Thanks to Danae for her wonderful beta work! To my SA listsibs for their friendship and support - a huge 'thank you'.
You Can Run ...
Jim Ellison wasn't certain when did it had begun, the consuming thread which had woven itself into his brain, wrapping around his every thought, refusing to release its grip.
Maybe it was watching Marcus Eaves holding his partner at the edge of that ravine with the cold steel of his gun pointed at his temple. Maybe it was hearing the shot he fired at Blair, the one which, save for a simple misstep, would have killed him. The shot that reverberated in his ears for days afterward, refusing to grant him peace. Maybe it was seeing Blair's body tumbling wildly over the side of the ravine then plunging into the raging river below. Seeing his curly hair disappear from Jim's sight - even from his sentinel sight - as the currents swept him away.
At that instant, Jim felt his own life being swept away as well.
He truly thought Blair was dead. Jim had come close to losing him before. At the hands of a madman named Lash. In the golden grip of an insidious drug called Golden. In the tepid waters of a fountain on the campus Blair loved. Certainly, Jim had come close to losing Blair before, but never before was he so absolutely certain that his guide was dead. Even at the fountain, when all others had given up, Jim Ellison had believed. He'd never relinquished hope that somehow Blair would return to him.
This time, it had been different, and that difference frightened Ellison.
All his senses had confirmed the loss. He couldn't see Blair...couldn't hear him...couldn't smell the scent that belonged so uniquely to Sandburg alone...couldn't taste the *feel* of him in the air...and, worst of all, Jim couldn't touch him. Somehow, Jim Ellison always figured that he would know if Sandburg was really dead. If asked, he couldn't have explained, but he would *know* it.
Wouldn't he *have* to know it? How could he not recognize the instant when the only light in the world that made him whole, that made him complete, has been extinguished?
But, he hadn't. That terrible day on Montrose Mountain, Jim Ellison had thought Blair was dead.
He had been wrong. Thanks be to whatever powers have mercy on needy sentinels and their trouble-prone guides, Blair was alive. He had survived once more.
The problem was, Jim hadn't known it.
Ever since that day, he and Sandburg had talked a lot about why. Why Jim couldn't sense that he was still alive when he plunged into that river, only wounded in the shoulder, not in the heart.
In the heart... Just thinking the words made Jim shudder.
That was what he thought had happened. The sentinel's powerful ears had all too clearly heard the bullet ripping through Blair's flesh and, from the angle of the shot and the track of the bullet, he thought Blair had been shot right through the heart. Secretly, Jim didn't think he could have survived that...knowing that Blair Sandburg had died from a bullet in the heart.
Blair had such a kind heart, filled with compassion for others, less fortunate than himself, for the victims they saw every day on this job, and most of all, for his wayward sentinel who, all too often, seemed to forget what was really important in his life. Jim believed that if it had been true, if Blair had died from a bullet tearing into his gentle heart, the bullet would have taken Jim's as well.
As it very nearly did.
When Jim left Simon's office not long after the confrontation on Montrose Mountain, he already had the vague shadow of a plan lurking in the back of his mind. By the time a few more days had passed, the shadow took shape, becoming more defined and clear, until he knew without a doubt exactly what he must do. All that remained was to put the plan into action.********************
Blair Sandburg entered the bullpen of Major Crimes whistling a jaunty tune. It had been an exceptionally good day. He'd received his first annual evaluation as a member of the Rainier faculty from Chancellor Edwards after lunch, and even his old adversary had been unable to fault his performance. His research and publication record was strong, and his classroom performance exemplary. Blair loved his part-time position at Rainier, and that salary, combined with his pay from Cascade PD as a consultant, had put him in a better financial position than he'd ever experienced before. His partnership and friendship with Jim Ellison were both on firm footing, and he knew he'd gained the respect of his co-workers in Major Crimes.
Life was good.
Glancing around, Blair failed to locate Ellison. Just as he was about to settle in at his desk - *his desk,* at long last, looking so permanent next to Jim's - when Simon called his name.
"Sandburg! My office. Now!"
Blair raised an inquisitive eyebrow at Henri Brown who was working at his computer. H. shrugged and shook his head. Grinning and mouthing, "What did I do now?" Blair hurried to meet with his captain.
"Close the door," Banks commanded from his seat behind his wide desk.
Blair shut the glass door, then he settled into one of the chairs facing Simon. "You seen Jim, man? I figured I'd catch up to him here, but he's not around."
Simon removed his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He pushed a sheet of paper toward Blair. "Did you know about this?"
Leaning forward, Blair took the paper, then quickly read the short paragraph. His eyes widened as he gazed at Simon, mystified. "What the...?"
"That's what I'd like to know," Banks interrupted. "I found the letter and this on my desk early this morning, but I haven't seen Jim all day." Simon held out Jim's gold shield. "He didn't say anything at all to you about any of this?"
"N...no! I mean, my God, Simon, don't you think I'd have said something to you if I had known?" Blair got up and paced over to the window. "I mean, he's been kinda quiet recently, but you know Jim. That's nothing unusual. What the hell is he thinking?"
"I don't have a clue, Sandburg, but you'd better find your partner and figure out what the hell's going on."
Already a step ahead of the captain, the younger man was halfway to the door. "You got it, man."
"You call me and keep me posted, you understand?" Simon's order was given with an undeniable air of experienced command.
Blair looked back over his shoulder, his expression troubled. "You'll be the first to know, Simon. I promise."
