Thanks to Danae, my wonderful beta reader, my gratitude for all your insight and patience. Also, many thanks to my two cyber sisters, Heidi and Lory. Your words of encouragement mean a lot!
A Matter of Perception
Twenty eight days, which taken together, constituted a lifetime.
Lying on his bed, staring at the ceiling of his loft bedroom, Jim carefully reviewed each of the long, drawn out days which seemed to stretch back through eternity.
Four weeks had passed since Blair Sandburg had faced the judgmental eyes of the world and declared himself a fraud.
Four weeks of regret, guilt, and remorse. Twenty eight days of pure hell.
At first, Jim had been hopeful that the offer he and Simon had put together for Sandburg to attend the academy, then become Jim's official partner, would be enough to set things right once more. For awhile, it seemed to ease the pain and the tension between sentinel and guide.
Then, the backlash began.
As he lay quietly in his bed, Jim remembered all too painfully the events of the past month.
They were walking from Jim's truck through the police department garage toward the elevator when Jim's sentinel hearing picked up on Sandburg's name. Normally opposed to eavesdropping, he made an exception in this case. After all, it was Blair the unknown voices were discussing. While Sandburg rambled on about the academy, Jim focused on the conversation coming from the next level of the garage.
"Yeah, good thing he's got big boy Ellison to protect him. I wouldn't want to be teamed with that little liar. In fact, all it's gonna take is one good excuse and a few minutes alone with him, and that long haired hippie freak will regret the day he messed with this department's reputation."
"I hear you, partner. What does it say about Ellison that he's willing to work with that lying trash, anyway? Banks, too, for that matter?"
Suddenly, Jim felt Blair's elbow playfully poking him in the ribs. "Hey, Jim? Have you heard one word I've been saying, man?"
Quickly reassuring Sandburg, Jim lost the conversation as they boarded the elevator, but the cutting words rang in his ears long after the voices faded away. How many others were saying the same things, thinking the same angry thoughts? How long would it take for Blair to prove himself, to still the bitter tongues? Would that time ever come at all?
The next incident had been even more foreboding. He closed his eyes as he thought over the implications of his discovery that day in the bullpen.
Jim walked over to Rafe's desk to drop off a file on a case they'd been working on in tandem with the young detective and Henri Brown. A large stack of files caught his eye, along with notations on a legal pad written in Rafe's bold, meticulous handwriting. His own named jumped out at him numerous times.
Quickly, he read over the notes.
Damn! Rafe was gathering information. Information on him. Each notation dealt with some aspect of a case that involved Jim's discovering information which a "normal" detective would have overlooked or been completely unaware. There was a notation about the odors he'd detected which had led to the theory of the duck pond in the Lash case. Next, there was a mention of how he had reacted to the presence of Alex Barnes and ended up in the grotto of the sentinels in Mexico. There were numerous mentions of how he had followed or located suspects long after others had lost their trails. The list went on and on, a seemingly endless account of his sentinel abilities at work. He stopped reading after the notations were continued on the next page.
Rafe suspected the truth. If he could put it together, then others could, too.
He stormed back to his own desk and slumped down in his chair. What had been the damned point? Had Blair sacrificed everything, his career, his reputation, for nothing? The possibility was too depressing to consider. But it hung there in the air of the bull pen like a heavy cloud, refusing to disperse or be ignored.
Things only got worse. Of all the events since the press conference at Rainier, one had been hardest for Jim to face because of the foreboding shadow of the future it cast.
A few days later, Jim came home early on a Friday, hoping to talk Sandburg into a weekend camping trip. The kid had been making himself scarce, too scarce, around the station. He told Jim he felt like he was in no man's land. Not yet a cop, not an observer any more. Nothing.
Unable to stand his friend's frustration and depression, Jim figured some time away might help. But Sandburg wasn't home.
The red light blinked on the answering machine, and Jim tapped the replay button as he headed to the kitchen for a beer. What he heard stopped him in his tracks.
"Mr. Sandburg. This is Kimberly at Chancellor Edward's office. It has been over a week now, and you have yet to clear out your office here and return the artifacts checked out in your name. As I am sure you realize, these items belong to Rainier, and you have absolutely no claim to them. This is your final notice. Vacate your office and return all property to the university today, or we will be forced to take legal action. Thank you."
The message shut off abruptly. Jim leaned over the back of the couch, his arms spread and his head lowered. Damn it! Couldn't they at least offer him a shred of dignity? How long had he been a student there? Since he was just a kid. Didn't all those years earn him any respect?
Jim slung the half empty beer bottle across the room and cringed at the loud crash as it slammed into the brick wall. He watched in detachment as the foamy liquid dripped down the wall, making crooked tracks across the red bricks. Broken...In shambles... Like their lives.
If hearing the message on the answering machine had torn Jim's heart in two, he knew that what had happened later that same evening had been infinitely worse for Sandburg.
That night, he took Blair out to dinner. Somehow, he no longer felt like the camping trip. They went to a small Italian place a few blocks from Rainier. Sandburg had been abnormally quiet. Jim had seen the boxes he'd unloaded from the Volvo and carried to the basement. He'd watched from the balcony and seen the furtive glances cast up at the loft and knew that Sandburg didn't want him to see him bringing his career home packed in five old cardboard boxes. His entire career, now stowed away in the dark basement, to be forgotten in the pursuit of a new job. A job he'd never really wanted. Jim never let Blair know what he had seen.
If Blair was silent at dinner that night, Jim was a virtual statue. His thoughts stormed in a twisting cyclone in his mind, making meaningful conversation impossible. Then, he noticed Blair looking at the table a few feet to their left. His blue eyes cut nervously to the four men gathered there, then back to his salad. A moment later, his gaze darted back once more.
"Chief? Everything okay?"
Blair stared at him as if he'd lost his mind, and Jim immediately regretted the way he'd phrased the question. Of course, nothing was okay. Before he could react, Blair answered. "Yeah. Just a few of my professors over there. They haven't looked at me yet. Guess the word is that I'm a non-person now. Easier to ignore me than deal with me." His eyes froze on his salad bowl as the men rose to leave.
Jim watched them carefully. Each one walked right past Sandburg, their eyes straight ahead, never once glancing his way, as they passed within inches of him. When the last professor had exited, Blair shut his eyes tight in pain.
Reaching across the table, Jim laid his hand on Blair's arm and felt the nervous tremors beneath his denim shirt. "I'm sorry, Chief. They have no right..."
Blair's eyes flew open and latched onto Jim's. "Yes, Jim, they have every right. As far as they're concerned, I deceived them. In their minds, I lied to them, and they resent me for it. I'd just hoped..." He stopped, unable to continue because of the huge lump in his throat.
Gently, Jim squeezed his arm. "Hoped what, Blair?"
His voice cracking, Sandburg managed to croak, "Hoped that just one of them might come to me... Might ask me what really happened. Might doubt that I could have lied. But they didn't... Every one of them believed I was capable of fraud. Every one..." Tossing his napkin down on the table, Blair stumbled to his feet, nearly knocking over his chair in his haste. "Sorry, Jim. I gotta go..." He rushed out the door.
Jim closed his eyes and sighed. "Blair..." he whispered helplessly.
It was after midnight. Shaking his head to clear away the painful memories, Jim opened his eyes, suddenly alert to the sound of someone moving about in the loft below. Sending out his hearing, he located Sandburg's heartbeat. He was the one roaming slowly about the living area.
Silently, Jim crept over to the rail overlooking the lower floor of the loft. The pale moonlight through the tall windows created a silver glow, illuminating the small figure below. As Jim watched, his heart swelled with compassion, then cracked with pain.
Blair moved slowly from shelf to shelf, artifact to artifact. Over the years he'd lived in the loft, more and more of his treasures had found their way to the shelves, combining with Jim's possessions to blend into an attractive whole. A blending which signified home. Now, the younger man traced each ancient relic lovingly, respectfully, with his fingertips, as if saying a silent goodbye. After touching each beloved treasure, he wrapped it quietly in old rags and gently settled it into a battered cardboard box. As he left each one behind, a look of sadness clouded his blue eyes.
After the final artifact was lowered into the box, Blair sealed the lid with tape. Sentinel eyes caught the trembling of his lips and the shaking of his hands as he labeled it carefully. "My Artifacts." The final few letters trailed off in a barely legible scrawl.
Collapsing to the floor, Blair lowered his head into his hands, his shoulders shaking with his silent sobs.
Helplessly, Jim turned away from the heartbreaking sight. Even as he crawled back under the covers, his mind was churning, developing the plan which, until this night, had lain dormant in the darkest recesses of his imagination.
Enough! Blair knew he was making a huge sacrifice, but this is too much. Even if he can bear it, somehow, I can't. It's
time to do something.
Two days later...
Jim Ellison stared at the vacant eyes of the cameras and took a deep breath. He had faced enemy fire in hostile territory. Countless times, he had braved attacks from the worst that humanity could offer. He had survived alone in the jungles of Peru. But none of those dangers had ever conjured the churning fear he now felt deep in his gut. Without a doubt, this was the hardest task the Cascade detective had faced in his entire life.
Harshly, Jim spoke silently to his inner fear, willing the demons to remain at bay. If Blair could face this, give up everything he'd lived his entire life for, then you can do this, too. For him, you can do this. You must do this! Picturing his friend's haggard face before him and mentally steeling himself, Jim began to speak.
Simon Banks yelled into the bullpen, "Sandburg! Get in here! Now! Taggart, H., Rafe! On the double! Move!"
Blair was already halfway across the room to Simon's office before the captain finished barking his commands. His face set in fear, and his voice shaking from the tension, Blair grabbed Simon's arm, gripping it desperately. "It's Jim, isn't it, Simon? Is he hurt? Oh, man, I knew he'd been acting weird; I never should have let him go out today without me. How bad is...?"
Shaking off Sandburg's iron clasp around his bicep, Simon interrupted impatiently, "Shut up, Sandburg and look at the television!"
The group of detectives gathered around, their rapt faces glued in amazement to the screen as Jim Ellison stood at the podium, looking around at the sea of strange faces before him.
Blair turned to Simon, his shocked blue eyes reflecting his confusion. "He's at the university. What's going on, Simon? What's Jim doing...?"
At Banks' shrug, Blair focused his attention back on the set as his sentinel started to speak.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I appreciate your gathering here today to listen to what I have to say. It is my hope that with what I tell you now, a grave injustice will be righted. A little over four weeks ago, my best friend and partner, Blair Sandburg, stood before you and confessed that his Rainier University doctoral dissertation, "The Sentinel," was a fraud. Blair claimed that all the media attention surrounding me was for nothing, that I was not a sentinel."
