Thanks to PatK who waited ever so patiently for me to finally complete her Moonridge auction story!
"Just help me out here, Simon."
Simon Banks peered over his steaming mug of organic roast and narrowed his eyes, a trick which worked with most of his detectives. Unfortunately, Jim Ellison had always proven profoundly indifferent to most of his managerial hocus pocus.
"You got Daryl to put off the Academy and take that scholarship to Oregon State."
"I had Joan working on the same goal. I don't think she'll apply the same dedication to getting Sandburg to go to a job interview."
He watched as his best detective stared glumly at his own hands, probably seeing the blood pulse in his capillaries or other things his captain tried not to even imagine.
"Look, Jim, if he doesn't want to go, you can't make him. He's an adult." Simon paused, grinning into his coffee. "Legally, at least."
"The liaison job is perfect for him. You know that Simon, it's the kind of thing he does best and we could use some decent community relations. It's starting to be a war zone out there."
"You're saying you want him to go? Is that what you're saying, Jim? Because I saw you the last time you wanted him out of your life and the aftereffect wasn't pretty."
Simon watched as eyes looking like nothing so much as blue chips of ice lasered in his direction. *Yeah, detective, that's the way to assure me you're cool, calm and collected without your partner.*
"He's always going to be in my life Simon, you know that. He just wouldn't be my partner on the job."
Simon drank deeply from the mug, and reflected that there was no
way in hell that the quarterly management training sessions that he was required to attend
would ever deal with a situation like this. "So you're telling me you're all right
with this sentinel stuff. If Sandburg goes off to another department, everything is just
going to be fine and dandy."
"I was a good cop before this started."
"And you're a better one now."
"And you look like a better captain."
Simon met the chilled blue eyes with a warning of his own. Christ, was this what the kid had put up with every day? If it was, he couldn't imagine what it was that made Sandburg stay. For himself, getting close enough to Jim Ellison to become a friend rather than just a superior had been hard work. Staying close to him when every defense mechanism that man had was on full alert could sometimes be harder. To imagine Ellison relaxing enough for an intimate moment. Well, he really didn't want to go there.
"Don't say what I think you're about to say, Jim. You know it's not about department statistics."
The man sitting across from him had the grace to look chagrined.
"I know that, Simon. I know. I'm sorry. I just don't want him wasting his life because of some idiotic idea that he has to watch after me."
That was the question, wasn't it? The question there was no way in hell Simon could ask and the one that truly needed to be answered. Jim was -- well, Sandburg put it best - special. Special gifts. Special needs. They maintained a fine balancing act between honing Jim's incredible sensory abilities and preventing adverse reactions to a multitude of little things which could throw them both off the wire. The damn book Blair carried around was a list of over two-hundred normally harmless items that had caused Jim problems in the past. And, as far as Simon knew, it was still growing.
"Look, I'll talk to him, tell him there's no reason he shouldn't at least go on the interview. He can consider it a test. He goes off for a few hours and leaves you on the street and nothing happens ... nothing *will* happen, right Jim?"
"You can count on me, sir."
"Nothing happens and then maybe he'll buy into the idea that sentinels grow up, too."
Maybe he would, as well. Simon watched as Jim rose from the chair. Strange how quickly he'd switched from seeing Jim as the maverick loner to seeing him as an integral part of a pair. What had Sandburg called himself occasionally? The guide? Appropriate when you saw them together. Blair's quiet voice leading but rarely ordering. Not an approach he'd have ever tried on Jim Ellison. He barked and Jim barked back. Only the willingness to concede to a superior officer, the differential "sir", saving him from insubordination.
The street scene in Cascade centered mainly around Duxbury and Pullman near the Veteran's Cemetery. Most of the prostitutes were heavily into drugs so the prices were low. The buzz was that if he or she looked good enough for you to be interested then you'd probably just propositioned one of Cascade PD's finest. Those interested in a degree of safety - from either the cops or the consequences of sex with an addict -- chose the Asian massage parlors. The upper end of Duxbury was about as low as you could sink and still be drawing breath.
Cascade had the premier red-light district in the northwest until
the 1920s and it had remained fairly active even into the early 90s when the PD's monthly
busts curtailed most of what was left of the trade. You could still find action near the
Greyhound Station and
across the street in a bar called the Exit Inn when it wasn't shut down for numerous beer board violations, which was fairly often.
Tonight it was closed. Cari Parker, lately blonde, looked past the
darkened bar toward the battered white van with the dented fender. Even Vice rookies
should know not to bring the same vehicle night after night. Hell, the description of the
battered Ford had even
made cyberspace on one of the world sex guide sites, along with the description of her hand signals - one hand in her hair for non-dangerous johns, both hands for the more serious variety. Fortunately, most of the potentials driving up and down Dux had
probably never even heard of that corner of cyberspace.
A few steps away Sunny Fields shivered in the chill wind and hugged tighter to the bricks of the old Catholic high school, edging ever closer to the vice officer. Beneath the caked blush her cheeks were as pale as the matted bleached platinum of her hair and Cari saw that the jeans and gold baseball jacket sliding off her 100-pound-frame were dirty.
"Hey Cari." The nineteen year old smiled shyly, tightening her arms around the metallic fabric. A white F150 slowed and Sunny moved to hike up her purple T-shirt, revealing her new navel ring. She frowned as the truck slid on by. "Think they're on to ya, ya know?"
"Maybe," conceded the cop, mentally reviewing what she could remember of the latest Bad-John list.
But then another thought struck the younger woman, causing her to settle back into the shadows of the old building. "Maybe it was him."
Shrinking into herself, worried, the teenager appeared even smaller. "He pulled a knife on Kyla last week, threatened to cut her. Man, she was scared."
"You know, they call him the zoo man. That's where he likes to go."
Cari nodded. She'd heard some rumors of a possible serial rapist but getting a prostitute to tell the authorities she'd been abused was difficult. Getting anyone to listen if one did come forward was even rarer.
An SUV with tinted windows pulled up and Sunny stepped even further away, wary of the bust that was about to go down or maybe just wary of the darkened glass. Cari noticed her backing toward the door of the tattoo parlor. The passenger side window rolled down with an electric whir and the vice cop leaned toward the pair of men inside, smiling.
Ten minutes later she'd netted $500 in fines for the city's new anti-prostitution program and added two more names to the list of next week's John School attendees. Just a normal night's work, except later she realized it was the last time she'd seen Sunny and the first time she'd heard of the phantom called the zoo man.
Simon plunked the stack of manila folders on the conference table and ignored Jim's pained look as he snagged the last buttermilk donut from the open box. "This is Officer Parker. She's been working with the Magdalene Project, the new anti-prostitution program."
"Hey, I've heard of that. Reverend Karinsky over at the rescue ministries is running it." Blair nodded his head in approval.
Cari visibly warmed to the open smile, "We've already gotten twenty people off the street and into treatment."
"All very fine," acknowledged Simon, bringing the
meeting back to addressing its intended subject, knowing from experience how Sandburg
could easily end up lecturing about the causes and effects of prostitution in 21st century
society. "But we've got a bigger problem. For the past few months Vice has suspected
there's a serial rapist preying along Duxbury. Several female prostitutes have reported
being approached by a white john in his mid-to-late thirties driving a late-model car
variously reported as an American
or Japanese compact. He requests the women get in the vehicle and purportedly drives them to the vicinity of the Cascade Zoo where he holds them at knifepoint and forces them to engage in various sadomasochistic acts. This morning the stakes just got higher. Zoo maintenance workers found a body in one of the storage sheds."
Simon sat down and concentrated on the sugary confection in his hand. Cari took the unspoken cue and rose, passing out the folders.
"We've tentatively identified the victim as Sunny Fields -
not her real name. Nineteen and a crack addict. She was also very afraid of ending up in a
car with our suspected serial rapist, a john the girls call 'Zoo Man.' A few weeks ago she
told me a friend
of hers who also worked the streets, Kyla Mun, had been attacked by the same man. Shortly thereafter Ms. Mun took off for places unknown."
Blair ruffled through the offered folder. "You don't think she's another victim."
"A murder victim? No. But there have been several previous unexplained disappearances of prostitutes in the Duxbury area. Sunny may not have been the first."
"And, as of this morning," put in Simon, "this is out of Vice's hands and into ours. Jim, you and Sandburg, go see if you can lend Forensics a hand out at the zoo. Henri, tell Rafe it was either his vacation or Joel's and Joel's got seniority. When he gets here, coordinate with Vice; we're taking over John School surveillance." Simon's smile widened as he looked across at the remaining member of his team seated at the table. "Conner, half this city knows that Vice has a blonde decoy working the strip. From now on she'll be a redhead."
The neighborhoods at the northern end of Duxbury had seen better tenants in the past. In the 20s they had been the Bohemian dividing line between the rural farmland and the frightening cosmopolitan city to the south. Now crack vials littered the steps in front of turn-of-the-century Gothic revivals that must have once housed some of the city's more forward-thinking homeowners. Pawn and junk shops dotted the mostly abandoned storefronts that dissolved into battered chain link fencing as the blue and white Ford neared the fairgrounds, empty now except for the occasional car rally. Turning onto the gravel lot that served for parking the two weeks the Greater Northwest Washington Fair was in action, the truck skidded slightly, slinging pieces of crushed granite.
Blair grabbed the dash. "Easy there, big guy, demolition derby isn't until September."
"Very funny, Sandburg."
"Hey, Jim, when's the last time you went to the fair?"
"Don't even think it."
"Okay, I admit a state fair may be an anachronism in the digital world but for a long time, fairs were one of the few meeting grounds of society's classes. Do you know they held the first fair here in 1915 complete with Indian war dances and coyote hunts?"
