Thanks to EJ for reading over this one for me. I appreciate your input very much! To Wolfshy - all my thanks and lasting appreciation for all you do.
Restoration of Trust
Jim Ellison slowly hit the 'End' button on his cell phone and shut his eyes in disbelief. The impossible had happened, sending his life spiraling out of control. With a small shudder, he hit the auto dial button for Blair's university office. Be there, kid. Please, just be there. C'mon, dammit, Sandburg! Answer the phone! After six rings, he ended the call, already slamming the loft door behind him as he rushed down the stairs to his truck.
The word had just come through; the message that Jim Ellison had harbored a fear of hearing for months. Alex Barnes had escaped from the mental institution where she had been receiving treatment since her breakdown in the grotto in Mexico.
As he sped off toward the Rainier campus, the same mantra pounded over and over in Jim's head, Be safe, Chief. Just be safe. You can't die again. Be safe. Please.
Captain Simon Banks pulled up in front of Hargrove Hall in time to see Jim Ellison running up the steps. A vision of the last time he'd seen Ellison tearing up those same steps slammed him like a fist. Dammit, not again, Simon cursed inwardly, hurrying to catch up with the detective. It had been only six months since the terrifying morning when Jim had found Blair floating face down in the fountain at Rainier University. Simon knew he would never understand the connection, the bond, between sentinel and guide that had brought Blair back, but he was certain that he would never forget the raw grief and denial in Jim's voice as he pleaded for his friend to return. Through some miracle, Blair had done it. Once Alex had been captured, in a catatonic state after her experiences in the grotto, life had returned to a semblance of normal.
Although they'd never discussed it, Simon had a feeling that something remained unresolved between Jim and Blair. He knew the kid had been deeply hurt by Ellison's behavior, both before Alex attempted to murder Sandburg, and afterwards, in Mexico, when Jim had been uncontrollably attracted to the beautiful sentinel. Understanding intellectually that Jim had been reacting instinctively to the presence of another sentinel was one thing; understanding it in his heart was an entirely different matter. On the surface, the partners seemed fine, but with Ellison and Sandburg, things were never as they appeared.
Simon caught up to Jim in Blair's office, standing in the midst of the wreckage from what obviously had been a vicious struggle. Ellison was staring at a red smear on his fingers. "Jim?" Simon questioned, placing a hand on the tense shoulder.
"It's Blair's blood," he answered dully. "She's got him, Simon. Alex has Blair."********************
Blair Sandburg was suffocating. Slowly, but inevitably, suffocating. The stifling heaviness of the air was unwilling to pass through his tired, aching lungs. He struggled to open his eyes, then suddenly realized that his eyes were open, that he was engulfed in pure blackness. He was unable to move, his arms and legs held motionless, and he felt the unrelenting cuts of rough ropes into the tender skin ofhis wrists and ankles. His head was pounding an unceasing tribal beat, and he remembered the blow that had rendered him unconscious in his office. For the moment, he focused on his breathing,closing his eyes to the impenetrable darkness surrounding him. Breathing through his mouth was not an option. His mouth was stuffed with a heavy, wadded up cloth, secured by another cloth wrapped tightly around his head to complete the gag. Concentrating on finding his center, Blair gradually calmed himself enough so that his breaths were slower and deeper. The overwhelming sense of panic eased.
It could have been hours...days...later when suddenly his eyes were assaulted by a stunning light. Whipping his head around, he searched for its source, and finding it, was filled with a sense of dread. Alex Barnes stood above him, smiling, with a flaming torch anchored on the rock wall behind here.
Blair tried to cry out, but the gag reduced the sound to a soft moan of terror. He stared at his worst nightmare with wide, fear filled eyes.
Alex's smile grew wider, and she reached out to trace one finger across Blair's bare chest. "What's the matter, my old friend, aren't you happy with your accommodations? I'm sorry about the ropes, but I can't take any chances on your escape, now can I?" Blair tried to speak, but managed only another muffled moan. Alex cocked her head, listening. "Ah, the gag? Well, I remember your tendency to talk too much, and right now, I need you only to listen. This seemed the most expedient method. Eventually, it can come off, after Ellison is dead, but not yet."
