Disclaimer: The Characters of The Sentinel belong to Pet Fly, The SciFi channel and others. No copyright infringement is intended.

Notes: Plenty of angst, smarm, and not a bad guy in the whole thing. Not beta read.

"Against All Odds" (Take A Look At Me Now) is by Phil Collins

Baptism by Fire

by JET

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

I've awakened from one nightmare only to find myself living another.

The dream drifts away, as ethereal as tendrils of vapor on the morning breeze, slipping from my memory before I'm awake enough to claim it. Although I cannot recapture its details, from the pounding of my heart and the sweat on my face, I know its essence. I should recognize it by now. I've dreamed it every night for what seems an eternity, although in reality, barely a week has passed, and the nightmare had become as familiar to me as the demons that have dwelled within me for far longer.

Once more, I dreamed of the fountain.

Even with the pitiful air conditioner churning laboriously away beneath the dirty window, the Mexican air hangs thick and heavy. I feel its presence bearing down on me through the single thin sheet that covered me during the night.

Slowly, I peel open my eyelids. It's still dark, both inside and out. Through the darkness I find the small clock radio perched atop the tall dresser by the door.

5:00 a.m.

We hadn't piled into bed last night until after two. No wonder my head feels like a ton of bricks.

I bite back a groan as the memories of yesterday come flooding back.

We captured Alex Barnes deep within the Mexican jungle. In a heartbeat, I remember it all. The deadly canister...leaving Blair in Cascade, weak and vulnerable...the near silent flight with Simon...discovering that Sandburg and Conner had followed us here...the attack at the cafe...the peacefulness of the chapel and Blair's almost frantic need to talk to me...the beach...and Alex...the gun and the jungle...the temple and the pool.

And the pool...

My own personal baptism of fire.

I know what Alex intended was something entirely different from what I found during my visions there. By that time, Alex had descended completely into her madness, believing that after I emerged from the pool, I would join with her forever.

The pool... Alex believed she'd discovered the secret of the universe there, and she thought the temple's pool would reveal them to me as well.

What's so bizarre is that in a twisted way, she was right.

Alex never realized it, but she gave me the greatest gift I could have received. Within those warm waters, I found my light at last.

Why the hell did it take me so long to realize that he had been standing beside me all along?

I did learn the secret of the universe after all. The secret of my universe, at least.

I can hear him breathing softly in the bed beside me, and my heart aches when I realize that we are breathing perfectly in synch.

The secret of my universe. My light. My guide and my best friend.

It took his death and the wisdom of my long-dead shaman, Incacha, to kick me in the ass hard enough to show me the place Blair holds in my life. In my heart. Hell, I never claimed to be a man given to deep, personal introspection, and I've always acknowledged that I can be a stubborn bastard. Maybe that's why it's taken me the hell of the past several days to make me realize what I should have known all along.

Better late than never, I suppose.

At least now, I know the truth.

I can only pray that it truly will set us free.

All that remains is finding a way to help Blair understand exactly how much the waters have taught me - the waters of the Rainier fountain and those of an ancient temple pool.

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

How can I just let you walk away, just let you leave without a trace
When I stand here taking every breath with you,
You're the only one who really knew me at all

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

It had been Simon's idea that Blair and I share the room. There were only three rooms left in the cheap motel by the time we checked in a little past one in the morning. One went to Megan, leaving two rooms for the three of us. Simon pulled rank and claimed one for himself. I could tell by the look in his eye exactly why he did it. Smart man, Simon.

I figured Sandburg would balk at the enforced closeness of the small room with its one queen bed. Curiously enough, he didn't utter a word when Simon announced he would take the private room. Just picked up his duffel and fell in beside me as if he'd never left my side.

We were both exhausted. Blair showered first, and by the time I emerged from the tiny bathroom, he was already asleep. I crawled in beside him, slipped beneath the single sheet, and that was the last thing I remember. Until I awakened from my nightmare.

Except for one small, vitally important detail. When I fell asleep, Blair had been squeezed as close to the edge of the bed as he could possibly be and still remain on the mattress. That space he'd intentionally put between us stretched out like a gaping chasm. Hurt and ashamed that, thanks to my stupidity, he no longer felt he could rest close to me, but fully aware that I deserved that subtle rebuff, I fell asleep.

Now, as I awaken three hours later, the far side of the bed is empty. My heart leaps as I realize that Blair is snuggled against me, warm and heavy in sleep. Apparently, Blair's desire to maintain a safe distance between us hasn't been strong enough to overcome the guide's instinctual need to be close to his sentinel when he is so vulnerable and hurt.

Moving cautiously so I won't disturb his slumber, I shift slightly to my side. Blair moves with me, following me even in his sleep. I can see him clearly now in the soft light of the ripe moon. My breath catches painfully at the sight.

Washed out...

The words spring unbidden to my lips, and I think I must have whispered them, but if I did, Blair doesn't hear.

