Author's Notes:

This is the first of a four-story arc I call the "Becoming A Watcher" Subseries.

A small warning for implied torture of our favorite detective (sorry, Jim).

Minor spoilers for the episodes Blind Man's Bluff, Brother's Keeper, Secret, and Sleeping Beauty.

Enjoy!

CANDLE IN THE DARK

by

D.L. Witherspoon

(Posted 12-30-97)

Prologue

"Where is he?" the man demanded.

He was led to a brightly lit room and followed a finger pointed toward the corner. His prey sat huddled, his hands wrapped around his head, his shoulders heaving.

The man laughed. Oh, how the mighty had fallen. "Fine work," he said.

"Hard work," the director replied. "The price has been doubled. The subject was unique in a variety of ways. Traditional methods didn't work. It took weeks of experimentation to get the results you required."

"Your price will be met. Will he beg?"

A hesitant shake of the head. "He no longer talks. It's possible he no longer remembers how. But this should appease you. Touch him." The man looked up quickly. "Don't worry. He won't hurt you."

Reassured slightly, he walked over and bent down to touch the wrist. His enemy howled as if he'd been branded with a hot iron. Grinning, he pinched him and was rewarded by tears. Enjoying himself now, he commenced a full assault and there was no attempt of retaliation-- just more terrified screams, moans, tears, and pathetic attempts to protect himself. The man felt more powerful each time he landed a blow.

Taking a crisp white handkerchief from his pocket, he wiped away the perspiration he'd worked up. "That was cleansing. Can I do it again tomorrow?"

"As many times as you like. Until he dies."

"No. I don't want that. Tell me, is his condition permanent?"

"Will he ever remember who he is? Will he ever function normally again? I seriously doubt it. As I said, we had to use extreme measures."

"Good. In a week, I want you to let him go. Dump him on the side of the road like an unwanted puppy. If he's lucky, maybe someone will pick him up and take him home."

A technician had stood quietly in the corner and as the others left he came forward. The visitor had been wrong, he thought as he led his battered charge back to his cage. If the poor bastard was truly lucky, he'd get hit by a truck.

Chapter One

"Pack a bag with your best academic attire. I'll pick you up in twenty minutes."

Blair Sandburg stared at the phone and wondered if he should consider the call the beginning of hope or the end of it. What had Simon meant by "best academic attire"? And why pack a bag? Had Jim been found? Was he alive... or dead? Where was he?

The nightmare had begun six weeks ago. Detective Jim Ellison had disappeared during the middle of an investigation. One minute he'd been on his way to interview the victim of a jewelry store heist. The next, his truck had been found abandoned on an old logging road. The Cascade P.D. had pulled out all stops, everyone working double, triple shifts trying to find their co-worker and friend.

No one worked harder than Blair, Jim's partner, roommate and best friend. He couldn't remember the last night he'd slept without waking an hour or two later to pace the loft he shared with Jim. Sometimes he'd find himself walking up the stairs to Jim's room and just staring at the empty bed. Other nights would find him scrubbing the kitchen or the bathroom, imagining how surprised Jim would be when he came home. But he never did. And the police never found a clue as to what had happened to him.

Until, apparently, tonight. What had Simon Banks, captain of the Major Crimes squad and therefore Jim's and Blair's superior, found out? A clue to where Jim may be or Jim himself? Probably a clue, Blair thought, as he threw clothes into an overnight bag. And Simon probably needed him to play a role to get more information. He wasn't technically a cop, so technically whatever he did couldn't be truly called entrapment if something went wrong. On paper, he was an anthropology grad student acting as a police observer for research purposes. In reality, he was Jim's partner and balance.

Jim Ellison was an outstanding detective but he was much, much more. He was a Sentinel, genetically wired to have enhanced senses to protect. The trait could be traced back to the days of jungle tribes and the need for guardians and sentries. In the modern-day era, most of these traits were repressed, ignored, or used unknowingly: the potter who created lovely works of art just by feeling the clay; the cook who smelled when a recipe was just right; the wine taster with an expert palate; the diamond cutter who guessed rather than measured; the music teacher who could tell which student hit the wrong note. All were possible Sentinels.

But thanks to Blair, Jim knew he was one. Blair had studied the history of Sentinels and was in the search of them when he stumbled upon Jim. And to his amazement Jim wasn't just an evolutionary descendent of Sentinels-- he was one. All five senses were enhanced, completing the physical requirements, and psychologically, he already considered himself a guardian. He'd served first in the army and then as a policeman, and with Blair's help he had become what he was meant to be from the beginning-- a protector of his people, the city of Cascade, Washington, and perhaps in the future, something more. So far the senses had captured criminals, averted major disasters, and literally saved thousands of lives. Jim was fulfilling the legacy he'd been born into and Blair was his Guide, his teacher in the mastery of these gifts.

Blair opened the door when he heard Simon's succinct rap. "Tell me," he demanded not only of his boss, but his friend and Jim's. The anxiety of the past several weeks was evident in the faint stoop of the captain's broad shoulders, the redness of the eyes behind the glasses, the overall exhaustion that emanated from the cop.

"A man matching Jim's description has been admitted to a psychiatric facility in Indiana," the tall, African-American officer said. "Our plane leaves within the hour."

"A psychiatric facility in Indiana? What makes you think this is Jim?" Blair asked with a frown. It didn't make sense.

"The man was non-responsive and had no I.D. They ran his fingerprints."

"They matched?"

"They matched."

Blair felt the universe as he knew it tip to one side and they were in the car, headed to the airport, when he regained his balance enough to ask for more details. "You faxed them Jim's picture?" Simon nodded and Blair knew it must have matched too. So it was Jim. Okay. Now to deal with the rest of it. "Why is he in a mental institution?"

Simon hesitated, knowing what he had to tell Blair would hurt the younger man. It had hurt him and he was a veteran witness to the destruction man could heap upon man. "He was found wandering the streets of some little town somewhere. It was obvious he'd been beaten so he was taken to the local hospital. The E.R. patched him up as much as possible but when he failed to respond to their inquiries, he was turned over to the psych ward. The shrinks took one look at his overall condition and sent him to a state facility. Those doctors quickly called in state and federal authorities."

"Why?"

"Because there was evidence that the man had been tortured."

"Oh." Silence filled the car as Blair absorbed that piece of news. Torturing a man like Jim wouldn't be easy. He'd been an Army Ranger, schooled in Covert Ops... Torture would have just made him more determined and angry. The torturers would then increase their efforts and by the time they were through... For a moment he thought he was going to have to ask Simon to pull over before he was sick in the car. But he discovered he had better control than he thought and he forced himself to stop speculating on Jim's condition. The truth was waiting in Indiana-- he would know it soon enough.

"Why stress the academic garb?" Blair asked to keep his mind from backsliding.

"They are restricting his visitors. We may have to bluff you in as a psychiatric consultant to the department. Think you can handle it?"

"No problem." He had minored in psychology and dated a half a dozen psych majors. He knew the correct phraseology, latest findings, etc. "You're thinking this may be a case of a zone out?" Jim had baffled doctors before by going into what appeared to be comas. But what had really happened was that sometimes Jim concentrated so hard on one sense that he sort of "fell" into himself and only his Guide could bring him out.

