Disclaimer: The Sentinel, Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, Simon Banks, and all other characters are property of Paramount and Pet Fly. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money has exchanged hands.

Warning: A bit of strong language

To Be Or Not To Be…A Sentinel

by Arianna

Note: This story would take place at the end of the first season or early in the second, before the episode, "Flight".

********************

"If you hate it all so much, and it's just a constant misery, then why the hell don't you just shut the damn things off?" Sandburg snapped in frustration, rising from the park bench to pace restlessly.

Ellison snorted as he massaged his temples wishing the relentless headache would go away. "Like that's an option," he muttered, also frustrated. He knew Sandburg was irritated. Hell, yes, he'd promised to spend time doing more 'tests' that morning, but that was before he'd known the headache was going to take up residence behind his eyes and then spread out ruthlessly, making itself at home inside the whole of his skull.

Blair turned to look at Jim as he replied, "Well, of course it's an option. It's not like you haven't done it before. When you were a kid…and later when you came back from Peru, right?"

Sighing, Jim leaned back against the wooden slats of the bench as he looked up at his partner. Squinting a little against the pain, he protested, "Yeah, but it's not like I made any conscious choices, Chief. The damned things just, I don't know, settled down. Went back to normal."

"What's 'normal'?" Sandburg sighed, but he pushed his hair back behind his ears, took a calming breath and sat down again beside Ellison, laying a light hand on his shoulder. "Jim, these are your senses, man. They are normal for you. But, consciously or unconsciously, you did shut them down before. So it's just a matter of repressing them again, if that's what you really want."

If only it could be that easy, Ellison thought with longing. But if he knew how to turn the damned things off, he'd've done so before he'd ever met Sandburg. Not that he was sorry to have met the kid, but--pain stabbed again, distracting him from his thoughts. Rubbing the back of his neck, trying to ease the tense and sore muscles, Jim sighed, "Do you think we could have this conversation at another time, Junior? My head is really killing me here."

Swallowing, an expression of empathy in his eyes, Blair nodded. "Sure, man." Rising again, he walked around the bench and took over massaging Ellison's neck and shoulders. "Just relax, Jim, let's see if this helps," he soothed as he kneaded rock hard muscles through the sweatshirt Jim had put on for their jaunt to the park.

Jim nodded and let his hands fall to his sides, his head tipping forward, and closed his eyes as he relaxed under Blair's soothing massage. He felt deft, sensitive fingers work out the kinks in his neck and upper back and shoulders, and then move to work on his scalp. Blair's thumbs and fingers formed firm but gentle circles, working up from the base of his skull to his forehead and then over his temples. Gently, Blair tipped his head back to rest against Sandburg's chest so that the kid could stroke the skin over his brow, then back to his temples and up to the top of his head and back down to his shoulders. All the while, Blair spoke in low, relaxing tones, coaching him on his breathing, slowing it down, deepening his respirations, and then leading him through the loosening of other tense muscles in his hands and arms, his chest and legs-working him through the lowering of his 'dials' to reduce the sensory stimulation that he was coping with.

Gradually, the intense throbbing and the nausea the pain had generated began to ease. Jim focused on breathing even deeper and slower in response to Blair's quiet prompts and he felt the tension in his shoulders melt away. The slow, firm circling massage on his head was mesmerizing and very relaxing. The pain dulled, not vanishing completely, but it eased back to manageable levels, the subtle heat of low-banked smoldering of coals rather than the all-out firestorm of agony that it had been.

Blair murmured, "Better?"

"Yeah, Chief, thanks," Jim replied, his voice low. As he relaxed, he almost felt as if he could drift off to sleep. God, he was tired. So very tired. The world just kept coming at him. Sounds that grated and flared, simple sounds that other people didn't even notice if they registered them at all. Like the noise of crowds in the city and ceaseless traffic, horns and the squeal of brakes. Simple sounds that he couldn't completely shut out, that racketed around his head all the time. Even at night, the noise distracted him when he tried to sleep and woke him repeatedly, so he never felt completely rested.

And smell. God, the world stank. Well, maybe not all of it. The pine, grass and floral scents of the park were pleasant enough, and the salt tang of the nearby sea had a cleanness to it. Blair was careful to use herbal products that were also natural, subtle and clean smelling. But even those scents were stronger than others would ever experience them, the scents of the nearby late fall garden holding the heavy perfume for him that most people didn't experience except in funeral homes, when the scent of flowers was overwhelming. But usually, he wasn't in a park; he was in alleys or offices or warehouses. The scents of perfume and aftershave just about knocked him out when he was on a crowded street, or in a busy office…like the one he worked in. And the garbage and refuse of alleys, with the overlay of old urine, both human and animal, and the stench of offal or blood or vomit, rotting food, whatever, almost made him gag whenever he had to deal with it, which was pretty much every day. Warehouses, with the smells of chemicals or oil or grease, and the sweat of the workers, were heavy and oppressive environments for a man with overdeveloped senses.

And sight. Most days he was glad of the gray overcast of the coastal northwest. Bright sunny days were great and cheered most people, but for Jim the light could be a constant blaze that would make his eyes water and he had to wear sunglasses to cut down the glare of it. The pulsing red lights of patrol cars in the night, the myriad rainbows of colour generated by streetlights in the rain, all had to be endured, blocked out as best he could, accommodated, just to keep doing his job. Hell, just to live.

As for touch, some days his skin was so sensitive that it hurt to put on clothing, even stuff that Sandburg had made sure was washed with special detergents and softeners. Itching, chafing, scraping irritated skin until he thought he'd scream. But it wasn't like he could go around without clothes on. So he endured.

Taste, well, so long as he kept things to a level most people would consider tastelessly bland, he was fine. Blair had been good about that, too, saying that food had its own natural flavours that too often people failed to appreciate because they were so addicted to additives and spices.

It all left him on the constant knife-edge of irritation, his energy depleted with simply trying to survive the constant, everyday sensory overload that was his life. People thought he was hard to get along with, irascible. Hell, if they only knew how hard it was to just keep going or how badly he just wanted to be somewhere quiet and soothing, someplace where his own senses didn't ceaselessly torment him. It was exhausting, dealing with all of it with no respite and no hope that it would ever get a whole lot better. Sandburg's help in finding and regulating the dials had made a big difference, but it took energy to hold those dials in place, to not let them drift. The blistering surge of sensory spikes was a whole other story, one of sheer agony. And, then there was the 'zone-out factor', as Blair described it. Unless he was constantly vigilant, Jim knew he could zone on any one of his senses at any time, with truly disastrous results.

Sighing, he tried to just focus on the soothing massage and the way it helped his muscles relax and the pain ease away. He sighed again, almost a low purr, and a few minutes later, Sandburg slowed the circles and strokes, easing his hands down to Jim's shoulders and just resting them there lightly, letting Jim remain still and relaxed until he chose to move. With his head against Sandburg's chest, Jim could feel the subtle thumps of his partner's heart as well as hear them. The heartbeat, however, was not an irritant, surprisingly enough, but a sound that soothed him; strong and steady, a counterpoint to the rise and fall of Sandburg's chest as he breathed softly, sounds to reassure and relax senses that were tired and tattered.

It was another couple of quiet, soothing minutes of peace before Jim shifted to bring his head forward and blinked open his eyes, rubbing at them a little with the sense of having woken from a restful sleep, though he knew he hadn't drifted off.

"Thanks," he sighed. "I needed that."

"I could tell," Blair replied quietly. "Come on, man. Let's get you home. I think you could also use a nap."

"Sounds like a plan, Chief," Jim agreed, pushing himself up and lumbering toward the truck.

Blair watched him thoughtfully, wordlessly shaking his head. It wasn't like Jim to agree to a nap so readily. He liked to think he didn't need them, that they were for little kids who burned their energy too fast and who used even more energy on the serious business of the constant growth of their bodies. But the big guy looked truly exhausted…and the pain he'd been experiencing, likely was still experiencing, was very real.

When they got back to the loft, Blair sent him directly up to his room while Sandburg put on a CD of soft environmental sounds of waves rushing to shore and birds chirping quietly in a forest, and turned the volume very low.

Jim drifted off to sleep to the cooing of doves and the voice of a whippoorwill calling over the soft sounds of moisture dripping from leaves stirred by a soughing breeze in the boughs of a tree after a refreshingly gentle rain.

While the Sentinel slept, the Guide went out onto the balcony to do some serious thinking.

********************

When Jim woke, he was surprised to see that it was late afternoon, the muted, slanted light of the sun throwing a soft rosy glaze over the walls. Yawning, he stood up and stretched, and then headed downstairs to take a shower to shake off his still groggy state. Blair was in his room, quietly reading at his desk and looked up when he heard Jim coming down the steps.

"Feeling any better?" he asked, keeping his voice low and moderated, gentle.

"Yeah, I am," Jim replied, surprising himself with another yawn. "I guess I didn't know how tired I was."

"No surprise, man," Blair replied with a soft smile. "You've been burning the candle at both ends for weeks now, what with the Moriarty case and the stakeouts on the Flint warehouse."

"Look who's talking," Jim replied with a smile of his own. "You've been working the same cases and stakeouts with me, and still keeping up with your work at Rainier. Pot calling the kettle black, Chief."

"Maybe," Blair allowed. "Maybe."

Jim didn't really notice the preoccupied tone or shadowed look in his roommate's eyes as he ambled into the bathroom for his shower. By the time he came out, Blair had seared some beef and was chopping vegetables for a stew he was throwing together for their dinner. Its aromatic scents would fill the loft for a couple of hours while it simmered on the stove. The balcony doors were open to keep the air of the apartment fresh, so that the cooking odours never became too intense for his sensibilities.

"Wasn't it my turn to cook tonight?" Jim asked as he wandered into the kitchen.

"Yeah, well, grab a knife and chop some vegetables if you want to help," Blair offered with a grin. "I just felt like making some good, old-fashioned, comfort food, you know?"

"Uh huh," Jim replied as he pulled out a sharp blade and made himself comfortable at one end of the counter, chopping up all ready peeled and cleaned potatoes and carrots. Beef stew was more his 'comfort food' than Sandburg's. Jim noticed that the environmental sounds were still playing softly, too softly for Sandburg to really be able to hear the CD. He also noticed his normally chatty roommate was unnaturally quiet.

"You okay, Chief?" he asked.

Blair looked up, an expression of surprise on his face. "Me? Yeah, I'm fine," he said, with just the slightest emphasis on the 'I'm' part of the statement.

