Author's Notes: When I first began writing TSFF, I posted a story each year around March 14, the date of Jim's helicopter crash in Peru and my birthday. This year, the muse struck once again, and here is the result. The greatest of thanks go to Jen for maintaining my site. I appreciate her time and efforts so very much.
A cold, gray March day - one of those days perfect for revisiting painful memories.
The younger man watched as his friend walked along the shore, head bowed against the bitter rain and the stinging droplets of water blown up from the turbulent sea. Every March for five years, he had borne witness to the emotional turmoil this day awakened in his best friend.
Five years...five March 14ths...five hellish days of memoriam.
Jim had experienced hell on this date long before they had met. A shiver ran through Blair that had nothing to do with the cold wind. Jim had faced those anniversaries utterly alone.
Blair swore he'd never have to face another one that way again.
They'd survived five March 14ths together, but never one like this. Somewhere in the depths of Blair's soul, he nourished a small hope that this might be the anniversary that healed. If so, it would be a welcome miracle. The healing had began earlier that afternoon in such an ordinary way.
It all started with a knock at the door.
Jim had taken the day off, as he always did on this day. It didn't seem respectful, somehow, to continue on with everyday life as though this was a day like any other. He'd never had to explain his reasons to Captain Banks. Like Blair, Simon understood.
Blair was in his room, digging fruitlessly through files for notes he needed for class the next day. He'd managed to have the day off, too. Some vague excuse about giving his classes time to go to the library for research on their term papers. Jim didn't buy it for a second. He didn't call Blair on it, though. Blair knew what day it was, and he was there. Although Jim might not say it, that meant a lot.
They didn't talk. They didn't need to. Jim ran some popcorn in the microwave, took a beer from the refrigerator, and settled down to stare at the television screen. No way could it be termed watching a movie. The TV's only purpose was a reasonable place to fix his eyes. You just couldn't stare at the ceiling for hours at a time without others considering the possibility that all your oars were no longer in the water. He could hear Blair's foraging behind him, the sound oddly comforting.
Just after noon, there was a hesitant tapping at the loft door. When Blair didn't emerge from his room, Jim abandoned the movie he hadn't been watching and opened the door. An attractive middle-aged woman stood there, dressed in a conservative skirt and jacket, a neat black leather purse hooked over her arm. Hair that hinted of a prior life as glorious red was a faded flame. Intelligent, inquisitive green eyes locked with Jim's as she asked, "Captain Ellison?"
His name combined with rank jerked Jim upright with stunning strength. Mutely, he nodded. He felt Blair's presence behind him but didn't turn around.
"My name is Adriana Duke."
Duke...Jim recalled the name that went with the face immediately. Sergeant Michael Duke. Red-haired with bright blue eyes and freckles. Sgt. Duke had an Opie Taylor, boy-next-door way about him that matched his appearance.
Except that in the first picture that flashed into Jim's mind, the kid was lying dead in the wreckage of a downed chopper, hideously burned and disfigured. He shivered visibly with the memory. It wasn't easy to meet Adriana Duke's eyes with that image in his head.
Blair stepped immediately to his side. "Excuse me, Mrs. Duke. My name's Blair Sandburg. I'm a friend of Jim's. Won't you come in?" Jim caught a glimpse of something he might have termed recognition had he not been certain that his Guide and the mother of Michael Duke had never met.
Minutes later, Adriana Duke was seated in one of the living room chairs. Jim was on the couch while Blair perched on the arm beside him. Mrs. Duke sipped her tea, then looked about the loft and commented with a soft smile, "I suppose my appearance at your door today has taken you by surprise, Captain?"
"I'm not in the Army any more. Call me Jim, please."
She smiled. "Jim. That suits you. Simple yet strong. Very American. You know, I've thought about you every year on this day."
Jim hoped his expression didn't betray his surprise. "I would have thought you'd be too caught up in your own memories..."
A pain-filled shadow crossed the woman's kind face. "Oh, I remember Michael on this day, of course. How could I not? He was my only child. But I also think of you. Many times, I've been tempted to find you, to pay you a visit on this day. This year," she added with a soft, sad smile, "I did."