Simon had to be thinking, or at least hoping, this was just another example of a zone, Blair hazarded. It was the only reason he could come up with as to why the captain hadn't gone off on his own to Indiana to assess the situation before dragging him into it. Simon was just as overprotective of him as Jim was when it came to shielding him from the horrors of their work. No, Sandburg, you don't need to see this body. Stay back, Chief, the crime scene is pretty rough.

"If it is, can you...?" Simon asked hopefully.

Blair didn't answer. From what he'd heard so far, this wasn't a case of Jim zoning. This sounded more like a deliberate attempt to destroy a human being. And as the plane took off for Indiana, Blair considered the possibility that whoever had tried, may have succeeded.

Chapter Two

"Captain Banks, Mr. Sandburg, if you will follow me," Dr. Howard Silverman said as they entered a maze of locked hallways. "All our recent arrivals are put in isolation rooms until they can be evaluated. I'm afraid your Det. Ellison will probably remain there for quite some time."

"Why?" Simon asked sharply. "Is he violent?"

"Only toward himself. We handle that with restraints, but it is his screaming which keeps him separate. It upsets our other residents."

"Screaming?" Blair asked weakly. Definitely not a zone. One of the signs of Jim zoning was his deathly silence. Besides, Jim never screamed. Yelled? Yes. Barked? Orders on occasion. Screamed? As in terror? As in pain? He reached up to adjust his glasses but ended up cramming his hands into his pockets before Silverman noticed they were shaking.

The doctor nodded. "Normally he's non-responsive. We've tried talking to him, playing music, even letting him watch television. Nothing. However, touch him slightly and he vocalizes terrible piercing screams. That was one of the first reasons we suspected torture. When we finally got him sedated, we did a complete physical. In additional to a broken wrist, three fingers, and two ribs, he has several hairline fractures of major bones, indicating he was beaten professionally. There are also track marks on parts of his body inaccessible to him. We did a chemical analysis of his blood but the results are inconclusive."

"What are the findings of your initial evaluation?" Blair asked and Simon nodded at his professional tone.

"The patient is nonverbal-- possibly aphasic-- highly paranoid, prone to dementia, and a danger to himself."

"Schizophrenic," Blair whispered, summing up the doctor's report. Silverman nodded.

"You mentioned before that he was a danger to himself," Simon pointed out. "What do you mean?"

The doctor shrugged."Where to begin? First, he refuses to eat. He's on an I.V. for now, which he tries to rip out every chance he gets, but if the situation doesn't change soon, we'll have to insert a tube and feed him that way." Blair blanched at the thought. "There are several long, deep gashes on his arms which were self-inflicted; we found the blood and tissue under his fingernails. When they were attending his wounds in the E.R., he grabbed a surgical instrument and attempted to stab at his eyes. He is also wont to bashing his head into any nearby wall. That necessitated putting him into a padded room. He is kept in restraints at all times now."

Blair felt his stomach roil and reached for Simon's steady arm for a second until the nausea passed. He caught his friend's concerned look and indicated he would be okay. A lie, but a necessary one. Simon wasn't looking too good himself and Blair was afraid if he lost it, his captain wouldn't be too far behind.

"Here we are, gentlemen." Silverman pulled out a key and unlocked a door.

Blair felt relief when he saw the figure sitting on the bed in the corner, his head bowed and his arms tied securely to either side of the cot. The man was too skeletal to be Jim. The wrists poking out beneath gauze and tape were whisper thin, the ankles bared by the hospital gown too weak-looking to belong to his Sentinel. Jim had only been missing six weeks. No one could deteriorate that quickly unless they were starved.

"Simon, that isn't--" he began and the man opened his eyes at the sound. Blair's legs puddled beneath him. The blue eyes were swollen, full of fear, and shut quickly as if burned by the light. But, God help them all, they were Jim's eyes.

"Mr. Sandburg, are you alright?" the doctor was asking.

"He'll be okay," Simon was explaining. "The whole department has been under a lot of strain since Det. Ellison's disappearance. Mr. Sandburg, can you stand?" Simon offered him his hand.

"Sorry, Simon," Blair said as they sat in the conference room, waiting for Silverman to return with something sweet for his visiting colleague who hadn't eaten in a while.

Simon shook his head. "I was in shock too. I never expected... Jim's a strong man. They'll find out what's wrong with him and fix it."

Blair sighed. "I already know what's wrong with him and I'm afraid they're just going to make it worse."

"He's in some kind of zone?"

"Just the opposite. You remember how Jim was, before we met?"

Simon nodded. His best detective had come to him, scared to death he was going insane because of what he could hear and see and smell. "But you helped him get over that."

"His senses are still as strong as they were then, hell, even stronger. In a given moment, he's hearing a million sounds, smelling a thousand scents, feeling the dust in the air settle on his skin. He sees colors we can't even imagine, the tiny vibrations of individual leaves, the tremble of our bodies as the heart echoes against our breastbones. I helped him gain control of all that input. He learned to tune out what he needed to, to filter the unusual from the regular crap. But it's all still there in his brain waiting to processed."

"And?" Simon asked with a sinking feeling.

"And his controls have been stripped away. What is in that room is the Jim Ellison that would have been."

"So that means you can help him. You did before."

"Simon, when I met Jim he was on the brink of madness. This time he has gone over."

Chapter Three

No,no,no,no,no,no,no,no,no,no,no,no,no,no,no,no...drown out the sounds...mustn't hear...shouldn't hear...can't hear...can't, can't, can't.

"Jim."

The voice, the voice I hear above the other sounds. Soft but loud. Gentle, Soothing.

"Jim, it's me, Blair. Blair Sandburg. You like to call me Chief. I'm your friend."

Friend?

"Jim, if you can hear me, open your eyes."

Light bright. Hurts. Burns.

Blair sat in the far corner of the room, willing Jim's eyes to open. The only thing that had given him hope through the night was the fact that Jim seemed to react to his voice yesterday. If he was still reaching the Sentinel, there was a chance that he could be retrained in the art of controlling his senses--for without control there could only be madness. But Jim wasn't opening his eyes. Did that mean... No. It meant he hadn't considered Jim's sensitive sight.

With a sigh of disgust, he scrambled to his feet and searched for the light switch. Not in the room. He turned toward the mirror, knowing Simon was on the other side. "Simon, I need the lights dimmed or completely out." Soon the lights dimmed to a soft glow. "Jim, the lights won't hurt you now. Trust me."

Trust me. I know those words. Eyes open. Not bright. Trust.

"Good, Jim," Blair whispered, remembering to keep his voice low despite his excitement. "I want you to concentrate on my voice. Hear only me. I know you hear other things. Noises and sounds that hurt. But if you really listen to me, you won't hear them. They will fade."

Think. Listen. To voice.

Blair saw the lines disappear from Jim's forehead as the other sounds were filtered out. "Yes, you are doing it correctly. Jim, do you remember the radio? The way you turn the sound up and down with the button? You can control the sound in your head the same way. See the button in your head and turn it up just a little. No, not that far. Just a tiny bit."

Noise. Hate noise.

"Now turn the button the other way."

Better.

"It works with your eyes too. Turn the button up, Jim." At that moment, the lights went back to bright and Jim howled as the brilliance punctured his eyes. The door opened and Dr. Silverman stepped in.

"What's going on here?"

"Damn it! You just screwed everything, man!" Blair yelled. "He was listening to me!"

"What are you doing?" Silverman repeated. "You have no credentials to perform therapy here."

