Age of Conspiracy

Blair Sandburg walked out of the university building with his backpack slung over his shoulder and a spring in his step. Taking in the myriad shades of red and orange in the evening sky, he smiled and headed toward his car. He had the weekend ahead of him and, with no projects due or papers to grade, he'd be spending the next two days relaxing. He often spent Saturdays helping Jim with paperwork, but there was no way his partner was going to coax him into spending this Saturday filling out reports.

Sorry buddy, you’re stuck with it yourself this time, he mused.

Blair reached behind him to pull his car keys out of his backpack just as he heard a familiar voice behind him.

"Sandburg?"

Blair pivotted with a bounce, swinging his arms in the air as he turned to face his partner.

He grinned widely and said, "Hey, Jim. Whatever it is, I'm officially off duty." He raised a finger and shook it at the larger man. "There's no way you're suckering me into spending my Saturday filling out paperwork. You can just forget it."

Jim gazed thoughtfully at Blair, his expression serious. Blair's smile faded and he suddenly realized that Jim wouldn't drive all the way to the university to harass him about paperwork. Inwardly, he groaned. Man, I knew one weekend was too much to ask.

"What is it, Jim?" Blair asked.

"Let's go to your office," he stated, his voice flat but firm.

Blair looked up into the stern face of his partner and furrowed his brow. Something was wrong, here. Jim was pulling his cold soldier act. He stood straight, his face expressionless and his eyes hard.

Blair nodded and shrugged. "Sure, okay, man. You mind telling me what this is about?"

Blair turned around and headed back toward his office, sparing a glance at his silent partner.

After a few seconds, Jim said, "I'll tell you once we're in your office."

What's with the Cloak and Dagger stuff, Blair wondered as he hurried his pace.

When they reached his office, Blair unlocked the door and stepped in, tossing his backpack on the floor. He turned and leaned against his desk, gazing expectantly up at Jim.

"Well, we're here?" Blair raised his hands to emphasize the fact.

Jim's eyes scanned the room. They quickly rested on a small artifact sitting on the top shelf of a bookcase. Quickly, Jim crossed the room and grabbed the item off the shelf. The artifact was a small, roughly spherical object made of clay and some nondescript metallic material. It's surface featured symbols of unknown origin intertwined with patterned lines reminiscent of computer boards.

"Whoa. Be careful with that," Blair cautioned. "It's one-of-a-kind. It's on loan from a museum in South America and, man, if anything happens to it --"

"What museum?" Jim held the artifact in his hands and stared at it with an intensity that indicated a possible zone-out.

Okay, something is definitely not cool, here, he thought. Since when was Jim interested in archeology? Could the artifact have something to do with a case, he wondered.

Blair walked over to Jim and said, "Translated: The Museum of Natural History in Chile. Why?"

Jim looked up at Blair and fixed him with a mechanical stare that sent a shiver through the young anthropologist. Blair swallowed and unconsciously took a step back. "What the hell is going on, Jim? Why is this important?"

A humorless smile played at the edges of Jim's mouth, and he walked back to retrieve Blair's backpack. Quickly, he dumped the contents on the floor and stuffed the artifact inside.

"Hey!" Blair protested, then quickly bit his tongue as Jim's head shot up.

Blair's heart skipped a beat as the cold blue eyes of his partner stared soulessly down at him.

"Come with me, Sandburg," Jim commanded.

Blair took a step back. "Not until you tell me what this is all --"

Blair saw a whir of motion as Jim's hand shot upward, sending the anthropologist into a dark, silent void of consciousness.


Jim jack-knifed off the couch, his heart pounding frantically in his chest. Taking a few deep breaths, he calmed himself and stood up, glancing at the clock on the VCR. 7:02 pm. He'd only been napping for about 25 minutes, which was, in and of itself, unusual. He rarely took naps, but this past week had been so exhausting, depriving him of much-needed sleep.

The phone rang and he nearly bolted off the couch. His stomach clenched in a sudden knot. Suddenly he realized with agonizing certaintly what had disturbed him. His breath caught as he picked up the receiver.

"What happened?" To Blair, he added silently.

"Jim, it's me, Simon." A pause, followed by a sigh. "I'm not going to even ask how you know, but I have some bad news," Simon began. "A security guard at the university reported a break in at Sandburg's office."

Jim's lungs began to ache, forcing him to release the breath he'd been holding. "And? What about Blair?"

"The security guard said he caught a glimpse of Blair being shoved into a black sedan outside the university." Simon paused and Jim heard him inhale deeply. "The guard also swears he saw you with Sandburg. At least, he claimed, someone who looked very much like you from a distance."

Jim clenched his jaw. "When did this happen?"

"Just a few minutes ago. The guard reported it just as soon as the car sped away." Simon released another sigh. "There's a unit on its way now. I'm just about to leave myself, so I'll meet you there."

Jim carefully replaced the receiver, cradling it on the base as though it were a sleeping infant. His hands shook, and he knew that if he gave in -- if he released his emotions and hurled the phone against the wall -- he'd likely zone out and fail Blair. So he kept his emotions in check, grabbed his keys, and walked stiffly out of the loft.


Jim and Simon stood in Blair's office as a forensics team worked in hushed whispers around them, apparently mindful of the two men standing somberly in the center of the room. Jim stared at the items littering the floor: a couple of pens, a calculator, a notebook, Blair's keys, and two anthropology books. He closed his eyes and focused on the scents in the room. He quickly pushed Blair's scent away, focusing on that which did not belong: an unfamiliar odor. He frowned. What the hell was that smell? It was a strange scent, like nothing he'd ever encountered before. Was it human? He closed his eyes and focused deeper on the scent. No, not human. What then? Not animal, either. Not artificial.

He opened his eyes to see Simon staring at him. "Do you have something," his Captain asked.

Jim nodded. "There's a strange odor here, but I can't place it. I don't think I've ever encountered it before. "

Jim concentrated on his sense of sight next. Quickly, he scanned the room. At first, nothing caught his attention. Then, on the second pass, he noticed a spot on the bookshelf against the wall. Quickly, he strode over and examined the shelf. A very thin layer of dust sat on the surface. However, there was one round spot on the shelf where the dust hadn't collected.

"Something was recently taken from here," he announced, glancing at Simon.

The Captain peered at the bookshelf. He squinted and moved closer. "I see it."

Jim quickly completed his inspection, searching Blair's desk for evidence of theft. He found nothing. The only thing that had been removed was the item on the shelf.

"Time to call Blair's associates and find out what was on that shelf," Jim said, his voice low.

Simon nodded, immediately removing his cell phone and punching in numbers. Jim closed his eyes again, blocking out the sound of Simon's voice as he concentrated on more distant sounds. He knew it to be futile, but he had to try to find Blair -- his heartbeat, his voice, even a scream. He winced. He swallowed. He dove deeper, losing himself in the sounds of the city.

Slowly, he walked out of the office, barely aware of his movements. His instincts pushed him outside and he stood silently in the night with his head tilted -- listening. His head began to throb, but he barely recognized the sensation as pain. His breathing slowed. His heart rate plummeted. His mind shut down. He slipped into a deep trance, his entire being focused on one sensation: sound.

And then he heard it -- barely.

A groan. A question. Who are you? The words were laced with fear and disorientation.

A grunt. A command. Quiet.

How--?

The soft click of a gun, followed by silence.

His trance was interrupted by a sudden sensation of heat on his face. Then pain. Sharp, quick pain. He opened his eyes and saw Simon's hand swing up toward him. The man stopped just inches from Jim's face.

Simon released a sigh and put his suspended hand onto Jim's shoulder. "You had me worried there--"

Ellison bolted away from Simon, leaving the man stunned as he yelled, "I heard him! Get someone to follow me! Now!"

Ellison leaped in his truck and started the engine, peeling away from the curb without even a glance back to see if anyone was preparing to follow him. He didn't even know where he was going to go. He just knew he'd heard Blair's voice, and it came from the north.

North, damnit. But where?


 Twenty-Four Hours Later

Dana Scully walked into Mulder's office just in time to catch him sink a wadded projectile into the trashcan.

"Well, I'm glad too see all that FBI training hasn't gone to waste," Scully remarked.

Mulder spun his chair around to face her. "So are you packed?"

She raised her brow and folded her arms to gaze at him. "Where are we going?"

"Cascade, Washington."

She sat down opposite of him and waited for him to continue.

"An ancient artifact was stolen from a graduate student's office -- along with the graduate student."

Scully shrugged. "And we're going why?"

"The artifact originated from a South American tribe that believes it to hold the secrets to the universe. Legend claims that angels descended from the heavens thousands of years ago and left the object as a symbol of their God's strength, knowledge, and power. The keeper of the artifact is said to have the ear of the Divine."

Scully sighed. "I know there's gotta be more," she said. "Unless you are now delving into ancient mythology for the X-Files."

"Oh, yeah, and over the past ten years, five researchers who have studied the object have died. Two of heart attacks, two more of cancer, one in a car accident, and the last one, Dr. Vincent Perez, committed suicide. A museum in Chile sent the object to The University of Rainer to be examined by Dr. Allen and one of his associates, an unfortunate grad student by the name of Blair Sandburg who has now mysteriously vanished," Mulder sprung up from his chair and headed toward the door.

"My clothes are in my car. You ready?"

She scowled at him. "No. It would be nice of you to give me some advanced notice. We'll have to stop by my house first."

"Women!" he sighed, feigning frustration.

Scully accidentally kicked him in the shin on her way past him.


 Jim paced in Simon's office. "Two days, sir. Two days and not a trace. I can't believe I lost him." He plopped down in the chair next to the desk, then immediately stood back up and resumed his pacing. "What the hell is so important about that artifact?" He slammed his fist on top of Simon's desk just as he heard an unfamiliar voice shoot through the air.

"What exactly was Mr. Sandburg doing as a consultant for the Cascade P.D." The female voice was low, almost a whisper.

Jim looked up into the bullpen to see two sharp dressed strangers enter the station. Feds. What are they doing here?

"That's somewhat strange in itself," the man began. "I can't seem to find out. Every time I ask, I get the run-around. Everyone seems to refer me to Captain Simon Banks or Detective Ellison, but I've only managed to get a hold of Banks, and he doesn't seem very forthcoming."

"What's odd is an anthropology grad student working as a consultant for the local police. What could he possibly be doing?"

"Maybe he's studying the relationship between the number of local donut shops and the per capita distribution of police officers," the man whispered.

Ellison released a low growl and glared at Simon. "What the hell are the feds doing here?"

Simon shrugged. "I'd like to know myself. Granted, a kidnapping is federal jurisdiction, but why the feds are so interested in this case is beyond me. I spoke with Special Agent Fox Mulder this morning," Simon said, pointing to the man about to enter his office. "He seemed very interested in the missing artifact"

A knock sounded at the door.

"Come on in," Simon said.

The door opened and Agent Mulder walked into the office. He extended his hand to Simon and, as the two shook hands, he said, "I'm agent Mulder, and this is Agent Scully."

Banks nodded and waved toward Jim. "This is Detective Ellison, Sandburg's partner."

Agent Scully tilted her head in a gesture of sympathy and said, "I'm sorry about your partner, Detective."

Jim ignored her feigned sympathy and glared at the two agents. "What exactly are your interests in this case? Why are you so interested in the missing artifact?"

Scully and Mulder glanced at one another, then Mulder met Jim's gaze and said, "Five researchers studying the artifact have died over the past ten years, Detective Ellison."

Jim's heart did a cartwheel in his chest and he found himself falling into the chair as his legs buckled beneath him.

Simon immediately moved next to Jim and put a hand on on his shoulder. The Captain looked up at the two federal officers and snapped, "That doesn't mean Sandburg's dead. You two know anything about tact?"

Scully shot Mulder a reprimand with a quick glance and then turned to Ellison. "We are here to help Mr. Sandburg, Detective. Do you have any idea who could have kidnapped him? Did he mention encountering any suspicious people over the past few days?"

