An Altered Life

By Demeter

EMAIL: Demeter

Disclaimer: I don't claim 'em. They come and tell me their stories freely.

Annie and Xasphie did a great beta job as always. Thank you!

Feedback: Please feed the muse - it makes her much more cooperative (-:

 

"How about we let the daylight in, huh?" The nurse didn't wait for him to answer, but raised the blinds noisily after having greeted him with a cheery good afternoon. Blair winced, wishing back the soothing, velvety darkness of sleep. Hannah, he read from her nametag, would have none of that. "I bet you'll be happy to get home," she chatted away, declaring, "You really hate hospitals, don't you?" with a wink.

It was true. Going home sure sounded good though... something was definitely missing here. Okay, so he knew who he was and where he was, Cascade General, for a good reason; it had obviously something to do with his head hurting like hell. Didn't really answer the question of... "What happened?"

A frown chased the bright smile from nurse Hannah's face. "I guess you better wait for Dr. Hanson, she'll be around in half an hour. She can tell you everything."

Less than an hour later, Blair had his discharge papers signed, prescriptions picked up, and he'd learned that he'd been brought to the hospital the day before, and they'd kept him watching for any signs of concussion. Fortunately, there had been none. As to what had actually led to this, the last thing he remembered before the hospital was being at the Cascade Mall, and he'd taken a header down a small flight of stairs. Talk about bizarre. When he asked if Detective Ellison had left any message - for even if he couldn't quite remember, Blair was sure that he'd been here - Dr. Hanson had looked at him strangely before she said, "Not that I know," and it sounded quite like she hadn't heard from him at all, but that was impossible, wasn't it?

He had decided not to press the issue, not wanting to give her any reason to prolong his stay at the hospital. Since Jim wasn't there to pick him up, something really important had to have come up. If nobody had notified him... better not finish the thought. In all likelihood, there would be an APB out on Blair's car by now.

He'd better head home first and find out.

***

Blair was infinitely grateful when he finally reached Prospect 852. As if to make this day as bad as it could possibly be, the elevator was out of order again, and he wearily climbed the stairs, motivating himself with thoughts of a hot shower and his bed. If he was really lucky, Jim had beaten him home and already started dinner. Yep, that would be really good.

Standing in front of the door of 307, another obstacle presented itself to him: He couldn't find his keys. "Oh for chrissakes," he swore, raising his hand to knock. Knocked twice. No luck today. If Jim was there, he would have identified Blair's heartbeat already as he entered the lobby, not giving him the time to knock. He would have...

He was startled out of his thoughts as the door was yanked open with a little more vehemence than necessary. "Oh, Jim, thank Gods you're home, you wouldn't believe the shitty day I had. You cooking? Or maybe we could check out that new Greek place, um... Jim?"

Something was WAY wrong here. Jim made no attempt to move from where he was still blocking the doorway, his expression somewhere in between surprise and annoyance, like he hadn't expected Blair to come home. Like he hadn't expected anybody to come... oh shit!

"Who are you?" the Sentinel asked, his gaze cold.

"What?" He had to be dreaming. That, or he'd suffered an injury more severe than the doctor had told him and was - hallucinating. Yep. Something like that.

"I asked you a question, punk." The tone of his voice was the icy one that could make Blair uneasy even though it wasn't normally directed at him, but some perp in an interrogation room. This... //well, there's a first time for everything, isn't there?//

This was - just great. At least he knew better than to make any 'cavemen' remarks; the last thing Blair wanted today was to end up with his back against a wall. Which was very much like he was feeling right now, figuratively speaking. His unease having grown to the point of not yet panic, Blair replied anyway, "This is so not funny, man. Really, not today. Are you going to let me in now?"

"Are you out of your mind? Who *the hell* are you?"

Alright. Reality check. This was the place he called home and the man he shared it with, James Ellison. Who didn't remember him. Which meant he had to come up with a clever solution real soon, without getting hysterical, because that wouldn't help any. "Listen, this has got to do with your senses. We'll find an explanation. I promise. My name, uh, is Blair Sandburg, and I live here." It sounded silly, declaring it like that to Jim who had been his friend for almost three years.

"And I'm the President of the United States. You listen now, kid, I'm a police officer, and if you carry on with this crap, I'm going to arrest you for trespassing. Stalking, hell, whatever. Understood?" Jim was obviously as angry now as anyone would be with a stranger showing up at his door, pretending he was his roommate. His stance was deliberately menacing.

Only Blair wasn't pretending. It had to be a nightmare. Yeah, right, that's what it was. Any moment now he was going to wake up and laugh himself silly over the whole preposterous situation.

Or not.

"Please, you've got to hear me out. Call your boss and ask him if you want to, I'm an observer with the department, we're partners and..."

"Partners? I don't have a partner. Nice talking to you, Chief. Would you be so kind as to...?"

"Jim! You know I'm telling the truth. I have a room here!" His tone bordered on whining now, but the thought of camping out in his office, considering the circumstances of when he had had to do it the last time, because of Alex, was just too unnerving.

"You do?" Jim gazed at him thoughtfully for a moment, and just when Blair had almost resigned to getting the door slammed in his face, stepped aside. "Come on in," he said. "Let me show you something."

***

The relief Blair had felt at the spontaneous invitation was short-lived. Jim regarded him with what vaguely resembled sympathy, but still no sign of recognition as he followed him inside, closing the door behind the two of them. The loft looked just like Blair had left it - wait, when? - which was a little reassuring. Good. He really needed something reassuring.

"So, you got a room here? Where?" Jim asked, almost gently now.

Biting back some smartass response that wouldn't help either of them, Blair walked towards the French doors rather confidently, Jim following him as he opened them wide to be faced with --

With--

A storage room. Cardboard boxes filled with stuff that didn't look the least bit familiar, a broom, a vacuum cleaner, the usual clutter one would keep in such a room. None of his own stuff.

//Oh, fuck.//

"But what -- what did you do with my things?" he sputtered.

However, Jim wasn't going to cut him any more slack here, the twitching muscle in his jaw clearly showing his renewed irritation. "So, you've seen it, and unless you're suggesting we've been sharing a bed, I'm sure you see my point. Please leave now."

It was the no-room-for-negotiation-left tone.

"But Jim..."

"Do it before I change my mind, will you?"

***

//Stupid.// After he'd let out the unexpected visitor, Jim Ellison had gotten himself a beer from the fridge and returned to his place on the couch, but the TV program couldn't hold his attention; he found his thoughts wandering back to the young man who had so fervently insisted they lived and worked together. As if. He shook his head, had to smile despite of himself. The tale sounded downright crazy. He'd been working alone and liked it that way, ever since his partner had disappeared during a kidnapping investigation. He'd never seen him again, and Jim didn't harbor any hope that Jack could still be alive.

The memory was still painful, tucked away safely in a remote corner of his mind, but he allowed the images to come for a moment, actually shaking his head at the idea Sandburg had conjured up.

Pushing that thought aside, Jim wondered once again how this kid could have come up with such a bizarre story, but apparently, he did believe in it, much so that he'd seemed downright desolate when Jim had shown him the spare room. Partners, and not only that, roommates, too. Him and some long-haired hippie wannabe, it was almost comical. He'd felt it was probably a good idea to offer proof against the delusion, for all it was good for.

//This has got to do with your senses. We'll find an explanation, I promise.//

How the hell could he know about that?

The answer was he didn't, couldn't really, though... It was the moment when Jim had wavered, inviting Sandburg in for a moment rather than read him his rights. He had indeed experienced some trouble with his senses lately, and the latest case with a bomber who'd blown herself to pieces, almost taking a busload of people with her, hadn't helped that any. He'd been hearing and seeing things that no human possibly could, like seeing the suspect getting on said bus from two blocks away, listening in to how she threatened the driver. Bizarre and confusing stuff like that had been happening with his other senses, too, and this evening, he'd found himself on the verge of telling all this to a young man who had shown up at his doorstep, obviously having a shitload of problems of his own.

Meanwhile, Jim even began to doubt he should have let him go like he had. //As if that's my problem, too. What the hell is wrong with me?//

Setting down the beer bottle on the coffee table with a loud clang, he got up from the couch and walked over to the phone, determined to get some answers, ASAP. Recalling that Detective Henri Brown was on the night shift today, he dialed the number of the station, and as the familiar voice answered, he said, "H, it's Jim. You have a minute? I need to ask you a favor. See if you find anything on a Blair Sandburg, and fax it to me. Thanks, man."

***

Blair had found refuge in his office at the U; at least that did exist, and the janitor he'd met briefly even recognized him. Other than that, he had nothing to be relieved about; in fact, as he sat behind his desk, clutching the coffee he'd gotten himself from the vending machine down the hall, he was busy fighting the panic that reached for him with cold fingers.

//This - can't be happening.//

If he was the one who got hit on the head, why didn't Jim remember him? And he'd been dead serious about it. There was no way Jim would play a practical joke on him that was this cruel. No way.

So where did that leave him?

With half of his reality gone, it was overwhelming for a moment. Blair made a conscious attempt to calm himself. Relax. Breathe, slowly, in and out. And again. At least the tried and true remedies still seemed to work, the aftereffects of the shock slowly releasing him from their clutches.

Good. Much better now. All he had to do now was to find some proof he could offer to Jim. Everything would be okay. It had been the right decision to come here instead of keeping on banging on Jim's door, something that he had considered for a moment. He needed a pragmatic approach.

***

The fax machine woke Jim from sleep at precisely 4 a.m. Curious, he got out of bed and went down the stairs to fetch the single sheet, all with a sense of urgency he didn't quite understand.

It was no rap sheet, but Brown had managed to come up with some facts on his visitor anyway. Blair Sandburg was a grad student in anthropology, and a TA with the Rainier university. Living in Cascade... Jim frowned briefly at the address; it was one of those warehouses near the waterfront. The folks living in that area of town had mostly a very bad attitude, or just plain bad luck.

None if it really explained what had possessed the kid to come here with that ridiculous story.

He briefly considered drugs, then decided against it. Jim had worked Narcotics for a while, knew the tell-tale signs. Hell, he could have probably smelled the drugs on Sandburg if he'd been on any, the way his senses had been acting up lately.

That wasn't the explanation, and Jim almost felt sorry, because there weren't many interpretations left. He made a mental note to make a call to a friend of his, Dr. Nina Shawn, a psychiatrist with the Cascade General the other day. Suddenly very tired, he climbed the stairs back to his bedroom. For just a second... //we'll find an explanation, I promise...// he'd felt strangely comforted at the thought someone might be able to help. Well, given some time, Sandburg's wish would probably be granted.

They'd share a room in the loony bin.

***

First of all, he'd checked if there were any other responsibilities he had to take care of. Searching through the data on his laptop, he found his teaching schedule. Blair also learned that he obviously had the rest of the week off, due to a hospital stay and some subsequent sick days.

He shuddered involuntarily. That was the other riddle he'd meant to solve, but asking Jim about it was obviously out of the question. No. Concentrate on the matters at hand now. The doctor hadn't said anything about not driving, so he supposed he could check out the warehouse and show up at the station later in the day. Whatever strange zone Jim had been caught in, he'd find a solution. Jim might not know him, but Simon would.

In the meantime, he would gather as much evidence as possible.

***

One more shock this day and he would drop dead. //I'll swear.// How else could he be expected to react when he saw his old place as intact as it had ever been, with all of his belongings - his furniture, clothes, books, everything - showing no signs they'd ever undergone an explosion. It was as if he'd never moved in with Jim at all. And maybe he hadn't, Blair mused with a dry laugh, maybe this was all just an alternate reality, and he himself had got it wrong, not Jim.

//Yeah, right. 'Beam me up Scotty', I *so* want to go home.//

All the Sentinel research was still there. He'd made notes on all the cases they'd worked together, Jim had to remember them. Besides, how could he have gotten all those test results without actually having worked with Jim? Better, he could dig up the files, proof of how Blair had worked with him and gotten more than a little involved at times. Not to mention all the reports he had written.

Around two a.m. he finally fell asleep on the couch, oblivious to the soft humming of the laptop.

***

Jim's instincts had been right. He would definitely call Nina during his lunch break today, he thought as he spied the man who'd imagined him as his roommate walking through the double doors of the bullpen, wearing a visitor's badge.

//So where are those observer credentials of yours? If you really ever had any, that is.//

Jim wasn't sure whether to smile or to frown; this whole affair was just beyond bizarre. The kid had obviously spent the night at his real place; he looked a little hung over, but had showered and shaved. Jim had easily detected the scents of shaving cream and herbal shampoo. One of those impossible things...

"Hey, Chief," he said, wondering what had caused the younger man to flinch. "Somehow I knew I'd see you again. What is it this time? You want to tell me we're brothers?"

Sandburg's expression resembled that of someone whose puppy had just been run over, but he forced himself to smile. "Look, Jim, I think I've found a way to clear this up pretty quick."

