Author's Notes: Contrary to popular belief, I'm still around. *g* RL just hasn't left much time for writing. The theme of this story is a familiar one, but I hope you enjoy my take on it.
"Being daily swallow'd by men's eyes,
They surfeited with honey and began
To loathe the taste of sweetness, whereof a little
More than a little is by much too much.
So, when he had occasion to be seen,
He was but as the cuckoo is in June,
Heard, not regarded."
--Shakespeare, "Henry the IV"
"Flight 264 for Minneapolis now boarding at Gate 19," the flat androgynous voice blared over the loudspeakers of the bustling Cascade International Airport.
Jim Ellison blinked and glanced at the rolled-up ticket in his hand. Flight 264. That was his plane. He pushed himself upright and picked up his brown carry-on. Walking toward the meandering line that led into the belly of the 727, Jim intentionally kept his mind blank. He didn't want to think. He didn't want to remember. He didn't want to believe.
A small boy ahead of him turned and stuck his tongue out at Jim. The detective looked away, but not without noticing the kid's dark curly hair looked like Blair's.
A willowy redhead dressed in a regulation airline uniform looked at his ticket and smiled, revealing perfect white teeth. "Thank you."
Jim didn't spare her another glance despite the approving glimmer in her dark eyes. Any other time, he might've struck up a conversation and asked for a phone number. But as it was, he barely even noticed her.
His footsteps thudded hollowly on the tunnel's carpeted floor leading to the claustrophobic interior of the plane. Jim turned down his sense of smell, knowing from experience the compression of scents within the confined plane could trigger a coughing fit, or worse. A starched attendant pointed out an aisle seat as his and he stowed his bag in the overhead compartment, then sank into the semi-comfortable chair. The two seats to his left were already occupied by an elderly couple who acted like two kids flying for the first time. He ignored them and leaned his head back against the cushion. He closed his eyes and the dark abyss threatened to drown him in memories, tormenting him with a world that would never be again. A world where Blair ragged him about his penchant for Wonderburgers, teased him about his house rules, and saved his life countless times.
A world where his partner was still alive.
His eyelids flickered open and he swallowed the lump in his throat.
"Are you all right?"
Jim turned to see a pair of concerned milky blue eyes peering at him from behind thick round glass lenses. He tried to smile his reassurance at the older woman, but his lips refused to obey his command. Instead, he shrugged. "I'm okay."
"Is this your first flight, too?" she asked.
"Uh, no, I've flown before." Jim gazed past her, out the window where the crew was tossing luggage onto a conveyer belt leading into the cargo hold.
The balding man beside the woman leaned across her. "This is our first time."
Jim mustered a smile. "There's nothing to worry about."
"Are you going to see family?" the woman asked.
"That's right." Jim didn't even stop to consider he wasn't related to Blair.
"So are we. We're going to see our daughter and her family in Roseville. That's a suburb of St. Paul."
"Have a nice time." Jim turned his attention to the aisle, hoping they'd take his not-so-subtle hint.
The woman began to speak to her husband in a low, sibilant voice. Jim could've easily listened to their conversation, but he tuned down, preferring his own dark thoughts.
A harried couple with two young children entered hesitantly and settled in seats far from Jim's. He breathed a sigh of relief. The boy who'd stuck his tongue out at him sat in the row across and up two. He kept turning around to make faces at Jim, who couldn't force himself to look away from those dark curly locks.
As soon as the woman entered the plane, Jim could smell her expensive perfume. And when she took the seat across the aisle from him, his eyes started burning. Although his sense of smell was turned down, he had to mentally twist the dial down even further. However, the damage had been done and Jim began to cough violently. His lungs rasped and his throat felt on fire.
Someone touched his arm and he focused on the oddly comforting sensation.
"Would you like some water?" the elderly woman next to him asked.
Jim wiped at his tearing eyes and nodded. An open bottle was gently placed in his hand and he drank gratefully. He closed his eyes a moment, waiting to see if the coughing jag was over. It was.
"Thank you," he said hoarsely.
"That's quite all right," the woman said. "You keep the water. I've got more with me. My daughter told me to carry some with us when we traveled even though I think that bottled water is nothing more than a scam. In fact, we saw on one of those news shows, 24 Hours or Sixty Minutes, one of those, that reported some of the bottled water is nothing more than water from someone's kitchen faucet. Can you imagine?"
Her monologue should've bothered Jim, but instead it acted somewhat like Blair's voice, calming him and allowing his body to relax.
"Are you all right now?" she asked.
The blue eyes behind her lenses had a glimmer in them, as if she'd known what affect her voice would have on him.
"Yes, thank you." He eyed her more closely. "For everything."
She patted his arm gently. "You're welcome."
She turned back to her husband but remained silent. Was she a guide? And if so, was her husband a sentinel? Blair would be bouncing with excitement if he were here.
The door was closed and the Fasten Your Seatbelt sign flashed in fire engine red letters. Jim followed the command without thought, and though he kept his eyes on the attendant who explained the intricacies of releasing the seatbelt and how to use seat cushions as flotation devices, his mind was numb. The engines came to life with a muffled roar and the sound rose in intensity as the plane taxied toward the runway. Jim gritted his teeth and lowered his hearing and touch even further.
After what seemed an eternity, the pilot received clearance to take off and the 727 vibrated with power. In less than a minute, the familiar lift pressed Jim back in his seat and his stomach rose in his throat. He hated this part of flying. With a slightly trembling hand, he opened the small overhead air vent and aimed the outlet at his face. A fresh gust of oxygen dissipated his nausea and he kept his gaze on the blinking No Smoking sign, concentrating on the rhythmic pulse of light.
After the plane evened out some minutes later, the pilot's muted voice came over the tinny loudspeakers. "We are now flying at approximately thirty-two thousand feet. If you wish, you may now get up and move around. However, if you are in your seat, we ask that you keep your seat belt on. There may be some turbulence due to a cluster of cumulous clouds we will be flying through, however there is nothing to be concerned about. We will be arriving at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport at approximately 11:35 a.m. local time. Please sit back and enjoy your flight."
"This is so exciting, isn't it?" The older woman's eyes gleamed behind her glasses.
Jim nodded and watched the elderly couple with a more discerning eye. She leaned over her husband's shoulder, her hand on his, and speaking quietly to him. They gazed out the small window at the neat square fields and ribbons of roads below. Jim was tempted to expand his vision, to test how far he could see and to what detail, but knew the experiment would lead to a zone-out without Blair's guidance. And without Blair's voice to lead him out of the fugue, he could possibly die. Shockingly, that prospect didn't seem so terrible.
Jim forced the temptation away -- it would be too easy, and Jim Ellison never took the easy way out. For a few more minutes, he surreptitiously studied the man and woman, noting too many similarities to how he and Blair interacted. He should get their name and address and give them to Blair--
Blair is gone.
Jim pressed his head back and closed his eyes against the dull pain. Once in Minneapolis, he had forty-five minutes to catch the connecting flight to Duluth.
Jim couldn't escape the fact that his best friend and partner was dead. Ten days ago, he'd driven Blair to the airport to join a small group of friends in Duluth. They'd planned to camp in a wilderness area called the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. A few days before Blair was to leave, a particularly nasty flu bug had hit Cascade P.D. And with Joel and Rafe already on vacation, Major Crime was short-handed. Blair insisted on canceling his vacation, but Jim talked him into going since he wasn't even a cop anyway. So Blair had gone and Jim had worked long hours, then had ended up going to Philadelphia to attend a conference.
After numerous delays at the Philadelphia airport, Jim finally arrived home at 12:30 a.m. Saturday morning from the conference and found a number of messages on his answering machine. All were from Cathy, one of Blair's friends who'd gone to Minnesota with him. In the first six messages, she asked that he call her immediately. Her tone had grown more desperate with each message. Finally, the last one gave him the information she hadn't wanted to impart to an answering machine: Blair had drowned in one of the lakes of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. The memorial service was scheduled for Monday in Duluth. The first thing Jim had done was stumble into the bathroom and be violently ill. The second was to arrange a seat on the next flight to Duluth. Then he'd called Simon who had wanted to go with him, but he'd just succumbed to the flu bug and was too sick. Nobody could be spared from Major Crime to accompany Jim. So he was alone.
He'd returned Cathy's call Saturday evening and gave her his flight number and arrival time. She said she'd pick him up at the airport.
Jim's fingers curled into a tight fist. He should've been with Blair. He should've been there to back up his partner. But because he hadn't, he would now have to attend his best friend's funeral.
His vision blurred and he viciously rubbed his eyes. What was he going to do without Blair? Without his guide? Without the only person he'd ever trusted unconditionally? Not that he'd ever told Blair. And now he'd never have the chance. Jim squeezed the bridge of his nose then reached for the airline magazine in the pocket of the seat ahead of him.
He tried to focus on a story about the current popular resort destinations, but his mind kept drifting back to Blair. For over three years he and Sandburg lived together as roommates, friends, and sentinel and guide. Over the past three months, ever since Alex Barnes' intrusion into their lives, Jim had noticed subtle changes in his partner. No longer did Blair's eyes light up with enthusiasm when he and Jim spent time together at the station or during a stakeout. His zealousness for the sentinel stuff had dimmed considerably. Jim couldn't remember the last time Blair had tested one of his senses. Blair's sparkle no longer existed and Jim had hoped the trip to Minnesota would bring back the younger man's passion for life.
Instead it had taken Blair's life. Drowning. Again. But this time Jim hadn't been there to bring him back. Closing his eyes against the sting of tears, Jim tried to sleep, but his mind wouldn't be silenced. And the ache in his chest only expanded.
The International Airport in Minneapolis was larger than Jim expected and he barely had enough time to catch his connecting flight. It was 1:30 local time when he emerged into the relatively small Duluth terminal, wondering if he'd recognize Cathy.
"Excuse me, are you Jim Ellison?"
He glanced at the voice's owner and blinked. Petite and blond-haired, the woman wore tan chinos and a blue knit top that hugged her youthful curves. She gazed at him with haunted blue eyes and a pale complexion.
She nodded and her shoulders slumped. "Yes."
For a split second, Jim wanted to shake her and ask her why she'd let Blair die. He fisted his hands at his sides. "Thanks for picking me up," he said stiffly.
"No problem." She brushed back a few tendrils of sun-lightened hair that dusted her forehead and took a deep breath. "Blair told me all about you. I know how close you two were."
Jim blinked, startled. Because of their recent emotional distance, he didn't think Blair would have talked about him to his friends. His throat closed and he glanced away. After a few moments, he said, "No, I'm sorry. It's just that..." His iron control betrayed him and he studied the throng of travelers over the woman's shoulder.
Cathy pointed to the bag in his hand and asked in a soft voice, "Is that all your luggage?"
"My car's out front."
Jim followed the young woman to a bright red BMW and eyed the expensive car suspiciously.
"It's my mother's," Cathy explained. "My parents live here in Duluth. All of us stayed at their place the night before we, uh, left."
She unlocked the car doors with the press of a button and Jim tossed his bag into the back seat then slid into the front passenger side. The scent of leather was almost overpowering and he quickly dialed down, not wanting a repeat of the coughing episode on the plane. Cathy slipped behind the wheel and brought the engine to life. She eased into the sparse traffic and shifted up to fourth gear on the smooth asphalt road.
Jim concentrated on the scenery, on the deep greens of the trees and grass, and the hills that reminded him of San Francisco. A huge body of water caught his attention. "What's that?"
"Lake Superior," Cathy replied.
If Jim's emotions weren't so scrambled, he would've realized that. "One of the Great Lakes."
Not a question, but Cathy nodded anyway.
Awkward silence stretched between them.
"You didn't have to pick me up," Jim said.
"Blair would've never forgiven me if I didn't." She slanted a glance at him. "I don't know why, but he thought the world of you. He was closer to you than any of us in anthropology who've known him for years." Her tone held a hint of censure.
"We're roommates." A note of defensiveness crept into Jim's voice.
Again, silence pervaded the car's interior, until Cathy said, "Blair and I were almost married four years ago."
Jim's eyes widened in surprise. "What happened?"
Cathy stopped for a red light and looked at Jim. "Did you know his original doctorate was going to be on sentinels?"
Jim's heart thundered in his chest, wondering how much Blair had told her. "Sentinels?"
The light turned green and Cathy eased down on the accelerator. She spoke as she drove, her eyes aimed straight ahead. "People with five enhanced senses who were tribal protectors. But there'd been no documentation on sentinels since the 19th century. Blair was determined to find one of these guardians and prove to the scientific community they still existed in modern day. He was obsessed with his search and he was smart enough to know he couldn't have both a wife and an obsession. He chose the obsession."
An invisible band wrapped around Jim's chest. He tried to take a deep breath, but grief pressed too heavily upon him. Blair had sacrificed so much to find him, then help him. And Jim had taken his presence and assistance for granted all this time. He turned to stare out the window, but all he could see was a kaleidoscope of blurred colors. Closing his eyes, he gripped the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger and squeezed tightly, attempting to stem the hot moisture behind his eyelids.
Did Cathy know he was a sentinel? Or was she only giving him some insight into a part of Blair's life he hadn't known?
After a few moments of silence, Jim said, "You can drop me off at a motel."
"You can stay at the house."
"I'd rather stay at a motel," he said firmly.
Cathy was silent for a long moment then nodded in resignation. "I don't blame you. There's a nice one only a mile or two from my parents' home."
Relieved, Jim said, "Thanks." After a moment, he asked, "What about his mother Naomi? Is she here already?"
The young woman shot him an apologetic look from beneath blonde bangs. "We couldn't find her. Blair had told me where she was before we left, but when I contacted the place, she was gone."
Naomi Sandburg might be flaky and flighty, but she loved her son. When she learned of his death and that she'd missed the funeral...
"Where's Blair going to be buried?" Jim asked, his voice husky.
Startled, Cathy slanted him a confused look. "His body wasn't found."
Shock was followed closely by a bolt of adrenaline that brought Jim upright from his slumped position. "What?"
"His canoe was found floating upside down. There was no sign of Blair anywhere."
"But I thought he was with a group."
Cathy nodded. "Six of us total. We stopped early in the afternoon to soak up some rays on one of the islands. Blair said he wanted to check out a pictograph he saw on the map so he took a canoe by himself. When he didn't come back within a couple of hours, we went looking for him. That's when we found his canoe."
Hope replaced despair. "So no one saw him drown?"
"No. But if he were alive, we would've seen some sign of him." Her gaze pierced Jim. "The authorities dredged the lake, but the only thing they found was his safety vest. They ended the search after forty-eight hours."
"Blair could be alive out there somewhere."
"Have you ever been to the Boundary Waters area?"
Jim shook his head, his mind racing.
Cathy snorted. "It's over a million acres of wilderness area with literally hundreds of lakes with over a thousand miles of canoe routes. You'd be lost in less than an hour."