Realization dawning at last, Blair bolted toward the door, "No, Jim! Please, don't do this!" Simon laid a comforting hand on the young man's shoulder. Blair glanced at him with wide, pleading eyes. "We gotta stop him, Simon! He can't..."
Simon shook his head and frowned, gently guiding the younger man back into the office. "Too late, Sandburg..."
Helplessly, Blair sank down into a chair and stared at the image on the screen.
"Blair took all the responsibility for the inadvertent release of his dissertation and the chaos which followed onto his own shoulders. Since that day, he has lived with the consequences, accepted them as if the fault was totally his own. Blair Sandburg has taken the verbal abuse; he's weathered people he once considered his friends giving him the cold shoulder, and he has survived the administration of this university throwing him out of the school to which he has devoted so much of his life, since he was just a teenager."
"His life is in shambles and his reputation destroyed. Blair did this to give my life, my anonymity, back to me. But the sacrifice has become too great for me to accept, and I will not allow it to continue. I will not let this city, this university, or the Cascade Police Department continue to think of Blair Sandburg as a fraud, as a liar, or as a coward, when nothing, absolutely nothing could be further from the truth."
Jim looked straight into the camera, and Blair could see him bracing himself for the words to come. His steely blue eyes had that all too familiar, patented James Ellison look of determination, as if he had held what he needed to say inside long enough, and that the charade was ending here and now. "No, Jim," Blair begged under his breath. "Please... "
"Blair did not falsify the data in his dissertation. He would never stoop to such disgraceful tactics. He didn't need to. He gathered his data honestly and methodically over the past four years. The data was not wrong, and neither was his interpretation of it. I do possess heightened senses, but in no way am I the superman the media tried to make me out to be. These senses have been valuable in my work as a detective, but I was a good detective before my enhanced senses appeared, and I will continue to be a good detective when they are gone."
Blair felt Simon's hand tighten on his shoulder, and he glanced up at him in confusion. The tension in the captain's office was thick, and the men gathered there stood in silence, staring at the figure of their friend on the screen. Rafe glanced knowingly at Brown who looked at him and shrugged.
"Blair felt it was his responsibility to put an end to the fiasco which erupted after the premature release of his dissertation last month. Yes, Blair Sandburg lied, but not in his thesis. His findings were truthful. The lie was that he intentionally committed fraud when he called me a sentinel in his dissertation. He did not lie in what he wrote. He lied at that news conference in order to protect me"
"However, Blair did make a mistake. He truly believed that I deserved to be called a sentinel. I feel that conclusion was in error. I do not deserve the title of sentinel, a warrior of honor who protects those closest to him, his tribe, at all costs. The man standing before you today has not earned the title of sentinel. Yes, I possess the heightened senses, but I did not behave in an honorable way, in the way in which a true sentinel would, when Blair's research was made public. I failed to protect him, and that is my most important responsibility as his sentinel."
"A very wise shaman once told me that a sentinel remains as sentinel as long as he chooses that path. I no longer choose to walk that path. I am giving up the gift I was given in the hopes that Blair and I can once again reclaim normal lives. To accomplish this goal, I am taking an extended leave of absence from the Cascade Police Department. I would ask that the press and the public would respect my desire to lead a private life and honor my request that this matter be resolved here and now."
Jim shuffled his notes, then stared directly at Chancellor Edwards with his determined steel blue eyes. "It is my hope that Rainier University will find Blair Sandburg blameless in this entire matter and reinstate him to its doctoral program in anthropology. He has served this institution well for many years, and he deserves to complete his degree. Blair has enough information to complete a second, totally unrelated dissertation. I ask that he be given the opportunity to complete that research and submit it to his committee in lieu of the sentinel dissertation which, by the way, was never officially submitted to them at all. I state again for the record - Blair Sandburg is not a fraud. Please don't make him pay such a great price for having the courage to put friendship above his own happiness. Thank you." With a final, challenging stare at the faculty gathered on the stage, Jim turned and left the room.
Chancellor Edwards moved stiffly to the podium. Adjusting the microphone, she addressed the murmuring crowd. "Ladies and gentlemen. What you have just heard has come as a total surprise to us all. I have nothing to say other than that the university graduate school faculty and Board of Regents will be evaluating the situation over the next several days. We will carefully study all facts in this case, and we will reach a decision which will be fair to Mr. Sandburg while upholding the reputation of this institution. Thank you for your time."
Simon pointed the remote control and clicked off the set. Before anyone could find the words to speak, Blair Sandburg grabbed
his jacket and rushed out the door to find his partner.
"Damn it, Jim! Where are you?" Blair pounded the steering wheel of the old Volvo in frustration. Three hours after leaving an empty loft on his fruitless search for Jim Ellison, Blair was no closer to locating his friend than when he left the police station. He had checked all of the likely spots - the park where Jim liked to walk, restaurants where he might have stopped for a bite to eat, the docks down by the bay, and the track where he often went to run. No sign of Jim.
Now, Blair had to admit, he was out of ideas. Jim was a creature of habit, but now, it seemed he was breaking new ground. What worried Blair most was that he had been unable to figure Jim out this time.
At least, so far. He wasn't willing to give up just yet.
The afternoon sun was beginning to drop noticeably lower in the late autumn sky, but there were several hours of daylight left. There had to be some place he hadn't considered, somewhere Jim might head when he needed space to think. Someplace he'd feel comfortable, somewhere he could get in touch with his feelings, with his sentinel self... If indeed there was a sentinel remaining.
Suddenly, the answer became clear. Of course! Blair grinned as he turned the Volvo into a deserted parking lot and whipped the small car around to head back in the opposite direction. Why hadn't he thought of it before?
Less than half an hour later, Blair parked his car beside Jim's truck, then he paid his admission to the Cascade Botanical Gardens. Without hesitation, he headed at a jog toward the tropical rainforest exhibit. The gardens closed in only an hour, and the crowds had already begun to thin out. As he entered the huge greenhouse, he passed only a few small groups of visitors, and the deeper he went into the lush vegetation, the sparser the people became. Blair was thankful. He had no desire to see Jim with anyone else around, especially a bunch of strangers.
The rainforest exhibit had been designed to recreate a tropical jungle in the heart of Cascade. Blair had first brought Jim there to run a series of tests on his senses designed to determine if being back in the environment which had triggered his sentinel senses to begin with would affect their strength. Immediately, the young anthropologist could tell that Jim felt connected to the recreation. Almost instantly, he became calmer, more centered, as if being back in the rainforest had brought the sentinel to the forefront, replacing the stressed police detective Jim had been when he'd entered the gardens. After that day, they had returned regularly, not for more tests, but just to stroll the winding paths, to relax beside the musical streams, and be together in the peaceful surroundings. The gardens echoed in Jim's soul the place where it had all begun, the place where the sentinel was born. It was only natural he would return here on the day he had sacrificed who he was, what he was, in order to save Blair Sandburg.
Blair found Jim alone. He knew his friend had heard him, had smelled his scent, long before he actually approached, but the big detective gave no indication that he was aware of Blair's presence. The sentinel was sitting on a bench beside the path that led beside a small, tumbling waterfall. The branches of a kapok tree sheltered him from sight, and Blair might have missed seeing him entirely, if he had not known this was one of Jim's favorite spots in the garden. Above their heads, tropical birds squawked busily, and flashes of bright butterfly wings darted past.
Blair eased down beside Jim, not looking at his friend, but watching the waters of the falls as they splashed on the rocks below. It was cooler beside the stream than in the rest of the humid garden, and he felt a slight chill touch his bones. Long minutes passed with only the sound of the birds and the water to break the silence. Then, as if reading each other's thoughts, both men turned at the same moment to look at each other. Light blue eyes met indigo and held, assessing, evaluating what was found in the familiar depths. No words were possible. Not yet.
The gaze held, without spoken words, but communicating just the same. At last, unable to tolerate the silence any longer, Blair spoke. "Why?"
One simple word, bearing with it the weight of their universe.
Jim's eyes never left Blair's; his voice never faltered. "Because it was the truth, and it was time it came out. It had come to the point where I couldn't look in the mirror anymore because I was too ashamed to even look myself in the eye. I couldn't live like that, Blair."
It was Blair who tore his gaze away first. He jumped up from the bench and paced over to the creek, then back again, sitting once more at Jim's side. His struggle to remain calm was obvious, but the underlying anxiety came through clearly in his clenched fists and stiff expression. "But it was all settled, Jim! The heat was off you, and I was heading to the academy. Everything was fine, and now..."
"No, Sandburg, everything was not fine! Nothing was ever going to be fine again, at least not between us, if I had allowed the world to go on believing that you are a fraud. Your word would always be in doubt, Chief, whether on the witness stand in court or just working cases with other officers. That doubt would always be in the backs of their minds. I can just hear them now...Can we believe what this man says? He lied about his dissertation, you know. Admitted that he committed fraud. Can we trust him?"
Jim turned on the bench and grasped Blair's shoulders firmly. "I heard the message on the machine, Chief. They ordered you to clear out your office, return all the university artifacts, everything; they acted like you were going to steal away in the middle of the night with their precious artifacts! I saw you bring those boxes back from your office at the university and hide them in the basement, and I saw the pain on your face as you did it." Jim ignored the look of pain written all over Sandburg's face and ploughed on. This had to be said. He had to make Sandburg understand. "Blair, I saw those damn professors turn their backs on you in the restaurant last week. They looked like it was beneath their dignity to even notice you, as if they'd be tainted by merely acknowledging your existence." He took a deep, shuddering breath. "Those shadows would always hang over you, always be there to cloud your life, Blair. I couldn't let that happen."
"But, Jim, it was my choice, man! I was responsible for what I wrote in my dissertation. My words caused you to become a public spectacle; my words destroyed your privacy and would have destroyed your career. So it became my responsibility to get you out of it."
Jim shook his head adamantly in disagreement. "Not at that cost, Chief! Some of this is my responsibility, too, you know. I agreed to your using me as your research subject in the first place. I'm not stupid; I knew the truth would have to come out eventually, if you ever hoped to get your degree." Jim shook his head and shrugged his shoulders in frustration. "As much as I hate to admit this, I was going to use you, Sandburg. At first, I guess I figured I'd let you help me with my senses, then, when I had that control we were always talking about, I'd thank you and politely suggest that you find yourself another research subject."
He didn't need sentinel sight to see all too clearly the hurt that clouded the intense blue eyes looking up at him. His voice tight with pain, Blair asked quietly, "So what happened to that plan, Jim?"
