After spending most of the day at his office, returning artifacts and books, culling documents and files, and removing all evidence of his tenancy, Blair was exhausted by the time he lugged up the last box from his car and let himself into the loft. Giving the door a nudge with his heel to swing it closed, he continued straight to his room where he carefully set the heavy box on the floor beside the others. Straightening, he looked resignedly at the three cartons containing the detritus of his academic career. Not much to show for nearly half his life – but then, education, the pursuit of knowledge and the honing of abilities to research, analyze, synthesize and write didn’t fit well into boxes.
Turning his back on them, he vaguely wondered where his mother was. He shrugged off his jacket as he returned to the main living area, and noticed the door was still slightly open. After slinging his coat over a hook, he was just reaching to push it closed, when there was a solid knock that sent it swinging open. Figuring it was one or more of the many journalists who had been dogging his steps the last few days, and scowling irritably, he shoved the door hard to slam it shut.
Only to have it bang on a well-shod foot stuck just inside the frame and bounce back.
“Give it rest, already!” he snapped, yanking it fully open to firmly tell the reporter to get lost. “I have no com –”
Blair broke off and gaped with something akin to horror at the sight of the uniform. Having no clue as to why someone in the military would be darkening their door – but thinking this couldn’t be good – Blair’s gaze narrowed warily as he fought back insipient panic. After everything that had gone wrong in the past two weeks, a military investigation into the existence of a possible sentinel wasn’t inconceivable, but surely his press conference would have diffused such interest.
Dear God, the last thing they needed was some militaristic Dr. Frankenstein wanting to whisk Jim into a lab to figure out what made him tick. The very idea spiked such atavistic fear that Blair’s stomach cramped, and he thought he might vomit.
But the guy just stood there, looking at him with a slight smile and an air of anticipation. Breathlessly grasping at straws, thinking – hoping – the guy might be a former colleague of Jim’s who had no more potentially dangerous agenda than looking up an old friend, Blair hastened to apologize. “Sorry, I thought you were someone else.”
“Mr. Sandburg? I’m Colonel Maybourne from the NID, the National Intelligence Department,” the officer stated congenially. “May we come in?”
“We?” Blair echoed uncertainly, feeling uncomfortably like an idiot and frowning in confusion as he looked past the impeccably groomed man at what appeared to be an empty hall.
Maybourne shifted his stance and, shouldering forward enough to make Blair back up a step, gestured to someone just beyond Blair’s view. When two other men appeared – one also in uniform and the other in nondescript clothing and cuffed – Blair’s eyes widened with appalled recognition and a shiver of terrified foreboding goose-pimpled his skin.
“Brackett!” he gasped, and looked wildly at Maybourne. The colonel was too close, standing less than an arm’s-length away. There was no chance of running. Shit. Shit. This was bad. “What’s going on here?” Blair demanded, trying for a tone of outrage but knowing he just sounded scared.
“Maybe we could discuss this inside? Unless you want your neighbors …?” Maybourne suggested with casual and congenial aplomb that seemed hideously surreal in the circumstances.
Blair’s gaze narrowed at the repulsively oily pleasantness of Maybourne’s tone and small smile that was distinctly at odds with the threatening menace in the man’s cold eyes. Not good. So not good. In fact, very bad.
His breath tight in his chest, his gaze flashing between Maybourne and Brackett, Blair briefly considered ordering the Colonel to go to hell and take Brackett with him. But … Brackett knew too much. If this Colonel believed the rogue agent, Jim could be in a world of trouble. Swallowing hard, he decided he had no choice but to find out what Maybourne wanted and try to convince him that, whatever it was, he was barking up the wrong tree. “Yeah, yeah, okay,” he muttered reluctantly, more than half certain he was making a mistake even as he stepped back to allow them all into the loft.
As the burly sergeant escorted his prisoner into the apartment, Brackett gave Blair a cocky grin and winked. “Been a while, Sandburg. Hear things haven’t been going so great for you. Ah, well, you know what they say. One man’s bad luck is another’s good fortune.”
Blair tightened his jaw and his gaze flashed to Maybourne. “So, talk.”
Maybourne took off his cap and settled it under his arm. “Brackett told me a story some time ago, but I didn’t give it – or him – much credence. However, recently, his far-fetched claims became a lot more, uh, shall we say, believable?”
“Brackett is a con man,” Blair grated as he crossed his arms, ignoring the prisoner’s exaggerated look of being sorely wounded by his assessment. “He’d say anything he thought was to his advantage. You can’t trust him.”
“Oh, I don’t,” Maybourne said loftily and chuckled. “But, you have to admit, after all the media hype the last little while, his claim of knowing a ‘sentinel’ is more intriguing than it was.”
“I explained all that,” Blair insisted with an exasperated gesture. “The press conference –”
“Tsk, tsk, Sandburg,” Lee Brackett intervened with an insouciant grin, shaking his head. “Telling lies like that on national television? But kinda touching really, the guide falling on his sword to protect his sentinel. Hope Jimmy appreciates you.”
Blair glared at Brackett and, his hands fisting, he fought the sick fear that twisted in his gut. “I want him out of here,” he growled to Maybourne, his glance also taking in the sergeant holding tight to Brackett’s arm. “The man’s a raving lunatic and a dangerous felon. He should be locked up. I want you all to leave now.”
“Oh, let’s not be so hasty,” Maybourne replied dryly. With an appreciative glance of approval around the loft, he moved into the living room. “Nice apartment you have here. I understand you share the place with Detective Ellison – the, uh, guy you say you told lies about in your paper.” Making himself comfortable, he sat down on the loveseat, tossed his cap down beside him, and waved the sergeant and Brackett to the sofa. Looking up at Blair, he drawled, “At Lee’s insistence, I’ve done some of my own research. I have to say that I find his assertions … compelling. Why don’t you sit down and we’ll have a chat?”
“I don’t want to talk you,” Blair retorted. “Get out.”
Maybourne studied his fingernails. “If I leave here unsatisfied, I’ll go directly to the local media and advise them that I have reason to believe that Detective Ellison is, in fact, a ‘sentinel’. Is that what you want?” When his gaze lifted to Blair’s, the colonel’s eyes were flat and hard. “Seems to me you went to great lengths to send the reporters haring off in another direction. Be a shame to blow it now.”
Blair held his gaze for a long moment as he debated whether or not to call the man’s bluff. Finally, he closed the door and moved across the floor to sit in the chair by the fireplace. “What do you want?”
“I want you,” Maybourne replied sweetly. Spreading his hands as if making a generous offer, he added, “If you give me what I want, we’ll leave the detective’s secret buried.”
“Me? What would you want with me?” Blair asked incredulously, not entirely feigning his surprise as he glanced from the colonel to Brackett and back. Though he was doing his best to appear reasonably calm, he felt trapped, as if the walls were closing in on him and the air was being sucked out of the room. “And,” he hastened to add, “I gotta tell you, man, you’re absolutely wrong about Jim. Brackett is spinning a web of lies here. There is no secret.”
“Come, come, Blair – may I call you, Blair?” the colonel asked facetiously as he draped an arm over the back of the loveseat. “By all accounts, you’re a very bright boy, so let’s not dance around. The fact is I’m here to do you a favour. After that press conference, you must be at loose ends, not sure what to do with your life now. But I’m thinking that if you could help one sentinel gain control, you could help others. So, the good news is that I’m offering you a job.”
“A job?” Blair squeaked, startled. A chill rippled over his skin and he crossed his arms to hide the tremble in his hands. “Based on Brackett’s claims? You’ve got to be out of your mind.” He snorted and shook his head. “I made up all that stuff about sentinels.” When Maybourne just stared at him, not unlike a snake contemplating a mouse he intended to swallow whole, Blair blustered, “Is that it?”
“Well, not quite,” Maybourne admitted, once again studying his nails.
“Look, it’s been a long day and I’m tired. Just spit it out,” Blair said, trying for bravado but very afraid he still just sounded scared stiff.
Maybourne pinned him with a direct gaze. “You, perhaps more than anyone else, can appreciate that a sentinel project would be highly classified. No one – and I mean, no one – can know we’ve been here. And, if you accept my offer, no one can know you have answered your government’s call for assistance.”
“Like I’d accept a job from you,” Blair retorted irritably but the colonel’s reptilian stare and eerily benign smile unnerved him.
Once again, Blair glanced at Brackett, who was slouching comfortably and giving him a complacent grin reminiscent of the Cheshire Cat. “Don’t underestimate him, Sandburg. Maybourne is very sharp – and utterly ruthless,” Lee advised with a conspiratorial wink. “He knows you’re the interesting one. What’s one sentinel?” he continued rhetorically with a negligent shrug. “But a squad of them? A platoon? A regiment? Now, that’s worth whatever it takes. Face it, kid. Uncle Sam wants you – and Uncle doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
Not bothering to hide his aversion for the criminal, Blair’s eyes narrowed and, with an effort, he bit back any retort. Returning his scrutiny to Maybourne and shaking his head, he queried impatiently, “Why is Brackett here?”
Before the colonel could answer, Lee leaned forward, his cuffed hands dangling between his knees. “Who do you think told them the ‘guide’ was the key, huh? Remember I saw the two of you in action. A sentinel isn’t much good without a guide, is he? You coach Ellison and help him maximize the use of his senses, keep him from … what did you call it? Zoning? You keep him focused. If the military wants to train sentinels, they need someone who knows what he’s doing. I figure you’re just about the only guy in the world who has the experience for that job.”
“When the story about Ellison first broke, Brackett had a guard call me – we’ve, uh, worked together in the past – and told me that, as good as the story was, he could offer me better. For a consideration, of course,” Maybourne added. “If it turns out that he’s right, that you are this ‘guide’ as he claims, then he goes free.”