Impatience vibrated through Jim's voice when he shot back, "I know a little bit about using a compass."
"You'll need a Forest Service permit and I'm not sure if you can get one on such short notice."
"I won't give up until I find Blair or his body."
"Come on, Detective Ellison. How can you expect to find him when fifty wilderness trained rangers couldn't?"
Jim smiled without humor. With his sentinel senses, he would have a better chance of finding his friend than all the trained rangers in the country. "Where was his boat found?"
Cathy shook her head, her expression telling Jim she thought he had gone over the edge. "The BWCA is over two hours away and the area where his canoe was found is a couple days' journey from there."
"By canoe," she admitted reluctantly. "Most of the outfitters have tow services so you might be able to get to the area in less than a day."
"What about an air search?"
"There are too many trees. You'd never spot him even if he was alive." She sighed. "Blair's gone, Detective Ellison. You have to accept that."
"I don't have to accept a damned thing," Jim stated in a low, menacing tone. "I won't believe he's gone until I have tangible proof. Blair wouldn't give up on me."
Jim considered his feelings and wondered if Cathy wasn't right. Any sane person would accept the circumstantial evidence. But Jim couldn't. Wouldn't he know if Blair was dead?
"Tell me where I can rent a car and how to get to the Boundary Waters area."
Cathy glanced at him. "The memorial service is tomorrow morning at nine."
"If I drive there today, I can get started right away in the morning."
She gripped the steering wheel so tightly her knuckles whitened. "Blair loved you, Detective Ellison. The least you could do is attend his service."
Jim's breath caught in his throat. Love? Was that what he and Blair shared? Yes, they were best friends -- or at least, they were before Alex Barnes -- and that Jim would protect Blair with his life was a given, but he'd never been one to dissect his feelings and emotions. Even thinking about the word love made him uncomfortable. Still, what he and Blair shared defied explanation.
"All right," he said reluctantly. "I'll have to use the rest of the day to buy supplies and get organized anyhow. But as soon as the service is over, I'm leaving for this Boundary Waters area."
Cathy's lips thinned but she didn't argue. "There are outfitters that'll get you situated with pretty much everything you'll need. You can call one of them and see if they can get you set up. And maybe they can pull some strings to get you a permit."
Jim nodded, liking that idea. "When exactly did Blair disappear?"
"Tuesday." Cathy suddenly turned into a parking lot. She slipped into a space and shut off the car. "If you're going to do this, you're going to need a good map."
Startled, Jim quickly joined her as they crossed the asphalt and entered the large bookstore. The scent of rich coffee immediately reminded Jim of Simon Banks and his private stock.
Cathy went directly to the maps area and picked one without hesitation. Jim had only a moment to glance at it before she led him to the coffee bar area where she spread the map on a table and leaned over it. She stabbed at one of the numerous blue splotches. "This is where his canoe was found."
Jim gazed down at the map and his eyes widened. Cathy wasn't joking -- there were hundreds of lakes and rivers in the vast area of northern Minnesota and into Canada. For a moment, the task ahead of him seemed hopeless. How would he ever find Blair in that wilderness? Then he mentally kicked himself. He had an advantage, one Blair had helped him hone and perfect.
Cathy dragged her finger down. "This was our jumping off point in the town of Ely."
She opened her purse and dug around a moment as Jim used his sentinel vision to study the map over her shoulder. The lakes were connected either by small streams or portage routes. It'd been a long time since he carried a canoe on his shoulders. He hoped he was up to the task.
He noticed an "I" in the area Blair was lost and put a finger beside it. "What does that mean?"
"It's the designation for a pictograph, pictures painted on the rocks that have been there for hundreds of years." She handed him a business card. "This is where we rented our equipment and bought our permits."
Jim accepted it and glanced down at the name, Northern Outfitters. They had an 800 number. "Thanks."
After marking the lake where Blair had disappeared with a pen, she folded the map and handed it to Jim. "You might want to get a map of Minnesota, too."
Jim nodded and picked one out. The regional section was near by and he found a book on the BWCA so grabbed that, too. There was no one in the cashier's line and he was through quickly then he joined Cathy, who stood by the door with her cell phone to her ear.
As he neared her, she glanced up, and spoke into the phone, "I've got to go, Brad. I love you." She smiled slightly at his reply then snapped the phone closed. "My fiance," she said. "He's a computer programmer in Cascade."
She'd obviously moved on after her break-up with Blair.
"Where's the nearest car rental agency?" Jim asked as they walked back to her car.
"I'll take you there."
Jim nodded and they remained silent as Cathy drove another mile or two before pulling into a Hertz rental agency. The BMW idled as Jim got out then grabbed his bag from the back seat.
Cathy handed him a slip of paper with a hastily written number. "That's my cell phone. Call me when you get a room and I'll bring Blair's stuff over."
"Thanks." Jim tucked the paper into his jacket pocket. "I'll see you later then."
Cathy took a deep breath. "As much as I hope you're right about Blair being alive, I think you're wrong and you'll only be wasting your time looking for him."
"It's my time to waste," Jim said curtly. "Thanks for the ride." He shut the car door and walked toward the entrance without looking back.
Half an hour later, Jim drove away from the rental company in a practical mid-size sedan. He'd asked about motels and the helpful clerk had given him directions to a Super 8 not far away.
After getting a room, Jim sat down on the queen-sized bed and called Cathy to let her know where he was. She promised to be over within the hour. His next phone call was to Simon, who didn't answer at his office or his home. He had probably turned off his ringer so he could get some rest. Jim left him a brief message at his home number, telling him only that he needed more time off. If he was wrong about Blair being alive he didn't want to get Simon's hopes up. His own dashed hopes would be difficult enough.
Then he called Northern Outfitters. Jim explained what he needed and why, and the man recognized Blair's name immediately. He'd remembered Blair not only because of his assumed drowning, but also because of his friendliness. He assured Jim he could tow him close to the area in about five hours, then Jim would have to portage to get to the lake where Blair's canoe was found. He also said he'd get a permit for Jim, and they'd supply him with the lightest weight canoe they had, a tent, sleeping bag, cook kit, utensils, tarp, coffeepot, hatchet, stove, water filter, water bottles, food enough for two people for two weeks, and everything else he'd need, except for the personal items. Jim thanked him for being so accommodating on such short notice and hung up.
There were still various other items Jim had to buy so he dug the local phone book out of the nightstand drawer and looked in the yellow pages for a sporting goods store. He often shopped at REI for camping equipment in Cascade, but Duluth didn't have one. They did, however, have two Gander Mountain stores that appeared to have what he needed. He used the map inserted in the phone book to figure out which one was closest to the motel, and by the time he'd mapped out his route, Cathy arrived.
They exchanged few words as Jim went out to her car and retrieved Blair's customary backpack and his camping backpack that was larger and had an internal frame. She told him where the memorial service was and how to get there, then left.
Since Jim hadn't planned on going on a camping trip, he hadn't brought his usual gear so he spent the remainder of the day shopping. At Gander Mountain he bought a pair of hiking boots, three pairs of boot socks, and a rain poncho. A nearby Target gave him everything else he needed: extra underwear, shorts, two more shirts, a pair of gloves, insect repellent, flashlight with spare batteries, lighter, toiletries, two towels, sunblock, Chapstick, and, most importantly, a first aid kit.
He stopped at a Wonderburger on the way back to his motel and ate more out of necessity than appreciation. By the time he returned to his room, it was nearly seven o'clock. Jim spent the remainder of the evening emptying Blair's big backpack and refilling it with his new purchases, as well as some spare clothes and tennis shoes for Blair. He kept Blair's sleeping bag, too, since he was only getting one from the outfitter.
It was after nine when he finally had everything arranged to his liking. He repacked his suitcase with most of Blair's things that had been in the backpack, except for the younger man's journal, which he set on the nightstand. After brushing his teeth and stripping to his boxers, Jim sat down on the edge of the bed and stared at the journal.
He reached for it but suddenly numbness invaded his fingers. Swallowing hard, he stared at his hands willing his sense of touch to return. But just like when Danny Choi had died, Jim's senses were being affected by his grief. Except he wouldn't -- couldn't -- believe Blair was dead. Danny's death had been difficult, but Blair's was inconceivable.
He sat there until his hands began to tingle and the feeling returned. Then, with only a hint of hesitation, he reached for the journal and started to read.
But ever since I screwed up with Alex Barnes I've felt this awkwardness with Jim that I'd never felt before, even when we first met. I hate it. I feel like I'm losing him. I plan to do some meditating in the quiet of the Boundary Waters. I need to get past this and try to set things right with Jim. Otherwise, I'm afraid I'll lose the only home I ever had. And the best friend I could ever hope to find.
The journal slipped from Jim's nerveless fingers to drop onto the floor. He stared at the book as if it were a poisonous snake. Did Blair believe things were that bad between them that he was considering moving out? Maybe Blair had screwed up by not telling Jim about the female sentinel, but Jim had done his own share of screwing up when he hadn't confided in Blair about his dreams. Or his growing discomfort in his own home. Maybe if they'd both been honest and trusted one another, they wouldn't be at this point where Blair could be dead and Jim adrift for the rest of his life.
Jim wanted to hit something to relieve the ache in his chest, to untie the knots in his gut. He wanted Blair alive and well and grouching about his Wonderburgers. Hell, he'd even start drinking that green glop for breakfast if it would bring Blair back.
Suddenly, the emotional roller coaster Jim had been on all day hit him, and his senses began spiking. A headache stabbed his temples and he wished Blair were there to help ease the near-migraine. But then, if Blair were there, Jim wouldn't be having a problem.
Jim picked up the journal almost reverently and put it in the backpack. He lay awake for a long time until he fell into a restless sleep, only to be awakened by the desk clerk shift change. He glanced at the lighted numerals on his clock radio. 2:10 a.m. He turned onto his back and stared at the ceiling, his sentinel vision having no problem counting the minute cracks in the darkness.
Could Blair still be alive? Or was Jim engaging in his typical form of denial? If he didn't want it to be true, he merely denied its veracity? He'd had a lot of practice with denial.
But this was different. He and Blair were, for want of a better term, "connected" by this sentinel thing. And the friendship thing. After over three years of living together, they would either have to be best friends or worst enemies. Friendship had won out despite them being opposites.
Ever since his Ranger group had perished in a South American jungle, Jim had kept his distance from people. It was easier when he wasn't emotionally invested with people. Until Blair. Then all his personal rules had flown out the door. He let Blair into his loft, then his life, and finally into his heart.
And he'd be damned if he passively accepted his death without any evidence. He'd let Blair down enough over the past few years. If he was alive, Jim vowed he would find him.
The berries looked edible but a little voice inside his head told him they might be poisonous. His stomach growled, reminding him he hadn't eaten anything since... He tipped his head back and tried to remember. Pain lanced through his brain and he gave up trying to recall the last time he'd had food. With grime-encrusted fingers, he plucked a couple of the red berries and popped them into his mouth. The sweet juice quenched his thirst and he reached for more.
Having eaten a couple handfuls of the fruit, he sat on the ground and leaned his head back against the rough bark of an oak tree. He was tired, so tired. His eyelids closed and the faint image of a tall man with piercing blue eyes danced at the periphery of his consciousness. He thought he should know the man but he couldn't remember. As he slipped from wakefulness into slumber, he murmured a single word.
Unable to sleep any longer, Jim rose at five a.m. and showered then dressed in blue jeans and a gray sweatshirt with the Cascade PD logo that he'd found in Blair's things. He walked over to the 24-hour Denny's that was a block away. While he waited for his breakfast, he pulled out the BWCA book he'd bought at the bookstore and began to read. When his food arrived, he ate while he read. The book gave him insights of what to expect in the wilderness area, as well as maps of interconnecting lakes and trails.
Back in his room, he read some more then examined the map again. By that time, it was nearly eight so he loaded everything into the rental car except the dark pinstripe suit he'd brought with him for Blair's funeral. Except it really wasn't a funeral. Jim refused to believe his friend was dead. He wished he hadn't told Cathy he'd attend the farce. Damn it, he could be in Ely by now and on his way to the lake to search for Blair.
After donning the suit, Jim used the bathroom mirror to fix his tie then simply stared at the face staring back at him. Dark smudges lay beneath his eyes and his face looked paler than usual. Did he really believe Blair could rise from the dead twice? Or was he only grabbing at straws? If Blair were truly gone, Jim would have to accept that fact sooner or later.
Jim clenched his jaw and turned away from the stark face in the mirror. He placed the blue jeans and sweatshirt he'd been wearing into a Target shopping bag, as well as his Jags cap that he'd also found in Blair's backpack. The younger man had obviously borrowed a few things without asking him. Yet it was such a typical Blair thing to do that a flash of poignancy almost undid Jim's control.
After checking out of his room, Jim drove across town to the Peace Garden Funeral Home. As he parked, a shiny black stretch limousine pulled up to the entrance where family members usually parked. Jim got out of his car, locked it and waited a moment to see who emerged from the limo.
He recognized Cathy immediately despite her wearing a somber black skirt and jacket and having her hair pinned up. Also in the limousine was a middle-aged couple, obviously affluent, and two young men about Cathy's age who Jim recognized as Blair's friends. They must have been staying at Cathy's home after returning from the ill-fated canoe trip.
"Detective Ellison," Cathy called to him.
Taking a deep breath, Jim joined them and Cathy introduced her father.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Miller." Jim shook the man's hand. He had a firm, politician handshake.
"I only wish the circumstances weren't so tragic," Miller said. He put a hand on the woman who was obviously Cathy's mother. "Detective Ellison, this is my wife Sondra."
"Mrs. Miller," Jim said with a somber nod.
The woman appeared to be in her fifties but was tanned and fit, like she spent time outside walking or playing tennis. He couldn't imagine her and Naomi getting along if Blair and Cathy had married.
"Have you met Roger Darling and Sam Waters?" Cathy asked, motioning to the two younger men.
Jim eyed them. "I don't know if we've met, but I've seen you both with Blair."
Roger, a redhead with black-rimmed glasses, nodded. "You stopped by his office one day when I was there."
"I was in his class a few years ago," Sam said. "He was the one who got me turned on to anthropology."
Jim smiled. "Blair has a way of getting people excited about what he loves."
"Don't you mean, he 'had a way', Detective?" Miller asked.
"I won't believe he's dead until I see his body," Jim stated firmly.
"Surely you can't think he's still alive out there?" Sondra Miller asked, shocked.
"Blair's the most resourceful person I know. I think it'll take more than a spill in the lake to kill him."
"But we looked everywhere," Sam said. "Us and the rangers. We never saw any sign that he made it to one of the islands."
"Why don't we go inside?" Cathy interjected, obviously trying to avert a heated disagreement.
