said as he pushed a stack of papers toward Simon. "The invoices have been altered, but Steven didn’t do it. Most of this has occurred since the disappearance of Pete Winslow. They are also all orders that Pat Reynolds had access to."

Joel took up the report. "And the blueprints and schematics that we took from Steven’s office have been altered from the originals as well. Some of the load-bearing columns have been changed. If charges were placed here and here," he said, pointing at several places on the paper, "They could take down the grandstand but leave access to the cashier area and the office area clear of any debris, while cutting off any other access by rescue workers."

"So what’s your final assessment?" Simon asked.

"I think Pat Reynolds and Tony Grant are in this together. Pat’s probably in it for the money, while Tony is almost certainly part of the terrorist cell. They cause fear and chaos at the track, take the money, Pat gets her cut and Tony brings a hefty sum to his cause," Joel summarized.

Beside Jim, Blair could feel the other man’s tension ease as his brother was cleared.

"And Williams and Grant are tight," Jim said. "In fact, according to Williams, he got Grant the job and then ‘consulted’ on matters of security. So, how does he fit in and where does he get his money?"

"I’ve been working with Gaines on that angle," Brown spoke up. "Seems that he was involved in a bust with Williams, only most of the drugs came up missing. Williams’ explanation was that the scene was not properly secured and that some of the gang members were able to slip in and grab the drugs."

"How much was missing?" asked Simon.

"According to Gaines, probably close to half a million dollars worth of ice. But none of it has showed up on the streets, as far as he could tell," Brown answered.

"Again, it all comes down to the money," Rafe said. "Williams wouldn’t want to sell stolen ice in Cascade."

"No," Simon mused. "He’d probably want to do it out of town, out of state even."

"Right," said Brown. "So we tracked his calls. There are several to a San Francisco number. Turns out the number belongs to John Magnuson, a major dealer in the Alliance." After the split, the problems facing society in general and large cities in particular seemed to have worsened in some ways. Drugs were still a big problem in the Alliance as well as the Empire.

Jim flashed back to his time in the Empire, when he had been a collared slave, forced to track down the Empire’s enemies with his first guide, Dan Wolf. They had gone after resistance fighters, drug dealers, and finally, a group of teen-age looters. Dan had had enough and simply walked away. Only he didn’t get very far.

"Jim. Jim, take a deep breath." Something was pulling at Jim, tugging at his mind. "Come on, big guy, look at me now." Blair’s concerned face was hovering in front of his own, blue eyes dark with worry. With a start, Jim looked around the conference table to find everyone else staring at him. He frowned, looking away from all of them.

"Why don’t we take a break, people?" Simon suggested. "Be back here in ten. And H, bring Gaines with you." The other men nodded and left the room, carefully not looking at Jim and Blair.

When they were alone, Blair carefully lowered his barriers, screening out the input from everyone but his sentinel, as Jack had taught him. "What’s going on, man?" he asked softly.

Jim laughed bitterly. "Like I said before, it’s all changed, but it’s all the same, isn’t it? What the hell was the fighting all about? People still robbing and killing to get more money. Planting bombs, selling shit to kids... You’re no better than the Empire. Everything I went through; Dan’s death. It was all for nothing."

Blair winced at the despair in Jim’s words and in his mind. He was quiet for a moment, considering his reply. "You’re right, Jim. We are the same people we were before, with the same faults and failings. The difference is that in the Empire, it is the government that commits most of the atrocities. There is no recourse to law for those who are oppressed. At least we’re trying. We may not be perfect, but we do try. I believe that with every fiber of my being. And if we quit trying, then we will become the Empire."

Jim looked away. "I just wanted to find some – peace."

"If that’s what you need, Jim, then we’re off this case. Right now," Blair said definitively. "I’ll tell Simon we need time to solidify the bond. Take a sabbatical. I know this monastery outside of town..."

Holding up one hand to stem the flow of words, Jim smiled grimly. "I appreciate the offer, Chief, but my brother... I can’t leave the case now. This has just been a lot to deal with, lately."

Blair took a deep breath and carefully lowered his barriers. He let the emotions flow freely between the two men, absorbing Jim’s despondency and disillusionment while trying to replace it with encouragement and support. Jim shook his head. "Thanks, but I can’t keep leaning on you like this."

