Disclaimer: I don't own the characters. Never have. Never will. Darn!
Acknowledgements: To the TSL'ers for your encouragement and friendship, always.
"I need some time off, sir."
Captain Simon Banks fingered his unlit cigar as he eyed Detective Jim Ellison, who stood at parade rest -- hands clasped and resting at the small of his back, his feet a shoulder length apart -- a habit retained from his Army days. The man looked like hell with dark smudges beneath his blue eyes and his pale face covered with three days' worth of whiskers.
"You did a good job bringing Sarris down," Banks said, deciding to stall and probe a little deeper before making a decision.
"It was too damned close." Jim's jaw muscle flexed and he added belatedly, "Sir."
"You stopped her from blowing that bus and killing all the passengers."
"We were lucky someone saw her holding the gun on the driver and called it in." Jim shuddered visibly and his shoulders sagged. "I should've stopped her a week ago at the mill. If I hadn't fallen off that damned motorcycle..."
"You were tired after a five day solitary stakeout. No one holds you responsible for not capturing her. In fact, you saved a lot of lives getting everyone out of the mill before the explosives detonated."
"I hold me responsible, sir." Banks could almost hear Jim's teeth grinding together. "I feel like I'm going insane, hearing voices that aren't there; seeing things I shouldn't be able to see; and the smells -- sometimes the stench is so bad, I feel like I can't breathe."
Simon shifted uncomfortably, uncertain how to deal with this. When Jim had talked to him right after he'd missed his chance at capturing Sarris, Simon had blown off his concerns, figuring it was merely stress. Now, he wasn't so certain.
"Have you been to your doctor?"
"Mine and a half dozen more. They all say there's nothing wrong with me. A couple even suggested a psychiatric evaluation." Jim took a deep, shuddering breath. "Maybe they're right."
The pain and helplessness in Ellison's voice was made worse by the fact that Jim had never pleaded before. There was definitely something going on with the detective -- Joel and H had commented on Jim's ragged appearance. And Caroline Plummer, Jim's ex, had even gone out to dinner with him one night to try to learn what was wrong him. But Simon couldn't imagine Jim Ellison having mental problems. It just didn't jive with what he knew of the painfully direct but emotionally distant detective.
"What're you going to do with the time off?" Simon asked quietly.
Jim's posture relaxed and he brought one hand up to rub his brow. "Go down to Texas."
Simon leaned back in his chair. He knew Jim went down there every year for a week or two, but he'd never told his boss who he visited or what he did. Maybe it was time to find out. "What's in Texas?"
Jim studied him a moment, as if deciding whether to confide in him or not. "A ranch. One of my men from the Rangers grew up there. He died in Peru." He paused and his eyes became bleak. "When I got out of the Army, I went to see his father who lives near Amarillo. He didn't blame me for Dave's death. In fact, he practically adopted me." The detective's smile was bittersweet. "I spent six months on the ranch with him before I finally settled in Cascade. Learned how to be a cowboy and even did some bronc riding and calf roping in the local rodeos. I go back every year to remind myself there's more to life than murderers, rapists, and pimps."
Simon's mouth gaped. "You're a cowboy?"
A crooked grin graced Jim's face, making the lines of stress disappear momentarily. "It's every kid's dream."
Simon thought for a moment, remembering his own childhood and watching the old westerns. He'd even gone to the library and read about Bill Pickett, a black cowboy who was credited with starting the bulldogging event in rodeo. Simon had his own childhood dreams about being on the open range with nothing more than a horse, his saddle, and the clothes on his back. "Yeah, I suppose it is, but not many people get to actually live it." Simon sighed. "After you finish up your report on Sarris, you can have two weeks. But leave me a number where I can get a hold of you if I have to."
Jim nodded as relief eased the tightness around his mouth. "Thank you, sir." He turned to leave.
"Jim," Simon called.
The detective paused, his hand on the doorknob, and glanced back at Banks.
"Do you actually wear a cowboy hat and boots?" Simon asked.
Jim's lips twitched with a smile. "Yes, sir. And chaps."
Simon chuckled. "Go on. Get out of here and get that report done so you can go play cowboy."
After the door closed behind the detective, Simon's amusement faded. He hoped and prayed Jim would find some answers or he was going to lose a good detective. And a good friend.
The smells of popcorn and horse manure and leather were now familiar to Blair Sandburg as he leaned against the sagging corral fence to watch the calf ropers limber up both their horses and their arms. He grinned as one of the regulars, TJ Lansing, cussed a blue streak after throwing a bad loop.
Attending the weekly rodeos at the fairgrounds on the outskirts of Amarillo had become part of Blair's routine the past six weeks. Most of the time, it was the same participants -- men and women who grew up on the surrounding ranches which dotted the Texas countryside. Besides the competitive sport, it was also the social event of the week, giving people who lived in remote areas a chance to get together and socialize. And do some showing off in the bargain.
As an anthropologist, Blair observed these weekly gatherings from a cultural point of view. He watched the interactions between the cowboys, including the competition and the camaraderie, and listened to their own unique language, deciphering the hidden meanings. After the events were over, Blair would head to one of the "saloons" to see their dating rituals in action. The line between the rural and city cowboys and cowgirls was obvious on the rodeo grounds, but those boundaries blurred in the bars.
"Hey, Professor," one of the cowboys called out.
Blair smiled and waved at Slim, thinking how the stereotypical nickname fit him -- the man was as thin as a rail. He worked at the Triple D ranch about forty miles away, or a hop, skip and a jump from the big city, as Slim would say.
Slim, riding his usual roan, trotted over to Blair. "You here to cheer me on?" The cowboy's hazel eyes twinkled with laughter.
"I'll leave that to Vicki. Is she riding tonight?"
Slim nodded. "Yep, but not Snowflake. He got a rock in his shoe the other day. The foot's still bruised. She's gonna be taking Red around the barrels."
"I'll be rooting for her."
Slim chuckled. "And for Patty and Lori and Rita."
Blair held up a hand in surrender. "Guilty as charged. They're just amazing to watch. It's like they're an extension of their horse. In fact, all of you seem to be a part of the horse when you ride."
"That's because we've been riding since we were two years old. Your uncle used to be pretty good until he took to riding an eighteen-wheeler instead." Slim removed his hat and wiped his brow. "Is he home this weekend?"
Blair shook his head. "Both he and my aunt are on their way to Minneapolis with a load. They're supposed to be back Tuesday."
"You need a ride home tonight?"
"Nah. Art said he'd drive me since he goes right past the place."
Slim scowled. "He drinks too much."
Blair shrugged, wishing he didn't have to rely on anyone, but those days were long gone. Ever since the accident fourteen months ago. "I'll make sure he's sober before he gets in the driver's seat."
The cowboy gazed at Blair a moment. "You sure you're going to be okay, Professor? Me and Vicki'd be more than happy to give you a ride home later."
"Don't worry about me. I'll be fine. I'm just going to observe and take some more notes for my dissertation." He patted the ever-present backpack slung over a shoulder.
"The cowboy culture -- don't know why that would interest folks." Slim shook his head.
"Because you're a part of it. Looking at it from the outside, it's a fascinating society with unwritten rules and a social etiquette all its own."
Slim chuckled. "When you say it like that, it sounds like something special."
"It is." Blair couldn't stop his bubbling enthusiasm.
"Yeah, well, I'll take your word on that, Professor. You take it easy, and anyone gives you any grief, you know where to find me."
"I'll be fine," Blair assured.
He lifted his hand in farewell as the skinny cowboy joined the others. For a moment, Blair felt his isolation like a physical blow. All his life he'd been on the outside looking in and even though he'd been living near Amarillo for over a year, he still didn't feel like he belonged. If only he'd been able to stay at Rainier -- the only niche he'd ever found -- but after being hurt so badly during an expedition in South America, he couldn't live by himself while recovering and attending rehab three times a week. His mother Naomi had tried to settle down with him, but the free-spirited woman had been miserable. So Blair had called his aunt and uncle down in Texas and they'd been more than willing to let him live with them until he was back on his feet, literally.
Blair shifted his weight carefully, keeping a tight hold on the cane in his hand. His left leg had recovered more quickly than the right, and he'd been able to throw away his crutches two months ago. But his right leg still ached and he couldn't bend the knee without nearly passing out from the pain. If his right leg had healed faster, Blair would've been able to drive and gain back some of his independence. But, then, nothing had gone his way for a long time.
He'd finally gone back to school the past spring semester and taken two classes at a college in Amarillo. While he'd been bedridden, he'd had endless days and hours to think about his doctorate subject, and how chasing it had led to his crippling injury. It was during that time he decided to change his dissertation to the closed society of the rodeo circuit.
A horse thundered past him and Blair instinctively drew back, accidentally leaning into his right leg. His backpack further unbalanced him and he felt himself starting to fall. Strong hands caught his arms, and his back hit a solid chest.
"I got you, Chief."
Blair allowed the other man to hold him for a moment as he regained his breath and composure. He breathed deeply to dispel the agony arrowing up his leg and settling in his gut.
"That's right. Breathe into it and don't be afraid to lean on me." The man's low, gentle voice soothed Blair.
Finally, Blair eased away from his savior and leaned heavily on his cane. The man moved around so Blair could see him. He was taller than Blair by about six inches, with broad shoulders encased in a chambray shirt. He wore blue jeans and chaps, emphasizing the narrowness of his waist and hips. But it was the direct sky blue eyes shaded by a brown, broad-brimmed hat which startled Blair the most.
"How're you doing, Chief?"
Blair managed to steady his hammering heart after the near tumble. "Fine now. Thanks a lot, man. I owe you, big time."
"No problem. The guy shouldn't have been riding so close to the fence." The man's eyes had turned cool and disapproving.
Blair followed his gaze, recognizing Art atop his horse. Although Blair didn't care much for him, the cowboy had always been willing to give him a ride into town when his aunt or uncle were gone or busy. Like tonight.
Blair shrugged. "He's all right. He just gets a little exuberant."
"That's one word for it." The tall man shook his head slightly, then gave his attention back to Blair. "Jim Ellison." He stuck out his hand.
The two men shook hands.
"You're new here," Blair commented.
"Just visiting for a couple of weeks," Ellison said. "What about you?"
"I'm staying with some relatives. Before that, I was going to school at a college in Cascade, Washington."
Blair blinked in surprise. "How'd you know?"
Ellison smiled and crow's feet appeared at the corners of his eyes. "I live there."
