There are some minor references to my previous story, "Affirmation." It might be helpful to read that first, but you can definitely follow this plot without it. I started trying to control the smarm factor in this one, but that resolve was hopelessly lost not long after beginning to write. For those who don't thrive on such... sorry. For those of us who do, read on! Many thanks to Danae for all her advice and encouragement.
Friendship is in loving rather than in being loved. - Robert Bridges
"It's only for six weeks, Chief, and this is a huge honor for you." Jim Ellison leaned back against the kitchen counter, his arms crossed, and watched his friend at work. Should I ask what that is we're having for dinner? Then again, maybe I'm better off not knowing. Probably an exotic dish from a tribe somewhere in the farthest reaches of Africa with ingredients he had to search months to locate. No...don't ask.
Blair Sandburg looked up from the bowl he was stirring and nodded. "True, Jim. The discovery of the ruins in San Miguel is one of the biggest finds in recent history. Professor Grant asking me to go along as part of the anthropological team is so unbelievable, especially since I'm...no longer a doctoral candidate. But..."
"But what? Dr. Grant told you that he still has faith in you as an anthropologist. He even said you are the best student he's ever taught. That's why he didn't rescind his offer to you to join his team. He believes in you, Chief. And there is no reason you shouldn't accept. You don't start at the Academy until the next session, so the timing is right. I can handle my senses most of the time now, you know that. I'll be fine for a few weeks. No problem." Jim smiled confidently at his young partner.
He couldn't let Blair pass up such an opportunity out of concern for him. After all, the kid had already given up so much. The nightmare of Blair at that damn press conference still haunted Jim's dreams and his waking thoughts. Blair's soft voice trembling, the tears in his clear blue eyes, his hands shaking as he willingly subjected himself to the humiliation and ridicule of his peers, teachers, and the public. Knowing the whole time that he was right, that he had made the discovery of a lifetime, that he had earned the accolades, the huge advances for his book, even the possible Nobel Prize nomination. Yet he proceeded to sacrifice everything he had worked for, everything he had dreamed of... Blair had given it all up to salvage his friendship with Jim Ellison and possibly save his very life. Jim knew exactly what his best friend had sacrificed for him...everything.
Blair looked back at the bowl and its unknown contents. "Are you saying you don't need me, Jim?" he asked in a soft voice.
"Sandburg!" Jim crossed the floor and stood behind his friend. "Don't be an idiot!" His voice softened. "I'll always need you. You're about to head to the Academy to become my 'official' partner! Finally... I'm just saying that I'll be able to manage on my own for a few weeks."
He placed his hands on Blair's shoulders and turned the smaller man to face him. "This is important to you, Blair, I could tell that when you first told me about it. You had that old excitement in your voice. You know, that 'Sandburg bounce' that you only get when you are totally caught up in some new idea or discovery. I want you to go, Blair, if this is something that excites you that much. Remember your birthday when I told you that I never want to hold you back? Well, I meant that. And now...Blair, you've given up so much for me; I still can't understand why you did it..." Jim stopped and closed his eyes, his fingers tightening on Blair's shoulders. Then he felt Blair's hand on his face, gently cupping around his cheek. Jim opened his eyes to meet Blair's. "I told you why, Jim. It all meant nothing without you. I realized what really mattered in my life, in my heart, and it wasn't the dissertation, those three letters after my name, or the fame. It was you, man. I already had everything I ever wanted in my life, right here with you. My career, my life, is being your guide, your friend, and your partner. Once I realized that, the decision was made. It wasn't easy, I admit, in fact, it was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. But it was also the easiest in some ways. Jim, if it came down to sacrificing our friendship or sacrificing my career as an anthropologist...man, that's no choice at all."
Jim Ellison took a deep breath and let it out very slowly. How did I deserve a friend like this? That's just it, I didn't do anything to deserve Blair. He just gave his life to me from the beginning, no questions asked, no expectations, no demands. No matter what I've thrown at him, he always forgives me and gives back so much more than I ever expect. I'll never hurt him again, never doubt his friendship, his love, again.
He paused, considering an idea that had just occurred to him. "How about this...I promise you that I won't go out in the field alone. Simon'll agree to go along, once I explain the situation. He knows what can happen if I zone, and he knows how to bring me out, as long as it's not too deep. Plus, I promise I'll be extra careful not to concentrate too hard. What do you say?"
Blair looked up at his friend. He really means it, Blair thought. He really wants me to do this. Cool!
A huge smile lit up Sandburg's face. "It is only six weeks, isn't it? I mean, that's not really such a long time, is it? You promise not to go out without backup?" When Jim nodded his assent, the excited young man continued. "I can't believe I'm going to this site, Jim! It is so cool, man! Let me tell you..."
Jim Ellison smiled and listened to his friend's eager description of things he couldn't even begin to comprehend about the newly discovered ruins. That didn't matter. All that mattered was that Blair was vibrantly happy, for the first time in too long, and Jim had been the one to put that smile on his face, that glow in his bright blue eyes. It didn't even matter what was in that strange smelling concoction currently simmering on the stove. It didn't matter at all. Blair was going to have his final chance to be a part of his beloved field of anthropology. It was the best way Jim knew to thank Blair for the sacrifices he had made for him.
Two weeks later, Jim sat at his desk slowly working his way through the avalanche of paperwork which seemed to have appeared overnight on his desk. You haven't even left yet, Sandburg, and I'm already behind on filling out my paperwork. What am I going to do for the next six weeks without you here?
"Ellison! My office, now!" Simon Banks' bark cut through the busy hum of the bullpen.
"Sir?" Ellison entered the office.
"Close the door," Simon said, sitting down behind his desk, his ever-present, unlighted cigar clenched between his teeth. Jim sat down in one of the chairs facing his captain. Simon removed the cigar and stared at Jim.
"You're actually letting him go, aren't you?"
"What do you mean, sir?" Ellison crossed his arms defensively and returned Banks' stare.
"You know what I'm talking about. Don't play dumb, Jim, it doesn't become you. You've done nothing, almost since the day Blair Sandburg walked through that door, except try to keep the kid at your side and safe. Does the phrase 'Blessed Protector' mean anything to you? Now you're practically packing his bags to send him off alone to some remote site in the middle of the jungles of South America! It just doesn't add up, Ellison." Simon leaned back in his chair, arms crossed, cigar once again clamped between his teeth.
Jim Ellison stared back for a moment, then Simon was amazed to see a wide smile appear on the face of his usually stoic detective. "You're right, Simon. This is out of character, but it does 'add up,' as you put it."
"Do you mind explaining that one?"
Ellison's smile faded as he tried to put into words the motivation behind his encouraging Sandburg's trip. "Simon, do you realize how much Blair has sacrificed for me?"
Simon nodded. "He's certainly been through hell and back for you, Jim, we all know that..."
Jim interrupted, "No, Simon, that's not what I mean. Before he met me, Blair had an exceptionally bright future ahead of him. You've never seen him in his element, have you? He is an outstanding teacher, Simon. He was respected by his professors and his students alike, before..." Jim paused and shut his eyes at the painful memories. Then he continued, "Blair's published articles in all these major professional journals. Hell, I've read some of them, and I can't even understand half of what he's written. His dissertation was phenomenal. I have to admit that. You know he let me read it after...after it was all over. It was brilliant. He loves anthropology, has since he was a little kid..." Jim's voice trailed off, and he was silent for a few moments, collecting his thoughts.
"He gave all that up, Simon. He gave up his lifelong dream, sacrificed that dream for me. Sacrificed it for us." Jim's eyes reflected his own disbelief and wonder at the loyalty of the friend that was Blair Sandburg. "Now Professor Grant still wants Blair to be a part of his team. How can I deny him that chance, Simon? This will be the last time Blair will be able to be a scientist, an anthropologist. After this, he'll be a cop, my partner."
Simon put the cigar down on his desk, stood up and walked to the window. He looked out briefly, then turned to face Jim.
"Sandburg wants this, Jim. You know he does. I mean, you saw his face, how stunned he was when you tossed him that badge. You saw how his eyes glowed when he realized he was going to be your permanent partner. You don't doubt that this is what he wants, do you? If you do, then..."
