Disclaimer: The Sentinel, Blair Sandburg, Jim Ellison, Simon Banks, and all other characters are property of Paramount and Pet Fly. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money has exchanged hands.

Research versus Reality

(Epilogue for 'The Siege')

by Arianna

Another short story in response to the Sentinelangst January 2005 challenge to write a missing scene...

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

The snow that had been gusting intermittently throughout the long afternoon was now falling heavily as dusk crept in over the river's estuary and the harbour far below. Sandburg stood hunched as if cold in a corner by the window, his hands pressed deeply into his pockets, as he stared out into the gathering darkness. Apparently oblivious to the action going on behind him as detectives took statements from the survivors of the assault on Police Headquarters and the terrifying siege by Kincaid and his men, he was trying to stay out of the way while his thoughts whirled as cold and bleak as the growing blizzard outside the plate glass window. Shivering a little, making an attempt to shake off his gloomy introspection, he focused upon the river below, and tilted his head a little as he squinted into the gathering shadows. He thought he'd seen - but it must only have been a trick of the light and his tired mind. He couldn't really have seen...

"You okay, Chief?" Ellison's low voice startled him out of his intent scrutiny of the night.

He jumped a little, betraying his nervousness, before looking over his shoulder up at the detective. "Yeah, I guess. I just thought I saw something down on the river ice, near the far bank."

"Oh? What?" Jim asked curiously, as his attention shifted and his own gaze narrowed as he searched the night.

"A white wolf," Blair murmured, frowning a little as he, too, turned back to the window. His voice very soft, he carried on, "But it couldn't have been real - just a figment of my imagination, right? I mean, wolves travel in packs, and they don't wander so far into the city. And, well, a white wolf, except in Arctic regions, is like really, really rare, almost mystical or legendary. Guess I'm just tired, getting lost in thoughts and memories. When I was little, I seemed to be always dreaming of a white wolf."

The older man stiffened beside him, cutting a quick look toward the pale grad student at the mention of the recurring dream. He felt a shiver along his spine as he gazed back out into the night, straight into the startlingly blue eyes of the white wolf that had stopped its weary pacing through time and space to look back over its shoulder and up into his eyes. Ellison could almost hear the interrogatory whine and sharp bark before the strange animal faded from sight, lost in a blinding gust of icy snow.

Jim squinted thoughtfully before turning his attention back to Sandburg. Now that the action was long over and the adrenaline rush abated, the kid looked wan and infinitely weary. "I need to take your statement now," he said prosaically as he waved Blair toward his desk. It was when Sandburg turned that the detective noticed the damaged jacket; the blackened powder burns left no doubt of how the fabric had been torn. Reaching out, he lightly gripped the grad student's shoulder and asked, "When did this happen? Were you hit?"

Blair's lips thinned as he looked down at his left sleeve and wondered how much it would cost to have the garment repaired. "I broke a window," he admitted uncomfortably, wondering if he'd have to pay for the damage, and if Ellison would think him a coward for trying to escape, "and dropped down onto a window washer's platform. One of them heard me and took a few shots, I guess to scare me, 'cause he was really too close to miss. And then he made the platform drop a couple of floors - to where Kincaid's men were waiting to pull me back into the building."

Jim chewed on his lip, thinking the shot had been too close to be a simple warning. The kid had been lucky not to have been badly hurt or killed. Shaking his head, he pointed toward his desk again, grimacing a little with the expectation that Sandburg would probably pull out of their deal once he'd had a chance to really think about how close he'd come, more than once, to dying that day. With a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, Ellison tried to set aside his own concerns about how he'd manage his errant senses if Blair decided that being around cops was just too damned dangerous.

Sandburg slumped onto the armless chair and waited until Ellison settled behind the desk. Swallowing, he asked, "So, uh, I guess you just want me to tell you what happened, right? I mean, that's how it went when we wrapped up the Switchman case the other day."

