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Sentinel Too Part One
Sentinel Too Part One
By CarolROI

Beta read by BethB
Written for Petfly by: Gail Morgan Hickman
Rated PG-13
internal thought in * *

~~~~~ Act I ~~~~~

Milk and bread. That's all I'm here for. I swear, if Sandburg wasn't in the truck with me, this never would be happening. Setting down my two items, I pull my weapon and identify myself. "Cascade PD. Put the gun down."

The wild-eyed junkie squeezes his arm tighter around the neck of the hysterical clerk. "Back off, man, or she's dead!"

I try to keep my voice calm, soothing, despite the adrenaline urging me to do anything but stand there helplessly. "Don't do this, man. Just let the lady go."

He drags her toward the door, the muzzle of his gun pressed to her temple. "I'll shoot her, man! I'll shoot her!"

Where in the hell is Sandburg with that backup?

~~~~~~~~

I knew I shouldn't have waited in the truck. "I'll be just a minute," he says. "Only need to get two things," he says.

Crouching behind the fender of the truck, I press my cell phone against my ear. "Come on, come on, answer, damn it."

<9-1-1, what's your emergency?>

"This is Blair Sandburg. I'm at the Quick Mart on the corner of Prospect and Marina. Armed robbery in progress."

<Does the suspect have a hostage?>

I peer over the hood of the truck and through the glass of the shop. The gunman is directly in front of the door, his weapon to the head of an oriental woman. "Yes, he has a hostage. Detective Ellison is in there trying to talk him down. He needs all available units now!"

<Hold the line, please.>

"What? What? You kidding me?" Geez, she really did it. I'm on hold. Muzak plays in my ear. Great, just great.

~~~~~~~~

"Let her go and put the gun down," I command in the voice that used to make army privates shake in their boots. It doesn't even faze the punk.

I'm debating shooting the gun out of his hand if he moves it away from the clerk's head when I hear a noise from the back of the store. Wonderful. Don't tell me there's two of them.

I back down the aisle toward the storage room. The closer I get, the more the noise sounds like an animal's growl. Keeping one ear on the junkie and his hostage, I kick open the door to the back room. A snarling, spotted jaguar is sitting on top of a pile of crates. It bares its fangs at me, then disappears.

What in the hell? A squeal from the cashier returns my attention to the current situation. I shake off the strange hallucination of the cat and head back toward the front of the store.

The perp's yelling at the sobbing cashier. "Shut up! Just shut up!" Seeing me coming, he points his weapon at her head again. "I'll kill her, man! I'll blow her brains out, man! I swear to God I will! Now back off!"

I take a small step back, and the robber shoves the hostage to one side as he fires his weapon in my direction. I squeeze off a shot a split second later. The thief goes flying through the plate glass window.

Suddenly dizzy, I sink to my knees.

~~~~~~~~

When the robber goes crashing onto the sidewalk, I peer out from my position behind the truck. He's not moving…but Jim isn't dashing out to slap the cuffs on him either. I bolt across the street and into the store.

The clerk is huddled next to the door. I bend over her, asking, "You okay?" She gives me a shaky nod, and I figure it's okay to look for Jim.

"Jim?" No answer. I start going up and down the aisles, trying not to panic, but I know I heard two shots. "Jim?" I call again. Finally, I find him sitting on the floor in between some shelves, his hand held to his left shoulder. Blood is seeping through his fingers. "Oh, no. Jim, you okay?"

He looks at me with surprise, as if his mind was a million miles away from here when I called his name. "Yeah, man."

Whipping out my phone again, I say, "Hang on. I'll call an ambulance." After placing the call, I grab a dishtowel from a display and hold it against his wound. Jim doesn't make a sound, which really worries me. No banter, no "Where's the perp?" or "It's just a flesh wound, Sandburg." It's almost like he's in shock, but he's showing no other symptoms. I'm very happy to turn him over to the paramedics for a trip to the hospital.

Getting into the blue-and-white pickup, I notice the blood on my hands, Jim's blood. A chill goes through me, and I shudder violently. Too close. Much too close.

I wipe my fingers off as best I can with some napkins I find under the seat. Starting the engine, I hurry to catch up with the ambulance.

~~~~~~~~

The first person I call once I get to the hospital is Simon. He doesn't even ask any questions; at my somewhat panicked statement that Jim's been shot, he simply asks "What hospital?", then hangs up once I give the answer.

When Captain Banks arrives twenty minutes later, I still don't know anything. Jim's being treated in the ER, but no one's come out to tell me what's going on. Simon heads to the nurses' station to find out.

"Hey, Sandy, how are you holding up, mate?" Megan Connor drops into the seat next to me.

I give her a surprised look. "Megan, what are you doing here?"

"Was in the captain's office when you called. Figured I'd come along and see how you were holding up. So how are you holding up?"

Sighing, I shrug. "I'd feel better if I knew what was going on."

At that moment, Simon returns. "They've moved Jim upstairs. Come on."

The three of us pile onto the elevator for the ride to Jim's floor. When we enter his room, Jim's lying flat on his back in bed. He doesn't even acknowledge us until Simon asks, "How are you feeling, Jim?"

He blinks slowly and his gaze travels over each of us before he answers, "Been better, sir. Nothing like taking a bullet to put a crimp in my day." Relief courses through me. That, at least, sounds like the Jim I know.

The captain digests Jim's comment, then says, "The good news is, it didn't hit bone. The doctor says you should be okay to work in a week."

Jim looks at Megan. "Connor, would you do me a favor and handle my caseload while I'm out?"

She's startled, but recovers quickly. "Uh, of course. Any objections, sir?"

"Works for me," Simon answers.

"If you don't mind, I just need a minute with Simon and Blair," Jim says to Megan.

She frowns, but seems to accept that despite Jim trusting her with his cases, he still doesn't completely trust her. "If I have any questions, I'll give you a call." She leaves the room, and we're alone.

I move closer to the bed, looking down intently at Jim. For some reason, whatever he's about to say scares me. Or maybe it's just the fact that I'm not used to seeing him this small and vulnerable. "Jim, what's going on?"

"There was something else in that store tonight. It was a jaguar," he states.

"What?" Simon's understandably confused.

Me, this I can handle--I think. "You mean like a vision? Like your animal spirit?"

Jim shakes his head. "No, no. That was a black jaguar. This…this was spotted."

I consider that for a second. "Ah, it might have been from an adrenaline rush from getting shot. Was it before or after it happened?"

"Sandburg," Simon growls.

"This is important, Simon. Jim's visions usually have a deeper meaning." Not that we ever seem to figure out the meaning in time to do us any good. "Go on, man."

"Right now, he's a man who needs his rest. You can finish this tomorrow." Simon grabs my arm. "Come on."

Giving Jim a helpless shrug, I say, "Take care," then Captain Banks drags me out of the room.

~~~~~~~~

"Damn Carl, damn him!" I pound my fist against the steering wheel as I swear. This is the last job I'm ever doing with him. I hit the wheel again, and pain jolts up my arm, short-circuiting my anger.

"Calm down, Alex," I say aloud. "Just remember, only a few more weeks and he'll be out of your life forever."

I lean over to turn on the radio. When I straighten up, the high beams of an oncoming car shine into my eyes. A stabbing pain shoots through my head. Throwing up my arm, I try to shield my eyes, but it's no use. I can't see anything. By the time I hit the brakes, it's too late. I can only hold on while the car spins out of control. The passenger side impacts with something. The airbag goes off, keeping me from smashing into the steering wheel. Still, my world goes black.

When I open my eyes again, everything is out of whack. Flashing lights are strobing daggers into my head, screaming sirens add to the pain. Hot, I'm too hot…I can't breath…struggling with the seatbelt, I manage to get it unfastened and the car door open. I stagger out onto the roadway, trying to cover my eyes and my ears at the same time and failing miserably. Oh, god, my head is going to explode!

A voice cuts through the cacophony. "Miss, you okay?"

A hand settles on my arm, and my senses flip-flop. I can see and hear again, but my skin is on fire. "Oh, god! It burns, it burns!" I scream, then I'm tearing at my clothes, trying to get them off.

"Whoa! Whoa! Lady! You can't take your clothes off on the street!" Hands grab at me, but I twist and turn, shedding them and my clothes at the same time.

I'm down to my underwear when something pricks my arm, and blessed darkness enfolds me.

~~~~~~~~

Sighing, I plop my backpack under Jim's desk and dig out my textbook and notes. I can't believe I'm reduced to studying at the police station. But Hargrove Hall has suddenly become home to every cockroach in Cascade, and Jim has decided that he's going to use his sick leave to draw up new house rules. Instead of giving me a list, however, he barks them out what seems like every five seconds.

Running a hand through my hair, I open the desk drawer looking for a pen. I have no clue what's going on with Jim. Ever since he was shot, he's been just, well, weird. I keep asking if he's having trouble with the pain, or if the meds the hospital gave him are making his senses act up. Each time, I get the same answer. "I'm fine. You gonna do laundry sometime this century? I can smell your socks from the hall."

When I broach the subject of the spotted jaguar he'd seen in the Quick Mart, he shuts me down just as rapidly. It's nothing, just one of those side effects of being a sentinel. Besides, he hasn't seen it again. As far as he's concerned, it never happened.

Flipping open my notebook, I glance around the nearly deserted bullpen. It's late evening, and the only occupants appear to be Megan Connor, and a very attractive blonde sitting next to the inspector's desk.

"Are we through, Officer?" the blonde asks Megan.

"Nearly, Ms. Barnes. Pending your blood test, of course. And it's Inspector, if you don't mind."

The woman scowls in frustration, and shifts uncomfortably in her chair. "There are no drugs or alcohol in me, Inspector, save for whatever the ambulance crew jabbed me with."

Connor looks up from the form she's filling out. "But cars don't demolish themselves on their own whim, do they?"

Henri Brown interrupts my eavesdropping. "You're here kind of late." He's standing next to me, a folder in his hand.

I shrug. "Yeah. They're fumigating my building at the university. And I can't work there and I can't work at home because Jim's just driving me crazy. I swear, it's like living with an evil stepfather. 'Turn down that music! Get your feet off the couch!' It's driving me crazy." Ms. Barnes catches my eye again. "Hey, Brown, you know what's going on over there?" I wave my hand in her direction.

H nods. "Yes. Connor was on her way in. Girl was freaking out in the middle of the road, her car wrapped around a telephone pole. The girl was like yelling and screaming that the lights were killing her eyes, and then she started bugging out about how the noise was getting to her. Got so bad the paramedics had to give her something to calm down."

I take another look at the blonde. "Really?"

"Yeah. It was crazy." He starts to head toward the two women.

"Hey, tell you what, I'll take that over to Megan." Relieving him of the folder, I walk across the bullpen, taking a quick look at the name on the tab--Alex Barnes.

Megan's saying, "An oncoming car flashes its brights so you can't see. That, I can buy. But why start to disrobe in the middle of the highway?"

Alex fidgets, looking uncomfortable and slightly frightened. "I…my skin hurt. The clothes felt like sandpaper all of a sudden. I don't know."

Oh…my…god. She sounds like Jim when I forget to use the fabric softener. I hold the folder out in Megan's direction. "Megan…here's that blood test you wanted." I can't take my eyes off Alex.

She raises an eyebrow at me, and I realize I'm staring. I walk away, coming to a stop by the door to the hall.

"Thanks, Sandy," Megan calls after me, then turns back to Ms. Barnes. "Oh. Negative."

"Negative. May I leave now?" Alex asks.

Megan shoves the paper she was filling out across the desk to her. "Please sign here. Collect your belongings at the booking desk downstairs and…see a doctor."

Slipping into her jacket, Alex exits Major Crimes. I catch up to her in front of the elevator. "Excuse me, miss?" She pauses. "Hi. My name's Blair Sandburg and I'm a consultant to the police department. I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about the light hurting your eyes and about your clothes making your skin ache."

Her eyes narrow in suspicion as she snaps, "Read the report."

Undeterred, I ask, "Do colors seem more vivid? Do smells seem more powerful?"

She lets out a sigh. "Look, I've already been to three different doctors. None of them could tell me what's wrong."

I give her a reassuring smile, trying to hold my excited bouncing to a minimum. She's a sentinel! She's gotta be. "That's no surprise. Look, have you recently experienced any prolonged traumatic isolation?"

Alex takes a step back, doing a double take. Shit, I've scared her. "Who the hell are you?"

Lowering my voice, I say in my most confident, reassuring tone, "I'm an anthropologist, and I think I know what's happening to you." I hand her my card. "If you could just meet me at the university here, we could talk further."

She studies the card for a moment, then looks back up at me. "I'll think about it, all right?"

I give her another smile. "Good. Just meet me right there, at that address."

The elevator door opens and she gets on, staring at me curiously until the doors close. Once she's gone, I leap exuberantly into the air, pumping my fist. "Yes! Yes! Yes!" I exclaim. Another sentinel! Wait until Jim hears about this!

