Heat, Life

By: sharilyn

EMAIL: Sharilyn


RATING: PG15 for violence, language

SUMMARY: When Blair is wounded, Jim's senses come to the fore to help him save his guide.

DISCLAIMER: The Sentinel and its characters belong to Pet Fly and this fic is in no way intended to violate or infringe on any copyright laws.

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I'm dead, Blair thought with the detached calmness of traumatized disbelief; I'm dead and just haven't fully realized it yet. He knew he was dead--dying, at any rate--because the masked and heavily body-armored man who'd just shot him in the head at near point-blank range told him so.

"Thought you could play possum, eh?" his faceless executioner had drawled after that first brutal but miraculously non-fatal shot to the back of Blair's skull. "Nice try...persistent little bastard, aren't you? I guess I should give you some credit for your stubborn will to live, or maybe just for having an exceedingly hard skull. I must have hit a bony ridge back there that deflected the bullet from your brain. Lucky miss, I guess you'd say, and I do admire the fact that you were able to think clearly enough to fake your own death afterward. So here it is--kudos from me to you for your ingenuity. But there are rules to this, you see, very particular rules; I've a keen eye for poseurs, and I'm the one with the big, nasty gun, so I'mthe one who gets to decide who lives and who dies today, understand? Do you understand me, you long-haired freak?"

Dimly Blair had been aware of a booted toe prodding him in his left shoulder, had become cognizant with an almost surrealistic sense of doomed terror that that same relentless foot was now pressing down, down with inexorable intent to pin him to the hot, gritty asphalt of the parking lot in preparation for dealing the final coup de grace. Numbly, and with a wild,keening sense of grief and regret rising within him for his own hapless demise, Blair tried to galvanize his frozen, locked-up muscles to react, tried to transmit a clear signal from his wounded, befuddled head to his useless limbs to FIGHT BACK, dammit, to SEEK COVER!!...But there was to be no escape--there was no cover to seek, nowhere he could go to evade the fate awaiting him. All he could do was lie there, already seriously wounded and incapacitated, his limbs quivering slightly as he listened with a horrified sort of fascination to his own harsh, gasping whoops of respiration and felt the pressure of unyielding metal as the lone gunman almost lovingly pressed the muzzle of his weapon against Blair's left temple and squeezed his finger on the trigger.

I'm dead, Blair thought again, even more distantly this time, his initial stunned disbelief intensifying as the world exploded inside his cranium in a white-hot blast of searing sound and agony. God, Jim! I'm done for...and I never even got to tell you good-bye...Sorry, Jim, I'm so, so sorry...and for the briefest of moments--for the time it took that smoking-hot bit of powerfully ejected metal to penetrate the soft tissues at the side of Blair Sandburg's head and then skitter fortuitously, haphazardly off yet another plate of bone to lodge subcutaneously somewhere behind Blair's left ear--for that briefest interval of time, Blair felt himself step surely and truly to the very precipice of Death, to the treacherous, yawning lip of that last, final fall into an unknown eternity. And there he hovered for a desperately uncertain eyeblink of real time, dazed and bewildered and completely unable to stay or go, to move one direction or the other to the particular fate awaiting him on either side of the line. I'm dead--aren't I? he managed to think, and it seemed that with that faltering assertion the balance must surely change from mere portentous possibility to dread fulfillment.

And this time it seemed that his nameless assailant sensed it, too, sensed his victim's helpless, irreversible sprawl across the fragile threshold of life into the cold, still realm of death and rigor and chill lividity. This time the heavily armed madman looming above Sandburg's limp body didn't even bother to nudge the curly-haired one's bloody form to check for signs of life or to speak more than the one word of quiet satisfaction that fell fromhis lips as he took in the motionless lump of flesh at his feet. Good. That was the word, that was all he said by way of requiem for just another in today's string of fallen victims. "Good," he murmured again to himself, the word spoken not only in satisfaction for a job well done but also as a compliment to the weapon he cradled so tenderly now in his right hand. The word hung there in his mind's eye, pristinely beautiful in its simplicity, and the gunman's mouth curved almost imperceptibly upward in the barest ghost of a smile as his cold green eyes flicked almost disinterestedly down to the viscous trail of blood oozing from the hole in Curly Boy's head, its vermilion richness staining the dead young man's riotously abundant tendrils of hair and bathing each springy lock with the strong, sickly-sweet scent of copper and of expended vitality.

Good.

And then the killer, whose motive this day yet remained unknown, stepped calmly away from Blair's frightfully limp body and moved to re-check the other unfortunate corpses littering the small parking lot. He'd had a busy few minutes, the gunman thought happily to himself as his alert emerald eyes took in the scene of horrific carnage spread out around him like some macabre banquet of ruined human flesh; he was only sorry that he hadn't been able to snare more people, sorry that a few undeserving souls had managed to escape his justice and scurry away like the frightened, shiftless vermin they really were beneath their carefully tailored clothes and thin veneers of civility. But that was okay; it was still all good.These few had been nothing more than close-range target practice, after all, just the warm-up before the REAL show began. For in addition to the pistol in his hand, he was weighted down with enough heavy weaponry and artillery to take out dozens more targets before all was said and done; and with his near-impenetrable body armor and the riot helmet resting atop the masked anonymity of his face, he felt stronger than strong, well nigh invincible and in perfect killing form.

And so what if they took him out hours from now? It didn't matter how long he himself had left to live; he didn't give a damn what anyone thought of him, indeed even found it vaguely amusing that soon, so very soon, he would have multitudes of slavering, excited talking heads arguing the finer points of the pathology of his 'psychosis' on television and over the airwaves and the internet. They never learned, did they? he clucked to himself with mild disgust for the foolish vagaries of humankind as he stalked over to the sobbing, pitifully scrabbling old woman he'd shot in both legs a few minutes earlier and this time put her out of her cringing, screaming misery for good by flipping her over onto her back with one foot and firing three bullets into her chest. Stupid cow, he thought absently to himself and moved to switch weapons as the first, frantically shrill cadence of multitudinous police sirens began to reverberate above the usual busy sounds of crosstown traffic.

