Patience, so they say, is a virtue. If it were true, mused the man in the parked car, then his place in heaven was guaranteed.
Especially as he had already experienced five years in hell.
There had been a few changes. `Colette's' was now `Reed, Smithson and Lagrange, Attorneys at Law', and there were fewer parking spaces to be found, but, as he lifted his eyes to the third floor of the building, he was fairly certain that some things would have stayed unchanged.
There was one way to find out. With the confidence born of someone who did this remarkable act every day, he extended his auditory senses upwards towards the third floor balcony, piggybacking his sight effortlessly onto his hearing as he went.
It was immediately apparent that, although closed, the glass doors were unlocked, and that no one was in the apartment. He mentally shook his head. "I taught you better than that, Chief," he silently chastised. Surely all the lessons his former partner had learned - painfully on a number of occasions - hadn't been forgotten?
As he thought of Blair, a flood of emotion, long repressed, enveloped him, and he dragged his senses back from their exploration. Five years. Five long years he had yearned for this moment, mentally rehearsing it in his mind. He would come here, briefly check up on Sandburg, and go. No one - including his friend - would ever know he had been here.
But Blair Sandburg, unpredictable rule breaker that he was, had ruined his perfect fantasy by virtue of not being at home. The man in the car smiled despite himself. It was so very Blair.
Glancing at his watch, he calculated the time he had left. He could afford to wait a little longer. Maybe Sandburg hadn't gone far, considering he had left the balcony doors unlocked.
He allowed his mind to drift, nostalgia overtaking him. And, uncharacteristically lost in sentimental thought, he did not immediately notice the man ambling along the street, absent mindedly reading a newspaper headline as he munched on an apple. It took a second or two for the identity of the pedestrian to register, and when it did, recognition came with a jolt to the gut.
Hardly breathing, the watcher focused on him, intending to soak in as much sensory information as he could, during the scant moments it would take for Sandburg to reach the door of the apartment building and disappear from his life forever.
Five years had evidently changed Sandburg quite a bit. The long hair was gone, replaced with a short, unruly mop of curls, which did nothing to disguise his slightly receding hairline. The slight hint of silver at the temples added to the impression of advancing age, filling the man in the car with an odd sorrow at the years he had missed.
Sandburg's blue eyes were masked behind small-framed sunglasses, concealing whatever wrinkles advancing maturity had endowed him with. He was a lot thinner, the watcher noted. But his skin looked healthy; smooth, tanned. Despite the loss of weight it appeared that Sandburg had been taking care of himself.
In other ways, Sandburg hadn't changed at all. The man watched indulgently as his former friend swerved unerringly around stationary and not-so-stationary objects and people in his path, never once taking his eyes from the newsprint. As though on automatic pilot, Sandburg reached the door of 852, and stopped, fumbling in the pocket of his jeans for keys. Then, inexplicably, he paused. His respiration hitched. And the man in the car held his breath as slowly, slowly, Sandburg turned.
And looked right at him.
For a second, the watcher froze in shock, until he remembered that the tinted windows of the car prevented anyone from actually seeing him. But the intensity with which Sandburg looked in his direction was uncanny, nevertheless. He was relieved when, after a moment, Sandburg seemed to shake himself out of whatever notion had grabbed him, and turned away. He inserted his key into the lock, then disappeared inside, closing the door between them forever.
An intense mixture of grief and longing enveloped the man once known as James Ellison. He resignedly started up the car and, with a final look at the third floor of the building, he pulled out and drove away.
It had been five years ago today since Jim Ellison had 'died', and the fifth time that Blair had performed this ritual.
Sitting in a semi-lotus, surrounded by candles, Blair allowed the pulsing rhythms of aboriginal drums to envelop him as he sank into meditation. He waited for the familiar greenness of the jungle to wrap him in its embrace.
Breathing deeply of the burning incense, he forcibly tried to calm his turbulent thoughts.