"That's right," Jim replied, his jaw tight with the reminder of how close it had come just two days previously. He tended to take the implicit dangers of his job in stride, but he couldn't help but wonder what Sandburg thought about the close calls. Switching on the small recorder, he stated the date, time, case number, Blair's name and then said, "Just tell me how it went down. Where were you when they took over the building?"

The younger man gave a small wry grin as he replied, "I was in the john, getting the urine sample for Vera." He sobered as he continued, "I heard some shouting and a shot - and I peeked out into the hall. Oh, man, I saw all these guys with automatic weapons herding staff through the halls, and they'd shot that older captain, Joel - I don't remember his last name. Anyway, I was scared shitless, you know? So, I, uh, hid in one of the stalls."

Sandburg looked down and away, flushing a little, as he wondered if Ellison would think him a hopeless coward, hiding while all those other people were in such danger. Rarely had he been so conscious of his relative youth and inexperience, or felt so awkward and out of his depth.

"You did right, Chief," Jim murmured, as if he sensed the grad student's anxious uncertainty. "You aren't a cop and they didn't need another hostage."

Blowing out a grateful breath, Blair nodded slightly. "A guy came in and, well, I slipped against the flush. When he came to investigate, I kicked out - hard - at the door and slammed him back against the wall. Still, I was kinda surprised when I found out I'd knocked him out cold. So, um, I got out of there and hid in the breakroom, behind one of the vending machines."

"Did you take his weapon with you?" Ellison asked, needing the details and wondering if Sandburg had armed himself, given the chance.

"Uh, no," Blair replied, looking startled by the idea. "I wouldn't know what to do with a gun and, well, I don't know if I could ever really shoot anyone, you know? Sorry, I guess that sounds pretty dumb to you."

"No, Sandburg, it doesn't sound dumb," Jim replied with an approving glance. "If you haven't been trained in using firearms, it's best to leave them be, or they could be taken away from you and used against you. And it's okay to not have a killer's instinct, you know. Okay, you were in the breakroom. What happened then?"

"Another guy came in and, when the machine didn't work, he started shooting it!" Blair ran his fingers through his hair in agitated memory. Unconsciously, his rate of speech speeded up until he was on the edge of babbling anxiously as he continued, "I really panicked, Jim. I wish I could say I handled it better, but I started shouting at him to stop. I thought he was going to kill me! And I pushed the machine over on top of him, and that knocked him out - I guess it could have crushed him, but I wasn't thinking, just reacting. Anyway, I sneaked out and up the stairwell to another floor. Those guys were all over, patrolling the building. I finally found an unlocked office and, well, that's when I smashed the window with one of those round marble paperweights. I just wanted to get out!" He shuddered in memory and crossed his arms tightly over his body. "I'm, like, afraid of heights, you know? Climbing out of that window to drop down onto that flimsy platform was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do." His gaze narrowed defensively as he added in a rush, "I know it probably doesn't sound like such a big deal to you, but I was really scared - only I was more terrified to stay inside with all those maniacs prowling around."

"Easy, kid," Jim murmured, reassuringly. "You had every right to be scared. Those men were cold-blooded killers. So, you dropped onto the platform...?"

"Yeah, and that's when one of them spotted me from the roof, and started to shoot." Blair paled and his jaw tightened in memory of the racketing bullets and he hunched into himself, unconsciously still trying to make himself a smaller target...and he had to swallow back bile that roiled up from his belly when he recalled the sickening sensation of the platform falling out from under him. He took a breath, and then another, to steady himself. "They, uh, made me climb back into the building and bound my wrists before hauling me back upstairs to Kincaid. He was pretty pissed that I'd taken out a couple of his men," Blair shook his head, "as if I had a clue about what I was doing. Anyway, he was going to 'execute' me then and there so I, uh, claimed Captain Banks had sent me in, and that I was a cop from Vice and your partner. Joel backed me up, thank God, so Kincaid was intrigued enough to let me keep breathing. He took me with him, as his 'protection' when he headed up to the helicopter. Man, I have no idea why he picked me rather than anyone else in that room, but he kept calling me, 'Mr. Natural', and I think my appearance offended him. I was pretty sure he was going to kill me whenever we got to where we were going, and I started to fight and yell that I'd been lying, that I'm not a cop. But he didn't care." Looking away, Blair shook his head. "I don't think it mattered to him whether I was a cop or not. I just got the feeling that he wanted to kill me personally... and take his time enjoying it. Man, I was so sure that I was dead meat."