Jim looked up at Agent Scully and sighed. "No. We haven't got a clue who took him or why. They were obviously after the artifact, but they could have easily broken into his office and stolen it." He clenched his jaw and looked over at Simon. "But I will find them."

"Detective Ellison, the security at the scene made a statement that he believed you to be the man scene pushing Mr. Sandburg into the car. Where were you when Sandburg was kidnapped," Mulder asked.

"Now wait just a minute --" Simon bellowed.

"I had just gotten off duty," Ellison stated, his voice emotionless. He glared up at Mulder. "The security guard said it looked like me. I suggest you don't waste time, Agent Mulder. My partner's time is running out and I intend to find him before it does."

"There was no sign of forced entry into Sandburg's office." He paused and looked at Captain Simon.

"We know that," Ellison shot out. "That doesn't mean he knew the guy."

Mulder nodded. "I'm actually not accusing you, Detective."

Jim scowled. Like hell you aren't. And you're waisting my time doing it.

"I'm saying perhaps someone was impersonating you," Mulder offered.

Jim chuckled. "He'd have to be one hell of a look-alike to fool Blair even for a second."

Mulder and Scully exchanged glances.

"I doubt we're dealing with a double here. There are any number of ways the assailant could have gained entry inside the office," Scully said.

Mulder reached into his pocket and withdrew a folded piece of paper. "Do either of you know anything about Sandburgs Sentinel work?"

Jim felt the blood drain from his face as he looked over at Simon. Slowly, Jim took the piece of paper and unfolded it carefully. It was a computer printout of a schedule. Fortunately, it simply listed dates, times, and ambiguous descriptions such as 'Sentinel Test #2'. There was one day that read, "Repeat ST #19 with more distraction. Meet Jim @ univ., 5 pm".

Well, he guessed feigning ignorance was out of the question, though there were bound to be other Jim's in Cascade. Still, he knew these two wouldn't buy it for a second. If he lied, it would only make them suspicious.

"Where did you get this?" Jim asked, careful to keep his voice casual.

"Mr. Sandburg's office computer," Mulder announced.

"He keeps it password protected," Jim said.

"Really?" Mulder's brow shot up. "Well, I guess it wasn’t very well protected, then."

Jim heard the man's heartrate increase, but he didn't need that information to know Mulder was lying. Jim knew for a fact that Blair kept his files protected with several passwords: one to start up the machine and one to access sensitive files. Hell, he didn't even know how to access Blair's computer, but then he was happy enough to let Blair work the computer stuff.

"You're treading on fragile ground, Agent Mulder," Simon warned. "You've not been here a day and you've already found the time to break into Sandburg's computer. Fed or not, you're subject to the rules. Next time I'd better see a search warrant."

Mulder smiled and pulled out another piece of paper. "Right here. It authorizes an electronic search of Sandburg's office."

Jim grabbed the warrant and read it. Damn. What the hell else does he have on that machine?

"Unfortunately," Scully began, "several files on the computer are not only password protected, but encrypted."

"Which means that if there is any info related to the artifact on his computer, it's in one of those files," Mulder added.

Simon threw a nervous look at Ellison, and Jim silently berated the Captain as he noticed Mulder glance at Scully. They've obviously figured out we're hiding something.

Jim handed the warrant back to Mulder. "So where are these encrypted files?"

"I e-mailed them to some associates," Mulder responded. "You'll no doubt be please to know that they should be deciphered soon."

It was obvious that Mulder was studying him, so Jim appeared stoic, not allowing the anxiety he felt to become evident in his expression.

"When did you two have time to do all this? I thought you arrived today," Simon asked, his eyes narrowed with suspicion.

Mulder shrugged. "Oh, we got here late yesterday night. We've been working on it all morning."

"You work fast," Ellison muttered. Damn feds. He almost admired their competence. Almost.


A distant, rhythmic pounding woke Blair. With a groan, he opened his eyes. His first sensation was pain - his head hurt. He opened his eyes slowly. Fortunately, the room he found himself in was dimly lit. He didn't think his head could have handled bright light. He swallowed, realizing just how dry his throat felt. Slowly, he pushed himself off of the bunk he was laying on and took in his surroundings. He was in a dull gray room with metallic walls. The only variation in the grayness was a single-panel flourescent light inset into the ceiling.

The pounding that had roused him grew louder, and he looked at the large, windowless door to his right. Someone's coming, he realized. Instantly, his heart raced and his chest tightened. Where am I? Jim, are you coming? Where are you? His thoughts were fuzzy. Would Jim be coming for him? Hadn't he spoken with Jim in his office? What happened?

A metallic click echoed through the room and the door swung open. Blair leaped to his feet and took a step back from the two men entering the room. The man on Blair's left was large and muscular, with light hair and cold, blue eyes. The second man looked old and worn, with deep lines etched into his face.

The older man casually reached into his coat and withdrew a cigarette. With a brief smile, he lit the cigarette, took a puff, and returned the lighter to his side pocket.

"Mr. Sandburg," the cigarette-smoking man began, "I'm pleased you could join us."

"What do you want," Blair asked, making an effort to keep his voice steady.

The man walked a semi-circle around Blair and took another puff on his cigarette. "We'd need a bit of information from you, Mr. Sandburg."

Blair swallowed. Thinking briefly back over his two years with Jim, he was rapidly beginning to loose count of how many times he'd been kidnapped, threatened, and injured. Why did everyone seem to think he knew the mysteries of the universe... okay, well, at least the mysteries of the Cascade P.D.? He didn't even know how long he'd been in this prison.

"How long have I been here?" Blair asked. "And where's Jim?" Where *was* Jim. He grimaced as his thoughts cleared enough to bring forth the memory of Jim's odd behavior in his office. His stomach tightened. Had Jim hit him? Blair shook his head, trying to clear the memory. No, Jim couldn't have hit him. So how did he get here?

"What have you done to him," Blair asked.

The smoking man took the cigarette out of his mouth and flicked the ashes on the floor. "You've been out for nearly two days, Mr. Sandburg.  I regret the inconvenience, but we needed to complete a few preparations before allowing you to wake up... sorry for that little injection in the car."

Blair had no idea what the man was talking about. He certainly didn't remember receiving an injection. And why are you telling me this, Blair wondered. Was it just that bad guys liked to hear themselves talk? Hmmn... maybe I could make a whole side project out of the criminal ego as a side to my Sentinel research. I've certainly accumulated plenty of experience on the subject over the past couple of years.

"Now, about that information," the smoking man continued.

Blair's heart pounded in his chest. "What information? And you didn't answer my question. Where's Jim?"

"Two things," the man began, taking another puff on the cigarette. "It's nothing much really. We're interested in that artifact we borrowed from your office."

"You're not getting anything out of me until you tell me where Jim is?" Blair raised his chin, staring at the man defiantly. He hoped he put on a convincingly brave act. The fact was, his knees were about to buckle any second.

The smoking man dropped the cigarette and stepped on it, grinding it into the hard, gray floor. "Detective Ellison is safe... for now. Whether he remains that way depends on your cooperation."

Blair's mouth went dry. Why do these things happen to me? I'm some sort of a jinx. Jim should stay the hell away from me from now on - if we ever get out of this. "What do you want to know?"

"How long have you been studying the artifact?"

Blair swallowed. "About a month."  The truth was, he hadn't really been studying the artifact all that much. Dr. Allen, a tenured professor at the university, had been more into the artifact than himself, but Blair had agreed to provide the professor with a second opinion on the probable origin of the artifact.

"That's very good, Mr. Sandburg," the smoking man said, smiling. "And what have you learned about it?"

"Not much." That was the truth. He didn't have a whole lot of information about the object, or it's origins. Blair took a deep breath. He hoped his lack of knowledge would not cause his captors to injure Jim. "All I know is that it probably originated in South America, and it's about 1,000 years old."

"And why are you studying it?"

"It's old. I'm an anthropologist. We're into those kind of things." Blair winced, immediately regretting his sarcasm. Way to go. Keep up the lip and maybe you can get Jim killed.

The smoking man smiled, fixing Blair with a stare that made his knees threaten to buckle on the spot. Trying to appear non-chalant, he moved to sit down on the bunk.

"I see. Well, why don't you tell me about the symbols on the artifact," the man prodded.

Blair took a deep breath. "I haven't been able to decipher those. They resemble hieroglyphics, but they aren't recognizable as any language, ancient or otherwise. We were just about to --" Blair stopped himself. Stupid! Stupid! He didn't want to get anybody else into this mess with him.

The smoking man raised an eyebrow. "You were just about to what? Please continue."

Blair was about to tell the man he was going to Fed-Ex high resolution photos of the artifact to Dr. Beller, a linguist at UC Berkeley. And then Dr. Beller can have you to thank when they kidnap and interrogate him. Now that he'd opened his mouth, he have to tell the man something.

"Uh, I was just about to send the artifact back to the museum in Chile with the recommendation that they get a linguist to look at it," he lied. I'm sure they'll buy THAT one, Blair Boy. Jim always says I wear my thoughts all over my face. I'm going to have to work on that.

The smoking man took a couple of steps toward Blair. "Okay. Well, why don't we just move onto the second issue."

Blair looked up at the man expectantly.

"What about your other project?"

Blair's brow furrowed. "What other project?"

The worn old man sighed and placed his hands in his coat pockets. "The Sentinel Project."

Blair felt as though a fist had punched him in the groin, and he suddenly found it very difficult to breathe. "I..." his throat constricted and he suddenly felt nauseous. He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself with the same breathing excercises he gave Jim. "I've been doing research on ancient tribal warriors known as Sentinels. They were supposedly tribal guardians with heightened senses."

The man nodded. Blair glanced up at the stoic muscle man standing in the center of the room. The silent henchman unnerved Blair. His eyes were hard and lifeless, and the unyielding intensity of his gaze remained fixed on Blair.

"And you have found yourself a specimen, haven't you," the older man asked.

Blair felt his heart pounding fiercely in his chest. Do they know about Jim? The cardiac drumming sounded so loud to his ears, that he was sure the two men in the room could hear it, even without Sentinel senses.

"No. No I haven't found a subject, yet. I've been looking though." He rested his back against the wall and looked directly at the older man standing above him. "Uh, if you hear of one, please let me know." Transparent as glass, Blair. You're pathetic.

The smoking man smiled and glanced over at his companion. With a subtle nod, the man spun on his heels and walked out through the open doorway. As Blair watched the man leave, his heart sank. Had he just made a mistake by lying? Was Jim going to pay the price for his stupidity? They obviously knew about his Sentinel work, which meant that they probably knew about Jim and had asked the question as a test of his willingness to cooperate.

"Where's Jim," Blair asked again. "What have you done with my partner?"

The smoking man sighed and sat down next to Blair. "Would you like to see him?"

Blair's heart almost leaped from his chest. "Yes! Oh yes, please. Is he here?"

"Yes, he's here."

As if on cue, rapid footsteps sounded in the hallway, and Blair looked up to see two men push Jim into the room. Blair sprung to his feet and Jim stumbled toward him.

"Jim!" Blair rushed over to him and put a hand on his shoulder. "Hey, big guy. How are you?"

Jim looked down at him and smiled, but the look sent a shiver down Blair's spine. Something wasn't right. Blair stared into Jim's icy blue eyes and shivered. He saw no sincerity in that gaze - no compassion.

"Jim? What's the matter, buddy?" Blair tried to keep his voice calm.

Jim reached out and placed a hand on Blair's shoulder. "I'm just a little tired, Blair. They did a number on me." He sighed. "I think we'd better cooperate with them. Whatever they ask you, tell them the truth. I don't want to see you hurt, partner."

Blair took a step back. Jim hadn't even asked him if he was alright. Something defintely wasn't right with the sentinel. Another strange fact was that Jim was as capable of telling their captors about the sentinel business as he was. So, why was Jim acting as though only Blair had the information?

The older man walked over to Jim and glanced at Blair. "We know about his Sentinel abilities, Mr. Sandburg. Don't lie to us again." Swiftly, he withdrew a small black object from his coat held it next to Jim's arm. With shake of his head, he pressed a button and shoved the stun gun against Jim's bare arm.

