Sentinel Fan Fiction Page || Fanfic -- Drama

Latchstrings by Becky
Part Two
September 2003

Back on the couch again, Jim looked up from perusing a file when the balcony doors opened. Barnes walked in first, carrying the canvas. "Finished?"

She set the canvas flat on the kitchen table and nodded. "That and it's about to start raining again." Turning, she smirked at Sandburg as he placed the pastels by the canvas and rested the folded-up tripod against the table. "And my partner's not too fond of the rain."

Said partner paused a moment to glare at her. "It's fine as long as I'm not in it!" Then he dashed back out to the balcony to retrieve his book.

Jim chuckled softly, sharing a smile with Barnes.

"Can I use your bathroom to clean up?" Barnes held up her stained hands.

"Sure." He pointed behind her. "It's right off the kitchen area."

Sandburg re-entered the room as she vanished into the bathroom. Jim watched as he closed the balcony doors and placed the book on the table. Then he hesitated and threw a quick look at the closed bathroom door before walking over to sit -- or, rather, perch -- on the second smaller couch. Sandburg fidgeted a moment, then gestured to the mug sitting by Jim's arm. "Did the tea help?"

Jim inclined his head. "It did. Thanks." He waited. It didn't take sentinel senses to know Sandburg wanted to say something but wasn't sure if he should. The fingers on one hand fiddled nervously with the leather bracelet on the other wrist. And one leg bounced up and down in some rhythm known only to him. Just before he was going to prompt the guide to speak, he did.

"Um..."

Not the most encouraging start. Attempting to curb his impatience, he asked, "What is it, Chief?" He picked up the mug and took another swallow of the surprisingly good tea.

Sandburg blinked at him and his leg stopped bouncing for a few seconds. "What?" He rolled on without waiting for Jim's response. "This morning, in Captain Banks's office, when you and Alex shook hands, did you ... did you see anything?"

And not really the best thing to ask. Jim slowly lowered the mug back down to the table surface. He stared at Sandburg. "Such as?"

Again, the guide fidgeted. "Such as a vision. Some other place. A beach, maybe?"

... damp, warm Peruvian air pressed against his back ... cold, pungent salt air stung his face ... plaintive cry of a seagull ...

"--tive Ellison? Uh, Jim?"

Jim jerked back to the present and took a deep breath. As his eyes refocused on the loft surroundings, he saw Sandburg seated on the coffee table just in front of him. One hand was raised, his palm a few inches from Jim's cheek.

"No!" Averting his face, Jim moved back and threw up one hand to ward off the touch. "Don't." An indrawn breath and whispers of tingling warmth sliding across his palm startled him. Looking forward again, he realized that he himself had unknowingly nearly done what he'd told Sandburg not to -- only a paper thin slice of air separated their hands where they hung in the space between their bodies.

Jim's eyes drifted past their hands and latched onto Sandburg's frozen wide-eyed gaze. A deep, almost forgotten, wordless voice cried out from within him, urging him to close that gap, wanting only to feel the soothing touch of a guide once more on raw sensory nerves.

His hand shook. His vision tunneled. His muffled senses stretched out weakly to the guide seated so near him. Memory of his burden, of his handicap named Robbie, receded into the distance. A remnant of primal aggressiveness surged forward and it didn't care if the guide was already Joined with another. The guide was right there: available, strong, unmoving, unprotected, perhaps even willing--

No.

Carefully, slowly, Jim withdrew his hand, curling his fingers into his palm. Aloud, he repeated, "No."

Sandburg blinked a few times, staring at Jim and then at his own hand before pulling it back. "I-- What--?"

"Is everything all right?"

Both men twitched and looked over in tandem to see Barnes standing at the back of the other couch, trying to appear and sound relaxed even as her hands gripped the cushions tightly. Jim tensed and rubbed a hand over his face, wondering how he was going to explain the temptation and his temporary lapse of control without angering the other sentinel.

Sandburg flushed and rose hastily to his feet. "Alex. Uh, how long--"

"--have I been standing here?" She raised her eyebrows. "Since you pulled Ellison from that zone." Her eyes flitted back and forth between the two of them. "What happened?"

"Um, well, I was asking Detective Ellison about this morning," Sandburg said slowly. "About what happened when you shook hands. I wanted to know if--"

"It was my fault, Barnes," Jim interrupted as he stood up, making sure to keep plenty of space between Sandburg and himself. "He asked. I wasn't ... prepared and I zoned." He shrugged. "The damper drugs only work on my senses, not other things."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Unsettled feelings about the frozen moment pushed aside, Blair pivoted back to Ellison, his voice rising in excitement. "So you did see something? Do you remember any of it? Can I ask what? Do you mind telling me?" Ellison's eyes got larger with every question. And he would've continued asking, but a hand came down on his shoulder, grounding him.

"Blair, I think you're scaring the man." Relief/concern/protectiveness swept along their link, all underscored by a weighty -- and again, unusual -- dose of possession. The curious scholar part of his nature wondered at the reasons and postulated that two full sentinels, one of them unJoined, were rarely in the same territory, hence the possessiveness. Another part of his inner self, a deeper part, simply accepted the sense of possession and mirrored it back at Alex.

A small smile appeared on Ellison's face and Blair could see him relaxing. "No, not scaring. I just wasn't sure if you were going to remember to breathe."

Alex laughed. "A common ailment of his."

Chuckling softly, Ellison glanced at his watch. "Conner called a bit ago. She should be here in another half-hour or so to pick up the painting. Oh, she's bringing Chinese take-out; I hope that's okay."

"That's fine." Alex released Blair and took a step back to sit down on the smaller couch. Blair, itching to know if Ellison was going to tell him anything, settled beside her. He stayed on the edge of the couch, however, back stiff with tension.

Ellison reseated himself on the other couch and slouched into the cushions. The smile had disappeared and his eyes, while looking in the direction of the coffee table, were actually focused somewhere beyond it. The edges of his mouth turned down slightly before he finally spoke. "Are visions normal for sentinels?" He raised his head to look at Alex.

Blair felt an unexpected whisper of vulnerability feather over the outside edges of his barriers. It was Ellison. The realization struck him that peppering the other sentinel -- one who was unsure and not-quite-unJoined to a turned guide -- with insistent questions would only drive him away. This required careful steps.

Alex had sat forward a little and was answering Ellison's question. "If you're asking if that one this morning was the first I've had, then no. I get them from time to time. Not on a regular basis or anything." She moved her hand to rest it on Blair's back. "As I've learned from Blair, they tend to be symbolic and happen during crises of faith. Or in moments of doubt. Or at times of great change."

"Have you," Blair asked slowly, "never had a vision before?"

"I-- It's-- No, not like that." Ellison turned away, his eyes going back to stare at the coffee table. His voice dropped to almost a whisper. "Not while I was awake and not without..."

Oh. Oh! Blair's eyes widened. Conner's comments from earlier that day came back to him. "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. He's always there." He also recalled the intense and very vivid emotions he felt from the other guide, Robbie, in those few seconds all three of them were connected when he pulled Ellison from the zone in the gallery. And then there was the half-remembered teaching from an old mentor about empathy, power, and abuse...

"Blair?" Alex interrupted his thoughts.

Laying a hand on Alex's leg, Blair kept his focus on Ellison. "You're only having visions while you're sleeping, aren't you?" He swallowed as Ellison straightened and shifted his gaze to meet his eyes. "Only they're not really visions. They're dreams. Very real dreams. Dreams that your...that Robbie controls."

Alex inhaled sharply at Blair's deduction. "That's-- I don't know what to call it."

Blair didn't say anything as he struggled to keep his eyes locked with Ellison's. I would call it torture.

Ellison's eyes mutated from raw pain to ice-cold blue walls in mere moments. Barriers snapped into place instantly, guarding his inner self as he rose smoothly to his feet. Blair nearly recoiled, only then remembering the brief research he'd done on Ellison before he and Alex returned to the PD that afternoon. Ellison was nearly a career Army officer, moving rapidly up through the ranks to captain at an almost alarming rate. However, something during his final Army years in Special Forces changed his mind. He opted out after a last mission to Peru and immediately joined the PD upon returning to the States and to Cascade. But right then, he looked every inch the deadly soldier.

Next to him, Alex reacted unconsciously and instinctively to the potential threat. He could feel her slip into a defensive posture. Ellison, however, simply strode past them to the balcony doors and watched the rain spatter the glass.

"Blair," Alex said softly. "Maybe we should go--"

Ellison's voice overrode hers sharply. "Answer me something first, Chief, why should I tell you anything?" He turned back around and leaned against the doors, his arms crossed over his chest.

Again with that nickname.

Curiosity from Alex fluttered over him, but Blair just ignored her reaction and the nickname, concentrating instead on Ellison's question. "Maybe I can help you."

"Help me do what?" Ellison demanded. Anger seeped into his voice, staining it. "Unless you know how some newfangled or unknown secret way to break Robbie's link with me, then there's nothing you can do to help."

Quietly Blair said, "I may not know how to break it, but I might be able to help you block it, at least a little."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"What?"

"What?"

Jim met Barnes's eyes in mutual surprise and not a little disbelief.

