On the way to the address where they would meet Ink, Blair turned to Jim. "So?"
Ellison looked at Blair quizzically. "So? So, what?"
Keeping his eyes on the road, Blair chuckled. "Our names. That's what. We agreed to select names for each other, remember? I think it's time to reveal our picks."
"Why not wait until we're ready to tell Ink? Let it be a surprise," Jim said with no trace of emotion.
Blair glanced at him with raised brows. "Yeah, but... " He hesitated, seemingly at a loss for words. "What's the matter, Chief? Afraid you won't like my idea for your new name?" Jim turned to him with a hurt expression. "Don't you trust me?"
"Sure, man," Blair said at once. "It's not that. I just thought... I mean, what if... "
Jim could keep up the façade no longer and chuckled aloud. "Forget it, Sandburg. I was just tugging on your chain a bit. It won't hurt my feelings if you don't like my choice for your new name. Who goes first?"
"I will," the younger man offered eagerly. "First, hear me out, okay? I want to explain my reasoning here." When Jim nodded agreement, he went on. "I tried to think about the characteristics that most defined you. Of course, your senses come to mind first. Of what an unique experience it's been watching you learn to control them, to overcome your uncertainty about what you could do with them." He glanced over at Jim with a shy smile. Even with his ease with words, giving such heartfelt compliments wasn't easy for Blair. "Then, I thought of your courage and honor. Of how you never back away from a challenge. Never give up, even in the face of impossible odds. How you always put other people first and how the mission of your life is all about helping others."
"Sounds like you're gonna name me 'Mother Theresa'," Jim quipped, but the look in his eyes belied the lightness of his words. He added softly, "Thanks, Chief."
Acknowledging the words with a nod, Blair shook his head. "Not Mother Teresa, Jim. You're not quite that saintly." He laughed when Ellison's hand connected with the back of his head with a gentle swat. "There was only one person I could think of who had to deal with similar problems, although kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum from you."
Jim asked, "Who would that be? Other than Alex, I don't know any other Sentinels' names. I sure as hell am not gonna become a Barnes, Sandburg."
Blair shivered, chilled at the reminder of his drowning and the woman responsible. "Believe me, I wouldn't want you to have that name, man. Talk about dredging up bad memories. How about Keller? As in Helen Keller? I mean, she was robbed of her main senses - sight and hearing - yet she had the courage to learn to live without them. She had to learn to make the most of the senses she had left - to control them to the utmost - in order to survive. She wrote books and made speeches about living life to the fullest, trying to help others the best way she knew how, when she so easily could have been centered only on herself. Control. Courage. Selflessness." Unsure how his Sentinel would accept his analogy, Blair looked over at Jim warily. "That's you, man."
For a long minute, Jim didn't respond. From the look on his face, Blair could tell he was thinking over everything he'd said, but he couldn't get a read on Jim's reaction. Finally, the older man nodded slowly as he mused, "James Joseph Keller. Jim Keller." He turned to Blair with a satisfied smile. "That's good, Chief. I can live with that. It's quite a compliment, too. Thank you."
Time hung comfortably without words between them, and Blair was in no hurry to break the easy mood. Several minutes passed before Jim turned back to Blair and asked, "Don't you want to know about you?"
Chuckling, Blair replied, "Sure. Just wanted you to have time to mull over your new identity before getting into mine. So, just what will my new identity be?"
"Well," Jim began, "you explained your reasoning to me, so it's only right that I tell you why I chose the name I did." He turned slightly in his seat to face Blair. "I guess I had the same idea - to find a name that suited you. I wanted it to be something science-related, but I knew Burton was out. Brackett might very well think of that one himself since he's read your early research." Jim paused for a long moment, then asked, "How do you like the name 'Hawking'?"
It took Blair a moment to make the connection, then he still wasn't sure he got the connection Jim had made. "As in Stephen Hawking, the physicist?"
"Got it in one, Chief."
"I'm a little lost, here, man. Sure, he's a scientist, but why Hawking?"
A self-conscious smile teased the corners of Jim's mouth. "I read once that some people consider him as brilliant as Einstein, maybe even more so, and you're the smartest guy I've ever known, Chief. I figured Einstein worked better as a nickname, though. Also, I admire Hawking. I mean, even with all his challenges, he's never given up. He keeps working - writing, teaching, thinking. He's not a quitter." Jim's eyes held more than a hint of admiration as he gazed steadily at Blair. "Neither are you. I've never known you to give up, even when you were scared and the odds were against you. I admire that in you, Sandburg. So, I figured his name would be a good choice for you."
Blair savored the warmth that filled his heart. Jim admired him. Amazing. "Blair Hawking. Yeah, that's all right. I could get used to it." He turned to smile at Jim. "Thanks, man. I appreciate that." He leaned over and glanced at his reflection for an instant in the rear view mirror. "New hair, new name, new life. Lots of changes, buddy."
"And a Sentinel with no senses," Jim commented dryly.
Blair flipped on the radio. "That's coming up, I promise. Soon as we get this ID business underway and find a new home for your truck, that's the first item on my agenda." He found a station he liked and began to hum with the syncopated melody.
Grimacing, Jim flipped the radio to a classic oldies station and shot Blair a stern look of warning. "Still my truck, Junior, and therefore, my radio." Settling back in his seat, he asked softly, "Are you sure they'll come back? What if they're... too fried... to recover? Any documentation of that in Burton's research?"
"None," Blair replied firmly. "We'll get 'em back, Jim. Just be patient, okay?" He hesitated, then added, "With yourself and with me. Remember, I'm flying blind here, man. We'll work this out, but you've gotta hang in there. Like in the old days, before you got control." His memory flashed back to the 'old' Jim - impatient, brittle, demanding - and he rephrased his last statement. "Well, maybe not exactly like the old days, okay? No Guide slamming. No test avoidance. No griping and complaining."
Jim's expression was one of pained disbelief. "Who? Me?" The studied look dissolved into a broad grin as Ellison turned up the volume on the radio. "One good thing about having normal senses, Chief. I can let down my guard and listen to Creedence at full volume."
Blair sighed and glanced over at his partner, nodding in time with the music. "Great," he muttered under his breath with a tiny, tolerant smile. "Just fantastic."********************
Jim stood to the side of the photographer's studio as Blair posed for his photos. His had already been snapped, and now, he had nothing to do but watch his partner.
His suddenly unfamiliar partner.
Blair was relaxed before the camera, joking and flirting with the attractive young photographer who was totally captivated by his charm. The short curls danced atop Sandburg's head, setting off his dancing eyes with frames of chestnut and coaxing from them an even deeper shade of blue. To look at him, no one would suspect he had a care in the world.
Who are you, Chief?
One-fourth con-man, to be sure. Blair could obfuscate with the best of them.
The girl emerged from behind the camera to adjust Blair's position on the small stool in front of the blue backdrop. She smiled adoringly as she gently maneuvered his head to the precise position she required for the shot. Blair's warm chuckle seemed to thrill her, as she fussed with one stray curl that dangled over his forehead.
His thoughts focused on analyzing his partner, Jim didn't see the humor he normally did in his friend's antics. He cocked his head slightly, curious eyes locked attentively on Sandburg's face.
Two-fourths chameleon. Sandburg had this talent of changing colors to either blend in or stand out from his surroundings at will.
The woman moved back behind the camera, and in a moment, the flash snapped. "These are going to turn out wonderfully, Blair. You're quite photogenic," she commented happily.
Sandburg immediately mugged for the camera, turning on his best romantic leading man persona. The photographer responded by snapping another photo and commenting with a laugh that it would be 'on the house'.
One-fourth comedian, Jim thought, adding to his mental list of what makes Sandburg tick. Even under the most stressful circumstances, he's always got a one-liner or stunt to pull.
As if reading his thoughts, Blair turned to Jim, as though forgetting the photographer completely. The aura of light-hearted fun vanished, and the dark blue eyes grew intense with concern. "It's okay, man," he said quietly, but loud enough for non-functioning Sentinel ears to hear clearly. "It's gonna be fine, remember? Trust me." Blair ran his fingers through the short curls, his eyes still locked with Jim's, filled with obvious affection, and he smiled gently. Neither man acknowledged the flash going off once more.
A heartbeat later, Jim gave a brief smile and nod, then Sandburg grinned broadly before turning his attention back to the photographer for a few more shots.
Part con-man, part chameleon, and part comedian. Not to mention brilliant and curious and stubborn and courageous. A complicated mix. But he's mine. Totally and completely devoted to me. To us. And sometimes, I'm not sure what to do with that. It scares me and thrills me to the core, all at the same time.********************
"You'll be wanting all the usual, I presume," Ink mused as he gazed at the photos stacked on the table before him. A tall, thin man with salt and pepper hair and a bull beard to match, Ink apparently was a man of few words, spoken in a soft Southern drawl.
Must be a prerequisite to entering Special Ops, Blair thought, hiding a smile. Compared to Ink, Jim was a regular chatterbox.
"Right," Jim confirmed. "Social security cards, driver's licenses, some sort of secondary photo ID."
"I need names," Ink pointed out. "You want me to pick 'em?"
Jim took the notepad Ink was using. "Got 'em right here." He jotted down their selected names. Blair peered across the table and noted that Jim was keeping their first and middle names intact, changing only the last names.
That'll make it easier to remember. It's gonna be hard enough to remember our new last names.
"How long will it take, Ink?" Jim asked.
The taller man considered. "Today's Tuesday. I'm assuming this is a rush job." He smiled, revealing slightly crooked front teeth. "Since it's you, Cap'n, I'll have them for you by Monday. I'd do it faster, but I'm assuming you want a quality job."
Jim smiled at his former acquaintance. "Of course. You know me, Ink. Only the best."
"Which explains why he's teamed up with me," Blair quipped.
Jim reached out to pull on a long curl, but he pulled up short, his smile fading. Blair smiled reassuringly. "It's okay, man. Lots of changes going down right now. It's gonna take a while to adjust that's all."
Jim settled for ruffling the short, soft cap of curls instead. He didn't answer, but the warmth in his eyes spoke volumes.
Ink had been following the interaction carefully. "Hey, Cap'n? I know better than to ask too many questions, but you mind introducing me to this guy? He doesn't exactly seem your type, if you catch my drift." Looking Jim straight in the eye, he added, "You know I'd never do anything that would put you in danger, right? I owe you my life. No debt's more important than that one."
Damn. Another Jim trait. The guy doesn't talk much, but when he gets all sincere and mushy on you, watch out!
Blair had noted Jim's lack of introductions when they'd entered the small shop tucked away in a less-than-desirable section of the city. He'd marked it up to the need for secrecy that had become the driving force of their lives recently.
Jim studied the other man for a long minute. "If I can trust anyone right now, Ink, it would be you." He looked to Blair for his approval, and when Sandburg lowered his head slightly in tacit approval, Jim turned back to Ink. "Bernard Armstrong - Ink - meet my partner and roommate, Blair Sandburg."
Blair reached across the table to clasp the other man's hand. "It's a pleasure. I appreciate your doing this for us, man."
Ink's shrewd brown eyes studied Blair carefully. "The Cap'n's a special guy, Sandburg. You really his friend? A good friend? The kind he can count on?"
Looking into those waiting eyes, Blair tried to size up the man. What exactly did he mean by 'special'? Of course, Jim had saved his life when no other man would have had a clue that mine was there. That would make Jim special in anyone's eyes. "He's special to me, too, Ink," Blair assured him quietly, but firmly. "I care about him. A lot. He can trust me. So can you."
The eye contact between the two men held. At last, Ink nodded. "You're okay, Sandburg. I think the Cap'n's in good hands with you." Turning back to Jim, he said gruffly, "Now, get the hell out of here so I can get to work. Call me this weekend, Cap'n, and I'll let you know when to come by for the documents."********************
The next stop was a used car lot all the way across the city from their motel. Ink had recommended it as one of the shadiest in town, which was perfect for their current needs. Jim had no intentions of turning over the truck title and taking the chance it could be traced. An operation like Ink described would have no qualms about 'acquiring' a title through alternative sources.
It took very little time to complete the transaction. In less than an hour, Jim and Blair were en route back across town in a cab. On the way, they stopped for a leisurely dinner, then took in the Chinese Theatre, strolling by the names and handprints of the famous and forgotten. It felt good to forget their problems and just play tourist for a few hours.
Jim had one more stop to make. Ink had given him the name, he explained cryptically. The cab dropped them off in what was obviously not the most photographed sections of L.A. Seedy, run-down buildings lined the dirty streets, and the steps were filled with men of every race and age, just hanging out.
By the time they'd left, Jim had a newly-purchased - and unregistered - Glock in his shoulder holster to replace his police-issue weapon.
They finally arrived back in their room at close to ten P.M.
The minute he hit the room, Blair changed into a pair of comfortable boxers and an old, soft t-shirt, kicking his shoes into the far corner, then adding his socks to the pile. "All right, man," he said, flopping down on his bed, then rolling to his side to face Jim. "Let's deal with the senses."
Jim's eyes cut over to him. He was reclined on the second double bed, shirtless and clad only in a pair of plaid boxers. "Deal? What do you suggest, Chief?"
"First, talk to me, man. I know you turned up your senses to the max in order to put yourself in a zone, then we dialed them completely down together. What's it been like when you've tried turning them back up?" He watched Jim's expression carefully, not surprised when he caught a trace of fear flicker across the chiseled features.
"It hurts like hell," Jim admitted. "Like a sensory spike, but stronger."
"Which ones have you tried?"
Jim closed his eyes. "Sight. Then hearing. After those, I left the others alone."
"How long did you keep up the attempt? How high did you turn the dials?" Blair's mind was racing, trying to figure out the best way to approach the problem. So much depended on Jim himself, on how leery he'd become of trying out his overloaded senses.
"Not long. As soon as they kicked in, it was like they went immediately into overload. I think the dials were at about a three, maybe a four."
Blair caught the apprehension in his Sentinel's voice. He'd heard it before. When they'd first met, the uncertainty, the fear, were hidden beneath a thick layer of bravado and anger. Jim wasn't the kind of man who dealt easily with failure, and he handled being out of control even less well. Losing dominion over his senses involved both. Blair realized that helping Jim regain that control was a process to be handled with kid gloves. "Okay," he said at last. "Maybe that was too high. We'll have to take this very slowly, start at only a one on the dial."
"When?" The question was asked softly, with more than a little trepidation. Worried blue eyes opened and looked to his Guide.
Blair sat up in graceful, fluid motion, swinging his legs around and moving to perch on the side of Jim's bed. "Right now," he stated firmly. "Close your eyes."
Jim stared up at him. "Now? Don't you think we should wait?"
"For what? You're doing so much better physically, Jim, and I think if we take it slow, you'll do fine. The longer you wait, the rustier your senses may become, and I don't think that's a very good idea, do you? You said yourself, we need your senses with Brackett coming after us, right?" Blair had no clue if the 'rustier' part was true, but from the look of uncertainty in Jim's eyes, he needed all the ammo he could muster.
At last, the answer came. "All right," Jim conceded. "Let's try it. Which one first?"
Blair took a moment to think. "Hearing's always been your strongest sense, so I don't think it should be first. Sight's second strongest, so let's wait a bit on it, too. How about touch?"
That suggestion seemed to set well with the reluctant Sentinel. "Okay, Chief. Touch it is. What do you want me to do?"
The absolute trust implicited in Jim's question and written on his face caught Blair by surprise, and his heart constricted painfully. "Just relax, man," he said, hearing the roughness in his voice, but if Jim noticed, he gave no sign.
Obediently, the blue eyes closed, and Jim took a long breath, then released it gradually.
"That's good," Blair encouraged him, leaning down closer to Jim's face, allowing his breath to brush across the Sentinel's skin. "Take a minute and just center yourself. Reach down inside and find that place within you that houses your strength, your courage." Unconsciously, his voice had dropped several tones, becoming rich and warm and calming. His 'Guide's voice', Jim called it, but Blair didn't really believe it was that different from his ordinary speaking voice. Jim insisted, though, so maybe he was right. Hard to argue with those ears.
After several minutes had gone by, with Blair murmuring quietly the entire time, Jim nodded, indicating his readiness to proceed. "All right," Blair said calmly. "I want you to ignore all the other dials. Just picture the one for touch. Got it? Okay, good. Now, can you see the zero? It's turned all the way off. First, I want you just to visualize moving it slowly up to one. Don't turn it yet, just see it. See the dial turning. It won't hurt when you move the dial, Jim. All you'll feel is me touching you, just a little more than you're feeling it right now."
Slowly, Blair reached out and rested his hand on Jim's bare shoulder, carefully avoiding any of the healing burns. "Can you feel my hand? Don't say anything; keep concentrating. Just nod."
When Jim slightly inclined his head, Blair smiled. His friend's breathing was steady, his body relaxed. So far, so good.
"What I'm going to do is just keep touching you, Jim, very gently. I want you to screen out everything else but my touch. Don't think about the bed or the sheet beneath you or anything. Only me." When he felt Jim was ready, he began moving his fingers against Jim's cool skin. He traced a path along the broad shoulder, moving slowly over powerful muscles, then continued down Jim's arm, taking his time and being careful not to use too much pressure. The sight of all those burns and bruises still made him cringe inwardly, but Blair refused to allow his emotions to reach his voice or face. Jim was healing; that was what mattered. All the time, he murmured quietly, still bent down close to Jim, not really thinking about the words, knowing it was the tone, the underlying emotions of calmness and caring that mattered.
After he'd repeated the movements several times, enough for Jim to feel secure with what Blair was doing, he said calmly, "Now, I want you to find the dial. Remember, it's not gonna hurt at all. Slowly, very easily, I want you to turn the dial up to one. No further. Easy now, that's the way."
Blair monitored Jim's expression and physical reactions carefully as he guided the Sentinel through the process of reactivating his sense of touch. He was grateful to see no signs of discomfort at all. "Jim? I need you to let me know if you're okay now. Is the dial at one?"
A slight nod.
"Okay, that's good. You're doing so good here, man. Are you okay? Is everything under control?"
Blair debated for a minute as he murmured comforting nothings to Jim. Should he ask Jim to take the dial up another notch? He knew the importance of proceeding slowly, but he also needed to find the limits of how far Jim could take his senses right now. He decided to risk one more increment.
"Jim? We're going to try just one more notch on the dial, man. Everything's under control; you're in total control here. Visualize the dial; see the numbers on it. The dial's on one right now. Breathe slow and easy. There's no rush at all. Nice deep breaths, buddy. Relax. Concentrate only on my touch. No sound. No smells. No sight. Just me and you, Jim." Blair did a last scan of Jim's reactions. Calm. Breathing easily. No signs of discomfort.
"All right, Jim. Find the dial, and I want you to move it very slowly up to two. That's the way, nice and easy. Everything's cool, my brother. You're in complete control."
Long minutes of quiet encouragement passed, before Blair asked, "Is the dial on two?"
Jim nodded, and Blair almost shouted in relief. They were going to make it.
"All right, man, that's so great. That's all we're gonna do for today. Leave the dial on two. The other dials are still turned all the way down. We'll deal with them later."
Blair grasped Jim's hand and held it firmly, running his thumb back and forth across each knuckle, letting his fingers massage Jim's palm. It was time to focus Jim's attention on one point, time to begin bringing him out of the trance he'd so carefully induced. "Jim? Time to come out of it, man. I need you to open your eyes, nice and slow, okay? Everything's under control, and it's safe for you to come back to me now."
Gradually, Jim began to show signs of heightened awareness. He moved slightly on the bed, and his hand tightened around Blair's, squeezing gently in response to his Guide's questions. At last, his eyes flickered open and focused on Sandburg's face.
"Hey," Blair greeted him quietly. "How do you feel?"
The corners of Jim's mouth curled upward in a victorious smile. "Touch is slightly above normal. It's okay, Chief. No pain, and I think I could dial it down again if I needed to. You did it."
"Not me, man," he disagreed. "You did all the work."
One hand reached up, still bearing the ugly rope burns and bruises, to Blair's face. The backs of Jim's fingers trailed along Blair's jaw before cupping his cheek, and the younger man leaned instinctively into the touch. "Us, Chief. Whatever I do, you're responsible. You know that."
Words failed him in the face of Jim's recognition of his importance in his life. Looking away, Blair fingered the visible reminders of Jim's torture gently, wishing helplessly that he could do more to ease his friend's pain. Everything he'd done, all he'd tried, seemed so insignificant in the face of what Jim had suffered. Was still suffering.
As though hearing his thoughts, Jim stopped his roving fingers with a firm hand. "I'm okay, Blair. I'm getting better every day. Stronger, and now, more in control. You're doing everything you can, everything I need, to help me get better. Okay?"
Lifting his head, Blair looked into Jim's eyes and saw the truth swimming in the calm blue depths. "Okay," he whispered. "Okay." He blinked hard against the heaviness fighting to close his eyelids. It had been a hell of a long day.
Nodding, Jim pulled him down beside him, guided his head against his chest and anchored him there with an arm around his shoulders. "Rest," he ordered gently. "Just rest now."
Knowing there must be more to be done, but too exhausted to think what it might be, Blair curled up next to Jim and closed his eyes. Gentle fingers caressed his short curls. From somewhere in the distance, he thought he heard the sound of soft, comforting humming, slightly off-key, rumbling in his ear, accompanied by the rhythm of a Sentinel's heart. Sighing deeply, Blair surrendered to the darkness.********************
For the Sentinel, sleep did not come so quickly, but he didn't mind. It was enough to be safe and to have his Guide resting close beside him, a blessed, healing balm against the lingering pain. He wasn't sure what time it was or how long they had worked on raising, ever so slightly, his sense of touch. It didn't matter. For once in their lives, they were on no schedule and had no obligations to meet. He was free to rest when his body needed it, and the Sentinel knew he had the luxury of having his Guide beside him twenty-four hours a day to help heal his physical and emotional wounds.
While the efforts to bring back one of his Sentinel senses had seemingly exhausted his Guide, Jim's reaction was quite different. He was wrapped in a blanket of serenity, a lingering calmness soothing his battered body and soul, bestowing the first true peace he'd known since his capture. Relaxed, but not yet sleepy, he was content to savor the moment.
As he lay in the darkened, quiet room, Jim was glad Blair had chosen touch to begin his reemergence as a Sentinel. Although the sensations were not as powerful as they would have been with his senses at full strength, it was enough as he savored the feeling of Blair's closeness. Not too many days ago, the only human companionship he'd had was filled with pain and dread and fear. On this night, it was pure heaven to lie still with the one who had claimed his place in Jim's heart and rest.
Jim tilted his head slowly until it came to rest on Blair's soft curls. Against his arm, he felt the unaccustomed warmth of Blair's bare neck, no longer obscured by the long, thick hair. Somehow, it made Blair appear so unprotected, so vulnerable, and Jim was reminded of how he'd felt at sight of his friend without his long curls earlier in the day. Jim instinctively tightened his embrace, tucking Blair more firmly within the circle of his arms. Against his chest, there was the sweet heat of living flesh, and the moist warmth of each exhaled breath tickled the hollow of Jim's neck. Even though his sense of touch was barely above normal, it had been so long since he'd had any Sentinel input at all that the sensations were staggering.
Jim realized he could easily zone, even on such barely-enhanced sensations, but he firmly refused to allow himself to slip that far away. It would frighten Sandburg, and the last thing Jim wanted was to cause his Guide more distress. He was tempted to try to bring another of his senses on-line, to see if he could accomplish alone what he and Sandburg had just done together. Again, the fear of zoning or of bringing on sensory overload held him back. Hadn't learning that he couldn't handle the challenges of being a Sentinel alone been the most costly lesson of his life?
Thoughts of their uncertain future darted across his mind, but Jim refused to allow them to take root. He'd planned out exactly what they needed to do up to receiving their new identity documents from Ink. From there on, he hadn't had time to think about what steps to take. Ink had promised the documents at the beginning of the week; he had days to think about what they would do next. Tonight wasn't the time for thinking about what was to come. Tonight was a time to live in the here and now, to rest, and to heal.
Satisfied that, for the present, he had done all that was necessary to ensure their safety, Jim closed his eyes. Blair stirred beside him, and intuitively, Jim's hand moved to stroke his forehead with a feather-light touch. "Shhhh... it's all right. Rest now."
Immediately, the younger man responded to his touch; his profound trust in Jim to keep him safe was powerful enough to reach him even in sleep. As Blair eased down into a peaceful sleep once more, his Sentinel followed, allowing the luxury of nothingness to claim him.
The nightmares did not haunt him.
The City of Angels hummed through the night, never ceasing its restless activity, regardless of the hour. Cocooned within the safety of a dark, anonymous room, a recuperating Sentinel and his exhausted Guide slept peacefully, their futures looming before them, encased in uncertainty and shadow.********************
For the next few days, that future was not discussed. Both men felt the need to back away from the situation, if only for a short time. Taking cabs and buses, Jim and Blair saw the sights of L.A., and neither mentioned the events of the past or what lay ahead. For a few days, it was enough to live only in the present.
On Monday morning, Jim phoned Ink while Blair was taking his shower. He hung up the phone, then stared at the bathroom door, listening to the sound of the running water. The IDs were completed. All that remained was to pay Ink, take the documentation of their new identities, and...
The shower cut off. Blair would be out soon, expecting a report from Ink.
It was time to make a decision.
Jim took the notepad and moved to the small table by the window. Thinking for a few moments, he began to write.
Blair emerged a few minutes later, one white towel wrapped around his waist as he rubbed down his hair with another towel. "One thing about this short hair, man. It really cuts down on the drying time."
Jim looked up and chuckled, but his heart still jumped at the sight of his partner's new haircut. Would he ever get used to Sandburg without that damned hair? "Chief, soon as you're done, come on over here. Ink's got the stuff ready. We've got some decisions to make."
There was little expression on Sandburg's face as he digested the news. "When do we pick them up?"
"I told Ink we'd be over after lunch."
Blair proceeded to put on a pair of jeans and a red t-shirt. "So what's next?" he asked casually, but Jim caught the note of uncertainty in his voice.
"That's what I want to talk about."
Blair joined him at the table and tapped the open atlas. "Got a destination in mind?"
"Maybe." He pushed the notepad over to his partner.
"A list of things I think are important for us to consider about wherever it is we go from here."
Blair read aloud. " 'Someplace where people come and go - where strangers won't be unusual... easy access to transportation... no ties to our past... plenty of apartments, places to live.' " He stopped reading and looked up. "Hey, Jim? Sounds like you plan to settle down somewhere. I don't know; I figured we'd stay on the move for a while. Just go from place to place so Brackett couldn't get a lead on us."
"I considered that," Jim said, resting his elbows on the table. "Both ways have their pros and cons. I guess I figured that the sooner we just fade into the scenery somewhere, the less likely we are to leave any clues behind for him to find."
Blair sat quietly for a minute, studying the atlas. "Okay, I can see that. So, where do you have in mind?"
"I figure a place that gets a lot of travelers - tourists - might fit the bill. We'd stand out less than in a quiet town where everyone knows everyone else. Of course, there are several possibilities." Jim looked at Blair thoughtfully. "Where would you like to live, Chief?"
"Me? Hey, man, I've lived so many places. I really don't know."
"That brings up another point," Jim said, thinking of Blair's past in relation to their present situation for the first time. "I don't think we should go anywhere around a place you and Naomi once lived. People might recognize you or Brackett could somehow piece together your history and check out those places."
"Yeah, that's sensible." Blair turned the atlas around so it was facing him. A moment later, he grinned at Jim. "Hey, you ever been to Hawaii?"
"Hawaii?" The idea caught Jim totally off-guard. "No. Carolyn wanted to go there on our honeymoon, but... "
Sandburg's blue eyes twinkled with mischief. "Where did you go on your honeymoon, Lover? Somewhere really romantic? Show the lady a trip to remember?"
Jim stared at the upside-down atlas. "Ancient history, kid. Let's..."
"Aw, c'mon, man! Where'd you take her? Bermuda? Mexico?" He was leaning forward now, and it was obvious to Jim that Blair was totally into digging up this piece of his Sentinel's past.
Jim knew he'd have no peace until the kid was satisfied. "Cleveland," he muttered, tearing up a tiny piece of paper into even tinier shreds.
Blair's blue eyes widened. "Cleveland?? Aw, Jim, tell me you didn't!"
"I didn't plan it that way, Sandburg! We kind of got married on the spur of the moment, in a J.P.'s office, and then I got word that I had to attend a conference on hostage negotiation in Cleveland. We just combined business with pleasure. The city picked up the tab."
"How romantic!" Blair shook his head, laughing. "Man, you really know how to wine and dine 'em."
Jim shrugged. "Doubt it would have made any difference, and when you get right down to it, Cleveland was a pretty appropriate choice for us. As a honeymoon destination, it was a metaphor for the whole marriage."
The humor in Blair's eyes faded immediately. "Hey, Jim, I'm sorry, man. I didn't mean... "
"It's okay. Ancient history. Forget it." He tapped the atlas. "Tell me, why Hawaii?"
"Other than the fact it's paradise, and after years of living with rain in Cascade a little tropical weather would be so great? Beautiful women... sandy white beaches... warm sunshine... Other than that?"