"Therapy, hell! I was talking with a friend! And you come bumbling in here and blow the whole thing. Simon!" he said as the captain ran in from the observation room. "I was reaching him. He was responding, damn it!"

"Sandburg, calm down," Simon whispered, hoping this trip didn't end with both his friends locked up in this place. "You're hurting Jim."

Blair looked over to where Jim had turned toward the wall, shivering and crying from the pain of the lights... and Blair's own raised voice. With a muttered curse, he shoved aside the doctor and hurried out of the room.

Simon found him in the men's room, taking deep breaths. "I blew it, Simon. Something inside of Jim still trusted me this morning. I doubt now if he'll ever listen to me again."

The room had been so dim, Simon hadn't been able to make out Jim's reactions to Sandburg, but it seemed to him the anthropologist had been making progress. "So you start over again."

Blair shook his head. "Not here. It won't work, Simon. I'll tell Jim to trust me, that no one will hurt him and when I'm not here, they'll be giving him drugs that will scramble his brain even more and hurting him with needles. His sense of touch is off the scale. A needle must feel like a sword cutting through his flesh. But I can't tell them not to give him shots. I can't tell them not to run tests. Hell, I can't even tell them to turn the lights off."

Simon took off his glasses and pinched his nose. "Well, there's no way they're going to release him to us and they have every right to hold him. He's a proven danger to himself."

"What if you're investigating the crimes that have been committed against him? Could you get him released in your custody?"

"Won't work. Because Jim disappeared in Washington and was found in Indiana, it's a federal case. And God knows, we don't want to involve them any further while Jim's in this condition." He paused and wished he had a cigar to chomp on. It helped him think. "You're his next of kin. I guess you can try to petition the court to remove him from here."

"By the time we get a lawyer and a court date, there wouldn't be a reason to release Jim," Blair said dryly. The detective would be too far gone to retrieve. "Not to mention the judge taking into consideration that I didn't come to the facility as next of kin but as a bogus psychologist. The proverbial snowball has a much better chance than I do," he pointed out in frustration.

"We'll do the best we can, Sandburg."

"Oh, that'll look swell on Jim's tombstone."

Simon put his glasses back on to glare at the younger man. "Don't do anything foolish, Blair. We have enough trouble as is. Having to file an APB on you for kidnapping would not make my day. Am I understood?"

Blair nodded. But Simon had to know that he would do whatever it took to save Jim. And if saving wasn't possible then he would protect him, shield him from the things that would hurt him like needles and bright lights and loud noises.

After making apologies, Blair was allowed in to see Jim again, but the trust had been broken and Jim refused to open his eyes. The one triumph of the day was that Blair got him to drink a milkshake. Simon had brought it in from a nearby fast food place and Blair had taken off the top, letting the scent permeate the room. By the time he'd placed the straw between Jim's lips, the detective was more than ready to receive it.

Then he and Simon had left and saying he needed a nap, Blair had holed up in his room making telephone calls for the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening. By the time he'd called a cab and gotten to the airport, he'd used up nearly every favor he was owed. But things were looking good. What was left to be done was up to the man he was waiting on.

"Are we set?" Blair asked as the man entered the terminal. It was obvious he was a successful businessman--from his tailored suit and hand-stitched leather attache to his buffed-and-polished black shoes.

"I've done everything you've asked, Blair," Steven Ellison told his brother's roommate as he signaled the limo driver who stood nearby holding a card with his name on it. "And I have the necessary papers proving I'm Jim's brother. By the way, a friend of yours met me at the Cascade airport and handed me this." He held out a large brown envelope.

Blair ripped it open and nodded at the documents. "Proof that Rainier University has a practicing psychiatric clinic."

"It does?" Steven asked. He didn't it even know Blair's school taught medicine at all.

"These papers says it does," Blair said meaningfully.

"Oh." Blair was going all out on this one. Jim must be in serious trouble. But his partner had been vague on the phone, only emphasizing the urgency of his request. "So, I'm to demand Jim be released to this facility with you in charge of his case?"

Blair nodded. "Hopefully by doing this in the middle of the night, we can avoid a lot of unnecessary questions. By the time they're aware of the scam, Jim should be safely out of reach."

Steven looked at the man nervously tapping the limo's console. "Are you going to tell me what this is all about? My brother has been missing six weeks. You call, say he's been found, and then give me a list of things to be done. I do them, not because I know you all that well, but I do know my brother and he doesn't trust easily. Yet, he has made it abundantly clear that he trusts you with his life."

"Thanks for the trust, man, however vicariously given," Blair said, pushing his long curly hair back from his face. He knew Steven deserved answers not just because he was Jim's brother, but because he'd come when Jim needed his help. But Jim was a highly private man and Blair felt he wouldn't want Steven to know the complete truth about what had been done to him. "Jim was kidnapped, Steven. He was hurt and drugged. He doesn't remember who he is and because of that, he's in a psychiatric hospital.

"But he doesn't belong there, Steven," Blair said, willing the man to understand these words were coming from his heart. "If I thought they could help him, man, I'd be the first to give my blessing."

"Since he made you his legal next-of-kin, it would have to be your blessing, wouldn't it?"

Blair heard the faint tinge of bitterness and understood. Jim had cut Steven out of his life years ago due to the schemings of their father. Last year, they had accidently met during an investigation (in which Jim had suspected Steven of being a murderer) and ancient wrongs had been righted. They were brothers again, but Jim still considered Blair to be a closer relative than Steven. "Whatever you think of me, don't take it out on your brother," he implored.

Steven sighed. This was not what this trip was about. It was about helping his brother... without questions. "Sorry, Blair. Just when you think the past is safely buried, a skeletal palm reaches out and slaps you in the face... Look, I know Jim is a proud man and I know I'm the last person he'd want seeing him in less than stellar condition. We'll play this anyway you want."

"Thanks, man."

The scam went smoothly. Steven demanded the release of his brother and he meant immediately. Didn't he know what time it was, he was asked. Didn't they know what time it was in Tokyo, he inquired in return. He'd flown directly to Indiana when he'd heard about his poor brother and as soon as he had him securely in Mr. Sandburg's care, he had to head back to the Pacific Rim. So he really didn't have time for notifications and recommendations. The FBI? Couldn't they interview Jim just as well in Cascade? He was Jim's brother, he had a private jet waiting, and every minute away from his business meant money lost. Just give him the papers to sign and both he and his brother would be out of their hair.

Steven met Simon as he was leaving. "Blair has you involved in this too, Captain Banks?" He didn't wait for Simon to answer as he slid into the limo. "Good luck to all of you, captain. Maybe one day you will explain it to me."

"Yeah, and maybe one day somebody will have the common decency to fill me in," Simon muttered as the limo pulled away. What the hell was Steven Ellison doing here and why had Sandburg called and told him to check out of the motel before meeting him at the institution? He hadn't seen the kid since dropping him off at the motel earlier in the day. He had been on his way to meet with the federal agent in charge of Jim's case and Sandburg said he wasn't up to hearing the details. The anthropologist could have attended, however; the fed had no details. Unless Jim could recover enough to give them a clue, the investigation was stalled.

When Simon returned to the motel, he should have checked on Sandburg but he knew the kid was under a tremendous strain and he thought the rest would do the young man some good. He should have known resting was the last thing the Guide was doing...

