Disclaimer: This was written purely for my own enjoyment, and is not intended to infringe on any copyrights associated with the television production, "The Sentinel".
Rated: PG-13 for language.
Category: AU, Angst.
Comments: This is an AU that started out with the question "What if Blair had broken up with the student/nurse before Jim came to the hospital in "The Switchman?" Were Sentinel and Guide fated to find one another, even though it's a year later? The basic Jim and Blair characters are the same, only the time and place of their meeting have been altered. Major spoilers for "The Switchman," even though things turned out a bit differently in this world.
Notes: Many thanks to Kathleen, my beta who keeps me in line and never fails to encourage me!! This one's for you, K!
Blair Sandburg lifted his face to the brief rays of sunlight. The heat penetrated his skin, but did little to chase away the chill which had seeped into his soul. Three weeks ago when he had arrived on the small island off the coast of British Columbia, he had been filled with the characteristic elation of a new research project -- unraveling the structure of a predominantly closed society of an isolated fishing village. The project had been suggested by Professor Stoddard four months ago, over a sputtering campfire in Borneo. It had been one of the numerous conversations they had had while Blair accompanied his mentor, an anthropology professor he admired and respected, as an assistant during an eight-month-long study.
The weeks he had spent with the man had been some of the most exciting and agonizing of his life. For over half his life, Blair had been obsessed with Richard Burton's study on sentinels, ancient tribal watchmen who'd possessed greatly enhanced senses. When Blair had declared his doctorate three years ago, it had been a natural succession of his studies to do it on these so-called sentinels. He had sifted through research, interviewed potential candidates, but while he'd found hundreds with one or two hyperactive senses, he had yet to find someone with all five. Dr. Stoddard, though also fascinated by the dissertation topic, had had no choice but to steer Blair toward another subject.
"You're too gifted to waste your talents chasing an impossible dream."
Angry clouds blotted out the momentary glimpse of the sun and Blair re-directed his concentration to the present. The professor's words, however, continued to echo in his mind. For the first time in his life, Blair felt like one of the fisherman's boats, bobbing up and down with the waves. Only his boat had no anchor and drifted on the whims of the ocean currents. Blair's dream of doing his dissertation on sentinels had died that cool night in Borneo under the harsh realities of academic life.
"Ready for a drink, Blair?"
He focused on the weathered face of Peter Monahan. Any other time, he would've been thrilled to pass the time with the older man who'd spent all of his seventy-one years on the island. Peter's creased face was like a map of the man's life, a chart displaying every year he'd lived and worked on the island. A dark blue knit cap covered his thinning gray hair and the pipe between his teeth was rarely lit unless he was courting an ale with it.
As Blair opened his mouth to reply, a tall solitary figure at the farthest pier caught his eye. A dark green slicker -- not the typical bright yellow that everyone else wore -- covered broad shoulders. Faded blue jeans hugged powerful thighs and calves. Though the man moved with innate grace, his spine was bowed slightly and he kept his gaze aimed downward.
"Who's that?" Blair asked.
Peter followed Blair's forefinger and squinted at the man. He removed his pipe and tamped down nonexistent tobacco. "Nobody you'd want to know, Blair, lad."
Startled, Blair swung his head around to meet Peter's unusually somber eyes. "Why?"
"He's cursed," Peter finally replied, his voice low as if imparting some horrible knowledge.
"Cursed?" Blair's gaze drifted back to the stranger in spite of himself.
"Don't go looking at him, Blair. It's said his eyes are colder than the blackest ocean and can turn a body to stone." Fear flickered in the man's expression.
Only Blair's experience in dealing with diverse cultures kept him from snorting in disbelief. However, some of his incredulity seeped into his tone. "You don't expect me to believe--" Blair's sentence ended abruptly when the stranger lifted his head and unerringly met his eyes, as if he knew he was the subject of a conversation a hundred yards away.
An odd expectancy churned through Blair's blood to settle in the center of his chest. His heart pumped like he'd just run the thousand-yard dash in record time. Deja vu washed across him -- he knew this man even though he had never seen him before.
"Blair? Blair, lad!"
Peter's rough voice snapped Blair back to the cold and damp dreariness. Realizing he hadn't breathed since the stranger's eyes had snared him, the anthropology student dragged in a lungful of air. That one glimpse had changed Blair Sandburg. He didn't know how or why, only that it had... irrevocably.
"Now didn't I tell you to keep your eyes off 'im," Peter scolded. With fingers gnarled by years of pulling fishing nets from the icy cold sea, he tugged Blair toward the village bar.
Blair's muscles didn't have the strength nor will to escape Peter's grip. He turned to take one more glance at the lean stranger, but the man was striding away, his long legs carrying him up a path Blair had never noticed before.
The smoky warmth of the bar was like a physical blow to Blair's cool skin, but he barely noticed as the stranger's eyes continued to haunt him, teasing him with recognition at a level he didn't understand. Once seated on a tall stool, Blair had a pint pressed into his hand and he automatically drank. The dark ale was bitter across his tongue, but he welcomed the taste he'd grown fond of in the short time he'd been in the village.
"What were you thinkin', Blair?" Peter demanded, aiming his pipe stem at the student. "Did you like feeling the frigid cold of the devil?"
"Who is he?" he asked, ignoring the admonition.
Peter opened his mouth, took one measuring look at Blair, then pressed his lips together with a shake of his head. He reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a black leather pouch worn soft as a baby's cheek by years of handling. The pungent smell of shredded tobacco assaulted Blair's nose, but it was just something else he'd grown accustomed. Surprising, considering Blair was an active opponent of smoking back home in Cascade.
Peter dipped the pipe's bowl into the pouch, using his forefinger to gather the tobacco into the hollowed nest. Blair watched the ritual silently, knowing the old man was working up his answer as he performed the almost unconscious action.
Finally Peter had the pipe filled and he held it reverently in arthritic hands. "Nobody knows his name," he said quietly. He glanced around as if someone might overhear. "He showed up here some months ago during a bad nor'wester. The wind was a-blowing and the rain coming down like the sea itself had been turned upside down by God. The waves were crashing against the shore and lightning struck so close it made a man's hair stand on end." Peter paused, the memory haunting his eyes. "The stranger stumbled in, his eyes empty, as if life itself had left but his body hadn't followed. He spoke to Joel, then left. The next day we find he's living in Joel's old hut."
Blair glanced up at Joel Taggert, who possessed a smile as broad as his body. At first, Blair had thought it odd that an American would own the village's popular bar, but he'd learned that Joel's father had been raised on the island. So although he wasn't a native, Joel was treated as one. "Does Joel know him?"
Peter placed his pipe between his teeth, tamped the tobacco down a few more times with his fingertip, then when he was finally satisfied it was just right, lit it. A cloud of blue smoke ringed his face. "All Joel said was he was a Yank, and--" Peter paused, "--demons were riding his back."
Blair's damp clothes suddenly felt too clammy against his skin and the air too thick to breathe through his tight throat. "So in all the time he's been here, nobody else has spoken to him?"
The old fisherman appeared wounded by Blair's blunt question. "It wasn't that we didn't try, lad, but one look from those icy blue eyes of his and no one was fool enough to try again."
"But a man can't live in a town this small without somebody finding out something." Blair couldn't even fathom why a person would voluntarily cut himself off from human contact.
"You're like an old bloodhound on a scent." Peter sighed. "There's been stories. Some say he killed his family and is cursed to live alone to the end of his days. Others say he was drummed out of your Army because he betrayed his men. Still others say he was a fisherman who lost his entire ship and crew and is haunted by their ghosts."
Blair shivered but whether it was from the damp air or Peter's words, he didn't know. "But nobody's certain?"
"It's his business, Blair," Joel interjected as he refilled Peter's glass and sent the older man a reproving glance. "But Peter and some of the others like to spread tales, even though they don't know a thing about him."
"Joel, you know as well as me that the man is daft and probably cursed, too," Peter defended.
"Jim isn't daft or cursed." Joel shot Peter another pointed look. "And he's not a killer."
"Then who is he?" Blair had done what he did best during the two men's exchange -- observe -- but he'd been unable to interpret.
Joel swiped a towel across the shiny bar top, then met his eyes. "He's only a man, Blair. A man who wants to be left alone."
Feeling like a naughty child, Blair ducked his head to study his suddenly unappetizing beer. A ham-sized hand on his shoulder made him look up again.
"He has his reasons, son," the bartender said quietly. "Give the man his privacy -- it's all he has left."
Blair pictured the man named Jim and his desolate blue eyes. There was something more nudging Blair -- recognition of something at a level so deep it transcended physical. It was as if he knew the man -- and the man knew him -- more intimately than anyone else in Blair Sandburg's life.
And that both frightened and fascinated him.
The following days passed swiftly as Blair spent time with the villagers, learning more about the generations of fishermen who continued to embrace the traditional ways of the sea. Many of the fishing boats used by the natives had been used by their fathers and grandfathers before them, and the nets were still woven in the same fashion they'd been for a hundred years.
More than half of Blair's time was spent with the fishermen, while a couple days a week he talked with those who stayed behind -- the wives, children and shopkeepers. It was the children's company he found the most enlightening and fun. The boys and girls were as curious about Blair as he was about them, and they made a game of learning about one another. Sometimes the children would take Blair inland to an area where caves were said to be filled with ghosts and the woods sprinkled with fey. Blair never belittled their stories and always treated the youngsters with the same amount of respect he did the adults.
He immersed himself in this culture that was at odds with a world espousing the technological wonders of the twentieth century. Something as common as a television back home was a rarity in the village. There were only two computers on the entire island -- one was Blair's, the other, Joel Taggert's. Every evening Blair would join the regulars in the bar, then return to his small shack to enter his notes in his computer.
Although Blair tried to follow Joel's advice to leave the stranger alone, he found himself watching for the solitary man. Whenever Blair returned with the men after a day at sea, he would check the dock set off by itself where the man called Jim kept his small boat. More often than not, it would be empty. However, four times in the past two weeks Blair had seen him and willed the man to look at him, to acknowledge his presence.
But he never did. And Blair would be left with an unaccountable feeling of loss.
Five weeks after he arrived, Blair found himself in the pub after a day in Gar Hadley's fishing boat. An especially violent thunderstorm had descended upon the island in the evening, though it didn't keep the villagers from their usual stools at the local watering hole.
Blair sat at a table surrounded by the men he'd come to know and like. He listened to an especially ribald joke, even as he was aware of the wind rattling the shutters and raindrops hitting the roof like rocks thrown down from a giant fist. Lightning eclipsed the darkness, followed closely by a clap of thunder.
Blair glanced out a window to see rain streaming down, creating a surreal vision of the dark wet world which lay outside the bar. As he stared out the window, a black foreboding suddenly seized him. His hands trembled and he curved his palms around the smooth glass mug.
He tried to concentrate on Gar's story about a mermaid, but when Blair looked at the man's eyes, they changed to the empty pale eyes of the stranger.
The door opened and Fitz Taylor stumbled in with the driving rain, sending a wave of fresh damp air through the haze of smoke. He pressed the door closed, removed his slicker and hat, and hung them on the coat rack to drip. Joining the large group around Blair, Fitz sat down.
Katie, the red-haired barmaid who was working for the summer before returning to her fourth year of college in Vancouver, brought a beer before Fitz could lift a hand.
"Would you like another, Blair?" Katie asked in her husky voice.
Blair smiled at the pretty student and shook his head. "No thanks, Katie. One's my limit tonight."
She leaned close. "How about something a little more exciting? I'm off at midnight."
Blair considered her invitation. When he'd first arrived on the island, he and Katie had spent time together discussing the differences and similarities of colleges in the United States and Canada. They'd done a little pleasurable necking, too, but Blair hadn't allowed it to graduate beyond that.
"Not tonight, Katie," he found himself saying. "I'm pretty tired."
She smiled brightly. "Maybe some other night."
"Maybe." Blair watched her leave, grateful she didn't press him.
"And he was just standing there, up on the edge of the cliff, looking across the sea like he could actually see something in all that rain," Fitz was saying.
"I seen him there, too, about an hour ago," another man added.
"He's been standing in the storm for over an hour?" Peter shook his head as he stroked his grizzled chin. "Like I been telling you, he's daft."
Blair frowned. "Who? The stranger?"
Fitz nodded, his expression grim. "He looked like one of Neptune's servants, tempting God to take him."
Before Blair knew what he was doing, he was on his feet. "Where is he?"
The men sitting around the table merely stared at him.
"Please, where is he?" Blair asked again, desperation filling his voice.
"About a half mile north on the cliffs above the rocks," Fitz replied with a frown.
"What're you planning, Blair?" Peter asked suspiciously.
"I, uh, have to take a walk. Excuse me." Blair drew his coat around him as he strode to the door. He paused, questioning his sanity but the expectancy of dread expanded, choking away his doubts. Putting his head down, he plunged into Dante's wet inferno. Raindrops pelted him and the wind stole the air from his lungs.
What the hell am I doing? Going out into a cold, wet night to see a man who has completely cut himself off from people?
Even as Blair argued with himself, something was driving him along the path leading to the cliffs. The path rose steeply and he stumbled over exposed roots and slipped on wet rocks. Rain streamed off his nose and created rivulets down his scalp, beneath his long curly hair. Twice he fell to his knees, but each time he pushed himself upright, wiped his muddy palms across his soaked jeans and pressed onward.
What was this urgency which clawed at him, making him ignore all rationality?
Abruptly, the man's tortured blue eyes appeared in Blair's mind and the sense of urgency intensified.
Jim Ellison didn't even notice the rain as it struck his head and shoulders and sluiced down his neck and back. The chill was simply something his body endured, just as it endured many things -- breathing and eating and walking.
He had cut himself off from the few friends he'd possessed because he wasn't strong enough to put a permanent end to the damned travesty he called his life. But tonight was the anniversary of his most terrible failure. It seemed fitting somehow that tonight he would finally do it. He'd struggled, searching for the courage to take the final step, to let the darkness overtake him wholly.
Earlier in the day, he had grappled so much with his guilt and cowardice that he had lost more than four hours. The periods of time losses were increasing as his control decreased. How long before the decision was taken from him? How long before he simply lost all time... all sanity? The voices, the smells, the things he could see that he shouldn't be able to. Sometimes a scent or sound or sight would overwhelm him and he'd black out, coming back to awareness anywhere from minutes to hours later. Then the headaches would strike, piercing deep in his brain.
The most unsettling aspect, though, was the need to touch. God, he hated that the most, even more than the blackouts and headaches. He had never felt the need before, not even when he had been married to Carolyn. Oh, there had been the satisfying sex, but a touch for the sake of simple human warmth had never been high on Jim's list of needs. Hell, he'd lived without it for thirty-eight years. His mother had left him when he was ten, his father never had time for him, and the military and police department sure as hell didn't promote touchy-feely crap.
Jim hadn't thought seclusion would be a problem on this tiny island; so remote that he wouldn't have to deal with people as well as his encroaching insanity.
Jim closed his eyes for a moment, easily picturing the young American student who'd been in the village for over a month. He had heard about him, had heard the villagers discuss him in conversations which Jim shouldn't have been able to hear. The long-haired man had piqued his curiosity -- the first to do so in a year. Then when he had caught his dark blue eyes, something had happened. He had seen every tiny detail of the young man, from the two small silver hoops in his left ear to the long dark eyelashes brushing his wind-roughened cheeks. There was something about the student, something oddly familiar about him. For the first time in his life, Jim felt like he'd come home.
He opened his eyes, banishing the image of the younger man. This wasn't the time to dwell on things like home and family and friendship. Jim had no past, no future, and his present was lived without life.
No, it was time. He had already been on this earth longer than he should have.
He opened his vision, staring across the inky sea and nearly losing himself in the ocean's rhythmic cresting. The cadence of the rain and the pounding of the waves below drew him deeper and deeper into the far reaches of his mind; and when he tasted the scent of the sea upon his lips, all of Jim's senses ceased.
Lightning ripped the sky apart and thunder shook the earth, rumbling through Blair like a physical entity -- and that's when he saw him.
The student halted, realizing he had no clue why he was here or what he was supposed to do. Through the curtain of rain, he stared at the dark figure before him. The powerful man wore only a light jacket and jeans and stood as still as a statue, his booted feet inches from the edge of the cliff. Lightning lit the darkness once more, illuminating a marble-like face as sharply drawn as the craggy rocks below.
Blair gasped in horror and took a wary step toward the motionless figure. "Hey, man, what's going on?" he asked.
"C'mon Jim, you're making me a little nervous, standing so close to the edge like that," Blair said, keeping his voice low and calm in direct contrast to his inner trembling. "You don't want to take a step, buddy. That first one's a killer."
As he spoke Blair watched the man for any reaction that he'd heard him, but there wasn't even a twitch. Maybe the stranger was deaf and that was why he kept to himself. Maybe if he touched him. Blair reached out with nearly numb hands and his fingers closed around the man's biceps, feeling hard muscle through the layers of soaked clothing. The intense connection he had first felt under the man's gaze washed through him anew. All coherence fled, replaced by an overwhelming need to rescue and protect him.