Aghast, Blair exclaimed, “You’d turn him loose? You’ve got to be kidding! This guy … this guy can’t be trusted. He’s ruthless. He’ll do or say anything for a buck, let alone a ‘get out of jail free’ card!”
Maybourne shrugged. “Brackett isn’t your concern.”
“He’s a pathological liar,” Blair asserted, deciding his only hope was to bluff his way out by hanging his stand on Brackett’s completely amoral propensity for lying. “I don’t have any idea about what he’s talking about. Guide? He’s jerking you around. I made up a bunch of bullshit about Ellison, that’s it, that’s all.”
“Uh huh,” Maybourne grunted and probed his cheek with his tongue as he studied Blair. Silence fell over the loft and stretched until Blair wanted to scream, but he did his best to sustain a sullen expression. The colonel sniffed and scratched his chin. “Why did you decide to come clean in that press conference?” he asked, sounding almost indifferent.
“The assassin, Klaus Zeller, nearly killed two of my best friends because the media was getting in the way of Jim doing his job.” Blair replied in exasperation and then sighed, trying to sound as if he was infinitely tired of the whole discussion. Raking back his hair, he sank back against the chair. “My PhD wasn’t worth that.” His gaze dropping away, he shrugged lackadaisically, doing his best to convey ‘you win some, you lose some’.
“Told you he was a noble little bastard,” Lee gloated cheerfully. “Tell me, ‘Chief’, does Jimmy know how much you love him? Or even after you crucified yourself for him, does the stupid bastard still take you for granted?” Blair’s eyes snapped up and the cold threat in them made Brackett laugh. “Down, boy,” he chuckled. “You’re not good enough to take me out.”
His jaw tightening, Blair looked away, toward the balcony windows. It wasn’t working. Maybourne wasn’t buying his story but, still, he had to brazen it out. “So now what?” he asked, sounding bored. “Brackett goes back to his cell and you leave me the hell alone?” Turning his gaze to Maybourne, he asserted, “‘Cause you’re wasting your time here.”
With a tight shake of his head, the colonel replied, “No, I don’t think I am. I’ve looked at Ellison’s service record and the reports of his debriefing when he was brought back from Peru. I’ve also examined his history as a cop. He was always good – but in the past better than three years, since you joined up with him, he’s been downright awesome. He’s definitely got an edge. The only question for me is your part in all this.” He paused and, leaning forward, one arm braced on his knee, he again leveled his cold eyes at Blair. “I’m not buying your fraud story, kid. So let me lay it out for you. You either agree to come when I call, no questions, no delays and no one knowing where you’re going, or I’ll feed Ellison to the media for breakfast, maybe add a few tidbits like this, uh, zoning thing. I guess that would kinda leave him vulnerable, huh? Wouldn’t want the wrong sort to learn about that little weakness. Your call. What’s it gonna be, sport?”
Blair tried to draw a deep breath, but his chest was too tight and he shuddered. Licking dry lips, his gaze flicked around the loft, desperately seeking a way out. For now, the media, everyone at Rainier and downtown – everyone but this guy – was buying his press conference. But if the military stirred up more attention, if the media really started looking into Jim’s background … and it wasn’t just the media. As annoying as they were, now that Zeller was no longer a threat, they were just pests to be endured. But what if the criminal element started to believe it? Jim’s life could be endangered. He couldn’t, just couldn’t risk that. There had to be a way to stop this nightmare. He stared at Maybourne, wondering if the man would go through with his threat … and all he could see was ruthless intent. The bastard would do it. He’d put Jim’s life at risk just to get what he wanted.
But, Jesus – this guy was talking about selling his soul to the military machine.
Nausea curdled in his gut. This couldn’t be happening. There had to be a way out. It was just Brackett’s word against his, right? And even Maybourne conceded the rogue agent couldn’t be trusted. If he could just get Maybourne to believe that he was almost equally immoral in having made use of his friendship with Jim for fraudulent purposes ….
“Okay,” he brazened with a shrug of feigned indifference and compliance. “Jim sure in hell doesn’t need a whole bunch more grief in his life. I’ve caused him enough trouble already with all the lies I told. Suppose I agree to be this so-called guide?” he offered with a slow, supercilious smile. “God knows, you’re absolutely right that I could use a job right now, even if it is all a bunch of crap. What do you mean, ‘when you’re ready’? And, how long are we talking here? Do I get a formal contract for a minimum period of servitude? I don’t actually have to enlist, right? Because it won’t take long for you to find out this is all a bunch of crap. You’ll send me a bunch of wannabe sentinels and we’ll get absolutely nowhere, because there are no such things as sentinels and guides. But I hardly think it’s fair if I uproot everything here and then get sent packing when you realize it’s all a colossal waste of time.”
“Oh, no, that wouldn’t do at all,” Maybourne rejoined, pursing his lips and shaking his head. “But I gotta give you marks for sticking to your story that it was all a scam. I respect loyalty, I really do. This Ellison must be something really special for you to trash your whole life for him. But give it a rest, kid. You’re between a rock and a hard place. Either you come on board and train the service men and women I send to you, or I’ll do everything in my power to destroy your Detective Ellison.”
Maybourne’s relentlessness was driving him crazy. Too agitated to remain still, Blair jumped to his feet and began to pace, his hands dancing in the air to underscore his protest of the absurdity of it all. “This is really nuts, you know that?” he challenged hotly. “You’re believing this … this psychopath and threatening to ruin a good man’s career – for what? You can’t seriously believe there are any such things as sentinels or, or guides!”
“What I don’t believe is that a man would toss away his life’s work, career and reputation just because his buddy was having some trouble with the media. Especially not a man who was committing fraud and using said buddy in the first place. That kind of man would have taken the money and run,” Maybourne replied complacently. “Blair, I didn’t believe any of what Brackett said until that press conference. But when I watched you at that podium, I knew my old friend Lee was telling me the truth.” He scratched behind his ear and cocked a brow. “Time’s up. You in or not?”
Blair froze in shock. My press conference convinced this guy? Devastated by the futility of it all, he had to stifle the urge to moan. Panting shallowly, unable to get enough air, Blair stared at Maybourne. God, this really was a nightmare. A fucking nightmare. Either he capitulated or Jim ….
Feeling dazed, overwhelmed, Blair scrubbed his face and turned in a slow circle, wishing so badly that he could see some way out. But Maybourne had his number. He couldn’t risk Jim’s life. That was what the damned press conference had been about in the first place. Killing the story dead before … before it got any more dangerous. He was trapped. “I can’t believe this is happening,” he muttered with a crushing sense of abject despair. He took a deep breath to center himself and turned to face the colonel. “Okay, if I do agree to this insanity, what happens next?”
Smiling benignly, Maybourne relaxed. “It’s gonna take me some time to round up the first batch of possible sentinels but I’ve figured out a place to start. You’d be surprised how many come back from missions complaining of all kinds of somatic problems: the light’s too bright, their clothing drives them crazy, sounds are too loud – you get the picture. Even if they’re not full-fledged sentinels, their heightened senses, if trained, could give us an edge. In the meantime, I want you to work up the parameters for what you require in a training and residential facility.” He pulled a card from his pocket and tossed it to Blair, who caught it awkwardly. “Send me the information at that email address in the next day or so. When I’ve got twenty or so candidates – enough to get started with – and a training facility lined up, I’ll call you to report for duty. As for how long? You’ll stay with the program as long as I say so.”
Blair’s head jerked up. Oh, God. The man was talking bondage for life. How could he do this? How could he just vanish off the face of the earth? “You can’t be serious!” he stormed. “You’re talking slavery! Haven’t you heard? That’s illegal. You can’t just waltz in here and coerce a citizen to –”
“I have responsibilities to ensure the security of three hundred and fifty million people,” Maybourne cut in smoothly, apparently unimpressed with his protestations. “Accordingly, I’m guided by the good of the many, not the one.” With a smirk, he added, “You’re over-reacting to the situation. I’m offering a career position at a very good salary – after that press conference, I doubt you’ll get any other offer as good. And it’s your choice whether you accept the offer or not. That’s hardly ‘slavery’. There’ll be no ball and chain around your leg.”
“I’m not prepared to sign my life away. Get out,” he bluffed.
Maybourne glanced at his watch. Nodding, he looked up with a bright smile. “Time enough to make the evening news.” Gesturing toward the phone on the wall behind him, he asked solicitously, “Did you want to call Detective Ellison to give him a heads-up? He’s in the hospital, isn’t he? Wounded in the performance of his duties? He might want to alert the staff that a bevy of reporters will be showing up.” He sniffed and appeared to give the matter some thought. “On the other hand, I hate to give up on this project – it has such great potential. I suppose I could simply have him called back into the service of his country. Brackett says the guide is more useful when it comes to training sentinels, but I really don’t see why a sentinel can’t be just as effective in helping others to maximize their potential. Do you?”
“You’re a real bastard, you know that?” Blair charged furiously.
“So I’ve been told,” Maybourne agreed. “Last chance, Blair. You sure you don’t want to reconsider your refusal to volunteer your services for the good of the nation?”
Though Blair glared stonily at the colonel, he knew he didn’t really have a choice. This guy held all the power – and it was Jim’s life that was at risk if the secret came out. Or Jim’s future if they hauled him back into uniform. Blair swallowed heavily against the bile that burned the back of his throat and bowed his head. He couldn’t do it. Couldn’t do that to Jim.
Helplessly, he looked around the loft, and at the sergeant who wouldn’t meet his gaze. “Okay, okay. You win,” he rasped in defeat. “What now? You have some oath of secrecy for me to sign?”
“Oh, given the implications for Ellison if you fail to fulfill your end of the bargain, I think I can trust you to keep our deal confidential until I call – at which point, so far as anyone here is concerned, you’ll simply disappear.”
Disappear? Disappear how, exactly? Maybourne kept saying that, as if it was something easy to do. But that wouldn’t work. Jim wouldn’t quit. He’d keep looking and if he ever guessed ….
