Last year, I posted a story called 'An Altered Life', and I've planned to do a whole series of this alternate universe stuff - well, it just didn't happen. But there was something a friend of mine said after reading 'AAL', about what she thought the conclusion was - and I wrote that story.

Thanks to Lyn and Xasphie for the beta!!

The Glass Ceiling

By Demeter

EMAIL: Demeter

1

The silvery moonlight caused an eerie play of light and shadow in the room, creating a surreal atmosphere. Blair knew at once, this had to be one of those unsettling dreams where you only think you're awake, but had in fact slipped into just another dream, reality a treacherous illusion.

He'd had many of those lately. Everyone who suffered from them knew that they made the waking up for real even harder, and they left you tired and not quite in the present the next day. He hated them. You might think you were moving in a familiar scene, and all at once your subconscious would add some disturbing element that would jolt you to wakefulness, your heart racing.

His eyes struggling to adjust to the half-dark, Blair realized that he'd never been in this room before - so much for familiar. Could have been a hotel room with the nondescript wallpaper and curtains. His memory, as to what he was doing here, was - blank. Dream or not, he had to find out what was going on.

If this was some kind of vacation, he'd know.

Wouldn't he?

He pushed back the covers and set his feet on the floor, the motion causing an unexpected assault of vertigo. Several deep breaths later, it had passed, and he carefully stood up. He still felt a little sluggish, but no more vertigo, thank God.

Where the hell was he and why couldn't he remember?

The door opened easily, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Just why had he been thinking that someone was holding him here against his will? Duh. It had happened one time too many.

Blair stumbled into a well-lit hallway, a vague pain in his left leg making itself known as he tried to put the pieces together in his mind. Jim had been in the middle of an investigation, so there was no way they could have just gone on a vacation, was there?

Where did that pain come from?

The ringing of a cell phone... An agitated female voice, //Please come soon, I'm so scared... they're going to kill--// "Mr. Sandburg! What are you doing up?"

Starting at the sound of the voice, Blair almost jumped. The woman standing in front of him with an expression of mild shock wore a nurse's uniform. Hospital?

The room hadn't looked like that. The first of those strange dreams had started there. He could feel his heart starting to pound, until it was all he could hear.

The nurse was saying something, but he couldn't understand her, as the vertigo returned with a vengeance, drowning his world in black.

***

The next time he woke up, Blair wasn't any more certain - of anything. The room hadn't changed any, but there was daylight now, and he could make out his surroundings more clearly. Besides the bed, there was a wardrobe, a table with two chairs and a nightstand; a door he hadn't noticed in the dark, that probably led to a bathroom.

The woman who sat in the chair in the corner, however, was familiar, and he was filled with a sudden and profound gratefulness for that fact. Despite the tears in her eyes, she was smiling.

"Hello, Mom," Blair said, surprised that he could hardly raise his voice above a whisper. "What happened? Have you talked to Jim yet?"

The second question made her raise her eyebrows, and he hoped there hadn't been an argument between her and Jim. He couldn't help but stare at his mother who wore a light green business suit he'd never seen on her. Come to think of it, he'd never seen this kind of style on her, ever.

"Sweetie." Her voice was shaky, and upon a closer look, Blair realized she had lost weight since he'd seen her last, looking almost gaunt. "Everything's going to be alright now."

A horrible thought forced itself on him, leaving him with hardly enough breath to force the question out. "Is this... about Jim? Did something happen? Mom, you've got to tell me..."

Naomi laid her hand upon his right one, fingers curling around his.

//Oh God.//

Then she spoke: "I don't know who Jim is, but I must admit the only thing that matters to me now is that you're here, and safe. I was so afraid I'd never see you again."

She leaned closer to hug him, and Blair was more confused than ever. He was seriously missing something here. Best to start with an easy subject. "Where am I?"

***

So this was a clinic after all, some rehab facility. When Naomi had realized that he had no clue about what was going on, she'd suggested a walk, something the doctor had agreed on. The vague but insisting worry that something could have happened to Jim, remained stubbornly in his mind, all the more since Naomi claimed she didn't know him, which was ridiculous.

Blair wondered what Jim would make out of all this; he definitely should call his roommate and find out how much he could help clear up. Until now, no one had really managed to explain to him why he was here in this nice private facility, recovering from -- what? So there was this twinge he felt in his leg every now and then, but otherwise, there didn't seem to be injuries of any kind.

Naomi had just told him that he'd been missing for months, and that the doctors were bound to know details. When he'd asked her about the clothes, she simply said, "But Blair, that's what I've been wearing for work all the time. You don't remember?"

A shadow had crossed her face then, but she'd straightened up and smiled through her tears. "Whatever. You remember me, that's more important than stupid clothes. We'll figure it all out."

***

Jim arrived half an hour later, before they could have even tried to get hold of a doctor - and unfortunately, he was no help at all. It was simply bizarre: He'd greeted Naomi formally, then he said, "Mr. Sandburg. I'm glad to see you're doing better. Are you remembering anything about your abduction yet?"

The sense of dread, up until that moment vague and indistinct, grew infinitely. "Jim? Whatever you guys are up to, it's not funny anymore. So just tell me, when can I blow this joint, huh?"

For a moment, Jim looked very uncomfortable, then he slipped back into professional mode, his tone impassive, as he concluded, "I see you haven't talked to your doctor yet. Do you have any recollection of what happened in Montana?" It was no act. Anyway, Jim wouldn't do that to him, not in a situation like this that seemed relatively serious.

"Montana?" Blair repeated, trying to keep his voice level, even though this scene was seriously giving him the creeps. By now he was more than convinced that he had to be dreaming. Any minute now... but no, the silence stretched between them, a moment in time that couldn't really exist, because it was absurd.

//Make it stop//, he mentally pleaded to no one in general. Aloud, Blair made the only suggestion that seemed to make sense at the time. "Why don't we just go home, and you explain everything to me?"

"It's... complicated."

Which was, as it turned out, the understatement of the century.

***

2

 

Jim Ellison was a hero. At least, it said so in the tabloids and the general media coverage; the closing of this case had finally given the family of one murdered woman some closure, and happy friends and relatives of sixteen other formerly missing persons got to see their loved ones again. Even if some of the lost and found weren't the same anymore --

All of them had been included as subjects in an illegal study of mind control. People in Cascade were shocked that something like this could have evolved out of their city, with psychiatrists from the General Hospital having orchestrated the experiment. However, they were also relieved and proud to see how relatively fast their own police department had managed to shut the operation down, and rescue sixteen young people.

Getting out of his truck, Jim was immediately surrounded by a swarm of reporters, shouting questions at him. Truth was, he hated all this attention. He'd simply been doing the job he was supposed to do; that didn't already make him a hero in his opinion.

Of course, Jim had other things to worry about as well - the case had to be rock-solid when it came to trial, and already the main subject, a psychiatrist by the name of Nina Shawn, claimed that Tracy Davis' death had been an accident.

As to the 'patients' they had freed, Shawn and her colleagues declared that they had asked to be committed, showing the investigators consent forms, and psychiatric reports.

Everyone, from the families to the cops to the DA, were very sure that those papers were faked, but for now, they couldn't even get statements from the victims. Those who were coherent, yet, couldn't remember, were confused and frightened.

And he had no idea yet as to why one of them, a young man by the name of Blair Sandburg, was so sure he knew Jim - but if he was to make a guess, he'd say it was all part of the devilish plan.

***

Tracy Davis' body had been found at the bottom of the observatory, signs of a struggle making it clear very soon that the student who had been diagnosed with depression two weeks prior to her disappearing, had not taken her own life. A few months later, the police still had no idea who had wanted to kill her, and why.