"I'm sorry I bailed on the tests this morning, Sandburg," Jim said then, figuring that was what the kid was getting at. "I know I promised to give you the time and to do them, but the headache was a killer."

"I know, Jim, it's alright," Blair replied, his tone carefully neutral as he returned his attention to the turnip he was chopping up. But his heart rate picked up a bit and his respirations tightened, giving him away.

"What's bothering you then?" Jim asked, quirking one brow as he cut his partner a quick look before turning his attention down to the carrot he was slicing.

Blair's wide blue eyes flicked up at him and then back down again as he replied, "Let's just get the stew on, and then I think we need to talk about something."

"Look, we can do the tests tomorrow, okay?" Jim offered, a slight note of irritation in his voice. God, he hated those tests. Blair had no idea how uncomfortable most of them were, and some were downright painful.

"I don't want to talk about the tests, Jim, at least not exactly," Blair replied, scooping up the vegetables they'd both finished chopping and dumping them into the pot with the seared beef and the onion he'd cut up while the beef was browning, so that he could cover the sharp smell of it and air out the apartment a bit before Jim had come out of his shower. "Why don't you grab a couple of beers and go sit down while I just get this ready to simmer?"

Not a little mystified, wondering what Sandburg wanted to talk about, Jim did as he was bid, sinking into the comfort of his favourite chair in the whole world. A minute or two later, Blair plopped down on the couch. He picked up his bottle from the coaster on the coffee table, but played at picking at the label before he took a quick swallow. Jim watched him, wondering at the tension he could read in Blair's body language, and the way the kid wasn't looking at him.

"Spill it, Junior," Jim encouraged.

Nodding, Sandburg took a breath and turned to face him across the short distance of the living room floor. "I think we should talk about you turning off your senses," he said, his voice a little tight as much as he was clearly trying to keep it even and unemotional.

Frowning, surprised, Jim leaned forward. "What?"

Sandburg's gaze flitted away and then came back. Biting his lip, he studied Jim, and then he continued, "Look, Jim, if anyone knows how hard these senses are to live with, it's me. I've had a front row seat to watch your suffering every day for almost a year, man…I can see what they cost you. How much they hurt. I'm not sure they're worth it."

Shaking his head, Jim squinted at his roommate as he asked incredulously, "Aren't you the one who keeps telling me how wonderful and miraculous and great they are?"

"Well, yeah," Blair allowed as he went back to picking at the label of his bottle. "I think they are wonderful and amazing. Those senses have saved my life on more than one occasion, so I'm also very grateful to them. They are 'great' for me and the other people you help with them. But, for you, they are a tremendous burden, every single day. I think they're miraculous, but you hate them, don't you?" He looked up as he asked the question, a poignant uncertainty in his eyes.

Sitting back, Jim studied the wall for a minute as he thought about it. "Not hate, exactly," he replied, shaking his head. "Just wish that I didn't have to deal with them, that's all."

"I think you should think about turning them off," Blair murmured, his voice so low that even Jim barely caught the words. They were hard words to say.

"It's not like flipping the light switch, Chief," Jim muttered, not really aware of the bitterness in his voice as he pushed his fingers through his hair and then took another swallow of his beer. "I don't think it works that way. Even if I use the dials to turn them way down, they still spike without warning. I don't control them…they control me." He didn't see how Blair winced at the resentment that echoed in those last words.

"You've done it before, more than once," Blair reminded him again of his comments that morning, his tone again as neutral as he could make it. "You repressed them for most of your life; except for when you were very young, and that eighteen months in Peru and the last year, they haven't been 'on'. I think you could repress them again, if you wanted to."

Jim grunted and rubbed his eyes. Like he'd known what he was doing when he'd shut them off before. It had just happened. Like they 'just happened' to come back, when he was working on the Switchman case. Swallowing, he looked up at Blair. "What about our deal? You help me and you get to write your thesis on Sentinels. If I turn them off, it kinda leaves you hanging in the wind."

Blair shook his head as he looked away. "That's a piece of paper, man. Surely you don't think that means more to me than what's best for you, or what you want for your own life?" From his tone, it was pretty clear that if that's what Jim did think, then he apparently didn't know his roommate very well. Shifting a little, putting the bottle down and bringing his legs up to cross them on the couch in his favourite half-lotus position, he turned his gaze back to Jim. "Look, if you could tolerate the tests, and learn how to control them better, it would be…"

"So we are going to talk about the tests," Jim cut in, ready to be defensive.

"Would you just listen to me for a minute!" Blair exclaimed. "I am NOT talking about the fact that you couldn't do them this morning. Or other mornings. Or virtually ever. That's not the point, here. I know they aren't easy, and are uncomfortable and sometimes, I know they even hurt, and I regret all that. But-Jim, your senses are dangerous if you can't control them. You know that better than I do. It scares the shit out of me to think about what might happen if you zoned when you're in the middle of some dangerous situation. You could be killed! God, do you really think I'm just putting you through the tests to get data for my dissertation? Or that the diss itself is just about me and my desire for a PhD? It's about helping you to better understand and manage your own senses. The paper would likely end up gathering dust on a shelf someplace, but if it existed, it might actually help other people like you, who don't understand what's going on with them, like you didn't understand when we first met."

"Take a breath, Chief," Jim suggested feeling a little uncomfortable with the fact that he hadn't subscribed quite such altruistic reasons to Sandburg's constant demands to do 'tests'. Jim had thought they were more about the dissertation than about him-Sandburg probing the boundaries of his senses to map them so that he could describe them in the paper and offer 'scientific' validation of their existence.

"Right," Blair muttered, pushing his fingers through his hair. He took a breath and continued, "My diss isn't the issue here. The issue is your safety and well-being. The heightened senses obviously make you miserable and cause you tremendous discomfort. You don't need them to do your job-you proved that before they came on-line again. So-if you don't want them, wish you didn't have them, they make you miserable and you don't need them, then I have to ask what they are really good for, if anything…to you, I mean. Not to me, or to anyone else. To you."

Jim shook his head and sighed. "Even if I wanted to turn them off, Chief, I don't know how. I think I'm stuck with them."

"Maybe not," Blair replied, taking a deep breath. Helping Jim turn off his extraordinary senses would be the hardest thing he'd ever done, because he really believed they were a normal part of who and what Jim Ellison was, and that Jim would be incomplete without them. But they were dangerous when out of control. And if Jim wasn't motivated to work through the tests to learn how to control them, then his heightened senses could get him killed. "I think there's a way to do it."

"How?" Jim asked skeptically, not at all sure he believed it was possible.

"You set the dials at the level that's most comfortable and then destroy them, so that they can't be moved from the levels you've set them at," Blair replied, back to using a neutral tone. "I think that would take them 'off-line'."

Chewing on the inside of his lip, gazing into the distance, Ellison thought about that. Thought about the peace that would mean in his life. But… "There're times when I really do need them, though," he muttered. "Like when I'm on a stakeout, or examining evidence."

"Need is a relative term," Blair replied briskly. "There are binoculars to enhance average vision; electronic surveillance equipment to 'listen in'; labs to analyze evidence, lie detectors…all the tools and help other cops rely upon; the tools that you used to rely upon before your senses came back on-line. There's no doubt that there is some advantage in being a human crime lab, but-it's not necessary to do your job. And that's what really matters to you, right?"

"You've really thought about this, haven't you, Chief?" Jim observed then, surprised that the guy who most valued these damn senses had seriously considered how to annihilate them.

"Yeah, Jim, I have," Blair murmured, going back to the apparently serious business of picking at the label of his bottle of beer. "If you didn't have your senses, you could have a regular partner, a cop who could really give you the back up you need. It would be a lot safer."

"I didn't have a 'regular' partner before," Jim countered, having come to like working with Sandburg. The kid had offbeat notions and perspectives, but damned if they didn't often help solve the cases they worked on. Besides, he was good company.

"Yeah, well, that was stupid," Blair replied, not mincing words, cutting a quick look back up at Jim. "You know it, too. If you went back to working without your heightened senses, you'd need a real partner more than ever, because you wouldn't be able to track the bad guys by sound, wouldn't know if someone was sneaking up on you."

Jim thought about how often they'd gotten into trouble despite his senses, and how often Sandburg had been at serious risk. For a moment, his suspicions flared as he asked, "You sure you're not just looking for a way to get out of riding around with me? I know, a lot of times, too many times, it's been scary and you've gotten hurt…"

But Blair was on his feet, furious, his fragile control pushed too far. "Fuck you, Jim! I told you, this is NOT about me!" he shouted, his voice cracking with the intensity of his emotions. "For your information, I happen to like working with you and would really miss it. I happen to think your senses are a miracle that should be cherished and respected and nurtured, and I truly love helping you with them, man. And I really like living here, too, but I know there wouldn't be much point if you didn't need me around all the time and you could have your privacy back again. But that's not the point. None of that is the point! This is about what's good for you, not what I want or like or would prefer. Look," he continued, throwing his hands into the air, "I thought this was what you wanted, and I thought you should be perfectly aware that you have a choice about these senses of yours. It's up to you, man. They are your senses and this is your decision. Let me know if I can help."

With that, Sandburg turned and stomped off to his room and just barely stopped himself from slamming the door as he closed it.

Astonished, Jim gaped at the closed door to Sandburg's room for a long moment. Then his gaze drifted away and became distant as he swallowed hard. Standing, he went out onto the balcony-to do some serious thinking.

About an hour later, he heard Sandburg puttering in the kitchen, checking on the stew and putting together a salad to go with it. When he came back in from the balcony, Blair looked up briefly and then went back to slicing mushrooms.

"I'm sorry, Jim," he said quietly. "I didn't mean to blow up at you." Sighing, he put down the knife and turned to face Ellison. "It's hard for me to suggest that you should turn them off. But I really just want what's best for you."

"I know, Chief, I'm sorry, too," Jim replied as he moved across the loft to lean against the pillar and watch Blair work. "What if I turned them off and then decided I wanted them back? What then?"

"Well, I don't think that would be easy," Sandburg replied, sliding the mushrooms into a bowl already filled with mixed greens, sliced almonds, raisins and grated cheese. Turning to the sink, he rinsed off his hands and dried them as he turned back to Jim. "Once they're 'off', I think it would likely take another isolation experience with survival threats to bring them back; but they might not return even then if you psychologically had deliberately turned them off, as opposed to repressing them unconsciously."

Jim shook his head. He didn't like the finality of that. He wanted the room to change his mind.

Studying him, understanding the magnitude of the decision Jim was grappling with, Blair suggested, "Look, I have an idea. What if we just, I don't know, 'glued' them temporarily at optimum comfort levels, and you could see what it's like being without them again. Say for a week or two? That would give Simon time to think about who might partner with you if you decided you wanted to give them up for good."