"No, Simon, Blair wants to become a cop. Never thought I'd be saying that, but it's true. I just want him to have this last experience in the field he loves so much. This last odyssey. This is a major expedition, and it's such an honor that he was invited to be a part of the team, especially under the circumstances. I didn't want him to turn it down, then years later wish that he had taken the opportunity. I'm afraid he would always regret it. I don't want Blair to have any regrets about the decision he made. None."
Simon shook his head. "You two never cease to amaze me, Jim. Each of you thinking of the other first, yet there always seems to be a balance so that you both have your needs filled. Amazing. You're sure he won't get so carried away down there that he forgets to come home?"
Jim smiled and touched the ancient, stone pendant hidden beneath his shirt. He knew he couldn't explain to his captain his new-found confidence and security where Blair was concerned. Simon never wanted to know too much about the mystical side of the sentinel/guide relationship. "Suffice it to say, Simon, that I have never been more certain that Blair isn't going anywhere without me, not permanently anyway. I can't hold on so tightly that I suffocate him, Simon. I tried that after...after the fountain. It won't work; I'd just drive him away. I almost did it again just a few weeks ago, this time out of my own fear and doubts about his loyalty. I almost forgot all the things we've learned about our sentinel/guide relationship and our friendship. I won't forget again. I'll never drive him away again, Simon. Never. Don't worry, he'll always come home."
"I don't know who you are, mister, but you do a mean impersonation of Jim Ellison," Simon laughed, impressed by his friend's new attitude and confidence in his friendship with Sandburg. A far cry from the angry man who had stood in Simon's office asking to work alone again because he thought his best friend, his partner, had betrayed him. "Seriously, I'm glad to see you loosening the apron strings a bit, Jim. When does he leave?"
"Tomorrow morning. Could I go a little early today, sir? I want to take Sandburg out for a special dinner; the food he'll be eating for the next six weeks won't be exactly haute cuisine."
"Sure, Jim. Look, it's after three now, why don't you cut on out of here? I know you want to spend time with Blair tonight. Wish him 'Godspeed' for all of us here, okay?"
Jim smiled and stood up. "Thanks, Captain, I'll do that. He may run by on his way home from the university, and you can tell him yourself. He said he was leaving early. He is still cleaning out that office of his. No telling what he'll find buried under all those papers and artifacts. The Sandburg Zone can be a hazardous place."
"Don't I know it!" Simon chuckled.
I'll see you tomorrow, Simon."
You aren't fooling me a bit, Ellison, Simon thought. You may be willing to let the kid go, but you're not as reconciled to it as you pretend to be, are you?
"Jim," Simon called just as Ellison put his hand on the doorknob. "It's only for six weeks..."
He saw Jim duck his head briefly, then nod. Jim's quiet response confirmed his suspicions about the detective's true feelings. "True, Simon, but you know something? I miss him already..."********************
A friend is one to whom one may pour out all the contents of one's heart, chaff and grain together, knowing that the gentlest of hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and with a breath of kindness, blow the rest away. Dinah Mulock Craik********************
Late that afternoon, Jim was dusting the furniture in the loft. He hadn't seemed to be able to stop moving since he got home from the station. Here I thought Sandburg was the one with all the nervous energy. Maybe if I just keep moving I won't have to think about tomorrow...I want him to go, I do, but damn, it's hard now that the time is almost here!
The door opened, and Sandburg popped in, lugging several bags from various places, including the grocery store, drug store, the herb shop, and Jim couldn't tell where else. He grinned at his partner and said, "Hi, Jim! Just needed a few last minute things, then I ran by the station to say good-bye to everyone. I got home as quickly as I could. What are you doing home so early?" Blair carried the bags into his room.
"Simon let me go about three." Jim put the dust cloth and spray back under the sink and washed his hands, dried them on a towel, and turned around just as Blair emerged from his room. "You all packed and ready?"
"Except for what's in the sacks. Man, I hope I've remembered everything. No convenience stores down there, you know. It's been a long time since I've packed for an expedition. Amazing what you forget you need!"
Jim smiled outwardly, but inside his Blessed Protector instincts were on overdrive. Don't think about it...don't think about it, he thought, using the mantra he'd become so familiar with over the last several days as Blair's departure loomed ever closer. When he spoke, Jim was amazed that his voice sounded so normal. "OK, kid, where do you want to go for dinner? My treat, anywhere you choose."
"You're kidding! Anywhere? What's the deal, Jim?" The smile that broke across Blair's face warmed Jim's heart. Why does it give me so much pleasure to make him happy? Jim wondered. And usually it's so simple. The smallest surprises make him light up like a child at Christmas. Maybe that's what I enjoy seeing...that innocent, childlike quality he has.
"It's your last decent meal for a while, Chief. I just want it to be a good one. Choose."
"Tell you what, let me think about it for a few minutes. I'll throw those things in my duffel, then let you know. OK?"
Jim nodded. "That's fine. Just don't wait too long. We don't have reservations anywhere, so we'll either need to call or eat early. I'll go take a quick shower."
"Just save some hot water, man. I won't have that luxury for a while either!"
When Jim emerged from his shower, bundled in his soft gray robe, he looked for Blair before heading upstairs. Then he realized that he couldn't locate his guide's heartbeat. Worried, he scanned the loft. Not on the balcony, not in his room...There...a note on the kitchen table. He picked it up and read:
Gone out for a minute.
Back in a few.
Ok, so the kid forgot something else. He'd be dressed and ready before he returned. Then, they'd decide about dinner.
The door opened as Jim was descending the stairs. Blair came in carrying a large paper sack and set it on the kitchen counter. Jim sniffed the air.
"Chinese, Chief? What gives? I thought we were going out," Jim questioned his friend.
Sandburg faced him, his expression neutral. "Do you mind if we don't, Jim?"
Ellison shook his head. "Of course not, Sandburg. It's just that when I offer to treat you to a meal anywhere in the city, you usually jump for joy. Not that it happens that often, understand. This is just not like you, that's all. Everything all right?"
Blair turned and walked to the sliding doors leading out to the balcony. "Sure, man, everything's fine," he answered quickly. "I'm just going to step outside for a minute, okay? Would you get the table ready?" Without waiting for a response, Blair opened the doors and stepped out onto the balcony.
Concerned, Jim watched his partner for a moment. Blair stood at the railing, staring at the darkening skies over Cascade. Give him a minute. Then get yourself out there and find out what's going on. Jim turned and set the table. He ran the Chinese food into the warm oven. Then he went to the balcony to find his partner.
Blair was still standing in the same spot, hunched over against the railing, darkness now having blanketed the city. Lights twinkled on like fireflies in the night sky. Jim went and stood behind his friend, placing both hands on his shoulders, squeezing gently. "Want to tell me what's wrong, Junior?" he asked softly.
He heard and felt his partner's deep sigh. "Now I really understand the meaning of the word 'ambivalent,' Jim. This expedition sounds wonderful, and I am so excited about it. I know it's my last one before I start my new life. But I..." he stopped, unable to continue.
"...But you hate the thought of leaving." Jim finished for him. He let his arms slide down and wrap around his friend's chest, pulling him gently back to rest against him. Blair's hands came up to clasp his arms, and his head relaxed against Jim's broad chest.
After a few minutes had passed, Blair nodded and was able to continue his thoughts. "I've traveled around the world, Jim, as a child and as an adult. I've 'detached with love' so many times I couldn't begin to count them. But...in all those travels, in all those years, this is the first time I've ever had to leave home to do it! I...I never had a home to leave before, Jim, and I'm just beginning to realize how much I'm going to miss it...and you..."
Jim felt a drop of moisture hit his hand and knew his friend was crying. He tightened his arms around the younger man's chest and rested his cheek against Blair's soft curls. "I know, buddy, believe me, I know. You think this is easy for me, huh? I want you to go, want you to take this opportunity. But I am going to miss you, kid. A lot. You fill up that big, empty space inside me like no one ever has before. I didn't have a home before you came either, Chief. Just a place to live, not a home. You made the loft our home, Blair, and it will still be here when you get back. I'll still be here. Then you'll go to the Academy and start a new career. Don't lose this chance to finish your old one in style. To show them what kind of an anthropologist you really are. Please."
