Author's Notes:

This originally appeared as a bonus story in the Skeeter Press zine "Silver Cloud, Dark Lining," by Kandace Klumper.

Tons of angst here, but remember: I don't do J or B death!

Um, maybe I should warn you that the format of this story is slightly peculiar: multiple first person. It adds a certain "you are here" dynamic to the story, in my opinion.

And oh, while Susan and K betaed the zine version of this story, I thought I'd do this version solo. Feel free to point out my errors.

Hope you enjoy!

SEAL

By

D.L. Witherspoon

(August 2000; Posted 8/15/01)


Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm: for love is strong as death.

Song of Solomon 8:6


-24:00...

It's a hell of a fight, although the outcome's obvious from the start. We're outnumbered six to two. Sandburg's an inventive scrapper and an intelligent survivor, while I've been known to do some damage as well, but the greater forces and their no-holds barred ruthlessness prove overwhelming. In other words, it takes ten minutes to kick our asses instead of the five they'd probably counted on.

Blair emits a grunt of pain as he's forced to his knees in the center of the loft and my head whips around to make sure he's okay. Blood trickles down from the corner of his mouth and an eye is swelling, but he seems generally healthy. So am I, which makes me wonder about the point of this attack. As a gun digs into my neck and I'm forced to kneel beside Blair, I think I know the answer when I hear the approach of a seventh enemy. I should have guessed these goons would have a handler nearby.

"Ah, Cascade's own dynamic duo," a voice says mockingly. "Some say your pictures should grace the dictionary right beside the word 'partner'. You two are so indivisible that they couldn't present the Detective of the Year award to just one of you, so for the first time the city had Detectives of the Year. And why shouldn't you have won? Thanks to you, Cascade's jails are bursting at the seams, court dockets are filled to the brim, and the Ten Most Wanted List in the post office is changed on what seems to be a daily basis. But the beauty of the whole thing is that you work just as well on a personal level as you do on the job. You live together, you vacation together. You have declared yourselves 'brothers' to all who bother to ask.

"Well, guess what, gentlemen? I had a real brother. He was proud, arrogant, and sometimes a real pain in the ass, but he loved me- may have been the only person who did. But that's all gone now, thanks to you. You put him in prison, and he died in there. I would have given my life for his, but that wasn't an option. No, he choked on his own blood while I was trying to find a lawyer who had some real guts."

"Matthew Benning," I say, earning a clubbing from the gun when I try to look up. I hope Sandburg takes a cue from that. No use in both of us getting hurt to learn the same lesson.

"You remember Matthew, Detective Ellison? I would have thought with all the cases you've had, they would all run together in your head."

"Matthew Benning torched five people because a woman wouldn't go out with him. Yeah, I remember him. Just like I remember you, Mark. You graduated from CalTech summa cum laude, landed a job at one of the top pharmaceutical companies, but lost it when the bosses found out you'd been funneling certain inventory to your brother. In fact, I think one of those items is what he doused his victims with before he lit the match. Made for a hell of a fire." Thanks to my super-senses, I could vividly recall all torch investigations--especially when murder was involved. It had been a difficult crime scene, reminding me way too much of a certain helicopter crash.

"But despite the superb devastation, you were still able to identify the bodies and even find evidence to convict Matthew. I'm sure the two of you were proud of yourselves."

"We were," Blair speaks up. I knew my partner wouldn't stay quiet for long. "Still are, in fact."

"Bold words. Do you feel secure because your brother is beside you? I felt that way. When I was with Matthew, the pettiness of the world seemed to fall away. Is that how it is for you, Detective Sandburg? Do you feel invincible when Jim is with you? Well, I'm here to tell you that you are not. One nod from me and a bullet will smash into your head and your brains will spatter all over poor Jim. Think he'll ever be able to forget the sensation of your warm gray matter impacting his skin, the taste of your blood dripping from his lips as the essential part of you slides down his cheek, the stench of your death in his nostrils, the wet sound of your body slumping to the floor, the sight of the gaping hole marring your delicate face?"

"Stop it!" Blair whispers harshly.

"Don't let him play you, Chief."

"Yeah, Chief, I'm just playing you. It's not like Jim here would experience the sensations more than anyone else, right? It's not like Jim has heightened senses or anything." Sandburg and I remain silent, but I hear his heartbeat kick to a higher mph. "Research is so easy these days with the assistance of the internet. Type in a name or two, wait a few seconds, then whole lives unfold before your eager eyes."

"What do you want?" I ask, my voice deadly cold. There has to be a reason why we're still alive.

"I want my brother back. But since that's impossible, there are a few other things I'll take as poor substitutes. I want to see if your love for each other is as strong as the love my brother and I shared. I said I would have given my life for his. Each of you will have that chance." Benning squats down to our level. He's an ugly bastard. It's not his features that are so repelling, but his eyes--dark and narrow like a pit viper's. "I'm going to inject you with a poison that will kill you in twenty-four hours. I expect you to use that time to try to find the antidote. Here's a clue: find my base of operations and you will be rewarded with one dose of the antidote. Now, there's no way it can be duplicated in such a short timeframe and for the dosage to be effective, the entire vial must be injected. What does that mean? It means that the very most you can hope for is that only one of you dies, and the choice will be yours."

"You son of a bitch!"

"Oh, did you know my mother, Jim? I'm not surprised; she got around a lot." Benning pulls out two hypodermic needles, and waves them in our faces. "I'm going to do Blair first, because I want you, Jim, to fully appreciate what I'm doing. Just how strong are your senses, hmm? Can you smell the poison? Can you hear Blair's heart pounding furiously as I approach him? Does it make a noise when I prick him? Is there a 'pop' when the needle breaks the skin? Is there a hiss when I depress the plunger--like this?"

I don't want to listen, but I have no choice. I hear the hiss of the plunger and my eyes close in silent prayer as Benning empties the contents into Blair's upper arm. They open just as quickly as I sense Blair stiffening. With a tiny sigh, he slumps forward and despite the futility of my reaction because my arms are cuffed behind my back, I lunge to catch him. My personal goon seems to think that is some kind of offensive play and clubs me with the gun a second time. By the time my eyesight clears, Blair's crumpled on the floor and Benning is brandishing the second needle in my direction.

"Oh, did I forget to tell you that the introduction of such a powerful drug stuns the system at the beginning? You'll be out for maybe twenty minutes, then the poison integrates into its new home and you'll awaken. Two hours later, you'll have a slight headache, nothing really noticeable. Four hours later, the headache will be stronger, but tolerable. However, by that time you should be feeling a tingling in your hands and feet. Annoying, but it won't interfere with your search for my lab. At the halfway mark, you're going to have to be on strong drugs to keep standing. The headache will be a bitch by then and your arms and legs will feel like they're on fire. You'll be wondering if it's worth the pain trying to find the antidote. You'll seriously consider taking out your gun and putting yourself out of your misery, but you won't because as long as there is a chance to save your partner, you'll keep going.

"In another six hours, the pain meds will be useless. Your limbs will spasm and cramp continuously. You'll probably be hospitalized and during moments of lesser pain, you'll wonder how your comrades are coming along with the search. Not much longer after that, you won't care how the search is going. You'll just want to die. Just about then, your friends will come with the antidote. You'll be in agony. They'll offer it to you and you'll nobly decline. They'll offer it to Blair and he'll go all noble, too. But in those last two hours, you'll beg for the serum. Neither you nor Blair will remember having a 'brother'. All you will have is the pain, and you'll want it to stop. You'll beg the doctors to choose you. You won't give a fuck about Blair and his suffering, which will be okay because he won't give a fuck about you either. At the last minute, someone in charge will make the decision and one of you will wake up...and live the rest of your life knowing that you are alive at the cost of your best friend."

"Fuck you and fuck your brother!" I spit out. Benning's baboon jerks on my hair, pulling my neck back in an awkward angle. It's bad enough that I'm having trouble breathing, but then Benning reaches out and runs his hand along my Adam's apple. The intimacy of the action makes my stomach turn.

"I'm truly hoping they choose to save you, Jim. After all, you're the special one, the Sentinel. That's why I'm giving you more of the poison than Blair, because you'll appreciate its properties more than he. And because I want you begging for relief at the end. I want you crying for the antidote, to be the one who's saved." He moves forward and I feel his breath, hot and wet against my ear. "But you know what I want more than that, Jim?" He jams the needle into my arm and it takes every ounce of my control not to react. "I want to hear you screaming my name. If you die, I want that to be the last word on your lips. And if you live, I want those lips saying it during your nightmares."

"You are a sick bastard," I manage to say. Only the guard is keeping me from jerking away. Benning's too close and my skin is crawling.

"Yes, I know." Benning bites down on my ear and presses the plunger at the same time.

I vaguely recall my forehead bumping against the hardwood floor.

-23:40...

"He's coming to, Captain."

