Thanks to MegaRed for helping me decide how to deal with the warning. Your ideas are always exactly what I need! To my wonderful betas, Danae and Wendy for helping me see my stories with a fresh eye. Merci beaucoup, ya'll!
Note: This story contains very emotional material. A warning appears at the end for those who prefer to know what they are getting into ahead of time. If you read the warning, it will reveal a major part of the plot, but some people like to be forewarned about such things. Go Here for the Warning. If you are a brave soul, forget the warning and read on.
"Ah, were I sever'd from thy side, where were my friend...and who my guide?" Byron
Simon Banks slowly hung up the phone and removed his glasses with hands suddenly gone cold. He trembled slightly and lowered his head to his desk, struggling to control his ragged breathing. Fiercely, Simon clenched his eyes, hoping to blot out the violent images from the television screen, but knowing that it was too late, that those horrible pictures had already etched themselves permanently in his memory.
Damn it all to hell! Why this? Why him? And how the hell am I supposed to tell his partner? The tall captain's throat closed in a desperate, pent-up sob, and his shoulders shook in silence.
After long minutes battling to control his emotions, Simon slowly sat up and rubbed his burning eyes. He took a deep, shaking breath, replaced his glasses, and walked to his office door. Peering out through the glass, his gaze found the desk near the back door of the bullpen, the desk normally occupied by two. For a moment, he studied the single, unaware inhabitant as he typed at the computer. Simon closed his eyes, sent up a silent prayer, and opened the door to face the most difficult task in the career of any police captain. Telling one of his officers that his partner, his best friend, was dead.
Earlier that day...
"Hey, Jim! You seen my green sweater, man? I know it was lying around here yesterday, and now it's vanished. I gotta find it. You know it can get pretty cold in Boston this time of year." Blair Sandburg passed through the living area of the loft in a brightly colored blur of movement, words, and gestures. He disappeared into the small room that he had called his own ever since moving in with Jim Ellison almost five years earlier.
Ellison looked back over his shoulder from the couch where he was watching the Jags game on television. Shaking his head in wonderment at the energy level of his friend, he called out, "Haven't seen it, Sandburg. Have you tried the laundry hamper?" He waited for the response he knew was coming, silently mouthing the predictable words, No, Jim. What would it be doing in the hamper? I know it's not in the hamper, man. I didn't... Hey, Jim, guess what?
He listened to the rustling sound of clothes being shuffled about and the muttered words, "Not in the hamper... Why would it be in the hamper? Not... Guess what, Jim! I found it; it was in the hamper!" Ellison smiled affectionately. Either Sandburg was becoming too predictable, or he knew his partner far too well.
"When's your flight, Chief?" Jim called out to his friend. He knew perfectly well that the plane to Boston departed at 1:25, but he wanted to be sure Blair was keeping his eye on the time. Ellison hated being rushed getting to the airport.
"Oh, man! I gotta move! Don't want you to get all flustered hurrying to get me there." Jim heard more objects being hastily tossed into Blair's duffel.
"Sandburg, I most definitely do not get flustered," Jim countered in an insulted tone.
His acute hearing picked up Blair's whispered words, "Yeah, right... Like a old, wet hen..."
"I heard that, Chief." Ellison couldn't keep the hint of a smile from lips.
"I know, Jim, I know. There's a definite lack of privacy around here, man. Life with a sentinel can have its drawbacks, y'know," Blair complained, but Jim heard the fond amusement in his voice and grinned in return.
Blair emerged from his room, his duffel bag in his right hand, tucking his cell phone into his pocket with his left. Jim got up from the couch and moved to face his friend. "I guess I'm ready. I think I have everything. Man, I can't believe that Simon's sending me to this seminar. I mean, I haven't even finished at the academy yet, and he chose me to go to Boston."
Jim smiled at his young partner. "Simon picked you because you're the best man in the Major Crimes Unit for the job, Chief. This seminar is about the psychology of serial killers, right? With your background in psychology and your knack for analyzing people, you'll get more out of it than any of the rest of us. He made the logical choice."
Jim reached out and tucked a few wayward strands of hair back behind Blair's ear, enjoying the silky feel against his sensitive fingertips. Although the trademark curls were trimmed much shorter now, they had grown back quite a bit since his regulation haircut at the beginning of his academy training. Seeing Blair without his long hair had been difficult for Jim. The shorn curls served as a visible reminder of the painful events surrounding the premature release of Blair's dissertation, an all too obvious reminder of Jim's shame, of his lack of faith in his partner's loyalty.
His hair was such a source of pride for Blair, the only touch of vanity Jim had ever seen in him. It was part of what made Blair so unique, and Blair's uniqueness was something Jim Ellison had grown to cherish. For the disciplined, structured detective, meeting Blair Sandburg had been the start of a lifelong encounter with a living jewel, all iridescent light and color, fiery opalescent, ever changing, depending on his mood and circumstances. Jim couldn't explain all the ways in which Sandburg affected him, but he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was a better person because Blair Sandburg was in his life. Because Blair Sandburg had become his life.
"The logical choice, huh?" Sandburg repeated and beamed at the compliment from his friend and at the implied one from his captain. "Sure you don't mind fighting that airport traffic, Jim? I could take a cab..."
Ellison gently grabbed Blair by the back of the neck and steered him toward the door. "I don't mind, but if we don't get moving here, you'll miss your flight, and I'll have to fight that traffic all over again tomorrow. Let's go, Chief!"
At the Cascade airport, Jim walked with Blair to the departure gate. When they reached gate 35, the friends stood waiting for the boarding call. Turning to Jim, Blair asked, "You sure you'll be okay with your senses while I'm gone, Jim? Everything feels all right, in control? You have my pager number, my cell phone number, and the numbers for the hotel and conference center, right?" He looked up at his partner with worried blue eyes.
Ellison put a hand on his partner's shoulder. "I'm fine, Chief. You're only going to be gone for a week. Don't worry, I'll be careful, okay?"
Blair nodded. "I know... I just feel like I'm running out on you, man. I mean, my number one job is to be your guide, and here I am taking off for Boston..."
Jim interrupted, "Chief, I don't expect you to stay with me 24/7. You have a life, too, and a new career to build. Attending this seminar is a feather in your cap. Go, learn a lot, and enjoy yourself. Okay?"
The younger man studied his friend's eyes, looking for the truth he knew would be revealed there. Finally, he smiled. "Okay, Jim. Thanks, man. I..."
The voice from the speaker announced the boarding of Flight 242 from Cascade to Boston via Denver. Blair picked up his duffel and hoisted it on his shoulder. "Well... I guess I'd better go..."
Jim nodded and smiled. "Looks that way, Chief."
Blair didn't move, just stood still looking up at his partner...his friend and his sentinel. Finally, he took a deep breath and turned toward the boarding gate.
"Chief..." A quiet voice stopped him in his tracks. He turned around, a hopeful look in his eyes.
"I'm gonna miss you, kid..."
Blair dropped his bag and moved toward his friend. When Jim's arms opened to invite him in, Blair stepped gratefully inside, wrapping his own arms around the older man's waist. They stood silently, absorbing the warmth and closeness, together in a place where no words were necessary. Then, Sandburg stepped away without a word, picked up his bag, and turned toward the departure gate. Just before stepping through the entrance, he looked back and whispered, in a voice intended for sentinel hearing alone, "Gonna miss you, too, Jim." He smiled, waved, and disappeared into the tunnel leading to his plane.
The moment Blair vanished from his sight, Jim Ellison felt an unexpected chill, and he shivered, staring at the empty space where he'd last seen Sandburg. His eyes narrowed in confusion as he battled the unexplained, powerful urge to run after Blair and bring him back, a strong feeling that he should not let his guide get on that plane. Taking three steps toward the gate, Jim stopped himself and shook his head. Blair would have a field day teasing him about overdoing the Blessed Protector bit if he went after his friend. C'mon, Ellison. Next thing you know, you'll be calling psychic hot lines... He grinned at the image and turned to leave the terminal.
Simon Banks stared at Jim Ellison as he worked on a report at his computer. Oh, God, please help me get through this. I can't even imagine what I would do if someone came to give me this news about Daryl. I don't have a clue how I would react. How will Jim? Strange how he tended to think about Jim and Blair as he did himself and Daryl. He really wasn't sure exactly how Jim thought of his partner. There wasn't enough age difference for Blair to be his son, but Jim protected him as fiercely as a father would a son. Simon was certain that Jim couldn't love his own flesh and blood any more than he loved Blair. In many ways they were like brothers, sometimes at each other's throats, but always with that sense of family right beneath the surface. Best friends... Definitely. Simon wondered if either man had ever had a true friend before they had found each other. The way they teased, joked, and rough housed sometimes made them seem more like kids than two adult men, but it was beautiful to watch.
Now it was finished.
What the hell would Ellison do without Sandburg? The Jim Ellison that Simon had known before Blair had been the epitome of the tough cop lone wolf. No partner for James Ellison. He worked alone. He lived alone. He had no need for anyone in his life, was totally self-sufficient. No need for closeness, friendship, or commitment. Until a personable, young, offbeat graduate student forced his way into Jim's life, convincing him that he was the only person on the planet who could help Ellison learn to control his runaway senses. The amazing thing had been that the kid was right.
Jim Ellison was a changed man, and he realized it, accepted it, reveled in it. Blair Sandburg coaxed out the best in Jim, helping him keep his tough edge on the job, working with him to expand and control his powerful senses, while softening his heart and his soul. Now, Jim was friendly with his colleagues, even inviting them for poker games at the loft. He joked around, laughed, and actually had fun. And with Sandburg... Simon flashed back over the many facets of Jim Ellison with his partner. Laughing... teasing... gentle touches... fierce hugs... tenderness... protectiveness... utter devotion and love... Simon had never seen anything to compare, and he knew he would never see the likes of Ellison and Sandburg again.
Now, he would never see them again.
Jim Ellison looked up and saw Simon standing silently, watching him. The emotions flickered like shadows across his face, curiosity turning to concern, bewilderment transforming into fear. Simon whispered, knowing only Ellison would be able to hear, "Jim. Please come into my office."
His eyes never leaving Simon's face, Jim pushed back his chair and walked slowly past Simon into his private office. Banks closed the door behind them.
Jim Ellison sank into one of the chairs facing Simon's desk. The tall captain sat down in the remaining chair, pulling it around so he could look at Jim. Jim's eyes were fastened on his face, waiting, almost pleading.
"Jim," Simon said softly, hesitant and unsure.
"Please, Simon. Don't tell me what I think you're about to tell me. Please..." The naked fear in Jim Ellison's eyes was heart wrenching. "Please, no..." he whispered, slowly shaking his head in denial of the truth he had yet to hear spoken, but which he instinctively sensed in his heart.
A part of Ellison was already dying.
Simon Banks closed his own eyes, wishing he could shut out the world and its bitter reality behind those closed lids. He couldn't do this while looking at that fear and that desperation. "I'm sorry, Jim. Oh, God, I am so sorry. I was watching television, catching the weather for tomorrow, when they broke in with an announcement. A jet went down in Colorado during a thunderstorm, up in the mountains immediately after take-off in Denver. Apparently, something went wrong with the guidance and ground avoidance systems when lightening struck the plane. Flight 242. I called the airline for confirmation. Jim, it was Blair's flight." He stopped, forcing himself to open his eyes.