Jim smiled, a tight, ironic smile, but his voice rose as he spoke. "I didn't plan on my own emotions betraying me. As methodical, as logical a man as I am, I never even considered the possibility that I'd grow to care about you this much. Dammit, I didn't plan on loving you, Blair! " His tone softened as he chuckled. "Kinda shot my selfish plan all to hell, y'know?"
Releasing a deep breath, he continued. "Anyway, even later on, if I hadn't been such a stubborn fool and had talked with you about your dissertation, we might have avoided the whole situation. Even if it had all come out the way it did, if I hadn't blamed you, hadn't shut you out, we might have thought of a different solution together. As it was, I left you all alone and hurting to make the choice between your career and our friendship." Jim squeezed the slim shoulders, and his next words were filled with emotion. "I did not have the right to force you to make that choice. But I did, and just look at what happened. You destroyed your career for me, and the consequences of that have been unacceptable."
Jim took a deep breath before continuing, reaching around with one hand to cup the back of Blair's neck under the thick curls. "I realized something a few days ago, Chief. I was up in my room late at night when I saw you looking at all your artifacts on display in the loft. You looked so longingly at each one, touching them, remembering all the memories tied up in every object. Then you packed them all away. It was as if you were packing away all your dreams, your hopes. You didn't know I was watching, but it made me realize that eventually you would grow to resent the choice you made. You would grow to resent me, because I was the reason the choice had to be made."
Blair started to object, but Jim shook his head. "Let me finish. Long speeches aren't my passion, you know, and I'm on a roll here, so don't interrupt. You are too important, Chief, for me to let anything come between us again. I've learned my lesson. The sentinel protects the tribe, right? Well, you are the most important member of my tribe, kid, but protecting you means more than making sure you don't get hurt physically. It means putting you first in my life and in my heart. "
Blair pulled away to stare at the ground, unable to meet Jim's eyes, uncertain if he could handle the raw emotion in the sentinel's face. He complained about Jim being too reserved, keeping too much bottled up inside, but when the man did let go of his emotions, it was one hell of a ride.
"Look at me, Chief." When Blair didn't comply, a frustrated growl rumbled in the sentinel's throat. His guide wasn't making this easy for him. With one hand on Blair's shoulder and the other gently cupping his chin, he slowly lifted his face toward him. "Look at me," he commanded in a soft whisper.
This time, Blair didn't look away.
"Nothing will ever mean more to me than what you did at that press conference, Blair. What I did today in no way lessens the sacrifice you made. I'm not always the greatest with all the emotional stuff, Sandburg, I know that, but I do understand one thing. Nobody has ever loved me the way you do. Nobody else in my entire life would have done for me what you did when you stood before the world and called yourself a fraud. And I know one other thing, Chief. I love you too much to let it stand. This way, you get your life back. If the university has any sense at all, any honor, they'll readmit you. You can write your dissertation on closed societies and graduate with your degree. Simon'll work out a permanent civilian position for you, and life will go on."
Blair drew a deep, quivering breath. "But you said you're giving it up; you're turning your back on your sentinel senses." Jim face was all too serious as he reached up to brush back a strand of long curls from his partner's face before turning away from him to gaze at the hypnotic waters falling across the path. "That's what I plan to do, Chief. At least for awhile. I need to get away from Cascade, do some serious thinking about where my life is heading, what kind of man I am. What kind of person I must be to put you through all I have recently. I need to figure out who Jim Ellison, the man, is, before I can cope with who Jim Ellison, the sentinel, ought to be."
His deep blue eyes swimming in tears, Blair brushed his fingers across Jim's jaw, letting them linger against his cheek, and the older man turned once again to face him, his expression uncertain. "In all my research, I never found it written that sentinels are perfect, Jim. You've made some mistakes. So have I. But you do deserve that title. You are the embodiment of everything a sentinel should be. A very human sentinel, but a sentinel just the same. You can't separate Jim Ellison, the man, from Jim Ellison, the sentinel. It's all you, Jim. You were born to be the sentinel, born to do the things only you can do. Please don't deny that. It hurts too much. Promise?"
Intently, Blair studied Jim's face, probing the expression in his crystal blue eyes, seeing through to his very soul, as he searched for the answer he needed. For Jim to deny his abilities was for him to deny all they had accomplished, to negate all Blair believed in so strongly, so desperately. He needed to know that Jim accepted who he was, what he was, needed to know that his partner accepted himself, flaws and all, as the Sentinel of the Great City, and in doing so, accepted Blair as his Guide and Shaman. If Blair was never able to trust in anything else as long as he lived, he had to be able to trust in that. To doubt it was to doubt his very purpose, the reason for his own existence.
Jim reached up and covered the hand resting against his cheek with his own. A slight smile reached his eyes. "I haven't tried to deny what I am for a long time now, Chief. How could I? But I don't think I've quite accepted it either. I just don't think I'm the most deserving person to have been given these gifts, that's all. Maybe it's best if I put it all aside for awhile."
"That's all a matter of perception, Jim, and your guide doesn't happen to see things the same way. Do you think I'd still be here if I didn't think you're exactly what a sentinel should be? I'm here, Jim, and I'm not going anywhere. I believe in you, man, even when you don't believe in yourself. Just like you believe in me, even when I have my doubts. That's what friends are for, right?" He waited, hoping, praying, that his sentinel would understand what he was trying to say.
Looking steadily into Blair's eyes, Jim was silent. How could Sandburg believ e so deeply in him when he had so many doubts about himself? "Blair," he answered at last. "I just can't right now. I need to get away, to have some time to myself. So much has happened over the past few years, and it's all been so fast that I feel I haven't had time to take it all in, you know? Please..." He stopped and took a deep breath. "Please understand that this has nothing to do with you." He shook his head. "No, that's not right either. It has everything to do with you, but not in any kind of negative way. Does that make sense? When I went up to the lake last year to get away for awhile alone, I know it hurt your feelings. So this time, I want to avoid that mistake. I'm just asking you to understand that I need a little time to myself. Not because I'm tired of you, or annoyed, or anything like that. I just need some time, okay?"
"Without your senses?" The question was quiet, but intensely serious.
"Yes, without my senses. Right now, Chief, all I can see is the trouble these damn senses have brought recently. Alex, the fights we had over your dissertation... I need to leave them behind for awhile. Live just as Jim Ellison for a time. Can you understand that?"
"Honestly? No. I don't see how leaving behind part of who you are can help you make peace, Jim, but if you feel that strongly about it, then I guess you do what you have to do." Blair picked up a leaf from the path and began shredding it, staring at the pieces as they floated to the ground. "How long will you be gone?"
Jim reached over and wrapped an arm around Blair's shoulders, pulling him close. "I don't know. Until it feels right to come home, I guess. Speaking of which, what do you say we grab some dinner and go back to the loft? I don't know about you, but I'm starved." He looked over at Sandburg, ducking his head to peer up at Blair's downturned face, halfway hidden by his hair. "Hey, buddy. It's gonna be okay. I promise."
What if it never feels right, Jim? What if you never come back? What will I do then, huh? Forcing the fearful thoughts whirling about in his mind away, Blair looked up and forced a smile. He could almost feel Jim slipping away from him. Again. "Sure, Jim. Whatever you say."
They left the gardens, Jim's arm still draped over Blair's shoulders.
When Blair woke up the next morning, the loft was empty. Even before he got out of bed, the heavy feeling of dread deep in his chest told him the truth. Jim was gone.
The note left on the kitchen table only confirmed what he already knew.
I know you didn't expect this so soon, but I figured it might be easier this way. No long good-byes and all. Call Chancellor Edwards. She's expecting to hear from you. The door is open now, Blair. All you have to do is walk through it.
The safe deposit box key is in my desk drawer. You're on the signature card, so there should be no problem with your getting access. There's money there for rent, food, and utilities, enough to last until I get back. Take what you need.
I'll be in touch. Don't worry. Everything's going to be okay.
Blair stood still, rereading the brief note. Short and to the point. That was just like Jim. Leave instructions for him to follow, assuming that Blair would do exactly as he said, then take off for parts unknown. Then again, hadn't Jim earned the right to expect him to walk through the door he'd opened for him? Hadn't they both paid for that opened door with their souls?
Blair picked up the phone and dialed the university. "Dr. Edwards' office, please."
For three days, Jim Ellison did nothing but drive. When his eyes grew too weary to watch the road, he pulled over and slept, taking short, restless, disturbed naps which did nothing to refresh him. His dreams were haunted, filled with images from the past...the crash in Peru, the faces of victims he had been too late to help, and Blair's eyes. Always Blair's eyes...sometimes laughing, but more often filled with fear, with pain, or perhaps worst of all, those tear filled blue eyes which stared into the television cameras at that damned press conference. Blair's sad eyes filled his dreams and tore at his heart.
Exhausted in mind, body, and spirit, Jim sat up from a short nap taken in a rest area beside the interstate. He rubbed his neck, trying to relieve the cramped muscles. Opening the door of the pick up, he glanced around. It was late in the evening, and the small rest stop was filled with travelers on their way to their destinations. He stumbled a step as he headed toward the bathrooms.
Inside, Jim stared at his own reflection in the mirror. A three day stubble covered his face, which surprised him. He had shaved, hadn't he? His face appeared gaunt, as if he had lost weight quickly. When was the last time he had eaten? His eyes were rimmed with red, and they seemed oddly unfamiliar as he gazed into their depths. He barely recognized himself. Suddenly, Jim knew that he had to find a place to stop, find a place of safety to rest, and to figure out what the hell he was doing...then, now, and for the rest of his life. But he had nowhere to go, nowhere to seek refuge.
The solution seemed simple, workable. Splashing water on his face and washing up as best he could, Jim left the restroom. Back in the truck, he drove toward the one place he knew where he could find safety and undisturbed peace. The one place Blair had taught him would never refuse his request for shelter.
The knock sounded on the heavy wooden door shortly after midnight. Insistently, the pounding continued for several minutes before the hinges creaked and the door opened to reveal the sleepy eyes of Brother Jeremy, the abbot of St. Sebastian's Monastery. Recognizing the tired face before him, his eyes widened in surprise. "Brother Jim! What brings you here at this hour? Never mind, just come in, come in." Standing aside, he ushered Jim into the monastery, taking his duffel bag from him as he entered.