Jim nodded as solemnly as he could. "Yeah. Other than that."
"Okay, I'll play along." Blair's eyes were twinkling with humor. "Look at your list, man. I've never been there, and obviously, neither have you, right? Transportation's covered. Hawaii's the Gateway to the Pacific. Plenty of housing available, and so many visitors that nobody will think twice about two more deciding to stay in paradise. What's not to love?" Blair took a deep breath and sat back, waiting.
Jim bit the inside of his cheek to hold back a smile. Sandburg was obviously sold on the idea, sitting there with that grin on his face, and his eyes shining with excitement. "Other than that," he drawled, "what's the appeal?"
For an instant, he thought Blair almost bought it. "Funny, Jim. So what do you think?"
Jim considered, trying to come up with any reasons Blair's idea wouldn't work. The fact that they'd be on an island bothered him, but an idea was playing in the back of his mind that might cancel out that problem. Besides, Blair was right. Flights out of Hawaii were frequent. "Okay," he said at last. "Why not? I could stand to work on my tan."
The whoop that erupted from Sandburg rattled the window, and Jim could no longer maintain his straight face. "Guess we won't need to buy a new vehicle right away, Chief. That can wait until we find a place there."
"Oh, man, this is so cool." Blair shook his head, a wide grin splitting his face. "I mean, if you gotta live in exile, might as well do it in style, right?"********************
"Banks." Simon tucked the phone between his chin and shoulder as he thumbed through the stack of files on his desk, looking for the McGregor case. When he heard the voice on the other end of the phone, he dropped the files he was holding and leaned back in his chair.
Even though it had only been a little over a week since Jim and Blair left Cascade, it was so good to hear his friend's voice again that Simon broke into a wide grin. "Jim! Where... ?" Catching himself, Simon finished, "Scratch that. Sorry. How are you?"
"We're fine, Simon. I don't want to stay on long, just in case. Any news?"
Brief and to the point. Obviously, Jim wasn't taking any chances. Simon just wished he had better news to give. "Not really. The feds have managed to locate some of the members of FAN, but they've all pleaded ignorance of Owl's present location or activities, and we can't prove differently - yet. They went through some pretty heavy interrogation, but none of them broke. I watched or participated in all the interviews, and frankly, I don't think any of them knows anything. They're just followers. Owl and his lieutenants are the real movers and shakers in the organization, and so far, we haven't had any luck locating them. Or Brackett," he added as an afterthought.
There was a definite note of resignation in Jim's voice when he replied, "That's all I needed to know. Looks like we're in this for the long haul. There are some envelopes on the kitchen table at home, Simon. Would you get them to the people whose names are on the fronts for me? Just some notes explaining as much as we can about why we've disappeared. There's one there for my dad and one for Steven. I hate asking, but I didn't want it to just arrive in the mail. Would you mind taking those two in person for me? Blair wrote one for Daryl. He feels really bad leaving without saying good-bye to him. The others are for Blair's coworkers at the university. You can drop those by the anthropology department secretary and let her pass them out."
Simon was struck by the business-like attitude in Jim's voice. "Are you sure you can't call your father or Steven, Jim? I'm sure they'd much rather hear this coming from you."
The response was quick, and Simon could visualize the determined set of Jim's jaw. "No. There'd be way too many questions, and frankly, I'm just not up to dealing with my family right now. Sandburg's talked to Naomi, and that's it for long explanations."
"Okay. Anything else?"
"The loft's taken care of through my attorney, so that's not a problem. He's getting all the mail forwarded to his office. My bank accounts are closed, and my retirement fund should be on auto-pilot until we get back. I've asked Dad to handle my investments for me, and my attorney knows what to do with that." There was silence for a moment. "I'll call you every few weeks for updates, Simon. Other than that... "
There was little else to say. "Be careful, Jim. It's awfully quiet without you and Sandburg here."
"Particularly without Sandburg, huh?" Jim joked. "We're being careful, Simon. You just find those bastards."
The connection ended. Simon laid the phone back on his desk, then turned to gaze through the bullpen window at the empty desk with the empty chair beside it and thought about the void two absent friends can create.********************
There was no need to remain in L.A. The documents Ink had designed for them were perfect. No doubt about it; the man was a creative genius. Jim had already opened three separate bank accounts around the city, depositing roughly a third of his savings in each one. When they settled down, he could open an account and transfer the money there. He'd kept out a substantial amount of cash, but as hard as Blair tried to pry the reason why out of him, Jim remained frustratingly tight-lipped.
Now they were in a cab heading to an address Blair didn't recognize at all, and still, his partner refused to give any information about where they were going and why. "Taking the next step toward our new lives, Chief," was as much as he would say.
While Jim paid the driver, Blair stared in amazement. "What are we doing here?" He turned to Jim as a huge grin broke across the Sentinel's face.
"Take a guess, Darwin." He gestured toward the huge fenced lot before them. "What do you think?"
"You're thinking about buying a sailboat? Why? I mean, I know we decided on escaping to paradise, but shouldn't we wait until we get there to start with the recreational activities?"
Jim headed in the gate, Blair right on his heels. "Look at the size of these boats, Chief. I'm not exactly talking pure recreation here."
Looking around at the yard, he could see the truth of Jim's statement. The boats weren't the small variety used for weekend recreation. These were practically yachts, large vessels that most definitely required an experience captain to sail. Blair excitedly went over to the closest boat and began inspecting it. "Can you sail these things, man? Can you really afford this?"
Jim looked at the boat with a critical eye. "Yes, to both. I've made good investments, and I came into some money from my grandfather that I kept in CDs. So, it's definitely affordable. A better investment than pouring away rent money. Plus, we can rent a slip somewhere and not leave as big a paper trail as buying a place or even renting. As for sailing, my old man was nuts about boats. He made sure Steven and I could handle anything with a sail before we got to high school."
Jim glanced down at Blair, then back to the boat again, with a distant look in his eyes. "Almost took all the joy out of it for me, though. Everything was a competition with that man, even a Sunday sail on the ocean. He'd rent two boats, then he'd put me in charge of one with Steven captaining the other and make us race. He'd grade us on how well we judged the wind direction, the neatness of our boat, and of course, who was fastest... everything. Amazing that I didn't grow to hate sailing."
Blair almost asked who usually won, just to tease Jim a little, but the underlying pain recalling the memories brought to his voice stopped him. Spotting a boat on the far side of the yard, Blair headed that way. "Hey, Jim, look at this one, man."
By the time Jim joined him, Blair was already sold on the beautiful yacht. "Oh, man, this is gorgeous." He ran his hand appreciatively over the wooden hull.
Before Jim could comment, a salesman came up from behind them. "Nice choice, gentlemen." He held out a hand to Jim. "My name's Larry Keene."
"Jim Keller," Jim said, with only a trace of hesitation before using his new last name for the first time. "My friend's Blair Hawking. Tell us about the boat."
Keene moved into a long explanation of the high points of the fifty foot motorsailer as they toured the boat. Built in 1969...recently refurbished, top to bottom... solid mahogany with a teak roof on the cabin... 120 horsepower, 6 cylinder diesel engine... impressive sail inventory... GPS system... radar... auto-pilot... depth sounder... reinforced hull... roomy cabin or 'salon' with a fold-down table... berth with two beds, arranged in a V formation... complete galley... a 'head'... lots of portholes for visibility...polished wood floors and accents throughout the interior... a roomy cockpit with ample seating while underway.
"All in all," Keene concluded, "it's a classic yacht with modern upgrades." He eyed Jim hopefully, obviously realizing from Jim's questions that he was the sailor in the team.
"I think we need to look at newer boats," Jim commented, with no trace of emotion.
Blair bit back his feeling of disappointment. Jim probably had seen something amiss with the mahogany beauty that he'd not known enough to catch. He'd never even been on a sailboat; he sure wasn't going to try to argue with Jim's decision about that beautiful boat. He fell in behind Jim as the salesman led them to the next boat.********************
After touring and hearing the sales pitch for at least a half-dozen other vessels, Jim was satisfied. Secretly, he'd already made up his mind to buy the mahogany yacht as soon as he set foot on the deck. It was a boat of distinction, a reminder of the workmanship of a by-gone era, and something about its simple beauty appealed to Jim. He'd always believed that a boat should 'speak' to your soul, and the motorsailer spoke to his.
Jim turned to Mr. Keene. "Let's talk price."
A wide smile creased Keene's face. "On which boat, Mr. Keller?"
Jim flashed a quick grin at Blair. "The first one; the mahogany '69. It was a very good year, you know." He was rewarded by a blinding smile from his surprised partner. Looking over at the beautiful yacht, Jim had a feeling that their new life was getting off to a very auspicious start.********************
As Jim prepared to pay Mr. Keene after all the paperwork was completed, Blair stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Wait a minute, man." Reaching into his pocket, Blair withdrew his wallet. Holding out a handful of bills, he said, "Take this. It's not much, just $2,500.00, but it's all I have."
Jim held his gaze. "Mr. Keene? Would you excuse us a minute?"
Keene got up from his desk and walked to the door. "Certainly. I'll step out and give these copies to our sales manager. Just let me know when you're done. Hit #26 on the phone, and it'll put you through to her office."
When the door closed, leaving them alone, Jim shook his head. "Keep the money, Chief. I can handle this."
"I know you can. That's not the point." The azure eyes held firm.
Then what is the point? I know you haven't been making enough to spare your entire savings, especially now that you're... unemployed." Jim felt awkward reminding Blair that, thanks to his alliance with his Sentinel, he was no longer a Ph.D. candidate and graduate assistant. Who knew if Blair would ever earn that degree now?
Blair's expression softened. "I just want to be a part of this, Jim, even in a small way. I mean, you've always made me feel at home in the loft, but it's your home. I want to help pay for this boat. It's gonna be my home now, right? Paying for part of it will make me feel like it's really mine. I've never owned any place that I've lived before, and somehow, that's important to me now. Can you understand that?"
Jim nodded as he squeezed his friend's shoulder. Taking the money from Blair, he said quietly, "You've always got a home with me, Chief, whether you pay rent, put down part of a payment, or pay nothing at all. You know that right?" When Blair nodded, his eyes shining brightly, Jim grinned broadly as he reached for the phone. "You just bought yourself a sailboat, Chief."********************
Five days later, the boat pulled gracefully away from a nearby dock. The galley was stocked, linens and other necessities had been purchased, the rigging fully inspected, and the engine was fueled. Jim was at the helm, as Blair stood slightly behind him, watching every move his friend made. They would depart under engine power and switch to sails once they were in the open ocean. Their emergency dingy bounced along behind, and a spare zodiac raft was stowed away, in case it was needed. Jim had been over his checklist a dozen times, and as they left shore, he was satisfied that every base was covered.
"We're off, Chief." Jim glanced over his shoulder at Blair. He wondered if his friend felt the same way he did - as though he was leaving a huge part of himself behind, yet oddly excited at the possibilities that lay ahead. The question didn't remain unanswered for long.
Blair's excitement was evident as he stared at the water ahead with a huge smile. "Oh, man! I don't think I've ever been so excited! I mean, I've lived a lot of places, but heading out across the Pacific on a sailboat to start a brand-new life, that's a new one even for me. It's kinda scary, but I'm excited about it all, too, you know?"
"Yeah, I know," Jim agreed, glad that Blair did indeed understand.
"And we're taking home with us, just like I said we always would, aren't we?" Blair laughed at the irony. "I think you came up with the perfect name. Sanctuary. It fits, not only this gorgeous boat but what she represents."
Jim was pleased with the idea he'd come up with shortly after purchasing the yacht. "I think she'll make a good home. Not as spacious as the loft, but she's ours and a safe haven from Owl and Brackett."
He heard soft laughter from behind him. "I wish Simon could see us now, don't you? Taking off on a sailboat for Hawaii, leaving the bad guys far behind."
A few minutes later, they were out on the open ocean. The skies were clear, and a brisk wind insured good sailing. Jim scanned the horizon for long minutes, breathing in the salt air. "Let's raise those sails, Chief," he said at last. "We've got a long way to go."********************
Days on the sea passed in an almost dream-like tranquility. After so long looking over their shoulders, the isolation of a sea voyage meant safety, and that was a luxury both men had lived too long without. The weather cooperated completely, a palette of blues and greens, dappled with gold as though from a Monet painting.
Blair stood at the wheel, savoring the feeling of skimming across the sea. Jim's lessons had given him enough confidence to captain The Sanctuary for short periods, always with Jim close at hand. The ocean breeze tickled his neck, exposed for the first time in so many years, and Blair grinned at the sensation. He felt so free! Both men had abandoned shirts, lathering on sunscreen to avoid burning, but taking the opportunity to unwind completely. Cut-off jeans or shorts were standard attire; shoes were optional. Already, Blair's curls had picked up a golden sheen, and Jim's short hair was at least two shades lighter. Sometimes, gazing out at the sheer magnificence of the ocean, Blair wondered about his place in the universe. He refused to allow himself to feel lost, focusing instead on the simple pleasures the voyage offered - simple clothing, simple conversation, simple dreams.
Eating was simple, too. They had stowed away fresh fruit and lots of makings for salads. Baked beans with hot dogs and potato chips was about as complex as the cooking became. They didn't follow any set schedule. Meals were eaten whenever someone was hungry.
Their entertainment was equally simple. Although Blair had internet access through his laptop and cell phone, now registered under his new name, he seldom took advantage of it. Leaving Cascade and his academic life behind had signaled a new beginning in more ways than one. He no longer felt the drive to be busy every second of the day, and Blair found he preferred to spend his leisure time reading a novel, playing chess with Jim, or just staring out at the ever-changing ocean.
Jim had disappeared below deck several minutes earlier, and he emerged now, moving gracefully across the gently rolling deck, a man at home on the sea. Strolling to the bow, he leaned against the rail, eyes focused on the distant horizon.
What would Jim see if his Sentinel abilities had been at full power? How vast the ocean must seem to a man with Jim's gifts. If its greatness made Blair feel small, would Jim feel even more insignificant? Regret that his friend was now without his enhanced senses surged through the anthropologist, and he wished he had been able to do more to help Jim regain his gifts. So far, they'd barely begun to turn Jim's control dials up above a normal level.
As though sensing his Guide's innermost thoughts, Jim half-turned toward Blair and caught his eye. A look of silent understanding passed between them, the message delivered through a sensitivity born of trust and long association. Slowly, a soft smile spread across Jim's face, and neither looked away, both content to bask in the moment. At last, his face still graced by the same soft smile, Jim turned back to the sea.
Blair watched his Sentinel's back as he guided the Sanctuary across the water. According to Jim's calculations, they would arrive tomorrow in the waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands. A new chapter of his life was about to begin, yet another chapter in a life already filled with unique adventures and discoveries. What lay ahead of them? Would they ever return to Cascade and the life they had left behind?
In the end, did it really matter?
His entire life, at least from the time he was a teenager, had been spent in his quest for a Sentinel.
That Sentinel stood before him now. Battered, tired, and without the majority of his enhanced senses, perhaps, but Jim was still his Sentinel. Would always be his Sentinel, no matter what the circumstances.
A school of dolphins fell in beside the Sanctuary. About a half dozen sleek, torpedo forms skimming through the waves with some of the more playful ones leaping into the air, then falling back into the water once more. Jim turned and pointed at their escorts, laughing aloud at the sight of the graceful mammals. Blair's heart swelled with gratitude.
Jim was going to be all right. They would find a port - a port in the storm - he mused. Then they could settle down for a while. Get the rest of Jim's senses back on line. He'd look for a job somewhere. Not in anthropology, of course, and he really had no idea what else he could do, but he'd find something. They both would.
He grinned back at his partner. They had already survived the worst. From here on out, life was going to be looking up.********************
Carl Burr's cold eyes pinned Brackett firmly. "What do you mean you can't find him?"
Brackett forced his face to remain void of expression. Every time he met with this man, he disliked him more and more. "Yet," he replied patiently. "I said I haven't been able to locate him yet." He poured some water from the pitcher on the corner of Burr's desk. "You know we had him located at that cabin up in the mountains. Must have just missed them by a few hours. The tire tracks out front were fresh. Like I said, I staked out their apartment back in town, but if they went back there, they were still a couple of hours ahead of me."
He stared into the glass, watching the swirling pattern of the water as it settled from pouring. "Ellison's truck turned up in L.A., so it's a pretty fair bet they took off south. Maybe hopped a flight out of L.A.X. I can't turn up any vehicle registrations under either name, but Ellison's too smart for that anyway. He'll be using a new identity by this time. Right now, L.A.'s our best shot. I'll be flying down tomorrow to nose around."
The former CIA agent sipped the cool water gratefully. It had been another long day. Lee Brackett was beginning to question the wisdom of his alliance with Carl Burr and the whole damn FAN movement. At first, he thought the organization had its act together. Now, he wasn't sure at all. Still, the money was right. If this nutcase didn't have anything better to do with his fortune than play spy, Brackett was all too willing to accommodate him.
"What about Ellison's civilian and military contacts?" Burr picked up a pistol from the top of his desk and flipped open the chamber casually. "I thought you had a lead there."
Brackett nodded slowly. "I do. There's supposedly an old Army buddy of Ellison's who's a master at creative printing. Problem is, I don't have a name yet or a location." He stared at Burr steadily. "But I will. Give me time. If we're lucky, I'll find something in Los Angeles."********************
After some discussion, Jim and Blair decided to spend some time on each of Hawaii's major islands before making up their minds where they would like to settle down. Each island offered its own unique gifts, Blair explained. He'd been researching their destination with his usual zeal, and he carefully explained the characteristics of each one.
They began with Oahu, the most populated of the islands. Cautious as ever, Jim was concerned about being around the many tourists crowding the most popular attractions; there could easily be someone from Cascade who would recognize them. Blair, however, was determined to see at least some of what made Oahu famous - the beaches, Pearl Harbor, and Diamond Head crater. At last, they compromised. They'd spend a few days on Oahu, seeing the mandatory sights, then they would move on to less dangerous destinations.
The highlight of the days on Oahu for Blair would always be Pearl Harbor. Not necessarily for his own personal experience there, although it was certainly an emotional visit, but for what the trip had obviously meant to Jim.
They had saved the visit for last. Already, they'd hit the major attractions - the Polynesian Cultural Center... Hanauma Bay for snorkeling... a drive to the North Shore. It had been an unspoken agreement that Pearl Harbor would be last; it seemed to feel right to both men to save the most meaningful destination until right before their own departure.
The gates had not yet opened when Jim and Blair arrived early on Sunday morning, the least crowded time for a tour, according to Blair's research. Apparently, the tip was correct. Only a few scattered groups of tourists bought tickets for the first boat out to the memorial.
They boarded the Navy launch in silence. Jim and Blair settled in the bow, leaving the other passengers to take up the seats in the middle or rear. Blair had already made up his mind to follow Jim's lead on this excursion. The soldier in Jim Ellison was still very much alive and well, and Blair realized that a visit to the place where so many soldiers had died over fifty years before could prove emotional for the normally self-contained man.
Apparently Jim had chosen the silent vigil route. As the launch pulled away from the dock, Jim's eyes remained fastened on the various markers lining the harbor. Large white rectangular markers confirmed the original positions of the U.S. fleet on Battleship Row that fateful December day. So far, at least from what Blair could tell, Jim had not yet looked at the graceful white memorial rising from the blue waters of Pearl Harbor over the sunken remains of the U.S.S. Arizona. Those clear blue eyes steadily took in all the ships of the harbor, the markers, and the other surroundings, but as yet, they had not focused on what they'd all come to see.
Blair looked away from studying his partner's profile to see three figures joining them in the bow. At the same time, Jim turned to look as well.
Three elderly Japanese men walked rather unsteadily to stand at the rail. Each man held in his hands a lei, each one composed of fragrant white plumeria blossoms and strung together with intricate care. None of the newcomers looked at either Jim or Blair; their heads remained lowered, watery dark eyes stared unblinking at the white vision slowly drawing ever closer.
A slight shiver tickled Blair's spine, and suddenly he knew. Blair glanced up at Jim, wondering if he felt the same reaction. Jim's pale blue eyes met his and held, and in that unspoken communion, Blair understood that the Sentinel, too, knew the truth.
Blair took a step closer to Jim, standing near enough to press his arm against Jim's in silent support, and their gazes returned to the harbor. Neither man looked at each other again until the launch pulled up to dock at the memorial.
It was one of those perfect island mornings when the sun creates sparkling diamonds on the harbor. A light breeze made the U.S. flag dance, and the azure sky was reflected against cobalt waters.
Blair studied the Pearl Harbor Memorial silently as they waited for the launch to be moored. It was an elegant design: a long white rectangle that dipped down in the center then rose upward on each end. A symbol of rising in triumph from out of defeat, he remembered the orientation Guide had told them. Out of respect for the hundreds of men still lying entombed in the battered and broken ship below, there was no commentary from their Guide on the way to and from the memorial or while they were there.
Throughout the memorial, there were large, freeform windows cut into the top and sides. Twenty-one windows, to be precise. An eternal twenty-one gun salute carved in stone, in honor of long-silent heroes.
Blair watched the flag waving in the breeze, and his eyes followed the tall pole as it continued against the surface. The Arizona had never been decommissioned, so the flag they saw on the surface was actually flying from the ship herself. An oddly moving thought, Blair realized, blinking rapidly as he followed Jim and the others along the gangplank to the memorial itself. The three Japanese visitors were the last to disembark, following behind Jim and Blair.
As they stepped onto the memorial, a huge oil painting of the doomed Arizona, listing badly with her flag valiantly waving and the modern memorial superimposed in the foreground, was hanging high above. All eyes were drawn first to the image, then to the large marble wall that waited through the opening below the painting.
The wall of the dead.
Blair followed Jim as the older man moved slowly through the doorway. They paused in the center of the memorial's main hall before an opening in the floor, surrounded by a railing. There, they gazed down upon the Arizona, lying only a few feet beneath the water. The few other passengers joined them, except for the Japanese men who stood at the outer railing of the memorial, gazing silently at the ship below. As Blair watched, a small bubble of oil floated lazily to the surface, then broke, spreading a rainbow of color across the water.
He shivered, then felt Jim's arm press his firmly. The Sentinel understood.
In time, they moved to stand before the wall.
So many names.
As Blair read them, he couldn't stop the images forming in his mind.
Young men, so proud to serve their country in such a lovely place, enjoying a peaceful Sunday morning. Some writing letters home. Others doing all the mundane things of life - reading, eating, sleeping, talking, playing cards - until their world exploded in a sudden hell of confusion, fire, and death. He could see in his mind, as clearly as if he had been there, the burned bodies, screams of anguish, and those terrible fires burning on the oil-polluted water, and Blair could not withhold his tears at the tragic loss of life and innocence.
He glanced up at Jim's face. His blue eyes were locked on the marble wall. A single tear trickled slowly down one chiseled cheek.
There were no words powerful enough.
The others had already drifted from the wall of names. Then the three elderly Japanese approached the wall. Blair and Jim moved as one to the side, allowing them to approach and stand directly before the lengthy list of the dead.
None of the men spoke. They stood in silence, heads bowed, their leis held gently in gnarled, rough hands. For long minutes, the men stood before the names of the victims as Jim and Blair watched, knowing somehow that they were witnessing an event of incalculable importance.
At last, the three Japanese turned away, and the one in the middle raised his head to gaze directly into Blair's eyes. The bleary old eyes were brimming with tears.
The three approached the tall, silent Sentinel standing watch over the watery grave. Standing in a line before him, all three bowed their heads for a long moment, then the one who'd looked at Blair spoke.
"You are American military?"
Blair smiled through his own tears. There was something of Jim that marked him for life as a soldier, and his heart swelled in pride at that knowledge. What better brand to carry than that of one who'd served his country with honor, especially in this sacred place?
Jim's head declined slightly. "I served my country."
The Japanese nodded in acknowledgement of their shared bond. "As did we," the spokesman for the group confirmed. "We... were here."
The power of those three small words and the truth they carried was staggering. Although Blair had guessed the truth, as had Jim, knowing it and hearing it were two different experiences.
Sorrowful black eyes held ice-blue. "We hoped to meet someone else who was here on that day when we took this trip, but our Guide is too young." A small smile twitched at the corners of the down-turned lips, but only for an instant. "So are you. However, you are American military, and so, in apologizing to you, we hope to apologize to all you represent."
Another small bow of the head. "What we did on that day was not honorable. We did not know your government had not been informed; we brought disgrace upon Japan by killing those still in their beds. My words can never make up for all that was lost that day, but words are all we have to give." He spread his hands slightly, drawing his two companions into the small drama playing out. "They do not speak English, but know that my comrades heartily concur. We apologize to you... to your father's generation... to the United States of America for our part in this attack. For our role in the deaths of the brave young men who lie beneath this memorial, men never given the opportunity to defend themselves or their nation."
Blair couldn't have spoken a word, even if he'd known what to say. He could only look from the solemn face of the old soldier, his head now bowed in shame, to the younger face of another soldier, standing at his side. Around them, the waters of Pearl Harbor lapped at the base of the memorial and in the distance, birds sang in the trees. The skies were vibrant blue, and the only traces of what had happened so long ago lay silent beneath their feet. Yet, despite the years, Blair could almost hear the whispers of the dead in the soft breathing of the three men standing before him as they all waited for Jim to speak.
The reply was so low, Blair almost didn't recognize Jim's voice, as husky and gravely as it was. "You have brought honor and dignity to your country. You did then what your duty demanded of you, and today, you sought to make peace with your actions. You have nothing to be ashamed of today." Quietly, Jim held out his hand.
The elderly Japanese slowly raised his head, and Blair could swear he saw a light glowing in the black depths that hadn't been there before. A light of pride and relief at a burden long carried being lifted at last. Drawing a deep, shaky breath, the old man clasped Jim's hand and nodded once. "Thank you." Speaking rapidly to his comrades, he released Jim as he gestured expansively. Soon, the other two men were smiling broadly and shaking the hand of the former covert ops captain and Sentinel, obviously as relieved as their friend.
"Now, we would like to place these flowers on the water for those who died that day," the spokesman for the three said quietly. "We would be honored if you would join us."
Moving to the railing nearest the American flag, Jim and Blair stood behind the three Japanese in silence. Jim leaned heavily on his cane, the breeze ruffling his short hair. Each man spoke something in his native tongue, head bowed and eyes closed, then the one who spoke for them turned to Blair. "You have a strong spirit," he said warmly. "We have prayed in our own language for those who lie below and those who died here and but rest for eternity in on the mainland. Would you do the same in English?"
Blair was taken off-guard. He glanced quickly up and Jim. His friend smiled softly. "Go ahead, Chief. I can't think of anyone better."
Still a little unsure, Blair looked down at the rusting remains of the Arizona then back at the wrinkled faces of those who had been part of the devastating attack so many, many years before. So many had sacrificed on that day; so many had lived with that sacrifice weighing heavy on their consciences for every hour since. How could he refuse?
"Neither of us has any idea what it was like here on the ground that December morning." His eyes flickered to Jim's face, then back to the ruined battleship. "I can only imagine the horror. Any war is a terrible thing, drawing innocent young men into events too huge for them to comprehend at the time. The men who lie below us have known peace for a long time now, resting in a place where war and hatred are nonexistent. If they are watching what happened here today, I am certain they are pleased that you three have also found peace at last, a peace a long time coming."
Pausing for a moment to gather his thoughts, Blair placed his hands on the railing and stared down into the mesmerizing motion of the water. He closed his eyes briefly, and when he spoke again, his voice was brimming with emotion. "May the peace you found today see you through the remainder of your lives. May they know that their lives were not sacrificed in vain. May the world one day know a time when such events, such sacrifices, are considered so barbaric, so inhumane, that they completely cease to exist." Turning, Blair smiled at the three Japanese and at Jim through the misty haze obscuring his vision. "May we all live in peace."********************
Blair was quiet on the way back to the Sanctuary from the harbor. Jim watched him out of the corner of his eye as Blair maneuvered through the Honolulu traffic. He missed driving. Rubbing his aching knee, Jim considered whether he should try to find a doctor in the islands, then he quickly dismissed the idea as too risky. He would know when he was ready for the next steps in his recovery. Maybe he'd wait a bit longer to try driving.
Turning his attention back to his partner, Jim commented, "You did a good job back there, Chief."
Blair glanced over at him. "Really?"
"Really. Those veterans picked the right guy to say a few words for them."
He could almost see Blair relax at his remark. Funny how a guy as talented, intelligent, and easy-going as Sandburg could rely so heavily on the judgment of someone else, but Jim knew his friend valued his opinion highly. "You did good, Chief," Jim repeated, feeling a need to be sure Sandburg knew he meant the compliment sincerely. He had been secretively relieved back at the memorial when the old soldiers hadn't asked him to speak for them.
A quick smile flashed over at him, and Jim grinned in return. Then, Blair was off on one of his long commentaries, and Jim just settled back to listen.