"What, the diving horse was sick?" Jim pulled the truck behind a quartet of haphazardly parked patrol cars carefully positioning it so that Blair could open the door without any chance of smacking it into the side of the medical examiner's van. "This isn't like you Sandburg. Animal cruelty. Rigged games. Junk food."
"No, no, I approve of junk food in its proper cultural context. There's no way you can do a fair properly without corn dogs - ketchup *and* mustard - followed by a ride on the Himalaya."
Jim smirked. "Don't tell me, Chief. You once worked as the pixie dust spreader on the Tilt-o-Whirl."
"Close." Blair hopped out, swinging the door with every bit of exuberance Jim had feared. "I pulled a summer as an undergrad with Royal West Amusements. As their advertisement claims, all they need is space and a water spigot."
"You were a carnie."
Blair shrugged like everyone's life had been full of such varied experiences. "Yeah, for a summer, Jim. Not easy work by a long shot. You pull down an Eli Bridge ferris wheel and then put it back up the next day."
Jim shifted, his gaze going to something behind his gesturing partner. "Body still in there, Dan?"
"Uh, yeah." The ME grunted, acknowledging the detective briefly before slapping a hand to Sandburg's back. "Hey Blair, ever put up a Zipper?"
"Yeah man! Wait, you too?"
"Second year of med school. I just had to get out for a while."
A not-too-discrete sentinel-sounding cough interrupted the ex-carnie reunion. Dan shrugged apologetically.
"Sorry Jim. We've got multiple stab wounds. Looks like they happened after she was bound. Time of death is looking to be around one a.m. I've left the body right now but I'm going to have to get going."
"Just give us a few minutes."
Stepping into the decrepit wooden storage shed Blair automatically put a hand to Jim's back. Heavy dust from the hay-strewn floor floated in the sunlight, striping the interior air. Jim choked then coughed, the hand on his back rubbing soothingly.
"Okay, big guy?"
"Yeah." The answer barely out before another fit of coughing overtook him. Despite it, up ahead, probably behind the rusted and abandoned tractor he could scent the beginnings of decay. The enzymes in the digestive system eating their way through the flesh. "Maybe you should stay here."
"No way. You don't look too stable."
"Chief, I'll be fine. Stay back here."
Finally acquiescing, Blair raised his hands. "Staying."
He watched as Jim knelt down, his profile just visible beside the rotting machinery from where Blair stood.
"Don't overdo it, Jim. Just dial up as much as you have to."
The scent of blood threatened to unhinge his tenuous control. He tried to push past, ignore the metallic tang of it, but the deluge nearly overwhelmed him. Dizzily, Jim reached a hand to the rusted fender beside him and used the roughness to refocus his attention, hoping his partner hadn't noticed the lapse.
"Some kind of cologne. Could be the murderer's, or hers, or another John's. What looks like handprints on her throat, plus a choke collar. Got some defensive wounds on her hands, a couple of nails are broken. There's semen on the front of her clothing."
"So you're thinking this guy got his jollies after he killed her?"
"Or during some kind of sadistic script he's performing."
"So, why do you think he does it here? Why near the zoo?"
Jim moved back, striping off the latex gloves and motioning Blair back the way they'd come. "No idea, Chief, but I think he knows this place. I only saw the one light above the door. No other doors, no windows. We're about in the middle of the building, I'd guess. If we can get some of the others who were assaulted to come forward I'll bet they were taken to this same building, maybe one of the others close by."
"So why up the ante now? Why kill her if he'd raped the others without getting caught?"
"You're assuming she's the first." Jim blinked rapidly against the sunlight as they emerged. "See those woods back there? I think we better have search and rescue give it the once-over." He tossed the cell phone. "Give Simon a call. I'm going to take a quick look."
"Uh, Jim, no " Blair refused to flinch from the cool blue stare. "Wait 'til S&R gets here. The dogs can do the job just as well."
"You're the one who thought I should go spend a week with Dr. Glass, Sandburg. Might as well use what I learned."
*Shit* Blair punched the quick dial as he scrambled after his partner's retreating back. It had been such a good idea and had turned bad so quickly that Blair hadn't even seen it coming. The week under Robert Glass' tutelage hadn't gone at all the way he planned. Gaining access to the doctor hadn't been hard. Gaining access to the three acres surrounded by razor-wire and a wooden fence near the university medical center had.
In the end, the price of a guided tour had been a partial sharing of Jim's abilities with the forensic anthropologist. Only then, interested in this new human forensics lab, had he allowed them to enter the enclosure known as the Body farm where at any given time about forty bodies rotted away, stuffed in car trunks, lying in the sun, buried in shallow graves, sheltered by brush or submerged in ponds.
At first Jim had seemed all right, listening intently to the doctor's explanation of the stages of putrefaction and the insects that a decaying body attracts. Armed with a map of the bodies' placement and Glass' extensive data on the current stage of decomposition, they'd slowly walked the property that, to Blair, had held mainly the cloying scent of honeysuckle.
"Jim, wait! Oh, Simon no, I didn't mean to yell." Blair tripped over a creosoted log hidden in the waving grasses. "Shit! No, Simon I'm not cursing at you. Jim, he thinks there might be other bodies in the woods behind the storage building. I don't think he sensed anything. Search and rescue, yeah." A branch from a half-dead maple snagged this shirt collar. "No, he's gone in there himself. Yeah, Simon, I'll tell him."
Blair slapped the phone closed and stalked through the closely spaced trunks until he saw his partner, his eyes distant and body tensed. Piggybacking hearing or scent on sight. The taut muscles of his back released slightly as Blair added his own touch to the mix.
"Jim." A shudder ran beneath his palm. "Don't "
"That way." Jim's voice was rough and the hand he brought up to point out the direction trembled ever so slightly, but his steps were steady and purposeful. "The body's been here a while."
"It'll keep Jim. Just let forensics do their job."
"After I do mine."
"Sandburg, just the man I wanted to see. Jim wanted me to "
The normally ebullient observer was frowning to himself, unaccustomed wrinkles collapsing his forehead and he obviously, Simon noticed, had not heard a word he'd said.
"Sandburg?" he tried again.
Blair startled from his reverie with a wordless "oh," looking almost surprised to find the captain in his own office.
"I need to talk to you, Captain."
"Something wrong?" Being called "captain" by everyone else was a given. Being bestowed the same title by Sandburg could lead a man to worry.
"Yes no maybe." Hands gestured helplessly. "I don't know. I mean if I *knew* I wouldn't be in here. Or, maybe I would, but that's just the point, I *don't* know."
"Take it easy." Simon held out a cup of freshly poured coffee, his tones the enforced patience of a parent talking down a hyperactive five-year-old. "Take the cup. Then take a sip and try to speak in complete sentences."
A slight smile parted Blair's full lips, easing the look of worry. "Sorry. I'm worried about Jim."
"He seems fine to me."
Blair nodded through a long sip from his mug as the captain settled behind his desk. "Yeah, Simon, but you've got a rather large blind spot where sentinel stuff is concerned."
"Something happened this morning," Simon presumed.
Long dark curls bobbed as Blair nodded. "When he found the second body. Simon, I don't think you understand what Jim is. Frankly you've never really wanted to."
Pressing his large frame further against the chair, the captain removed his wire-framed glasses and carefully began polishing the lens. "Then explain it to me."
"Do you have any idea what it takes for Jim to, say, see a target clearly hundreds of yards away? Think about it. Everything has to be right - no asymmetries in the eye's lens or cornea. The retina had to be perfect *and* the visual cortex. In sight alone Jim is a fucking minor miracle. Then repeat that in every sensory system. I say it, I say that Jim's some kind of genetic pinnacle and yet I go along thinking we can just ignore biology. That the DNA's important but that some inborn traits like fight-or-flight, well, those we can afford not to worry with."
"Sandburg, if that was your explanation "
"Look, we recoil from danger through semi-autonomous
processes. Some of them totally autonomous. If you put your hand down on the red-hot eye
of a stove you'll flinch it away before the message even reaches your brain that you've
been burned. The circuit completes in your spinal column. Now imagine the triggers for
that kind of fight or flight response are ten times, hell, a hundred times stronger than
you or I ever experience. It's instinctive. You sense death, you sense danger and you
"Not if you're a cop," observed Simon, replacing the frames on the bridge of his nose.
"No," concurred Blair, "and definitely not if you're Jim Ellison."
"I'm afraid I'm not getting the problem here."
"I first noticed when we went down to see Dr. Glass."
"Wait a minute," interrupted Simon, "as I remember that was your idea."
"I wasn't thinking either, Simon. I mean Jim generally takes police work in stride. If it's a member of his 'tribe' hurt, that's another matter, but an anonymous victim? Jim's not without compassion but he's very professional. I've never seen him flinch from anything."
"Until this morning?"
"No, it wasn't exactly a flinch. I could just see the overload. It's like he stretched too far, took in too much. If I could have heard *his* heart I wouldn't have been surprised that it sounded like a rushing freight train."
"But you didn't."
A bit of annoyance crept into Blair's tone. "Well, no, Simon, I'm not the sentinel."
The captain steepled his fingers. "And did Jim express any distress to you?"
"No, not directly," admitted Blair.
"And he found the body."
"Sandburg, I've had Jim in here and now I've had you in here. And I think I can safely say you're suffering from the same thing. Jim told me that Anderson has asked you to form a new community liaison department. He also told me you turned him down."
Blair crossed his arms defensively, "Yes, I did."
"You won't," Simon contradicted, "not without talking to the man."
"You will go to the interview, Sandburg."
"Simon, that's not like something you can order me to do."
The captain took a deep breath, trying to hold in his irritation with sentinels and their protectors.
"I'm not telling you that you have to take the job. I'm telling you to go to the interview. It'll take, what, a couple of hours? You and Jim, you've spent practically the last four years together. Jim needs to see that he can still function without you following him around noting his every sniff and you need to remember there's a life outside this department that you might be interested in. I think Jim can make it a couple of hours without you."
