(sequel to "Sentinel Too")
Note: This is the first of a trio of short stories that make up my sequels to the Third Season cliffhanger.
1. Primary Focus; 2. Movers and Shakers; 3. A Different Way of Seeing
There was a pressure in his skull and chest that was slowly eroding away the last of his strength, a pain that drilled into the center of his consciousness and threatened his sanity. Or what was left of his sanity. What was left of his heart.
She was gone. He knew that, was certain of that. She was gone. She wasn't in Cascade. Now that he knew what it was that had plagued him for the past several months, gnawing at his nerves until he had wanted to escape to the wilderness to avoid it, now that he knew what it was he had been sensing -- well, it was gone now. She was gone.
Instead, he was left wondering where she was.
He sat up straighter, stretching his shoulders, arching his back trying to get at least some of the tension from his body. His head weighed too much to hold upright and he let it fall forward again, resting against two fists that burrowed into his eye sockets. His body was leaden, muscles tight, no longer remembering how to relax. His heart felt squeezed, the pressure on his chest so constricting that it was almost impossible to take a breath. He hadn't known it was possible to feel such a level of anxiety and live.
A choking gasp escaped his throat, and he clamped his jaw against the sound, its very desperation cutting into his resolve to be strong, to be there -- ready -- in case he was needed.
But Sandburg slept on, never once awakening from the time they had pulled him from the cold fountain waters and resuscitated him. He lay on the hospital bed, alone, pale, eyes closed, air rasping in and out of lungs that no longer cared to keep a steady rhythm. Ellison heard the reverberation of the fragile heartbeat on the monitors, but if he listened he could hear the real thing, far more excruciating a sound than the mechanical beep which echoed the beat.
The word escaped his lips again.
The plea followed. Why bring him back to let him lie here? his heart asked.
Possible brain damage. Lack of oxygen. Unknown time submerged. Possible lung complications.
"What have I done?" he whispered, staring in horror at his friend, his partner. The man he had thrown out of his life with little regard to consequences, as though he were putting out the trash.
For two days he had sat at the side of a man he had alienated. It was his existence. There was nowhere else to go.
James Ellison was little more than a shell of man with nothing inside. "My God, Blair. Please. I'm sorry." He touched the cold hand, his focus spiraling down to the overwhelming sensations beneath the thin layer of skin, blood moving, pulsing through the limp body, restoring life to the tissues and carrying away the residue.
"I'm sorry." He had no other words to say. Forty-eight hours of choked apologies. "I'm sorry, Chief." If he kept on saying the words, maybe Blair Sandburg would hear him and wake up.
"I'm so sorry."
He turned his head slowly and looked at the doctor. Simon stood behind him, to one side, both men staring at him, and he wondered briefly how long they had been there. "Yes?"
"Detective, I'm about to make you an offer I make very few people."
He stared at the doctor blankly.
"I'm going to make a deal with you and I need you to listen carefully."
He looked away, his eyes fastening on Sandburg again.
"Ellison," Simon Banks said sharply. "Doctor Albinoni is talking to you."
It seemed a great effort to turn his head to them. "What is it?"
"Detective, your captain here has assured me that is in both of your best interests to allow you to stay here in this room with Mr Sandburg. I will allow that, up to a point. If you agree to my conditions, I'll clear your presence on this floor. You may stay here for the rest of today, then tonight, when he is finished his shift, your captain will return to the hospital and take you to your home. He will pick you up on his way to work in the morning and make sure you have showered and had breakfast. Providing you have lunch and dinner while here, you are free to stay in this room during the day. From eight in the morning until approximately nine at night."
"I don't want to leave him alone."
"I understand that. However, your presence here twenty-four hours a day is against hospital policy. Your partner is unconscious and we don't know when he'll awaken. When he does, he needs you to be healthy. You won't be if you continue to occupy that chair without food or rest. I promise that if your friend's condition changes during the night, you will be called immediately."
"What if I don't agree?"
Banks came beside him, resting a hand on his shoulder. "I assured him you would."
"Why?" he asked, although he knew he would agree to it. What choice did he have?
Friday, May 22nd, 8:45 p.m.
Ellison looked up, wearily acknowledging Banks joining him in the room.
"Any change?" The dark eyes glanced around the room, taking in the equipment before settling on the still form in the bed. "I see he's on his side now."