"Ellison? Jim, can you hear me?" The dark eyelashes flutter a couple of seconds before Jim recognizes me. There's another bout of confusion as he takes in the EMT beside me, but it doesn't last long.

"Blair? Where's Blair?"

I touch his arm because Sandburg's always talking about the need to ground Jim or something. It seems to work and the growing panic dies a quick death. "He's fine. The other med tech is with him. Can you tell me what happened?"

"Mark Benning. The son of a-- OUCH!" he interjects when the technician probes a tender spot over his ear. "The son of a bitch had six mercs come in here and roust us."

"From the mess I can see you and Sandburg held your own for a while." I'm not surprised; he and the kid are a dangerous combination. "Why did Benning just want you beat up? Why didn't he just have you killed?"

"Because he wanted to do it himself." Jim glares at the paramedic and the man wisely backs off. "He poisoned us, Simon. Injected some kind of designer drug that will kill us in twenty-four hours unless we find his lab and secure the antidote."

"Damn." I knew this wasn't a simple assault case from the moment I let myself into the loft and saw them knocked out on the floor. The funny thing was that I wasn't supposed to be here. We were supposed to meet at Billy Joe's for breakfast, Sandburg having lost a bet to me and Jim. But I was running late and had tried to call them to let them know. When I didn't get an answer at the loft, or on either of their cell phones, I got suspicious. My favorite investigative pair attracted trouble like street whores attracted losers.

"Tell them the rest of it, Jim."

I look over to where Blair has apparently regained consciousness. The medic is holding him down with a palm planted firmly against his chest. They must have worked on Sandburg before. I swing my attention back to Jim, giving him a stern look. What's my detective keeping from me?

"There's only enough antidote for one of us. But that's something to worry about later. Right now, we need the unit working on finding Benning," Jim says in a rush. He sits up and only my quick reflexes stop him from toppling over. I should've taken a clue from the other medic.

"I'll put Major Crime to work," I say forcefully. "You're heading to the hospital."

"I don't-"

"We've already called a second unit to transport you, Detective. You have at least two severe blows to the head. And that cut to your ear needs stitches." the EMT reports.

Jim seems to belatedly notice his shoulder's damp with drying blood. He groans as he looks at the floor. Yeah, it's stained, but at least it isn't full of bullet holes. Trust me. The loft has come out on the losing end of many of my detectives' battles.

"Jim?" Blair's being situated on a gurney. I had assured the medics earlier that it would be wiser to take Sandburg first if Ellison wasn't in critical condition. Just a little trick I'd learned to make my life easier.

"Yeah, Chief?"

"Stop worrying about the floor."

"Maybe we should just strip it down to the concrete beneath."

"That means it would hurt even worse when the bad guys wipe our butts across it," Blair replies practically.

"Plush carpeting?"

Blair shakes his head. "Even if we could afford enough carpet cleaner to keep it to your high standards, think of the smells it would hold. And the dander from it would mess with your allergies, man." The gurney is lifted into rolling position.

"How about a couple of loads of dirt? Like a playground?" Jim asks as Blair is wheeled away. One of the paramedics looks at me and I nod. I'll watch Jim until either one of them or their counterparts arrive.

"It's a good thing you're going to have your head examined, man. See you at General," Blair calls from the hallway.

I snort and shake my head. "You're scaring the medics, Jim. You've been poisoned, only have twenty-four hours to live, and you're bitching about your floors? How about some nice linoleum?"

Jim shudders. Then he spears me with one of his ice-blue gazes. You know, I read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, being the obedient little closet Oprah Book Club member that I am. I just couldn't get into it. I would never want eyes like Jim's. They reveal too much.

"Sandburg gets the antidote."

I frown. Why were we talking about this now? "We don't--"

"Yes, we do. Because he's gonna try to convince you that I should get it. He's going to argue, bitch, plead, and whine for the entire twenty-four hours if necessary, to get you to believe that I deserve to live at the expense of his life. He's gonna be good, too, Simon. You're going to end up questioning my judgment and yours as well. That's why we're getting into this now. I want you to hear this from me when you know I'm in full control of my faculties. I don't care what the doctors will say. I don't care what he says. Blair gets the antidote."

"You know he's going to argue that you're something special, and I have to agree, Jim. You're some kind of living artifact."

Jim laughs bitterly. "I'm a freak, a throwback. But that doesn't matter. It all comes down to the fact that I've had a life, Simon. I've done just about everything, and he's...he's done nothing but give up his life for me. I want to repay that favor. I've left letters with my lawyer. They'll go to the press and to the university, explaining that I was a Sentinel, and the reasons why Blair had to lie. I also got hold of a couple of the tapes Blair made of my tests. My lawyer has those, too, in case proof is needed."

I sigh. "We have hours-"

"He'll probably say something about the survival of my DNA, but I accounted for that by making a sperm donation several years ago. I'm sure once his diss is published, he and others can find some suitable woman to have my child. Can probably make the poor woman feel like it's an honor or something."

"Jim-" I hear the wheels of a gurney coming down the hall.

"We both know I wouldn't last long without him anyway, sir."

"Why are you talking to me about this?" I finally ask. "The doctors will make the decision when the time comes."

"No. This is personal. The choice will be ours."

"Then the two of you will make it."

"We already have, sir. I know Blair will agree that you have the final word."

"That's a responsibility I don't want." The second team comes through the door.

"You already have it."

Shit. "Don't put me in this position, Jim." But he's right. I've been in this position since they had confided in me all those years ago. However, the command decisions I'd made for them in the past had never been this overtly life-and-death.

"He's sacrificed enough, Simon. I need your word."

My word that Sandburg dies. No. I'm not committing to anything. "I'm sorry. All I can promise is that I'll spend the day thinking about what you've said."

Jim nods, and allows the medics to strap him onto the gurney. But as they're wheeling him out, his eyes catch mine and their silent argument is even more convincing.

Damned blue eyes.

-21:50...

"I don't know how I could possibly still be poisoned," I complain as I join Simon in the ER waiting area. "I mean, for the poison to circulate I'd have to have blood, and I doubt if they left me enough to redden my big toe."

"Where's Jim?" Simon asks.

"It's taking a bit longer because of the stitches. He'll be out soon."

"How you feeling?"

"Mild headache. No biggie. You heard Jim explain how the symptoms are going to go to the toxicologist." Dr. Amit Patel is the top poison specialist in the Northwest. He's already tele-conferenced with us and the toxicology lab here at Cascade General. Now he's in a helicopter somewhere between here and his home base in Spokane. Benning has inconvenienced a lot of people.

"Patel said the information could help in determining the makeup of the poison."

I nod, remembering what else Jim told the doctor. "I can't believe the bastard gave Jim a double dose of the crap. You know I've never fired my gun except at the range, but if I ever get Benning in my sight, I don't think I'll hesitate." My voice drops to a whisper. "He knows Jim's a Sentinel. Jim was going to feel the effects more than me, anyway."

"We'll get him, Sandburg."

I wonder if Simon believes that, or if he's just trying to make me feel better. But there's only one way he can do that. "I want to talk to you, man. It's about the antidote. It needs to go to Jim."

"I have every available man searching for Benning's lab."

"He's a Sentinel," I continue, refusing to be distracted. "He needs to survive, his genes need to survive."

"He's a sperm donor."

I blink. I hadn't known that, but I'm not surprised. It wasn't odd for men in dangerous positions to donate before leaving on chancy missions. Of course, if they did it every time they left, Jim's donations could probably father an entire European country. "Cascade needs him. You know that, Simon. The differences he's made can't be duplicated by some free-floating DNA."

"You think he can handle this without you, Sandburg?"

Why does everyone always underestimate Jim? And yes, Jim's included in that number as well. Most of the "guiding" I do is simply a matter of boosting Jim's self-confidence. "I have a safety deposit box at the bank. It has all my notes, observations, theories, predictions... everything needed for someone to know how to take care of Jim. I know it would be difficult for you to become his primary Guide, but I trust you to find someone who can do it. Maybe even Henri or Rafe because it'd be better if it's someone he knows, someone he's comfortable with. Joel would be excellent, but he's going to be retiring soon. Wonder if Megan would be amenable to coming back to the States permanently? Anyway, he'll be stubborn for a while, but he's a Sentinel, Simon. His instincts will eventually override his initial reluctance to work with someone else."

"This is all well and good, Sandburg, but how about we actually find the antidote before we get our panties in a wad over who gets it?"

"Panties? You hiding something beneath that tailored suit of yours, Captain?" I laugh because he expects me to. I know Simon's uncomfortable. On a good day, he avoids talking about Jim's abilities, so I know just how close he is to freaking on this day-- the day either Jim or I will die. Of course, he's not the only one close to freaking.

"That's for me to know, Sandburg, and for you to never find out."