"That’s what guides are for," Blair grinned. The others came back shortly, bringing Earl Gaines with them.

***

"Alright, it’s settled," Banks said, sitting back in his chair. "Gaines, you go with Rafe and Joel, meet up with Capt. Sloan. You’ll be watching Williams. Jim, you and Blair will take Steven back to the track and check the area. H and I will come around back and set up surveillance. Everyone wears a vest, got it?" As the men around him nodded, he added, "Keep in touch and watch your backs."

Blair and Jim left to gather Steven from the infirmary. Outside the door, Jim hesitated. "Go on," Blair urged. "He won’t bite you."

"Are you sure?" Jim tried to joke. Blair’s eyes lost focus for a moment in an expression Jim was learning that meant Blair was using his empathy. He reached out and placed his hand on Blair’s shoulder, much as Blair did to ground him. Blair smiled gently, turning back to his sentinel.

"He’s just as nervous as you are," he assured the other man.

Jim took a deep breath and went in the door. "Steven, how are you feeling?"

Blair turned away, willing to let the brothers work it out between themselves. He kept close tabs on Jim’s emotional state, but didn’t try to listen to the muted conversation from inside.

Megan joined him. "How are they doing?" she asked, knowing full well that Blair would be keeping a close watch on Jim.

"I think they’ll be okay," Blair answered. "How’s Steven?"

"Almost as bad a patient as his brother," she smiled. "But he’s fine. Just a lingering headache. So, I hear he’s going back to the track with you?"

"Yeah, he agreed to it; practically insisted on it, in fact. We’re putting a wire and a vest on him, hoping we get something from Grant or Reynolds," Blair said.

"And Jim’s okay with that? Using his brother as bait?" Meagan asked.

"Actually, it was Steven’s idea. And after their little accident, I think Jim would let him do pretty much anything he asked. There’s a lot of guilt there, for both of them," Blair added sadly.

Blair, Jim, and Steven were shortly on their way back to the racetrack. They had decided to stop a few blocks away and Steven would continue in a cab, as the police had towed his vehicle from the parking lot the night before. Blair and Jim would continue to the track, monitoring Steven by his wire and a locating device. Steven would go to his office, ‘discover’ the damage, and call Pat and Tony in to help him.

While Steven waited for the cab in front of a coffee shop, Blair and Jim went on to the racetrack, pulling in around by the stables. The area was full of people putting on the last touches to all areas of the complex, getting ready for the opening in just two more days. There were several trainers watching their horses on the track, groundskeepers working on the infield area, and grooms getting the boxes ready for the arrival of still more racehorses. As they walked through the owner’s and trainer’s area toward the grandstand building, Jim scanned their surroundings, noticing still more people checking the seating areas, stocking the concession stands along the walkways, and stringing bunting and ‘Grand Opening’ signs.

"Steven’s here," Blair said, watching the handheld monitor for the tracking device.

He glanced at Jim, who narrowed his eyes, trying to locate his brother in the crowd. The sentinel strained his hearing, striving to push past the shouted commands and myriad conversations taking place all around him. His eyes focused on the building, scanning the entrance to the main betting windows and office area. The noise was overwhelming, the motion of the workers pulling his attention this way and that.

"Jim, come on, man, not now," Blair said insistently. He shook Jim’s arm, still trying to watch the screen on his monitor. When he got no response, he lowered his barriers, sending a jolt through the bond.

"What?" Jim turned to him, a look of confusion in his face, which rapidly changed to one of guilt. Blair let go of Jim and put his hand to his earpiece, shielding it from the ambient noise around him. Jim quickly fitted his earpiece in, also, his chagrin flowing toward his guide.

Steven’s voice came in loud and clear. " ‘Pat, it’s Steven. What happened? Someone took a shot at me last night and I just got back to find my office has been trashed. Where’s Tony? What the hell is going on here?’ "

They couldn’t hear the reply, of course, but Steven was quiet for a moment before he continued. " ‘What do you mean? Of course I’m not skimming money from the track. How could you think that?’ " There was another short silence. " ‘Look, just get Tony and meet me in my office, okay?’ "

Blair, listening to the conversation and watching the monitor, didn’t notice when Jim stopped short in front of him. "Hey," he started, feeling the spike as Jim became focused on something, his tension and alertness heightening. He stepped around Jim to see what had caught his attention. The two men were standing in the walkway between the stable area and the main building. There was a large, open entryway from the betting windows to the outside seating area, and standing in the opening was Tony Grant, holding a cell phone to his ear and staring at the two agents.

