THE HUNGER

By Demeter

EMAIL: Demeter

Disclaimer: Only the bad guys belong to me, and I'm willing to sell them for a reasonable price...

Note: Previously posted as March dues to SentinelAngst. Sometime in the winter of 2003, I was preparing a lecture on eating disorders for the local family center, and way nervous about it. Writing the story helped.

A big thanks: To Xasphie and Annie, my beta team, for making my stories a better read. It's great working with you both - not to mention, lots of fun!

Warning: Deals with bulimia and child abuse. Be careful with yourself - if you're sensitive to these subjects, check with yourself if you really want to read this.

Feedback is always welcome.

 

Chapter 1, Who Am I Now?

 

It had been a long time since he’d last deemed it necessary to make these preparations, but it wasn’t like he’d forgotten, the old patterns returning easily. Be sure you have all you need and that nobody’s going to interrupt you. Simon had sent Jim on an all-night stakeout together with Megan.

He’d done the shopping earlier that day, left the bags in his car to go and retrieve them only when it was safe. Trying not to think of what he’d paid for all this food, he arranged it on the kitchen table. The one thing he’d almost forgotten -- was just how expensive this was. Damn it all, it was too late anyway. A small voice kept nagging though, //do you really want to go there//, mocking him.

His heart was beating faster as he put a pot on the stove to heat water for the pasta, his hands trembling with impatience.

Next, he started to open the other bags and boxes, each of them promising relief from the tension that had been building up around and inside him for months, for almost a year, now.

Promising a step back into hell.

***

I am not crying, and I am not going to. Why should I? First of all, I’m living in the real world now, not my Mom’s flower-power-free-love utopia that probably never even really worked for her. I mean, if she ever found what she was searching for, why is she still on the run?

In the real world, real men don’t cry.

Right?

So even now that my old ghosts have returned to claim a piece of me, I will take it all in my stride as I did with dying, and other offences of my life. I will stop shaking eventually, get up from where I collapsed on the floor after it was done, and clean up the detritus of my backslide into my old habit in the kitchen so Jim will never know. Hopefully. After all, this was supposed to be the only time. Just to let it all go once. Even as this thought comes to my mind I know it is a lie, one I’ve told myself before.

***

The vision of the merging spirits, by the time I remembered it, was a great solace until Jim told me that he couldn’t deal with its implications yet. He couldn’t deal? Something between us was broken there and then, maybe irreparably. Well, things weren’t so great even before that, but his refusal to accept this new path makes it even harder to cope with, when I dream about that damn fountain most nights, about Alex and her surprising strength when she forced my head under water until I couldn’t hold my breath anymore and then...

I am not crying, because there’s no point in doing so, it doesn’t relieve me of the detailed memories. Of pain, fear and regret, knowing I was about to die.

Did die, in fact.

Some days ago I caught a scene from a movie on TV where someone was suffocated in his bed with a pillow, and it gave me a panic attack. Jim wasn’t there, thank God. Somehow I don’t believe so much in confiding my weaknesses to him anymore.

He really tried, the time I was in the hospital, and later, after Mexico, but maybe ‘try’ isn’t good enough for me anymore. Between Alex and the disaster that happened with my dissertation, I still could still rationalize away a lot with the knowledge I had about his childhood. Sure, at a certain age you’re supposed to live your own life free from the premises your parents gave you. And he should have known that he did always come first with me, that I never intended to leave without a word. Like his mother did.

Then again, there was so much death and betrayal that at some point, Jim was living a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t expect to ever get anything more out of close relationships than hurt, you’ll rather lash out first. Know the story from Watzlawick about the man who wanted to borrow a hammer from his neighbor? You think that’s not funny? I agree. It isn’t.

Anyway, as hard as it was to be in the line of fire all the time, it’s understandable.

What I couldn’t understand was the way I didn’t get any support when it came to Ventriss and Nadine, and I don’t want to think of what would have happened if they had not conveniently killed someone as well. Not that it means so much right now that I finally got my job back.

But hasn’t everything worked out wonderfully? Just a few weeks more at the academy, and I’ll be a Major Crimes detective. I’m alive, in pretty good health for someone who has actually died, and there’s a career in law enforcement before me.

So why did I give in to the need this time?

***

Old habits are hard to break. At breakfast, I wonder if I’m going to be punished for yesterday’s binge, a thought that doesn’t help my appetite.

Jim frowns a little as I’m staring at the eggs on my plate. "You okay?" he asks.

Out of habit or real concern? I mumble something like, "Sure, why wouldn’t I be" and hope he’ll be satisfied with that.

He isn’t. Figures.

"Something happen at the academy, Chief?"

Hell, what does he think is happening there? No one’s done me any real bodily harm there. As the guy who called himself a fraud on TV, I am sure as hell not the most popular.

I take a forkful of eggs and reluctantly swallow it, my stomach’s already protesting, or maybe I am imagining that. It cannot be, really. Things have been normal for so long.

"Isn’t Kincaid’s trial coming up soon?" the second one, that is, this time for holding the people in the stadium hostage.

Jim looks up, really looks at me now, surprised and wary at the same time. "You’re right," he says cautiously. "You worried about that?"

Am I? I shake my head. It’s not so much that we’ll have to worry each time I have to give a statement. (Because, mind you, lawyers watch TV, too). As for having to go there and face him... well. I am not stupid. I had him figured out that first time; it wasn’t such a hard story to tell anyway. When he said those ominous words, //I could use a man like you//, it was very clear that he didn’t mean discussing substructures in the closed society of a terrorist group.

Still struggling with my cooling breakfast, I remember.

... I had been okay when I wasn’t actually thinking about what was going down in there, the people who had been killed, about all the could-be’s. I wasn’t living with Jim then, and he’d been so occupied after the attack there simply wasn’t any time for me.

I understood that, of course.

When I went home that day, it all came crashing down on me. I wanted to, but there wasn’t really anything in my fridge that qualified for a good binge, so I just lay there on my bed shaking hard like a junkie needing a fix, and I was crying then, utterly ashamed that I did...

Jim sighs and I realize that I never answered his earlier question. I try to be funny. "That’s alright with me as long as they don’t let him escape again."

He smiles at me, still wary. I understand, I want to say, he is looking for a beginning, a possibility, anything for us to meet again where we’ve already been. //"It’s about friendship."//

I can’t, not now.

"So. You got any plans for the weekend?" Jim asks, slightly hopefully.

"Yes," I lie easily. "I was going to check on Jill, see how she’s doing. Rick told me she’s seeing a therapist. Come to think of it, I should probably ask her for his phone number."

"Oh, Chief," he says, reacting to the semi-serious tone of my comment. However, the use of the old nickname I haven’t heard much lately fills me with a long-missed warmth. Maybe we can get it right after all. I want that so much.

***

But it’s not enough, I think later. It’s Monday afternoon. Between classes, I’ve managed to get away to a bakery near the academy, bought a whole bag of assorted pastries. It was a matter of minutes, the puking, purging afterwards, brushing my teeth, almost gagging again and pulling myself together when a fellow cadet came into the restroom.

Colin Marsh, one of the friendlier ones. He was giving me a strange look though. "You okay? You don’t look so good," he commented.

"I’m alright," I said, not unfriendly, but clearly showing him I was not in the mood for socializing.

He shrugged. "Okay then."

The folks around me had become suspiciously observant. Not good. I was getting worried. They weren’t supposed to deal with my problems. As for me, hadn’t I found a way to deal already?

***

"And what’s the point in putting those assholes behind bars? That’s just not enough!"

Jim brings his fist down on the coffee table and I can’t help it, I’m cringing, even though for once, I have to agree with him. I believed in non-violence once, like to think I still do to some degree, but those are high ideals when faced with human monsters on a daily basis.

He is exhausted, having only just come home half an hour ago, and it’s almost eleven now. Jim and Megan have been assigned to a new, top priority case; the other one’s been given to Rafe and Brown. It’s the ultimate case from hell, an abused and murdered five-year-old girl.

"I think Connor’s cried, not that she would let me see. Then she said something about what she’d like to do to the fucker, and I could only agree."

Once, I would have known exactly the right words to say, but we’re so out of sync, still, that I don’t dare take my chances. "What about your senses? You had any problems?" That’s safe territory. Fairly.

"Not at all. I smelled his cheap cologne on her just fine. Among other things," he says sarcastically.

"Oh God, Jim, I’m sorry."

"Not your fault, Sandburg."

I just nod, thinking suddenly that we haven’t talked as much as this in quite a long time, however awkward at times. I long to take it even further, to come right out and say ‘something’s happened and I can’t deal with it alone’, but of course, I don’t.

I know how people usually look at you when they find out, and I don’t want that from Jim, couldn’t stand it.

Couldn’t really risk this to be the last straw.

***

"Oops, I’m sorry. But you should have watched your defense," Martin chided rather mockingly after he’d just used self defense training to make his point clear; //we don’t want your kind here.//

I had heard him talking behind my back. He was not the only one.

"Yeah, right," I wheezed after I got my breath back, kind of grateful that the bruise that was no doubt forming where his elbow hit me wouldn’t be in a visible place.

No rib cracked, I probably should be grateful for that, too.

With a grin, Martin reached out a hand to help me up from the mat, "No offense, dude," he said, and I used the opportunity to return the favor and executed a throw that put Martin squarely on his back. Nobody should say I didn’t have things under control!

When I had straddled him on the mat, he was panting angrily. "Damn lying fag," he hissed. "This isn’t over yet."

I bet it wasn’t.

People like him were so easily predictable. Not that I could spare enough time and nerves to care much, I already had enough trouble on my hands, and, taught by experience, I just knew there’d be more.

***

About *that*. According to some folks around here, I’m not just a fraud, no, they are also speculating how come I’m still living with Jim, and guess what they’ve found to explain it?

This is getting as old as the bad come-on lines I tend to get from bad guys.

Those were Martin’s friends, spreading the rumor, no surprise there, and when I caught one of them, he actually dared me to deny it.

"Martin says they’re a couple of fags," he’d announced by the time I entered the room, his audience a very embarrassed Veronica Chase, another cadet who used to hang out with Colin. "Shut up," she said, "whatever they are it’s none of your business."

Her face reddened when she saw me. Tom spun around as well.

"Why, you wanted to ask me out?" I said coolly. "Well, I guess I’ll have to ask Jim first."

Veronica grinned, and some others were laughing. I’d just made one more enemy.

Perfect.

But everything was under control, wasn’t it?

***

The same night, I’d been dating Sam, expensive restaurant and all, and halfway through the second course, I excused myself to the restroom.

It had to stop some time soon, I knew that. I knew about the dangers, I had read every fucking book that was out on the subject about fifteen years back, and still I couldn’t give it up.