Jim's head was in his hands, his face buried behind trembling fingers. Simon heard him whisper, "Were there...? Did anyone...?"
Banks reached over, placing a comforting hand on Jim's shoulder. "The plane exploded on impact with a mountain, Jim. It was a fireball. No one survived."
Jim's breathing grew labored, coming in long, desperate gasps. His hands clenched into tight fists, as if he could still fight for Blair's safety as he had so many times before. He lifted his head, his mouth gaping, shocked blue eyes staring in disbelief. "No! It can't be true. Blair... Oh, God! I felt it. I knew not to let him go, but I didn't do anything. No! BLAIR!"
He screamed his rage at the world. "This can't be happening! He can't be dead! I won't let him be dead! Blair!" The harsh cries were unearthly, primal, the primitive sounds of a broken sentinel crying out for his lost guide and his own lost soul.
With a strange feeling of detachment, Jim realized that his senses were spinning out of control, but he put forth no effort to battle the downward spiral. All he could hear were his own screams, his own inhuman growls of grief. He felt nothing but the tight vise of overwhelming anguish gripping his heart. His vision flickered in eerie flashes of light and dark, moving from total blackness to shades of ghostly gray. He tasted only the hot, salty tears that flowed down his face in burning rivulets of regret. He slipped from the chair onto the floor by Simon's desk, shaking, his face buried in his hands as he murmured, "Blair... Please, Chief. Don't leave me; I need you. You promised you wouldn't leave me. Please, Blair..." He whispered the litany again and again, endlessly, as if by the invocation, he could conjure the reality.
The desperate words were whispered over and over until Simon was certain his own heart would break. He crouched down beside Jim, wishing desperately he knew some way to bring comfort to his friend. He closed his eyes briefly as a powerful feeling of helplessness washed over him.
There was a soft knock at the door. A moment later, Joel Taggart hesitantly stepped inside. "Simon? Everyone is worried..." He stared at the shaking, broken shell of James Ellison huddled beside the desk.
Simon looked up from his seat on the floor next to Jim. He shook his head.
Taggart mouthed one word, "Sandburg?"
At Banks' slow nod, Joel's shoulders slumped, and tears flooded his kind, brown eyes. Quietly, he closed the door, leaving the two men alone once again.
Time slowed to a crawl. The world had ceased to have meaning for Ellison the moment he stepped into Simon's office. The captain reached out at last and gently rubbed Jim's shoulder. "Jim? Jim? Can you hear me?" He tried to imitate the soft voice that Sandburg used when trying to bring Ellison back from zoning. How did he manage to keep that calming tone when the world was crumbling around him? He did it for Jim's sake; that was the only answer.
"Jim, listen to me. You need to get out of here. Let me take you home." Simon tried again, but he couldn't keep the grief from cracking his voice as he once again tried to imitate Sandburg's tone.
That's all I am, kid. An imitation. Nobody will ever replace you. And God help Ellison now that you're gone. You were his lifeline, weren't you? You could always bring him back, keep him here in the real world. Now you're dead, and Jim's already drowning, Blair. And if frightens me because I'm not sure how to help him.
Ellison shook his head violently and murmured, "Not a home anymore. Not without him. My home's with Blair, Simon. Always with Blair..."
Simon didn't know how to answer. Jim was right. It had been Sandburg who had turned the stark, bare loft into a home. Blair and his artifacts, his books and bright fabrics. The sheer energy and light that was...that had been...Blair Sandburg had transformed Jim's loft from a barren, empty space into a place of warmth, of security, of belonging. He had made it their home. Jim was right; the loft would no longer be a home without Blair.
Ignoring his own urge to slump down beside Jim and weep, Simon tried once more. "You have to go, Jim. You need to rest now. Come on, can you stand up? Let's get you out of here, okay?" Simon stood and helped Ellison get to his feet. Jim's body was stiff, his arms and legs wooden, barely under his control. Simon walked with him to the door, holding onto his arm, offering whatever support he could in his own helplessness.
They stepped slowly out of the office. Through the swirling fog and darkness, Jim was vaguely aware of muffled sobbing. All voices ceased as they passed through the bullpen. He felt a light touch on his arm and turned his head blindly toward the pressure. A voice whispered, "We're all so sorry, Jim. He was... Blair was special to all of us."
Dimly, Jim recognized the voice as Henri's, but he couldn't acknowledge the words of sympathy. Henri was no longer part of his world. Jim's newly formed world consisted only of inky darkness, deafening silence, and the aching void in his soul that had once been filled by the presence of his guide. By Blair.
Simon eased Jim into the elevator and down to the garage. The effort reminded him of the time many years before when he'd attempted to operate a marionette. He remembered struggling clumsily to control the loosely jointed limbs, only to see the brightly colored figure crumple helplessly in a heap when he lowered the supportive strings. Jim no longer had any ability to move on his own, unsupported, without guidance. He walked slowly beside Simon, moving only when Simon moved, his stricken blue eyes shut tightly, his face contorted into a surreal mask of pain and grief. Like that marionette, Simon believed Jim would crumple to the ground if he removed the supportive arm wrapped around him.
At last, they were seated in Simon's car and on their way to the loft.
They rode in heavy silence. Simon glanced at Ellison. Jim's eyes remained closed, as if he no longer cared to look at a world that was cruel enough to go on without Blair Sandburg in it. His lips moved silently, and the tears continued to carve watery paths down his cheeks. I don't know how to help you through this one, Jim. I'll do my best, for Blair's sake and for yours, but I'm not even sure how to begin to ease your grief. I don't think anybody can.
When they reached the loft, Simon parked the car, then went to open the passenger door. Jim did not acknowledge his presence. Banks took his arm and said softly, "C'mon, Jim. Let's go on up, okay?"
Slowly, Jim managed to get out of the car. With Simon helping him, they rode the elevator to the loft. When they reached the front door, Jim stopped, opening his eyes for the first time since he'd been in Simon's office. He reached out, touching the door, his fingers briefly tracing its grainy texture, then let his hand drop weakly to his side. Only a few hours ago, this had been home, the place where his heart belonged, where he had found happiness and contentment at last. Now it was empty, filled only with memories of what was and the intangible, seductive shadows of what could have been.
What should have been...
"Do you have your key?" Simon waited, but there was no indication Jim had heard him. The captain reached into his pocket and removed his own key chain. Finding the spare key Jim had given him, he opened the door.
Immediately, the sentinel was assaulted by a torrent of powerful sensations. Struggling to breathe, gasping for oxygen, and with his muscles no longer able to support his weight, he collapsed to the floor just inside the doorway. His breathing was hard and ragged, and he looked around the apartment in horror before desperately burying his face behind trembling hands.
"Jim! What is it? What's wrong?" Simon panicked, dropping down beside his friend, grabbing his shoulders and trying to force him to meet his eyes. "Talk to me!"
Gasping for air and shaking violently, Jim forced out the words from behind his hands, not knowing, not even caring, if they made sense. "Blair... Everywhere... Senses... I can't control... Blair..." He deserved this onslaught, deserved to feel his friend in each molecule of his body...his mind...his heart. He had allowed Sandburg to board that plane, had ignored the dark feeling of dread and let him get on the plane. He deserved whatever tortures lay ahead of him now, for he had killed that which he loved most. He would not fight the despair and the grief, for he had earned each painful second of the life that was now his.
He had killed Blair Sandburg.
The truth slowly dawned on Simon at last. Dammit! Why hadn't he thought of this reaction? The sentinel was being overwhelmed by the vestiges of his guide that lingered in the loft apartment. He could smell his scent, taste him in the air, feel his presence... Now, what do I try? You've really screwed things up now, Banks! I could sure use some advice here, Sandburg!
"Jim? Listen to me, Jim. Let's try to get you up to your room, all right? Maybe... Maybe it won't seem so strong, so overwhelming, to you up there. How about it, can you get up for me, walk to the stairs?" Simon helped Jim get to his feet, and they began moving slowly toward the steps leading to Jim's room.
Then Ellison stopped, an immovable object as he stared at Blair's room.
The doors stood open, just as Sandburg had left them that morning. Jim hesitated, then pulled away from Simon's grasp. Before the captain could stop him, he was inside.
The sentinel was a living statue of quivering flesh and blood. His wide, pain-filled eyes took in the familiar room...the bookshelves with their dogeared texts and treasured artifacts...the unmade, rumpled bed still bearing the imprint of the small body who had left it that morning...the boxes and papers scattered about...the photos on the table beside the bed. Jim moved to the small futon bed and curled up with his head on the pillow, breathing in the comforting scent that lingered still, letting it fill his lungs, travel through his own body, and touch the memory centers of his mind. Each breath brought pain mixed with regret, and he deserved each bitter moment. Drawing in a shuddering breath, he caressed a curly hair that clung to the pillowcase, letting his sensitive fingers take in every nuance of texture and shape.
Then Jim reached out and removed one of the photos from the table. His fingers stroked the two dimensional image, as though by touching his friend's face in the photo, he could bring it to life again. In the picture, he and Blair stood at the top of a mountain they had hiked with Daryl and Simon last spring. When they reached the summit, Daryl had talked them into posing for his new camera. With their arms around each other, the wind blowing Blair's long hair back, and the green mountains behind them rising into the sapphire sky, Jim and Blair looked totally at peace with life, their places in it, and with each other.
Now, Jim tenderly clasped the photo to his chest, as if holding a dream, closed his eyes and tried to zone. Nothing. He opened his hearing as far as it would go, but he could barely hear Simon moving about in the kitchen. He opened his eyes, looking at the comforter on Blair's bed, trying to discern each individual thread, every distinct color. Nothing. His senses had shut down.
The guide was dead, and so was the sentinel. It seemed appropriate. Poetic justice in the extreme.
His sentinel senses were gone. Back to normal. Wasn't that what he'd always wanted? Not to be different, some freak of nature, but normal, just like everyone else. At least that had been what he'd wanted...until Sandburg. Now an overwhelming sense of loss swept over Ellison as he lay on his partner's bed, surrounded by all he had left of Blair. Helping him gain control of his powerful senses had been Sandburg's purpose in life, his raison d'etre. Now all Blair's work, all his research, his tests, his patience with Jim... Ultimately, it had all been for nothing. No more senses, no more sentinel, no more guide, and no more hope. He couldn't even zone to spare himself the agony of his grief, even if he had wanted to escape his punishment. Ironic isn't it, Chief? I finally get my wish, to be normal, and I'd give anything...everything... to have my senses back again...to have you back again.
Simon entered the small room. He stopped for a moment, looking at the figure on the bed. Jim was curled into himself, a framed photograph clutched to his chest. His eyes remained closed, but Simon could tell by his ragged breathing that he wasn't sleeping. "Jim," he said quietly, "Can I get anything for you? I heated some soup..."
The huddled form didn't move, but Jim's voice emerged, flat and lifeless. "No, Simon, thanks. Right now I don't think I could keep anything down."