He took a step closer, refusing to look down at the yawning black hole below. He could hear the incessant crashing of the waves butting against the rocks, wearing away the minerals molecule by molecule. Steeling himself against his cold dread, Blair concentrated on the unnaturally still man.
"C'mon, Jim, you gotta step back, away from this--" Blair's voice faltered and fear rose in his throat, tasting like the bitterest ale. "I have to tell you, man, I'm afraid of heights. I mean terrified, and this is scaring the shit out of me."
Blair blinked against the rain that persisted to batter him and his silent companion. The man continued to stare unblinkingly across the ocean, like some ancient watchman...
Like a sentinel.
Blair's hand fell away from the stranger. The unseeing gaze, the zombie-like trance...
"Oh God." Blair moaned like a man caught in his best dream and worst nightmare. His guess was a leap of logic... a leap of faith. Yet Blair had known there was something different -- something special -- about this man the first time he'd seen him.
Thunder snapped Blair back to the fury surrounding them. Desperation made him take hold of Jim's arm again with one hand while the other he placed against the man's ice-cold cheek.
Blair leaned close, the drop to a certain death forgotten as he focused completely on Jim. "Okay, I know you can hear me, someplace deep inside there. Follow my voice back, Jim. Your senses have overloaded and you need to come back to me. Come back, Jim, listen to my voice, feel my touch."
A tiny shudder passed beneath Blair's palm. "That's right. Breathe now."
Jim's fingers wrapped around Blair's hand. He turned his face into the younger man's palm, inhaling deeply. Exhaling, he trembled and sucked in another lungful of air. Blue eyes opened and lost their vacant look as they focused on Blair. Confusion, and more than a little fear, shone in their depths and he jerked his hand away. Blair grabbed his arm, drawing him away from the cliff's edge. He could feel the shakiness in the older man's body and led him to a large boulder behind them, then lowered him onto it.
Excitement and apprehension knifed through Blair. "You okay, man?"
Jim raised his head to settle a confused but angry gaze on him, but remained mute.
"How're you doing?" Blair reiterated, fidgeting beneath this man's too-steady, too-perceptive eyes.
"What the hell happened?" the man growled.
Stunned by the gruff words, Blair drew back. He recovered quickly, wrapping a professional persona about him like a security blanket. "What do you remember?"
The man stared beyond Blair. "I walked up here to--" his voice stalled, "--to look at the ocean," he finished lamely.
Blair recognized the lie and the fact that this man -- this person who haunted his thoughts -- didn't trust him hurt deeply. It shouldn't have since the two men were strangers, but for some illogical reason it did. "You've been standing there for over an hour, not moving and hardly breathing."
Jim scrubbed cold-reddened hands across his face and desolation invaded every gesture. "I can't even die right," he murmured and the anguish in the simple statement shocked Blair.
"Do you live near here?" Blair asked, afraid to pry too much for fear he would alienate the man entirely. He had no choice but to help -- to walk away would be impossible.
Jim nodded, his broad shoulders bowed as if some ungodly weight rested on them. "Back over there."
Blair hooked a hand beneath his elbow and helped him rise. "Let's go. You need to get out of those wet clothes." What if his crazy guess was right? Could this man be the answer to his doctoral dream?
He dared to glance up at the tall man and was met with icy blue eyes which drilled straight into his soul. Quickly turning away, Blair helped Jim down the path. A few minutes later, they arrived at a small hut. Jim opened the door, but Blair hesitated.
Jim gripped the door tightly as he studied the younger man. Damp hair hung in curly clumps around a striking face -- a face Jim hadn't been able to forget since he'd locked gazes with him two weeks ago.
Indecision clouded the younger man's expressive face and wide blue eyes. If Jim had any strength, he would close the door, force him back out of his life.
If I wasn't so weak, I wouldn't have returned to this empty shanty at all.
"Are you coming in?" he asked gruffly.
The younger man jumped and his eyes widened even further; then he stepped across the threshold, the first person to enter Jim's personal purgatory.
Trembling, Jim closed the door behind the student and turned to the fireplace. He squatted down, used the iron poker to stir the embers to life. As he reached for a log, he was acutely aware of the younger man's scrutiny. He could smell Sandburg's scent -- exotic herbs and damp wool and his own uniqueness underlying it all. However, it was Sandburg's heartbeat which grounded him -- a sound he shouldn't have been able to hear, yet hear it he did. Clear and steady, like the tolling of a bell to guide lost and weary travelers through the night.
Using the routine task to shelter his confusion, he waited until the flames caught the log, then added another piece of wood. He straightened slowly, steeling himself against the younger man's consuming presence.
"Move closer to the fire. You're shivering," Jim said, the words coming out as a harsh command rather than a suggestion.
The student nodded in a jerky motion and stepped nearer to the hearth.
Jim turned away from him, then quickly stripped and pulled on dry clothes. Once dressed in soft, well-worn sweats which didn't irritate his skin so much, he glanced at his uninvited guest. Sandburg sat in one of the two rockers set close to the fireplace. For a moment, Jim envisioned him there every evening in the cabin's warmth and solitude. He shoved the image aside savagely. He had no right thinking of companionship, of a friend who might listen and possibly understand. Friends were for other people, not him. Besides, he had no right dragging anyone down into hell with him.
He noticed the younger man was shivering and could hear his teeth chattering. From a trunk at the foot of the bed, Jim withdrew a plaid flannel shirt, sweatpants, and socks. "You need to get out of your wet clothes, too."
There was a moment of surprised hesitation, then Sandburg accepted them with a mumbled thanks though his smoky eyes met his steadily. Jim stared into the dilated pupils and his senses seemed clearer, more focused, like the sun suddenly emerging from a curtain of gray. He spun around, his fingers closing around air. "I'll make us some coffee."
"Uh, you have tea?"
Blair's question surprised Jim. The kid wasn't afraid of him. Wary, yes; confused, probably. But definitely not scared.
Jim nodded curtly. Keeping his back to Sandburg, he gave the younger man some privacy as he removed his soaking clothes. Jim filled the teakettle then placed it on the stove. He opened a cupboard and found two mismatched cups and the teapot. His senses told him Sandburg was directly behind him and he turned slowly. His shirt hung nearly to Blair's knees and the sweatpants sagged around his ankles. The student had gathered his curly hair and tied it at the back of his neck, making him look older.
"Better?" Jim asked.
"Oh, yeah. Thanks, man. I hate cold and wet."
Blair's eager smile, pure and guileless, reached inside Jim, illuminating the darkness. Jim crossed his arms to hide his trembling hands. "Then what the hell were you doing out there in the middle of a storm?"
The smile faded. "I was down at Joel's bar when a couple of the guys mentioned seeing you standing at the edge of the cliff," Blair began. He took a deep breath and rubbed his eyes. "Something told me to hurry up here, to stop you, to help you..." He dragged a hand across his damp hair. "I don't know. I wish I could give you a better explanation, but I can't. It was just a feeling."
Stunned, Jim didn't know how to respond. The kettle on the stove whistled, giving him a reprieve from his shock and confusion. He poured water into the teapot and closed the cover to allow the tea to steep. He picked up the cups, one in each hand, feeling the smooth finish but also detecting the tiny nicks and cuts that a normal person wouldn't notice.
Normal. Something Jim would never be again.
"Do you feel it, too?" Sandburg asked in a nearly inaudible voice.
At first Jim thought he meant the imperfections in the cups, then realized he was talking about the mysterious connection between himself and Blair.
"No." The denial was easy. Jim had a lot of practice at denial. Deny everything so they can't betray you later.
The naked hurt in Blair's eyes was like a dagger twisting deep in Jim's gut. What the hell was going on? Why did this virtual stranger evoke such strong emotions within him?
Suddenly Blair's expression eased to empathy. "That's all right. I understand. Everything is mixed up right now, isn't it? Sight, sound, taste, smell and touch."
Jim took an involuntary step back, his backside colliding with the stove. Alarms klaxoned in his mind, warning him to flee or hide, but there was nowhere to go. "I don't know what the hell you're talking about, Sandburg."
Blair smiled, a warm compassionate smile which was so unexpected, Jim almost returned it.
"How do you know my name?" the student asked softly.
Heat flooded Jim's face. "Someone must've told me."
"Who?" Blair pressed. "From what I understand, you don't talk to anyone."
The kid's fearlessness in the face of his savage scowl surprised him. He expected Sandburg to turn tail and run, but he was like a little terrier -- fiercely determined when he sank his teeth into a bone.
"I must've overheard it." Jim poured them each a cup of tea and handed one to Blair.
Jim merely sent him a curt nod, then crossed the short distance to one of the rocking chairs. Sandburg followed, sitting in the other one. They sipped their tea, watching the crackling orange flames and soaking up the fire's warmth. Lightning and thunder followed one another with the precision of a symphony orchestra, punctuated by the percussion of rain on the roof.
"Your hearing must be pretty good to overhear someone all the way up here," Blair said too innocently.
Jim's heart threatened to leap out of his chest. Ever since his father had called him a freak, he had suppressed his abnormal senses. No ten-year-old child wanted to be different than any of his classmates, but Jimmy Ellison had been. Even though he'd denied them, tried to bury them, his extraordinary senses returned again and again, throwing his life into one hellish nightmare after another. Because he was different, his father had scorned him. His brother Steven, once he was old enough to understand, followed William Ellison's example. Jim hadn't spoken to either one of them in nearly twenty years.
"I must've been down by my boat when I heard it."
Blair merely nodded, but his eyes were too perceptive. "So why do you want to kill yourself?" he asked conversationally.
Jim searched for anger at the younger man's blunt audacity, but felt only emptiness. "Why do you care?"
Though he knew nothing about Jim Ellison, Blair cared what happened to him. He took a deep breath, afraid to speak and afraid to remain silent. "Because I think I've been searching for you for over half my life," Blair said softly. "I think you're a throwback to a type of pre-civilized man."
Shock was quickly replaced by a fury so powerful, Blair could feel the waves rolling off the older man. Jim pushed himself to his feet and glared down at him. "Listen you neo-hippie witch doctor punk, I'm not some goddamned freak."
His cold eyes stabbed deep into Blair, though surprisingly the younger man felt no fear, only compassion and concern. "I didn't say you were," he said quietly, his head tilted back as he gazed at Jim. "You're a sentinel, a man with hyperactive senses."
Jim spun away from Blair, but not before the student spotted the horrible frustration in his expression. Jim crossed to a window and stared out into the dark night, his broad shoulders rigid and his spine straight. Blair stood and padded over to him on stocking feet. He knew Jim was aware of his proximity by the even greater stiffening of his muscled body.
Blair dared to rest his hand on the man's shoulder and the tension from Jim actually vibrated through his palm. "Look, I know you're scared. Your senses have probably been going haywire for a long time now. I can help you get them under control."
Jim whirled around, drawing away from his touch. "I don't need yours or anyone else's help." He frantically gathered Blair's wet clothing and thrust them into his arms. "Get the hell out of here. Now!"
For a moment, Blair didn't move. Jim Ellison resembled a caged animal, desperate and terrified and striking out at anything or anyone to try to relieve its own torment -- and Blair wanted to put his hand into the cage, even knowing he could lose his hand in the process.
"All right," he finally said. "I'll leave since I'm obviously upsetting you." Blair tugged on his sodden shoes and wet jacket, acutely aware of Jim's towering presence. He picked up his rain-soaked clothing. "We'll meet again. I promise you."
Jim clenched and unclenched his fists at his sides. "Don't bet on it, Sandburg."
Blair smiled. "I always play against the odds, especially when the stakes are so high."
Then Sandburg was gone and the hut was filled with emptiness once more.
Jim stumbled back and his legs hit the bed. He dropped onto the mattress, his whole body seeming to collapse into itself. He rubbed his throbbing brow with a trembling hand.
What the hell gave Sandburg the right to turn his world upside down? Damn him for offering hope when the time for that was long past. Maybe if he'd shown up a year earlier, before...
No, don't go there. But his mind had already returned to the bus and all those who hadn't escaped. Dead because his senses were different... because he was a freak. The death cries of eleven men, women and children echoed through his memory like a living nightmare he could never escape.
He laid down on his side, crossed his arms tightly and curled his knees into his belly as his head pounded with the familiar post-blackout migraine. His stomach churned and he swallowed convulsively to hold the sickness at bay. He closed his eyes as moisture burned behind the lids.
Sandburg was too late. Nobody could save James Ellison's soul.
The next morning dawned clear, a rarity on the island and the fishermen took it as a sign they'd have good fortune that day.
"Blair, are you coming?" Peter called out from one of the boats.
From the wooden dock, Blair shook his head. "I'm going to stay in today."
Peter narrowed his gaze. "Don't be doing anything foolish."
"Would I do that?" He gave the fisherman his most innocent smile.
Peter grunted. "Be careful, lad."
The fishermen pushed off and Blair watched them leave, schooling his expression to remain calm. Inside however, he fairly bounced with nervous tension. The encounter with Jim the night before had given him a sleepless night as he considered the ramifications of the quiet man being a sentinel. But more than that, Jim Ellison's agony had reached out to Blair on a deeper level.
Blair turned and walked back to the shore where some of the children were playing. They called out their greetings and he returned them fondly.
"Are you going to play with us today, Blair?" asked a twelve-year-old girl with pigtails and enormous hazel eyes.
He laid a hand on her shoulder. "Not today, Molly. I have some other things to do."
Her expression, as well as the other children's fell, and Blair felt a pang of remorse. "Would it be okay if I joined you later?"
Molly's smile returned. "We'd like that."
"Run along then and I'll catch up."
The group of three boys and three girls dashed off, laughing and hollering. He watched them go with a growing melancholy. He wished he could bring some of that happiness to Jim Ellison. Squaring his shoulders, Blair strode over to the far pier where Jim's boat was tied off. He made himself comfortable on an old rickety chair at the end of the dock and waited.
He had to get away. The prickling at the back of his neck urged him down the familiar path to his boat. As he grew closer, a soft rhythmic thumping became clearly audible. He halted and peered down through the trees to the pier.
Shit. Sandburg was waiting for him.
He tipped his head and concentrated on the student and the thumping escalated in volume as he narrowed in on the source. He stumbled backwards, nearly falling on his backside in the mud.
The sound was Sandburg's heartbeat.
He could hear Sandburg's heart beating from over a hundred yards away.
No! That was impossible!
Then Jim Ellison turned and ran blindly in the opposite direction.
Blair's butt was growing numb and his mood was approaching zero tolerance. He'd been waiting for Jim for nearly two hours. If the man was going out today, he would've been here by now.
Unless he'd seen Blair and gone back home to avoid him.
Groaning, he realized that's exactly what had happened. Jim had been hiding from himself and everybody else for months -- why change now? He wasn't going to suddenly open up to a strange graduate student out of gratitude for explaining what was happening to him. Oh, no, Jim Ellison would deny his senses and come out fighting with anyone who dared make him see the truth.
Should he go to his cabin?
He recalled the fear and anger in Ellison's face the night before. No, maybe it would be better to give him some more time to come to terms with what he'd been told.
Blair stood, pressed his palms against his lower back and stretched. Vertebrae snapped audibly as they returned to their rightful place. He could join the children, but for the first time, that didn't appeal to him. Glancing at the bar, he decided to see if Joel had the place open yet. Maybe he could wheedle some information about Jim from the American.
He entered the pub a few minutes later and waited a moment for his eyes to adjust to the room's dim lighting. The only occupant appeared to be Joel, who sat at a table, his laptop computer in front of him. Smiling, Blair removed his coat, hung it on a hook, and joined him.
"Hi," he greeted as he sat down across the table from the man.
Joel glanced up, his surprise quickly turning to pleasure. "Morning, Blair. What brings you here so early?"
"To be honest, I wanted to talk to you about Jim Ellison," Blair said bluntly.
Joel's welcoming expression slipped and he gazed at Blair silently for a long moment. "Is this for your study?"
"No. Maybe. I don't know." Blair shook his head in frustration, then tucked a few errant strands of curly hair behind an ear. "I really think I can help him."
Joel crossed his arms over his massive chest. "He doesn't want to be helped."
Blair leaned forward. "Did you know he planned on killing himself last night?"
Shock lit the man's brown eyes. "Did he tell you that?"
"Not in so many words." Blair swallowed hard, surprised by the anguish the memory wrought. "He was standing on the edge of the cliff in some sort of trance. I grabbed his arm and talked him back." He balled his hands into fists on the table. "Damn it, Joel, I need to know why!"
"So you stopped him?"
"This time. We went back to his place and he loaned me some dry clothes, then made some tea. We talked for about five minutes before he threw me out."
"He invited you in?" Joel asked in disbelief.