"Nice timing, captain," the object of his thoughts called and Simon turned his head toward the entrance, his mouth dropping open when he saw a fully dressed Jim standing beside the anthropologist. He also saw a scowling staff standing behind them and figured explanations could wait.

Blair coaxed Jim into the back seat of the rental car, then joined Simon up front. "You pick up my bag? Good. We have a private plane waiting at Gate Seven to take us back to Cascade."

Simon backed out of the parking lot and headed for the airport. "If I ask you any questions, will you plead the fifth?"

"Do you want me to?" Simon nodded emphatically. "Okay, Captain Banks, sir. You know nothing. You knew nothing prior to or after the fact."

"Thank you, Sandburg. And now that that's cleared up... First, tell me if we can talk in front of Jim or if he's like a coma patient?"

"We can talk. He can hear you, but he's not processing."

"Okay. Can you tell me if he's up for this?" Simon glanced into the rearview mirror at his passenger. Mirrored lenses stared back at him. "We're not going to have to make explanations for him flipping out at the airport are we?"

"Jim's fine. Sunglasses are protecting his eyes, earplugs are managing his hearing, and the clothes I washed in Ivory Snow to make sure he wasn't irritated."

"He let you touch him?"

Blair nodded, pleased at that accomplishment. He'd told Jim he was there to help him, then he'd brushed his hand across Jim's jaw. His friend had flinched, but hadn't yelled. He whispered to him that the hand meant no harm, that if he concentrated he could feel the warmth emanating from it and when Blair felt Jim was ready, he lay his palm against the side of his face. Jim accepted its presence and then proceeded to let Blair help him dress. There was a moment of uncertainty when he asked Jim to open his eyes, but the sunglasses were in place and when the blue eyes deigned to open, it was a relatively painless procedure.

"What are you going to do with him in Cascade? Take him back to the loft?"

"No. The city is too much for him to handle for now. A friend is loaning us his cabin in the mountains. We'll stay there as long as necessary."

"And then?" Simon asked, not because he was nosy, but because he was worried. The Jim in the back of the car was a hell of a lot better than the one in the hospital, but he still wasn't capable of functioning in the real world. Maybe he'd never be capable of that again.

"I'm going to take care of him, Simon, no matter what. It's what he would do for me."

"Yeah, but--"

"But what, man? I'm not capable of taking care of him? I don't even have a job? Well, without the distraction of police work, I should be able to get my doctorate soon. Anthropology professors aren't exactly at the top of every college's wish list but I can wait tables or sell french fries until then if I have to."

"You have other options you know," Simon said softly.

"Yeah, I can have Jim declared mentally incompetent and he should get a nice pension from the government and the police force. I know, Simon, but I swear that's the last resort."

"I was going to say, Sandburg, don't forget you have friends."

"Yeah, well, I pretty much used up all the favors owed me in one night, man."

Simon took one of his hands off the wheel and placed it on top of Blair's. "Those aren't the kind of friends I'm talking about."

Blair was glad the car was dark because he felt his cheeks burning. For most of his life he hadn't known what real friendship meant. His mom had kept them moving his entire childhood so friendship became about acquaintances and trading of markers. Then he had met Jim who did things for him without thinking of getting something in return. He'd learned to approach friendship in a different way and now he had real friends-- like the one in the car beside him. In his panic over Jim, he'd forgotten that. "Thanks, Simon. Thanks for reminding me."

Chapter Four

"We're home, Jim." Blair guided his partner into the loft. Morning was just breaking over Cascade. "We're only going to be here for a few minutes to pick up clothes and the truck."

Jim took a deep breath. Familiar. With the sound deadened and his eyes protected, there was clearing in his mind. Things that were jumbled were beginning to right themselves. When they were fastening him in on the plane he had panicked because he remembered the other fasteners that took away the use of his hands. But then, "buckle up for safety" flashed in his brain and he knew the strap around his waist was different from the others.

Chief and Simon had talked when they thought he was asleep and certain words had caused flashes too. Camping: tents and fishing and trees. Peru: jungle, hot, black cat. Police: guns, desk, Simon. Simon was police. Chief was friend.

And this was home. He walked over to the glass doors that led to the balcony. The sun was turning the sky purple and gold and he knew he had seen this happen before. He took off the shades and watched.

"What's he looking at?" Simon asked as he entered the loft with a white bakery box and a cardboard drink tray.

Blair shrugged. "He's a Sentinel. It could be anything. Did Mr. Ricolla have the buttermilk doughnuts done?"

"Yeah. They were just coming out of the oven. He asked about Jim. I told him he'd been found, but I couldn't say anything more. He said he understood. He said to tell you he's sending you both good wishes every night."

Blair smiled sadly. "They all miss Jim. He's like the neighborhood's guardian angel. He always checks on the elderly and if someone has trouble, no matter how minor, he looks into it for them. I even overheard one little girl threatening her brother by telling him Det. Ellison was going to get him if he did something to her."

Simon nodded. "I caught him nosying down in Robbery one day. Seems the dry cleaners across the street got hit and the owner didn't think the police was trying hard enough to catch the thieves. Jim went over all the reports, then reassured the guy everyone was doing their best. After an arrest, the news interviewed the owner. Claimed Cascade had the best police in the world."

Blair got out some paper plates and emptied the box: Jim got the buttermilk ones, Simon the cream-filled, and he had a plain bagel. "Jim Ellison, even in his worst moods, looks after people, Simon. I don't know if he can exist any other way."

"He looks pretty content at the moment." Jim had left the doors and was sitting in the chair next to the sofa, his favorite.

"The initial confusion is wearing off. The shades and earplugs are giving him some breathing room and control to some degree. But eventually he's going to feel there's something he's supposed to do and his confusion is going to grow." He took the doughnuts to Jim.

Fingers awkward in splints, Jim nevertheless grabbed one of the doughnuts and stuffed the whole thing in his mouth. He'd been waiting for it ever since Simon had walked up the stairs with the box. But the others had been talking and he knew he was supposed to wait until the food was offered. He didn't know how he knew it, but he did.

Simon followed Blair to the sofa. "You're talking as if you assume this is a permanent condition. What do you know that I don't?"

"Well, that's a loaded question if I ever heard one, captain," Blair teased.

"Sandburg," Simon growled and was suddenly speared by two ice blue eyes. "Uh, Blair, I think he remembers exactly what he's supposed to do and he's not the least confused about it."

Blair had returned to the kitchen to cut his bagel and had missed the exchange. "What happened?"

Simon looked at Jim who was now calmly finishing his second doughnut. "I guess I sounded threatening towards you. He was not pleased."

"How could you tell?"

"When Jim's pissed, he doesn't hide it."

Blair smiled. "That's an understatement. And good news. That means Jim is still in there somewhere. He hasn't been totally lost."

"Sandburg, have you considered there may be some physical damage that needs to be repaired in his head? I know they ran a CAT scan while he was in Indiana but there are more sophisticated tests. Maybe he should be taken to a neurologist before you go to the cabin."

"I thought about that, Simon, but in his condition he'll just end up back in the psych ward. Dr. Silverman was wrong when he said Jim was a danger to himself. It was the senses causing him to react that way. He wasn't eating because the smells made him sick. He gouged holes in his arms because something was irritating his skin. He attacked his eyes and his head because he wanted all the input to go away. Before I send him to another hospital, I need to make sure he has some controls, some shields, to protect himself."