"I put him there. He sleeps better that way." Ellison turned his attention back to his Sandburg. "He moved a few times, adjusted his arm, so they think he might wake up soon." He looked down at his bare wrist, absently noticing his watch was missing. He had thrown it against the wall in the ER that first morning. "What time is it? Is it nine o'clock already?" The thought of leaving the hospital was not one he relished. He would be leaving Blair.
"Almost. I had to stay late and take care of a few matters." Simon pulled up a chair on the far side of the bed. "We don't have to go yet. I thought I'd stay with you here for a while."
"I don't want to go yet."
Ellison took a few minutes to register the statement, then said, "I thought you'd be dragging me out the door as soon as you got here."
"Did it occur to you that he's my friend, too? Maybe I just want to stay here awhile myself. Besides, there's no furniture at the loft to sit on."
"I have to put it back."
"I took the liberty of asking the guys from the Bullpen to move it all upstairs into the loft. They'll do it tomorrow afternoon. You can't live with just your bed, the table, and a single chair. Rafe and Megan will go to the motel and bring Sandburg's things back to the loft."
"I-- It--" He really didn't know what to say. "Thanks. With my luck, I'll never find anything again." It was a half-hearted attempt at humor, and the effort succeeded only in filling his eyes with tears. "Damn it, Simon. He's got to wake up soon. It's been two and a half days."
"I spoke with the doctor and they still sound optimistic, Jim. We've just got to give him time. Frankly, I can't believe he's even alive. For all intents and purposes, he was dead. Pronounced dead."
"Hell, I don't know what happened. Was his heartbeat so slow that we didn't hear it -- even the guys doing CPR? Or did his heart just spontaneously start to beat?"
"I told you. It started suddenly after they gave up. I heard a heartbeat. Then another five seconds later."
"If you hadn't heard it, he'd be dead now, that's for sure. He wasn't breathing on his own."
Ellison leaned forward, his hand resting between the pillow and Sandburg's cheek. "His heart was beating, but he wasn't breathing. Why should he? What future had I offered him? What reason to go on?"
"Come on, Jim. Don't romanticize this. The kid stopped breathing because someone conked him on the head and dropped him face first into a pool of cold water."
"On one level. We don't live on just one level." Ellison closed his eyes, listening to the regular heartbeat.
Sandburg was growing stronger physically. There was still the chance of lung infection and brain damage, but his body was mending. He lay now, his beard-rough face warmed by Jim's hand, his lank hair pulled back with a simple tie. He was pale, but there was as hint of color in his face now, not like before. He was alive. His heart was beating, steady, regular.
Then the heartbeat grew faster, matching his breathing.
Ellison's eyes opened. "Blair? Chief?" he whispered, half-rising from his chair. "Come on, wake up."
A soft intake of air. Then another as eyes flickered open, then shut.
"Blair?" he repeated, glancing to Simon. "Get a doctor, but give me a few minutes with him at least." Shutting out Banks moving from the room, Ellison shifted to sit on the edge of the bed, leaning over until his face was inches from his partner's. "Chief?"
"'Jim . . ." Feather soft, a sigh more than speech. An exhalation with his name on it.
"I'm here. I'm right here."
The eyes flickered again, dragged open to stare at him for several seconds before exhaustion closed them. "Jim."
Ellison knew the rest of the question. "You're in Cascade Hospital. But you're going to be fine."
"Right . . ." Sandburg smiled slightly, the short whiskers on his face scratching across Ellison's palm. He turned his head, one hand reaching upward toward Ellison's face. "I'm cold."
"You were hypothermic when we found you." The rest would wait until later. "Do you want another blanket?"
"No." Blair tried to lift his hand higher, his fingers tangling in the detective's shirt. Fingers formed a fist, then as he tightened the muscles in his arm, he used the leverage to pull himself from the bed, upward. "Please?"
It took a moment for Ellison to understand what he wanted, then Jim caught him, one hand beneath his head, the other around his back, moving him upward to rest against his chest and shoulder. "Is that better?" he whispered, feeling his partner's weight settle against him.
Sandburg nodded, eyes closed again. "Throat hurts." His voice was scarcely loud enough for Ellison to hear. "Where . . . are we?"
"In the hospital. Simon's gone for the doctor."
"Too tired . . . for games . . ." Blair rasped, his right hand grasping Jim's shirt still. The left hand, with the IV, hung limp, but Ellison had seen him move it and flex the fingers. All good signs.
"What do you mean?" Games?
"How'd we . . . get . . . here?" Blair's breathing caught for a moment, the hand clawing against his shirt. He shivered, pressing closer.
