In Plain Sight…
Note: I thought I had TSbyBS options worked out of my system, but apparently not. This story takes Blair down a different path…
Blair managed to extract himself from Jim's headlock without unbalancing his friend, and stood back, one hand on Jim's arm to hold him steady until Ellison was stable again with the cane. Everyone was laughing and feeling great-everyone but Sandburg, who managed to keep a ghost of a smile playing around his lips. But the fact was, he was staggered by Simon's completely unexpected offer and didn't have the first clue what to do about it. Well, that wasn't quite true. He did have a clue, he just didn't know how to go about refusing the opportunity of being a cop without completely falling apart in front of everyone.
The offer was kind, more than kind. It was incredible.
And, it was impossible.
For so very many reasons…
Starting with the fact that a self-proclaimed liar and fraud could never have a place in a law enforcement community; would never be accepted or trusted by cops who didn't know him. And even those who did know him would never understand why Jim would be able to tolerate having him around, not without asking themselves serious questions about the whole Sentinel thing. After all, Jim was ostensibly the wounded party, the one whose trust had been violated, so why wouldn't he summarily kick Sandburg right out of his life? Swallowing, Blair wondered how Jim or Simon could begin to imagine that the secret would remain intact if Blair kept working with Jim, let alone continued to share an apartment. The questions, the speculations, would be inevitable, and the secret would be a secret no more. So, for Jim's sake, there was no way he could even consider accepting the offer.
Nor could he accept it for himself. Over the years, he'd held guns, even fired them-even fired with intent at that very scary bunch of white supremacists who styled themselves as 'Patriots'. And the memory of each of those occasions spawned more nightmares than did Lash or bomb-laden falling elevators or getting shot, or any of the other seriously insane or just plain evil criminals they had gone up against over the years. The possibility of ever killing someone made Blair's blood run cold. Not that he didn't respect the men and women who could bear the incredible burden of carrying a badge and doing what had to be done, he respected them all tremendously. He just didn't have it in him to be one of them.
Looking around at his friends, people so eager to throw him a lifeline because they cared about him, Blair was hard-pressed not to weep with gratitude. In his wildest dreams, he'd never imagined such support would be forthcoming and part of him ached to accept it.
But he couldn't.
His gaze moved to lock with his mother's eyes, and he could see the hurt in them, and the fear for him-and the guilt for what she had done with only the best of intentions. Her smile was brittle, her posture rigid, as she did her best to convey some measure of happiness that he'd been given this offer, this opportunity to continue his association with the Police Department, and with Jim, if that's what he wanted. Blair's eyes fell away from her, unable to bear the pain he saw written in her heart.
Cutting a quick look back at Jim, he could see that his best friend was truly happy about this offer. Jim hadn't begun to think of the implications and the inevitable outcomes if they followed this path together. Jim just wanted to make it 'right'. Wanted to give him something back for what he'd given up. Wanted to believe that everything would be fine now and life would go on. But that just wasn't possible.
Shifting his gaze quickly over the others, he found himself pausing as he looked at Joel, and read the empathy there. Joel knew, Blair realized in that moment, Joel knew this wasn't going to work and felt really bad about it. Sandburg gave the older man a brief nod of acknowledgment and gratitude and then turned to look down at Simon, who was watching him thoughtfully.
"Sandburg," Banks said as their gazes met, his voice solemn, "I think you and I should take a few minutes to talk about this. Would you mind stepping into my office? The rest of you people, there is work to be done. Let's get back at it!"
Blair nodded with relief, and backed up a step to let Simon wheel in ahead of him. When Jim moved to accompany them, Simon held up a hand to wave Jim off and shook his head, making it clear that he wanted to speak to Blair alone. Keeping his eyes averted from Jim, Blair followed the Captain and softly closed the door, hoping Jim would take the hint and not listen in.
Simon swiveled the chair around and waved Blair to a seat. "You seem less than joyful about this offer, Sandburg," he observed mildly.
Blair looked away toward the windows as he let his pack slide through his hands to rest on the floor at his feet. Taking a breath, reaching for calm, he turned back to Simon as he said with a husky voice, "I really appreciate this, Simon, I hope you know how much. But, no, I can't accept it. I think we both know that if I tried to be a cop, I'd fail. Carrying a weapon just isn't something I can ever see myself doing." Pausing, with a quick glance toward the bullpen beyond the closed door, he added, "And, I don't think it would be good for the Unit or for Jim to have me around any more. There'd be gossip and speculation-it would be only a matter of time before Jim's secret became common knowledge and he's not ready for that."
Simon studied the intense young man, thinking he'd never seen Sandburg look so sad, or so lost. He wished with all his heart that he could offer a different perspective to change the kid's mind, but in truth, Banks agreed with him. Shaking his head sorrowfully, Simon sighed as he accepted Blair's rejection of the offer. "I'm sorry, Blair," he said quietly. "You've made a tremendous contribution over the past four years, and I would have fought for you, backed you up, if you'd decided to accept this. I would like to keep you on my team. But-I think you're right. Not everyone can do all of what we have to be prepared to do. And, I think you're right about what people would wonder about Jim, if he showed he was willing to keep working with you despite all that's happened. But, dammit, I think Jim needs the support you give him…"
Blair held up a hand as he intervened, "I don't agree. Jim's been fine for months now. He doesn't zone anymore and he has really good control on how he uses his senses. If anything, consciously or unconsciously, I think he's been getting impatient with having to be tied to me. Remember his trip up to Clayton Falls? He was telling me then in as gentle a way that he could, that he needs his space back. When I didn't get the message, well, he's tried to carry on with everything the way it's been. But more and more, he's working on his own. And twice, first when Alex was giving us grief, and then during this last mess, when the pressure has been too much for him to keep pretending he wants me around, he's come right out and said he doesn't want to do this anymore. That it's time to move on. Maybe he's right. Maybe it is time."
Simon's jaw tightened as his lips thinned and he shook his head. "I'm not as sure about that as you seem to be," he replied tightly. "Have you talked to him about this recently?"
"You mean since the press conference?" Blair sighed. "No, I haven't, because he wouldn't agree right now. I know he feels bad about what I had to do. But that was my decision. Ethically and professionally, to protect my source, I didn't really have a choice once the media got all over him. Personally, well, when you and Megan got hurt, when I could see what the craziness was doing to him, I just had to stop it anyway I could. Don't worry…I'll find a way to manage. Simon, when you think about it, remember that most people do just fine in life without the benefit of having a Ph.D."
There was a sharp knock on Simon's door and they both looked up to see Jim standing there, looking furious. Blair turned his head away, not surprised that Jim hadn't been able to resist listening in to the conversation…nor that he was angry to be left out of it. Simon rolled his eyes, but waved the detective inside.
As Jim entered and closed the door, Banks protested, "This was supposed to have been a private conversation, Jim."
"You're both talking about me, about what you think I want or what is best for me," Jim growled. "I think I have a right to speak for myself."
Nodding with an air of resignation, Simon waved Ellison to the chair beside Sandburg. "So, fine, tell us what you think about whether you need Sandburg on the streets with you."
"That's not the point, here," Jim grated. "The point is, Sandburg has earned our support…"
Standing abruptly, Blair cut in. "No, Jim, I made my own decisions for my own reasons. Nobody here, not Simon and certainly not you, owes me a thing," he said tightly. "Look, I'm grateful for the offer, more than either of you will ever know, but it won't work. I have to be going, I'm sorry. I've got some things I have to do, and my car…my car is in the shop, so I can't give you a lift home."
"Chief," Jim tried again, softening his tone, wanting so badly for everything to just be all right, to go back to being the same as it had been, as if anything could ever be the same again.
Blair laid a hand on his friend's shoulder, as he again intervened firmly, "No, Jim. This won't work." For a moment, Sandburg looked down at Jim, as if there were so many other things he wanted to say. But with a glance at Simon, he hitched his pack over his shoulder as he continued quickly, suddenly seeming to be desperate to get away, his voice a little hoarse with the effort to control his emotions, "I really have to be going. I'd just come in to drop off my pass, and it's on your desk, Simon. Thank you, both of you, for everything over the past years, and for what you offered me today."
With that, Blair brushed past them and left the office, closing the door behind him to keep them from calling after him. He walked directly toward his mother, who had been hovering in the doorway chatting to Joel while keeping half an eye on Simon's office.
"Joel," Blair said with quiet intensity as he gripped his friend's arm, "thank you for understanding, but we have to go now."
Joel swallowed hard and nodded, reading Blair's decision in his eyes. He moved to pull the young man into a tight hug. "If you ever need anything, you call me, you hear?"
"I hear you," Blair murmured, hugging the older man back. "Thank you, my friend."
Pulling back, Blair took his mother by the arm and drew her toward the elevator. "Mom, we need to go."
"But, what about…" she began.
"We'll talk on the way," Blair replied, over-riding her as he punched the button.
Blessedly, the elevator arrived quickly, and they stepped onto it. Once the doors had closed, Blair turned to Naomi, and said, "I appreciate you trying to support this, but relax. I won't be going to the Police Academy."
The tension of her body immediately eased, but she looked at him with a frown. "What will you do, Blair?" she asked plaintively, worry clouding her eyes.
"I've got some ideas," he replied evasively. "I just need a little time to work it all out."
When the elevator opened on the street level, he guided her swiftly through the busy foyer and out onto the street. "How long will you be staying with Spring Rain?" he asked as he flagged down a cab for her.
"Until tomorrow, and then I'm flying down to Arizona, to Sedona," she replied, feeling suddenly as if Blair was rushing her away. "But I could stay if you need me."
"No, Mom, I'll be fine," Blair assured her as the taxi pulled up to the curb. Giving her a hug, he moved to open the cab's door for her. "Don't worry. Once things settle down, I'll be in touch."
"Are you sure you're all right?" she asked, studying him intently. "I feel so badly…"
"I'll be fine," he insisted again with a small smile. "I just need some time. But, I promise, I'll be just fine. Don't worry."
Nodding, she got into the cab and he watched as it drove away.
And then he turned and walked in the other direction, soon swallowed up in the throng of the busy street.
Simon sighed and shook his head as he watched Sandburg move quickly across the bullpen and then escort his mother onto the elevator. Joel had turned to look into the office, an expression of utter sorrow on his face and Banks nodded toward him in silent commiseration, then pulled off his glances and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Maybe it's for the best," he muttered as he turned his attention back to Ellison.
Jim was leaning forward with his head down, and his shoulders slumped, looking defeated. Swallowing against the lump in his throat, sniffing as he ran a hand across his mouth and under his nose, he nodded slowly. "Yeah," he choked, and then cleared his throat. "At least now, I won't have to worry about him getting shot in the line of duty."
Resettling his glasses on his face, Simon straightened, getting back to business as he asked, "So, I guess Megan is the best option to be your partner…"
But Jim shook his head. "I don't want a partner," he said sounding weary, but his jaw was tight and the look in his eyes was belligerent.
"Jim, be reasonable," Simon implored, too tired for this crap. "You need backup regardless of the senses and, with the senses, you need someone who knows what's going on in case you run into trouble. She's the only other person who has a clue about you. It's just not safe for you to work on your own; not safe for any cop. So it's either Megan, or you choose someone else. But you will have a partner or I will not let you go back on the streets. Is that clear?"
"I worked just fine on my own before," Ellison protested with a glare, his eyes blazing, daring Simon to deny that fact.
"Before your senses came on line, and even then it wasn't particularly safe," Simon replied, not backing down. "Go home. Take your week of sick leave and let your leg heal. And think about who you want to work with."
Angry but knowing further argument at that point was pointless, dropping his gaze to hide the fury in his eyes, Jim nodded once sharply, and then stood, leaning heavily on his cane. "Fine. I'll think about it," he snapped as he limped to the door and on out of the office to the elevators.
Simon wheeled out of his office, and as he watched the elevator doors close on the sullen image of his best detective, he waved the others to him. "People, I need a minute of your time," he called. Once they'd circled around him, he explained briefly, "Blair has decided that being a cop isn't what is best for him, not right now, anyway. And he's turned in his observer's pass. Jim, Megan and I will be off for the next week on sick leave, so Joel, I'll be leaving you in charge. That's it, folks. That's all. Get back to work."
Silence and expressions of dismay greeted his words, and he wasn't surprised. It felt like the end of an era, one he was as sorry as the rest of them to realize was over.
Not up to discussing Sandburg's plans with anyone, not least of which because he didn't have a clue what they were, Jim refused to even consider begging a ride home and grabbed a cab back to the loft. Taking the elevator in deference to his aching leg, he hobbled down the hall, listening for sounds of his roommate's presence though he didn't really expect him to be there. Sandburg had said he had 'things to do', and hadn't given any indication of when he'd be home. Shaking out his keys and fitting one into the lock, Ellison shook his head as he recalled Blair's comment about the Volvo being in the shop again. They were going to have to figure out how to get the kid a decent set of wheels, though Jim sighed as he realized Blair wouldn't agree to any new expenditures, not now, not until he got his life sorted out.
Moving into the apartment, he hung up his coat and moved to the kitchen to get himself a beer and then limped into the living room to sag into his favourite chair. The throbbing ache in his leg matched the one in his head and he closed his eyes after taking a small sip from the bottle, and then leaned back, his head and neck supported by the high back of the chair.
What the hell had happened down at the station today? What was really going on? He'd been able to tell from any number of signs that Sandburg had barely been holding onto his emotions when they'd first walked in intent upon 'making everything right'. The kid's heart had been thumping so hard that Jim wondered how he could be the only one who could hear it. And Blair had been so pale, so wasted looking. But Jim had been certain that as soon as he'd heard the offer, Sandburg would relax and even be excited about it, maybe. After all, if he couldn't finish at Rainier, it had been the perfect solution.
Ellison frowned as he recalled that he'd known as soon as Blair had pulled away from him that something was badly wrong. Sandburg's heart was still tripping over at light speed, as if he'd just run ten miles up hill, and he'd been trembling. Hell, even Simon had picked up by then that something was off and had invited Blair into the inner sanctum.
Jim knew he shouldn't have listened in, but he'd been too damned worried about Sandburg to mind his own business. When he'd heard the direction the discussion was going, he'd felt sick. Blair was still trying to protect him. Was refusing the opportunity in an effort to continue to protect the secret about the damned senses. But, as the conversation had carried on, and he heard Sandburg say with such weary conviction that the kid was certain that Jim just didn't want him around any more, Ellison had gotten angry. More at himself than anyone else, but angry nonetheless. They were talking about him, about their assumptions about what he needed and wanted and he'd be damned if he wasn't going to speak for himself.
But, Blair hadn't given him the chance, had interrupted and had stood to go before anyone could stop him. Jim recalled the look in the kid's eyes, and the way Sandburg had gripped his shoulder so hard, like he was trying to convey some kind of deep message. Ellison felt an ache in his chest at that remembered look. As if the kid was about to cry, but didn't want to fall apart in front of anyone. As if…as if he was saying 'good-bye'.
Well, that was just crap.
Whether they worked together or not, they were friends, right? They'd stay friends. Sandburg lived here; this was his home. As soon as Blair got back from whatever errands he was running, they were going to have a long talk. It was overdue, and Jim knew it. But everything had been moving so fast and there'd been no choice but to keep after the Iceman, and finally to deal with him when he'd invaded the station, guns blasting. If Jim hadn't gotten shot and been in the hospital, they would have talked about it all before now.
Because he really needed to talk to Blair. Needed to figure out what to do about Rainier. There had to be something. Damn, Sandburg was a victim here. He hadn't submitted the paper, and it wasn't his fault events had gotten out of hand, what with that jerk Sid whatshisname in New York and the media here carrying on like vultures fighting over a fresh carcass. Not to mention Naomi's part in the whole mess. Jim shook his head. He knew Blair's mother had only had good intentions, but what a disaster she had created.
Not, Jim had to admit, that he hadn't done his part in making it worse.
Sighing, he took another pull on the bottle, and rubbed his sore leg absently as he reflected bitterly on his own part in the disaster. Oh, sure, he could play the innocent, wronged person until the cows came home. But the truth was, if he wasn't such a coward about letting people know about his 'exceptional sensory gifts', as Sandburg referred to them, then it wouldn't have been an issue in the first place, and Blair wouldn't have had to hold that press conference.
Jim's thoughts froze for a moment as he recalled watching Sandburg destroy himself publicly to protect his Sentinel, his friend. In that single, shattering, moment, Jim knew he'd finally realized what a fool he'd been, how blind and how stupid, to have ever doubted Blair and to have failed to value the depth of commitment and friendship that kid offered. The only thought in his mind at that moment was that at least he'd be able to find a way to make it right. Blair might have just committed professional suicide, but it wasn't like at the fountain. The kid was alive, and whatever was wrong could be fixed. Whatever it took, it could be fixed.
But except for those few moments at the hospital after the press conference, there'd been no time to talk about it, no time to do anything about it. Even after Zeller had managed to kill himself, there hadn't been any time. Jim had been taken to hospital along with everyone else who had been shot in the office that day, while Sandburg had stayed behind to help sort out the mess and give the statements necessary. Blair had arrived at the hospital in time to assure himself that the doctors were briefed on Ellison's 'allergies' before the operation, and had been there when Jim had awakened after the surgery. But Ellison had felt too wasted to say much of anything coherent at that point. And then it seemed like there was always someone around, or Blair had to take off because his mother was still in town. At least being in the same hospital had allowed Jim and Simon to do their plotting about offering Sandburg a permanent place in the Major Crimes Unit.
For all the good that had done.
Well, then, they'd just have to find a way to deal with Rainier. Firing him, expelling him…that was bullshit. There were no grounds, Jim was sure of it. So, first thing tomorrow, he and Blair would go down to the campus and meet the Chancellor, make it clear to her that she either retracted her actions, or there would be a lawsuit. Period.
That only left the fallout from the press conference. Sighing, Jim rubbed his eyes, wishing that Sandburg had talked to him before taking such a dramatic step. It had been heartbreakingly noble, and breathtakingly courageous, but Jim wouldn't have allowed the kid to do it. They could have gotten court orders to keep the media back until they'd had time to think about what to do about it all.
What to do about it all…
Jim swallowed, feeling a sick churning in his gut. Gritting his teeth, he knew what he was going to have to do, though it scared him to the core of his being. He was going to have to come clean. There really wasn't any other option. And it was going to be a circus. The media would go even crazier than they already had, and the Chief and the Commissioner would be spitting mad to have been left in the dark. The District Attorney would be chewing nails, worried about the time and costs of all the appeals that would now have to be handled. But, they'd be handled. The evidence would stand. Nothing inherently illegal had been done.
Oh, it would be a zoo, all right. But there was no hope for it. And Jim knew he'd need Blair's help to get through it all. To come up with the answers they could give without giving away so much that Jim would be at risk in the field from criminals who knew too much about how to bring him down. To deal with the sensory overload.
And just to help Jim accept having the whole world know he was some kind of freak.
Jim couldn't begin to imagine getting through all that without Sandburg's support. And, once he'd come clean, well, the kid could go back to being an observer, or be a paid consultant, maybe, if he didn't want to ever be a cop. But he could still be Jim's partner, could still back him up.
For a moment, Jim paused to think about that. He'd told Simon that maybe it was for the best if Sandburg just quit, because then the kid wouldn't be in any more danger of getting hurt. Ellison felt a surge of helpless anger, again toward himself, that he needed Sandburg's help so badly at whatever cost that held for the kid because, honestly, Jim would far rather keep Blair far away from any danger, if only he could. For months now, he'd been thinking that maybe it might be possible to work without Blair beside him and had been deliberately doing more and more without Sandburg's back up. All things being equal, Blair was right, Jim knew that he did have a much better handle on his senses, and wasn't so prone to zone. It could have worked, maybe, with Blair being a prof at the U, and they could have just remained friends and roommates, with Blair being available if something went bad and Jim really needed his help.
But that wouldn't work now, not when everything had to come out, and a strategy for dealing with the media and the lowlifes, who would now know about his senses, had to be put into play. Jim bit his lip as his eyes burned and he leaned forward, his elbows on his knees and his head lowered, grieving for the fact that he couldn't see a way to keep his best friend, his Guide, far away from the mean streets and safe.
Sighing, Jim straightened. It couldn't be helped. They'd just have to find a way to work it out from here. Absently, he noticed that it was getting late and wondered where Sandburg was, figuring that he should be home any time. Unconsciously, his gaze drifted around the loft, and he thought how immaculate it looked. The kid had really worked hard to get it in shape for his return from the hospital, and Jim smiled softly with fond gratitude.
But, then, he noticed the small changes in the place. Nothing really major but-there were no candles on the coffee table or bookcase. The afghan was missing from the back of the couch. There weren't any books lying around anywhere, though that perhaps wasn't a surprise given the abrupt severing of Sandburg's ties with the University. But even if he wasn't a student or a teaching fellow anymore, Jim couldn't imagine Blair not being immersed in some book or other. Frowning, feeling a slight sense of unease, Jim stood and moved into the kitchen, tossing away the empty bottle. The counters were clear, not a thing out of place. Opening one of the cupboards, he froze. The packets of Sandburg's herbal teas and algae shake mix were gone.