Jim released an anguished scream and dropped to his knees.

"No!" Blair hurled himself at the older man, grabbing the stun gun.

The two men sprung into action, grabbing Blair's arms and yanking him back. The older man regained his footing and walked over to Blair, calmly prying the stun gun out of the anthropologists grip.

"That wasn't very smart, Mr. Sandburg." He sighed. "Now, I'll give you one more chance to tell me the truth about your Sentinel research."

Blair looked at his Jim, who remained on his knees, gasping for air. Jim looked up at him and nodded. "It's okay, Blair. Tell them everything."

Blair closed his eyes. He didn't know what action to take. Should he obey Jim and tell this cold bastard all about their sentinel work? He didn't know. Something in the deep recesses of his mind told him that not all was as it seemed. Something was different about Jim. Perhaps his partner's mind had been tampered with. There was certainly something wrong with Jim. He wasn't himself. He didn't feel like Jim. Call it a spiritual guide-sentinel thing, he didn't know for sure, but he did know that the man standing before him wasn't the Jim he knew.

Blair swallowed and opened his eyes, fixing an angry stare at his captor. "I don't have anything to say to you."

The man raised an eyebrow and stepped away from Blair. "Very well, then." He turned to Jim and said, "Why don't you persuade him."

Jim suddenly rose to his feet and advanced on Blair. The two men released Blair, who scrambled back against the wall. He looked into Jim's face and gasped. He wasn't looking at his friend. He was looking at pure rage.

"Uh... Jim, buddy... hey...." he was cut off as Jim grabbed him the front of his shirt and lifted him off the ground.

With an angry growl, Jim hurled him toward the center of the room. Blair landed with a hard thud, releasing a yelp of surprise. He looked up, noticing with a heavy heart that his captor had left the room, locking him inside with his crazed partner.

Blair got to his feet and backed slowly away from Jim, who was crouched and approaching him slowly, reminding Blair of a cat stalking its prey. Blair held his breath. What's going on here? Would Jim really hurt him?

Blair got his answer as Jim leapt at him, sending the young man sprawling to the ground. Blair hit his head on the unforgiving floor and stifled a yell. The ceiling spun above him, and he closed his eyes. He felt himself being lifted into the air. He opened his eyes and saw himself careening just over Jim's head. He hit the wall and slid down. Jim bounded toward him and lifted him up again, bringing his face inches from his own. Blair closed his eyes as a thought occured to him. He had one defense. He was no match physically for Jim, so, with a pang of regret in his chest, he did the only thing he could: he took a deep breath and released a loud, high-pitched scream, similar to the war cry of ancient aboriginal tribes.

He felt a blow to his diaphragm and felt the air explode from his lungs. He doubled over and fell to the floor, unable to inhale. Fighting for air, he felt a dim panicky surprise that Jim's hearing hadn't been affected by his scream. As he faded into unconsciousness, he vaguely wondered if his sentinel had anticipated his actions and turned down his senses. Either that, or the man who attacked him had not been Jim at all.



 
"This is all I can help you with," the woman said, her voice even.

Jim crouched in a dark corner of the large basement parking lot and listened to the conversation between Agent Mulder and the mystery women. He'd followed Agent Mulder after overhearing a crytpic phone call the agent received on his cell phone giving the man a meeting time and place. Jim had used his Sentinel vision to keep a good distance behind Mulder, making sure the agent wouldn't spot him. After the call, Ellison had made his own call to the FBI headquarters in Virginia and did some checking on the two agents. They were indeed FBI agents who had been validly assigned to the case, though he'd found out that Agent Mulder had specifically requested this assignment.

Jim's internal alarms were blaring. These two agents knew more than they let on, and if they had anything to do with his partner's disappearance, there'd be nothing on Earth that could save them from having Jim Ellison put them 6 feet under the ground.

"Is Sandburg still alive? Who's responsible for this? Why are they interested in Sandburg and the artifact," Mulder asked, his voice filled with frustration.

"That's all I can help you with. Look in there for your answers," the woman stated.

Jim peeered over the hood of the car saw the blonde woman turn and walk away, leaving Mulder standing alone. The Agent opened the file and examined the contents. He heard the man's heart rate increase. Jim used his Sentinel vision to hone in on the folder's contents, but the angle was wrong and he couldn't quite see into the folder.

"Damn," he muttered.

He scanned the parking garage with both his sight and his hearing and heard no sounds in the immediate vicinity. In the distance, he could hear a car driving off and, in the opposite direction, the slam of a car door. It was relatively late at night, and, therefore, he didn't expect many people to be up and around. The garage itself was fairly empty, with only a few cars parked in lonely stalls.

He watched as Agent Mulder headed back to his car. Jim could take the man now and find out what information he'd been handed, but he didn't want to jeopardize his partner's life. Blair was still alive. Jim knew. He just had to be alive - but for how much longer?

That thought sprung him into action and he leaped over the hood of the car. Agent Mulder spun around at the sound of Jim's galloping footsteps and Jim barreled into him just as the man reached for his gun. The two men flew to the ground. Jim grabbed him buy the throat, and yanked the folder out of his hand. Mulder struggled, gasping for air, but the former covert ops sentinel easily held him pinned to the ground.

"What the hell do you know about my partner," Ellison growled, tigtening his grip.

Mulder opened his mouth, but no sounds escaped his throat. Reluctantly, Jim released his grip, but he pulled his gun out and held it against Mulder's temple.

"WHERE IS HE!" The rage in Ellison's voice caused Mulder to wince.

Mulder rubbed his neck and met Ellison's deadly gaze with unflinching courage. "That's what I've been trying to find out," he rasped. Mulder swallowed, then continued. "I received a phone call telling me to meet an informant alone here. She handed me this folder - which I was just about to inspect when you pulled your Joe Montana act." Mulder swallowed, wincing. "Oh, and I'm sure you realize that assaulting a federal agent is a federal offense, Detective Ellison."

"As is kidnapping," Ellison shot back, but he lowered his gun.

Jim stood up quickly and opened the folder. He gasped at the sight that assaulted his vision. Blair lay unconscious on a bare floor, his face pale. A trickle of blood marred the side of his forehead.

Mulder stood up, taking a step back from Ellison. "I saw that picture," he said. "I'm sorry."

Ellison pulled his eyes away from the picture of his friend and fixed a steal gaze on Mulder. "I'm sure you are."

Mulder seemed unintimidated. "If you inspect the contents of the folder more thoroughly, you might find out where he's being held."

Ellison growled and returned his gun to his holster. He paged through the contents of the folder, scanning over a report that mentioned something about bees and colonization. It was obviously code. He flipped another page and inhaled sharply when he saw the map of an installation. It was rectangular and, according to the scale, covered about 10,000 square feet on five acres of land. Unfortunately, the location of the installation was not mentioned.

"He's gotta be here," Jim muttered.

Mulder took a few hesitant steps toward Ellison and peered into the folder. "Detective Ellison," Mulder began, and his tone held an unusual emotional quality to it that forced Jim's head up. "My partner was also abducted once -- perhaps even by the same people responsible for Sandburg's kidnapping. I know what you're going through. Believe me, we'll get Mr. Sandburg back alive."

Jim listened to Mulder's heartbeat - fast but steady. Jim's expression softened and he nodded. "I believe you're telling the truth," he said, his voice low. You'd better be, he added silently, or you'll wish you never set foot in Cascade.
 
Mulder's cell phone rang, and he quickly snatched it from his coat pocket. With a glance at Ellison, he pressed the button and held it up to his ear. "Mulder here."

Ellison tilted his head, listening to the speakers voice. "Hello, Agent Mulder."

Mulder's face paled. " Is there anything you aren't involved with? Where's Mr. Sandburg, you cold-hearted bastard?"

Jim stiffened. The voice continued. "Now, Agent Mulder, Mr. Sandburg is alive. He's too important to kill just now."

Just now. Jim's heart did a cartwheel in his chest.

The voice continued. "I know you're concerned about your partner, Detective Ellison."

Mulder's brow furrowed and he gazed at Ellison.

The voice sighed. "I suppose you'd like to speak with him."

Jim's mouth went dry and he snatched the phone from Mulder. "If you hurt him --"

"Temper, temper, Detective." There was a pause, followed by a grunt of pain that made Jim's heart sink.

Blair. The week voice of his guide sent a chill through him. "Jim?."

Jim swallowed. "Hey, Chief. Just hang on. You know I'm going to get you out of this."

Blair coughed, then wheezed, releasing a small whimper. "Sorry.... I knew--" he took a deep breath, "-- it couldn't be you...." He fell into another brief coughing fit. When the coughing ceased, Blair continued. "Sounds worst than...." his voice trailed off.

"Blair? Blair! Listen to me. Just hang--"

"See, he's just fine, Detective," the cold voice interrupted.

"You fucking bastard. I'll kill you! You're a walking corpse," Jim hissed.

"I've been that for awhile now, Detective," the voice replied. Then the connection ended.

Jim stood stunned for a few seconds, silently gazing at the phone. Mulder reached out and gently removed the cell phone from his grasp.

"Detective? Are you alright?"

Jim barely heard Agent Mulder's question. The sound of Blair's pained wheezing echoed in his mind.

"Detective?"

Jim felt a hand on his shoulder. He blinked, looking up at Agent Mulder.

"At least we know he's alive," Mulder said.

Jim winced. For now.

"How did you hear the conversation," Mulder asked, his voice flat. "He seemed to know you were listening."

Jim ignored his question, turning to head back to his truck.

"You're a sentinel, aren't you?"

Mulder's words stopped Jim in his tracks.

"We decoded Sandburg's notes. They detailed his sentinel theories and experiments, but they never mentioned the name of his subject," Mulder explained. "You're his subject, aren't you?"

Ellison turned around very slowly. He stared silently at Agent Mulder for a few seconds, then said, "I'm his partner... his friend." His voice caught on that last word, so he spun back around and walked quickly back to his truck.



 
Blair couldn't see. He couldn't hear. He couldn't feel. Well, he could feel, but not really. His entire body felt like a smouldering bonfire, subject to a slow and subtle agony. The pain dulled him, numbed him, if such a thing were possible. It was so persistent and ubiquitous that it ceased to be pain. He no longer recognized it as sensation.

He got the impression that he was being lifted. He couldn't exactly feel hands on him, and, being blind and deaf, he had no real way to sense the outside world. He did, however, feel a certain sense of movement - his head swirled. Someone was moving him. He didn't know who or why - he couldn't remember. He didn't care. Then a thought occured to him, and he almost smiled. Jim. He was being carried by Jim. Jim was taking him back home, back to the loft. Blair closed his mind to all other thoughts. He really didn't care about truth or reality at that point. He didn't care if it really was Jim carrying him. As long as he believed Jim had found him and come to take him home, he could fall into the warm darkness that beckoned him -- and he did.


"You're going to tell me everything you know about him," Jim stated. His tone left no room for debate.

Agents Mulder and Scully followed Ellison into the loft. Jim closed the door and headed for the kitchen. He grabbed a beer from the refrigerator and then walked back to Mulder, who was now sitting on the couch next to Scully.

"I don't know him. I only know what he does," Mulder said. "Pick a conspiracy theory, and he's involved. I don't even know what his agenda is."

Mulder glanced at Scully, who gazed impassively at Ellison. After the phone call from the cigarette-smoking man, Mulder had rendezvoued with Scully at the station, briefing her on the latest development. Ellison insisted on hearing the whole story behind the mysterious smoking man, and Mulder agreed to tell him, providing Ellison was up-front about the Sentinel business. So, Mulder and Scully accompanied Ellison back to his loft to talk in private.

Ellison opened his mouth to reply, then caught a familiar scent. He cocked his head. He had turned down his senses on the way home to avoid zoning-out in front of Mulder and Scully. Although the Agents knew about his abilities, he wasn't going to put himself in a helpless position in front of the feds.. He was exhausted. He hadn't slept or eaten in days, and he knew enough to realize that his senses would be more of a liability than an asset to him at this point.