Blair nodded. "I know, Jim. I know it's the right thing to do, and I really want to go. Professor Grant was so generous to still want me to come, and you...I know it isn't easy for you to let me go. I don't want to pass up this chance to prove myself one last time. It's just so hard..." Jim felt him choke back a sob, and his own throat tightened with emotion.
Blair nodded, still unable to speak. Jim smiled and whispered, "That's fine with me, buddy. There's no better place to be."
After long minutes of closeness, they entered the loft for dinner and a movie.
Jim glanced at his watch. Midnight. The movie was over, not that Sandburg would have known it. Two glasses of wine, and his emotionally exhausted partner had fallen asleep over an hour before, his head resting first against Jim's shoulder, his friend's arm looped loosely about his shoulders. It hadn't taken long for Blair's head to droop down, further and further, until Jim sighed, gave up, and carefully settled the curly head onto a pillow in his lap. That's where Blair stayed, curled up on his side facing Jim, one hand around Jim's back, breathing deeply in sleep. The past few weeks had been emotionally draining for both of them, and the strain had finally caught up to Blair. I should move him to his bed, Jim considered. He needs a good night's sleep. Well, I guess that's what he's getting. I'm the one who will have a stiff back tomorrow. The benefits of age are many. I'll just wake him up, help him to bed...sure I will. I don't want to move. Don't want to let him go yet. What's one night of lost sleep? I'll have six weeks to catch up...
Carefully, Jim maneuvered on the couch so that he was lying on his side, taking Blair with him. He tugged up the afghan so that it covered them both. Then Jim settled his head on a pillow and slipped one arm under Blair so his friend could rest his head on his arm. The other arm wrapped around his partner, drawing him close. Blair sighed contentedly in his sleep and snuggled closer to Jim.
A small smile twitched Jim's lips. Would anyone at the department, even Simon, understand the need he had to be close to his guide? Not just emotionally close, but at times, physically close? There was nothing shameful in that need, Jim had decided long ago, regardless of what his father would have said. It wasn't easy breaking a lifetime of ingrained programming that 'real men' didn't need this kind of closeness. Blair maintained that the need was instinctual, just like Jim's need to protect the tribe...and the guide. Jim agreed with Blair's assessment. It just felt right. He knew that he could no more stop touching Blair...a hand on his shoulder, a playful tap on the face...than he could stop breathing. And occasionally, in times of stress, he just needed to be close to his guide and best friend. This was definitely one of those times. After all they had been through, after all that had been said and done, their friendship had survived, had grown even stronger. Jim knew he had much to be grateful for that evening, the most important being the small, warm body that lay so trustingly in his arms.
Jim closed his eyes and tightened his arms possessively around Blair. He breathed in the scent of herbal shampoo, the slight remaining smell of aftershave, and beneath both, the unique scent that was just Blair. Jim felt the reassuring heartbeat against his chest, heard it echo in his own heart, and filed the sound away. He probably wouldn't get much sleep in the next six weeks after all; not without that familiar, comforting heartbeat coming from the room beneath his. But tonight Blair was here. Tonight he could rest.
By the time the horn blew outside the loft the next morning, Blair's duffle bag was packed and waiting at the door. Both men had been quieter than normal as they went about their morning routines. Breakfast had consisted mostly of small talk punctuated with long, comfortable pauses. Neither had brought up the previous night. The closeness had been something they both needed to strengthen their connection before Blair's departure.
"That's Robert, Jim. I gotta go," Blair called up to Jim in his room. His partner came jogging down the steps.
"You got everything, Chief?" Jim looked at his friend, standing beside his duffle. Sandburg was in jeans, a white shirt layered over a blue t-shirt, and wearing the same multi-colored vest he'd worn when they'd first met. Doesn't the kid ever change his wardrobe? Jim wondered. Unconsciously, he reached out and lightly brushed his fingers over the familiar vest.
Blair smiled. "This old thing's been around, hasn't it? Just like me. I guess I'd better go; Robert's waiting, and our flight leaves before too long. So, I'll call when I can, right? Just don't get worried if it's awhile, Jim. You know how hard it is to find a phone in some of these places. I mean..."
Jim reached out and gently tugged a long curl. "Shh...I know, Chief. I promise I won't worry. I know you can handle yourself. This is your world after all. You'll be fine."
Blair flashed a brilliant smile, bent and picked up his duffle. "You'll be careful, right? Promise?"
Jim nodded, and Blair opened the door and stepped into the hall. "All right, then I'm outta here. Bye, Jim. See ya in six weeks, man." He turned and quickly took off down the steps.
Jim took a deep breath, slightly stunned at the speed of the departure, then shook his head, and stepped back inside. He was closing the door when he heard footsteps pounding back up the stairs. Blair's footsteps. He opened the door again and faced a breathless Sandburg. The kid had a funny look on his face that was half embarrassment, half determination.
"What's the matter, Chief? Forget your toothbrush?" Jim kidded.
Blair just shook his head. "I just...wanted..." he looked down, then back up to meet Jim's eyes.
Without a word, Jim opened his arms, and Blair gratefully stepped into his embrace. He wrapped his arms around Jim and hung on like he would never let go. "I'm sorry, Jim," Blair murmured. "I didn't mean to just cut out like that...like I didn't care...I was just afraid of losing it there for a minute."
"It's okay, Blair; it's all right. Hush...Everything's going to be fine. You're going to have a great time, make lots of ground breaking discoveries, and come home a legend in anthropology. Then you can come home and train to be my partner. And I'll be right here waiting for you, buddy, I promise. Okay?"
"-kay," Blair pulled back enough to look into his friend's eyes. "I'm going to miss you, man."
Jim pressed a gentle kiss to his forehead. "I'll miss you, too, Darwin. I love you. Now, go on and get to the airport before you miss your flight."
Blair nodded and pulled away from Jim. Without a word he turned and left the loft, pulling the door shut behind him. Jim went out to the balcony and saw Blair emerge from the building, duffle bag in hand. The graduate student, Robert, had the trunk opened, and Blair tossed his bag in and shut the trunk. Then, as he walked to the passenger door, he looked up at the balcony, directly into Jim's eyes. As if he knew I'd be right here, Jim thought.
With his enhanced sight, Jim saw a small smile on his guide's face, along with the shimmer of tears in his bright, blue eyes. Then he heard a sentinel-soft voice whisper, "I love you, too, Jim. Be safe until I get back, okay?" Blair touched his hand to the pendant around his neck.
Jim nodded, touched the pendant around his own neck, and gave Blair the thumbs up sign. Sandburg nodded back, grinned and waved, and got into the car. Jim followed his heartbeat as the vehicle pulled off and headed toward the airport. Finally, the precious sound faded away. Jim sighed, turned around and went back into the silent and empty loft. It was going to be a long six weeks.********************
One of the very pleasant things about friendship...the do-you-remember moments. - Faith Baldwin.********************
Three weeks later, Jim sat staring at his computer screen trying to figure out what had happened to the report he thought he had just saved. Sandburg, where are you when I need you? he thought helplessly.
"Jim, you okay there?" a voice interrupted from behind him. He turned around to see Simon looking at him in concern. "I thought you might have zoned, you were so still."
Ellison managed a small smile. "I'm fine, Simon, thanks. Just trying to figure out how I lost the report I spent an hour filling out."
"Never a Sandburg around when you need one, right?" Simon's face fell when he saw the lost look in Jim's eyes. "Sorry, Jim. I know the past few weeks have been tough on you. Look, it's almost noon. Let's go get some lunch. Maybe that file will have reappeared by the time you get back. What do you say?"