"Man, can you believe what just happened back there? Those guys were actually a part of history, Jim! I know some history buffs who'd have given their eye-teeth for the chance to interview those three. Can you imagine the guilt they've been living with all this time? I wonder how long they've waited to come here. What emotions they must have been feeling! Just think of looking down into that ship and knowing that you were directly responsible for what happened that day. Oh, man!" Blair shook his head at the thought, one hand tapping excitedly on the steering wheel. "I wasn't sure what to say, y'know. I kept thinking of all those men... all those bodies still lying down there. Must be a really powerful spiritual place, don't you think? I... " He cut his eyes over at Jim. "I'm blabbering again, aren't I?"
Jim's amused expression turned into a full grin. "A little, yeah, but that's okay. Been a while since either of us felt like falling into the old patterns. To tell the truth, I kinda missed your... blabbering."
Blair's answering grin was just as broad. "I think there's a compliment in there somewhere." He glanced at Jim again. "You up for some lunch?"
"Ready when you are, Chief. How about Chinese? We're not far from Chinatown. We could wheel by there, grab some lunch, then make some decisions about where we go from here."
From the glow in Blair's eyes, Jim could tell that he, too, was glad that their lives were approaching some semblance of normal. It had been far too long.
"You're on, man." Blair took a left and headed toward the area of Honolulu known as Chinatown. "And, Jim?" The younger man grinned at Jim as if he held the world in his hands rather than the steering wheel of a rented compact.
Sandburg laughed and turned on the radio to an upbeat tune. "Where we go from here? The sky's the limit, man!"********************
The next few weeks saw them seeing the islands of Hawaii, taking in the usual tourist destinations, but also sizing up every harbor and marina they could find as a possible home. Their final stop was the big island of Hawaii, and from the moment they laid eyes on its tropical lushness, both men knew instinctively that their search was over. They toured the island for several days, but there was never any doubt. From the lushness of the Hilo coast to the rugged beauty of the volcano region, the Big Island of Hawaii reminded them of places they both loved - Peru... Mexico... Cascade.
It was settled with little discussion. The Big Island would be their home.
Even finding a site to moor the boat wasn't difficult. They realized it would be taking too great a risk to settle too close to a major tourist destination. They couldn't chance being recognized by some traveler from Cascade. Then, on the road to Kona, they found it - the perfect marina.
It was small, and it was obvious from the vessels moored there that the people who kept their boats there were locals. There were none of the huge, impressive yachts of which so many of the marinas boasted. These were modest vessels, the kind of boats working men save to buy and enjoy on their days off. Little chance of running into a vacationing Cascade native there.
The marina nestled into a small inlet about a half mile off the main road around the island. Only a very small sign marked the entrance. It was the kind of place you had to know was there to find.
The inlet formed a perfect harbor. Gentle waves lapped at the sides of the moored boats, and palm trees waved in the light breeze off the Pacific. Long wooden floating docks connected the mooring slips, and a small concrete block building at the top of the hill bore a sign that marked it as the 'Rental Office'. Off to one side, a long narrow addition served as a laundromat. A variety of snack machines were lined up outside.
Blair and Jim strolled around the marina, taking everything in. It was quiet. From a few boats, they heard the sound of voices or an occasional television set or radio, but most of the vessels seemed empty. Three empty slips seemed encouraging.
"What do you think?" Jim asked, resting on the borrowed cane, as they completed their impromptu tour.
Blair glanced around again. He couldn't find a thing wrong with the place. It was definitely quiet, secluded, and didn't seem the kind of place where they were likely to be recognized. "I think it's fine," he concluded at last. "Seems just like what we're looking for. You?"
Jim nodded. "Yeah, you're right. Let's go find the manager."
A half-hour later, they headed back to where they had docked the Sanctuary, a lease in hand and the last slip on the first pier waiting for them.********************
Jim had seldom known such relaxation, and with the ease of their new life, his injuries healed quickly. Within weeks of their arrival at Paradise Marina, he had abandoned the beautifully carved cane Dan Black Wolf had provided. Jim stowed it carefully, determined that one day he would return it to Wolf with his gratitude.
His other injuries were also healing. The horrible bruises and burns faded gradually, and the golden-brown tan Jim developed from hours on deck soon replaced the pallor he'd developed during his captivity and time indoors recuperating.
The Sentinel's senses healed along with his body. Within six weeks, Jim's senses were about half their normal power, and even he had to admit that Blair had been right. By proceeding slowly, much as they had in the hotel room back in L.A., Jim regained most of his Sentinel senses with very few complications.
It was Jim who hesitated taking the final steps toward regaining his full range of senses. Each time he tried to push past the 50% mark, he lost all control, spiraling down in a whirlpool of pain and fear. After three attempts, Jim refused to push any farther. If he had to survive with only part of his Sentinel abilities intact, then so be it. It would have to be enough.
Blair didn't push the issue. The younger man seemed pleased that Jim had made it this far back, and he seemed content to let regaining Jim's full complement of senses wait. Jim could read Blair's pride in him, almost physically sense it. Sandburg hadn't been at all sure he'd ever make it back this far Jim realized, and the revelation startled him. If there had been one thing he'd never doubted during the days, weeks, and now, the months since his torture, it was Blair's faith. It was when he realized that Blair hadn't been certain of his recovery that Jim understood exactly how dangerously close to death he had truly been.
But the past was past, and Jim doggedly put the experiences of recent months behind him. Except for the always present concern about being tracked down, it was time for him to let go of his past and learn to live in the new, unfamiliar present.
They had slipped into an easy routine. No longer required to get up early, Blair fell into his natural night owl habits, staying up late and sleeping in the next morning. Jim, on the other hand, was a more natural morning person. He stayed up until eleven or midnight with Blair, then turned in. The next morning, he prepared breakfast and was eating up on deck with his Guide still sleeping peacefully below.
The routine had its advantages. In the small space below deck, there wasn't much room for privacy. The two beds were arranged in a V-shape, so sleeping was in rather close quarters. Jim and Blair's heads were separated only by less than two feet, their toes by mere inches. Their different bedtimes allowed both men some needed privacy at night and in the morning.
Jim had to admit he liked the sleeping arrangements more than he'd thought he would when he first eyed the small quarters he and Sandburg would be sharing. Maybe it was the trauma he'd just survived or perhaps it was another of the Sentinel/Guide things he would never understand. Whatever the reason, it was comforting to wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes with a scream caught in his throat, to find Blair within arm's reach, the comforting sound of his breathing and heartbeat only inches away.
Jim hoped Blair might find the same reassurance in his presence.********************
"C'mon, man!" Blair was unable to keep his voice calm. Ellison was just too damned frustrating. "You'll never find out if you can get your senses totally back on-line if you won't even try."
Jim didn't even turn in his direction. He kept his eyes focused on the map spread across the small dining table in the galley. "What do you think, Chief? Should we check out the waters over at Hanalei Bay this weekend or stick closer to home?"
Blair shook his head and bit the inside of his cheek in sheer frustration. "What do I think? I think you're being a total wimp about this, Ellison! Just because you had a couple of bad reactions the first few times we tried turning your dials up a few notches doesn't mean it'll happen this time. What are you gonna do, huh? Stay a 50% Sentinel for the rest of your life?" If only the man would show some emotion! Sometimes dealing with Jim was like trying to get a rise out of an oyster. He just sat there, showing nothing.
Cool blue eyes regarded Blair across the table. "A 50% Sentinel? Maybe. Beats the hell out of losing control completely, don't you think?"
"No," Blair responded firmly. "I don't think that at all. So what if you lose control and fall, man? Figuratively, anyway. I'll be here to catch you. Or are we back to the trust thing again?" Blair drew a deep breath. "Frankly, I'm not sure if I can deal with all that crap right now."
The ice-hard eyes softened slightly. "It's not a matter of trust, Chief. I just don't want to go through it again. Not yet."
Blair caught a glimpse of the fear lurking in the shadows of Jim's blue eyes. He took a couple more deep breaths, fighting to center himself and remain calm for Jim's sake. "You do know why it's happening right?"
There. A flash of curiosity. "Why I hurt like hell every time I try to dial up my senses? I just figured it's because I don't have my control back yet." Jim regarded him closely. "Is there more?"
"Maybe." Blair knew he had him hooked now, and he intended to play Jim like a bass caught on a lure. Carefully and firmly. "Think about it, man. You underwent some of the most extreme forms of torture man's ever devised and you survived. To do that, you had to dial your senses completely down to zero, right?"
When Jim nodded reluctantly, obviously uncomfortable at the old memories Blair was digging up, Sandburg continued. "Okay. What happened when you finally dialed up your senses? When you went into that last, desperate zone?"
A visible shiver shook Jim's body. His right hand fiddled with a pencil lying on the table, and Blair could see the tiny trembling in the long, sensitive fingers. "I've never felt anything close to that kind of pain before, Blair," Jim said quietly after a long silence. "It was like a fire consuming every inch of my body - the hottest, most powerful fire and the most horrible pain you can possibly imagine. I didn't know if I'd survive long enough to let the zone take over my mind." Jim's voice was strained, as though the words were being forced out over a parched, tortured throat.
Reaching over, Blair rested his hand over Jim's and curled his fingers around the trembling hand. "It's okay," he whispered huskily. "I know, man."
They sat that way, in silence, for several minutes. At last, Blair began to talk in a quiet, calm voice. "What I think is this. Your subconscious doesn't understand yet that the pain is gone, that you're really and truly safe. So when you try to dial up your senses, your body rebels. The pain's kind of a message sent to warn you to back off."
Jim's eyes locked with Blair's. "So how do we by-pass this warning system?"
"We don't. We just keep trying, one click of the dial at a time. Hopefully, your subconscious will get the message that you're safe now, that your senses can function without pain." Blair held Jim's gaze steadily. "That's the Guide's opinion anyway. Do you trust me enough to keep trying?"
Blair could see the internal struggle being waged within Jim. Slowly, his friend nodded. "Yeah. I trust you, Chief. We'll keep trying. Slowly, though."
"Slowly," Blair agreed readily. The last thing he wanted was to hurt Jim any more than he'd already been hurt. "One step at a time, man. One step at a time."********************
The progress was slow, but steady. Each week, they attempted another turn of one of Jim's imaginary dials. More than a single notch at a time, and his senses rebelled. Blair forced himself to remain patient with his very impatient Sentinel, refusing to allow Jim's ill-temper on 'test days' to get under his skin.
One of them had to keep a cool head, and he could see Jim's point and understand his frustration. At this rate, the Sentinel would see fifty by the time they got his senses back on-line.
Nearly six weeks after the Sanctuary had docked at her new home, Blair came home from a run to the grocery store and a few other miscellaneous errands to find Jim up on deck. The Sentinel was facing the ocean, his back to Blair, and although Sandburg was certain Jim had sensed his approach, the older man gave no acknowledgement. Jim was seated in a deck chair, his head bent down over something held in his lap.
Curious, Blair quickly put away the perishables, then climbed back on deck and strolled over to his partner. The mysterious something in Jim's lap was already sheltered behind crossed arms.
Damn. He'd have to use the direct approach. "Hey, man. Whatcha doing?"
"Not much." Jim reached down and took a sip of the beer beside his chair. He resumed staring out at the sparkling Pacific.
Okay. Jim was in his 'macho silent type' mode. Blair could deal with that. "What you hiding there, Jim? Kinda hard to keep secrets on a boat this size, big guy." Blair kept his tone light, almost teasing. There was no quicker way to antagonize Jim than to push and pry too hard. "I'm gonna find out sooner or later, y'know," he added with a mischievous grin. "I always do."
Jim cocked his head up at him, a semi-scowl narrowing his eyes. Blair didn't blink.
After a few moments, the scowl gave way to a look of consternation. "I used to have some privacy," Jim complained, but the twinkle in his eye gave him away. "A man's home... boat... should be his castle, right?"
"Bitch, bitch, bitch," Blair chided pleasantly. "C'mon, Ellison. Show me."
Slowly, Jim began to uncurl his arms, then abruptly, he stopped. "Promise you won't laugh," he ordered, sounding like a small child unsure of his parent's reaction.
Blair bit back a sarcastic reply. Whatever Jim was concealing, it was obviously important to him. Solemnly, he promised, "I won't laugh. Cross my heart."
Jim lowered his arms, holding an artist's tablet in his hands. Blair peered over his back, resting one hand on Jim's shoulder. Jim needn't have worried about him laughing; laughter was the farthest thing from his mind.
The sketch was beautiful. Done in shades of charcoal and gray with tints of tropical blues and greens in just the right places, it was absolutely perfect. The view was of their harbor, but without the marina. Delicate flowers bloomed on shore beneath sheltering royal palms. The sky was a clear azure with traces of wispy clouds; both were reflected in the turquoise sea below. A single sailboat rested at anchor slightly off-center in the inlet, its white sail lowered, and two solitary figures standing on its deck.
The delicacy of the work amazed Blair. Jim had captured perfectly the peacefulness and beauty of the inlet, and at the same time, the sweet isolation they had found there. He glanced from the sketch to Jim and was further amazed at what he saw.
There was worry hovering in Jim's blue eyes.
Jim was worried that Blair wouldn't like what he'd created. Blair's heart clinched with the realization that his opinion mattered that much to such a strong, self-sufficient man. In that instant, Blair realized something about the power he held over Ellison. He possessed the power to heal Jim, to help him, yes, he'd always known that, but now he saw that he held the power to hurt, to deeply wound, as well. Jim was showing his vulnerability by allowing Blair to see the concern in his face and eyes, and Blair felt humbled by that trust.
"It's beautiful, man," he said, meaning the compliment sincerely, squeezing the shoulder beneath his hand. "I never knew you could draw like this. Did you take lessons?"
A look of sheer relief shot across Jim's face at Blair's words of approval. Then, at his question, the look turned more reflective, maybe a little sad. "A long time ago. For a while."
Blair pulled up a second chair next to him and sat down. Once again, he compared the sketch to the scene that lay before him. They were both absolutely beautiful. Whatever had happened all those years ago, Jim had talent. That much was certain. "Tell me," he said quietly.
Jim didn't answer for several minutes. His eyes were focused on the sketch, and if Blair hadn't been watching the play of emotions dancing in his eyes, he might have thought he'd zoned. Finally, in a voice laden with memories, Jim told him the story.
"Like I said, Chief, it was a long time ago. In high school." The blue eyes turned to him for an instant with a smile. "No cracks about the dark ages, kid. Remember, you can't sail this thing alone." At Blair's grin, Jim nodded, then his eyes turned back to the sketch.
"I took an art class in high school. Mrs. Tanner's class. She was really talented - had a couple of shows herself in some small galleries in San Francisco, I think - and I guess she thought I had some promise. She would help me after school when I didn't have football practice or baseball."
"Sounds like a nice lady," Blair commented with a smile.
Jim nodded. "Yeah, she was. Anyway, Mrs. Tanner wanted me to get some private instruction. She thought I might be interested in pursuing art as a major, and I seriously considered architecture at one point."
"So what happened?"
"She made the mistake of mentioning it to my father during a parent/teacher conference," Jim replied darkly. "I won't go into the details, but he made it clear that she was to have nothing more to do with me. No more classes. No after school tutoring. Nothing." Jim leaned forward and stared down into the crystal blue water. "William Ellison's son wasn't going to become an artist. I believe his term was 'fag painter'. She got the message, and so did I. This is the first thing I've painted since that day."
Blair didn't know what to say. He was angry at Jim's father, furious that the man had dared interfere with his son's obvious talent and for threatening a concerned, caring teacher. It was a miracle Jim had survived his childhood to become the decent, honorable man he was. "She was right, you know... Mrs. Tanner. You do have talent, Jim. Maybe you were this good back then; I don't know. But with your Sentinel abilities, even not at full strength, your eye for detail is amazing. As far as I'm concerned, if you want to start developing that talent now, well... that's what new lives are for, right?" Blair hoped Jim would agree as he watched his friend and waited.
As though considering the possibility, Jim didn't reply for a long time. Then, slowly, he looked over at Blair. "You think this is good?" He jerked his head down at the sketch in Blair's hands.
"Yes," Blair said seriously. "I do."
Jim nodded slowly. "Maybe I should do a little with it. It's not like I have much else to occupy my time right now."
Blair grinned broadly. "That's the attitude, man! You never know what you can do until you try, right?"
Reaching over, Jim tousled the cap of curls, already reaching Blair's ears and smiled broadly. It wouldn't be long before he'd need a haircut, if he intended to keep his new look. "All right, Chief. Why don't we run into town and have lunch today? I might pick up that set of brushes I saw at the artists' supply yesterday. On the way back, we can swing by Volcano National Park. I hear there's a major eruption brewing. Figured you might like to get a look at a real volcano." He began packing up his supplies, humming a tune beneath his breath, a smile touching the edges of his lips.
Blair couldn't explain the feeling of jubilance swelling inside him at seeing Jim so happy at finally getting the chance to fulfill a life-long ambition. Maybe it was true. Maybe every dark cloud did have a silver lining after all.********************
Three weeks later, Jim had an impressive assortment of canvases to show for his efforts. He had experimented with oils and pen and ink, but at last, he'd settled mainly on watercolors. The interplay of colors and the sheer liquidity of the effects appealed to him, he explained to Blair. Watercolors were perfect for Hawaii's scenery, and the necessity for control challenged his talents. They had journeyed to Volcano National Park - three times - and the view of the eruption from the observation points was spectacular. It never ceased to amaze Blair that they could get so close. Mauna Loa certainly had earned the name of 'drive-in volcano'. Their enjoyment of nature's majesty was spoiled only by news that scientists studying the eruption predicted the strengthening lava flow might soon endanger houses and roads.
Such were the whims of Pele, Blair confided solemnly as Jim sketched a scene of the molten rock cascading across a barren and black landscape.
"Who?" Jim asked, his eyes still focused on the scene before them.
"Pele, man!" Blair replied impatiently. "You know, the Hawaiian goddess of the volcano. Didn't you pay any attention at all to the exhibits up at the center?"
Jim shrugged as he looked down at his sketchpad, added more shading to the lava flow, then studied the living eruption once again. "I remember now. Appears as either a young girl or an old hag, right?"
"Right," Blair confirmed, relieved that his attempts to enlighten his Sentinel on the local culture hadn't been totally in vain. "Many people today of Hawaiian descent still revere Pele. Offerings are made to her, fish and fruit wrapped in ti leaves and hurled into the caldera while chants and dances are performed. It's believed that offending the goddess by building on sacred land or stealing away pieces of her volcano can bring bad luck."
Jim glanced up at him with a quick grin. "Hey, Chief. You sure Naomi didn't bring you here as a kid? Maybe you tucked away a volcanic rock or two in your pockets? Could explain all the bad luck that seems to follow you around."
Blair swatted at Jim's head, but the Sentinel dodged the blow deftly. "Smart ass," he muttered, but his own grin betrayed him. "No, I never came here before, and I don't own any rocks from Pele's volcano." He studied the flowing, orange-hot lava for a moment, then added quietly, "I feel sorry for all those people who may lose their homes to this eruption. To see the devastation coming, and still not be able to do anything to stop it, must be an awful feeling."
"The curse of Pele, Chief?" Jim asked, his pencil skimming lightly across the sketchpad. "This volcano's been here lifetimes longer than any roads or neighborhoods, hasn't it? Aren't you asking for trouble when you build so close to an active volcano?" He looked up at Blair and quipped, "Pele or no Pele, that's just not smart."
Blair watched a family with three young children approach the overlook, then stand watching the eruption. "Yeah, I guess. Still, it's sad to think of so many families uprooted, so much lost that can never be replaced."
"That's another good thing about life on a boat, Chief. That lava comes anywhere near us, we just sail away for cooler pastures."
One afternoon, Jim wandered down the beach to sketch a rock formation that had intrigued him. Although he invited Blair to accompany him, his Guide begged off. Blair waited until Jim was out of sight, then he grabbed up two of Jim's canvases, picked up the keys to their second hand Jeep, and was off on an errand of his own.
The gallery in town was cool and subtly lighted. A faint aroma of plumeria and ginger floated lightly in the air, and the polished wood floors gleamed brightly. Soft music played in the background, ancient chants from an ancient people, and Blair felt completely at home.
He wandered around the displays, sometimes nodding in approval. Whoever chose their inventory, he liked their style. Blair scanned appreciatively over the variety of styles, media, and subject matter. Some of the oil paintings were large with bold, bright colors. There were sculptures made from stone and smooth, polished tropical woods. Other paintings were quieter, featuring the beauty of the islands in miniature form.
Nothing touched the detail and pure beauty of Jim's work, though, Blair concluded, ignoring the fact that he might be slightly biased.
"May I help you?" A woman emerged from the rear room. She smiled warmly, her brown eyes dancing with life, and her long, jet black hair hanging straight down her back. Dressed in a traditional-style muu-muu that was tapered at her small waist, she was a vision of grace and beauty. Barely over five feet tall, the tiny young woman exuded a strength that was unmistakable.
Blair approached her with a warm smile of his own. "I hope so. My name's Blair... Hawking."
She declined her head slightly. "I am Leia Kolani, owner of the Kona Gallery. How might I help you?"
Blair reached into the cotton pillowcase where he'd carefully stashed Jim's paintings. "Leia - what a lovely name. Is it Hawaiian?"
She nodded, her dark eyes flashing with humor. "Yes. It means 'child of heaven'. It was also my mother's name and her mother's before her."
"I like it," Blair said approvingly. "It suits you. You seem very young to own such an impressive gallery."
The dark eyes flitted to the portrait of a distinguished gentleman hanging above the door to the back room. "My father founded the gallery thirty years ago. He passed away five years ago, and I've run it ever since." She smiled pleasantly. "So we have established our names, and that you like mine. Still, I don't know how I might help you."
Blair chuckled. She was straight-forward. He liked that, too. In fact, there was a lot about this beautiful young woman he found appealing. "True enough. Okay, here it is. My friend is an artist. Well, he has talent, I think, but I guess he's not really an artist yet. At least, he hasn't sold anything. He painted some a long time ago, but he's just found time to try again. Anyway, he doesn't know I'm here, but... " He stopped, looking at Leia curiously. She had a funny look on her face, almost as if she were trying to hold in her laughter. "What?"
"Do you always talk so much?" She burst into laughter, a light, musical sound.
Blair shook his head, grinning sheepishly. "Yeah, pretty much, I do. At least, that's what I've been told." He reached into the soft cotton pillow case he'd wrapped around Jim's canvases. "Here they are. See what you think."
Leia took the two small canvases and laid them on the glass top of the counter where the cash register stood. She leaned close to the paintings, studying them carefully without a word. Blair watched a little anxiously. He wanted this to work, wanted Jim to impress this young woman with his talent. Somehow, it was important to him that she like what his best friend had created, just as it was important to find approval for Jim's talent.
At last, she straightened up. "You say he's had no formal training?"
Blair shrugged. "Just an art class or two in high school."
"Has anyone else been offered his work?" Leia was intense now, staring hard at Blair with those liquid brown eyes.
"N... no." That question caught him off-guard. Did this mean she was interested?
"Good." She nodded with satisfaction. "He is very gifted. I have not seen such use of color, such intricate detail, in a watercolor in years. Perhaps never." She moved behind the counter, taking a black pen from the lucite holder. Pulling out a small notepad, she asks, "How can I reach you? What is your friend's name? I would like to purchase both paintings, today, if possible. We like to write up an artist bio to accompany the works. I'll need to set up a time to interview your friend."
Whoa! Interviews? Biographies??? This is so not gonna fly with Jim!
"Uh... " Blair hesitated. "My friend is very private. I'm not sure he'll want to give out too much information. Besides, isn't a little mystery a good thing?" He put on his best charming smile and hoped.
The pen hesitated, hovering above the paper. "This is most unusual. Some artists are very reclusive, of course, but most we deal with are anxious to establish their reputations."
"Not my artist," Blair said with a smile. "What do you absolutely need to know? And by the way, about that 'help wanted' sign in your window... "********************
"Jim!" Thundering footsteps on the deck above. "Jim! Where are you, man?"
Looking up from the soup he was preparing for dinner, Jim hoped the deck of the Sanctuary would take the onslaught of an excited Sandburg. "Down here, Chief!" he called. Whatever had Blair running on all cylinders, it must be major.
Moments later, a panting Blair appeared at the bottom of the steps. "There you are. Oh, man, you are so not gonna believe the afternoon I've had!"
Jim sat dumbfounded at the small dining table as he listened to Sandburg's tale. Someone wanted to buy his paintings. A beautiful someone, if he was reading Blair's enthusiasm correctly, but beneath that excitement, Jim could sense his friend's very real pride. When Blair handed him a check for far more than he'd ever imagined anyone would pay for something he'd created, he could only stare at it dumbly, unable to speak. Luckily, there was no need for words yet; Blair was still enthusiastically explaining his adventures of the afternoon.
"On top of it all... " Sandburg paused, his eyes shining. "I got a job!"
That broke Jim's silence. "A job? At the gallery, I presume?" He smiled mischievously, breaking out of his amazed silence enough to tease his friend. "With the lovely Leia?"
He could swear Blair was actually blushing! Whoever this young woman was, she certainly had captured Sandburg's attention. " Of course, with Leia. Oh, man, Jim, she's amazing. You're gonna have to come down to the gallery and meet her. She's really interested in becoming the exclusive agent for your paintings. Leia's certain they're gonna sell out as fast as she puts them on display."
"Chief," Jim began carefully. "I'm not sure this artist business is such a good idea. I mean, we're trying to keep a low profile here."
Blair spread his hands in a placating gesture. "I know... I know, man. That's why I told Leia you wouldn't do an artist's bio or interview and why you just sign your pieces J.K. She promises she won't give out any really specific information about you; just enough general stuff to satisfy her clients. You two can talk and decide what's okay and what's off-limits. It's totally your decision. We can use the money, right? I mean, we can't live off your savings forever."
The wide blue eyes pleaded with Jim, and he had to fight off a smile. "Okay, Chief. I'll talk with Leia." Cocking his head, he studied his friend carefully. "She's that special, huh?"
Blair was positively beaming. "Oh, yeah, man! Special doesn't even begin to cover it!"
Jim smiled back, but an uneasy feeling had begun to gnaw at his gut. Take this slow, Sandburg. I don't have a good feeling about this one. I don't think there's a snowball's chance in hell that you will, but please, kid, take it slow.********************
Blair watched with more than a bit of nervousness as Jim and Leia talked over coffee at the small table in the back of the gallery. His eyes cut from one to the other as his best friend and the woman to whom he was finding himself dangerously attracted conversed. Jim was surprisingly open, giving Leia just enough information to satisfy her requirements while not giving away anything really personal. And you think I'm good at obfuscation, Ellison, he thought with a silent chuckle. You're the true master of saying everything and nothing at the same time.
Leia seemed captivated by his tall, handsome partner, and if Jim had been anybody else but... well, Jim... Blair might have been concerned. If ever anyone epitomized the word honor, it was Jim; he had absolutely nothing to worry about with Jim and Leia.
As Leia explained the commission system to Jim, the Sentinel's gaze locked with Blair's. Jim smiled warmly and added a quick wink. Obviously, he approved of Leia. Somehow, that knowledge sent a shiver of excitement through Blair. He and Jim had clashed over each other's taste in women too often. This time, after all they'd been through, it would be so nice to have a normal, easy relationship.
If there could be a relationship. Blair turned back to studying Leia. She caught his gaze, and her eyes sparkled. God, she was so beautiful! But he knew next to nothing about her. Still, he was starting work tomorrow; surely that would give him the opportunity to get to know her better. Much, much better, Blair hoped with a guilty smile.********************
"I can't believe how Jim's work has caught on," Leia remarked as she flipped through her order book. "He's selling equally well with tourists and locals alike, and that's a lucrative position to be in." She turned her large, dark brown eyes on Blair with a smile. "I like how you've reorganized the print collection. It's much more eye-catching now."
Blair climbed down from the stepladder he'd been using to hang the last print. "Thanks. I hope the customers agree with you."
Leia rested her elbows on the countertop and regarded Blair thoughtfully. "Not to have had any experience working in an art gallery, you certainly have caught on fast. You're great with the Hawaiiana collection, too. That's an area I am still learning. It was my father's specialty. I was always more into contemporary art." Leia smiled at Blair, as her voice turned teasing. "I did a good day's work hiring you, Mr. Hawking."
Bowing gracefully, Blair straightened up with a grin. "Thank you, m'lady. I was wondering... " Blair hesitated, suddenly unsure of the question he'd been wanting to ask all week. "It's almost six now. Would you like to have dinner after we close up tonight?"
There was no hesitation on Leia's part. "That would be wonderful, Blair. I know a great little Chinese place. Do you like Chinese?"
Blair laughed. "Never touch the stuff. Not more than once a week, anyway." He'd have to slip away and let Jim know he wouldn't be in for dinner tonight, but under the circumstances, he didn't think his roommate would mind the late notice. Jim seemed to approve of Leia as he hadn't any girl Blair had dated before.********************
Over the next two months, Jim watched the gradual changes in his partner with concealed concern and a mixture of happiness for his friend and a touch of Blessed Protector worry. It began when Blair scoured the classified ads for a used vehicle he could pick up at a cheap price. He was determined, he claimed, not to inconvenience Jim by needing the Jeep to travel between the marina and the gallery. When the younger man refused to yield to Jim's argument that he really didn't need the Jeep that much anyway, Jim gave in. At least partially. He convinced Sandburg to raise his sights a little. But it wasn't a total victory for the Sentinel. Blair's new mode of transportation ended up being a slightly used Honda.