The most frightening thing was how Jim could go from being hyperaware to completely, unutterably unreachable. How, if the zone was deep enough, he could stay that way through pleadings, caresses, and finally sharp pinches and slaps.
There in the mixed greenery of an early summer he had fallen to his knees, his open-mouthed blank stare a horrible reminder of the cold night he'd succumbed to Golden. Unresponsive. Lost. And this time not in a compelling golden glow, but in the stench of death and honeysuckle.
So deep that his respiration slowed to almost imperceptible, his skin cooled where the sun didn't strike it and he remained resolutely detached, separated from Blair by a gulf so unbreachable that even pain, that most fundamental of sensations, failed to rouse him.
Finally he had drawn the larger man to him, burying the frozen face in the junction of his neck. Hoping to supplant all other scents with his own, Blair rocked him, letting his hair brush his partner's cheek. Nothing here but me, big guy. Nothing here but me. Feel my life.
After forty long minutes Jim recovered.
He staggered to his feet. Silent. Embarrassed. Unable to deny the look of profound relief on Blair's face.
"Okay, Jim?" A nod was probably the only answer Blair could hope for. "We'll come back tomorrow. It's getting late."
Another nod, a curt agreement.
Dinner on the deck of a local restaurant overlooking the river hadn't done much to relax either of them.
The next day, they'd gone back and Jim had run through the paces like a pro.
It hadn't made Blair feel any better.
"Glad to see you changed your mind, Chief."
Blair winced. It sounded sincere. It was sincere.
"But you've got an appointment with Anderson."
Blair turned, the spoon in his hand bobbing in cadence. "Simon had Rhonda make it for me." The rest was mumbled except there was no such thing to sentinel ears. "Probably because you talked him into it."
Jim slid a chair back from the table and sank into it, elbows framing the plate in front of him. "Go to the interview. That's all I'm asking."
"On one condition."
"Condition? Christ, Blair. Who else would have a condition for going on a job interview?"
Ignoring the clipped response, Blair put the bowls of pasta down and went to the fridge for a couple of beers. "Yep, one condition. I want to talk about what happened today."
Jim shook his head, clearly puzzled by the request. "The investigation?"
"No, Jim, the woods." Blair's hands knotted into fists as he supported himself against the tabletop, blue gaze homing in. "I want, no, I *need* to know what's been happening since that day at the body farm. Talk to me."
He watched as his partner spooned desultorily at the organic noodles.
"If I " Jim's voice cracked slightly causing him to begin again. "If I talk to you about this, you'll go to the interview?"
Repeating a familiar silent litany of adjectives best describing stubborn sentinels, Blair managed a patient sounding "Yes, Jim. If you talk about it, I'll go to the interview."
"Because otherwise you'll just clam up and I won't know what I'm working with. Jim you nearly zoned today. Twice. Don't think I didn't catch that little trick you did with the tractor."
Jim grasped his fork with a frown. "Eat your food before it gets cold." He picked at his own plate, glancing up occasionally to make sure Blair was doing the same.
To oblige, knowing fighting Jim over this would get him nowhere, Blair settled at the table. The pasta was dry and tasteless but he forced himself to swallow a few forkfuls.
"So, what's different?"
Jim shook his head. Blair knew words didn't come easy for his partner but they were going to have to try to find some common language.
"Nothing," he murmured. "Everything."
"Then let's work on the 'everything'. Are you talking quantitative or qualitative? More stuff or the same stuff more intense?"
"Both, I guess."
"Uh huh. Okay, start with the quantitative. You're noticing things you didn't before."
Jim nodded, his shoulders hunched, fingertips holding his temples. "Scent mostly."
"You're probably overly sensitized. We can do some tests."
"After you talk to Anderson."
"Hell you can turn it down, if you want to. I'm just asking you to go. So you'll know " Jim gestured toward the glass patio doors, " what else is out there. Otherwise I'll always wonder if I kept you from something vitally important. World peace or something."
"World peace," Blair deadpanned.
" or something."
Megan saluted the occupants of the grubby white van, middle finger proudly raised before adjusting the hot pink and silver fur jacket to better reveal her bare stomach. "Laugh it up mates."
"Still think you could have gone with the pink dingo just fine Conner," mused Henri Brown's voice, disembodied in the earpiece.
"Wankers, the whole lot of you," muttered Megan, moving closer to the corner. "Friggin' cold in Washington and the slags aren't wearing enough to hide a wire. Just brilliant."
It was nearly twilight when the quiet "Heads up, Connor" roused the Australian from her stupor.
Megan took up her best stance, baring herself to the cold to better project her assets. A small car slowed down half a block ahead as the driver looked over a couple of skinny teens. No doubt what Ellison was warning her of - another vehicle close to the description of their suspect's.
After an obviously unsatisfactory exchange of words, the car coasted down to within stopping distance. Leaning into the open passenger-side window Megan popped the gum she was chewing noisily.
"Looking for something in particular?"
The john was in his late thirties, his balding pate shiny pale in the reflected light. "How much?"
"Twenty for a blow. Forty for a regular."
"I got a place I like to go."
"Cost you ten more."
The john nodded. Megan swept up her copper-colored hair with both hands and got in the car.
When the compact pulled away from the curb, Jim followed.
They made no conversation as they made their way down Duxbury, passing under blinking streetlights, occasionally illuminating a furtive figure in the compact's dim beams.
Megan tried to breathe evenly as they approached the chain link fence and gravel lot that served as overflow parking for both the fairgrounds and the zoo. The car bumped over the curb as it turned, jolting her into the door, the bouncing opening the lighted glove compartment to reveal a roll of duck tape and a gun. She gasped as the driver quickly shut it again.
Jim's dark SUV rolled on down Duxbury in the darkness behind them.
"Shut up," advised the driver. "Just fucking shut up."
The car slid to a halt beside one of the darkened outbuildings and a hand shot out, restraining her. His body pressed heavily into hers as he retrieved the tape and gun.
Megan heard the click of the safety. "Look, I don't want you to hurt me."
"Fucking whore." The hand twisted against her flesh. "Get out of the car."
Behind her, somewhere in the darkness, was Jim Ellison.
She got out.
Jim pushed the vision dial up until he could see through the fence and across the unlit lot to the side of the storage shed. In the low illumination he could make out the squat suspect, Connor tall and lanky beside him. Pushing up hearing he could discern the Australian's short, sharp gasps.
Backup was on its way but there was no waiting on it.
Climbing out and closing car door silently, Jim started across the expanse of crushed rock.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"Shut your trap, bitch."
Jim heard the sound of tape being ripped and then the clatter of a scuffle as Connor planted a spiked heel hard into the suspect's flesh.
Jim reached for the rusted doorknob and flung the door open. The light from the lone bulb nearly blinded him but he took aim. He never knew if he fired the shot. Familiar scents overwhelmed him; the putrid odor of decay sent him on overload.
"Fuck!" Conner's highly accented cursing finally reached over the buzzing in his ears. "Ellison fuck!" She concluded again. "I thought you were shot you you yaboo!" she finished hands shaking him roughly.
His hearing might be on-line but the rest of his senses were in no hurry to following. It was like he was wrapped in cotton bunting, the soft muteness dimming touch and vision, even smell. Taste, too, possibly -- if his dry mouth was in any condition to relay it.
"Sandy, where the hell are you when I need you?"
Jim managed to push back some of the strange fuzziness of his current universe. "Conner?"
He found himself being helped into a sitting position and when the hazy picture resolved itself he squinted at the streak of red smeared across Conner's check.
"Yeah, he clocked me, the wanker." She nodded in the direction of the door. "Ran out that way. I just about to -"
"Where the hell is backup?" Jim interrupted.
"You're usually the one telling me." Conner narrowed her eyes in worry. "Can't you hear the sirens?"
Jim ran a decidedly shaky hand along his brow. "Senses have been cutting out on me. Sorry, Conner, I-"
"Well we're a fine kettle of fish," she said, her hand wrapping around his wrist as he tried to lower it. The gravel throwing squeal of patrol cars cut through the press of the building's quiet and she gave him a hand up. "Can't wait 'til Simon hears one fat-assed john bested two of his finest."
Simon was nothing, thought Jim. He'd face six-five of irate Simon Banks any day before he'd face five-eight of a worried Blair Sandburg.
"This is what I get for leaving you alone."
"I wasn't alone. Conner was-"
"Cold-cocked?" supplied Blair, raising an eyebrow and looking in the direction where Conner sat being fussed over by the EMTs.
Jim deflected the wry observation. "We've got the car, Chief. Which means we've got an address and a name."
"You think he doesn't know that?"
"We've had them that stupid."
"Not this one," said Blair. "This one is different."
"It's a place to start. More than we had this morning." Jim waved off the hand Blair offered and did another patrol of the crime scene. His senses were wavering. Sometimes there, sometimes not. It was distracting, being able to latch on to something only to have it disappear a second later. For the briefest moment the scent of Conner's blood came across, acrid and tangy and Jim closed his eyes, swaying.
The familiar press of warm fingers brought him back.
"That's it. The EMTs are looking at you too."
But Jim only looked back at him, the normally pale blue eyes almost swallowed by dark pupil in the dimness. "Not something they can help with, Chief."
"Let me get this straight. You had him," Simon's gaze settled heavily on Conner before moving to Jim, "and you had her back and you both lost him."
"He decked me," Conner coughed before adding, "sir."
"Yes, well, looking like the Keystone Kops isn't exactly what I wanted out of my department."
"Take it easy, Simon, you know-" Blair grimaced. "Okay, I know we don't officially," nimble fingers made quote marks in the air, "discuss the whole sentinel thing but I told you yesterday that Jim was having problems."