*****

I'm dead, Blair thought dully to himself; and the dead feel no pain. The dead know nothing, see nothing, hear nothing...but perhaps, just perhaps, they did. DID feel pain still, DID hear the fading sounds of the body's desperate, last-ditch efforts to stay alive, to EXIST. How else to explain that he could still THINK at all, that even though he was dead now he could still feel pain, could yet feel the sticky unpleasantness of blood and gore and the tattered edges of bullet-pierced skin gaping rawly open somewhere onthe side of his head...how could he still feel ANYTHING, still have the sick-making sensation of not one but TWO deformed chunks of metal embedded in his skull?

I don't like this, I don't like this one damned bit, Blair ruminated fuzzily to himself, unable to move, unable to discern exactly where his arms and legs were in relation to the persistent, throbbing core of pain and perversely burning cold that he dully realized must be centered inside his head...and if he could only figure out just exactly where his head WAS, thenmaybe he could find the rest of himself, maybe he could pick himself up--his dead, noncorporeal self, that is--and stumble his disoriented way toward that mystic, oft-mentioned 'bright light' that would hopefully lead him to...where? Help me, he wanted to whimper, too traumatized to call out loud, too shaken and frightened and overwhelmed to do more than float in this aimless limbo, some part of his essence wishing with poignant intensity for Jim's presence with him here in this nowhere realm...Not that he wanted Jim DEAD, oh God, no, never that!...But Blair was afraid right now, so damned afraid, and he could admit that to himself, could admit it to Jim too if only Jim was HERE, here to comfort and support and enfold his guide in those strong, competent arms that sometimes seemed invincible, never mind the fact that Jim was just a flesh-and-blood man like any other and therefore as
vulnerable to sudden, messy death as Blair had discovered himself to be. But no, he didn't want that to be true; Jim wasn't like any other man. He was a sentinel, and his presence radiated an aura of understated power that seemed so much more than merely human, Blair thought groggily to himself as he vacillated in limbo, trying to ascertain whether or not he was TRULY 100% dead. Jim habitually gave an impression of unbreachable, impervious strength to those around him, and each time Blair was afforded the rare privilege of finding himself wrapped within his partner's incomparable embrace, he always felt sheltered...safe. And right now Blair admitted mournfully to himself that he could really, really use a patented Ellison Special, the sort of hug that rendered the hug-ee almost limp with warmth and comfort and the undeniable sense of security that only Jim's touch could impart.

It's not my fault, Jim, he heard some small, guilt-ridden corner of his shutting-down mind whimper; I only stopped long enough to drop off the film we took of Joel's surprise birthday celebration in the bullpen, and when I came out this--this psycho, robo-killer nightmare was suddenly just THERE in the damned parking lot, and he just started shooting, Jim, and there was nowhere to go, nowhere to run...and I thought if I played dead the first time he'd go away and leave me alone, but he didn't go away, he was too smart for that, he came back and he killed me again, killed me for REAL the second time, didn't he?...And now here I am, dead, and I'm really, really sorry and I'm scared, Jim, I'm so scared cause I don't think it's supposed to be like this...I mean, I know I was no angel in life, much less a saint or anything like that, but still, I don't think I was THAT evil, evil enough that I would find myself here now, wherever HERE is, stuck somewhere between life and infinity, and can I even be sure this IS real, that this isn't some horrible dream?...

Oh, God, maybe I've gone insane; maybe the pressure of working such long hours at both Rainier and Major Crimes and all the time spent working on Jim's senses and my other obligations, not to mention disastrous failed romance #3,017 or whatever, just finally got to me...God, maybe I'm just having a complete mental breakdown and none of this is real...But it IS real. It has to be, cause I hurt, Jim, my head hurts SO freaking much, and I'm beginning to think maybe I'm not really dead, after all, at least not DEAD dead, just SORT OF dead, just NEARLY dead, and oh, God, what if that psycho realizes it, too, realizes like he did last time that I'm 'playing possum' here? Oh, God, Jim, I can hear him, can hear him going around shooting people again, making sure EVERYONE is dead for good, taking his time now as he moves from body to body...God how many bodies are there, how long till he comes back round to ME again?...

I think I hear sirens, Jim, are YOU one of the sirens heading this way, coming to help, coming to try and take this bastard OUT before he kills any other innocent people? God, Jim, don't let him kill you, too, don't come too close! I don't think he's going to go down easy, you've got to be careful...oh, Jim, I feel sick, so sick, but if I throw up he'll KNOW, he'll SEE that I'm only partly dead and he'll come over here and he'll shoot me AGAIN and I really can't take that, Jim, oh God please don't let him shoot me again!!...

I'm dead, just have to remember I'm dead, and the dead can't feel pain, can't feel the terrible, burning heat against my right cheek of the hot tar and asphalt of the parking lot melting in the sun, can't feel the pain inside my head...and the dead can't feel sick and nauseous and thirsty, so very thirsty...Shhh. Just lie here, Blair, bleeding out onto the asphalt, and be a good, dead little anthropologist. You're dead till Jim tells you you're NOT, do you understand? Dead, Sandburg; right now you're nothing, just a lifeless corpse sprawled belly-down in between two parked cars on a hot summer day...

Oh, God, Jim, I don't want to be dead. Please, Jim, please...don't leave me here like this, don't make me stay dead...

*****

Of course Jim saw before anyone else did or could; and as soon as Simon Banks beheld THAT look erupting with such swift, dismaying intensity on his premiere detective's face, he was rushing forward to settle strong, restraining arms around Jim's midsection. He knew a warning grasp on a shoulder or upper arm wouldn't be enough this time, not nearly enough; from the expression on Ellison's usually stoic visage, Simon knew that whatever the sentinel was seeing was BAD...and that Sandburg was somehow involved. Only the grim reality of Blair being injured or imperilled could arouse such desperate, wild-eyed horror in Ellison's gaze; and as Jim let loose with a low, wrenching growl of mingled rage and disbelief, it was all Simon could do to hold the other man back and prevent him from leaping right over the edge of the third-story roof that had become the Cascade PD's impromptu watch tower and observation post for the duration of this latest crisis.