Suddenly, Grant dropped the phone and started running along the general admission area, through the walkway in front of the bench seating. Jim and Blair started running after him. Tony jumped over the railing and ran along the track, spooking several of the horses training on the track. Without hesitating, Jim and Blair jumped the railing and raced after him. A shot rang out. Jim and Blair ducked instinctively, drawing their weapons. In front of them, Tony stumbled and fell. Another shot sounded and Tony’s body twitched then lay still.

Jim was staring up at the office area that overlooked the track. "She’s up there," he shouted to Blair. Without another word, he sprinted back to the railing, heading for the main building. Workers in the area began shouting and pointing, wanting to know what was going on.

"Jim, wait!" Blair was torn between following his foolhardy sentinel and checking on the body a few yards away. Bracing himself, Blair lowered his barriers and searched the area ahead of him. Holding back the tide of panic and curiosity from those around him through sheer will, Blair searched the body on the track. Not getting any signature of life, he turned and ran after Jim.

"Gun!" one man shouted. "He’s got a gun! Call 9-1-1!"

Blair ignored the shouts as he tried to follow Jim, barely keeping his empathy under control as the waves of terror and fear from the onlookers swept over him. He stumbled up the steps toward the second floor offices, where the bond told him Jim was. Someone was shouting in his ear over the earpiece, but he couldn’t make out the words in the midst of the noise and confusion, both from within and without his conscious mind.

A door loomed up in front of him and Blair all but fell through. He was caught on the other side by a pair of strong arms. "Blair, are you okay?"

Jim’s concerned face swam in his view. The sentinel’s touch shielding him immediately, easing the pressure behind his eyes. "Chief, I’m sorry," Jim said quietly. "Are you alright?"

Blair nodded, pulling himself out of Jim’s grip and standing steadily on his own feet. "Yeah, I’m fine now. What’s going on?"

"It was Pat, I could see her in the window," Jim said, still keeping his voice low. "She’s in Steven’s office now, and she’s still got the gun."

The tinny voices in his ear caught Blair’s attention. "Okay, man, sit tight, let me see what’s going on." Blair listened carefully to what he was hearing. Simon was all but screaming into his mouthpiece, wanting to know what was going on.

"Simon, Blair. Listen, Pat Reynolds just shot Tony Grant down on the racetrack. He’s dead. Pat’s up in Steven’s office now and it looks like she’s got him hostage. We need backup up here, if you can get someone down there to see about Grant," Blair summarized.

"Ten-four, Blair. H and I are already coming in. I’ll call Sloan and have him let his people know what we’ve got," Simon replied.

"Have you heard from Rafe yet?" Blair asked.

"I’ll fill you in when I get up there," Simon answered.

Blair turned back to Jim who was listening intently to the conversation in Steven’s office, behind the locked door. "What’s going on in there?" Blair asked. "Is Steven alright?"

"For now," Jim said grimly. "Mostly she’s ranting and raving about how I’ve ruined all her plans, poking my nose where it doesn’t belong. She’s letting Grant have it, too, complaining about his ‘cause’ and how stupid he was not to keep the money for himself."

Jim cocked his head, turning slightly. "Simon and H are coming up the stairs and I can hear sirens headed our way." Blair turned his attention to the stairwell and could detect Simon and H’s particular presence.

The door eased open slightly. "Banks," Simon hissed, still taking cover behind the door.

"Simon," Blair said in a low voice, "Jim’s a sentinel and I’m an empath. We know who you are."

Simon opened the door and stepped through, throwing Blair a disgusted look. H followed, grinning and shaking his head. Simon looked toward Jim.

"Anything happening?" he asked.

"Not yet," Jim replied. "Although it sounds like she’s about to wind down. Steven’s doing good, asking questions and keeping her talking." Concern for his brother colored Jim’s voice and emotions. He was worried, but taut and poised, every inch a professional – whether it be as an officer, soldier, or operative. Blair got his first glimpse of the man Jim had been before. He was at once extremely proud and humbled to be this man’s guide.