Mr. and Mrs. Miller led the small contingent into the funeral home. The large vestibule echoed with the sound of footsteps and a tall gaunt man dressed in a gray suit greeted them. Jim was introduced to him then Cathy led Jim away while the director talked with the other guests in a somber voice.
She took Jim to a large viewing room with chairs set up facing an easel. On the easel was a picture of a younger Blair and it was surrounded by flowers. The floral scent overwhelmed Jim and he began to sneeze. He tugged his handkerchief out of his pocket and covered his nose and mouth. Finally the sneezing fit ended.
"Are you all right?" Cathy asked in a low voice.
"Allergic to flowers," he answered. He motioned to the back of the room. "I'll sit in the last row. You don't have to hold my hand."
The words came out sharper than he'd intended but seeing Blair's picture had triggered a headache, as well as soul-deep sorrow.
Jim moved to a chair in the back, as far away from the flowers and Blair's picture as he could. By nine, the room was only a quarter full of mourners, but the funeral director began the service. He read from the Bible: To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to puck up that which is planted.
Jim counted the tiles in the ceiling.
The director led them in song: Amazing grace, how sweet thou art, that saved a wretch like me.
Jim studied a stained glass window with a picture of a wooden cross covered with vining flowers and angels floating above it. And he wondered if Cathy had told the director Blair was Jewish.
The director said a prayer for the soul of Blair Sandburg: O Lord, we ask that You take our brother Blair to Your side in heaven where he will be at peace for all eternity.
Jim slipped out of his chair and hurried out of the funeral home. Outside he jerked off his jacket and frantically loosened the tie around his neck. He took deep draughts of air to ease the tightness in his chest and the burn in his throat. He lowered himself to the stoop and rested his elbows on his knees. Tilting his head back, he gazed at the unbroken blue sky. A bird cooed and Jim recognized the sound of a mourning dove. He spotted the clumsy bird on a power line across the street. The dove cooed again and the sound echoed Jim's grief.
Moisture stung his eyes. Could Blair really be dead? Everyone thought so. Why couldn't he accept it?
Unnoticed a single trail of moisture tracked down his cheek. He didn't know how long he sat there until his hearing picked up the sounds of people approaching.
Jim's expression solidified into determination and he stood. He'd say farewell to Cathy and the others, but not Blair. No, not yet. Not until he knew for certain he was gone.
His stomach cramped and he curled into a fetal position, but the sharp pains only increased in intensity. Rolling to his knees, he vomited. His throat spasmed and cold sweat formed rivulets down his pale face. After he'd emptied the contents of his stomach, he flopped over and lay as weak as a newborn baby. In his scrambled brain, he knew something was missing. The last time he'd been this sick, he hadn't been alone. Someone had held his head up while he'd puked his guts out.
Who had been with him? A spurt of anger caused him to shout, "Where the hell are you?"
The brief outburst drained his remaining strength and he lay back, exhausted down to his marrow. When was the last time he'd slept for more than two or three hours? When was the last time he'd been clean? Where did he come from? Or did he live here in this wilderness?
No, someplace else. Someplace where he wasn't alone. Someplace where he felt safe.
He closed his eyes and the leaves' rustlings lulled him to sleep.
Two and a half hours after leaving the funeral home Jim arrived at the outskirts of Ely. He'd stopped at the first rest area out of Duluth to change out of his suit and into his jeans and the sweatshirt. If he hadn't been so worried about Blair, he would've enjoyed the scenic drive with thick stands of hardwood trees on either side of the road and the wild animals he'd glimpsed, including a moose.
He stopped at a gas station and asked the attendant how to get to Northern Outfitters. Jim didn't have any trouble finding the single building a few miles outside of Ely and he parked the car in the dirt lot.
Jim got out of the vehicle and turned around in a circle, seeing only trees and sky. There was no sign of civilization except for the building and its parking lot. The lakeshore was a hundred yards away with half a dozen canoes with identification numbers on them lying on their sides on the shore. A large motorboat was tied off at the dock.
Anxious to get started, Jim strode to the building and entered. A sturdy woman in her early fifties dressed in faded jeans and a blouse with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows was behind the counter. Her dark hair was short, above her collar, and her fingernails blunt, but her expression was open and friendly like many people who lived in sparsely populated areas.
"What can I do for you?" she asked with a smile.
"Jim Ellison. I called yesterday."
Her smile faded. "You're Blair Sandburg's friend. You talked to John, my husband. My name's Lois Lane."
Her grip was amazingly strong.
"Nice to meet you," Jim said and arched an eyebrow. "Lois Lane?"
"I almost didn't marry John because of his name. And believe me, since that time, I've heard every Superman joke in the book and then some."
Jim couldn't help but smile.
"Blair mentioned you. Said you were a detective," Lois said, eyeing Jim closely. "I could tell he thought the world of you."
He cleared his throat and simply said, "He's a good friend."
She dug out an invoice with the listing of his supplies and charges and turned it so Jim could read it. He scanned the list, noting everything they'd talked about was on it, including his permit. The many digit total didn't faze him. He pulled out a credit card from his wallet and handed it to her.
As she ran the charge through his card, Jim asked, "Did Blair seem nervous or preoccupied about anything?"
"No, just excited to be going out." Lois' eyes narrowed. "What're you getting at?"
Jim shrugged. "Maybe it's just a cop's paranoia."
Lois was quiet as she set the charge slip in front of Jim to sign. "He did seem a mite interested in a couple of women who were in here picking up a small motor boat."
Jim signed the slip and gave it back to Lois. "Did he know them?"
"I don't think so. I think he was just admiring them, like a young man does with a pretty woman."
Jim had to admit Lois' conjecture might be right. But, still, he wanted to make sure he covered all the bases. "Do you remember their names?"
"Oh, yes, they're regulars. Have been coming up here for the past five years. Mary and Linda King. Sisters."
The names didn't ring a bell for Jim. "Did they leave the same day as Blair and his group?"
"Yep. But they're still out there. They always stay out for a month."
"Is that common, to be up here for that long of time?"
Lois shrugged. "No, but they've always done it."
A man wearing a plaid shirt and jeans entered through the door behind the counter. He nodded at Jim then glanced at the woman.
"This is Jim Ellison, Blair's friend who called yesterday," Lois said. "Mr. Ellison, this is my husband John."
Jim shook the man's hand. "I really appreciate your help, Mr. Lane."
"Call me John. Fact is Mondays tend to be a little slow so it wasn't any trouble at all," the man said with an affable smile. His expression sobered. "I'm surprised you're going out there after what happened to your friend."
"To be honest, I'm hoping to find him."
John and Lois exchanged a concerned look, and it was Lois who spoke. "Are you sure you want to do that, Mr. Ellison? His body's been out there almost a week now." Her tone was gentle, like a mother explaining something unpleasant to her child.
"He's been out there almost a week," Jim corrected.
"You're thinking he's still alive?" John asked incredulously.
"Why didn't they find his body?"
"They looked for him for over two days and couldn't find anything that might make a person think he'd still be alive."
"But they don't know Blair like I do."
There was silence for a long moment then Lois asked, "You really think there's a chance?"
Jim nodded without hesitation.
"Well, then, we'd best get moving. The canoe's already tied to the boat," John said. "I'll get your two packs while you get what you need from your car."
Jim started to follow John out but was stopped by Lois. "Mr. Ellison, don't forget this." She held up a square of paper.
Jim returned to take it from her. His permit. "Thanks."
He folded it on the way to his rental car and placed it in the side pocket of his backpack, then carried the pack down to the shore. John helped Jim stow his three packs in the canoe, tying the straps of each one around one of the canoe's crossbars. That way, if Jim capsized, he wouldn't lose his equipment. They climbed into the motorboat and John thrust an orange vest at Jim.
The sentinel donned the life preserver while John pulled on his own.
"Good luck, Mr. Ellison," Lois said from the dock.
"Thanks," Jim said with a slight smile.
Jim untied the boat from the dock and John put the motor in gear, moving away from the dock slowly. Lois waved, then returned to the store.
Once they were away from the shore, John increased their speed although with a 25 horsepower motor, it wasn't nearly as fast as Jim would've liked. But there was no way around federal regulations. Jim was just grateful John could help him out on such short notice.
Jim gazed outward across the glass-like surface of the blue lake. The boat's motor produced a soothing buzz and Jim enjoyed the fresh air in his face and cool mist on his skin. Although he doubted Blair was this close to their jumping off point, he dialed up his sight a notch and searched the land masses for his missing partner.
Some twenty minutes later, after going through a narrow inlet into another lake, John thrust a map at him. He stabbed a point amidst the shadings of blue and green. "We're here. You ever navigate across water?"
"It's been awhile," Jim admitted.
"Follow our course on the map and read the shapes of the islands and bays," John shouted above the engine's noise.
Jim used his enhanced vision to do as John said. They'd just come out of Moose Lake to enter the south arm of Knife Lake. He glanced up at the tree-lined shorelines, able to distinguish the shapes of the islands and finding them on the map. A wide inlet opened up and he found the odd-shaped bay on the map. As John handled the boat with an easy hand, Jim divided his attention between navigation and watching for Blair.
Nearly five hours later, as the sun dipped toward the western horizon, they'd traversed the length of Knife Lake and entered the next body of water. In the distance they covered, Jim had only seen four other people in two separate canoes.
"See that peninsula straight ahead?" John called out.
Jim focused on the one he pointed at and nodded.
"That's as far as I can take you. You have a portage to get to the next lake, where your friend supposedly drowned. I'll take you in at the trailhead."
Jim fought the impulse to turn up his hearing, to listen for Blair's voice or heartbeat, but he clamped down on the dial. He didn't dare risk opening his hearing and zoning in front of John.
John cut the motor and the remaining impetus pushed the boat towards shore. Stiff from the long boat trip, Jim jumped out onto the gravelly beach without his usual grace and pulled the boat's prow onto dry land. Working together, Jim and John got the canoe, along with Jim's supplies, onto dry land. John untied the rope that attached the canoe to the boat.
John pointed toward the narrow trail. "That's your portage route. It's about 100 rods -- a quarter of a mile or so -- then you've got a big lake filled with islands. If your friend's alive, he's either going to be on one of those islands or on one of the peninsulas surrounding the lake." The outfitter shook his head. "Even if he is alive, I don't know how you're going to find him in all of that."
Jim's jaw locked in determination. "If he's alive, I'll find him."
John shook his head but didn't comment. "Do you want some help setting up camp?"
"Not unless you plan on spending the night."
John shook his head. "I'll head back home. Should get there by midnight." He held out his hand. "Good luck."
"Thanks," Jim said, shaking his hand. "And thanks again for all your help."
Once John was in the boat, Jim pushed it back into the water, getting his Nikes damp. Jim stood and watched John until the man turned and lifted a hand in farewell, then the sentinel used the primitive latrine that was some fifty yards inland.
By the time Jim returned to start hauling the packs to his campsite, even his sentinel hearing could no longer hear the boat engine. In fact, the only sounds were a loon's call, insects buzzing and chirping, and the lonely keen of a hawk or eagle. Jim had the tent up and the sleeping bag placed inside it as the sun set. It wasn't long before Jim was left in darkness untouched by manmade lights. Only the stars and a crescent moon lit the night, and he dialed up his sight to compensate.
He went through the packs the Lanes had made up for him and pulled out a can of soup and some noodles for his dinner. As water boiled on the little propane stove, Jim finished checking his supplies and was pleased to see a collapsible fishing rod and some tackle buried in the bag. Although this was far from a pleasure trip, Jim might want to supplement his food supply with fresh fish if his search stretched too long. Of course, there was the little detail of not having a license... until he found one of those with the tackle. Shaking his head, Jim set the fishing items aside.
Jim ate his simple but abundant dinner listening to the melodic call of the loons. Coyotes started howling, and the rustle of small animals -- squirrels, mice, and rabbits -- added their sounds to nature's symphony. Jim could easily see his roommate meditating in this natural environment, with no cars or trains or sirens breaking the fragile balance.
If only this was a vacation -- just sentinel and guide taking some down time to rejuvenate and reconnect. In fact, this was exactly what they needed after the fiasco with Alex Barnes, except Jim realized with a startling flash of brutal honesty that he wouldn't have taken the time if Blair had asked him. It took something like Blair's disappearance to make him realize how much he had to lose by being so pigheaded about the whole spiritual side of sentinels and their guides.
Jim wished this were all a bad dream; that he'd wake up and be on some lousy stakeout with his partner, who was expounding on some tribe from some unpronounceable country. He dropped his head back to gaze at the star-filled sky. When he and Blair had gone camping and slept under the stars, Blair would often make a wish then go on to lecture Jim about the myths and legends associated with the constellations. Often times, Jim would half-zone on his guide's words, enjoying the calming sensation of his voice.
But tonight the stars held the coldness of diamonds. They didn't care about wishes or what stories people made up about them. Or that Jim's partner and best friend was missing and presumed dead.
"Where are you, Chief?" Jim whispered into the night.
Only a nighthawk's plaintive cry high above him answered him.
Wanting to get an early start in the morning, Jim readied the camp for the night. He hung the canvas pack holding his food on a stout limb some twenty-five feet above the ground, tying the rope off around the tree's bole. That way the black bears wouldn't get his food.
With a last measuring look around the site to make sure everything was taken care of, he removed his shoes in front of the zippered tent door. Inside the tent, Jim stripped to his t-shirt and boxers then slid into his sleeping bag.
For a long time Jim listened to the familiar yet vaguely disconcerting night sounds until he finally succumbed to sleep.
The mornings were always the worst. The cold seeped into his bones and his body grew stiff from sleeping on the hard ground. He sat up carefully and searched his surroundings, desperately seeking something but unsure of what he sought. His nearly numb fingers crept to his forehead and he winced. Cautiously, he traced the gouge on the side of his head and felt the misshapen lump beneath the surface. How had he been hurt?
A remembered explosion startled him and he rolled to the ground, his palms pressed against his ears. He recalled blinding pain then the shock of cold water all around him, swallowing him.
He scrambled into the brush and drew his knees to his chest. A small whimper escaped his lips and he pressed his knuckles against his mouth. If they found him, they'd hurt him.
He listened so hard his ears ached. He didn't hear anything but the leaves rustling above him and the occasional call of a gray jay. He waited as the sun grew higher and higher, then cautiously raised his head above the brush.
He stood and stretched warily, barely suppressing a groan of agony. He held out his scratched and filthy hands and wondered why they didn't look familiar. Glancing down at his tattered clothes, bewilderment brought a frown to his face. Who was he? What was he doing here? Why was he alone?
Again, an image of a tall, blue-eyed man flashed through his mind, but this time the man lay as still as death on the ground. Blood flowed from a wound on his head. Blood covered his face. Blood meandered across the dirty street pavement.