Sandburg didn't let either one of them get any further as he continued in a rush. "Inspector Conner said that Robbie is a very strong empath, which is why no one can make him Release you. I'm a fairly strong empath myself, as Alex can tell you. More than that, I've been a fully trained guide for half my life. I know a lot of guide lore and a whole lot more about how empathy works."

His briefly risen hopes frittered away. Jim shook his head. "No. You know that if you try anything ... empathic on or with me, Robbie will know. I won't risk endangering someone like that. Not again." He stalked away from the window, going the long way around to return to the other couch. "I'm sure Barnes will agree."

"That's not what I'm suggesting," Sandburg countered. "I can teach you. I bet Robbie never taught you how to shield your own mind."

Jim blinked and sat down. "No." He switched his gaze to Barnes. "Is that possible?"

She nodded slowly, understanding of her partner's approach settling onto her features. "Yes. It takes concentration at first, but it helps when you want to, uh," her mouth quirked to one side, "be alone, in a manner of speaking."

It took a few moments, but then Jim smiled when he realized what Barnes was saying. "Ah."

Sandburg just blushed and resolutely moved on. "I know it's not a permanent solution, but..."

Jim nodded once. "But anything's better than nothing. What exactly does learning this 'shielding' entail?"

"Strangely enough, Robbie must have taught you some of the building blocks or otherwise your senses wouldn't be as controlled as they are, damper drugs or not." Sandburg shifted slightly and pursed his lips. "Once we figure out how much you already know, we can move on from there." He seemed to stiffen slightly before he twisted back around to face Barnes. "That is, if it's all right with you."

Jim held himself perfectly still, watching the varied fleeting expressions on the other sentinel's face. Again, he got the sense from Sandburg's out-of-the-blue need for permission and reassurance that there was more to his past than his current situation revealed. A gentle smile curled up the edges of Barnes's mouth. She lifted one hand and touched Sandburg's cheek lightly before resting it on his shoulder. "I know you want to help. And I'm okay with that. I'm not going to get..."

"...cave-womanish?" Sandburg supplied with a grin that spoke of a private joke.

Barnes grinned back. "...and drag you off somewhere." Although her grin remained when she turned her attention to Jim, her eyes were intensely blue with seriousness. "However, I'm not leaving, either."

"I wouldn't want it any other way." Jim kept his eyes steady on hers, letting her see his honesty and the desire not to hurt her guide.

Sandburg broke in, a slightly peevish note in his voice. "If you two are finished..."

As one, they turned their attention back to Sandburg as he continued, "Much of the shielding technique is based in symbolic imagery."

Jim could feel his eyes glazing. "Uh, you want to speak English there, Chief? I'm not sure I follow you."

The guide paused, searching for words. "Did Robbie teach you how to use a virtual 'volume knob' to turn down all the everyday noises? Cars, heater units, chairs squeaking, people breathing?"

"Yes." Jim nodded. "Symbolic imagery. Okay, that makes sense. Do you mean there's some way I can 'turn down' Robbie?"

Sandburg waggled a hand in the air. "In a manner of speaking. But Robbie knows about those and knows how to find them. I'm thinking something new, something more along the lines of a 'mute' button that would hone in on Robbie, combined with some strong walls."

Jim's eyebrows rose. "How?"

"A type of guided deep meditation, if you'll pardon the pun. I can teach you what to do without making any empathic connection. But to do that," Sandburg finished and wet his lips, "I also need to know how much you know about the non-senses part of being a sentinel. The, uh, mystical part, if you will." He clasped his hands in front of him and leaned forward. "Visions. Dreams. That kind of stuff."

Barnes frowned and spoke up. "Blair, are you sure this isn't just your curiosity speaking?"

Jim almost laughed at the frustration evident on Sandburg's features. It was becoming obvious to him that Barnes quite often had to act as the voice of reason for her exuberant guide. Ignoring their ensuing quiet debate, he withdrew and fiddled idly with the mug of cooling tea. Taking a deep breath, he considered his options and situation. In the middle of a case isn't the best time to try something new, but Dr. Bain just put his newest stopgap treatment into place, which means Robbie won't be able to touch me for awhile. It's quiet right now. This may be the best time.

"Robbie never mentioned visions or dreams to me."

Sandburg stopped in mid-sentence, but Jim kept his eyes fixed on the coffee table as he continued haltingly.

"It wasn't until ... afterwards that the dreams started. Always the same." He stopped, then forced himself to finish, giving just the bare, and what he considered necessary, details. "A stormy jungle. Darkness. I'm alone. And a child. I'm terrified."

He still hadn't looked up when Barnes said, "That's not how they're supposed to work. For me, sentinel visions, or dreams, are a safe place to work out issues or face challenges or make choices. I'm not saying I haven't been ... confused or sometimes intimidated by what I experience, but that's part of what makes them so real."

Jim released the mug and sat up all the way. "Have you ever been a child in your visions?"

Oddly, Barnes laughed a little and replied, "I've actually talked to myself as a child a time or two, but, no, I've never been a child in them." She tossed a look at her silent partner, then said, "This is more Blair's field of expertise than mine, but I would hesitate a guess that if Robbie is controlling these dreams of yours, he's the one forcing you to see yourself as a child."

Sandburg nodded once. "Before we tackle that, can I ask about this morning? What did you see then?"

"It only lasted a few seconds, but the impressions were so vivid, almost more so than the dreams." Jim focused on recalling those moments. "The jungle was there, but it was familiar. It was Peru, where I'd been once during my Army service. I was..." ...camouflage gear...bare skin...grease paint stripes...weapons to hunt and kill with... "I was what as I was then." He frowned. "But there was also a long stretch of beach in front of me. And an ocean. And something else right at the water's edge. I couldn't see what, though."

"Blair?"

At Barnes's tone, Jim shook away the memory and looked up. Sandburg's mouth had dropped open into an "oh" and he just stared at Jim, then at Alex, and back again. His hands waved in the air.

Jim asked sharply, "What?"

Sandburg didn't even notice as he burbled. "You, the two of you, the jungle and the beach, they're your vision 'environments,' for lack of a better term. When you shook hands and slipped away, you were in your own environments, but seeing each other's as well." His leg started bouncing again. "That's just...just... I need to do some research. I wonder if anyone's ever documented what happens when two sentinels meet." His eyes glazed over and he started to murmur to himself.

Barnes gave a look to Jim. "Don't mind him. This is normal." She turned back to Sandburg and touched his shoulder, giving him a firm shake. "Blair."

"Huh?"

She smiled tolerantly. "If you were going to teach Ellison the rudiments of blocking, you need to get back on track."

"Oh. Oh, yeah." Sandburg smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. Got carried away again." He cleared his throat. "Okay, Detective Ellison--"

He interrupted abruptly. "Call me Jim."

"All right." Sandburg -- no, Blair smiled. "Jim. Let's get started..."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Bait in place? Check. Bait-placers in place? Check. Third night of stakeouts in a row? Jim sighed irritably and shifted in the driver's seat of the Expedition. Check. He glanced down at the lighted face of his watch -- 1:03 a.m. And still nothing.

Two nights of staking out the gallery had frustratingly passed without incident. The third night didn't hold much promise of being any better. And although his military training had prepared him for long hours of silent observation and immobility, Jim hated waiting. He scowled and shifted in his seat again, ignoring the curious glance from the woman in the passenger seat next to him. Memories of Army missions flitted through his mind. Back then, he and his men--

Stay focused on the present he reminded himself. He had enough to worry about without resurrecting old ghosts. At least I've gotten to know Alex and Blair a little better during the waiting. Their quiet conversations over the past three nights had wandered from topic to topic, touching on everything from previous cases to current news. Blair had been delighted to discover that Jim was a Jags fan and regaled him with the tale of being at a Jags game as a child and getting Orvelle Wallace's autograph on a basketball card.

Maybe the word of new sensor art didn't get out like Blair said it would. Jim's jaw muscles tightened as he scanned the dark alleyway. And just how does he know people in the local sensor community already? He hasn't even been here a week yet. Rubbing his thumb along the leather grip of the steering wheel, he stared through the windshield. Maybe we got it wrong. Maybe the perp's finished? Got what he wanted? It doesn't seem like he's planning to--

A deep inhale and exhale chased away his internal monologue. He shifted towards Alex seated in the passenger seat next to him. Smiling, she gestured behind them. Jim twisted further and saw a shadowy lump he knew to be Blair curled up slightly, head resting to one side, multi-colored afghan draped over his body -- asleep.

Jim chuckled and resettled himself. Keeping his voice low, he asked, "Does this mean he's finally worn out?"

"It does happen." After a moment, she added, "Rarely."

Companionable silence fell again for several minutes, then Jim cleared his throat and said, "While he's out, I wanted to thank you."

"For what?" Alex queried.

His lips quirked up into a half-smile. "For letting me 'borrow' your guide. In a way." He looked over at her. "I may never be free of Robbie, but I think I've got a better chance of withstanding him now."

"Blair's 'mute button' has helped, then."

"Yes. Robbie's not quite so present anymore." His brow furrowed. "Usually, even with the various treatments Dr. Bain uses, I can still sense him in the background. But now ... now most times, it's like he's on the other side of a heavily insulated solid wall. It's nice to be able to relax a little. To remember how to breathe."

"Well, then, you're welcome." She smiled. "I'm glad Blair's found a friend in you. And that you have some common interests, like basketball." Alex made a face. "I've never liked sports that much and Blair's missed having someone to talk to."