Absently he wondered what, if any, commemoration his estranged friends from Major Crime would engage in on this day. Blair no longer had any contact with them. Simon and Joel, in particular, had become impatient with Blair, at his refusal to accept that Jim was dead. He vividly remembered the sham of a funeral, and their eyes upon him, waiting for him to break, to lose control. But it hadn't happened. And in the five years since, he had never once grieved.
What was the point of grieving for someone who wasn't dead?
Settling his breathing into a pattern that mirrored the drum beat he embraced the wash of color when it overtook his senses, the smell of rain and lush vegetation. Loping along with a lupine gait he entered the clearing that he had visited annually for the last five years, expecting to find it empty, as always.
And pulled up short when the sleek black jaguar at its heart - vibrant, powerful, alive - raised its head and looked at him, deadly blue eyes boring deep within his soul.
Abruptly, Blair found himself back in the loft, his fists clenched, his breathing ragged, his belief confirmed. The candle-flames blurred into golden light, as five years of longing and pain found its release. Throwing back his head, Blair roared.
On another continent, a black-clad man tilted his head, as though listening. Then, gripping his knife tightly, got back to the matter at hand.
But in his mind, the wolf still howled.
Lying awake upstairs in his big bed, the quiescent man listened to the night sounds in the loft, eyes wide and attempting to force shape and texture out of the familiar darkness. Sleep was for other people, it seemed.
Breathe in, breathe out. The click and whirr of the refrigerator. Breathe in, breathe out. The faint sound of sirens, dopplering off into the distance. Breathe in, breathe out. The almost silent snick of the door latch opening.
The even cadence of his heart accelerated as breath halted. Paralyzed for a second, he sensed rather than heard the front door open and then close. Then stillness resumed. But the intruder's soundless presence permeated the former peace of the loft; a malevolent aura transforming his home from sanctuary to battleground in the space between one breath and the next.
Cautiously, trying not to make any sound which would alert the invader to his wakefulness, he reached a shaking hand under the pillow, closing his grip around the comforting handle of the revolver he kept there. An almost silent sigh of relief escaped him. He slowly, slowly, pulled the gun out, and lifted it to hold it cradled in both hands, over his heart. Then he listened carefully for sounds from below.
But there were none. Whoever was down there did not seem to be moving about at all. And for a split second he wondered if he had dreamed the opening and closing of the door and the uninvited entrance of someone who should not be there.
Carefully, he rolled over onto his stomach and lifted his head, to peer through the rail at the loft below. And what he saw almost stopped his heart forever.
A tall figure stood there, motionless; undoubtedly a man. Illuminated faintly in the light of the full moon from the skylight above, he was dressed, it seemed, from head to toe in black; a monolithic, living embodiment of the night sky.
But it was not the forbidding clothes nor the eerily motionless stance of the man which almost stole his mind. It was the familiarity. The appearance, after an unendurable age, of his most desperate heart's desire.
Somehow, he dredged up a ghost of a voice. "Jim," he whispered, his lips barely forming the sound.
But the apparition, not surprisingly, heard him nevertheless. His head tilted slightly, in an achingly familiar gesture. "Chief," he returned; the nickname a benediction, contained within a voice which was hoarse with disuse or strong emotion.
Blair didn't remember how he got there. He only knew that one moment he was looking down at Jim, and the next he was standing in front of him, almost close enough to touch.
He reached out his hand towards the light switch, but a terse voice halted him. "No. No light."
"Okay man," Blair granted breathlessly. Peering upwards at his visitor, he wished he could see Jim's face, and absently wished he'd thought to put on his glasses. Shaking his head at the mundanity of the thought, in the midst of such extraordinary circumstances, he tried to think of something appropriate to say. "I knew it, man," was what emerged. "I knew you were alive. I told them, all of them, Simon and the others. But they wouldn't believe me." He knew he was babbling, but couldn't help it. "I've missed you so much, Jim..."
"Sandburg," the quiet command halted him "Stop it. Listen to me. I haven't got a lot of time."
Blair frowned. "What are you talking about? I mean, you're home now, right? Right?"
