DISCLAIMER: The Sentinel and its characters are the property of Paramount Studios and Pet Fly Productions. These stories are offered for the enjoyment of the fans. No money has exchanged hands.


Acceptable Men
by
Jael Lyn

.

For gold is tried in the fire and acceptable men in the furnace of adversity. -- Sirach

Act I

No. Go away. Blair groped toward annoying hum disturbing his rest. Whack! His head snapped up at that sound. He fumbled again for the button on the alarm, clumsily silencing the shrill wail that had interrupted his slumber. Perched on the edge of his futon in the still darkened room, he rubbed his eyes and imagined a world without timepieces that make noise.

Banishing the last remnants of slumber, he retrieved the procedures manual that had slipped off the bed when he'd lurched for the alarm. He must have fallen asleep studying again. Another round of qualifying exams was coming up soon, and he was determined to be prepared. Jim must have found him asleep when he came in last night and shut off the light.

Jim? Oh yeah, the guy he lived with. Not that he'd seen much of him lately. After all the trouble they'd endured to become permanent police partners, Blair seemed to lose track of Jim a lot lately. Last night they'd split up the errands and planned to rendezvous back at the loft. Blair had arrived safely with groceries. Jim had taken a call on the way home from the dry cleaners and never made it. Oh, he'd called every hour or so, assuring his partner that he'd be heading home soon, no need for Blair to join him. Well, we all have different definitions of "soon."

Blair shuffled out into the kitchen, lured by the smell of coffee. The loft was strangely quiet in the early-morning half dark. Had Jim forgotten to turn on the lights when he got up and started the morning routine? Blair stretched as he lazily flipped the light switch, wondering if Jim had gone back to bed to catch some extra shuteye. In the center of the table was a half sheet of paper, anchored by his favorite coffee cup.

Hey Chief,

Went in early -- paperwork left from last night. Didn't want to disturb your beauty sleep. Bring some bagels when you come to work, okay?

Jim

Alone, in his bare feet, Detective Blair Sandburg wondered what he was doing wrong.

Blair looked up from his sandwich, munching thoughtfully. It was a crystal-blue fall day in Cascade, one of the rare ones that made you forget all the unending days of drizzle. The rolling green grass of the park was dotted with colorful leaves. He was vaguely aware of geese migrating overhead. The warm breeze carried just the barest tang of autumn. Idly, he wondered what Jim, with his sentinel senses, was experiencing. On the other hand, maybe at this moment he wasn't aware of much.

The vaunted Detective Ellison was stretched out, leaning against the bole of a big leaf maple. His own triple-decker sandwich with all the trimmings lay neglected in his lap. Blair realized with a start that his partner looked truly haggard. They'd worked crazy hours and skipped days off before. Stakeouts stretched into the wee hours of the night and early morning calls from Simon came with depressing regularity. For some reason, his partner seemed unusually worn. His fair skin showed an unfamiliar pallor through his fading summer tan. Faint smudges underlined the vivid blue eyes that somehow lacked their usual sparkle and snap.

Blair frowned as he watched his partner hover on the edge of sleep. Last night and this morning had been the final straw. Jim's ever more frequent absences had finally caught his attention. Jim had been increasingly out of sorts as summer had melted into fall. He'd had a string of minor illnesses, highly unusual for a man who was typically the picture of good health. He worked more and slept less. Now that Blair looked back on it with a different perspective, Jim seemed to be taking on more and more responsibility within their relationship as partners. If there was a touchy liaison to work out with another department, Jim did it. If there was extra duty to split up, Jim took the lion's share before Blair could open his mouth. This hadn't been the first morning Blair had awakened to a deserted loft because his roommate had already gone to work hours before.

His first concern had been that the more experienced detective somehow found his work lacking. The twinge of self-doubt had evolved into irritation, and from there to out-and-out worry. After some serious reflection, Blair was beginning to form his own suspicions as to what might be going really be going on, although he certainly wasn't going to get any direct confirmation from Jim. Blair laid his lunch aside and reached over, touching Jim lightly on the arm. Normally, he had to use caution to keep his hyper-sensitive partner from jumping out of his skin. Today he had to tighten his grip ever so slightly before the eyelids fluttered open. He shoved the blanket they'd dragged from the truck in Jim's direction.

