Author's Notes: No Profit, copyright laws bent but not broken; Poem, "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost (1915). This story also had the honor of an 'alpha' by Arianna and a meticulous 'beta' by Starwatcher. Remaining errors are mine alone.

Content: Gen with warnings for language, violence and adult subject matter (organ transplants). Takes place post TS by BS and Blair is a cop. Approx. 30 pages

Summary: Jim's sensory differences are interfering with his work and prompt Blair to reconsider his career choices during a tough case. Follows my story, "Negative Energy" but can stand alone.

Many thanks to Deb for making a donation to Moonridge and then waiting patiently for this to be completed. Bless our wonderful readers, one and all! (Oops, gotta save that for a Christmas fic)

Give Until It Hurts

by Roslyn

********************
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.

Wednesday, February 21, 2001 8:00 A.M.

"I'm just saying, I don't like the idea of putting anything down on paper about organ donation before I'm dead." Jim retrieved a breakfast bar from the vending machine and tore open the wrapper.

His partner and nemesis had followed him into the break room adjoining the bullpen. "Well, you certainly aren't going to be able to put anything down on paper about it after you're dead. That means you have to sign the back of your driver's license. At some point, like now maybe?"

Jim looked down at his snack and realized his appetite had fled. This organ donor drive is driving me into anorexia. "Thanks for that bit of information, Einstein. It's just, well if something happens, I want the doctors to be thinking about saving me instead of a group of people on some... uhm, recipient list. You know, the guys waiting for livers, lungs, spleens and hearts."

"They don't do spleen transplants and I don't think they'll go mining for your heart, Ebenezer. It's likely too small to bother with."

"Then they'll want it for an infant." Jim grinned, not at all offended by his activist partner's sarcasm. "Anyway, you have my power of medical attorney. You can release my organs for harvesting once you're absolutely sure I won't be needing them. Hey, Chief? You okay?" Jim grabbed for his friend, now pale and swaying slightly.

"Whoa! Head rush. Sitting would be good about now." Blair put out his hand to stabilize himself against one of the vending machines.

"It's alright. I've got you now. Sit down right here and lower your head between your knees. Good, just like that. I knew all that yoga would be good for something. Hey, McKinley! Can you get us some juice? Sandburg isn't looking so hot, here."

"Sure, Jim." The uniformed officer dug into his pockets for change and retrieved a pint of Tropicana from a refrigerated dispenser. "Here you go."

Jim squatted in front of his friend. "Thanks, Mac. Chief? Here, start sipping. You skip breakfast or something? No, I saw you eat. What's up?"

Blair sipped, looking more disgusted now than ill. "Sorry, man." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "I think it was all that talk about my having to arrange organ transplants, literally over your dead body." He looked up to see one of Ellison's rare, sympathetic smiles. "But don't let it go to your head."

"They'd probably want that too." Ellison grinned with no small degree of understanding. "Okay now?"

"Sure."

They both glanced up as Simon entered the break room at a trot. "McKinley told me Sandburg was sick. Talk to me, guys."

"I'm okay now, Simon. A bit woozy for a minute, but the juice took care of everything."

"What, a second round of flu season in Cascade? You infect the bullpen and I'll have you busted to meter maid. Seriously, are you alright?"

"The Chief here was just a bit disturbed with all this organ donor stuff going on. He's okay."

"Blair? The donor drive was one of your ideas!"

"Yeah. I've gotta stop having so many of those, ya know?" Blair stood and left the room, leaving an astonished boss and a bemused partner behind.

Simon shook his head and sat down in the chair recently vacated by Blair. "Just when I think I've got a bead on that kid, something else comes along."

Jim sat down as well. "Let's just say he was so caught up in the theory, he forgot about the practical issues involved."

"Like what?"

"Like the donor doesn't get to personally collect the thanks of a grateful organ recipient."

Simon sighed. "Guess I should've seen that coming. You signing the back of your license must have freaked him out some."

"Well, Sir. I, uhm, haven't exactly signed it. But this drive is strictly voluntary."

"I won't push you on it, Jim. Hey, you gonna eat that bar?"

"No, knock yourself out. I better get back to work."

"You're reasonably caught up, aren't you?"

"Pretty much."

"Don't sound so wary. I wasn't gonna harangue you about your reports."

"Good."

"Your overdue reports." Simon grinned, evilly.

"Good to know we aren't talking about the paperwork, Sir."

"Truth is, something new came in that's rather unusual. The Department of Health called me and something smells really bad over there."

"Sounds like something that might fall under their jurisdiction, Cap."

"Save the smart-ass remarks. There's been a recent spike in the illness and death statistics among people who've been receiving transplants. Hard to know what's causing it, though. There are so many variables involved, that the woman who called me about it sounded more embarrassed than convinced she needed to bring in the cops."

"Let's meet with Dan then, and go over the exact types of variables we have to consider. That'll help us sift through whatever evidence they give us."

"Done. Think I'll have Joel and Megan join us as well. There might be quite a few mourners among the people we have to interview and they'll add manpower as well as a gentle touch."

"Conner?" Jim's tone bordered on the incredulous.

"Some women might want a feminine touch."

"Conner?"

"Go get Dan." Simon grabbed the granola bar and headed back into the bullpen to gather the rest of the troops.

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

The selected group sat around a conference table enjoying a rather exotic brand of coffee recently shipped to their Captain by a fond cousin. Jim had taken a moment to obtain a more plebeian brand from the break room, where they all contributed to the costs and labor involved in keeping the department supplied with the dark liquid. The plain flavor appealed to Jim and he regretted that his partner had opted for the other today. He tried to keep Blair supplied with coffee from the carafe containing a decaffeinated brew. It made for earlier nights on the part of the younger man, which also meant an earlier end to drum music or candle burning in the adjoining loft apartment. Closing the door between the units was a rare event, simply because it did nothing to reduce Jim's awareness of Blair's activities. Blair didn't require the illusion of privacy, knowing it really only existed as far as Jim's honor extended in such matters.

Sipping appreciatively from his mug, Blair winced at the sight of Jim wielding a Styrofoam cup. "Jim, why aren't you using your mug?"

"It's dirty and the meeting is about to start."

"Drinking out of that hazardous waste bin you're using as a coffee cup is bad for you and adds to all the styrene in the landfills, which eventually leaches into the groundwater."

"Thank you, Rachel Carson."

Eyes began to roll. Less familiar with Blair's watchdog habits than the rest of the team, Dan Wolfe merely looked amused. A medical examiner, his physician's eye was caught by the amount of steam coming from the cup as it was raised to Jim's lips. "Hey, Ellison! That's a bit hot, isn't it?"

Jim sniffed and recoiled slightly at the heat of the steam entering his sensitive nostrils. "Guess so." Putting it down, Jim drew away a reddened palm. It was immediately noticed by both Dan and Blair.

"That cup must be pretty hot, Jim."

"Oh man, didn't you feel that heat before you sniffed the steam?"

"It's fine. Can we get started?" Blushing slightly, Jim glanced at his hand before dismissing the issue. He studiously ignored the looks of concern emanating from Blair and Megan.

Simon cleared his throat. "Okay, people. Dan is going to give us a rundown on issues of organ donation so we can tease out the natural risks from the unnatural ones we might be looking for in this case. If it even is a case. Dan?"

"Thanks, Simon. From what little we know about this situation, the Cascade Department of Health has become concerned about the rise in morbidity and mortality from transplants performed over the last eighteen months in, and around, Cascade. Question, Joel?"

"Yeah, what's the difference between morbidity and mortality?"

"Oh, sorry. Statistics are ranked under overall incidence of problems which come under 'morbidity' and actual deaths, the mortality figures. Illness as in rejection syndromes, post-surgical infections and contagion are among the problems in transplants."

"What would be contagious?"

"If the donor had HIV or some other viral or bacterial illness, a recipient would certainly be at risk for contracting it. But those people aren't eligible as donors." Dan watched four pairs of eyes light up with common purpose.

Megan spoke up first in her crisp, Australian-accented tones. "Then maybe we're seeing transplants coming from ineligible donors?"

Dan nodded, always happy to be working with a department as sharp as Major Crime, despite their being even more demanding of his time and attention than Homicide. "Hospitals have very stringent requirements about this because of liability issues. Their own review processes would have made them catch this kind of pattern much sooner than this."

Simon consulted the slim folder in front of him. "Well, we've mostly got preliminary data here, but the cases appear scattered among various hospitals. And what the hell is this all about, Dan? Some of these people got infections following routine orthopedic outpatient surgeries. Another lot here are listed having problems, '...secondary to dental procedures'. How did that get thrown in with transplants?"