It was kind of fascinating from an anthropological point of view alright; how shared meals had been woven into so many rituals all of the time, celebrations like weddings, or the coming together after a funeral. Screw that, it brought my imagination back to the fountain and very morbid ideas. Then there was the whole matter of non-eating as in fasting, monks, shamans, holy men and women in search of visions. And today’s most popular angle about young women trying to juggle family and career, and just plain trying to be superwoman.

Where do I fit in this? I don’t think Incacha had *that* in mind.

Fuck.

When I returned to our table, Sam was looking up from her plate, regarding me worriedly.

"You’re white as a sheet," she observed. "I guess it’s not a good idea then to ask you to come back home with me tonight?"

"Sorry," I said, now feeling the blush creeping into my face. In fact, I was rather relieved that she’d said it out loud. I wanted out of here. Sam was quite high on the list of the people I never wanted to find out, because as difficult as it had been at times, she was one of the constants I wouldn’t want to miss.

Another proof of how fucked up my perception was. The few people I still trusted were also the ones I’d keep the truth from for as long as possible.

***

Maybe I should call my Mom.

***

I didn’t call Naomi though, that was one thing you just didn’t do when you’d passed thirty, run to Mama at the first sign of trouble.

Jim wasn’t really available right now, with another dead child having turned up. In fact, I hardly saw him anymore, he was taking this case very personally - no surprise there - so did Megan, and they put in so many hours I wondered how they did it without breaking down.

Meanwhile, I was getting myself into financial trouble.

Bulimia’s expensive, after all.

***

I have a girl’s name, so it isn’t very surprising I have this girl’s disease, too, right? I want to cry. I want to ask Jim for help, and I want to undo the atrocities that have been done to those girls whose murders he’s investigating,

I can’t do any of it.

I haven’t checked any web sites or looked into any of the newer publications. Back then, books were a comforting company even if they dealt with women and their specific situation mostly.

Right now, it would mean that I’d have to accept it’s exactly that bad once more.

I am not ready for that.

***

Then I graduated from the academy without anything else spectacular happening. The whole Major Crimes gang was there, them trying to forget about the case from hell for once, though it was etched into their tired features, me trying not to think of the buffet I’d have to face later.

Selfish me, I thought, disgustedly.

I even still mourned for the hair - never having realized how much of my self-image I had been weaving around actual looks. That wasn’t actually the way I’d been brought up, was it?

Sam had pinched my cheek and told me I shouldn’t worry, and that I was still looking cute. That was before I’d fled from the table to puke dinner into the toilet for a magnitude of reasons.

"Hey, Sandy."

Megan hugs me, smiling warmly. "You’ve made it. Not that we ever doubted you’d graduate at the top of your class."

So I would have to deal with the dead girls after all. I don’t say it out loud of course. Jim’s behind her, as if a bit uncertain. "Chief," he says. "It’s good to have you back." He hesitates a little, awkwardly patting my arm then, and I feel this pang of disappointment.

So this doesn’t automatically make everything right. But what will?

***

 

 

Chapter 2, Typical Days

 

My vision is blurring, and I clench my eyes shut for a moment, fighting my emotions back. I feel lightheaded, and Jim’s on the edge of a zone from all that blood.

Quite a pair, aren’t we?

Only a brief moment, then I pull myself together, touch his shoulder tentatively. "Dial it down now," I whisper. He does as I say. Getting up, he casts another look at the body, almost trembling with the effort to suppress his rage.

Always enough traces left for the lab, but what good does it do as long as we don’t have any suspect to compare the DNA to? Serena looks at him questioningly, but he dismisses her with a short angry gesture of his hand, turning to me. "I want to try once more."

How many more times?

The call came early that morning, interrupting my familiar, hated rituals. The fact that Jim didn’t seem to have noticed yet spoke volumes; he, we, didn’t need any more of this.

But as we had both feared, it was Simon, sending us to another murder site on the outskirts of Cascade, this time the parking lot of an abandoned, dilapidated warehouse.

Megan’s with the poor parents now; we’re supposed to meet her at the station by lunchtime, not that any of us will feel like eating then.

God, I’d seen pictures of the earlier victims that had filled me with horror, but seeing the small crumpled body in the mud, rain and dirt and blood making a grisly mix in which her skin was covered, I staggered slightly. I didn’t have to put up with any comments, if anyone had noticed at all. Even the seasoned cops were shaken by this; for Jim, who had lost another member of *his* tribe, it was a living nightmare.

I reacted instinctively, on a subconscious level, pushing aside all the things that had been standing between us recently. It was all I could do not to lose it then and there.

So - one more time.

"Let’s start with smell again. You’ve already isolated the familiar ones, don’t pay any attention to them. Look for anything out of the ordinary."

Anything for us to nail the bastard.

But I know before he even says a word, I can tell from the frustration that is showing on his face. He’s pushing himself too hard, hell, I am obviously pushing, too, but nothing helpful turns up. I guide him through the procedure, guiltily thinking that I’m not at my best these days, much too occupied with those shameful food orgies.

"This isn’t working," Jim says angrily. "It’s all fucking nothing."

"I’m sorry, I just don’t know what else--"

He wards off my apology. "Not now, Sandburg."

Well, okay then. I cast another look at the body, sickened beyond reason. I recall Dan Wolf’s report then. There are always multiple stab wounds, then the fatal one. The pig gets off while delivering the last, deadly thrust of the blade into the body of his victims. I think of David Lash, Chapel, and Alex. And yes, even Zeller, the closest nightmare character from the story of my life. What they did, who and why they killed made sense in a twisted kind of way. For identity, for retribution, to cover the loose ends. For money. We took them on, not without losses and lots of bad nights along the way, but came out with a sense of having won.

In this, we’ve lost already. Big time.

"Hey, Chief, you with me? Looked a little zoned there for a while," Jim adds with an expression resembling a wry smile.

"There’s got to be a pattern," I say. "We can’t see beyond the fact that he’s such an inhuman monster, but for him, there’s a logic in it. There’s always one."

"Oh, come on! The guy can only get it up killing little girls! That’s the only pattern here!"

Whoa. "I don’t think so, Jim."

He glares at me, but I’m not backing down. "Look, we know he has to know the area pretty well, because of the places he chooses to hide the bodies. Either he’s been planning this for quite a long time, or he’s been living in Cascade for most of his life."

"So, what’s your point?" Jim’s still irritated. Oh, what I’d give to get away for a moment and... but you know that already.

"Any connection between their families. We have to go over the files again."

***

Reluctantly, Jim has agreed, but before we started, I managed to raid the vending machine undisturbed and flush another piece of my life down the toilet before facing the facts of three painful deaths.

I had thought I was alone in the restroom, but when I come out of the stall, there’s Henri standing beside the sink, casting me a concerned glance. Damn, I’m getting too many of those lately.

"Hey, Blair," he says. "No offense, man, but you look like hell. What happened?"

"Oh, not much," I snap at him. "Just a six-year-old girl that’s now a three-day-old body. If you’ll excuse me?"

I don’t wait for an answer and hurry back to the bullpen where Jim waits for me with the files. I feel like puking again. It never really helps, it only leaves me feeling more dirty, ashamed. But what I knew the first time has become true, again, I can’t stop it. Just how sick is that?

***

Alicia Stratton.

Beverly McGuire.

Tammy Stevens.

In the files, there are also pictures of beautiful little girls, smiling into the camera, from the time when they were just missing, when there was still hope. It’s harder when you’re confronted with their past, their names, their aliveness.

It will come back to me soon enough, but for now, I’m struggling to check my emotions at the door, not that I was ever good at it, but I learned long ago that you sometimes don’t have a choice. That’s the weight of the responsibility of which I only got a glimpse during my time as an unpaid observer.

We owe it to them, and we owe it to the families of Cascade to keep their kids safe from the evil that’s out there.

There has to be a pattern, but what the hell is it?

The Strattons and McGuires are relatively wealthy families, country club and all. Beverly had a twin sister, Alicia was an only child. Tammy was one of three children of a much younger couple who weren’t all that well off. We have already tried every possible angle, from the staff of the wealthier families, babysitters, gardeners, everything.

Tammy’s Mom worked as a cashier in a supermarket, but none of the others bought from there. They went to different elementary schools, had never met one another. Megan had called during my absence and related that information; she is now on the way to the precinct.

I read the words again and again, as if to punish myself for not finding the crucial clue.

And then I start at the mention of one of the elementary school names, marveling over the irony that a school I had once attended himself, albeit briefly, during one of Naomi's longer stays in Cascade, should now be in the factfile of a murder I was investigating. A bizarre full circle, perhaps.

Something tugs at the back of my subconscious, but I can’t quite reach it. This is going to drive me nuts, and I can feel that hunger again - I could shut it all out once more, I could...

But then Megan’s back. She doesn’t look good, slumps into a chair next to me unceremoniously, before saying, "Days like this, I wish I’d stayed back home."

But she’s got something for us: Tammy refused to go to school for a while because she was afraid of the janitor.

//Honey, don’t you want to tell me what happened? If he’s done something bad, he’s got to be punished.//

Where the hell did that come from? I push the stray thought aside and concentrate on what Megan has to say. "He was investigated, but nothing turned up except that he had stolen money from the school, so he was fired anyway. His name’s Thomas Raines."

"Raines," Jim repeats thoughtfully. "I remember that case, I think. Wasn’t the girl said to be making everything up after she’d seen a psychiatrist?"

Megan nods. "Her parents are still upset about that. So, we’re going to see him?"

Suddenly I’m afraid they’ll decide to leave me behind, with all those horrifying facts and the swirling flashes of what could be memories. Or maybe not, but how can I sure?

"Chief, you coming?"

I jump out of my chair so fast I almost knock it over. What was I thinking? I have gone all this way to be here, to be Jim’s partner. Of course, *we* are going. Lost in thought, I have missed the last part of their conversation, and while we’re taking the elevator down, Jim explains to me that Megan will talk to Serena again, and then continue what we started - the search for a pattern - and how Raines fits into the picture.

Maybe I can get through this day without another ‘episode’ anyway?

***

Thomas Raines is still living at the same address, driving the same car, a battered blue SUV, just like he did at the time he was accused of having molested Tammy Stevens.

When we ID ourselves, he just groans. "So you finally found something to pin on me? I just knew this would never be over." And then, sarcastically "Come in, *gentlemen*. Make yourselves at home."

"Mr. Raines, we’re here to ask you some questions in relation to the death of Tammy Stevens." Jim has chosen to ignore the pissy attitude. "Can you tell us where you were three days ago between six and nine p.m.?"

Raines smirks at him. "I was here. Alone. No witnesses." His lips curl into a sneer. "And I bet that’s just what you wanted to hear."

"Listen..."

"We don’t intend to pin anything on you," I interrupt Jim, "but a six-year-old girl has been brutally murdered. You knew her, and you could know something that’ll lead us to her killer."