"Glue them?" Jim repeated with a quizzical expression, choosing to ignore the way Sandburg kept harping about him getting another partner.

"Yeah," Blair replied, moving forward to take Jim's arm and turn him back to the living room. Once they were again both seated, he continued, "I think you could set the dials, cover them up with masking tape or something so they wouldn't slide off the settings, and then visualize building a vault around them, you know, with a timer so that the vault couldn't be opened for say, five or seven or ten days."

"Why the 'vault' image?" Jim asked, blinking a little at how truly odd this whole conversation was.

"Well, because I think that it's too easy to just rip off the masking tape if you decided you wanted access to them," Blair explained. "If they are inside the vault and you can't get at them, then no matter what's going on, you'd have to deal with, quote 'normal' unquote, senses. And then you'd know if that's the way you want things to be or not. If you decided you wanted the enhanced senses, when the vault opens, you tear off the tape and, voila, you're back in business. If you don't want them, when the vault opens, you can destroy the dials so they can never shift from where you've set them and the heightened senses are history."

"You talk about those dials as if they were real, Sandburg," Jim muttered, not sure he was buying into the imagery.

"They are real, Jim. You use them every day," Blair countered. "If that's not real, I don't know what is."

"You're weird, you know that?" Jim said with a small grin.

"This from the man who actually sees those dials," Sandburg jibed back with a small smile of his own, though it looked forced. It really was hard to help Jim do this. It went against everything he'd ever believed about the importance of Sentinels and their possibilities, and how much the world needed them. Not to mention how much he felt they were a natural, normal part of Jim Ellison's being and without them, Jim couldn't ever be fully 'himself'.

"Okay," Jim replied, nodding slowly. "I-I'd like to try going back to the way it was before they showed up so unexpectedly. How about we set the timer for, I don't know, a day, and I think about it some more while I'm trying out being normal again?"

"A day isn't really long enough to…" Blair began but Jim cut in.

"I know, but I'd like to take this slow," Ellison said. "If one day feels okay, then we could try it for a week."

Blair looked away and nodded. "All right. But I think for a day, all we need is the masking tape." Swallowing, he turned back to face Jim, his expression carefully controlled. "You want to do it now?"

When Jim nodded, Blair walked him through the visualization process, first coaching Jim into a light meditative state, and then getting him to visualize and set the dials…and then visualize literally covering them with masking tape, so that there was no way they could slip from where they'd been set. And then he brought Jim back to full consciousness.

"So…how does it feel?" Blair asked, his throat tight.

Jim just looked at him, and then away, his head cocked slightly in the unconscious listening posture he fell into when he was using his senses. Then he smiled as his gaze came back to Sandburg's anxious eyes. "It feels…normal!" he reported, obviously delighted. "No unusually intrusive sounds or smells; the light doesn't hurt my eyes." His smile broadened with relief as he concluded, "Thanks, Chief. This is great!"

"Great? Uh, that's good," Blair replied, his gaze slipping away as he stood to check on the stew. Oh, he knew the food was cooking just fine, but he didn't want Jim to notice that his eyes had started to prick and burn with unshed tears, or that his chest was so tight that he could hardly breathe. He'd never be able to delude Jim if his heightened senses were on-line, but now, well, now it should be fairly easy to obfuscate and distract and misdirect Jim's attention so that he'd never guess how much this was costing Blair.

Because it felt like he'd just stabbed himself in the heart and had begun the masochistic process of painstakingly tearing his soul into shreds. It was his job to help the Sentinel-not to destroy what he was….

********************

Jim slept better, more peacefully with no sensory disturbances, than he had since the heightened senses had reasserted themselves. He woke feeling relaxed and well rested for the first time in almost a year. After breakfast, he went for a long run, just to see what the world outside felt and looked like again, now that he was 'normal'. And it felt right. The bright sun of the unusually warm, fall day didn't stab into his eyes, his clothing didn't itch, the park smelled fresh and earthy, clean and 'right', and the noise of the crowds and traffic faded into a distant roar that he could soon ignore. He felt as if a massive, overwhelming and exhausting burden had been lifted from his shoulders leaving him with a sense of 'lightness' and almost giddy relief.

Watching from the balcony, Blair could see the easy, relaxed smile on Jim's face as he jogged back after his run, and Sandburg's heart sank. But then he chided himself. Jim looked truly happy for the first time since Blair had known him…looked actually peaceful. Sighing, Blair swallowed and shook his head. Who was he to decide that being a Sentinel was the right thing for Jim, or that it was a waste of incalculable magnitude for Jim to walk away from his natural way of being? Feeling chilled, Sandburg went back inside, moving to his room and pretending to be immersed in his university tomes by the time Jim got back upstairs to the loft.

But if he'd hoped to avoid talking to Jim about his new sensory freedom, he was doomed to disappointment.

Jim took a quick shower, changed and then ambled to the doorway to Blair's small room. "Hey, Chief," he said, "It's a beautiful day out there. How about we go for a drive up the coast and enjoy the good weather for a couple of hours?"

Blair looked up and was again struck by how relaxed Jim seemed, how cheerful. Was this the 'real' Jim Ellison? An easy-going guy as opposed to one more predisposed to growl at the least provocation? Did the senses hurt him that much? But he kept his thoughts to himself and simply nodded, giving his roommate a grin of agreement as he stood away from his desk. "Sounds good, Jim," was all he said.

********************

They'd parked near an open, empty stretch of beach and had been rambling along the sandy shore for about half an hour, when Jim said, "It feels really good like this, Chief."

"I kinda figured that out," Blair replied, his eyes drifting to the distant horizon. Forcing himself to continue, he asked, "So, you ready to try the next step? Erecting the vault with the timer, so that you can't get to your dials for a few days?"

"Yeah, I am, Sandburg," Jim said, turning to look at his roommate. "Only I don't want to set it for more than five days and even that makes me kinda nervous. What if something happens and I really need them?"

Blair sighed and swallowed. "If you're going to turn them off permanently, Jim," he said with dry, clinical, matter-of-factness, "you need to know what it feels like to wish you still had them and be able to accept that they are no longer available to you. That's the point of the vault…it'll let you feel that lack of access and the frustration of it without turning them off for good. If you can handle the frustration, and go back to relying on normal tools and technology, accepting their limitations philosophically, well, then you'll be okay with destroying the dials. It's not likely that anything truly serious is going to happen in the next few days, is it?"

Blair still hadn't looked at Jim, wasn't sure he could at that moment without letting the pain in his own eyes be perceived by the older man. But Jim hadn't noticed, too lost in his own thoughts and feelings about what he was about to do. "Okay, that makes sense," he agreed, though he couldn't quite still the plaintive voice inside that told him this was going to be one huge mistake. For just a moment, in the distance, he thought he heard the snarl of a big cat, but decided he must be imagining things. They were too far from the mountains for a cougar to be roaming anywhere nearby. "And, no, the cases we're working on shouldn't pose any great or unusual threats. We're close to wrapping up both of them."

"Okay," Blair sighed, and then cleared his throat as he tried to swallow past the lump that was growing in it. "We'll need to clue Simon in tomorrow when we go into the office. He needs to know what we're doing."

Jim chuckled a little at that as he rubbed the back of his neck. "I think Simon will be relieved. He's never known quite what to make of this 'Sentinel' business."

Blair winced at that, but as he had his face turned away from his friend, Jim didn't notice. Simon had never known quite what to make of one Blair Sandburg, either, the younger man thought, and would no doubt be relieved to also see the last of the observer. Taking a breath, Blair turned, his eyes scanning the beach until he spotted some rocks that would suit his purpose. "Why don't we have a seat over there, Jim, and we'll get this done."

So, once again, Blair took Jim into a light meditative state, and had him visualize the dials, checking on the masking tape to make sure it was still secure, adding a little more to be sure they didn't slip when he couldn't get at them. And then Blair had him visualize a vault door, heavy and immovable, like a bank vault, and then they closed the door and locked it, setting the timer that would not allow it to be opened until the next Friday night at midnight.

Jim sighed with relief when it was done.

Blair was up and running along the beach, back toward the truck, as soon as he'd brought Jim out of the slight trance. He sobbed in great gulps of air as he ran, fighting the nausea that roiled in his gut at what he'd just done…and he was surprised that, as bad as he felt, as distracted as he was, to actually notice the sudden sharp howl of a wolf. He wondered why the long, lonely howl seemed so ominous, so full of pain that it made him stop in his tracks and look around, to see if he could spot the animal, to see if maybe it was caught in some rocks, or hurt.

But he only saw the stretch of empty sand and the endless, eternal wash of the waves as they rolled in from the sea…and Jim jogging to catch up with him.

For a moment, Blair felt disoriented, as if he didn't know where he was. And he felt a stab of cold fear in his belly that tightened in his chest like a vise. Almost dizzy, he put his arms out to stabilize his balance. But then the sensation passed, and there was only the beach and the sea…and Jim.

********************

Blair followed Jim downtown the next day to meet with Simon before heading back to the University to take his 11:00 a.m. class. Jim was a bit surprised, when they advised Banks of the 'experiment' they were conducting, to discover that his superior wasn't quite as thrilled with it as Ellison had expected him to be.

"You did what?" Banks demanded, leveling a hard look at Jim.

"I've turned off the heightened senses and locked them away for a week," Jim repeated.

"You can do that?" Simon asked, astonished, wondering why Jim hadn't done so sooner, if it was that easy, to get some relief from his senses from time to time. Sandburg wasn't the only one who'd noticed the wear and tear of them on his senior detective.

"Yeah, so it seems," Jim acknowledged with a shrug.

"And you can't just turn them back on again if you need them?" Simon pressed, not sure he liked the sound of that. He'd come to have a healthy respect for Jim's 'Sentinel' abilities.

"Nope-they're locked down until Friday night," Jim clarified again, feeling like he was repeating himself, maybe because he was.

Simon gave him a narrow look, and then shifted his gaze to Sandburg. "And you think this is a good idea?" he asked, frankly astounded that Blair wasn't fighting this with everything he had.

"Sandburg suggested it and helped me turn them off, sir," Jim replied.

"Was I talking to you, Detective?" Simon snapped with a quick cutting look at Ellison before returning his attention to Sandburg, who was doing a pretty good job of avoiding his eyes and was suspiciously silent.

"No, sir," Jim sighed, sitting back in his chair.

"Well, Sandburg?" Simon prompted.

