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

Photic Zone

by JET

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

Man, I love vacations! Especially those that get us out and away from Cascade. Not that the city isn't great; it is. Certainly, it's not that the loft isn't the first real, secure home this vagabond son of the eternal seeker, Naomi Sandburg, has ever known. It is, and I am grateful to the soles of my formerly itchy feet that I found it. Still, it's wonderful to get away, to escape the doldrums of everyday life, at least for a while.

Not that our lives are exactly marooned in the doldrums. Actually, nothing could be farther from reality. If there's one thing that I haven't been since teaming up with Jim Ellison - great sentinel, super cop, and all around action hero - it's bored. Not unless you count being shot, kidnapped, beat up, drugged, and killed - yes, really and truly killed, as in dead - boring.

I certainly don't.

Maybe that's the real reason I love to get away...to escape the madness of our lives. Not that we haven't had our fair share of excitement even in our attempts to have a peaceful, relaxing vacation. After all, not everyone can boast vacations featuring elaborate plots to rob trains, shootings and dirty cops, hotel fires, catching poachers... Well, it's a fairly short list in the grand scheme of things, I suppose, but you must admit, it's rather impressive.

We came here last year, to the sea, to renew ourselves and our connection as sentinel and guide. It was an ethereal experience in so many ways. I've never felt closer to anyone in my life than I did to Jim during those days at the ocean. When he suggested returning to the same house this year, I almost vetoed the idea. It's hard to recapture perfection, after all, and that's what last year's trip was...perfection.

But Jim's blue eyes were so hopeful and his voice so enthusiastic when he told me that the house was available during our two weeks of vacation time again this year that I just couldn't resist. He says I look at him with 'puppy dog' eyes whenever I'm trying to talk him into something. Talk about the perfect example of the pot calling the kettle black! Maybe it's because he so seldom asks me for anything that when he does, I usually cannot resist.

At least, most of the time.

I'd do anything for the man, and he knows that, but Jim never abuses the power he holds over me. I mean, he's given me my life. Literally, as well as figuratively. How could I not give him what he yearned for so desperately...the chance to recapture the paradise we created last summer, just us and the sea?

So, here we are again. The place itself is still wonderful, a funky old beach house built in the 1940s, all front porch, weathered white, sun bleached wood, and huge, wide windows opening to the water. There's much more room than we need, just the two of us, but that's perfect, too. In the loft, sometimes we each secretly long for a bit more privacy. Here, we come together because we choose to be together, not because space is at a premium. Funny, though, even with all this room, we still end up drifting into each other's company most of the time.

Jim's a different man on vacation, especially here, in this place. I mean, the guy's always on the go in Cascade, protecting the tribe and all. Even at home in the loft when he has no official work to do, he never just sits and thinks, as I'm prone to do. Not Jim Ellison. He's always working on a report, or cleaning out a cabinet or closet, or watching a movie or a game on the tube. Everyone says I'm the hyper one, always into something, but that just shows how little they know about the dynamics of this relationship. We're both action freaks; it just comes out in different ways, that's all.

Anyway, here, Jim totally kicks back and unwinds. I think it's a sentinel thing, something to do with being surrounded by nature. He's the same way in the mountains.

Every morning when I awaken, Jim's already out of the house. He's up before dawn, to see the sunrise, I think. Maybe it's the old army training coming out, I'm not sure. Not this boy, though. I mean, I wake up slowly anyway, and that only gets worse with the fresh salt air and the soothing sounds of the surf. I truly could sleep the day away. But, I don't. Somewhere around 9:00, I get my coffee, slip into some soft, old denim shorts, and join him barefoot out on the beach.

Usually, I just fall in step beside him. Sometimes he'll greet me, but more often, we walk along in silence. A companionable silence. I'm a natural born talker, a true conversationalist, but it's funny. With Jim, there's often no need for words. We know each other so well now, and we're so deeply connected, that we're comfortable with our silences. Guess that's the mark of true friendship.

Jim spends almost the entire day by the sea. I love to watch him. I mean, that's my job, right? Studying Jim. But, this is different. I'm not trying to analyze him or figure out anything about his senses. He truly fascinates me. The man, as well as the sentinel. Jim sees himself as a simple man, straight forward, easy to figure out. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here at the beach, he lets down his guard, frees his spirit, and the real Jim Ellison comes shining through.

What a magnificently brilliant light that is.

Sometimes, it is almost blinding, that light of Jim's. Almost more than I can comprehend. Naomi brought me up to see people as they really are, not to expect too much of others or idolize anyone else to the extent that I subjugate my needs or my dreams for them. Man, have I followed a different path than she laid out for me! Yeah, Jim has disappointed me. Many times. He's hurt me with his words, wounded me with his doubts, killed me with his actions.

Yet...