Brother Jeremy quickly assessed the appearance of the weary man standing before him. James Ellison looked exhausted, worn out in body and spirit. A man of the church, Jeremy recognized the empty look of the eyes when the soul is lost. That look was written all over Jim's face. "It's good that you are here, Brother Jim. You need to rest, and I assure you that this place is normally much quieter than you found it on your first visit." He smiled at Jim and gestured toward the long hall. "The cell you and Blair occupied before is available. Come. We can talk in the morning."
Thankful to be spared the questions he had fully expected, Jim followed the monk down the narrow hallway and to a place where he could rest.
Simon Banks looked up at the sound of the rapping on his office door. "Come in," he commanded, slightly annoyed at the distraction as he ploughed through the burgeoning files on his desk.
"Simon?" Blair's hesitant voice immediately focused Simon's attention on his visitor. "Do you have a minute?"
Knowing already what Blair wanted to discuss and dreading the conversation, Simon nodded toward the chairs arranged in front of his desk. "Have a seat, Sandburg."
Blair leaned back in one of the chairs, studying Simon's face. "You already know Jim's gone?"
Simon sighed and took off his glasses as he gestured to an envelope lying on top of a stack of papers. "Yeah. He left this on my desk. A letter requesting a leave of absence of unspecified length. In a note he jotted just for me, he said that if the brass balked at the leave, to consider him resigned from the force."
"Was that all the note said?"
A hesitant pause preceded Simon's answer. "No. He asked me to keep an eye on you, make sure you go back to Rainier. You are going back, aren't you?"
Blair nodded. "I talked to Chancellor Edwards yesterday in her office. They readmitted me. Of course, they made it perfectly clear that they want to hear the sentinel dissertation, not the one on closed societies. I think they smell big research bucks in the future and a lot of positive press for the department. I don't know yet what I'll do about publishing my findings as a book, if that offer even still stands. I can't do anything about that without talking to Jim. Right now, at least I'm back at Rainier. Jim called every member of the board of regents and the graduate faculty in my department . I don't know what he said or what he threatened them with, but it definitely made an impression. They were all extremely polite to me. Can't afford to alienate the goose that might lay the golden egg, I guess."
Simon smiled in relief. "That's all good, kid. Really good. Jim will be pleased."
Blair shrugged and picked at a thread on his jeans. "I guess."
"What do you mean, you guess? You know why Jim revealed his secret, Sandburg. To get your career back for you. I saw it eating away at him every day since your press conference. He just couldn't live with what it did to you. You're a great partner for Jim, kid, and a damn good investigator. I promise that when you're through with your degree, we'll have a job for you here. As Jim's partner. But you were never meant to be a cop, Sandburg. You know that, and Jim knows it, too."
Blair's voice was soft. "Then why...? Why did you two make that academy offer if you knew I shouldn't be a cop?"
"Damn it, Sandburg! To be so brilliant, you can be so dense sometimes!" Simon's irritable tone grew calmer. "Because Jim was desperate, that's why."
Blair looked up, confused. Simon chuckled at the look on his face. "I don't even pretend to understand all this sentinel hocus pocus, Sandburg, but I do understand one thing. Jim Ellison needs you. I think he's only beginning to understand how much. When he thought you'd drowned that morning..." Simon's face grew serious and his eyes misted over at the memory. "I thought we'd lose Jim, too, Blair. He loves you, but even more than that, he needs you, and he depends on you. He would have tried anything to keep you here, to keep you as his partner, even trying to convince himself that you'd be happy as a real cop."
Simon got up and walked around to sit next to Blair. "Sandburg, if Jim needs some time to get his head together right now, please be patient with him. He's not running out on you. He wouldn't, he couldn't, do that. Not now, not ever. Jim will be back. Believe it."
Slowly, Blair raised his eyes to look at Simon and nodded. "Yeah. I know." He stood and handed something out toward the captain. "Guess you'll be wanting this."
Simon took Blair's observer credentials and tossed them onto his desk. "Just until Jim comes home, okay? For now, you need to concentrate on finishing that degree. You'll get them back, don't worry."
Blair grinned, a slightly sad, tired smile. "What, Simon? Me, worry?" He headed out the door. "I'll see you around, okay?"
Simon looked at him, surprised by the wetness of his eyes. "I'll give you a call in a few days. Take care, Sandburg."
A couple of hours later, Simon answered his phone, cursing under his breath at being interrupted yet again. At the sound of the voice on the other end, however, he immediately snapped to attention, even thought he was alone in his office. Old habits die hard. Especially when the police commissioner is on the line.
"Yes, sir. I realize that, sir. Jim Ellison did keep his abilities concealed from the department, but I assure you that he never hesitated to use those abilities for the good of this city." Simon paused, listening.
"You're right, sir, I did know. Detective Ellison confided in me almost from the beginning, but..."
"I know... Yes, sir, I know I should have said something, but..."
"Sir, the man's entire life was at stake. Jim felt, and I agreed, that at the time, secrecy about his sentinel abilities was the safest option. You see, sir, he didn't have much control over them at first, and..."
"Yes, sir, that's where Sandburg came in. I know I reported that he was an observer here to conduct research for his dissertation, and that was true, sir. It's just that the research was about sentinels, not closed societies."
"Sir, Blair Sandburg's role in this was pivotal. I assure you that Detective Ellison could not have survived his first year as a sentinel without Sandburg. His assistance has continued to be invaluable to Jim Ellison and to this department."
"No, he's not a cop, sir, and he really doesn't want to become one, but his place is here. He is Jim's partner, sir, the only one Ellison will work with, the only one he can work with."
"May I speak candidly, sir? Jim Ellison is the most valuable detective in this country, thanks in part to his abilities, but also because he is a totally dedicated police officer. This city needs him, sir, but it needs him to be his best. For Jim to be at his peak, for him to perform to his utmost ability, he needs Blair Sandburg. He can operate without him there constantly, of course, but..." Simon hesitated as he struggled for the right words. "This is hard to explain, sir. Blair is Jim's bedrock, the underlying stability that keeps him steady and strong. As long as Jim knows Blair is there for him, he is absolutely amazing. I've seen him in action, sir, and it beats anything I've ever seen. But his partner is essential to him. Take away Blair Sandburg, and you've taken away the best of Jim Ellison."
"Yes, sir. I appreciate your understanding and patience in this matter. I assure you that Ellison will be back, and that you will not regret this decision. Thank you, sir."
Simon hung up the phone with a deep, relieved sigh. He'd saved Jim's skin...for now. He only hoped Jim would show up soon to
prove to the commissioner that Simon had not been wrong.
Morning light was pouring through the uncurtained window in the sparsely furnished cell when Jim awoke. Disoriented, he glanced around at his surroundings, struggling to remember where he was. The singing of birds outside his window, the sound of raking in the nearby garden, and the quiet thud of footsteps padding down the hall refreshed his memory.
By the time he had showered and changed into fresh jeans and shirt, it was mid-morning. Not yet ready to face the brothers, Jim slipped out and walked toward the creek which flowed near the main building of the monastery. He sat beneath a tree and picked up a handful of stones, regarding them carefully.
He saw only the surface colors and the most obvious details. His sensory awareness was normal. He tried to extend his hearing, to listen to the rustling of the leaves in the highest branches of a tree far in the distance. Nothing. Bending down, he cupped his hand to taste the creek water, waiting for the myriad of flavors to come to life in his mouth. The simple, plain taste of fresh water was all he discovered.
His path was chosen. He was no longer the sentinel.
It felt strange, being without his enhanced senses. He wasn't sure how he had banished them, but they were gone. The morning he'd left the loft, quietly closing the door behind him so he wouldn't awaken Sandburg, they'd disappeared. It was as though in leaving Blair, he'd left that part of himself behind as well. Until now, he had chosen not to focus on their absence. His mind had been too full of confusing thoughts, regrets, and fears to miss the lack of familiar sensory input. Now, however, this place of peace which once would have been filled with tastes, sounds, colors, and textures seemed vacant and dull. He shook off the feeling of unease. This was what he had chosen. He would adjust.
He felt lingering guilt about not saying good-bye to Blair. But the thought of looking into those sad blue eyes as he turned to leave had been too much. So he had taken the easy way out. Again. Just like you always do, Ellison, he thought bitterly. So it hurts Sandburg. So what? At least your heart is safe, right? Isn't that all that matters?
Angrily, he chunked a stone into the creek, and a part of him marveled that he could barely hear the plunk.
He was startled by the voice from behind him. "So, you're a sentinel."
He turned abruptly to see Brother Jeremy smiling down at him. The monk slowly lowered himself to the earth beside Jim and waited for his answer.
"How did you know?"
Jeremy smiled. "My nephew comes to see me twice a month. He met Blair here once, and when he saw you on television, he told me about your press conference. About both press conferences actually."
Jim grimaced. "It hasn't been a good year, I'm afraid."
The monk nodded in understanding. "Blair has spoken to me of the fountain and of the reason he left the university. Are these things what brought you here?"
He looked at the older man for a few moments. On their last visit here, Jim's first trip to St. Sebastian's, he had not warmed up to Brother Jeremy at first. By the time they left, he had a grudging respect for the abbot. Jeremy was a dedicated man with the best interests of his small flock of brothers at heart. In the end, although he had pledged himself to a life of nonviolence, he had saved Jim's life and Blair's. That earned him the respect of Jim Ellison. He was a man to be trusted.
"I'm not really sure why I'm here. I..." Jim struggled for the words. "I just couldn't stay in Cascade, not with all the media attention. It felt... I felt like I was suffocating, like the city was closing in around me, and I had to escape. I figured that maybe if I stayed away long enough, everyone would forget all that's happened, and I could come home. I could get my life back again. If I still want it."
Brother Jeremy gazed out at the bubbling water. "You are welcome here, Brother Jim, for as long as you need to stay. Does Blair know where you are or have you left him behind as well?"
A sharp pain stabbed Jim's heart at the mere thought of leaving his friend behind. "He..." Jim stopped himself before the excuse he'd concocted slipped out. Brother Jeremy had welcomed him here. He deserved an honest answer. "No, I didn't tell him. I didn't even know where I was going for the first few days I was gone. He'll be better off on his own for awhile. They'll take him back at Rainier now. He can get on with his studies. Rebuild the life he was supposed to have. He doesn't know where I am, and I'm asking you not to tell him. I think we both need this time to reassess, to figure out where we go from here."
"You are asking for sanctuary, Brother, and I grant that willingly. One question. If you have these enhanced senses, why didn't you hear me approaching? You seemed startled when I spoke."
Jim was quiet for long moments. "I gave them up. For now, at least. Until I figure out who I am without them. Then, maybe I'll believe I can handle them again."
Brother Jeremy nodded. "You've missed breakfast, but I believe I can find some leftovers in the kitchen. It looks like you could use some nourishment for the body as well as for the soul."