Banks walked over to the bookshelves and studied the artifacts displayed there. He reached out and brushed a finger across an ancient shard of pottery. You're everywhere in this place, aren't you, Sandburg? Everywhere Jim turns, he's going to have to face memories of you. With a deep sigh, he turned again to Ellison. "What about Naomi? Do you have any idea how to contact her? I'll be glad to make the call, if you can help me out with a number."
Jim opened his eyes. He rolled over on his back, held the photo out above him, and stared at it. Minutes passed in silence. At last, the lifeless voice responded, "There are arrangements to be made, aren't there? On the refrigerator are some emergency contact numbers. There should be a couple there for Naomi, people who usually know how to reach her."
"Okay," Simon replied. "Let me see what I can do."
"Simon, I should be the one to tell her. I just don't know if I can..." Jim's voice faded out.
"It's okay, Jim. Why don't you let me break the news, then you can talk to her, if you want." Taking Jim's silence as a sign of consent, Simon left the room.
While he waited, Jim continued to stare at the photograph in his hands, looking at Blair's face. So happy, so vibrantly alive. How did it happen, Chief? Did you know the plane was about to explode? You're so afraid of heights. I hope you didn't know. I pray that you were unaware it was all about to end. I can't stand the thought that you were afraid, and I wasn't there. Oh, God, Chief, did you call for me at the end? Did you have time to be frightened and call my name? Oh, Blair... Once again the silent tears began to fall. I always figured we'd be together, buddy, when it was time for one of us to go, that we'd have a chance to say goodbye. I'd get to tell you how much you meant to me. How much I loved you and needed you. Why didn't I get to tell you that at the end, get to hold you and comfort you as you died? You told me once you were afraid to die alone, that you wanted me there to hold you, to help you over to the other side, and I wasn't there. I'm so sorry, Blair. He heard Simon come back into the small bedroom.
"Jim, I made contact at both numbers. The first one, Mrs. Sullivan, said Naomi is in Japan right now, and that she has her number and will have her call us. Hopefully, we'll hear something soon. I didn't tell her why we were calling. I thought that would be better coming from one of us."
He saw Jim nod briefly through his tears. "Th-thanks, Simon. Let me know when you hear."
Simon hesitated, then spoke again, "Jim... Don't you want to come in here for awhile? Have something to eat? It's getting late, and you have to keep up your strength."
Jim laughed, a achingly dry, empty sound. "For what, Simon? What do I have left to keep going for, huh? It's over..."
"Jim, you're still alive! It wasn't you who went down on that plane, dammit! You still have your job, your life... Those things are important. You..."
Ellison rolled off the bed and stood facing Simon, his eyes filled with tears, his voice breaking even as it rose in fury. The anger was directed at himself, at Simon, and at the fates that had allowed the best part of himself to be ripped away without warning, without the chance to prevent it. "That's where you're wrong, Simon. The most important part of my life died on that mountaintop in Colorado!" Jim wheeled around and left the room.
Simon watched from the doorway as Ellison went out into the living area of the loft. He walked around slowly, looking at all the reminders of his partner, at the books, the artifacts, the prints on the walls. Sometimes he tenderly brushed his fingers across them, touching the only physical reminders left to him of the precious young life too quickly taken. When he came to the stereo, Jim hit the play button, and the quiet sound of Native American flutes filled the air with their peaceful, haunting melodies. Jim's head fell to his chest, his eyes closed as he listened to the musical essence that had been Blair.
The phone rang.
Jim heard Simon answer and speak Naomi's name. He tried to focus on the music, desperate not to hear the news of his friend's death yet again. As hard as he tried, the bitter words still slipped through. Plane crashed...exploded...no survivors... identification doubtful... Then he felt Simon's hand on his shoulder.
"Naomi would like to speak with you, Jim. She took it pretty well, considering. Can you...?"
Jim nodded. He owed Blair this much at least. "Naomi...?" He listened.
Simon heard only Jim's side of the conversation, but he was able to piece together what Blair's mother told him. Bless you, Naomi, for trying to make this easier for Jim, even in your own grief.
"I'm so sorry, Naomi. I just wish..."
A pause. "No, I realize there was nothing I could have done. I know... Yes, we'll have a service of some kind, I'm sure. No, I understand..."
Another pause. "He did? He told you that? I loved him, too, Naomi. So very much... You know I'd have given my life..." Silence. "I know he'd have done the same for me, yes. Without hesitation..."
Jim listened again. "No, they're gone. I guess without Blair... I don't think they'll come back, not without him."
He paused, listening. "All right. You, too, Naomi. I'll be in touch about his things. I know possessions aren't important... All right. Yes, I'll cherish them...always. Okay, take care, please. Stay in touch. I'm here if you ever need anything, Naomi. I mean that. And I'm so sorry..." Jim handed the phone back to Simon and sank down onto the couch. He stared at the fireplace, cold and barren, like his life, like his heart.
Simon sat down in a chair and studied Jim's face. If ever a man looked empty, drained of life, like a vessel with all the liquid, poured out of it, that man was Jim Ellison. After long minutes of silence, Simon spoke quietly, "Naomi will come for the service?"
Jim shook his head. "No. You know Naomi. She said she can say her goodbyes in Japan as well as in Cascade. That Blair... He's already gone on. So she won't be here."
Simon hesitated before asking, "Your senses are gone?"
Jim nodded. "When you first told me about...about the accident, they went haywire. I couldn't hear, couldn't see. And when I first entered the loft, it was overwhelming, too much sensory input; they were totally out of control. Then they just vanished."
"Do you think they'll come back?"
"No, I don't. Without Blair, I cannot be a sentinel. I've always known that. He's... He was...my strength, my focus, my control. Without him... No, they won't be back. Because he won't be back. Ever." With the final word caught in the tightness that gripped his throat, Jim crept out onto the balcony to be alone with his grief.
How many times, he wondered, had they come to the balcony for solace, for renewal, both alone and together. It seemed to draw them like a magnet during the worst and the best times of their lives, offering a refuge set aside from the cold realities of life, a place to reflect and to heal. Yet even their private retreat could not help Ellison find peace on this night. He stood overlooking the city, his city, the bright lights laid out like a blanket of stars before him, yet he saw only the blackness and the emptiness. He didn't feel the chill of the breeze, couldn't smell the slight salty tang in the air, and never noticed the muted city sounds rising from the streets below. For Jim Ellison, the world he had known had exploded with a plane on a mountainside in Colorado, and, like that doomed jet and its passengers, his world would never exist again.
The hours passed. Shortly after midnight, Ellison came back into the loft. Simon was on the couch watching an old war movie on television. Jim stood at the doors to the balcony watching as John Wayne flickered in shades of gray across the screen. A dead actor in a colorless film portraying a way of life that was also dead and gone, never to return. "You can go on home, Simon. No need for you to stay."
Simon shook his head. "I don't think you should be alone tonight. I'll be fine right here on the couch."
Jim walked over and stood beside the fireplace. "Simon, really... I think I need to be by myself to deal with this. Please."
Banks studied his face. "I not so sure that's a good idea tonight. You're in shock, in pain..."
"And you're afraid I may do something stupid, right? You're afraid I'll kill myself, and you'll have two funerals to plan. No, only one, because they'll probably never identify Blair's body, right?" Jim's voice rose as he began to pace around the loft. "I'll let you in on a little secret. If I did decide to end it all, it wouldn't matter who's here and who's not; it wouldn't matter if you took away my gun and every belt in my closet, because in my covert ops training, I learned more ways than you can imagine to end a life, including my own. But I won't do that. So go on home, Captain. I'll be here in the morning. I won't go anywhere. It's not what Blair would want. I'll survive, Simon, for Blair. I owe him that."
Simon stood up and stretched. "Only if I have your word..."
Ellison followed him to the door. Simon hesitated, his hand on the knob. "You know you can call me, anytime, Jim..."
Ellison managed a fleeting smile. I know, and I appreciate it. I'll see you tomorrow, Simon."
With the closing of the door, Jim Ellison turned to confront his empty loft and his empty heart.
A week later...
The chapel near the Rainier campus was filled to overflowing, despite the rain that had poured down upon Cascade for the past two days. Even the weather seemed to weep for the loss of one of the city's best and brightest. The rows were crammed with students, professors, and officers from the Cascade Police Department and the Police Academy, all come to pay their final respects to Blair Sandburg.
A photograph of the young man rested on an easel at the front of the chapel. It showed Blair only a few months before, smiling, at ease, content with his life. His cornflower blue eyes sparkled behind the familiar wire framed glasses, and his curly, mahogany hair was loose, flowing to his shoulders and framing his face. A blue handcrafted pottery vase of colorful wild flowers flanked the portrait. No formal florist arrangements, Jim had insisted. Not for Blair.
The music playing was typical Sandburg, a mixture of the best from cultures around the world. The campus chaplain was to lead the ceremony, but the main speakers would be those who knew Sandburg best, his friends and colleagues.
After the guests were seated, Simon entered with Jim Ellison. He had been with his friend all morning, knowing it would be the hardest day of Ellison's life. If he hadn't known Jim's sentinel senses were gone, Banks would have sworn the man was zoned, staring into nothingness, not responding when spoken to, only moving when absolutely necessary. Simon knew that Jim had survived the past week only out of his devotion to Blair. He had taken over every detail of the ceremony, the music, flowers, verses to be read... It was as if by planning his memorial service, Jim Ellison could remain close to Blair Sandburg just a little longer. It was to be his final gift to his friend, the last act he could do for him.
Now, that was all about to end. Within the hour, Jim's last obligation as Blair's Blessed Protector would be complete. It would be over.
The ceremony was a blur to Jim. He was vaguely aware of the chaplain reading some of Blair's favorite poems and speaking of his friend's contributions to the campus and the community of Cascade. When Henri, Joel, and Rafe stood to speak, Jim heard nothing. When two professors who never believed Blair's dissertation fraud speech shared their impressions of the dedicated young student, Jim never heard a word. His eyes never left the portrait before him. He sat motionless, focused only on the beloved face so close to where he was sitting, yet forever too far to reach, to touch.
Then he heard Simon's voice whisper to him, "It's time..."
James Ellison closed his eyes, took a deep breathe, then braced himself for the greatest ordeal of his life. He walked up to stand beside the portrait of his friend and faced the crowd. Then he turned to look again at the image of Blair Sandburg. I'm not the type to put my feelings out in the open for the world to see, you know, so this is for you, kid. There are some things you need to hear, need to know, and this is the time and place to finally say them. I just hope you can hear me. Please, lend me your strength one last time.
He reached out and brushed his fingers across the familiar features of his friend. Jim looked into the blue eyes, so bright and happy, and smiled fleetingly through his tears. Then he spoke, not to the assembled mourners, but to his guide, to Blair. "Chief. You have no idea how hard this is for me. Saying goodbye to you...to us. I don't even know most of the people in this room, but they all knew you. They all respected you, and I know they'll miss you. But..." Jim's voice faltered, then grew stronger, as though deciding to speak the truth and to hell with the consequences. "But I loved you, Blair Sandburg. I don't care who hears it, who judges it, or who reads what into it. It really doesn't matter, does it? No matter what they think, they'll be wrong. They'll never be able to understand what we had together, what we were."