At the mention of Jim, a stab of terror cut Blair's heart. No! She can't... I won't let her! Gotta get out of here. He struggled against the ropes, as Alex laughed at his useless attempts. "You're wasting your strength, Blair," she whispered, once again stroking his chest with her fingers. Then she turned away from him.
She moved to light two more torches, giving Blair time to assess his situation. He found it less than encouraging. He realized he was being held in a cavern. The cave walls were damp, and he shivered from the coolness of the air. He was naked from the waist up, his jeans damp and muddy from being dragged into his rocky prison. Looking to the side, Blair found another reason for the cold shivers that racked his body. He was bound onto a large slab of rock, his hands and feet tied with coarse ropes and staked into the ground. Again, he pulled desperately at his bonds, but the stakes and ropes held firmly.
Alex returned to him. "Still don't believe me, little Blair? Listen again. You are not escaping me this time." She sat beside him on another rock, slowly moving her fingers through his damp hair. Blair jerked his head to the side, attempting to avoid her hand, and Alex laughed in amusement. "You'll get used to this in time, believe me. I'll win your trust, and your devotion. The same devotion you've wasted on Ellison all these years."
Blair shook his head in silent denial, his eyes speaking the anger he could not voice.
Alex's smile was cold. "You see, while I was in that hospital, I realized that you were right all along; I needed a guide. Otherwise, my senses would be useless; in fact, they would destroy me, just as they almost did in Mexico. I couldn't let that happen, now could I? Of course not." She rose from her perch on the side of the cold slab and began to pace around the cavern. "The problem was, I had set my sights on the wrong target before. I wanted Ellison...the sentinel...when the one I really needed was you...the guide. I'm glad you didn't drown, after all. I need you, Blair, and as soon as Ellison's dead, you will be mine." Alex stopped, walking slowly over to sit down beside Blair once more. Her voice was soft, almost a purr. "Don't worry, he'll come. Soon. I left a very clear trail from your office through the mountains to this place. All we have to do now is wait." Her fingernails traced a path down Blair's arm to his bound wrist. "Ironic, isn't it? You almost died at my hands six months ago, and now you will be the bait that will allow me to kill Ellison. Then it will be only the two of us, and you will become my partner...my guide...and so much more..."
She put her cold palm over Blair's cheek, caressing it gently. He closed his eyes in helpless fury, biting down on the foul tasting gag that filled his mouth, determined to show no reaction. Don't give her the pleasure. Jim, please...
Alex continued her languorous caressing of Blair's face and hair. "He doesn't care for you, Blair. You know that. Didn't he abandon you, throw you from your home? Didn't he leave you in Mexico to come to me there on the beach? Didn't you see us together? He was with me there in the grotto, would have chosen me, if my senses hadn't betrayed me. He doesn't really care about you, and you've sensed that all along, haven't you? You're wasting your time with him, when you could join with me, bond with me..." Her voice droned on, filling Blair's ears with soft words of Jim's betrayals.
Blair tried to tune out the sounds, not to listen, but it was impossible. He was too uncomfortable to achieve a meditative state, and, unable to move, unable to talk, he was forced to hear each word. No! Jim does care, I know he does. He's made mistakes, and he's hurt me, but that's behind us. He is my sentinel; I am his guide. Don't believe her, don't listen. It's not true.
Hours passed, and still the voice continued. "Ellison hates you, Blair. He only tolerates you because a sentinel needs a guide, but he despises you. Why else would he hurt you again and again? He requires you, but he doesn't love you. I would, Blair. We will be so good together, trust me..."