Jim slowly rose to his feet and followed Brother Jeremy back towards the tidy white and blue buildings of the monastery. Breakfast. For the first time in days, he felt hungry. It was a start.
That evening Jim phoned Blair. Brother Jeremy allowed him to use the telephone in his office, after once again collecting Jim's cell phone and gun, this time with a smile. They both remembered the last time Jim's weapon and gun had been taken from him at St. Sebastian's and how he had resisted having those symbols of his identity taken from him. This time, however, Ellison did not protest. Somehow, he knew that there would be no need for either on this visit, and they no longer seemed as important.
Tactfully, Brother Jeremy left Jim alone for his conversation. The phone was picked up on the first ring.
"Hello?" The familiar voice sang through the wires, resonant, warm, and tinged with hope.
"Hey, Chief." Although his heart lightened at the sound of Blair's voice, Jim suddenly realized that for the first time, he was unsure of what to say to Sandburg.
"Jim! Where are you? Man, I've been worried about you. Is everything all right?" Blair's voice held a mixture of concern and frustration, as if he'd been waiting forever for this one phone call from Jim.
Ellison briefly closed his eyes. How could he explain what he didn't truly understand yet himself? "I'm fine, Blair. I've found a place to...to rest...for awhile. Sorry I didn't call sooner."
There was a long silence on the other end. "You're not gonna tell me, are you? You're not gonna tell me where you are."
Ellison winced. This was not going well. "Is it that important? I'm all right, Blair, I promise you that. Don't worry, okay?"
The young man chose to ignore the questions. With a soft sigh, he asked, "Do you know when you'll come home?" The unspoken if rang clearly in his voice.
"I'm not sure yet, Chief. It'll probably be awhile. I'll call you, though. Is everything all right there? Are you back at Rainier?"
"Yeah, everything's fine. They readmitted me, just like you figured. You must have done some heavy duty threatening or something, man. I've never seen the faculty so cooperative. Not Chancellor Edwards, of course. That woman has it in for me, man. The press hung around the loft for a couple of days, but after they figured out you were really gone, they left. It's been really quiet around here. Too quiet. I'm making progress on my dissertation; my committee accepted my alternate proposal with no problems. If all goes well, I'll finish at the end of second semester in June." Finally running out of breath, Sandburg paused. "It gets even better, Jim. The anthropology department has offered me a part time position as assistant professor. They'd like to have me full time, I think, but the funding's just not there right now." J
im couldn't keep the relief from his voice. At least one of them had his life back on track. "That's great, Blair. Really. I knew you could do it, if they'd just give you the chance. So everything's back to normal."
"No, Jim, everything's not back to normal, man!" Blair's outraged voice cut through the line. "How can everything be normal when you're not here? I mean, here I am, living in your home, using your money to survive, and you're not anywhere to be found! What's normal about that, Jim?"
Ignoring the other comments, Jim focused on the words which cut him the most. "It's your home, too, Blair," Jim's soft voice responded. "Isn't it?"
A quiet sigh whispered into his ear. "Of course it is," Blair whispered. "But it's not the same, man, when you're not here. You are coming back, aren't you, Jim?" The desperation in his voice touched Jim's heart.
"I'll be back, Chief, I promise. I just can't tell you when. Just not yet." He took a deep breath, unsure of how to phrase something so complicated. "Blair, it's important to me that when I come back, I come back whole, healed. So much has happened to us this past year, Chief, and I'm not very proud of the way I handled it. Not at all. If I can't make some peace with myself, come to an understanding of who I am and why I behaved the way I did, then..." Jim stopped, gathering his courage. "Then I won't be the kind of friend, the kind of partner and sentinel that you deserve. I'll just keep on making the same mistakes, causing you the same pain, over and over again. I couldn't handle that, Blair. I won't be the source of your pain, of your unhappiness. I never want to come as close to losing you as I have this year. Twice."
He heard the anguish in Blair's voice as clearly as if he had been in the same room. "You're not the source of my pain, Jim. You've hurt me, I can't deny that, but there's been a lot more happiness than sorrow. Please believe that."
Jim felt his throat constrict with emotion. That was Sandburg, always focusing on the positive. Except this time, he couldn't be convinced that all was well. He'd seen too much evidence to the contrary. "Thanks, Chief, but I just don't see it that way right now. Give me time, okay? Let me work through this, and I promise you that when I come home, we'll be able to have a new beginning. No more pain, at least not at my hands. I promise."
"You'll call me?" The small voice sounded lost and far too alone.
Jim forced a smile. "Yeah, Chief, I'll call. Take care of yourself."
"You, too. Jim? I miss you."
"Ditto, Chief. Get some rest tonight, okay?"
"Sure, Jim." Then, softly, the connection was broken. Jim held the receiver to his ear for several long moments, reluctant to completely break the connection to his guide. Then he replaced the receiver and went out for a long walk.
It didn't take long for Jim to fall into the long established routine of the monastery, and surprisingly, he discovered that he actually enjoyed each day. The simplicity of the life, filled with quiet contemplation combined with hard work, brought great satisfaction at the close of day. The monks welcomed his strength and discipline, and soon Jim found himself assigned to assist in a variety of different tasks, from helping to construct a new barn to working in the garden. A naturally quiet man himself, the lack of conversation did not bother him, and he took advantage of the time to think as he worked. Although the brothers didn't expect him to obey the customary time of silence each morning, Jim found himself falling into the routine as well. Strange, when I came here the first time, I was so cynical about this place. Brother Jeremy was right; I saw it as an anachronism, out of place in the modern world. Now, the peace, the acceptance, here was exactly what I needed. You were right again, Chief. How do you always know what's best for me, even when I'm too stubborn to see it for myself?
Almost unnoticed, the days slipped into weeks, the weeks into months.
He phoned Blair occasionally, but more and more, Jim found it difficult to explain to Sandburg why he was staying away, why he
didn't come home. He could hear the doubt and the hurt in Blair's voice each time they spoke. The time between phone calls grew
He talked with Brother Jeremy often, usually while they worked or at the end of the day while taking a stroll around the grounds of the peaceful monastery. The other members of the order had been welcoming and warm, but it was only to Brother Jeremy that Jim felt safe in confiding all that was troubling his heart.
"Have you found any of your answers?" the monk asked gently one evening as they walked through the garden. He bent to pluck a weed from one of the neatly tended rows of carrots.
Jim hesitated before replying. "Some. I realize now that the mistakes I've made in the past had a lot to do with how I was raised. My dad taught me too well not to depend on anyone, to be self sufficient, never to show my emotions. Of course, he was always a success at anything he attempted. Blair's done wonders with me, getting me to open up, to let him into my life and into my heart, but when I'm threatened..." Jim forced himself to continue, pushing back the pain caused by revealing his deepest weakness. "When I feel threatened, I revert back to the defensive, isolated man my father raised. That's no excuse, I know, but that much early training is hard to overcome sometimes. I've seen that all along, but I've just realized how often I tend to do it. I know I have to put a stop to it if I want to break the pattern I've created over the past year or so."
Brother Jeremy regarded him curiously. "Pattern?"
"It's not something I'm proud of, believe me. Too many times I've become defensive, and I withdraw, shutting Blair out. That's when things go from bad to worse. I've gotta learn to break that pattern if our friendship is to survive."
"Recognizing the problem's the first step to solving it, Brother Jim. You've taken that first step. What else have you learned?"
This time, there was no hesitation. "That I have to go back to Cascade, resume my work as a cop and as the sentinel. It's not just what I am, it's who I am. But as much as I want that, I'd give it all up if it meant I'd keep on hurting Blair. I can no longer tolerate the pain that I cause him. I need him, Brother Jeremy, but I can't hurt him any more, not like I have this past year. I won't. My God, I almost got him killed. No, that's wrong! He did die because I shut him out, because in my defensiveness, I turned him away. I'll never allow that to happen again. Even if... Even if I never see him again." He stopped, bending over to jerk out a weed, his frustration evident in the strength of the gesture. "It's so damn frustrating! I feel like the answer is so close, but I just can't grasp it. But until I know for certain that I understand how to make it stop... I won't go back."
Brother Jeremy placed a reassuring hand on Jim's arm. "You'll get there, Jim. I can see it in your eyes. You've almost found your answers. Be patient and the rest will become clear. Give it time."
By late spring, the barn was almost completed. Jim stood up from where he had been putting the final nails in the bottom boards of a stall, straightening his back slowly, feeling the pops and cracks as he stretched. Stepping outside into the sunshine, he regarded the structure before him - simple, sturdy, durable. Like the men who lived here, devoting their lives to a calling most could never comprehend.
"You have been a great help, Brother Jim."
Jim turned around to see Brother Jeremy standing behind him. It still felt strange to live with normal senses. Not to hear people approaching long before they came into sight. He'd thought he would be used to it now, after nearly four months without heightened senses, but somehow it always took him by surprise when he realized they were gone. He wiped the sweat from his brow with the edge of his t-shirt. "Thanks. I'd forgotten how satisfying manual labor can be."
Jeremy smiled. "Blair said much the same thing on his first visit here. We asked him to work tending our vegetable garden. He was very good at it. Extremely conscientious."
"That's Blair. He always gives one hundred percent." Jim looked up at the trees blowing gently in the breeze. He smiled softly at a memory. "Blair said once that he didn't think he'd be able to devote himself as completely to a cause, a belief, as you all have. He was so impressed with your sacrifices, your commitment. I have to admit, I'm impressed with your devotion as well. It's hard work, what you do here."
Brother Jeremy regarded him with interest. "Do you not recognize the irony of his statement, Brother Jim?"
Jim looked puzzled. "Irony? I'm not sure I understand."
"Let's walk for awhile." Without waiting for his response, Brother Jeremy led the way to the path which led through the woods, a trail the monks often used for solitary contemplation. After they'd gone a few hundred yards into the forest, Jeremy spoke again. "From what I understand, Blair has devoted himself to a cause, heart and soul. And he has made the sacrifices that accompany such commitment."
Understanding dawned in Jim's blue eyes. "You're talking about his commitment to me, aren't you?"
"His commitment to what the two of you are, together. Was he not willing to sacrifice everything he was, his very identity, in order to preserve your friendship, your partnership? That is really no different from what we have done. Given up our old lives in order to preserve what we have found here. To preserve our new and more fulfilling lives. That is exactly what he did, and you were willing to do the same, Brother Jim. You gave up your carefully guarded secret to preserve his honor and his reputation. You have devoted yourself to the same cause as well. Out of your concern and love for each other, you each have given up your own best interests for the good of the other. What higher calling could there be? What greater devotion?"