"Cool! What do you do?"
"I'm a cop."
"So what's a cop from Cascade doing down here?"
Ellison shrugged. "Vacation. Playing cowboy for a couple weeks."
"Sounds like there's an interesting story there."
"Nope. Pretty boring stuff."
The horn blared to signal the start of the events, and Blair noticed Ellison flinch. Pain radiated from those startling blue eyes. "Hey, man, you okay?" he asked Ellison, instinctively keeping his voice low.
"Uh, yeah, fine."
"You don't look fine. You look like you've got a helluva headache."
Ellison managed a weak smile. "Got some Excedrin?"
"Sorry." And Blair was. For some reason, it bothered him to see this man in any kind of pain. "You hanging around for the rodeo?"
"Wouldn't miss it." Blair fingered his cane nervously. "You here with anybody?"
"Nope. Come on, let's go find a place to sit down."
Unaccountably pleased, Blair hobbled alongside the tall man who seemed to know exactly what pace Blair could comfortably follow. They found an open bench space on the lowest tier and Ellison glanced at him questioningly. Blair nodded and sat down, sighing in relief. He kept his right leg stretched out in front of him. Ellison sat beside him and Blair could feel the stiff tension radiating from him. There was something obviously bothering the older man, but Blair wisely kept his counsel and did what he did best: observed.
He struggled to remove his backpack and Ellison lent a hand. "Thanks."
"What's in there, Chief?"
"Notebooks, books, pens." Blair shrugged. "The usual."
"You're going to do homework now?" the older man asked incredulously.
Blair grinned. "You could say that. This," he waved a hand, encompassing the grounds and the people, "is my homework. I'm working on my doctorate: The Closed Society of a Rodeo and the Cowboy Culture."
Ellison whistled low. "That's a mouthful, Chief."
The student laughed at his expression. "Hey, it's less of a mouthful than my original one -- Sentinels: The Cultural Significance and Implications of Genetically Superior Senses in Reference to the Modern World."
Ellison tipped his head to the side and instead of smiling, his expression became more shuttered. "What does that mean?"
"Sentinels were individuals with genetically enhanced senses -- all five senses -- who were watchmen for their tribe. Sir Richard Burton wrote about them when he was in South America over a hundred years ago. My goal was to find a sentinel and write my dissertation on him or her."
"So why didn't you?"
Blair turned to the ring where the clowns were entertaining the small crowd until the bullriding competition began. "I never found a sentinel."
"So they don't exist anymore? Or just not around here?"
"My educated guess is they died out when society progressed and their skills were no longer needed."
"What about down in South America? Many of the people living in the jungle still live nomadic lives, following the ways of their ancestors."
Ellison's confident words caught Blair's attention. "You sound like you have firsthand experience."
The cop's jaw muscle jumped beneath the shadow of his hat. "I do. I lived with the Chopec tribe in Peru for eighteen months."
Agitation filled Blair. "Was their shaman named Incacha?"
"How did you know?"
Blair started to rise, to pace like he was so accustomed to doing when too much nervous energy filled his body. But his legs reminded him he couldn't do that anymore. "I was down there for six months, living with probably the same tribe a couple years ago. I was trying to learn more about sentinels and for some reason, Incacha shared with me the stories passed down through word-of-mouth about sentinels and, what he called, their guides -- companions to the 'watchmen' who helped them control their senses. Gods, Jim, it was fascinating. I could've lived with them for years and still never learned everything Incacha knew about sentinels."
"So why didn't you stay longer?"
Remembered anguish tightened Blair's throat. "I was injured. A young girl had fallen down a steep hill. I helped rescue her, but ended up getting hurt myself. It was about a fifty-foot drop. Broke my back. The doctors say I'm a walking miracle." He grinned wryly. "Literally."
Jim's fingers curled into his palms. For some reason, the thought of Blair being hurt filled him with inexplicable sorrow. And overwhelming protectiveness. "How long ago was that?"
"Fourteen months. I have rehab three times a week now. Everyone says how lucky I am." Blair grimaced. "All I see is the damned cane and how dependent I am. I hate that."
The self-loathing in the last three words made Jim reach out and touch the younger man's arm. "But you're alive, Blair, and that's all that matters."
Gratitude shone in the dark blue eyes of the student, and Jim felt the warmth trickle into his chest. Suddenly, he experienced the world around him with crystal clarity, and his headache eased to a low hum.
Then a tinny voice announced the first bullrider, and Jim and Blair settled in to watch the rodeo. And for the first time, Jim didn't have any weird visions and the sounds of the crowd didn't hurt his ears. Even his clothes felt normal against his skin, instead of harsh and grating.
"Only two stayed on for the full eight seconds," Jim commented after the last bullrider.
"Those eight seconds must seem like forever when you're trying to keep from getting thrown," Blair said.
"They do. When a rider gets in the chute, he's looking for eight. The one who beats the horn and has the best ride, wins."
Blair looked at Jim thoughtfully. "I guess you could look at those eight seconds as a metaphor for a lifetime. People trying to live a full life and attain their dream."
"That's pretty deep, Chief."
Blair blinked, then grinned sheepishly. "Just the anthropologist in me, man. Always looking for that universal language."
Jim chuckled and settled back to enjoy the rodeo. In between the barrel racing and the calf roping events, Jim volunteered to get bottled water and popcorn, which even tasted good.
The final event was saddle bronc riding, which was Jim's favorite because the rider needed balance instead of brute strength. The cowboy had to find the bucking rhythm and move with the horse while keeping one hand from touching the animal.
Blair leaned close to his shoulder. "Have you done this?"
Jim nodded. "Yep. I plan to ride next week."
"I could do a whole chapter on the rodeo cop," Blair teased.
"Short chapter, Chief. He rode. He fell off. He lost. The end."
The two men laughed then clapped as the winner of the saddle bronc riding competition was announced. They sat there while the other attendants filed out. Many of them stopped by to say hello to Blair, and Jim realized how well liked his new friend was. So why was he by himself?
Even after the crowd thinned to almost nothing, Jim remained seated, oddly reluctant to leave Blair's side.
"So, are you headed home?" Blair asked.
Jim nodded. "Planned on it. What about you?"
"I was going to do some more homework at the bars."
"Riiight," Jim said with a knowing smile.
"No, seriously. I like to sit in a corner and watch." Blair glanced away. "It's not like I can get out there and do the two-step anymore."
"Shit, I'm the one who's sorry, Jim. Sometimes my self-pity party gets a little obnoxious."
"Why don't I go with you?"
Blair shook his head firmly. "No, man, I'll be fine. I don't need a babysitter. I had enough of that while I was in bed for six months."
"Who said anything about babysitting?"
The student stuffed his notebooks in his bag, closed it up and tossed it over a shoulder. He pushed himself upright and Jim reached out to help him. "I can do it myself."
Jim drew his hand back at the sharp words. "I know you can."
Blair leaned on his cane. "It was nice meeting you, Jim. Maybe we'll run into each other again before you head back to Cascade."
"Maybe," Jim echoed. "Take care of yourself, Blair."
Although the younger man limped, his shoulders and head were held erect. Blair Sandburg had enough stubbornness and pride for five men, and Jim couldn't help but admire him. Even as he fought back the urge to follow him and keep him safe.
Jim stretched and his spine cracked. The time had flown by with Blair, and Jim had forgotten his problems for a little while. But now that Sandburg was gone, Jim could feel the damnable headache encroaching once more, as were his freaky senses.
Sentinels. Could it be? Maybe he should've told the kid about his problems. The odds of meeting someone who'd lived with the same Chopec tribe and known the same shaman were astronomical, yet it had happened. Still, sentinels sounded more like fantasy characters than real life. Besides, if he was a sentinel, wouldn't Incacha have told him?
Life was made up of coincidences. Meeting Blair had just been another one.
The best thing to do was drive back to the ranch and get some sleep. Maybe when he woke up tomorrow morning, the headache and the weird stuff would be gone. Yeah, and maybe Bob's prize bull would jump over the moon tonight.
Sighing, Jim trudged back to his borrowed pick-up.
For the first time since he started his research at the honky-tonk bars, Blair was bored. The ever-popular Willie Nelson's "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys" barely prevailed over the voices, laughter, and bootheels scraping over the sawdust-covered floor. He watched the saddle bronc winner, Tim Lavois, sidle up to an attractive girl wearing skintight jeans and a colorful silk blouse, and wrap his arms around her waist. Lavois gyrated his hips against her backside and she giggled as he led her off to the dance floor.
The ache of loneliness pierced him anew. It seemed a lifetime ago that he had gone out dancing or on a date. Once a week he had lunch with some fellow students, but other than his rehab appointments and his Saturday night rodeo homework, he'd led a monastic life since the accident.
He leaned back in his chair and took a sip of his lukewarm beer. Making a face, he set the mug back on the scarred tabletop. A few acquaintances had stopped by to talk for a minute or two, and Slim and Vicki had visited for half an hour, but he'd spent most of the evening alone.
Except for the rodeo itself. Jim Ellison hadn't been the most talkative person, but Blair had enjoyed his solid presence and felt comfortable with the man. He'd been disappointed when Jim said he was headed home and the "poor me" had just slipped out. He'd been humiliated when Jim had offered to go with him then. Even thinking about it made Blair's cheeks burn with embarrassment.
He probably thinks I'm a wuss, and he's right, damn it!
It was time to take his life back; time to return to Rainier to finish his degree. He had garnered enough information for a thesis; all he had to do was get it approved by his committee. On Monday he'd call Dr. Stoddard and see if he could get the ball rolling to get reinstated at the university.
The possibility that he might run into Jim Ellison in Cascade had nothing to do with his decision.
Blair glanced at the clock behind the bar. Twelve forty-five. He wondered if Art was ready to head home yet. He searched the faces until he found him. Slim had been right -- although Art wasn't stumbling drunk, but he'd had more than a few. Stifling his impatience, Blair levered himself up and went to check on the condition of his driver.
Jim tossed and turned on his bed in one of the guest rooms of the sprawling ranch house. Ever since he'd left the rodeo that evening, his senses had been spinning out of control. His head throbbed mercilessly and he'd nearly lost the contents of his stomach. As soon as he'd returned to the ranch, he'd stripped off his clothes which were rubbing his skin raw and laid down on the bed. But even the sheets felt like sandpaper.