Jim glanced at the backseat, then over at Alex before saying softly, "Over the past few days, I've gotten the impression that friends have been a rarity for both of you in the past."

"It's been difficult." Her words were clipped and hard but also filled with an odd sort of accepting sadness. Sighing, she reached out and lazily traced the edge of the glove compartment. "Finding a PD where a sentinel is wanted and treated as a normal person, even though we're gifted, is one thing. Finding one that will accept a guide, especially one who isn't a police officer is another." She stared out the window, lips tightening in anger. "And sometimes schoolyard bullies don't ever grow up."

Ah. Jim's own lips firmed in understanding. That explains why she nearly took Brown's head off when he slapped Blair on the shoulder yesterday. And the way he seems to favor one ankle when he gets tired.

Lightly touching her shoulder, he said, "Alex, if you and Blair stay, I can't promise that the entire Cascade PD would be accepting, but..." Jim waited until she turned to meet his eyes. "...I think I can speak for Captain Banks and Major Crime in that we won't abuse your trust. Or his."

She didn't say anything for several long moments. Then a partial smile hinted at the corners of mouth. "I hope you mean that."

Jim raised his eyebrows. "Then you've decided to stay?"

Alex inclined her head. "We haven't really discussed it, but I think we're leaning in that direction, yes. Except for the cold and seemingly ceaseless rain," she temporized, "Blair really likes it here. He's already been checking out Rainier University for extension classes. He's a perpetual student, never happy unless he's learning something, anything." Glancing at the backseat, she grinned. "More often than not, when he's not doing guidework or police work, he'll be nose-deep in some dusty tome. I think a good fourth of what we have in storage is his rather eclectic book collection."

"Hmm...maybe that's why I caught him perusing my lone bookshelf. Checking to see if I had anything of value." Jim laughed softly. "Which I don't."

She twisted sideways in the seat, eyeing him. "Something's been bugging me for the last two days. Why do you call him 'Chief'?"

Caught off-guard at the sudden change of topic, it took a few seconds for Jim to find an answer. "I don't know. It just came out that first time. It was...it was a nickname a good friend used for me when I was a kid."

"Did you ever..." Alex trailed off, hesitating.

"Use it for Robbie?" He finished, then shook his head. "No. I don't know why either."

"Maybe--" Alex cut herself off sharply and snapped her head forward to search the alleyway.

Jim could only hear the distant, indignant yowl of a cat. "What is it?" he hissed in a barely audible whisper.

She lifted a hand, motioning for silence. Her eyes slid closed as she tilted her head slightly. Frowning, Jim concentrated on listening with his own damped-down hearing, wondering what the other sentinel had picked up. There's nothing...wait...is that--? Alex re-opened her eyes and pointed.

>squelch<

A small, battered car edged into the opposite end of the alley behind the art gallery, coming to a stop just outside the back door.

Jim leaned forward, straining his eyesight as much as the damper drugs would allow and focused as someone emerged from the vehicle and stepped to the back door. He knew Alex was doing the same. The gallery's back door was opened quickly -- must have a key -- and the person disappeared inside. Once the door latched closed again, Jim snatched up the radio and sent out a quiet call for back-up. Alex reached back and touched Blair's knee.

"Blair."

The guide's eyes popped open, then slid halfway shut again before he pulled himself up. "What is it?" The afghan slid to one side.

"Up and at 'em, Chief." Jim reached for his gun on the dashboard and checked it. "We got ourselves a nibble."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Her own gun in hand, Alex followed Jim's lead as they swiftly made their way into the darkened gallery. Back-up would be there in ten minutes, but they hadn't wanted to wait. Blair stayed just behind her, falling into place without conscious thought, one hand resting lightly on her back to help guide his steps in the darkness. The only sounds were the barely heard touches of their soft-soled shoes on the wood floors. Abruptly the distinct rattle-rattle of a paint spray can echoed around them and just as quickly ceased. Jim frowned and motioned them to stop. He pointed to Alex then to his ear.

Alex nodded and reached out to touch Blair's arm to solidify her grounding. Although they knew where the bait painting was placed, she agreed with Jim's silent request to confirm the location before they continued. She took a breath, then threw out her hearing, imagining a lasso encompassing the area and slowly tightening, narrowing down to the true source of the noise. It hadn't been a technique she really understood until Blair had made her watch a few minutes of a rodeo video. The noose grew smaller and smaller until...

Gotcha.

She pointed down the right hallway.

Jim nodded and they continued onward, moving carefully. Muted light spilled into the hallway from one of the side rooms. Alex waited while Jim peered around the corner, then slipped noiselessly to the other side of the entryway. He motioned her forward and gestured inside with a nod of his head. One hand holding Blair back -- even though she knew he wouldn't move until she judged it safe -- Alex edged just past the entryway.

At the other end of the small room, standing right in front of the "bait," was their perp, knife in hand. A few cans of spray paint littered the ground, along with a slouched, half-open backpack and a small, upright flashlight. The figure shifted slightly and Alex saw that it was a woman. Blair touched her shoulder and she felt the silent question. She gently tugged him forward, directing his attention to the woman. After a moment, he frowned. Alex wanted to ask what he was picking up in the way of surface feelings, but knew this wasn't the time.

Movement from Jim gathered her attention. He held up a hand, readying them to go in. Alex nodded her understanding and gently pushed Blair back behind her. Jim started to count off silently.

>One. Two. Thr--<

Alex took a breath and froze as a familiar heady scent filled her senses.

>--ee<

"Cascade PD! Drop the knife."

The woman whirled and bit off a surprised cry. The knife slipped from her lax hand and clattered to ground somewhere outside the circle of light. Alex followed Jim warily, eyes narrowed as she tried to determine the source of the scent. Her nose led her back to the woman. Is she using it on the paintings? That makes no sense. She frowned. Unless...

Jim slowly edged toward the woman, gun still in position. "Hands up where I can see them."

The woman obediently raised her hands, her eyes darting from Jim to Alex and back again. She licked her lips. "It isn't fair. They shouldn't get all the attention."

Alex moved closer, then stilled as a wave of the attractant drug hit her again. "Jim. Be careful."

"What?" Jim asked, pausing.

"That attractant drug," Alex answered, "it's here."

Blair's hushed voice came from behind them. "She's taking it herself. She--she's addicted to it. Craves it." That answered her earlier internal question of what the guide had sensed. He'd told her in the past that those with addictions tended to "radiate" their emotions more audibly to his empathic nature.

Jim's jaw muscles tightened, but he continued forward, taking the woman into custody. "Up against the wall. You have the right..."

Alex relaxed a little but kept up her guard nonetheless. She could hear backup arriving now, pouring through the front doors of the gallery. Overhead lighting flickered on, dispelling the darkness. Happiness is a case solved. After a quick visual examination of her shell painting, she smiled. It could be reframed. Possibly. As long as none of that drug is-- An alarming thought blared at her and she twisted to look at her guide who stood at the entryway, one hand clutching the corner. "Don't come any closer, Blair. The last thing we need is for you to get any of that drug on you."

He blinked and then his eyes rounded in understanding as they shifted to Jim and back to her. "Ah. Yeah. Yeah. I'll just...stay right here."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A week later...

Jim lowered the lid of the barbecue grill and picked up the bottled water again before leaning one hip against the balcony railing. On the streets below him, people went out on their Sunday afternoon errands, enjoying the rain-free day while it lasted. Behind him, voices streamed outside through the open glass doors leading into the loft. He smiled to himself. Haven't had this many people over here since...well, in years. Not even when Conner decided to stay. Chuckling softly, he lifted the bottle and took a swallow of water. As she so kindly informed me.

Once the vandalism case had been solved, processed, and filed -- the perp being a taste/touch sensor who was jealous of sight/touch artwork and, as a sidenote, was addicted to the attractant drug -- Alex and Blair had made a joint announcement of their plans to accept Chief Warren's invitation to remain in Cascade. Simon had been concerned about the effect their stay would have on Jim, but once he'd revealed Blair's assistance in blocking Robbie, Simon had been more than happy to welcome the sentinel-guide pair into the Major Crime family.

It gives me a fellow sentinel to talk to; it gives Conner a fellow female officer to commiserate with; and it gives Blair a whole group of friends and protectors. The last made him smile a bit secretively -- he'd taken Brown and Rafe aside one day and filled them in on his deductions about Blair's treatment at previous police departments. They'd immediately promised to keep an eye out for any rumblings.

"Were you wanting to be alone or can I join you?"

Jim turned slightly to see Blair standing just inside the balcony doors, a glass bottle of some fancy chai tea in one hand. "Sure, come on out. There's room." He smirked a little. "And I don't think it plans to rain anytime soon."

Blair laughed and walked past the smoking grill to stand next to Jim at the railing. "Good."

Silence drifted between them as they stared out over the street and the water beyond. Laughter rose in the loft behind them and Jim finally spoke up.

"What are they doing in there?"

Chuckling a little, Blair replied, "When I left, Brown had just beaten Rafe at arm-wrestling, and then challenged Inspector Conner -- Megan -- to a round." He paused, then finished, "She said something about him being a glutton for punishment."

