Novation Production's Virtual Season 5, Episode 2

Fear-Based Responses
by MaBrown, Brate, & Gemini

~~~~~~~~~~
Act One
~~~~~~~~~~

"At the top of the news hour, a repeat broadcast: Have you seen this woman? The police could still use your help in returning Alex Barnes to the Oregon Psychiatric Institute, from which she escaped last month. She was being treated after allegedly shooting a guard during a robbery at Oberon Security in the spring of last year. Barnes is well known because of the proclamation by Blair Sandburg that she's a Sentinel -- a person with all five senses enhanced. Authorities are conducting a widespread search of the greater Northwest."

A gasp followed by a soft choking sound met the proclamation.

"Sources say that the woman should be considered armed and dangerous. She is Caucasian with blonde hair and blue eyes, standing 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighing approximately 135 pounds. Anyone with any information regarding Barnes or her whereabouts, please call the number listed at the bottom of the screen. Remember, if you see this woman, do not approach her, she is considered extremely dangerous. Call the police or dial 911--"

The sound of breaking glass replaced the reporter's monologue, and a somber figure on the sidewalk stared morosely at the shards of glass littering the ground. After glancing around to ensure she hadn't been seen, she hurried off.  She hadn't meant to smash the store's window, but hearing the reporter's lies made her lose her temper. She wasn't dangerous and she wasn't armed…yet. She had one purpose in escaping. Find Blair Sandburg. 

She didn't want to hurt anyone this time: she simply wanted help. That was all. No hidden agendas. She wanted--needed--that help to relieve the constant chaos raging within her, the never-ending fight against her own senses, the continuous slipping of her fragile control as her emotions and senses spiked, often leaving her writhing in indescribable pain.

Thinking of the intense pain she so often had to endure reminded her of the bottle of aspirin she had bought. She could feel yet another migraine coming on with a vengeance, so she sought the bottle in her pocket for relief. Holding the small container in her hand, she closed her eyes. She could picture the moment she'd bought the pills, remember entering the store and seeing him.

The answer to all her problems.

Blair Sandburg.

 ~~~~&~~~~

Blair moaned softly as he glanced at the digital display on the clock next to his bed. Six a.m.  How could that dreaded hour have rolled around so quickly? Groaning, he rose slowly from his warm haven and braced himself to face the day. It wasn’t a bad day, actually. It would be a day of doing what he loved -- teaching. The word itself brought a smile to the sleepy man's face. He closed his eyes and pictured himself in front of a room full of eager students hanging on his every word. Realistically, he knew it wasn't always like that, but he enjoyed the dream, nonetheless.

Grabbing his robe and some fresh underwear, Blair made his way to the bathroom, keenly anticipating the feel of a nice, warm spray of water against his chilled skin. It was known, by all with whom he came into contact, that he hated being cold, and this morning was no different.

After closing the bathroom door, he turned on the shower and stripped out of his sleeping attire. Stepping beneath the water, he yelped loudly as the spray betrayed him, denying him his coveted warmth, and instead sending icy rivulets of water down his already-chilled body. Yelling even louder, he jumped from the shower, reaching blindly for a towel in a vain attempt to stop the cool air from leeching away his body's warmth. The warm glow of morning had quickly faded, and so had his cheerful demeanor. Wide-awake -- and now irritable -- he toweled off, silently debating the wisdom of murdering one Jim Ellison in his sleep.

A knock on the door a few moments later, followed by a tentative, "Sorry, Chief," did nothing to improve Blair’s mood. Various promises of vengeance and threats to find his own place -- with its own shower that would constantly have hot, running water -- fell from the anthropologist's lips as he towel-dried his already frizzing hair. Great, now a bad hair day on top of everything else.

Running an agitated hand through the thick mass, he pulled it back into a ponytail and called it good. Sighing deeply, he pasted on a smile and prepared to meet his ill-fated roommate and partner. He'd play it cool for now and deal with his partner's shortsightedness later. Maybe I can check out that apartment below Jim’s loft that the owner's been trying to sell.

 ~~~~&~~~~

"Are you positive this is the woman who came into this store last night, Mister…." Megan scratched a brief note on her pad as the teenage clerk nodded enthusiastically.

"Aw, just call me Hank. Ain't old enough to be a 'Mister' yet." Hank smiled. "Yeah, I'm sure it was her, she was hot! I mean you can't forget a face, or a body, like that. I saw the newscast in the break room tonight and kind of freaked. Figured I better call, y'know? Especially if she's 'armed and dangerous.' Plus, the manager wanted me to call, figuring if this wacko saw cops casing the place, she wouldn't come back here."  

Megan nodded, choosing to ignore the rather lascivious look on the clerk's face as he described Alex's appearance. The inspector was here for one reason and one reason only: to get the escaped patient locked up as soon as possible. The thought of the woman who had tried to kill Sandy running around free made Megan’s blood run cold. She would do whatever it took to see Barnes placed back in the locked ward of the loony bin. The first step was figuring out what the woman was up to.  

Smiling patiently, Megan leaned toward the young man. "Do you happen to have the security tape for me? I'll need that for evidence." 

"Oh yeah, sorry." Hank fished around under the counter for a minute before standing and handing the tape to Megan, "Here ya go." 

She nodded her appreciation, trying to ignore the slickness of his sweat-coated palms as she took the tape from him. "Did she speak to you at all?" Megan inquired as she slid the videotape into a large yellow folder, carefully sealing the metal clasp. There was no way she was going to lose this important piece of evidence. Megan didn't want a repeat of the tragic events of a year ago. Once was more than enough to witness the demise of Ellison and Sandburg's partnership, and Blair's subsequent near death. A small shiver ran through the inspector as the unwanted image of Blair floating in the deceivingly innocent, sparkling water of the fountain flashed across her mind's eye.  

"Yeah, she came up to me to buy…what was it?" The clerk's voice snapped Megan back to the present.  "Oh yeah, some kinda headache medicine. Said something about the weather making her migraines act up. That was it, and she left right after she paid." 

“Did you notice which direction she went after she left?” 

“No, someone else came to check out and I had to help them. When I finished ringing them up, she was long gone.” 

Megan nodded her thanks. "I appreciate your help, Hank. Here's my card. Please call if you think of anything else that could help us out." After handing the young man her card, she turned to leave.

"Wait a minute. There was something else." The clerk called out. 

Connor paused at the door, and turned to face the youth. "Yes, what is it?" 

"That chick asked me about some guy who came in just before she did. I remember because the guy had all this curly hair, and when she described him I knew who she was talking about; he comes in here all the time. He’s into all that herbal crap we sell in aisle three. You know, he's that dude who was a fraud but isn't now. Something like that… it's confusing. Anyway, she asked about him; I figured she liked him or something." 

Megan felt her blood run cold as the clerk's words sank in. It was starting again -- Alex was after Blair. The past was repeating itself, and the ending promised to be bad. 

~~~~&~~~~

Jim suddenly found swallowing nearly impossible as he watched the videotape reveal Alex's fuzzy image. Beside him, he could hear his captain's heart rate shoot up as they watched Alex speak to the clerk briefly, make her purchase, then leave the store. Closing his eyes against the painful memories that her image evoked, Jim was grateful to hear the tape click off. He was even more grateful for the fact that Simon had called this meeting with just the two of them. There was no one present to witness his shame. Not yet, anyway.

"So she came back, after all." Jim's voice held an odd tone of finality, resignation with the situation coloring his face grim. "She's here for Sandburg, isn't she? I mean, why else return to Cascade?" 

Simon glanced over at his detective, wincing inwardly at the hard expression on Jim's face. Not again. Lord, I don't think any of us can go through that again! Rising from his seat, Simon walked toward the windows of his office that faced the bustling bullpen, swiftly closing the metallic blinds to lend a sense of privacy to the informal meeting. It was a meeting he'd been dreading for the last hour. 

"Looks that way, Jim. That's why I called you in here alone. Figured you might want a moment or two to digest the news." Simon placed his hands in his pockets and strolled back to the table. "You're the only one right now who knows what Megan found out today, that Alex is after Sandburg; I'll let the other members of Major Crimes know in a few minutes. After all, they have a right to know. Sandburg is their friend and they’ll want to help. I practically had to threaten Megan to keep her from storming in here, but I knew you needed to hear this without everyone else coming at you. There will be time enough for that later."  

Jim nodded wearily and rubbed his hands over his face, wishing the small gesture could wipe away his worries and fears. Dropping his hands to rest on the wooden table, he turned haunted eyes to his captain. "I understand, sir. And I appreciate that; I just don't know what to do now. First, I need to tell Sandburg. That’s going to be hard enough. Together, maybe we can figure out what she wants. Maybe she's trying to take care of unfinished business with both of us." 

Simon blanched at the thought of what that business might be and nodded, understanding clearly just how hard that would be for his friend, for both of them. 