Jim shook his head, and Blair caught the glimmer of one cold blue eye as the movement brought Ellison's face intermittently into the moonbeam. "Pay attention, Chief," he said, his voice even and uncompromising. "You have to let this go. I'm a dead man. As dead now as I was yesterday, as I will be tomorrow. Stop asking questions. Forget I ever existed."
Reaching out a hand, Blair grabbed onto the kitchen counter and leaned against it, because the floor beneath his feet had just opened up and he was afraid he would fall through. As if from far away, he heard his own voice, pleading. "Don't... don't do this, man. I can't... I can't go through this... I can't lose you again."
Ellison's voice was pitiless. "Not everything is about you, Sandburg. It's time you got on with your life, and left me to get on with what's left of mine."
The mute terror, which had momentarily weakened Blair, was abruptly burned away by red hot anger. "Life?" he exploded. "You call this... this whatever you've got going on life? You walk out on everybody, on me, fake your own death, then come creeping back in the dead of night, because I have more sense than to buy it? Because I gotta tell you, man, from where I'm standing, your life sucks big time!"
Blair was totally unprepared for the deadly speed with which Jim moved. In seconds strong hands had seized his tee-shirt front, and he was backed up hard against the support pillar. "No one is giving you an option here, Chief," Jim snarled. "Drop it. Let it go."
Jim's face was inches from his own, and, inevitably, Blair was reminded forcefully of another time and place, years ago, when a terrified cop with out of control senses had thrown a naive, over-enthusiastic grad student up against a wall. And now, as then, he saw with clarity born of empathy the fear and loneliness which drove the uncharacteristic show of strength. And now, as then, he intuitively knew exactly what would make Ellison hear him.
"No matter what you say to me, Jim," Blair said with absolute conviction, swallowing the other emotions which were threatening to choke him along with Ellison's hands, "I can't forget you, man. Not ever. And I would rather die than let you live like this, alone, for even one more second."
For a moment there was no sound but their harsh puffs of breath, Jim's lungs sounding suddenly as though he had run a marathon. Then, letting go of Blair with a shake, Jim turned away. "The people I work for," he said in a voice just barely in control, "are more dangerous than you could possibly imagine. You have no idea, no idea, what they are capable of. What I am capable of." Blair watched as he shook his head, hearing the desperation in his voice. "I'm not the same person you used to know, Chief," Jim went on. "And if you keep talking, keep pushing, asking questions about me in the wrong places, they'll send someone after you. Someone like me. I'm begging you, Chief. Leave it alone."
Blair pushed himself away from the pillar, and moved round to stand in front of Jim. The angle of the moonlight illuminated Ellison's face clearly now for the first time, lending his expressionless features the appearance of alabaster, if one didn't see the raw, living pain in his eyes. Blair raised a hand, and with infinite gentleness cupped Jim's cheek. "Then you do it, Jim," he said quietly. "You kill me. Do it now. Because I will never give up on you, for as long as I live."
Silently Jim's eyes overflowed, his jealously hoarded control spent. And his heart aching for his friend's pain as the silent tears tickled over his hand, Blair wondered how long it had been since anyone had touched Jim with compassion.
After a moment, Jim's own palm lifted to cover the strong hand on his cheek, and gently, he pulled Blair's hand away. Blair's fingers were squeezed in an almost painful grip, then let go. Jim took a couple of deep breaths, then he looked pointedly at Blair. "Get dressed. Pack," he ordered curtly, having obviously come to a decision. "A change of clothes, nothing more."
Blair nodded, then moved to comply immediately. "Where are we going?" he called down from the bedroom, as he rapidly finished emptying clothes into a duffle.
Jim was back in control now; his tone flat, emotionless, as Blair bounded back down the stairs. "Don't ask. Don't ever ask about names or places."
"Okay." Then, as he reached for his coat, Blair added, a little uncertainly, "I'll be with you, though?"
Jim reached out to Blair, and as if drawn in by an unbreakable thread, Blair came to him. Jim placed both hands on Blair's shoulders, and looked at him earnestly. "For as long as I live," he vowed, "I will keep you with me and protect you." One hand rose, touched Sandburg's cheek gently. "But accept that it might not be that long."