I still love him. Unconditionally and completely. I know people wonder about that, about why I've stayed so long with this man who can, let's face it, be a real s.o.b. at times. But, I've touched the soul of James Ellison, touched it because he has trusted me enough to allow me to reach out and brush his very soul with mine, even though he has guarded that part of himself so carefully his entire life. I could no more help loving him for that than I could cease drawing breath.

I stretch out on my beach towel, lying on my belly with my chin resting on my folded arms, and watch him in the water. He's facing the horizon, his body perfectly still, eyes focused on something I could never see. The sun beats down on his bare back, and it glistens with sweat. He's tanned now from long hours in the sun, and his short hair has turned nearly blonde from the salt and sun. I feel totally safe here, basking in the warmth of the sunshine, the soft sand beneath my body, my sentinel close by to keep me safe. My eyelids grow heavy, and the waves' roar lulls me to sleep.

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

That Sandburg...

He's the most unpredictable, surprising person I have ever known. Normally, that unpredictability would drive me nuts; in most people, that is. With him, it only serves to add color and light and life to my world. Never would I have imagined that I would come to enjoy being caught off guard.

That's how I felt when Blair balked at coming back here this year, to this wonderful old rambling house at the beach. I think our two weeks here last summer was the most perfect vacation of my life. Not that we did much...walk the beach...talk...rest. But, somehow, during those weeks, we drew closer together, reconnected and strengthened our friendship as never before. How could I not want to recapture the same magical feeling this year?

Whether he realizes it or not, I know what he's afraid of. Funny, he thinks I'm the one who operates on the basis of my fears. Of course, I do, as much as I hate owning up to it. But, so does he, even thought he'd never admit it. Blair fears losing what he has, fears that our friendship is going to slip through his fingers as quickly and suddenly as grains of sand escape his grasp here at the beach.

In this, as in so many things, we are opposites. I fear losing him to death; he fears losing me to life.

When I mentioned coming back here, he was afraid that, in returning, we would spoil the magic we found before. He didn't have to say it. The fear was written clearly in those wide, blue eyes. Naomi instilled within my friend a mistrust of anything that seems destined to last. Doesn't he get it? The magic wasn't in the place. It wouldn't have mattered where we went on vacation at all. The magic lies between us and rests within us. We create our own magic, Blair and I, out of our own blended souls.

At last, he acquiesced. He came back with me to this place, our place, by the sea. I watch the amazement growing day by day as he realizes that the magic is still here, that this year is just as special, just as filled with perfect days and peaceful nights as was last year. I see wonder at the permanence of our relationship reflected in Blair's expressive eyes, and I revel in it, just as I revel in him.

He's sleeping now, lying beside me on a towel on the warm, white sand. His hair is spread out around his face, wind tangled and dusted with salt spray. Touches of burnished copper highlights illuminate its dark depths with light, and his face is kissed by the sun's rays until it is a deep, rich brown. I've been watching him for over an hour now as he sleeps. I could go on watching him forever.

God, how does he bring out these feelings in me? Such fierce feelings of protectiveness, of devotion...of love. Emotions like nobody else in my life has ever inspired. How the hell does he do that?

It doesn't matter how, I know. I matters only that he does.

As I watch my guide peacefully sleeping, I wonder... Is this how it was for sentinels and guides in the days before 'civilization' imposed its rules and structure upon lives which were unfettered? Somehow, I sense it must have been so. Two spirits joined, sharing their lives so completely, living on a virtual island together. Although I know that the town is but a few miles away, that others live, work, and play all around us, here on our secluded beach, we are alone in a world of our own choosing. Just us, the sea, and the magic.

I long for this moment never to end.

Of course, it does. I hear the slight increase in Blair's heart rate, the minute hitches in his deep breathing as awareness touches his mind, driving out his dreams and replacing them with reality. Instinctively, I touch him, assuring Blair of my presence as I run my fingers slowly up and down his arm. I feel the saltiness of his sweat, the slick smoothness of the suntan lotion he applied, the texture and character of every individual hair, the depth of his pores, and the subtle differences in temperature from his own body and the heat of the sun's rays.

Blair smiles a small, sleepy smile, then his eyelids flutter open, revealing the drowsy blue depths beneath. My heart swells, and I smile back.

"Hey, there, kiddo," I whisper, brushing a stray curl away from his eyes.

His voice is husky with sleep, and he blinks slowly in the bright sunlight. "Hey, yourself. How long did I sleep?"

I shrug. "Doesn't matter. We've got all day. Do whatever you feel like, Chief."

He stretches, like a cat basking in the sun. "Mmmmm... Nice and warm..."

He is still lying on his stomach, but now, he rolls over gracefully to his back. Tucking his arms beneath his head, he gazes up at the summer sky. "Hey man, check out these clouds."