"Hey. Why don't you stretch out and enjoy the sun?"

Jim looked half startled and took a hasty bite of sandwich. "Just daydreaming. We need to get going."

"We've been here five minutes. That's a lot of lunch left even on a short lunch. Come on, Jim. Take ten." He placed the uneaten lunch on the ground and folded the wrapping around it. "It's great out here. Enjoy it. You can eat in the truck while I drive us back to the station."

"What is this?" growled Jim. "Naptime for the preschoolers?"

Blair snickered. "No, downtime for the overworked and underpaid servants of Cascade. You've put in nearly a full shift and it's not even noon yet. I woke up at 6 and you were already gone. Who in their right mind is banging away at the paperwork at that hour of the day? Not to mention that paperwork used to be my big contribution." That comment earned him a scowl.

"Well, maybe you don't need to do all our paperwork."

"Don't be a crab, Jim. Bask in the glories of nature and recharge your batteries."

Blair expected to do a lot more pleading and begging, but Jim abruptly leaned back and shut his eyes. "Don't make us late, Sandburg. I mean it. You're still the junior partner, here."

"Got it, oh exalted one." He watched in amazement as Jim not only took his advice, but in less than two minutes was snoring softly. Blair's concern deepened as the next thirty minutes slipped by and his usually alert partner slumbered on.

After years of learning how to work around his Sentinel's idiosyncrasies, Blair laid his plans carefully. It didn't make sense to force things where Jim Ellison was concerned. Another two days of crushing workload went by before he had his chance. Jim had a court appearance providing background testimony on a case. It had gone down while Blair had been at the academy, so his presence was not required. Detective Sandburg was supposed to stay and catch up on paperwork. As much as Jim hated paperwork, he hated court more. He'd avoided wearing his suit all day by changing at lunch. Still, he groused steadily through the day until it was time to depart.

"Sandburg, if I find out you've spent your time eating doughnuts and talking, I'll skin you."

"Ye of little faith. Besides, I would never waste time with something as unhealthy as doughnuts. Maybe a nice bagel, with some cream cheese and some sprouts...."

Jim gave him a withering look, pulling at his tie one last time. His fidgeting didn't escape Sandburg's attention.

"Jim, you having trouble with your senses here? You spent a fortune on that dress shirt because of the way it felt. You're acting like it's made out of steel wool," Blair whispered, sentinel soft.

"A little. Everything just seems on edge. The cotton itches, and everything's too loud. I'll be okay. Don't be such a worrier." Unfortunately, another tug at his clothing canceled out Jim's perfectly good speech.

"Right." Sandburg scanned the nearly deserted bullpen. They could pull this off. He slid over, standing close to the taller man's side. "Okay. Close your eyes. Take some deep breaths. Focus your concentration, and edge the dials down just a little bit. That's it. Take your time." He placed on open palm over the upper buttons of Jim's shirt, feeling the rise and fall of his chest slow and deepen. "Good, Jim. Open your eyes. Keep your breathing steady." Watching his partner carefully, he took a half step back. "Better?"

"Yeah. Thanks, Sandburg." Jim looked a little sheepish. "I didn't mean it about the paperwork. You always do more than your share. Court, well, it's a lousy excuse, but court just wrecks my day. I owe you an apology."

Blair grinned. "You can make it up to me by treating us to take out. It's my turn to cook and I'm feeling uninspired." He flipped Jim's favorite blue tie to one side. "Sheesh, Jim, straighten your tie. Are you sure you have your shoes on the right feet?" he teased. Jim responded with a mock glare and pulled his tie straight again. Blair just laughed. "Now, go get it over with. Don't take any bites out of the defense attorneys."

Blair returned to his desk. Simon wouldn't be back for another half-hour, and Detective Sandburg was going to be the first item on Captain Banks' to-do list. The fact that Simon wasn't aware of this agenda didn't concern him in the least. His sentinel was his first priority and always would be. This last episode just confirmed his plans. Ordinary clothing and office noise didn't set Jim off anymore unless something was seriously wrong.

Blair tried to concentrate on his computer, but basically frittered away the passing minutes until the booming voice of Captain Banks echoed through the hallway. Simon had his jacket slung over his shoulder, and fit the clich* of hot and bothered. He stopped briefly at Rhonda's desk to leave her a few brief instructions. Blair was holding the door open to his office when he arrived.