For a moment, silence fell between them. Kincaid was a white supremacist and Sandburg was a Jew - the kid's instincts were probably right on. But then Blair looked up at Jim, something akin to awe in his eyes. "And then you were there, holding onto the helicopter strut. Man, you really don't give up, do you? I mean, I know you were just after Kincaid, 'cause he's like a psycho who kills for kicks, but I gotta tell you, it felt like the cavalry had arrived to rescue me. When he slid open the hatch, and was going to shoot you, I... I, well, I...couldn't just let...I..."

Sandburg choked on the words, his pallor greening as he swallowed hard against the nausea that threatened to overwhelm him. "I've never almost killed someone before," he whispered hoarsely, mortified by the emotions that surged inside, his eyes dark and large in his face, so that he looked about fifteen years old.

"You saved my life," Ellison stated firmly, unequivocally. "The only people who died today were murdered by Kincaid's crew. What happened next?" he added, to get Blair past the memories that were so clearly upsetting him.

"Well, I, uh, spotted the flare gun and I, um, told the pilot to fly us back or I'd kill him. He thought I was bluffing, but I told him I'd flown Apaches in Desert Storm, so I guess he figured I really might kill him," the young man grated. "I probably looked crazy - I was so scared I felt almost hysterical, to tell you the truth. Anyway, it worked and he landed back on the roof. And, uh, well, I guess that's it. That's all she wrote."

"Did you really fly Apaches in Desert Storm?" Jim asked, clearly not believing it for a minute.

Sandburg snorted at the look of skepticism on Ellison's face. "What do you think, man?" he challenged, but managed a wobbly grin.

"I think you did great today, Chief," Jim replied soberly. "You did everything exactly right."

Flushing at the praise, surprised by it, Sandburg blurted, "You're kidding, right? I was a basket case."

The detective's lips quirked into a grin as he replied, "No, I'm not kidding. You did good today, Sandburg. Real good." Returning to the task at hand, he punched off the recorder as he continued, "I'll have this typed up and you can come in tomorrow to sign it. Now, you okay to get yourself home? Or do you need a ride?"

"Oh, uh, well, I'm okay, I guess," Blair stammered, off-balance, still amazed by Ellison's approval. "My car is parked in the lot across the street. I can come in after my morning class, say around eleven?"

"That'll be fine," Jim assured him as he stood, thinking they were done.

But Sandburg hesitated. Looking around quickly, and lowering his voice, he asked, "Are you okay, man? I mean, did your senses give you any trouble today? Is that how Captain Banks realized...?"

"No, no trouble," Ellison replied quietly, his wrinkling nose belying his words. "Well, except that the stench of the sewer nearly knocked me out. But I was hearing things Simon couldn't, too many things..."

"We're going to have to be careful of that, I mean, if you don't want other people guessing," Blair murmured thoughtfully as he stood. "Anyway, I'm glad they worked okay. That's what's important." He hitched the knapsack he'd left by Jim's desk what seemed like an eon before, over his shoulder and, with a soft smile, he said as he turned away, "I'll see you tomorrow, Jim."

Ellison watched him go, weighing the relaxed manner Sandburg was working so hard to project against the hammering heartbeat, and wondered if he should have offered more support in processing what had gone down, or if the kid had someone to talk to about it all when he got home. For the first time, he reflected that he really didn't know anything about the grad student other than he held a teaching fellowship in Anthropology at Rainier, and specialized in the study of 'sentinels' - a hypothetical concept until Blair had found him. His gaze drifted to the window as his thoughts returned to the startling and brief view of the white wolf and he swallowed against his suddenly dry throat. How weird was it that Sandburg had also apparently been dreaming his whole life about a mythical, mystical white wolf? Having little patience with psychic phenomena, Ellison shrugged off the unsettled feeling of déjà vu, and returned his attention to writing up the lengthy witness statements and report of the capture of Kincaid and his gang.