His heart pounded like a bass drum against his ribs and he struggled to breathe. Alone. Always. Forever.
Don't stay in one place. Keep moving.
The warning came from somewhere deep within him. Putting one foot in front of the other, he continued down the trail.
The midday sun beat down on Jim's shoulders and brought sweat droplets to his forehead. His sunglasses were perched on his nose and he'd turned down his vision, but he still squinted against the brightness. His shoulders ached from carrying his canoe and packs across the quarter-mile portage that morning. He'd had to make two trips -- the first with the canoe perched on his shoulders and the lightest backpack against his back. The second trip had been for his equipment and food pack. Then he'd gotten onto the water and the paddling reminded him how long it had been since he'd done grueling physical labor for an extended period of time.
The bothersome mosquitoes were worse than he'd imagined. The mosquito repellent, as well as the sunblock, irritated his skin but the alternative was to be eaten alive by the swarms of blood-sucking insects and getting a bad sunburn. So Jim tolerated the irritation and ignored the rash on his legs and arms.
The heat and humidity didn't help. He'd changed into a pair of cotton jersey shorts and a tank top after the portage but kept his hiking boots and socks on. Despite the cool clothing, he sweated heavily. He drank water, lots of it, but he couldn't seem to quench his thirst. With this intensity of heat, it usually took a severe storm to break the heat wave. And in this part of the country, he'd have to be wary of tornadoes, too.
The canoe cut smoothly across the water's surface and Jim relaxed marginally with the rhythmic motion of paddling. He was careful when using his senses, afraid he'd zone, but he was able to dial up both hearing and seeing above normal and keep them at that level without serious strain. Without the sounds of civilization, there was little chance of a loud sound overloading his system or a bright flash to blind him.
Coming around a jut of one of the many islands John told him about, Jim came within ten feet of a blue heron. The large water bird flapped its wings and its gangly body lifted gracefully into the air. It glided only five feet above the water and disappeared around the other side of the island. A loon called and he spied the bird a hundred yards away, its squat body low in the water. A moment later, it dived and disappeared from view. It reappeared fifty feet closer to Jim's canoe and threw back its head to warble its haunting song.
Throughout the afternoon, the loon followed Jim, moving closer and closer until it suddenly surfaced ten feet from the canoe. Despite Jim's fears for his partner, the bird's antics drew a smile from him.
It was four thirty when he brought in his oar and laid it across his bare thighs. Pulling out his map, he studied it and looked around, pinpointing his location. This was the area Cathy had said Blair's canoe was found. Expanding his sight carefully, he scrutinized the land masses on either side of him. He didn't spot anything but a few rabbits and squirrels, but did see a trail going up from the shoreline on the island nearest him.
He paddled in and pulled his canoe onto dry land. Since he had a few hours left before sunset, Jim decided to search the island before setting up his tent. He followed the trail, the path easily traversed with his hiking boots on. Turning up his sight and hearing as he hiked, he was careful not to zone on the gentle lapping of the water against the shore. He paused often to sniff the air, but there was nothing beyond detritus, damp dirt, the occasional wildflower, and the gamy scent of live animals and their droppings. The island was large, but not overly so and he was able to search it before the sun touched the horizon. Dejected, he prepared his camp.
Later, with a can of stew heating over the stove, Jim pored over the map, planning his strategy for searching the area. He took a pencil and put an X through the island he was on. He'd have to keep track of those he searched or he'd be duplicating his efforts and wasting valuable time.
As he ate his meal, he gazed out across the water, the lake where Blair had supposedly drowned. A ripple of unease cut through Jim. What if he was wrong? What if Blair's body lay at the bottom of the lake only a few hundred yards away?
Jim quashed his doubts and with a single-minded determination, readied the camp for the night.
After an uneventful but restless night, Jim rose early again. He lowered his food pack from the tree limb he'd hung it from the evening before and grabbed a handful of Cheerios from a plastic bag. Munching on those, he filled the coffeepot and while it brewed, he shaved and washed up.
The loon that had befriended him the day before greeted him with a startling call.
Jim couldn't help but grin at the crazy bird. "Good morning to you, too."
The bird stared at him for a moment longer, then dived and a minute later, came up with a fish in its bill. The loon maneuvered the fish around until it was face forward in his beak and he swallowed his meal whole. Jim grimaced with distaste and returned to the stove. He filled a tin cup with coffee and the hot liquid warmed and wakened him.
Instead of dismantling his camp, he decided to leave it and use the day to paddle to the closest islands and search those, then return to the camp that evening.
He knelt beside the water's edge and using cupped hands, brought some of the cool liquid to his parched lips. Closing his eyes, he swallowed and felt the water flow all the way down his dry throat. A blue jay's call startled him and his eyelids flickered open. Fear slithered through him and snaked down his spine.
Water. Pain. The two went together.
Hurriedly, he drank a few more handfuls of water then scurried back into the brush, out of sight like a rat in a hole. Though it was early evening, the sun's rays beat down upon him mercilessly. He itched incessantly and wished he could risk taking a bath, but he was too frightened of the water.
He looked up at the blue sky, wondering if he was the only person left alive in the world. He couldn't remember anything but trees and water. And pain. Had there been something before that?
He turned back to gaze at the lake and froze. A canoe moved through the water like a hot knife through butter. Shrinking back into the brush, he stared at the single man in the boat. He wore a cap that shaded his face and sunglasses that hid his eyes.
His feet ached to run far away from this new danger, but he remained rooted in place, staring at the man. There was something warm and familiar about this one, not cold and dangerous like the others. His gaze drank in the stranger's appearance like a drowning man gasping for life-giving air. He stared at him, fighting the fear that told him to flee before he was discovered. Before he was hurt again.
The canoe turned toward the place he hid and his eyes widened in terror. Without another thought, he turned and scrambled back into the safety of the trees.
After four days of fruitless searching, Jim's overworked senses had begun to rebel. He had to work harder to keep them from spiraling out of control and had already fallen into two zones. Fortunately, he'd come out of them on his own within minutes. But Jim knew the more he used his senses, the more chance he'd fall into a zone that lasted much longer. That morning, he'd nearly tumbled into a zone from the rhythmic sound of dipping his paddle into the water. The headache that followed throbbed in his temples and he'd taken some aspirin, but it only blunted the pain, not gotten rid of it. For now, he limited himself to normal senses, although they kept trying to break free, which only worsened his headache.
His muscle soreness had disappeared after the second day and he paddled with almost robotic like motions. He caught a movement on the peninsula ahead and blinked. The shadow was gone before he could identify it. He raised his head and tentatively opened his sense of smell but quickly reeled it back in when odors came fast and furious. Had the shadow been a bear? Or maybe a moose? He'd seen both on different occasions, and had made wide circles around the wild creatures.
Mentally, he shook his head. No, it had been too small and the wrong color. Maybe one of those white-tailed deer like he'd seen on the drive from Duluth to Ely. But Jim's unease didn't fade. Instead, it increased in intensity and Jim shifted restlessly on the canoe's seat. Someone watched him. There was nothing else that could explain the tingle at the back of his neck.
He steered the canoe toward land and the craft nosed onto the shore. Jim jumped out to pull it out of the water. No birds sang and not a single squirrel chattered at him. The loon that had befriended him his first day had only stayed with him through one more day. Without being able to risk using his hearing, Jim felt a shiver run down his spine at the eerie silence.
For the first time, he dug into his backpack and pulled out his service revolver. He'd gone through the hassle at the airport to bring it with him to Minnesota. Long-held habits were hard to break and as long as he possessed a cop's badge, he felt a need to carry a gun, too. He was glad he had it. If there was someone out there, it might be possible that person had something to do with Blair's disappearance.
He glanced down at the watch on his wrist -- seven o'clock. He'd have time to set up his camp and eat something, but he'd hold off on searching until tomorrow. He would've tried to find what he saw tonight but with his senses misbehaving, he'd only end up stumbling around in the darkness or zoning. Maybe both.
He kept his revolver within easy reach as he set up his camp. He opted to start a fire in the campsite's pit and gathered some dry wood for that purpose. Once the fire was going well, Jim boiled some noodles over the flames then mixed a can of cream of chicken soup with the cooked pasta and continued to heat it.
The hair at his nape prickled. The thought of somebody or something spying on him sent a frisson of apprehension through him. He hadn't seen a single human being since John had left and although he usually liked remote camping areas, this total lack of humanity was disconcerting.
A twig snapped and Jim's head swiveled toward the sound. Instinctively, his hand went to the revolver, the weight reassuring in his palm. "Who's there?"
He didn't expect a reply and he wasn't disappointed, but his shoulder muscles were as taut as guitar strings. Rising, Jim held his gun between his hands and moved on the balls of his feet toward the brush.
Terror rose like bile. The man had a gun.
He scuttled further back into the dark woods. He stuck his knuckles in his mouth like a cork in a bottle to hold back his moans of fear. Why hadn't he listened to his feet and run away? Instead, his curiosity had impelled him to remain close to the man. He'd watched him put up the tent and stow his sleeping bag inside it. He'd seen him build a fire and the aroma of food had brought growls to his empty stomach. But it was the man's eyes which held him captive. He'd seen those startling blue eyes before. Something stronger than his consuming terror forced him to stay.
But now the man was holding a gun and he was after him. His fingers went to the side of his head, to the groove that had scabbed over. He flinched at the waves of anguish that swept through his mind. If the man found him, would he hurt him, too?
A whimper escaped his chapped and split lips. Panic brought him to his bare feet and he dashed headlong into the brush.
Jim froze at the sound of crackling brush, but all he could make out was a dark shadow moving away from him. He lowered his weapon and heaved a sigh of relief. It had only been some animal checking him out. Maybe a deer or a bear. In the morning he'd take a look around and check out the prints it had left behind. Right now, his head pounded too much for him to do anything but go into his tent and collapse.
He moved back to the fire and ate his meal listlessly, then did the nightly rituals of clean-up and hanging the food pack from a high tree limb. Exhausted in both mind and body, Jim used the remains in the coffee pot to put out the fire and crawled into his tent. Keeping his gun close at hand, he fell into a restive sleep within minutes.
He awoke to the smell of something good, something familiar, and he unfurled his stiff body from beneath the cover of a fallen tree that still had its leaves. Brushing at the cobwebs woven around his shoulders and in his long hair overnight, he crept out of his hiding place. His gaze darted about, alert to danger. Standing less than ten feet away, a deer glanced up at him with soft brown eyes. They studied one another for a minute or two, then the deer turned and bounded into the woods gracefully, its white tail held up like a warning flag.
A mouthwatering aroma drifted to the man's nostrils and he cautiously followed the temptation. Something told him the trail would lead him to the stranger, the man who beckoned him with something more powerful than words. The man with the gun.
He froze thirty feet from the man's inviting fire and knelt down. He scrutinized his profile: short brown hair, high forehead, amazingly bright blue eyes, an aquiline nose, and lips that were pressed together in a firm line. Warmth, like a ribbon of smoke, curled through him. He didn't want to fear this man. He didn't want to run. He didn't want to be cold and frightened anymore.
He wrapped his arms around his waist and rocked back and forth. God, he was scared. He feared the unknown and the unknown was all he knew. A voice whispered that he belonged with the stranger by the fire, but he didn't have the courage to risk discovery. So he continued to rock back and forth, hugging his torso tightly.
The animal was back. Jim sensed his presence as he finished eating some oatmeal. He set the bowl aside slowly, not wanting to scare the visitor away. He turned and scanned the shadows in the brush and between the trees. Nothing.
Did he dare dial up his sight? Or would he only be asking for trouble?
No, he didn't dare risk it. Not here where he doubted anyone would find him for days.
He stood and crept to the bushes where he'd seen the dark outline flee the night before. His heart pounding, Jim pushed aside the branches and squatted down to peer through the leaves. A bird squawked and in a flurry of wings, fluttered away. Startled, Jim stumbled backwards and tripped, falling onto his backside.
Good going, Ellison. You've stooped to being frightened by birds.
Since he was down on the ground, he leaned closer to the earth and studied the faint markings in the dirt. The footprints were definitely not of the four-footed variety. A person had hidden here and watched him last night.
Goosebumps shimmied up his arms. He wasn't alone. Someone else was nearby.
His first impulse was to go back and get his gun, but he decided against it. If the person had meant to do him harm, he would be dead. He straightened deliberately.
"Anyone out there?" he called out, flinching when the sound of his own voice aggravated his headache.
Silence answered him.
He strolled up a narrow path with deceptive nonchalance, his gaze searching.
The man neared him. He stopped rocking, and with wide eyes stared at the approaching stranger. If he kept coming, he'd find him. A small whimper escaped his lips, but he remained rooted in place. The man didn't have the gun. Maybe he wouldn't hurt him. Maybe he'd give him some of that food that smelled so good.
Maybe it was a trick.
He scrambled back a few feet into the hazel brush, the thorns raking his arms, but he didn't notice the minor pain. The man stopped and looked in his direction. He would see him then he would...
He jumped to his feet and heeded the siren of survival.
Frustrated, Jim recklessly dialed up his hearing and froze when an achingly familiar sound greeted him. A heartbeat.
He tried dialing his hearing back down, but it wouldn't obey him. Instead, the too-long absent sound drew him deeper and deeper until the fog of a zone surrounded him.
He stumbled to his knees and was certain the man would catch him. Instead, he found himself alone in the quiet of the trees. It was too quiet. Something was wrong. Where was the man?
He pushed himself to his feet, stifling a groan. For a full minute he wavered between running further away from the man and retracing his steps. His curiosity decided for him and he warily limped back along the trail he'd just traveled. As he drew nearer to the place where the man had been, he felt both concerned and terrified. Slowly, he moved through the brush and halted when he saw him. The man was frozen in place, his eyes open but he didn't seem to be seeing anything.
With only a moment's hesitation, he moved to the still man, his own aches and pains forgotten. He shuddered with dread. He had to help the man. Following instincts, he gripped the man's wrist and began to lightly trace circles on his pulse point. It wasn't enough. He laid the palm of his other hand against the man's cool face and leaned close, breathing on him.
The man jerked slightly and awareness flickered back.
He quickly released the man's wrist and stepped back, intending to flee once more. Instead, strong fingers clasped his arm and held him in place. He struggled, mewling in frustration.
Jim was shocked to find it was Blair who had pulled him out of his zone, and when the young man tried to run away, Jim clung to him. However, the horrible sounds Blair was making were more reminiscent of an animal than a human being. Jim stared down at his partner, at the wild man he'd become. Shanks of greasy brown hair streaked with leaves and cobwebs fell across his face and a dark beard covered his jaw and cheeks. His clothes were in rags, hanging from a body that seemed to have shrunk. No shoes covered Blair's feet and dried blood stained them.