Some hero, Jim thought bitterly, as he recalled the case. Those months would have made one hell of a difference for those sixteen, and for their families.

One day, he'd been talking to a colleague of his in Missing Persons, distantly noticing the interview one of the detectives was conducting one desk away. The woman, an attractive redhead in her late forties, was reporting her son missing.

The young policeman who was talking to her tried to tell her that the fact he hadn't shown up to their meeting did not necessarily fit the requirements for filing a Missing Person's report. "Something could have come up, and he simply forgot about it. Isn't that possible?"

She shook her head. "Absolutely not, and I'll be damned if I wait for another ten hours until your damn requirements are fulfilled. His friends haven't seen him, he hasn't been home for at least three nights from the look of it, but no clothes are missing. So either you are going to look for him, or I'll have to do it."

Under all her tough exterior, she was obviously close to tears. It was something of a lucky coincidence that Jim remembered Alina Davis, Tracy Davis' mother, the day she claimed that her daughter would have never killed herself.

He simply walked over, ignoring his younger colleague's glare, and introduced himself to the woman. Then he asked her to come with him, to his department, and she made him promise he'd get her son back alive.

A promise Jim had kept.

During the arrest of a thief, Tracy's cell phone had turned up. The numbers she'd saved had never been deleted, and then it was only a matter of comparing reports. She'd made a call less than fifteen minutes before her death.

To Blair Sandburg, who had been reported missing by his mother.

The small-time thief, a man by the name of Gus Mackenzie, had had no intention of getting charged with murder, so he was more than ready to tell how he'd gotten his hands on the cell phone. The car he'd broken into had been a red sportscar, and he'd taken a woman's purse from it; taken the money and cell, but tossed everything else into a dumpster. The theft had taken place in the parking lot of the Cascade General Hospital.

There they found the red car, belonging to one Dr. Nina Shawn, who had been Tracy's psychiatrist.

***

She sat in the interrogation room, legs crossed, perfectly manicured nails tapping a light rhythm on the surface of the wooden table, all looking bored. Her dark hair was stylishly cut, her clothes expensive. Dr. Shawn was going to have to get used to another kind of lifestyle, Jim thought wryly, taking a step closer towards her. As he slammed his hand on the table hard enough to make his palm burn, she barely flinched.

"What good do you think stonewalling will do for you? It's over. Some of the people we've rescued are starting to remember, saying they never consented to anything, or were forced to sign that bogus form. We have objective proof some of them were physically abused on a regular basis. If I were you, I'd talk now. For you, it only gets worse from here."

"Ooh, you're scaring me," she crooned, smiling disdainfully. "What are they remembering? You've closed down a facility for patients with severe delusions. They were treated for psychiatric disorders. Why, you want to drag all of them into court? I'd like to see that, Detective."

Shawn wasn't stupid, he had to give her that. Of course, she wouldn't have been able to manage the operation for that long, otherwise. It had been called the 'Alpha Study', allegedly designed for the treatment of delusional patients with different psychiatric diagnoses.

Only at least ten of the sixteen, according to parents and friends, had never been given such a diagnosis.

"Some of them were beaten. Burned with what the doctor assumed was some kind of tazor. Care to explain that?"

She shrugged nonchalantly. "So there was someone who's not trustworthy on the staff. Tell me his name, and I'll fire him instantly."

"Why did you carry around a murdered woman's cell phone in your purse?"

"Jim, come on..." she purred. When he looked at the doctor questioningly, and none too friendly, Nina Shawn explained. "I heard one of your colleagues call you Jim. I'm sure you don't mind? Anyway -- this is really starting to tire me. I've already told you guys, she forgot it the last time I saw her in therapy. Then the poor woman disappeared and turned up dead, well, not much of an opportunity to give it back, especially since some jerk stole the whole bag out of my car. Maybe he killed Tracy?"

"Thank you very much, I hadn't thought of *that*." Not that Jim had the least hope that irony would bring her around.

What they really needed were the reports, not the fake ones on diseases that none of the kidnapping victims ever had, but the real ones, about the things that had been done to them to alter their memories and replace them with new ones to the psychiatrists' liking.

At the moment, they only had the word of a nurse named Joy Paulson for it, but Jim was optimistic that one of the main perpetrators, a Dr. Timm, would crack if they leaned on him a little harder. That wasn't enough though. He wanted Shawn to go down, and hard.

She and her accomplices had developed means that were time-bombs in the hands of the wrong people, and he was determined to stop them right there.

***

3

 

After the 'great revelation', Blair had told his mother and the doctor in a calm and steady voice that he, please, needed a moment to himself right now, and wasn't it a lot to take in? Jim hadn't stayed for all of it, and why should he - the man had a job to do after all.

Jim Ellison, the police detective, who had heroically saved him from the hands of some Machiavellian psychiatrists who had performed mind control experiments on him and other unfortunate subjects.

Jim.

Blair didn't remember the call he must have gotten from Tracy once, before she died, though he did remember she had taken one of his classes. When he had been working as a TA for the university, writing his dissertation on --

Sentinels.

But there were no Sentinels, those had been just some romantic musings of a Victorian anthropologist, and in truth, Blair had never started writing that dissertation, and Jim wasn't -- at that point, he pressed his hand against his mouth, trying to keep the scream inside that wanted out so badly.

All through the doctor's talk, and Naomi's comments about how she'd been worried half to death, and that she had met Jim because of the investigation in the first place (//not visiting us at the loft that we share//), he'd kept it together somehow, but now, alone in his room, it all came crashing down on him.

What he remembered about the past three years, had in fact never happened, those were the memories that had been *planted*.

Easy to tell that he was wrong, and everybody else was right about it by the fact that it was only February of 1996; a few months had passed, not years.

Well, it could have been worse, right? One of the others was convinced she had killed somebody - for him, the perps had only created the delusion of a big adventure and a great friendship, all the things he'd never really had before.

You should be grateful, Blair thought and cried anyway.

***

"You're kidding me. You know why I'm here, you should understand that another therapist is the last thing I need. I'll go home as soon as everybody's convinced I'm not going to run amok or kill myself, and honestly, it's not what I plan. I'm just really looking forward to being by myself again."

"I can imagine," the woman said softly. She was an experienced and trained psychiatrist the hospital had been working with on other occasions, in her late forties maybe, with long dark hair that showed traces of gray. Must be the line of work, Blair thought ironically.

She had told him before that she'd been working with survivors of cult abuse and mind control for almost twenty years. But what good would it do? He just couldn't bring himself to trust that much anymore. And his story was a different one anyway, he hadn't been programmed by some cult. There was absolutely no connection.

There was the life he remembered, and that strange dream that seemed like a foreboding now, having been beamed into an alternate reality where Jim hadn't known him. That one, however, had ended more happily, and Jim had been a Sentinel.

Not.

True.

"I just want you to know that, if you change your mind, there's someone you can turn to. And I'm not lying to you, Blair, despite the experience I have, this is all quite new, the way they operated. I won't pretend I understand it all, but if you want to talk about anything of this, just give me a call. I'll be working with some of the others, too."

"Thanks," Blair said tiredly, relieved that she at least was honest with him. There were no words, though, that could really make it better. And he had no intention of recovering anything from what had happened in Montana, watch his life and everything that he'd relied on crumble a little more, no thanks.

***

Naomi was getting restless again; he could recognize the signs easily, it was one of the things that had indeed remained real. So Blair suggested, as he had on other occasions, that she go away for a few days, visit some friends. She hesitated, but he'd seen the sparkle in her eyes - she needed that space.

Spending all the time sitting at a hospital bed wasn't good for her aura. Now that the doctors had confirmed that there were no side effects to be expected from the drugs he'd been given in Montana, except for the part amnesia, she was free to go.

