A Sacred Trust
Note: This is a sequel that follows immediately upon 'My Sentinel' and 'Memories of the Jungle'…
"Ready to go home, Chief?" Jim called as he strode into the hospital room, and then laughed at the vision of impatience that awaited him. He'd worried that he might be early, having been told that Sandburg wouldn't be released before the final lab results were reviewed at 10:00 am that morning…and it was only 9:45 am. So, what if he was a little early? So he wanted to get his friend home-God, it was so good to know Sandburg was coming home, that the nanites had worked their magic. However gruesomely painful the process had been, Blair was alive, completely healthy and coming home, and that meant Jim Ellison was a happy man.
Evidently Ellison wasn't the only one who was happy about Sandburg's imminent release from the hospital. Blair must have been up with the dawn to commandeer one of the few showers available for the patients. He was sitting on his bed, fully dressed, the knapsack packed with his toiletries, his hair curling softly around his face, and he was practically vibrating with impatience to be on his way. He'd been ready to go since about 7:30 am that morning. It wasn't that the people who worked there weren't pleasant, though the food left a good deal to be desired. But the memories of what he'd suffered over the last few days were all around him, and the cold, sterile efficiency of the place wasn't designed for any kind of comfort. He needed light and warmth, and colours and comfort, to distract him from the memories of what he'd suffered in this room-memories of agony that haunted him-memories that chilled his soul of being near death, of sometimes wishing for a death that would end the torment.
And, well, it just wasn't 'home'. It surprised him a little to realize, as he'd waited, how very much he missed being at the loft, especially since Jim had come. It hadn't been in his nature to think of any place as more than a temporary stopover, just a place to be, until this last few months. But now he knew what 'home' felt like-and he missed it.
"Oh, yeah," Blair grinned in response to Jim's greeting, hopping down off the bed and hoisting his pack over his shoulder. "I am like SO ready to go home!"
Holding up his hands to slow Sandburg's progress, as the younger man seemed intent upon marching straight out, Jim chuckled as he asked, "So you've been signed out? The doctor has given you your walking papers?"
Rolling his eyes, Blair shook his head, but continued moving across the room, making 'shooing' motions with his hands, as he said, "Are you kidding? The Byzantine bureaucracy around here could have taught the Romans a few things about 'due process'. But I thought if we hovered around the nurses' desk and made a nuisance of ourselves that maybe they'd hurry it up a bit. So, like, move it, man! Time to hover impatiently where we can be seen and be an irritation that they just can't wait to get rid of!"
"Good plan, Einstein," Jim concurred with a grin and followed his roommate as the younger man fairly bounced out into the corridor. 'God, at times like this, he seems so young!' Jim thought, shaking his head slowly with fond amusement.
Whether the strategy worked, or whether the lab and the doctor were simply efficient, they might never know, but by 10:05 am, Blair had been given leave to depart. He was disgusted by having to be transported to the door in a wheelchair but rules are rules and traditions had to be observed. But even though the staff seemed a trifle awed by the fact that he had been essentially a dead man only short days before and was now evidently perfectly healthy, the truth was, he felt great. As much as possible, Sandburg wanted to forget what had happened and just get on with his life. The nanites had restored his body to full vibrancy, and his energy levels, already higher than the average human being, were literally bubbling with effervescent good humour and the desire to be on the move.
Maybe if he kept moving, and moved fast enough, he could forget what had happened. Forget those biotechnological wonders were still swarming in his body. Forget that at the slightest provocation, they'd be back in business and once again leave him feeling like he was being ripped through the fires of Hell.
As they flew home, Jim couldn't get past the euphoric sense of well-being that permeated him right down to his soul. The preceding days had been terrifying, first knowing that Sandburg had been fatally injured and holding his dying best friend's body with helpless impotence, unable to staunch the life blood that was pouring out of Sandburg from too many bullet wounds. Then the frenzied, panicked rush to the Life Sciences Centre to get access to the nanites, the only possible hope Blair had of survival.
The hours of waiting during Blair's prolonged and essentially hopeless surgery had seemed interminable-his heart had already stopped and if not for being artificially sustained by machines while everyone awaited the possible reprieve the nanites represented, Sandburg would have been declared dead. And then the terrible, endless hours of horrific, relentless agony while the nanites had rebuilt organs and tissue, muscles and bone had lacerated both of their souls.
But the desperate gamble had worked.
Blair was alive-and Jim just couldn't stop smiling, not that he tried. When he thought about it, Jim considered the presence of Blair in his life a miracle. Hell, his own existence in the here and now was a miracle in itself, one that Blair had made possible. Now that his memories of all that had gone before were fully restored, Ellison marvelled at the path that had brought them here from that brief meeting almost eighty years ago. Though he was pretty sure Blair didn't remember any of it as clearly as he did, Jim knew his young friend had researched Ellison's life relentlessly after Jim had been thought killed from the injuries following a bomb blast. And Jim remembered Blair's grief in the jungle as he'd talked about how his beloved wife had been murdered with him, leaving their month-old son alone, never to know them. But the kid's soul had still chosen to search for him, find him and stay with him in the jungle for however long that Jim was there. All those years in the jungle, first alone, and then miraculously with Blair for what must have been something like fifty years, until Jim had been left alone again, to wait until Sandburg found his frozen body and a way to restore him to full life.
Both had forgotten those years in the jungle, Blair through the experience of being reborn into this place and time, and Jim through the trauma of recovery. So, they'd been strangers when Jim had been revived. Strangers, yet both had felt a profound connection with the other, though neither had understood it. For the longest time, Jim assumed it was because Blair was the only constant that seemed the least bit familiar after he'd awakened from the long sleep in the cryochamber; Blair thought his intense affiliation with Jim grew out of the legend Jim Ellison had been to his family through the generations. They'd been strangers who'd felt like long-lost brothers, best friends who hadn't yet gotten to know one another, and so for the last several months, while Jim worked undercover for Simon, and Blair backed him up, helping him with his senses, they'd come to know one another, finding comfort, even quiet joy, in their friendship.
Then death had loomed, threatening to separate them. Blair had had some kind of vision, some awareness, in those terrible moments after he'd been gunned down, of that time in the jungle. He'd realized in that moment that their affiliation went far beyond this single lifetime, and had fought to hold on, devastated to think he might be torn away just when they'd found one another again. And Jim had finally remembered it all clearly while he'd waited in the hospital, so afraid that Blair wasn't going to make it. To have lost Blair again was more than Jim could bear to contemplate. The kid was his anchor and foundation, his roommate and partner, his Guide, his best friend. Jim never wanted to know what it would be like to not have Sandburg in his life.
Even though Blair meant everything Jim could imagine anyone could ever mean in his life in the here and now, the memories of the jungle that had surfaced during those terrible hours when Blair's heart had been silent left Ellison almost breathless with the awareness of all that Sandburg was in his life, and had always been. Jim might not be able to remember the countless lives they had lived side by side, but he knew now they had been partners since the dawn of time. The man sitting beside him was a part of his soul, intrinsic to his being, and without Sandburg Jim knew he could never be whole.
Cutting Sandburg a quick look, Ellison wondered just how much Blair actually did remember now of that time they had shared in the jungle. When he was dying, the kid had experienced a sense of being back there and Sandburg said he remembered what had happened in those few moments. But he'd been barely conscious, struggling to breathe, his heart already faltering. So, did he really remember it all? Or just that they'd been there together and were somehow connected beyond this current reality? Did he truly remember everything that they'd been to one another? What if he didn't? Even if Blair did remember, though he was the same soul, he was a different man with different experiences and he might not want the danger their partnership so clearly represented. Hell, he was just a kid, not yet twenty-five years old, and strangers who simply wanted them both dead had just gunned him down outside his home. What if the horror of that experience, not to mention the grueling agony of the nanites, made him rethink this friendship and partnership and scared him off? What if he'd had enough and wanted to go back to his simpler, safer life?
So, despite his joy in having Sandburg secure in his life again, despite his happiness in taking the kid home, Jim found himself wondering what the homecoming would mean, and where it might eventually lead.
The beeping of the comunit on his wrist broke into Ellison's thoughts. Opening the connection, he drawled, "Ellison."
"Jim, it's Simon," Banks replied, his voice fraught with urgency. "Where are you?"
"Hey, Simon! We're almost home…" Jim replied, but the Captain of the Major Crimes Unit cut him off.
"Don't, I repeat, DO NOT, go there," Simon snapped tightly. "I've received some information that it might not be safe. The Morris Clan is out for blood, and while the two of you may carry your own perpetual immunity to death, I'd rather not test it to find out for sure."
"Damn," Ellison breathed, cutting Blair a quick look. Sandburg had straightened in his seat, and from his suddenly pale and drawn expression, Jim could tell that his best friend was more than a little disconcerted by the warning. And no wonder; the kid was a grad student, not a cop, unused to violence. And he'd been mortally injured only days before. No wonder he looked frightened at the thought of still being a target.
"Simon, how long do you think we need to remain out of sight?" Sandburg asked, his voice strained, though he was trying hard to focus on the facts to keep from being overwhelmed by fear. God, he did not want to be shot again. Hell, he never wanted to experience pain like that again. Maybe next time, he'd get lucky and suffer instant death, before the nanites could get to him. Dear God, he couldn't go through that again, not now and hopefully, not ever. Blair felt his anxiety building to panic and he fought it, fought to take one deep breath after another. Fought to focus on what Simon was saying and to think about the possibilities and options open to them.
"I'll need a few days, at least, to chase down the rumours and find out who they might have hired this time to take you out," Banks replied, the heat of anger giving an edge to his words. The Morris clan had been the dominant crime family in the northwest for more than a generation and didn't take kindly to the recent apprehension of the Governor, the Police Commissioner and the Police Chief during a major drug bust. Though the heads of the family were in jail, the rest of the clan was out for revenge to reassert their dominance and Simon was furious that his friends were again at risk.
Nodding, understanding that Simon would be working against the efforts of dirty cops within the department to determine the facts of the situation, Blair gazed a little helplessly at Ellison.
If they were being hunted, Jim would need his help to stay focused to manage his senses.
Falling apart wasn't an option. At least not right this minute.
Taking another deep, cleansing, breath, Blair suggested, "Okay, well, I guess we could head into the hills, do some camping like we'd planned anyway and then check back with you in a couple of days to see how the investigation is going."
"Or, we could stay in town, find a room someplace and you could assign Sandburg protection while I help you track down leads," Jim countered. He didn't like the idea of running and hiding, not when he could help resolve the threat. Ellison pretended not to see Sandburg's pointed look, which said all too plainly that the kid didn't plan to hide out alone. If Jim was going to assist in the investigation, then so would he. Well, Jim would have to deal with that, but there was no way he'd drag Blair into a situation of known threat.
"Tell you what," Simon replied, seeking a compromise that would keep both of his friends out of the line of fire until he could find out more about what was going down, "the two of you have more than earned a break. Like Blair says, we'd planned to head out fishing this weekend anyway. Why don't you go ahead with that plan and I'll see what I can find out here over the next day or so and then I'll come up and join you and we can decide where to go from there. Okay?"
"If that's what you want," Jim concurred reluctantly and only because he didn't want Sandburg in any more danger. "But I don't think we should go to the cabin we reserved, in case they have a means of tracking the booking trail."
Simon snorted, well aware that the Morris clan still had their moles within the police community and would have no difficulty tracking credit records.
Jim continued, devising the plan as he went along, "It'll be better if we drop out of sight completely-we can buy some camping gear and head into the wilderness." He grinned when Sandburg rolled his eyes, no doubt thinking about all the new gear that was already stockpiled in the loft. Ruefully, Jim regretted not having loaded up the truck before going to pick up Sandburg at the hospital. Well, camping and fishing equipment didn't go bad and it wasn't like he couldn't afford the indulgence. "We'll give you a call tomorrow to let you know where to meet up with us."
"No, the lines here might be monitored, and there may even be a trace on my personal lines," Banks countered. "I'll call you from a public comunit. In the meantime, watch your tail." They agreed and the call was terminated.
While they had talked, Jim had banked his MM into a new flight pattern, joining the flow of traffic out toward the fringes of the city, and as he closed the comunit connection, he glanced at his friend. "So, any preferences about where we could camp out while we wait for Simon's call?"
"Yeah, Angel Falls," Blair suggested trying to sound like hiding out from killers was an everyday occurrence, but his tightly crossed arms and carefully controlled expression told their own story about the deep anxiety he was feeling. A shiver passed through him, and he was pale, his heart racing. But he swallowed, and continued, his voice tight with the strain of staying focused, "It's about a hundred miles up into the mountains, and not a regular tourist destination. It's a little rugged, but there's good fishing and if we get bored with that, there're some good hiking trails."
"Angel Falls it is," Jim concurred as he did a quick visual check on their current location. If it was a place that would let Sandburg feel even halfway safe, then Jim was more than happy to go there. He banked his MM again to drop down to the 'Great Outdoors' Campers' Emporium to pick up the gear they'd need while Blair shopped next door for food supplies.
However, just as he was about to drop into the flight lot, he spotted a flitter coming up too fast from the side and Jim jerked the controls, sending them shooting back into the sky, narrowly missing the laser blast that had been aimed at them.
"Oww!" Sandburg protested, rubbing the side of his head, which had connected rather sharply with the MM's airdome. Despite his complaint, Blair was almost glad of the pain as a distraction, even if only momentary, from the terror he felt and he thought that maybe he should revise that notion he'd had about preferring sudden death. That had been too close, and they were still in deadly danger. Oh, man, he thought as he shivered with fear, I really don't want to die…
"Sorry," Jim rumbled, his attention on their tail as his gaze darted around the skies to determine if they'd picked up more than one assailant. They must have been followed from the hospital, and this attack suggested Simon was right about his calls being monitored. Knowing that they weren't heading home, where an ambush likely awaited them, evidently a quick decision had been taken to simply blast them from the sky. Though it was dangerous, Jim knew they needed cover and fast, so he headed back up into the heavy traffic flow lanes, darting in and out, dipping and weaving, shifting direction with sharp banking manoeuvres and trying to mask their progress by shadowing the large transport craft that filled the skies. The MM's engine growled and then screamed with the force it was being called upon to deliver.
Blair held on, swallowing hard to keep his stomach where it should be and out of his throat as Jim pulled more 'g' than his MM was truly designed to handle. All the while, Sandburg twisted around and around in his seat, to watch behind and below, while Jim concentrated on the traffic above and ahead.
"They missed the last switch," Blair called out, and Jim took advantage of their momentary lead by again downshifting sharply, and dropping precipitously through three lanes of flow while simultaneously rolling to head the craft back in the direction from which they'd come.
In minutes, it appeared that they had gotten clear, for the moment at least. Just to be certain, Jim set a haphazard course that took them generally south for fifty miles before circling back northeast once he'd decided they had truly lost their tail.
"So nice to be popular," Blair muttered sarcastically, his voice shaking, as he tried to figure out where they were. "Okay, if you maintain this heading, there's an 'outdoor outfitters' store about ten miles away. We can stop again closer to the mountains for food."
Jim cut Sandburg an amused look as he asked, "Ah, Chief, how's your sense of direction in this life?"
"Why? Am I always directionally challenged?" Sandburg managed a wavery grin in return, gamely doing his best to put a brave face on their situation. "Relax, man, I know where we're going."
"Uh huh," Ellison grunted, teasing lightly to help his friend relax, remembering how easily Blair could get turned around in the relatively small valley they'd called home for fifty years. "Oh, well," he added philosophically for good measure, unable to resist, "if we do get lost, it'll be that much harder for them to find us."
"Funny, man," Sandburg snorted. "You are SO funny."
A little more than three hours later, Jim dropped the MM into a clearing in the canyon near the remote Angel Falls and guided the vehicle smoothly under the bows of a grove of tall pines before powering down and letting it settle gently to the ground. They swiftly unloaded their gear and supplies and then covered the MM with boughs to further obscure it from a predictable air search. If Simon's call had been monitored, then the Morris clan would know they'd decided to head into the mountains-but 'the mountains' covered a lot of ground and they wouldn't be all that easy to find. They then hiked closer to the Falls, choosing a campsite that was thickly sheltered by overarching trees but which gave them a clear line of sight along the narrow valley and of the surrounding cliffs.
It was a beautiful place, encircled by snow-capped peaks and dark green forests, the slender waterfall a plunging, almost ethereal curtain of silver that fell three hundred feet from the cliffs above to the river that wound down, eventually, to the sea. The air was fresh, and sweet with the scent of pine, the sky a clear vault of blue. Though the river was turbulent just below the falls, it widened swiftly, and the shallows by the sloping, rocky banks harboured trout, pickerel and bass.
Jim remembered the place from the time before he'd been cryogenated. Remote and inaccessible except to the most intrepid hiker, few people had ever come here in those days and it had been one of his favourite retreats from the too often grim reality of his job.
"How did you find this place, Chief," he asked, curious.
Blair looked up from his chore of sorting out the supplies and smiled as he answered, "There's an ancient site near here, of a Chilliqu'ut village. I came out a few years back with a small team to explore the dig." Straightening, turning toward the falls and the majestic cliffs he sighed, "I just loved it here-the peace of it, the magic…"
Jim smiled at the rapt expression on his friend's face, appreciating the glint of the sun on Sandburg's hair and the way it illuminated his face, glad that the beauty and isolation of the site, as well as the evidently good memories, had banished the fear from Blair's eyes. Jim's throat constricted with the regret that it was his fault that Blair had been so badly hurt and was now hiding out from the animals hunting them. The kid had every right to be scared. Every right to want to turn back time, to wish he'd never wakened a Sentinel who might now very well cost his life. Swallowing, taking a breath, he forced himself to turn away and finish setting up their tent. Once that was done, he unrolled their sleeping bags and tossed the new jeans, underwear, socks and sweatshirts they'd bought into one corner. By the time he was done, Sandburg had their food and cooking utensils sorted and secured, and had pulled out the new fishing gear.
"You spent a fortune back there, Jim-this is great equipment," he observed with appreciation. Better equipment than he'd ever been able to afford, that was for sure. He was focusing on the sense of being safe here, on the mundane business of having to catch their lunch, to hold at bay the fear of what lurked behind them in Cascade. He knew he was playing mind games with himself, but it seemed to be working, and that was the main thing.
Ellison shrugged. With the money in his trust fund, he could afford to indulge in the toys he wanted and if it helped distract Sandburg from the threat that loomed over them, it was well worth the price. Fleetingly, he thought again with a wistful sense of surprise and gratitude that his father, who had always seemed so remote, had taken the steps to ensure he had the best chance at a good life if and when he was ever successfully revived.
Taking the pole that Sandburg held out to him, Jim led the way down to the riverbank. Breakfast had been long hours before and they were both hungry. While they could have heated up a can of soup, both preferred to catch their meal, looking forward to the taste of fresh grilled fish. As they settled on the rocks that littered the bank and cast out their lines, Jim asked quietly, "You okay with what's happening?"
"You mean getting shot and being chased away from our home?" Blair asked, trying for an air of wry humour.
'Yeah," Jim replied, giving the kid an appraising look. Sandburg was taking it all pretty well, what with having been almost murdered less than a week before and now having barely escaped having their vehicle blown to smithereens.
Blair shrugged, avoiding Jim's eyes, as he replied softly, "Well, it's not like getting shot at was a daily occurrence in my life before, but, well, uh, yeah, I guess I can deal with it. Not like there's a lot of choice."
"It's okay to be scared, Chief," Jim observed, his voice calm, non-judgmental.
Blowing out a deep sigh, Blair's lips thinned and his shoulders tensed, but then he nodded. "That's good, because I'm really more than a little freaked out by it all, you know?" He cut Jim a quick look, to see if his confession had disappointed the older man. The last thing he wanted was for Jim to think he was some kind of wimp. "But, we're alive and, well, I'm glad I was able to help take Morris and his cohorts out of action. If this is the fallout, well, that's just the way it is. I'll be okay."
Looking out over the river, Jim observed soberly, "You're a brave man, Sandburg. You haven't been trained to deal with any of this and you're not used to violence. But you've never once flinched or faltered, or even complained for that matter. Let alone suggest that maybe we should just bail out, head to parts unknown for the rest of our lives, and leave the bad guys to Simon and his team. You'd have every right to scream for protection or bitch about being put in the line of fire. I'm-I'm sorry that I've brought all this into your life. But, I want you to know, for what it's worth, I'm proud of you."
Surprised, pleased by the approbation, Sandburg blushed as he dipped his head and turned his face away. "Thanks, Jim," he murmured. "It's worth a lot." Clearing his throat, he observed with a reflective tone, "Besides, it's not your fault you woke up to a world where the bad guys are winning. The world needs you, man, needs your help to turn things around. I'll never be sorry that I found you. I mean that, Jim. As for me," he shrugged and threw a grin at Ellison as he continued, "I've got the best protection going, man. Not everyone has their own personal Sentinel looking out for them."
Ellison chuckled as he recast his line. "Not to mention those little nanites cluttering up your body so that any injuries get repaired in short order."
"Don't even go there, Jim," Sandburg knew he must have paled at the words but tried to cover by groaning dramatically with a visible shudder, only he wasn't really kidding. He forced a laugh, suspecting that it sounded pretty shaky, but it was the best he could do, and his heart was hammering, as he said, "Not unless you really do want to see me run screaming into the bush, never to be seen again. I'd really rather not give them anything more to work on, you know?"
Sobering with the memory of what Blair had endured, reading the messages his body was sending more than Sandburg's attempt to mask them, Jim now fully realized the fear the memories provoked in Sandburg, and nodded wordlessly. Yes, he knew very well why Sandburg wouldn't want to go another round with the nanites. It would be Ellison's life mission to try to ensure the kid would never suffer anything like that horror ever again.
Blair's line jerked as he got a bite, and he let it play out for a bit, then began to work the fish back. The line pulled taut as the fish battled for freedom and the rod bowed as Sandburg leaned back against the drag. Jim watched and murmured encouragement, and finally Blair reeled in a good-sized trout, more than enough to satisfy their immediate hunger. So they headed back to their camp and Sandburg cleaned his catch while Jim got the fire started.
After their meal, they lounged by the fire, enjoying the warmth of the sun. Blair laid back, his arms up and his hands clasped behind his head, his eyes closed as he smiled peacefully, secure in the feeling of being safe, happy to just enjoy being with Jim. Ellison poked at the fire, every once in a while stealing a look at his best friend while he again wondered whether to pursue their respective memories of the jungle. Finally, hesitantly, unable to not pursue the conversation, needing to know that Sandburg really was okay with what had happened, was happening, and wasn't ready to quit their partnership, Jim cleared his throat and observed, "So, uh, you said you remembered the time we spent in that jungle valley…"
"Uh huh," Blair murmured with a lazy nod, pretending nonchalance though Jim noticed his friend's breathing hitched a bit at the question. "I thought when I got time, I'd try to figure out where it was. You know, get on the 'net and see if I can find the star charts that would give us a clue as to where it was in the Universe, or if it even existed on the temporal plane at all. A long way from here, that's for sure."
Nodding, Jim licked his lips, and then continued soberly, "I wouldn't have survived it, not sane, if you hadn't've come to find me. I think I was beginning to lose it just before you arrived. Not knowing where I was or why I was there…or how long I'd be there. And, well, after you left, I kept track of the passing days and years, imagining you growing up, and remembering the time we'd spent together to hold myself together."
Ellison looked over toward Blair and found his friend gazing up at him with deep compassion. "It must have been a kind of hell, Jim-twenty-five years of not knowing how long you'd have to wait. I'm so sorry, man. I really wish you hadn't had to endure that," he said softly, an ache in his voice for what Jim must have suffered.
Looking away, Jim shook his head slowly, wanting to erase that look of haunting sorrow on his behalf from Sandburg's eyes. "I kept telling myself that you'd bring me back, that I just had to be patient. And, I was glad to know that you, at least, wouldn't remember having been there."
"Why wouldn't you want me to remember?" Blair asked, finding that thought curious. He didn't think he'd ever want to forget Jim.
Jim's eyes flickered away and he sighed. Talking about how he felt had never come easily, but if anyone deserved to know his feelings, it was Sandburg. "I missed you, Blair. Missed the friendship…missed your company more than I'll ever be able to describe. I was glad to think that you, at least, wouldn't be missing me the way I was missing you. It, uh, it really hurt, missing you that bad."
Blair sat up and reached over to touch his Sentinel's arm. "Ah, man, I'm sorry," he said, his voice tight. Jim was a rock usually, his emotions hidden away, especially the ones that hurt him. But at that moment, the hurt was stark on his face, his eyes bleak with the memories, and Blair ached for his friend.