Numb, feeling icily cold with hopeless despair, Blair rubbed his arms and told himself to get a grip. If this was going to work, he needed to think, needed to get with the program. Frowning, he shook his head. “I can’t just disappear. Not without someone looking for me.”
“Then we’ll fake your death. Too easy,” Maybourne returned, waving away the problem. Though Blair gaped at him in disbelief, he continued on breezily, “Probably kinder, when you think about it, for those you leave behind. They won’t always be wondering and worrying about where you are or what’s happened to you. You can leave those arrangements to me.”
“Yeah, I bet I can.” Huffing a bitter, hollow laugh, Blair shook his head despairingly. “For the rest of my life, you want me to teach people how to become better killing machines.”
“Oh, come on,” Maybourne objected, sounding sincerely offended. “I’m offering you a chance to serve your country. Giving our men and women an edge against the enemy makes you a hero in my book.”
“Hero? You would see it that way, even if you have to make me a virtual slave to do it.” Regarding the Colonel balefully, Blair tried to think of a way out. There hadto be a way out. He couldn’t conceive of spending his life as some cog in the military machine. Maybe he could disappear before Maybourne called. He could just tell Jim that he had to go, had to start life again somewhere else. Or … or maybe he should just tell Jim about this. Hell, maybe Jim would help him fake his death and then at least … but would Jim go for that? No. No. That wouldn’t work. Jim would want to confront this bastard and take his chances with the media – or the summary order to report back for duty. No. He couldn’t ever tell Jim about this. He’d just have to disappear on his own.
As if reading his mind, Maybourne gave him a shark-like smile. “Remember, kid, I hold all the cards. You fail to report, and I can still drop a dime to the media about your buddy, Ellison. I’m sure Lee, here, could give me lots of information that would be fascinating to them and the, uh, public. Either that or I just pull him in. It’s my call, not yours. I hope you won’t force my hand.”
Beaten, Blair sagged and swiped a hand across his eyes. He was so, so screwed.
But when Brackett laughed triumphantly and held his wrists toward the sergeant to have his cuffs removed, Blair stiffened angrily. “One condition,” he snapped, his gaze flashing to Maybourne. “If I do this, you have to keep him locked up. Otherwise, do your worst. Nobody can prove Jim is a sentinel and I’ll stick to my story that I lied about him. And, and if you try to pull Jim in, hell, I’ll go to the media myself and blow everything wide open. Might be a hassle for a while, but … but no way is avoiding future, possible risks worth letting Brackett go free. Jim would never forgive me for that even if I could forgive myself.”
Maybourne narrowed his eyes and hesitated, but didn’t give any indication of which way he was prepared to jump.
When the silence stretched, Brackett tensed, as if sensing his deal was going sour. “Come on!” Lee exclaimed furiously, rounding on Maybourne. “You’re not gonna let this sneaky little bastard ruin everything, are you? We had a deal!”
Maybourne pursed his lips, but still didn’t say anything.
God, bad enough to lose his own future, he could not compound it all by being party to turning Brackett loose on the world. So Blair forged on, pushing hard, “There’s no point in you trying to drag Jim back into the service to do this instead of me. Especially not if I’m prepared to kick up a stink about it and, believe me, I would. You don’t need the bad press any more than we do. Brackett was right – it’s the guide who understands how all this stuff works. The sentinel … the sentinel is too busy using the senses to analyze why they work or how to make them work better. So, yeah, it’s me you need. But I will not cooperate if you let this psychopath loose. Jim … Jim wouldn’t ever want that. Believe me, he’d rather take his chances with the media and with you. I know that. So, so you either keep Brackett locked up or no deal. Jim and I will just have to figure out how to cope with the fallout.”
“How do I know you won’t pull that anyway?” Maybourne hedged, ignoring the enraged ex-CIA agent. When Blair didn’t answer immediately, he went on, “I know. How’s this. Since your point is that Ellison is useless to me anyway, I’ll keep Brackett locked up – but if you two-time me, I’ll let him go, providing he agrees to kill Ellison before he disappears.”
Oh God, oh God, he’d just allowed Maybourne to manipulate him and pull him in deeper. Shit! Shit! “You wouldn’t do that,” Blair gabbled with harsh desperation, unable to hide his trepidation at the idea of Brackett being turned loose to kill Jim. “You don’t know if I’m lying to protect him or not. You don’t know for sure if all this ‘guide’ stuff is crap or not. You won’t kill Jim at least until you’re sure he isn’t of some use in your precious program.”
“You willing to bet his life on that?” Maybourne challenged.
“Screw me over on this, Sandburg, and I promise you, I’ll find a way to escape and I’ll go after your precious Naomi,” Lee cut in coldly. When Blair gaped at him in sick horror, he quickly added with careless insouciance, “Or you could just retract your little caveat and we can part friends.”
Maybourne interjected before Blair could answer, “Oh, Blair’s not going to renege on the deal now, are you, Blair?” Smirking he stood and pulled on his cap, settling it at a rakish angle. “Good call, kid. I really didn’t want to let this creep loose. Glad you gave me the excuse to toss him back inside and throw away the key.” He looked at the sergeant and jerked his head toward the door.
“You can’t do this!” Brackett yelled wildly when he was pulled to his feet. He dug in his heels, but the sergeant ruthlessly hauled him out of the loft. Over his shoulder, Lee shouted, “You better pray I never get free, Sandburg! I’ll take them both out, and then I’ll come after you!”
The sergeant slammed the door closed behind them, leaving Blair alone with Maybourne. Appalled, Blair realized all too clearly that he’d just made things infinitely worse. What were the odds of Brackett escaping? Terrified, he crossed his arms tightly against the glacial chill that enveloped him and penetrated to his bones. “You can’t ever let him out,” he panted. “Not ever.”
“Behave yourself and everything will be fine,” Maybourne assured him suavely.
Completely cowed, Blair nodded jerkily, but he continued to stare with wretched fear at the closed door, as if Lee could burst back in, or maybe the sergeant, yelling that Lee had gotten away. How had it come to this? How had everything gone so bad so fast? Brackett was brilliant. If he ever managed to escape, and he might. He might ….
His shattered attention was only marginally re-engaged when the colonel said briskly, “It’ll take me a month, maybe two, before I’m ready for you. In the meantime, you just carry on like everything is normal. If you tell anyone about our deal or fail to report, I’ll turn Brackett loose. Understood?”
Still staring blindly at the door, feeling dizzy and disoriented, quaking with boundless fear, Blair nodded numbly. “Yeah. Yeah, I understand.” But something snapped inside and fury ignited with a fierce burst. He wheeled fast and, shouting, “You sick bastard!” he drove his fist toward Maybourne’s face.
The colonel caught his arm and, the next thing he knew, Maybourne had spun him around and was twisting his arm up behind his back, pushing, pushing, until Blair had to grit his teeth to keep from crying out at the blinding agony. And still the colonel pushed, forcing Blair down to his knees. Only then did the pressure ease and the iron grip was released. Thoroughly intimidated, his body hunched, Blair cradled his arm to ease his aching shoulder.
“I’m glad you understand,” Maybourne replied evenly, as if the brief altercation hadn’t happened, and he turned away. Just before he left, he looked back over his shoulder and drawled, “Look on the bright side, kid. You’ll be spending your life doing your Uncle Sam a huge service. Not to mention helping all those sentinels out there be the best they can be.”
When the door clicked close, the shakes overwhelmed him. Blair covered his face and leaned forward, his elbows braced on his knees. Tears scalded his eyes and he moaned and rocked in despair. God, oh God, oh God. His fractured thoughts whirled in chaotic panic. Maybe he should tell Jim. There had to be a way to stop this kind of blackmail. But could he risk that? Could he risk what it could cost Jim? Could he risk Maybourne acting on his threat to sic Brackett after Jim and his mother? Was his life worth risking theirs? Brackett … Brackett could and would kill them before they even knew he was free. Maybourne wasn’t bluffing. That sick sonofabitch would do whatever it took to get what he wanted. Oh, God. Because of him, they could die. If Brackett ever escaped prison, they would die.
His stomach revolted and, gagging, he scrambled to his feet and staggered to the bathroom, barely making it before he started heaving. He retched until there was nothing left in his gut and dry heaves left him gasping. Trembling like a leaf, he splashed cold water on his face and braced himself against the sink as he fought for control.
When he could breathe, even if only raggedly, he stumbled to his room and crawled onto his bed. Curling tightly on his side, fists clenched, tears glazing his eyes, he vehemently and viciously cursed Maybourne and Brackett. And he cursed his mother for interfering with his life and screwing everything up. And then, sobbing for breath, he cursed Jim for being so stubborn and stupid, for believing he was a freak and reacting out of fear and distrust rather than ….
But his epithets died on his lips and, panting for breath, he swallowed the sobs of fury and despair. Rolling onto his back, he lifted his left arm over his face and pressed his eyes closed to blot out the day.
All the anger in the world wasn’t going to change anything.
Much as he might wish he could blame others for the mess he was in, he’d done this to himself.
Of his own free will, he’d taken every step along the path that had led him to this outcome. He’d chosen to search for sentinels, passionately believing in mythology that no one else credited. He’d agreed to keep Jim’s abilities secret because Jim had pointed out that the bad guys could use his senses against him. And, being brutally honest with himself, he had to admit that, initially, he’d liked the idea of keeping everything under wraps to safeguard his research. But, before long, he’d come to understand that it was about a whole lot more than getting a paper written or having some prestigious letters behind his name. Jim’s life was on the line every day and there was no way he ever wanted to add to the risks that already existed in spades. But he’d still written the paper and he’d put Jim’s name in it, which had been unconscionably careless.