Jim won’t like this, but at least Raines now slumps onto his couch and gestures for us to sit down, looking fairly conciliatory as he does so.

"Those accusations came out of the blue," he claims, and I know that Jim is now concentrating on his heartbeat, quite willing to let me do the talking. "Don’t get me wrong, I never wanted her dead, but the Stevens girl is, was, a spoilt brat who was telling stories all the time."

I swallow hard. How can anybody talk about a child like that? And still, it’s not up to me to judge his manner of talking. Has he touched her or not, that’s all that matters here. "Why do you think she did that?"

He shrugs. "I’m not sure, maybe because she had this... wait a minute. Your name’s Sandburg, you said?"

I start at his question. "What’s it got to do with..."

"I didn’t put it together at first," he says triumphantly, while I answer Jim’s questioning look with a shrug myself. "It’s been quite a while but I remember you now. You went to the same school Tammy did."

Funny, he’s right, of course, but that was so long ago, and for such a short time. I don’t remember him; why should he mention this at all? Anyway, that’s not what we’re here to discuss. "Let’s talk about Tammy," I say. "What did you mean?"

"It was this shrink her parents had commissioned for her," Raines spat out disgustedly. "Put all those images into her head. I never even spoke to her."

"And just why would they do that?"

***

"What happened in there?" Jim demands as soon as we’re back in the truck.

"What do you mean?"

"I found it a little difficult to listen to his heart when yours was busy trying to imitate a jackhammer."

"Sorry for disturbing the frequency," I snap back at him, then I apologize. "I just don’t know. Or maybe, because he said he knows me, it caught me blind-sided."

We have to stop at a red light, and Jim looks at me for a rather long time, an unspoken question hanging between us.

"No," I say eventually. "When I said I was in and out of therapy since being in diapers I didn’t mean anything like that. It’s just that Naomi believed big-time that it was helpful in unfolding the personality. For all that it’s worth."

"Okay," Jim says, and in that moment I want to be a Sentinel myself so I’d catch it if he were lying, or if he was really ready to let the subject go.

"Look, the charges against Raines have been dropped. He just said he knows me, and if he was the janitor at that time, whatever. I was in that school a year maximum, how am I supposed to remember him? I met a lot of people when I was a kid."

"Yeah, alright. I didn’t mean... anyway, I couldn’t tell. He seemed upset, but with that history, he’s got the right to be. I didn’t smell that cologne in the house though."

I lean back in the seat, closing my eyes briefly.

"Maybe, when this is all over, we can get away for a weekend or so." Jim sounds hopeful, and I have to admit, right now that prospect is very much like a dream.

***

Even though there are some things you can’t run from.

One of our neighbors, a tall attractive red-head (‘uh-oh’, I hear you say) asks Jim if he could take a look at the dripping faucet in her kitchen, and while I’m quite sure (or just hopeful) that he’d rather not at this time of the day, he politely agrees.

Or maybe he’s really more inclined to spend the evening with her instead of me. Whoa, I’m hurt.

I didn’t mean to.

Really.

But when I see them leave the building and head for the truck, I waste no time arranging another horror dinner for one. It’s not that I’m actually jealous because my *male* best friend got himself an impromptu date. I want to stop seeing the dead eyes of Tammy Stevens. Motivated, if not driven by the thought, I tear into the various food I’ve found in the fridge.

***

For fifteen years, it was a distant echo; at times so far away that I found it hard to believe how you could so completely lose control. Looking at my pitiful reflection in the mirror, I still don’t understand. How pathetic this all is, I think. How weak you are. Other people live with nightmares, too, but somehow I don’t think Megan’s been on a binge tonight.

//Honey, you’re just not cut out for that kind of work.//

And maybe she was right? But I started that downward spiral before I became a detective. I did this all before, lived with the shame, knowing I’d been acting again in a way that seemed so animalistic to me. Oh God! I can’t stand myself right now.

I wonder if Naomi feels the same at times, if that’s why she needs to get away from me time and again. Or perhaps she feels guilty and can’t stand being reminded which is inevitable in my presence. She’s always been so proud of my academic accomplishments, and they always helped a great deal in distracting both her and myself from *the problem*.

Hearing a car outside, I all but jump up from the floor. Damn it! Just how much time did I spend feeling sorry for myself? I dispose of the garbage in record time, clean myself up a little, miraculously manage to do all that before Jim opens the door with his key.

***

"Hey, Chief," he says tiredly. "Now I know I could possibly have a second career as a plumber."

"That’s great, man." I force myself to smile. "It was really just about the faucet?"

"What else do you think it was about?" He opens the door of the fridge, and I brace myself. I do so not want to talk about this, but I cannot hope he won’t mention all the things that are missing. He closes the door again, turning to me with an expression of slight confusion on his face.

I’m careful to keep the smile in place. "Hey, don’t look at me that way. The leftovers had gone bad already, so I had to throw them away. And I thought you and Carlie were going to have dinner together."

Jim waits until I’m finished, then he drops the bomb. Scratch that. Thinking of a guy who called himself Galileo, this metaphor is giving me the creeps.

"H says you were sick today. Why didn’t you tell me?"

"Ah, come on, man. You have more information on my bodily functions than I *ever* wanted *anyone* to have. It’s really nothing."

"And this evening?" he’s prodding.

I’m rolling my eyes at him. "No mother hen act, please. Just think about it. Maybe I just don’t have the stomach for this case."

That was a little below the belt, and I feel bad about it. We all know why I’m here, in this job, and I have chosen it. So there’s hardly any point in throwing it in his face.

"It’s not something serious, isn’t it?" he asks, seeming impassive, but I’ve gotten to know this man too well over the years. I feel the naked fear behind his words. He’s afraid for me. I don’t trust my voice at that moment, but when it has passed, I shake my head.

"Don’t worry. I’m fine. Well, not actually fine maybe, but I will be after we’ve caught him."

Him? Thomas Raines who was already janitor at the Jefferson elementary school by the time I went there, or a yet unidentified two-legged monster?

Jim offers to make me some tea and admits that he himself could use something to help with an upset stomach. This is nice, but I also know he’ll be more watchful from now on.

I’ll just have to be more careful.

***

 

Chapter Three: House Rules

 

The psychiatrist’s practice is closed as we arrive, and the secretary from the neurologist next door tells us that he’s gone on vacation for two weeks, not that she’d know where.

He’s to return in three days. In the meantime, we are observing Raines while Jim is observing me. It unnerves me big time even though I know it’s my fault, I should have been more careful. I don’t want a confrontation. Maybe, when this case is over, it’ll just stop naturally. Right now, somehow, I know I need these episodes to remind myself that I'm still alive, while some innocent children are not. This is where the guilt suits me just fine. Strange how this universe works - I was allowed to come back from death. *Why?*

Since Jim doesn’t seem inclined to do small talk and Raines is still sitting in front of his TV, I let my thoughts wander for a moment. Colin Marsh, one of the guys from the academy comes to my mind, and I think again that he always reminded me of someone.

I make the connection then, and I haven’t even realized that I have started shaking until Jim worriedly asks me what’s wrong.

Oh, damn it.

***

I have lunch with Colin once in those three days before Tammy’s psychiatrist is to return. This is still not symbolic of *every* case, but with something in between fascination and disgust I realize that the initial shock has worn off. We only want to end it.

Lunch that day means I have a water only, I have learned before that it’ll spare me the trip to the restroom, and too many people are already too attentive.

He tells me that Martin’s in Homicide now. So I’m not the only case of nepotism around here. I really hope I don’t see much of him in the future though. As if reading my thoughts, Colin says, "You better be careful around him. He’s still got it in it for you, not that I ever understood what his agenda was anyway."

I’m not sure what to say, but it’s nice to know someone cares.

"I just have to ask you this," he blurts out. "You know, I saw that press conference on TV, and to be honest, I thought what a loser, how could anybody let things get as out of control as that."

I nod, feeling as if he’d just slapped me. Loser. Out of control.

"I didn’t get how you managed to be allowed into the academy after all that, but when I actually got to know you, you seemed like a pretty decent guy to me. Not someone who’d pull something like that, some giant ego-trip. Personally, I think you’re much too clever to stumble over your own feet like that. I can’t say I buy the stuff with the super senses either. So what happened?"

"If only I knew," I say honestly, and it’s true, I never really found the definite point where we could have turned the tables. "I made a mistake and paid for it. Maybe there just isn’t more to it than that."

Colin looks at me doubtfully. "And how would I know if you told me the truth now?" He’s half joking.

//Damn lying fag.// I know he’s one of the good guys, but hell, I’d wish everyone would just leave me alone for a while. "Thanks for warning me about Martin."

He just nods, understanding that this conversation’s over.

***

We ask the Strattons about Thomas Raines. The tragedy that’s come over this family is evident in all their interactions, their posture, even the air feels thick with their grief. It seems darker in there, as if the daylight shies away from their darkness.

I don’t want to be here either.

Mrs. Stratton looks like one wrong look would have swept her off her feet, and maybe it would. "Is this the man?" she asks while her husband is sitting beside her, holding her trembling hand. He’s not much better.

"We don’t know yet," Jim says gently. "He was the janitor at one of the girls’ school. Do you know him?"

She’s shaking her head, and Mr. Stratton confirms, "We told you before. Ally was in a private school. I’ve never seen him before. Do you think he has..." His voices cracks then.

"The girl I’m referring to was in psychiatric care. Did you ever send Alicia to a child psychiatrist?" I direct the conversation away from Raines.

//Honey, please tell me the truth. It’s important.//

I should call Naomi after all.

But at this moment, there’s no place for those thoughts.

"There was nothing wrong with her, so why should we?" Stratton’s voice has taken a defensive tone. "If you doubt that, why don’t you go and ask my brother, he’s a professional in that field?"

I wonder why he mentions him right now, but go for it. "He’s here in Cascade? Then he probably knows a Dr. Bryant."

"Gary Bryant? That’s him," Stratton says, and then his eyes narrow. "Is there anything else I should know?"

***

The surge of adrenaline makes me forget for a while what a mess my life has become. Jim and I share a look, and it can’t be denied: We’re close now. Dr. Bryant is the first real connection between the families except for the girls’ age, and he will probably be able to provide us with viable information on why they had to die.

Later that day, Megan’s eyes shine with triumph as she explains that Beverly McGuire was in a program for highly gifted children that was lead by, guess who, the psychiatrist Dr. Gary Bryant. He’s got to have some answers for us.

As for dinner, the three of us stop at Wonderburger on the way home which dampens my enthusiasm, for the smell of food, especially this kind, makes me feel just as nauseated as the memories do.

The ones I intended to run from when I became such a freak for health food. Seems like I wasn’t running fast enough though.

"It won’t fight back if you actually try to eat it."

"Huh?" One more mistake. Note; you shouldn’t pick at your salad like this when a Sentinel is watching.

