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
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?


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.

Act II

"How are you feeling, Jim?" Sandburg poked at the fire. "Are you ready for some killer smores?"

"Smores? What is this, Girl Scouts?"

"I assume that's a yes."

"Of course it's a yes, Darwin. I hope you brought lots of chocolate. And quit playing mother hen." Jim accepted the whittled stick from his partner and positioned his marshmallow over the flames.

Blair watched in amusement. "I swear. Can't you do anything without perfect precision? It's a smore. You mash the stuff together and eat."

Jim sniffed. "I like mine toasty. It's not my fault you just burn yours and then blow it out." He rotated his stick with exaggerated concentration. "Show a little patience."

"Well, you just keep it up, Chef-of-the-Wilderness." As predicted, Blair was blowing out some rather spectacular flames on his marshmallow before it dropped off his stick. "While you mess around with toasty, I'll just eat your share." As he squished his chocolate and graham cracker together, white gooey marshmallow oozed over his fingers. He quickly gobbled up the sticky mess before it had a chance to drip away.

Jim laughed, enjoying the moment. Blair could be such a little kid. He envied his friend's bright enthusiasm. "Don't even think about touching my share. I know how much I'm due."

"Oh, sure, your laser eyes have calculated the correct portions. Speaking of laser eyes, how are your senses? Seriously."

Blair had asked twice. Jim couldn't really avoid answering again. "Actually, pretty good. My hearing quit spiking after we got out of the car. Even my Pendleton isn't bothering me." As darkness had gathered around their camp, he had shrugged into his favorite wool shirt, only to discard it just as quickly. Now, a few hours later, the familiar plaid wasn't like sandpaper on his skin. "I feel bad you did all the driving today. I really crashed on you."

"I didn't mind. The sleep did you good. Your color looks better already. Besides, I got a chance to play all the music that normally would give you a headache."

"I can imagine. Still, eleven hours is still a long haul." He looked around their roadside campground. "I'm glad we decided to spend the night here. We can make a good start tomorrow." He pulled his marshmallow out of the fire. "It'll be nice to just stretch out by the truck and watch the stars. We can throw the space blanket over the sleeping bags if you start to get cold. Now hand over that chocolate."

After eating, they talked quietly, watching the stars wheel over their heads. Pleasantly stuffed and finally sleepy, they banked the fire and climbed into their sleeping bags. At Blair's insistence, Jim described what he was seeing and feeling. His guide had been correct. Not only were his senses settling in to a more normal pattern, but they actually showed a few signs of sharpening. The pauses between comments gradually became longer, and Jim finally realized his partner had slipped into sleep. Knowing Blair would be freezing by morning, Jim pulled the space blanket over him. The back of his hand brushed against the fabric of the sleeping back. He felt at the irritated spot with his other hand and detected a small bump. Must be a mosquito bite. He hated mosquito bites! They were the kind of thing that slipped into his senses and drove him crazy. Talk about no justice in the world. Usually Sandburg was the mosquito banquet, and he hadn't slapped at one all night. With the surrounding forest sounds as a soothing backdrop, for the first time in weeks Jim followed Blair into slumber without a hitch.

"Sandburg, are we going to hike today, or are you just going to hibernate in that sleeping bag? I can just hear the trip summary now. We had a great time while Sandburg slept for five days fifty feet from the road." He couldn't help but laugh as one blue eye peeked out around the folds of the sleeping bag. In true Sandburg fashion, his friend had burrowed into the covers as the night wore on.

"Is there coffee? Is it warm outside?"

"Come on, you slug. It's warm by the fire, and I have some breakfast ready, complete with coffee." Jim took another healthy bite of eggs. He stifled a laugh as Blair stumbled in his direction. "Sit over here. There's a spot in the sun, and you can finish waking up." He handed Blair a metal mug, which he quickly used as a hand warmer.

Blair sipped gratefully. "You're up early. If you tell me you've already built a cabin or something this morning, I'll have to kill you."

"I got plenty of sleep yesterday. You can rest easy, the only productive thing I've done this morning was breakfast. I spent the rest of the time watching the sunrise." Jim nudged his friend's plate. "Eat your eggs before they get cold."

Between forkfuls, Blair didn't miss the chance to quiz his sentinel. "Did you take the chance to work on your relaxation and breathing? Are your senses better?"

Jim paused. As much as he wanted to answer truthfully, he hated to let his guide know how much information he had withheld. To speak frankly of improvement was to let Blair know how bad things had gotten. "Well, my sense of taste is better."

"What was wrong with taste? You never said anything." Blair's reproachful gaze was true to expectation.

"I didn't say anything because I really didn't put it together. I just thought I'd lost my appetite, as unlikely as that may sound. I guess I mean that things taste pretty normal. I mean, eggs taste like eggs and coffee tastes like coffee."

"I'm not going to pursue this because I'm really grateful for the hot breakfast, but I want you to promise me that while we're on this trip you're going to tell me exactly what is happening. I don't know all the answers, but I can't help you if I have incomplete information. Do I have your word?"

"You have my word. Let's hit the trail. I picked out what looks like a great lunch spot from the map."

"You? What about what I have planned?"

"Sandburg, drink some more of that coffee. I give you credit for having a brilliant idea as far as planning this trip, but you can't read a map to save your life. Trust me on this one."

By mid-morning Blair had to admit that Jim knew what he was talking about. He'd divided their trip into roughly equal sections, none too terribly long. When his ex-ranger hiking partner asked if he'd noticed the elevation changes, he was reduced to shuffling his feet in the dirt and completing an in-depth study of the eggs on his plate. Jim had just laughed and pointed out that considering the time frame, his planning had been exemplary. He'd carefully retraced their route on the map, noting the locations of the really steep sections that would be more comfortable at a slower pace. As they slogged their way up yet another rocky climb, Blair was grateful for the revised schedule.

Blair considered himself to be in pretty good shape. He was certainly a far cry from the days when he spent hours tied to a desk, grading papers or planning lectures. The Academy had stringent fitness requirements, but they were nothing compared to the Jim Ellison Rules of Police Partnership. As much as he hated the workouts, Blair was well aware that Jim had only his overall safety in mind. Now, as the elevation and the trail severity increased, Blair worked hard to keep pace. He looked ahead, where Jim was seated on some large rocks at the trail's crest. At least Jim didn't seem irritated by an occasional wait.

Blair was ready to go into full teasing mode when he realized Jim was holding his perch with unnatural stillness. He bounded the last twenty yards at what passed for a dead run -- Jim was completely zoned. Blair slowed the headlong rush to shed his pack and forced himself to soften his approach. Jim was gazing off into the distance. Blair had no way of knowing what sense was causing the problem. Nothing seemed particularly obvious. When Jim didn't respond to his name, Blair laid both hands on his thighs, exerting gentle pressure. He was about to resort to a firm shake when Jim blinked and mumbled a few words. He focused on Blair's face, and started.

"Damn. Another one." He closed his eyes and rubbed angrily at his forehead. "I guess it was too much to hope for a one-day cure, huh?"

"Have any idea what set you off?" Blair joined him on the sun-warmed boulder.

"Not exactly. I sat down and was trying to follow the trail through that stand of trees. All of a sudden everything got really loud, and I could hear your boots on the rocks like a bass drum. I must have tried to dial back and overshot."


"Yeah. A pretty bad one, actually."

"Well, let's take a break. You want sun or shade?"

"Shade. The sun's too bright right now." Blair's eyes reflected his gratitude for that small admission.

"Shade it is. How about that grassy spot about halfway down? You can figure out how much farther we're going to walk today and I'll rustle up some lunch."

As they munched their way through some fresh fruit and energy bars, Jim spread out their map and re-examined their route. To his surprise and Blair's grateful sigh, most of their climbing was finished. Jim didn't want to admit it, but he was far more tired than he should have been. He refolded the map and took another slice of orange. Getting upright now seemed more effort than it was worth.

"How tired are you, Jim?"

Jim jumped. Blair's question startled him, and he hadn't realized he was drifting. "Caught me, huh? I used to be a lot better at this."

"Better at what? Playing superman? Hiding how you feel, physically or emotionally? I thought I had your word on honesty."

"You do have my word." Jim stopped to take another long drink from his water bottle. "Maybe I'm just not as aware as I should be." Blair leaned back. He obviously wasn't letting Jim off the hook. "Okay, I'm a lot more tired than I should be. We've only done five or six miles."

"Well, try to remember you're not starting from a normal baseline here. A little extra sleep isn't going to erase weeks of accumulated fatigue and stress. My theory is that your degraded physical state is what's kicking off your senses. If that's true, I should have been watching for a sensory episode. In this case, that zone out was probably more my fault than yours." As Jim started to protest, he brushed him off. "I'm serious. I'm your guide. This is my role in the partnership. I should be able to anticipate an obvious problem, like checking the labels on stuff we buy or watching how we spice our cooking. You've always trusted me to do this. It's as important for you to listen to me now as it was for me to listen to you when I was the tag-along police observer."

"That's stupid, Sandburg. This isn't your fault. I just need to pay more attention."

"NO!" Blair stood up and turned away from Jim, facing out over the trail. After a few seconds he sighed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to snap." Despite the apology, the set of his shoulders still radiated tension. When he turned back, he clearly took a moment to get just the right words. "We didn't start this all those years ago as equal partners. I might have had the academic information, but we were doing police work and you were the boss. You were older, it was your loft, yadda yadda yadda. Thing is, conditions have changed, but we're still doing things the same old way, or maybe reverting back to older patterns."

Blair seemed to relax a bit and sat down again, facing Jim squarely. "I want you to think about this. Maybe the reason you've let the job run you to the brink of exhaustion is that you won't let me fulfill my half of the partnership. You've been running a lot of interference for me lately, sort of excusing me from stuff I would normally do." Jim started to protest, but Blair waved him off. "Why go in early without me? How many times in the last two months have you run off to do something solo? Admit it Jim, it's stuff that we used to do together. I'm not the observer anymore, and you're not Jim Ellison, the don't-give-me-a-partner loner. I'm a full-fledged detective, but you keep trying to do my job as well as yours. I'm sure you mean well, but it's too much. Your body and your senses are telling you that." Blair gathered up their water filter and both water bottles. "I don't want to talk about this anymore right now. I probably shouldn't have blurted things out like that, but I'm kind of frustrated. I'm going to refill these. I want you to rest while I walk ahead to the creek. You can meet me at the bottom in about ten minutes."

The remainder of their first day's hike went without further incident. That night they set up camp on the edge of a small meadow. Another nearby creek provided water that they filtered to replace what they had used. Blair noticed that Jim was downing their water at a record pace. Jim commented once on how dry he felt rather than being truly thirsty. Blair attributed it to senses gone haywire. Fortunately it wasn't a problem. The filter was multi-use and there was plenty of creek water along their route. After their meal, Blair coaxed Jim into letting him run some tests, just to monitor his sensory functions.

"We'll start out simple. Just close your eyes and tell me what you hear."

"We did stuff like this the first week I knew you, Sandburg. What are we doing? Going back to sensory kindergarten?"