Dan nodded. "It isn't just corneas, livers and kidneys these days. There's a lot of call for bone tissue and tendons... Uh, Blair? You okay?"

Blair swallowed heavily and glanced at Jim. "Sure."

The medical examiner continued his impromptu seminar. The detectives all made it through the valuable, if distasteful, background information being supplied and returned to their desks.

Jim booted up his computer and glanced across his desk to the abutting workspace. "Are you okay, Chief?"

Blair looked away in confusion and embarrassment.

"Come on, now. No one else is listening. I got why you were, you know, off your game this morning when we talked about this stuff. Is this case going to be a problem for you? I'm sure I can find some reason to get you out of it, if that's what you need."

"That's not it. I'm into the whole organ donor thing and even signed petitions for stem cell research." His voice dropped to sentinel levels of perception. "But it's like I keep fixating about your organs being distributed and there's nothing I can do..." Blair's voice petered out.

Jim saw a sheen of moisture glazing over Blair's eyes, mirroring a depth of distress he'd rarely viewed in them. He rose and grasped his partner's arm, gently leading him to the nearest source of privacy in Simon's office. Knowing their captain was busy elsewhere, Jim drew the blinds and settled on the couch beside Blair. "It's okay. The theory is a whole lot different from actually signing cards and seeing others - Chief?"

He watched the younger man appear to lose all awareness of his surroundings, becoming more alarmed when tears began to well and escape the levies of reddening lids. "Blair!" His voice became urgent and he gave a single shake to the bowed shoulders. "Look at me. Please!"

Blair startled and looked at the cloudy form beside him. "Jim. Oh, God, Jim." He grabbed for the stolid form rendered indistinct by anguish. "We're both still here." He leaned into Jim's shoulder, tense with the effort of restraining the spate of emotion.

Jim silently held on to him, the rigidity of grief no less recognizable for a lack of understanding about its source. "I've got you." A moment later came the relief of feeling Blair's muscles relaxing as his struggle eased.

The smell of stale cigar smoke heralded Simon's return before the door even opened. So much for his plans to quit. Jim noted the absurdity of the stray thought even as he glanced up at his Captain, catching the expression of surprise and alarm. Tactfully, Simon stood silent and waited for a signal.

"Simon's here, Chief." The tones were hushed. "Do you want him to stay or go?"

Blair withdrew from contact with the comforting solidity of Jim's body. Brushing at his eyes, he looked up at the man, wavering in his still-blurred field of vision. "I'm okay. Simon, you need to hear this." Blair's lips parted in a poor attempt at a smile. "Oh, shit, Simon. You are so not going to want to hear this."

Relieved by the mild profanity, Simon crossed over to his desk top to retrieve a box of Kleenex. "Here you go, Blair." He returned for his desk chair and rolled it over to the couch, to sit before his men. "Talk to me. How can I help?" Both men waited in patient silence as Blair finished gathering his composure.

"Okay, this really isn't fair."

Smiling at the familiar complaint, Jim nudged his friend's shoulder gently. "So, who are we gonna sue for that, Chief?"

"Incacha, for passing the way of the Shaman onto me."

Simon grimaced, a reluctant acquiescence to yet another aspect of the lives of these most unusual men. "That means you're okay, though, right? This isn't about something that's happened?"

Jim, more directly aware of the possibilities, put it more directly. "Or, happened yet. You've been having visions today." He'd been watching Blair's gradual development of shamanic talents with a mixture of pride and chagrin. First had come the dreams about far away events, then a development of trust in his own intuitive feelings about people. Recently, he'd claimed that he could see auras. Just like Naomi. Better not be a case of like mother, like...

"More like feelings at first. Just flashes of really dark emotions this morning and again in the meeting. Like I had suffered a terrible loss that I couldn't even remember or for an impending loss. And after the meeting when we were out by our desks, there were some brief visuals. Then you brought me in here and pow! I got the whole enchilada." He swiped at his eyes again with a drenched tissue. "Just not fair."

Jim gently removed the shredded paper from Blair's grasp and offered him a few unused sheets. "Take your time."

Blair took a deep breath, centering himself. The overpowering sense of grief was fading. The visuals had departed far more abruptly. "I know what's happening in these cases, guys. It really is a 'chop shop' scenario. There was a man lying on a table in a morgue, and someone was going to start, uh, harvesting parts. I knew it was Jim."

The simple statement held all the power of Blair's subsiding emotions. Neither Simon nor Jim were in any doubt of the intensity of the experience for the young shaman. Or its veracity.

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

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.

"This is the first time you've had waking visions. Before, they were always during the night when you were sleeping." Jim came to his usual, lurching stop in a parking spot outside the home of their first interview. "You're sure you're up for this, right?"

"I'm fine now. Well, as fine as any one of us are gonna be with interviewing these patients and the grieving family members of the ones that didn't make it. No day in the park for any of us, man. But nothing more than that. It's great to have these added insights into the case but, you know, it isn't like we weren't already on the right track, here. What if this continues? What if, like, I keep falling apart on us with this prescience or can't tell the difference between..."

"Hey, settle down there, Kreskin." Jim smiled at the return of his friend's verbosity. "Next time you get these feelings that seem out of control or out of context, tell me. If you're too close to the situation, then I'll remember to ask you if this might be whatchamacallit? Prescience? Maybe that can reduce the intensity of the experience for you. You know, like when you help me with a sensory spike."

Blair nodded, mulling over the proposition. "That would work. Sure, yeah. You can guide me through that and maybe, over time, I'll gain the kind of control you're showing - hey! Speaking of control or not controlling your senses, what was up with that cup of coffee, man? Did you burn your hand?"

"I can't believe after everything else, that you can remember that part of the meeting. My hand is fine. No burns, no pain. See?" Jim flashed his palm before Blair's searching gaze. "Now let's get back to work."

"Okay, for now. But you can't blame me for asking. You had that stiffness in your back a few weeks ago and I've seen you rubbing your right arm and shoulder lately." Noting the silence which greeted those observations, it seemed prudent to move on. Blair rifled through the notes Jim had taken during the meeting. "You know, if you have this need to write in some dead language or other, could you maybe pick one of the ones I've studied? Would it kill you to use, I don't know, the basic letters of the modern English alphabet?"

"My handwriting is perfectly legible."

"Then who lives here?" Blair held up the dog-eared notebook.

Jim glanced at it. "Borg."

"As in Bjorn, the tennis player?"

"No. Maybe it's Borgia?"

"As in Lucretia?"

"Oh, hell. Just get out of the truck and I'll wing it."

"As in a turkey, flapping... okay, okay, I'm getting out."

They approached a small single level home, its tiny and rather neglected front yard surrounded by a low stone wall. They were relieved to see a name on the mailbox at the beginning of the walk leading to the front door.

"Bergman. As in Ingrid."

"Chief." Jim's warning tone was distinctly lacking in its usual power to inhibit rambunctious roommates and rookies. He sighed, acknowledging that the return of Blair's more annoying characteristics was a welcome relief.

"Yeah, yeah. I'll knock it off." Blair grinned. "Someday."

Jim knocked on the front door using the tarnished brass circle affixed to its center panel. The visible signs of months of neglect clearly announced the occupants had been dealing with a serious disruption in their lives.

A teenager opened the door. "Can I help you?" The pale face seemed to impart a strong degree of disinterest in caring about whether he could do so.

"Hi. I'm Blair Sandburg with the Cascade Police Department. Here's my ID. My partner and I would like to see Mr. Bergman. Would that be your Dad?"

"He's busy on the phone. Maybe this isn't the best time."

"We understand that, but it'll only take a few minutes. Forgive me, but is there any particular reason you aren't in school today? Maybe a different schedule?"

"Is that why you're here? My Dad knows I quit school and he's cool with it. Why? Was there some screw-up with the paperwork and they think I skipped out?"

"No, not at all. Our questions are about something else entirely."

"Jason? What's going on out here?" A tall man, gray despite the appearance of being in the early portion of his middle years, entered the room. He paused to study the badges being held up to his scrutiny, and then invited the men inside and into a room off the entry hall. "Okay, what can I do for you?" He waved them to a padded bench in front of the streaked panes of a picture window in the living room.

Jim sneezed and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. "Excuse me, Sir. I'm sorry to disturb you, but I need to ask you a few questions about your deceased wife." At Jason's sharp intake of breath, he hastened to add, "This won't take long. Just some data for the coroner's records."

Mr. Bergman winced. "What do you want to know?"

Blair took his own notepad out of his jacket pocket. "We understand that your wife had some surgery involving a transplant. Can you verify for us what was done?"