Blair spoke before Jim could give the words voice. "Why? I know Jim was in the crash that took your son's life, but why would you feel such a strong pull to visit him?"
The mother smiled, remembering. "His father was career military. Did you know that? Air Force. He died flying an experimental jet when Michael was only eight. He worshiped his father, and his only dream was to follow him into service. And so he did."
Mrs. Duke laughed softly, and something in her laugh brought back memories long buried. Jim was sure in that moment that Adriana Duke had been an excellent mother. "My Michael thought the world of you, Captain Ellison. He told us many times that you were the finest officer with whom he had ever served. He was so proud to have been chosen for your unit on the Peru assignment."
Bitterness tightened Jim's throat, and he spat the words out with more emotion that he'd intended to reveal. "He'd been better off anywhere else but with me that day."
"Oh, no! Of course not! Don't you understand?" Mrs. Duke looked genuinely surprised. "Michael was so very proud of what he was doing. He was serving his country, like his father, and he was doing it with a fine officer he admired. I honestly think Michael was exactly where he wanted to be on the day he died, doing exactly what he wanted to be doing."
Gently, she leaned forward to brush a comforting hand across Jim's knee and added, "How many of us are lucky enough to be able to say that, Captain Ellison?"
Jim stared at this strong woman, this mother who had lost her cherished son under his command. Her heart rate was steady, her breathing calm. She meant every word she'd said. "Not many of us," Jim managed to say in a voice rough and unsteady.
"You've had a hard time dealing with the aftermath of that crash, haven't you?" Again, her insightful green eyes peered at Jim as though she could see right through him. "It shows so clearly."
Jim lowered his head, unable suddenly to meet her gaze. "Yes...I've wondered why I...why I was the only one..."
"To survive?" she prodded.
Jim could only nod in response to her question.
Beside him, Jim heard the spike in Blair's heart rate. Instinctively, Jim rested his hand on Blair's knee, offering silent reassurance. *I'm here, Chief. God only knows why I'm the only one who walked away from that crash, but I'm here.*
"None of us knows why we live while others die," Mrs. Duke observed quietly. "It was hard at first for me to accept Michael's death - the loss was impossible to understand. Frankly, I asked the same questions you still demand of yourself -why *my* son hadn't been the one who lived, not you. Why did anyone survive that crash? Why one and not the other? But as clichéd as it sounds, time does heal, Captain Ellison."
She tilted her head and studied Jim. "I understand now. Your death would not have made accepting his any easier. Michael would have wanted you to live. I'm certain you are a remarkable man doing wonderful things with the life that was spared that day. Important things."
"He is," Blair spoke softly from beside the Sentinel. "Jim is remarkable, and he is doing very important things."
Mrs. Duke looked at her watch. "Oh, my, look at the time."
She stood up. "I really must go. I drove here with a friend from Sacramento, and she's shopping a few blocks over. I promised we'd be ready to start back home by 1:30."
Mrs. Duke walked toward the door then turned back to Jim, holding out her hand. "It was an honor meeting you, Captain. I'm sorry, but it's difficult for me to think of you as anything but Captain James Ellison. That's how my Michael always spoke of you."
Reaching into her purse, she removed a small box. She raised it to her lips, kissed it reverently, then held it out to Jim. "This is Michael's Purple Heart. It was awarded to him posthumously. I believe he would want you to have it. To always remember - not just him, but every man aboard that helicopter."
Jim heard Blair's choked intake of breath, almost a sob. "This is...that's a wonderful thing to do, Mrs. Duke, but I can't..."
She quickly stepped forward, pressing the small box into Jim's hand and curling his fingers around it firmly. The compassion in her eyes was warm, matching that of her smile. "Remember...and, please, Captain Ellison, don't be afraid to live."
Then she was gone.
The wind died, granting passage to the fog rolling from the sea. Calmed waves lapped the shore, their whispers an eternal echo. The mists swirled about Jim, blurring his image, wrapping him in its protective gray cloak.
Blair could leave his friend alone no longer.
The sand was soft beneath his shoes, and sinking into it brought memories innocent childhood summers. It summoned images of the days when his biggest concern had been whether his carefully constructed sandcastle would survive the nocturnal tides. Had life ever been so simple?