"Jim! JIM!! Enough, already...I said ENOUGH!! Listen to me, Detective; you WILL listen and calm yourself, or I will have Rafe and Henri and any other warm bodies needed to escort you off this roof and off this detail. Are you hearing me, Jim? Don't make me wrestle you to the ground, son..."

Simon's harsh words, delivered in a fierce, slightly breathless tone undercut by terse concern, filtered only dimly into Jim Ellison's consciousness, seeping through the blood-red haze of fear and fury rising in his mind to echo senselessly alongside the sick rush of blood and terror coursing through his veins. It took long, precious seconds for the meaningless sounds pouring into his ear to take on any real significance, and in the interim Simon had all he could do to hold on to the steel-muscled, grimly determined man struggling against him as if it was a matter of life and death that he escape his superior's hold.

"Dammit, Jim, you have to STOP this now! Whatever it is you're seeing--WHOEVER it is that's down there in that parking lot--you aren't going to do them any good by losing control like this! You know what you have to do, Detective, you know what BLAIR would expect from you right now..."

And that did the trick. Jim didn't react right away, oh no; it took another agonizingly uncertain handful of endless seconds for the crazed desolation in Ellison's eyes to clear to something approaching lucidity. By that point Simon had been joined in his grim efforts at restraint by Rafe and Henri, and Jim continued almost reflexively to resist their collective hold on him until the last dregs of that initial jolt of anguished adrenaline drained from his system, leaving him gray-faced and trembling as his struggles abruptly ceased.

"God...oh, God, it's Sandburg..." the others heard him groan as he slumped bonelessly in Simon's now-comforting grasp, his eyes almost unbearably bleak as they lifted to impale the captain with their stark grief. "Down there, one of the victims in the parking lot..."

"Are you sure, Jim?" Simon murmured, his heart sinking like a stone at the expression of hopeless certainty in the sentinel's tortured gaze. "Dammit, can you see if...if..."

"I can't tell from here if he's still alive." Jim shook his head in desolate denial, his hands scrabbling absently at Simon's forearms as he struggled to compose himself and find his feet again. "I'd need to be closer to hear...to hear his heart beating, to check for the rise and fall of his chest...all I can really see from this distance is..." His jaw clenching rigidly with barely suppressed emotion, Jim swallowed hard and took two shaky breaths before finishing in an almost inaudible voice: "I recognized the shirt he wore today, it's the one Megan gave him last Christmas...and his hair...Even with all the blood, I'd know those curls anywhere. It's him down there, it's Blair's...body. And I can see his car, down at the end of the lot. Oh, God, what the hell was he even doing there in the first place?"

His face twisting in anguished frustration, Jim shrugged off the supportive, cautionary hands still clutching at him from every side and drew himself to his full height, drawing the shreds of his tattered composure tightly around himself as he took one determined step toward the edge of the flat roof. Several pairs of anxious eyes followed his progress, and several accompanying sets of lungs released worried breaths as Jim came to a halt with a barely acceptable safety margin separating his taut figure from a fatal plunge to the street far below.

"I HAVE to get closer, have to be able to listen for his heartbeat..." Ellison was muttering distractedly to himself, his eyes focusing like blue lasers in the direction of the terrible carnage that had so recently taken place blocks away and now showed ominous signs of picking up again. Jim couldn't bring himself to stare too closely at the gunman who continued to prowl rather cockily around the war zone that the small parking lot had become; the sentinel knew that all too soon his special talents would be needed in order to bring the bastard down, but for now all he could focus on, all he could see, was...Blair. Chief. His best friend and room mate, his partner, lying like a broken doll on the dirty, tar-smeared asphalt amid the bloodily surrealistic tableau of at least seven other lifeless bodies. God, oh God, he's so still, so unnaturally still, Jim thought numbly; and there'sso much blood around his head, so thick and blackish-red, the sickly sweet stench of it no doubt mixing and blending on the hot summer air with the spilled blood of all those other unfortunate souls...I bet if I tried really hard I could separate the smell of Sandburg's blood from all the others; even from this distance I should be able to catch a whiff of it, to breathe in the essence of Blair's life running out onto the gritty pavement beneath his body...

"JIM!! Dammit, Jim, we don't have time for this right now...Rafe, Henri, keep a hand on him, don't let him tip forward; I think he's going into a zone-out..." Vaguely Jim became aware of Simon's frantic voice barking out orders, and he pulled himself back from the enticing brink of oblivion and of escape from the terrible fear roiling inside his chest. Blair, think of Blair; there could still be hope for him, he ordered himself fiercely, becoming instantly enraged with his own inability to stay in control, to do whatever it took to ascertain his partner's condition. He isn't dead, he can't be dead...a small, desperate voice deep inside his head repeated over and over in a monotonous mantra as Jim once again shrugged off his colleagues' restraining hands and turned to Simon Banks with steely determination glittering in his now-clear eyes.

"I have to get closer; I just...have to know, NEED to know before...before I can continue with this," he stated flatly, schooling his pallid features into a mask of closed inscrutability. "I can't tell clearly enough from this distance whether or not his chest is moving up and down, whether he's breathing; the angle at which he's lying and his position between those cars make it difficult...and if I focus too narrowly, I could lose it and zone out completely."

At the look of bleak compassion in his friend and superior's eyes, Jim found he had to lower his own gaze briefly in order to hold on to his hard-won composure. He felt the tentative touch of fingers lightly squeezing his shoulder, felt the silent influx of empathy and proffered strength that was issued through this simple physical connection before Simon discreetly removed his hand and found his gaze met once more by a sentinel back in control of his emotions.

"I shouldn't let you do this, Jim," Simon sighed roughly. "SWAT has a rigid perimeter established already, and they won't take kindly to ANY sort of unapproved encroachment on their territory. We've just now received a tentative heads-up that the nutcase down there with the arsenal from Hell called the local news stations and told them he has bombs set up in strategic spots all over town; he's saying that if we take him out, no one will be able to find them all before they go off. Till we have some way of ascertaining whether or not he's telling the truth, we don't dare put him down forever, if you get my drift."