Then, he was gone.********************
Jim heard the sound of Blair's car pull to a quick stop on Prospect, followed by the sound of footsteps running up the stairs. Carefully placing the last of his sweaters into the box on his bed, Jim felt the dread he'd lived with all day deepen.
D Day had arrived.
The loft door swung open, then slammed shut loudly. Jim winced, realizing he'd extended his hearing as he'd listened for Sandburg to come home. Dialing back his sense of hearing, he waited.
It didn't take long.
"Jim! You wanna tell me what the hell's going on around here?"
Blair stood at the top of the steps leading up to Jim's bedroom. His face was flushed, and Ellison knew it wasn't merely from his sprint to the loft. Blair's blue eyes flashed fire, and the tone of his voice held a note of challenge that the sentinel recognized immediately.
His guide wasn't giving him up without a fight.
Mildly, Jim asked, "You've talked to Simon?"
Once again, the fiery eyes burned. "Damn straight! I read the letter, Jim. Your letter of resignation! Talk to me, Ellison. Now!" Blair stood, blocking the stairs, physically cutting off Jim's escape route. With a cursory glance, Blair took in the boxes and Jim's duffle on the bed. "You're packing! Jim, what the hell's happening here?"
Jim closed up the top of the box. "I was planning to talk to you, Chief. I tried catching you at Rainier before you went to the station, but you were in conference with Edwards." He glanced up at Sandburg with concerned interest. "How'd your evaluation go, by the way?"
Blair laughed in disbelief, but the smile didn't reach his eyes. "Don't you dare try changing the subject, Jim! It went fine, but that's not what's on the agenda right now, remember?"
"Let's go downstairs. Grab a couple of beers, then meet me out on the balcony. I'll be right down."
For a moment, Sandburg stood staring at his perfectly calm partner. Jim didn't seem to be trying to avoid discussing whatever was happening with him, and he certainly didn't appear to be angry or closed off. In fact, the normally reticent sentinel was being downright agreeable.
Something strange was definitely going on.
Taking a deep breath to calm himself, Blair gave in. "Okay. The balcony. You're going to tell me everything, Jim. Everything, you got that?" Blair pointed a finger at Ellison for emphasis.
"I promise, Chief. Just give me a minute to finish up here, then I'll be there. Okay?"
"Okay," Blair agreed skeptically. This calm, reasonable Jim had thrown him slightly off-balance. The silent treatment, he knew how to handle. Willing cooperation - now that was a sentinel of a different color.
A few minutes later, Blair waited impatiently on the balcony, both hands wrapped around his beer bottle. His thoughts hadn't stopped whirling since leaving Simon's office. Why would Jim resign? The possibilities were frightening. Was he sick? Had Jim been having sensory problems that he hadn't shared with Blair? Did it have something to do with the events in Peru?
Ever since the ceremony in the temple of sentinels and guides, Blair had felt their relationship had become stronger than ever. Sure, the super-connectedness they'd experienced when Eaves had kidnapped him had been weird, but apparently that wasn't going to be a continuous thing. It might even be helpful in certain circumstances.
Blair was confused and more than a little worried. Jim Ellison wasn't a man who made major decisions quickly. Whatever was bothering his partner, it must have been building for a long time.
Jim came out from the living room and claimed the second beer from the small table. Settling into a chair beside Blair, he took a long swig from his bottle. He stared for a long time over the lip of the bottle out at the skyline of Cascade before speaking.
"I know this is going to be difficult for you to understand, Chief."
Blair bit back the impulse to laugh out loud. *Hard to understand? Man, you got that right, Ellison!* He waited.
"I can't do this anymore, Sandburg. The whole thing with Eaves just drove it home to me."
When Jim didn't continue, Blair prodded, his eyes attentively focused on his friend as he strove to understand. "Do what, Jim? What is it you can't keep doing? The sentinel thing? Are your senses cutting up again?"
Slowly, Jim shook his head in denial. "Not that. My senses are fine, Chief." Leaning his head back, he stared up at the clouds floating slowly overhead. "How many times has my job nearly cost you your life?"
Taken by surprise, Blair's eyes narrowed. What exactly was this all about? "I don't understand, Jim. What does that have to do with anything?"
Ellison's reply was unexpectedly harsh as he turned to look intently at Blair. "It has everything to do with it, Sandburg! That's what I can't deal with anymore!"
Jim jumped to his feet and stalked to the railing, leaning over to stare down at the street below. "Think about it. Lash, the Golden, that tower falling on you out on the rig, getting shot up in the mountains searching for Simon, Alex Barnes, General Kershaw, Eaves... The list is endless! This last time, you almost didn't survive it, Chief." His next words dropped to a whisper. "And neither did I."
"Jim! That's just part of the job, man." Blair leaned forward in his chair, the brown bottle clutched in his hands. "Not only your job as a cop, but your job as a sentinel. I knew that going in to this, and I've accepted the risks. Getting hurt, maybe even killed, that's a risk I'm willing to take."
"Well, I'm not, Sandburg!" Jim whirled around, his eyes flashing sapphires. "Things have been...I don't know...different. Ever since Peru. You felt it, too; you even admitted it. When we completed that ceremony, Chief, something happened to us, something I can't even put into words yet."
Jim rubbed his hand over his face, and suddenly looked very tired. His voice grew softer. "When I went away before and stayed with Brother Jeremy and the monks, I accepted the fact that I was born to be a sentinel. That it was my destiny, I guess. I'll always be a sentinel, but how I choose to use my senses is up to me. Right now, I choose not to use them here."