Mr. Bergman sat on the couch and Jim sneezed again as a fine, barely visible dust, rose from the cushions. The room hadn't seen a vacuum in some time.

"My wife passed over six months ago. Why are you asking around now?"

"Just following up on a request from the Health Department to complete their records."

"Is there something wrong? I never did understand why a healthy woman like her got hepatitis. The hospital said it was probably from some clams she ate when she went to visit her sister in Boston. She'd never been sick a day in her life."

Jim spoke softly. "This is about some surgery Mrs. Bergman had before that happened, Sir. She had an operation on her knee?"

Jason's face paled and he stared at the floor. His father's voice quavered slightly as he replied. "She had a tendon transplant as part of a repair for an arthritic knee. They said because she was relatively young, it would work well. It went fine and she healed pretty quickly."

Jim stood. "You've been very helpful, Mr. Bergman. Thank you for your time and I'm sorry for your loss."

Bergman stood as well. "Could the surgery have been connected with Carol's death? I've never been satisfied with the reasons given to me. There wasn't any hepatitis outbreak in Boston going on at the time."

"I can't really say at this point, but I promise you that if we find any connection, you'll be informed."

"Okay. Jase? You have that interview in an hour. Get ready to go and I'll drop you there on my way to the plant."

"Right, Dad." Jason left the room and they shortly heard water running in the bathroom, just down the short hallway.

"He has a job interview at Walmart, and I'm due on shift at my second job in a little while."

Blair winced and ventured hesitantly, "Yes, Jason mentioned to us earlier that he'd quit school with your knowledge. Guess he was worried about it when we showed him our badges."

"I couldn't take so much time off and risk losing our medical insurance. She was so weak, well, someone had to be here all the time but there wasn't any coverage for help in the house or nursing care. Jason pretty much took care of everything and after... when Jason finally made it back to school, he just couldn't make up enough work to even think about making it through this grade. He was pretty much of a 'C' student before and even that took him a lot of effort. So, I'm letting him get a job instead of flunking out. I just hope he goes for one of those home study diplomas when he's feeling stronger himself. It's been hell for him." He ducked his head, shamed at his son's need for an education being beyond his reach. "As it is, we're close to losing the house now with my income being the only money coming in and the debt I'm carrying from the hospital co-pays."

"Mr. Bergman, This may sound strange, but I've only been a cop for about a year now. I have a PhD from Rainier and taught there for quite a few years. Most high schools have a home-schooling option and sometimes they even have work-study programs which pay better and are more stimulating than Walmart. And his record wouldn't have to show that he'd ever dropped out of school at all. If you call and give the high school permission to talk with me about your son, I'll find out if something better suited to Jason's future is out there. I'd also be happy to tutor him on some of his tougher subjects if it'll help." Blair handed the widower his card.

Face tight with emotion, Mr. Bergman nodded permission and shook Blair's hand in silent gratitude.

The partners left the Bergman home and buckled themselves into the truck. Jim was the first to address the promises made. "You know, most of the departments in the PD get a work-study intern each semester."

"No kidding? How come I didn't know that?"

Jim pulled the car into the light, mid-day street traffic. "Well, it's a secret and we don't let rookies in on it for - hey!" He laughed at the swat to his arm.

"No, really, man. Since when have they been doing that?"

"You never noticed because they don't assign kids to Homicide, Major Crime or Vice. Which kind of makes sense, considering what they'd hear about on a daily basis. There's enough garbage going on in the other departments as it is, so there's talk of restricting the program to college-aged kids."

"Like our high school students aren't already familiar with the knife fights and drug over-doses that go on in their schools on a regular basis. But they haven't put new restrictions on that yet, right?"

"Far as I know. There's a high school kid now in Records that I just talked to the other day."

"There is? I never knew that."

"Some detective you are, Sherlock Gnomes. And here I was, expecting extra credit for following your orders and not going down to Records for my own files. Remember you forbid it because they spray pesticides down there sometimes?"

"Sure, I remember. You mean you actually listened to me?"

"Yes, but my files don't appear on my desk by magic. I arrange for special deliveries. They go straight to Rhonda, since they're rather fussy about the school kids wandering around our department. Probably something to do with our having neo-hippy punks in the bullpen."

Blair ignored the kidding, still engrossed in his plans to keep one more kid from losing out on an education. "Way cool, man. I am definitely going to inquire about it."

"And the tutoring, Mother Theresa?"

"As in... wait, does Mother Theresa even have a last name?"

Jim got even by turning left from the right-hand lane, just to enjoy Blair's aggrieved mutterings about his driving. It was good to return to what passed for normal in their lives.

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

Friday, 3 P.M.

The investigative team was gathered once again around the conference table, mugs in hand. Jim made a production of showing he was using a ceramic cup instead of styrene, to everyone's amusement.

Joel sat back wearily. "This interviewing has been nothing short of hell. One tragic story after another. We've gotta nail these bastards."

"Amen to that." Simon's prayer was echoed around the table as he surveyed his people with an eye to their well-being during any tough case. "The Health Department is now certain that there must be some problem with illegal profiteering. The statistics are just too skewed."

"That should have been, 'just too screwed'." Blair's summation was met with murmurs of agreement.

"That'll do, Sandburg. Let's remember that they brought us into it, so it wasn't just numbers to them either." Banks noted the slight nod of approval coming his way from Jim at this mild admonition. Jim understood the value of acknowledging the ugly sides of their work while stopping short of indulging in fruitless anger at agencies which monitor such incidents. It wouldn't foster efficiency or the ability to move on to the next task without older ones festering.

"Okay then. I have all your notes here and can only say you've all done well in covering the bases by phone or on foot. The doctors involved in the procedures are a pretty diverse group and none of them appear to have an unusually high number of patients among this list. So, we're looking further back behind the scenes, agreed?

"Captain, I began the computer search on suppliers of tissues and organs." Megan pointed to a mound of printouts in front of her. "The laboratories which prepare the specimens appear to be fairly well represented around the country. They use a smaller group of shippers, specializing in the transfer of delicate materials."

"Then we're looking at tracing back the more suspicious cases to labs and transport personnel. Yes, Jim?"

"I've been thinking about tracking this to an even earlier stage in the donor process. What about the mortuaries?" Jim recalled Blair's description of a lab environment which might just as easily be a mortician's table and looked to him, questioningly.

"Oh, yeah! Mortuaries could easily be tapped for this by traffickers."

"I don't understand, Sandy . Wouldn't any 'harvesting' of donor material take place in hospital, following a death?"

"In the hospital, Megan. You did ask me to correct your American English. And yes, certainly, for major organs which require continuous blood supply up to the minute of harvesting. But there were very few of those on our list and we may be better off assuming those were largely unavoidable deaths. The most common problems came where less fragile material such as skin, bone and tendons were transplanted. You remember that Dan told us some things can be taken from cadavers if they're irradiated later on to sterilize them? Well, recipients would be in terrible danger if that wasn't done and if they hadn't even pre-screened the donors for diseases."

"Sir, what kind of profits are we talking about? Why go to all this trouble?"

Simon looked over his notes. "I asked Dan that question. He said that the families of victims with donor cards are directed to specific mortuaries prepared to handle the later harvesting procedures. That alone serves as a motive. Whatever payments those guys get for the funeral alone is likely worth it, with sales of transplant material the real free icing on the cake. Seems greed bumped up the adverse reaction rates and triggered our attention."

"The potential profits go to the mortuaries which have increased motives to join donor programs in general. Then, labs which harvest organic material..."

"Organic material, Sandburg?"

"I'm trying to keep this discussion as objective as possible. There's no benefit to using emotionally-loaded terms here, Sir."

The strain evident in Blair's face made Simon recall the grief which had surged through the detective earlier that week. "Good idea, Blair. Sorry I interrupted. You were saying?" Jim flashed him a look of gratitude as Blair tensely slogged through the rest of his speculations.

The group narrowed down the list of individuals having both motive and opportunity for this type of scam. Suspicions rested upon the less well-paid members of the related professions, such as embalmers and transportation company personnel likely to work with multiple mortuaries. A list of those involved with the internment or cremation of tissue donors was created.

"Is there any reason these guys would have to work in secrecy?" Joel reached towards a pastry, thought better of it and dropped his hand.

"Oh, buttermilk!" Jim had no such compunction and helped himself to the post-lunch treat. They'd been at this for hours. "Well, the mortuary owners would be aware of protocols so this might be more of a late-hours practice instead of a completely covert operation. So they might not bother to hide their activities from a cleaning crew."

Blair transferred his disapproval from the object in Jim's hand to the ideas in Jim's head. Empty head. "Oh no, you don't! You are not going undercover in any mortuary lab."