"It's not my decision, Simon," Blair replied, opting for avoidance. "They're Jim's senses."

"That's not what I asked you," Banks cut back, impatience in his tone. "Do you think this is a good idea?"

Sighing, Blair swallowed and lifted his eyes to Simon's penetrating gaze. "I suggested Jim try this if he wanted to because they are painful and he really doesn't want them. And, perhaps more importantly, unless and until he gets better control of the senses, they are a danger to him. We haven't, uh, had the time to do a lot of work on control…"

Blair's voice faded off and he looked away. The truth was, while there're been time, Jim just hadn't been motivated. Indeed, he resisted the tests like he had resisted and resented his heightened senses.

"Uh huh," Simon grunted, not missing the fact that Sandburg still hadn't answered his question, but he figured the persistent avoidance was a pretty good indicator that the kid didn't really like this idea much. Turning his attention back to Ellison, Banks asked, "So, what's on the plate for this week? Anything particularly tricky?"

Shrugging, Jim shook his head. "No. I'll be briefing the DA's office this afternoon on the Moriarty case. We haven't been able to tie them to the murders on the docks, but we've got enough to bring them in on illegal arms trafficking and money laundering. If I get the warrants, we'll pull them in tomorrow."

"Both brothers?" Simon clarified, figuring if they didn't get both Sam and Jake Moriarty, then the crime deals would just continue.

"Yes, sir," Jim confirmed with a nod. "Other than that, we have an ongoing stakeout on the Flint warehouses, but H and Rafe have the lead on that one."

Nodding, Simon said, "All right, I guess what's done is done. Just be extra careful this week, okay? You've gotten used to having hidden aces up your sleeve."

Jim stood, but Blair cut in. "Uh, just one more thing, Simon. If Jim decides to go with this permanently, he's going to need a regular partner right away. So, um, I guess you'll want to be thinking about who that might be. Just in case."

Ellison cut Blair a sharp look, then turned back to his boss. "No need to press on that, sir. I'm sure there's no rush…"

"Yes, there is," Blair flared, as he too stood. "We discussed this Jim. Without your senses you need a real cop as a partner as soon as possible. If you don't agree to that, well, then forget it. I won't help you go off-line permanently."

Ellison's temper flared, and Simon saw the warning flush on his neck. "Settle down, the both of you," Banks growled as he too stood to lend his considerable presence to the discussion. "Sandburg's right, you need a regular partner. It's not safe otherwise. That's my decision, not yours, to make."

Jim swallowed and nodded, albeit a tad sullenly. Before Sandburg, he'd refused to work with anyone else and he wasn't at all sure he wanted a new partner. He rather liked the one he had. "All I meant was that I could keep working with Sandburg," he explained.

Blair shook his head. "That doesn't make any sense, Jim. You need someone better than me, a real cop," he observed, though there was bleak look in his eyes. "If you don't need my help with your senses, there's no reason for me to be here any longer."

Simon frowned at that, not having thought his way through to that point yet. "What are you going to do about your dissertation, Sandburg?" he asked, curious, knowing this would pretty much kill Sandburg's plans.

Shrugging, Blair shook his head. "I haven't thought that far ahead, yet, Simon," he replied, but when he caught a flash of concern in the older man's dark eyes, he continued hastily, "but, I'm sure I'll come up with something. There's no lack of possibilities for other dissertation topics in the study of human beings and our social and community structures, rituals and traditions."

Simon nodded and waved toward the door, effectively dismissing them, but then he called Sandburg back. "Ah, Blair, just hold up-there's something else I'd like to discuss with you." When Jim hesitated, Banks added, "That'll be all, Jim. You can close the door on your way out."

Mystified, Ellison glanced at Sandburg, shrugged and left, pulling the door closed behind him. Blair, equally mystified, turned wide, questioning eyes to Simon's steady gaze. Waving Blair back to a chair, Simon sat down again, and picked up his unlit cigar to toy with as he said, a little tentatively, "I wondered if maybe you might want to consider turning your 'thin blue line' scam into a legitimate study. That would mean you'd continue as an observer with the unit even if Jim decided to turn off his senses for good."

Caught completely by surprise, Blair couldn't stop a bark of laughter, which drew a frown from Banks. "What, you think that offer is amusing, Sandburg?" he asked scathingly.

"Uh, no, Simon," Blair replied soberly, pushing his hair back behind his ears and sitting up a little straighter. "It's just that, well, you caught me by surprise. I, uh, I figured you'd be glad to see the last of me. That's all."

"Oh, you did, did you?" Banks murmured. Shaking his head, he continued gruffly, "To the contrary, I've found you have made some significant contributions in the past year and I've gotten used to you hanging around."

Blair smiled softly, touched by the offer, not in the least intimidated by the gruff tone or the scowl. But he shook his head. "Thanks, Simon-I mean that. Really. Thanks. That means a lot to me. But…well, I think if Jim decides to turn off his senses permanently…well, it would be hard to keep working with him, you know? I think I'd miss…"

But Sandburg stopped himself, knowing he was revealing too much of his own feelings in the matter. Taking a deep breath, he continued more steadily, "I think I'd be better to move on and maybe even go on a field expedition, or something. If Jim doesn't need me around anymore, then I should probably think about giving him his space back at home, too."

Banks narrowed his eyes at that. His jaw jutted for a moment as he thought about it and then he said quietly, "I wouldn't make a whole lot of sudden moves unless you really want to, Blair. I'd gotten the impression that you and Jim were friends as well as partners and he might not want you to move out. Don't make assumptions, okay? And…well, think about my offer. I think the other guys have gotten used to having you around, too-and wouldn't be all that happy to have you disappear."

"Thanks, Simon," Blair murmured, his eyes lowering to the floor as he blinked, hard. Nodding, he took a deep breath as he stood. "I'll think about it."

Leaving Banks' office, Blair went to get his backpack and jacket from where he'd left them at Jim's desk, and his partner looked up curiously. "What did Simon want, Chief?" Ellison asked.

Blair paused and quirked an odd, somehow sad smile at him, but just shook his head.

"Come on, Chief," Jim pressed, uncomfortable with that odd look on Sandburg's face. "What's going on?"

"I was just thinking that it feels funny to have my privacy back, to know you couldn't hear what we were talking about," Blair replied softly. When Jim's eyes cut away, he looked around and lowered his voice further as he continued, "Simon just wondered if I wanted to stay on as an observer and work on the 'thin blue line' paper for real."

A smile flashed across Jim's face at that, and he looked back eagerly to ask, "And, so, what did you tell him?"

"I…I told him I'd think about it," Blair replied, his tone a bit distant. This wasn't either the time or place to talk about what would happen if Jim decided to make this experiment permanent. "Look, I've got to get to class, man, and I've got office hours this afternoon, so I'll see you at home later, okay?"

"Sure," Ellison replied, but his eyes were thoughtful as he watched Sandburg jog out of the office, in a hurry, as usual.

********************

Unfortunately, the DA didn't think Jim's case was as solid against both brothers as he did. The evidence on Sam Moriarty was good enough for a warrant, but the case against his brother, Jake, was more circumstantial, a kind of 'guilt by association'. So, the officials decided to bring in Sam Moriarty and put the pressure on him through interrogation to see if he'd cave on his brother in return for a modest deal.

Jim wasn't happy about it, nor was Simon, but there wasn't much they could do. So, the next morning, Jim lined up some uniforms to go with him to bring in Sam Moriarty. Since Blair didn't have any classes that morning, and he was downtown with Jim as usual, he went along for the ride.

"This won't take long, Chief," Jim said as he parked the truck and watched the patrol car pull in behind him. "You might as well wait down here."

"Okay, Jim," Blair acceded. It wasn't like he'd be any use during the arrest and Jim had real cops to back him up.

As Jim went into the building, Blair got out of the truck to lean against it and enjoy the rare warmth of the morning sun. The unusual high pressure system was predicted to move on later in the day, and when it went, the cold, clammy chill of fall would return.

********************

Jim and the uniformed cops barged their way past the secretary and into the spacious office the brothers shared on the second floor, front, of the office building. When Jim explained why he'd dropped in on them so unceremoniously, waving the warrant and smiling grimly, Sam Moriarty, a thick-set, middle-aged man, exclaimed, "What?"

"This is outrageous!" his brother, a younger version of Sam, protested, as they both came to their feet in anger.

"Tell it to the judge," Jim replied, not bothering with any show of synthetic sympathy.

Shaking his head, Jake Moriarty looked out the window, furiously trying to bring his temper under control, distracted until he recognized Ellison's beat-up truck and that longhaired hippy that was his so-called partner leaning against it. Both brothers had been very aware that they were under surveillance and they'd conducted their own enquiries into the background of the cop who was leading the investigation against them.

Jim had just begun Mirandizing Sam when Jake told his brother, "I'm going to get our lawyer to arrange bail immediately. I'll have you out in no time." And then he grabbed his coat from the hook by the door, pressed by the uniformed cops and headed out of the office.

Not bothering to wait for the elevator, knowing he didn't have much time, Jake lunged down the stairs and out the front door, moving purposefully and directly toward Sandburg. As he got closer, with a quick look up and down the street, he pulled a revolver from his coat pocket and held it close to his body.

Blair had stiffened when he saw Jake Moriarty hurry from the building and move in his direction, but when he saw the gun he shifted sideways, as if to run, but Moriarty growled at him, "Run and I'll shoot you right now. Move, around to the back of the building. NOW!"

"Oh, man," Sandburg stammered, casting a quick look up at the office windows where he could just make out Jim standing with his back to the street. "You really don't want to do this. They don't have anything on you, not really…"

"Shut up and move, I said," Jake snarled, motioning with the gun, the look in his eyes clearly conveying that he would, indeed, shoot if he wasn't obeyed immediately.

Blowing out a sobbing breath, with a last, hopeless look up at the windows, Blair moved. He closed his eyes briefly, sick to know that if Jim's senses hadn't been shut off, he'd've heard Blair's attempt to deflect the kidnapping and already be on his way to the rescue.

But-Jim hadn't heard.

And Blair figured he was in big trouble.

Once they got to the back of the building, Jake pushed Sandburg close to his sedan, and popped open the trunk of the vehicle. With another quick look around to ensure there were no witnesses, Moriarty hit Sandburg hard on the back of the head, catching his suddenly limp body and then shoved him into trunk.

By the time Jim and the others had waited for the elevator and made it to the street, Jake Moriarty was long gone.

Frowning when he noticed his partner wasn't waiting in the truck, Jim looked up and down the street. "Sandburg?" he shouted. "Blair!"