"You're the expert, Sandburg, in fact the only expert on Sentinels, so I won't argue. And despite what you might think, I'm not trying to interfere. I just want what's best for both of you."

"I know, Simon, and I promise I won't get so caught up in protecting Jim that I keep him from getting the help he needs."

Simon nodded and rose slowly to his feet. "Well, now that I've given you your peptalk, you can give me one. I have to go down to the station and make a statement about this whole thing. You know the press has been following this case."

"Stick to the facts and say that it's a federal case. The press should buy it. I don't know about the rest of the guys though."

Simon smiled. "I'm not worried about them. I'll just tell them you went camping and they will all heave a sigh of relief and leave me alone."

Blair was confused. "You mean you're going to tell them Jim was kidnapped and tortured and they won't be worried?"

"Oh, they'll be worried, but they know camping is for you and Jim therapy of sorts. You end a difficult case, you go camping. You have a fight, you go camping. One of you gets injured, you go camping. It's sort of understood."

Blair threw his arm across his face dramatically. "I've become predictable, part of a pattern. And I thought being called a cop was bad enough."

"Hey, don't forget who's in the room when you make cracks like that," Simon warned, with a mock scowl. He dumped his plate in the trash. "You're taking the cell phone to the cabin?"

He was as bad as Jim. "Yes, Uncle Simon, and clean underpants too," he quipped as he walked the captain to the door.

Simon ignored his smart-ass reply. "Good. Expect my call promptly at seven each night."

Blair rolled his eyes. "Is that necessary?"

"Keep arguing and I'll contact my pal, the local sheriff, and a deputy will personally tuck you in. Am I making myself clear?"

Blair lowered his head. "Yes, sir."

"It's so nice when we understand each other, Sandburg." Simon couldn't think of any other reason to hang around, although he wanted to. These two were the best team he had, but they were also the most likely to find trouble. And the worst of it was that he actually cared for both of them, more than he should at times. Ugh. He was about to get sentimental. Time to move out. "Have a safe trip. Take care of your partner and yourself."

"I will, Simon." Blair shut the door and went into the kitchen to clean up. "I thought he would never leave," he muttered, then realized Jim may take the comment the wrong way. It was important he knew Simon was a friend. So he turned around to explain, but Jim wasn't in the chair.

Great, Blair thought as he went to the bathroom in search of his partner. Simon hadn't been gone 30 seconds and he'd already managed to misplace Jim. The bathroom was empty and he felt a frisson of fear as he hurried to check the patio doors. Thank God they were still locked. Where could he be? He didn't want to yell out for him because in Jim's condition, it could make matters worse. Crossing his fingers, he ran up the stairs to Jim's room... and found the man sprawled across the bed sound asleep.

Blair collapsed on the corner of the bed, his heart pounding furiously. The good news was that Jim remembered his room; the bad news was that Blair had lost him. What if they had been in the woods at the cabin? Jim could have wandered off and disappeared again.

Maybe Simon had a point about delaying the trip. The hospital was out of the question, but obviously Jim felt comfortable here at the loft. And he was known in the area, in case he decided to take a stroll. But then everyone would know something was wrong with him and Jim wouldn't like that at all. Besides, there was that back-to-nature thing that grounded both of them, gave them their center. Both Sentinel and Guide was connected to the earth and that was why every time something knocked them off-balance, they headed camping and regained their strength. If Jim had a chance of a complete recovery, they had to go to the cabin. And he, Blair, would just have to be more careful.

That decided, Blair carefully spread a blanket across the sleeping form and went downstairs to pack.

Chapter Five

"Come on, Jim," Blair urged as his partner stopped and stared at a bird's nest high in a thin pine. "We have to get there and back before Simon arrives or we'll be in big trouble." They were on their way to the country store about a mile from the cabin if they walked, three miles by truck. A week of being in the woods had restored the Sentinel's controls. Blair knew that Jim now easily focused on the nest, could probably see and hear if any little ones were up there waiting for their mama. He no longer jumped at loud noises, his broken bones were almost healed, and the gauntness of his body was slowly filling in with muscle.

But he still wasn't talking and there was a look of hurt, frustrated bewilderment in his eyes when Blair mentioned something he couldn't remember or comprehend. He was pretty certain now that there was some physical problem lurking in the recesses of Jim's brain and Simon was coming this afternoon to help him choose a neurologist. The whole idea of a doctor poking around in Jim's gray matter was unnerving but leaving Jim the way he was when there was a chance he could get better was worse.

Blair had planned on cooking spaghetti for the three of them but belatedly discovered what he thought was a full box of spaghetti had previously been used. So he figured he and Jim had time to hike to the store and back before Simon arrived. If he could stop any further sightseeing diversions, they would just barely make it.

The store was empty when they arrived except for the old man who owned it. The guy reminded Blair of Mr. Wilson in Dennis the Menace, gruff but tolerable. He gave the old guy a tentative smile and laid the spaghetti on the counter. A hand sneaked around him to put a pack of HoHos beside the pasta and he turned around to give his standard lecture on junk food. But the words got stuck in his throat when he saw two hooded figures enter the store, one carrying a shotgun and the other a pistol.

"This is a stick-up!" one of the arrivals yelled, his voice cracking. "Hands in the air!"

The old man and Blair did as asked. Jim just stared. "What's your problem, man?" the one holding the shotgun asked, waving the weapon in Jim's direction.

"Leave him be," the pistol-carrying one said. "He ain't right in the head. I've seen the two of them out in the woods up by the Simmons' cabin. The long-haired one is his keeper. So just get the money and let's get out of here." Using the pistol to cover the trio, he motioned his partner toward the cash register.

Blair tried to move in front of Jim because he wasn't sure how the larger man would react. He'd gotten angry at Simon for just raising his voice; now his Guide was being threatened with a gun. And from the sound of it, by two teenage boys. Where the hell were kids getting their hands on guns and why couldn't it be stopped? Who would have to die before America realized it had a problem?

Jim noticed Blair inching around in front of him and suddenly a searing pain tore through his head. He inhaled sharply and his hands flew to his temples.

"Jim?" Blair whispered frantically.

Clarity. When Jim put his hands down, he knew exactly who he was and what he had to do. With one hand he shoved Blair to the ground and with the other he reached out and plucked the gun out of the youth's hand. Before the kid realized what had happened, Jim's leg swept out and the young gangster hit the floor with a knee-jarring crunch.

"Pauly!" the other one yelled, forgetting for a moment he even had the shotgun. By the time he remembered Jim had the pistol aimed at him.

"Cascade Police. Put your weapon down, son." Blair, seeing the fear in the brown eyes peering from the holes in the ski mask, reached out and tugged the shotgun out of his hand. "Step out from behind the counter and join your friend on the floor." Jim turned to the store owner. "Are you okay, sir?" He nodded. "We'd like to add some rope to our purchase."

The man gave a shaky smile, some color coming back to his pale face. "Free of charge, officer. I'll call the sheriff."

Blair grabbed the rope and began tying up the thieves, removing the masks to reveal two boys on the real low end of teendom. Where the hell were their parents? "You okay, Chief?" Jim asked, seeing the anger on his partner's face.

"I don't know about you, Jim, but when I was this age, I was riding my bike or watching cartoons or reading a comic book. I certainly wasn't out committing armed robbery!"

"Times change, Chief, and not always for the better," he commented sadly before turning toward the door. "Simon's here."