However, the odor turned his senses back on full alert. He set the beer down on the coffee table and focused on the smell. It was Blair. He grimaced, realizing suddenly that he was smelling the scent from Blair's things in the room - his clothes, his books, his sheets. He swallowed. He could be in his room sleeping, just like nothing ever happened. God, how he wished he could pretend that Blair was in the loft, safe and sound, and not in the hands of some evil psychotic with a hidden agenda. Taking in Blair's scent, he caught a subtle whiff of cigarette smoke. Frowning, he wondered if one of his neighbors had taken up smoking. He swallowed, pushing aside his stray thought and tried to imagine Blair sleeping soundly in the room, just a few feet away. Giving into his fantasy for a brief moment, he turned up his hearing and listened for Blair's heartbeat - just like he always did when he returned home.....

....and when he heard it, everything else stopped. Time seemed to halt as he held his breath. He focused in on that one sound, slow but steady. Th-thump.... Th-thump.... Th-thump....

"Detective?"

Th-thump....

"Detective Ellison? Is something wrong?"

A hand grabbed his shoulder, shaking him. That was all he needed. In a blur, he leapt from the couch and flew into Blair's room, skidding to halt just in front of the bed.

Dear God. Blair laid on his back on the bed, unconscious. Dried blood soiled his shirt and jeans. His face was bruised and cut in several places. His face looked as white as a corpse.

Scully rushed passed Jim, appearing suddenly at Blair's side.

Distantly, Jim heard a voice in the background. "I need an ambulance sent to....uh.... Detective, what's your address?"

Jim knelt beside Blair, wanting to touch him, to hold him, to inspect his injuries, but his young guide looked so battered and broken that he didn't dare risk laying a hand anywhere on his body. Scully glanced at him, then returned her attention to Blair. She knelt on the floor and gently lifted his wrist to take a pulse.

"Detective! Your address!"

Absently, almost mechanically, Jim relayed the information to Mulder, then he blocked out all other sensations and focused on the sound of Blair's slow heartbeat and labored breathing. Air entered and exited Blair's lungs with a sluggish, steady rhythm, accompanied by a sickening wheezing sound that indicated a punctured lung.

"He's got a punctured lung," Jim said flatly.

"You can hear that," Scully asked.

Jim ignored her question, finally forcing himself to focus on the immediate situation. Blair was alive, in front of him, in his room. Jim reached out and took his friends hand in his own.

"Chief? Chief, it's me. It's Jim. You're okay. You hear me, Blair?"

Scully lifted each of Blair's eyelids, then leaned carefully over him, putting her ear close to his mouth.

"He's breathing with difficulty. I think you're right about that lung," she stated.

"The ambulance is on it's way," Mulder said, taking a few steps closer to Scully. "How is he?"

Scully glanced up at Mulder and said, "Punctured lung. I don't know what else. We can't do much for him here."

She stood up and walked over to Mulder. "How long ago was that phone call."

Jim answered her. "About two hours ago." Jim carefully positioned himself on the edge of Blair's bed, keeping hold of his guide's hand. "Keep breathing, Blair. Just keep breathing."

He heard the sirens approaching. "Help's on its way," Jim announced.

Blair moaned, and all eyes focused on him.

"Blair?" Jim squeezed his hand gently. "It's okay, buddy. I'm here. Right here."

Blair's eyes fluttered open, and he turned his head to look at Jim. He blinked, apparently trying to register the sight in front of him. Then, without warning, Blair began to cough violently. Convulsions racked his body and he began to wheeze horribly, fighting for air. Jim grabbed his shoulders, pressing him down into the bed. In an instant, Scully was beside him, helping to hold Blair down.

"Blair! Oh god, Chief.... " Jim didn't even realized he'd spoken. His only conscious thought was that Blair would die right here, in front of him, before help arrived. "No, Chief. Don't do this. C'mon, buddy...."

Then the paramedics barrelled through the door and Jim found himself being pulled away from Blair. The medical team swarmed around Blair, blocking Jim's view. Jim found himself being pulled out of the bedroom, and resisted, not even aware that he was putting up a fight. He had to be close to Blair. He had to let Blair know that he wasn't alone.

More arms grabbed hold of him, and this time he heard a familiar voice, "Jim! Jim c'mon. Snap out of it!"

Jim turned to look at the source of the voice, and he saw Simon standing next to him, staring at him. Then he realized he was being shaken. Simon had gripped his shoulders and was shaking him.

"C'mon, Jim, snap out of it," Simon commanded.

Jim swallowed. "Simon?"

The shaking stopped, and Simon sighed, "Yeah, Jim. Let's go into the living room... give them some space here..."



 
Jim, Simon, Mulder, and Scully sat quietly in the hospital waiting room. Jim stared at the floor, his face blank. Scully gazed at him with apparent clinical interest for a few seconds, then looked over at Captain Banks.

"Does he do this often," she asked.

Mulder leaned back in his chair and sighed. "I believe this is known as a zone-out. I read about it in Sandburg's report."

Simon rested his face in his hands and grunted an affirmative. "He's listening to Sandburg... listening to them working on him.... listening to him breathing."
 

.... respiratory arrest! Get ready to intubate!
Th-thump...  *beep*
C'mon move it, James!
Th-thump... *beep*
We've gotta stabilize that heartrate.
Th-thump... *beep*
 

"They're close," Mulder stated absently, glancing at Scully. "I know what he's going through."

Scully turned her gaze to Mulder and, after a brief moment, allowed a tiny smile to play at her lips.

Simon stood and walked over to Jim, kneeling in front of him. "Jim? C'mon, buddy, you gotta snap out of it," he commanded tiredly. He sighed. "Jim."

Simon placed a hand on the detective's shoulder and glanced over at the two federal agents. "I don't know what will happen if I leave him like this for too long. It could be hard to get him to come back out of it." After a brief pause, he added, "This was always Sandburg's department."

Gently, Simon shook Jim's shoulder. "Ellison, snap out of it!" His voice held more authority this time.

Ellison continued to stare mutely at the tile floor, his head slightly cocked to the side.

Simon grabbed Jim's chin and lifted his head up. Then, he slapped him across the face, eliciting a few suprised gasps from the other people in the waiting room.

A nurse walked up behind him and asked, "Is everything okay here?"

Simon didn't even turn to look at her. He simply nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

Mulder pulled out his identification and showed it to the nurse. "Everything's under control here, but we'd like to get information on Blair Sandburg's condition as soon as possible."

The nurse nodded and said, "I'll see what I can do." She turned and walked back to the desk.

"He's in respiratory failure," Jim mumbled, still gazing at the tile.

Simon closed his eyes and squeezed Jim's shoulder reassuringly. "Don't worry, Jim. He'll pull through. He always does."


Thirty-Six hours later.

Jim Ellison sat on a stiff chair next to an unconscious Blair Sandburg. Blair had been moved out of the ICU a few hours ago, and Jim had insisted on remaining in the room with Blair. When his friend woke up, Jim wanted his face to be the first thing Blair saw. With the torture he had endured at the hands of his captors, Blair would no doubt be frightened and in pain when he woke, and Jim would be right there to comfort and calm him.

Silently, Jim cursed. Damn fucking bastards. Broken ribs. Punctured Lung. Concussion. Damaged Kidney. Two Broken fingers. Fractured jaw. A dislocated shoulder.

Jim inspected the still form of his friend for the hundredth time. Blair's head and jaw were bandaged, leaving only his eyes and nose exposed. A tube penetrated the bandages over his mouth, delivering oxygen to his injured lungs. His left shoulder was bandaged, and his arm strapped to his torso to immobilize the shoulder that had been dislocated. Beneath the hospital gown, Jim knew that his friend's chest and torso were tightly bandaged.

Jim turned his attention to Blair's right hand. The pinky and middle fingers were each immobilzed in a brace. The bastards had fucking tortured him for information - but what information?

Jim heard the door open and looked up to see Agents Mulder and Scully enter the room.

Scully walked over to the foot of Blair's bed, picked up his chart, and flipped through the pages. Jim's eyes followed her mechanically, but his thoughts drifted to revenge. He would find that cigarette-smoking piece of trash, light every one of his cigarettes, and carefully, methodically, burn his eyes out.

Scully looked up at Jim. "How are you doing, Detective? You looked like you haven't slept in awhile."

"I'll live," he said, his voice clipped.

Mulder cleared his throat. "From Sandburg's injuries, it looks as though they were trying to force information out of him. Whether they were interested in his knowledge of the artifact or your sentinel abilities, or both, is undetermined," Mulder said. "Sandburg's captors obviously knew about your abilities."

"Once he wakes, we'll find out. I'm at a loss, though, to figure out why they returned him," Scully mused.

"We might get our answer when he comes to," Mulder replied.

Scully turned her gaze to the broken form on the bed. After an awkward silence, she said, "Poor kid. He's got a hard road of recovery ahead of him."

Jim swallowed, shifting his gaze back to Blair. He couldn't even hold the kid's hand... couldn't place a hand on his shoulder. There was barely a single inch on the kid that was safe to touch.

Blair's right forefinger twitched. Jim's heart leaped into his throat and he leaned closer to his guide.

"Blair? Chief, it's me. I'm right here. You're going to be okay," Jim chanted, his voice soft and calm. "You're going to be just fine. You're safe now. I'm right here, Blair. I'm right here."

Mulder stepped into the hall and yelled for a doctor.

"You're in a hospital, Chief. I know, I know. You're health insurance company is NOT a happy camper," he quipped. "Pretty soon the hospital staff here is going to keep a bed on reserve for you." Gently, he reached out and laid his hand on Blair's right shoulder. "Wake up soon, Chief, and you can get out of here. You come on back to us, sleepyhead. Your bed at the loft is waiting for you."

A tall man in a white lab coat with speckled hair and glasses rushed into the room. "What happened," the doctor asked, moving to the opposite side of Sandburg's bed.

Jim glanced up at the doctor said, "His finger twitched."

The doctor removed a pen-light from his pocket, and methodically lifted each of Blair's eyelids as he shone the light into his pupils.

"Hmmn....." The doctor glanced at the EKG machine that registered Sandburg's steady heartbeat. "This is pretty normal. Just a reflex. I expect him to wake up soon, though."

As if on cue, Blair turned his head toward Jim. His eyes remained closed and his heartbeat never changed, but he had moved! Jim leaped from his chair and stood over Blair, keeping his hand on Blair's shoulder.

Mulder and Scully stood quietly in the corner of the room, observing the spectacle.

Jim leaned closer to Blair and spoke softly. "Blair, come on, now. Open your eyes. It's me. It's Jim. I'm right here. You're safe, buddy."

Jim held his breath. C'mon, Chief. Open your eyes. The room remained quiet for several long seconds, the only sounds coming from the beeping, hissing machines hooked up to Blair.

Finally, the doctor broke the silence. "This is normal, Detective. Don't worry, he'll wake up soon. Just give him some time. He's under heavy medication right now, and his body needs time to recuperate."


Jim stayed in Blair's room, listening to his guide's heartbeat even as he succumbed to sleep in the chair next to Blair's bed. The soft rays from the morning sun filtered through the blinds and nudged Jim from his slumber. With a sigh, he opened his eyes and stretched, trying to work the kinks out of his neck and back. He stood up and looked at Blair, who still lay unconscious on the hospital bed.

Grateful that the other bed in Blair's room was unoccupied, Jim strode over to the window and opened the blinds. Perhaps a bit of sunshine would tempt Blair from his dark sleep. He stole another glance at Blair and then walked into the restroom to relieve himself and wash up. He emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later and returned to Blair's side.

"Good morning, Chief," he said.

The door to the hospital room opened and Jim turned to see Simon walk in.

"How's he doing," Simon asked.

Jim shrugged. "Still out of it. The doc says he should wake up soon, though."

Simon walked over to Blair's bed and gazed down at the pale young man. "Jesus. Poor kid. He doesn't deserve the shit that happens to him."

Jim sank into the chair next to Simon and tilted his head back. "I know," he muttered.

"You're exhausted."

