To Danae, thank you so very much for your loyal beta services! Your suggestions and comments are so helpful to me. Any mistakes remaining within are purely my own. Lory and Heidi, I appreciate your allowing me to 'try out' my fiction on you in their rough, sometimes very rough, first draft forms. You both offer me so much great feedback and suggestions. (Not to mention being such wonderful friends!)
Vengeance Is Mine
It's not quite true, the phrase 'you can't go home again.' At least that was what Jim Ellison had decided. For he had come home again, back to Cascade, the loft, his job, to all he had left behind only a few short weeks ago. Left behind forever, it had seemed, even though he had not fully comprehended that fact at the time.
The oft quoted phrase most definitely was not true, and the living embodiment of the proof was standing behind his desk at Major Crimes, still somewhat in awe of the fact that he was there at all. Detective Jim Ellison had come home, when, for all intents and purposes, he should have died in Peru in the helicopter crash. The second in his lifetime. The thought crossed his mind that maybe he should start avoiding helicopters the way Sandburg avoided elevators whenever possible, ever since those frightening hours he had been trapped by Galileo. Wrong. That was an understatement. Blair avoided elevators like the plague. At least, Jim figured, his task would be simpler than his guide's. It's far easier to avoid taking a helicopter than an elevator.
Home. Until now, he had never truly appreciated the tremendous weight of that single word and all its connotations - safety, security, warmth, a sense of belonging and of importance. It was so very good to be home.
On the surface, little had changed. They went about their daily lives, he and Sandburg, as if they were the same men as before. Before Peru and the crash. Before Blair found Jim, or more accurately, Jim found Blair, attacking Simon when he sensed a threat to his guide. Even now, Jim had a difficult time conceiving what he had become by the time they were reunited in the jungle. A primal sentinel. His senses completely gone berserk.
James Ellison, top detective and Army Ranger, totally out of control. An absolute contradiction in terms. Jim had always known that he did not do that many things well in his life, however, if there was one thing of which he was confident, it was that he had control down to a fine art. But, after the crash, he lost that fragile veneer of domination over his powerful senses which he had so painstakingly applied all the years. The realization that a loss of control still could happen, even after all the years of working with Sandburg, threatened to erode the very foundation of Jim's self image.
But his control had returned, thanks to his guide and an old Chopec shaman named Imaru. He didn't recall clearly everything that occurred after the crash, but Jim was certain he would never forget his experiences in the temple pool, hidden deep within the Peruvian jungle. He had lived his guide's life. All his tears, all his joys, all his hopes, and all his fears. He had not merely watched his friend's life played out in some sort of mystical mental movie, he had literally *lived* that life, right down to Blair's deepest, most secret emotions.
Just as Sandburg had lived his life. Somehow, that realization humbled him, nearly drove him to his knees. It frightened him as well. Blair Sandburg hadn't stopped at gaining entrance to the well-guarded gates surrounding James Ellison's heart. This time, he had possessed it all - Jim's thoughts and his dreams, his commitment and loyalty, his courage and his fears, the joys of his greatest achievements, and the sorrow of his most heart wrenching disappointments. If Jim had thought that his guide knew him well before the temple, it was nothing compared to the knowledge Blair possessed now.
And, because of that knowledge, things would never again be as they once were.
You can't delve that deeply into another's soul and not emerge forever changed - to the very core of your being.
So, as normal as Jim and Blair might have appeared to the outside world, things had changed. The fundamental nature of who and what they were remained the same, but sentinel and guide had been altered forever, and both men realized it. They felt closer than ever. If Blair's presence had served as Jim's focus before, now it became his bedrock. He found himself monitoring Blair's heartbeat almost constantly, unconsciously, no longer to assure himself of his safety, but just for the reassurance that Sandburg was with him.
At night, before drifting to sleep, he had always checked Sandburg with his hearing to be sure that all was well with his guide. Now, if Jim awakened during the night, he no longer had to think about monitoring Blair's breathing, his steadily beating heart. Since Peru, those sounds dwelled within the sentinel, echoing inside his body of their own volition. Jim secretively developed a new morning ritual, one which seemed as normal now as it would have appeared strange before.
As Jim came downstairs each morning, he paused outside the French doors and *felt* his friend sleep. Blair slept so deeply that he remained blissfully unaware of his partner's presence, never stirred, so Jim was free to stand silent vigil without fear of awakening his slumbering guide. Sandburg was so peaceful in sleep, so much younger. So much more vulnerable. As Jim watched, listened, and waited, and the long minutes ticked past, he found himself becoming centered, focused, prepared to meet the coming day. With the balance came strength, and Jim felt he had never been stronger, better able to cope with the demands of his job. Now, it seemed, Sandburg's heart also beat within Ellison, his restful breathing drawing the very oxygen the sentinel required into his own lungs as well, and his soul dwelled peacefully within Jim.
As Sandburg's did within Ellison. Jim had no doubt that the changes he had felt went both ways. He could see it written on Sandburg's expressive face, hear it etched in the quiet concern of his voice, and feel it in his gentle gaze when he caught Blair watching him. Their experiences in the temple had accomplished exactly what Imaru had promised. They had completed the ancient process which bonds sentinel to guide.
They were no longer two. They had become one.
The robberies began on a Monday, about six weeks after their return from Peru. The first victim was a prominent and wealthy widow. Her penthouse, located in one of Cascade's finest high rise apartment developments, was struck late in the afternoon while she was away at her museum fundraising meeting. No one saw a thing.
The job was slick as a whistle. Even the fingerprints which should have been there, weren't. Whoever had pulled the heist had made sure that absolutely nothing was out of place.
Except the one thing he wanted, of course. The one thing he meant to find and remove. The fabulous diamond and emerald necklace which had once belonged to Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee who had captured the heart of the King of England, and ultimately, was at his side as Edward turned his back on his throne. The necklace had been purchased through Christy's at auction for a sum which matched its glittering magnificence, and it was the pride and joy of its rich, socialite owner. And now, it had vanished. The thief had even taken the time to close the safe's door and replace the original oil painting which hung over it.
The socialite was distraught. Her great-great-grandfather had been an earl or a duke or some titled nobility in England before the family immigrated to America. In the New World, her titled ancestors found they were little more than lower middle class, yet their eyes never averted their upward, longing gaze. The grandmother's pining for social standing, and that of her daughter after her, made quite an impression on the current family standard bearer.
Cascade's claim to British aristocracy had held a lifelong fascination with all aspects of the royal realm, and the necklace had been the realization of her fondest dream - to own a piece of British history. It had been her prized possession, her pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and now, it had been taken from her. Some brazen, common criminal had the audacity to invade her home, violate her privacy, and steal away her treasure. It simply would not be tolerated. She hounded the government officials of Cascade relentlessly, using her considerable influence to demand that the Duchess's necklace be found immediately and returned to her appreciative hands.
Which the police would have been happy to do had there not been one not-so-minor problem. There was nothing to go on. Absolutely no clues at all.
Except the note.
The second robbery was as diametrically opposed to the first as caviar and hamburgers. Unfortunately, it caused an even greater uproar which echoed from City Hall all the way to the bullpen of Major Crimes. The victim this time was a person of even greater influence than the socialite, and the item stolen, his prized 1964 1/2 red Mustang. It was the same car he had received from his late father for his eighteenth birthday, the same car he had lovingly polished and babied, the same car in which he dated the local beauties, then later left behind when he was called to the distant land of Vietnam, the same car in which he proposed to his wife upon his return, and very possibly, the same car in the back seat of which his first child was conceived.
The pony car was his time machine, his most tangible link to his past and the innocent, happier days waiting there in the shadows of memory. The cherry red 'Stang was the one vanity this prominent man allowed himself, the one luxury he insisted upon in his rather austere, simple life. To think that some low class punk would trespass onto his property, invade the sanctity of his garage and not only steal, but actually *drive,* his beloved classic away from his home was beyond belief. That car had had only one driver, one owner, in its long lifetime.
Until the night of its disappearance, that driver had always been Cascade's honorable mayor.
Suffice it to say, the mayor was furious. His phone calls to Major Crimes were even more frequent than the socialite's, and certainly more heated. As he reminded every police officer who would listen, and many who preferred not to, the department's reputation was on the line with this case. Obviously, this was more than just a stolen car. Even more than a stolen classic, red 1964 1/2 Mustang. How would it look if Cascade's finest couldn't even solve a crime committed against its own mayor? On his own turf? There was a hell of a lot at stake here, and those stakes were growing larger with every crime. At least, that was how it appeared.
Again, nothing of the daring criminal was left behind. There was not a single lead to follow, not a solitary clue to trace.
Nothing. Except the second note.
The police were growing more and more frustrated.
Then, only a few weeks later, a third victim. Unbelievably, this time, the thief was drawing even closer to home. For the chosen target this time was Captain Simon Banks, Cascade PD.
Nobody would have connected three such diverse crimes, if not for the one obvious clue left so purposefully behind. The three notes.
Three notes addressed specifically to one man.
Three notes, typed on a common, difficult to trace, typewriter on basic white paper sold in a multitude of stores throughout the city. Notes in which the intention was clear. The intention to taunt, to mock, to infuriate.
They served their purpose well. Certainly, they angered the man for whom they were intended.
The three notes were all addressed to Detective James Ellison, Cascade P.D.
And now, there was a fourth.
"Look at them, Simon. Each one written to me. Written by someone who knows me." Detective James Ellison paced the floor in his captain's office, knowing that his voice contained its familiar edge of impatience. The stress of the past two months was beginning to take its toll on the normally impassive detective, and it showed.
Simon removed his glasses and rubbed his tired eyes as he leaned back in his chair, staring at the barren top of his bookcases. The empty space where his prized collection of jazz musician sculptures had been displayed. Until the night last month when someone had broken into his office and removed each and every one of the statues from atop the bookcase.
Jim paced past the window once more, turning over the most recent turn of events in his mind, twisting and turning the facts into knots of frustration as he tried to find the pattern, the reasoning, whatever logic he could determine that would shed some slim ray of light on this very frustrating case. It was strange, the choice of targets. The other stolen items had been valuable, worth thousands of dollars. Of course, the necklace was in a far higher price bracket than the Mustang, but still, both were certainly more expensive than a lowly police captain's collection of mass produced jazz musicians. It was an exasperating development.
The case was becoming a major pain in the ass. Not only were Simon's superiors on his back about the lack of progress thus far, his best detective was letting the whole situation get to him. Jim knew that his quickly thinning patience wasn't what his friend and captain needed at the moment, but there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. Nothing could prove more dangerous than a cop taking a case too personally, and this case had became very personal for Jim the moment he read that first note.
Of course, it was becoming personal for Simon, too, now that his own office had been targeted.
"I know, Jim, I know," Simon murmured. He stared down at the file containing the notes. "I just don't get it. I mean, those sculptures were nice, but they weren't exactly in the same category as that diamond necklace. Hell, not even in the same league as the Mustang. Not even close. But, they meant something to me. Daryl and I went shopping every year at Father's Day and added a new one to the collection. Why would anyone want to steal them?" Once more, he gazed up forlornly at the empty space, thinking idly that he should reach up there to dust, then wondering if there was still a point in dusting the empty shelf where his treasures had been. "Where's the logic, Jim? We've been over this time and time again."
Tired now of pacing, Jim slumped down in one of the chairs facing the desk. "So, let's go over it again. Read the last one once more, Simon." He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Deep within his skull Jim felt the first inklings of what promised to be a major headache creeping up on him. Maybe a moment's rest would help keep it at bay.
He heard the rustle of papers, and he knew that Simon was taking out the copy of the most recent letter found at the last crime scene. Robbery number four. Only two nights before. If there was a pattern to this thing, it was that the thief was becoming bolder, more impatient. The time between break-ins was shrinking with each crime.
This time, the home of Cascade's Chief of Police had been infiltrated. Taken in that robbery were the chief's wife's wedding rings and the medals he had earned during his service in Desert Storm. The rings had been in her family for three generations and traditionally passed down from mother to daughter. In only six months, they were to have been given to the chief's own daughter on the day of her wedding, as family tradition decreed. Now, Major Crimes had inherited the problem of no rings, a sobbing bride-to-be, plus a furious mother and wife of the Chief of Police who was backed up by an even more furious mother-in-law.
A public relations nightmare, and Simon's personal demon. Ever since the first theft, his life had become a living hell. His phone had been ringing off the hook. The chief had been calling almost hourly, the mayor's office wanted updates several times daily, the wealthy socialite was calling in every favor ever owed her by the local political elite, and the deputy mayor... Simon didn't even want to *think* about the chief. Or his livid wife...and daughter...and mother-in-law. *Hell! What more can go wrong right now?*
Shaking his head to clear away the dismal thoughts, Simon picked up the latest letter with a weary sigh and spread it open on his desktop. "If you think it will help, Jim."
He began to read:
We meet again, at least in spirit. How do you like my latest handiwork? Impressive, isn't it? Aim for the top, I've always said. Those sentinel senses of yours must be letting you down, Jimbo. Doesn't seem you're any closer to finding me now than after the first job. I'm becoming disillusioned, Captain. The Ellison I knew was sharper, quicker. Younger, too, of course. Oh, well. Time marches on for us all. Tell your captain I'm enjoying his sculptures. They look good by the fireplace. Rather cheap for my taste, but what the hell, right? Quality was never the point in this little exercise anyway, now was it? By the way, I think I've almost exhausted the challenge of burglary. Look for something different next time around.