Gazing into his friend's eyes, his sentinel's eyes, Blair smiled, feeling more at peace than he had for an eternity. "Whither thou goest, man."
They looked intently at each other for an endless moment. Then, without another word, they both turned away, moving in perfect synchronization. And as the door of the loft closed behind them for the very last time, Blair didn't once look back.
The man walked to the door of the tiny house and looked down at the small girl who stood at the doorway, excitedly shifting from foot to foot. The house was isolated, set away from the village on a high promontory, and she'd had a long walk. Her arms were filled with fruit, and even without enhanced senses he could smell the rich fragrance of ripe mangoes, guavas, pineapple and zapote.
"Que usted tiene, Mercedes?"
She grinned, even white teeth flashing against her smooth dark skin, and shoved the food into his arms and then skipped away to her own home.
"De a su madre mis gracias mas profundas!" he called after her and shook his head.
It had made him uncomfortable at first, these small gifts from the families of his students. The town was not wealthy and many of the people made only enough to get by, to feed their own families, yet they always shared what they had with him. Eventually he'd realized it was their way of making him theirs, of bringing the gringo who taught their children into their small tribe.
He carried the fruit into the small kitchen and dumped it into the sink, deciding to make fruit salsa. A quick glance out of the window, down to the harbor, showed that the two big fishing boats were in, and the swarm of people and trucks meant it had been a good catch. He checked the simmering rice and beans, and crossed his fingers for some fresh tuna to make fish tacos.
He felt, rather than heard, his partner arrive home. The house just seemed to be more, more alive, more real, more home. Before he could greet his partner he knew that the nightly ritual had to be performed, and he waited in silence as he watched the older man prowl the perimeter of the grounds and then each room of the house.
The years had weathered into his partner, but he still felt his heart beat faster watching the long lean form, still powerful, move with fluid grace. The short hair and beard were grizzled with gray, lines cut deeply into his skin from years of constant watchfulness and between his cool blue glare and the perpetual scowl on his face, the villagers had called him el viejo demonio palido - the old pale demon - when they'd first arrived. But the villagers had quickly come to see that he was an honest and honorable man and now slots on his fishing boat were much-envied jobs in the village.
Finally the ritual was complete, the house and grounds deemed secure, and his partner came into the kitchen, sniffing appreciatively. Silently he held up his offering, a beautiful small tuna, flashing silver even in the dim light of the kitchen. He nodded and his partner set to work on the fish.
He watched his partner wield his sharp knife with a skill that made him shiver. The fish was quickly gutted and sliced into strips with short, economical motions and he tried not to think about the number of times this had been done to other - human - types of prey. His partner was and always would be a dangerous man, but he knew the only thing that kept them still alive were those skills and those instincts, and he was not foolish enough to think that this interlude would last forever. They'd escaped from the regard of some very powerful and vindictive men who had the resources to find them - eventually. Until then, he was content - more than content - to live in this tiny coastal town as a respected teacher of children and as the partner to this man, the one that he loved enough to walk away from any semblance of a normal life for.
Using his own small knife, he sliced open a lime and squeezed it over the fish, breathing in the clean tang of sweet-sour citrus. These were the moments he lived for now, the simple togetherness, and he was thankful to have these moments to balance out the dark, ugly times that had come before and would probably return again.
He winced as the citrus stung a small cut and stuck his finger in his mouth.
His partner gently pulled his hand away and up to his own mouth, licking his fingers carefully, delicately, his tongue flicking into the vee between his fingers.
With a low moan his head fell back and he reached for his partner, loving the feel of the short cropped hair and the silky sharp rasp of the short beard under his own fingers. "Oh, god, Jim...," he whispered, forgetting, as he always did at times like these, to stick to the script and use the names they lived under now.
An answering low moan made him pull his hand away from his partner's mouth and grip his head as he kissed him, kissed him hard with need and longing and possession. These moments were rare and precious and they never wasted them.
Dinner was forgotten in the moment.