"Why not? We can record the operation and track the tissue samples to their destinations and intended recipients."

"And you can breathe in a continuous supply of formaldehyde, disinfectants and other chemicals designed to preserve you forever. In a coma, most likely!"

"Oh, come on, Chief! People work there full-time and I've sat in on plenty of autopsies."

"For maybe fifteen minutes, tops. We're talking hours of exposure here and those employees are exposed to levels of that crap which are harmful. Formaldehyde isn't just corrosive to sinuses and lungs, Jim. It's a carcinogen and a sensitizer. You really wanna take a chance on becoming allergic to more stuff than you are now?"

Everyone looked horrified at that prospect. Jim's expression turned to stone even as he shook his head, conceding to his partner's better judgment within this small group of individuals who knew him for what he was.

Blair continued, doggedly in pursuit of Jim's safety. "Not to mention a certain discussion we had the other day. You know, the one in Simon's office?" That drew inquiring stares on the part of Joel and Megan, destined to remain unenlightened on the subject of Blair's... enlightenment.

Reminded of Blair's vision of Jim on a lab table, ripe for organ harvesting, Simon exchanged glances with Blair and nodded. "Okay Blair. Jim, you're on backup here and we'll depend upon you to track any tissues collected and transported to their destinations. Megan and Blair can go in as the cleaning crew and take the necessary photos. Joel, you do follow-up on the harvested material to ensure the Department of Health checks the authenticity of the paperwork and the proper medical protocols to certify the, uh, organic matter as safe." Simon shifted his gaze to Blair who nodded his satisfaction at the assignments. "No more of these operations are going to happen on our watch. Right, Detectives?"

There were no dissenters.

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

Thursday, 10:30 A.M.

Jim knelt on a bed of loose dirt, peering through a small, dirty casement window into the basement level of an old Victorian-era structure. It now housed the Dickinson Mortuary in its current incarnation. He became aware of the alteration in Blair's breathing, beyond the normal demands that the action of mopping the tile floor demanded from his lungs. Glimpsing the metal table in the middle of the room surrounded by cabinets of gleaming surgical instruments along the walls, Jim shuddered.

That must be what he saw in his visions. Has to be hitting him hard again. How can he take visions like that, even knowing they aren't real? God, what if that actually happens to me?

The thought increased his over-all readiness to act after a week's worth of painstaking, preparatory investigation for the take-down. Jim dialed down the vague discomforts resulting from the increased muscular tension, reducing it to a barely perceptible ache which would not intrude upon his focus. Shamanic visions and crime scene information made this a high risk enterprise.

Blair's risked enough.

Jim's grip on his gun tightened.

They're not getting either of us.

"You done in here, kid?"

Startled, Jim sat back on his haunches, well out of sight of the new arrival in the lab.

"Just about. Need help with something?"

Sounds bored and irritated. Nice acting, Chief.

"Help me get the stiff in that drawer on this table."

"Sure, man. You getting him ready for a funeral?"

"No. He'll be cremated after some tissue is harvested."

"Cool. Recycled people."

Heh. Kid's good at playing the quintessential, underachieving pothead. Too good. He'd better be method acting and not drawing on experience. Another car arriving, better be ready.

"Jim. Hope you're getting this. He's starting on the body without setting up a sterile field and the container he's using looks like your typical tupperware. Pretty hinky if you ask me."

Hinky, yet. Been watching cop movies again. Pay attention, Chief. These guys know how to hide bodies.

"Jimbo, another car pulled up and the driver is on his way down to the lab to get the samples. The bloke just picked up some paperwork left on someone's desk up here in the main offices. And next time, you get cleaning duty."

Nice going, Conner. I'm sure Sandburg will keep me out of cleaning assignments though.

"Whoa, more company and I've just about run out of things to mop down here."

There's the second guy. Blair and two of the perps. Bad odds.

"Shanly? You got the material or what? I don't have all day you know."

Annoyance. The kind that comes from a long-standing connection with the other guy. They've been doing this for awhile now.

"It's here. You think it's easy dissecting out these -"

"Don't give me no details, alright? I'm nauseous enough just knowing what I'm driving around. You got the cash for me?"

"Yeah. Here you go. Damn it, Mike! Be careful with that container. Hey, kid. Make yourself useful and help me put this guy away"

"That's disgusting, man. Like, I do orderly work but I don't have to handle cut-up bodies, you know?"

"Stop whining and help me or you'll be looking for another job."

"Yeah, okay. Jesus, the stuff a guy's gotta do these days just to eat." Burdened casters rolled over smooth tile.

Squeaking. Haven't been oiled lately. Management not too attentive. Involved or no?

"Who the hell is this? Fuck! You're that professor who runs with the cops! Christ, Shanly. We've been set up."

Crap! That damned press conference. Heart rate accelerating, breathing harshly. Keep it together, Chief.

Jim's grip on his gun tightened further at the impending threat to his partner. Swiveling on one knee, he moved into a crouch so that one foot would be ready to kick in the window and distract the perps.

"Whoa, you've got it all wrong man. The cops won't have anything to do with me now. You think I'd be sweeping up in a morgue if I had a shot at a decent job like that?"

"What the hell are you talking about, Mike? You seen this kid before? Put that gun away!"

"We been made! I was in the joint last year and every time we turned on the tube, this kid's face was all over it for a solid week with that super-cop he wrote that fake book about. Bet the freak is out there too!" A shot rang out.

Metal. He hit metal.

Jim heard Blair take off, slamming a door behind him, his squeaky Nikes allowing for the accurate monitoring of his movements. A second set of shoes indicated the likelihood that Mike was in pursuit. Glass shattered as Jim kicked in the basement window to reach inside the broken frame. Firing his warning shot into the ceiling tiles, he shouted the required warning.

"CASCADE PD!"

Instead of a reply to his declaration, there was a metallic ring as Jim's Smith and Wesson fell from his suddenly lax grasp and hit the tile of the embalming room floor. Jim recoiled in shock at the loss, the withdrawal raking his arm across a sharp border of the shattered casement window. A quick glance at the arm revealed a widening thread of blood seeping from a fissure in his shirt. Cold liquid began leaking from dilating pores. Jim jumped to his feet, ruthlessly suppressing shivers at the internal change of temperature. His spare weapon was smoothly withdrawn from his ankle holster through the rote, muscle memory of long hours of practice. The smaller gauge weapon lacked the stopping power of the Smith and Wesson he'd lost. The weapon he'd left in the hands of the enemy.

The one they'll turn on my people. Shit! I can't feel this damned gun.

He frantically tried to dial up the sensation in his hand. A rush of pain overshadowed function and was again suppressed. The sound of his own service weapon being cocked in the room below had him slamming himself against the side of the house. Jim turned to rush the entrance and yelled to his partners.

"Two perps, both armed! Take cover!"

I'll draw their fire. My fault Shanly is armed now. My own fucking fault.

Sirens blared as backup arrived. Jim turned the corner to see Blair leap over the hood of his own parked car as Shanly aimed and fired in his direction. His shout of pain reached Jim's ears even as he heard the trunk opening.

Smooth move, Conner.

A rifle was withdrawn, a warning shot fired. "Drop your weapons!"

Distract 'em, Conner. Again. Blair sounds helpless back there.

Peering around the trellis bordering the front yard, Jim saw no need to fire his gun. The sirens of arriving cruisers sliced through the quiet of the residential street. Uniformed men shouted instructions from behind long, polished gun barrels, convincing the perps to drop to their knees. Weapons were discarded and hands raised. Jim approached from behind and began the process of cuffing the two men, function returning to his recalcitrant right hand as he ceased repressing the pain.

"SANDBURG?"

"He's alright, Jim. Just get here and make him agree to be checked out in hospital."

"Megan, how many times do I have to tell you? The hospital."

"Funny, Sandy. Keep that compress on your knee."

Jim left the recitation of the Miranda act to the patrol officers. Burning with shame, he stalked over to establish his partner's condition.

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

Thursday, 3:40 P.M.

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

Jim preceded his boss into the glassed in office, wincing as the slam of the door was sufficiently powerful to make it bounce open again.

"Jim, I have no choice here. You're riding a desk until further notice." Simon slid his bulk into the chair behind the unusually cluttered desk. It had been one hell of a day and it wasn't even three in the afternoon yet.

Simon's decree stopped Jim cold on his way to fully close the door. He turned, barely able to suppress an insubordinate tone. "Captain, that's not what I do."