I don't want to die and I sure as hell don't want to leave Jim. But life has taught me that my wants are as inconsequential as spitting in the ocean. I wanted to be an anthropologist. I wanted my Ph.D. The gods laughed and turned me into a cop: bad pay, sucky hours, and constant danger. However, they threw in a closer relationship with Jim as a consolation prize, so in my opinion, I have the better end of the bargain. If they now want to take me away from him...well, at least I've had this time. "Hmm. Boxers, briefs, or Jockey's For Her. Sounds like a challenge, Simon," I say, continuing the conversation as if I hadn't fallen into my own thoughts.

"Well, it isn't. You're not getting into my pants."

"Sounds like you two need a hotel room."

Jim stands in the doorway, battered around the edges but standing tall. I get out of my chair and move to his side, asking, "How y' doing, man?" Tomorrow. I wonder who'll move to his side tomorrow when he needs support. Will they even know he needs it? He can play the stoic so well. Like now. If he's been dosed with twice the poison, he's probably feeling twice as bad as I do. Can anyone else see the strain marks around his eyes, or how his lips have thinned like he's fighting a grimace?

"Not bad, Chief. You?"

"Better than you. I didn't get conked on the head twice, and I know how much you hate stitches." We both know stitches are going to be the least of our problems before the day's over, but there's comfort in the mundane.

"I can feel their pull every time I move. And they itch. The poison's effects are secondary at the moment." Jim glances at Simon. "How's the search going, sir?"

Simon shakes his head. "It's still in the information gathering stage. Chief Warren has granted us the use of whatever resources we need. So as soon as we have a list of likely spots, we'll have the men to cover them."

"The press know yet?"

"We've managed to keep a lid on it. I didn't think either of you would be up to that zoo dogging your steps all day."

"Been there, done that." I don't mean the statement to come out as bitter as it does, and I know Jim picked up on the acrimony when a hand falls on my shoulder, squeezing it reassuringly. We're both forever screwing up and just as faithfully, we forgive each other. That, we had learned the hard way, is the true essence of friendship.

"Ready to get busy, Chief?"

I smile, feeling it turning a bit lopsided due to one of the blows I took less than three hours ago. Following the big men down the corridor, it hits me that three hours means I've lost one-eighth of the time Jim and I have left together. Damn. Jim looks back at me and I figure my heart must have speeded up or something, but I shake my head, and he lets me off the hook. I dig my watch out of my pocket and place it on my arm.

Today, I have no time to waste.

-17:23...

I'm not supposed to be here. This humble, but well-dressed detective had a rare midweek day off. But when my partner called and told me what was going on, I knew I couldn't be anywhere else. I'll be the first to admit there's a "family" mentality in the Major Crime Unit. We are a team in every sense of the word. Even when Sandburg was just an observer, he was part of that family, and now that he carries a badge like the rest of us, everything just seems right. And Jim. He was legendary even before he was paired with Blair. I was warned about his temper, about his tendency to go off on his own, and I heard some pretty wild stories about his days before his first partner, Jack something, tamed him a bit. I also heard that he was some kind of military hero, and that he knew five hundred ways to kill a man. But he was a good cop. Everybody stressed that after telling me the horror stories. My preferred method is the other way around.

Brown sighs and I glance over at him, knowing he's having about as much luck as I am in tracking Benning. Because of what the psychopath told Ellison, we decided the lab had to be in or near Cascade. He only gave them twenty-four hours to find it, and it's obvious that he wants them to get the antidote so they'll have to make the choice. And what a bitch of choice that is. I wouldn't be able to make it, and Brown and I are nowhere as close to each other as Jim and Blair. But then, we don't have the secrets the two of them have, either.

Brown's eyes do a quick dip in Blair's direction and mine follow. He's at his desk, in front of the computer but not touching it. Why is obvious as he alternately kneads and shakes his arms and hands. That started a couple of hours ago. He explained that it feels like everything's going to sleep on him. I hate that sensation and I can only imagine what it would feel like as a chronic condition in all four extremities. Ellison, at his own computer, appears to be a stage or two behind his partner. Except for a twitch every now and again, he seems to be okay.

"Got anything?"

The captain stands over me, sighing when I shake my head. "I'm sorry, sir."

He pats my shoulder. "Nothing to be sorry for. Just keep at it."

I watch him go to the other desks and murmur the same question, asking us individually so that the entire bullpen doesn't get depressed and discouraged. Confidence rings in his step, but the weight of this is dragging his shoulders to a curve. It's weighing heavily on all of us. Regardless of the "family" member this was happening to, we would have all been affected, but this is different. My mom, God rest her soul, would have called Ellison and Sandburg "special children". They're the ones a family puts a certain emphasis on, the ones who are protected, praised, babied a little more than the others. Often they're the youngest, or sometimes they have a medical condition. But on occasion, they're the ones on whom the family places its hopes. Psychologists try to guide families away from this practice because they say it demeans the value of the other children. I can't agree. I'm my family's special child, and other than good-natured ribbing, I've experienced no hostility from my siblings, no sense of "I have to be nothing so you can be something." Maybe that's because we're immigrants. My parents immigrated the family to the U.S. from South Africa because open opposition to apartheid made life dangerous there. It wasn't an easy move. In Africa, my father had owned his own haberdashery; here, he worked twenty-five years altering menswear at the local J.C. Penney. He taught his sons the value of a good suit, and his one wish was that at least one of us would have a job that required the daily wearing of such. Somehow I was chosen to be the one. When I didn't get the scholarship to law school that I'd hoped for, I was devastated. Then my older brother talked me into becoming a cop. We had a grand bonfire made of my uniforms when I got my detective's shield.

I turn when I hear movement behind me. It's Ellison going over to his partner. He sits on the corner of the desk and takes Blair's hands, massaging them without a hint of self-consciousness. It's always like that with them--touching as if it's the most natural thing in the world for two men to do. I hadn't really noticed it until I ran into a rookie who was staring at them while we were doing clean up after another successful Ellison/Sandburg capture. I wanted to ask him just what the hell he was staring at, but I just let it go, because it wasn't worth the aggravation of filing an incident report. Besides, later I came to realize that Jim's always touching someone. A pat on the back, a squeeze of the shoulder, a light punch to the arm. It's his way of communicating his feelings since he rarely shows them on his face.

Blair communicates mainly through words. He talks a lot, but that's acceptable because he usually knows what he's talking about. But then he was supposed to be a professor, not a cop. None of us has ever really been sure what went on two years ago, but we've regretted our actions during it. We just thought it was a colossal joke when the press first grabbed onto the story. We were bowing and telling Jim that we weren't worthy, and a whole bunch of other crap that, when we look back, probably hurt both of them. It was only when we saw Sandburg on the television nearly in tears that we realized how serious the situation was. Boy, did we feel like shmucks. Hopefully, we redeemed ourselves by our enthusiasm when we learned Sandburg was joining the unit for real. Some other people in the department didn't like the fact that a self-professed liar was going to not only be a detective, but a member of the elite Major Crime Unit as well. The Major Crime Unit had a response to that-and no one has said another word about it, at least not where we can hear.

Now, we're going to lose one or both of them. It's even worse than that day at the fountain. At least that was something unexpected. This is like watching a train barreling toward a car stuck on the tracks, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. They're dying in front of our eyes and we're just sitting back and hoping that our computers will eventually spit out the answer we need.

Maybe we were right all along; maybe we aren't worthy.

No. I can't believe that. And I can't believe I won't see the two of them in the bullpen again, trading one-liners, or focusing on a case so tightly that it's almost frightening. We'll find the antidote and somehow both of them will be saved. I know what the two of them can do together. I witnessed a miracle out at that fountain.

Who says there won't be another?

-13:01...

This is a bitch. I don't know what fucking star Ellison and Sandburg were born under, but the universe needs to get past it and leave them the hell alone. I swear to God I hope I'm not the one who collars Benning because I don't know if I have the strength to let him survive through booking and a trial. What that perp needs is a taste of vigilante-style justice in order to make him understand the severity of what he's done, not some calm, orderly courtroom. Someone, namely me, should tie his ass behind a horse and drag him through the streets of Cascade while children spit on him, adults stone him, and dogs lift their legs to spray him with hot piss. Maybe after that, then he could get his damn constitutional trial. I grin as the words of my favorite song pop into my head at the image of me dragging Benning through the streets. That cat Brown is a bad mother- Shut your mouth. What? I'm just talking 'bout Brown, Henri Brown.

"Does that smile mean you're having some luck?" my partner asks softly.

"Nah. It just means I'm crazy."

"Nothing new," Rafe says with his own slight smile.

"I'm sorry about having to call you in, babe. I know you had plans."

"Henri, if you hadn't called, I would have kicked your ass."

"What? And scuff those polished leathers of yours?"

"I can punt barefoot."

"Oooh, I'm scared of you," I say with a fake shiver.

He grins, then movement in the corner takes his attention. Blair has been in a meditation for like an hour or something. His arms and legs had started jerking like crazy and there'd been an argument about taking him to the hospital, but then he whispered something in Ellison's ear. The other man just nodded, grabbed a cushion from the captain's sofa, tossed it in the corner next to his desk, and helped his partner onto it. Nobody said nothing about a hospital again.