~~~~~~~~

At first it's soft, almost like a kitten's purr, then it grows into a growl that fills the loft, pressing in on me, making it hard to breathe. It thrums inside my head; I can feel it in my chest, inside me and outside me at the same time. Stop! Stop! God, make it stop! I have to make it stop!

~~~~~~~~

I'm fitting my key to the lock when the door to the loft is yanked open and I'm suddenly staring down the barrel of a gun. When my gaze finally travels past the lethal weapon, I find it's not some psycho holding it. "Jesus, Jim, it's me! I live here, too, remember?"

He blinks then, as if seeing me for the first time. "Sorry, Chief. I guess I'm just a little jumpy." He turns away from me, and I follow him inside.

"I'd say so." He doesn't respond, and I'm not sure pushing him is a good idea at the moment. Hey, maybe his injury is making him weird out. It's sure made him grouchy. "How's the arm?"

He shrugs. "Doc says I can go back to work on Monday."

"Mmm, good." I hang up my coat. "Good. I'm sure everybody will be really glad when that happens." Especially me. "So, uh..what was the deal with the greeting, man? You having some sort of a --"

"No." He gives me a look that makes me think even mentioning the word 'senses' is going to cause me bodily harm.

Okay, change of subject. What else can we talk about? New sentinel in town, perhaps? "Oh, hey, I was down at the station doing some work, and I met this woman--"

For the second time in as many sentences, Jim cuts me off. "Look, Chief, why don't you spare me the details?" He walks into the kitchen, leaving me with my mouth hanging open.

Okaaaay. Definitely not a good time to talk to Jim--about anything. "I'll tell you later."

Jim holsters his gun and heads for the stove. "Whatever."

Right. Later--I'll ask him what's going on later. "Okay." I head for my room. If Alex Barnes shows up anytime soon, I need to be prepared. Looking over my notes is probably a good idea.

But even though I try to get my mind off of it, the image of Jim greeting me with weapon in hand stays with me.

I don't get much sleep tonight.

~~~~~~~~~

Wiping my sweaty palms on my pants, I stare at the nameplate on the door. "Blair Sandburg." Okay, this is the place, though I don't know what this guy's going to be able to do for me. All those doctors Carl dragged me to assured me there was nothing wrong, though I overheard them telling him when I wasn't in the room that he should take me to a psychiatrist.

I check the card in my hand. It says anthropologist, not shrink, which I guess is a good thing. I don't need anyone crawling around inside my head.

I knock tentatively on the door, part of me hoping he isn't there. No such luck. It's opened almost immediately.

A brilliant smile lights up Blair Sandburg's face as he recognizes me, and all my nervousness vanishes. "Hey, Ms. Barnes, you came! This is so great!" He stands back to let me enter, then darts into the room ahead of me, scooping a pile of books and papers from the chair in front of his desk. "Please, take a seat."

"Please, Dr. Sandburg, call me Alex." I sit, crossing my legs, resting my elbows on the arms of the chair, watching him watch me. Yep, he's interested.

"Oh, hey, it's just Blair. Not Dr. Sandburg, not yet." He gives me another grin, then picks up an old book from his desk and hands it to me. The title is "The Sentinels of Paraguay." "In primitive cultures, sentinels were the tribal guardians. They were chosen because of their superior sensory awareness. They could hear better, smell better, feel and taste things other people couldn't."

I open the book, turning the fragile pages carefully, inhaling the scents of musty paper, ancient ink, and something older, wilder…For a moment, the image of a jungle flashes before my eyes, then it's gone. I look back up at Blair. "How do you know all this?"

"Well it's the subject of my anthropology doctorate." He takes the book as I hand it back to him.

I consider that for a few seconds. If he's writing a paper on people like me then maybe he can help me, maybe he can answer the million questions I have. I pluck one out of the whirling jumble in my mind. "All right, so, why is this happening to me now?"

He gives a small shrug, as if to say it could be anything, then he answers, "In some sentinels, their abilities lie dormant. It just takes a prolonged isolated period to bring them out."

//Darkness…nothing but darkness and the crushing silence broken only by the scrabbling and squeaking of the vermin in the walls…//

Suppressing a shudder at the memory, I say, "You were asking me about that before. A couple of months ago, I was on a camping trip and I was lost in the woods for a week." It's a lie, but a little white one. Isolation is isolation, isn't it?

He grins. "That's textbook. You know, it's a survival response."

I nod. If there's anything I'm good at, it's surviving.

Blair's voice lowers to a warm, confidence-inspiring tone. "I can help you understand this."

"I'm not sure I want to understand it. I'd rather just be like I was before." I know that would certainly make Carl happy. I think he's about ready to shoot me the next time my senses screw things up, put me out of his misery.

"Alex, you may not believe me, but there is nothing to be afraid of. What you have is a gift." He's looking at me with such awe, with such belief in his eyes it scares me.

Shaking my head, I say, "I'm not anyone special, Blair, and these weird senses are a nuisance. They make it hard to live my life, to do normal things anymore."

He gives me that smile again, the one that makes me want to believe him. Damn, he would make a good con man. "I know they seem like a pain in the ass now, but I can teach you how to use them, how to control them. Then you can use them to your benefit."

"And what benefit do you get from helping me? How much are you going to charge me for your 'coaching' service?" There's got to be something in it for him. Nobody does anything out of the goodness of his heart anymore.

He does a good job of looking offended, I'll give him that. "Alex, I'm not going to charge you anything. All I want is your permission to include you in my thesis." Ah-hah, knew there was something he wanted in return. But his next words surprise me. "Completely confidential, you won't be identified by name at all. But if that still bothers you, I'll help you for nothing, no strings attached."

I get to my feet slowly, staring at him. Either he's the shrewdest con man in the world, or a complete and total innocent. I'm so desperate I actually would pay him if he could help me. "Look, Blair, let me think on it a little, okay? I'll call you."

"Sure, sure, take as much time as you want. It's just the sooner we get started, the sooner you'll have your senses under control." He walks me to the door and presses the book he showed me into my hands. "Look this over tonight, see if it helps you understand what a sentinel is."

I exit the building, turning the meeting over and over in my mind. I honestly don't think he was scamming me. He wasn't nervous about the prospect of me turning him down either. When I took the book from him, his hand was cool and dry, not sweaty, and his pulse was completely steady. Huh, maybe I don't need his help after all. I used my senses on him just fine.

~~~~~~~~

After Alex leaves, I putter around my office awhile, but I can't sit still. Grabbing my tape recorder, I head outside. I record my observations of her, though she really hasn't shown any obvious signs of heightened senses. She seems like a nice enough person, upset by what's happening to her, and naturally cautious of me. She has every right to be. If a trained physician can't help her, then why should she put her faith in me?

Speaking of faith, Jim hasn't had much of that in me lately. First he quit talking to me, and then there was the thing with the gun last night. I asked him this morning if he'd seen that other jaguar again, but he just mumbled "It was nothing, Sandburg," as he headed out the door.

I flip on the recorder. "I've been unable to illuminate the meaning of my primary subject's spiritual vision, and he seems unusually reluctant to explore the matter." I click the pause button. Hmm, I wonder if his vision has anything to do with Alex? I spent most of last night reviewing everything I've found on sentinels, but couldn't uncover anything about more than one sentinel per tribe. Was there a reason for that? More research is needed.

I thumb the pause switch off. "Concerning my secondary subject, I've been unable to find data which would suggest what would happen if two sentinels were to come together. Would they see each other as allies? Would they face off in some territorial rivalry? Now if in fact, my secondary subject does turn out to be a sentinel, I'm gonna have to bring them together in a carefully controlled situation. So at the present time, I've decided not to tell Jim Ellison or Alex Barnes about one another."

Like Jim's interested anyway. And Alex is nervous enough about working with me as it is. Definitely need to keep distractions to a minimum. Shoving the recorder in my pocket, I head for the library. Maybe I'll find something on multiple sentinels there.

~~~~~~~~

Cutting the cables to the security camera feeds, I work quickly, prying open the cover to one of the large roof vents. Making sure my rope is secure, I climb down the shaft. At the maintenance hatch I pause, my black garb blending with the shadows as I observe the hallway through the mesh grill covering the hatch. A security guard turns the corner, tries a door halfway down the corridor, then punches a four-digit code into the panel in the wall.

Without conscious thought on my part, my vision zooms in on his hand, and I memorize the numbers he presses. I wait patiently in my hiding place until he's entered the secure lab, checked it, and returned to the hall. The sharp crackle of his radio reaches me as he says, "This is Lenski. The west wing is clear."

As soon as I hear him leave the floor, I open the hatch, trot down the hallway and enter the lab. It takes me only a moment to boot up the computer and find what I want. Inserting a zip disk into the drive, I copy the information, keeping one ear on the activity in the building.

The file copied, I head back toward the maintenance hatch, intending to exit the same way I came in. But as I reach the opening, voices drift down from the roof. <The roof conduit hatch is open. The wires to two and three have been cut. Somebody's been up here.>

Shit. Time for plan B. I head for the emergency exit, realizing belatedly that I'll have to cross into a zone where the security cameras are still active to reach it. I can't hesitate now, though, and break into a lope. I'm almost to the door when the alarm goes off.

The electronic shriek is a knife stabbing into my head. I scramble to cover my ears, staggering under the onslaught. I make it through the exit and start down the stairs. By the time I reappear on a lower floor, my hearing is back to normal, but my head is throbbing.

Unable to rely on my hearing to track the guards pursuing me, I decide to forget trying to outrun them. I want out of the building now. I flip through the map of the building in my memory. There's a balcony running around the outside of this floor. Kicking open an office door, I cross the room and pass through to the balcony. It takes me but a moment to secure my extra line to the railing, then I climb over the barrier. Rappelling down the side of the building at full speed, I don't use the brake to slow my descent until I'm almost at the ground. Even then, the landing's hard, and I rock back on my heels, trying to keep my balance as I unhook the rope from my harness.