When he heard the deep, mirthless chuckle from Sam Moriarty as he was being assisted into the back of the patrol car, Jim whirled on the man.

"Lose something?" Moriarty asked, and laughed again.

Jim's eyes raked the street and he found himself straining unconsciously to hear something, to hear Sandburg's voice, or pick up on his heartbeat…and remembered with sick frustration that he couldn't do that anymore.

His gut clenched in sudden fear as he pulled out his cell-phone and called in out an all-points bulletin on Moriarty's vehicle, pulling his small notebook out of his coat pocket to look up the details of make, model and license number, facts he'd registered on past surveillances.

And then, as the patrol car pulled away, Jim smashed his fist against the door of the truck, furious and feeling more helpless than he'd felt in a very long time.

Swallowing, he reined in his emotions and went to work, questioning people in the surrounding businesses, shoppers on the street…but nobody had seen anything.

Nobody ever did. At least, they rarely admitted it, if they had.

But, for the first time in almost a year, Jim couldn't really tell if they were telling him the truth or lying to 'keep from getting involved'. Defeated, scared, he returned to his truck and looked up at the office windows just above him.

And he realized that if he hadn't turned the damned senses off, he'd've heard if Sandburg had tried to alert him to what was going down.

His teeth grinding in fury at himself, he climbed into the truck and headed back downtown. He tried to hold onto the fury-to keep the sense of panicked helplessness at bay. Senses or no senses, he'd find Sandburg. There wasn't any other option that was acceptable.

********************

Jake called their lawyer from his cell, while he continued to drive out of town, keeping to back lanes and quiet streets, staying away from the main thoroughfares and the expressway. The lawyer would be down at the PD almost as soon as they brought Sam in, which would inhibit some of the interrogation. And, the lawyer would apply immediately for bail, citing Sam as a businessman, established in the community and of no flight risk. Not that Jake thought the judge would buy that, given the possibility of the kind of evidence the cops had, but it was worth a try.

Once that business was concluded, he stopped briefly at an electronics shop to pick up a tape recorder, some blank tapes, and a Polaroid camera along with the film. The next stop was a small postal outlet, to pick up some prepaid overnight delivery envelopes.

And then he was heading past the fringes of the city, south, along the old coast road, to his ex-sister-in-law's boathouse.

It would take the cops a while to make that connection. Sam and Belinda had been divorced for years and there was no love lost between them. Nobody knew that Jake had started to sniff around his brother's ex-wife a month or so ago.

********************

"WHAT!" Simon bellowed when Jim told him that Sandburg was missing and presumed kidnapped by Jake Moriarty.

Jim just raised his hands and shook his head. "He was waiting in the truck, or at least that's where I left him. When Jake Moriarty said he was going to go get their lawyer, it just didn't occur to me that he'd do something like this."

"No?" Banks steamed. "They are cold-blooded murderers, dammit! We just can't prove it yet!"

"Yeah, I know," Jim replied tightly, his eyes flashing as he swallowed hard. He'd screwed up, and he knew it.

Simon took a deep breath, realizing he wasn't helping. "And you didn't hear…" he began, but when Jim looked stricken and turned away, he caught himself again. "No, I guess you didn't," Simon sighed, thinking that he'd known this stupid 'experiment' was a mistake when he'd been told about it the day before. But there wasn't much they could do about that now. "Okay, let's get things rolling," he snapped as he moved to the door of his office to call in the rest of the team, and hand out their assignments to track down Moriarty and figure out where he might have taken Sandburg.

As they all turned to leave, Simon called Jim back for a moment. "We'll find him, Jim," he said, offering the only consolation he could, wishing he felt more confident in his assertion.

Jim nodded and turned to plunge into his own assignment of working through his files on the Moriarty brothers to see if he could come up with a few leads on where Sandburg was being held captive.

********************

As consciousness returned, Blair was first aware of the blinding pain radiating from the back of his head that left him feeling decidedly nauseous. And then he noticed that he was lying on damp boards, and he was cold. He tried to move to bring his arms around and cross them for warmth…and that's when he realized he was bound hand and foot, and gagged. He kept his eyes closed as he struggled to remember what happened, and, failing that, where he was. He could hear the lap of water and smell the sea. Not that that helped narrow the possible locations all that well. It was a long coastline.

Swallowing hard against the bile in the back of his throat, not wanting to risk being sick with the gag in his mouth in case he aspirated and asphyxiated himself, he moaned a little against the blistering agony in his head, pretty sure he had a concussion.

"About time you started to wake up," a voice snapped from somewhere above him.

Opening his eyes, squinting in the dim light to make out the face of his tormentor, Blair recognized Jake Moriarty and the memories crashed back in, bringing with them a cold awareness of fear. He was in deep shit, and this time, he wasn't sure Jim would find him in time.

Moriarty hauled him into an awkward sitting position against the wooden planks of the wall, and Blair looked blearily around at his surroundings. A boathouse. Well, that narrows it down to about twenty thousand possibilities in terms of exact location, Sandburg thought wryly. The thing about living near the sea was that folks tended to have their own boats if they could afford them. Sighing, he looked up at Moriarty, his eyes dark and wide with a fear he didn't bother to try to hide.

Without warning, Jake grabbed him by the front of his jacket to haul him up and hold him in place against the wooden wall, and then he viciously backhanded Sandburg twice, dragging his heavy signet ring across the skin of Blair's face. The sharp ring gouged deeply and Blair grunted with surprise and pain at the assault, blinking to try to clear his vision and hold onto consciousness.

Letting him drop hard back down onto the floor, Jake stepped back and surveyed the damage, grinning cruelly at the blood welling from the two cuts and flowing unchecked down the kid's face. Give it an hour, and the bruises would come out nicely. Squatting in front of Sandburg, Jake brought his captive up to date on the plan.

"In a little while, I'm going to have you speak into a tape recorder, and you're going to tell your friends in the cop shop that if they don't drop the charges against my brother, you are going to die. They have until Thursday at noon to let my brother walk. Do you understand?"

Blair jerked his head in the affirmative. Well, it wasn't like it was a complicated message. Shit. He was dead. No way was this guy ever going to let him go…even if the police did accede to his demands, which they wouldn't. Blair sagged against the wall, and looked around, wondering if he had a chance in hell of getting himself out of this mess.

When Jake moved away to smoke a cigarette, Blair fought the pain bursting in his head, and the dizziness, as he tried to learn more about where he was. He strained to listen, hoping to hear voices outside or the sound of boat engines in the water that would indicate that he was somewhere in the marina. But all he heard was the sharp bickering of seagulls. Closing his eyes, he strained to hear something, anything but the sound of an isolated stretch of water…and then he caught the distant sound of a train whistle. His heart pounding, he tried to figure out if that gave him any better idea of his location. And he thought it might. There was a stretch of track that ran along the shoreline until it turned inland about twenty miles south of the city toward the industrial sector of Cascade. There were some expensive houses and year-round cottages out there, spaced far apart for privacy, and they all had boathouses. Shaunessey Point. That's likely where he was. Frowning, he couldn't recall anything from the file that suggested either brother had property out that way, but that didn't mean he was wrong. Hell, this guy could have broken into some stranger's boathouse.

Now, he just had to figure out how to get that information onto the tape and hope the sophisticated equipment down at the station would pick it up. For a moment, a wave of despair rose in his chest. If Jim hadn't turned off his senses, this would be so simple. But, he had. And if they didn't find Blair in time, he knew that Jim would likely never forgive himself. He felt tears well in his eyes at that dismal thought.

Startled by the bright flash of light, his eyes popped open, and the flash caught him again. Blinking rapidly, he cursed to himself. Great, now they'd have a picture of him bound, gagged, bleeding and in tears. Wonderful. Just the final image Jim needed to really bring this all home. Fury flashed in his eyes then, unbridled fury, at being held helpless, at being used against his friends, at being battered and being threatened with death. The camera flashed a couple of more times, and then Jake went to fiddle with the cassette recorder and the tape.

"Okay, kid, you're on," Moriarty said with cold deliberation. He roughly pulled the gag out of Sandburg's mouth. "You remember what you're supposed to say?"

"Yeah, I remember," Sandburg replied, his voice tight and hoarse.

"Smart kid," Jake approved as he turned to pick up the recorder and punched the 'record' and 'play' buttons. As soon as the machine was running, Blair was whispering quickly under his breath, Sentinel-soft, "Shaunessey Point. Shaunessey Point. Boathouse. Jake Moriarty." But he stopped as soon as Moriarty turned back and held the machine closer to him, to be sure to clearly pick up his voice. Jake motioned impatiently to signal that he should repeat the message.

"Um, this is Blair Sandburg. You have until Thursday noon to drop the charges on Sam Moriarty, or I'll, uh, well, I'll be killed," he stammered, hating that he couldn't keep his voice as steady as he wanted. But the fear and the pain blasting through his head, the dizziness and nausea, were all leaving him feeling weak and a little lost. But he'd heard another train whistle blow as he'd been speaking, and he dared hope that the recorder would have picked it up. And the sounds of the waves lapping against the boathouse were pretty distinctive, so they'd know he was near water.

Jake punched off the machine, muttered, "Very good," repositioned the gag and shifted away to put the cassette into the envelope with the photos of his hostage. It was awkward, doing it all with gloves on, but he didn't want to risk getting his own fingerprints on anything that was going to the cops. They would no doubt figure out that he was behind the kidnapping, but knowing and proving were two different things.

"See ya, kid," Jake said with an off-hand manner as he picked up the envelope and left the boathouse, locking the door behind him and leaving Blair in the cold, damp gloom.

Blair closed his eyes and sighed, relieved for the moment to be still alive. He couldn't believe what a stupid stunt this was. Surely, Jake Moriarty didn't believe the police would actually accede to his demands? Or did he care? Maybe this was just some kind of sick revenge for his brother being arrested. Whatever the motivation, trying to figure it out wasn't going to get Blair out of there, and he knew it.

Sandburg struggled to sit up straighter and fought the bindings on his arms and wrists, which were pulled behind his back, but they were tight. So tight, his hands were already numb. Another 'not good' sign. If he lost circulation in his hands…but he forced that thought away. His hands wouldn't matter if he didn't get out of here alive. His arms were too tightly bound to pull his arms around his feet and bring his hands up in front of him to pull off the gag. He sighed in frustration. Fighting the flashing stabs of agony in his head, he tried to push himself up against the wall, but dizziness and nausea threatened, so he gave that up as a bad idea, for the moment anyway. He'd try again later. Squinting into the dim light, his eyes raked the interior to try to find something that might help him cut the bindings around his wrists. But the place was empty but for the camera and the recorder and the cassette tapes that were tossed into the far corner.

