Sentinel Fan Fiction Page || Fanfic -- Drama
Summary: AU. In a world where sentinels and guides are known but rare, things don't always turn out the way they're supposed to. Rated PG.
Author's note #1: While "AU fanfic inspired by the GDP series" is becoming very common, this tale is something I've been pondering writing for at least two years, if not longer. I finally decided to sit down and put it together, although it's been a slow process (read: years) of plotting and re-plotting. Hopefully what I've written is fairly original. Oh, and fair warning for a bit of ... non-traditional scripting. Heh-heh-heh.
Author's note #2: This story was originally inspired by elements in the early stories in Susan Foster's GDP universe, by Donna Gentry's Mark of the Beast, and by an image from Robyn's Lethe. Additional ideas and twists came to me later during too many sessions of envelope-stuffing at work, hashing out various thoughts and ideas with Robyn over the phone and email, and talking to my cat who only blinked at me. :-)
Written to a plethora of musical accompaniment, but most often The Sentinel soundtrack, The Time Machine (2002) soundtrack, David Arkenstone's 'Music Inspired by Middle Earth,' and occasionally Evanescence's 'Fallen' album. (Yes, I do have rather eclectic musical tastes. ~grin~)
Beta'ed (and encouraged and nudged and improved) by Robyn and Iris Wilde. Thanks muchly, gals! Any remaining errors are mine.
Feedback welcome (email addy available on main fanfic pages).
The boy huddled against the unforgiving tree trunk, arms and legs tucked inward, head lowered to protect his eyes from the stinging wind. Tiny pinpricks struck his exposed skin; he flinched but didn't otherwise move. He'd tried moving earlier, tried finding shelter from the tormenting storm, tried searching for a way out of the maze of rugged landscape, but he couldn't. Every clear path had been blocked.
The wind slowly began to wane. Cautiously, he raised his head and blinked several times. Glancing upward, looking vainly for a piece of sky, he whispered the same question into the mist. "Why do you hate me?"
A sibilant hiss replied, as it always did. "You betrayed me."
"You didn't give me a choice." He squeezed his eyes closed, biting his lip as consuming bitterness and anger rolled over and through him. The boy swallowed. "I never wanted..." Taking another breath, he begged, "Let me go. Please."
He expected derogatory laughter.
Instead a hand latched onto his shoulder, digging short nails into his upper arm. Shocked at the new development, he turned and found himself nose to nose with an all-too-familiar face. Surprised, one word escaped. "You." Never before had he shown himself. "How--?" The boy started to raise a hand to touch, but it was quickly swatted away.
Above a cold smirk, once-welcome green eyes stared at him with derision. "You will never be free of me ... Sentinel." The honorific was spat out. "Never. I will be here until you die--"
Mouth opening and sucking in a great gasp of breath, he jerked awake and sat up in the wide bed. The first light of dawn inched its way through the darkened window panes across from him. The voice hung in the air.
Shuddering, Jim Ellison lifted both hands to cover his face as he tried to reorient himself. I'm in the loft. It's ... Tuesday. Yes, Tuesday morning. Early. I'm not in the jungle. Not a child. Not with-- He cut that thought off. He's not here.
An echo of laughter niggled at him, belying that wish.
Yanking his hands away from his face, Jim set his jaw and shoved aside the destroyed bedclothes, uncaring that the comforter slouched onto the floor. He grabbed the gray flannel robe hanging at one end of the wire clothes rack, tugged it on haphazardly, and trudged downstairs in bare feet. In the kitchen, he opened the first cabinet and took down a medicine bottle, only then noticing that his hands were shaking. Gritting his teeth, Jim concentrated on removing the cap and dumping the last two pills into his hand. He tossed them into his mouth and shifted toward the sink where he'd left a half-empty water bottle. He gulped the remainder of the water, washing the bitter pills down, then leaned against the counter.
His skewed reflection at the bottom of the metal sink stared back at him. Tired eyes. Pale. Lost. Never to be whole. Part of him forever ripped away and held captive by another's foul choice. He turned away and his eyes came to rest on the empty plastic medicine bottle. Impulsively, Jim snatched the bottle and threw it across the room. It hit the wall, bounced off the table, and then skittered across the floor to bump lightly off the closed and locked doors of the empty downstairs bedroom.
Eyes wild, breath coming in pants, Jim closed his eyes and yelled, "Damn you, Robbie!"
A vague stirring of amusement rode through him before the medicine-induced fog blanketed the connection once again.
Jim slumped forward, whispering, "Damn you." With careful steps, he padded over and picked up the bottle with exaggerated care, ignoring the doors as he did so. He set the bottle on the counter to remind himself to get the prescription refilled that afternoon at Cascade General, then entered the bathroom for his morning shower. He needed to get to work.
Rain spattered on the car windows. Droplets streamed downward and sideways, colliding, merging, splitting, creating twisting paths on the smooth glass. Scenery -- mountains, trees, other cars, smeared faces -- slipped by him, outside that window, half-hidden by shimmering water. In the distance, he spotted tall buildings waiting for them. The days of travel had blurred and fused into one long interminable journey. Lifting a hand, he touched the glass with one finger, absently noting the coldness seeping through his skin as he traced the path of a droplet skimming along to join its fellows.
"Hey." The car's other occupant spoke up softly. "I thought you were asleep over there. You okay?" A hand touched his shoulder, fingers flexing in a caring squeeze. Concern sounded in the simple question.
He was tired. Weary of traveling along endless roads. Sick of sleeping in unfamiliar beds and eating in unfamiliar restaurants. He felt drained. Too many new people too often. Shifting in his seat to face his companion who was driving, he knew he wasn't alone in those feelings. But he also knew he felt a measure of safety and peace that had been missing for the past year. Even with the uncertainties waiting for them at their destination, a new start would be good. For both of them.
Smiling, he patted the hand resting on his shoulder. "I'm good."
A smile answered his. "Good." The hand left his shoulder as blue eyes shifted forward to look at the road, then back again. "Because we'll be there in a few hours."
He nodded absently, looking out the window again. "You really think this place is the right one?"
"I do." The answer was firm. "I asked detailed questions. And got all the correct answers. This won't be like Phoenix. Or Salt Lake. Or anywhere else we've been looking."
Silence fell between them before the driver continued in a soft voice, "But remember, if you're not comfortable or happy, tell me. You have to tell me. I don't want you hurt again. Agreed?"
A spray of water hit the passenger side of the car as they passed a semi. He sighed and muttered, "You would find the right place in the rain capital of the country. I'm gonna have to buy a whole new wardrobe."
"Does that mean I won't be seeing any more of those tacky Hawaiian shirts?" A smirk accompanied the dry question.
Jim stared at the computer screen, mouth turned down slightly in a frown as he scanned the case notations. He tapped at the mouse again. I know there's something I'm missing. He tapped again and winced at the ensuing computer beep. While taking the heavier damper drug kept his erratic senses under control -- and his mind freed of another's presence -- it also had the side effect of giving him headaches. He glanced at his watch. And it'll be at least another hour before I can take something to counteract it. Resisting the urge to grind his teeth in frustration, he concentrated again on the case file on his computer screen.
He looked up when someone entered the still mostly-empty Major Crime bullpen -- Megan Conner, a visiting inspector from Australia who, after half a year of "visiting," decided to stay in the US, claiming she liked the Northwest and Cascade in particular. In the three months since Robbie's ... departure, she had become his partner and also acted as his quasi-guide when the need arose.
She spotted him at his desk immediately. "Jim?"
Jim waved his free hand at her. "Morning, Conner."
Megan walked over to join him at his desk, shrugging off her long coat as she did. "You're early this morning."
He shrugged, his eyes remaining on the computer screen. "Woke up early. Couldn't get back to sleep." Oh, that's truthful. Reaching for the mouse, he tapped it determinably a few times.
A hand touched his shoulder briefly. Megan asked, "Is there anything I can do?"
Unexpectedly, he shuddered. Which made Jim realize just how tensely he was holding himself. He tried to relax, but the headache pulsed again, mocking his efforts. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes and breathed it out slowly, then said quietly, "I'm okay."
"Okay." Dropping the subject, Megan nodded sharply and gestured to his computer. "I'll leave you to your reports."
Jim pursed his lips. "Actually, I was looking over some older case files. I got to thinking about the vandalisms on the way to work this morning. There's still something about them." He frowned and shook his head. "I can't quite figure out what it is, but something just feels familiar. I'm thinking it could be from a previous case. The fog--" he made a face, referring to the damper drug "--is interfering."
Megan raised her eyebrows. "That would seem to indicate that it's a sentinel sensory issue, rather than simply detective-related."
He nodded. "Possibly, yes. But even before Robb--" Jim faltered to a stop. Pull it together, Ellison. The brass are probably still watching you. Simon worked hard to keep you here. He took a breath and pushed on. "Even before that, Simon suggested I take notes on any sensory quirks that happened during my cases. My senses were never very reliable back then, but every now and then, they worked and gave us a break."
The unspoken comparison "much like they do now" hung in the air between them for several moments before Megan spoke up to clarify his words. "And you think that whatever you're ... remembering may be one of those times."
Jim shrugged and clicked his mouse, paging down through a case file. "I'm not sure. Maybe. It could be a case from later. Sensory clues are included as part of the files." And no matter what else he turned out to be, Robbie had been a compulsive note-taker. That had been one area Jim hadn't liked -- Robbie had always depended more on notes and routine techniques than on instinct or trying to expand past Jim's established sensory limitations. At the time, Jim had seen Robbie's reticence as inexperience and youth, but after the fact, after seeing who Robbie really was, well, he knew better.
"Jim?" Megan's inquiring tone interrupted his brooding thoughts.
He gave himself a mental shake and straightened slightly in his chair. "Anyway, I was hoping that--"
Before he could finish, Simon swept into the bullpen in full captainly glower. "Conner. Ellison. My office."