"Go away, Sandburg. I have a budget to finish. Unless nuclear war is imminent, it can wait until I crunch these damn numbers."

Blair followed him into the office and shut the door. His eyes were calm as he waited out Simon's tirade. "I said it in English, Sandburg. OUT! Nuclear war or nothing. Go away." By the time he hung up his coat and turned around again, Blair was not only still in the office, but seated in a chair which he had pulled up to his desk.

"It's Jim. We need to talk now, while he's at court."

"Oh." Simon slumped in his chair and took a moment to register the level of concern on Blair's features. "Oh, no."

"Detective Ellison, please review the gathering of the evidence."

Jim forced himself to concentrate. The reprieve that Sandburg had manufactured in the bullpen had evaporated quickly. He'd waited nearly an hour before being called to the stand. During that time, his discomfort had grown steadily. His skin was on fire, and minor noises and smells were driving him crazy. He looked down at his suit pants. Sandburg had helped him pick this suit, carefully noting its fabric content in deference to his sentinel abilities. On a normal day he was keenly aware of the silk in the fabric and how it slid across his skin without irritation. Now it was as if the individual fibers carried tiny thorns, each one activated by the slightest movement. He could hear a faucet dripping in a restroom down the hall. The plop of each droplet overwhelmed the questions aimed in his direction.

"Detective, the evidence?"

"Uh, yes... as stated earlier, the bank records were obtained by warrant. We were aware of certain code names to search for. Those records were then separated for more thorough examination." Damn, the assistant DA was wandering away from the jury box toward him again. He was wearing an aftershave that sent his sense of smell into overdrive. The odor pounded through Jim's brain. He cringed, and tried to continue concentrating on the questions.

"And the names? How were those obtained?"

"From informants." PLOP SPLASH PLOP SPLASH Jim stuttered, and tried to regain his momentum. "We had what turned out to be highly ac... accurate... information from a highly confidential source." His voice was trailing off. A trickle of sweat snaked down his forehead and into his left eye. It burned like acid. He rubbed his eye frantically.

"Please continue, Detective. What information were you able to glean from the records?" Jim struggled to answer, but the sweet alcohol smell of the aftershave ambushed each word as it was formed. Seconds slipped by as he drifted, well aware that he was flirting with a zone out. Judge Winthrom had taken notice and was staring at him.

"Detective Ellison," he said sharply, "we'd like to get through this promptly. Are you all right?"

"Yes, Your Honor. Excuse me." Jim fumbled for a glass of water, sloshing ever so slightly as he poured. "We were able to discover a pattern of direct... payoffs...." Panting softly, he took another sip of water. The assault continued.

"Detective, are you ill? Counselor, why don't we take a short break and let Detective Ellison collect himself?" Judge Winthrom's tone had softened into concern. Jim realized that the Judge was leaning over the bench in his direction and was still speaking to him. "Detective, take five minutes. Get an aspirin; splash some water on your face. You're clearly not well. We'll get this finished as quickly as possible and get you out of here."

"Thank you, sir." Jim stood shakily. Maybe he could call Sandburg on the cellphone and get him over here. It was only a few minutes' walk. He was reaching for the phone in his pocket when the floor seemed to fall away and a haze washed over him.

"Jim. Jim. Come on back. You're giving us a scare here." Jim knew his eyes were open, but he could only make out a few vague shadows. He recognized the voice. Sandburg. He focused in on the fingertips that tracked up and down the on the inside of his arm from wrist to elbow. His skin felt cool, and his vision started to clear.

"That's it, Jim. Take it slow." He started to sit up, but Blair gently pushed him back down. His eyes searched the unfamiliar room. He was lying on black leather... a couch? Blair intuitively knew his next question. "You're in Judge Winthrom's chambers. When they called the paramedics someone thought to call me, too. I beat them over here." His eyes crinkled into a smile. "If you're real good, I might be able to convince them not to haul you off to the hospital. Sit up, but like I said, take it slow.