I obey immediately. That's what he does, after all. Commands my actions, my thoughts, and my heart. Stretching out on my back on the oversized towel beside him, I turn my eyes to the sky. A perfect, azure sky accentuated with billowy, cumulous clouds. It's not yet late enough for the typical late afternoon thundershower, and the sky remains a pastel concoction of white and blue.

"Nice," I comment. That's me, the master of understatement. The poet and the pragmatist. What a pair we are.

He points toward one large cloud drifting lazily above us. "What do you see?"

I consider, reaching out my sense of sight. "Feather wisps...the swirling of the vapor around the edges...the..."

Blair interrupts, and I feel his head shaking beside mine. "No, man, not like that. No tests, remember? What do you see? In the cloud's shape, I mean."

Then, I get it. He's playing the old childhood game of finding shapes in the clouds. I smile at his ability to recapture the simplicity of youth in the flash of a moment. He commands me, yes, but he also balances me, gives me back the chance I missed in my own childhood to be carefree...to be free. How long has it been since I just looked at the clouds? Did I ever?

Blair doesn't rush me. He never does. "A ship," I answer at last. "One of those huge clipper ships with its sails unfurled and billowing in the wind."

"A ship, huh? What about that one over there?" He gestures lazily toward a different cloud, this one wider than it is tall.

I don't mind playing his game. In fact, it's rather enjoyable, lying beside him this way, our shoulders touching lightly, the sun warming our faces as the breeze caresses our skin. No danger. No worries.

"Let's see, Chief." I consider the shape of the cloud for a moment, then the hidden picture becomes clear. "A jaguar. See how its tail curves up there on the end? There are the ears, and the mouth, and the legs. Well, it's only got three legs, but, it's definitely the jaguar."

His soft laughter warms my soul. "A three legged jaguar, huh? I hate to ask, but do you see a wolf up there anywhere?"

I point skyward. "There, right in front of the jaguar. Leading him, guiding him."

"And...does the jaguar follow, Jim?" His voice is quiet, contemplative.

I lean my head over until it rests against his, feeling the softness of his hair against my temple, the warmth of him seeping into my skin, into my soul. "Always, Chief. Always."

He nuzzles his head against mine and falls silent. It's a comfortable silence, with no need to be filled with words. The heat and the wind and the surf work their magic, and soon, we both drift off to sleep.

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

Man, what a great nap! When I wake up, Jim's already awake, just lying there beside me, gazing up at the clouds again.

"Let's walk," he says quietly, when he realizes that I'm awake.

We must have walked a hundred miles in the week since our arrival. Sometimes we'll each slip away for a solitary stroll, but more often, we walk together. They've been good, these walks, a time for sharing our dreams, our goals, for revealing the secrets of our hearts. Things we don't often find time to do back in Cascade.

As we walk along, I notice Jim staring intently out at the sea. "Hey, Jim," I venture cautiously. "I know I promised no tests, and really, man, this isn't a test. I was just curious, though. Can you see below the water's surface at all? If you do, what do you see? You don't have to answer if you don't want to, man, since I said no tests and all, but I'd just like to know, and..."

His grin blinds me. My friend doesn't smile that frequently, not this kind of full-fledged, no holds barred, stunning Jim Ellison smile, so when he does, it is so unexpected that it can take my breath away.

"Shut up, Chief. It's no big deal, okay?"

Jim stops and stares out into the water. "Yeah, I can see beneath the water. It's not like I can look through walls or anything. I'm no Superman, remember, Sandburg? But, it's like, if I look hard enough, the individual molecules sort of separate, and I get a glimpse of what lies below. I can't go too deeply, just right below the surface for a few feet, where the light is brightest."

"The photic zone."

Curious blue eyes turn toward me. I hadn't really meant to speak, to break the spell of his vivid description, but it just slipped out. I rake my fingers through my curls, stiff now from the combination of wind and salt spray. "Sorry, man. I didn't mean to interrupt. But, the part of the sea you're describing is the photic zone. The area of the ocean where light gets through and life can thrive. It's really a thin zone compared to the depths below where it's too dark for much to live. Kinda like the skin on an apple, I guess. Anyway, what you were describing is the photic zone."

Jim nods, accepting my explanation, then turns his attention back to the ocean.

For long minutes, I am content to stand and watch him. His eyes stare intently through the surf, and I wonder what wonders he sees there beneath the ocean's gently rolling surface. His breathing is slow and steady, and his muscles seem slack, barely under his control enough for him to remain on his feet. I know he is slipping into a zone, but I don't try to bring him back immediately. It's occurred to me recently that so many times, I've seen what can only be described as a brief flash of disappointment in his eyes when I've pulled him out, when I've awakened him once more to reality.