"You have?" Jim raised his eyebrows. Oh yes, he would get answers this time.

"Right. Let's talk to Simon."

A brilliant idea, indeed. He should have thought of that himself. If nobody around here knew him, would Sandburg finally give up? Funny he knew the captain's first name, but then again, it wasn't probably that hard to find out.

"Okay." Jim got up from behind his desk, intending to accompany Blair into Banks' office, but the man in question had just opened the door himself, quickly striding towards Jim's desk.

"Ellison, my office."

At first, he didn't acknowledge Blair's presence at all, then he looked at him, a little puzzled. "You got a visitor, Jim?" No recognition at all. Jim felt relieved and a little sad at the same time. That feeling angered him. It wasn't his responsibility after all. If Sandburg didn't leave him alone after this conversation, he'd consider an Apprehended Violence Order.

***

"Oh no. This can't be true."

His last hope had just vanished into thin air. Rather defeated, Blair slumped into the nearest chair, resting his head on his arms. //Now, what?//

Jim was talking to Simon very quietly, saying something like, "I'll take care of it, sir. If you just give me some time..."

"Yeah, why not? I guess it wasn't all that important." The captain's voice was tinged with sarcasm as he turned back towards his office.

Next, Blair felt a gentle touch to his shoulder. "Come on. I think you and I should talk about this somewhere quiet."

Which turned out to be the same room where they had interrogated Ernest Lash, ages ago, as it seemed. Just when had his life suddenly taken this downward spiral? Blair wondered. "But we worked those cases together. You can read the reports. Hell, I wrote a lot of them. Don't you remember Lash? Sarris? When the warehouse where I lived blew up... oh shit," he said aloud, realizing that the last thing he mentioned apparently never happened.

"Look," Jim said, his empathetic tone unnerving, "I know this must be very confusing, but I can assure you, we never worked together. Why don't you let me call a friend of mine; it might be helpful if you talked to her."

Blair looked up at him, finally mustering the courage for the direct question whose answer would be unmistakable: "You don't remember me at all, do you?"

"I'm sorry, Chief." And Jim was ruffling his hair just like he always had, using the same old nickname; it made Blair want to cry.

He could have dealt with amnesia. He could have dealt with weird zones. This, Blair realized as he sat in his car, trying to consciously control his breathing, was way beyond his reach. //I'll find something//, he vowed silently, then said aloud, "Anything."

He wouldn't just sit and watch his life being taken away from him.

***

During the day, the irritation he'd felt had just kept growing. In the bullpen, Jim had heard every scratch of pen on paper, spoons clanking against the ceramic of coffee mugs, the buzz of the air conditioning. The cacophony had started a headache that became even worse after a late afternoon meeting with a snitch who seemed to have bathed in his after shave.

Driving home, he thought of Sandburg, thus being reminded he'd forgotten to call Nina. Well, maybe he was just avoiding it, knowing too well for his own comfort what it felt like to be one step away from a padded cell. That, and he'd been stumbling over another small detail - Blair mentioning Sarris, the bomber. Then again, Sandburg could have gotten that from the papers.

Not taking the route straight home, Jim drove around town rather aimlessly, looking for a good place to get some take-out dinner, finding himself in a certain part of town. Coincidence? He let out an exasperated sigh. Blair was a grown man, and even if it looked like he could use someone to look after him, why the hell should Jim be that person?

He was going to get home.

***

"Oh come on, girl, don't let me down now. Please. Not now."

Trying to get on friendly terms with his car, which meant attempting to convince her to go the last few blocks until he was - not home, but with a roof over his head, he mentally corrected himself - didn't help. The engine was effectively dead. Knowing that it wouldn't do any good anyway, Blair still spent a short while mindlessly swearing.

Then he got out of his car, squinting in the near darkness, as the next street lamp was quite a distance away. Oh man. He should have really taken the longer route. Technically, he'd be even farther away from the warehouse, but having your car break down in this part of town was probably worse.

He grabbed his cell phone, wondering if there was anyone who owed him enough to drop everything on a Friday evening to come and get him out of this predicament.

He tried not to think of the times he would call Jim the moment the not-so-trusty Volvo broke down. He didn't even want to start with why he was driving the Volvo, but living in the warehouse... Jim had been right today with one thing; it was pretty damn confusing.

***

Jim had had a talk with his boss that same afternoon, trying to explain why he'd taken off with his new 'acquaintance' rather than staying to listen to what Simon had to say. Having listened to the story so far, the captain was quite sympathetic; of course Jim hadn't completely managed to keep his own problems from his long-time friend. He knew, too, that another complication was the last thing either of them needed.

"It's kind of sad," Simon had agreed finally. "You have no idea how the kid's become so fixated on you?"

Jim shrugged. "Beats me. He just sounded so damn sure about it. Weird."

"You think he's a threat to you, or maybe himself?" Simon Banks went for the pragmatic.

"I don't really think so, but I can't say for sure."

"Then call your friend, that psychiatrist. You'd probably be doing him a favor."

"Maybe," Jim said, uncertain about what to do, and hating it.

***

"Step away from the car. Slowly, yeah, just like that. Now give me your wallet. No heroics, or I'll blow your brains out."

The words came out unhurried, eerily cool. And why shouldn't the guy be, they were all alone on this stretch of the lane, no rescue to be expected.

The part of his mind that wasn't terrified with the disturbing reality of the cold steel pressing against the back of his neck, did a quick, ironic summary: He had fallen down the stairs at the mall, somehow. Furthermore, he was living in that same run-down warehouse, possessing lots and lots of Sentinel research, but the Sentinel he'd tested for it, his best friend, didn't know him anymore. Simon hadn't recognized him either; the same with other folks from the PD. So those test transcripts, had he made them all up? Yeah, right, must've done.

Just one thing hadn't changed, Blair mused, he still seemed to be attractive as hell to Cascade's lowlife. And there'd be no last minute rescue from his Blessed Protector this time.

Blair heard a low curse behind him. Right, the guy must have checked his wallet by now, not exactly a fortune for your regular mugger. //Oh my God!// With dread he realized that the likelihood that the man would shoot him anyway, had just increased exponentially.

No! No way! He couldn't possibly die before he'd figure all these strange occurrences out! It was inconceivable.

He spun around, grabbing for the man's weapon, both of them wrestling for it, and then they both went down, the other man on top, still clenching the pistol.

"You'll regret that!" the attacker swore, finger tightening on the trigger minutely.

"Why, I really don't think so."

In that moment, Jim Ellison's voice was the sweetest music to Blair's ears.

***

 

Faced with an armed cop, the perp was blessedly quick to drop the weapon and let himself be cuffed.

"So. It seems like you've got a penchant for getting yourself in trouble, Chief."

Sandburg groaned. "Would you please not call me that?"

At Jim's questioning look, he explained, "You used to call me that... before, you know... when you still knew me."

This just wasn't going to get better, was it? First, his strange urge to follow Sandburg home, then hearing the sounds of a struggle, then another sound, rhythmic and alarmingly fast... shit, the kid's heartbeat. All from a range that was humanly impossible. Hell, it was impossible to hear another person's heartbeat, period. Only that Jim... he could.

"Let's make a deal. I don't give you any nicknames and you leave me be." The words sounded harsher than he'd intended them to be, and he felt the need to make up for them. "Are you alright? I could drive you to the hospital."

"No thanks, man, that's really not necessary. You called someone to pick him up?" Blair asked, gesturing at the glaring perp, his hand shaking slightly.

Jim nodded. "They'll be here in a minute."

"Good. If you could give me a ride home... my car broke down; that's how I got myself into this mess in the first place."

Jim found that pleading gaze hard to resist. "Why not? Backup will be here soon. You can tell them what happened, and then we're good to go." He really didn't want to encourage Sandburg's ideas any further, but what was wrong with making sure he got home safely?

***

"You did what?" Simon Banks asked incredulously.

Jim held up a hand as if to ward off any argument. "He'd been mugged. Was a little shaky afterwards, and that car of his is a disaster. What was I to do? I just drove him home."

"And he didn't say anything about..."

"He thinks that we have somehow succumbed to collective amnesia or something. I don't think he's going to contact me anymore though."

Jim wisely didn't mention the conversation they'd had that night, when Blair all but begged him to stay for a moment and take a look at some documents of his, the 'Sentinel Research'. It was apparently about people whose senses were enhanced beyond the normal human range. For all purposes, about people like him, only he hadn't admitted how close all that came to the truth.

But Simon didn't remember Sandburg, neither did Rhonda or Rafe, and Jim was kind of grateful for that, because it meant he was not the one suffering from delusions.

Though, Blair hadn't really begged, just stated what he obviously believed were facts. "You just saved my life, man. You have to know somehow this was not the first time."

When Jim had failed to answer that, he'd shrugged, though he obviously had been upset still; Jim's senses, embracing the young man with a life of their own, had informed him about that. "You don't believe me. I have all this proof, the tests you were griping about constantly." His feigned nonchalance slipping. "Shit, Jim, this is crazy."

"I have to go now."

"Yeah, I guess you have to. So that's it?"

"Sorry." Then Jim had fled from the apartment, relieved it had ended without a scene, not wanting to think about the hopeless tone in which those words had been said.

***

The other morning, he had finally called Nina at work, worried, and she'd listened to his story sympathetically. "Not your typical stalker, I'd say," she said eventually.

"Not really." He hadn't told her any of the 'enhanced senses' stuff.

"I'd like to talk to him, but I guess he won't do it freely, right?"

He shrugged even though she couldn't see it. "How about when he shows up again, I'll call you, and if you have the time, you come over?" Jim had thought briefly of calling Sandburg just to make sure he was okay. Just who the hell did he think he was, anyway, a shrink? Better if he let the professionals handle it.

***

Tomorrow he'd have to go back to work. It was a prospect Blair wasn't looking forward to. It was true, he loved teaching, but with all the other things he had on his plate right now, he couldn't picture himself trying to get a bunch of Freshman passionately interested in Mayan creation myths.

Blair had called Jim, leaving a message on the machine... about three times. He just couldn't help himself.

He could have called on the cell, but he didn't really want any more people to be involved at this point, God knew what Jim had told Simon. Sighing in frustration, he lay back, listening to the rats shuffling about in another part of the warehouse as if... as if nothing had ever changed. But he couldn't fool himself, he'd lived all this time in the little room under the stairs in the loft. The room that was a storage room now.

//What the hell is wrong with me?//

When he'd been living in the warehouse before, Blair had never felt such soul-freezing loneliness.

***

"I brought that ape with me - Larry. I promised you it wouldn't be more than just a week... but we never talked about it afterwards." A brief flash of pain crossed his face, then he masked it with a smile.

//I just know I can't have anybody around right now//, Jim heard himself say in a distant memory. Where had that come from?

It had all been so predictable. The calls, Blair sitting on the stairs waiting for him when Jim came home from work. The day had been hard on his senses, with a body having turned up at a chemical factory. The smells were overwhelming, even though they had never even been directly in the lab.

He'd invited Blair in, offered him a beer and listened to his continuously weird, albeit entertaining stories. An ape as a temporary housemate. Playing bodyguard for some bitchy rock star, and, that was a good one, vacationing in a monastery. The kid sure was a terrific storyteller. Also, his mood seemed to have improved, but only, Jim suspected, because he still hoped his stories would be believed in the end.

At some point, Jim excused himself, explaining that he had to make a short phone call.

Nina promised she'd be there in twenty minutes.

This would be over soon, and he could also stop fooling himself that Sandburg somehow was the answer to his hopes.

***

"Look," Jim had said, perfectly justifying his decision, "just take a break, okay? I think we can solve this without taking it to a courtroom. I could make the A.D.A. warrant an AVO for you, but I realize that wouldn't really help. Nina, uh, Dr. Shawn has other options. It'll probably just be for a few days."

He was seeing it with his own eyes, hearing the words, but Blair still couldn't believe it. "You're, what, getting me committed? Ah, come on, Jim, you're not serious! I'm not crazy!" Then he'd said the words that would have gotten through to Jim Ellison if there had been any of their bond left; would have hurt even, but they were only met with irritating sympathy.

"You're throwing me out of my home. Again."

And those words had been a mistake. Jim frowned at them, but he stood by his decision. "You have a real life, Chief. You don't have to fantasize me into it."

"You need me." Desperate. //Oh, for heaven's sake could you stop the whining? That's the picture they're expecting, Sandburg, that's it exactly.//

"Let it go, Ch... Blair."

Blair had briefly considered escape, but the man casually leaning against the doorframe, Dr. Shawn's escort, didn't look like he would have simply allowed it. He swallowed thickly, thinking of things like his reputation at the university, but knew that wasn't really the worst loss.

***

Nina had called him later. She couldn't share any details with him, but it was enough for Jim to get the picture. An evaluation lasted for three days, after that it was up to a court to decide if a patient was to stay any longer, "but I'm telling you, it's unlikely. He hasn't been threatening you with anything, and more than that, he says he's beginning to regret what he's done. Based on those facts, it will probably be all over soon."