"Sort of. I need to get a benchmark so I can figure out where you are right now. Come on, Jim. No sour milk or anything like that. Just close your eyes, relax and listen." Over the next ten minutes they repeated this most basic of tests with touch and sight. Both men quickly realized that Jim's senses were far below par. That much was obvious even without the fancy equipment of a university laboratory.

"That was great, Jim. Just relax and let's enjoy our evening. We'll try again tomorrow."

Jim accepted his fate with grace and stretched. He felt strangely achy. A simple hike shouldn't be this much trouble. "What? No notes?"

"I don't have to take notes. I'm not publishing. I can just keep track informally and do it in my head. No more scribbling in a million notebooks. Come help me with the tent."

Jim decided not to mention that in some weird, subconscious way he kind of missed those notebooks.

Blair was awakened by the groans of his tent-mate. His eyes popped open and he pushed up on an elbow. He listened as Jim thrashed around and groaned. He located a flashlight and flipped it on. "What's wrong? You okay, Jim?"

Jim was rolling his head from side to side in obvious discomfort. "I must be getting old. How pathetic. We hike -- what? -- twelve miles and I hurt all over. Do we have any aspirin?" He did a double-take as Sandburg hustled out of his mummy bag. "Take it easy, Sandburg. It's nothing serious."

Blair ignored him and quickly dug out their kit for medical emergencies. "There's a water bottle right behind your head. Here." Blair handed over two aspirin tablets. "Take these. Tell me exactly what you're feeling. Is this a sensory thing?"

"Relax, Sandburg. This is an embarrassment thing." Jim sat up to swallow. "I'm an ex-Ranger. I should be able to do ten of those hikes under hostile fire carrying a rifle. Instead I ache like a truck ran over me. How could I be this out of shape?"

Blair shook his head. "Give me a break. You're not out of shape. This has got to be your senses. Check touch. Is that unusually sensitive?"

"No. Really Sandburg, I'm just stiff. No tests at this hour of the night. Just let me work this kink out of my neck and I'll be fine." Blair was still sitting up, staring at him. Jim appreciated the concern, but enough was enough. "Turn off the light and go back to sleep, Chief. It's way too early to get up." Jim lay back down, trying to ease into a comfortable position. "Thanks for the aspirin. If it makes you feel better, you can be the first one up and make the coffee."

"I don't like it, Jim. There are too many possibilities...."

"All of which will wait until morning. Turn off your brain when you hit the light, Chief." Jim's last glimpse of Blair's face told him how futile that suggestion was.

After breakfast, a leisurely half-day hike brought them to a small creek that bounced furiously over huge boulders of gray granite rock. Switching into shorts, they ate lunch sunning on the rocks while dangling their feet in the water. The dark granite had absorbed the heat of the autumn sun and made the temperature seem warmer than it actually was.

Since they had no real time schedule, they lingered, enjoying the sun and each other's company. It shocked Jim to realize how long it had been since they'd shared an afternoon like this. The time that stretched out from the release of Sandburg's dissertation to the academy to the present seemed like one long frenzy. No wonder his senses had finally rebelled. And Sandburg? He worried about Sandburg all the time. What had his friend been processing in silence while they both allowed the day-to-day routine to absorb them? Was he really stifling Sandburg? Was he holding him back by not allowing their individual roles to mature? He didn't like that possibility. Maybe it was time to turn the focus.

Blair had moved off, digging through the vegetation that lined the streambed. If he didn't get him out of there soon they would be eating some weird root for dinner or drinking twig and bark tea. He chucked a pinecone at Blair, hitting him squarely in the butt. The poor guy jumped a foot and returned the favor. He came splashing back across the creek with a murderous gleam in his eye.

Jim held up his hands in mock surrender. "I apologize! I'm guilty! I didn't mean it!"

"Didn't mean it? You scared me half to death." Blair scrambled back up on the rock besides Jim. "What did you do that for? I was busy. All kinds of interesting plants grow in this area."

"I knew it. Count it as self-defense. God knows what you'd try to add to our dinner." He absently rubbed the tiny red knot on the back of his hand. "Besides, I was bored without you here to talk to."

"Well, that's a first. You're sicker than I thought." Blair retrieved his socks. "You're right, we should get going. This was fun." He stopped when he noticed Jim wasn't moving. "Is something wrong?"

"Blair, do you like being a cop? I mean, really like it? To the point that you don't miss the University?"

Blair put down the socks and stared at his friend. "Jim, is there any particular reason you would ask me that right now?"

"I don't know. It just popped out. I withdraw the question."

Blair crossed his legs and settled into a more comfortable position. "If it's all the same to you, I'll answer. It's just that the timing intrigues me. It occurs to me that this flurry of 'help Sandburg do his job' just happens to coincide with when I would be starting a new year at Rainier. Something tells me this is not random chance."

"Am I supposed to answer?"

"Maybe not. Maybe you can't answer. My guess is that you're still not sure I'm going to stick this out. Am I right?"

Jim's silence wasn't exactly a surprise. "Then I'll answer your original question, Jim. I LIKE being your partner. Part of the job still freaks me out, but yes, I like it." Blair sighed. That was the easy part. "As far as the University goes, I miss the teaching most. I try to be philosophical about it. A university isn't the only place to teach. Once I get more settled, there are community outreach classes that need volunteers, or maybe someday I'll teach at the academy." He chuckled. "Wouldn't that pin a few ears back? Maybe you could be my co-instructor. You could write your own class. How about 'High Speed Chases Made Simple'? Or 'Know Your Insurance Rates'?"

"Ha Ha. Very funny. Nice try, Sandburg. You almost got me off track. What about the anthropology? You spent most of your life preparing, and now it's just gone." Jim had lowered his eyes and seemed uncomfortable. Ah, ha! thought Blair. Now we really get to it.

"Jim, what I need you to understand is that the whole time I've been with you I've done anthropology, and not just when I was writing my diss. Everything you know becomes part of what you do. Some great anthropological studies have been completed by people who were doing other things -- missionaries, travelers, traders -- you name it. I didn't stop doing anthropology just because my nameplate isn't above a door at Rainier. I don't get paid for anthropology per se, but it will always be part of me, and I will always be an anthropologist." He shifted to face Jim directly. "Answer me something, would you still be a sentinel if you weren't a cop?"

"Sure. You've always said that I'll always be a sentinel. I guess I see your point, though. It's just -- you should be publishing papers and speaking at conferences -- sharing what you know and being recognized for it."

"Those are just the trappings, Jim. It's fun to go to a conference and have everyone pay attention to you, or be completely involved in some academic question, or be the lecturer who fascinates the class. But I have to tell you, it's as intellectually engaging to put together the pieces of a crime, to devise an interrogation strategy or anticipate what some criminal is going to do before he hurts someone. Anthropology is the study of group behavior and so is police work. It's the same principle, just a different form."

"You'd be a phenomenal profiler if you were inclined."

"And maybe I will, or maybe we'll do it together, as a team. Jim, maybe it's time we both faced up to the changes in our lives instead of running so fast. Ask yourself that. Is that what we've been doing? Just keep moving so you don't have to look too close? Or are you just trying to keep me from looking too close? If that's the case, look where it's gotten us." His partner seemed to be drifting. "Jim?" To his relief, Jim's head came back up.

"I'd like to think about that. What you said about always being an anthropologist? I'd like to believe that's really true."

"Take your time, Jim. I think you'll agree in the long run. Come on. Let's walk."

They hiked steadily throughout the remainder of the day. The last short section was one of the toughest of their planned route. They were steadily gaining altitude. Some sections of the trail were closer to rock climbing. Blair's concern grew as the day progressed. Jim seemed to be pushing. He'd only nibbled at lunch, and didn't seem interested in taking a break. This didn't exactly fit the rest and relaxation program Blair had in mind. Well, if he won't stop for himself, I know he'll stop for me, thought Blair.

"Hey, Jim," he called up the slope. "Hold up at that big rock. I need to take a break here." Jim waved in response. By the time Blair clambered up the last thirty feet, Jim had his pack off and was greedily sucking at his water bottle. "Thirsty again?" Blair asked as he shrugged off his pack.

"It's weird. I don't think I'm dehydrated, and it's not that warm, but my mouth just feels like cotton."

Blair dug into his pack. "Here, let's split an apple. See if that helps." He used his knife to carve the apple into slices and handed a generous one to Jim. He was heartily enjoying the sweet crunchy fruit when he noticed Jim had quit after a couple of bites. "What's the deal, Jim? Doesn't it taste good? Are your tastebuds off?"

"You're hovering, Sandburg."

"Am not," he replied with a grin. "Remember why we're here."

"It's not taste. I just don't feel like eating. My stomach's upset or something."

Over an apple? Jim, the man with a cast-iron stomach? Without comment, Blair dug out a few saltines. "Nibble on a couple of these -- see if it helps. You of all people know better than to exercise this hard without eating."

A few bites of cracker seemed to help. They spent the rest of their break in good-natured argument over their current position. Blair didn't budge until the remains of the apple had finally gone down his friend's throat.

Their target was a small high mountain lake. Blair insisted on taking the lead, figuring he could control and slow the pace more easily from the front. He gave an inward sigh of relief when he finally saw the blue jewel nestled within the trees. Maybe he could get Jim to really relax. A late afternoon breeze ruffled the surface, and it sparkled in the slanting sun. Jim was just a few steps behind, and came up beside him. Upon catching sight of the lake, he seemed to waver and lose his balance. Blair barely got a hand on him before Jim toppled over.

"Whoa. Sit down." He steered Jim to a nearby log. "What happened there? Shit, was it the light? I didn't think about the glare off the lake."

Jim shook his head. "Don't think so. I didn't notice a spike or anything. Maybe it's just the altitude or something. We haven't camped this high in a long time." Jim righted himself. "Beautiful spot, Sandburg. Let's camp over on that point." He was off down the trail without another word.

Jim set up their tent with his usual efficiency, but Blair kept a watchful eye on him. Blair had really expected some significant improvement by now. So many oddball things were going on he couldn't decide if Jim was improving. Realizing Jim was on edge, Blair was careful to give him some space. He wandered off, exploring the lakeshore with his usual curiosity. He was delighted to find huckleberries in the nearby woods to go with those he'd managed to collect along the trail. It was late in the season to find them and they'd make a great addition to their evening meal.

He was relieved when Jim ate reasonably. They chatted amiably through the meal. Blair entertained Jim with anecdotes from some recent reading on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Hard to believe the party had nearly starved to death crossing this region nearly two hundred years ago. Despite Jim's apparent recovery from his afternoon mishap, Blair was still concerned. Together they went through the same low-level tests they'd completed the previous evening. The results were a pleasant surprise. Certainly not up to Jim's usual standards, but improved, nonetheless.

"Hey, Jim. You did a lot better with hearing today. Is it my imagination, or is your control better, too?"

"That was my impression. I think you had the right prescription, Chief." He shifted uncomfortably. "Could you get me some more aspirin? It wasn't bad while we were moving, but now I ache all over. Talk about embarrassing. We're playing cards tonight, aren't we?"