As for his mother interfering in his life? He sighed and scrubbed at his face. He’d always indulged Naomi, had never drawn any lines with her because he hadn’t really had to. Normally, she just wasn’t around. He was basically free to live his life as he chose. So she breezed in for a few days, turned life upside down – so what? She’d never meant any harm. But if he’d insisted long ago that she see him as a man and not simply her darling son, then she might have respected his boundaries and none of this would ever have happened.
For all her foibles and maybe even because of them, he loved her. She was his mother and the only constant he’d ever known in his life. Funny, he thought, staring up at the ceiling, I always thought she’d be the one to just disappear from my life. What’s she going to do when I disappear from hers?
His throat thickened and tears again blurred his eyes as the magnitude of Maybourne’s demands hit home. “Oh, God,” he moaned softly and pressed his fist against his lips to hold in the sob that threatened. For all intents and purposes, so far as anyone he loved was concerned, in a matter of months, maybe less, he’d be dead.
And he’d have nothing, absolutely nothing, left of the life he so dearly loved. “Ah, Jim,” he gusted, no longer able to stifle the sob that filled his chest.
…does Jimmy know how much you love him?’
“No, he doesn’t,” Blair whispered brokenly as the tears leaked from his eyes. He thought he’d bought time and another chance with the press conference. And he’d hoped, even if he knew it was in vain, that someday, maybe ….
But, no, Jim didn’t know how he felt.
And now, he never would.
The emotional storm eventually passed, leaving Blair drained, dazed and feeling hollow. He couldn’t just lie there forever. He had to think. Pushing himself to his feet, he stumbled to the bathroom again to splash more water on his face. Avoiding his reflection in the mirror, he winced at the soreness of his shoulder when he lifted his arms to tie back his hair. And then he wandered unsteadily into the living room and sat down. Sightlessly, unaware of time passing, he stared out the windows and tried to wrap his head around the shambles of his life, but his thoughts were slow and sluggish. He felt as if he’d been physically beaten into the ground and yet oddly disassociated from everything, as if nothing was quite real. He had to get a grip. Forcing himself to concentrate, he tried hard to conjure meaning out of the dark and dismal emptiness in his mind.
Sentinels. It was all about sentinels.
For most of his life, all he’d wanted – and had felt driven to do – was to find a sentinel.
He’d found two.
One had murdered him.
And the other … the other ….
Despondently, he wrenched his thoughts away from Jim, and everything Jim meant to him.
Doggedly, he again tried to concentrate, to make some sense of it all, to find some way to make it all … something he could live with.
He’d searched for sentinels, right? Had wanted desperately to find them. Now, well, now he might be working with sentinels for the rest of his life.
He’d hoped, hadn’t he, that his dissertation might help other sentinels to understand what they were?
Even if they weren’t all full-blown sentinels, most, if not all, of the men and women Maybourne would send to him were probably suffering senses that were raging out of control.
The dissertation would never be published, would never help anyone.
Instead, he’d be training other sentinels, who knew how many, personally. That could be a good thing, right? Something useful to do with his life? Worthwhile?
Or would he just be training killers to kill more effectively?
Maybe he should have been more careful about what he’d wished for all these years.
Would they be as crazy as Alex or as selfless as Jim, natural predators or devoted protectors?
Guess he’d find out.
If they were like Jim, it would be a good thing, right? To help them? To teach them skills that might save their lives?
They were soldiers, like Jim had been. Even if they weren’t full-fledged sentinels, Maybourne was probably right about them having some enhanced sensory ability. Most of ‘em had to be pretty special, didn’t they? To dedicate their lives to the protection of the nation?
So, yes, supporting them, as best he could, would be worthy, meaningful work, the kind of work he’d once dreamed of having.
The kind of work he’d had with Jim. Exciting work. Work he’d loved.
Would he ever feel excited about anything again?
Hell, would he ever feel anything at all again? Anything other than this dull, relentless pain? And horror that Brackett might get loose and go after his mother and … and Jim.
They’d think he was dead.
He only had a few weeks left, just a few weeks ….
“Blair, what are you doing sitting in the dark? Blair?”
Naomi’s voice cut through the fog that surrounded him and he blinked, looked around, and saw that daylight had bled into dusk. He felt chilled and a shiver rippled over his skin.
“Blair?” she called again, turning on a lamp as she came into the living room. “Sweetie, are you alright?”
“Uh, yeah,” he mumbled as he sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Guess I fell asleep,” he fabricated to cover his dazed state.
Sitting beside him, she laid a hand on his arm. “Were you trying to meditate?”
His eyes downcast, he nodded slowly. “Guess you could call it that.”
“Blair … I’m worried about you,” she murmured, her voice full of concern. “I’m so sorry about everything.”
A fragile smile ghosted over his lips as he reflected that she had no idea how bad ‘everything’ really was. And she’d soon believe he was dead. Grief suffused him, but he couldn’t give way to it. He swallowed heavily and then took a deep breath. Lifting his head, he shifted toward her and draped his left arm around her shoulders to draw her into a hug. “I’m okay,” he said, and tenderly kissed her brow.
Her arms slipped around him. “Are you? Are you really?”
“Yes, Mom,” he assured her. “It’s been a tough time but ….”
What could he say? What could he possibly say that might have meaning later when she remembered these moments? Feeling too battered to obfuscate credibly, he had no choice but to stick to the truth, and maybe that was enough. “All my dreams have come true,” he told her. “It’s been the most amazing adventure and Jim has become the best friend I’ll ever have. I really don’t care about the doctorate. It’s just a piece of paper. What matters is that … that I was able to help him when he needed it.”
Though it surprised him, laying it out for her with such simple honesty imposed rationality upon his ragged thinking and helped him feel better. Given bad choices, he was still only doing his best to protect Jim … and her. Despite his vain hope for another chance after the press conference, he’d known deep down that he couldn’t stay with Jim, that he’d have to leave. So what difference did it make, really, that Maybourne would be the one to say where he’d ultimately go? And maybe the colonel was right. Maybe it would be … kinder … if they all thought he was dead, rather than forever wonder what had happened to him. And Jim would be okay, right? Jim didn’t really need him anymore. Hadn’t needed him for a long time.
Drawing back a little to look into her eyes, he went on more strongly, “What’s a couple of weeks,” – or even years and years, he thought achingly – “of bad stuff when it’s stacked up against a lifetime of wondrous memories, huh? And I don’t mean just the time I’ve spent with Jim. Mom, you – you gave me the world. You taught me how to open up my mind and to look beyond what most people see to … to the mysteries. I can’t ever thank you enough for all you’ve given me and your belief in me.” Smiling at her gently, he affirmed, “I know that everything you’ve ever done has been out of love. And that’s all that matters. So we’re okay.”
Tears brimmed in her eyes as she cupped his cheek. “I do love you, Blair,” she whispered tremulously.
“I know,” he said firmly as he again drew her close. “And I love you. Always have and always will.”
He felt the dampness of her tears through his shirt and closed his eyes. “Don’t cry. Please don’t cry,” he pleaded, very afraid he was going to lose his tenuous control over his own emotions.
She sniffed and nodded. “What are you going to do? What’s going to happen to you now?”
God, he was so cold, as if he was freezing from the inside out. He drew a shuddering breath and managed a shaky chuckle. “Doesn’t matter,” he insisted as evenly as he could. “Whatever happens, I’m okay, Mom. I’m fine. The future will take care of itself.”
She sniffed again and sighed. “You’d like to keep being Jim’s partner at work, wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah, I would, but I don’t think that’s going to be possible. Too many complications,” he murmured wistfully, his throat tightening with tears he didn’t dare shed. “But … but I know he’ll be fine. He’s got great control now, so I don’t need to worry about him.”
Offering a bright smile, she patted his arm. “Who knows? Maybe something will work out.”
She’d offered the bromide with a forced cheerfulness that seemed bizarre to him, but he understood her need to believe there’d be some miracle, some ‘happily ever after’ solution. He used to believe the same thing. That anything was possible. That, somehow, things would work out.
When he didn’t say anything, she went on, “But, whatever you do, know that all I want is for you to be happy.”
Now that he believed without question, and he tightened his embrace. “I know that, Mom.”
When she sat back to dab at her still moist eyes, he wondered if there was anything more he could say that would help her in the months to come. And then it came to him, how he could maybe make sense of it in a way that would work for her, so that when she looked back on this night, she’d nod sadly but be able to accept his ‘death’ and move on. “You know, there’s something I didn’t tell you.”
When she looked up at him questioningly, he took her hand between his. “About six months ago, I found another person with senses like Jim’s.”
“No, no. She wasn’t a sentinel. Wasn’t someone who invested all she was into protecting others. She was exactly the opposite. She was selfish and cruel and more than a little crazy. She, uh, she thought I was a danger to her and she … she killed me.”
“What?” Naomi gasped, her eyes widening.
“She drowned me in the fountain outside my office at Rainier. Jim and the others, they found me there. And … and, Mom? I really was dead. But even after everyone else had given up, Jim didn’t. Somehow, he brought me back. Can you believe that?” He shook his head with remembered awe and looked away. “It would have been so awful to have everything end like that. So awful. Jim … Jim would have felt so guilty, for not being there to stop her. I’d’ve hated for everything to end that way, for him to feel bad, ‘cause it wasn’t his fault.” He shrugged and again met her eyes. “Jim and I, well, we’d had a big fight. I thought it was all over. Our friendship. Everything. But he came looking for me and he worked a miracle, Mom. And I’m so glad he did. Not just ‘cause I’m alive now but because we’d parted in such anger and … and now, no matter what the future holds, we’re friends again, and that means everything to me.”
“What happened to her? Is she … is she still out there somewhere?” she asked with fearful horror.
“Nah, Jim caught her, and she’ll never be a danger to anyone again,” he reassured her. “So don’t you worry about that.”
“Oh, Blair,” she exclaimed and hugged him fiercely. “I couldn’t bear to lose you!”