"What the…" Jim muttered to himself, feeling a sharp shaft of alarm, but telling himself he was being ridiculous. The kid had probably just run out of supplies. When he'd said he had 'things to do', he'd likely meant he needed to do some shopping.
But Jim moved to the bathroom, and he felt something in his chest constrict, making it hard to breathe, when he saw that Sandburg's tooth brush, shampoo and conditioner were gone. Scared now, he limped hurriedly to the French doors to Blair's room, and opened one to move inside.
The bed was stripped down, freshly laundered sheets folded beside the blankets, and the afghan from the couch was carefully folded as well, on the end of the barren bed. The desk was clear with no trace of the laptop, the bookcase neat. Limping to the closet, Jim pulled the door open and saw that a lot of Sandburg's clothing was gone. The better clothes, the dress pants and shirts, the ties, were still there, but all the jeans and sweaters, the sweatshirts, were gone and Jim recalled now how full Sandburg's backpack had looked though he hadn't really noticed it consciously at the time.
Feeling as if he'd been slugged, Jim staggered back, reaching for the chair by the desk, and he sank down onto it, his eyes darting around the room. On the floor, by the end of the desk, was a box filled with journals and tape cassettes with an envelope lying on top of the rest of the stuff, an envelope with his name on it.
With a trembling hand, Jim reached down and picked up the envelope, but he just held it, afraid to open it, not wanting to see what was inside. Shaking his head, wanting to deny the evidence of his eyes, he again gazed around the darkening room and the depleted closet. It couldn't be what it looked like. Blair couldn't be gone. All the rest of his stuff, the masks on the walls, pictures, most of them anyway, were all still here. Clothing was still in the closet. He hadn't moved everything out. So, he wasn't gone. Not really gone.
Finally, unable to put it off any longer, Jim set his cane on the foot of the bed, over the afghan, and carefully opened the envelope. Sandburg's two credit cards were inside, along with his bankcard and a couple of folded sheets of paper. Biting his lip, Jim pulled out the letter, opened it and began to read…
I've decided to go away for a while, to figure out what to do with my life now. I'm sorry, I know you'd rather that we talked first, but I honestly think we both need some time, and some space, to sort out where we go from here. You've been doing so well with your senses that I think we both know you don't need me around all the time anymore. And, well, I understand your need to just have your own place back, to have a bit of peace in your life. There's no need for me to be living under foot anymore. I know you'll be fine. If I wasn't absolutely sure of that, I wouldn't be able to leave like this.
I hope you don't mind that I didn't clear everything out, but I didn't want to seem like I was taking off in a funk. I'm not. You're my best friend, and I love you, man. Maybe once we've had a bit of time apart, we can talk more easily about where we go from here. I don't know how long I'll be gone, though, so if my stuff is in your way, I won't mind if you decide to just pack it up and store it somewhere. Really, I'd understand. Once I've got things sorted out, maybe you could help me find a decent place, maybe in the neighbourhood, and we could still hang out together or something. I know I don't want to lose our friendship, even if we can't still work or live together.
Because we can't.
I've pretty much screwed any chance of that. Nobody on the Force would ever be able to trust me again, and well, I just don't see how anyone could ever understand you being able to tolerate having me around. In their eyes, I used and betrayed you, and so far as anyone knows, except Simon and Megan, you would have every right to be angry with me and resent me. So, if I was still around, they'd wonder why. And they'd eventually wonder if maybe the diss was actually true. I'm not prepared to put you in that position, or have you subject to that kind of risk.
Please don't ever think that you have any responsibility for anything that's happened. You don't. Mom meant well, and what's done is done. I made all my own decisions about how to fix it, as best I could.
I've left my notes and the only copy of the diss in the box, in case you, Simon or Megan need the information.
Don't worry about me. I'll be fine. I sold my car and the laptop, and cleaned out my account, and, well, there was some modest severance pay from Rainier, so I'm okay. I just need a little time to sort my life out and decide where I'm going from here, what I'll do with myself.
I'm sorry, Jim. I hate to just take off like this, but I couldn't face the 'good-bye'. I don't ever want to say 'good-bye' to you. Not even if it's only for a while. I'll never be able to find the right words to tell you how much you mean to me, or how immensely grateful I am for all you've done…giving me a home, being my friend. Knowing you has been the best thing that's ever happened in my life, and I truly have no regrets about what I had to do to protect you. I only will ever have joy in all the memories of our time together. Believe that.
Take care of yourself, my brother. I'll miss you while I'm gone.
Jim sat staring sightlessly at the paper, the fingers of his right hand tracing over the lines with a tentative touch, as if trying to feel Sandburg's presence in the scrawled ink on the page. His features had gone slack with shock, but grief and aching sorrow filled his eyes and burned in his chest. Stunned, he was unable to stop the barrage of memories that swamped over him. Slamming the kid into the wall of his office, pushing him aside or away, turning from him in anger and hurt; Sandburg chained to a chair, only semiconscious; shot in a filthy mine; floating in the fountain and dead at his feet; Blair's face, when he was hurt by words that couldn't be retracted, up at Clayton Falls, in the garage or in the office…or on the street by the waterfront. Blair distraught almost to the point of tears as he spoke huskily during the press conference, and then later, his voice tight and guarded when he'd admitted that it was his life he'd just sacrificed, not just a paper or a degree.
His jaw tight, blinking against the burning in his eyes, Ellison wondered how the kid could say that memories like that could ever give him joy.
Jim's memories left him feeling nauseated, devastated…and guilty.
He'd waited too damned long to have that talk with Sandburg. He should have made time, should have let the kid know that no way was he going to let Blair's sacrifice stand. Too late. Sandburg had left believing that Jim had accepted his sacrifice, which left Sandburg holding a bag full of nothing.
Where would he have gone? How far away would he go? Knowing Sandburg, he could be headed any where in the world. The credit cards and bankcard had been left deliberately, though the letter had said nothing about them. But Jim knew it was Blair's way of signaling that he couldn't be traced. The car was sold, so it couldn't be traced either.
Again Jim thought about that odd look in Blair's eyes just before he'd left Simon's office.
And, now, he understood what that look had meant.
The room had darkened by the time the shock wore off enough for Ellison to think clearly. And then the feeling of numbed grief gave way to anger. If Sandburg thought he was just going to do the honourable thing and disappear, he was wrong.
Paper trail or not, he could be found.
Jim put the letter on the desk and grabbed his cane, limping back out to the kitchen to pull the phone from the wall. He called the bus station first, then the airport and airlines and then the taxi companies. Ellison didn't expect anyone to remember Blair's name, as he might not have given it, nor did he expect anyone answering his call to have personally seen Sandburg and so recognize his description. This was only the first step. Jim was alerting them that by morning he'd have photos delivered for circulation and posting, so that if anyone had seen Sandburg, they could call him.
And then he went through his small collection of photos, saddened to see how few there were of Sandburg. But he picked out the best one with the intention of having it copied first thing in the morning. And then he'd deliver them personally around the city. Jim knew he wasn't able to drive himself with his bad leg, and smiled grimly at the thought of how much the cab driver he'd call would love him by the time he paid the final fare.
Blair might have thought there was no need for a talk before he'd left, but he was going to find out differently. He was going to find out he hadn't needed to leave at all. Just as soon as Jim could find him, Sandburg was going to get his life back, and be back home, where he belonged.
Sitting at the table, Jim found himself going through the photographs again, most of them from their camping and fishing trips. Some of them from parties they'd attended over the years with the rest of the gang. Blair was beaming in all of them, his eyes dancing with mirth and good spirits. Happy. He looked so damned happy.
Swallowing in a vain attempt to dislodge the lump in his throat, Jim felt his lip tremble as his eyes misted with tears. "Dammit, Chief…I didn't want you to go," he whispered, his voice tight with emotion. "And if you think I'm going to let you wander off, all alone, you're wrong. We'll work this out, Blair. I promise you, I'll make everything right."
Blair had taken his time as he'd ambled across town along the busy downtown streets filled with rushing people and constant heavy traffic. He felt numb, and a little disoriented, but he was certain that he was doing the right thing. Unable to bear the grief that pulled at him, misting his eyes, he pushed it away impatiently, blinking and straightening, forcing himself to pay attention to the world around him. Losing himself in the study of his environment, so that he wouldn't have to deal with the pain of his life.
In full 'observer' mode, he took note of the harried expressions on the faces of the people who pushed by him, seeing few who even seemed to notice that for once it was a beautiful day, with the sun shining in a cloudless sky. And he also saw those who were not locked in their own thoughts, oblivious to everyone around them: the impoverished people who haunted corners with their hands out, forlorn, looking desperate in their ragged clothing, less than clean, worn out by life; the teens standing in clusters, the girls giggling, the boys preening or trying to look tough; the women with the hard, calculating eyes, strutting and posturing, exhibiting their wares.
As he moved into and through the more ethic neighborhoods of the oldest parts of the inner city, where people lived as well as worked, he looked at the buildings, some in good repair, many more like aging dowagers far past their prime, and depending on the neighborhood, too many that were dilapidated and looked haggard and dangerous. The people on the streets were different here, too. Some sat on front stoops, exchanging gossip, or alone and watching with narrow, suspicious eyes any strangers who wandered past.
There were children in these parts of town, kids of all ages, the youngest with mothers who too often scarcely looked old enough to have offspring of their own; bigger children playing games, darting about, laughing and teasing, paying no attention to the traffic or the adults around them. Older kids, adolescents, who ranged from being well groomed and equally well behaved, to those dressed to make some point about their independence or their state of unhappiness, though they might not have acknowledged the messages they were giving unconsciously. Still others, who looked tough, and tried to intimidate with direct eye contact and glowering, vaguely threatening expressions.
Men who idled about, not having work to go to, resentful and angry. Other men hurrying to jobs on the evening shift, or making their way home, weary. Women, too, tired after a long day in an office or store, or factory, preoccupied with worries about what they'd be making for dinner that night. Old people, who no doubt still mostly felt young inside, who shopped, or cared for small children, or visited, passing the time of day as they ambled about their neighborhoods.
Styles of clothing changed, as did the music of the languages spoken, as he wandered through one neighborhood after another. Different cultures and traditions, different beliefs and heritages, made obvious by what was in shop windows, or in the behaviours and dress of the people he saw. Different, but the same, somehow, as children played as they played elsewhere, as teens loitered with no place special to be, as old people visited, and as adults moved to and from work, or idled, watching others, tired, often despondent.
He drifted past churches and temples, mosques and synagogues, store front congregations, shelters and good will shops. Past small markets, and the workshops of craftsmen, past stores that sold all manner of goods, pawnshops and fast food outlets. Once he paused by a barbershop, looking inside thoughtfully, and then at his own reflection in the glass. Shrugging, he carried on. The hair was part of who he was and he liked it. Sandburg knew that few people ever really noticed anyone else any way, not really. Cutting his hair might make him that much more invisible, but fatalistically, he didn't think it would matter all that much. If someone found him, well, then they found him. But it wasn't likely that they would.
They, he thought wryly. Jim, you mean. He wondered how Jim would react when he got home and found out he'd left, for a while, anyway. Blair figured Jim would be surprised, maybe even shocked, at first. And then his first instinct would be to look, to try to track Sandburg down. He'd be sorry, maybe, because he'd feel bad about everything that happened, would wish they could just turn back time. And he might get frustrated and angry for a while, especially when he found there was no trail to follow. But he'd give up, eventually. And he'd be okay.
But if Jim wasn't all right, if something happened, well, Blair had made sure he wouldn't be far away and would be checking from time to time. If he eventually decided it was really necessary for someone to know where to reach him, Blair would tell Simon, but hope that Simon would also respect his desire to remain a little distant for a while.
Coming into his own new neighborhood, Blair smiled a little sadly to himself as he looked around. By the crows' flight, he was less than two miles from the loft, but he doubted anyone would notice him here. It wasn't a neighborhood where any of the cops he knew spent much time. Nodding to the people he passed along the street, smiling at some who knew him, he thought that he'd be comfortable here. It was the haven of those who were 'new agers', who paid attention to eating healthy foods, and who took issues about the environment and human rights seriously. Mostly young and idealistic, unconventional in their dress and style, they sought to know the truths of the ages, regardless of which culture or religion originated the ideas. They sought harmony and balance, and didn't judge others. Or, so they told themselves. Blair smiled again, wryly this time. Everyone judged according to their own principles and values-they just judged against different criteria. But, here at least, nobody would really care if he'd written a document that he'd had to disavow. Nobody would care that he'd been tossed out of the university or wasn't scaling some corporate ladder. Those who chose to know him would take him as he was and the rest would pretty much ignore him.
It was growing dark by the time he turned into the health food shop on the corner, and called out to the young woman behind the counter. "Hi, Janey. How was business today?"
"Oh, the usual," she replied with a look of gentle concern. "How are you?"
They'd known one another for years, from the days when she'd been one of his fellow students and her mother had run this store. But her mother had died a year ago, and Janey had taken it on, happy in the neighborhood, contented with her life. When Blair had asked if he could rent some space in the back as a bedroom and had offered to help out with tasks around the store, she'd agreed readily, glad to know someone would be on-site at night to ensure the security of her shop. Though she wondered at the story behind the fallout with the University and all the crazy media hype a couple of weeks ago, she had no personal doubts about Blair's integrity. And Janey knew that today was the day he'd severed his ties and had literally walked away from the life he'd known.
"I'm okay," he replied quietly in answer to her question and concern. Jerking his head toward the back of the building, he continued, "I'm just going to dump my stuff. Is there anything you want me to do tonight?"
Nodding, she moved out behind the counter to follow him back into the storage area. "I'd like you start on the inventory of all that's here. I've been too busy just running the place to really get into the corners or find out what's hiding in the back and top of some of the shelves. Anything that's past its expiry, just pitch. Here're the inventory sheets," she said, holding out a clipboard with a stack of forms attached. "There's no big rush. Take your time. And, if you think of stuff we should have, but don't, let me know, okay?"
"Sure thing," Blair agreed, taking the documents from her.
"You sure you'll be all right back here?" Janey asked again, thinking the narrow cot, dresser and cupboard in the back corner didn't look all that comfortable, though the bathroom had a shower, and there was a small bar fridge and hot plate, so the basics, at least, were met.
With a warm smile, Blair assured her, as he had a couple of times before, "This is all I need, Janey. I really appreciate you giving me the space and a place to be while I get my head together."
She reached out to touch his arm, as she replied, "No thanks necessary, Blair. I'm happy to have you around and you know you can stay as long as you want. Help yourself to the stock in the store for dinner…just note on the list by the register what we'll need to reorder. I'm going to lock up and go home. I'll see you in the morning."
"Good night," Blair replied as she turned away and went through the beaded curtain to the front of the shop. After she'd left, he wandered out into the darkened store to the front windows to gaze out into the street. Standing with his hands stuffed into his jeans, Sandburg wondered if seeking refuge here was the best idea he'd ever had, or if it was just a convenient, safe, place to hide and lick his wounds.
'Hiding in plain sight,' he thought, a stark expression on his face, feeling suddenly very lonely. Jim would figure he'd left Cascade, heading who knew where in this big old world. It would never occur to the detective that Blair might actually still be in town. Where would he go, after all? So far as Jim knew, most of his contacts were all either at the university or the police station. For a moment, Blair was sorely tempted to call his best friend, to reassure Jim that he was fine-to hear Jim's voice. But there was little point in giving them both space if he then immediately intruded back into Jim's world. No, it was better this way. A clean break with time to get used to being apart and know they could both survive on their own.
Time to let the wounds heal and the pain drift away.
Jim was up early the next morning, impatient to be about his task of tracking Sandburg down. Nobody could just plain disappear, not without a huge amount of effort and help. Sandburg hadn't had the time, nor did he have the money to vanish completely. Someone, somewhere, would have noticed him at the airport or bus station. Ellison called a cab and booked it for the whole morning, making the rounds and dropping off copies of the photo that he had made at the local camera shop. And then Jim decided to hold onto the taxi until he found the lot where Sandburg had sold his car, to begin to get an idea of just how much cash the kid would have had when he'd taken off. Finding the car didn't take all that long, as it turned out. Blair hadn't tried to make it difficult-he'd sold it back to the dealership where he'd bought it in the first place.
Back home, and more than two hundred photographs later, Jim called Rainier's Personnel Department, pretending to be a graduate student from another university who was seeking a transfer. He asked about the chances of getting a teaching fellowship, and what the severance benefits would be once the position was terminated.
Added to what Blair had gotten for his car, and with the piddling amount he would have had in his chequing account, and including the one hundred dollar bill he always carried around, Jim figured the kid would have no more than five thousand dollars. Enough to eat. Not enough to do anything fancy. So, if he'd left the country, he would have likely chosen somewhere that the US dollar traded favorably. Canada, Mexico, South America, Asia, the South Seas…well that list was a little too long to be encouraging. About all that was left out was Europe.
But, once he got to wherever he was going, he'd need to be able to find work. So language could be an issue. Blair could speak a smattering of modern languages and most of the extinct ones, but his fluency was limited to English and Spanish as far as Ellison knew…well, and maybe Hebrew. So Canada, Latin America, Spain, maybe Israel, but not likely. Jim couldn't imagine Blair deliberately heading off to a place where people blew one another up on a fairly regular basis. In any case, if he'd left the country, he would have had to travel on his own passport, so air tickets would be in his own name. If he'd flown out yesterday or today, or if he was still in the States and flew out in the next week or so, the enquiries to the airlines would bear fruit.
But he wouldn't have had to leave the US to disappear. The easiest thing would be simply to leave town. For a moment, Jim wondered if he might have gone somewhere with Naomi, but he discounted that idea. From his letter, it had sounded like he was heading out wherever it was alone. If he'd've gone with Naomi, he would have said so. More than that, given her role in the whole fiasco, Jim wasn't at all convinced that Blair would want to spend quality time with his mother at that point.
So that left the bus station, the train station or hitchhiking. Jim had covered the first two that morning. Pulling his coat back on, grabbing up his cane, he hobbled out of the apartment and down the street to the corner pharmacy, where he used the fax to send a copy of Blair's photo to the State Highway Patrol, asking that they keep a watch for any hitchhikers that resembled the photo and if they encountered Blair Sandburg, they were to call Detective Jim Ellison of the Cascade PD.
Limping back to the loft, ignoring the ache in his leg, Jim consoled himself that he hadn't actually abused his position by putting out a formal APB. He'd simply made a request of colleagues in another jurisdiction. No harm in that.
Back upstairs, he limped to the kitchen and made himself a sandwich, reflecting as he did so that Sandburg had taken care to ensure the refrigerator and cupboards were stocked with what Jim would need when he got home. Blair had no doubt figured that Jim would be in no shape to do a lot of shopping with his bad leg. The mute evidence of such thoughtful kindness, even as the kid was planning to just plain disappear, was almost too painful to think about. Snagging a beer, Jim moved to the table and consumed his lonely meal, wondering what else he could do to track Blair down.
Rinsing off the plate, he cleaned up the kitchen and limped over to the balcony windows to look out over his city. "Where are you, Chief?" he murmured as he rubbed the back of his neck.
He stood there as long as his leg could stand it, and then he hobbled over to the couch and sank down upon it.
And listened to the silence of the loft.
Unable to endure the emptiness of that silence, he impatiently clicked on the television and tried to pay attention to the first game he found. But his mind kept wandering off of its own accord.
Should he have told Simon or the guys? Maybe they'd have some idea of where to look. But he shook his head. None of them knew Sandburg as well as he did. So if he didn't have a clue about where the kid had gone, he sure couldn't expect them to have any idea.
But, maybe Joel? He'd offered to help Blair. Jim had heard that as he'd listened to Sandburg leave the Operations Room. No. Not yet. It was too soon. And besides, if Blair really needed help, he wouldn't go to Joel. He'd come to Jim. Like he'd said in his letter, he hadn't left mad and he still considered Jim to be his friend. He'd know that Jim would want him to call if he got into any trouble. God, Jim hoped Blair would have the sense to call if need be, and not just to try to tough out problems on his own. But with a sinking heart, Ellison was sorely afraid the kid's determined independence would get in the way and cloud his judgment.
Ellison then briefly considered the friends and contacts he knew of at Rainier, but he really couldn't see Blair going to any of them, not after the press conference.
So…he'd done all he could for now, right? He'd hit all the right places, made the right contacts, left photos in the right places. Something would surface, probably in the next day or two.
But, if nothing did emerge, if no one remembered seeing Sandburg, if he hadn't bought an airline ticket to somewhere, what then?