Blair was quite certain it would never be that simple again.
After Mrs. Duke departed, they had drifted to the beach out of sheer habit. The drone of the waves, the tangy salt air, and perhaps most importantly, the solitude of the place beckoned Jim during his darkest hours. Blair understood completely. He found solace along the shore as well.
Blair fell in beside his friend, easily matching Jim's slow pace. Their steps skirted the path of the waves; March waters were far too cold for walking in the surf. Even though the mists hung heavy, there was a hint of a setting sun drifting down to touch the horizon.
Sandburg nudged Jim with his shoulder. "Hey," he said softly.
Ellison looked down at him with a ghost of a smile. "Hey, yourself," he responded, gently returning Blair's nudge. "Thanks for coming. You're probably cold."
"Me? Cold?" Blair laughed. "What possibly could have given you that idea?" He stuffed his hands deeper into the pockets of his heavy jacket and forbade the slightest shiver to show itself. If Jim needed to walk the beach today, that's what they'd do, weather be damned.
They strolled in companionable silence. "She's quite a lady," Blair observed. "Do you remember her son well?"
Jim stooped to pick up a stone then reared back, sending it sailing far beyond the line of breakers. There was no anger in the gesture, only release. "I remember him. Our team hadn't been together long before the crash. He was a good kid, though. You could tell that right away. Always upbeat, ready to take on the world."
Jim stood still, watching the waves roll to the shore. "They were all good kids," he murmured. "So damn young. Made me feel like the old man, y'know?" He cut his eyes to his Guide. "Kind of like someone else I know."
Blair chuckled, running his fingers through his long, mist-dampened curls. "She made some good points, didn't she?"
"Come on, man, surely you got the message about doing important things. I mean, she had no clue what it is you're really about, but she was right on." Blair hesitated, not wanting to add to Jim's sadness on this day, but the thoughts wouldn't be denied. He said softly, "It's a little scary, when you think about it, how things would have been so different if that chopper hadn't gone down."
Ellison shrugged, kicking at a broken shell, damaged by its travels to this distant shore. "Maybe. Don't guess I've thought much about that."
Blair's voice rose in excitement. "Oh, yeah, just think of the ramifications! I mean, it was in Peru after the crash that you met Incacha and the Chopec, that your senses came on-line for the first time in your adult life. You got your first real taste of what being a Sentinel really means."
Jim stared out to sea and remained silent.
"And if there hadn't been a crash," Blair continued, warming even more to his topic, "you probably would have stayed in the Army and not joined Cascade P.D. No articles in national magazines. Hell, you probably wouldn't even be in Cascade at all. And it was on that solo stakeout that your senses came back on-line. Think how many lives you've saved, Jim. How many bad guys are in prison right now because you are a Sentinel. Sure, some of them would have gone down anyway, thanks to good police work, but you know you've broken lots of cases thanks to your senses. No Sentinel, and at least some of those lives you've saved would have been lost."
Jim and Blair stood side-by-side on the shore, each man alone in his own thoughts. "No dissertation subject," Blair said softly. "We'd never have met." The last words were inflected with infinite sadness.
"I can't accept that those men died so I could become a Sentinel," Jim protested, hurling another rock into the sea. "If I got my senses from the blood of good men, I don't want them!"
Blair disagreed calmly. "That's not how I see it. A terrible thing happened and lives were lost. Maybe, just maybe, that tragedy was redeemed - turned into something beneficial. Something amazing and good. Those men weren't sacrificed so you could be the Sentinel, but I think that maybe you became the Sentinel so they wouldn't have died in vain."
Searching for some concrete way to drive his point home, as he might in a classroom lecture, Blair suddenly bent down, retrieving an ordinary looking snail shell. "See this?" He held the shell on his palm. Slowly, one by one, tiny brown legs appeared from beneath the conical shell. Two claws followed, along with a couple of branching antennae. "It's a hermit crab. See, Jim, this shell once held another animal. It was created for that purpose, to provide shelter for a mollusk. But that animal died, and the shell lost its original reason for existing. Now, the shell could have lain on the ocean floor, useless. Abandoned."