He paused, looked at the portrait, and shook his head. When he spoke again, Jim's voice was tinged with regret. "I loved you, Blair. You turned my life around with the sheer force of your enthusiasm, your brilliance, your energy, and your friendship. Your love for me. No matter what I did, how badly I treated you, you never gave up on us, did you, kid? Even when I forgot, you always knew what it was all about. Friendship. Partnership. Loyalty. Commitment. Love. I know I've apologized before and that you've forgiven me, but I'm so sorry for the time we wasted, the time we spent at each other's throats, instead of remembering what was in our hearts. Oh, God, Chief... What am I supposed to do without you? You knew what you were, what you are, to me, didn't you? I pray that to God that you knew. You were my life...my heart..." No longer able to contain his grief, Jim's voice broke, and the hot tears streamed unchecked down his face. He raised his hand to his lips, then pressed those fingers to Blair's cheek in the portrait. "Blair... Goodbye, Chief."
Simon appeared again at his side, and caught Jim's arm as he stumbled down the aisle to his seat. He kept his hand on that arm throughout the closing prayer and as he made his way blindly out of the chapel to Simon's car.
Eight weeks later...
Joel Taggart knocked on the door to Simon's office. "Got a minute, Captain?"
Banks looked up from the file he was reading. "Sure, Joel, come on in." Taggart closed the door behind him.
"Henri, Rafe, and I... Well, we were wondering... How's Jim? I mean, we keep thinking he'll be back here soon, but when we call or go by, he'll hardly talk to us. Sometimes he won't even answer the door, but we can hear him in there. You're the only one he sees. We're worried, Simon." Joel leaned forward in his chair in concern.
Simon sighed deeply and reclined back in his chair. He closed his eyes and shook his head. "He can't come back, yet, Joel. Frankly, I don't know if Jim will ever make it back."
Confusion lined the face of the other captain in Major Crimes. "Simon, I know how much Blair meant to Jim, but surely he's not giving up on everything, is he? On his career, his friends?"
Leaning forward, Simon shook his head in disagreement. "No, Joel, you're wrong. I don't think any of us ever came close to understanding what Sandburg was to Ellison. I don't think we could understand. What they had was so unique, so special... Anyway, Blair's death has killed Jim, too. He may still be here physically, but everything else about the man is dead."
"Isn't there anything we can do? We can't just sit by and watch him self destruct," Taggart argued.
A knock at the door interrupted Simon's response. Taggart got up and opened the door to Rafe. "Hey, Captain," the young detective said, "There's a couple out here who insist they need to talk with you."
Simon sighed in frustration, closing the file he'd been working on. "Send them on in, Rafe. Joel, you stay. Maybe this will move faster if you're around."
Rafe escorted an older couple in their sixties into Simon's office. After introducing themselves, Mr. and Mrs. Edwards sat in the two chairs across from Simon's desk. Joel leaned against the wall beside the window. He stared out at Jim Ellison's vacant desk, silently wishing there was something...anything...he could do for his friend.
"Captain Banks," Mr. Edwards began, "My wife and I have just returned from an extended trip to the Southwest. When we arrived home, we discovered something that took us by surprise."
Simon leaned across his desk, "Sir, if your home was vandalized during your trip, then you really should be speaking to..."
Mrs. Edwards interrupted impatiently, "Of course our home was not vandalized. We know we have come to the correct department. If you will just listen to my husband, he will explain."
"Of course, I'm sorry, Mrs. Edwards. Please continue," Simon apologized. Just what I need today...a lady with an attitude. With a barely disguised sigh, he settled back in his chair to listen.
The older man went on, "While we were in Colorado, we spent two weeks at a guest ranch. It was a nice place, about an hour from Denver. Anyway, there was this young man there. He looked so familiar to both of us. We even asked him if he was from Cascade, but he didn't seem to want to discuss it. We didn't think any more of the encounter, until we got home a few days ago."
Simon looked at the couple. "And...?"
Mr. Edwards continued, "When we got back, we started going through old newspapers. I always say let's stop the papers, but my wife likes catching up on all the old news. Anyway, we had about two months worth to go through. I'm sitting in the den when I hear her calling me from the porch. I get there and she shows me this." He handed Simon a page from the Cascade Times. "When we read about his past, we realized that we must have seen him before on television and in the papers."
Banks took the paper and stared. It was the write-up about Blair Sandburg's death on Flight 242. "What is this all about, Mr. Edwards?"
The woman took something out of her purse and handed it to Simon. It was a photograph, dated only a few weeks earlier. Simon studied it carefully, with Taggart behind him, looking over his shoulder. "Oh, my God," Simon breathed. "It's Sandburg!"
Taggart and Simon sat alone in the office, the photo and a brochure from High Pines Guest Ranch lying on the desk. Neither man spoke for long minutes. At last, Joel broke the silence. "How can it be? Do you think...?"
Simon shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine here, Joel. I don't have a clue, but we have to find out."
"Do we tell Jim?"
Simon's voice was firm, "No, not on your life. Can you imagine what it would do to him if we raised his hopes, and it wasn't... He's barely managing to keep his head above water as it is. To believe Blair was alive, then to find out... To lose him again would kill him. It almost has already. No, we have to find out on our own. Then, if the impossible is really true, if this is Blair, then we'll tell him. Not before. The fewer people who know about this, the better. We cannot take a chance on Jim finding out until we are certain."
Taggart nodded his agreement. "So, where do we go from here?"
Simon picked up the phone and began dialing the number listed for the guest ranch. "Colorado. We're going to Colorado."
The rented pick-up truck pulled to a stop outside of the building marked 'Office' at the High Pines Guest Ranch at half past four the following afternoon. Simon Banks and Joel Taggart got out, stretching their legs after the long drive from Denver, much of it on narrow mountain roads. Joel took a deep breath. "Just smell that pure air, Simon," he commented with a satisfied smile.
His companion looked at him. "Nice, isn't it? Sometimes I regret living in the city, even though Cascade's air is reasonably clean. But we're not here for the scenery, remember? Let's go see the boss."
Several minutes later, the two detectives found themselves across the desk from Pete Yates, owner of High Pines Ranch. Simon judged him to be about forty-five, with salt and pepper hair, skin the color of tanned leather, and a ready smile. After introductions and handshakes, Pete asked, "So you still think our Cody Bryson could be your Blair Sandburg?"
"As I told you on the phone, the resemblance is remarkable," Simon replied. "Here, take a look at this photo." He held out a picture of Blair taken only weeks before the crash.
Yates took the photo and studied it, his eyes widening, "That's uncanny! If it's not the same man, then it has to be his twin brother."
Taggart smiled, hope lighting his eyes. "What do you know about Bryson? Anything about his background? When did he start work here?"
Pete Yates handed the photo back to Simon. "Not much, I'm afraid. Cody came to us about five weeks ago, I guess. He's never talked much about himself; he did say he had no family. He had an ID, Social Security number, everything identifying him as Cody Bryson."
Simon and Joel exchanged glances. They both knew that false identification could be obtained, with the right connections and the right amount of cash. Yates continued, "He said he had experience around horses, and he's done an excellent job. The foreman is impressed with him. He keeps to himself mostly, but that's not too unusual around here. A lot of these men tend to be loners."
Simon asked, "How do you suggest we arrange to meet him?"
Pete stood up. "Today was Cody's day off, but he'll probably be at supper this evening. Some of the men like to eat in town on their off days, but he's usually around here. Like I said, he keeps to himself. Why don't you go get settled in your cabin, and I'll meet you in the mess hall about 6:30?"
Simon and Joel drove around the rear drive of the ranch looking for cabin #7. *Lucky 7, I hope,* Simon thought as they unloaded their gear. The two bedroom cabin was furnished comfortably in a western motif. Photos of the old west adorned the walls, and brightly colored fabric covered the couch and chairs. After showers and a change of clothes, both men were ready to meet Pete Yates for supper, and hopefully, their first look at Cody Bryson.
They followed signs posted on the path outside their cabin to the dining hall. Pete Yates was already waiting for them out front, sitting in a white porch rocker, his foot tapping to the cheerful beat of the music from inside. "I saw Cody go in about five minutes ago," he commented. "You're just in time."
As they entered, the lively sound of fiddles, guitars, and drums grew louder. "We always have entertainment for supper," Pete said with a grin. "Keeps things lively." He steered them through the serving line where they selected from a wide variety of meats, vegetables, and breads.
After sitting down at one of the long picnic tables covered with red checked oilcloths, Pete leaned across the table to Simon and Joel. "Two tables behind me, about middle ways down."
Taggart and Banks tried not to stare. There, sitting only a few feet away, eating baked beans and barbecue chicken, was a young man in a plaid flannel shirt. Long, curly hair skimmed his shoulders, and his blue eyes sparkled brightly behind the wire framed glasses as he laughed at something said at his table.
Pete noticed the exchanged looks of disbelief that passed between the two men. "I take it that's your missing man," Yates said with a smile.
"No doubt about it," Simon replied, still unable to take his eyes off the young man. "That's Blair Sandburg."
Taggart nodded his agreement, then he looked at Simon questioningly. "Now what?"
Staring at the familiar face, Simon answered, "First, we introduce ourselves to him, see if there's any sign of recognition. Then..." He shrugged. "Then we go get his partner."
After they'd finished their meal, Joel and Simon waited for Sandburg to leave the mess hall first, then they quickly followed. They found the young man standing at the edge of the front porch, looking at the outline of the moonlit mountains rising up over the lake behind the cabins. Simon walked up and stood beside him, feeling inexplicably nervous to be so close to Blair Sandburg. "Beautiful night, isn't it?"
The wide, blue eyes turned to gaze at him, lacking even a trace of recognition. "Sure is. Of course, most nights up here are beautiful." He looked back toward the mountains.
Joel and Simon exchanged puzzled glances, then Joel tried, "You been working here long?"
This time, Sandburg didn't take his eyes off the mountains. "Awhile. It's a good place. Nice people and great scenery." He peered down at his watch in the darkness. "Man, I gotta turn in; I'm going on a sunrise trail ride in the morning. Have a nice visit, gentlemen." With a wave, he was gone.
The two detectives sat down in the rocking chairs without speaking. A few minutes passed, then Simon said, "I saw no indication that he recognized us at all, did you?"
Joel shook his head, "None. What do we do now?"
Simon took off his glasses and rubbed his tired eyes. He'd thought that seeing Sandburg again would bring a great sense of relief. Instead he was more confused than ever. "We get airline reservations to fly to Cascade as soon as possible and bring Jim here. If Sandburg's gonna recognize anyone, it'll be Ellison. Let's go call the airline."
Their flight touched down in Cascade shortly after 3:00 the next afternoon. After checking in at the station, Simon left Joel there and drove to the loft. He was stunned when his friend answered his knock. Although he'd seen Jim almost daily since the crash, the drastic changes in the man never failed to shock Simon. The gaunt figure before him was only a shadow of the man who had once been James Ellison. The weeks spent indoors had touched his skin with the pallor of an invalid, and his lack of appetite had resulted in the loss of at least fifteen pounds. Worst of all was the cold, lifeless expression in the blue eyes once bright with intelligence and determination. If Simon had met his friend unexpectedly on the street, he wasn't sure he would have recognized him.