"Hopefully," Jim agreed, already beginning to regret his decision. It didn't look like they would get any more answers that way, and as hard as he tried, he couldn't shake the feeling he'd betrayed Blair by letting Nina in on it. Which was highly irrational since she was a professional, trained to deal with cases like this.

//Yeah, cases like this. And what about your 'case', Ellison?//

He and Blair hardly knew each other, so why did he have this strange feeling that he was somehow responsible for Blair's welfare?

He remembered something Sandburg had said to him after he'd driven him home the other night; that if you saved another man's life, you'd become his 'Blessed Protector', and that duty would be yours for the rest of your lives. //Sure.//

"Jim, you still there?" Nina's voice came over the line.

"Yeah. Thanks for telling me."

"You're welcome. So, Jim, are you free for dinner on Tuesday?"

"Of course. See you then. Bye."

"Bye," she said, sounding a little puzzled at his abrupt ending of the call.

While talking to her, Jim had caught sight of an unfamiliar book on his shelf. Strange that he hadn't noticed it before. He picked it up and read the title, "The Sentinels of Paraguay" by Sir Richard Burton. As he opened it, a note fell from the pages.

//Jim,

even if you don't remember me, you just can't deny the gift...//

Gift, right. Now he had the proof that this kid was really crazy. //You try living with this crap and we'll talk again.//

//... that you have. I hope you make time to take a look at this; it's really important, especially the stuff on the zone-out factor. I understand you don't want me around right now, but you need someone to pay attention to that. If you need anything else, you know where to find me.

Blair//

If nothing else, he was persistent. And dedicated. It couldn't really do any harm to read this, right? It wasn't like anybody would ever know. And Jim was intrigued by the prospect of finding anything that could get him back to normal.

Maybe this was exactly the answer Jim had been searching for. Sure, Sandburg had to be nuts to have been saying the things he had and following Jim around everywhere, but there was something about the kid, almost like a sense memory, of something that Jim was sure he was supposed to remember. There was also the fact that, crazy or not, just being with Sandburg kept Jim's senses more controlled somehow, as if the student grounded him in some way.

And if he was right, Jim knew, he'd have to go and apologize.

***

With a psychology minor and some therapy experience from earlier years under his belt, Blair felt fairly confident that he could get out of this in time, but still. It hurt. So he hadn't managed to convey to Jim the reality of their relationship, he'd failed badly in fact, but that night, when Jim had invited him in, he'd never thought the evening would end with him getting committed.

And there weren't just his hurt feelings to consider.

Jim, who didn't remember him, was also a Sentinel with no real memory of the control he'd gained over his senses. He'd left him the book; that was all Blair could done at the time. However, the idea that Jim could zone at a bad moment while Blair himself was locked up here was enough to have him worried sick.

Other than that--

Dr. Shawn seemed okay, as much as he could ascertain about her, given his present circumstances.

He'd have to be careful though with her colleague, a Dr. Cummings that he'd spoken to briefly when he was brought in.

All psychiatrists, hell, maybe most academics in human sciences probably had voyeuristic tendencies to some extent, but usually it wasn't the main motivation for a choice of profession. //Let's hope.//

With Cummings, he wasn't so sure. He had asked details about Blair's 'delusion' that hinted at a theory that was way off, worse, the doctor had clearly signaled he wouldn't be satisfied until he had heard every detail of it. It was going to be very a long three days.

//Well, look on the bright side of it//, he thought ironically. //It's warmer than the warehouse. And, no rats.//

Those 'improvements' did nothing to halt the rapid increase of his heartbeat, as he sat alone in his room. He was completely on his own now, and maybe what he still felt was right, TRUE, was all just one big lie...

//Come on, freaking is so not helpful here//, Blair berated himself. If he didn't want this 'evaluation' to last even longer, he'd have to do something about it. Lowering himself to the floor, he settled into the lotus position, taking deep breaths.

There had to be a way out of this.

He closed his eyes, a comforting calm descending over him, embracing him.

//The bond can't be broken. Hear me, Jim. I am your Guide.//

The distant sounds, the panther's roar and the answering howl of the wolf, sounded appreciative, sending a pleasant shiver down Blair's spine. He smiled, his eyes still closed.

Worst case scenario, they'd start from scratch. It didn't mean their story was over. It could never be over.

***

Dr. Nina Shawn took the time for a small coffee break with her colleague, Max Cummings, in the morning. "I'm seeing Sandburg first thing today," she said. "Weird story, isn't it?"

"That it is. I'm thinking he'd be a great subject for our 'Alpha' study, don't you agree?"

"Sure he would, but I doubt we'd ever get the legitimization to keep him for longer than three days. So that's ruled out."

Cummings sugared his coffee generously, smiling at her. "Maybe not, Nina."

***

 

"Good morning, Blair. Did you sleep well?"

He shrugged, secretly relieved that it wasn't Cummings he had to deal with today. "As well as can be expected, I guess."

Dr. Shawn nodded with a smile. "Good. I think we covered the basics yesterday, so let's talk about the reason why you're here."

Blair hadn't lied to her; against all odds he had managed to get some sleep, but not before he hadn't had a story ready that would hopefully convince her to let him go the day after tomorrow. If not... he didn't want to go there yet. "Yeah, that. I have to admit I'm quite embarrassed, now that I've had some time to think about what I've done."

"Why is that?"

"Isn't it obvious? I've made a fool of myself. I really hope I don't get as much as a speeding ticket in the future, it would be so not cool to meet Detective Ellison again." There. She'd think he had no intention of ever contacting Jim again.

She regarded him warily, and Blair was prepared for that. "You can't imagine that I've changed my mind so soon? You have to understand that since this whole thing started, I never really had the time to stop and think. See, this was like a dream. First I imagined it, then I became obsessed with the idea until I couldn't quite distinguish fantasy and reality. For a while. I see it rather clearly right now. I guess I must have been more disorientated from the head injury than anyone imagined."

Dr. Shawn leaned back in her chair, her eyes never leaving him. It was hard to tell whether or not she believed him, but he got her listening.

"Why Detective Ellison?"

//Yeah, why.// A wave of longing swept over Blair, for his old life and all its comforts, its familiarity. Longing for the friend he'd lost. It left him dizzy for a moment, which hadn't gone unnoticed by the psychiatrist.

"Are you alright?" she asked, sounding concerned.

A deep breath. Another. //You can do this.// "Yeah, thanks. I'll try to answer your question. You know I had pursued this sentinel subject for a long time before I started with my dissertation. No one did quite believe in it, and I just *knew* I'd have to change it at some point if I didn't find a suitable person to study." Blair shuddered, thinking how damn close this was - had been - to the truth.

"I didn't want to change it."

She stayed silent, contemplating his words.

"A friend of mine had been saving all those old issues of 'Newsweek', and one day I found the one with Jim's story, how he was rescued from the jungle. I read that and I was totally amazed, he had been like, living with this tribe, a year and a half in the wilderness! It was the first time I'd heard about it, the time it actually happened I was out of the country. And then I did a little research, finding out where he lives, that he's a detective, and a good one at that."

He had to smile a little, remembering the original, true version of this story.

"If you know Burton's work, Detective Ellison was a very likely candidate, and somewhere along the line, my hold on reality... well, it slipped a little. Seems like I'll have to come clean finally with the fact that there are no Sentinels."

God, with all those memories he carried around, Blair felt like he was denying the existence of, let's say, cable TV.

"I imagine that would be hard," Dr. Shawn offered. "It's a lot to adjust to."

"Sure it is, but I don't have a choice, do I?"

"You can choose to control your life," she countered. "You know, there's something that surprises me. You put so much energy into something that was highly unrealistic from the start. Did you ever try that hard to reveal the identity of your father?"

Blair couldn't quite stifle the exasperated groan. "Oh man, have I been waiting for this to come!"

"I mean, it would be more likely to succeed, wouldn't it?"

"Unless he had enhanced senses, I couldn't have written my diss on him. I've lived without a father all my life, and I tell you, there are worse things. You don't think... come on, I told you about my Mom. No way she would have dated a cop. And don't tell Jim about that, he would be mad. I'm not that much younger than him. No, I didn't fantasize him as a father figure."

She smiled warmly. "Just checking. You've accomplished a lot in a short period of time. I think we could say that your obsession with your dissertation topic became muddled with reality when you sustained your head injury. I wouldn't recommend a prolonged inpatient stay at this point, however I think you should consider some counseling after we're finished here."

"That's probably not a bad idea."

//In your dreams.//

***

Sitting at the kitchen table with his morning coffee, Jim wasn't quite so sure what was true anymore. Now this book, even if it dealt with tribal warriors, had given him some insights into the 'phenomenon' that he found as amazing as he did disturbing. So there was a name for it, and something do with and about it. It also meant that some things that Blair had told him weren't made up, except for him insisting that they already knew each other. //Right, from a former life or anything else of this New Age crap.//

It was like pieces of a puzzle that just refused to fit together. Both of their versions couldn't be true.

He made plans to check on Sandburg when he was home after the hospital stay.

Half an hour later, Jim had shelved other things on his mind, as Simon assigned him to a new case. Four young people aged 21-27 had disappeared without a trace. Now one of them, a twenty-four year old woman called Tracy Davis, had turned up dead. Her murderer had tried to disguise her death as suicide, but signs of a struggle had been found - skin under her fingernails, and signs of strangulation. Her body had been found at the bottom of the city's observatory; she'd been killed by the fall from the top story of the building, given the condition of the body. Two weeks prior to her death, she had disappeared, not long after she'd been diagnosed with depression.

The psychiatric report was signed 'Dr. Nina Shawn'.

***

Alina Davis, Tracy's mother, was still shocked about the violent death of her daughter, but she didn't waver in her statement that Tracy would never have killed herself. Mrs. Davis claimed that her daughter had sought treatment for the depression she'd been diagnosed with, that they all were rather relieved that her disease had a name and there was the possibility of tackling it. Tracy had been in a special program that was run through Cascade General, and she'd been Nina's patient.

So much for a nice dinner and maybe more on Tuesday.

Nina was all professional, not so much the friend when Jim asked to talk to her.

"Jim, I'm very busy right now, but..."

"Tracy Davis was one of your patients?"

"Yes, but why do you... wait a minute - *was*?"

"I'm sorry, Nina. She's dead."

Nina paled as she slowly sank into her desk chair, but quickly composed herself, nodding. "That's so damn sad. I'd really thought we could get her over this. She was quite confident, her mother... hell, even me. Damn it. I'm guessing she took her own life; how did she do it?"

"Tracy didn't kill herself. She was murdered."

"Come on," she protested. "She had a major depression. Suicidal thoughts, I guess I can tell you that now."

"And somebody used that knowledge to sell her death as a suicide. Except, we're not buying." Jim couldn't help but be a little disappointed though. He had hoped Nina's association with the young woman would turn up something... something more helpful. "I need her file," he said, sounding a little harsh even to his own ears.

"Yeah, I figured. I'll ask Tara to get it for you." She called for her secretary via the intercom and when the petite blonde appeared in the doorway, Nina asked her to bring Davis' file. When the secretary had gone, she leaned forward, regarding Jim thoughtfully. "You guys have any evidence her death wasn't suicidal?"

"You know I can't tell..."

"Right. I guess this is the point where my confidentiality officially ends, and yours begins."

Her voice was still level, but Jim knew her well enough to know she was upset. He held up his hands in feigned defense.

"Sorry," they said together and had to laugh despite the tense situation.

Nina shook her head. "It's horrible, but I already feel better since it's your case. Go get the bastard."

"I plan to."

***

A little more than two days, and he could focus on the more important tasks again. Secretly, Blair congratulated himself for the idea of having left the Burton monograph with Jim. As weird as his story had to sound to the detective, he still had those senses. It wasn't so hard to tell from the few interactions they had had with each other; whenever the subject arose, Jim had made a conscious effort to conceal his interest. Two days and a half. They would find a basis on which to work together again.

Whereas the idea of 'just sitting it out' seemed to go along with Dr. Shawn's plans, Cummings was another story.

"So you fantasized him to be some kind of superhero. What do you think that means?"

"You're the shri... um, expert. You tell me."

"You said you and Detective Ellison lived together?"

The tone was... suggestive, at the best. It was annoying; given the situation and their roles in this crazy little play, it made Blair more than a little uncomfortable. "I told you I take it all back. It wasn't true, I accept that. No need to go there," he said and mentally slapped himself. Not really the right thing to say to an over-zealous shrink. Not at all.

"Listen, I know what you're thinking. It's not about... I wasn't falling in love or anything."

That instant, Blair was quite relieved Jim wasn't anywhere nearby. The Jim Ellison he'd known would have been amused to hear his heart rate increasing with his words. Of the man he'd encountered in this altered world, Blair wasn't so sure. Hell, it was all because Cummings was making him way too nervous.

"It wouldn't be the end of the world, you know."