Their relationship is just beautiful. True symbiosis. None of that parasitic shit that people were saying when Blair first appeared on the scene. Nobody's using nobody. If the uniforms had to work every day with Jim like I do, they'd be able to tell the difference Blair's made in his life. Within a week of Hairboy's arrival it was okay to approach Jim without a whip and chair. And Blair...well, Blair just blossomed under Jim's care. Even when the heavy shit came down-- kidnappings and shootings and Golden and, oh, just all kinds of shit-- Blair held in there like a pro, always thinking, always sure of a rescue by Jim. Faith, that's what the two of them have, faith that puts a mustard seed to shame. Beautiful.

Shit. Blair's having some kind of seizure for real this time. Before anyone else can move a muscle, Jim is on the cushion wrapping his arms around him, keeping him from hurting himself. I find myself standing around gawking like everyone else, and I know it ain't right. Pain like I'm seeing on Blair's face should be private. While Rafe goes to get the captain, I shoo everyone away and stand guard.

"Jesus, I can't take the pain anymore," Blair is saying behind me.

"Yes, you can, Chief. Just breathe through it."

"I'm not in fucking labor, man."

"Breathe, Sandburg. We're gonna go to the hospital and the doctor is gonna give you a happy shot. You'll feel much better afterwards."

"What about your...happy shot, Jim?"

"Not time for it yet."

"I...hate you."

"The only thing keeping me on my feet, Chief, are the dials. If I lose them, I'm out of the game. That's why I can't get doped up. Not yet. Not when we still have to find the antidote. Breathe."

I step aside as the captain approaches. He kneels beside them.

"How y'doing, son?" he asks Blair gently.

"Jim says it's time for my happy shot."

"Past time probably. Who you trying to impress, Sandburg?" The captain's voice is brusque, but lightly teasing.

"I'm sitting here crying in Jim's arms, so apparently nobody."

"Well, you failed several times over. Can you stand?"

"I can try."

I turn because it sounds like they can use my help. Between the two of us, the captain and I get Blair to his feet. I stand back when Taggert steps in to take my place. I know he and Hairboy are close, and that if the pain gets too bad, Blair will be less embarrassed to hang onto the two captains. I hear a grunt and turn back to Jim, who's trying to get to his feet to join them. Damn. It's so easy to forget he's hurting too. Must be those damn dials, whatever the hell they are.

"How about a hand, babe?" He grabs my arm and pulls himself up. I can feel the tremors in his muscles and I realize the amount of agony he must be in. But none of it shows as he falls in behind the trio heading for the elevator. Suddenly, I'm very angry.

"What the hell are we doing standing around here?" I yell at the rest of the unit. "Let's find this fucking antidote."

Beneath the anger, I'm scared shitless.

-10:53...

Jim's head comes up sharply, and a second later Henri and Brian are coming through the office door, Simon close on their heels.

"We think we have something," Brian says excitedly, and I'm suddenly reminded of his youth. He's barely older than Blair, but I guess he seems older because he's been a cop longer and dresses less like a student. Doesn't really matter. I've watched them both grow so much, first from down the hall in the Bomb Squad, and now up close and personal here in Major Crime. I wonder if Simon knows what a nurturing place his little unit is? If I ever tell him, he'll probably chomp his ever-present cigar in two. Might be worth it if it's one of his Cubans.

"What do you have?" Jim asks and I get a chill. Jim's response time is off, and I find it terribly disconcerting. I'm used to him being ahead of the rest of us. In a tense situation, I look to Jim first because he seems to have this sixth sense about things. If Jim says duck, you hit the ground. If he says run, you haul butt. That's just something you learn in Major Crime and it's kept us all alive more than once. But today I've watched him slow down and in a weird way that's breaking my heart more than knowing they've been poisoned. Maybe it's proof that they are dying.

Like I need more proof than Blair's earlier collapse. As Simon drove to the hospital, I listened to his cries, muffled by Jim's sweater as Blair buried his head against his partner's chest. He didn't let go of Jim until after the first injection finally began to work. Then the doctors continued to pump him full of drugs. He really should be as high as a kite right now. But the pain is so great, it keeps him from soaring properly, and he seems to waver between giddiness and melancholy.

"We've been checking the ownership of warehouses, thinking that Benning would need one of them for a serious lab," Henri's saying. "Couldn't find a thing under Benning's name, but Rafe finally traced Benning's arrival in Cascade to two months ago."

"I went through the truck rental agencies, finding milage records that would correspond to the distance from Santa Rosa, California, Benning's last known residence, to Cascade. I figured if he was moving a lab, he probably did it by ground and not air. The FAA's real picky about what can be shipped," Brian explains.

"I used that date to narrow my search," Henri continues. "I've come up with twelve listings. Unfortunately, they're pretty widespread all along the harbor."

"That's a lot of search warrants. Is there any way we can knock that number down?" Simon asks.

I watch Blair perk up and I know he has an idea. Watching Blair and Jim is my job at the moment. They refused to stay at the hospital. Simon and I had no choice but to bring them back to the station, because neither one of us could bear the thought of them being alone at the loft. When we got here, Jim headed toward his desk but Blair stopped him, saying something about him not having to deal with so much input. He dragged Jim into the office, and they set up residence on the sofa. At first I felt awkward "babysitting" them. I understood why Simon wanted help just a whisper away, but I also knew that if I was dying, there would be things I needed to say to my loved ones in private. So I sat at Simon's desk and tried to act like I really wasn't there. The funny thing is that I don't think I was there to them. It was like they retreated to their own little world with its own language and gestures. Blair talked, but it was so soft that I have no idea how Jim could have possibly heard a word he said. Yet, Jim replied, a little louder than Blair, but even in the best of situations, Jim's always been a man of few words.

"Jim, was there anything odd-smelling about Benning?" Blair asks, a shade too loudly. He's easing into his giddiness stage again. I can tell mainly by the way his wrist is jerking in Jim's hand. From the very moment they sat, Jim's hand has been clamped around Blair's wrist.

"Smell?" Jim sounds confused.

Blair reaches out with his free hand, and I watch in horror as he digs his nails into Jim's arms. I start to say something out of concern, but Simon waves me silent.

"Jim, Benning was close enough to bite your ear. You smelled the man. What did you smell?" Blair demands.

"Aftershave, toothpaste." Jim pauses and Blair's nails dig deeper. "Fish. I smelled fish."

Henri glances at the papers he's holding. "Fresh? Cooked? Canned?"

Blair tightens his hold. "What kind of fish?"

"Sardines?"

Another quick flip through the papers. "Sardiney or cat foody?" Henri asks.

Brian looks at his partner and mouths, "Cat foody?" Henri shrugs and we all wait for Jim's answer.

"Sardiney or cat foody?" Blair repeats, raking his nails down Jim's arm. He draws blood.

"Cat foody." Jim sounds clearer, more focused.

"Yes!" Brown exclaims. "We got it, Captain. There's a site that used to be Kit-N-Kaboodles Cat Food Cannery."

Simon reaches for the phone and passes along the address to some interested party. Then he goes out to the bullpen and shares the news. "Dills is heading over to the judge's to pick up the warrant. He'll meet us onsite," he says when he returns to the office.

"How long should the warrant take?" Brian asks, giving his partner a pat on the back.

"The paperwork's been prepared all day. We've just been waiting on an address." Simon straps on his holster. "Joel, we'll meet you guys at the hospital."

"No," Blair and Jim say together.

"Neither of you is in any condition to be of use," Simon says. Sometimes he lacks tact, but he's telling the truth. I'm not sure if either man can take a step without help.

"Could be-" Jim begins.

"A set up," Blair finishes. "Jim can shave precious minutes off of a surveillance."

Simon shakes his head. "You both need to be at the hospital so the toxicologist can get started on making more of the antidote."

"Flawed logic," Blair says and gets to his feet. Since Jim refuses to let go of him, he's forced to stand, too. They sway dangerously and everyone tenses to catch them when they fall, but they don't. They seem to find balance in each other. "Dr. Patel can't replicate the antidote until he gets it. And he'll get it sooner if Jim and I go to the warehouse. We'll meet you at your car." Without so much as a backward glance, he leads Jim out of the office.

Simon gives an exasperated growl and nods for me to catch up with them. If the situation wasn't so serious, it'd be funny. Simon can't even keep up with them on their worst day.

We're parked a block away when Dills shows up with the warrant. Simon looks pointedly at Jim. The two detectives climb out of the backseat. Blair sorta props Jim up against the car, then does the fingernail attack again. Jim stares at the warehouse, his head cocked to one side. A minute later, he nods.

"All clear, sir."

Simon just shakes his head and radios for the units to converge on the building. He hops into the car with Brian and Henri, and zooms away.

"Sorry you get 'mother' duty," Blair says as we get back in the car. Simon has conveniently taken his keys with him.