"In an ambulance," Jim answered, trying to block the rush of emotion tied up with his own memory of that ride.
"How? . . . Is it night?"
Thirty seconds ticked by before Blair spoke again. "I'm tired."
"You've had a rough time," Jim whispered.
"I feel . . . strange . . . Was I . . . drugged? Don't let go," he gasped as Jim shifted him slightly.
The doctor arrived, breezing across the room. "Mr Ellison, you should leave him lying flat until we have a chance to check him out."
"This is his idea, not mine. He's cold." Ellison hung on to his partner, not relinquishing him. "Can you check him this way?"
"Just put him on his back and let us examine him." Latex gloves snapped on. "The sooner we establish his condition, the sooner we can help him."
"Sorry, Chief." He watched as Sandburg's eyes opened again, growing nervous as he was lowered back to the bed. "Just let him look at you."
"Who's that?" Speech was obviously still difficult, the words slurred.
"DoctorAlbinoni." Ellison frowned at the increase in heart rate. "Relax, he's just going to check you out."
"Z'at wise?" Sandburg gasped as the doctor touched his chest, opening the hospital gown to put the stethoscope over his heart. "Jim? You sure 'bout this?" The words turned into coughs as the dry throat won out. Deep racking coughs shook his body, calming only when Jim lifted him back to his shoulder, sitting him upright.
"Mr Sandburg, I want to listen to your lungs. Can you take a deep breath?" Doctor Albinoni positioned the stethoscope on Sandburg's back.
They waited. Blair didn't move, his face still against Ellison's shoulder.
"Take a deep breath. Come on, do what the doctor asks, okay?" Ellison whispered.
"Tell him . . .speak English," Blair muttered. "They're . . . same everywhere." He took a few deep breaths in and out, eyes clenched tight.
He was asleep before the doctor finished, and Ellison gently settled him back against the mattress, supporting his head and neck as though he were a newborn. The doctor checked blood pressure and scribbled quickly onto his clipboard. More antibiotics were prescribed.
"He seemed fine," Banks said quietly, as though daring the doctor to disagree.
"He knew me. He talked to me." Ellison brushed a stray strand of hair from Sandburg's forehead.
Albinoni nodded. "He doesn't seem to have any substernal chest pain or abdominal distension, his fever is dropping, his lungs sound reasonably clear and air intake is at this time uncompromised. In all likelihood, Detective, he won't waken again tonight. I'd still like you to go home now and come back in the morning. We're going to be watching him carefully and his recovery will take days, maybe weeks. Not hours. You need to keep up your strength if you're going to be any help to him at all. Which means eating, showering, and sleeping."
"I'd like to stay -- he might wake up and--"
"That argument could also continue for the next few weeks. We had an agreement, Mr Ellison."
Albinoni didn't back down and, reluctantly, Jim stood, not knowing how he was going to walk out of the room. Simon watched as he brushed his hand over Blair's face, resting the back of his fingers along one cheek, then the captain took his elbow, steering him through the door, talking to him as they slowly moved down the hall and out to his car. The familiar voice was enough to keep him together, and he struggled to hold onto that sliver of sanity.
The car was winding through Cascade's streets and Jim leaned against the passenger side door, eyes closed, forehead pressed against the cool glass. "I don't want to leave him there." He didn't realize he had said it aloud, but Simon answered him.
"I know. He knows you're nearby, though. He knows you'll come back."
"Does he? How would he know that?" He could hear the bitterness in his raised voice, the echo slamming through the sedan.
"Jim . . ." Simon cut off whatever he was going to say. "Just get some rest tonight. I'll make you something to eat."
"I threw all the food away."
"Joel bought some groceries. Just the basics, but enough to make you some soup and crackers. I don't think you can handle much more than that. You haven't eaten. You haven't slept."
"Joel said he put some clean sheets on your bed and made sure the electricity, heating, and water were working okay. Brought your mail in, too."
Jim turned his head back to the window and watched the city pass by. "Tell him thanks, okay? The rest of them, too."
"Right after I tell them that your partner woke up."
An hour later, he locked the door behind Simon. The loft echoed as he walked across the floor, the emptiness paralleling how he felt. He moved slowly, reluctant to open his eyes and see the bare walls and floor boards. Empty. Alone.
He still felt hollow, the sound of his own breathing reverberating in his ears, an ache in his throat and chest.
He didn't want to be here. I'm sorry, Chief.