Jim merely stood in stoic silence throughout Simon's weary explanation, his intense gaze never wavering from his commander's dark face; and knowing that the detective was going to have his way no matter what--knowing that Sandburg's fate meant that much to Ellison, to them ALL, Simon heaved a disgusted sigh and flung his hands up. "Go with him, Henri," the captain ordered brusquely, and Jim didn't bother to protest that he wanted--no, NEEDED--to go alone, that Henri would only slow him down, would only be placing himself in danger and distracting Jim from his purpose. Jim could read in Simon's terse expression that on this point, at least, there would be no argument, and he had no more time or energy to waste in debating the issue. He had to get closer to his partner, one way or another; he had to KNOW if Blair was still alive. (Dear God, please be alive, just let him live; and God, don't let there be brain damage!...)

"Try to keep up, H," was all Jim replied, and Henri shot him a brusque nod, his own grim anxiety over Blair's condition turning his brown eyes almost black as he stepped aside to allow Jim to brush by him on the roof.

"Watch yourselves!" Simon shouted unneccessarily as the two men darted past the small crowd of police personnel milling about on the roof; neither man responded, but as Jim yanked open the door leading down to the interior of the building and disappeared inside the stairwell, Henri waggled two fingers over his head in mute acknowledgement of the boss's order before following Ellison down.

"Captain, maybe I should follow them--" Rafe began, almost quivering in his desperate eagerness to plunge into the shadowy rectangle of the rooftop entrance in pursuit of his partner and of Jim. But Simon merely sighed heavily and shook his head in negation, one hand fumbling absently for the cigars he always carried in his coat pocket.

"I need you to team up with Megan for now, start gathering all the background info you can on that bastard who shot Sandburg and all those other people. It's obvious he's just been warming up and that in his estimation the REAL action has yet to begin. I know the higher-ups will have already started digging into this guy's history, but let's make sure they don't miss anything. We can't stop him till we have all we need on him to put him DOWN before he has a chance to use the rest of his arsenal on any more innocent victims."

"Yes, sir," Rafe replied reluctantly, and as he forced his attention to the brusque orders Banks had begun reciting to him, both men found themselves waiting stiffly, uneasily, for any communication from the two men who were even now on their way to find out if Blair was alive or dead.

*****

He wanted to move, oh God he wanted to move SO badly!...but something told him he couldn't. Some terrified voice somewhere deep inside his shattered head told him that he had to lie PERFECTLY STILL, as still as death...But it hurt to lie that still--something was burning him down the right side of his face, sending white-hot impulses of pain along a myriad of apparently raw nerves to scream a desperate message inside his brain: MOVE!! Move now, please make this horrible, molten burning sensation go away...c'mon, all you have to do is inch over a little, just lift your head the smallest bit and literally turn the other cheek...oh, God, how he needed to stop this pain, needed to plunge his unbearably hot, scorched cheek into some cool, cool water or search out some kind person bearing an economy sized tube of aloe vera burn gel...

NO...YOU HAVE TO BE STILL, YOU CANNOT MOVE, NOT EVEN THE SMALLEST TWITCH, NOT EVEN TO BREATHE...the voice inside his head seemed to be screaming at him in ever-increasing agitation, and Blair wanted to tell that voice tochill out, for pete's sake, wanted to assure the panicked nutcase bellowing in his brain that if it was that all-fired important, then okay...he'd lie still, burning cheek and horrid headache and all. He could almost imagine that the angry voice belonged to Jim, that once more he'd done something impulsive and/or foolhardy enough to bring down the wrath and ire of his sentinel on his head...Blessed protector, my ass, Blair found himself thinking muzzily as he struggled to be obedient to the anxious voice still whispering frantic orders inside his mind; hell, half the time he wondered if maybe he didn't need a second blessed protector to save his hide from the first one.

But he knew deep down that Jim would never hurt him, knew with a feeling of indescribable warmth in his soul that Jim would do everything in his power to keep his guide safe, to protect Blair from harm. Just as I would do anything to keep HIM safe, Blair thought loyally, and suddenly a nebulous image of terrible danger flared to blinding life inside his skull, hazy memories trying to break through as his throat struggled against his stubborn mind's strictures against creating even the barest whisper of sound. Even a loud, heartfelt OUCH! would have given him some measure of emotional comfort at this point, but that terribly frightened voice had infected him with its peculiar brand of foreboding to such an extent that Blair found himself concentrating as hard as he could on lying still, so still, telling himself he had to play dead, that maybe he WAS dead or nearly so and that something really, really horrific was waiting to suck his immortal soul straight down to Sheol, to Hell should this terrible thing glean but the smallest inkling that even a morsel of conscious existence still remained to one Blair Sandburg.

You're dead, that mysterious, unnerving voice informed him now, and even as Blair tried to summon the energy to argue against such a dire pronouncement, he could feel his poor, agony-wracked head wanting to nod in mournful agreement with the voice. I AM dead, I HAVE TO BE DEAD UNTIL JIM COMES, he reminded himself, and the idea of it--of waiting for Jim to come and make
everything okay again--filled him with a confusing mixture of both hope and desperation. Head hurts, he wanted to whimper to Jim and to that scaredy-cat voice deep inside his mind; God, my head HURTS. I need medical help, I need to get UP, to get AWAY from here, dammit...But Jim's face suddenly appeared before him, Jim's intense blue eyes begging him, ORDERING him, to lie still, so still, as still as a corpse, all of his limbs and his body parts as inert and inanimate as a sack of grain...and Blair knew he had to do this, that if he ever wanted to see Jim again he had to be dead for awhile first. But he couldn't help but wish that the invisible, demonic imps who were stabbing him in the head with pitchforks and pressing red-hot coals of fire against his right cheek would take at least a five minute break, maybe even bring him a tiny cup of brimstone-flavored water to quench his horrible thirst...Oh, God, I really am in Hell, Blair thought with agonized hopelessness, and the image of Jim's face wavered and melted and faded into blackness as Sandburg succumbed once more to oblivion.