Making a great effort to do so, Blair smiled at him wryly. It was all he could do not to tell the man he should go screw himself. That attitude was really a bit too much. He forced himself to stay friendly though. Two days. A little more than forty-eight hours and he wouldn't have to put up with this shit anymore.

That night, he dreamed of Incacha, dying on the couch in the loft after having passed on a legacy that Blair hadn't had much time or opportunity to value the way he probably should have. He woke up to the unfamiliar surroundings, more confused than ever, shivering though it wasn't really cold.

Rather abruptly, a memory sprang to his mind, of something he'd read years before he even met Jim. For real. In that other reality. //In reality.// It had been about shamans, their calling, and what happened if they failed to recognize its significance.

A psychotic break had been among the not so reassuring possibilities.

As the full impact of this implication hit him, Blair bolted upright in his bed. //But this is not what's happening to me!//

//Or is it?//

No way, Incacha and what he'd done belonged to the real world. So this was what? A test?

He felt wired and it was quite impossible that he'd fallen asleep again, but the next thing Blair remembered was another dream, featuring the Chopec shaman once again. The two of them meeting in the blue jungle world that, with one exception, only Jim had access to.

After regarding Blair solemnly for a moment, he asked, //"Why are you here and not with your Sentinel?"//

"Excuse me?" It was out of respect for the man he'd known for too short a time that Blair didn't swear at him, not even in this dream manifestation.

//"Why are you here?"//

Right, he got it. Those dreams only gave you the pieces; you had to complete the puzzle all by yourself.

"Because, uh, Jim got me committed? Come on, man, please, give me a clue here. You know where I'd prefer to be, but it's not my choice."

//"You made your choices long ago, shaman,"// Incacha said. //"Will you continue to act on them?"//

"But I can't..."

However, the older shaman was gone as was the landscape around them, and Blair found himself lying on the floor beside his bed, feeling a slight vertigo. Slowly, so as to not make it any worse, he pulled himself up and crawled back under the covers, trying to make sense of what he'd seen.

//Right//, his wry laugh to himself sounding more like a sob, //as if anything is making sense right now.//

***

Not just the murder victim, Tracy Davis, but all of the missing twenty-somethings had been diagnosed with a mental disorder at some point, and all of them had been treated at Cascade General during a certain period of time. Another of them, a young man named Ken Collins, diagnosis borderline personality disorder with depressive episodes, had been treated by Nina within the last two months.

She had been working with Cascade General for five years, so she knew the colleagues that had treated the patients that she hadn't. Among the colleagues was Dr. Cummings, her boss. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man, in his early fifties, and even if he wasn't handsome in the conventional sense, he had something very charismatic about him. It probably made him good at his job, too.

All of which meant that Jim was going to see Nina even more often about this case. It also reminded him that Sandburg's evaluation period was almost over. What wasn't really over was his strange feeling of responsibility, and that he probably should - what, apologize? Nina was an experienced psychiatrist, a good friend. Jim trusted her, so why couldn't he just let it go?

Meanwhile he'd have to stick with all the information she'd given him on the three remaining missing persons, while resignedly wondering if any of them were still alive.

In the evening, he went to see Nina again.

"That special program Tracy was in, that 'Alpha' study, I'd like to know more about it."

She sighed over a coffee gone cold; Jim was amazed for an instant that he could measure the temperature from the distance between them. //Sentinel.// He had to admit, it was quite a relief to get some answers, finally, even if they came from a man who was about to go down the road Jim himself had been fearing ever since his enhanced senses emerged. What an incredible coincidence. He frowned, remembering himself saying once that he didn't believe in coincidences.

"I don't know what that could have to do with her death, or any of the other patients' disappearances. Tracy was diagnosed two weeks before she disappeared, which means she had only just signed consent to take part, one session, nothing more."

"Nina, I'd rather do this without a warrant." It was a little like poker, but he wasn't winning here, she knew the rules too well.

"One you'd never get. It's an ongoing study. Any interference at this point would be quite disastrous. Apart from that, you know that they all had different diagnoses, and not all of them took part in the study. So, believe me, there is no connection."

"You're doing my work now?" Jim asked with a smirk.

She took a sip of her coffee and grimaced. "No thanks, I've got enough of my own. Look - I'm sorry. It makes for a lot of pressure with the police coming in and out of here. It upsets the patients. Hell, it upsets *me*."

"I can imagine." And it was true, he could, even though Jim found himself growing irritated with her reluctance to cooperate. Her intelligence was one thing about her that had always attracted him; currently she seemed to be using it for evasive tactics. It made him wonder if there could be anything she had to hide, a possibility that he didn't like one bit.

"What about Sandburg? He's going home tomorrow?"

"I think so," she said, looking at him thoughtfully as if she was trying to figure out the non-sequitur.

"I'd like to see him."

"What, today? Come back in twenty-four hours. Really Jim, you've been messing up my schedule enough. And if you really want to find out who killed Tracy, I'd strongly suggest you start searching somewhere else."

"Thanks for the tip," he said dryly and got up to leave.

That whole conversation had been giving him a headache; literally. Nina's heartbeat sounded all wrong, too loud and fast. She'd said it herself; she was upset about the situation. It had been unnerving anyway. Blair had said that Jim was able to identify a liar by the increased heartbeat.

***

Less than 24 hours.

All he had to do now was to survive the final appointment with Dr. Cummings, and he'd be a free man again. Blair knocked and opened the door to find himself in the empty office. From the room that was labeled as being that of Doctor Timm, there were hushed though clearly angry voices to be heard. Curious, he stepped nearer.

//"...that's not what I signed on for..."//

//"...knew damn well the importance of..."//

//"...I'm not a murderer!"//

Blair stepped back from the door, startled. He hadn't just heard... Just great. He couldn't even make a trip to the psych ward without stumbling across a crime. Well, maybe this was the beginning, the point where he and Jim could connect again.

He listened carefully to Cummings threatening Timm with some felony the older psychiatrist had obviously helped cover up.

//Come on, give me something, names, dates...// Something that would help him to convince Jim.

As if in answer to his wish, Cummings said, now almost gently, "I know you liked Cathy. But what we're doing is important; you should be proud to be a part of it. We can't let anybody stop us now, okay?"

He let out a low curse. "Damn, I'm late. We'll talk later, Alan. I have a little recruiting to do now."

That was the signal for Blair to hurry out of the room, stay outside for a moment and try to calm himself to the point where he could talk to Cummings without raising the other man's suspicion. He really, really needed to see Jim.

***

Sitting in his car in the parking lot, Jim wondered for an instant if he'd be able to find a single heartbeat within the building of the hospital. Why not give it a try... it wasn't like much could go wrong here in the parking lot. He knew where the psychiatric wing was, so it was a matter of visualizing the way up there... passing the reception desk... up one floor... down the hall... two male voices, a Dr. Timm he'd met today with a patient who'd just had a breakdown... into the patient's wing... two women talking... another room, someone crying... one more--

There it was.

Jim didn't have much opportunity to enjoy his success or even question why he could identify Blair Sandburg's heartbeat when he couldn't do the same with the woman he'd been dating for a couple of months, because the next moment, all sensation was drowned out in a gray swirl of - nothingness.

***

On the way back to his room, Blair stopped, frozen in his tracks.

//Why are you here and not with your Sentinel?//

Oh God, not now. He didn't doubt for a moment that something bad was happening, and here he was, confined, without any way to do anything about it. The way things were, nobody would even call him, and he didn't want to find out what Dr. Shawn thought about him having premonitions. Not that there was any real alternative, he thought, as he turned and all but ran towards her office, hoping she was there.

With what he'd just witnessed today, she remained the only one around here that he thought could be trusted.

***

"Let me go, I'm okay now!" Jim snapped at the young paramedic who did his best to convince the detective he should go inside and get himself checked out before he sat behind the wheel of a car again. A nurse who just got off her shift had called them, conveniently, as they were in the vicinity of a hospital.

Fortunately, all the uproar had somehow woken him from the zone. It had taken him a while to make them back off; the paramedic muttering to himself even now that he hadn't seen anything like that before.

//Lesson learned,// Jim thought wryly as he finally pulled out of the parking lot. //No more sensory tests on my own.// He had to admit, he had gotten just a little curious about the research Sandburg had mentioned. Maybe tomorrow.

***

"Please, I'm only asking you to call him, see if he's okay. Jim's your friend, right? Just check on him, and I won't bother you anymore."

"Why don't you sit down for a moment, calm down a little," she asked, flashing that friendly, easy smile of hers.

Blair didn't sit down. "You have to trust me," he insisted.

She just shook her head with a hint of sadness.

***

A young nurse named Joy Paulson delivered the meals for that particular floor that night. She liked working there; the patients from this ward were mostly quiet and easy to talk to. Mr. Sandburg was one she especially liked. About her age, he was a grad student at Rainier where she was taking evening classes, and even if she didn't have that much time for conversation, it was nice at the beginning of a night shift. Privately, she wondered what had even brought him there, but that was up to the doctors to decide, of course.

When she entered the room, she was surprised to find it empty; there wasn't any group or single therapy at this time of night anymore.

Then someone grabbed her from behind in a choke-hold.

//Quiet and easy//, her own words came back to mock her as she struggled against her attacker's hold, then the world around her went black.

***

Later that night, Detective Henri Brown was called to the Cascade General hospital, where he and his partner met with a frightened young woman who looked on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A nurse from a psychiatric wing. Ironic?

When the name Blair Sandburg was mentioned, Brown excused himself for a moment and called Jim.

***

The waking up was rather harsh. Somebody was shaking him. "Go away," he mumbled sleepily. "No class t'day..." No such luck, the person was slapping him now. Blair felt like he was swimming through molasses, the way to the surface of awakening annoyingly slow.

"Mr. Sandburg, wake up now. The police want to talk to you."

//Police?//

He hadn't had the chance yet to talk to anyone about what he'd overheard the other day, so why... With a great effort, he opened his eyes to see Dr. Shawn standing by his bed, her face stern.

"Please get dressed."

Get dressed? He couldn't even remember having undressed. And what was Dr. Shawn doing here anyway? "What happened?"

The doctor's eyes widened. "You don't remember?"

***

Joy was clearly still shaken by the attack, but she had calmed down enough to give a statement. As to what had happened, it was very obvious. There were marks around her throat, and a bandage around her arm where she'd been stabbed with the scissors she'd had in the pocket of her coat.

"I can't believe this," she said, and Jim had to agree with her.

That night he'd been restless, hadn't even gone to bed when H called him, and it was a good thing that he had. Even though Jim had enough on his plate with the Davis case, he wanted to be here, see for himself what had happened, because the story sounded - well, crazy. About as crazy as the one Sandburg had tried to sell him before, but he just couldn't see him doing this, especially when he was less than twenty-four hours away from getting out of here.

"You said you didn't see the attacker," he stated rather hopefully.

"But I know it was him. Mr. Sandburg, I mean. I recognized his after shave. He once told me that he buys it at a certain store, because of allergies. I buy my toiletry articles there, too, for the same reason. I honestly can't explain this. I think he was going to be released tomorrow." It sounded like she felt guilty for reporting it. "I wasn't even sure we should call the police, but Dr. Shawn said it was necessary."

Now that was a surprise.

"Are you going to talk to him?" Joy asked.

"I think so."

She shook her head sadly. "I'm sure he didn't mean to do it. Dr. Shawn said... well, she's the expert, but I still can't see him as dangerous. I hope you can find out what happened."

"Me too," he said honestly.

Just why was this disturbing him so much? He'd been hoping way too much, Jim thought angrily after he'd left Ms. Paulson's room, all because of a book from over hundred years ago. Okay, that was not all. If he was honest, he'd hoped to find out a little more about Blair, and even if he'd had those strange ideas - delusions, right? - to begin with, he also seemed to know an awful lot about enhanced senses.

Any idea that he could have gotten any help from him seemed ridiculous now.

***

For a moment, he'd just sat, staring at her blankly. "I didn't do this," Blair said then, firmly, trying not to show his shock. If they managed to pin the attack on him, there was no way he'd be getting home today.

"There are witnesses," Dr. Shawn objected, her expression sympathetic, though still serious. There was no denying the gravity of the situation.

With Cummings, Blair couldn't quite identify what the older man was thinking. He, too, was calm, but with an air of - triumph? Superiority? Was it possible that someone had caught him eavesdropping? "Who?"

"First, Joy identified you. Then Dr. Timm came along, and found you standing over her."

"That's ridiculous!" He couldn't help but raise his voice. "He's lying! Dr. Shawn, you know I went straight to my room. I fell asleep before dinner. I didn't even hear her coming in!" //Right, yell a little, that's going to make them believe you - not.//

"You were quite upset after I didn't call Detective Ellison."

"You think that got me so frustrated, I went and attacked a nurse? That is... you know I'm seriously beginning to doubt your choice of profession when you just go around accusing people like this. I guess I could sue you for just bringing me here. You want me to talk to the police? I'm all for that."