Jim laughed and shook his head. "He keeps thinking he can beat her, but so far, no deal. If it wasn't for the fact that he's happily married, I'd almost think he was flirting with her. So, yes, definitely a glutton." He turned slightly to face Blair, studying his profile before the sensitive guide realized and looked up. Jim didn't say anything at first, then dropped his eyes to the water bottle in his hand. "I wanted to thank you -- again -- for teaching me those techniques. It means a lot that you were willing to help me, even after what happened that first day."

Blair's hand made an abortive reach toward his arm before retreating. "Jim, that wasn't you. That was Robbie."

Eyes still downcast, Jim shrugged. "Still." He raised his eyes again. "Some wouldn't be so understanding or forgiving. So thanks."

Smiling slightly, Blair inclined his head. "You're welcome."

"I'm glad you and Alex decided to stay." Jim grinned. "Conner can use the competition, I'm sure."

Blair laughed.

Jim lifted his bottle and tilted it towards Blair who raised his own in return. "Welcome to Cascade, home to seven kinds of rain, forty-two different ways of ordering coffee, and the Jags."

"Hear, hear."

Their bottles touched with an odd but satisfying plastic-on-glass noise. They shared a companionable smile -- before Simon's booming and impatient voice rang out to them, asking how the food was coming.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Blair turned to lean back against the railing as he watched Jim check the grill. His eyes drifted past Jim and the balcony doors to the people inside, and he smiled to himself at the pleasant buzz of contentment and belonging he felt. His eyes then landed on the locked doors of the downstairs bedroom. The smile faltered a little. He'd known without asking that it had been Robbie's room. A fragment of an ancient tale by an equally ancient Irish writer danced across his consciousness.

"...latch'd doors and barred windows played warder to the boy within the castle walls. No entry was found, save for a single string creeping forth from a tiny opening set high above their heads. It waved sadly to them, whispering, 'if you could but reach me...'"

The grill lid closed with a quiet metal clang, startling him. He looked up and found Jim watching him, eyebrows raised. "Deep thoughts?"

"I--" Blair interrupted himself, sighed softly, and started again slowly. "I know this isn't my business, but I noticed those locked doors right across from the bathroom. Was that Robbie's room?"

Jim stiffened and straightened up sharply. "Yes." The easy camaraderie of just moments earlier fizzled. He walked to the other side of the balcony, both hands lowering to clench the balcony railing. "It's empty. No reason to leave it open."

The sentinel's pain leaked from cracks and rough edges, no matter how hard he tried to hold everything together. Blair wondered how much the leakage had to do with time and how much it had to do with the company -- Megan had told him privately that Jim seemed more at ease with Blair than anyone else, including Simon. He blinked in sudden understanding of what he felt from Jim. It's killing him. He needs to mourn. Grieve. And then let go. Even if Robbie won't.

Pushing past his hesitation, Blair moved closer to the other man, sliding his hand along the railing to rest just a few inches from Jim's white-knuckled grip. He picked up the conversation from where it left off. "Someday you'll have to let it air out." He wasn't sure if he meant the room or the pain. Or both.

"I know." Jim's voice was tight. "I've tried. But I can't get past the--" He gasped and jerked to one side as if struck.

"Jim? What is it?" No answer. Blair raised a hand to touch him but didn't. "Jim?" Was it Robbie? Had his "mute button" solution failed so quickly?

Abruptly, Jim's hands released their grip on the railing and he stumbled back, unknowingly heading towards the grill.

Eyes widening in panic, Blair raised his voice. "I could use some help--! Jim!" No time. Tossing up every barrier he had, he grabbed Jim. Sharp pain twinged up his hands and into his arms--

...hurtangerterrorhatredlonelinessalonedenialpainpainpainfrightgetawaygetawaygetaway...

--but he gritted his teeth and ignored them, concentrating instead on steering Jim away from the hot grill. Just in time, as Jim's legs simply collapsed from underneath him and he landed with a hard thud on the floor of the balcony. Blair let him go, shaking his hands as his fingers tingled from the contact. Even shielded and blocked, Robbie's presence was making itself known.

Alex appeared at the balcony doors, took in the situation with a practiced glance, and stepped to Blair's side, resting a hand on his shoulder. The tingling dissipated as her presence wrapped itself around him protectively. Before she could ask, Simon and others crowded into the doorway. The captain's eyes widened at the sight of Jim in a crumpled heap on the balcony floor. He opened his mouth to speak--

"Robbie," Jim's whispered brokenly. His unfocused eyes stared into the distance.

Simon swore and disappeared back inside. Brown and Rafe followed him, herding away others who came to gawk. Megan alone remained, guarding the door and Jim's privacy. She asked softly, "What happened?"

Blair shook his head. "I don't know. We were talking. And then he just stopped, froze for a few seconds, then started to fall." He rubbed his hands on his legs, still feeling the memory of those painful needle-like zaps.

Alex frowned and took one of his hands, examining it. "Did Robbie try to hurt you again?"

"I'm not...I'm not sure." The answer came slowly. "When I grabbed Jim to keep him from falling, I felt something like an electric shock. At first I thought might be Robbie's way of yelling 'keep away' to an intruding presence."

Jim shuddered and flinched.

Megan crouched down next to Jim, one hand hovering just over his shoulder. "I haven't seen him react like this in a long time." Her eyes darkened. "Robbie hates him so much."

Blair took a step towards Jim, bringing Alex with him. "I don't think Robbie was... is trying to hurt Jim." He shared a long look with Alex, not saying anything. Her lips firmed, but she removed her hand and watched without comment as he lowered himself to sit in front of Jim. "I think something is hurting Robbie and that it's broken through Jim's blocks." He reached out slowly and touched Jim's cheek with two fingers -- and gasped.

...lostlostlostlosthatredaloneyearndenialhurthurthurthurtterrorterr--SNAP

Stiffening, Jim inhaled sharply, then his eyes rolled back and he slumped to one side, landing half on Megan, unconscious.

Jerking away from Jim, Blair knocked into Alex's legs with his back. Immediately, she was down by his side, hands grasping his arms, holding him. Alex and Megan's voices tumbled over each other with urgent questions, but he ignored all of them, instead simply whispering, "It's gone." He swallowed. Hard. "He's gone." His eyes remained fixed on the unconscious Jim.

Megan looked up from where she was checking Jim's pulse. "Who?"

"Robbie."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

...the boy huddled against the unforgiving tree trunk, arms and legs tucked inward. The wind ... it was slowing, tapering off, calming. Still wary and uncertain, he raised his head, blinking at the warm light beginning to stream down from overhead. Above him, tree limbs uncurled, retracting their limbed fingers that had so recently torn at his clothes and him. Blue sky stretched further beyond in a canopy.

Water droplets from the heavy rain sparkled on leaves and grass, and at the edges of the well-worn dirt path that snaked by just inches from his bare feet. Using the tree, the boy levered himself upright and took a careful step towards the path. He waited, listening hard for any protests.

Nothing.

The boy bit his lip, then called out in a strained whisper, "I'm going now." Still nothing, only the whistling of wind through trees.

He waited another moment, then turned, facing the heavy foliage of the jungle. Dark green shadows touched the rough-hewn goat path that led out from this place of pain. The man, black markings striping his cheeks and arms, lifted a tightly strung crossbow over one shoulder and checked the placement of the knife in the sheath strapped to his thigh. Another final glance, then he turned and walked away...

"...massive fire at Wrenwood..."

Simon. Jim registered his voice, though not the words exactly, as he slowly surfaced. The dream faded back into a half-remembered memory, already fuzzing around the edges. Years of training had instilled in him the immediate necessity of assessing his physical and mental status even before the rest of him caught up. Headache, but okay. Something feels...off. Different. Wrong?

"...Robbie?"

Conner. Her voice sounded closer than Simon's. Robbie? A formless echo of pain stung him. He struggled to find his footing. I need to...

"That--" Simon again.

"I think Jim's coming around." Another voice. Male. A name floated by and he grasped it. Blair. Guide. The rest filtered into his memory as he surfaced in a rush. Alex's guide. Case. Paintings. Drug. Barbecue. Robbie. He stiffened and took a sharp breath. "Robbie."

"Jim?" Simon's voice held a rare gentleness, usually reserved for those children who crossed his path in his role as a police officer.

Blinking his eyes open, Jim peered through the dissipating fogginess. That's the ceiling. Only then did he realize he was lying on one of the couches. A quick glance around sent a shaft of relief through him -- only a few faces awaited his awakening: Simon, Megan, Alex, and Blair. Someone, probably Simon, had sent the rest away. He swallowed and answered Simon. "Yeah. I'm here." Shifting, he pushed himself up to a sitting position, mutely accepting Megan's helping hands.

"What--" Jim broke off, his voice surprisingly hoarse. Before he could say anything more, something warm was pressed into his hand. He looked down to find a mug. The soothing scent of Blair's "headache tea" drifted upwards. Lifting his head, Jim gave Blair a shaky smile before the guide returned to Alex's side on the other couch. "Thanks."

Blair tipped his head in acknowledgment. "I thought you might need it."

Megan took a seat next to Jim while Simon perched onto the edge of the yellow chair. Waiting until after he'd taken a few restorative swallows of tea, Megan touched Jim's shoulder lightly. "Are you okay?"

"I think so." Jim balanced the mug on one knee, fingers curled around the handle. "What exactly happened?"