Blair nodded impatiently. "I know I can help him. I just need to know what's going on. What brought him here? Why has he cut himself off from everyone? What made him so angry? How do you know him?"
Joel stared at his computer, the screen's illumination reflecting off his face and giving his dark complexion an odd greenish cast. Blair could almost hear his mind racing, trying to decide if he could trust the student or not. Finally, Joel raised his gaze and met Blair's eyes.
"Once upon a time, Jim Ellison used to be a cop. A damned good one."
Blair wasn't surprised. Jim being a cop made perfect sense -- a sentinel was a watchman, a protector of his tribe. "What happened?"
"A little over a year ago, somebody starting blowing up buildings and leaving clues for Jim."
Blair searched his memory, recalling the sensational crimes. "Yeah. Didn't she go by the name Switchman?"
Joel nodded. "That's right. She had a grudge against Jim, taunted him, challenging him to catch her. He finally tracked her down, caught her with a busload of tourists, but he was too late."
Blair felt the blood drain from his face as he remembered. "Eleven people were killed."
"Jim blames himself for their deaths. Even though he was able to save over twenty others before she blew the bus, those eleven people haunt him, Blair. He says he can hear them at night." Sadness filled Joel's eyes. "They're slowly driving him crazy."
For a moment, Blair could only stare in astonished shock at Joel. No wonder Jim appeared so troubled. If he blamed himself for the deaths of eleven men, women, and children... "It wasn't his fault, was it?" He was surprised by the shakiness of his voice.
"He was cleared of all responsibility."
Blair heard something odd in Joel's voice. "Do you think it was his fault?"
"God, no!" Joel scrubbed his large hands across his face. "Jim Ellison's a tough, hard man, but he never hesitated to lay his own life on the line to save others. He would've died to save them." He took a deep breath and his eyes filled with misery. "Those on the scene said he had a clear shot, but froze. When the bomb went off, it threw him back about twenty feet. He had internal injuries, three broken ribs, a broken arm, cuts and a concussion which kept him unconscious for two days."
Bile rose in Blair's throat and he dropped his head into his hands, breathing deeply to dispel his nausea. Without someone to help Jim control his senses, he couldn't handle the input from the scene and he had zoned. People had been killed and Jim badly hurt because no one knew. If only Blair had known.
"When Jim finally woke up, his first words were asking about the Switchman. Simon -- Captain Banks -- told him what happened. It was downhill from there. Even though an internal investigation cleared him of all charges, he turned in his badge and walked away," Joel said.
Blair gasped for air like a landed fish, his throat tightening with anguish. He raised his head slowly, trying to regain control of his overwhelming sorrow. "Why did he come here?"
Joel glanced down at his hands which were trembling. "I used to be a cop in Cascade, too. I knew Jim, though I can't say we were friends. The fact is Jim never let anyone close to him. Simon told me what happened and I told him to tell Jim he was more than welcome to stay here for as long as he wanted."
Blair studied the big man a moment, noting the stiffness in his facial muscles and his downward gaze. "Why are you here?"
Silence dominated for a full minute before Joel answered, "I used to work in the bomb unit. I lost it on the last case I had. I got the shakes so bad I couldn't even walk past the squad room without breaking into a cold sweat. I decided I'd had enough. This place was for sale so I bought it and left everything behind."
Blair leaned forward and gripped Joel's shoulder. "I'm sorry, man. I didn't know."
"That's all right. Nobody on the island but you and Jim know the whole story."
The two men sat in contemplative silence for a few minutes.
"I think I can help him, Joel," Blair said in a low voice. "I think I know what happened when he froze."
Joel's mouth dropped open. "What are you talking about?"
"Those voices he hears aren't ghosts. They're real people." Blair hands moved in accompaniment with his words. "He's hearing the villagers talk in their homes in the evening."
Disbelief vied for relief in the older man's face. "How?"
"I think he has hyperactive senses." Blair's whole body vibrated with excitement. "When he froze, it was something called a zone-out. It happens when he concentrates on one sense so hard his other senses shut down. It's like a fugue state."
"Whoa, slow down, Blair." Joel held up a hand. "What do you mean by hyperactive senses?"
"His senses are like super sensitive. He can hear and see and smell and taste and feel things that no normal person could even begin to sense. I won't know how powerful his senses are until I can run some tests on him." Blair grasped Joel's forearm. "You have to talk to Jim, make him listen."
"Is that why he threw you out last night -- because you told him this stuff about his senses?"
Blair nodded. "I think deep down he knows I'm telling the truth, but he's afraid to believe."
"I'll try, but I can't promise you anything. Jim Ellison is the most stubborn man I've ever met," Joel said with a sad smile.
Blair grinned crookedly. "Until me." He grew solemn once more. "I'm not going to let him kill himself."
"I'll try to talk to him this afternoon before I open the bar."
Blair stood and retrieved his jacket. "I'll stop by this evening." He wanted to add something more, but wasn't sure what to say and left with a wave of his hand.
"Damn it, Joel. I can't believe you fell for his bullshit," Jim Ellison ranted as he paced the small porch of his cabin.
"It's not bullshit, Jim. Listen to the kid. He makes a lot of sense," Joel pressed.
Jim clasped his hands behind his neck and tilted his head back, feeling the pull of taut muscles. "He talks a good line, but he doesn't know anything."
Joel leaned back in the wooden chair and Jim's skin crawled beneath the man's steady perusal.
"What are you afraid of?" Joel asked quietly.
Jim's temper boiled. "Not a damn thing."
A tiny voice deep inside Jim recognized the truth in Joel's quiet decree. He closed his eyes, willing the tiny voice to shut up. But it only grew louder. His eyelids flashed open and he spread his arms out wide. "I'm scared of facing the ghosts of those people who died because of me. I'm scared of the things I can see that shouldn't be there. I'm scared of touching anyone and dragging them down into hell with me. Do you want me to keep going?" The bitterness in Jim's tone surprised even himself.
Joel stood and laid a hand on Jim's shoulder. "Talk to him. He might be able to help you."
"And he might be my final damnation," Jim whispered hoarsely.
"Your only damnation is your own guilt," Joel said softly. "Let it go."
Three steps carried Joel away from Jim's small home, leaving Jim alone with the deafening cries of the dead.
"Give him another day, Blair," Joel said quietly as he set a glass of beer down in front of the student.
Though it was only mid-afternoon, Blair took a sip of the ale. He hadn't gone out fishing since the day of the storm when he'd found Jim on the cliff. No matter what anybody said, he was determined to help the lost and hurting man, and every day he watched and waited by the dock for him. And every day he was disappointed when Jim didn't show.
"It's been three days since you talked to him." Blair raked an agitated hand through his curly hair. "He hasn't come down to the pier since then. In fact, no one's seen him at all."
Joel sighed. "Nobody ever sees Jim. He's probably just working through everything."
"I don't know." A horrible thought struck Blair and his throat tightened. "What if he tried to kill himself again?"
Joel dragged a damp cloth across the bar top, but Blair could see the worry in his expression. "He's a strong man. He'll make it through this."
The weight on Blair's chest grew heavier. "It's been over a year since those people were killed and he's still drowning in guilt, Joel. His senses have to be driving him crazy, too." His eyes widened and he gasped. "What if he zoned and hasn't been able to come out of it by himself?" He slid off the barstool, instinct again guiding him. "I have to go see him."
Joel grabbed his arm. "I hope you know what you're getting into."
Blair studied the empathy in the ex-cop's eyes and managed a slight smile of reassurance. "Have you ever had the feeling that everything in your life was leading up to one thing? That everything you'd done in the past was coming together for this one purpose and nothing would ever be right in your universe if you missed it?" He leaned closer to Joel. "I have read everything I can get my hands on about sentinels for over fifteen years. I have dreamed of meeting one since I first heard about them. Jim Ellison is that 'one thing' my whole life has been leading up to. I won't let him destroy himself when I know I can help him."
Joel stared at him a long moment. "Remember this then, Blair. Whether Jim is a sentinel or not, he's still a person. If you hurt him any more than he's already hurting, I will personally make you pay."
The usually easy-going man's threat startled Blair. It seemed Joel wasn't immune to Jim's vulnerability either. "I have no intention of hurting him." He swallowed hard and added quietly, "I couldn't."
Joel appeared satisfied, then nodded slowly and released him.
Blair hurried out of the bar into the overcast afternoon. A motion on the trail leading to Jim's cabin caught his eye and he watched until he recognized young Molly racing down the path. He ran across the muddy main street and met her as she stumbled, catching her before she fell. Her face was red and her eyes wide.
Blair squatted down in front of her. "What is it, Molly? Are you hurt?"
She shook her head. "N-no, not me. That m-man, Jim."
Blair's blood ran cold and he gripped Molly's arms. "What about him? Is something wrong? Is he all right?"
"He's l-laying... on the ground, by his cabin," Molly said in between pants. "The others... got s-scared and ran away, but I c-couldn't l-leave him." Her small hands twisted Blair's coat sleeves. "Please, Blair... you have to help him."
Blair's heart thundered in his chest as he rose without thought. "Go get Dr. McKenzie, sweetheart, and bring him to Jim's place."
Molly nodded, tears spilling down her cheeks as she ran toward the center of town where the elderly doctor lived.
Blair shot up the trail, his body on automatic as his head filled with horrifying pictures of a dead Jim Ellison. His lungs burned, but he continued running up the steep ascent. Finally, he arrived at his destination and spotted the man's body near the woodpile.
He sprinted over to him, falling to his knees beside him. Jim lay on his stomach, one arm outstretched as if he'd tried to break his fall and the other tucked along his side. Blair pressed two trembling fingers against his neck, searching for a pulse. He found a rapid but weak one. At least he was still alive. His hands ghosted over Jim's body, checking for external injuries, but didn't see any blood on his clothing or the ground. He wanted to move Jim into the cabin, but couldn't until he was certain Jim didn't have any broken bones.
Feeling helpless, Blair awkwardly placed one hand on Jim's back. Fierce heat emanated from his body and his face was flushed. No doubt he had a high fever, but what had caused it? In the silence, Blair could hear the man's raspy, shallow breathing. Panic and fear unfurled within him.
"It's going to be okay, Jim," Blair murmured huskily. "The doctor's on the way and he's going to find out what's wrong. Then we're going to get you better. I promise." His voice fell into a low soothing tone. "You hang in there, big guy. I am not going to lose you. Not now."
He continued to speak in a gentle comforting voice, some part of him knowing that Jim could hear him.
"You're not alone anymore, Jim. I'll help you. I swear I will. You have to live. You have to let me in so I can help you," Blair whispered.
A movement out of the corner of his eye caught Blair's attention and he turned his head to see Molly with the elderly doctor and Joel following closely.
"What happened?" the doctor demanded, kneeling beside the fallen man.
Blair shook his head. "There's no sign of physical trauma, no cuts or bruises, but I think he has a fever."
"Help me roll him onto his back, young man," the doctor ordered after checking for broken bones.
Blair obliged and shifted his kneeling position so Jim's head rested on his thighs. He kept his hand on a broad shoulder, terrified of losing a connection he hadn't even known existed a week ago. He forced himself to remain still and silent, waiting for the doctor to do his preliminary examination.
Finally Dr. McKenzie straightened.
"What's wrong with him?" Blair demanded.
"His lungs are congested. I'd say the start of pneumonia," the doctor replied flatly. "Probably from his fool stunt of standing in the rain a few nights back. What did he expect?"
Angered by the healer's callousness, Blair's usual tact disappeared. "Not much and I guess he won't be disappointed. Should we call for an airlift to the hospital?"
Though his face was somewhat red, McKenzie shook his head brusquely. "He doesn't need a hospital, just rest and antibiotics. And somebody to keep an eye on him." His sour expression told Blair he wasn't going to be the one to watch over the patient.
"I'll do it," Blair said without hesitation.
Pursing his lips, the doctor eyed Blair a moment. "The first thing we have to do is get him inside."
Working together, the three men carried Jim's limp body into his cabin. Molly turned down the covers of the bed and they laid Jim down.
The doctor set a bottle of pills on the small square table. "These are antibiotics. He needs to take one twice a day for seven days. Make sure he takes all of them."
McKenzie turned toward the door.
Blair grabbed the doctor's arm. "Hold on. What else should I do?"
The gray-haired man scowled. "Make sure he gets plenty of rest, have him drink eight to twelve glasses of fluids a day, and give him aspirin for his aches and pains."
"That's it?" Blair demanded.
"A warm towel on his chest might help the pain in his lungs. Encourage him to cough up the mucus. Call me if his temperature stays above 102 for more than a day or two, if his skin or fingernails turn blue, or if he coughs up blood," the doctor stated dispassionately.
The vision of Jim being that ill made Blair sick to his stomach. He nodded, unable to speak past the dread filling his throat. He released Dr. McKenzie's arm and the man left the tiny cabin.
"I'd better get home before Mama gets mad," Molly said. She touched Jim's hot forehead and gazed up at Blair, her eyes glistening. "You'll take care of him, won't you Blair?"
His heart twisted at her tear-filled expression. "Of course I will, honey." He laid a hand on her slight shoulder and asked softly. "How do you know him?"
The girl's eyes widened and she glanced down at Jim, then back at Blair. "A few months ago me and my friends were swimming in the pond where we're not supposed to. I was way out in the middle by myself when I got a cramp and started to drown. Jim saved me. I don't know how he knew, but he did. Ever since then he's been my secret friend."
Blair's gaze flitted to Jim and back to the girl. "Why a secret friend?" he asked, his voice husky.
"He didn't want me to tell anyone."
Jim's eyes fluttered open. "M-Molly," he said weakly. "What happened?"
The girl leaned close to the ill man. "You're really sick, but Blair said he'll take good care of you."
Jim blinked and Blair moved a little closer so Jim could see him without shifting. "You've got pneumonia," Blair said.
"I have to go," Molly said, then kissed Jim's cheek lightly. "I'll come and see you tomorrow. Cross my heart."
Jim's surprised gaze followed the girl as she skipped out of the cabin. Contrary to popular belief, Jim Ellison wasn't made of stone. Any doubts Blair had about him being a sentinel were obliterated -- Jim was a true watchman dedicated to safeguarding others.
The ex-cop turned his head to gaze at Blair and the harsh lines returned to his brow. "You don't have to stay." His voice was raw and rough.
A coughing fit struck him and Blair quickly moved to his side, helping him sit up. "I'm not leaving," Blair stated. He glanced up at Joel. "Can you find something for him to eat, preferably something hot? I'll get him out of these damp clothes."
Jim glared at the student and Joel's attempt to hide a grin behind his hand failed. "I'll find something."
Blair began to unbutton Jim's shirt and the weakened man gripped his wrists.
"Just leave... m-me alone," Jim said.
"No way, Ellison," Blair stated curtly, continuing his task. "As long as I'm here, you're not going to take the easy way out." He paused. "And I'm not leaving."
Jim's lips twisted into a bitter smile as his hands fell to his sides. "You call... this easy?"
Blair slipped Jim's shirt off his shoulders, then paused to gaze at the man steadily. "For you it seems easier than to face the truth of who you are."
"I'm a murderer. Is that what you wanted to hear?" Jim convulsed into another coughing spasm, this one more violent than the last.
Blair shifted around, easing his arms around Jim as he pulled him against his chest. The brutal tremors which wracked the larger man's body frightened Blair, as did the redness of his face as he struggled to breathe between choking gasps. He rubbed Jim's back, following instinct, letting it guide him to ease the sick man's suffering.
The paroxysm finally ended and Jim lay limp within his arms, his sweat-soaked face resting in the curve of Blair's neck and shoulder. The ex-cop labored to regain his breath, the sound harsh in the small silent confines.
"You are not a murderer," Blair stated. "The first thing you have to do is get that through you thick skull."
In spite of his weakness, Jim's jaw muscle jumped with anger.
"He should be in a hospital," Joel said in his low rumbling voice.
Blair glanced away from the sentinel to find Joel beside the bed, his expression somber. "I can take care of him. Besides, I don't know how the antibiotics will affect his senses. It'd be better if I can be with him all the time."
Joel looked like he wanted to argue, but pressed his lips together and remained silent. The two men removed the rest of Jim's clothing except his underwear and t-shirt, and tucked him under the covers. Blair frowned at the small red welts on Jim's arms and legs. What... The answer made Blair dizzy -- a sentinel's skin would be much more sensitive to chemicals and textures than a normal person. How long had Jim been suffering alone?
Joel found a heavy quilt inside a chest at the end of the bed and piled that atop the pale figure, too. "I should get back to the bar," he said reluctantly. "I hate to leave Katie alone for too long."
"Go on," Blair said with a wave of his hand. "We'll be fine."
Joel's gaze flickered to Jim, who watched them but didn't speak. "I have to go, but Blair's going to stay with you. I'll drop by tomorrow and see how you're doing."
Jim merely blinked in response.
"Is there anything I can bring?" Joel asked Blair.
"Maybe a few more cans of soup," the student suggested.