Without a word, Ellison stepped aside for Simon to enter, closing the door behind them. Nothing physical had changed in the loft since Blair's plane had crashed, yet nothing was the same. The artifacts still decorated the shelves and walls, the small, treasured room under the stairs remained untouched, but the life, the joy, that had been so much a part of this place had vanished.
Well, it's time to bring that back, Simon thought in determination.
Jim slouched down on the couch, staring blankly at the empty fireplace. Simon went into the kitchen and returned with two beers, handing one to his friend. "Jim, we need to talk." He reached into his pocket and withdrew the photo left with him a few days before, but he didn't hand it to Ellison yet.
Jim took a swallow from the bottle. "What's to talk about, Simon? My resignation's on the table." He jerked his head toward the kitchen. "Pick it up on your way out."
Simon glared at him. "You are not reverting back to the bastard you were five years ago, do you hear me? Don't try that routine with me, Ellison. It won't work."
The detective refused to rise to Simon's anger. When he spoke, his voice remained hollow. "Doesn't matter. I won't be back, official resignation or not."
"I'm not asking you back, mister, at least not right now. You and I have a little trip to take first." He waited. Damned if he wasn't going to make Jim put some effort into this conversation.
Finally, the question came. "What trip?" The tone was detached, disinterested.
"To Colorado." Simon took a sip of his beer and waited.
Jim asked bitterly, "Colorado? What the hell is there that I could possibly care about?" Jim rose and walked to the windows, gazing blankly out at the city.
Jim Ellison turned around slowly, staring at Simon as if he had gone insane. "What did you say?"
"I said Blair's in Colorado...alive." He stood and handed Jim the photo. "A couple from Cascade recognized Sandburg at this guest ranch, but they couldn't place exactly who he was. When they asked him if he'd ever lived here, he avoided the question completely." Jim was still standing absolutely still, staring at the photo in his trembling hands. When he didn't respond, Simon continued, "Joel and I flew out day before yesterday. We've got a cabin rented for however long this takes. The owner of the ranch knows the situation and is very cooperative." He paused. "We talked to Sandburg, Jim."
With those words, Ellison came alive, his glowing eyes focused intently on Simon. The police captain felt a rush of gratitude. With the revelation that his partner lived, the lifeless shadow had vanished, and James Ellison had returned. Those eyes asked the question that Jim dared not voice.
"He didn't know us, but it was definitely Sandburg. No doubt about it. It's gotta be amnesia, Jim, nothing else would keep Blair away from you. You know that."
Jim nodded, already moving toward the phone. Simon intercepted him, catching his wrist in mid-air and a huge grin lighting his face. "If you're calling the airline, don't bother. Next flight's tonight at ten, and we've got two reserved seats. Go pack your bag; your partner's waiting."
When Simon returned a few hours later, his bag in his car, he found Ellison prowling the loft like a caged jaguar. Checking his watch every few minutes, Jim was in perpetual motion, checking the appliances, constantly touching Sandburg's artifacts, even vacuuming the floor one last time. At last, in exasperation, Simon grabbed his arm, steering him over to the couch. "For heaven's sake, man, you're going to wear yourself out before we even leave for the airport! Sit down!"
With a mighty sigh, Ellison followed orders, but his fingers drummed continually on the arm of the couch. Simon sat down in a chair, regarding his anxious friend. "You've barely uttered ten words since I told you the news. What's going on, Jim?"
Slowly, the expressive blue eyes looked at Simon. "I'm not sure. I... What if...? Dammit, I feel like I've entered the Twilight Zone here. First, he's dead, and I'm barely hanging on myself. Then Blair's alive, but he doesn't remember anything. What if he never remembers? If he doesn't remember me? I... I'm not sure how I could deal with that."
Simon smiled softly. Despite the confusion and fear in Jim's voice, it was Jim's voice again, for the first time since that horrible day in the bull pen a lifetime ago. Suddenly, Simon felt good again, certain that everything would be all right once more. "Jim, I don't know how I know, but it'll be okay. It may take some time, but Blair will remember you. He could never forget you, not forever. Just be patient with him."
Jim closed his eyes and nodded. "I just want to get there, to see him. See for myself that it's really true."
Simon glanced at his watch. It was almost an hour too soon to depart for the airport, but, what the hell? Anything was better than watching Jim pace ruts in the floor of the loft. Sandburg might want something of his home left to return to. He got to his feet and grasped Jim's arm firmly. "Come on, let's go to the airport. We've got a plane to catch."
It was the middle of the night when the rental jeep pulled up beside cabin #7 at High Pines Guest Ranch. Wearily, Simon tugged out his bag, fumbling for the key in his pocket. Jim was running on pure adrenaline, a bundle of raw nerves and unadulterated energy. As they reached the cabin porch, he stopped, standing perfectly still, head slightly cocked, eyes staring into the darkness.
He's listening...looking...smelling the air, Simon realized in amazement. For Sandburg. That must mean... He remained silent, in awe at the sight of a true sentinel in full alert mode, vigilantly searching for his guide.
After several minutes had passed, Jim remembered Simon's presence beside him. "He's here," the sentinel stated quietly. "Over there, beyond those trees." He gestured to a grove of trees off to their right. Thinking only of finding Blair, Jim started down the steps of their cabin.
Simon grasped his arm. "Jim! It's one in the morning! You can't wake Sandburg up in the middle of the night, not this Sandburg, anyway. He doesn't know who we are. You have to take this slowly, or you'll scare him away."
Ellison debated arguing with his captain or just taking off through the trees to find Blair. At that moment, nothing mattered except being reunited with his guide again. But if that guide no longer realized he was a guide, no longer knew his sentinel...
Jim stared through the trees toward the bunkhouse where Blair slept, unaware that he was even here. He couldn't risk frightening him; Simon was right. It was difficult to remember, but this Blair no longer knew him. He would have to be patient, no matter how difficult that patience might be.
Jim nodded at last, picked up his bag, and entered cabin #7 to attempt to get a few hours sleep.
But sleep eluded him.
After an hour of tossing and turning, Jim pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt and padded through the living area, pausing at Simon's door. The captain snored softly. His running shoes in his hand, Jim quietly left the cabin. He stopped on the porch to slip on his shoes, then slipped into the woods as quietly as a creature of the night.
Four bunkhouses were arranged in a semi-circle around a small recreation area containing a barbecue grill, horseshoe pit, and picnic tables. Jim paused at the edge of the trees, almost in shock at hearing the too-long absent sound of his guide's heart. For a moment, Jim was terrified, afraid that this was some cruel dream, that he would awaken back in the loft, alone, hearing only the deafening silence which had tortured him, punished him unceasingly since the day Blair Sandburg disappeared. But the cool breeze went on blowing, the moon still cast its silver glow, and most miraculous of all, the achingly familiar sound of Blair's heart continued its calming beat in Jim's ears, steadying him...anchoring him...drawing him ever closer.
Helpless to resist the siren call of that treasured heartbeat, Jim crept without a sound up to the front window of the first bunkhouse on the right. Four beds were arranged in the four corners of the room. The silvery moonlight was the only illumination, but Jim's keen sense of sight needed nothing more. As he peered in the window, his heart lurched in his chest; he closed his eyes and steadied himself by bracing against the rough hewn wood of the bunkhouse. When he could breathe again, he gazed back into the cabin.
There, right below the window, lay the peacefully sleeping face of Blair Sandburg.
Mere inches and a pane of glass separated sentinel and guide. Involuntarily, Jim's fingers reached out, touching only cold glass. "Blair," he breathed. "Blair..."
His heart melted at the sight. Sandburg lay curled on his right side, a blanket pulled up to his chin. One hand rested outside the covers, tucked into a loose fist on the pillow. His long, mahogany curls fanned out around his peaceful face, and each soft breath stirred those closest to him with a gentle breeze. His mouth was slightly parted, like a small child's, and his long eyelashes quivered as he dreamed.
Like a moth to a flame, the sentinel was irresistibly drawn to his guide. Silently, Jim removed his shoes again, then turned the doorknob, not surprised to find it unlocked. On this night, not even fate would dare keep him from Blair. He crept inside, checking each of the other three sleepers to be certain they would not soon awaken. Finding their breathing deep and relaxed, he turned his attention entirely toward the bed by the window.
For long minutes, he stood beside that bed, watching Blair breathe. For the moment, that was enough. Every calm inhalation, the swooshing sound of air passing through lungs, and the soft exhalation that followed...each was a cherished miracle of life that Jim Ellison had been resigned never to hear again. He realized that his newly regained senses could easily take him into a zone out, and he had to fight the urge to let it happen. After all, what could be sweeter than to give himself up completely to the precious sounds of life emerging from his partner?
Then Jim realized that it wasn't enough, that he wanted, that he needed, more. As a man parched from thirst yearns only for the cool, life-giving water which will sustain him, Jim yearned to be closer to the one who meant life to him. He quietly knelt down on the braided rug beside the single bed on which Blair lay.
His trembling hand reached out, lightly brushing the feathery curls. At the touch, a sob rose in his throat, and he choked it back, desperate to remain quiet. Oh, Chief... Even his thoughts couldn't adequately express his emotions; no words could be powerful enough to capture the force of the feelings that encompassed him as he softly touched his guide. His hands hovered hesitantly above Blair, longing to caress his hair, his face, to wrap him in his arms and hold him close and feel the reality of his warm life pressed against him.
Jim felt the hot tears burning his cheeks, but he lacked the awareness to wipe them away. Finally, he surrendered to the need to touch his friend. He gently brushed his fingers across the softness of Blair's throat and the sweep of his forehead, moved by the sweet vulnerability that rested beneath his hand, and wincing at the sharp pain in his heart. He had not fully comprehended until this very moment the depth of his love for this young man, the strength of his need for him. The agony of the lonely months without him faded into nothingness, replaced by an aching tenderness that consumed him totally as he once again touched Blair's warm skin.
Time ceased to have any meaning as Jim absorbed his friend's presence, the pure miracle of his return. If Blair never awakened, if time never resumed its designated pace, if the world stopped turning forever, it would have meant less than nothing to Jim Ellison. He would have been content to spend eternity beside the living, breathing form of Blair Sandburg. Now that he had found him, he never wanted to leave.
Eventually, however, he became aware of the faint sounds of the approaching new day. It took a strength of will Jim did not know he possessed to tear himself away from Blair's side before the occupants of the bunkhouse awoke. Without a sound, he rose to his feet, taking one final look at Blair's sleeping face. With a single fingertip, he lightly caressed his lips, barely touching the sensitive skin, and he smiled as they twitched in response. His partner was alive. The amnesia, the mystery of surviving the crash, the long weeks of separation...those could be dealt with later. For now, Blair was alive, they were together, and they would never be parted again; Jim would see to that. This was all that mattered. Silently, Jim slipped out the door and vanished into the forest.
Two hours later, a yawning sentinel emerged from his room to find Simon waiting for him. On his way to the shared bathroom, Jim stopped, trying to read the look etched on his captain's face. "Problem, Simon?"
Simon stared at him for a long moment. "You went to Blair last night, didn't you?"