An Old Friend*
Jim shook his head. "Just like the others. Forensics didn't find a thing?"
Banks grimaced. "Not a fingerprint, not a fiber, nada. Whoever this guy is, Jim, he's good. Damn good."
Picking up the case file from Simon's desk, Jim turned to the first pages, studying the copies of each of the notes in the order they were received. "Each one gets longer, more personal. This guy knows me, Simon. He knows me. He calls me 'captain.' Why the hell can't I...?"
He was interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone. Flipping it open, Jim barked, "Ellison!"
Simon watched with barely disguised amusement while the detective's tense features slowly relaxed as he listened to the voice on the other end. *Sandburg... No one else can get Ellison to calm down that much that fast.* A grin twitched the corners of the captain's mouth when a warm smile appeared on Ellison's face. The first one he'd seen there all day.
"Yeah, Chief. I got it. Milk and lettuce and some ripe tomatoes, if the health food market has them in. No pesticides, I know." He paused, his head tilted slightly to one side, listening. "Sure you don't need a ride? I could swing by later. I mean, I'm gonna be late, but..." Jim chuckled, his eyes sparkling with affection. "Okay, Chief. I know, I know. It's the start of the semester, and the undergraduates are restless. Look after those advisees of yours. I'll see you tonight. My turn to cook. Right, Chief. Not too much salt. Bye."
Jim closed the phone, slipping it back into his pocket. He glanced over at Simon, noting the bemused look in the captain's eyes. "What?"
Simon chuckled. "Nothing, Jim. Nothing. You've just sure turned into a domesticated bastard, you know that?"
For a moment, Jim looked confused, then a wide smile replaced his dumbfounded frown. "Blair has a way of drawing you into the Sandburg Zone, if you're not careful, sir."
"And he has you completely under his spell, Ellison. Completely gone, my man. Swallowed up in the black hole that is Blair Sandburg."
Jim shook his head, letting his eyes fall back to the papers in his hands. "Can't argue with you there, sir. Can't argue with you there." Simon didn't miss the tone of satisfaction in the other man's voice.
Jim's eyes froze on the letter on the top of the stack.
"Jim? What is it? Do you see something...?"
Jim looked up, staring out the window. His eyes had a vague, unfocused look, as if he was looking down a dark alley into the distant past. "Simon...? Read that last letter again. Start at the top."
Puzzled, Banks picked up the letter and began to read:
We meet again, at least in spirit. How do you like my latest handiwork? Impressive, isn't it? Aim for the top, I've always said. Those..."*
"Stop! Right there!" Jim jumped up and stood behind Simon, reading over his shoulder and pointing at a line in the letter. "Right there! 'Aim for the top, I've always said...'"
Pacing over to the window, Jim stalked the office once more, his jaw clenching and releasing with his tension. "I've heard that... Someone used that phrase, but..."
Simon watched as his best detective and friend wracked his brain. Suddenly, Jim stopped cold, staring at his captain. "I've got it!" His blue eyes were intent, his words certain. "Marcus Eaves... That's it!"
Banks looked at Jim in confusion. "Eaves? Who the hell is Marcus Eaves?"
The anxious pacing resumed as Jim talked. "We were in the service together, Simon. Eaves was in my class during basic and Ranger training, plus we ended up assigned together at a couple of posts after that. He was a real ego maniac. Always had to be number one. It didn't matter at what, Eaves had to come out on top or he would go ballistic. He was good, no doubt about it. Definitely had talent. He could have been one of the best, but his temper and ego stood in the way of his being a really top notch officer. You have to have a healthy streak of competitiveness to succeed in the Rangers, but Eaves took it to a new extreme."
Jim froze beside the window, staring outside at nothing as the memories surfaced. "For some reason, Marcus picked me as his number one adversary. Everything became a competition with this guy. One night, we were at this pub near the base. Eaves challenged a couple of the other guys and me to a game of pool."
Jim grinned at Simon. "I'm a pretty mean pool player, you know, and so was this other guy who was there. Reginald Jefferson. Well, we cleaned Eaves' clock that night. You'd have thought we'd won a ten thousand dollar bet instead of a round of beer. He went nuts, yelling and screaming that we were hustling him, that we'd set him up. Then, he went after Reggie with a pool cue. Smashed his head with it when Reggie turned around to leave. The guy had a concussion and needed twenty stitches to close the wound."
His eyes wide with disbelief, Simon asked, "Over a pool game? You gotta be kidding me."
Jim nodded. "Yeah. Over a pool game. Reggie refused to press assault charges. No one could figure out why, unless he'd glimpsed a flash of madness in the man and was afraid of what would happen if he did. Anyway, if Marcus had disliked me before, he hated me after that night. Went out of his way to cause trouble for me. He competed with me for everything, at everything. Not to sound conceited, but he could never quite measure up. Every medal he thought he deserved, I got. Every special assignment he wanted, they gave to me. Every competition on the courses, every test and inspection, I came in ahead. It ate at him like acid. Within a year or so, Marcus had turned into a loner, bitter and friendless. I'm surprised he lasted as long in the Rangers as he did. It's a group based on team unity, and Marcus left unity behind ages before."
Jim took a deep breath and rubbed his temples, closing his eyes briefly at the memories. "He fell, though, and fell hard. Late one night, I saw him coming out of the officers' club with a young woman beside him. He was gripping her arm so tightly that I could see her wincing in pain. She tried to pull away, and when she caught my eyes, she was pleading with me."
"I ran toward them, but when Marcus saw me coming, he shoved the girl to the ground and took off. Turns out it was the base commander's youngest daughter. He'd been trying to seduce her all night, but she was just having fun with the guy. Flirting a little, leading him on, but not really interested in going home with the jerk. Anyway, Marcus got angry, told her in a low whisper that she would be his slut that night, and held a knife to her, forcing her to leave the club with him. If I hadn't spotted them..."
Jim hesitated, thinking about what might have been. Then, he shrugged. "Of course, I reported the incident, and he was court-martialed. The general's daughter testified, and that was all it took for Marcus to be kicked out of the service. Last time I saw him, he was driving off base. He spotted me, got out of his car and in my face, screaming about how one day, he'd get even. Make me pay. Later, I heard his wife left him due to his abuse, and took his kid all the way to Indiana to her folks' home. He never saw either of them again. Not long after, they were both killed in an accident on the interstate."
Jim stared straight ahead, lost in his memories. "Eaves sent me several hate letters, blaming me for everything that destroyed his career, with his marriage, and for the death of his family. He had twisted it so that I was responsible for everything that had ever gone wrong in his entire life. Finally, the letters stopped, or maybe he no longer knew how to reach me. I don't know. I haven't thought about him in years." Jim turned to Simon. "I think it's him, sir. Marcus Eaves. He's here in Cascade to settle that old score, to beat me at last. At my own game."
Simon studied Jim's face carefully. Ellison wasn't the type to jump to unfounded conclusions, but this seemed a bit far fetched, even for the sentinel. Simon's instincts warned him to proceed with caution. "That's a good theory, Jim, but it's only based on one sentence in one letter. Could be just a coincidence."
Shaking his head, Jim walked over to the window. "I'm sorry, sir, but I don't think so. Look at the big picture. Every note is addressed to me. The crimes have been hitting closer and closer to me. It's Eaves, sir. I'm sure of it."
"But, why take the items he's chosen, Jim? The necklace, yeah... It's worth a fortune. But, the car...? It's nice, but hardly worth that kind of money. And my sculptures...and the wedding rings and medals... None of those items are particularly valuable. Not to anyone but me, the Chief and his wife, that is." Simon picked up a pen and began to draw aimless scribbles as he thought.
"That's it, Simon!" Jim stared at his captain, excitement lighting his clear blue eyes. "What's Eaves been stealing? It's been right before us the entire time!"
"Jim," Banks complained, looking up at Ellison. "You've lost me."
"He's taken their most valuable possessions, Simon. The things they treasure most! The necklace...the car...your sculptures...the rings and medals... They had sentimental, if not monetary, value. They all meant a lot to the people he robbed."
Simon saw the logic in Jim's deduction and gazed at his friend thoughtfully. "He stole their most precious possessions..." He paused a moment as he considered the nuances of the pattern and the crimes. "He's getting closer and closer to you with each crime. Taunting you. Daring you to catch him. You may be on to something, Jim."
Simon studied the copy of the last letter. "But, look here, he writes that he's bored with robbery. If your theory is correct, if he really is out for revenge against you and he's tired of robberies, then what the hell is Eaves planning next?"
When the truth dawned at last, it struck the sentinel like a punch in the gut, and a flash of fear swept across Ellison's face. Reaching across Simon's desk, he grabbed the phone and quickly dialed. "C'mon, Chief," he chanted apprehensively. "C'mon, Blair. Pick up the phone. C'mon, Chief. Answer me!"
The only other sound was the unanswered ringing of the phone.
Dr. Blair Sandburg was whistling as he left his office in Hargrove Hall. It was Friday, and he was looking forward to the weekend. Mid-terms were over, and it wasn't yet time to worry about finals. He had wrapped up the committee report he was in charge of presenting, so all that remained was the actual presentation in two weeks, and his final two advisees hadn't shown for their appointments. That meant that he was able to leave earlier than he had planned.
Life was good.
Of course, there was that frustrating burglary case he was working on with Jim, but even that couldn't bring Blair's spirits down. After all, compared to many of the gruesome, violent crimes they had investigated, what was a simple rash of burglaries in the grand scheme of things? It was only property, after all, and things could be replaced. People couldn't.
Blair glanced up at the springtime sky as the doors to Hargrove closed behind him. A perfect day, if ever there was one. Not a cloud in the sky, the warm sun on his skin, and a light breeze teasing his long curls. Running his fingers through his hair, Blair grinned. He had been relieved that the part-time civilian advisor's position Simon and Jim had procured for him with the department had not come along with an appointment at the barber shop. Secretly, Blair knew he wouldn't have been that upset at having to cut his trademark curls. He always figured the day would come eventually when they would be shorn. It was Jim who had seemed bothered by the whole idea, though you wouldn't have seen it unless you knew the sentinel well. As well as his guide knew him.
For the few weeks between Blair's press conference and the one Jim held to redeem his friend's reputation, the younger man had caught Jim Ellison staring at him when he didn't think Sandburg was watching. The police academy loomed ahead, and with it, a regulation haircut. Blair had known immediately what was on Jim's mind, and he wished with all his heart that he could ease his friend's anxiety. At the time, his hair seemed the least of his problems.
Thanks to Jim, the dreaded haircut had never materialized. Now, it seemed to Blair, Jim reached out to gently tug on a long curl or ruffle his hair more frequently than he once did. Perhaps in appreciation of what was almost lost, but had been redeemed. At no small cost to Jim Ellison.
Now, the whole world knew that Jim was a sentinel. Actually, things had gone more smoothly after Jim's press conference than either Jim or Blair had imagined. The press, after the initial firestorm of coverage, had moved on to newer and more sensational stories. The curiosity of their fellow officers had matured into a protective respect, and Jim's abilities had become as accepted as the use of Kevlar vests and police radios. The citizens of Cascade with whom they had contact on an almost daily basis seldom connected the quiet, professional detective with the object of the press' intense scrutiny so many months before. All in all, everything had worked out well.
Blair's smile widened at the sight of the new, black Cherokee parked in his designated space. Jim's gift to him after graduation, given on the very day Jim returned from his long, self-imposed retreat. *1 Chief,* the tag proclaimed for all the world to read. Pride glowed behind Blair's deep blue eyes. In many ways, he was more proud of that tag than of the three letters which now followed his name. He'd earned both, to be sure, but Jim's respect and affection were more hard fought and far more precious to him than any title would ever be.
Blair opened the Cherokee's driver's door, tossing his pack into the passenger seat. *Forgot to lock the door again,* he thought with a grin. *Jim would give me Ellison Safety Lecture Number 97, if he knew.* Inserting his key in the ignition, he started the Cherokee with a smile.
A smile which quickly turned into a look of terror as a powerful arm reached around the seat, pinioning him back with a vise like grip around his throat. A harsh voice commanded, "Don't look back! I have a gun at your neck, and if you so much as look like you're turning around, I won't hesitate to use it. Now, drive!" The pressure against his throat relented slightly, and Blair put the Cherokee into gear, pulling away from the curb with the desperate hope that someone had seen something and would call the police.
Jim Ellison vaulted from Simon's car before it even stopped in front of Hargrove Hall. "His truck's not in its space," Jim called back as he ran for the steps. "I'll check his office! You see if you can find anyone who saw Blair leave."
His heart pounding in his chest, more from fear than from his sprint into Hargrove, Jim ran down the long hallway to Blair's new office. Only slightly larger than his first, this office at least had the distinction of being on the main floor and was brighter and had a more professional appearance. Jim's hand shook as he used the spare key Blair had provided to open the lock. He glanced up at the nameplate on the door. *Dr. Blair Sandburg.* Even as worried as he was, Jim felt a rush of pride at the sight. *You earned it, buddy. Had to fight tooth and nail to get what you deserved, but you did it. And no one can take it away from you now.*
Jim wasn't sure what he had expected to find. Signs of a struggle, perhaps, or maybe a note from Sandburg about his afternoon schedule posted on the door. Nothing. Everything was in order, at least as in order as things got when dealing with the perpetually disorganized Sandburg. He scanned the room carefully with his senses. No strange odors, not a trace of blood, and absolutely no indication that anything had been wrong when Blair left his office.