Jim's gut cramped with anguish. "Chief, hey Chief, take it easy."
Blair's midnight blue eyes were wide with panic and filled with an eerie blankness that frightened Jim. He continued to fight, to try to escape. Although not wanting to hurt him, Jim wasn't about to release him either.
"Hey, c'mon Blair, you remember me, don't you? I'm your sentinel, your Holy Grail." Although Jim felt funny saying it, he hoped the words would trigger some kind of response.
Blair whimpered, a half animal, half human sound that brought Jim's heart into his throat.
What had happened to him? Had someone hurt him? He shoved the thought aside, knowing the first thing he had to do was calm Blair and get him to his camp. There, Jim could clean him up and take care of his external wounds. Maybe the inside would then begin to heal itself.
"Where've you been, Chief? Everyone thought you were dead," Jim said quietly, soothingly.
The man's tone was like a balm to his wounds, but a tiny voice in the back of his mind warned him not to trust. Besides, this man had come after him with a gun. He could hurt him just like the others had done.
So much hurting. So much blood. He didn't want to listen to this man anymore. He just wanted to go back to the security of his woods and curl up beside a tree.
Closing his eyes, darkness swam behind his lids and consciousness slipped away like the tide's ebb.
Jim caught Blair before he hit the ground and eased them both down onto the leaf-covered earth. He wrapped his arms around Blair, feeling the rapid patter of his heart. Lifting a trembling hand, he cradled his partner's bruised and grimy cheek. The whisker growth felt odd against his palm.
Jim tightened his hold around his injured friend as if to convince himself Blair was truly alive. The warmth of his body eased the ache in Jim's gut, the cancer that had begun when he'd gotten Cathy's message that Blair was dead.
Resting his chin on Blair's crown, Jim closed his eyes as he held his best friend in his embrace. "It's going to be all right, buddy. We'll get through this."
Finally, Jim leaned Blair against a tree's solid trunk. With tender care, he examined his guide, ensuring his wounds were only minor except for the deep gash on the left side of his temple. Jim frowned. It looked like a bullet wound.
"Who did this to you, Chief?" Jim demanded in a dangerously low voice. The urge to tear apart the person responsible for his partner's pain burned in his veins and ate at his control. He wanted revenge against the bastard who'd nearly succeeded in murdering him.
Blair whimpered and Jim tenderly brushed back a few strands of stringy hair from his forehead. "Shhhh, it's okay, Chief. I'm here," he whispered, his voice husky.
His voice seemed to pacify Blair and he ceased his low moans. Maybe when Blair woke up, he'd remember who Jim was and everything would be all right. He could tell Jim who had shot him and Jim would track the person down.
Jim leaned over and lifted the smaller man into his arms, shocked by how light he was. He walked back to his campsite with his precious burden. Carefully, Jim lay Blair on the ground and went into the tent to retrieve the two sleeping bags. He spread them out and maneuvered his partner onto the makeshift bed. Balling up his sweatshirt, Jim placed it beneath Blair's head as a pillow.
Half an hour later, Jim tossed a filthy towel into a pot filled with rust-colored water. He'd cleaned Blair's injuries as well as he could and spread antibiotic cream on his numerous cuts and scratches. Since the bullet wound appeared to be healing, he left it uncovered.
Sickened by the damage done to his friend, Jim stood and breathed deeply to dispel his nausea. A bullet had definitely formed the furrow in his forehead, but the rest of the injuries appeared to have been caused by Blair's flight through the woods. The cuts and bruises were probably from stumbling and being whipped by branches as he ran. His feet were the worst. Deep lacerations latticed the soles and Jim wondered how he'd been able to walk, much less run on them. His stomach churned as he picked up the pot, moving down the path to the lake to get some fresh water.
His eyes flew open and his heart pounded like he'd run a mile in three minutes flat. His first awareness was that he lay upon something soft instead of the hard ground. Puzzled, he sat up and his mind spun. He grabbed hold of his head as if he could physically stop the dizziness. The vertigo faded after a few moments and he looked around. Fear clutched his chest and he wondered how he'd gotten to this place. It was the man's camp. The man with the gun. The man with the familiar blue eyes.
Glancing down at himself he saw someone had cleaned him up. Had the man taken care of him? His eyebrows furrowed in bewilderment. Why hadn't he hurt him like the others did?
He twisted around to see the man with the blue eyes approach him. Terror battered his fragile control and instinctively, he tried to stand. With a moan of pain, he dropped back down.
"It's all right, Chief," the man reassured. "Take it easy. No one's going to hurt you." He settled on the ground a few feet from him. "Do you recognize me?"
He shook his head.
"I'm Jim Ellison, your partner."
Partner? He didn't understand and frowned in confusion.
"Friends. Sentinel and guide."
"Well, you're his guide, so to speak, so I'll need you too."
The words flitted through his mind, struggling to gain a foothold in his memory. He closed his eyes and pressed his knuckles against his eyelids. The answers remained just out of his grasp and he shook his head angrily, hoping to jar the past loose.
Warm hands clasped his wrists and drew his fists from his eyes. His eyelids flickered open and he found the man called Jim only inches from his face.
"Take it easy, Blair. That wound to your head must've given you amnesia."
Was he Blair? The only proof he had was this man with the anguished blue eyes. But every fiber of his being told him he could trust him.
"It's all right, Chief. You'll be okay. Everything's going to be fine now," Jim reassured.
He believed him. With trembling hands, he touched Jim's face, knowing it but not recognizing it. Warm blue eyes lit Jim's expression. It was a look he'd seen a hundred different times and the intimacy of it startled him. Warmth blossomed inside him and he wrapped his arms around Jim. For a moment, Jim tensed and he thought he'd done something wrong. He started to move away, but then Jim's strong arms enveloped him, pulling him close.
"Jim," he whispered. "Not alone." The words flowed across his lips with an effortlessness that surprised him. He couldn't remember anything, but he did know that his place was beside this man called Jim Ellison.
Jim released him, but kept a hand anchored on his shoulder. The contact brought a sense of deja vu and he clutched Jim's wrist, afraid of losing the comforting touch.
"How're you feeling?" Jim asked. "I cleaned you up and put some stuff on the worst of your injuries. It looks like you went one on one with Smokey the Bear."
Blair tilted his head, puzzled.
"It's a joke," Jim said. "What happened?"
Pain. Water. Blair struggled to breathe.
Jim reached out and grabbed his forearms, dispelling the bad memories. Blair blinked and latched onto Jim's hand, clutching it tightly.
"It's okay, Chief. You don't have to talk about it now. Maybe later when you're feeling better."
Blair nodded. Later. Yes. Maybe. He clung to Jim, unwilling to release the only security he'd known since... He blinked. Since the beginning.
Gently, Jim tried to pry his hand out of his partner's grasp, but Blair only tightened his grip. With a sigh of surrender, Jim settled on the ground beside Blair, studying him. He'd have to get Blair into some clean clothes, but first he would need a bath in the lake and a shave if they could manage it. Jim had already turned down his sense of smell as far as he could. The only problem was that Blair appeared as weak as a newborn puppy, reminding him of the time he'd nearly lost Blair to Golden. An involuntary shiver went through him and Jim quickly forced the memory aside. Maybe if Blair had something to eat first.
"Are you hungry, Chief?"
Blair's blue eyes widened and he nodded.
Jim again tried to extricate himself from Blair's hold, but was just as unsuccessful the second time. "Look, Chief, you're going to have to let me go if you want some food."
Blair frowned and shook his head vehemently. Alarm radiated from his haunted blue eyes and Jim took a shaky breath. He leaned close to his partner and cupped Blair's knee. "I'm not going to leave you. I'll stay right here. I promise. You can watch me from right there while I throw something together."
Blair trembled, but slowly he released Jim.
Before Jim moved away, he said with a tender smile, "Hey, Chief, now that I found you I don't plan on letting you out of my sight again. Got that?"
Blair's anxious gaze searched his face and after a few moments, he nodded tentatively.
Blair's eyes followed his every movement and Jim wondered anew if he was suffering only from amnesia or something worse. Why wouldn't Blair talk to him? Even if he had lost his memory, he could still speak.
Jim threw some oatmeal into boiling water and, after cooking it for a minute, he spooned the glutinous mixture into a bowl. He added a generous amount of sugar, knowing Blair could use the energy and a dollop of canned milk.
"Here you go, Chief. I know you'd rather have one of your algae shakes, but this is all I have," Jim said. He held the bowl out to his guide. "It's okay. Go ahead. Take it."
Like an animal ready to dash away with the slightest provocation, Blair reached for the bowl. His palms curved around it and he sniffed the contents. An appreciative smile curved his lips and he wrapped his fingers around the spoon.
"Go slow. It's warm," Jim warned.
Blair's eyes widened and he tried to shove the bowl back into Jim's hands.
"No," Jim said, holding up his hands. "It's all right. You can eat it. Just be careful that you don't burn your tongue."
Blair frowned, looked at the oatmeal, then back at Jim. He picked up the spoon and slowly placed some cereal in his mouth. A rapturous smile snared Blair's lips and he ate mouthful after mouthful until the bowl was empty. He handed it back to Jim.
"You were hungry, weren't you?" Jim asked.
Blair nodded and pointed at the bag of uncooked oatmeal then at the empty bowl.
Jim chuckled. "You want more?"
Blair's vehement nod gave his answer.
"I'll make a deal with you. You take a bath and afterward, I'll make you some more."
After a moment of deliberation with his brow furrowed in concentration, Blair nodded again.
"Good. I'm just going to get some soap and towels," Jim said. He was acutely aware of Blair's desperate gaze following his motions. When he returned with the items, as well as clean clothes, Blair visibly relaxed. "All right, Chief, time to find my partner buried under all that dirt."
Jim leaned over and took hold of Blair's arms then pulled him up and transferred an arm to his guide's waist.
Blair's sharp intake of breath told Jim how much his feet hurt and he tried to take more of the younger man's weight. "We'll go slow and easy. No need to rush," Jim said.
With shuffling footsteps, they made their way down to the edge of the lake. Blair's muscles tensed against Jim's body and the sentinel lowered him to the ground carefully. Terror filled Blair's eyes. "What's wrong, Chief?"
Blair just continued to stare at the lake.
Jim squatted down directly in front of him, blocking his view of the water, and laid a hand on his shoulder. "I'll be right beside you the whole time."
Blair dragged his fear-filled gaze away from the water and searched Jim's eyes. Jim curved his palm around the back of Blair's neck. "Look, I'll take care of you and I won't let anyone hurt you."
Inhaling a ragged breath, Blair acquiesced reluctantly. Jim helped him strip to his underwear, then removed his own clothing, leaving only his boxer briefs in place. He helped Blair into the water and immediately the younger man started shivering. With Blair's dislike for cold and his weakened condition, Jim worked efficiently and quickly to clean his partner. The grime disappeared, revealing pale skin with more bruises, cuts, and insect bites. He lathered Blair's hair twice to remove all the dirt, sweat, and grease.
As soon as Jim was done, he escorted Blair out of the water and toweled the docile man dry. Then he got the younger man out of his wet underwear and into clean clothing. The jeans that had fit Blair two weeks ago now hung from his hips and he looked more like a little boy in grown-up clothing. Another wave of rage washed through Jim as he wondered who the hell had nearly killed his friend.
He noticed Blair lift his face to the late morning sun's warm rays.
"Why don't we sit here in the sun for a little while?" Jim suggested.
Without a word, Blair lowered himself to a large flat rock and automatically folded into a lotus position. Jim smiled and quickly pulled on dry underwear and his own clothes before hanging their wet things on nearby bushes. He sat behind Blair and used his fingers to comb through the tangles in Blair's wet hair. Once he was done, Jim massaged his friend's scalp, careful of the wound. The younger man leaned his head back and closed his eyes, obviously content.
As they sat there, Blair's head tipped back farther and farther until it rested against Jim's shoulder. Jim glanced at his friend and realized he'd fallen asleep. Smiling fondly, Jim adjusted Blair's body a bit so he fit more snugly against his chest and wasn't in danger of tumbling off the rock.
Jim must have dozed, too, because the sun had moved from its previous position when he opened his eyes. Blair's weight against him, although comforting, had numbed parts of his own body.
"Hey, Chief," Jim said quietly, close to Blair's ear. "Chief, wake up."
Blair jerked, eyes immediately wide open and his heart kicked into high gear.
"It's okay. It's just that if I don't get up soon, I don't think I'll be able to move again," Jim said with a grin to temper his words.
Blair calmed and Jim could feel his reluctance as he shifted away from him. Feeling much older than his forty-one years, Jim levered himself off the rock.
"How about if you shave then you can have some more food?" Jim asked.
Blair brightened considerably and jumped off the rock, only to stumble to his knees. He clutched at the soles of his feet. Jim was beside him right away, a hand on his arm.
"I'll bet they're pretty sore," Jim commiserated. "Wait here and I'll get some thick socks."
Jim hurried into the tent and dug out a pair of the boot socks he'd bought in Duluth. Blair had rolled over to sit up with his back against a rock and when he saw what Jim had, he grinned. It wasn't a full-fledged Sandburg smile, but it was close enough to make some of Jim's fear for his friend's mental condition ease slightly. Jim unrolled the socks and began to put them on Blair's feet. The younger man's hands stayed his actions and Blair took the socks from Jim, his intention clear.
Jim sat back on his heels and watched Blair struggle into the socks. He wanted to help but stifled the urge. This was the old Blair attempting to reassert himself and Jim wasn't going to do anything to hinder his friend's recovery. Finally, Blair had them on and he wiggled his toes, delight lighting up his eyes.
Jim helped him up and Blair shuffled along carefully, although it was obvious the socks did a great deal to cushion his injured feet. Once by the campfire remains, Jim lowered Blair to a fallen tree that served as a bench and brought the pan of steaming water that had been setting on the fire grate over to him.
"Do you want to shave yourself or have me do it?" Jim asked. He wished he had something better than a disposable razor.
Blair frowned and shrugged.
"Okay, I can do it for you, but you just have to stay still," Jim said.
Using shaving cream and the razor, Jim set to work. He raised his touch dial to make sure he didn't cut Blair as he shaved him. Blair closed his eyes and passively accepted Jim's assistance.
It took half an hour to rid Blair of his whisker growth but the effort was more than worth it. Where his beard had been, the skin was lighter, giving him somewhat of an odd two-tone look, but he still looked much more like the old Blair.
"Just relax while I take care of things, Chief," Jim said, brushing his fingers across Blair's now-smooth cheek.
Later, he gave Blair a bowl of hot soup and crackers then watched him devour the food. Once Blair was finished, he set his empty bowl down. His eyelids drooped sleepily.
"Why don't you lie down and rest? I'll keep an eye out for bears," Jim suggested.