Jim forced himself to lie still. Although it was pitch dark, he could see everything in his room as clearly as if it were high noon. Odors assaulted his nose, so strong he could almost taste the offal. He could also detect every petty sound, from the quiet snores of his host, Bob Daniels, to the swishing of sand beneath a night creature's paws.
A country song invaded his hearing and Jim figured it had to be coming from the radio of a vehicle on the main road a mile away. He pressed his palms to his ears, trying to block it out, but the music only grew louder. The crunching of tires over the gravel road leading to the ranch told Jim the person was headed this way. It must be one of the cowhands coming home after an evening on the town.
"Why don't you let me drive?" a slurred voice asked, and Jim realized it was someone in the approaching car.
"Because you're drunk," came the terse reply in a familiar voice.
Jim bolted upright. Blair Sandburg. What was he doing driving?
"Damn it, Art, keep your hands off the wheel," Blair said.
Jim could hear the pained stutters in Blair's breathing. He tugged on his clothes, not bothering to tuck his shirt into his jeans, and hurried down the stairs just as a truck came to a stop down by the bunkhouse.
"Geezus, Blair, I coulda driven." The intoxicated passenger sounded indignant.
"Like I was going to let a drunk get behind the wheel. Get real, Art." Blair hissed in a sharp breath.
Jim ran down the path leading from the house to the bunkhouse. He paused to watch a man in his mid-twenties stumble out of the passenger side of the pick-up. Jim recognized him as one of Bob's hired hands. A shiver slid down his spine at the thought of the man driving in his condition -- with Blair as his passenger.
"You gonna be okay, Blair? I mean, you really ain't supposed to be driving yet," Art said.
But Jim could tell he wasn't. He stepped into the circle of illumination created by the bunkhouse porch light. "What's going on?"
"Oh, hey, Mr. Ellison," the drunken man said, taking an awkward step toward him. "Didn't mean to wake you."
"I wasn't sleeping," Jim said, his senses focused on Blair. "Why don't you go to bed and sleep it off, Art?"
"Sure. I just wanna make sure Blair's okay."
"I'll see that he makes it home all right."
"Thanks. Shouldn'ta drank so much," Art muttered as he stumbled into the bunkhouse.
Jim stepped over to the driver's side, immediately noticing the white knuckles locked on the steering wheel. He leaned against the door, gazing at Sandburg's profile. "Are you all right, Chief?"
"Fine," came the tight reply.
Jim reached through the open pick-up window to lay a hand on Blair's tense shoulder. "Liar," he said gently. "You aren't supposed to be driving, are you?"
The shoulder sagged beneath his palm. "No. But I couldn't let Art drive in his condition." Blair finally turned toward Jim and the older man was struck by the pain etched in his haggard face.
"Why don't you spend the night here? I'm sure Bob wouldn't mind you taking the other guest room," Jim suggested.
Blair shook his head. "I have to get back to my uncle's place. I promised to take care of their dog while they were gone."
Jim recognized the obstinacy in his face and nodded. "All right. But I'll drive."
Relief made the student close his eyes. "I shouldn't be bothering you, but I-I really don't know if I can make it the rest of the way."
Blair managed a slight smile. "Total understatement, man."
"Can you slide over?" Jim opened the driver's door as Blair moved across the bench seat to the passenger side. Totally centered on Blair, Jim could hear the ragged hitches in his throat and smell the pain-sweat sheening the younger man's skin. Jim wanted to help, but was afraid he'd do something to hurt him accidentally, so only gritted his teeth in frustration.
Once Blair had shifted over, Jim climbed in behind the wheel. He leaned over to help Blair with his seatbelt.
"Thanks," Blair said hoarsely.
"No problem." Jim kept his voice light as not to make the younger man any more self-conscious. He put the truck into gear and headed out along the mile-long driveway. "Where does your uncle live?"
"Turn south on the main road and drive about three miles. The Paul Sandburg place. Can't miss it."
Jim nodded. "Two story white farmhouse with a wide porch?"
Jim drove in silence, letting Blair rest. He automatically focused his senses on him, monitoring his heartbeat and breathing. Blair seemed to be relaxing a little, but Jim knew the leg was hurting him badly. Damn Art for forcing Blair into this position.
Jim found the place easily and turned into the circular driveway. He heard a dog barking inside the house and figured he was the reason Blair felt he had to return. "We're here, Chief," he said softly.
Blair roused, although Jim knew he hadn't been sleeping. "Thanks, Jim. Looks like I owe you another one."
"Hey, friends don't keep score," Jim said with a smile.
Blair opened his door and groaned as he had to use his hands to physically lift his right leg out of the truck. "This is gonna be a bitch."
Jim quickly got out of the truck and came around Blair's side to help him. Blair braced his hands on Jim's shoulders to step out of the vehicle. Jim hung onto Blair's waist to steady him and take some of the weight off his weakened legs. The younger man attempted to move away and walk to the house under his own power, but stumbled and would've fallen if Jim hadn't caught him.
"Please, let me help," Jim said gently.
Blair's muscles bunched, but he nodded in a jerky motion. Five minutes later, Jim had Blair sitting on the couch in the comfortable living room and the dog -- Shane, a retriever and Irish setter mix -- was outside taking care of business. Blair's face was sweat-drenched and his eyes pain-filled.
"Do you have any painkillers?" Jim asked.
"Yeah, but I don't want to take any," Blair replied stubbornly.
"C'mon, Chief, you're not going to get any sleep if you don't."
"I haven't taken one in nearly two weeks."
Jim could tell Blair was exhausted by his foolish stubbornness, but didn't know how to change his mind. "Why don't I help you to your bed so you can get some rest?"
"I can take care of myself. I'm not a kid," he said petulantly.
Jim lowered himself to the couch beside Blair and laid a light hand on his left knee. "I never said you were, Chief." He remained sitting there, lending silent support.
After a couple minutes, Blair leaned his head back against the couch and closed his eyes. "I started college when I was sixteen years old. I was all by myself, but I wasn't scared. I knew I could do it. But this. Damn, I hate this." His voice broke. "I hate hurting and I hate feeling like I don't have any control over my life anymore."
Jim's heart clenched as he watched a single tear slide down Blair's face. "But you do have control, Blair. Look what you've accomplished. They said you'd never walk again and you proved them wrong. I know we only met, but I know you're going to get through this, Chief, because you've got the guts to do it."
Blair opened his eyes, which shimmered with moisture. "It hurts so bad."
"Let me help." Jim slid off the couch and knelt in front of Blair. He began to massage the younger man's right calf muscle. "Is this all right?"
Jim concentrated his sense of touch on the knotted muscles beneath his fingers. He massaged gently at first, then went a little deeper as he listened closely, taking his cues from the younger man's breathing pattern. When Blair's breathing evened out, Jim glanced up to see Blair watching him through heavy-lidded eyes. "Better?" Jim whispered.
"Yeah." Blair sat up. "You can go home now. I'll be all right."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah. I appreciate your help, Jim. Really."
Jim pushed himself upright, surprised by his own stiffness. "I can stay if you'd like. I don't mind." He smiled. "Really."
"No. That's okay."
Although Jim was reluctant to leave, he suspected Blair needed to be alone right now. "I'll get your backpack and cane from the truck and let the dog in first."
When Jim returned with the items and Shane, Blair was in the kitchen drinking a glass of water. His face was pale, but nowhere near as drawn as it had been earlier.
"Would you mind if I stopped by tomorrow?" Jim asked cautiously.
"You don't have to."
"I know I don't have to. I want to."
Blair leaned against the counter and lifted his chin. "Look, Jim, I know I came off as a spineless goober earlier, but I can take care of myself."
"And Simon calls me stubborn," Jim murmured, then spoke in a normal voice. "What if I told you it'd make me feel better?"
"I'd say you're full of shit." A slight twinkle appeared in the younger man's eyes.
Jim laughed. "Wouldn't be the first time someone said that about me." He sobered. "But I really would feel better if you let me drop by."
Blair's gaze flickered past Jim. "Why don't you come over around five thirty for dinner?"
"I'd like that." Jim couldn't force himself to leave yet. "Is there anything--"
Blair made a shooing motion. "Get out of here, Ellison."
Chuckling, Jim returned to Art's pick-up. Halfway back to the ranch, Jim realized that even though his senses were keener, they hadn't bothered him the whole time he'd been with Blair.
Blair finished setting the table, then carefully leaned over to check the roast beef and vegetables he'd put in the oven five hours earlier. They'd slowly cooked throughout the day, the spices mixing with the food to fill the house with a pleasant scent. He hoped Jim liked it. And the peanut butter pie he'd made for dessert.
He paused to give the table a critical examination, then laughed at himself. It'd been so long since he'd had company for dinner that he was acting like he'd never entertained before. The crunch of tires alerted him to Jim's arrival and he limped out onto the porch to greet him.
"Hey, Chief," Jim called out, grinning as he stepped out of the truck. Shane bounded up to him, anxious for pets, which Jim cheerfully gave. He held up a bottle of Pinot Noir to Blair. "I hope this'll work with dinner."
Blair smiled, relaxing in the older man's presence. "It's perfect."
Jim strode over to join him, his bootheels ringing dully on the wood porch. "You're looking pretty good. Did you get some sleep last night?"
Blair nodded. "Thanks to your massage. I ended up taking a couple aspirin, but I didn't have to take the painkillers. Have you ever thought about getting into physical therapy? You have the hands for it."
"I wouldn't have the patience."
"I find that hard to believe." Blair motioned toward the house. "Let's go in. Dinner should be ready."
"It smells great. Roast beef, carrots, potatoes and onions. And I got a whiff of peanut butter, too."
"Wow. All I can smell is the meat," Blair said, surprised.
Jim's face reddened slightly. "Just a good nose, I guess."
Blair scrutinized him a moment. "When I was looking for a sentinel, I found people who had one or two hypersenses. Maybe you have a heightened sense of smell."
Jim shrugged. "Maybe." He opened the screen door and gestured for Blair to go ahead of him.
Once inside, Jim helped Blair set the food on the table and open the wine bottle.
"To new friends," Blair said, lifting his wineglass.
"To new friends," Jim repeated as they clinked glasses.
As they ate, they talked of Cascade and Jim answered Blair's questions about the city and how it had changed and expanded in the time since Blair had been there. Blair discovered Jim, too, was an avid Jags fan and they got into a friendly argument about the coach and the players.
Once they were done eating, the two men cleared the table. Blair put the leftovers away while Jim filled the dishwasher and Shane plopped down in the middle of the kitchen in case any food happened to drop on the floor.