Sandburg loved it, and his Sentinel was ambivalent. On the plus side, it was more reliable than the kid's old Volvo had been on its best day. On the downside, it was unarguably more dangerous. But it made Sandburg happy, so Jim tried his best to keep his doubts and concerns to himself. After all, he'd ridden bikes himself for years without an accident. But Sandburg was... well, Sandburg. He couldn't help but worry.
Especially when Blair was staying out later and later in the evenings. Never all night, so Jim assumed he and Leia were not sleeping together - yet - but their almost nightly dates never ended until well after midnight. Of course, he could be wrong, and the relationship might have progressed farther than he'd guessed. In which case, he had even more cause for concern.
He'd seen Blair's heart broken too many times before, and Jim wasn't anxious to repeat the experience. Jim had discovered long before that his Blessed Protector instincts definitely extended to trying to protect his Guide's heart as well as his health.
During the night, he'd lie awake, considering their options. Who was he kidding? Were there really any options?
He had come up with a couple of scenarios.
Scenario one: One day when he contacted Simon, he'd get some good news for a change. Owl would have been caught; Brackett would be in prison. They could come home.
Then, Blair would have to tell Leia the truth. Jim knew instinctively that the young Hawaiian woman would never leave her home. What would Blair choose? To stay with Leia? To leave with Jim?
Jim didn't care for scenario one.
Scenario two: Simon never had good news. They stayed on the big island of Hawaii, and Blair was free to be with Leia. Jim was...
Jim could never quite complete scenario two. And try as he might, Jim couldn't dream up a plausible third scenario where everyone lived happily ever after. Hell, maybe there was no such thing as a happy ending anyway.
As he tossed and turned late into the night, Jim struggled to find the answers to the questions that had been plaguing him since they'd settled the Sanctuary into her berth.
Who was Jim Ellison if he couldn't be a cop? What was Sandburg's happiness worth to him? What sacrifices was he willing to make for their relationship?
There were no easy answers.********************
The passing weeks turned into months, and still there were no new revelations for Jim. His regular calls to Simon didn't help; there was no sign of either Owl or Brackett.
Blair and Leia were spending more and more time together, but Jim still had the distinct impression that Sandburg was holding back, both from Leia and from him. In fact, Blair had grown quieter the past few weeks, more introspective, almost moody. The problem was obvious, even to a normally emotionally-dense Sentinel.
Sandburg was in love and didn't know what to do about it.
Jim watched Blair walk slowly along the crescent beach that began beside their marina. He didn't need his Sentinel vision at full-strength to see the pain that was so apparent in his best friend's posture - the bowed head... the stooped shoulders... the slow, sad steps.
Jim's heart tightened with empathy as the decision he'd been wrestling with for weeks suddenly forced became clear. What choice was there to make, really? A slow smile crept across his face, his worried blue eyes becoming gradually brighter with a glowing joy. Turning quickly and jogging from the deck of the Sanctuary to the pier, Jim broke into a run as he headed toward the beach.
What the hell had taken him so long?********************
Blair looked up at Jim's approach, and Jim knew before he spoke what his first question would be. The kid didn't disappoint him.
"Did you hear good news from Simon?"
"No, nothing yet." He shrugged and stared at Blair, trying to gauge his friend's reaction. "I'm not sure they'll find either of them any time soon, Chief."
Jim felt the soft blue eyes studying him and held still under the careful scrutiny. Blair asked, "You don't seem particularly worried about that, buddy."
Jim shrugged and began strolling slowly down the beach. Gentle, crystal waves washed over their feet, and the sand was soft and warm. "Life goes on. I've had lots of turnabouts in my life, Chief. Been down quite a few roads I never intended traveling. I've managed to adjust before. I can adjust again."
Blair's eyes widened in obvious surprise. "Just like that? You're ready to admit we may never get back to Cascade that easily?"
"Would staying here be so bad?" Jim didn't bother waiting for an answer to his question before adding, "Besides, I've been thinking. What would you think about staying here even if Owl and Brackett get captured eventually? Putting down roots here permanently - starting a new life?"
Blair was struck speechless.
"Look, Chief... " Jim glanced around the beach, then grasped Blair's arm firmly, escorting him toward a small grove of palms. "Sit down. It's time we talked about some things."
Mutely, Blair sat on the soft sand beneath the shady palms. Jim eased gracefully down beside him. He needed the time to gather his thoughts, to ease into what he needed to say to his best friend. Jim had to bite back a smile at Blair's stunned silence. It wasn't often he was able to catch the quick-witted younger man off-guard.
They sat for several moments without speaking. Jim kept his eyes focused on the line of breaking waves several yards off-shore. Why was it so easy to talk with Sandburg about... practically everything... but so hard for him to open up about the things that really mattered?
"Chief," Jim began at last, "I want you to tell me the truth here, okay?" He turned to stare hard into Blair's puzzled blue eyes, the exact color of the clear tropical sky overhead. "How do you feel about Leia?"
That obviously startled his Guide. Blair's heart rate soared, and even without the full use of his senses, Jim could hear his breathing quicken. "What? How do I feel about Leia?"
Jim shook his head. "Don't answer a question with a question, Darwin. I want a straight answer here. How do you feel about Leia?"
"I... I... We're just good friends, man. That's all."
Jim ran his hand through his hair in frustration. How could someone so brilliant be so dense sometimes? "I didn't ask where your relationship stands right now, kid. Listen carefully. How do you feel about Leia?"
He could hear Blair's breath of surrender. The curl-topped head dropped, the wisps of longer hair falling forward around Blair's lowered face. A quiet voice whispered, "I... I think I love her, Jim."
Finally. The corners of Jim's lips twitched slightly as he forced down a smile. "That's what I thought. So, Sandburg, why are you still 'just good friends'?"
A flash of anger touched the azure sky eyes as Blair's head whipped around. "I don't think that's your business, man!"
Calmly, Jim said, "Yeah, Chief, I think it is. Whatever affects you, affects me. And vice versa. We passed the point a hell of a long time ago when we could live separate lives. Now, under these circumstances, that connection is even more powerful. We've gotta trust each other, Blair. I need to know what's going on with you, just like I know you have a right to know what's happening with me. We're all we've got, kid. Understand?"
For a long moment, Blair didn't answer, and Jim felt a tiny flame of worry flickering in his gut. What if Blair didn't follow the path he'd laid out for this conversation to take? What if Sandburg had completely different ideas about their futures?
Then, Blair blinked twice and nodded solemnly. "Yeah, I understand."
Jim reached out and ruffled Blair's soft curls affectionately. "So, answer my question, Chief. If you love Leia, why are you still just friends."
A cloud passed across the sun just as the light dimmed in Blair's eyes. Jim felt, as well as heard, the sad sigh as Blair drew a deep breath and released it slowly. "Because it wouldn't be fair to her, man. I can't start a relationship with someone as... special... as Leia then just pack up and leave. 'Sorry, it's been great, but I'm heading back to my real life now.' I can't do that to her, Jim. I won't."
His friend's integrity never failed to amaze Jim. "You're a good man, Blair Sandburg," he said quietly, squeezing the younger man's shoulder, then Jim let his arm drape loosely across Blair's shoulders. Blair flashed a brilliant smile, but Jim didn't allow him time to speak. "We don't have to go back."
Blair stared at him. "You're serious."
"Yeah. I'm perfectly serious." Jim wished he had Blair's gift with words. It was so hard to explain exactly why he was so certain about this decision. "Look, Chief, I've been thinking a lot recently about exactly what it is that makes me a Sentinel. Of course, the five heightened senses. That's a given. Beyond that, though... "
Blair was watching with obvious fascination now. His head was slightly cocked to one side, and his eyes glowed with excitement. Jim grinned a bit at the expression of intense interest on his friend's face. "You're the real expert here, but I think what makes me a Sentinel is helping people. I know you have this idea of 'protecting the tribe', but frankly, I've never been so sure about that." Jim leaned back against the palm tree and stared out to sea again. "Honestly, the only single person to whom I feel any enormous alliance or instinctive drive to protect is you, Chief. Otherwise, I seem to want to help anyone in need. I mean, when we're away from the city, I still feel the need to jump right in whenever a situation arises, right?"
Blair's expression was thoughtful. "Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I never thought of it that way before, but... "
Jim plunged back in. He was afraid if he let Sandburg get wound up, he'd never get the chance to finish what he'd started. "So, if there is no set 'tribal imperative', Chief, then I can function effectively as a Sentinel anywhere. Peru... Cascade... Hawaii. My tribe is wherever I choose to be. Would you say that's a logical conclusion?"
Blair nodded mutely.
Jim seized the opportunity. "Then we don't have to leave. We can stay right here, regardless of the outcome of the investigation. You can let your relationship with Leia progress, or not, but the choice will be yours."
Blair's silence ended abruptly. "But what about everything else, man? Your job. Your friends. The loft... "
"You'd be giving up those things, too." Jim watched him carefully as the emotions played across Blair's face.
"Yeah, but Cascade's always been your home, man. Me, I've lived so many places, I've lost count. Can you really give up your home?"
Jim smiled gently, his arm tightening around the slim shoulders. "A very wise man told me something a lifetime ago, standing on a balcony looking over the city we were about to leave. 'Home isn't a place. It's a feeling of safety, of belonging. Of being cared for and valued. Wherever we end up, Jim, no matter how far we go, we'll always be home.'"
Turning Blair slightly to face him, Jim asked, "Did you mean that, Chief?" When Blair nodded, his eyes glistening brightly, Jim said quietly, "You were right. You're here and I'm here. That makes us home. I want to do this, kid. You've sacrificed so damn much for me. No, don't argue. I know what you've given up for me. You could have finished that dissertation a long time ago. You could have gone to Borneo. You could have a real office in a university somewhere, those three letters after your name, and a flourishing career as a teacher and researcher. Instead... " Jim laughed dryly. "You've got me. Not a hell of a lot to show for so much work, kid, but I swear to you, I'm going to try to make it worth all you've given up."
"Jim... " Blair opened his mouth to speak, but Jim lightly placed two fingers across his lips.
"Shh...Hush." Leaning closer, Jim held both Blair's shoulders in his firm hands as he stared intently into his friend's waiting eyes. "Let me do this, Blair. I want to give you this. God knows, you deserve some happiness in your life, and don't tell me that you're happy being my Guide. I know you are, but there's more out there for you, and all I want is for you to have this chance at finding it. Don't hold back from Leia because of me. If you love her, go for it! If it works out, we'll build a new life here. You won't be losing me or letting me down or any other nonsensical reasons you can come up with. I owe you a hell of a lot more, but this is all I have to give you. Please, Blair. Let me do this for you... and for me."
"You're sure?" Blair asked, his voice unsteady.
Solemnly, Jim nodded. "I'm absolutely sure. No doubts, Chief."
Slowly, a wide smile spread across Blair's face. His lips parted, as if to speak, but no words emerged. Instead, two strong arms wrapped around Jim's shoulders, holding on tightly. Letting go slowly of the breath he'd been holding as he waited for Blair's reaction, Jim gently drew his Guide closer, embracing him with all the care and tenderness of a lover... with all the devotion and love of a Sentinel.
Jim relaxed fully, his heart at peace. He lowered his head to rest his forehead on Blair's bare shoulder, relieved to have his decision accepted and behind him at last. Inhaling, he smiled softly as he caught the scent that belonged only to his Guide, and for a moment, Jim regretted that he could not open his senses fully to experience Blair to the depths of his being. The Sentinel had accepted long ago that to touch his Guide deeply with his senses was an integral part of who he was, of what he was. It served to imprint one upon the other, to reinforce the steel bond already stretching between them.
"Thanks, man," Blair murmured, and Jim understood that the gratitude was not for the closeness of the moment, but for the understanding that had brought it about. He didn't respond, not because he lacked the words to say 'you're welcome', but because there was no need.
One sacrificed for the other, according to the tides and whims of fate.
There was no reason for thanks or gratitude. The cycle simply was, as much a part of their existence as oxygen, food, and water.
So Jim merely held Blair, willing to do so for as long as the younger man needed the closeness and the comfort. Another day, Sandburg would once again be called upon to sacrifice for his Sentinel. This day, Jim was content that, for once, he was the one able to give back to the one who had given him so very much.********************
Blair was barely able to contain his excitement. Jim's talk with him on the beach the week before had shaken him to the depths of his soul. That his friend was willing to make such a sacrifice in order to give him the chance at happiness he glimpsed whenever he looked at Leia amazed and humbled Blair. He'd spent the last week watching Leia, trying to make sure he wasn't misreading her signals. Her warm smile... the easy laughter they shared... the glow in her dark eyes when she looked at him and spoke his name.
Surely, he wasn't mistaken. There was something there, something simmering just beneath the surface of their relationship thus far.
Tonight was the night. They had to work late at the gallery listing and displaying new works by a talented man over on Kauai. When they finished, Blair intended to invite Leia for a midnight stroll on the beach. Where that would lead, he could only hope to know.
By the time the final painting was in place, midnight had come and gone. Dinner had been tacos from the Mexican place two blocks over. Leia was stretching her tired arms above her head, and Blair knew if he didn't act now, the opportunity would vanish.
"Leia?" He glanced outside, relieved to find the night still clear, a million stars twinkling overhead. "It's a great night. How about a walk on the beach before we head home?"
Her expressive, dark brown eyes glanced at the clock on the wall, and a flicker of doubt crossed her face.
*Please, please, please... * Blair chanted inwardly.
He was rewarded with a smile. "It is a gorgeous evening, and I guess I could stand to unwind before heading home." She stood up from the stool where she'd perched as she recorded the new inventory. "Okay, Blair. Let's go." She retrieved her small purse from behind the counter.
Ten minutes later, the locked and dark gallery was behind them, and the dark, mysterious Pacific lay ahead. Leia perched lightly behind him on the Honda, her long hair trailing behind her like a magic carpet. When they arrived at the beach, Leia laughingly kicked off her shoes, and Blair followed her example. They abandoned their footwear in the sand and waded ankle deep into the warm tropical water.
Leia's long cotton skirt clung to her wet calves. The breeze blew her black hair back from her face, and the moon touched her milky skin with a caress of gold. She stopped, as if feeling his gaze, and turned to face Blair. Tilting her face upward, she gazed into Blair's eyes, and for that instant, he was certain he'd never seen anything quite so perfect. His heart froze in his chest.
"Blair... " Leia whispered, her voice barely rising above the sound of the waves kissing the shore.
"No," Blair murmured, lowering his face to hers. "Don't... "
Their lips were mere inches apart, close enough for Blair to taste the sweetness of her breath... feel the warmth of her lips. He closed his eyes, praying that she wouldn't feel the pounding of his heart, and leaned over her.
A hand on his chest pushed him away gently. "No... I can't... " The sorrow in her voice broke Blair's heart.
Blair's eyes flew open. "It's all right, Leia. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have... I didn't mean to move too fast... I... "
She shook her head slowly, her long black hair dancing on the wind. "It's not you, Blair." Her eyes grew misty with wetness. "This is all my fault. I thought... " She turned away quickly, to face the sea.
"Leia? What is it? What's your fault? I may have read your signals wrong. Maybe you're not attracted to me, I don't know. Just tell me." Blair felt a growing emptiness inside, and his chest hurt like hell. What was happening here? "Please, Leia. Tell me."
She turned back to face him. Two tears trickled down her brown cheek, as if racing to find the comfort of the sand below. "Yes, Blair, I am very attracted to you. You have not read my signals wrong at all." A tiny, quivering smile touched her lips, and Blair had never seen sadder eyes than those gazing up at him. "I have never met a man to whom I was more attracted, but it cannot be."
Frustrated, Blair kicked at the sand, sending it flying in a small cloud of crystals. "Why not? Don't tell me you have a wicked stepmother at home, waiting to approve of all prospective boyfriends!" He stared hard into her tear-filled eyes, the huge, empty hole inside him expanding by the second.
"Not a wicked stepmother, Blair. A husband." Her head bowed low, her hair framing her face in a dark curtain, hiding her face from Blair's view.
Blair stumbled backward in shock. A husband! He could not speak. There wasn't sufficient air in his lungs to draw breath, much less to form coherent speech. It didn't matter; Leia was looking at him again, her words flowing like the tide.
"Oh, please, Blair! Don't hate me!" She held out beseeching hands. "My husband and I married so young. I was only 17. He is in the Navy, a lieutenant, stationed at Pearl. Right now, he's half a world away on a carrier in the Persian Gulf. He's been gone so long! Our marriage is so difficult, Blair! He's had affairs before; I know he has. Still, he is my husband, and I cannot break my own vows. It's just that I needed someone so badly, someone gentle and kind as you are."
The tears were streaming down her face, and some part of Blair yearned to brush them away. Another equally strong part of him wanted to run away, so fast and so far that she would never find him, wanted to run to a place of warmth and comfort where he wouldn't hurt any more, where his broken heart could mend in peace.
Leia took two steps closer, grabbing his hands in hers. The warmth and softness of those hands brought a sob to Blair's throat, but he fought it down with determined efficiency. There was no point in tears, he reminded himself firmly. The least he could do was say good-bye with his dignity intact.
"Blair! I want to say 'yes' to you so badly, but it would be wrong. I know that's an old-fashioned notion in this day and time, but... " Leia brushed away her tears with the back of one hand, then slipped it back into Blair's.
"No," he interrupted quietly. "It's not old-fashioned, Leia. It's good and right, and I respect your decision. It's just that... " He pushed the words out past the huge lump in his throat. "It hurts, y'know?"
She reached for him then, drawing him closer in a tight embrace. Blair let the tears come, flowing into her hair like rivers drawn to the comfort of the sea. "I know," she whispered into his chest. "Oh, God, Blair... I know. I am so, so sorry... "
Blair closed his eyes tightly against the pain. If this were to be the only time he would hold Leia, then let him savor every moment. "Your husband is a very lucky man."
She laughed then, a sad, lost little sound. "Maybe you could convince Manuel of that, Blair. It seems that I cannot."********************
Blair crept silently on board the Sanctuary, his shoes gripped in his hands, bare feet almost soundless on the deck, as he hoped desperately that Jim wouldn't awaken. He'd stopped the Honda at the top of the long drive, pushing it laboriously by hand the rest of the way in and hoping Jim hadn't heard its engine from miles away. It would be hard enough explaining tonight in the light of tomorrow's day; right now, it was an impossibility.
He decided not to risk the ladder leading down to the living quarters. Even with Jim's hearing only at half-power, he didn't stand a chance of avoiding detection. There were only a few hours until dawn anyway. The lounge chair up on deck was comfortable. He'd spent the night in worse places.
Blair crawled slowly and quietly into the chair, stretching out his legs gratefully. He was so tired. Emotionally, physically, spiritually exhausted. Sighing sadly, he closed his eyes, feeling the boat swirl around him with the total darkness. His head was swimming, pounding with an on-coming headache that promised to be monumental.
Shivering, Blair turned to his side, drawing his legs up as far as possible against his chest. It couldn't be cold. Not in Hawaii. Was he running a fever? All he needed was to get sick on top of everything else.
There was no sound from below. If Jim had heard him, the Sentinel was staying put. Blair felt a vague disappointment.
"Jim?" he whispered, almost sure that his voice wouldn't carry below to the ears of a Sentinel operating at half-power. "It's been a hell of a night, man. What is it with me and women, huh? Do I put out some sort of vibe that says 'kick me'?"
Shivering again, Blair curled tighter in on himself, drawing his arms up across his chest in a protective embrace. "I really could have loved her, Jim. Truthfully, I do love her already, but you already knew that. I haven't felt this way about anyone since... well, since Maya... and look how that one turned out."
He drew a long, shuddering breath. "She's married, man. No ring, no suntan line where a ring should be... nothing. I never in a million years would have guessed, but that's the bottom line. Married, and no intentions of breaking her vows." He chuckled quietly, but the laugh ended in a forced-down sob. "At least I picked a girl with values, right? Not that I'd ever want to get involved in something like that. I respect marriage, man. It's just that... " He drew in another trembling breath, shuddering physically once again. "Why her, Jim?" Then, almost too quietly to be called a whisper, Blair added, "Why me?"
He fell silent, too exhausted for words. Blair had almost slipped into sleep, when he felt a warm blanket draped carefully over him. A weight descended on his head; another on his back. The pressure against his back began to move, slowly rubbing in small, firm circles. The weight on his head turned into a slow caress as fingers stroked through his short curls.
Blair tried to open his eyes, but his lids were far too heavy. His lips moved to form a single word, but he never made a sound.
"Shhhh... " A familiar low voice rumbled in the night from close beside his face. "Rest now. Everything's going to be okay. I know you're hurting, but it's going to be all right. Maybe that's hard to believe right now, but it's true. I'm right here. I'm with you. Whatever you need, I'm right here. Rest, Blair. Just sleep now, and we'll talk in the morning. Let go, buddy and sleep. Shhh... "
The voice drifted away into the blackness of sleep, but Blair no longer felt chilled, and somehow, the tight knot of pain inside had loosened just slightly. The hand on his head was so warm, and against his back was a heat that didn't fade. He willingly abandoned the pain and the cold and his broken heart to Jim's care, trusting that all would indeed be well.
His Sentinel was on guard to protect him.
He could rest.********************
Jim tried to take his cues from Blair over the next few days. The younger man didn't return to work at the gallery, and Jim didn't press him. Frankly, Jim didn't particularly want Sandburg to be in the position of having to be near Leia. Just as Jim hadn't trusted Maya once she'd broken Sandburg's heart, he no longer trusted Leia. True, she hadn't allowed Blair to fall any deeper in love with her - she hadn't used him - but still, Blair's pain obviously ran deep, and that was enough for Jim.
Yet, there were two paintings waiting to be carried to the gallery, paintings Jim had promised Leia weeks ago. It went against Jim's personal ethics to break his word, and he couldn't very well ask Sandburg to carry them in. So, three days after the shock of Leia's announcement, Jim found himself walking into her gallery, his paintings in hand.
Leia's eyes widened at the sight of him. She was standing behind the counter, unpacking a shipping box. When Jim approached the counter, she straightened up and dusted off her hands. "Jim," she said quietly. "I didn't think you'd be back in."
Ellison set the wrapped paintings on the counter. "I promised you two more. I keep my word. Once these are sold, though, maybe it would be better to... " He hesitated, looking for the right words. "To terminate our association."
Leia's eyes fell to the small stack of paintings he'd brought in. "I'm so very sorry, Jim. I never intended to hurt Blair." The dark eyes looked up at him again. "I've just been so alone for so many years. Manuel is gone so much. You were once in the military, Blair said. So you know how it can be."
Jim nodded, but he didn't say anything. He did understand the pressures a military life brought to families, and countless marriages ended as a result. But understanding her loneliness and excusing her actions with Blair were two different things.
"Blair is so... so easy to be with. He makes me laugh. When I'm with him, I feel so alive again, like I haven't in a long, long time." Leia watched Jim carefully as she spoke, a pleading look on her face. "I never meant to mislead him, I swear to you. I didn't come on to him, Jim - ever. I just enjoyed his company, and I'm so very sorry if he read more than that into it." Leia ran her fingers through her long, straight black hair. "Maybe he picked up on how much I'm attracted to him, but I never intended it to happen. Please, tell me. Is Blair all right?"
"He's hurting," Jim answered honestly, fingering a stack of postcards lying on the counter. "Blair doesn't have the greatest track record with the ladies, I'm afraid. Not the ones he really cares about anyway. Seems to always get his heart crushed somehow." He looked up at her pointedly.
Again, her dark eyes lowered beneath the thick lashes. "I am sorry," Leia said softly. "I would like Blair to come back to work here, if he wants. He brought in many customers, and he made the gallery so much brighter. So much happier. He made me so much happier."
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," Jim said quickly, biting back a sharper reply. "If he wants to see you or come back to work, he'll come by." He tapped the paintings. "Price these however you want. I'll touch base with you periodically to see if they've sold." He turned to go, then hesitated. "I don't think you intentionally set out to hurt him, Leia. If I thought that, I'd never set foot in here again, regardless of the promise I made you about the paintings. It's just that Blair's vulnerable right now, and he didn't need a broken heart on top of everything else. Work things out with your husband or make a clean break of it. Don't make the same mistake you made with Blair with anyone else."
Leia's shoulders slumped sadly as she nodded. "Thank you, Jim. Take care of him, please. He's very special to me."
"And to me," Jim pointed out with a slight smile. "I'll be in touch about the paintings."********************
The Los Angeles sun filtered lazily through the smog, but from the amount of traffic on the streets, no one seemed to care that the air quality was especially bad. Inside his small shop with its living quarters in the back, Ink didn't care about the air or the traffic. He'd received an influx of orders over the past few days, and he needed to hustle to fill them all.
Hustling was definitely not a problem for Ink. It seemed he'd done nothing else since leaving the military nearly seven years earlier. Not that the military had been an objectionable life for him, but he was much happier fighting for his own survival than someone else's. The skills he'd learned there were invaluable. Ink could fake any document, copy any signature, and it would take an expert with a well-equipped lab to spot the forgery. Quite an accomplishment for an orphan kid with a fifth grade education from the Smokey Mountains.
He was almost done with this driver's license. One of the easier tasks before him today, the batch of licenses would be picked up within the hour. Ink didn't like running so close to his deadline, but it had been an unbelievably busy week.
There was a soft knock at his door. Cursing under his breath, Ink checked the clock on the back wall of his printing shop. Forty-five minutes early. Who the hell did these guys think they were? Ink debated not answering the knock, just continuing his work and pleading a loud radio or hearing loss or some other excuse.
Another knock, more insistent this time. Sighing heavily, Ink left his work table and walked reluctantly to the door.
A dark haired, rather handsome man, stood waiting. "You're early," Ink muttered. "Come on in, and you can wait."
Lee Brackett followed him inside, smiling coldly.
It had been way too easy.********************
Blair smiled as he watched his partner climb easily to the top of the mast of the large sailing yacht anchored just off the marina in the deepest part of the cove. The old man who ran Paradise Marina, Mr. Richmond, had tempted Jim with some odd jobs around the place, including taking care of the yacht belonging to a wealthy businessman from the mainland.
Jim was moving so easily again, his motions graceful and natural. A jolt of pleasure stuck Blair as he watched the Sentinel's unstudied ease of movement. He's really okay again. Even though he still refuses to open his senses completely, Jim's physically all right. God, we were so lucky this time! He'll get his senses back completely in time. He has to. I can't imagine him existing on half power like this forever. Jim's too much a competitor for that. Eventually, he's bound to get to the point where he wants to do more, to be back completely - 100%. At least, I hope he will.
Apparently Jim's Sentinel sight worked well enough to spot Blair watching him from shore. Wrapping one powerful arm around the mast, Jim waved at his Guide with the other. Trusting that perhaps Jim's hearing was tuned up enough to hear him over the sound of the wind, Blair called, "I'm going into town. Anything you need?"
He squinted against the glare of the sun on the water and caught Jim's negative shake of his head. Ellison waved again, then turned his attention back to his inspection of the mast.
Blair climbed into their Jeep and headed into town, still considering whether or not he would stop by Leia's gallery.********************
"Hello, Leia," Blair called softly.
She straightened quickly, nearly knocking over the glass of water sitting on the table behind her. "Blair!"
He approached her slowly, his heart thumping so loudly, Jim must have heard it halfway across the island, even without his senses dialed up. "I was in town, and I thought I'd just drop by. How have you been?"
"Worried about you," Leia admitted. "Are you all right?"
"I've been better," Blair admitted with a rueful smile. "Listen, I know you didn't do anything to make me think that we could have something together. It wasn't your fault. I... I sometimes leap before I look, y'know? Especially where my heart is concerned. Anyway, I understand where you're coming from, and I respect you for it, and that's... I guess that's all I came here to say."
Leia shook her head. "It wasn't just you, Blair. I am attracted to you - very attracted to you. I should never have let our relationship be anything other than professional - employer and employee. I'm sorry, too. Now, I've lost a good employee and a good friend."
"Hey," Blair said. "Nothing says you can't have the employee back, and the friend, too, if that's what you want."
"Would you be all right with that?" Leia asked cautiously, her dark eyes wide, and Blair's heart lurched when he recognized the flash of hope there. "Knowing there can't be more?"
Blair heard Jim's cautioning voice in the back of his mind, warning him not to jump right back into the fire, but he brushed it aside. "Leia, good friends are tough to find. I'll be all right with keeping everything on a friendship basis. We'll work together, and that'll be all. No more dinner dates, beach walks, or movies. I promise. At least, we can talk and be friends here at the gallery. Colleagues. Nothing more."
Blair waited for her reply, almost holding his breath in anticipation. He meant every word of his agreement. There would be nothing more with Leia than a friendly working relationship. That would be better than losing her completely. Besides, there were Jim's paintings to consider, and his Sentinel's newly discovered happiness in his art. The gallery had quite a few customers who were enthusiastic over Jim's work. Blair didn't want to risk losing that.