*****

"I think this is the closest we're gonna get, Jim," Henri muttered apologetically as he hunkered down next to the man he'd been sent to watch over and assist on this furtive reconnaisance mission; crouched as they both were behind a hastily abandoned delivery truck a block down from the scene of the gunman's mad rampage, neither man dared move any closer for fear of being summarily forced back by the grim-faced SWAT teams who were running the show now.

"Yeah, we're lucky they even let us make it this far," Jim sighed, a distracted frown creasing his forehead as he spared one brief glance beside him into Henri's worried face. "And I appreciate you sticking with me, even after that blowhard Phillips tried to intimidate us into turning back. Like I'm gonna run in shooting blindly and blow their whole operation to hell. Stupid bastard," he muttered under his breath, and Henri closed his eyes against the quick flash of guilt glinting in their brown depths as he admitted silently, secretly to himself that some part of him HAD brieflywondered if Jim might not do just exactly that.

Jim's closest colleagues in Major Crimes were aware of the deep bond of friendship that existed between Ellison and Sandburg, a bond made even more special and intense by the very nature of the sentinel/guide relationship the two shared. No one outside their unit had a clue that Jim Ellison possessed dramatically heightened senses, and those in the know could be trusted to keep the truth to themselves. Indeed, any time some suspicious outsider came nosing around into Jim's and Blair's business, trying to find out just how it could be that two such unlikely partners had managed to rack up one of the most impressive arrest records in the history of the department, Henri and Rafe and the others who knew the duo's 'secret' quickly and quietly closed ranks to guard their friends against any further prying.

Even after watching the pair in action for the past three years, Henri wasn't sure exactly how Jim's senses worked or how Blair always managed to keep the ex- special ops ranger from falling into one of those disturbing 'zone out' episodes he was prone to whenever he concentrated too intensely on one particular sense or external stimulus; but the fact that Jim did indeed possess heightened sense-abilities, so to speak, seemed undeniable. And as Henri huddled anxiously now behind this rust-flaked bread delivery truck, he could only hope and pray that those elevated senses of Ellison's would be able to filter out the chaos taking place all around them long enough to detect one particular, infinitely precious sound amidst the welter of auditory confusion on the street.

"Dammit, I can't zero in on anything with all this NOISE going on," Jim was muttering restively to himself, his gaze narrowed on the hive of activity taking place just down the street in the cordoned-off area close to the scene of the gunman's brutal attack. "I think I'm going to need your help with my senses this time, H," the grim-faced sentinel added gruffly and pretended not to see the fleeting expression of panic that ghosted across Henri's face in response. Jim could hear the sudden acceleration in Henri's breathing as the other man struggled with silent feelings of apprehension concerning the task before him, and Ellison forced himself to wait patiently as Henri processed the uneasy notion of having to take part in helping Jim control an ability no other person but Blair seemed to fully comprehend.

A light sheen of perspiration erupted on Henri's face as he hesitantly met Jim's level gaze, but the expression of calm trust Jim showed him did much to diminish the nervousness thrumming double-time through Henri's veins. A slow, surprisingly endearing smile tugged at the corners of Jim's mouth as he moved to rest a gentle hand on Henri's bowed shoulder and murmured softly: "Hey, I figure after three years of having Sandburg underfoot in the bullpen and mouthing off ad nauseum at our weekly poker games about all manner of things arcane and anthropological, at least a little bit of his 'mojo' has to have worn off on the rest of us, you know? So if Blair can keep me from zoning, then by some mystical, Sandburgian form of osmosis, you should be able to do the same thing. It's going to be all right, H, really; I just need someone to...to 'ground' me, so to speak, and keep me from concentrating TOO deeply to the exclusion of...well, of various other systems and processes in my body."

"Crap, you're not going to just stop breathing or drop dead or something, are you?" Henri whispered hoarsely, renewed agitation flaring to life in his wide gaze, but Jim merely chuckled ruefully and gave his friend's shoulder another reassuring squeeze.

"No, nothing as dramatic as that," he denied gently. "I've managed till now not to kick the bucket while extending my sensory range. And it's going to be okay this time, H; I know Blair needs me, needs medical help as soon as we can get it to him, and if I can hold onto that thought, there's no way I'm going to let myself go in too deep to pull back out of it again. I just need you to center me a bit, to provide me with a point of physical human contact to keep me tethered to my own body while I branch out with my hearing. The whole thing couldn't be simpler, huh?"

"Yeah, it'll be a piece of cake," Henri muttered darkly and was rewarded by another flash of white teeth as Jim smiled at him once more. "I gotta hand it to Blair, Jim; he's got some set of balls on him, to be able to deal with this whole sentinel business so calmly and matter-of-factly. Just the very idea of being responsible for keeping you from zoning...well, frankly it scares the hell out of me. And if Blair's life wasn't at stake, I'm not sure I could do this. I don't want...I don't want to mess you up, man, to be responsible for sending you into some sort of coma or something."

"Not gonna happen, Henri; I told you already, there's too much riding on this one. Now. I really, really need to find out if Blair is..." Jim's voice suddenly took on a ragged edge as the grim possibility of hearing nothing, of failing to pick up on the singular heartbeat he so desperately longed to hear, assailed his soul once more, leaving him weak and shaky on the inside.

But he drew himself up and tried again, clearing his throat and forcing renewed calm into his voice. "I need to MAKE SURE he's still alive; and time's running out. So what do you say; are you ready to do this with me?" Jim pressed with a quiet intensity that had Henri wincing in shamed regret for his own selfishness, for questioning his own ability to help Jim--and by extension, Blair as well--at this critical moment.

"Ready when you are," Henri replied, his jaw hardening with his resolve, and Jim merely nodded once, brusquely, before redirecting his eagle-eyed perusal back to the hub of SWAT activity and then further down the street to the parking lot where Blair lay deathly still beneath the pitiless heat of the sun.