“Ah, Mom,” he sighed with a breaking heart, and closed his eyes. “Listen, listen to me. We can never know what will ever happen. That’s why we have to live our fullest every day. You taught me that, and that’s how I’ve always tried to live my life.” He paused and went on slowly, “You know, in some ways, I’m glad the mess happened over the dissertation.”
“How you can say that?” she demanded, drawing back in astonishment.
“Well, for one thing, it’s brought you and me closer than we’ve been in years. And also because, no matter what the future holds, Jim knows now that he can trust me completely. That I’d never willfully do anything to hurt him. And that’s important to me, ‘cause I’m not sure he really knew that before. The two of you are the people I love most. Mom, all I lost was a piece of paper. I have everything that really matters to me right here, right now.”
She sighed and took his hand. “Everything has a purpose, huh?”
He swallowed hard – could he still believe that? But he nodded. “Yeah. I believe that, I really do. And I know you believe that, too.”
She searched his face, his eyes, and then she nodded. “Yes,” she agreed. “Yes, I do. I guess I just forgot that, for a while.”
He cocked a brow and gave her a slow grin. “Well, you’re allowed,” he teased. “I mean, you’re getting older all the time, right? And older people are inclined to be forgetful.”
Laughing, she smacked him playfully. “I am not old!” she objected.
He tried to hold the grin but couldn’t. Studying her soberly, he said, “No, no, you’re not. You, Naomi Sandburg, have the soul of a child, full of wonder and belief in magic. I love that about you, Mom. I try my best to be like you, to never lose that sense of the possible or that awe in the majesty of creation. Our souls come to learn, right? To grow? To revel in the joy of life? And, where we can, to help others? And when it’s time, our souls return to the Universe until the next cycle begins. You taught me all that and I’m grateful you did. I really like the idea that this isn’t all there is. That we can look forward to learning and growing throughout all eternity. It’s a never-ending adventure, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I believe it is,” she replied with a warm smile as she squeezed his hand. “I’m glad you believe that, too.”
Nodding reflectively, he looked out into the gathering darkness and he thought about how those beliefs would sustain him in the months and years ahead. Everything happened for a purpose. Exhaling slowly, he tried to allow the peace of that thought to fill him. “Thanks, Mom,” he said, his voice soft.
They both settled back against the sofa and, entwining her fingers with his, she leaned her head on his shoulder. After a while, she asked, “Did you finish what had to be done today?”
“Uh huh,” he grunted. But, definitely not wanting to talk about his day, he redirected, “What about you? What did you do today?”
“I went to visit Jim and Simon,” she said. “Jim said the doctor signed the forms and he can come home tomorrow. And Simon is doing much better, too. I think he’s pushing it, but he also hopes to get out of the hospital tomorrow. They told me Megan went home this morning.”
“Good. I’m glad everyone is recovering so well. Could’ve been a lot worse.”
“They seemed … worried about you,” she went on. “And surprised, that you hadn’t gone in to see them today. I … I told him that you were clearing out your office. But, maybe after dinner, you’d like to go?”
He shook his head. He didn’t dare get anywhere near Jim until he was in a whole lot better shape than he was now. He might be able to fool his mother but he wouldn’t be able to hide from his friend’s senses and Jim would know something was badly wrong. “Nah, I’m kinda wiped out. I’ll just call him later to see what time I should pick him up in the morning.”
“Blair, I think you and Jim need some time to, I don’t know – reconnect? So, before I went to the hospital, I made my flight arrangements. I’m going back to L.A. tomorrow.”
“You don’t have to go, Mom,” he told her, his need for space and peace warring with the sharp awareness that he’d never see her again. It took all he had to keep his voice steady, to not give way to grief. “Jim and I are fine.”
“I know, sweetie, but I think it’s best.”
He tightened his grip on her hand as he struggled with the knowledge that this was the last evening they’d have together, and she rested her head on his shoulder again. A lump filled his throat, and he had to swallow hard before he replied, “Okay. I’ll … I’ll take you out to the airport.”
“No, that’s alright. I have to go around the same time that you’ll be picking up Jim, so I’ll just take a taxi. I said my good-byes to him this afternoon.”
He sighed but didn’t protest any further. The sorrow that filled him was too great, and he was afraid he’d lose it completely. It was easier to let the silence fall between them again. Tilting his head back against the cushion, he closed his eyes. Though he’d managed to pull himself together to say all he needed to say to her, his thoughts were fragmenting again, spinning away. Maybe it was a good thing she was leaving. He wasn’t sure he could keep up the charade that everything was fine. God, how was he ever going to hide the truth from Jim? For weeks? One day at a time. He could only do it one day at a time.
“You’re exhausted,” she said as she lifted her head. “Tell you what. Why don’t I make something light for dinner? Soup, maybe? And then you can call it an early night. How’s that sound?”
“Sounds like a plan,” he agreed as he straightened, though the thought of food was nauseating. He shoved himself to his feet and offered her a hand up. “While you’re doing that, I’ll give Jim a call.”
Taking a steadying breath, he punched in the number for the hospital and asked for the extension to Jim’s room. “Hey, man, I hear I can break you out of there in the morning.”
“Yeah, and none too soon. I’m going stir-crazy in here.”
“What time would be good?”
“Anytime after ten,” Jim told him.
“That works,” he agreed. Shoving his hair back from his face, he added, “I think I’ll drop by the PD first, turn in my observer badge.”
“Oh, yeah? Okay, sure. Makes sense. So, how’re you doing? Naomi said you were cleaning out your office today.”
For a moment, Blair couldn’t seem to form any words. Jim … Jim hadn’t reacted at all to knowing he was turning in the badge. Like, like he didn’t care. Like it wasn’t important. Treacherous tears stung his eyes. Dammit, get a grip! he ordered himself. What did it matter? Better this way, that Jim didn’t care, right? Not like he’d be hanging around Cascade for long anyway. His heart twisted and then he realized he’d lost the thread of the conversation. Something about the university. Clearing out his office. God, all that seemed a lifetime ago. “Yeah,” he sighed, tired to the bone. “I’m, uh, okay.”
“You don’t sound ‘okay’, Chief. You sound … wrung out.”
“Well, it took most of the day to clear everything out and move stuff that I’m keeping back here. Guess I’m just tired.” Fighting to keep his voice steady, he swallowed. “It was, was a big part of my life for a long time, man. Hard to, you know, walk away from everything.” His voice cracked and he knew he had to get out of the conversation before he lost it. “But, seriously, I’m good with it. No regrets.”
“Okay, Chief, I understand,” Jim replied, sounding sad. Before Blair could say anything, he continued with a more upbeat tone, “Get some rest. I’ll look forward to seeing you tomorrow.”
“Me, too,” Blair affirmed. “‘Night, Jim.”
During their meal, to distract himself from thoughts about the future, he reminisced about some of his happiest memories with Naomi and was achingly pleased to see her sparkle again with laughter.
Later, he lay on the couch and listened to her packing in his room. His fingers curled into fists as he fought the surge of emotion that threatened to swamp him. Staring at the ceiling, he painstakingly built mental walls against all thought, all emotion, until his mind was blank except for the mantra he chanted to himself. There’s always a reason. There’s always a reason.
Though he didn’t think he’d be able to sleep, he finally drifted off a few hours before dawn.
The next morning, carrying her bags, Blair followed Naomi downstairs to the taxi. But when the time came to say ‘good-bye’, he couldn’t force the words past his throat. Instead, he hugged her and held her close. “I love you,” he said huskily. “Stay safe, Mom … and happy. Okay?”
She cupped his face and kissed his cheek. “You, too, sweetie,” she replied with a wide smile. “I’ll see you again soon.”
Unable to do more than nod, feeling utterly bereft, he helped her into the cab and watched as it pulled away. And then, swiping tears from his eyes, he got into his car. He had to keep going, had to do everything that he would have done if Maybourne had never come into his life. That meant moving forward with closure from the PD. He’d told Jim the night before what he planned to do before going to the hospital. Jim hadn’t fought him on it – hadn’t objected at all. And that was just one more ache to layer in with all the rest. Even if Maybourne hadn’t blown his life apart, his time as Jim’s partner was over. And Jim didn’t seem to care. How sad was it, he wondered dully, that that had become a good thing?
Numb with grief and the need to distance himself emotionally from reality, he pulled out of his parking spot and headed downtown. There was just time enough to turn in his observer’s badge before he went to get Jim.
Studying the floor of the elevator, Blair spared himself the risk of seeing contempt in the eyes of all those he encountered on the way to MCU. Nobody spoke to him. Once he was noticed in the elevator, nobody spoke at all, and the silence was deafening.
Exiting the car, he strode swiftly along the hall and into the bullpen. Rhonda was on the phone and didn’t look up as he passed her on his way to Simon’s office. Taggart and Brown appeared to be deep in discussion and he hoped they hadn’t noticed him, either. He’d say good-bye to all them on his way out but, with the excuse of having to hurry to the hospital, he hoped to keep the exchanges brief. He felt too battered to sustain the pretence that everything was fine or to handle awkward conversations. He suspected that Jim’s colleagues in MCU had probably figured out what was truth and what was fiction, even if the majority of the rest of the PD no doubt accepted the press conference at face value. But he didn’t want to be put in the position of tacitly confirming or denying anything. He just wanted to drop off his observer’s badge and leave as quickly as he could.
When he entered the inner office, years of memories assailed him. Slowing as he approached the desk, he could so easily picture Simon sitting there, pouring them coffee or fiddling with an unlit cigar. Instead of silence, in his mind he heard the shouting and anger of the last few weeks and months. But he didn’t want to dwell on those memories, so he pushed his thoughts farther back to a time when they’d all worked well together, when they were more inclined to laugh – and to the rare and treasured moments when Simon had told him he’d made a real difference.