"What’s the situation with Rafe and the others?" Blair asked quietly.

"Turns out Magnuson was already on his way up here," Simon filled them in. "We monitored a call between him and Williamson. They’re supposed to meet up here, of all places, in about two hours time, out by the employee’s lot. Capt. Sloan and his men are trailing Williams. Joel, Rafe, and Earl are heading over here to get set up. We think Williams was going to try to meet up with Grant here, split the money between them before they sent it on.

"I advised Capt. Sloan of the situation here," Simon continued, "and they’ll get the marked units cleared out as soon as they can. They don’t want to tip Williams or Magnuson off. Sloan says Williams does not have a department vehicle and we can only hope he doesn’t have his portable radio with him, either. If he gets wind of a shooting here, we’ll lose them."

"Then we’d better wrap this up as soon as possible," Jim said, turning his face toward the door to Steven’s office. Exchanging a look with Blair, Jim put his gun away and started toward the door.

"What are you doing? Jim? Blair?" Simon hissed as the two men headed down the hall.

Blair still had his gun out, following Jim closely. As the reached the door, Jim paused and took a deep breath. Blair flattened himself against the wall. The two men looked at each other for a long moment. Finally, Blair nodded and Jim reached for the doorknob. Simon and H readied themselves to back up the pair.

Flinging the door open, Jim stormed into the office. "Steven, what the hell is up with you? I’ve been trying to call..." He dove toward his startled brother, bringing him down with a flying tackle.

Blair, reading Pat’s momentary confusion as she divided her attention between the two men, leapt into the doorway. "Drop it!" he shouted, giving her the chance to surrender. In the split second it took Pat to make her decision and turn the gun toward the two men on the floor, Blair fired two shots. She couldn’t have telegraphed her intentions any more clearly to the empath than if she had shouted out loud.

The tableau was frozen for a moment. Jim looked cautiously at his brother who was staring at him in shock, then turned his attention toward Blair. Simon and H stepped into the office and H moved immediately to Blair’s side. "Easy, Hairboy," he said, taking the gun from Blair’s limp hand and leading the swaying man to one of the chairs.

Simon was kneeling beside the woman, checking for a pulse. "Don’t bother," Blair said, his voice incredibly weary.

"Steven, are you okay?" Jim asked, rising to his feet and holding a hand out to help his brother off the floor.

"Yeah, thanks to you," Steven said, standing and straightening his clothes. Jim checked his brother quickly then went to Blair’s side.

"Hey, Chief, how about you?" he asked softly.

Blair was trembling, holding a hand to his head. Worried, Jim put his hand on Blair’s shoulder.

"It’s hard on him," H said quietly. "Especially if he’s monitoring them."

Understanding washed over Jim. Dan had been his guide, but not an empath. When Dan had gone in the field with Jim, and later into war, he hadn’t experienced the emotions of others first hand. Blair, however, must have had his empathy tuned in to Reynolds to read her intentions, and therefore had been linked to her at the moment of her death.

"God, Chief, I’m so sorry," Jim said. Sinking down beside Blair’s chair, he wrapped both arms and his shields around his guide. Opening himself fully to the bond they shared, Jim shuddered as the utter emptiness Blair was feeling seeped into his awareness.

Pulling Blair’s shaking body into his, Jim began talking. Gentle, reassuring words, reminding Blair that he was not alone, that his sentinel would always be with him, slowly filling up the emptiness with his presence. Simon was talking on his cell phone to someone; H was questioning Steven further to make sure that he had not aggravated his previous head injury. Jim ignored all of that, concentrating solely on the man in front of him.

About five minutes later, Blair quit shivering. A few more minutes and he pulled away from Jim, a wan smile on his face. "You okay now?" Jim asked.

"Not yet," Blair answered shakily. "But I’m better. Thank you."

"And that’s what sentinels are for," Jim said, a sincere smile lighting up his face.

***

"You sure you’re okay for this?" Simon asked, again.

"Yeah, I’m fine," Blair answered, again.

Simon just grunted and exchanged a worried glance with Jim. The sentinel nodded slightly, showing Simon that he felt his guide could handle the next part of their operation.