"Okay." Joel leaned over Jim and gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Everything's going to be all right now," he said quietly.
Jim's blue eyes glistened suspiciously, but there was no other reaction to Joel's words.
After saying good-bye to Taggert, Blair retrieved a glass of water and an antibiotic for his patient. He held them out, but Jim ignored him. "You are going to take these pills if I have to force them down your throat," Blair said matter-of-factly.
"You and what army?" Jim's voice was a hoarse whisper.
Blair smiled. "Don't let my size fool you. I used to box with a Golden Gloves champ."
Jim eyed him skeptically. Slowly the ex-cop took the glass and pill from Blair's outstretched hand. Keeping his eyes on the student, he popped the antibiotic in his mouth and washed it down with a couple swallows of water.
"That wasn't so hard, was it?" Blair asked, partially teasing.
"Stow it, Sandburg."
Blair chuckled. "See, you're already getting better."
A slight twinkle appeared in the older man's eyes, startling Blair. The transformation from his usual glower was astonishing. Was this the man Jim had been before the Switchman had destroyed his self-confidence and life?
Blair filled a bowl with the heated soup and carried it to Jim's bedside. He settled himself in a straight-backed chair, ready to feed him.
"I can do it myself," Jim growled.
"Sure, man, whatever you say," Blair said, keeping his tone light.
Blair set the bowl on the night stand, retrieved a towel which he laid across the blankets on Jim's lap, then handed him the soup. Jim took it carefully, his hands trembling. He was able to hold it for a few moments before it began to tip. Blair caught it before it spilled but a few drops landed on the towel.
"You knew... I'd do that," Jim accused, his voice breathy.
Blair shrugged, taking the bowl back. "Educated guess. A mule has nothing over you in the stubborn department, Ellison. Now I will feed you and you will not complain."
Jim's jaw became rigid, but when Blair held out the spoon, he grudgingly opened his mouth. As Blair fed him, he was aware of Jim's puzzled study of him and for some reason his scrutiny amused him. "Can't figure me out and it's driving you crazy, isn't it?"
Jim swallowed the last spoonful of soup. "Yep."
Blair set the empty bowl on the night stand. "Blair Sandburg is an anthropology student who was doing his doctorate on closed societies, which is what brought him to this island. Then he discovers something he's been searching for over half his life and suddenly everything in the universe makes sense again."
"What?" Jim asked, bewildered.
"You. James Ellison. Even though you won't admit it, you are a sentinel, man. You are the living embodiment of my original thesis."
Disgust laced with pain lined Jim's face. "I'm your lab rat."
"No!" Blair leaned forward in his chair, laying a hand on Jim's forearm. "You're an extraordinary man who needs help dealing with your senses and I'm more than willing to give it to you."
"So you can study me." Jim closed his eyes, creases etching his brow.
Blair wanted to deny it, but his words hit too close to the truth. Blair hadn't really considered what would happen when he met his long-sought sentinel. He had always assumed the person would be happy to share his or her knowledge of their genetic abilities. But Jim Ellison didn't want to share anything with anybody. For the first time since he had begun his sentinel quest, Blair took a close look at himself and his motives. What he saw made him squirm in his seat uncomfortably.
He's always considered himself a fairly generous person. He enjoyed helping his students and anyone else who needed his assistance. Yet his motives for finding a sentinel had been completely self-centered, not taking into account the sentinel's feelings on being the subject of a dissertation. God, he'd done some pretty stupid things but this ranked right up there. Even though he'd believed his motives to be altruistic, he had charged straight into Jim's life, disrupting and taking it over all in the name of research.
Quietly so he wouldn't disturb Jim, Blair picked up the bowl and carried it the short distance to the sink. He gripped the edge of the counter and turned to gaze at the sleeping sentinel. He recalled Joel's words about Jim being a person and his own quick reply that he could never hurt him.
But he had hurt him. Badly.
Jim awakened slowly to a heaviness in his lungs and a pounding head. His eyes flickered open and even in the darkness, he immediately spotted the student in the uncomfortable chair next to his bed. The younger man's head drooped, his chin touching his chest and a soft snore punctuated his deep breaths. Night had fallen and Jim judged it to be near midnight, but he couldn't be certain. Everything felt off-balance, from the aches in his body to the sight of Sandburg in his cabin.
Jim wished he could believe Sandburg was here because he cared what happened to him. But the kid's silence had all but admitted his reason loud and clear -- he wanted Jim to be his science project. Why should he be any different than anyone else who only wanted something from Jim?
His hearing flared and he heard the slow steady beat of the student's heart, an oddly calming sound. The scent of his herbal shampoo wafted to Jim, adding another level of peace. His abnormal senses suddenly didn't seem so frightening and he focused them on Blair, from his scent to his heartbeat to the moonlit chestnut tints in his hair.
"How are you feeling?"
Startled, Jim's hearing spiked, the tumult of noises coming too fast and furious for his mind to handle. He groaned, closed his eyes and pressed his palms against his ears, but it didn't help. The sounds clamored in his head and dizzying bursts of pain flared deeper and deeper. Hands grasped his wrists.
"Are you having trouble with your hearing?" Blair's voice though only a whisper rose above the chaos and Jim latched onto its steadying tone.
"Yes," Jim managed to reply as his head threatened to split.
"Okay, Jim, I want you to try something for me, all right?" Blair took a deep breath. "Imagine a volume dial that you can turn up and down. When it's turned up, your hearing goes off the charts, but as you turn it down, the sounds will get quieter. Can you do that? Picture the dial, Jim," he intoned with quiet authority.
Jim did as he said, finding the dial easier than he expected. Mentally turning the knob down to a two, he found the reverberating spikes and the agony accompanying them decreased also. He allowed Blair to lower his hands. Only the natural sounds of the night remained, though above them he was aware of the anthropologist's heartbeat, grounding him, keeping him from spiraling off into another auditory circus.
He smiled, feeling the pull of unused muscles. "Thanks."
Blair appeared startled and released his hold on his patient's wrists. "It worked?"
Jim wondered at the surprise in his voice. "Yeah. Didn't you think it would?"
He ran a hand through his curly hair. "I wasn't sure. This was my first time, too."
Amazed someone had actually been able to help him without even knowing how, Jim felt the lure of something akin to hysterical laughter. "You mean we're both virgins?"
"Not anymore," Blair cracked back, a smile lighting his face. "That's great, Jim. Even though I've studied everything I can find about sentinels, there are still a lot of blanks. But now that we know the dial works, we can use them on your other senses, too."
The enthusiasm in the student's voice infected Jim. "So you think we can get rid of my other senses, too?"
Blair's grin faded. "Nothing will get rid of your senses, but you will be able to control them."
Anticipation disappeared, replaced by discouragement. "I don't want the damn things, Sandburg. They're the reason eleven people are dead."
Blair leaned forward in his chair, his hands scrabbling at the air as if trying to draw a picture. "No. The reason those people are dead is because a madwoman planted a bomb fully intending to kill them. You had this gift then, but you didn't have control. Control is the key, Jim. You can do things no other human being can and probably a lot of things I can't even begin to imagine." He laughed weakly. "Well, maybe I can. I have a hell of an imagination."
Jim turned away, praying Blair couldn't see the moisture welling in his eyes. Nobody had seen tears from Jim Ellison since he was a child. Tears never helped anything. A person did what they had to and then they moved on. Crying over the past was a waste of time.
Blair caught Jim's face between his palms, turning him so there was only six inches separating them. At such close proximity, Blair couldn't help but see the guilt and weakness reflected in his eyes, but Jim didn't have the strength to hide them from the anthropologist.
"You listen to me, Jim Ellison. You have a gift. You have the capacity to help people, to protect them from others like the Switchman. You cannot give up, man. With your senses, you can detect danger before it can harm, discover a murderer before he can kill again, find a lost child who everyone else has given up on. Damn it, Jim, you can make a difference, a good difference, but you have to let go of the past. What happened then can't be changed, but there are other lives out there you can save." Blair's voice vibrated with a fervency that sent a shiver down Jim's spine.
A tear trickled down the side of Jim's face and humiliation burned in his gut. God, he wanted to believe Sandburg with every fiber of his being, but he couldn't forget those he'd failed.
Blair gently thumbed away his tear. "I can help you, Jim. Please, let me help you." His voice was almost inaudible, but Jim had no trouble hearing his sincerity and compassion.
Almost against his will, Jim nodded. "Help me. Please."
"I will. I promise."
Blair drew his hands away from Jim's face and the loss of contact cast Jim adrift. He wanted to reach out and take hold of the younger man's hand, but self-preservation denied him that indulgence. He'd already admitted too much to this virtual stranger and angry shame filled him. Covert Ops and his past had taught him one thing -- never give anyone too much information. They would use it to destroy you sooner or later.
Even your own father.
"I'm not going anywhere. Get some sleep." Blair's soothing words drifted across him.
Jim turned his face away from Blair and closed his eyes. Moisture burned in them, but he kept his eyes shut tight, willing the tears away. A now familiar rhythm filled his ears and he focused on it. Steady and reassuring. It was the only thing that was able to ground his senses and his fears, and he allowed the steadfast pulse to lull him like a mother's soft lullaby.
Finally the sentinel slept.
Blair slipped outside to get some fresh air and leaned against the wall, tilting his head back to gaze at the gray sky. For four days he had been Jim's personal nurse, ensuring he took his antibiotics which thankfully didn't have any side effects, helping him eat, making sure he drank plenty of liquids, assisting him in relieving himself and giving him sponge baths.
He drew a hand across his forehead, trying to wipe away the exhaustion these last few days had produced. He'd discovered just how damned stubborn Jim was as he resisted him at every juncture. But he'd also seen other facets of the man. When Molly visited, he became a completely different person, smiling easily and often, and his eyes would twinkle with fondness for the girl. But after she left, he would revert back to the brooding man Blair had first met.
Blair sighed. In all honesty, it was his own fault for thinking that after the first night when Jim had shown his vulnerability the man would open up to him. And though Jim wasn't quite as belligerent, he still maintained his aloofness, unwilling to let Blair get any closer to him than he had to.
Frustration had brought him outside after another verbal sparring match with the recovering man. If Blair hadn't promised to help him, he would go back to his own cabin to recharge his spirit. But he'd given his word.
Was it worth it? Were his sentinel studies worth the verbal abuse from the man in the cabin?
Was Jim's life worth it?
Yes. Without a doubt.
Taking a deep fortifying breath, he went back into the cabin and was surprised to see Jim still awake. He had hoped he'd be asleep by the time he came back inside. Unwilling to engage in another ugly confrontation, Blair made a pot of tea. He set Jim's cup on the night stand.
"Thanks," Jim said.
Startled, Blair only nodded. It was the first thanks he'd gotten from the man in four days. Though he hadn't taken care of Jim for the man's undying gratitude, his refusal to thank him had rubbed Blair the wrong way.
He took his own tea to the small table where his laptop was set up and booted up the computer. While Joel had sat with Jim a few days ago, Blair had run back to his place to change clothes, grab his computer and whatever else he needed to stay at Jim's cabin until the man recovered. Whenever Jim slept, Blair reread everything he'd saved on the hard drive about sentinels, then had opened a new file simply labeled JE. Despite Jim's unwillingness to cooperate, Blair was able to add copious observations about the sentinel and his abilities. It wouldn't be long before he had enough for an article for The Anthropology Journals. But would he submit it? Or even write it? It seemed an invasion of this proud man's privacy and Blair had no intention of exposing him to the media's scrutiny. Jim had had enough of that nightmare with the Switchman case.
Blair propped his elbow on the table and dropped his chin to his palm as he read the last line he'd written in the JE file. Subject exhibits a low tolerance of any type of sound, including the almost inaudible click of a pen. He easily recalled that blow-up. Blair had been sitting at the table thinking, not even realizing he was clicking his pen until Jim had growled at him to stop. He'd tried to walk Jim through the steps of turning down his hearing, but the ex-cop had merely glared at him with frigid blue eyes. After a few sessions of working on the dials, Jim knew how to do it. He just chose not to.
Even though Jim knew he needed Blair's help, he hadn't welcomed him into his home. He tolerated him like a man would tolerate a wooden leg only because the option was worse.
He shifted his gaze to Jim and caught the man's blue eyes on him, but didn't look away. Instead, the two men waged a battle of wills, seeing who would blink first. Finally, Blair just gave in. He hated these little control games Jim played.
He took a deep breath. As angry as Jim made him, he could never hate the sentinel, but he could get truly pissed off at him.
Jim's spoken words shocked Blair so much he wasn't certain he had heard correctly. "What?"
"I said I'm sorry," Jim repeated, his voice stronger. "I've been an asshole and all you've done is take care of me and help me when nobody else would."
Blair turned in his chair, hooking an arm over the back and trying to appear nonchalant while his hands trembled. "What brought this about?"
"When you went outside a few minutes ago, I realized what a jerk I've been." Jim lifted his shoulders in a tired shrug. "In the time you've been here, I haven't had any of those black outs you told me about."
"Zone-outs," Blair corrected automatically.
Jim's face flushed. "Zone-outs. Before you came, I was having at least one or two a day." He coughed, but before Blair could move to his side, the spasm had passed.
It was the longest dialogue Blair had had with Jim, not counting his impatient tirades. But it was obvious the man spoke honestly.
"I'm scared of what's going to happen when I'm alone again," Jim admitted in a husky voice.
Blair had no doubt Jim's confession had been a difficult one to vocalize. From what Joel had told him and from what he had observed, Jim kept an emotional barrier between himself and the world. "You'll be fine, Jim. Like you said, your control is improving every day. You won't need me beside you every minute," Blair reassured.
Jim's rare openness faded as his expression became hidden in characteristic stoicism. His jaw muscle jumped. "You're right. I'll be fine. Sorry for sounding like a kid who's scared of the bogeyman."
Blair had been around the man enough to notice the subtle trepidation in his tone and in his eyes and it made Jim more human... more fragile. He rose from his chair and went to perch on the edge of the bed. "You don't sound like a scared kid, Ellison. You're nervous about being on your own again, but it won't be like it was before. I promise. I hope to spend quite a bit of time with you after you're better; maybe going out with you on your boat or visiting with you here in the cabin over a cup of tea." He smiled gently. "Besides, you've kind of grown on me, a little like a fungus."
Jim's lips curved upward and his blue eyes twinkled as relief eased the creases in his brow. "I hope it's a fuzzy fungus."
Blair's eyes widened. "Did you just crack a joke?"
"Watch it, Chief, or I'll be forced to pull the puns out from the arsenal," Jim growled, but his eyes were still teasing.
"Please, anything but the puns," Blair shot back in mock horror.
Jim chuckled then grimaced as he wrapped his arms around his chest. He coughed, but it wasn't the violent spasms which had wracked his body earlier.
Blair stood and moved into the kitchen. He placed a damp cloth into a steaming pan of water that sat on the stove, then wrung it out quickly. Tossing the hot cloth from hand to hand, he returned to the room's corner where the single bed sat.
"Lie back," he ordered.
Jim quirked an eyebrow upward but didn't argue. Blair pushed Jim's t-shirt up to lay the cloth upon the man's chest. After four days of tending the ill man, Blair should have been accustomed to seeing the many scars that marred Jim's torso, but they still managed to shock him anew. After smoothing the damp cloth over Jim's chest, Blair drew back but Jim's grip on his wrist stopped him.
"What's wrong?" Jim demanded with a husky voice. "Your heart is pounding like crazy."
Blair answered softly, "Those scars. They're from the Switchman?"
Jim released Blair's wrist. "Yeah."
"I-I'm sorry, man. It's just that--" Blair managed a shrug. "I mean, Joel told me you'd been hurt, but I guess I didn't realize how badly until I saw--" his voice faltered. "Until I saw your scars."
"Don't feel sorry for me, Sandburg," Jim growled. "I'm the lucky one. I survived."
Blair frowned, suddenly angered by the man's self-destructive bitterness. He perched on the edge of the bed and said curtly, "Yeah, you are the lucky one. Against all odds you survived, just like when you crashed in Peru."
Startled, Jim's eyes widened.
"I read the magazine article about you and I remember thinking you must've been damned lucky or there was more to the story than you were telling." Blair glanced down at his hands clenched tightly in his lap. "There was more to the story, wasn't there? You used your senses to survive."
"I-I don't remember much about it."
"That's understandable. It was pretty damned traumatic, losing everyone in your unit like that, and the mind has a way of repressing horrible memories. It's the mind's way of hanging on to sanity and going on with life."
"Then why didn't it repress the memory of that bus blowing up?" Jim demanded.
Blair met his steady sky blue eyes. "Maybe it did the opposite."
"What do you mean?"
"Joel told me you were almost killed during the explosion. He said you were thrown back and knocked unconscious," Blair answered, then asked softly, "How can you remember seeing those people die and hearing their cries if you weren't even conscious?"