The tears fell down Blair's face onto the cold stone beneath him. It can't be true, can it? Jim hasn't just tolerated me all this time only because he needs me...has he? He has hurt me, but... No! It's not true, none of it. I won't believe it! I can't. I'm just so tired, so thirsty. Please help me. Jim...? Alex...?********************
At some point, he must have begun to doze, because the soft, mesmerizing voice faded to a low buzz, barely noticeable. Then it stopped completely, and Blair realized Alex was no longer seated beside him. Confused, he opened his eyes to see her poised above him, the blade of a knife shining in the torch light.
Looking toward the cave entrance, Blair moaned in denial. Jim Ellison stood in the doorway of the cave, his gun pointed straight at Alex. No! Get out of here, Jim! Blair tried to shout a warning, to let Jim know Alex's plan, but his words were muffled by the tight gag that filled his dry mouth, threatening to choke him. He broke into a helpless sob, his eyes blurred by his tears.
Jim glanced at him for a moment, his eyes filled with concern. "It's okay, Chief. Trust me..." Then he turned his attention back to Alex.
She smiled at him. "Finally, you've come." In one quick, fluid motion, Alex bent over Blair, holding the knife to his throat, the smile never leaving her face. Blair's terrified blue eyes locked onto Jim's, silently begging him, hoping that his eyes could convey what his voice could not.
"Drop the gun. I'll cut his throat." Her words were soft, yet the tone was deadly serious. To illustrated her point, she calmly sliced a small nick into the tender skin beneath Blair's right ear, and he felt the hot trickle of blood ooze down his neck. He moaned in pain and fear when he heard the clatter of Jim's gun hitting the rock floor. Alex smiled in approval.
"That's it. I knew you'd see it my way. Now kick it into the corner. Good." Her voice softened to a dangerous purr, and she straightened, removing the knife from Blair's throat. "I knew he would draw you here. I've never stopped thinking of you and of the power we can share. Think of it... Two sentinels, twice the power, twice the strength. There's no limit to what we can become."
Jim took a few steps toward her, his eyes unmoving...his breathing deep and slow.
No! Please, Jim! Don't! I don't think I can stand seeing you choose her. Not again. Please! Blair shook his head slowly, in helpless denial, his eyes wide with fear. He moaned softly behind his gag, but Jim never looked at him.
"You do see it, don't you? We don't need him; you have enough control for us both. Share your control with me, and I'll give you more strength, more power, than you can imagine. I know the secrets, remember?"
Jim continued to approach Alex, his ice blue eyes unblinking and emotionless. Blair's choking, muffled sobs grew harder as he helplessly watched his sentinel ready to deny him yet again, as he watched his world coming to an end before his eyes. Alex's soft voice murmured on, coaxing, cajoling...
Only a few inches separated the sentinels now. Alex's lips parted, her glistening blue eyes shone in the flickering light of the torches. Ah, Jim... At that moment, Blair's heart broke, and he closed his eyes, unable to watch the scene he knew was unavoidable.
Suddenly, Alex screamed, her cry echoing off the cold stone walls, and Blair's eyes flew open in fear. Jim had his hands around Alex's wrists, the knife still clutched in her hands. They struggled, his strength seemingly matched by the power given to Alex in her crazed desperation. Blair's wide, frightened eyes desperately followed each move until they tumbled out of his sight onto the cave floor.
There was a haunting silence. All motion ceased, and Blair moaned in fear. Jim... No, please... He turned his head away, not wanting to see Alex as she arose victorious.********************
Then, a hand began cutting away the ropes that held him, and Blair turned to see Jim Ellison standing over him, ripping away the coarse ropes. He tried to shout in relief, but the gag remained in place, so he let his eyes speak his relief through the tears. When the last rope was gone, Jim sat beside him, and untied the cloth from around his head, tossing it to the floor in disgust, then carefully pulling the wadded, damp cloth from Blair's mouth.
Blair's voice cracked as he tried to speak, and Jim reached down for a bottle of water from Alex's supplies. Supporting his head, Jim helped him take a few, small sips. "Easy... Just a little, Chief. Not too much. There you go, easy now."