He didn't feel like sleeping, but he was too tired to do anything else.
What now? The bathroom. He tried to tune out the sound of his footsteps as he crossed the kitchen. Brush teeth, use toilet, wash up.
He walked down the hall toward the stairs, stopping at the twin doors to Blair's room, remembering the day he had put up the doors and his roommate's look of shock when he told him he thought he should have a proper room.
It had been tucked beneath his own, protected.
Yet I pushed him out. Packed his bags.
It made no sense.
He felt drained, the tension evaporating in a hiss of air escaping his lips once more. His shoulders slumped. Dizzy, he leaned against the wall, feeling the exhausted shivering take over his limbs. I'm sorry, Chief. You can come home again. Oh, God, please come back and fix all this.
He pushed himself away and stumbled to the stairs, grabbing the railing and slowly pulling himself up to his room. He stared down at the carefully made bed and felt the tears well in his eyes at the concern Joel Taggart had shown in putting on the sheets and quilt, one edge folded over so he could just slip between the cool sheets. And Simon had stayed to cook him a simple meal. Rafe, Brown and Connor were helping out the next day. Everyone working at putting his life back together.
But his life was several miles away, asleep -- he hoped -- lying in a hospital bed.
He tugged off his clothes and kicked them into a corner of the room where his dresser had stood before. A jumble of clean clothes were on the wire shelving unit he had for some reason left in the room. He had only the vaguest memory of the night before Blair had . . . what he had done while Blair was sitting waiting for him at the university . . . He had been trying to fix the loft again, but nothing had been making sense. Jim had brought up his bed, wrestling the box spring and then the mattress back up the stairs into his room. Blair's bed was at the far end of the jumble of furniture and he couldn't reach it. He had brought the table up. A chair. A box of kitchen supplies.
Ellison had put the candles back on top of the fridge, spacing each one exactly how Sandburg had placed them when the microwave died and the empty spot had looked strange and his roommate had stood on a chair and arranged and rearranged the candles until somehow the right balance had been achieved and he had sighed happily and grinned across at Jim, ignoring the eyes rolling at his concentration on such a simple thing.
Why wouldn't it make any sense? He needed his partner to explain it all to him.
He was so tired.
Jim rolled over in his bed, pulling the quilt close over his shoulders, trying not to listen to the hum of the fridge or the tremble of the windows against the evening breeze, or the absence of Blair's heartbeat.
Saturday, May 23rd, 8:15 a.m.
Jim walked into the room, sat beside the bed and Blair opened his eyes.
For a moment, Ellison was too startled to say anything. "Did you just wake up?"
Blair nodded, glancing around. "Why . . . we here?" he asked, his voice still rough.
"They won't let you leave yet. They don't think you're well enough."
"Can't you . . . just take me . . .?" A hand emerged from beneath the blanket and grabbed hold of his.
"No. They want you to stay. For a while yet."
"Can't you . . . fight them?"
"I need for you to be well, Chief. Much as I would love to take you home, we have to wait a while longer."
Blair nodded wearily, his eyes closing, already asleep.
Jim stretched, surprised at the difference the enforced rest had made to his own state of mind. He felt calmer, but maybe that was just the presence of his Guide. The ache in his chest was still there, but it wasn't half what it had been.
Blair slept for another half hour and then the doctor came in and he woke up when they prodded him. He allowed the doctor to check him over, but he kept one hand on Jim's wrist the entire time. He seemed to have some difficulty in following what the doctor was saying, but was tuned in to Jim's voice enough so that when Ellison repeated the doctor's questions, he could answer them.
There were horrible purple-yellow bruises over his sternum from where they had done the CPR. When Blair was asleep again, Jim gently eased back the hospital gown and stared at the marks, running touch-sensitive fingers over the worst of them, satisfied himself that no ribs were broken or cracked. He remembered Simon's hands pressing down, elbows locked as he did the chest compressions alternating with Jim's mouth-to-mouth. The mumbled phrases from mandatory first aid courses. Follow the bottom rib up to the notch, then higher to the sternum, allow a finger's width for safety, mark, and begin. One and two and three and four and five and one and two and three and four and ten and one and two and three and four and fifteen.
The feeling of panic returned for a moment, catching him by surprise and Ellison had to gasp to get any air. He had taken an emergency first aid course with Simon several years before, but this hadn't been the latex doll they had practiced on. It was their friend. Sure, he had done CPR on others before, sometimes alone, sometimes with another person, but he had never known the casualties personally. They had just been situations he had come upon as a police officer. But the bruises on Blair's chest were mute testimony to the battle to keep him alive. A battle they had given up on until Jim had heard a feeble, single heartbeat.