"Ever since I made my abilities public, they've been after me, Blair. First, Kershaw, and now Eaves. Both times, you've been put in the middle. Kershaw was going to use you to gain my cooperation, and Eaves was..." Jim's voice was raw with anger as he fought for control of his emotions. "He was going to kill you in front of me as vengeance for what he thought I'd done to him years ago!"
Blair stood up to face his friend, confusion evident in his voice and eyes. "So what do you want, Jim? You want me to leave, is that it? I'll get out, man, if that would make you..."
The denial was fast in coming. "No!" Jim grasped Blair's upper arms, squeezing so roughly that the younger man winced in pain. "Don't you get it? I *can't* let you leave, that's what's so damned frustrating! I need you, Chief, but I cannot go on risking your life like this. It's a Catch-22! I can't let you go, and I can't let you stay!"
The sentinel's eyes were as stormy blue as the deepest sea as he stared into his partner's face. Struggling to remain calm, Blair lowered his voice to the soothing timbre which worked so often to settle Jim's emotions. "It's okay, man," he said softly. "I understand. We'll work something out, okay? What is it you have in mind?"
Slowly, Jim's hands lowered to his sides, then he slumped down into a chair. Leaning forward, he rested his head in his hands, breathing heavily. At last, he looked up, his eyes calmer. Resigned.
"I've rented a small cabin up near Twin Forks. It's on a good trout stream and isn't too far from town. I've got enough money saved up to last awhile, then I can find work somewhere in the area."
Quietly, Sandburg asked, "And me?"
"That's why I picked Twin Forks. It's close enough for you to commute to Rainier. God knows, I've screwed up your life enough as it is. I won't do that to you again. This way, you can make full professor, and we can stay together." Jim hesitated, almost reluctant to hear the answer as he added. "If that's what you still want."
Blair stared at his best friend as if looking at a stranger. "But this is your tribe, man! Your city! How can you turn your back on Cascade?"
"A hell of a lot easier than I could bury you, Sandburg!" Jim said angrily. "What good is protecting my 'tribe' if I lose you in the process?"
His hands gesturing animatedly in his anxiousness to reason with his partner, Blair argued, "I'm okay with the risks, Jim! You can't make this decision for both of us without even taking my feelings into account!"
Ellison would not be moved. "It's my career, Chief. If I want to trash it, then that's my prerogative. Your life doesn't have to be affected at all, other than leaving the PD. I was the only reason you were there in the first place anyway."
Jim rested his hands gently on Sandburg's shoulders, and his voice grew softer. "I want you with me, Blair, regardless of the job I happen to be doing. I'd hoped you'd feel the same, that it wouldn't make any difference to you whether I'm a sentinel who happens to be a cop, or a gardener, or a bum, for that matter. I don't plan to give up my abilities, just live with them in a place that will be safer for us both."
When Sandburg remained silent, Jim added reluctantly, "You don't have to come with me. That's entirely your decision. You can stay here in the loft for as long as you choose. I won't be selling it. If you join me or decide to leave entirely, I'll rent it out. Maybe." Jim shrugged. "I haven't planned that far ahead yet."
"When are you leaving?" Blair asked quietly.
Jim's gaze remained steadily fixed on Blair's eyes. "I'm packed. I plan to leave this afternoon. I drew a map to the cabin for you. It's on the kitchen table." He hesitated. "I hope you'll use it, Chief."
An hour later, Blair was still sitting alone in stunned disbelief when Jim left for the last time, shutting the door to the loft firmly behind him.********************
By the time the cold night finally drove him inside, Jim had been gone for nearly five hours. Blair looked around the vacant loft in dismay. The furnishings were still there, apparently the cabin Jim had rented came with furniture, but the heart, the energy and the quiet strength that Jim Ellison had brought to his home was gone.
Sandburg wandered aimlessly into the kitchen, and the paper on the table caught his eye. Slumping down into a chair, he picked it up.
Neatly drawn on the yellow sheet was a simple map to Twin Forks and the cabin just outside of town. Jim had printed his new phone number in large block letters and had carefully marked every turn-off along the route, even indicating gas stations with red circles. Blair smiled sadly. His Blessed Protector. Always on duty.
What the hell was he supposed to do?
A twisting and growling in his stomach reminded Sandburg that he had not eaten since breakfast. Eating might be a good place to begin. At least, he would be doing something.
Wandering to the refrigerator, Blair stared vacantly at the contents. Several meals were neatly wrapped and labeled in Jim's neat handwriting. How long had Jim been planning this?
Taking out one of the plates, Blair fingered the lettering thoughtfully. Jim had gone to the trouble to make sure his guide would be all right, to the point of even having a few meals prepared in his absence. There was no way to deny that Ellison was determined to follow through with his decision, regardless of how unnecessary Blair thought it was.
As he ate, Sandburg debated his options. Jim had arranged things efficiently, as usual. If he followed him to Twin Forks, Blair's life could proceed uninterrupted. It wasn't a long drive to Rainier, and he had to admit, the thought of a full-time job there was appealing. He loved to teach, and the idea of living the peaceful life of a professor definitely had its attraction.