A bright smile spread across Leia's face. "It would be wonderful to have you back here. Thank you, Blair, for coming today."
Blair's smile was as broad as Leia's. "I can't think of a better place to work. So, boss, where do I start?"********************
"You did what?" Jim questioned, staring at his friend as though he'd grown an extra head. Come to think of it, maybe Sandburg could use another brain. Apparently, he wasn't using the one he had too efficiently at the moment.
"I know, I know," Blair moaned as he shook his head, taking a quick bite of the hot dog he held in his hand. Jim had grilled the hot dogs while Blair prepared the baked beans and chips. Nothing like a picnic in paradise. Ellison had been able to tell there was something on his friend's mind from the moment he returned from town. Blair had that excited, hyper air about him, running from one thing to the next, and chattering a mile a minute about nothing. The kid had definitely been bursting at the seams with news of some sort; Jim just hadn't dreamed it would be this.
As he let Blair's announcement sink in, Jim crunched a handful of chips, then took a long drink of his beer. Was Blair just a glutton for punishment or was he so far gone on this girl that he'd settle for any contact with her at all? Seeing the combination of excitement and pain in those familiar blue eyes, Jim decided it was a strange mixture of both. "So? Explain, Chief. And make it good."
"I don't know, man. We just 'connect', y'know? I'm happy when I'm with her, and I enjoy working at the gallery."
"Yeah," Jim said dryly. "Sure it's only the art that turns you on, Sandburg?"
Blair grinned at him, his mouth stuffed with hot dog. "I've thought a lot about this, man," he replied after he'd swallowed. "I can handle it. I've had lots of girl friends, right? I mean friends who are girls, and I think Leia needs a friend right now."
"But do you have to be that friend? Blair, c'mon, think about this! Not so long ago, you were ready to think about a real future with this girl, and now you're talking 'just friends'? I'm just afraid that this time when she drops you, you're gonna fall hard, Chief. And what happens when her absentee husband comes back? I mean, I know what happens when a military man returns to find another man moving in on his wife. It's not a pretty picture, Blair." Jim tried to keep his voice calm and reasonable, but he could hear the rising volume and tone of frustration.
Blair drew a deep breath, then leaned forward, bringing his elbows up to prop on the table, his head resting on his hands. "I know it sounds crazy, and I don't blame you for reading me the riot act, man. It's just that ever since this craziness with Owl and Brackett started, life's been... haywire! This is the first touch of normalcy I've found, Jim." Blue eyes filled with a pleading for understanding met Jim's. "I know it may not last. Hell, I know it won't last! We might have to take off at a moment's notice. She may kick me out when her husband comes home. But at least, while it lasts, I'm happy. Can you let me have that without fighting about it, Jim?"
How was he supposed to withstand those eyes? That voice? Sighing heavily, Jim shook his head, caved, and surrendered. The battle was lost without firing a shot. He nodded silently, picking at his beans with his fork, unable to look his friend in the face.
Blair smiled softly. "Will you still be there to pick me up when I fall?"
Jim looked up, meeting his friend's eyes across the small plastic table on deck. "I'll be there. You know that. What are friends for, right?"********************
Simon tossed the stack of papers aside with a frustrated, muttered curse. He glanced out into the bullpen, catching at least three of his detectives staring through the windows at him. Upon realizing they'd been busted Simon-watching, all three heads quickly returned to their work. Simon growled in annoyance.
He knew he'd been difficult to get along with the past ten days, but he had a right. Ever since the news from L.A., Simon had felt a knot of apprehension growing inside, getting larger and tighter with each passing hour. If Jim didn't call and check in soon...
As though reading his mind, his cell phone rang. He snatched it up and barked an answer before the second ring. "Banks!"
"Hey, Simon. Must be having a hell of a day back in sunny Cascade."
Ellison. His voice sounding bright and content, as though Jim didn't have a care in the world. Damn it! He hated to burst that fragile bubble of happiness. Hadn't the man been through enough?
"Jim. Good thing you called." Simon removed his glasses, placed them carefully on his desk, then leaned back wearily in his chair. This was one conversation he dreaded having with his friend.
"Do you have something? A lead?" The hope in Jim's voice only added to Simon's frustration.
"No, Jim. Well, I guess you could call it a lead. Of sorts. Not the kind we wanted, though."
The Sentinel's voice dropped lower in tone, and any trace of lightness disappeared. "What the hell's going on, Simon?"
Simon glanced out into the bullpen. Nobody seemed to be paying any attention to their captain at the moment, which was just as well. "Jim? By any chance did you go to see a guy in L.A. before you two disappeared? A man named Bernard Armstrong?" For a split second, Simon retained a spark of hope.
Jim's reply extinguished the spark immediately. "Ink." His voice was flat... emotionless. "What happened?"
"They found him dead in his... print shop... ten days ago. His throat was slashed. Definitely a professional job. There was a slip of paper lying on the floor, covered in blood, but our C.S.I. guys got enough off it." Simon took a deep breath. "It was in Armstrong's handwriting. Just three words, but it was enough."
"What did it say?" Jim's question hung in the air for a long moment.
"Captain Jim Ellison." When there was no reply, Simon added, "Damn it, Jim. Did you tell this character where you and Sandburg were heading?"
"No, of course not. But Brackett's had ten days to figure it out. If my name was there, there's a good chance he got more... like the aliases we're using." The Sentinel's voice grew hard... cold... and Simon cringed inwardly at the transformation. "I've gotta find Sandburg. I'll be in touch."
The line went dead.********************
Jim slammed his cell phone shut, hardly noticing, and certainly not caring, that the plastic cover splintered with the force. Damn it! Of all the things that could have happened, that could have gone wrong, Brackett and Owl tracking them down through Ink had been practically last on his list of concerns. Ink was a professional in every sense of the word, even if that profession was shady at best, and blatantly illegal at worst. What the hell did he mean, keeping Jim's name around? Simon was right; if Brackett had found Jim's name, he probably found more. Damn!
Checking his watch, Jim determined that Blair had been gone almost three hours. He'd left shortly after Sandburg, driving down the coast several miles to a black sand beach he'd been wanting to paint. Jim wavered for an instant, debating calling versus heading to the small art gallery in person. Calling would be faster, but what if... God forbid... Brackett or Owl were already there? Calling would only tip them off. His decision made, Jim bolted up the beach, his keys already in his hand.
Surely everything would be all right. He would find Blair and Leia hard at work doing... whatever you do in an art gallery... and nothing would be wrong at all. Blair would tease him mercilessly about being an overprotective Sentinel, but he'd have that warm glow in his eyes he got whenever he realized how much Jim cared. Jim would burst in, Blair would laugh at his overprotective streak, they'd pack the Sanctuary up and be gone before Brackett could track them down.
That would be exactly how it would go down, Jim decided as he fired up the used Jeep and spun out on the gravel drive leading to the main road.
Everything will be fine, Jim assured himself over and over again. By the time he was halfway to town, it had become as familiar as one of Blair's mantras. Blair's safe, and everything will be fine.
Yet, he couldn't stop a nagging, negative little voice from whispering, Yeah, sure... Right...********************
The Jeep slammed into the curb, barely missing the SUV parked next to it, straddling the yellow parking lines, half in, half out of its space. Jim didn't notice. He was already out of the vehicle before the tires stopped turning, running at full speed to the door of Leia's gallery. His mind registered Blair's motorcycle as he blew past it, but he wasn't sure whether the surge of emotion he felt was relief or fear at having located his partner so quickly.
He pulled up short outside the door. The gallery was located on the end of a block, a small alley to the right, and other shops spreading down the block to the left. Jim ducked behind the outside wall, into the alley, and listened.
Cautiously, he extended his hearing to his full 50% capacity. Cursing inwardly at the limitation, but not yet ready to risk cranking up his senses above that comfort level, Jim focused his hearing on the interior of the Kona Gallery. A full minute went by as he tuned out the surrounding interference of cars, external voices, and the rest of the static of everyday life. When he could focus exclusively on the interior of the gallery, Jim's heart plummeted.
There were no signs of life at all. No heartbeats. No breathing. No voices.
Jim had seen more crime scenes, more violent death, than he could possibly recall, but nothing had prepared him for the shock of what lay inside the Kona Gallery. He stood for a moment, frozen in the doorway, too shocked to move, too horrified to act.
The body lay sprawled on the floor, legs and arms askew in an awkward pose of death. The carefully polished wood floors, once gleaming and bright, were tarnished with the flow of blood. It seeped still from the throat, spilling out in a crimson wave and puddling around the head like some hideous red pond. Long, dark hair billowed out, soaking in the blood. Lifeless eyes stared upwards at the ceiling, their thick lashes motionless, the pupils fixed and unresponsive.
Jim took two hesitant steps forward, his breath catching painfully in his chest, his heart pounding an unsteady rhythm. "Chief... ?" he murmured, falling to his knees beside the body. One trembling hand tentatively reached for the mutilated throat to check for a pulse, although he'd already confirmed the obvious with his senses.
Leia was dead.
Certain now beyond any doubt that there was nothing he could do for the unfortunate young woman, Jim struggled to his feet. It took only moments to search the premises, satisfying him that Blair wasn't there.
He moved to the door, then stopped cold, staring down at the wood floor.
Scattered drops of drying blood...
Bending down, Jim hesitantly dipped one finger into the cold blood and held it to his nose. He forced himself to inhale. His hand fell heavily to his side, then Jim staggered backward, reeling with the intensity of the input.
He stopped short of falling, gasping for breath. It was Blair's blood that spattered the floor, darkening already in the warm air. Every cell within the Sentinel howled in rage at the proof of his Guide's injuries. Instinctively, the Sentinel wanted nothing more than to run out the door, and not stop running until he found the men who had done this to his partner. To take their necks in his powerful hands, twisting and contorting until he heard the satisfying snap of the vertebrae that would ensure their deaths.
Realistically, Jim knew he had to be cautious. He was standing in a murder scene, blood on his hands, a fake I.D. in his pocket. He stood still for a few moments, taking deep breaths, trying to control his hammering heart. There wasn't that much blood. Sandburg could have relatively minor injuries. There was still a chance.
Checking the street carefully to be sure he wasn't observed, Jim slipped out and into the Jeep. Once he was a mile up the road toward the marina, he dialed 911 and reported the crime.
The cop in him hated leaving the scene before the first unit arrived.
The Sentinel that dwelled within left him no choice.
Leia was dead, and somewhere on the island, Lee Brackett, and perhaps, the psychopath he called Owl, had his Guide.
As he drove, Jim considered the possibilities. Blair alone would do them no good. It was the Sentinel they wanted, the Sentinel and his five enhanced senses that Owl... Carl Burr... craved. He assumed they didn't know his cell number yet; surely they would have contacted him by now. So where would they go that they would be certain Jim would follow?
It seemed almost certain.
Capture Sandburg at the gallery. Maybe killing Leia had been in the original plan, but Jim doubted it. She was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. The gallery job had provided Brackett with the perfect opportunity to grab Blair - a predictable, set routine. If they'd been in Cascade, the kidnapping would have gone down at Rainier.
Steal his Guide, and the Sentinel was sure to follow. Hadn't that been their sick plan all along?
Jim's hands gripped the wheel of the Jeep like a vise. His fingernails dug into his palms, drawing blood, but he scarcely noticed. His mind was occupied, hurriedly mapping out all the possible scenarios. How many were there? At least two or three. Even Lee Brackett alone would have a difficult time killing Leia, subduing Sandburg, then spiriting him... his body?... away from the gallery. Jim coldly dismissed the idea that Blair might already be dead and focused his energies on planning for the inevitable - the confrontation with Brackett and Owl.********************
Jim approached the marina cautiously... slowly. Sniffing the air... listening intently... scanning everything he could see with his deficient senses. His heart leaped into his throat when he caught the scent and sound of his Guide.
The young man was there and definitely alive, from the racing of his heart and the acrid smell of fear in the air. The fear overlay the stench of blood, and Jim was relieved. Apparently, Sandburg hadn't been injured too severely .
He concentrated on locating both victim and perpetrator. Thankfully, it was mid-day, and the marina was quiet. Even old Mr. Richmond, the caretaker, was gone; his old truck wasn't in its usual spot beneath a palm tree. Wherever they were, the final scene in this long-running drama would play out minus an audience.
Jim ran quickly from the cover of the Jeep to a grove of bushes and low trees at the edge of the wide drive leading to the piers where the boats were docked. He hit the ground hard, diving behind the inadequate cover offered by the undergrowth. Peering out, he tried to get a better view of the Sanctuary.
He didn't have long to wait.
"Ellison!" The familiar, long-despised voice rang out clearly over the crystal Pacific water.
And where there was Carl Burr, there was bound to be Lee Brackett.
"Come on out, Jim," a deceptively pleasant voice called. "We're waiting." A soft chuckle. "Your Guide is an impatient sort, isn't he?"
The hair on the back of Jim's neck rose in anger. He was no longer certain which neck he yearned to crush first, Owl's or Brackett's.
"Captain Ellison," Owl called again. "You're wasting our time and your Guide's remaining moments. I suggest you show yourself now. As much as you may doubt it, I do not want to see further blood shed today."
A moment's silence was followed by a familiar voice. "Jim!"
"Sandburg!" He responded before thinking.
"Don't come out, Jim! It's a... "
Jim winced as Blair's words were cut off by a vicious slap. These bastards were going to pay for this. They were going to pay.
"I'm coming out!" Jim shouted, slipping the Glock from the shoulder holster, balancing it easily in his hands. Standing up, he eased out from behind his cover, gun up and ready.
Jim scanned the area with the precision of a trained military specialist. Smoothly shifting the gun and his focus side to side, he searched for his prey. Finding them wasn't difficult.
Four figures moved out from the back of the small concrete block storage building between Jim and the pier. Brackett stood alone, slightly to the left of the other three. If he had a gun, Jim didn't see it. It was Owl... Carl Burr... who drew Jim's attention immediately.
The huge man stood behind Sandburg, his left arm wrapped around the kid's chest, pinning his arms to his sides. Burr's right arm held a knife at Sandburg's throat. A thin, crimson line of blood trickled down Blair's neck from a gash on the left side of his neck. Burr was so tall, so strong, that Blair's toes barely grazed the ground. Burr took two easy steps to the side so Jim could clearly see the predicament his Guide was in. He carried the smaller man easily, his powerful arms keeping his captive completely under control. On either side, flanking their leader, were two henchmen, thugs from the looks of them. Probably didn't have sense enough, from the looks of the dull eyes, to come in from the rain without their boss' say-so. Jim dismissed them as the least of his problems at the moment.
Instead, Jim focused on Sandburg's face and heartbeat. Blair's eyes were clear, although his fear was too evident for Jim's comfort. Every few seconds, his eyes darted down to the knife at his throat. When he saw Jim, Sandburg struggled in his captor's grip, vainly trying to reach up with his pinioned arms to claw at Burr.
The huge man growled, snapping at his captive, "Settle down! I'll use this if I have to." As if to reinforce his words, he let the knife slide easily into Sandburg's skin, drawing another thin trail of blood. Blair winced, then was still.
"It's okay, Chief," Jim said, holding Sandburg's gaze firmly. "Take it easy."
"Good advice," Brackett commented dryly. "I'm sorry it had to come to this, Jim, but you left us no choice." An admiring note entered his voice. "I've never seen the man the techniques used on you wouldn't break. You have tremendous force of will... great determination. Apparently, the only way to gain control over you is through your emotional attachment to your Guide." He jerked his head slightly in Blair's direction. "It will be interesting to see exactly what you will sacrifice in his name. Honor? Self-respect? Life itself?"
Jim's expression never changed, his steely gaze never wavered. "Let him go, Burr. Now."
The large man's laughter fit his mammoth size. Sunlight reflected off the round lenses of his glasses, and Jim felt his flesh crawl. Flashes of memory stabbed painfully, threatening to make his hands shake with recalled fear. Catching himself, Jim willed away the memories of that dark basement... of Owl's cruel laugh and cold voice... of those shining, lifeless eyes staring at him as Owl ordered them to do inhumane things in the name of his insanity. He shifted his gaze from those glassy orbs to Blair's blue eyes, replacing the terror with the trust that shone so clearly, even through the fear.
"I don't think so," Burr drawled slowly. "I think you should throw down your gun." He moved the knife slightly so the tropical sun glinted from the steel blade. Blair tensed, his head drawing backward in anticipation of another cut.
From the distance, a sound caught the Sentinel's attention, and a spark of hope dawned. "Your time's almost up, Burr. In about a minute, you'll hear the sound of sirens. Police sirens." Jim smiled coldly. "See, I placed a 911 call before I got here. The cops are on the way. I figure you've got just about enough time to release Sandburg, jump in your car over there and get the hell out of here before they arrive. That is, if you leave right now. Otherwise, we'll see what the Kona police have to say about this whole situation."
Burr's eyes cut to Brackett, and Jim rejoiced at the hint of nervousness he detected behind the round lenses. Focusing on the cruel man's heartbeat, forcing himself to tune out Sandburg's comforting staccato, Jim heard confirmation of Owl's fear. Unwilling to let the newly-won advantage fade, he pressed harder. "They're getting closer. Your time's almost up."
The sound of the sirens was audible now; Blair's eyes cut toward the road in anticipation. A thin sheen of sweat broke out on Burr's upper lip.
Unexpectedly, it was Brackett who folded. "This is your crazy scheme, Burr. What you're paying me isn't worth going to prison for." He reached in his pocket and withdrew car keys, then he walked almost casually toward the waiting dark sedan. "You coming? Last train out is leaving the station." Opening the door, he waited, looking back expectantly at Burr. "No? Your choice. Jim? Good luck. Believe it or not, you've got my respect. You're a hell of an opponent."
The two thugs exchanged worried glances. "Ain't worth going back to prison for, Mr. Burr." Moving more quickly than Jim would have believed, the two big men hurried over to Brackett and the waiting car.
Brackett climbed into the sedan, slamming the door behind him, and Burr's former cronies joined him. The car backed up, kicked into drive, and with a cloud of dust, disappeared up the gravel driveway. Jim smiled inwardly, but he didn't let a hint of his elation show. The odds had just swung in his direction.
"Burr! If those cops see you holding that knife to his throat, they're not going to be happy with you, man. Drop the knife. Let Sandburg go."
Burr was wavering, and Jim knew it. "Give it up now, Burr! Drop the knife!" He knew his reprieve was almost up. "You're not facing a murder charge, yet. Let Sandburg go!"
The sirens were upon them, their wailing so loud, Jim had to turn down his hearing, even at its reduced level. Burr was visibly shaken, sweat pouring off his nearly bald head like tropical rivers. "Let him go!" Jim shouted, still holding the gun pointed at his Guide and the huge man who held Blair captive. He desperately wanted a clean shot, but Burr was too smart. He kept Blair firmly between his own body and Jim. The only possible shot Jim had was an arm, maybe a leg. Not enough to render Burr unable to pull that sharp blade across Sandburg's throat and drain his life's blood away.
As long as there was hope, Jim couldn't take the risk.
For a moment that seemed to endure for a lifetime, Burr seemed ready to give in. The powerful arm lessened its vise-like grip on Blair's chest, and the hand holding the knife wavered. Jim held his breath, waiting... hoping... praying.
Then, the sirens passed by, fading away in a cruel Doppler effect.
A slow, wicked smile creased Burr's face. The huge arm tightened visibly and forcefully across Sandburg's chest, and the young man gasped in pain as the knife slit the skin of his neck, drawing more blood.
Jim winced as Burr's loud laughter rang out. "That was brilliant, Captain! What a wonderful coincidence! You even managed to fool Brackett, but of course, the man considers himself far more intelligent than he actually is." Burr seemed overcome with the humor of the situation, chuckling loudly, as the knife flicked back and forth, drawing more blood with each tiny slice. "I hear this guy loves to talk, that he's a teacher. Wonder what his life would be like if I slit his vocal chords? If he doesn't bleed to death, that is." More laughter, this time, tinged with madness.
Jim grimaced, but the gun never wavered. Then, he heard it. The sound of his Guide's voice, softer than a whisper, so quiet that only a Sentinel's ears could have heard his words.
"Jim, this is it, man. I know you think you don't have a shot, but you do. My upper shoulder... right through to his heart."
Jim couldn't believe what he was hearing. Imperceptibly, he shook his head... No!
"Yes, Jim. It's the only way, and you know it. If you don't, you'll give in, throw away the gun, to keep him from killing me. Remember the basement? That's our future, man, if you don't do this! You can do it, Jim, I know you can! Open your vision completely. Don't think about the past, don't you dare even hesitate! This is what we've trained for, man! Open your vision... find the spot in my shoulder that'll line up with this bastard's heart, and fire! Don't let this guy take us down. If you don't do it, I'm dead anyway, man. We both are! Do it, Jim! For me! Now!!"
If a heart could break, and its owner still survive, that heart was Jim's. He heard the truth in Blair's voice. They were out of options. Burr wouldn't hesitate to slit Sandburg's throat, to leave his Guide voiceless, if not dead. Jim could not... would not... allow that. Cold rage, combined with a fierce protectiveness that he'd never experienced before, even in his best Blessed Protector moments, took over. The decision was made.
Deliberately, Jim dialed up his vision. There was no pain, no hesitation. In his steel-blue eyes burned the flames of a thousand years of genetics, the inheritance of generations past. A Sentinel protected his tribe, but first, he protected the Guide. His Guide. Jim tuned out the sound of Burr's laughter, focusing instead on the beating of Blair's heart, the heart so filled with trust in his Sentinel.
He searched Blair's body, probing with enhanced vision to find the ripple of muscle and flesh beneath the thin, white t-shirt. Using his training as an army medic, he sought the perfect spot, an area without bone on Blair's left shoulder, where a bullet would do the least damage. Even as his heart shouted its protest, his mind coolly plotted the bullet's path, lining up the trajectory so that once the bullet cleared Blair's flesh, it would penetrate the heart of his captor.
Blair's flesh... his left chest... so close to his heart... the heart that even now thundered in Jim's ears. He would not allow himself to consider what would happen if he failed.
The knife was pressing hard against Blair's neck. "I studied anatomy in college. Almost decided on med school. The vocal chords can be severed with just the right cut," Burr observed calmly, in a conversational tone. "Any last words to your friend, Mr. Sandburg?"
Blair's eyes were on Jim, although the Sentinel didn't meet his gaze. Instead, Jim kept his focus on Sandburg's shoulder waiting for the cue that his partner was ready.
"Jim?" Blair's voice was calm, controlled. "I trust you, man. Do it."
The roar of the gun startled a flock of birds nesting in the nearby grove. They scattered into the blue sky, blackening it with a cloud over the sun.
Blair's head jerked back, his mouth open in a grimace of pain.
Burr's eyes widened, staring in disbelief at Jim, his mouth gaping as though to speak. No words passed his lips as he stood motionless. Slowly, the hand holding the gun slipped away; the arm pressing Sandburg against him fell. His knees crumpled.
Owl was dead before he hit the ground.
Jim rushed forward with a cry. "Sandburg!"
His Guide fell to his knees on the sand, his right hand clutching his left shoulder. His left arm hung useless at his side.
Jim was beside him in an instant, gripping his right shoulder with one hand while he gently touched at the bleeding left shoulder with the other. "Blair... " He shook his head, unable to finish the thought. His hands were shaking, he thought vaguely. Sandburg was bleeding... he had shot Blair... and his damned hands were shaking.
Blair's face was ashen, but he smiled weakly. "It's okay, man. Listen, you better call for help, right? I'm not sure I'm gonna hold out much... " The words faded away as Blair's eyes rolled up in his head. He fell backward, unconscious.
Releasing a pent-up breath, Jim carefully eased one arm around Blair's back, as he supported his head tenderly, as if lifting an infant. Drawing his Guide upward, Jim cradled Blair against his chest, anchoring his Guide to him with one arm, his other hand fumbling for his phone.
"911...emergency... shooting... one dead... one injured... Paradise Marina... Kona Highway." Flipping the phone shut, he settled back to wait.
The sense of relief was almost too much. Staring at Owl's corpse, holding Sandburg so closely against him, Jim's energy drained out in a flood. His head was literally spinning from the rush of adrenaline and the shock of what had just happened.
What had he done?
He had shot his best friend. Risked Blair's life with a bullet from his own gun. Hadn't there been some other option, some other way out?
Any other way out?
Lowering his head, Jim rested his cheek against the cap of curls, letting its softness caress his sensitive skin, drinking in the pulse he could feel beating against his chest. Blair was alive. It had been so damned close, but he was alive. "Blair... I'm sorry, Chief," he whispered. "I'm so damned sorry."
As the pain welled up inside, Jim shut his eyes against the vision of Burr's body and the blood soaking the sand. "I'm sorry... I'm sorry... " The tears came at last, blazing paths down the Sentinel's face and falling unhindered into his Guide's hair, baptizing Blair with the tangible symbols of Jim's grief and guilt.********************
The medics confirmed Owl's fatality quickly, loading him onto a stretcher. That ambulance pulled out slowly. No lights, no siren, transporting only death.
Blair was taken into the second ambulance, an I.V. already pumping fluids into his veins. Jim followed behind, in the company of two detectives. He'd have a lot of explaining to do, but he'd already phoned Simon. The whole saga would be explained by the time they got to the hospital. At least, confirmation of his identity as a cop had bought Jim a ticket to ride with Sandburg. In the meantime, he had two shadows.
One of the medics signaled that they were ready for transport. Jim moved toward the door of the ambulance; the detectives would follow in their unit. As he passed the spot where Owl had fallen, he spotted the glasses.
They lay abandoned in a puddle of blood that had already soaked into the coarse sand. Their lenses were cracked, spider web lines bisecting the round orbs. Jim stopped and stared down, remembering.
A dark basement... pain... humiliation... the threat to his life and ultimately, to his Guide's.
Jim's expression remained emotionless. It was over. At the cost of one innocent life and a lifetime of guilt, it was over. Lifting his foot, he ground the lenses beneath his foot, stomping them mercilessly into the sand.
Breaking into a jog, Jim climbed into the passenger seat of the ambulance.
It was over.********************
The good news was that Jim's shot had gone clean through - in and out. The only damage was to muscle and tissue. Bad enough, but upon reflection of what might have been, it was a minor miracle.
Perhaps not so minor, Jim reflected as he waited for Blair to sign his release papers. He'd insisted he didn't need help, and the hovering nurse seemed intent on making sure the sad young man got all the assistance he needed. And the kid was sad... subdued... whether from the pain-killers they'd pumped into him, the shock of what had gone down, or the realization that Leia was dead, Jim didn't know. Probably a combination of everything. Hell, he was exhausted, and he hadn't had his best friend pump a bullet through his shoulder.
Jim winced at the thought, leaning back with a suppressed groan in the hard, uncomfortable plastic chair in the waiting area. He had managed to accept and live with a hell of a lot in his lifetime. A lifetime of failures, it sometimes seemed. His father's aloofness... the death of his unit in Peru... the failure of his marriage to Carolyn... Jack and Danny's deaths... his enhanced senses and all the wonders and problems inherent in them...Blair's death and revival at the fountain. For a man who craved order and security, Jim was secretly proud of his ability to adapt.
Today, however, had been a first. He'd shot his own partner, his best friend... Blair. Even considering the circumstances, and they were definitely extenuating, it was a bitter pill to swallow. Would he ever learn to live with this one?
Blair was at the door in the obligatory wheelchair, a disinterested orderly at the handles. Jim stood up, working to hide the pain in his right knee as it stretched out. The injuries he'd received thanks to Burr had faded for the most part, but Jim wondered if that knee would ever be fully whole again. Sometimes, Dan Black Wolf's cane still looked tempting.
"Yeah, Chief. I'm ready." He moved to the door, resting his hand gently on Blair's uninjured shoulder as he passed. "You sure about this? The doctors would rather keep you overnight, you know."
"No. I'm okay." Blair wouldn't meet his eyes, but the firm tone of his voice convinced Jim not to argue. "Okay, Chief. Let's get out of here." He followed the wheelchair to the door and assisted the orderly in settling Blair in the passenger seat of the Jeep. Blair didn't say another word as he was belted in and the doors closed.
The late afternoon sun was already falling low in the horizon. Soon, night would fall, and Jim wondered how Blair would cope with being back at the marina so soon after the traumatic afternoon. Before Jim cranked the Jeep, he turned to look at his friend. "Are you okay with going back to the marina? I can find another slip, or we could go to a hotel for a while."
Blair shook his head. "It's fine. Not a problem." He turned to stare out the window.
Jim waited, but that was all. He started the Jeep, backed out of the parking space, and headed out of town.
"Where are your shadows?" Blair asked when they were a few miles out.
Jim smiled. "By the time Simon and the Cascade Police Commissioner phoned the department here, the locals decided I could be trusted. Simon's on his way over, bringing the case files to document everything that's happened. He should be in tonight."