"I had my fill of racing into buildings when I was with the Bomb unit. Sitting in a car is all right with me." It truly is. I'll leave the risks to the young and foolish. Besides, what I'm doing is important. What good would it do for everyone to go after the antidote only to have Benning show up and hurt Jim and Blair? That's why I not only have my weapon, but a second set of keys to the car.

I use the rearview mirror to watch them settle into the backseat. Their movements are calculated, each muscle carefully controlled, but pain flits across their faces anyway. I know God has a plan. I have never lost sight of that even when my fear tried to overtake me several years ago. That fear brought Blair into my life. We'd gone through the takeover of the station together, but him helping me through my fear made our relationship personal, and my life has been all the better for it. But I'm having trouble trying to fit this poisoning into the plan. A cop dying is one thing; it's something we accept when we pin on the badge for the first time. But this prolonged--torture. I don't understand it. It makes me uneasy. It tests my faith. I see no lesson in this. I see only sadness.

We watch everyone come out of the building and Simon catches a ride back to us. "Got it," he says, as he fastens his seatbelt. "Rafe and Brown are taking it to the hospital. I figured we'll drive a little slower." Good. He'd noticed the gasps of pain from the backseat every time we hit a pothole.

"What's wrong, Simon?" Jim asks. I'm surprised because I haven't noticed anything particularly tense about my old friend.

"There was a note attached to the cylinder."

"What'd it say?" Blair asks.

"'Tell Jim I'm listening.'"

"Fuck," Blair murmurs, and this time he merely rubs Jim's arm.

Jim doesn't react at all.

-5:39...

I've never given much thought to my death. Yeah, I've taken care of the legal aspect. Always have. It was standard operating procedure in the military, and now that I'm a cop, and have personally witnessed the often messy, if not violent, aftermath that comes from dying intestate, I regularly check in with my lawyer to make sure all the i's are dotted and the t's are crossed on my will. And of course I've planned the service. A simple military affair, well, as simple as the military can be. I don't like all the pomp and circumstance, but it's not about what I like. Since it's my funeral, I'm not going to be in a position to care one way or the other. But I know my family and friends will need the closure, and I think the clean precision of a military service will help them.

So, yeah, I've thought about my death, but not the actual dying part. Given my career choices, having time to contemplate my approaching death was never part of the picture. I would go quickly, violently, and if I was lucky, valiantly. So, I had no "To Do" list, no goodbye speeches planned, no roster of loved ones to call. I did think about calling Dad and Steven, but what good would it do? They didn't have any speeches ready either, and we'd just end up having an awkward conversation full of unspoken regrets and unanswerable questions. For some reason, I wanted my last day on earth to be better than that. So I didn't call, and I didn't leave any letters for them to agonize over after I was gone. There is no such thing as a good hypocrite, dead or alive.

Sandburg asked about regrets earlier in the day as we sat at our desks, trying not to count the hours. Well, actually we were both at my desk, Blair having rolled his chair to my side as he usually does. At times I wonder if the only reason why he bothered having a separate desk at all was to establish a tangible presence of one Detective Blair Sandburg in the bullpen-- like his actual presence wasn't enough. It was more than enough for me, but at least his desk was a convenient repository when I had one of my "I can't stand the clutter, Chief" days, which were actually very rare lately.

Anyway, he asked me about regrets and I told him if I started naming them all, we could both die of old age and I still wouldn't be finished. He said I was too hard on myself. He often tells me things like that. I guess I can't fault him for not understanding how important it is for a man to take responsibility for his actions. It wasn't hammered into his head twenty-four/seven during his childhood like it was at my house. I'm not saying he doesn't understand taking responsibility, it's just not the be-all, end-all it is for me.

I asked him if he had any regrets.

"A few. I regret not finding out who my father is or was. I regret that it's been two years since I've seen Naomi. She violated my trust. I know it and she knows it. Neither one of us wanted to face each other until we felt ready to move past it. I think we were close to that point, at least it seemed that way the last time we talked on the phone."

"I'm sorry."

"For what? That isn't one of your regrets, is it? That you came between me and my mom? Geez, Jim. The world does not revolve around you, man."

"Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you hadn't met me?" I asked. He could have had so much if I hadn't interrupted his life.

"Empty."

"Yeah. Empty of kidnappings and shootings and badges."

He looked at me and despite the waves of pain I could see in the depths of those complex oceans he calls eyes, I saw a shining truth. And that truth was me. It scared me to death. "I have soared the skies with you, Jim, and I've crawled through pure shit with you, sometimes dragging you along, but mostly following your trail to the firm, dry shore. Life's not about being safe; it's about taking risks."

"Well, you certainly got your share of yours because of me," I said bitterly.

"Yes, I did. And those risks saved lives and got dangerous criminals off the street. Those risks allowed me to grow, to become the man I am today. Now if he isn't good enough for you--"

"Good enough? Hell, Chief. You're too good. Always have been. I was just too full of myself to admit it. How long did it take me just to understand the value of a well-timed 'thank you'?"

"As long as it took me to understand that your actions were your 'thank you's. You've always been uncomfortable with words, haven't you?"

"Talking wasn't something the Ellison household practiced too often." No, that sounded like I was blaming everything on my family. The fault was mine, too. "Words can be confusing. How something is said can change whole meanings, and despite my abilities, lies can stream by undetected, hidden beneath layers of words on top of words. Most conversation is too imprecise, too verbose and muddled. That's why I liked the military. There, the briefer the statement, the better. They even figured out a way to keep you from screwing up the letters of the alphabet."

That seemed to interest him. "What's made you so afraid of screwing up?"

"Everybody's afraid of that, Sandburg."

"Not to the degree that you are."

This wasn't something I wanted to talk about. One of my last discussions with my best friend was going to be about my failures. But I guess no one deserved to hear about them more than he. I failed to keep him safe so often. "Losers just don't destroy themselves; they taint everything they touch. No one knows that better than I do, Chief. When I fail, others around me get hurt. You're certainly a prime example of that."

"You failed to stop Lash, and I got kidnapped."

"Yes."

"You failed to stop Alex, and I got an almost permanent view of the bottom of a fountain."

"Yes."

"You failed to stop the sun from rising, and I got sunburned."

"Ye--" I stopped and stared at the grinning idiot. "The world's revolving around me again, right?" I asked sheepishly.

"How's the air out there in the cosmos, man?"

I shrugged. "I'm self-absorbed." Nothing new there.

"Yeah. That's why you run around trying to save the world."

"I like my possessions nice and ordered."

"So why are you fouling the air with this bullshit?"

I couldn't believe he was still wearing those same damn rose-colored glasses that he'd put on in that little storeroom in the basement of Hargrove Hall all those years ago. A Sentinel: an ever-vigilant watchman. What a load of crap. "I'm not perfect, Chief."

Blair coughed so loud the entire bullpen turned around to look at him. Probably thought it was a death knell or something. "Boy, when you speak the truth, you speak it, Jim. No, you're not perfect, and I'm glad for that. Because that means you can't blame me for not being perfect either. But you know what we are, Jim? We're human. That means we strive for perfection, although we know we'll never reach it. We extend our hands to our fellow beings, even though we know some will bite the hand that feeds them. We put our hearts on the line, knowing full well that they can and will be broken. We hope, Jim, when hope seems impossible."

"And we put ourselves through this for what, Sandburg? What could possibly be worth this constant pounding of our heads against a brick wall?" Maybe breaking those glasses would be the best thing I could do for him before I died.

He reached out and touched the back of my hand. "This, Jim. Being friends. Being family. Being loved. That's why we do it. Those who skip over the human part are doomed, doomed to being alone and lost. The prisons and morgues are full of people who tried to do it the easy way. It's like this. If I close my eyes and reach out, someone's gonna be there to help me, to guide me," he said with an impish grin. "When they, the no-longer-humans, reach out, all they get is air. Sure, they can breathe, man, but they can't live, not like we do.

"You think you've failed me, but the man sitting here beside you--pale but functioning--is evidence of your success, proof that you haven't screwed up, Jim. You have made me me, and I've made you you. We wouldn't exist without each other. If at the end of this 'day' Benning has given us, one of us ceases to be, we both do. Tomorrow, you won't be the same Jim, and I won't be the same Blair. We will both end."

I stared at my computer screen, the words blurring. "Will you believe I'm a selfish prick if I say I'm glad of that, that it makes me feel better to think about us both ending?" It was what Blair needed; a complete break away from what he'd become at my side. He would end, and then begin to be what he should have been all along.

"Jim, you still with me?"

I turn my head toward Simon. He's sitting at my bedside in Blair's stead. Poor Simon. I know the position we've put him in isn't an easy one, and Blair's gonna ream him out royally when he realizes he's the one Simon's chosen to get the antidote. I feel for the man; a pissed Sandburg can be a handful. "Elvis hasn't quite left the building, Simon," I say, earning a frown. "What? Dying hasn't helped my sense of humor?"