"Good question." Simon sighed and ran a hand over the top of his head. "No one is sure exactly what happened, but a huge fire broke out at Wrenwood. Many guides, along with staff members and instructors, are either injured, missing," he paused, then added, "or dead."

Jim stilled and then moved jerkily to place the mug on the coffee table. It clattered loudly against the surface. Meeting Simon's eyes, he asked softly, "Robbie?"

The captain shook his head. "Again, the information is sketchy, but I spoke briefly with both the fire marshal and Dr. Bain. Several of the wings are basically ... gone, including the one where Robbie was located. The Fire Department was just barely able to keep the blaze from spreading." He stopped to clear his throat. "I was just getting to the worst of it when you woke up. The fire marshal suspects a deliberate attack."

Megan's eyes widened in shock. Jim blinked several times, not knowing what to say. Looking at the other sentinel, he saw anger and sorrow both flash across Alex's face. Blair...isn't surprised at all. Like it's something he's heard before.

Simon obviously arrived at the same conclusion. "Sandburg?" The inherent "what do you know?" hung in the air.

Blair glanced away, looking up briefly at Alex, before staring at his hands. "A couple years before I met Alex, I was ... visiting a guide facility in Colorado. There was a fire, a big fire. The entire building burned down; I barely managed to escape." He listed towards Alex a little. "And I've heard a few rumors of other facilities destroyed in similar fashion over the years. Some people are scared of empaths, and scared people do angry, terrible things."

An uneasy silence drifted between them before Jim spoke up, pulling the topic back to his as-yet-unanswered question. "Simon, what about Robbie? I felt--" He stopped, unable to find adequate words to describe the stream of complex emotions that had overwhelmed him. Swallowing hard, he managed, "At the end, he was hurting. And terrified."

"No one knows for certain," Simon said slowly, "but between the fire, your reaction, and what Blair picked up on, Dr. Bain believes he's dead, lost in the fire or the aftermath of inner walls collapsing. It'll be months before anyone can sort things out, if ever. The medical wing was caught as well; most of the records are gone."

Jim dropped his head, closing his eyes, finally acknowledging the emptiness he felt inside for what it was. The link between Robbie and him was gone. Severed. He'd always wanted Release, but never at such a price, not at the expense of another's life, not even Robbie's life. Wait...what Blair picked up on? He straightened and fixed his eyes on Blair, who sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Alex, never losing contact with her.

The younger man spoke before Jim could even form a first word. "You were falling." He added after a second, "I caught you."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Three days later...

*whoosh*

Blair laughed and pointed both hands at the basketball net as he jogged backwards. "Ha! Nothing but net. And I win." He smirked. "Again."

Jim retrieved the ball on its third bounce and mimed throwing it at the too-cheerful guide. "All right, all right. I'll concede while I still have my dignity."

The guide only grinned harder and danced his way over to the bench next to the park's basketball court. He snagged a water bottle from the small cooler and twisted off the cap. Jim followed him and sat sideways on the bench, pulling another bottle out for himself. Closing his eyes, Blair took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The day was clear, if a bit brisk. Rain was predicted for later in the evening, but Blair had been more than happy to take Jim up on his offer of a little one-on-one while it was fairly pleasant -- for Cascade -- outside. Especially since Alex was off filling out additional paperwork and clearing on the firing range.

Opening his eyes again, Blair shifted to look at Jim, who raised his eyebrows questioningly.

"Yes?"

Blair fiddled with the cap of the bottle, tapping it against the plastic. "So...are you still considering Dr. Bain's suggestion to try finding another guide?"

"I'm..." Jim pursed his lips and looked out into the park. "I'm thinking about considering it. I'm not sure I want to try again. Or if I could even trust someone else enough to let them be my guide."

"Robbie was a rarity," Blair stated. "I mean, sure, guides are human and humans have failings. But guides with ... with bad leanings are typically discovered and removed during the training."

Jim waved that away. "No, that isn't even it. Robbie hurt me." He stopped, as if that explained everything, then smiled slightly. "Besides, I think I need to learn to be alone in my head for awhile. To remember how to live without the knowledge that someone else is spying on me."

Spying on him? Is that how he sees me? sees all guides? Blair frowned, unhappy with Jim's words. "Spying? I don't--we--"

"No, Chief, I didn't mean--" Jim hesitantly touched Blair's arm, still amazed he could do so without fear of reprisal. "I know you don't spy. I meant Robbie. Only him."

Barriers half-lowered already, Blair could feel his sincerity and genuine caring, all underscored by shadows of sadness but also by a stronger sense of self than Jim had possessed when they had first met. With Robbie no longer leaching away at Jim's strength and self-image, he was slowly regaining the balance he'd lost three months earlier -- as evidenced by the brief dream/vision he'd had three days before while still unconscious. That transition from boy to man didn't need much translation. Unlike Alex's continuing sandcastle and ocean waves motif. He frowned to himself, not liking that he couldn't figure out what her dreams meant.

"I probably shouldn't chance it another time, but... Deep thoughts?" Jim's amused voice interrupted his mental meandering.

Blair shook himself back to the present and grinned. "Always, man."

Jim laughed. "Somehow I believe you." He folded his hands and leaned back on the bench. "Not to distract you -- well, no, that's not true; in any case, I was wondering how you and Alex met. All you said earlier was that it was in southern California. I'm sure there has to be a better story than that."

"Hmm." The guide smiled, casting back his memory. "We met on a beach. I had been traveling and was between jobs and was down to my last hundred bucks. One afternoon, I was sitting on the beach, wearing this ratty 'save the whales' t-shirt and cut-off jeans, and building a sandcastle while I decided just what I was gonna do next." He shifted on the bench, glancing at Jim. "I was sculpting a particularly fine tower when a shadow fell over my masterpiece. So I look up and there's this tall, blonde woman in a blue swimsuit staring at me like...like I was the cross between last man on the planet and--."

"--and a particularly odd specimen in a zoo."

Blair twisted to look over his shoulder, grinning at Alex who stood there, arms crossed over her chest. Her lips twitched with suppressed laughter. As opposed to the guys in their t-shirts and sweats, Alex wore dark green pants and a cream button-up long-sleeve shirt with the sleeves rolled neatly up. Her hair was tucked into a simple french twist, probably to keep her it out of her way during the testing.

"And hello to you too. You pass?"

Alex snorted. "Like there was ever a doubt. Shove over." She nudged Blair and sat on the other side of him. "Hey, Jim. And before you ask, it's an old joke."

"So I assumed." Jim's eyes sparkled with humor. "And as I was just telling Blair, I knew there had to be a better story to the two of you meeting."

"Well," she eyed Blair suspiciously, saying, "good thing I came along to help him get the details right."

With some effort, Blair resisted sticking out his tongue.

Alex slung an arm along the back of the bench behind Blair and picked up the tale. "What Blair didn't know was that I'd been having dreams about sandcastles for weeks. Sandcastles and a breaching whale." She smiled at Blair. "So when I saw this guy building a sandcastle and wearing a 'save the whales' t-shirt, it made me pause and stare." Laughter snuck into her voice. "And while I hate to sound melodramatic, when he looked up and our eyes met..."

"...wham." Blair grinned. "To put it scientifically."

Jim raised his eyebrows. "Wham?"

"Wham," Alex confirmed. "Next thing I knew I was on my knees in the sand in front of Blair, one hand gripping his until my knuckles were white, my senses wide open, and the feeling of a guide, the right guide, woven through every piece of me."

They fell silent, both lost in their mutual memories of the singular event. Blair could still recall that frozen, nearly endless moment of mixed shock and panic that a sentinel had found him and that he couldn't stop their imminent Joining. But then... Then it was no longer a sentinel; it was Alex. Alex who would never hurt me, who protects me, who cares so fiercely for me. My sentinel.

Unnoticed by him, Alex had started talking again. "--took us a bit to adjust and accept, but I've never regretted it for a moment."

"Ditto," Blair added.

Jim's cellphone chose that moment to ring imperiously. Sighing, the detective fished it from the pocket of his discarded jacket. "I just know who this has to be..." He silenced the ringing and answered it. "Ellison." With a roll of his eyes, he stood and started gathering the empty water bottles and the cooler. "Hey Simon." Another few seconds passed with Jim listening before he finally said, "Okay. I need to run by the loft and change clothes, but I'll be there as soon as I can." He thumbed off the phone. "No rest for the weary. Or the wicked. Or detectives of cigar-chomping captains."

Snagging the basketball, Blair laughed and hopped off the bench to follow Jim and Alex towards their cars. Jim relayed the information he got from Simon -- something to do with a jewelry heist. They paused next to Jim's Expedition as doors were opened and the cooler stashed inside. Blair could see Alex's compact car waiting for them a few slots down. A few other park-goers passed them on the sidewalk, including one adventurous rollerblader. His attention was drawn back to the conversation when Jim's tone changed abruptly.

"Oh, before I forget -- another box arrived for you this morning. I think it must be the straggler that got separated from the rest."

Alex nodded. "Good. Thanks again for letting us borrow the space." Blair knew Alex had arranged for their important personal belongings being held by their friend in Arizona to be shipped up to them once they'd made the decision to stay. She'd planned to rent a storage space. But after Robbie's death, Jim had acceded to Blair's suggestion to "air out" the downstairs bedroom. He'd gotten rid of everything that remained inside, scoured it from floor to ceiling -- and then offered to store Alex and Blair's belongings until they found a place to live.