"What you did, Detective, is drop your gun for no apparent reason. No one knocked it out of your hand, while the perp managed to hang on to it just fine. You're lucky to still be standing and so is Blair." Simon purposefully worded his case in the most ruthless terms he could dredge up from his articulate, debater's brain. "You may think you have the right to take your own risks, but you can't claim the right to risk others. Until we know why this happened, and that it won't happen again, you're not going into the field. Period."

Or my problems could get Sandburg killed - again. "Then I ought to go back to working without a partner, while I try to figure this thing out." Jim winced as he adjusted the sleeve of his shirt to fit more loosely over the bandage covering the stitched cut along his right forearm.

"Sit down, Detective!" Banks watched Jim reluctantly comply with that directive. "Jim, what makes you think I'll agree to consider you expendable? No one on my team takes unnecessary risks. Look, we've been this route before, remember? When you didn't understand your senses, you got help. There has to be an answer, so look for it."

"Whoa! Listen carefully, Jim. You are not taking unacceptable risks to work alone." Blair stood at the still-open door, holding a cane and and leaning on the doorpost for support.

Jim experienced another wave of guilt upon seeing the lines of pain still in evidence around Blair's eyes.

"Nice of you to knock, Detective Sandburg." Simon's complaint was automatic and without heat. "You may as well come all the way in, but close the door behind you. What's the news on your X-rays and why aren't you calling it in from home?"

Blair made his way over to the second chair in front of his Captain's desk and seated himself carefully, avoiding any jostling of his bruised knee. "The knee is just torqued and a bit bruised, Sir. I already gave the clerk a letter which clears me for desk duty and puts me back on the street in a week."

Jim looked up, his eyes dark and unreadable. "Cleared for desk duty as of which day, Darwin? They must have instructed you to go on an anti-inflammatory and observe strict rest for at least forty-eight hours."

"As of Wednesday."

"Will the rest of your report about today's events be that inaccurate, Detective Sandburg?" Simon was not disposed towards tolerance. "And may I take this opportunity to tell you it would be most inadvisable to hand me any more bullshit today."

"I wasn't going to withhold that information, Captain. I just wanted to come in and check on Jim here, who really should be at home right now. I have a friend waiting downstairs to drive us both back there."

"Good enough. Sorry for assuming the worst, Blair."

"That's okay, Simon. Not like I haven't given you reason to do that on occasion."

"No, I was wrong and we have enough to deal as it is."

"You go on, Chief. I'll grab a cab a bit later."

"Oh, man. You're gonna make me carry you downstairs? In my condition?"

"Funny. Ignore the lack of expression; I'm really laughing on the inside. Just go rest, okay? I'll be back in awhile."

"What you want to do is go off, literally, on some guilt trip. This is my fault Jim, not yours. I'm the irresponsible son of a bitch who lulled you into a false sense of security about how I'd be able to watch your back in a way no one else could. I used to be a scientist, but I got off that merry-go-round and jumped onto the fucking roller coaster, leaving you in the lurch."

"What the hell are you talking about, Sandburg? I could have gotten you killed this morning!"

Simon gawked, for once rendered speechless at the sudden onslaught of self-blame by both members of his crack team. "Blair, do you understand what happened with Jim today?"

"I know that I haven't been working with him properly because I was too busy trying to be Joe Friday."

"Chief, how did my screw-up suddenly became yours?"

"The docs at the ER checked you over, right? No reduction in distal strength, reflexes fine, no asymmetries. Yeah, I checked the chart and no, they didn't catch me at it. So, if you're dropping your gun, it's got to be based in your sensory experiences. There are feed-back loops between sensory and motor functions that we have to start considering."

Simon opened a drawer for the comfort of a cigar, only to recall he'd decided not to replace his stash of oral comfort at the office. Daryl kept nagging him about oral cancers from contact with tobacco. He slammed it shut and felt better for that minor aggression. "I gather all this means that Jim is perfectly healthy. Good. So now, you figure out the problem."

"Problem solving isn't something to be done reactively, Simon. I'm supposed to be his partner because of my scientific qualifications, not because I picked up a diploma from the academy and you handed me a shield."

"This isn't your fault. Hell, if I'd kept my grip, the second perp would have given up and saved you being chased to hell and gone. You wouldn't have needed to take that defensive leap over the truck and screwed up your knee."

"You wouldn't have lost your grip if I were paying attention to you instead of procedure manuals and report forms. Maybe I should go back to observer status, so you can go back to being my priority. We can reduce your time in the field to hours when we're together and I'll work part-time someplace else."

Simon stood, his height always redirecting the attention of others even if it wasn't intimidating to his good friends. "Enough. No more recriminations. No more inventing new career paths. First solve the problem at hand; er, sorry Jim. So, what is wrong with Jim's hand?"

"I don't know because I haven't been conducting tests. I'm too busy to formulate them, much less strong-arm Jim into taking them."

"Tests for what? The docs said my hand was fine."

"No, it's not. It just functions according to their norms. Jim, stick out your hand."

"Jesus, Chief! I've had enough..."

"Ellison!"

"Sir?"

"That adolescent whine is probably why Sandburg hasn't kept up with the testing. Stick out your damned hand."

"Yes, Sir." Flushing guiltily, Jim extended his hand, palm up. A reddened area, in the shape of his handgun, still adorned his flesh. They all studied the shape of the image carefully, an advertisement of the abnormality of the situation.

"Now close your eyes." Blair's voice continued to echo with remorse, rather than irritation with his partner. He brushed a finger lightly over the pale skin outside the reddened sections and Jim jerked it back, immediately. Surprised, Jim stared at the limb as if it belonged to someone else.

"Now clench your fist, Jim."

Obliging, Jim closed his hand weakly. Blair refused to allow it. "Clench it, don't just close it."

Obeying, the three stared as the hand relaxed right after it was tightly closed. "I don't get it! I didn't intend to open it again. What the hell is that about?"

"It's about my being a fucking idiot, not to have realized this ages ago."

Simon decided a resumption of formality was in order. "Sandburg, report!"

Blair looked up, his disturbed eyes expressing an anxiety that would not be contained merely by a re-assertion of authority. Simon sighed. It worked for Jim but it wouldn't do for someone who'd been taught to question all his experiences, whenever the spirit moved him.

Simon relented, taking his seat. "Let's take this one step at a time, gentlemen. Jim, your hand is inflamed and obviously has something to do with the gun you were holding."

"It doesn't hurt much."

Simon took another look. "Looks like it should. Blair, how did you know it would hurt Jim if you touched the hand outside the inflamed portion?"

"I've gone through some of the literature on pain and its transmission from the site of an inflammation or injury to the brain where it's consciously registered. Jim, we've worked long and hard to teach you how to manipulate your conscious awareness of all kinds of stimuli, assuming they aren't actually toxic. Any high intensity level of input can cause perception of pain whether it's from light, sound, odor or touch, even if the stimulus isn't particularly noxious by itself. You still get a cascade of responses from it."

"Yeah, but we've figured out a lot about the differences between sensory overload and my senses getting a snoot-full of something harmful. I wasn't exposed to anything poisonous or even particularly allergenic today."

"I don't know shit about what happened today, man. What we need to do is get you home and go through the experience in quiet and safe surroundings. Then I'll know more about whether you need a shaman, a doctor or a kick in the pants to solve the problem."

Simon shook his head. "I'm all for the 'going home and figuring all this out' part of this conversation. I also know we've got a shaman here and I'm perfectly capable of delivering a kick in the pants if anyone needs one." His smirk failed to muster any levity from his audience. "Right. Well, that brings us to a doctor. Who can you get to help with this? I mean, there might be medical stuff going on here that you can't know about, right?"

"Welcome to my nightmare, Simon. I've always been terrified that I might help Jim to tune out stimuli because they're disruptive to his functioning and end up with prompting him to ignore vital cues from his body about some danger."

"Chief, there's just no way you could've harmed me!"

"You aren't seeing this from a broader viewpoint about sensory processing functions. You've always had the self-discipline to work at functioning through disruptive input like pain or fatigue. I've helped you figure out how to turn your enhanced sensory experiences down even beyond those voluntary points. I've seen you ignoring painful stimuli, most recently with that hot cup of coffee that turned your hand red. It all works because the human central nervous system can be fooled about a lot of things, including pain. But in the end, organs, muscles and flesh operate under very strict rules. If I make you violate those rules in my own ignorance, that could screw up your hand control under pressure."

"Then Jim's grip on his gun isn't necessarily under his control when he suppresses his sensory perceptions?" Simon seemed both relieved and appalled at the same time.