"I won't sit here and listen to you joke about dying."

A pissed Simon isn't a barrel full of laughs either. "It'll be okay, Captain."

"It won't be okay until Patel tells me he's made more of the antidote."

What was that thing Blair said about humans and hope? Since securing the antidote, Simon has been hopeful that Patel and his lab coven will be able to conjure up more of the magic potion and miraculously save us both. I had my doubts and now with barely five hours left, Simon is starting to have his, too. That's why he's here with me. Blair's completely out of it now, the meds that are strong enough to ease his pain are strong enough to knock him out. I'm still conscious, which gives Simon the courage to continue his hope. He doesn't know, or maybe he does, that I'm only conscious because I'm a stubborn son of a bitch. I haven't taken any meds all day. Of course my touch dial hasn't seen a non-negative number either. The team of doctors studying us--we are such a fascinating case--is amazed by my feat of biofeedback, which is the excuse Sandburg came up with when they asked me how I was able to manage the pain so well. I was going to tell them the truth. It's all going to be out in the open anyway, but since Blair and I avoided talking to each other about who gets the serum, I guess he doesn't know that.

Why did we avoid that issue? Because we both knew it was something we'd never agree on. I know Benning thought we'd be throwing each other to the wolves by now, but whatever relationship he had with his brother wasn't like the one I have with Sandburg. We would never give each other up. I've taken Blair for granted many times, and I was quick to judge when the dissertation hit the fan, so to speak, but I've never truly thought that he would sell me out. That was confusion and bewilderment speaking. That was old betrayals crying out, bitter disillusionment from times past, wanting to add Blair to their ranks. But they damn well shut their mouths when Blair made that announcement on television.

God, I'm gonna miss having him as my friend.

"You'll take care of him, won't you, Simon? He likes to act like he can handle anything, but it's just a good hustle, a bluff like he runs when we play poker. Sometimes you just have to let him babble on and on before you get to the heart of the matter, before he runs out of big words and big theories to dazzle you with. Sometimes you just have to let him talk until he tires and finally lets you inside. You have to be patient, like with a new colt."

"Should I go out and buy some sugar cubes?"

Uh oh. Sarcasm. I guess I'm getting too maudlin for Simon's taste. He doesn't want to face the fact that I'm not going to be here tomorrow to take care of Blair. He doesn't want to accept my death. But he's going to have to. I've used up every last drop of energy, of will, that I have. I lasted longer than I'd expected back when we first brought Blair in after the pain had gotten to him at the station. I'd nearly licked my lips at the syringe as it sent painkillers flowing through Blair's body, but I knew it wouldn't give me that kind of relief. No, the sentinel in me would have wrung it dry of its soothing properties in about an hour, and then I'd be completely at the mercy of the pain. So I ruthlessly twisted my touch dial and kept on going. I did find something, however, that made everything more bearable. I found the feel of Blair's pulse. I held onto his wrist, and let the slight throb anchor me.

Now, I've been without my anchor too long. I sat in a wheelchair beside Blair's bed until he succumbed to the narcotic qualities of his medications. The wheelchair was necessary because although the pain was being handled, the dial didn't stop the actual cramping of my muscles and they became too weary to bear my weight. Just as everything has become too weary. My controls are slipping and when they're gone, I will be too. My heart will probably keep on pumping until the twenty-four hours are up, but I won't be here.

"Thank you, Simon. Only Blair has been a better friend to me than you have. When you retire and tell the CPD to go fuck itself, maybe you can write a book about your experiences with a Sentinel and Guide. Have Dr. Blair Sandburg write your foreword, giving you some needed credibility."

"What? You don't think I can be credible on my own?"

Thank God. He's finally starting to accept. That will make it easier for him. "Oh, I think you'll be quite credible. I can see your picture on the back, looking intelligent and knowledgeable."

"Looking?"

"Well, you're going to be writing about a detective with heightened senses and his anthropology grad student of a partner."

He laughs. "Maybe you have a point. Why isn't Blair writing this epic?"

"Because he has to stick to the nonfiction aspect so he can be an authority to whatever sentinels and guides show up in the future. They will need to believe in him."

"You think there are others?"

I start to shrug, but a growing darkness on the horizon catches my attention. My vision is leaving me. I don't have much time. "Tell Blair I said to forgive you. Tell him that I lived more with him than I ever did without. Tell my dad and brother that I forgive them and hope that when they get over my death they'll be able to forgive me too. Tell--" My hearing fades and I can no longer hear myself, but I continue because this is the most important. "Tell Benning if it's at all possible, I'll be back for him. And we'll...see who's going to be screaming whose name."

The last image I see is Simon moving his lips. He's saying words I can't hear, and I have no strength to speak again. I close my eyes and let the pain take away the remains of Jim Ellison.

Then even the pain is gone, and I am nothing.

-3:17...

I knew there were going to be regrets as soon as Ellison and Sandburg waltzed into my office singing some kind of song about Sandburg being a relative who wanted to observe. And I was right. My "regret" days and "no regret" days were cyclic and mainly depended on the cases they were handling. A good ninety percent of their investigations were solved by solid, dogged policework. They have a nice mix of intelligence and instinct, not to mention uncanny insight into the criminal mind, and they use this "salad" to keep the DA's office pretty busy.

But it's that remaining ten percent that causes the bulk of my frustration. That ten percent has led me to lie to my superiors, my subordinates, my son, and myself. It just all gets to be too much and I have to lie to myself. I tell myself that Jim's just a phenomenal detective, that he doesn't overhear perps talking from blocks away, that he can't see a body being thrown out of a helicopter in the dead of night...that he didn't use a ghost to solve a nearly fifty-year-old murder. And Lord knows, sometimes I lie to myself about Sandburg's role in all this. He's never been "just an observer." No, for an academic, he comes off pretty much an action hero. Loyal, dedicated, plunging headlong into danger like a certain partner of his....

"Anything, Simon?"

I look up, startled that I didn't hear Joel come into the waiting lounge. I guess lack of sleep is catching up with me. It's been a long twenty-one hours...and not long enough. "The doctors are pushing me to make a decision soon. They haven't made any progress on duplicating the antidote and time is running out." I pause, really wishing I had a cigar to bite down on. But even unlit, the presence of tobacco pounded upon Jim's carefully constructed controls. I had to dump it in the trash down in the ER. "I really thought securing the serum ahead of Benning's schedule would make a difference. But there's some component that they just can't get a handle on, and an extra hour or two isn't going to help them."

Joel lowers himself into the chair beside me. "Have you decided yet? In your head and heart, I mean."

I shoot him an angry look. "You could have warned me about their visit to the judge."

"They visited Judge Lessane. I didn't know they had her signing papers that gave you the legal right to make the final decision." Joel gives me one of his patented, warm, understanding looks. What the hell was a man like that doing working the Bomb Squad? He should have been working juvie or public relations. At least now, I can put his talents to good use. "But be honest with yourself, Simon. Would you want anyone else making this choice?"

"Anybody else but me," I whisper.

"Why?"

I surge to my feet, unable to sit any longer. "Jim wants me to give the antidote to Blair and Blair wants me to give it to Jim," I say in a rush.

"Yeah, and?"

"Both made excellent points."

"But?"

"They're both good friends." Joel nods. "I've known Jim longer, and in a lot of ways I'm closer to him. We think alike."

"And what have the two of you been thinking?" my friend asks shrewdly. I think he's been hanging around Sandburg and Ellison too long. Just how many of my men have they corrupted?

"That Sandburg--despite the badge, the arrest record, the stint at the academy--Sandburg's still a civilian. Or at least he should still be a civilian."

"You feel guilty that he's a cop?"

"Yes."

"Why? He made the decision to join, didn't he?"

"But I'm the one who made it possible. Me and Jim. We're the ones who leaned on the brass."

"And if you hadn't, then what? The university made it clear they didn't want Blair. So you were going to reject him too? Turn your back on him?"

"No," I growl. "I don't mean it like that. It's just that--"

"He hasn't made a great detective?"

"Of course he has."

"He's not happy? C'mon, Simon. We work beside the guy every day. You know he's okay with this. We've both had men under us who were unhappy with the job. We know the signs. Blair definitely is not one of them. He made the transition from student to cop very well--if only you and Jim let go as easily."

I smile at him ruefully. It's scary when your friends know you better than yourself. "I'm having the same trouble with Daryl becoming a cop. I just think some people can do better."

"Maybe by watching you and Jim, those two think they are doing better."

I sink back into the chair I'd left. "I don't want to lose either of them."

"I know."

"And no matter what decision I make, I'm going to lose them both. I don't think the one who's left will be able to face the bullpen without the other for very long."

"Lose them as cops, but not as friends. I don't think either one gives up friendship without a fight."

"Yeah, although Jim might have been better off if he'd given up on some of his a little sooner."

"You talking about that mess with that couple? Can't believe the IAD officer was involved in it, too. Made the department look real bad."