"Wrap your fingers around my upper arm, like this," Jim directed quietly, taking hold of Henri's hand and curling the other's fingers around his right bicep. "If you sense that I'm drifting too far away, I'll need for you to squeeze my arm really tight while you simultaneously call my name; if that doesn't work, pinch the living hell out of my arm, right here at this fleshy part inside my elbow. Got that?"

"That's all?" Henri questioned dubiously, and Jim nodded, summoning up a tight smile that didn't reach his eyes.

"That's it. So...ready?"

"Yeah, man, I'm ready. Do that thing you do so well, I guess," Henri replied with such a fatalistic tone that a flash of genuine amusement briefly lit Jim's eyes before vanishing beneath the weight of the potential sentinel overload crisis facing them. Nodding once again, Jim focused his full attention on the grim tableau down the blocked-off street and went very, very still, his head tilted slightly to one side as his blue eyes slid closed, all his energy seemingly channeling itself to his sense of hearing. Henri found himself holding his breath as he struggled to stay rock-still next to his colleague and friend, his fingers wrapped around Jim's upper arm with just enough pressure to let the sentinel know he wasn't alone, that someone had his back and was keeping watch as Jim sought to pinpoint and then differentiate between the multitudes of heart beats lub-dubbing wildly up and down the block. Agitated, they were all so agitated, dozens of cardiovascular systems operating on mega doses of fear and excited adrenaline, all those hearts pounding and thumping and pushing a wildly
discordant cacophany of rushing, roaring blood through bodies too numerous to catalogue...

Oh, God, I can't do it, I can't narrow my focus in close enough to pick out the one heart beat that's as familiar to me--maybe MORE familiar--than my own, Jim thought to himself with something approaching panic as the mind-shattering clash of a thousand different noises assaulted his ears with all the subtlety of a massive train wreck. God, Blair, I can't find you, I don't know if you're still alive, if there's even a heart beat there now for me TO find...please, whichever deity might be out there listening, PLEASE help me find Blair's heartbeat, let it stll be there!...

Henri crouched miserably beside Ellison as the sentinel's body went even more rigid than before, the arm muscles beneath Henri's nervous fingers tightening to the consistency of iron as Jim's attention spiralled down and down to the sole sense that mattered the most right now; forcing back the sudden, sick rush of trepidation flooding his system, Henri became aware of his own heart's crazed pounding and sternly rebuked that organ, mindful that his racing pulse was likely just one more unwanted obstacle Jim would have to wade through in his avid search for the unique signature of Blair's heartbeat.

C'mon, Jim, c'mon, find that beat, listen for the rhythm...you can do it, I KNOW you can do it!...Henri urged his companion in fierce silence, heedless of the rivulets of sweat streaming down his face or the slight cramping in his fingers as they twitched once and tightened reflexively on Jim's upper arm. Don't zone now, not now, oh God don't let him zone!...

Jim had forgotten that Henri was there, that anything or anyone else around him existed; all those other heartbeats, all those lungs puffing and blowing air like overheated bellows, all those voices and the sounds of cars, of distant traffic lights clicking over, of hundreds of dogs barking citywide and hundreds of birds flapping and flying somewhere overhead...all of it faded, noise after noise dropping away like falling leaves until there was nothing but Jim and the breathless silence of the most intense LISTENING he had ever done. He was dangerously close to a major zone-out, some tiny corner of his mind warned; but he also knew that he couldn't stop now, knew that somewhere/somewhen he'd set up some sort of escape plan, some way to rise up from the seemingly bottomless depths of a severe zone should his preternaturally heightened level of hearing tip him over the edge of the abyss. Wait for the pain...heed the pain, some small, distant voice counseled him; and with that bit of advice Jim allowed himself to go all the way, to open and focus his hearing to the greatest limit of his ability.

Too much, it was too much; everything around him was disappearing, every other sense shutting down as his intense concentration on capturing the one sound he'd come to hear drove him right to the crumbling precipice of consciousness. Almost--ALMOST--he forgot what he was about, what his purpose was for being here; there was a strangely seductive appeal in the notion of just letting go, a subversive yen somewhere deep within him to give himself over to the lovely, cloaking darkness that seemed so eager to claim him now.

But the image that rose suddenly, unbidden, within his mind's eye was enough to jerk him abruptly back from the void before him; Blair's clear blue gaze and wild halo of hair shimmered in Jim's consciousness like an exotic mirage, and with a startled internal yell of savage victory Jim realized that he'd done it...he could hear it now, faint but miraculously real and blessedly familiar, the one heartbeat that had become a beacon of warmth and life and soul-deep communion for the sentinel in the three years that Blair had been his partner. Sandburg was still alive!!

At almost the same instant that this wondrous revelation struck his consciousness, Jim became aware of a fierce pain somewhere on his body, the sharp outcry of abused nerve endings in the vicinity of his right arm adding extra impetus to the growing compulsion he felt to escape this darkness, to get back to something very vital that lay beyond this shadow world. With a mental frown of concentration Jim reluctantly turned his attention to the annoying sensation of pain still radiating in waves through his nervous system and opened dazed eyes to find Henri Brown gaping frantically at him, his fingers pinching the tender flesh inside Jim's elbow with almost manic ferocity.

"Jim! Jim, oh man, Jim, is it really you? Are you back now? God, please tell me you're back!" Henri gabbled, and Jim grimaced as he reached somewhat stiffly to pry Henri's still-pinching fingers from his poor, abused arm. Now THAT'S gonna leave a bruise, he thought to himself with dour humor as he summoned a smile for his distraught colleague and hoarsely cleared his throat.

"I'm back, yes; you did great, H, you really helped me out." At Henri's dubious expression Jim gave the other man's shoulder a gentle squeeze and looked him straight in the eye, imparting all the sincerity he could muster into his gaze. "I mean it; thanks to your grounding me, I was able to find Blair's heartbeat, then come back afterwards. Yeah, you heard me--I found his heartbeat. He's alive, H," Jim grinned somewhat shakily as Henri's face lit up with astounded delight.