"Problems?" frowned Conner. "You didn't tell me you were having problems."
"Because it's not -" Jim rubbed a hand through his short hair. "I'm a cop, Conner, with or without the senses. It's not like you request different backup because Blair can't see without his glasses or Joel can't run like he used to."
"I get it," Conner acknowledged, both palms raised in placation. "It's not your fault any more than it is mine."
"Let's get back to the real issue here," said Simon, corralling the conversation back. "We've got a car, we've got an apartment and we've got an APB. What we don't have is a perp."
"It looked like he took off through the woods again," offered Blair, hands raising slightly as Simon turned a sloe-eyed look his way. "So," he continued, "he's on foot - at least for a while and I'm thinking he knows those woods pretty well given he's obviously been using them as a burial ground."
"Where does that leave us?"
"Well, given that the Cascade National Forest begins a few miles off of US-5 I'm thinking he may have just headed into the woods."
"He didn't exactly look like the lumberjack type, Sandy," Conner cut in.
"Appearances can be deceiving. That bomber went to ground in North Carolina pretty easily and there's a serial rapist that the New Mexico state patrol is still looking for in the Black Range."
Simon grunted. "So you're thinking we're going to end up tracking this asshole through the wild Northwest?"
"You got a better idea, Simon?" asked Jim as Simon gave him an "et tu" glance.
"And you're up for this?" retorted the captain.
"Got a compass in the stock of my BB gun, sir."
"That's enough out of you, Jim. We wouldn't be in this mess if-" Simon stopped himself. "All right. We've pulled a blank looking in-town so take a few dog teams out with you and see if you can get a scent." He looked back up. "And given your recent track record, I mean the *dogs*, Jim, not you."
Jim sank down at his desk and scrubbed a palm over his chin, his gaze slightly accusing. "Thanks for your support in there, Chief."
"Ah, Jim, come on. You know Simon. He gets chewed on by the mayor and he's going to pass some of the heat along. Besides, you're the one making the I'm-a-cop-not-a-superhero noise so you'll just have to remember that is what happens to the rest of the mortals we get munch-marks on our butts from time to time."
"Yeah?" asked Jim, grimacing a little at his former mood then craning with a forced playfulness to get a better view of a certain khaki-clad posterior, "Maybe I should check those out, Chief."
It had been painfully obvious that Jim was trying to regain some sort of equilibrium, but it was the same strained normality that had left Blair shaken after the day in the body farm -- Jim taut and ready to snap at any perceived concession to whatever this was. And Blair was determined to find out what was going on. No matter how much his partner wanted to keep it from him.
"Uh, Jim," he gingerly prodded Jim forward with a hand at the small of his back, "the dogs couldn't get a scent trail, nobody expects you to-" Then he halted at the full-force glare he got in return.
Around them, the woods were crisp with the feel of late autumn, everything sharp in the cool air. The sky a vibrant shade of blue and the forest a kaleidoscope of russet and chestnut and sienna. The air curled in wisps of moisture as they breathed out, Jim's breaths deep, senses open wide and Blair's shortened a little in worry.
"Jim, man, two Dobermans couldn't find anything."
Jim blinked and breathed deeply again, mouth open slightly like a cat's.
"Dogs were wrong."
"You've got something?" Blair narrowed his eyes as Jim's gaze grew less focused. "You're not gonna zone on me, right?"
He was just about to put a hand to Jim's arm when Jim's gaze snapped back - icy blue. "I'm not going to zone on you, Sandburg."
"Sandburg?" Blair frowned. "We're back to last names again? I kind of thought when we, you know, became intimate that I got to lose the-"
"That way," Jim pointed toward a northwesterly patch of pines.
"Look," began Blair, only to find himself wading through the crisp, ankle-deep leaves as Jim headed off in the direction he'd pointed. "Jim " he frowned as he stumbled a bit in the natural debris, "don't you think we ought to let somebody know we're-"
"I'm just going to walk it back a ways."
"'A ways' that's, like, how far? You know cell reception drops off as soon as we get to the Widower Pass lovely name, that," Blair murmured as he straggled after him. "This is going to work out just fine, I'm sure. Tramping across the Cascade Great Divide with no backup. What's gotten into you Jim, anyway?"
But if Jim could hear the grumbling, he just kept on.
"I'm serious, Jim," he tried a few minutes later, "you need to turn back."
"If I turn back, there's a good chance I'll never find the trail again."
This got what Blair felt was a well-deserved snort. "Come on. Obviously your senses are on-line just fine."
Blair risked a brief caress down Jim's arm and when the bigger man leaned into it, he leaned his forehead against Jim's shoulder. "Jim," he said plaintively.
"I'm not trying to shut you out, Blair. I'm just " Jim swallowed harshly. "I'm the only one who can get a grip on this thing."
"You don't go through this alone. You don't go through anything alone. I thought you knew that. You and I "
"Are not *me*," replied Jim. He laid a hand on the crown of Blair's bowed head. "In the end it's *my* body, Chief, no matter how you might sometimes share it."
"Okay," said Blair, backing off, raising his hands, "I can understand that in a way. But there's more to this sentinel thing than just *you*. I thought after the fountain that you realized that. There's more than a *you* and a *me*. Somewhere in there, there's got to be room for *us* or nothing's going to work not the sentinel thing, not "us", not " Blair trailed off as Jim was clearly no longer attending. His hand moved to Jim's shoulder. "Jim, are you-"
"I hear someone."
"Some*one*," Blair clarified.
"That way," pointed Jim, taking off, Blair following after him.
"Tell me again that your senses aren't on the blink."
Jim paced in a circle under the half-naked deciduous canopy. "I heard him," he protested.
"But not now."
"No," Jim conceded, "not now. Right now," Jim closed his eyes, fingertips massaging the bridge of his nose, "right now I'm not getting anything."
"Nothing?" questioned Blair. "Nothing at all?"
Jim pressed his lips together in a firm, thin line. "Nothing means 'nothing', Chief. Everything's off line."
"I think we should go back," ventured Blair, giving a nod in a southeasterly direction. "Get some more people out here."
"We've tracked him this far, if we lose him now--" Jim argued. "No. I'm not going back. This senses thing, it comes and goes. If I just wait a while it'll come back."
"Don't you think he probably knows we're out here?"
The woods, except for the occasional rustling of the wind in the dried leaves, was quiet but every now and again he heard the snap of a branch, maybe the deeper rustle of a heavy step.
"You want me to just what, Chief? Go back and tell Simon that without the enhanced senses I'm worthless?"
"Yeah, well it seems to me you're taking all this a little oddly, Jim. It's not the first time your senses have cut out on you. Although it may be the first time there's not an emotional cause. There's not an emotional cause, right, Jim? 'Cause everything is hunky-dory as far as I know. Well, except for you insisting on my going on a job interview I didn't want to go on."
"You never told me how it went," observed Jim neutrally, squatting down and examining the leaf litter as if it held some obvious track.
"That's because I was rushed to the scene of a crime only to find you half-zoned and Megan bleeding. And," Blair continued, "because we seemed to be doing just fine last night not talking about it. Hey," he shrugged under Jim's superior look, "I'll admit it. I don't always think with my head," he rapped his temple with his knuckles, "the one up here. So, yes, in exchange for good sex - and that was seriously mind-blowing, stupendous sex - I let you get by with the stoic routine."
"Maybe we shouldn't be talking about this out here," conceded Jim.
"What, Jim, sex? We're in the middle of nowhere with no one around. I think we can safely talk about sex.
The woods' stillness was shot with a particularly sharp crack! and both men jumped.
"Your hearing really is off," observed Blair quietly.
"Told you, Chief."
Blair pointed down into the raven they were overlooking. "Down there. And this is Widower's Pass so we go down there and we're on our own."
Jim patted his gun once to reassure himself and saw Blair doing the same. "More like that way, Chief," he said, pointing off in a slightly different direction. "And I'm going."
Blair sighed but he gestured onward. "Where you go, I go."
The pass was a gap in the otherwise formidable ridge of the lower Cascades but the going was still steep, the slope astoundingly vertical at some locations and both men were sliding on the thick, patchy carpets of dried leaves, non-too-stable and not at all stealthy: dried foliage crackling under their boots.
That this was not the brightest idea his partner had ever had was starting to cross Blair's mind with more regularity, but then Jim had been acting strangely ever since they'd made their ill-fated forensics fieldtrip - sentinel-strange: testy and hypersensitive or, conversely, almost sensorily numb.
Calling it a "sentinel" thing was just labeling it - not explaining it. And he was back to his hypothesis about over-sensitization. That Jim had pushed his senses past some limit where they weren't meant to go.
His foot skittered across a patch of brown leaf litter and he nearly did one of those splits Conner was always showing off down in the gym, legs scissored painfully in an ungainly imitation of the Aussie's grace.
"Easy there, Chief," Jim drawled softly from his right. "You might hurt something."
"Yeah, yeah," he muttered, brushing litter off his pants. "You think-" he began only to be stopped by the look on Jim's face..
Jim's hand went for his gun and Blair barely had time to form a coherent thought before he was instinctively ducking which - as blind moves went - was a good one. The heavy branch still clocked him but high across the temple and he grayed out.
The expected responding gunshot never came, though, and he was on his knees before he realized that there was no sound but the rasp of his own breathing.
"Don't move." Their quarry's voice was oddly high for a man's but he followed it up with a more convincing kick at the small of Blair's back, the boot staying to press painfully against his ribs, holding him down as the gun was ripped from its holster. "You got another one?"
Blair shook his head, hair tangling in the leaves as he moved it from side to side. "No."
"What's with the wax museum act?"
The pressure on his back released suddenly and Blair took a deep breath in response, craning his neck up to see Jim, his gun being dispatched from a frozen hand.