Clearing his throat, blinking away the memories, Jim shook his head. "There's nothing," he said steadily, turning to face Blair, "you hear me? Nothing for you to ever be sorry for. Not ever." Taking a breath, Ellison continued, "Anyway, when we were there, you told me that we don't remember what went before once we're reborn. But, it was funny-when it got hard, really hard, I'd see you and talk to you in my dreams, as if you dropped in to visit for a while. And I used to wonder if, at some level, you did remember me? If, maybe, you were dreaming of me, wherever you were? It was dumb, I guess. The first time you came in a dream, you couldn't have been more than three years old…"
Stiffening suddenly, his face alight with the memory of his own dreams, Blair blurted out, "But, I do remember talking to you in my dreams, Jim-even when I was a little kid. I thought it was just my imagination, because my Mom used to tell me stories about my great-grandfather's Sentinel. I always found you in this jungle and we'd sit by the fire and talk, or wander down to the river…"
Jim smiled and nodded, amazed and deeply touched that somehow, by some miracle, their souls had managed to maintain some measure of contact though Blair's memories had been wiped clean. Swallowing, his gaze shifted again to the river as he admitted quietly, "It got too much for me to handle anymore. Finally, the day came when I couldn't face even one more day of it-so I zoned deliberately. I told myself that I'd 'wake up' when I heard you calling me and not before. I knew that, one day, eventually, you would call me back."
Sandburg felt a lump thicken in his throat and he had to blink against the burn in his eyes at the words and tone of absolute, unconditional trust. It had been such a near thing. The doctor had given up, certain that Jim would never be revived. Blair remembered his sense of terrified determination not to quit, remembered calling out to Jim, desperate for him to wake up. He didn't understand it at the time, his deep need to have the stranger revived; he'd only known that something inside would shatter if he failed.
"I was so scared," Blair murmured, his voice cracking a little, "when they couldn't get your heart started. I can't explain it, Jim, but I went a little nuts, I guess. I just kept shouting at you, begging you to follow my voice back, to come back to me. When your heart started to beat, I, uh, well, I lost it-just started sobbing in that lab. I'd never been so glad or grateful for anything in my whole life. Or so relieved. So immensely, incredibly, relieved. But then it was hours, and then days, and you didn't wake up, and I could tell that everyone had given up believing you ever would. God, man, I was so terrified that I'd failed you. That I'd left you in some kind of zone that I should have been trying to pull you out of…that maybe I wouldn't be able to. I got them to bring me perfume, rose and herbal scented stuff, and salt, cinnamon, vanilla and chocolate, you know, to stimulate your senses-and I talked and talked, hoping I sounded enough like my great-grandfather that you'd respond, hoping that I was doing the right things. When you finally woke up, and complained that it had taken me long enough, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry with the relief and joy of it."
"I don't remember that," Jim admitted quietly, surprised. Somehow, they'd never talked about this, about the process of having revived him. At first, it was because he'd had enough to cope with, realizing where and when he was, that this Blair wasn't the same Blair, or at least he hadn't thought it was, not then and not for a long time afterwards. And then, as they'd gotten on with their lives, it hadn't occurred to him to wonder exactly how he'd been revived.
"I know," Sandburg acknowledged with a sigh. "I could tell when you woke up the next day that you didn't remember. And at that point, I was just so worried about having to explain it all to you. God, Jim-I can't believe how well you coped with it all. You said a while ago that I'm brave, and that you're proud of me. But these last few days were nothing compared to what you've had to deal with. I've never known anyone with such strength of spirit, or courage or simple pragmatic determination to accept what you can't change and just move on and do the best you can. You are truly amazing, you know that?"
"Well," Jim huffed, embarrassed, "I couldn't have done it without my guide to this world, kid. I wouldn't be here now if you hadn't've brought me back, and I'd be in a straight-jacket if I hadn't had you to give me balance and some sense of who I am and that I would be okay."
"That's not true, Jim," Blair contested. "With or without me, you would have done just fine."
Shaking his head, Jim prodded the fire again. Whatever Sandburg thought about it all, Ellison knew he would have been lost in this new place and time. Hell, they would have likely turned him into some kind of lab rat, if they'd managed to awaken him at all, providing they'd even found him in the first place. He'd've been the lead story on the national, likely the world news, a freak for others to marvel at, a modern-day version of Rip Van Winkle. He wouldn't have found out about his trust fund, wouldn't be living in his own home, and wouldn't have known he still had a job with the Cascade PD. His senses would have raged out of control and driven him mad, and there would have been no one to know that he was a Sentinel.
This kid had given him his life and his home back, protected him and his privacy, given him hope and meaning.
Given him purpose. Given him unconditional friendship. Without expectation, though, at the time, Jim was but a stranger, a legend from an earlier century who'd miraculously come back to life.
Okay, so now he knew they weren't 'strangers' to one another. Far from it in a cosmic and spiritual sense, but in this life, here and now, they weren't what they had always been either. In this life, this Blair had only known him for a handful of months. In this life, this Blair was still just a kid who'd had his whole life turned upside down. And in this life, this kid was scared, legitimately so-maybe scared enough to want to pull out of the swamp of crime and threat and fear and just go back to the life he'd known. If he didn't remember their time in the jungle, didn't remember their eternal friendship like Jim did, why the hell would he risk more danger? Why would he want to?
Clearing his throat, keeping his eyes averted, trying to keep his voice neutral, Jim asked, "How much do you really remember about that time in the jungle, Chief?"
Flustered, Blair floundered a bit, not sure what had been real, or just wild imaginings of a dying mind grasping for life…and love. "I, uh, remember knowing that wherever that place was, that you were the most important person in my life and I didn't want to let go-didn't want to leave you. And, well, there were scattered bits of the time we spent together, fragments really, I guess. Nothing very coherent, just that I suddenly knew we'd been together through countless lives before. But, to be honest, I don't remember much…and I sure don't remember any former lives."
Jim closed his eyes and swallowed, realizing how very close to death Sandburg must have been to remember any of it, his soul already reaching out past the limited awareness of a single lifetime to embrace all that had been before.
When Jim didn't say anything, just looked worried and sad, Blair frowned. It was very an odd feeling to know that Jim saw him as someone he'd known for a lifetime, that they had memories in common that Blair just couldn't access. It was like having amnesia, scary, disorienting; worse in some ways, because these memories weren't even of his life, not as Sandburg knew life in the here and now. He didn't disbelieve Jim, not at all. To the contrary, Blair would believe with or without his own fragments of memory of that time and place, first because he trusted what Jim told him was the truth and second, well, in his own philosophy, he accepted there was more than the now, more than this life. But-he wasn't sure how much of those memories he had a right to know. If each incarnation was supposed to be a complete experience in itself, maybe knowing too much from before was somehow wrong.
The silence lengthened as Blair looked at Jim, and he shook his head. This might be a new life for him, but for Jim it was a continuation. How did it feel when someone vital in your life didn't remember you? Didn't remember the same things? Blair's empathetic spirit twisted in awareness of the anguish Jim must be experiencing and he had to help alleviate it. How bad could it be to know something of a previous existence? Maybe he was supposed to know. Sighing, realizing he could wander in philosophical circles all day, Blair swallowed and made a decision. Jim was hurting…if there was something he could do about that, he had to try. Taking a deep breath to try to keep his voice from shaking, he asked, "Why? What do you need me to remember?"
Jim jerked a little, the sound of Blair's voice surprising him, after so long a silence. And he wondered how to answer the question. Looking up at the younger man, he could read sincere interest, even concern for him, in Blair's eyes. Clearing his throat, scratching his neck, Ellison replied, "I don't want to make you uncomfortable, Blair. I know the work I do is scary and dangerous, and I don't want to ask for anything you don't want to give or aren't ready to give in this life, but-I remember the friendship we had, what we once meant to one another. You know, ever since I woke up, I've instinctively thought of you as my 'guide' to this new world. And, it was amazing the way you were so intuitively able to help me with my senses. But, when the memories came back, I realized that you have always been my 'Guide' and that I need your help and support. I rely on you and trust you above all others. But-I know you can't possibly feel the same intensity of commitment towards me. It wouldn't be rational. You don't know me that well, not really, not yet. I guess, well, I guess I'm afraid that what's happening with Morris and his bunch might all be too much for you, and that you'll want out. Hell, you never expected to be a target for hired assassins, running for your life. I wouldn't blame you if you wanted to cut loose and go back to the life you had before you found me."
His voice caught and faltered. And he waited for Sandburg's response.
"Jim," Blair said after a long moment of painful silence between them, uncertain and more than a little scared, "I don't really know what to say. I mean, I've never almost died before, at least not that I remember, not in this life. And I really don't remember any of all those years in the jungle very clearly, so in my head we're good friends, even best friends, but, well, I've only really known you for about six months, you know? And I don't begin to understand what you mean when you say I'm your 'Guide'. I haven't done anything special, not really. Sure, I wanted you to come home with me because I felt like the only family you had left. But what I do with your senses? Man, that is all guess work and I'd be lying if I claimed anything different."
Conscious that Jim was watching him intently, Sandburg paused as he remembered the pain of the bullets, his fear of dying before he'd hardly begun to live, and then the truly horrible agony of the nanites…and he wanted to be completely honest with Jim. God, he'd know if Blair tried to obfuscate-the man could monitor his heart rate and breathing and would know in an instant if Blair were less than completely honest about how he felt.
Hesitatingly, not wanting to disappoint Jim or be diminished in his eyes, Blair continued, "I'm honestly not sure what to think about it all. I mean, I want to help you, Jim…I want to back you up, and I know you need my help, but I'm really scared, man. I don't know if I've got what it takes, you know? I'm afraid that at some point I'll just lose it, and get you killed. It was okay when it was just the surveillance duties, 'cause they were really pretty safe, but this? I'm sorry, Jim. I don't want to let you down, but I just don't know how much of this I'll be able to take."
His throat too thick with disappointment to speak, his jaw locked with a desperate control, Jim nodded tightly. God, the last thing he wanted was to scare Sandburg or make him uncomfortable. The kid didn't remember that their souls were bound together. Didn't feel the same way-that no matter what, they would stick together and do what needed to be done, because that was why they were here, were alive. In this lifetime, the kid might never feel the same way. In that moment, recalling how Blair had struggled to keep the depth of his own love and the knowledge of their past hidden so as not to impose it where it wasn't appropriate, Jim felt an utter desolation of spirit and finally fully understood the pain and grief Sandburg had been suffering silently in the jungle during the early months of their time together when it was Jim who had had no memory of their friendship. Biting his lip, Jim nodded again, accepting that it was just the way it was going to have to be, and wished desperately that he could think of something to say to move the conversation on, to move past this pain.
Finally, as the silence between them again lengthened, and Blair fidgeted nervously, Jim cleared his throat as he replied a little hoarsely, "It's all right, don't worry about it. I shouldn't have said anything-you told me in the jungle that we aren't meant to remember anything that happened in previous existences." Blowing out a breath, he looked up into the wide, worried eyes of his best friend. "I mean it, Sandburg," Jim stressed soberly. "I don't want you to worry about this. I'm just so damned glad to have you in my life, and that's all that really matters, that we be friends. If it turns out that you want to bail out of our partnership, well, then so be it. Look, let's just drop it, okay? What do you say to a hike? It's been at least eighty years since I've been out here-and you could show me the ruin of that Indian village."
"You sure?" Blair asked, not at all certain that this was something they could 'just let go'.
"I'm sure," Jim replied as he stood and kicked out the remains of the fire. "Come on, Daniel Boone. Lead the way."
Blair led the way into the forest, striding quickly away from the camp, uncomfortable with the way things had been left. Jim might say it was fine if Blair pulled out of their partnership, but Sandburg knew that Jim was very vulnerable to his senses flaring out of control, and he couldn't work alone, not yet anyway, maybe not ever. Swallowing, Blair told himself he'd just have to get used to the danger. Jim needed him. If he wasn't there to back Jim up, and the older man got hurt, or God forbid, killed, Blair knew he'd never stop blaming himself for having been too afraid to be where he was needed. But, God, he was so scared.
To provide a distraction for himself as much as for Jim, Blair began to lecture about the people who had lived in these mountains hundreds of years before. Jim strode along behind him, silently, willing to let him ramble on, relieved a little by the kid's transparent attempt to return to some of kind of normalcy between them.
It took an hour of steady hiking over rough terrain to reach the ruins of the old village, now little more than excavated foundations of what had been communal homes, storehouses and a place of worship made of stone. Blair told Jim about the month he'd spent there three years before, and the artifacts they'd found. Fragments of pottery mostly, as the site had been worked over many times in the past. They were on the way back to their campsite, and Blair was explaining about the legends of the long ago people, legends about how they'd come to be in those mountains, having been led by a silver gray wolf who had appeared in a vision to their shaman or 'medicine man', when Jim touched his arm. Blair stilled when he caught the Sentinel's gesture for silence.
It was almost a minute before Sandburg heard what had alerted Ellison-the sounds of air vehicles coming toward them from the direction of the city. Jim motioned Blair into deeper cover, and they lurked in the shadows as they waited to see if the craft would pass by. Another minute later, two MMs flew overhead, slowing, headed toward their campsite.
"Damn it," Jim breathed, his jaw tight. "I made out at least half a dozen men inside as they flew by, and I spotted a couple of rifles through the domes. They're on to us."
"But, how?" Blair stammered, his eyes wide as he turned to look up at Jim. He'd thought they'd be safe out here; that there was no way they could be found. Not this fast, anyway.
His eyes narrowed as he thought about it, Jim bit his lip and cursed again with bitter realization. "They must have put some kind of directional transmitter device on my MM. I should have checked for that! Dammit. When we gave them the slip earlier, I thought we'd just been tailed from the hospital. They must have decided to pull back and regroup, to come at us in force, out here where we can't get any help."
His breath tight in his chest, very much afraid, Blair waited for Jim to decide what they should do. Unconsciously, he reached out to lay a light hand on his partner's back, to ground him, knowing Jim would be straining to hear what was going on back at the camp, now that the other two craft had landed. They hadn't brought any supplies with them-why would they have? They'd only gone for a short hike. But it would be dark soon, and the night would be cold.
Jim weighed the options as dispassionately as he could. Alone, he would have stalked them, would have become the hunter. But he did not dare leave Blair unprotected in the wilderness where one or more of them might come upon him and kill him. They had no choice but to try to evade detection and capture.
"Come on," he murmured. "This way," he added, leading away from the camp, dragging his memories of this area up from the depths of his mind. As they moved deeper into the forest, Jim took care to ensure they left a minimal amount of sign of their passing. They had about a twenty-minute lead, but his ears told him that the manhunters had picked up their trail toward the camp and would soon be following the path of their tracks to the ancient village. A moment later, an explosion ripped through the air and Sandburg's alarmed gaze jerked toward Ellison, wondering what had happened.
Jim just shook his head with resignation. "I think they just blew up my 'truck'," he sighed, "so that we can't circle back to it to get away."
Frowning, Blair replied, "That doesn't make much sense. We could just as easily steal one of their vehicles."
"Maybe," Jim shrugged as he punched a code into his comunit, "but they are probably rigged with self-destruct triggers if the appropriate ignition code isn't entered." When his call was answered, Jim reported, "Simon, they've found us-must have had a tracking device on my vehicle. There's a half dozen or so of them tailing us through the forests southwest of Angel Falls."
"Damn!" Simon growled with anxious irritation. "Okay, hold on. It'll take us an hour or so to get to you."
"Understood," Jim replied succinctly. "I'll call in our coordinates when you get into the neighbourhood." Ending the call, Jim jerked his head to the west. "Let's go, Chief. We need to keep moving."
The light was failing rapidly in the thick forest as the sun dipped behind the mountains between them and the sea. Though the encroaching darkness didn't slow Jim down, Blair found it increasingly hard going, stumbling over roots and small boulders sticking out of the ground. Unwilling to slow his Sentinel down, or compromise their chances for escape, Blair latched onto the back of Jim's jacket, and did his best to simply follow in the larger man's footsteps.
Jim's hope that the darkness might slow the progress of their pursuers died as he realized they were maintaining a rapid pace behind them. Nor did his efforts to stick to rocky ground so as to obscure their trail meet with any discernable success as the men behind continued to close in. Chewing on his lip unconsciously as he thought about that, Jim decided that the trackers must be wearing infrared night-vision goggles and be carrying some form of heat-seeking device that allowed them to detect the position of the men they were hunting. 'It just keeps getting better and better,' he thought sarcastically.
Shifting direction, Ellison led them up an increasingly steep slope. In order to move faster, he drew Blair up beside him. Jim kept a grip on the smaller man's arm as they jogged through the night, hauling Sandburg with him and keeping his partner on his feet whenever Blair tripped in the darkness.
"Do you have any idea where we're going?" Blair panted softly, biting back a curse as he tripped again and would have fallen if not for the death-grip Jim had on his arm.
"There used to be a cave about a quarter-mile from here," Jim replied tightly, only too aware that the men behind were getting closer. Close enough to soon be able to shoot at them.
"Cave?" Sandburg echoed, frowning in thought. "Jim, the only caves around here are…oh, shit! You don't mean I'm going to have to climb in the dark, do you?"
"At least you won't be able to see the drop, Junior," Jim consoled with a grim smile. But when Sandburg's heart began to hammer in earnest at the thought of scaling a cliff in the darkness, Jim tightened the grip he had on Blair's arm as he added, "Don't worry, Chief. I won't let you fall."
"Oh, man," Sandburg groaned softly, his mouth dry as a desert as he trembled with a fear he was powerless to resist even as he struggled to keep up with the stiff pace Jim was setting. He hated heights, always had. Was terrified of them, actually, and prone to freeze in fear when he had to climb anything higher than a kitchen chair. But worse than his phobia about heights were his growing fears that he was slowing Jim down, that he was a liability that was going to get his best friend killed. He could tell from the tension in Jim's body, and his increasing sense of urgency that the men behind them were dangerously close.
In minutes, Blair found himself being guided along a narrow ledge of rock, pressed tight against the mountain stone on his left as Jim led them along a shelf cut high on the canyon's wall. Ellison was counting on the curve of the path giving them some cover, even if only briefly, as they'd be dangerously vulnerable once they began the climb up to the cave's mouth. A shot echoed through the night and they both ducked instinctively as the bullet ricocheted off the rock just above them. Jim practically dragged Blair along, anxious to get his partner to someplace approximating safety.
Jim had been debating how to make the climb. It wasn't far, maybe thirty feet. If not for the men behind them, he would have had Blair ride 'piggy-back', but that would leave the younger man a target for their weapons. So, instead, Ellison had decided that Blair would need to climb between him and the rock face, with Jim guiding the placement of his hands and feet. It would take a little longer, but at least Jim could act as a human shield for Blair's back.
They edged around a sharp bend, and Jim breathed a sigh of momentary relief, knowing that for a few minutes at least, they were out of the line of sight of their pursuers, out of the line of fire. "Okay, Chief, we're going to climb together, and I'll place your hands and help you figure out where to place your feet," Ellison explained hurriedly, as he turned Blair toward the cliff and quickly loosened his belt, winding it through Sandburg's before tightening it again around his own waist. Not much of a safety line, but all he had. Leaning tightly against his partner, he took Blair's hands and guided them up to narrow jutting bits of stone.
"You've got to be kidding," Blair gasped. He might just as well be blind for all that he could see in the darkness. God, he'd never felt so useless in his life.
"Trust me, Chief," Jim murmured in his ear. "I won't let you fall."
"Oh, I trust you," Sandburg replied tightly. "It's me I'm not sure about."
"You'll do just fine," Jim assured him. "I'm going to use my feet to guide yours to the right places. Work with me, okay…feel for the indentations."
Nodding, wordless with breathless anxiety, Blair allowed Jim to nudge his feet into place, one at a time, and then loosened his grip on the rock face when Jim pulled his hands free to guide them to a new hold, one after the other. He found that it was easier if he just closed his eyes, focusing only on Jim, feeling the larger man's body pressed tightly against his own, Jim's hands on his, Jim's legs and feet guiding his own movements. Together, they crabbed up the face of the cliff, and had made it about twenty-five feet up when another shot rang out and Jim jerked and gasped.
"What!" Blair exclaimed as he froze against the cliff, desperately taking all of his own weight on the tips of his fingers and insecure grip of his shoes, as he felt his partner shudder against him. "How bad are you hurt?" he demanded, terrified for Jim.
"Just a graze on my side, but we need to move faster," Jim gasped.
"Dial down the pain, Jim," Blair directed, knowing the sudden, sharp wound would be playing havoc with the Sentinel's senses.
"Got it," Jim grunted. "Let's move, kid!" he added, once again shifting Blair's grip on the stone. "Not much farther now."
They climbed as quickly as their awkward positions would allow and had just scrambled over the lip of the cave's mouth when another shot rang out and Jim yelped again, cursing wordlessly at the burn of the graze along his leg. Grabbing hold of Sandburg, he rolled them both deeper into the security of the low cave and swiftly undid his belt, separating the link that held them together. Quickly, Jim twisted back around, squirming on his stomach toward the lip of the cave as he pulled his revolver from the holster in the small of his back.
"Stay back," Jim ordered as he scanned the forest and rock below them, hoping Simon wouldn't be much longer in flying to the rescue. Spotting a shadow moving against the wind, Jim shot and smiled grimly at the scream as his bullet found its mark.
Meanwhile, ignoring Jim's orders to 'stay back', Blair pulled off his jacket and shirt, and used his Swiss Army knife to rip the fabric in half. "Where else were you shot?" he demanded, as he scrambled forward toward Jim.
"My left leg," Ellison muttered. "Just a scratch," he added, his concentration still focused outward.
Oblivious to the fact that he was shivering in the cold night air, Blair felt along Jim's leg until he found the sticky warmth of the blood soaking through Ellison's jeans. Quickly, Sandburg wound half of his ruined shirt around Jim's thigh and tied it off, to put pressure on the wound and stem the flow of blood. "Some scratch," he muttered. "Must've taken a hunk of skin off the side of your leg."
Jim shot again-and again there was a startled yell from below. Two down and at least four more to go. Where the hell was Simon?
Blair crawled up along Jim's body as he asked, "Where's the other 'graze'?" he asked, his tone of sarcasm mixed with worry revealing what he thought of Ellison's capacity to assess the severity of his wounds.
"Left side," Jim replied tightly, grateful for the help. He knew he was still bleeding and he felt slightly woozy with the shock of the injuries, the blood loss, and the beginning torment of nanites at work. He couldn't afford to lose his concentration, not yet, not until the cavalry arrived.
Blair felt around Jim's body in the darkness, scared when he discovered how sodden Jim's jacket was once he got close to the wound. Pulling up on the coat and tugging Jim's shirt from under his belt, Sandburg gingerly felt along Jim's back and side until the Sentinel hissed, letting him know he'd found the wound-as if the sickening feel of the raw skin hadn't been clue enough. "Sorry," he murmured, and then pressed the remainder of his shirt down over the injury to clot the still flowing blood.
Jim's head tilted as he picked up a distant, but very welcome, sound and then he punched his comunit with relief. "Simon, I hear you," he barked with sharp urgency. "We're holed up in a cave on the southwest wall of the cliff facing Angel Falls, about four miles downriver from the falls. We've got at least four hostiles pinning us down. AH SHIT!" Jim yelled suddenly, blinded by the bright, blazing flash of the grenade launcher against the darkness, and then he was rolling to cover Blair's body with his own.
"JIM!" Simon's voice came over the comunit, a yell of concern, even as a deafening blast overpowered Jim's sense of hearing, making him scream in protest at the hideous pain. Reflexively, he tightened his hold around Sandburg, blanketing his young partner's body, shielding him from the chunks of rock that rained down on them, shaken loose by the blast against the cliff wall.
Ellison grunted as the barrage of stone battered and bruised his body, and then he went limp and boneless as one connected sharply with his head.
"JIM!" Simon's voice blasted through the sudden silence, merging with Blair's own cry of alarm at Ellison's sudden stillness.
"Simon, HURREY!" Blair shouted then, "Jim's hurt, maybe badly!"
Sandburg squirmed gingerly out from under Ellison's body, scared of maybe hurting his best friend further by moving him, unsure of his injuries. Squinting in the darkness, he could make out a lighter shade of black that indicated they weren't quite sealed in by the rockfall, and then he turned his attention to his partner. Carefully, Blair felt around Jim's neck and back, unconsciously sobbing in relief to find no evident spinal injuries. But then he swore with helpless fear as his roving fingers found blood on the back of Jim's head. Scrambling back into the cave, bruising himself as he banged into the fallen chunks of rock, he found his jacket and hauled it out from under a small boulder, and then hurried back to Jim's side. Sandburg bunched up the jacket and then eased Jim over onto his back so that the jacket formed a crude pillow and pressure bandage for his head wound.
There was another flash from below, and Blair instinctively crouched over Jim to protect him as the second grenade exploded against the cliff of stone. More rock was shaken loose from above, but less this time as the assassin's aim had been a little off and to the side.