Suddenly, there was a voice and presence behind him. "May I help you, sir?" A young woman of perhaps twenty-two years of age stood behind him. Her face brightened with a brilliant smile when she recognized him. "Oh, Detective Ellison, it's you. I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you."
Jim turned to face Michelle Sanders, the research assistant assigned to the anthropology department for the semester. He forced a tight smile to cover the worried look he was certain must be in his eyes. "It's okay, Michelle. Do you have any idea where Blair might be?"
The young woman shook her head. "He left here about forty minutes ago. I thought he said he had wrapped things up early and was on his way to meet you. Didn't he come to the station?"
Jim ignored the question, his mind already back on the disturbing possibilities currently playing out in his mind - a much too vivid film of the terrible things which might be happening at this very moment to his guide at the hands of Marcus Eaves. He was a Ranger himself. He knew all too well how many ways his former colleague could use to snuff out the life of one young anthropologist. Shaking off the feelings of dread, he stepped into Blair's office, closing the door softly behind him, leaving a confused Michelle Sanders standing alone, her question still unanswered.
Jim flipped open his cell phone and tried Blair's mobile number again. Nothing. The same result for the loft. Next, he called the station.
"Joel. Anything from Sandburg?"
Taggart's sympathetic voice didn't help relieve Jim's anxiety. "Sorry, Jim. Not a word. Where are you?"
"Rainier. Nothing here to go on either. Listen, put out an APB on Blair's Cherokee. Black. Tag reads '1 Chief.'" Jim's heart constricted painfully. *Where are you, Sandburg? Hang on, buddy. I'll find you. I promise.*
Joel's voice shook him from his reverie. It was tinged with a touch of sorrow. "Yeah, I remember that tag, man. The kid's awfully proud of that truck, you know."
Jim sank down into Blair's desk chair, his eyes shut, rubbing his left temple with his one free hand. Damned headache was getting worse. "That he is, Joel. Get the APB out for me, okay?"
"You got it, Jim. Anything else I can do?"
The pounding in his head increased another notch. "Not right now, Joel. Thanks."
Before he could hit the End button, Joel's soft voice added, "Blair's gonna be okay, Jim. You hold on to that. You hear me? Hold on to that."
Knowing Taggart couldn't see the brief flicker of a smile that crossed his face, Jim said softly, "Thanks, Joel. I'm trying. Believe me, I'm trying."
Jim shut his phone. For a moment, he closed his eyes, still rubbing his temples in an effort to drive back the headache. *I sure could use you here, Sandburg. You always seem to be able to hold back the pain, don't you? I need you, Chief.*
He heard the door open, but Jim didn't look up. "Find anything, Simon?"
The older man shut the door behind him. "Not a trace. Nobody seems to have seen Sandburg leave, Jim, at least none of the people I was able to talk to around Hargrove. I've got officers on the way to canvas the campus, see if they can turn up anything." Seeing the tight, drawn look around the detective's eyes, Simon's voice softened. "Are you okay, Jim?"
Ellison glanced up, his eyes veiled behind a curtain of pain. "Got a helluva headache, Simon. Nothing I can't handle, though. Just give me a minute here."
Banks watched as Ellison's eyes closed once more. Without looking, the sentinel reached out to the coat rack which stood behind Blair's desk. Snagging the leather jacket which hung there, he pressed it to his face, breathing deeply, inhaling the familiar, comforting scent which lingered there.
*Breathe, Jim. Nice and slow. That's the way. Try to see the pain, man. See it as a cloud, floating high above you. A big cloud, 'cause it's a monster of a headache, isn't it, buddy? Now, picture that cloud becoming smaller...lighter...whiter. It's getting smaller and smaller, Jim, with every second that passes. As it gets smaller, you're breathing deeply and slowly. That's it, man, that's the way. You're doing so great here, Jim. The cloud's nothing now but a little puff of smoke. Take a deep breath, buddy. Now, let it out. As you breathe it out, you're blowing away the last of the cloud, the last of the pain. Open your eyes, Jim. Is it gone?*
And it was...
Jim looked to find Simon staring at him. "Headache's gone, sir."
Doubtful eyes regarded him from across the room. "What did you just do, Jim?"
Despite of his worry over Blair, Jim couldn't help smiling. "Do you really want to know, sir?"
"Is it a 'sentinel thing,' Jim? If it is, then, you're right. I might rather not know." Simon's eyes twinkled in amusement.
The brief smile faded as Jim answered. "It's more of a...'Blair thing,' Simon. Somehow, he's able to...guide me away from the pain with his voice. Even when he's not around."
"Easy for you to say," Simon commented with an understanding smile. "We'll find him, Jim. We've just started looking, and we'll find him."
The call came on Jim's cell phone on their way back to the station. Flipping open the cover, Jim barked, "Ellison!"
The voice on the other end chided, "Now, Jimmy Boy, you don't have to snap. Not at an old friend calling you after all these years. How'd you like my surprise, by the way?"
"Eaves," Jim hissed. "If you hurt him, I swear I'll..."
Instantly realizing that Jim was talking to Blair's kidnapper, Simon veered off the road into a nearly empty parking lot. He pivoted in his seat to face Ellison, straining to hear what was being said.
"Down, boy!" Eaves' malicious voice chuckled in his ear as he interrupted Jim. "Your partner's safe enough. For now. It's up to you whether or not he stays that way."
"It's me you want, Eaves. Why drag Sandburg into this? I'll meet you one on one, any place, any time."
"Why? I'll tell you why, Ellison." The voice grew angrier and louder as Jim held the phone out slightly so Simon could hear.
"You destroyed my life, Jim. Excuse me... I guess that should be *Captain* Ellison. I never had the chance to make captain, because you ruined my career. You want to know what happened to me after the army kicked me out? My wife left with my kid. My son. She wouldn't tell me where they were going, but I found out. I found out all right. I got the call at three in the morning the next month. They were both dead, Ellison. Killed in a wreck back east. The only reason she ran was because I couldn't deal with what *you* had done to me! You destroyed them, Ellison! *You!*"
Eaves' malignant voice crackled through the phone. "And why? Because of some tramp daughter of a two bit general! She wanted me, Ellison! She wanted me, and all I was doing was giving her what she wanted. You couldn't stand it that I was going to screw the general's daughter, could you? What a blow to your macho pride! So you turned me in, got me court martialed and kicked out of the service. They died because of you, Ellison! Because of you! And now, you're going to pay!"
Jim stared at Simon in shocked disbelief as Eaves ranted on. "Why did I drag your little hippie friend into this?" His laugh was cold, hard. "To raise the stakes, of course. Sure, you'd take me on, if only to prove your own superiority, wouldn't you? But, when I killed you, what would be the point? You'd be gone. It would be over. This way, when you watch me kill *him,* it will haunt you forever. Just like I'm haunted, Jim. The ghosts of what might have been will follow you forever, just as they follow me. You can learn to live with his shadow just as I've learned to live with my son's shadow hanging over me. Forever."
Jim leaned forward in the seat as he shouted into the phone. "You damned coward! You're still scared to take me on, aren't you? Nothing's changed! You *know* you're no match for me, that's why you took Sandburg!"
"Uh, uh, Jim. Don't make me angry. He might not live for his own execution if you make me angry. And I wouldn't want you to miss the show. Now listen. I've heard all about those wonderful sentinel senses of yours. How they make you better than other cops. Hell, that's nothing new, now is it? You always thought you were better than everyone else, didn't you, Jim? Well, prove it. Remember Montrose?"
Jim growled, "I want to talk to Sandburg. Now."
"No problem," Eaves agreed. "Here he is."
Jim put the phone back against his ear, cutting off Simon's ability to hear the other end of the conversation.
"Jim?" Blair's soft voice whispered in his ear.
Struggling for control, the sentinel clinched his fist, pounding it against the soft fabric of the car seat. "Chief, are you okay?"
Blair drew a shallow, ragged breath, and simultaneously, a stabbing fear shot through Jim. The pounding of his friend's heart echoed through his own body, reverberating in the marrow of his bones. He shook his head, fighting against the unexpected panic rising like a red tide within him.
"I'm...okay, Jim. He hasn't hurt me."
"You listen to me, Blair." Jim's voice grew husky with emotion as it dropped to a near whisper. "I'll get you out of this. Just do as he says, okay? Hang in there until I can find you. You hang in there, Chief. I'll find you, I promise. Do you understand me?"
Suddenly, Blair's voice rose with an underlying edge of fear. "Jim! He's crazy, man! Don't come after me, please! He's gonna kill you! Don't do it, Jim!"
Abruptly, the pleading words were cut off.
"Sandburg! Sandburg!" Jim roared, leaning forward in his seat, the phone gripped in his trembling fingers. "Blair, answer me! Are you all right? Blair!"
Simon stared at his friend, stunned at the raw terror in Ellison's face. Jim was shouting into the phone, wild-eyed, every muscle in his body quivering in rage. Reaching over, Simon rested his hand on Jim's muscled bicep. "Easy, Jim, take it easy..."
Ellison cut him off, roughly jerking his arm away. "Eaves! What have you done to him? I swear, if you've hurt him, I'll hunt you down and kill you with my bare hands! Eaves!" Jim's voice was more animal growl than human, and Simon's eyes widened at the sound as he drew back, uncertain of how to calm the enraged man sitting beside him.
The tinny voice responded. "Jim...Jim...Jim. My, you certainly have a soft spot for this young man, don't you? Don't worry, Dr. Sandburg is in perfect health. I merely gave him something to help him sleep. He looks a bit tired, I think. Are you working him too hard, Jimbo? You always were a demanding bastard. Oh, well, he's getting some well deserved sleep now, thanks to me. It's time for me to go, so I'll leave you with this thought. If you truly are the great detective, the great sentinel, that the world believes you are, then find me. Save your partner's life. If you're the fraud that I know you to be, you will fail, and he will die, and you will begin living the nightmare that's been my life. It's that simple, really. Let the games begin."
"Eaves!" Jim shouted, but the connection was broken. He slumped back in the seat, staring at the phone in his hand. "He's got Sandburg," he said at last, his voice breaking on his friend's name. "He's challenged me to find them before he kills him." Jim turned to stare at his captain and friend. "Simon, I don't have a clue where to begin!"
The members of Major Crimes gathered in their captain's office. The small group was subdued, with no sign of their normal banter and humor. They sat around the conference table, Simon at one end, Jim Ellison at the other.
The sentinel looked tired, stressed almost to the breaking point. As the others entered, he stared blindly at the complicated patterns in the dark, polished wood of the conference table. When Simon cleared his throat, Jim showed no sign of having heard a sound.
"Jim?" Simon asked quietly. "Are you with us here?"
All eyes focused on Ellison. Slowly, his head lifted, and his bloodshot blue eyes took in the men gathered around the table. "Yeah, I'm here. Sorry. I just lost my concentration for a minute." Jim stood up. "If you don't mind, Simon, there's something I need to say to everyone."
He moved to stand beside the window, staring down at the perfectly normal scene below. Strange how life went on as though his entire world wasn't falling apart. "You all know the truth now about me. About who I am, what I am. I appreciate all your support as we've adjusted to everything being out in the open at last." Jim turned to face his co-workers and his friends.
Everyone was listening intently. Although Jim had revealed the truth about his senses months before, he still seldom discussed the subject with any of them, except Simon Banks.
"You know what I am," he repeated. "What you may not understand is who and what Sandburg is. To me."
Jim began to pace around the room slowly, gesturing as he carefully searched for the right words to explain a relationship he barely knew how to explain to himself. "According to Sir Richard Burton - the scientist, not the actor - every sentinel needs a guide to watch his back, a partner to keep him from zoning. You've all seen that happen, even when you didn't really know what it was you were witnessing. Blair found me at a crossroads. A very dangerous crossroads. If I didn't learn to control these senses, I would have gone slowly insane or died in a zone out. He believed Burton's theories, even when nobody else did. And, he believed in me, even when I didn't believe in myself."
Ellison stopped beside the window again, turning his back to his friends to stare outside once more. "He saved my life the first day I met him, and he's been saving my life every second of every day since that moment. Burton had it right, the right words, the right theory, but he missed something. Something vital. A sentinel doesn't just need his guide to keep him from zoning. He needs him...*I* need him...to survive. To stay sane. Now, more than ever."
Jim turned to face Simon. "Sir, down in Peru, you know that we went through the ceremony to complete the bonding process." Jim caught the looks of confusion and uncertainty which passed between his friends. He shrugged, holding his hands outstretched in a gesture of helplessness. "I know, it sounds like something out of a bad movie, and if I wasn't living it, I'd have a difficult time believing it myself. Anyway, we did complete the joining, Simon, but I haven't quite shared everything with you. I think that before this case goes any farther, it's time I did."
The sentinel was silent, gathering his thoughts, for a minute. No one spoke; no one moved. "We each had visions there in the temple pool. We lived each other's life. I don't mean we *saw* what had happened to each other; we *lived* it. I felt everything that Sandburg has ever felt in his life...his fears...his joys...his uncertainties. I think the details should remain private, between the two of us, but it was the most intense, the most emotional, experience I have ever had. And the same thing happened to him."
Jim's voice grew stronger as he became more and more sure of what he was trying to say. "That was the bonding. *Knowing* each other's heart, the very soul of the other." His blue eyes focused on Simon. "I didn't realize the implications, though, sir, until we got home. I'm *still* connected to Blair, Simon, and I don't think it's going to go away."