Something gnawed at his gut like a persistent puppy, reminding him that to be a sentinel and guide was more than merely living a safe existence. Everything he had ever learned, from Burton's original manuscript to his own observations with Jim, confirmed that a sentinel's role was to protect the tribe. Surely, a sentinel couldn't choose merely to ignore that imperative? So much about Jim seemed to be instinctual, programmed into his DNA - his powerful drive to protect his guide, his dangerous and unpredictable reactions to Alex Barnes, his ability to see the animal spirits and Incacha when they were most needed. How, then, could he ignore what must be an equally strong instinct to protect his tribe, the people of Cascade?
Even more troubling was Jim's apparent willingness to be apart from his guide, if Blair did not choose to follow him to Twin Forks. That couldn't be right, either. Sandburg slowly washed his plate and glass, his thoughts elsewhere, in a place far away from Cascade. The words of the Chopec shaman rang clearly in his memory, as if Imaru was standing at his side.
*...you have been all Enquiri needs from the instant you were born. You were destined to be together from the moment you each drew first breath. Do not doubt your role, Ankaree. It is simple. Without you, the sentinel would not survive. Without him, you would die. This is the way of sentinels and guides. Accept your place in his life, and his in yours. You are all he needs, all he will ever need. Is he not all that you require as well?"*
Drying his hands on the dishtowel, Blair sighed. Simple, indeed. Nothing was ever simple with a sentinel like Jim Ellison.
He wandered to the wide windows overlooking the city and stared blankly at the twinkling lights. He had two options: stay here in the loft alone or go to be with Jim. Blair knew better than to hope that his friend would change his mind of his own accord. Jim had worked his flight out far too deliberately for that.
"Not to mention the fact that he's too stubborn to admit he was wrong and come home," Blair muttered. "Damn it, Jim. Why the hell can't anything ever be easy with you?"********************
Jim wiped the sweat from his brow as he propped the axe against the tall cedar tree at the edge of his rented property. Even though it was still early fall and the days were warm, nights were decidedly chilly in the mountains. A fresh supply of firewood was definitely in order.
His enhanced hearing picked up the sound of a car on the two-lane highway about a mile from the cabin. Cocking his head, Jim listened intently, a surge of hope warming his heart for an instant before fading away. It wasn't the familiar sound of Sandburg's 'classic.' Blair wasn't coming.
Not today, anyway.
Two weeks had passed since Jim's departure from Cascade. He'd lost count of the number of times he had been tempted to pick up the phone and call Sandburg. Several times, he'd actually held the phone in his hand, fingers poised over the numbers. Each time, he'd laid the phone back down. Blair knew where he was. If he wanted to be with Jim in the new life he'd chosen, then he knew the way.
With each passing day, it became achingly clear that this was not the choice Sandburg had made.
Gathering an armload of wood, Jim headed toward the woodshed behind the cabin. The sounds of the forest comforted him. Living a solitary life was second nature to him. Growing up in his father's house, he'd been alone even with his father and brother in the same room. His training in covert ops had involved many dangerous solo missions, and even in his career as a detective with Cascade PD, Jim had never shied away from assignments that would place him in danger, alone and without backup. He'd never needed a partner on the job, had really never missed her company after Carolyn was gone. By the time they'd divorced, their marriage had grown too cold for regrets.
Jim Ellison had been a man comfortable with his isolation.
With his energy and color and noise, Sandburg had managed to fill the empty spaces in Jim's life, voids he'd never realized existed until his friendship with Blair. Now, the quietness, the solitude, seemed far too vacant, much too empty.
As he stacked the wood neatly, Jim harshly reminded himself, *Nothing lasts forever. You've been alone before; you can handle it again. Nothing new, Ellison. It's just going to take some time to adjust this time, that's all.*
Straightening up, Jim caught a whiff of something on the air. He turned around, tracking the scent, his nostrils flaring. He knew the aroma, he was sure, but he just couldn't place it. Then it hit him.
He recognized the scent from a fishing trip he'd taken with Sandburg. They'd been out in the river when a large mother grizzly had passed by on the opposite bank with her cubs. The odor had been distinctly feral and slightly dangerous. That was definitely the same smell he'd caught just now. Listening, he picked up the faint sounds of a large animal moving through the forest leaves. Close to a mile away, from the sounds of it.
Without thinking, Jim turned to tell Blair of his discovery. They'd been wondering about the limits of Jim's ability to identify scents, and recognizing a bear at that distance would thrill the ever-curious anthropologist.
The excitement gleaming in his eyes faded quickly as reality and disappointment set in. There was no one to tell. No Sandburg at his side, no friend with who to share this moment. Jim was alone.
With a heavy sigh, Jim turned toward his lonely cabin and went inside.********************
"What do you mean you haven't spoken with Jim in almost two weeks?" Simon Banks' voice rose in disbelief. The morning sun shone through the windows of his office, and outside the glass door, the bullpen bustled with its daily routine.
Blair raked his fingers through his long curls and shrugged. "I didn't know what to say, Simon. I mean, Jim basically gave me an ultimatum when he left. Either move up to Twin Forks or it's over." Confusion clouded his blue eyes. "Maybe I've been avoiding the issue by not calling; I don't know."
Simon watched him carefully. The young man looked tired. The dark half-moons under his eyes testified to his lack of sleep and the stress he'd been under since Jim's departure. "You don't know if you want to stay with Jim if he isn't a cop, is that it? Is it that important to you what he does for a living?"
