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.