"Very possibly. Jim, it isn't your fault. You have a damned hard balance beam to walk in order to avoid sensory distractions and outright annoyances. You learned to avoid zones by pairing two avenues of stimuli very well. But that likely increased your rejection of other inputs since there wasn't a penalty like zoning to be paid for dialing those down. And me, I've allowed myself to forget completely about these fine distinctions. I'm too busy waving around a gun and chasing after bad guys to realize you're out there on your own, with or without me around. This is my brain. This is my brain on endorphins from the roller coaster."

"Just stop it, alright? My life can get tough enough without my thinking that I'm ruining yours into the bargain!"

"Ruining my life? Who the hell came along and assured you that you could lead a normal life? And then left you to your own devices for some thrills and chills -"

Simon put up a hand. "Have either of you noticed that you're yelling at each other because you're each mad at yourself?" The question was posed in quiet, measured tones.

"No, I've been too busy yelling at Jim to notice that." Blair matched him in reducing the decibel level of his own diatribe. "And who says I'm done yet?"

"Oh, you're done, alright. You don't get to define our partnership all by yourself and no one appointed you Tonto to my Lone Ranger. Who says I'm gonna let you limit what we are to the sentinel stuff? Why would I want to see my best friend define me by my need for him to keep me from going nuts or avoid dropping body parts all over the city?"

An unwilling chuckle escaped the younger man. "I refuse to fetch fallen body parts for you. Sounds pretty unsanitary to me. You drop it, you fetch it."

Jim looked at his hand, still marked by red patches. "Guess it'll stay put for awhile. I'm holding you responsible for finding replacement parts though. You hold the warranty."

"Kind of a, 'you break it, you bought it' sort of thing?"

"You didn't break me, Chief. Nature did that."

"You aren't broken, you dumb jerk."

"And you aren't my keeper, Dr. Frankenstein."

"Stop referring to yourself as some monster. I didn't make the pain testing a priority with you because my reading was basically about what average people experience with regard to pain. Nothing pertaining to you seemed out of the ordinary without the purposeful manipulation of input, your royal arrogance. It's not all about you being extraordinary. This is about my not predicting the effects of suppressed sensory perception from painful stimuli upon enhanced processing abilities."

"Well, I didn't know it either." Ellison's tone begrudged Sandburg his guilt trip. "Whatever the hell you just said."

Blair grinned, beginning to relent in his self-castigation. "Well, we know you also didn't get anything extra in the smarts department."

Jim grinned back. "If you're so smart, why can't you realize that since you became a cop, our partnership has expanded on every level. I'm not just a lab rat and you're not just a student of cultural... uhm, anomalies. How does that one sound, Professor?"

"Anomalies? Okay, you get points for that one."

"Then I can call myself an anomaly without getting my head bitten off?"

"I guess, as long as I can call myself, uh, your partner. But you can't deny that it's been different since I took the badge."

"You didn't take it, you earned it! And made the necessary adjustments."

"While neglecting my more important -"

"Don't make me kick your ass. I recall refusing your offer of tests surrounding pain - rather strenuously."

"Oh, yeah. Man, I forgot about that. You pushed me into a pool when I started talking about electrodes."

"At least you weren't electrified when you took that header into the water."

"No, but you threatened to have me 'plugged in' during my next 'dip'."

"Which served as an adequate deterrent against future offers."

"And got us where we are today. Okay, I'll be the bigger of the two of us and admit it. It's all your fault." Blair smiled, wearily.

Jim laughed softly. "I think I liked it better when you were the smaller of the two of us." He shook his head, continuing to flexing his fingers in a silent command to operate normally.

Simon stood, failing to see the humor in any of it. "So, Sandburg, you put together the tests you need to do. Jim, you take the damn tests. Me? I trust it will all work out quite well and Jim will be off desk duty in a few weeks."

"No."

"What was that, Sandburg?"

"No. I can't test Jim for pain responses because I have no idea of the algorithm required to predict his perceptions in the face of stimulus intensity. In other words, I'm not going to know at what point the tests become torture."

"Chief, I could manage if ..."

"No. We need a professional here who can measure the intensity and duration of your muscle contractions when triggered by external pressure and from your own voluntary muscle activity. That means inserting electrodes with needles into your muscle and nerve fibers. I won't do it and I don't know anyone I would trust to do it. Whoever does it HAS to know all about you or the risks are really unacceptable in terms of potential nerve damage."

Simon dropped his large frame back into his seat. "I never thought I'd miss discussions of spirit animals, but those were a hell of a lot less scary than this. Blair, what about that toxicologist guy -"

"Who, Sid? Sid Handleman?"

"Right. You let him in on your secrets and he's treated Jim before."

"He isn't a neurologist."

"He's an MD, which means he can legally do a lot of procedures."

Jim shuddered. "May I remind you that the words 'needles' and 'electrodes' have been uttered in the same sentence as 'torture' and 'potential nerve damage'?"

Blair nodded vigorously. "That's why I can't do it and don't want to co-opt someone else to do it unless they have the right experience. But I'll call Sid and see what he can suggest."

"Good. Then the two of you go home and rest up. Now. In fact, make that yesterday."

The pair left in silence, a stark counterpoint to their recent bickering about possible solutions to their problems. Simon put his head in his hands, realizing for the first time that he might lose both of his men for good at this juncture.

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

Saturday, 5:30 P.M.

Blair shifted his leg uncomfortably on a hassock borrowed from Mrs. Oster, down the hall. Jim had refused to let him up all afternoon, so he now heckled his senior partner from the peanut gallery. "Sheesh, how the hell do you cook and never even get stains on that apron?"

"It's called coordination, Chief. Maybe if you took some, what, dance lessons? Ballet?" The effort to suppress his snicker merely led to an inelegant snort.

"Way to crack yourself up, man. But you'll never make a living at stand-up."

"But allow me to direct your notice to the fact that I am the only one in the vicinity who can stand up."

"Point taken. Ballet it is then."

"Do you want the pink or gold tutu with matching slippers?"

"I may have a lot to say about your medical future in the next hour or two, James."

"On the other hand, you are truly grace in motion, Chief. No need for lessons at all."

"Good boy, Jimmy." Blair smiled at his partner, moving smoothly from ingredient to ingredient as he finished adding condiments to the pot of chicken cacciatore on the burner. "Even if it is unnatural for any non-professional cook to be that organized. Sid's gonna love that, y'know."

"Hey, I still have some sense of self-preservation. I figure if I give the man his favorite foods, maybe the exam will be merciful. Hey, don't look like that - it was just a joke. Jesus, Chief, we've been all through this the past two days. This isn't your fault and you have nothing to do with whatever lies ahead for me."

"I know, I know."

"Do you?"

"Mostly."

"That hedge needs trimming, Chief."

"I'm not hedging."

"Obfuscating?"

"You want me to lie about it? I can oblige you."

"Just how much good would that do with me monitoring your vitals?"

"None at all, damn you." His tone was gently chiding. "So don't complain when I can't make you happy by lying to you and you can't accept the truth as I see it."

"I'm sorry. I don't know what to do about all that unearned guilt of yours."

"Maybe Sid can help me explain it better. A scientist like him will get it."

"Maybe we can transfer the guilt to him. He's a medical doctor so let's tell him he should have anticipated all this."

"Sure. I can't wait to watch you sell that to him."

Their laughter failed to eradicate their depression just as it had for the past two days. Hearing the arrival of the elevator at their floor, Jim put his wooden spoon down on a clean plate and covered his pot for another twenty minutes of simmering. He hesitated briefly and began a slow walk to his front door.

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

"That was incredible, Jim. Where the hell did you learn to cook like this?" Sid patted his lips free of the clinging remains of a rich tomato sauce and put down his napkin.

"Self-defense. My ex couldn't cook to save her life."

"He's not kidding, either. Jim, here, had an entire library of take-out menus and cookbooks when I moved into the loft. Now that I'm living next door, we split the cooking but he still likes to do the more complicated dinner stuff. I do breakfast, and lunch is every man for himself."

"Also self-defense. The man boils weeds, Doc. I mean, it just isn't humane to treat a veteran that way, you know?"

Sid laughed appreciatively. The problem had been summarized in a pre-dinner discussion and he'd asked for time to ruminate while they... ruminated dinner. Retiring to the living room with coffee cups and the promise of dessert later in the evening, Jim's future was uppermost in everyone's mind.

Putting aside the copies of recent test results which Blair had arranged to be faxed to him from the hospital, Sid performed a basic neurological exam and looked over Jim's range of motion for his upper extremities.

"All that was in the report, Sid. Why did you repeat it? And don't glare, Sandburg. I'm cooperating."