Between the two of them, they seemed to know every card game in the world. They switched from one game to the next, alternately gloating and grousing. Blair was taken by complete surprise when Jim flung down his cards and stumbled off toward the underbrush. By the time Blair got to his side, Jim was on his knees, vomiting repeatedly. Blair dropped down beside him, rubbing between his shoulder blades, helpless as the heaves continued to come. Jim finally settled back on his heels, winded and shaken.

"Geez, Jim. What was that? How long have you been feeling nauseated?"

"Don't know. Came on pretty quick."

"I'll say. Come on, move away from this spot. The smell must be killing you."

"Don't bother. I can't smell anything. I need some water, Sandburg."

Unwilling to leave him alone even for a few moments, Blair took Jim's elbow, steered him back toward their campsite, got him seated and semi-comfortable. "Stay put. I'll get something to clean up with and some water."

It took some time, but Jim gradually rinsed his mouth, cleaned up and managed a few swallows of water. In the meantime, Blair heated some herbal tea on the camp stove. "Try this," he said, handing Jim the mug. "It might help settle your stomach." As Jim sipped cautiously, he tried to question his friend without upsetting him. "Was this bothering you all day?"

"No. I promise, I would have told you. That was our agreement. I just wasn't hungry earlier. I was a little dizzy when we came up the last ridge."

Blair frowned. "I wish I could figure this out. We've been careful to filter all the water. The berries I gathered were ones you've eaten before, and I ate them, too. Somehow I don't think it's related to your senses, which was our original concern."

"Maybe I just picked up a touch of the flu before we left Cascade. We both agreed I was run down. Well, don't worry about it, Sandburg. I'm not dying here." Blair noticed Jim was rubbing at the back of his hand again.

"It must just be your week for bad karma," he teased. "Usually I'm the one covered with mosquitoes, but this time, you're the one with the bite. You want some lotion?"

"Couldn't hurt," Jim answered between sips of tea.

To Blair's dismay, the lotion was the least of their worries. By the time he returned, the mug of tea lay discarded in the dirt. Jim was on his knees, vomiting over and over again.


Coming to the conclusion that there was nothing to be done in the dark in the middle of a wilderness area, both men decided bed was the solution. Before turning in, Blair replaced the filter in their water purification system and boiled their utensils. Jim managed to keep down some water before sleep, but Blair was concerned about dehydration. Jim's near constant water consumption now glared like a red flag. Blair sat by him for hours, but gradually Jim's fitful sleep deepened and Blair relaxed. Satisfied that he was resting comfortably, Blair settled himself down for a few hours of watchful sleep.

As soon as he woke, Blair realized how late they had slept. The sun was fully up and the morning air had lost its chill. His attention immediately turned to Jim. When he went to shake the big man awake, he recoiled. The sleeping bag was sweat-soaked, almost as if someone had dumped water on it. Jim's skin was clammy. Even in the dim light of the tent his face looked ashen.

"Jim, come on. Jim, wake up." Blair scrambled the rest of the way out of his sleeping bag when he didn't respond. Panic washed over him. Jim was a big man. What would he do if Jim couldn't walk out of here? "Jim!" Finally, Jim groaned and rolled to his side. Grateful for any sign of life, Blair pushed the soggy sleeping bag off his chest.

"Sandburg, is that you? Damn, I feel bad. I need to get up." It soon became obvious that Jim Ellison was not going to be running any marathons on this day. The fever had clearly sapped his strength. Blair doled out two more aspirin as Jim cautiously sipped some tepid water. He declined coffee, but agreed to try some of the herbal tea again. While the water warmed, Blair pressed him for details. He admitted to a raging headache and dizziness. As he sipped his way through the tea, his color improved. A cup of diluted noodle soup followed.

"Weird, Jim. You must have run a fever during the night, but you don't seem hot now. How's your stomach?"

"These noodles are going to be it, but so far, so good."

"Don't be stoic, Jim. This isn't combat. Don't make me pull details out one by one."

"Okay, I ache." He shook his head. "I might expect some muscle soreness from the hiking, but this hurts in my joints."

"Like with a flu."

"Not really. I've had the flu, so have you. This is different somehow. This hurts."

Blair crouched in front of his friend. "I hate to say it, but I think out first priority needs to be getting you out of here. I should have been more heads-up and turned back after the first day."

"I wouldn't have let you. Until I started vomiting last night I wouldn't have given it another thought. Hand me the map. Let's figure the quickest way out of here."

Blair obligingly dug out the map. They had two options, retrace their steps or complete the loop. Retracing their steps was the shortest route, but Jim vetoed that strategy. Completing the loop would be a few miles longer, but the elevations were less punishing.

"Jim, I think we should just abandon the gear and beat feet back to the truck. Sick and in the wilderness is a seriously bad combination. It's so late in the season, we're not going to run into anyone who might be able to help."

"And what if I can't make it in one day? I hate to admit it, but I feel pretty bad. The temperature dropped to almost freezing last night. We can't take the chance of being caught overnight." Besides, thought Jim, you might have to leave me and go for help. "At this point, going down yesterday's rocky climbs would be a huge challenge, not to mention risky. Short and steep is not the way to go."

"I'll break camp. You can rest. Can I make you some more soup?"

Jim shook his head. "I'll stick with water. I must have sweated out a lot of fluid last night."

"Why don't you go over by the lake? It's sunny and you can relax where it's warm. I'll call you when I'm done."

It took Blair a while to get organized, and Jim was grateful for the time. The combination of morning sun, a little food and aspirin improved his outlook immensely. He started to get up and help out, but another wave of dizziness defeated him. He didn't want to risk losing the little nourishment he'd managed to consume. By the time Sandburg called him, he felt fairly steady on his feet.

He nearly rebelled when he realized that Sandburg had redistributed the gear in their packs. It went against the grain, but he'd been a soldier too long not to realize the wisdom in Blair's strategy. Jim Ellison was now the weak link, and there was no advantage in letting false pride interfere with sound decision-making. He did locate a weathered branch and fashion it into a walking stick. Anything to improve his balance.

They set a slow pace with frequent rests. In addition to his other complaints, his wrist throbbed. Blair forced frequent mouthfuls of food on him, arguing that he needed the nutrition to keep going, and that small snacks would cause less nausea than a larger meal. He was probably right, but Jim struggled to keep even those meager mouthfuls down.

Blair called an abrupt halt shortly after high noon at a shady spot by a small creek. He rolled out his own sleeping bag and insisted Jim stretch out and rest. Jim felt too bad to put up much of an argument. Blair retrieved a couple butterscotch candies and coaxed Jim into sucking on them while he prepared some more soup. Jim forced down a few more swallows of water.

"Hand me the map, Sandburg. I'll try to figure out where we are."

"Just as long as you promise to rest." Blair dunked his towel in the stream, and knelt by his side. "Let me wipe you down. Don't fuss." Jim had to admit, the water felt cool and refreshing on his skin. As he worked his way down the long arms, Blair stopped, running a finger over the mosquito bite.

"This looks infected. Have you been scratching at it?"

"Not consciously. It doesn't really itch. It's sore. Not like a regular mosquito bite."

"Well, try to stay away from it. I'll put some antibiotic cream on it and use a bandage. At least you won't be able to scratch it. You still look pretty pale. Could you sleep for a little while?"

Jim folded up the map and leaned back against his pack. "I'll give it a try."

Jim did more than try. After a few minutes he dropped into a fairly sound sleep. Even while preoccupied with watching Jim and preparing some food, Blair's thoughts continued to drift back to that bite. It almost looked like a blister. More weirdness in a sea of weird, but somehow it bothered him. Jim always teased him about being a mosquito magnet. Why would Jim have a bite and not him? In any case, he had more important things to worry about. Why would the berries selectively send Jim into nausea? When had Jim succumbed so completely to even the toughest flu? Was this a sensory problem, exhaustion, infection or a combination?

According to Jim's session with the map, they had made steady, if slow, progress. The next stretch was fairly flat. Jim hoped they could continue their progress by hiking into early evening. That would leave them poised to make a fairly tough climb first thing in the morning. Once the climb was behind them, the remainder of their trek was short with minimal elevation changes. Blair figured there was no real harm in letting Jim sleep a little longer. He passed the time by organizing their food into small snacks that he could grab in a hurry. Jim hadn't vomited today, but he could tell he was still struggling with nausea. He was getting better at spotting the moments when the dizziness or headache seemed to reach a peak and tried to stay close by. He marveled at Jim's ability to set a consistent pace despite his physical condition. After another half hour, he reluctantly rose to shake Jim out of his slumber. It was time to eat and get moving again.

Jim stopped to stretch, rolling his head from side to side. His neck and shoulders burned under the straps of the pack. It was a pathetically light load, and he'd spent every step taken since lunch trying to shame himself into ignoring his discomfort. He'd tried to pick up the pace several times when the trail was especially forgiving, only to be slowed by another wave of dizziness or nausea.

When the trail was wide enough, Blair had walked by his side, steadying him when he wavered. Sandburg had uncanny instincts. He seemed to know when a stop was needed, and handed him a snack or the water bottle before it was requested. In typical Sandburg fashion, he requested lots of short breaks to consult the map or take a rock out of his hiking shoe. It was pure fiction, but Jim appreciated that his partner was trying to spare his dignity. He valued Blair's sensitivity to other people, just as he recognized that it was a well-documented Ellison shortcoming.

He started when he realized that the straps were no longer pressing into his shoulders. "Slide out, Jim. I've got the pack." Reluctantly he stepped forward. Once the weight slid away, he grasped at his neck as pain shot up into the back of his head. The bright late afternoon sun faded to gray as another headache overwhelmed him. He reached back blindly for Sandburg, trying to catch himself. Blair must have dumped both packs, because immediately he was at his elbow, helping him ease to the ground. Jim managed to lunge to his hands and knees, leaning away from his friend as he vomited yet again into the dusty ground at the side of the trail. He slumped to his elbows. It just took too much energy to raise his head.

"Shit, Jim! Give yourself a break. We need to stop more often if you feel this bad." He felt Sandburg's strong hands knead into his cramping neck and shoulder muscles. The crushing pain in his head retreated. "Stay put. Close your eyes and lean back against my pack." Jim allowed himself to drift.

When he opened his eyes, Blair was wiping his face with a wet towel. "There's another little creek off to the right. Thought it would feel good."

"It does. Thanks." The towel had moved to his hands, which somehow felt hot and swollen. He flinched as the rough cotton rubbed against the bite on his wrist.

"Sorry, Jim. I should have dodged around that spot." He peeled off the bandage. "Does it feel worse? It looks worse."

"I think it must be my sense of touch. My whole hand and wrist throb, which is just stupid. Is that lotion handy?"

"Yeah, but I'm going to put the antibiotic cream on instead. I still think it looks infected."

Jim savored the rest as Sandburg rummaged through his pack. He downed another few swallows of water, fighting to keep the precious fluid in his stomach, knowing that he needed it. After dressing the annoying bite, Sandburg went back to the neck and shoulder massage. Jim was too tired to protest. The pain and its companion headache slowly receded. Finally he felt strong enough to continue.

"Get me on my feet, Sandburg. We need to keep going."

"Are you sure?" Blair moved around to sit in front of him. "Let me reorganize our gear first."