"Sure, Simon. Sounds like a plan. Go get your coat, and I'll be ready by the time you get back." Jim took one last helpless look at the infernal machine on his desk, then stood up to put on his jacket. His eyes were drawn to the framed photograph on his desk. It had been taken by Simon on one of their camping trips into the mountains near Cascade. Jim and Blair had been toasting marshmallows over the campfire, when Jim playfully tried to cram one more sweet, sticky morsel into his friend's already overstuffed mouth. Blair had leaned back trying to get away, his hands clutching Jim's attacking arms, a huge, gooey smile on his face, blue eyes radiating happiness. Jim looked like a kid, clowning around with his best friend in the world. Simon had frozen the moment forever on film.
Jim studied his friend's face in the photo, and then his own. It always amazed him when he stopped to consider his friendship with Blair. The two men couldn't be more different in appearance, upbringing, and life experience. Tall and shorter, short hair and long, a strict father and an 'earth mother,' military and graduate school... How did it happen? How did you make yourself the center of my life...my heart...so fast that I didn't even see it coming? How did you change me from an isolated, belligerent jerk into the man in that photograph? I don't know how you did it; I'm just glad you did. Hurry home, Chief. I miss you.
Simon watched Ellison as he stared at the photo. Finally he spoke quietly, "Ready, Jim?"
The detective carefully replaced the photo in its designated spot on his desk, letting his fingers gently brush the image as he released it. "Yeah, Simon, I'm ready. Let's go."
Angelo's was crowded with lunchtime customers as Jim and Simon ate their lasagna. "Have you heard from the kid again, Jim?"
Jim put down his glass of water and shook his head. "Not since the end of the first week. He said not to worry if I didn't hear, though. Apparently the only phone is in a small town about fifteen miles from the dig site, and its owner isn't too enthusiastic about allowing outsiders to use it. Blair had to pay him handsomely for the privilege the first time."
Simon laughed. "I can see Sandburg trying to buy phone time with this guy, speaking Spanish, and figuring his finances all at the same time. He'll have enough stories about this trip to last the next five years."
Jim nodded and smiled. "By the time he finishes embellishing them, it will be more like ten years, Simon."
His captain's face turned serious. "How are you doing with this, Jim? Any problems with your senses? Not that I would know what to do, but I promised Sandburg I'd ask."
Jim just smiled. That was his guide, always looking out for his safety, even when he wasn't around. "I'm doing okay, Simon. No problems with my senses. I'm keeping them dialed down most of the time. No point taking any chances."
"All right, so your senses are cooperating. Now how about the rest of you?"
Jim looked puzzled. "I'm not sure what you mean, sir."
"Come on, Jim. This is me you're talking to here. This thing with you and Blair is way beyond just his helping you cope with your senses. I know that. So how are you really doing with him gone?"
Jim sighed and moved his food about on the plate with his fork. "I'm all right, Simon. The loft is too silent... too empty. I haven't slept very well; it's just too quiet at night."
"Too quiet at night? I don't follow..." Simon looked puzzled and was amazed to see a faint blush creeping onto Ellison's face.
"It's hard to explain, sir. I...I hear his heartbeat at night, and it...well, it relaxes me. I know then that everything's all right. That he's all right. Now, all I hear is silence, and I'm don't know if he's okay or not."
Simon wasn't sure how to respond. Noticing his hesitation and interpreting it as discomfort, Ellison retreated. "It's really all right, Simon. I'm doing pretty well, actually. And it's only three more weeks. I'm halfway there. Now, tell me what you learned this morning about the Tucker case."
The two men spent the rest of the meal discussing the cases that Major Crimes was currently investigating. After paying the bill, they got in Simon's car to head back to the station.
Simon decided to turn the conversation back to Sandburg. He felt badly that he hadn't responded when his best detective and friend had confided in him earlier. There was no way he could have failed to notice Jim's abrupt change of subject after Simon's initial hesitation. It can't be easy for tough, hard-nosed Ellison to admit his feelings out loud, Simon thought. And I just shut him out. Gotta get over that. "Jim," he began. "When you say you hear Sandburg's heartbeat, do you mean that you hear it all the time, or just when you tune in to it?"
No response from the man in the passenger's seat. "Jim?" Simon questioned. No answer. The captain looked over at the detective, and his heart lurched at what he saw. Ellison was staring straight ahead, his blue eyes wide and blank, hands clenched into tight fists in his lap. "Jim! Are you with me here? Come on, Jim, talk to me! Jim!"
Nothing. Simon pulled over into the nearest parking lot and turned to Ellison. Damn it, Sandburg! What the hell do I do now?
The jungle air was heavy with moisture. Jim could feel the sweat dripping off his body. When he looked at his clothing, he saw the army fatigues and felt the bandana he had worn during his time in Peru after the crash that had killed every member of his unit. Except Jim himself. The murmuring drone of countless insects assaulted his hearing, and he turned down the dial. Better.
Why was he here? What lesson did he need to learn now?
He began walking through the jungle, sure that he would eventually locate whatever it was he had been brought here to find. It had always worked before.
Suddenly, a dark figure appeared from the dense foliage. The panther. The sleek, black animal stopped in front of Ellison and growled, a low, rich sound emerging from deep in its throat. Its luminescent green eyes met and held Jim's own blue eyes like a powerful magnet attached to steel.
Then, from behind the beautiful beast, there appeared a familiar figure...Incacha. Somehow it didn't surprise Jim to see the Chopec shaman standing before him. Since Incacha's death in Cascade, Jim had known his former teacher would return to help him when he was needed, just as he had in the temple in Mexico.
"Incacha...What's wrong? Why have I been brought here...now?" Jim tried to keep his voice steady and control the instinctive dread already building inside him.
"Enquiri, where is your guide?" Incacha's voice was gentle, yet demanding. Somehow, Jim had the feeling Incacha was disappointed in him.
"Blair? He's in South America. But it is only for a few more weeks..."
Jim's explanation was cut short by Incacha's arm slicing through the air and his forceful voice. "Enough! In the temple you saw visions of your greatest fear, Enquiri. Tell me, what was that fear?"
Ellison could not meet the penetrating eyes of his old friend. "You already know...you know what the fear is...don't make me..."
"Tell me! What is your greatest fear, Sentinel?"
Jim's eyes shot up, capturing Incacha's and holding firm. He answered in a voice filled with acceptance, regret, and a touch of anger. "Losing Blair! You were there! You saw my visions. My greatest fear is that one day I will lose him, lose my guide, my brother, and then I will be lost myself."
"I ask you again...Enquiri, where is your guide?"
"Away from me. Too far away... What is it, Incacha? What do you know? Is Blair in trouble? Is he hurt? Tell me! If he is, then I have to go to him." His strident tone softened. "Please, tell me. Please."
Incacha's face softened. "You wear the pendant of the Sentinel, yet you allow your Guide to be parted from you. He wears that of the Guide, yet he leaves you alone. Both have much to learn." The warrior sighed, looking down at the ground. Then he looked up and smiled. "It is not too late to learn these lessons. Your guide needs you, Enquiri. Go to him. Go to him now." The figure vanished into the depths of the jungle. Jim stared after him, wanting, needing to know more. He looked at the panther, still on the path before him.
"Where is Blair? Can you tell me any more? What has happened to him?" The panther growled and peered into the jungle at a small clearing. He bared his sharp white teeth and screamed, silencing the insects and birds with his call. Jim followed his eyes into the clearing and groaned.
The wolf lay on its side, panting. The animal tried to lift its head, meeting Jim's eyes. The suffering in those gentle blue eyes, Blair's eyes, tore at Ellison's heart. "Blair..." he whispered. Suddenly the wolf dropped its head, whimpered, and disappeared.
"NO!" Jim's scream broke the silence in Simon's car. "Blair! NO!"
Thankful to see some sign of life in the too still figure beside him, Simon grabbed Jim by both shoulders. "Jim! Jim! Come on, snap out of it! Stay with me here; come on back."
Terrified blue eyes turned at last and made contact with concerned, dark brown ones. Simon could feel Jim trembling under his hands. Finally, Jim pulled away and leaned back against the seat and closing his eyes. Simon stared at him before asking, "Jim, what in this world happened here? Did you zone or what?"
Jim's voice was weak when he replied, "It wasn't anything in this world, Simon, that's the problem. That wasn't a zone. I just had a dream...a vision..."