"No!" Blair jumped to his feet and paced fretfully around Simon's office. "It's more complicated than that. Jim's a sentinel, right? Part of being a watchman is supposed to be protecting his tribe. In Jim's case, that's this city. Cascade. But, he's just given that all up, moved away and forgotten part of what makes up who he is. *What* he is. If I go to him now, I'll be confirming that he made the right choice, and I just don't believe that he did." Blair's voice fell to a near whisper, breaking on the last few words as exhaustion and concern overwhelmed him. "I don't know what the hell to do this time, Simon."
As a man accustomed to command, Simon Banks rarely found himself without answers, but this was an exception. He'd never pretended to understand everything about the unique relationship between his best detective and his unorthodox partner. As far as Simon was concerned, it was enough that the partnership worked. That the friendship worked. He'd seen enough of the mystical, spiritual connection between Jim and Blair to know that it was undeniably real, however Simon preferred to keep his own feet firmly rooted in reality.
Now, though, Blair Sandburg was hurting, and Simon knew instinctively that Jim was, too. They needed answers, but unfortunately, those answers had to be ferreted out by Jim and Blair themselves. Their captain and friend couldn't provide them, as much as he might wish that ability lay within his limited powers.
"Blair," Simon said at last. "Not too long ago, you sacrificed your own career for Jim. Why?"
Puzzled, Blair thought for only an instant before replying. "He's my best friend, Simon. What happened with my dissertation was destroying him. It was the only way I could come up with to save him."
"Were you certain that what you did would save your friendship with Jim as well?" Banks waited, praying that he was headed in the right direction. *Talk about flying blind. I'm operating without radar in a fog bank here.*
Sandburg didn't respond immediately. "No," he answered thoughtfully. "I didn't know if Jim would ever forgive me or not. He was pretty PO'd."
"So, why'd you do it?" Simon inquired.
A tiny flash of anger lit Blair's blue eyes. "I told you! To save Jim's life! He was self-destructing right in front of me, remember? I had to do something!"
Calmly, Simon asked, "Do you think it matters to Jim whether you're a cop or a student or a professor or a full-time anthropologist?" At Sandburg's shake of the head, he persisted. "Why not? Why doesn't Jim care what career path you've chosen?"
A small smile crept up on Blair. "Because I'm still his friend. Regardless. But, it's still not the same thing, Simon! He's *supposed* to be here, protecting his tribe. That's what a sentinel does! It's just not right that he gave that up so easily!"
"Who said it was easy?"
Blair sat mute with astonishment.
Simon pointed out, "I know Jim Ellison pretty damn well, too, you know. Enough to know that turning in his shield was one of the toughest things he's ever done in his life. But he did it, Sandburg. For you. Jim would rather give up his career, give up his 'tribe,' as you two call it, - hell, even give *you* up - than see you hurt again or, God forbid, watch you die. Don't you think you, of all people, can get past this 'protecting the tribe' crap you've got stamped in your head long enough to realize what that means?"
The wetness in his eyes welled up so quickly that Blair was unable to wipe it away before a single tear broke free to trickle down his cheek. "Yeah," he said simply.
"Yeah," Simon echoed softly. "Jim loves you, Sandburg. Enough to let go of everything that's ever mattered to him, including you. Isn't it time you met him halfway?"
Before he slipped out the door, Blair turned around. "Thanks, Simon."
Gruffly, the captain replied, "No problem. Close the door on your way out, and tell Taggart to get his butt in here. Now!"
Grinning, Sandburg closed the door behind him.********************
Jim hefted the grocery sacks he was carrying into the back of his pick-up truck. It was early afternoon, but the small town of Twin Forks was as still as a lake on a windless day. Only a few pedestrians walked slowly along the sidewalks, and the few cars parked on either side of the street were empty. Occasionally, a car or truck would pass by, on its way home or to one of the shops in town.
Jim turned the key in the driver's door lock, then hesitated. Something seemed different somehow. He glanced around as the tiny hairs on the back of his neck began to prickle. Casting out his senses like a net, he searched for whatever it was that had him ill at ease.
Without warning, his senses were drenched in welcome, too long absent, waters. The comforting scent of herbal shampoo...the rhythmic beat of a steadfast heart...the barest trace of a taste on his tongue that brought back memories of an early morning on the Rainier campus and the desperate struggle for life...
Jim whipped around, dropping his keys in his haste to locate his guide. As if he knew all along exactly where to look, his eyes zeroed in on the sidewalk across the street.
Sandburg stood there, long hair blowing gently in the afternoon breeze, in his blue jeans and faded denim shirt. A faint smile touched his lips, and the affection in his eyes called clearly to his sentinel across the distance that still separated them.
Like a statue, Jim was frozen to the spot. After long weeks of waiting, the sight of his friend seemed nearly an apparition, almost too unexpected to be real.
Shaking his head, Blair's smile broadened to a wide grin. "What's the matter, big guy?" he said softly, knowing Jim heard every word. "Forgotten me already?"
Blair Sandburg took a step off the sidewalk, and all hell broke loose.
Jim was so focused on the sight, sound, and scent of his guide that he only heard the motorcycles' approach when they were almost upon Sandburg. The bikes, each exceeding the conservative Twin Forks' speed limit by double digits, roared down the street. A mini-van blocked Sandburg's view, and apparently, he was too intent on reaching Jim to hear their thunder.
The sentinel was in motion before the first bike cleared the van. Rushing headlong toward his unaware guide, Jim was a blur of speed and agility, but even his quickness, fueled by absolute desperation, couldn't propel him fast enough to prevent all contact. The first bike had already caught Blair squarely in the side, viciously flipping him around and shoving him straight into the path of the second.