"No -- I can manage now. That was just a bad patch." He mustered as much certainty as he could manage. They needed to keep the gear. "Tear me off another hunk of energy bar and I'll chew while we walk." Blair was gracious enough to accept his word on it, and gently hoisted the pack back onto his shoulders.

It was nearly five when Jim sank down by the trail, head buried in his hands. Blair dug for two more aspirin, and wordlessly massaged Jim's temples and neck, trying to ease what he knew was another painful headache. After ten minutes leaned near Jim's ear and whispered, "Tell me what to do. Do you want to stop here? Eat? Rest some more?"

Jim answered haltingly, as if each word took more energy than he could spare. "Another mile, I think. This is the start of a long downhill slope. It's steep but steady. Then we can stop. I don't think I can do it alone."

"We'll leave your pack. I can come back for it if it's just a mile." They walked together, and around the next bend, Blair saw that Jim had been right. The trail dipped down a long, rocky, uneven slope and gently curved around the side of the hill. The trail was wide, but definitely steep. No switchbacks. Blair inwardly said a thank you. He thoroughly hated the times when a skinny track one-person wide skirted a veritable cliff. This was a piece of cake by comparison. Jim took a few steps, then staggered back and froze. "What's wrong? Jim, answer me!"

"The trail. Gone." Jim opened his eyes. Whatever he saw overwhelmed him and he dropped to the ground. "Can't go there."

"Jim, what the hell? Jim?" Ellison dropped his head to his knees.

"Oh, man. Bad. That's bad. The ground just falls away."

Blair shifted, trying to ease him into a more comfortable position. "Try to concentrate. Your senses must be acting up. Try to tell me what your senses are doing."

Jim looked up and tried to focus. "Everything falls away. We're gonna fall." He shoved himself backwards, dragging Blair with him. "Stay back. Don't go there. Not there."

Blair held him, trying to process this information. Jim's breathing steadied. While he whispered encouragement, his mind raced. He slid his own pack onto the ground beside them. This just didn't seem like a sensory episode. Keeping an arm around Jim's shoulders, he dug out some items from the pockets of his pack.

"Jim, I want you to open your mouth. Tell me what you taste." Blair slipped a broken fragment of saltine between his lips.

"Salt -- cracker."

"Okay. Good job. Keep your eyes closed. Keep breathing. We're safe here. Now this one." He brushed a few grains of sugar on Jim's lips.

"Sweet -- sugar?"

"Right again. Tell me what you hear."

"Birds. Water."

"Okay. I want you to sit up, but just look at my face. If anything bothers you, shut your eyes again." Jim slowly pulled in his legs and turned. He blinked slowly.

"You with me?" A nod. "Jim, I think your senses are fine. Can you see my face? Focus okay?" Another nod. "All right. We're going to stay right here on the ground, but I want you to try and look down the hill again. You can close your eyes any time, but I want you to tell me what you see."

"Moves -- ground moves." Blair gently moved a hand across his eyes.

"Is it gone? When you close your eyes, is it gone?" Another nod.

"I want you to lean back. I'm going to give you some more candy. Keep your eyes closed and just relax for a few." Blair shifted some gear to cushion Jim's body a little. He stayed close, making sure Jim relaxed. Jim was asleep in a few minutes.

Damn, thought Blair. Not senses. He's hallucinating. Now what?

Jim didn't stir for nearly an hour. Dusk was coming. It was pointless to push on. The next stretch wasn't far, but he needed a better plan to get down that slope. If fatigue was a factor, he had a better chance of maneuvering Jim when he was rested. He could make camp and keep Jim as comfortable as possible. Tomorrow they could abandon gear if necessary. He hated to wake Jim. Camp could wait a little longer.

"Chief? You there?" The voice was weak and unsteady.

"Yeah, Jim. I'm here. How're ya doing?"

"I lost it, didn't I?"

"Doesn't matter. Tell me how you feel right now."

"Whipped. Kind of okay. How long did I sleep?"

"An hour. Sit up slow, but don't try to go anywhere." Blair half-pulled the larger man into a sitting position.

"It felt like that brush I had with Golden. Was I hallucinating?"

"Think so. Not even your senses are that imaginative."

"We need to get down. Make a last try tomorrow, just like we planned. Help me up." He reached down for the pack.

"No. It's too late now."

"There's still daylight. Just get me on my feet."

"I said no. Remember that conversation we had about equal partnerships? Well, I hate to tell you, but you're not at your best right now. You're going to have to trust my judgment."

"Don't try to turn this into philosophy, Sandburg. It's not the time."

Blair could see this degenerating. Jim didn't need to expend the energy arguing. He needed to settle this quickly.

"All right. Humor me. Close your eyes and keep them closed. Scoot over to where the trail crests. Don't try to stand up." Blair crept along at Jim's side while he edged over. "Now open your eyes." Blair held his breath. Jim opened his eyes slowly, clearly trying to concentrate. He reeled back, groping at the hard soil as if grasping for a handhold. He tried once more, but panic set in, and he clutched at Blair's shoulder. "Get back -- get back!"

Blair rose to his knees, trying to envelope his struggling friend. "It's okay -- we're okay. Feel the ground, Jim. You're not falling." Bit by bit he eased Jim back, keeping him securely in his grip. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that. It was too much. You with me, Jim? Jim?"

He waited a few more anxious moments. Jim's breathing slowed. Eventually he pushed back and seemed to steady himself. When he finally got a few words out his voice was surprisingly calm

"You did good, Sandburg. I could have gone over head first. Probably would have taken you along with me." He buried his head in his arms. "You're right. I can't go any farther. You need to leave me."

"What? What did you say?"

"You need to leave me. I'm a mess."

"Jim, this is crazy. We'll rest and then walk out tomorrow. You'll make it if you rest."

"Blair, I'm going to put this in military terms. If you were in my command, I'd order you to go. If the roles were reversed, I'd ask permission to be left, knowing that someone would come back for me. The end result is the same."

"Jim, I can't safely leave you if you're hallucinating. What happens if you get disoriented and wander off? We'll go out together, even if I have to carry you." Blair racked his memory for every tribal transport method he'd ever read about. There had to be a way. They sat in silence, each man torn by his own thoughts. Jim finally spoke.

"Sandburg, look at me. Do you know what's wrong with me?"

"I...I thought I did. Now I'm not so sure. Maybe the vomiting is a reaction to the berries. Maybe it's a flu -- that would cover the vomiting and the fever." His voice trailed off. He felt so helpless.

Jim knew it was time. He had to convince Blair to leave him. It would run against the grain, but he was certain it was the best choice. Jim noticed the determined set of his friend's jaw. This would have to be a command performance. "Sandburg, I've had the flu. Hell, I've had dysentery in the middle of the damn jungle. I've had gunshot wounds. I've been on missions where I've been on the run for days at a time. I have never, never felt like this. If I'm sick, it's like nothing in my experience. We're out of our league here. That alone should be reason enough. I need help and you're the only one who can get it. You've got to leave me because we have no other options."

"I'll carry you. Or we can rig a litter and I'll drag it."

Jim shook his head. "I weigh close to two hundred pounds, counting boots and clothing. Think about that. Two hundred pounds of dead weight over eight or nine miles and a couple thousand feet of elevation. I don't doubt you -- you'd do it. But it might take two or three days." He grabbed Blair by the collar. "I don't think I have two or three days."

Blair was stunned. This couldn't be happening. There was always another way. He started to stand up, but Jim's grip on his collar tightened.

"You can be back in less than twenty-four hours. It's my best chance. Deep down, you know it. I trust you, Chief. I trust you to do this for me."

Blair gently untangled the fingers from his lapel and grasped the clammy skin between his own two hands. "If I do, you have to help me get ready. I'll take an hour to feed you and make sure you're secure. Tell me what I need to know while I work."

They pulled back to a level space sheltered on three sides by trees. The clearing opened to the east; Jim would appreciate the warmth when morning came. The cold night air that they'd enjoyed the first night or two was no blessing now. They decided against a fire. The risk was too great. Blair set up the tent, preparing a bed from both sleeping bags. He arranged all but one water bottle and food within easy reach. He laid out Jim's wool shirt and some other clothing to layer. All the while, Jim discussed his route from memory, giving what advice he could. Blair located their flashlights and extra batteries. He left one with Jim and shoved the other into one of their food bags along with a water bottle.

"Take some food you can eat on the move, and more water. Keep your rests short, but take them. Steady will get you there faster than a mad dash. You should go now."

"In a minute."

Jim looked ashen. Though the evening was just turning cool, he shivered uncontrollably. Blair hastily mixed up some more soup and doled out another dose of aspirin. "Force it down, Jim. You might not have the energy to eat on your own." With single-minded concentration, Jim sipped as Blair wrapped the wool shirt around his shoulders. "Keep drinking. I'll be right back."

He returned with three wringing-wet T-shirts, which he bundled into a plastic bag and stowed in the tent. When confronted with Jim's questioning look, he explained. "Your fever went way up last night. If it does again tonight you can use those to cool off." Jim handed him the empty mug, which Blair refilled. "You can sip at it while you wait to fall asleep. Let's get you settled."

Blair knew he'd done everything he could. He knew it was the right decision. Even so, when the moment came, words failed. He stayed frozen in the moment until Jim gave him a gentle shove, murmuring, "Go -- I trust you."

Blair choked on the reply. He sat there with his mouth hanging open, wishing for the right words. It was Jim who completed his thoughts for him.

"Remember what you said about being equal partners? You were right. Now get moving." Jim leaned back, fumbling for the mug of soup. He took a sip, and settled back, holding his partner's eyes with his own.

Blair nodded and backed out of the tent. If Jim believed it, he would too.

Act IV

Blair skittered down the long, rock-strewn slope. He'd stumbled, even gone to a knee once. He just rolled and kept going. He picked up his pace when his feet struck the dusty smooth earth of the trail as it leveled out and snaked away to the north -- at least Jim told him it was north. He jogged while the terrain was in his favor. It wouldn't stay this way. He needed to make good time while he still had the light, which was steadily slipping away.

When the sun finally deserted him, he came to a halt. The moon might help him later, but moonrise was hours away. He flipped on the flashlight. It shone brightly and then went out at his first step. He cursed softly. He'd put fresh batteries in the thing himself. Angrily he shook the offending object. It popped back on. Four steps later it winked out. After a few more exasperated -on-offs, Blair realized it had a short. Of all the luck. He'd left the other light with Jim, but had taken extra batteries. In this case, they weren't going to be much help.

He stood there, angry and wishing for a miracle. This was a wilderness trail -- the footing was treacherous even in broad daylight. He'd have to reserve his undependable light for emergencies. No matter. He wasn't going to wait hours for moonrise or longer for daylight. If he tripped and fell, and he was sure he would, so be it. Jim needed help sooner, not later. He forced himself ahead into the gloom and promptly tripped over some unseen object. He righted himself and kept going. Slow progress was better than no progress at all.

Jim closed his eyes and stretched out his hearing, listening to the solid thump of Sandburg's hiking boots on the downhill slope. With all his being he wished to fasten onto that sound, maintaining the connection with Blair. Unfortunately, he couldn't risk the zone out.