I'm about to make a run for my vehicle when I hear a shout behind me. "All right, put your hands up!"

I straighten slowly as he yells to his buddies, "I've got him over here." In that split second of distraction, I draw my automatic, bringing it up in one smooth, practiced motion, my heightened sight aligning the shot, my finger squeezing the trigger. The bullet hits him high in the shoulder of his gun arm, sending both his weapon, and him, flying.

I'm already running by that time, jumping into my SUV and pulling away from the perimeter fence with a squeal of tires. It's not until two blocks later I pull off the ski mask and shake out my hair. When I stop at a light, I check my appearance in the mirror. My cheeks are wet with tears, and I wipe at them hastily.

"You're okay, Alex, you're okay," I reassure myself. You got what you came for and even though it wasn't as clean a job as it could have been, the guard'll live.

But as I head toward my apartment, I realize I'm only fooling myself. Until I get my senses under control, I'm a danger to myself. The alarm going off nearly crippled me. If the security guards had been in the same hallway at that moment, I'd probably be dead right now.

I dig out my cellphone and dial a number. A mechanical voice answers. <You've reached the voice mail of Blair Sandburg.> At the tone, I leave a brief message. "Blair, this is Alex Barnes. I need your help."

~~~~~~~~

//Blue-tinted foliage arches over head, the thick canvas of trees filtering the sunlight to dappled patches amid the shadows of the jungle. The warrior slips silently through this strange and dangerous world. A sound catches his ear and he pauses, searching for the source. The form of a wolf separates from the undergrowth, bounding across a clearing toward the crumbling statue of a jaguar.

Danger! Fear pounds in the warrior's chest. Danger, danger, must react! The warrior brings his crossbow to bear, drawing a bead on the huge silver lupine. For a moment, he hesitates, then lets the arrow fly. His aim is true, the weapon striking the wolf in the side, penetrating his heart. It tumbles to the ground with a whimper, and the warrior approaches, sure of himself, sure that he's dealt with the danger.

He stands over the dead wolf, watching in horror as it shifts and changes, becoming the naked, still body of his guide.

The warrior is me, the bow, the instrument of death in my hands, Blair lying unmoving at my feet, his blue eyes wide and staring, the light within them gone. Blair…no…no!//

Gasping for air, I awaken, my heart pounding like jackhammer in my chest. What in the hell was that? Blair, oh god, Blair…in panic I sweep the loft with my senses, searching for his heartbeat, a noise, anything. But I'm alone.

Getting up from the couch, I search the loft, my mind unable to believe my senses. I'm coming out of his room when the front door opens.

Blair enters, setting his backpack on the floor as he slips out of his coat. It's not until he bends to pick up his bag again that he notices me, standing in between the French doors. "Jim, man, what's up?"

"I…" There's no possible explanation I can give him, nothing that doesn't sound like I'm losing my mind. "Good night, Sandburg," I tell him, then head up to my room, feeling his confused gaze on my back the whole way.

But it's a long time before I fall asleep.


~~~~~ Act II ~~~~~


Standing in the middle of Alex Barnes' apartment, I slowly turn in a circle, taking in the incredible amount of artwork. Vivid paintings hang on the walls, as well as lean in stacks against them. Clay sculptures cover every available surface. "This is amazing," I finally say. "When you said you were an artist, I had no idea. Did you know all this stuff is rooted in sentinel symbolism? I mean, you got the jungles, the jaguars, you got the Indians. I mean, for crying out loud, you even got the eye."

Alex looks as confused as I feel. When I got her message she wanted my help, she said she had something to show me, but this…this is incredible, and a bit scary at the same time.

"I saw the pictures in Burton's book." She picks up "The Sentinels of Paraguay" that I loaned her and hands it to me. "I knew you had to see this. The ideas just come to me. I have no idea why."

Waking visions. But what do they mean? "There's a whole mystical side to this that you're obviously tapped into somehow."

She moves to stand in front of me, her intense gaze meeting mine. "When my senses started going crazy, I was frightened. But now that I'm finally starting to understand all of this--" she waves her hand to encompass the art, her, me "--I like it."

I give her a smile. "Good, good."

"Thank you." Leaning in, Alex kisses me on the cheek.

I'm startled by it, but as she pulls back, a warm flush goes through me, and I know my face must be turning bright red. "Uh…you're welcome," I manage. She laughs and wipes at the lipstick left on my cheek. Feeling my temperature rising even more, I change the subject. "Yeah. Why don't you run that car accident by me again? Tell me about that one more time."

She steps back a bit, then replies, "The car coming the other way had its brights on, and suddenly I felt this throbbing pain in my skull. It hurt so badly, I couldn't even see where I was driving. The next thing I knew, I'd hit a telephone pole."

I consider that for a moment, in light of what I know from my work with Jim. "Now, every time you experience your heightened senses, do you get a headache?"

"Yeah, pretty much," she answers with a disappointed sigh.

I understand her frustration. She's just learning how to use her senses, but every time she does it only results in pain. "Your headaches are connected to your heightened senses somehow. We need to figure out how." I give her a reassuring smile. "It's nothing to worry about."

Alex smiles back, but I can still see the slight apprehension in her eyes.

~~~~~~~~

My first day back from leave, I enter the bullpen and head straight for Simon's office. The captain and Megan Connor are waiting for me.

"Hey, I heard there was a vicious rumor that you were back among the living," Simon jokes. "How you feeling?"

I give him a smile, feeling like my old self for the first time in days. "Well, that depends. How's my caseload?"

Megan waves a folder at me. "Don't worry. I saved you one. We could use your help on the Oberon heist."

Simon's staring at the empty space behind me. "Where's your shadow?"

Shrugging, I answer, "He begged off. He's working on some big project at the university. I haven't seen him all week, really." I push memories of last night's bizarre dream to the back of my mind. "What do we have here?"

He fills me in. "The supervisor at Oberon Security has no idea what information was accessed, but the firm designs state-of-the-art security systems for major corporations. You know what the big question is, how did the thief get in, defeat their own system, and then get out again?"

"Ex-employee, maybe?" I venture.

Megan shakes her head. "Not likely. We've asked for a personnel list. They screen everyone who works there very carefully."

Simon points a remote at the TV/VCR setup in the corner of the office. "Take a look at this. One of their security cameras caught the thief as he was trying to escape."

The screen flickers, then a corridor appears. A figure dressed in black, from the ski mask covering his head to the crepe-soled boots on his feet, is running down the hall. All of a sudden, the thief doubles over, clutching at his ears. There's no sound on the video, but it's obvious he's reacting to some kind of loud, sustained noise. Still holding his hands over his ears, he staggers to a door and stumbles through it.

"That must be one hell of a loud alarm," Megan comments. "Strange, isn't it?"

I back the tape up and run it again. What in the hell is going on? If I didn't know better, I'd swear the person on the screen has enhanced hearing.

~~~~~~~~

Opening the door to my apartment, I switch on the lights, then nearly jump out of my skin as I turn around. "Damn it, Carl." My partner's sitting in a chair, his dark eyes just watching me. How long has he been waiting there in the shadows?

"I'm surprised you didn't hear my breathing," he taunts.

I shrug. "I was tired."

Getting to his feet, he approaches me. "I might have been a cop. What good are your senses if you don't use them?"

Taking off my coat, I hang it up angrily. I really don't want to deal with this right now. "I'll be more careful next time, okay?"

He doesn't look like he's convinced, but he changes the subject. "I've analyzed the security designs you stole from Oberon. I think we can get everything but this fingerprint scanner on the fifth level. You just can't override that. We'll have to go through it." Pausing, he stares at me. "So how was the job? Any problems?"

I stare back. "No."

Grabbing me by the arm, Carl shoves me into the wall and pins me there. "Don't lie to me, Alex. I was monitoring the police scanner. You shot a guard." He gives me a shake. "It was one of your headaches, wasn't it?" I don't immediately answer, and he slams me into the wall again. "Wasn't it?"

"I got the job done," I spit.

He snags a handful of my hair, yanking my head back, snarling, "And you almost got caught." He pushes me away from him, and I grab the table in the center of the room to keep from falling. "Oh, of course, there was that little car accident. You think I didn't find out about it? They arrested you, for God's sake!"

I breathe out slowly as I smooth my mussed clothes, ignoring the pain in my back and my head. "And they let me go," I say with more calm than I feel.

Carl shakes his head, his rage at me still evident. "Alex, you've made us both a lot of money, but you're becoming unreliable. I'm beginning to think I should change partners."

Standing up to him, I answer, "Oh, really? Well, unless you've forgotten, I do the work."

He snorts. "You plan the jobs? You handle the clients? You fence the goods? Oh, you're talented, Alex, but you lack discipline and direction. And these crippling headaches are making you careless."

I hadn't meant to tell him about Blair, but in my anger it just slips out. "Actually, I've found somebody who can help me with that. He works at the university."

Immediately, Carl's in my face again. "What? You told him about your senses?"

"It was a chance meeting. He's an expert on people like me."

Carl's fingers dig into my upper arms as he pulls me close. "I don't like the idea of someone knowing about you," he growls.

"After I get what I want, I will deal with him," I lie. He thinks about that for a moment, then kisses me, his hands groping my breasts painfully. Forcing down my revulsion, I return his kiss, all the while thinking, *And after this job is over, I'll deal with you, too, Carl.*

~~~~~~~~

"Go on," Blair coaxes, leaning forward in his chair.

I fidget slightly in my seat. For someone who's not a shrink, he sure wants to know what's going on inside my head. Now he's got me telling him my dreams. "Well, I was in the jungle, except I wasn't myself. I was some kind of warrior with a bow and arrow and my face was painted. Then the jungle parted and I saw this huge ancient temple. It looked like it was a thousand years old. There was a stone pyramid, and right in the middle there was a statue of a leopard or panther, some kind of cat."

Blair grins at me. "Jaguar."

"What?"

"The first known civilized people in South America were the Olmecs. Legend has it that they built a temple in the middle of the jungle." Getting up from his desk, he opens a file cabinet and begins looking through the contents. "Supposedly, sentinels would go there and have a mystical experience so powerful that they would see the eye of God."

Sounds cool, if it's true. "Does it really exist?"

Blair opens another drawer. "Well, it was always believed to be a myth, but three years ago an archaeologist in the Yucatan named Feliz Santiago came across some carvings that he believed depicted the Temple of the Sentinels." He pulls a drawing from the cabinet and hands it to me.

I stare at it in shock. "This is it. This is the place in my dream."

He gives me that gorgeous smile again. "Yeah, I know, it's exactly like your artwork. You're obviously tapped into some primal ancestral memories, just--" His gaze wanders to the clock on the wall. "Hold on to that thought. I've got to talk to a professor about a lab I'm teaching for him, but I'll be back in a couple of minutes."

Blair starts for the door and I catch his arm as he passes my chair. The electricity between us is unmistakable, and his scent changes, becoming deeper, more musky. It sends a charge skittering over my skin, raising the hair on my arms, making me suddenly aware of a soul-aching need. But for what, I'm uncertain.

He seems affected by the contact as well, his gaze puzzled as he looks down at me.

I ask, "Afterward, are you free for dinner?"

He blinks, as if that question was the last thing he expected me to say. "Dinner? Yeah, that sounds great." Moving toward the door, Blair looks back at me. "Good…yeah…dinner." He leaves the room, and I can hear him talking to himself as he walks down the hallway.

Getting to my feet, I wander around his office, looking at the prints on the walls, the shelves of books and artifacts, my mind whirling. What in the hell just happened, Alex? What's going on between you two?

I shake my head. Men are all the same. He wants what Carl wants, what every guy wants from you.

I sit down in Blair's desk chair, finding the fabric still warm from his body heat. The need rushes back, filling my head, my heart, my gut, making me shiver. No man ever affected me like this before. No one ever looked at me the way Blair does, like I'm someone important, someone special. I know he said something about this, about the sentinel having a connection with a partner, a guide…or did I read it? The Burton book!

It's not lying on the desk like it was the other day. I start opening drawers, searching for it, needing to know the answer, the reason for what I'm feeling. I don't find it, but in one of the drawers is a mini-cassette recorder and a box of tapes. It says "Sentinel Research." I flip through them, but the titles don't tell me anything. They're simply labeled with the date. Picking the most recent one, I stick it in the recorder and push play.

Blair's voice filters through the small speaker. <I've been unable to illuminate the meaning of my primary subject's spiritual vision, and he seems unusually reluctant to explore the matter. Concerning my secondary subject, I've been unable to find data which would suggest what would happen if two sentinels were to come together. Would they see each other as allies? Would they face off in some territorial rivalry? Now if in fact, my secondary subject does turn out to be a sentinel, I'm gonna have to bring them together in a carefully controlled situation. So at the present time, I've decided not to tell Jim Ellison or Alex Barnes about one another.>

Jim Ellison? Who in the hell is he? Another sentinel, if I'm not misinterpreting Blair's words on the tape. My fingers tighten on the recorder until my knuckles turn white. No! There can't be another sentinel, there can't be! Blair is my guide! Mine!