Jim cut his eyes over at his Guide. The young man was hunched into the corner, his injured shoulder wrapped securely, his arm in a sling. His hair was wind-blown; even the shorter curls looked tangled. The cuts on Blair's neck had been treated, some with stitches, others with medication and tape. It hurt to look at those cuts, sliced so methodically into his skin. His face was bruised, too, evidence of the fight he'd put up before being taken hostage.
All in all, Sandburg looked as vulnerable, as young, as Jim had ever seen him. He clenched his jaw hard, fighting the urge to hit something... anything... in his anger at the men who'd done this to a man as peaceful, as kind, as Blair. There was no one left to punish, Jim reminded himself. Burr, the mastermind of the whole scheme, was dead at his hands. The accomplices would be rounded up eventually, but Jim didn't really care about them. Brackett and Burr had been responsible for this. One had paid with his life, and right now, there wasn't much Jim could do about the other.
The airports and ports had been notified, and Brackett's photo had been circulated throughout the islands. Jim didn't hold out much hope of the authorities finding him, though. Brackett was gone, probably vanished into oblivion once again. They'd be damned lucky to ever catch him.
He didn't mention that Detective Malo had insisted on taking Blair's statement this afternoon. Jim had been lucky to talk the veteran detective into coming to the Sanctuary to interview Sandburg. He wasn't sure either of them was up to a more formal interrogation down at the unfamiliar police station. Jim was leery of Malo as it was. The man had impressed him as being a good detective but without a great sense of compassion. At least, that was how he'd come across on the scene and later, at the hospital. Jim tried to give the man the benefit of the doubt and hoped he'd be patient with his traumatized partner.
Jim drove the long way around, avoiding town and proximity to Leia's gallery. If Sandburg noticed, he gave no indication. The younger man spent the entire ten mile trip from Kona to the marina staring out the Jeep's window, still and silent. Jim didn't force conversation. He and Sandburg would talk; Jim would see to that. Right now, he would take his cues from Blair.
As they drove slowly down the long drive from the road to the marina, Jim monitored his Guide's heartbeat and wasn't surprised to hear it increase dramatically as the scene of the afternoon's showdown with Burr. Jim claimed a parking spot that would allow them to walk to the Sanctuary without passing directly by the place where Burr had died. After he cut the engine, he looked over at Blair, still sitting motionless in the passenger's seat, his good hand cradling his injured arm. "You okay, Chief?"
Blair nodded quickly. "Yeah. Fine." His voice was emotionless, and his blue eyes stared fixedly at the waves of the Pacific breaking out beyond the quiet harbor.
Jim got out and walked to the passenger door, opening it quietly. "Let's go inside and let you get some rest, buddy."
Blair didn't comment, didn't argue or agree. Without a word, he maneuvered out of the Jeep, Jim's supportive hand resting on his back. As they walked the short distance to the pier, he kept his eyes down, averted from the site of the earlier violence.
"Can you make it down the ladder?" Jim asked as they boarded the Sanctuary. He reflected again on the appropriateness of the name they had given their floating home. Today, the beautiful vessel had become more of a refuge than they'd dreamed possible even a few months ago.
"Yeah," Blair answered in his flat, emotionless voice. "I'm good." As Jim helped him down the steep steps leading to the living area below deck, he didn't utter a word.
As though every step was an effort almost too much to make, Blair trudged to his little bunk. He stopped, staring down at the bed, looking lost and confused.
"Chief? It's okay," Jim said quietly, moving to stand beside him. He had seen that shell-shocked look before, both in the military and as a detective. What Sandburg needed right now was someone to make decisions for him, to take over and take care of him. That need suited his Blessed Protector fine. Reaching over, Jim flipped back the covers. "Let's get you into something comfortable and clean, okay?"
Without protest, Blair allowed Jim to help him out of his dirty, blood-stained jeans and the old white t-shirt one of the residents had found for him at the hospital. Gently, being careful not to jar the bandaged shoulder, Jim eased him into a pair of sweats and one of Jim's soft old Army t-shirts. For anyone else, heavy gray sweat pants in Hawaii might be too much, but for his cold-natured partner, Jim figured they'd be just right.
"All right, Chief," Jim encouraged, "under those covers."
Blair curled up on his good side, tucking himself into a tight ball beneath the protection of the sheet and blanket. Immediately, the haunted eyes disappeared, and with a small shudder, Blair took a deep breath.
Jim rested his hand atop his Guide's head. "Try to get some sleep. I'll be here if you need me."
There was a barely perceptible nod beneath his hand but no reply.
For several minutes, the Sentinel left his hand in place, gently curling his fingers through the soft curls. He watched his friend's face carefully, wondering if sleep would grant Blair a reprieve from his pain, if only for a short while. Apparently, the pain-killers administered at the hospital, combined with sheer exhaustion, was enough. Jim felt Blair slide into sleep; his body gradually relaxed, and his breathing grew deeper.
"Rest," Jim whispered at last, his hand granting benediction. "Rest now. It's all right."
He moved to his own bunk, only inches from Sandburg's. Jim felt the stress of the day, too. His body seemed suddenly heavy, too tired to continue. Stretching out his long frame on the small bed, Jim stifled a groan of pain. Not only tired, his body ached, his knees protesting as he straightened them out at last. Turning quietly onto his side, Jim gazed across the few inches separating him from his Guide.
Blair looked older. Tired and infinitely older. Tiny lines of stress were etched around his closed eyes, still visible even in sleep. His mouth was set and tense, lending him a seriousness not normally seen in such a lighthearted, sensitive man. The marks of his injuries, the cuts and bruises, only accentuated the total effect.
"I'm sorry, Chief," Jim whispered, echoing his words from earlier in the day. "I'm so sorry for everything."
Unlike his Guide, the Sentinel did not find sleep easily.********************
Jim's internal alarm awakened him right on schedule. He didn't know exactly when he'd developed the ability to wake himself up at a preset time, but the skill certainly came in handy. He needed time to talk with Sandburg about Malo's impending visit, and he hoped to get some nourishment in his friend as well. An hour should be time to accomplish both tasks.
He put the soup on first. Homemade vegetable beef. One of Sandburg's favorites. He added a pack of crackers to the small table and a glass of cold milk before moving to Blair's berth.
"Chief," Jim called softly. "Wake up, kid."
A small moan and slight shifting of the body beneath the covers was the only response.
Smiling, Jim shook Blair's leg gently. "I need you to wake up, buddy. Rise and shine. Soup's on."
A few more shakes did the trick. Tired eyes, weighed down with a burden no one should have to carry, looked up at Jim. "Thought you wanted me to rest," Blair muttered.
Jim grinned. "Right, and you did. For nearly two hours. And later, you'll crawl right back into bed and rest some more, but, right now, you need to eat. Vegetable soup." He peeled back the covers, and predictably, elicited a groan of complaint from Sandburg. But a few minutes later, one disheveled and weary Guide was settled in at the small built-in table, sipping hot, nourishing soup.
After several quiet minutes without conversation, Jim brought up the subject he'd been avoiding all afternoon. "Blair," he began hesitantly, "you know the police need to take your statement... "
"When are they coming?" Sandburg interrupted in the same dull voice. "Or are we going to the station?"
Jim inwardly cursed Blair's familiarity with police procedures. Sometimes he hated the idea that the young man who'd first come to him so fresh, so innocent, now too damn knowledgeable about the ins and outs of exactly what was involved in a murder investigation. It was necessary, of course; a fact of life of being partnered with a Sentinel who was also a cop. That didn't stop Jim from resenting the fact that, since teaming up with him, Blair had lost so much of his innocence.
"Detective Malo is coming here, Chief." Jim glanced at his watch. "At nine. That gives us about an hour." He watched for Sandburg's reaction carefully, but there was none. "You okay with that?"
Blair shrugged, spooning a scant mouthful of soup up and swallowing. "Yeah, I guess. It's not like I have any choice. They need my statement, right?"
"Yeah. They do. You have any questions about what will happen?"
"Not really. I just tell what happened." Blair hesitated, and the unfamiliar, flat voice wavered slightly. "All of it? From the beginning?" He stared at the bowl of vegetable soup as though he'd never seen soup before, eyes wide and unblinking.
"I've already told what went down in Cascade, and Simon's confirmed it all." Jim kept his voice quiet. "You'll need to explain what happened... at the gallery... and here. I'll be with you the whole time. If it gets to be too much, just let me know. We'll take a break any time you need one." When Blair didn't respond, did not raise his head, Jim reached over and gently tilted his chin up so their eyes met. "Whatever you need to get through this, buddy, we do. Understand?"
Long seconds passed before Blair slowly nodded. "Thanks, Jim." He seemed about to say more, but the words stopped before they began.
Jim kept his hand beneath Blair's chin, maintaining the eye contact. "You've got nothing to hide here, Sandburg. You didn't do anything wrong. None of this is your fault. Do you understand that?"
Blair blinked twice in rapid succession, then he nodded. "Yeah, in my head, I do."
"What about in your heart?" Jim pried gently. "Where it counts?"
There was a tiny shrug of his shoulders before Blair answered quietly, "I can't quite convince myself of that yet." He turned away from Jim, and the Sentinel let his hand fall slowly to his side.
Blair got up from the table, cradling his injured arm in its sling. He walked slowly over to the porthole over the sink and stared out at the sea beyond. "What if I hadn't suggested coming here in the first place? Or gone to the gallery with your paintings? Or... "
This was no good. "Blair," Jim interrupted. "Don't let yourself get caught up in the 'what if' game. You never meant for Leia to get caught up in the mess with Owl and Brackett. You had no way of knowing she would get hurt. This isn't your fault, Chief." Jim moved to stand behind his friend. "If anything, it's mine."
"No," Blair said immediately. "You're not responsible for her death, Jim."
"I'm just as responsible as you are," Jim insisted, resting a hand lightly on Blair's shoulder. "I agreed to put my paintings in the gallery. I encouraged you to develop your relationship with Leia."
Blair shook his lowered head. "No, you didn't know what was going to go down, man. It's not your fault."
"You didn't know either. You can't blame yourself." Jim squeezed the slim shoulder and carefully turned Blair to face him. "Leia would have said the same thing. She never would have blamed you for this."
"I know," Blair agreed sadly. "That doesn't mean I don't blame myself, though."
Before he could answer, Jim heard footsteps approaching on the pier. Quickly, he tuned in to the sound of the voices and identified them as Detective Jan Malo and his partner, John Chung. "They're here," he informed his friend. "We'll talk about this later, Sandburg, and believe me, we are going to deal with this."
Blair nodded reluctantly. "Yeah. I figured."
Smiling, Jim batted his Guide on both cheeks. "Let's get this over with. Simon should be arriving soon. He promised to call on his way in from the airport."********************
John Chung handled most of the briefing. They moved above deck, into the fresh evening air, to talk. Jim settled beside Blair on one of their lounge chairs, insisting that his injured Guide stretch out while he perched on the edge of the chair. Jim kept a supportive hand on Blair's leg as he talked.
Chung was a good choice. Younger than his partner, and more on Sandburg's 'wavelength', Jim figured. Blair seemed to warm up to him fairly quickly, considering the circumstances. Malo sat quietly, manning the tape recorder, listening. When he glanced at Jim, there was clearly sympathy in his dark eyes. Maybe he'd have to revise his opinion of the older detective.
The first part went easily enough. Blair confirmed what the Hawaiian detectives already knew about Jim's capture, their flight from Cascade, and their assumed identities. Of course, as they'd discussed, Sandburg allowed Chung and Malo to believe it was Jim's experience in covert ops that made him Burr's target, leaving the Sentinel aspect completely out of the story. Did it really matter why Burr had gone after him, in the long run? Torture was torture. Kidnapping, kidnapping. Sentinel or expert soldier, the results had been the same.
Jim kept one keen ear focused on Blair's respiration and heartbeat. He'd had little time to contemplate the complete return of his senses, and realized suddenly that he wasn't even sure he'd told Sandburg he'd used his vision at full-power to take down Owl. The kid had remained fairly calm throughout the beginning of his story, but now, Chung had asked the first question in what would undoubtedly be a painful retelling of the day's events.
"Tell me about what happened this morning."
Such a simple request, but it sent Sandburg's heart rate soaring. Blair reached blindly for Jim's hand, and the Sentinel grasped it firmly. "It's okay," he said softly. "Take your time, Chief. No one here is rushing you."
Blair nodded, then he leaned back on the lounge, shutting his eyes. In a voice distant and underscored with pain, he began his story. "We were unpacking some new artwork Leia had purchased. They were prints and tapa panels, mostly Tahitian, and she wanted to get the out before the weekend. I was in the storeroom in back when I called out a question to Leia. She didn't answer."
Jim felt a small tremor in Blair's hand, and he patted it gently. "It's all right, buddy. Take it easy." Blair tried to smile, but the attempt failed, ending in a weak grimace.
"I went out front to be sure everything was okay. It wasn't."
"What did you see, Mr. Sandburg?"
"I... They... " Blair's eyes opened and sought Jim out. Once their eyes locked, his gaze held firm, never leaving his Sentinel's face. "It was Burr and Brackett, along with two guys I didn't know. They had guns, and one of the men I didn't recognize was holding Leia around the neck with a... a knife in his other hand. The other goon grabbed me and stuck a gun to my temple."
Jim felt a renewed surge of anger at the image summoned by Blair's words, but he successfully kept his face neutral. Sandburg was having a tough enough time without having to deal with Jim's emotions as well.
"Brackett started asking me questions, like where you were and if you had... recovered completely... after what they'd done to you." His eyes conveyed what his words had not; Brackett had been asking about Jim's senses. Blair added softly, "I didn't tell them anything, Jim, I promise."
Jim nodded in understanding and patted Blair's hand. "I know you didn't. It's okay, Chief. Go on." Malo and Chung remained quiet, and Jim sensed that they had turned the questioning over to him. He was quietly grateful for their compassion.
The younger man took a shuddering breath. "Burr got really angry. Red in the face angry. He was saying things like no one, least of all me, was going to ruin all his plans, not when he'd come so far. Brackett tried to calm him down, but he wasn't having much luck. Then, Burr got right in my face. He said he was going to ask me one more time - where you were. I... I guess they checked the boat first but didn't find you there."
The pain in Blair's voice tightened Jim's heart. He gripped his hand firmly, hoping his friend found some small comfort in the gesture. Blair didn't seem to notice. He continued his story, his eyes fixed on Jim's face. "I knew you were up at the beach, but I couldn't tell them, Jim. I couldn't let them get to you again."
"I know," Jim murmured. "It's all right."
"I lied... said I didn't know. That sent Burr over the edge." Blair ran his free hand across his eyes roughly, as though trying to rub away the haunting vision of what had happened next. "He told the guy holding Leia to 'do it'. The bastard didn't even hesitate! He... he... " Blair's voice broke and he buried his face in the hand Jim wasn't holding.
Chung said quietly, "Did he kill her, Blair?"
Sandburg nodded and managed to grate out, "Yeah... he... slit... her throat. Oh, God, the blood... "
Jim couldn't stand back any longer. Reaching out, he drew Blair closer, wrapping his arms around the younger man and holding him tightly. He wanted to offer words of comfort, but there were none sufficient for Blair's pain. Instinctively, Jim began to rock slowly, Blair's head tucked beneath his chin.
He looked over at Malo and Chung. "They brought him here. I've told you the rest. Is there any more you need from him right now?"
The two detectives stood up. "No," Malo said softly. "He's told us enough. We can talk to him later and fill in the gaps. Thank you."
As they passed Jim, Chung squeezed the Sentinel's shoulder briefly. "Take care of your partner. We're here if you need us."
Jim looked up. "What about Brackett and the accomplices? Any news from the roadblocks or airports?"
Malo looked surprised, his eyes widening. "Didn't anyone tell you?"
"No. Did they get them?"
Chung shook his head. "Not exactly. When they fled here, Brackett apparently headed up Shore Road, toward Volcanoes National Park. He blew by the roadblocks cutting off traffic from the area around the lava flow. The park service guys and the local cops pursued him as far as they dared, but Brackett was heading straight toward the newest eruption and flow. They kept the road closed off, so they knew he didn't double back." Chung stopped, shaking his head.
Jim stared at the young detective and his veteran partner, looking from one to the other in confusion. "What? If he didn't get away, and they didn't take them in, then... ?" Jim felt Blair shift in his arms, and he knew his friend was listening. He tightened his embrace slightly, in silent support.
Malo spoke up. "We sent up a chopper to look around. That's who found them."
"They spotted their van. The top of it anyway. The thing was covered past the doorframe by molten lava. There was no way to get to them. The flow's diverted its path now, and the stuff's already cooling. That van's sealed in tight. No way to get it out or find out who was inside." Malo shook his head. "No way they survived."
"If they were inside," Jim mused.
"All the roads were blocked. There was no other way off the mountain," Chung pointed out. "We kept the choppers flying all day and into the night. No sign that anyone made it out of that SUV alive."
Malo nodded in agreement, then the Hawaiian added softly, "If it's any consolation, Pele accomplished what the courts might never have done - brought justice to Lee Brackett." He bowed his head slightly to Jim. "Please call if we can do anything for you, Detective Ellison. We'll be back in touch tomorrow."
The two detectives departed into the night.
Jim leaned his head back, stretching his tired neck muscles. Sandburg had made no effort to move, to break the comforting embrace, and Jim was in no hurry to release him. The marina appeared deserted; no one was likely to intrude on their privacy. At least, for now. "You want to go downstairs?" he asked softly. "Lie down for a while?"
There was a tiny shake of the head pressed against him, and Jim smiled sadly. "It's a nice night; I don't mind the fresh air, do you?" He didn't expect an answer.
Moving carefully, Jim shifted around so he could lean back on the lounge, drawing Sandburg with him. Moments later, Blair was tucked against his side, both men crowded into the confines of the chair. Glad this thing doesn't have arms, Jim thought wryly. This is uncomfortable enough as it is. Yet, it really wasn't uncomfortable at all. Sandburg's head rested on Jim's shoulder, his face buried in his Sentinel's neck. Jim encircled Blair with his strong arms, both to keep him close and to provide the emotional support Sandburg so desperately needed. Jim couldn't fool himself. The closeness was as much for him as for Sandburg. Once again, when he least expected it, he'd almost lost Blair again. And this time, his own bullet could have so easily ended Sandburg's life.
No, holding a warm, living Blair close wasn't uncomfortable at all.
Sandburg didn't sleep, but Jim didn't try to fill the silence with words. What would be the point? Everything that could be said had been said; more words would be meaningless. Jim had always found it easier to speak with actions than words anyway. He drew a deep breath and released it slowly, along with the pent-up tensions of the traumatic day.
The sigh must have communicated itself to Sandburg, because the younger man stirred beside him. "Jim... ?"
Ellison tightened his arm around his Guide. "It's okay, Chief. Everything's fine."
The curly head tilted upwards slightly, and Jim looked down from the stars above only to see their reflections shining in Blair's eyes. "Do you think he's really gone?"
Jim wasn't sure how to respond. He wanted nothing more than to assure Blair that yes, they'd seen the last of the rogue CIA agent, that Brackett's knowledge of Jim's abilities would never resurface to cause them problems again. Those were the words Jim's heart longed to say. Yet...
He knew Brackett's abilities too well, knew first hand the kind of survival training the man had received. If anyone could have survived the lava flow, it would have been Lee Brackett. As much as the words would have reassured Sandburg, Jim couldn't bring himself to lie to his best friend.
"I don't know, Chief," he admitted at last. "Maybe."
From Blair's brief nod against his shoulder, Jim knew he'd done the right thing. Blair had already figured out that Brackett might have lived; Jim's well-intentioned lie would have served no purpose except to place more doubt in the younger man's mind and heart - doubt about his Sentinel's honesty and trust.
"Yeah," Blair said softly. "Maybe." He yawned broadly, and Jim smiled.
"Hey, Chief? Why don't we get you below decks for a little rest? This chair's not exactly the most comfortable place to rest." He smoothed back the soft curls from Blair's forehead as he spoke quietly. Damned short hair... he'd never get used to it. Now the kid could grow it back, though, if he wanted. It was over.
Blair stretched carefully beside him. "Yeah, I guess. Give me a hand getting up here? Feeling a bit stiff and sore."
Jim eased up from the lounge and reached a helping hand down to his friend. Carefully, he helped Blair stand. Looking down into the sad eyes, Jim's heart ached. He caught the back of Blair's neck gently and squeezed. "It's going to be okay, Blair. You know that, right?"
Like a cloud moving from in front of the moon to reveal its glow, the sadness in Sandburg's eyes lifted a little, just enough to remind Jim of the light that once dwelled within his friend. And to give him hope that someday, he would see that glow again.
"Yeah, I know." Blair reached up and touched Jim's cheek lightly, letting his fingers trail quickly down his Sentinel's face. "Thanks, man." A slight smile flashed quickly, then vanished. "Think I'll rest a while now."
Jim walked behind Blair to the stairs leading down to the living quarters of the Sanctuary, his hand resting on the younger man's shoulder. "Your pain pills are in the galley. You're due one about now," he reminded his friend. "And be careful on those steps."
Sandburg nodded woodenly. "Okay. I'll take one." Turning slightly, he looked up at Jim with a sad smile. "Be down soon?"
Jim squeezed Blair's shoulder and smiled down at his friend. "In a little while, Chief. Just call if you need me, okay?"
"Okay. Night, Jim." Carefully, slowly, using his good arm, Blair disappeared down the steps.
Jim monitored his friend as he swallowed a pain pill, then climbed into his bunk. Within minutes, his breathing had deepened, and Jim was relieved to know Blair was sleeping at last.
Settling down on the lounge again, Jim relaxed at last. A full moon was high overhead, and he marveled at the glowing orb's beauty. Jim stared up at the stars overhead. The marina didn't have any lights this far out on the pier, and with his newly activated enhanced vision, the heavens twinkled with the light of thousands of stars. How could there be such beauty in the universe when there existed such evil here on earth? To kill an innocent woman like Leia... to be willing to exploit the friendship... the love... between Sentinel and Guide... and Jim had no doubt that Burr would have killed Sandburg without a moment's hesitation, if it had suited his purposes. Not to mention the inhumane torture he'd endured at Burr's hands. Comparing the beauty spread out above to the cruelty the thoughts of Burr brought, Jim shook his head slightly, unsure how to reconcile two such polar opposites.
Although he was focused on Sandburg, sleeping below deck, the Sentinel's enhanced hearing caught the sound of approaching footsteps. Naturally wary, he reached to his waist for his gun, then grimaced as he remembered that the police still had the glock as evidence. No matter. If there was danger approaching, Jim had no doubts that he could handle it, armed or not. There was no way in hell he'd let anyone do either of them harm now, not after all they'd been through. Instantly on full alert, Jim scented the air, searching for any clue about the approaching intruder. Whoever it was had passed the last moored boat before the Sanctuary; they definitely were coming there.
A small smile crept onto Jim's face, replacing its previous grim, set expression. He relaxed, allowing his body to melt into the lounge once again. A few seconds later, he said softly, "Come aboard, Simon."
His smile widened at the grumbling voice of his captain. "Don't you dare tell me you smelled my cigars, Jim. I haven't had a smoke since leaving Cascade. Flight's too damn long over here, you can't smoke in the airport or cabs, and I've been in meetings with the brass over in Hilo for the past couple of hours."
Jim chuckled softly. "Not the cigars this time, sir. Sandburg's not the only friend I can recognize before I see them, you know. Welcome to Hawaii."
Simon's long frame appeared up the gangplank, and he approached Jim with a broad grin, holding out his hand. "Where's the kid?"
Jim didn't get up, but he reached for Simon's hand and grasped it warmly, bringing his other hand up to cover his friend's. "Down below... sleeping." Jim focused on Blair's breathing and heart rate for a minute, just to confirm that the younger man hadn't awakened. He was still sleeping peacefully.
Claiming one of the deck chairs, Simon sat down, obviously avoiding making any excess noise. "Sorry. Hope I didn't wake him barging on board."
Jim shook his head. "No, he's out like a light. They pumped him pretty full of pain killers at the hospital. Thankfully. I doubt he sleeps this well tomorrow night."
Regarding him solemnly, Simon asked, "He and this girl were... close?"
Jim felt a surge of bittersweet emotion and smiled sadly. "You know Sandburg." He hesitated, not sure of how much to reveal to Simon without betraying Blair's trust. Then again, Simon was a good friend to them both. To help Blair, he would need to understand the full impact of Leia's death. The smile fading, Jim stared up at the round shining moon. "Sandburg fell in love with her, Simon. Fell hard. We... he... " Jim took a deep breath then added quickly, "I told him that if he pursued the relationship and it became... permanent... we could stay here, regardless of what went down with Burr." He turned his gaze from the moon to his friend's face, waiting for his reaction.
It was a while coming. Simon sat quietly, his compassionate brown eyes studying Jim. "I thought the captain in Kona said she was married?"
"Yeah, there was that."
Simon's eyes widened. " 'There was that... ' Sandburg has an affair with a married woman, and that's all you can say?" The captain shook his head slowly. "Damn, Jim. Even you should have more of an emotional reaction that that!"
"Well," Jim drawled, "she conveniently didn't tell the kid that until he was already head over heels. That make you feel better?" He suppressed the grin begging to come out. It wasn't often he could get one over on Simon. Even after the horrible day he'd had, it was fun to watch his friend squirm a bit. After all, they'd been gone nearly a year. Jim had missed the old camaraderie with his captain and friend.
Simon's eyes glinted dangerously, then lightened almost immediately with a smile. "Should have known the kid had more scruples than that. Good to hear it." His amusement faded. "How's he doing?"
Jim shrugged, looking back to the stars again. "It's too early to know. The shock hasn't worn off, or the pain meds either. So far, I haven't seen him shed a tear, and that worries me some. He really loved that girl. The next few days and weeks will tell."
Wise brown eyes studied him carefully. "How are you?"
"Fine. A little frayed around the edges, but basically all right. You know me, Simon. I'm a rock." Jim knew the obfuscation probably wouldn't work, but what the hell? He didn't really feel like getting into it all tonight. He was just too damned tired. He flashed a quick grin, even as he saw the doubt in his friend's eyes.
"Give me a break," Simon chided softly. "You shot Sandburg. Your best friend. Your... Guide, I think is the term, right?"
The hurt flared in Jim's heart, and he was certain Simon could read it in his eyes. He stared back up at the glimmering stars overhead. No point in obfuscating any further. When he didn't reply, Simon added, in a gentle voice, "So, Jim, let me ask again. How are you?"
Jim shut his eyes briefly, and he was amazed that he could see the imprints of the stars in the blackness of his own eyes. When he opened them again, Simon was still waiting patiently. "I'm... tired," Jim admitted. "Tired and guilty as hell and wondering why on earth I didn't find another way to resolve the situation." He fought to keep his voice quiet so he wouldn't awaken Sandburg. "I'm an experienced cop, Simon; a former Army captain. Surely there was another way! Why the hell couldn't I find another way?"
"What gave you the idea in the first place?"
"Sandburg told me to do it. Burr was shielding himself with Blair's body, and it was obvious I didn't have a clean shot. His leg, maybe, or his arm, but that wouldn't have dropped him fast enough to keep him from slitting Blair's throat." Jim's voice threatened to betray him. "Sandburg whispered for me to shoot through his shoulder straight to Burr's heart."
"And you heard that?" Simon's eyebrows lifted. "I thought your senses were still off-line."
"They were. We'd gotten them back at about 50%, but somehow, when Blair whispered to me, I heard him. My sight came back when I took the shot. I had to have all my vision to be able to locate the exact spot where... I would do the least... damage... to Blair." Jim's chin dropped to his chest. Damn... what the hell had he done? "None of this would have happened without these damned Sentinel abilities," he muttered as an afterthought.
"So," Simon began calmly, "you did what you always do."
Jim's head shot up. What the hell was the man talking about? What I always do? Shooting my partner?
"What you always do," Simon repeated, his eyes holding Jim's without wavering. "Manage to do the impossible. Complete the 'hail Mary' when it's fourth and forty. Stay alive, and keep your partner alive, when the odds are stacked against you." Simon leaned forward in his chair, focusing intently on Jim. "Yes, I understand that what you had to do today tore your heart out. It was the toughest thing you've ever done. But you had the guts to do it! You made the only decision possible under the circumstances, and, may I point out, you made a shot that only a Sentinel could have made! Yes, your abilities lead you... and Sandburg... into danger. But how many lives have they saved? And without them... " Simon paused for a beat. "You would never have met Blair. He'd be safe. You'd be guilt-free. Is that what you'd want? Never to have known him at all?"
"No!" The answer was instantaneous; no conscious thought was required. Realizing he'd nearly shouted, Jim repeated in a quieter voice, "No. That's not what I'd want at all."
Simon nodded in agreement. "I didn't think so. Then you have to accept that, at that moment, you did the only thing possible that would save Blair's life. Don't lay some guilt trip on the kid right now, Jim. He's bound to have enough guilt of his own to float this boat. Look beyond yourself and help him get through the grief and heal. He's gonna need you, strong and there for him, not hung up on the fact that to save him, you had to hurt him. That shoulder will heal; his heart's another question. Which do you think is the more important issue right now?"
Jim looked at his friend and smiled wryly. "Ever consider a career as a counselor?"