He could see Jim leaning against the window ledge and, as he moved closer to touch the surface, he felt detached, oddly remote, as if he was locked in a dream where nothing was real. Turning, he looked at the table where he’d so often perched, and the chair, where Jim had sat during their discussions with Simon. He’d wanted it all to go on and on, without end. But nothing ever lasted forever. He’d always known that … but, over the years, he’d somehow forgotten the lesson he’d learned so early in life.
Sorrowfully, he lifted the chain over his head and laid his observer badge on the desk. He stood there for a moment, staring at the pass and wishing things had turned out differently. But he couldn’t linger. Jim would be waiting for him.
“Blair? Whatcha doin’ in here?” Joel asked behind him.
Doing his best to swallow his pain, he turned to explain. They were still talking when Simon’s bellow startled him. Looking past Joel, he could scarcely believe his eyes when he saw Simon and Jim crossing the office, Rafe pushing Simon’s wheelchair, Jim leaning on a cane. Megan was there, too, her arm in a sling. What the hell was going on? Henri and Rhonda crowded around them and there were others, too, who hadn’t been in the bullpen a few minutes before. God. He’d hoped to get in and out with no fuss but, instead, he had to face all of them at once, like some kind of torturous gauntlet.
He tried to sound glad to see them. And he was, insofar as being relieved to see his three friends out of the hospital. But when he spoke, he knew his voice betrayed his confusion and fragility. Oh, God, his mother was there, too! She was supposed to be on her way to the airport – what was she doing here? He hugged her and tried to understand, but her words made no sense. She didn’t want to miss this? Miss what? The end of everything that mattered to him? Jim was solemnly telling him that his days as an observer were over. Yeah, right, like he didn’t know that already.
But then Jim threw something at him and, off-balance, he caught it awkwardly.
His confusion grew when he opened the thin black wallet and saw the gold detective’s shield. Anguish lanced through his chest at what might have been. He didn’t understand. Why were they here? He didn’t deserve the badge, he knew that. And he couldn’t hope he ever would, not after the press conference. His bewildered hurt at the expectant looks on their faces only deepened when Simon abruptly growled at him and snatched the badge from his hands.
But then Simon’s words took his breath away. He had to lock his knees to keep from staggering in shock.
Be Jim’s official partner? Were they kidding? No, no, they weren’t cruel people. They wouldn’t tease and torment him like this, would they? He looked around and they all looked so happy, so hopeful. He couldn’t take it in. How could Simon make such an offer? How could anyone in the PD or the DA’s office ever accept him after everything that had happened? But the offer was sincere, he could see that in all their faces.
For a split second, he felt a profound rush of hope and relief. Jim wanted him to stay! He didn’t have to go! He could continue working with Jim!
Then he remembered Maybourne, and despair again suffused him. But he couldn’t let them see that. No one could ever know.
Fake it! he ordered himself, and made a crack about being paid and added that he still wasn’t going to cut his hair. Well, that was the truth. He wouldn’t ever go to the Academy or be a cop.
Jim looked so pleased, like a kid on Christmas morning, and everyone else was cheering and laughing, so he smiled and hoped it looked sincere. Shaky, sure, but they could write that off to the surprise and simply think him overwhelmed. Jim grabbed him to roughhouse playfully, and the others started singing.
He felt as if the world had gone mad. Gasping for breath, he was glad to hide his face against Jim’s chest and to lean into his friend’s grip as he struggled for control.
By the time he pretended to fight his way free of Jim’s embrace, he had his game face firmly in place. He wouldn’t ever carry that badge, but none of them needed to know that. Not when they’d gone out of their way to let him know he was wanted. Fervently hoping no one would see beyond the smile he plastered on his face, he reached out to shake Simon’s hand and thanked him profusely for giving him the chance to join the team permanently. Looking around, he thanked them all for their friendship and support, telling them in all honesty how very much they all meant to him.
His mother hugged him again, hard and fast. Though her smile was a bit brittle around the edges, she appeared determined to be happy for him, and he remembered their conversation the evening before. Seemed he hadn’t been the only one with a hidden agenda at the time – Naomi had to have known last night that this was going to happen. She’d said she only wanted him to be happy, and she said the same thing again. He knew she had to hate the idea that he’d become a cop, but she was there, to cheer him on because she knew how much the chance to keep working with Jim meant to him. That she was trying so hard to support what she knew he most wanted filled him with such poignant love for her that he was almost undone. But then she kissed his cheek and, hurriedly explaining that her cab was waiting, she hastened away before he could think of anything to say. Struck by her bravery and generosity of spirit, he smiled sadly as he watched her go. At least she was carrying away a good memory of him surrounded by his friends and being offered the only job he really wanted. In the midst of the shattered chaos of his life, he was very grateful for that.
The others crowded around him, slapping him on the shoulder and shaking his hand. Megan pulled him into a hug, and he was careful of her shoulder. Simon growled that he supposed some of them should go home to finish recovering from their injuries and that it was high time the rest of them got back to work.
“I’m real glad to know you’ll be staying with us,” Joel said warmly before returning to his duties.
“Thanks, man. I really appreciate that.”
“Classes at the Academy won’t start for six weeks, Blair,” Simon told him with mock gruffness. “So you’ve got some time off. Make the most of it because rookies pull all the holidays.”
“I will,” he replied, managing a small smile. “And thanks again. I don’t know how you pulled this off, but I won’t ever forget it.”
“Vested interest,” Simon said with a wolfish grin. “We’ve spent nearly four years training you – doesn’t make sense to waste all that effort.”
Blair forced a laugh and nodded. Jim gripped his shoulder. “Guess we should be heading home, Chief. I need to get off this leg.”
“Yeah, sure,” he agreed with alacrity, feeling pathetically grateful to have the chance to escape before he fell apart completely. “My car’s in the garage.”
Blair shepherded the wounded out of the bullpen, Rafe again pushing Simon’s chair. Jim had left his carryall by the door, and Blair picked it up on the way by. The elevator ride was far more rowdy and cheerful than the one less than an hour before had been. Though he felt as if his face might crack, Blair kept smiling and joking until Megan, Rafe and Simon got off on the ground floor to take taxis home, while he and Jim continued to the basement.
Jim looped an arm around his shoulders. “Guess we surprised you, huh?”
“Oh, yeah, man. Big time. I never expected anything like this,” he gusted.
“Why wouldn’t you expect it?” Jim demanded, sounding genuinely puzzled. “Surely you didn’t think we’d leave you hanging in the wind?”
“Jim, I’m grateful, I really am. But I have no idea how Simon got this approved – or how it will play out in the rest of the PD,” he babbled, desperate to keep Jim from sensing his despair. “After that press conference, this is the last thing I would have expected. It’s not like you guys owe me anything – and, and ….”
Blair stopped himself. It didn’t matter that he had no credibility or that others on the force would probably resent having him around; that was never going to happen. But, for Jim’s sake, it was best to pretend it would and go on from there. “But it’s great,” he concluded, wishing he could sound as happy as he should be, would have been, if only … if only.
“So you’re okay with it?” Jim asked, studying him, as the elevator doors opened.
“Better, much better, than ‘okay’, man,” he insisted as he hurried ahead to hold open the heavy door for his friend. Again taking refuge in the truth, he stated firmly as he waved Jim into the garage, “All I want is to keep working with you. That’s all I’ve wanted for a long time now.”
Jim’s too-perceptive gaze swept over him, and a small frown puckered his friend’s brow, as if he was picking up on something that confused him. Probably my racing heart – or maybe the scent of fear, Blair thought as they walked toward his car. He helped Jim inside and then tossed the bag in the trunk.
“How’re your dials?” he asked to re-direct Jim’s attention as he slipped in behind the wheel and started up the engine.
Jim’s questioning gaze again flicked over him, but then he sat back and closed his eyes. Before Blair had steered out of the garage and onto the street, some of the lines around Jim’s mouth and eyes began to ease.
“Good, that’s good,” Blair murmured and then asked, “Do you have pain meds with you, or a prescription we should get filled?”
“I took care of that at the hospital before I left,” Jim replied as he absentmindedly massaged his leg. Once again, he scanned Blair with troubled eyes and, as the slight tilt of his head indicated, his hearing as well. “You okay, Chief? You look like you haven’t slept in a month of Sundays.”
“Yeah, well, the last couple weeks haven’t been a cakewalk,” he said with a shrug. “I’m okay. After what just went down? I’m a whole lot better than I was, I can tell you that. I didn’t think there was any way that I could keep working with you, you know?”
“Why the hell not?”
“Ah, come on, Jim,” Blair replied with a quick glance at his friend, “after I trashed my credibility and made claims to being a liar, cheat and fraud on national television, I kinda thought there might be a few problems. You know, with acceptance by other cops who might not think I belong there anymore?”
Belatedly realizing he’d just opened a conversation that he hadn’t wanted to get into and which was pointless anyway, wishing he’d just kept his mouth shut, Blair’s lips thinned and he shook his head. Now Jim would be worrying about stuff that wasn’t an issue. On the other hand, he thought then, apparent concerns about acceptance could be a good cover for any nervousness or uncertainty he was bound to exhibit over the next few weeks. Resolutely, he avoided Jim’s gaze and focused on his driving.
Jim grimaced and, finally looking away to watch the street, he sighed. “Quite a few didn’t think you belonged there for the last four years,” he muttered with a shrug of obvious indifference. “Who cares what anyone else thinks?”
“Are you kidding? Okay, so up until now it never mattered because I wasn’t a cop. But now what they think does matter, because if I’m a cop, they can’t just write me off as a weirdo and ignore me,” Blair replied, deciding to go with the distraction the subterfuge offered. “Only it could be even worse now,” he argued further. “What if they decide a liar and fraud doesn’t belong on the force, huh? Let alone a sweet slot as a detective? What if they drag their heels when we need backup? That could be a major problem, Jim. Anyway, you can see why I was surprised by Simon’s offer. I still don’t understand how he arranged approval to get me into the Academy, let alone fast-track me into a detective slot in MCU.” Blair paused and then figured he may as well go for broke and lay out all the hurdles. “And I’d think the DA will have concerns if I ever have to take the witness stand. Can you imagine the cross-examination by the defense attorneys? Not a pretty picture.”