Jim opened his eyes to see Simon staring down at him with kind eyes and a firm expression.

Jim shook his head. "I slept last night. I'm just drained."

"Why don't we go get some breakfast," Simon suggested.

Jim shook his head again. "No. The doctor says he should wake up soon, and I'm going to be here when he does. You know the kid's likely to be terrified when he finally comes to."

Simon nodded. "Okay, Jim." He walked over to the door. "I'm going to bring you something to eat from the cafeteria. Any preferences?"

Jim forced a smile. He wasn't really hungry, but he knew an order-in-disguise when he heard one. "Nah. Just as long as it includes coffee," he said. He reached into his back pocket to retrieve his wallet.

"Nope. It's on me, Jim," Simon said, then dashed out the door.

Jim turned his attention back to Sandburg. "Well, Chief, you gonna wake up anytime soon? All the guys at the station have been asking about you. I think they just miss having someone to tease. You'd better get your butt out of bed soon and set them straight, Chief."

Jim continued his ramblings, not really listening to what he said, just knowing that Blair had to hear his voice. He could be reciting the national anthem, for all it was worth. The words didn't matter, but he knew Blair could hear his voice. He knew Blair needed to hear his voice.

Simon returned carrying a tray with two cups of coffee, some danishes, and a breakfast muffin. He set the tray on the table next to Sandburg's bed and picked up the two cups of coffee, handing one to Jim.

"Here you go, soldier. Drink up," Simon ordered.

Jim shot him an amused glance and took a sip of the steaming liquid. "Thanks, Simon."

"You're welcome. The muffin and one of the danishes are yours," Simon said.

Jim nodded and smiled. He glanced over at Blair, unexpectantly meeting a pair of blue eyes. He shot out of the chair, spilling the coffee all over his jeans. He stifled a curse as the hot liquid burned his thighs, but pushed the pain aside as he moved closer to Blair.

Blair's eyes widened and the steady sound of the heart monitor increased to a frantic beeping.

"Whoa. Easy, Chief. It's me, Jim. You're safe, buddy. I'm right here, Blair," Jim soothed. "You have nothing to be afraid of. You're in a hospital."

Jim glanced over at Simon. "Get the doctor, please."

Simon dashed out of the room.

Jim put his hand on Blair's elbow. Blair's eyes remained wide, but the frantic beating of his heart began to calm. "You're okay, Blair. You're safe. There's nothing to be afraid of," Jim assured him.

Simon returned with the speckled-haired doctor.

"Good morning, Mr. Sandburg. I'm Doctor Carter." He pulled his stethoscope from his neck and gently placed the end of the instrument against Blair's chest. He looked up at the cieling in silence for a few seconds as he moved the stethoscope to various regions of Blair's chest.

"Well, it sounds good enough," he said, wrapping the stethoscope back around his neck. "I'm going to take that breathing tube out of you, now. It's not going to be particularly pleasant, but just try to remain calm. When I count to three, I want you to cough - not too hard, though. Do you understand?"

Blair stared at the doctor blankly for a few seconds, then managed a slow nod.

"Good," the doctor said, smiling. "One..." he grabbed the tube. "Two... Three."

Blair closed his eyes and made a sound more like a gag than a cough, but the doctor pulled the tube out in one swift motion.

"There you go, Chief, that wasn't so bad," Jim said.

Blair turned his head to look at Jim. He raised his free hand to his throat, patting his neck weakly.

"You want water," Jim asked.

Blair nodded, and Jim looked up at the doctor.

"He can have a sip. Just one sip, though," Dr. Carter said. The doctor walked over to the table and opened the drawer, removing a cup and a straw. Quickly, he went into the bathroom and ran the faucet water. He emerged a second later and brought the cup over to Blair. Gently, he stuck the straw into Blair's mouth.

"Take it easy, Mr. Sandburg. Just a sip."

Blair managed to draw the liquid up through the straw with a weak intake of air. He closed his eyes and sunk his head back into the pillow, apparently exhausted by even that miniscule action.

"You rest up, Sandburg," Simon said, his words firm but his voice gentle.

Blair opened his eyes and looked at Simon, then turned his blue gaze onto Jim.

"Really you?" Blair's voice was barely audible.

"What Chief? Is it really me," Jim asked, furrowing his brow and glancing at Simon.

Blair nodded.

Jim rested his hand on Blair's elbow. "Yes, Chief. It's really me. Who else would it be?"

Blair fell asleep before he could answer.


 

Jim's face contorted into a vision of rage as he threw Blair against the wall. Jim rushed toward him with an angry growl, and Blair instinctively dropped to the ground and curled into a ball to protect his face and stomach.

"No, Jim, don't..."

"Hey, Chief, wake up..."

"NO! No please...."

"Blair!"

Blair's eyes shot open, and the rapid heartmonitor revealed his panic. He saw Jim looming above him and cringed, bringing his free arm up to shield his face.

Jim took a step away from Blair's bed. "Hey, Blair. It's just me. I'm not going to hurt you, Chief. No one's going to hurt you."

Hesitantly, Blair lowered his arm and took in his surroundings. He was in the hospital room. He sighed and forced his body to relax. Jim was with him, along with Simon and two neatly-dressed strangers.

"What was that all about, Chief," Jim asked, glancing at the now-steady pattern on the heart monitor.

Blair swallowed. His throat still hurt. His chest hurt. His shoulder hurt. Hell, his whole body hurt. How long had he been in the hospital? Time seemed impossible to gauge in his bland hospital room. Nurses came and nurses went. They changed his bed pan, checked his bandages, and adjusted his IV. The routine was mind-numbing. He guessed he'd been in the hospital about a day since waking up, but he wasn't really sure. Hell, he was out of it most of the time anyway, so he guessed it didn't really matter how much time had passed.

"You okay, Chief," Jim asked.

Blair realized he hadn't answered Jim's earlier question. Forcing a smile he didn't feel, he nodded. "Yeah..... Just a bad dream," he said, his voice still hoarse.

Jim nodded. "I'd like to introduce you to Agents Mulder and Scully," he said, indicating the two silent strangers with a wave of his hand.

Blair nodded.

Mulder approached the bed. "Hello, Mr. Sandburg. I hate to be disturbing you, but I was hoping you could answer a few questions."

Blair didn't feel much like answering any questions. His throat was on fire. God, he needed water. He'd asked for it before, but the hospital staff seemed way to stingy with it. They'd let him take a few sips and then pull the straw away from him. Screw that. He wanted a super-sized jug of ice-cold water from the corner store to quelch the unbearable dryness in his throat and mouth.

"Water," he croaked.

Almost magically, a cup and straw appeared in front of Blair. Jim rested the straw against Blair's lips, and he greedily gulped the soothing liquid. After a few sips, Jim pulled the cup away from him.

"That's all for now, Chief," Jim said.

"More," Blair insisted.

Jim shook his head. "The doc says not too much yet."

Blair closed his eyes. "Please."

Jesus, the one thing in the world he wanted more than anything was WATER! Lots and lots of water! What, was there some anti-water conspiracy going on here? What's the big deal? It's just water. It's not gonna kill me.

Jim sighed. "Okay, Blair. A couple more sips."

Blair opened his eyes and smiled gratefully at Jim. He took two large sips of the water before Jim pulled it away again.

"That's all for now, Chief," Jim said.

Blair nodded. "Thanks, Jim." His mouth and throat felt a little better already.

"Mr. Sandburg," the woman began, taking a few steps closer to Blair's bed, "can you remember who attacked you that first night?"

Blair swallowed. Yes, he remembered. He remembered, but it seemed like a dream. When he'd first opened his eyes and saw Jim standing over him, he'd thought he was due for another beating. It wasn't until his Sentinel spoke those gentle words that he knew he was dealing with the real thing... not that shape-shifting creature.

How the hell was he going to explain that one? 'Oh, some guy who looked like Jim attacked me, then beat the shit out of me, but then he changed back into this bouncer-type guy right before my eyes. You know, like Odie on Deep Space Nine, or whatever that guy's name is...'

Nope. That wouldn't go over too well. Does the term 'funny farm' mean anything to you?

"Mr. Sandburg, do you remember anything about the night you disappeared," Scully asked. "Do you know you your captors were?"

Blair looked into her solemn eyes and felt inexplicably calm. He had a feeling he could trust her. She wasn't your average 'neurally-impaired, stick-up-the-ass fed', as Jim often lamented.

Blair nodded, encouraged by the compassion in her calm voice.

Mulder pulled a picture from his inner coat pocket and held it in front of Blair. It was a picture of the gray-haired cigarette-smoking man.

"Is this one of the men who kidnapped you, Mr. Sandburg," Mulder inquired.

Blair nodded. "Yes." He swallowed. "Who is he?"

Mulder shrugged. "Unfortunately, we don't really know. He's a high-level government operative."

"Do you know why they kidnapped you, Mr. Sandburg," Scully asked. "Did they ask you any information?"

Blair glanced at Jim, hoping for a little support. He didn't have the energy to play the evasion game when with these two agents when it came to Jim's senses. Should he just feed them a blatant lie and say he had no idea what they wanted?

"They know about the sentinel stuff, Blair," Jim told him, placing his hand on Blair's elbow.

Blair raised his eyebrows. What?! After all this secrecy, after all the torture, these two feds find out about Jim? What the hell's going on?

Jim seemed to sense his discomfort and confusion, because he squeezed Blair's elbow gently and said, "It's okay. They had a search warrant and got your computer notes. Don't worry. They're trustworthy," Jim explained, shooting a warning glance at the agents, as if to say you'd better be.

Blair closed his eyes. Great. Just Great. How stupid could he have been, keeping all that confidential information on his computer with just a few passwords and some encoding to protect it? Hell, he might as well just have kept a big old file labelled 'Sentinel: enhanced senses research' in the file cabinet.

"Sorry," Blair muttered.

Jim gently patted his elbow. "Don't you worry about that, Chief. It's not your fault," Jim said. "Besides, I've done a little research into these two agents, and their case reports tend to read like Stephen King novels, so I hear."

"In other words, no one will really pay us much attention," Scully said, her voice tinged with humor.

"I've already been committed once," Mulder chimed in.

Blair opened his eyes and stared at the two agents in bewildered amusement. "Committed?"

Mulder smiled. "It was just temporary. I was being stalked by a soul-sucking chameleon insect working in the telemarketing dept of a vinyl siding company."

Simon sighed. Jim grunted and shook his head. Scully brought a hand up to her forehead to massage her temple.

Mulder glanced at Scully and shrugged, "You should be used to this by now, Scully."

Blair chuckled, then winced in pain. He closed his eyes and sank into his pillow. "I get it," he muttered. "I'm still asleep."

This time Jim chuckled. "No, Sandburg. You're awake.... I think we're all in the Twilight Zone, but you're awake."

Blair opened his eyes and looked up at Jim. Soul-sucking insect? Telemarketing? Vinyl Siding? "Well, I guess I might as well tell you, then, so you can get the straight-jacket." Besides, this has to be a dream.. no matter what Jim says. Hell, he's a dream.

"What is it, Mr. Sandburg," Mulder asked, his voice eager.

Blair swallowed. "It was Jim who attacked me that night," Blair began. He saw the blood drain from Jim's face. "No, no, Jim.... " Blair paused. His mouth had become uncomfortably dry again, and the words were starting to cause him significant discomfort. "More water, please," he asked. Okay, maybe this isn't a dream. My throat hurts too much for this to be a dream.

Jim grabbed the cup from the table and brought the straw to Blair's lips. "Okay, Chief, here you go," he said, his voice strained with an emotion Blair couldn't quite identify. Anger? Pain?

Blair swallowed another few mouthfuls of water, then sighed and fell back into his pillow. He looked over at Jim and said, "It wasn't really you, Jim, that's what I'm trying to say." He paused to take in a few steady breaths of air. "This guy... this thing... God, you're going to think I'm crazy..."

Mulder spoke suddenly, "It's not a big deal, Mr. Sandburg, you get used to it after a while."

Scully flashed him a reprimanding look, then turned to Blair, "Please continue, Mr. Sandburg."