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

Sandburg barely made it to the alley around the corner from Police Headquarters before he lost the fight with the nausea that curdled in his belly. One hand braced for balance against the damp, filthy bricks, and the other held his straggling curls behind his head, while he doubled forward and vomited repeatedly and violently, until all that was left were dry heaves. Salty moisture blurred his eyes and one tear escaped to drip disconsolately along his cheek as he gasped deeply with the effort to regain control of his too shallow breathing. Leaning one shoulder against the wall, he swiped at his mouth with the back of one hand, his face as pale as parchment, and he fought to still the tremors that rippled through his body, little shudders of horror that went on and on, leaving him exhausted and weak. Flashes of memory tormented him: being hunted through the corridors, dropping from the broken window, being shot at and knowing he was going to die; Kincaid in his face, threatening him, dragging him along to certain death; the abject sense of relief of simply knowing Jim was there, with him, hadn't let him be taken with no hope of rescue; Kincaid about to shoot Jim - shoving Kincaid out into space with furious deliberation and anxious haste.

The anthropologist didn't know whether he was more shook up by having believed he was going to die that day, or by having tried to kill another human being. He'd never come so close to killing anyone before - had never imagined such an eventuality could ever occur. And, though he'd been in some tight spots in the past, he'd never really believed his death was only mere moments, less than seconds, away, not even when Jim was searching for the bomb on that bus two days ago.

Still trembling, Blair pushed himself away from the wall and walked a bit unsteadily toward the parking lot. The exhilaration he'd felt less than a week before at having found a living, breathing sentinel, the sense of having discovered his 'holy grail', no longer buoyed his spirits. Indeed, his initial innocent and unbridled enthusiasm seemed childish now, his sense of wonder swamped by the reality of the risks and dangers that surrounded his sentinel. He unlocked his car and climbed in, started it up and then rubbed at his eyes, as if he could rub away his exhaustion. Sighing, he pulled out and had to concentrate hard on driving and not just staring sightlessly into the growing darkness that was garishly splashed by the lights from store windows and signs. He felt sick and scared, the day's experiences still too fresh and raw for any kind of perspective or objective analysis.

Forty-five minutes later, Blair tiredly climbed the steep and narrow staircase up to his cavernous loft in the vacant warehouse. The accommodations were definitely spacious, if far from luxurious, but the place was dark and cold, slightly dank on chilly, damp nights - and the rats weren't his idea of congenial roommates. He let his knapsack slip to the floor, but kept his coat on while he moved around, putting a kettle on to boil, turning on lamps and electric space heaters. He made a pot of cinnamon tea, to help clear his mind as well as settle his stomach, and lit thick white, round candles on the crate he used as a coffee table in front of the broken down couch. The warmth of the newly filled mug felt good in his cold hands, and he blew on the hot tea to cool it enough to sip slowly as he thought over the day and tried to make peace with what he'd done.

Without hesitation, scarcely even with any thought, he'd deliberately pushed a man to certain death - a terrible death falling through the empty sky to the hard sea - and it was only sheer luck that Kincaid had survived. Certainly, Kincaid would have shot Jim in cold blood, killed his Sentinel, if he hadn't acted, but he wondered if he couldn't have done something else. 'Like what?' he asked himself disparagingly. 'Shoved him, annoyed him enough to shoot you before he shot Jim?'