"I’m not really hungry. I had lunch with Colin today."

Well, I am hungry. I am also tired of what has become the usual result of eating recently.

"Is this about Raines? You said it yourself, there’s still no evidence he ever did anything. Not now, not then. But if you’d like to talk, we could..."

Megan who has excused herself to the ladies’ room just a few minutes ago, returns, and so I don’t hear the rest of the unusual offer. I see the curiosity that flickers briefly over her beautiful face. Yep, another secret.

One I’m not eager to uncover.

***

//"What’s wrong with you?"//

I lie in my bed, replaying that conversation in my mind while I’m trying to ignore my rumbling stomach. I haven’t thrown up today, that’s a small success. If just a temporary one.

It was in the early days living with Jim, and because of David Lash that I’d all forgotten about it. There was this girl that I’d met in one of my classes; she said she went to elementary school with me, we had a coffee together and then she asked if I remembered that creepy janitor and how he got fired because of some accusations that got the whole school in uproar for a while.

Her name was Sylvie Decker, and I could recall that her Mom and Naomi had become friends for a while, before we moved on again.

But I couldn’t remember that incident.

She frowned. "Wasn’t that why you moved in the first place? Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mean to... ah, just forget about it. So how’s your dissertation coming along?"

"What the hell do you think it means?" I had said to Jim at the time, remembering with dread that wise-ass remark I’d once made, //Trauma tends to get repressed. I’m no psychiatrist, but...//

"You don’t know anything for sure," he’d replied quietly, laying a hand on my arm. That simple gesture had finally helped to ease the momentary flash of panic. "Sometimes we really just forget something, psychology aside. It happens." This coming from the man who had successfully repressed the majority of his time in Peru.

Oh, how much I wanted to believe him.

***

Before Dr. Bryant returns home, we get to visit the center where he holds the classes for gifted children. His assistant proudly shows us the rooms and explains all the possibilities that the kids are given here outside of regular school. Sports, arts, creative approaches besides the straight intellectual.

It’s so amazing I almost realize too late when Jim tenses beside me, on the verge of a zone-out. "Jim. You still with me?" I keep my voice low. Luckily Mrs. Hadden is too engrossed in her lecture to realize.

That and the light touch of my hand on his arm brings him back to the here and now, but he’s tense, his expression grim. Shit. I know before he whispers to me, "The cologne. I recognize the smell."

"So, you see," Hadden enthuses, "Dr. Bryant’s really made a difference for gifted children not only here in Cascade. Places are rare, but there are kids from everywhere all over Washington in this program. You know, they have so much potential, but you have to support them as early as possible, show them all the shapes their talents can take."

"Thank you," I say, feeling weak. "This was very informative." It doesn’t have to mean anything, right? This cologne, Jim said it himself, it’s a cheap brand, and probably not one that anybody with Bryant’s income would use.

Mrs. Hadden even lets us take a look into the personnel they’ve employed since they started one and a half years ago, which is good, because based on what we have, we’re light-years away from getting a search warrant for those rooms.

"You know," she says sadly, not in lecture mode anymore, "we only want to help. Dr. Bryant feels the same. It’s so horrible what happened to those girls - hopefully you’ll find that monster soon."

That’s what we intend to do.

But before that can happen...

***

I’m lucky. Elaine has called; she’s in town for a day and would like to meet Jim for dinner. He looks kind of guilty when he tells me about it; I know this case is haunting him as much as me, and oh my, he probably doesn’t want to leave me alone, suspicious of what is going to happen.

Careful. I won’t get away with some far-fetched explanation a second time.

"Come on, man, you’ve got to live sometime." I’m eager to coax him out of the apartment. "I’m fine."

***

The tension is unbearable, and it won’t leave either of us alone until we’ve interviewed Bryant, ruled him out as the perp, or proved he is that monster we’ve been hunting.

I can’t wait.

The trip to the grocery store only takes a few minutes. I’ve long since given up the emergency 100 bill.

Tomorrow will be the day. But whatever the outcome, it won’t change the way those girls suffered, and besides, it’s just next week that we have to testify against Kincaid. It’s the first time I actually have to be in court after the ‘incident’ with my dissertation, and I have no idea of how ‘the other side’ plans to take my statement apart.

I couldn’t have asked Jim to forget about the date with Elaine and stay with me instead? Well, there was a time when I probably wouldn’t have found anything wrong with doing it, but today... I just don’t know if we’ll ever be at that stage again, those days when there was no thinking twice, no hesitation, when we would have done *everything* for each other. We surely did, when the Golden case became harder than we’d ever imagined. Emily, Incacha, Roy, Matt. We were there for each other through all the losses.

And even though you can’t possibly top whatever it was that Jim did that day at the fountain, with Incacha’s help, it seems that there’s already too much damage done.

I’m alive, but I didn’t really get back my life as I used to know it.

You say it couldn’t hurt to be a little more grateful?

Fuck you.

***

The bread’s from the bakery section of the small market, still fresh and even a little warm. Now, tell me, how does that go together with a bowl of vanilla pudding, the family size, and the rice salad? I used to love that one, but it’s on the list now. I hardly care when I do the shopping, or the arranging - or the unspeakable. But the rest of the time I try to eat as little as possible, avoid the forbidden things, from ‘the list’, proud of myself when I get along a few hours more without...

I hardly taste anything, or hear anything besides the rush of blood in my ears.

Taste and sight, all those things on the table become a nauseating blur, but it’s still not enough. Drowning, *drowning* in that bottomless pit once more, I keep wishing Jim had failed that day our fate had been rewritten.

And this time, I don’t hear the key in the door.

***

I thought I’d faced the ultimate nightmare before, but it isn’t losing my life’s dream. It isn’t coming as close as can be to losing my life. All the crazed killers that have left imprints on my memory; forget about them.

That moment, I realize I can live with almost anything. Except... for the fact that Jim Ellison might finally have had enough of me. We’re not talking about situations where we’ve both made mistakes, no.

Wiping my sweaty face self-consciously, I feel paralyzed, wanting to run, but unable to do so. I can’t look at him.

Still, I can tell it takes him a moment to compose himself. He’s not going to yell at me. He just sounds a little sad as he speaks up, "Tell me what all this means, Chief. Please."

//Oh, please//, I want to say. //You’re a detective. Take a look at the evidence.//

"I’m sorry", I choke out even as I run for the bathroom.

***

God, can this pathetic scene become any more humiliating? Definitely one of those things you don’t want your best friend to know about, and yes, Jim is still that to me. I want to keep this friendship at all costs, but how can I expect that when I can’t give anything back anymore?

When there’s nothing left to throw up, the retching doesn’t stop, there are black spots dancing before my eyes, and I can’t breathe...

"Easy," he says behind me, startling me with his presence. How can he even stand to be here?

I don’t seem to be able to get any air into my lungs. Then his hand is rubbing soothing circles on the small of my back, and it’s the only thing that loosens the steel bands of panic. I actually begin to feel calmer. I know what’s going to happen next. He’s going to say it any minute now, and I’m bracing myself.

Maybe it’s better that way. I’ve feared this moment for so long, and the anticipation was probably worse than for it actually happening.

The touch is gone and I tense, but then I hear the water running in the sink and a moment later he’s handing me a damp washcloth, helping me up to stand up on shaky legs.

I feel his gaze on me as I turn to rinse my mouth and brush my teeth. When I’m done, Jim is breaking the silence again,

"Could you *please* look at me, Sandburg?"

Blushing, I do.

"How long has this been going on? Hell, *I* should know; some Sentinel I am."

I flinch at the pained tone. I can’t stand it.

When I turn away, Jim grabs my shoulders and makes me face him.

"No," he says, now a hint of anger in his voice, "this is too important. How bad is it?"

I wish he’d let me go so I could clean up the kitchen, pretend this never really happened. The smells of the leftover food makes the bile rise again.

How tired I am of all this. And still, at this stage of the case, with the testimony to give next week, hell, at the state of our relationship, I can’t open up like he wants me to.

"Not that bad. Look, I know this looks messy, but I’ve got it under control, I promise. Come on," I plead, knowing at the same time that my heartbeat will betray me.

"I’m sorry, Chief. I can’t let this go."

"You can’t? Well, that’s just great! This is not about you!" I push past him and retake my place in front of the mess.

I don’t think I can really talk about it, but in any case I can’t face the evidence of my failure any longer, and I start to dispose of the empty plastic boxes, rinse the dishes I’ve used in the sink. Hysterically almost.

That’s why one of the plates slips from my soapy fingers, shattering on the floor, and I reach to pick up the pieces. Now that’s a metaphor, I think, even as one of the shards cuts into my palm and then I just cower there on the floor, about to embarrass myself even more.

Jim is trying again. "Blair, damn it, talk to me." He’s not angry, just helpless, crouching there beside me, unsure whether or not to touch.

I grab the dishtowel and press it against my palm, watch my blood staining the fabric. Fuck. I. am. Not. Going. To. Cry.

"Why is it always the same with you?" I’d like to sound angry, frustrated, but my voice is quivering too much to get the message across. "For... for years I’ve had to keep hunting for clues because you wouldn’t trust me enough, but when you want to talk, you expect me to say fine, I’ll bare my soul for you. I don’t think so, Jim!"

"You’re scaring me, Chief," he says, and damn it, I can’t stand it to see him practically begging.

"Stop that. It’s not like I’m going to die."

"It’s not..." He is yelling now, making an elaborate effort to calm himself.

"I knew someone who died," he says finally, and I find myself staring at him, frozen once more. I don’t want to hear about this. I know the odds, but the therapist Naomi sent me to when I was thirteen, never said anything about dying. Yeah, I must have read that somewhere, too, but I *don’t* want to hear about it!

"Jim." Oh please, can’t we end this conversation now?

He gets up and reaches out a hand.

Sinking into the kitchen chair then, I feel utterly exhausted. "I’m not starving myself to death. It’s not that."

"She had bulimia. One day, she just collapsed because her heart couldn’t take the strain anymore."

"No. That won’t happen to me."

"Don’t you understand that I can’t lose you?"

"Look, you’ve got your senses mostly under control now..."

"Damn it, don’t you ever listen to me?" Jim hesitates for a moment, maybe trying to figure out a way around the next words, but then he says them anyway. "I need you. And I want to help you find a way out of this, okay? Whatever it takes. I’m with you here."

When his arms come around me, I get pretty close to losing it then, but I just can’t do that, can’t fall apart when this horrible case is about to break, so I just pull back from his embrace and flee, trying not to let it show how overwhelmed I am by his reaction.

I can’t even say if it’s a good or a bad thing, just overwhelming.

It would have been the moment to detach with love, wouldn’t it? But I can’t let go, and Jim seems to feel the same.

Friends help each other, sure, but this...