Simon's dark eyes were puzzled. "What do you mean, Jim, *connected?*"
Jim sank back into his chair. "I can still feel his feelings, sir, experience his pain. Not all the time, not even most of the time, but it happens. Back in the car, when Blair got on the phone, how did I look?"
Immediately, Jim's face flashed before Simon's eyes. "Terrified. Jim, you were white as a sheet and looked scared out of your skin."
Ellison nodded. "Because that's how he was feeling, sir." He looked from one stunned face to another...from Henri to Rafe to Joel and back to Simon. "You all have a right to know, because this could affect me out in the field. I've always been able to read Sandburg pretty well; you all know that. This is different. It doesn't seem to happen under normal circumstances, only when intense emotions are involved. Then, I feel exactly the same feelings that he is, just as if I was experiencing them myself. I think the same thing's happening to him as well. We're connected now, sir, in an undeniable way."
Jim paused, then stared down at his hands, clenched together on top of the conference table. "If Blair is in danger out there, or if...if something happens to him...I can't predict how I will react any more. This is a new area for us, something we haven't even begun to learn to deal with." He looked up at Simon. "You needed to know this, sir. I'll understand if you can't trust me right now..."
Simon Banks interrupted. "There's no question of trust, Jim. I know you. You're a good cop, and I trust you. Implicitly. My only requirement is that you have another man with you at all times on this case. Until we bring your partner home. Safely."
Brown eyes held blue for long moments, understanding passing silently between them. "Understood, sir. Thank you."
Simon took the papers in front of him and straightened them on the table. "That said, let's get on with figuring out how to find Blair Sandburg."
A simple goal, but much more difficult to achieve than Simon had hoped. They knew who the perp was, but from there, they seemed to be drawing nothing but blanks. Simon assigned Rafe and Henri to background detail, running down every possible fact they could find about the history, likes, dislikes, and habits of one Marcus Eaves. Joel was given the unenviable task of becoming Jim's shadow, not to replace Sandburg, Simon hastened to assure the anxious detective, just to serve as back - up in case Jim should zone out in the field. Simon would stay at Jim's side as much as possible, considering his responsibilities in the Major Crimes office. Every other available officer and detective was pulled from cases with a lower priority and reassigned to help locate Dr. Blair Sandburg.
The problem was, there was so little to go on. The crimes had been carried out with planned, experienced perfection. If Marcus Eaves had only just entered a life of crime, then he was a natural born thief. No beginner's mistakes. Hell, no mistakes at all. That was what was so damned frustrating. All the determined detectives had was what Eaves himself had tauntingly provided. At least for now, it seemed that Blair's kidnapper was firmly in control.
That lack of control was what antagonized Ellison most. He knew he had 'control issues,' as Sandburg had called them so many times. No point denying the obvious. Now, with his partner's life on the line, the fact that someone else sat in the command chair ate away at Ellison from the inside like an invisible virus, threatening to destroy the thin surface layer of control still intact on the exterior. He had to do something...he needed to do something...or risk losing it completely.
He started in the only place he could, with the only evidence they had - the notes and Jim's memories of the phone call from Eaves. God knows, it wasn't much, but it was all Jim had to go on. It really didn't matter anyway. Even without a single clue, without a solitary lead, Jim Ellison knew he would find Blair Sandburg. There simply was no other option. Not one he was willing to live with at any rate.
Joel Taggert leaned back in his chair with a mighty sigh. He rubbed his fists into his tired eyes, trying to get them to focus once more. They had been holed up in Simon Banks' office for nearly six hours. Long, tedious hours during which the three men had poured over every letter, every word, every blank space in the four notes Eaves had left behind at the crime scenes.
A big, fat zero.
Joel glanced over at Ellison. The man looked terrible, like a prisoner who had attempted every possible means of escape and was resigned to his fate. The blue eyes were empty and haunted, and Jim's face was totally devoid of expression. Joel flinched at the memory of the multitude of emotions Ellison had experienced on that long day. Frustration...desperation...helplessness...fear... and finally, hopelessness.
Jim let the papers he was holding fall to the table in front of him, then his head slowly dropped to rest on his folded arms. A soft moan escaped the sentinel, and Joel met Simon's eyes across the table.
Banks stood up and stretched his tired back. "I'm going out to get some hot coffee. Anyone else? Joel? Jim?"
Taggert nodded. "Thanks, Simon. I'll take a cup. Black."
The only reply was a barely noticeable shake of the lowered head. Simon and Joel's eyes met, then the captain jerked his head toward Ellison. No words were spoken, but the silent message was clear. *See what you can do...*
For several minutes, the older man studied the back of Jim's head, still lowered into his arms. Then, he cleared his throat and moved to stand beside the window. "Sandburg would be disappointed in you, y'know." The statement hung heavily in the air.
At first, Joel didn't think the sentinel had heard him, then realized how ridiculous that conclusion was. Of course, Jim had heard him. Just as he was about to repeat his observation, Ellison raised his head. Bleary, red rimmed, cold eyes stared dangerously at him from across the table.
"I've done everything I know to do, Joel. You know that."
Realizing the necessity for caution, Taggert picked his words carefully. "Yes, Jim, you've done almost everything possible."
Ellison's cold eyes glittered back at him. "Almost?"
Joel left the window and moved to sit beside Jim. "Almost. We don't have Blair back yet, Jim, so there's got to be something left no one has thought of. Sandburg would be disappointed if he thought you were giving up without finding out what that one thing is, now wouldn't he?" He lightened his words even more with a smile and a squeeze to the larger man's shoulder.
Jim's eyes held firm as he studied Taggert's face. "You thought I was giving up?"
Joel shrugged. "You looked pretty given out to me, Jim."
"Tired, yes. Frustrated, yes. Ready to give up and declare Sandburg a lost cause, never." Jim took hold of Joel Taggert's shirt front, drawing the older man closer and staring intently into his dark brown eyes as he spoke slowly and deliberately. "Never, Joel. Do you understand that?"
Simon Banks pushed open his office door with his shoulder, carefully balancing the two cups of hot coffee in his hands. Taking in the situation, he asked curiously, "Everything under control here, gentlemen?"
Jim nodded, releasing his grip on Joel's shirt front, and moving to stand by Simon's desk. He stared blankly at the papers spread haphazardly across its surface.
Taggert grinned at Ellison, inwardly celebrating the renewed fire in the other man's eyes, before he nodded at Simon Banks. "All's fine, Captain. Just fine."
Handing Joel one of the coffee cups, Simon took his seat behind his desk. "Glad to hear it. Now, what haven't we covered?"
Ellison murmured quietly in an exhausted voice, "The key's not in the notes. It's the phone call, sir. I have the feeling that there's something there. Something I'm not remembering."
"How can we help, Jim?" Simon quietly asked.
The sentinel shook his head, then resumed his seat at the conference table. "I'm not sure. Sandburg would lead me through this...meditation thing...he does. Try to get me to remember everything I heard." Jim's uncertain eyes met Simon's. "I'm not sure I can do it on my own. Without zoning, I mean."
Both men saw the flash of fear on Jim's face. Simon forced a weak smile. "Well, I'm certainly no guide, Jim, but Blair has worked with me. Just a little, but he's shown me some ways..."
Jim's eyes grew wider. "Worked with you, sir?"
Simon stood up and moved to sit next to Ellison. "Jim, you have to understand... Blair was afraid that if...something happened...to him..." Realizing that his voice was on the verge of cracking, Simon took a moment to compose himself. "He figured that if for some reason he couldn't be here to guide you, he wanted someone else to know the basics. At least be able to get you out of a zone. Since I was the only one at the time who knew..." He spread his hands wide in a gesture of helplessness. "I was the designated pinch hitter...or pinch guide, I suppose."
Jim stared at his commanding officer for several moments, silently digesting this new information. It made sense, at least from Blair's point of view, he supposed, even though it frustrated the hell out of him. That was Sandburg, always thinking of his sentinel, putting him first.
*Damn it, kid. You just don't get it, do you? Without you, there is no sentinel, no need for a guide. I swear, Chief, when I get you back, you're gonna understand that fact, if it takes the rest of our lives.* His breath caught for a second in the tightness of his throat. *The rest of our lives, Chief. You got that?*
He felt Simon's hand on his arm, and he shook himself back to reality.
"Jim? Are you game?"
Now, as Ellison's icy blue eyes met Banks', confidence radiated outward. "Yeah, Simon. Let's do it."
The loft was darkened. Only the glow of Blair's candles punctuated the evening with light. Jim Ellison sat on the floor in front of the darkened fireplace, surrounded by a semi-circle of candlelight. Soft music filtered from the stereo, a mixture of Native American flutes and the sounds of nature - the blowing wind...the howl of wolves...the thunder and the rain falling like a benediction on the desert.
Jim tuned out all extraneous sound, forcing himself to forget the presence of his captain. He was alone. His eyes were closed as he sat in the half-lotus position which Blair had taught him, his hands resting easily on his thighs. He breathed slowly and deeply, and with each breath, sank deeper into his meditative state. He was alone. Alone except for the voice of his guide within him.
*That's it. Let the music take you, Jim. You're high above the desert now, man. Can you see it? The rain's falling like dew on your back, and the wind is gentle on your skin. Relax...breathe...relax... Let your mind go, Jim, go wherever it is you need to go. You have all the time in the world, man, all the time you need to be in the moment, to be where your thoughts take you. Let it go, Jim, let it all go, and your mind will set you free...*
Simon Banks watched in wonder. His experience with sentinels and guides, as miraculous as it sometimes seemed, had in no way prepared him for this sight. Jim Ellison, tough cop, fearless Ranger, stoic, no nonsense detective, sitting very comfortably surrounded by candlelight, in an apparent deep trance. Meditating to find the key to the mystery of his partner's disappearance.
An ironic smile twisted his lips. How much more surprising was that than the fact that he, Simon Banks, tough cop, fearless leader of Major Crimes, stoic, no nonsense police captain, was waiting across the room at Ellison's kitchen table, prepared to try to bring him out of a zone, if the situation required it? Not to mention the fact that all this came as a result of a certain long haired anthropologist that Banks had reluctantly allowed to temporarily ride along with Ellison as an observer?
*Temporarily...* Banks snorted softly at the memory. *That temporary assignment became permanent pretty quickly for you, didn't it, Jim? As early as the Lash case, when I suggested that you cut the kid loose, you wanted to bite my head off. I saw that flash of desperation in your eyes, then, and I see it every time you think you might lose Sandburg, even to this day.*
He studied the tranquil face sitting across the room as the candle glow flickered across his chiseled features. *I also saw Blair's desperation in Peru, Jim. He won't leave you, my friend. Not as long as there is a breath left in his body, he will not leave you. Only death itself will separate you, and even then, I have a feeling that the separation would only last until you could find a way to join him. Whatever it is you're doing here, Jim, I just pray to God that it works. I'm not ready to lose you both. Not yet.*
Ellison's eyes opened slowly, blinking in an effort to discern reality from vision. He was in the loft. Home. Soft, dying candlelight flickered weakly from the few remaining flames. Glancing out the wide windows at the moon, he found it high in the sky and very small. It was late. Soft breathing behind him. A familiar heartbeat. Hope flared strong for a moment, then was quickly extinguished as reality sank in with a heavy finality.
Not Blair. Simon. Sleeping with his head resting on the kitchen table.
Jim stood up, stretching out the kinks in his muscles and joints from long hours of meditation. Moving to the balcony doors, he stood staring into the void beyond the warm glow of the loft. He searched his memory for every word he had recalled of the conversation with Eaves.
Then, it was there. The answer flashed across his brain in a lightening flash of revelation.
Covering the distance from the doors to the kitchen in only a few long strides, he shook Simon's shoulder impatiently.
"Simon! We gotta move!"
Groggily, sleepy brown eyes opened and peered up at him. Reaching for his glasses, Simon sat up, his neck popping painfully at being stirred from its uncomfortable resting position. "Jim? Wha...?"
Ellison was already halfway up the stairs to his room. "Give me a minute to change, sir, then we've gotta go. I know where Marcus Eaves has Sandburg!"
The sun was still at least an hour away from its morning debut as Jim's pick-up truck sped up the winding mountain road into the Cascade mountains. Behind the wheel, Ellison's blue eyes had taken on the hard glint of the hunter which Simon had witnessed all too often in the past. Peru...Lash...whenever his guide was taken from his side, the sentinel/hunter appeared, intently focused on a single goal...to locate Sandburg and bring him safely back where he belonged. With Jim Ellison.
"All right, Jim. You said you'd explain all this once we were underway. Your time's up, Ellison. Talk."
Jim shot a grim smile at his companion. "Sorry, sir. Other things on my mind."
Banks waited. Jim would explain, but he knew it would be in his own time.
After several minutes of silence, Ellison began. "I remembered the entire conversation with Eaves, Simon, and the answer was there. It was there all along." He paused, gathering his thoughts. "Montrose. That was the key. He said to remember Montrose."
"You've lost me, Jim," Banks interrupted. "Who or what is Montrose?"
"A place, Simon," Ellison said softly. "A place neither of us will ever forget."
Banks waited patiently as Jim's eyes remained focused on the darkened highway ahead. At last, as he had known it would, his friend's quiet voice told the tale.