"It must have been the mother of all visions then. You were screaming and shaking... Damn, Jim, tell me what's going on."
Jim slowly shook his head. "In a few minutes, please, Simon. I need a little time here. For now, would you please drive me to the loft?"
Simon looked confused. "The loft? Sure, Jim, but why? Are you all right?"
Jim sat up and looked at his captain with a determined stare. "I'm all right, Simon, but I need to pack. I'm going to South America. I have to get to Blair."********************
Friendship that flows from the heart cannot be frozen by adversity, as the water that flows from the spring...cannot congeal in winter. - James Fenimore Cooper********************
Two hours later, Ellison stood facing Banks in the loft, his jaw clenched, his eyes blue ice. "Simon, you are not going along on this trip. I don't know what I'm facing down there. This is my problem, not yours."
"Look, Ellison. It's precisely because you don't know what you're up against that makes it even more important that I go. You need backup! Blair would never forgive me if I let you go alone and something happened to you. I'd never forgive myself! Not to mention I remember the two of you taking off for Peru to help Daryl and me not so long ago. Blair is one of my men now, as if he wasn't already. I look after my men, Ellison! Now I hate to make this an direct order, but damn it, I will if you force me. I am going...got it, Detective?" By now Simon was up in Jim's face, his own jaw clenched as tightly as Ellison's, his finger jabbing the other man's chest.
Jim Ellison stared at his captain for a fraction of a second, as if to continue the argument, before the discipline of years of military and police training kicked in. "Sir, yes, sir," he responded, a hint of humor in his voice at last.
Simon breathed a heavy sigh. "About time...I need to call the airline for another ticket. We'll run by my place on the way. Won't take long to throw a few things in my bag. What about your truck, Jim? It's still at the station."
"Leave it. It's not important right now. Call the airline, get your ticket, Simon. Put it on my card. I'm almost ready. I just need a few minutes alone," Jim answered as he tossed Simon his wallet, then turned and walked to the French doors leading to Blair's room. As Simon dialed the phone, he noticed Jim hesitate, hands on the doorknobs, before entering the room and closing the doors behind him.
Jim knew he didn't have much time, but he needed to spend a few minutes in his guide's presence. Under the circumstances, this was as close as he could get. He had felt close to a zone out since the vision in Simon's car. His senses seemed on the verge of erupting, uncontrolled, as they had before...before Blair. Before Blair found him, taught him control, saved him from the dark, creeping insanity he had known was waiting for him.
Until this vision, he had been able to maintain the control for himself, knowing that his guide's absence was temporary, that he would be back. Now, not knowing whether Blair was frightened, hurt, or...worse..., Jim felt his control slipping away like sand drizzling through his open fingers. He had to find some way to get the control back. If he didn't, he would be of no use to Blair. And Blair needed him.
Jim looked at the candles on the table beside Blair's bed. He found the matches in the drawer and carefully lighted each one. The perfumed scent quickly filled the small room. Jim sat on the futon bed, crossing his legs, and trying to relax as Blair had taught him to do when meditating. I don't know if I can turn off my thoughts, though, Chief. There's too much going on in there right now. But I'll try.
He began taking deep, steady breaths, visualizing his guide's face before him...smiling, peaceful, safe. Slowly, Jim felt the tenseness drain from his muscles, felt the knot of terror in his chest loosen, felt strength and control permeating his body. You can do this, Jim. I know you can. I need you, Jim. Please. Jim's eyes snapped open. He wasn't sure if that had really been Blair's voice he had heard or just his own thoughts, his own desperate need. Whatever it had been, the voice and the quiet meditation had been successful. His senses were under control; his focus had returned. Jim Ellison was ready.
Five hours later, they sat in the cramped coach seats of a southbound jet, not yet halfway through the first leg of their journey. The flight had been uneventful. Simon had kept a cautious eye on Ellison. He didn't know which was more worrisome, the thought of another vision or the possibility of a zone out. At least Jim came out of the vision on his own, but the fear, the pure terror, that had been in his voice...Simon had no desire to ever hear that fear again. He had heard it only once before...that time with the sounds of water splashing in the background and the morning dew still on the grass of the Rainier campus. But thus far Jim had escaped both visions and zoning.
The big man had been quiet most of the way, staring out the window at the darkened sky, often gently touching the pendant that now hung outside his shirt. He seemed oblivious to everything around him, even the discomfort of contorting his long legs into the cramped quarters of the plane. Simon knew that his thoughts were of what lay ahead, the unknown dangers that must be faced before he could find his guide.
This damn rental Jeep must be a relic from World War Two, Simon cursed inwardly shortly after dawn the next morning as he and Jim bounced along what passed for a road toward the jungle. He studied the meticulously marked map Blair had left with Jim before his departure. Fifteen more miles down this washboard road in the Jeep, then another four miles on foot through the dense vegetation. Then they would reach the site, and, hopefully, a safe and surprised Blair Sandburg. Simon still held out hope that the vision had been a fluke, a mistake, that nothing was wrong at all. Maybe they could just visit a few days with Sandburg, learn a bit about anthropology and archaeology, then depart for home, laughing, and a trifle embarrassed, at the idea of traveling all this way for nothing. Yeah, right. Not likely.
With that thought, Simon once again glanced at the silent man driving the Jeep, his jaw clenched, facial muscles twitching occasionally, eyes of cold, hard steel. What was it about these two that seemed to attract trouble like flies to honey? They had been through so much together...gunshots, kidnappings, beatings, the trauma of Blair's revealed dissertation, even...even death...yet they came back from each nightmare more committed, more devoted than ever. To the job and to each other. When will it end? Simon wondered. Will their luck run out and, if it does, will the one left behind survive? He doubted it. Banks had heard Jim's cries at the fountain, felt his overwhelming despair and grief, seen him ready to give up on life and follow Sandburg wherever it was that he had gone. Simon shivered at the memory. He was certain Ellison could not survive without his partner, would not choose to survive without Blair, and he had a feeling that Sandburg, too, would find no reason to continue without Jim. Somewhere over the past four years, the two men had become two halves of a whole, the missing piece for the puzzle that was the other's life. Please let him be safe, Simon silently prayed, for both their sakes.
As they traveled, the land around them grew more lush, and the road more difficult to follow, often nonexistent. The heat shimmered in waves in the distance. After nearly two hours, the Jeep could travel no further. They found three more dusty and abused vehicles parked at the end of the road and pulled in beside them. Jim walked over and examined them carefully. "Sandburg's ridden in these two," he said, indicating the vehicles. "But it's been awhile, at least a week." Simon nodded. He had seen Jim pick up his partner's trail too many times to ask how the detective knew. Scent...a feeling...it was unimportant. He just knew. "Now what?" Simon asked, already knowing the answer.
Jim jerked his head toward a trail leading into the jungle. "We go." Simon gathered his pack and followed Ellison who was already striding down the trail.
The baking sun was far overhead by the time they had covered most of the four miles leading to the research site. Simon's clothes were soaked with sweat, his dark face glistening in the heat. Jim had tied a bandana around his forehead and taken off his outer shirt, leaving him in green fatigues and t-shirt. The sweat and dirt mingled on his face. Simon's mind flashed to the magazine cover that had featured Ellison not long after his return from Peru. He had the same hardened look in his eyes, as if he had seen the worst life could offer, and nothing could touch him any more. Simon had not seen that look in a long time; not since a certain ebullient, long-haired grad student had somehow managed to chip away at the towering walls so carefully constructed around the heart of the former soldier and change him forever. At least Simon had thought the change would be forever. Now he wasn't so certain. Jim was on the verge of reverting to that hard-eyed, isolated ghost of a man. Without Sandburg, Simon feared, the more human Jim Ellison who had emerged as a result of Blair's...hell, just as a result of Blair... might be lost forever.
Without warning, Jim stopped dead in his tracks, staring ahead toward a clearing in the jungle. Simon had to sidestep off the meager trail to avoid running into him from behind. Jim whispered, "There it is. I don't see any signs that anyone's still there. No movement. I don't hear anything either."
Simon whispered, "You want to go in?"