~~~~~~~~

Since Sandburg couldn't come in to the PD today, I decide I'll drop by the university and take him for a late lunch/early dinner. I figure I owe him for my behavior the past week. I've not been the easiest person to live with, and though I hate to admit it, I think we need to talk.

The dream I had last night still haunts me. I shot Blair. Why would I dream about something so horrible, about killing my best friend? And was it just a nightmare--or one of my sentinel visions?

I'm so lost in thought that I don't hear the growling until I'm standing outside Sandburg's office. The snarling is coming from behind the closed door. Peering through the frosted glass design on the door, I can see a blonde woman sitting at Sandburg's desk.

She looks up, her eyes meeting mine. Her face contorts into a mask of rage, then her image shifts and changes, her features becoming feline. A spotted, golden jaguar jumps onto Sandburg's desk and roars. It springs from the desk straight at me, crashing through the glass of the window.

Staggering back, I throw my arms up--but there's nothing there. The glass is unbroken. As I'm trying to wrap my mind around that, the door opens.

The blonde woman looks at me, her gaze hard. Hearing the big cat's cry in my head once again, I flee the building, shaken to my core.


~~~~~ ACT III ~~~~~


After pushing the button for the third floor, I lean back against the wall of the elevator, turning this evening's events over in my mind. Dinner with Alex was great. We went to the diner close to campus and talked through dinner and for an hour over coffee after that. She is so eager; she wants to know everything about sentinels. And her visions, her dreams, are incredible. Vivid, detailed--she drew one of the pictograms from the temple for me on a napkin. I've learned so much from her already, and I haven't taught her a thing.

But that will change tomorrow. She's going to meet me on campus and we're going to work on figuring out why she gets headaches when she tries to extend her senses. The elevator stops at my floor, and I get off, feeling the grin I've been wearing all evening cross my face again.

Unlocking the door to the loft, my world turns upside down. Large packing boxes cover the floor, their contents poking through the open tops. Jim's standing in the midst of them, a roll of tape in his hand. "Hey, Jim. What's up?" I ask hesitantly, dread squeezing my insides.

His gaze moves nervously around the loft. "It's just getting a little too claustrophobic around here for me, Chief." His eyes meet mine for a second, then dart away again. "I'm sorry."

"Wait a minute, Jim…" I peer down at the nearest box and my heart stops. "This is all my stuff. What's going on?" I ask in a strangled whisper.

"I just need a little space. I feel like the walls are closing in."

I take a step toward him, trying to find my voice. "Are you kicking me out?"

Jim can't meet my eyes. "I can't have anybody here right now," he answers sharply.

His tone pisses me off. This is my home, too. He can't just throw me out. Enough is enough; I'm not going to let him shut me out any longer. This has got to be related to his recent strange behavior. "Hey, wait a minute," I snap. "Jim, we've just got to sit down and talk about what's going on with you."

He shakes his head as he approaches me. "I don't want to talk about it. I don't want to analyze it. I just need you out of here by the time I get back." Brushing past me, he grabs his coat and stalks out the door.

I'm left standing amid the boxes, wondering what in the hell I did to deserve this.

Running both hands through my hair in frustration, I set my backpack down on the floor and approach my room. If I thought the boxes were the worst of it, I was wrong. The sheer destruction is like a fist in my gut. Drawers are pulled out, the contents spilled over the floor. The clothing from my closet forms a pile in the middle of the room. Sheets have been torn from the bed, and books, artifacts, photos, hell, even the shelves, have been yanked off the walls.

A sob catches in my chest and I fight back tears. What is the meaning of this? What did I do? Forcing back my anger and fear, I grab a box and start throwing stuff into it.

I don't know what in the hell is going on with Jim, but judging by the state of my room, maybe leaving is a good idea.

~~~~~~~~

I'm waiting right where Blair told me, Rainier's rose gardens, when he finally shows up for our appointment. I gave Carl an excuse I know he didn't believe to be here this morning, and Blair has the audacity to be late. For a split second, I want to yell at him, to say that even though I'm the one who needs help, my time is valuable too, damn it. Then I see the dark circles under his eyes and the slump in his shoulders, and I bite my tongue.

"I'm late, I know," he starts to say when his words are interrupted by a yawn. "Excuse me. I'm sorry." We start to walk down one of the garden paths. "My roommate freaked out last night and kicked me out. I spent the night in a motel. It's no biggie, though."

He shrugs it off, scrubbing his hand over his bleary eyes, but I can tell it's upset him. "You're kidding me," I say.

Blair shakes his head. "No, I'm totally serious."

"Do you need someplace to stay for a few days? I can clear the junk out of my spare bedroom, let you crash there." Where the hell did that come from? Carl will have a fit if he finds out someone's living with me. I feel that unexplainable ache again, that need I'm quickly coming to associate with Blair. For some reason, it makes me want to protect him, to take care of him.

"I'm fine, really, Alex, but thanks for the offer. And it wasn't all bad, in that time I was able to develop a theory about your headaches. Now, your central nervous system isn't used to so much stimulation. So, when your senses go on high, your nerve endings get overloaded and it creates sort of a pain-inducing sensory spasm."

I stop walking to look at him. "So, how do I stop it?"

Chewing his lip, Blair glances around the gardens. "Well, you see those daffodils over there? I want you to concentrate on smelling them, and if you start to get a headache, just really focus in on the scent. Really concentrate on smelling the flowers and nothing else."

I close my eyes, inhaling slowly. It takes a moment, but…"Mmm…they smell incredible."

"Good. Good. Good," he encourages me.

I take another breath, and it's like an ice pick stabbing into my brain. "Oh…"

"All right, Alex, just concentrate," Blair coaches. "Concentrate. Focus in on the smell."

I shake my head, opening my eyes. "I can't. Sorry. I tried. It just hurts too much."

He touches me, rubbing my shoulder, and the pain fades. "It's all right. It'll take a little practice, but we'll get it. It'll be good." He starts to walk back toward the university buildings, his hand going to the small of my back. "Come on. I've got some other exercises we can do."

I go with him, turning what just happened over in my mind. Blair touched me, and my head didn't hurt anymore. I inhale experimentally, searching again for the scent of daffodils. I find it easily, and hold onto it all the way to Blair's office--with no pain.

~~~~~~~~

Walking into the bullpen after lunch, I find Megan sitting at my desk, talking on the phone. She hangs up the receiver and looks up at me.

"That was the FBI. All of the ex-Oberon employees checked out clean."

I barely hear her--I'm too busy trying to get a handle on the sudden rage I feel brewing inside me. "Connor, why are you at my desk?" I snap.

She blinks at me in confusion, then says, "My phone was out, and I just thought since we're working the same case--"

"Yeah, well you thought wrong. Look, could you please--" Getting to her feet, she walks off, her back stiff, as my gaze settles on a file folder sitting on the edge of my desk. I know I didn't leave it there. My folders are all neatly stacked in my in box. Picking it up, I wave it at the room. "What is this? What? Brown? Brown, now please do not use my desk as a filing cabinet." Tossing it at him, I clap my hands to get everyone's attention.

"Could you listen up, please? Everybody, that is my desk. I do not want you to put anything on it, or take anything from it. Are we clear?" My announcement is met by confused gazes. "What is this, kindergarten? Hello! Are you listening to me?"

Simon's voice booms out, "Jim!"

I whirl around to face him, my hands clenched into fists. "Yes!"

"Could I have a word with you, please?"

I have to walk past Connor's desk to get to the office. "Don't touch my stuff while I'm gone," I hiss. "I'll know if you did."

I can hear her muttering "Bloody bonkers," as the door shuts behind me.

"Sit down, Jim," Simon says.

Shaking my head, I answer, "No, thank you, sir. I'll stand. I can see my desk better that way."

Simon simply stares at me, then states, "Go home, Jim, take the rest of the day off. I think you came back to work too soon."

"I'm fine, Simon. It's everyone else. How can I do my job if people keep messing with my stuff?"

"That's an order, Jim. Go home, talk things over with Sandburg, find out what's going on with you." He points toward the door.

"But, Captain, I'm--"

"Now, Ellison."

Shrugging, I do as I'm ordered. It's not until I'm in the truck that I realize Blair doesn't live at the loft anymore.

~~~~~~~~

Megan stops by just as I'm ready to leave my office for the evening, and I find myself dumping my problems on her before she even has a chance to take her coat off. "…and when I came home last night, all my stuff was packed up. I tried to talk to him, but then he just walked out of the apartment."

She nods sympathetically. "Simon sent him home today."

Sent Jim home? What does that mean? "You're kidding me--for what?"

"He threw a tantie in the bullpen about people touching his things. Told me I couldn't sit at his desk. We've had a blew or two before, but this…" Her voice trails off and then she suddenly switches subjects. "Sandy, how did an anthropologist get hooked up with a detective?"

Great. I've got enough problems without trying to tap dance around the sentinel thing with her again. "Uh, well, that's a long story, Megan." And I'm more interested in what's going on with Jim. The thing at the PD has to be connected to him throwing me out.

She gives me a smile. "One day, I'll get the good oil. We'll have to coerce a confession from you."

"Yep, maybe."

Apparently frustrated by my refusal to elaborate on how Jim and I met, Megan changes the subject back to Jim's actions of the past few days.. "I don't know Jim well, but his behavior's obviously changed."

"Well, if you're asking me what's wrong with him, Megan, I don't have all the answers." Especially since he doesn't seem to want me anywhere near his personal space.