When Sandburg hit the bottom of the slope he consciously turned off his hearing. He took another sip of soup. He fervently hoped he wouldn't end up seeing these noodles again. His stomach muscles ached enough without adding another round of vomiting. He hated having the flu. He discarded that thought as soon as it flitted through his mind. He was certain he didn't have the flu, and it wasn't his senses either.

He forced down the last swallows of soup. Hurry, Sandburg. Wings to your feet. With typical determination, he closed his eyes, willing himself to sleep. The time would go faster.

The ground was uneven and his progress so uncertain that Blair quickly lost track of time and distance. When he heard the sound of water close by, he was relieved. Jim had drilled a couple of unmistakable landmarks into him. This fairly large creek that crossed the trail was one of them. He'd come nearly a quarter of the way. He figured this was a good excuse for his sometimes flashlight. He was giving the light a second irritated shake when his feet flew out from under him. In the dark, he'd misjudged the distance to the water. The smooth mossy rocks gave him no chance to catch himself. Startled by the crash and a dunking in a foot of icy water, he lost his grip on the flashlight. Blair lunged blindly for it before it floated out of his reach, soaking his upper body and arms as well. He struggled to his feet, still sliding on the rocks, completely drenched.

Blair slogged across the creek, slipping on every step, splashing noisily, and completely disgusted with himself. How stupid. His chest was heaving; he probably had the altitude to thank for that. The chill of a crisp fall night was no problem when you were bundled into a sleeping bag next to your best friend. Now, soaked to the skin, he shivered. He had no dry clothes. He'd abandoned everything in favor of speed when he left Jim. Obviously a miscalculation. Hypothermia would take him off his feet long before he got tired. He went through the basic 'prevent hypothermia' list in his head. Dry clothes were the first item.

Well, turning back wasn't an option. Jim didn't have time for that detour. Blair took inventory. He had wool socks and a fleece pullover -- that was a plus. They would insulate even when soaked. His jeans were cotton and worthless wet, but he had polypropylene on underneath and that would have to do. He'd just have to keep moving to stay warm, and eat to keep his energy level up. He groped at the bag he'd slung over his shoulder. Slightly soggy granola and fruit was fine if that was all you had. He shifted his water bottle to under his clothes. Drinking cold water would only make things worse. Shivers racked him. Move, Blair, move. He clicked the flashlight, hoping it would cooperate. It flickered out but came back on when he shook it. No change there. He used the brief light to get his bearings and forced his sodden feet into a shuffling jog.

Jim woke up, and realized that he'd been thrashing wildly. Damn. He was completely tangled in the sleeping bag, and burning up from the inside. He threw the offending layers of sleeping bag into a heap. It wasn't enough. The night air must be cold by now, but he felt like he was in a baking desert. He shed his wool shirt and one of the T-shirts underneath and waited for the change to cool him off. Nothing. He reached out to snag a water bottle, hoping the cold liquid on his throat would bring relief. Panting, he began to panic. The shirts. Sandburg had left him wet shirts. He groped the floor of the tent, ripping open the plastic. The wet cotton felt like heaven on his hands. He tore off his remaining shirts until he sat bare-chested. He shivered as the icy dampness hit his skin.

Lulled by the thump of his boots, Blair lost track of time again. Even in the dark, he had little trouble staying on the trail. Any detour took him straight into a wall of underbrush. Still, the darkness unnerved him.

The trail broke into the open, hugging the shoulder of a slope that had been burned over years ago. Jim had pointed this spot out. Halfway. He was supposed to be halfway. The wind scoured this area, and it seemed terribly cold. The body warmth he'd gained through his steady plodding vanished in an instant, stolen by the wind. Jim? Was Jim cold? Or was the fever back, burning through and sapping his strength?

Jim jolted out of sleep again. The darkness around him erased all sense of time. He scrabbled for the wet shirts, but his search kept yielding unsatisfactory results. His wool shirt. The sleeping bag. His jeans, his boots, his socks... all discarded earlier in a desperate effort to cool his burning body. When he grasped the first wet shirt he found, he knew it wasn't enough. Instead of soothingly cool it felt warm, even steamy. Outside. It would be cooler outside. He crawled toward the door of the tent.

The waning moon crested the horizon as Blair stumbled through the snags of long-dead trees. Its eerie pale light was not the comfort he had hoped for. If anything it made him uneasy, and he started at every night sound. He scolded himself for jumping at shadows. It seemed like a great speech when a new sound tore the night air.

The scream of a cat; and close by!

Shit. Were there mountain lions around here? Were they active at night?

Get a rock, or a stick, something for a weapon. He flicked the flashlight on to search, then flipped it off again. Would light attract a big cat? Were soggy anthropologists just the right size for a midnight snack?

The second scream, right behind him!

He spun on one heel and crouched low. He wasn't going to outrun a mountain lion in the dark. He needed a defensive position. The flashlight was clutched in one hand; his other wrapped around a smooth, cool rock he found at his feet. Poor weaponry, considering the circumstances. At the treeline, a heavy feline shape moved across the trail. It howled again, throwing back its head, silhouetted by the faltering moon. It looked black, but it had to be the screwy light. Mountain lions didn't come in black.

The cat paced, approaching no closer. Blair was frozen, mesmerized. It was so -- so black. And then it was gone. Blair shook his head and stared, then flicked on the light and searched the area. Unwilling to push on with danger at his back, he inched over to the trees, wary and alert. The ground was soft and powdery, brushed by the drying wind. No tracks. He searched again. He was alone with only the soft breath of the wind at his back.

You imagined it, he thought. Stress, fatigue, cold -- take your pick. The mental image of panther and wolf flashed through his mind, a shared vision that bound Sentinel and Guide together in ways they didn't always understand.

A spirit guide. Jim! Oh God, Jim!

The discarded rock rolled to a stop, but Blair was already gone. Back to the trail, retracing his steps, running in the direction he had come.

Jim sat outside the tent in the night air, hoping for relief. It was very dark. The moon had just crested the horizon to the east. His head was throbbing again, and every joint tormented him with more pain.

His skin felt hotter, as if the air boiled away when it touched. Sandburg said there was a creek. He could find it. He imagined the cold water flowing over his arms. He could lie down in the water. Just for a minute. The pain in his joints made it unspeakable agony, but slowly he crawled in the direction of running water. Anything to stop the internal fire that gave him no peace.

Blair fell more times than he could count. Cuts, scratches and bumps went ignored. He ran. Pacing was not an option. Only speed mattered. He tore through the trees. If he strayed from the trail, he fought his way back, clawing through the underbrush.

He couldn't stay on his feet as he crossed the creek. Trying to balance on the slippery rocks would take too much time. He went down on all fours, dunking himself again, and scrambled through the shallow, icy water.

Not that far to go. His chest was heaving. He could go faster, had to go faster.

He was close. The ground tilted upwards. It was the rocky slope that had frightened Jim. He tore and scrabbled his way up, calling Jim's name when he could spare the breath. The moon was now high in the sky and gave a ghostly shimmer to the granite stones beneath his feet. Climb...climb faster, he urged himself.

He clambered his way over the crest and burst into the clearing. The tent flap was open and Jim was gone. Screaming, driven by panic, he called for Jim again and again. Nothing. Silence. Horror crashed in on him as he gasped for air, trying to think where to look or what to do next. If Jim wandered off, what direction would he go?

Then he saw him, outlined in the moonlight, huddled by a boulder. Blair flew across the space separating them. Jim was unresponsive. Blair's hand clutched at bare skin. Jim was stripped down to his boxers. He started to wrap his arms around the shuddering form but realized he would do more harm than good; his own clothes were still wet. He tugged at Jim, trying to get him on his feet. Jim was too far gone to cooperate. Blair hoisted the heavier man into an awkward fireman's carry and staggered across to the tent.

Blair dropped Jim into the tent. He grabbed the nearest sleeping bag and wrapped it awkwardly around the silent form. Tearing off his own wet clothes, Blair grabbed whatever he could find. He couldn't help Jim if he froze to death himself.

Cursing the shattered flashlight, he fumbled his way to matches and their candle lantern. Two false strikes with his shaking hands and the match flickered to life, then the candle. Now he could see. He pulled on a thick pair of wool socks to replace his soggy boots. He went to Jim, pulling on layer after layer that Jim had discarded earlier. Some of the inner layers were sweat-soaked, and he tossed those aside. Another fever must have been at the root of this disaster.

Blair coaxed a few sips of water into his friend's mouth. Jim sputtered and managed a few incoherent words. At least he was responding. Blair frantically pulled clothing over his bare limbs, rubbed his arms and legs, trying to force some warmth back into them. It wasn't working. He needed more heat than a few layers of fabric could provide.

Snatching the candle lantern, he went in search of every scrap of dry wood he could find.

Dawn. Blair could hear it before he could see it. If he wasn't careful he was going to sound like Jim. It had been a long night. He threw another branch on the fire. He'd kept it roaring for hours now. Jim lay on a sleeping bag beside him, his head pillowed in Blair's lap. He'd warmed tea and a little food, but Jim could only manage to keep a few swallows down. He'd heated rocks, wrapped them in T-shirts and put them in next to Jim. Other than a few light dozes, he'd sat through the night, trying to soothe Jim as he struggled first through cold, then through nausea, fever, and more.

Jim was finally resting peacefully. Blair stretched out on his side next to him. The fire would hold for awhile. If he could sleep until first light, he'd be okay. They'd make it out together in the morning. Step by step, thought Blair. Just one step after another. He wrapped a short length of rope around his sleeping friend and laced his hand through the rough loop. He wasn't going to lose track of him now.

A persistent tug pulled Blair out of sleep. He winced as Jim's weight scrunched his hand. "Hang on, Jim. Let me get untangled."

"Was that the Sandburg version of taking your kid to the store on a leash?" Sandburg flexed his abused hand. "Maybe next time you ought to go for the two-year-old."

"Ha ha. At least you sound better."

"I take it I don't look better."

"You look like shit. I figure we're a matched set."

"I don't remember last night. Should I ask why you're here?"

"You don't need to. How do you feel? Could you eat something, Jim? I could make tea."

Jim shook his head. "At the moment, I feel okay, but I have a feeling it may not last long. Let's go." He stood, using Sandburg's shoulder for balance. Blair stared at his hand, shocked. Sometime during the night the bandage must have fallen off. Jim's mosquito-bite-turned blister had broken open. An evil-looking ulcer had taken its place. It was a deep, oozing pit, rimmed with scarlet, swollen skin. Blair was shocked at the change.

"Jim, does this hurt?" He held the hand gently.

"Yeah, now that you mention it. Looks infected. Would you put some more ointment on it for me?"

"Sure. See if you can nibble through this granola while you wait." As Blair rummaged through the hopelessly disorganized pack, something nagged at him. Something, something he'd read, maybe. Or seen? A case? On a dig somewhere? The press of the moment caused him to shunt it aside.

They didn't discuss any alternatives. It wasn't necessary. All other choices were gone. They would make it out together -- today -- even if Blair became the pack animal. When they set out, they left everything. Extra clothes -- gone. Camp stove -- gone. Blair left a note. Maybe someone would bring the gear out for them. His struggle to pack Jim a mere twenty yards had brought home the obvious. Blair would carry Jim out only if no other option was left, and anything extra was just a bad joke. Food, water, medical supplies, that was it. Time to go.