I’m still so ashamed. He knows, he’ll watch me even more closely which will probably make my life infinitely complicated. That, and a new set of house rules, like no binges, no puking. They’ll be even harder to keep. It seems that seeing just yet another shrink will be more likely than a camping trip.

Somebody give me a break.

***

 

 

Chapter 4: Confrontation

 

Just our luck. It turns out that even though Bryant was on the plane, he managed to get away without anybody knowing how. I feel sick as my knowledge of his actions makes him seem even more suspicious. He's a child psychiatrist, for Pete's sake, running a special program for highly gifted children in the rooms where Jim had smelled the killer's cologne.

I’ve told someone like him all about the thirteen-year-old me; I’ve been in such a program. And I thought Raines was giving me the creeps.

Jim is angry, easy to see from the tell-tale clenching of his jaw, but he’s still taking his time to admonish me. "You haven’t eaten today, have you?" he asks bluntly.

"Ah, Jim, we had to be at the airport at 8 a.m. sharp. How am I supposed to have had time for a decent breakfast?"

"We can get something on the way."

"No. He could get away in the meantime, and how are you going to explain that to Simon?"

Jim doesn’t answer, but I just know this argument isn’t over. I lean back in my seat, glad I’ve escaped for the moment. Glad that I haven’t had breakfast today. It’s the first step, really.

Isn’t it?

***

"How old were you the first time?"

We are sitting in the truck in front of Bryant’s house, and something in Jim’s question makes me flinch. He means the binge and puke cycle, of course. I feel my face turning beet red. Hell, it’s no easier talking about this now than it was at the age of thirteen, fifteen when I got as far as stopping it. For the first time.

But this shrink - what was his name anyway - he was a stranger. It was harder with Mom. A parent expects you to tell them what they could have done so they could just turn back time and do it, as if all the power was theirs. So does a Blessed Protector, obviously, but neither of them could change the factors in my life to the extent that would free me from the bad habits.

No fucking killers in the world getting off on hurting little kids?

Not having to testify against Kincaid?

Not even Jim can do that for me, much as he’d probably want to.

I wait a long time to give my answer, but Jim is patient. Wow, indeed.

"Thirteen. I guess it was a shock to finally discover the world did not revolve around me and my ideas."

I know all the theories about eating-disordered kids trying to get more attention from their parents. Well, not exactly with bulimia, because it happens in secrecy. Naomi found out, though, and really, for some time, she simply stopped the traveling. We stayed in the same place for two years until I was pronounced better (healed is a precarious term when dealing with eating disorders) and started at Rainier. That was when she felt it was safe to take off again, and it was, mostly.

"It lasted little more than two years, then I went to Rainier, and I simply had too many people around me to go on with the routine, had a roommate..." I stop then.

"I guess I haven’t been too attentive recently."

"I didn’t mean..."

"Yeah, I know. You planning on seeing someone again?"

I don’t want to, but I know the answer. Problems like this aren’t solved on the spirit plane. They’re hard work in the real world.

***

Naomi calls me late that evening, chatting happily about her friend’s place in Canada that she’s currently visiting. It’s not that far away from here. I’m longing to see her all of sudden.

"Mom, say, do you remember someone named Thomas Raines?"

She pauses for a moment. Am I imagining things or does her voice sound different? "I’m not sure, I think I’ve heard the name before, sweetie. Who is it?"

"He used to be the janitor at my elementary school."

She laughs, if a bit nervously. "Honey, you went to elementary school in three different states. Which one do you mean? Why do you want to know this anyway?"

Across the room I see Jim rolling his eyes. Yeah, buddy, I get you. Sure he still thinks this wasn’t a good way to bring up a kid, but hell, I am not going to start and ask him if it’s better for a child to stay in one place with a parent that’s emotionally unavailable.

"When we were living in Cascade. Must have been the last year."

"Oh, sure, Raines," Naomi concedes after another long pause. "He was a strange character..."

"Strange how?"

She’s clearly nervous now, not even trying to hide it. "You remember the Deckers? Janey always used to say that he looked strangely at some kids and that it was giving her the creeps. But then he wasn’t there any longer, got a new job or something. He probably just wasn’t good with kids anyway."

"So we didn’t move because of him?" I ask, now clearly confused. Just why did Sylvie think...

"No, of course we didn’t," Naomi says quickly. "What’s it with all those questions from the past? Did..." She swallows. "Has something happened?"

Oh yes, something.

I’m torn between the wish to just tell her, maybe she would just drop everything there in Canada and come over, after having processed. I don’t want to burden her with this crap, again.

"I’m fine. It’s just that Raines could be involved in something."

"Oh."

She doesn’t even ask what he could be involved with, but I’m getting frustrated, realizing I’m not getting the whole truth out of her. And still, I want her here.

"I wonder..." I begin only to stop again. Damn, why is this so hard?

"What is it, sweetie?"

Jim pretends to be occupied with some magazine he snatched from the coffee table, but I know him better than that. It’s silly, really. I shouldn’t have such problems expressing a simple wish. Very simple indeed.

"If you have the time, why don’t you come and visit us for a few days? I mean only if it’s alright with you, but I thought since you’re not that far away..."

After a small pause she says, "Are you sure that’s a good idea right now, with that case you mentioned? I’d love to, really, but maybe we should postpone this until you both *really* have the time? What do you say, give it a few more days?"

Just where had I heard that line before?

"Sure, Mom," I say.

Jim tossing the magazine onto the table is the final proof he’s been listening in and is *not* amused about the course of the conversation. What can I say? She needs that space. I cannot hate her for it.

***

Of course, I haven’t made an appointment yet. I dread the thought of starting all over again; it seems pointless somehow because I do have all the necessary knowledge. He or she couldn’t tell me anything I don’t know; how the symptoms merely represent a way of dealing with the underlying problems. The hunger for not food, but appreciation. Security. Love. The need of feeling in control. Yeah, I hear you. The same guy who thought of Jim as a control freak.

Talk about conflicting strategies; it’s surely bugging him that he doesn’t have control over this, and I feel cornered knowing he’s watching, unconsciously measuring the time I spend in the bathroom, *listening in* for Pete’s sake!

And sure, I haven’t given it up completely, couldn’t really, but I try to avoid doing it at the loft where he’d easily pick up all the hints.

That evening, he tries something else. "Why didn’t you tell Naomi you need her here?"

Oh hell. When had he decided to do the therapist’s job himself? Of all people...

"Don’t worry," I mumble. "I won’t do anything simply because she can’t make it just yet. That’s the way she is; and I’ve had lots of time to get accustomed to that fact, okay?"

"You should have told her," he insists.

"And what would it change? Certainly not her. And I don’t need somebody to hold my hand. What I need is for us to catch that bastard, before he can hurt another child. That’s all I want right now."

There’s nothing more to say.

The other day though, I realized that he hadn’t been sleeping, keeping the radar on through the night.

***

Want another detail from that night Jim finally found out?

Promise me, he’d said, when he was pulling me close for a short, almost non-existent moment, and I did, eager to end this, not wanting to be swept away by all this emotionality.

I guess he didn’t know then it’s like asking a junkie to just say no; the moment we had to stop pretending was, no surprise there, a dramatic one.

It happened only two days after that forced promise. We fought. It was bad, both of us dredging up things we’d thought we were over in the heat of the moment, all because I had had this intermezzo in the restroom of the station. Jim had heard, of course, zoned at his desk on, I don’t really want to guess what it was, maybe the embarrassing scenario or my heartbeat going into overdrive.

Couldn’t he understand this? The strain of the search for Bryant. He’d been spotted in Seattle, the car he’d been driving already down in the lab. That was some progress, but we still didn’t have the man, and all the while, his sick compulsion was building up again; only a question of time until it would translate into action. I couldn’t stand the thought, damn it!

Brought out of the zone by a very attentive Simon, he was already on his way to meet me when I finally dared return to the bullpen. Pissed off. Standing behind him, Megan looked worried, probably not without reason.

"Alright, Chief," he said, "Seems like we’re going to have that conversation right now."

Not really caring about any witnesses, he grabbed my wrist and dragged me along behind him. I didn’t do much, admittedly. You go try and fight a pissed off Sentinel, okay? Right, I did it before. But I was so tired.

"Now, come on," I protested at least, mortified by the gazes that followed us, everything from interested to openly curious to annoyed about this newest episode of the Ellison-Sandburg show. Given the most popular story about us ‘round here, I didn’t want to know what they thought!

He stopped in front of Interrogation Room 3, opening the door long enough to pull me in, then slammed it shut.

"Now what? You gonna spank my ass?"

Jim leaned against the door, his gaze on me intense, but the anger was gone. At least that’s what I had thought. "I think I’d give it a try if it helped any." It wasn’t really funny. He knew. And then, "You promised me." Ah, man. Anger, I could work with; I usually could decipher what *else* Jim was saying with it. But this – disappointment. I couldn’t stand it being directed at me.

//I’ve got to have a partner I can trust.//

//Chief, tell me you didn’t.//

"You know it doesn’t work that way," I said, a whiney tone creeping in my voice.

He took a deep breath, obviously trying to calm himself. It almost made me smile; so he was listening to my lectures every now and then. Jim’s words, however, weren’t that much of an appreciation, "Then what will work? You know, I trusted you." His use of the past tense caused an icy feeling to knife through my gut. "You told me all kinds of things; that it wasn’t really that bad, that you were going to make an appointment with a professional, hell, that you’d at least try. I don’t see you doing any of these things!"

So much for the lecture, I thought as his voice rose. "That’s not fair, man! When did I ever have the time?"

"So take sick leave! There are clinics for the right kind of therapy!"

"Great idea! Simon will find it hilarious when I disappear for a couple of weeks having only just started this job, a job that everybody knows I never wanted in the first place!"

Jim’s face was impassive, but I just knew I’d stepped over the line with that one. Why had I said it anyway? I liked being here, I was grateful I’d been given the opportunity, and during my time at the academy I had surely come to an understanding of the bigger picture. Usually, you didn’t graduate to become a detective straight away. It doesn’t work that way.

"Jim, look, I didn’t mean it. Can’t we talk another time? I’m really wiped."

"Yes you did mean it," he disagreed, looking as tired as I felt. "And I can’t really blame you. Maybe this was all a mistake from the start."

"And ‘this’ is - what exactly? Us being friends - this partnership?"

It went further downhill from there.

***

I slammed a few doors, too, as I fled from the precinct, and this time, Jim didn’t try to stop me. God, I needed to - hit something. Go food shopping. Be somebody else. With all the things we’d thrown at each other -

//That bastard raped one of my students, almost got me killed, and you didn’t seem to give a damn! That really hurt, man.//

//Right. Like anybody could have gotten through to you when you were behaving like a sullen child!//

I don’t know why I had to bring up Ventriss again. He was safely locked away and wouldn’t bother anyone for a long time to come. And then it was the dissertation again, my failures, Jim’s failures, and, predictably, Alex.