"I think we should talk to him. Between the two of us, I'm sure we can get to the bottom of this." Getting to her feet, she starts out of the office.

"Uh, Megan, wait up," I call after her, grabbing my coat. Just what I really don't want to do, confront Jim while I'm still trying to deal with getting kicked out. I should probably let Megan do all the talking, or I'm sure I'll say something I'll regret.

~~~~~~~~

When we reach the loft, Megan is still determined to have things out with Jim. She doesn't bother to knock, just barges right through the unlocked front door. I follow her into the apartment a bit more slowly. I don't want to be here; memories of yesterday are still too strong.

It's dark inside, the only illumination coming from the skylights and the balcony doors. Even without lights, I can see the loft is completely bare. All the furniture, rugs, shelves, everything is gone.

I flip the light switch next to the front door. Nothing happens. "Circuit's dead. What is going on?" Megan shrugs.

"What do you want?" Jim's voice echoes in the open space. I can see him on the balcony, silhouetted in the doorway.

I take a step toward him as I ask, "Hey, Jim, where is everything, man?"

His words are flat, unemotional. "I put it in the basement. Too many distractions. The place was way too cluttered."

I didn't think I could feel any worse than I did yesterday, packing my stuff in boxes, knowing I was no longer wanted. Now I'm not even a person to Jim, I'm clutter.

Megan gives it a try. "It's freezing in here. Aren't you cold?"

Ignoring her, Jim turns back to staring into the night. "Something's going on out there--something very wrong. I've never felt anything like this before."

Never mind what's wrong outside. There's something very wrong with you, Jim. "Hey, Jim, what do you say you come inside, man?" I have to talk to him, I have to find out why this is happening to him, to me, to us.

He cocks his head toward the city, listening. I strain to hear it too, but it's not until several seconds later the wail of sirens becomes audible to me.

"Sirens…" Jim intones ominously. Brushing past Megan and me, he exits the loft, leaving the two of us staring at each other.

"This is weird," Megan finally says. "Sandy, let's go."

I follow her out, more confused and hurt than ever.

~~~~~~~~

Jumping into my SUV, I speed out of the tunnel, elation bubbling inside me. Carl can't find fault with me for this job--it went off with out a hitch. A spike strip under the overpass brought the delivery van to a halt, the gas bombs knocked out the driver, and swiping the laser from the back of the van was a piece of cake.

"Just like clockwork," I say out loud, "and not a bit of trouble with my senses." No one got hurt either, unlike the Oberon job.

I'm turning off Madison onto Lincoln when I hear them. Sirens! Shit. I can't believe this! When am I going to get a damn break in this town? With a squeal of tires, I turn down an alley and head for one of Cascade's industrial parks. There's plenty of places to hide there…along with my backup vehicle.

~~~~~~~~

"This is David-152 responding," I say into the mike as I rush into the night. "Proceeding south on Lincoln to Dearborne. Will try to catch him before he turns off Lincoln." This is it, I can feel it. If I can just catch this guy, all the craziness will stop, this insane crawling under my skin will go away.

A dark blue SUV skids around the turn in front of me, and my vision zooms in on the license plate. The partial plate number matches. "This is David-152. I'm in pursuit of suspect vehicle."

Several squad cars fall in behind me. We tail the speeding SUV through the tangle of warehouses and alleyways of the waterfront factory area. The truck disappears behind a building for a second. When I come around the corner, I find it abandoned, engine still running.

Jumping out of my truck, I glance around. Movement on the fire stairs of the closest warehouse catches my eye. A hooded, black-clad figure is sprinting up them. "Let's go! Come on!" I yell at the patrol officers. "I want you guys to head around back. Look alive. Keep your eyes open. I want you two to stay here in case he doubles back."

I head for the stairs, hearing another car pull up behind me and Connor's voice as she yells for a torch. Then I block everything out to concentrate on the suspect.

~~~~~~~~

Damn it! They're close, too close! I dart up the external stairs to the warehouse, pausing on the landing as pain explodes inside my head. Not now, not now! Doubling over, I'm struggling to get the door open when I hear Blair's voice in my head. *Now, just concentrate. Block out everything else. Good.* The pain begins to fade.

"Freeze! Cascade P.D!" a voice yells from below.

A glance down shows a man on the ground pointing a gun at me. A flashlight beam flickers in the darkness, illuminating his face. It's the man I saw outside Blair's office at the university. Wincing, he throws his arm up over his eyes. "Get that flashlight out of my eyes! Sandburg! Idiot!"

Blair's here? I catch a glimpse of the longhaired student running up to the man with the gun. What is going on? But I don't have time to investigate further if I want to escape. Slipping inside the warehouse, I go down the stairs on the inside. I lift a grate in the floor and drop into the steam tunnel that runs underneath these factories like a rabbit warren.

A few minutes later, I'm a quarter mile away, and climbing into my get away vehicle. Still shaking, I drive toward my apartment, turning my narrow escape over in my mind. What was Blair doing there? Who is the man from the university? Obviously a cop, but what's his connection to Blair? And was it just by accident that Blair shone the flashlight into the cop's eyes, or did he know it was me and he was trying to help me escape?

I shake my head. He couldn't know. There's no way. Still…I can't deny I need his help. Even tonight, on the stairs, I'm not sure if it's my remembering his advice that helped me, or the actual fact that he was there that made my headache fade. There's something about him--when he's near, my senses work better. He's my guide; he has to be.

But what about the other sentinel Blair mentioned on his tape, Jim Ellison? What if he thinks Blair's his guide? I grip the steering wheel tightly. If that's the case, then I'll just have to find some way to get rid of him.

The ache I feel when I'm apart from Blair flares to life. "Blair is mine," I whisper, "and no one's going to take him away from me."


~~~~~ Act IV ~~~~~


Back at the PD, Connor and I meet with Captain Banks and update him on our progress--or rather our lack there-of.

"We searched the roof, then the entire area, but somehow the suspect slipped through," Megan is explaining.

"He jacked a high-intensity cutting laser," I add. "It can slice through an inch of titanium like butter. Make short work of, say, a bank vault."

"A bank vault," Simon repeats.

Megan nods. "We're pretty sure it's the same perpetrator as the Oberon heist--similar height, build, attire."

"And he's left-handed, which matches the description given by the guard at Oberon."

The captain looks thoughtful. "First, he steals the designs for one of Oberon's top security systems, then he hijacks a laser. Sounds like he's putting together the pieces for a heist. So what's your next move?"

"I'm going to call Oberon again, see if they've had any luck finding out what file the perp accessed," Megan says.

"And I'm going to go over the security tape again, and the statement from the van driver. Maybe we can get a line on who this guy is."

"Great, go to it."

We exit Simon's office, Megan heading for her desk while I get settled in the conference room. I'm watching the security tape for what seems like the hundredth time when Sandburg appears in the doorway. He seems…subdued, somehow.

"Hey. Brown said you wanted to talk to me."

I pause the tape. "Something weird happened at that warehouse."

He gives me a look, then says rather sharply, "I hope this has something to do with why you threw me out."

"Uh, probably," I manage to stutter. I don't know what to say, how to deal with what I did. I just knew I couldn't have him there, that his presence made me uncomfortable, in fact is making my skin crawl now. But he's the only person I know who's an expert on the sentinel thing. And I need answers. "The suspect has been one step ahead of us the whole time, and I tell you, I'm looking at the Oberon tape, and I'm noticing that this guy's experiencing something akin to what I go through when I have a sensory spike. You know, if my senses are cranked up, and I hear a loud noise…." I don't know how else to explain it.

His eyes narrow, as if I'm accusing him of something. "So what are you saying?"

"I'm saying there's another one out there like me. I've been having these experiences with this jaguar, like in the store, and I've been having these dreams--"

Blair's head comes up and he stares at me. "What dreams?"

"I don't know. The spotted cat. I had this other dream. I'm in the jungle. There's this temple or something and, there's this statue of a jaguar, or what ever it is…" My voice trails off. I can't tell him about the wolf.

He paces for a moment, turning in a circle, muttering to himself. "You're having the same dreams…"

"Who's having the same dreams?" What is he talking about? What hasn't he told me? "The same dreams as who?"

Uncertainty flickers across his face for a moment, then Blair answers, "Jim, there is another sentinel, but there's no way that she can be our thief."

"She?" As soon as I ask, I know the answer. "The lady in your office."

He gives me that defensive look again. "When were you at my office?"

God damn it. What in the hell is going on? "Why didn't you tell me this?"

He glances at me, then at the floor. "I was meaning to, man. I was trying to get you two together in a controlled situation, that's all. But you haven't really been very approachable lately, Jim." His head comes up, his gaze burning.

I know I've hurt him, but I can't think about that now. I have to find her, find this other sentinel. "What the hell did you do? What the hell did you do? Where is she?"

~~~~~~~~

The drive to Alex Barnes' apartment is tense. Jim's pissed at me, and I'm uncomfortable with the whole 'let's go confront the new sentinel in town' thing. "Jim," I finally say, "I really don't think this is a good idea." He doesn't even deign to look at me, but the muscle in his cheek twitches. Determined, I press on, "I mean, what evidence do you have against Alex, other than the guy on the security tape reacting to the alarm sounding?"

"She's a sentinel, Sandburg, you told me so yourself. That's enough evidence for me to go question her," he answers tightly.

I shake my head. I should never have let that slip about her abilities. "Yes, she's a sentinel, but whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? Lots of things could have caused the thief to react the way he did, sudden migraine, or maybe a hearing aid, or --or a radio receiver that blasted static when the alarm went off--"

"Chief, that's a big stretch--"

"No bigger than the leap you're making to pin these robberies on Alex, man!"

Coming to a stop at a light, Jim turns his icy stare on me. "What is with you? Why are you so hot to protect her? You got something going on with her you haven't told me?"

Letting out a sigh of exasperation, I shake my head. "No, it's not like that--"

"What then? You afraid if I send her to prison you won't be able to write about her in your damn paper?"

"Damn it, Jim! I promised her the same thing I promised you, that I would protect her identity, keep the fact she's a sentinel secret. I never said a word to her about you."

"Right." He pulls away on the green light with a squeal of tires.

"Look, man, I know you think I'm a gullible babe in the woods when it comes to judging people's character, but she's not our thief. Let me go talk to her, feel her out--"

"Feel her up, you mean. No way. I'm doing all the talking, got that?" Parking in front of Alex's building, he gets out of the truck.