"These little hermit crabs have to change shells as they grow, always looking for a shell-home that is just a bit bigger, just a littler better. If the animal that created this shell in the first place hadn't died, this little guy would be homeless. A street person - or street crab, I guess you'd say. But that's not the way life works. The shell was salvaged - put to a new use. Redeemed."
Carefully, Sandburg bent down at the water's edge, holding his hand flat. The little crab crawled off his palm, scuttling toward the haven of the sea. Blair stood up, swiping his hands against the legs of his worn jeans. He regarded Jim for a long moment, hoping his analogy had taken root, then he moved to stand shoulder-to-shoulder once more with his friend.
A succession of waves brushed the shoreline, as the dim sun slipped down to the horizon. In the distance, a fog horn called plaintively through the mist. Jim kept his eyes trained on an invisible point far out at sea, and the Guide wondered what he might be watching. A moment later, Blair pressed his shoulder against Jim's in silent support then shivered a bit. "I'll be in the truck," he said softly. "Take your time."
He glanced back at Jim before shutting the truck door behind him. The Sentinel hadn't moved, the still figure nearly lost in the encroaching darkness. "It's okay, man," Blair whispered, not knowing if Jim was listening. "You can let go of the guilt now. It's okay you survived. It's better than okay. It was a redemption of every one of their deaths. They'd be proud of what you've accomplished in your life. You've done their memories proud."
Much later, Jim returned to the truck and they drove home in silence.
The anniversary was nearing its end. Jim stood on the balcony, listening. The city was quiet as midnight approached. The March night breeze was gentle on his face and hinted of the sea.
He heard Blair closing the door behind him and the familiar combination of herbal shampoo and oatmeal soap mingled with the sea scent borne on the wind. "Hey, Chief," he greeted his friend softly.
"You okay?" Blair handed Jim a cup of hot decaffeinated tea.
Ellison sipped it gratefully, savoring the warmth as it glided down his throat. He'd never been much of a tea drinker before Sandburg came into his life. An evening cup of hot tea was just one of the small rituals his Guide now shared with him. A very welcome one at that.
"Yeah, I am." Jim took another sip, then set his cup on a small table and leaned on the balcony railing, looking out over his city. "It's different this year."
He felt Sandburg draw closer, mirroring Jim's position as he leaned on the rail. There was a subtle warmth through his sweater where his friend's elbow touched his own. "How?"
"I can remember their smiles now."
It was a simple statement, but such a powerful one. Jim glanced over at Blair and caught the sheen of tears in his blue eyes.
A jet soared high above, its drone gradually fading to nothingness. Jim tracked the lights until they vanished into the ebony night. A full moon, glowing and milky-white, hovered silently above the city.
Life went on. He wasn't the same man he'd been on that horrific March 14 back then. That day had changed him forever. It was one of the worst days of his life, but it had also been a new beginning. Today, he understood.
He had survived. Jim had endured, and he'd gone on to do some pretty remarkable things with the life he'd been given. Blair was right. He could accept now that he'd done his men memories proud. They were gone, but in a way, each lived on through him.
His heart so much lighter than it had been only twenty-four hours before, Jim turned to Sandburg, reaching into his jeans pocket and withdrawing a small box. As Blair turned and looked up at him, Jim could see the full moon mirrored in his Guide's eyes, a pond of white in the eye-blue sky. "You should have this," Jim said, pressing the box into his friend's hand.
Surprise brightened the moon's reflected light as Blair's eyes widened. He glanced down at the box in his hand, then back up at Ellison. His fingers clasped the box top, but before he could remove it, Jim's hand stopped his.
"You invited her here, didn't you? Mrs. Duke?"
A guilty smile curled the corners of Blair's lips. "She called last week, checking to see if she'd located the correct James Ellison. She asked if I thought it would upset you for her to pay a visit." Blair shrugged and let the smile free. "I liked how she spoke of her son and his admiration for you. I figured it might help."
Jim's eyebrow arched quizzically. "Help?"
His expression grew serious. "Help you get through this day. I know it's never easy for you – this day. Help you get a sense of perspective from a totally different point of view." Blair hesitated, then added quietly, "I hoped maybe it would help you heal."
His hand still resting over Blair's, Jim squeezed, then he lifted Blair's hand up, raising the top of the box.