Jim nodded and began to walk cautiously toward the site. They could see the tools of archaeology and research scattered about the clearing. Several large rectangular grids were laid out with string and stakes, and small trowels, brushes, and cameras were scattered about. Notebooks, pencils, and even a laptop lay abandoned, as if their owners simply vanished from the spot. Simon could almost smell the fear building in Ellison; it was such a tangible thing. Jim growled softly from deep inside as he touched the laptop computer that lay on a small folding table.
Simon approached him cautiously. "Is that Blair's?"
Jim nodded sharply. "That's his tent. All his stuff's still inside, clothes spread around, books on his cot. Just like he'd have left it."
"Can you tell how long..."
Jim interrupted, "Listen!" He was absolutely still...reaching out...listening.
Suddenly Ellison sprang forward, crashing through the brush, and knelt beside a still figure lying face down behind thick undergrowth. Simon approached, hoping...
It was an older man, probably in his late fifties, with gray hair and a closely trimmed beard. A pair of glasses lay shattered beside his body. The injured man groaned in anguish when Ellison carefully turned him over. Blood had soaked the ground under him. A bloody, gaping wound in his chest was clearly visible beneath his torn shirt. Jim was amazed the man was still alive with so massive a wound. He began to try to stem the flow of blood with his own outer shirt that he pulled from his pack.
"No...please...don't...hopeless..." the man murmured.
"Dr. Grant?" Jim's voice was soft, and he stopped his ministrations. His medic's training told him the man was beyond help, and he didn't want to cause more pain. "Are you Professor Grant?"
"Yes," the man breathed, barely able to be heard. Simon moved in closer to listen. "Who...?"
Jim answered slowly and carefully. "My name is Jim Ellison. I'm..."
The weak man managed to interrupt and even smiled tightly. "Ah, yes, Blair's... friend. Speaks of you all the time... "
Simon saw the muscles in Jim's jaw tighten at the sound of his friend's name. "Professor, I know it's hard to talk, but where is he? What's happened to Blair? What happened to all of you?"
Dr. Grant coughed, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. Jim gently wiped it away. The coughing continued. Simon was afraid the gravely injured man would never speak again. But he did.
"Some...some of the young graduate students...and Blair...went hiking...Ran into drug...dealers...Blair said...something about...a drug lab...He was about to go...into town...call you...But they...followed them here...killed..."
The coughing started again. Jim looked over at Simon who was crouching on the other side of the dying man. The pure anguish in Jim's eyes was overpowering. Simon reached over and touched his arm as he had seen Blair do, trying to anchor him, keep him from losing all control. "Easy, Jim...we don't know yet..."
"Blair?" Jim managed to whisper hoarsely. "What happened to Blair? Please..." Simon moved around beside Jim, placing his hand on his shoulder.
Dr. Grant closed his eyes, took a deep breath, trying to gather enough strength to respond. "Took him away...was hiding, but...found him...said might need hostage or...lab rat..."
Simon felt the tremor that passed through the sentinel's body. "Was he hurt? Did they hurt him?"
Grant coughed again, and more blood appeared. "No...hit him, I think...not...shot...others all dead...twelve...buried there...most so young..." He managed to nod past the camp into the dense foliage. "I ran off...one said I was...dead anyway...not to bother...animals would..." Suddenly his eyes rolled back, and he gasped a final breath before his head rolled to the side.
Silence. Jim felt the blood pounding in his head, his vision growing dark around the edges, fading out...no sound...no sight...blackness...emptiness...until he felt Simon shaking him by the shoulder and calling his name loudly, incessantly..."Jim! Jim! Snap out of it! Now! Blair is in trouble. Damn it, Jim, Blair needs you now! Don't let him down!"
The last words penetrated through the inky, consuming darkness. "Blair needs you, Jim!"
Jim shook his head violently, clearing away the nothingness and allowing the sounds of the jungle and Simon's voice to reach him at last. Blair needed him. He couldn't fail his guide. He stood up.
Simon watched in amazement as Jim Ellison transformed. No longer shaking, frightened, the sentinel stood erect, every muscle taunt and ready. His head slowly turned as he played out his senses, searching for a sign of where they had taken his guide. Then he stopped, motionless, listening, inhaling the hot, moisture laden jungle air. "This way!" he called to Simon and was off through the undergrowth with Simon struggling to his feet and hurrying to catch up.********************
A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity. Proverbs 17:17********************
As he trailed Jim, Simon considered the man he now saw ahead of him. This was no longer Jim Ellison, Cascade's top police detective, controlled, calm, and collected. This man was primal, dangerous, as much at home in this jungle as the indigenous wild creatures that dwelled within its depths, silently sensing his way along an invisible path. When Jim turned briefly to glance at Simon, the captain's blood froze in his veins. He had only seen that look once before and never on the face of a human. His eyes were those of the tiger Simon had seen on a nature preserve stalking its prey...cold, emotionless, merciless. James Ellison was pure Sentinel, pure hunter, intent on protecting what he valued most, his Guide, and exacting revenge on those responsible for Blair's pain.
Finally, after what seemed to Simon like an eternity, Jim stopped and raised his hand for silence. The afternoon sun hung low in the sky, rapidly extinguishing light from the jungle. His face was pure concentration as he probed the surrounding area with his senses. "They're over there," he whispered. "I'm going in closer for a look. Wait here."
Before Simon could even think of questioning the idea of Ellison issuing him an order, Jim had disappeared. As Simon crouched behind some undergrowth, he realized that here, in this place, Jim was rightfully in charge. This was his territory, his area of expertise, his turf. A trained killing machine, Simon thought, and the idea was disconcerting. I can't even imagine all the ways that man knows to take a life. Covert Ops taught him well. A good friend to have on your side when the chips are down. Strange how we all tend to forget who James Ellison really is, what he really is, how much he has changed since...since Sandburg came into his life. I just pray we get him back. That we get both of them back...
Jim crept silently to within sight of the camp and crouched behind a cluster of trees. He opened his hearing...probing... listening...There! That was the sound he was praying to find. Blair's heartbeat, but it was too fast, pounding too hard. He focused even harder, remembering to keep in touch with his surroundings enough not to zone. The last thing Blair needed right now was a useless sentinel.
The first large tent. Blair was in that tent. He could hear his accelerated breathing and his choked sobs. Blair was terrified. He had to get to him. But how? Three men moved about the campsite. Each had an automatic weapon either across his back or close at hand. Two other large tents were set up. Those must be the lab tents, he thought. Boxes were stacked to one side of the camp. The drugs.
Then he heard it. A soft whisper coming from the tent. "Please, Jim. I know you're so far away, man, but if you can hear me...feel me...I need you now. Please help me, Jim. I don't know what to do. There's nobody left. I'm all alone. Jim?" His instinctive need to protect Blair, to run to him immediately, almost overwhelmed the sentinel. Shaking with the effort to control his emotions, Jim sent out a silent message, I'm here, Blair. You're never alone, Chief. I'll be there soon. I promise you. Just trust me. Taking one last look, he crept silently back to Simon.
The dying rays of the sun lighted the jungle with only a dull glow now, but Jim's eyes found Simon easily. He sat down beside his captain. "Did you find him?" Simon whispered.
Jim nodded, "Yes, sir. He's in a tent at the edge of the site. I couldn't see him, but his heart is beating far too fast, and his respiration is way up. I'm not sure if he's just frightened or hurt or if they've given him something. He...he was calling for me, Simon. For me..." When Jim looked at Simon, his eyes were filled with pain.
Simon nodded. "He trusts you to help him, Jim, and you will. Now what do we do?" Get his focus back on the solution, thought Simon. Don't let him get lost in the helplessness. Maybe this is a little of what it's like to be Blair, to be his guide. Trying to keep him focused on the task at hand. Have to hand it to Sandburg...it's not as easy as it sounds.
It worked. Jim's expression turned serious and the pain filled eyes were again filled with determination. "Here's what I have in mind. See what you think..."