Jim and Megan exchanged a quick glance, then hurried after him.
His first thought was that the building was plain. Simple. No fancy sculptures or water fountains. Through the half-pulled vertical blinds of the lobby windows, he could make out what he thought might be an "in memoriam" wall, but even that wasn't ostentatious. He leaned forward a little in the passenger seat and glanced upwards. It's tall. Rising into the gray mist, and covered with windows, it stared out over the city streets. Really tall. Absently, he wondered how far you could see from the top even as he yanked himself back, not wanting to picture himself on the roof.
One hand went to his other wrist, his fingers automatically curling around the braided cord hiding just beneath the cuff of his long-sleeve shirt. Two fingers and a thumb rubbed methodically along the familiar striations of the brown-black leather. The soothing actions calmed him, easing away his momentary panic. Movement to his left caught his attention and he blew out a breath in relief as his partner returned from finding parking directions. The driver's door opened, letting in a blast of cold, damp air before it slammed shut again.
"We're supposed to go inside the parking garage. We've got a spot waiting for us. And then take the elevator up to the lobby to sign in; we'll get further directions there. You okay?" Intent eyes latched onto his, awaiting an answer.
"I'm okay." Smiling, he purposely relaxed just a bit further into the seat. "Really."
A brief nod. "Good." Silence fell between them as skillful hands maneuvered the car into the garage and around other vehicles. "If you keep rubbing that thing, I'm going to have to get you another one. Again." Fond teasing cushioned the complaining words.
He grinned. "I'll try to remember that."
"To use one of your words, I doubt the veracity of that statement." An empty spot labeled "guest" awaited them and the car slid smoothly to a stop. "That's the second one this year alone. I should make you pay for the next one."
"But you won't." He paused before opening the door.
"No. I won't." Doors opened and shut quickly.
The chilliness of the garage shocked him and he tugged his jacket more tightly around his torso. And then laughed at the additional comment thrown over the hood of the car.
"But I should!"
Jim pushed the door to Simon's office closed and sat down next to Megan at the end of the long conference table. He watched the captain shift in his desk chair several times before finally puffing out a disgusted breath and folding his hands over a crisp red file folder. He didn't need his senses, muffled or not, to know that Simon was uneasy about something. Something that affected their department and perhaps the three of them in particular.
Megan spoke before he could. "Captain?"
Simon straightened slightly in his chair. "Sorry. Just thinking."
"About?" Jim raised his eyebrows; he continued when there was no immediate answer. "C'mon, Simon. Calling us into your office first thing in the morning can't be a good thing."
Sighing, Simon glanced down at the file folder laying beneath his hands, then back up again. "Yesterday evening, after you two left, the chief caught me just before I closed up for the night. He informed me that we have a pair of visitors arriving at Major Crime. Today. I argued against placing them here, especially on such short notice, but I was overruled." He paused.
Neither Jim or Megan said anything for a bit, then Megan asked slowly, "Was there a reason the chief wants them here?"
Simon shifted in his chair again. Jim's concern grew, and he frowned. "Simon?"
The captain took a breath and just let the news fall from his lips. "They're from Phoenix, a sentinel-guide pair, the sentinel being a detective. Apparently, they're ... dissatisfied with their current location and are thinking of moving to the Northwest. The chief is trying to lure them to Cascade and is hoping that a visit with our department will be beneficial." Simon kept his eyes on Jim's face as he finished through gritted teeth, quoting with distinct reluctance. "Because Cascade no longer has a sentinel-guide pair."
Jim blinked. Emotions he couldn't begin to name flew through him at a dizzying pace as he listened to Simon's words. At the final sentence, he pulled himself together abruptly, looking away from the captain's gaze. Because I'm not useful anymore. He stood and walked stiffly over to the windows to stare outside.
Behind him, he heard Megan get to her feet. "A sentinel-guide pair? Captain? Is that--?"
In the window's reflection, Simon held up a hand. "Conner, I spent two hours last night debating this issue from every angle with the chief. He refused to be dissuaded. Besides, it's too late. They should be here any minute." The phone rang on Simon's desk and he answered it gruffly. "Banks .... Very well. Thank you." After replacing the handset, he said to Megan, "The officers are on their way up. Conner, could you meet them? They..."
Jim tuned out their voices completely. He could still do that fairly effectively, much to Simon's displeasure. The sound of the door opening and closing jerked him back to the present in a rush. He knew Simon was still there, but the captain was silent for several long moments before he joined Jim at the window. Drizzly rain spilled on the glass from above, streaking down the surface. The sun shone in spots through white-gray clouds.
"Are you going to be okay with this?" Simon kept his voice quiet.
Okay with seeing what I should be? seeing what I used to be? seeing someone who is still whole? Jim reached up to trace a winding trail of water down the window pane. "Probably. It's not like I haven't been near a guide since that day. Though never a Joined one."
Simon sighed and rubbed his eyes. "I just wish there was a way to find another guide for you. I hate seeing you like this."
Jim laughed harshly. "It doesn't quite work that way, Simon. Both sides have to want it -- part instinct, part chemistry, part acceptance." His mouth quirked up into a humorless grin. "I was older than most when I finally found a guide. And now I think I'm getting too old to reJoin. All the guides the Institute is finding are young. They'll want young sentinels." A pang of loss struck him and for once he was glad of the damper drugs; he didn't want or need his former guide to sense it. "And I don't-- I don't think I can open myself like that again." His voice dropped. "It hurt. More than--"
A hand rested lightly on his shoulder, squeezing. Jim took a breath and shook away the memories. "Besides, even when I did try, Robbie ... knew. He reached through me and nearly Burned that girl. I can't let that happen to anyone." He shook his head. "No, Robbie was my only chance."
"And he knew that!" Simon's voice rose in pitch, his anger bleeding through strongly.
"Simon--" Jim half-turned, intending to say something to calm his upset friend -- again. This was a discussion they'd had many times in the past few months. Being the stalwart friend that he was, Simon hadn't wanted to believe that Jim couldn't find another guide, but eventually he'd come to accept Jim's belief and his anger grew against Robbie.
But before Jim could find the right words, if there were any, there was a knock on the door. He nearly laughed at the scowl on Simon's face but didn't. Instead he leaned back against the window frame, arms folded across his chest, calling on old covert ops training to remain unnoticed.
Simon stalked back to his desk, calling out, "Enter!"
Megan opened the door and walked inside, her eyes sweeping past Simon and Jim before turning sideways to introduce the visiting officers --
-- a tall, striking (if not exactly beautiful), blonde woman and a shorter, curly brown-haired man.
"Captain Banks, this is Detective Alex Barnes and her partner and guide, Blair Sandburg."
Within moments of entering the bullpen of Major Crime, Blair felt the curious, though thankfully not hostile, glances. Alex appeared oblivious to them, at least outwardly. Edging closer to her and lifting a hand to rest lightly on her lower back, he immediately knew differently. Her muscles were tight and a sliver of reactive defensiveness threaded its way through her emotions. After their recent ... unpleasant experiences at other police stations, Blair knew to expect this, but it wasn't helping his own rattled nerves. So we're both nervous now. His other hand twitched at his side as he stilled the instinctive urge to hide the bright red visitor's pass pinned on his coat. As in all new situations, Blair kept his barriers tightly closed. To his empathic sense, the bullpen was filled with flickering shadows -- and Alex, whom he could always feel.
A door opened on the other side of the large room and a tall, dark-haired woman stepped out of an office. Her eyes latched onto them immediately and she strode across the floor to meet them. Even without actively reaching, Blair knew she was unhappy about something. Holding back, Blair let Alex take the lead as they followed Inspector Conner back into the office, through a door labeled "Captain Simon Banks." Alex stiffened slightly just past the doorway, and he pressed his hand against her back, getting her attention. He raised his eyebrow in question; she only frowned and shook her head once.
Something's pinged on her sentinel radar, but she doesn't know what.
Conner's accented voice interrupted his thoughts. "Captain Banks, this is Detective Alex Barnes and her partner and guide, Blair Sandburg." She gently closed the door after they stepped inside.
A tall black man -- presumably Captain Banks -- stood in front of the desk inside the office. "Welcome to Cascade, Detective Barnes, Mr. Sandburg."
Smiling, Alex shook Banks's hand. "Thank you. I've never been to the Northwest before. I didn't realize it was so ... rainy."
Banks and Conner both chuckled softly, and Conner added, "Neither did I."
Blair's lips twitched into a grin, relaxing a little at Alex's comment. He knew some of her apparent "at ease" attitude was an act, but it was better than nothing.
The captain's attention switched to him, and Banks offered his hand after a moment for a welcoming handshake. Blair hesitated, a bit startled to be recognized after the initial introduction. This isn't LA. Or Phoenix. Maybe it's different here. Just as he heard Alex inhale to speak, he reached out and took the captain's hand, shaking it firmly once. Surface emotions of genuine good feelings mixed with tentative hope touched him. Separate from those, a sense of bitterness and old anger slid by, but they were covered, hidden, controlled, almost ...
...as if he knows how to handle his emotions around empaths.
Blair blinked in surprise and nodded in response to Banks's greeting. "Thank you." He must know a guide. Family perhaps? A friend? Colleague? As Banks released his hand, Blair's eyes skipped to Conner. No, not her, though there's something... It was then he realized that her eyes were fixed on something else, someone else, entirely -- a tall man, a detective, standing by the windows near the back of the office.
Why didn't I see him? Why didn't Alex?
Jim took the few moments they were distracted by Simon's greeting to catalog them with an assessing detective's eye. Dressed in a dark plum pantsuit, Barnes had a cool smile and held herself easily, moving smoothly. Her longish blonde hair had been swept into a casual ponytail at the base of her neck, secured by a stylish metal clip.