"Alright, let’s split up, then," Simon said. Jim and Blair went one way while Simon and H went another. Rafe and Joel had confirmed that they were already set up out in the employee lot in a surveillance van with Earl, who was waiting to meet up with Jim and Blair. The local police had whisked Grant and Reynolds’s bodies away and cleared out their marked squad cars. Several plainclothes officers were circulating among the remaining workers, keeping them calm. Two more officers were up in Steven’s office keeping him safe, at Jim’s insistence.

Jim and Blair waited behind a maintenance building next to the employee lot as a dark green sedan pulled up. Capt. Sloan got out, looking around. Simon called from behind a row of dumpsters and Sloan walked across the lot to meet him. From the other side of the lot Earl Gaines got out of the surveillance van, marked like an electrician’s vehicle, and came toward the building where Blair and Jim were stationed.

"Gaines," Jim greeted as he joined them.

"Hey, Earl," Blair said.

"Hey, Ellison, Sandburg." Earl looked closely at the two men. "You guys alright?"

Blair huffed; Jim smiled slightly. "Yeah, we’re good. What’d Sloan have to say?"

"He wasn’t too happy that I went to you instead of to him, but he understood after Banks talked to him. Now with it looking like Williams is mixed up in all this, he’s more concerned about keeping any connection between the police department and terrorists totally under wraps," Earl answered, checking his weapon.

"Head up," H’s voice came across their earpieces. "Capt. Sloan’s men say that Williams is about five minutes out, driving a white Jeep Cherokee and Magnuson is about seven minutes away, driving a dark blue Towncar."

"Copy," several voices acknowledged. Jim edged carefully around the building and watched the lot.

"I’ve got Williams in sight," he said a few minutes later, easing back.

"Got him," Rafe said from the surveillance van about half a minute after Jim.

"He’s parked over by the dumpsters, not moving, just looking around, checking his watch," Rafe informed them, watching their suspect as he waited for his contact.

The agents and officers waited tensely. "Dark blue Towncar pulling in," Joel’s voice said.

Jim eased out around the corner of the building, Blair following closely behind. Carefully, Jim, Blair, and Earl moved around behind the dumpsters used for the reconstruction debris of the racetrack. In front of them was another line of dumpsters for the regular trash generated by the business.

A few minutes later the dark blue luxury car pulled into the lot and drove slowly toward the dumpsters. Simon checked to see that everyone was in position and ready. Williams climbed out of the Cherokee, smoking one of his cigarettes and carrying a heavy brown briefcase. A heavyset white man with dark hair, a moustache and goatee got out from the other car and looked around. Two other men came out of the car as well, looking around the lot carefully.

Williams handed his briefcase to one of the other men who set it in the back seat of the blue car, opened it, and tested the contents. He nodded at Magnuson who then took a slimmer black briefcase from the other man and handed it to Williams.

"They’ve made the exchange," Jim said into the microphone. He then stepped around the dumpster, weapon drawn, and shouted, "Special Operations, don’t move!"

The two men with Magnuson immediately drew their guns and started shooting. "Well, that went well," Blair muttered, moving around the other end of the dumpster to cover Jim.

Simon and Sloan came out from behind their cover, firing several shots. One of the men with Magnuson went down. Williams ran for his Cherokee and started the vehicle, tearing out of the lot. Rafe and Joel raced from the van toward the shooting but were almost run down as Williams made his escape.

"Here, Ellison, over here!" Jim turned to see Earl jumping into an orange pickup with ‘Lastings Park Maintenance’ painted on the side. He and Blair raced toward the truck as Earl turned on the engine. Blair jumped in the side and scooted over, waiting for Jim to get in. He turned in surprise when he heard a loud thump on the roof of the vehicle.

Earl gunned the engine and took off after Williams, Jim hanging on in the back of the truck.

"Jim!" Blair yelled, trying to turn around in his seat while he scrambled frantically for his seat belt. "What the hell do you think you’re doing? Get in this truck!"

Jim and Earl both ignored him as Earl raced up to catch up with Williams. Flying down the street, Earl quickly pulled up next to Williams’ Jeep and tried to ram him to run him off the road. Jim was thumping his fist on top of the pickup in a code that Earl apparently understood and Blair could not believe. In horror, Blair watched as Earl pulled up beside the Jeep and Jim jumped to the top of the moving vehicle, clinging on to the luggage rack.