Jim pondered the truth of his statement. "Why has it been so hard, then, this past year? I've told you most of it already. Why can't it be easier? Why does it have to hurt so damn much? Why do I seem determined to destroy the best thing that's ever happened to me?" His desperate eyes pleaded for answers.
The monk walked silently for several minutes before speaking. "Tell me, Brother Jim. When in your life were you the most lost, the most frightened?"
Jim looked down at the path beneath their feet, studying the small pebbles and pine needles. His voice was soft and filled with pain, but the answer came without hesitation. "When I found Blair floating in that fountain. When I tried so hard to breathe life back into him, felt his cold lips, heard no heartbeat, and knew that he..." Jim's voice broke, and Brother Jeremy put a reassuring hand on his arm. "When I believed that I'd lost him forever."
"How did you feel, Brother?"
Jim stopped, a stabbing pain cutting through his heart at the mere mention of his feelings on that dark day. He realized that he'd tried to erase the memories of those terrifying moments when Blair lay dead on the ground, when he'd tried so desperately to bring his partner back to life, and failed. He'd concentrated instead on the victory which came moments later, when the wolf and jaguar merged, when Blair came back, coughing and sputtering, and Jim felt his own dead heart begin beating once more. He'd driven away the memory of the pain in favor of the joy.
"I felt... Oh, God, I felt as if I were going to die, too. I wanted to die. At that moment, it hurt so much that all I wanted was to follow Blair where ever he had gone. I didn't know I could experience so much pain and live."
Nodding wisely, Brother Jeremy asked, "And when have you felt the most alive, the most happy, Brother?"
Taking a deep breath, Jim released the painful memories. He thought for a few minutes before responding. "When things have been good. When my senses have been humming along, under control. When Blair and I have been...I don't know...connected, in synch, working together as one."
"And what has made the difference between the bad times and the good? What have you done differently?"
The realization was a lightning bolt ripping through his body. "I gave up control. I let Blair help me, let him be my guide, no questions asked. I accepted my senses, let them work through me, let them be me. I didn't fight them or him." He stopped, reaching for the truths which suddenly seemed just within reach. "I gave up trying to control him, stopped trying to deny what I am, what Blair is to me. I accepted it all, and everything came together. Then, when I tried to fight it again, to reestablish my own power and control, to...to do it alone...everything blew apart."
He turned to Brother Jeremy, his intent eyes seeking the confirmation of the truth which was dawning within him. "Is that the answer then? To let go? Can it be as simple as that? When so much has been damaged, if not completely lost? Can I rebuild all I've come so close to destroying?"
The monk's smile was reassuring. "Is giving up control really simple, James? To admit that we don't control our own destinies? That we need someone else to lean on, to depend on? As for what's been lost, only time will reveal the extent of that damage. I think you've made a very difficult discovery, and it will be hard for you to remember and follow the path you've found here today."
"Maybe," Jim said softly. "But that is exactly what I must do, isn't it?"
"If you want to be that which you were created to be, then yes, I do. If you can be content never to be that man, that sentinel, again, then maybe you can find a different path to follow and release Blair to find another way as well. For the path he has chosen lies beside yours. If you are to give up that path, you must let him go. Let him find a new path for himself. Perhaps one which lies far from your own. Which do you want, Brother Jim? Which path do you choose?"
Suddenly, the sounds of shouting, excited voices reached them, accompanied by the ringing of the emergency bell used to summon all brothers back to the main compound. Jim looked at Brother Timothy in confusion. "What's going on?"
Already running up the path, he called back to Jim, "I don't know, but come on! We can use your help!"
By the time they reached the main compound, heavy black smoke filled the air along with the odor of burning wood and hay. The newly constructed barn was engulfed in flames.
Jim grasped one of the buckets handed him by Brother Theodore and joined the line of monks passing the filled buckets from the hose to the barn. "Has anyone called the fire department?" he shouted above the roar of the flames.
"Brother Joseph called 911 on the emergency phone, but it will take at least another half hour for them to arrive! Keep that water coming!"
Jim continued passing the buckets, but his heart fell in defeat. The barn would be a total loss. The best they could hope for now was to keep the fire from spreading to other structures. "It's no use! Give up the barn! Let's start wetting down the chapel!"
Hours later, all that remained of the barn were the smoldering embers. A few firefighters would remain on duty, making sure the slight breeze did not rekindle the flames. Most of the brothers had fallen into their beds, exhausted from the evening's battle. Only Jim and Brother Jeremy remained outdoors, staring at the remnants of the newly built structure.
A chuckle emerged from the figure standing beside him and built into a full fledged laugh. Jim turned in amazement to see Brother Jeremy's mirth filled eyes looking at the smoldering barn.
"I don't think I get the humor," Jim commented dryly.
"You wouldn't, Brother Jim. You see, I had just put the finishing touches on my sermon this afternoon. The lesson was to be from the book of Job. I planned to explain to my brothers how God intends every trial to be a lesson of faith. I just realized that God must have approved of my topic, because today he sent me the perfect example to accompany my sermon!"
Jim shook his head. "But all our hard work, all the money that went into materials..."
Brother Jeremy smiled at him tolerantly. "Only things, Jim. They can be replaced. Nothing was lost here tonight which cannot be reclaimed. It will take time and effort, but the fire did not destroy anything of true importance. Our brothers, our faith, the friendship we have here, they all remain unscathed. Everything else is insignificant in comparison. Do you understand?"
Understanding slowly brightened Jim's eyes. "Nothing of true importance has been destroyed, has it? Not really. You asked me a
few hours ago which path I choose. I think I found my answer tonight."
"Blair Sandburg." The dean's voice called the name they had been waiting so long to hear announced. Simon beamed at the rest of the Major Crimes unit as they rose to their feet as one. Rafe whooped in celebration, and they all laughed aloud as they saw the curly head turn to find them in the crowd and acknowledge their presence with a grin. Naomi wiped a tear from her eye and smiled at Simon.
Simon looked at the friends and coworkers of Blair Sandburg, gathered today to pay homage to him for what he had accomplished. There's only one thing missing. One very important part of this day. Jim should be here. Sandburg's trying to put on a front for us, forcing the smiles, acting excited, but it's not hard to tell that he's disappointed. He wants Jim here to share this with him. But he's not here. Jim may never come back, and we're all going to have to deal with that possibility. Maybe I'd better make an appointment next week to talk with the commissioner. Damn, I hate the thought of trying to explain this to him. Simon tried to banish the negative thoughts and forced himself to concentrate on the ceremony below.
Blair walked forward and climbed the three steps to the stage. Dr. Edwards waited for him, a forced, stiff half smile on her face. The woman still was not happy about Sandburg receiving his degree from Rainier, but he had been readmitted, had fulfilled the requirements for graduation, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. Blair walked to the center of the stage.
His major professor stepped forward, carrying the heavy doctoral hood with its bright, vivid colors signifying the field of anthropology. With a congratulatory smile, he shook Blair's hand, then stepped behind him. Blair lowered his head and felt the velvety weight descend over his shoulders. When he raised his eyes to look at the crowd, his face was solemn, almost sad, with a lost, haunted look in his eyes.
Dr. Edwards handed Blair his diploma and shook his hand. The audience broke into applause, and a small, half smile tugged at Sandburg's lips. With a nod of gratitude, he turned to leave the stage.
He stopped in his tracks and stared.
At the rear of the auditorium, standing alone, was Jim Ellison.
Blair felt as though he was moving through cement. Each step was heavy, forced and slow. Already, the next name was being announced. He started back up the aisle toward his seat on the tenth row. Then, instead of turning into the row, he continued walking slowly down the center aisle. Walking straight toward Jim.
Confused, Naomi watched her son, wondering why he hadn't returned to the rest of the graduates to complete the ceremony. She glanced over at Simon, sitting beside her, and asked the question with her eyes. The captain's brown eyes cut toward the rear of the auditorium, and Naomi followed them, seeing for the first time the tall figure of James Ellison. She closed her eyes for a moment. Please, don't let him hurt Blair today. Not today of all days. If you truly care for him, Jim, prove it today.
From the moment Blair spotted Jim, their eyes locked and never wavered. He walked slowly, directly toward Jim Ellison. Despite his calm facade, Blair was afraid. He was afraid to go to Jim, afraid to hear what he had to say, to find out why he had come back, afraid to hear that he might leave permanently next time. That this was merely the long dreaded time to say good-bye.
After a walk of what seemed like miles, the guide stood in front of the sentinel. He looked up into the familiar blue eyes and saw the calm resolve reflecting from them. With a jerk of his head, Jim indicated the exit, and they moved toward it, side by side. From their seats high in the Rainier auditorium, every eye in the Major Crimes unit watched their departure and breathed a collective, silent prayer.
The glare of the bright sunlight was almost painful as they stepped from the cool darkness of the auditorium. Without speaking, they moved away from the building and the crowd that would soon emerge from it, laughing, talking, and celebrating. After walking far enough to ensure some privacy, they stopped beneath the sheltering limbs of a huge oak tree and sat down on the bench beneath it.
Blair removed his cap, then untwisted the rubber band holding his ponytail, shaking his long hair free with a relieved sigh. He turned to gaze up at Jim, a wary look in his blue eyes. "Why are you here, man?"
Ellison's voice was soft and his eyes warm as he looked down at Blair. "I called the university a few weeks ago to confirm the date for graduation and to be sure your name was on the list. There was no way I'd miss this day, Chief, you know that."
Blair shrugged and looked down at the grass, scuffing at it with his toe. The softness of his voice didn't quite mask the pain and the touch of anger in his words. "How would I know that, Jim? You've been gone now for months. You stopped calling. To be honest, I didn't know if you'd ever come home." He got up, strode a few feet away, and faced away from Jim as he spoke, more than a touch of irritation in his voice. "Damn it, Jim! How long is all this going to continue, man? I mean, everything goes great for a while, and I start to relax, to let myself feel safe and content. Then, something happens, something goes wrong, and things fall apart for us. You either shut me out emotionally, or you just take off for a few months with scarcely a phone call."
Blair's voice softened again, and he turned to face Jim. The helpless look in his eyes tore at Jim's heart. "I just don't know what I keep doing wrong, man. Can you help me understand that? I try so hard to do the right things, to be the partner that you need, but it never seems to be enough, does it?" A veil of tears now covered Blair's eyes. "We can't keep on like this, Jim. I can't keep on like this." He moved to sit back beside Jim, but faced away from him, looking back toward the campus of Rainier.