With a hint of a tender smile, Jim answered, "How'd you know? I thought I was quiet enough when I left not to disturb you."
"I'm a detective, Detective. Remember? You left tracks in the dew, both coming and going. Saw them when I went out to admire the sunrise this morning. I thought you agreed that waking Sandburg in the middle of the night wasn't such a brilliant idea. So why'd you do it?"
Feeling vaguely defensive, Jim said, "I didn't wake him." Jim looked out the front window toward the grove of trees and to the bunkhouses beyond. "I... Simon, I just needed to see him. He didn't even know I was there."
"Did it help?" Banks asked in a soft voice.
Jim nodded, still staring out the window. "Yeah, it did. A lot. I'm ready to deal with everything now. I'm able to deal with it. I'm not sure that I could have before. Not until I saw Blair."
"Your senses? They're back?" Simon's tone made it obvious that he already knew the answer.
Ellison turned away from the window and nodded. "It happened last night on the porch after we arrived. I think I sensed his presence, and suddenly, they just came back on-line." He shrugged, his eyes puzzled. "I don't know how or why; I only know I need my guide to be a sentinel." He looked at Simon and shrugged helplessly. "I need Blair."
Simon chuckled. "In more ways than one, my friend, in more ways than one. Go get showered and ready for breakfast. I've got a feeling it's going to be an interesting day."
Ellison chuckled quietly. "May you live in interesting times," he murmured.
"What?" Simon looked at him curiously.
"An ancient Chinese curse. Sometimes I think a little touch of boredom would be welcome."
"Don't count on it, Jim, at least not anytime soon."
As Ellison emerged from his shower, he focused on the two voices coming from the cabin's front porch. He immediately identified one as Simon, but the other was unfamiliar. The tone of Simon's voice was relaxed, however, so Jim tuned out the conversation and proceeded to towel dry his short hair. After dressing in his jeans and a sweater, he joined the two men on the porch.
"Jim," Simon greeted him, "This is Pete Yates, owner of High Pines." The congenial ranch owner immediately rose and offered his hand to Jim. "Glad to meet you, Detective Ellison. I hope you had a restful night."
Jim didn't need to look at Simon to know his captain had a sarcastic glint in his eye as he said, "If he didn't, it was his own fault, Pete. The cabin is very comfortable."
"Good, I'm glad you've settled in, " Pete commented. "I'm sure you're ready to see Cody today."
Jim's eyes darted to Simon. "Cody?"
Simon explained, "That's the name Blair's been using here, Jim."
Pete said, "Sorry, I forget that's not really his name. Blair will be going with a trail ride today. Maybe that would be a good way to get acquainted. Or would you like me to call him to my office so you can explain all this to him?"
"No," Jim said. "I'd like to be around him first without bringing up anything about his memory or who he really is. Just see if he recognizes me on his own. We can always sit down with him later. What do you think, Simon?"
Simon nodded. "I agree. No sense pushing this. Let's just see what happens on the ride today. I hope this is a beginners' group, Pete. I've ridden a couple of times, but I'm certainly no expert."
Pete grinned. "You'll both be fine on this ride. Nothing fancy, just a two hour ride up into the hills and back. Cody... I mean Blair, won't be the leader, so you shouldn't have trouble finding time to talk to him. Let me know how it goes, okay?" The ranch owner started down the steps. "Breakfast's on. See you two at the mess hall." He waved and headed down the path.
Simon looked at Jim with a wide smile. "Don't know about you, but this mountain air gives me an appetite." He clapped his hands, then rubbed them together. "Let's eat!"
The morning fog still blanketed the ranch when Jim and Simon emerged from the dining hall. Jim had been disappointed not to find Blair eating breakfast, but felt better once Pete explained that the hands ate early so they could get on with their jobs for the day. After breakfast, as they walked down the path toward the barn, Jim said, "You go ahead. I want to change into my boots. I'll be right down."
The first thing Simon saw when he arrived at the large barn was Blair leading out a palomino, a bridle hooked over his left shoulder. Several other guests milled about, discussing their experiences on the ranch and comparing the virtues of the various mounts already saddled and waiting. Before Simon could approach Sandburg, a young couple cornered him, determined to make conversation. As he half listened to their comments about life on the ranch, Simon watched Sandburg as he groomed the horse, cleaned out his hooves, then saddled him for the ride.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw a tall figure emerge from the morning mist. Jim Ellison stood motionless at the crest of the small hill overlooking the barn, his blue eyes fastened intently on his partner.
Simon looked back at Sandburg. He was still tightening the girth on the horses. Just as he completed the task, he looked over the horse's saddle to the top of the hill and stared, mesmerized.
Neither man stirred for long, silent moments. Then, as if choreographed, they both moved slowly toward each other, stopping near Simon, only a few feet apart. The couple talking to him, sensing his disinterest, quickly departed, leaving the tall captain to watch the drama unfolding in front of him.
Blair stared up at Ellison, a confused look in his vivid blue eyes. Jim steadily held his gaze, unflinching, as his friend searched his memory, his heart, for clues to the identity of this stranger to whom he felt inexplicably drawn, as steel to a magnet.
"You know me," Blair stated, no hint of question in his soft voice.
Jim's eyes never left Blair's face. "Yes," he answered, "I know you. Very well."
Blair stood still, considering. "Then you can tell me about myself, who I am."
"I can. Is there somewhere we can talk?" Jim glanced at the small crowd of guests waiting for their ride, their attention now focused on the two of them as they gazed so intently at each other.
Before he could answer, another ranch employee approached Blair. "Everything okay, Cody? We need to get this show on the road."
Blair nodded briefly. "Everything's fine, Nick. I'll be along in a minute. Go ahead and get them started. I'll catch up."
With a curious glance at Jim Ellison, Nick departed and began helping the guests on their mounts. Several minutes later, the group began riding up a trail leading to one of the mountains surrounding the ranch, leaving Simon, Jim, and Blair alone.
The strain in Jim's face was evident. His jaw muscle tightened and released constantly as he struggled to control his emotions. Every instinct born into the sentinel ordered him to reclaim his guide, to grab Blair and hold on, to reestablish their connection, their bond, to take back all that had been stolen from him. Yet, the same instincts also knew that it was necessary to proceed slowly. Blair could sense something of what they had been to each other, that much was obvious, but to rush the reconnection, to try to take back too much too soon, could easily overwhelm the young man. So Jim exercised control and waited for Blair to make the next move.
His partner stood before him, trying to sort through the contradictory emotions waging war within him. The past few months had been filled with uncertainty about himself, and this man had the answers. Yet he feared the revelation.
He felt inexplicably drawn to this tall stranger as he had never been before, but he feared giving the trust he sensed would be required of him. His own body betrayed the conflict. The slight tremor in his hands, the tense set of his mouth, and, most of all, the look in those wide, blue eyes all spoke of a man in turmoil. All spoke to Jim in a language he understood like no other. Even with no memory of who he was, his guide needed him, and Jim responded to that need.
His voice low and reassuring, Jim spoke to Blair, "It's all right. We've got time, all the time you need. Why don't we go on the ride, and we can talk later? It's gonna be okay; there's no rush. You just tell me what you need to do to deal with this, all right? I will never hurt you, I promise. Just let me know what you need. Okay?"
Their eyes remained locked, and Blair nodded. "Thanks." He glanced at Simon, as though he realized for the first time that he was there. "Your horses are over here." Breaking away from the magnetism holding him to Jim, he led the way toward the barn.
After catching up with the rest of the riders, Blair went to work, mixing with the guests, giving tips on horsemanship, explaining the names of the different mountain peaks and creeks along the route. Several times, Jim caught him looking at him intently, as though trying to figure out who Jim Ellison was and what role he had played in his life. Each time, when he realized Jim was watching him, Blair quickly looked away, returning to his responsibilities on the ride.
On their way back to the ranch, Simon asked, "Now what? How are you going to explain all this to him, and exactly how much are you going to try to tell him?"
Jim glanced over at the captain. "I'm going to let him set the pace, Simon. Let him come to me. As for what to tell him, I'm going to explain it all, except for the sentinel part. Somehow, I don't think he's ready to hear that, yet."
Simon chuckled. "You got that right. I think the kid's got enough to deal with here, without throwing in the fact that you're a sentinel, and he's your shaman and guide." They entered the front gate of the ranch, and Blair peeled off from the group ahead of them and rode toward Jim. "Here we go," Simon whispered to Jim.
Blair pulled his chestnut gelding in beside Jim. "I'd like to talk now, if that's okay," he said hesitantly. "I told Nick I needed the afternoon off. He's in charge of our schedules and knows I work a lot on my days off, so it's okay." He glanced over hesitantly at Simon.
"I think I'll leave you two for awhile," Banks said. "I saw a trout stream that has my name on it. Swing by later, if you want to inspect my catch. Might make you jealous, though." He waved back at Ellison as he turned his horse toward the barn. "Good luck," he whispered back, knowing Jim would hear.
They were alone. Blair watched Simon ride away, then turned to Jim. "I know a place we can talk. C'mon." He urged his horse into a canter away from the ranch, and Jim followed his guide.
Soon they were sitting beside a large rock next to a pond fed by a waterfall. The canopy of trees overhead shielded them from the afternoon sun, and the air was cool and damp. Jim felt the tension gradually leave his body, and he relaxed back against the cool stone. He looked over at Blair, unable to take his eyes off him for more than a few moments. The younger man was also leaning back against the boulder, his shoulder only inches from Jim's. His eyes were shut, and there was a half smile touching his lips.
As though he felt Jim's gaze, he said, "I love this spot. Whenever I need some solitude, this is where I come. Like it?" The blue eyes flickered opened, and Blair looked directly into Jim's eyes before turning to watch the water tumbling from the rocks above them.
"It's beautiful. I'm more relaxed already." Jim smiled at a memory. "We sometimes camp at a spot that reminds me of this one."
Blair's eyes cut back over to him. "Tell me."
Jim met those intense blue eyes, holding them with his own. "How much? What do you want to know? How much are you ready to hear?"
In a soft voice, tinged with nervousness, yet laced with hope, Blair whispered, "Everything..."
In a voice laced with wonder and filled with tenderness, Jim began their story, "Your name is Blair..."
He spoke for hours, recalling events from their lives together and separately, both big and small, important and trivial. Occasionally, the young man beside him would interrupt for a question or clarification, but, for the most part, he remained silent. It was almost all he could handle just to listen.
Jim spoke of his past with Naomi, and their vagabond lifestyle. He told of Blair's brilliance, his stellar academic career, and his proposed dissertation on closed societies, feeling a twinge of guilt for leaving out the focus of Blair's entire life, the research on sentinels. He explained how they had become partners, so that Blair could conduct research within the department, and how their partnership had grown into a friendship so deep that neither could imagine life without the other.
Jim wasn't sure how to handle the disastrous days surrounding the premature release of the sentinel dissertation, so he skipped over those events, just explaining that Sandburg had opted to enter the police academy to train to become Jim's permanent partner. Then, in an pain-filled voice, he explained about the conference in Boston, how the plane had gone down leaving Denver, and how he'd spent the past two months believing his friend to be dead. The memories triggered such strong emotions, that his voice broke, and two tears trickled down his chiseled features. He closed his eyes, striving to regain his composure, to finish telling Blair all he needed to know about himself and about them.