With only a moment's hesitation, I make a decision. This time, I'll allow Jim to zone, to experience...well, whatever it is he experiences during a zone out.

Funny thing, I've never been able to nail him down on the specifics of what it's like to zone. Vague, meaningless words... That's all I've been able to get out of him when he does reluctantly agree to discuss the experience. Yet, from the beginning, I've had this nagging suspicion that somehow, zoning is not a totally negative thing to do. Sure, it can get him killed, but take away that one really major drawback, and maybe an occasional zone could be a good thing. Sort of like a super deep meditative trance, I'd think. I mean, the whole sentinel thing is a gift, right? So, the zones must not be all bad. I think there must be some kind of advantage there, or the behavior would have been eradicated over time through evolution.

Right now, on the beach and alone with me, I can see absolutely no way this zone could endanger Jim. God knows, I'd never try this if there was even the slightest possibility he could be hurt. But, it's just him, me, and the sea, so...

I stand close at his side and let the sensory input carry him away.

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

Amazing... I've never become a part of the sea before. When Blair asked me what I could see, if I could see beneath the waves, I thought it would be interesting to try, to discover where my senses would lead me. So, I stretched out my senses.

The waves have decorated the surface of the water with swirling, floating spots of sea foam. Every bubble holds a rainbow within, and for long moments, I am content to watch the ever changing patterns as they drift in and out with the waves.

My focus shifts to the waves themselves. I can see the swells far out at sea as they move toward shore. As the drag from the continental shelf becomes greater and greater the closer the waves come to the beach, the bottoms of the swells begin to slow, while their tops retain their forward momentum. I watch for the exact moment when the swell begins to curl over on itself, and a new wave is born, joining the others before it in an intricately choreographed dance.

I can feel myself going deeper and deeper into my senses, and for an instant, I am close to panic. Blair is beside me, yet he is doing nothing to prevent this zone. Then, I hear him, his soft, soothing voice close to my ear, tickling my skin with his breath.

*Jim, I know you're close to zoning here. Somehow, I think maybe this time, I should let you go. Maybe it would be a good thing to allow yourself to experience your senses fully. It's safe here, man. I'm with you, Jim, and I promise I will keep you safe. It you're not comfortable with this, though, you can follow me back right now. Follow my voice, Jim, if you don't want to go on. But, if you do, I promise I'll guide you back safely in just a little while...*

I'm free to lose myself in the wonder of this moment. My trust in Sandburg releases any lingering doubts, and I let myself sink deeper. Blair's voice fades into the pounding of the surf.

The sounds are incredible. Each wave is like the tympani underlying the symphony of the sea. Providing the countermelody are the billions of tiny bubbles forming, then popping, with each crashing wave. Overhead, the screeching of gulls and the swishing and swooshing of the wind through their wings lends a vibrant harmony to the deeper, richer ocean sounds.

Touch...the breeze on my face...the cool, salty water as it swirls around my legs...the sting of salt spray whipped up from the surf...the warmth of the sun as it penetrates my skin, sinking deeply into my body to warm the very marrow of my bones.

The sea ... the rolling swells ... sun ... salt ... wind ... gull wings ... bubbles popping ... crashing ... pounding ... soaring ... warmth ... coolness ... tingling ... taste ... smell ... sight ... touch ... sound ...

I am lost ...

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

Jim has been a deep zone now for over fifteen minutes. I've watched him carefully, looking for any sign that his breathing may be slowing, keeping my hand against his neck to monitor his pulse. All seems normal.

I'm afraid to allow him to remain zoned for too long. There's no way in hell I'll take any chances with his safety, so I begin t o talk to him quietly, coaxing him out from where ever it is he has gone.

I talk on for long minutes, gently rubbing my hand up and down his bare arm, combining touch with sound to bring him back to me.

Nothing happens.

It's too soon to panic. So, he's not responding to my voice as he usually does. Fine. I've tried touch, but not in any really significant way yet. I move to stand behind Jim, rubbing my hands up and down his back, using my fingers to massage the powerful muscles in his shoulders, back, and upper arms. I keep the words flowing, just in case any of them are getting through.

No response.

I have to admit that I'm getting concerned.

Okay, let's consider what's going on here. What senses is Jim probably zoned out on? I look carefully at our surroundings. Sight? Certainly. There's so much sensory input here for Jim's sentinel vision. Okay, that eliminates my trying to awaken him through his vision.

Hearing? Yep, we've got waves and gulls and who knows what all else out here for Jim to listen to far too closely. So, my voice won't bring him back this time.

The concern is quickly escalating into twinges of fear.

What's left? Touch... Lots to choose from there. The cool breeze, the hot sun, the waves washing over our legs, just to name a few. Jim could be zoned out on any or all of these.

Taste? Even I can taste the tangy flavor of salt in the air, so Jim must be feeling like he's tasting the rim of a marguerite about now.