"No time to zone, Jim," Blair muttered, then felt uncharitable as he looked at his partner's fixed stare.
"Make him move." The loosely-held gun swished in Jim's direction, the nose bouncing a bit as if the current owner didn't know quite how to hold it. An advantage - if Jim had been mobile. Hell, if Jim had been mobile he might well have been disarmed by now, Blair prided himself on being something of a good distraction. But distraction required a partner, one not currently blankly staring off somewhere to the east.
"It's not that easy," protested Blair. This was no place to try to get Jim out of a zone, particularly if it was one as deep as had felled him that day at the body farm.
The hand firmed around the pistol, trigger finger a little too jittery for Blair's comfort.
"All right," he conceded. He landed a full-palmed slap on Jim's cheek then winced from the sting of it. Jim, however, remained motionless.
"That's pretty funny," judged his captor. "Do it again."
"This isn't a game," spat Blair.
"But I like games," put in the man.
"You got a name?" asked Blair.
"Got me several." The man's smile was weak and crooked. "The girls they call me the zoo man."
"Yeah," said Blair, "I've seen your work."
"Got me a calling."
"Oh yeah," Blair agreed, murmuring under his breath, "got you something."
The thing about a zone - the thing that Jim had never been able to explain to Blair - was that it wasn't unpleasant, despite how he knew he must look: blank and helpless and stupid with his mouth dropped open and his eyes unfocused. It was like getting lost reading a book or being so into a game that outer awareness - that kind of watcher in your mind that seemed to watch you - fled and you simply were in the moment. So in the moment that self-consciousness dissolved and you were one with the light or the motion or the scent or the color of something. And to resist it was like resisting the brink of orgasm only without the rollercoaster ride of sensation that was that kind of bodily release. A zone was like a slip, like where sand met sea, a gradual slide from one place into another.
There were, he'd discovered, two ways to come out of a zone - neither of them particularly pleasant but of the two he'd pick 'fast' because 'fast' meant Blair, meant strong, square hands steadying him, meant concerned blue eyes and a welcoming smile. Slow meant he was alone, that he'd come out of it on his own.
Slow meant a hazy interlude where some of his senses worked but others didn't. What Blair called a hypnogogic state after the place in between sleep and wakefulness. Slow meant that what came to him first was the dry, brittle scent of fallen leaves, tantalizing, but not enough to fully draw him out. That took the sweep of sharp breeze and the resulting shiver from his wakening body. Then his eyes snapped open and the world snapped back into familiar proportions - closely spaced tree trunks on a rock-strewn hillside, cloud-dotted blue sky just perceptibly darkening toward an early twilight.
He staggered a little, stiff from the cold, put a hand on a nearby trunk to steady himself, wincing at the dull ache in his head before calling, "Blair." His hand went automatically to his holster and came back empty. "Shit," he said, memory returning. He turned a full three-sixty and saw nothing but more of the same - leaves and trunks and sky.
He still had the cell and the steep rise of the gap at his back that he could climb and call for help. He squinted at his watch and tried to estimate how long he'd been out. Two hours maybe. A lifetime. How many miles depended on how much Blair had managed to slow them down. If he was injured He shook his head and tried to concentrate but his senses were erratic, still jumbled from the zone or from what had caused it.
Weaponless, head still ringing, he picked a direction and started downward.
"Jim, man, I don't know if you can hear me, but I'm going to keep talking." Blair gave another futile tug to the ropes binding his wrists together, continuing his whisperings. "We're headed southwest, I've been dragging my feet, trying to leave a trail, but with the wind--" Blair swung his head as the breeze blew long, loose strands of hair in his eyes. His captor was following behind, pointedly waving the gun any time he turned around. Their destination became suddenly clear when a steep downward climb revealed the rocky outcropping of a cave face.
"We're at a cave," murmured Blair, stopping the soliloquy as the man drew nearer.
"Know my way around the land," was said with self-satisfaction. The gun bumped against the small of Blair's back. "You're the first I ever brought here."
"Oh, lucky me."
Jim noticed just the faintest wake, a track of relative bareness in the leafy carpet. Not with sentinel sight, as sight wasn't working - neither for that matter were any of his other senses, the forest no more revealing than it would be to any other man unlucky enough to be tramping through it as day wound into dusk. Going would be rough in an hour, the sun rapidly disappearing behind the highest peaks, already leaving coves of dark shadows as it slipped beyond stone gray and leafy brown.
Nothing else revealed that Blair had passed this way, but he had to be following the right path. Had to be. Because anything else was unthinkable. If it wasn't, if he'd taken the wrong path, if the homicidal maniac had used his knife Jim knew if that had happened, like his senses, he would disappear. Just drift. Either into that place of nonexistence that Blair called zoning or drift through this world - a wraith in a sea of sensation: mute, numb. He could feel it already, the chill dragging him toward senselessness.
Steadying himself, ordering himself to alertness, he put one foot in front of the other and followed.
"All the comforts of home," concluded Blair, hunkering against the cold stone of the cave's interior, getting a grunt in return from his captor. Blair shivered a little, he hadn't been dressed for spending the night in the middle Cascades - just clad in a light jacket. The other man wasn't much of a conversationalist, answering with mainly wordless vocalizations and the occasional flash of the gun as if to remind Blair he still had it. Blair settled his butt against the cool, sandy floor and rubbed a hand over his dry lips, wishing he had some water.
He wondered if Jim had even managed to snap out of it yet. At the body farm it had taken nearly an hour for him to come to and that was with Blair there cajoling, coaxing. How long was it going to take in the middle of nowhere, alone?
Blair watched the man's movements, the almost careless way he treated the gun. His captor was taller by a few inches, carrying enough pounds to make him look pudgy but not soft. Not when he'd dragged bodies out into the woods, hiked up the Cascades to hidey holes in the rock.
Blair rubbed his hands together to generate some warmth. "You got a name?" he tried for the second time.
There was a pause as if the man was considering. "John."
"John," repeated Blair. It seemed the gods did have a sense of humor. "Well, John. What exactly are we doing here?"
The question met with a little humming sound and the man polished a thumb along the barrel of the gun. "Waiting."
"Waiting for what?"
"Him," Blair echoed.
"Ain't got a name, not that he'll tell me."
"Okay," Blair drew the word out. "You've got a partner?"
"Him," John agreed. "I don't do it. I just watch. It's him." He looked Blair over critically. "Ain't never killed him a man before but I reckon it's not much different."
Blair wrapped his arms around his waist and tried to keep warm and limber. The gun jerked a little with his movement. Outside the cave, the light was growing dim.
The trail was growing harder to see, the wind colder. Neither of which was more than a brief passing thought, something he noticed and then pressed onward. He strained, trying to force his hearing outward past the rustle of dried leaves, the occasionally drop of a hard seed to the forest floor. He had not followed a trail like this since those first days in Peru when the flashbacks of the crash were still playing in a heightened Technicolor in his mind, before he'd noticed that things had begun to become clearer, standing out in sharp details that he'd seen only long ago as a child, that he'd forgotten until he chased the Switchman and lost his bearing in the sudden jarring clarity of it all.
Before his senses and Blair were inexplicably entwined one almost dependent on the other.
And Blair now depended on him.
He stumbled over a sudden dip hidden in the litter and noticed how the last slanted rays were fading from even the small gaps in the wall of the Cascades.
Damn it. He stopped and tried to take his bearings, tried, again, to focus sight or hearing. He thought, perhaps, the dusky gloom lightened infinitesimally, but not to the level of even a few minutes before.
Blair watched warily as the man - John, he corrected trying to give his captor a more human face - watched as John rocked and hummed, lost in his own world, a little like Jim post-zone - disconnected from the realities of the here and now. The gun was still held in his hand, but it drooped again as if half-forgotten and Blair stretched, testing his limbs, wondering if he could take the man with a mad forward rush. But then the somewhat removed look on the man's face vanished and the gun came up with newfound accuracy.
"I wouldn't if I were you."
There was a surprising vigor to the observation and Blair sat back, startled.
"Nice of him to leave me a present." He came forward, gun barely brushing Blair's temple, one hand toying with one of the loose strands of Blair's hair. "At least if he brought me a man, you're a pretty one."
"I take it you're not John."
This was met with a derisive snort. "Boy's weak. Always had to take care of things for him."
Blair pressed back further, away from the gun. Whether this was a true case of multiple personality or some other kind of psychological manifestation was a question for another day. Assuming there was another day. "Ah, and I assume the rest is your handiwork."
The barrel of the gun brushed along his forehead almost tenderly.
"More than you know."
"More than the three we've found dead."
"More than that." Up close, the man's eyes were hard and glinting. "You'd be my first all over again. Ain't never done a man. Killed one, I mean. Ain't never killed a cop neither. You'll be two firsts in one."
"Wonderful," murmured Blair, ending it with a barely-breathed, "I need you, Jim."
Jim never considered himself a deep thinker - it was more that he reacted: saw and knew, his skills bodily, inborn. Even without his senses heightened, this was the way he was and he followed the darkening path now, not puzzling out his quarry's motivations or anticipating his next move, just following a trail he could no longer really see, a path he knew was there, not because enhanced sight or scent consciously revealed it but because he just knew. And far be it from him to question the knowing. Thinking too deeply only muddied things, brought doubt. He smiled a little, thinking of his partner for whom thinking was an art form, beautiful and swift and as natural as moving, then he put his head down slightly against the growing cold and trudged a little closer to his goal.
"Look John," Blair had watched the glint of the blade escape the small puddle of lantern light.
The shard of reflected brightness bounced and dipped. "Not John." The gun had been laid aside, the knife apparently more appealing.
"What should I call you then?" ventured Blair, twisting his bound hands surreptitiously, the rope rubbing against patches already scratched raw by its roughness.