"It was one of our final training missions during boot camp. We were conducting a mock battle. Eaves was commanding the squad. We had been in the Montrose Swamp for nearly two weeks, existing on minimal rations. It was July and unbelievably hot. The mosquitoes were horrendous, swarming around exposed skin in thick hordes. Even at night, the temperature never dropped below ninety degrees. It hadn't rained in weeks. The squad was short two men who had to be hospitalized for heat exhaustion. Our last orders were to cross the main river cutting through the swamp, take out the supply line of the opposing forces, then it would be all over."
Jim fell silent as the memories flooded back across the years. "There was one kid in the unit, Sinclair. He was from Kansas, and he was as fresh faced a boy as you've ever seen. Anxious to please, looked up to the officers like superheroes from some comic book. Anyway, Eaves hated the kid. Guess he was too innocent and noncombative to suit him. Sinclair had come down with the flu a couple of days earlier. I suggested he tell the drill sergeant and get himself looked at, but the kid wanted to stick it out. Finish the mission."
A tractor trailer passed by in the opposite lane, and Jim winced at the bright headlights. A few moments passed before he continued in the same quiet tone. "That night, Sinclair was running a fever. His face was all flushed, and he was shaking from the chills. I tried to tell Eaves he was too sick to make the crossing, but he wouldn't listen. Said if Sinclair was well enough to walk, he could damn well cross that river with the rest of his squad." A look of contempt passed over Jim's face. "He asked the kid if he wanted to bail out of the mission. Of course, Sinclair said he could do it, that he wanted to stay with the squad. Eaves knew damn well what that kid's answer would be. Sinclair would never admit that he couldn't keep up, not to one of his own squad members."
"We were about halfway across when I heard the shouting from behind. The guy right behind Sinclair had seen the kid stumble, then he disappeared beneath the water. He was wearing so much gear, and he was so weak, that the currents pulled him right under. We looked for hours, but we couldn't find a sign of him." Jim took a deep breath. "His body was recovered two days later. Eaves laughed the whole episode off. Said the kid wasn't cut out for the military, and it was a good thing we found out early. Might have cost some good men their lives if he'd ever seen real duty."
Simon's eyes were wide with shock. "You mean the man had no regrets about pushing that kid into going in the river?"
Ellison shook his head. "Marcus Eaves, have regrets? Sir, the man doesn't believe he can be wrong. No, he had no regrets. To him, it was no more than swatting a mosquito out in that swamp. He went on as if nothing had happened, as if a young man had not died unnecessarily under his command. Of course, no charges were brought. He did ask Sinclair if he felt like continuing, even though he already knew what the answer would be. That saved Eaves. Things only got worse after that. The taunting, the challenges, the antagonism. Somehow, I became his favorite target. If only we had been assigned more often to different posts..."
Jim's eyes grew unfocused for a moment, then he brought himself back to the present. "I was accepted for covert ops training. Eaves missed the cut by one slot. He always figured I got the place that should have been his. Being a Ranger wasn't enough for him, not if I had progressed a step higher. It was always something with him, usually something he thought I was responsible for. The hatred just seemed to feed on itself, Simon, even though I did my best to avoid the man."
"It's a strange story, that's for sure, Jim. There's something I don't get, though. That death happened in Montrose Swamp, and Eaves told you to remember Montrose. What's that all about, and why does it have anything to do with where we're going tonight?"
Ellison glanced over at his captain. "That night, Eaves told me that only the strongest survive in life, and that he was a survivor. That life is a never ending process of natural selection - of the weakest being weeded out so that those who deserved to survive could flourish. That was the message he wanted me to remember, Simon. That he is stronger than either Blair or me, and that we will be 'weeded out.'"
Jim continued, "As to where we are going..." He nodded toward a highway sign on the side of the road.
Simon caught a glimpse of the white lettering as they passed by.
*Montrose Mountain State Park Wilderness Area 5 Miles*
"Damn it, Jim. I wish you'd let me bring reinforcements," Simon Banks complained as they parked the truck in the small gravel lot at the entrance to Montrose Mountain Wilderness Area.
Jim closed the pickup door behind him and moved to the edge of the rough trail leading up the mountainside. "Eaves wants me, Simon. If he even suspects that I've brought in the troops, he won't hesitate to kill Sandburg." Jim turned his worried blue eyes toward Simon. "Don't you see? He knows I'm a sentinel. This is the ultimate challenge for his ego. If he can outwit me, then, in his mind, the world will know that he is the superior man."
Simon argued, "But, Jim, you have nothing to prove to this guy. Why play by his rules?"
"Because he has the ace in the hole, right now."
"Sandburg," Simon answered without hesitation.
Ellison nodded. "So we go in alone. You know I'd rather you wait here, sir."
"That's where I draw the line. No reinforcements, I can live with if I have to, but I am not sending you in there alone. Not with your senses bouncing around on you the way they've been since Blair disappeared. No way." The tone of command left no room for negotiation.
"Yes, sir." Jim checked his gun, then holstered the weapon. "Ready, sir?"
At Simon's nod of affirmation, the two men moved into the forest in search of their target.
It didn't take long for Jim to pick up on the way Eaves had gone. In fact, it was easy. Too easy.
The sentinel froze suddenly on the trail, holding out one arm to block Simon behind him. Banks stumbled slightly as his forward progress was suddenly and unexpectedly halted. His mouth fell open to question Jim, but at the look of intense concentration on the sentinel's face, the words froze in his throat.
Ellison stood motionless, his cold eyes focused somewhere deep in the woods off to their right. His nostrils flared in a steady rhythm as he breathed deeply, inhaling the scents around them, then sorting through them carefully, discarding each one until he found the one he sought.
"They're about three miles to the east. They've stopped moving, somewhere close to fast moving water." Jim's eyes narrowed slightly, the pupils mere pinpricks of black in a sea of blue. "Let's move."
Simon found himself struggling to keep up with the sentinel as they jogged through the forest, leaving the trail far behind. Ellison was a guided missile locked onto his target, and absolutely nothing was going to slow him down as he zeroed in on his guide. Jim never glanced behind to check on the status of his captain; his eyes remained steadily ahead.
As Jim ran, he listened to the sounds of the heartbeats ahead of them, filtered through the roar of the nearby water. As they drew closer, the sound of the rushing water grew louder, and soon, the two men found themselves standing on the edge of a ravine, looking down into a raging river far below.
Ellison lifted his head, staring across the ravine at the far side. "They're over there, Simon. On the other side." His eyes darted around, anxiously searching for a place to cross.
Then, from the woods on the opposite side of the ravine, two figures emerged, one close behind the other. "It's Eaves," Jim said softly, a tremor of anger in his tone. "He's got a gun on Sandburg."
"Jimbo! Welcome!" Eaves shouted. "I see you found us. Took you a bit longer than I figured it would, but what the hell. Better late than never."
Jim's jaw tightened perceptibly as he called across the ravine. "Let him go, Eaves! I'm the one you're really after, right? Why don't you leave Sandburg there, and come over here? I'll take you on...one on one...just like you've always wanted." Jim waited, every muscle in his body tense with anticipation.
The sentinel's hearing picked up the laughter from across the abyss. This time, only Jim could hear the reply. Eaves was no longer shouting; he was speaking in a normal, conversational tone, certain the sentinel's ears heard every word. "Afraid I lied to you, Jimbo. I didn't set all this up to goad you into the ultimate confrontation between the superior and inferior. I'm already confident, after all, of which of us would win such a challenge. So why waste my energy on a useless exercise?"
Quickly losing patience, Jim used his senses to check on Sandburg. The young man was breathing heavily, and Jim could see the fear in his eyes when he turned his head to glance across the ravine toward his partner. On the wind wafting from the direction of Blair and his captor, Jim could catch the tangy tinge of terror lying heavily over the familiar scent of Sandburg, and his blood ran cold as Blair's fear ran deeply into Jim's own veins. Then, he heard Sandburg's soft voice whisper words meant only for his ears.
*"Jim, man, he's crazy. Watch yourself, okay? Hey, no matter what goes down here, just remember - no regrets. For either of us. No regrets, man. Remember that."*
Unable to stand waiting for Eaves' methodical revelations, Jim shouted, "What do you want, Eaves? You name it; it's yours. Just let Sandburg go."
Again, the sound of soft laughter drifted across the roar of the river. "No, I don't think so, Jim. My wife and son died because of you. I lost the two lives most precious to me, thanks to the great James Ellison. What do you think the payment should be for such a debt, Jim? What does the Bible say? An eye for an eye?"
Eaves moved a step closer to Sandburg, and Jim could hear Blair's soft intake of breath. "I lost two people I loved, Ellison. Shame I only have one to take from you, but I have a feeling that it will be enough. See, I want you to bleed the way I have all these years, and I think killing this one will make your blood flow red. Forever. Knowing that you lost your beloved partner because of your own arrogance, your own belief that you were superior to everyone around you..." Marcus Eaves laughed bitterly, obscuring his final words.
"The sentinel!" He spat out the words with disgust. "Superior senses combined with superior physical and mental capabilities to produce a super cop! Well, where have your special senses gotten you, Jimbo? To the boundaries of hell with your best friend teetering on the edge. And me...about to send him over!"
In a blur of motion, Eaves raised his gun, aiming it directly at Sandburg. Blair took an instinctive step backward, then stumbled just as the shot blasted out and echoed across the hills. Jim could see the shocked look on his friend's face as Blair took one last stumbling step backward, then disappeared over the edge of the ravine. The coppery tang of blood filled his nostrils.
"Sandburg!" Ellison's scream blended with the blast of the gunshot to echo through the canyon. "Sandburg! No!"
He watched with horror as Blair's body tumbled head over heels twice, then struck the water with a vicious splash. For a moment forever frozen in time, he saw Blair's pale face turned upward toward him one final time, then, he disappeared into the frothing, surging torrent.
The sentinel collapsed, falling to his knees and doubling over in agony. His arms wrapped over his head, as if to protect himself from his imploding world, and low, guttural moans of grief keened painfully from his throat. His powerful muscles shook as his lungs constricted, making every breath a painful struggle.
Simon Banks stood stunned for a long moment, unable to move. He watched as Eaves stared down into the swirling waters, then looked back across at them.
"How does it feel, Ellison?" Eaves shouted in jubilation. "How does it feel to fail and be responsible for his death? Enjoy your pain, Jim! It's gonna last a long, long time. Believe me, I know!"
With a final triumphant laugh, Eaves turned and disappeared into the forest.
Shaking himself into motion, Simon dropped down to the ground beside Ellison. "Jim! Jim, can you hear me?" When there was no response other than the rumbling moans from deep in the sentinel's chest, Banks shook his friend's shoulders roughly. "Jim! Come back, Ellison! Don't you dare zone on me now!"
Jim Ellison's head jerked upward as his arms shoved Simon away. "Sandburg!" Jim's eyes were wild as he leapt to his feet, lunging toward the edge of the ravine.
Scrambling forward, barely on his feet, Simon grabbed Jim's arms, using all his strength to drag Ellison away from the edge. "Jim! Stop it! He's gone! Going over the edge yourself isn't going to bring Blair back!"
Struggling against the grip restraining him, Jim fought for his freedom. He rammed an elbow back into his captain's belly, then surged forward again as Banks doubled over, gasping for air. Just as he reached the edge, strong arms once more pulled him back.
"Jim! He's gone, Jim! Let him go!" Simon was panting now, both from the pain of Jim's blow and the exertion of fighting the enraged sentinel. Sweat glistened on Simon's dark brow, and his voice broke from the combined pain of Jim's blow and the shock of seeing Sandburg disappear into the river far below. "For God's sake, Jim, let him go," Simon repeated softly.
Then, as suddenly as his fury had begun, it subsided, and Jim sank to the ground, tears streaming down his face, his eyes wide with shock. "I felt it, Simon. All of it. His fear...his surge of hope when he saw me...the bullet ripping into him...tearing into his skin and muscles...his terror as he fell. He hates heights, you know. Oh, God, Simon, he was so afraid!" Raw emotion shook Ellison's voice as he continued. "Then, when he hit the water, it all stopped. I couldn't feel anything. Nothing!" Jim's breath caught in a sob.
Unsure of how to comfort his friend, Simon rubbed the powerful shoulder, feeling the tremors which wracked the sentinel's body. "Jim, I... I am so very sorry." He hesitated for a moment. "Let's go back to the truck. Our cell phones won't get out from up here. We'll go back down the highway until we can get a signal, then call for backup to go after Eaves."
Simon jumped at the vehement denial. "Jim, we can't go after Eaves alone. We need..."
Ellison struggled to his feet, shrugging off Simon's restraining arm. "This is my responsibility, sir. That bastard killed Blair. I've got a score to settle."
Simon shook his head. "No way, Detective. Hand me your weapon, Jim. You are not going after Eaves alone. I understand how you feel, but I cannot allow you to do this."
The sentinel's bitter laugh surprised them both. "With all due respect, you don't understand how I feel, sir. There's no way in hell that you understand how I feel." Jim made no move to remove his gun and turn it over to Banks.
Simon nodded and made a conscious effort to keep his voice calm and reasonable. "That's true, Jim. I can't know how you feel. But, I know one thing, and that is that I cannot let you go after Eaves. Not in your state of mind."
Slowly, Ellison nodded and took a step toward Simon with a cold smile which never warmed his eyes. "You're right, of course. I..." With a move like a striking snake, Jim punched his commanding officer quickly in the belly, then landed a blow to his jaw. Stumbling backward, Simon Banks fell to the ground, striking his head hard against the earth. He moaned slightly, then fell silent. He was out cold.