Smell? Definitely. The ocean scent, probably the smell of fish, the sizzling steaks from up the beach... Lots of sensory input for Jim's heightened sense of smell, that's for sure.

Then, a terrible thought occurs to me. If Jim is focusing on *all five* of his highly developed senses, how will I be able to reach him? Usually, I try to figure out which sense is the focus of Jim's zone, then I try to reach him through a different sense, draw his attention away from the cause of the zone and refocus him on me. I can't remember a single time, however, that all his senses have worked together to lead him into a zone.

Oh, God...

What have I done?

Now, what began as concern and gradually built into fear has become something close to panic. What the hell am I going to do to reach him?

First, I have to get my own emotions in check. Great choice of words, Sandburg. Exactly what Jim told me so long ago. I need to learn to 'check my emotions at the door.' Well, sorry, big guy, where you are concerned there's no such thing as separating myself from my emotions.

I take several deep, cleansing breaths. Jim's breathing is still normal, and his heartbeat is steady and calm. I have time here, time to figure out what to do, how to reach him.

Jim sways on his feet. The wave action must be eating away at the sand beneath his feet. He stumbles forward one step, regains his balance, and freezes again, seemingly as deep into the zone as before. Okay, that's one useful piece of information...movement ain't gonna work here.

I've got to start somewhere. I've tried my voice and touch. Neither worked, so I have to figure out something else.

Smell. I glance at our beach bags and towels only a short distance away, then I look back at Jim. Do I dare leave him for the few seconds it would take me to run up to the bags and back? Do I really have a choice?

"I'll be right back," I tell him. "I'm just running up to the towels for a second, okay, big guy? I promise, I'm not leaving you for long."

I release his arm and dash out of the water and up the beach. But, when I reach the bags, I suddenly realize I have absolutely no idea what I've come for. I stop dead in my tracks, staring down at the bags. What is here that might prove useful for me?

I take a mental inventory. Bottled water? Nope. My book on Incan ruins? Definitely not. Suntan lotion?

Suntan lotion... Yes! I grab one of the plastic bottles. Anything else? Finally, I give up, take the contents of my bag and dump it into Jim's. Then, I scoop up his duffel and run back into the ocean.

He's still standing motionless, his fixed gaze unwavering, his face still and emotionless. Oh, man...

"Okay, Jim, I'm back. Told you I wouldn't be gone but a minute. Miss me? Of course, you didn't. You've zoned, right? You don't even know if I'm here or not." I realize that I'm rambling, but I figure maybe the sound will be irritating enough to catch his attention, so I keep up the constant chatter.

He's swaying on his feet now. The sand's washing away from beneath his feet again, I'm sure. So much for the idea of doing this in the water. I've gotta get him on solid ground before he collapses into the surf.

"Okay, man. What do you say we move to the beach? I think we'd both be on firmer ground there." I grasp his arm firmly and tug him slightly toward shore.

No movement from my frozen sentinel.

If at first you don't succeed...

This time, I tug harder on the arm, while at the same time, I nudge him forward with a firm hand on his back.

Yes! Jim slowly begins to move forward, one hesitant step at a time. His eyes are still fixed on the water, unmoving, as he apparently studies the ripples and small waves and tumultuous sand beneath the water's surface. When we reach the shore, I maneuver him toward the towels laid out on the sand, then I urge him down to a sitting position.

I reach into the bag and pull out the suntan lotion, then place the bag at my side, hoping that this will be the only weapon I'll need from my rather limited arsenal. I pop open the top, then I rub a huge glob into my skin. Maybe the smell of the lotion combined with my own scent...

Holding my arm right under Jim's nose, I keep talking. "Okay, big guy, take a big breath now. That's it. Breathe in that coconut scent." I watch anxiously for any sign that the zone may be weakening. "C'mon, man! Give me a sign here that this is working, that I'm on the right track." Nothing. Jim's as out of it as ever, seemingly unaware of anything I am doing.

I refuse to give up. Never. I dig back into the bag. A T-shirt...a roll of film...a piece of the chocolate fudge I baked last night...

Chocolate? Taste?

I consider the possibility. Of all the sensory input surrounding Jim right now, it might well be that taste would be the weakest. Just the salty air, right? Maybe, just maybe, the rich taste of chocolate could break through.

My hands are almost trembling as I unwrap the plastic from the square of fudge. Better not give him the nuts. I'm not entirely sure he would be able to chew them right now, and all I need is a zoned, choking sentinel. I'm getting close to freaking, and I feel the hot wetness gathering in my eyes.

Roughly, I swipe my arm across my face. There's no time for me to lose it here. Every second which ticks by marks one more second in which Jim has slipped deeper into his zone.

The zone I allowed him to slide into...