He'd never consciously tried to kill anyone before; had never thought he could ever do such a thing. The act, so swiftly done, fundamentally and forever changed who he was, how he saw himself - and this new incarnation frightened him. It had been 'way too easy; he should feel worse, shouldn't he? And then, grabbing that flaregun, and threatening to kill the pilot - what was that about? Two days ago, he'd been wrestling with a mad bomber for possession of a gun, and had slugged her into unconsciousness. What was happening to him that violence came so simply and straightforwardly? He felt as though he didn't know who he was anymore, that he'd become a stranger to himself, and that left him chilled and uncertain.

Blair shivered and closed his eyes, as if he could shut out the memories that haunted him and fanned the flames of fear that furled in his gut. He'd been brought up to believe that violence was never the answer, that reason and a glib tongue, a sense of humour and common sense could solve just about any problem and, if all that didn't work, to retreat rather than physically fight back. He'd been taught from early childhood to be suspicious of, if not have outright contempt for, cops and the military, of anyone who relied upon violence and weapons for a living.

Still, his mother's teaching, and that of her friends, wasn't the sum total of his learning. Ruthlessly, he clamped down on his emotions and engaged his intellect in processing and understanding what he'd become and why. He'd studied any number of other cultures, as well as struggled continuously to understand his own, and he knew it was never black and white; there were always shades of gray. Sure, he knew of societies that did not honour war or violence, like the ancient Minoan culture that had no artifacts or art of war. But those people were all long dead, overwhelmed by the aggressive ancient Greeks; and other still existing peaceful cultures either hid away in forests or remote parts of the earth, or were overrun in their turn by neighbours who had less finely defined scruples or principles. Violence was an inherent part of what it meant to be human and, if one was challenged, if one's life or the lives of those who mattered were threatened, what was one to do? Turn the other cheek as Christian doctrine taught? Accept that death comes to everyone in its own time and wasn't to be feared?

Yeah, right.

Blair grimaced and shook his head. He'd never personally feared death, as he'd always believed there was something more, something eternal and infinite about the spirit that could never be destroyed or even constrained. But he dearly loved life. Loved the adventure and mystery of it, the unexpected. Loved his mother and his friends. Loved making love. Loved seeing the sun rise over the mountains or sink into the sea, and loved listening to the endless variety of sounds when the wind danced through the trees. Loved the rich or delicate, sweet or pungent scents of flowers and incense, and the incredible tastes of so many varieties of food. Loved learning new and wondrous things. Life was amazing and wonderful, not something to be forsaken easily; it was a gift to be cherished, as were the lives of others.

Which brought him back to what he'd done that day. He'd chosen Jim's life over Kincaid's; he'd pretty much arbitrarily decided that Jim deserved to live more than Kincaid did. Whether he had the right to make that choice was irrelevant, as the decision had been made and now he had to live with the responsibility of it. If he could, would he go back through time to change what he'd done? No, not if it meant that Jim would die. Why? Because Jim was a contributing member of society, who struggled, risked his life routinely, to protect others and serve their collective community? Or, in truth, because he was one of those most rare of individuals, a man with five enhanced senses, a 'sentinel', and they were only beginning to discover together what that meant?

Or was it simply because he was beginning to think of Jim as a friend, and he was fiercely protective of his friends?

Or, more coldly, because Kincaid was a ruthless murderer who would only go on killing given the opportunity, so he was less deserving of life? Blair snorted and his lips thinned; he didn't feel at all comfortable casting himself as judge and jury, but he was pragmatic enough to give himself a break. It wasn't like there'd been a whole lot of time to call up a jury of Kincaid's peers - and the thought of twelve more men just like the callous killer chilled Sandburg to the marrow.

So, why had he chosen Jim's life over Kincaid's? Maybe all of the above?