All Blair could read from either Jim or Earl was an absolute dedication to getting Williams, no matter what the cost. Jim cocked his head then rolled to one side as Williams shot through the roof of his truck. Blair saw Jim pull his gun then shoot several rounds through the hood of the Cherokee. The vehicle lurched to a stop, white steam rising from the front, sending Jim flying off the roof onto the hard concrete below.

"Jim!" Blair yelled as watched his sentinel roll several times then lay still. Williams jumped out of the disabled vehicle and ran across a field.

Earl pulled the pickup up close to Jim and both men jumped out. "Go go go!" Blair shouted as he hurried toward Jim. Earl took off after Williams and brought him down quickly. They rolled around trading punches.

Blair knelt over Jim. "Jim, damn it! Are you hurt?"

The sentinel was pushing himself up off the pavement, or trying to, as Blair was pushing him back down. "I’m okay, Chief, just a little road rash," he said impatiently, searching for Williams. "Let me up!"

Blair stood up, angry and frightened, holding out his hand to help Jim. Jim looked straight into his guide’s eyes. "I’m alright."

But almost immediately he turned to look across the field. Williams had pulled a gun from an ankle holster and was pointing it at Earl. The other man knelt in the field, hands up, staring up at his former lieutenant. Taking two steps, Jim pulled his gun smoothly, aimed, and fired. Williams clutched his arm as his gun went flying. Earl sagged in relief.

Blair and Jim had run quickly over to the two men as Earl pulled out his handcuffs and put them on Williams. Several squad cars were pulling up to the scene, followed by Capt. Sloan’s car with Simon.

"Man, that was some shot," Earl said, staring at Jim.

Jim just put his finger up beside his eye and grinned. "Good eyesight, remember?"

"Yeah, right," Earl smiled back. "Good eyes."

***

Simon and Sloan were in conference. Joel and Rafe were processing their surveillance tapes. Blair was typing up his report regarding the deaths of Tony Grant and Pat Reynolds. H was at a terminal beside him, filling in the details from the Special Operations side. Jim limped in and took a seat wearily beside Blair.

Blair immediately saved his work and logged off. "So?" he questioned.

"Like I said, just a case of road rash," Jim answered. "And a few bruises."

Blair stared at Jim as he checked his sentinel through their bond. "Man, are you going to be sore tomorrow," he grinned.

"Yeah, tell me about it," Jim growled. "On second thought, don’t. I think Meagan pretty much covered the main points." With a grunt he pushed himself back to his feet.

"Like, ‘what the hell were you thinking?’; ‘Of all the idiotic things’; ‘where in the world...’" Blair cut himself off in mid-sentence as Jim glared at him.

"Okay, okay," Blair grinned, holding his hands up in mock surrender. "You know, as a full-fledged agent, you’re going to have to write all this up in your report." If possible, Jim glared even harder. Blair chuckled, heading out of the room. "Let’s just get you home and into bed, big guy."

Jim sagged against the door as Blair drove toward the loft. He had gone out of their way to stop at the one place Jim had missed almost more than any other while he was held captive; Wonder Burger. Blair didn’t even lecture him on his eating habits. Jim was munching on his french fries when Blair suddenly hit the brakes, whipping the SUV around in the middle of the street.

"Did you see that? Jim, did you see that?" he exclaimed.

"What?" Jim muttered in an irritated tone of voice. He had barely grabbed his drink in time to avoid wearing it the rest of the way home.

"She’s beautiful," Blair breathed in awe.

"What? Where? Who?" Jim demanded, looking around. He didn’t see any particularly beautiful women in the area. In fact, they were pulling into a used car lot, Vinnie’s Vintage Vehicles. Cute. Not.

"Right there, the dark green one," Blair said, pulling up behind a 1962 Volvo sedan. The style evoked memories of a more elegant past.

"Oh, yeah! What a sweetheart!" Blair turned, pleased that Jim liked his taste in cars. But Jim was staring out the other side of the vehicle. At a blue and white1969 Ford F150 pickup truck.

-end-

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