"Well, ALL RIGHT!" Henri crowed, and Jim's tentative grin stretched wider as the other man swept him up into an impromptu embrace, alternately squeezing him around the chest and pounding him on the back. "He's alive, Blair's freaking alive!! Thank God, Jim, thank God. Now we just have to get him the hell out of there."

"You said it, brother," Jim replied somberly, his momentary ebullience fading fast as the grim reality of the situation rushed back in to overshadow both men's celebratory relief. "And we don't have time to dick around with the SWAT guys; when I was coming back to ALL my senses, so to speak, I happened to catch the tail end of Rambo Jr's insane ramblings to himself, and he's ready to blow. It's going to be like that bank heist in California all over again, and by the time the good guys manage to get close enough to fire enough rounds in his ass to shred his body armor and take him out, it might be too late for Blair--not to mention the very real possibility that that bastard will end up with another pile of bodies lying around him before he finally goes down."

"So what are we going to do?" Henri asked quietly, and the tone of simple, unquestioning support in his voice made Jim want to reach out and hug him for his loyalty, for his belief that whatever plan Jim might hatch up, Henri would be right there to help him carry it out.

"YOU are going to report back to Simon that Sandburg is still alive and get things moving on that end so that ambulances and emt's are poised and ready when the word is given that it's safe to go in. I am going to end this fiasco and bring my partner out of there," Jim retorted with such cool finality in his tone that the vehement protest on the tip of Henri's tongue died a-borning. Ellison seemed SO certain that he could pull this off, that HE would be the one to end this...but common sense clamored anew for its share of attention in Henri's rattled brain, and the shaken detective laid an urgent hand on Jim's arm to forestall any immediate action on the other man's part.

"But, Jim, you can't just go haring in there without a word of warning to the SWAT guys or the feds beforehand!" Henri tried weakly after a long breath spent in a futile effort to break through the opaque shield of Jim's carefully blank blue gaze. "You're just going to endanger more lives that way, your own included! And if you get hurt, what's going to happen to Blair? He'll NEED you with him, man, you know he will...And even if this all works out, whatever it is you have up your sleeve, you are going to be in SUCH deep shit before all is said and done!"

"Henri, just go tell Simon that we'll be needing those ambulances ASAP," Jim replied calmly, no hint of ego or bravado in his demeanor as he rose to his feet and pulled the other man up with him. "At this point, the less you know, the better. Just...trust me, H. Okay?" For the briefest moment a glimmer of an emotion close to pleading flickered in the depths of Jim's eyes, and with a resigned sigh Henri drew back from Jim's emphatic grasp of his shoulders and gave a sorrowful shake of his head.

"I never know if you're really just that good at this shit, or if you're just straight-up INSANE,Ellison," Henri groaned as he took a step back and met Jim's crooked smile with a half-hearted grin of his own. "Okay, okay, I'm going; and I'd better be talking to your sorry, crazy ass again real soon--hopefully with all your parts still intact and functioning."

"Hell, I've gotta save SOMETHING for the captain to chew on when he gets hold of me later," Jim drawled, and Henri snorted out a laugh before turning reluctantly to head back the way he and Jim had come a scant few minutes before.

"Bring Sandburg out of there, Jim," he called softly over his shoulder as he trotted away. "Bring yourself out safely, too. We'll have help waiting."

"Thanks, H; appreciate it," Jim called back, and when Henri turned refexively to wave at his deranged friend and co-worker, he found himself waving to empty air. Jim was already gone, the speed and stealth of hispassing almost eerily surreal here beneath the glaring heat of the bright summer sun.

"Jeez!..." Henri swore softly to himself, and the quick, cold shiver that raced down his spine had him clutching almost superstitiously at the small gold cross hidden on a chain beneath his shirt. Jim is only human, Henri told himself as he hurried back to make his report to Simon; he's just a man like Simon or Rafe or Joel or even me...it's not like his senses give him super-invincible powers. But as Henri risked a final glance at the deserted stretch of city block wavering in the heat haze behind him, he could almost swear he'd just heard the low, feral growl of some large jungle cat vibrating silkily on the stultified air.

*****

The solitary figure appeared suddenly on the deserted street in front of the beseiged parking lot, somehow mysteriously bypassing the myriad of wary eyes watching for him from various strategic positions on rooftops and inside surveillance vans scattered all around the area; mere seconds before, Captain Simon Banks of the Cascade PD Major Crimes Unit had broadcast a rather frantic order for all teams to HOLD YOUR FIRE!, along with a somewhat garbled heads-up that one of his very own had possibly gone rogue and might be taking matters into his own hands--literally. Caught up as he was in a desperate bid to prevent Ellison from being shot to hell by clench-jawed SWAT teams with itchy trigger fingers, Simon made a harried vow to himself to personally disembowel James Joseph Ellison with his bare hands once this whole, sorry nightmare was over;but in the meantime, he was doing his damndest to make sure that no one else hurt his wayward detective before he'd had first dibs.

Jim was calm, as calm as the flat surface of a quiet lake on a still summer evening; as he worked his way out from a cluttered, noisome-smelling alley past several parked cars and hastily locked-down businesses, his movements were deliberate and unhurried, his expression remote and oddly peaceful as he methodically checked his police-issue revolver and approached the parking lot entrance with the gun held loosely alongside his thigh. All these trained professionals, all this long-range firepower, and no one can take the bastard out, he thought disgustedly to himself as his alert gaze traversed his surroundings, drinking in the astounding array of weapons pointed his way without the least flutter of nerves.

I can do this, he told himself firmly, confidently; I WILL do this, and damn the personal consequences. He had to get Blair out of this parking lot, had to get his guide to a hospital as soon as possible, and he'd take any risk to himself and his reputation and career to see Sandburg safe again. What he hadn't told Henri when he'd shared the good news about Blair's survival was the troublesome news that Blair's physical condition was hovering on the knife's edge of critical; with his blood loss and shockiness and God knew what sort of damage to his skull and brain from the bullets in his head, his guide and friend wouldn't last much longer in this heat. Jim knew he would be in deep trouble with just about every law enforcement agency in town before all was said and done, but that didn't matter. The only thing that mattered to him was ending this whole debacle as quickly and as neatly as possible and getting Blair and the two other survivors of this morning's massacre the medical attention they so desperately needed.