The psychiatrists exchanged a long look, then Dr. Shawn said, "Excuse me for a moment, I'll send them in."

***

"...and I strongly object to the idea. It will only fuel his delusions further, give him the idea that there's a special connection between the two of you."

Nina leaned with her back against the door, obviously none too pleased with the fact that Jim was about to do the interview. Somehow, he was beginning to doubt that their friendship would really survive this case.

"I'm sorry, but it has to be done." And he really wasn't above just ignoring her and entering the room, if it was necessary. Not that he didn't trust his colleagues to handle it, but he wanted to have as much control as possible over what was happening from now on. "So?"

She sighed. "Why, are you responsible for everything that happens between here and the Canadian border now?"

//Right now, I'm only interested in the psych ward of Cascade General.// Jim didn't say it out loud, he just nodded in the direction of the door. "You going to let me in there now?"

She stepped aside, shaking her head as she did so. "And here I was thinking you had a murderer to catch."

This time, he chose to ignore her.

***

"Man, I'm so glad you're okay!" When Jim entered the room, a bright smile chased the worried expression from Blair's face. "Dr. Shawn wouldn't call you, and I... never mind. You zoned, didn't you?"

Jim just stared at him for a moment. How could he have known...? Anyway, that was something to be dealt with later on. The problems they were up against now were much more serious than a little telepathic communication, weren't they? "I'm okay? I can't leave you alone for five minutes and you're getting yourself into trouble. What about that?"

His face fell at Jim's words even though they hadn't been ungentle. "Oh man, this is bad. Someone attacked Joy in my room, and they're saying I did it. Because... you know, yesterday, I just knew something was wrong, and I wanted the doc to call you. She didn't. I was a little... upset about it, and that's not going in my favor now.

"There's something else I have to tell you, and it's probably related somehow. Yesterday, I accidentally overheard a conversation between Timm and Cummings. I think they killed someone, a woman named Cathy. It sounded like something weird is going on here; Cummings told Timm they couldn't risk it and that he should be proud to take part in..."

"The 'Alpha' study," Jim completed grimly.

He should have been surprised at this, but wasn't, really, as he recalled recent conversations with Nina. Catherine Nilsson was on his list of missing persons, and the attending psychiatrist during her stay had been Timm. Some things finally made sense - if only he could have ignored that Sandburg wasn't really here for nothing, that in fact Jim had put him here.

With any other perp, he would have sworn the murder angle was meant to be a distraction from the original incident, the attack on Joy Paulson. There was one way to rule out the possibility.

"Did you try to strangle Ms. Paulson in your room?"

A human polygraph, that's what Blair had called him before, and if the situation hadn't been that serious, he would have been amazed. It actually worked. Sandburg's eyes had widened momentarily, heartbeat spiking at the open accusation, but it settled pretty quickly, remaining steady when he said, "No, I didn't try to strangle her. I didn't even touch her. In fact, I like her a lot. I had this... never mind. I thought you were in danger somehow, and I wanted Dr. Shawn to call you, just in case. She didn't want to, and that kind of pissed me off, but not like that. I was worried about you, man."

"I believe you. Now we just have to prove it."

There was a 'we' now, definitely. It rang true.

***

Even though he was technically still stuck in this place, Blair felt a lot better than he had in days. Jim had informed him on what little Nina had said about the mysterious 'Alpha' study, and there had to be a connection to the murder mentioned by Timm. It couldn't be long now.

The best of it was, however, that their last conversation they had, felt almost normal. Jim was using his senses and relying on him and... he'd been right not to give up. The connection was still there.

Blair thought of the dream he'd had. //See, Incacha. I'll be back.//

He sat upright when the door opened and Dr. Cummings entered the room, in the company of two orderlies. "Dr. Cummings," he said, trying not to let his apprehension show. They knew now that the police were keeping tabs on what happened in the hospital. They couldn't afford any more attention. "I told you the truth. I didn't have anything to do with the attack on Joy. Dr. Shawn said I could go home today..."

"Well, I'm afraid that's not possible."

"What do you mean, 'not possible'?"

"I'm really sorry about this. Yes, I am indeed, but there's no other way." He produced a syringe in his right hand then, and too late, Blair finally discovered why he had brought the two other men with him; to make escape impossible. He tried anyway, getting up from the chair and backing away. //No good.// The door was the other way. The window to the left... and the ground two stories down. Not a good idea, either.

"Leave me alone!" he yelled at the two men who reached out for him at the same time, pinning him to the bed. "He's a murderer! Do you really want to be involved in this? People have died for that fucking Alpha study, and the cops are on to it, you won't..."

Cummings had enjoyed the sight for a while, then he gave a sign to one of the orderlies, and a large hand closed over Blair's mouth, cutting off the frantic flow of words. Damn. He hadn't expected them to act so soon. The psychiatrist stepped nearer then, rolling up the sleeve of his captive's shirt.

"Don't you worry, nobody's going to kill you. In fact, you're going to be worth so much more to us alive."

The needle slid into his flesh, and moments later, his struggles ceased as the drug took over.

***

"Two young people have already died. They were participants in that study. Another man comes to your hospital for an evaluation, and ends up on assault charges; another participant. I want you to explain that to me!"

Dr. Timm shrank away as Jim stepped into his personal space. "I don't know anything," he whined, his heartbeat going through the roof.

"Oh yes, I believe you do." So he'd been right, they planned to include Sandburg, so it was even more important to get to the bottom of this soon. "You treated Catherine Nilsson."

"Yes, but what does that have to do with anything?"

"Look, Dr. Timm," Jim said more friendly now, changing tactics as he took up a comfortable, and yet intimidating position in the adjacent chair. "I know you've been probably pressured into this. Right now, we could probably get you a deal if you tell us everything. What do you think will happen when your colleagues start to feel threatened?" Jim cocked his head slightly, affecting a nonchalant pose. "So, whose baby is this 'Alpha' thing? And who are they going to sacrifice?"

The other man was sweating profusely now, but he was shaking his head in denial. "I don't know what you're talking about! I want to talk to my lawyer now!"

Some time later, Jim stood outside the room with Simon, clenching his jaw in frustration. "He's lying through his teeth, it's so easy to see, but he seems to be more afraid of what the others have got over him. Sandburg said that Cummings is blackmailing Timms."

Simon gave him a long, considering look. "You really trust that kid?"

"Yes, Simon. I know he told me the truth. And apart from that, he understands what I'm going through, with those senses."

It looked as if his captain wanted to argue about that, but instead he said, "Then it could be that Dr. Shawn's a part of it, too."

"I know."

That possibility still bothered him, but not as much as it had in the beginning. The most important thing was now to shut down the criminal activities at Cascade General - and get Blair out of there.

***

"The means of suggestion are various and powerful. Nowadays, it is possible to give a person a clear memory of something that has never happened; we can induce the recall of a past that totally clashes with the personality of that person. It is possible to alter a whole life..."

"Yes, damn it!" Angry at the interruption, Dr. Cummings tossed the recorder onto his desk, ready to shout some more at the unfortunate secretary, but instead of her, a much more unwanted 'guest', Detective Ellison, entered the room.

The psychiatrist gave the cop a small smile. "Oh, it's you. I'm sorry about the greeting, but my secretary just seems incapable of giving me a minute of quiet."

"Don't blame her," Ellison said with a smirk. "I just have a few more questions that can't wait."

***

Catherine Nilsson had a good friend who had accompanied her throughout the whole therapy process. She'd been sharing a dorm room with Catherine until the young woman was too sick to keep up with her daily routine any longer, and had had to seek professional help once more.

Robin Gage had confirmed that Catherine's condition had deteriorated while she was at Cascade General, and on some occasions, she wasn't even allowed to visit.

Cummings didn't seem to feel threatened, even now, Jim reflected as he drove home from the interview. As far as the 'Alpha' study was concerned, he had only revealed that it was a special program for persons with severe delusions, and a very promising one that had been going on for a couple of years now.

The first victim, Marla Adams, had disappeared exactly four years ago, a few months after the study had started.

"You have to understand, Detective, these delusions are extremely disturbing to those who suffer from them. We've gotten an 80% improvement rate. That's got to mean something." He had handed Jim a brochure that gave nothing but a vague outline of the treatment, a mixture of hypnosis, relaxation and visual imagery, along with medical treatment according to the respective disorder the patient was diagnosed with. "We have highly specialized personnel working with the 'Alpha' participants to give the best possible and individualized therapy. This is about helping people. If you're looking for a murderer, you're definitely in the wrong place."

//Like Sandburg//, Jim had thought. In the wrong place.

Something else he'd have to do something about.

***

"Tsk, look at you," Dr. Cummings said jovially. "The good detective is pretty worried about you, Blair."

"What do you... want from me?"

There was something about this situation, being firmly strapped down, though still floating in a drugged state, that made Blair want to panic. Not that it would help any, and weird as his life had become, he couldn't even count on Jim bursting through the door at the last minute. Well, maybe he could. Their last encounter had been promising, only that was before Cummings had decided to take him out of the game entirely.

Struggling to keep his eyes open, Blair focused on the doctor's smiling face, still waiting for an answer.

"Well, I think you can imagine."

"What is... the 'Alpha Study'?" It was meant to sound demanding, but came out as more of a plea.

Cummings seemed to find that funny. Chuckling, he reached out a hand to pat his patient's cheek. "Don't worry about that. You'll find out soon."

***

"Would you sit down for a moment, Jim? Please," said the captain with emphasis.

Getting the message, Jim stopped his pacing, but he didn't take the offered seat. His boiling frustration didn't help the senses that hadn't caused him nearly as much trouble since Blair Sandburg had turned his life upside down. And he was sure, there had to be a connection. Something was very wrong, but they couldn't bring in Cummings just yet. He had no doubt at all that the psychiatrist was at the center of it all, but they still had to prove it.

Tracy Davis' death and the four other missing persons. The Alpha study. The unfortunate development of Sandburg's case.

They needed a break. Desperately.

"I'm going to talk to Gage once more," he said, not yet sure what that would help to accomplish.

***

He'd been allowed back into his room after a few hours, so Blair had assumed that Cummings was using these tactics in an attempt to intimidate him. That wasn't all, however. Obviously, the psychiatrist planned to include him in the infamous 'Alpha Study', and whatever that meant, Blair was quite sure it couldn't be good. The drugs, whatever they had been, made it impossible to determine what had happened in those hours he was out of his room.

So far, nothing new. Even in this very altered universe he'd managed to attract the maximum possible trouble.

One thing was certain, he had to survive in here until Jim found a reason to arrest Cummings and the others, but that wouldn't be the only thing he'd do.

***

"You have to admit that sounds pretty far-fetched," Nina said.

Taking his chances, Blair had chosen to inform her about what he'd heard, and to his relief her reaction was not to threaten him with just another needle. It was easy to tell she found the news disturbing, but she gave it some thought anyway.

"I can't really promise you anything, but I will keep my eyes open. If something's going on here in the hospital - God, that would be terrible."

"You're right. Please be careful."

She smiled at him. "I sure will. Thanks for telling me."

***

// "The Alpha study was designed for a very specific client population, namely those suffering from extreme delusions. These could be the symptoms of various disorders, such as in the course of substance abuse or schizophrenic paranoia. What all of those patients have in common, is that they greatly suffer from these delusions which persisted during conventional psychotherapy.

In our study, we find an individual combination of medical treatment, hypnosis therapy if the patient reacts positively, the teaching of relaxation and counter-images that help block the disturbing hallucinations. Furthermore, self-instruction based on behavioral concepts is used.

With a success of over 80%, the results are promising. Further research is needed to...

 

What we've proven to be true can be done just the same in reverse. Take a relatively healthy person with temporary problems, but fairly intact social structures and sufficient coping mechanisms, and you can instill memories that have never taken place. The same combination of drugs and conditioning that can help mental patients to rebuild a sense of identity, can, with this group, deconstruct their mind.

The possibilities are endless..."//

***

Joy Paulson stood, frozen in her place, her heart hammering, hand reaching into her pocket for the reassuring feel of the print-out she'd just hidden there. She'd have to calm down, or somebody would suspect her. There hadn't been much time; she'd just slipped out of Dr. Shawn's office, when Cummings and two orderlies came back.

She knew what would happen now, but she couldn't stay and worry. Her job now was to lay low until the end of her shift, and then find Detective Ellison.

It had been pure coincidence; she had wanted to ask Dr. Shawn something completely unrelated to the whole mess Cascade General was in - but instead of the Doctor, she'd found Blair Sandburg, obviously hacking into her computer, searching for anything hidden that could compromise Cummings' integrity.

She had almost called security, but he had pleaded with her not to do it, showing her the data he had found about something that linked Timm, and possibly Cummings, too, to the missing persons the detective had been here about. It sounded plausible, and so she agreed to help him, knowing the psychiatrists were probably on their way here, intending to drug him senseless.