Blair found himself smiling at Mulder's remark, despite his physical pain and embarassment about what he was about to say, "This guy... he could just change shapes... become different people."

Blair looked at Jim, gauging his reaction, prepared to see disbelief and pity... pity for his friend who had suddenly lost his mind. Instead, Jim's face remained impassive. Blair wasn't sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. He then looked over at Simon, who was shaking his head and examining the tile floor. Finally, he looked over at Agents Scully and Mulder, who both regarded him with calm acceptance.

"Listen, guys, I know this sounds... " he swallowed again, trying to wet his throat. "This sounds absurd. I'm not crazy. I saw him. You.. not you, Jim, but someone who looked like you... you came to the university..." God I need more water... "You asked to go to my office. Then, in the office, you started asking about this artifact on my shelf. The next thing I remember, I woke up in some prison room with gray walls." Blair paused to catch his breath. His lungs began to ache, and his chest suddenly felt tight. Breathing was becoming increasingly painful.   He inhaled shallow, rapid gulps of air, vaguely realizing that he was starting to hyperventilate.

Scully rushed to his side and placed a gentle hand on his chest. "Easy, Mr. Sandburg, just calm down."

Blair closed his eyes, struggling to get a grip on his breathing. His side and chest suddenly felt hot. Each lungful of air sent stabs of pain through his chest.

"Take it easy, Chief. It's okay."

Blair felt a hand on his forehead and opened his eyes. Jim stood above him, his blue eyes peering down at him.

Breath in and out, Sandburg. Steady. Easy. Don't fight it, he told himself, trying to internally mimic the tone he used to help Jim control his senses.

Slowly, his breathing came under control. The pain lessened, but his breaths were still quite agonizing. He swallowed and forced a lopsided grin.

"Guess I need someone to tell me how to breath in and out," Blair gasped.

Jim smiled and brushed a lock of hair away from Blair's face. "I could go get one of your tapes and play it back to you," Jim suggested, a glint of amusement in his eyes.

"No thanks, but I'd kill for some music," Blair said. "Or even a book-on-tape."

"I can get you One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Mulder dead-panned.

Scully slapped him gently on the shoulder.

Mulder fixed her with a serious stare and said, "Agent Scully, assaulting an FBI agent is a federal offense."

Scully raised an eyebrow, but otherwise ignored Mulder's comment.

Blair smiled. "On second thought, if you two could just stick around for awhile, that would be enough entertainment."

Simon busted out laughing, and even Jim chuckled.

Blair stifled a yawn. He felt his eyelids becoming heavy. He didn't want to pass out in front of his visitors, but he felt suddenly overwhelmed with fatigue.

"See, Jim," he said, fighting against sleep, "not all feds have sticks up their rears...."

Mulder and Scully turned to look at Ellison. Ellison fixed them both with an icey stare and said, "Yeah, and not all cops are attracted to cities with a high number of donut shops."

Mulder had the good grace to look mortified, and he quickly lowered his head to examine the section of tile Simon had been inspecting earlier. Scully covered her mouth and chuckled.

Blair watched the display with interest. He was obviously lacking a vital piece of information that would make this funny. His eyelids began to flutter closed, but he forced them open, wanting to get the punchline. "Am I missing something," he muttered.

The room was silent for a good five seconds. Finally, Simon spoke. "Me too. I've obviously missed the joke, here."

Jim's armor finally cracked, and he smiled. "Oh nothing, Simon. Just a little comment I overhead Agent Mulder make on his first day here."

Simon raised his eyebrows and fixed Mulder with a disapproving look. "Oh? And just what kind of comment was this?"

Scully was obviously fighting to suppress a grin. "Oh, I believe it had something to do with wondering if Mr. Sandburg was studying the relationship between... what was it? Oh yes... the number of local donut shops and the per capita distribution of police officers."

"Traitor," Mulder muttered.

Simon glared at Agent Mulder. "Is that right, Agent Mulder?"

Mulder forced his eyes away from the floor and looked apologetically up at Captain Banks. "Well, let's not forget that comment about a stick being in an anatomically uncomfortable location."

Blair smiled, catching the deadly look Jim shot his way just before his eyelids fell closed and he descended into a deep sleep.

 


Three days later, Blair was released from the hospital. He was still in a great deal of pain, and he could barely move, but he was anxious to get out of the hospital, and his insurance company heartily supported his decision. His head bandages had been removed, but his shoulder and torso were still bandaged, and his two fingers were still in their splints. Doctor Carter agreed to release Blair, providing he stayed in bed, took his medication, and received diligent care. His bandages would need to be changed regularly. He'd need to be helped to the bathroom, and he'd have to be fed a liquid diet for the first week - lots of soup and juice.

Jim wheeled Blair into the loft and parked him next to the couch. Jim paused, tilting his head and closing his eyes, apparently using his senses to make sure the loft was completely secure.

Blair noticed Jim's slight paranoia, but decided that is was warranted and that, in a way, he was comforted by Jim's paranoia.

"Oh thank God," Blair said, releasing a long sigh. "Television, videos, music, books..."

"Don't get carried away, Junior. The doc ordered plenty of rest for you," Jim interrupted, apparently satisfied that the loft was safe.

"I can lay down while watching t.v. or reading, Jim," Blair said. "Now, can I get a nice big glass of water or juice?" Although his throat no longer ached, he still yearned for a nice large, cold cup of liquid.

God, a beer would be nice now.

"Actually," Blair began, "I don't suppose I could talk you into giving me a beer, could I?"

Jim furnished Blair with one of his "I'm not taking any crap" looks and opened the refrigerator, pulling out the orange juice.

Blair sighed. "Okay, juice is good, too."

You have to go back to work sometime soon, Blair mused. And then it's freedom-time for me. He bit his lower lip. Damn, Jim will notice any missing ingestibles that aren't on the medically-approved list. Maybe he could finnagle one of his neighbors into picking up some extra beer for him.

Jim walked over to Blair and handed him a glass filled with orange juice. "Here you go, Chief."

Blair took the glass gratefully, holding it with his free arm, though the two finger splints made his grip awkward.. It may not be beer, but at least it's cold and plentiful. "Thanks, man. Those damn water-rationing nurses were really beginning to grate on me. I even had a dream about a waterfall."

Jim chuckled. "Well, Chief, you're back home now." He placed a hand on Blair's good shoulder and squeezed gently. "And I'm really glad you're..." Jim's throat caught and he turned to walk back to the kitchen.. "I'm glad you're back."

Blair was taken aback by Jim's sudden display of emotion, but he couldn't hide the silly grin that spread over his face. He lowered his face and looked studiously at his glass of orange juice. "Thanks, Jim," he said.

"So, how 'bout some chicken soup, Chief," Jim asked.

Blair nodded. "That sounds really good." He hadn't thought about how long it'd been since he'd last had a real meal. They'd simply fed him through tubes in the hospital.

Blair cleared his throat. "Look, Jim. I really appreciate everything you're doing for me." Blair took a sip of his orange juice, then continued. "I know you've missed work and sleep, and I do appreciate it, man... but, you don't have to worry so much about me anymore."

Jim grunted from the kitchen and a clang of glass against the countertop pierced the air. "Nice try, Blair. I'm going back to work on Monday, and you'll be staying here in bed. I'll check on you during lunch and have a couple of the guys stop buy during the day. You're not going to be popping wheelies around here just because I'm not around to keep an eye on you."

Blair felt his face grow hot. "You're not seriously getting me a babysitter? Don't you think that's, like, just a bit abnormal?"

A knock sounded at the door.

"Saved by the bell," Jim muttered, and walked over to the door. "Who is it?"

"Federal Agents," Mulder's voice responded.

Jim opened the door and Blair looked over his shoulder to see Agents Mulder and Scully walk into the loft. As Mulder passed Jim, he handed him a stick that looked like it had been broken off of a branch.

"Here you go, Detective Ellison. It's amazing, I feel so much better now that the stick is removed from my --"

"So how are you doing, Mr. Sandburg," Scully asked quickly.

Blair chuckled and barely heard Jim mutter "smartass" under his breath.

"I'm fine, Agent Scully," Blair said, "Thanks."

Mulder sat on the couch next to Blair's wheelchair. "Mr. Sandburg, if you feel up to it, I'd like to get the rest of the story from you."

Blair suddenly felt nauseous. He had never really told Jim the details about his experience, and he didn't really relish going over the fact that a look-alike Jim had nearly beat him to death.

"Well, uh, I pretty much told you everything about the, uh, shape-shifting guy coming to my office and knocking me out."

"Yes, and then you woke up in a gray room," Mulder prompted.

Blair nodded. "That man whose picture you showed me.." Blair swallowed.. "He came into the room, followed by the shape-shifter, only I didn't know he was a shape-shifter then." God, here I am a doctoral candidate, and I sound like a ten year-old telling a ghost story around a camp-fire. Blair took a deep breath, then continued, "The smoking man started asking me about the artifact. I couldn't give him very much information on it, or at least not the kind he was looking for, I guess." He paused, taking another sip of his orange juice. God, do I really have to go into the whole thing? "Um... then he started asking me about... sentinels. I told him I didn't really know much about it, other than book stuff. He said he knew I had a subject, and he knew Jim was it." Blair felt his mouth going dry again, so he took a big gulp of his orange juice. Then he cleared his throat. "Well, um, at that point, the shape-shifting guy left and, a few seconds later, Jim came in. He was pushed in by two goons. At the time, I really thought that was Jim." Blair paused, closing his eyes for a brief moment. He took in a deep breath, and opened his eyes. He didn't dare look in Jim's direction. "Well, the smoking man told me I had better start talking, or something like that. 'Jim' nodded to me, and I wondered why he didn't just tell the guy all the sentinel stuff if he really wanted me to spill it. At any rate, I refused. So, the guy zapped Jim with a stun gun as punishment.." Blair felt his chest tighten at the memory of 'Jim' crying out in pain and dropping to his knees. Though he knew that hadn't really been Jim, it still tore at his heart to see the image of Jim in pain.

"I lunged at the man, trying to get a hold of the stun gun. I don't remember exactly what happened after that, but I do know that the smoking man left me alone with 'Jim'. Jim attacked me, came at me. He threw me across the room. He, uh, started beating me. At the time, I thought it really was Jim, but I knew there wasn't something right about him... well, other than the fact that he was using me as a punching bag. There was something in his eyes... different... I can't explain it." Blair took another deep breath, then released a sigh. "I passed out. The next thing I remember, I was being held up against a wall with Jim's face inches from my own. That was when I saw him morph into that other guy... the one who had been in the room with the cigarette-man when I first came around. At first I thought I was hallucinating, but it all made sense. It wasn't Jim, I knew that... it couldn't be," his throat tightened, and he paused, taking another sip of the orange juice. He was embarassed to realize that his hand was shaking.

Jim came up from behind him and took the glass. "It's okay, Chief. How 'bout some tea."

Blair nodded, not trusting his voice. Thanks, Jim, but I think it's going to take a bit more than herbal tea to stop these shakes. Blair focused on his breathing, struggling to keep it calm and steady. Get a grib, man, it's all over now.

"Do you remember how or why they released you," Scully asked.

Blair shook his head. "The last thing I remember before waking up in the hospital is... is this," Blair raised his hand, indicating his broken fingers. "The Jim double decided to try a more focused method of persuasion. I was pretty out of it as it was, so I don't even remember the pain. I must have passed out.... then I woke up in the hospital."

"Jesus," Jim muttered. Blair didn't have to look at Jim to know his jaw was clenched.

Scully and Mulder both looked up at Jim, but they apparently realized it would be better to leave the Sentinel alone. They returned their attention to Blair.

Scully smiled reassuringly at Blair. "Thank you, Mr. Sandburg."

Blair felt seriously ill, but he was determined not to project the few ounces of orange juice in his stomach onto Agent Mulder's suit. No, that wouldn't be cool.

"I think I'll skip that tea, Jim," Blair said, his voice suddenly weak. "I'd just like to get into my own bed."