Like a slow motion movie, Jim Ellison dove, placing his body between the figure of his stunned guide and the second bike, now lagging slightly behind the first. Just before the two men made physical contact, Jim caught the look of sheer terror on Blair's face as he stared at the huge motorcycle, now only inches away. An instant before bike and man collided, Jim's outstretched hands caught Blair squarely in the chest, driving him violently backward and slamming him to the pavement. Jim landed on top of Blair, instinctively shielding his partner's body with his own.
The second motorcycle began sliding sideways as its driver fought to control the machine. As its weight pulled it down, the bike fell over completely, skidding to a halt several hundred feet down the street. Its rider stood up slowly, apparently uninjured.
By the time Jim knelt beside his fallen partner, the two bikes that remained upright had already pulled over to the curb, and the local police were sprinting toward their riders. A concerned crowd gathered loosely around the two men on the ground, their worried voices humming like bees.
"Somebody call an ambulance!" Jim shouted as he ran anxious fingers over Sandburg's body, searching for injuries.
"It's on the way," a disembodied voice reassured him. "Won't take long."
Unmindful of the curious eyes surrounding them, Jim brushed back the wayward curls from Blair's face. Using his sleeve, he dabbed away the blood from several cuts. "Chief," he called softly, his blue eyes gone dark with concern. "Blair, can you hear me?"
Slowly, the shuttered eyes flickered open, at first uncertainly, then focusing steadily on the face of the sentinel. A tiny smile teased at the corners of the bruised lips. "Jim...?"
At the sound of his name, Ellison fought against the tightness in his throat. "Shhhh...it's okay. You're gonna be fine, Chief." Laying a gentle hand against the soft curls as he leaned in closer, Jim whispered, "Just relax, okay, partner? Ambulance is on its way."
Blair's eyes darted around to the strange faces leaning over them, then his gaze returned to the sentinel, and his eyes calmed once more. "Sorry I was late, man," he gasped brokenly, his breath coming in painful wheezes.
"Don't, Chief." Jim shook his head, sympathetic tears welling at the sight of his friend's pain. "Don't try to talk, okay?" Grasping one cold hand between both of his, he held on tightly. "You just hang in there for me, buddy. Relax and breathe."
Blair closed his eyes and gasped again as a painful spasm tightened his chest.
"Easy, Blair, easy. Take slow, shallow breaths. That's the way. Shhhhh..." Jim coaxed and reassured the injured man, keeping his voice low and tender, his strong hands gentle as he touched his partner.
At last, the sirens from the ambulance approached, and the crowd parted to allow it through. Ellison hovered like a moth to a candle as Blair was strapped to a backboard, then loaded into the ambulance.
"Where are you taking him?" he asked the head EMT.
"No hospital closer than Cascade General. You want to follow us or ride up front?"
There was no decision to be made. Jim climbed into the passenger seat, and the ambulance pulled away, its sirens blasting.********************
Nights spent in vigil can last an eternity.
Of that, Jim Ellison could bear witness.
Most of the long hours, Jim spent alone at Sandburg's side. At regular intervals, a nurse would appear, perhaps the same woman. Jim failed to notice. Silently, she would record the vital signs recorded on the beeping, glowing instruments, then disappear.
No internal injuries. That had been the doctor's simple explanation. Sandburg had been fortunate. He'd escaped with only a mild concussion and a few broken ribs. Along with cuts and bruises too numerous to mention, carefully protected under their swathing of bandages and gauze.
*"Dr. Sandburg was fortunate that you pushed him out of the way, Detective. If that second motorcycle had hit him dead on, he might not have survived."*
Fortunate? Somehow, Jim had a difficult time thinking of the still, broken figure lying on the bed as fortunate. Still, he admitted that, as was so often the case in their lives, it could have been so much worse.
How many times had things been worse? Jim rubbed his eyes, wincing at the dry, scratching sensation. If only he had some answers. In Peru, it had seemed so simple, so basic. They were meant to be together, had been destined to be together from the beginnings of both their lives. Those had been the teachings of Imaru, the wise, old shaman. After the bonding ceremony, Jim had felt the connection to Sandburg deepen, become richer in ways he could never put into words. Then came the kidnapping and the terrifying vision of his guide plummeting from the cliff into the raging river so far below.
Blair shouldn't have survived that day. Yet, he had, just as he had survived so many other times before. Times when Ellison hadn't been there, or, even more discouraging, had been there but had been unable to protect him.
"What the hell am I supposed to do, Chief?" Jim whispered, not really expecting a response, but hoping all the same. How selfish is that, he thought. Wishing Blair would wake up just because I need him to explain all this to me.
The pain meds had kept Blair asleep throughout the long evening. That and his obvious exhaustion. From the looks of the dark circles beneath his closed eyes, Jim doubted that he'd slept in days. His sleep in the hospital wasn't much easier. Blair tossed fretfully, murmuring incomprehensibly.
*Restless rest*, Jim thought, vaguely wondering how much good this sleep was really doing Sandburg. Now that morning had arrived at long last, Jim longed for his friend to awaken, to grin at him and complain about his dirty hair. To help his sentinel understand all that had happened to them, to give him the answers he so desperately needed. To gripe about how ready he was to go home.
Where the hell was home now anyway? The loft? The cabin in the woods at Twin Forks? Hell, even Peru? With the child, Irami, who was his son, the boy he'd only met once?