The captain waltzed into the store, intent on getting a couple of candy bars for Jim and himself. He knew the value of a healthy meal as well as Sandburg, but he also knew the joy of sinking his teeth into a nut and caramel filled Snickers too. So did Jim and he figured Sandburg hadn't let the detective get away with much this past week.

It wasn't until he saw the two kids on the floor with their hands tied neatly behind their backs that he realized he'd stumbled into what was commonly referred to as a "situation." His hand automatically went to his gun even though he could see everything was under control. Thanks to his people. "Sandburg, why can't I even trust you to do something simple like make dinner?"

Blair held up his hands, the picture of innocence. "I didn't do this. Jim did." He watched the dawning awareness on Simon's face. He wondered if his had looked the same way only moments ago.

"Jim?" Simon asked hesitantly.

"Hi, captain." Jim started to smile, but another sharp pain cut through his head. "Uh, would you mind administering the Miranda for me? I don't--" He couldn't suppress a groan as the pains grew and multiplied.

"Jim!" Simon yelled as his detective toppled forward. He caught him just before he fell and lowered him into Sandburg's waiting arms.

"Jim?" Blair asked in his best Guide whisper.

"Chief, my head... is exploding."

Blair looked up anxiously. "Simon, call an ambulance now!"

*****

"Chief?"

Blair opened his eyes when he heard the soft sound. To some it may have looked like he was asleep, but in reality he had been trying to channel his energy into his partner. According to Dr. Adam Mitchell, the northwest's leading neurologist, Jim was just in a deep sleep now but Blair still remembered the moment when the Sentinel's eyes had rolled to the back of his head and his entire body had convulsed before he lost consciousness in the store just as the ambulance arrived.

"How you doing, partner?" Blair asked, leaning over to push the call button. "You gave us quite a scare."

"Worried I'd wake up with my brains scrambled again?"

"Worried that you wouldn't wake up at all."

Blue eyes captured blue eyes. "I'm sorry for the comment, Chief. I remember everything, especially the part that you were there even when I totally wasn't. I know it wouldn't have made a difference to you if I had my whole brain or just a partial. But it's me this time, Chief. The complete set: cop, Sentinel, friend."

"The friend was always there, Jim. But I am glad to see the rest of you," Blair said with a grin.

"The kids?"

"Pauly and Jerry Fitzpatrick. Brothers, ages eleven and thirteen. Instead of school today, they are in juvenile hall," Blair said bitterly. "They're supposed to be our future, man."

Jim shrugged. "Don't write off the next generation just yet, Chief. You work with the cops; you see the worst the world has to offer. There is another side."

"With all that you've seen how can you be so optimistic?" Blair asked wonderingly.

"How can I not be? How could I see the things I see and still do what I do if I didn't believe that someone is benefitting from my actions?"

"You're a deeper man that you appear to be, Jim Ellison," his partner said in amazement.

"I'm sure you meant that as a compliment, Sandburg," Jim replied sternly.

Before Blair could defend himself, a doctor came in. "Good morning, Det. Ellison. I'm Dr. Mitchell. How are you feeling?"

"Okay," Jim said, frowning when he realized what the doctor had said. "What do you mean morning? How long have I been out?"

"You collapsed in the store two days ago, Jim," Blair answered.

He looked closely at his partner, noting the dark circles under his eyes. "But I feel fine."

"You are, detective," the doctor replied. "The MRI revealed that a part of your brain hadn't been getting the oxygen it needed and that was the cause of your diminished capacity. But apparently the blockage dissolved on its own, allowing you to take control during the robbery. Unfortunately your head was like a foot when it's deprived of oxygen. You know that tingling sensation you get when you move a foot that's asleep? That is what happened when your brain was flooded with the blood and oxygen it needed. Just hurt a bit more, that's all."

"So this could have been avoided if I had contacted you earlier?" Blair asked guiltily. Simon had warned him.

The doctor shook his head. "Not necessarily. The MRI would have shown the blockage and we would have tried drugs to dissolve it, which would have caused the same reaction or we may have been a little extreme and tried surgery. All in all, it was best that it happened naturally. Your latest MRI came back negative so you no longer need my services. The pain is gone?" Jim nodded. "No more aphasia and since no one's complained, I take it your memories seem to be intact. You'll probably be released sometime this afternoon."

"Thank you, Dr. Mitchell." Jim frowned again. Something about the man was familiar. "I know my mind may play tricks on me for a while, doctor, but do I know you?"

The doctor smiled. "I was wondering if you would remember. My younger brother was Corporal Ron Mitchell."

Jim paled. "He was in my command..."

The doctor nodded. "In the mission to Peru. We met briefly at his funeral. When I heard you needed a neurologist, I happily volunteered. My family owes you so much, captain."

"I wouldn't exactly put it that way," Jim commented softly.

"My brother died doing what he wanted to do, Captain Ellison. You gave him comfort as he lay dying. You saw to it that his family had a body to bury. So whether you agree or not, the Mitchells are indebted to you. Now we both hope you never need my services again, but if you do, you know who to call."

"Thank you, doctor," Jim mumbled.

"And you, Mr. Sandburg," Dr. Mitchell said as he turned to leave. "Your friend's awake, so go home. You have time for a reasonable nap before all his paperwork is completed."

"As soon as I say goodbye, I'm out of here," Blair promised. The doctor left and Blair studied Jim for a moment. The memories of the helicopter crash in Peru, everyone being killed but him, were something Jim didn't like talking about. He had buried all his men, then went on with the mission until he was "rescued" eighteen months later. "You okay, Jim?" he asked softly.

"Yeah, Chief." He tucked the Peru memories back where they belonged and concentrated on his friend. "You need to do what Dr. Mitchell suggested. I don't want you collapsing on me."

"Hey, turnabout is fair play, or haven't you heard?"

"Well, since it was Simon who I really collapsed on--"

Blair jumped out of the chair. "Simon! I forgot to call Simon and tell him you were awake. Oh, man!"

"Call him from home, Chief. Then grab a nap. That's not a suggestion, but an order."

Blair picked up his backpack and sighed wearily. "So it's back to ordering poor Sandburg around again, huh?" He trudged to the door, then looked over his shoulder with a smile. "It's good to have you back, Jim."

Chapter Six

"It's incredible, Jim!"

"You were supposed to be resting, not coming up with ridiculous theories," Jim said dryly, as his partner literally danced around the hospital room he was getting ready to leave.

"It's not ridiculous. If you look at all the facts, it makes perfect sense. First, we have your weird reactions to medicine. That stuff you took for a cold hit you hard, then wore off, right? The same thing happened when that colonel kidnapped and drugged you. Not to mention what you went through when you were dusted with Golden. Put that all together with what just happened with your brain and you know I'm right," Blair boasted, turning to make sure the door was closed. "You self-repair, man. It's like your body pumps up the burning of foreign substances which not only heightens their effects but gets them out of your system quickly. Hence, the Sentinel is down for the shortest period possible."

"Chief--"

Blair waved his arms to silence him. "Just hear me out, Jim. Now you had this blockage in your head and while there was no danger, it just sat there. At the first sign of real danger, when the Sentinel was needed, poof, the blockage is out of there. It's incredible, man. The best case of mind over matter I've ever seen. I can't wait until I can get you back in the lab. I've been thinking about some tests that won't cause you actual pain but--"

"I guaran-damn-tee they won't cause me actual pain," Jim said forcefully.