He hadn't been much help to the police, but they had found the hidden reports and video footage anyway.

Sometimes, Blair wondered about the things that might be on the tape, but he didn't really want to know. As soon as that happened, he would have to give up the hope he was still clinging to during those cold nights in the small apartment that had apparently been his ever since he'd started college. No warehouse, no loft.

Those were the stuff of his -- delusions.

Like Jim Ellison, the Sentinel. But he wasn't quite ready to give up yet, even if all the evidence was against him. It wasn't fair. He'd just stumbled upon an attempted murder - or accident maybe, because that woman, Dr. Shawn, had claimed Tracy had been one of her prime subjects, and she had never wanted her dead, but it was so lucky they'd found him to step in...

Blair had returned to a reality that was much safer than the one he remembered, and much lonelier. Not being able to trust one's own perceptions was a scary thing, but the loss of what had never been his, weighed at least as much.

He'd half-expected Jim to call him, drop by or something - but obviously, the detective didn't have any interest in doing so.

And why should he?

//Just why can't I quit hoping?//

***

4

 

As Jim had predicted, it was Dr. Timm, a younger psychiatrist whose boss was Dr. Shawn had, who finally gave in. One of Timm's own patients, Catherine Nilsson, had died in the hospital of heart failure, due to a long-term complication from the mix of drugs she'd been given at the Montana facility.

The doctor was willing to turn on his colleagues so he, in turn, wouldn't be charged with murder. "I don't know about the others, but it was never my intention to kill anybody. I liked Cathy, uh, Ms. Nilsson, a lot."

Jim turned away from the man for a moment, reining his emotions, and the urge to puke right here in the interrogation room. "You liked her, huh?" he repeated, his tone hard. The physicians that had treated the victims after their rescue, had already stated that physical abuse had taken place regularly, possibly the sexual kind as well, but they couldn't prove that.

Yet.

It wouldn't be such a surprise, though. These creeps had reveled in the absolute power they'd had over their captives, anyway.

"Yes, she was my patient, my responsibility. I wanted to help her heal, not for her to die. She had severe delusions, though, and I did prescribe some meds to counter that. I don't know about anything else Cummings or Shawn might have added."

"Whatever. You know as well as I do that the reports we've found are not the real thing. So, doctor, you tell us about them now, and you won't be going down for murder. How about that?"

Another hour and a phone call between Timm and his lawyer later, they had all the information they needed.

***

Jim had hated returning to this place. On the surface, it had seemed homely and friendly, but that hadn't done much to cover up the air of hopelessness in these rooms. He'd seen prison cells that gave off better vibes than this --

And a prison it had been, too.

Under the building, there had been a secret tunnel system, and that's where they'd found, with Timm's assistance, the secret archives. Shelves lined with reports and data on video. They would have to go through all that stuff.

Here, they also recovered a handgun that bore the fingerprints of Dr. Shawn. The content of the tapes contradicted every idea that the signs of abuse could have been the work of just one or two orderlies.

It was all there, how the psychiatrists told their 'subjects' the story about why they were supposedly here - of course none of them outright believed them.

They'd started to drug them, tell the story again. Anger and defiance turned to apprehension and fear, but most of those sixteen victims still tried to refuse, and those who didn't, probably just thought they would be left alone if they said yes to everything the psychiatrists told them.

"I can't believe the nerve you have!" Blair Sandburg shouted on the tape. "You killed Tracy, you shoot me, and now you're trying to tell me it all only happened in my mind? Fuck you, you're not going to get away with--"

The disembodied voice of Dr. Shawn ordered some kind of medication to be administered, and from the right side of the screen, an orderly appeared, syringe ready. Jack Pane had been arrested in the big bust as well.

Distantly, Jim remembered something Sandburg had told him about what those guys, Sentinels, something he'd been convinced Jim was, were able to do. Listen to another person's heartbeat. Of course, he wasn't able to do that, but Jim assumed, if it had been possible, he would have heard the kid's heart racing, even though he put on a brave front.

"What's in this?" he demanded to know.

"Just something to help you calm down," Shawn said silkily. "We shall try this one more time."

The sound of a door being opened made Jim start, so focused had he been on the images on the screen. Carolyn had come in, carrying two mugs of coffee. "Hey," she said with a smile.

"Hey yourself. Wait, that doesn't smell like vending machine brew - Simon donated some of his stash?"

"Yes," she confirmed, amused. "Told me to check if you were still awake in here."

"It isn't all that boring," Jim returned, his words unnecessarily sharp, as he realized a moment later.

Carolyn took a seat next to him, handing him one of the mugs. "You don't have to do this all by yourself, you know. I could spare some time..."

"No thanks. I'm fine."

She seemed a little disappointed, but took it in stride. Carolyn was not the type for pointless arguments, and that was surely one of the reasons why they'd managed to stay friends after the divorce. They'd been working together closely ever since in the same department, and it was working out.

"I could use a break, though. You joining me for a late lunch?" he asked spontaneously.

"I'd love to."

***

The soft-toned voice didn't change its cadence any, even after the screams started. Imprinting a life that had never existed, only that the unfortunate subject was still not ready to believe about it. Jack, the orderly, stepped in again, using his fists this time.

The young man in the chair doubled over in pain, gasping for air.

The voice droned on...

***

The date on the tape showed that a few days had passed without any session; the subject had been kept under for most of the time, a harsher mix of drugs being used this time. So it went on for a while, until the moment of the triumphantly announced breakthrough.

As far as Jim and his colleagues could piece together, Tracy had been able to flee from where she had been kept, waiting to be transferred to the Montana Alpha house. That was when she had made her frantic phone call to Sandburg, asking him to meet her at the observatory. It still wasn't clear if he'd witnessed the struggle and Tracy's fall, but in any case Shawn caught up with him and shot him. The facility in Montana had its own hospital attached, so he'd been treated there before they included him in the Alpha experiment.

//Perverts.// The shrinks had also found it an exciting twist to use the lead investigator's - Jim's - identity to brush up their story.

Sandburg's mother had told Jim earlier that Blair had been deeply fascinated by the writings of an explorer who, during his travels, claimed to have come across individuals with all their five senses enhanced - Sentinels. Sir Richard Burton had written that monograph after his return from South America. He'd also visited Peru where Jim had spent one and a half years with an indigenous tribe after a helicopter crash that left him the only survivor of his Ranger team.

Jim had left the army after being rescued in order to join the police department, but the story had been all over the news - just what they needed to make Blair Sandburg think he'd really found a Sentinel. And that Blair himself was the companion Burton had described in his works, the Sentinel's Guide.

They must have drugged him senseless for some time, up until the next image, where he stared at the screen with glassy eyes, confirming everything that Shawn and her colleagues wanted him to. The human body could resist a constant torture, physically and psychologically, only so far, even when trained for worst-case scenarios.

Sandburg had walked into the trap obliviously.

According to Dr. Shawn, it came to their advantage that he'd been into meditating and the like - it made the hypnosis elements a lot easier. //"Have you ever experienced that kind of power... Jim?"// She'd enjoyed herself, even after she couldn't lie and manipulate herself out of the charges.

Would have been great to be that kind of super-cop Blair imagined him to be, because, Jim figured, he would have been able to put away these jerks much sooner.

***

5

His life, from the outside, was neither very adventurous, nor familiar in any way, Blair thought with a sigh. He'd spent some time in the chancellor's office, remembering the woman as some cold-hearted bitch that had always given him trouble about missing classes when he'd been working with Jim. Not putting enough time into his dissertation.

In fact, Marie Edwards turned out to be affectionate and understanding, suggesting that he took the time off until the end of the semester and then come back to reclaim his TA job and start on his chosen subject for real.