Blair cocked his head as if puzzled and arched his eyebrows. Jim faked a hurt expression. "You don't believe me about the bears? I'll have you know I've already had a close encounter of the furry kind."
Blair's grin was interrupted by a huge yawn and Jim maneuvered him around to lie down on the two sleeping bags that were still outside the tent. He re-rolled his sweatshirt and placed it under Blair's head. Though Jim knew his friend was exhausted, Blair's eyes remained open and fixed on him.
Jim gave his hand a squeeze. "I'm not going anywhere."
Blair wrapped his fingers around Jim's wrist, not intending to let Jim go. The sentinel laid his hand over Blair's and made himself comfortable beside his battered partner. "I'll stay right here."
Only then did Blair close his eyes and fall into an immediate sleep.
Jim studied the vulnerability so evident on his bruised face. He swallowed the block of emotion in his throat and repeated in a husky voice, "I'm not going anywhere."
The remainder of the day passed in a blur of sleeping and eating. Later in the evening when night swept the sun into oblivion, Jim moved their sleeping bags into the tent.
"Go inside," Jim said. "I've got to clean up around here or we're going to have some unwelcome guests overnight."
Stubbornly, Blair stayed outside the canvas shelter and watched Jim hang the food pack high in the tree and douse the fire until the embers were cool to the touch.
"I've got to take a walk," Jim announced. "I'll be back in a minute."
A chill washed through Blair. He struggled to his feet and ignored the pain that lanced up his legs. If Jim was going for a walk, he would go with him.
Jim rushed toward him and took hold of his upper arms. "Look, you're in no shape to walk up to the facilities. Don't worry, I'll be back in a minute."
Blair shook his head adamantly. Wherever Jim went, he went. Jim was his only fortress against the pain and bad people.
Jim stared at him and Blair willed him to understand. Jim would understand. He always did.
Finally, he nodded. "All right, Chief. We go together."
The image of Jim and another man fighting and falling through a floor appeared in Blair's mind and he gasped. The strength disappeared from his legs and he collapsed to the ground.
Jim dropped down beside him, his face filled with concern. "What's wrong? Talk to me, Chief."
Blair raised a trembling hand to touch Jim's face. "Dead."
The one word utterance startled Jim. Had Blair thought he was dead? Why would he think that? It was Blair who had been missing.
"I'm not dead, Chief. I'm right here beside you," he said.
The name slipped from Blair's lips and it took a few moments to connect the dots. "David Lash is dead. He can't hurt you or anyone else again."
Blair shook his head violently and Jim grasped his face between his hands to stop the frantic motion. "You're safe, Blair. Lash can't touch you. I killed him, remember?"
Slowly, the terror left his eyes. "Partner?"
Jim smiled. "That's right, buddy. Partners."
Blair relaxed in Jim's arms. "Partners," he repeated reverently.
Jim squeezed his shoulders. "What do you say we hit the sack, partner?"
Jim chuckled, the sound thick with emotion. "You sure you're up to it, Darwin?"
He was rewarded with a brilliant Sandburg smile.
After they answered the call of nature, they returned to the tent and crawled inside. Jim made sure Blair was properly tucked in before slipping into his own sleeping bag. The sentinel lay on his back, his hands clasped behind his head, and stared at the tent's ceiling. Listening to the familiar breathing of his guide, he wondered if he'd been a bit hasty in denouncing the magic of wishing upon a star. Blair had been returned to him, perhaps a little worse for wear, but he was alive and for that Jim was more than grateful.
He closed his eyes and for the first time in a long while, he wasn't afraid to expand his hearing. He fell asleep to the sound of his guide's heartbeat.
Jim turned his attention from the red and white float that bobbed on the water some twenty-five feet from shore and glanced at Blair. The younger man sat on a rock, staring out across the lake. Despite the heat, his friend had on an old flannel shirt and a faded pair of jeans. His feet were still healing so he wore a pair of thick socks with no shoes. Most of his facial bruises had faded to a sickly yellow and lavender, and his cuts had scabbed over. Overall, however, he looked more like the old Blair.
He'd also gotten over much of his fear of the water in the past forty-eight hours, but Blair still refused to be separated from Jim and had become his shadow. Jim didn't mind since he, too, needed the reassuring presence of his friend after the horrible fear of believing he'd lost him. However, Jim couldn't ignore the gnawing fear that this change in his friend was permanent.
Maybe they should've headed back to civilization immediately, but it would've been difficult to manage portages with Blair's feet so badly torn up. There was also Jim's protective streak for his friend -- he didn't want anybody staring at him or pitying him. Hell, just his presence was going to shock people since presumed dead men didn't turn up alive every day. So Jim cared for and protected his guide the only way he knew how.
Jim reeled in his line and gave up on fishing. For having such a good reputation for fishing, the wilderness area hadn't been kind to him. For two days all he'd had was a nibble or two.
He set the fishing rod against a nearby tree and walked over to the uncharacteristically quiet student. "What're you looking at, Chief?"
Blair blinked as if coming out of a trance and smiled. He pointed to a loon.
Jim spotted the now-familiar shape in the water and joined Blair on a nearby rock. "I wonder if that's the one that kept me company when I was looking for you."
Blair tipped his head in question. He hadn't spoken again since the first night. Jim had talked to him, commenting like he normally would and ignoring Blair's silence. But the only time Jim could almost convince himself that Blair was normal was at night when he lay in the tent, his guide less than a foot from him. The soothing heartbeat and breathing would let Jim pretend that Blair was all right.
"After the outfitter dropped me off, I had this loon befriend me. Followed me for two days." He smiled wryly. "He must've figured I needed all the help I could get."
"Yeah, I suppose--" Jim stopped and stared at Blair. "You talked."
Blair nodded and rubbed his throat as if he, too, was surprised.
"Do you remember anything?" Jim asked.
Blair pressed his lips together in concentration and shook his head. "Only you."
"Do you remember that I'm a cop and you're a graduate student riding along with me?"
He nodded. "Partners. Friends." He angled his head quizzically. "Cop?"
"I'm a detective in Cascade, Washington."
Blair raised a hand to their surroundings. "Why?"
Jim tried to interpret his question. "You went on a camping trip with some friends in Minnesota. Something happened and everyone thought you drowned."
"Alive," Blair said firmly.
Jim leaned over and rested a hand on Blair's knee. "That's right. You're alive and you're going to stay that way. Do you remember anything about who shot you?"
"Always there," Blair said.
"Where?" Jim asked, confused.
"Protect. You always protect me." Blair stumbled on the longer phrase but Jim understood.
"We protect each other. That's what partners are for. Who hurt you, Chief?"
Blair's lips thinned to a grim line and he shook his head. He looked over Jim's shoulder to stare at the glittering lake surface.
Jim sighed. Either Blair couldn't remember or he was afraid to talk about it. No matter which he was left with no more answers than when he'd first found him.
Jim stood and stepped away from Blair.
The apprehension in Blair's voice, as well as the question, startled Jim. He'd become accustomed to his friend's abnormal silence.
"I'm going to start dinner."
Jim frowned and shook his head. "I'm not mad at you, Chief. I'm mad at the person who hurt you. I want to hurt him back."
Blair grabbed Jim's arm. "No hurt."
"What do you mean? Don't you want to punish the person who did this to you?"
Blair touched the bullet wound on his head. "No more hurt."
"I don't understand."
Blair curled his hands into fists of frustration. He rubbed his mouth with his knuckles, then extended his hands in supplication. "Gun. Hurt. No more gun."
Jim captured Blair's hands in his. "I'm a cop, Chief. I have to carry a gun."
"No! No more."
Jim had always known about Blair's aversion to guns, although the student had picked one up and used one more than once since he started riding with him. What had triggered this newest wave of abhorrence? Did it have something to do with what happened to him?
If Blair was serious about his wish for Jim to quit the force, could Jim do it? Was his friendship with Blair more important than his job? A month ago, Jim might've answered a different way, but now, knowing the anguish he'd suffered when he thought Blair was dead, he knew where his priorities lay.
Jim leaned close to Blair. "If you really want me to quit the force, I'll do it. As soon as we get back to Cascade, I'll turn in my badge. Is that what you want?"
Blair studied him for a long moment. "Hurt. Dead. Don't want."
"That goes both ways, Chief. When they told me your body hadn't been found, I knew you were still alive. They all thought I was crazy, but I didn't care. The important thing was you." Jim swallowed and shook his head. "Hell, maybe I did lose it. I didn't know if I'd ever see you again."
Jim's voice broke and he turned away. How could he explain how he'd felt when he thought he'd lost his partner and best friend? His neck bowed but a light touch on his arm brought his head up and he saw Blair had moved to stand beside him.
Jim smiled at Blair as the ache in his gut eased. Although he knew that things might never be the same again, he and Blair would make it. They'd find something where their combined talents could be put to use and they'd be able to work together.
"What do you say we open a can of beans for supper?" Jim asked.
Blair waved his hand across his nose and made a disgusted face. "Again?"
Jim wrapped his arm around his friend's shoulders and guided him back toward their campsite. "Can I help it if I have a sensitive digestive system?" He sighed. "Macaroni and cheese, then?"
"Better than beans," Blair said, his eyes twinkling.
An hour later, Jim managed to swallow the last spoonful of macaroni and cheese. "Not bad."
"Okay." Blair added his own unenthusiastic opinion of their meal.
Jim frowned at his empty plate. "It needed butter and real milk."
"Yogurt in macaroni and cheese? C'mon, Chief, that's like putting ice cream on pizza." Jim paused then added in a teasing voice, "On second thought, maybe that wouldn't be so bad. Some onions, sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, a little Rocky Road ice cream. What do you think?"
"I think terrible."
"Nice to see you're getting your sense of humor back."
"Who's joking?" But the sparkle in Blair's eyes belied his words.
Jim laughed and was gratified when Blair joined in. With the laughter came a catharsis of grief and the last tendrils of fear floated away. Blair was alive and he was going to be fine.
Working together, they cleaned their dishes and sat down side by side on the log. Each man held a tin cup of camp coffee.
Blair took a sip. "Good."
"Not too strong?"
"Nah. Used to it."
"You must be starting to remember a few things," Jim commented lightly.
Blair nodded. "Cascade. Rainier." He frowned. "Naomi?"
Jim gazed down into his coffee cup. "I don't know. Cathy couldn't get a hold of her to tell her they thought you had drowned."
"Didn't drown," Blair snapped. "Lived."
"Take it easy, Chief. I for one am damned glad you're still in one piece."
The fire crackled, sending a shower of sparks upward. A squirrel scolded from a tree limb and an owl hooted its disapproval of the flame's amber glow. A rabbit scuttled over some dry leaves in the brush behind them and a coyote's call echoed from a neighboring island.
"We should start home tomorrow," Jim said softly.
Infinite sadness filled Blair's face and he shrugged. "Suppose."
Jim glanced upward, noting the stars were obscured by the dark clouds that had come in from the northwest. "We might be in for some rain tonight."
Blair examined the sky and frowned. "Storm."
"What do you say we get the food pack up, make our nightly ablutions, and hit the sack?" Jim suggested, intentionally keeping his food light.
Blair looked at him in surprise. "Ablutions?"
Jim put on his best wounded expression. "Do you think you're the only one who knows big words?"
"Pretend not smart."
"Compared to you, I'm at the bottom of the class, Chief." He helped Blair up. "We'd better get to work."
Jim and Blair cleaned up the camp and made sure the provisions were hung in their usual place. Fifteen minutes later they entered the tent and slid into their respective sleeping bags.
Jim shifted restlessly and opened his hearing. It was too quiet and the air was filled with a hushed expectancy. The hair on his arms seemed to stand straight up. "Blair?"
Blair rolled over and their faces were within inches of one another in the small tent.
"Do you feel it?" Jim asked.
Jim blinked. It was the first time Blair had mentioned anything about him being a sentinel, although he had brought Jim back from a zone. "You remember the sentinel thing?"
Jim didn't have any trouble seeing the creases in his friend's forehead.
"Enhanced senses. Zone-outs so need guide."
It was Blair's longest discourse yet. "That's right. And you do remember that you're my guide, right?"
Jim grinned and answered his original question. "I can feel the storm coming."
Blair nodded sagely. "Electricity in the air. Touch sensitive to atmospheric changes."
"That's what I figure."
"I'm okay now. But before I found you, I was having a hard time with my senses. I had to keep them dialed down and that was hard to do." Jim managed an awkward shrug. "Had a helluva headache, too, but that's gone."
Blair brought his arm out of his sleeping bag and laid his hand on Jim's chest. "I'm sorry."
Blair frowned in confusion. "Not sure. Before I--I disappear, something happen?"
Jim's muscles tensed. He had to be remembering Alex Barnes, but should he try to jog his memory, or should he let Blair remember on his own? "There was something, but I don't know if I should tell you. It might be better if you remembered on your own."
Concentration etched Blair's face then he nodded. "Probably better that way."
Jim relaxed and laid his hand on Blair's that still rested on his chest. His nerves vibrated and he knew he wouldn't be able to sleep right away. He suspected Blair was the same way, and since his usually glib partner wasn't up to telling stories yet, Jim thought he'd give it a shot. "Did I ever tell you about the time Stephen threw up all over me?"
"You want to hear the story or not?"
Blair grinned. "Tell."
"Pop was working late and Sally had already left to go home so I was taking care of Stephen. We were watching this John Wayne movie and eating popcorn that Sally had made for us before she left. This thunderstorm hit about ten o'clock, after we'd eaten all the popcorn and Stephen, he used to hide under the table when it thundered. I called him a scaredy-cat, told him the Duke wouldn't be hiding under a table. So he came out and just then, this thunder cracks right above us and you know what he does?"
Expectantly, Jim waited for Blair to ask him what Stephen did. Instead a cross between a snore and a snuffle came from his sleeping bag.
Jim sighed and murmured, "It wasn't that boring."
He closed his eyes and despite himself, fell asleep with a half smile on his face.
The body lay stuffed in a culvert. There was no dignity in its awkward sprawl and Blair turned away, vomit rising in his throat. He fought the sour bile back and steeled himself against his sorrow and anger. He dropped to his knees beside Roy's body and closed his eyes to hold back the tears. When he opened his eyes, Roy was gone and in his place was Jim.
Blood dribbled from Jim's mouth and down his chin, a stream of scarlet against the white parchment of approaching death. The spark disappeared from Jim's sky blue eyes and grief cleaved Blair's heart in two. The pain he'd felt with Roy's death multiplied and his own breath stuttered in his lungs.
"Jim! No, Jim! Not you!"
Invisible hands grabbed his shoulders and tried to pull him away from Jim. No! He wouldn't leave him alone. He had to stay with him.
"Blair! Chief! Wake up."
Jim's voice penetrated his haze of hysteria and Blair reached upward as if struggling to the surface of a raging river. His fingers brushed whiskered skin and he concentrated on the sensation to pull him from the grip of the horrific nightmare.