Leaning up against the Expedition, Blair added, "Hopefully we'll start looking for an apartment or house or something tomorrow." He made a face. "I'm really getting tired of living in a hotel, no matter how nice."

Both sentinels chuckled and then Jim moved away to head towards the driver's side. "I've got to get going before Simon calls again. Doesn't do to make the man grumpy."

Blair stepped away from Alex and called out over the hood, "Hey, man, you forgot this." He lifted the basketball into the air and spun it on one finger. "You might want it to, uh, practice."

Jim pointed a finger at him. "You just wait, Sandburg." He held up his hands. "Give me that."

Grinning widely, Blair tossed the ball--

--and was flattened to the hard pavement--

--by Alex who yelled, "Get down!"--

--just as a bullet sang its deadly tune--

--and succeeded in acquiring a target.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The choice was never hers to make.

...muddy sand irritated the skin between her toes...cold water encircled her ankles...

Discovering first she was a sentinel and later choosing to become a police officer, the desire and instinct to protect those less fortunate, less able, even less willing had reigned. When she eventually Joined with the young, gifted, and (she knew) terribly hurt Guide, that instinct had focused strongly on Blair, not because of him being "less" in any way, but rather because he was "more" to her. Alex had striven to always put herself between Blair and any harm that came his way. She didn't always succeed, but she tried.

...her feet cemented firmly, she could only watch in horror as the tower collapsed...

When the oh-so-familiar click of a gun hammer echoed in her hearing, she acted as she had always acted and removed her guide from the line of fire. And as a result, willingly put herself into it. Fire burned and scorched along nerve endings as the bullet pounded into her, stealing her breath and her control.

...waves grew stronger, hurtling themselves against the sandcastle, storming past the ruined wall to the unprotected courtyard...

It took her an undetermined amount of time before she found the strength to lock away all her senses -- they were of no use to her anymore. Pain faded to a manageable level. As her vision cleared, she realized she was no longer face down on top of Blair. Rather she was laying on her back on the pavement and Blair's pale face haunted the air above hers. His wide, frantic eyes pleaded wordlessly even as his lips moved without sound and his hands tried to staunch the bleeding.

...clumps of sand rained downward alarmingly as the fortress began to disintegrate...and still she could not move...

She licked her lips and forced a breath. From somewhere distant, she could hear Jim's strong voice calling urgently for back-up, for an ambulance, for medical assistance from anyone in the gathering crowd of noisy pedestrians.

...the unattended bracelet began to drift towards the water's edge, pulled inexorably in by the ceaseless attack...

Another breath. I understand now. An eerie calm settled over her. My only regret... Alex raised one hand, amazed at its steadiness, and touched Blair's face, pressing her palm to his cheek. He stilled. Stared at her. Sobbed her name.

"Alex. No. Please. I can't-- You can't--"

His barriers had fractured and she knew he could feel the same thing she could. Her time was short.

...straining, gasping, yelling, she yanked one foot free, then the other of their prison...and leapt over the half-gone sandcastle...

Another breath. She gave a gentle tug. Licking her lips again, she forced out a whisper, saying the only words she knew could give him comfort. "Join. My guide, my Joined half, my partner, my friend. I will protect you. Just as you protect me."

Blair blinked rapidly, sending his tears scattering down to her face before he nearly collapsed onto her, head buried against her shoulder. Alex flinched at the momentary shift of pain and at the intensity of his emotions as they poured over and into her, but she held onto him, refusing to let him go as he sank deep within their link.

...her fingers curled around the bracelet and clutched it tightly, refusing to release it to the ocean's grip...

Another breath. Her eyes fought to close, but she forced them open. Sleep beckoned. Not yet. Please. I can't leave him unprotected. Blurry movement resolved itself into Jim's form as he crouched down next to her. Remorse and sorrow filled his features as he took in the way Blair had draped himself over Alex. She took another breath. Jim met her eyes as she spoke in a rasp. "He will mourn."

Jim nodded. "I know." His hand hovered over Blair's head, his fingers just grazing his hair. "I'll try..." He broke off, his lips pressed together.

Sirens careened towards them. No time.

Another breath. Alex said only, "I know you will." With the last bit of her strength, she lifted her other hand and clumsily slapped it on top of Jim's, driving it downward to land on Blair's head.

...trees shimmered and sprouted full-grown from the sand...warm damp air filled her lungs...

She had only the briefest sense of Jim's stiffening form and a half-stifled gasp before darkness descended.

Forgive me, Blair.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

A wave of water hit his booted foot. Jumping back slightly, Jim stared at the ocean, at the fog slipping inland, at the rolling sand dunes, at the nearly demolished sandcastle. Salty, sandy wind prickled his face and arms, contrasting with the heavy air at the back of his neck. Turning, he goggled at the tall Peruvian jungle that encroached upon the beach. The vision. I'm here. Again. But this-- "This is--"

"--impossible? improbable? ineffably true?" A woman's voice.

He spun on heel and discovered Alex waiting there. She wore a blue one-piece swimsuit and a white cover-up knotted at her waist. Loose blonde hair drifted lazily across her face. Sand clung liberally to her legs and bare feet. One hand clasped tightly to something he couldn't quite see. "What?"

She smiled, laughing softly. "Welcome to my world." Then her smile vanished as she seemed to wilt -- and grow transparent for a few brief moments.

Jim stepped forward, wondering if he should touch her. "Alex? What's going on? Last I remember, we were in the park. You were--" He stopped short.

"I'm dying, Jim. I know." She grasped his upper arm, fingers covering the camouflage markings. "There is little time. Please listen." Again she wilted.

Without thought, Jim grabbed her shoulders and pulled her toward him, steadying her. Her head bowed and for a moment her forehead touched his chest. Jim blinked as he felt something go from him to her, but he didn't question it, just allowed it. He moved one hand to touch the back of her head, then returned it to her shoulder as he helped her upright. "What? What is it?"

Alex said softly, "When I'm ... gone, Blair will be alone, without protection." She held up her hand, interrupting Jim's instinctive "he has friends" response. "He needs a sentinel."

Knowing without question where Alex was leading, Jim started to shake his head. He tried stepping away from her. "No. As much as I like Blair, you can't ask that of me. Of him."

Her fingers dug painfully into his arm, refusing to give him the distance. "I have to ask. If I don't, Blair will fall. He'll drift without anchor and become as lost as that sandcastle." She flung her other hand to the side and Jim followed the gesture automatically, seeing only barely recognizable lumps of sand. Water lapped at the edges, peeling away layers. The fog bank darkened, creeping towards the shoreline.

"But--" His protest died unspoken in his throat.

"I know. Sentinels and guides are not interchangeable," Alex began, "but you and he ... you've already connected on some level. I know you're aware of it."

Jim's eyes flew back to Alex's. He wanted to deny her words, but he couldn't.

She only smiled. "It's all right. I said before I was glad he had a friend in you. If you had met him before me, before Robbie, then I think things would've been quite different." Her hand tightened on his arm, shaking him slightly. "Please, Jim. I know Robbie hurt you greatly and trusting in another guide is asking a lot, even if that guide is Blair. But the world needs guardians, needs sentinels. You have the strength to be a great one. To do that, you need a guide. You need Blair. He is ... special."

"How can you bargain away his life without him even being here?" Jim asked, delaying his answer.

Her other hand came up and opened, exposing a fraying, leather guide bracelet. "He's been here from the beginning." She held it out to him. "This is a sentinel-only playground, but we all have our totems. On some level, he is listening." Her eyes closed briefly. "Crying. Begging. Hurting. I can't leave him, knowing he is alone. And yet, the choice isn't mine to make."

Jim blew out a heavy breath. "Okay." He lifted a hand and Alex carefully placed the bracelet in his palm, closing his fingers over it tightly. Her hand remained there for an extended moment, her eyes fixed on the hidden treasure, but then she released him. Beyond her, Jim saw a final wave retreat from the shoreline, leaving only a smooth, empty plain of sand behind it. And he realized abruptly that he no longer stood in sand and that more trees had appeared, crowding around them, nearly cutting off the view of the water.

"He will mourn," Alex repeated her earlier statement.

"I know." Jim could already sense the tendrils of another's soul creeping into his. "I'll be there for him."

She nodded, then her eyes grew more serious. "There was another. Before me."

His eyebrows went up. "Another sentinel?"

"Yes," she continued. "I know only that it was a man. I don't know his name or where they met or what happened between them or how Blair became separated from him." Alex paused and again gripped his arm. "But he hurt Blair somehow. Hurt him terribly. Blair refuses to speak of him, but I have a suspicion this man is still alive somewhere. Protect him. Please."

The ocean disappeared under the unnatural fog; the roar of waves slipped away into memory. Alex began to fade.

"Alex?"

A sad smile appeared. "Tell Blair that I... Tell him the painting is finished. He'll understand."

And then she was gone. Only the jungle remained with its haunting echo of bird calls and the chittering of native simians.