During the day, for the most part, Blair slept, his body unable to do anything else. Three times he woke up, a scream lodged in his throat, coughing and hacking, his hands on his neck as though he were drowning, remembered water filling his nose and mouth, choking him. Jim had held him, rocking him slowly, one hand rubbing circles on the young man's back, trying to calm the ragged breathing and ease fragile lungs from the rough coughs. Each time he was able to lull his partner back to sleep, settling him back on the bed, then resuming his wait. The anxiety and tension had left the detective's body, leaving in its place a heavy sadness that was equally debilitating.
As the hours passed, Jim sat beside him, waiting silently while he slept, watching over him. At one in the afternoon, a nurse came in and told him to get some lunch in the cafeteria. He started to refuse, then remembered his promise and held back the words, reluctantly moving down the hall, his hearing fixed on his partner's breathing, anchoring him.
Saturday, May 23rd, 6:30 p.m.
Blair woke slowly, shifted on the hard surface he was lying on. It was late in the day, the sunlight still making itself known through the trees. He looked around as his eyes focused, but Jim was nowhere in sight.
Jim had been there, though, hadn't he?
He closed his eyes, trying to remember what had happened when he had woken previously. Yes, he was certain Jim had been there, had held him in strong, secure arms and banished the shakes and coughs that had unnerved him. A few times, actually. There had been more than one period of consciousness. But why was he alone now? Had Jim left him -- abandoned him?
"Jim?" he called, surprised that he had no power in his voice. The weak scratchy sound was scarcely discernable as a voice at all. "Jim?" he called again, disturbed by the fear that rolled over him.
"I'm here." Ellison's voice came from a distance, then he stepped closer and Blair could see him.
"Good. I was --"
"Worried -- I know. I heard your heartbeat go up. I was downstairs getting something to eat."
"In the cafeteria."
The words scared him. Downstairs.
Ellison sat beside him, one hand moving to brush the strands of hair from his face, then he stopped, lifting his hand away as though he hadn't the right to touch him.
Sandburg looked at him carefully, cursing his blurry vision. "Jim?" His voice cracked all over the place, and even he could hear the tears that threatened to unleash. Then he was tilted upright, resting tight against Jim's chest, as instinct replaced Ellison's hesitancy.
Except something was wrong. His hands slid down his partner's arm, feeling the soft flannel shirt . . . but seeing a bare arm with tribal markings. "Jim?"
Blair shifted away from him, pushing back to look at him. To see the bandana over Jim's head. Blair's hand reached out and traced the short haircut. No bandana, although he could see the pattern in the blue cloth.
He heard Jim's whisper to him, but shook his head, unable to respond. He let Jim pull him closer, and turned his head to look around the clearing. Jim wasn't wearing what he looked like he was wearing. Was this jungle truly a hospital? A private room? A bed?
A native approached, the one he recognized as Albinoni. Was this, then, the doctor? He thought Jim had been joking, or that the man was a healer or shaman, but instead . . .
Jim was speaking with the man, then shifted him back to the bed so the doctor could check him out. Blair shut his eyes and allowed the examination. If he kept his eyes closed and concentrated , he could feel the metal of the stethoscope, the brush of the doctor's lab coat sleeve. There were blankets and sheets beneath him, IV in his arm. He could tell when a nurse came in, the whiff of perfume, the click of the little gizmo that took his temperature by touching his ear.
He opened his eyes again and saw the natives and the jungle. Part of him was terrified and part of him was thinking: Cool. How did this happen?
He kept his eyes closed for a while after that, orienting himself to his surroundings. Sight was screwed up, but touch wasn't. Hearing was fifty-fifty. He could hear all the little sounds, chairs scraping, the bed frame creaking as he moved, the ice water poured into a glass for him. But the words they spoke didn't make any sense. Expect for Jim.
And speaking of Jim . . . "Hey."
"Yes. Do your eyes hurt? Do you want me to turn the lights down a bit?"
He cracked one eye open to look at his jungle-warrior-garbed partner. "It's not the lights I'm worried about."
They were in a clearing and he was lying on a flat, blanket-covered rock. The sun was coming through the trees, casting strange shadows around them.
"Did I hurt my head?" he asked, softly, surprised how calm he felt.