Jim's brow furrowed and confusion filled his eyes. "Are you saying I imagined it?"
"It's possible. Guilt does strange things to a person." Blair stood. "Get some rest, Jim. We'll talk more later."
Blair moved back to the table and his cold cup of tea. He looked at his computer screen and dropped his fingers to the keyboard by habit. However, his focus remained on the man lying in the bed, looking lost and alone. If it had been anyone else, Blair wouldn't have hesitated to give him a hug of reassurance, but he knew Jim wouldn't welcome the physical comfort from an anthropology student.
But maybe someday Jim would accept it from a friend.
Two days later Jim's coughing had eased and his lungs had stopped aching so badly. He dressed by himself though Blair watched him closely, ready to come to his assistance if he faltered. Throughout the past days as Blair had cared for him, Jim couldn't help but soften toward the younger man. The student had pushed himself to exhaustion as he not only attended to his physical needs, but also taught Jim how to deal with his senses, all without asking for anything in return.
Except that Jim be his lab rat.
He shook aside the painful reminder. Jim found himself liking Sandburg, enjoying his company and his lively expositions on this or that tribe in whatever country. Jim had been so wrapped up in his own anguish that he'd forgotten about the world at large, and Blair's descriptions of the places he'd lived and studied and worked reminded him there was life outside this tiny island and Cascade.
The bright cadence of the student's voice often eased Jim's troubled thoughts and made him forget for a little while. For that reason alone, Jim would put up with being tested and prodded. He didn't have to like it, but for Blair's company he would tolerate it.
You're getting soft, Ellison.
"You doing okay there?" Blair asked.
Jim tucked his shirttails in his jeans. "Fine."
After zipping his jeans, he paused to regain his breath. Finally, he stood fully dressed.
"All dressed up and no place to go," Blair teased, obviously relieved Jim hadn't passed out.
"And here I thought we were headed to the Ritz," Jim said dryly.
Blair laughed. "Joel's bar doesn't open for another three hours."
They stood in awkward silence, then Blair moved up beside him. "Think you're up to sitting on the porch for a little while?"
"Oh, yeah, more than ready," Jim replied fervently.
He moved forward without help, though he was glad of Blair's reassuring presence by his side. Once on the porch, Jim sank into a large wooden chair and took a few minutes to breathe deeply, grimacing a little at the residual ache in his chest. Blair sat in the other chair, content in the silence which surrounded them.
Jim opened his hearing to listen to Blair's heartbeat, then expanded it even farther. He heard the chirp of a grasshopper and allowed his vision to find the insect moving from one blade of grass to another. He'd always thought grass was green and the sky blue, but with his enhanced vision he could make out yellows and blues within the blade of grass. The colors mixed together in a kaleidoscope, hypnotizing him with their vibrancy and blurring like rain streaming down a window -- then all other senses ceased.
Blair studied Jim in the sunlight, noticing fewer creases in his brow and the faint squint lines at the corners of his eyes. Suddenly he noticed the vacant look in Jim's expression. He hadn't zoned since the night Blair had found him on the cliff. That time he'd responded to Blair's voice. Would it work again?
Sandburg squatted down in front of Jim, laying his hands on his knees. "Hey, Jim, listen to my voice, man. You need to come back to me. Bring those dials down and return to me, buddy."
Jim blinked back from his zone-out and rubbed his face, gazing bleakly at Blair. "It happened again, didn't it?"
"It was only a short one. You came back right away."
The infamous Ellison jaw clench went into action. "I came back because you told me to."
Startled, Blair said, "I think for some reason you're keyed into my voice and it guides you back."
"Voice and touch, Chief," Jim said reluctantly. He leaned his head back against the chair. "Damn it, Blair, will this happen to me for the rest of my life?"
The bitter anger in his tone didn't surprise Blair. The man had the patience of a gerbil. "I don't think so. The more you can control your senses, the faster these zone-outs will disappear."
"But it was you who brought me back. What do I do when you're not here?"
"I'll be here, Jim. I give you my word." And Blair knew he was speaking the truth. He could leave the sentinel to deal with his senses alone as easily as he could leave a child to drown.
Jim stood so abruptly that Blair nearly fell back off the porch.
"You can't be with me every day for the rest of my life, Sandburg. Once your study is done, you'll move on," Jim said.
Blair rose, dusting off his backside. "Let's not worry about that right now. Let's just take it one day at a time, learn what causes these zone-outs and work on your control. What happened this time?"
Jim sucked in a lungful of air. "I was looking at the grass. It's not just green, Chief, but a bunch of different colors."
"You could actually see the different pigmentations?" he asked in astonishment.
"I guess. I mean, there were greens and yellows and blues and I must've gotten lost in them."
"Wow, that is like so totally amazing, Jim," Blair exclaimed. "Do you realize what this means?"
"It means I'm getting a headache."
"No, it means--"
Jim sank back into his chair and rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. "Yes, it does. God, my head hurts."
Blair sobered quickly. "Do you always get a headache like this after you zone?"
"Yeah, but it's usually worse. Maybe it's because you pulled me out of this one so fast."
"This is just one more reason why we need to get your senses under control." Blair stepped behind Jim's chair and reached around to massage his temples. "Close your eyes and relax. Let me see if I can help."
Jim tensed, unaccustomed to anyone's touch, but the moment Blair's fingers began to move, he relaxed beneath his calming hands. For so long he'd ached for the touch of another human being, but was it only Blair's that could relieve his pain and bring him back from the brink of insanity? Instead of analyzing it, Jim merely enjoyed the soothing rub. After five minutes, the gentle motions had eased the piercing pain down to a level Jim could handle.
"Is that better?" Blair asked softly.
"Yeah, a lot. Thanks, Chief."
Blair grinned and Jim tipped his head in question.
"You keep calling me Chief," Blair explained.
Jim shifted uncomfortably. "If you don't like it, I can stop."
"No, that's okay. It fits. Don't ask me why." He held up his hands, but his eyes glittered mischievously.
Jim eyed him suspiciously. "I get the feeling you like it because you like being in charge."
Blair laughed. "That is so not me, Jim. I'm a self-proclaimed advocate for peace, man."
"I thought you were a Golden Gloves contender."
"No, I said I boxed with one. We were friends and this was before he was a champ. He needed someone to practice beating up and there I was, offering myself."
Jim chuckled. "What a generous guy." He grew serious. "Nobody but you was brave enough to come to me, talk to me. Help me."
Blair crossed his arms and leaned his hips against the porch railing. "You gotta admit you do come on a little strong, big guy."
"So why weren't you scared away?"
"Because I knew you were the one who was scared."
"Ask a simple question and get a heavy answer."
"You asked," Blair said with a shrug. "I always tell the truth, Jim."
"The truth as you see it."
"Isn't that the only truth any of us have?"
Jim considered his question. "I guess."
Blair smiled broadly, his eyes twinkling. "Of course, I have been known to obfuscate for a good cause."
Jim couldn't help it -- he began to laugh and he laughed until he couldn't breathe and Blair had to hold him upright and talk him into drawing air into his lungs.
"Jeez, Jim, you sure know how to scare a guy," Blair said, maintaining a hold around his shoulders.
"Sorry," Jim said meekly.
Blair grinned again. "Don't be. I like to see you laugh. You should do it more often, but maybe stick with giggles until you recover a little more."
Jim feigned a glare. "I have never in my life giggled, Sandburg, and I'm not about to start now."
"You're right. Okay, maybe only an occasional guffaw until you're better. Then you can graduate to a belly laugh."
Jim laughed, his eyes twinkling. "What have I gotten myself into?"
The sun went under a bank of clouds and Blair saw goose bumps on Jim's arms. He hurried into the cabin and returned with a wool blanket which he draped over the man's shoulders.
"Don't want you getting a relapse," Blair said.
"Yeah, you've already gone above and beyond already," Jim said.
Blair snorted. "It's not that. I don't think I could put up with another week of your snoring."
"I don't snore."
"Children, children. Nice to see you two are getting along so well," Joel Taggert's voice ended their playful banter. A wide grin nearly split his friendly face.
"Hi, Joel," Blair greeted. "Sit down. I'll go make some coffee."
Before Joel could object, Blair had disappeared into the cabin. Joel shook his head and sat down. "You're looking a lot better," he commented.
Jim smiled at the man he'd known for six years, though only recently began to think of as a friend. "I'm feeling a lot better, thanks."
Joel studied him for a long moment with warm brown eyes. "In more ways than one. Looks like the kid's been good for you."
Jim plucked at a corner of the blanket. "He's already helped me get some control of my senses, besides mother henning me to death."
"You were real sick, Jim. I don't think I ever saw anyone as scared as Blair was when we found you unconscious."
"Yeah, he wouldn't want to lose his science project." Some of Jim's resentment bled into his words.
"If you believe that's all there is to it, you're not the detective I used to know."
"What do you mean?"
"The kid idolizes you, Jim. You wouldn't believe how hard it was for me to hold him back, to keep him away from you after the first time he saw you."
"That day about a month ago on the dock?"
Joel nodded. "Peter Monahan kept telling him you were cursed, but Blair didn't believe him. He was hell-bent on coming up here to talk to you."
Jim thought for a moment. "That was before he knew I was a sentinel."
"That's right. He couldn't believe someone would willingly cut themselves off from people and all he wanted to do was help."
"You told him about the Switchman." Jim's voice wasn't accusatory.
"Later. He didn't know about your past to start with. He sensed something was wrong, though. I could see that."
Jim twined his fingers together. "Even though he's someone I would've dismissed flat out when I was a cop, I feel this weird connection to him. It's like I'm tuned into him on this really basic level. I can pick out his heartbeat without even trying."
"Have you told Blair this?"
"No. I mean he knows I can hear his heartbeat, but not that I can distinguish it from everybody else's. It'd probably scare the hell out of him. Shit, it scares the hell out of me."
"Blair told me one time that he believed everyone is searching for one thing in their life, even if they don't know it. And when they find it, they have to grab it and hold onto it. He said you were that one thing in his life."
Jim closed his eyes and his fingers curled into tight fists. "Yeah, I'm his damned sentinel."
"You're more than that. For over a year I watched you close yourself off from everyone who cared about you and believe me, there weren't many of us." Joel's smile tempered his words. "But today you were actually joking with Blair and it wasn't because you were a sentinel. It's because of who you are, not what you are. Give the kid some credit. I think you're going to find you mean a helluva lot more to him than a 'project.'"
Blair came out of the cabin carrying two cups of steaming coffee. He handed one to Joel and the other to Jim. "A little caffeine won't hurt you," Blair said to Jim.
Jim arched an eyebrow and looked at Joel. "See what I mean? Mother hen." A smile flitted across his face.
Joel laughed. "Could be worse. You could've ended up with that nurse from emergency, what was her name?"
"Macklehouser," Blair supplied.
Joel and Jim turned to look at the student in surprise.
"How'd you know?" Jim asked.
Blair blushed. "I used to date this girl who worked at the hospital. She used to tell me about her." He grinned. "Given the choice between me giving you a sponge bath and Macklehouser giving you a sponge bath, who would you choose?"
"I'd take the girl you used to date," Jim said with a wicked grin.
Blair grimaced. "You're more than welcome to her. Just don't tell her you know me. You'll be turned down because of association."
"You sure know how to make an impression, Chief."
The three men visited for half an hour, then Joel stood to leave. "I have to go open the bar. I'll come by tomorrow."
Jim smiled warmly at Joel. "I'd like that."
Once Joel was gone, Blair asked, "Are you getting tired? Cold? Do you want to go in and lie down? This is your first day out and you don't want to overdo it, not after how sick you were. This time you might end up in the hospital and--"
Jim held up a hand to halt Blair's discourse. "I'm all right, Chief. A little tired maybe, but feeling better than I have in a long time." He paused and stared into his empty coffee cup. "I still have nightmares, though, and each time it's like I'm reliving it all over again. All those people." His fingers tightened on his cup. "I can hear them, screaming as the fire burned them alive."
The cup shattered in his hand.
Blair gasped. "Jesus, Jim."
Jim watched the blood from his cut hand drip onto the porch. Blair raced inside and returned a few moments later with a towel. He quickly wrapped it around Jim's injured palm.
"How's the pain level?" Blair asked in a low voice.
Jim grimaced. "It hurts like hell."
"Your dials must be turned up. Find your touch dial and turn it down."
Jim concentrated for a moment, then did as Blair said. The sharp pain eased. "I wish I could do the same with memories, Chief. Dial them down to where I don't feel sick every time I think about the bus and that bomb." He closed his eyes. "Why couldn't I have just died with them?"
Arms came around him, pulling him against a solid chest. Jim kept his eyes shut as he held on to Blair, allowing himself to be physically comforted for the first time in years.
He didn't know how long they held each other, but eventually Jim drew away; afraid to meet Blair's eyes, afraid of what he'd see in those too-expressive blue eyes.
"It's all right, Jim. There's nothing wrong with grieving. It's all part of the cycle of life and death," Blair said gently. "It means you care."
How did this student know just what to say? When had he come to know Jim Ellison so well that he understood what Jim tried to hide?
"I'll get the antibiotic cream and a bandage and take care of that cut for you." Blair returned to the cabin, almost as if he knew Jim was embarrassed and needed a few minutes alone to regain his composure.
Jim leaned his head back against the chair and stared at the trees surrounding the cabin, though his mind was miles away. A wave of homesickness swept through him, startling him with its intensity. In his mind's eye, he pictured his loft apartment and for the first time he was glad Simon had talked him out of selling the place. Though Cascade had more rainy than sunny days, Jim remembered how the sunlight used to fill the living room and how the fan in the kitchen would create a gently swirling picture of sunshine on the floor. On cold wintry days he would get a fire going in the free-standing stove in the living room and watch a football or basketball game. God, he missed those quiet contented days.
"A penny for your thoughts," came Blair's soft voice.
Jim opened his eyes to find the student standing in front of him, an eyebrow quirked up in question. "You'd be wasting your money."
Blair shrugged, but his blue eyes danced. "I think I can afford to waste a penny."
Jim turned his gaze to a pale yellow warbler that trilled from a tree branch. "I was thinking about home and how much I miss it," he replied honestly.
Jim smiled wryly. "Not really, unless you count Captain Simon Banks."
Jim brought his attention back to Blair. "Ex-boss. Simon said I almost died. I don't remember much about that time, though. All I remember is that I failed. I hated myself for a long time, Chief."
Blair stepped up to Jim and knelt beside him. He unwrapped the towel from around his hand and began to apply first aid to the deep cut between Jim's thumb and forefinger. "Does that mean you don't hate yourself anymore?" he finally asked, keeping his eyes on his task.
Startled, Jim had to consider Blair's question. He had hated himself for so long, it had become normal to see a terrifying stranger staring back at him from the tiny square mirror each morning. Did he still see that person?
"Maybe," Jim replied quietly. "Why don't I hate myself anymore? I'm still the same person I was a year ago."
Blair finished bandaging his hand and sat back on his heels. "Are you? Every incident in a person's life changes them. It can be something as insignificant as shaving for the first time or it can be as horrible as losing a loved one. When your senses came on-line, it changed everything -- from the incoming data of your hyperactive senses to your perceptions of the world, which had to be reconfigured to match the new information coming in. You were confused and scared and had no idea what the hell was going on, and you couldn't find anyone to help you deal with it."
Jim nodded. "I went to the hospital and had tests done, but the doctor couldn't find anything wrong."
"There was nothing there to find. Your sentinel abilities are natural, Jim. They're in your genetic make-up."
Jim rubbed his brow with his uninjured hand. "I thought I was going to have to be carted off to the loony bin, Chief."
Blair shook his head and shoved his curly hair back from his face. "This girlfriend who worked at the hospital, she kept an eye out for patients with your type of symptoms. I was still searching for a sentinel back then."
Jim shot the younger man a glare. "That's violating patient confidentiality."
"Maybe," Blair admitted. "But if she and I hadn't broken up, I would've found out about you a year ago. Who knows how things might have turned out then."
"I might've been able to stop Veronica Sarris before she killed eleven people." Jim's voice was husky.
Blair nodded sadly, guilt displayed in his expressive eyes. "Maybe, Jim. Maybe."
The student carried the bloody towel and his first aid supplies back into the cabin. When he returned, he sat in the other chair, his fisted hands pressed against his thighs. "I found you now, Jim. Do you want to start over?"
The question hung in the air between them. Two weeks ago Jim had only wanted everything over -- his life, the guilt which ate at his insides like a cancer and the nightmares that woke him in the middle of the night, leaving him sweat-soaked and empty -- then Blair Sandburg showed up. A chance at redemption? Or the beginning of the end?
He couldn't cut off his senses like a surgeon removed a gangrenous limb. He either learned to live with them or died to silence them. The choice was Jim's alone.
A hawk's plaintive cry drew his attention and he followed the sound with his sight, telescoping his vision. Spotting the raptor, he focused even tighter, counting the tail feathers and noticing the bare shift of the wings as the hawk changed soaring directions. This was a gift from his ancestors, this ability to see what mere mortals couldn't.