"Would you like some coffee with dessert?" Blair asked.
"Sounds good," Jim replied.
As Blair readied the coffeemaker, Jim leaned against the counter and watched him. Although Blair usually felt self-conscious about his game leg and the accompanying clumsiness, he didn't mind Jim's proximity. Truth be told, he'd never felt as comfortable around anyone as quickly as he did Jim.
"The coffee will be ready in about ten minutes," Blair announced. "That'll give us time to make some room for dessert. Would you like to sit on the porch?"
Blair liked how Jim gave him his space, yet the younger man knew Jim would be beside him in an instant if he needed him. Each man took a wicker rocking chair, and Jim rested his right ankle on his left knee as he rocked gently. Before the accident, Blair would've sat lotus style in his chair. So many things had changed....
The crickets and cicadas were just beginning their evening chorus and Blair noticed how Jim tipped his head and smiled slightly, as if listening to their concert.
"You said you were a cop," Blair began.
Jim's blue eyes found him. "That's right. A detective in the Major Crime division."
Blair flinched. "Oh, man, that must be rough."
"Yeah. I like to come down here at least once a year to get away from it for a little while," Jim said quietly. "Last night you said you've been on your own since you were sixteen. What about your parents?"
"It was just my mom and I. We traveled a lot. Naomi, my mom, didn't like settling in one place for too long. When I got hurt, she tried, but she wasn't meant to put down roots."
Irritation flitted across Jim's face. "So she sent you to your aunt and uncle's?"
"No. I did that. I knew she wasn't happy. I just couldn't do that to her, man."
"I don't understand." There was confusion in Jim's tone. "If a person cares for someone, they'll sacrifice anything to take care of him."
"Maybe in your world, Jim, but not mine," Blair said, trying to hide his wistfulness. "Have you lived in Cascade all your life?"
"Except for eight years while I was in the Army and the six months I lived with Bob Daniels after I got out."
"How did you meet him?"
"His son and I were in the same unit in the military." Jim's long fingers curled around the chair's arms. "He died when our helicopter went down in a Peruvian jungle."
Blair's mind clicked, remembering something that Jim had said last night. "Was that when you lived with the Chopec?"
"I was the only survivor of the crash. The Chopec found me, nursed me back to health, and I stayed with them until I was rescued," Jim said, his voice low and thready.
Blair gripped his cane handle tightly. "I'm sorry, Jim. That must've been traumatic." Jim's silence told Blair more than words. "So you and Bob got along pretty well?"
The creases in Jim's brow eased, and he smiled. "He kicked me in the ass a few times when I stayed with him. Without him, I doubt I would've become a cop. He forced me to really think about what I wanted to do with my life." Jim shrugged, but his eyes twinkled. "I guess you could say he made me start 'lookin' for eight.'"
Blair smiled in understanding. "So what do you want out of life?"
"To serve and protect."
"You sound like a walking police recruitment ad."
"It's the way I feel. It's probably the same reason I joined the Army. What about you, Chief? What do you want?"
"My PhD in anthropology," he replied without hesitation. "I would've liked to have found a sentinel, but that's never going to happen."
"Why not? Maybe there's one out there that you just haven't discovered yet."
"Nah. Even if sentinels existed a hundred years ago, they don't now. It's time for me to grow up and move on." Even as he disavowed the existence of sentinels, a part of Blair kept hope alive.
Jim cocked his head slightly. "You don't believe that."
Startled by Jim's confident -- and perceptive -- words, Blair narrowed his eyes. "I believe I can't be a student all my life."
"What if you did find a sentinel? What would you do?"
"Why do you keep pushing, Jim?"
The older man looked away. "I'm just curious."
"You know what they say about curiosity," Blair said, trying to lighten the conversation. He stood. "I hear some peanut butter pie calling our names."
By the time they ate the rich pie and finished the pot of coffee, it was dark.
"I'd better get back to the ranch. I told Bob to treat me like a hired hand, so it's up at five in the morning," Jim said.
Blair walked out onto the porch with him. "You said you were going to compete at the next rodeo?"
Jim grinned. "The saddle bronc event."
For a minute, Jim looked like an excited little boy and Blair couldn't help but smile back. "I'll be there to cheer you on."
"Who's going to take you to your rehab appointment tomorrow?" Jim asked.
Blair had forgotten to ask someone. He was accustomed to his aunt taking him but Sarah wouldn't be home until Tuesday evening. "I'll find someone."
"What time is the appointment?"
"I'll pick you up at eight fifteen."
"You don't have to do that."
Jim sighed, his exasperation clear. "I know I don't have to, but I want to."
"Sheesh, no reason to get cranky about it. Eight fifteen. I'll be ready."
Jim's mouth lifted at the corners. "That wasn't cranky. That was only mildly frustrated."
Blair rolled his eyes heavenward. "Then I'd hate to see a cranky Jim Ellison."
Jim laughed. "Thanks for dinner, Chief. I really had a nice evening."
"Me, too," Blair said. "I'll see you tomorrow morning."
Blair watched until the truck lights disappeared on the country road then limped back into the house.
Blair wasn't surprised when promptly at eight fifteen the following morning Jim drove into the yard. With his backpack over his shoulder, Blair used his cane to limp over to the truck. He climbed in with practiced awkwardness. "Good morning."
Jim seemed more reticent than usual and Blair wondered if he was having second thoughts about offering to take him into town. "Is something wrong?" he asked.
Startled, Jim glanced at him and shook his head. "No. Just another headache."
"Do you get them quite a bit?"
"Only in the past few weeks."
"Have you been to a doctor?"
Jim chuckled weakly. "More than one. Nobody can find anything physically wrong with me."
"Maybe it's an allergic reaction. Did you change your laundry detergent recently? Or maybe taking a different brand of vitamin? What about food? Eating anything different?"
Jim held up a hand. "Slow down, Chief. All those things were checked. Don't worry. It always goes away."
Blair thought he was going to add more, but when he didn't, the younger man said, "What makes it go away?"
Jim's gaze swept across him, then focused on the deserted road. "Nothing in particular."
Blair crossed his arms, knowing Jim was holding something back. "Excedrin?" he asked, half serious and half teasing.
Jim merely shook his head as he smiled.
The thirty-mile drive into town went quickly as the two men talked. Once they hit Amarillo, Blair guided Jim to the rehab center.
"I'll be here for about three hours," Blair said. "You can go shopping or something and then come back to pick me up." He paused. "Or you could head home and I'll get somebody to give me a ride back."
"Are you trying to get rid of me, Chief?"
"Well, you know what they say about bad pennies," Blair bantered.
"Would you mind if I went in with you?"
Blair's grin faded. "You'd be bored stiff, man."
"I used to be a medic in the Army. I might pick up something."
Although he didn't say it, Blair suspected Jim wanted to know how to help him. It was an odd, but gratifying feeling to have the older man concerned about him. Still, sometimes the pain was so bad during these sessions that the tears flowed down Blair's face involuntarily. Did he want Jim to see him so weak and helpless?
"If you don't want me to, Chief, that's fine. I'll find something to do and be back in three hours," Jim said, as if reading Blair's thoughts.
Blair found himself shaking his head. "No, you can come in and watch." He forced a laugh. "Just remember, I'm a wimp underneath it all."
"I doubt that."
Once inside, Blair introduced Jim to Sharon, his therapist who was a middle-aged woman with a friendly smile, but a no-nonsense approach to work. Blair left his backpack with Jim and joined Sharon in the middle of the torture dungeon, as Blair called it.
Sharon had him start out with some fairly easy stretching motions, then exercised his knee as Blair lay on his back on a mat. The discomfort started first, but Blair knew it would grow, graduating to almost unbearable pain as Sharon put him through the tougher paces.
Every half hour they took a break, and each time, Jim was there with bottled water, encouraging him and telling him how well he was doing. The last half hour was the worst as Sharon made him walk between two parallel bars, trying not to touch them unless he had to. Sweat streamed down his face and he knew tears mixed with it. Pain shot up his knee into his back, nudging nerve endings which had grown complacent. He had gone half the distance, walking by himself with Sharon standing behind him, ready to catch him if he faltered. A torture rack would've involved less agony and although Blair wished he could walk the full length for the first time, the pain was already growing too large, too impossible to deal with.
"Come on, Chief. You can do it. I'll catch you," Jim said quietly.
Blair looked up to see Jim at the end of the parallel bars -- the finish line. The quiet confidence and encouragement in the larger man's expression flooded Blair. He stared into Jim's warm blue eyes and forced himself to take one more step. Agony made him groan and his eyes filled with moisture, but he didn't want to let Jim down. Keeping his eyes locked with the older man's, he took another step and another, even as more tears rolled down his cheeks and sweat soaked his T-shirt. Finally, when he thought he'd never move again, he accomplished one more step... and fell into Jim's arms.
"I knew you could do it, Chief," Jim whispered, hugging him close. "And if you ever call my friend a wimp again, I'm going to have to kick your ass."
Blair's laughter mixed with tears as he wrapped his trembling arms around Jim's waist and hung on tight.
Although Blair was tired after his session, he insisted that he and Jim go out to lunch to celebrate his victory. The victory Blair said he couldn't have accomplished without Jim's support. Jim thought he was being melodramatic, but he also didn't want his time with Blair to end yet.
The only times his senses seemed in control were when he was with Blair. So maybe that made him a selfish son of a bitch, but the fact was he truly enjoyed Blair's company. There were very few people in Jim's life he called friend, and he had known them for years before he gave them that privilege. But with Blair, there was simply no way Jim couldn't call him friend.
Jim let Blair pick the restaurant and found himself in a deli type cafe with overpowering scents that tempted Jim's senses. As they stood in line to order their sandwiches, Jim opened up to experience the rich odors -- pastrami and onions and gouda cheese and a hundred other tantalizing smells.
"Jim, hey Jim, man, you in there?" came Blair's nervous voice.
Jim blinked a few times, surprised by how dry his eyes were. "Uh, yeah, what's going on, Chief?"
"You tell me, buddy. You were making like a zombie and it took a few minutes for you to come back."
Damn, it happened again. He hadn't had one of the spells for four days and was hoping they were gone for good. So much for wishful thinking.
"Sorry, Chief, I was just daydreaming."
Blair didn't appear convinced, but he turned away to give the man behind the counter his order. Then Jim gave his, and Blair insisted on paying for both meals. Five minutes later, the two men were sitting at a table in a corner by the window with their sandwiches and iced teas.