~~~~&~~~~ 

Blair rubbed his eyes, groaning as he looked at the stack of papers before him. Either he was getting older or being a teacher was getting harder, because tackling the essays before him seemed an almost insurmountable task.

Blair had worked like a dog during the two weeks the dean had given him to complete his revised dissertation, changing the information about Jim's senses and making Alex his primary subject. The dissertation had been turned in on time, and now he was hoping to get back into the relatively calm and normal world of teaching. He'd forgotten how even one class could pile up so much paperwork.

He couldn't wait until his TA arrived; she was supposed to start within the next few days. She was going to be a godsend. Blair shook his head, realizing that his mind was wandering again and that he needed to tackle the task at hand. Glancing at his desk clock, he saw that it was only one in the afternoon, which left plenty of time to grade papers before leaving to meet Jim at five. 

Sighing in resignation, he picked up his red pen and lifted the first of the essays from the stack. He soon found himself immersed in his work, and time began to pass quickly. He became so lost in his efforts that when the phone rang, he jerked upright in his chair, his heart pounding from the unexpected noise. Cursing softly at his jumpiness, he picked up the phone and answered, "Blair Sandburg." 

"Hey, Chief. How's university life treating you?" 

Blair's eyebrows quirked a bit at the forced joviality in Jim's tone. "Not bad, getting back to the grindstone. Grading papers, y'know… the glamorous side of the job." Blair smiled slightly as he heard Jim's chuckle.  

"Well, better you than me. Listen, uh, how much longer you going to be?"  

Blair frowned. Something was wrong, very wrong. Jim's voice was colored with worry, and the younger man had a distinct impression that the worry involved him. "Jim, what is it, man? You okay? Someone get hurt?" Blair's frown deepened as he heard Jim laugh quietly. There was a hint of sadness behind that laugh.  

"Easy now, Chief. Nobody's hurt. I'm just wrapping things up here and thought I'd come by and we could get a bite to eat. Save you from driving down to the station."  

Sandburg set his grading pen down and leaned back in his chair. He furrowed his brow as he attempted to read between Jim's fuzzy lines. "What's going on, Jim? Straight answer this time, no bull."  

Silence reigned for several seconds, and Blair's concern grew with each passing moment. "Jim?" His patience was running out, and he was seriously starting to freak. He heard his friend take a deep breath and waited for Jim to speak.  

"Look, there's no easy way to tell you this. It's.… It's Alex. She was seen in the area earlier. We think she's after you. No, scratch that. I know she's after you, Chief." Silence traveled across the telephone lines again, the tension thick and heavy.  

Blair stopped breathing. No reply seemed fitting in light of such an awful revelation. He knew his lack of an eloquent response would be unnerving to Jim. No doubt the detective had guessed he'd be pretty upset, and he was. But there was simply no way to verbalize how he felt about hearing that Alex had returned. Ever since they had been notified of her escape, he'd been praying she would leave the country or better yet, get caught. There weren't any appropriate words to lend voice to his distress, so he numbly chose a one-word reply. "Oh."  

~~~~&~~~~  

She watched, hidden, as the large vehicle pulled into the parking lot, absently adjusting the baseball cap on her head and brushing her fingers along the back of her bare neck to make sure her hair was properly tucked beneath the hat. Sunglasses added to her disguise, though she wore them as much to protect her sensitive eyes from the summer sun as to mask her identity. 

Her eyes stayed riveted to the truck. He was here to protect his precious partner. He knew there was a threat to the bond. Thanks to her foolishness, they were on to her now. She wanted Sandburg desperately, but the timing had to be absolutely right. There was no way she could afford to botch this. Things had gone so badly before.  

She crouched down lower in the bushes as Ellison got out of the vehicle and began walking slowly toward the building. Watching the dejected way the sentinel moved, she felt a pang of regret for what could have been. There walked the man she had wanted to live with forever, a man who embodied everything she had ever hoped or dreamed. A sense of longing welled up inside her, and she angrily shoved the unwanted emotion aside. The past was dead, and the future now involved her and Blair, functioning together as Sentinel and Guide. 

Seeing there was no possible way to obtain Sandburg right now without tangling with Ellison, Alex retreated, disappearing into the shadows.  

~~~~&~~~~  

Jim closed his eyes and leaned his large, muscular frame forward, welcoming the cooling sensation of the steering wheel as his forehead came to rest against it. It was a warm day, and the heat inside the truck added to his building frustration. He couldn't believe Blair had reacted like that. Blank, dead, devoid of any and all emotion. The conversation on the phone had ended abruptly with Blair quietly telling Jim he'd see him when he got to Rainier; then the younger man had just hung up.

As he got out of the vehicle, Jim paused, glancing around the campus. It was fairly deserted and, except for a few lingering students on the other side of the parking lot, things were pretty quiet. Shutting the door, he dropped his keys into his pocket and began his trek to Blair's office. Regardless of how Sandburg might be feeling about current events, this was something that needed to be dealt with. Ignoring the facts wasn't going to make things better. Alex was back, and Jim’s gut feeling was that she had returned for Blair.

He was almost to the door of the building when a prickling sensation crossed the back of his neck. Feeling his hairs standing on end, Jim paused and turned toward a more shadowed part of the lot. He waited, but sensed nothing out of the ordinary. He could have sworn somebody had been watching him, but his eyes and ears told him a different story. There was nobody else nearby. Shrugging it off as a bad case of nerves, he turned, opened the door, and went inside.

~~~~~~~~~~
Act Two
~~~~~~~~~~

Blair Sandburg rolled down the window of his Volvo and inhaled the fresh air. He was valiantly trying to ignore his fellow passenger, Mike Dougan. He did feel slightly bad about it, since the man was only there to protect Blair. Mike Dougan, police officer. Blair had fought it. Not that he didn't want the protection; he'd just rather have Mike be in plainclothes to blend in more. It was a little disconcerting to walk around the campus trailed by a fully-uniformed police officer. He'd argued with Jim for over an hour before finally relenting. He realized his sentinel was scared and, not knowing how to deal with it, Jim was obviously operating in full mother-hen mode.

The past few days, Jim had been driving Blair slowly insane. He called the anthropologist almost every hour and, if Blair was in class or unavailable, he would call Officer Dougan to ensure that Sandburg was indeed safe.  

Mike found Ellison’s over-protectiveness to be rather funny, but he knew how important Blair was to Jim, and so he took his job very seriously. He would answer Jim's call and reply to his questions. After hanging up he would make a comment about Jim now being Sandburg's mother.  

If the truth were known, Blair was quite scared himself and had no intention of ever running into Alex again. He understood the rationale that if Alex could see Blair was being protected, she might not try anything. It was just hard to ignore a six-foot tall, fully armed man always standing no more than six feet away. He should be used to it after all these years with Jim, but this was different. He felt like a prisoner, when he should be the one who was free, not Alex.  

He’d even gone so far as to call Alex’s clinical psychiatrist in Oregon, Dr. Feinberg. The man had been surprisingly talkative after Blair had introduced himself. He’d told Blair that, with her mental breakdown, Alex had been unable to control her senses, such as they were. Of course, at the time, the doctor hadn’t realized all of her senses were heightened. He had thought she could use two or three senses at a heightened level, but was doubtful she could control all five.  