And then the night was bright with light as beams strobed from the three official craft that flew in over the mountain's edge, sirens blaring. Heat-seeking guidance systems focused laser blasts at the remaining hostiles, blowing them into oblivion.
"Sandburg?" Simon's voice came again over the comunit on Jim's wrist. "What's your status?"
"Jim's unconscious," Blair reported, panting a little with his fear for his friend. "A rock must've hit him on the head, and he's lost a fair amount of blood from two bullet wounds."
"Okay, just sit tight, we'll have help there soon," Simon assured the young grad student, worried about the edge of panic he heard in Sandburg's voice.
"'Kay," Blair replied, trying hard to hold onto some sense of calm and finding the effort futile. "Jim?" he called softly, one hand on his partner's cheek and the other pressing his now blood sodden shirt against Jim's side. "Come on, man, you're scaring me here. Wake up already!"
"Humphh," Jim muttered, stifling a groan even as he struggled back to consciousness, drawn by the frightened sound of his Guide's distant, oddly muffled, voice. "Blair?" he muttered weakly, disoriented, blinking now, squinting as he struggled to focus in the glaring lights from the police vehicles hovering in the air outside.
"I'm right here, Jim," Sandburg assured him, stroking his cheek. "Just take it easy. Simon's here with the good guys and the bad guys are history."
"You okay?" Ellison demanded through gritted teeth. Damn but those nanites hurt!
"I'm fine," Blair replied. "Dial down the pain, Jim. Focus. Dial it down," he chanted soothingly.
Ellison nodded jerkily and then hissed at the pain that exploded in his head at the slight movement.
"Don't move!" Blair ordered, having felt the abbreviated motion under his hand. "Be still. Just rest, okay?" he continued as he stroked Jim's forehead gently. "You're going to be okay. Just take it easy until they figure out how to get us out of here."
"Mmm," Jim mumbled, feeling himself fading back into unconsciousness. "I'll be fine," Ellison muttered, struggling to reassure his very worried friend. He fumbled with his right hand, bringing it up across his chest until he found Blair's hand pressing over his wound. Blair was there, was fine. Blair would watch over him. Linking his fingers around his Guide's wrist, he let himself fall back into the darkness.
"You'd better be," Blair whispered back fervently as he gazed down at his unconscious friend, able to see him clearly now in the light streaming in from the strobes on the police vehicles that illuminated the darkness beyond the cave's mouth. Belatedly, he pried the gun from Jim's curled fingers and after engaging the safety, he shoved the weapon into the pocket of Jim's coat.
"How're you doing?" Simon's voice came again, needing information.
"Uh, okay, I think," Blair replied, hesitantly, his voice still very shaky. "Jim's lost a bit of blood but the worst of the bleeding has stopped, and he's unconscious again, but he was alert for a couple of minutes. He's in a lot of pain-I think that's the nanites more than the injuries, but I'm not sure."
"Most of the ledge outside the cave has been blasted away, so it's going to take us a few minutes to get a team up to you with rescue equipment. Just hang in there, okay?" Simon explained, still trying to sound reassuring, but worry thickened his own voice. Head injuries were nothing to trifle with and he'd feel better once they got Jim to a hospital to be checked out.
"We're not going anywhere," Blair replied wryly, suddenly feeling very weary, the cold biting now that the rush of fear-spawned adrenaline was abating.
It was almost half an hour before the rescue team climbed up with the body baskets that were linked to one of the hovering craft by a long cable. While he waited, Blair thought back over the last harrowing hour, remembering all the ways Jim had kept him safe. Leading him steadily through the darkness, keeping him from tripping over obstacles he couldn't see. Guiding him through the nightmare climb to the cave, Jim's body pressed tightly against his own, acting as a deliberate shield, safeguarding Blair from any bullets shot from below. Rolling over him, to protect him from the rock blasted loose by the grenade.
Blair swallowed hard as he recalled the feelings of safety and security that Jim's closeness and sure confidence had given him. And he felt humbled by the way Jim had thought first and always about keeping him safe, even when it placed Ellison in the direct line of fire and of potential serious injury. Never before had anyone risked so much for Blair, no one had ever guarded his life with such selfless courage and dauntless strength. Tears burned in Sandburg's eyes as he gently stroked Jim's face with trembling fingers and he had to blink hard as he sniffed back the tears that threatened.
This was the man to whom he'd been unable to give a clear and wholehearted commitment only a few short hours ago. His chest was tight with the immensity of the emotion that welled within him, a depth of emotion the like of which he'd never known before.
The rescue team made short work of binding Jim's wounds and transferring him into one of the baskets to be hauled up into the hovering police craft. One of the men hauled off his own warm jacket to cover Sandburg's naked and shivering torso.
Blair had a choice of making a similar ride, and traveling to the hospital with Jim, or climbing down the cliff and hiking to a spot where Simon's smaller craft could land to pick him and the rescue officers up. Philosophically figuring that either way he'd be scared out of his mind from the heights, Blair's first priority was to stay with Jim, so he allowed himself to be strapped into the flimsy frame and shoved off, out of the cave into thin air as he was hauled upward. He had to scrunch his eyes closed and bite his lip to keep from screaming from the terror of the experience, but he got through it. Only his deathly pallor and the trembling of his limbs betrayed what it had cost him as he was hauled inside the hovering craft and released from the basket to take his place by Jim's side. The vehicle lifted immediately, surging higher into the air to clear the mountain, and then was streaming toward Cascade's General Hospital, a hundred miles away.
Jim woke about half an hour later, and stiffened immediately, holding himself rigid against the pain that ripped through his leg, his side and his head. Though he tried, he wasn't quite able to stifle the groan of agony. Damn, those nanites might work miracles, but they sure made him pay for it.
"Easy, buddy," Blair soothed, gripping one of Jim's hands while he stroked his friend's brow. "Dial it down," he whispered very softly so that only Jim could hear him, conscious of the others around them. "I know it's bad, Jim. But you can do this. Just dial it down to zero." Normally, he'd never tell Jim to virtually turn off his sense of feeling, because normally pain was a signal that you had to pay attention to or you could do yourself more damage. But nanites weren't normal…and, as Blair well knew, the pain they created was 'way beyond any level of human endurance.
Ellison gritted his teeth and concentrated on the sound of Blair's voice while he gazed up into twin oceans of blue, the depths shadowed by worry and concern and something else. Guilt? But that was crazy. Sandburg had nothing to feel guilty about. Swallowing against the parched dryness of his mouth and throat, Jim concentrated on the dials, and tried to slow his breathing and deepen it at Blair's soft command that he do so. Gradually, the flaring agony faded to a more distant burn and the muscles of his body relaxed marginally.
"That's it," Blair encouraged, smiling now, however shakily. "You're doing good, Jim. You're going to be just fine. Just listen to my voice, and feel my touch, only my touch. Breathe slowly, that's it. Easy does it, my friend. You're doing just great."
Blair kept up his soothing, low chant of reassurance and direction, maintaining the constancy of his healing touch all through the flight. Jim settled under his ministrations, relaxing back into a light sleep.
Simon's craft had paced their own, and landed next to theirs on the broad roof of the hospital. In moments, Jim was transferred onto a gurney and was being hustled into the building and down the elevator to Emergency, Blair and Simon jogging behind. Jim roused briefly during the transfer, but then slipped back to sleep as the gurney was trundled through the building.
The doctor had been advised of Jim's injuries by one of the rescue team before they'd arrived, and was expecting to see rather raw wounds, especially once he saw the evidence of the bloodstained clothing. But he paused in amazement as he removed the bandages and saw the reddened skin of already closed and healing wounds.
"What the hell?" the physician muttered in stunned surprise.
"He, uh, he heals really fast," Blair stammered, amazed himself at the speed with which the nanites had sealed the shallow wounds, replacing raw, damaged skin and muscle with tender, new, healthy tissue.
The doctor gave Blair a disbelieving look and shook his head. "Nobody heals this fast," he observed dryly. "What's going on here?"
"I'm a subject in an ongoing experiment at the University," Jim offered mildly, having been awakened again by their voices. Alert now, he smiled deprecatingly at the amazed doctor as he added, "They're working on agents to expedite healing-and, as you can see, the experiment seems to be working well." Gripping Sandburg's arm for balance, Jim pulled himself up as the doctor stepped back a pace to give him the room to swing his legs over the side of the examining table. "I'm fine, really," Ellison added for good measure. And so long as he held the pain dial to zero, that was more or less true.
"Hmm," the doctor muttered, unconvinced despite the evidence he could see with his own eyes. "Let me just check out your reflexes," he said. "I heard you'd also suffered a head injury."
"Nothing too serious," Jim replied, but suffered through the checking of his pupils' reactions to light, the reflex reactions of his legs as the pressure point just below each knee was stimulated and then stood to demonstrate that his sense of balance was intact.
"Can I go home now?" he asked, striving to be polite, though the question was rhetorical. He felt fine and had no intention of staying.
"I can't see why not," the physician allowed. "This is really very amazing," he muttered, again gazing at the bloody clothing. "Any residual pain?"
"Nope," Jim assured him, his gaze moving to lock with Sandburg's, to also reassure his Guide. Blair looked unconvinced but didn't say anything.
"Well, then, I see no reason to waste a hospital bed on you," the physician said with a small smile. "You're free to go. If those wounds act up, or if you have any symptoms of headaches or dizziness, you should contact your own doctor immediately."
"Thanks, Doc," Jim replied as he and Sandburg followed the doctor out of the treatment room.
Simon was waiting for them in the lounge, and was surprised to see Ellison pacing along side Sandburg. Though Jim limped a little, he looked a good deal better than he had when he'd been transferred onto the gurney. "Don't tell me they're letting you out of here?" he exclaimed, conscious of the blood smearing Ellison's clothes and still very evident on Sandburg's hands.
"Yep, good as new, or almost," Jim replied evenly. But the lines of strain around his eyes and mouth betrayed to both Simon and Blair that he was still dealing with nanites that hadn't quite finished their work.
Simon shook his head, blinking a little at this new evidence of the incredible healing capacity of the small biomechanical microbes. Scratching his neck, he said a little dazedly, "Well, then, I guess you'll be wanting to head home."
"You think it's safe?" Blair asked, suddenly feeling a new rush of anxiety. The last two times he'd headed for home, he hadn't made it-being shot and then being almost blasted from the sky were not fond memories.
Banks shrugged. "Probably, now that we've dealt with the latest bunch of would be assassins. But, I'll take you there and check the place out. And I'll have a police cruiser orbit around your area for the next couple of days, just to make sure things have settled down."
Sandburg smiled gratefully at that news. Getting shot at was getting to be too much of a regular occurrence, and he'd just as soon have things get back to normal, and failing that, having police protection couldn't hurt. Jim could handle just about anything, but he wasn't altogether healed yet, despite what he was claiming. He needed to rest, not be worried about watching out for the next attack. For a moment, Blair felt a cold sensation in his gut as he realized that he'd pretty much accepted that there would be a next attack, that it was only a matter of time. The Morris clan didn't appear to take losing at all well. Swallowing, he pushed the icy ball of fear away, not wanting to think about it. Not now. Not tonight. Not when they were finally once again safe and everyone was all right.
Picking up on Sandburg's elevated heart rate, and understanding the younger man's very natural anxiety, Jim laid a reassuring arm around his friend's shoulders as he said, "It's all over for tonight, Chief. Let's just go home, okay?"
"Yeah, okay, Jim," Blair acceded, moving with Jim and Simon back to the elevator to return to Banks' vehicle on the roof.
When the elevator doors closed Jim again looped his arm around Sandburg's shoulders and closed his eyes briefly. Jim felt a surge of profound relief and gratitude that as dangerous as the evening's events had been, at least Blair was okay and seemed to be handling it-they hadn't reached the limit of his endurance, at least not yet.
Simon settled his vehicle into a parking slot in front of their building. Jim's senses had been on full alert as they'd cruised into the neighbourhood, seeking any sign that more danger was lurking in ambush. As they climbed out of the MM, Blair grimaced at the sight of his still bloodstained hands, conscious of the ache of muscles stiff with residual worry as well as the physical aftermath of repeated adrenaline surges. He was anxious to get upstairs to a hot shower.
Jim, however, felt a prickling of his senses. He couldn't quite pin down what was nagging at him, but he thought he and Simon should check out the immediate environment before going upstairs.
Though he'd begun to relax, Sandburg stiffened, made wary again by Jim's heightened sense of alertness when Ellison suggested that he and Simon would do a tour around the building before going in. "You want me to stay with you?" Blair asked, his voice strained with exhaustion.
"No, that's all right," Jim replied, well aware of Blair's weary pallor. "You go ahead. Just don't use up all the hot water, okay?"
"Not much chance of that," Blair chuckled in relief as he turned away, referring to the humongous hot water heater Jim had installed when he'd taken over the ownership of the building and upgraded the loft's amenities. "See you upstairs. Don't stay out here all night."
"We won't be long," Jim assured him as he turned to scan the buildings on the other side of the street, Sentinel sight raking the shadows and the rooftops. Blair had disappeared into the building by the time he turned back to Simon, satisfied there was nothing on the street to cause concern. "Let's check around back," he suggested, leading the way.
Banks, aware now that Jim had exceptional senses, nodded wordlessly and followed as he too scanned the streets and the alley as they headed around the corner, his own instincts aroused. Ellison was right. Something was off here-the hairs on the back of Simon's neck were twitching.
Too tired to bother with the stairs, Sandburg took the elevator up to the third floor and fished his keys out of the pocket of his jeans as he neared the apartment's door. Inside, he flicked on the light, tossed the keys into the small wicker basket on the table by the door. Shrugging out of the borrowed jacket he was still wearing, he hung it on an empty hook on the wall. Sighing, he began to loosen his belt as he trudged toward the bathroom.
The creak of the floorboards in the room under the stairs was his first warning that he wasn't alone. Looking up, he gasped when a burly man came into view. The quick glance was all he needed, and he whirled back toward the door, yelling, "JIM! TROUBLE!"
"Stop or I'll shoot you before you get to the door!" the harsh, menacing voice growled sharply.
Blair froze, then slowly lifted his hands as he turned back to face this latest threat, wondering with a sick, hollow feeling if this time his luck had run out.
"Shit!" Jim cursed as he swung around at the sound of Sandburg's panicked shout, his eyes raking the building above him. Though he couldn't see Sandburg, he could see shadows playing on the ceiling of the loft-the shadows of two men. "Someone's inside the loft!" he yelled over his shoulder to Simon, already running toward the entrance. "Call for back up!"
Pulling his weapon from his coat pocket, Jim slammed into the building and raced up the stairs, taking them two at a time. His hearing was locked on the sound of Sandburg's heart as he tore onto the third floor landing and into the hallway. There'd been no shots, no other shouts, and though Blair's heart was racing, there was no indication he'd yet been hurt. Slowing, Jim moved as stealthily as a cat to the door of the loft, listening now for voices. Not hearing any, he focused on blocking out all the other sounds around him to locate the sound of the second heartbeat in the loft, and his heart clenched with the realization of how close it was to Blair. They were both standing somewhere near the steps up to Sandburg's bedroom.
Jim licked dry lips and took a deep steadying breath and then silently tried the doorknob. Though the second deadbolt wouldn't have been drawn, as Blair would have left it unbarred for him, the door itself was locked.
As it should be.
But that precluded a silent entrance.
Stepping back, Jim kicked out viciously, and the door crashed inwards as he ducked and rolled into the room, coming up on one knee, his gun aimed at the intruder.
The only problem was that Blair was being held as a shield, the gunman's arm around his throat and the gun pressed to the young grad student's temple.
"Let him go," Jim growled, rising slowly to his feet, his weapon now aimed at the gunman's head. But he didn't dare shoot lest the man's dying reflex cause the gun in his hand to go off.
"I don't think so," the intruder drawled, knowing he held the winning hand. "Drop your gun."
"Jim, don't!" Blair called out, and then winced as the muzzle of the weapon was pushed hard against his head.
"Shut up!" the gunman snapped.
Blair swallowed; wide eyes trained on Jim, terror in their depths, but terror more for Jim than himself. As unobtrusively as possible, he lifted his hand to his pocket, and grasped his Swiss Army knife.
It was a standoff. Aware that Blair was up to something, Jim tried to distract the gunman by moving slowly to one side.
"Stay where you are!" the man snarled.
"What are you waiting for?" Jim asked, wondering why the guy hadn't killed Sandburg outright and then shot him when he'd crashed into the loft. Something didn't add up.
"The two of you have proven to be hard to kill," the stranger gloated. "It seemed more likely that we'd draw you in if we were already holding him, once it was clear that you hadn't come up together."
It was the 'we', and the slight flicker of the gunman's eyes to a spot over Jim's shoulder that made Ellison aware of the third heartbeat, coming from behind him, from the adjoining apartment behind the French doors.
And then all hell broke loose.
Blair shouted, "Behind you!"
Jim dropped and rolled again, as Sandburg pulled the knife from his pocket, flicking it open as he moved his arm. He reached back and stabbed the leg of the man holding him. His assailant screamed in rage, pulling back reflexively, the gun dropping from Blair's head, even as Jim shot, blasting him back into the entrance of the small office, killing him instantly.
Another shot rang out, but by then Jim was already rolling again, diving toward the man shooting at him from behind.
Ellison barrelled into the second man, taking him to the ground as they wrestled for dominance, while Blair stood helplessly watching, his heart racing with the fear he felt for Jim. Each man had a death-grip on the other's wrist as they tried to angle their weapons, Jim still hoping to disarm, but ready to kill if necessary, the assassin trying for the kill. Jim was trying to choke the guy out as he braced his arm against the heavier man's throat, but his adversary kneed him, and then punched at his face, so Jim had to shift his arm to block the hit, grunting with the pain of the assault. Sensing an advantage, the big man twisted and squirmed violently, bringing his gun down between their bodies as they continued to wrestle on the floor.
Simon burst into the apartment just as the shot rang out, and swung toward the sound, aghast to see both bodies suddenly still.
"JIM!" Blair cried out, lurching forward, terrified that Jim had been the one who had been shot.
But Ellison shifted and rolled off his would-be killer, who now lay dead on the floor.
"I'm okay," Jim quickly assured his frightened partner. "You okay?"
"Yeah, Jim-I'm fine," Blair sighed, shaking his head as he struggled to let go of the fear that had surged through him.
Turning to Simon, Jim waved vaguely toward the back of the loft. "There's another one by the office," he sighed wearily as he climbed to his feet, accepting Sandburg's offer of a hand up and then hauling the younger man toward him, clasping Sandburg in a quick hug of relief as Simon moved across the loft to check out the other body. Blair returned the hug, gripping Jim tightly, and Ellison could feel the smaller man trembling, could hear the still pounding heart. "It's okay," he murmured into Sandburg's curls. "We're both okay."
Ellison released Blair, though he kept an arm around the younger man's shoulders, as Simon turned back to face them. Scratching the back of his head, giving them a grim, tight smile, Banks observed, "Well, if they keep coming after you, at this rate you'll wipe out the lot of them before I can put them behind bars."
Jim rolled his eyes and shook his head, wondering how many more would attack them before it was finally over. Beside him, Blair sighed softly and leaned against him, wordlessly seeking the reassurance of his strength and presence.
Once the police had finished their investigation of the shootings, and the bodies had been declared dead by the coroner and finally removed, Simon asked, "Will the two of you be all right here?"
"Yeah, I think so," Jim sighed. "I really doubt they'll try anything more tonight."
"Well, I'll leave a surveillance team just in case," Banks assured them. "I'll call tomorrow and come by to take your formal statements when you're ready."
"Thanks, Simon," Blair replied wearily. "I'm way too wiped out to make much sense tonight."
Nodding with understanding, Banks headed out. When he was gone, Jim closed the door, grimacing at the busted frame, and then pulled a chair over to brace under the knob as a token barrier against the night.
Blair noticed that Jim was limping more heavily and favouring his side a little. Kicking the door in and the subsequent fight hadn't done his healing injuries any good. "Jim, you need to have a hot shower and get to bed. I'll clean up out here," he said, alluding to the pools of blood that needed to be mopped up.
Grateful beyond words, weary to his soul, Jim shambled off to the bathroom, stripping off his bloody shirt as he went. His exhaustion was emotional as much as it was physical. Sure, his body ached, but his heart was still tight with the echoes of the fear he'd felt, back up in the mountains and then here-fear that he'd fail in protecting Sandburg. Fear that the kid would be killed. Ellison knew he'd have nightmares about that gun pressing against Sandburg's head for a very long time.
Later, after he was assured that Jim had settled and was finally asleep, Blair turned out the lights and stood by the balcony, staring sightlessly into the night, needing to process all that had happened in so few hours.
Nearly being blasted to smithereens shortly after leaving the hospital that morning.
Being chased through the forest, being shot at as they climbed that cliff in darkness.
The feel of Jim's strong body pressed against his, protecting him, sheltering him.
Being blasted by flying grenades and bruised by falling rock.
Jim, bleeding and unconscious in that shambles of a cave, having again sheltered him from harm.
Being ambushed in their own home.
Having a gun pressed against his head.
Jim lying so still after the gunshot had rung out…being afraid that Jim had been shot, maybe killed.
Fleeting memories, fragments of images, from their time in the jungle.
The naked look of need to have their friendship and partnership assured in Jim's eyes by the campfire.
The realization that life was fragile, so very fragile.
His chest tightening again with the emotion he felt for James Joseph Ellison, his friend, roommate, partner, and Sentinel, Blair knew he loved Jim like he'd love a brother if he'd ever had one. Maybe more. He couldn't imagine not having Jim in his life, and standing here by the balcony, he realized he'd hadn't once felt that sense of missing something, or of being lost, that had haunted him all his life until he'd found Jim and the Sentinel had become part of his life.
Eyes burned as he struggled to breathe and fought off the urge to cry at the ugly, terrifying thought of how easily Jim could have been killed, not once but any number of times during the past terrifying hours.
Killed while trying to protect him.
As the long minutes clicked past, he struggled with all that he'd believed about himself and about what his life would be like; being a college professor and his vague hopes of one day marrying and having a family of his own, even as the visions of the jungle again intruded into his thoughts, making him wonder if any of his former dreams would ever come true. Being an honest cop, or the partner of an honest cop, in this era, was like painting a target on your back. Blair didn't think he could expose a family to such danger, to being chased and hunted, forever at risk. If he wanted a family, he'd have to move away from Jim and Cascade, begin a new life somewhere else. Could he do that? Did he want to do that?
Sandburg trembled then with a clear awareness of the different kinds of need that he and Jim felt for one another…the need of one soul for another, the need of brothers to always be there for one another, the need of one friend to protect the other, no matter what. How could he walk away from that?
"I'm a grad student, not a cop," he whispered mournfully as he stared out into the night. He shivered with fear as images of the last day flickered again in his thoughts. "I'll end up getting him killed," Blair mumbled to his reflected image in the glass, miserable and torn. Afraid to face the violence, unequipped to do so, feeling vulnerable and very fragile, especially when he recalled the sensation of being shot, of almost dying, Sandburg struggled to come to grips with what a future spent as Jim's partner would mean.
Their recent experiences only underscored the reality that life was short, and however many lives they might yet live, this was the one they were sharing now.
What if Jim had died that night?
What if there had been no tomorrow?
And now that tomorrow would come-what would he do with the time granted to them?
Jim woke to the grey light of dawn, and the scent of fresh baking bread from the small bakery in the building below them. He could hear the soft footfalls of an early morning jogger out on the street, and the lumbering mechanical grumble of the weekly garbage disposal unit trundling down the back lane. Even in this era of flying machines and other wonders, the refuse of daily life still seemed to require the timeless attention of lumbering carts to be gathered and taken away. Stretching, he noted with satisfaction that there was no residual pull or soreness from the wounds he'd suffered last evening and reluctantly admitted that, as painful as they were, the nanites were handy little critters to have hanging around.
Dammit, yesterday sure hadn't been the 'homecoming' he'd planned when he'd happily picked Blair up at the hospital to bring him back to the loft. God, what a disaster the day had turned out to be.
But, then, it could have been a lot worse. They were alive. And for now, they were safe.
Sighing, he lay on his back and stared up at the skylight, thinking about everything that had happened the day before. He'd never liked the feeling of being hunted, and hated to run. But worst of all was the sense of invasion; of having his enemy ambush them in their own home. Three times, the Morris clan had sent assassins after them; and three times they'd failed. But it was still three times too many. How many more would come? When? What could he do to stop them, to keep Blair and himself safe?
Well, that was fairly simple. He had to go after them first. Over the past months, he and Blair had eroded much of the foundation of the Morris empire, and had decapitated it, by helping to take out the three top leaders. Now it appeared it was time to go after the ones in the middle, the new leaders, and bring down the rest of the hydra-like organization. Cutting off a few heads wasn't enough if more just grew back to replace them. Simon would have some ideas on where to get started.