"So, what was that really, Jim?" Blair asked conversationally, then took a bite out of his bagel filled with bean sprouts and hummus.
Jim's heart missed a beat and he pretended to concentrate on his sandwich -- roast beef and Swiss cheese on rye. "I don't know what you mean, Chief."
Blair sighed. "I wish you trusted me, Jim. I mean, we've only known each other for a couple days, but I know I can trust you."
"It's no biggie, Chief. I just get lost in my thoughts sometimes."
"Whatever." Blair took a sip of his tea, and glanced out the window into the sunny afternoon, then brought his attention back to Jim. "You really helped me during my session, Jim. I don't know if you realize how much."
Jim shifted uncomfortably. "I talked to Sharon while you were showering and changing. She said that was the first time you'd gone the entire distance without touching the bars."
"It hurt like hell."
"I know," Jim said huskily. He did know -- he'd seen Blair's tears and could almost feel his pain. But what had hurt the most was knowing he couldn't take Blair's suffering away.
"But you were looking at me with so much confidence, I-I didn't want to let you down," Blair said softly.
Jim rested his hand on Blair's forearm, feeling the younger man's warmth and aliveness through the layer of cloth. "It wouldn't have mattered if you'd walked the distance or not. You'd never let me down. Never."
Blair studied him as if searching for something, then smiled. "I believe you."
"Good, because I meant it." Jim withdrew his hand self-consciously. "Now eat those weeds so we can hit the ice cream shoppe."
Laughing, Blair did as Jim said, and they drove home as they ate old-fashioned ice cream cones.
At Wednesday's rehab session, the pain nearly made Blair faint, but he persisted because Jim again stood at the finish line. The older man urged him on, his eyes sparkling and his smile warm and heartening despite the headache Blair knew he had. While riding with Jim into town, Blair had seen the pinched skin around his mouth and the squint lines by his eyes. But when Blair collapsed in his arms after walking the full distance by himself again, the lines were gone and affection had replaced the distress in Jim's face.
This time Blair let Jim pick the lunch spot, and they ended up at Wonderburger. Although Blair teased him about his choice, the younger man indulged in a double Wonderburger with cheese and helped Jim eat his greasy fries.
On Friday morning, Blair bid good-bye to his aunt as Jim drove into the yard to take him into town for his appointment. Although Blair had told Jim that Sarah could take him on Wednesday and Friday, Jim had said he didn't mind, and Blair was elated. The sessions had gone much better with Jim there, and Blair liked being able to look up and see him rooting for him. He also enjoyed their lunches together and the camaraderie which came so easily.
The only things that bothered Blair were Jim's headaches and the odd lapse the Cascade cop had at the deli on Monday. He'd done some research on the Internet and had come up with some frightening theories -- from a brain tumor to epilepsy to schizophrenia.
"Hey, Chief," Jim called out his usual greeting.
"Hi, Jim." Blair clambered into the seat and tossed his backpack on the seat between them, then snapped on his seatbelt. "How's the headache?"
"Fi--" he started to say, then smiled wryly. "It feels like a hundred little people are swinging hammers in my brain."
"Are you sure you're up to doing this today?"
Jim ruffled Blair's hair. "I'll be fine. Besides, when I'm with you, it seems to get better or go away all together."
"Yeah, really, Chief," Jim said fondly.
Jim pulled onto the main road and headed to the freeway entrance ten miles away to drive into Amarillo.
"Are you still planning on riding tomorrow night?" Blair asked, worried but not wanting to show it.
"I've been practicing all week." He grimaced. "Got a few bruises to prove it, too."
"So's being a cop in Cascade. I'll be fine."
"But what if you have one of those, uh, deep thinking spells again?"
Jim clenched his teeth. "Won't happen, Chief."
"How do you know?" Blair pushed.
"Just leave it be, Sandburg."
Blair's eyes flared at the uncharacteristic sharp tone, and he was tempted to press even harder, but something unusual and disturbing in Jim's expression told him to ease back.
That something was fear.
The ride into town was abnormally quiet, but Jim didn't let Blair down as he coaxed him the last six feet to walk the entire distance for a third session in a row, much to Sharon's satisfaction and delight. And although Blair collapsed in Jim's arms again, there wasn't the overwhelming sense of weakness he'd experienced the previous two times. Maybe he really would walk someday without the cane or the agony.
Lunch this time was a joint decision -- a nearby small Italian restaurant. The food was authentic, excellent, and priced right. As Jim and Blair waited for their meals and ate fresh breadsticks, Blair noticed the visible signs of Jim's headache were gone.
"When did the headache go away?" he asked.
Jim shrugged. "Sometime during your PT."
"I wonder why."
Jim took a sip of his tea, and fiddled with half of a breadstick. "I don't know." He smiled. "Maybe you have a relaxing karma."
Blair nearly blew tea out of his nose. "Jim Ellison using the word karma in a sentence. That is so not you."
"Hey, I know what it is. I just think it's a bunch of crap."
Blair laughed. "Now there's the Jim I know."
Their meals arrived and they ate in relative silence. The waitress came around and picked up Jim's empty plate ten minutes later.
"I'm flying back to Cascade on Monday," Jim announced quietly.
Blair's fork froze halfway to his mouth and he lowered it slowly, his appetite gone. "That soon?"
Jim nodded and traced the rim of his glass with an idle finger. "My boss gave me two weeks off. I have to be back to work on Tuesday."
Blair felt tears prick his eyes, but refused to acknowledge them. "I'm going to miss you."
"I'll miss you, too, Chief." Jim smiled, but it was a drab caricature of his usual one. "I have to admit I usually don't make friends so fast, but with you--" He shrugged. "I guess we just hit it off."
"I know what you mean." Blair's breath caught in his throat. "It's going to be strange to go to PT without you."
A dish shattered on the floor in the kitchen and Jim cringed, his hands going to his ears.
"What's wrong?" Blair demanded.
Blair had never heard a more blatant lie, and he replayed the last thirty seconds in his mind. "The dish. When it broke, it hurt your ears."
"I'm fine, Sandburg." Jim removed his hands slowly, though his eyes remained squinted as if fighting a headache, or worse.
A fork clattered on a plate at the next table and Jim's face scrunched up.
"You have sensitive hearing, don't you?" Blair asked, remembering to keep his voice low. The memory of Jim coming over for supper and guessing everything Blair had made, including the peanut butter pie, struck the younger man. "And smelling, too, right?"
Jim rubbed small circles on his temples with his fingertips. "And seeing, tasting, and touch."
Blair's mouth dropped open and he fell back against the seat as he stared at Jim like he was a stranger. "All five senses are sensitive?"
"I believe the word is heightened," Jim corrected dryly.
"Oh my God, the lapse at the deli on Monday, it was a zone out."
Jim scowled. "A what?"
"A zone out." Blair sat up straight, excitement thrumming through him. "Only a true sentinel has them. It's when they concentrate on one sense to the exclusion of the other four. He or she goes into a fugue state -- a zone out." Another thought struck Blair and he sent an accusing glare at Jim. "That's why you were asking me what I'd do if I found a sentinel. You knew then."
Jim shook his head. "No, Chief. I suspected, but I wasn't sure. I think the headaches are from trying to process all the information coming in and it can't. When I'm not around you, it's like everything is too much. I've been able to hide it so far by ignoring it, but that doesn't work all the time."
"Hasn't anybody noticed?"
"My boss back in Cascade and some of my coworkers knew something was wrong, but no one, including me, knew what it was. After you told me about those sentinels, I started wondering. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense, even though I still find it pretty fantastic to believe."
Blair stared at him for a long moment. "You're the embodiment of my original thesis."
Jim frowned. "I'm a cop, Blair. I don't want to be yours or anyone else's thesis project."
"No." Jim crossed his arms as desolation invaded his eyes. "I guess I know now what you'd do if you found a sentinel. You'd turn him into your own personal lab rat."
"No! Gods, Jim, I wouldn't do that to you or anybody else."
"You told me yourself that you've been looking for a sentinel since you were fifteen years old. Well, here I am."
The self-mockery in Jim's voice frightened Blair. He clasped Jim's wrist. "Damn it, Jim. Don't turn this into some weird science project. You're a person who's suffering because his senses are so powerful, his brain can't handle the input. I think I can help you. I mean, you said yourself the headaches go away when you're around me. What about your senses? How're they when you're with me?"
"They're sharper, but it's like I can handle the stuff coming in when I'm with you."
"Then you have to stay here," Blair blurted.
"I can't. My home and my job are in Cascade, Sandburg. I can't just pick up and move because of some theory."
Blair took a deep breath to calm his agitation. He'd called Dr. Stoddard on Monday about returning to Cascade, but Blair wouldn't be starting until the fall semester, which was still three months away -- months Blair planned to use to get the full use of his legs back. But if Jim was a sentinel...
"Then we'll have to work together until you leave to help give you some control over your senses," Blair stated.
"Can't you help me get rid of them?" Jim asked. "I don't want them."
"It doesn't work that way. The senses are as much a part of you as your eye or hair color. You can't just wave a magic wand and make them go away."
The student could see the anguish in Jim's face as he grappled with the information.
"So why now? I mean, I've had my eye and hair color all my life. Why haven't I had these super senses all my life?"
"Maybe you have," Blair said quietly. "Maybe they've remained dormant until you needed them. What happened right before they started giving you problems?"
"I dunno. Nothing special. I was working on a bombing case. We caught the suspect two days before I flew down here."
Blair's mind raced. "Did you experience an extended time of isolation during the investigation?"
Jim blinked, startled. "I was on a stakeout in the woods for five days by myself."
Blair slapped the edge of the table. "That's it. Periods of isolation are said to bring the senses up to full capacity. And now that they are, they don't want to go back where they came from." He paused, then announced, "You, Jim Ellison, are on-line."
Jim rolled his eyes. "Have you ever thought about becoming a game show host?"
"Very funny, Ellison. And quit changing the subject. I'm ninety-nine percent certain you're a sentinel, but in order to be positive, I need to run some tests."
Jim held up his hands, palms outward. "No way, Chief. Like I said, I'm no lab rat."
Blair leaned forward. "Come on, Jim. This is to help you. It's not like I'm going to announce to the world what we find."
"That's not who I am," Jim said in a low voice. "I'm not a sentinel. I'm a cop who likes to play cowboy who just happens to have better senses than the rest of the world."