He looks so pale. The tired circles beneath his dark lashes stand in stark relief against his alabaster skin. His breathing is slightly labored, and when I open my senses to him, I can hear the watery sound in his lungs. Pneumonia is still a very real danger despite the antibiotics I know he is taking. His body pressed against mine is warm...too warm...and I recognize the low-grade fever still burning within him.

The same waters that have brought me so much have stolen an equal amount from him. It's as if he went into that fountain a whole man - damaged, yes, thanks to my own senseless actions - but still intact. When he emerged, he was cold and lifeless. Yet, in a miraculous event I still cannot comprehend, he found life again in the graceful joining of jaguar and wolf. From that moment on, Blair was alive, yes, but no longer intact. Something vital had gone out of him, had been washed away in the sparkling waters of that damned fountain.

The waters of Mexico had stolen even more.

I can't explain what genetic force pulled me to Alex Barnes any more than I can explain what made me drive Blair away. If I live another lifetime, I'll never comprehend my own actions. I only know that even after the terror of the fountain, I hurt him again here, beside the waters of the sea and the sacred waters of the temple pool.

Whatever I hadn't stolen from Sandburg, those waters had washed away. I betrayed him again beside these waters. I could not have wounded him more deeply had I stabbed him through the heart. Literally. The figurative stabbing, I had already accomplished.

I close my eyes again, unable to look any longer at what I have wrought.

At what I have destroyed.

I feel myself slipping back into sleep and welcome the oblivion.

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

So take a look at me now, 'cause there's just an empty space,
And there's nothing left here to remind me, just the memory of your face.
Take a look at me now, 'cause there's just an empty space.
And you coming back to me is against all odds and that's what I've got to
face...

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

8:00 a.m.

It's time to go.

Our flight leaves in two hours. Simon and Megan are already outside in the rental car, waiting for us to join them. Two more hours, and we'll be on our way home.

Home...

Despair washes over me. What kind of home are we going back to?

An empty loft for me?

A cheap hotel room or tiny apartment for Sandburg?

Both of us alone?

Blair is by the door now, his duffel on the foot of the bed, packed and ready to go. He sighs quietly, and I can hear the moist rattle in his lungs.

Oh, God, Chief. What have I done?

Blair turns to look at me, his dark blue eyes far too large in his thin face. And far too sad.

"You ready?"

His hand's on the doorknob now, and he's reaching for his duffel. Another few seconds, and it will be too late. If it isn't already.

"No," I say softly. "I'm not ready."

The sadness in his eyes blends with new uncertainty. "Jim?"

I don't dare take a step toward him. In an instant, the image of a frightened colt flashes in my mind, an animal so on edge that the slightest movement would send him scurrying away toward safety. He has a right to be wary of me, even to be afraid of me. My heart breaks at the thought. Will he ever trust me again?

Then I remember the night before. How the innate trust between us surfaced once his conscious mind was asleep. My soul surges with renewed hope.

Maybe it's not too late after all. I touched that hope as we walked along the shore for hours after Alex fled into the jungle. We had talked at last, about what I'd been feeling ever since another sentinel entered my territory, about my inexplicable attraction to Alex, and about ways to adjust my dials so that the effects of that attraction might not be so dangerous to us both. We didn't discuss the empty loft or why I had insisted he leave. For those hours, we tentatively reached across the distance that separated us, our hands not quite touching. By the time we were at the temple, I realized that the abyss still yawned between us.

I want to recapture that closeness again. I don't want to return to Cascade. Not yet. Instinctively, I know that our path back lies here. I want to take Blair back to that beach. I need to walk with him beside the ocean again - talking, listening, and healing.

Taking a deep breath for courage, I step off into the chasm that separates us. I can only pray that Blair will catch me as I fall.

"Stay," I say softly. "Stay here. With me." I know my voice isn't steady, and I feel the wetness gathering in my eyes, but I don't give a damn. "Please, Chief. I'm so damned sorry. For everything. Let's put it all back together again, kid. Please. Stay."

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

I wish I could just make you turn around, turn around and see me cry.
There's so much I need to say to you, so many reasons why.
You're the only one who really knew me at all.
How can you just walk away from me, when all I can do is watch you leave,
'Cause we've shared the laughter and the pain, and even shared the tears.
You're the only one who really knew me at all.

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

"Why?" His voice is a match for mine now, slightly unsteady, but whether from emotion or exhaustion, I can't tell. "Why do you want me to stay? And for how long, Jim? How long before you get mad at me and throw me out again?"

Before my baptism of fire in the waters of fountain and pool, I would have flared at those words, but not now. I know there's no room for error here, no more second chances. If I don't do this right, I'll lose him forever, and that simply is not an option.

"Because we need to talk. I want to do whatever it takes to heal us." I spread my hands out, beseeching. "I'm so damned empty without you, Sandburg. It took losing you to make me realize that I'm more alive with you than I've ever been in my entire life. Please, Blair. Stay here with me."

I watch the emotions flickering across his face like flames against a pale wall. Fear...uncertainty...doubt...then, maybe, just maybe...hope?

"Why here? Why not Cascade?"