"We hadn't thought of employing somebody else yet, and I'm really glad we didn't take that step," she assured him. "Everybody's happy you're back."

Blair stared at her, other occasions when she'd chided him for unauthorized absences flickering in his mind. But that was probably part of the manufactured biography, too.

The people around him were real, looking just like he remembered them, but they acted very differently or sometimes, their role in his life had been completely twisted and altered.

He couldn't stop thinking about Jim and the life they had once shared, if only in his imagination.

It was something Blair didn't tell anyone - but he kept a journal where he'd written all those episodes down, the good and the bad, afraid he could forget *them* anytime soon. What else would be left for him? The brilliant career he'd once dreamed of was long out of reach, because he'd been wasting far too much time, chasing an illusion.

There were no Sentinels.

Edwards might be all motherly and nice now that he'd returned from his own personal Hades, but Blair doubted seriously she would want to employ him after he'd finished his degree.

But thinking about that unusual and amazing friendship - no, he couldn't say that he'd lost it, because in fact it had never been his, right?

The time spent with his journal though, was a happier one. He could ignore, at least for a while, that nothing was certain anymore, and pretend that he'd never been to Montana in his life.

And since his teaching duties didn't begin until a few weeks, there was enough spare time to follow through with his plan.

That was, in fact, illegal; Blair was pretty sure that he could be charged with trespassing for this, but maybe they'd go easy on him and he could plead insanity. Whatever.

Just like in his memory - fantasy - Jim was working odd hours sometimes, which made it not so easy to follow him around, but after a few days, Blair managed to establish something like a schedule, so he was able to share small parts of the other man's life (my imagined friend, he'd thought with a giggle that bordered on hysterical), if only a few minutes every day. It felt so stupid, not being able to walk up to him and--

But that's the way it was at the moment. He'd just wait until an opportunity arose.

***

The next day, already he got lucky - Jim went to a cafe during lunch break, alone. He seemed unaware, as Blair parked his Volvo behind the truck. His hands were shaking as he pulled the key out of the ignition, damn, that was worse than it had been to ask out a girl for the very first time. The man sitting inside that cafe didn't really know him. He'd just done his job, solving a case...

Stepping inside, walking towards that table with his heart beating fast (Jim, the man starring in his delusions, would have noticed some time ago), Blair almost didn't stop himself. It would have felt too natural to just slip into that booth, saying 'Hey, man, how have you been? Senses okay?'

That moment, Jim looked up from the paper he'd been reading, his face unreadable. "Mr. Sandburg. How are you?" Not unfriendly, but in the formal tone he always used since Blair had woken to a nightmare.

//Sounding a little ungrateful there, aren't you? Be glad you don't remember anything about Montana. *That* was the real nightmare!//

Instead of an answer, Blair pointed to the empty booth. "Do you mind?"

Jim seemed to hesitate a moment, then he said, "It's okay, take a seat."

So. This was one hell of a chance, so he'd better not blow it.   "It's hard to say how I am. I barely know *who* I am." That was at least truthful.

Jim nodded to that, as if he understood, and maybe he did, he'd seen those tapes and knew the truth about what had really been going down. "I'm sorry," he said finally.

"No reason to be, you're not the cause, well, technically, in some way, you *are* --" //Oh would you please shut up?!//. "It's just weird. I mean, there's all this proof, but just looking at a calendar makes me jump every time. I know it's only 1996, but my feeling says it can't be."

"You're seeing a therapist, aren't you?" It sounded like real concern.

"Of course I am," Blair lied, no reason to worry, Jim could not listen to his heartbeat anyway. Worse even, why should he care? "It's just that there's life outside those sessions too, and... Anyway, I didn't mean to whine to you. I don't even have the right - it's not like they really did something so bad to me, well, except for shooting me, but that wasn't part of the plan, I guess, and others have been through worse."

"I wouldn't say that," Jim opposed, his tone not friendly any longer, but the hostility was obviously directed elsewhere.

The waitress appeared, and Blair couldn't wait for her to leave again, so they could continue the conversation. This felt - right, just like Jim would react in his fabricated memory.

When she'd taken their orders, Jim let the Damocles sword fall, so to speak. "Look, I'm really sorry this happened to you, but you do understand that this stuff about us wasn't real, don't you? I'm not too sure about what you expect."

//You're asking me?//

"Expect? Nothing, really. I just wanted to thank you. If this had been kept on going - who knows how far they would have gone." Now. That wasn't so bad, was it?

"You're welcome."

They shared a look, and only for a split-second, something seemed to pass between the two of them. The first hope he'd ever had since getting home from the clinic -- as if there was a fraction of the reality he'd known coming through. But it was not nearly enough.

"Man, this is so crazy. I can't believe you don't know anything of what I know..." He rested his head in his hands, not wanting to see Jim's expression.

That moment, a cell phone rang. Jim answered it, saying quietly, "Yeah, I'll be there in ten minutes." Closing it, he added, "I have to go, sorry. Mr. Sandburg - it would be better if you stopped following me around. It won't help you, and you really should be seeing that therapist."

***

6

Saved by the bell, indeed. Jim sent a mental thanks to Simon Banks who had chosen just that moment to call, so he could excuse himself and leave. It was true, a big part of his motivation for wanting to see the psychiatrists behind bars for a long time was the anger he felt at what had been done to the victims, all of them.

It didn't mean that Sandburg's little observing act didn't unnerve him, of course he'd noticed a couple of days ago, and he still wasn't too sure about what to do. Hell, the kid had been through hell, and the last thing he needed was to be reported for trespassing, but he was getting very close to Jim's personal boundaries here.

He was a police detective, not a social worker, and Jim had no intention of changing roles. He'd always been uncomfortable around victims and their grief, glad to leave that part to those who were paid for it. Solving the case was his job. End of story.

//You'd be disappointed, Chief//, he thought, //I'm really not that hero friend you've been dreaming of.//

***

As it seemed, Dr. Timm had had long conversations with Ms. Nilsson. She had been one of the victims actually diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, the second experimental group.

Nurse Paulson had confirmed that he'd been sympathetic towards the patient, though in a way that had made her uneasy, and she'd been right about it: It was also on tape when the oh-so caring doctor took advantage of the fact that she was drugged and unresisting.

More and more ugly details came to light, and they were closing in on the psychiatrists, no lawyer would be able to sell that as any form of therapy.

Time to move on.

Learning the details of his next assignment, the murder of a Rainier professor, Jim couldn't help but think of that strange encounter with Blair Sandburg. Would *he* ever be able to move on?

***

7

He didn't know when it had started, but all of a sudden, the voice had come back to him, together with a vague memory of a face. The latter, of course, wasn't so surprising; he had tried to ignore the media as much as it was possible, but Dr. Shawn's beautiful visage with the eyes that a smile couldn't seem to reach, had been plastered all over the press. Her face.

Her voice.

The intruding flashes of memory were dangerous, disrupting his carefully constructed truth. Blair had adjusted well to his regained freedom; preparing himself for the classes he would give next semester, meeting with other TAs to keep up, and actually, he was looking forward to working again. Less time to think that way.

Naomi sent letters and email much more frequently than he was used to, and not a few people had congratulated him on how soon he'd gotten over everything.

About the others - he'd heard that at least eight of them were still hospitalized, suffering from the manufactured delusions, their symptoms still severe.

Six of them, he didn't know their names, had been released, and were trying to get on with their lives. Not that Blair was interested that much; it gave him a bit of a guilty conscience, because it *was* cold to think that way - but he couldn't help himself, occupying himself with them too much would fuel his own fears to the point of being unbearable.