Without a glance backward at his fallen captain, the sentinel turned away and approached the edge of the ravine.
There was no time to look for an alternative method of crossing. Each second took Eaves farther away. Losing his prey's trail was not an option the sentinel was willing to consider.
Carefully, he began to descend the steep bank. Using exposed roots and scraggly trees as handholds, anchoring his feet in impossibly small crevices in the hard rock, Jim moved inch by inch downward. Tiny pebbles and dirt displaced by his hands and feet tumbled down into the river far below. At last, when he was close enough, he let go, falling swiftly through the air to land gracefully on his feet on the river bank.
Pouncing forward with knees already bent from cushioning his fall, he plunged into the swiftly flowing river. He turned down his temperature dials at the first shock of the cold water. Mindlessly, the sentinel plowed through the strong currents until the water became too deep to walk across. Then, he struck out swimming, propelling himself through the water with sure, powerful strokes.
The currents pulled strongly at him, threatening to drag him downstream, but he fought against them with a strength born of desperation. He would not, could not, allow Eaves to escape him. His partner had been taken from him, his guide ripped brutally from his side without even the chance to say goodbye, and the sentinel was determined to exact his vengeance. Or die in the attempt.
At last, his feet touched bottom, and without a moment's hesitation, he began running through the shallow water toward shore and the opposing cliff. He barely looked up as he reached the base of the rock edifice. Finding his first handhold, he pulled himself up.
Only minutes later, powerful arms hoisted the sentinel over the top of the cliff. Breathing hard, the sentinel crouched there for a moment, listening...smelling the air. The scent of his prey was strong in his nostrils, and in an instant, he zeroed in on the rapidly beating heart.
*That's it... Run, you bastard. Run. The fastest rocket couldn't carry you far enough or fast enough to escape me. So, go on. Run. Run while you still can.*
Simon awakened alone. He opened his eyes slowly, wincing at the cruel, throbbing pain in his head and jaw and at the dull ache in his belly. *Damn, Ellison! You really pack a hell of a punch!*
Gingerly rubbing his sore jaw, he carefully sat up, giving his vision time to focus and the sick, swimming feeling in his head time to dissipate. Looking around, he saw no sign of Ellison.
The captain groaned as he rose to his feet, swaying slightly as he regained his equilibrium. How long had he been out? Checking his watch and the position of the sun, he estimated between forty-five minutes and an hour. Had Jim already tracked down Eaves? Was he too late to prevent a cold blooded murder by his top detective?
Looking around, Simon searched for a way to cross the ravine and go after Ellison. Taking a step forward, he winced as pain shot through his right knee. *Must have twisted it in the fall,* he thought. *That's great, just great. It's gonna be hard enough to catch up with Jim without this.* He tried a few tentative steps, then cursed in frustration. There was no way he'd make it across that ravine here. He'd have to move downstream and hope to find a narrower crossing.
Setting his eyes on a distant spot down river, Simon hobbled away, determined to ignore his painful knee. At the moment, that was the least of his problems.
Thirty minutes later, the gap between the river banks grew narrower, and the height of the ravine lessened until it was little more than a high ditch. Simon Banks stopped and leaned over, resting his hands on his knees and lowering his head. He panted deeply, and the sweat trickled down his face into his eyes. He'd almost grown accustomed to the throbbing pain shooting up his leg, and his headache had become a mere inconvenience. Straightening up, he wiped the sweat from his eyes with his shirtsleeve, then gazed across the river at the opposite shore. He could make it across now, he was certain.
Wading out into the knee deep water, he forded the river. The current was still swift, and by the time he was halfway across, he was forced to swim, but at least there were no steep walls to greet him as he limped out on the opposite shore. Resting for a moment, he looked upstream and down.
Then, he spotted the body. It was lying motionless about twenty yards downstream, arms and legs spread out haphazardly, resting halfway in the shallow water of the river's edge, long, lank curls spread out on the muddy ground.
*Oh, God. Sandburg...*
A sick feeling rose in the pit of Simon's stomach as he recognized the body. Blair had washed ashore at almost the exact spot he had chosen for his crossing. Fighting the nausea, the captain moved slowly toward the young man's body. The least he could do was pull Blair completely out of the river before resuming his search for Ellison.
Simon knelt beside Sandburg. The long, wet curls were fanned out wildly, obscuring Sandburg's face as he lay on his stomach on the muddy river bank.
"Sandburg..." Simon whispered. "I am so sorry, kid. You didn't deserve to die like this. Jim is... I've gotta go after Jim, Blair, before he does something he'll have to pay for with the rest of his life." Gently he rolled the body onto its back, dreading the sight of the lifeless eyes. *Please, God. Let them be closed,* he prayed silently.
The blue eyes were open, staring directly up at Simon.
Banks jerked back in shock. "Blair?" he breathed, scarcely trusting his own eyes. "Sandburg?"
Blair nodded weakly, then coughed, turning his head to the side as a thin stream of river water trickled from his mouth. Simon helped him, gently patting his back and supporting his shoulders as the water from his lungs was expelled.
"Damn, Simon," the young man complained in a raspy voice. "Isn't drowning once enough, man? What the hell did I do to deserve it twice?"
Grinning now with relief, Banks shook his head. "Blair! Thank God! I don't believe it. What happened? I mean, we saw Eaves shoot you, then you plunged over the edge into the river. Jim said he...couldn't *feel* you any more, that you were gone. So, how...?"
Sandburg coughed again, and Simon waited patiently until he could speak. "Just as Eaves fired, I stumbled backward. Bullet caught me in the upper arm. The force drove me back over the edge. I remember losing consciousness as I hit the water. When I woke up, I couldn't breathe. I was under the water, being carried along by the current." More coughing. "I fought my way to the shallow water and dragged myself up on the bank. Then, I guess I blacked out."
Another fit of coughing followed. As the young man recovered, Simon checked his upper left arm. A clean wound, in and out, but the bone was twisted at a sickening angle. Broken. There was still some bleeding, so Banks ripped his shirt sleeve and wrapped it around the injured arm to form a tourniquet, then located a strong, straight branch to serve as a splint.
Blair's face blanched even whiter as Simon pulled the broken arm onto the splint and wrapped it tightly, using the remainder of his ruined shirt. His teeth clinched his lower lip as he fought against the pain, and his blue eyes were shut tightly.
When Simon finished at last, he patted the wet shoulder on Blair's good side. "Are you hurt anywhere else? Are you in pain?"
The younger man nodded, opening his eyes at last. "My right leg. Down low."
Banks moved to Sandburg's lower body and ran his hands over the lower right leg. Sandburg winced in pain and drew a sharp intake of breath.
Simon nodded. "It's badly sprained, Blair, but I don't think anything's broken. Probably happened when you hit the water. We need to get you to a doctor, Sandburg. The wound is..."
Blair's hand shot out, catching Simon's arm and halting his words. "Jim...? Where's Jim?"
Simon's eyes held Blair's steadily, and he drew a deep breath. "He went after Eaves."
Confusion, followed by comprehension, then by fear flashed in those dark blue eyes. "He thought I was dead, Simon, and you let him go after Eaves? Alone?" Sandburg began struggling to sit up. "Damn it, Simon! How could you do that?"
Banks defended himself. "Hell, Sandburg! It's not like I had much choice in the matter!"
For the first time, Blair saw the blood caked on Simon's jaw from the cut Ellison's fist had opened. "Jim did that?" he asked in disbelief.
The taller man nodded as he rubbed his aching jaw. "That and a damn strong punch to the gut knocked me down, and I hit my head. Put me out like a light. I tried to stop him, Sandburg, but..."
Blair nodded, understanding now. His sentinel had been overcome with anguish, with grief over the death of his guide. A more rational Ellison would never have done this. "It's okay, man. I get the picture now. We've gotta find him, Simon. If he goes up against Eaves alone..."
Banks agreed completely. "I know. But, he has a hell of a head start. I'm not sure we can..."
"Won't know 'til we try," Sandburg said firmly, ending Simon's protest. "Let's move."
Disbelief clouded the brown eyes. "Sandburg, did you hit your head, too? You've got a bad ankle, not to mention a broken arm and the fact that you almost drowned a few minutes ago. There's no way in hell you're gonna make it far enough to find Jim."
If he had been suitably impressed with a sentinel's fury, then the impression was just as strong when faced with the anger and determination of that sentinel's guide. Turning burning blue eyes on the stunned captain, Blair's growled reply was low, but filled with fire.
"I'm going to find Jim, Simon, with or without your help. I'll get there a hell of a lot faster and with less pain if you help me, but either way, I'm going to Jim." He waited, his gaze locked and steady.
"At least let me do something else...give your leg some support...a splint maybe...?"
A powerful shake of the still damp curls ended that suggestion. "No time, Simon. We've got to go after Jim now!"
Even a tough police captain knows when he's been defeated. Heaving a mighty sigh, Simon rose painfully to his feet, grumbling. "Damn you, Sandburg! I've got a twisted knee, you've got a bum ankle and arm, and here we go, chasing a lunatic through the woods.
Biting back a cry of pain as Simon's strong arms helped pull him to his feet, Blair muttered through his clinched teeth, "Which lunatic is that, Simon? Jim or Eaves?"
Chuckling, the taller man wrapped a supportive arm around the slim waist and held on. "Both of them, son, and maybe I should include us in that description, too. This is crazy, you do know that?"
Taking his first tentative step, Blair grinned tightly as the pain burned up his leg. "Yeah, Simon, I know that. Guess a certain amount of craziness just comes along with the guide's contract, y'know?"
Leaning on each other for support, they moved off slowly into the forest.
Their progress was slow as they moved back upstream toward the place where the shooting had occurred. At times, Blair thought he would pass out and had to fight the waves of nausea which threatened to double him over. Sweat poured off his body, and his face turned even paler than it had been when Simon found him beside the river. Each step sent fiery, stabbing arrows of pain shooting through his leg, and his head throbbed along with every heartbeat in a steady rhythm of pain. The pain in his arm had dulled to a constant, pounding ache. Dark swirling shapes danced before his tired eyes, and it was only his desperate determination to get to Jim that kept him going. Blair kept a steady mantra beating in his head in syncopated time with the pounding pain.
All other thoughts sank into the tortuous, dark, pain filled void. All other emotions disappeared save one, consuming need - to return to his sentinel's side. To stop him from committing murder. If it was not already too late.
Gradually, Blair became aware of something new, a different emotion, gradually seeping into his dulled awareness. As he stumbled along beside Simon, he struggled to place it, to determine its origin. One thing he was sure of, the heavy emotion was growing stronger with each and every step.
Without warning, he named it. *Hatred.* A boiling, seething cauldron of hatred bubbled dangerously close to the surface within him. He stopped abruptly, doubling over with the sudden and unexpected intensity of it.
"Sandburg!" Simon panted beside him. "Are...you...all right?"
Blair gasped with the strength of the churning emotion. "Jim...! He's..." He turned confused blue eyes up toward Simon. "I'm feeling his hatred...his anger..." Taking a ragged breath, he slowly straightened up, leaning on Simon for support. "We must be getting closer, Simon. His rage... It's growing stronger."
Banks realized his mouth was open in disbelief. "Jim said the same thing at the ravine. That he could sense somehow what you were feeling. Sandburg, what the hell is going on with you two?"
Ignoring the touch of fear in the captain's voice, Blair took a painful step forward. "Don't have time to figure it all out right now, Simon. We've gotta find Jim! Before it's too late..."
The stench of his prey was strong now, almost overwhelming the sentinel with its power. The beating of its heart, too rapid, too desperate, filled his ears until it drowned out the sounds of the forest which surrounded him. The sentinel's heart had gone cold, dying as it felt the hollow silence which had once been filled by the rhythm of his guide's heartbeat. His emotions had been linked to those of his frightened guide there on the precipice, but when those kindred emotions vanished into the depths of the river, so had the sentinel's own feelings. He was dead inside, as surely as his guide was dead, washed away like a pile of unwanted debris in the river's torrents.
It no longer mattered. He no longer cared. There was no pain, now, no overwhelming sense of despair. There was only the hunt. The final hunt. Once his quarry had been found, once the prey had died its violent death, then, the sentinel could find peace. Lasting, eternal peace.
He was close now, so very close. Through the leaves and branches which would obscure a normal man's sight, lending protective shelter to the prey, he saw it. Crouched beneath low undergrowth, it hid, believing in its simple naiveté that it was safely hidden. If he had possessed any emotion, the sentinel might have smiled. He only moved closer...silently...slowly...deadly stalking.
The prey trembled now, its quivers shaking the leaves wrapped around it. To overextended sentinel ears, the sound was thunder, rolling on forever within him. He could smell the stench of its fear now, but the realization brought him no gratification, and it produced no pity.
The prey would die. Its time was near.
"Ellison! Jimbo! I know you're out there! What's the matter? Can't find me? What happened to those sentinel senses, Captain Ellison? Don't tell me they've failed you now?"
He heard the sound of the gun as it was raised, but it meant nothing.
Stealthily, the sentinel moved in for the kill.
Without warning, he lunged forward, shoving the crouched man over onto his back, wrapping powerful hands around the soft, vulnerable throat. Eaves, at first stunned by the attack, fought back, driving a knee into Jim's stomach, then rolling to the side when the hands at his throat slackened enough for him to break free.