Rolling onto his side, punching his pillow into a more comfortable shape, Ellison's thoughts turned to Sandburg as he wondered how much more the kid could cope with. Yesterday by the river, Blair had said he was could handle being hunted, even though he'd admitted he was scared and didn't know how much raw danger he could take. But that had been before they'd been chased through the forest, been shot at, and had been ambushed in the loft. Would the kid still feel that he could live with this kind of persistent threat in his life? Why would he want to?
Sighing, Ellison called himself every kind of fool for having revealed his feelings and his need for this friendship and this partnership. He'd maybe done more damage than good by putting pressure on the kid, damage he might not be able to repair. He'd allowed his memories of the jungle to over-ride his ingrained reticence about revealing too much; he'd forgotten that this Blair wasn't exactly the same man he'd spent fifty years, even eternity, with. This Blair was young, in many ways still finding his own way-this Blair didn't remember what they'd been to one another, and didn't feel the same way. Jim knew he had no right to harbour hopes of a future or to put demands on the kid to be his Guide for the rest of their natural lives. This Blair had the right to choose his own path, to live his own life.
Whichever Blair he was didn't matter to Jim. He loved the guy, with no reservation. And he'd do anything for him, give Sandburg all he had, trust him with his life-die to protect him.
Or let him go.
Because that's what Ellison would do if this Blair wanted something else in this life. Something that didn't include being hunted by ruthless criminals, because he was the unofficial partner of a cop who had been born almost one hundred and twenty years ago.
Reluctantly, Jim pushed himself up to face the day. He wouldn't find the answers in the silence of his room. Heading downstairs, he put on the coffee and headed to the shower.
Blair woke to the smell of freshly brewing coffee and the sound of the shower's spray of water. He snuggled back under the blankets, not yet ready to fully wake up, but the memories of the previous day intruded and left him incapable of any further sleep. Rolling onto his back, he reflected on the decision he'd made last night as he'd stared out into the darkness and he felt a quiver of anxiety, wondering if it would all be a huge mistake. Not for himself, but for Jim. If he was wrong, Jim could be killed. Taking a breath, he decided again that it was what he wanted.
Swallowing, Sandburg thought about the day to come. They had to meet with Simon and give their statements about what had happened, and then they should probably hit the dealership to get Jim a new MM. After that, they could take Blair's flutter up into the mountains to get their stuff. Maybe Jim would agree to another day or two of fishing, just to chill out and take back their memories of Angel Falls, so that it wouldn't be a place of threat and fear, but of peace and restoration. Whatever else the future held, Blair wanted to hold onto Jim's friendship. And he wanted memories of them having a good time together in case-well, in case the bad guys won.
He had to talk to Jim about what they were going to do about being hunted by those creeps. There had to be something, some action they could take, other than simply stand around with targets painted on their backs, waiting for the next jerk to take a shot at them. Shuddering a little with the memories of the night before, Blair wondered briefly if he maybe he shouldn't learn how to shoot a gun. The idea curdled his stomach, but the thought of dying, actually the thought of Jim dying because he'd been too much of a wimp to learn how to help fight off the bad guys, almost made him gag. God, Jim deserved a partner who wasn't such a wuss. Someone who wasn't afraid of violence and who knew what to do when it occurred.
He heard Jim come out of the bathroom and pad lightly across the apartment to go up to his own room to dress. Rolling out of the warmth of his cocoon, Blair shivered and scampered down the stairs, intent upon his own hot shower.
It was going to be a busy day.
Jim had finished preparing their breakfast by the time Sandburg descended again from his bedroom, dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans, his hair still damp and curling around his face and shoulders.
"Smells good," he said with a grin as he sat down at the table and poured a glass of juice.
Jim relaxed at the easy greeting; glad his anxieties about Sandburg's resilience might have been misplaced. The kid seemed cheerful, surprisingly so actually, given what they'd just endured. Setting the plate of scrambled eggs, sliced tomato and toast in front of his friend, Jim carried his own plate to the other side of the table and pulled out his own chair.
"You don't seem any the worse for wear after yesterday's excitement," Ellison observed mildly with a tentative smile.
Blair shrugged as he dug into his breakfast. They hadn't eaten since lunch the day before and he was starving. "Well, I can't say it was all fun and games," he replied after swallowing. Picking up a piece of toast and tearing it into pieces, Blair continued quietly, "I think we need to talk about some of it. Like, for instance, your propensity to risk yourself to protect me, and my general uselessness when we're in trouble. How are you feeling this morning, by the way? All completely healed?"
Jim frowned a little at the barrage of words, wondering what to respond to first. "Yeah, I'm fine," he began. "The nanites did their usual thing. What do you mean, 'your general uselessness'? What's that about?"
"Well, it just seemed to me that I wasn't much more than a burden and a distraction when the going got tough," Blair replied, his eyes wide with concern. "I mean, I couldn't do anything to help and, worse, you got hurt, and could all too easily have been killed, trying to protect me-twice! Once when we were climbing that cliff, no make that three times, again when the first grenade went off and you gave me cover, and the last time when I walked straight into the ambush here like some helpless kid. In case I forgot to say it last night, thanks for saving my life-repeatedly."
"Sandburg, just back up a minute here. It's not your fault that you can't see in the dark or don't have the skills to fight back…" Jim began, but Blair cut him off.
"Well, that's what we need to talk about," Blair said quietly, his gaze shifting away, not quite ready to talk about the long term future. "But maybe not right now," he continued, pushing his hair behind his ears as he sat a little straighter and turned his mind to more immediate issues. "I was thinking we could write up our statements about what happened this morning and meet Simon for lunch to hand them over to him. And then, I guess, we need to go shopping for a new MM. Unless you want to see if yours is salvageable first? And then I thought we could head back up into the mountains. If you wanted, we could camp out and fish for a couple of days, or we could just pack up and bring our gear back home."
"You'd be willing to go back there after what happened?" Jim asked, a little surprised. Most people would avoid the place like the plague after almost having been killed. 'Resilient' didn't begin to describe this kid. But he was unsettled by Sandburg's concern about being 'useless', and even more about his reluctance to talk about it. Was he working up to saying he really wasn't ready to keep dealing with the violence?
"Yeah, I want to, actually," Blair replied softly. Looking up at Jim, he explained, "I've always loved that place, and I could see it was special to you, too. I don't want them to have ruined it for us, Jim. I want to reclaim the good memories of Angel Falls."
"You are really something else, Chief," Jim said quietly, admiration shining in his eyes. "Yeah, I'd like to spend a couple of days up there, like we'd planned."
"Well, then, it looks like we've got a plan," Blair grinned, finishing his breakfast and rising to put his plate in the sink. "Since you know the drill for what our statements have to contain, why don't you get started on them in the office while I clean up out here?"
"Okay, and I'll call Simon to see if he's free for lunch," Jim agreed as he headed to the small office under the stairs. When he got there, and flipped on the computer, he sat back for a moment with his eyes closed and took a deep breath.
Sandburg was still hanging in. More than that, Blair considered Angel Falls to still be a place of good memories notwithstanding what had happened there yesterday. It wasn't scaring him off. Immensely grateful that their friendship appeared to still be intact even though he was worried about their partnership, Jim opened his eyes and got to work.
They met Simon as planned and the police captain was pleased with their statements, not requiring anything further from them at that point. Jim asked Banks to put together a file on anything the police had on who was currently running the Morris clan operations, indicating that when he and Blair got back from their camping trip, they'd begin a new regime of surveillance activities. Maybe they could get ahead of the bad guys and anticipate when more trouble was on the horizon, or better still, take them out of action completely.
"Simon, you'd originally planned to get away for a couple of days with us," Jim remembered. "Do you want to join us up at Angel Falls?"
"Much as I'd love to, I'm afraid I can't," Banks replied with a look of regret. "How about next weekend? Things should have quieted down a bit by then."
"Sure," Blair replied. "I don't have any classes until after the holidays. But, uh, it'll be even colder up in the mountains next week-maybe we could go back to the cabin idea instead of camping?" he added hopefully.
Both older men chuckled, having learned enough about him to know that the kid didn't like being cold. Well, that was fine with them, and Simon agreed to make the reservations.
"Simon, did anyone mention if my MM was blown up?" Jim asked. "We heard an explosion and I assumed they destroyed it so that we couldn't get away…"
"I'm afraid you're right about that, Jim," Simon drawled, shaking his head. "It's a burned out wreck, sorry. I'll get you a copy of the report for your insurance claim."
Jim nodded with resignation as he glanced at Blair. "I guess we'd better stop by the dealership on the way out of town."
The detour to the dealership didn't take long as Jim essentially only needed to order a copy of the model he'd bought the last time, though he upgraded the options to 'guarantee' bullet proofing and ensure he had the most powerful and responsive power plant available. As they flew out to the mountains in Blair's flutter, the trip taking slightly longer than the day before in Blair's much less powerful vehicle, he muttered, "Maybe we should have ordered you a new set of wings, too, Chief. This thing's a wreck."
"Hey!" Sandburg protested with mock affront. "This baby is a classic and I'm perfectly happy with her, thank you very much."
"I'm just saying that I think you'd be safer in a new model," Jim persisted. "This antique might be a 'classic', but she doesn't have much power."
Blair turned his attention back to the air around them. Shaking his head, he replied, "Jim, I know you mean well, man, but you give me too much. I can't accept a new vehicle from you, and I can't afford to buy one myself right now. Don't worry. When I can afford it, I'll pick up something better."
Jim thought about that and decided it didn't ease his concerns. Rubbing his lip, he suggested, "Okay, how about this. Why don't I float you a loan at 0% interest, and you can pay me back when you can afford it? Chief, you know money isn't an issue for me. And, well, the bad guys are still out there. I want to know you're in a vehicle you can depend on if, well, if…"
"If they come after me when you're not around," Sandburg concluded when Jim faltered over the words. Sighing, Blair's lips tightened. He really hated to take advantage of Jim's generosity, but Ellison was right. He'd never be able to avoid or get away from any kind of serious pursuit in this jalopy. And it wasn't as if he and Jim were joined at the hip. There were any number of times, when Sandburg was off at the university or checking on the dig or just shopping or running errands, that he could be accosted or attacked without having Jim's protective presence nearby. "I'll think about it, Jim," he finally said quietly. "Thanks."
Half an hour later, Blair set the flutter down near the remains of Jim's MM.
"What a mess," Jim groaned at the sight of the blackened, half melted, half disintegrated, lump of metal that had once been his beautiful Mass Mover, or as Blair affectionately called it, the Macho Machine.
Blair shuddered a bit at the memory of the explosion. "It's just a thing, Jim," he offered quietly as some form of comfort. "Easily replaced."
Turning back to his friend, Jim nodded. "You're right, Chief. They didn't hurt anything important, anything that could never be replaced."
Sandburg blushed a little at the look in Jim's eyes, and then turned to lead the way to their camp, wondering if they'd find it intact. As they came out by the river, they both smiled. The bad guys seemed to have moved on through, intent on hunting them, without stopping. Certainly, the camp looked pretty much as they'd left it the day before. They retrieved their fishing gear from the tent, and headed down to the river, wanting nothing so much as a few hours of peace and tranquility to enjoy the warmth of the sun and the sound of the rushing water.
Later, as they finished a dinner of fresh trout and lingered by the fire as the evening deepened into darkness, Jim picked up a stick to poke into the flames, and then froze, remembering how he'd done the same during their conversation the day before. His jaw tightened, still not certain that Sandburg's apparent willingness to stick with the program would last. Forcing himself to swallow back the emotion that welled up in his chest at the thought that this Blair might choose to live a different kind of life, might decide being anywhere around Ellison was just too dangerous, Ellison reminded himself that he'd support any decision Blair made. Jim tossed the stick into the fire and drew his knees up to rest his arms across them as he stared into the flames, trying to think of something to say as his best friend had fallen into an uncharacteristic silence.
"Would you show me how to be a better partner?" Blair asked tentatively, deciding he couldn't put off talking about it any longer. When Jim looked up at him, confused, he took a deep breath and clarified what he meant, "I think you need to teach me some self-defence moves, and I also think I need to learn how to shoot a gun."
"Chief, you're a grad student, not a cop," Jim protested, unconsciously repeating Blair's words to himself the night before, not liking the idea of Blair being in danger often enough to have to know how to protect himself.
"Yeah, well, I'm also your partner," Sandburg replied, then added hesitantly, "unless you think I'm a danger to have along. Yesterday, you would have been okay on your own. You got hurt because you needed to protect me. I don't want to be in the way, or make it more dangerous for you because I'm not capable of helping you when we're under fire. So, I guess if, well, if you think I'm more trouble than I'm worth…"
"Whoa! Stop right there!" Jim cut in, a look of astonishment on his face. "You are no burden and certainly no trouble. God, Chief, I need you backing me up. I wish I didn't because that puts you into danger, and I could understand if you called it quits, but don't ever think I don't want or need you with me."
"Okay, then," Blair smiled slowly, reassured, though he still looked pale at the thought of what he needed to learn how to do. "I need to learn the skills necessary to give you good back up. Jim, I couldn't stand it if something happened to you because I didn't know what to do or couldn't help."
Blowing out a breath, Ellison finally nodded, a little stunned by what Blair was really saying-that despite his fear and how badly he'd already been hurt, Sandburg was committing to the long haul. "All right," Jim agreed, his voice hoarse with relief. "I'll teach you some self-defence and the basics of using a weapon, at least so that you can defend yourself if I'm out of commission. We can begin tomorrow if you want, Chief," he paused, having to swallow the lump in his throat at the thought of what this kid was willing to do to be his partner, "I appreciate your willingness to hang in, more, to learn this stuff, I really do. More than I can say."
Blair shrugged nervously and looked away. "We're friends, Jim, and you need my help. I know that," he said softly. "Let's see if I'm capable of learning enough to be the kind of back up you need. If I'm not, well, let's just see how it goes."
His words and evident doubts tugged at Ellison's heart, leaving the older man feeling guilty for what his presence in this young man's life was forcing Blair to do. The memories of holding Sandburg's bloody body in his arms intruded, making Jim shudder with fear. They were walking a very dangerous road, one where there were no guarantees. Even the nanites couldn't protect against sudden death. Maybe this was wrong. Maybe he was expecting too much from Sandburg.
Maybe he should learn how to control his senses well enough that he could leave the kid in peace.
Or maybe he should just figure out how to turn the damned things off before he got the kid killed.
For a moment, another option occurred to Ellison. He could change. He could stop being a cop and they could both pull out of the action. But, even as he thought it, he felt everything in him revolt at the idea. He wasn't just a cop. He was a Sentinel. It wasn't what he did for a living. It was, pure and simply, what he was. Somebody had to fight back against the darkness. If not the Sentinel, then who?
The next morning after a light breakfast, Jim cleared the ground outside their tent of stones and sticks and then brought out the air mattresses and sleeping bags to provide a bit of cushion for the falls Sandburg would be taking until he learned a few defensive moves.
Sandburg watched, feeling more than a little nervous but determined to learn. Though he'd always been more drawn to intellectual challenges and interests, he hadn't been absolutely hopeless when it had come to sports during his years in school, so he hoped he'd be able to pick up the basics fairly easily.
"You ready, Chief?" Jim asked once he was satisfied with his preparations. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt Blair inadvertently and he would have preferred doing this in a gym.
"Yeah, sure, what do I do?" Blair asked as he kicked off his sneakers and moved onto the improvised 'mat'.
"There are a couple of things to remember in terms of self-defence," Jim instructed. "The first is to use the other guy's aggression against him-to go with the flow, not fight against it. Here, let me show you."
For the next hour, Ellison showed Blair how to use an antagonist's momentum to throw the other person off-balance, even to the ground through hip rolls and shoulder flips. It was all a question of balance and timing, so that even a small man or woman could bring down a man as big as Jim. The third time Blair successfully downed Ellison, he grinned tentatively and blew out a breath of relief. He could do this.
Getting to his feet, rubbing his shoulder, Jim returned the grin. "Okay, that's good, you're doing good," he encouraged. "But, sometimes, you can't get the right leverage. So that's when the second thing to remember comes into play. When you're physically attacked, you forget about playing fair. You use everything and anything to defend yourself. People hesitate to scream for help when they're in trouble. Don't hesitate. Yelling can distract and can also scare the perp off if they think help is close by. Use your thumbs and fingers to gouge the eyes, whip your head back to crush a nose, stomp on an instep, drive your thumb up into the guy's armpit, knee him hard where it hurts, kick, bite, scratch, punch. Here, let's try a few things."
Jim moved with the swiftness of a cat and got Blair into a headlock before Sandburg quite knew what was happening. "Scream," Jim directed.
Feeling like a geek, Blair opened his mouth, but couldn't force out a scream. It felt too ridiculous. "I can't," he snickered.
"Yes, you can," Ellison growled. "SCREAM!"
Blair let loose with a pitiful, breathy, "Help!"
"Louder!" Jim ordered.
"HELP!" Blair obliged.
"LOUDER!" Jim shouted at him.
"HELP!" Blair yelled out, feeling ridiculous.
"Better," Jim allowed, shaking his head. "Okay, I haven't run at the sound of that pitiful cry for assistance, so now what are you going to do?"
"Hey, I don't want to hurt you, man," Blair protested.
"I don't think I'm in a lot of danger here, kid," Ellison drawled. "Show me what you'd do."
Sighing, Blair grabbed Jim's arm, but couldn't pry it from around his neck and that left him feeling uncomfortably helpless. His heart rate increasing, he struggled, elbowing Jim ineffectually in the ribs, but he couldn't get enough leverage. 'Use your head, idiot,' Blair thought. Swallowing, he stomped down hard on Jim's foot as he simultaneously snapped his head back, connecting with his friend's jaw.
"OWWW!" both men yelled as they broke apart, Blair rubbing the back of his head and Jim massaging his jaw as he took his weight on one foot.
"Oh, hey, I'm sorry, Jim!" Blair babbled, feeling terrible about having hurt his friend.
Smiling wryly, wincing a little, Jim shook his head. "You were supposed to hurt me, Chief. That was the idea," Ellison replied dryly. "Don't worry, I'll live. But, you waited too long to fight back. If that had been for real, I could have snapped your neck before you distracted me with a little pain of my own. When it's for real, don't hesitate, okay?"
"Okay," Blair nodded, still rubbing the back of his head. "That hurt," he grumbled.
"Better a little hurt than never to feel any pain again, Junior," Jim drawled, but the look in his eyes was deadly serious.
"Right," Sandburg acknowledged with a heavy swallow.
They moved back to the fire and Jim filled their mugs with coffee. "Chief, we'll keep practicing those moves, and others, until they become automatic, but…" he hesitated.
"But, what?" Blair asked as he hunkered down by the fire and sipped his coffee.
"These moves work when the other guy comes in close," Jim replied heavily as he stared at the ground. "But if he's armed, he may not get into striking distance." Looking back up at Sandburg, he went on slowly, "It's a question of judgment, I guess. If the perp is just holding you up, and wants your wallet, give it to him and hope he goes away quietly. But, if the guy is intending to kill you, there may not be much you can do, except fight back using everything I've just taught you if you're in physical contact. If not, distract him, try to talk your way out of it, lunge away or drop just as he shoots…"
Jim's voice caught and his eyes clouded, as he again looked away, his jaw tight with tension as his treacherous memory again played out the moments of Blair bleeding to death in his arms. Shaking his head, he muttered, "Damn it, this is just too dangerous. We can't do this."
"What?" Sandburg exclaimed, jerking with such surprise that some coffee splashed out of his mug. Brushing the hot liquid off his jeans, he demanded, "What do you mean we can't do this?"
Jim's haunted eyes lifted from the fire to focus on his friend's worried gaze as he replied, "I'll get you killed if we don't stop. I can't…I just can't do that."
"Hey, Jim, hold up a second here," Blair objected. "What are you saying? That you'll give up being a cop?"
Blowing out a breath, Jim again shook his head. "No, that's not what I mean. Being a cop is what I do," he answered. "But I can't ask you to…I can't drag you into…"
Frazzled by his emotions, Ellison couldn't seem to find the words to express his fears about what working with him could mean for Blair's safety. The older man was only surprised that he hadn't realized this long before. He'd been a fool to risk Sandburg's life. Stupid to consider carrying on with their partnership in the face of the danger it represented.
"Whoa, man, slow down," Sandburg cut in, worried about Ellison's sudden pallor and air of guilt and fear. "I'm the first one to admit I'm no Rambo," he added, referring to a series of old twentieth century videos he figured Jim would recognize, "but I'm also not about to just give up before we even try. You need me, you said that yourself just yesterday! I'm not going to just let you go out and face who knows what and zone because you haven't got the right back up! Not if I can learn to be that backup and not do something stupid to get you hurt. That's why I want you to teach me…"
"You're not a cop!" Ellison protested. "I don't have the right to put your life at risk just because my senses might freak out!"
Blair bit his lip as he looked away, trying to think of how to address Jim's sudden and apparently overwhelming concerns. Sighing, he looked back at his friend. "Jim, the Chinese have an expression for someone who saves someone else's life. Blessed Protector. And, well, once someone has saved another's life, that someone is responsible for them from that time on. Maybe it's a bit of a stretch, but I saved your life when I helped them revive you. So, now I'm your Blessed Protector. I'm responsible for you. At least, that's the way I feel. If I decide that being with you presents a greater danger than my help is in protecting you, then I'll back off and we'll get you another partner who is a cop and who we can trust. But so long as I think I can give you the back up you need, it's my decision whether I do that or not. Not yours."
"No way," Jim countered, holding up his hands as if he was fending off the idea. "No unilateral decisions like that are allowed. I have a stake in this and a right to say it's too dangerous. This is a partnership…"
"Exactly," Blair replied, a small grin playing around his lips and a 'gotcha' look in his eyes. "It's a partnership, and neither of us can decide unilaterally to end it, either. So…did you bring your gun? I think it's time you taught me how to shoot."
Jim's lips parted, but no words were forthcoming. Snapping his mouth closed, he looked away and swallowed. He did need Blair. And he wanted this partnership more than he could ever begin to express. But he was also suddenly afraid of the risks. Sighing, he nodded slowly. If they were careful, if Blair knew something about how to protect himself, if Jim did all in his power to keep Blair safe-maybe they'd be all right. Blowing out a breath, he quirked a sidelong look at Sandburg as he asked with as playful a tone as he could manage, "You're my 'blessed protector'?"
"Yep, looks like," Blair confirmed with a cheeky grin.
Standing, Jim sobered as he gazed down at this young man who had become his whole world. With no trace of sarcasm, and not a little wonder, he murmured, "Yeah, I guess you are." Then he smiled as he offered a hand to help his friend up, and added, "But, tell you what, how about I be your 'blessed protector'?"
"Works for me, man," Blair laughed as he let Jim haul him up to his feet. "So, you got your gun?"
"Weapon," Jim drawled, "we call it a 'weapon'."
"Whatever," Sandburg replied staunchly though his throat was suddenly dry. "Show me how it works."
Rolling his eyes, Ellison went to the tent to retrieve his 'weapon', while Blair fished around in his backpack to pull out the extra boxes of ammunition he'd brought along, just in case Jim agreed to teach him. When Jim emerged and saw them in his friend's hand, he stopped in surprise. "You really had this planned out, didn't you?" he asked. Up until then, he'd thought the idea of learning some self-defence had only occurred to Sandburg the night before, by the campfire.
Blushing a little, Sandburg bobbed his head as he replied, "Yeah, I did. I decided the other night that if I was going to be your backup, I had to learn this stuff."
Jim recalled their conversation at breakfast the day before, when Sandburg had rated himself 'useless' and sighed. Straightening, he said quietly, "Whether you learn to shoot a weapon or not, Chief, you're not 'useless' and you're not some kind of burden or added risk to me. Just by being with me, you help me. You do know that, right?"
"Yeah, well, I'll feel better if I'm armed with more than words, you know?" Sandburg replied, though his heart was racing. "I mean, I'm not sure I want to carry a gun, but I do want to know how to use one if I have to. You always carry a spare, so, well, if the situation ever calls for it, I want to be ready."
"Okay, Chief," Jim replied, leading the way to the far side of the clearing. He tried not to notice Sandburg's pallor, and tried to block out the sound of that racing heartbeat, as he showed the younger man how to handle the weapon properly, and lined him up to take a shot at the trunk of a tree about fifty feet away.
Blair swallowed and tried not to close his eyes as he squeezed the trigger, jumping at the recoil and the shattering sound. "Did I hit it?" he stammered.
"Uh, no," Jim replied sardonically. "Not the one you were aiming for, anyway." Again, he lined Blair up for the shot, his arms around Blair as he stood behind him, his hands over Sandburg's until the kid stopped trembling. "Just take it slow and easy," he murmured.
Blair took a breath and centred himself, then again pulled the trigger. Ready for the recoil and the blast of sound this time, he didn't flinch as badly. And he hit the tree he was aiming for.