I shrug my shoulders and let my hands fall to my side, useless. All my life, I've relied on my physical strength to survive. Now, in the end, it is not my hands, my strength, that will save me. It's my words.

How ironic. I'm the one counting on words now to save me. My only hope is my ability to convince the young man standing before me that saving our friendship is worth the risk of trusting me again. Convincing him that I will not betray him again. If I fail in this mission, nothing I've ever accomplished before will matter.

"I...don't know. Somehow, I do know that if we go back there without talking to each other, without healing this...chasm...between us, we never will." I draw in a great, shuddering breath. "I'll lose you, and I just don't think I could handle that, Chief."

There. I've said it. I've laid my soul bare to Blair, naked and wounded for his inspection, and now, all I can do is wait for his judgment. I'm not surprised to discover that he holds my fate in his hands. Hasn't it always been so for sentinels and guides since the beginning of time? One life depending upon another. Two souls joined for all eternity.

The minutes tick by, and still he doesn't answer. Blair just stands there, one hand on the door, the other on his duffel, literally pulled between two worlds. Between a life with me and the life he could have had - should have had - if we never had met.

I've run out of words. All I can do now is wait, but I'm not impatient.

If it brings Blair back to me, I'll wait forever.

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

So take a look at me now, 'cause there's just an empty space,
And there's nothing left here to remind me, just the memory of your face.
Take a look at me now, 'cause there's just an empty space,
>But to wait for you, well that's all I can do and that's what I've got to face.
Take a good look at me now, 'cause I'll still be standing here.
And you coming back to me is against all odds,
That's the chance I've got to take...
Just take a look at me now.

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

Without a word, Blair turns his back to me, opens the door and steps out.

In that instant, my heart shatters.

I'm frozen, motionless, staring at the door.

I failed. Blair's gone, and the emptiness inside me swells to overflowing.

I'm sorry, Chief.

I don't even know if I've spoken the words aloud, or if they found voice only within my empty soul. Not that it matters. He isn't here to hear them anyway.

I dial down my hearing quickly. I don't think I could bear to hear the sound of the car door slamming, the crunch of the tires pulling away on the gravel drive. There are some advantages to being a sentinel after all. At least I don't have to hear the sound of my world shattering forever.

My other senses betray me as well. My guide's scent permeates the room, so I dial back my sense of smell. I can still see the outline of his body on the sheets where we slept, and I begin to shut down my sight.

Awareness begins to fade as I fall deeper into the void that awaits me. Another few seconds and the pain of losing Blair will disappear completely. This time, the zone will be a welcome escape from the sensory reminders all around me. The reminders of my final failure as sentinel and as friend. The coward's way out, perhaps, but frankly, I no longer care.

Before I can slip completely into the zone, I'm distracted back into reality.

The door opens, and Blair is standing before me again. His head's cocked slightly as he looks at me with that familiar, worried look in his eyes.

"Jim? Are you okay?"

Almost instantly, my senses are back within normal ranges. "You're back." The way it comes out, it sounds more like a question than an observation.

A smile tugs at his lips, not quite full-born, but definitely there. He nods toward the bed at the duffel bag. The duffel bag I hadn't even noticed was still lying there. Opening my senses again, I hear the rental car drive away. At least Simon and Megan won't miss their flight.

"Yeah, Jim. I'm back." He runs a hand through his hair, smoothing it back from his forehead. "So, where do we go from here, man?"

I take three steps forward, opening my arms to him, not knowing if my offer will be rebuffed.

Blair hesitates, but only for an instant, before moving into my embrace. I fold him to me, wishing suddenly that I could assume the form of the jaguar and roar my triumph for the universe to hear. All its secrets are mine now, and they will never be forgotten again.

"Where, Jim?" he asks, his breath warm against my neck.

Somehow I can't seem to move past this sensation. Blair. Warm and alive and here. With me.

"Where do we go from here?" he repeats patiently.

A small fountain stands in the courtyard outside our room. The sunlight dancing on its waters casts a shimmering, silvery-blue pattern on the walls. It reminds me not of fountains or pools, but of the ocean, of the peace of the sea.

"I'm ready to take that trip with you, Blair," I whisper to him. "I've been to the water now, and you were right. It really is fine."

I feel his silent laughter bubbling up, and I smile with him.

As quickly as it came, his laughter fades away. "I've missed you, Jim." Blair's voice is raw, an audible echo of the powerful emotions he is feeling.

My arms tighten around him. I press a kiss into his hair and leave my face buried there. "I know. I'm so sorry."

I'm not sure how much time has passed before I gently pull him away from me. I want to see his eyes when I say this. He gazes up at me with those blue ocean eyes of his, waiting...trusting me once more.

The second miracle I've witnessed in the past few days.

I look down into that face, the same face I'd cradled in death such a short time ago. "Will you come home, Chief? I want you to come back to the loft. With me. Please." Then, remembering his earlier question, I add, "Forever. Or as long as you want to be there. Come home, Blair."

He smiles then. A full-fledged, thousand watt, Sandburg smile. "I'm already home," he says quietly.

With those three words, I know I am, too.

Finis...

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