"What if you zone out during a shoot-out? Or when you're arresting a suspect? What's your boss going to say when you start throwing off your clothes because you can't stand the feel of them?"
Jim's face flushed and Blair had the impression he'd already experienced the out-of-control sense of touch.
"Teach me a few things so that doesn't happen," Jim said.
"It doesn't work that way."
"It's going to have to." Jim grabbed the check and stood. "Ready to go?"
Blair wanted to yell out his frustration but only nodded. He liked Jim Ellison -- he knew him better than anyone he'd met since he moved down here, except for maybe Sharon, his physical therapist. But with her, the relationship was more out of necessity than volition. With Jim, the two men had connected on some level Blair had never felt before.
A gentle hand on his arm helped him up and Blair allowed Jim to support part of his weight for a moment, before Blair's legs stopped wobbling. After the PT his legs were always weaker from the exertion. Blair used to be embarrassed by his weakness, but Jim never made him feel like a cripple. The older man merely gave him a hand without making a big production of it.
Back in the truck, Blair tipped his head back. Jim is a sentinel. He had to find some way for Jim to accept it and all the ramifications which went with it.
"Are you all right, Chief?" Jim asked, his concern soothing and warming Blair.
"I'm fine, Jim. It's you I'm worried about."
Jim braked at a red light and looked at Blair. "Don't be. Now that I know what's going on, I can get a handle on it."
"You really think you can do it alone?"
Jim returned to his driving as the light changed to green. "I've been on my own for years, Chief. I'll be fine."
Blair gazed out his side window, oblivious to the downtown traffic and pedestrians. "I was on my own for almost ten years, until the accident. I hated to ask for help, but I couldn't do it on my own. I finally recognized that."
"It wasn't easy though, was it?"
Blair laughed, a sound without amusement. "It was the hardest thing I'd ever done in my life. But if I hadn't, I'd still be in a wheelchair."
Only the quiet hum of traffic and the soft whir of the fan blowing cool air at them filled the truck's cab. Blair felt no compulsion to break the fragile silence. He'd led Jim down the sentinel path, but only Jim could make the decision to accept the knowledge and the assistance. Blair hoped he would, but even if he didn't, the student still wanted Jim's friendship, a gift more valuable than even his doctorate.
The droning of the truck motor made Blair doze off and he awakened as Jim gently shook his shoulder.
"You're home, Chief."
Blair glanced around, then knuckled his sleep-filled eyes. "Man, did I crash or what?"
"You deserved it after your session. Do you need some help?"
"Nah, that's all right." Blair opened his door and undid his seatbelt, but paused to look at Jim. "Think about what I said, Jim. We've got three days we can work on your senses before you have to leave."
Jim nodded slowly. "I think it's a good idea, Blair. I just don't want to be Subject A in anyone's study."
"You won't," Blair promised. "How about tomorrow?"
"I can't. I'm helping Bob round up some cattle from a box canyon, then there's the rodeo."
"Are you still going to ride?"
"Yeah. I've been practicing all week and I've competed every time I've been down here."
Blair swallowed back his worry. "Why don't you pick me up on your way in?"
Jim smiled. "Six okay?"
Blair grinned back. "Sounds good." He maneuvered himself out of the truck, knowing he was taking forever, but Jim never got impatient with him. Once he steadied himself with his cane, he looked over his shoulder at the older man. "Thanks, Jim," he said, trying to convey a wealth of truth and sincerity in the two words.
"You're welcome." Jim's brilliant smile which lit his blue eyes told Blair he'd succeeded.
Jim massaged his brow with his fingertips as he leaned against the corral, waiting for his turn to climb aboard one of the wild-eyed horses. He knew Blair's presence would've helped ease the throbbing headache caused by too many people and smells and sounds. But Blair had called and left him a message saying not to pick him up for the rodeo that evening. He was at the hospital with his aunt who'd experienced chest pains in the early afternoon. The doctors were running stress tests and checking her heart, and a worried Blair doubted he'd make it to the rodeo. Fortunately, Paul Sandburg was expected home that day from another cross-country trucking run.
Jim liked attending the rodeo every time he came to visit. Last week with Blair's company, he'd enjoyed it even more than usual. He'd been looking forward to watching it with Blair again, especially knowing he would have to leave in two days.
He adjusted his hat, which seemed to grow tighter, like a rubber band constricting his skull. Knowing it was his senses whacking out on him didn't help since he couldn't do anything to stop the feeling. If Blair were here...
No, he couldn't look to Blair Sandburg like he was his personal security blanket. Blair had his own trials to deal with, and looking at the big picture, hyperactive senses were trivial compared to breaking your back. The young man amazed Jim by his pluck and determination. If he was in Blair's position, Jim doubted he would be as courageous.
"Hey, Ellison, they called your name," one of the other riders said.
"Thanks," Jim mumbled. He climbed the fence of the chute where a tall black gelding was being readied for the ride. The flank strap was in place and the animal was raring to go, the whites of his eyes showing.
"This one's a rank horse, just done some of the locals," the chute boss said to Jim. "He's a spinner."
Jim nodded and clambered over the top rail to settle himself in the saddle. He grabbed the small bag of rosin from his breastpocket and put some of the powder on his gloves for a better grip. The heat of the horse penetrated Jim's chaps and jeans, warming his legs uncomfortably. The sour-sweat smell of the animals and the other men made Jim breathe through his mouth. Perspiration rolled down his cheek and he dashed it away, flinching at the feel of the glove on his skin.
"You okay, Ellison?" the grizzled boss asked.
"Yeah," Jim said tersely. He finished his preparations, ensuring his boots were settled in the stirrups firmly, and wrapped the rope around his left hand securely. He tested his hold, cringing at the hand on his shoulder.
Jim nodded as his heart raced. The chute door opened and his horse spun out, nearly tossing Jim to the side as he broke out of the pen.
Cheers pounded into his head like a sledgehammer as the horse twirled and bucked, jarring Jim's back and neck as its hooves hit the packed earth. Jim concentrated on raking, swinging his legs back and forth from the shoulders to the rump, while keeping his feet in the stirrups. One lost stirrup and he'd be disqualified. Colors and shapes whirled dizzily around him and everything but the bright white lights blurred. A loud blare suddenly sounded and more noise rose from the small, but enthusiastic crowd.
A horse and rider came up alongside him and Jim knew there was something he was supposed to be doing, but he couldn't think as a demented array of sounds, sights, and scents assaulted him. Then he felt a hand grabbing his arm and some part of his mind told him he had to get off the bucking horse. He kicked one boot out of a stirrup and leaned toward the rider beside him, when suddenly his bronc spun around, forcing the horse beside them to veer away. Jim flew through the air and fell with a sickening crash on the ground, followed by mind-numbing agony in his wrist. The pain snared him completely, forcing the rest of the world to fade away into nothingness.
Blair kneaded his thigh, hoping to ease some of the stiffness caused by the long hours sitting in a hard chair in the hospital waiting room. His uncle had shown up forty-five minutes ago and was in his aunt's room as they talked to the doctor. It had been a hell of a long day. It was just after lunch when his aunt had started feeling the discomfort. At first she thought it was indigestion, but then the classic symptoms of a heart attack arrived and Blair had called 911. An hour later, they were in an Amarillo hospital and Blair was relegated to waiting.
It sounded like Sarah would be all right, but she probably needed some form of surgery. That's what they were discussing now.
Blair glanced at the clock on the wall -- 8:25. He wondered how Jim did in the saddle bronc competition, and hoped his senses hadn't overwhelmed him. And how was his headache? Blair didn't doubt he had one.
The emergency doors opened and a gurney was pushed in by two EMT's. One of them carried a brown broad-brimmed cowboy hat like the one Jim wore, but so did a lot of other cowboys. Blair stood even before he realized he was going to, tugged by an inexplicable thread toward the incoming patient. He caught sight of short brown hair and open eyes -- blue eyes -- staring into nothingness. Like he was zoned...
The patient was wheeled into a treatment room and the two EMT's came out a couple minutes later.
"What happened to him?" Blair demanded, limping toward the man and woman.
"Rodeo accident," the male EMT replied.
Blair's heart climbed into his throat. "Is his name Jim Ellison?"
The two emergency med techs looked at Blair. "Do you know him?" the woman asked.
"He lives in Cascade, Washington. He's visiting Bob Daniels at his ranch south of the city," Blair replied, moving closer to the door. "How badly is he hurt?"
"Are you family?" the man asked.
Blair shook his head. "A friend."
"Then we can't tell you anything."
Blair swallowed hard. "Is it life-threatening?"
"I told you, we can't--" the male EMT started.
"No," the other EMT said. "Just what looks to be a sprained wrist."
"He wasn't moving," Blair said, ignoring the censuring look from the man directed toward his partner.
"Strangest thing I've ever seen," the woman said after casting a scowl at the other EMT. "His eyes are open, but he's not there. And there's no sign of head trauma."
"Liddy, we're not supposed to be talking about a patient," the man said tersely.
"But he's the only one who knows him. Someone's going to have to fill in the paperwork."
"I can call Mr. Daniels," Blair offered. "Can I see Jim?"
"Not until the doctor okays it," the man said.
Their radio chirped with another call.
"We have to go," the female EMT said. "Good luck with your friend."
"Thank you," Blair called after her as she followed her partner out the door.
His palms sweating and his heart thundering, Blair paced the hallway, not even noticing when his legs began to protest the exercise. A doctor came out of the ER, looking overworked and harried.
"Excuse me, Doctor. How's Mr. Ellison doing?" Blair asked, trying to keep his agitation under control.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"If you're not a relative, I can't tell you anything." He scurried away, scribbling on a clipboard.
Blair bit his tongue to keep from yelling after him. He looked up and down the hallway, then cracked open one of the exam room's swinging doors. Another furtive glance and he stepped inside. There were four examination tables with curtains which could be drawn around them to give the illusion of privacy. There only appeared to be one bed being used at the end -- Blair could see a nurse's feet beneath the curtain.
Taking a deep breath, Blair slipped behind a curtain and stepped as far back into the cubicle as he could, hoping no one would notice him. A few moments later, he heard the nurse leave and only the sound of the monitors remained.
Blair pushed aside the curtain and hobbled down to Jim's bedside. His breath caught in his throat. If he hadn't known, he would've thought Jim was dead. But there was a slow rise and fall of his chest, even as his blue eyes were aimed sightlessly at the ceiling.