Being a psychology minor herself, Joy found it hard to believe that people's memories could be altered that fast and irreversibly, but either way, she'd have to act soon.

Funny, she thought, the whole time they'd just spent in the same room, she'd never once been afraid of Blair.

***

Robin Gage was working part-time in a diner and had agreed to meet Jim once more at the end of her shift. After he'd pulled into the diner's parking lot, he'd called Alina Davis, not quite sure why, but it seemed a good idea to bring the two women together. Maybe that way, they'd find what was missing. It was also a lot to ask of them, one a mother who had lost her daughter, the other a woman whose friend may have been murdered by the same people that were behind Tracy's death.

He was willing to take that risk if it helped solve the case and got Blair out of the hospital. Maybe, then, they could simply start anew.

***

The session had been exceptionally longer than the first one. Still, Max didn't seem the least bit tired, in fact, Nina thought, he looked much too energetic given the work he'd just done. SHE didn't feel that good even though her work day had been pretty normal. Maybe it was that study and its tremendous successes - she'd have to take part more, she decided, accepting the coffee mug Cummings held out for her.

"Now you've got your wish," she said thoughtfully, thinking of what Blair had told her today. Rumors like that were really bad for the hospital's already shaky reputation. Better to find some common ground on about how to deal with this situation. "And some more of Sandburg's delusions to work on." For the shortest moment, she internally debated Blair's reaction to the betrayal in what she was about to do. "He told me today you're involved in some... murderous scheme," she said with dramatic emphasis, watching her boss closely.

His eyes had widened only for a brief moment. He chortled. "It's never boring with that kid, now, is it? I told you before; he's a grade A participant. He will benefit greatly from the program."

Nina returned his smile. "I agree." Getting up, she turned to rinse her coffee mug in the sink. "We can talk some more tomorrow. Right now, I'm beat. I just want to go home."

"Good night, Nina."

***

The images were chasing one another in his head, making Blair dizzy. Dr. Shawn's refusal to call Jim, when he just knew that Jim needed him. He didn't know that he'd been so angry about it, that, for a moment, he could have hit her.

Wait a minute...

She'd ordered him back to his room, an unspoken threat hanging between them. If he didn't obey, well, she was the one with the power in here. Blair had been worried, so much that he couldn't think straight. He needed a way to get out of here. And he knew who'd probably help, Joy, the nurse he'd been talking to on several occasions. She would believe him. He had to...

"You're angry. You want to get out so badly..."

"No, no, I didn't touch her."

The pain that followed sent him into unconsciousness this time.

***

Robin ordered a Latte while Alina Davis clutched her coffee cup nervously, looking around her as if she expected a sudden disruption of their meeting. The younger woman had recognized her from newspaper articles, and she asked straight-forwardly. "You think those people killed Catherine, too?"

"I don't know," Jim said softly. "But Tracy and Catherine had both been taking part in an ongoing study, even though it was in different years, and they never met one another. I know you've talked about this before and I'm sorry to bother you both again, but maybe there's something else you can think of."

Robin Gage shrugged, tossing her long dark hair over her shoulder rather impatiently. "I told you before she was even worse off with this program, whatever it was about. She was getting confused, something that didn't happen before."

Jim recalled what Dr. Cummings had told him about the study, frowning. "I thought this program was about helping people with delusions. Are you sure she never had them before?"

"Cathy sure had a lot of fantasies, but she wasn't delusional. She sometimes forgot things though, got distracted, but while she was in the hospital she told me some things that couldn't be true."

"Like?" Jim asked, aware of Mrs. Davis watching them intently.

"Like she'd slapped another patient. She told it as if it really happened, but that's bullshit," she said frankly. "Catherine wouldn't harm a fly, let alone hit anyone."

Jim refrained himself from tapping his fingers on the table. Barely. He needed more than a friend's good faith to prove that Catherine, as well as Tracy Davis, had been the victim of a crime. To solve this case and get Sandburg out of the psych ward. Then he looked at Mrs. Davis, and she spoke up shyly,

"I think something like this might have happened to Tracy, before she... she..."

She began to cry, and Robin offered her a tissue, gently rubbing the distraught woman's arm. "I'm so sorry for your loss." And to Jim, "where are we going with this? Do you think they *planted* those delusions? Fake memories? But if it was working, why kill anybody?" She shuddered, aware of the possibility that her friend could be dead, too.

"That's what I'm going to find out." Jim had intended to say more, but then his cell phone rang.

***

Less than twenty minutes later, he entered the lobby of Cascade General, heading straight for Nina's office. She looked up at the disturbance, a flash of annoyance on her face as she sighed. "Jim. Just make yourself at home. What can I do for you?"

"I need to see Blair Sandburg. Don't even try to stop me - it's in relation to an ongoing investigation."

"You're going to arrest him?" she asked rather sarcastically.

"That a 'yes'?"

She seemed reluctant still. "I don't know what good that would do. You've seen him the previous times, his condition hasn't improved. On the contrary, Mr. Sandburg is still convinced all the therapists here are involved in some murder plot. What good a witness could he be? After all, it's out of my hands anyway. You've got to see Dr. Cummings about it, he's taken over Mr. Sandburg's treatment."

That was indeed an unpleasant surprise. "Why's that?"

Nina shrugged. "That's the way it happens sometimes. He's got the most experience with delusional patients, and he's very interested in this case... wait a minute. You don't think that..."

"I just want to talk to Sandburg," Jim cut her short. "Now."

***

The last time they'd talked was approximately twenty-four hours ago. In the meantime, Jim had come to the conclusion that Cummings and his colleagues had used their study not only to free patients from their delusions, but to very deliberately cause them. Alina Davis and Robin Gage might not be professionals, but they had lived with the women in question for a good portion of their lives and would have been able to detect a change in behavior.

Joy Paulson had given him printouts from therapy sessions, unofficial reports that were surely not to be seen by the public: They described what happened during hypnosis sessions, and which drugs were administered. It sounded rather sinister, and the name on top of the pages was always Dr. Max Cummings, though Timm's occurred a couple of times.

And he would have to ask Nina why that data was on her computer.

He had thought Blair would be happy about the news that hopefully brought all of them closer to some sense of normalcy – but he found the opposite was true.

"I appreciate your help, Jim, I really do. I'm just not so sure anymore about what I've said." He wouldn't meet Jim's eyes as he sat on the edge of his bed, shoulders hunched.

"What the hell does that mean? We're one step away from proving you were set up. You will be going home tomorrow morning at the latest!"

At last, Blair looked up, making no attempt to conceal the desolation that seemed to roll off him in waves. "I'm saying that... it could be true. I... I didn't know I was that angry. Dr. Shawn wouldn't contact you, and I was so sure you were in trouble - zoning. I guess I imagined that, too."

"No! It was true, I did zone."

Distantly, Jim realized that he'd never revealed before that Blair had been right regarding the Sentinel thing all the time, not that it mattered much at the moment. He couldn't believe what he'd just heard. "Don't be stupid. Even Ms. Paulson didn't want to believe it. I know you didn't do it."

"I appreciate that, Jim, I really do. But we can't say for sure... God, it feels like I'm losing my mind."

He had a job to do, didn't really have time for a delay of any kind, but Jim still took the time to sit down beside the younger man, putting an arm around his shoulders. "You are not," he said firmly, hoping it sounded convincing. As far as this very question was concerned, his own emotions were dancing on the very edge of panic, it couldn't be. Cummings had nothing to do with it; he didn't doubt the psychiatrist would fall eventually. If they didn't agree on what had happened in Joy's case though, the doctors at Cascade General would probably think twice about releasing Sandburg. And then - what?

"Listen to me. I guess you figured it out before, that I'm exactly like those Sentinels who were described in the book - hell, you knew from the start. I never liked it, but that's the way it is, and I need to get a handle on those senses. Right now, you're my best bet. I need you."

"Me?" Blair's mouth twitched in a parody of a smile. "I doubt that. Maybe the person I was before. In another life."

"Would you cut that out!" The moment Jim started shaking Blair lightly to somehow get through to him, Nina interfered.

"Jim, are you out of your mind?" He hadn't realized she was even within earshot, as she came rushing into the room, her expression communicating the indignation she was unfortunately entitled to. "Let him go, will you?"

Jim brushed off her hands. "I'm out of here anyway. Blair, I'll be back." Maybe things would become clearer after he had dealt with Cummings and Timm. If there was anyone with at least some sense of responsibility, Jim still had the hope Nina Shawn could be that person; everything would work itself out.

***

"Oh my God. It's really true."

Nina was devastated in the face of the evidence, her voice shaky. "I can't believe I didn't realize anything, all the time. I... I believed in the work we did. Helping patients with their living nightmares, enabling them to get a life."

"They deceived a lot of people," Jim said reassuringly.

"Yeah, but one of my *patients* called their bluff! That's... humiliating. Even if he's got some problems, he was right about Cummings."

"Yeah. And you can help me to end it now."

***

Dr. Cummings wasn't in his office when Jim and Nina came in, because he was busy downloading his data, so he could finally get rid of the evidence. It was a shame, really, he had to burn his bridges here, but then again, he could always start anew based on the findings of the past few years. Already, buyers where knocking on his door who had a definite interest in achieving knowledge on how to alter people's memories, inside and outside the US. He wouldn't have to worry.

Which left him with the question of what to do about his latest subject.

***

It was the uncertainty that weighed on him, despite Jim's vote of confidence. That had felt so good, and still, Blair found it hard to accept. He had those memories, of being so angry; he'd wanted to take out his frustration on someone. And if he'd done it, wasn't he in the right place? It wasn't normal to react like that just because you didn't get your own way.

What if it got worse? What if Joy's injuries had been more severe? What if it happened again and he had even less control?

Then there was this inner voice who told him, with more confidence than he possessed at the moment, that he would never hurt anyone that badly outside a life-or-death self-defense type situation, let alone an unarmed woman. //I didn't...!//

He couldn't even finish that thought, before the pain hit. Feeling like the mother of all migraine attacks, it caused him to keel over sideways and made his eyes water. //Maybe//, he thought miserably, //it's all guilty conscience. Maybe... I just lost it.//

Certainly not what Burton had in mind when he described the Sentinel's partner.

Caught up in his dire thoughts, he didn't hear the door being opened. The sound of a voice made him jump.

"I'm sorry to see you're not doing well, Mr. Sandburg," Cummings said.

***

Nina had agreed on a little charade; she'd called Cummings on his cell phone, informing him that there had been another emergency with a patient, and she asked him to come to the hospital as soon as possible. "I don't think he suspects anything," she finally said, resting her head in her hands for a moment. "I still don't get it."

"You've helped us a lot," Jim assured her, one hand resting on her back. He doubted that, given the evidence pointing to him, Cummings would let himself be questioned freely. He'd rather confront him with the material right here. Now that he had an idea of what the psychiatrist had used that infamous Alpha Study for, he was even more worried about Blair. It seemed textbook; the other victims had been convinced, too, to have done things that went totally against their usual behavior. They'd have to find out what exactly Cummings had done to him. "Well, I'll probably need your help some more. Regarding Sandburg, isn't it possible that Cummings is responsible for most of his 'problems'?"

Nina looked thoughtful. "I thought about that, too. He never actually seemed violent to me, but Alan..." She shrugged. "He was probably in on it. What a terrible mess. On the other hand..." Jim held his breath as she went on, "what about his original story? That one wasn't true."

"That's right. But you said before that he was ready to take it back."

"Yeah. To be honest, he's the least of my problems at the moment. I'll call Max again. He must be close by now."

***

The ringing of the cell phone had startled them both, but Cummings still had the gun trained on him, remaining at what was a safe distance, as he flipped the phone open. "Nina. Oh, yeah? That's terrible," he said, smiling at Blair. "I'll be there as soon as possible. Traffic's bad, but I think I can make it in less than half an hour. Yes. Thanks for telling me."

He ended the call then. "You see, I'm a busy man, so I'm afraid I don't have the time for more of this small talk. You'll come with me quietly. I promise nothing's going to happen to you."

Right. As if that promise was worth anything. "What are you going to do, shoot me? This is a hospital!" The words sounded considerably calm. Damn! He'd obviously had too much experience dealing with these kinds of psychos. If Jim had been here, however, he could have been guessing by his heartbeat how Blair really felt. He didn't think that Cummings wanted to kill him right away, but whatever the doctor had in mind, it couldn't be good.

"People disappear without a trace all the time. You only have to know how it's done. You really should have kept your nose out of other people's business - you'd be a free man today."

"Don't give me that bullshit. The police are already here."

"Are they? I'm afraid then, we're on an even narrower timetable now."

Behind him, one of the orderlies who always seemed to accompany Cummings, entered the room.

***

//What the hell was that sound?//

It took Jim only a moment to make the connection. He hadn't consciously listened for it, no more than he had a couple of days ago in that dark alley, but he recognized the staccato drum-like sound as Blair Sandburg's heartbeat. At the moment, he seemed only a hair's breadth away from tachycardia.