"You had a concussion. A blunt trauma to the back of your head knocked you out while someone pushed you into the fountain."
"You pulled me out?"
He waited for another few minutes to go by, centered by the touch of Jim's hand on his arm. He had lots of questions -- mainly in the category of what the hell is happening here? -- but even more important, there was something that needed to be said immediately and even his altered sight wasn't going to stop him. First things first, he had decided. "We have to talk." His voice was a little stronger. It seemed easier to string words together, but then he had a firm idea of what he wanted to say.
"I know we have to talk. Chief, I'm so sorry for everything that happened." Ellison let go of his arm and leaned forward, covering his face with his hands. "I can't begin to explain it. I wasn't thinking right -- I haven't been for the last few months. Forget that something was happening with Alex and my senses . . . I had no right to read your dissertation or treat you the way I did. Fuck, I threw you out of the loft. I'm sorry. I have no other words for you than my deepest apology. You're supposed to be my friend and I treated you like dirt."
Blair's chest tightened until he could hardly breathe. His heart accelerated, thumping against sore ribs, and his lungs tried vainly to pull in some oxygen. Dimly, he was aware of Jim pulling him upward, massaging his back and coaxing him to breathe, to take a breath and let it out. "No," he whispered, when he had enough air to do so. "Damn it, no."
"I'm sorry, Chief." Ellison rocked him gently, trying to soothe his anxiety attack.
"Talk. Need to talk," Sandburg managed to get out.
"In a minute. We will. Just relax first."
How? How could he relax when everything was all fucked up? Forget his screwed up sight -- his universe had been flipping around for the past several weeks, the proverbial rug jerked away from under him so many times he had terminal rug burn. The words -- everything he wanted to say, needed to say -- drifted away from his conscious mind as he collapsed against Ellison, his body drained beyond belief by the overwhelming fear that they would never get this settled, that they would be doomed to flounder through life not getting the point of it all. Substituting convenience and comfort for the real thing.
"Jim?" he whispered, when he thought he had enough control over his breathing. He opened his eyes, trying to see clearer.
"Yeah." Ellison was staring off into the distance. "Wait a minute, Chief."
There was a commotion a little ways away, then a man approached them. Sandburg closed his eyes, letting Jim talk to the guy to see what he wanted. Now who was it?
"Chief? Don't go to sleep on me now. This is a doctor. He needs to check you over."
"I'm sorry, but he does. It won't be long."
"No," Blair repeated. "Not now. I don't want to be rude to him, but tell him to come back later. I've got to talk to you first."
"We have time later--"
"No. I don't want him to touch me. Later, if you want."
The two men talked, then the intruder went away. "He's not very happy about this."
"So sue me." Sandburg tried to sit up, to move away from Ellison. "I need to see you when I talk to you." At least see your face.
Ellison did something behind him that he couldn't make out, then he moved the bedding so there was some support for his back, settling him gently against it. "How's that?"
"Fine." Sandburg accepted the glass of juice handed to him, sipping at the cool drink, letting it soothe his raw throat. He almost laughed at the conflict of sight and touch, the feel of the glass in his hands, but the tin cup of his vision.
Jim misunderstood his little gasp. "Chief, I --"
"No, this is my turn." He handed the glass back and closed his eyes, feeling the burn of tears beginning to blind him as he searched again for the words he had prepared. "I need to say something."
"Okay." Ellison's voice was soft. The man was really trying to listen, but it was still guilt that motivated his actions. Some deserved, some self-imposed, some unwarranted.
But this wasn't the Sentinel's turn to talk.
Sandburg exhaled slowly, letting his head fall back as he tried to ground himself. "Jim, remember when we were last in Peru, when Simon and Daryl disappeared? I had a decision to make then."
"Yeah. About whether to take the assignment in Borneo or stay with you. Do you remember what I told you when we got back? About why I wasn't taking the assignment?" He glanced up at Ellison, not surprised to see the open pain on the man's face.
Ellison nodded. "You said you never understood it before. That you were staying. It was about friendship." Ellison wiped his eyes on his arm -- his sleeve? -- too tired or emotionally worn out to care what he looked like.
Sandburg sighed. It was only going to get worse. "Jim, I don't know how to say this -- but I was wrong."
The blue eyes stared back at him, devastated. "What?"
"I was wrong. I made a mistake."
Ellison pulled away from him, sitting further back. "I don't understand. Are you saying you should have gone to Borneo?"