Her guide -- Jim felt a twinge from afar -- Sandburg was not quite what he expected. His hair hung loose about his face, partially hiding the bashful smile and intelligent eyes. Wearing blue jeans and a long-sleeved dark green Henley under a leather jacket, he seemed to clash with Barnes's more professional attire. With a small frown, Jim noted Sandburg's hesitancy in taking Simon's hand for the brief handshake.
His eyes shifted back to Barnes. Wonder how she treats her guide, especially since he's not a cop. Protocols were slowly beginning to be formed and established to help the world adjust to the presence of sentinels and guides. The discovery and recognition of sentinels -- people with five fully enhanced senses -- was fairly recent, only in the last few decades. There had always been a few people around with one or two or three, or very rarely, four enhanced senses, but never five. It was all five that made someone a sentinel. Jim knew there were only a handful of known sentinels scattered around the globe. Meeting another sentinel was not something he'd ever expected.
Movement grabbed his attention and he glanced over to find Megan watching him. She's beginning to take this pseudo-guide thing way too seriously. Maybe it's that guide element. Robbie did the same thing when-- He shut down that thought abruptly, shunting away the spark of pain it brought. Focusing back on the visitors, Jim was startled to see Sandburg watching him intently. Then Barnes placed her hand on Sandburg's shoulder in response to Simon's comment about her good record, pulling her partner's attention back to her. His eyes flitted back up to her and he smiled slightly.
Jim had his answer to his earlier question. They're family. His heart twisted and he shifted to look out the window again.
His movement, however, garnered attention. Sandburg and Barnes turned to look at him even as Simon gestured him forward. "This is Detective Jim Ellison."
Jim inclined his head toward them, offering his hand. Barnes accepted the handshake. "Pleased." A subtle vibration plucked at him. Between one blink and the next, he was standing at the edge of a vast jungle, the discordant view of low rolling sand dunes and an ocean stretching out in front of him. The familiar feel and smell of damp, warm Peruvian air and foliage pressed against his back. Cold, pungent salt air stung his face and the exposed skin of his arms. One glance downward told him he was dressed in camouflage, including paint. A large Bowie knife lay strapped against his leg and the long stem of a bow slid along one shoulder.
The sharp cry of a seagull snapped his eyes upward and he followed the flight of the bird downward, unconsciously tracking it to the water's edge where some undefined sand sculpture rose into the air. A shadowy figure knelt beside it.
Another blink and he was back in the office, slowly releasing Barnes's hand.
After three years of working together as a Joined Pair, Blair was closely attuned to Alex's emotions and knew her reactions to just about any situation. However, the jolt of shock that snapped through her (and thereby arcing into him even though he wasn't touching her) as she shook Ellison's hand was unexpected. His fingertips tingled, as he imagined hers probably did. A quick judging glance at Ellison's face showed the same surprised stare.
Even as confusion filled his sentinel, a rush of intuition sent Blair's mind into overdrive. Oh! He's--
Conner's voice broke into his thoughts as she looked between Ellison and Alex. "What is it?"
Alex withdrew her hand just as Ellison said quietly, "Chief Warren neglected to mention that there was a full sentinel in Cascade, didn't he?"
Her confusion vanishing instantly, Alex took a step away from Ellison, backing into Blair and nearly unbalancing him. "He said Cascade didn't have a functional Pair." Wariness and distrust rose up, and Blair reluctantly let her push him further behind her.
Banks cleared his throat, startling Blair, who had forgotten the man was there. "Technically, that is correct. Jim is a full sentinel, but unJoined."
Ellison and Alex continued to stare at each other. Alex said slowly, "I don't think I've ever met another full sentinel before."
"Same here," Ellison said. "I've met someone with four senses heightened, but not all five."
An uneasy silence followed. Banks spoke up again, voice tense as he directed his comments to Alex. "I had thought of asking you to ride with Detectives Ellison and Conner as they are my best team. But if this is going to be a problem...?"
After another moment, Ellison broke eye contact with Alex. "No, sir. It won't."
Alex shook her head once in agreement. "No, Captain. No problem."
"Good." Banks nodded decisively, then turned slightly to pick up the red folder on his desk. "Now then, there are a few forms to fill out for you to receive more permanent visitor passes, but other than that, you are welcome to jump right in."
Curiosity drew Blair out from behind Alex. He looked at Alex, then at Ellison, then back at Alex. Something else happened. He opened his mouth to ask, but Alex caught his eyes sharply. Subsiding, he acquiesced to her judgment. It could wait until they were alone.
Blair jerked at the loud noise and the immediate opening of the office door. A casually dressed black man, badge hanging around his neck like a charm, jostled impatiently in the doorway. "Sorry to interrupt, Captain." His eyes slid over to Jim. "There's been another one."
His police light flashing on the dashboard, Jim concentrated on driving through the rain-dampened city streets, letting Megan explain their current case to the two passengers sitting in the second row passenger seats of the Expedition.
"...half a dozen paintings destroyed and at least one stolen each time. The attacks don't seem to be focused on any one type of art. All the artists involved are local; none of the paintings destroyed or stolen have been worth much..."
Barnes was sitting behind Jim so Megan, seated in the front passenger seat, could talk to her more easily. Which meant Jim kept catching glimpses of Sandburg when he looked over his shoulder in preparation to change lanes. Most times Sandburg's eyes were fixed on Barnes as she asked questions of Megan.
"...no signs of break-in at any of the previous art galleries. As of yet, we haven't found any sharing of support services or personnel. This will be the fourth one hit in the past six weeks. We haven't found any real leads; however..."
Moving around a slow-moving truck, he glanced back again -- this time meeting Sandburg's eyes. The younger man swiftly looked away, pulling back slightly in his seat. Jim returned his gaze forward, suddenly suspicious. Shy? Or just nervous? His detective instincts told him there had to be something more to their story of being "unhappy" in Phoenix.
"...Jim thinks the vandalisms may be connected somehow to a previous case of his." The mention of his name drew Jim's attention back to Megan.
"How so?" That was Barnes. He glanced toward the rearview mirror and caught her cool, assessing look.
Glaring at Megan briefly, who looked only mildly apologetic, Jim replied slowly, "There's something about them that seems familiar to me. Sensory-wise. I'm just not sure what yet. I was scanning over some previous case files this morning, looking for similarities, but nothing jumped out at me. I plan to go back through them in more detail later."
A murmured voice from the other passenger whispered something too low for him to hear. Then Sandburg surprised him by asking in a soft tone, "Have you tried pinning down what seems familiar to you? Filtering out what's normal?"
Maybe not too shy. "I can't," Jim admitted after a moment's reluctance. "Without a guide, it just doesn't work." He could feel that faraway twinge again, stronger this time, that defined Robbie. Damnit. He's adapting again. "And even if I could get it to work, I'd only get lost in a sensory haze." Turning one last corner, Jim spotted the flashing lights of other police vehicles parked outside a small art gallery.
"Even unJoined sentinels receive some training." Sandburg sounded confused.
Jim slowed the truck to a stop and threw it into park. "I did. It's just...it's complicated." Snagging his Jags cap from the console, he exited the car in a rush, knowing that Megan would apologize for his bluntness.
He really didn't want to explain that they'd been sent off with a sentinel who was unJoined (at least publicly) because he didn't know, even after a year of being Joined, that his guide had been working for the other side.
Silence reigned in the Expedition.
That was-- Alex couldn't decide exactly what it was. Abrupt? Different? Not so unfamiliar? She could see pieces of herself in Ellison's behavior. Even without Blair's gift of empathy, she knew a sore spot when she ran headlong into one.
Conner cleared her throat quietly. "Uh, sorry about that." She unbuckled her seatbelt and twisted to face Blair and Alex. "Jim's a bit testy today."
Her lips twisting into a wry smile, Alex replied, "So I noticed. But that's all right." She avoided the obvious "guide" issue as an excuse. "I've had my share of cases that got me testy. Right, Blair?" Glancing at her companion, she found his eyes tracking Ellison's form as he strode past the yellow police tape. A noncommittal "uh-huh" was the only response to her comment.
"We'd better catch up with Jim." Conner started to turn back to her door. "He's likely to just roll on ahead without us."
"Wait," Blair blurted out.
Conner gave him a startled look.
Blair hesitated a moment, then continued, "Um, can I ask why Detective Ellison isn't Joined?"
Alex shook her head sharply. "Blair, we shouldn't--" She broke off when his leg moved until one knee rested against hers, and Alex inwardly blinked as she felt Blair lower his barriers just slightly. What is he up to? Through him, she faintly sensed Conner's surface emotions: swift anger and deep sorrow. Blair's surprise at the combination echoed her own.
"No, it's all right." Conner held up a hand. "You'll hear about it anyway. At least part of it. Better I tell you than someone else." She took a deep breath, then said, "Jim was Joined. For a short time. But his guide-- Something happened. He's no longer here."
Narrowing her eyes, Alex asked for clarification. "No longer here? Is he dead?" Meeting another sentinel was one thing. Meeting one who would harm his guide -- she looked quickly at Blair -- that was just not acceptable.
A brief flare of rage from Conner slid through Blair and into Alex, even as Blair yanked his barriers back up to full strength with a sharp inhale. Preoccupied with her own thoughts, Conner didn't notice; instead, she moved jerkily away, finally shifting to open the door. "No. He's not dead." She stepped out of the vehicle and closed the door before walking towards the gallery building to catch up with her partner.
Alex frowned, her forehead creasing as she watched Conner disappear into the building. She then turned to Blair. "Are you okay?"
He nodded once. "Fine. Maybe I shouldn't have asked," Blair went on quietly. "It upset her."
"Maybe." Alex touched his knee. "But I don't think it was the question so much as the answer that upset her."
Blair raised his eyebrows. "I thought I was the empath."
She smiled and winked. "I learned from the best. C'mon." She gestured to the door. "We're supposed to be visiting officers, so let's go visit."
Once outside, they headed toward the gallery building, stopping momentarily to speak with the uniformed officer who simply waved them on through since he'd spoken to Ellison about their visiting status. At the doors of the building, Blair suddenly stopped. He grabbed her by the elbow, asking, "Oh! By the way, what happened back in the office between you and Ellison?"