A small, dry sob escaped Blair's throat, and Jim's eyes closed for a moment in pain. Then, wrapping one strong arm around Blair's back, the other still supporting his head, he carefully pulled his guide up to rest against him. Jim buried his face in his long curls, drawing in deep breaths of the familiar, comforting scent to drive out the stench of the other sentinel.
"Alex...?" Blair asked hesitantly.
Jim's arms tightened protectively around him. "She's dead. Fell on her own knife when we hit the floor. She'll never hurt you again, Chief. It's over."
Long, quiet moments passed before Blair whispered, "I thought you were...you were going to choose her. Again..." He trembled uncontrollably at the painful memory.
Jim shook his head in denial. "Shhhhh... Shh... No, Blair, never... Didn't you hear me? I told you to trust me, right? She forced me to put down my gun, so I had to get close enough to take her down before she could hurt you. I never even thought about choosing her. All I could think of was that..." He stopped, unable to continue.
"What, Jim?" Blair said softly. "What were you thinking?"
Jim took a deep breath, trying to push down the powerful emotions. "All I could think of was that I could not lose you. Not again. I never stopped thinking of you, Chief. Not even once. You were all that mattered."
All the fears and insecurities that had haunted him in the months since the fountain and Mexico faded into nothingness, and Blair was filled with a sense of relief so overwhelming that it left him weak. He sagged forward against Jim, crying softly.
Jim ran soothing fingers over his tangled, damp hair, and pressed Blair more firmly against him. He murmured, "It's okay, Chief, let it all out. I know... I know... Shhhh... Easy, Blair. I am so sorry I ever gave you reason to hurt like this. I'm so sorry..."
Blair shook his head, interrupting Jim's apology. "No... It's okay now. You chose me..." He tried to burrow even closer against the comforting warmth of his sentinel.
Jim touched his lips to Blair's temple and whispered, "Of course, I chose you... I'll always choose you. I promise." He paused for a moment, struggling to find the right words to voice the whispers of his heart. "Don't you see? Alex used her two strongest weapons against us, but she failed."
The soft voice was almost lost against Jim's chest, but the sentinel heard, "I don't understand... What weapons?"
"I heard her talking to you; I heard what she said. She used our past, my stupid mistakes, to hurt you. She sensed your greatest insecurities and turned them against you. The worst part is, I had already given her the very weapon she needed, six months ago, when I... When I shut you out of my life." Jim stopped, almost afraid to ask the one question he most needed to have answered. "But you didn't believe her, did you? Even after all the hurt I've caused you, could you ever really believe that I don't care about you?"
Blair didn't respond for a long moment, considering. "No, I never believed her, not deep in my heart. She made me fight to keep that belief; it was so hard, Jim...but, no, I always knew she was lying, trying to manipulate me." He tightened his arms around Jim and smiled when the sentinel pulled him even closer into his protective embrace. "I always believed you cared..."
"Thanks, Chief..." came the whispered response.
"Her second weapon...?"
Jim answered quietly, "The chemistry...the pull...whatever it was between us. She tried to use it to distract me from you, to turn me against you again. But this time, there was nothing there. No attraction, no confusion, nothing but the need to protect you. She used our greatest weaknesses against us, but she couldn't destroy this." Jim hugged Blair firmly, almost fiercely, to him. "She couldn't destroy us."
He held Blair in silence for a few more minutes, then Jim pulled back to study his face. Unflinching, Blair returned his gaze, giving back the emotions he read there in full. Seeing the calmness and trust restored in those wide, blue eyes, Jim's heart filled with gratitude. He'd come so close to destroying this rare gift, this unique friendship, but he had received what very few are given, a second chance. Jim Ellison didn't intend to waste that opportunity.
"Let's go home, Chief."
Lending Blair his own strength, Jim led him away, his arm wrapped tightly about his waist, supporting him and carefully shielding him from the sight of Alex's body. Blair's arm snaked around Jim, and he leaned on the sentinel as they slowly left the cave. They stood and rested for a few minutes just outside the entrance, welcoming the heat of the sun on their cold bodies, and savoring the warmth of renewed trust in their hearts.
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