"Right here, Chief." The relief in Jim's voice was tangible.
Blair blinked at the dim oval in front of him and Jim's concerned features coalesced into view. He wrapped his hands around Jim's solid arms and intense relief washed over him. "I thought you were dead."
"It was only a dream," Jim reassured.
"It was so real. You died in my arms. I saw the life leave you and I couldn't do a damn thing to save you," Blair said, his voice husky with remembered anguish.
"It was only a dream," Jim reiterated, then suddenly stopped and stared down at him. "You're talking normal."
Blair blinked and eased away from Jim's arms, though he remained close enough that their shoulders brushed one another. He pressed a hand over his head wound. "Most of it's coming back."
"Who shot you?"
Blair shook his head in frustration. "I remember everything up to taking a canoe by myself to check a pictograph out. Then there's this haze of nearly drowning and my head throbbing and hiding out here." He glanced up at Jim anxiously. "You said everyone thinks I'm dead?"
Jim nodded. "I went to your memorial service." He shuddered. "I don't want to go through that again."
Blair placed his hand on Jim's shoulder. "I'm sorry."
The sentinel's wry smile flashed in the dim tent. "It wasn't your fault. The authorities gave up looking. They figured you were lying at the bottom of the lake."
"But you didn't give up."
"Would you have given up if our places were reversed?"
Blair shook his head. "Not until I saw your body." He took a deep breath. "Thanks, Jim."
"For going against the odds. I would've died out here if you hadn't come looking for me."
Jim's reply was interrupted by an abrupt flash of lightning followed by a thunderclap directly above them. The sentinel slapped his palms against his ears as his face twisted in pain.
Blair latched onto Jim's wrists. "Dial it down, Jim. You can do it. Picture the dials and slowly turn them down, one by one."
As Jim did as his guide said, the clouds opened up and released sheets of rain. The rain was so heavy the tent roof bowed under the onslaught. Blair wondered if it would hold.
Jim finally opened his eyes and eased his hands from his ears. "They're at normal."
"Good. I'm going to turn on the portable light." Blair did so, then murmured, "Oh oh."
"What is it?" Jim asked.
Blair pointed to a corner of the tent lit by the lantern's yellow glow. "Water's already seeping in. We're going to be in for a long wet night."
As if to emphasize Blair's words, thunder crashed above them. Trees moaned all around them and the rapid lightning created a strobe effect. Blair wrapped his arms around himself. "It feels like it's cooled off by at least twenty degrees."
"Try thirty," Jim said dryly. He placed his palm on the nylon floor. The deluge came down too fast for the ground to absorb the moisture and water flowed between the earth and the tent's floor, soaking the waterproof material. He glanced at Blair and noticed his partner's back touched the wall. "You're getting wet, Chief."
Blair pulled away from the tent wall. "My shirt's wet."
"Not too. My sleeping bag feels damp."
Jim placed his hand under Blair's bag. "Damn. Crawl out of there before you get soaked, too."
Blair tried to slide out of the bag without touching the tent's walls and aches registered all over his body. He realized those were all the injuries he'd received during his headlong escape into the woods. But what or who had he been running from?
"Now what?" Blair asked.
Jim was already shifting around. "We put my sleeping bag on top of yours and hope mine stays dry."
"What about me? Where do I sleep?"
Jim laid his bag on top of Blair's damp one and deliberately waggled his eyebrows. "I promise I'll respect you in the morning."
Blair couldn't help but laugh. "That's what they all say."
After a variety of machinations, they lay in a single sleeping bag with Blair's back to Jim's chest.
"Now I know how a sardine feels," Blair grumbled.
"It's better than freezing," Jim said, always Mr. Practical.
"I suppose." After a moment of silence, Blair said, "Oh, and I promise not to throw up on you."
He could feel Jim shake his head. "Go to sleep, Chief."
Blair closed his eyes, comforted by his partner's nearness. A brief memory of being alone in the woods sent a chill up his spine. The helplessness had been nothing compared to the fear that he'd be by himself for the rest of time. Although he and Jim had known each other less than four years, his most compelling memories were those involving the sentinel.
Best friend seemed a shallow title for someone he shared so much with. He loved Jim in a way that some small-minded people might think was abnormal, but in this world where the word friend had come to designate anyone from a casual acquaintance to an old high school chum, his relationship with Jim persevered. Hell, they spent more time together than most married couples.
The steady up and down of Jim's chest against his back finally lulled him to sleep despite the tempest outside the tent.
Early the next morning Jim slid out of the crowded sleeping bag.
"Watch the feet," Blair grumbled.
Jim didn't even try to hide his grin as he struggled into his jeans and boots. "Sorry. I'm going out to see how much damage the storm did."
He unzipped the tent door and screen, and stepped out into the rain-freshened air. He took a deep breath and surveyed the camp with a critical eye. Broken branches littered the ground and a small gully had been formed down the slight incline leading to the lake. The food pack had miraculously remained high off the ground.
Jim followed the path to the water and was relieved to see the canoe hadn't been washed away. He squatted down and scooped a handful of water onto his face. He froze when he heard the snap of a twig but then recognized Blair's heartbeat and scent.
"Nice to see the world is still here," Blair said.
Jim straightened and faced his tousled partner. "After that storm, I had my doubts, too."
Blair knelt and splashed water on his face. He grimaced. "A hot shower sounds like heaven about now."
"Didn't sleep well?" Jim teased.
"How could I? You kept kicking me."
Jim laughed with a lightheartedness he hadn't felt in too long. "You could've just ignored it, like I did with your snoring."
"I don't snore."
"And bears don't live here either."
Blair angled a look at Jim. "So, if a bear snores in the woods, does anybody hear it?"
"Only a sentinel," they replied in unison.
The silly banter felt good and the two men strolled back to the tent together. Jim lowered the food pack and found the food intact. They opted for a cold breakfast of Cheerios and canned milk, then bathed in the lake while the sun dried the tent and sleeping bags.
By noon, the remaining storm clouds had retreated, leaving the sun to reclaim the sky. Although their equipment was still damp, Jim and Blair packed up and stowed their things in the canoe.
"Ready to hit the road?" Jim asked his healing partner.
"If you haven't noticed, we're miles from the nearest road."
Jim rolled his eyes. "Hop in, Chief. I'll take the stern."
Blair grinned. "Aye, aye, skipper."
He stepped into the canoe while Jim steadied the craft. Grabbing the extra paddle, he settled on the front seat. Jim pushed off and jumped in, wobbling the canoe for a moment or two.
"Chief, catch," Jim called out.
Blair turned and caught the Jags cap. Holding the cap in his hands, Blair remembered where he'd seen it last. "Uh, Jim, you aren't pissed at me for borrowing it, are you?"
"Nah. You just get cooking detail for a month when we get home."
Blair didn't know if he was serious or not so decided not to pursue the subject. Instead, he settled the cap on his head and began to row. At first he was a little stiff, but soon he warmed up and dipped the oar in and swept it back with fluid motions. Despite the circumstances that had brought Jim to the BWCA, Blair was glad to share this time with him. They traveled in companionable silence for a couple of hours then decided to take a break in mid-afternoon on a small island.
Jim plied his oar and steered them toward the island. The nose nudged onto the shore and Blair jumped out, ignoring his feet's discomfort. He pulled the canoe up and Jim stepped out, stretching his arms high in the air. The sentinel reached for their tent and sleeping bags.
"While we take our break, we can throw these over some rocks and they can finish drying," Jim said.
"Good idea," Blair said.
Working together, they spread the damp items out. The strenuous activity of paddling had given them both an appetite and Jim made peanut butter sandwiches. Blair attacked his with the same gusto as his partner.
"Isn't this better than one of those algae things?" Jim asked, his eyes twinkling.
"When in Rome..." Blair began, an answering mischievousness in his eyes. "I'm going to take a dip in the lake."
"I guess I'll clean up then."
Blair stripped off his clothing and dived into the water. He came up sputtering, but the coolness eased his aches and pains. Fifteen minutes later he emerged and dried himself with a towel that had been placed near his clothing. Smiling Blair glanced at his bare-chested friend who was lying on a rock, his head pillowed by his T-shirt. As Blair watched, a foot long black and white snake slithered out of the grass and slid across Jim's hand. Jim lifted his arm absently and the snake slipped down his forearm to the shallow in the crook of his elbow.
Jim's eyes flew open and he immediately spied the intruder. With a yelp, he flung the snake into the brush and jumped to his feet. He spun around to meet Blair's grin.
"Why didn't you warn me?"
Blair shrugged. "It was just a little garter snake."
"I hate snakes," Jim said, shuddering visibly.
Blair's mouth dropped open. "Did I know that?"
"Probably not," Jim muttered. "No one knows. I mean, it's not like we run across snakes all the time in Cascade."
"But we have seen some when we've been camping, right?"
Jim nodded, his cheeks flushed. "Yeah, but I always knew they were there so I could prepare myself."
"But this one surprised you."
"Yeah." Jim peered into the grass with distaste.
"Sorry," Blair said. "If I'd have known, I would've warned you. If you want to catch some more shuteye, I'll stand guard."
Jim rolled his eyes. "I'm fine."
Blair studied him. "You don't look fine. You look like you haven't had a decent night's sleep in weeks."
Jim ran a hand over his short hair. "To be honest, it's been a long month."
"Starting with the flu epidemic at the department?"
Jim nodded. "Yeah. I worked eighteen, nineteen hours a day, then I had this conference in Philadelphia and I didn't sleep well in the hotel. When I got home, I had the message from Cathy about your drowning."
Blair hung his towel over a nearby tree branch and joined Jim as they both sat on the rock Jim had been lying on. Blair drew his knees to his chest, put his arms around them, and crossed his ankles. Jim sat beside him in much the same position.
Blair stared out across the water as he sifted through his returning memories. "It was Alex Barnes, wasn't it?"
Jim stiffened beside him. "What do you mean?"
Blair turned his head toward his friend, his expression somber. "Ever since her, we've been drifting apart."
Jim shifted uncomfortably. "It was my fault you died."
"But I didn't." Earnestness filled Blair's expressive face. "You saved me. I don't know how, but you merged your animal spirit with mine."
"No, hear me out," Blair said. "We should've had this conversation three months ago but I let my guilt get in the way."
Jim's mouth dropped open. "Your guilt? You didn't do anything wrong, Chief."
Blair held up his hand and began to tick off each point. "First, I should've told you about my suspicions regarding her immediately. Second, I fell down on my job as your guide. Third, I was so wrapped up in her I didn't see what was going on with you until it was too late. And fourth, you didn't drown me, she did."
"But I threw you out of the loft. If I hadn't done that, you wouldn't have been in your office that night and she wouldn't have drowned you."
Blair could see the effort it took for Jim to talk about what had happened. "But don't you see -- as your guide, I should've been there to help you work through those feelings you were having. If I had, I probably would've tied your behavior of increased territorialism with the arrival of another sentinel in your city." He shook his head. "I can't believe I was just going to spring her on you one day. I figured I'd bring you and her together in a controlled environment and see what happened. Only you already knew about her, at least subconsciously."
"It wasn't your fault, Chief. I should've talked to you about it instead of just following my instincts, or whatever it was that was controlling me."
"But that's just it, Jim. It was instinct, a sentinel instinct, to keep your tribe safe from an intruder. You thought that by sending me away, I'd be safe, but it backfired."
Jim laughed, but it was a bitter sound. "Yeah, it backfired big-time."
The two men were silent for a minute or two.
"So what did it teach us?" Blair asked softly.
Jim took a deep breath and met Blair's gaze squarely. "That I have to trust you to help me with these weird sentinel things."
"And that I can't keep secrets from you," Blair said, equally as serious. "Like you said when you found me, we're partners. And partners do more than watch each other's backs. They trust one another and don't keep secrets from one another. That's where we fell down three months ago."
"And it almost cost you your life." Jim shuddered.
"But you saved me." Blair butted his shoulder gently against Jim's. "So what do you say we both lose the guilt and get back to good?"
Jim gazed down at his guide and smiled fondly. "I will if you will."
Blair held out his hand. "Let's shake on it then, partner."
Jim took Blair's hand and pulled him close for a warm hug. "Welcome back, Blair," he said huskily.
Blair blinked back tears and returned the hug, embracing his sentinel with equal warmth. There was still more they had to discuss, but this was a good beginning.
Jim stiffened and released Blair.
"What is it?" Blair asked.
"I hear something. Another canoe headed this way."
The two men stood and a few moments later, a canoe with two women came into view from around the island. Blair stared at them as he tried to grasp some memory just beyond his reach.
"Do you know them?" Jim asked quietly.
"I don't know. Maybe."
"Lois, the outfitter's wife, said two women were leaving the same time you and your friends were headed out. She said their names were Mary and Linda King."
Blair gazed at the two attractive women in the canoe and the memory of wishing them luck returned. He relaxed. "I remember them."
"And?" Jim prompted.
Blair shrugged. "And that's it. I thought we might run into them after we started out, but we never did."
The women caught sight of them and waved.
Blair lifted a hand in reply. "There's something about them..." he said softly.
Jim's piercing blue eyes met his. "What is it?"
"I don't know. I mean, I remember them from that first day, but it seems like there's more."
Jim brushed his finger along the bullet furrow in Blair's brow. "Does it have to do with that?"
A cold shiver of dread slid through Blair, but he shook his head. "I don't know. But if they did shoot me, would they just wave like that?"
Jim crossed his arms as he watched the canoe with the two women glide away. "Probably not," he admitted. "But I'll feel better when we've put some distance between us and them."
Blair nodded without hesitation. "Me, too."
Without speaking, the two men gathered their gear and re-packed it in the canoe. They had a short discussion over the map then headed back out onto the smooth-as-glass lake.
"So Cathy couldn't find Naomi?" Blair asked.
Jim glanced across the cheery fire at his friend. "That's what she said."
Blair took a sip of coffee. "I'm glad. I mean, if she had, Mom would think I was dead."
Like I did, Jim thought, but didn't say aloud. Instead he refilled his tin cup from the pot on the fire's grate. "So, what's the story between you and Cathy?"
"You heard about that, huh?"
Jim lifted one shoulder in a half shrug. "She mentioned you and her were going to get married." He didn't say he'd also read it in the younger man's journal.
"It was just one of those things. I thought she was the right one; she thought I was the right one. We lived together for a few months and I realized I wasn't ready for anything permanent."
Jim tilted his head in the silence that followed, listening to the crackling of the fire and the riffle of the nearby stream they'd be following the next morning into another lake.
"She mentioned something about you being obsessed with your sentinel studies," he commented.
With Jim's enhanced sight, he could see a flush cross Blair's face.