Jim had him take a few more shots, changing the target for an empty tin can Ellison placed on a rock by the water. Throughout it all, Sandburg didn't say a word. Just stood rigidly, holding the gun the way Jim had taught him, pale and trembling, his heart beating a rapid tattoo. Finally, when he'd hit the can and sent it flying, Jim moved forward and gently pulled the weapon from Sandburg's hands.
When Blair looked up at him in confusion, Jim said quietly, "You now know how to shoot if you have to, and how to hit what you're aiming for. If it's ever for real, aim for the body, not the hand holding the weapon. It's a bigger target." When Blair went a whiter shade of pale, Jim looped an arm around his trembling shoulders. "I'm sorry," Ellison murmured. "I'm sorry that helping me is making you think about doing things you'd never choose to do on your own. I know you don't ever want to hurt anyone. But if someone is shooting at us, trying to kill us, I'd rather that guy go down than you."
Sandburg took a deep breath and looked away. He'd asked to learn this stuff. He needed to know how to fight back if Jim ever needed him to do so. "I'll do what I have to," he vowed quietly, though the idea of such violence still left him queasy.
Studying him, Ellison chewed on his lip, regretting the pallor and the shadow of grief in Sandburg's eyes. His heart twisted at the loss of innocence, at the price the younger man was accepting to pay if ever called upon in the heat of battle. Battles he rightfully shouldn't ever had had to contemplate. Suddenly weary, Jim sighed. "All right," he said. "I think that's enough for today. We came up here to do some fishing and to relax. It's time we got back to that. C'mon. I'll put this away while you get our poles. Okay?"
Blair nodded and walked back to the campsite, grateful for the steadying arm that Jim kept around his shoulders.
On the way back home the next day, they called Simon and invited him to the loft for a dinner of fresh grilled fish, and then stopped by the dealership for Jim to pick up his new vehicle. Ellison followed Sandburg back to the loft, his senses on full alert now that they were back in potentially dangerous territory. The flight home proved to be uneventful, but Blair waited as instructed for Jim to land so that they could enter the building together. Neither wanted a repeat of the nasty surprises that had awaited them on their last journeys home.
Feeling like the hunted in their own town, especially in their own neighbourhood, made Blair introspective and Jim irritable. Both men tried to pretend that everything was 'normal', and both knew they were failing miserably. Blair wanted to assure Jim that he wasn't scared, but it wasn't true. He was scared. He just had to learn to live with that. And Jim wanted to reassure Blair that he'd never let anything happen to his younger partner. But he couldn't, not when he'd already failed so miserably to keep Sandburg safe, not just once but three times, twice right here at their own home.
When the silence stretched between them until it was too brittle to last, they tried mundane conversation, speculating inanely about the weather and jostling good-naturedly about who would do what to get dinner ready. But it came to a head when Sandburg inadvertently bumped into Ellison while Jim was slicing up carrots, causing him to nick his finger.
"Dammit, Sandburg! Would you watch where you're going?" Jim snapped without thinking while he ran water over the minor wound and then staunched the flow of blood. Turning, he was appalled to see Blair staring at the thin stream of blood, white and shaking.
"I'm sorry," Blair stammered, his distress all out of proportion to what had happened.
Sighing, Jim shook his head. "No, I'm sorry for snapping at you. It was just an accident, no big deal."
Swallowing, Sandburg nodded as he turned away, his shoulders slumped, his head bowed. His attempt to laugh came out more like a sob and he took a deep breath to steady himself. Turning back to Jim, he said, "This is crazy. We can't pretend like nothing is going on. It is. I'm scared; I admit it. I can't hide that from you."
"I know," Jim replied quietly. "I'm scared, too. I'm scared I won't be able to protect you."
"I know," Blair acknowledged. He rummaged in a kitchen drawer for a bandage, and then he took another deep breath and attempted a smile. It was a wobbly facsimile of the real thing, but he held it bravely as he turned to bind the small wound. Looking up at Jim, he said, "But, you know what? I'd rather be scared than never have met you."
Jim felt a lump rise in his throat and he could only shake his head as he struggled for words. Reaching out to pull Blair into a hug, he finally muttered, "I'll do my best, Chief, I promise you."
"So will I, Jim," Sandburg mumbled into his Sentinel's shirt. Pulling away, he pushed his hair back behind his ears as he continued decisively, "And that's all we can do. Whatever happens, man, I want you to know that I have no regrets about anything. We're doing the right thing, trying to make the city a little safer, trying to beat the bad guys. That's a worthy purpose and I'm grateful to be able to help."
Ellison rubbed Sandburg's shoulder and arm as he replied, "I don't have any regrets, either, Chief. I'm glad you found me. Glad I'm here now, with you. Glad we got the chance for this life together. So long as it lasts, I'll always be grateful."
"Yeah, and it's not like we don't know that there isn't more after this," Blair added, turning away to resume his work on the salad fixings. "I mean, whatever happens, that's not the end of it, of us, right?"
Jim knew that Blair was taking that more on faith and the dream-like memories that he had of the jungle than he was on his own absolute certainty of the fact of the immortality of their souls. He could hear the slight waver in the kid's voice that gave him away. For a moment, he gazed down at Sandburg and realized that no matter how many lives they might have lived, or might live in an eternal future, it was this life that mattered right now. Though their souls might always be linked, in each incarnation they were different people, separate, having to learn again, and having to face with immediate courage the prospect of impending loss. A loss that would be devastating if it ever came…when it came if, in the fullness of time, Blair died before he did.
When Jim didn't answer, Blair looked up. "Right?" he prompted again, wanting reassurance.
"Right," Jim nodded soberly. "But that's not really the point, is it? Right now, here in this life, you, who you are now, is important to me. More important than anything else. I want to see you grow old. You should be quite a sight, with crazy, wild grey curls."
Blair blinked at the many messages contained in those simple words, and then he smiled brightly. "I want you to see that, too," he replied. "But you know, man," he added wickedly, "What with these nanites and all, I may never get gray hair. Unfortunately, I'm not sure yours is ever gonna grow back…"
Jim laughed as he flicked a hand across the back of Sandburg's head. "I'll have you know that my hairline is in no danger of receding any further," he snorted. "In fact, I think it's growing back in a bit."
Pretending to study Jim's high forehead, Blair observed impishly, "I don't know, Jim. I think that's wishful thinking on your part."
"Finish the salad, Sandburg," Ellison growled as he turned back to the sink and resumed cleaning and chopping carrots. But he was smiling to himself. The nanites might not have restored his hairline to the fullness of his youth, but it hadn't receded any further in the last six months either. Besides, he thought the slightly mature look suited him, made him look more intelligent.
"Wishful thinking, man," Blair snickered softly, as if he'd been reading Jim's mind.
"Maybe," Jim grunted. "But at least I don't look like a hippy, witchdoctor punk."
The Sentinel grinned at the sound of his Guide's laughter pealing through their apartment.
Simon called to ask if dinner could be held back for a while because he was caught in an incident downtown. He sounded harried, but emphasized that he still wanted to see them that night, so they told him not to worry and to come when he could get away.
It was after eight when Jim heard his superior's heavy footsteps in the hallway and opened the door before Banks had the chance to knock. Though Simon usually reacted when Jim pulled a stunt like that, if only with whimsical humour, that night he was too tired and distracted to notice.
"You look beat," Jim observed as he took Banks' jacket and hung it on a hook by the door. "Want a beer?"
"Sure," Simon replied wearily as he moved into the apartment and dumped the files he was carrying on the coffee table. "Sandburg," he acknowledged, nodding at the younger man, as he dropped down onto the couch.
"What's up, Simon?" Blair asked with a concerned frown.
Banks rubbed a tired hand over his face. "Ah, if you don't mind, let's wait until after we've eaten," he suggested evasively.
Blair glanced at Jim and shrugged, moving past Ellison who was bringing Simon a beer to go into the kitchen to finish preparing dinner. "Okay," Sandburg agreed to Simon's request. "I just need to grill the fish. Everything else is ready."
Jim watched as Simon took a long pull from the bottle. Puzzled by Banks' manner, feeling the older man's tension, he asked softly, "Trouble?"
"Big time," Banks grunted with a quick look over his shoulder to be certain Blair was occupied and not listening in to their low conversation. "How's he holding up?"
"All right," Jim replied tersely. "What's going on, Simon?" he pressed, unwilling to hold his curiosity in check until after dinner.
Banks' lips thinned as he tightened his jaw, his eyes slipping away from Jim's penetrating gaze. Rubbing the back of his neck, Simon shook his head a little and blew out a breath of frustration. "Problem is, I don't really know. Look, let it go until after we eat. Otherwise the kid might not have much of an appetite. Okay?"
Reluctantly, Jim nodded as Blair called out to them to move to the table and start dishing up the salad.
To keep them distracted, Banks asked questions about their trip into the mountains and the new MM he'd spotted outside next to Sandburg's rattletrap.
"Hey!" Blair protested the description, rising to the bait. "You're maligning my wings, man. She may be humble, but she's a classic."
Banks snorted as he pushed his empty plate away, feeling better for having eaten. "I guess it's time I brought the two of you up to date," he offered as Blair cleared away the plates and Jim put on the coffee.
"I guess it is," Jim replied, waving his boss toward the living room. "Make yourself comfortable. We'll just be a minute."
When they were settled with their coffee, Banks looked from one to the other and then said, "The three Morris chieftains are dead."
"What!" Jim exclaimed, sitting up a little straighter.
"But they were in jail, weren't they?" Blair demanded, stunned.
"Yeah, they were in jail," Simon sighed as he rubbed a hand over his short-cropped hair. "A fast-acting poison in their lunch saved the county the cost of a trial," he added bitterly. "It's too soon to have fingered the perp, if we ever do, but the clan is screaming that they were murdered by corrupt cops to hide the fact that we had nothing for the trial, that they were innocent. Damned vipers likely killed their own kin to keep them from making any deals. The media is suggesting that it was a rival family who took advantage of their 'relatively unprotected state' to get to them. But, either way, it's bad. The clan will be out for revenge-like an old fashioned blood feud. The Spinelli gang will try to take advantage of the confusion, claiming their own innocence of any wrongdoing while they shoot at anything that moves. And I'm afraid that you two, along with yours truly, head up the list of those the clan is holding 'responsible'."
"Well, we were pretty popular already," Blair observed with little humour. "So not much has changed, right?"
"Maybe not for me and Jim," Simon replied heavily, obviously regretting what he had to say. "We don't have any family. These bastards are like the Imperial Romans-they don't just kill their enemies. When they've gotten into a feud, they kill whole families."
For a moment, it didn't click, but then Blair's eyes widened in horror. "My Mom! You're saying they'll go after Marni?" he gasped.
Grimly, Simon nodded. "I'm sorry, Sandburg. But we need to know where she is and try to make sure she has the proper protection. Your mother and any other relatives that might be in danger."
"Oh, my God," Blair murmured as he stood to head to the comunit.
"Chief, Sandburg, hold up a minute!" Jim called rising to stop his friend. Blair turned back toward him, looking shocked and very frightened. "We need some kind of plan before you call, Blair. So that you can tell her what's going on, what to expect and what to do."
"Yeah, right," Blair mumbled as he pushed trembling fingers through his hair. "She's at a dig in Mexico, near a little town called Sierra Verde. Ruins of an old temple…"
Ellison guided Blair back to the couch and sat down beside him, and he left one steadying hand on Sandburg's shoulder as he turned back to Banks. "What do you think?"
"Any other relatives that we should worry about, Blair?" Simon asked with concern.
Blair shook his head. "No, uh, no one we were close to. My grandparents are both dead and neither my Mom or I had any siblings."
"Okay, then I think the two of you should flip down there," Simon replied. "That would get you both away from here until things settle down and you can make sure your mother stays safe. I'll call the local authorities, but I'm not sure how trustworthy they are. I wouldn't count on them if things go bad."
"Jim?" Blair turned to his partner, knowing that Ellison would rather be here, in the thick of things where he could help bring some order into the chaos. But his wide eyes, and the tremor that rippled through his body made it plain that he hoped his best friend would agree to Simon's idea. Either way, Sandburg knew he'd do everything he could to ensure his mother's safety.
"A good long shakeout flight would be the best possible thing for my new wings, Chief," Jim assured his friend. "Go start packing. I think we'll surprise your mother-just in case our comunits are being monitored. We can be there by tomorrow night."
"Thanks, Jim," Blair stammered. With a quick look at Simon, who nodded at him to go and pack, Sandburg turned and headed up to his room.
Turning back to Simon, Ellison waved at the files on the coffee table. "What's all this?"
"Copies of photos of guys to watch out for, information on their activities and known associates," Banks replied. "All the stuff you asked for the other day. I had these made up for you anyway, so you can take the files with you to go through while you're in Mexico. You've had military experience. Think about what kind of operations we're going to need to take these bastards down."
Jim smiled as he looked at the stack of files. But there was no warmth to it or in his eyes. It was the cold smile of the hunter who has spotted his prey. "How do we communicate while we're down there?" he asked.
"I've included the coding for a secure link in the notes and," Simon continued as he reached into his pocket, "this is the latest little gadget I could get my hands on. It's a mini-comlink, guaranteed secure from intercepts."
Jim took the small metallic device that looked like a fancy lighter, and after examining it to be sure he was clear on how it worked, he slipped it into his pocket. "Thanks, Simon. I appreciate your help on this and your willingness to let me go with Sandburg."
"It won't be perfectly safe, but it should be safer there than here," Simon replied as he stood and stretched. "There're too many variables at play right now and I'll feel better having both of you a long way from this mess. Give me a week and I'll have things more settled. You can decide then if Blair's mother is safe enough where she is, or if you should bring her back with you. Or, you might just want to get her away from there as soon as possible to some other part of the country where she can hide out-that's likely the best option. "
"We'll let you know when we get there," Jim assured his boss as he followed Simon to the door to bid him good night and good luck dealing with the fallout of the murders. "And, Simon," Jim paused, his hand on his boss' shoulder as he'd opened the door, "be careful. I know you've got a good team around you now, but those bastards will be gunning for you. I want you here and healthy when we get back."
Banks looked away, unused to anyone being particularly concerned about his personal safety. Nodding, he cut Jim a quick look, mumbled, "Thanks," and then turned to head down the stairs.
Jim locked up, quickly cleaned up the kitchen and then headed upstairs to his own room to pack.
Once he'd finished packing, Blair loaded generic flight channel data onto his palmlink, which would give them basic coordinates and locations for pitstops on the way south. To mask their intended destination, he also downloaded routings for Denver, New York, San Antonio and Orlando. By the time he was done, Jim was done packing and they headed out to load the camping gear into Jim's new MM along with their packs. Jim checked the vehicle thoroughly for tracers, having learned his lesson only days ago, and taking nothing for granted, but the MM was clean. It seemed that either the bad guys weren't on to the new purchase yet, or they hadn't noticed the partners had returned from their last vanishing act into the mountains.
Within an hour, they'd powered up and were heading south.
They both kept a wary watch on the traffic around them as they flew out of the city, but it didn't look like anyone was following them. Once they were zooming through quieter, dark skies, Blair sat back, huddled in his seat with his arms tightly crossed over his chest. Jim could hear his friend's accelerated heart rate and the too quick, shallow breathing.
"You need to relax or you'll have a heart attack before we get there," he observed quietly, the tinge of humour in his tone not quite covering his concern.
Blair cut him a quick look and then consciously forced himself to breathe deeper and slower while he rolled his shoulders a little to loosen them up. "You're right," he allowed. "It's just that it never occurred to me that Marni could be in any danger. I mean, she's so far away, and doesn't have a clue what's going down here. I don't even want to think about those creeps going after her."
"Even if that's what they have planned, it'll likely take them a while to figure out where she is and to make any kind of local arrangement. We'll be there long before anything can happen, Chief. She'll be okay," Jim reassured his partner, hoping he was right. Hoping the Morris clan hadn't long ago done their homework on the two of them. Hoping that if trouble did follow them that he'd be able to keep both Blair and his mother safe.
"Yeah," Sandburg sighed as he stared out into the darkness. Taking another cleansing breath, he tried to look on the bright side. "At least you'll finally get a chance to meet my Mom," he said with the shadow of a grin as he looked back at Jim. "I haven't told her about you," he confessed. "I wanted you to be a surprise."
"Well, I'm pretty sure she'll be surprised when we show up there tomorrow night," Jim noted with a grin in return. "I'm looking forward to finally meeting her. What's she like? And why do you sometimes call her by her name? And not just 'mom'?"
Jim saw a real smile blossom on Blair's face as the younger man thought about his parent. "She's something else, man," Sandburg said with a happy lilt in his voice. Turning toward Jim with more spontaneous, natural animation than Ellison had seen in weeks, Blair waved his hands a little helplessly as he began, "I don't even know how to describe her, you know?"
Smiling, Jim encouraged him, "Start with the easy stuff, Junior. What does she look like?"
"Well, she's a little taller than I am," Blair replied.
"Everyone's taller than you are, squirt," Jim smirked.
Blair batted his arm lightly as he protested, "Hey! Watch it! I'm of average height!"
"For a pygmy," Jim teased.
Blair snorted. "We can't all be giants, man. Anyway, she's got red hair and green eyes and, well, I'm not sure I should say this about my own mother, but she's a looker-so behave yourself!"
"A 'looker', huh," Ellison drawled.
"Just remember she's my mother, Jim, and we'll all get along just fine," Blair replied sternly, but couldn't help another impish grin. "And she's always been real independent. When I was little, she used to tell me that she'd been inspired by her great-grandmother, Naomi, the other Blair's mother. My Mom's name is Margaret-Naomi, after her grandmother and great-grandmother, Marni for short."
"What are the similarities between her and Naomi?" Jim asked, curious.
"Hmm, let's see. Well, first off, they both had babies young and without the benefit of being married," Sandburg reported. "My Mom was hardly more than seventeen when I was born. And they both insisted on taking care of themselves, but for different reasons, I think. I'm not sure, but I think Naomi ran away from home when she was a kid because of some problems, but I don't know what they were. In Marni's case, she grew up during the dark years after the cataclysm. She'd only just turned three when her father died, and the family lost pretty much everything. I was born back here in the States, but Marni took me to Europe with her when she went there for her undergrad degree and then to Israel for her post-grad work. We traveled all over while I was growing up, to all the digs she worked on as a student and then later as she followed her profession. She's an archaeologist. We lived in communes and kibbutzes and a lot of camps around the digs."
"Must have been tough sometimes," Jim reflected, thinking they couldn't have had much money, at least not in her student years. And moving a lot could be hard on a kid. Briefly, Jim wondered who had taken care of Marni's child while she was pursuing her studies.
Blair shrugged. "We weren't rich, if that's what you mean," he agreed. "But it was always interesting and I learned a huge amount just listening to her and her friends at the various digs. It was a pretty unusual way to grow up, I guess, but I wouldn't change it."
"She never married?" Jim asked.
"Nope," Sandburg replied. "That's another way she's supposedly like the original Naomi. My Mom enjoys relationships, but she's never committed to one for any length of time. She said it would only tie her down and she'd have to put her career second if she got married, and she wasn't prepared to do that. The world is her backyard, man, and she made it mine."
"What did your father have to say about her taking you to Europe and then all over the world?" Jim asked, wondering if he was trodding on dangerous ground. Sandburg had never mentioned his father.
Blair blew out a breath as he shifted in his seat, again looking out into the night. "I have no idea who my father is, Jim. I'm not sure she does, either. At least, she says she doesn't and that it doesn't matter. Lots of kids grow up with only one parent. You did, for a lot of your life after your mother left your dad."
Jim heard the slight tone of defensiveness in Blair's voice and felt a twinge at his friend's words. Biting his lip, he replied quietly, "That's true. But, well, I guess I never stopped missing my mother after she left."
"Yeah, well, that's only natural, I guess," Sandburg replied. "But you had your home and school, the same friends, your brother…"
His voice trailed off as he realized that going down that path might reveal some of what he'd missed so much in his own life, for all his brave words that he wouldn't have changed anything if he could have. He wouldn't. But that didn't mean he hadn't wondered what living a 'normal' life would have been like, especially every time they packed up and moved again. "It was probably harder for you, 'cause you knew your mother, so of course you'd miss her," Blair murmured finally. "You can't really miss someone you never knew."
Jim felt an ache at the unconscious wistfulness in Blair's voice but decided not to pursue it. Though it did make him wonder about Marni Sandburg and the kind of woman she was. Seemed that she hadn't been prepared to let anything get in the way of how she wanted to live her life. Not a husband. And not her son, either. Biting his lip, Jim refrained from commenting on what he thought about that.
When Jim remained silent, Blair cleared his throat as he continued with a light tone that seemed just the least bit forced. "Apparently, my great-great-grandmother Naomi used to say, 'Detach with love,' a lot and my Mom took that counsel to heart. She idolized Naomi, and just drank in all the stories about how she'd wandered the earth her whole life. Naomi had taken her son everywhere, and after Blair and Margaret were murdered, she did the same thing with my grandfather when she took him to raise. And then, when my grandmother died when Marni was only ten, Naomi took on her care, though she was a pretty old lady by then, though it apparently didn't slow her down any. So we've always been nomads, sort of, for generations. Gypsies. Except for my years at Rainier, Marni has been just about the only constant in my life, but that's okay. So far, I think my great-grandfather Blair holds the record for living in one place the longest during the years when he was in Cascade until he died, and I'm a close second."
Brightening, Blair turned back to Jim to continue recounting his mother's characteristics. "She's really into natural herbs and stuff, and she's the one who taught me how to meditate. Marni says the Universe is a great and wondrous place, full of magic if you're open to it. She's bright and funny, and she has a thousand friends, at least! Like, we couldn't go anywhere in the world and not run into people she knew. She's into the environment, and human rights-very conscientious and active in movements like Amnesty International." Blushing a little, hoping the darkness would hide it, Blair decided to be completely open with Jim as he didn't want his friend surprised, and he knew the kind of men who appealed to his mother. "She's, uh, very straightforward about what she finds attractive, and, uh, well, don't be surprised if she flirts with you. Just remember she's my Mom and I'll be watching!"
Jim almost choked on that, and he could feel the heat radiating from Sandburg's face. Swallowing, he grinned as he replied with a definite tone of teasing, "So it would bother you if I got involved with your mother, would it?"
"Well, maybe not in a cosmic sense, Jim," Blair replied, apparently quite serious. "I just think things are complicated enough without adding that into the mix. I mean, what do I do when the two of you have a fight or break up and can't stand the sight of each other. Believe me, it can get messy."
And it sounds like you've had way too much experience finding that out, Chief, Jim thought, wondering how many men Blair had made friends with while they were 'involved' with his mother, only too lose them with the relationship ended. But Blair didn't need to think about that tonight. Still trying to keep the light tone, Jim shrugged and said offhandedly, "Well, flirting can be fun, Chief, you know that. Besides, it doesn't have to lead anywhere."
"It does if it's my Marni," Blair laughed lightly, long used to his mother's behaviours. He was only worried about Jim being scandalized. "Marni believes that life is short and is to be enjoyed. She's a hedonist, Jim. Harmless. Sort of. But definitely into the natural pleasures of life."
"I see," Jim replied, at a loss for words.
"No, you don't. But you will," Blair replied, not sure whether to laugh or sigh. It really was impossible to prepare anyone for the whirlwind who was Marni Sandburg. Blair loved her, with all his heart. But she wasn't like anyone else he'd ever met.
They took turns flying and dozing during the night and over the course of the next day. Blair came to appreciate the merits of an MM as he noted the miles vanish behind them at a far greater speed than he'd every have been able to manage in his flutter. With minimal stops, they were over Mexico by late afternoon the next day. They had decided that the best, safest course of action was to sweep in to pick up Marni and then hightail it out to some out of the way, untraceable location in the States until things settled down.
"Where do we go, Chief?" Jim asked, as they got closer to their destination. "The site or the town?"
"I know she has a room in the Presidente Hotel in town, so I think we should probably go there, and we can get registered ourselves," Blair suggested. "Much as I'd like to just take off right away, it'll be too late by the time we explain all this to her, and we both need a decent night's sleep." His voice was tight with his need to see his mother and ensure she was all right, especially now, when they were so close. "By the time we get there, I think she'd likely be back from the dig for the day."
"Okay," Jim replied, calling up the local GPN map of the area on the miniputer in the cab. Less than an hour later, he was easing into the local traffic vector and following the 'puter's directions to the hotel. Gliding into the hotel flight lot, Jim parked and they grabbed their gear.
Once they'd registered, Blair used the house-comunit to call his mother's room and heaved a huge sigh of relief when she answered on the first ring.
"Mom?" Blair said, "It's me, Blair."
"Sweetie!" Marni exclaimed, delight in her tone at the sound of his voice. "How wonderful to hear from you! How are you?"