After promising to send the doctor a copy of his dissertation, Blair had hung up.  

They arrived at Rainier and made their way into Blair's office. Blair had found an old couch that he had stuck in the corner of his office, so at least Mike had somewhere comfortable to sit. Blair had been trying to get his protector interested in anthropology, but had met with little success. It seemed Mike was very interested in sports and little else. So, after running out of "Jags" talk the first day, there were quite a few stretches of silence between the two.  

The routine they had begun to follow continued that day. Mike had followed Sandburg to his first lecture, where he positioned himself in the seat nearest the door. From there, he could check over all the entrants. After all the students were seated, Mike would divide his time between keeping his eye on the door and windows and his ear on Sandburg's lecture. Anthropology was not his cup of tea, but Blair was an amazing teacher; maybe if there had more instructors like him, Mike would've stayed in college. Sandburg really got his students involved in the discussions and made it known that their opinions were important.  

On the way back from class, Blair was digging into his notes as Mike kept his eyes tracking around the area. Not watching where he was going, Blair rounded a corner and slammed into another person, sending them both to the ground.  

Mike reacted instantly, rushing past a fallen Blair and placing himself in the center of the mess. Blair, realizing what had happened, was quick to assure the cop that he was fine, and climbed quickly to his feet. He walked around the officer to assist the victim of his clumsiness: a young woman, around 22 or 23 years old, with short, spiky red hair. Her slacks and shirt were black, accented by a bright scarf. She wore the chunky, thick-soled shoes that were so popular, and held the strap of a black leather backpack, which lay next to her on the floor.  

"I'm so sorry, it's my fault completely," Blair apologized. "I should have been watching where I was going." He reached his hand out to help her up. She smiled up at him as she extended her hand and Blair pulled her up.  

"That's okay, I was hoping to have an excuse to do my laundry," she said lightly while dusting off her pants.

Mike snickered in the background, and Sandburg shot him a look of mock disgust. Turning back to the woman, Blair told her, "I'm such a klutz; I'll pay for any cleaning bill."  

"Hey, listen, if I ever had any 'dry clean only' clothes, I killed them long ago. I'm strictly a 'wash and wear' kind of girl," she laughed.  

Sandburg listened to her laugh and thought of how attractive she was. Maybe she'd be open for a cup of coffee or something. "So do you have anything going on now?"  

"Actually I'm looking for Blair Sandburg's office. Do you have any idea where that could be?" She hefted the backpack over one shoulder.  

"I should, I'm Blair Sandburg," he introduced himself, gracing the young woman with one of his more dazzling smiles.  

"Oh, I should have recognized you! I'm Denise Breton; we've been corresponding through e-mail. I'm your new TA." She held out her hand, and Blair shook it enthusiastically.

They exchanged pleasantries and headed towards Blair's office with a bemused Mike Dougan in tow. Denise glanced at Mike a couple of times before asking, "What exactly is he doing with you?"  

"You mean you haven't heard about it through the very fast and highly efficient grad student grapevine?" Blair asked, rolling his eyes, as he slipped his key in the lock and opened the door.  

"I don't listen to gossip; if I want to know what happened, I ask," she stated, following Blair into his office.  

"That's very refreshing," Blair commented, a hint of humor in his tone. He smiled his thanks at Mike as the officer grabbed a chair from the office and placed it right outside the door to give the two some privacy.  

"So what's going on?"

Blair's smile faltered, and he gave into a quiet sigh. "You don't mess around, do you?"  

"Life's too short to play it safe. See what you want and go for it. If you fail, at least you tried." She laughed at herself. "Man, I'm starting to sound like a sneaker commercial. Seriously, if you need to tell me something, it'll stay between us." She looked her new boss directly in the eye. "Is this about Alex Barnes?"  

Blair paled at the mention of her name and gave a small shudder. "What do you know about her?" he whispered.  

"I saw your press conference talking about her being a sentinel, and of course I've seen the news reports of her escape." She paused, walking around to the front of the desk to sit in a chair. "I've always been intrigued by sentinel lore, and when I discovered you'd actually found one, well, I was floored. I knew that you were the professor to work for. You believed that they existed and you kept at it until you'd found one." Taking in Blair's stricken appearance she reined herself in. "I realize it was a terrible situation, but just experiencing your dream should be able to wipe some negative karma away."  

"You're right, it should, but it's still too fresh in my mind, I guess." Blair looked away quickly, suddenly engrossed in looking for something, anything, to keep Denise from asking too much more about Alex.  

Looking at Sandburg with honest concern, she spoke, her voice soft, "She's after you, isn't she?"  

Blair nodded bleakly. This was all more than he wanted to deal with. He swallowed and busied himself with digging out some test booklets from his backpack.  

"So he --" she jerked her head toward the officer sitting in the hall, "-- is here to protect you from her?"  

"Yeah. Look, I'd rather not talk about this, okay?" Blair stood awkwardly, his face pained as he lifted a stack of the booklets.  

She smiled apologetically, noticing his discomfort with the personal turn the conversation had taken. "I promise not to ask again. I'll wait until you tell me. So, what have you got for me?"  

With a look of relief flashing briefly across his face, Blair quickly smiled, handing her the test booklets while explaining what she needed to do. 

~~~~&~~~~  

With Mike or Jim always around, Blair found he didn't like to go as many places as he usually did, so for the next few weeks he spent most of his time either at the loft or the university.  

Working with his TA, who was a new grad student in the Anthro department at Rainier and still learning her way around, Blair was getting to know Denise quite well. She was an exceptional student, very intelligent, with a tremendous drive to succeed. Any romantic inclinations he might have had toward her had dissolved after that first day; the two seemed to make better friends than potential romantic companions. Besides, Blair felt uncomfortable with the idea of becoming involved with a student under his supervision. The feelings were reciprocated: apparently, Denise felt friendly toward him, but nothing more.  

Jim, however, was another story.  

The sentinel had come to see Blair, arriving while Denise was helping the teaching fellow grade some papers. Denise had momentarily stepped down the hall, and Blair was alone when Jim got there. Ellison had greeted Mike, offering to keep an eye on Blair for a while so Mike could catch some lunch, then walked into the office. Jim plopped down on the office couch, angled so he could keep an eye on the hallway. "Hey, Darwin, how's academia?"  

"Hey, Jim. It's a challenge, as usual," Blair glanced up to see his roommate intently watching someone walking toward the office.  Denise. He recognized the look on his friend's face and knew what was running through Jim's mind. Oh man, she's a redhead!  Jim's gonna be trouble. Blair couldn't help the smirk that spread across his face. Or a lot of fun!

Jim stood, wary at the approach of a stranger, but obviously interested in getting to know her better -- assuming she wasn't a threat to Sandburg -- when the woman approached and entered Blair's office.  

"Jim? Jim!" Blair called to get his friend's attention. The sentinel glanced at his partner, then back to the woman who stood comfortably in front of him.  

Blair smiled at the woman. "Denise, this is Detective Jim Ellison, the guy I told you about, who I work with at the police department. Jim, this is Denise Breton, my new TA."  

The redhead smiled at Jim, and he returned it, his features lighting up. They shook hands.  

"Nice to meet you, I've heard so much about you," said Denise. "Blair can't stop talking about his adventures with the Cascade Police."  

"A pleasure to meet you, too, although you have me at a bit of a disadvantage since Blair's failed to mention you." He shot Blair a look of reprimand at Blair, which his friend responded to by shrugging innocently.  

"Sorry, Jim. I guess I was so wrapped up in my classes, I forgot all about my brand new assistant. I apologize to you, Denise, because you are far too important to neglect, and I should be spreading your name far and wide," Blair finished by flinging his arms open to indicate the entire room.  

As Denise started giggling, Jim murmured, "Well, you're spreading something, Chief, but I don't think it's her name."  

"Humph." Blair glared at his friend, arms akimbo.  

Denise laughed again, then grabbed some of the papers and sat on the other end of the couch, red pen in hand, to resume grading.  

For the next half hour, Jim talked with Blair, throwing occasional comments in Denise's direction, hoping to distract her from her task. But the woman was intent on grading and, other than polite responses, seemed oblivious to Jim's attempted advances.  

Blair chatted with his friend as he filed some papers and cleaned off the top of his desk. Jim seemed to get a bit disheartened at Denise's apparent lack of interest, looking forlornly at his friend. Blair attempted to appear sympathetic, but couldn't quite hide his grin.  