Inside rested a Purple Heart. Blair's lips parted as he stared at the medal in amazement. He lifted his gaze to Jim's face. "No, man. She gave this to you as a momento of her son. It wouldn't be right for me..."
Jim shook his head. "No, Chief, it wouldn't. That's not Michael's Purple Heart. Turn it over."
Reverently, Blair took the medal in his hands and looked at the reverse side. His breathing quickened, and Jim caught the slight tremor in his hands. "Jim...this is yours."
Ellison found it difficult to keep his voice steady. "I received that after I came home from Peru. It had been sent to my dad's house. He's the one who had my name engraved. That's rarely done by the military. Anyway, I felt so damned guilty about what happened that I put it away. Never looked at it again until tonight."
"But why...?" Blair's puzzled eyes held Jim's, the Purple Heart clasped gently in his fingers.
"Because you deserve it."
Blair shook his head. "No. This is presented for courage above and beyond the call of duty. For being wounded in action. You were wounded, Jim. Not me. I haven't earned this." He tried to press the Purple Heart into Jim's hand, but Ellison carefully folded Blair's fingers back over the medal.
"Yes. You have earned it." Jim said firmly. "You've shown more courage since becoming my Guide and my partner than I ever had the right to expect. You've been shot, beaten up...hell, you've died because of me, Blair!"
Jim surrendered in the battle to control his emotions, and his voice rose. "And not all wounds are physical, you know. God knows, you've received more than your share of those. Again, because of me and my damned pride - fear-response or whatever the hell you want to call it. Bottom line, you've been wounded and you've been killed, all in the line of duty, Chief."
Grasping his friend's shoulders, he shook him gently. "You said I became the Sentinel because of what happened in Peru, but that's only half true. I became the Sentinel, became what I am today, because of you."
Ellison felt Blair's shoulders tremble slightly, and he tightened his grasp. Sandburg was going to hear this. It had taken far too long for him to say it. "Michael's mother wanted me to have his medal – to remember who he was and what his life meant. I accepted it with absolute humility to honor that memory." Jim let his hands fall from Blair's shoulders, closing his palms around Blair's clinched hand and the amethyst heart held within.
"I want you to have this," he explained, squeezing firmly. "If you ever have doubts about yourself as my friend and as my Guide - doubts about what you are to me - take this out and remember today."
Jim stared unwaveringly down into Blair's eyes, willing his friend to understand the truths he himself had only just begun to comprehend. "You guided me out of the darkness and gave me the skills to become a Sentinel. Without you, those lives lost in Peru would have been for nothing. You redeemed me, Chief. Never forget that. But in case you lose sight of that truth, look at this medal and remember all we've been through on our journey. Okay?"
Blair stared down at his closed hand, the medal encased within his palm. Slowly, he nodded, opening his hand to reveal the rich amethyst. A single tear slipped from his right eye, trickling down to christen the medal below. "Thank you," he murmured. His moist eyes rose to meet Jim's once again. "It has been quite a journey, hasn't it?"
"Yeah, Chief, it has." Jim touched the Purple Heart, marveling as his skin absorbed the salty moisture of his Guide's tear. Too many tears, he reflected. Yet today Jim could perceive the hope that lay behind the tears, could appreciate the redemption that pain and sorrow can provide. Perhaps like the Peru crash, the bad times had been redeemed as well, transformed from tragedy and weakness to something miraculous - something powerful and unbreakable.
In the distance, a church bell tolled twelve times. "It's over," Blair whispered, staring at the medal in his hand.
Looking out over his city, Jim caught a hint of spring on the gentle March breeze. Spring would soon return, he mused, the season of life and rebirth - of new beginnings and redemption. No matter how long and dark the winter, in the end, life emerged triumphant.
Jim smiled, his heart suddenly light, almost young again. Reaching over, he tousled his Guide's hair, eliciting a protest that would have been believable had it not been for Sandburg's accompanying laughter.
Wrapping one arm around his Guide's shoulders, Jim steered him toward the door and the welcoming warmth within. "It's not over, Chief. I'm pretty sure this journey's just begun."
Music composed by Bob Russell and Bobby Scott.
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