Jim took no chances on the first downslope. He felt stronger than he had in the past twelve hours, but he wasn't kidding himself. This was very temporary. They needed to get as far as possible while he was able. He dug out his blue stocking hat and pulled the fold over his eyes. With an arm wrapped firmly around Blair's waist, he made the descent blind, mirroring the smaller man's movements. It was slow but effective. He still felt pretty good when they reached the lower trail and they made reasonable time through the trees. The first climb proved to be a nightmare. Two hours later they made it to the crest in the burned-over area. They were halfway. Blair didn't ask Jim how he felt. He already knew. He'd vomited again, but every ten minutes forced down another bite or a swallow of water. Jim was a strong, determined man, but they were approaching his limit. By mid-morning he refused to stop even for the shortest rest. Blair understood. If he went down this time, he wouldn't get back up.

Hours slipped by. Blair lost track of time, but he could tell from occasional glimpses of sun that the day was passing. Conversation was an unnecessary effort. Jim's arm was draped over his shoulders. Blair still had an arm wrapped around Jim's waist. Blair's concentration was focused on one step after another. Only the next step mattered. Uphill, downhill, rocks. No matter. Keep them both on their feet and take the next step. Always one more step.

"Sandburg, I hear traffic. We're close."

"How far? Please say we're not far."

"Five minutes. Maybe ten. I don't know. We're going to make it, Chief."

"You bet."

"Chief? Missoula is our best bet. Turn right."

Blair shook his head in amazement. Jim was hanging on by a thread, and now he was giving orders. "You wouldn't be disrespecting my sense of direction here, would you?" Blair's heart jumped. He heard a semi roar by somewhere in the distance. So close.

"Just turn right, Chief. You are directionally impaired. Trust me. Missoula is right."

Blair could see the truck. The parking lot for the trailhead was deserted, as was the nearby campground where they had spent their first night. It was too late in the fall for most people to be hiking mid-week. So close, and now they had a real problem.

Access to the wilderness area was highly restricted. The Selway River was spanned in just a few spots by narrow, metal footbridges. The bridge that stretched out before him had given Blair the willies to cross coming in. Now they had a re-run. Jim took one look and reeled back as the bridge disappeared beneath his feet. Three tries later they were still stuck. The trick of restricting Jim's vision just wasn't working. His senses were on overdrive. The tiny sways and bounces of the footbridge threw him into panic, and each time he dragged Sandburg back from what he interpreted as certain death. Jim's strength was at low ebb. They just didn't have time to mess around, and Blair felt like he had a brain stuffed with cotton. He needed an idea fast.

Blair knelt beside the miserable figure. Jim flinched at the lightest touch on his hand, but reached back to hold on tight. His skin was loose and hot; probably a sign of dehydration. Blair vaguely remembered some test you could do with the skin, but it really wasn't an issue. After hours of vomiting and exertion, it was a no-brainer that Jim was in bad shape.

"I'm sorry, Sandburg," he whispered. "I know it's okay. I know we're safe. I just can't control it. It ... it just overwhelms...."

"I know. Not your fault, not at all. Can you turn everything down? Do you have that much control left? Just leave your hearing so I can talk you across. I could try carrying you."

"Last resort. Let's try to walk it. Get me up by the bridge and... do whatever it is you do." Jim took a few faltering steps toward the bridge, Blair in front of him. If this worked, Blair would walk backwards and coax him step by step. Jim took hold of one of the supporting steel cables. It felt like ice. He forced himself to grip harder and stay on his feet. Another headache raged, echoed by the pain in the rest of his body.

He focused on Sandburg's voice. Calm, sure. His Guide -- no, his partner -- knew what to do. He closed his eyes and shut out the weaving, pitching images of the bridge. The cable slowly went from freezing to neutral. He noted that Blair's fingers were curling around his, and he released his grip on the cable. He followed a gentle tug at his belt. A step into air. He floated on the voice into another step and another.

Blair ignored the sweat trickling into his eyes. They were mid-span. He fought to keep his concentration on Jim. The occasional glimpse of the water racing across the boulders below brought panic and distraction. His own fears warred with their slow, steady progress. If they faltered here, Jim might panic and he could lose him over the side. He could hear his own voice, but had no clue what he was saying. Just maintain -- keep moving -- keep yourself moving.

Blair's heels hit the hard earth on the far side of the bridge, and he stumbled. He grabbed Jim around the waist and lunged backwards, pulling them into a heap. When he realized they were falling, Jim's eyes flew open and he cried out. To Blair, a bump on the stony cold earth had never felt so good. Leaving Jim in an exhausted heap, Blair sprinted the hundred yards to the truck. He fully intended to break every known traffic regulation from here to Missoula.

It had taken nearly two hours. Two hours of careening wildly at maximum speed on a winding narrow road. Jim was silent beside him, slumped over in an awkward position Jim had managed a few more sips of water after Blair dumped him in the passenger seat and belted him in. He'd tried to make him comfortable, but comfort was being sacrificed for speed. They hit the outskirts of Missoula behind the sirens and lights of a Montana Highway Patrol car. Some fast talking had converted what could have been who-knew-how-many days in jail for reckless driving into an escort for a fallen brother officer. Presumably, the hospital had been alerted.

The truck bounced over the speed bumps into a covered space in front of the emergency room. Blair was out of the door and rounding the vehicle almost before the engine was shut off. He heard a gurney clattering behind him. He fumbled with the seat belt, hoping to get some minimal response out of Jim. As activity swirled around Blair, the State Trooper took charge of the truck. With a grateful nod to the officer, Blair dashed off to keep up with the moving gurney and his friend.

As the usual hospital contingent swirled around them, Blair stayed focused on Jim's ashen face, deftly dodging the nursing staff as they took vital signs and prepped their new patient for examination. He angled his way to Jim's side and had a firm grasp on his hand by the time the ER physician arrived.

"What have we got?" The bombardment of information didn't stop him from noting Sandburg's presence. When the torrent of voices paused he asked tersely, "I'm Dr. Phillips. Who are you?"

"Blair Sandburg. This is Jim Ellison. We're both detectives with the Cascade Police Department. We've been hiking in the back country and Jim got sick."

"Symptoms? Injuries? Kerri, get someone up here to do blood work and start an IV for fluids." His eyes fastened briefly on Blair as he continued to examine Jim.

"He complained of a headache and joint pain. Then he started vomiting, and had high fevers. At the worst he was having hallucinations. I left him last night to hike out to get help, and he got disoriented and ended up outside stripped down to his boxers. It took me hours to get him warmed up."

"Sounds like he over-extended himself hiking and got dehydrated." Blair winced as Dr. Phillips lifted Jim's eyelids one by one and checked his pupil response. Although Jim didn't flinch, Blair knew how painful that light would be to sentinel eyes. "Pretty standard for people unfamiliar with outdoor activities. He should be fine in a few hours. If you'll wait outside...."

"No, Doctor," Blair retorted firmly. Dr. Phillip's head snapped up in surprise. Blair wished he'd been more diplomatic, but he was too tired and too worried about Jim. "There's more to it than that. Besides being a police officer, Jim was an Army Ranger and he's in great shape. He's no novice on a hike. Something was making him sick."

"We can screen for infection, but dehydration and exposure is much more likely," Phillips answered. Blair knew he'd been dismissed. Phillips probed the lymph nodes around Jim's jaw and neck. "I really need you out of here," he continued in a distracted voice.

"You don't understand --"

"No, Mr. Sandburg, you don't understand," Phillips responded, clearly annoyed. "I'm the physician here. I appreciate your concern and your information, but I make the diagnosis and determine the treatment. Now I suggest you use the phone to contact his family, so if further treatment is required we don't have a problem getting authorization."

"I'm his emergency medical contact and I have power of attorney if necessary."

"It's standard to speak with his family. Move him to 2C." Phillips blocked Blair's path and used his size to back him up. "Don't give me any more trouble, Mr. Sandburg. I can have you out of here in a heartbeat."

Blair barely contained his fury. After the frantic dash into town, he was on adrenaline overdrive. For five cents he would have flattened the much larger man. "I told you -- I have every right to be involved in his treatment and I'm not leaving him alone!"

"And I told you to call his family. Until I hear from them we're not having this discussion. Marie," he called to a dark-haired woman at the desk, "call security please."

Torn between anger and panic, Blair backed off and stumbled toward the exit. He wasn't going to even try to get a phone from these people. He needed to hurry, not get himself tossed out of the hospital and into a local holding cell. His blind departure ran him smack into the State Trooper, who was coming the other direction with his keys. When he steadied himself from the collision, he muttered grimly, "Man, do I need your help."

"No, Rhonda, I need to speak to Simon now. Get him out of the meeting. He'll forgive you. Yeah, I'll wait." He nodded gratefully as Montana State Trooper, Randy Timm, brought him a steaming cup of coffee. "What's your fax number here, Randy?"

Randy Timm was about Blair's age and close to Jim's size and weight. He'd done everything possible to help Blair get the necessary paperwork from Washington. Even so, time was slipping by, and Blair's anxiety was rising with each passing minute. The longer he was gone, the greater the risk that the hospital would start some treatment or medication that Jim couldn't tolerate. As Randy scrawled the information on a stray sheet of paper, Simon's booming voice had Blair pulling the receiver away from his ear. The bellow quickly settled into a growl as he got the details of their current situation. Blair had barely hung up the phone when the fax machine clattered to life. Simon must have had Rhonda tracking down records while they were talking. After an interminable thirty minutes they were on their way back to the hospital with a stack of paperwork in hand.

As Timm's cruiser roared back across town, Randy slowed at a series of motels that lined their route. "Blair, are you sure you don't want to stop and get a room. Get cleaned up? You're beat yourself, my friend."

Blair glanced down at his filthy hiking clothes. He looked worse than a refugee. The clock on the dash informed him that over two hours had slid by since he stumbled out of the hospital. "Normally, it would sound great, but I need to get back to Jim. He has a bunch of allergies and can really have trouble with medication. I need to be there." He rubbed both hands across his face as they bounced into the parking lot a few minutes later. He was fighting to keep his own fatigue from overwhelming him. He offered his hand across the cruiser. "I can't thank you enough for all your help."

Randy Timm pulled out a folded sheet of copier paper. "I'm on duty for another few hours. I'll check in with you before I head home, but the number for dispatch is on there and they can track me down if you're really in a jam. I'll make sure the next couple of shifts have the heads-up about this. Don't hesitate to call." Blair added the sheet to his stack, and after one last grateful wave headed into the hospital to do battle.

He slipped down the hallway to 2C, choosing to put off the inevitable clash for a moment. It seemed too much to hope that Jim was just resting. A few moments at the bedside told him more than enough. Jim didn't rouse when Blair gently touched his arm and then laced his fingers through the still hand. The fever was clearly back. If anything, his color looked worse. Blair eyed the steady drip of the IV, hoping for an inspiration or some miracle response from Jim, as he spoke quietly.