The boathouse was small, with no more than a two-foot wide frame around the empty docking space designed for a single small sailing craft or motorboat. He'd have to be careful not to roll off the edge into the water. If he didn't drown, he'd die of hypothermia…the Pacific was one cold ocean.

Blair wanted to be brave, he really did. But his head hurt so much, and he felt so cold and sick… and he was so very afraid. It was getting darker as the sun set and he could hear the water lapping more heavily into the boat slip as the tide started to surge in, the icy water slapping up against the wooden siding and splashing up and over him. Shivering in misery, he couldn't help the tears that burned in his eyes, or the helpless cry, muffled by the gag, "'mmm! 'ell mee! 'immm!"

From somewhere outside, he heard the distant howl of a wolf.

The pain got worse, and he felt so tired. Unable to keep his eyes open, he finally gave way to unconsciousness.

********************

The crack detective team of the Major Crimes Unit worked long past quitting time with no intention of stopping until they'd gotten a lead on Sandburg. Jim took on the interrogation of Sam Moriarty, hoping he'd have some idea as to where Sandburg might be, and might be open to some kind of deal. But Moriarty just shrugged carelessly and said he didn't have a clue what they were talking about. Though he wished he did. The deal had sounded attractive.

Jim had to be hauled out of the room by Simon before he gave into the urge to wipe the smug sneer from Moriarty's face.

They got warrants and raided warehouses and both Sam and Jake's personal residences.

And they found diddly-squat.

They were getting nowhere, and they all knew it.

Grimly, they wondered if Sandburg was even still alive, though none dared voice their dread out loud.

At nine pm, a patrol unit called in, having spotted Jake Moriarty's car in the lot of an exclusive restaurant downtown. Grabbing their coats, Jim and Simon headed out on the run.

When they got to the restaurant, they found Moriarty with his lawyer, happily chowing down on what looked like a meal that would cost them each a day's salary, if not considerably more.

Jim stormed in, oblivious to the chic clientele, the proverbial bull in a china shop, and grabbed Moriarty by the collar, dragging the man to his feet.

"Where is he?" Jim shouted into Jake's face. "What did you do to him?"

It took both the lawyer and Simon to pull him off.

Straightening his jacket, smoothing the collar, Moriarty snapped as if insulted to his very innocent core, "I have no idea what you're raving about! And any more of that rough stuff and I'll have you up on charges of brutality and harassment, Detective."

"Why you…" Jim snarled, trying to pull away from Simon's strong grip, but his boss cut in.

"Can it, Detective!" Simon snapped. "You're not helping Sandburg by losing control."

Jim snorted, and ground his teeth while he fought to bring his temper, and his fear, under control. Swallowing, he pointed at Moriarty as he said with deadly calm, "If anything happens to that kid…"

"Careful, Detective," Jake crooned with a cold smile of superiority, knowing that he held all the cards, "My lawyer is right here, and he's listening. Threaten me and I'll have your badge."

Jim's eyes flared, a cold, icy glare that promised a slow, painful death and Moriarty blanched at the almost maddened fury in that hard stare. Unconsciously, he stepped back as he realized that, at that moment, this particular cop didn't give a damn about his badge. He only wanted his partner back, and if he didn't get him back in one piece, there was going to be hell to pay.

Waving off the maitre'd, flashing his badge, Simon hauled Jim out of the restaurant. They were wasting their time. Back at his car, Simon pulled out his cell and ordered a round-the-clock tail on Jake Moriarty. Then he turned to Jim, who was seething on the sidewalk, wanting to smash something or scream in rage… and feeling totally impotent. "And, you…any more of that crap and I'll pull you off this case, you hear me?" Simon snarled.

Jim whirled on his superior, but Simon's eyes blazed as he growled, "Don't you push me, Jim. I know you're scared. Hell, I am, too. But losing it won't get us anywhere. I can't afford to be baby-sitting you when we should both be focused on doing what we can to find the kid. You got that?"

Jim swallowed and nodded, his expression taut with anger. But, he took a deep breath, and his shoulders slumped as they both climbed into the car. "I got it, Simon," he muttered as they pulled away from the curb, heading back to the station. Banks wasn't the enemy here-and it wasn't Simon's fault that Jim had turned off his damned senses.

At midnight, when it was clear that they weren't getting anywhere and had no more leads to pursue, Simon ordered everyone to go home, to be back again first thing in the morning.

When Jim got home, he didn't bother turning on any lights…he hadn't had to have light to see in the dark for almost a year. When he banged into the loveseat on his way to the sofa, he cursed and kicked the helpless piece of furniture. Stumbling back into the wall, he turned and punched a hole in it, needing to strike out, needing to feel pain, physical pain, to counter the raw anguish that was eating at his soul. His throat thick, he slumped down against the wall, drawing his knees up into the circle of his arms, and he leaned his head down on his knees. His eyes burned, and he felt sick. "Dammit!" he snarled into the darkness.

In his mind, he pictured the vault and the timer over the locked portal. Three days. Three damned days before he could get at his senses. One hand came up to cover his eyes, and he wept soundlessly in helpless frustration and overwhelming guilt.

********************

The envelope came with the 8:00 am mail drop. It was addressed to Detective James Ellison, Major Crimes Unit, Cascade PD, in large block letters.

Ripping it open, he nevertheless took care in extracting its contents when he saw what was inside, in case there might be prints, though he doubted it. The Moriarty brothers had been a little sloppy in some of their dealings, but when it came to murder, they were always impeccably careful.

"Ah, Jesus," he groaned when he saw the photos. Blair, his hair wild, gagged, bruised, with blood on his face. In one picture, he looked unconscious. In another, there were tears glistening in his eyes. The other two showed him glaring with fury at the camera. Forcing his eyes away from the sight of his battered partner, Jim looked at the surroundings, not that they gave much away. It looked dark, and the wall behind Sandburg looked like it was built of wooden planks.

Quickly, he gathered up the photos and the cassette, and took the whole cache into Simon's office.

"We've got contact," Jim said tersely as he pulled on a plastic glove and put the cassette into the machine in Simon's office while Simon looked at the photos and swore under his breath.

The tape ran briefly, the only sound that of lapping water and then Blair's voice filled the office with his brief, stammered message. His voice sounded weak and shaking, hoarse…and scared, though it was clear that he was trying to hide the fear. They played it over again, trying to hear any other background sounds and they picked up the distant bickering of gulls. And that was it.

"You hear anything?" Simon asked, hoping Jim had gotten something he'd missed. "Besides the fact that he's near the shore?"

But Jim just shook his head and looked away, out the window. "No," he finally whispered, and Simon knew from the hoarse pain in his voice how much Jim was wishing he had his senses functioning at full level.

Sighing, Banks replied, "Okay, get this to the lab. Maybe they'll pick up something we can't."

Jim gathered up the evidence and headed downstairs. In the lab, he waited and watched as they tried every trick in the book to enhance the sound quality. They got enough to know that someone was whispering something at the very beginning of the tape, and there was an odd low tone in the background while Sandburg was talking. But they couldn't get it any clearer. They couldn't make out what these faints clues might mean.

Jim stood there, straining to hear as he made them play it over and over, until even he had to accept it was hopeless. Misery and profound regret lurked in the depths of his eyes as he headed back upstairs, and his expression was stony and gaunt with his effort to maintain control of his emotions.

They had just about twenty-four hours left to find Sandburg, assuming he was still alive.

And he wouldn't get his senses back on line until thirty-six hours after that.

When he returned to the office, everyone stopped what they were doing to give him a hopeful look, because if there wasn't anything more on the tape, they didn't know what else they could do. He shook his head and turned away from them wordlessly, moving to his desk where he slumped and leaned forward, elbows on the desk and his face in his hands.

There would be no deal. Ellison knew that. The charges against Sam Moriarty would not be dropped. Even if they were, the bastard would likely kill Sandburg rather than leave him alive as a witness to his own abduction. Jim racked his brain for another avenue, some other possibility, to give him something to do, some lead to try. But they'd run Moriarty's associates, searched every property the two brothers owned, had had Moriarty's car impounded, but it had been professionally cleaned and there was nothing to be found in it or on it to give any kind of clue. Not to people with normal senses, anyway. They'd gone back to the crime scene, again searching for possible witnesses. Nothing.

Sandburg was someplace built of wood by the ocean. Likely a boathouse. But there were tens of thousands of them. Without something more to go on, that information was useless. Ordinary detective work, however expert, and ordinary tools, however sophisticated, weren't going to make a wit of difference. Sandburg was going to die…and Jim knew it was his fault. Knew if he hadn't resented and resisted these damned senses, if he'd worked with Blair over the past year, he might have been able to stop the kidnapping even as it was happening. He'd certainly have been able to get more off that damned tape.

The memory of the soft, sibilant whispers on the tape haunted Jim. He knew he could have heard them if he hadn't turned off his senses. Knew Blair had been doing his best to give them a message without giving himself away. And he remembered that fiery glare of fury in two of the photos. The kid was doing everything right. And he was going to die, anyway. Jim swallowed hard as he recalled the photo with Blair's eyes glistening with tears.

Blair's voice echoed in his memory, explaining again why they had to use the vault. So Jim would know the frustration of not being able to access his heightened senses when he felt he might need them, and know whether or not he could live with that frustration. So he'd be able to make a choice on the weekend about whether or not to turn them off for good. And as he heard the echo of Sandburg's voice, he saw again the strong vault he'd built in his mind, the timing mechanism ticking away, too slowly…far too slowly.

Scrubbing his face, Jim leaned back in his chair and stared up at the ceiling. His jaw tightened as he nodded a little to himself and then he stood to head for Simon's office.

He'd built that damned vault.

He could blow it to hell if need be.

He was going to get to his senses…and he was going to get to them now.

********************

When Blair woke, light was filtering in through the boat well and the chinks in the wooden walls. He was confused, trying to remember where he was, and why he felt so cold and wet. Shivering violently, his jaw trembling as his teeth tried to chatter but were stymied by the gag, he felt nearly frozen down to his bones. His head was throbbing, and when he moved it, he cried out at the stab of pain that lanced behind his eyes, nearly knocking him out again. Desperately fighting back the sour bile that burned in the back of his throat, he panted, striving for control, struggling to think clearly.