Alex nudged Blair through the open doors to the gallery lobby as she answered, "I'm not sure exactly. I think it might have been a mutual vision, for lack of a better term." Hiding a smile at Blair's probable reaction to that calm pronouncement, she concentrated on extending her hearing, listening for Ellison's voice. Left.
Blair gaped at her. "A mutual what?"
She pointed. "Let's go. I can hear Ellison's voice coming from that direction."
"Al--" His fingers tightened on her arm. His emotions shifted, becoming nervy with curiosity and excitement.
Grasping his shoulder, Alex steered them both away from the doors and lowered her voice. "Blair, we can dissect it later. Right now, we're at a crime scene and I need you to focus so I can focus. Afterwards, we'll go back to the PD, get the car, and return to the hotel. Then we can talk all you want." She rubbed her thumb over his shoulder. "Okay?"
Blair took a deep breath, blew it out slowly, then smiled sheepishly. "Okay. Sorry. It's just, you know, your visions are important."
Alex smiled lightly. "So you keep telling me." In the distance, she heard Ellison asking Conner where they were. "C'mon. We've been missed."
Red, purple, green, and yellow swirled chaotically on the ravaged painting. The canvas itself hung precariously on the wall by one nail. Glancing at the small card attached to the wall next to the ruined piece of art, Jim noted the title of "Wildflowers." Now it was just torn edges of canvas and crumbling paint flakes. And again that odd sense of familiarity ... of something I should know ... that I do know.
Footsteps echoed in the otherwise empty side room of the gallery. Shaken from his thoughts, he glanced to the side as Megan strode across the room to join him in staring at the painting. "Same story as the previous places?"
"Pretty much." Jim waved his hand back toward the entryway to the larger main room. "Back door unlocked. Random paintings slashed. One stolen. One small break, however." He turned to face her. "One of the uniforms reported that the rain left behind some mud in the back which has fresh tires prints in it that don't appear belong to the gallery owner's vehicle. Forensics is casting them."
Megan nodded. "Any lead is a good lead right now."
After a moment's pause, Jim said quietly, "Sorry for leaving you in the lurch back there."
An understanding smile flitted across her face. "Quite all right." She lowered her voice. "Sandburg asked why you weren't Joined. I told them part of the truth -- that you had been but that your guide isn't here any more. No other details. I figured it was better they hear it from me than someone else."
Jim grimaced, then sighed. "Yeah. Hopefully some of the more wild tales will pass them by." His eyes drifted back to the painting as the niggling sense of something attracted his muffled abilities. Distractedly he asked, "Where are our guests?"
"On their way." Without pause, Megan stated, "You're picking up on that unknown again, aren't you."
He rubbed his forehead. "It comes and goes but doesn't stand still long enough for me to identify it. Frustrating as hell." Waving a hand at the painting, he went on, "It's especially present here."
Megan frowned. "Perfume maybe?"
"Maybe." Jim looked doubtful. "It might help if we knew why certain paintings are targeted."
"Blair might have a possible direction for you," Barnes said as she and Sandburg joined them.
Stiffening slightly, Jim turned to face them. Inwardly, he would admit to some nervousness about their reaction to Megan's information. Another part of him wondered what they could have seen in only a few minutes that he'd missed. Barnes met his eyes steadily, wariness in her gaze, but no more than was there in Simon's office. Sandburg stood at her shoulder, just slightly tucked behind her -- an instinctual stance he knew well. Clearing his throat, he responded to Barnes's comment. "And that would be what?"
Barnes looked at Sandburg who straightened just a bit and spoke up, still in that same soft tone. "The artists whose paintings have been destroyed...they all have one thing in common. They're unofficially known as 'sensors' -- people who have at least two senses heightened but not all four." He nodded at the painting behind Jim. "In this case, it's touch and sight."
Megan's eyes widened. "Nothing in our background checks of the artists revealed that. Are you sure?"
Sandburg nodded. "Yes."
Jim remained skeptical. "How?"
Blair opened his mouth to answer, then stopped as Alex slipped in smoothly, giving the simplest explanation. "Before Blair and I were Joined, he worked at a large art gallery. And has since delved more into sentinel-related areas of interest, including artwork." She rested her hand on his shoulder. "Trust me. He knows."
Ellison and Conner seemed to accept that and Blair continued. "Many artist-sensors will use pseudonyms to protect their identity and talents so they won't be pressed into service or taken advantage of. But I can recognize sensors' work." Sliding away from Alex's hand, he edged past Ellison to examine the painting more closely. With one hand, he fumbled out a pair of wire-rimmed glasses from his jacket pocket to read the accompanying descriptive plaque. "Yes. Definitely sensor work. The name is familiar."
"This information does shed a different light on the vandalisms. Now maybe we can work on a motive. Hatred? Jealousy? Discrimination?" Ellison's voice lightened a bit and he smiled slightly at Blair when he turned around. "I'm impressed. Thank you."
Blair smiled back, then, remembering the conversation in the car, asked hesitantly, "Are you ... sensing that familiarity here?"
Ellison's good humor melted away into a frustrated frown. "Yes. Right here, actually."
"Hmm." Blair looked at the painting again. "If it's something you think is there but can't exactly find, I'm going to guess it's a scent."
"As good a guess as any." Ellison looked at Alex. "Perhaps you might have better luck. Even if you don't see it as familiar, maybe you might be able to identify it." He stepped away from the painting.
"I can try." Alex resumed her position by Blair, hand going to his shoulder as she stared at the painting. After a moment, her eyes slid gently closed as Blair coaxed her into a light meditative stance. He could feel Ellison and Conner watching them. A thread of performance anxiety slid through him but was quickly soothed by Alex's presence. A humming echo of her voice commanded his attention and he quickly forgot about their audience.
Eyes still closed, Alex spoke in fragments. "Paint. Lots of paint. Floor wax. Residual cigarette smoke. Assorted people-stuff smells. Closer... Perfume. Floral." A frown flitted across her face and a line drew down between her eyebrows. "Something else... Distant. Faint. Can't..." Her voice faded away.
Blair immediately lifted a hand and touched her cheek. A sterner tone crept into his voice, one that had taken him at least a year to cultivate but one that never failed. "Alex. You're too deep. Come back." He was rewarded with a deep breath and fluttering eyelids as his sentinel returned to him. His hand dropped away and he smiled. "Hey."
"Hey yourself." Alex squeezed his shoulder, then shifted toward their hosts.
Conner was grinning in admiration. "That was ... well, let's just say now I'm impressed."
Ellison, on the other hand, just looked shuttered and still. Blair's empathic nature stretched out to him without thought and a myriad of surface emotions streamed back along that tiny thread -- all shadowed by some unnamed and deeply felt pain. He shook it away as Alex spoke.
"I'm guessing you smelled the perfume." After Ellison's silent nod, she went on. "There is something else there, but it's not familiar to me. And I don't know what it is either. It was very elusive and yet--" She ground to a halt and stared intensely at Blair, her fingers alternating tightening and releasing on his shoulder.
Blair blinked up at her, startled at the rare possessiveness in her eyes. "What?"
Abnormally flustered, Alex managed to finish her sentence. "--it was almost seductive."
Megan's eyebrows rose. "Seductive? You mean like pheromones or something?"
Alex lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. "Or something. Does that sound at all like what you think you might be sensing, Ellison?"
Eyebrows drawing together in thought, he nodded. "Actually, yes, it does."
While Barnes and Sandburg circulated through the gallery to check the other vandalized paintings, Jim remained at the "Wildflowers" one. Megan had gone with them. He'd seen the other paintings briefly and hadn't picked up that unidentified scent as strongly as he did here. Without the grounding presence of a guide, he knew it was dangerous to try anything deeper than surface-sensing, but... I need to know what it is. Though Conner may strangle me later. Taking a half-step closer, he inhaled deeply, consciously focusing on--
"Jim!" Megan's sharp tone jarred him from his concentration. "What are you doing?"
Blowing out his captured breath in annoyance, Jim twisted around and glared at Megan. "Working. Investigating. Doing what a detective does."
Hands on her hips, Megan matched his glare with one of her own. "You were doing what a sentinel does. Without a guide--"
"But I'm not without a guide, am I!" Jim interrupted in a flash of anger. Robbie's face as he last saw it snapped to the forefront of his memory. "He won't Release me, Conner; he'll never Release me. The doctors can't force him to, and the drugs only work to an extent and only for as long as it takes him to adapt. Three months ago, I was sent on my way with a 'we're sorry' and a lifetime damper drugs prescription. Nothing's changed." As quickly as it came, the anger vanished and he deflated, slumping against the wall. Jim rubbed a hand across his forehead wearily. "I need to know, Megan. I'm a sentinel. And Sandburg was right -- I do have the training."
Jim looked up, surprised at her easy acquiescence -- and more surprised at the smile on her face. "What?"
Megan shrugged a little. "Just wondering how long you've had that all bottled. I swear I heard a cork pop."
He found himself chuckling softly. "Too long, obviously." Momentary distraction passing, he pushed away from the wall and placed a hand on Megan's shoulder in preparation. And then he hesitated. Now that he wasn't alone, Jim wasn't so sure he could do it.
"No worries, Jimbo. If you go too deep, I'll use the same method McCoy uses on Spock to wake him from a healing trance -- good hard slaps." Megan winked.
Jim rolled his eyes. "Spare me from your Star Trek obsession, woman." He took a deep settling breath and let his eyelids close.
Megan's amused tone followed him as he searched for the elusive scent. "Think of it as an incentive."
Part of him remained aware of the sound of her voice and the touch of the cloth under his hand, both of which grounded him as he reached out. Jim caught the ephemeral scent, then lost it as everything spun away.