Jim looked down at the bracelet in his hand, whispering, "I will."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Disjointed and jumbled phrases affixed themselves to his half-aware mind. ...welcome ... I'm dying ... sandcastle ... needs a sentinel ... lost ... guide ... another ... protect ... he will mourn ... forgive me, Blair--

He jerked, inhaled, and nearly convulsed as reality pulsed and thudded onto him, knocking all his supports away. Strong hands clasped over his shoulders and gently tugged him upwards, lifting him off--off what? His head hurt. His throat hurt. One shoulder felt scraped raw. His barriers were shattered, almost beyond repair. Another guarded him. His sentinel. Alex--

Gasping and choking, Blair's eyes snapped open. Nothing would focus. It was all a watery blur of color and noise. He fought vainly against the hands that restrained him. Alex! Memory returned in full, flooding him. Harsh, inarticulate sounds rose up from his throat and spilled outward, increasing in volume as the seconds passed.

A voice whispered ceaselessly in his ear, the tone barely above a murmur, trying to comfort him, trying to get him to listen. He heard his name repeated several times amidst the other words he couldn't bother to understand. And then...

"Chief."

His struggles slowly died. As they did, more words found their meaning.

"She's gone. I'm sorry. So sorry."

Blair sobbed. His voice cracked. "Alex."

"I know." The voice garnered a name: Jim. It was Jim who held him, rocked him ever so slightly, one arm wrapped around his chest, hand pressed against his heart. The other arm slowly loosened its confining grip over Blair's own arms. He was half-sitting, half-kneeling on the hard sidewalk, Jim's strong form at his back, supporting him. Behind Jim, he caught sight of the front wheel of the Expedition.  Police lights, multicolored sirens, and a multitude of chaotic voices existed somewhere beyond that. Glancing upward, he blinked when he saw the backs of several officers surrounding them, protecting them from gawkers and the almost certain presence of the intrusive media.

"Blair?" There was a question in that voice, as well as in the emotions he felt dancing carefully over his mind. Their Joining had been just as abrupt as his and Alex's.

Alex.

Taking a breath and releasing it slowly, Blair let his now-focusing eyes lower to the form on the sidewalk. The one he'd been avoiding. Alex's face was peaceful, if pale; her eyes were mercifully closed. Her hair spilled outward under her head, having come loose from the chignon in the fall. His gaze drifted lower and he gripped Jim's arm, not remembering when his hand had landed there. Her cream-colored shirt was no longer cream, stained and dyed with too much blood. One graceful hand lay atop her chest, contrasting starkly in color. The other rested limply at her side. A dull brown blanket covered her from the waist down, the extra length folded, awaiting someone's attention.

Alex. Wrenching sobs tore at his throat, but he refused them exit. I have to...say goodbye.

Commotion startled him and he heard a flashbulb pop followed momentarily by the captain's commanding, angry voice. The officers surrounding them tensed.

"Blair. Are you--? We need--" Jim stuttered to a halt.

"I know. A moment." Blair moved forward, waiting until Jim released him. Grasping the rough blanket, he pulled it up, unfolding it to cover the rest of Alex. He paused at her neck and rested it there, smoothing it over her shoulders. Behind him, he felt Jim simply watching and waiting.

Blair brushed his hand across Alex's forehead and down the side of her face, cupping her cold cheek in his palm. Then, leaning down, he pressed his lips against her forehead in farewell. He whispered, "I forgive you." Blair wasn't sure what Alex had asked forgiveness for -- for dying, for no longer being there, for only giving him three years, or for bequeathing him to another sentinel. "I forgive you." Swallowing, he raised up and added, "Journey well," then finished covering her, hiding her face from the world.

Last duty complete, he took another breath and turned, looking at his new sentinel. At Jim.

Jim reached out to touch him, then hesitated and simply held his hand there, palm up, letting Blair make the decision. Without the constant contact supporting his shattered barriers, Blair had sensed the crowd's intense and mixed reactive emotions besieging him, straining his already weakened inner self. And although he knew Jim to be a good man, right then he felt nothing but pain and wondered if Jim was truly the man he needed him to be. However, Alex ... must have believed that he was. For now, Blair would trust in her belief, if nothing else.

Alex.

His soul fractured a bit more, threatening to crumble. Sorrow geysered upward. He needed to mourn. He needed privacy. He needed--

"Move them back!" The captain's voice blared harshly into their measured bubble of solitude.

Blair jerked and shuddered. He needed his sentinel.

Taking the offered hand, he let himself be reeled in. "Jim." Arms enfolded him as he buried his face in a hard shoulder. "Jim." Long-denied sobs clogged in his throat, unable and unwilling to wait much longer. "I--it--"

A hand touched his head, tucking it closer. Jim whispered, "It's okay. I'll catch you."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Epilogue

Jim took the last piece of clay lumpy-something from Blair's hands and set it on the low coffee table next to two other similarly crafted items and a handful of much more recognizable delicate bud vases and tastefully painted bowls. Next to him on the couch, Blair balled up the wrappings and tossed them back into the packing box.

What in the world are those things supposed to be? Jim picked up one of the oddly shaped items and stared at it, frowning. Looks like someone tried to make a bowl and forgot to let it completely harden before giving it to some sticky fingered child play with.

Blair spoke up, quiet humor in his voice. "Those three are her first attempts to work in clay. I wouldn't let her throw them away." A tiny smile flitted across his lips as he continued, "If anyone asked, I told them they were ancient ceremonial drinking vessels."

Chuckling, he tilted the object up when his thumb hit a rough spot on the base. It was the letter "L" etched into the clay. He questioned, "L?"

A slightly larger smile appeared and Blair replied, "Larry," then pointed to the other two, "Moe, and Curly."

Jim laughed out loud and placed "Larry" back on the table, then leaned back into the couch, casually slinging one arm along the back of it behind Blair. His fingers brushed Blair's shoulder lightly and he watched Blair's profile from the side, both seeing and feeling the ache of Alex's sudden death and the gap her absence left behind still overshadowing his new and currently fragile guide. Jim hadn't wanted to intrude on anything private, but at the same time, didn't want Blair to be alone when he went through his and Alex's collection of belongings. The pain of loss tended to hit him at odd moments, and Jim didn't want to be missing when he was needed. He'd promised Alex.

Fortunately, Blair hadn't wanted to be alone either, especially not after yesterday.

Alex's funeral had been yesterday, three days after the shooting in the park. Jim made a face and looked down. It had been rough. Brown and Rafe had tracked down the shooter -- a former arrest by Alex who'd been paroled and was looking for revenge -- within a day. But that had been little consolation to the fragile young man as he'd stood numbly next to Jim, his eyes glassy as he'd shivered in the rainy cemetery. It hadn't been until the twenty-one gun salute that he'd flinched and turned his head away, burying it in Jim's shoulder.

"He will mourn." Alex's words repeated themselves to him again. And so he should. I can't deny him that. I won't. Blair would heal, but it would take time, and Jim would see he received that time.

Rising from the couch, Jim walked into the kitchen to refill his and Blair's coffee mugs. On the couch, Blair didn't seem to notice, lost in his own thoughts. Jim again watched Blair and frowned at several recurring questions, something Simon had asked yesterday after the funeral when they'd had a brief moment alone. What happens after the shock has worn off and he starts to emerge from that mourning? What happens if we find ourselves totally unsuited to being Joined? What if I can't be to Blair what Alex was? And something else he only asked in the deepest part of his own mind: What if being Joined to Robbie has left me ... damaged in some way and I can no longer be a true sentinel?

Jim sighed and shook away the heavy thoughts. Time enough later. Picking up the mugs, he returned to the couch. He stopped just behind Blair and gave the various items littering the coffee table a measured look. Among the vases and bowls and misshapen objects, two photos stood out. One was a silver framed 4x6 photo of a grinning Blair and Alex, bundled in snowcoats, arms wrapped exuberantly around each other in a playful hug as they mugged for the camera. Next to it was a smaller, more serious headshot of Alex in her police uniform, taken before she'd met Blair. Jim wondered if an offer to display the photos in the main part of the loft would be accepted or appropriate.

"Coffee, Blair?" No answer. "Chief?"

"What?" Blair blinked, then looked up, his eyes first focusing on Jim then on the coffee mug extended towards him. "Oh, sorry. That for me? Thanks." He took the mug and sipped the hot liquid slowly.

Jim sat back down on the couch, waving his inattention off. "Thinking again. I'm getting used to it." He smiled to offset the remark, letting Blair know he was teasing. Stretching one foot forward, he nudged the empty box out of his way. It was one of the last left to unpack. Blair's friend in Arizona was shipping Blair's bedroom furniture to Cascade and giving the rest of it to charity per his wishes.

The box rattled as it slid across the floor.

Jim stretched out an arm and tugged the box back to him. "I thought it was empty."

Blair shrugged. "So did I."

Thrusting one hand into the piles of wrappings, Jim fished around before his fingers touched the rough edge of something. Wrapping a hand around the object, he pulled it out, revealing an iridescent shell, a rainbow of colors gliding and shifting as the light hit it. One edge had a small chip bitten out of it. He frowned. "Wait. This looks like--"

*clunk*

Jim stopped short, turning to see that Blair had set his coffee mug down and was reaching out for the shell. He let him take it, sensing it was important.

"I'd forgotten I'd put this in there."

"Isn't that," Jim began, "the shell from the painting? The bait?"