Unexpectedly, he felt a warm hand on his arm and a reassuring squeeze, then gentle fingers brushed away his tears. He looked over into the damp blue eyes of his partner, and suddenly, Jim realized that their connection was still there. Somehow, even without his memory, Blair sensed their the strength of their friendship. He still cared. "Thanks, Chief," Jim said softly. "Some of this stuff is... It's just hard, you know?"
Blair nodded. "I think I understand. I just wish I could remember, even part of it all. It's like it's right there at the edge of my memory, just waiting for me to reach out and grab it, but I can't. As I try to get closer, it moves away, always staying too far for me to catch it." He turned pleading blue eyes toward Jim. "Why's it so hard for me to remember? What if I never remember?"
Jim reached out and gently tugged at a long curl. "Then we'll start again, Chief. Together. No matter what happens, it's gonna be okay, I promise. Trust me?" The last two words slipped out before Jim could recall them. What right did he have to ask for Blair's trust so soon? Such a gift must be earned, and the young man beside him had no memory of their history, the history that had made possible the trust of the past. There was no reason to hope that this Blair could trust him as deeply as had the Blair he had lost.
Blair Sandburg gazed into the blue depths of Jim's eyes, searching the soul of this stranger/friend who dared make such promises and ask for the one thing most difficult for him to give. With a deep sigh, he surrendered, resisting no longer, a hopeful smile touching his lips. "Yeah, I trust you. I'm not sure exactly why, but I do. I trust you, Jim."
The older man stared in awe, wondering at the magnitude of the gift he'd been given in this friendship with Blair Sandburg.
Simon looked up from the magazine he was reading as Jim Ellison opened the cabin door. He sat down in a chair across from Simon and smiled. "I take it things went well," Simon commented, glad to see that Ellison appeared relaxed and happy after his afternoon with Sandburg.
"It went better that I actually expected," Jim told him. "I guess I thought it might be more difficult, connecting with Blair, I mean, but it really wasn't. He can't remember a thing, but... I don't know how to explain it, Simon, but there's still something there, a part of our connection that's survived." Jim paused, and he looked at Simon in wonder, "He says he trusts me."
With a knowing smile, Simon answered, "Of course he does. He's still Sandburg, isn't he? Even if he doesn't know it, yet. And Blair Sandburg trusts you enough to follow you to the ends of the earth, Jim. Beyond, if you asked it of him."
When Jim couldn't answer, Simon rose from the couch, tossing his magazine on the coffee table. "I don't know about you, but I'm famished. Let's get ready to go to the mess hall for some chow, cowboy. I get the shower first. Rank hath its privileges, and all."
Jim nodded his assent with a smile. After Simon had disappeared into the bathroom, he leaned back on the couch, eyes closed and a contented smile on his face. He'd accomplished the first step. He'd found his partner and regained at least a part of their bond. Blair trusted him. Knowing that, he could handle anything the fates threw at them.
The days passed by, and spring gradually surrendered to the first traces of summer. Simon had flown back to Cascade a few days after Jim's first meeting with Blair, the detective's application for a leave of absence in hand and his promise to call and keep Simon posted still echoing in his ears. Leaving had not been an easy decision for the captain, but he knew he'd been gone too long already. The conflicting feelings of duty and friendship where Jim Ellison was concerned, and along with him, Blair Sandburg, were not always easy for him to balance. This time, however, duty had to come first.
After Simon's departure, Jim fell into a comfortable pattern with Blair. They had discussed going back to Cascade before Simon departed, but, in the end, decided to remain. It was important to Blair to keep his job, to stay in the only place that held any memories for him. He wasn't yet ready to leave that security and face a world in Cascade that was totally foreign to him.
Secretively, Jim was relieved. As long as they stayed in Colorado, he could keep the hope alive that returning home might provide the catalyst Blair needed to regain his memory. He would keep hoping that Blair's memories would return here, on the ranch, but if they didn't, there was always the dream of Cascade, waiting in the future like a beckoning candle on a dark night.
The days passed...
"Hey, Jim, what's this picture?" Blair pointed to a photo in the album Jim had brought from Cascade. Ellison stood up from kneeling beside the fire and leaned the poker against the rock wall of cabin #7.
Sitting down beside his friend, Jim leaned over to look at the photo, then he chuckled. "That, my friend, is you."
Blair looked at him in disbelief. "But, I'm covered in shaving cream or something."
"Actually, it's Cool Whip, Chief." Jim waited, trying to hide his amusement.
"Okay, I give. Wanna explain why I'm covered from head to toe in sweet, white stuff, and why on earth you made a picture of it? And what's this smudge on the picture?"
"That'd be the Cool Whip I got on the lens from my fingers. See, I'm the one that, shall we say, decorated you." Again, Jim waited.
Blair stared at him, trying to process this newest information about their lives. Finally, he spoke, only one word, "Why?"
Jim laughed, reached over and ruffled his hair. "Because you were there, Chief. Just because you were there. We were both cooking one night, and I was in charge of the pie, lemon meringue. You made some typical Sandburg derogatory comment about the way I applied the Cool Whip, and somehow I managed to flip a little, just a little, mind you, into your hair. One thing led to another and, well, you see the result."
Blair studied the photo in great seriousness. "I take it I dished it out as well as I took it."
"That you did, buddy, that you did. Cool Whip coated cop...not a pretty sight."
"Toss another log on the fire while you're up, Chief." Jim leaned back on his sleeping bag, staring up at the stars. He heard the crackle of sparks as new wood was added to their campfire. Blair stretched out next to him, but he crawled inside his bag to stay warm in the chilly June night.
The companionable silence stretched out so long Jim thought Blair had drifted off to sleep. Then he heard a sleepy voice call to him, "Jim?"
He turned on his side to face his friend. "Yeah, Chief? You okay?"
Blair was on his side facing Ellison. His eyes blinked drowsily as he looked over at Jim. "I was just wondering..."
"Go on, buddy, what's your question?" He smiled reassuringly.
"Why...mmmm...sorry...sleepy, I guess. Why...? I mean, you could head on home, back to your job, your life. No guarantee I'll ever remember, right?"
"Are you asking why I'm staying here, Sandburg? Why I'm waiting around for you to get your memory back? Is that what you need to know?" He waited for Blair's response.
Blair's voice, thick with sleep, whispered, "Yeah, why do you stay?"
"Simple, kid. You're worth waiting for."
Race you back! First one to cross the creek wins," Blair shouted.
Ellison's response was to urge his horse into a gallop, and they were off across the field, running neck and neck. Blair's chestnut pulled slightly ahead, and he glanced over his shoulder at Jim with a victorious glint in his eyes as they approached the creek. With his long hair flowing behind him, a huge smile on his face, and moving as one with his horse, Blair looked so vibrant...so alive...that Jim's heart skipped a beat in wonder. The chestnut horse rose into the air, clearing the small creek easily, and Blair reined him in on the far side.
Laughing aloud, his horse dancing in place, he called out, "Guess I'm the winner, Jim!"
Gazing fondly at the young man, Jim said quietly, "No, Chief, I'm the real winner here, no doubt about it." He spurred his horse across the creek to rejoin his partner and friend once again.
The month since Jim Ellison had arrived at the ranch had been both the most joyous and most challenging of his life. The joy came in being with Blair again, spending their days building new memories and enjoying the astounding friendship which seemed to grow so naturally between them. The challenge came when Jim remembered with stabbing clarity, that this Blair was not the same man who left Cascade. He knew nothing of their connection as sentinel and guide. He shared none of Jim's memories of their life together. As long as they remained here, in the sheltered environment of the ranch, it was too easy to forget the nightmarish months when, in Jim's mind, Blair was dead, to forget to wonder what had really happened to drive Blair's memory from him, to forget the fear that thinking about the future always brought to both their hearts. For although countless hours had been spent talking, as Jim told and retold stories of their experiences together, nothing had triggered a single memory in Blair's mind.
The trail became steeper once the riders crossed Buffalo Creek. Jim's horse was in the lead, with Blair following close behind. Their late afternoon rides had become a favorite ritual. Once Blair's duties were done for the day, they explored the countless trails that crisscrossed High Pines Ranch. It gave them time to enjoy both the beauty of the surrounding countryside and each other's company. It was one of Jim's favorite times to relax and think.
If anything positive had come of the entire experience, Jim reflected, it was his own renewed confidence in his friendship with Blair Sandburg. It had been amazing enough that the two of them had become friends the first time. The tough, stern cop with the military ways and the excitable, long haired graduate student could not have been a more unusual combination, yet their friendship had taken root, grown, and blossomed. Not only once, but twice. The second time without the desperate need of an out of control sentinel for a guide. Here, in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, it was almost as if the horror of the plane crash had never happened, as if Blair had never been ripped from Jim's side, as if his guide had never forgotten all that they were, all they had been.
Almost, but not quite.
There were subtle differences in Blair Sandburg that one who did not know him so well might never have noticed, but which stood out like the towering mountains to Jim Ellison. This Blair was quieter, more subdued. He smiled and laughed like the Blair of Cascade, but not as often nor as quickly as he once did. His interest in everything around him, in life and all the surprises it offered, seemed dimmed. Not entirely gone, but duller, like a light that still glows, but without the same brilliance it once possessed.
The change that worried Jim most, however, was more personal. He had not realized how much he had come to rely on Blair's touch to center him, to keep him anchored, until now. While Blair was friendly, welcoming Jim's friendship and insights into his life, he definitely kept his distance physically, as though he had erected an invisible barrier to keep himself at arm's length. Since the first day they had been together when Blair wiped away Jim's tears, he had not reached out again to touch Jim. While merely being in his guide's presence had been enough, so far, for Jim to keep his sentinel abilities in control, he missed the small touches that they once shared.
Jim turned in his saddle to look around at Blair. The younger man had stopped his horse and was looking back at the view below of the winding creek, the bright wildflowers in bloom, and the sparkling lake in the distance near the ranch. Just as Jim was about to call to him, his hearing picked up an unfamiliar sound in the grass beneath his horse's hooves.
Before he could react to the warning of the rattles, his horse reared high in terror, sending Jim plummeting to the ground. The last thing he remembered was the simultaneous pain in his head as it struck the earth and the sharpness of the snake's fangs as they entered the flesh of his calf through his heavy jeans. He never heard Blair's fearful cry as he rushed toward him.
"Jim! Jim! Oh, my God," Blair dropped to his knees beside his partner as he watched the rattlesnake disappear into the grass. He quickly removed his pocket knife and cut into the leg of Jim's jeans, ripping them up to the knee. He inspected the two puncture marks in the calf. Removing his own shirt, he tore off a long strip from the sleeve and used it as a tourniquet to slow the path of the venom through Jim's body. "I gotta get help for you, Jim, but I can't leave you up here. Please wake up, Jim, please."