Jim's head spun as he pushed himself up. His jacket and tie were draped over a nearby chair. Judge Winthrom and the assistant DA were standing nearby. Someone had unbuttoned his shirt and pushed up his sleeves. His head ached. When he touched it his fingers came back smeared with blood. Embarrassed, he tried to fumble at the buttons and make himself presentable.

Blair handed him a moistened gauze pad. "You scraped your head when you fell. Wipe it off and I'll put a bandage on it for you." He gave Sandburg a panicky look, hoping he'd pick up the non-verbal cue. How were they going to explain this one away? They needed major league obfuscation here, and that was Sandburg's area of expertise. Blair looked over his shoulder at Judge Winthrom, maintaining his physical presence near Jim. "Your Honor, you wouldn't happen to have any munchies in here, would you?"

"I have candy bars and Ritz crackers."

"Perfect. Jim's been having some problems with low blood sugar. Would you mind?"

"Of course not." The judge opened a paneled cabinet behind his desk. Blair doled out a few crackers and unwrapped a candy bar. "You don't know how much better I feel to know that even a judge eats normal junk food," he joked.

"When should we reschedule? We could push everything back until tomorrow or the next day...."

"Wait a minute," Jim broke in. "Give me five minutes. I'll finish up and be out of your hair."

"Don't be ridiculous, Detective Ellison. We can do this another day."

"Judge Winthrom, please. I feel bad enough about disrupting court as it is. I feel okay, really." He looked desperately at Sandburg. Blair came to his rescue and spoke for him.

"Jim may be right, Your Honor. He usually bounces back pretty quickly, and I've just arranged with Captain Banks to take the next ten days off to give Jim a chance to work on this blood sugar thing." Jim tried to keep the shock off his face. Blair was giving him the 'shut up and play along' look. "If you'll let me stay, I think Jim can finish and then I can get him back home ASAP."

The assistant DA shrugged. "It sounds okay to me, if he's up to it. Under the circumstances, I think defense counsel will be amenable."

The judge nodded. "See to it. We'll get everyone back in the courtroom. I'll let you know when we're ready for you, Detective." Winthrom left the room. Jim gave Sandburg a confused look as his partner straightened his dress shirt and helped him into his tie and coat. "What the hell is wrong with me, Chief?"

The bailiff chose that moment to appear, so Blair didn't answer. His reassuring smile would have to do for now.

Hours later, Jim found himself on the couch in the loft, uncharacteristically bundled in several layers of sweats and covered with a blanket. Sandburg had hovered nearby while he finished his testimony. The fact that his performance lacked some of his usual assurance was water under the bridge. Testimony complete, his partner took charge, adamantly dismissed all his arguments and unceremoniously steered him straight to the loft and bed. Discussion would merely be postponed. He had to admit, he did feel better after a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep. He shifted around a little as Sandburg made his way in from the kitchen carrying a tray of bread and soup. So much for house rules and eating on the couch.

"Here you go, Jim. Homemade minestrone and fresh bread." Blair handed over a steaming mug. He plunked down with his own meal and announced, "Now we talk, but first, I have something to say."

Jim gave a slight nod. There was no way to divert Sandburg once he had a full head of steam. He recognized the stubborn set of his guide's jaw.

"Jim, you're exhausted. Don't even try to deny it. It's not important why. Chalk it up to a tough year for both of us. This thing with your senses today was just the final straw on the camel's back. Think about just the last month. You, iron man Ellison, had a cold that lasted for weeks. You have no energy at work, but at home you can't get to sleep. Your diet's lousy, you're distracted and you're irritable. If you paid attention to the mirror, you'd know that you look like shit. For the only time in recorded history you actually fell asleep during lunch a couple of days ago."

"Come on, Sandburg. It was warm and I dozed off. No big deal."

"Dozed, nothing. You slept, Jim, for well over half an hour. Soundly. If I hadn't wakened you, I think we could have been there all afternoon." Blair wasn't surprised when Jim's face went blank and he refused to answer. "Jim, be glad that you had this little crash in the relative safety of a court room and not in the middle of some shoot out. It was a warning, and it's just plain stupid to ignore it. I'm no military man, but every good commander knows there's a point you just can't push your men beyond. You are at that point."