//You should have told me right away, and none of it would have happened//, Jim had accused me, once again. //But hey, I understand. She’s female and over eighteen.//

//But I wasn’t the one who wanted to jump her bones just a week after... after you. Let. Her. Kill Me!//

After that, I could only think of escape.

***

Chapter 5, Paper Cut

 

"Jim? Jim, are you listening to me at all? What the hell is going on here?"

I blink, finding myself face to face with my very annoyed but relieved captain. Connor’s there, too, and I realize they expect an explanation, here and now.

What could I ever tell them?

That we’ve finally taken it to a stage where there’s no going back, nothing’s left to salvage? Even as the thought comes to my mind I know I can’t accept it. After the fountain. I’m no more comfortable with that mystical stuff than I was before Mexico; well, except for the fact of what it enabled me to do on that horrific day. It’s got to mean something, this second chance. If you came back from the dead, you can’t be defeated by bulimia, right?

I realize Simon and Megan are still waiting for - something, and I come up with the obvious, "It’s this case. We’ll be fine once it’s over."

It’s easy to tell they have some doubts about it. "Just trust me on this, okay?"

Simon’s shaking his head in exasperation, but he’s not prodding. For the moment. I use the chance to stage an escape myself, intending to talk to Mrs. Hadden from the center for gifted children once more.

***

This... knowledge makes me feel helpless, and God knows I don’t deal with that very well. I brought him back from the dead only to realize there is yet another enemy threatening to take him away from me, and I don’t have any more fucking jokers up my sleeve.

I know, I haven’t exactly been understanding and empathetic here; we both let this argument get out of hand, but I should have... whatever. No point in lamenting about the things that shouldn’t have been said; we said them all anyway.

It’s just that - it’s hard to take; to know it was most likely always there, lurking in the shadows all the while I thought it was somehow in my power to protect him from whatever evil may come our way. I had no idea.

This woman I told him about, it was the truth. She was Matty’s sister. Remember Matty? The guy who got slaughtered in Starkville, all because he made one stupid mistake in his life. Is it that it doesn’t become people to be friends with me, or is it the other way round? The body count has risen too damn high.

But not him, not Blair. If he’s not going to make that appointment, I will do it for him. I’m not really sure if we can get back on track, but he is not going to be one of the casualties.

I will see to that, whatever it takes.

My cell rings when I'm about two minutes from the center. It's Simon.

Another 5-year-old girl from Cascade has been reported missing.

***

It wasn’t the cleverest thing to run away like that, sure. And I haven’t even mentioned that I’m still quite freaked about how Naomi kept stalling during our conversation on the phone, as if she knew something I wasn’t supposed to know.

I’m halfway to Seattle, I realize, startled, because I don’t remember much of the drive. Shit. I’m not really that suicidal, am I?

I think about driving back and apologizing. And turning my badge in, while I’m at it. It isn’t really working. Instead of creating a new persona, I let the old ‘me’ creeping up on me. Whoa, that sounds really weird. Yeah, maybe I do need a time out; maybe finally everything’s catching up with me, death, Ventriss, the second encounter with Kincaid - and losing what I’d always relied on.

About half an hour later, in the men’s room of the rest stop where I stopped for lunch? – Whatever... I finally give in to what I’ve wanted to do all day. What more proof do I need?

***

When I step out of the restaurant on wobbly legs, I’m almost run over by somebody who’s leaving. "Watch it!" I yell, and out of habit, I try to identify the numbers on the license plate. It’s a man driving, I see a child beside him in the passenger seat, and then... no, I must be imagining things.

Oh damn. I recognize him; it’s Bryant, I recognize him from the picture we have of him. There’s a young girl with him.

***

I run to my car and get behind the wheel with surprising speed; motivation can do wonders indeed. As I drive back onto the Highway, I grab my cell phone and speed dial the main switchboard at Cascade. It's Leah on the dispatch today; I relax a little. We’ve dated a couple of times; even once after ‘the disaster’, so I trust her to put the call through real fast.

Even though it’s afternoon, there are only a few cars on the road, and I fall back a little so Bryant doesn’t notice he’s picked up a tail.

I am totally focused on the task at hand now, can’t afford to think of anything else. There is hardly any doubt now; Bryant has to be our man. I am sickened over what he’s supposedly done - but as I carefully follow him, I wonder what it would do for my reputation if I got this right.

***

Connor and I were sitting in the living room of yet another horrified couple whose young child has gone missing. She’s doing most of the talking, but I know it’s not about doing me a favor. She’s mad at me and had already told me so.

I didn’t have much to argue with her. Yes, I screwed it up, but everything’s magically going to be alright? I’m not sure, but I want to try. Broken promises, there are some between me and Blair, but I am well aware that my side sure is heavier. I didn’t really need her to remind me.

Then my cell rings, and I just know...

Sandburg has not only given the numbers on the license plate, but even a sketchy description of the girl in the passenger seat in beside Bryant. It’s bound to be Cindy Palmer whose parents are in the process of being officially interviewed at this very moment.

He’s done the right thing, calling for backup, following the perp.

He’s no cowboy; I know that he will be careful. And in the same heartbeat, I know that he will do everything to save this little girl’s life. The same goes for me, except *maybe* for the careful part. Anyway, it’s his job now.

So why do I have the gut-twisting certainty that something will go terribly wrong?

***

Bryant pulls into the parking lot of yet another rest stop. There’s no restaurant here, just a few benches and a dumpster. I take the risk and follow him at a distance. I can’t take the chance he’s going to do something to her, right here and now.

He stops.

To my surprise, he gets out of the car, carrying the little girl with him. She could be drugged, or too frightened to move, as she’s hanging limply in his arms.

My hand is on my gun. Briefly, a memory flashes before my eyes. Jim, so very close to throwing Quinn into that mine, seeking revenge for his murdered friend. All my reluctance at handling a gun aside, I never understood him the way I do at that moment.

To my surprise, another car comes from the right, parking directly in the spot beside Bryant’s. Oh shit. I recognize the car even before the driver exits it - or before I have to time to wonder about the fact that Bryant obviously has an accomplice.

It’s Thomas Raines. They exchange cars.

That hasn’t to be a necessarily bad thing. Whatever they’re up to, I’m sure Jim will be able to find evidence that the little girl has been in the car, even if Thomas Raines denies it. Wanna bet he produces an alibi when asked about the time this one disappeared?

The uptown doctor and the elementary school janitor.

Guess I’ll have to make another call.

Leah puts me through to Simon immediately.

"Where the hell are you, Sandburg?" he growls, but I identify the concern easily. Man, you’re getting soft on me. I actually smile.

He tells me about the Palmer girl and I inform him that Raines is in on it; then I start to explain how I’ve come to know this, but I never get to finish it - my cell dies.

Damn it. The backup I called will be looking for the wrong car because I never got as far as saying that they switched.

***

He’s taking the lane up to the mountains. We hadn’t found evidence of any other property of his, other than the center and his house, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t use one of the empty cabins up there. It’s just another rainy day in Cascade; the road’s not getting better, and it’s going to be dark early.

I really hope Raines has been picked up in the meantime, he doesn’t strike me as the type who will refuse a deal. Or for that matter, not budge if somebody leans on him hard enough. Well, even if Jim isn’t so inclined to talk to me anytime soon, he’ll do it now. For the girl, if nothing else.

We’ve been driving steadily for almost two hours now. It has started to rain, and it’s getting harder to stay behind him without tipping him off. Where the hell is he going?

I don’t know this area very well, it isn’t one Jim and I have chosen for hiking before.

Another half an hour, and I almost miss the little driveway he takes now; it’s no more than a muddy path now, and I can see that he, too, has some problems keeping his car on it. I drive a little further and then half a curve around some dense bushes that will hopefully be enough cover for the Volvo.

I take my gun and get out of the car. It takes about two minutes and I’m soaking wet - I’ve definitely been there before! - but I ignore it, following the car that has slowed down considerably as it approaches the well-hidden cabin a few feet ahead.

You bastard, I think. Not this time.

***

"We’ll try this once more, shall we?"

Raines’ heartbeat is all over the place even though my tone is friendly. It won’t be for much longer, if he continues to give me that shit.

"I told you, it was my Dad’s car. I drive it sometimes... the other one’s not too reliable, you know."

"That’s too bad," I sneer. "But, indulge me if I’m wondering. Where is the other one?"

"Somebody stole it. Would I drive this piece of shit otherwise?"

Hate to tell you pal, you traded one for the other. "How much did you get?"

"Huh?" he says, keeping a straight face. But I’ve got him sweating.

"How much does Bryant pay you for your part in this little charade?"

"I don’t know any Bryant."

"Yes, you do. He was the one who was in your car with a girl that’s missing. And if we find her alive, then maybe, we can do something for you. If not... that’s accessory to murder, pal."

"You’ve got an active imagination, Detective. Or maybe this story comes from your partner?"

I grow all cold inside, remembering Naomi’s uncertainty when talking about Raines. And Blair’s fear of what might have been.

"Used to tell stories all the time, that little liar, and hasn’t he been fired from Rainier because he claimed you were some kind of superhero? Yeah, I can just tell where this is coming..."

He stops as I get him by his collar. "I’ll tell you something, Raines, and you better listen." I breathe into his face as I hover inches from his sweaty skin. "Your concern is to tell the truth here. That’s your *only* concern. Understood?"

That sick feeling in the pit of my stomach had grown stronger when Simon told me Blair had called again. Whatever he meant to say, it surely included the change of cars. The kidnappers were arrogant, even taking into account that Raines would be arrested, because, as they assumed, we had nothing to tie him to the murders. They were wrong: As soon as I so much as approached that car, I could identify the scents, Bryant’s cologne, and the overly sweet smell of children’s shampoo, the same I smelled in little Cindy Palmer’s room.

In the passenger’s seat I found a long blonde hair, and a very small piece of something purple.

Connor took one look at it and said, "Nail polish."

She shrugged and flashed me a quick grin when I looked up at her, surprised. Marla Palmer had indeed mentioned that she had painted her daughter’s fingernails the day before because she was going to a birthday party the next day.

"Anyway," she said. "Let’s make sure the girl doesn’t miss that party."

***

"I don’t know any Bryant," Raines repeats, and I can tell, he’s lying through his teeth.

Right now, we’re not making good enough progress, and there’s a killer out there with a young girl. And my partner. I swear I’m gonna kick his ass. But first, I’ll buy him a fucking new cell phone.

Please, Blair, be alright.

***

He sets her down on a high-backed chair in the living room, tying her up. She looks to be unconscious still. While he creates an eerie ambience by lighting candles, making a fire in the fireplace, I ponder my chances. There’s only this door for getting inside there, or this window I’m currently crouched under; the other ones in the back are way too high.