Jim crossed his arms and his face creased in concern. “You’ve been giving this a lot of thought,” he observed.
“Like I say, I want to be your partner, so yeah, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the possible obstacles,” Blair admitted. It had been about all he’d been able to think about – until Maybourne had barged into his life and made all those worries redundant.
“Simon had to tell the Commissioner and the Chief the truth in order to get the go-ahead,” Jim revealed then. “Maybe he needs to talk to the DA, too.”
“Or maybe we just work things so that you’re the officer of record, at least for a while, like the first year or so, until all this is just old news,” Blair suggested quickly, not wanting any more people than necessary brought into the know, not when there was no point to it. “I’m sorry, Jim, that Simon had to do that. Would’ve been better if we could have kept it all between the three of us.” When Jim didn’t say anything, he went on, “As for the credibility thing with other cops, I guess that’s just a matter of time. They’ll get used to having me around, and if I do a good job, they’ll stop worrying about whether I belong there or not. I’m, uh, more concerned about whether they’ll all start wondering why you and Simon would deign to still have me around after I very publicly admitted to telling such lies about you to further my own interests.”
Jim nodded slowly, but it was clear he was preoccupied. His jaw clenched and his posture tightened, revealing tension and a resistance to whatever he was mulling over. “Maybe I should just come clean and be done with it,” he grated.
“No,” Blair retorted, appalled that, in trying to distract Jim, he might have pushed Jim into doing something disastrous. “Bad, very bad idea, man. The last thing I want is for the bad guys to think they might have an edge if they flash a few bright lights or set off a shrill alarm, or some damned thing. No, no way can you risk saying anything to anybody else. Too many people know already. Even if you’re willing to take such risk, I most assuredly am not. So, no. Let’s just play it out and see how it goes.”
When Jim still looked unconvinced, though Blair hated to use guilt, he cajoled, “Jim, man, if you say anything now, then … then what was the point of what I did, huh? Talk about looking like a class-A idiot, babbling about being a fraud, about lying – for what? Jim, I did what I did in part because it was the right thing to do, the principled thing to do. But mostly I did it for you. To keep you safe. Don’t … don’t make a mockery out of that.”
Jim’s lips thinned, and the muscle in his jaw twitched, but his shoulders slumped in defeat. “Here I thought the major issue would be convincing you to carry a weapon,” he grumbled.
Grateful to know that his friend had thought about that, Blair flashed him a smile as he replied, “Can’t say the idea thrills me much. But it’s not like I haven’t held a gun before or shot one with intent. Hell,” he went on with a small chuckle, “you handed me your weapon to guard Veronica Sarris the first time we worked together.” Sobering, he revealed, “And a few weeks ago, when you were trying to stop Kincaid and his goons from getting away on that sub? I wasn’t shooting over their heads, Jim. I may not have hit anyone, which just goes to prove that I need training, but … I was aiming at them.”
“I didn’t know that,” Jim said quietly, as he turned to study Blair.
“Yeah, well, they would have killed you and the rest of us if we hadn’t’ve stopped them,” Blair muttered. “Sure, I prefer peaceful solutions; I know you do, too. But, over the years, I’ve come to understand that there are times when force is necessary. Sometimes, these guys just don’t leave any other choice.”
Jim’s gaze dropped away and, chewing on his lip, he lapsed into silence for the rest of the drive. Blair cast him sidelong looks and regretted having laid it on so thick. Sure, he wanted to distract Jim, give him a reason for the anxiety or whatever else Blair knew he was likely to let slip in the next several weeks, but he hadn’t wanted to so completely chase away the happiness he’d seen on Jim’s face when he’d pretended to accept the offer they were making. God, this was hard. So hard.
When they got home, Blair parked in front of the building and turned to face Jim. “I’m sorry, man,” he said. “I didn’t mean to bring up all that shit about the fact that what you and Simon arranged isn’t, uh, perfect. Sure there’ll be some stuff to deal with but … but in the larger scheme of things, that’s no big deal. I’m just really glad to know that you want me to keep working with you. The rest is just noise. Seriously, there’s nothing for you to worry about here, okay?”
His gaze narrow, Jim searched his eyes. But then he turned away without saying anything and popped the door open.
“Hold on, I’ll give you a hand,” Blair urged as he got out, retrieved Jim’s bag and then hastened around to help his friend, who was determinedly trying to extricate himself from the low vehicle. “Damn it, Jim – you’re going to rip out your stitches!” He helped his friend ease his injured leg out of the car and, getting a solid grip under Jim’s arm, levered him upright. When Jim hissed at the pain as he stood, Blair slid closer and put an arm around his waist. “Lean on me,” he offered quietly.
Jim nodded grudgingly and looped an arm around his shoulders. Slowly, they made their way inside and both huffed sighs of relief to see the recalcitrant elevator was working for once.
When they entered the apartment, Blair helped Jim out of his coat before shrugging off his own. But when he moved to assist Jim to the couch, Ellison waved him off. “I can manage,” he insisted.
“Okay, fine,” Blair agreed, lifting his hands as he backed off. “You want something to drink?”
“Yeah, coffee’d be good.”
“You got it,” he said as he headed into the kitchen. When Jim hobbled along in his wake, he looked back over his shoulder. “I can handle it, man. Go, sit, take a load off that leg.”
“In a minute, Chief,” Jim replied, sounding uncertain.
Which piqued Blair’s attention. “Okay, out with it,” he ordered as he filled the coffee pot. “You’ve been chewing on something for the past fifteen minutes or so. What’s bothering you?”
When Jim didn’t answer, Blair glanced at him as he shifted to fill the coffeemaker. Jim had come up behind him and, leaning against the island, he was studying the floor.
“Look, if it’s about what I said in the car, about credibility and all that stuff, I told you not to worry about it,” Blair said firmly as he poured the water and then reached into the cupboard for the coffee. “We’ll work it out.”
“No, no, it’s not that – but, yeah, maybe we need to talk about that, too,” Jim replied, and the uncertainty had given way to awkwardness. “I just … there’s something I should have told you, something you should know.”
Puzzled, Blair paused in the spooning of coffee into the filter. “Uh huh,” he encouraged as he looked at Jim – and froze at the helpless, lost look on his friend’s face. Hastily setting down the coffee bag and the spoon, he turned to grip Jim’s arm. “Geez, how bad can it be? Are you okay? Is the pain that bad? Would you spit it out, already? You’re beginning to scare me here.”
Lifting a hand, Jim shook his head. “No, I’m fine. It’s just that this isn’t easy to say. I’m not sure how you’ll take it but, but you need to know. Might change your decision about accepting the badge. Chief, Blair – I want you to be my partner.”
Blair blinked and, tilting his head a little, he squinted at Jim. “Uh … I think I got that part. When Simon offered me the job? Am I missing something? You don’t think I accepted just because I don’t have a lot of choices right now, do you? Because I do, have choices, I mean. Or, did you think I’d think you were just feeling sorry for me? That didn’t occur to me, actually. That isn’t what the offer was about, was it? Because you don’t owe me anything. But I am really glad to know this is what you want, too.”
“Sandburg, will you just shut up and let me talk?” Jim appealed, sounding a little strangled.
“So, talk. Who’s stopping you?” Blair urged, and he stepped back to give Jim space.
Jim gave him a frustrated look and sighed. “You might not want to be my partner when you hear this.”
“Hear what?” Blair exclaimed in frustration. “You haven’t said anything yet.”
“I wasn’t talking about work.”
“When I said I want you to be my partner.”
“Okay, now I’m officially confused,” Blair complained with a frown as he crossed his arms and leaned back against the kitchen counter. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Yeah, I can see why you would be – confused, I mean,” Jim sighed. His lips thinned and he shook his head as he looked around the kitchen as if seeking inspiration. Taking a breath, he met Blair’s gaze and held out a hand that implored understanding. “I never said anything because I was sure that … that you’d leave someday, when the dissertation was finished, and I didn’t want to wreck whatever friendship we could still have or … or ….” His voice petered out and his gaze dropped. “Anyway, when you gave that press conference, I ….” His voice again fell away and he rubbed his mouth. “God, this is hard. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable around me.” Straightening, pale with intensity, he looked up at Blair, something very like fear in his eyes. “I couldn’t take that. But you deserve to know the truth.”
“Jim, are you trying to tell me you want me to move out?” Blair asked uneasily as he tried to make the disjointed phrases fit into some kind of pattern that made sense. Man, how long had Jim wanted him out of the loft? And why beat around the bush, and why that scary look of fear in his eyes? Jim didn’t owe him a roof over his head. “I know I’ve seriously overstayed the week you originally gave me. If you’re tired of having me underfoot, just say so. I’m sorry. I just thought things were going good. Well, maybe not lately, but generally –”
“No, I’m not saying that! I don’t want you to move out,” Jim cut in. He reached out, as if intending to grip Blair’s arm, but then pulled back with disjointed abruptness. A faint blush stole over his cheeks as he added with a rush, “I don’t ever want you to move out.”
Never move out? Partner? Not work? Very confused, Blair played back over everything Jim had said, and then his eyes widened and the breath caught in his chest as another possibility occurred to him. “Jim, are you saying ….” But he couldn’t ask, didn’t dare tread over that ground in case he was completely wrong. “What are you trying to say?”
“I don’t know how it happened,” Jim rambled on, looking everywhere but at him. “One minute, we’re friends and the next …. I know you’ll think I’m crazy and I don’t expect anything, but I really think you should know, in case it makes a difference. In case … in case it’s not just me. I mean, in case I’m not the only one. I hope I’m not the only one.”