Yet above it all, Jim was aware of Blair's heartbeat, grounding him to the earth and to sanity. For some reason, everything hinged on Blair Sandburg. He recalled what Joel had told him about Blair and his search for his sentinel.
Was Blair the one thing I've been searching for?
He dialed his senses back down to normal and found Blair's intense blue eyes aimed in his direction... searching, waiting; but beneath the expectancy there was something else, something deeper which defied words. It was the "something" which had brought the two men together against all odds and now challenged Jim to accept what had been preordained.
And suddenly Jim knew with absolute certainty. "It's time for a new beginning, Chief," he said, his throat thick.
Blair's fists uncurled and he smiled a boyish grin. "For both of us."
Three days later Blair walked beside Jim as they followed a narrow path farther inland. They kept their pace slow as it was only Jim's second outing since he'd been ill. Blair listened closely for any difficulty in the sentinel's breathing or the return of his cough, wanting to ensure the older man didn't have a relapse.
"I'm fine," Jim said, uncannily guessing Blair's thoughts.
Blair thrust his hands deeper into his jacket pockets and gave him a crooked grin. "Am I that easy to read?"
Jim turned to give the younger man a wry smile. "Afraid so, Chief, but that's okay." His smile faded and melancholy shadowed his face. "It's one of the things I like about you. Too many people I've known can hide their thoughts too well."
"Is that a bad thing?"
Jim paused in a ray of sunlight which filtered through the towering tree branches. He lifted his face to the sun's warmth. "I never know if I can trust them or not."
Blair pondered the odd statement and the man who spoke it. Sunlight splashed across Jim's still pale features, hollowing his cheeks and casting his profile in sharp relief. Blair knew without a doubt that trust was the key. Jim had probably been involved in covert operations in the army and he'd worked as a police detective who encountered deception and lies every day. Trust would be a difficult thing for him to both give and receive.
"If we're going to work together to get your senses under control, you're going to have to trust me," Blair said slowly.
Jim opened blue eyes clouded with uncertainty. "I don't know if I can."
Blair had hoped Jim would be honest with him and he had. He smiled gently. "Admitting it is the first step."
Jim chuckled. "The Twelve Steps of Sentinels Anonymous, Chief?"
Blair laughed. "Something like that, but we get to make them up as we go."
Jim, still smiling, waved imperiously. "Lead on, MacDuff."
The brief tension between them disappeared, replaced by an easy alliance which felt natural between the two men. During the walk, Blair gave Jim a few sensory tests, trying to determine how powerful his senses actually were. The results astounded the student, as well as the sentinel.
An hour later, Jim paused as he tilted his head in a gesture Blair was fast coming to recognize as the sentinel hearing something too far away for a normal person to detect.
"What is it?" Blair asked quietly, knowing anything louder when Jim had his hearing dial turned up would result in a painful auditory overload.
"Children laughing," he replied with a faint smile. "I can hear Molly's voice."
"What're you waiting for, let's go," Blair said, grabbing Jim's arm.
Laughing, Jim allowed the anthropologist to tug his arm as they moved toward the children. When Blair released him and moved ahead, Jim rested his palm on his back, guiding him down the slight incline. The touch of his sentinel made Blair smile -- two weeks ago Jim wouldn't have been comfortable in anyone's personal space. But it seemed the more time the two of them spent together, the more relaxed they became around one another.
A few minutes later, the path opened to a meadow where Blair and Jim could see children playing tag among the high grass.
"Jim, Blair," Molly called out.
The children paused, eyeing the two adults suspiciously, but Molly came running over, first throwing her arms around Jim's waist to give him a hug, then doing the same to Blair. She stepped back and gazed up at the two men. "Did you come to play with us?"
Jim rested a hand on the girl's shoulder and smiled. "I'm afraid I'm not quite up to a game of tag." He turned to look at Blair and his eyes danced with mischief. "But I'll bet Blair is pretty good at playing 'It'."
"Well, I used to be when I was a kid," Blair said.
Jim cuffed the back of Blair's head affectionately. "What do you mean when you were a kid? You still are, Sandburg."
Blair grinned. "I suppose compared to you, old man, everyone's a kid." He dodged another playful slap and grabbed Molly's hand. "Let's go." Suddenly he stopped and turned to Jim, casting him a stern look. "You sit down and rest."
"Yes, sir." The twinkle in Jim's eyes belied his solemn tone, but he lowered himself to the ground obediently. "Be careful, kiddies."
Blair grinned. "I won't be gone long, Dad."
Chuckling, Jim watched Blair and Molly join the other five children.
Within a few moments, Blair was declared "It" and began to chase the boys and girls. The shrieks and giggles from the young people brought a smile to Jim's face. If it hadn't been for Blair's size, it would've been difficult to distinguish him from the children as they played. He dove for Molly and missed, rolling on the soft ground but quickly regaining his feet. Unaccountably relieved Blair was uninjured, Jim smiled as he took off after a red-haired boy who dodged around a bush and the two of them went back and forth, until Blair broke away and tagged a tow-haired boy.
Blair held up his hands, excusing himself from the game. Joining Jim, he plopped down on the ground, panting. "I-I'm out of shape," he wheezed.
Jim reached out and removed a leaf from Blair's mussed hair. "And you were calling me an old man?"
Blair sent him a grin then braced his hands on the ground behind him and leaned back. He stretched his legs out and crossed his ankles. "Look out, Darren," he called out to the red-headed boy, then turned to Jim. "I don't think I was ever that innocent."
Jim tilted his head slightly. "You strike me as the type of guy from one of those average families with two point three kids and a dog with a house in the suburbs. When you got old enough, you left home to go to college and grew your hair out as a protest to the middle class you grew up in."
Blair laughed. "Not even close, big guy." He paused, his expression sobering. "I never knew my father. My mom is what you'd call a free spirit, one of the last flower children, and we never lived in one place for more than a year. I started college at Rainier University when I was sixteen years old while Naomi continued her excursions around the world. That was eleven years ago. I've been on my own ever since."
Jim frowned, not understanding why it bothered him that Sandburg had only himself to rely on since he was sixteen. "So much for those cop instincts I used to have."
Blair gave his shoulder a sympathetic squeeze. "Don't worry about it. I make a pretty good chameleon."
"Naomi? That's your mother's name?"
Blair nodded. "She thought if I called her Naomi, it would make us equals. She has this thing about subjugation." He laughed. "You wouldn't believe what she thought of the pigs--" he broke off, sobering immediately. "Uh, sorry, Jim. It's just she always used that term. It's not like I don't respect you or Joel or anyone else in law enforcement. It's just, y'know, kind of a habit I got into and--"
Jim held up a hand. "Breathe, Sandburg. Don't worry. Besides, I'm not a cop anymore."
Blair studied him intently, making Jim uncomfortable beneath the close scrutiny. "Maybe you don't have the badge, but you're still a protector, someone who watches out for the weak, the victims."
"Is that a sentinel thing, too?" Jim asked, but the sarcasm he'd planned wasn't there.
"Sentinels were individuals genetically predisposed to have enhanced senses so they could keep watch over their tribe. They protected them from enemies, let the people know if a storm was coming, hunted and kept his tribe from starving." Blair nodded. "Yeah, I definitely think being a cop and being a sentinel are related." He motioned to the children who were still playing. "While I was down there with them, I knew you were keeping watch on us."
Jim smiled wryly. "I doubt if there's any enemy tribes to watch out for here, Chief."
Blair's face flushed. "Maybe not, but can you deny you feel a certain protectiveness toward them?"
No, he couldn't deny it. Ever since Jim had been a child, he had watched out for others who were smaller and weaker, unable to defend themselves. He'd cared for his younger brother Steven, protected him from the angry words which their father and mother had flung at each other before she'd walked out the door and never came back. If the class bully went after Steven, Jim would know and he'd be right there to fight his fight for him. In the army, he had a reputation for taking care of his men and had done a good job until they'd crashed in Peru. He steeled the door that memory tried to open. Then when he'd been a cop, he'd done his job to the best of his ability -- to protect and serve. Until the Switchman had brought about his biggest failure.
He gazed down at the children, but focused on Sandburg's heartbeat. Words of affection and love had never come easy for Jim. Even when he was married, he could count on one hand the number of times he'd told Carolyn he loved her. Maybe he protected those he cared about because that was the only way he knew how to express his feelings for them.
"What is it, Jim?" Blair asked softly.
Startled, Jim looked at the student to find blue eyes filled with concern aimed in his direction. In that instant, he realized without surprise that Blair had gone to the top of his 'to protect' list. "I was just thinking about what you said. I guess maybe I am a little protective, but that's not a bad thing, is it?"
"Not at all. In fact, it's a good thing. What do you say we head back to your place? You look a little tired."
Jim nodded. "Sounds like a winner, Chief."
Blair stood, then extended a hand to Jim. Even though he didn't need the assistance, Jim accepted it and Blair's grip was firm and strong as he pulled him to his feet. "Thanks."
"No problem, man. I shouldn't have kept you out so long."
"You mean recess is over?"
Blair chuckled. "Yep and it's nap time now."
Keeping a hand on Blair's shoulder, Jim followed his friend.
Fifteen minutes later Jim dropped into a chair on his cabin's porch and rubbed his warm, sweat-dampened brow. Although he had felt fine most of the day, the walk back to the cabin had seemed like miles.
"Are you all right?" Blair immediately asked. "I knew I shouldn't have kept you out so long. You haven't even recuperated and here I am giving you test upon test and making you walk for miles." He raked a hand through his unruly mop of curls. "God, I'm sorry, Jim. Sometimes I just get so wrapped up in things I forget about everything else. People are always telling me I should slow down -- stop to think. But I just put my head down and plow ahead. You should have said something. I tell you what, tomorrow we won't do anything. We'll just sit around and relax and I won't put you through any tests and maybe--"
"Whoa, easy Darwin," Jim said with amused tolerance. "I'm all right. Just a little tired. Nothing a good night's rest won't cure."
Blair gazed intently into Jim's face. "Are you sure? I mean, if you want the doctor, I'll run down and get him. He can check you out, make sure you're really okay, you know? What if--"
Jim nabbed the anthropologist's wrist. "I'm all right, Blair. Really." The lines eased from his brow and his eyes crinkled at the corners. "But if you keep this up, you're going to start hyperventilating."
"Uh, sorry, Jim." He smiled sheepishly. "I guess I get a little keyed up every once in a while, but it's just that I want to help and instead I'm hurting you."
Jim shook his head. "You're not hurting me. And you are helping." He gave Blair's wrist a gentle squeeze. "Trust me, Chief." He smiled fondly.
"I trust you," Blair said without hesitation. He took a deep breath, afraid he'd lose the courage if he didn't speak the words now. "I've trusted you from the moment I saw you and that's never happened before for me with anyone. Ever." He eased out of Jim's lax grip. "I'll make us some lunch."
Blair could feel the older man's puzzlement. He had only spoken the truth. He felt an unexplainable connection to Jim Ellison. At first it had been faint, but every minute he spent in the company of the sentinel, the bond grew stronger. The ability to draw Jim back from a zone-out, the calming tones which helped Jim focus on one sense, the friendship growing between them -- each one was a gossamer thread in a complex web being woven around the ex-cop and anthropologist.
Blair paused just inside the door and turned to gaze at Jim. Although he had been uncertain in the beginning, Blair had found his sentinel to be what he'd always hoped. A small smile tilted his lips upward, then he nodded to himself and went into the kitchen.
Half an hour later, Jim pushed back his empty bowl. "Thanks, Chief. That hit the spot."
"You should probably lie down for a little while. Get some rest."
Jim eyed him silently. "On one condition," he finally said.
"That starting tonight, you'll go back to your place and sleep in your bed. You don't have to spend twenty-four hours with me anymore."
"No buts, Sandburg. I really appreciate your taking care of me, but I'll be fine by myself." He smiled affectionately. "Besides, you're beginning to look like hell. You need a good night's sleep."
Blair wanted to argue, but knew Jim was right. The older man was growing stronger each day, the pneumonia was loosening its grip on him. And truth be told, Blair's mind had grown more sluggish with each night he tossed and turned on the made-up bed on the hard floor. Playing with the children had tired him out more than he liked to admit.
Still, after a week of being in such close proximity to Jim, it would feel odd to wake up alone in his own cabin. "Are you sure? I mean, I don't mind staying here a little while longer."
"Your bed's a lot more comfortable than the floor and I'll feel better knowing you're getting a good night's sleep," Jim reassured.
Finally, Blair nodded. "All right, but I'll come up here and make breakfast for you as soon as I get up."
"Bacon and eggs?"
Blair shook his head in mock disgust. "You're a walking cholesterol nightmare."
"And those things you drink in the morning aren't a nightmare?"
"It's a nutritional shake with algae and--"
"A green nightmare," Jim retorted.
Blair smiled. Though he was tired, contentment teemed through him. He knew without a doubt he was where he belonged now.
He only hoped Jim felt the same way.
It was just after dawn when Blair hiked the half mile up to Jim's place, his backpack loaded with eggs and sausage from his icebox. Though he usually had a healthier breakfast, once a week he'd splurge with the cholesterol-laden food. However, he wasn't about to confess that to Jim.
He was anxious to see Jim after their first night apart. It had seemed odd not to awaken to his tossing and turning or his murmurings while he'd dreamt. When the restlessness grew too much and he was afraid Jim would wake himself up Blair would sit beside him, a hand on his arm or shoulder, and his touch never failed to calm the sentinel. He hoped Jim had been spared a restless night and had gotten a full night's sleep.
But mostly Blair worried about the reception he would receive. Jim had tolerated him while he'd needed him, but now that he didn't... Would he try to erect a barrier between them once more? Or would he allow the unspoken bond to continue to strengthen and grow? Or was Jim not even aware of the connection between them? That thought made Blair's insides churn with anxiety.
Jim's cabin came into view and Blair's steps faltered. His heart beat faster than the hike warranted. What now? Would he be welcomed or turned away?
The door opened and Jim's tall figure filled the opening. He stepped out onto the porch and crossed his arms. "You going to stand there all day, Chief, or come on in?"
Blair's relief made him lightheaded. He crossed the last thirty feet and joined Jim. "That depends. Are you going to make breakfast?"
Jim smiled crookedly and tossed Blair's words back at him, "That depends. Let's say I tell you what kind of sausage you have in your pack and if I'm right, you cook."
Jim closed his eyes and lifted his chin slightly. His nostrils flared, then his smile grew and he opened his eyes. "Venison."
Blair gave his arm a light punch even as he grinned foolishly. Jim's abilities never ceased to amaze him. "You win." He headed toward the door and called over his shoulder. "You tell me what else I have in my backpack and I'll cook breakfast for a week."
"No algae shakes?"
Jim followed Blair inside, where the younger man laid his pack on the table then rested his hands on it. "Well?" Blair challenged.
He watched the sentinel sniff the air. A crease formed between his eyes, then he suddenly smiled. "Bread. Wheat. Honey. And eggs -- I can smell the feathers."
"I didn't even think of that." Blair bounced on his heels as his eyes glowed brightly. "That's great, Jim. Wow, I can't believe you were able to figure it out." He stared at the ex-cop, noting the embarrassed but pleased look on Jim's face. "You are so totally amazing, Jim," he finally said softly.
Shadows replaced the light in Jim's expression as he turned away. "I'll get the frying pan on the stove."
Although puzzled, Blair didn't question Jim's abrupt mood swing. Instead, he dug out the food from his pack, then removed his jacket. With a dramatic flourish, he cracked his knuckles and stepped up to the stove. "Allow me to dazzle you with my culinary skills."
Jim's smile was all the reward Blair needed and he set to work preparing breakfast.
Jim pressed back his empty plate and reached for the coffeepot which sat on the stove. He held it up to Blair. The student raised his cup and Jim filled it, then did the same to his own.
"Considering you think eggs and meat for breakfast are the downfall of civilization as we know it, you did a good job," Jim complimented.
Blair grinned, his blue eyes sparkling. "Thanks, I think." He glanced around. "So you were okay last night?"
Jim nodded and leaned back in his chair. "I woke up a couple times coughing, but nothing I couldn't handle." He reached out and itched his left forearm with his right hand.
Blair, remembering the spots he'd seen on Jim when he'd first gotten sick, leaned forward. "What's wrong with your arm?"
Jim shrugged. "Just a rash. It's not as bad as it usually is."
"Can I see it?"
After a moment, Jim unbuttoned the cuff of his brown shirt and rolled up the sleeve. Angry red marks blotched his tanned skin. Blair took hold of his arm and examined the spots closer.
"This looks like an allergic reaction," Blair said. "Does this happen often?"
Jim shifted in his chair, not meeting Blair's eyes. "Once in a while."
Jim yanked his arm out of Blair's grasp and stood, picking up his and Blair's dishes. "It's nothing, Sandburg."