Because he still had that journal, as something like a lucky charm, a safety blanket, whatever you wanted to call it - even though he rationally knew it had never happened. It was such a relief to take the time and let himself be wrapped up in that world, over and over again.

***

"I can be you!"

"No!"

flash

A blond woman, cold beauty not unlike Dr. Shawn, holding a gun on him. "I'm sorry, but I can't leave you alive..."

God! His throat felt raw with the scream he had woken himself with, and Blair felt vaguely comforted by the fact that Jim would come down the stairs any minute, checking on him, because he must have sounded like a person who was being flayed alive...

Duh.

Of course, Jim wouldn't come, because this wasn't the loft, but his apartment, where he lived all alone.

Stubbornly imposing memory fragments were mingling with remnants of the dream - not everything had been beautiful in the life made up. Alex. Lash. If those episodes had never happened, then why the hell could they still scare him like this? The darkness felt oppressive, and Blair reached over to the small lamp on the nightstand with a shaking hand, sighing in relief when a soft light illuminated the room.

Nightmares had gotten a whole new quality, because lately, some of them just happened to be true.

As the idea came to mind, Blair already knew it was kind of crazy - but certainly no crazier than anything else in his life. He got out of bed, booted up the laptop and went online to find the homepage of the Cascade Herald. Jim had worked some high profile cases, and there were bound to be reports in the archive. Just why hadn't he thought of this sooner?

***

The next day held a pleasant surprise. Blair had been having a long overdue clean up of his office, and just when he left it with a stack of books that had to go back to the library (surely he wouldn't have to pay the fee, because the reason why he hadn't been able to bring them back, had been quite extreme), he ran into someone, sending the books cluttering to the floor.

"Hey, Chief," Jim Ellison said, a trace of amusement in his voice. "Those books must be really overdue."

Instead of picking up the books, Blair just stood there, wondering if this was just one of those hallucinations - Jim, in reality, couldn't know about the nickname, could he? And - why was he here anyway, if not... The surge of hope was breathtaking.

"Hi," he said, feeling giddy. "I take it you've got some more questions. I... I'm remembering a little more, but it's nothing solid yet, so I'm not sure I can help."

Jim shrugged, as they both kneeled down finally to gather the books. "Actually, I came here because of another case. You've no doubt heard about the murdered professor."

The disappointment was so overwhelming; Blair could have dropped the books once more.

"Oh. Sure I heard. I took one of her classes way back when I minored in psych - but... I can't bring myself to think about it much."

"Of course."

Jim seemed to hesitate, and it was a chance impossible to miss. "I've just brewed a fresh pot of coffee, if you have a few minutes?"

It was a good thing he'd done the cleaning up earlier, because to his utter surprise, Jim said yes.

***

Stupid, really, they didn't in fact know anything about each other beyond what was obvious because of their respective roles in this drama, still, the familiarity was stunning. More than that, it gave Blair a sense of safety he'd hardly ever felt since his return from Montana.

Jim had taken a comfortable position in one of the only two chairs, taking a look around, a mild smile curling up his lips. Sure, 'cleaning up' in Blair's book didn't mean necessarily the same for Jim. Another little detail that fit.

"So I'm kind of glad they won't want me as a witness, because it's unlikely that I remember enough to be much help," Blair explained, lowering himself on the edge of his desk. "But I..." No, he shouldn't destroy this moment by telling this to Jim. Shouldn't, really. "I've done some reading, on your cases, I mean --"

"They used that, too," Jim said gently. "I know. But you never met David Lash. We caught him right after we had his file faxed and realized that he was the killer."

"Then why does it still feel so real?" Shit, he'd offered the guy a cup of coffee, no strings attached, and here he was again, whining about things that neither of them could ever change. And how naive had he been anyway? Even in Blair's warped, glorified version, there was no way Jim would have ever been interested in hanging out with him if it hadn't been for his sentinel abilities.

"Forget about it. I know. It does because those jerks were damn good at what they did."

"It's over. They won't do anything like that, to anyone again. Never."

A nice prospect, certainly. But Blair had hoped for more, unreal as it might be. "It's just... hard. Stuff keeps coming back, and sometimes I don't even know where it comes from. Well, at least, in that made up version, it was worth it."

Jim seemed to understand perfectly what he was talking about, because he got up from the chair a little abruptly, setting the cup on the desk. "Thanks for the coffee. I've got to go now."

//Please, don't.//

"Wait a minute, I just wanted to ask you... you saw those tapes. Doesn't anything sound familiar to you? I mean they must have had some reason why they included you there. I just can't believe it's all--"

"Listen, I am not that kind of freak you want me to be!"

Whoa. Jim Ellison had a temper, just why wasn't that very surprising? Blair took a step backwards, unwillingly reminded of one of their early encounters, his own careless remarks about cavemen, and the consequences.

"No, you don't understand--"

"Believe me, I do." Jim had lowered his voice again, but a hint of impatience was still there. "I'm sorry for what you had to go through, and I don't really want to cause you any more trouble, but you've got to realize some things. I am not one of those Superman guys your explorer wrote about. I haven't reported all those nightly phone calls - you really thought I wouldn't figure it out? - but if you don't stop this, I will. Soon."

He left.

***

8

A new case, a different story. Only Jim had to realize that his own kind of nightmares about Montana had followed him home. He went on about his work during the day, but some evenings he found himself still wondering.

Shawn hadn't really given him any explanation as to why she'd constructed Sandburg's story the way she had. It had been entertaining, it had been *fun*. She had always been raving on about power, wanting him to see them on some common ground. Personally, Jim thought she and her minions had been as crazy as they considered their patients, even though they couldn't deny their responsibility - after all, Shawn had been holding a job with Cascade General up until the arrest.

One night over dinner, he'd even discussed this with Carolyn. She was knee-deep in lab analyses regarding other cases, and a bit surprised when he mentioned it.  "It's weird, yes, but don't make too much of it. They used your background, because it fit best with what they wanted to achieve in Sandburg's case."

"Probably. Some of them, they gave a horror trip, like the Nilsson girl who thought she'd murdered a friend."

Carolyn's eyes turned hard at that. She'd seen those tapes, too. Catherine Nilsson had been brainwashed, sexually assaulted, and in the end, she'd died without ever knowing the truth. Compared to that, Sandburg was lucky.

Relatively.

"Others had their dream come true, and have to learn now that it never happened. Guess what, I've gone from an average cop to the first prize in the lottery overnight. At least, for this guy."

"You were never just average," Carolyn said warmly. "And..." Her smile turned what Jim could only call lewd, "Your *sensual* abilities weren't that bad either."

"Thanks a lot." Grateful he was indeed, not so much for her appreciation, but the way she tried to lighten the mood a little, and their friendship that, surprisingly, came easily.

"You're welcome. Really, Jim, our work is done here. I know, they turned it personal on you, but it's over. Mr. Sandburg has his own family to look after him."

"I didn't say I was going to look after him," Jim said, now mildly irritated.

Carolyn shook her head in response, a knowing smile still playing over her lips. "You want to know something? You *are* a hero."

Giving her a scowl, he pretended not to know what she meant.

***

Nice to hear that though, indeed. It would have been even better if it had helped to save the lives of Davis and Nilsson, and to make Sandburg understand they weren't the best of friends. Maybe Carolyn was right. He had to leave it all behind.

Meanwhile, a colleague of the murdered professor had come forward to admit she'd known about a long-time affair the victim had had with an older colleague, someone she'd claimed was quite famous, even though Jim had never heard the name: The anthropologist Eli Stoddard.

Jim inwardly groaned when he heard the news. He would have preferred not to come near the university anytime soon, but it didn't look like his wishes were going to be answered. Stoddard worked in the same department as Sandburg, and, right, he'd been the advisor for the Sentinel study.