~~~~&~~~~  

She had seen the cop following Blair around and cringed. There'd be no way to reach him without hurting someone or getting hurt herself. Neither was something she wanted at this point.  

There had to be some way to get her hands on Sandburg. No matter where she went in this city, she couldn't escape his pull, his power. Her hearing kept spiking and centering in on his voice. She heard him once when he was at the loft, and had "tuned into" three of his lectures so far. She kept focusing in on the guide. This cemented her certainty that he belonged to her. She needed him.  

She'd wait them out.  

~~~~&~~~~  

It had been over three weeks with no sign of Alex. Blair was sick and tired of having a 'babysitter,' and Jim seemed to grow more irritable each day that passed with no news of Barnes. He wasn't able to sense her like he had the last time and therefore had no way of knowing if she was still around or had really left the city.

Blair had a theory that Barnes had lost full "Sentinel Status," as it were, when she returned to the temple's pool and fried her senses. Based on that idea, he thought that Jim's inability to feel her presence was because she was no longer a sentinel. This theory did nothing to curb Jim's anger or relax his worry. The only thing that seemed to do that was to have control over Blair.  

Jim was on an all-night stakeout with Simon, and he had barricaded his best friend in the loft with threats and guilt. Blair was resigned to a night of grading tests, since he had given a special assignment to Denise earlier in the day. He sat at the table, the laptop in front of him and a stack of bluebooks to his right. Moving the cursor using the touchpad, he tried to access the 'fact and issue' checklist he'd copied from his office computer, but an error message popped on the screen, informing him that the file was unreadable. 

Damn! He needed that information to grade the exams. Slapping a palm on the table, he berated himself for not printing the sheets out. He'd thought he'd save a few trees and just work with the electronic version, but he should have known better than to put faith in a machine. 

He'd promised the grades would be posted the following morning, and hated to disappoint his students. Knowing Jim would kill him, he dialed his friend’s cell to tell him of his dilemma, but he only got a busy signal. After two more tries with the same result, he decided that a quick trip to his office was safe enough. And besides, he rationalized, he would be back long before Jim returned, none the wiser.  

~~~~~~~~~~
Act Three
~~~~~~~~~~

Sleep had left his mind foggy, the residual drowsiness covering him like a blanket, clothing him in its warmth. Shifting slightly, he groaned when he felt his muscles protest after being roused from their inactivity. He had been working at his desk, opting to stay at the university after having asked the security guard to do more frequent sweeps of the area, figuring he'd be marginally safer in his locked office with an on-duty security guard than at home in an empty loft. 

Before starting the last test, he'd decided to rest his eyes for just a minute. Yeah, sure, Sandburg. When you gonna learn, man? Remembering he had planned to get home before Jim returned from his stake out, he groaned. God, Jim is gonna kill me. A big yawn broke out, and he stretched, enjoying the feeling of loosening muscles.  

Blinking, Blair sat up. Early morning sunlight was peeking in through the window. Yawning again, he rubbed his face with both hands, trying to push away the sleepiness. He heard a faint chuckle, which immediately snapped him to alertness.  

Turning in the direction of the sound, his eyes automatically focused on the woman he hadn't seen face-to-face in a long time, and had, in fact, hoped to never see again. The only time in the past year that he had seen the apparition in front of him was when she visited his dreamscape, staining his sleep with nightmares of water and pain, torturing his mind in ways he never spoke of, not even to Jim.

Jim! Oh man, was he okay? Did she get to him? Had she hurt him?

"Hey, baby. You really need a better lock on that door."

<<FLASH>>

He was sitting in his office, the early morning light washing across the room. His body, mind, and soul ached with the pain caused by the tension, anger, and distrust that existed between Jim and himself. The door opened and she walked in. She raised one arm, a pistol held tightly in her hand, and aimed its muzzle at him.

<<FLASH>>

Blair came back to the present suddenly. He was in his office, it was early morning, and she was there. He shuddered slightly.  

That voice. That smile. How could someone this beautiful instill such a feeling of near-rabid fear that Blair could barely think? He knew he should move, should act, should do something, but he stayed still, captivated while the early morning sun cast shadows and light across her face and shimmered in the strands of her long blonde hair. The alternating strokes of light and shadow distorted her image, adding to the surreal ambiance permeating the room. It was eerily similar to that day -- the day she had killed him.  

"Kind of like déjà vu, don't you think?" She again broke the silence, waving one hand around the room.

Blair jolted slightly as she seemed to voice his very thoughts.

"I guess that, since this is a different office, it throws things off a bit. It's nice, though," she said, looking around at the artifacts and journals, the books and paintings with which he had made the office his own. "It suits you."  

He tensed, stiffening in his chair, as Alex started moving slowly toward him, finally leaning back to escape her touch. The whole scene was like a waking nightmare from which he could not awaken.

She seemed to pick up on his fear and made an effort to calm herself. Succeeding somewhat, she took a deep breath and spoke soothingly to him. "No, baby. Don't worry; it'll be different this time. You'll see. I know I made some mistakes before, but…" Alex again slowly moved closer, her hands held up in a non-threatening manner. "I'm here to make up for all of that. See, I didn't realize how important you were before. But I've been there, I've seen it, and I know now. You're the key to my salvation, Blair Sandburg. And I won't make the same mistake twice."  

She stopped in front of the desk, only a few feet away from Blair. She touched his desk, running her fingers over the fine grain of the dark mahogany wood. A sad smile flitted across her pale face and disappeared again.  

Blair continued to watch her, nearly fascinated by her soothing litany of words and her hypnotic gaze. A part of him was screaming to get up, get out, get away, but his body seemed frozen in place.  

The creature of his nightmares spoke again. "See, it works sometimes. Not like it used to, though. I get flashes. And, oh, those flashes make me miss it so much, so very much. And with these flashes come pain and you don't want to see me like that, do you, Blair?"  

He continued to stare at her, silent.  

"That's why I need you. I need you to fix this, and you will." Her voice, which had been soft and gentle as she tried to explain her need to him, dropped into a tone of rock-hard assurance at the last two words. Her gaze pinned the young man as surely as her pistol had the last time they had met like this.  

~~~~&~~~~

Jim cursed silently as he tried calling Blair on the cell again. How could a soon-to-be professor, someone who would graduate with highest honors, the "cream of the intellectual crop," consistently forget to charge his phone batteries? Maybe this fell into one of those "law of averages" things Sandburg was always going on about. Whatever it was, Jim Ellison was one worried and angry man. He had told Sandburg it wasn't safe to go anywhere alone, and yet that was exactly what the knucklehead had done. The constant sound of the ringing phone infiltrated his thoughts, reminding him of the growing urgency of the situation.  

Sighing, he hung up the phone with more force than necessary, ignoring the raised eyebrows of his captain. "No answer, I take it?" Simon inquired.  

"No, no answer."  

Standing, Simon carefully picked up and checked his weapon, tucking it into his holster when he was satisfied it was in readiness. He nodded towards the door. “Shall we?”  