There's no time for self recrimination either. Guilt, I can do later.

How to get him to taste it? I've used drops of lemon juice, grains of salt, and even vanilla extract, to bring Jim around before, but never a solid food. Breaking off a small piece of the dark chocolate, I bring it to his lips. Jim gives absolutely no indication that he is aware of the fudge brushing his mouth.

Okay, so he needs a little more help here. I can do that.

I hold the fudge between my index finger and thumb, then gently, pry his lips apart and slip my fingers inside his warm mouth. I let the chocolate slip away, and then, I pray...

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

A sea of blue...a harmony of sound...surrounded and enveloped by sight...sound...taste...touch...smell...it is all too much, yet not enough, never enough...everything is so beautiful, so enchanting...I drift on an endless sea of sight...sound...taste... touch...smell...drifting...drifting...drifting...

Rich...dark...sweet...smooth...succulent...the flavor first touches my tongue, then drifts through my taste buds slowly... fully...I'm unsure of what this new intrusion into my sea green world might be, and I try to resist its pull...then, a different, contradictory taste adds its tart, stinging flavor to the warmth of the first. There's something...familiar...about this second taste...something reassuring...something precious and irreplaceable and infinitely dear to my heart.

My trembling hand rises to wipe the wetness from my face, and I run my tongue lightly across my lips. Three distinct flavors...the salt of the sea, natural, strong, and free...the sweetness of chocolate, rich and deep and exotic...and the precious wetness of Blair's tears, falling down on me in liquid benediction. I taste the flavor of each, savoring the individual, unique essences. One wild and natural, one tempting and full, and one...more valuable than gold and rarer than diamonds.

Taste has returned to near normal, and I suddenly realize that the roar of the sea has faded into the background, and that a quieter, more desperate sound has replaced its rhythmic pulse. Blair's voice, murmuring, crooning, pleading...his voice, begging me to return to him...his voice, calling me home from my journey into the mysteries of the sea.

Slowly, I become aware that I am surrounded by light. Bright, white, clean, clear light. With my hearing and taste within normal parameters, I now concentrate on sight. I follow the sound of Blair's voice and turn blind eyes toward that soothing sound. I focus on bringing his face into view and gradually, I can make out the shape of his head, then the wild tangle of curls which frames his face, and finally, his worried blue eyes, swimming in their own sea of tears.

Reaching out, I stroke my fingers across his face and feel the stubble of his beard, his living warmth, and the roughness of the dried salt from the sea combined with the more minute grains of salt from his own tears. Bringing my own hand to my lips, I taste him, savoring the unique flavors which are his and his alone.

For one brief moment, I allow my senses to drink in all of him through touch and sound and sight and taste and smell, letting his very essence flood into me with all the passion and devotion and fire which burn in his eyes as he watches me. The same devotion and passion and fire I know are smoldering in my own eyes as I stare back at this brilliant, dedicated, insightful man who has become my guide, my best friend, my teacher, and through it all, my brother. If he was not imprinted upon my soul before, he is etched there now, an indelible pattern of light and color and quicksilver movement which will dwell within me as long as I shall live. Reluctantly, I dial down each of my senses until they are at a level just above normal range.

"It's okay," I whisper. "I'm back." Then, I smile at him, and in return, I am rewarded with the sunshine of Sandburg's smile.

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

He's back. Thank God, he's back. I can see it in his light blue eyes as they lose that frightening, unfocused look and find my face, drinking me in as if he had lost me for a lifetime. Something - a guide's instinct, perhaps - commands me to sit still, and I obey. Jim reaches out to brush his fingers across my cheek. I know he feels the tears I've shed, but I make no effort to cover up my emotions with one of the light, breezy comments I'm famous for. This moment is too deep, too powerful to gloss over with a glib joke. So, I remain still, letting Jim have this time and the freedom to experience the moment - to experience *me* - in whatever way he chooses.

I can tell his senses are still engaged to the max. There's just something about the look in his eyes, the concentration which is written all over his face, which is only present on my sentinel when he's fully my *sentinel.*

Jim slowly lifts his fingers to his lips and tastes whatever flavors linger there. I see him breathe deeply, inhaling the air around him until his lungs are filled completely. His eyes stare at me with a fire and a devotion and a passion which burn through me until they reach my soul. I stare at this man, this unbelievably gifted, strong, and gentle man, who has somehow become my sentinel, my best friend, my teacher, my student, and, most unlikely of all, the brother I longed for my entire life, but never dreamed of finding.

Somehow, I know that Jim is opening each of his senses fully to me, that he is taking in every aspect of me and imprinting me in his memory forever. Once, I would have been uncomfortable in the knowledge that anyone could know me that intimately. For, in exploring me in with his highly developed senses, Jim will know more about me than *anyone* ever has before. Not just the unimportant stuff, like how to make my algae shakes or which Celtic CDs are my favorites or that I still wake up sometimes from nightmares about Lash and that damned dentist's chair, but the really critical things...the essence of me...the bedrock of my being.