Jim licked his lips and then rubbed his mouth, thinking about it. No airline ticket would mean Blair was likely either still in the States somewhere, or maybe Canada…maybe Mexico. Would he go that far away? He needed a work permit in either of those countries, and they weren't all that easy to get. Oh, sure, he could work illegally, but Blair for all his unorthodox ways tended to live within the law. So that meant he was most likely still in the country and would remain in the country. And that meant, if need be, a nation-wide APB could be put out on him as a missing person. It was a stretch. He was an adult who'd left of his own accord-but it could be managed.
But Jim hesitated to go that far until he had to, knowing that Sandburg probably wouldn't appreciate having every cop in the country keeping a watch out for him.
It wouldn't have to go that far. Something would turn up.
Somebody, somewhere, would have seen Sandburg as he'd made his way out of town.
Jim told himself he'd find Blair, likely before the weekend. And then they could talk and figure out how best to reveal Jim's sensory capabilities to the world.
Once again, Jim became consciously aware of the silence where there should have been sound.
The emptiness, where there should have been energy, another presence, another voice.
And he tried to remember when he'd preferred the silence and the emptiness.
When being alone hadn't meant being lonely.
Over the next few days, Sandburg went about the business of settling into his new digs and his new neighborhood. Missing the sound of music, he bought himself a second hand, portable, CD and tape player. Hungering for books, he took out a membership in the local branch of the Library. Besides, there was research he wanted to focus on doing-something he wanted to consciously learn more about. He'd been putting it off for too long. Though it left a 'paper trail' of sorts, Sandburg figured nobody would think to check the Library for a trace of his passing. During the day, he helped Janey in the store until she shooed him off, knowing that he needed time, needed to be out and about with people, doing things. He was paying for the right to sleep in the back, and he was helping with the inventory in the evenings. That had been the deal. He didn't need to putter the hours of the day away in the store.
So he wandered the streets, getting to know the neighbors, dropping into the community center and the seniors' center. He played pick-up ball every late afternoon with the teens in the sand lot a block over. And registered to volunteer at the local school. Had coffee in the park with some of the folks who hung out there, mothers watching their children play, old men sitting on the benches taking in the sun when it was to be enjoyed and not hidden by the more often heavy skies. Mostly, he listened to other people, what made them happy, or sad, what worried them, or what they hoped the future would hold.
Sometimes he just walked, lost in his own thoughts, going over the different options that he could see for himself now that life was a wide, open field again. He knew himself well enough to know what he liked doing. Teaching, for one thing. Helping to figure out puzzles for another. Making a difference somehow, helping other people who needed it, because they were vulnerable, or lost, or to help them find their paths to their own dreams. Learning new things, most of all about what made people tick and make the choices they did, why they chose to live in certain ways, and why they came together into communities.
There were lots of things he could do to earn money. Over the years, he'd become a veritable ‘jack of all trades, master of none', whether it was driving a truck, working as an orderly in a hospital, basic construction or office work, working in stores, or on the docks, research-heck, working with Jim, he'd learned enough detective skills to be a private investigator. But he didn't want to do just anything. He wanted work that would be satisfying, meaningful to him, work that he could love doing.
Too often, his thoughts circled back to what he'd loved best and lost. Teaching at the University and working with Jim. Neither of which were current options, and so he'd get impatient with himself…when he wasn't just swamped with grief for what he'd freely given up. When the solitude of his thoughts and emotions threatened to overwhelm him, he'd turn again to find someone else to talk with, someone who had thoughts or troubles to share, so that he could listen and maybe make a helpful suggestion. But mostly he just listened and let them know someone else was interested in them, as individuals who mattered on this earth.
The nights were the hardest, after he'd set his books aside, shut off the music and turned out the light. When there was nothing left to distract his thoughts or hold back his memories. But he figured it didn't matter if he wept then. There was no one to hear. No one to know or to be worried about the sound of such naked, wretched, grief.
But even then, he wouldn't indulge himself, lost in an ecstasy of sorrow and loss. He knew it wasn't healthy and sure wasn't productive. He'd only end up with a headache and a sense of utter exhaustion. So, more often than not, he'd blink the burning tears away, and focus on his breathing, forcing himself to a place of calm acceptance. It was a waste of time and energy to worry and grieve over 'what might have been' and 'if only'. Life was too short. There was too much richness in it to feel impoverished. Too much opportunity and adventure as yet unknown. Too many things to be grateful for.
And, finally, he'd drift into sleep, and then he'd wake and begin another day.
After three days, Jim accepted that his initial efforts weren't going to get him the information he wanted. So he went further, and started checking with the phone companies, to see if there had been any new listings, or where Sandburg had indicated the bills for his cell phone should be sent-and learned that Blair had cancelled that service.
So he checked with the post office, to see if there any been any arrangements made to forward mail.
But there hadn't.
Well, there was still Rainier and the Chancellor to be dealt with, so Jim called his father's attorney and gave him a retainer to look into the situation of what Ellison was certain was an inappropriate termination, to see what could be done to make matters right.
That done, there was nothing more that Jim could think of to do, so he paced the apartment or stood on the balcony, keeping watch, hour after endless hour, unable to quench the hope of seeing Sandburg ambling back along the street toward home.
The silence was really beginning to get to him.
After the first week, Sandburg branched out, to wander further into other neighborhoods. He went to various spiritual services and spoke with the ministers and the priests, the rabbis and imam, with the holy men, the priestesses and shaman. He did some volunteer work in a food kitchen, and in a shelter a couple of nights a week.
All the while, he met new people, people of all ages and walks of life, people with hopes and dreams, people surviving personal tragedies. He listened, and sometimes he couldn't resist reaching out, to give a needed touch or hug, to dry some tears. He teased and joked, bringing smiles to tired faces. As the days went by, people began to greet him, as if glad to see him on the street or in a local coffee shop, in the park or the community center.
Sometimes they'd ask him about the books he was invariably carrying, to read when he had quiet moments alone on the grass in the park, or while he munched on a salad. He'd just smile and shrug diffidently, saying that it was a subject that interested him and that he was trying to learn more about. Then he'd put the book away into his backpack so that he could focus on whoever had joined him, and find out what interested them.
Twice a week, he hopped the bus to go either to the loft or downtown, and he would linger unobtrusively in the shadows until he'd caught sight of Jim and reassured himself that his friend was okay. And everyday, he caught the news at 6:00 and 11:00, in case Jim had gotten hurt somehow during the day while doing his job, knowing it would be reported, ready if need be to take off immediately to whatever hospital his best friend would have been taken.
When Jim went back to work, he kept to himself. Though he was sorry to learn that Simon had been told that he'd need another week of recuperation, Ellison was also quietly grateful that he wouldn't have to engage in the debate about whether or not to have a new partner.
Because he just simply didn't want anyone but Sandburg working with him on a regular basis.
Joel was the only one with nerve enough to broach the subject of Sandburg the first day that Jim was back at the PD. Stopping by Jim's desk to give him his new case assignments and the files, such as they were, he asked, "How's the leg, Jim?"
"Fine, Joel. A little stiff, yet, but fine," Jim replied, taking the folders the older man handed to him. "I'll look through these and then we can talk about the cases."
"Good," Joel said, and then plunged in. "How's Blair doing?"
Jim had known the question was inevitable, and he'd tried to think of the best way to answer. Had spent the weekend thinking about it, as a matter of fact. Looking away from Joel's eyes, he shrugged as he replied, "Well, about as you'd expect, I guess. It'll take some time…"
"Yeah, I hear you-give him my best, okay?" Joel sighed as he patted Jim's shoulder and moved away.
Jim wasn't sure, exactly, why he didn't want people to know that Blair had taken off. Part of it was that he just hated to admit it, like if no one knew then maybe it hadn't really happened, like an ostrich sticking his head in the sand or a kid pretending there really weren't monsters under the bed. Part of it was that he was embarrassed to admit that he didn't know where Blair was or how he was-it made him feel guilty, because he should know. Partly, he was conscious that Sandburg hadn't told others his plans, so maybe Blair didn't want them to know, for whatever reason. Probably so they wouldn't be worried about him. And Jim wanted to respect that. It was about the only thing he could do for Blair at that point to support his friend's wishes as best he might.
But, mostly, he just couldn't say it out loud, not without choking up, not without revealing how much it hurt to know the kid was gone and he didn't know where.
Ellison had wondered if he'd feel a sense of blame from the others, if they held him responsible for what had happened, the events that had cost Sandburg everything that he was. God knew, he held himself responsible. But nobody indicated anything like that by word, or expression or action. Over the next few days, everyone found some way of telling him that they missed Sandburg and hoped he was all right, especially when they realized that Jim wasn't going to snap anyone's head off for mentioning the kid.
But they did treat Jim gently, at least for that first week. As if they knew he was hurting and missing his partner, missing having Sandburg beside him. The place sure seemed quiet without Blair around, teasing, joking…laughing.
And after a couple of days, Megan stopped by his desk and offered quietly, "If I can help you with, well, you know…just let me know, okay?"
He nodded and mumbled, "Thanks, I appreciate that." But he turned away, not encouraging her to say anything more.
Jim did his job and did it with professional competence. He reviewed the files and went out to crime scenes. He interviewed witnesses and chased down snitches for information. He put out traces, and did everything that was required. But he did it lifelessly, by rote. There was no passion in him. He felt empty.
The weekend was pure hell.
There'd been no response to any of the hundreds of inquiries he'd put out and he didn't know what else to try or do to hunt Sandburg down, not without making it a federal case, literally.
It was as if the kid had fallen off the face of the earth, disappearing into thin air as soon as he'd walked out of the PD that day, more than a week ago now. Jim prowled the loft, wracking his brain to shake out another idea, another possible approach that he'd overlooked. Or he stood on the balcony, oblivious to the cold, looking out over the city, his jaw rigid, his chest tight, fighting the ache that consumed him…the growing fear that he wasn't going to be able to find Blair.
And then he wondered how long the kid would be gone.
And if Sandburg was all right, wherever the hell he was.
First thing Monday morning, Simon called Jim into his office.
Waving Ellison to a chair, Simon turned away to pour two cups of coffee, then carried them around his desk, handing one to Jim and then leaning back against the desk as he sipped on his own. "You look like hell," he observed with a scowl.
Jim grimaced as he muttered, "Thanks, I appreciate that. Good to see you, too."
"I'm serious, Jim," Banks persevered. "You look like you haven't slept for a month of Sundays. What's going on? If your leg is still bothering you, you could take some more time…"
"My leg's fine," Jim replied, his voice tight.
"Then what's going on?" Simon asked, concern in his eyes. He couldn't remember when Ellison had looked this ragged, pale and exhausted.
Ellison bowed his head for a moment, then sighed and looked back up at his boss-at his friend. "Blair's disappeared," he said bleakly, his face stark and his voice heavy.
Frowning, Simon set his mug down as he repeated, "Disappeared? When?"
"The day he left here two weeks ago. He never went back to the loft," Jim replied wearily, leaning back in his chair. "He left me a note, said he figured we needed some time and space to figure out where we each go from here. He said he'd be back and he said not to worry but…"
"But you're worried sick," Simon supplied when Jim's voice died away.
"Basically…yeah," Jim replied. "I tried the airlines and the bus station and the train station. I've left photos all over town and sent one to the State Patrol in case he decided to hitchhike. I've checked the post office for forwarding addresses, and the phone company to see if there's a new billing address. But-nothing. Nada. Zip. It's like he's just vanished."
"You tried tracing his car?" Simon asked.
"He sold it," Jim replied with a discouraged shake of his head. "And he left his credit cards and his bankcard in the loft…and he took all his pitiful amount of savings with him."
"Damn," Simon sighed, looking up and out of the window. "The kid learned a thing or two about how to disappear when he worked here, didn't he."
"Yep," Jim agreed glumly.
"Where do you think he might have gone?" Banks asked, curious.
"I have no fucking idea," Jim sighed as he rubbed the back of his neck. "I even drove up to the monastery, to see if maybe he went there, but they hadn't heard from him, or if they had, they wouldn't admit it to me."
"Well," Simon sighed, blowing the breath out through his nose, not missing the cursing, which Jim only resorted to when he was at the end of his tether and out of patience. In a rough attempt to soothe, Banks offered, "He's a grown man and he is quite capable of taking care of himself. Maybe Sandburg's right. Maybe the two of you do need some time…"
"Bullshit!" Jim flared, his eyes blazing back into life. "What we need is to fix this damned mess. What we need is to get his life back the way it was."
"Jim, that's not doable," Simon said with sad forbearance, though it was clear that he wished it were.
"It's doable, all right," Ellison snapped back. "I had it all figured out, Simon. All I needed was a few quiet minutes to just talk to him. I've decided to come clean about my senses, and meet with the Chancellor to get his place in Rainier back. But-I can't do it without him here. I…I can't imagine coping with the media and all the fallout without working out a strategy with him for what we tell them and how we handle it all. But he'd taken off before I could tell him, talk to him. He thinks-he thinks that I think it's just fine that he crucified himself for me. But, it's not."
Jim's voice broke and he looked away while he fought his emotions and brought them back under control. "It's not," he repeated, his voice little more than a choked whisper.
Simon studied Jim in silence for a long moment. There was little point in asking if the man had thought this through because it was clear Ellison had made up his mind. Hell, they were his senses and it was his call about whether to reveal them or not. Rubbing his hand over his mouth, Banks rapidly considered what Jim's public admission of his abilities would mean. Finally, he asked, "His note said he'd be back, right? Any indication of when?"
Ellison just shook his head. "He wrote that he didn't know how long he'd be gone."
Taking a breath, Simon nodded as he unconsciously rubbed at the ache that lingered in his chest. "All right, then I guess the best we can do is get ready for when he gets back. You'll have to go through all your files. We'll have to alert the DA's office, and the Chief, as well as the Commissioner. By the time Sandburg turns up, we should be ready to respond to any questions or appeals that are raised about how your senses affected your work as a detective."
"Fine," Jim agreed, sitting a little straighter in his chair, grateful that Simon wasn't going to fight him about the decision he'd made. "I don't have anything else to do with my free time, so I can get started on the file review tonight," he said briskly, wanting to get started, needing to feel like he was doing something, anything, that would begin to sort things out and make it possible for Blair to have his life back. "Will you speak to the DA's office and the others? I'll meet with them, any time they want."
"Yeah, well, I imagine they'll be anxious to meet with you, too," Banks said sardonically, able to imagine all too well what their reactions were likely to be. "In the meantime, you have a job to do here. Have you decided who you want to partner with, or shall we pick someone new?"
"No partner, Simon," Jim replied, his tone hard and his voice tight. "There's no point. When Sandburg comes back and we get all this cleared up, he'll be my partner again."
"You sure about that?" Banks probed. "Maybe by then you'll have both moved on."
"I'm sure," Jim answered firmly. "I'm going to need him. He only left because he figures that I don't need him, and he's wrong about that. I don't know how we'll work it out in the long term…I have to talk to him about it to figure it all out. Maybe he can be a consultant with the department. I just know that he'll be back. So, in the meantime, I want to work alone, or just be partnered temporarily on a case by case basis with whoever is available."
"Jim, it could be a long time, you don't know…" Simon began, trying to get his detective to see sense, to agree that temporary measures weren't likely to be enough.
"Please, Simon," Jim asked quietly, but the uncharacteristic look in his eyes was hard for Simon to see-it was such a naked need to be understood and supported in this. A plea that Simon agree and by agreeing signal that he really did believe that Sandburg would be back.
Because Jim just couldn't face the idea that that might never happen.
His throat tight, Simon looked away. But he nodded. "Okay, Jim. We'll play it your way for now."
Blair shoved the reference book into his backpack, feeling frustrated and disgruntled. So far he hadn't found much more than he already knew from his past studies and he was beginning to wonder if this was something that couldn't be learned by simply reading about it.
Sighing, he leaned back against the trunk of the tree and gazed out over the park. There were kids playing on the swings and slides and that stupid round thing that they could push and spin around on until they threw up. But then he grinned, remembering how much he'd enjoyed that rushing, whirling sensation when he'd been a kid-and only rarely had he or anyone he'd known actually thrown up after, and only because they'd just stuffed themselves with hot dogs. A dog dashed across the green, chasing a red Frisbee, and Blair felt an immediate catch in his chest.
This time apart might be what they both needed, but every day carried one reminder or another. Every day it was another new battle not to pick up a phone and call-or just get on a bus and go home.
Blair pushed his hair back behind his ears, willfully turning his thoughts back to what he'd been studying. For a couple of years now, he'd known that he should be paying more attention to that whole subject, but it left him feeling uncomfortable and inadequate, so he'd pushed it away. He'd been too busy, anyway, between school and working with Jim, so letting it all drift had been easy.
But he didn't have those excuses now. School was a thing of the past and so was his 'ride-along' role. He had nothing but time on his hands and no more reasons to avoid or evade what made him feel more than a little overwhelmed whenever he thought about it.
Blair could still feel the pressure of Incacha gripping his arm so determinedly just before the Chopec Shaman had drawn his last breath. Though Sandburg hadn't been able to understand the words, the intensity and cadence of the sound of the Shaman's last pronouncement still echoed in his ears…that and Jim's translation.
Incacha had named Blair the Shaman of the Great City.
God, what did that mean?
Blair looked up at the sky, at the puffy white clouds that scudded briskly from west to east, driven by the sharp wind and he pulled his jacket collar up around his neck as he hunched a little, seeking warmth. Oh, he knew the theory of what made a shaman.
A shaman was a wise man who experienced a transformational and spiritual awakening as a result of a near death experience or a vision quest. Biting his lip, Blair figured he met the ‘near death' criteria and then some, but he hadn't felt any particularly transformational enlightenment as a result of it. Mostly, the whole experience had just left him confused, exhausted and scared. Hell, he'd still be dead if Jim hadn't brought him back somehow.
Shaman communed with spirit guides. Sandburg shook his head. He knew his spirit guide was a wolf, but he'd only seen it that one time, in the jungle, racing toward the black jaguar. It was Jim who had the visions.
Shaman provided counsel, teaching and healing to their tribe. Well, he'd been a teacher, but he didn't really see himself as a provider of wise counsel and he sure had no experience in healing. Jim was the medic, not him.
Shaman had mystical capabilities, like being able to 'spirit walk', but except for that time in the jungle, when he'd been dead, Blair had no sense of ever having been outside his body. Jim was the guy with the special qualities, the enhanced senses.
Shaman fought and repelled evil, protecting the tribe. Rolling his eyes and sighing, Blair reflected that it was Jim who did the fighting…Blair was just the Guide.
And now, he wasn't even that.
Maybe Jim should have been named the Shaman.
How could Incacha have given him such responsibility? Had it simply been the desperation of a dying man? Or was there something Blair should be doing to learn how to fulfill these responsibilities. Did he even want to? Being a shaman for a tribe of people in a village was an awesome responsibility. People trusted their Shaman, relied upon him, sought him out as a source of wisdom and hope and healing. How the hell could Blair even begin to imagine performing a role like that for a whole city!
But, somehow, Blair knew he had to try, had to at least make the effort to respond to the trust Incacha had shown in him, and the Shaman's faith in his possibility of being. Sighing, Blair pushed himself up and wandered toward the park's entrance, but he just didn't know where to go, whom to ask. The reference books were useless. His visits to the various spiritual services hadn't really helped much, either. Oh, he'd wondered if maybe he might be happy being a minister or a rabbi, modern society's counterparts to the ancient concept of shamanism. But he couldn't, in all honesty, choose one branch of faith or one interpretation of truth, and say that it was the 'only' truth, or the 'best' truth. In his view, 'truth' was relative to perspective and tradition, to what you'd been taught that influenced how you believed and what you believed. For Blair, his concept of an all-powerful spiritual and creative force that was also a kind of omniscient form of love was all too mysterious, too awesome and incredible, to be bound by a single interpretation or definition. So, though a minister or rabbi did much of what he loved doing, teaching, counseling, learning, trying to figure out the puzzles of creation, eternity, and the meaning of life, he didn't see himself following only one narrow path.
"You look confused and a little lost, child," a deep baritone voice called, lilting with a Polynesian accent and rich with amusement, intruding into his thoughts.
Startled, Blair looked up and around, and saw an ancient, wiry, dark-skinned man sitting on the nearby bench. His grizzled hair was long and wild, his face a map of age and wisdom, his eyes dark, but somehow alive with mischief and humour as he gazed openly at Sandburg. Grinning a little self-consciously, Blair admitted, "Sometimes I feel lost-and definitely confused."
"The path you seek is not in some dusty old book, no matter how carefully you study it," the old man chided gently.
Sandburg cocked his head and looked back the way he'd come, realizing only then that this old man must have been watching him read while sitting under the sycamore tree. Though how the old guy knew he'd been searching for knowledge and meaning in that book, not to mention dozens of others, was a mystery. Turning back to the stranger, Blair nodded. "Yeah, I'd just figured that out," he admitted ruefully.
"You have been haunting this park and wandering these streets for weeks now, searching for something," the stranger observed, a statement, not a question.