//"You're a witness, man! What do you think he's going to do once he doesn't need you anymore?"//

Another voice, sounding bored, // "Still the murder conspiracy, huh?"//

//"His favorite version."// Laughter. Then the sound of flesh striking flesh. A pained yelp, sounds of fighting.

Nina's voice jolted him back to the here and now. "Jim, what is it?"

Jim had already jumped from his chair, following those voices, having recognized one of them as Cummings'. The doctor was already here in the building, and maybe, if Jim had been willing to work on the Sentinel project earlier, he'd have known that before anybody got hurt.

***

With the drug already beginning to cloud his mind, Blair knew his chances of getting away from the two men were small, as they led him downstairs and into the bowels of the building. While the Cascade General hospital was generally newly renovated, down here nothing much seemed to have happened in about a decade, maybe more. Lots of gray, badly lit corridors, a dark labyrinth.

Even Cummings and Jack, the orderly, who had to know this building better than he did, stumbled along sometimes.

If only he could use one of their stumbling moments... His legs already felt like jelly, but Blair wasn't sure if the drug had been meant to knock him out completely. If not... This was his only chance. If they managed to get to Cummings' car, it would be too late.

Cummings had already broken his promise not to hurt him, as he simply looked the other way when Jack had hit Blair, totally unnecessarily, as they already had him pinned down. At least, the pain gave him a focus before whatever they'd given him took over completely.

No. Now that Jim believed in him, if not in the same reality, he owed it to him to try.

As they rounded another dark corner, Blair sagged a little in their grip, not yet sure how he was going to do this.

"Hurry up," Jack hissed. "We don't have time for this."

"Not my problem, man," slurred Blair. "I feel dizzy... think I'm going to be sick..."

THAT worked.

***

The voices rang angrily now, and Jim realized with some satisfaction that Blair had managed to trick Cummings and his accomplice. This was the moment he should have called for backup, but he also knew how long it would take for the units to arrive and seal the exits - too long. He had to take them now, while they weren't suspecting anything.

Hastening along the hallways, he gained on the criminals, their steps louder in his ears. Unfortunately, they, in turn, also gained on Blair. When he'd heard his heartbeat in the beginning, it had been fast with the adrenaline rush of the dangerous situation - fear, that, too, even if he had sounded pissed - now it seemed to grow slower, sluggish at times, and Jim assumed that Blair had been drugged. He wouldn't be able to hide forever, which meant Jim had to be quick.

He let his hearing guide him which wasn't that easy with echoes resounding off the solid walls, but finally his targets came into view.

"Cascade PD! Freeze!"

They did the predictable: Run.

Jim took off after the two men, who parted ways at the next fork. It was Cummings who'd been the mastermind, orchestrating the 'Alpha Study' and all its less ethical aspects, and Jim was quite sure that the orderly had saving his own ass in mind, while the psychiatrist wasn't finished yet. Jim followed Cummings.

***

By now, Blair wanted nothing more than to curl up in a corner and sleep, instead of stumbling on every other step, but Cummings' agitated voice behind him made him think twice. The man had killed already, made patients disappear, and neither fate was in any way acceptable.

Frantically, he yanked at the handle of the next door, but it was locked, didn't budge, while those angry steps got nearer, the voice taunting him;

"You don't really think this is going to help, do you? You're one of my most promising subjects. Can't wait to have you in my new lab and..."

***

"Just shut up!"

When Cummings started to struggle, it was already too late, the cuffs clicking around his wrists. The lump on the back of his head, where Jim had caught him by surprise went untended.

"You've made one too many mistakes," Jim had barely spoken those words when the lights went out above him. A split-second later, he smelled smoke.

***

He was just so tired. Blair had barely made it, when he finally found a door that had opened, to crawl inside the confined space and pull the door shut behind him. Slumped in the corner of what was probably a utility closet, he closed his eyes, finally giving in to exhaustion.

***

 

The temperature didn't rise. Jim concluded that the orderly hadn't set a fire, but used a lighter to set off the sprinklers that were now drenching both him and his suspect.

Cummings cursed, but composed himself quickly. "I'm sure we can come to an understanding," he ventured as the emergency lights failed to kick in. "Money's not a problem, if you know what I mean. If this study can go on, it's a win-win situation."

Jim gave him a push, shaking his head disgustedly. He called Simon on his cell to inform him about the situation.

***

An astonished Nina and a proud captain, among others, had been witnesses as the Sentinel tracked down his Guide by the sound of his heartbeat. Of course, Nina didn't know anything, and Simon didn't know half of it, but they were impressed anyway.

Finally, he opened the door of the closet his young friend had hidden in, caught him halfway down, tumbling out of it. At the sight of the bruises already forming on his face, Jim felt the anger boil inside; he wished he had been present when the orderly Jack Pane had been caught. Or gone a little harder on Cummings, but none of that mattered right now.

"It's over. You're safe now." He pulled Blair close, not caring about any spectators.

***

The first thing he saw was - white. A ceiling. White sterile surroundings, and the words echoed in his mind, //"can't wait to have you in my new lab..."// Gasping, he struggled to sit up.

"Easy, Chief." Jim was beside him in an instant, and he sank back into the cushion gratefully. There couldn't be any danger now if his friend sounded that calm, could there? But still, "Where am I?"

"It's still the hospital, I'm afraid. But it's only because of the drugs Cummings gave you, to make sure there are no bad surprises."

"Right. I've had enough of them lately."

"There's no denying that. But now you've woken up, I don't think they're going to keep you much longer."

"Good."

They were both silent for a moment, as Blair contemplated the significance of Jim being here. The whole crazy story had started out in a hospital, maybe that meant something? In any case, it didn't seem like Jim still wanted to break off the contact. The new start he'd hoped for at last, seemed likely.

He badly needed someone to go over what had happened in the past few days. Fortunately Timm had retracted his earlier statement but it hadn't cleared things up as much as everyone had hoped it would. Cummings, too, had denied being the one who'd attacked Joy Paulson. Not that he had a lot of credibility now that Timm had rolled over on him - Cummings definitely was the man who'd wanted to use the 'Alpha Study' for means of mind control - developing programs he'd planned to sell to a variety of interested parties, one of them a foreign government, one party being two men who were suspected of running a white slavery ring.

Blair knew he'd been a test subject, like Tracy, Ken, Catherine, Alec and Marla, and that was creepy enough, with three of that group having died. Ken Collins had committed suicide. Marla lived in Oregon now, Alec in California, both of them having spent the last few years in and out of different institutions. Not a nice prospect.

Not knowing what exactly had happened with him during those sessions, was the scariest part. Cummings hadn't kept any records on him, strange as it seemed.

"Stop worrying," Jim chided now, his voice kind. He took a seat again, obviously not in a hurry to leave anytime soon. "You didn't do anything wrong. I guess I have to apologize, Chief."

"That's okay. You couldn't know." Blair felt himself relax into a smile.

"I'd understand if you were pissed; I was the one who brought you here - then you helped me solve the case. It's almost like those stories you told me about before."

//Those stories.// Blair tried to ignore the cold touch of disappointment; somehow deep down he had hoped everything would turn out alright once this case was over, and that Jim would remember. Obviously, that was not the case. Whatever, then. "Yeah, and you saved my life, like in those stories. Thanks for that. Did he say why the women were killed?"

Jim shrugged. "Seemed like they were resisting, seeing through what had been done to them, and they were about to out the project." He looked away for a moment, that reaction saying more than words. They both knew that Cummings hadn't planned to set Blair free eventually. When their eyes met again, Jim forced a smile. "So - where do *we* go from here?"

***

They'd started out gently. The day after Blair had been released from the hospital, Jim had invited him over to the loft for dinner, promising no more unpleasant surprises. Nina had turned out to be innocent. Still, Jim felt like he'd made a mistake that other evening, no matter how many times Blair tried to convince him it was probably for the greater good because the murders were now solved.

This time, they'd been undisturbed, swapping stories that bore striking similarities to each other's. Names like Veronica Sarris, Incacha. There were more questions raised than could be answered by either of them. They agreed, however, that it was better not to involve a psychiatrist again.

Those people had been real, the shaman of the Chopec tribe who had been a close friend of Jim's when he'd been stranded in Peru during the horrific helicopter crash that left him the only survivor of his team.

Veronica Sarris who had blamed him for the death of her father, who'd been a member of that team.

Jim had seen Sandburg looking around the loft with unveiled longing; not surprising when you considered the elaborate context of his - delusions? But he had more to offer; detailed plans on how to improve Jim's control over the Sentinel thing, and he had been helping with his latest case.

Other than that, Jim found himself enjoying his company, simple as that. What he'd considered ridiculous that day the young man had shown up at his door, was suddenly within reach. They were becoming friends.

//Again//, a silent voice nudged.

***

The knock on the door resounded for the second time. "Would you get that, please?" Jim called from upstairs.

"Yeah, yeah." About to set the breakfast table, Blair set down the dishes to go and open the front door, only to find himself faced with a very surprised Captain.

"Mr. Sandburg," he said, clearing his throat. "I hadn't expected to find you here."

Whatever that meant. "Well, yeah, come in. You want a coffee?" Truth was, he was just a little bit nervous. When he had moved in with Jim the first time, it hadn't sat well with some folks at the precinct. Simon had been aware of his role in the partnership by then, but from his reaction now, Blair guessed that this time, he wasn't.

"Yeah, thanks," Simon replied.

Jim joined them a moment later, obviously aware of Banks' questioning gaze. He looked amusedly from Blair to his Captain, no doubt listening to his new-found Guide's too fast heartbeat, then he said, "Come on, Simon. I know I've only known this guy for a couple of weeks, and he's already been mugged, abducted, almost killed. Plus, he knows a surprising amount about this phenomenon that seems to apply to me, this Sentinel thing, so I decided the most *sensible* thing was to keep him around. Don't you think?"

"If you put it that way, it's hard to argue against it," Simon said, shaking his head a little. "About the way you guys started out..."

"It doesn't matter now," Blair said quickly, swallowing back the hurt at this statement. In another time, they had developed a friendship, too. "I take it all back, honestly. It's true, though, that I've studied people like Jim, and I've already been working on tests that'll help improve his control. It will all work out now."

"Glad to hear that." Then, the captain actually smiled. "That means you're taking over the babysitter job now, right?"

***

It was quite amazing how soon they'd been able to settle into a routine. Blair's involvement with the Cascade P.D. was still pending, but otherwise, pretty much everything else in their relationship was like it had been 'before'.

It also felt like 'before', living at the loft, sharing everyday-life with Jim; still, there was a lot left for Blair to think about. His earlier memories, had they all been wrong? It was incomprehensible. How could he have made all that up, and what were the odds he'd still end up as Jim's Guide?

Some days he truly wondered if this was something out of "Quantum Leap". He just couldn't figure it out.

***

He had another hour before Jim would be home, enough time to finish the book on secret societies he'd been reading as part of one of his classes. Enough time, or so Blair had thought, because only a few minutes after he'd started, a visitor announced himself with a firm rap on the door.

Who the hell could that be now?

He'd been looking forward to a quiet evening. "I'm sorry, Jim's not here at the moment," he started the moment he opened the door, then barely kept himself from flinching back. Blair hadn't been looking forward to meeting her again, no matter how big of a misunderstanding everything had been.

"That's alright, I wanted to see you, Blair," said Dr. Nina Shawn.

***

"So." While Simon had seemed to get used to the idea of Jim and Blair being friends, Dr. Shawn was another matter; she had signed the piece of paper that had given him an evaluation in the psych ward. She'd signed his way out, too, and Blair couldn't imagine what she wanted from him now. "How can I help you?"

She smiled, and her expression totally lacked the warmth she'd projected on other occasions. "I see you've done some major adjusting in the meantime." Her tone was mocking as she took a look around the loft. It looked pretty much like it had in his real-or-maybe-not memory, his things mingled with Jim's, creating a friendly mix of styles.

"Excuse me?"

"Under all that big bad cop exterior, Jim's really a very empathetic character." She chuckled. "That I knew, but I'm still surprised he's taking in strays."

Her haughty manner made him angry, and Blair rose from where he was sitting across from her. "Listen, Doc, if insulting me was all you wanted to, we should end this conversation right now. I'm not listening to this any longer."

She got up as well, still smiling. "Blair, you don't understand. It's still not you who's calling the shots here. Speaking of which... Jim will be here in a little while, so we'd better get moving."

"We? I don't think..." He broke off at the sight of the gun, with a silencer, he distantly realized, that she had produced from her purse. In deliberate contradiction to her earlier words, she pulled the trigger once.

***

The memory of pain was a vague feeling of fear for the experience to be repeated. In an instant, Blair knew why he had indeed feared something like the incident with Quinn happening again. Because it hurt like hell. Nina had chosen to shoot him in the leg, because it would keep him from getting away, not caring that it also slowed him down, or that his blood would be smeared all over the wooden floor.