"But, Jim..." A knock at the door cut off his whine. "Come in."

A man in a dark suit entered the room, flashing a badge. "I'm Agent Richardson, Det. Ellison. I need to ask you some questions."

Jim nodded. While Blair was supposedly resting, he had been thinking. And while there were still some dark spots in his memories, some of them were very clear. He motioned for the agent to take a seat. "And I need to give you some answers."

*****

Jim shivered as he followed the FBI agents through the sterile white halls of the underground research facility where he'd been kept and tortured. Whoever these people were, they had been careless when they brought him in. He had remembered the facility's exact location and had requested to be there when the feds moved in.

"We can go wait in the car," Blair said, noticing the involuntary movement. He hadn't liked the idea of Jim returning to the site of his abuse. In fact, he had argued for three straight days in Cascade while the government waited on the necessary warrants. But in the end Jim was determined to go and Blair had been just as determined that his partner wasn't going to face his demons alone.

"I have to do this, Chief."

That had been the reply from the beginning. His Sentinel was stubborn, but consistent. ""Just remember, you're not alone this time."

Jim threw Blair a quick glance. "I wasn't before." When he would have walked on behind the agents, Blair stopped him with a touch on the arm and a perplexed look. "No matter what anyone does to my mind, Chief, you're always there; a light in the darkness."

"Jim, I...." Words failed him.

Jim cocked his head to one side, a sign he was listening with his Sentinel skills. "We'll discuss it later. The feds have just confronted the director and he's denying everything." Jim had only heard the head of the facility referred to as the director. The director said give him another injection. The director wants you to increase the voltage.

"You have no right to come in here!" a thin man with wiry white hair was shouting. "This is a legitimate research facility and I demand to--" Jim stepped out from behind the federal agents blocking the doorway. The director's eyes widened, then he sighed and held out his wrists.

"I knew you were a mistake from the moment they pulled you from the van, awake instead of drugged out like you should have been. But vanity and avarice made me throw caution to the wind," the man confessed as the handcuffs were fitted to his arms.

"You should have killed me," Jim said matter-of-factly.

The director shrugged. "I know. But Brooks wanted you alive to suffer."

"You have the right to remain silent," Agent Richardson reminded him. On the site confessions could be tricky in court.

"I know my rights and as soon as I get my phone call, my lawyer will be ready to cut a deal with your people. But I think you should know Brooks Quinlan is behind the detective's ordeal. He ordered and paid for it. If you plan on catching him, you better get to him before he finds out you have me."

"What happened to honor among thieves?" Richardson muttered as he pulled out his cell phone.

"Brooks should have thought about that before he put vengeance before common sense. Even the detective recognizes that he should have been eliminated."

Jim ignored the conversation as he considered the man who had done this to him. Brooks Quinlan, Jr. had been running guns out of Cascade several years ago. In a confrontation with the police, Jim had been forced to kill him and his very rich father had sworn revenge. But the man had disappeared from Cascade soon after his son's funeral and Jim hadn't given him another thought.

"You didn't know Quinlan was behind this?" the director asked. Jim shook his head. "He came to 'visit' you several times before you were released. But I'm not surprised you don't remember. Your mind was pretty much the consistency of a marshmallow by then." An agent came to escort him out of the building. As he passed by Jim, his mouth moved but no sound came out. Or at least that was how it seemed.

"Thank you for your help, Det. Ellison," Richardson said, reaching out for Jim's hand. "Your presence shocked him into being much more cooperative than we had expected. Your return flight to Cascade is in less than two hours. Is there something more we can do for you or are you ready to be dropped off at the airport?"

"The airport will be fine, sir. I'm glad everything worked out. Just let me know when you need my testimony," Jim said.

"I'll stay in contact, detective."

Blair waved to the young freshman agent who had been relegated to chauffeur duty and started toward the waiting area of the airport. Three steps later he realized Jim was heading in the opposite direction. He did a quick reversal. "What's going on?"

"The director gave me a goodbye message."

"When?"

"When he moved past me. Only a Sentinel could have heard it," Jim said grimly.

"Shit," Blair murmured as he considered the possibilities. The man's main goal had been to destroy Jim. In order to do that, he had to get to know him really well. The Guide shuddered as he was led to the locker area.

"I need something to pick this lock with," Jim said, holding out his hand.

"No way you're getting my glasses again, man," Blair said defensively and started rummaging through his backpack. "Here's a paperclip."

Sentinel hearing and tactile senses made the job simple. The gray metal door popped open and Jim reached in and pulled out a brown expanding envelope. He rifled through the contents quickly, then handed it to his partner.

"What is it?" Blair asked, trying not to spill it as Jim started back toward the waiting area.

"My file."

"Why?"

"He said he didn't want it to fall into the wrong hands."

Blair plopped into the set of seats furtherest from the occupied ones. "Does that mean...?"

Jim shrugged and sat. Blair pulled out the sheaf of papers, put on his glasses, and began to read. Over an hour later, he shook his head. "I know why this guy isn't working in legitimate research. He's weak when it comes to the theoretical aspects of the field. He comes up with some of the lamest suppositions and he doesn't have any historical basis for them. He calls you Alpha-- the neo-man. You are supposedly what man will become. But you're just the opposite, man. You are what used to be. He also wonders if you were part of those eugenics projects that supposedly took place in the fifties and sixties to create the superior man. What a joke. Even with the genetic capabilities we have today, we haven't reached that point yet.

"However, when it comes to the practical aspects of actual research, your director brilliant. The tests he designed were extraordinary and he was very detailed in listing your reactions. I just did a quick scan of some of the less complex series he put you through. Others I'm going to be studying for quite a while."

"I'm glad this is working out for you, Sandburg."

Something in Jim's tone finally made it through the academic high he'd been in and Blair belatedly realized that what he considered research had been actual torture for his friend. "Aw, man. I've been a complete ass. I just got caught up in the research and..." He stopped. "Nah. There's no excuse for what I've done, Jim. Not only have I sat here and bubbled enthusiastically about something that was very painful, mentally and physically, to you but I had no right to read this in the first place." He placed the papers back in their carrier and wondered what part of "private and personal" didn't he understand.

"I'm the one who handed you the file, remember?" Jim said, ignoring the offered envelope. "If it helps you understand me better, then at least some good will come from the experience."

Blair stuffed the offending envelope into his backpack, away from sight and temptation. "What's good is that the feds didn't get their hands on it."

"I wonder why the director singled my file out?"

Blair marveled at his friend's naivete. "You are an incredible find, man, the discovery of a lifetime. That kind of information you don't leave laying around for someone else to stumble across. I know I personally keep your file next to my passport-- in a safe deposit box at the bank."

The intercom called out the boarding of their flight. "So what you're saying, Sandburg, is that I'm a treasure," Jim said as they walked through the gate.

Blair put his hand on the Sentinel's shoulder. "I don't think you'll ever realize how much of one, Jim."

Epilogue

Blair looked over to the form vegetating in front of the television and sighed. He really didn't like confrontations but it had been three weeks since the director had been arrested and something was still bothering Jim. It had nothing to do with police work; two days after they got back, Jim was back in the bullpen with the guys like nothing had ever happened. It was not anything physical-- Simon had demanded a thorough check up before allowing him to leave the station on a case. So it had to be something mental. He had briefly wondered if the doctor mentioning the helicopter crash caused this bout of brooding, but Jim was such a pro at suppressing those particular memories, it was difficult to believe he remembered the conversation with Dr. Mitchell at all.