In truth, Stoddard's calendar was filled for more than a year - there was no chance he would have even considered Sandburg's idea, even if it hadn't been as crazy as that.

"Ah, but you must forgive my vanity." That was the researcher's answer when Jim confronted him with the facts.

"I was a bit concerned about how the public, not to mention the university would react... You know we were both married. Yes, Andrea and I were - involved, if you want to put it that way, but it was an arrangement we both profited from. I certainly had no interest in killing her."

Wasn't that what they all said? Jim was uncomfortably reminded of Timm and Shawn. He took a look around Stoddard's luxuriously furnished office. Artifacts and expensive-looking tomes sat on floor-to-ceiling shelves; the big panorama window gave view to the large fountain down in the yard. "Sounds a bit cold to me. Was it an 'arrangement' for her, too?"

"Of course. We never talked about leaving our partners for each other, and if that's what you were asking, no, Andrea did not try to blackmail me. There was no reason. We both had good jobs and a great time with each other. That's all, Detective."

"Do you have any idea why anybody would want to kill her?"

"Of course not!" Stoddard said, predictably. "After all, that's your job to find out. Andrea was a wonderful woman. I can't imagine what happened."

Jim was ready to leave when the professor added, "And why don't you go and ask Mr. Sandburg, our famous TA? Andrea was one of the colleagues he'd been harassing endlessly about that fantasy subject. Dissertation!" He snorted. "That didn't even make a good plot for a comic book."

***

9

It had started simply enough, with the door opening abruptly, someone peeking inside, saying 'oops, sorry' and hastily closing the door again.

Things like that happened everyday. Right? Only that the unexpected interruption somehow had propelled him face-first into a flashback; there was the observatory, Tracy's broken body, he couldn't tear his eyes off the sight, but he just knew, he had to run. Because whoever had done this, was probably still around.

And still, Blair couldn't move, in Tracy's sightless eyes a mute accusation that seemed to paralyze him - until the angry voice of a woman was to be heard.

"Stay right there!"

Turning, he found her coming closer, gun in her hand, and a triumphant smile on her face. "Let's not make this any more complicated than it has to be, right?" she suggested, getting closer. "Come with me quietly, and I won't hurt you."

The promise was empty, considering what she had done to Tracy, and suddenly his legs obeyed him again. That's when the shot rang out, and a sharp pain burning up his leg caused him to stumble...

---

"I'm sorry, but we're not finished here."

There was no possibility of reasoning with her. Dr. Shawn's voice remained ever so friendly; it was her eyes he'd become afraid of. They were cold, only getting that dangerous gleam in them when she ordered one of the orderlies to do something that usually meant pain.

Or more drugs that left him so confused he couldn't tell which day it was, or where he was, his name sometimes was the only thing left to hold on to.

"Leave me alone," he'd mumbled, to no avail.

His arms and legs hurt, due to having been strapped down for - impossible to say, how long, and hadn't Jack enjoyed doing that. As much as he hated Shawn, he always hoped she wouldn't leave him alone with Jack Pane.

Bit by bit, they were succeeding, because all this seemed so hopeless, his wish for somebody to get him out of this misery, was becoming much more than an illusion...

Blessed Protector.

Someone to stop all this pain - this insanity. At the beginning, Blair had feared they would kill him, just as they had killed Tracy, but that didn't seem to be their intention at all - and maybe, something even worse.

"Hey, are you okay?"

The words didn't converge with the images, and he blinked, confused.

"Can you hear me?"

A gentle touch made him flinch, and pulling back from it, he banged his arm against an unyielding surface. "Ow." Finally opening his eyes, Blair was confronted with what he mentally labeled one of the most embarrassing moments of his life.

He remembered distinctly that somebody had opened the door, and the unsettling feeling it had caused, all else drowned out in a flood of images --

Which didn't really explain how he ended up under his desk, hiding, shaking like a leaf. //Life is stranger than fiction, indeed.// Or why Jim was here, regarding him with that concerned look, crouched beside him.

"I'm okay," Blair said finally, aware of the child-like impulse to just stay here in this dubious shelter. Truth was, he'd never be safe from those recurring memories. Anywhere.

"Good." Obviously satisfied with that, Jim straightened up and reached out a helping hand, which Blair gratefully took.

"Oh man, I'm glad you're here. Not that I would want anybody to see this, but --"

"It's alright. You were having a flashback. So - are the memories more defined now?"

"Looks that way." Blair shuddered. "I remember a little about Shawn - and that orderly, Jack was his name, I think. Uh, thanks," he added with regard to the glass of water Jim was handing him.

More than ever before was he aware of the fact that they actually didn't know each other very well. It made the situation painfully embarrassing in addition to his very own grief about what was lost. Blair looked up, searching Jim's gaze for what he was convinced he would find there -- "You think I'm a coward, right? Because I suppressed all those memories. Because I couldn't handle it."

Even now that he'd experienced the force of the recurring events, their terrifying quality, this conversation felt surreal. The emotion behind the words didn't.

Jim took a moment before he answered, which didn't seem to signal doubt, but rather the search for the right words. "First of all, I don't think you're a coward. I'm no shrink, but considering what you've been through, I think your reactions are pretty normal. And the doctors surely explained to you that part of your amnesia comes from the drugs; it's something you can't control."

Well, okay. Blair thought that he would have found it difficult to reconcile this precise psychological analysis with the Jim of his memory. The man he knew - thought he knew - would have been much more uncomfortable with these subjects.

"You saw those tapes. What they did to us."

"That was part of the investigation, yes."

"I want to see them, too."

Shaking his head, Jim immediately refused. "No way. It's police evidence now, and even if it wasn't, that can't be good for you."

"I know it is." The idea had been on Blair's mind for quite some time now. Sure, he had attended enough psych classes to determine most professionals would doubt the benefit of this exposure. However, there were the journals he'd kept since his return from Montana - building up a reality that was about to swallow the *real* one. Comforting, and dangerous, and starting to scare him. No, Jim was right. He wasn't a coward. He wanted to know the truth.

Face it.

Without it, any idea of leading something resembling a 'normal life', was drifting further out of reach.

"I deserve to know. And you know it, too."

10

 Jim didn't like the course of this conversation at all. He'd come to ask Sandburg about the suggestions Stoddard had made, only to find the young man cowering on the floor, hiding under his desk, the flashback still having a tight hold on him.

It was an image he wouldn't forget soon. In the video material, or later, when he got to meet Blair in person, it had seemed astonishing how well he'd been able to deal with his experiences. Now that he was safe, they were catching up with him.

After being rescued from Peru, Jim's memories of the jungle and the Chopec tribe who took him in at that time, had felt unreal, as though covered by a veil. A veil his own subconscious had woven protectively; he knew that now.

There was a certain familiarity between him and Sandburg that he couldn't deny anymore - Jim knew what it was like, the fear of not quite being able to distinguish what was real - and what was not.

"You owe it to me." Blair's eyes were pleading with his, as were his words.

Jim felt himself torn between very contradictory impulses; part of him wanted to say, "How dare you, I don't owe you anything!" while the other could have easily just stepped forward and embrace the younger man, offering a comfort no one had offered him back then.

//...but that's not my goddamn job!//

They were not the kind of best friends Blair wanted them to be. Yes, maybe he was right. Those tapes offered irrevocable proof of how Shawn and her colleagues had manipulated Sandburg and the others, to put it mildly. No fantasy left to retreat into anymore.

"I can't promise it," Jim said. "I'll try to think of something."

"Thank you."