Bryant is preparing his ghastly scene meticulously; now he sets the knives on the coffee table, takes one moment to admire the long blade of one of them. He doesn’t seem to carry a firearm; that would give me some advantage at least.

When all the preparations are apparently done to his satisfaction, he kneels down in front of the chair - I can see them in profile now - and slaps her face none too gently. Oh hell, another memory, a bad one.

I know. I know too well. She’ll wake up all confused, and when she sees him, shock will render her paralyzed.

When I break down that door, I will only have one chance.

***

"Cascade PD! Freeze!" I yell, of course he doesn’t, and I take a shot at him.

He staggers backwards; I hit his arm, but the next moment, he flings it around the girl’s neck, producing a knife in his left hand while the blood from his right is dripping all over her. He will not give up easily.

"Lay down your gun or I’ll kill her."

He doesn’t even raise his voice much; Bryant knows I don’t have much of a chance as long as he hides behind the child, with the blade at her throat. She stares at me through wide fearful eyes.

"Give up, Bryant," I say. "I’ve called for backup; they’ll be here any minute."

He laughs, that insane kind of giggle I’ve already heard somewhere else and that still occurs in my nightmares from time to time. "Boy, even if I believed you, how long do you think it’ll take to cut her throat from one side to the other? What would you gain?" For emphasis, he applies more pressure, making a thin crimson line. He’s not bluffing.

"Okay." Wrestling with the undoubted consequences, I do as he’s told me, slowly lay down the gun and kick it away, closer to him, measuring the distance. When he goes for it I could maybe...

But then the moment’s over, he’s picked it up and pointing it at me before I even have the chance of making a move. The blade is only now moved away from the girl’s throat. She’s crying behind the gag.

Bryant eyes me with a smirk. "You bought yourself a free show, my boy," he says.

***

I yell at him. He’s taken off the gag. But then slapped her hard when she instantly started to wail. As I try to approach him, he fires a shot; the bullet hitting the floor inches away from my feet.

Terrified by the loud noise, the girl cries even louder. "Shut up!" He is very angry now, still waving the gun around, then, in her face. At this rate, he’ll shoot us both real soon.

"Why don’t you let her go?" I am pleading now. "You don’t really need her, and trust me, she’s much too terrified to identify you. That way, you’d still have a chance of getting away." I don’t tell him to give up the gun. I’m not stupid. His eyes rake over me again in that unsettling way, but I keep my calm facade. "I’ll be your hostage. But let her go."

He won’t get that far with his injury. Bryant tries to cover it with aggression, but I can see he’s sweating; his complexion very pale. Maybe we’ll get lucky and he’ll pass out... Yeah, right. Lucky. Me.

Maybe sometime either before or after I pass out myself from the rebelling nausea in my stomach. Setting my mind toward rescuing this small girl was one thing, but my body was quick to remind me that mind couldn’t always control matter – and weeks of abusing my insides was not without repercussions.

"You don’t need her. See, whatever you need, killing the others didn’t give it to you. It will never be enough. You don’t want to kill another child."

He seems to be thinking though. A child would certainly be easier to control, but I hope he doesn’t consider that right now. After a moment he moves a few steps away from her. "Come over here," he commands me.

I obey, my wet shoes squeaking on the wooden floor. Left of me, there’s the table with the knives. I shiver from the cold, but coming closer I notice the girl is shaking hard. The utter horror is written all over her face, and I wonder if she’ll be able to act when I ask her to.

"Get her loose," Bryant says.

Perfect.

She flinches hard when I touch her hands in order to get the knots open. "Shh, don’t be afraid," I tell her, whispering. "I’m with the police. Everything’s going to be alright."

When she’s free of the cable he used to tie her up, I tell her to run. "Do it, honey. Go!" She stares at me, frozen. And then she heads for the door, opening it, staggering, running for her life. My only hope is that he won’t go after her, and then he slams the butt of the gun against the back of my head, knocking me out.

***

We’re alone in the room.

My head hurts like hell.

Bryant smiles at me and says, "Blair, my boy, it’s so good to see you after all these years."

I am now where that girl used to be, in that chair, tied up. Maybe there was something I could have done earlier, acted faster somehow, but as I take a look around, which leaves me nauseated, I realize that the girl isn’t here anymore at least. I figure he really let her go. Maybe that’s wishful thinking, but otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here, still alive. In killing, he has to follow a ritual. I’m in it now.

"I’ve been wondering what you’ve been up to."

It’s only then that I realize the way he addresses me. In order to throw me off balance, no doubt. "I don’t understand," I say, hoping I won’t spoil the moment by puking all over my shoes.

"Diagnosis was bulimia, with depressive episodes, right?"

Something in his voice... I stare at him as he steps closer, cringing as he puts his hands around my throat even though I know he’s planned something else for me. His touch is tentative, but not really clinical. I know what he’s looking for, too.

"I see you’re at it again. So the other therapist wasn’t that good, was he?"

"What the hell are you talking about?" I croak out while he tightens his hands just a little bit.

The laughter startles me. "You don’t remember me. I guess you were right; this is going to be much more interesting than that wailing brat that will no doubt get herself killed out there in that weather. You, on the other hand... a challenge. And just like the other kids, you used to tell stories. Lies. It has to stop. I have to make y’all stop!"

The calmness of his words is even more menacing than yelling would have been.

And I remember him now.

***

Simon has warned me. I know he is right; too much depends on Raines, I can’t afford to lose it here, but the strain of the past few days is wearing away at me. Forget experience, and training, it might help you to put on a straight face, but it doesn’t give you any understanding for some people’s perversions that are so far beyond anyone’s imagination. And it’s not like that’s the only thing hanging over my head now.

The room seems to be reeking of sweat, and fear, yet I can’t seem to find the right angle with Raines. Where’s that damn connection to Dr. Bryant?

"Then let me enlighten you, Raines," I try again. "It’s the guy who’ll make you end up on death row. He knew the murdered children, and the connection they had to you. So when the DA decides to consult him, let’s say, for a profile... and he claims you’re most likely the guy? What do you say?"

"I’d like a coffee," he murmurs.

Frustrated, I leave the room once more; feel like I’m going to suffocate in there. I have barely reached the door when he mutters to himself again, certainly not for me to hear,

"Guess what. He told me you’d say that."

I spin around. "What did you say?"

***

 

Chapter 6, Fear Of Heights

I didn’t like Dr. Bryant, right from the start. I didn’t protest much, however, because I was still too ashamed that Naomi had finally found out about my secret. If it was her wish that I’d see him and I did, maybe we could all pretend everything was okay.

I was evading him with every question he had for me; smart teen that I was, but in the end, I was not a match for a trained psychiatrist. He had me confessing about that irrational fear that Naomi could someday just take off and forget about me. I had never spoken it out loud before, knowing she’d be devastated if it ever got back to her. I told him how I was tired of being gifted, for it sure didn’t help much making friends.

He was stripping me naked and enjoying it.

***

I can’t believe I’d forgotten about him all this time! And what the hell does it mean anyway?

I’m jolted out of my trip down memory lane when he picks up the smallest knife, stroking the tip of the blade across my cheek, not yet drawing blood.

"I wonder why they still let you practice," I say the first thing that comes to my mind. "You were never anything but a damn voyeur."

"Maybe." He grins, exerting a little more pressure. I feel the sting as the skin is broken. "You saw things, too, you shouldn’t have seen. That’s why you’re here today. You think you were heroic to save that girl’s life? I’m sorry to disappoint you. I’ve planned this for you since Thomas told me about you."

Slowly, leisurely, he’s starting to cut off the buttons off my shirt. I’m shaking again, the pictures of the forensics report dancing in my mind. No. He’s not going to win this time.

"You made a mistake this time. I put a call through before I came here."

"And I’m sure Thomas makes a great suspect, doesn’t he? No doubt I’ll be the most respected witness."

"Fuck you," I spit. "You’ve been wanted by the police ever since you escaped at the airport. We know all about your connection with those girls. Face it, you’re not going to get away..."

The pain is so abrupt and overwhelming that I scream. He has pushed that second knife into my side.

***

I was early for the appointment. Make no mistake here, I hated them, but somehow getting there on time felt like I could get off a little earlier, too. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense, I know, because he always used every single minute.

Mindy, his secretary wasn’t there. I don’t know what had possessed me that moment, but I just knocked on the door and waltzed into the room, just so, it wasn’t something I had ever done before. Maybe because today, I wanted to tell him I wasn’t going to come back. Naomi was restless again which was fine with me - it meant I would get another therapist, somewhere else, and maybe I didn’t even need one anymore, miraculously.

He was sitting in the usual chair, on his lap was a girl, and he was tugging at the zipper of her dress...

***

Oh my God. It seems like the pain makes those images even sharper, while the actual reality slowly fades away.

"You bastard," I gasp, struggling to speak around the pain. "You did it before... I saw you..."

He’s still wearing that bizarre smile, like an eerie mask ever since he started this, his formerly pale face now a deep red. Bryant raises a bloody hand, running it through my hair.

"And justice will be done eventually," he says gently, drawing a large gash across my thigh. He’s cut off my shirt and jeans minutes before. It hurts so much, but I know, this is far from being over. Bryant likes to draw this out, make it last.

"Are you going to beg? Because I tell you, Blair, they all did."

I jerk against the restraints once more, but I’m biting my lip. Not so much to spare me the indignity, honestly. It will be the moment he ends it. The warm wetness of blood running freely down my body, from different wounds, is sickening me. I can’t pass out, I can’t stand it anymore.

I’m afraid my calculations were all wrong.

***

Brad and Marie Griffin were on their way home after a vacation in Canada. They would have preferred not to drive in this weather, but had no choice since they both had to be back at work early the next day.

The little girl in the red dress they caught in the headlights, seemed so out of place that it took them a moment to realize it wasn’t some kind of delusion.

***

We’re on our way. By the time Cindy Palmer had been found by a young couple, we had a call from Mrs. Stratton who just now admits that her brother-in-law might be hiding in the cabin she had inherited from her grandparents, but never used so far.

I wanted to strangle her.

That cabin. It’s the only thing we have to bother poor Cindy with. She is now surrounded by her parents, the medics, a psychiatrist, officers...all too much for her, I’m sure.

Megan and I ask her about the cabin and even though she’s obviously still in shock and the medic and the psychiatrist snarl at us for even trying, she is able to tell us some small details, about the ‘bad man’ with the knives. And the policeman with the ‘funny hair’ who told her to run.

I see that Megan’s blinking back tears and I turn away for a moment, for similar reasons.

He was alive when she got away; I cling to that thought.

***

So this is the end now. I’ve never imagined it to be like this, always thought it would be my ‘diagnosis’ raising its ugly head in the end, but this is another demon from my past, taking me down in its evil embrace eventually.