For an instant, the older man looked like he would choke at the very thought, then he chuckled softly. "Somebody has to keep things in perspective. You've had one hell of a day, my friend."
"That's an understatement," Jim sighed wearily.
"At least, you'll be able to come home soon," Simon pointed out, but the words brought a catch to Jim's breathing.
"Uh... about that... " He hesitated, not sure of the best way to explain. "I'm not sure what our future plans will be, sir."
Simon's eyes narrowed. "What are you talking about, Jim? I thought that as soon as the danger from Burr and Brackett was over... "
"Well, we're not exactly sure about Brackett," Jim pointed out quickly. "Besides," he added, "I don't want to rush Sandburg. This whole experience... it's changed us, Simon. I'm not sure exactly where our future lies right now or where we go from here." Jim rubbed his eyes, hoping to make it easier to keep them open. When had he gone from tired to exhausted? "I just know whatever we do, wherever we go, it has to be a mutual decision, and right now, Blair's too upset to make any sort of decision."
Simon looked shell-shocked. "I... I never even considered that you wouldn't come back," he stammered. "I thought the Sentinel's role was to protect the tribe, that it was some sort of inborn imperative. So, if that's true, how can you even consider abandoning Cascade?"
Jim tilted his head back, looking up at the moon. What a beautiful night. It would be so easy to stay here, or to pack up the Sanctuary and head out on the open sea again. Wherever Sandburg chose was fine with him. All that mattered was that they both be at peace. "I've... we've... figured something out over the years, Simon. A Sentinel... me... it seems we're programmed to protect the tribe, yes, but it doesn't have to be any one particular tribe. Wherever I am, it seems that's the 'tribe' I'm driven to protect. Peru... Cascade... Hawaii... it doesn't seem to matter." He paused, drawing a deep breath of the tropical air. So clean... tinged with the fragrances of orchids and the sea. "Regardless, protecting my Guide... protecting Blair... is my overriding instinct. He comes first, Simon, so right now, I can't tell you when, or if, we'll be back."
"Damn," Simon muttered. "I knew what you went through had a deep impact, but I never thought I'd find Jim Ellison living on a sailboat, painting pictures, and happy, to boot."
"Life's full of surprises."
"Ain't it though." Simon stretched and stood up. "I'm beat. Here's my card with my hotel number on the back. Call during the night if you need me." He paused a beat. "But only if it's an emergency. Been one hell of a long day."
"For everyone." Jim nodded and slowly uncurled his body from the lounge. "I'm heading below, too. I'd invite you to stay with us, but this boat's only built for two."
Simon headed to the pier. "Get some sleep. I'll come over in the morning. But not too early."
Jim chuckled as he tried to ignore the aching in his knees and shoulder. He may have healed on the outside from Burr's torture, but he still felt its lingering effects in his joints. "It won't be early, I promise. Thanks for coming, Simon."
Banks climbed the steps and stood at the edge of the pier. "Just glad to see you both alive and relatively healthy. Night, Jim. Tell Sandburg... tell him I'm sorry."********************
Morning dawned clear and bright, promising another beautiful tropical day. As Blair stared out over the small, natural harbor, he found it difficult to believe the events of the previous day had been real. If not for the lingering pain in his shoulder, he might well have believed it had all been some sort of terrible nightmare. That Leia was already at the gallery, waiting for him to show up for work. That Jim hadn't been forced to shoot him in order to save both their lives.
But the pain was real, both in his shoulder and in his heart.
Jim was still asleep below deck. It was a sign of the Sentinel's exhaustion that Blair had managed to dress and creep up on deck without disturbing his deep sleep. Preparing breakfast hadn't been a problem; the last thing Blair wanted to do was eat.
Unconsciously cradling his injured shoulder with his good hand, Blair couldn't stop his mind from tumbling over and over everything that had happened in the past twenty-four hours. Just yesterday, everything had seemed so good... so normal. Today, his entire world had crumbled.
Well, not completely, if he were honest with himself. His shoulder wound hadn't been that serious; Jim was fine. But the hole in his heart where Leia had been seemed immense, and Blair wondered if it would ever completely heal.
A heavy hand descended on his good shoulder, and Blair started at the unexpected touch.
"Sorry, Chief. Didn't mean to startle you."
He breathed easier, but he didn't turn around. "Didn't know you were up, man." He caught a whiff of coffee, then took the cup Jim offered. Sipping slowly, he inhaled the fragrant aroma. Delicious. "Thanks." He drew a deep breath and was surprised when it sounded shaky and on the verge of tears. He shut his eyes, willing away the threatening tears.
Blair felt Jim move closer, and the comforting warmth of his friend's presence eased the tight grip of grief holding his heart. Without thought, he leaned back, lightly resting against Jim. The hand gripping his shoulder moved across his chest, gently anchoring him to the Sentinel. A second warm, steadying hand weaved its way into his hair, brushing it tenderly back from his forehead. "Blair," Jim breathed in a voice barely above a whisper. "It's all right. You can cry. You've got a right."
That was when he lost it, all semblance of control, and allowed the heartache to take over. Turning blindly, Blair sought, and found, the rock-hard steadiness of Jim. The Sentinel drew him closer, carefully, so his injured shoulder wasn't hurt. Blair's good arm wrapped tightly around Jim, finding a firm hold in the soft fabric of his cotton t-shirt. He pressed his face into Jim's neck, burrowing into the darkness and safety there. Vaguely, he was aware of his tears soaking the fabric of the thin shirt, but Jim didn't seem to notice, and Blair wasn't about to relinquish his hold just yet.
Vaguely, Blair felt Jim nuzzle his hair as the Sentinel inhaled his scent. It registered dimly in some distant corner of his awareness that the events of yesterday had been traumatic for Jim as well; he hadn't known for sure if his shot had been successful, or if he had inadvertently killed his best friend. Jim was imprinting his Guide, reassuring himself that Blair was alive and with his Sentinel.
He tried to form a coherent sentence, but nothing seemed to make sense. "Leia... Burr..Oh, God, Jim... "
"Shhhh... don't try to talk right now," Jim murmured into his ear, his breath hot and the sound a strange humming vibration. "I know it hurts, Blair. Just let it out; it's okay. I'm here... I'm here."
So he gave up on sentences, gave up on making any kind of rational sense at all, and surrendered to the pain. His entire body was shaking, his legs so damned weak and utterly useless, but Jim's body surrounded him and held him up, supporting him physically as well as emotionally. All Blair had to do was cry.
That part was so easy now. He couldn't have stopped the tears, suppressed the grief, even if he'd wanted to.********************
"You don't have to do this, you know." Jim glanced at Sandburg from the corner of his eye as they drove toward the cemetery. The kid was still too pale, still too quiet, three days after Leia's death. He claimed his shoulder didn't hurt, but Jim caught the quick winces, and the tight lines around his mouth and eyes gave him away.
"Yeah, I do. I'm not sure if it's the right thing to do or not, but I... have to say good-bye." The words were flat, the only emotion in the slight break in Sandburg's voice.
"What do you mean 'right'? She mattered to you, Chief, and I know she cared for you."
"I know, but she was married, man. I have to admit, I'm not real wild about the idea of meeting Manuel Kalani. I mean, what if she told him... about us?" Wide, red-rimmed eyes looked to Jim for answers.
Calmly, Jim asked, "You didn't do anything wrong, Chief. Yeah, you fell in love with Leia, but it never went any farther than that. She was tempted, but she stuck to her vows. You both did the right thing, and you've got nothing to be ashamed of, even if you do meet Manuel today at the funeral." He glanced over at his friend and gave him an encouraging smile. "You meant a lot to Leia. You genuinely cared about her. You deserve to be there today. I think she would be glad you were there."
The pain in those sad blue eyes lifted a little. "Thanks, man," Blair said softly.
Jim reached over and patted his friend's leg. "Any time, Chief. Listen, I'll be right beside you. If it gets to be too much, we'll go. Whatever you need, okay?"
Blair nodded, and Jim saw the tears welling once again, but the younger man blinked rapidly, keeping his emotions under control. They drove the rest of the way in silence.********************
It should be raining.
That was all Blair could think about. How could there be sunshine and balmy breezes and white, fluffy clouds on a day like this?
The crowd of mourners was impressive. Obviously Leia had made quite an impression during her short life. Family, friends, clients, and many fellow merchants came to pay their respects to the beautiful young Hawaiian who had touched them all.
Who had touched him most of all.
Blair stood with Jim at the edge of the crowd, slightly apart from the others. Somehow, they'd ended up with a clear view of Manuel Kalani, sitting on the front row of chairs beneath the funeral home's wide tent. He wasn't sure who else was sitting with the family; he'd never had the opportunity to meet Leia's relatives.
If he hadn't seen a photo on Leia's desk, after she'd revealed the truth to him, Blair might not have been sure which of the handsome younger men in the family was the grieving husband. Manuel reminded him of Jim. Same military haircut, same erect carriage. Even at his wife's funeral, Manuel, like Ellison, exuded power, a strength barely contained.
But unlike Jim, there was no sense of honor there, no aura of valor. Manuel's strength brought to Blair's mind the image of countless bullies, stronger and bigger than he, who had picked on him throughout his years of school. No, handsome and strong as he was, Manuel didn't seem to be a compassionate man at all.
As he studied Leia's husband discreetly from across the open grave, Blair hoped he was wrong, but he didn't think he was. Leia had given off too many signals, had let slip too many words, that indicated that her husband wasn't the kind, loving man she so deserved.
Why did life have to be so damned unfair?
The service was drawing to a close; the priest saying a final prayer. Closing his eyes, Blair drew a long, shuddering breath and immediately felt Jim's arm press against his in silent support. We can go home soon. Another few minutes, and this nightmare will all be over. Jim and I can leave, and I won't ever have to see Manuel again. He'll never know. It will all be over.
Blair opened his eyes. People were milling about, speaking softly, and smiling sadly. He glanced across at the family and right away, caught Manuel's black eyes staring at him. Oh, man! Please, please, please, don't let him know. Don't let him come over here!
Out loud, he said, "Jim, man, let's go. I need to get out of here."
Jim caught his elbow, his face etched with concern. "You all right?"
"Yeah." Blair moved away, heading in the direction of the truck, Jim on his heels. "Let's just go."
They didn't get far. "Mr. Sandburg?"
Blair's heart sank. Without even looking, he knew who it was. Damn!
Summoning his courage, he turned around and faced Manuel Kalani. He sensed Jim moving to a position behind him and to one side, and the Sentinel's hand descended protectively on his good shoulder. Glancing up, he saw a proprietary gleam in Jim's cool blue eyes and smiled despite the open wound in his heart.
"You're Blair Sandburg, right?" Kalani held out one hand, to Blair's surprise. If the uniformed man held any grudges against him, at least it appeared he intended to be civil.
Blair shook the offered hand. "Right. I... "
"Worked with Leia at the gallery. She told me about you in her e-mails while I was deployed in the Gulf. Said you knew a lot about native art and artifacts."
Now that Kalani was closer, Blair could see the red rims encircling the other man's eyes. Kalani wasn't much taller than Blair, with rich brown skin and black eyes that glowed like dark coals. Pretty handsome guy. Maybe he's even more like Jim than I thought earlier. So far, he doesn't seem so bad.
"Listen, I... I just wanted to tell you... " Kalani seemed uncertain, now... hesitant. "I don't know what Leia told you about me... about us... but I wasn't always the greatest husband to her. I... didn't appreciate what I had." His voice was unsteady, but he held Blair's gaze. "She told me you were friends, and at first, I admit it, I was jealous. I wanted jump ship, come over here and guarantee that you'd leave my wife alone, one way or the other, frankly."
Jim's hand tightened on his shoulder, and Blair could almost feel the animosity radiating from his partner.
"But then, she and I had a long talk about a month ago. Well, as long a 'talk' as possible when you're on the internet talking a world apart. I told her I'd leave the Navy, if it would keep our marriage together. I think we were going to work things out, you know?" Kalani brushed his eyes quickly with the back of his hands, and Blair's heart went out to him. "Anyway, she told me that you were a big help to her, that you listened to her, and were her friend. I just wanted you to know that I appreciate that. I wasn't here for her in the... end... and I'm... glad she had someone with her who cared." He held out his hand again, and Blair clasped it firmly, warmly, this time.
"She was a special lady, Miguel. I'm glad I got to know her, and I'm glad I could help."
Kalani's eyes looked up at Jim. "I heard they were after you because you were special ops." The respect in those dark eyes was evident.
"Yeah, they were." Jim's voice sounded tight, and Blair tilted his head to look up at him in concern. The anger he'd seen... felt... previously was gone now, but there was dark guilt clearly written all over the Sentinel's face. "I'm sorry this happened because of me. I... "
Kalani broke in. "No, don't be. You served your country with distinction, Detective Ellison. I've heard a lot about you. The world's too full of radicals these days. It's not your fault. It's important to me that you not blame yourself. Please, sir, don't think that Leia's death was your fault. It wasn't. It was theirs."
Their eyes held for a long moment, and Blair held his breath. If Manuel's words could lift the burden of guilt from Jim's shoulders, he would be grateful to the man for as long as he lived. Finally, Jim said slowly, "Thank you for that, Lieutenant."
Kalani nodded, then he straightened to attention. Bringing up his hand, he saluted Jim. "I'm honored to meet you, Captain Ellison."
Jim returned the salute, snapping it easily, as if it had only been days since he'd been in uniform. "And to meet you, Lieutenant."
Nodding, Kalani smiled sadly. "I think Leia would be glad we finally met, Blair. Take care of yourself."
"You, too." Blair smiled warmly at the other young man, and Kalani walked back to his waiting friends and family.
Jim and Blair strolled toward the parked Jeep. "That went well," Jim remarked.
"Yeah," Blair agreed. "Better than I ever expected. He's a nice guy. I... was prepared not to like him, because he hurt Leia, but he seems okay. Really grieving his wife."
Looping an arm easily over Blair's shoulder, Jim pointed out, "Problems in a marriage are rarely just one person's fault, Chief. It's not an easy road."
"Speaking from experience, man?" Blair teased lightly.
Jim grinned down at him. "You know it. Hey, it's lunchtime. Feel up to grabbing something out? You name the place."
Feeling inexplicably lighter, not yet happy, but relieved, at least, of portion of the oppressive guilt and grief, Blair nodded. "I think so. How about Sea Escape? They have a good chef's salad."
Jim removed his arm from his shoulder and opened the Jeep door, assisting Blair into the passenger seat. "You got it, Chief. Salad and an ocean view it is."
As they drove away, Blair stared down the hill at the gathering of mourners beside the open grave and the charcoal gray coffin. "Good-bye, Leia," he whispered. "Go in peace."********************
Simon dropped by the Sanctuary the next morning. Not finding Ellison and Sandburg there, but the Jeep in its parking spot, he headed to the beach.
Two figures were walking slowly along the sand. Two more dissimilar men, he couldn't imagine, Simon thought as he approached them. Both were dressed casually, in shorts and t-shirts, but there the resemblance ended. Jim's tanned body had regained its muscular, healthy appearance after his experience at the hands of Burr. Once again, he moved with the unstudied, fluid grace of a jungle cat, a handsome and sometimes dangerous predator, with no wasted motion and not a sign of awkwardness. Disciplined, organized, and dedicated to duty... that was Ellison.
Beside him, walking so close that their shoulders lightly touched, was Sandburg. His shoulder was still in the sling, but he seemed to be moving without pain. While certainly not the hyper kid he'd been when Jim first brought him to the station, he still gave the impression of energy barely contained. His hair was shorter than Simon had ever seen it, a mop of luxurious curls that reflected gold and umber in the late morning's tropical sun. His skin had turned golden, too, a sign of hours spent by and on the sea. So intelligent that it was sometimes scary, not to mention intimidating... cluttered and, on the surface at least, unorganized... trusting and kindhearted... that was Sandburg.
Separately, each was one hell of a man to have on your team. Together, they made one perfect cop - valuable experience combined with a fresh eye... logic mixed with intuition... detachment and compassion... steadfastness blended with spontaneity.
Two parts of a whole... two halves of one soul.
He stopped walking and just stared at his two friends, their backs still to him, unmindful of his presence. The unexpected insight into his friends astounded Banks, and he realized suddenly that Jim had been being completely honest with him the other night. They might very well not return to Cascade. They didn't need the city. They didn't need Major Crimes or Rainier or even the loft. They were complete just as they were right at that moment, walking barefoot along a beach with only a sailboat and a handful of possessions to their names. Everything Jim and Blair required to live perfectly contented lives was there before his eyes.
They had each other.
A lonely sadness gripped Simon's heart, and he began walking toward Jim and Blair again, more slowly this time. The sand was already hot beneath his shoes; he was dressed to catch his flight back to Cascade. For the first time, Simon wasn't positive he'd ever get his best detective back again.
As he drew nearer, Jim turned his head around, probably catching his scent on the breeze. Ellison caught Blair's arm, stopping him, then waved at Simon.
"Hey, Simon," Blair greeted him when he caught up to them. "Come to say 'aloha'?"
Simon nodded. "If you're using the word as 'good-bye', then, yeah. I've done everything here I can. The case is closed officially, Jim. It's over and good riddance."
There was a long minute when the only sounds were those of the waves and the wind and the birds. "So... " Simon began, then stopped. He was almost afraid to ask.
Jim spared him the trouble after exchanging a quick look with Sandburg. "We're not coming back to Cascade, Simon. At least, not right away."
Blair picked up without hesitation, his gentle voice brimming with emotion. "I just can't go back yet, you know? And Jim's not ready yet, either. You know how sometimes when you've been working overtime for days and days on end, pulling all night stake-outs and filling out endless forms and reports? When it's finally over, you're left so tired, so mentally and emotionally spent that you can't even think straight? It's been a hell of a ride for us." He glanced up at Jim, eyes warm with affection. "Jim's just got his senses back on-line, but they're still a bit unpredictable. He's mostly recovered, but we both need time to accept that it's really over... to know that we don't have to look over our shoulders any more. To rest." Sandburg's voice grew softer. "To grieve."
Immediately, Jim's arm encircled his partner, hugging him closer for a moment before releasing him with a quick ruffle of his short curls. "We both need some time, sir."
"How much?" Simon could have bitten his tongue; he hadn't wanted to ask that. Some part of him was afraid to hear the answer.
They exchanged a long look as a silent message passed between them. "We don't know, sir," Jim answered at last. "I don't like to make promises... "
"That you can't keep," Simon finished for him quickly. "I understand. No, maybe I don't, not really, but you two have always marched to the beat of a different drummer. Why should this time be any different?"
Blair smiled then, the first real smile Simon had seen from him since he'd arrived in the islands. The kind of Sandburg smile that began at the corners of his mouth, spread to his entire face, and illuminated his eyes. Then, damned if Jim didn't grin, too. Just as big smile as the one on his partner's face.
"Hey," Blair laughed. "You got time for an early lunch before your flight?"
Simon chuckled. "Only if Jim's buying. The department wasn't thrilled about my request for a plane ticket to Hawaii to start with. Somehow, I think the brass would have preferred to have made this particular trip in my place."********************
With Simon's departure and the closing of the file on Burr, there was nothing holding them to the Big Island any more. Late that afternoon on the deck of the Sanctuary, Jim and Blair stood at her helm together, looking out toward the sea, growing ever closer as the nimble boat danced out of the harbor. They were leaving at last. Both men had been anxious for their departure; the place that had once held such promise, now offered nothing but regrets and sad memories.
"We never talked about where to go from here," Jim said quietly as he steered. He glanced down at Sandburg. The younger man's eyes were locked on the open sea, as if it offered a refuge, an escape, from the nightmare he'd endured.
Sandburg smoothed back some unruly curls from his face. "I don't care, man. As long as it's forward, not back."
Jim smiled at that. He had no intention of going backward, of running, any more. Wherever they ended up, whatever they decided to do with their lives, it would be their choice now. Once again, their lives were their own.
"How about taking a cue from Capt. Kirk, then?" He grinned at the startled look on Blair's face. "You remember... in the final scene of one of the movies...when someone asked him which way to steer - 'Out there... that away.' "
Blair looked up at him, the wind in his hair, and smiled. "I thought it was 'first star to the right and on 'til morning'."
They breached the harbor entrance and shot into the open ocean. The sun was bright, the sea calm and beckoning. Gulls darted and danced overhead, and a stiff wind filled the Sanctuary's sails with energy. Jim smiled, suddenly feeling inexplicably content and happy. "That'll work, too, Chief. That'll work."********************
The weeks slipped by like foam following a strong current. The sea became more and more home to them, providing food, soothing worn nerves and broken hearts, and in its more volatile moods, challenging both body and soul. They moved between Pacific islands, content to explore wherever the wind carried them. There were no deadlines, no commitments, and no appointments to keep.
It was the first time in his adult life Blair could remember being totally carefree. Although the memory and loss of Leia still hurt like hell, he knew he was slowly healing. Her memory could bring him a smile now, and Blair could think of her without feeling his heart shatter anew. He could even laugh without feeling guilty. Blair realized, with a deep sense of gratitude, that Jim had given him exactly what he needed to heal - time, peace, and friendship.
Sometimes, they lingered on an island for a few days, even a week, getting to know the locals, sampling the native cuisine, and enjoying the heartfelt hospitality offered them. With the Sanctuary, there was always a place to stay; home was always waiting for them when their day ashore was done.
Blair had thrived in that bohemian lifestyle. It was almost like being an anthropologist again, visiting unfamiliar places, meeting the local inhabitants and learning of their lifestyles. Even Jim got into it all. Blair caught him asking questions and observing with genuine interest the local customs and culture. Once, Jim had caught Blair watching him talk to an elderly Fijian about preparing foods using taro leaves. Blair had a small smile on his face, and when Jim had caught his eye, the Sentinel had just grinned and winked.
More and more, though, Blair caught himself thinking of the loft. While the Sanctuary was a great place to explore the world, it wasn't home. Even with Jim there, his thoughts drifted more and more to the warm, cozy loft overlooking Cascade. Sometimes Blair would awaken in the middle of the night and for an instant, he would believe he was in his own bed in the small room Jim had given him for his own. His first real bedroom, at least the first that was his permanently, for the long haul. Then, he'd hear Jim's soft breathing right beside him, or feel the gentle rocking of the sea, and remember. Then, a sadness would sweep over him, a sadness he now recognized as homesickness.
Blair wanted to return home.
But, he didn't mention the feelings to Jim. The Sentinel was thriving in their carefree existence. Had the man ever had complete freedom before? Blair doubted it. First, he'd been under the demanding, domineering thumb of William Ellison. Later, there'd been the highly structured, disciplined life of the military. Then, the demands of being a cop and Sentinel. To look at Jim now was to see a man reborn. Jim's eyes were clear, not shadowed by tired lines or deep circles, and he was tanned and seemed even more muscular than ever. He smiled more than Blair had ever seen him smile, and frequently, Jim's laughter rang out over the sound of the waves. He was still painting, capturing the beauty of the islands they visited and the seas they sailed.
Unbelievably, Jim didn't seem to be in any hurry to return to civilization. Then again, perhaps it was to be expected. He'd always loved nature, being away from the city. Hadn't Jim always seemed more... Jim... in the woods or in the Peruvian rainforest?
The anthropologist in Blair spent hours debating the question. Was the Sentinel more in-tune, more in touch with his senses, when in the natural world? Did being away from the constant stimuli, the distracting noises and smells of the city, make it easier for a Sentinel to be a Sentinel? Was Jim able to relax now and be at one with his abilities now that he didn't have to focus constantly on control?
And if the answer to all those questions was yes, how could Blair ever ask him to return to Cascade?
For the time being, Blair kept his questions to himself, refusing to allow anything to interfere with Jim's happiness. There was no rush, right? He had all the time in the world.********************
The island of Maru was tiny, so small it didn't rate a position on any map Blair could find in his collection of maps and atlases aboard the Sanctuary. Small, yes, but the tiny atoll held more hospitality than either man had dreamed possible.
For five days, they'd enjoyed the friendly welcome of the Maruvian people. Blair had taken volumes of notes on everything from their music, an odd mixture of atonal melodies and explosive percussion, to the fascinating cures described by the old healer, Morono. As much as they'd both enjoyed their visit, though, it was time to move along. They'd made it a policy not to remain on any island so long that they wore out their welcome.
So on this last night, Jim and Blair sat beside a roaring fire in the center of the beach, enjoying a traditional meal of fresh seafood and vegetables and fruit. A line of children danced, performing a traditional Maruvian dance. Jim, however, was finding it difficult to concentrate. He couldn't quite put his finger on why, but he felt something was... wrong. Out of kilter.
As the children danced and sang, and the drums pounded, and the people chanted, the Sentinel began to deliberately tune out all the sounds he knew would not lead him to the mysterious something that was out of place. Once the sounds of humanity were eliminated, Jim dialed out the pounding of the surf.
And he heard it.
Jumping to his feet, Jim broke into a run down the beach. He heard Blair's startled voice calling after him, and moments later, the sound of following footsteps, but Jim never slowed.
Several hundred yards down the beach, he stopped, listening intently. There! In the jungle.
Running up toward the forest, Jim plunged into the undergrowth, following the sound. He sensed, more than heard, Sandburg behind him. Surely, by now, they could all hear it.
A few minutes later, Jim pulled up short, barely breathing hard. He scanned through the darkness with his enhanced sight, not needing the light of the torches held by the villagers following behind Sandburg. He felt Blair's hand on his back, the warmth of his touch holding him away from the brink of a zone. "Focus, man," Blair said quietly. "Find whatever it is you're hearing."
Jim nodded, then pointed. "Over there."
They followed him to the edge of a clearing, then a woman broke from the group. "Romitini!" she cried, running forward and kneeling beside her daughter.
The little girl, probably no more than six, Jim judged, was lying helpless on the ground. Her right leg was bent at an awkward angle, obviously broken. The crooked, brittle, snapped limb of a tree lay beside her. At the sight of her mother, she broke into sobs of relief and pain.
Leaving the villagers to tend to the child, Jim led Blair quietly back through the forest, knowing his Guide would have trouble seeing, even with the light of the moon overhead. When they reached the beach, Jim stopped, staring out to sea. He felt Blair's hand on his arm, light and warm.
"You did good, man." Blair hesitated, then added quietly, "It feels good, doesn't it? Helping people like that."
Jim didn't reply right away. It had been a long time, too long, since he'd been able to use his senses for something good. The last time... the last time he'd used his senses still brought such pain. The little girl would be fine, but what if they hadn't realized she was missing for hours yet? There were animals in the forests, and she was so small and hurt. "Yeah, Chief," he said at last. "It feels good."
And it did.********************
That night, he dreamed. He was in the jungle again, clothed in fatigues and shirtless, a sweaty bandana tied around his head. In his hands was a crossbow, the weapon of the Chopec, not of the U.S. Army.
Jim's head whipped around, taking in his surroundings with a startled gasp. How the hell had he ended up here?
Something... or someone... was out there. He could hear breathing, the beating of a familiar heart, but he couldn't place the rhythm. Taking three quick, deep breathes, Jim checked for scents in the hot, humid air, but only scents natural to the jungle greeted him.
Where the hell was Sandburg? Was it his Guide's presence he sensed?
Jim broke into a jog, following the sounds of the stranger into the depths of the jungle.
Twice, he caught a glimpse of something sleek and black crossing the path ahead of him, but he couldn't tell if it was the jaguar. Why would the cat be hiding from him?
The heartbeat and breathing were closer now, almost upon him. Jim slowed his pace, not wanting to come upon the unknown too quickly without time to prepare. He was in a small clearing, and the stranger was just beyond the trees on the other side.
"Who's there?" Jim called, raising the crossbow in self-protection. "Show yourself!"
The leaves rustled, and the pounding heart grew louder. From the shadows, a tall, broad-shouldered figure emerged and Jim stared into the face.
His own face...
Biting back a gasp of surprise, Jim stared into his own pale, calm eyes. The Other, clad also in fatigues and bare-chested, stared back, unflinching. "Why do you hide?"
"I do not hide," Jim replied curtly. "It is you who hides in the shadows."
"Am I not you? Or at least, a reflection of you?"
That stopped him momentarily. But he wasn't hiding. Was he? "I hide from nothing," Jim said at last. "And from no one."
"Yes, you do. Come on, you know the answer. Why do you hide?"
Jim's frustration grew. He wiped the sweat from his brow, and once again, looked around for Sandburg. "Where is he?" he asked, irritated with the heat and the questions from this Other and by Sandburg's absence. Blair would know how to interpret this vision. He was the shaman, the one with the wisdom and insight. Jim had the visions; Blair interpreted them. That was the deal. But now, Sandburg wasn't around, the Other wouldn't give him any answers, and the damned heat was getting on his nerves. "Where's Sandburg?"
The Other cocked his head thoughtfully. "Why do you require a Guide?"
"Damn it!" Jim fired back. "I'm... we're... a Sentinel! I need him. You know that!"
"You don't need Blair. Not now."
"Of course, I need him! I have my senses back! They came back when Burr was threatening Sandburg." Jim was getting worried. Why did the Other insist he didn't need Sandburg? What was the hidden message behind that? Had something happened to Blair? Was he in danger? Or worse?