"...I keep telling you, Simon, I'm too old to be Joined," Jim grumbled. He and Simon stood to one side of the Cascade Renaissance Hotel lobby, watching the half-dozen or so freshly trained guides, all in their mid- to late-20s, straggle into through the large glass doors. "This is pointless."
Simon clamped down on Jim's shoulder before he could turn to find a back door. "No. You need a guide, Jim. Your abilities are expanding. A non-guide partner may not be able to give you the assistance you need for much longer."
Jim eyed the group of guides -- they all look so young! -- before nodding reluctantly. "All right, all right. But this is it. If the third time isn't the charm, I don't want to see any fourth time. I'll find another way. Deal?" He held out his hand.
After a moment's thought, Simon took Jim's hand firmly and shook it once. "Deal."
An older white-haired gentleman parted company with the group of guides and walked over to them. Simon took his outstretched hand. "Dr. Bain. Good to see you again. I trust things are going well."
Dr. Bain inclined his head. "Fairly, yes. Working for the Guide Program does keep me busy." He moved his gaze to Jim, who was watching the guides talk animatedly as they clustered around the lobby fish aquarium. "Detective Ellison."
Blinking rapidly, Jim jerked his attention back to Dr. Bain. "Sorry."
"No need." Eyebrows raising in hope, Dr. Bain gestured toward the guides. "Perhaps one of them is right for you."
Jim strode forward determinedly, heading straight into the midst of the guides. Simon's alarmed tone hardly registered. The guides parted before him and he finally stopped behind a young man who was peering into the aquarium, his back to the rest of the room. Cautiously raising a hand, Jim reached out for the silky blond hair. I feel...
Abruptly, the blond straightened and turned, forcing Jim to take a step back. Startled green eyes set under too-long bangs met his. Jim's hand hung in the air between them before he lowered it and offered it for a handshake. "I'm Jim."
For a second, nothing happened, then the blond took his hand. "Robbie."
"Nice to meet you...oh!" Jim's hand tingled; it continued up his arm, sending a shiver down his back. He blinked.
Robbie blinked as well, then grinned. "Wow! Cool!"
Jim smiled slowly in understanding -- he had a guide! "Yeah. Cool." Without releasing Robbie's hand, he called over his shoulder. "Hey, Simon--"
A concussive wave of something sledgehammered into him, knocked him from his feet, and sent him spiraling away.
Jim gasped and his eyes flew open. Someone was touching his face. He blinked and realized Sandburg was standing toe-to-toe with him, a hand on his cheek.
Robbie roared up through his mind in an unstoppable eruption.
All Jim's senses were, for a brief moment, perfectly aligned and operating at peak efficiency. Voices clarified. Heartbeats echoed. The individual odors surrounding him separated, including the unidentified seductive scent hanging around the painting. Whorls of fingerprints indented his cheek. Specks of color in Sandburg's startled eyes stood out from the rest. Pain/fright/shock mixed with hatred/denial/bitterness spilled on him from two sides -- and Jim abruptly yanked himself away from Sandburg's hand, stumbling back, falling hard against the wall. His senses spiked, then vanished altogether several times before reappearing and settling into the "fog" range he had become accustomed to in the past few months.
"What did you do?!" Barnes's strident voice shouted at him, even as he felt Megan's hand on his arm. One hand holding his head, Jim squinted at Barnes, horrified to see her supporting a listing, obviously overloaded Sandburg.
"I...it wasn't...what happened?" Jim forced himself to concentrate on the present and ignored the scratchingclatteringyelling at the back of his mind, hoping Robbie's presence would fade in a few minutes, overtaken by the powerful damper drugs he'd taken only a few hours before.
Megan explained quickly. "You zoned. I couldn't bring you out of it. Sandburg--" She looked over at Sandburg, currently clinging to Barnes, eyes tightly squeezed closed. "Sandburg offered to try." Swallowing, she lowered her voice. "Was it--?"
Jim cut her off. "Yes. The latest ... treatment isn't working anymore." He winced at the echo of a radio squawk. "And I took the last of my damper drugs this morning."
Barnes's upset voice sliced through their conversation. "What the hell are you two talking about?"
Buffered by Alex's protective presence, Blair rebuilt his defenses and ignored the loud voices around him. He had been woefully unprepared for the unrestrained burst of complicated emotions that poured through Ellison when he pulled him from the deep zone. Normally, even something that powerful wouldn't overload him quite so thoroughly. But he was tired. The strain of their working situation, the abrupt trip, meeting so many new faces in a new environment, having to work with Alex in front of strangers. It was just too much. Getting blasted by ... whatever that was had buckled his inner walls. For the moment, he could erect a temporary shield, but he needed to keep in physical contact with Alex until they could get some time alone to fix things.
In the meantime, Blair knew he needed to concentrate on matters at hand. Alex's rage flickered at every edge, barely held in control. One wrong move or gesture from anyone could set her off. And had in the past. He took a mental breath and focused on what happened. Blair knew from past experience that male sentinels were different than females, but at the same time, he knew that this particular instance had nothing to do with that.
That was pure guide empathy. Ellison was only the conduit. And whoever that guide is ... wherever he is ... he doesn't truly want Ellison but neither does he want another guide to have him.
Blair finally opened his eyes, slightly bemused to find himself tucked tightly to Alex's side. She's going into her defense mode. Not that he minded too much -- often, that defense had been the only thing between him and empathic oblivion. Lifting his head, he found himself looking at Ellison. The man's entire posture spoke of sorrow and apology, something Alex was ignoring in her rage at her guide's obvious hurt.
He studied the male sentinel for another moment. He's different than the others. Strong, yes, but not overbearing. He seems like a good man. Blair touched Alex's hand where it grasped his arm, instantly commanding her attention.
She dropped the argument with Ellison and Conner and looked at Blair. Her angry tone vanished as she touched his cheek with two fingers. "Blair, are you all right?" A tentative poke touched his thin empathic shields, testing them to see how long they'd hold.
Lowering his voice a notch, Blair spoke soothingly. "Yes. I'm fine. A little crispy around the edges, but okay." Before she could get upset all over again, he added. "He didn't mean-- He didn't do anything." His gaze shifted past her to Ellison. "It wasn't him."
Predictably, Alex bristled, although she didn't say anything.
Ellison took a step toward them. Blair fought the instinctual desire to step away, tightening his hold on Alex's hand for support. Even knowing Ellison was not to blame, past experience had taught him that male sentinels were rarely to be trusted, at least not by him. Ellison must have noticed something because he immediately took a step backwards again, saying quietly, "I'm sorry. I should've guessed he'd know." His lips twisted into a bitter smile. "He did before."
Standing to one side, Connor rested a hand on Ellison's shoulder lightly. "Jim...this isn't your fault."
Still upset, Alex spoke in clipped phrases. "Conner said you used to be Joined. Why aren't you now? Does it--?" She stopped short and her eyes widened dramatically. "He Rejected you!" Alex tugged Blair even closer to her side, wrapping one arm around his shoulders to keep him steady on his feet. "We will not stay where guides are mistreated."
Conner immediately protested. "Jim never mistreated him!" She took a step closer to Alex.
Alex only shook her head. "No guide would leave his sentinel -- not without cause."
Still dealing with the residual overload and Alex's turbulent emotions, Blair nearly missed the flash of pain that swept across Ellison's face. An instant later, it was gone as a mask dropped over his features.
Another voice intruded, startling all four of them. "You've got it all wrong, lady."
Blair twisted his head slightly and saw the same casually dressed black officer from the PD standing in the entryway. His badge still hung around his neck. Before anyone could say anything, he continued gruffly, "Jim's guide turned. Betrayed him and the PD during the final events of a drug operation. Officers died." He hesitated and shifted his glance to Ellison. "He Rejected Jim after it was over. I know. I was there."
Conner finished in quiet though emphatic words. "Jim. Did. Nothing. Wrong. Robbie was--" Her mouth snapped shut.
Ellison finally spoke again. "He was my guide. For just over a year. We were close." He lifted a hand and rubbed at his forehead. Then raised the other hand and rubbed at both his temples. "At least I thought we were."
Blair's curiosity subsided as he realized the other sentinel was in pain. Conner touched the man's arm and he flinched away from her. She didn't seem to notice. Or... Or maybe she's used to it.
Doubt clouded Alex's eyes. "I've never heard of a turned guide. That's--"
Dropping both hands to his sides, Ellison cut her off angrily. "Look, I said I'm sorry. I need some air." He walked past them to the entryway, pausing only long enough to tap the man there on the shoulder. "Thanks, H."
No one spoke as first Ellison, then H disappeared from the entryway. After a moment, Blair asked quietly, "If Detective Ellison's guide Rejected him, then why..." He searched for the right words. "There was something -- someone -- who really didn't like me helping him." Looking up at Alex, Blair added, "It was guide empathy that blasted me, not Ellison."
Surprise shone on Alex's face as the last of her instinctive anger faded.
Conner crossed her arms over her chest. "Jim's guide, Robbie, he won't Release him. And because he's such a strong empath, there's no way to cut the link either." She blew out an harsh breath that mutated into a sigh. "He's always there. And as long as he is, Jim won't ever be able to Join with any other guide. Robbie won't let him."
Eyes closed, Jim leaned against the driver's side of the Expedition. One hand rubbed rhythmically at one temple while the other held his cellphone to his ear. Light rain still drizzled, dampening his Jags cap. Echoes of muted conversations drifted past him.
Swallowing, Jim nodded at the voice on the other end of the phone line, then remembered to speak in reply. "Yes, another sentinel-guide pair. No, the guide is fine, Doc." He opened his eyes slowly as footsteps neared him. Megan stopped several feet away and waited. Jim returned his attention to the phone. "What? Oh, yeah, sure, that's fine. Thanks." He thumbed the "end" button, then let his hand drop to his side, almost forgetting to shove the phone in his jacket pocket.
Megan crossed the last few feet and stopped in front of him. "You okay?"
A short bitter laugh snuck out. "Peachy."