"I think that's a good idea, Blair," Jim said. He walked up behind Blair, gave him a soft, reassuring pat on his good shoulder, and then wheeled the chair into Blair's bedroom, closing the door behind him. Once in the room, Jim pulled down the covers on Blair's bed, then leaned close to Blair and tucked his arm around his waist.

"Grab onto my neck, Chief."

Blair did as he was instructed and, in one motion, Jim swooped Blair out of the chair and onto the bed. Blair stifled a cry of pain that shot through his body as he was plopped down onto the bed. Jim obviously sensed his distress, though, because he put a hand behind Blair's back and gently lowered him back.

"Sorry, Blair."

Blair focused on his breathing. "It's okay, Jim... I'll just sleep in these clothes, if you don't mind, so don't even go there."

Jim smiled and ruffled Blair's hair. He then brought the covers up over Blair and tucked him in.

"Thanks, Mom," Blair said.

Jim raised his hand in a mock threat, then stood straight and walked toward the door. He turned back to Blair before leaving. "Just whisper if you need anything," he said.

Blair nodded, already drifting off to sleep.

Jim walked back into the living room, closing Blair's door quietly.

"Detective -- "Agent Mulder began, but was interrupted by the phone ringing.

Jim walked over to the phone and snatched the receiver up. "Ellison here," he said.

The voice on the other end caused his body to go rigid. "Hello, Detective Ellison, how is young Mr. Sandburg?"

Mulder apparently figured out the cause of Ellison's reaction, because he reached into his coat and retrieved his cell phone. He dialed a number, then spoke softly into the phone, trying to obtain the number that had just dialed Ellison's loft.

"What do you want," Ellison asked, his voice dangerously calm.

"I think that must be obvious by now, Detective. You're a sentinel. Sandburg is your guide. We've already proven we can get to him. We can also get into and out of your loft quite easily. If you value your young friend's health, you'll take on a little extra employment."

"Fuck you. If you know about me, you'll know that if you get anywhere near Sandburg in the future, I'll track you down. I'm on the alert now. There's no way you'll get to him."

The man chuckled. "Such bravado. Such stupidity. Do you need another demonstration?"

Jim swallowed. He carried the phone over to Blair's bedroom and quietly opened the door. Blair was fast asleep on his bed.

"What the hell are you planning," Jim hissed, his voice low.

Jim closed his eyes, focusing his senses of smell and hearing to make sure, once again, that the loft was safe.

The voice on the phone exploded in his ear, and he yanked the phone away from his head. "You don't want to know, Detective, trust me."

"What do you want," Jim asked again.

"I'll be in touch, Detective." The connection ended.
 
"Damn!" Ellison slammed the cordless phone down onto the base and turned to face Mulder. "Did you get it?"

Mulder nodded. "A pay phone. He's long gone."

"What did he say," Scully asked.

Jim sighed and plopped himself down on the arm chair. "From what I gather, he wants me to work for him."

Mulder grunted. "There's a surprise.... And, let me guess, he used Blair as incentive."

Jim nodded, running his hand over his face. He tilted his head, listening to the soft sound of Blair's breathing in the bedroom.

"What exactly is your relationship with Mr. Sandburg," Scully asked.

"I got that he's your 'guide' from his notes, but we're not exactly sure what that entails," Mulder explained.

Jim sighed, apparently considering whether to tell them the full story. Finally, he said, "He's been studying sentinels for awhile. Blair found me, helped me deal with my senses... which at the time were overwhelming me. He's been teaching me how to keep them under reasonable control most of the time. In return, he's writing his doctorate on the subject."

Scully nodded. "I see. So you do intend to come forward with this, then?"

Jim's brow furrowed and he shook his head. "Uh... no. Do you think I'd be able to function as a police officer if every jerk on the street knew about my abilities?"

Scully glanced at Mulder, then tilted her head and looked at Jim. "Then, uh, how is he writing a doctorate on this?"

Jim paused for a moment, looking confused. "Uh.. well, it will be done anonymously."

Scully raised her eyebrows. "He told you that?"

"Well he said he'd keep this quiet."

Scully sighed. "Well, from what I know about PhD theses, they need to be detailed. There's no such thing as anonymous where a doctorate is concerned."

Jim clenched his jaw. "So you're saying Blair's not going to be writing a doctorate using his work with me?"

Scully shrugged. "I suppose you'll have to ask him. I just don't see how he can turn in a thesis and protect your identity.... How long has he been working with you?"

"About two years," Jim said.

"How do you justify his salary to your superiors," Scully asked, leaning clasping her hands on her knees.

Jim swallowed. This conversation was starting to grate on his nerves. "He doesn't get paid."

This time Mulder spoke up. "You're department doesn't pay him?"

Jim shook his head. "He volunteered for this in exchange for..."

"His PhD thesis, I know," Scully said, shaking her head. "I've read over your case reports and spoken with your colleagues. It seems to me that the kid spends the better part of his days with you. He goes on cases with you. He does your paper work... and he has his full-time position at the university. Are you sure he's not getting something else out this, detective?"

Jim stood up, towering over Agent Scully. "Now wait just a minute, lady...."

Scully and Mulder both stood up simultaneously. Mulder took a step closer to Jim.

"Excuse me, Detective," Mulder said, apparently trying to distract the man's anger from Scully. "We're just trying to get as much information as we can. If you want to protect your partner from these people, it would be better if you cooperated with us."

Jim turned his steel gaze to Mulder, who returned it with his own cool, unflinching gaze. After a few tense seconds, Jim sighed and sat back down on the armchair.

"Well, your heartbeat is steady enough, so either you're a great lier, or you're sincere," Jim said. "But I don't like the implications you're making about me and Sandburg," he continued, turning his gaze back to Scully.

Scully took a deep breath. "I didn't mean to imply anything about Sandburg's integrity. It just seems to me that this guide-sentinel relationship is more of a give-take relationship, with Sandburg doing all the giving. This isn't any of our business on the personal level, but if we could understand exactly what Sandburg's role is, and what benefit he receives, it might help us figure out how Sandburg factors into his captors plans.... whether they consider him essential or expendable?"

Jim sighed and rubbed his temples. "Actually, you have a point. I've been thinking for a while about approaching Simon with the idea of paying Sandburg for his duties. God knows he earns it. He puts himself on the line every day out in the field.... and, you're right, doing my paperwork doesn't contribute to his thesis. He works two jobs and puts his life on the line, all for the 'priviledge' of studying my sentinel abilities." He paused to take a deep breath and ease the knot of anxiety in his stomach. "Fact is, I wouldn't have the privilege of breathing if it weren't for Sandburg. I couldn't do my job without his help. Hell, when I met him, I couldn't even cross the street on my own."
 
"They don't train you how to do that at the academy," Mulder asked, doing his best Mr. Spock impersonation.

Scully looked horrified and brought a hand up to rub her eyes.

Jim's face remained impassive for a few seconds, then a smile found its way to the corner of his lips.  A few seconds later, he chuckled. "You're a real piece of work, Agent Mulder."

Mulder smiled. "I hear that a lot, though it's usually meant derogatively."

"So what are the X-Files," Jim asked.

"They're cases of unexplained phenomena," Scully interjected.

"Alien abductions, giant blood-sucking worms, fat-sucking vampires -- the usual," Mulder explained.

Scully rubbed her temples again.

Jim's jaw dropped open and he stared in disbelief at the two agents. "You're joking."

Scully shook her head. Mulder shrugged.

"And now sentinels," Jim added.

"Appears so," Mulder replied.

"Sounds like I'm ordinary compared to the rest of your cases," Jim mused.

Scully released a small chuckle. "I told you it doesn't really matter what we put in our report anymore."

"Tsk, tsk, Scully," Mulder began. "Are you getting bitter."

She gave him a mock scowl and replied, "No, but for once I'd like a normal case where I can write a normal report."

Jim sighed. "That's all very interesting, really, but right now I'd like to figure out who orchestrated my partners kidnapping." He glanced back at Blair's closed bedroom door. "Maybe I should get him to a safe house."

Mulder shook his head. "That won't help. These people will find him if they really want to."

"Government you said," Jim asked, his expression growing increasingly dark.

Mulder nodded.

"Great. Just great," Jim muttered.

 


Monday morning came quickly. Jim wheeled Blair to the kitchen table, setting a bowl of oatmeal and a glass of milk in front of him.

Blair stared solemnly at his food. "I don't really feel very hungry this morning," he groaned.

Jim sat down opposite of Blair, with a plate of bacon and eggs in front of him. "Eat up, Junior. No crap this morning, okay?"

Blair raised his hand and lifted the spoon with his thumb and forefinger. He dipped the spoon into the steaming oatmeal and raised the spoonful of mush to his mouth. Slowly, he swallowed. He really wasn't interested in food this morning. He'd gotten very little sleep the past few days, and last night had been rough. His pain killers were starting to lose their effectiveness, and he'd spent last night in exhausted agony. He'd struggled not to cry out on several occasions. He didn't want to wake Jim. He'd already been enough of a burden as it was, and he figured it wouldn't do anybody any good to have the both of them sleep-deprived and grouchy.

Even now the pain plagued him. His chest and ribs still ached. He couldn't even use his free hand to maneuver his wheelchair without sending bolts of pain through his body... not to mention the fact that it was virtually impossible to get around in a wheelchair with only one hand. He'd never felt so completely helpless, and it humiliated him. He couldn't even go to the damn bathroom without help. So, yeah, Blair, eat and drink up so that you have to take another piss in an hour or so.

"C'mon, Blair, stop staring at your food. Eat something," Jim said. "And I mean it!"

Blair closed his eyes briefly, feeling his emotions rise. What the hell was wrong with him? Why did he feel on the verge of tears all the time? He was a grown man, and he was acting like a child. To his shame, he felt his bottom lip begin to quiver. Damnit, get a grip!

"Chief?" Jim's voice was now gentle, filled with concern.

Blair swallowed, and his eyes filled with tears. He quickly looked down, attempting to hide his emotions from Jim. Fat chance, he told himself. You live with a sentinel, remember?

Jim quickly stood up and walked over to Blair. He knelt down at his side and looked at the young anthropologist expectantly.  "What is it, Blair?"

Blair took a deep breath, keeping his gaze on his lap. When he spoke, his voice was low and strained. "Can I please just go to my room, Jim?" God, please just wheel me into the room. No questions.

"Sure, but first tell me what's bothering you, Chief," Jim asked softly.

It was Jim's kind tone that cracked Blair's tenuous control. He began to shake and tears streamed down his face as he attempted to stifle his sobs. His shoulders began to shake as his tears overwhelmed him. Every quiet sob sent a sliver of pain into his chest, and the pain made him want desperately to stop crying.... but he'd lost it, and he felt his face grow hot with shame.

"Hey, hey... easy, Chief," Jim said, placing a hand on Blair's good shoulder. "It's okay. What's wrong? You know you can tell me, don't you?"

"Damnit," Blair gasped through his tears. "I don't know!"

Jim nodded and gently squeezed Blair's shoulder. "It's nothing to be ashamed of, Blair."

Blair continued to gaze down at his lap, but his tears finally began to diminish.

"You haven't gotten much sleep lately, have you," Jim asked.

Blair shook his head. "Were you listening?"

"Yes... just to make sure you were doing okay," Jim explained. "I know you're in a lot of pain, Chief, and I know you're tired. As a matter of fact, you're exhausted, both mentally and physically. You went through a pretty horrible time, and you haven't had the chance to deal with that yet. You've spent the last week building walls against pain and fear, and now those walls are starting to crumble. I know a bit about that myself, Chief."

Blair finally looked up at Jim, his eyes hot and teary. "You do?"

Jim smiled and nodded. "You don't think I spent 18 months in the jungles of Peru without feeling hurt, scared, and alone, do you? After the chopper went down, well, I dealt with it. All those men... those lives... lost.... my friends. It took me several days before it hit me. I found myself cooking a bird one morning and all of a sudden I just lost it. I went into a violent rage... I kicked at the firewood I had gathered, slammed my hand into a tree, and then, finally, dropped to my knees and started sobbing." Jim sighed and shook his head. "I had one hell of a headache when it was over, and my hand was pretty messed up."