*With him...with your guide...*
The familiar voice called to him from afar. Acana and Imaru...standing in the temple of sentinel and guide, explaining the eerily familiar carvings on its ancient walls. Even though he'd been locked away in the strange, isolated world of his own senses, Jim remembered Imaru's words as Acana translated them into English.
*You and Enquiri. Irami and his guide. This ancient watchman and his anamari. It does not matter what the faces look like, nor the names. The bond, the responsibility, the commitment, remains the same, throughout the ages.*
How many relationships in his life had ever encompassed the permanence, the continuity that his friendship with Sandburg possessed? That much, at least, was simple. None.
His own mother deserted the family when he and Steven were only children. His dad had carefully maintained a lifelong emotional distance. He and his brother had achieved a cautious civility. His marriage to Carolyn had ended on the rocks. His son...
Irami. Born to the Chopec. Born to the role of sentinel.
Jim swept a hand across his face as if to wipe away the memories. Irami could never be Jim's son, not in the western world's sense of the word, and he fully appreciated that fact. The realization didn't necessarily make it any easier to accept the hurt, but reality couldn't be denied. Irami was being raised by the tribe to be the sentinel of the Chopec, and that was a role that even the young boy accepted and understood. He had a son, yet, in a very real sense, he did not.
Burying his face in his hands, Jim sighed in frustration. Blair Sandburg was the only constant in his life, the only person who had never abandoned him, never given up on him, even when it seemed he'd done everything possible to drive him away. And now, even that security seemed beyond his grasp.
"Hey, man," a soft, hoarse voice called to him.
Jim's head shot up, and he gazed into the clearly bemused eyes of his partner. "You came," Jim said dumbly.
Blair grinned, wincing at the pain the movement caused to his bruised and cut face. "You have a talent for understatement, my brother. Yeah, I came. Did you ever really doubt that I would?"
Ellison leaned over and claimed his partner's hand, squeezing it gently, letting his thumb brush the cool skin, grateful not to have lost the chance to feel the life pulsing beneath his fingers. "The truth? I wasn't too sure. I mean, it had been awhile."
"I can be stubborn, too, y'know." Blair reached for the controls on the side of the bed, but Jim's hand was faster. Slowly, the sentinel raised his friend's head until they could talk eye to eye. "How about a little ice?" Sandburg requested.
After he'd refreshed his dry throat with the soothing ice, Blair gazed at Jim quizzically. "You really weren't sure I'd show up here eventually?"
Shrugging, Jim replied, "I figured maybe you were ready to simplify your life, Sandburg, and God knows, I tend to complicate things. You've got your degree and your position at Rainier. You don't need to stick so close to me anymore. You're at the point now where we could see each other, stay friends, but..." His words faded away. Jim studied Blair's face carefully for a signal of whether he had struck a vein of truth.
Once again, Blair grimaced in pain as he tried to smile. "Oh, man! Ye of little faith. Jim, have you forgotten Peru already? We're in this for life, my friend. It doesn't matter to me if you're a cop." He paused for a moment. "Or a gardener. Or a bum," he quoted, his eyes twinkling in amusement. "You're still my sentinel. I'm still your guide. Circumstances change, Jim. That doesn't. Understand?"
The seconds ticked by as Jim Ellison considered the phenomenal connection he had built with the man lying injured in the hospital bed. Blair had just survived another brush with death, yet his concern lay in repairing their partnership, their friendship. "Yeah, Chief," he agreed at last. "I understand."
"By the way, Jim. You do realize that what happened to me here was in no way related to you or your job? I was hurt in an accident, man. A freaky, stupid accident, and if you hadn't been there, it would have been a hell of a lot worse." Blair stared at Jim intently, hoping his friend would make the connection.
Jim's half-smile offered him hope.
"You're trying to tell me something here, aren't you, Darwin?" At Blair's encouraging smile, Jim added, "Like maybe, trouble's going to find us, no matter where we are or what job I hold?"
Like a patient teacher granting his approval to a deserving student, Sandburg grinned and nodded. "You can run, but you just can't hide. There's synchronicity in the universe, man. Our lives weren't meant to be routine, and unfortunately, for us, that means a degree of danger. We're gonna find trouble, no matter what. Or maybe it's gonna find us. Whichever. Either way you look at it, we're in for some tough times, but the results and the rewards are worth the risks. Something that's really worthwhile always involves risk and sacrifice, right?"
"Something like protecting the tribe, you mean?" Jim's smile was full now, his blue eyes shining.
"Something like that, yeah." Reaching out, Blair found Jim's hand and gripped it tightly. "You're my Blessed Protector, man. I trust you to protect me. Isn't that enough?"
"I don't know, Chief." Jim stared down at their linked hands. "What if...?"
Blair interrupted. "The 'what ifs' can happen anywhere, Jim. Even in a nice safe town like Twin Forks. Remember?"
How could he forget? The evidence was lying right before his eyes. "I remember." Jim took a deep breath, then released it. He looked at Blair, obviously worried. "There's only one problem, Chief. I'm unemployed. Unless you think Simon might consider giving me my job back?"
"If you ask nicely. Maybe." The gleam in Sandburg's eyes gave him away, and he knew it. He slapped Jim lightly on the arm. "Idiot," he teased affectionately. "Simon never turned in your resignation letter."
Obviously confused by the revelation, Jim questioned, "He didn't turn it in? But, I left it and my badge..."