Blair jumped to his feet, blocking the older man's way to the sink. "It's not nothing. I'll bet your legs have the same type of rash."
Jim's inability to meet his eyes answered his question.
"It's all right," Blair said quietly, resting his hands on Jim's wrists. "Your sense of touch is ultra-sensitive, too. It's probably the detergent you use on your clothes. I can take a look at the ingredients, maybe figure out what's causing it."
Jim pulled away from him. "It's no big deal, Sandburg. I'll just turn my dials down like you showed me and I won't even notice."
"Damn it, Jim, that's not how those dials are to be used. If I can isolate the ingredient causing this reaction, then we can get a product that doesn't have it. You don't have to suffer with this."
Jim set the dishes in the sink, then turned back to face Blair, irritation written in his features. "Look, Sandburg, I know you're only trying to help and I appreciate it, but it's not a big deal. Just drop it."
Blair grabbed Jim's hand and swept the sleeve up again to reveal the nasty looking rash. He held the ex-cop's arm up. "This is a big deal. Even if it doesn't hurt, it sure as hell is uncomfortable and there's no reason you have to suffer. Unless this is some more of that martyr crap."
Jim's eyes flashed blue fire. "Damn it, Sandburg, you don't understand. How can you?" He jerked away from Blair and stalked to the door. "You're a student, for God's sake. You have no idea what it's like to be responsible for peoples' lives and knowing you blew it big time. Just leave me the hell alone!" He escaped the cabin's confines.
Blair stood motionless in the center of the room, torn between anger, hurt and compassion. Ellison's over-developed sense of responsibility was admirable, but it was also a stumbling block in allowing the ex-cop to forgive himself. Jim locked his hurt up inside himself and convinced himself he could handle it. But it didn't work like that. The guilt and rage would only fester, like an infected wound, poisoning him in excruciating degrees -- making him lash out at those who only wanted to help... be a friend.
Closing his eyes, Blair raked his fingers through his hair. Did he have the strength and the ability to help him? With his senses, yes, but what of the rest?
With a deep fortifying breath, he joined Jim on the porch. The older man had his hands braced on the railing as he leaned into it. His shoulders were stiff, his body language clearly expressing his demand to be left alone; but for Blair there was no choice.
He approached Jim without hesitation and laid a hand between his shoulder blades. The muscles were tight beneath his palm and Blair instinctively massaged them slowly, gently. Silence surrounded them and Blair didn't feel a need to break the impasse. It had to be Jim's decision.
After a few minutes, Blair felt Jim relax minutely.
"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I had no right to take it out on you."
Blair managed a smile. "Hey, I'm tougher than I look."
Jim's muscles loosened up even more. "You really think you can stop the rash?"
"It might take a few tries, but I can figure it out."
Another long silence, then Jim straightened but Blair kept his hand on his back. The physical contact felt right, even though Blair had never felt the need to be this close to anyone before.
"My whole life has to change, doesn't it?" Jim asked in a small voice.
Blair's heart twisted at the fear lurking beneath his words. "No," he said firmly. "You can go back to your old life of being a cop if that's what you want. Or you can do something different. Being a sentinel doesn't change anything, except how you interact with your environment. You can learn how to control the sensory input until it becomes second nature and I'll be there to help you with those controls." Blair paused and licked his dry lips. "If you want me to."
That was the million dollar question. Did Jim want him in his life?
Jim turned around and Blair's hand dropped to his side. "For how long, Sandburg? Until you get your doctorate? Where will that leave me then?"
Blair's hands became tight fists at his sides. "It's not about the doctorate anymore, Jim. It's... so damn much more that I can't even explain it."
Jim gazed down at him, searching. Indecision, fear and doubt filled the sentinel's eyes. Finally his expression softened and he gently laid his hands on Blair's shoulders. "I can't ask you to give up your own life to take care of me, Chief. That wouldn't be fair to you." He laughed weakly. "Besides, my track record with people I care about is pretty dismal."
People I care about. Blair's chest tightened and he raised his hands to rest them on Jim's forearms. "And you handling your senses by yourself is fair?" Though he kept his voice low, it rang with intensity. "In researching sentinels I ran across a reference to a companion or guide, somebody who watched the sentinel's back while the sentinel watched out for everyone else. I want to help you. I'd consider it an honor to be your guide."
Jim swallowed hard. "You're a graduate student, Blair. Once you get your doctorate, you'll have the whole world at your feet. You don't need to screw up your life because of some misguided notion about being a 'guide'."
How could Blair convince a stubborn ex-cop, ex-military man that his and a long-haired anthropology student's lives were somehow intertwined because of this sentinel and guide stuff? He had no tangible proof, only an overwhelming correctness that this was the way it was supposed to be.
Suddenly, he jabbed his forefinger in the center of Jim's broad chest. "You answer me one question honestly, Jim. Just one question and if you still want me to leave, I will." He took a deep breath. "Do you feel the bond, the connection between us?"
Panic flickered across Jim's face as his gaze darted about, touching everywhere but on Blair. Blair waited patiently, knowing Jim's answer would determine the course of their lives. For the first time in his life, Blair was willing and eager to place his destiny in another person's hands, as long as that person was James Ellison.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, Jim met his eyes and in his blue depths, Blair saw both incredible sadness and overwhelming hope. "I feel it, Chief, and it scares the hell out of me."
Blair laughed nervously. "Believe me, this is scaring the crap out of me, too, but there's a reason for everything. I think I was supposed to find you here, to help you take back your life -- if you want it."
"I want it, Blair." Jim leaned forward and rested his forehead against Blair's. "More than anything, I want my life back," he whispered, his warm breath cascading across Blair's cheek.
"And you'll get it back. I promise you," Blair vowed.
The student closed his eyes and prayed he could keep that promise.
"Are you sure you're ready?" Although it had been two weeks since Molly had found Jim unconscious, Blair wasn't certain his patient was well enough to go out in the boat for a whole day.
"I'm fine, Chief. I haven't coughed in twenty-four hours."
"Liar. I heard you when I came to the door this morning."
"That was a sneeze."
"Right." Blair grabbed Jim's heavier jacket from a hook by the door. "Just in case I get cold."
"Right," Jim repeated with a knowing smile.
Jim picked up a rucksack from the table and urged Blair out the door with a light touch to his back. Blair hid a smile, amazed anew by the differences in the Jim Ellison he had met a month ago and the man who walked beside him now.
The hike down to the dock was a brisk one by unspoken mutual consent. The two men enjoyed the morning sunshine which dappled their shoulders. They were accompanied by nature's choir, from the squirrels' raucous chatterings to the crows' indignant caws.
The camaraderie between the two disparate men was something which Blair found truly astounding. When he'd first locked gazes with Jim on the dock which seemed so long ago, Blair had felt it but hadn't understood it. Now he did. The budding friendship was something he hadn't expected in his wildest imaginings... and it wasn't just because Jim was a sentinel.
They paused where the woods opened and looked down at the deserted dock.
"Everyone's already out," Blair said.
"Good. I'm not ready yet."
"It's tough meeting people for the first time when you already know them," Blair said sympathetically.
Jim grimaced. "Some a little too well. I couldn't help but hear and see things when I didn't want to."
"It'll be better now. You can tune things out." Blair grinned. "Or you could become the town's new gossip. Each community has one. It's a cultural phen--"
His explanation was cut short by the arrival of Jim's palm over his mouth.
"Fascinating, Darwin," Jim muttered.
Blair grasped Jim's wrist and removed the hand from his face, then laughed. "I'm expanding your horizons, man."
"Stretching my tolerance," Jim countered.
"Whatever." Blair waved a hand nonchalantly.
Jim groaned in mock resignation and led the way down to his small fishing boat. After stowing their gear, Blair released the ropes from the dock and jumped in. The diesel engine chugged, sending the boat to deeper waters. An hour later, they spotted one of the villager's boats. Blair searched for a pair of binoculars, but couldn't find any.
"It's Fitz Taylor's," Jim said.
"Wow!" Blair grinned and asked enthusiastically, "How far away is he?"
"Maybe five hundred yards."
"That is like so totally amazing, Jim. And you like did that on your own, right? Your vision didn't go haywire or anything?"
"All on my own, Chief," Jim said wryly.
"Okay, cool. Once we get settled out here, I want to run some tests. Hearing, smell, touch, maybe taste."
"And what are you going to have me taste?" Jim asked patiently.
"What did you bring to eat?"
"Slow down there, Chief. Maybe we can work on one sense a day, you know, start pacing ourselves."
Blair smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. I guess I got a little over enthusiastic."
"Again," Jim bantered, smacking Blair's forehead lightly.
Suddenly Jim's teasing smile faded as he tilted his head.
"What is it?" Blair asked quietly.
Jim's brow furrowed in concentration. "I don't know. A sound, familiar but I can't identify it."
"Where's it coming from?"
"The boat." He motioned toward Fitz's vessel.
Blair leaned forward. "I want you to try something for me, Jim. Piggyback your sight on your hearing. Allow your ears to take your eyes to the source of the sound. Can you do that?"
The intense absorption on the ex-cop's face told Blair he was pushing his limits. Instinctively, Blair reached out and laid his hand on Jim's arm.
The older man squinted. "It looks like a--" His eyes suddenly widened.
The explosion shocked and horrified Blair, but didn't stop him from hearing the strangled moan from Jim as the sentinel fell to the deck with his eyes shut tight and his palms pressed to his ears.
"Oh God." Blair's heart triple-timed and he fell to his knees in front of Jim, not even noticing the cold dampness of the metal seeping through his jeans.
He laid his shaking hands on Jim's which remained clamped to his ears. The older man's face had gone chalk white in the space of a heartbeat. "Jim, I need you to dial it down. Hearing first. Find the dial, Jim, ease it back down. I know you're hurting, but you can do this. Bring it down, buddy."
Gradually, Jim's face relaxed and he lowered his hands from his ears.
"Now your sight. Dial that down, too, Jim," Blair instructed softly.
It only took Jim a few moments to respond and when he opened his eyes his gaze went automatically to the ball of fire that had been a boat minutes earlier. His jaw clenched, the muscle working its way up the side of his face and his pupils were dilated, a symptom of his devastating headaches. But it didn't seem to impair him as he gunned the motor, heading directly to the conflagration.
Blair scrambled toward his seat, his fingers clinging to whatever was handy as he struggled to maintain his balance in the bouncing, weaving boat. He stumbled and a strong hand grabbed his arm, catching him before he took a header into the water. Startled, he glanced back to find Jim's concerned eyes momentarily on him. "Thanks, man."
Jim nodded curtly as his gaze returned to the smoking ruins scattered across the ocean's surface. Blair settled in his seat and hung on tightly. What the hell had just happened? Did the motor blow up on the old boat? Or had there been some other mechanical problem?
As they drew closer, Blair could tell Jim was using his enhanced senses to search for survivors in the water. "Can you see anyone?"
Jim's brow creased as he began to shake his head, then his expression lit up. "I see three men. They're alive."
He steered the boat in the direction of the men. A minute later Blair could see the survivors also. The three men raised their arms and waved. Jim drew the boat closer and Blair helped the fishermen aboard. He grabbed a wet hand and pulled. It was Fitz Taylor, bruised and a little bloody, but intact.
Blair reached for the next pair of hands and struggled to pull Henry Tate up into the boat. Abruptly, the weight lessened and Blair looked over to see Jim helping to pull in the bigger man. Once the second man was on the floor of the boat, Blair and Jim assisted the last man, Jon Hanley, in.
"Were there any others?" Jim demanded.
Fitz Taylor shook his head. "Just the three of us."
Jim nodded curtly then hurried down into the boat's hold and returned carrying three wool blankets which he handed to the shivering fishermen. Fitz, Henry and Jon gratefully accepted them.
"What happened?" Blair asked.
Fitz shook his head. "D-don't know. Me and the b-boys were hauling in the net when there was an explosion." He drew his forearm across his dripping nose. "We were thrown out of the boat by the blast."
"If we'd been any closer--" Henry shuddered.
Blair turned his attention to Jim whose face was pale and sweat-covered despite the coolness of the day. Though sickened by the violence, Blair's concern was abruptly centered on his sentinel.
"How're you doing, Jim?" he asked quietly.
The older man's lips thinned as his eyes grew bleak. He drew Blair to the farthest side of the boat where the fishermen couldn't hear them. "It was a bomb, Chief."
Blair's eyes widened. "You must've heard it right before--" he couldn't finish.
Tension shown in every inch of Jim's muscular body. "Just like the Switchman's."
"It looked like one of the Switchman's bombs."
"You saw it?"
"I piggybacked my sight onto my hearing just like you said. I caught a glimpse of it right before it went off."
Blair shook his head in amazement, but realized now wasn't the time to explore this new ability. "It couldn't have been the Switchman. She's dead."
"I know," Jim stated. "But what if she isn't?"
Blair stared into the frigid eyes of a stranger. It was as if the last two weeks hadn't happened and the thaw which had brought the teasing and warmth from Jim Ellison had frozen once more. Almost unconsciously, Blair's hand sought Jim's arm and he grasped it, needing the contact between them. And for the briefest moment, Jim's eyes shared his renewed anguish.
"It can't be her. When we get back to the island, have Joel send an email to your old boss. Ask him to confirm her death," Blair suggested.
Jim raised his hand, rested it on Blair's a moment, then quickly removed it as if embarrassed. "That's a good idea, Chief." His granite expression returned. "But even if it wasn't one of the Switchman's, it was a bomb. Do you have a cell phone?"
"Call Joel and have him get a hold of the Mounties. They need to send an investigative team out here." Jim paused, his jaw muscle working furiously. "I'm going back to town to drop these men off, then I want to come back here and do my own investigation."
"All right," Blair said as he punched numbers into his cell phone. "I'll ask him to send that email, too."
Jim listened to the student make the phone call, a little surprised Blair's voice was so steady. The kid had a core of strength within him Jim hadn't known existed, but then he should have known. Blair had been resolute enough to chip away at the wall surrounding Jim until the fortress had tumbled, leaving him more vulnerable than he had ever felt before. Yet the exposure wasn't completely unwelcome.
Jim shook aside his musings and moved to the back of the boat to start the motor. A few minutes later they were skimming across the waves, headed toward land. He glanced at Blair who had moved over to sit by the three men. Tuning up his hearing, he listened to the familiar soothing voice.
"We'll be back at the village in a little while," Blair reassured the fishermen. "Are any of you hurt?"
Fitz shook his head. "We're fine, thanks to you." He glanced at Jim nervously. "And him."
Blair caught Jim's eye and smiled gently. Jim's scowl eased under the student's warm look
"His name is Jim Ellison. He was the one who spotted you in the water," Blair explained to the men.
"We heard," Henry started, guilt clouding his features as he looked over at Jim, "he had pneumonia. He must be feeling better?"
"Not a hundred percent, but he's getting there," Blair replied.
"Thank God he came out today," Fitz said thankfully.
Awkward silence surrounded the men as Jim steered toward the dock, where he jumped gracefully from the boat to the pier and tied it off. He then assisted the shivering men as Blair lowered them from the craft. Blair jumped out last, landing lightly on his feet beside Jim who put a hand out to steady him.
Many of the townspeople surrounded the fishermen while Jim and Blair remained standing on the dock. Joel broke through the crowd and joined them.
"I called the Mounties like you asked and sent an email to Simon." He puffed to regain his breath from his dash to the waterfront. "You really think it was a bomb?"
"Jim heard it from a thousand yards away," Blair said quietly.
Joel's eyes widened. "You're pulling my leg."
Jim shook his head impatiently. "It's true, Joel." He scrubbed the back of his neck with his palm. "My gut's telling me it was the Switchman."
"That's why you wanted me to confirm her death with Simon."
Though it wasn't a question, Jim nodded in affirmation. "I have to be certain. How long before the Mounties get to the coordinates?"
"About an hour," Joel replied, his complexion looking grayish. "Are you sure it was a bomb?"
"Yeah, I'm sure," Jim said curtly.
Jim turned and untied his boat then hopped in. "I'm going to take a look around at the wreckage before the Mounties get there. Maybe I can find something." The boat rocked again when another person joined him. He didn't have to turn to know it was Blair -- he could hear his heartbeat, fast but reassuring. "You don't have to go back out with me."
Familiar stubbornness planed Blair's face. "Yes, I do."
Jim wanted to be angry, but he couldn't. He needed Blair to anchor his senses while he tried to use them to search for clues. "All right." He looked up at Joel. "Don't tell anyone about the bomb yet."
"You got it." Joel turned to Blair. "Take care of him."
Blair grinned. "Even if he bites my head off."
"Smart ass," Jim muttered.
Once they arrived back at the scene of the explosion, Jim and Blair immediately got to work. Jim examined pieces of the boat, bits of fishing equipment and other debris carefully. He didn't want to disturb the area too much, but Blair was certain Jim would be able to find clues with his senses. He was amazed by the things his sense of smell and touch could identify with the student's assistance. He found a residue on a couple of pieces of wood which he could identify as one of the components the Switchman had used in her bombs.