Eaves still had the gun in his hand. Raising it quickly, his finger pulled back on the trigger. The shot went wild as a hard kick drove the weapon from his grip. It went flying, landing out of reach at the base of a tall pine.
They grappled now, rolling on the ground, sentinel and prey, in a reenactment of a scene which could have been played out centuries or millennia before. Fueled by rage, the sentinel had the advantage of size and strength, but his prey had the strength granted by desperation. It was a nearly equal contest.
No words were spoken. Only the grunts, groans, and panting gasps for air broke the silence of the mountain morning. Words were unnecessary. The two adversaries knew the stakes all too well. When their battle was over, only one would walk away victorious. Only one would live to leave the mountain battlefield.
And so, the deadly contest continued...
Blair's head jerked up as the shot sliced through the morning stillness. "Jim...?" Terror filled his eyes, and he stared at Simon, pleading silently for help.
"That way. Let's go, Sandburg."
*Oh, please...please...please. Stay alive, Jim, just stay alive, man. I'm here, Jim, I'm on my way. Wait for me, please.*
They stumbled on through the forest, following the direction of the shot. Blair's thoughts tumbled around and around, jumbling together in a hodge podge of images. *Jim's smile...teasing, affectionate, brotherly taps and touches...jokes shared late at night on stake outs...cooking together in the loft's small kitchen, companionably sharing the chores of preparing meals...the soft pride which glowed in Jim's eyes when his guide made an astute observation which helped on a case...a strong, protective arm wrapped over his shoulders...a fierce hug when both emerged safely from a deadly encounter...Jim...Jim...Jim...*
"Please," he whispered, not realizing he'd spoken aloud. "Please..."
Simon's arm tightened around his waist. "Hang on, Sandburg. Hang on. We're getting close now. I think I hear them."
A driving blow sent Eaves falling backward. He landed hard on the ground, the breath leaving his body with a mighty gasp. Stunned, he lay unmoving.
The sentinel grasped a large rock, hoisting it above his head with both hands. Images of what he had lost, of what the prey had stolen from him, filled his mind..
*Sandburg's smile...his laughter and the delight which warmed his eyes...the absolute trust in those blue depths as they gazed upward at his sentinel...a steadying hand at the small of his back...the soothing, beckoning voice murmuring to him, bringing him back from the abyss...the tribal music...the strange odors of exotic foods...the scent of candles and of herbal shampoo and of Blair himself...the wonderfully warm feeling in Jim's soul when he came home to find Blair waiting for him...his voice giving so freely the gift of the very words Jim longed for, yearned to hear, had needed to hear his entire life...'I'll never leave you...'*
He stood over the prey now, the rock steady in his hands high over his head. Waiting.
Waiting for the prey to open its eyes, to see its own doom as the rock descended. Just as Blair had seen his own death as it came. Anything less would be vengeance denied.
Frightened green eyes gazed upward, flickering first on the sentinel's hard, emotionless face, then moving upward to take in the sight of the boulder waiting to fall. The prey gasped in horror as the realization of how it was to die sank in. It tried to roll out of the way, but a hard driven boot in its side stopped it cold. The boot kicked again...and again...and again.
The prey lay motionless, panting, waiting for its death.
The cold eyes of the sentinel never left its face. A barely perceptible nod, and the boulder began its descent. The prey closed its eyes, fearfully waiting for the final, crushing blow.
"Jim! No! Don't do it!"
The powerful arms stopped, the boulder poised in mid air, but the sentinel's head never turned. He had known that, in the end, if he lost his guide, the madness would claim him. He had hoped that the darkness wouldn't envelope him so quickly, but if it was to be this fast, then...so be it. He raised the rock again, to build greater momentum for its shattering descent.
Blair couldn't believe what he saw. Jim Ellison, dirty and wet and gasping for air, standing above the crumpled form of Marcus Eaves, a huge rock poised in above his head, kicking the downed man over and over. Ignoring the pain in his ankle and his arm, he forced Simon forward, screaming as he stumbled on.
"Jim! No! Don't do it!"
For a moment, his friend hesitated, as if Blair's voice had penetrated whatever trance held him captive. Then, with a shake of his head, the boulder was raised again, and it was obvious that the cowering man on the ground hadn't long to live.
Shouting between gasping breaths, Sandburg called again, still limping as quickly as he could toward the two men. "Jim! Stop it! Please!" Then, with a flash of inspiration, he added, "I'm hurt here, man. Jim...I need you. Please, help me."
The sentinel froze. Seeing an opening, Simon called out, "Jim! Blair needs you. Look at us, Jim!"
They were there, standing only a few feet away from Ellison. His straining muscles quivered from the effort of supporting the boulder overhead for so long. Sweat glistened from his bare arms, and his T-shirt was drenched. Blue eyes drowning in emotion flickered to the face of his guide.
"Jim," Blair whispered, leaning heavily on Simon. "Don't do this, man. He isn't worth it."
Banks spoke in his commanding voice. "Jim, if you kill him, you know I'll have to take you in. He's helpless, Detective. It would be murder. If you end up in prison, where would that leave Sandburg, huh? He's hurt, Jim. Blair needs you."
"Please, Jim? Don't..." Blair's whispered words finally broke the spell.
With a powerful surge of strength, Ellison's arms lowered in one fast, fluid motion, sending the boulder crashing to earth. The broken man on the ground screamed in terror as he saw the huge stone plummeting toward his head. It slammed down only inches from Eaves skull, and he broke into huge gulping sobs of fear and relief.
At the same moment, his strength depleted, Blair Sandburg crumpled to the ground.
All thoughts of Eaves forgotten, Jim Ellison ran and knelt beside his partner. "Blair," he murmured. "Blair..."
Gathering the limp body in his arms, he cradled the younger man tightly. Some distant, detached part of Jim's mind was aware that he was whispering Sandburg's name over and over, that his hands were roaming constantly over the dirty, hot body as he sought physical reassurance that his guide truly lived, but he couldn't find it within himself to care.
Simon moved quickly to Eaves, dragging the semi-conscious man to a tree, wrapping his arms behind him, then cuffing his wrists together behind the trunk. Dull green eyes stared at the figures of Ellison and Sandburg huddled together on the ground. Leaving his prisoner to his thoughts of how close he had come to death, Simon joined his two friends.
Laying a hand on the sentinel's shoulder, Banks knelt beside them. "Jim?" he asked quietly. "Are you okay?"
Quieter now, Ellison's cheek rested on the dirty, matted curls tucked under his head. His arms encircled Blair, holding him close, wrapping as much of himself around his partner as he could manage without putting too much pressure on the injured arm and ankle. Slowly, the light blue eyes emerged from beneath the closed lids, glistening with tears as yet unshed.
Pulling back, Jim Ellison gazed into the calm indigo eyes of his guide and read the truth he sought. Instantly, their souls mingled within that gaze, communicating silently all the emotions, all the words, their minds could not yet voice. Reaching up, he cupped the younger man's face in one hand, his thumb seeking out the tender hollow beneath his throat. Feeling the steady affirmation of life beating there, he opened his senses, taking the rhythm into his own body, and smiling as it mingled in perfect harmony with his own heartbeat.
Nodding slowly, Ellison whispered, "We're all right, Simon. We're going to be all right."
Lowering his head, Jim pressed his lips gratefully to Blair's forehead, then his temple, nuzzling his face against his friend's cheek before once again tucking the curly head safely beneath his own. "Yeah, we're going to be just fine."
It was over at last. Over except for dealing with the consequences. For, as Jim Ellison well knew, there were always consequences, a price to pay, for whatever events transpired in life, good or bad.
They had been airlifted out, after search parties finally located the exhausted men miles from any trail crossing the wilderness of Montrose Mountain. Eaves had been carried directly from the hospital under heavy guard to his new home - a cell in Cascade's jail - where he would await his indictment.
Jim had been checked out by the ER physicians, granting their requests to remain still, to allow them to make sure he was uninjured. His short supply of patience finally gave out, and he stormed from the exam room in search of Sandburg, following the trail of his scent and heartbeat and voice until he found his partner. Taking up his post outside the exam room door, he waited impatiently, listening, until the doctor came out to speak with him.
Simon joined him just as the doctor arrived, his injured knee held motionless in a large brace. Jim acknowledged his presence with a brief nod and a quick scan with his senses. The captain was all right. He turned his attention to Blair's doctor.
"Dr. Sandburg received quite a few contusions from his fall, Detective, and a badly sprained ankle. His arm was broken, but the break was clean, and it has been set. Apparently, he hit his head, resulting in a mild concussion. The gunshot wound was his most severe injury, but he was very lucky there. The bullet went in and out of his upper arm, missing any bones, and causing minimal damage." At last, the physician smiled. "All in all, a very lucky young man."
Finally, Jim allowed himself to relax. Blair was going to be all right. He smiled gratefully at the doctor. "Will he be able to go home soon?"
Shrugging, the older man nodded. "That's all he talks about. Going home. I really don't see why not, if there will be someone around to keep an eye on him."
"I'll be there, doctor," Jim promised. "Every step of the way."
"Good. I'll leave a prescription for pain medication with his release papers. I want to see him back here in one week. Until then, he needs rest, Detective Ellison. Rest. No work. No school. No police department. In a week, I'll reevaluate him and we'll go from there. Is that understood?"
Simon grinned at his friend. "Sounds like their reputation has preceded them, Doctor."
Jim's scowl lacked its usual fierce intensity. "I understand perfectly. Rest. Pain medicine. No work. Got it. May I see him now?"
Blair's face broke into a relieved smile at the sight of his friend, whole and safe. "Hey, man," he called out in a weak voice. "'Bout time you got in here. I thought I was going to have to break out of this place on my own."
"Not a chance, kiddo." Jim tousled his friend's hair affectionately. "How are you feeling, Chief?" His tone turned serious as he studied the younger man carefully. Heartbeat normal, breathing easily, still too pale, but otherwise, he seemed in remarkably good condition. They had dodged the figurative bullet, if not the real one, yet again.
"Why bothering asking, man?" Sandburg grouched, but his tone held no real antagonism. "You've already run your patented sentinel diagnostic, haven't you?" He grinned up at his partner. "I'm fine, man. A little sore, the leg and arm ache some, and my head feels like it's been used as the percussion section for the Cascade Symphony, but trust me, big guy, I've been a whole lot worse."
A sudden pang of guilt stabbed through Ellison and he winced. *Yeah, buddy, a lot worse...*
Choosing to ignore the morbid cloud which covered him, Jim forced a smile. "So, you're ready to get out of here, Chief? The doctor okayed your release. Let's get you dressed, then we're homeward bound."
"Really? They're not keeping me, running tests, sticking me with needles? Nothing?"
The delight in his friend's eyes brought an unexpected lump to Jim's throat. When had they reached the point where not staying in the hospital became a source of such joy? *This has gone on too long, Chief. Way too long.*
The only question was, how the hell was he going to change things?
By the time they pulled out of the hospital parking lot, the injections given to Blair for pain had begun to take effect in full force. Glancing over at his guide, Jim smiled as the younger man's eyelids grew heavier and heavier until, at last, his breathing slowed and he fell into a deep, restful sleep. As they pulled up in front of the loft, a soft snoring filled the cab of the blue and white Ford.
Jogging around his truck, Jim opened the passenger side door. Sandburg never stirred. Gently shaking his guide's shoulder, he called softly, "Chief? Blair? We're home, kid. Time to wake up."
Bleary eyes blinked open, heavy with sleep and struggling to focus on his sentinel's face. "Home? Already?"
Ellison grinned broadly. "Yep, Darwin, already. Of course, you slept all the way across town. C'mon, Sandburg. Let's get you upstairs."
Leaning into his sentinel's supportive arms, Blair maneuvered his injured leg out of the truck and stood shakily on the sidewalk. "Man, talk about feeling out of it. What did they give me in there anyway?"
Jim tightened his arm around his partner's shoulders and smiled as he felt Sandburg's arm wrap around his waist. "Just something for the pain, Chief. Not to mention the fact that you must be exhausted. Just take it slow, and we'll be okay."
One cautious step at a time, sentinel and guide made their way home.
Jim was in the kitchen, stirring soup on the stove. Blair, stretched out on the couch, watched him through half shuttered eyes. He had been home almost three full days now, and still, Ellison had refused to discuss what had happened on Montrose Mountain. Sure, he'd talk about Eaves, their early days in the military, and how the robbery victims had been reunited with their prized possessions shortly after they were discovered in the old farmhouse Marcus Eaves had rented twelve miles outside of Cascade. But, he deftly avoided any discussion of what he and Sandburg had *felt* that day, of how this time had been so very different from the times they had been in danger before. Before the temple in Peru.
It was time for the careful pas de deux they had been performing around the real issues and each other to end, Blair decided that morning. It was only a matter of how he would guide Jim into opening up at last. Now, it was evening, and still, they were no closer to dealing with their experiences at Montrose Mountain than they had been immediately after their return.
Dinner was eaten in virtual silence. Blair was more determined than ever not to fall into the trap of making small talk. That would only feed Jim's decision to avoid any discussion of what they needed to discuss, of what they had to discuss if their sentinel/guide partnership was to continue to develop and flourish. So, when Blair did not contribute his usual chatter to the mealtime conversation and Jim failed to fill up the long gaps with any observations of his own, they dined in silence.
When dinner was over, Blair moved to the sink to begin the chore of washing dishes, but Jim stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Go rest, Chief. I'll tend to these."