She winced. "That bad, huh."
Jim dropped his hand from his forehead and took a deep breath, forcing away the part of him that wanted to lash out. "Sorry. Doc Bain is bottling some meds for me -- which he's having couriered to the PD -- and working on finding something stronger for Robbie. Again." He waited a beat as his headache intensified for a few seconds, then straightened away from the truck. "Did Barnes and Sandburg decide to find a cab and keep going north?"
Smiling slightly in spite of the situation, Megan shook her head. "No. They needed a few moments of privacy to get Sandburg's...shields -- is that right? -- temporarily set, I believe they said, until they can get to their hotel. They'll be along in a bit."
"Good." More silence fell between them until he said quietly, "When I zoned, I remembered something. Or maybe I saw something is a better way of putting it."
Megan moved over to lean on the truck next to him. "What?"
He wet his lips and continued, "I remembered the first time Robbie and I met. Almost a year and a half ago. It was the third time Dr. Bain, head of the local Guide Program, brought a handful of newly trained guides to the Cascade Renaissance Hotel for me to find a match." His eyes looked back into memory. "I didn't think it was going to work, but Simon insisted. So I agreed to try again. Almost from the moment that group of 20-somethings walked in, I was drawn to this young man standing at the back of the group, not even looking at me like the rest. He was more interested in the lobby's fishtank."
Jim nodded. "Robbie. When I introduced myself and we shook hands, I felt..." He struggled to find a good word, but finally settled. "I felt connected to him. And I thought--"
At the moment Barnes and Sandburg emerged from the gallery and strode toward them. Barnes's head was tilted downward slightly as she spoke to Sandburg, whose face was likewise uplifted just enough for Jim to make out the smile. One of Barnes's hands rested on Sandburg's shoulder or upper back, maintaining contact effortlessly as they maneuvered around officers, gawkers, an assortment of vehicles, and yellow police tape.
Megan followed Jim's gaze, then looked back at him when he spoke.
"It doesn't matter what I thought," Jim said shortly. Turning away, he unlocked the Expedition doors. "Come on."
Sand trickled through her fingers, hitting and bouncing off her bare legs where she knelt on the beach. Sea salt-tinged wind whipped past her, dragging loose hair across her face. Next to her, the roar of the ocean nearly drowned out the cry of the seagull overhead. She wore a familiar, one-piece blue swimsuit and a white cover-up that wrapped securely around her hips. Her feet, resting underneath her, were bare.
She reached out one hand to touch the nearest tower of the elaborate sandcastle just inches from her knees. A wave of water rolled upward on the packed sand, filling the deep encompassing moat surrounding the castle. The seafacing edge of a tower crumbled slightly at the onslaught, sending grains of sand trickling downward.
Glancing across the expanse of the sandcastle, Alex was surprised to find herself alone. A threadbare and broken leather bracelet peeked out of the sand.
The seagull cried out again and she lifted her head, searching for it. Instead her eyes focused on an incongruous verdant jungle in the distance. A figure, a man, stood half-shadowed at the edge. He was watching her.
Alex shifted her weight backwards, readying herself to stand up--
"And that was it. Then I was back in Captain Banks's office."
The elevator doors opened with a soft ding, releasing its two passengers on the fifth floor. Alex nudged Blair, deep in thought and muttering to himself, to get him moving. Even dealing with collapsed barriers hadn't kept her guide from impatiently demanding to know about the mutual vision. I guess I should be glad he waited until we actually got to the hotel. Knowing he wouldn't give up and thinking it'd help distract him from the headache she knew he must be developing, Alex had relented and given him a full account of what she remembered. She accepted the fact that Blair would insist she tell him everything again later, pulling more and more details from her memory.
Alex paused at their suite door and keyed open the lock. She was glad they'd stopped to check in first before heading to the PD -- time wasn't something they could waste right then. Even so, her eyes swept the area out of habit and quickly scanned the two-room suite with a kitchenette, just as she'd requested. Their luggage sat on the floor, next to the couch. Most of the remainder of their belongings were still in storage in Phoenix. A friend of Blair's in Phoenix, one of few, was safekeeping the few more precious items they owned, things that needed more protection that a four-walled steel shed could provide.
As she gently pushed her guide into the suite, Alex couldn't help but notice the trembling of Blair's hands and the slight sheen on his forehead. Gripping one of his arms to keep him near her, she closed and locked the door before tossing the card key on the nearest flat surface, not caring as it slid off the edge of the table onto the floor.
Slipping in front of Blair and holding both his shoulders, Alex closed her eyes and centered herself. Then, re-opening her eyes, she took a deep breath and said only his name, speaking as sentinel to guide. "Blair."
Instantly Blair's attention snapped onto her, eyes a bit wild as the last of his hastily erected barriers fell. "Alex."
She slid one hand up to his face and palmed his cheek briefly before continuing the movement around to the back of his head. An abbreviated version of the Joining ritual would suffice for now. "Join now, guide. I will protect you." She guided his stumbling steps sideways to the couch. One of Blair's hands latched onto her arm, fingers digging into her biceps. Alex let herself fall onto the couch, bringing him down next to her.
Blair's eyes closed as he pressed his forehead into her shoulder. He whispered, "Alex. My sentinel."
Alex closed her own eyes, sighing as the familiar, complex, and still somewhat mysterious sense of her guide slid through her, seeking her strength to rebuild the battered shields that protected him. She could almost smell the burnt "crispy edges" Blair had referred to earlier. Alex frowned. The attack had been more powerful than she'd thought and it worried her.
The small unhappy sound swung her concentration back to Blair and she forced away her worry. Alex gently petted back long hair from Blair's face and tilted her head down a little to speak to him. "Sh, sh, sleep and heal, my guide." She smiled at the answering mental "hum" that pulsed through her even as he began to drift into a healing sleep and grew heavy against her side.
Time enough later to decide what to do about Ellison and his not-guide.
Simon frowned. "When you first met Robbie? How does that connect to paintings being vandalized? Or to that unidentified scent you and Barnes picked up?"
Hands curled around a half-empty coffee mug, Jim stared at the black liquid inside and shook his head. "I'm not sure."
The two of them sat alone in Simon's office. Muffled sounds of the noon-hour shift change bled through the closed door, but neither paid it any attention. Jim released one hand from the mug and placed it flat on the conference table surface, relieved to see his hands had stopped shaking. To one side, Simon pushed away from the front of his desk and took the chair across the table from Jim.
"But you do think it's all connected somehow," Simon stated.
Lifting his head to meet Simon's eyes, Jim nodded. "Sensory impressions in everyone, but especially in those with heightened senses, can evoke 'sense memories.' These are memories that revolve around a particular scent or image, anything you can sense. Most times, it's just that -- memories. However, in sentinels, these memories can become be very vivid, sometimes to the point where they're being relived." He paused, then shook his head. "Robbie taught me that."
Simon drummed his fingers on the table. "Why that day? I was there. Aside of the obvious, there was nothing different. The Renaissance hasn't change decor in the last decade. It was a normal day."
Jim took a swallow of coffee. Quietly he said, "I think...I think Robbie must be the key. Why else would I flash onto the day I met him?"
Fingers stopping abruptly in mid-drum, Simon stared at Jim. "You're not thinking of going to Wrenwood, are you?"
"To see Robbie?" Jim rubbed his thumb over the handle of the mug. Finally he replied, "No. It would be too-- No."
"Too hard?" Simon finished softly.
Jim's lips twisted into an odd smile. "Too tempting."
Simon blinked. "You want to explain that, Ellison?"
"For a split second, just as Sandburg pulled me out of the zone...sense memory...whatever, everything was the way it used to be. And Robbie--" Jim sighed. "He was denying it, but I could feel that very small part of him that yearns to be with his sentinel." He lifted a hand to stop Simon's protest. "And as much as I sometimes hate Robbie for what he's done, there is the occasional morning, in that instant between sleeping and waking, that a piece of me still searches for him, for my guide."
The captain blew out a heavy breath. "Nothing is ever simple with you, is it?"
Silence fell. Jim lifted the mug for another swallow of coffee. As he did, he caught sight of Simon's changing facial expression. His eyes sharpened in reaction. "What?"
"You said Barnes called the scent 'seductive.'" Rising to his feet, Simon roughly pushed aside the chair and returned to his desk to sort through a stack of thick file folders.
Shoving the coffee mug away, Jim stood as well. "Yes. Why?"
Simon found the folder he wanted and flipped it open. "This case got shuffled up to us from Vice last week. I assigned it to Brown and Rafe, who gave me an update just last night. I haven't had the chance to read through all of it yet, but there was an interesting footnote attached." He flipped through the pages quickly. "Ah, here it is. 'In addition, rumors of an experimental, unnamed drug that can be used as an attractant are circulating. The attractant is unique in that it can be taken internally or used externally. Other details are in witness reports. Further investigation is pending.'"
Jim crossed his arms. "Attractant. Another word for seductive."
"Exactly." Simon stepped over to the door and yanked it open. "Brown, Rafe, my office." He turned back to Jim. "It's not much, but it could be a starting point."
A tap at the open door heralded the arrival of Brown and Rafe. Brown gave Jim a silent nod, then said, "Yes, Captain?" Rafe leaned one shoulder against the door jamb.
Simon waggled the file folder in the air. "The case from Vice. There's a footnote on the report about an 'attractant' drug. Is there anything else you learned that you didn't include?"
Rafe glanced at Jim, then exchanged a startled look with Brown. "You didn't--"
Brown shook his head. "Too much going on this morning."
Nodding once, Rafe agreed. "True." He pushed away from the door and followed his partner all the way inside the office. Brown closed the door firmly behind them.
Simon's slight frown shifted downward into a glower, but he remained silent.
Jim asked quietly, "What do you know?"