Sid put down his reflex hammer. "It's mostly to compare my findings with the prior doctor's work. He might have seen you in a different condition than you exhibit now. If his caseload was hectic enough, he might not even recall the precise details accurately when filling out the paperwork hours, or even days, after seeing you. Either way, I'm not going to make medical decisions based upon second hand observations. Since we're basically in agreement so far, I'm willing to say there's no need to repeat these tests. The MRI showed nothing wrong centrally or peripherally as far as structure goes. We already know the function is different due to your increased sensory capacities. Still, those capacities work in both directions."

"Meaning my ability to suppress or enhance sensation at will."

"Right. But there's also the issue of conditioning or unconscious adaptations you use simply because they work for you."

Blair laughed, bitterly. "Because I trained him to do that."

"Chief! I feel like I should bark every time you say stuff like that. I'm not one of Pavlov's dogs here, doing my tricks at your bidding. Sid, tell him this isn't his fault."

"I'm all out of hair shirts fellas. No one's at fault here that I can see. Ease up for a few minutes before deciding this is about 'fault'. Americans have been brainwashed to believe they 'think' themselves either into sterling health or downward spirals. Makes for a lot of profit among the psychobabble industry and quacks pretending to perform complementary medicine. Legitimate psychiatrists and good practitioners of alternative medicine know that physical changes themselves cause anxiety and stress. Finding the source is the way to relieve stress, a very real physical phenomenon. It isn't even an abnormal response as long as it remains in proportion to the cause.

Jim, I see a lot of stuff as a toxicologist. Industry loves to talk about people having a genetic predisposition to be harmed by toxic materials. Poison just isn't compatible with human physiology which is why it gets classified as a poison. Some genetic differences increase the harm for some people or make the effects immediately obvious. However, none of the genetic norms make contact with poisons a harmless experience. Sooner or later, most of the population pays for it with various diseases or systemic deterioration."

"But this isn't about toxic exposures now. This is about muscle function."

"Which also abides by certain norms in processing. So we'll take what we know about the majority of cases and start moving out towards the periphery of the bell curve to look at your specific issues."

"Don't you mean outside the bell curve, Sid? It's not like I'm in the normal range for any of this."

"Actually, you could be inside the very end of the bell curve. You're just not part of the data base which refers to human sensory abilities."

Blair leaped to his feet, beginning to pace with a decided limp. "Oh, that's like an incredible thought. If sentinels were known in society, they'd be included in the data and extend the bell curve further out. But since the industrialized world which measures this stuff doesn't recognize sentinels, they weren't included in the stats."

Sid smiled at Jim's expression. "Right. Jim seems more unusual than he is because science hasn't put him into the paradigm."

"Oh, sure. I'm perfectly ordinary." Jim's derisive tone expressed volumes to Blair.

"Jim, you're probably at the top end of your side of the norms anyway. No way to know if you'd be outside the norm or not. Either way, my friend, it makes you part of the spectrum and not a freak. Got that? Or do I have to beat it into your thick head?"

"We could sell tickets to that spectacle and get rich while I'm pummeling you into the ground, guppy. And get off that leg!"

Satisfied that the retort signaled acceptance, Blair simply grinned as he reseated himself.

Sid was gratified by the reduction of tension in the room and moved on to more substantive issues. "In your case Jim, you've had a lot of practice at trying to function through disruptive stimuli. It's likely what caused you to tune your sensory awareness of minor and even moderate pain to levels approximating or falling below your perceptual thresholds. In other words, you put away the distracting peripheral awareness of pressure and pain when you grip your gun, so it won't compete with your sight and hearing. It works for your purposes, but the gates of pain reception are still open. Your nervous system is still acting upon the input centrally and telling your muscles to react as if they're hurt. You with me so far?"

Twin nods signaled Sid to move on with his summary. "When you don't adjust to the signals in the specific area complaining to your nervous system, they kind of 'climb' the ladder, so to speak, until they reach an area where some protective response might be obtained. Jim, have you been having pain in other areas like your shoulder? Or hips and back? I assume you're doing this to some extent in other regions of your body when relatively immobile on a stake-out or whatever covert activities you perform to catch bad guys."

"Not particularly."

"Jim, the stoic stuff stops right now, you got that? If you'd been honest about hurting all along, we might have dealt with this earlier. Yes, Sid. He's having shoulder and lower back pain."

"Is that true Jim?" The reluctant nod was informative. "I guess you've been moving stiffly so your partner here, noticed?

A grin slowly spread across Jim's features. Revenge was indeed sweet. "Funny you should ask that, Sid. Blair can tell by my-

"Jim. I know where you live, man!"

"- aura colors."

"Your what colors?"

"Sure, Jim. Take the attention off of yourself and transfer it to me. Okay Sid, it's like this. I've learned to see auras and Jim's have indicated pain for a while now. And I've been letting him deal with it alone."

"Auras?" Sid's voice rose embarrassingly into adolescent registers. He cleared his throat.

Jim settled down to enjoy himself. "Well, Doc. Once upon a time, there was a shaman named Incacha."

"I am so going to... oh, never mind. Anyway, my Mom sees 'em and now I can too."

"This is terrific. Can I test you when we get done fixing Jim's problem?"

"By all means, Sid. Do test my partner here and I'll bring the popcorn."

"Yeah, Ellison here wants payback, but I'd actually love it if you can confirm and quantify what I'm doing. That'll be so cool if you can help me with this stuff!" Blair was suddenly beaming with excitement at the prospect, given the reassurance of Sid's belief in the phenomenon.

Sid noted a corresponding glow of pleasure in Jim's eyes and nodded his own understanding. "I'd love to, Blair. I can also see how you'd be happy to get inside a lab again, even if you're the subject now."

Blair blinked and seated himself once again. "Well, later for all that. Now, how can you manage an EMG for Jim without harming him or bringing in unwanted speculation? Have you ever done those yourself?"

Sid smiled broadly, his pale features coloring with the pleasure of imparting good news. "I don't think we're going to have to go with that level of invasive testing. Jim, are you ambidextrous?"

Jim perked up at the notion of a reprieve from electrically charged needles. "I prefer not to discuss my sex life, Sid."

The tension around the living room dissipated, once and for all. "Jim, man, that is the worst joke I've ever heard."

Sid flashed a grin at Blair's complaint. "No, I'm pretty sure he's told worse jokes than that."

"Thanks a lot guys. You're determined to torture me with words, if not needles. Well, this is definitely more acceptable. No, although I'm trained to shoot with either hand, I'm definitely right hand dominant."

"Okay, then the bad habits which have become ingrained are likely limited to the right side for upper extremity function. Basically, if we insert needles into muscles and measure output to electrical stimulation, we're still gonna miss the curve on functional response to pressure. I'd say we're better off providing graded sensory input for pressure and measure the muscle response in terms of grip strength like they do in sports medicine. I've worked with golfers who've lost hand function due to toxicity syndromes. All those toxic weed killers on the golf courses take a toll on a lot of them."

"I love you, man! We go for functional measures instead of specific data that doesn't translate directly into behavior."

"Exactly. We can then figure out when you, Jim, have motor responses which seem to be over- or under-responsive to the input. By measuring input very carefully, we can avoid stressing Jim out through minute measurements of individual nerve functions and just concentrate upon his overall motor responses with equipment available in most sports medicine labs. I've worked with a few in my time so I'll make some calls about our own 'jock' here. Got that, Jim? We'll say your a, a PGA golfer!"

Blair burst out laughing.

"No dessert for you," said the Chef.

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

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Monday, 9:20 A.M.

"This is great news, Sid. You do know that I'm the one who told these guys to consult you on this, right?" Simon buffed his nails against his shirt front, immodestly.

"Hey, that was back when we were thinking EMG testing with needles and other nasty implications. That was more of a Mengele moment, than a Sid Handleman moment, ya know?"

"Please, Jim. Smack him for me. You're closer."

Jim obediently turned and gently swatted the back of his partner's head at Sid's laughing behest. He turned back to Simon, features once again adopting their usual solemnity. "The solution isn't going to be all that swift, Captain. Sid tells me the training for re-setting my sense of what normal sensation really feels like could take weeks with a lot more field testing to follow. I won't risk the lives of my partners. If it doesn't take, I'll have to resign."

"What are the odds?" Banks threw out to the small group.

"I can't foresee failure, given all the adaptive changes Jim has made during these past years."

"Between Sid and Blair all over my ass, Sir, I'm sure I'll be working at it around the clock. But it sounds like we've got the solution figured out."

"Okay, then we're talking a period of desk duty for you of, what? Two, three weeks?"

"I'd say about three months, Simon." Sid looked around at several horrified expressions. "What? You think this is going to be easy? Think again, gentleman. We're retraining a central nervous system here."