"No, not that." Sandburg waved away the thought with an irritated gesture, then tried to get his breathing under control again as he sensed Ellison's confusion and the tension suddenly in the air between them.
Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in.
"Jim . . . When I first met you, I was one very excited anthropologist, delighted to have found a subject -- the proof that my theories and Burton's were correct. You were the subject of my thesis. Clinical. I'm good at that. We've done lots of tests on your senses, tried to see your limits, what you can do and can't do. I have a room full of documented information on you. My office is filled with reference books and tapes and everything I could get my hands on."
Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in.
Sandburg could feel his heartbeat echoing through his body. "Then, I discovered I was your friend . . . and that was so unbelievably cool, man. That we were friends. That you cared what happened to me. We could talk about stuff and go camping together. You were like this major person in my life -- friend, big brother, confidant, pseudo-father." He looked up briefly to see Ellison's eyes still filled with tears, a small smile on his face at the declaration.
Say it. "But I was wrong, Jim."
The smile vanished, replaced with a grimace of pain, as though he had thrust a knife into the Sentinel's stomach.
"I was so wrong, man. Neither option was the right one. I mean, there's nothing wrong with me being your friend, or me being an anthropologist, but that's where I messed it all up. I didn't get my Primary Focus." He said the words so Ellison would know they were capitalized in his mind. "It's not about Friendship. That's where I got it wrong. It was just so much fun and it felt so right that I didn't question it or my actions."
"Keep talking." Ellison's voice was cooler, as though he were trying to distance himself already. Bracing himself for the next blow.
Just hear me out. A few minutes.
"Jim, I didn't get that you needed to be my Primary Focus. Remember when I said that the dissertation was 'all about you'? I was closer to the truth than I knew, but still I was making choices based on the wrong things -- No, let me finish, then you can get me the hell out of here -- My primary role isn't as an anthropologist or as your friend. My Primary Focus is as your guide, your partner. And it hasn't been. I'm not even sure why that is. Maybe it's because there are no role models for me in this, that I figured I had to keep on with my life and do the research and do the regular living thing."
"Blair, you've done great as my partner. It's me who hasn't--"
"Stop! Let me finish." Breathe in. Breathe out. "Damn it, Jim. Listen to me. Look what's happened over the last few months. You've been acting tense, feeling edgy. I've noticed it, but it didn't affect me much, so I figured it was just the workload or something. Then you had to 'get away from it all', and when we saw you up near the lake, you were as calm as could be, dealing with everything. So, I figured that nothing was wrong with you and I ended up getting my feelings hurt because you had left without me. When Megan showed up, that put a new slant on everything for a while, and I was feeling better because we had a common problem: how to handle her and the whole situation. But then it started up again with the dissertation. And I felt I had to choose between being an anthropologist, getting my degree and everything, or being your friend. Again, I chose to be your friend, willing to throw away my dissertation to keep that friendship. I still made the wrong choice."
Ellison was shaking his head. "You're losing me here, Chief."
"Okay, then, imagine this scenario -- it shouldn't be hard. Alex comes to town, but we don't know it. Suddenly, I start noticing you being tense, edgier. Your behavior is changing slightly, but I don't know why. What do you think I should do? I don't know about her, so I don't know why you are acting this way.-- Well, as your friend, I might try to talk to you, but you don't want to talk, so instead, I'm careful around you. I don't want to get into a fight. I don't want my feelings hurt. I ended up adding to the problem, not solving it.
"As an anthropologist studying you, I notice things, changes in your behavior, and I write down your reactions and speculate, then put the journals away. I think of more tests and controlled meetings. I get clinical, as non-emotional a response as the friendship angle was an emotional one. And I ended up adding more to the problem, not solving it.
"So . . . what should I have done? As your Guide, I should have stayed with you. I should have found ways to help you cope with what was going on. Then when I discovered someone who was another possible sentinel, I should have reported to you and told you about her and I told you my concerns. We should have talked about how to deal with this, how you as a sentinel were feeling about another sentinel in your territory.
"What I shouldn't have done is offer my services to help her. Now that helps Blair the anthropologist, as I might learn more about sentinels, but, you see, anything that comes in the way of my Primary Focus, is suspect. YOU are everything, man. It sounds weird, but it's true." He choked on a sob. "Oh, damn, why didn't I get this before? I figured it out when she showed up in my office early that morning. I remember her being there, I remember her Guide showing up. He was acting the part, even if he didn't have Burton's theories to rely on. He was doing it. He knew he had to protect her -- even from me. Especially from me."