Grabbing his keys off the counter, Jim turned a determined face to his friend. "She's with him now, I know it." Walking to the front door, Jim paused for a moment. When he looked at his captain, his eyes were troubled and his voice deadly. "They're at the university, they've got to be."  

~~~~&~~~~

Blair swallowed deeply, pleading silently for his racing heart to slow its galloping pace. The fog that had permeated his brain in response to Alex’s appearance and subsequent monologue was beginning to lift. Now, as he continued to listen to Alex's fractured ranting, he could feel a burning hatred rising from deep within him. How dare she! What the hell did she think he would do for her now? Did she actually believe that he would help her? After what she'd done to him, there was no chance in hell of that happening.

<<FLASH>>

"This is the one thing I really didn't want to do, but I can't leave you alive."

<<FLASH>>

Blair suddenly stood up, leaning over the desk and shoving her hand off its polished surface. He stood there, shaking with rage, as she stepped back a foot or two, crossed her arms, and pinned him with a glare. Her eyes were narrowed as she studied him.  

"I'm not going to help you, Alex." His voice was hot with anger and shaking with determination.

Alex stared at him in disbelief, and he shook his head in amazement; the woman could not believe that he was refusing her! He watched as his words seemed to finally sink in, and she flinched slightly. Her shocked expression gave way to one of cold wrath, and her posture changed slightly as she appeared to make a decision. Her expression now similar to threatening thunderclouds, she reached into her pocket and started to withdraw her gun.  

An unexpected knock at the door interrupted her.  

"Blair?" called Denise as she knocked once and entered the office, a sheaf of papers cradled in one arm and a bright smile on her face. "I was hoping you'd be here. I got those questions back from…" she let her voice trail away as she saw the two people in the room. "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't know you had company."

Blair could see that Denise recognized Alex, probably from the photographs she had seen on television, if not from Blair's warnings alone. She was obviously hoping to get away and call for help when she tried to back out the door. Her smile faltered as the tall, blonde woman turned toward her. Denise swallowed nervously.  

Alex whipped her gun the rest of the way out of her pocket and pointed it at the TA. "I'd rather you stayed. I think it would help Blair's… concentration." She motioned Denise inside with the weapon. "Close the door, quietly. Don't try anything. I'm not afraid to kill… right, Blair?" Her voice was low, threatening.

Denise slowly closed the door and set the papers down on the table next to her. She raised her hands and stood still, looking back and forth between Blair and the woman who was holding a gun on her. “My, graduate school is more exciting than I had expected,” she said, humor dancing around the edges of her fear. Blair stared at her, his eyes wide in shock at her moxy.

Ignoring Denise’s statement, Alex walked slowly around Denise, eyeing her with what almost seemed to be jealousy. "Now, what do we have here?" she sneered, looking at Blair. "A new playmate?"  

"Leave her out of this, Alex." Blair moved from behind the desk and circled around Alex until he was standing between the two women. He faced Alex so that he was shielding the TA from the gun. "She's no one, and doesn't have anything to do with this."

Denise made a sound of protest at being referred to as "no one," but Blair ignored her and kept going. There was no way he would let Alex hurt anyone else.  

"I'm the only one that can help you, Alex. You know that. No one else knows what you're going through, do they?" Blair saw with satisfaction that her attention was focused on him, rather than on Denise. He continued, speaking in the low, soothing voice he often used to calm Jim. "Dr. Feinberg never helped to relieve any of the pain, did he?"  

Alex slowly shook her head, her expression now one of despair and desolation. The gun drooped slightly in her hand.  

Blair continued, moving slowly toward her. "None of the doctors could stop your suffering, the headaches, the sensory spikes. Everything they tried failed."  

The woman nodded. Earlier, her words had held him captive. Now, she seemed mesmerized by his voice.

He spoke again as he took another step toward her and toward the weapon that threatened him and Denise. "That's why you came to me, isn't it? I'm your last chance. Alex," he waited until he was sure her full attention was on him. "I won't help you if you hurt anyone. You need to let her go. Then we can talk, you and I."  

Alex had been listening to the gentle, calming voice, falling into his words. But now she remembered his refusal to help, and she realized what he was trying to do. She shook her head sharply, cursing. "No! You won't do this to me! You are going to help me." She deliberately raised her pistol up until it pointed at Denise. A sly smile twisted her lips. "And you won't have a choice," she drawled. Her demeanor had again changed; she was now self-assured, cold, and determined.  

Blair moved again, stepping in front of the gun that was pointing at Denise. "You're wrong. I do have a choice, Alex. I will not help you. Think about it… if you kill her, then what? You'll threaten to kill me, too? As I recall, you already did that once, and it didn't help you, did it?"  

Alex lowered her arm and said, "You're absolutely right, Blair."  

Blair felt a moment of hope, which quickly disappeared as he remembered just who he was dealing with. Suspicion narrowed his eyes as Alex smiled triumphantly at him. 

"We're going to do something different. Let's go. You first, Blair." She glanced at Denise and gestured for her to follow Blair out the door.  

The young man hesitated for a moment, but with the gun aimed at Denise, he had no choice. He stepped toward the door and started turning the handle.  

Denise turned to follow him, trying not to show her fear, but unable to disguise it totally. Alex grabbed her arm and pulled her close, raising the gun up to her head.  

Blair saw the motion over his shoulder and watched, stupefied, as Alex brought her gun down upon the back of Denise's head, hurtling her into unconsciousness. He shouted angrily at Alex, going down on one knee and checking his assistant over. 

Pulse and breathing okay, no massive amounts of blood. She seemed to be all right, just out cold.

Alex chuckled above him. "Well, you said I couldn't kill her. I didn't. Don't worry, my tender-hearted guide, she'll be fine." Her voice held amusement, but her actions revealed only anger and determination. She grabbed Blair by his hair and forced him to stand up. "No more stalling! Let's go!" she yelled, giving him a shove in the direction of the door, pressing the gun tightly against his ribs.

On the long walk out of the building, Blair tried to think of something -- anything -- he could do to get the gun away fromm her. Jim, man, where are you? I could really use your help about now. This is just too freaky, man. 

With a dreadful feeling of inevitability, Blair knew that their path was going to take them past The Fountain. She seemed to realize it, too, slowing slightly when the sparkling water came into view.  

As she forced him down the path toward the parking lot, he was overcome with his memories of the last time, when she had drowned him.  

<<FLASH>>

A gun prodded him in the back until his feet were against the base of the fountain. Fear of what she was going to do, despair at the loss of his friendship with Jim, anger and frustration and sadness welled up inside him. He stood there, staring numbly at the water.

<<FLASH>>

He unknowingly stumbled to a halt, staring at the water. She stopped behind him.  

<<FLASH>>

Sharp pain in the back of his head. The sparkling water exploded in white light. Falling, falling. Water, cold, darkness, can't breathe oh God Jim where are you oh God no...

<<FLASH>>

No! He didn't want to be here, to do this all over again. He'd lived through it once, and he didn't think he could do it again. He shook his head to force out the images that were traveling across his mind's eye, but it didn't work. The pictures kept moving by at greater and greater speeds, threatening to throw him directly back into that hell.

<<FLASH>>    

Darkness, no hope, water, no breath, no sentinel, no use in living anymore. Cold. Silence. Death.

<<FLASH>>

Then a part of him rebelled against his helplessness and fear. He wouldn't let her do this again. 

No way. 

The snap of a twig caught Alex's attention, and she jerked the gun sharply to the right. The weapon discharged, though whether intentionally or accidentally, Blair couldn't tell. He heard a sharp yell and spun around just as Denise hit the ground.

"No!" Blair's scream ripped from his throat with such force that it left a trail of pain behind. He watched in disbelieving horror as a small pool of blood formed beneath Denise's right shoulder.

He'd waited too long. He should never have let Alex take things so far. 

"No!" He spun back around, facing Alex, his heart thundering in his chest. He had no idea if Denise was still alive, but he wouldn't give Alex the chance to do any further harm -- not to Denise or anyone else.

His anger erupted, his hatred was released. His vision tinted red with anger. The thoughts flying through his mind were no longer rational.  

He spun around and faced Alex. "No! I will not let you do this! I will not help you, I will NOT!"  

Her eyes widened at his sudden outburst, and she cried out sharply, dropping the gun and grasping her head in pain. Blair’s loud, unexpected shouts had apparently overwhelmed her tenuous control, causing a painful spike in her hearing.  

Anger at what she had done to him the previous year, rage at having died at her hands, and the sense of helplessness he had had to endure as Denise lay fallen behind him all crashed over him, hijacking his mind, body, and soul. Shaking, he stared blankly at her as she shrieked in pain. This would be his only chance. Caught in the haze of his emotions, he lunged for the gun, but Alex flew toward him, knocking him to the ground, her face contorted with pain, making it obvious that she was only minimally recovered from the effects of the sensory spike.

As he hit the ground, he curled into an awkward roll away from Alex and used his momentum to push himself to his feet just as Alex delivered a sharp, backhanded blow to his cheek.

Blair barely felt the blow, driven by an unnameable force to stop this once and for all. To stop his fear, his regret, his pain. To stop her from ever hurting anyone again. “I won't let you do this, Alex! It ends here!” His voice was harsh, cracking like a whip through the early morning air.

Alex stumbled toward him, reaching toward his face with her nails, her lips drawn back in a snarl as she screamed at him.  

He bent down and drove his head into her stomach, shoving her down to the pavement. She fell back, landing hard and pulling him down on top of her. She rolled them both over quickly so that she straddled him, and pulled a fist back, ready to smash it into his face.  

Blair bucked wildly, forcing her off-balance enough that he could scoot out from under her and avoid the ill-aimed blow.  

She came back up from the ground like a wildcat, screaming and lunging at him, teeth and nails aiming at this source of frustration. He swiped her hands aside with one arm and struck her in the ribs with the other. She gasped and fell to her knees, leaning heavily against the edge of the fountain.  

The adrenaline flowing through Blair's bloodstream drove rational thought from his mind, hurling him into a primitive survival mode -- fight or flight -- and he was going to fight! He grabbed Alex by her upper arms and lifted her, pushing her forward until she was completely in the cold water, then grasped her by the neck and plunged her head under the water. Feeling none of the gentle compassion that had become his trademark, he tilted his head back as he held his tormentor under the water and howled loudly, a distant part of his mind feeling a warped sense of déjà vu as he did to her what she had done to him a year before.