Jim slowly took another sip of the warm soup. Normally, he would relish the flavors in this particular recipe. Sandburg always made a double batch and froze some, knowing that it was his favorite. Tonight, however, it could have been tepid water. Just another sign that things weren't right. "Okay, Sandburg, even if I buy this explanation, what gives you the right to ask Simon for time off on my behalf? What am I supposed to do, goldbrick around the loft for a week while everyone else in Major Crimes works double-time?"

Sandburg shook his head. "Even the Sentinel of the Great City needs a vacation. That's what you need right now." Jim stiffened, and Blair hurried through his explanation. "Don't freak, but I've been planning this for a couple of days. I talked to Simon this afternoon, just like I told Judge Winthrom. He's arranged for some temporary support. He knows you have special needs. Under normal conditions, you do the work of three people, but there's a price to pay. The bill is due right now. This afternoon made that crystal clear."

"Say for the moment I go along with this. What's your plan? I'm not going to St. Sebastian's." Despite his gruffness, it was a poignant moment for Jim. The last time Sandburg had sparkled with anticipation like this was when he was immersed in academic pursuits; running one of his tests or devising yet another insightful theory. It hurt to know how seldom flashes of that quirky brilliance made their appearance these days.

"You don't just need a physical rest. We need to give your senses a vacation, too. I'd ship you to Peru in a box if I could get away with it. You need to get completely out of the city into a more natural environment. The idea is to give your senses a rest break, and that's not going to happen in the city. We're leaving, hopefully tomorrow morning."

Jim gave Blair a skeptical look. He could argue the point. Ream out his friend for going behind his back and not consulting him. Unfortunately, he suspected that Sandburg was right on the money. Jim could give in to his pride and put up a fuss, but that wasn't going to change anything. He sighed. "Do I at least get to know where we're going? I don't suppose you've noticed that it'll be raining."

Sandburg's smile was blinding. "Not where we're going. We're backpacking a loop in the Bitterroots, on the Idaho-Montana border. It's cool but dry east of the mountains. It's late for fishing, but the exercise and environment is the best down time you could have. As soon as you finish your soup, you can help me pack."

As it turned out, there wasn't all that much to do. Sandburg had already shopped, and had their backpacking gear stowed in his room. Actually, the idea of a week in the wilderness kind of grew on Jim. Despite his overall malaise, the whole idea sounded like the perfect remedy.

"I think that's it, Sandburg," Jim commented, pushing his last pair of socks into the backpack. "You did a great job planning all this out, even if you were a little sneaky about it."

"Hey, you can blame that on yourself. You're just a teensy bit stubborn, Jim, especially when I challenge your tough guy image. I'm glad you like the idea -- I really think it will help." Blair pushed off his knees. "We can make an early start. We'll have to stop in Spokane to get some more fuel for the backpacking stove."

"We've got some. It's in the basement."

"No! I hunted all over -- are you sure?" He stood with his hands on his hips looking positively annoyed. "I looked in the box where a lot of the fishing gear was."

Jim shook his head. "It's not there. There are two canisters in a box back in the corner. Look, I know where they are. I'll go down and you can finish up here."

The basement storeroom showed all the signs of a Sandburg attack. Blair tried, but every filing or storage system he came in contact with always ended up in total chaos. Blair had pulled boxes and cartons off the shelves to rummage for the items he wanted. Gear that was used for car camping but was unsuitable for backpacking littered the floor. Jim didn't have the heart to be irritated. Realizing that neat was not always the most important issue was one of many things he was still trying to learn from his roommate. There would be plenty of time to straighten it up when they got back.

The desired boxes were half-concealed behind lumps of relocated odds and ends. Their heavy sleeping bags were piled in a droopy tower over the camp stove and the Coleman lantern. No point in shifting it all back to the proper shelf. Jim knew exactly what he was looking for. Bottom shelf, cardboard box. He started to lean over the mound, and stood right back up. It was as if the fabric on the cover of the sleeping bags wasn't even there. His fingers were numb. He shook his hands and wiggled his fingers, trying to encourage his sense of touch back to normal. Impatient with his senses already, he just gave up, reached over the mound and rooted around until his hand smacked the corner of the metal shelf. Now, that he could feel. His thoughts were certainly elsewhere.

He didn't feel the strands of web as his knuckles brushed against it, or note the pinprick near his wrist as his fingers scrabbled for the edge of the cardboard box.

Continue on to Act II...


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