A thumb ran along the blade edge, shadowed in the light. "Some things ain't to be named."
"And you're one of those things," Blair concluded
"He calls me 'him'."
"Is that what you call yourself?"
"You talk," he noted, still examining the blade. "Some of them talked, begged even. You gonna beg, pretty boy? I like it when they beg."
Blair resettled his legs in anticipation of having to move and move quickly.
Jim squinted into the dark, seeing the faintest lightness at the edge of his peripheral vision and trod more carefully, softening his steps. He tried to dial up vision but the patch still remained just a dim glow, not even bright enough to make himself sure that he'd seen it, yet he knew instinctively that he'd found the end of his trail. Scent and hearing were still offline as well but there was still the old way to do it, the soldier's way. But he would have been reassured if he could hear Blair's voice, hear the comforting thrum of his heart.
He crouched low and began his assault.
The moment that his captor shifted his weight, Blair made his move, bringing his bound hands close to his waist and doing a passable kick to the man's solar plexus. He doubled over but did not lose the grip on the knife and one hand slashed out, barely missing a bound arm. Blair scrambled for the cave entrance as John - or whoever he claimed to be now - decided that, while the knife was pleasurable, the gun was of much greater use against a fleeing hostage. Blair had the merest glimpse of him, silhouette shadowed against the light, before he made for the covering darkness of the woods, dodging sharply to the side of the cavern's mouth as a bullet splintered hard projectiles behind him. He felt one slice across the nape of his neck and had only registered the sharp pain of it before he was staggered back from the body blocking his way. For a split second he thought, perhaps, the man actually did have a partner but then strong arms swept around him and he was pushed behind the living barrier.
A second shot whizzed by their heads and they ducked in tandem, Jim keeping a hand out to corral him in his shadow. Leaves crackled beneath their feet as they sprang sideways.
"I don't like " a third shot echoed wildly from the interior, " getting shot at with my own gun," Jim gritted. "Good ducking," he added as an afterthought.
"Ducking is my life," murmured Blair, a palm against the curve of Jim's back as he moved laterally, away from the shelter of Jim's body and felt Jim move with him, compensating, covering him. "Senses?" he asked.
"How'd you find me?"
"I was Special Forces," Jim reminded shortly. "I think I can track a subject through the woods."
"In the dark?" Blair whispered back.
"I'm here aren't I?"
"Granted," admitted Blair, filing it away to think about later when they weren't holed up, weaponless and vulnerable. "What's the plan?"
"Wait for him to come out?" Jim leaned over, trying to see through the dimness. "He's got the high ground."
"And the gun," Blair added.
Jim took inventory. "Still have the cell. You could go back -"
"And leave you out here with Mr. Maniac? I don't think so," shot back Blair. He twisted his arms to relieve the heavy discomfort. "Think you can get these off of me?"
"Yeah, can do, Chief." Jim worried with the knot, glancing every so often toward the cave entrance, until he'd made short work of it.
Blair bit back a groan as the rope came free, testing his arms gingerly. The ache flared as he rotated his shoulders and his hands burned wildly with the returning feeling. Jim hunkered down, the chill of the ground seeping into the knee that touched the forest floor and he rubbed a hand up and down Blair's arm, seeking to warm him even as his gaze remained fixed on the black outline of the cave entrance.
"So we're just going to wait," Blair stretched his tingling fingers.
"Not much else we can do." As he said it, Jim moved closer to him, wrapping an arm around his back, drawing him closer. "We might as well get comfortable. Or, as comfortable as we're going to get." He took a minute to look up at the clear Cascade night. "Going to be a long night."
"You think Simon will show up with the cavalry?"
"If they can track us."
"Got McKinsey and his faithful Dobermans," offered Blair. He shifted, still twitching, arms protesting with sharp pinpricks of feeling. "We're on our own, aren't we?" he finally admitted, seeking Jim's nod of confirmation.
"I'm afraid so, Chief."
"And he's eventually going to come out."
"Probably," Jim admitted.
"And he's got our guns."
Blair snorted, his breath condensing as it rose from his lips. "You've got a way with words there, Big guy."
"Jim?" Blair startled to awareness as the arm shifted from his back. "You let me fall asleep?"
"Ssh," breathed his partner. "I think I heard some movement."
"Your senses back online?"
"Maybe. Part way." Jim shook his head. "I'm not sure."
"Okay," accepted Blair. "We'll work this out." He glanced around into the darkness. "Once we get out of here."
Jim rose to a crouch. "He's definitely moving."
Sure enough, the faint glow of the lantern dipped and bobbed in the distance.
"Jim," warned Blair, his hand lashing out but catching only cool air. He pressed up on stiffened wrists, wavering slightly on cold-numbed legs. "Jim," he hissed softly but his partner's tall form was already fading into the blackness that surrounded them. "Damnit," he muttered, stumbling after.
Jim knew Blair was behind him, could hear the fresh crunch of fallen leaves as he staggered before regaining his balance and treading more softly. Ahead the lantern floated in the darkness, weaving as his quarry moved, the radiance stilling occasionally as if the man was listening, but Jim kept well away from the small circle of visible light, tucking behind convenient trunks when it was raised in his direction.
Blair caught up to him, huffing slightly from the scattered path he'd followed and Jim nodded in the direction of the light, his own movement barely visible. With a firm hand on Blair's shoulder he motioned him to stay put then he began to circle around, the spiral tightening inward. The soft snap of a branch gave his position away once and another bullet cracked from the gun but the aim was off and the fortuitous fall of an acorn pointed the gun in another direction and another bullet was gone.
When Jim sprang, it was nearly silent, his arms wrapping around unprotected ribs and driving the man to the ground, uncaptured arms flinging wildly as the man loosed another shot. Rolling off, Jim pressed a flailing wrist backwards, bone snapping and the gun was released with a muffled scream. Jim grabbed for the second weapon sheltered in the belted waist of the pants and flung it in Blair's direction, a foot pressing heavily on the heaving sternum. The man whimpered, curling toward the bent wrist.
"I got you." Blair had the second pistol now firmed in his grip, the barrel aimed at the form writhing on the ground and Jim bent for the other pistol, the pressure from his foot never wavering.
He checked the near empty clip then reloaded it. "Never doubted it for a moment, Chief."
The sheriff's patrol produced coffee in a thermos and Blair sipped a cup gratefully, hunkered down in the patrol car, away from the wind, legs dangling out the open door. Jim was hunched over his own cup, but standing, detailing the take-down with his free hand gesturing sharply every so often. His voice drifted over Blair as he rolled his head, trying to loosen tight neck muscles.
When Simon's big, blue sedan rolled up, it scattered the county uniforms like a bevy of brown-tinged quail and Blair waved a half-hearted greeting in the captain's direction, squinting up at him wearily, a hand drawing back a tendril of hair that annoyingly blocked his vision.
"Hey there, Simon."
"Don't you 'hey there, Simon' me," rumbled deeply and Blair winced a smile. "What the hell did you think you were doing, going off without backup?"
Blair's eyes flitted to Jim who was wisely continuing his story to a more appreciative audience.
"Look, we got him, okay?"
"Not okay. It was one thing when you didn't know enough not to follow him on these idiotic jaunts," a large dark hand flew out in Jim's direction, "but you're a cop now, Sandburg, and what part of proper procedure would lead you to tail a suspect, alone, into his own territory?" When this got no immediate answer, Simon sighed. "You all right? Jim okay?"
"Senses are still cutting out on him." Blair took another sip of the rapidly cooling coffee. "We've got to figure this out, Simon."
"Yeah, well," Simon relaxed a bit, leaning his big frame against the side of the car, "that's more your area of expertise than mine."
"But you're the one who's going to sign off on the report of how a serial killer got both our guns," observed Blair glumly, toying with the paper rolled at the lip of his cup.
"Christ," spat Simon. "What the hell happened out there? He zone? No, wait," Simon reconsidered, "don't tell me that. I'll wait for the report." He pushed off of the door, murmuring "ignorance is bliss."
Blair snagged his fingernail under the rim of the cup and tore at the paper there.
"Why can't it just be simple?" Jim rubbed small circles at his temples with the pads of his thumbs.
"Because nothing with this sentinel stuff is simple," returned Blair, but he leaned over the back of the couch, adding his own hands, massaging along tense shoulders. "After this long, we know this."
Jim leaned back into the touch. "A little lower, Chief. Ah, yeah, right there," and Blair grinned.
"Well, we can't go on like this. We've got to find a fix. You can't keep losing your gun to the bad guys."
"I'm not going to zone," said Jim simply. "I'm offline so there's no danger."
"Offline is not normal. Oh," corrected Blair when Jim opened his mouth to reply, "you'd *like* it to be normal but it's not. You're a sentinel, Jim. It's what's natural to you. Offline is the problem, not the answer."
"I got the guy, didn't I?"
"Not without scaring the crap out of me and Simon and, hell, Simon wasn't even there to see it and *I* was." Blair came around and sank beside Jim on the couch. "Do you know what it was like, leaving you out there like that?"
"No, but I know what it was like waking up to find you and my gun gone," snapped Jim. "You act like this is something I *meant* to happen. No way in hell." He pushed off the cushions forcefully.
"I didn't say that." Blair raised a finger in warning before Jim could retort. "There's no way I think you consciously meant it to happen. You're no coward, Jim. Something set you off, something at the Body farm oversensitized you and one thing led to another. Now stress that normally wouldn't cause a zone is tripping you over that line. Add sensory stimulation and -- voila - a zone."
"Thank you, Dr. Freud."
Blair grinned. "Ah, not Freud. Maybe more Skinner, well with just a little psychotherapy thrown in for good measure."
"So what do we do about it?"