Moving toward the man, intrigued by him, Blair dropped to the ground before him, sitting cross-legged, as he looked up at the old man, curious to know that this man had been observing him for some time. Had been really seeing him, thinking about him. "I've been trying to figure out where my life is going now, what I should best be doing with my life," Blair explained.
Nodding, as if this wasn't news, the old man replied, "Why do you seek outside of yourself, when the answer is already there, within?"
Sandburg looked away, aware that this was a strange conversation, but feeling drawn toward the elderly man. Still, the insightful observations and questions were odd, coming as they did from a stranger. Shrugging, he decided to go with it and see where it led.
"I guess I'm not sure the answers are inside," he murmured. "I've been given a responsibility that I'm not equal to."
The old man smiled serenely, though his eyes were kind and compassionate, as he answered, "You could not be given what was already yours. But you are young, and unaware of the power and possibility that you are, so it was necessary to tell you your name, Shaman of this Great City."
Blair's gaze snapped back to the old man, shock on his face and in his eyes. "Who are you?" he stammered.
"I have had many names, child, but you may call me Kona."
"Kona, why did you call me, 'Shaman of this city'?" Blair asked, wondering if he really wanted to know the answer.
"Why do you deny your name?" Kona replied, a glint of amusement in his eyes.
"Because…because I don't have a clue about how to be a shaman, any shaman, let alone the shaman of a city!" Blair blurted in a rush. "I don't have the knowledge, or the skills…I'm not…I'm not good enough…"
"Good, bad-these assessments are of no value. They do not change what you are, who you are," Kona chided him. "What is it that you cannot do?"
Sandburg rolled his eyes. "More like, what can I do? Oh, man, I haven't had some kind of mystical transcendental experience, I don't commune with spirit guides, I can't heal anyone, I don't know how to 'spirit-walk', I'm in no position to counsel anyone else when I don't even have a clue who I am…"
"Peace, child," Kona laughed, holding up his hands in surrender at the barrage of words and frustration-and fear. "First, you are a shaman, the Shaman of this very large village and very confused tribe. That is the beginning and the end of it. In the middle, there are skills that can be refined, but the capacity is already within you. You cannot be other than who and what you are."
Blair shook his head and looked away, wishing he could be so confident. Kona's humour died away as he gazed at this serious young man, sorry to see the sorrow in his eyes, and the doubt. "Shaman, how may I help you?" he asked softly.
"Teach me?" Blair murmured plaintively, looking back up at the old man, open to the mystery and too tired of his own restless and fruitless searching to question the sudden presence of this man in his life. Whoever he was, he seemed to know what he was talking about. "Help me find my path. Help me see it clearly."
"That I can do, and gladly," the old man smiled. "Come, walk with me."
And so the old man, and the young one, walked the streets of the city and talked of many things. Blair learned that Kona had taken the name of his island home when he'd come to Cascade, his own name being unpronounceable and too long for the American taste for simplicity. He was, he allowed, a minor shaman for his small community of people, one of a line of shaman that went back through the generations into the dawn of time. As the days progressed, he taught Blair how to find his own power and possibility within his being, taught him how to release the fear and the doubt that held him back from the truth of his nature.
With Kona's help and encouragement, Blair found there was another level to the meditation that he'd practiced all his life, a level he could only access when he let all of himself go, letting loose the tether to his mortal body so that his spirit could see clearly and roam where it would. The sensation was a lot like dying, and Blair cringed from it, afraid somehow that he might not wake up, but as his trust in Kona grew, he persevered and one day he let himself fly free.
It was the most amazing sensation! He was aware of his physical body as a separate reality, and could leave it, moving at a thought, effortlessly, to another place. But, somehow, he couldn't seem to get the trick of talking while his spirit walked, so that he was a silent presence, sometimes only dimly perceived by others, when they perceived him at all. Kona assured him that his manifestation during the spirit walks would become more substantial in time, with practice, so substantial in fact that he would appear to others to be physically present.
"You mean, I can be seen, my spirit can be seen?" he asked, awed, when Kona told him of what he might do as he walked the earth in spirit form. "I'm not just like-like a ghost, or something?"
"You may be seen, and when your skills grow stronger, you may also be heard and even impact upon the world around you, child," Kona laughed. "This capacity is to allow you to act, not simply to observe. To act, child, when your body would not have the time or capacity to be in that place. But, remember, a body and spirit can only be separated for so long before the body dies. Let your spirit guide lead you, and when your wolf calls to you and pushes you back, heed him."
"How do I heal someone who is ill, or injured?" Blair asked one day, wanting to know how he could be of the most help to those who might need him-thinking of how he might need to help Jim, if his best friend was ever badly hurt.
Kona sighed, understanding more than the question, seeing the hope of a Guide in Blair's eyes, a Guide who feared for his Sentinel and who was terrified that he might one day fail in protecting the one he lived most to serve. There was a risk here, a grave risk, in such selfless longing to serve and protect.
"When you heal, you give some of your power away, as much or as little as necessary, but it will always weaken you, at least for a time," Kona replied with a cautionary tone. "Give too much, and you will rob yourself of life, child. This is a great power, but it is also a great responsibility and a grave risk. Do not rush into using it lightly, but only when you have no other choice. There are many miracles available to us today, miracles we call in our ignorance, 'modern medicine'. Allow those miracles to be worked. Do not feel you must do it all yourself."
Concerned that perhaps the young Shaman did not fully understand the full import of this power, and the choices it required, Kona laid a hand on Blair's arm, to hold his attention, as he lectured with a solemn severity, "Listen to me, child, and listen well. This is not a game, nor is it simply an opportunity to do good. When you heal, you risk your own well-being, even possibly your own life. While you may be willing to give such a gift, remember that your life is no longer only your own concern. The people of this city need a Shaman to care for them, to counsel and teach them, to show them possibilities and give them hope, for far too many are lost and wandering aimlessly in despair. They have waited for you for a long time. Do not carelessly turn away from them, or deny them your presence, not even for a worthy purpose such as saving another's life. We all die, child. It is the way; it is natural and necessary. It is part of our endless journey through eternity. Death is not a bad or evil thing. This gift of healing is wondrous, but it is also a burden and a dangerous temptation for a gentle and compassionate soul. Remember when you use this gift, you are making a choice: the life of one balanced against the needs of the many. Do not make that choice lightly."
Kona held Blair's gaze, dark eyes burning into wide blue innocence, and he would not release the young Shaman until he saw the awareness grow, and the understanding…and the sorrowful weight of the burden of such profound choices. The way of the Shaman is a hard path, requiring infinite compassion, patient wisdom, and a boundless capacity to love unconditionally. Few could walk that path, fewer still could walk it with joy; none could walk it without understanding their own fallibility, humbly aware of their own frailty as a simple human being who could only strive to do his best.
"Do you understand, child?" Kona asked quietly. "Do you understand that this is the most difficult of choices? To choose to safeguard your own life when you might instead save the life of another?"
Slowly, Blair nodded but he could not find words to express what he felt. The burden of knowing he would face that choice, not once but no doubt many times over the course of the years ahead, frightened him, and saddened him. How hard it was to know he might have the power to heal another being, but that he had to limit that healing lest it require more than his own body could endure; and even if he would personally choose to act anyway, he was restricted by his responsibilities to others who also had need of him. Kona was right. It was a burden as much as it was a gift and Blair wasn't at all certain of his ability to bear it without stumbling, without guilt and grief when he had to choose, whatever his choice might be.
Closing his eyes, taking a deep breath, he nodded again. Reaching out to grip Kona's wrist, he murmured, "Thank you for ensuring that I understand."
Because the powers and the possibilities were all within Blair's own being, and he had only to access them, his learning progressed quickly. He was excited about his new skills and capabilities, like a child with new toys, and again Kona cautioned him. "These are but small tricks of the spirit. The shaman's role is much more than a few special talents. Your people need your heart, and your wisdom, more than they need you create small illusions, or to spirit walk, or heal in the rare circumstance. They miss you, when you are not amongst them. They become lost and afraid without your guidance. It is time for you to walk these streets again, with new eyes and a new understanding. Yes, you must listen. But do not hesitate to teach, or to counsel, even to scold if that is required. You are their strength and their foundation, Shaman. You are their hope and their possibility."
Sandburg swallowed at those words, conscious that Kona was no longer calling him 'child' with some indulgence, but 'Shaman', with a tone of reverence and respect. Biting his lip, suddenly pale, Blair wondered how he'd ever have the wisdom to do what this old and wise man said he must do.
"Be not afraid, Shaman," Kona said then with a warm smile. "It is your fear that shackles you and binds your spirit. Let the fear go and trust your instincts and your heart."
"Thank you, Kona, for your patience, your lessons, and your counsel," Blair murmured, bowing his head. "I'll do my best. I promise. I'll always do my best."
"You say that like I should be surprised, child," Kona laughed as he reached to ruffle the younger man's hair, reverting for a moment to their old roles to ease the burden of responsibility this young man felt so keenly. "When have you not given your best?"
Sandburg flushed and looked away. Though Kona had meant the words lightly, Blair felt a flare of guilt. "I have another responsibility…" he said quietly.
"To your Sentinel, yes, I know," Kona replied with an even voice. "You fear he does not need you, or that you are unequal to what he needs. Again, child, you are again letting the fear rule."
Sandburg smiled ruefully as he reflected, "And I accused Jim of being dominated by fear-based reactions."
"Fear is a human response, and in times of danger, it is a signal to be wary and to take care, but it need not dominate," the old man counseled. "Remember, the fear is not who you are."
"I'll remember," Blair vowed, praying that he would.
They'd been in the small temple that was the center of the Polynesian community in Cascade. The scents of coconut and pineapple, white ginger and plumeria filled the air, giving a sense of warmth, a touch of the exotic, which was reinforced by the thick potted ferns and bamboo décor. Standing up from the grass mat on which he'd been seated for this latest lesson in the art of being a shaman, Blair smiled at his mentor and held out a hand to help the older man to his feet.
"I'll see you tomorrow, Kona," he called over his shoulder as he walked away along the busy street outside the small, discreet shrine. The old man bowed his head in respect, and closed his eyes to ask the spirits to lend their strength to this one who was going forward to care for a city.
"Who is that young man?" Kona's granddaughter, Kiri, asked, curious.
"He is The Shaman," Kona replied, a tone of awed conviction in his voice.
Startled, Kiri protested, "But, he's too young…"
"Only his body is young, child," Kona replied, his eyes alight with laughter, teasing her for her prejudice. "His soul is more ancient and wise than mine…"
Others of the community overheard the exchange, and gazed with wonder after the young man who rambled along the pavement, so lightly did he tread, almost as if ready to take flight.
"The Shaman," they murmured.
"Yes," Kona intoned, hearing their awed whispers, as he again inclined his head in respect. "The Shaman of this Great City."
Word spread, and the title was soon the way that Blair was known in the inner communities of Cascade's ghettos. When anyone wanted him, or wondered where he was, they would simply ask for The Shaman, and within days it seemed, all knew who was meant and he would receive and respond to the summons.
Ever wary of being pedantic, Blair was cautious about the extent to which he offered counseling, or endeavored to teach. Instead, he found himself falling into the old, more comfortable role that he'd played at the university, wherein he shared knowledge, as something exciting, something that could free another or enable them to be more than they'd been. He never directed others by giving them advice, rather he began to ask them questions or suggest a variety of possible choices of action, to help them shift their perspectives and see things in different ways, to see new options within the fabric of their lives. Increasingly, he encouraged people to share their dreams with him, and then he would ask them what they were doing to achieve that dream, suggesting a dream was of little use without commitment and action to manifest it.
Increasingly, he was sought out, because he listened so well, and he gave the gift of seeing greatness in all who he met. They felt the possibility of what their lives could be more clearly when he listened to them and asked them questions, as if they were more than capable of making their own dreams real. His calm soothed those who were troubled. His laughter lifted hearts weighted by worry or grief.
But he also learned to be stern with those who were faltering on the edge of the abyss. The adolescents were at such risk of following a path that only led to grief, tempted by the deceptively easy life of crime, the apparently swift path to wealth. Or, worse, deluded that drugs could dull pain and obscure hopelessness. With these children, he was firm in his counsel, firm but always kind-and always sure that they had something so much better, and brighter, within them.
Before the end of his first month of walking his new path, the local patrol men and women were receiving a level of cooperation from the community members that they had never known before. Inevitably, the people would begin by saying, "The Shaman suggested I might talk to you."
It had been two long months since Jim had come home to find Blair gone. There had not been a single lead in all that time and the Sentinel was feeling increasingly alone and vulnerable. The man, the friend, felt a bitter and aching loneliness that nothing seemed to assuage.
Ellison had taken to listening to the tapes Blair had made of so many of their test sessions, just to hear his Guide's voice and be soothed by it. The need wasn't simply sentimental. Jim was finding as time went on that his senses were increasingly unpredictable. Sometimes spiking, sometimes disappearing, the erosion of control made him anxious and he'd finally just turned the dials down and held them at a low level as best he could. So the sound of Blair's voice on the tapes helped, and Blair's words reminded him of what he had to do to use his senses effectively if and when he really needed them.
One night, he pulled out the dissertation and began to read, and it, too, helped him toward a better understanding of his own capabilities and vulnerabilities.
Jim was astonished by what he read. Sandburg's insights into his character and motivations were disconcerting, but more, the respect in which Blair held him, the compassion and kindness for what Jim had to cope with in a modern world of constant sensory overload, touched him and made him feel humble. Blair had written about a man he perceived as exceptional, even extraordinary, in his courage and strength, in his compassion for others and his commitment to serve and protect those in need and at risk. A man who never counted the threat to himself when he went up against evil, only thought of those who depended upon him, and always, always, did his best.
Blair wrote as if Jim himself were the gift, not the senses. As if he should be treasured, even honoured, for the contributions he made to his tribe and his city. And finally, Blair wrote of his own astonishment, and his abundant gratitude, to have been given the gift of knowing Jim, of having become his friend. A couple of short paragraphs in particular stood out and gave Jim pause, making him wonder what might be possible if he stopped resenting and almost fighting his senses, and actually learned to use them to their full potential, as Blair so ceaselessly had encouraged him to do…
In earlier times, Sentinels played an essential role in guarding the boundaries of their tribes against the incursion of the enemy, in identifying virtually invisible game trails for the hunters, and in watching weather patterns to predict when shelter needed to be taken from approaching storms. In our modern society, the enemies and monsters are too often within the walls of our encampment, masquerading as normal citizens. The Sentinel's skills are even more essential to detect danger and to protect the vulnerable and the innocent. Today, food is readily available, but the dangers to lost and hungry souls are more insidious. The presence and prevalence of drugs, the ready availability of illegal weapons, and the mindless violence of everyday life pose greater challenges to our collective security than have ever been known before. We can shelter against the storms of nature, but who warns us of the coming of the violent storms of gang wars, or mad bombers or hate groups and conscience-less militia intent upon making their own laws and deciding whom amongst us has the right to live?
We need Sentinels today more than ever before to watch over us, to guard us from the darkness and protect us from the evil that stalks us. We need to identify those with the inherent capabilities, and help them develop and refine their control of their senses. We need to treasure the presence of Sentinels amongst us, and be grateful to know that they are there. There must be more; surely, there are others; not just this one single amazingly gifted and courageous man who thinks himself a freak and fears being outcast, even as he dedicates his life to the safe-keeping of his tribe in a single, but very fortunate, city.
Not a man easily given to overt displays of sentiment, proud of his capacity to set his emotions aside, Jim found himself profoundly moved by how Blair had written about him. His chest was tight, and his throat thick-his eyes glazed and burned with tears he tried to blink away, but couldn't resist. He missed Blair so profoundly that his own need and grief at the separation shocked him. Somehow, the neo-hippy, witchdoctor punk had become essential, woven into the fabric of Jim's own life. And, without Blair's presence, the world seemed dull, lacking vibrancy, warmth and colour.
Jim shook his head. More than once, in his loneliness, he'd even caught himself imagining that Sandburg was somehow near by. It was unconscious, and the sensation would catch him at odd, unexpected moments, but every few days he'd feel a frisson of awareness, sometimes near home, sometimes outside the PD, but something, something screamed at him that his Guide, his friend, was near. At first, he'd looked around, with mingled hope, relief and desperation, but it was always, only, his imagination. Wishful thinking. So, though he still had those sudden bursts of almost subliminal acuity, he ignored them now, unwilling to face the disappointment when he'd turn and search and not find Sandburg there.
God, he missed the kid with a sorrow that was all-pervasive, and he wondered how he could ever have imagined that he might not only survive without Sandburg watching his back and grounding him at work, but that he might thrive. Now, after eight weeks of separation, Ellison knew he could still function, could even be a good cop, because he had the knowledge and the skills, the determination to do well, and the commitment, but the fire, the energy, the enthusiasm were lacking.
As was the laughter.
And the love.
So rich was the stream of information that had begun to consistently flow to the local police because of the counsel of The Shaman, his name soon started to be bandied about the halls of the local precincts, finally finding its way downtown. Sometimes, his title was invoked in jest, as when the police were stumped and unsure of what move to make in an evolving community situation, and someone would say, "Maybe we should ask The Shaman." And the listeners would laugh.
Initially, the cops on street patrol tried to find out who the mysterious Shaman was and, curious, they'd asked the people who came to them with information. But, wary of the police and their authority, eyes would shift away, and the informant would become suddenly mute, shrugging, seeming not to understand the questions. It didn't take long for the cops to figure out that if they wanted to continue getting timely and reliable information, they needed to lay off trying to identify The Shaman.
Often, though, they spotted the young guy with the long curly hair, the earrings and the brightly coloured layers of clothing who was always hanging around, talking to this person or that, and several thought he looked familiar. Finally, one of the cops snapped his fingers as the memory clicked into place. "Isn't that that Sandburg guy? You know, the one who wrote that junk about that Detective Ellison, downtown?" he asked his partner.
The other cop studied Blair briefly with narrowed eyes, and then shrugged. "Maybe, who cares? Guys with long hair all look alike to me. Could be, I guess. Figures that a liar and a fraud would end up drifting around the streets. Not like anyone would give him a job, if it is him, not after what he said on tv."
"Wonder why he didn't just leave town?" the younger cop mused.
"Maybe it's not him," his partner sniffed, losing interest, moving on along the street. "Like I said, who cares?"
But, increasingly, the information from The Shaman came to be so trusted that the title became a by-word for credibility.
"The informant said The Shaman thought we needed to know this," was an increasingly used introduction to a report on the incidence of petty crime, and over time, more serious drug-related offenses, and invariably heads would nod and action would be set in motion in response to the newly obtained information.
The guys from the Major Crime Unit began to hear the cops from Vice or Narcotics referring to The Shaman in the locker room and the gym.
"Who is this shaman?" Rafe asked one day.
The sergeant from Vice shrugged and shook his head. "To be honest, I'm not sure any of us really knows. But our informants refer to him all the time. Some new spiritual leader in the ghettos, likely an immigrant from some jungle."
"Jungle bunny or not," H sniffed, sensitive to the slight, "this shaman seems to be doing half your job for you."
It would have been easy to take offense to H's aggressive tone, but in all honesty, the guy from Vice just had to nod in agreement. "The guy is sure making our jobs easier, I'll give him that."
"What's a shaman?" H mumbled to Rafe on their way out.
"Beats the hell out of me," his partner responded. "Some kind of witchdoctor, I think. You know, wild hair, and mystical chanting, drums…"
"Sounds like Hairboy," H snickered, as they headed out to the garage to go home for the night. But the laughter died away as the big detective reflected, "God, you know I really miss that kid."
They used to ask Ellison why Sandburg never showed up for the regular poker nights, but Jim only ever shrugged and looked away, mumbling something about Blair being busy, or unavailable that night. Simon's jaw would stiffen and he, too, would avoid everyone's eye contact. Eventually, they clued in; they were detectives, after all. Sandburg must have taken off and Ellison just didn't want to admit it, for whatever reason. Sadly, they figured they could understand. The kid didn't have much chance of sorting out his life in Cascade. So, eventually, they stopped asking.
The incursion into their domain of control didn't go unnoticed by the neighbourhood hierarchy of bad asses. While they could never know for sure who tipped off the cops in any given situation, they did know who was behind the local revolt against their power and domination in the streets.
They had decided it was time to teach The Shaman a lesson, to get him to mind his own business and back off the counseling of others to resist their allure and their threats.
But they chose the wrong day to do it.
Blair heard a woman's keening scream as he rounded a corner in Carib-town, and took off at a run to see what was wrong. He had to push through a small crowd of people who had gathered around to witness the drama of a tragedy in their midst.
A small girl, no more than three, had fallen from the fourth floor roof of the building she lived in when the safety rail, rotten with neglect, had given way when she'd banged into it while playing an exuberant game of tag with her older brother. The little body was lying now, crumpled and still, on the sidewalk at the front of the dilapidated old tenement. Her mother was kneeling beside her, crying out her shock and denial, her heart-rending grief.