So it was that Jim Ellison, sentinel of the city of Cascade and best friend to one Blair Sandburg, walked calmly to within ten feet of one ragingly insane, megalomaniacal piece of work named Arthur Hanrihan, his gaze never wavering from the aforementioned madman's masked face as Arthur turned from randomly spraying automatic weapons fire into every car in the lot and gaped almost comically at the sight of one lone man in civilian clothes moving calmly and purposefully toward him.

"Well, well; what's this? How the hell did you make it past the gauntlet of boys in blue over there?" Arthur snorted derisively, training his beloved AK-47 on the muscular man approaching him with such bizarrely casual ease. "What are you, some lame attempt at distracting me? Maybe you're some sort of hokey hostage negotiator or department shrink, sent in to tell me that all my hostility here today stems from a bad relationship with my mother and an absent father...or maybe you're just some crazy moron with a death wish. Is that it, buddy?" Arthur taunted, smirking as he watched Jim lift his revolver and silently angle his body in classic firing stance.

"There are no bombs, are there, Artie?" Jim spoke softly, conversationally, his eyes clear and steady on the madman's surprised green gaze. "You know, you really shouldn't talk out loud to yourself when you're in the middle of a psychotic rampage--I heard you admitting loud and clear that you never planted any bombs. 'Let the idiots figure it out for themselves,' you said...isn't that right, Artie? 'By the time they realize there were never any bombs, I'll have taken out at least half the cops in the city.' I heard every word, Artie. And now it's time for this to be over."

And with that Jim Ellison steadied his hand, pinning his sentinel gaze on the one tiny, near-invisible area of weakness in Arthur's clever little concoction of body armor. Even with their binoculars and their long-range, telescoping rifles none of the SWAT guys had seen that chink in this mad knight's modern, kevlar version of chain mail; it took a special man to find and exploit that weakness--it needed a sentinel's eagle-eyed perusal to deliver the killing strike in the one, specific spot that would end this bastard's brief reign of terror. And Jim was ready. To me you'll always be Achilles, he thought inanely to himself as he fired his revolver once, the bullet finding its way with unerring accuracy to the miniscule area of vulnerability just below Hanrihan's throat.

With the sharp report of Jim's weapon, the world seemed to freeze, was suddenly plunged into an immense, startled silence as the two men faced off in the parking lot, Jim retaining his firing stance with calm, practiced ease while Arthur "Artie" "Achilles" Hanrihan held onto his weapon with blank incredulity in his eyes, never once raising the lethal automatic to return fire in the few endless seconds it took for him to process that he'd just been killed by an unarmored man packing nothing more than a standard police revolver.

"You...you..." Hanrihan gurgled, amazed and astounded, and then he died, just like that. And Jim never stopped to think about how stupefyingly EASY it had been, how the surprisingly unorthodox manner of his appearance before this raging nutcase gunman had skewed that worthy's smug worldview so wildly and instantly off center that killing him was as easy as taking candy from a baby. All Jim cared about was getting to Sandburg, getting help FOR Sandburg. And even as total chaos erupted around him, even as countless dumbfounded, pissed-off SWAT units converged on the lot in a rush to lay their hands on both their dead target and the man who'd made him that way, Jim moved past them all as if they weren't there, his passage miraculously unimpeded as he finally reached his goal.

"I'm here, Chief; I'm right here with you," Jim whispered as he knelt on his knees next to Blair's deathly still body and reached with infinite care to trace the faint, erratically racing pulse beating in his guide's pale throat. "It's going to be all right now, it's all over..." And Blair finally moaned once, gutturally, as Jim swept his fingers up along the blood-encrusted curve of his partner's left cheek, cautiously working his way to the nasty wound at Sandburg's temple before following the furrow the bullet had left as it dug in a mere two millimeters, then skittered randomly to the side. There. Jim's sensitive fingers found the slightly flattened projectile lodged behind Blair's ear, resting just beneath the surface of his skull, and with a choked groan of relief the sentinel shifted his focus to the second messy wound on the back of the fallen man's head. Again his skilled fingers discovered that this bullet had also basically skipped aimlessly around the back of Blair's cranium, missing anything vital in its short journey before it lodged itself in the bony ridge just above the nape of Blair's neck. Close, so very, very close...a half centimeter lower and his best friend would have died or been paralyzed for life, Jim realized shakily as he ignored the babble of agitated voice all around them.

"Come on, Chief; stay with me, here," Ellison whispered roughly, brushing one shaky hand through the tangled, blood-clotted mess of his partner's hair. "You're not dead, Blair--you're alive. Just like Murtaugh and Riggs in "Lethal Weapon 2," huh? Remember, buddy? 'You're not dead till I tell you you're dead? Isn't that what Murtaugh said to Riggs? You're not dead, Blair; you're breathing, you're alive. Come back to me, pal; open your eyes."

And Blair did, because Jim had come for him, and Jim was telling him that it was okay now not to stay dead, that it was safe to live. I'm alive, Blair thought fuzzily, disjointedly, as urgent hands and voices suddenly appeared out of nowhere, moving and jostling and turning him till he cried out faintly in pain and protest, wanting them to stop, wanting the terrible burning in his right cheek and the pain in his head and the awful thirst to go away. But it was nice to know that he was alive, nicer still to feel Jim's hand wrap strongly, securely around his own and then squeeze, conveying without words the most important message that Blair could ever hope to receive. You're alive, that loving grip said, and I'm here. Everything will be okay. And Blair wanted to say thank you, wanted to return the gentle pressure of Jim's fingers clasping his own; but he was tired, so very tired, and he knew that Jim could read his soul, knew that Jim didn't need his sentinel abilities to sense the love and gratitude in his guide's strongly beating heart.


*****The End*****

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