"Well, I've got a surprise for you, a couple of surprises actually," Blair replied cryptically with a glance up at Jim. "Um, what's your room number?"
"I'm in 304. Blair? You sound funny," she said, not suspecting he was in the hotel, only thinking that perhaps he was planning to send something to her for Christmas, which was only a couple more weeks away. But something in his voice set off her maternal alarm bells; and he usually only called her 'Mom', as opposed to 'Marni', when he was emotional or feeling vulnerable. "Is everything all right?"
"Um, yeah, well, it's hard to explain. But, yeah, I'm fine," he replied. "Actually, I'm just downstairs and I'll be up in a couple of minutes, okay?"
"You're here? In Sierra Verde?" she exclaimed, astonished. Her son wasn't known for dropping in on her unexpectedly, and they'd already decided that they likely wouldn't be spending the coming holiday together that year. He'd said he'd be staying home to spend Christmas with his new roommate. "Blair, what's wrong?"
"In a minute, Mom," he answered. "I'll explain everything as soon as I get upstairs."
Cutting the connection, he and Jim headed up to her room, taking their bags with them. There'd be time enough later to get settled in their room.
When Blair rapped on the door, Marni answered. Her face was clouded with worry, but cleared with evident relief to see that he looked fine, so at least he wasn't hurt or sick. She scarcely noticed the man with him as they entered, her attention focused on her son. Studying him intently, she decided that he did look a little too pale for her liking and she could see the shadows of deep anxiety in his eyes. Frowning, she realized he looked like he was frightened of something.
"Sweetie!" she exclaimed as she hugged him and then stepped back to allow them into the room. "What's wrong? What's happened?"
"I just arrive and you figure something has to be wrong for me to visit?" Blair protested, but his heart wasn't really in it, and she could tell.
"Don't, honey," she sighed, running her fingers through his curls. "I can see something is worrying you…your eyes have always been the window to your soul. Tell me, Blair, what's wrong?" She flicked another look at Jim, curious, thinking something about him seemed familiar, but then she returned her attention to her son.
"Mom, sit down, okay," Blair replied. "This is complicated and might take a while."
She allowed him to press her down into the only comfortable chair in the room. Jim stayed by the door while Blair perched on the bed close to her. "Okay, I'm sitting," she stated impatiently. "So, spill it, Blair."
Sandburg rubbed his mouth for a moment, and then took a breath as he nodded. "Mom, I want you to meet my new roommate and best friend, Jim Ellison," he said, waving toward Jim. "Jim, this is my Mom, Marni Sandburg."
A multitude of expressions flitted across Marni's face, welcome principally as she turned to greet her son's new friend, but then, as she really looked at him, and the name sank in, she blanched. Shaking her head, she looked back at her son. "Blair, what's going on? He looks just like…and his name…" she stammered.
"The Sentinel," Blair replied, nodding, keeping his voice steady. "I know. Jim is your grandfather's Sentinel. He didn't die, Mom. Jim was cryogenated and I found him. He was revived at Rainier."
"Oh my God," Marni gasped, tears filling her eyes as she turned again toward Jim. Slowly, she rose from the chair and moved toward him, her arms opening even as a tear spilled onto her cheek. "Jim Ellison," she stammered, her throat tight. "We…never dreamed hope…we thought you were dead…"
Before he knew it, Jim was wrapped in a tight hug. "Yeah, Blair told me," he said, looking up at Blair, not sure what to do. He hadn't expected this. But then, he thought, maybe he should have. Certainly, Blair had been pretty excited about finding him and he'd said months ago that his whole family had been looking for sentinels for generations.
"My grandfather wrote in his journals that he always felt that something was wrong, that you were missing, that something didn't feel right-that you didn't 'feel' dead," Marni sniffed, pulling away to look up at him. "He loved you. He might not have known you for long, but he loved you very much. It would mean so much to him to know that you survived."
Gradually, the odd circumstances also settled in as she turned to Blair. "And, how amazing that you were the one to find him. How?" she asked.
"A heat signature at the old Ellison Industries Building site," Blair replied. "But, um, there's a lot more to tell you. Some of it can wait," he paused, looking at Jim and then back at his mother, "but we came down here because there is real trouble. Mom, and you could be in danger."
"Trouble? Danger?" she repeated, moving back to sit beside her son. Laying a hand on his thigh, she said, "I don't understand."
"Mom, Jim took up where he left off, and he's a Detective with Cascade PD," Blair continued. "We've, uh, been working together and I've been helping him with his senses. Anyway," he went on quickly to forestall the questions he could see in her eyes, "we helped with the arrest of the Governor, the Police Commissioner, and the Police Chief…"
"I read about that on the 'net daily journal," she interjected, a look of astonishment on her face. "You helped do that?"
"Yeah. Well, anyway, the three men were murdered yesterday in the jail. And now there's a crime feud starting, and well, it's likely that Jim and I, and you, because you're my family, will be targeted for revenge," Blair forged on breathlessly, speaking so fast that his words were tumbling over one another. "So, we came to make sure you're safe."
For a moment, she simply stared at him, trying to assimilate what he'd told her. Shaking her head, she protested, "Who would come after me all the way to Mexico? But-how much danger are you in?"
She flicked a look at Jim, and for a moment the flash of anger and ice deep within her emerald eyes chilled him. This woman didn't take kindly to anyone, including a long-lost Sentinel, putting her son in danger. Jim also noted that she didn't seem to have registered the fact that she was also at risk.
"I'm afraid that it's all too possible that they'll track you here, Ms Sandburg," Jim interjected. "I'm sorry, but this is a very dangerous situation. Preferably, we would like to relocate you somewhere else immediately, somewhere with no data trail to be followed."
"For how long?" she demanded, turning to face him, still trying to fully take in who was standing there.
When Jim bit his lip, shook his head, half shrugged and looked away, she turned back to Blair. "Blair, this is going a little fast for me," she said slowly, trying to assimilate it all. "I get that there's trouble, and that you and Jim at least are in danger. But, honey, you know how these digs work. If I pull out now, I could lose the right to the scientist who made the next bid to come in. And-well, you don't know what I've found." She turned back to look at Jim as she said, "I've found the Temple of the Sentinels. I have to show you." Swivelling back to Blair, she added, "Both of you."
"Mom, this is really serious. I know the Temple is important, but I'm talking about your life," he pleaded. "Let us take you some place where you'll be safe. Please."
Made restless by the pressure and the worry she felt for her son, not to mention her continuing sense of unreality every time she looked at Jim, Marni stood to pace the room. The only thing that meant more to her than her work was her son, but this work was of tremendous importance. Especially now-now that they actually had Jim Ellison, the Sentinel, here and alive. Biting her lip, she nodded as she said, "All right. But, we have to go out to the site first. There're samples there and records that I need to take with me…and I have to show you what I've found," she temporized looking from Jim to Blair.
Blair looked toward Jim, the questions in his eyes. Could they afford that detour? Was there time?
Jim looked back at his best friend and shook his head helplessly. How could he know? Finally, Jim turned to Marni, as he asked, "How far is this site, and how much time will you need there?"
"It's about a half hour flight and another fifteen to twenty minute walk in," she replied, facing Jim. "And, two hours there should be enough to show you what I've found. But, perhaps I wasn't clear; but this isn't negotiable. It's my decision to do this, not yours. If you need to get Blair someplace safe sooner than that, please, take him and I'll follow later but I need to get my papers. I need to show you what I've found."
"Mom, we're not going anywhere without you," Blair interjected, and sighed. He knew arguing with her would be a waste of time. But he didn't like the delay. "Jim, do you think it's okay? Can we risk a half day delay in getting away?"
"Honestly, I don't know, Chief," Jim replied. "We don't know if they know where your mother is or not. We don't know if they are on the way or already here, somewhere." Swallowing, Jim turned to Marni. "Please, Ms Sandburg, the site will be here in the future. We need to get you away."
"Call me Marni," she replied. "Look, I know you think I'm being unreasonable, but I can't honestly believe they, whoever they are, could care less about me, let alone track me down to some remote place in the jungle of Mexico. I'm sure we can afford a half day for me to show you what I've found and to get my work out."
Seeing that she was immovable, Jim nodded tightly. Shifting his gaze to Blair's, he said quietly, "I'll do my best to make certain we all stay safe, Chief."
Over the course of the evening, Jim picked up mixed signals from Marni Sandburg. On the one hand, she had been overwhelmed and overcome to meet him and her welcome had been sincere. But, she cooled down quickly once she'd figured out that her son's life was in danger because he'd been hanging around with one Jim Ellison. Well, he couldn't blame her for that. At least her ambivalence about him had meant that there had been no signals of any other kind. And he was glad about that. It was never easy to ignore direct invitations from beautiful women who also had brains and personality. Blair had been right to say his mother was 'a looker'. She really was, with that mane of curly red hair and those incredible eyes, not to mention the trimly athletic, sun-bronzed body revealed by her khaki shorts and tank top. But she was also pretty quick on the uptake…the load of information they had laid on her within minutes would have overwhelmed most people, but she took it in stride and did her own analysis on it. And, she was warm and vivacious by nature.
For Jim, her most attractive feature was that she seemed to genuinely care about Blair. His 'sight unseen' assessments and assumptions appeared groundless. She might have given her son an unusual childhood, but it was not out of any lack of love. And, when he saw them together, for all her idiosyncrasies, he could see that Blair truly loved her, too.
Bottom line, he wished that she wasn't so determined to go back to the site before getting out of Sierra Verde. Ellison knew he wasn't psychic, but he had a bad feeling about it all. Of course, he reasoned to himself, being hunted and being on the run for days can do that to a man. They had continued to try to change her mind over dinner in her room, as neither Jim nor Blair felt it was safe enough to be seen on the streets or in a restaurant. They didn't want to take any chances they didn't have to take.
But she remained adamant. She told them the site was incredible, with a wealth of hieroglyphics about Sentinels, and pools that had been used for ancient ceremonies. However, no one could be quite sure what really occurred when the Sentinels were said to see the 'Eye of God' during potion-induced trances while they floated in the pools. Jim cocked a brow at Sandburg, as much as to say he wouldn't be interested in taking that kind of test, nor would he put much stock in anything that happened while in a drug-induced stupor. Blair had grinned in understanding, shrugged, and turned back to listen to his mother.
But Jim listened more closely when she began to talk about something else, something unexpected that had been found in a small, back area of the Temple. It was the 'Grotto of the Guides', and they had their own pool, for their own visions. This was quite significant, apparently, as no one had really paid much attention to the role of the 'companions' or 'guides' before, having been more interested in the myths about the sentinels themselves.
"Blair's my Guide," Jim had interjected then, drawing a surprised look from Marni.
"Oh, I don't know, Jim," Blair replied, uncomfortable with being ascribed a formal role that seemed so much more than he thought he'd been doing in helping Jim with his senses.
"I know, Chief," Ellison had insisted. "That's why we were in the jungle…"
But his voice trailed off and they both looked at Marni, realizing they hadn't told her anything yet about how Blair seemed to be the exact reincarnation of his great-grandfather, right on down to his soul. With a look, Jim left it to Blair to decide how he much he told her. Blair bit his lip, but then he decided he wanted to tell her-they'd never had secrets from one another, and this was important. Taking a deep breath, he told her everything they'd figured out or surmised so far about his connection to his great-grandfather, how he'd found Jim, and helped with his revival, and how he'd been doing his best to help Jim since then with the control of his senses. All he left out were details about the mortal wounds he'd suffered and the information about the nanites.
Jim had thought Marni would be incredulous or at least sceptical, but she took it in stride-more accepting in some ways than her son had been. She had worked with enough different cultures and belief systems throughout the course of her career to be open to the possibility that the Universe might well arrange such a thing. More, for all of her life, she'd been influenced by her great-grandmother, Naomi, who would have accepted such a proposition as reincarnation in a heartbeat. A soft look had come over her face as she'd taken her son's hand, and said softly, but with heart-stopping directness and sincerity, "You found him. After searching so hard and so long for him, I'm so glad you found him."
And they all knew she had been talking to the original Blair at that moment.
It was a moment Jim would never forget. It seemed to bind him and Blair together in a way that neither of them had managed on their own, however close they'd become. They'd both pretty much accepted 'the jungle'. Hell, Jim had lived that part. But each of them had had some disassociation between this Blair and the former one. For Marni, they were simply the same soul, the same heart and mind. When he'd looked back at Sandburg in that moment, he saw that the kid had choked up, and had tears in his eyes, as he simply nodded, as if too moved to speak. It had brought tears to Jim's eyes to see that, and to know that for that moment at least, that other Blair was indeed sitting there with them. She brought a kind of completion, somehow. She made it all seem right and natural.
And after that moment, she seemed less antagonistic to Jim, as if she'd accepted, if her son had not, that he was the Sentinel's Guide. She seemed to understand that they had been meant to find one another, regardless of the dangers and challenges their relationship might pose in the future for the welfare of her son.
For all that Marni was fiercely independent, she was also a bit of a fatalist. In her mind, people are given big patterns, or contexts, in which they will live their lives. How they live them from there are then their individual choices. It made for an interesting discussion long into the evening, but Jim didn't pretend that he'd really understood it all.
It was late before they finally called it a night. They prevailed upon Marni to spend the night in their room, so that they could be certain that she was safe.
The next morning, they loaded their bags into Jim's MM but did not check out, with the hope that if someone was on Marni's tail, they'd set up a watch on the hotel, assuming she'd be back from the dig that evening. She directed Jim to the landing area, and then led them through the jungle to the site of the Temple. Blair walked behind him, keeping a hand resting lightly on Jim's back to keep him grounded. As they tramped through the rainforest, Jim projected his senses, particularly hearing, to be ready if anyone snuck up on them.
"Oh, wow," Blair breathed when he first caught sight of the Temple ruins. And Jim could understand why his young friend was so impressed. Guarded by stone jaguars at the gate, the steps rose three stories in the air before reaching the portal into the Temple of stone that loomed above them.
"It's really something, isn't it?" she sighed, pleased to have brought them there. As Sentinel and Guide, they belonged here, needed to know the secrets the Temple had held in silence for so many centuries.
Jim thought the Temple was magnificent, but he was more concerned about the way his sense of unease had grown as they'd approached it. It felt too quiet. There were no sounds of animals in the bush, or birds in the trees. There was no breeze, like there'd been back at the landing site. He felt almost more than he heard a distant, steady drumming but the rhythm of the drums was out of alignment, discordant. Something wasn't right. He just couldn't put his finger on what.
"Shouldn't there be other workers here?" he asked.
"No, we're too early," she replied. "They'll show up in another hour or so. Come on, I want to show you inside."
"Wait!" Jim cautioned, laying a hand on her arm. "I want to go ahead. Check it out."
"I told you, there's no one here, nothing to worry about about," she laughed lightly, pulling away, anxious to show them what she'd found. "Come on!"
She had just stepped out of the cover of the gateway and was starting up the steps when the thrumming of the drums sped up and became clear to the Sentinel. They weren't drums! From somewhere nearby, Jim heard the furious snarl of a jaguar, but he had no time to really register it, no time to do anything but react.
"Get back!" he yelled, moving forward quickly to cover her. "It's a trap!"
"What?" Blair called, alarmed by Jim's sudden abrupt cry as Ellison lunged to pull his mother back.
It all happened at once.
Marni turned, wondering what Jim was yelling about, and so didn't see the two men emerge from the shadows of the portal. Didn't see their guns.
"MOM!" Blair screamed as the shots rang out, already running toward her.
Jim was shooting back, even as they fired, killing them instantly…
…and Marni was falling, crimson splotches already spreading on the back of her khaki shirt.
Blair was there, catching her as she fell and easing her to the ground, cradled in his arms.
"Mom!" he called, terror ringing in his voice. "Oh, God! No!"
"Blair?" she whispered, panting a little, her eyes wide with shock, not quite understanding what had happened. "Baby?"
"I'm here, Mom," he said, his voice quavering with fear for her. "Shh, don't talk, okay?"
Jim knelt beside them and rapidly checked out her injuries. When he realized how bad it was, he froze, not sure how he could look up into Blair's eyes and tell him his mother was dying.
"You're going to be okay, Mom," Blair was saying to her, softly, like a parent crooning to a child who was frightened, holding her, rocking her a little, so that she'd know she was safe. "Just…just hang on. Please. Mom? Please…"
"I'm sorry, Blair," she murmured, blood beginning to stain her lips as she gasped for breath. She'd been holding Blair's gaze with her own, but now her eyes tracked to Jim, slowly, as if she was trying to find her way in the dark. "Take…take care of my Blair," she whispered haltingly.
"I will," Jim vowed, his voice hoarse as he gazed into emerald eyes clouded now with pain and the sorrow of her knowledge that she couldn't stay. Jim gripped her arm, and ran a gentle hand over her brow and head. "I promise…always."
She nodded, a tight, jerky motion, blinking heavily as she shifted her gaze back to her son's tear-glazed eyes. Blair was holding her hand, and she tried to squeeze back. "I love you, sweetie," she whispered. "I'm so proud of you, my…beautiful…Blair…"
"Oh, Mom, don't," he wept, holding her tightly to his chest. "I love you. Please don't die…"
"Shhh…" she soothed, wishing she had the breath for more. Wishing there was more time. "Shhh… Blair. It's all right…"
"No," he protested, shaking his head, tears streaming down his cheeks. "No…"
But she was gone.
"NOOOO!!!" Blair screamed, curling over her, shaking with the grief that ripped through him, sobbing with it.
"I'm sorry, Blair," Jim murmured, tears in his own eyes as he gripped his partner's shoulder. "I'm so very sorry."
But Blair pulled away from him, unable to accept it, not wanting confirmation, unwilling to hear it, as he wept over his mother's body.
Understanding, Jim moved away and up the steps to check the bodies of the men who had done this. He'd killed them, but maybe there would be something more, something to trace back to those who had ordered this atrocity.
He didn't recognize them from any of the photos in the file Simon had given him, and he figured they had to be local talent. Their pockets were empty but for a few pesos and photographs of Marni and Blair and himself. Reproductions of their flying license photos. Proof enough, if they'd needed it, of someone inside the bureaucracy who was providing or selling information. Not that they needed it. The question these days was who wasn't corrupt, not who was.
Sighing, Jim pulled the small, secure comunit Simon had given him from his pocket, and was grateful when his call was answered almost immediately.
"Jim?" Simon's voice called, knowing no one else would call from that secure number.
"Yeah," Jim muttered, raking his fingers through his hair. "We found Marni Sandburg, but she insisted on coming out to the site of her archaeological dig before we left Mexico. Two of them ambushed us here. She's dead."
"Ah, shit," Simon sighed, sickened by the news. "How's the kid?"
"How do you think?" Jim snapped back, and then regretted it. It wasn't Simon's fault Marni was dead. It was his. He'd failed to protect her properly. He'd gotten Sandburg mixed up in this hideous mess in the first place. "Sorry," he muttered. "Look, I need your help to sort things out here. Can you arrange for the locals to come out to get the bodies and to transport Marni's body back to Cascade tomorrow? If Blair wants to do something else with her remains, that will give him time to decide before she's flown out."
"Sure, Jim," Simon replied sombrely. "I'll call in an official message giving the background, so they'll understand what went down and that when you took those two guys out, it was a righteous shoot. You should have locals on site within a couple of hours at most."
"Thanks," Jim sighed, his eyes on Sandburg at the base of the steps.
"What are the two of you going to do?" Banks asked. "Will you head straight back here?"
Jim shook his head. "I don't know," he confessed. "I have to talk to Sandburg once the shock has passed. I don't know if he'll want to go back there, or if I'll need to get him safely settled someplace else."
"All right," Simon replied, not pushing. He hoped they'd both be back. God help him, he needed them. But he would also understand if they both disappeared off the face of the map.
"I'll keep you posted, Simon," Jim assured his superior…more, their friend.
Signing off the call, Jim put the comunit back in his pocket as he made his way back down the steps and sank down beside Sandburg, who was sitting up now, the initial burst of denial and the shock of overwhelming loss passing into just plain shock. Jim put an arm around his friend's shoulders, and murmured again, "I'm sorry, Blair…more sorry than I can say."
Sandburg nodded numbly as he gazed down into his mother's peaceful face. He sounded lost as he sighed, "I loved her, you know?"
"I know," Jim said quietly. "She knew it, too. And she loved you very, very much."
"She…she was my whole world, Jim," Blair whispered brokenly. "All the time I was growing up, there was no one else, not really. Just the two of us. She was so amazing. So bright and funny. She taught me so much. And she made me feel safe. No matter where we were, or how much we kept moving from place to place, so long as I was with her, I knew I'd be okay." Blair's voice caught and cracked. "She wouldn't have done anything to hurt me, not ever." He sniffed, shook his head, and then choked out, "And I got her killed…"
"NO, Chief, no," Jim protested, squeezing his friend's shoulder. "Don't ever think that! This wasn't your fault."
"Yeah, it was," Blair sighed. "She was only killed because she was my mother." His voice broke again, and then he said, needing to talk about her, "Oh, God, Jim…she was so happy, all the time. She loved her work…and she was so excited about this find. And, man, when she realized who you are, she knew it was a miracle… she's one of the very few people who ever knew what a miracle you are. You would have liked her. I really wish you could have had a chance to know her. I wish she could have gotten to know you. I should have told her about you months ago."
"I liked her, Blair," Jim murmured, rubbing his back, wishing there was some way to ease his pain, knowing there wasn't. "I liked her just fine. Especially when she showed me that she knew what a miracle you are, too." He paused, not liking the guilt he heard in Sandburg's words and voice. "Chief, you couldn't know what was going to happen. You can't read the future. Don't, please, don't second-guess not telling her. You got here. She knew you only wanted her to be safe. You saw her and you told her all kinds of amazing things last night. She knew, Blair, she knew all she'd really want or need to know."
Blair sniffed again, and he stroked his fingers through her hair. "I'm going to miss her so much…"
Jim nodded and brushed a tear from his own cheek. He was a cop. He understood that sometimes, as hard as you tried, you couldn't save everyone, not even the ones you most wanted to save. But he was also a Sentinel who was supposed to be able to protect his Guide, and his tribe. But all he seemed to do was bring pain into his Guide's life, put him at risk, and now his mother, the most important person in the kid's life, was dead because Jim hadn't been able to save her. His arm was again around Sandburg's shoulders and his head dropped so that hisforehead rested on Blair's shoulder. "I'm sorry," he whispered again.
They sat on the steps for more than an hour before the first site workers showed up. Blair lapsed into the silence of his memories and his grief, while Jim watched over him.
It was almost four hours since Marni Sandburg had been murdered. The site workers had arrived first, and were horrified by what they found. Blair scarcely noticed they were there, but Jim dealt with them, having them gather by the gate in case the local authorities wanted to talk to them, though Ellison doubted they would know anything. He heard their shocked whispers, what they said about Marni Sandburg, and he learned she'd been a good project leader, that they had respected and liked her and sincerely mourned her.
Almost an hour after that, the local cops arrived, but because of the information they'd received from Simon, they didn't have a lot of questions. Jim watched them carefully, not trusting them as far as he could throw them. Any one of them could be another potential assassin after him and Blair.
But for once, they seemed to have gotten a break. The senior officer was sympathetic in his manner to Blair, and Jim gathered that part of the courtesy was because Marni had been well known in the small town. She had brought a lot of work to the area when her team moved in needing accommodation and supplies and, even more, when she'd hired local workers for the site.
A chopper appeared overhead and hovered, having been arranged between the police and the nearby military base to provide airlift to transport the bodies from the site to the town. Jim was uncomfortable having Marni transported with the cadavers of the men who had murdered her, and he didn't think Blair would be too happy with that either. But, the cops left Blair alone, a forlorn figure holding his mother's body close, while they moved the other two bodies out. Once they were lifted, the helicopter moved out of position and a second moved in. Jim swallowed, his gaze moving to the official in charge and, catching man's eyes, he nodded in gratitude for the sensitivity being shown.
Kneeling by Blair, Jim said, "It's time, Chief. You have to let them take her now."
Blair looked up at him, dazed, and then around at the strangers gazing at him with compassion, his eyes coming to rest on the stretcher. He shook his head, confused. "Take her where?" he asked, lifting his gaze back to Jim, as his grip on his mother tightened.
The pain in those wide blue eyes was terrible to see and Jim found for a moment that he couldn't speak in the face of such grief; grief he should have been able to prevent. Swallowing, he answered quietly, "Simon has arranged for her to be taken back to Cascade, unless you'd like something else done."
Blair blinked, shook his head. It was too soon. He couldn't think what to do, what she'd want.
"You don't have to decide right now, Blair," Jim offered. He looked to the police officer who had come to stand near by.
"Your madre, she will be at the hospital, senor," he explained, his words heavily accented. "You can make arrangements when you get back to Sierra Verde."