"Well, that didn't take much, did it? You got shot by Kincaid's men; Megan, Jim, and I were shot by Zeller--all within the confines of our lovely department. Place sees more action than the alley out back."

He shrugs. "It's Cascade, Simon."

Yeah, it's Cascade. Rain, coffee, and crime. What a combination. Coffee. God, what I wouldn't do for a cup of Jamaican Roast. All I can get around here at this time of the morning is Sanka. "Jim's a good cop. He's got a lot of 'tude, but he can back it up."

"Yep, no one walks the walk like Jim," Joel says agreeably.

"Blair turned into a hell of a detective, too."

"Didn't surprise me."

"Me either. They're both good cops."

"Good people. Good friends."

I nod and wearily wipe my face. I'm an expert at making tough decisions because usually if you look at it openly and honestly, the answer is staring you in the face. Just like this one is. I've known it from the very beginning. Jim knew it too. That's why he focused his argument on how he was repairing Blair's academic reputation. He knew that would "hit me where I live", because in my ideal world Blair is what Blair will always be to me: Jim's civilian partner. And when it comes down to sacrificing a cop or sacrificing a civilian...our motto is to serve and protect.

Jim said to tell Blair to forgive me, but I wonder how long it'll be before I forgive myself.

-1:44...

Jim is one of those persons who wakes immediately. No morning fuzzies, no groans and muttering into pillows, none of that dragging your ass out of bed for my partner. The clock goes off and he's awake, alert, and ready for anything.

That's the way I awaken in the hospital. No medicine-induced fog. No "where am I's". I wake and immediately I know that a) I'm in the hospital, b) I've been given the antidote, and c) I'm going to kill Simon Banks. I don't mean that in a joking manner. I mean I'm really going to kill him. And I don't care if Jim's not around to hide the body for me, because without Jim around, I don't care about anything. How dare he choose my life over Jim's!

"Blair, how do you feel?"

I look up at Dr. Patel, who's standing next to my bed along with the rest of the team of doctors that are working our case. "Did you replicate the antidote?" He shakes his head sadly. "Then I feel like shit and I really don't want to answer any more dumb ass questions." I watch one of them hastily scribble something on a clipboard. Patient woke in a hostile state. They haven't seen hostile. "Where is Captain Banks?"

"He's with Patient Two."

"Jim. His name is not Patient Two. It's James Joseph Ellison, you idiot. And are you telling me he's not--gone yet? What time is it?" I throw back the sheet and blanket on my bed and sit up. No one answers my question, so I snatch someone's arm and look at her watch. Time. I still have time. I pluck frantically at the IV in the back of my hand.

"Don't."

"I've got to get to Jim. Either you remove this or I do."

"Mr. Sandburg--"

"Let him go." I don't know which of the doctors spoke, but I smile in his general direction.

"But he has to use a wheelchair." Another voice.

I nod. My best friend's dying and they're worrying about the hospital's liability. Assholes.

The only thing about the wheelchair is that I have time to think as I'm taken to Jim's room. We've been to the hospital once already, when I had to get pain medication. He didn't get anything because he'd been fiddling around with his pain dial. Also, he was just better at handling pain than I was. Some of that skill had been taught to Ranger Ellison and some of it had been figured out naturally by young Jimmy Ellison. One of the few regrets I have about dying is that I've never been able to learn more about Jim's childhood. Even with the closer relationship he has with his father and brother now, Jim hasn't said much at all about his youth.

But I guess that's fair because I haven't said much about mine either. Sure, I easily tell tales about the places Naomi and I traveled to, the people I met, the adventures I had, but I sorta shut down when it comes to talking about me, what I was feeling, the thoughts that young Blair had in his head at the time. It's human nature, I guess, to focus on the best times in your life, and although my childhood wasn't some great gothic tragedy, the best times of my life have been the now. Unlike most people, I found what I was looking for. I had a dream of finding a sentinel. And I found one who turned out to be my best friend, my guardian, my...my home. Has it been difficult? God, yes. Jim is not an easy person to live with. Forget those stupid rules he came up with; they were mostly his way of marking his territory. Once he realized I was his territory, the rules just faded away. Hell, even the tupperware became just containers. And yes, the Sentinel was a stubborn bastard who growled a lot out of physical pain and psychological fear. It seemed that not only was the world out to get him, but even his own mind. That part of him I understood best. It was a normal/human reaction.

It's Jim Ellison the man who's been the hardest to understand. I thought I understood him. I looked at the badge, the military background, and I said to myself, "Blair, you know this stereotype." But I didn't. Jim's a lot deeper than he lets on. In the beginning, I respected him for the things he'd done, like surviving in Peru and taking down Veronica Sarris. I even respected him for caving in and coming to see me about his senses. Yes, that's it. I respected him for his actions, but not for who he was.

Then I moved in with him. I studied him. I monitored and analyzed all his reactions. I got to know and understand the Sentinel. I got to know and understand the Detective. Hell, I even got a pretty good handle on the Soldier. But as far as knowing Jim, his motivations, his thoughts, his reactions, I was still hopelessly lost. I smile when I realize he'd probably say the same thing about me. But it's not true. He knows me. All those transparent walls I put up to block others without them knowing they were blocked, he easily detected and shattered one by one. Misdirection didn't work on him. Obfuscations were laughed at and tossed aside. Shutting down meant enduring his patience. I couldn't have escaped if I'd wanted to. And I didn't want to.

That's the part of me that Jim never got. He's the one who started the whole ball rolling to get me into the department, but he always thought of it as a second-place prize: it was lovely to look at, and not everyone could get one, but at the same time that it signified success, it also marked a failure to win. Jim didn't understand that it wasn't like that for me. I never saw being a cop as a second-place ribbon. It was more like going home with a prize that you didn't even know was being offered. Say you went to the Emmys and they awarded you an Oscar. Even though you're happy, your tongue might stumble and there might be a stunned, dazed aura around you. It's just a matter of adjusting as you change horses in mid-stream. But never did it mean I didn't want the prize, or that I thought it wasn't THE prize.

The orderly pushes me through the door to Jim's room. All I see is him, wires dangling from him as rows of machines track his vitals. Why? He's dying, for God's sake. There's no need for his last breath, his last heartbeat to be monitored. It's not like they can do anything to stop it from happening.

"The antidote worked fast. I'm glad to see you up and around, Sandburg."

I don't even bother to look at the man who'd been seated by the bed. "Get out."

"Sandburg--Blair, please."

I still keep my eyes averted. "Get out, Captain Banks. I'm sure Jim doesn't appreciate your ghoul act. Death watches are so declasse. Or is that not what you're doing? Tell me, Captain, are you getting off on your handiwork? Does it feel good, one alpha male wiping out another?"

"You know it was nothing like that, Blair. Jim is my friend."

"And you betrayed him. What you gonna do with those thirty pieces of silver, man? Buy yourself a new friend?"

"Sandburg!"

"No." I look at him now, my anger great enough that seeing his sad brown eyes won't make me break down. "I trusted you. He trusted you."

"And I did what he wanted. He wants you to live, to be the anthropologist you wanted("

"I gave that up for him. Who the hell do you think you are, tossing my sacrifice aside like that?" I'm so consumed with rage that I can't see straight. "Do you fucking think I got on TV and lied to everyone and threw away my academic career just so you could stand here and take his life away a mere two years later?"

"He's made arrangements to give it back to you--your academic career. He's left letters with his lawyer."

I don't want to hear this. I don't--I can't. This is like some twisted O'Henry story, everybody making useless sacrifices and in the end, everyone loses. "Get out, Captain. Since I'm officially alive and well, I'm his legal guardian now, and I want you out of here. Please."

He nods tersely and walks to the door. He turns back for a minute, seeming to memorize Jim before he leaves.

"Tell the nurse at the station I need to speak with Jim's doctors," I say to the orderly, who hasn't left, probably for fear that I was going to get violent or something.

Forty-five minutes later, all the machines are gone. They weren't doing anything other than annoying my Sentinel. They weren't breathing for him, or keeping his heart beating. They were just doing exactly what I am: watching him die. Regrets. Jim said he had so many he couldn't name them. One of mine that I forgot to mention was that I'd really wanted to go to Peru with Jim, see him interact with the Chopec. Things got so frantic when the Chopec were here in Cascade that I only have vague memories of the experience. So much death. But I remember Jim straining to remember Quechua, the language having gone the way of his memories of his eighteen months in exile. Exile? No, it was more like a sabbatical, a period of time where Jim found himself...and promptly lost himself again in the civilized world. Hardheaded, stubborn Jim.

"Apparently you didn't beat him often enough, Incacha," I say aloud to Jim's shaman. Supposedly I was his replacement, but that was just a dying man's desperate hope. I couldn't even keep myself from being killed. If Jim hadn't-- Shit. If Jim could save me, could he save himself? "Help him, Incacha. You told him how to bring me back. Do the same for him. I know you're still around. You were with him in Mexico. You led him to the temple. You guided him through the visions. What did you tell him? To find the light? Help him now, Great Shaman. Help him find the light home."