"You zoned," Blair whispered. How did he bring him out of this? Whatever he did, he'd have to do it fast. "Okay, think, Blair. Sentinels, zone outs, caused by one sense overwhelming the others. What sense did you zone on, Jim?"
Blair leaned close and began to whisper in Jim's ear, not sure how badly his hearing was turned up. "Hey, Jim, it's Blair. Can you hear me? I see you got hurt at the rodeo. Did you get thrown?" He glanced down at Jim's exposed swollen wrist where his sleeve had been cut away. "I bet you did. Come on, buddy. You've got to snap out of this or the doctors are going to think you're loony tunes."
Feeling self-conscious, Blair touched Jim's cheek lightly. His skin was cool -- too cool. "Jim, please find your way back to me. I know you can do it." As he spoke, his breath moved across Jim's face. Blair noticed Jim's nostrils twitch. Maybe he could get his attention with the sense of smell. Feeling even more foolish, but somehow suspecting he was on the right path, he brushed a strand of his long curly hair under Jim's nose. Jim's hand twitched. Blair left the strand there as he leaned even closer to the sentinel and ignored the burn in his bad leg. "Jim, come on, man. You need to come back, like now."
Then Jim gasped and blinked, and bolted up to a sitting position. Blair barely managed to escape colliding heads as he jerked back, then hissed when his leg nearly collapsed beneath him.
"Blair, what the hell--" Confusion clouded Jim's patrician features. "Ow! Damn it, what happened?" He wrapped his fingers around his injured wrist.
Blair lowered himself to the only chair and sighed in relief. "I have no idea. I was waiting for news about my aunt when I saw them bring you in. They said it was a rodeo accident."
Jim's brow furrowed. "I remember riding and my head was killing me, but I think I stayed on for the full eight seconds. Then everything's kind of a blur." His eyes narrowed. "I think I was dusted."
"Dusted? Oh, you mean bucked off?" Blair interrupted.
Jim managed a slight smile even though he appeared pale and shaken. "Yeah. I must've hurt my wrist when I fell."
"You zoned on something, Jim," Blair said somberly.
"Remember what I told you about your senses?"
"Something about focusing on one sense." Jim closed his eyes and leaned back carefully, still cradling his wounded wrist. "When I fell, I hurt it. I remember the pain was incredible. I mean, I've been shot before, but this was ten times worse."
"Your sense of touch must've been off the scale," Blair said, his expression thoughtful. "When you hit the ground, you probably fell into a zone because of the pain overload."
Jim opened his eyes and rolled his head to face Blair. "So why isn't it so bad now?"
"Control snapped back for some reason."
"You," Jim whispered.
The older man fixed his gaze on Blair. "I told you, when I'm around you my headache goes away and everything seems to work okay."
A nurse came around the corner and halted, staring at both of them. "You're not supposed to be in here," she scolded Blair.
"I want him here," Jim spoke up in the tone of voice Blair imagined he used when dealing with criminals.
"You had some kind of seizure," the nurse said.
"It was an allergic reaction," Blair interjected. "He has some strange reactions to things. We figure it might have been something on the horse itself. Maybe some kind of powder used on it."
Jim arched an eyebrow dubiously at the student, but obviously the nurse knew as much about horses and bronc riding as Blair did. Or didn't.
"I'll get the doctor." Then she was gone again.
"You're pretty good at making up stuff," Jim commented to his friend. "Should I be worried?"
Blair laughed lightly. "Nah. I don't obfuscate to my friends." Then added in a low voice, "At least, not much."
"I heard that," Jim said.
This time Blair's laugh was fuller. "Yeah, I suppose you would."
They sat in silence for a moment, content with each other's company.
"How's Sarah?" Jim asked.
"She's stabilized. They should know something pretty soon." Blair sighed. "I need to find my uncle and see what's going on."
A hint of fear tinged Jim's eyes, but his voice didn't echo it. "Yeah, you should. I can use the same allergy story on the doctor and find out how bad I hurt my wrist."
"You think it's broken?"
Jim shook his head. "Sprained."
"That's what the EMT's thought, too." Blair pushed himself up, clenching his teeth. "I'll be back as soon as I can. Hopefully, you can go home tonight with us."
"You don't have to hang around. I can call Bob."
"I don't mind, Jim." He smiled warmly and rested a hand on his shoulder. "While we're waiting for you to get discharged, we can always work on some controls for your senses."
Jim had no intention of arguing this time. "Sounds good, Chief."
Blair patted Jim's shoulder, and limped out of the trauma room. He spotted Paul Sandburg coming off the elevator and met him halfway down the hall. "How is she?"
"It looks like she'll need a balloon angioplasty, but at least they don't have to open her up."
Blair closed his eyes momentarily in relief.
His uncle's weathered skin appeared pale and drawn. "She's always been so healthy."
"And she will be again," Blair reassured. "Can I see her?"
"She'd like that. I'm going to get some coffee. Would you like a cup?"
"That'd be good."
Five minutes later, Blair was talking to his aunt who appeared much better. Sarah insisted she was fine and just wanted to go home, but the doctor wouldn't release her. They discussed the angioplasty procedure and when they were going to schedule it. When his uncle returned with the coffee, the three of them sat in companionable silence for a couple minutes.
"Jim was brought in about an hour ago," Blair said, staring into his coffee cup.
"That friend of Bob Daniels?" Paul asked.
Blair nodded. "He got thrown off his horse during the rodeo. Hurt his wrist."
His uncle scowled. "I'm surprised they brought him to the hospital for that. Most cowboys wouldn't even notice it."
Blair smiled. It was true. He'd seen some of the cowboys ride even when they had cracked ribs or a broken collarbone. Either they had a high pain tolerance or they were crazy. Or a little of both.
"He had some weird allergic reaction to something," Blair said, keeping to his original story. Even though he loved and trusted his aunt and uncle, he'd promised Jim he wouldn't tell anyone about his senses. "But he's all right now. They're going to fix up wrist, then I figure they'll release him."
"He can ride back with us," Paul offered.
"Thanks. I was hoping you'd say that."
Sarah reached out and Blair took hold of her hand. "You tell him I'm glad he's all right."
"I will," Blair assured, squeezing her cool hand gently. "He was worried about you. I should go tell him how you're doing and see if he's climbing the walls yet."
"I've never seen you take to anyone like you have to Jim," Sarah commented gently.
"He's a good guy." Blair grinned. "A little stubborn, but I'm working on him."
Paul snorted. "Look who's calling the kettle black."
Blair laughed and pushed himself upright, then nearly sat back down again. He'd overused his legs today and would pay for it with muscle cramps and shooting pains for the next twenty-four hours. Leaning heavily on his cane, he gave Sarah a kiss on her cool, dry cheek. "I'll see you tomorrow." He turned to his uncle. "Should Jim and I just meet you in the ER waiting room?"
"That'd be fine," Paul replied.
Blair limped back to Jim's exam room and found him sitting up, his wrist wrapped snugly with an Ace bandage. "You're looking better," he greeted.
"And you're looking worse," Jim shot back, concern edging his tone. He hopped down from the bed and took hold of Blair's arm, guiding him to the lone chair. "Sit down before you fall down, Chief," he growled.
"You're such a charmer, Ellison."
Jim huffed in tolerant indulgence, but Blair could tell he was using his senses to examine him.
"I'm okay. Just a little sore and tired," the student said. "Are they springing you this evening?"
Jim relaxed slightly and perched back on the exam bed. "Yeah. The nurse is getting the paperwork ready for me to sign. The doc said it's only a bad sprain."
"Which is worse than being broken in some cases," Blair added.
"Thank you, Dr. Sandburg," Jim stated, but there was a twinkle in his blue eyes. "How's Sarah?"
Blair told him about her diagnosis and treatment.
"I can drive you in tomorrow to see her since Paul will probably spend all day here and you need to take it easy before your Monday session," Jim said.
Blair bristled at his high-handedness. "I'm fine. I can take--"
"--care of myself," Jim finished with him.
"Well, I can," Blair said peevishly.
"Anyone ever tell you that you have this funny little pout when you're tired and pissed off at the world?"
"Yeah, my mom. When I was about five years old."
In spite of himself, Blair felt a smile twitch his lips. "Ha ha."
"Now I know you're tired with a flimsy comeback like that."
The nurse arrived with the requisite paperwork, giving Blair a welcome reprieve from having to come up with something witty when all he wanted to do was curl up and fall asleep.
Twenty minutes later, Jim and Blair were settled in the back seat of Paul's sedan, a car that reminded Jim of Simon Banks' vehicle. Jim was offered the front passenger seat, but he had the unsettling need to be close to Blair. The grad student was exhausted, and it wasn't long before he'd fallen asleep, his drooping head resting against Jim's chest. The cop rearranged Blair so his head rested on Jim's thigh as he slept. Jim could feel his warm breath through both the chaps and his jeans, another measure of how powerful Jim's senses were.
"Is he asleep?" Paul asked softly, glancing in the rear view mirror to catch Jim's eyes.
"Yeah. He's beat."
"It was a tough day for him. A month ago he probably would've ended up staying in the hospital himself after overdoing it like this."
"He's come a long way." Though he didn't word it as a question, he hoped Paul would expand. He wasn't disappointed.
"Did he tell you he's been living with me and Sarah for a year now?" Paul asked.
"Poor kid was so miserable, afraid he'd never walk again. And my sister." Paul shook his head. "I love Naomi, but sometimes she can be so damned selfish. Not that Blair would ever even think that about her. He loves her, and gave her a hundred excuses for not sticking with him when he needed her."
Jim's fingers curled around Blair's shoulder protectively. "He said she was miserable staying with him and he understood. That's when he moved down here."
"His friends were all up in Cascade and he ended up with only me and Sarah." Paul dragged a hand through his thinning reddish-brown hair. "We never had any kids, so we were thrilled to have Blair stay with us, even though the reason was pretty godawful. We love him, Jim. He'll always have a home with us as long as he wants it."
Jim's throat was tight, but he managed to say, "He's lucky to have you and Sarah."
"We're the lucky ones."
The two men lapsed into silence as the car's headlights cut through the night. Jim turned his gaze toward Blair, and even in the darkness, he had no trouble making out the younger man's features or the pinched lines at the corners of his mouth. Jim had the strongest desire to wrap his arms around him and take away his pain, and shelter him so he never hurt again. An impossible objective, but one Jim couldn't deny feeling.
"Why?" Paul's soft word floated back to Jim. "What is he to you?"