"If it is her, how did she survive?" Blair asked, his eyes wide behind his wire-rimmed glasses.
"I don't know," Jim replied tersely, his head pounding. "I hope to God it's not her."
Anger and hatred arose from someplace deep within Jim, overpowering even his migraine. Veronica Sarris had killed more than those eleven people on the bus; she'd rendered him powerless, turning him into a man he'd hated for a year. If this was truly her, Jim would hunt her down like a rabid wolf. He would ensure her death or captivity this time.
The sound of an approaching boat made Jim glance up and he was subliminally aware of Blair glancing at him in question as he couldn't hear the motor yet. "The Mounties. They're on the way."
Jim and Blair remained at the scene of the explosion for two more hours, answering questions and listening and watching. Jim didn't tell the Mounties about his suspicions and he sent Blair a silent command to remain quiet. The student nodded slightly and obeyed, surprising Jim again by the unspoken understanding that ran between them.
Finally, they headed back to the island village. Jim was exhausted and his migraine had returned with a vengeance. His first day out hadn't exactly been relaxing and his body reminded him he was still recovering. He hid his discomfort and instead, concentrated on Blair's heartbeat and breathing. As they drew closer to the shore, Blair's pulse and respiration rapidly increased.
"What's wrong, Chief?" Jim asked, more concerned than he wanted to admit to himself.
"I think it's catching up to me, Jim," Blair said, his voice and hands trembling. He wrapped his arms around his belly and began to rock.
After a moment's hesitation, Jim stopped the motor and slipped to his side. "Are you all right?"
Blair swallowed convulsively and attempted a weak smile. "I am, but breakfast wants to return for an encore."
"Just hang your head over the boat, Chief."
Blair's grin was stronger. "You are anal about cleanliness, aren't you?"
Jim couldn't help but smile. "Must go with the sentinel senses."
Blair's smile disappeared and he groaned, hanging his head over the side. "God, I can't believe how close they came to being killed."
Jim's instincts told him to touch his guide, but he wasn't certain how. Awkwardly, he rested his hand on Blair's back and rubbed gently like the student had done to him numerous times. It had always helped Jim.
After a few minutes, Blair raised his sagging head carefully. "Sorry." He smiled wryly. "I didn't want you to think I was a wuss."
"I don't. It's only natural, Chief. Three people you knew almost died today. Only luck kept them alive."
Blair turned slightly, angling his gaze at Jim. "Your senses kept them alive," he added firmly. "If you hadn't been out here, they might have died from exposure."
Startled, Jim realized Sandburg may be right. For the first time, Jim considered how his senses might actually be a blessing and not a curse.
"How did you get used to this when you were a cop?" Blair asked quietly.
Jim thought about the question for a moment, feeling the slight queasiness in his own stomach which hadn't abated and the rage that burned through his veins. "I didn't. I just channel it."
"Like putting that energy into finding the bastard who committed the crime?"
Jim nodded grimly. "That's the only way to stay sane, Chief."
Blair's expression hardened. "If this was the Switchman, Jim, I want you to nail her ass."
"You can bet on it," he vowed. He gazed at his young friend a moment, taking in Blair's pale complexion. "Are you okay?'
Blair closed his eyes and brushed a trembling hand across his hair. "No, but I don't think you want to stay out here for two or three days." His eyelids flickered open and he looked toward land where the village lay. "I want a cup of tea."
Jim gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze then moved back to the motor. His muscles ached and his overworked senses kept wavering, but Jim was able to dock the boat with Blair's help. They disembarked, surprised to see about fifty people headed their way.
Jim became aware of Blair's concerned gaze upon him.
"Can you handle them, Jim?" he asked, sentinel-soft.
In spite of Blair's own queasiness, he was more worried about Jim and the realization startled the sentinel. "We can handle them together, Chief."
Blair smiled, and though it wasn't as animated as usual, it was overflowing with faith. "Right. Together."
He stepped toward the crowd, feeling Blair's presence at his side like a security blanket.
"Dial your hearing down, Jim," Blair commanded in his guide voice.
Jim did so without question.
The subdued group halted in front of the two men and Peter Monahan stepped forward. "We owe you our thanks," the gruff man said with a husky voice. "Fitz, Henry and Jon could've died if you hadn't picked them up." He took a deep breath. "We also owe you an apology, Mr. Ellison." His gaze flickered to Blair and a smile touched his lips. "You were right, lad. We were wrong."
Peter stepped forward, extending his hand to Jim. Overwhelmed by the simple act which meant so much, Jim could only stare. Finally, he shook the older man's hand firmly. "I appreciate that, Peter."
If the man was surprised Jim knew his name, he didn't show it. "We'd like to buy you both a round of drinks." Peter winked. "Maybe more than one."
Jim knew these people were Blair's friends and that the student would want to spend time with them. "Go ahead, Blair. I think I need to go lie down."
Blair shook his head. "Thanks Peter, but I guess we'll both have to take a raincheck. It's been a helluva long day."
Startled, Jim glanced at Blair and his understanding look washed across Jim, acting like a balm to his overwhelmed senses and the lingering weakness from his illness.
Blair stepped forward and placed an arm around Jim's waist, steering him toward the trail leading to his cabin. Together they walked up the narrow path and Blair was acutely aware of the curious gazes which followed them.
The trip to Jim's place was made in silence and once they were inside the cabin, Blair ushered Jim into a rocking chair and set about making tea.
He dropped into the other rocking chair and waited for the teapot to whistle. He glanced at the sentinel who was staring into the cold fireplace. For a moment, Blair thought he'd zoned, but then Jim blinked.
"How's your head?" Blair asked in a low voice.
Jim managed a weak smile. "Hurts." Blair started to stand, but Jim shook his head. "No, you don't have to, Chief. You're not feeling well yourself. I'll get through this on my own this time."
Blair ignored him and moved behind him to massage his brow. "I don't mind, Jim." He snorted. "Besides, it gives me something to do."
Jim knew he should argue, but Blair's fingers felt too good, sending the worst of the migraine into oblivion. By the time the water was boiling, the headache had been relegated to a minor throbbing which Jim was able to tune down. Blair prepared two cups of tea and handed one to Jim.
Blair re-seated himself in the chair, cradling his tea between his palms. "If she is alive, she'd have to be hiding out on the island somewhere."
Jim didn't have to ask who she was. "It's a small island. I'm not sure where she could hide."
"There's caves further inland. The children showed them to me."
"That's a good place to start if Simon doesn't come back with conclusive proof she's dead."
Some enthusiasm returned to Blair as he leaned forward. "Your senses might be able to pick up some sign of the bomber, like maybe scent. A bomber might have some residual explosives on him or her."
"I guess maybe these senses might come in handy after all."
"I keep telling you they're a gift, man."
Jim's lips turned downward in a scowl. "We'll see, Chief. We'll see." He stood and moved to the window to gaze outside. "Do you think she followed me here?" he asked softly.
Blair bit his lower lip, wondering if it was a rhetorical question.
"I didn't actually see her die in the explosion," Jim continued. "She was standing by the bus, the detonator in her hand. Next thing I know I'm lying in the hospital, barely able to breathe without flinching from the pain." He paused and the silence filled the corners of the cabin. "There wasn't much left of those who died in the blast. It was just assumed Sarris died along with everybody else."
Blair's stomach pitched as he imagined the grisly scene after the explosion. He'd seen it on the news and had read the newspaper articles, but seeing it through Jim's eyes was much more personal. Much more painful. "It wasn't your fault, Jim," Blair said with quiet intensity.
"Just like it's not my fault she almost killed three more people?" The bitterness in Jim's voice burned like acid.
Blair joined Jim by the window. "Don't do this to yourself, Jim. We don't even know for certain it was her. Veronica Sarris is the only one who holds the blame for the death of those eleven people. You can't control anyone's actions but your own."
"Hell, we both know I can't even control my own."
"Yes, you can," Blair said firmly. "You are controlling your senses. Damn it, Jim, these senses caught you off-guard. You had no idea what was happening. Now you do. Now you can turn them up and down at your mental command. You can use them to your advantage because that's exactly what they are," he stated fervently. "You have the edge, Jim."
"Forgive me if I can't feel the same way, Chief. I feel like I'm reliving my nightmare all over again." He moved away from Blair. "I should go down and interview the men who were on the boat."
Jim scowled. "It's only four o'clock."
"If you don't rest, you could have a relapse."
"Bull. You're sweating and your pupils are dilated. Your headache's come back for a return engagement and you're trembling so much I'm surprised you haven't dropped your cup."
"When did you get an MD after your name, Sandburg?"
"When a certain sentinel got an ASS after his." Blair gave him a little push toward the bed. "Lie down. Sleep. If you're feeling better later, we can go down to Joel's and talk to some people."
Jim shook his head in defeat. "You win this round, Chief, but only because I am tired and when I'm tired I can say and do some pretty stupid things."
"So he finally admits it."
"Watch it, Sandburg."
Blair grinned. "Sleep."
Jim dropped onto the bed, burying his face in his pillow. "What about you?"
"If it's all right with you, I was going to stay here and do some work."
"'s good." A soft snore punctuated his slurred words.
Blair remained standing over his sentinel, watching the lines in his face smooth out to leave the man looking younger, like he hadn't lived a life with more remorse and pain than anybody deserved. He vowed he would do all he could to help Jim find the Switchman if it was her and this time Jim would win. If he didn't, Blair wasn't certain the sentinel could live with a second failure.
As a second pot of tea steeped, Blair puttered about the cabin and checked on Jim, but the sentinel slept soundly. Blair had been embarrassed after nearly puking out his guts in front of him. He didn't want Jim to regret allowing the graduate student to work with him or have him think he wasn't tough enough to handle things, but the ex-cop had surprised him with his gentleness and understanding.
What if Jim decided to return to his previous life as a cop? Could Blair follow him? Did he have the strength to follow him into situations much worse than they faced today? He glanced at the sentinel and recognized there was no question to answer. Blair's place was beside Jim. Everything else was secondary.
Even my dissertation?
Suddenly uncomfortable, Blair lowered himself to a chair by the table and sat there with a fresh mug of tea cupped in his hands. The information he'd gleaned in the past couple weeks gave him a strong basis to change his diss back to sentinels from the closed society alternative. Did he have that right? Jim had made his position crystal clear about being a "lab rat."
Blair frowned. So what had changed? Why had he and Jim clicked on a level deeper than dissertations and the need for control? Or was Jim only pretending to like him so Blair would help him control his unasked-for senses? No, he couldn't believe that... wouldn't believe it.
His gaze slid across Jim's sleeping visage and a surge of protectiveness arose, nearly choking him with its intensity. Was that normal? A guide was supposed to take care of his sentinel, watch his back while he was using his senses to help the tribe. Was there some kind of weird instinctual thing going on between them, triggered by the first exchange of gazes -- the recognition of something buried deep in their genetic make-up? Which meant being a guide was also genetic...
Hell, this is getting too deep even for me.
Thrusting the troubled thoughts aside, he opened his backpack and pulled out his laptop. Half an hour later his immersion in his work was interrupted by the increasingly violent motions of Jim. Blair had been expecting this.
He perched on edge of the bed. "Jim, c'mon man, wake up. You're having a nightmare. It's not real." He laid his hands on Jim's trembling shoulders. "Wake up, Jim."
The sentinel stirred and his eyes flashed open, wide and terrified.
"Shhhh, it's okay," Blair soothed. "It was just a nightmare."
Jim scrubbed his face with his palms. "Oh God, Chief, I was back there. Standing by the bus. I could see each face in the windows. Their terror..." He shuddered. "I could actually smell their fear." His nose wrinkled and his face contorted as if he were smelling it again.
"It's not real, Jim. It's only a memory. Dial it back, all the way back," Blair intoned.
Slowly, Jim's facial muscles relaxed and he laid back against his pillow, studying Blair. "How do you always know the right thing to say?"
Startled, Blair drew back but remained sitting on the bed. "Just lucky, I guess."
Or being a guide is instinctual.
Blair shivered with the implied responsibility. Although he had said he accepted the responsibility, his head was catching up to his heart and filling him with doubts.
Jim inhaled a lungful of air and let it out slowly. "I don't think I can go down to the village tonight. My head's still pounding and I'm exhausted. If you want, you can go back to your place now. I'm just going back to sleep."
"That's all right. I'll hang around here for a little while longer, if you don't mind."
Jim gazed at him, his expression untelling of his thoughts. "I don't mind, Chief," he said quietly.
Blair clasped Jim's forearm briefly, then levered himself off the bed and moved back to his laptop. He glanced back at Jim after he sat down at the table and cool blue eyes warmed when their gazes met.
"Thanks," Jim whispered so softly Blair almost missed it.
Jim slept again until seven and Blair made them a light supper before putting the sentinel back to bed. When he was sure Jim would be out for the night, he returned to his own cabin.
The morning was brisk, threatening rain. Blair jammed his hands in his jacket pockets to protect them from the chill as he climbed the familiar path to Jim's place. As he approached it, he had the oddest feeling of being watched. He stopped and searched the area. For a moment, he thought he saw a dog moving through the brush, but he couldn't see it very clearly. It wouldn't be unusual as there was no such thing as a leash law on the island.
The prickling at the back of his neck didn't ease and Blair frowned apprehensively. He quickened his pace and arrived at Jim's cabin. He knocked once then pushed the door open.
"I think there's a--" He broke off at the sight that met his eyes. "What's going on?"
Jim stuffed some shirts into a bag and zipped it shut, then turned to Blair. "I'm going back to Cascade."
"Now?" Blair's voice almost squeaked.
"That's right." His answer was brusque, his eyes icy blue shards.
For the first time in his life, speech abandoned Blair. Too many questions bombarded his mind at once. "You were going to leave without telling me?" he finally demanded.
Jim's granite countenance faltered, but didn't tumble. "This has nothing to do with you."
Blair marched across the small room to stand toe-to-toe with Jim. "The hell it doesn't. What about your senses? What about the connection between us?"
Jim grabbed the bag's handles and turned away from Blair. "There is no connection. It wasn't real, Sandburg. I lied."
Blair's breath caught in his throat. "You're lying now, you bastard!"
Jim swung around and Blair caught the agony in his face a split second before he could hide it. "This isn't your problem. It's mine and I'll deal with it."
"Yeah, like you were dealing with your senses?"
Jim flinched visibly at the cutting sarcasm in Blair's tone. "Damn it, Sandburg. I have to do this alone."
He opened the door, but Blair grabbed his arm and swung him around. "So you're just going to walk out the door and leave me here? Think again, Ellison. You're not going to get rid of me that easily."
Jim jerked out of Blair's grip. "You're not coming with me."
Blair smiled coldly, matching icy glare with icy glare. "Fine. I'll follow you."
Jim tried to out-stare him, but this contest was too important for him to lose. Blair knew now why he'd felt the tingling unease. Things had been going pretty smoothly between them, but now their bond was being tested and Blair knew he was the one who had to ensure that they would both pass. "Just tell me what the hell happened between the time I left last night and now," he demanded in a low, intense voice.
Jim closed his eyes, conceding the clash of wills. Blair could see the inner turmoil raging within him. The silence stretched out until Blair was ready to scream in frustration, but he held his ground, waiting.
The ex-cop removed a piece of paper from his shirt pocket and thrusted it toward Blair. Staring into Jim's now-haunted eyes, Blair took the note, his gaze automatically dropping to the words scrawled on the paper.
Blair's stomach twisted and his knees trembled. "Oh God, Jim. It was her."
Jim nodded, his jaw clenching. "I have to go back."
Blair handed Jim the note as he brushed past him. "I'll throw my stuff together and meet you at Joel's."
It was Jim's turn to clasp his arm, spinning him around. "You're not going anywhere, Sandburg."
Blair smiled, but this time there was affection and fierce loyalty behind it. "Try to stop me, Ellison."
Jim seemed to wilt before him. "Please, Blair, stay out of this. She might kill you, too."
"Working together we can get her. Apart, one or both of us will die. It's as simple as that."
"It's not that simple."
"Yes, it is," Blair said with quiet intensity. "You need me, Jim -- together, like sentinels and guides for a thousand years before us. This is bigger than the both of us, buddy, so there's no use fighting it."
Slowly, Jim's pale face eased with a small smile. "You are so full of bull, Sandburg."
Blair laughed, surprised at how much release was in the simple sound. "And you are so full of shit, Ellison."
Jim shook his head, but his eyes held the barest twinkle. "C'mon, Chief. We'll have to catch the supply boat."
Blair led the way back down to the town, knowing this was the last time he'd be following the familiar path. The new path he was about to embark on was totally unknown -- a road not traveled -- but he didn't fear it.
He was at his sentinel's side. Finally.
Stay tuned for the sequel "Paved with Good Intentions"
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