"How ya doing, Jim? Sorry to be gone so long. Had to run down some stuff so they'll let me stay. It would be just great if you'd let me know how you're feeling." A rustle at the doorway alerted him to a frowning nurse. "I'd really appreciate it if you would track down Dr. Phillips for me. I need to speak with him. If he's not available, please contact the hospital administrator." He completely ignored the sputtering woman until she left, no doubt about to bring the wrath of Dr. Phillips and company around his ears.

He had ten minutes with Jim before Phillips came steaming in, clearly intending to toss him out into the street. Before the man could get a word out, Blair shoved a stack of paperwork into his hands, a copy of the legal document granting Blair Sandburg complete authority for the welfare of James Joseph Ellison in an emergency prominently placed on the top of the stack. Phillips bit back whatever tirade he had planned, shifting from one sheet to the next in irritated silence.

Without raising his voice or missing a beat in his running monologue with Jim, Blair watched as the doctor sorted through the stack a second time. From opposite sides of Jim's bed the two men faced off. Blair picked up the challenge where they had left off previously. "I'd like to be updated on Detective Ellison's treatment and his prognosis. Do you want to stay here or do this somewhere else?"

"There's really no need," sniffed Phillips. "As I told you, we're treating him for dehydration. The initial blood tests don't really show a clear indication of an infection, but I suppose we can start him on some antibiotics."

"Why is he still unconscious? What's causing the fever? If this were simple dehydration, wouldn't he have responded by now?"

Phillips looked annoyed again, but Blair was pretty good at reading beneath the surface. Phillips was bluffing. He really wasn't all that confident. "Normally, but the additional exertion might be an explanation."

Blair schooled himself to keep the anger out of his voice. "I've already explained to you that a hike of that length and severity was nothing for Jim. He might need rest, but there's a huge difference between sleeping and unconscious. Considering his exposure last night, his body temperature could be depressed for awhile. Instead he's got a raging fever and I don't even need a thermometer to tell that. What are you doing to find the cause?"

Phillips glared at him. "We're giving him time to respond before doing anything rash."

"He's had time to respond. I've been gone for hours running down paperwork I shouldn't have needed. Something else is wrong. We need to be tracking it down, not standing and watching while Jim gets worse."

"His condition is stable."

"By what criteria?" replied Blair sharply. "Does he show signs of regaining consciousness? Is his fever declining? How do his blood tests look compared to when he was admitted?" Blair watched Phillips shift uncomfortably. Bingo. No second round of blood tests.

"Mr. Sandburg, you're not doing your friend any good by interfering with his treatment...."

"Exactly what treatment would that be, Dr. Phillips? Admit it, you don't have a clue. I want you to run another set of tests. Check for allergic reactions. Jim has a lot of allergies. Maybe he's having a severe reaction. Check again for infection. Has any one taken the time to look at this?" He gently rotated Jim's wrist and hand and pulled back the bandage. The ugly sore was larger.

"We didn't waste time checking every scratch and bump. It's minor and irrelevant to his condition."

"It doesn't look minor, and at this point, who's to say anything is irrelevant? Since you don't have any answers, and apparently aren't looking for any, anything is a possibility." Blair wanted to do nothing more than strangle this guy.

"Mr. Sandburg, you really should leave and get some rest yourself. Let us do our jobs."

"Exactly my point," retorted Blair angrily. "I want you to DO something, not just wait while Jim slips away by inches. If you aren't willing, then find me another physician who is, a specialist if necessary. Don't screw around checking with insurance. Money is not an object. Jim comes from a wealthy family. If I can't cover his expenses, they will." Please, please, Steven, don't let me down.

"I'll send someone up to do the blood draw," snapped Phillips. "I'll notify the hospital that you want another physician. Good day, Mr. Sandburg."

Two hours later, Blair was cooling his heels in a hospital waiting room, drinking horrible coffee and fuming. He'd split his time between fighting to stay at Jim's bedside and arguing with the hospital staff to do more than wait and see. He kept pushing, driven by the knowledge that Jim had been certain something was terribly wrong. The fever was still rising and Jim showed no sign of improving.

Phillips had apparently dumped Jim's case on the hospital administration. There had been a long delay before some suit from the administrative offices arrived, lecturing about hospital policy and issues in managed care. By that time, Blair had no patience left. After a confrontation verging on a tantrum with the administrator, the hospital had drawn blood and run a few more tests, mostly because it was easier than having a short guy in filthy hiking clothes yell at them. They weren't trying very hard, and Blair knew it. Supposedly, he was waiting for a new physician to arrive. Blair regretted all the wasted energy. He should be concentrating on Jim.

"Mr. Sandburg?" Blair jumped, dumping his coffee on his pants. He struggled to keep his temper in check. The coffee was probably a lot less dangerous soaking into the cloth, and a few more spots certainly weren't going to make him look any worse.

"I'm sorry to have startled you." The speaker extended his hand. He was a slight, sandy-haired man with a deep tan and a vigorous demeanor, wearing jeans and hiking boots under the regulation white lab coat. "I'm Dr. Bonner. I've been called in on Mr. Ellison's case. I've looked in your friend, and I'd like to go over some things with you. We have a conference room down the hall, if you'll just follow me." Blair complied and sank into an ugly green upholstered chair in an equally ugly pale green room. He went through the whole summary again, trying hard to keep his anger from spilling out. Bonner listened carefully, making notes as Blair spoke.

"I tend to agree with you, Mr. Sandburg. This doesn't sound like an ordinary dehydration. Truthfully, it doesn't look like an ordinary infection, which should have shown up on the blood tests already."

Blair could barely contain his relief. At least someone was finally listening.

"Mr. Sandburg, even the healthiest person will get sick under the right set of conditions. The joint pain, aches and the vomiting we might brush off as the flu, even though this does seem pretty severe." Bonner scanned the chart again. "Are you sure about the hallucinations?"

"Positive. I've observed several tribal ceremonies in South America during ritual drug use. I know the difference between disorientation and hallucination."

"To me, that just puts us in a different ball game. It would be a good idea if we could figure out what ball game. You're sure about the time period? The incubation period may be important."

"Jim was exhausted when he left Cascade, but he wasn't sick. We've been roommates for years, and we're partners on the force. I can tell when he's sick. He wasn't sick -- just tired."

"Detective, correct? There wasn't any possibility of exposure in a work-related setting -- chemicals, drugs, anything unusual? You suggested some kind of allergy?"

"It's possible. Jim has allergies, but I keep track of what he eats. He hasn't come into contact with anything he hasn't eaten safely before." He paused. This might be his last chance to get someone to take Jim's case seriously. "Dr. Bonner, Jim's led a unique life. He was an Army Ranger, spent eighteen months as the lone survivor on a mission to Peru. While he was still coherent he told me he'd never felt like this or this bad, and he was including gunshots. I believe him. I'm just sure there's a reason for his symptoms beyond the flu or dehydration. Did you check his wrist?"

"His wrist? It's not on his chart." Dr. Bonner looked intently over the top of the long manila folder. "What's wrong with his wrist?"

Blair bit back the rant that waited to spill out. That wound on Jim's the back of Jim's wrist had given Blair bad vibes from the beginning. It was one of many questions that had been ignored. "Jim thought it was a mosquito bite, but it doesn't look right. He said it didn't itch. He said it hurt. This morning it was just a big open sore. It's covered with a bandage right now. Maybe no one's bothered to check it. I asked them to."

Bonner was on his feet. "Come on. Show me."

Jim was asleep, or unconscious, depending on how you looked at it. An IV of fluid snaked into one arm. Blair had asked them to discontinue any other medications other than a single broad-spectrum antibiotic, knowing Jim's overall drug sensitivity. Trying not to disturb Jim, Blair hesitantly picked at the bandage. Bonner frowned and took a closer look.

"How long?" he whispered.

"Same time frame. He first noticed it, or mentioned it to me, on our first full day of hiking. I treated with an antibiotic cream, but it blistered up and then opened like that yesterday, or sometime last night. I'm not really sure. I noticed it was worse this morning. Actually, it's worse every time I look at it."

Bonner motioned him out of the room, gently shutting the door after them. "That's not a normal scratch. It's not even a normal bite from any one of many common insects I can think of. That's a full-blown ulcer and expanding, by the look of it. I think your instincts are right on, Mr. Sandburg."

"At least you're listening. Let's make it Blair," he said, hoping he didn't sound as tired as he felt.

"Only if it's Dan on my side." Bonner smiled encouragingly. "We're looking for something unusual, or perhaps a highly atypical response, but I think we'll find it. It could be that wound, or it could be something else. Make me a list of the food he's eaten as best you can remember it going back to a few days before you left Cascade. Make another list of all medications he's taken, including what you treated this with. Vitamins, exposures, a list of his allergies if you know them or medications you know he can't take. This is needle in a haystack time. We can't afford to miss a meaningful cross-reference for lack of being thorough. I'll get his medical records faxed over from Cascade. I need to make some calls."

"Just a sec. Holly!" He flagged down one of the RN's. "This is Detective Sandburg. He's going to be here for awhile and he's had a rough time. Arrange for him to use our facilities and take a shower. Call one of the department stores downtown and have them bring some clothes down. Sandburg will give you the sizes he needs. Charge it to my account for the time being." He waved off Blair's attempt at protest. "Bring him up to the third floor conference room, get him some writing materials and see that he gets a meal. I want a check every thirty minutes on Detective Ellison." He grabbed a pad and scribbled out some orders. "Call the lab. Tell them I want more blood drawn and these tests prepared. Remind them that this is Bonner who's asking." He smirked at Blair. "For some reason, I'm not renowned for my patience. Completely unjustified." He frowned at the nurse, who was still standing with the notes in her hand, slightly shell-shocked. "Well, don't just stand there." He vanished as quickly as he gave orders.

Blair's surprise must have shown. Holly patted him on the arm. "Don't fret. Bonner's always like that when he's on to something, and he's the best. One of his sons is in law enforcement, so you guys get the royal treatment where he's concerned. Bonner told me Randy Timm called him. That's one of the reasons he came in today. Usually once he's out of town he's unreachable. Come on. You can give me sizes as we go."

Blair wrote the lists. He checked on Jim, whose condition continued to deteriorate. Despite his unwillingness to leave Jim alone, he showered and got a meal. He felt relatively refreshed, and it helped his concentration. The plain blue jeans and a gray U of M sweatshirt weren't fancy, but at least they were clean. He stayed with Jim until Holly summoned him back to the third floor conference room.

Dr. Bonner had already taken over the small space. Faxes, books and files were scattered all over the long table. Actually, it reminded Blair of his office at Rainier. Together, they went through Blair's lists. Bonner kept referring back to the lab test he had ordered.

"I can't find anything in his blood work that even looks like a mild allergy, much less anything that would throw him into this kind of a tailspin." He tossed his reading glassed on the table. "He's getting worse, you know. Fluid's building up in his lungs. I'm considering moving him to ICU." He looked at Blair thoughtfully. "One of his physicians in Cascade called me when I requested the records. He asked me if you were here."

Blair kept his face blank. He didn't like the direction of this conversation.

Since he got no answer, Bonner continued. "I can't quote the guy exactly, but the message was real clear. Sandburg always knows more than he tells, and he definitely knows something about Ellison that we don't. I'm going to get us some more coffee and let you think about that for a minute."