~~~~&~~~~

Momentarily stunned by Blair's attack, Alex snapped to awareness as the hands closed around her neck and forced her under the cold water. Through water-covered eyes, she saw the normally sweet, peaceable Blair Sandburg as his face twisted into a mask of fury.

She clutched at his hands, trying to win her release, but his rage made him far too powerful. It was only moments before she had no alternative but to breathe in the water, giving herself over to the darkness.

At the moment of her surrender, the hands that had been holding her under suddenly loosened. She was hauled up, clear of the water. Her body violently forced water from her lungs as she collapsed on the cool grass.  

~~~~&~~~~

The sun sparkled through the water spraying from the fountain. Morning shadows stretched long over the grass. A blue and white pickup screeched to a stop and a tall, shorthaired, broad-shouldered man burst from the driver's side. He spotted a woman lying unconscious near the entrance of the building and ran toward her, automatically extending his hearing, focused only on her and the building that housed Blair's office. He picked up the sound of her steady heartbeat as well as the hum of two anxious voices from inside. One of the speakers mentioned hearing a gunshot, but the other seemed to think the noise had been a car backfiring.

Before Jim reached the fallen woman -- Denise? -- his ears caught the thundering rhythm of a frantic heart behind him. His insides went cold, and he tensed, turning toward the fountain. For an endless moment, he froze, trapped in a similar moment from the past. Then he rushed toward the two figures huddled by the hated fountain, determined to save Blair from the crazed woman who was trying to kill him again.

As he neared them, he realized with a shock that spiked from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet that the woman was in the water, and the person holding her down was his peace-loving guide. Blair -- optimistic, caring Blair -- was holding Alex by the neck, keeping her head under the water as her body weakened in its struggles against his grip. He lifted his face and howled in triumph.

Horror held Jim for interminable moments. Suddenly released from its hold, he lurched toward the two figures. He wasn't sure whether he was going to pull Alex out of the water… or help Blair hold her under. A detached, cold, almost clinical part of his mind realized that it wouldn't bother him in the least to help Blair rid their city of this psycho.  

Before Jim could make any decision, the decision was taken from him. Blair released a haunting cry that exploded into a violent sob of despair. He roared and yanked the woman out of the fountain, throwing her to the grass beside him and falling to his hands and knees. His head hung between his arms as another soul-wrenching sob tore from him. He stayed that way, breathing deeply, breath hitching, as he struggled visibly to calm his breathing and get control of himself.

Jim realized back-up had arrived when he saw Rafe and Megan rush to check on Denise. Confident the young woman was taken care of, Jim moved toward the only immediate threat -- Alex. She lay there coughing, her eyes closed, water spurting from her mouth with each spasm. As he reached her, stooping to quickly check her vital signs, her eyes opened and pure hatred poured out at him. 

"No! He's mine! You can't have him!" She winced as her own voice caused a spike in her hearing. 

Shaking his head at the dripping escapee hunched miserably on the ground before him and glaring with open hostility, Jim roughly rolled her onto her stomach and placed cuffs on her wrists.  

Catching sight of Simon headed toward him, Jim nodded at his captain, jerking his chin at Alex. 

Simon nodded back and hurried toward the prisoner. "I got her."

"Thanks, sir." Jim sprang to his feet and hurried toward Blair.

He knelt at Blair's side as the younger man pushed back so he was sitting on his heels. His hair, wet from the fountain water, hung around his face. His breathing was finally slowing to an almost normal level. His heart was no longer trying to break through his ribs. Jim slid a comforting arm around Blair's shoulders and glanced back at Simon, who watched from nearby.

"A blanket, Simon? He's freezing." 

Simon nodded and turned to ask one of the newly-arrived uniforms to fetch a blanket from her squad car. The officer nodded and trotted over to the growing fleet of emergency vehicles.

~~~~&~~~~  

News reporters armed with cameras, pens, video and audio equipment, and insistent voices, along with curious students, faculty, and other university staff members who had begun arriving for classes, swarmed around the area. They were held back by several police officers, who were valiantly trying to keep the aggressive press and milling onlookers away from the focus of the activity.

Blair remained huddled under the blanket Jim had wrapped around him, oblivious to the din around them. EMTs had checked Alex out, proclaiming her stable and not in imminent danger from her dunking in the fountain. They strapped her onto a gurney and slid it into the back of the waiting ambulance, then climbed in after it and pulled the rear doors shut.

Blair and Jim had seen Alex as she had been wheeled away. Her eyes had been vacant and staring -- it was way too reminiscent of the last time the sentinel and guide had seen her hauled away.

Blair felt Jim's arm tighten around him as a shudder ran through his chilled body. "You okay, buddy?" Jim asked softly. 

With a slightly sheepish grin, Blair nodded. Then he shifted and stood, still clutching the blanket around him.

Seeing that Blair was feeling better, and knowing his friend was somewhat embarrassed by the recent events, Jim decided a lighthearted approach might help relax Blair. He nodded in the direction of the departing ambulance, and said, "Pretty good collar, Rambo."

"Thanks," Blair mumbled, his face coloring slightly as he looked away.

"Hey, Chief, it's all right. Everything's okay now." Jim looked over as Simon approached them, then back at his partner.

Blair nodded shakily, glancing at his friend. "I just need to catch my breath." He closed his eyes and leaned against Jim. "You sure Denise is going to be okay?"

"Pretty sure. The bullet caught her in the arm, but went straight through. She'll be good as new in no time."

Blair released a long breath. "I'm glad. I don't think I could've lived with myself knowing she got hurt because of me."

~~~~~~~~~~
Act Four
~~~~~~~~~~

The sterile environment of the hospital seemed surreal, oddly calming after the earlier fiasco at the University. Jim sat silently in one of the hard chairs in the waiting area, listening half-heartedly as Blair animatedly talked with the TA lying in the hospital bed in room 303. After the mess with Alex a few hours ago, all Jim wanted was to let his mind wander a bit -- and wander it did as he absently picked up on the sound of Blair's voice floating his way.