Nodding his agreement, Sandburg acquiesced. "I think I'll go out on the balcony for a while. I could use some fresh air. Join me when you're done?" He kept his tone casual, not wanting to tip Jim off as to his real intentions.
Ellison carried their soup bowls into the kitchen. "Sure, Chief. Be right there." Running water in the sink, he added, "You go stretch out on the lounge. Rest."
Twenty minutes later, the sentinel eased himself into one of the chairs on the balcony, pulling it up beside the lounge chair where his partner was stretched out. Blair's head was tilted back as he gazed up at the stars overhead.
"We have to deal with this, you know." His voice was so soft that at first, even Jim wasn't sure he had even heard the words.
The sentinel took a deep breath, held it for a long moment, then released it slowly. He'd known this moment was coming, had avoided it as long as possible, and now that it was here, dreaded it with his entire being. "I know," Jim breathed quietly. "I just haven't known what to say."
"You could start with the truth, Jim. That's always a good beginning. Remember, no more secrets." Blair's eyes remained focused on the stars above. He never glanced at Jim's face.
"Right. No more secrets." Ellison leaned forward, rubbing the bridge of his nose with his right fingers. "Something's changed, Chief. Since Peru."
Blair's calm, soothing voice wrapped around him like a blanket, wrapping him in the all encompassing safety it always seemed to bring. Now, warm blue eyes gathered him in as the reassuring voice enveloped him. "We expected that it would, Jim. That was the purpose of the ceremony, after all. To complete our connection as sentinel and guide."
"I know. I know." Jim's voice sounded tired and infinitely sad. "I just..." His words trailed off.
"Just what, Jim? What were you going to say?"
The sentinel got up suddenly, pacing around the small confines of the balcony. His hands clinched into tight fists, only to unclench, then tighten again. He moved toward the lounge chair, and Blair shifted, making room for his friend to sit beside him.
Reaching out, Ellison rested his hand on the bandage covering the lower part of his friend's leg. His sensitive fingers traced the roughness of the thick fabric, feeling the warmth of the skin lying beneath its protective cover. Still not speaking, he moved his hand to Blair's other leg, squeezing gently. "You're chilly, Chief," he breathed at last. "Don't you want to change out of those shorts? Put on some sweats?"
"No, Jim. I'm fine. Well, that's not exactly true. But, I'm not that cold. Really." His voice softened again. "Stop running away from me, man. Please? We need to talk about this."
"Yeah, I know..."
Jim stared down at his own hand, still resting on Blair's leg, and absently began to rub small, reassuring circles in a gentle massage. He could feel the texture of each individual hair, every pore, and beneath it all, the pulse of life.
Sandburg's life, so very precious, so very tenuous. His throat ached at the thought of the fragility of that young life. At what agony it would bring should he lose it forever.
"When Eaves called me, and you were with him, I..." He hesitated as he fought to find the right words to convey what had happened that day. "I could feel your fear, Chief. Right through the phone. I didn't just sense it, I *felt* it. Just like I felt all those emotions there in Peru when we were in the pool at the temple. It was as if I was living your fear. I turned pale, my body shook, and Simon said I looked absolutely terrified."
Now that the dam of resolve had been breached, the words flowed quickly, freely in their long-awaited release. "The same thing happened on Montrose Mountain. When Eaves had you at the ravine, holding the gun on you and promising to kill you...when you were shot and tumbled over the side..." Jim's voice caught in a soft sob. He felt Blair's hand reach out to cover his, and the movement on the leg ceased.
"Blair, I felt the bullet rip through your flesh. Each burning, painful inch was felt like that steel was tearing into my own body. As you fell, I felt your terror. Combined with my own fear, my own horror at watching what was happening, my own damned helplessness, it was...too much. Then, I...lost you. I couldn't *feel* you any more, couldn't hear you, couldn't find you with any of my senses. I thought you...were...dead."
Swiping at his eyes with his free hand, Jim's broken voice struggled to go on. "I went berserk, trying to get to you. Hell, I even attacked Simon. Then, when I was tracking Eaves, when I found him, it was like...I don't know how to explain this...Like the only thing there was the primal part of me, the pure sentinel, and the rest of me, the calm, professional part, was relegated to the shadows. I...lost...control."
Turning haunted blue eyes toward his guide at last, he whispered, "What's going on here, Chief?"
Releasing his grip on the sentinel's hand, Sandburg leaned back against the comfortable support of the lounge. He gazed once more up at the stars, thousands of brilliant lights on a sea of black. *Wish there weren't so many city lights,* he thought absently. *The stars look so much more beautiful in the mountains, away from the influence of man.* He smiled and looked back down to find Jim staring at him, waiting.
Waiting as he'd grown so accustomed to doing. Waiting for Blair to take the chaos churning inside him, sort through the confusion, and make sense of it all. Waiting for Blair to make everything right again, to make the hurt and doubt go away.
Momentarily overwhelmed by the enormity of Jim's trust, the strength of his need, Blair shut his eyes while he collected his thoughts. He delved deep within his heart, within his soul, and listened patiently for the answer to come, never doubting that it would. Blair Sandburg had decided long ago that he couldn't afford to doubt that somehow he would always find the answers Jim needed. He couldn't let himself doubt. Jim's life, his sanity, was too important.
Then, in a medley of his melodic professor's voice blended with the rich, velvet tones of the guide, Blair said quietly, "Jim, I think we got it wrong, right from the very beginning."
Fear flashed quickly through the sentinel. "Wrong, Chief?" What was his friend trying to tell him?
Blair nodded. "Yeah, wrong. See, Jim, we looked at this as me trying to help you control your senses. Once that was accomplished, we would be at the end of the trail...mission impossible completed. Right?"
He waited. Slowly, Jim nodded his agreement. "I guess so, Chief. What was so wrong about that?"
"Ain't gonna happen, that's what was wrong about it. Jim, this whole sentinel/guide thing is never going to be a static, unchanging experience. We're not going to arrive at a certain point and suddenly find we have all the answers. All the time we get better at it, as we learn and adapt, it's still growing, still changing. Always staying a step or too ahead of where we are. *We're* still growing and changing. We're *becoming,* Jim."
"Becoming *what*, Chief? I mean, are we ever going to get a handle on this thing?"
"If you mean are we ever going to understand everything that you are, that we are, ever going to know exactly what's going on with your senses, with our connection..." The long curls shook vigorously. "I don't think so, Jim. I know that's not exactly what you want to hear, but I think it's the truth. See, nobody's ever documented the development of a sentinel and guide partnership before. It's probably never even occurred outside the confines of certain tribal societies. So, we have nothing to learn from here, man, no models to study and emulate."
Blair's dark blue eyes shimmered with anticipation in the evening's dim light. "We're on our own, here, Jim. All we've got is what we each bring to this, man. Our own individual strengths...and weaknesses. I'm not always sure it's enough, but..." He spread his hands out open palmed. "We've always managed to break through before, to find the answers, or at the very least, find a way to play the new cards we've been dealt."
Jim nodded slowly. "So, what happened in Peru took us to a new level. We're becoming something...more...than we were before the temple."
"Yeah. I think. See, I felt things, too, Jim, while I was away from you. While I was with Eaves. When you were talking to him on the phone, I could feel how angry you were, how desperate. At the ravine, for just a moment there, I got a flash of your terror, your pain, when that bullet ripped through me."
He paused a long moment. "I don't think this is going to be an every day thing, though, Jim. I mean it's not like we've suddenly developed this psychic empathy or anything. Like, right now, I'm not *feeling* anything from you. I can see you're worried, concerned, but that's just an observation based on knowing you so well. I'm not picking up on your feelings or experiencing them myself. Not like before."
Letting out a long sigh, Jim reached out and grasped Blair's hand, pulling it to his chest and anchoring it there firmly. Somehow, he felt a strong need to anchor himself physically to his guide. He hoped Sandburg would understand.
He needn't have doubted. Blair only smiled a little and waited for Jim to continue.
Staring deeply into the dark blue depths of his young friend's eyes, Jim asked cautiously, "So, you think this...feeling thing...won't happen all the time?"
Shrugging, Blair replied, "Don't think so. So far, it seems only to happen at times of extreme emotional stress, maybe even when we have a need to know what is happening with each other. A survival instinct, maybe, I'm not sure. Hey, man, it's like everything else we've dealt with, right? We'll have to learn as we go."
Jim grinned, a lopsided, Ellison grin. "Yeah, Chief, that's us. Just making it up as we go along." Then, the grin faded, and worry clouded the sentinel's eyes. "But, how could it be a survival thing, Chief? I mean, I lost it up there when I thought you were dead. Why didn't I pick up on your heartbeat? How could I lose control like that?"
Blair was silent as he considered the questions, and when his response came, the words were spoken quietly, but with deep felt assurance. "First, I don't think you were out of control, Jim. It was just that the part of you *in* control was the sentinel, not the cop. You thought I was dead, right? After experiencing my fear and my pain, that part of you that is the sentinel overpowered everything else, and maybe you even needed that to happen. That would have been a survival mechanism, after all. Part of your need to protect me, to protect the partnership of sentinel and guide. That's probably why you couldn't pick up on the fact that I was still alive. You were just overpowered with all the new emotional stuff." He smiled brilliantly. "We've just got to work on controlling these emotional spikes the same way we have your sensory spikes. It's gonna be tougher, though, 'cause I just don't think they're going to be happening that often."
Tugging gently on a long curl, Jim said softly, "Just more making it up as we go, right, Chief?"
The younger man shrugged, then studied his friend's face carefully. "Guess so. Jim, are you all right with all this? I mean, the trusting us...trusting me...to figure all this stuff out?"
Ellison's eyes grew warmer, softer, as the affection he felt for Blair rose to the surface. "Hey, Darwin, you learned something down in Peru, too, remember? *You* are enough, Blair. I trust you implicitly. With everything I am, everything I might be." Reaching out, the sentinel cupped his guide's face gently, his other hand still anchoring Blair's smaller hand against his chest. "It's not a choice any more, Chief. It's who we are. Remember?"
In a voice rough with emotion, Blair whispered, "I remember, Jim. I remember..."
Life had returned to normal, or at least, to what passed as a semblance of normal for Cascade's own sentinel and guide. Blair returned to his work at Rainier University and with Jim at the station. Eaves was indicted for kidnapping, along with a myriad of charges resulting from both Blair's attempted murder and the robberies, and he awaited trial.
The physical scars healed, and the emotional ones began to fade as well. On the outside, all was well.
But, appearances can be deceiving.
A few weeks passed, and other cases, other crimes, pushed Marcus Eaves from the spotlight. Late one evening, Jim and Simon sat in the captain's office, wrapping up some loose ends from the day's work. Blair was at Rainier University, attending the last night of a lecture series given by a visiting German anthropologist. The bullpen was empty, and the night's quiet and peace worked its relaxing magic on the two tired friends.
Simon Banks studied the other man in silence. At last, Jim glanced over at his captain, seeing the contemplative look.
"What? Something wrong, Simon?"
"You would have killed him, wouldn't you?"
Realizing immediately that Simon was referring to Eaves, Ellison's voice grew hard, fully matching the pitiless look in his eyes. "In a heartbeat."
"Because you believed he killed Sandburg."
There was no response. The truth required no verification.
Finally, Jim added softly, "I'm sorry about what happened up there, Simon. Between us, I mean. I should have apologized to you sooner, I know, but I just didn't know how to say it. You know I didn't want to do that, to hit you, but..." He shrugged and shook his head. "My emotions were out of control. I wanted to go after Eaves. Alone. It was all I could think about. You wouldn't back off, and you shouldn't have, after all, but..."
Simon interrupted with a wry grin. "Okay, okay... I get the picture, Detective. You got one free punch at the Captain, but that's all, understand? If it ever happens again..." His voice trailed off, the warning obvious.
Ellison grinned self-consciously. "Thanks, Simon."
After a long pause, Simon spoke again. "I can't begin to understand what happened to you two in Peru. I mean, I know that ceremony Imaru performed was designed to complete your...connection...your partnership...but..." The older man stared at Jim. "Where does it end, Jim? I mean, if one day, God forbid, something happens to one of you, am I going to have to bury the other one as well? Can you truly not survive without him now? Or him without you?"
Ellison raked long fingers through his short hair, staring down at the floor. Then, his steel blue eyes met his captain's and the distress written there was clear. "That's been true for a long time now, sir. Since Peru...it's only become stronger."
He shrugged helplessly. "I...don't know how much longer I can continue this way, Simon. Putting Blair at risk every moment of every day, just because he is my guide. My partner. The whole thing with Eaves was..." Again, the hand through the hair, this time, accompanied by a tightening of the jaw. "It was almost too much, sir."
"Is there something going on here I need to know, Jim?" Even as he asked the question, he dreaded the response. What the hell was going through the man's mind now?
Ellison stood up, obviously ready to end the conversation. He moved to the door. "It's late, sir. I need to be going. Sandburg will be home soon, and knowing him, the kid won't have eaten since breakfast." He hesitated, his hand gripping the door knob so tightly that the knuckles whitened. "Simon, I promise you..."
His voice dropped so low that Banks had to struggle to hear Jim's final words. "Whatever happens, just know that it will be for the best. For both Sandburg and me."
With those words and a last long look at his captain and friend, the sentinel vanished into the night.
Return to the Perception Series
Comments, criticism, suggestions? Please e-mail Jet.
Back to JET's page.