Feeling sick to my stomach, I do the same. No matter what happens, I've betrayed Alex's trust, especially if she's innocent. She'll never believe in me again. Swallowing past the boulder in my throat, I follow Jim inside.

~~~~~~~~

A knock on my door interrupts my work on a new sculpture. I open it to find Blair Sandburg standing there, a distinct look of discomfort on his face. Behind him is the tall man I've seen twice before, at the warehouse last night, and at the university. "Blair, hi. What are you doing here?"

He meets my eyes for a second, then glances away. I can hear his heart pounding. What in the world is going on?

"Uh…mind if we come in? It's important."

Okay, I'll play along. "Sure." Stepping aside, I let the two of them enter the apartment. Blair's companion still hasn't said a word. "Have we met?" I ask.

He tears himself away from his perusal of my home to answer me. "Not exactly, no. I'm here on an official visit, Miss Barnes. I'm Detective Ellison."

So this is Blair's other sentinel. "Official?" I respond, keeping my voice neutral, and my hands open and relaxed at my sides, even though I'd like nothing better than to claw his eyes out.

"Just wanted to ask you a couple questions about the hijacking of a courier van last night, and the burglary Tuesday night of a security company," he says.

"I don't know what you're talking about." Even though I'm answering Ellison, all my senses are tuned in to Blair. His heart rate is still above normal, and he's sweating nervously. What is he so afraid of? Is it Ellison? "What does this have to do with me?"

The detective lets his gaze roam over the paintings on the walls. "This work would seem to require a special talent to pull off."

Okay, two can play this double-talk game. "Thank you."

His cold eyes lock with mine. "I'm not talking about your artwork."

Uh-huh, right. Think I'll try the dumb blonde route. "I'm still not following you."

Ellison turns his glare on Blair, who pales. Now, I'm getting pissed. I move between them, so that Blair's protected behind me. "What is your problem, Detective?"

"Let's stop playing games, Miss Barnes. Blair's told me all about you."

Blair gasps softly, almost like he's in pain. It takes every bit of self-control I have not to clamp my hands around Ellison's throat. As it is, I can feel my fingernails cutting into my palms. "Am I under arrest? Hmm? Do you have any evidence that I've done anything wrong?"

"Did I say you did anything wrong?"

I'm tired of this shit. "Okay. I want both of you to get out. Now. If you have any more accusations to make, you can do it in court." Striding across the room, I fling open the door.

Ellison doesn't move. "You think this will go away?"

I don't back down. "Unless you want a lawsuit for trespassing and harassment, I suggest you leave."

The cop shrugs, then says, "All right, Chief, we got what we need."

Blair walks toward me, the expression on his face one of disappointment and sadness. He mouths "I'm sorry," as he exits my apartment.

I'm turning that over in my mind as Ellison pauses in the doorway to taunt me. "I know exactly what you are, lady."

I bare my teeth in a feral smile. "And I know what you are, too. Welcome to the jungle."

Shutting the door behind them, I lean against it, thinking hard. Ellison was here on a fishing expedition; if he had any hard evidence, I'd be under arrest. Growling, I pace the room. What in the hell is going on with Blair? Did Ellison force Blair to tell him about me, force him to come here? Blair didn't want to be here, that was quite evident. I've got to find some way to get him alone, to talk to him without Ellison around. I don't think it'll take much to convince Blair he'd be better off as my guide; the friction between him and the cop is obvious.

Sighing, I cross the room and pick up the phone. But first things first. I've got to break the bad news to Carl.

When I've explained the problem to him, his orders are short and to the point. "Pack your stuff and get out of there. Check into a hotel under an assumed name, then contact me."

"What are you going to do, Carl?"

He laughs, a cold, mirthless noise. "I'm going to make sure those cops don't bother us anymore."

Before I can ask for details, he hangs up. As I start throwing clothes into a suitcase, I realize with a shiver that it's better I don't know what he's planning. The last time someone got between Carl and something he wanted, the cops never did find all the body.

~~~~~~~~

Sandburg's chattering at me as we enter the bullpen. Whatever funk he was in about the trip to see Alex Barnes, he seems to be over it now. "I didn't put it together before, but this probably explains your behavior at the loft and here at the precinct. Even before you came in contact with Alex, you probably sensed another sentinel, which threatened your territorial imperative."

I shrug. "Yeah." Or maybe it's just because you kept coming home smelling of her. The memory of killing the wolf in my dream comes back to me. Is this what it was about? That I didn't recognize Blair because my senses kept picking up her?

Who knows? It's not important now, anyway. What's important is putting Barnes behind bars. I walk over to Brown's desk. He's pecking away at his computer keyboard, headphones blaring rap music. "Hey, man, you got that stuff for me?" When he doesn't respond, I pull off the headphones. "Hey, Don Cornelius!"

Slightly startled, he looks up at me. "Hey, what's going on, man?"

"You run those prints through the N.C.I.C yet?"

Grinning, he hands me a folder. "I got that for you. Here it is. 'Alex Barnes, a.k.a. Alicia Bannister.' Arrests for grand theft, industrial espionage--the girl's not bored, man."

Opening the folder, I skim through the contents. "It says she served three years at the California women's prison in Corona." I glance at Blair. His face is pale, and he swallows nervously. "Looks like she played you pretty good, man. Thanks, H."

I start toward Simon's office, Blair on my heels. "I didn't know, Jim. Honest I didn't. I just--"

"You just saw another sentinel with a pretty face and didn't look any further. People are usually in police stations for a reason, Darwin. Did you ever even think to check out her background? Or couldn't you wait to get her into your lab?"

"She was in trouble, man! She was reacting just like you did when your senses came online again. Alex thought she was losing her mind. I could help her. Tell me, what did I do wrong by wanting to help someone in pain?"

If he can't see it now, he never will. I don't answer, instead knocking on Captain Banks door, then entering at his "Come in."

"Sorry to bother you, sir, but I thought I should let you know what we're dealing with here." I toss the jacket on Alex Barnes on his desk. "That's our suspect. She's a sentinel."

He stares at me for a moment, then turns his gaze on Sandburg, who shrugs, then walks over to the window and looks out. After spending a few minutes perusing her records, Simon says, "Are you telling me there's someone out there with the same powers that you have?"

I nod. "It appears that way, Captain, yes."

He looks toward Blair again, but Sandburg is ignoring us. "What are we going to do about this, Jim?"

"I'll deal with it, Captain, I promise you that. But my concern is that Connor's got to be told somehow. I mean, it's her case, too."

The captain sighs. "Forget about Connor. What do I tell the D.A?"

I don't have any answers for him.

~~~~~~~~

For the second time today, I'm riding in tension-filled silence in Jim's truck. I have no clue where we're headed: he just said, "Come on, Sandburg," and I followed blindly, glad to be wanted again, even if Jim's still pissed at me. Not wanting to start another argument, I hold my tongue, turning events over silently in my mind.

I still can't believe Alex is a criminal. It just seems so wrong, blows all my preconceptions of sentinels as guardians and protectors of the tribe to pieces. Maybe it is all biological, just a genetic predisposition to enhanced senses. Maybe there is no cultural, no spiritual connection. But that doesn't explain the visions, the dreams both Alex and Jim admit to having.

And what was with Alex's behavior back at her apartment? I could swear she was checking me out with her senses, sniffing me over like I was a strange dog. She didn't seem angry with me, which is surprising. I thought for sure she'd take my accidental betrayal of her secret to heart, and tell me where I could go stick myself. Instead she seemed more hostile to Jim, but that could simply be a reaction to his own territorial behavior. Yet, when Jim raised his voice, she'd moved between us, faced off with him. Did she perceive it as a challenge or was it something else?

*Give it up, Sandburg. If these past few days have taught you anything, it's that you know nothing about sentinel behavior. All your stupid theories have gotten you is tossed out of your home and a massive case of the cold shoulder.*

Before I can beat myself up further, Jim brings the truck to a stop behind the warehouse where we lost the thief last night. I can't bring myself to believe Alex is guilty, not yet, not until I have more evidence. I guess I still want to cling to the belief that the sentinels are the good guys.

We get out, as Jim says, "Keep your eyes open, Chief. We might have missed something last night."

I follow him toward the building, screwing my courage up. "Hey, Jim, look--I know you're still mad at me about not telling you about Alex, but--"

He cuts me off before I can finish. "Let's just drop that, okay? I'm trying to get by it."

Get by it? What the hell does that mean? I explained why I didn't tell him about Alex, about my keeping both their identities confidential.

"What's bugging me is what are the chances of two sentinels appearing in Cascade at this time, right? And falling in with you?"

His comment startles me for a moment, then I blink and shoot back, "Maybe it wasn't chance. You know, there are no coincidences. Maybe it was fate, it was synchronicity--I don't know--a time/space continuum converging together at this point, at this moment. This is completely beyond our comprehension."

He simply shakes his head at me, then stares up at the fire stairs the thief used for his escape last night. Without a word, Jim's bounding up them.

I watch from the ground, thinking about synchronicity. How weird is it that Alex seemed to fall right into my lap, just when my primary subject was tossing me out of his life? Could she have known about my previous paper on sentinels? Or worse yet, know Lee Brackett?

Or could the answer be more primal than that? Maybe the first thing a sentinel with newly awakened senses needs is a guide--and nature automatically sends them on the hunt for one.

I shudder. So what does it mean, then, that Jim is pushing me away at the exact moment Alex is searching for a guide?

My hypothesizing is cut short by Jim's return. He holds up a plastic evidence bag between his thumb and forefinger.

"What did you find?" I ask.

"Blonde hair. With any luck, it came from our thief." The smile he gives me holds no warmth.

Shivering, I get back in the truck.

~~~~~~~~

Warrant in hand, I gleefully exit the bullpen, Sandburg on my heels. "All right, Chief, let's roll! We know what we need."

Eyes flashing, Megan accosts me before I can make my escape. "Ellison, you've got a warrant to compel our suspect to submit to a DNA test? You forgot to tell me."

"Come on now. Don't, uh, spit the bunny with me…"

"Spit the dummy," she snaps, tearing the warrant from my grip and skimming through it.

I do my best to smooth her ruffled feathers. "Right, right. I was going to call you--"

"Alex Barnes?" She looks up in shock. "This is the whacker who wrapped her car around the pole--the skin nut. What's she got to do with our case?"

"She is our case, Connor." I head for the elevator, Sandburg falling in behind me.

"What?" Megan asks, scurrying after us.

"Just trust me. You coming with us or not?"

Her gaze darts to Blair, who hasn't added a word to the entire conversation. "Sandy? You with Ellison on this?"

He shrugs. "Don't ask me. I'm not a detective." Sandburg gets into the elevator.

Connor hesitates, then gets in as well. "This better be good, that's all I've got to say."

I push the button for the garage. "That I'm sure of."

~~~~~~~~

It's with a great deal of trepidation that I follow Jim and Megan down the hall to Alex's apartment. I don't think I've wanted to be anywhere else but here as much as I want to be there now. There's no way this is going to end well, not that it started well in the first place.

Megan knocks on the door. There's no answer. Jim tilts his head, and I know he's listening for some sound to indicate Alex is at home. He shakes his head and turns to leave. "Nah."

"There's this coffee shop down the street she hangs out at," I find myself volunteering. "She might be there."

"All right, let's check it out," Jim agrees. I head back the way we came, Jim right behind me.

"Wait a minute!" Megan yells after us. "How do you know she's not in there? Did you read the psychic vibration or something?"

"Come on, we don't have time for this, Connor," Jim says over his shoulder.

She's not convinced. "We have a warrant. Let's use the thing."

I can hear her rattling the doorknob just as Jim says, "What is that smell?" He pauses in the middle of the hallway, his brow furrowed in concentration, his eyes closed.

"Meet you at the coffee shop. I'm kicking this thing."

Jim's eyes snap open as he whirls toward her. "Plastique! Connor!"

He's shoving her away from the door before his words fully register in my brain. Too late I realize I'm once again in the wrong place at the wrong time. A split second later an explosion rips through Alex's apartment. There's a momentary image of the door zooming toward me, then my world goes dark.