Gradually, the memories floated back, disjointed but enough to make him groan with despair. Blinking, he squinted against the light that hurt his eyes and searched again for something with which to loosen or cut the bindings on his wrists. Carefully, taking it slowly, mindful of reawakening the pain monster in his head, breathing as deeply as he could to fend off the dizziness, he pulled his legs up and levered himself to his feet. It was awkward standing with his ankles bound at tightly as were his wrists, his feet as numb as his hands, but he managed to stay upright by leaning heavily against the wall.

He took a couple of minutes to get his breathing under control, and then with his shoulder against the wall for balance, he hopped toward the door…and felt as if his head was going to come off with the jarring motion. Groaning, he almost doubled over, curling into the wall to keep from falling.

Don't be sick, he chanted in his head. Breathe, just breathe.

The waves of pain receded and took some of the dizziness and nausea with them. Taking a breath, he steeled himself and hopped closer to the door.

And had to fight off the darkness that surged at the edge of his vision.

He couldn't help the tears that slipped down his face from the pain that rushed over him like a tidal wave every time he moved. Nor could he help a low moan of despair when he lost control of his full bladder. But pain and humiliation weren't really relevant, he told himself grimly. When he was dead, neither would matter, and he'd be dead soon if he didn't find a way out of there.

It seemed to take an eternity to get from one end of the small boathouse to the other, but he finally made it to the door. One good thing about pain and exertion, it sure helps a guy warm up a bit, he thought with wry, bitter humor. He thumped his shoulder against the door as hard as he could, but it was securely locked and he just didn't have the strength to knock it down. Fighting off the urge to giggle hysterically, he doubted he'd've been able to force the exit open on his best day, let alone when he was sick, hurting, hungry, wet and cold to the depths of soul…and, oh, not to mention, tied up.

The giggles became a single, wracking sob, but he fought the despair back. It wouldn't do him any good to lose it, and he couldn't give up. Leaning against the door, he looked at the boat slip, and thought that if his legs were free, he might even risk jumping into the freezing water to try to swim out at low tide, but he'd drown if he tried that as trussed up as he was. His gaze wandered the small building again and came to rest on the cassette player and the camera in the corner just another short hop or two away.

He closed his eyes against the dizziness and tried to breathe evenly, striving to find his center of calm. But when he took another hop, his head felt like it was going to come off, the agony washing through him, making nausea cramp in his gut. And this time, he knew he couldn't hold it back. Terrified, he dropped face down, his head over the lip of the boat slip and he heaved. Bile burned the back of his throat and filled his mouth, trapped by the gag. Desperately, he fought the urge to panic, and forced himself to breathe shallowly through his nose even as he heaved again and the pain blinded him.

Struggling to hold onto consciousness, he kept his head down, allowing gravity to help him and gradually, the muck in his mouth drained out past the gag. He whimpered then, in relief that he hadn't gagged and choked on his own vomit. Gradually, he eased his head back up and he rolled to position himself more securely on the ledge of wood. Feeling around with his feet, wishing they weren't so numb, he finally found the small pieces of electronic equipment. Grimly, with the desperate determination of someone who had no other options, he lifted his cold-stiffened legs and brought his feet down on the pieces of plastic and metal.

Again, and again and again.

And again.

Until he heard them crack and break apart. Exhausted, he sobbed with relief and then began the painstaking effort of swiveling his body around so that he could find a piece of metal or plastic with his frozen, numb, fingers. Something sharp enough to work through the rope around his wrists.

Finally, he felt the sensation of coming up against the broken bits with his hands.

But his fingers wouldn't respond, were too numb to curl around any of the pieces and hold them.

Furious, he screamed out his anger and helplessness and frustration-a long, lonely howl around the gag that denied him speech.

********************

"Simon, I need your help," Jim blurted as he strode into his superior's office and closed the door.

"What help?" Banks asked, straightening as he saw the determination in Ellison's eyes and posture.

"I have to get my senses back on line," Jim replied briskly.

"And that's possible?" Banks exclaimed. "Then, why the hell haven't you already done that?"

"Good question," Jim snapped back as he paced in front of Simon's desk with the sinuous grace of a panther on the hunt. Taking a breath, he continued, "Sandburg helped me lock my dials in a vault with a timer so that it can't be opened until Friday at midnight…"

"Oh, God, Jim," Simon groaned, cutting in as he pulled off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "You know I don't understand all this mumbo-jumbo about dials and vaults."

Jim stopped his pacing and turned to face his boss. "Simon, please…just listen. You're the only one who can help me do this, and I don't think I can do it on my own," he begged, his voice cracking with strain.

Somberly, Banks looked up at Ellison, saw the frenzied desperation in the other man's eyes, and the look chilled him. He couldn't remember when he'd ever seen Ellison this close to losing control. Nodding slowly, he got a grip on his own haggard emotions and nodded. "Okay, Jim, I'm listening."

Turning to slump down into a chair, Jim leaned forward, wanting to make it clear as he tried to explain as best he could what he needed from Banks. "This vault that I've got as an image in my head is like a standard, heavy duty, bank vault. I'll have to blow it open to get to the dials inside."

"Right," Simon replied, trying hard not to scowl. "What if when you blow the door open, you blow up the dials?"

Ellison blanched. "Don't go there. This is my only hope of finding Sandburg before the deadline is up. Failure is not an option," he grated.

Holding up his hands in a calming gesture, Simon replied, "Okay, okay, calm down. What will you use to blow the vault?" The police captain swallowed and tried to pretend to himself that this conversation made any kind of sense.

"C4," Jim replied, as if it were obvious.

"Of course," Simon sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Why didn't I think of that? You have any idea how much you'll need?"

"Yeah, I know exactly," Jim replied with a grim smile. "Covert Ops, remember?"

Nodding, his superior asked, "What do you need me to do?"

"I need you to help me get into a sort of trance-like state and then you need to walk me through the actions. You have to help me visualize the vault, and laying the explosive. And, once it's blown, you have to walk me through tearing the masking tape off the dials. Once that's done, you have to bring me back out of it," Jim replied, his voice flat and direct.

Simon just stared at him. "Trance?" he muttered. "How the hell do I help you visualize something I can't see…?"

"Just imagine a bank vault!" Jim snarled, taut with tension and fear. If this didn't work-no, it had to work! Blowing out a breath, he forced himself to some measure of calm, knowing he couldn't do this if he couldn't control his emotions and relax enough to go into the light trance state. Licking his dry lips, he proceeded to explain to Simon how to do what had to be done.

Simon listened, nodded and gritted his teeth. He could do this. It all sounded crazy, but he could do it.

He didn't have much choice.

Awkward, feeling like a fool, he rose from behind his desk and went to sit beside Jim. Laying a hand on his subordinate's forearm as Jim had directed, to keep Ellison grounded, he began to speak in low, calm tones. Or as calm as he could manage. Jim willfully relaxed himself, leaning back in the chair as he closed his eyes and let Simon's voice wash over him. He slowed and deepened his breathing…slower, deeper… and then he heard Banks' voice telling him to visualize the vault…

In his mind, Jim saw himself standing before the vault door. He was garbed in his combat camouflage, a bandanna around his head, war markings streaked on his face. He was carrying a sack, and he knelt to pull out the C4. Pressing it around the lock mechanism, he set the fuse and turned away, crouching with his back to the vault, as far from it as he could get and still be within the vision. The explosion was deafening and he was blown forward, almost knocked unconscious. But Simon's voice called him, urging him to push the shattered door open, guiding him inside.

He could see the dials littered with shards of metallic debris from the explosion. His breath tight in his chest, he lunged forward, and tore the thickly matted masking tape away, clearing off all the dials. Though he could hear Simon's voice calling him back, he couldn't resist. He had to know if the dials were working. So he turned them up, sight and sound together, not all the way, just a few notches-but it was as if the world exploded around him and he felt himself falling into darkness.

********************

It was so cold. So cold that Blair wondered if he would ever know what warmth felt like again. It seeped into his muscles, making them stiff and the cold burrowed down into his bones. He felt it curl in his chest and belly, as if it was freezing him from the inside out. The floor of the boathouse was wet and his clothing was soaked from the icy tidal splash of the night before.

He'd been shivering, but he wasn't anymore. Dimly, he knew that was a bad sign. His energy reserves were exhausted. Curled on his side against the wall, he fought to stay conscious, certain that if he gave in and fell asleep that he would never wake up again.

His mind began to wander and he found himself thinking of Jim, and of how this was all his own fault for having made that stupid suggestion to turn off Jim's senses. But he knew that when Jim found him dead, if Jim ever did find his body, or even if he never did, that his friend would never stop blaming himself; and Sandburg whimpered with the anguish of that understanding.

I'm sorry, Jim, he whispered in the silence of his mind. Oh, man, I am so sorry…

The cold ate at him, leeching away the last of his meager strength and resolution. He was tired. And his head hurt so much. His body was numb and he felt the darkness hovering closer, like a black shroud. He struggled to open his eyes, to use the light still filtering into the boathouse to push the darkness away.

Blinking, he stared at the shaft of light that played on the water in the slip, trying to hold onto that light with all that he was, until it was just him and the light and the encroaching darkness pushing closer, narrowing the tunnel of his vision…drifting over him until he couldn't keep it at bay any longer.

********************

"Jim! JIM!" Simon called, on his knees beside his fallen detective, shaking Ellison's shoulders. "Damn you, Ellison! Don't you do this to me! Wake up! Dammit! Wake UP!"

Jim had been non-responsive for ten minutes. In desperation, Simon hauled off and smacked him across the face, once and then again…and then heaved a sob of relief when Jim pulled back and blinked.

"Thank God," Simon sighed, sitting back on his heel. "You back with me, Jim?" he asked, his voice shaking.

Jim shook his head and blinked again. "Yeah," he grunted, bringing his hands up to his ears. "Stop shouting, would you? You're blowing out my ears."

"I'm not shouting, Jim," Banks replied softly, laying a hand on his subordinate's shoulder. "Turn down the damn dial."

Jim's lips thinned in pain and he pressed his eyes tightly closed against the light that stabbed so cruelly, but he forced himself to focus on the dials and he forced himself to turn them down. Gradually, his taut muscles relaxed, and he blinked again, testing the light. Sighing, he moved to push himself up off the floor and Simon swiftly stood to give him a hand up.

"Did it work?" Banks asked. "Do you have control of your senses again?"

"As much as I ever did," Jim replied wryly, but when he looked up into Simon's eyes, Banks saw a flare of hope in their blue depths for the first time since this whole mess began. "Let's go find out what's on that tape," Jim called over his shoulder, already heading out the door, grabbing his coat on the way.