Jim thought of the contents of the tapes he had seen, the screams, the pain, and the utter misery. To get access to that was certainly no reason to be grateful, but he didn't say it aloud.

***

He tried not to think about what the department shrink would have to say about it, not to mention his boss, but fortunately Captain Banks wasn't in the building at the moment, off to a meeting with the mayor, and Jim supposed they wouldn't need to review *everything* that had happened in Montana.

As for the shrink - Sandburg seemed stable and very in touch with reality, and he wanted to confront the situation head-on. Probably, it would really be for the best.

Jim hadn't missed the way Blair looked around the bullpen, for anything familiar. It sure had to feel like that to him, because the psychiatrists had used some real material in their little charade, like real video footage from the reality they wanted to bestow upon their victims. They had also talked about the murdered professor, Jim's initial reason to see Blair the other day, and the grad student had admitted he'd seen Dr. Andrea Baker about the Sentinel study.

She had refused. Stoddard had never even given him an appointment, though his false memory included that the famous anthropologist had invited him in on a long-term study in Borneo. The truth was all here, on those video-tapes.

"Here we go," Jim said, opening the door to the interrogation room he'd set up for this purpose. "You want a coffee first?"

"No, thanks." Blair had been quiet ever since they'd met in the lobby a few minutes ago. "I just want to get this over with, okay?"

"Fine with me. Those were the tapes made after you'd been treated for the gunshot wound, that's when they started with what those whackos called the 'experiment'."

Despite the relief that this would all be over now, Jim had the surreal feeling that this was a betrayal somehow. Well, maybe it wasn't rational, but in any case, it would be painful. He found himself wishing all of a sudden that they could have avoided it.

***

"Could we stop here for a moment?"

"Of course. You want that coffee now?"

"Yes, thanks."

Jim got up, leaving the room for a minute to fetch two paper cups from the vending machine. Relieved, he thought that Blair was taking this, for him, new information, in his stride. Nothing to be worried about. They could finally go their separate ways now.

When he returned to the room though, he found Blair's gaze was haunted, frantic. "That is not me," he said desperately. "Not me. I swear, it can't be true."

"I'm sorry."  Just how many times had he said this before? Didn't seem to be doing much good.

"It's just... that... On the verge of hyperventilating, Sandburg managed to pull himself back from it, for a while at least. All that meditating stuff seemed to be good for something other than making him an easy prey for those jerks.

He clutched the paper cup tighter, the hot coffee splashing over the rim, burning his fingers before Jim could utter a warning, and then something strange happened.

Sandburg sat up straight, his eyes unseeing as he whispered, "Please. Not

again."

//Shit//, Jim cursed silently to himself, only now fully aware of the thin ice they were treading on. Well, probably he should have asked some professionals before confronting Blair with this material, but he simply hadn't thought -- wanted it over -- right. There was no time for that now. "Come on, Chief," he said, more calmly than he felt. "Come back here. It's safe. Sandburg, don't do this to me."

Another whispered plea was the only answer.

***

11

 They had paid special attention to their 'accidental' subject; made sure to show him the not so acceptable alternatives, should he keep up with his refusal to cooperate.

Drugs, no sleep, no food sometimes - they knew what they were doing, and knew it well, but there was one thing that had played an important part in the psychiatrists' goal to break him - they made him watch the humiliation Catherine had to endure, if unaware, but the images sickened him, and then later, when they showed him how she was tearing her hair out, screaming, certain that she had killed her best friend, he found himself begging them to stop it.

"Look at this," Shawn whispered to him, "You don't want to end up like her, do you?"

He was shaking his head frantically, wishing he could just cover his ears with his hands, but his wrists were firmly tied to the back of the chair. Jack really enjoyed doing that.

"It's very easy, really. But I don't think you're ready yet."

---

Hot Baths.

Something tickled his memory in a painful way. Hot...

Lash, and his mother's perverted ways. But no, that was what they wanted him to believe.

The pain was real, and it was now, as the crap they'd shot into his system, made him so weak he couldn't take care of himself, and Jack Pane, his assigned orderly, was quite happy with his task.

Desperate tears trailed down to mingle with the scalding water.

---

"You always get involved in the wildest stuff." Stoddard chuckled, as he reached out to playfully tug on a long, dark curl.

Not hard, but it aggravated Blair's headache immediately. He had been given some pain medication, and an ointment for the burns, but his body was still in shock from the brutal treatment. "Eli?"

Oh damn it, they had succeeded. He was hallucinating, no way the famous professor could be here.

Could he?

***

12

 

"You with me? Whoa." Jim breathed a sigh of relief. "I swear, kid, you just took five years off my life. If that's enough."

Obviously, this little experiment was profoundly failing. All he could do now, was damage control. Then again... "Maybe this wasn't under the best of circumstances, but you're probably right; you had a right to know. We'd better stop here, okay?"

"Yeah," Blair said a little shakily, but otherwise, he seemed to be alright. "Oh man, what a horror. Guess I'm lucky I made it out there alive."

"I wish we could have found you, all of you, sooner."

"It's going to be okay now. At least, I'll be able to distinguish the nightmares from the real memories. Thank you."

"You're welcome." Just for a moment, Jim was tempted to invite him for dinner, but he'd hesitated just a moment, and to his surprise, Blair told him that he had another appointment for today. Life had to go on, so he'd be seeing his supervisor about his dissertation.

So this was the end. For real. It was what he'd hoped for in the last few weeks, so Jim was a little annoyed by that twinge of disappointment. "I hope it helped some. Take care."

"I will. See you around."

"Maybe."

***

Something about the murder of Dr. Baker just didn't fit, and the feeling it brought was about to make Jim crazy, because he couldn't put his finger on it.

The affair with the famous colleague. The friend talking about it, suggesting Stoddard might know something, at the least. And Stoddard telling him to talk to Sandburg. Where was the connection?

He went back to the station, taking another look at the data gathered so far. There was the statement of Mary Clarks, Baker's friend. He remembered her sounding very concerned, so sure about a possible involvement of Stoddard. No proof though, and the anthropologist had an alibi.

There was some tug on his memory, but he couldn't quite reach it. Then it was pure intuition that told Jim to go over the interrogation tapes of Nina Shawn again. It seemed too strange... someone at Rainier had secrets they were ready to kill for... and then the psychiatrists had lots of video footage they'd used to create Sandburg's 'delusions'. Like Stoddard's office, even Blair had probably never seen it from the inside for real.

What if...

No, he was chasing ghosts here, wasn't he? There couldn't be a connection between the crimes having been committed by the Alpha inventors and the murder of Andrea Baker, could there?

First the tapes. Then he'd check Baker's office again.

***

At first, Shawn hadn't given an inch, going on and on about how this study was supposed to help people that were suffering. She and a colleague had created the concept, and started a model project at Cascade General Hospital, which soon, due to its great success, had been exemplar to the Montana facility.

The colleagues - the investigators had always assumed they were talking about Cummings who signed off as second head of the study. But what if she hadn't meant *them*?

Once again, he studied Baker's file, going through the crates of notes from her office. And that's where he found it: a reference for Mary Clarks, written and signed by Nina Shawn... and Eli Stoddard.

Jim might not have been what Blair Sandburg had wished him to be, a Sentinel, but he sure as hell knew that this meant danger for the younger man. Stoddard hadn't mentioned him during the interview for nothing.

He would have to dig a little deeper into Shawn's connection with Clarks and Stoddard.

***

13

It had taken Blair a while to work up the nerve to go and see Stoddard, but it had to be now. He knew he hadn't really earned the famous anthropologist's respect by including him in his delusions, even if he hadn't done it freely - if he was honest, his ideas about Sentinels and his wish to make it a dissertation subject, hadn't been at all popular at the university. Still, Edwards had complimented him about his work, so maybe that was something he could use to his advantage.