Blair closed his eyes, trying to strike a balance between two overwhelming images. One was Jim Ellison, friend, surrounded by machines in ICU. The other was Jim Ellison, sentinel, speaking the word, "Betrayal," to the man he would never trust again.

Bonner came back with the coffee and an uncompromising stare.

Blair gazed at the brown liquid in front of his, wishing this wasn't his decision. "Jim is special," was all he could manage.

"If I was going to make a guess from his hospital records, I'd say what you've been calling allergies are really a broad range of hypersensitivity."

Blair swallowed, terrified at the accuracy of that guess. He met the other man's gaze in silence.

"If I were going to play a little science fiction game, I might imagine all kinds of remarkable things that could mean. Things that might give a guy lots of day to day problems. Maybe things that might really help a detective. Things it might be better other people don't know."

Blair lowered his eyes. It probably didn't matter if he answered. Bonner was smart. What Blair didn't tell him, he was going to figure out on his own, if he hadn't already.

"Okay. Since we're making wild guesses here, I'd hypothesize that for such a person, response to new stimuli would be wildly unpredictable, which might explain why you were particularly interested in the antibiotic Ellison got. If I were watching out for such a person, I'd be very aware of what foods and products were potential problems."

Blair followed Bonner's gaze to his own hand-written lists, now spread all over the conference table. He was going to have to answer, or at least say something.

"Dan, as a physician, if you were looking at Jim with a completely clean slate, no pre-dispositions, what would your gut reaction be?"

Bonner tilted his head to the side and raised his eyebrows. "Some kind of toxin. Poisoning. I'd be all over him looking for the rattlesnake bite."

"His wrist. What if it all comes back to that stupid mosquito bite that isn't a mosquito bite?"

Bonner stood up fast enough to knock over his chair. "You know your way around a library?"

Blair grinned at his co-conspirator. Now that was an understatement.

"Go downstairs," Bonner said. Blair was on his feet as well. "I'm going to call Timm. He can always flash that badge around. You and I are going to raid the library at U of M."

Blair had never made a run to a library with full sirens. Bonner was no less intimidating outside of the hospital. In fifteen minutes he somehow had every library aide fetching materials, from journals to books. The copy machine was humming. When one of the librarians squeaked about materials that couldn't leave the library and authorization, Bonner dumped a legal pad in front of her and said crisply, "Make a list. We're leaving in five minutes."

Back at the hospital, Timm stuck around and helped shuffle books. He ran down the laptop in Bonner's office and got it connected online while the other two read. He was so good natured and helpful it kept Blair from spiraling into complete panic. Jim's condition had worsened during the library run, and Bonner wasn't satisfied with periodic checks. He posted a nurse full-time in Jim's room and had her call every ten minutes. As they pored through the research materials, Jim's breathing was getting worse with each report.

They fell into a pattern. Timm kept the piles organized and brought up internet sites that seemed relevant. Blair scanned for possibilities. Bonner cross-checked from his medical materials and lab reports. Blair hadn't studied this hard since grad school. His hands were shaking. Calm down, Blair. Don't lose it now. Timm nudged him into awareness. He was holding up a book with a life size color plate of a tarantula. "I don't suppose you have one of these in the closet, huh?"

Blair shuddered. "You can turn the page anytime, Randy."

"Not a big spider fan?" Randy teased gently, straightening up another pile.

"Actually, I had one that looked like that crawling on me. It was one of Jim's cases, when I was still a civilian observer." He froze. He remembered that same case -- a dead maintenance worker with his face covered with horrible red spider bites. "We found this guy covered with spider bites on his face. It turned out to be murder. I've been smacking spiders ever since."

"What kind of spiders?" asked Bonner tersely. The guy didn't miss a thing.

"Tropicals. They were imported into a lab at Rainier illegally."

"Could Jim --"

"No. It was years ago. They weren't viable outside of the lab."

Bonner nodded. "It couldn't be that easy, anyway." The phone interrupted them. Bonner's frown deepened. Blair could just barely recognize the voice of the nurse posted in Jim's room. "I'll be right there," he answered. "Jim's taken a turn for the worse. I need to see if I can do anything for his breathing." Blair was at the door before Bonner caught him. "I'm going to ask you to stay put. The answer is in this room somewhere, and we're not going to find it with you wringing your hands, watching us do respiratory therapy on a struggling man. I promise I'll call if it gets bad."

Blair nodded. He trusted this man. He had to. With his emotions torn in all directions, Blair watched Bonner's back retreat down the hallway.

"Hey, Blair." Randy Timm was by his side. So much like Jim. Strong and steady. He gave Blair a shoulder a reassuring shake. "I'll go get us some tea and some fruit or something. Trust him and do what he says. We'll figure it out."

Blair sat back down in front of the computer, but didn't touch the keyboard. He was completely out of ideas when Jim needed him most. He surveyed the table, littered with notes, journals and medical records. The hideous tarantula picture stared back at him. He shuddered at the memory of those things slowly crawling up his clothes, getting ever closer to his face. For lack of any better ideas, he typed in a net search for "venomous spiders."

He scrolled the results disconsolately. Black widows. Brown recluse. Neither fit. Little kids sites. He clicked on one he didn't recognize. A brown spider in a funnel web filled the screen. He scrolled down. His fingers started to fly. A map of range. A descriptions of symptoms. Another search. Tegenaria agrestis.

He was barely aware when Randy came back with two large cups in his hand. He stood behind Blair silently as screen after screen of information appeared. A final click and a photo of a bitten finger appeared.

"Oh, my God," breathed Randy, mesmerized by what he saw.

"Get Bonner. Get him right now, Randy."

As the running footsteps faded down the corridor, Blair continued to read, oddly balanced between horror and triumph.

Bonner was clicking through the sites Blair had book-marked. He muttered to himself, a combination of thinking aloud and reading. The printer down the hall was humming. "Hobo Spider. Damn. Range is right. That lesion pictured could have come off Jim's wrist, except Jim's is worse. Terrible to diagnose. The lesions can last for months, but they're slow to develop. I wouldn't normally consider it for that reason."

Blair stared at him, careful of his choice of words. "Of course, not everyone has the same...sensitivities. Some people...might be different." His eyes gleamed. "Some people might develop symptoms faster," he suggested.

"Was the camping gear yours?" quizzed Bonner, still scrolling down a web page. "Where was the gear stored?"

"Basement store room," Blair answered quickly. "But I got everything out. Wait, Jim did go down there once to dig around in some boxes. Is that important? What is it?"

Bonner was busy reading the screen. "We've had a couple isolated cases in Montana. It wouldn't be unusual for the victim not to even know he was bitten. A basement full of boxes would be a pretty good habitat. The time frame is off, but we are talking individual differences here." Bonner looked at him expectantly. Blair just nodded.

Bonner continued to read. "If we accept the difference in the timing of the lesions as unique to Jim, the symptoms would fit. His symptoms are pretty extreme, but they match." He stared at Blair, both men dodging around the one topic they had mutually agreed not to articulate. "Hypothetically speaking, of course."

Blair tried to keep his voice even. He was so desperate for an answer. "It beats brushing it off as the flu and watching him get worse."

"The treatment isn't real straightforward, but I think we should start right away. I'll have Holly call the CDC. Someone has treated these cases and I want to pick their brain." He gave Blair's arm a reassuring squeeze. "Go sit with Jim. I'll find you there."

Blair was holding Jim's hand, willing each struggling breath to be easier than the last, when Bonner blew back in. "It fits, Blair. I've spent the last forty-five minutes tracking down every physician I can find who has treated a documented case. They may not be very happy about being interrupted by a yahoo from Missoula, but the information is trickling in. The time sequence is compressed and the symptoms are way severe, but damn it all if it doesn't fit. God knows, nothing else does." He leaned across the foot of Jim's bed, looking Blair in the eye. "I think we should give it a shot. You're going to have to make the decision to go ahead. If I'm right, and he responds, we should be able to let you drive him home and finish treatment back in Cascade."

Blair said a quiet prayer of thanks to any deity that might be listening. "Try it. Try anything. If he's okay, that's all I care about." He squeezed Jim's hand. "Just make sure he's going to be okay."

10 Days Later

That Sandburg. He was up to something. Something devious.

Blair had calmed down in the years Jim had known him, but in certain situations he still bubbled like a little kid. That first time, when Blair and Simon had conspired to get him to the first "Officer of the Year Award" ceremony, had been only the tip of the iceberg. Ellison had learned to be especially wary when a birthday or special occasion came around. Making it back from near death certainly qualified as a Sandburg special occasion. The fact that nothing had happened at the bullpen today upon his return to Major Crimes today only meant the first strike was imminent.

As he rode the elevator, Jim clearly heard the hum of voices from the loft. Not even Blair could keep a crowd quiet enough to avoid sentinel hearing. The landing was decorated with several misshapen pumpkins and gourds, all with WELCOME HOME JIM written across their lumpy sides in crooked black marker. You had to give Blair credit. He never lost his flair. No matter how wild, no matter how strange, it was usually worth the ride.

As he pulled out his keys the purple scar near his wrist reminded him that he really could forgive a welcome home party. He was lucky to be alive. He had Blair's persistence to thank, not just for getting him out of the wilderness, but for continuing to press for answers once they got to the hospital. It had taken a week of treatment before the doctor in Missoula pronounced his patient fit enough to leave.

Upon arriving home, Sandburg had donned leather gloves and conducted a cautious, thorough search of the basement storeroom. Sure enough, he found the culprit tucked away under the metal shelving. Following Bonner's orders, they'd trapped the thing in a jar and sent it off for identification. Jim made not a single comment as Blair, AKA Mr. Environment, nuked the loft and the storeroom with every pesticide you could buy at the hardware store or weasel out of your old friends at the university. They'd spent the night at a hotel in deference to Jim's chemical sensitivities.

Jim opened the door slowly, ready for anything. He could smell the pizza. He could hear half-smothered giggles. A big white cake, decorated with a grinning black spider, sat on the table in front of the couch. Jim stifled a grin. The cake sported the letters 'Have a bite?' next to 'Welcome Home'. He paused, setting an appropriately stern expression on his face, then took a step. He sensed a black object falling towards him from above, and he jumped back, smacking his elbow sharply against the door jamb. A spider dangled in front of his nose. A big, black Halloween decoration. Another 'Welcome Home' sign was taped to one of the monstrosity's legs. The lights went on, and choruses of laughter and "Surprise!" surrounded him.

"Sandburg, you bastard! I'll get you for this! You are a dead man." He batted at the honeycombed paper, while Blair laughed from the stairway. Jim couldn't help but join him.

~ Finis ~

E-mail the author of this story, Jael Lyn, at jael_lyn@hotmail.com
Read Jael Lyn's other fan fiction for The Sentinel at Mackie's Idol Pursuits
E-mail Faux Paws Productions at fauxpawsproductions@yahoo.com
IN ONE WEEK on THE SENTINEL: Howling Moon (10/31/00, FPP-604) by Wildeskind
    A Tuesday Sentinel special for Halloween! The circus is in town. Jim and Blair are swept into a mystery where past and present collide with potentially fatal results.

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This page last updated 10/25/00.