When there was no response to his pleading, Blair ran to his saddle and retrieved the canteen looped over the saddle horn. Splashing water onto the remnants of his shirt, Blair gently bathed Jim's pale face, never stopping his murmured words of encouragement. "I need you to wake up for me, buddy. C'mon, Jim, focus on my voice here. You know the drill. Listen only to me, to my words, my voice. It's like coming out of a zone, man. You can do it. Please. Do this for me, okay? Focus on my voice..." The litany continued.
As the sun beat down on his bare back, Blair continued his ministrations, stroking the short cropped hair, bathing his face, protecting Jim from the hot sun with the shade from his own body. After long minutes had passed, he heard a soft moan from the still figure beneath him. "It's okay, Jim. Find the dials, man. Turn them down. Focus on the dials; just a little at a time. That's the way. Listen to my voice, Jim. You're gonna be okay, man. Turn down the pain. Try to wake up, now. I need you to come back to me, Jim. Please come back to me. I need you."
Through the darkness and pain, he heard the familiar, comforting voice, pleading for him to awaken. Blair... Blair needed him. He forced himself to picture the pain dial, as Blair had taught him, and concentrated on turning it down. It worked, and he felt a modicum of control returning at last. Confused blue eyes opened, struggling to focus on the concerned face above him. "Chief?"
"Yeah, buddy, it's me. I'm here. Everything's okay, Jim. Can you control the pain? Find the dial, and turn it on down, man. Follow my voice, and turn down the dial." Blair added more water to his ragged shirt and resumed cooling Jim's hot face.
Forcing the words out past his thick tongue, Jim rasped, "Wha... What happened...?"
Cupping one hand to hold the water and supporting Jim's head carefully with the other, Blair helped him drink a few sips. Then Sandburg took Jim's hand and began wiping the cool rag over his arm. "You had a little run in with the ground, buddy, right about the time the rattlesnake got you. I put a tourniquet on your leg, but I need to get you to the hospital. Fast. I'm worried about how the venom's going to affect your senses. We never did any snake bite tests, you know. Now, do you think you can..."
He never had a chance to finish. Jim's hand grasped his wrist like a vise. "What did you say?" His blue eyes gripped Blair's with the same intensity as his hand held his wrist.
Blair looked confused. "I said I'm worried about the venom and your senses. You might..." His voice trailed off and a look of wonderment filled his eyes. "I remember... You. Cascade. Everything! Jim!"
The broad smile warmed Jim's heart even as he felt the poison working its way through his system. Reaching up, Jim stroked Blair's cheek with his fingers. "I knew you'd make it, Chief. I knew..." His hand fell limply to the ground, and Jim closed his eyes and let the darkness envelope him in its cool embrace. I'm sorry, Blair...so sorry... As he surrendered to it, he heard Blair cry out his name.
Once again, the voice reached to him through the inky blackness, calling for him, coaxing him to listen, to respond. This time, however, the way back seemed so much longer, so much more difficult. The sentinel recognized the voice of his guide, and he tried to listen, to follow that voice up through the darkness and back to reality. I'm trying, Blair. It's just so far. Wait for me...
Blair looked up at the doctor as he entered the hospital room, his eyes challenging the man to even consider asking him to leave. He wasn't leaving Jim's side, at least not until his sentinel was out of danger. My sentinel... How could I have forgotten that? The doctor checked the readouts on the machines hooked up to his patient, spoke a few encouraging words to Blair, then left. Sandburg breathed a sigh of relief. He would prefer to avoid a confrontation with the medical staff at this hospital, especially without Simon to pull the strings of bureaucracy for him. So far they hadn't objected to his remaining with Jim. He hoped it would last.
As soon as the doctor left, Sandburg pulled up the chair once more and settled it as close to Jim as possible. He recaptured the hand he had released while the doctor was checking Jim and began to stroke it soothingly with his thumb. "The doc says you're doing better, Jim. You had one hell of a reaction to the venom, but they've got you stabilized now. We got lucky, y'know. When your horse went back to the ranch without you, Nick knew something was wrong. If he hadn't come looking for us in the Jeep..." Blair shook his head, driving away the frightening thoughts of what might have been.
"You just gotta wake up now. I need you to wake up. Man, you can't do this to me, Jim. I mean, I've just remembered everything, so you can't leave me. Not now! We've got so much to do, man. I gotta finish at the academy, then we'll be partners...real partners. Think of all the bad guys just waiting for us to bust 'em. I mean, Simon's counting on us; you can't let him down. Please wake up, Jim. Please."
The night passed slowly. Sometime during the endless hours, Blair had moved from the chair to sit on the edge of Jim's bed. His voice grew hoarse from the constant murmuring, but he never stopped talking. Jim looked too pale, too still. Jim Ellison was so strong, so vibrant; he was much too vital to be lying motionless in the hospital bed, not speaking, not hearing. Seemingly beyond Blair's reach. The thought terrified him. "I don't mind telling you, man, I'm scared here. I don't know how to help you, Jim. I need you to come back to me. Please..." He reached up and rested his hand on the pale cheek, the fingers of his other hand curled around Jim's. "I wish you could tell me what you need, how to get through... " Blair took a deep breath and let it out in a soft sigh. "I'm getting awfully sleepy here, buddy." He yawned, then moved back to the chair, keeping his fingers threaded through Jim's. Laying his head against Jim's chest, he closed his eyes. "Just gonna rest here a minute, okay? Just...minute..." His breathing grew steady, and he slipped into sleep.
The reassuring voice had stopped. Jim sent out his sense of hearing, searching for the soft, low tones that calmed him but heard nothing. Where was Blair? He thought of the last words that had reached him in the depths. I'm scared... I need you... Come back to me... Once again, he began the struggle through the darkness. His guide's voice had stopped, and the sentinel would do whatever was required to find him again.
Jim felt the weight pressing down on his chest and the drumming of a heartbeat close against his ribs. The darkness was only a foggy gray now, and, with a final, determined effort, he pushed his way through to the light beyond. His eyelids flickered open, and he fought to focus his sight. As his vision cleared, he saw Blair, asleep on his chest, pressed as closely to his sentinel as the small mattress would allow. His long curls fell partially over his face, and he looked like an innocent child asleep and safe in a loved one's arms. Jim smiled at the image.
He reached out with the arm not attached to the IV and brushed the hair away from the sleeping face, leaving his arm around Blair's shoulders under the warmth of his hair. Being careful not to tangle the IV tubes, Jim placed his other hand gently atop Blair's head, cradling it against his chest. He was in no hurry for him to awaken. From the dim glow through the window, he could tell that dawn was approaching, and they would be disturbed soon enough by nurses and doctors beginning their morning routines. For now, he was holding Blair, and that was enough. His destroyed world was whole again, and he was at peace. The sentinel rested.
He wasn't sure how much time had passed when Blair stirred in Jim's arms. "Mmmmm... No... Jim...?"
Instantly alert, Jim whispered, "It's okay, Blair. Shhhh... Easy now. I'm right here." He gently rubbed his back in soothing, long strokes. Then the blue eyes slowly opened, and Blair looked at Jim, blinking sleepily.
"Hey, there," Jim quietly said, continuing the gentle rubbing.
"When'd you wake up?" Blair asked, his voice husky with sleep.
"A little while ago. Figured you needed your sleep, so I've just been resting." Jim switched from the long strokes to gentle circles. He felt Blair sigh in contentment.
"You feeling okay? I was beginning to worry; you wouldn't wake up," Sandburg asked with a frown.
Jim's smile was tender as he saw the concern in Blair's eyes. "I'm fine. A little tired, but fine. And you...? Your memory...?"
"It's all back. I guess when I saw you hurt, it triggered something inside me, a guide's instinct, maybe. I mean, I had to remember about your senses to help you. I don't even know when I remembered; it just happened." Blair closed his eyes again, relaxing into the gentle back rub and the long absent feeling of warmth and safety.
Jim's voice was soft, "Do you remember the plane crash?"
The blue eyes flickered open. "I wasn't on the plane."
Jim's eyes widened with surprise. "What do you mean, you weren't on the plane?"
A slow smile spread across Blair's face. "I had a two hour layover, remember? I had to wait to change planes. I went to the bathroom, but as soon as I walked in the door, this kid, about nineteen or so, started talking to me. Real fast, like he was nervous or something. He stood between me and the door, blocking the way out. I thought it was just the two of us, then I heard footsteps behind me. Before I could turn around, something clobbered me in the back of the head. I was unconscious before I hit the floor. When I woke up, I was in one of the stalls, bleeding, with no idea who I was or where I was." He stopped, thinking about the events of that day.
Jim's hand moved to his hair, running long fingers through the soft curls. "Why didn't you go to security at the airport, Chief? Get help for your injuries?"
Blair said, "Seems stupid now, but I was afraid and so confused. Somehow I thought that I had done something wrong, that I would get in trouble if anyone found me. My pockets were empty...no ID, no money, no possessions. I was scared, Jim. All I wanted was to get out of there. So I did."
Softly, Jim asked, "Where'd you go, Chief? How'd you get the ID for Cody Bryson?"
"A lot of it's kind of a blur, but I ended up on the streets in Denver. I checked into a shelter, and one of the counselors let me sweep up for pay. I met a guy who said he could fix me up with fake ID. I did him a favor, and he came through with the cards."
Jim studied his face carefully. "What kind of favor?"
Blair smiled back at him. "Nothing illegal, buddy, don't worry. He was a real wheeler and dealer who was a little down on his luck. Problem was he'd lost his right arm in a motorcycle accident, so he couldn't write. Seems he didn't want his mother to know what kind of a life he'd been leading, so he asked me to write some letters for him. Without revealing any of his...shady activities. Of course I had to obfuscate, just a little, and not turn him in to the police, but I figured it was for a good cause, right? He called in some favors and got my ID. I left the city a few days later by hitching a ride. I ended up in a truck with some of the hands from the ranch, and they got me the job. Been there ever since."
Jim looked at him in amazement. "So you were never even on that jet?"
"I had both feet on the ground the whole time. Safe and sound. A little forgetful, but safe." A cloud of sadness passed over Blair's face. "I... I talked to Simon after we brought you in here, Jim. He told me what you've been through, thinking I was dead, speaking at my memorial service. I am so sorry you had to hurt like that."
"Shhh..." Jim hushed him, wanting to banish forever the horrible memories of those grief-filled weeks. "Please, Blair, don't... That's in the past. You're alive, you've got your memory back, and we're going to be okay. That's all that I care about. Nothing else matters now." He closed his eyes, concentrating on the feel of the soft hair under his fingers, the warm body nestled close to his, and the welcome weight of Blair's head against his chest.
"Jim?" The whisper brought him from his reverie.
Without opening his eyes, he answered, "Hmmm? What, Chief?"
"I wanna go home."
Jim opened his eyes, just a little, to look at Blair. *Home.* Had there ever been sweeter words? He smiled, bending his head down to kiss the top of the curly head resting beneath his chin. "Soon, Blair. Soon. I promise. Trust me?"
The reply was sentinel soft, but loud enough to reach straight to Jim's heart. "Always, ...forever..."
Return to the Stand Alone Stories
Comments, criticism, suggestions? Please e-mail Jet.
Back to JET's page.
Warning: For those who like to know what they are getting into, this is not a death story, however, it features severe angst and emotional pain for one of the main characters. But I love happy endings... Return to the begining of the story