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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