"You do not act as a Sentinel. Why do you hide?" The Other walked toward Jim, entering the clearing fully. He stopped, leaning casually against a tree that stood at the edge of the clearing.
Jim watched him, his heart pounding. He didn't act as a Sentinel? What the hell did that mean?
"Why do you hide?"
Stumbling over his own thoughts, Jim began slowly. "Do you... do you mean why haven't I returned to Cascade? Why am I staying away?"
"It is your city. Your tribe. Didn't Incacha understand that? A Sentinel cannot be a Sentinel without his tribe to protect. And unless he's a Sentinel, he has no need for a Guide."
"But I've helped people while we've been gone. The little girl last night... "
The Other shrugged. "Of course. You're a cop. And you still have enhanced senses. But they alone do not make you a Sentinel."
That threw him. Jim stared at the Other. "What do you mean?"
The Other smiled. "You tell me."
Damn these visions! Why the hell couldn't he ever get a straight answer? Hesitantly, groping for understanding, Jim said, "I thought that a Sentinel could be... a Sentinel... regardless of where he was. I mean, I always feel the need to help, even if I'm not in Cascade." He looked hard into the Other's eyes. "You're saying that's not true. That Cascade is my tribe, as much as the Chopec were Incacha's. That my place is there. With them. That if I'm not fulfilling my role as the Sentinel of the Great City, I don't need... the Shaman of the Great City beside me. That I don't... need Blair."
The Other nodded. "You may still want his friendship, but you wouldn't need him... his talents, his insights, his spirituality. It is only in accepting you place in this world that you can reach beyond it to the next and fulfill your ultimate destiny."
"My place is Cascade? Can't I be useful in other places?" Something about the idea bothered Jim, that he was forever linked to one place, one role.
Shrugging, the Other answered, "Yes, you can be of use anywhere you go, Sentinel. But you won't be using your full potential. You know that place, its pulse, its rhythms. Just as a Chopec Sentinel would know when all is not well within the jungle, when its heartbeat was unsteady, so you can sense when all is not well with your city. It is a part of you; you are a part of it."
Almost fearing the words, Jim asked, "If I don't go back, will I lose Sandburg?"
"I do not know. I cannot see the future, only the truth that is now. He already feels the pull to go home, but he will not admit this to you. Above all, your Guide desires your happiness, Sentinel. If he does not feel useful to you, that he is fulfilling his own destiny as your Guide, I do not know what might happen. Perhaps he will stay at your side regardless. His loyalty is strong."
From the shadows emerged another shadow, lean and dark. The jaguar padded silently from the jungle, its green eyes glowing in the light of the clearing. Gracefully, it glided across the clearing and past Jim, turning when it reached the other side to look back at him, as if in invitation.
"It is your decision, Sentinel. Your future... and that of your Guide... has always been in your hands."
Jim stared at the jaguar, knowing that it waited for his decision. To follow it would be a commitment to return to Cascade. To remain would be to separate himself from his past, perhaps forever.
He hesitated, looking back to the Other.
Jim was alone in the clearing. The Other had vanished.
"I wasn't hiding," he muttered as he followed the jaguar into the dusky jungle light. "Not forever, anyway."********************
The Sanctuary was anchored in a small inlet off some unnamed Pacific island. A wide, white sandy beach glistened a few hundred yards away, and the water was warm and clear. Blair dove easily into the sea, his bronzed skin gleaming in the sunlight as he arched downward gracefully, then sliced open the water like a knife.
Below the surface, he opened his eyes to marvel at the beauty surrounding him. Magnificent coral formations decorated the sandy sea floor, each one home to a multitude of marine life. Brightly colored clown fish darted into their protective shelters of sea anemone as Blair swam past. A moray eel, grown accustomed to his presence, peeked from a coral cave. Blair grinned at his serpentine friend and tossed him a handful of frozen peas he'd brought down for a treat. Easing out of his cave, the eel gobbled his green treats eagerly, then retreated again.
His lungs began to protest, and Blair propelled himself back to the surface with a strong kick and powerful strokes of his arms. Breaking the surface, he welcomed the sunlight on his face and began to tread water, looking around for Jim.
The Sentinel stood on the deck of the Sanctuary, watching him. "Hey, man!" Blair called. "Come on in!"
Jim waved, then stripped off his tank top. A moment later, his deck shoes were gone, and the powerful body launched into the air. Jim dove deeply, surfacing directly in front of Blair. "Was Oscar around?"
Blair laughed. "Oh, yeah. He's totally spoiled, man. Eats those peas like candy!"
Jim grinned and ducked under the water for a quick look. When he surfaced again, he suggested, "Race you to the beach!"
Two torpedoes streaked through the water, arms and legs churning the water. They emerged, laughing and calling mock insults, on the beach a minute later. Running up onto the warm, soft sand, both men collapsed on their backs, the sky stretching out blue and perfect above them.
Blair lay panting, staring up at the single white cloud drifting lazily overhead. The white sand felt so good on his back, even if it would stick like crazy when he got up. The sun was hot, warming his body after his swim. Feeling a warm languor creeping over him, Blair closed his eyes and drifted. Gradually, the lapping of the waves, the sound of the palms rustling in the breeze, and Jim's gentle breathing beside him faded into the distance, and his breathing became slower as sleep approached.
"Do you want to go home, Chief?"
Jim's question sounded as though it came from a hundred miles away, as close to sleep as he had been. He came fully awake immediately.
Where the hell had that question come from? Did Jim really want to return to Cascade, or was he merely giving Blair the option? Was Jim just trying to figure out what he wanted? "I don't know, man," Blair said carefully. "Hadn't really thought about it."
He heard the doubt in Jim's reply. "You hadn't thought about it? At all?"
"Well," Blair admitted. "Maybe some." It wasn't easy lying to Jim. Not outright anyway, and he'd been taken too off-guard for a decent obfuscation.
"Thought so." Jim sounded satisfied. Pleased even. Did that mean he wanted to go back?
Cautiously, Blair asked, "What about you? Do you want to go back?"
Beside him, Jim sat up, wrapping his arms around his knees and staring out at the ocean. "It's been three months since... Burr died. No sign of Brackett. It's safe now."
Blair sat up, too, sitting in a half-lotus position. He picked up a handful of sand and let it drizzle slowly out of his fist, building up a small mound. "You didn't answer my question."
Jim nodded. "I know. Sorry." That was all for a full minute. Blair was content to wait. Somehow he knew Jim had more to say. He began a second mound of sand.
"I had a vision," Jim said finally.
Okay. At least Jim was telling him about it, not hiding it as he had when he'd seen himself killing the wolf. Before Alex killed him. "Incacha? What did he say?" Blair asked, certain that Jim had seen his old friend as he had in so many previous visions.
"It wasn't Incacha," Jim said slowly. "I saw... myself. I was in the jungle, in my fatigues and carrying a crossbow. I knew there was someone else there, waiting in the shadows, and when he came out, it was... me."
Oh, man. For a practical, no-frills guy, Jim could have some pretty fantastic visions. "So what did he... you... say?"
Jim took a deep breath, still staring out at the water. "He asked why I was hiding."
"Hiding?" Blair considered the question for a while. "Well, I guess you have been hiding, in a way. From Burr and Brackett."
"Not what he meant, Chief. Eventually, I found out that I was hiding from Cascade, from my responsibilities as a Sentinel."
"But you've used your senses," Blair protested, turning to face Jim. "You saved me, and you found that little girl."
"Yeah, but apparently that's not enough. We were wrong, Darwin."
Blair laughed, a bit nervously. What was Jim talking about? "No surprise there, buddy. What about this time?"
Jim spoke slowly, seriously, as though every word carried its weight in gold. "About how a Sentinel is a Sentinel regardless of where he is. Yeah, he can always protect, but he can't live up to his total potential away from his tribe." He hesitated, then added quietly, "And his Guide won't either. The Guide won't feel useful, needed, if the Sentinel isn't using his full potential."
Blair considered carefully before speaking. This was some awfully heavy stuff Jim was saying. But it would explain the feeling - the yearning - he'd been experiencing. A yearning to go home. "It makes sense, man." He studied Jim's profile as he spoke. There was no change in the man's expression, not even a tightening of the infamous jaw. "I've been... homesick... I guess. Wanting to go back to Cascade."
Slowly, Jim turned to him, his blue eyes puzzled. "Why didn't you say something?"
"I don't know," Blair said truthfully, "except that you've been so relaxed, so happy, and I hated to see that end."
There was only a split second's hesitation before Jim said softly, "Thank you, Chief. Guess I was enjoying it, maybe too much. I forgot how good it feels to be useful, at least until the other night when I heard that little girl crying for help." Uncurling his arms from around his knees, Jim leaned backward, resting on his hands. "This is a beautiful life, but it's not reality, Blair. At least, not for me." He glanced over at Blair, and added, "For us. Is it?"
A surge of joy flooded Blair's heart. They were going home! "No, Jim, I don't think it is. We needed it, though, this time away, but I think you're right. It isn't reality. For us," he added with a broad grin.
"Do you think Rainier will take you back?" Jim sounded worried, but Blair wasn't. He'd already considered that question.
"I don't know," he admitted, "but even if they won't, I'm not sure it matters any more."
"What do you mean, it doesn't matter? Getting your doctorate has meant everything to you, Chief."
Blair held his eyes firmly. "Not everything. Not any more." When he saw a sign of understanding flicker in the Sentinel's eyes, he continued, "I don't need that external validation of who I am - what I am - any more. If they take me back and I can finish my work there, fine. If not, it's not my whole world any more, Jim." He waited, hoping Jim would understand.
At last, Jim said, "Sounds like we've got it all worked out then, Chief. When do you want to head out?"
Blair debated, looking out at the Sanctuary. Once underway, it would all be over, this delicious freedom they'd both come to cherish. "One more night here," he stated firmly. "Tonight, I want to grill those steaks we've been saving and bake our last two potatoes. I want to sit out under the stars and listen to the whales and not think about anything but where we are and how peaceful it all is."
Jim didn't answer for a moment. "We won't be back right away, Chief," he said softly. "It will take us a while to get back, you know."
"I know. But once we're underway, once we leave here, I have a feeling it won't be the same." He held out his hands for a second, then let them fall loosely back to his side. "I just want to have one more night..."
A hand covered his shoulder, lying loose and warm against his skin. "Then that's exactly what we'll do. No appointments back in Cascade, as far as I know. Nobody knows we're heading home. We've got all the time in the world, Chief. All the time in the world."********************
One Month Later...
"Oh, man, look at that!" Blair leaned over the railing, Jim standing at the wheel behind him. He glanced quickly over his shoulder at his friend. Jim wasn't smiling, rather, his eyes were wide and focused, a glint of brightness gleaming in the mid-day sun. Before them, the skyline of Cascade rose on the horizon like a line of mythical titans standing firm between earth and sky.
"Cascade," Jim breathed. "Home. We're home, Chief."
"Yeah, my brother. Welcome home, Jim."
The Sentinel had returned.********************
"Rafe! Brown! Have you finished the Spellman file yet?" Simon's voice rose in frustration. Operating a man short had taken its toll on the Major Crimes unit, but he still refused to put in a request for a replacement for Ellison. Although it had been months since he'd left Jim and Blair in Hawaii, he still held a faint hope that they'd be back. On days like this, however, he considered filling out the paperwork that would bring him another detective.
Reports were late, there hadn't been a break on a case the Commissioner of Police had a personal interest in solving, and Daryl was on his case about taking him to the play-offs, even though Simon had tried patiently to explain that the cost of tickets was way beyond his means at the moment. He glanced at his clock and sighed deeply. Not yet ten o'clock, and already he was stressed out.
"Here it is, Captain," Rafe panted, running into Simon's office. "Sorry. I thought H. had finished it, and he thought I had it. Simple miscommunication, sir."
"Nothing simple about it," Simon muttered grabbing the file Rafe held out. "We're all operating on double time."
Henri Brown appeared behind his partner. "You still thinking Ellison's gonna come back, boss? I mean, it's been a while."
Simon stuck his cigar in his mouth and bit down hard. After a few seconds, he removed it and for the twentieth time that day, cursed the smoking bans in public buildings. "I don't know, Brown. It's beginning to look doubtful, I admit. Maybe... "
The phone rang, and Brown and Rafe drifted back into the bullpen. The call from the Cascade Police Commissioner took nearly a half hour, and for the last half, there was an irritating amount of activity out in the bullpen. Simon hadn't opened the blinds to his windows yet, so he couldn't see who to blame for the ruckus. He'd find out, though, as soon as he was done. The Commissioner had commented on the noise in the background and having his boss infer that his unit was deficient in any way wasn't something Simon appreciated.
He hung up the phone far more gently than he would have preferred, but slamming down the receiver on the boss didn't seem prudent. "Taggart!" he bellowed, reaching in his top drawer for the super-sized bottle of aspirin he kept there.
Taggart materialized immediately, a huge grin wreathing his face. "Yeah, Captain? I was just coming to get you, but... "
"What the hell is going on out there?" Simon demanded, popping two tablets into his mouth and chasing them with a swig of lukewarm coffee.
Taggart glanced back into the bullpen then back to the irate captain. "It might be best if you saw that for yourself, Captain."
Grumbling, Simon got to his feet. "Damn it all! I thought you guys could handle things for thirty minutes while I took a call from the Commissioner, but I guess I was wrong. You ever had a day when nothing seems to go right?"
Taggart slapped him lightly on the back, that infernal grin still plastered all over his face. "Yeah, Simon, I have, but trust me, this ain't one of them!"
What the hell did Taggart have to be so happy about? Had he received a promotion Simon hadn't heard about? He opened his mouth to inquire, then stopped cold.
The bullpen was completely silent. Everyone was at their desks, apparently at work, but no one was moving. No sounds of phone calls, no click of computer keys, or hums from printers. What was going on around here?
Simon scanned the bullpen quickly, taking a head count. Rafe... Brown... Rhonda... Jim and Blair...
Jim and Blair???
"Ellison!" Slowly, a grin big enough to match Taggart's creased the tall captain's face, and he nearly ran across the bullpen.
Blair was already on his feet, on a collision course with Simon, Jim lagging slightly behind. "Simon!"
The young man's hair was nearly to his shoulders again, and in his eyes was the gleam of excitement that had always marked Blair. Without thinking, Banks wrapped the smaller man in a quick hug. "Sandburg! When the hell did you two get back?"
The bullpen erupted in cheers and applause. Suddenly realizing he'd seriously dented his image as the tough, no-nonsense leader of Major Crimes, Simon released Sandburg and took two quick steps backward. Blair laughed, shaking his head, sending those damned curls flying around his face. Jim came up behind him, sticking out his hand for Simon to shake. As he gripped it hard, Jim said with a grin, "Just an hour or so ago, sir. We came by here first thing."
He was at a loss for words. Simon could only stand there, grinning like a fool, looking from Ellison to Sandburg and back again. God, it was good to see them again! Finally, he found his voice. "My office. Now." He managed to wipe enough of that silly smile off his face to make the command sound half-way convincing.
Jim shut the door behind him, settling in the chair facing the broad desk. Blair assumed his normal position, perched on the edge of the conference table at Jim's side.
"So, Simon," Blair quipped. "What's up?"
"Where the hell have you two been?" Simon gestured in the direction of the bullpen. "Do you know how short-handed we've been?"
"I told you we might not be back, sir," Jim pointed out. "You should have asked for a replacement."
"Since when do I count on anything you and Sandburg cook up, Detective?" Simon groused, knowing that his light smile gave him away. Opening his desk drawer, he took out the leather wallet holding Jim's gold shield and tossed it across the desk. "Here, Jim. Welcome back."
"Thanks, Simon." Jim pocketed the shield, but Simon didn't miss the fact that Jim's hand gripped it firmly for a moment before he put it away.
Turning to Blair, Simon asked, "What about you, Blair? Are you going back to Rainier?"
Shrugging, Blair glanced first at Jim. "I don't know. Like Jim said, we came directly here. I'm sure Chancellor Edwards won't be thrilled to see me again. Let's just say I'm not tops on that lady's list of favorite grad students."
There was definitely pain underlying Blair's joking words, Simon noted. It hadn't been easy, he was sure, for Sandburg to balance his own classes at Rainier, the courses he was teaching, and working with Jim here at Major Crimes. Not to mention the Sentinel research, whatever the hell that involved. Something about the image of some bureaucrat giving Blair a hard time about leaving town to save his life - not to mention Jim's - sent Simon's guts churning. Well, there hadn't been much about this day he'd had any control over, but he'd be damned if he'd let Blair lose his position at Rainier due to this. "Don't sweat it," he remarked casually. "I'm sure everything will work out." A few well-placed phone calls, and Rainier would welcome Sandburg back with open arms. The Commissioner owed him a favor, and Simon couldn't think of a better time to call it in.
"Wish I could believe that," Sandburg muttered, his eyes downcast.
"Believe it," Simon assured him. "Hasn't everything else worked out all right so far?"
Sandburg looked up, a glint of hope in those wide blue eyes.
Jim stood up. "Sir, if you don't mind, it's been a long trip home." Slapping Blair gently on the back, he added, "Ready to head home, Chief?"
The younger man's eyes brightened. "Definitely! Lead on, man."
Unwillingly to let it all end so quickly, Simon asked, "Hey, how about us bringing over some pizzas tonight? There's a game on, or know the guys would like a few hands of poker."
Jim and Blair exchanged a long look, then, as if prearranged, Jim shook his head. "Give us a rain check, Simon. We're both pretty beat, and to be honest, I think all either of us wants tonight is a quiet evening at home."
Simon nodded. "You got it. Maybe this weekend." Hardly able to believe he was saying the words at last, he added, "See you tomorrow, Detective. And I'll hold you to that poker game."
"You'd better!" Blair agreed enthusiastically. "I haven't had any real competition at poker, chess, or anything else since we left town."
"What are you implying, Junior?" Jim turned a glare on his friend that was obviously only half-serious. "That I'm not good enough competition for you?"
They headed toward the door, and the sound of their verbal jousting faded away. Moving to the window, Simon twisted the wand on the closed blinds, opening them to reveal Sentinel and Guide leaving the bullpen, accompanied by friendly pats on the back and the smiles of their co-workers.********************
When they reached the compact car they'd rented until Jim had time to purchase a new vehicle, Jim opened the trunk. "Got one more errand to run, Chief. You want to come with me?"
When Blair saw the handsome carved cane in Jim's hand, a broad smile spread across his face. "Wouldn't miss it," he said agreeably.
Dan Wolf was leaning over a microscope as they entered his lab. "Got a minute for a couple of old friends?" Jim called.
Wolf straightened with a huge grin. "Ellison and Sandburg! Welcome home!"
After they'd shaken hands and exchanged slaps on the backs, Jim held out the cane, his expression turning serious. "I almost mailed it back or sent it by Simon, but I really wanted to return it in person. Thank you for this and for everything else you did for me. You were a lifesaver. Literally."
The doctor took the hand carved cane, holding it reverently as his fingers explored the familiar carving of the wolf. "I'm glad it was of use. My grandfather would have been thankful it helped you."
"Strange that it had a wolf carved on it," Blair mused. "I mean, I know it was symbolic of your family name, but it has great meaning for me... for us... too."
Black Wolf's sharp, intelligent eyes studied Blair closely. "It is your spirit animal."
Blair blinked twice in rapid succession. "How did you... ?"
Jim interrupted him. "Haven't you learned by now not to question the good doctor's wisdom, Chief? He figured me out, right?"
"And how goes it with Cascade's favorite Adagativa and Adasehedi?" Black Wolf asked. "Are your senses behaving again now?"
Nodding, Jim battled the momentary sense of panic Dan's words had inspired. Besides Simon, Black Wolf was the only person who knew of his enhanced senses, and realizing that his secret was no longer that - a secret - made the Sentinel a bit nervous. He trusted Dan, however, and that was enough to drive away the fear. "I'm all right. Now. It took almost losing Sandburg to force me to bring my senses back up to full power, but it worked. Everything's okay now."
"And with the Adasehedi?" the Cherokee asked gently. "How is the Guide?"
Jim watched the play of emotions - everything from grief to joy - on Sandburg's expressive face. "I'm all right, too," he said at last. "It hasn't been an easy few months, but we've learned a lot."
Dan nodded slowly, still studying both Sentinel and Guide. "That's good. The path of Adagativa and Adasehedi is never easy, but it is from the struggle that they gain strength and wisdom. If my grandfather - my Ududu - were here, he would say that you have a feeling of power about you, a sense of oneness. Perhaps even that the spirits of cougar and wolf dwell in you both, each one merging with the other within your souls." Wolf flashed a quick grin. "But I am not a shaman, so what do I know?"
"A hell of a lot," Jim replied immediately. Maybe having Wolf in on their secret wouldn't be so bad. As great as Simon had been with the whole Sentinel thing, the captain would never really understand the mysticism that was the bedrock of everything he and Blair were. Dan Black Wolf seemed to instinctively 'get it'. Jim had to admit that it was comforting to know someone on the outside understood. Jim looked down at his partner - his Guide. The kid looked exhausted, although the light of happiness at being back in Cascade still shone in his wide blue eyes. Laying a hand on his shoulder, Jim squeezed gently. "Let's go home, Chief."********************
By the time darkness blanketed the city, the loft was wrapped in its own coverlet of warmth and peace. Lighted candles lent their soft scent and glow to the darkened apartment as a fire crackled in the hearth. While a gentle rain fell outside, painting linear pictures on the window panes, inside, it was safe and cozy. The TV sat dark. Months aboard the Sanctuary without television had brought a comfort with other forms of entertainment. Soft music of Polynesia played in the background, soothing chants of a place now far, far away.
Dinner had been simple, a pizza picked up on the way home. Neither man wanted to cook or even visit the grocery store that night. A few necessities picked up at the convenience store would suffice.
Blair was stretched out on the couch, hoping Jim would ignore his flagrant violation of the house rule against feet on the furniture. So far, luck had been with him. An open book was in his hands, but he hadn't turned a page in nearly fifteen minutes. He couldn't concentrate, even though the book about ancient Hawaiian rituals had been one he'd wanted to read for months now. He'd picked it up at a Honolulu bookstore as they'd left the islands for the more distant reaches of the Pacific.
It was so good to be home! The ambiance of the loft wrapped him in familiarity and a sense of home so powerful, Blair didn't know if he'd ever take being there for granted again. Being on the road, so to speak, with Jim had brought back vivid memories of life as a child with Naomi. How he'd longed for a place he belonged! He'd never voiced the yearning to his mother. Naomi, being... well, Naomi... would never have understood, and Blair wouldn't have hurt her feelings for the world. So for years, even after he'd come to Rainier to go to college, Blair had buried that longing for home deep inside, choosing not to acknowledge it, even to himself.
He'd known almost the moment he'd stepped inside Jim's loft that this was home. Blair closed his eyes, savoring the warmth surrounding him and remembered. On those long, lonely nights after his day's work with Jim had been complete, he'd returned to the cold, empty warehouse, with only Larry for company. As much as he'd liked the little Barbary ape, the animal hadn't been that great a companion. Hard to carry on much of a conversation with a furry ape, even one as active as Larry. He'd lie on the hard mattress at night, huddled under blankets and still unable to sleep for the cold, thinking of Jim and his loft, with its soaring ceilings and warm fireplace and powerful feeling of home.
When the warehouse had burned down, Blair had been almost too afraid to ask Jim if he could stay in the loft, even for a short while. When the taciturn cop had agreed, reluctantly, to a temporary stay, Blair had been jubilant. Then, after a few days, the fear had crept in, fear of having to leave a place that called to his heart like no other ever had before. Of course, he was still here; the temporary arrangement had become permanent long ago. It hadn't been that hard leaving the loft behind - after all, Jim's life had been at stake - but now that he was back, Blair realized exactly how much he had really missed the place.
Home... what a beautiful word!
"Hey, Chief?" a soft voice called.
Blair's eyes blinked open. Had he fallen asleep? Turning his head, he saw Jim perched on the coffee table, regarding him with an amused expression in those pale blue eyes. "Huh? What... ?"
"It's okay, Junior. Everything's all right. I was just gonna turn in, and... " Jim suddenly seemed uncomfortable. "It'll wait 'til morning." He started to rise.
Blair reached over, catching his arm and holding him in place. If Jim had awakened him, there was something important on his mind. "What is it, man? I'm awake. Tell me now."
Ellison's head was down, as though he was finding the texture of the wood floor of great interest. "It wasn't anything to tell you, really." Jim turned slightly, pulling something out from behind the coffee table. "I... have something to give you, before... " He shrugged, seemingly unsure of what to say. "Before life, you know, goes back to the old routine. While everything that happened to us was still fresh."
Taking the rectangular box from Jim, Blair sat up on the couch, facing his friend, and looked down at the package in his lap. Plain brown paper, tied with string. A simple gift, totally unassuming, much like Jim himself. Blair looked up at his friend, questioning.
"Open it, Chief," Jim prodded.
"Yeah, right." Suddenly eager to discover the secret of the box, Blair ripped into the brown wrapping, tearing it and tossing the string and paper aside. When the contents of the box were revealed, he stopped, his eyes wide with amazement. Aw, Jim...
The outside world viewed Ellison as a hard-hitting cop with a tough, even hard, exterior. Lying in Blair's hands was all the proof he needed to rip off Jim's protective veneer forever, although there wasn't a chance in hell that Blair would ever betray Jim by exposing his vulnerability. His throat tightened as he stared down at Jim's gift. What had it cost Jim to give him this, to reveal exactly how vulnerable the Sentinel really was when it came to his Guide? Blair tried to speak, but words were impossible. He drew a deep breath, fighting down the emotions barreling their way around inside his heart. "Jim... " Another deep breath, and this time, the tightness in his throat eased a bit. "This is... beautiful, man."
Jim shrugged. "Probably the last thing I'll paint for a long time. Not much spare time, you know." He dismissed the gift effortlessly, but Blair caught the glint of moisture at the corners of Jim's eyes. The casualness was most definitely forced.
Standing up, Blair hurried into his bedroom. "I know just where to hang it! Bring a hammer and nails!"
A minute later, Jim stood beside him. "See?" Blair held the framed oil painting up to a bare space on his wall, directly beside his bed. "Right here's perfect." There was no question of putting the picture in the living room for outside eyes to see; his decision was confirmed by Jim's look of approval.
"Looks good, Chief. You hold, I'll nail."
They stood back to admire the painting in its new home. "Couldn't be better!" Blair pronounced. Turning to his friend, he looked up into Jim's expectant face. Their gaze held a long moment, as Blair searched his friend's eyes. "Thank you," he said at last, serious now, his delighted smile no longer in evidence. "Thank you for painting this for me, Jim. I don't know how to tell you... "
Jim shook his head. "Don't... I understand, Blair. I think that's why I loved painting so many years ago. I'm not the greatest with words, and it was easier to say things on canvas. Anyway, I'm glad you like it. I just wanted you to know that... that I appreciate everything you did for me, everything you gave up for me. You saved my life, Chief. Again."
Blair laughed softly. "Seems we're always doing that, doesn't it? Guess it's all part of being... what does Dan call us? Adagativa and Adasehedi? I save you; you save me. That's the deal, man."
Wrapping one arm around his shoulders, Jim pulled Blair close to his side, leading him from the room. "So that's the deal? Guess I can live with that. Let's put on some hot chocolate and call it a day, Junior. We've both got jobs to do tomorrow."
As the soft sounds of conversation filled the loft and midnight approached, a warm light illuminated the painting in the small bedroom beneath Jim's own. There, in rich shades of tropical blues and golds and greens, a memory was captured forever in a depth of detail only a Sentinel's eyes could see.
A black sand beach glistened under a tropical sun, its darkness caressed by the topaz sea... In the inlet, waves and ripples sparkled and danced. A vintage vessel drifted peacefully in place on the waves, her sails unfurled and resting, a sleeping bird waiting for the day when she would once again take flight. A hint of a breeze teased the treetops, sending palm leaves waving gently against the azure sky.
On the ebony sand, two figures stood beside the sea, facing each other, standing close, each one comfortable in his nearness to the other. One tall, muscular, possessing a natural, unstudied grace; the smaller, lithe and strong, with long curls skimming his shoulders, his boundless energy evident even in such a calm scene. The strong hands of the taller gripped the slimmer shoulders, as blue eyes embraced blue in a gaze overflowing with friendship... trust... love. The power rushing between them so clear, so evident - a crackling, living entity - in the hot tropical sunlight.
Two kindred spirits... a single shared soul spanning two bodies... standing motionless forever beside the sea... the sun transforming wet, salty drops of the Pacific into sparkling diamonds on their bare, bronzed skin.
Adagativa and Adasehedi... Sentinel and Guide... Jim and Blair.
The names possess little meaning, and even less importance, for what unites them, what binds them together for a lifetime, could never be captured with mere syllables. The mysterious magic with the power to merge two into one can only be glimpsed in rare, unguarded moments.
Or perhaps, it can be seen most perfectly when it is reflected in the radiance of the sun on the sparkling surface of the sea.
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