Two o'clock in the morning. The nocturnal sounds of the jungle were punctuated by snoring from the camp. Jim tuned in and counted the snores. Two asleep, one on guard duty, but he was drowsy, his breathing slow and deep. Just as he had hoped. The sound of Blair's breathing in the tent was still ragged; his heartbeat still too fast. Jim forced himself to tune out those beloved sounds. First, he had to get to Blair. Then he could help him. Simon followed in his footsteps, trying to move as silently as the man stealthily stalking ahead of him. Both held their guns ready at their sides. Jim nodded to Simon, then crept away from him toward the guard. Simon waited in the concealing brush around the camp. Jim's figure was a silhouette against the weak glow of the campfire, but Banks clearly saw what came next.
Ellison moved around the sentry, slowly, silently as a shadow, until he was directly behind the man. With movement as deliberate as that of a constrictor encircling its prey, his muscular arm reached around the unsuspecting man's neck. Simon heard the quick pop, then watched as Ellison soundlessly lower the body to the ground. When Jim had said he would 'take out' the sentry, this was not how Simon had interpreted the phrase. One man down.
Next, Jim signaled for Simon. The tall captain emerged from his hiding place, gun drawn and pointed at the two figures on the ground in their sleeping bags. Jim joined him from behind, effectively cutting off any avenue of escape. The former Army Ranger then carefully slipped both automatic weapons away from the sides of the men and placed them on the ground behind him. Banks saw Jim mouth the countdown... one...two...three...
They both began shouting at the top of their lungs, creating the confusion they desired. "Don't move! Hands on your heads! Don't even think about it! Do it now! Now! Hands on heads!"
The startled drug dealers complied. Simon slipped in and removed guns from holsters, patting the men down to check for concealed weapons. Quickly, he cuffed both prisoners to trees behind them. It was over. Simon ran to check for a pulse on the sentry, even though he already knew what he'd find. Jim had broken the man's neck cleanly in a single snap.
When he turned around, Jim was already opening the flap of the first tent and going inside. Simon quickly followed.
Blair lay on his side on top of an old blanket, his body naked from the waist up, except for the stone pendant still hanging from his neck. His jeans were torn and dirty, his hands were tied behind him, and his bare ankles were tightly bound. Simon grimaced at the blood oozing from Sandburg's wrists, the result of his frantic struggles to get free from the coarse rope that restrained him. His face was battered; his right eye bruised and purple. Small, ugly circular marks covered his arms and upper body, both front and back. Cigarette burns. In wonder, Simon watched as the hunter, the killer, Jim Ellison transformed again before his eyes.
His face a mixture of sorrow, concern, and tenderness, Jim knelt beside Blair. As Simon worked at freeing him from his bonds, Jim reached out and gently brushed the dirty, matted hair back from Sandburg's face. A quiet voice whispered, "Hey, Chief, it's me. Can you wake up for me, buddy? Blair? Can you hear me?" Jim's hand tenderly stroked Sandburg's face, studiously avoiding the cuts and bruises. His other hand moved lightly over his partner's body, checking for more serious injuries. "Blair, can you wake up now? I really need to hear your voice, Chief."
The last sentence penetrated the vast void that had become Blair's existence since the terrifying moments when reality had become too painful to tolerate. Jim. Jim needed him. No matter where Blair Sandburg went, no matter how far away, he could not fail to hear that plea and respond to it.
"Jim?" The weak voice was barely audible.
Ellison smiled softly as he continued carefully caressing his partner's battered face. He bent down over the still form and whispered, "It's me, Chief. Jim's here. Everything's going to be fine, buddy. Nobody's going to hurt you again, I promise. I won't let them. It's all over, Blair. I'm here now. Can you open your eyes for me?"
Simon stared in disbelief. This gentleness, this tenderness, was difficult to reconcile with the image of the silent, tough-as-nails Covert Ops soldier that he had traveled with over the past two days. The man he had just witnessed kill with one swift, deadly blow.
The dark lashes fluttered, then the left lid opened to reveal the clear blue eye beneath. The swollen right eye remained shut. "Jim, is it really you?" Blair's voice was raspy. "How did you know...?"
Jim whispered to Banks, "Simon, I think we need to triage here."
Understanding, Simon slipped out of the tent to locate water and bring in the medical kit and clean clothes they had stashed in the brush.
Jim sat down and gently eased Blair into his lap, resting his head and bare shoulders against his own chest. The young man weakly reached up and grasped Jim's arms, trying to pull himself closer to the familiar source of comfort. Jim wrapped himself as closely as possible around his partner, using his body as a protective shield to help Blair feel safe. Unconsciously, he began to rock slowly.
"I'll explain later, Chief. For now, let's just say your Blessed Protector had two very insistent visitors, Incacha and a certain black feline friend of ours."
Jim felt Blair's understanding nod against his chest. "Thanks, man. I knew you'd come; I just didn't know if it would be in time." Blair's voice was so weak, so gravelly, that the words were difficult to understand. "I thought they'd kill me... Ah, Jim..." Blair's voice broke in a sob.
Jim rested his face against Blair's curls. "Shhh...easy now. It's all over Chief. You're safe now. Hush...just relax...rest..."
Simon came back into the tent with three canteens of water, paper cups, and a small metal bowl. He poured a little water into a cup and handed it to Jim. He poured more water into the bowl and prepared a damp cloth to start cleaning Sandburg's injuries.
"Here, Chief," Jim said softly. "Take just a couple of sips now. Not too much at first." Blair gratefully drank the water, then let his head fall back against Jim with a sigh. Simon started washing the blood from Blair's beaten face, carefully avoiding the ugly purple bruise around his eye.
As Simon worked, Jim murmured quiet reassurances in his partner's ear and stroked his hair. Simon could only catch a few words, even sitting as close as he was to them. Whatever Jim was saying, though, it was working. Sandburg's breathing was gradually becoming slower and deeper, his tense muscles relaxing. Within minutes, he was asleep in his sentinel's arms.
Simon finished cleaning Blair's facial injuries and reached for the medical kit they had packed. He removed the antibiotic cream and opened the tube. Jim took it from Simon's hand. "Simon, let me finish this. Could you work on his wrists and ankles?"
Simon nodded, prepared fresh water, and carefully began cleaning Sandburg's bloody wrists. He glanced at Jim several times as he worked. The detective's hands moved gently, slowly, taking great care to apply the medicine as lightly as possible. Simon could see his lips still moving as he worked, soft murmurings that only Blair could hear, apparently even in his sleep. Occasionally, the young man moaned in pain, but he didn't awaken.
"Do you want to put the medicine on his wrists and ankles and the burns now, Jim?" Simon asked softly after he had finished cleaning away the blood.
"It's okay, Simon, go ahead," Jim responded. "I don't want to move him right now, not while he's asleep."
Simon carefully applied the ointment, feeling strangely grateful that Jim trusted him with this delicate task, while Jim let his sensitive fingers roam lightly over Blair's body once again, checking for injuries. "Do you feel any signs of internal damage?"
Jim shook his head. "A couple of cracked ribs, I think, but that's all I'm finding. Looks like they beat him pretty badly, but most of the severe damage seems to be to his face. There's some nasty bruising on his belly where it looks like he was kicked, but I don't think it did any real harm inside. The burns, of course..." Jim's voice tightened to the point that he could not continue.
"Easy, Jim," Simon softly said. "Blair's going to need your strength to get through this. Not only is he hurt, he saw his friends murdered. You know how that's going to eat at him. Sandburg has a hard enough time dealing with the pain of others, but the pointless death of his friends...This is going to tear him up inside, you know that. You have to be strong enough to support him."
Jim nodded and continued stroking the matted curls. When he spoke, the softness in his voice contrasted with the violent words. "I want to kill them all, Simon." He lifted his hands from Blair for the first time and stared at them, fists clenched tightly. "I want to take these hands and hurt them as badly as they've hurt Blair. I mean it, Simon. You'd better keep me away from them, because I don't know if I can stop myself..."
Simon's voice was harsh. "Don't you even think that, mister! You are a cop now, not in Covert Operations, and we will bring these men in by the book. I understand that you killed that sentry in 'self defense,' but that's as far as it goes. Do you understand me?"