"Did he--?" Ellison's stare was hard to take, even in the dimming light of the jungle . . . hospital room.
"Hurt me? I don't know. I guess so. I don't remember right now. I think they were both there. But do you get what I'm saying, Jim? Do you understand what I've done? I've let other things get in the way of my role. I've let life's distractions, society's expectations, hell -- my expectations -- come between me and what I needed to do in my life. My job. Which is to be your Guide as my first and Primary Focus. We're friends -- super. I can't tell you how much your friendship means to me. But that can't stop me from doing my job, my Primary Focus. I have Burton's theories, my research, and maybe a position at the university -- super. But that can't stop me from doing my job, my Primary Focus. I needed to make a choice, man. I sat in my office, waiting for you to show up, all ready to say this to you, and Alex comes instead. I thought she was going to kill me, and I'd never get a second chance at this, never have a chance to tell you how I fucked it all up, and beg you to let me try again. I failed you, Jim. I let you get out of control. I let you go through all that crap alone, because I was so busy getting my feelings hurt as your friend and being an anthropologist.
"We've got to start over. Wipe the slate. Build this relationship right. I made a choice, man, sitting in my office that night, that if you'd let me, I'd be your Guide, your partner. FIRST. My best concentration. My first consideration. My Primary Focus in my life. Not the leftovers -- not if I have time from the university to go with you on stakeout, if I don't have a date, if I'm not working on a paper, if, if.-- First. You need to come first."
"I can't ask you to do that."
"You didn't. You had your own choices to make, right? Here in Peru last time? You had your own choices, right?"
"Well, I'm here now and I'm making my choices. If you'll have me, I want to try it. To get it right this time."
"It wasn't your fault," Ellison said, the words grating from his throat. "I should have--"
"Yeah, there were probably things you should have done, but Jim, you were working on instinct, without a guide to help. You did the best you could. You were reacting to outside stimuli that you weren't prepared for. Territorial stuff. Protect the tribe."
"Why weren't you included in my tribe? You always were before. How could I have excluded you?"
"The last week it was because I smelled of her. You could sense her on me. You could sense the betrayal of your guide being contaminated by another sentinel."
"Before that? What about before she came on the scene? I was already shutting you out."
"Were you? She's been in Cascade for about two months. Have things been normal in the last two months? Well, what passes as normal for us? You've been tense, you've felt abandoned and closed yourself off. So what have I been doing in the last few months? I've been preoccupied by other stuff, including writing a paper that I wouldn't share with you. I abandoned you when you needed someone there."
"No," Ellison said, shaking his head. "Not always. No, Chief, that's not right."
"'Not always' is not enough. I need you to be my Primary Focus or I need to resign."
"I can't ask you to do that, to give your life away."
"I'm offering it."
"To throw away everything you've worked on up to now?"
"So I give away ten cents to be handed a million dollars. I'm the one who's richer for it. Besides, I'm not saying I'm throwing it away. But we talk about it, and it isn't my Primary Focus." Blair started coughing, his throat dry from talking, and Jim reached over and retrieved the juice, absently handing it to him. "Thanks."
There was silence for a few minutes, and Blair drifted, his hand resting on Ellison's bare wrist.
"I'm so sorry," Ellison whispered.
"I know. I've forgiven you, have you forgiven me?"
"Then we try again?"
"Oh, God. Yes."
"Good. 'Cause I'm falling asleep here and I didn't want to pass out on you before we settled this."
Jim bent low and drew him back into the secure embrace and he relaxed into it as he had never been able to before. The universe was righting itself. His Sentinel was there, doing what he was supposed to do, taking care of him at the moment. A Sentinel without a Guide was crippled, so he had to get better.
Ellison helped him lie down. "I have to go soon. Simon's coming to take me back to the loft to sleep, then I'll be right back."
"I know. You have your job. I have mine." He smiled as the blanket was pulled over his shoulders, tucked around him carefully, lovingly.
The universe had righted itself.
He closed his eyes, basking in the sensation, letting the soothing, gentle touch massaging his forehead lull him to sleep. Tomorrow, if he was still in the jungle, he'd mention it to Jim. Tonight it really didn't matter where he was, except that he was safe and cared for and the connection with his partner was there. Stronger. Brighter. Clearer.
He took a deep breath, letting his lungs expand, the air slowly released until he was asleep.
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