According to one of his fellow TAs, Stoddard was putting together an expedition - not to Borneo, actually, but to Java. Now that one of his assistants had had an accident, there was still one free spot, and Blair was hoping he'd be the one to get it. Not only could he try and resume his life, the real one - he could also stop confounding reality with the nightmares that seemed to linger everywhere.

Maybe he should have gone to that shrink anyway.

***

Stoddard was on the phone, so he waited outside, telling himself that the man had no reason to turn his request down. The chancellor had assured him he still had a job here, that they wanted him back.

Finally, the conversation seemed to be over, and he knocked on the door. "Come in." Stoddard looked up at his entrance, frowning a little. "Mr. Sandburg. What can I do for you?"

"Do you have a minute?" When the other man nodded, he continued, "I've been meaning to talk to you about..." Borneo, he'd almost said, stopping himself at the last moment. "Java."

"Oh, right. One of my assistants broke her leg; she won't be able to go. To be honest, I didn't think you were interested."

His words seemed neutral, but they carried lots of questions, Blair realized. "I've been reconsidering some things. Like that Sentinel dissertation." //Hell, that still hurts.// "I guess it will never happen, so I've got to start looking for an alternative. And yes, it surely won't hurt to get away from everything for a while."

"Most certainly. You're sure you can handle it?"

Blair straightened up a little. "You wouldn't have to worry about me. I really want to go - and I think I've got the necessary credits, even if you didn't believe in the Sentinel subject. Hell, nobody does. That's not really important now."

"I agree." Stoddard got up from behind his table. "My secretary's gone home, so I've made myself some coffee, and I believe it's pretty good. You want some?"

"Sure, thank you."

This was going easier than he'd thought. Nothing like this afternoon... Faint images of Jack, bathtubs full of hot water, and Dr. Shawn's cold eyes still prevailed. All of a sudden, he sat bolt upright. No, that couldn't be. He must have been mistaken.

It wasn't Stoddard he'd seen, right? There in Montana, visiting him, when he was in so much pain from yet another punishment Shawn and Jack Pane had conjured up.

// "You always get involved..."//

That moment, Stoddard returned with two mugs of coffee.

Blair studied the older man for a moment, the unease inside of him growing. Was he really someone safe to travel with to the other side of the world? Even more importantly, was it safe to accept that coffee now?

"I'm sorry, I forgot," he said hastily. "I've got to meet a friend this evening, and I haven't called to say I'll be late."

"So call from here," Stoddard offered jovially. "But don't turn that coffee down, you'd regret it. It's a fresh brew from Java - your destination in about four days, if you want."

Or maybe it had been part of the delusion as well. Jim hadn't shown him every single tape, right? Blair took the offered mug and tried to sniff as unobtrusively as possible, then took a small sip. Didn't it taste just a little bit strange? "You're right, it's good," Blair confirmed, getting up from his chair. "But I really have to call my friend now. If you'll excuse me..."

Retreating to a corner of the room, he quickly dialed on his cell phone. There was only Jim's voice mail, though. It couldn't hurt to have some kind of insurance. "I'm sorry I forgot about your dinner invitation. Maybe you could come and get me?"

Just how much of whatever had been in that coffee? Surely Stoddard didn't want his name to appear in relation with another murder, did he?

It wasn't over yet.

When the phone fell from Blair's hands with a loud clang, and he swayed on his feet, Stoddard came over to him. "Blair, what's wrong with you?" he asked, but the tone of his voice held smugness, not concern.

"I don't know. Must have caught the... flu or something. Damn, it looks like I'll have to reconsider going to Java..."

"What a pity, Blair."

The image of Stoddard blurred a little, but his words were unmistakable. "You're right. Such a waste, really. Too bright for your own good, always asking the wrong questions.&"

"Why? You didn't need the money from that project."

Blair reached behind to steady himself on the shelf. Hopefully, Jim would realize that there was something strange in the message. Fear was a growing cloud at the back of his mind, but he was determined not to give in to it yet.

Comparing to what he'd survived up until only a few weeks ago, this didn't even come close.

"Well, everybody can use a little extra, but you're right, no one's primarily in it for money. Try power."

Gee, why not something more original? Blair wanted to say. He knew all about that from Dr. Shawn, and Jack Pane. "They shut down Montana, and you're a suspect in the murder of Andrea Baker. You won't get away with it this time."

Stoddard grinned. "Montana? That's history, indeed, but I thought of some nice clinic somewhere in Europe. Face it, Blair, you're not part of a wondrous legend. You're just a second-rate grad student that no one would miss, and from what I've seen, not even your mother. See it as your contribution to science; it'll be greatly appreciated. But now I'm afraid we have to quit chatting - we have to go."

As he made one step forward, Blair tightened his fingers around the Mayan sculpture on the shelf behind him, hurling it at the other man, and not looking back as he ran for the door.

Which was locked.

Damn it, when had Stoddard done that? Following his first impulse, he threw himself against the door, wincing at the impact. *That* part always looked much easier on TV.

In the meantime, Stoddard, who'd only been stunned by the blow, had recovered. Frantically, Blair looked around for something that could be used as a weapon. That mask over there belonged to a Kwakiutl shaman from the British Columbia area; given to Stoddard by the shaman himself more than ten years ago, before the anthropologist's name had become so famous.

Whatever. Blair was pretty sure the shaman wouldn't mind if the misuse of this artifact helped in saving a life. Stoddard ducked the first hit, the next caught him on the shoulder, and with an annoyed growl, he threatened, "Stop that nonsense. It won't help you."

Backing off slowly, the mask still clutched in his hands, Blair wondered if he could break the window, raise somebody's attention at least. Get out of here.

One more step backwards and then the ground tilted. He'd stumbled over a pot plant, and Stoddard was surprisingly quick, the grin back on his face. "See?"

The crash of the door being kicked open made them both start.

"Dr. Stoddard," Jim Ellison greeted politely, but there was no mistaking the smugness in his own voice. "I came back because I had a few more questions, but you've just given me all the answers I needed. You're under arrest for..."

Blair tuned out the rest of the words, closing his eyes for a moment. With some of his 'delusions', he'd been right on. You could always rely on Jim to lend a hand when things got rough...

***

14

"It's not fair. I couldn't go to Borneo, because that was the stuff those creepy shrinks put in my head, and I can't go to Java, because the whole expedition is shut down. Man, could anyone have more bad luck?"

"Yes. Getting killed for example," Jim explained patiently.

"Oh, right, thanks for reminding me! Um, forget about it. I'm actually glad you're equally as trustworthy as the guy from my imagination. Thank you."

"No problem."

As they walked past the fountain on their way to the parking lot, Jim thought back to his conversation with the department psychiatrist and her reaction when he'd caved in and confessed about the impromptu exposure session. Probably also jinxed all chances of ever going out with her, too, because she'd not been amused.

He'd have to send her flowers or something though, because it had been a good idea of hers that he should go and look after Sandburg. Adding to that the message on his voicemail, Jim had been sure something was wrong.

So his instincts were alright, even if he didn't have sensory powers beyond the normal human range; there was something comforting in that knowledge. It was a good thing, too, that they'd already found which substance Stoddard had put into the coffee; just a simple sedative that wouldn't have any worse side effects than a little sleepiness, and it had been only a small sip, after all. The paramedic called to the scene had confirmed that.

"So," he turned to Blair who was watching him expectantly and pretending not to, "about that dinner invitation. As far as I'm concerned, it's still standing. What do you think?"

A delighted smile lit up Sandburg's face. "I'm starved."

"Good. Let's go."

***

The crack in the glass ceiling had been made...

The End