Yet, not only do I not feel uncomfortable, I welcome this exploration of my self. Welcome it with open arms and embrace it unconditionally. For this is no stranger, no mere acquaintance, no simple friend reaching out to me with his entire heart and body and mind.

This...is...Jim.

And that is all I need to know...to trust him...to welcome him.

I feel him withdraw slightly, rein in his senses to a controllable level. Then, his lips quivering slightly, Jim smiles at me, that heartbreaking, soul warming smile that is his and his alone.

Unable to conceal my joy, I smile back.

Behind us, the sea sings, and together, our spirits soar.

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

It is late. In the huge, rock fireplace, a burning log breaks, then tumbles to the ashes with a noisy flare of sparks. Pouring my mug of hot chocolate in the kitchen, my eyes keep wandering into the den. The flames flicker on the tall cathedral ceiling, bouncing off the beams, casting shadows on the walls, while tiny sparks dance like fireflies on updrafts. Stretched out before the fireplace, his eyes focused on the flames, Blair awaits my return.

He has been uncharacteristically silent this evening, our final night before returning to Cascade and our busy, hazardous lives. I've caught him watching me, when he thinks I'm not looking. Doesn't he remember? I'm the sentinel. His sentinel. How can he think I wouldn't see?

Something is eating at him, disturbing the peace we've found since arriving in this place, our special oasis by the sea. I know that I cannot allow morning to dawn without giving him back that peace, that relaxed center which he needs to carry back with him when we resume our lives. Our lives back in the world.

I take a sip from my hot chocolate, then add a few more marshmallows for good measure. I pour a mug for Blair and plop some of the sugary, white confections on top for him, too. Even Mr. Health Food needs a treat now and then. Carrying them into the warm, welcoming den, I ease down to the floor beside him.

He looks up at me, and the hint of a smile curls his lips upward slightly. Deep, indigo eyes glow warmly, and he reaches out for his mug. "Thanks, man," he says, taking a careful sip of the steamy liquid. "Thought you were reading that new Grisham novel. What are you doing down here?"

I lean back against the couch and stretch my legs out, resting the mug on my jeans. "No point rushing a good plot, Chief. Okay if I visit with you for a while?"

His respiration picks up slightly. *Calm down, Chief. I'm not going to bite.*

One talent I've never picked up from him is obfuscation. I keep my voice low and calm, inviting him to trust me. "What's going on with you, buddy?"

Now, his heart rate matches the quick popping of the sparks in the fireplace. *Easy, Sandburg, easy...*

"What's going on?" He studies the fire intently, intentionally keeping his eyes diverted from mine. "Nothing, man. Nothing."

I reach out and cuff the back of his head gently. "No secrets, remember, Blair?"

The use of his first name does it. I can almost see the dam crumble inside him as the words flow forth.

His tortured eyes meet mine and hold, and his guilt is nearly tangible. "I can't believe I did that, Jim! I *let* you zone! Me! I mean, I had this crazy idea that you might enjoy really getting into the ocean and all its sensory input, so I stood there like a total fool and let you slip into a zone. Did I even consider how many different senses were being activated out there? That I might not be able to bring you out? No! I..." Blair's eyes are wild now and focused only on me as he turns away from the fire. He pulls his legs up and wraps his arms around his knees, rocking slightly. "I just stood there and let you..."

"Stop it, Sandburg!" I can't take his guilt any longer. "Quit beating yourself up over this." I purposefully lower my voice, hoping my tone will slow his rapidly beating heart. "It's okay. I'm all right. You knew what to do to bring me out of it, and I am all right."

He rocks faster now, and his eyes glisten with unshed tears. "But, it never should have happened! I never should have let you zone, Jim! What the hell ever made me think that it might be something you would enjoy?"

It's time to level with my guide. "You were right."

He stops his desperate rocking motion at my matter-of-fact words. Now, beneath the tears, there is a flash of curiosity. *That's better, Chief.*

"You got it right, kid. I'm not sure how to explain..."

Blue eyes, the blue of the deepest ocean, meet mine and hold, intently focused on understanding what I'm trying so hard to convey. A sentinel could zone in those depths...

I shake myself back from the dreamscape of Sandburg's eyes. *Not now, Ellison. Two zones? The kid would freak for sure.*

"Blair, I know that zoning can be dangerous for me, and you've done a great job teaching me to control them. Even when I can't, even when I do slip into a zone, you're there. You always know how to pull me back, to guide me home to reality. I'm grateful for that. I truly am, Chief. But... You were right. A zone can be an amazing thing. Something I don't mind experiencing. At least occasionally, but only when you're there to watch my back." I smile at him. "That's what guides do, remember?"