The sentinel took a deep, shuddering breath. "I know that, Chief. That's exactly why I left, to try to get myself together before the inevitable happened. Before I destroyed you...before I destroyed us. Blair, I told you that my leaving had nothing to do with you. I meant that. It was something I had to do for myself. I needed to find a way to make peace with all that's happened this past year or so. To try to understand what made me act like the way I did. To do that, I needed to be on my own for awhile, away from the pressures of the job and the press." Jim turned, grasping Blair's shoulders, pulling him to face him and squeezing gently. "Can't you understand that, Chief?"
For long moments, there was no response. "Yeah, I guess so," Blair answered at last. "So, did you? Did you find the answers you needed? Did you make that peace or..." The younger man's voice trembled. "Or is the roller coaster ride over, Jim?"
Ellison's denial was emphatic. "Nothing's over, Blair." Then he added softly, "Unless you want it to be. I did find some answers while I was gone." He hesitated. "Chief... Blair, I..." The right words were difficult to grasp. "Does it sound crazy when I say that I feel more at peace, more contented with myself than I ever have in my entire life? That I understand myself for the first time?"
"Not if it's true, Jim. It doesn't sound crazy at all. But, I'd like to know, what exactly did you figure out and how? Where the hell were you anyway?" The old light of curiosity was back in Blair's eyes, and Jim smiled at the welcome sight.
He dropped one hand from Sandburg's shoulder to his gown covered knee, then tugged a curl with his other hand, letting it rest there behind his neck. "The how it happened can wait until we have more time. As to where... For now, let's just say that Brother Jeremy sends his best." Jim grinned back as a delighted smile brightened Blair's face. It seemed ages since he'd seen his friend's smile. "But I can tell you now what I've learned about myself."
Jim paused, looking up to the rustling leaves over their heads for a moment, listening to the music of the bright, warm day. He lowered his eyes back to meet Blair's. "My whole life, I've been fighting who and what I am, Blair, and that's what's gotten me in trouble, what's sabotaged every relationship I've ever had. It's what's driven away so many of the people I've loved. Even you."
Before Blair could do more than open his mouth for a denial, Jim interrupted. "Shhhh... Let me finish, okay? It's true, Chief. I have driven you away, more times than I care to remember. It's just my good fortune that you're devoted enough and stubborn enough to keep coming back for more. If I haven't told you before how grateful I am for that, then I'm sorry. I haven't deserved all the patience and the understanding you've shown me, but I thank you for it. From the bottom of my heart."
"Blair, I don't know why I was chosen to be a sentinel, or what supreme power gave me my gifts, but it is the core of who I am. I can change careers; I could leave Cascade forever and never see it again. I could even live out my days never seeing you again, if I thought it would keep you safe, but it still wouldn't change my core. No matter where I go or what I do, I am a sentinel. I've known since my very earliest memories that I was different, and I've spent a lifetime denying it. I was so afraid of being labeled a freak, I almost let go of the rare, important gift that I was given. Almost sacrificed the one thing which truly defines who I am. Even after I quit denying it, I still tried to control its importance in my life. Tried to only let it mean what I wanted it to mean. No more. To find the peace I needed, Chief, all I had to do was..." Jim paused and took a deep breath. "All I had to do was let go. Let go of my denials, of my stubborn refusal to admit that I've got these abilities that I didn't ask for, that I didn't want, but make up the very essence of me. I had to let go of my delusion that I'm not different, that I'm just like everyone else. I'm not. I never can be. Once I let go of all that, once I accepted deep in my soul that I am a sentinel, that being a sentinel is my destiny, my duty, then the peace came."
Jim took a deep breath, then let it out in a long sigh. "I know I've said it before, but I am so sorry. Sorry for all the things I've done wrong, for the hurt I've caused you. I never wanted that, Blair. I never wanted to hurt you. Even when I was doing those things, it was tearing me apart inside. That's all over now; I promise you." He stopped, searching Blair's eyes for his reaction.
The deep blue eyes of his guide filled with unshed tears. "So, everything's okay? No more anger, no more regrets?"
"No more." Jim cupped Blair's face with his hands and stared intently into his damp, blue eyes, hoping he could convince the younger man of the deepness of his convictions and his newly found understanding. "Blair, listen to me. I am a sentinel. No questions, no regrets, no anger. I am a sentinel. It's not what I am; it is who I am. And you're my guide, my shaman, my teacher, my best friend, my partner, and my brother. Together, we are something truly special...something that comes along once in a lifetime, maybe, if that; I don't know. That's your area of expertise, Chief. I just know that this..." Jim looked intently into Blair's eyes, gently pressing his face with his cupped hands, willing Blair to understand. "You are a part of the gift I was given when I was born a sentinel. But this was part of what I was trying to run from, Blair, this strong need I have for you in my life. I've never wanted to need anyone this much, Chief, believe me. But, damn it, I do need you. I could no more deny that than I could deny who I am, because you are part of who I am. You have been my entire life, long before we even met." Jim stopped abruptly, as if he'd suddenly run out of words. He studied Blair's face carefully. "Does any of this make sense to you?"
Long moments ticked by. A slow, radiant smile found its place on Blair's face as his heart swelled with gratitude. "Makes perfect sense to me." At last, Jim had accepted it all...his identity as a sentinel...Blair's place as his guide. It had been a long time coming, but it had happened. Blair could see the subtle changes in his friend, small alterations which only someone who knew Jim Ellison very well would note. There was a balance now. Jim's own familiar power and quiet strength were still there, but flowing steadily beneath was a river of assurance and inner peace that had never been there before.
In one corner of his mind, Blair was aware of approaching voices, his mother, Simon, the rest of the Major Crimes unit, but he remained focused on Jim's eyes and the touch of his hands against his face. The look on that open, accepting face echoed expressions he'd read there before - at the fountain when he first opened his eyes to see Jim's face, in the golden tinted garage as Jim cradled him so closely, in Lash's warehouse after Jim had freed him from those horrible chains and pulled him fiercely into his arms to comfort him, in the loft after returning from Peru when he'd told Jim that it was about friendship. The look he saw in Jim's face now was all those and more, combined in an expression of love and devotion and confidence that threatened to overwhelm Blair's fragile control. A small voice inside confided, This is right. This is what you've waited for. He accepts it all now; he accepts you. He trusts you, totally, without reservation.
"We've got company," Jim whispered with a smile. "But first, I need to know. It's all in your hands now. Is the roller coaster ride over, Chief?"
The soft reply was almost lost in the breeze which tickled the leaves on the branches above their heads. "I'm still with you, man. I'm not ready for the ride to be over."
The two friends gazed deeply into each other's eyes for a long moment, each reading and gauging the commitment and sincerity within. Then, without a word, Jim nodded and released Blair's face with a soft pat, as they turned to greet Naomi and their welcoming friends.
"Hey, Hairboy," Brown called. "Leave it up to you to run out on your own graduation!" The others laughed along, but Blair smiled tolerantly. Jim's arm lay lightly over his shoulders, protectively, almost possessively, and it felt good. Felt so good to be needed again, to be a part again of that shimmering, strong something that they had been before and were once more. It felt right.
With a grin, Blair retorted, "I had the diploma, H; the rest was just ceremony. Besides," he glanced up at Jim, reveling in the broad smile that creased his friend's face, "I had something more important to do."
Naomi took a step forward, holding out her arms. Jim's arm fell reluctantly from his shoulders, and Blair stepped forward for his mother's congratulatory embrace. Over her son's shoulders, she whispered to Jim, "Thank you. I know what a difficult thing it was for you to do, but thank you for giving him back his dream."
Jim nodded, accepting the gratitude and the understanding, and Naomi released Blair. The young man automatically resumed his place at Jim's side, and the muscular arm once again encircled him, drawing him close.
"What are we all standing around here for? We've got reservations at Seaside, and the celebration's just beginning!" Simon
grinned and gestured toward the parking lot at the top of the hill. Talking and laughing, they circled around Jim and Blair and
walked slowly to their cars. Jim insisted on riding with Simon and Naomi, leaving his truck and Blair's old car in the lot to
be picked up later.
The round table beside the window overlooking the ocean was filled with laughter and celebration. No one mentioned Jim's long absence or his sudden return, but they couldn't miss the happiness glowing in Blair's eyes, the way Jim kept in almost constant physical contact with his friend through small touches and pats, or the aura of light that seemed to sparkle around them. There was much to celebrate.
After the meal was done, Simon called for their attention. "Sandburg, I think I speak for everyone here when I tell you how very proud we all are of your accomplishments. You came to us five years ago, and to be honest, we didn't know what to make of you. We'd never seen anybody quite so...now, let me put this diplomatically...anyone quite so unique." After the quiet laughter died down, he continued. "Now we know exactly what to make of you." He took a small leather case from his pocket and held it up in front of him. "The last time we offered you one of these, it was to become a detective, to become one of us. Well, that offer was wrong, Sandburg. You're already one of us, and you don't need a gold shield to prove it. Jim, would you do the honors?" He handed the leather case to Ellison.
With a broad smile, Ellison shifted to face Blair. Slowly, reverently, he opened the case to reveal a plastic ID and a silver badge inside. "Chief, you have been appointed an official consultant and advisor to the Cascade PD. With a permanent assignment as my partner. No academy, no gun, and you can still teach part time at Rainier. The pay's not the greatest, but it's not half bad, either, especially combined with what you'll make at the university. You're official, now, if that's what you want." He waited, anxiously studying Blair's eyes for a clue to his reaction.
He didn't have to wait long. The smile Sandburg wore put the sun to shame. Then it faded as quickly as it appeared, and he became serious. Blair looked about the table at the familiar faces gathered there. His mom, always encouraging him to reach for his dreams. His friends from the station. Simon, who, in spite of his almost constant griping and complaining, respected him and accepted his presence in the small, close knit world under his command. Each of them had become so important to him over the past few years. At last, his gaze settled on the most important face of all.
Blair looked up into Jim's worried eyes with an intent and focused expression. "That's exactly what I want, Jim. All I've ever wanted." Then a mischievous grin broke across his face, and he held out his hand. "Hello, Detective Ellison. I'm your new partner, Blair Sandburg. That's Dr. Sandburg to you guys," he quipped, grinning at Rafe, Brown, and Taggart. The three detectives immediately broke into exaggerated groans, accompanied by smiles of acceptance.
Jim clasped the hand warmly, covering it with his other palm. Then, without thinking, unmindful of those gathered at their table or the others in the crowded restaurant, Jim pulled Blair forward into a strong hug. He felt Blair's arms come around him and hold on as if he'd never let go. Jim closed his eyes as he whispered into the curl covered ear, "Thanks, partner."