Deciding that he was eavesdropping, Jim turned down his hearing, giving Blair his privacy, and closed his eyes. He'd just sit quietly and wait for Sandburg. He felt a headache nagging at the base of his skull, and he was more than content to sit quietly for a bit and attempt to decompress from the day's activities. He wanted to remove himself from the things that had happened, if he could. All he wanted to do was forget Alex even existed, but he knew that was something he would never be able to do, no matter how far down in his psyche he repressed her memory.

Alex would be haunting him for the rest of his days.

~~~~~&~~~~  

"So you're sure you're going to be all right? I mean…you had me worried there for a minute."  Blair shifted nervously from foot to foot in the small room, too agitated to sit in a chair or to stand still.

"I'll be fine, Blair. Stop worrying! The doc said I could be out of here in a day or two. They're mostly keeping me here for observation." The redhead smiled as she attempted to shift into a more comfortable position.

Blair immediately reached for the pillow, fluffing it and readjusting it behind her, being careful not to jostle her injured arm, which hung in a sling against her ribs. "Good, I--I'm glad to hear that. I know how scary everything got earlier and I just wanted to let you know how sorry I am for getting you hurt. For letting Alex Barnes get anywhere near you…" Blair's voice trailed off as Denise raised her hand, exasperation written clearly across her face.

"Easy, Blair. This wasn't your fault. It was that wacko's fault. She hurt me, not you. Don't be an idiot by beating yourself up over this. We're cool, I promise." Denise softened her words with a smile, and Blair relaxed a bit.

"Good. I can't help but feel guilty…" Chuckling softly at Denise's vexed sigh, Blair held up his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay. I understand. I just wanted to know… well… I figured, after all that happened today, you might want to sign on with another professor, which I would totally understand if you did."

A soft chuckle escaped the figure in the bed. "Trying to get rid of me are you, Mr. Sandburg? Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but I'm not going anywhere. I can tell working for you will be nothing short of exciting, and I admit I'm a bit of an adrenaline junkie. So, sorry, I'm not getting off the wild ride just yet. You'll just have to keep putting up with me."

Blair laughed softly and nodded. He understood all too well. Her words as brought back a not-so-distant memory of him trying to explain the exact same feeling to one bull-headed detective. He'd matured since, then, however, and no longer viewed near-death experiences as something akin to a carnival ride.

"Okay, gotcha loud and clear. You're not going anywhere. Which, by the way, I must admit is just fine by me."

Denise laughed again, her tone teasing. "Good, 'cause that's the way it's going to be. Glad to see we agree."  

"Don't be too glad. Wait 'til you see the stack of work I'll have waiting for you once you get out of here."

The issue settled, the two continued joking for a few more minutes. Blair knew Jim was still waiting, so he made his apologies. Bidding Denise goodbye, the anthropologist left, leaving her to rest, and went out to meet his patient partner.  

~~~~&~~~~

The ride home from the hospital was quiet and rather tense. All the forced joviality Blair had displayed while talking with his TA had evaporated immediately upon getting into the truck, leaving a pensive and introspective version of the man in its wake. Jim still hadn't been able to pry much out of Blair since they'd left Cascade General, other than a few short sentences here and there. Normally, Jim would have been all for the "checking the emotions at the door" tactic, but he couldn't take that route this time.

He wasn't going to ignore what had transpired, letting things build and build until both he and Blair became unhinged. No, hindsight was 20/20, and he was going to use the past to make the future better. No more fear-based responses -- wasn't that the line from a chapter in Blair's dissertation? The phrase had at one time, not so very long ago, seemed threatening to Jim's psyche. Well, threatening or not, it seemed appropriate in this situation; everyone involved had been operating on fear -- masking it with anger -- and allowing the deep-seated emotion to govern his or her actions. Well, not anymore.

Come hell or high water, he and Blair Sandburg were going to have a very serious chat once they got home. 

~~~~&~~~~

Jim watched silently as Blair went through the front door and headed straight for the kitchen. Once there, the younger man began foraging through the refrigerator, apparently having developed a ravenous appetite all of a sudden. Sighing softly, Jim shut the door to the loft and locked it. He walked slowly toward his friend.

"Hey, Jim. What do you want for dinner, man? Not much here to choose from. Tell you what, tonight dinner's on me. Let's just get something delivered. Sound good to you?" Blair's disembodied voice floated up from within the refrigerator as he continued poking at jars and containers, searching for food.

For a moment, Jim considered letting things go. After all, it was obvious Sandburg didn't want to discuss what had happened. And what right did he, 'king of the great clam-up,' have to force Blair to talk? Regardless, he had to try. "Blair…" Jim spoke softly, wanting to keep things low-key, if possible.

Blair, as usual, read the sentinel's mind. "Ah, Jim. I... I don't really think we need to get into this right now," the younger man responded hoarsely as he moved away from the refrigerator, slamming its door shut. Walking to the counter, Blair placed his hands on the smooth surface, letting his head drop. "I mean… what would be the point? It's over. She's back in the loony bin. Case closed."

Jim swallowed deeply, knowing how hard and painful this was going to be for them both. But seeing Blair in the process of attempting to drown Alex had frightened him badly. The experience had been too much like déjà vu for Jim, bringing back haunting visions of Blair's near-death. A sickly scene flashed across his inner eye -- pulling Blair's waterlogged body out of the foul fountain, the ashy pallor of the younger man's skin, the deathly blue tint to his lips. The body that had housed Blair's soul had lain so still, a silent and broken testament to a shattered friendship.

Shaking himself out of the morbid memories, Jim's resolve strengthened. No, never again. They would talk about this now!

"I'm sorry to be selfish in this matter, Chief, but we need to talk. Right here, right now," Jim curtly stated as he walked around the tense young man and headed into the living room, sitting down on the sofa. Closing his eyes in a vain attempt to ease his growing headache, he leaned back into the soft cushions, and waited patiently for his friend to follow his lead.

Blair sighed deeply, shoulders drooping, and gave in to his partner's wishes. Sitting down himself, he ran a weary hand over his face. Jim was right -- it was better to handle this conversation now than to let things fester.

"Okay, man, shoot. What do you want to talk about? No, wait. Let me answer that for you. You want to know how I could possibly come close to killing Alex, is that it?" Blair abruptly got up from the couch and nervously began pacing the floor of the living room.

"Well, Chief, that would be a start." The harsh words slipped out before Jim could stop them. He sighed as he watched Blair tense up even more. One of these days the two of them would learn to stop dancing on eggshells.

"Okay, sure, I'll tell you why. Maybe because she killed me, man! Maybe because she tried to kill Denise! Maybe because… because…" Blair paused, his face flushed with anger as he turned to face his friend. He looked Jim straight in the eye, blue on blue, his glare's intensity almost overwhelming Jim.

"Maybe because she put a wedge between us, Jim. A wedge I helped put into place, thanks to my own stupidity. Maybe it's because ever since I met her, your trust in me has dwindled more and more. The mess with the diss was just the icing on the cake. Another reminder of a long, long list of screw-ups by yours truly, Blair Sandburg!"

Jim watched the wretched display of raw emotion on Sandburg's face and realized it mirrored the turmoil within himself. Alex had done this. She had ripped open a wound that had barely begun to heal, wreaking havoc with their lives once again. Jim hated her for that. Hell, he more than hated her, he despised her.

For a split second, the briefest of moments, Jim had contemplated helping Blair drown the woman. All sense and sensibility had left him and, for that moment, he had wanted his senses wide open, to be able to feel Alex die. To know the exact moment when her life left her, when her body became nothing more than an empty shell. To do to her what she had done to Blair….

Fortunately, he had squashed that feeling and carried on. Which, he knew, was exactly what Sandburg had had to do. Now they were both dealing with the aftermath, and it wasn't pretty. The cop knew all the cards needed to be laid out on the table once and for all. The air between them needed to be cleared, so that the two men could move forward in their partnership -- their friendship -- learning to trust one another unequivocally.

When he spoke again, Jim was shocked to hear the open emotion in his voice. "Chief, you need to understand something. And for once, I want you just to listen. Not to talk, not to interrupt, just simply to listen."

Blair nodded stiffly and crossed his arms, waiting impatiently for the other man to continue.

"I know that both of us have had some issues lately. That it's gotten harder to simply trust each other without reservation. And I realize how much of that was my fault, and I want to apologize to you. No, hear me out, Blair." Jim raised a hand to halt Blair's protests.

"I should have given you a chance to explain about things about Alex and the dissertation. I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions, assuming the worst. I tend to do that, assume things. It's a nasty habit I'm trying to break."

Jim relaxed a little as Blair smiled softly at the half-hearted joke; so far, so good.  

"Anyway, I wanted you to know, to understand completely, that I do trust you. I trust you with my life and my sanity. You have no reason to fear that I'll turn on you. I've made mistakes, I know, but I hope you realize that you can trust me."

Blair's eyes hovered on some indistinguishable spot on the floor, his face a blank mask, but he nodded his head.

Jim rose slowly from the couch and took a few steps closer to Blair. "Just so you know, I wanted to help you back there, Chief. I wanted to throw my badge away and help you push her under the water. I felt that desire and I wanted to give in badly. And I know there was probably a part of you that wanted to see her die. What else could you expect of yourself in that situation, Blair? I mean, the woman who almost succeeded in ending your life came back! What normal, sane person wouldn't want revenge? I know I did!"

The younger man shook his head slightly, the slight tremble in his shoulders the only visible sign of the turmoil brewing within. His voice was soft, cracking under the weight of the emotional strain he was under. "I... I wasn't thinking of revenge, Jim. Well, maybe a little, but not really. Basically, I just wasn't thinking. I mean, it was like I was right back in the day, being held under the water, feeling all those same emotions as if it were really happening all over again. And then when I saw Denise go down, I just lost it." He swallowed hard. "God, I almost killed her, Jim. I'm no better than she is, than most of the criminals out there. I really wanted to, man. I almost did…." Blair's voice trailed off as he ran shaking hands over his face.

Jim reached out, grabbing Blair by the shoulders, forcing the younger man to look him in the eye, to listen to him.

"You are human. And as a member of the human race, you are subject to feelings. But what makes you and me different from the criminals we hunt down, is the fact that we overcame those feelings, however powerful they were. A part of you may have wanted to kill her, but you didn't. Only you had the power in that moment to make that choice, and you chose to let her live. You are not a murderer or a criminal. You are a victim suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, who wanted to end the pain. You didn't screw up, Chief. You handled yourself just fine out there today. Better than most cops I know would have, myself included."

Blair closed his eyes, swallowing deeply. When he spoke, the words were choked with emotion. "T-thanks, man. That means more… more than you know. I… I needed to hear that...." Before he could finish, Jim reached out and drew the young man into a bone-crushing hug.

"I know, Chief. I know." Jim pulled slightly away. "Tell you what, why don't you take a load off and let me worry about dinner tonight? I think that's the least I could do after the day you've had."

Blair headed to the couch without protesting, "You mean after the day we've both had, don't you? But hey, I'm not one to look a gift-horse in the mouth. Just as long as it's remotely edible."  Sitting down, he ducked, just barely avoiding being hit by a flying pillow.

"Cute, Chief. Keep it up and you'll be on dish detail." Jim chuckled as he headed off to tackle the prospect of what to fix for dinner. Maybe Sandburg was right; take-out was definitely the way to go.

He smiled gently as a whispered, "Thanks, Jim," followed him into the kitchen.