~~~~~ ACT V ~~~~~


I'm taking a nap when someone peels my eyelid back and shines a floodlight into my eye. "Hey…Stop it…" I mutter, swiping at the light. "I'm sleeping here…" Whoever it is lets go, and I start to settle back into my comfortable rest, when my other eye is tortured the same way. "Come on, Jim…let me sleep…"

The light goes away, but now there're voices keeping me awake. One of them is Jim's. "…gonna be okay?"

Someone answers him. "…knock on the head…x-ray…observation…" The sound keeps fading in and out, like bad reception on a radio. Finally it stops, and I sigh in relief--until someone starts asking me questions. "Do I know my name?" "What day is it?" "Who's the President?"

Apparently I answer to their satisfaction, because they stop pestering me. But now my head hurts so badly I can't seem to go back to sleep. Opening my eyes a tiny bit, I peer around the room. I recognize the surroundings as a hospital room at Cascade General. The thought strikes me that I spend way too much time here.

Slowly, I turn my head from the right to the left. "Augh!" I yell. Jim's standing there, staring at me. "Don't do that, man!"

"Sorry, Chief." He's dirty with soot and an odor of smoke seems to be coming from him. "How you feeling?"

I touch the bandage on my forehead gingerly. "Like I got hit by a…a…a door?" He nods. "Megan! Is Megan okay?"

"Yeah, she's fine. Pissed as hell, but fine. She's back at the apartment building, waiting for the fire department to declare it okay to go back in."

I don't say anything for a long moment, trying to fit the pieces of what happened together in my mind. "What was it? A bomb?"

Jim nods, rubbing the back of his neck wearily. "Plastique, probably with some kind of vibration detection trigger."

I shiver under the hospital-issue blanket. "Do you think Alex planted it?" It just doesn't feel right to me, don't know why, maybe because I still can't picture a sentinel harming someone. Which doesn't make sense, because ancient sentinels were warriors, fighters, they wouldn't have thought twice about killing to protect their tribe. Only Alex doesn't have a tribe, does she? I'm making my head hurt worse.

"Look, Chief," Jim is saying, "even though your x-rays checked out okay, the doc wants to keep you here overnight." His gaze moves slightly to the right, and I know he's checking the time on the wall clock.

He's itching to get back to the hunt, and part of me can't blame him. This sentinel overdrive he's in isn't going to stop until Alex is behind bars…or dead. "Go ahead, Jim. I've been through this before. I'll be fine."

"Okay, thanks," he says, then gives me an uncertain look, as if he's torn.

I don't have any doubts. I know exactly where he wants to be. "Go, hurry up and catch her so things can get back to normal around here."

"Right. I'll stop by later, Chief." He leaves the room, and the tension level drops measurably.

Despite my flippant words about normalcy, I wonder if things really will get better once this is all over. All this thinking is making my skull throb. Closing my eyes, I try to rest.

//Someone is stroking my hair tenderly. It's a gentle, soothing caress, and I lean into it, too tired to open my eyes, welcoming it after all the pain and angst I've been through lately. After what seems like a long time, the fingertips trace lightly over my forehead, across my eyebrow, and slowly down my cheek. It's still nice and warm wherever it is I am, and the soft touch makes me feel calm and safe. A thumb ghosts across my lower lip, and a kiss is pressed to my temple.

A silken strand of hair brushes my cheek as a whisper fills my ear. "…I'm so sorry, Blair…if I'd known you'd get hurt I would have stopped him…I don't ever want you to be hurt…"

I fight to open my eyes, but the room is dark and I can't make out anything more than a shadowy form. But I know that voice…"Alex?"

The hair stroking resumes, and my eyes slip shut again in pleasure. "That's it, close your eyes and rest, Blair. I'll watch over you, keep you safe…I won't let anyone hurt you…I'll take care of things, you'll see. I'll take care of you, I promise."

I feel sleep pulling me under again, and my body doesn't resist.//

Heart pounding against my ribcage, I come awake with a gasp. Oh god…oh god…what in the hell was that? Was I dreaming? I had to be dreaming. It was a dream, a nightmare. Alex couldn't get in here, could she?

I roll onto my back, turning on the light above the bed, running a shaking hand over my face. Looking around the hospital room, I can't see any evidence that anyone's been here since Jim left. I rub my face again, then stare at my fingers. Something shimmery and pink stains the tips. Cautiously I touch my tongue to it. It's lipstick.

So was it real, or was it a dream? And if it was real, what did Alex mean, that she would take care of things? *Am I so sure that this is real, and not the dream?*

Tired, god, I'm so tired. I close my eyes, embracing sleep.

~~~~~~~~

It's not until the next morning that the fire department deems it safe to enter Alex Barnes' apartment. Sandburg insists on being here, even though he looks like death warmed over. Simon's seeing the wreckage for the first time, shaking his head.

"She knew we were onto her," I tell him. "Probably figured if we got a search warrant, we'd find something incriminating."

Blair chews his lip, like he's considering making a comment. Finally he says, "There could be another reason."

The captain turns toward him. "Like what?"

Again the uncertain look, like he's hiding something. "Like he's a sentinel, she's a sentinel. This could be some kind of challenge."

Simon's scowl deepens. "What are you talking about, Sandburg? Some sort of duel?"

He nods slowly. "Exactly, and there's only one way to end it."

Before I can ask him what in the hell he means by that, Megan calls, "Captain Banks."

Banks walks over to where she's examining the melted remains of a computer. "Yeah?"

She holds up a part. "It's what's left of a portable hard drive with a removable data disk." She yanks on the disk for a few seconds, and it pops out.

"May I see that?" I ask, holding out my hand. Giving me a strange look, Connor hands it to me. I run my fingers over the disk. Even though the label is blackened from the heat, I can feel the impressions made by the pen when someone wrote on it.

Evidently feeling I've had it long enough, Connor snatches it back from me. "Let's get it to the forensics van." She leaves the apartment.

Simon gives me a look that says, "Well?"

"I could make out like an "o-b-e-r." It was on the label."

The captain nods. "Oberon."

Sandburg doesn't say anything, his expression unreadable.

Our next stop is Oberon's security office. Their head of security, a man named Reiger, pops the zip disk into a drive and brings up its solitary file on his computer. "Looks like our security design for the HazMat Research Unit at Rainier University.

Connor is confused. "What's that?"

Blair gives me a look then answers, "A lab where they do research on hazardous materials. Two years ago, after a canister of plague virus was stolen, the Regents put in a state-of-the-art security system."

I thank Reiger for his time, then say, "Come on. Next stop, Rainier."

But we're too late. The thief was there in the wee hours of the morning. A campus security guard walks us through the lab, shaking his head. "He was gone before we knew what happened. Somehow he was able to override our security systems on level one to four, and he used some kind of laser on level five."

Probably the one Barnes stole two nights ago. Damn it. The bomb at the apartment was a diversion, to keep us busy while she broke in here. "What's missing?" I ask.

"Two canisters of VX nerve gas."

"How dangerous is it?" Connor asks.

The guard looks grim. "Each canister could kill everyone in Cascade five times over."

Sandburg pales, but doesn't say a word. I hang back with him while Connor heads out of the building ahead of us. "So you believe she's guilty now? Alex Barnes is our thief. You can't deny it any longer."

Swallowing nervously, Blair nods. "Yeah, sure, whatever you say, Jim. She played me." He looks away, across the campus toward the rose gardens, his eyes narrowing, as if in pain. He's silent the whole ride to the PD.

I won. I got Sandburg to admit he was wrong about Barnes. So why do I feel like such a shit?

~~~~~~~~

Once we're back at the PD, Jim, Megan and I reconvene in Simon's office. He's on the phone. "Great. Keep me posted." Hanging up, he swivels his chair around to face the three of us. "Looks like we caught a break here, guys. A woman matching Alex Barnes' description was seen boarding a plane for Bogota this morning."

I let out the breath I've been holding. If Alex was pulling the heist at the university last night and got on a plane immediately afterwards, then she couldn't have been in my hospital room. But what about the lipstick, the voice in my head whispers. What about her promise to take care of things? To take care of me?

Megan's voice interrupts my thoughts. "Did they stop her?"

Simon shakes his head. "No. They didn't want to take a chance on her releasing the gas. They'll meet the plane at the airport. Colombian military is standing by."

"You really think the Feds have this under control?" I ask.

Shrugging, he replies, "Well, I'll certainly feel better when she's in custody, but for now, that's all we can do. You guys go home. I'll keep you posted if anything comes up."

Jim doesn't say anything, just leaves the office, crossing the deserted bullpen and reaching for his jacket on the coat rack.

I follow, my feet dragging. God, how I dread this, but we have to talk. This…this…*nothing* between us is killing me. I have to try to explain, to make him see that I didn't set out to deliberately hurt him, that I was following procedure, trying to keep both him and Alex safe.

Megan pauses on her way out the door. "You two up to a late supper or early breakfast?"

Jim starts to respond, but I cut him off. "No thanks. There's stuff we've got to go over."

He looks surprised. "There is?"

"Yeah."

Megan looks back and forth between us, then says, "Right. See you tomorrow, then." She leaves.

Jim and I are alone.

Now that the moment's here, I don't know where to begin, or what to say to try and make things right. Guess I should start by telling him what he wants to hear. "Look, Jim, I just wanted you to know I realize I was wrong for not telling you about Alex. I was only thinking about myself and about my work and somewhere along the line, I lost track of my friend."

He just looks at me for a moment, then says, "Well, Chief, I don't know what you want me to say. I don't know if I can get past this. To me, it was a real breach of trust, and that struck really deep with me."

Breach of trust? Where did that come from? Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty? "Gimme a break here. How was I supposed to know she was a criminal?"

Shaking his head, Jim answers, "I've got to have a partner I can trust. Have you ever stopped to think what good all this research is doing anyway?"

What kind of question is that? The research with Jim enabled me to help Alex, to help someone else experiencing problems dealing with their heightened senses. "Yeah, Jim. I think about it every day. For one thing, it's helped you find out who you are."

A wave of his hand stops me from saying anything else. "Wait, whoa, whoa, whoa. I know who I am, okay? I don't need you or anybody else to help me define that. Is that clear?" He's raised his voice for that last bit, and now he pauses. When he speaks again, his tone is softer, resigned. "Maybe it's just better if you finish your dissertation or doctorate writing about somebody else."

Like I give a shit about the dissertation at this moment in time. "That's crazy. I know I made a mistake, but I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get past this--" His gaze is ice-cold. "--but if you've got to hang on to it…" I give him an opening, but Jim doesn't take it. "You know where to find me."

Leaving the bullpen, I don't look back. There's nothing else I can do. I apologized for hurting him, though I'm still not certain exactly what it was I did, other than be too quick to trust.

Exiting the station, I stand on the sidewalk uncertainly. Even though I told Jim he knows where to find me, I don't know where I belong anymore. The loft is no longer my home, and the idea of spending another night in my crappy motel room depresses me. Where do I go from here?

~~~~~~~~

"What's going on?" Simon asks, walking up to me as Sandburg leaves. His gaze follows Blair out the door. "Weren't you a little hard on the kid?"

I shrug.

"I mean, I'm the first one to admit Sandburg has his faults, but, uh…Do you think you can handle this sentinel thing on your own?"

"I handled it for eighteen months in Peru. I think I can handle it now." Of course I can handle it on my own. That's what Blair and I have been working toward all along. " I should have given him his walking papers long before this; he's just been holding me back. "Goodnight, sir."

Putting on my coat, I stalk out of the bullpen, feeling the captain's gaze on my back, wondering if he bought my BS.