"That's why I wasn't ready for anything permanent," the younger man said. "It was like I knew you were out there, you know? And it wouldn't have been fair to Cathy, knowing she would always be second."
"Finding a sentinel was that important to you?"
"It was my life, Jim." He canted a crooked smile. "And now that I found you, I know I made the right choice."
Jim's throat tightened. He didn't know what to say, how to tell Blair that even without the sentinel senses, the grad student was his best friend. "I'm glad, Chief."
Jim knew his simple declaration was woefully lacking, and he opened his mouth to say more but Blair beat him to it.
"Me, too, Jim. I can't imagine what my life would've been like without you in it."
Jim smiled and Blair grinned back, telling the sentinel he understood even without all the fancy words.
Blair tipped his head back and gazed at the stars. "Look, there's Orion and the Little Dipper." He lowered his head to look at Jim. "Did I ever tell you how Ursa Major got its name?"
Jim grinned and shook his head. As Blair launched into his story, Jim felt the remaining knots unravel within him. All was right with his world.
Jim's eyes opened and he was immediately wide awake and alert. He lay there, cataloguing his surroundings with his senses. Blair was snoring quietly on his side, facing Jim. Nothing moved within the tent. He expanded his senses, wondering if a bear had decided to check out the camp but the familiar gamy smell of a black bear wasn't nearby. He couldn't detect any other wild animal, except a raccoon some hundred feet away.
An odd floral scent caught his attention and he quickly expanded his hearing but the nearby stream acted as a white noise generator. Stifling his frustration, he focused on the odd scent.
What the hell? As far as he knew, the wildlife in the area didn't wear it. But those women they'd seen earlier probably did.
He shook Blair's shoulder. "Wake up, Chief," he said in a low voice.
"Wh-what?" Blair sat up.
"I think those two women are coming to pay us a visit. C'mon, we need to get out of here."
Jim rummaged in his backpack and pulled out his gun. He cast a glance at Blair, but the younger man probably couldn't see in the darkness. Blair might not like it, but if those women were the ones who'd hurt his guide, they were going to pay for their crime.
Jim and Blair both took the time to pull on their jeans. Jim slipped his bare feet into his hiking boots while Blair quickly tugged on the heavy socks he'd been wearing. Jim crawled to the tent door and unzipped it carefully. The eastern horizon was just beginning to glow. He went through the tent opening first and when he didn't see any danger, he reached back to catch Blair's hand in his and helped him out.
"What do we do?" Blair asked, his eyes wide.
"Keep close to me."
Jim kept his hold on Blair and led his guide into the trees some thirty feet away. Once behind a large oak tree, Jim hunkered down and Blair automatically copied his action.
"Can you hear them?" Blair whispered, sentinel soft.
"Not with that stream so close." Jim held his revolver between his hands. "I smelled perfume." He caught movement and stilled. "I see them."
Blair rested his hand on Jim's back, but Jim suspected it was more for comfort than to help with his senses. Either way, he didn't mind.
Jim allowed his sight to zoom in on his targets. Their platinum blonde hair stuck out like beacons in the darkness, but it was the pistols in their hands that caught Jim's attention. His mind raced, trying to come up with a plan. Once they went into the tent, they'd know their quarry was on to them.
The women stopped ten feet from the tent and straightened from their hunched positions. They raised their weapons and glanced at one another. The older of the two nodded slightly and they started shooting.
Jim jerked at the sound and covered his ears. He hadn't realized his hearing had been turned up so high. Now Blair's hand on his back became his anchor, his rope to follow back.
"Oh my God," Blair breathed, obviously shocked. He continued rubbing circles between Jim's shoulder blades.
Jim's hearing evened out and the ringing in his ears began to taper off. He stared at the tent now filled with holes and felt horror at the cold-bloodedness of their actions. Then he hardened his resolve and rose from behind the tree.
"Police. Freeze," he shouted.
The surprise on the girls' faces would've been comical if not for what Jim had just witnessed.
"Drop your guns. Now!" he ordered.
Despite their pretty faces, the cold expressions made them repulsive.
"How the hell did you know?" one of them demanded.
"I said drop your weapons," Jim repeated, his hands tightening on his revolver. He didn't want to shoot them but he wasn't going to let them hurt Blair again.
"Maybe we should--" the other woman started tentatively.
"Shut up, Mel," the other one shouted.
Obviously they'd given the outfitters fake names... for five years. What was going on?
Neither woman lowered her gun, and Jim knew he had to come up with a plan quickly to end the stalemate. Using the same technique he had against Veronica Sarris, he used his sentinel vision to sight his weapon down the barrel of the seeming leader's gun and squeezed the trigger.
The woman squealed and dropped the ruined pistol as she clutched her hand close to her chest. "Shoot him," she ordered Mel.
Before Jim could shift his aim, Blair stepped out of the shadows and struck Mel's forearm with a branch. She, too, dropped her weapon.
Anger filled Jim at the risk his guide had taken moving around to the side of the women but he had to deal with the two would-be killers first. He had them sit on the ground then had Blair lower the food pack and hack off some lengths of rope to tie the women.
Fifteen minutes later, the women were bound snugly to two separate trees. He examined Mel's arm but it wasn't broken, only bruised. The other woman merely glared at him the entire time.
Jim grabbed Blair's arm and pulled him off to the side. "What do you think you were doing? If they'd seen you, you could've been shot."
Blair aimed a steady look at him. "But I wasn't. Besides, I'm your partner."
"A partner who doesn't like guns."
"That's never stopped me before."
"But you said--" Jim broke off, puzzled.
"I said what?"
Jim shifted uncomfortably. "Before you regained all your memories, you said you wanted me to give up my gun."
"You're a cop. You have to carry a weapon." Blair's brow furrowed. "It's true that I've never liked guns, but you can't do your job without it."
"Unless I wasn't a cop."
"Being a protector is part of who you are, Jim. You can't give that up, not even for me."
"I would, if you asked me to," Jim said softly. He sighed. "You've been hurt so often since you started riding with me."
Blair laughed gently. "I hate to tell you this, Jim, but this time I did it all on my own. You weren't even in the same state when I was shot."
"No buts, Jim. I was hurt and not in my right mind when I said I wanted you to give up your gun. I could never ask that of you. Never. Being a sentinel, being a cop, carrying a gun -- it's all wrapped up in the Jim Ellison package, and it's my choice whether to accept you or not." He stared into Jim's eyes, willing him to see the truth. "I choose to accept Jim Ellison, just as he is."
Jim clenched his jaw as the block of emotion expanded in his throat. He swallowed once, then again, before he could speak. "Thanks, Chief." He turned his attention to their prisoners. "I'll backtrack their trail and find their canoe and gear. Will you be all right alone with them?"
Blair nodded and touched Jim's arm. "I'm fine."
Jim cupped the back of Blair's neck and squeezed gently. "Yeah, you are."
It took Jim only twenty minutes to find where they'd pulled their canoe up to the other side of the island. He pushed the canoe into the water and jumped in, then paddled it around to where he and Blair's camp was. Blair met him by the water and pulled the nose of the canoe in.
"That didn't take long," he said.
Jim noticed Blair had pulled on a sweatshirt. "What do you say we see what they have in their packs?"
Jim tossed them onto the rocky beach. It didn't take them long to discover what the women were up to.
"Prescription drugs, schedule two and four," he announced, tossing large bottles of Vicodin, Codeine and Percocet onto the ground. "All made in Canada."
"When I think of smuggling drugs into the states, I don't think of Canada."
Jim unfolded a map of the Boundary Waters area from their pack and saw several islands circled with a red pen with different dates and initials by each one. There were also half a dozen other islands circled in black marker which were all on the Canadian side of the wilderness area, with dates but no initials. "This looks like drops and pick-up points."
Blair studied the map over Jim's arm. "Why don't we ask them?"
Sunrise was close at hand with the eastern sky turning a coral pink when Jim and Blair rejoined their prisoners. The two women glared at them.
"Are you going to leave us tied up here forever?" the leader demanded.
Jim shrugged. "What do you think, Chief?"
"Sounds like a plan," Blair replied. He turned to the women. "Why did you shoot me?"
"Why do you think?" Mel answered with a sneer.
Blair's sight turned inward as splintered memories returned. "I remember now, Jim. They were arguing with two men. I thought they might need some help so I went in to shore. I saw the bottles of drugs but I wasn't sure what they were. That's when they started shooting at me."
"Was it one of them who shot you?" Jim motioned to the bound women.
"To be honest, I'm not sure. The first shot missed and I scrambled back to my canoe. I was able to push off, but then there was a lot of shooting. One of the bullets hit me." He rubbed the furrow in his brow. "I think I fell into the water but then it's all pretty much blank until I woke up on land."
"We figured you'd drowned," the leader of the women admitted, her eyes filled with loathing. "But then we saw you today and we couldn't let you tell anyone."
Jim's hands fisted at his sides as he barely kept in check the impulse to do violence against her for nearly killing Blair. He felt a hand on his arm and knew it was Blair. His guide had an uncanny ability to sense Jim's emotions, but he also had the ability to soothe them, too. Jim's muscles lost their tautness and he donned his cop persona.
"We've got you with illegal drugs and a map that I have a feeling will lead us to your contacts," Jim said. "You're going to have every law enforcement agency, including the DEA, Forest Service and the Royal Canadian Mounties, on you for transporting stolen drugs across international borders on federally protected land. I suggest that you cooperate fully with them." He canted an eyebrow. "Or maybe you want to take the entire rap yourselves?"
Frightened, Mel twisted around to look at her partner. "Heather?"
"Shut up, Mel. They're only trying to scare us."
Jim shrugged nonchalantly. "No need to. Even without the drug charges, we've got you for two charges of attempted murder and one charge of felonious assault. And since you really aren't Mary and Linda King, you'll be facing federal time for lying on an official permit to get into the Boundary Waters."
Jim glanced at Blair who grinned back at him. Blair was right -- being a cop and protecting his tribe, and more importantly, his guide was who he was. He couldn't imagine doing anything else, and he was damned lucky Blair understood and accepted that. And he promised himself he would never take him for granted again. From now on, Blair would know how much Jim appreciated his support and friendship.
Blair turned around to look at Jim in the canoe's stern. "It doesn't seem right just leaving them on the island with nothing but a tent, their sleeping bags, some food, and bottled water."
"I wouldn't feel too sorry for them, Chief. They got the tent without the bullet holes," Jim said.
"Yeah, well, I guess a couple of days isn't going to hurt them." Blair turned forward once more and continued paddling. It was a little more difficult because of the second canoe tied to theirs. "What if they swim off the island?"
"Where would they go? Without a map, they'd get lost."
Blair had to admit his friend was right. He knew he shouldn't worry about them -- they would've killed him and Jim if the two men had been in the tent. Still, it was hard to reconcile the two heartless killers with the flirtatious women he'd seen at the outfitters.
It was nearing noon when he felt Jim stop paddling. He pulled his own oar in and glanced back. Jim was trying his cell phone again. Every time he'd checked before, there'd been No Service. But this time Jim's face lit up.
"I don't think the prisoners will have long to wait," Jim announced.
Blair listened to him talk to the authorities, giving his name and identifying himself as a police officer. Jim gave them the name of the island where the women were and what his and Blair's position was. When he closed the phone, a triumphant smile lit his expression.
"They're sending out patrol boats right away. In fact, we should be back to civilization by tonight," Jim announced.
It seemed like a lifetime since Blair had stood under a hot shower or ate a meal not cooked over a camp stove. He was looking forward to going home, to the loft he shared with his sentinel.
Jim's prediction turned out to be right and he and Blair found themselves at Northern Outfitters that evening. Lois Lane hugged Blair, then Jim, exclaiming how miracles still did happen. Jim didn't argue with her. Her husband John shook their hands and helped them unload the canoe. He didn't even charge Jim for the ruined tent.
By the time they got into Jim's rented car that was exactly where he'd left it nearly two weeks ago, the adrenaline had worn off and both men were exhausted. John and Lois told them where to find a good motel in Ely and they thanked the couple for all their help.
While Blair showered in the motel room, Jim found a cafe that made up two hot meals for him to carry back to the motel. Blair waited until Jim was out of the shower and in his comfortable sweats before sitting down to eat the meatloaf, mashed potatoes, gravy, peas, and slices of apple pie.
"Now that's what I call a Midwest meal," Blair said after burping.
"Sounds like you enjoyed it."
"I did, but there's no way we could eat like this every day. I'll bet you could hear the arteries hardening."
Jim laughed. "I wouldn't go that far, Chief. That was the best meal I've had in weeks." He glanced at the lighted numbers on the clock radio. "I should call Simon and give him the good news. It's only eight o'clock in Cascade."
Blair nodded and while he gathered the empty bags and plates, Jim used his cell phone to call Simon. The younger man sat cross-legged in the center of his bed, listening to Jim tell his boss about him. Blair heard Simon's "thank God" even from where he sat when Jim told him he'd found the grad student. They talked for ten minutes, with Jim giving him the abbreviated version of the two female drug smugglers who tried to kill them, then a little bit about the Boundary Waters. Finally, Jim ended the call and lifted his gaze to Blair.
"He said to take as much time as we needed. The flu epidemic has run its course and the department is back up to full strength," Jim said.
"To be honest, as pretty as this area is, I'm ready to head home," Blair said.
Jim nodded. "I'm with you, Chief." He reached for the motel phone. "I'll call the airline and get us booked on the earliest flight out."
"If you don't mind, I'd like to drive back," Blair said.
"That'll take three days."
Blair shrugged. "Simon gave us the time." He plucked at a loose thread on his sweats. "It would give us time to talk about stuff."
Blair prepared himself for Jim's argument.
"I'll call the car rental agency in the morning and tell them we'll be dropping the car off in Cascade," Jim merely said.
Shocked, Blair stared at his partner. "You don't mind?"
Jim brought his own legs under him and rested his elbows on his thighs. "I would have a month ago, but when I thought you were dead, it gave me time to think about things I didn't want to think about before." He leaned forward, pinning Blair with his steady gaze. "You're my best friend, Blair. You're also my guide and my conscience. I'd be lost without you. If you want to take the scenic route home and talk about things, I'll do it. I can't promise I'll be any good at the talking part, but I promise I'll try."
Much to Blair's annoyance, tears filled his eyes. He'd drowned and Jim had saved him. Everyone thought he was dead and Jim had found him. And now Jim was willing to open up, something Blair doubted he'd done for anyone, even his ex-wife. Yes, all the things he'd given up to find his sentinel had been worth it, and everything he'd have to sacrifice in the future to stay with him would also be worth it. As long as they were together, things would be all right.
"I hear you, Jim," Blair said, his voice husky.
Jim's own eyes glittered a little brightly when he met Blair's. "I hear you, too, Chief." He smiled warmly. "Finally, I hear you."
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