"You are the light. You are his Guide. You are the Shaman."

Okay. I realize that I'm probably still tripping on the drugs I've been taking all day. Still, it's kind of eerie to hear a voice that resounds through the room like a bad P.A. system. "I can't reach him. I can't go where he goes," I tell the voice.

"If you can't reach him, make him reach for you."

Make him reach for me? Hmm. That sorta makes sense. He'd extended himself and brought me back to the land of the living at the fountain, so apparently when the Sentinel wants his Guide he has the ability to drag my ass to him. I can work with that. I take the chair and wedge it under the doorknob. This requires privacy.

"Jim!" I sit on the edge of the bed and take his hand in mine. "I need to be where you are. I need to be with you. Come get me. I'm lost, man. I need you to let me in." No reaction. "C'mon, man," I wheedle. "I'm alone out here...and I'm cold." Still nothing.

What did I say about hardheaded? I climb onto the bed and straddle him. My eyes dart to the door and the carefully wedged chair. Hopefully it will hold. I would hate to be charged with molesting a corpse. I laugh and as I watch a tear drop onto the sheet covering Jim's chest, I realize he's not the only one running out of time. I'm getting pretty close to losing it, and without concentration, there's no way I'm going to talk Jim into reaching for me.

I place the palm of my hand flat against his chest. His heart thrums softly against my flesh. "Hear me, Sentinel. Your Guide demands entrance. Submit. Let me in. Draw me in." I lean over until my lips press against the damp spot my hand has left. "Come and get me, Jim."

I blink and find myself...in the jungle. Lovely green flora. Lovely fresh air. But no Jim. I turn completely around and see no sign of my Sentinel. "Jim! Where are you, man?"

"Over here."

The voice is soft, but I follow it well enough. Jim's sitting beneath a huge tree. Even Simon's long arms couldn't reach around the girth of it. "This is great," I say, spreading my arms out. If Eden looked like this, then Adam was a bigger fool than I thought.

"Yes. It's beautiful and peaceful. Why are you here, Chief?" He looks at me patiently.

"To get you. It's time to come home, Jim."

He smiles, but it doesn't reach his eyes. They're a different blue here, almost rainbow blue. "I am home, Chief. Besides," he pulls up his pants leg and reveals a metal cuff around his ankle which is attached to a chain wrapped around the tree. "I can't go anywhere."

I kneel to examine the thick metal. "If you're home, why the shackle, man? You don't belong. Can't you see?"

He gently lays a hand on my shoulder. "After the storm I'll be free." I follow his gaze and I see terrible clouds amassing on the horizon. They are dark, ominous, and I feel the chill of death emanating from their nebulous depths.

I tug furiously on the chain. "Help me, man," I call when Jim just sits there watching the approaching storm.

"Chief." A hand settles on the back of my head. I stop and look down at what I'm doing. All I've succeeded in accomplishing is scraping Jim's ankle raw. I offer pain...and the storm offers peace. With a sob I drop my head against his knee and weep for my loss.

"Look at me," Jim urges, and his hands cup the sides of my face so that I must obey. "I'll be okay here. The jungle, it's my home as much as Cascade. You know that, right?" I nod. But in Cascade, he had me. Somehow he reads the thought and replies, "After the storm, I'm going to patrol the perimeter. But when the time's right, I'm coming back here. This is where I'll be waiting, Chief."

"For me?"

"For you."

I wipe my face, and impulsively kiss his forehead. A howling wind tells me it's time to go. My Sentinel will be okay here. The jaguar will be able to run to his heart's content, and-- The jaguar. "Morph, Jim," I nearly shout. "Morph into the jaguar." He looks at me oddly as if he has no idea what I'm talking about. Then he smiles and closes his eyes.

I've seen these things happen on MTV, but it's different watching it happen in front of your eyes. It's like you see reality warping. First the bones shift beneath the skin, which is creepy by itself, but compound that with skin becoming fur and it really gets wild. Before I know it, I'm nose to nose with a big, hungry-looking feline. I jump back and it follows, easily stepping out of the cuff. Yes!

A rumble of thunder reminds me that we have a time limit. "Let's get out of here," I tell Fuzzy Wuzzy and we both take off. I'm soon eating Fuzzy's dust and I doubt that I'm going to make it, especially when I feel a drop of rain fall on my head. But something grabs my wrist and I look up to see Jim grinning at me, even as he tugs. Together we approach a cliff and when he goes over, I just squeeze his hand and go right over with him.

The landscape turns white and it takes me a few seconds to realize that we haven't jumped into a blizzard. What I'm seeing is the sheet covering Jim's chest. My heart pounding, I look up quickly--and Jim stares back at me, his eyes crinkling in amusement.

"Comfy, Sandburg?"

I open my mouth to say something smart about he could be a little softer, maybe a little more curvaceous and therefore padded, but instead all I can manage is, "Did it really happen, man?"

"Move."

I scramble to the side of the bed and he pulls back his covers, and tugs up the leg of his pajamas. Around his ankle is a band of red, scraped skin. "Welcome to the water, man," I murmur, reaching out to feel the heat of the irritated flesh. It's very real.

"Guess it's a good thing I already believe in the buddy system."

I nod. "Yep. It's a good idea to take a buddy along when you go swimming, Jim. Think you can remember that next time?"

"Hopefully, there won't be a next time."

I look at him, wondering how he can say those words with a straight face. Of course there will be a next time. We're Sentinel and Guide, Defenders of the Realm, Tribal Guardians, Cascade detectives. Yeah, there'll be a next time. But we'll be ready. "Reach for the light, Jim," I remind him.

He holds out his hand. "I'm reaching, Chief."

There's power in the hand that I place mine in. And there's power in my own.

We'll definitely be ready.

+0:12...

I stare at my watch and realize my patient is dead. Working with poisons, that's often the case, I'm afraid. It was easy back in the days of arsenic, digitalis, cyanide, the usuals. But now, we're in the age of designer poisons, and it just gets harder and harder to analyze the concoctions and figure out how to neutralize them.

"Dr. Patel?"

I turn to the nurse. "Are you ready for me to call TOD on Detective Ellison?" Once I put down the time of death, it's out of my hands and into the coroner's.

"We haven't been able to get into the room. Detective Sandburg has barricaded the door. Shall I call Security?"

I shake my head. The man is distraught enough over the loss of his friend. Who knows what will happen if Security confronts him? "Their colleagues are in the lounge. I'll ask them to see if they can talk him into coming out."

I understand Detective Sand--no, he told me to call him Blair. I understand Blair's anguish. To know you lived because a friend died. That's a very heavy load. And there's still his reaction to the antidote. Maybe I'm not exactly off the case yet.

I walk into the waiting area and several cops look at me expectantly. They think I'm here to confirm their friend's death. In a way, I am. I walk to where the big captain is standing. At the moment, he looks so fragile that even all 5 feet, two inches of me could probably knock him over. "Captain, there's a problem. Blair has jammed the door to Jim's room. We can't get in to...." I don't have to finish.

"Joel," he says to one of the older officers. "You go. Blair doesn't want to hear anything I have to say."

"Yes, I do, Simon."

We all turn to find Blair standing in the doorway.

"It's over?" the captain asks softly.

"On the contrary, I think it's just beginning," Blair says, grinning dangerously. I finger the syringe of sedative that I've prepared just in case.

"Is that supposed to be my cue?" The entire room freezes as Jim appears behind Blair, smiling as he places his hand on his partner's shoulder. "Hey, everybody."

"Jim?"

The detective walks to his captain. "It's me, Simon."

"I thought--"

"You didn't kill me, Simon, and don't worry: I'm going to have a talk with Sandburg about that. My killer's still out there. But not for long."

Simon and Jim embrace and that seems to animate everyone else. I watch wordlessly as they all touch Jim, assuring themselves that he's alive and well. Then, at Blair's urging, they all leave to walk Jim back to his room. Both men will be under protective custody until the man, Benning, is caught.

I think everyone has left, but there's a touch to my shoulder. "You okay, Doc?"

It's the older detective. "He should be--" I pause and shake my head. "I don't understand," I finally admit.

"That seems to be one thing miracles have in common," he replies wisely. "Want to know what else they have in common?"

I nod. At least someone has answers.

"Love, Doc. All miracles are based on lots and lots of love." He grins and gently shoves me toward the door. "Go get some rest. You look like you can use it."

I pause in the doorway. "This will make more sense later, right?"

"I'm afraid not."

I wander down the hall, heading for the doctor's lounge and a quick nap. The policeman says it won't help me understand, but maybe it'll make me strong enough to just accept. When I'd left Spokane, a couple of the doctors warned me about Cascade. Watch out for criminals and rain, but the coffee's good, they said.

Wonder why they didn't tell me about the miracles?

THE END