Setting the empty mug down on the shawl that covered the wooden crate, Blair pushed his hair back behind his ears and crossed his arms as he leaned back against the couch to stare into the gloomy shadows beyond the ring of candles and lamps. He'd irrevocably passed some kind of watershed or boundary in his core being without real thought and that bothered him, bothered him a lot. As much as he treasured spontaneity and the unexpected, he was an intellectual being who reasoned his way through life, who 'processed' information and experience before internalizing it and making it his own. Part of him was deeply angry that Kincaid's viciousness and Veronica Sarris' insanity had pressed him beyond the values and principles he'd always striven to live by. He hadn't been able to remain on the fringes of life in those moments, a bystanding observer; choices and actions he'd not felt prepared for had been required of him with little warning. In the space of mere days, driven by circumstance and necessity, he had learned that he could kill if push came to shove. The realization made him slightly queasy, and he thought wistfully of the simplicity and innocence of his life only a short week before...before he'd met James Ellison.

So many conflicting emotions and so little idea of where his life was headed now, only a strong conviction that it had changed fundamentally and he could not go back to what he had been before. His life was now infinitely more complicated and, if the past week was any gauge, injury and even sudden death could happen at any time. Was knowing Jim, working with him, worth those kinds of risks? Worth maybe having to kill someone someday? - because he knew in the core of his soul that he was only lucky that that day hadn't already arrived. This was no game and, instinctively, Blair knew that if he decided to continue along this path, there would be no going back. But, in honesty, he had to admit to himself that he could not regret finding Jim. In fact, he felt almost continuously excited by the reality of having found a sentinel.

He bowed his head as he thought about Ellison. The man was certainly impatient, and could be downright physically aggressive. But, as intimidating as Jim tried to be, Blair found he could only smile when he recalled how Ellison had pressed him against the wall of his office and called him a 'neo-hippie witchdoctor punk'. Somehow, despite all his experience to date, he did not find Jim frightening. Deep down, something in him knew that his sentinel would never willfully hurt him. Still, Jim was certainly stubborn and clearly resented his recently emerged senses. But he was also bright, and he was definitely scared. Oh, he tried not to show it, but Sandburg could see the fear in the depths of Jim's eyes. Fear of loss of control, of failure and of senses he had no way of understanding or managing on his own.

'Must be hell when your body can't be depended upon, especially for a physical guy like Jim,' he mused to himself. 'Worse, it's dangerous - his senses could get him and others killed. The guy really needs help, big time.'

For all his irascible manner, Blair could also readily see that the detective was also incredibly courageous, even selfless, in the way he dedicated his life to the pursuit of justice and protection of the innocent. There was something noble, primeval, about Ellison; something elemental. He was a sentinel in every sense and meaning of the word and concept. Yeah, Jim could be stubborn, but he was also motivated to learn what he could to handle his super-senses better. And, he had a pretty good sense of humour, if a bit dry - the guy sure knew how to keep a poker face while he joked or teased, and Blair liked that. It was unexpected and fun, and it kept him on his toes. He couldn't take Ellison for granted, not in any way.

Sighing, Sandburg shook his head slowly. He could no more walk away from Jim and the opportunity of learning with him, of helping him, than he could fly. Though he might not have realized it as it was happening, in the moment that he'd shoved Kincaid into thin air he'd made his commitment. Come what may, he was on Jim's side and would do whatever he could to help the older man be the sentinel he was born to be.

When he thought of Jim, he felt a jumble of emotions, some of them unnameable: excitement and anticipation, trust and respect, a sense of rightness and belonging, a wholeness of being that he'd never felt before. He couldn't, wouldn't allow fear to obscure the greatness of what he held within his grasp, the wonder and majesty, the decency and value of the life and work of James Joseph Ellison. Smiling to himself, he reflected that, even if one day it got him killed, standing by Jim, being his partner, would be the single best thing he could ever do with his life. And, quietly, without fanfare in those moments, he knew he was dedicating himself and all he was to Jim. He felt as if he were falling in love, as ridiculous as that was - but he would not fear it or turn away. Maybe, just maybe, being here and now, to help Jim understand what the older man was, was why he'd been born - and it was a worthy purpose, even ennobling. He felt a sense of peace then, of rightness, as he finally allowed himself to relax, his shoulders loosening and he felt warm for the first time that day - as if he had found his centre and regained his balance.