"You mean you're going to *let* me do something about it?" Blair returned, putting his hands on his knees and leaning forward. "Okay, the thing is - I don't think they're really gone." He waved his finger again as Jim's shoulders shrugged skeptically against the back of the couch. "Hear me out. I know you had really good training, but not good enough to find me in the dark in the middle of the Cascade National Forest."
"My senses were *not* on-line," protested Jim.
"Not that you were aware of," Blair corrected.
"I think I'd know, Chief."
"And I think you wouldn't," challenged Blair. "I think it's entirely possible that your senses were running - maybe at less than 100% -- but still were on at some kind of level. Enough that subliminally you were aware of them, even if you couldn't control them directly."
"And I think I know my own body."
"I'm just saying that you can't take the senses out of the sentinel, Jim."
Broad shoulders tightened further. "You're saying it's all in my head."
"No, I'm not. Something happened at the Body farm. Some kind of overload. I'm pretty sure your synapses got fried - and that's more than just," Blair's fingers left little quote marks in midair, "metaphorically speaking. I think this is biologically based, Jim, and that we just need to find a way to reset you."
"Like the button on the computer?"
"Cold boot you?" Blair shook his head. "I'm thinking that's a little extreme. I was thinking a little more control-alt-delete, get you to take all your senses off-line and bring them back up."
"They *are* off-line," reminded Jim again.
"No, man, you just think they are."
Jim rubbed a weary hand over his eyes. "Blair "
"I know. They feel off-line," soothed Blair. "Look, we don't have to fix them tonight. I'm thinking a little R&R from it all and, maybe, tomorrow you'll feel more-"
"-reasonable," supplied Jim.
"Wasn't going to say *that*," Blair observed, plopping a hand squarely on Jim's thigh. "I was going to say 'rested' or 'relaxed'."
"But you were thinking 'reasonable," Jim groused.
"I was thinking upstairs." Blair's eyes sparked in the muted light.
"Upstairs," pondered Jim. "I could go for
Blair's fingers moved to grip his. "I thought you might."
In Simon's thick fingers, the white pages of the report dangled, looking limp and insubstantial.
"Yeah, Simon," said Jim, wearily. "That's it."
Peering over the top of his glasses, Simon let out a deep sigh. "You're damned lucky he didn't manage to hit either one of you when he fired or there'd be a hearing."
Jim shifted and clasped his hands behind his back. "I'm aware of that, sir."
"So the senses "
"What does Sandburg think?"
Jim shifted again. "He thinks I need to be reset."
"Reset," confirmed Simon.
"Like the computer," Jim explained.
Simon frowned and shook his head. "Just don't tell me how he plans to do this," he warned.
"No, sir," agreed Jim.
"On another note," said Simon, straightening, "Anderson called me. Seems our boy made quite an impression."
"He always does, sir."
"I've been thinking." Blair sat on the nearest park bench and bit into his long-delayed lunch with gusto, the hotdog disappearing distractingly between full lips and Jim let his own purse closed as he watched.
When Blair shot him a sideways glance, he cleared his throat and put on his best innocent look. It only cracked a little as Blair lovingly fellatioed the next bite, tongue flicking briefly between his lips after he was done. "You listening here, Jim?"
"I'm all ears," replied Jim, taking advantage of the lull to grab a bite of his own relish-covered dog. "Go on."
"Well, if a sensory deprivation chamber was built for two, I'd go with that."
"You want to put me in a dark box?"
"No," concluded Blair, shortening the hotdog with another sharp bite. He chewed thoughtfully for a moment. "But I'd like to get you somewhere that had as little stimulation as possible."
"You said for 'two'."
"I don't think this is something you should go through alone. Remember what I said in the woods, Jim? That this is more than just 'you' now? I think we right this together or we don't right it at all."
"Jim, I mean this. That little bit of psychoanalysis I was going to throw in we throw it in now. Along with whatever is going on with you sense-wise there's the whole mental block you have about partnership that we've got to deal with."
"Blair, I love you, if you don't know that by now--"
"I know that. You know I know that. I know you know I know that."
Jim blinked and opened his mouth only to be stopped by a hand settling briefly against his chest.
"We'll take that as a given," declared Blair. "You love me. I love you. But you seem to think that's all there is to it."
"That is all there is to it," Jim agreed.
"No. No it's not."
"Argh," Jim put a hand against the bunching muscles of his neck. "You make everything too difficult."
"No more so than is necessary," dismissed Blair. "Humans are a complicated lot, big guy. You more so than others."
"So we're talking - what-a weekend alone together?
That'll straighten me out?"
"Well, I don't want you too straight," Blair observed with a grin. "I'm thinking we go up to visit Henry Two-Feather."
"Naomi had a Native American phase right before I left for
school. Took up with a grad student doing a thesis on Smohalla -- he was a Wanapun shaman
who founded the
"Dreamer Cult', a religion based on the spirituality of all things of nature and the revelation of wisdom through dreams. Anyway, Henry still lives on the Columbia - has his own private sweat lodge, which is just the kind of thing we need to protect and focus
your senses." Blair's hands came together, fingertips touching as they arrowed toward Jim's chest.
"And this Henry's going to be happy to have company?"
"Oh yeah, he's never gotten over Naomi leaving him to go to that ashram in Rishikesh. Still thinks he can win her back. He'll be happy to see me."
Blair was practically beaming now that he had a plan and Jim could only grimace a little under the toothy grin. "Why do I think this is another straight path into the Sandburg Zone?"
"No where else to be, my man, " reassured Blair, clapping a warm hand on his arm. "Nowhere else to be."
Henry Two-Feather engulfed Blair in a strong hug and Jim watched with a grin as the stocky man's arms folded about his partner, obscuring his back beneath sturdy arms.
"Last I heard Naomi was in Montserrat. She's doing fine."
"Good to hear it," Henry turned a broad-faced grin on Jim. "I'm-"
"Henry Two-Feather," supplied Jim. "I've heard a lot about you."
The dark head jerked in Blair's direction. "Probably all of it about how I hold a torch for this cub's mom."
"Well, Naomi is-"
"Your mother-in-law," supplied Blair in mock warning.
"In all but the 'law' part," Jim agreed.
If possible Henry's grin widened further. "Then consider me your uncle - also not in law." He slung an arm around Blair's shoulders. "Blair says you need some R&R."
"So he tells me," concurred Jim. He looked around the solid plank walls of Henry's cozy cabin. "Nice place."
"Big enough for me and a few friends from time to time. Thought it might be a problem that I only had one extra bed, but I see that's not a concern."
"Ah, no," admitted Jim.
"Good," said Henry. "Couch is pretty sucky."
Blair raised his hands at this last pronouncement. "He's a bona fide anthropologist, Jim. And a shaman. Even if he does say 'sucky'."
"You say 'sucky', Chief."
"Sucky?" Blair blinked. "Me? When'd I say 'sucky'?"
"I'm sure I've heard the word 'sucky' crossing those lips," retorted Jim.
The lips in question pursed. "Henry, I'm thinking we don't tell him about the other room."
"You mean the one with the sixty-one-inch flat panel in it?" replied Henry.
"That very one," Blair agreed.
Henry shrugged under Jim's gaze. "I'm down with the whole nature thing. But I'm down with the Jags and the Seahawks too."
"Ah," Jim offered his hand. "A man after my own heart."
Blair turned down the sheets, smoothing the flannel with a palm. "So? Whadda you think?"
"I think Naomi passed up a good one."
"I don't think she is quite the sports fan you are." As Jim unbuttoned his shirt, Blair sat on the bed, bouncing slightly as he tested the mattress for firmness. The boxsprings protested with a surprisingly mouse-like squeak. "Well this could be a problem. I'd hate to think we're going to keep Henry up at night."
"You mean you're not going to make me observe some ritual of celibation."
Blair squinted one eye at his partner. "Celibation isn't a word, Jim. In fact, historically, celibate means only "unmarried." Its meaning as "abstaining from sexual intercourse" is a 20th-century development."
"Mmm," agreed Jim, slipping out of his pants and standing boxered and socked beside the bed. "So you're telling me we're both celibate?"
"Well, we might have been a hundred years ago." Blair shrugged out of his henley. "You going to bed with those on?"
Jim wiggled his toes. "My feet are cold."
Stripping to reveal narrow hips, Blair quickly slipped between the covers. "I wasn't talking about your socks."
"We're not at home," protested Jim, inserting a thumb along the elastic waist of the boxers.
"We're not at your dad's either," grinned Blair.
"Okay," conceded Jim, "your relatives, I forgot."
"Get in here," Blair held up the edge of the sheet.
"No coffee." Blair shook a finger at a just-awakened Jim standing in the small kitchen and blinking owlishly at him. "We're fasting."
"Fasting," repeated Jim dully.
"For the sweat," supplied a jeans-clad Henry, large hands skillfully weaving long, dark hair into a single braid. Jim blinked again at the faded lettering of the sweatshirt that read *Anthropologists do it with culture*. "I'm going out to start the fire. Come out in a while and I'll show you around." The big man yawned, a large fist covering his open mouth. "Sorry. Had a bit of trouble sleeping last night."
Jim raised an eyebrow at Blair who merely put on his best innocent look. "We keep you awake last night?"
"No, no. Not you boys." He shrugged. "Just one of those things." He opened the door, stepped out on the wooden step. "Could use with oiling those bedsprings though," he grinned widely, closing the behind him.
The object of Jim's attention sniggered. "Henry's just teasing you."
Jim managed a wan snort of his own.
"How's the senses?"
"About the same," admitted Jim. "I feel fine," he reiterated.
"And you'll feel finer once we get you re-set. Trust me on this one, Jim." The blue-eyed gaze settled seriously on him and he suddenly didn't feel like rehashing the argument.
"I'm here aren't I? Not drinking coffee," Jim pointed out.