~~~~~&~~~~

Blair settled down on the couch, leaning back and attempting to relax as he listened to Jim puttering around the kitchen. He prayed Jim was right. He never wanted to feel this way again, to hold another's fragile life in his hands and know the power to take that life away. He hoped this was post-traumatic stress syndrome, or some other psychological condition that could, at least in part, excuse his behavior at the fountain. Anything at all, just as long as he wasn't turning into a cold-blooded killer.

Blair reached for the remote to the TV, not wanting to follow the dark path his thoughts were threatening to take him down. Turning the television on, he started flicking through channels, watching the endless parade of mindless drivel until he came across Channel Eight. The news was on. He felt a pang deep within his chest as a picture of Alex Barnes appeared to the right of the reporter.

Almost of its own volition, his thumb moved and pressed the volume button. He wanted to hear this, to hear how this particular facet of his life was going to be sensationalized by the media. The reporter's voice filled the room, his diction clear and precise as he mechanically recounted the day's earlier pandemonium.  

"The top story in the news tonight...

"Alex Barnes has been caught. The public breathed a collective sigh of relief as the notorious felon was handcuffed and taken away in police custody from Rainier University earlier today. Barnes has been charged with assaulting a young woman on campus and with the attempted kidnapping of Blair Sandburg, the anthropologist who cited her as a 'Sentinel' and was recently cleared of fraud charges by both Rainier university and the federal government."

~~~~&~~~~  

"... and was recently cleared of fraud charges by both Rainier University and the federal government. Apparently, Barnes had some sort of vendetta against Mr. Sandburg, and things played out violently when she sought him out on campus grounds..."

Across town, in room 629, in the locked psych ward of Cascade General, a lone woman lay restrained securely to her bed. An eerie light filtered across the barren, sterile room, casting surreal imagery across the walls.

The reporter on the television, whose voice was filtering in from the common area of the psych ward, was nothing more than an antagonist. He was mocking her with his silky tone of voice, reading her life story as if it were fiction rather than truth. He was tearing her character to shreds, painting her as a monster instead of a martyr. Angrily she pulled at the bonds, ignoring the piercing pain as the straps dug into her wrists. Pain meant nothing anymore. She now had permanent residence set up here in hell.

How? How in the world did I fail again? It should have been such an easy task. Take Sandburg and make him help her find peace. Yet again, things had fallen apart. Her zeal had cost her! When would she learn?  

Again, Alex pulled against her restraints, anger welling up within her like a consuming fire. It wasn't fair! The light from the hall seemed to glow brightly, stinging her eyes as her fractured senses began to spike out of control. Not fair, not fair, not fair!!! 

The bonds against her skin began to chafe, tearing away at her already fragile control. What the heck was in these restraints, poison? They wanted to kill her! That's what this was, they wanted her dead! Jim Ellison wanted her dead! He'd sooner she die than get her hands on his precious guide!

"Are you poisoning me now??" Her scream echoed off the four walls of the room, grating against her hearing like fingernails on a chalkboard. Why, why won't they listen? Why wouldn't Blair help? She only wanted peace. Blissful and wonderful, her treasured peace. A state of calm where her senses no longer betrayed her, where she could function normally. And she was not going to get that here. Not in this place, not in this horrid pit!

"LET ME OUT!" Her manic screams tore through her mind, her hearing spiking. She had to get out, the bonds were cutting her, the sheets setting her skin on fire. And that humming, where was that humming coming from? Torture! That's what it was, torture! 

Her mind seemed to leave her as she lay writhing on the bed, whimpering as sights and sounds pummeled her senses, showing no mercy in their ruthless assault. Was there no one to take away her pain?

"Easy there, quiet now!" A gentle yet commanding voice sifted through the red haze of her mind, stealing away some of the intense agony. A feather-light touch brushed across her sweaty brow, and a moment later she felt a prick of white-hot pain in her arm. Feeling something rushing through her veins, she moaned her defeat, knowing she was headed into drugged out oblivion.

"That's it, sweetie. Just go with the flow and let the liquid peace calm you. You'll feel all better real soon." The gentle voice spoke, as the gentle caress was resumed on her face, soothing her as the drug filtered through her battered system.

The voice began to fade as the drug pulled her deeper and she did not resist. She had had enough pain in this wretched life…

All she wanted was peace.


The End

E-mail the authors:
MaBrown: mabrown412@yahoo.com
Brate: brate01@hotmail.com
Gemini: gemini_ts@hotmail.com

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