Shoving his way through, a path for him opening as people realized it was The Shaman who had come, Blair knelt by the child and reached for a pulse. Blowing out a breath, he called, "She's still alive. Someone call for an ambulance!"
And then he gently felt over the broken body, feeling his own grief clutch at his heart at the severity of her injuries, grimacing at the sticky blood and the mushy area on the back of her head. Her skull had been fractured and it appeared her neck was broken. He could tell from her ashen colour and the panting, raspy breaths that the child was teetering on the edge of death.
There was no time to wait for help. No time to leave this healing to the miracles of modern medicine. He didn't really think, as there was little time for thought. He just knew he could help this innocent child, could share strength with her, perhaps enough to allow her to survive. He'd never used the gift of healing that he knew was within his being and, in his own innocence, he thought he could control it, offering enough to sustain, not so much that it would take all he had. Regardless, he had to try.
Swallowing, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes, letting his hands move as if of their own accord, one gently cradling her little head, and the other moving to lightly encircle her neck. He prayed to a nameless power for help in healing this innocent child. Immediately a surging wave of energy and heat filled him and passed through his own body, through his hands, to the child. It was a sensation the like of which he'd never known before-raw power crashing through his being and taking some of what he was on its way, so that he felt weak and dizzy after it had passed and the heat in his hands faded as if no more than a distant memory.
Panting, sweating, pale, he sagged to the walk, struggling to remain conscious, stunned by what had happened. He'd had no control. Once started, he was but a vessel through which an incalculable power passed, a channel like a riverbed, eroded by the irresistible power as the riverbank is broken down and diminished by the impersonal and uncaring force of the ever-flowing river. The healing of even so small a body as this child had taken almost all he'd had.
For the first time, he understood fully the lesson Kona had tried to teach him. The lesson that there are risks to the use of such power, and that he must choose, not use it recklessly, lightly-thoughtlessly-simply because he could.
But even in the midst of his overwhelming weakness and the shock of the experience, Blair retained enough awareness of his surroundings to sigh with relief at the sound of the small, frightened voice that whimpered, "Mama?"
The crowd gasped as the child stirred and rolled over, to crawl up into her mother's lap and the safety of the astonished woman's arms. Tears streamed down the woman's face as she stared at Blair and her lips trembled as she whispered, "Thank you, Shaman. Oh, thank you for saving my little Domina!"
Shaking his head, trying to clear his vision, Blair managed a soft smile and a weak wave, as if to push away the gratitude as unnecessary. Hands reached to help him to his feet and he stood swaying a little, trying to find his balance.
"Shaman! Are you unwell?" someone asked, his deep voice heavy with alarm and concern.
"I'm fine," Blair managed to reply, as he slowly made his way back through the crowd, feeling them patting his body in awed congratulation. Each light touch seared and bruised his suddenly tender and very sensitive skin, but with the touches, he also found a measure of strength flowing back into him and he took a deep breath, feeling steadier.
He'd been lucky and knew it. He'd survived the experience and had the opportunity to learn from it. In the future, he told himself with wry amusement, he'd restrict himself to more modest injuries and illnesses, like hangnails and common colds. He'd be wary of the implications of healing someone on the point of death, for the healing seemed to require a gift of energy in keeping with the damage to be repaired. It was his duty to be wary, his responsibility, though it grated on him to place his own needs above those of another. But he was the Shaman, and so he was obliged to be conscious of the choices he made. Slowly, his body aching, still dizzy, he eased himself through the crowd and tried not to stagger as he made his way back along the street.
The crowd remained around the woman, awed and astonished by what they perceived to be a miracle, sharing in her joy, seeming not to notice as The Shaman quietly left the scene, having no interest in being present when the EMTs arrived. There was no way he could face their questions or begin to explain what had just happened.
As Blair reached the corner, he literally ran into a small contingent of the local tough guys who'd been swaggering along from the other direction.
Bouncing back, staggering a little in his weakness, Blair apologized, "Uh, sorry…I didn't see you coming."
But this opportunity to hassle him was too good for them to pass up. A couple grabbed his arms and held him tightly pinned between them, while another got up close, into his face.
"What's your problem?" Sandburg demanded wearily, not trying to pull free, knowing he didn't have the strength after what he'd just done down the street.
"You're our problem, Shaman," the surly young man sneered.
Blair grimaced and turned his face away from the foul breath, all the while trying to remind himself that fear was natural, but he did not need to give fear control. Turning his gaze back to the young hothead, Blair replied evenly, "You make your own problems, man. All I do is try to make sure you don't hurt other people with your lies and threats."
The young drug lord wannabe pulled out a switchblade and clicked it open, waving it slowly in front of Blair's face. "I wonder how many people would pay attention to you if you didn't have your tongue," he snarled.
Before Blair could answer, there was an angry roar and the young hoodlum suddenly found himself pulled away and disarmed by strong hands, as Blair was simultaneously freed of the grips on his arms. Startled, Sandburg looked up and around and saw that the crowd who had watched him heal little Domina had surged around them. Someone had seen what was going down, and they were not about to have their Shaman hassled or harmed. He was gently but firmly pulled away from the guys who had been threatening him, until others stood between him and them.
"You leave him alone, if you know what's good for you," a behemoth of a man growled as he shook the young hood like a mastiff would shake a pup. "The Shaman is off-limits to the likes of you, and if you ever hurt him, I promise you, we'll tear you apart."
Blair's eyes locked with the burning, hate-filled gaze of his antagonist and he said quietly, "It's your choice, man. You can take a different path-live a different life. But you must choose your own way."
Turning to those who had come to his rescue, Blair smiled and reached out to touch a number of them gratefully, as he said, "Thank you, my friends. Thank you."
And then he turned and calmly walked away. There were others who were waiting to see him. Others, who needed him to listen, and to believe in them. He had no time to linger.
Blair didn't notice the thin, thirteen-year-old boy who stood a slight distance away, his dirty brown face streaked by tears. The lad watched him, as if he was watching the greatest man who ever lived, for in that moment, Blair was that man in the child's life. Up until that moment, Tomas had scorned the local mystical awe of The Shaman, more inclined toward the harsh realities of picking up some good hard cash by running errands for the older tough guys. But, no more. He owed The Shaman a debt, and he certainly owed him respect.
The Shaman had just saved the life of Tomas' little sister.
Blair had managed to keep a calm demeanor for the rest of that day, though he felt exhausted after the healing of the child, and the confrontation with the young hoodlums had shaken him badly. No stranger to violence, certainly not after the years he'd spent with Jim, Blair still found it very hard to deal with, especially now when he didn't have Jim close by to rely upon, to lean on when things got rough.
It didn't seem to matter how much time passed. He still missed Jim with a sharp ache that just wouldn't let go. It had been more than two months now, and he wanted so badly to go home. But-what if Jim was managing just fine without him, as Blair strongly suspected he was? And what about his duty now to all these people, who were coming to trust him and rely upon him? Maybe it was best if he just stayed away from Jim and learned to accept this new life.
Though Blair hadn't had a lot of money to begin with, he'd stretched it far and was in no urgent need of seeking Jim's help or of finding a job, and he certainly had no intention of applying for welfare-not when he was more than able to work, and even more because it would leave a paper trail that could be followed. Janey had begun to refuse to take anything for the corner she spared him in the back, claiming that his help in the store was more than recompense enough for giving him a place to sleep. More, and much to his embarrassed surprise, he found people were leaving gifts for him, like the day when he'd been feeling the sharp winter cold, the wind cutting through his jacket mercilessly, and someone, well no doubt many people, had seen him shivering miserably. One of those people had left a thick, if obviously old, sweater for him with Janey, and the next day, someone else left a still serviceable pair of gloves.
Blair was embarrassed by the gifts, uncomfortable about accepting them. These people scarcely had enough for themselves, let alone anything left over to give away. And he sure didn't like the sense that the gifts were somehow payment for the little he felt he did, or worse, that they were some kind of offering. He'd urged Janey not to accept such tributes, but she'd argued right back.
"You are here for all these people, and you help them so much!" she retorted. "No one in their lives, no stranger, has ever been interested in them before, not as people who truly matter as individuals. No one has told them that they can dare to dream, and even more, they can dare to make those dreams come true. Oh, there are social workers, and voluntary organizations, to make certain no one has to go hungry or be without a roof over their head, but no one who treats them with respect like you do, listening to them, giving them hope, making them feel worthy. They have their pride, though they may be poor. They want to show you their gratitude. Let them!"
The bottom-line was, she adamantly refused to not accept such gestures of gratitude on his behalf. So he wore the sweater and the gloves, and the woolen hat that turned up one day, to show that he valued them and was grateful for them. No one ever let on who had given them, but many beamed when they saw him wearing the tokens of the community's respect and gratitude. Emboldened, some began to insist that they buy him a cup of tea from time to time, or invited him in to share in whatever humble meal they had.
But for all that he spent his days, evenings and even some of his nights with other people, it was a lonely life. He missed Jim's friendship most of all, though he missed the others as well, Simon, H, Rafe, Joel, Megan and Rhonda. Just as he missed the people he'd cared about at Rainier, particularly Eli and many of his students. Nor did he feel comfortable in this new role seeking the companionship of some of the truly lovely women he met. They saw him as The Shaman, and he didn't want to somehow abuse their trust in him.
He'd found himself worrying more and more about Jim, though he told himself he was being foolish. Twice a week, he still took the time to make a visual check and assure himself that Jim was just fine. Still, that night, in his state of feeling physically weak and emotionally traumatized, he got up and for the first time, he went out to use the shop's phone, and he left a message for Simon. If Jim ever needed him, he said, Simon should call the Nature's Harvest Health Food Store and someone would find him. In his message, he said that he hoped everyone was fine, and reassured Simon that he was doing okay.
Going back to crawl under the blankets in the chilly storeroom, Blair found that the call wasn't enough to settle his own level of anxiety. The power that he'd felt when he'd healed that child frightened and awed him. He didn't understand it. And the weakness afterward had been overwhelming. To have been attacked then, while his own reserves were so dangerously abated had left him trembling inside and he felt he needed something-something to make him feel he could keep doing this. Something to give him the internal strength and confidence to carry on. Forcing himself to honesty, he admitted that he needed Jim, if only to see him, even if only for a moment.
So he found himself meditating, and going to that deeper level, where he let loose the bonds to his body and allowed his spirit to walk with the wolf, back to his home, back to the loft.
The impact of standing in the middle of the loft again filled him with such an ache that he thought it might choke him. But it was the sight of Jim, standing on the balcony, looking out over the city that made his spirit tremble with an abiding and desperate loneliness. He wanted so much to speak, to call out, but he'd still not mastered the art of that, which was probably a good thing, so he could only stand and look at Jim, and wish so badly that he could come home.
Jim stiffened suddenly, his head tilted as if he sensed something and then he turned quickly, catching Blair by surprise. For just a moment, their eyes locked, Jim's widening with shocked surprise, Blair's filled with longing, and then Sandburg recovered and flashed away. He hadn't intended for Jim to see him. Hadn't meant to impose his presence upon his friend.
"Hey, Rafe, did you hear?" H called as he ambled into the Operations Room. "The Shaman worked a miracle down in Carib-town."
"Miracle? What miracle?" his partner asked, swiveling his chair away from his computer.
"The guys in the locker room say he healed a little girl who fell off a roof yesterday," H reported, conscious that others were also listening.
"Who's this shaman?" Joel asked, curious, as Megan looked on.
H shrugged. "Some guy in the inner city whose been wandering around encouraging people to do their civic duty and report crimes to the local cops. Nobody seems to know who he is. They just call him The Shaman, capital 'T', capital 'S'."
Joel's brow quirked as he looked over at Megan and she shrugged in response. "Whatever works," she drawled.
Simon had overheard the conversation from his office, and Jim had heard it too, as he studied a file at his desk. Banks snorted and shook his head. "Shaman," he muttered. People would believe in anything. The kid had probably fallen off a step and banged her knee and the so-called 'shaman' had just picked her up and dusted her off.
When he heard the title, 'shaman', Jim's thoughts turned to Incacha, and he felt a shaft of grief, both for the loss of his mentor, and more, for the loss of his Guide. "Where the hell are you, Chief?" he muttered as he pinched the bridge of his nose, remembering again the odd vision from the night before that had haunted him in the hours since, throughout the whole of another sleepless night. God, he wondered if he was going crazy. For just that single too short moment, he'd thought that Blair had finally come home, and then the image of his friend had blinked out, like some kind of hallucination that had ended as suddenly as it had come. It had hurt so bad, to see Blair and then know he wasn't really there, that Jim couldn't stop the tears that had blurred his eyes. Blair had looked so lost, so woebegone-all Jim had wanted to do was pull him into a tight hug, and never let him go, but Sandburg had vanished before Ellison could move or even cry out. It had only been a waking dream, a vision spawned by hope and need. It had to have been a hallucination, right? There'd been no sound, no heartbeat. If it wasn't an illusion, then it had been a ghost, and that meant that Sandburg was…no. NO! It hadn't been real. Not real.
Trembling, Jim pushed the painful memory away, refusing to consider what it might have meant because the idea was too unbearable to endure, and then went back to correlating the notes from various precincts in the inner city.
The citizen engagement in cleaning up their neighborhoods was beginning to have an impact in drying up the profits earned from the illegal sale of drugs in Cascade. Tensions were mounting in the criminal underworld, and there were indications that a big new push was coming, with a massive supply of designer drugs being brought in from South America. As a result, everyone in Vice, Narcotics and Street Patrol had their ears to the ground, picking up whatever rumours they could, working their snitches, thoroughly questioning the petty dealers when they were apprehended, and all of the information was funneling up to Major Crimes, to the desk of the detective in charge of the overall investigation, Jim Ellison.
Word was, the shipment was coming in soon, and that the foul goods would be offered at bargain basement prices to jack up the interest of the local buyers and the users on the streets.
But word was also that the new product was both highly addictive and deadly.
Jim was determined to keep the garbage off the streets.
"Mrs. Ste-Marie, I heard from some of the kids on the street that they haven't seen Tomas for a couple of days," Blair said to Adele Ste-Marie when she opened the door of her apartment to his knock. "I wondered if something was wrong, or if he was ill?"
"Shaman!" she exclaimed, honoured and overwhelmed that he had come to her door to ask after her son. This was the man who had saved her daughter two weeks before, and had not even stayed long enough for her to thank him properly. "Please, come in! I never had de chance to t'ank you, may all d'Angels bless and keep you for de grea' t'ing you did…" she babbled, flustered, the softly musical Caribbean lilt of her accent made strong by her confusion.
He smiled and touched her arm gently as he moved past her into the dingy apartment. These people were so poor, their struggle for survival never-ending. He knew Adele's story, as he was the learning the stories of all of his tribe. She and her husband, with their infant son, had come as immigrants to Cascade about a dozen years before. And then her husband had been tragically killed in a drive-by shooting two years ago. A good man, hardworking, he'd been an innocent victim in the wrong place at the wrong time. So she had gone out to work to support her children as best she could with limited education and skills, but she'd been laid off three months before, and now the small family survived on welfare.
"How is Domina?" he asked her, but his answer was the enthusiastic giggle of little brown whirlwind who raced into the room.
"Shaman!" the child shrieked as she literally threw herself up into his arms.
Laughing, Blair caught her and swung her high, eliciting more giggles and squeals of delight, before he pulled her close for a hug. "I see you're doing just fine, little one!"
"Mama say I can't play on de roof no more," she confided, pouting prettily, not happy with the decision.
"Your Mama is absolutely right, Domina! The roof is too dangerous," he replied soberly, almost severely, but the warmth of the kindness in his eyes took out any sting that his words might have held. "We can't have you falling again, now can we?"
Accepting his judgment, the mite shook her head and squirmed to be let down. "Are you here to see Tomas?" she asked, large brown eyes regarding him seriously. "He's in his room, and he won' come out to play wid me."
"I see," Blair murmured as he glanced at Adele. "Would you allow me to see him for a few minutes?"
"Of course, Shaman," Adele answered gratefully. "I've been that worried about de boy, but he won't say what's wrong. Somet'ing happen' t'other night that has frightened him very badly, but he just won' tell me what it t'is."
She showed Blair down the narrow hall, and knocked on the door to her son's room. "Tomas, the Shaman be here to see you," she said, and then waved at Blair to go in.
When Blair entered the tiny room that resembled an oversized closet more than a bedroom, he found it dark, with the curtains drawn and no lights turned on. "Tomas?" he called softly. "Can I talk with you?"
He heard a sniffle from the corner on the far side of the bed, and turned in that direction, moving slowly, like a man trying not to scare off a wild animal, careful not to alarm the child who was already apparently quite terrified. He moved around the bed and then sank down to the floor, to sit opposite the young boy. "What is it, Tomas? What's happened?" he asked quietly.
The boy rubbed his eyes, embarrassed by his tears. Swallowing, he sniffed, as he whispered, "I'm ‘fraid dey will kill me, if dey fin' me."
Frowning, Blair tilted his head a little as he listened, taking note of the child's pallor and the trembling of his hands.
"Who would want to kill you, and why?" he asked, concern warm in his voice.
The boy looked away and shuddered under the weight of the burden of the knowledge that he bore. He hadn't thought to tell anyone, ever-but The Shaman was different. The Shaman would understand and maybe know what to do. "I seen dem kill another man two nights ago, in de back alley. It was late, and I should not have been out, but Mama, she needed some milk from de store for Domina's breakfast, so I cut t'rough de alley, an'…an' dey stabbed…"
The child's voice broke on the horror of what he'd seen. Blair shuffled in closer, so that he could lay a calming hand on the boy's arm. "Who did this, Tomas? Did you see them clearly?"
Nodding, sniffing again, the boy rubbed his hand under his nose. "It was de man who t'reatened you after you healed Domina…and de two who held your arms. Luis D'Algado, was de one who stabbed… an' Mario Angeles an' Jose Martinas held d'other man-one of those guys who sell de drugs for them, y'know? Martino Aguilla."
Blair blew out a breath and licked his lips. "Did they see you?"
"I don' know," whimpered the boy. "I ran away, but I banged into a trash can and it made such a terrible loud noise…dey must've seen me. And now dey will kill me, too! Oh, Shaman, I am so scared!"
Blair drew the boy into his arms and held him tightly, letting him cry out his terror for long minutes, while he murmured comforting sounds to soothe the lad. Once the tempest had passed, he looked down at the thin, poorly nourished child. "Tomas, you have some choices to make. Some very tough choices that I wish you could be spared. But…what you have seen is very serious."
"Choices, Shaman?" the boy repeated, not understanding.
Nodding, Blair continued calmly, slowly, watching to see that the lad understood what he was saying, "Yes. You can choose to hide here in your room, afraid. No one would blame you if that's what you choose to do. But they might come for you anyway, and they might also hurt your mother and Domina. Or, you can choose to tell the police what you saw. But that has some dangers, too, and you need to understand them. What you saw would require you to testify in court, and Luis and his henchmen won't be happy with that. You could be in danger from them. But, you may be in danger, anyway. If you don't tell the police, those murderers will remain free, and might kill other people. If you do tell the police, you could help send them to prison and make your neighbourhood safer for everyone. I'm sorry, Tomas-this is a decision for a man, not a child. But, it is a decision only you can make. Do you understand?"
Tomas thought about it for several minutes, shivering with the fear that he felt. How he wished he had never been near that alley that night. Finally, he whispered, "If'n I tell de police, will dey keep me and my family safe?"
"They will try," Blair replied. "I know someone, a very brave and strong detective, who would give his life to protect yours. I can give your mother his name and phone number, and she can call him, and say you will only speak with him. I'm sure he will help you."
At length, the young boy nodded. "I will tell dis detective wha' I seen."
"You're very brave, Tomas, and I am very, very proud of you. That is the right thing to do," Blair told him seriously, brushing the damp black hair back from the child's brow. "I'll go out and talk with your mother and give her the information. And I'll stay with her until she knows this detective will see you. If he agrees, I will call a taxi and escort you and your mother and Domina downstairs, to see that you get away safely. All right?"
"Yes, Shaman," the boy whispered, and then suddenly hugged Blair hard. "T'ank you…t'ank you for helpin' me."
Less than half an hour later, Blair had seen Tomas and his family safely away in the taxi, and had paid the fare for them before the cab drove off. He watched until it turned the corner, and then turned to look into the eyes of Mario Angeles, who spit on the street and with a final look of arrogant contempt for The Shaman, turned and loped away.
His jaw tight, aware of the danger the family was in, Blair turned in the opposite direction, toward the phone booth outside the convenience store. He called the local precinct to report what was happening, and asked them to call Detective Jim Ellison, Major Crimes Unit, at Cascade PD Headquarters to explain that the family would need protection.
The local constabulary got onto the case immediately. Luis D'Algado and his lot were suspected of a number of local assaults and murders, but they terrorized the community and this was the first time either a victim or an eye-witness had agreed to tell what had happened. The Shaman was assured that the boy and his family would be kept in safe custody.