~~~~~~~~

The phone is answered on the second ring. <Ellison.>

"Hello, Jim," I purr into my cell phone. "Surprised to hear from me? I couldn't just leave without saying good-bye."

<Alex. You never got on that plane to Bogota.> His voice is flat and cold, but not surprised.

I glance around the warehouse I'm in before I answer. "I've got unfinished business here. Want to guess what it is? I'll give you a clue. Here, kitty, kitty."

He doesn't seem to want to play along. <Cut the crap, Alex. What do you want?>

"A little contest to see who's the top sentinel in town. You up for the challenge, Jim?"

<Why don't you drop by so we can discuss it?>

"Uh-uh. Doesn't work that way. There's no sport in that. I know where you live. How about you come and find me?" Leaving the line open, I set the phone down on a table and walk away. I've got a few last minute things to take care of before he arrives.

~~~~~~~~

"Alex? Alex?" Damn it, she's gone. I listen intently for a few moments. I can hear machinery, and what sounds like a train in the background. Hanging up the phone, I grab my jacket and race out the door.

I'm in the truck speeding toward her location when my cell phone rings. I punch it on. "Yeah."

<It's Simon. Jim, that plane landed in Bogota. The woman on board wasn't Alex Barnes.>

"I know," I answer tersely. "I think she's at the old foundry on Third near the freeway off-ramp and the train yards. I'm on my way now."

There's silence for a moment, then Simon says, <Jim, let me get you some backup-->

Pushing the off button, I toss the phone on the seat, feeling the hair on the back of my neck rise. "Sorry, Captain," I say aloud, "but this is between Alex and me."

~~~~~~~~

When Ellison's truck screeches to a halt outside the warehouse, I'm ready for him. He enters, gun drawn, but doesn't see me. I watch as he pauses, turning his head from side to side, listening for me. Slipping on a set of noise protection headphones, I throw the switch on a piece of heavy machinery.

It roars to life, and Ellison flinches. Smiling, I head deeper in to the factory, confident that he will follow.

He does. I pull off the scarf I'm wearing and drop it down the empty freight elevator shaft, then hide behind a packing crate, wrapping my hand around the rope trigger of my trap.

Jim enters the semi-circle of boxes I've set up, his nose wrinkling. I dosed the scarf earlier with a heavy shot of perfume, and if I'm right, that's what he's been trailing, rather than my actual scent. I hold my breath, resting my left hand on the butt of my gun. It would be so easy just to--

Ellison moves, taking a step forward, peering into the yawning pit. I yank on the cord, sending the wooden grille that normally covers the shaft crashing down on him. Jim's gun goes flying and better yet, he does too, falling to land at the bottom of the shaft with a thud.

Creeping out of my hiding place, I gaze into the hole. He's lying motionless at the bottom. I bare my teeth in a grin. "Guess I win," I tell him. His eyes open, and he winces. "Ta-ta, Jim."

The sharp sound of a shot cuts through the noise of the factory. I duck, sensing the bullet fly past my ear and embed in the wall. What was that about best-laid plans? Time to improvise.

Rolling to the side, I come up next to the wall, punching the activation button for the elevator. With a clank and a groan, it begins to descend.

"Cascade PD! Freeze!" Inspector Connor. No mistaking that accent.

Another shot splats into the plaster above my head. I return fire, then yell, "Better forget about me if you don't want Ellison to become a cop pancake!"

She hesitates long enough for me to wind through the maze of machinery and make a break for the exit. No sense in me sticking around. I've got a stop to make before I head out of town.

~~~~~~~~

Groaning, I roll over, blinking, trying to clear my head. I look up to find the bottom of the elevator slowly getting closer and closer. Staggering to my feet, I stretch toward the top of the shaft. My fingers fall several inches short of the lip.

A hand appears above my head, followed by Megan Connor's face. "Jim, give me your hand!" Leaping, I grasp it, and she pulls me up. I roll over the lip of the shaft just as the elevator reaches it.

She helps me to my feet. "That was close. I got the call for backup."

"I'm glad you're here." I glance around but there's no sign of Alex. "Where is she?"

Connor shakes her head. "It was either her or you, mate. I chose you."

I nod. "Thanks. Where could Alex be headed?" As soon as the words are out of my mouth, I remember my nightmare. I'm in the jungle again, firing the crossbow, watching the dead wolf morph into Blair.

Dread grips me. "We've got to find Sandburg," I tell Connor. "Come on." She gives me a confused look, but dashes out of the warehouse on my heels.

~~~~~~~~

Yawning, I rub my hand over my bleary eyes. After driving around Cascade for a while, I finally ended up at my office at the university. Nowhere else to go, really, and plenty of paperwork to catch up on. I enter the last grade into my computer and save the file.

I push my chair away from my desk and slump further down in it. Judging by the lightening of the sky outside my window, it'll be dawn soon, and no Jim. I don' t know what I expected, for him to come chasing after me, telling me he forgave me, that everything would be fine?

I snort. The mental image of Jim groveling at my feet is so far out of character it's funny. God, I need sleep, and my head is pounding. I close my eyes, rubbing my temples gingerly with my fingertips. For a brief moment, I flash back to the hospital, and the gentle hand stroking my hair. Why can't my life be like that? I think. Why does it always have to be explosions and pain, harsh words and hurt feelings?

I open my eyes. Alex is standing just inside the doorway, a gun in her hand. "Alex…" I breathe.

She smiles at me, and there's no maliciousness there. Her gaze is warm and tender, and it sends a shiver down my spine. "Blair, it's time to go."

For some reason that surprises me. "What?"

"Time to go," she urges gently. "I can't leave you here alive, so you have a choice. You come with me, you be my guide, or you stay here." There's an ominous click as she chambers a round in her automatic, then points it at my head. "Of course, staying here means you'll be dead."

Swallowing hard, I raise my hands, then get slowly to my feet. "Guess I'm going with you, then," I say.

She smiles at me again. "Good answer." She gestures with the gun for me to lead the way out of my office. As I pass her, she falls in next to me, sliding the hand with the gun inside my jacket and behind my back. "See? All nice and normal."

As we exit the building, I start talking. "Look, Alex, you really don't want to do this. I mean, I'm just going to slow you down. I know you want me to be your guide and all, but I'm Jim's guide."

"Oh really?" The pressure of the gun against my back directs me across the street in front of Hargrove Hall, toward the fountain. "If you're Jim's guide, then why isn't he here? Why did he pack all your things in boxes and toss you out of your home?"

I blink back the tears that spring suddenly to my eyes. I don't have an answer for that.

"You can't tell me that didn't hurt you, Blair. I could hear it in your voice when you told me about it. He hurt you. And I can see in your eyes he hurt you again tonight. What did he do? Tell you it was all over? Tell you he couldn't trust you?"

Biting my lip, I look away. She comes to a stop next to the fountain, grabbing my arm and forcing me to face her. "I was at the station, Blair, waiting outside, listening. I heard every word. I heard you apologize, I heard him reject you--again. Why do you want to stay with him?" Her fingers dig into my bicep. "Do you like being hurt? Is that what you want? Because I can do that, Blair, I can make it hurt." Her grip loosens slightly, and her tone becomes softer. "But I really don't want to do that. I want to protect you, I want to keep you safe. I want to care for you and make sure no one ever hurts you again. That's not so bad, is it?"

Oh god, oh god, please make her shut up, make her stop talking! My heart is pounding, I can barely breathe, and all I can hear is my blood roaring in my ears. Panic attack! I'm having a panic attack. I've got to get away from here, away from her. I've got to!

Throwing myself backwards, I wrench my arm loose and turn to run. But the fountain's right there, and the grass is wet, and I slip. Then I'm tumbling over the low wall surrounding the fountain, falling into the water. My head strikes something, pain turning my vision red with sparkles around the edges and--

~~~~~~~~

"Damn it, Blair! Get out of the water!" I yell. He doesn't move, and suddenly I'm very afraid. I plunge into the water, grabbing him under the arms, turning him over, lifting his head up. He's not breathing! God, no! He's not breathing! Out, gotta get him out, perform CPR---

Sirens in the distance, coming closer, coming for me. I can't leave him. "Blair, come on! Help me here!" I drag him to the side of the fountain, my arms hooked under his, trying to lift him out. But he's wet and heavy and as I stagger backwards over the rim of the pool he slips from my grasp. I fall on my ass as the water drags him back.

"No! No! This is not happening!" I scream, vaulting into the fountain again. "This is not how it's supposed to be!" Again I turn him on his back, wrap my arms around his chest, the sirens wailing louder and louder. "Come on, come on!"

I heave as hard as I can, but I only succeed in slipping on the slime covering the bottom of the pool. With a splash, I join Blair in the water, clutching him to me, keeping his head up. "Please, please, no…Blair…" I cradle his face in my hands, feeling the warmth leaving it, straining to hear even the faintest echo of a heartbeat. But there's nothing, only silence and the damn sirens.

I can't leave him! I can't leave him! I hear engines now, and squealing tires, and I know I can't stay. It's too late, too late, he's already gone. I kiss his forehead gently, then with a sob, I release him.

Getting to my feet, I climb out of the fountain and run, knowing if I hesitate, if I look back, I'll never make it.

~~~~~~~~

Screeching to a halt in front of Hargrove Hall, I'm leaping out of the truck and running up the stairs. I'm nearly at the top when something makes me turn around. "Oh my god!" He's in the fountain. I stumble down the stairs and across the lawn, splashing into the water, yelling for H to give me a hand.

We each grab an arm and a leg and haul him out of the pool, laying him face up on the grass. I'm on automatic pilot now, yelling "Sandburg! Sandburg!" as I check for a pulse.

Simon bends over his still form, pressing his ear to Blair's chest. "I don't hear a heartbeat. Do you? Do you hear a heartbeat? Jim! Jim!"

I shake my head. "No, nothing." Nothing.

The captain snaps out orders. "Get an ambulance! Jim, get his airway open. All right, here we go."

I breathe for Sandburg, feeling the resistance, knowing his lungs are full of water. Simon does five chest compressions and I breathe for him again. "Come on, Chief."

More chest compressions, more breathing, more swearing. "Breathe, damn you!"

Then someone's pushing me to the side. Two EMT's are bent over him now, ripping open his shirt, charging the defibrillator, placing the paddles on his chest. "Clear!" Blair's body arches in the air, then flops back. "Again!" the tech calls, and electricity courses through his body for a second time.

"This can't be happening. This can't be happening. Come on, Sandburg. Come on, Chief." Please, please no, god, no.

Again and again they try to shock his heart into beating, but it's no use. One of the medics looks up at me and shakes his head.

"No! No! He's alive!" I yell, shoving EMT out of the way, doing the chest compressions myself.

Simon grabs me and pulls me back. "He's gone!"

Something inside me tears then. "No! He can't be gone, he can't!" A sob erupts in my chest. "No…oh, god, no."

I look at the faces, at the friends hovering over Sandburg. Rafe and H are silent, their expressions stricken. Megan's making little whimpering sounds around the hand over her mouth. And Simon--Simon's eyes are filled with tears.

In that moment, I truly realize what I've lost.

~~~~~~~~

TO BE CONTINUED

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Next week's episode: Sentinel Too Part Two by CarolROI




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