My vision fails me every so often and I’m going to pass out again, must have done so in the past few minutes, but he always brings me back. It’s over when he says it is and not before. Figures. Whatever I tried to control in my life, I couldn’t, and death is no exception.

There are tears on my face, mingling with dried blood from the few tiny cuts on my face. Just a few, he likes the faces of his victims relatively unmarred.

I regret not having had the time to make things right with Jim, and not having learned to tell Naomi when I needed her, but even those thoughts are crushed by the all-consuming agony. I can’t even scream anymore.

"Jim," I whisper. "If only... you could hear me now. I-I need to..."

***

Megan is very still beside me, her hands balled into fists on her lap. It takes us too long. I’d like to drive faster, she’d like me to, but we both know it’s absolutely impossible in this weather.

//"...you could hear me now. I-I need to say I’m... so sorry. I wanted to continue."//

It’s a shock how weak his voice sounds already, he must be injured, badly. But alive. I strain to hear anything else,

//"It’s okay, my boy"//, says another voice, breathlessly. //"This will be over soon."//

I’m tightening my grip on the steering wheel, wishing it to be Bryant’s neck.

//"...work things out, but... I guess... not my call anymore..."// The voice fades. I try harder, needing to hear his heartbeat, however weak. We’re close...

"Jim, come on, there’s no time for this!" Megan’s shout is more fear than anger, but it’s great timing as the car swerves dangerously left of the roadway. "What do you hear?"

I stop the car a few feet away from a row of bushes; she can see the Volvo behind them, too. "We have to hurry," I tell her unnecessarily as we all but jump from the car.

***

Bryant has brought his horror theater to the final stage. I close my eyes as he moves to open his pants, but he slaps me hard.

"Not yet," he pants, and I don’t know if it’s from arousal or pain from the gunshot wound, neither do I care anymore. "Not yet, my boy. Just a little more time."

***

We don’t break down the door. We can see evidence that tells us it’s been done before, well done. It gives us an idea what happened here, but now’s not the time for anything other than a brief flash of pride. That’s my partner. He came to the girl’s rescue.

Bryant has put it back on its hinges, but the lock is broken, and I’m grateful he hasn’t had the time to actually secure it. We just walk in on the gruesome scene, I’ve got smell dialed right down; the stench of the scene was almost too much even as we left the truck.

I’ve read the Forensics reports, of course, but nothing could have ever prepared me for this, that asshole waving the butcher’s knife in my friend’s face, jerking off, a moment before he’s going to deliver the deadly wound. There’s no warning, nothing, he’s totally unguarded as I shove him away, to the ground.

Surprisingly, he seems to have quite some strength left, aiming the knife at me blindly, but Megan wrenches it out of his hand, no doubt spraining his wrist. I want to do more. I want to kill him, as I’m punching him again and again, driven, because he’s reeking of blood that isn’t his own.

"Jim! Do you hear his heartbeat?"

I look up into Megan’s face, which comes into view through the red haze. Yeah, I can. I don’t have to say it out loud. She understands as I smile, relieved, no doubt wearing the expression of a crazed person. I leave it to her to cuff Bryant and call in the paramedics who have followed at a distance.

Smell is almost at zero, something he’s always warned me not to do, to turn my senses down that far, but I can’t help it. I almost stumble over the pile of clothes, Blair’s, cut off from his body except for his underwear. There is so much blood, but my senses don’t let me down now. I ignore the rather superficial cuts all over his body in order to exert pressure on the two wounds that look the most serious; that nasty gash on his left thigh is going to need stitches, and then there is this wound in his side that is still gushing blood. He’s unconscious, but about to come around, I can tell from the tension that’s gripping his pain-stricken body. His features are twisted in agony.

"Hey, buddy," I whisper as I sink down beside the chair. "It’s over now. You made it." It’s a bit early to make that promise, but I need to say it. More for my benefit, that’s for sure. His blue eyes are vacant; shock taking over.

"The girl’s alright. You saved her. Now just hang in there, will you?" I plead, placing a shaking hand on his forehead.

The paramedics have arrived, coaxing me away from him. I wasn’t sure he had even realized his ordeal was over, but then he’s struggling to speak once more.

He’s saying my name.

"Yes. I’m here. Everything’s going to be alright."

***

For some time, I couldn’t even understand why people were staring at me. The dial for smell was still at 1 or so, or I would have noticed that I smelled of blood, too, badly.

Sandburg has always hated hospitals. I hate that I never seem to get through to him with my senses, too many smells and sounds that seem to build a wall against them. I hear that the Palmers are here with their daughter.

One nurse is telling another about her ‘jerk of a boyfriend’ in the break room. Damn it, that’s not what I need to hear.

An elderly man on the phone with his wife, telling her that he’ll be released tomorrow.

A doctor telling a boy’s parents that their son has cancer...

No, I can’t do this anymore. I pull myself back from the near zone the moment Simon arrives. Megan has just come back with another round of stale-tasting coffee.

"Any word on him yet?" he asks, and I shake my head wearily.

God, I’m so scared. Not just because my partner has yet to survive an attack from Cascade’s recent psychopath, but because there’s another factor that doesn’t go in our favor. Even with all the blood, I could finally see how much weight he’s lost, and it shocked me. How could I have not noticed? Well, it’s not like we see each other naked on a daily basis, but I wonder if there’s something I should have done.

That roommate he once had, in college, he had noticed. And he wasn’t even a Sentinel.

I overheard the paramedics’ conversation, and learned more than I ever wanted to. It’s bad enough as it is. The bulimia could lead to complications.

***

A few hours later, the ER doctor who seems as exhausted as I am, tells me to join him in his office where he pours a cup of very black coffee for each of us.

I have a million questions even if I suppose I don’t want to hear most of the answers, but of course I can’t keep denying the facts. How could I basically ignore this for so long?

Dr. Andrews is patient as he explains the effects of bulimia to me, how it can alter the heart’s rhythm, something that has to be watched closely; how it messes with the body’s metabolism. I understand enough of that to be shocked.

He assures me that in all likelihood, Blair will recover from the wounds Bryant inflicted on him. After that, the sooner he receives treatment for the bulimia, the better.

I have some ideas about that.

***

Chapter 7, Mirror Image

 

"This is... getting old," he rasps, attempting a smile though, wincing when the movement makes the cuts in his face pull.

I’m not sure if I should try and go for the attempt at humor; I would only end up with something sarcastic, and this is too important. "The girl will be alright," I tell him. "She’s with her parents now." That makes him smile, even if it is a little watery.

"Good."

"Yeah."

I have to face some facts, and right now. The question was never if I was ready to take any trip whatsoever. It was all said and done when I walked into the neo hippie witch doctor punk’s office. The memory no doubt puts a goofy grin on my face.

"Translation, Jim," Blair says. "I’m not sure I’m following you here."

"You know, I’m just so damn proud of you." He smiles at my admission, winces again which brings us both back to the less friendlier aspects of reality. There’s still too much left undone. Unspoken.

"I didn’t really do much. It’s you who came to the rescue. Again. Thank you for that."

Cindy Palmer’s parents and the little girl herself certainly wouldn’t call it ‘not much’, but I don’t insist, there’ll be time for that later, and I sense – correctly - that he wants to go elsewhere. After a pause he says, not looking at me, "Before... we said some pretty mean things to each other."

"We did," I agree. "And I’m sorry. I was asking too much... and not giving you the support you needed."

"And all the time I was busy ignoring that you only ever wanted to keep me safe. I guess it’s a rather ungrateful job."

I think back to those desperate moments when we had lost contact and knew he was going after Bryant. Listening to the words he struggled for, words for me even in that desperate situation when Connor and I were just outside the cabin. But we made it through.

"No," I whisper, taking his hand gently with regard to his condition, even though I’d rather pull him close. "It’s the best."

***

The time I spent in the hospital was rather blurry now, but I did remember that the girl was safe, and Jim had promised we’d talk everything through at home. No, I certainly wasn't going to get away with what had obviously only been the beginning of that particular conversation.

He sat with me until I slept that day, holding on to my hand, and I guess it’s what we both needed. A beginning.

***

Funny I can’t recall that he ever left my bedside, but he must have sometime, because when I got home again, I realized Jim had done lots of thorough research in the meantime, with the help of my doctor at the CG. Then we had a conversation, including Dr. Andrews and his colleague, a Dr. Garner, in which they had no qualms about telling me the facts for what they were. That they didn’t think weekly sessions would really do it this time. Garner, who was a psychiatrist with the Cascade General, recommended a longer stay at a specialized clinic, something I had always dreaded.

Jim already had a stack of material ordered from the most recommended clinics in Washington. "I don’t want to pressure you," he said seriously, when I must have looked like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.

"But... so soon? What about the job?"

"I’ll talk to Simon if you want. He’ll understand. No one else has to know. All I’m asking of you is to look at these..." He indicated the stack of papers from the various clinics. "We can visit some before you decide."

For a moment I was all ready to forget about the horrible case we’d just closed, about the promise I’d made, that we’d made to each other. I put my face in my hands, as if blocking my vision would also help me to ignore what I rationally knew.

"Does it really have to be right now?" Jim asked the doctors, suddenly unsure himself.

"Most of those clinics will have lists they put you on, but all of them make exceptions when it’s warranted. Mr. Sandburg..." I looked up even though Dr. Garner’s tone was enough to tell me he wasn’t kidding, "I don’t think they’d keep you waiting, and you know that. You could probably start within the next three days, and frankly, it would be for the best."

He was right. I knew all of that. "I don’t know if I can go through with it," and even if it sounded like a petulant child, it was the most honest answer I could give right now.

That’s when Jim asked them to leave us alone for a moment. They looked at each other meaningfully, then actually granted his wish. I got up from my chair, too, not really wanting to hear what he was going to say if he was so sure it’d convince me.

Jim didn’t say anything, not right away. After he’d closed the door behind the doctors, he just came back and wrapped his arms around me.

Oh Gods.

This was going to be even worse than I had feared. Already, I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes, and I could not lose it like this. I had kept my head with yet another psychopathic killer, so why... "Let me go," I pleaded. Surely he should muster some understanding for my need for control!

"No, not an option," he said lightly, holding me even tighter.

"This is stupid," I raved on, "they’re going to think I’m a basket case, no, wait, they know that already, but if you don’t let me go, man, this is going to be really embarrassing for both of..."

While what I’m really saying is, //please, don’t let me go//.

And luckily for me, Jim understands, because he says, "I know you’re scared. Believe me, I know how it feels. I am scared now."

That’s when I can’t hold back the tears anymore, for all the lies lived, the wasted time. The girls we couldn’t save, the trauma Cindy and the one whose name I don’t remember will have to live with, and for the fear I wouldn’t make it out of that damn cabin.

But I did, thanks to the best friend I’ve ever had, and so I owe him to try at least. I owe it to myself. And maybe, in the end, we can truly understand the vision for what it meant.

THE END