Jim had been surprised to get the call from Adele Ste-Marie, even more surprised to hear that The Shaman, whoever he was, had counseled the woman to ensure that it was Jim who heard her son's story. But, the names she gave him over the phone, and the description of what the boy had seen, was more than enough for him to know that he wanted to hear this story first hand. Carib-town was one of the hot spots, and D'Algado's name figured prominently in the files he'd been studying. The victim, Aguillo, had been an undercover cop.
When the local precinct called before the family had even arrived, to share their concerns that the family was being watched by the local drug overlords, and needed to be kept safely away from the neighborhood, Jim found himself agreeing. If what this boy had seen was anything like the mother described, his testimony would be invaluable, and he and his family were very definitely in grave risk. He told the sergeant on the other end of the line that D'Algado and his crowd should be picked up for questioning and held until Jim had taken the boy's statement and determined whether his evidence was credible.
"How did you know they were on their way to see me?" he asked, vaguely curious just before he terminated the call.
"The Shaman told us," was the brief reply.
Hanging up, Jim shook his head. Who the hell was this Shaman guy? He was becoming a force to reckon with in the ghetto, but nobody seemed to have a clue who he was or where he'd come from.
A few minutes later, a very frightened thirteen-year-old, along with his mother and very cute little sister, eased their way into the Operations Room, as if afraid of being in the wrong place, as if terrified they would be sent away.
"Mrs. Ste-Marie? Tomas?" Jim called to them as soon as he'd spotted them in the doorway. He was on his feet and moving to meet them even before they acknowledged his call. "Thank you for coming to see me," he said. "Rhonda, would you mind watching the little girl…"
"Domina," Adele whispered when Jim turned to her, obviously wondering what to call the child.
"Domina," he repeated with a smile for the tyke, as he explained to the office administrator, "I need to talk to her brother and mother for a few minutes."
"Sure, Jim," Rhonda acceded, grinning down at the beautiful tiny child.
Jim led Tomas and his mother to his desk and pulled up chairs for both of them. Sitting down, he said, "Okay, why don't you just tell me your story. Later, I'll want to ask you again and we'll tape record what you say, but for now, I just want to listen. All right?"
Nervously, Tomas nodded, and then stammered his way through what he'd seen. As Jim listened, he watched the boy, and was impressed with his clarity and his assurance that he'd seen it all clearly, his ability to unhesitatingly describe who had done what, who had been involved. Though Tomas was obviously very scared, his account was more than lucid. The kid was going to be a credible witness.
"Why did you ask to see me specifically?" Ellison asked, curious. His name wasn't exactly all that well known on the streets of the inner city, at least, he didn't think it was.
"The Shaman tol' me dat we could trus' you, dat you would help us," Tomas explained. "He's a grea' man. He…he saved my sister's life after she fall from de roof a couple weeks ago. He jus' touched her, and den she was fine."
"The Shaman, huh?" Jim muttered, starting to be bugged a little by the way that guy kept turning up, more than a little startled to learn that the story he'd overheard H talking about, the 'miracle', was apparently true. "What's his name?"
But Adele and Tomas both shrugged and shook their heads. They didn't know.
"Where does he live?" Ellison asked then.
Again, they shrugged, embarrassed that they could not answer his questions. No one knew The Shaman's name or where he slept, they stammered. He was just always there when you needed him, and always came when he was sought.
Frustrated, Jim shook his head and began to turn away, to pull the tape recorder from his desk drawer.
"He be jus' The Shaman," Tomas said softly. "The Shaman of de Grea' City."
Jim froze and then he straightened and turned back to the boy. "What did you say?"
"He be The Shaman of de Grea' City," Tomas repeated. "Dat is how we all know him. Our own holy men, and de Priestess, dey say dat it is so."
"What does he look like?" Jim asked, his voice tight in his throat, his mouth dry. It couldn't be-could it?
Tomas looked to his mother who replied, "He is not old, maybe thirty? A white man, an American. He has long, curly hair, and ver' large blue eyes…"
Jim's face lost all expression, and he was almost afraid to breathe as he pulled open his desk drawer and fumbled around to find one of the pictures he'd had printed up more than two months before. Pulling one out, he held it up and asked, almost breathlessly, "Is this The Shaman?"
Both of them broke into broad smiles as they nodded. "Yes," Tomas affirmed eagerly. "I t'ought…I t'ought you must know him 'cause he speak of you like he know you. He say you strong, an' ver' brave. Dat you die before you le' anybody be hurting us. It was his words 'bout you dat convinced me dat t'would be safe to tell de police what I seen."
Jim just stared at them, trying to assimilate what they were saying and what he'd heard about The Shaman. All this time-all this time, Blair had been in Cascade! He hadn't ever left. He was alive. He was okay. A feeling of profound relief swept over Ellison and he was almost dizzy with it.
"Be you all right?" Adele asked, concerned by his sudden pallor and trembling hands.
Nodding, clearing his throat, Jim replied, "Yeah, I'm fine. Your Shaman is a very good friend of mine. I just hadn't realized that he was in town…"
Recollecting himself, suddenly impatient to have this work done, Jim pulled the tape recorder out, and had Tomas tell his story again. This time, Jim stopped him from time to time, asking for details such as where the light had come from that had allowed Tomas to see what was happening, though it was almost midnight. And what clothing the others were wearing, and so on, to ensure the memories were clear in the boy's mind.
Once the questioning was done, Ellison immediately called the local precinct involved and directed them to book D'Algado, Angeles and Martinas for the murder of Martino Aguilla. Jim then asked Tomas and Adele to wait by his desk as he went quickly to rap on Simon's door, entering when Simon looked up and waved him in.
"What is it, Jim?" Simon asked.
A disbelieving smile was tugging at the corners of Jim's mouth, but he focused on the case first, wanting to have those details done, so that he could be free to leave. Swiftly, he brought Simon up to date and asked his superior to arrange for a safe house for the family until the case was brought to trial. Persuaded, as Jim was, that this too rare and very valuable witness had to be safeguarded, Simon agreed to set it up and have the uniforms come to escort the family as soon as the accommodation was arranged.
Reaching for his phone, Simon thought Jim would go back to the witness and his family, but Ellison continued to stand before his desk. "Was there something else, Jim?" Simon asked, picking up on the thrum of excitement that was emanating from the detective.
"I've found him, Simon," Jim blurted, the smile widening. "He's here, in Cascade. He never left. Sandburg is The Shaman."
"What?" Banks exclaimed, his eyes wide with astonishment. "You're kidding me."
"Nope. Tomas and his mother just identified a picture of Blair as The Shaman," Jim explained. "Simon, they don't know his name or even where he lives, just that he's ‘always around when you need him'. I want a day, two days, whatever, to go down there and look around. I-I really need to find him."
Nodding, Simon felt a smile stretch his own lips. "You do that, Jim! You find him-and you bring him home!" Ever since he'd gotten that voice message a couple of weeks before, Simon had wondered if Blair was in the city, or at least somewhere nearby, but he hadn't said anything to Jim or anyone else. It had bothered him, keeping the message to himself. But he'd been pretty sure if the kid had wanted anyone, meaning Jim, to know where to find him, he'd've called Jim directly. The fact that he'd sent this family to Jim was the first hopeful sign that the kid had given that maybe he was ready to be found.
Banks wondered if he should tell Jim about the health food store that Blair had mentioned in his message. But he couldn't immediately think of a way to do that without revealing that he'd heard from the kid weeks ago and hadn't told Ellison.
"Yes, sir!" Jim grinned, looking younger than he had in weeks. In a heartbeat, he was out of the office going first to Rhonda to ask her if she'd type up the statement from the tape and have the boy and his mother sign it. He then went back to Adele and Tomas, to explain that they would be taken immediately to a safe house and all their needs and expenses would be met until the trial was finished.
They both looked astonished to think the authorities would move so quickly to ensure their safety. Astonished and very, very, grateful.
"As soon as they have the place set up for you, in a couple of hours or so, police officers will take you there and will stand guard outside the door," Jim explained. "Would you mind waiting in the conference room next door until they come to take you?"
No, they didn't mind waiting. Jim took them down the hall, rescuing Rhonda from Domina on the way, and then got them snacks and beverages to tide them over while they waited.
"I have something I have to do, so I have to go," Jim explained. "But I promise you, you are safe here and we'll make sure you stay safe. All right?"
They nodded at him, Adele standing to formally thank him, and then he was gone, running back along the hall, and too impatient to wait for the elevator, he tore down the stairs to the parking garage below.
Jim had been cruising the neighbourhood for about an hour when his cell buzzed. "Ellison," he almost barked, not welcoming the distraction.
"Jim," Simon said, "I've heard that The Shaman can sometimes be found through the people at Nature's Harvest Health Food Store, on Bannatyne."
"Great!" Jim exclaimed, not questioning the information or how Simon had come by it, not really caring, too anxious to see Blair now that he finally knew how close his friend was.
In less than twenty minutes, Jim had spotted the store and found a parking spot nearby. Noticing that it was getting dark, he checked his watch as he loped along the street, worried that maybe the store would already be closed.
But he got there with seconds to spare. Pushing open the door, he strode straight toward the young woman behind the counter.
"Can I help you?" Janey offered pleasantly, always glad to see a new potential customer.
"I hope so," Jim replied fervently with a disarming smile. "I'm looking for a friend of mine, Blair Sandburg…"
But as soon as he'd said the name, Janie's pleasant expression faded. The tall, muscular man in front of her could be anybody, and could present a danger to Blair. Her gaze shifting away, she replied, "I'm sorry, I don't think I know…"
"You might know him as The Shaman," Jim replied, almost holding his breath. But his eyes narrowed, as he picked up on her heartbeat and realized she was lying. She did know Blair, and by his own name. Why wouldn't she say so?
"The Shaman?" Janey repeated, wary of the aura of aggressive power that Jim projected. "I don't think…"
"It's all right, Janey," a quiet voice came from the narrow doorway on the far side, in the back of the store. "Jim's my friend."
"Oh," she sighed in relief. "That's all right, then." Smiling at Blair, she continued, "I was just about to close up…"
"That's okay, I'll take care of it. You go on home," Blair assured her, but his eyes had not left Jim's gaze.
Ellison had wheeled around at the sound of Blair's voice, and was standing there, just staring at him, almost afraid that this was only a vision, too, and that Sandburg might suddenly vanish again into thin air.
Not unaware of the odd tension between the two men, Janey grabbed her purse from under the counter and shrugged into her coat. With a quick "'Bye!" she was gone, out into the lowering night.
"So-you found me," Blair observed quietly, a tentative smile playing around his lips, though his eyes were guarded. "It's good to see you, Jim."
"Good to see me?" Ellison repeated, his voice thin and strained with emotion. "Why didn't you call? Why the hell did you leave in the first place?"
"I told you, in the letter," Blair replied, eyes pleading for understanding. "I figured that you'd likely be glad…"
"Glad?" Jim repeated again, his voice tight with distress that Blair could imagine any such thing. Shaking his head, he moved across the store until he was standing in front of his best friend. Reaching out to grip Blair's shoulders, Jim gave him a little shake. "I couldn't believe it. I did everything I could to find you-but you left no trail. Dammit, Blair. Glad? I've been sick with worry about you. And…look, just come home, all right? We need to talk."
The feel of the firm grip on his shoulders, the intensity of Jim's gaze and voice-the request that he come home-broke through the last bit of reserve Blair had been able to sustain. "Oh, man, I've missed you!" he blurted, moving forward to hug Jim hard. "I wasn't sure you'd want me back, Jim. And, so much time has passed I wasn't even sure how to let you know I was here. I didn't think I could just show up at the loft, you know?"
"No, I don't know…the loft is your home, Chief. But I do understand that one of the reasons you sent that family to me was so that I could figure out who the famous Shaman is," Jim rumbled, hugging him right back. "Just come home, okay?"
Blair nodded. Pulling away, he swiped at his eyes as he turned into the back room. "I'll just get my stuff," he stammered, his voice cracking a little with the overwhelming relief he felt that Jim wanted him back. Even if he couldn't stay now, any more than he could stay three months ago. He just needed to be home, for a while. Needed to be with Jim again. It took him less than five minutes to pack up the few things he'd need, leave Jim's number and a note for Janey to say he'd be back in a day or two, and then he locked up the shop as they left.
Jim looped an arm around his shoulder, holding Blair close to his side as they walked along the block, back toward the truck; both of them so damned glad to be back together that neither could speak yet past the lumps in their throats.
All the way back to the loft, Jim kept looking over at Sandburg, as if he couldn't quite believe he was really there, in the truck, coming home. There were so many things he wanted to say, but the words kept tumbling over in his mind and getting locked in his throat. Finally, reaching out to grip Blair's shoulder, he murmured hoarsely, "I've missed you, Chief."
Those simple, heartfelt words were almost the undoing of Sandburg. Tears flooded his eyes and he had to gasp suddenly for breath, his chest tight with emotion. Sniffing, he nodded and swallowed hard. "I've missed you, too, Jim," he managed to whisper back. Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he turned to face his best friend as he continued, "I wanted to call, and, well, I checked up on you regularly, to make sure you were all right."
Frowning in confusion, Jim shot him a look. "Checked up on me? How? When?" he asked.
A little embarrassed, Blair shrugged as he explained, "A couple of times a week, I'd loiter around the loft or the station until I saw you. And, once, well, I took a spirit walk to the loft. You saw me that time. Sorry, it must have been pretty weird."
Jim nodded tightly as he gripped the wheel of the truck. "So many times, Chief, so many damned times, I had the sense that you were somewhere near by. But I didn't pay any attention. Dammit! I just never even considered that you'd still be in town."
A small smile played over Sandburg's lips as he replied, "Yeah, well, I figured you'd assume I took off for parts unknown. But I couldn't go anywhere too far, in case, well, in case you ran into trouble with your senses, or got hurt, or something…"
Jim shook his head, berating himself silently for not having realized that Blair would never leave him at risk. Would never be so far away that he couldn't be of help if he was needed. So many weeks, months, lost because he hadn't grasped that simple fact.
When he'd parked the truck and turned off the ignition, Jim turned to Blair and asked, "Chief, promise me you won't ever disappear like that again, okay? I just about went crazy trying to find you."
It was all the assurance that Sandburg needed to know that, if nothing else remained the same, their friendship was still intact and strong. Relieved, grateful, he couldn't help the blinding smile as he vowed, "You got it, Jim. I promise."
Upstairs, Blair went to his room to drop off his pack, and was surprised to find the bed made, as if he'd been expected. The astonishment was still on his face as he wandered back into the living room, accepting a beer from Jim before he sat down, cross-legged, making himself comfortable on the couch.
Reading the look, Jim shrugged diffidently as he explained, "I just wanted everything to be ready for you when you got back. You'll find your tea and stuff in the cupboards."
"Thanks, man," Blair said with another blazing smile. "Even if I can't really stay, it is SO good to know you would want me to…"
But Jim cut in, "What do you mean, you can't stay? Of course you'll stay."
Looking away, Blair shook his head a little as he replied softly, "I can't, Jim. You know I can't. Nothing's changed. Nobody would ever understand why you'd let me live here after…"
"Right," Ellison interrupted again, nodding his understanding as he sat down. They'd never had that little talk. Leaning forward, he continued intensely, "Blair, there are a few things you need to know."
Turning his gaze back to his friend, Sandburg asked, "What things?"
Taking a breath, Jim decided to just jump right in. "First, I'm going to go public about my senses…"
‘Jim! You can't!" Blair protested, appalled.
Holding up a hand for silence, Ellison continued, "Just hear me out. Blair, I will never, ever, be able to tell you what I felt when I saw that press conference and realized just how far you would go to protect me. But I can't accept the price you're too damned ready to pay for me, for our friendship. These are MY senses. And I have to accept responsibility for them. The Chief, the Commissioner and the DA all know. Over the last three months, we've gone through every one of my case files from the last four years to make sure we're ready for the appeals. I'll hold my own press conference as soon as you help me work out how much to say, tomorrow if we've figured out our story by then. And then I'm going to need you to help me with the circus."
"Jim, you do NOT need to do this," Blair protested. "Listen to me. If the bad guys know, they could use the information against you on the streets. Your life could be at risk!"
"Which is why I'll need to have you backing me up again, Chief," Jim replied, accepting the risks.
Shaking his head, Blair wasn't ready to let it go. "No, Jim. If no one knows, then you don't need me, and you'll be okay…"
"That's where you're wrong, Junior," Jim cut in again. "That was the mistake you made in the first place when you decided you could take off." Ellison sighed, searching for the right words. "I know I gave you the impression that I was ready to work without you beside me all the time. And I'll admit that I did try, because I honestly hate dragging you into dangerous situations. But since you've been gone, it's gotten harder and harder to control the damned things. They spike, or disappear, without warning. I do need you. More than that, I like working with you and I want you to be my partner. Cop or not. I want you backing me up. I…I just don't trust anyone as much as I trust you."
Sandburg frowned in concern when he heard about the senses being unpredictable, and wondered why that had happened. But whatever the reason, if it was happening, and Jim needed him, wanted him, back-well then he had to go back. No question.
Which meant that Jim was right. The only way to explain why he was back was to also come clean about the senses. People would figure it out, anyway. It was only a matter of time if they started working together again.
But did the whole world have to know? Or just the police?
"Jim, couldn't we just put out the word within the PD itself? Why do you need to tell the media?" Sandburg asked then.
"Because that's the only way to clear your reputation and sort things out at the University," Jim replied, as if that were obvious.
"But that's not necessary," Blair replied. When Jim started to protest, Blair held up his hand, pointedly using the same signal Jim had used earlier to make him sit quietly and listen. When Jim rolled his eyes and sat back in the chair, just as pointedly given Sandburg airtime, Blair continued, "First, as to my reputation, I doubt all that many people who weren't involved remember my press conference or care. It's old news, man. Life goes on. Second, I have no intention of going back to Rainier. That's over, Jim. My life has moved on. I don't have the time to work there, work with you and fulfill my new responsibilities."
Pausing for a moment, Blair swallowed and pushed his hair back behind his ears. He'd never used his own title before, only responding to it when others called him. "Jim, I'm The Shaman. It's who and what I am now."
"Oh, no," Jim protested. "What you've been doing for the last three months is way too dangerous, Sandburg. Wandering around the ghetto, openly encouraging people to confront the crime that goes on. How long before some bastard tries to take you out? No. You can be the Shaman at the university. You don't need to be on the streets."
"Yes, Jim, I do," Blair replied, his tone firm and uncompromising. "That's where I'm needed. That's where my work is."
Shaking his head, Jim leaned forward again. "Look, I've gotten my Dad's lawyer to look into things and he's already gotten an agreement that they terminated you without just cause. They can either give you your job back and let you finish your doctorate, or they pay a financial penalty as a settlement for their inappropriate action. You can get it all back, Chief. You loved teaching, learning…"
"I'm teaching now, and I'm learning now. I don't have to be in a rarified environment to do that," Blair replied. "Jim, the university doesn't owe me anything. Not after the press conference. They had no way of knowing…"
"They knew you'd never submitted that paper, nor did you ever approve of the release of portions of it to the media, nor did you ever claim it was authentic," Jim argued. "Blair, you were a victim all along the line. They DO owe you. They own you big time, and they know it. The settlement on the table is significant."
Blair sighed and leaned back against the couch. Jim wasn't hearing him. He took a deep breath, understanding that he wasn't really listening to Jim, either. Bowing his head, he thought about it, and Ellison let the silence stretch between them as he did.
Blair knew that Jim was afraid for him, and didn't want him risking the dangers of the inner-city streets. So they would need to find a way to deal with that. But, Jim was also right that Blair had been a victim as much as Jim had been by the whole dissertation fiasco.
The arbitrary and sudden termination of his association with Rainier had been inappropriate, and if anyone had been acting in anything but the heat of the moment, it likely wouldn't have happened. But Blair couldn't accept the idea of some kind of huge financial settlement. In his mind, it would be immoral to become rich from anything that had happened.
However, maybe there was some room to compromise.
He'd like to get his paper on 'The Thin Blue Line' published, because it said things he wanted others to hear about the role the police played in society, and the personal prices that had to be paid to play that role. And it would sure be good to have the student loans paid off and no longer hanging over his head. Everyone would emerge whole. The university would pay a modest penalty for arbitrary action, and he'd get his PhD and be out of debt. Jim would get his partner back, and Blair would have the credentials to be a paid consultant at the PD.
And he'd have the time to be The Shaman of the Great City.
"Okay," he finally murmured, looking back up at his friend. "Here's the way it's going to go. We'll rework the settlement with Rainier so that I can submit my paper on the law enforcement sub-culture and the university will cover the costs of all outstanding loans and grants so that I can be free and clear. The PhD could be appropriate credentials for a consultant slot with the PD, if they will agree to give me that so that I can continue to work with you. The time I used to spend on university stuff, I'll spend in my new role as the shaman. We'll get the Chief to advise the department heads of your capabilities and they can tell their subordinate staff, all of it verbally, nothing in writing."