"I know. But he figured we'd work it all out in time, so he just held on to them. You've been on leave all this time." Blair smiled. "So, no problem. Now, when do we go home?"
Suddenly, the answer was achingly clear. Home was with Sandburg, wherever that path might take them. For the present, the road led back to Cascade and the loft. The future, he would leave in the hands of fate.
Jim smiled as he realized that, so far, fate hadn't really dealt him such a bad hand after all.
Gazing at his waiting friend, Jim winked conspiratorially and jerked his head to indicate the doctor entering the room. "Soon, Chief. Soon."********************
Blair handed Rafe another beer on his way from the kitchen. All their friends from Major Crimes had gathered in the loft to celebrate Jim's homecoming and Blair's return to good health. He'd been released from the hospital the previous day, sore and bruised, but with no serious injuries. They'd picked up Jim's belongings at the cabin and had driven straight to Cascade.
After grilled steaks, salads, and potatoes, the co-workers and friends were relaxing in front of the television with some of their favorite movies on tape. Simon was slouched on the couch, his long legs stretched out on the coffee table. House rules be damned; he was the boss. Rank definitely hath its privileges, he considered with a contented smile.
Henri and Taggart occupied two side chairs as they discussed the merits of war movies, past and present. Rafe had sprawled on the floor, dozing after an all night stake out, and Jim...
Blair realized that Jim Ellison was no longer in the room. He glanced toward the bathroom, but the door was open. Looking up, he checked out Jim's bedroom, but saw no sign of the sentinel. Then, he looked toward the balcony.
"I'll be back in a minute," he called, grinning at the nonchalant mumblings that greeted his announcement. Satiated and comfortable, the guys from Major Crimes were seriously relaxed.
Blair opened the doorway leading to the small balcony off the loft's living room. The full moon illuminated Jim's profile as he stood perfectly still, silhouetted against the evening sky.
"Hey, Chief," the sentinel called, seemingly unsurprised to hear his partner's approach.
Sandburg joined him, standing next to Jim, their shoulders lightly touching. The city lay at their feet, glistening in the moonlight. The air was crisp and clean after the afternoon's rain, and the crown of the night sky was bejeweled with a million stars.
"You okay?" Blair asked quietly.
Ellison considered the question carefully before answering in a voice nearly in awe at the realization. "Yeah, Sandburg. I am. For the first time in ages, I'm really okay."
"Then, is there any particular reason you're out here alone instead of inside with our friends?" Blair glanced upward at his friend's face, seeking a read on Jim's often well-disguised emotions. If something was bothering his sentinel, he didn't intend to let him off the hook so easily. It would be a cold day in hell before Blair allowed anything so serious to build up between them again.
Looking down, Jim playfully cuffed Blair's cheek. "Now who's being a Blessed Protector? I'm fine, Sandburg. Honestly. Just...I don't know...glad to be home. To be here." One hand gestured broadly, indicating the city below. "It's where I belong."
"I know that," Blair whispered.
"You have known all along, haven't you?" Jim asked with an affectionate smile. His expression turned inquisitive. "Tell me, Junior. How do you manage to know more about me than I know about myself?"
"That's my job, man. Figuring you out." Blair pressed firmly against the muscular body next to his own and grinned up at Ellison. "Some times are tougher than others, I admit, but all in all, it's not such a bad job."
"Think you'll stick it out?" Jim teased.
"Can't beat the benefits." Sandburg turned his gaze away from Jim and nodded out toward the city. "Exciting and important work. Great view. The best friend I've ever had..." He took a deep breath, then released it slowly. "Yeah. I'll be around a while. A long, long while."
Wrapping an arm around Blair's shoulders and tugging him closer, Jim's smile was full and content as he looked upward at the stars. He picked out a solitary one, glowing more brightly than the others in an indication of luck, and thanked it. "Glad to hear it, Chief."
"How about you? Think you've got all the doubts settled now?"
Without taking his eyes off the heavens, Jim nodded. "Yeah. I'll never be happy with the dangers you have to risk because of my job, but there's not really a hell of a lot I can do about it. Like you said, maybe it's the universe's design for us or something. Just be tolerant when your Blessed Protector goes into overdrive, okay?"
Blair grinned. "I can live with that."
They fell silent, staring out at the lights and the stars, wrapped in a companionable silence and enveloped by the peace of the night. Inside the loft, Simon Banks glanced up from the television screen and smiled. On the balcony, sentinel and guide stood close together, Jim's arm wrapped around Sandburg's shoulders as he anchored the younger man tightly against his side. Blair's head rested lightly against Jim, as the universe's panorama stretched out above. Simon's mind flashed back over the past months, to the jungles of Peru and the words of the wise shaman, Imaru, who had befriended them.
*'You are the one who lights his path, and his fear of losing you would be great. Soon, there will be no more need for fear. Those who are one, cannot be separated.'*
"Those who are one...," Simon murmured, his gaze still focused on the two silhouettes, effectively merged into one, on the balcony. "Imaru's a wise old man. Rest easy, Jim. Rest easy, my friend."
Henri Brown glanced over at him. "You say something, Captain?"
Tearing his eyes away from the tranquil vision of friendship, Banks shook his head. "Nothing, H. How about some more of that popcorn?"
Friendship. A gift too infrequently discovered. The rarity of a meeting of minds, a merging of souls, should not be taken lightly. Rather, it should be savored slowly and treasured eternally. For of such wonders are miracles made.
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