Sniffing against the chill of the warehouse, Blair rose to rummage through his knapsack for his journal. There were observations he had to record of the day, and questions to note to pose to Jim in the days ahead. He had to think of ways to test Ellison's abilities and limits, so they'd know what to expect before they found themselves neck-deep in danger. He was humming softly to himself as he again put the kettle on to boil and gazed out the window at the swirling snow. With a wry grin, he reflected he was glad he was inside and not out in the cold on that miserable night.

And then he remembered seeing the white wolf. He'd thought it was only his imagination, but something about the way Jim had acted said that the older man had seen the creature, too. It was probably just an old hunter, so gray with age that it looked white in the dusk and blowing snow. But, Blair couldn't shake the feeling that this was the wolf he'd dreamt of all his life, and that he'd had some kind of vision that afternoon - a vision he'd apparently shared with Jim. Deep down, he believed the wolf was an omen of sorts, and he felt a frisson of excitement and anticipation. He was on the edge of the greatest adventure of his life and, however unknown or dangerous the waters, he would not let fear dissuade him from diving in with all that he was.

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

It was late by the time Ellison let himself into his loft apartment. Though fully furnished, the place had a cool barrenness about it, as if it were a stopping place more than a home, not that he noticed. Sighing, he shrugged off his coat and draped it on a hook by the door. He pulled a beer from the fridge and moved through the darkened room to glaze out the balcony doors, finding himself thinking again about the odd glimpse of the white wolf, and wondering where Sandburg was, and if he was alright. He grimaced as he realized he didn't even know where the kid lived; Jim only had his office number and could only track him down at Rainier. Sipping at the beer, he thought about the younger man and the way Blair had stormed into his life, right out of left field. Blair was...unexpected and certainly unpredictable. Different. He seemed so young in some ways and, yet, there was a solidity about him, like a rock in a storm; someone to cling to, in need - not that Jim could envision himself ever clinging to anyone, ever needing anyone that much. Still, although it made Ellison uncomfortable to have to depend upon anyone in such a fundamental way, the grad student was someone he badly needed now to understand his senses, to use them and not be driven insane by them.

His memory caught on the vision of the powder-burned rip in Sandburg's jacket, and he thought about how quickly Blair had skipped over those minutes during which he might so easily have been killed. Ellison's gut clenched and his breath caught in his throat at the thought of the kid dying; his jaw tightened and he bowed his head as he strove for control of his suddenly errant emotions. Why should it matter so much to him if this virtual stranger lived or died; why did it leave him breathless and aching, on the verge of tears, to think how nearly he'd lost the younger man, before he'd even scarcely come to know him?

Jim wondered if Blair would pull out of their still tentative partnership. God knew, the kid would have reason to seek safer ground. But...what would he do if Sandburg left him high and dry? Could he manage these damned senses on his own? Short answer? No. No way. Not yet. Maybe not for some time.

Sighing, Jim turned away from the window to sink into his chair as he thought about Sandburg. There was something about the younger man that...excited him. The blaze of Blair's smile, the sound of his voice, the sparkling light in his eyes, the lilt of his laughter, his caustic sense of humour. His touch, so steadfast and sure. He wouldn't just walk away, would he? He would come back and stay the course? Ellison rubbed the back of his neck and willfully relaxed the taut set of his shoulders as he consciously forced himself to breathe more deeply and evenly.

Determinedly positive, he told himself that Sandburg would be there the next day...and every day thereafter that he was needed. Somehow, Jim could not conceive of a different reality, of life without the kid hovering by his side. Stupid. But something deep down felt as if he'd found someone he'd lost long ago, someone intrinsic to his life and being.

It was as if he had known Blair all his life but had only just found him. If that made any sense.

He was tired, he decided; that was why he was being unusually whimsical and nonsensical. Finishing the beer, he put the bottle in the trash and headed up to his room. At the head of the stairs, he paused and looked down at the silent loft, shaking his head. He felt as if the place was emptier than it had been, as if something or someone was missing. Shrugging, he turned away and prepared for bed.

Finis

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