"I don't want you on the streets alone," Jim argued.
"Sorry, but that train has left the station, big guy. Incacha named me Shaman of this city and I'm finally learning how to do my job, just like you have to do yours as the Sentinel," Blair replied. "That's just the way it is, regardless of whether we like it or not. But-honestly-I think I'm doing some good."
Jim's jaw tensed. There had to be room for some negotiation here. "Okay, how about this. You only do the Shaman bit during the day and never after dark. AND, once I go public, and people see that I'm hanging around watching from time to time, the message will get around that anyone who messes with the Shaman, answers to the Sentinel."
"Okay, I accept the daylight hours, but," Blair argued back, "Jim, you can't go public."
"No choice, Chief," Jim cut back. "As soon as the secret is out, the PD and the DA require that it be as public as possible so that anyone who feels their rights might have been compromised has the chance to appeal. If the information only 'leaks' out, it looks too much like we're trying to hide something. There is no 'halfway' on this. I want you back, so your reputation with the Force has to be cleared. I'm going public, Junior. All that's left is to figure out how much to say."
Blair gazed toward Jim, his eyes a little unfocused as he thought about that, and finally accepted the necessity. Locking back with Jim's gaze, he replied, "We tell them as little as possible. Basically, all we need to say is that you see and hear better than most people. If pushed, we can give them your sense of smell. But we don't give them anything about the specific parameters, saying those aren't fully defined yet, nor do we tell them anything about the zone-out factor. Agreed?"
"Looks like we got a deal, Chief," Jim replied, standing to hold out his hand to shake on it. Grinning, Blair stood and took his partner's hand, surprised when Jim pulled him into a tight hug. "Welcome back, Sandburg," Ellison murmured. "Welcome home."
It was only later, during dinner, that Jim remembered that there'd been something Sandburg had said, something he'd done apparently, that cried out for some explanation. "Chief, what did you mean that you'd been spirit-walking and that you were really here that night that I thought I saw you?"
The fork laden with ginger hot beef paused on its way to Sandburg's mouth, and then was lowered to the plate. "Uh, well, just what I said," Blair replied, wondering at how long it had taken for Jim to remember that. "I learned a few things about being a shaman in the last few months. If I meditate deeply enough, I can sort of let go of my body, and my spirit can move freely."
"Really?" Jim said, looking a little stunned. He'd seen the evidence, so he couldn't protest how unlikely the whole thing sounded. But it gave him a kind of queasy feeling and he wasn't sure he wanted to know more-was actually sorry he'd asked.
"Yeah," Blair confirmed with a grin, warming to his topic. "It's really weird, Jim. I can be anywhere in a blink of an eye. Oh, and I can see our spirit guides. In fact, my wolf walks with me. I'm not really good at it, yet. I can't talk or anything. Haven't figured that part out. But, eventually, I'll be able to talk and even do things, as if I was really present. Well, I am present, sort of, anyway, you know what I mean."
Nodding slowly, Jim just gaped at him, trying to assimilate the rush of words. Shaking his head, trying to get a grip on his incredulity, he drawled, "Is this something you feel inclined to do often?" Hoping not.
"Nah," Blair replied, returning his attention to his meal. Taking a bite, he shrugged as he chewed, swallowed and then added, "It's just something that might come in handy, Jim. Think about it. You know, if there's a situation going down and we need to check it out but don't want anyone to maybe get hurt, well, I can just take a stroll and see what's cooking. Or, I could create a distraction when you need one, maybe get the bad guys to shoot at me, or something. Not me, exactly, don't look like that, but at my spirit, which the bullets wouldn't hurt. There could be all kinds of situations, when you think about it, when spirit walking could be really useful. I could, maybe, teach you how to do it. Though, it's a little uncomfortable at first, but you get used to it."
Jim's eyes narrowed as he tried to imagine Blair's spirit scaring some hard ass, and the idea did have a certain appeal, but- "What do you mean, uncomfortable?" he asked, catching the slight increase in Blair's heart rate at the memory of what it felt like.
Blair looked away, pretending to consider how to describe the feeling while he wished he'd learn to think before his enthusiasm loosened his tongue. Somehow, he didn't think Jim would want to know that it felt like dying, because that would remind Jim that Blair knew what that felt like, and well, he just didn't want to go there. "Uh, well, it's just a weird feeling, that's all," he finally replied.
Knowing he wasn't getting a straight answer, Jim nevertheless let it go, not sure he wanted to know more. But, there was something else that would be important to know before Sandburg did any more dancing around without his body. "What's going on with your body while your spirit is taking a walk?" Jim asked.
Blair shrugged. "It just lies there, waiting for me to come back."
"Uh huh," Ellison grunted. He pointed his fork at Blair, to make sure the kid listened to what he had to say. "No more 'spirit walking', and certainly no 'spirit walking' when we're in the middle of something. The last thing I need, or you need, is to worry about some creep tripping over your body while your spirit is out having a good time. Understood?"
Sandburg rolled his eyes and made a face as he complained, "You are absolutely no fun, you know that? I mean, can't you just see the expressions of some crook if…"
"I can imagine just fine, Junior," Jim drawled. "And that's fun enough. Eat your dinner."
Sandburg snickered, reflecting with some amusement that Jim had taken it well, all things considered. It helped that Ellison had seen visions of his own, not to mention some of the other stuff Incacha had been able to do. Not everyone would calmly accept the idea of spirit walking with scarcely a blink of astonishment. And it might very well come in handy, Blair thought, and he decided to keep practicing so that he could really 'manifest' if he wanted or needed to.
It wasn't until they'd finished cleaning up the kitchen that Jim realized that Blair had said he'd learned 'things', plural. And there was that 'miracle' with the little girl that Ellison wanted to hear more about.
"What other shaman tricks have you learned, Sandburg?" he asked, wondering why Blair hadn't just volunteered the information.
"Well, let's see," Blair murmured as he thought about the things Kona had taught him. "I can ask the spirit animals to become visible. Not just our own…anybody's. And I can see them all, now. Or, I can conjure up illusions, like pillars of fire-that's pretty neat. And, I've learned to heal people, and make it rain, not that's a particularly useful skill in this town! It's harder to make it stop raining, to tell you the truth. I'm still working on that, as you can tell." Blair waved toward the window and the sleety weather outside.
But Jim had been listening closely, and hadn't missed the one potentially significant item in the list of parlor tricks. "What do you mean, you can ‘heal' people?" he asked. "You mean you really healed that little girl, what was her name, Domina, when she fell off a roof?"
"Oh, you heard about that," Blair replied, not really having wanted to get into that particular skill in any detail. Not that he minded the skill itself, but he figured Jim would have some concerns about the implications of using it. "That sort of thing is for emergencies only. Like Kona said, modern medicine works miracles today and it's usually best to leave stuff like that to the doctors."
"Kona?" Jim asked, not realizing he'd been successfully diverted onto a safer subject.
"Yeah, Kona," Blair repeated enthusiastically, leaning forward as he launched into the tale of how he'd met the amazing old shaman, delighted to find himself on a much less controversial conversational track.
When Blair walked into the Ops Room behind Jim the next morning, there was a moment of stunned silence, and then the air was filled with shouts of surprise as the others crowded around Sandburg to welcome him back-to make sure he was back. Touched by the warmth of their greetings, Blair laughed and affirmed that, "Yeah, just like a bad penny, you can't get rid of me."
Simon was drawn to the door of his office by the hullabaloo, smiling broadly when he spotted the cause. While Blair talked with the others, Jim crossed to Simon. "We're set. As soon as the press conference can be arranged, we're ready to go."
"Good," Simon replied. "Care to share the storyline with me?"
"We just say I can see, hear and smell better than most people. Sandburg's got hundreds of examples of other similar cases if we need them. That's it, that's all. No big deal," Jim answered. "If they ask, we say the stuff released a few months ago was exaggerated and out of context. As soon as the PD can get him an offer, Blair will come on board as a consultant and my official partner. Okay?"
"You know it is," Simon replied, moving around to his desk and pulled an envelope out of the top drawer. Tossing it onto his desk, he looked up at Jim, his eyes twinkling as he confessed, "I had the Personnel people write up the offer weeks ago, so that I could give it to Sandburg the moment he came back."
A smile blossomed on Jim's face at the surprise, leaving no doubt of how much he appreciated Simon's efforts on their behalf.
Blair was dumbfounded to have the offer ready and waiting for him, but he wasted no time in signing it, grinning hugely, and then he hugged Simon before the older man could duck out of range. The press conference was arranged for later that day and went pretty much as they'd expected. The media erupted with excitement, and had to be cautioned that they would be charged with obstruction of justice if they harassed Ellison on the streets. The only possibly sticky moment was when Don Haas asked, "If it's no big deal, then why did Sandburg hold that press conference denying everything?"
"I'll answer that," Blair said as he stepped forward. "At the time, the media harassment had gotten out of hand and had even obstructed Jim from apprehending Karl Zeller, the assassin known as the Iceman. Because he got away, he was able to shoot and almost kill two of my good friends. Your ceaseless attention made it impossible for Jim to do his job, and people's lives were in danger. I decided I had to stop it, any way I could."
Not wanting to dwell on how they'd contributed to a felon remaining at large, the reporters turned back to Jim, demanding more information on what a Sentinel was. Blair again answered, waxing poetic for what seemed like forever on the inordinately uninteresting details of his research and the relatively common occurrence of people having one or two heightened senses, until everyone was bored to tears and the press conference broke up.
Reaction throughout the PD was almost comical. There was astonishment, even some disbelief, but mostly Jim just noticed that for the first week afterward people were careful to lower their voices to mere whispers whenever he was near by. Not that it made any difference. He could still hear everything they said whether they realized it or not, but it was amusing more than disturbing. Within the Major Crimes Unit, Ellison and Sandburg were more than a little chagrined and embarrassed when H snorted that it was about bloody time that they finally admitted to it all. What? They'd thought nobody had noticed or pretty much figured it out long ago?
But within a few days, it was old news. Jim was frankly astonished at how swiftly it all blew over, and how readily other cops accepted that he could see things at a crime scene that they might miss, or hear things on a stakeout that was to their collective advantage.
The newspapers and television stations ran stories for a few days, but when there wasn't much to keep their voracious appetites for new material fed, and any fantastic speculation was swiftly met with the sharp threat of lawsuits, the headlines soon turned to other topics.
The appeals started rolling in, but weren't unexpected. The files were ready, and the court dockets were arranged to accommodate them. One after another, as the convictions held, confidence in the DA's office increased and everyone relaxed a little more.
The lawyer worked the deal with Rainier, and arrangements were made for Blair's oral defence of his dissertation. His loans and outstanding grants were cleared.
On the streets, The Shaman had to deal with a certain degree of suspicion when word got around that he worked with the cops, specifically with the big guy that lurked in his shadow. But, Sandburg just shrugged as he told them everyone had many roles and jobs to do. He casually explained that Jim, the 'Sentinel' who protected the city and the innocents who lived in it, needed his help from time to time in working with his senses, but that didn't mean that Blair wouldn't also still be available to them, when they had need of him. Those who had something to hide from the eyes and ears of the police had never been the ones who had sought Blair's help anyway. The others, if anything, felt a little more secure, a little more special, to know that they had a Sentinel as well as a Shaman who were both concerned about their welfare. Once they had seen that The Shaman was as good as his word, and still appeared on the streets for hours almost every day, they stopped worrying about whether he might simply stop coming, or wondering about what he did when he wasn't around.
Jim relaxed, and found his senses settled down nicely.
Blair couldn't seem to stop smiling.
Everything had worked out just fine, far better actually than they had ever expected.
It was shaping up to be a big day. Sandburg's oral defence was scheduled for that afternoon, and the operation to intercept the huge shipment of drugs coming from South America into Cascade was planned for that night.
The defence went fine. Blair was especially pleased by the restoration of the easy relationship between him and Dr. Eli Stoddard, his advisor. They'd had a chance over the past couple of weeks to mend the fences between them, Eli mostly fussed that Blair hadn't sought out his help when the troubles had all begun. While the other professors on the evaluation committee were somewhat more formal, they remained cordial and Sandburg felt he'd been given a fair hearing. Afterward, Eli indicated that the decision should be forthcoming in the next couple of days, but in his view, Blair's defence had gone well, and there shouldn't be any problems or surprises about the outcome.
Walking on air by the time he got back to the station, Blair was pleased by his colleagues' interest in how it had gone. Grinning at them as he joked back, he reflected privately on how incredibly lucky he was to have friends like these men and women who had never hesitated to stand by him, and who were ever only pleased to know things were going well for him.
Simon allowed the teasing to go on for a bit, smirking at H's loud question, "So, Hairboy, you finally going to graduate?" and then had turned to nudge Rafe as he observed with a snicker, "I guess we'll have to call him, 'Dr. Shaman', from now on!" But Banks finally broke in to remind them that there was work to do, and plenty of it, to ensure they were ready for the action planned for that night.
It was going to be a big operation, and violent opposition could be predicted. Recognizing that, everyone turned back to their duties, all determined to ensure the bust went as smoothly, and as safely, as possible. It had been decided to apprehend the criminals in the process of the transfer of the drugs from the ship to the transport vehicles. Accordingly, there was a need to ensure the tight coordination of effort amongst the law enforcement agencies that would play a role in the night's events, including the Harbour Patrol and the Coast Guard, as well as the Cascade Police Department's Major Crimes, Narcotics and Uniformed Patrol Units. Search and seizure warrants had to be obtained for both the ship and land vehicles, and the State Department had yet to be alerted that aliens would no doubt be amongst those arrested during the operation.
With luck, they hoped to entrap a few of the big fish in their net that night. The size of the deal would hopefully guarantee that key players in the underworld would be present to consummate the transaction. The Operations Room of the MCU was a hive of industrious activity, humming with barely suppressed excitement and anticipation.
Silently, under the cover of darkness and the cold incessant drizzle, the law enforcement officials moved into position around the old, rusted freighter of Panamanian registry and the non-descript small transport truck that had pulled onto the dock to be loaded with the crates of the deadly new designer drug. A black limousine pulled up, and three immaculately dressed men emerged to climb the gangplank onto the vessel.
"Stay well back, Chief, behind this wall of crates," Jim cautioned as they left the truck and loped toward their respective positions. "It could get messy."
Blair nodded, his gaze darting around to place other members of the MCU team, and noting the position of the patrol cars and uniformed members of the assault team. He was pale, and trying not to tremble. Sandburg hated these massive, and invariably dangerous, operations. The guys they were up against were always as well armed, if not better equipped, that the police themselves. He hated feeling so useless, relegated to the role of observer, and hated particularly that in circumstances like these Jim forbade him to be where he needed to be-close to his Sentinel, watching his back. But he nodded. Things were tense enough, complicated enough, without him adding to the concerns of his partner. He'd stay out of the way, stay safe, so that Jim could do his job without the distraction of worrying about him.
At precisely 2330 hours, spotlights were switched on from the land and the cruising Coast Guard vessels that had drawn in close to the freighter, and from a circling police helicopter, to throw the dock and the ship into sharp illumination. Patrol cars slammed into place, sirens screaming. With the aid of a bullhorn, Simon Banks called out at the same time, "Cascade Police! Drop your weapons and surrender or we will shoot!"
And all hell broke loose.
The criminals scrambled for cover from the brilliant, blinding lights and began spraying the dock and the official vessels in the harbour with automatic weapons fire, while the police and the Coast Guard responded in kind. The noise of the racketing explosions of weaponry, and the screams of men who were caught in the barrage of bullets filled the night, confusing, terrifying. Louder explosions erupted as men on the ship tossed grenades at their adversaries, and one of the Coast Guard vessels blew up in a horrifically spectacular and deadly blast.
Jim winced against the sensory overload of bright lights and explosive sounds, gritting his teeth against the bludgeoning impact of the stimuli, as he focused his own weapon and darted amongst the stacks of crates to avoid being hit by blazing bullets and flying shrapnel from the debris of the explosions, and to make his own aim, and every bullet count. From where he stood, he could see that two uniformed patrolmen had fallen, and he heard the sound of Rafe's startled yell as he was hit.
Though the police fought valiantly, they were at a severe disadvantage. Most of their targets were positioned above them, on the vessel, giving them a better line of sight and the advantage of height in picking out their targets, like shooting ducks in a barrel. One grenade fell short and hit the transport truck, blowing it high, slabs and shards of steel and glass, and burning bits of cardboard and plastic filling the air.
Blair swore under his breath in frustration. As well laid out as the assault plans had been, the good guys were losing and it would soon be a bloodbath. A distraction of some kind was needed to even the odds a little, to give the bad guys grief. Focusing on the old vessel, taking a deep breath, aligning the imagery in his head with the reality of rusted steel, The Shaman lifted a hand and suddenly flames seemed to erupt from within the ship. Billowing, black clouds of smoke filled the air along with the illusory heat of the fire that had appeared out of thin air.
Terrified of being burnt alive, the attention of the bad guys swiftly shifted from killing police to fending for themselves. Panicked men jumped from the rails of the ship into the cold harbour waters, while others scrambled to drop from the ship onto the dock. Someone within the ranks of the police cheered at the change of their fortunes, and all scurried for better position to capture the criminals before they made good their escape.
Blair held part of his attention on sustaining the illusion of the fire while he searched the confusion of rushing men for his partner. For a moment, he felt a burst of panic when he realized he'd lost track of Jim in the melee, but blew out a breath of relief when he spotted Ellison near some crates not far from the ruin of the transport. The relief, however, was short-lived as Sandburg realized that Jim was dangerously positioned with little cover and searingly outlined by the sharp illumination that bathed the dock.
"Jim! Get down!" he called sharply if not loudly, counting on Ellison being able to hear his voice in the midst of all the confusion, deliberately using the low pitch of his ‘Guide' voice that Jim unconsciously listened for.
Whether Jim heard him or not he might never know, for even as he called out Jim was blown backwards, driven by a high velocity, high caliber, bullet that burst through his chest and out his back. Jim landed hard and laid in a still, crumpled sprawl upon the wet pavement very close to the burning truck.
"JIM!" Blair screamed with a blast of horror as he instinctively began to race toward his fallen partner, darting around the stacks of crates in his way.
"Sandburg! Stay back!" Simon yelled automatically, not even having to look to see where Blair was, simply knowing that as soon as Jim had fallen, Blair would be racing blindly to his side.
Simon's shout cut through his consciousness just as he reached the last barricade of stacked crates, and Sandburg paused, panting, his eyes glued to the hideous red stain he could see spreading across Jim's chest. The storm had worsened and rain poured down, icy stinging drops driven into cutting sheets by the wind, making him wince, obscuring his vision. Sick with fear for Jim, Blair's eyes darted around the chaotic scene, bullets blasting, fires burning, men screaming in defiance or with unendurable pain-and, in the midst of it all, Jim Ellison lying vulnerable and alone…silent and still.
Kona's words came back to him, ringing in his head, commanding his attention, requiring him to stop and think, even now when he only wanted so desperately to act-remember that your life is no longer only your own concern-death is not a bad or evil thing-the people of this city need a Shaman-do not carelessly turn away from them-this is the most difficult of choices: the life of one balanced against the needs of the many-do not make that choice lightly….
If he went out there, he could be killed by the crossfire before he could do Jim any good, and if he healed Jim's massive wound, he could die from the blast of power that would sear through him. Blair looked around desperately, seeking other help, other intervention, trying to determine if the raging battle would end soon, in time for Jim to be saved.
But though the police were now winning, and might even be in the early stages of mopping it all up, bullets still cut through the night and it wasn't over yet. There was no one to help. Jim was one victim amongst many that night and no one had time to count their losses or tend to the wounded, not yet, not for some time yet.
But Jim wasn't just any victim! He was the Sentinel of the City! Nobody else might understand what that meant, what it could mean, but Blair understood it. Cascade needed Jim, needed him alive.
Needed him more than they needed their Shaman, who could only counsel but not protect.
But more even than that, as a man, as a friend, Blair needed Jim to live more than he needed his own life.
Still, he could not be careless. To rush out and become a victim himself would be no help to his Sentinel.
Desperately, he tried to think of what to do, how to help his best friend. Again, Kona's words came to him-spirit walking allows you to act, not simply to observe. To act when your body would not have the time or capacity to be in that place….