Rafe waved a hand at the file folder in Simon's hand. "I'm guessing you haven't read the witness reports yet?" At Simon's confirmation, he went on. "Some quick background first. From what we've heard, the best way to describe this drug is that it's a weird version of Rohypnol. Instead of lowering the victim's inhibitions from within, the perp uses it to make himself attractive and then the victim goes willingly."
"It's like they're being brainwashed or hypnotized." Brown shook his head in disgust. "The really bad thing is, they remember it all later and just don't understand what happened or why."
"And as for what we didn't include in our report... It's a very unsubstantiated rumor, fifth or sixth hand, which is why it isn't there," Rafe said. He looked more directly at Jim. "We had planned to take it to you and the captain personally."
Brown finished quietly. "No one seems to know the hows or whys or what fors, just that there's a connection, but supposedly, this drug was originally developed for sentinels and/or guides."
For the second time that day, Alex and Blair exited the elevators on the sixth floor of the Cascade PD building and walked towards the Major Crime bullpen. Still trying to adjust the more official visitor badge on her jacket lapel, Alex muttered, "I thought those forms would never end."
Blair chuckled, happy to hear the relaxed tone in his sentinel's voice, even if she was complaining. "Just think about how much you'll have to fill out if we stay."
Alex stopped playing with the badge and gave Blair a mock murderous glare. Grinning, Blair sidled away to evade a playful swat -- and collided with Conner just as she stepped out of a door marked "Conference Room #2." Papers from the open file in her hand flew into the air as the two of them tumbled to the ground in a graceless heap.
"Ow." Blair blew out an annoyed breath at the curls hanging over his eyes and then realized whom he was half-laying on. "Oh! Inspector Conner!" He struggled off her, hearing the ominous crunch of papers underneath him. "I'm so sorry. I'm such a klutz." He bounced up to his feet and held out a hand to her, ignoring the soft chortling coming from behind him.
Conner pushed herself up slightly and, after a moment, took his hand and let herself be pulled to her feet. Smiling, she did a quick dusting of her clothes. "No harm done." She eyed the papers scattered on the hallway floor, one of which was currently lodged under Blair's Nikes. "At least to me."
Blair followed her gaze. "Oops." He lifted his foot and reached down to pick up the paper, wincing at the dusty print on the page.
Alex laughed again. Blair and Conner soon joined her as they worked together to gather up the papers, chatting quietly. Just as they finished, a well-dressed detective stepped into the hallway. To Blair's eyes, he appeared curious about their residual laughter, but he didn't ask. Instead, he only said, "Conner, the captain wants to see you. And if you two are Barnes and Sandburg, he wants to see you as well."
Conner nodded. "Thanks, Rafe." She gestured Alex and Blair forward. "After you."
Moments later, the three of them, plus Banks and Ellison, were seated around the conference table in the captain's office reviewing the case and the new information Alex and Blair had provided, hoping to find a ways to catch the perp.
Ellison tapped a finger on a piece of paper in front of him. "According to this list, all but one of the smaller, local galleries have been hit. We need to set a trap at the last one." He looked at Banks. "Perhaps around a specific painting that is an obvious target."
Banks nodded in agreement and added, "Maybe we can contact one of these sensor artists and ask them to help."
There was a moment's pause before Conner asked, "But what if one of them is the perp?"
Blair followed the three-way discussion with interest, feeling the rapport between the three officers immediately. Next to him, Alex remained silent, listening and playing idly with a pencil.
"We might have to take that chance." Banks sat back in his chair, shifting his gaze to look out the window. His hand went to one pocket and Blair blinked as the captain pulled out a wrapped cigar.
Ellison spoke up again, humor tinging his voice. "Unless you've been holding out on us, Conner. We don't know much about those Aussie skills of yours."
She chuckled and smiled secretly. "Unless you need knife throwing or croc hunting, I think you're out of luck, Jimbo. My artistic talents are limited to stick figures." She directed a suggestion to Banks. "What about a police artist?"
The captain removed the plastic from the cigar and put the cigar in his mouth. He didn't light it, however, just held it there. "Possible."
As his mind caught up with the conversation, Blair glanced at Alex, questioning her silently. She hesitated for a few moments, then nodded once. He lifted one hand slightly. "Uh, Alex paints."
All eyes turned back to them. Not bothering to question their luck, Banks asked, "How soon could you have something ready?"
Alex pursed her lips thoughtfully. "I could probably do a quick charcoal and pastels sketch in a few hours. I'd need supplies, however; I don't have anything with me."
Banks nodded and shifted the cigar to the other side of his mouth. "That can be arranged. Just tell me what you need."
Conner raised her hand. "Question. How will they know your sketch is the one they want? I mean, unless you're using a pseudonym already or you borrow someone else's name..."
Smiling, Alex shifted her gaze to Blair. "You're the art expert; you want to explain?"
Leaning forward, Blair folded his hands on the table. "Paintings done by sensors tend to be unique in that they're very detailed and typically focused on a specific part of something, rather than an entire scene." While Ellison seemed to comprehend that immediately, the others continued to look confused, so Blair continued. "For example, a non-sensor artist will paint an entire lake of swans; a sensor may paint just one bird or a wing or a single feather. They could even decide to focus on the ripples on the water surface itself." His hands moving as he spoke, he vaguely registered the captain opening his mouth to say something, but Blair warmed to the topic and rolled on, talking faster. "Or that painting back at the gallery, the one titled 'Wildflowers' -- a non-sensor artist would have painted the entire field of flowers. I'm guessing the sensor painted a point where three or four flowers of varying colors touched, showcasing the differences in hues and textures. An interesting study. I wonder--"
"Blair." Alex interrupted him firmly and placed a hand on his forearm, stilling his gestures.
He stopped and glanced to his left. Alex's eyes danced with fond amusement. His eyes darted around the table, taking in the various faces watching him. Conner's mouth quirked upward in a grin. Ellison's eyebrows had raised. Banks looked mildly perturbed. Blair felt warmth flooding his cheeks and he focused on the table surface. His energy levels always did tend to run a bit high immediately following a Joining. "Uh, sorry. I get a bit carried away sometimes."
Alex patted his arm silently, reassuring him.
Banks cleared his throat. "Not a problem. We've learned more today than we have since this case started, somewhat in part to your knowledge of artwork."
Making a concerted effort to stay in the moment, Blair added, "Because Alex is a sentinel, her work will be nearly identical to sensor works."
"Good." The captain paused a moment, eyeing Jim before looking back at Alex. "Now as to the other matter of the scent that both of you picked up at the crime scene, we may have a lead. There's no evidence that it's directly relevant, but on the off-chance that it is, you need to be informed."
Alex leaned forward slightly, interest evident on her face.
Blair listened silently as the captain and Ellison explained about the "attractant drug" two of his other detectives had heard rumors about while on another case. His breath caught when Banks finally mentioned the possible origins. The only drugs he'd heard of developed specifically for sentinels and/or guides -- as opposed to altering current available medicines -- were damper drugs. He shot a quick look at Ellison --
-- who was staring at Alex in mixed suspicion and surprise.
Ellison spoke in a quiet yet not-to-be-denied voice. "What do you know?"
It was then Blair registered that Alex's stillness had shifted from concentration to withdrawal. Leaning to one side so that his arm brushed hers, Blair echoed Ellison's question, though with different words. "What is it?" Muffled and long-forgotten emotions flitted along their link. She lowered his eyes to meet his gaze briefly before shifting just enough to solidify the physical connection between their arms.
Straightening, Alex returned her attention to the others and wet her lips before speaking. "Years ago, a long time before Blair and I met or were Joined, I attended a special school on the East Coast. It catered to ... difficult children, especially those thought to have enhanced senses. It was there that I learned I was a sentinel. As I was trained, guides were brought in, in hopes that I would choose one and Join." She made a face. "But there was never the right one."
Even with his eyes focused on Alex, Blair caught the quick understanding nod from Ellison.
Alex continued. "One day, when I was working on extending my hearing range, I heard the school director talking with someone, a medical researcher. They were talking about my 'inability to Join' and that there was a drug being developed that could assist in making me more 'receptive' to a guide. To any guide they chose." She turned back to Blair, laying a hand over his arm. "I escaped that night and never went back."
Blair stared at her. He knew about her time in the institution back east. He knew she'd been there from childhood through her mid-twenties. And he knew she'd left because they wanted to force her to Join. But he hadn't known about the drug. "Alex..." He covered her hand with his.
Before he could say or think anything further, Ellison spoke in a strangled voice. "Receptive."
"Jim?" Conner sounded worried.
Blair reluctantly dragged his eyes from Alex's face and looked at the other sentinel, shocked to find him pale and angry. What--?
"The drug, it was there, in that zone, memory, whatever." Ellison's hands clenched into fists on the table surface. "Robbie used it to ... lure me."
"...final operation was set into place. All officers reported readiness. Detective Ellison and Guide Winters had taken position close to the suspect's house for optimal usage of Ellison's sentinel hearing. Moments after the order had been given to advance, Winters disabled Ellison and acquired his weapon. Accounts from nearby officers Brown and Rafe will confirm this. Before either officer could react, Winters then pulled out a flare gun and fired it upwards. Gunfire erupted from the suspect's house, taking the assembled teams by surprise. Most were able to find cover; however, three officers were fatally wounded and four others suffered major to minor injuries. Suspect and his associates evaded arrest. Winters was taken into custody on-site and later charged with colluding with a known drug dealer. Because of his empath/guide status and additional sentinel-related circumstances, he will remain under constant guard at Wrenwood Guide Program Facility indefinitely."
Jim closed the file folder and started at it for a long time before dropping it on the stack of similar folders on the coffee table. Closing his eyes, he leaned back and slouched into the couch cushions, trying to let the quiet piano music coming from the loft's sound system ward off the increasingly painful headache. One hand raised to pinch the bridge of his nose. Simon's report reads so cut and dried, nothing like that day. Just another busted sting. Nothing special.