Blair nodded. Turning back to his mother, he bowed his head to kiss her forehead and then loosened his grip, allowing the police to take her from his arms. Jim helped him stand and looped a strong arm around his shoulder, holding him tightly as they watched them secure her in the basket, cover her with a blanket and lift her up into the chopper. Watched as it turned and flew away, disappearing beyond the canopy of trees.
"We can go now, Blair," Jim told his partner.
But Blair shook his head. Swallowing, he turned to look up at the Temple. "She…she really wanted us to see this, Jim," he replied, his voice hoarse. "I think…I think she'd feel bad if we left without…without going inside."
"Okay, Chief, whatever you want, buddy," Jim agreed, keeping his arm around Blair's shoulders as they slowly climbed the eroded stone steps.
In one of the chambers near the entrance, they found the work area Marni had set up, a plain wooden table with artefacts laid out on the top of it, and below, a metal box that held notes and files. Blair touched the ceramic vases and small figurines, part of him understanding that he was looking at something amazing-part of him knowing these were some of the last things his mother had touched. He knelt and riffled through the notes and files, recognizing her handwriting. And he found that she'd been keeping duplicate notes in her personal journal. He held it for a long moment, and when he stood, he kept it in his hands. He knew that she would want him to have it.
Together, they wandered through the Temple, Blair leading the way, Jim following, allowing his friend all the time he needed. Both of them took note of the frescoes and the carvings in the stone of the walls, the hieroglyphics. Blair pointed out those that represented sentinels, and it was clear to Jim that his partner was able to read much of what was written on the walls. They found the pools where the sentinels had their visions of the 'Eye of God' and Blair sighed.
"We have to come back here some day, Jim," he murmured as he reached out to touch the writing on the wall. "When we have time to really take this in. Mom was right. This is important to you. We need to understand this."
"Okay, Chief," Jim acquiesced, though there was no way anyone was going to convince him to try some supposedly mystical experience after consuming a hallucinogenic potion.
Blair nodded, and then moved on. About half an hour later, they found themselves in the realm of guides rather than sentinels. Blair swallowed as he read the hieroglyphics and shook his head.
"What is it, Sandburg?" Jim asked, actually more interested in these findings than those dealing with sentinels.
"It says…" Blair paused, and shook his head again, then continued, "what she said last night. That guides were matched to sentinels; were born to be guides…and they had a sacred duty of their own." His voice dropped away and he moved to look down into the grotto below, at the pool there.
Jim came to stand beside him and gripped his shoulder. "Don't even think about it, Chief," he murmured, but his voice was firm. "No way am I going to let you drink some potion and climb into that water."
Blair's chin lifted, as if he might protest, but he didn't. Jim didn't know whether that meant he'd agreed or if he was just too tired to fight about it right then. When Sandburg's silence continued, Jim asked, "What 'sacred duty', Chief? You stopped before you said."
Sandburg swallowed and took a breath. "To safeguard the sentinel, so that the sentinel could safeguard the tribe," he replied quietly. His head dropped and he took another deep breath. His shoulders started to shake with his efforts to hold back his emotions, but tears blurred his eyes and a sob broke from his throat.
Jim moved to wrap his arms around Blair and draw him into a firm embrace, holding him while he wept, Sandburg's hands fisted in his shirt as if he was hanging on for dear life. It didn't take a genius to know what the kid was thinking-feeling. It had been his 'duty' that had led to this-his role, even his need, to protect his Sentinel that had inevitably led here, to his mother's death. Tears blurred Jim's eyes as he rested his cheek on the top of Sandburg's head.
"It wasn't your fault, Chief," he rasped. "Please…it wasn't your fault. I…I should have protected her better. I should be protecting you better. Oh, God, Chief, I'm so sorry."
Blair sniffed and wiped his eyes. His chest was tight, aching with a deep, burning grief and guilt. But this time, he heard the guilt in Jim's words and broken voice. He shook his head in protest to the Sentinel's words. And then, in understanding that it wasn't Jim's fault and that he shouldn't feel such guilt, suddenly he saw the truth for both of them more clearly.
"No, Jim," he said, his voice raw with emotion. "It wasn't your fault any more than mine. We didn't want her come to here, but she insisted. And-she died because there is a lot evil in the world and those bastards back in Cascade had her killed."
"I should have protected her," Jim asserted, certain that he'd failed. He wondered if Blair would hate him as he confessed, "I heard…I heard distant drum sounds. I didn't realize fast enough…I…"
But his voice failed him. What could he say? There was no adequate explanation, and certainly no excuse, for the tragedy that had just happened.
Blair pulled back, unconsciously pushing his hair behind his ears. He looked up at Jim as he laid one hand on his Sentinel's chest, over his heart. "You did the best you could," he said firmly. "You asked her to stay behind you and she didn't listen. She was too…excited." Blair had to stop and take another steadying breath before he continued. "You called out as soon as you realized, but you can't expect that you would have known what you were hearing. They were almost three stories above us, too far to recognize immediately. And you shot as soon as you saw the danger…but they'd had time to aim and were firing as they came out of the shadows. You did the best you could…"
Jim looked away from the stark, gaunt exhaustion on Sandburg's face. He could barely swallow for the lump in his throat. Even after all that had happened, suffering the way he was, Sandburg was still taking care of him. Trying to ease his guilt. Bringing his eyes back to Blair's earnest gaze, Jim murmured, "I wouldn't blame you if you hated me. If you were sorry you ever found me. Or if you couldn't stand to see me again-if you decided you'd had enough, that it costs way too much-and needed to-needed me to get out of your life."
"Don't, Jim," Blair replied, his voice cracking and breaking up, understanding that this was Jim's way of saying it was just too dangerous, giving him an out, letting him go for his own safety. Maybe even wanting him to go, so he'd be safe. He shook his head, striving for some semblance of calm, but his emotions were too close to the surface for him to rein them back. He struggled to swallow, to keep his breathing even, but a shudder passed through his body. Losing the battle for control, his lip trembling as his eyes pricked and burned, he grated, "Don't…"
"Hey, easy," Jim soothed, cursing himself for not knowing enough to keep his mouth shut. This wasn't the time or place for a conversation about an uncertain future. "Don't what? What don't you want me to do?"
"I…" but his voice cracked again. Taking a breath, swiping the glaze of tears from his eyes, he choked out, "You're all I've got left, man. Don't push me away! I don't want…please, Jim…don't leave me alone? Not right now…"
"Oh, Jesus, Chief," Jim groaned, pulling Blair back into his arms. "That's not what I meant. You're not alone, not ever, not so long as I live. I swear it."
The Sentinel held his Guide until Sandburg's body stopped shuddering with emotion. He could feel the younger man's exhaustion claim him as if it were a physical force, sapping energy from the air around them. He looked helplessly at the hieroglyphics, wondering if there was a message there that would give him a clue about how to help and support his partner. But, if there was, he couldn't read it. Finally, he said quietly, "Come on. It's time we headed back to Sierra Verde."
Blair nodded as he stepped away. He reached up to wipe his face with his hands and nodded again. Jim turned him toward the exit and kept his arm around Sandburg as they left the Temple and descended the steps to the jungle floor. Blair paused a moment at the bottom, looking at the blood splashed there, but he let Jim lead him away.
Blair didn't say a word all the way back through the jungle to the MM, and once they'd lifted into the sky, he sat silently with his mother's journal in his hands, slowly turning pages, seemingly at random, so Jim wasn't sure if he was reading it or lost in thought.
When they got back to the hotel, Jim had his senses open, alert to any new danger, but the area seemed clear. He guided Sandburg through the lobby and up to their room…and into the shower, so that Blair could wash off the blood that still stained his hands and arms. Jim brought clean clothing into the bathroom and took what he'd been wearing and sent it immediately for cleaning. Blair didn't need to have to see those crusty reddish brown stains when he came out of the shower.
Blair stood in the shower, letting the hot water wash over his tired, aching body, mingling with the salty tears that again leaked from his eyes. Sighing, he focused on washing his hair and body, wishing he could wash away the last terrible hours, turn back time. Once he'd finished and toweled himself dry, he pulled on the loose, cotton jogging pants and sweatshirt Jim had left on the closed toilet seat for him while he'd been under the spray, and moved back into the other room.
"I'll need to clear out her room," he murmured, sounding exhausted, wet curls obscuring his face as he stared at the floor.
"I'll do that for you, if you want, Chief," Jim offered. "I can put her things into a couple of suitcases and you can go through everything when we get home. Right now, I think you should just lie down for a while."
Nodding, Blair accepted the offer with low murmured thanks, appreciating the kindness. He didn't think he was up to packing her belongings away. But he felt restless. Too weary to do anything, too upset to lie down and sleep. Perching on the edge of the bed, he looked up at Jim who was studying him with concern.
"I don't really know what she'd want done…with her body," he said, his voice tight and quavering a little despite his struggle for control.
Jim blew out a sorrowful breath. God, this was hard. He'd buried his team in Peru and had been to more funerals than he ever wanted to remember, but he'd never had to go through what Blair was struggling with now. How did you wrap up the life of someone you loved, who was fundamental to your own life? Moving to sit beside Blair, laying a hand on his shoulder, Jim replied, "Do you think she'd want to be buried here, or brought back to rest somewhere that you could visit?"
Blair swallowed, looking away. "We used to talk about the soul, sometimes," he said quietly. "That it's separate from the body, and that when it leaves, the body is just an empty vessel. Mom couldn't understand why people would visit gravesites. She always said that it wasn't necessary. That you could reach out to a free soul anywhere, anytime, and that soul would hear you, and be glad to be remembered." His throat tightened, as he whispered, "I won't ever forget her…"
Sniffing, he blinked hard and took a hitching breath. "We were never very observant about our own Jewish cultural traditions." He paused again. "She was so free, Jim…like the wind. I think…I think she'd like her ashes cast to the winds, to carry her body across the earth, as she so loved to travel it when she was alive."
"From the little time I knew her, I think she'd like that, Blair," Jim replied quietly, again absently rubbing circles on Sandburg's back. "Do you want to do that here or in Cascade?"
"Angel Falls," Blair murmured. "I like to set her free at Angel Falls…"
"Okay, buddy, then that's what we'll do," Jim agreed. Seeing the tears spill again onto his best friend's cheeks, he pulled Blair into his arms and held him as he cried quietly, letting out his sorrow. And he continued to hold Blair long after the tears had stopped, until he knew his Guide had slipped into sleep.
Holding him like that, feeling his partner's grief, Jim couldn't help but recall a time years before, in the jungle, when he'd held Blair Sandburg as he'd wept for his murdered wife and the son who would never know him. "You don't deserve this kind of pain in your life, Chief," he murmured. "It's not fair. You never ask for anything, and you're always ready to give all you have…it's just not fair."
Gently, he eased Blair down on the bed, where the younger man curled in sleep. Draping a blanket over him, Jim swept the area around their room and the hotel with his senses. As assured as he could be that all was quiet, he went down the hall to pack up Marni's belongings and bring the cases back to their room. And then he called the local police to tell them to go ahead with transferring Marni's body back to Cascade.
On the way home, while Blair had been dozing beside him, Jim had called Simon to arrange for the disposition of Marni's body, which was already on it's way by commercial air. He'd look after the bills when he got back to Cascade. In the morning, they would go to the funeral home and pick up Marni's ashes to take them to Angel Falls.
They were just coming into the Cascade airspace when Blair said quietly, "Jim, I'd like to stop by the Library at Rainier. There's something I want to check."
"Sure, Chief," Jim replied, casting his partner an assessing look. Blair had been unusually quiet, and understandably sombre, during the trip back. But he hadn't cried since the day before in their room, when he'd fallen asleep in Jim's arms. "How are you holding up?"
Shrugging, Blair turned to Jim and gave him a wan smile. "It's hard, but nothing that people don't have to cope with everyday. I'll get through this. Mom wouldn't have much time for me if I moped around forever. She taught me that life is to be lived, and if we lose someone we love, we should be grateful to have had them in our lives, not miserable to have lost them. But," he turned away, hesitant and feeling more than a little foolish, "I had a funny dream last night. It was Mom, but not exactly Mom, I can't explain it. But she was smiling and she said something that it was all right now, that things had come full circle. And then she just seemed to fade away." Looking back at his best friend, he continued thoughtfully, "I can't explain it. But, I feel like there's something I'm missing, something I don't understand. I've been thinking about it all day and I had an idea that I want to check. Maybe I'm crazy, and it won't explain anything, but maybe I'll find…ah, I don't know what I'll find…"
Jim frowned. Sandburg wasn't making a lot of sense. What did he hope to find at the Library that would ever make any kind of sense out of what had happened? But Ellison kept his peace. Right now, so far as he was concerned, whatever Blair wanted, Blair would have, if it were in Jim's power to give it to him.
When they arrived at the Library, Blair led him back to the archives of old school records and publications. At the desk, he asked for a yearbook from 1999's graduating class. Once the clerk brought it, he opened it slowly and leafed through the pages of photographs, being careful with the old, brittle paper. Finally, he found what he'd been seeking and froze for a long moment. And then wordlessly, he turned the book so that Jim could see what had made his heart skip and his breath falter.
Mystified, Jim took the book and looked down at the page-and gasped. The hair was darker but the fading of the old colours had given it a reddish golden tinge. The features, the mouth curved in a serene smile, the amazing eyes staring back at him, were Marni's. His eyes dropping to the name, he read, 'Margaret Ann Wentworth, PhD, Archaeology'.
He looked up to see Blair staring into space. "Remember, Jim?" he murmured. "I told you we lost all the old photographs in the Cataclysm. I never knew what Blair looked like until less than a year ago, when we excavated the old records' storage site. I had a holo made to go with the journals he'd left, but I never thought to look up the picture of the woman he married. Margaret was my great-grandmother."
Jim's mouth gaped a little open, and he felt an eerie frisson of awe as he looked back down at the old photograph. Margaret, who had loved Blair and supported his never-ending search to understand the lost Sentinel, Jim Ellison; an innocent, who had died with her husband when they'd been murdered…and whose soul had traveled on alone when Blair broke away to continue his search for his Sentinel.
And Marni Sandburg, raised by Blair's mother Naomi, to raise her son in turn with the same basic belief patterns and life experiences as the original Blair had been raised. And who in dying, an innocent victim of criminal vengeance, had consigned the care of 'her Blair' to Jim.
Ellison felt his chest tighten and he rubbed his hand over his mouth, to force back a sob of pity and gratitude. He'd known Blair had been raised by a soul who had loved him. He just hadn't realized how much she loved him or for how long, in how many different incarnations.
Blair quietly asked the clerk for a holo of the old photo to take with them. Jim, recovering his ability to speak, muttered, "Sandburg…do you know how weird this is?"
Turning to face him, a soft smile playing around his lips and a glint of teasing in his eyes, Blair asked, "More weird than a guy with exceptional senses who gets frozen and revived just when the world needs him most? More weird than the fact that you remember spending, what fifty years, with the soul of a guy you'd scarcely gotten to know in your life…or to find out this is only one of many lives? More weird than knowing that I seem to be the exact reincarnation of my great-grandfather, and that against all odds, I was the one who found you? More weird than that, Jim?"
After gazing at his friend for a long moment, Jim shook his head. "No, no weirder than all the rest of it, I guess," he admitted, but the feeling of awe at the mystery of it all remained in his eyes.
"I told you, Jim," Blair said as he paid for the holo and took it from the clerk, turning toward the exit, "Nothing happens randomly in this Universe, man…there is always a reason." As they stepped out under the sky, he paused to look up as he murmured, "I just hope that next time she gets to live a long, happy life, and dies painlessly in her sleep of old age. She's suffered enough for me…"
When they got back home, they checked in with Simon and learned that in the short time they had been away, there'd been a veritable bloodbath in Cascade as the rival Spinelli and Morris clans had torn into one another with tooth and claw. More than a dozen of the leaders on both sides had been murdered in vengeful assaults and assassinations as each had jockeyed for power. In the end, both crime organizations had been left in disarray, and would need to regroup before they got back to 'business as usual'.
"So, it looks like we've gotten a bit of a breather," Simon concluded. "Hopefully, anyone with a personal grudge against you guys no longer exists."
Jim blew out a deep breath and looked over at Sandburg who had been listening in to the call, the look in his eyes distant and clouded with sorrow. If only Marni had chosen to take their advice and leave Mexico immediately, she might still be alive and free to go back to the work she'd loved so much.
"Thanks, Simon, that's good to know," Jim replied and they ended the call.
They spent the rest of that day quietly. Blair retrieved his mother's journal from his backpack and made himself comfortable on the couch to read it.
Jim went out onto the balcony to look over his city and to think about all that had happened.
The next day, Sandburg was surprised to see Banks standing just inside the entry of the funeral home, apparently waiting for them.
"Simon!" he exclaimed. "You didn't have to be here…"
"I know, Blair," Banks replied, laying a strong hand on the younger man's shoulders. "But, well, I knew from talking to Jim what time you would be here today. I wanted to tell you how very sorry I am about your mother."
The honest and unexpected empathy in the Police Captain's eyes caught Blair off-guard and disarmed him, cutting through the firm wall of control he'd built around himself to get through what needed to be done without falling apart. Shaking his head, tears glazing his eyes, he moved a step forward to hug the older man. "Thank you, Simon," he murmured. "You have no idea how much it means to me that you're here."
Simon swallowed hard and wrapped his own arms around Sandburg. As he held Blair in a warm, tight embrace, he looked at Ellison and read the pain in his eyes to see Blair so sorrowful and be unable to do anything about it but be there for him. Banks understood the pain. It was what had brought him there that morning.
Stepping back, Blair hastily swiped at his eyes and sniffed before saying, "Uh, we're taking the ashes up to Angel Falls. Did you want to come with us?"
"I really wish I could, son, but I can't," Simon replied, honestly regretful.
Nodding his understanding, Blair said softly, "I wish you could have known her, Simon. She was really something special."
"I have no doubt of that, Blair," Banks replied soberly. "She must have been very special, indeed, to have raised such a fine son. I'll always be grateful to her for that."
Blair had to look away. "Careful, Simon," he teased awkwardly, trying desperately to lighten the moment and retain some vestige of control, "keep talking like that and the next thing you know, I'll be expecting to be paid for the hours I spend on surveillance with Jim."
Smiling in his turn, Banks teased back, "Don't let it go to your head, kid. Humility is a pleasing quality." But, Simon also reflected thoughtfully that maybe the kid should be paid. He'd sure earned the right to have his contributions recognized officially. He'd have to look into it and see what he could do.
There was no ceremony. It was simply a matter of signing some forms and claiming the small casket of ashes, and then the men split up to go their separate ways, Simon back downtown, and Jim and Blair to the mountains.
Jim found a place to set down close to the top of the falls, and they hiked the rest of the way in. Standing on the rocky promontory over the roaring, plunging sheet of water, the mist rising to cool the air around them, Blair looked out across the land that spread out before him. Snowcapped mountains rising against the clear azure sky and thick forest regrown now years after the Cataclysm, rich and vibrant, seeming eternal. The river wound away below him, a winding strip of blue, flecked with white over the rapids downstream. In the air, an eagle soared high above them. In the distance, he heard the mournful howl of a wolf.
Kneeling, he pulled the casket out of his pack, and stilled for a moment, his hands resting upon it. But then he stood and opened it, as Jim moved to stand beside him, to grip his shoulder and steady him. Together, they stepped close to the edge of the rock and Sandburg bent a little forward to tip the casket. He watched the ashes begin to fall, a wispy stream of gray dust, but then the wind caught the ashes and they swirled and danced in the air. In moments, the stream of ash became a billowing cloud that lifted on the air currents, until the ashes scattered further and the individual elements of dust joined with the wind, disappearing from sight.
"Thank you, Marni, for everything," Blair whispered. "For teaching me, for loving me, for giving me my life. Remember that I will always love you, and be at peace…"
In silence they stood, gazing out over the world at their feet, lost in memories, until Jim finally stirred and asked quietly, "You okay, Blair?"
"Yeah, Jim," his friend smiled up at him. "I'm all right. I've felt…peaceful somehow…ever since we found that old photograph. I don't understand it all, but I know that, somehow, it was all meant to be. And, I know that I'll see her again…someday."
Jim nodded as his gaze lifted to the horizon, and he gave his own silent thanks to Marni's soul. Taking a breath, he murmured, "Not for awhile, though, I hope…"
As much as he intellectually knew now, beyond a shadow of any doubt, that the soul lived on forever and that they would indeed see her again, he wasn't yet finished with this life-and he wanted his Guide with him through all the years ahead.
Sighing, he looked back down at Blair. "And, you're really okay with sticking with me? It's cost you so much, Chief, so much I wish you hadn't ever had to pay."
"I know, Jim…but none of this has been your fault. I know that, and you need to know it, too," Blair replied. "As for the rest, being your 'Guide'?" He shrugged as he blew out a breath, still having difficulty wrapping his head around the fact that he was as destined for his role as Jim had been destined to be a Sentinel. "I've been reading Mom's journal, and she'd transcribed a lot of the stuff about guides because it was so new and unexpected. And, well, that's what I am, I guess, your Guide. I don't have a choice, really. Even if I didn't want to be, or even if I'm afraid, I have a sacred duty."
Looking up, seeing Jim's eyes cloud at his words, Blair continued sincerely, "But, more, I want to be your Guide, Jim. I'm not going to pretend that I'm not scared, because you would know I'm not being straight. And I can't pretend that I know what I'm doing with any degree of precision, because I don't. But I know we are meant to do this together and I can't imagine not standing by your side."
Jim couldn't speak, his throat was too tight, and so he just nodded, his lips thin and twisting in his effort smile. His heart was too full, and he was afraid if he let slip his control, he might actually collapse to weep with relief.
Blair smiled then, radiantly, his eyes sparkling brilliantly for the first time since he'd been shot down on the way home from the bust of the Morris chieftains only two weeks before, though it seemed like a lifetime ago. "You're stuck with me, man," he drawled. "However long this ride lasts-I am your Guide and you are my Sentinel. And I'm really glad that the Universe found a way to get us back together, the way we're meant to be."
His heart full, basking in the warmth of the unrestrained smile that eased his heart, and the love dancing in Sandburg's eyes that brightened his soul, finally able to really believe that they'd be okay, Ellison reached out then and drew Sandburg toward him, embracing him tightly. "So am I, Chief," he whispered into Blair's curls. "Oh, God, so am I."
"Come on, Jim," Blair murmured. "Let's go home."
Blair was pensive on the way home, far quieter than usual, and a little sad, but the aching grief was gone. And for that, Jim was very grateful. In the silence, Ellison thought again of the miracles of his life and shook his head at the mystery of it all. And he sent a silent prayer that the soul of Margaret or Marni, or however she was known out in the great Universe, be blessed with all good things a soul could ever desire. And wherever she was, he sincerely hoped that she was at peace.
When they got home, Blair called his estate expert friend, Xuan, the one who had helped him ensure Jim's privacy and had tracked Ellison's estate 'way back at the beginning, before Jim had even been revived at Rainier. Sandburg gave him the information he had about his mother's estate, the name of her lawyer, the address of her small condo, the university she had been affiliated with back East, and asked Xuan to do whatever needed to be done to sort out his mother's affairs.
That difficult task done, he and Jim got themselves a couple of beers and settled in the living room. Jim wanted to spend more time on the file Simon had made up for him on the two major crime families in Cascade. There was a need to update it to reflect the changes in the last week given the wholesale massacres that had taken place and to learn what he could about those who were still alive. They might have gotten a bit of breathing room, and it was a relief to know that their lives were no longer immediately threatened, but the good guys weren't winning yet. There was still a lot of work to do.
Blair lifted his mother's journal from the coffee table and went back to reading it. There was a wealth of information in it about sentinels and guides, a veritable treasure trove in fact. He spent time on the information about sentinels first, making notes to himself about what he'd have to test out with Jim. And then he turned to the parts about the role of the Guide, eager to learn more about this apparently formal and necessary role he played in Jim's life. The more Blair read, the more he wanted to know…and the only place to learn more was in the Temple itself. For a moment he stared into space, wondering what mysteries that might be revealed by experiencing the pools. But he cast a quick look at Ellison and shrugged. It would be a cold day in hell before Jim would ever go along with something like that. Turning back to the journal, Blair knew there was more than enough here to keep him and Jim busy for a long time as they came to better understand Ellison's Sentinel abilities. There was no hurry to get back to Mexico-but Blair vowed again silently that he and Jim would return someday.
They'd been reading for about two hours, each immersed in their documents and making notes for future action, when Jim became aware that Blair had been staring into space for some little while.
"What's up, Chief?" he asked, curious. "You starting to zone now?"
"Huh? What?" Blair asked, his eyes coming up to meet Jim's gaze.