Blair took a deep breath and swallowed hard, to master the emotion that overwhelmed him, the fear and the panicky need to help Jim, striving to find his focus, his center. Closing his eyes, he mastered his breathing and his intention, picturing what it was that he needed to do…and his body suddenly crumpled, an empty vessel in the shadows of the massive crates…
Simon had been glaring with impotent fury and helplessness at Jim's body, wondering if his friend was still alive and cursing his inability to get to Ellison and haul him to safety, when he blinked and then swore in stark fear to see Sandburg suddenly there, grabbing Jim's arms to haul him out of the reach of the enemy's weapons. Bullets peppered the air around them and Simon could scarcely believe that the young consultant wasn't being hit by at least one of them, if not many more. But Blair never hesitated, never stumbled, though his body jerked a couple of times, as he dragged Jim into the shelter of the flaming truck, barely out of the line of fire. Bullets smacked the pavement around them, and Sandburg shifted, positioning himself to use his body as a shield, to offer more cover to his friend, while his hands moved over Jim's body.
Afraid now for both of his friends, Simon cut to the side and angled over, dashing quickly across a short clear stretch of dock, ducking instinctively away from the sound of gunfire, knowing he'd just made himself a target until he skidded into the modest shelter, on his knees across Jim's body from Sandburg.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Simon snarled, as he turned to snap off covering fire.
Sandburg didn't respond though Simon caught the quick look out of the corner of his eye before Blair's gaze dropped again to Jim. The glance was brief, but the horror and devastation in those dark blue eyes chilled Simon and constricted his chest. The police captain cut his own quick look down at Ellison, and saw dull blue eyes wide and staring, blood splashed by rain smearing his clothing-too much blood. Simon reached to Jim's throat, desperate to find a pulse that he knew in his aching heart was no longer there.
The clammy, lifeless skin, the blue shadows on Jim's face, the absence of a pulse cut through Simon and he cursed again, hopelessly. "It's no use," he shouted to Blair. "He's gone!"
But Sandburg mutely shook his head and his hands were doing something, fumbling through Jim's clothing to press down directly over the ghastly wound. Simon only had shattered images, his attention fragmented by the need to keep watch, to continue providing a covering fire. "We've got to get out of here!" he growled. "Now!"
He shifted position, intending to grab Sandburg by the arm and haul him out of there, but a sudden blinding blaze of light, so stark and sharp that it made the spotlights seem dim, burst around Blair and over Jim. For the space of seconds, less, far less than a minute, the incandescence filled the night, and then it was gone-and so was Blair.
"What the…!" Simon exclaimed on a puff of air, looking around almost dazedly. The unnervingly silent police consultant had vanished before his very eyes! And the fire on the vessel had blinked out as if it had never been, the billowing black smoke dissipating into nothing. A moan, and then a cough caught his attention, and he looked down to see Jim blinking, rubbing his face, and his chest, confusion in his eyes.
Simon felt a chill that had nothing to do with the driving rain, the hairs rising along the nape of his neck, as his eyes widened in stunned disbelief. "You're alive?" he whispered, his voice little more than a choked gasp. "How?"
There was no time to think, no time to react. Joel's voice cut across the din of the battle, urgent and sharp with fear. "JIM! BLAIR'S DOWN! HURRY!"
In less than an instant, the Sentinel had rolled to his feet and charged across the dock toward the shelter of the stacked crates and barrels, Simon on his heels. Skidding around the wooden barricade, they were horrified to find Joel on his knees desperately trying to resuscitate Sandburg as he compressed the younger man's chest rhythmically.
Looking up, Joel choked, "He's not breathing. There's no pulse!"
Ellison dropped to his knees, his hands tilting Sandburg's head and opening his airway, and then he was breathing in time to Joel's compressions, breathing life into a shockingly lifeless body.
Joel muttered to Simon as he kept up his desperate action, "I don't know what happened. He was just standing here one minute, and when I looked back, I thought he'd been hit 'cause he was sprawled on the ground. But there's no wound, nothing! He was just lying here, not breathing. I had a pulse at first, but it was racing so fast I thought his heart would burst, and then it just stopped…"
"Come on, Chief," Jim gasped between breaths. "Don't do this! Come ON!"
It took two minutes, too infinitely long, terrifying minutes, but then Sandburg gasped and coughed, his arms coming up to weakly push Joel away.
"Easy, Blair," Jim rumbled as he stroked rain-sodden hair back from his friend's brow. "Breathe, Chief, just breathe."
Sandburg coughed again and dragged in a long, deep breath and then another as his eyes blinked open, wincing against the rain. His gaze darted in confusion until he locked on Jim, and then he sighed with inexpressible relief, smiling weakly up at his best friend.
"Get a medic!" Jim snapped to Joel.
But Blair grabbed Joel's sleeve to hold him in place as he shook his head. "No, I'm…okay. Just need a minute…" he gasped, blinking again at the sudden dizziness his movement had caused, and the wave of utter weakness that washed over him.
"You're not okay!" Ellison protested. "Damn it! You were dead half a second ago!"
"He's not the only one who was dead," Simon muttered, looking from Jim to Blair and back again, shaking his head, wondering what the hell had just happened.
"No…" Blair murmured. "I'm fine," he gasped. He wanted to sit up to prove it, but moving was still beyond him.
"You sure, Blair?" Joel challenged. "It wouldn't hurt to get checked out."
Another long breath, and then another, and Blair reached to grab Jim's jacket to try to haul himself up to a sitting position, but the dizziness overwhelmed him again and he slipped back with a groan.
Jim slipped an arm behind Blair, and eased his friend's shoulders and head up against his chest. Cutting a look at Taggart, he jerked his head in a clear direction to go for help, and Joel took off in search of the EMTs that were positioned behind the ring of police, having been stationed there since the beginning of the raid in anticipation of injuries. From the look of all the blood smeared on Ellison's clothes, Taggart figured Blair wasn't the only one in need of treatment. The wonder was that the guy wasn't still lying out beside that burning truck.
"What happened to you?" Ellison demanded with a frown. "Were you hit?"
"No," Sandburg replied, looking from Jim to Simon and seeing the expression of confusion and question on his superior's face, he muttered, "I'll explain later, okay? I'll explain everything. When it's over."
"Well, that should prove interesting," Simon drawled, his attention going back to the battle now that it was clear that both of his men were no longer dead and seemed to be doing just fine.
Between the police on the dock and the Coast Guard, the criminals were finally being rounded up and cuffed as their rights were read before they were hustled into the waiting police vans. Though there was still the odd, isolated shot from a holdout up near the bridge of the ship, the rest of the battle was done. A police helicopter swooped in, its searchlight pinpointing the lone remaining gunman. An exchange of shots rang out and the criminal fell over the rail to the deck below.
As the confusion waned, and order was restored, the injured were accounted for. Though several of the police had sustained injuries, including Rafe who'd taken a bullet in his right shoulder, all of the cops were alive, and with luck, all would recover. The major loss had been two men on the Coast Guard cutter who hadn't been able to jump to safety when it had blown up earlier.
Police were swarming over the decks of the ship and down into its hold, to confiscate the stock of drugs. They shook their heads, having expected to see a fire-ravaged interior, but there was no evidence that any fire had ever existed.
But they'd seen it.
Blair acceded to having his blood pressure taken, but kept insisting he was fine and that the medics were needed more by guys who had been really hurt.
"You'd better get checked out, too, Jim," Simon directed.
"What? Why? I'm fine," Ellison replied, only half listening, his attention focused on Sandburg.
"Have you looked at yourself lately?" Banks drawled, looking pointedly at the blood caking Jim's shirt and jacket, amazed that the detective's senses weren't in wild revolt against the stench of it.
Confused, Jim looked down at his chest, and a look of shock spread over his face. "What the…" he muttered.
"You should see your back," Simon offered helpfully. "There's a hole the size of a softball in your coat, from the exit wound."
Startled, Jim twisted to try to see over his shoulder, and then in frustration, pulled the coat off and gaped at the ragged hole, the blood and shreds of tissue that still clung to the fabric. Shaking his head, he vaguely recalled being shot, but it was like something in a nightmare, not real, just a blast of pain and then nothing. Pulling open his shirt, he examined his chest, but the skin was unmarred. Eyes clouded with confusion looked back up at Simon.
Banks swallowed hard, still struggling with what he'd seen on the dock, in the shadow of the burning wreck. "Sandburg here hauled you to safety. But when I got there, I could see you were dead. But the kid wouldn't leave. He, uh, put his hands on your chest and he healed you, I guess," he said finally, though his voice was uncertain. "The two of you were surrounded by light and then, well, Sandburg disappeared and you were fine."
Frowning, trying to take it in, Ellison turned to glare at Sandburg, horrified at the chances his partner had taken by dashing into the midst of the firefight to rescue him.
Diffidently, Blair shrugged. "It wasn't me, exactly," he stammered, avoiding Jim's and Simon's eyes. "I sort of took a spirit walk…"
"Spirit walk?" Simon repeated doubtfully.
"Yeah, well, it's pretty neat, actually," Blair said, beginning to babble. "The spirit manifests itself where the body can't go, but it can do all the things the body can do. So, uh, it was safer, because the bullets couldn't hurt my spirit. I didn't really know if it would work, the healing part especially, because I've never tried anything like that on a spirit walk, but, hey, it worked great, right? Jim's fine. Everybody's fine. Nothing to worry about…"
"Not so fast, Chief," Jim cut in, his voice hard with the residual sick horror of having found his best friend, his Guide, lifeless under Joel's hands.
"Sandburg, Jim wasn't just injured, he was dead!" Simon interrupted, still haunted by what he'd seen.
"Well, sort of, I guess, but he wasn't completely dead," Blair replied with the ghost of a grin. "Mostly dead, maybe, but not completely dead…"
"You're starting to sound like Miracle Max," Simon growled. "That Billy Crystal character…"
"Sorry," Blair muttered, rolling his eyes. "What I mean is, Jim hadn't been dead long enough to give up hope of reviving him. And the proof is right here!" he added happily, pointing at his very alive and evidently perfectly healthy partner.
"And why were you 'mostly dead', if not 'completely dead', Junior?" Jim demanded, having his own questions that needed answers.
Sighing, Blair shrugged. "I guess I kind of overtaxed my energy capacity…sort of a burnout."
"Burnout?" Simon repeated again, rolling his eyes. "You lit up like a Roman candle and then vanished, poof! Damnedest thing I ever saw."
"Yeah, well, like I say, everything worked out," Blair replied staunchly. It was his story, and he was sticking to it.
One of the uniforms approached then, to advise Simon that the operation was pretty much all wrapped up.
"You get that fire out?" Simon asked, wondering if the evidence had gone up in smoke, "or is it still burning in the hold?"
The cop shook his head, a look of incredulity on his face as he replied, "There was no evidence of any fire, sir."
"What are you talking about?" Simon demanded with a scowl. "That fire erupted from nowhere, and thank the Good Lord it did. Drove those gangsters right off the vessel."
Shrugging, the cop replied diffidently, "Yes, sir, I know. I saw it, too. But…there's nothing burned on the ship. No smoke damage. Nothing. Like it never happened."
Simon backed up a half step as he gave a slow nod and waved the cop away. Turning, he stared at Sandburg, as Jim asked sardonically, "What was it, Shaman? One of your little illusions?"
"Yeah!" Blair admitted with a broad grin, his eyes dancing. "Pretty neat, huh?"
"Uh huh," Simon grunted, his eyes a little glazed. But he frowned suddenly, recalling what Ellison had just said. "Shaman?" he repeated, remembering Sandburg's new persona, but then shook his head sharply and raised his hands. "Don't tell me. I don't want to know. Not tonight anyway. The two of you have gone 'way beyond weird tonight, and I'm not sure I even want to know what the hell happened."
Blair snickered and then ducked away when Jim clipped him on the back of the head, playfully but still making his point. "We are going to talk about this, Chief."
Chagrined, Blair sighed dramatically and muttered, "Yeah, I guess we are…"
Simon shook his head at their antics, unable to resist the shadow of a smile, which broadened as he accepted the relief of the outcome of all the unbelievable, mystical stunts that Sandburg had pulled that night. "I'm glad the two of you are okay," he said quietly. Straightening, turning away, he said, "And now I think I'd better get to the hospital and make sure Rafe and the other injured men are being taken care of properly."
"We'll go with you," Blair piped up.
Simon wheeled back, pointing the finger of authority at both of them. "No, you most certainly will not. The two of you spent some time dead tonight and I'm ordering you to just go home and take it easy." He winced at his own words, and shook his head with a sigh. Damn. They had both been dead. Damn! He didn't much like the mystical mumbo-jumbo, but he was heartily glad that it worked.
"But…" Jim tried to protest, remembering how often others had been there for him when either he or Sandburg had been hurt.
"No 'buts', Detective," Simon cut in. "Take your partner home."
Jim was silent all the way home, taut with furious fear at what Blair had done that night, the risks he had taken with his life. Knowing that Sandburg had risked death to save Jim's life brought no comfort. If anything, it only made the Sentinel more angry-and more afraid. They faced risks virtually on a daily basis and it terrified Ellison to think that the next time there might not be a Joel or a Simon there to save his partner from himself.
Utterly exhausted from all he'd done that night, Blair sat hunched in the truck, scarcely aware of the brooding silence of his best friend. Instead, his memories of that searing, devastating blast of heat and of the sheer blinding power that had surged through him and had taken all that he was with it, swamped him and left him weak and trembling. It had been terrifying, beyond awesome, overwhelming.
And he'd go through it all again if he had to, because more terrifying still had been the fear that it would not be enough. That Jim was dead and beyond being healed and restored to life. Even as the darkness had snapped him away, a sudden, shattering shift from light and power to the numbness of a void, he had been praying with the last vestiges of his soul's awareness that Jim would live.
But his desperate gamble had worked!
The conduit for the surging power was the soul, not the body, and so the spirit walk had proven successful. But Blair knew success had almost cost his own life. He'd had nothing left. Nothing with which to return to his body, all his energy and life force spent. He'd heard the distant howl of the wolf, even in the dim darkness of the jungle he'd again found himself in, and he had grieved for what he'd left behind, the responsibilities unfulfilled…his friend alive but bereft of Guide and partner.
But, still, he knew, he'd do it all again.
In a heartbeat.
The tribe needed its Sentinel in these perilous times, so the Shaman could justify his choice of who might live and who might die.
And even if the Shaman couldn't, the man could. He was a Guide and his first loyalty, even above his duty to the tribe, was to his Sentinel.
And, besides, Jim was his best friend and there was no freaking way Blair would ever let Jim die, not if there was something he could do to save James Ellison. Period.
Blair was weaving so badly from exhaustion when they got out of the truck that Jim snagged his arm and pulled him close, supporting him with an arm around his waist as they made their way into the building and up to the loft. Once inside, Jim guided Blair to the couch, and pulled off his jacket, pushing him back to rest with the afghan draped over him, while Ellison moved to hang up the coats, swallowing hard at the sight of the bloody hole in his own jacket, and then he went into the kitchen to make a pot of restorative tea. Disgusted by the bloody mess of his shirt, unnerved by it and sickened by the stench of his blood, Jim pulled it off and tossed it and his ruined undershirt into the garbage, dashing upstairs while the water was heating to pull on a clean undershirt.
By the time he came back downstairs and returned to the living room with two steaming mugs, Blair was more than half asleep.
"Here, Chief, drink some of this," Jim offered, settling one of the mugs into Sandburg's hands and guiding it to his friend's lips.
"Mmm," Sandburg sipped and then sighed, sniffing and blinking as he sat straighter. "Thanks, Jim. That really helps."
"Good," Ellison drawled as he narrowly appraised his friend, assessing that while he was tired, Blair looked alert enough for some very necessary conversation. "You want to tell me what the hell you thought you were doing tonight?"
Caught by the angry tones, Blair's eyes widened, suddenly aware of the barely contained fury that was flashing in Jim's eyes. Deciding that one of them had to be calm about it all, he replied simply, "Like I said, Jim-I went for a spirit walk and then I healed you."
"One, I thought we'd agreed no spirit-walking when there's no one watching out for you and especially not when something is going down," Jim growled. "And, two, you damned near killed yourself!"
"Well, technically, I didn't actually agree, and even if I had, this was an unusual situation," Blair temporized. "I couldn't just stand there, Jim. Not when I knew I could help."
Blowing out a frustrated breath, Jim grated, "Don't you ever do something like that again! You hear me?"
"Kind of hard not to when you're growling in my ear, man," Blair grumbled.
"Good, then I can presume that you heard me this time, loud and clear, and it won't happen again," Jim snapped. "Right?"
Blair looked away, wishing briefly that he didn't feel so tired. He'd really prefer to be firing on all cylinders for this particular discussion. But Jim wasn't going to let it go. Sighing, he turned back to his best friend, his eyes wide with sincerity if shadowed by exhaustion, as he replied solemnly, "Jim, I will make my own choices. I will not lightly risk death-I haven't the right anymore, even if I was inclined to be stupidly careless with my own life, which I'm not. As a Shaman, I have to think about the needs of a lot of other people, not just my own." He paused for a moment, and then forged on, "But the fact is, when it's down to you or me, it is my judgment that the people of this city need their Sentinel more than they need their Shaman. In similar circumstances, I will make the same choice. I'm sorry, I know you don't want to hear that, but I won't lie to you."
"Don't I get a vote in this?" Jim demanded, not happy, very far from being happy.
"Sure you do," Blair replied and then smiled. "When the situation is reversed, you get to decide what choice you'll make. You brought me back at the fountain, Jim. I'm not the only one with this power. And, frankly, it doesn't seem to pose the same risk to you, for which I am heartily grateful."
Jim didn't know what to think of that. It was true. He would do the same thing; make the same choice. And drawing Blair's life and spirit back hadn't nearly killed him. "Why doesn't it affect me the same way? Why does it take so much more out of you?"
"Well, I'm not really sure," Sandburg replied thoughtfully. "It might have been because I was already expending energy on the illusion of the fire, or on the spirit walk. It might not always hit me so hard. When I healed that little girl, I was weak and dizzy, but I recovered when others touched me."
Jim's memories drifted back to when he'd revived Sandburg at the fountain, and he remembered having to be pulled to his feet by Simon and H, supported by them, unable to stand immediately on his own. He remembered, vaguely, the dizziness and the weakness-but mostly, he just remembered being overwhelmed with relief. Nodding thoughtfully, he focused again on his best friend. "Okay, new rule," he said, his voice brooking no debate. "If you have to do something like this again, you shut down everything else, like the illusions, and you don't try it again while spirit-walking. You wait until you can do whatever while still in your own body. Agreed?"
Blair leaned back against the support of the couch and rubbed his nose while he thought about it. Sniffing, he pushed his still damp hair back behind his ears, and then nodded. "Okay, I won't try to keep illusions going at the same time, and if at all possible, I'll wait and not do a spirit walk," he agreed. Shrugging, he added, "I honestly can't imagine another situation like tonight. Usually, we'd be in a mess where just reviving you wouldn't be enough, cause the bad guys would just shoot you again, or something. And, normally, I would have called for back up so I'd be able to make sure I had someone keeping a watch, to take action if I stopped breathing or whatever. So, yeah, all things considered, agreed."
Jim gave Blair a narrow look, well aware that he wasn't getting the agreement he wanted. "I don't want you dying to save my life," he said then, cutting to the chase.
"I know," Sandburg murmured as he laid a hand on his Sentinel's arm. "I don't want you dying to save my life, either. So we're even, everything is in balance and it's the closest thing to harmony we're going to get on this one, Jim. And, to tell you the truth, I'm exhausted and I'm going to go to bed."
Conscious of the dark, weary shadows under Blair's eyes, and his pinched pallor, Jim relented. He'd gotten as much in the way of guarantees as he was ever going to get, and though his chest was still tight with fear of what the future might hold, he nodded. Standing, he held out a hand to his best friend, his partner, and his Guide, and hauled Sandburg up to his feet.
But he didn't let go. Moving in closer, he wrapped Blair in a tight hug, his chin resting on Sandburg's curls. "Thanks, Chief," he murmured. "I'd be dead if you hadn't…"
But Jim's voice cracked, leaving Ellison unable to finish. All he could think of was what the cost could have been, and the fear, the need to protect spiked again, robbing him of words.
His cheek pressed against Jim's chest, Blair closed his eyes and smiled as he wrapped his own arms around his best friend, his partner and his Sentinel. "You're welcome, my brother," he said quietly.
But then Blair pulled back a bit, humour dancing in his eyes and a bright smile playing on his lips as he looked up at his friend. "But, as the Shaman of this City," he said with a playfully stern tone, "I am responsible for the welfare of this tribe. Which means I have to ensure the welfare of their Sentinel. So I was just doin' my job, man…just doin' my job."
Jim snorted as he blinked against the burning in his eyes, and just pulled Blair back against his chest, holding him as if afraid to ever let him go. "And it's my job to protect the Shaman," he said hoarsely, his voice rough. "Just let me do my job, okay?"
"Okay, Jim," Blair chuckled softly, though he didn't pull away. "Then you can explain how all this stuff works to Simon…"
Jim laughed then too, both of them well aware of Simon's opinions on the Sentinel stuff, especially the visions-the Shaman stuff threatened to take them into vastly uncharted territory-as he shook his head and rumbled, "What makes you think he'll even want to know?"
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