His own memory of the events told him differently. It was more than happy to supply him with images and voices and feelings from those few minutes when his carefully controlled world vanished from beneath his feet, yanked away by the one person he'd thought he could trust over anyone else.
"On my mark." Jim paused, hand flexing around the gun grip. Robbie crouched next to him behind the patrol car, a comforting presence as he prepared to use his senses. Carefully blocking out the sound from the earphone, he extended his hearing toward the building, relying on his guide to keep him grounded. "Ready." He heard a few quiet voices within the walls and from the sounds of things, they were playing poker. He grinned and waved one arm behind him. "Go."
A sharp whistle not two inches away from his ear caused him to recoil in pain and shock as his hearing spiked and wobbled uncontrollably. Someone plucked the gun from his hand and pushed him aside. Jim dimly registered rough gravel digging into his shoulder and muddy water soaking through his pant leg. Voices echoed loudly through the earphone and he fumbled it out. Something whooshed and he squinted upwards to see Robbie holding his gun in one hand and a flare gun in the other. A bright red stream of smoke painted the air above them.
"What are you doing!?" Jim shouted. Shock and disbelief tore through him. "Stop this!" He pushed himself up and reached out. "Give me the gun, Robbie." A blur of movement. His head exploded in pain at the impact of the gun's grip.
Gunshots. Lots of them. More voices, some yelling in pain. What was going on?
"Jim!" The voice was familiar, but it wasn't Robbie's. A hand touched his shoulder and he peered upwards. Conner. Dirt smudged her face, as well as a streak of blood.
Beyond her, Jim heard the frantic radio calls for assistance and ambulances. The gunfire had stopped. And closer, he heard a struggle, along with Robbie's distorted voice.
"Let me go. It's over! You can't keep--"
Jim pushed himself up again, readily grasping Conner's offered arms as he rose to his feet. Brown and Rafe held Robbie, barely, against the side of the car. Taking a step towards them, he stretched out a hand. "Robbie--" He froze in place when unfamiliar cold green eyes pinned him.
Robbie strained forward and spat, "I Reject you!" His mouth twisted in hate. Somehow he yanked one hand free and swung out, managing to grab Jim's still-outstretched hand. Surprising strength crushed his fingers as Robbie repeated fiercely, "I Reject you!"
Everything instantly blurred into a chaotic maelstrom. All five senses swung from off to on and back again, hitting ranges randomly. His control was gone. He swayed and was steadied by Conner's shaky hands.
Brown and Rafe manhandled Robbie away.
Numbly, Jim watched them go, then dropped his eyes to the used flare gun on the damp ground. Next to it lay a discarded, broken guide bracelet, the leather slowly darkening as it soaked up the muddy water.
The days that had followed were hazy, filled with angry and confused voices both external and internal. Simon had put Jim on immediate administrative leave as he dealt with top brass who had wanted to lay the blame for the busted operation on Jim as well as the betraying guide. Jim remembered mostly a nonspecific ache that resonated from within and encompassed everything he did. Dr. Bain, just as shocked as everyone else at Robbie's turnabout, could only attribute it to "guide withdrawal."
It wasn't until Jim finally resurfaced at the end of that first week that he'd discovered the connection with Robbie was not completely severed. Robbie had remained at the back of his mind, lurking, touching, niggling at his every thought every moment of the day. In addition, his senses, having strengthened a great deal in the previous year, had been hard to control. Again, Dr. Bain had stepped forward, providing Jim with an open-ended prescription of damper drugs, normally only given to high-functioning unJoined sentinels or guides. He'd also started working on treatments to suppress Robbie's abilities, hoping to find a way to completely break the link between him and Jim.
No success down that road.
Jim rubbed one hand roughly over his face and stood from the couch to go into the kitchen area. Maybe I'll try Sandburg's remedy. Unbeknownst to him, the guide had picked up on the fact that Jim was in pain and had quietly added something non-art related to the list of supplies Brown and Rafe purchased for Barnes. Jim eyed the small, barely decorated, white tea box warily. Headache tea, he said. Never fails. He sighed. Not like I have anything to lose.
He dug a battered teapot from the back of a cupboard and filled it with water before setting it on the stove to heat up. As he waited, Jim prepared a mug, then stared past the kitchen island and the closed glass doors to the balcony. Barnes and Sandburg hadn't moved since the last time he checked. Barnes stood to one side as she worked steadily on the charcoal and pastel drawing for the sting operation, though Jim hadn't heard just what she was drawing. Her hair still in a ponytail, but now dressed in jeans and a blue chambray button-up shirt, Barnes looked less like a cop and sentinel and more like her partner. Sandburg sat cross-legged in a deck chair on the other side of the balcony, casually reading a large book which rested on his legs.
I'm still not sure how the loft ended up as the staging area for this whole thing.
After the sobering realization that Robbie had used the drug to attract Jim as his sentinel, no one had quite known what to say. For his part, Jim had belatedly clammed up, refusing to discuss it. To his credit, Simon realized there was nothing anyone could do about the past and had moved on, quickly setting up the sting to catch the person responsible for vandalizing sensor artwork.
It was then that Sandburg had said something about needing an "inspiring artistic environment" for Barnes to work in. That had discounted the PD and their hotel room rather quickly -- and left Jim's loft as the ideal place, especially once Megan had mentioned the view of the water and "quaint little shops" from the balcony. And so a half-hour later, after a quick detour to pick up a change of clothes for the artist, Jim, along with Barnes and Sandburg, were ensconced at the loft, while Megan worked with Brown and Rafe to set things up at the last gallery.
The teapot whistled brightly and he jerked back to the present. Outside, he saw Barnes turn her head briefly at the sound. Sandburg looked up from the tome in his lap, attuned to his sentinel's movements. Jim snapped off the heat and lifted the teapot from the burner. Carefully he poured water into the mug, watching the tea bag's color deepen as it absorbed the liquid.
Alex shook her head and returned her attention to the canvas. "No. Just Ellison taking your advice."
Blair craned his head around the chair to peer into the loft. "He's actually drinking the tea? I wasn't sure he'd go for it." As he turned and resettled himself, he added, "I hope it helps him." Rather than go back to reading, he looked over at Alex. "So...do I get to see the masterpiece yet?"
"Do you ever get to see what I'm doing before I'm done?" Alex asked with a grin. "And it's hardly a masterpiece." She took a step back from the canvas and pursed her lips, debating what color to use next.
"Oh, right." Blair deadpanned. "That would be that big covered painting we left at George's place that you still haven't let me see...after two months of working on it."
Alex chuckled. "Remember, patience is a virtue." She rolled her fingertips over the pastels, hesitating indecisively over a selection of blues. "It's almost finished."
Blair "hmmed" and fell silent once again as he decided to return to reading. Alex just smiled and finally chose a vivid blue. Moving closer to the canvas, she--
--shifted her weight backwards and stood. However, the watcher shimmered away, leaving her alone once again. The jungle appeared closer than before.
Sand clung to her bare legs and fingertips. Cold, salty water lapped at her toes. At her feet, the sandcastle remained under siege, pummeled by relentless waves, eroding the oceanside tower. She frowned, wondering why it had been created in such a spot where it could only be temporary.
A bird swept overhead in lazy patterns. Its ground-hugging shadow dipped and swam over the sloped sand, briefly encompassing the familiar leather bracelet half-buried on the far side of the sandcastle. She took a step, intending to retrieve it.
White water roared up the beach, cementing her feet in the wet sand--
--drew a delicate line of blue.
Alex froze, lifting her hand slowly from the canvas. Again? What? She glowered accusingly at the innocent-looking pastel she held and withheld a longsuffering sigh. While she accepted the visions as part of who she was, the few times I've had 'continuing' visions, big messy changes always followed. Like the very first set when I was only seven. If I hadn't said anything, maybe things would have been different. Better. The edges of her mouth turned down at the too-sharp memory of visiting the beach as a child. She'd been halfway through constructing a sandcastle when her parents told her she would be going away to a special school. Right then. Two men and a woman took her away without fanfare; she received only a distracted kiss from her parents as a farewell. She never saw either parent again.
She gave herself a mental shake and studied her finished artwork. A slight smile touched her lips. But then there're those visions I had just before I met Blair for the first time. Staring back at her was the uppermost edge of an iridescent shell, outlined roughly by charcoal pencil and filled in with a rainbow of colors. Only a few deliberately placed specks of sand and a chip on one edge marred its perfect surface. She dropped the blue pastel back into the container and, bypassing the rest of the colors, picked up a fresh charcoal pencil to sign the drawing.
"All done." Stepping back, she gestured with one hand.
Blair looked up, surprise evident on his face. "Already? Wow." He set aside the book and rose from the chair to join Alex in front of the canvas. His hands stuck into his back pockets, he rocked back and forth on his toes as he studied it silently. "Hmm..."
Narrowing her eyes, Alex repeated, "'Hmm'? What? Does Dr. Sandburg, art historian extraordinaire, have a comment to make?"
Another moment of silence, then Blair raised his eyes to meet Alex's. A bright smile painted across his face, he said only, "Nope. It's good. Really good. Perfect, in fact. Est magnifique!" The last was said with a fake French accent.
Alex rolled her eyes. "All it needs to be is good enough to attract our perp."
"Considering you painted this from memory, I'd say it's beyond 'good enough'." Leaning closer, Blair squinted at the signature. "Ah, pulling Alicia Bannister out of the box, are we?"
She shrugged and picked up a cloth to wipe off her fingers. "I didn't want to put my real name on it, on the off-chance it's recognized." Making a face, she scrubbed at the charcoal and pastel stains on her fingertips. "Besides, this isn't really my favorite medium to work in anyway." Giving up, she tossed the cloth on top of the box of pastels. "Come on, let's get back inside before it starts to rain."
"Rain?" Blair glanced upward and saw the clouds darkening. "More?"
Alex chuckled and carefully lifted the canvas from the wooden tripod. "Just open the doors, Blair."
Concluded in Part Two...