"Let him find your blood in here, it doesn't matter," she said, sounding irrationally satisfied. "We'll be long gone by then."

***

"So how do you get along with your roommate?"

Jim and his co-worker, Joel Taggart, a former bomb squad captain who'd joined Major Crimes about three years ago, stood outside the loft. "Just fine," Jim answered, then frowned as he turned his key in the lock. "He could work on his sense of safety though. No matter how many times I tell him to lock up after himself..." He stopped, and went very still for a moment.

"Jim?"

"I smell blood," he whispered, holding up a hand, indicating for Taggart to be silent as he opened the front door.

Behind him, Taggart just shrugged, having no idea what Jim was talking about.

***

"Oh my God."

At the station, only Simon actually knew about his enhanced senses, but Jim didn't care about being found out as he concentrated hard, not willing to lose any time, trying to find any hint as to who'd been the intruder. He didn't need very long to identify the hint of a woman's perfume still in the air, and it would have been too big a coincidence.

If he'd smelled Nina's favorite fragrance from her earlier visits, it would have been much less perceivable, to him, at least; he didn't think Joel or any other 'normal' person would have picked up anything.

It wasn't enough blood to indicate a homicide. There must have been a struggle.

Why hadn't he seen it coming? Hadn't put the pieces together?

//I'm so damn sorry.//

Having opened his sense of smell as wide as he had, without his Guide around, he slid, unfettered, into the zone.

***

 

"You know, the girl was so easy. She liked you a lot, too, and I had her pretty confused there for a while."

It took Blair a while to realize she was talking about Joy as the pain made it hard to concentrate. He hadn't yet figured out exactly what it was Dr. Shawn wanted from him, but it seemed like a good idea to keep her talking. "How?"

She smiled as their gazes met in the mirror. "It's not that hard to disguise female attributes, and I used the after shave."

Then how could Jim miss it? Of course. Blair had been in the room, too, and it would have been hard to distinguish who'd been wearing what; smelling him or even Nina in the room wouldn't even have struck Jim as unusual. "That's... clever," he managed, gasping when she took the curve at an adventurous speed. At this rate, he could at least hope they'd be stopped by a patrol car.

"Isn't it?" she agreed, pleased with what she seemed to take as a genuine compliment. "It wasn't all that hard though. I mean, those guys, you met them yourself. Max? Oh heavens. He was so much in love with his mirror image, really easy to play. Of course he did most of the work regarding this 'Alpha' thing. He had to answer to a third person, though, and he never really got it that it was me."

"Why did you come back for me? I had nothing on you!"

"True, but you're a study in progress. I am not really willing to stop in the middle of it. As you can imagine, we're talking a lot of money here."

"That's crazy. For one thing, Jim won't buy it."

Dr. Shawn actually laughed at that. "It will be a shock to find you've disappeared, but I promise you I'll do my best to console him."

***

A little less than twenty minutes later, Captain Banks had arrived at 852 Prospect. Eventually, he'd managed to bring Jim out of the zone, though not without swearing his detective had just taken five years off his life. At least.

"It's Nina," Jim said, angrily slamming his fist against the doorframe, the resultant bruising appearing almost instantaneously. "I can't believe I was so stupid!"

"Her record's clean," Simon reminded him. "There was no way to tie her to any of the crimes. I'm not sure there is now, to be honest... I mean, just because you smelled her perfume in here, and the residue from a gun?"

"That, and Sandburg's blood over there. A shot was fired, and I can't imagine Blair did it. Right? Maybe she had help, but in any case she's got a lot to answer for. And we don't have time to lose."

***

They left Taggart in charge of the scene, then went straight to Nina's workplace. Tara, the secretary, didn't look too pleased to be visited by the police yet again. "Detective, I thought this was over now?"

"I'm sorry, it isn't. Do you have any idea where Dr. Shawn could have gone? It's really important that we speak to her."

Tara just shrugged. "Dr. Shawn's a good boss, but that doesn't necessarily mean she tells me what she's doing in her spare time. I don't know."

***

"I still don't get it." It wasn't just about keeping her talking, it was more a matter of distracting himself from the merciless throbbing in his right leg. Or even, that something about this scenario didn't fit. "Why me? I guess there are other people somewhere locked away, that would be much easier for you to access, without the risk of getting caught."

His questions seemed to amuse the psychiatrist. "Quick thinking, Blair. That alone makes it worthwhile, the way you never give up trying to figure it out. I'll tell you something: You're right, it isn't so hard to find subjects. What I really have learned is that I have to be more careful picking my partners from now on... you are special."

"Gee, thanks. I feel much better now."

"I'm serious. There was something happening during your hypnosis... wow, I've never seen anything like that."

Even though something told Blair that she was just baiting him, he was wondering. Did it have something to do with the visions he'd had about Incacha? "Where are we going?"

She looked at him for a moment, as if to gauge his reaction to what she was about to say. "Montana," she finally said. "There's a nice remote facility where we can get right down to the bottom of things."

***

"Yes, you got that right! I need a team here right now!" she barked into the phone angrily; sometimes she felt like she was surrounded by idiots. Cummings, Timm, who had managed to blow the Cascade part of their operation. The guy from the Montana facility obviously didn't know whom he was talking to; otherwise he would have shown a little more respect. "This is Dr. Shawn, and I need that damn team now in order to apprehend one of our prime subjects. Now get up off your ass and send it to me!"

Truth was, she was embarrassed, and Nina tended to cover an emotion as unwanted as this with anger. Anger at herself, because she'd told Sandburg an important detail, then let him escape, a man suffering from a gunshot wound! He couldn't get far under those circumstances, but it was better to wait for the helicopter anyway. She'd just leave the car behind, as she'd planned to do anyway.

//Max's attitude must have rubbed off on you. Why'd you have to brag about that session?//

With vigor, she slammed the door of her little red sportscar shut behind her, then locked it. She checked her weapon once again. If necessary, she'd shoot him again. It didn't matter as long as they got him to Montana alive.

***

As Jim scanned the office once more with his enhanced sight, he knew he couldn't let himself get distracted from the regret that swirled around him, almost like a visible entity. He had genuinely liked Nina, considered her a friend even. Another betrayal to be noted on a longer list he didn't want to think of at the moment. It didn't matter.

That he'd find Blair in time, did matter. It wasn't just the fact that these senses weren't so much of a curse he'd considered them before, and the difference it'd made to have someone who understood. It went much deeper than that.

And all of sudden, it was very easy to discover what no one had found because Nina's office hadn't been searched that thoroughly before. After all, she hadn't been charged with anything. That's, maybe, because Cummings probably didn't have any idea just how deeply she was involved. The drawers of her desk had double sides, a traditional secret hidden space. And when Jim took out the blank pages hidden in the enclosed space, he could discover the faint traces of print. The pages had been crammed together so tightly that some of the fresh print from another page was still visible - at least to a Sentinel.

He could make out an address; a psychiatric hospital in Montana.

"Simon, I know where she's going. Look..."

The Captain, who couldn't make out more on the otherwise blank page than a few gray smears, just shook his head. "What the hell has this kid done to you?" he asked, but for all his gruff exterior, it sounded rather fond.

***

One thing was for sure, once they'd arrived at the destination Dr. Shawn had named, his fate would be sealed; he would not make it out of there alive. That had been going through his mind when Blair opened the passenger's door, and simply jumped. The impact knocked the breath out of him, the pain so extreme that the edges of his vision began to gray out, and damn, he couldn't pass out on the middle of the road. Nina would find him, or he'd get run over...

Blair had managed to drag himself over to the side of the road, knowing it wouldn't be much help as, in the distance, he saw the doctor make a U-turn. Impossibly, he made it down the little slope, into the ditch beside the road, hoping that Nina wouldn't want to ruin her designer suit by climbing down to get him.

If she was waiting for help, then maybe Jim would have realized he was missing by now, too.

***

"I don't know, Jim, he might have sounded crazy before, but Sandburg was right on the money about the number of vehicles you've wrecked. That has got to mean something," the captain said, exasperated. Jim didn't answer that, his hands simply gripping the steering wheel a little tighter. "We will find him." Simon Banks spoke up again, his tone softer this time. "There's an APB out on Shawn's car, we have a team waiting for her in Montana... she won't get away."

//If only it wasn't already too late.//

They had been driving in silence, until a distinctive sound reached Jim's ears. "Do you hear that?"

Simon's look said, //do you really expect me to?//

"That must be Nina's ride. It's a helicopter." He was straining his hearing to get more, and over the increasing noise of the rotating blades, he could hear Nina curse. //"I know you're down there,"// she threatened. //"You won't get away, and you're going to pay for this!"//

They were getting closer. And the helicopter was about to land.

***

"Gotcha," she said to herself, smiling triumphantly. In the distance, her ride had arrived, and she'd found her subject, hiding in the ditch. The guys from the team ought to make their shoes dirty; Nina wasn't about to trash $300 pumps, though her enthusiasm almost got the better of her. Now she finally understood the gleam in Cummings' eyes when he talked about his sessions with Sandburg; what she'd seen on the tape of the last one had convinced her.

Max hadn't fully understood though; he'd been too blinded by his own power-trip.

Now it was up to her to pave the way.

The two members of the Montana team were only a few feet away, and she called for them to hurry. "And now we're going on a real trip, my friend..."

She almost thought herself to be hallucinating when her whisper got an answer,

"That's right, darling - straight to jail."

***

Nina was quick, Jim had to give her that, but it was with no regret that he fired, having anticipated the move, shooting the weapon straight out of her hand. The two men returned fire, too. Simon caught one of them in the leg; the other one disappeared into the nearby woods. The Montana part of this would have to be dealt with, but that wasn't on Jim's mind as he climbed down the small slope.

He heard the arrival of the backup and ambulance in the distance, and knew Simon would send down the medics as soon as they arrived. The first good look he got at his friend convinced him there wasn't much time to lose, and he cursed himself again for not having acted on the suspicions about Nina he'd dismissed early on.

It should have never come to this.

***

He had only a minute to shed his jacket and wrap it around the shivering, half-conscious figure, sensitive fingers feeling the clammy skin, then the medics joined him, to help hoist Blair on a gurney and bring him up the slope again.

To Jim's dismay, he wasn't allowed to ride in the ambulance, and he wasn't any happier when Simon declared that he would drive, subject not open for discussion.

"Whose vehicle is this anyway?" grumbled Jim, but since he was unwilling to lose anymore time, he joined his captain in the truck.

Simon was pulling out onto the road again to follow the ambulance. "They're taking good care of him. You heard it yourself, the bullet went straight through. He'll be okay."

"He was so cold," Jim said, more to himself than to Simon.

Suddenly, he sat even straighter in his seat as he strained to hear what was being said in the back of the vehicle right ahead of them, growing colder inside with each word.

In the ambulance, Blair had stopped breathing.

***

//A sentinel is a person chosen because of a certain genetic advantage...//

//Got to have a partner I can trust...//

//It's almost like those stories you told me before.//

//I listen with my heart, I'm sorry, Blair, that's what mothers do...//

//I... I've been falling in love with you, that's what it's about.//

//...unless you're suggesting we've been sharing a bed, I'm sure you see my point. Please leave now. //

//Does that mean you're taking over the babysitter job now?//

//Do I make a good *you*?//

//You really think I'd put up with you if there was any other way? Think twice!//

//Why are you here and not with your Sentinel?//

//Don't tempt me. I could still write that book.//

They were only jagged pieces, not fitting together, and they came to Blair with a pace that made him dizzy. Images, voices, some familiar, some evoking fearful memories, some not making any sense at all. He wanted to let go of them, reach for the light that lay beyond. Light. Peace. It sounded like a good idea.

***

Epilogue

When Jim dusted the books on the shelf in the living area, a small piece of paper sailed down to the floor, and he bent to pick it up.

//It's over a hundred years old...// Those words, spoken with reverence, came back to him, filling him with a now familiar melancholy he ignored most of the time, but sometimes, at moments like these, he chose to acknowledge and look at it. It had been almost a year since Blair had shown up on his doorstep, presenting a story that would make great plot for a TV show.

There was no simple right or wrong, some things that had happened turned out to be close versions of the ones Sandburg had described before, near prophecies. Others, fortunately, had never happened, //at least not in this reality//, he thought with a wry smile. Blair Sandburg had become the police observer, his unofficial partner, Guide - and best friend.

Jim read the note again, shaking his head as he recalled the circumstances under which the words had been written. Sometimes he still found it hard to trust such devotion, but it was real.

Evidence of that other world, if it had ever existed, was now fading away, even if they had been shaping a world together that was close to it. In those tense moments after the rescue, when he had feared he could be losing his friend after all, something had changed, profoundly.

Sometimes, Jim knew, Blair was still worried about the things Nina had said, something she had never clarified, and there were still no records to be found about his involvement with the 'Alpha Study'.

Other than that, life was lived in the here and now, the balance restored.

Wasn't it?

***

THE END