Jim didn't answer, just stared down at his friend's face with tears clouding his eyes. He brushed his fingers over Blair's swollen right eye, barely skimming the surface of the skin. Then he lightly touched several of the angry burns on Blair's chest and shoulders.
Finally, Jim nodded, then spoke in a voice choked with pain. "He just wanted to have one final chance at the career he had dreamed of his entire life and gave up for me. He didn't deserve this, Simon. I've never known a more gentle, loving soul than Blair's. Why did they have to torture him?"
With a frustrated sigh, Simon answered, "I don't know, Jim, God help me, I do not know. But he is alive; the only one who survived. We can be thankful for that at least."
Jim bent down and touched his lips to Blair's forehead. "I am thankful, Simon, believe me." Blair moaned in his sleep, his muscles twitching violently. Jim whispered something to his guide, kept his face pressed against Blair's for several moments, and the young man relaxed into deep sleep once again. Then Jim raised his head and looked at Simon, eyes clear, voice steady. "Now we need to plan our next step. We've got to get him out of here. I don't think there are any internal injuries, but I can't be sure. He needs a doctor. Plus we have those bastards out there..." Jim jerked his head in the direction of the two surviving dealers.
Simon nodded. "Do you think he can walk out?"
Jim tightened his arms protectively around the slim body he cradled against his chest. "I don't know, Simon. He hasn't been awake long enough to tell. I don't think his physical injuries are that bad, but I don't know yet what shape he's in emotionally."
"Look, it's a couple more hours until dawn. Those two aren't going anywhere, and Blair needs rest. So do we, for that matter. Let's get some sleep, and we'll reevaluate everything in the morning." Simon looked at Jim questioningly.
To his relief, Jim nodded agreement. Banks continued, "I'll sleep out there where I can listen out for our two prisoners. Blair needs you in here with him."********************
True friendship foresees the needs of others rather than proclaims its own. - Andre Maurois********************
After Simon departed, Jim carefully adjusted Blair on the blanket beneath them. He took the extra t-shirt Simon had brought in and slipped it over his friend's head, working his arms into it carefully. The shirt was soft cotton and would help protect the painful burns. They could change the jeans in the morning. Blair's left eye fluttered open as Jim worked, and he softly moaned.
"Easy, Chief. Almost done. I know it hurts, buddy, I know. I'm so sorry. Easy now. There we go." He gently laid Blair down again on his side, then Jim settled in behind his guide. He wrapped his arms around him and pulled him close, Blair's back pressed to his chest, his head resting on Jim's arm.
"Jim?" Blair's voice sounded stronger than it had been, but it was still rough.
"Yeah, Chief?" Jim's hand rubbed Blair's arm gently.
Blair trembled slightly, and Jim pulled him a little closer. "Blair? Talk to me, buddy. What's wrong?"
"They...they're all...dead, aren't they?" The voice was soft, and the sob little more than a whisper, but it broke Jim's heart.
He kissed the back of Blair's head and continued stroking his arm. "I'm so sorry, Blair. I'm so sorry."
Another quiet sob broke the silence, and the tremors strengthened. "Did...did you see Professor Grant? I couldn't tell what happened to him."
Jim answered softly, "He was still alive when we got there, Chief. He told us what had happened, that they had taken you. We stayed with him until he died. There was nothing I could do for him. I wanted to..."
Blair squeezed the muscular arms wrapped so protectively around him. "It's okay, Jim. I know you would have done all you could...I knew he was hurt pretty badly...Oh, damn, Jim, why did they have to kill them all? Why didn't they...why did I..."
Ellison interrupted angrily. "Don't say it, Sandburg! Don't you dare even think that! You are alive! I don't know why. Hell, I don't even care why!" Jim realized his voice and body were both shaking now, a reaction to the fear and despair that had filled his mind and soul during the past two endless days. He forced himself to regain control, to calm himself enough to pass his strength on to the battered man lying wounded in his arms. Wounded in his body and his heart. Protect the guide...the voice of instinct whispered in his head.
Jim hugged Blair fiercely against him and buried his face in the mass of tangled, matted curls. "Sorry, buddy. Guess I overreacted there a bit. I was so scared...scared that I had really lost you forever this time. I couldn't have survived that, Blair. I'm sorry about your friends, but I can never, never be sorry you were the one who made it, Chief."
He felt Blair's body relax against him, the tremors easing, the muscles loosening. Jim whispered in Blair's ear, his voice breaking. "I know what you're feeling, Blair. Believe me, I know."
With a flash of insight, Blair realized what Jim meant. Of course...his unit. He had been the only survivor of his entire unit. They had been under his command, been his responsibility. They had been his friends. Like the scientists and students had been Blair's. Jim did know. He truly did understand this raw grief that was eating at Blair's very soul.
Ignoring the pain that came with movement, Blair turned over to face his friend. His one opened eye strained in the darkness, trying to see Jim. When that failed, he closed his eye, but reached out with his fingertips, touching his sentinel's face and feeling the warm tears that trickled slowly down the planes of his cheeks and jaw. Blair pressed his cheek to Jim's neck, letting their tears mingle, sharing his sentinel's newly awakened grief. He felt Jim's love surrounding him, enveloping him, offering Blair everything Jim was, all he had, even his own deep pain, in order to help Blair heal.
Jim finally managed to whisper, "Sorry, Chief...here I should be helping you, and I..."
Blair placed his fingers tenderly over Jim's lips. "Shhh...Jim, you are helping me. You don't realize how much. Just knowing you understand...That it's not just words; you really know how much it hurts...Knowing that you are willing to share your own pain...that helps me more than anything. I'm sorry you are able to understand this, that you had to go though it yourself." He paused for a long moment. "Does it get easier, Jim? Please tell me it will get easier. Right now, it just hurts so damn much." Blair's voice broke on another sob.
"It's okay, kid. Go ahead and cry. It does hurt; I know it does. But it will get easier, Blair. The hurt will never completely go away. You wouldn't want it to, would you? Then you'd forget that you had cared for your friends. But it will get easier, Chief. I promise."
Jim hesitated. It was so difficult, but he had to say the words, had to do everything in his power to spare his friend the mistakes he himself had made. "And until it does, please remember that I'm here. Let me help, if I can. Don't do what I did, please, Blair. Don't shut out the world, cut yourself off. That's how I handled the pain, remember? Wouldn't let myself care completely for anyone, not even the woman I married. I always held a part of myself back, afraid to be hurt like that again. Until I met you..."
Overwhelmed, Blair buried his face against Jim's neck and felt the sentinel's strong arms embracing him possessively. "Carolyn was wrong, you know," Jim whispered.
"What...? Carolyn...?" Now Blair was completely confused.
Jim chuckled, and Blair felt the deep rumbling vibrate against his cheek. "She always accused me of being incapable of loving anyone completely, without reservation...incapable of total trust and commitment." He paused. "She was wrong. I just hadn't found you yet...my brother...my guide...my Blair." Jim took a deep breath, releasing all the fear and tension that had been building within him since the vision in Simon's car. Then he whispered, "Now rest, Chief. We'll have a long day tomorrow. I don't know about you, but I'm ready to go home."
Blair felt his tears dampening Jim's neck, but he also felt a small ray of hope shining within him. The pain would lessen in time, and his life would go on. Their lives would go on. He had survived; they would survive. Blair's hand found the pendant around Jim's neck and curled his fingers around it. He snuggled even closer against his friend, tucking his head beneath Jim's chin and smiled when he felt the soft press of lips against his hair...twice...and again. Blair's breathing deepened, and, safely wrapped in his sentinel's arms, he slept.
Jim Ellison didn't sleep, not yet. He was too alert, too content just to rest and hold his friend safely against him, able to protect him again at last. The sentinel caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye. The ebony panther sat and gazed at him, its green eyes calm and peaceful. Jim smiled when he heard a soft purring as the big cat slipped from the tent back into the eternal darkness of the jungle.********************
Your friend is your needs answered. He is your field which you sow with love and reap with thanksgiving. And he is your board and your fireside. For you come to him with your hunger, and you seek him for peace. - Kahlil Gibran********************
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