"Yeah, well, man, that's more of my hardship than yours," Blair returned with a smile.
"The things you do for me," retorted Jim dryly, going to Blair and gripping his shoulders, getting a pat in return. "Think we ought to go see this sweat lodge?"
"I'm with you," said Blair.
"I know you are, Chief. I know you are."
"No New Age hocus pocus? No mystical mumbo jumbo?"
Blair gave him a thumb-poke in the ribs. "You wound me, man." The thumb stayed put, brushing up and down the fabric of Jim's shirt. "Now take it all off."
"All?" Jim glanced right, then left, frowning slightly at the wisps of fog still rising from the river's basin.
Henry grinned again as he treaded, rock-laden, toward the bent green aspen of the lodge door. "Tried to convince Naomi one time that the spirits didn't care if I had my shorts on." Henry folded through the opening, voice suddenly muffled by the blankets shrouding the sides and top. "Don't like stickin' like that-"
Blair and Jim exchanged grins and Blair gave a friendly tug to Jim's shirt, mouthing the word "all" again.
"-but there was no talking to that woman when she was in one of her enlightened moods."
Henry backed up, put down the flat wooden paddle he'd used to ferry the rocks and rubbed his palms along jean-clad thighs. "Should be good to go. Wish I could join you boys, but Blair here explained you need some privacy." He cuffed a palm to Jim's back. "Next time though. I'd like to see what's left of this sprout after you sweat the pounds off of him."
Blair shook his head in bemusement, arching away from Henry's familial head pat and snorting a brief, amused huff.
"Sprout?" Jim shrugged off his shirt after Henry had made good progress back along the cabin's trail.
"Once a nerdy, sixteen-year-old freshman-"
"One day a nerdy, thirty-year-old-" finished Jim.
"Watch it," said Blair, holding a finger up in warning.
"Let's get this over with," Jim reached down to unlace his shoes. "That big-screen is waiting."
Blair divested his own clothes into a haphazard pile over the rocks weighing down the ends of the blankets. He couldn't help but shiver a little in the cool, damp air. And he looked over to find Jim grinning at his predicament.
"Think you've got a little shrinkage going on there, Chief."
Blair raised an eyebrow at him. "Speak for yourself." And he cupped over a little to protect the more vulnerable pieces of his anatomy. "You'll be glad to know that, for you, we're skipping the purification-by-burning-sage."
"Good to know," agreed Jim.
Blair raised the flap over the door. "Now get in there."
The curved interior was a blissful warmth, close and dark and filled with just enough residual sage to make Jim sneeze sharp and hard.
"Bless," said Blair, sitting down on another blanket strewn on the floor. "Hope this isn't going to be a problem. I'd tell you to dial it down but-"
Jim sniffed. "I'll be okay."
"Good, then make yourself comfortable and let's get started."
As Jim sank cross-legged, he peered across the gloom. "I thought you said no mumbo jumbo."
"This isn't mumbo jumbo. This is me and you and your senses which should be feeling pretty relaxed about now."
"Not bad," admitted Jim, settling more deeply against the thin stretch of woven cloth. "But not good either."
"We're getting to the 'good'. I mean," Blair stopped a minute, "wait, you're admitting they can be 'good'?"
Jim's shrug was just a darker movement against the dim interior. "Sometimes. Sometimes when I have them under control-" He stopped. "You know I'm no good at explaining this stuff."
"Hold that thought," Blair leaned forward. "Right now all I want you to do is relax. Examine where you are. See it. Hear it. Smell the fire and the woods and the-"
"Blankets," put in Jim, "they're kind of musty."
Blair drew in a long breath of air. "You're right. I hadn't noticed. Just acclimatize yourself. Get used to it. This will be your baseline."
While Blair waited, he rocked a little. Jim couldn't quite make out his eyes, but he knew they were fixed on the shadow of him.
"Got it?" he finally inquired softly.
"Okay, now I want you to stretch out just a little. Don't," he hastened," don't think about the dials, just reach. Not very far, just notice something you hadn't noticed before." After a pause, Blair queried softly. "Anything?"
Jim shook his head. "Maybe it's a little lighter, I don't know."
"Reach again. This is the forest floor, rich with life."
"And death," added Jim, the slightly mildewed odor of the blankets not completely covering the rich, dark scent of leafy compost.
"Want to tell me about that, Jim?" Blair's voice was quiet and steady.
"It's you know, the way loam smells when you crumble it - complex, earthy." Jim's hands moved as he spoke, fingers curving as if cupping the moist soil in their grasp.
"That's what death smells like?"
"Here," nodded Jim. "Decay. The end product of death."
Blair scooted forward, closer to the radiating heat.
"And what about before then?"
Jim swallowed. "Glass was right, there are stages. Rigor smells gently sour."
"Lactic acid," concluded Blair. "It builds up in the muscles."
Jim drew a deep breath. "Chief, I can't do this."
"Sure you can," Blair's voice was quietly emphatic. "You're overloading on it, Jim. Zoning. You've got to get past it somehow. Just take a few deep breaths and then reach past the decay reach for something living."
What was most alive, surrounded by the trees and water, the scent most calming was, as always, Blair's, but he refused to hold it like a lifeline, knowing, if he did, that the day it snapped would be the day it took him with it. To love anyone was to leave himself so open to pain that the additional strain of fixing his senses on him would leave him too vulnerable to contemplate and he had been trained to survive. He reached instead for the fresh smell of the green marrow under the sheltering bark, the far-off promise of spring deep in the heart of the sleeping trees. It was sharp and alive.
"I smell the trees," he said.
"Good," said Blair, moving again, scrunching closer to the fire and releasing his own scent of soft musk which distracted him with its siren song.
"Now try piggybacking sound to it."
He did but what he got was the roiling thump of a steadily beating heart much closer than the treeline.
"Is it working?"
"I'm getting something."
"Your heartbeat," Jim admitted.
"Were you going for my heartbeat?"
"That would be a 'no', Chief."
"Does it bother you that you're getting my heartbeat?"
"I can't " Jim halted. "You can't be my baseline, Sandburg."
Noting the use of "Sandburg" with a disbelieving snort, Blair shook his head. "It's going to come down to it, isn't it?"
"What?" replied Jim.
"It's the same reason you're trying to get me to take that job with Anderson. You're trying to push me away."
"I'm not pushing you away, Blair. Have I said anything about you leaving the loft?"
"No, although I wouldn't be surprised if that came next if this stuff you're pulling doesn't work."
"I would never push you that far away."
"You would for my own good. And lord knows you have an idea that you know what's my own good."
"You can't be with me 24 hours a day. I am not reducing your life to that," Jim countered.
Blair sighed. "I can't believe we're having this argument again and in a sweat lodge." He gathered himself. "Well, I still think you have some biological problems to straighten out so give it another try. If you have to use me for your baseline, then you have to use me for the baseline at least temporarily. Come on, Jim," he begged. "We've got to do something with you. You can't go on like this. *We* can't go on like this."
Jim resettled against the blankets, the slick feel of his skin only magnifying his annoyance. But he closed his eyes against it and reached.
The heat from the rocks had dispersed, the blanket-bound lodge still warm but not the sweltering heat of before. Jim had felt his senses settle, one by one, into something like normal though he was still hyperaware of Blair's sensory presence. It was, he supposed, a compromise of sorts - he was functioning but not as well as he knew he could not as well as he could have had he let his senses settle on Blair use him.
"So?" questioned Blair, following with, "It so worked, didn't it," his eyes mapping out the more relaxed posture of Jim's body. "I knew if we could just get you somewhere you could concentrate "
With a groan - half in response to cramped muscles and half a simply heartfelt with to have the conversation revolve around anything but him - Jim rose to a crouch and staggered, bent-backed, to the lodge's blanketed door. He shuddered from the blast of cool air that invaded as the lifted the cloth flap.
"Clothes," gasped Blair around chattering teeth, arms crossing against his chest as the river's breeze spread inward.
His pants landed with remarkable accuracy on his lap, followed by his shirt which he shrugged on first, pulling it over sweat-dampened skin. He watched Jim do the same with khakis and a well-worn polo, the soft cloth clinging to well-defined shoulders.
"You okay, Jim?"
"Yeah, Chief, I'm okay." Jim's fingers moved to button the neck of his shirt tighter against the chill. "Now how about we go find some coffee and check out a little NCAA action?" He raised a hopeful eyebrow and Blair shook his head, curls bobbing in sense-enticing red-tinged browns.
"I bring you out here to reset you, get you in touch with your inner sentinel and you want to go watch hoops?" But his palm settled at the small of Jim's back, curving warm and comforting. "What am I gonna do with you, man?"
"Be my partner," said Jim simply, gathering his own arm around Blair's waist as they set out on the trail back to the house, leaving the steamy warmth of the lodge dissipating in the mists behind them.
"This mean you're going to lay off about the job with Anderson?"
Blair felt the hand gripping his waist loosen ever so slightly.
"I don't want you getting hurt."
"I don't want you getting hurt either, big guy. But that's what the job is. That's what a sentinel and his partner do."
Jim halted at the edge of the small clearing that cradled Henry's cabin.
"All right," Jim conceded. "I'll lay off about the job with Anderson. I'll -" his hand made a vague waving motion.
"You'll be you," acknowledged Blair, "and most of the time I wouldn't have it any other way."
"Most of the time?"
"Yep," Blair turned in his grasp, lips meeting lips, the words ghosting with puffs of warm breath, "most of the time."
Jim leaned in, pressed Blair to him tightly. "Same with me, Chief."
"And for those few moments when we would have it another way?" Blair led.
Jim released the hug, "Well, get through them."
"Together," Blair amended.
Jim took his hand in his, entwining the still warm fingers. "Always. Now," he tugged them both toward the cabin, "about that TV "
Laughing, Blair followed him.