For a long moment, they just held on to each other, until Simon's barely disguised cough broke the spell, and they pulled apart, grinning broadly. Jim reached out and ruffled Blair's curls affectionately as Banks stood up, raising his wine glass, and the others followed. "I propose a toast. To Dr. Blair Sandburg. No one deserves this day more."
Amid the congratulatory remarks, they drank several sips of wine. Then Simon continued, "A second toast, if you don't mind. To Jim and Blair. May this continue to be the partnership of a lifetime. Much success, much happiness, to you both."
Suddenly, Jim lowered his head, clasping his hands over his eyes. Immediately, Blair turned to him, laying a hand on his shoulder. "Jim! What's wrong? Can you tell me what's going on?"
All eyes focused on the two friends. Jim shook his head, trying to clear his mind. "My senses... They're back. Blair...?"
A look of calm assurance replaced that of concern on the guide's face. "It's okay, buddy," he whispered. "Just follow my voice. It's nothing to worry about. They just took you by surprise, that's all. Focus on me, Jim. Find the dials. Picture them in your mind. Have you got them? Good. That's right. It's going to be okay. I promise. Let's start with sight, okay? Turn it down slowly, a little bit at a time, until it's comfortable for you. Listen to my voice, Jim; nothing else exists." The soothing voice continued its mantra, its drone a soft whisper only Jim Ellison could hear.
Little by little, step by step, Blair led Jim through the familiar process. Those gathered around the table watched in silent wonder at what they were witnessing. It was the first time they had seen Blair at work openly, guiding Jim, helping his friend reclaim his control. Simon had seen glimpses of it, but never to this extent, and never in such a public forum. Rafe, Brown, and Henri thought back to the myriad of small scenes they had witnessed between the partners - Blair's hand resting lightly on Jim's back, Ellison's hand on Blair's shoulder, the constant, light touches and knowing looks which passed between them. It all came together now, suddenly making perfect sense. The unusual partnership between the former Army Ranger and the energetic young anthropologist came into focus with perfect clarity. This was more than an off-beat partnership; this was a joining of souls to form something much bigger, much more important than any of them had ever suspected.
Naomi watched with a mixture of awe and pride as the big detective placed his unquestioning trust in her son, and she realized that the younger man had confidently and calmly stepped into the role he was born to play. She felt a brief twinge of loss as she suddenly understood that Blair would never leave his friend willingly, that any hope she'd ever harbored of her son joining her in her travels or going out into the world to experience all its varied wonders would never come to fruition. This was Blair's life, and he had no intention of giving it up. The scene once again brought tears to Naomi's eyes. Ever since Blair had teamed up with Jim Ellison, she'd been so afraid that her son would lose his sensitivity, his humanity, that all the wonderful, unique qualities that made Blair so special would be slowly eroded away. She had been wrong, totally, absolutely mistaken. Never had she seen such tenderness in Blair's blue eyes. Now, with his entire being concentrated upon helping Jim, Blair radiated confidence, concern, and love. After a lifetime of searching, of reaching for his ultimate dream, his Holy Grail, Blair had found it. Right here in Cascade, in the soul of Jim Ellison.
At last, Jim raised his head and a glimmer of a smile touched his eyes and the corners of his lips as he looked at Blair. "It's okay, now, Chief," he said softly, reaching out to trail his fingers along Blair's arm, anchoring himself further to the solidity of his guide's presence. Blair studied his face intently, lightly brushing his thumb across Jim's strong jaw. Then the guide slowly nodded, satisfied that his sentinel was indeed all right.
No one spoke of what they had witnessed, but each of them carried the memory into the night.
Hours later, Blair and Jim were the last to depart. Simon agreed to drive Naomi to her hotel, and the others went their separate ways. When Blair tried to ask Jim how they would get back to Rainier to pick up their vehicles, he brushed off the inquiry. "You ask too many questions, Darwin."
It was dark by the time they stepped out of the restaurant. "Okay, partner," Blair teased. "Now we're without a ride. What's next?"
Jim tossed him a keychain. "You only had one glass of wine tonight, Chief. You drive."
Blair looked confused. "Drive what, Jim? My car's at the university with your truck."
Jim nodded, and Blair followed his eyes. A black Grand Cherokee was parked at the curb, sparkling new and shiny. Blair stared at the vehicle, then back at Jim in confusion.
"Look at the tag, Junior."
Blair followed Jim to the rear of the Cherokee and read the personalized plate. He stared at the words in disbelief. "1 CHIEF" was printed in bold letters. "Ah, no, Jim," he protested. "This is... Oh, man... I dunno, this is way too much, Jim!"
Jim grasped the thin shoulders and turned his guide around to face him. "It's not nearly enough, Blair, but it's something I wanted to do for you. It was important to me to do it. I don't know...a new beginning...a promise to you. Please, just accept it. For me, okay?"
The grin started small but quickly grew into a huge smile. Blair nodded. "Okay. Jim, but I... It's just... I don't know what to say."
Jim laughed aloud, his eyes sparkling. "Blair Sandburg, speechless! A moment that will live in history!" He lightly cuffed the back of the curly head. "C'mon, Chief. Good thing you're not a big drinker or I wouldn't be able to l et you get behind the wheel. Let's go home, buddy. You're driving."
Well after midnight, Jim awoke. Automatically tuning in to the familiar nighttime sounds of the loft, he realized that there was no heartbeat softly thrumming from the room beneath his. Searching, he located the familiar sound. The balcony. He left the warmth of his bed and slipped on his robe as he padded down the stairs.
He stood silently for several minutes, watching his guide. Dressed only in shorts and a worn t-shirt, wrapped in the Indian print coverlet from the couch, Blair stood alone, leaning on the rail, looking out over the darkened city of Cascade. The light summer breeze teased his hair, blowing it playfully about his face. He looked skyward, taking in the sight of the millions of pinpricks of light which dotted the infinite blackness above. Jim slid open the door and joined his friend.
"You okay here, Chief?" Jim stood beside Blair, their shoulders lightly touching through the fabric of the coverlet.
"I'm okay. Just thinking."
"Could be dangerous, Darwin, especially this late at night."
Blair lightly punched the hard bicep which pressed so warmly against him. "Funny, Jim." His expression turned serious. "What's gonna happen now? When the press gets wind that you're back, that your senses are back on line? And what about all the scum out there who'd just love to take down a sentinel? I mean, what if...?"
Jim silenced him with a shake of his head and a gentle hand placed lightly over his mouth. "Shhhh... Hush. Chief, I don't have all the answers. As far as the press is concerned, I don't know for sure what will happen when they find out I'm back on duty. I hope that it'll be old news now. Maybe my disappearance will have allowed enough time to pass so that the excitement will have died down." He paused, considering, and shrugged. "Even if they do pounce on me again, I don't think it will last. There's always a new scandal, a new victim, for them to pursue. As for the other, we'll just have to be more careful. At least I'll have my partner with me full-time now to watch my back." He gently grasped Blair's shoulders and turned him to face him. Blue eyes held blue in the moonlit darkness as stars punctuated the velvet sky. "I will still have you there, won't I, Chief?"
Blair looked up at him in wonder. What had happened to the man whose greatest fear had been the revelation of his secret, of being labeled a freak? Where was the man who feared depending on anyone, trusting anyone, but himself? "Of course I'll be here, you know that. Jim? What's happened to you? Not so long ago, the mere thought of trying to do your job if your abilities were made public absolutely terrified you. Now, I don't know, it's like it doesn't seem so important anymore."
Jim reached out to lightly touch a long, soft curl with the back of his fingers, smiling at the happiness such a simple act could bring. "A shift in priorities, buddy. I've realized that life is a matter of perception, of how you look at things. While I was gone, I reevaluated the priorities in my life, looked at the things I could change and those I can't, at what I can live without and what I can't." His face grew serious. "Blair, I can't change the events of the past. I wish like hell that I could, but it's impossible. That's done and over. We'll deal with the ramifications as they come up, okay? But there's one nonnegotiable in this whole deal, and that's our friendship, Chief. I could live without my sentinel abilities, and I could live without my job, if I had to, but I do not think I could go on without you, without this part of my life. Whatever happens, Chief, we can handle it, if we do it together. It'll be okay."
Reaching out, Jim drew Blair to him, enfolding him in his arms and drawing the coverlet around them both to shield them from the cool breeze. Ellison took a deep breath, letting go of the final, bitter traces of the past year. He felt Blair's chest rise and fall against his own as the younger man's breathing calmed, felt his steady heartbeat resound throughout his own body, and let the warmth of his partner fill his own heart with peace. This was what mattered, this friendship, this feeling, this contentment. Nothing was worth its sacrifice. Nothing ever would be.
Blair's arms automatically went around Jim's waist, accepting without hesitation the offered embrace. He turned his face into Jim's neck, burying himself totally in the warm, strong comfort of his sentinel. He had his degree at last. Jim was home. They were official partners now, and the connection between them shimmered and danced like a living, breathing entity. "Together," he whispered. His heart filled with such deep joy, he felt it would burst. Unable to contain the feelings any longer, he whispered fiercely, "I love you, Jim."
Jim tightened his arms around Blair in gratitude. His throat tightened, and his voice cracked unexpectedly. "Love you, too, Chief. No matter what's happened, there was never a moment that wasn't true. Please believe that."
He felt the slightest nod against his shoulder and neck, felt the lightest whisper of breath warm against his skin. "I never doubted that, Jim. Never. Why do you think I stuck around, huh?"
Jim closed his eyes, burying his face in the soft hair beneath his chin, then gently brushed the top of Blair's head with a kiss. So much had ended here today, but so much had just begun.
A new beginning. A new path lay before them, waiting for their first steps. But tonight...
Tonight there was the burnished silver of the full moon and the twinkle of the dancing stars. There was the touch of the gentle, caressing wind. Tonight there was time. Time to embrace what was most important in his arms, time to say everything or nothing, time to soak up the wonder of the miraculous gifts they had been given. Jim took a deep, shuddering breath and rubbed his cheek against the silken mahogany curls. His voice was rough with emotion. "Do me a favor, okay? Just stick around another lifetime or so, will you, Chief? Maybe that will be enough."
He felt Blair's quiet chuckle and answering nod against his neck, felt the warmth of Blair's soft lips press against his skin, and felt the strong, young arms tighten to pull him even closer.
No, Chief, it'll never be enough. But at least it will be a beginning.
Return to the Perception Series
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