Blair forced a smile. "So you're, like, saying I have post traumatic stress disorder?"

Jim nodded. "Something like that..... but you don't have to go through this alone."

Blair felt his face grow hot as the blood rushed to his cheeks. "Thanks," he muttered, feeling a bit uncomfortable with Jim's sudden display of sensitivity.

Jim patted Blair on the shoulder and stood up. "Now eat your oatmeal, Junior," he said. "Or I'll spoon feed ya!"

Blair sniffled, then groaned. "Gee, maybe going through this alone wouldn't be so bad."

Jim chuckled. "Watch it, smartass."

 



 
Jim glanced at his watch. It was almost 1:00 pm, and he really needed to check on Sandburg. He looked up at the haggard, middle-aged woman in front of him and stifled a sigh. She was wearing a large coat and ear-muffs, and her nose had turned bright red. Jim glanced around at the other officers on the scene. It was a cold, snowy day in Cascade, and most of the people outside were hugging their coats around their bodies to keep warm.

"...and then he ran around the corner. That's all I saw," she finished.

Ellison nodded. "Thank you, ma'am. That's all we need for now."

The woman nodded and said, "No problem. Somebody gotta stand up around here," she exclaimed, then turned on her heels and walked off.

Ellison was on his way to the truck when a beige sedan pulled up next to him. The driver side window was rolled down, and Mulder looked up at him. "Can we get some lunch, detective?"

Ellison sighed and shook his head. "Not today. I've gotta go check on Sandburg."

"Then perhaps I can go with you. There's some news you'll want to hear," Mulder said.

That got Jim's attention. He leaned against the sedan and peered down at Mulder. "You can tell me here."

Mulder shook his head. "Wouldn't be wise."

Ellison sighed and nodded. "Fine, then. I'm on my way to the loft. You know the way. Meet me there or follow me."

Mulder nodded as Jim turned toward his truck.

About ten minutes later, the two automobiles arrived at Jim's building. Mulder and Jim took the elevator up to Jim's floor.

"So where's your partner," Jim asked.

Mulder glanced up at the floor numbers above the elevator doors. "Back at the hotel room starting her report."

The elevator came to a halt and the doors opened. Jim stepped out, with Mulder right behind him.

"So what is it you wanted -- " Jim stopped in mid-sentence as a familiar odor assaulted his nostrils.

He recognized it immediately as the strange, inhuman scent he'd picked up in Blair's office after the kidnapping. His heart raced, and he cocked his head, listening.

Blair's voice: "Jim, man, where are we going? I thought you wanted me to stay here and rest up?"

"Just come with me," another voice responded.

Jim's heart skipped a beat. The voice in the apartment sounded just like him. My god, cold there really be a shape-shifter? Could this be the 'demonstration' he'd been told about?

With lightning speed, Jim bolted toward his his loft. He burst through the door just in time to see his counterpart haul Sandburg out of his bedroom by his shirt collar. Blair cried out in pain as the man grabbed his injured shoulder.

Jim raised his gun and yelled, "Cascade P.D.! Drop it!"
 
Mulder appeared behind him. "Don't shoot!"

Ellison ignored him. What the hell was the idiot talking about? A pacifist FBI agent? Couldn't be....

Jim's double released Sandburg, who released a cry of pain and crumpled to the ground, holding his shoulder. Blair doubled over onto his side, then brought his hand down to his ribs.

"Detective Ellison, do NOT shoot! His blood is toxic," Mulder yelled.

Jim spared a glance at Mulder, wondering what the hell he was talking about. He saw a flash of movement and whipped his head back around to look at the intruder -- who no longer looked like himself. Instead, a large man with blonde hair and chiseled features stood in front of him. The intruder lunged for Blair, and Jim pulled the trigger just as Mulder kicked his arm to the side.

The bullet barely grazed the intruders right arm, missing Blair by inches. The large man took off running, dashing onto the balcony and jumping over the railing. Jim found himself being pulled roughly out of the loft. Mulder kicked the door shut and leaned against the far wall.

Jim spun on him. "What the HELL do you think you're doing?!!"

Mulder straightened and glared at Ellison. "His blood is extremely toxic --"

"Blair's in there!" Jim rushed back into the loft before Mulder could utter a word.

He didn't know what the hell the agent was talking about, and, at this point, he didn't care. His only concern was making sure Blair was safe. If the blood really was toxic, he sure as hell wasn't going to leave Blair exposed to it.

As he entered the loft, he caught site of Blair writhing in pain on the ground, scratching at his eyes. Jim's stomach dropped and his heart threaten to jump out of his chest at the site of his guide in convulsions on the floor.

Mulder cursed and screamed, "OUT!" as he grabbed Blair and swung him over his shoulder in a surprising display of strength. He ran toward the balcony, and before Jim could stop him, leaped over the railing.

"NO!" Jim rushed out onto the balcony and peered over the edge of the railing, his heart pounding fiercely.

Please, please don't let him be dead, he prayed. I'll fucking kill Mulder either way. I swear!

The sight on the ground below caused a cry of joy to escape him. Mulder lay beneath Sandburg in the snow, apparently dazed but conscious. Jim bolted out of the loft and flew down the stairs. He arrived and skidded to a halt in front of Mulder, who was sitting next to Blair and using one arm to pile snow on top of the young anthropologist. Mulder's other arm hung limply at his side. By this time, a small crowd on on-lookers had gathered.

"What the hell are you doing?" Jim pushed Mulder away from Blair and began to dig the snow off of him.

"Stop!!" Mulder grabbed Jim's hands. "His blood. Will you listen?! You'll kill him!"

Those words made Jim freeze. He looked up at Mulder with fury in his eyes. "Explain," he said, his voice tight.

Mulder sighed. "That man isn't human, as you may have guessed. His blood releases a viral agent that causes a swift death to whoever's exposed to it. I was exposed to it once. The only reason I survived is because I was surrounded by ice at the time. It seems that cold slows the virus. We have to keep your partner cold until he can be treated. My partner actually knows more about how to effectively treat this.... there are anti-viral agents that should be effective against the virus in its suspended state."

Hushed murmurs snaked through the crowd as they observed the odd spectacle before them. Jim shook his head, not sure what to believe. He looked back down at Blair, who lay unconscious in the snow. He heard Mulder dial a number on his cell phone, but tuned him out, focusing his attention on Blair. Slowly, he raised his hands and began to pile snow onto his limp partner.

"Hang on, Chief," Jim said as he continued to bury Blair beneath the snow. "Just hang on."

 


The familiar scent that Jim now associated with Scully's shampoo drifted to his nostrils, and the door to the hospital room opened. Jim sat next to Blair's hospital bed, clutching the young man's cold hand in his own.

"The antiviral agents are working," Scully said.

Jim nodded, looking at the gaunt, frail form of his guide. His shoulder and ribs had been rebandaged, and now he laid quietly in the hospital bed, his breathing strained and hollow. Dark circles adorned his eyes, and his cheeks looked pale and sunken.

"He should be fine," she added.

Finally, he turned his head to look at her. Just then, Agent Mulder limped up behind her. His left arm was bandaged and in a sling, and he held a crutch under his good arm. A cast adorned the lower portion of his right leg.

"He'll feel like hell when he wakes up," Mulder said, "but he'll live."

Jim nodded solemnly. "This is my fault. I should have listened to you."

Mulder shrugged one shoulder. "He was going for your partner. You don't know me well enough to take that kind of a risk," Mulder said. "It wasn't your fault."

Jim's response was cut off by a groan from Blair. Jim's head whipped around toward Blair's bed.

"Blair, how are you feeling," Jim asked. Stupid question.

"Did I get run over by that garbage truck, after all," Blair croaked, his eyes fluttering open.

Blair winced at the light, and promptly shut his eyes, releasing a low groan.

Jim squeezed Blair's hand. "It's okay. I know you feel like hell, but Agent Mulder assures me you'll be fine."

"He a doctor," Blair asked, keeping his eyes closed.

"No, but I've been where you are," Mulder explained, "minus the simultaneous broken ribs, fingers, and punctured lung."

" 'n shoulder," Blair muttered.

Jim grunted, smiling. "Like I said, you're health insurance company is hating life."

"Do they cover alien viruses," Mulder asked, his tone light.

Blair swallowed. "Huh?"

Jim patted his hand. "Don't worry about it, Chief. I'll explain later."

Blair forced his eyes opened and gazed at Jim. "No, now. What the hell happened to me?"

Jim stiffened, taken aback by the sudden intensity of Blair's gaze and his firm tone. "Okay, Blair, okay." He swallowed. "There was an intruder in the loft --"

"I remember that part," Blair interrupted.

"And he was making a grab at you," Jim continued. "I fired, but Mulder managed to kick the gun away almost in time. The bullet grazed the intruder. You were so close to him that you got a drop or two of blood on your clothes. There's a virus in his blood that is extremely toxic. We had to lower your body temperature to stop the virus from killing you.... you're going to be okay now." Jim closed his eyes and lowered his head. "I'm so sorry, Blair."

Blair furrowed his brow, apparently unable to comprehend Jim's story. "Let me see if I heard this right," he asked, his voice barely above a whisper. "There's this shape-shifter out there with deadly blood?"

"Deadly green blood," Mulder added.

Blair groaned. "Did I ever really wake up in the first place?"

"I know, Chief. It's enough to make your head spin," Jim said.

"Which it is," Blair muttered. "God, I feel lousy." He closed his eyes again.

"Rest easy, Blair. It'll get better," Jim promised.

Seconds later, Blair fell back into a deep sleep. Jim turned to Mulder, finally taking in the man's injuries.

"You okay," Jim asked.

Mulder grinned and nodded. "I'll heal."

Jim managed a brief smile, then his expression darkened. "So what was that news you were going to tell me?"

Mulder hopped a few steps closer to Jim. He reached into his coat pocket and withdrew a snapshot, holding it up in front of Jim.

"Your cigarette-smoking man," Jim said, gazing at the picture. His jaw clenched.

Mulder nodded. "According to my informant, this photo was taken in Zaire yesterday."

Jim raised his eyebrows. "So what are you saying?"

Mulder sighed and returned the photo to his pocket. "At least he's out of the country. He might have found some other business to keep him occupied for a while. Maybe this has something to do with that artifact, though I thought Mr. Sandburg said it came from South America."

Jim shrugged. "Somehow I think his interest in my sentinel abilities isn't going to go away."

Mulder remained silent.

 


EPILOGUE

Blair sat on the couch with a beer in one hand and the remote in the other. He heard Jim's key in the lock and the door opened. Blair looked over as his partner entered the room and hung his coat on the rack.

"How ya feeling, Chief," he asked.

Blair grinned and took a sip of his beer. "Fine."

The bandages on his shoulder had been removed, giving him two good arms. His torso and fingers were still out of commision, for the most part, but the pain was a lot more tolerable. He could now move around the loft on his own, much to his relief. His physician had prescribed Toradol, a pain-blocker and sleep-aid that, at higher concentrations, acted as an anti-depressant. It had done wonders for his recovery. He found himself sleeping much better, which gave him the energy to use his days semi-productively. He's spent most of the morning working on his laptop, trying to finish some university business, even though he was still on medical leave.

"Any new developments," Blair asked, though he knew the investigation into his kidnapping had pretty much hit a dead-end.

Jim shook his head. "No. These people are ghosts. It's like they don't even exist, he said, his voice filled with frustration.

Blair shrugged. "Don't worry so much about it Jim. They're gone, at least... What about the two feds?"

"They've agreed to keep my senses confidential."

Blair raised his eyebrows. "Really?! Why would they do that? They barely know us."

Jim shrugged. "They seem like a good team. Besides, from what I gather, they know a lot about obfuscation and secrets."

Blair swallowed, then turned his attention back to the television. After a brief moment, he asked, "If those people really were government, and they know about you, do you think they're really done with us?"

Jim sighed. "I don't know, Chief. I don't know."

END