"A friend," Jim replied without hesitation.
"You don't strike me as the type of fellah who usually hangs around with long-haired prodigies." Paul cleared his throat. "He is, you know. Got his high school diploma when he was sixteen and started college the same year. He had his master's by twenty-three. He would've had it sooner, but he took a year off to help me and Sarah out when I had cancer. Came down and drove my loads for me. Didn't ask for anything in return but a place to sleep and meals. So, you see why we love him like he was our own son and how much we care what happens to him."
Jim's fond gaze traced the younger man's profile, clearly seeing an innocence at odds with his impressive intellect in the vulnerable features. "I won't hurt him, Paul."
"Make sure you don't." Then Paul concentrated on driving, while Jim held Blair who slept peacefully.
"Come on, Jim, you have to concentrate," Blair said as he and Jim sat on Paul and Sarah's porch the next afternoon. "Close your eyes and tell me what you smell."
Jim punched down his growing impatience and fatigue. He had taken Blair to visit Sarah at the hospital right after lunch, then the two men had returned to the Sandburg's home to work on Jim's senses. Although the exercises had helped -- especially the dial ones -- four hours of instruction were playing on Jim's nerves.
He did as Blair said and allowed the scents to filter in. The most immediate was Blair's own scent, now intimately familiar to the sentinel. He pushed past it and other smells came in. "Roses. Sage. The coffee from the house." He grinned. "Horse shit."
Blair snickered. "All right, all right. Take a break, Jim."
The cop groaned and settled back in the rocker, which was right next to the one Blair sat in. He could feel the warmth emanating from Blair's body, hear his breathing and the faint beat of his heart. Jim let himself experience his full senses, reveling in the clear, crisp sensations. It was something he could do only when he was in Blair's company.
"How's the wrist doing?" Blair asked.
"Fine. Those dials you helped me with earlier really did the trick."
"Just remember not to dial down too far. Pain is your body's way of communicating to you."
Jim rolled his head toward Blair and found the younger man's face only a foot from his. "Speaking of pain, how're your legs?" he asked.
His flippant remark did nothing to ease Jim's apprehensions. "Are you going to be all right at PT tomorrow? Or should we call Sharon and tell her you need to rest some more?"
Blair laid his hand on Jim's arm. "I'll be okay. Besides, I want to go tomorrow. I want to see if I can keep walking the distance."
Jim felt the stirrings of loneliness already beginning. "I wish I could be there."
"Yeah, me, too." Blair forced an overly bright smile to his wan face. "But you have to get back to Cascade and get to work. A sentinel is a watchman, a protector of his tribe."
"What about when the most important member of his tribe is down here?" Jim asked softly, his throat tight.
"I told you I'll be back at Rainier this fall," Blair said gently. "That's only three months away." He looked away. "Besides, Uncle Paul needs me until Aunt Sarah is better."
"I know, Chief. It's just that--" Jim floundered, unable to find the words.
"You're worried about your senses," Blair finished for him.
"That's part of it. But I'm more worried about you." Jim's face heated with embarrassment. What was it about Blair Sandburg that made him so protective?
"Don't be," the student said firmly. "I'll be fine." He glanced around at the invading dusk. "Paul said to use the steaks he put in the fridge. How about you kick on the grill and I'll throw together a salad?"
"Sounds like a plan, Chief."
They decided to eat in the dining room beneath the rotating ceiling fan. The food was good, but both men found their appetites lacking. The leftovers were put in the fridge, where Paul would find them when he returned from the hospital.
Jim's flight was leaving at nine the next morning, the same time Blair's session began. Bob Daniels would take Jim to the airport and tonight would be the last time Jim would see Blair until the student finally returned to Cascade in the fall.
"I should go and pack up my stuff." Jim smiled as he glanced down at his cowboy wear. "I'm thinking of taking these back to Cascade with me. The boots and hat would shock the hell out of everyone at work."
"And don't forget your new champion bronc riding belt buckle," Blair reminded.
With his uninjured hand, Jim traced the large silver-coated buckle with a saddle bronc rider etched on it. "Surprised the hell out of me when they dropped it by this morning."
Blair chuckled, but Jim could hear the tension behind it. "I say wear the whole outfit into work one day. A little nonconformity's a good thing -- keeps everyone from getting too complacent."
Jim reached out to tousle Blair's curls. "And that coming from Mr. Nonconformist himself."
Blair batted at Jim's hand, but unbalanced himself and his right leg threatened to buckle. Jim caught him by the shoulders.
"I got you, Chief."
"I think this is how we started out," Blair said, his voice husky as he leaned into Jim's welcome support.
"Seems longer ago than eight days," Jim said, his head close to Blair's. "I can't thank you for everything you've done for me. I thought I was going crazy and I figured coming down here was my last chance to find my sanity. You saved my life, Blair."
"And you saved mine, Jim." The younger man turned within Jim's hold and wrapped his arms around Jim's waist, burying his face in his friend's solid chest. "Because of you, I know I'll walk without that damn cane someday."
Jim tightened his embrace as he laid his cheek against Blair's crown. "You would've done that even without me."
He felt Blair shake his head. "It was your faith that showed me I could do it. Gods, I'm going to miss you, Jim."
"I'll miss you, too." Jim's voice broke. "I'll call you every night and find out how your sessions went. And you can quiz me on my senses. It's only three months. We'll make it."
"'Lookin' at eight', right?" Blair whispered, his voice strained.
"You got it, Chief." Jim kissed the top of Blair's head. "Take care of yourself."
Blair gave Jim a final squeeze. "You, too."
Then the two men were moving apart and Jim hurried to his pick-up, afraid to look back. But he could hear the catches in Blair's breathing and smell the sadness mixed with his usual scent. Blair's heart hammered in his chest and Jim forced himself not to listen too closely, knowing he'd zone if he did.
He started up the pick-up and headed out onto the road. And he heard his guide's voice one last time.
"I'll see you soon. I promise."
Friday evening and Jim Ellison was sitting at home watching a Jags game on TV and waiting for his guide and friend to call. They took turns calling one another, every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Jim talked to Blair more than he talked to anyone else outside of work. The sound of Blair's voice always calmed his senses, even when Jim's headaches were threatening nausea.
One month down. Two long months to go.
Dressed in comfortable sweats and a pair of white socks, Jim wandered into the kitchen to get a beer from the fridge. He opened the longneck and strolled over to the spare room beneath his loft bedroom. He and Blair hadn't discussed where Blair would live when he returned to Cascade, but Jim was hoping to talk him into becoming his roommate. He knew the young man would be short of money and the extra room was just sitting empty.
Well, okay, maybe he had taken the items stored in there and moved them into the basement, then scrubbed the room until it practically glowed. He'd gone shopping and had come back with a day bed, a computer desk, bookshelf, and dresser, telling himself even if Blair didn't live with him, he could use the room as a combination office/guest bedroom.
Simon Banks had helped him carry up the furniture and as they had assembled the new items, Simon had demanded an explanation. Jim told him about his senses and sentinels and a special grad student named Blair. Simon, predictably, was skeptical -- loner Jim Ellison had practically adopted a long-haired student with a penchant for tall tales? It was only after Jim's demonstration of his abilities did Simon realize what a gift Jim had, even if he didn't quite understand Blair's part in it.
Jim ran his hand along the edge of the French door, enjoying the smooth grain which he'd achieved after hours of sandpapering. He leaned his throbbing forehead against the cool wood as he tried to hear Blair's voice in his mind, but only the real thing worked on his near-migraine headaches. He straightened and glanced at his watch -- 9:07 p.m. For the first time, Blair was late.
Panic seized Jim and he picked up the phone to dial Blair's number, only to have a knock at the door interrupt him. Muttering curses, Jim set the phone down and stalked to the door. He jerked it open, ready to vent his frustration on the hapless person on the other side.
"Hi, Jim," Blair said tentatively. "How's it going?"
Jim blinked, afraid the vision would disappear, but Blair Sandburg remained. Jim grinned broadly and gathered him into a hug, letting his senses go as they recognized and reveled in his friend's presence.
"Hey, watch the merchandise, buddy," Blair said, laughter in his bubbly voice.
Jim immediately loosened his hold, but kept his hands on the younger man's shoulders. "What're you doing here? Not that I mind, but you still have two months to go."
"Uncle Paul was bringing a load up to Washington and asked me if I wanted to come along. Since Aunt Sarah is completely recovered, I decided I didn't want to wait any longer. I rode to Seattle with him then bought a bus ticket here. I hope you don't mind."
Jim laughed. "Are you kidding, Chief? I just wish you would've told me. I could've picked you up in Seattle."
"And spoil the surprise?" Blair's grin faded as he brushed his fingertips across Jim's creased brow. "Are the headaches always this bad?"
Jim considered lying, but found he couldn't. Not to Blair. "Usually. Sometimes they're worse."
"You should've told me," Blair scolded.
"There was nothing you could do. Besides, after we talked they got better." Jim leaned over to pick up the duffel bag and backpack on the hallway floor. "Is this all you brought?"
"The rest is being shipped. I hope you don't mind that I used your address," Blair said hesitantly.
"Of course not. Come on in." With his free hand, Jim guided Blair into the apartment. Realizing something was different, he stopped and watched Blair limp inside. "Where's your cane? Did you lose it?"
Blair grinned. "In a way. I've been making such good progress, Sharon said I didn't need it anymore. She said even the limp will become almost unnoticeable in a few months."
Overwhelming joy filled Jim and he dropped the bags, only to draw Blair into another warm hug. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"I wanted to surprise you." Blair's voice was muffled by Jim's sweatshirt.
"You did, in more ways than one." Jim's vision blurred and he released Blair. He dragged his forearm across his face unobtrusively, and carried the student's bags into the spare room. "You can stay here if you'd like."
Blair followed him and his eyes rounded at the sight of the neat room. "This is really nice. Your spare bedroom?"
Jim shook his head. "Your room."
"I can't take advantage of you, Jim."
"You won't be. You'll be paying rent and helping with the groceries and taking your turn making meals."
"Not to mention working with your senses," Blair added, his eyes dancing.
"Oh, yeah, that, too," Jim said with a grin. His smile faltered. "So, what do you say, Blair? We already got the friendship thing down. You ready to make this sentinel and guide thing work?"
"More than ready." Blair's eyes shimmered. "We finally got our eight."
Jim wrapped an arm around Blair's shoulders and drew him close to his side. "We sure did, partner."
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