"Jesus, Sid. That's a lot of down time for my best team. I can't have both of them riding desks that long. Sandburg, you're going to have to be out on the streets part time with some of the other detectives. I can account for Ellison being off the streets with a medical excuse signed by Dr. Sid here, but not you. And Sid? You're gonna have to come up with a better excuse than Jim here, needing to be 'reprogrammed'."

Three voices replied simultaneously with the same sentiment. "Shit!"

"Nice talk, in your Captain's office. Well, okay, Sid. I'm not your Captain but what are you worried about?"

"How to write it up and whether I can afford to take off all the time I'm gonna need to help with the retraining. Can't exactly bill your department for rehab services involving the re-learning of neural patterns when the old ones weren't technically damaged." Sid blinked, suddenly concerned about how to help these men and still run his business.

"Jim?"

"If I'm on desk duty for three friggin' months, you can bill it as rehab for carpal tunnel. All that paperwork."

"Blair?"

"I quit. Sir."

"WHAT?"

Rhonda yanked open the door, wondering if some intruder had infiltrated during the past few moments. Simon's roars rarely sounded like that one. She looked around, relieved though puzzled.

"Sorry if I alarmed you, Rhonda. We're fine here." She departed with her usual silent efficiency.

"What the hell are you talking about, Sandburg?"

"Sorry, didn't mean to blurt it out like that. I've been thinking about this all weekend. I'm not a cop. Okay, I am a cop. But I'm really supposed to be a scientist-cop. Jim here needs the help of a scientist to back him up in life. Most any cop can back him up professionally. Okay, if they're in the know, you know? Hell, I'm putting this badly but Jim is only gonna get second-string backup as a sentinel if I remain a detective. And I'm not smart enough to balance the detective stuff with the science or even the shamanic knowledge I have to acquire to hold up my end of this partnership."

Jim leaped to his feet. "Are you nuts? You think you haven't held up your end? You've fucking died for me!" He turned away, hiding his anguish at Blair's continual need to sacrifice his life ambitions for him.

"No, Jim! You aren't hearing me, man! It isn't that I'm not trying hard enough. We're both working at maximum strength here. It's just that so much energy has been misdirected. Jim, you work so hard at solving crimes with the help of your senses that you've upset your entire perceptual framework to manage the physical stresses involved in the process. I'm somehow lucky enough to have some talents and training that's useful, but too much of my thinking is spent away from the science - or intuitive processes - which your status as a sentinel requires of a helper. I can't justify being a good cop at the expense of my really important functions in this partnership. I'm sorry about that, Simon. I really tried."

"You didn't fail, Blair. No one could or would say that. But how are you going to remain with Jim in the field and still earn a paycheck? You can't return to some ride-along status."

"I can if I go back to school and get another masters, this time in forensic psychology. That will let me take more graduate level classes in advanced physiological psychology along with others which will allow me to be of some commercial value to the department. And I can keep working with Jim in the crucial cases. But I have to go back to being a social scientist with some connection to the physical sciences or it's all for nothing. I'm part of the reason why Jim needs to be retrained. Don't look at me like that, guys. I promise you, it isn't guilt now. Just plain fact, okay?"

Simon mulled it over and smiled. "I'm pretty sure I can get the department to pay all your tuition and contract with you while you go to school. Since you're already a cop with a lot of credits in psychology, you can likely work part-time with pay as an intern in forensics."

"Good enough. With the chunk of change I still have from my settlement with the University for the diss disaster, I'll still be able to pay my rent on a lesser salary."

Intense relief removed the furrows from Jim's forehead. "And when you graduate, you'll be making more than you would have as just a cop, Chief." He continued more softly, looking intensely at his brother in spirit. "You'll also have the life you were meant to lead, as a scientist."

Simon pretended disgust. "Well there goes my future budget!" He couldn't restrain his grin for long. "And that just means I'll make you write grants for the department to cover your upgraded status."

"That's it! I can write a grant immediately for sensory testing of cops to determine if stress leads to declines or abnormalities. Kind of esoteric, but schools love that stuff, and Sid can be written into it as well. We'll need a medical doctor for any projects like that."

Sid nodded. "That could work, and I could do more supervisory stuff at my lab than I do now. Chemists can do a lot of the analytical, lab work I've been doing while getting my toxicology laboratory started up. Their salaries aren't as high as physicians and they're better suited to the work anyway. I just have to do the interpretations of the results as far as health implications go."

"As my son Daryl, who spends much too much time in front of a television set might say, 'Make it so, Gentlemen'."

Sid and Simon shook hands on a successful solution to what had appeared to be an overwhelming problem. Blair shook his head slowly, despite a brilliant smile. "More school. Never ends, does it?"

Jim sat back and studied the satisfied faces of the men around him. Three good men devoted to the problem of supporting his freakish, no, his unique, abilities. He swallowed heavily, finally acknowledging and accepting the honor of their devotion. His eyes communicated his gratitude to each man as he uttered the only phrase he could and still maintain his dignity.

"Three months of paperwork and lab exercises."

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

EPILOGUE

Monday, April 30, 2001

"Take your feet off my desk, Sandburg!" Simon chewed on his unlit cigar as he entered his office for the early morning appointment requested by his crack team. Privately, in more aggravated moments, sometimes referred to as his 'cracked' team.

"Sorry, Captain. He's housebroken around our lofts but hasn't quite mastered the bullpen as yet."

"I resent that description, but will magnanimously forgive it as we bring our Fearless Leader good news on this fine day."

"It's pouring rain outside, Sandburg."

"Here's Jim's clearance to go back to normal duty, Sir. Signed by Dr. Handleman just yesterday, after three days spent at the firing range in final tests."

"And a very fine day it is," beamed a very happy friend and administrator.

"You're telling me! I've got calluses on my ass from riding that damn desk chair for two months," Jim groused.

"Wasn't it supposed to be three months?"

"I'm a quick study, apparently." Jim's feet joined Blair's on the edge of Simon's desk.

"If not particularly modest," Blair added. "Seriously, you've never seen anyone apply themselves like Jim here, four nights per week at the lab and two nights each week at the range. Just non-stop determination."

"That's a Ranger for you. Heh! Look at that. Jim, I'd have thought you'd be beyond blushing now at your age."

"I'm not blushing. That color is from too much pepper on the omelets Sandburg made for breakfast."

"You weren't wearing that color when I came in the door a few minutes ago." Simon felt he was entitled to at least an ounce, if not a pound, of flesh for shepherding his dynamic duo through the past couple of months. Jim on desk duty was not precisely a joy to behold and Sandburg had taken his own sweet time working through his own feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

"Are we even now, Sir?"

"Not even close, Ellison." The two men grinned at one another, more than content with the situation.

"More good news for you, Simon. Here's a copy of a grant application I'm submitting to the criminal justice department at Rainier for lab studies on cops' reflexes and sensory functions. Not only will it be of some use in determining some of the results of physical stresses upon cops, but it will ensure we can get Jim here, into a lab for regular checks before anything goes wrong."

"Yeah, Cap. They're planning to put me up on a lift, check the oil and fluids and provide regular tune-ups."

"I hope Sandburg here is approved by the Triple-A."

"That's a good one, Sir."

"You patronizing me, James?"

"You bet, Sir."

"Just checking." Simon grinned foolishly and pounded his desk just to make them both jump. It did get their feet off his desk. "Great to have you back, gentlemen."

Blair fiddled with a paperweight from Banks' desk, avoiding eye contact. "Not entirely, Captain. I got my acceptance to the forensic psych program. While they'll let me take some of my courses as independent study, I'll still need to free up two days per week for campus attendance and library research. We need to plan for that change in status for me, come September."

"We'll plan for it over the summer. It's well worth it, Blair. I promise you, there won't be any complaints about it coming from me."

"I can't tell you how grateful I am for your support, Simon."

"Me too, Sir."

"Dismissed. Before any hugging begins."

Laughing, the pair made their way to their workstations. Jim dug out his wallet and extracted his driver's license. Turning it to the back, he reached for his pen only to have a restraining hand placed upon his own.

"Whoa! What are you doing?"

"It's time I signed my organ donor card, Chief. Isn't that what you wanted?"

"Not any more, I don't."

"There weren't any pods under your bed this morning, were there?"

"I'm back in science mode, man. We don't know how your brain activity registers when you're zoned, so no donor cards for you. That decision can be made when, God-forbid, the time comes, okay?"

"And that would make my instincts about this, uhm, right? The first time this came up?"

"You're gonna hold that over me all day, aren't you."

"Oh, yeah. Big time, unless..."

"Uh-huh?"

"You go from science mode to donut mode. Make mine buttermilk."

THE END

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