"Something in those notes seems to have bothered you," Jim observed. "What is it?" Blair's eyes were wide and a little unfocused, as if he'd been startled by something and his mind was still 'processing'. Ellison watched as they cleared, Blair's attention gradually centring fully on him and his question. Not for the first time, he wondered at the brilliance of the younger man's mind, and about what exactly was going on under all that hair when the kid was so evidently 'processing' information and ideas.
Finally fully back in the here and now, Blair grinned as he lifted the journal in his hands. "Uh, well, it's just that there is so much really amazing stuff in here, Jim. It's exciting…and there's just so much to take in. Some of it we've already figured out, but some of it I've just never really considered before," he finally explained, taking a deep breath to settle himself down.
"Like what?" Jim asked as he wondered if maybe he shouldn't have a look at that journal himself to see what had so excited his Guide. Besides, Jim suspected Blair was paying more attention to the notes on sentinels, whereas he was far more interested to learn more about guides.
"Um, well, lots of things," Sandburg replied slowly, "about the care and feeding of sentinels." He looked up then, a shadow of a smile playing around his lips as he added, "If you don't mind, I need to think about all of it, Jim, before we talk about it. There're tests I'll need to work out…"
And that was all it took for Jim to decide he'd likely heard enough for the moment. Tests were definitely not his favourite subject. "That's okay," he hastened to interject. "Take all the time you want to think about it." And with that, he pointedly turned back to his own file of notes.
Blair grinned fondly at Jim's reaction. The guy would face any number of armed and deadly men, but mention a test and he was running for the hills. Shrugging, unconcerned, he turned back to his notes, secure in the knowledge that when the time came to try some of these things to extend Jim's range and control, his Sentinel would cooperate. Jim might not like the tests much, but he knew their worth and he'd take them when Blair was ready to give them.
Three days later, it snowed, reminding them that they were entering the heart of the winter season and that the holidays were not much more than a week away.
"What do you want to do about Christmas, Chief?" Jim asked at breakfast.
Blair finished pouring cereal into his bowl and asked as he added the milk, "What do you usually do?"
Shrugging, Jim replied, "Not all that much, usually. When I was a kid, we always had a big tree, went to church for Christmas Eve services, did the Santa bit. But, the last few years, except for the Christmas Carolyn and I spent together, it was just easier to let it all slide by."
"Oh," Blair sighed. "Well, I guess we don't have to do anything if you don't feel like it."
"I just thought that, well, with all that's happened, you might not feel like bothering with a tree and…"
"A tree?" Blair interjected before Jim could finish. "You were thinking of getting a tree?"
Ellison didn't need to be a Sentinel to see the sudden flare of hope in his young partner's eyes. Smiling a little, tentatively, he said, "Yeah, well, when we were wrapping up the Morris case, getting ready for our camping trip, I spotted Christmas decorations in one of the stores, and well, I thought it might be nice to do the place up this year. So I bought a bunch of stuff, you know, lights, tree decorations, a wreath for the door, and it's all in the basement. But, ah, I wasn't sure you'd feel like…"
"No, getting a tree would be good," Blair interjected again, almost a boyish eagerness on his face. "I mean, it would be a shame to waste the stuff if you bought it already, and well," he looked down at his bowl and spooned the cereal absentmindedly as he continued, "I've never had a tree in my own home before." Looking back up at Jim, he gave a soft smile as he finished, "I think it would be nice to have a tree."
"You never had a tree?" Jim asked, distracted.
"Well, uh, no, actually," Blair explained, suddenly seeming shy as he continued, "You remember, I told you that when I was a kid, we were always traveling. So, you can understand that Christmas stuff is a lot to haul around. And, well, being Jewish, I figured I shouldn't really care. But, sometimes we'd stay with friends of Marni's over the holidays, and I really liked helping to decorate the trees they had, and well, I liked all of it. It's the time of year when we celebrate the wondrousness of unconditional love, and giving and being grateful for what we have…and it's always been my favourite holiday. But, when I came to Rainier, I couldn't really afford to do a lot, and even here, I tended to move around a lot. And, most years, I headed out to whatever site Mom was working on to be with her. So, well, it was the same as when I was a kid-you don't haul Christmas decorations to an archaeological dig."
"Oh," Jim replied, blinking as he tried to keep his face neutral. He was grateful to Marni, and he knew she had deeply loved her son, but she sure had raised him in an odd way; on the one hand, not celebrating a tradition that was not their own, and on the other entering into the Christmas celebrations of her friends. God, the kid must have wondered which end was up half the time…but even with the confusion of it all, he'd figured out what the essence of Christmas was about and cherished it. But it was also only too clear, despite the fact that there'd been no hint of complaint in Sandburg's tone, that he'd sorely missed having Christmas at home-maybe, more to the point, he'd missed having a home at Christmas. "Well, we could go out and get a tree today…"
"Great!" Blair grinned, his eyes shining. "And, for Christmas, maybe Simon would like to join us for the day and for dinner. What do you think? We could have a turkey and all the trimmings, presents, play Christmas music…"
"Okay, kid," Jim laughed. "We'll have a good, old-fashioned Christmas. I'll call Simon to see if he wants to join us."
After breakfast, Jim was as good as his word and gave Simon a call while Blair cleaned up the kitchen, trying to pretend he wasn't listening into the call with bated breath to see what Simon would say. The older man was surprised by the invitation, but accepted with an alacrity that left Jim wondering just how many Christmases Simon had spent alone or on duty, like he'd done for many years. Smiling, he grinned at a delighted Sandburg as he terminated the call, and then they set out on their holiday shopping spree. As they put on their jackets, Blair suggested they stop by a music store first, to buy some seasonal music, reasoning that once they'd picked out a tree, they'd want to head straight home and it would be a good thing to have the right music to put them in the mood while they decorated it…
"Breathe, Junior," Jim laughed, as he closed and locked the door behind him. Sometimes, his partner was the wisest man he'd ever met…and sometimes, like now, he was just like a little kid, full of excitement and hardly able to stop bouncing. Jim was tickled to the soles of his boots to be able to make the kid so happy.
For the first time in his adult life, Jim began to really appreciate the joy of the Christmas season. In the past, it had only meant extra work, rushing around at the last minute for gifts, noise and confusion and a peculiar let down that he didn't feel as happy as he knew he was supposed to feel. But as he watched Sandburg's joy in the simple tasks of picking out just the right CDs and his happy but rigorous search for 'the perfect tree', Jim felt a bubble of joy expand in his own heart.
Back home again, with the 'perfect tree', all seven feet of it, Blair sorted the music and put on an ancient favourite of three Chipmunks chirping merrily away while Jim went downstairs to haul out the decorations. As Jim was sorting the lights out, Blair decided that they just had to have some eggnog and dashed out to the corner store, returning scarcely fifteen minutes later. By then, Jim had the lights looped around the tree and then they did the garland together, before decorating it with the individual ornaments.
"These are really beautiful, man," Blair said, admiring a crystal French horn and the Victorian-style angel Jim had bought for the top. But then he picked up another ornament and snickered, "Though some are a bit odd."
"Odd?" Jim asked over his shoulder as he worked on hanging other ornaments, grinning when Blair held up a miniature patrol car in one hand, and a tiny basted turkey in the other.
"Yeah, odd," Blair replied with a smirk. "I've never known anyone else who thought patrol cars were decorative. And I usually prefer to eat the turkey, not hang it on the tree!"
Jim laughed. "Well, in this house, short stuff, you get to do both."
Later that evening, with the other lights in the loft turned off and a light snow falling outside, they sat and admired their handiwork. The tiny sparkling lights, the scent of pine and the soft instrumental version of traditional caroles playing in the background, filled them both with a feeling of warmth and contentment. This was their first Christmas together and it was already special.
For the next few days, they set off on separate shopping expeditions, each counselling the other not to go crazy, that it wasn't about the number or cost of the gifts, it was simply about getting a little something to make the other person happy. They each nodded solemnly and then proceeded to do what they had intended in the first place.
In keeping with his desire to give Blair the kind of Christmas he'd never had as a kid, Jim went a little crazy buying stocking-stuffers; everything from oranges to a lump of fake coal, diskettes for the kid's computer, new socks, and a new comunit. He also picked up a few things to be wrapped and put under the tree, including a sweater, a pair of wool-lined gloves, a bright red wool cap and a warmer coat lined with fleece. He was tired of watching Sandburg shiver every time they left the loft.
But the main present he'd picked up first, and already had the envelope securely tucked away in the side table beside his bed.
Blair was equally determined to make the Christmas special for Jim, understanding that his friend's past holidays had been bitter more than sweet after his mother had left. In his whimsical guise as Santa's chief elf, he also loaded up on stocking-stuffers; socks in a variety of designs of reindeer and snowmen, a miniature version of Jim's 'Macho Machine' that would actually fly, oranges, a lump of fake coal, and something that his ultra-conservative friend would probably never wear, but Blair grinned as he pictured Jim in the tasselled hat of a jolly green elf.
The main presents were harder to decide upon.
What did you give a guy who was as rich as Croesus but who never really wanted anything?
He finally settled on a couple of new shirts in a soft cotton weave, a pair of gloves (since Jim never seemed to get around to buying any for himself) and an incredible cashmere sweater that pretty much broke his budget. Well, utterly trashed it, actually. But he didn't care-the soft texture of the indigo garment would be comfortable on his Sentinel's sensitive skin. And, with considerable delight, he managed to track down a couple more old Santana CDs.
He'd figured he was finished, but then he spotted a small, porcelain Christmas angel. It was a beautiful version of 'The Littlest Angel', Blair's favourite Christmas story, and the boy had a big grin, wide blue eyes and curly dark hair; his clothing looked a size too large and a little ragged, but his wings and halo were pristinely perfect. Nodding to himself, Blair picked it up and knew just exactly what he'd wrap up to go with the little guy.
They did the food shopping together, picking up all the 'traditional fixings' Blair said they just had to have to make the meal he envisioned in his head. Jim happily pushed the increasingly loaded cart as he followed Sandburg around the store, and insisted on paying when they hit the cash register.
"You take responsibility for the preparation of the meal, and I'm perfectly happy to pay for the ingredients, Chief," he said, not at all interested in his friend's protests that he was quite prepared to split the costs.
"Okay, man," Blair agreed, trying not to seem too relieved lest Jim figure out just how tight his funds were getting. It would be a while before his next pay cheque in January. "But you stay out of the kitchen when I'm cooking."
"Well, I could help…" Jim offered.
"Out of the kitchen, Jim, or no deal," Blair insisted, and seeing that he was serious despite the smile, Jim agreed. No fool, he knew Sandburg didn't have heaps of money and if cooking their special dinner made the kid feel like he was making his fair contribution, then that was fine with Ellison. For his own part, the fact of celebrating this Christmas with Blair the best gift of all and the rest was just icing.
Simon insisted on taking them out for dinner on Christmas Eve, and then they all went to the services at Simon's church. The sanctuary was designed and furnished in warm wood, the alter plain and the cross a replica of the rough and brutal original. The ambiance was compelling, beautiful in its simplicity, and the humble sanctuary glowed with the warmth of candlelight. The choir sang like angels, accompanied by guitars, violins, a harp and a piano. There was a homeliness about the experience that brought them all a sense of peace and contentment.
The next morning, Blair was up early to get the dinner preparations out of the way, so that when Jim came downstairs, he was ready to relax and enjoy the day. The roommates had a quick breakfast, made some hot chocolate, lit a fire and settled down to enjoy the exchange of their gifts before Simon arrived, leaving only his gifts under the tree for later. They laughed uproariously, teasing one another about their distinct lack of originality when they saw the similarity of what each had chosen for the other's stocking. Blair chortled with delight when Jim put both the hat and a new pair of socks on immediately. As the morning progressed, they both felt pleased with the presents they'd gotten one another when they saw how the other was touched by the thoughtfulness of the gifts. Though Jim worried about the cost of the sweater, Blair waved off his concern, delighted that Jim clearly loved it. Sandburg knew better than to express his own sense of being overwhelmed by Jim's generosity…but he marvelled at the joy that giving him presents seemed to give the older man.
But each had ensured the best was left for last.
Jim handed Blair an envelope, saying, "In some ways, Chief, this gift is more for me than you, but I hope you'll accept it and enjoy it to make me happy."
Blair accepted the plain envelope with a wary look at his best friend. He figured it was a cheque or maybe a gift certificate to his favourite bookstore and he was a little worried, knowing how outrageously generous Jim could be, and knowing he could never hope to match that generosity in kind. Not that Jim expected him to, but Blair couldn't help feel humbled and more than a little overwhelmed by the river of generosity that seemed to flow endlessly in his direction. Taking a breath to steady himself as he opened it, he was nevertheless completely unprepared for the magnitude of the gift. It was a gift certificate all right, but he gasped as he read it. "Jim…ah, Jim, this is 'way too much, man," Blair stammered in protest. "I am hugely grateful, but I…I can't accept this…"
Jim cut into the protests, having fully expected the reaction and not prepared to take this gift back. "I want to do this, Blair. I want you to have it. Like I said, this is more for me, for my peace of mind, than it is for you. Please. Take it-and believe me, I intend to go with you to ensure you make full use of it."
"But…a new flutter…of my choice?" Blair murmured weakly, completely stunned.
"I'd rather get you an MM like mine, but I figured you'd hate driving something that big," Jim replied. "Please…I really, really want to do this. I want you to be as safe as possible."
The sincerity in Jim's eyes, and his naked desire that this gift be accepted to help ensure Sandburg's security, were clear in his direct gaze. Blair blew out a long breath and swallowed, finally nodding. "Okay, Jim, if this is what you really want. But, man-I don't know how I'll ever be able to thank you…"
"Just…just be safe, so you can be here for the next hundred Christmases, and that'll be repayment enough for me, Chief," Jim said, meaning every word.
Blair looked at the last, small present remaining, his last gift to Jim, and he felt it inadequate but he hoped Jim would like it, though it could never match the gift Jim had given him. Oh, not the size or cost of a flutter, but the ultimate thoughtfulness, the messages behind the gift of wanting to safeguard him from danger, of wanting to share a future with him. Almost shyly, he handed it to Jim, and sat back, waiting to see his reaction.
Jim peeled off the wrapping and then opened the box inside. He paused when he saw the little angel, recognizing it as he and Blair had watched a vid of the Christmas story only a couple of nights before.
Sandburg had mentioned that, though it was pretty sentimental stuff, that the touching story was his favourite, along with the old original Alistair Sim version of 'A Christmas Carole'. Jim was enchanted by the little figurine, and knew Sandburg was giving him a part of himself, a symbol of what touched him most deeply…and he loved that the little angel looked the way he imagined Blair must have looked as a little kid. "I really like it, Chief," he said, looking up with a smile, the warmth in his eyes conveying how much it meant to him. "Kinda reminds me of you."
"There's, uh, there's an envelope with it, Jim," Blair pointed out.
"So I see," Ellison replied, pulling out the card, which had a homemade gift certificate inside. As he silently read the verse on the card first, he felt his eyes start to burn,
'Merry Christmas to my Best Friend,
You bring me the joy of Christmas every day,
Lighting my life with hope and joy,
Bringing laughter that is warm and carefree,
And kindness, when the days are dark and I feel lost…
Your love strengthens me, and gladdens my heart.
May all the joys of Christmas forever be yours.
For all the days of your life…
"It's beautiful, Blair," Jim murmured. And then he turned to the gift certificate, which read, 'Good for one wish in the New Year which is in the power of the undersigned 'Christmas Angel' to bestow.
Jim shook his head as he looked up at his best friend, his partner, his roommate and his Guide. For a moment, his throat was too tight to speak. The kid just didn't get it, couldn't seem to understand that he gave so much everyday, right from the very beginning six months ago, that he anticipated wishes before Jim could ever begin to think of them. Simply having Blair here, and knowing that Sandburg had fully committed to their friendship and their partnership, was more than he'd ever dared hope for, and it was more than enough.
"Thanks, Blair," he said, his voice husky with emotion, and his eyes dropped as he struggled to get out the words that had always been the hardest for him to say. But Blair deserved to hear how dearly he was held, especially this year after having lost Marni. So Jim took a breath and continued, "But I can't imagine what more I could ever wish for…having you in my life already makes me the luckiest guy in the world." Looking up at his friend, he forced himself to keep going, to say what was in his heart, "I…I love you, Blair. Just having you here is the greatest gift of all."
Blair swallowed at the words, and had to bite his lip to keep it from trembling. Jim couldn't have said anything else that would have touched him more profoundly. He smiled softly as he sniffed and blinked back the tears that glazed his eyes. "I love you, too, Jim," he murmured, his voice rich and warm. Then, knowing that Jim found such emotional moments far harder than facing down a bunch of bad guys, he cleared his throat and strove to lighten the atmosphere a little. "You never know, though, something may occur to you. But, be careful, it's only good for one wish. So, if you blow it on a donut, well, that's it, man, for the whole year."
Jim smiled and then laughed. "Okay, Chief, I'll bear that in mind," he chuckled. But for all their joking, as his eyes drifted to the small figurine in his hand, he reflected how really very lucky he was to have his own 'Christmas Angel'. And, he was deeply touched by Blair's message that he would give anything in his power to fulfill whatever wish might occur to his best friend. The commitment was unconditional and how many people were ever lucky enough to get a gift as rare as that?
It wasn't long after that Simon arrived, bearing gifts for the both of them.
He'd bought binoculars for Blair…
"So you have some hope of seeing what he sees," Banks laughed as he tilted his head toward Jim.
…and a pair of white noise earplugs for Jim.
"So you don't have to listen to his jungle music, if you don't want to," Simon grinned with another tilt of the head, this time towards Blair.
They were thoughtful gifts and both men were touched by his imaginative consideration. Simon was equally pleased with the gifts they gave to him: a new fishing pole from Jim and some really beautiful and unique flies from Blair, together with a certificate from both of them that Blair had designed on the computer. It showed a fisherman casting out his line and promised six weekends of his choice at his favourite fishing holes. "Thanks, guys, this is really great," he said with a happy grin as he waved the certificate to include all his gifts.
"Well, we figured you most needed some time for R&R, Simon," Jim said.
"And we fully intend to make sure you get it this year," Blair added with a smile.
As Simon gazed at both of them, he felt warmth fill his chest. It had been a while since he'd felt like he had a family of his own. But now, on this Christmas, he knew he was no longer really alone in the world. He hadn't meant to, but sometime in the past few months, he realized that he loved them. In his mind, though he'd taken care not to let them see it lest he impose upon them, he already thought of Jim as a kid brother, and Blair, well, he was the son Simon always wished he'd had. But he'd never expected their love in return.
Much to his surprise and gratitude, he now knew that these two uniquely special men cared about him, about what he liked to do, about his personal well-being-and about his happiness. Having been invited to share their Christmas as a part of their 'family', and from their fond gazes as well as the way their gifts showed that they wanted to spend more time with him, he understood that they actually, amazingly, loved him back-and he was touched more than he had the words to express. "Thanks, guys," he said gruffly. Taking off his glasses, polishing them, he mumbled, "I love you, too."
"What was that, Simon?" Blair teased playfully. "I'm not sure I quite caught it."
Clearing his throat, Simon pinned the kid with a fake glare, and growled, "I said, I wondered if I was going to get fed anytime soon."
"Nah, that's not what you said," Blair quipped back with a broad grin of devilment.
Jim snorted as he said with a laugh, "You'll have to forgive the child, Simon. I've tried to teach him that real tough guys don't say mushy stuff, but he just loves to catch us out and make us regret it when we do."
"I can see he needs more work," Simon sighed, carrying on with the teasing. "But, between us, we'll make a 'real man' out of him."
"Not a chance, guys," Blair snickered merrily. "Before I'm done with the two of you, I'll have you both saying, 'I love you', without so much as a flinch." Cutting Jim a quick look and then pinning Simon with his wide, blue eyes glowing with sincerity, he added, "But for now, since Jim chokes up as much as you do over those three little words, I'll say it for both of us. We love you, too."
"Isn't it time to check the turkey, Chief?" Jim grunted, blushing.
"I could use some eggnog," Simon said at the same time, turning his gaze toward the kitchen.
"Hopeless," Blair sighed dramatically as he rose to do their bidding. "Both of you, completely hopeless. But, I'm a persistent guy and I warn you-I don't plan to give up on you!"
The other two laughed as they shook their heads, each of them wordlessly hoping that he never would give up on either one of them. Sometimes, being a tough guy was, well, tough, and they both knew that a little 'softening up' would be good for them.
But they would both have cut out their tongues before they admitted it.
Later, they thoroughly enjoyed the traditional dinner Blair had prepared for them and the three laughed as they shared the 'clean up' duties and then told amusing stories long into the evening as they relaxed with coffee in the living room while Christmas music played quietly in the background. Finally, reluctantly, Simon took his leave and the two partners, well contented with their first Christmas at home, headed to bed.
Bright and early the next day, right after breakfast, Jim took Blair shopping for his new flutter. At first, Blair had tried to hold out for something well below the standard Jim wanted for him. Relentlessly, the Sentinel kept dragging his Guide back to the better built models, the ones that offered guarantees like bullet-proofing and high performance power plants. Finally, shaking his head, accepting that Jim really did need him to do this, Sandburg entered into the spirit of the thing and allowed himself to feel excitement over choosing the model he really did like best; and only shook his head helplessly as Jim piled on one optional extra after another as Ellison settled the order with the sales rep. Blair would have his new flutter before he had to go back to work after New Year's.
"Thanks, Jim," Sandburg said on their way home. "I really mean it, man. Thanks for caring so much that I be safe."
Jim just shook his head as he replied quietly, "No, thank you, Chief, for indulging me. It was either take the new flutter or accept that I was going to be your permanent chauffeur for the rest of your life."
Over the rest of the next week, the two roommates enjoyed leftovers, went for long walks in the park, read quietly by the fire. One day, when the skies dumped a load of snow, Blair dragged Jim out to build a snowman, gleefully pelting him with snowballs and then running away until Jim caught him and bore him giggling to the ground. And a couple of evenings during that week, they went out for dinner and a movie with Simon, forcing him to take the time off for some simple amusement, and he was grateful.
With a mixture of relief and delight as his partner's evident happiness, Jim was sincerely glad that Blair was able to enjoy himself after all the truly terrible things that had so recently happened in his life. In some ways, Jim reflected, it was a measure of Blair's courage and strength of spirit. Oh, certainly, Blair had talked of Marni during the holiday week, especially during their walks in the park. Though Sandburg had seemed at ease, reminiscing about her with the fondness of love and the memories of happiness as if he'd put the pain behind him, Jim hadn't missed the shadow in his eyes that revealed how very much he missed her and was sorry that she was gone. It took a strong man to be able to still find joy in life, even more to brighten the lives of the people around him, with that kind of sorrow in his soul.
On New Year's Eve, as the hour neared midnight, Blair put an instrumental soundtrack on the CD from the old classic Lord of the Rings trilogy that had been made at the beginning of the century. Jim recognized the music from the evenings when Blair had made him sit down and watch the restored vid-disc. The Sentinel had ended up being completely captured by the themes of courage and loyalty, unconditional love and friendship, and an unswerving determination to do good, that the members of the Fellowship of the Ring had embodied; and the music that evoked those themes never failed to move him.
"Getting ready to head out on a quest, Chief?" he joked as he laid a fire.
"Man, our life is a quest," Blair replied with a wry grin as he wandered to the kitchen to get the small bottle of Champagne out of the fridge, a towel and two glasses, and then ambled back into the living room to settle on the couch.
Bemused by the comment, Jim thought about it as he finished at the fireplace and moved to his own chair, accepting the glass Blair had brought him from the kitchen. "I hadn't really thought about it like that, Sandburg," he said pensively, "but you may have a point."
Staring into the fire, Jim thought about all the mysterious, wonderful, and some very tragic, things that had led him to this place and time, and then he reflected on the challenges the new year was likely to bring. Bringing a measure of peace and security to this city wasn't going to be easy-but it was a worthy task. Sighing, the Sentinel just hoped he was up to whatever challenges would come at them.
Noticing that Jim had been made sombre by his off the cuff remark, Blair shook his head as he carefully opened the bottle, catching the overflow with the towel.
"It's a glorious quest, Jim; a kind of sacred trust," he said softly as he poured the libation. Looking up into his Sentinel's eyes, he smiled as he added, "And I'm glad to be a part of it."
Jim nodded as he replied, "Yeah, so am I, Chief." Once Blair had filled his own glass and set the bottle in the ice bucket, Jim smiled broadly as he raised his glass to toast his best friend, "Happy New Year, Sancho!"
Chuckling, Blair lifted his own in salute to Jim, as he replied, "Right back at you, Don Quixote!"
They clicked their glasses and drank to the year to come…and each, unbeknownst to the other, reflected with wry and silent appreciation that courtesy of the nanites, as miserable as the little critters could be, and with a little luck, this would hopefully only be the first of many, many more New Years to come.
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