Downstairs in the lab, Jim had the technician play the tape one more time for him. He was certain that once more was all that he'd need. His head tilting unconsciously, he listened to those desperate, urgent whispers and he heaved out a sigh of relief.

"Shaunessey Point," he said, lifting his eyes to Simon's. "And he named Jake Moriarty."

"Go!" Simon ordered. "I'll have Rafe and H try to find some kind of link to help narrow the search."

Jim was already running out the door.

********************

By the time Jim was in the vicinity of the small, elite coastal community of Shaunessey Point, Simon had called to tell him that Sam Moriarty's ex-wife had a place out there. He gave Jim the address and said that back up and an ambulance were on their way.

It didn't take long to find the place once he had the address. He swung into the drive and kept going around the back and down the long sloping beach toward the boathouse. Leaping out of the truck, leaving the door hanging wide open, he raced to the small structure by the water.

"Sandburg!" he yelled, as he got close. Seeing the padlock, he pulled his gun and blew it off, and then, when he found the door was still locked with a bolt, he kicked it open and charged inside.

"Oh, God," he gasped when he saw the small, huddled form and reeled from the stench of vomit and urine. Dialing back his senses of taste and smell, he dropped to his knees and felt urgently for a pulse, not trusting his senses, needing to be grounded by touch. Closing his eyes briefly, he whispered, "Thank you…" and then set about pulling off the gag and freeing Blair from the ropes that bound him.

"Can you hear me, Chief?" he called, his voice shaking with fear. The kid was still alive, but just barely. His heartbeat was 'way too slow, and his respirations were shallow, almost non-existent. He was blue from the cold and limp with unconsciousness. Jim pulled off his jacket and wrapped it around his friend. Then he gathered Sandburg into his arms and carried him to the truck, closing them both in the warmth of the cab. Holding Blair close to him, he reached to crank up the heat and then he rubbed Blair's arms to try to restore circulation and warmth.

"Hey, buddy, you with me?" he called. "I've got you, Chief. You're safe now-you're going to be okay, Blair."

Frantic, knowing he needed help to care for Sandburg, Jim cursed under his breath, wondering what was taking the ambulance so long. Desperate, impatient, he slid Blair onto the seat beside him, and fastened the seat belt around his partner's limp body. And then he gunned the truck, heading back into town, hoping he'd meet the ambulance on the way. He pulled out his cell and called dispatch, demanding the location of the EMTs. He learned they were still about ten minutes away and he forwarded the message that he'd meet them enroute.

********************

The whispering touch of warm air flowing around him and the prodding tones of the voice that called to him with such a overlay of desperation, pushed back some of the darkness. He could hear the blaring of a siren somewhere close by, and something held his arm in a vice-like grip.

Blair moaned softly, struggling back to consciousness.

The confusing tones resolved into words. "Sandburg? You waking up? Can you hear me, Chief?"

"J'm?" Blair mumbled, gasping as the truck jerked to a fast stop on the side of the road and Jim reached for him, the sudden jarring movements making the pain flare again in his head.

"Easy, I've got you," Ellison soothed, releasing Blair from the restraint of the seat belt and pulling him into his arms as Sandburg slumped forward bonelessly. "You're gonna be okay…" he murmured into the curls under his lips. "You're safe now…"

Blair burrowed his face into Jim's shirt and Ellison heard a softly sighed, "Thank…you…" and then Sandburg went limp again as the darkness claimed him once more.

********************

The ambulance pulled up behind the truck and the EMTs helped Jim ease Blair out of the truck and onto the gurney. They checked his pupils, finding them slow to react. His blood pressure…too low. Pulse and respirations, too slow, shocky. They hooked Sandburg up to oxygen and got an intravenous started and then they hustled him into the emergency vehicle. Sirens blaring, they headed back into Cascade.

********************

Simon found Jim pacing like a caged animal in the Emergency Waiting Room of Cascade General. "How is he?" he demanded, not reassured by Ellison's agitation.

Jim pulled up and turned to his boss as he said, his voice tight with fury, "Head injury, they don't know how bad yet. Exposure-he was damned near frozen when I found him. Dehydration and exhaustion. And they're afraid he may have aspirated which could lead to pneumonia. He was bound and gagged…and he'd been sick at some point."

"Oh God," Simon sighed, rubbing a weary hand over his face. He'd hoped, by some miracle, that finding the kid would be the end of it. But it sounded like he was critically injured. "I've had Jake Moriarty picked up and charged with abduction, assault and attempted murder," he reported.

Jim nodded, but his attention was obviously more on the treatment room down the hall.

Together, they turned and slumped into the stiff, uncomfortable, plastic chairs and waited, side by side, for the doctor to tell them how things stood.

********************

Warm.

He felt warm…and dry.

And he was lying on something softer than wood.

He sighed at the luxuriousness of those feelings.

His head still ached, but the pain had receded to a dull thrum.

"Mmmm," he muttered.

"Hey, Chief?" a voice called softly. "You starting to wake up?"

Blair felt the grip on his hand tighten, and then someone tenderly stroked his brow. It felt soothing. Safe.

"Sandburg?" the voice came again.

"Mmm," he mumbled in response, frowning a little. Was that what he'd meant to say?

"It's time to wake up, Chief." And this time, he recognized Jim's voice, and it drew him further into consciousness.

"J'm?" he whispered, surprised to hear the hoarseness of his voice and the thin, reedy, weakness of it as he struggled to open his eyes.

"That's right," Jim soothed. "I'm right here."

Blinking, Blair squinted against the light and looked around, confused, until he found Jim's face. "Wha'?" he asked.

"We're going to have to work on your language skills, Sandburg," Jim smiled as he teased gently.

Sandburg cleared his throat, and was grateful when Jim stood to support his head and neck while bringing a cup of cool water to his lips. He sipped and felt it cool his throat. Pulling away a little, he sniffed and yawned…and blinked again as the world around him came a little clearer.

"You found me," he murmured with a slow smile. "Good work, Detective…"

It was Jim's voice that was hoarse then, and his eyes were suspiciously bright as he shook his head. "No, it wasn't detective work that found you, Chief," he explained, and then cleared his throat as if he was trying to swallow something stuck in it. "I used my senses, Blair, and got the message you sent on the tape."

Blair just stared at Jim for a long moment, trying to assimilate that. "How long was I in that boathouse?" he asked, confused. He knew it had seemed like forever, but surely he hadn't actually been there for days! Could he have survived that? And, why wasn't he killed when the deadline passed? Or had he been left to die of exposure? Lots of questions to be answered, but he couldn't seem to form them on his lips as fast as he could think them.

"A little more than a day, I guess," Jim replied.

Blair frowned. That didn't make any sense…and he almost snickered. Sense. Senses. But then he frowned again. "But-the dials were in the vault until Friday. How did you…"

"I blew the vault open," Jim answered, looking a little bemused.

"What?" Blair gaped, blinking. "You blew the vault?"

"Yeah, with C4," Jim elaborated. "Simon helped me."

"Simon helped you blow the vault with C4 so you could get at the dials," Blair repeated to be sure he'd gotten the story straight.

"Yep," Jim nodded with the smirk of a man who has done his job well.

Relaxing against the pillow behind his head, Sandburg gazed up at Ellison as a smile widened across his face and his eyes began to dance with humor. "I wish I could have seen that. But, you weren't supposed to do that, Jim. The whole point of the timer was to deal with the frustration of not being able to access your heightened senses if the need arose for them."

Jim looked away. "Well, you know how well I handle frustration, Chief," he said dryly, though his eyes had darkened with shadows.

Blair didn't know whether to laugh at the remark or comfort the pain he saw in his Sentinel's eyes. Pain first, he decided. "I'm sorry, Jim. It was my dumb idea…"

"No," Ellison cut in. "It was my choice. And it was a mistake."

Blair's eyes dropped, but he couldn't deny the surge of relief he felt at those simple words. "How long since you found me?" he asked then, still trying to get his bearings.

"Two days," Jim replied. "You had a pretty bad concussion, and you were suffering from extreme exposure. Good thing you got that message onto the tape, Chief. If not for that…"

Jim's throat constricted and his words died away. But his grip on Sandburg's hand tightened. "It was too close," the Sentinel whispered.

Blowing out a breath, Sandburg swallowed and went back to the earlier subject, to lighten the suddenly heavy burden of guilt and fear he could see lurking in Jim's eyes.

"How did you get Simon to walk you through…" he began.

But a rich baritone voice interrupted him as Simon entered the room, "With painstakingly detailed instructions on how to put my Detective into a trance and then walk him through the process of blowing an invisible, non-existent vault in his head, with equally imaginary C4, so that he could get to the dials only he can see, and pull off the masking tape so that he could make them work again."

Blair couldn't help but snicker at the grumbling, 'put-upon' tone in Simon's voice.

"It wasn't funny, Sandburg," Simon growled. "You know how I feel about this…this weird stuff between the two of you." Rounding on Ellison, he pointed at his subordinate and barked, "And I never want to have to do anything like that again! So no more games with these senses of yours. Learn to live with them."

"Yes, Sir," Jim replied formally, with no hint of laughter. "No problem with that, Captain."

"Good," Simon replied with a decisive nod.

Blair looked from one to the other, trying to figure out if they were serious or kidding around. But when he caught Jim's gaze, he knew his Sentinel was deadly serious.

"Sandburg's going to put me through a whole barrage of tests, so that I finally really learn to handle these things, aren't you, Chief?" Jim said firmly.

"Jim," Blair faltered. "This doesn't change how hard they are for you to live with…"

"I found out that living without them was a whole lot harder, Blair," Jim cut in. "I don't think I have any choice but to learn to live with them. I'll take your tests."

"If you're sure that's what you want," Blair temporized, not really happy that Jim sounded like this was something that was forced upon him; something that he had no choice about.

"I'm sure, Chief," Jim replied soberly, his thumb unconsciously tracing circles on the back of Blair's hand. "Believe me…I'm very sure."

Nodding slowly, knowing he still wasn't hearing a full, whole-hearted desire, but rather a sense of desperate need, Blair sighed. "Okay." Flicking a look at Simon, he smiled slowly as he said, "I guess when the boss orders it, there's not much you can do…"

"That's right, Sandburg," Simon drawled. "You're finally beginning to get the concept of authority."

The Captain looked wounded when Blair snickered, but when Jim burst out laughing, gasping, "That'll be the day!" Simon couldn't help but chuckle himself.

God, it was good to have the kid back, safe and sound.

Now, if he could only be sure they'd never again remind him about leading Ellison through the 'Blowing the Invisible Vault' caper, his world would be close to perfect.

Finis

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