Which left the root of the problem to be the happenings in Indiana. Jim had said most of what had occurred under the director's authority he didn't remember. When Blair had read the report again, with Jim in mind rather than the faceless Alpha, he had been sickened by the experiments conducted on his best friend. If Jim was starting to remember some of it, then they needed to talk about it. Jim had to know he knew the details; he'd told him to read the report. Maybe that was part of the problem-- maybe he thought his Guide already knew too much. Loss of control, loss of privacy... No wonder Jim was gun shy of revealing more of himself.

Too bad. He wouldn't risk Jim self-destructing under the pressure of keeping whatever was bothering him secret. Friends didn't let things like that happen. "Coffee, Jim?" He handed him a full mug.

"Thanks, Sandburg. Something you want to see on TV? I'm not watching anything important."

"Good. Because I thought we could talk for a minute."

"No problem. What's on your mind?"

"You."

That made Jim sit up and pay attention. "You want to discuss something you found in the report?" he asked hesitantly.

"Only if you want to."

Jim shook his head. "I've already told you what I remember."

"And nothing else has popped up suddenly? Nothing in your dreams perhaps? Maybe a flash or two?"

"No." Jim sat the mug down and looked at his partner intently. "What is this all about?"

"Jim, something has been bothering you. You've been preoccupied, distant, almost depressed. In my place, you would threaten to handcuff me to the bed or bodily keep me from leaving until I talked to you. Obviously, I can't do those things. All I can do is remind you of our friendship and rely on your knowledge that you can trust me."

"I trust you, Chief," Jim said softly. "With my life."

"But what about with your soul?" Jim was silent for a long minute and Blair considered how far he was prepared to push his partner into revealing what was bothering him.

"Sometimes you are my soul, Chief," Jim finally said to break the silence.

"Then tell me what's wrong."

"It's silly."

"Not if it's upsetting you."

Jim focused on the TV, searching for the right words. "All this time I had considered myself just a normal human being with a talent. Micheangelo painted. Mozart created wonderful music. Michael Jordan plays basketball. All regular people with special gifts. It's what you taught me, Chief. I was talented but it was all so normal.

"But the director didn't think I was normal. He set aside my file because I was different. He had tortured men before, but what he used on them didn't work on me. My reactions were 'more than human'. That's how he described them, right? That one line caught my attention. Isn't that just another way of saying not human, Blair? What am I then, some kind of freak of nature?"

Blair placed his hand on Jim's arm, maybe to reassure him he was flesh and blood. "Maniacs like the director and Quinlan are the freaks, not you."

Jim gave a sad chuckle. "Okay, so maybe the director's opinion isn't one I should listen to. But what about yours, Blair? After all, it was you who came up with the theory that I somehow repair myself when broken. I know a few amphibians and the starfish can do that. But a man?" He shook his head in anguish. "Not a normal one."

Blair struggled for the words to ease Jim's mind, end the despair he heard in the low voice. But what could he say that his friend would believe? He could go the pendantic route, wax on about how normal was a subjective term and that no one was ever normal. But it wasn't a very compelling argument. Everyone had a picture in his head when the word normal was spoken and to be quite honest, Jim would never match that picture. He had five heightened senses and to date, Blair had never met anyone else who fit that description.

But that didn't mean he wasn't human. In fact, Blair believed Jim was more human than most. He willingly put his life on the line every day for the good of his fellow beings. When everyone else locked their doors and hid from some evil lurking in Cascade, he went out in search of the beast so that the children could play out in the sun. Normal people chose to take care of themselves; Jim chose to take care of others. No, he wasn't normal at all. "Do you really want to be like everyone else, Jim? Forget the senses and look at yourself. Not physically because in that respect, you're the picture-perfect All-American male--way more normal than I. Look in your heart. See your motivations. Where's the greed, man? Where's the lust for power? The ability to step over or on anyone who gets in your way as you climb the ladder to success? That's your average human being, man. That's the norm."

"I don't think you're grasping my point, Chief."

"The problem is, you're not grasping mine. You're human, Jim. Your heart beats. Your blood is red. Hell, I've watched it pour out of you enough times to know what I'm talking about. You have doubts and nightmares. You worry about your friends and family. And, Jim, I hate to tell you this but you're not perfect. Your temper is short, an ice cube lasts in hell longer than your patience, and you're stubborn. Please stop me when I get to something that doesn't fit your image of human, my friend."

"What about this self-repairing thing?"

Blair wished he'd kept his mouth shut about that. "What about it, Jim? Ever heard of cancers going into remission? Athletes playing with broken bones? AIDS babies suddenly showing no sign of the disease? Coma patients suddenly waking up? You going to tell Stacey Neumann that she's not human?" he asked defiantly, naming the young woman who had awakened after ten years in a coma. Blair had found her frightened on the streets and brought her home to Jim, which had been fortunate since someone had been trying to kill her.

Jim struggled to believe what Blair was saying. He desperately wanted to believe he was the same Jim Ellison he'd been before the incident in Peru which had brought his hypersenses to the forefront. Of course, when he looked back, he didn't exactly like that person. He was rigid, cold, calculating. Maybe there was something good in not being normal after all.

"Jim, you told me at the research facility that I was always with you, that I was a light in the darkness. I didn't know what to make of that comment at the time, but I think I understand now. I'm like that candle in the window, aren't I, which guides you home even in the worst storms. I know, because you have become that candle in the dark for me too. Until you, I didn't even have a home to be guided to."

"Chief..."

Blair shook his head. "No, you spend too much time analyzing me. This time it's your turn. Let me light your path one more time, Jim. You said you believed me before when I said you were normal. Trust me again when I say you are not some kind of freak, not something that belongs in a sideshow or in a comic book. You're just a good man, not perfect by a long shot, but very, very human. Sure, you can do things others can't. Big deal. Everyone of us can say that. What I'm taking a long time to say is, you are who you are, Jim Ellison, and I for one am extremely glad of that. Don't get caught up in descriptions and hypotheses. Anthropologists and psychologists have been studying man for millennia and so far nothing about the creature can be written in stone."

Jim closed his eyes and concentrated on his friend's voice. Some of the stuff he spouted could be found in a greeting card, but when Blair said it, it seemed so profound. Maybe it was because he knew Blair wasn't lying... and that he meant every word of it. So what if he wasn't the average American male? Did he really want to be? He didn't have the wife, 2.5 kids, or the 9-to-5 job. But he did have a home, a Guide/partner/best friend, and a career that he was not only good at, but he actually enjoyed-- at times. And as far as the senses were concerned, they were once again safely under his and Blair's control. Life could be worse. It had been worse.

"Okay, Chief, I believe you. No more brooding about who or what I am. As Popeye says, 'I yam what I yam,'" he added with a smile.

Blair sighed and sagged on the sofa. "Man, I was beginning to worry that we'd have to go camping to solve this one."

"I thought you liked camping," Jim replied with a puzzled look.

"That's before I found out it's expected of us."

Jim got up to get some fresh coffee. "I think I was worried about the wrong one of us being abnormal."

Blair smiled up at his partner who was offering to refill his mug. "Gee, Jim, I could have told you that."

THE END

Comments? D.L. Witherspoon