The fire of the scientist flares in his eyes, and the flames before us pale in comparison. "What's it like, Jim?" Blair asks, almost breathless. He leans forward, resting his chin on his arms, still clasped around his knees. His eyes are so piercing, so inquisitive.

I'm not sure of the words I need to adequately describe the experience, if such words even exist. Uncertain of how to explain, I struggle to express what he can never truly know. "It's...almost like a dream, yet it's the most in-depth reality..."

Then, in a flash of inspiration, it comes to me. "You know how you feel when you're really into learning something or figuring out some complex problem or concept? You get this intent, focused look on your face, Chief, and sometimes I think the world could come tumbling down around you, and you would never even notice. That's sort of what zoning is like for me. I lose myself in whatever sensory experience I'm having. It's liberating, in a way, Chief. For that few seconds in time, I am completely cut off from the rest of the world. I'm existing in a universe no one else can know, no one else can see."

A tiny smile draws up the corners of his mouth. "So, sometimes, maybe you can tell me when you'd like to zone? Only when it's safe, of course," he hastens to add.

I grin back at him. "Sure, Chief, and, hey, don't worry about not being able to bring me back, okay?"

His smile fades as small lines of worry wrinkle his forehead. "I'll always worry about that, Jim. I mean, what if the chocolate hadn't worked? With you zoning on all your senses at once, I'm not sure what else I could have tried."

The chocolate? I don't believe this kid. He truly doesn't understand, doesn't know what really brought me back. I lean forward, so that I'm closer to him as I capture his eyes with mine.

"Blair, you really think it was the chocolate that helped me break the zone?"

When he nods slowly, I clearly see the confusion which clouds his eyes. I don't allow him time to question. "I tasted the chocolate, yes. But, that's not what reached through the zone, what touched me so deep down inside that I remembered what was waiting for me and followed it back."

Reaching out, I grasp one of his hands, tugging it gently away from his knees. Squeezing the slim fingers, I try to explain. "It was you, Chief. When you slipped the chocolate in my mouth, I tasted...you. Then, your tears fell on my face, and I could taste them on my lips. Everything you are...all you mean to me...bubbled up inside, and I remembered. Remembered that you were with me, and I could hear you calling for me to come back. So, I followed the sound of your voice, and the warmth of your hands, and the...well, the *feel* of you...back out of the zone." I hesitate, and then I add, "That's something else about zones, Darwin, that you might not have realized before. It's not really all the stuff you *do* that brings me back, it's *you.*"

I reach out to brush away the single tear which is trickling down his tanned cheek. "You're my anchor, Chief. With you around, the zone hasn't been made that I can't escape."

His free hand comes up to press against my hand hard against his face, then he leans into my palm. "That's...intense, man. Thanks." His gratitude shines in his eyes.

Smiling, I squeeze his hand again. "No more secrets," I repeat. "I've learned that lesson the hard way. If there's something you need to know...ask. I promise I won't hold back. Not again."

The light in Blair's eyes flames high, bright and joyful, at my words. I'm still awed at the power I have to make him happy, to make him bounce with excitement, or to crush his spirit with a single word. God knows, I've done nothing in my life to earn such devotion or such a friendship. Yet, Blair offered his heart to me almost from the moment we met, as if he'd been waiting his entire life to give me the greatest gift I've ever received.

Sometimes, I've failed to appreciate the magnitude of that gift and the responsibility I must bear in order to preserve it. I've dedicated myself to doing everything in my power not to ever forget again, to appreciate daily how special, how rare, our friendship truly is. If that means dealing with emotions and fears I'd prefer to ignore, bringing them out into the glare of day for us to examine and clarify, then, so be it. What a small price to pay for his light in my life.

That light, that love, is shining now, clear and strong in Blair's deep, blue eyes. I let the veil fall completely until I know that my own emotions are every bit as clear. He leans forward a little, but it is enough for me to read his intentions, and I draw him to me. Strange how natural holding Sandburg has become, and how much it means to me to feel his arms come around me in return. My family never hugged, and I've never felt truly comfortable holding another male, except for Blair. He snuggles against me easily, as if he is coming home, returning to the place he has always belonged.

There are no further words. No more are necessary. The night passes slowly.

Outside, I hear the tide turning, the whisper of the waves as they continue their endless journey and the sounds of the small, night animals moving through the darkness. The wind floats gently through the leaves, and I swear I can sense the very movements of the stars dancing their intricate patterns in the heavens. Within the comfortable old house, the flickering flames warm us as we huddle together, two hearts beat in synchronized harmony, and our souls touch, lingering through the long night, savoring our connection...our friendship...and this perfect moment beside the sea.

Finis...

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