Fingers touching the smooth inner surface, Blair nodded. "Yes. It-- I was using it as a shovel when Alex and I met on that beach." He placed it on the table next to the Stooges and the photos. "We took it with us. As a memento."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was another hour later before Blair decided to face the final unpacked item. Resting flat on the kitchen table, the box awaited him. He stared down at it, knowing the flat, rectangular, carefully packed container held Alex's last painted masterpiece. It was what she was working on when they left Arizona so abruptly. Remembered words, filled with humor and life, echoed so clearly: "No, just stay in there until I'm done packing it. I mean it!"

"What is it?" Jim asked, touching his shoulder.

"This... When Alex painted, she never let me see her uncompleted work. She said it was to keep the image she wanted to paint 'untainted.'" He smiled gently and reached out to trace a hand down the box surface. "But really I think she was just shy about anything incomplete. This is the last thing she was working on. The last day I saw it, the day we left, it was still draped, awaiting her hand. She hadn't looked at it in days. There was so much going on..." Blair trailed off, a frown creasing his face, remembering those last few weeks in Phoenix. "I know it's a watercolor, but I've never saw underneath the sheet. I don't know that I should." Jim didn't say anything, but Blair felt the sudden surge of understanding strike him. Looking up, he said, "Want to share?"

Jim pursed his lips, then reached out to touch the box as well. "In the ... vision I shared with Alex, in the park, the last thing she said to me was to tell you 'the painting is finished' and that you'd understand." He added, "I think she wanted you to see it. Needed you to."

Still uncertain, Blair hesitated, simply resting his hand on the box. "I wish--" He stopped himself, not wanting to hurt Jim with his futile wishes. Instead, he picked up the box cutter and made precise cuts along the seams, then slowly peeled away the box top and edges. Underneath mounds of cotton batting, a cushioning dropcloth wrapped the canvas inside. With Jim's help, he removed that as well until they both looked upon Alex's last work.

Jim just stared, eyes wide. Blair blinked back tears. And remembered that last day in Phoenix.

**flashback**

After running the towel over the countertops, Blair threaded it through the refrigerator door handle. One hand on the door for support, he turned slowly, wary of his still sore twisted ankle. He really wasn't supposed to be up yet. But how many hours of reruns and talk shows and reality tv can one man take? And mid-morning tv? Ugh. Besides, it's not like I'm running a marathon or something. What she doesn't know and isn't here to see... He grinned and hobbled to the kitchen table. Another towel was laid flat there. On top of it, lined up neatly, were several drying paintbrushes of varying sizes and styles. He touched the bristles lightly, turning a few brushes over as he readjusted them.

Across the room, covered by an off-white cloth, was the current painting-in-progress. Blair hadn't seen any of it yet -- Alex wouldn't let him no matter how much he begged, cajoled, and pleaded. She just chuckled and smiled secretively and said "when it's finished." Some days, when he thought about it, he was again surprised at the changes he and Alex both had gone through in the past few years. Once upon a time, he had vowed never to trust anyone ever again, especially not a sentinel. Once upon a time, Alex had thought she was doomed to being alone, as it always seemed she had been.

But not now. Not anymore.

That was three years ago and everything had changed for the better for both of them.

Blair limped over to the covered canvas and reached out to finger the cloth. As much as I'm happy for Alex to rediscover her love of painting... Smiling, he let his eyes touch upon a few delicate vases and an abstract sculpture decorating the living room of the small, two bedroom house. ...and working with clay, I wish she'd let me see them more when she's still working on them.

Then again, it had taken him nearly two years to persuade her to pick up a brush again, so maybe he should consider himself lucky. "Perhaps in time," he commented to himself. "When she feels comfortable enough."

His smile faded as the reasons for his twisted ankle and Alex's absence from the house abruptly reasserted themselves. Which isn't here.

The door slammed open and closed loudly. Blair jumped, startled, a twinge of pain shooting through his abused ankle. Heart racing, he released the cloth and turned around to see Alex storming down the short entrance hallway. Her lips were compressed into a tight line and her fists were clenched in anger. Vivid and tumultuous emotions sparked in her eyes. She froze in the archway that connected the hallway to the living room/kitchen.

Blair immediately noticed the empty shoulder holster and swallowed hard. "You quit."

Alex nodded sharply.

"I'm sor--"

"No." Alex cut him off, holding up a hand and walking stiffly towards him. "Don't. None of this is your fault." She stopped in front of him.

"But--" Blair tried again, feeling the pain his sentinel was trying to ignore.

"No." She repeated. "Bohner denied everything. While smiling. The captain just shrugged and tossed the report." Alex lifted a hand and touched Blair's cheek, lightly tracing the fading yellow bruise on his cheekbone. "So officially you tripped over a rock. Not pushed or 'helped' in any way." Her hand dropped and fisted again at her side. "I turned over my badge and gun and left."

"So what do we do now?"

Alex said slowly, "During the last few weeks, I've been quietly inquiring about positions elsewhere."

"You have?" He blinked in surprise.

She went on, words rushing together as she spoke. "Neither of us are truly happy here, even without the whole harassment issue." Alex grimaced unhappily. "Your degree is being wasted."

Blair couldn't disagree with her arguments. Nearly everyone at the police station didn't like or trust them. And he couldn't find a position even remotely related to his field of expertise. They'd left Los Angeles due to budget cuts. And sentinel or not, in the end, Alex was just a cop like everyone else and one without seniority. Phoenix had seemed a good choice at first, but that revealed itself to be untrue only a few months after their arrival.

Alex had continued, "I found a few possibilities that I thought we might look into. We could leave Phoenix and never come back."

"Now? Today?" More surprise, edged by mutual anxiety and anticipation, filled him. It wasn't even lunchtime yet and here she was placing life-changing decisions before him.

"Yes," Alex replied quietly. "What do you think?"

Blair looked at her, then let his gaze drift around the front rooms of their home of eight months. They'd hoped after an initial settling-in period that their co-workers would adjust and they would find a permanent place to stay. That they'd find friends. A life. And even though the work situation had only worsened with time, their home had become a place of refuge to them, one that Blair had reveled in.

But what good is a home when the bad guys have badges and have redefined the thin blue line?

Alex was waiting for an answer. He knew this wasn't a decision she'd make unilaterally, however much she might want to. Finally, he smiled and asked, "Where are we going?"

"North." She returned his smile and reached up to touch his cheek again. "We're going north."

**end flashback**

"Alex's sandcastle." Jim's voice was quiet. Awestruck. Possibly even reverent.

Blair nodded silently, his eyes absorbing every sweeping brushstroke and every swirl of watercolor. The wide, rolling ocean provided the backdrop of an afternoon beach scene of sand, birds, seaweed, and scattered hazy images of people. Central to everything rose an impossibly intricate sandcastle with towers, windows, walkways, and even a tiny scrap of fabric waving from a stick flagpole.

The sandcastle stood alone, without guard.

However, in the distance beyond on either side were two sets of figures. Both sets were still hazy but more clearly portrayed. On one side a brown-haired man and a blonde woman walked together by the water, hair and clothes being tugged at by the breeze. On the other side two children, a boy and girl, squatted in the muddy sand at the water's edge and played as they filled a bucket with sandcastle building materials.

"Alex said once that I helped her find pieces of her missing childhood." Blair's hand hovered over the two children. "She was only seven when she was sent away to that ... that place for 'difficult' children. That was the end of her childhood and the beginning of something else entirely." He fell silent. Just as she reminded me that life is for living, not hiding from shadows. Blair leaned back, trusting Jim to be there.

Just like Alex. And just as Alex knew Jim would be.

Hands curled over his upper arms warmly, holding him steady against a solid chest. He dropped the last of his barriers and closed his eyes, willingly letting himself be flooded by the sentinel's surprisingly intense inner feelings. Jim's understandable doubts assailed him, but he easily waded past them, knowing they would fade in time, just as his own would. Jim had his harsh edges, but he also had a depth and strength of caring for those few close to him.

Of whom I am now one.

His eyes drifted from the painting down to the guide bracelet he wore on his wrist. The bracelet signifying he belonged with Alex. I'm still mourning, but Alex is gone. She wanted me to live. Taking a deep breath, he carefully picked open the knot, loosening the leather band. Curiosity and confusion seeped into him from behind, but he ignored them, concentrating on removing the bracelet and carefully placing it next to the painting on the table.

Blair brushed his fingers over the familiar leather striations, then slowly withdrew. Reaching up, he grasped one of Jim's hands and turned, staying within Jim's personal space. He kept contact with him and stared up into his eyes. Jim seemed to sense something and remained still, though his forehead furrowed at the continued observing silence.

Finally, in a whisper-soft voice, Jim asked, "Chief?"

Chief. Blair smiled at the nickname. Alex made the only choice she could, but I think it was the right choice. He took another deep breath and raised one hand to touch the other man's face, cupping his palm firmly against Jim's cheek. "I would Join with you, sentinel."

Jim's eyes widened. Although they were already Joined in the strictest sense, they had yet to do so formally -- or with actual intent. His hand, shaking ever so slightly, rose slowly to Blair's face, mirroring his touch. "I would Join with you, guide."

This would make it real.

"...waved sadly to them, whispering, 'if you could but reach me...' Stones were piled one upon another until at long last, the smallest small in their company scaled to a great height and did grasp that string and give a mighty yank. The doors creaked open and the boy ran free."

~the end~