“The only one …?” Blair prompted as he tried to keep breathing; tried not to hope too much. He was probably completely off-base. Jim couldn’t be saying what it sounded like he was saying. Could he? What if he was? Oh, God, Maybourne would be calling in a month, maybe less. What if Jim was saying … what would he do then?
“The only one who fell in love along the way,” Jim admitted hoarsely. His gaze searched Blair’s and there was so much hope and fear and vulnerability all mingling in his eyes as he waited for Blair’s response, that Blair just wanted to hold him close but he couldn’t, he couldn’t. He needed to think.
Loves me? He loves me?
All Blair could do was gape at him as his mind raced. His heart pounded, and he couldn’t seem to breathe. Jubilant elation crashed into abject despair, leaving him frozen, unable to move and scarcely able to think. Why now? When it was too late? Damn it! Why now?
Finally forcing himself to break eye contact, floundering badly and certain he should pretend that he didn’t feel the same way, he turned his back to lean his hands on the counter to hide their trembling, and so Jim couldn’t see his face. How could he begin something that he knew couldn’t last? God, how devastating would that be, for both of them? His throat thickened and he had to blink hard and fast to clear his eyes.
But how could he deny his own feelings, pretend that Jim’s words didn’t mean everything to him? How could he refuse what was being offered, even if it could only be for such a short time? Didn’t they deserve some happiness together? Hell, the work they’d done over the years was dangerous and would have been even more so if he was a full-fledged cop, which Jim still thought was going to happen. There were never any guarantees in life. Nobody got a hundred-year warranty of either longevity or satisfaction. Even if he didn’t know he was leaving, so far as Jim knew either one of them could be killed on the job. Was that why Jim had decided to tell him? In case something bad happened? And they ran out of time? Closing his eyes, pressing his lips together to still their trembling, he shook his head at the thought that Jim might be worried about that. Ah, God, could this get any harder?
Lifting his head to look over his shoulder, his gaze sought Jim’s as he debated what would hurt Jim – and himself – least. To have this time and have it end too soon, or to never acknowledge his feelings and let Jim think he was dead without ever knowing? To have memories or only regrets?
As the silence between them lengthened, Jim’s gaze dropped and, his shoulders slumping, he began to turn away. Blair whirled to grab his arms and hold him in place. Jim tried to shrug him off, but Blair wouldn’t let go.
Decide! he ordered himself.
“It’s okay, Chief,” Jim offered awkwardly, avoiding his eyes. “You don’t have to say anything. I just thought you should know. I hope … I hope this doesn’t have to change anything.”
The defeat and hurt in Jim’s voice and stance did the deciding for him. Whether they had a day or a week or a month, he couldn’t let Jim believe he wasn’t loved passionately in return.
Moving closer, Blair replied huskily, “It changes everything.” He cupped Jim’s face and forced his friend to look at him. And then, still gripping one arm to hold Jim steady, he drew Jim’s head down. He saw despair lighten into puzzlement and then the dawning of joy in Jim’s eyes. Blair smiled just before their lips met – and he kissed Jim as he had longed to kiss him, deeply, with all the hunger in his soul.
With a low moan, Jim embraced him and drew him closer still, until they were pressed together, plundering one another’s mouths. Their hands began to roam, first to stroke and caress, and then to explore more boldly, pulling up shirts to caress hot skin. Jim nuzzled Blair’s ear and Blair delicately licked the pulse point in Jim’s throat, which sent a shudder rippling through Jim’s body. Murmuring low, inarticulate encouragement, they were lost in one another, in the taste and touch and the miracle of discovering the urgent love they shared – until Jim shifted and his bad leg gave out. With a muttered oath, he nearly fell, their embrace all that kept him upright.
“Oh, man, I’m an idiot,” Blair exclaimed as he changed his stance and grip to give Jim more certain support. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. We need to get you off that leg.”
With a rough laugh, Jim agreed. “Your bed?” he suggested hopefully. “I don’t think I can make it upstairs.”
“My bed,” Blair affirmed with alacrity.
Jim leaned on him heavily for the short hop along the hall and through the French doors. Blair guided him to the bed but, before easing him down, he loosened Jim’s belt and jeans, freeing his partner’s erection. “You sure look happy to see me,” he teased as he pushed the clothing down over his partner’s hips and settled Jim on the side of the bed.
“Oh yeah, big time,” Jim drawled.
“Big being the operative word here,” Blair returned, impressed, as he eagerly knelt to slip Jim’s shoes, socks and, careful of the bandage, pants all the way off, while Jim divested himself of his pullover and undershirt. Remaining on his knees, his hands on Jim’s thighs, Blair admired the lean, well-muscled body before him. “Oh, man,” he breathed in reverence. “You are … awesome.” Looking up into Jim’s warm gaze, he felt overwhelmed by the gift Jim was giving him, and he hoped his joy danced in his eyes the way it was boogying in his heart and belly. “Achilles could not have been more beautiful, nor Alexander.” A smile curved his lips when the blush on Jim’s cheeks deepened, and he was delighted by the flustered humility mingling with pleasure on his partner’s face. “Such magnificence deserves the proper homage.”
Bending forward, he blew a soft stream of hot air over the swollen tip of the engorged penis that rose toward him, and he felt Jim shiver under his hands even as his newest and last lover moaned and burrowed fingers in his hair to clasp his scalp. “Turn it down, Jim,” he whispered huskily. “I don’t want to hurt you.” He glanced up to ensure Jim was paying attention, and when Jim nodded, he lowered his head and delicately licked … and licked.
“You’re killing me, Chief,” Jim rasped.
Blair was still chuckling, low in his throat, when he took Jim deep – and the guttural gasp he got, the clenching fingers that dug into his skin, let him know that the vibrations of his laughter were a sensation that Jim had never experienced before.
And he was only just beginning to give pleasure beyond the like of any Jim had ever known.
For no one else could know how to love his sentinel as he did.
Ah, it was going to be so fantastic to put all his knowledge about Jim’s senses to such delicious use, to love the man thoroughly for each and every day they had together, as if each day might well be the last.
For a searing moment, his immense, burgeoning happiness smashed hard into a wall of devastating sorrow. But then he banished all thoughts of the future and focused only on the ecstasy of the moment. There would be time enough to grieve … for now, there was only the bliss of touch and taste, of scent and the sound of Jim’s escalating passion for him. For now, there was only love.
Jim came hard, and Blair savored the bitter nectar that spurted convulsively into his throat. Straightening, he eased Jim down and lifted his lover’s legs onto the bed before languidly laving his partner clean, while relishing the sensuous sensations of Jim slowly combing fingers through his hair.
“C’mere,” Jim murmured drowsily.
Shucking his clothing, Blair crawled onto the bed and drew the sheet over them before nestling in the crook of Jim’s arm, his ear pressed against his lover’s chest so he could Jim’s strong heart beating. He’d never heard that before. Had never been close enough before. Closing his eyes, lying skin to skin, he listened hard to the precious sound, imprinting it, so that he’d always remember. Always.
“I love you,” he whispered brokenly. “I love you so much.”
“Thank God for that,” Jim rumbled as he wrapped his arms around Blair, holding him tight as he pressed his face into Blair’s hair. “What about you?” he asked drowsily, his hand stroking down to Blair’s flank.
“‘m good for now,” Blair replied quietly. “Sleep, man. Just sleep.”
When Jim drifted off, Blair listened to his partner’s soft snoring and the steady drumming of his heart. A lump filled his throat but he refused to give way to the tears that burned in his eyes. This was too good. Just this. Being here, wrapped in Jim’s warmth. It was all too amazing and wonderful to sully these fragile, fleeting moments with any other thoughts or emotions.
He was going to hold onto the ‘now’ as hard as he could … for as long as he could.
And then he’d live it all again and again, over and over, in his memories.
For the rest of his life.
Jim woke to the sounds of rain pattering against the windows and plopping into puddles on the lane below, and the soft snuffling snores of his lover. Gray light filtered in through the glass and he wondered what time it was, but decided he didn’t care. Breathing deeply, he savored Blair’s scent and his partner’s solid warmth half-sprawled over his body. Tenderly, he ran his fingers through the wild, silken curls and thought about the love they’d made during the preceding day and night.
He couldn’t remember when he’d last felt so at peace with the world or so happy with his life.
He felt whole.
Even his senses, which he’d long accepted as useful for work and occasionally enjoyable, seemed to have not settled down, exactly, as awakened to the joy they could be. Blair’s touch and touching Blair, watching him during their love-making, listening to the sounds of his rapture, scenting and tasting him was a sensuous symphony of unbounded harmony and passionate delight. He had never been loved so thoroughly before, with such generosity and consideration. Even when endorphins had flooded his body, and he’d forgotten his injured leg, Blair had not, and Blair had taken great care to ensure he didn’t strain the damaged muscle. But, though Blair certainly hadn’t hesitated to take the lead, he had been equally generous in accepting Jim’s ministrations. Blair’s impassioned response to the touch of his hands and mouth had been both thrilling and deeply satisfying. As they’d given one another pleasure, Jim had felt as if they made one another complete. They had no barriers between them and they had lost themselves in the pure sensations of their affinity and affiliation, rejoicing in the richness of the love they shared.
For the first time in his life, Jim thought he understood the sublime, the experience of transcendence.
And this was only the first day of the rest of their lives together.
Once more inhaling deeply and exhaling slowly, he closed his eyes and enjoyed the simple pleasure of letting his fingertips play over the skin of Blair’s back, and he smiled at the prickly feeling of Blair’s stubbled cheek on his chest and the softer play of the hair on Blair’s chest against his body as his lover breathed.
Thunder rumbled low in the distance as he slipped back to sleep.
Jim woke again when he felt the loss of warmth and reassuring weight. Rain was splattering against the windows and the light seeping through the glass was still dim when he opened his eyes and saw Blair gazing down at him. Smiling, he lifted his hand to rub his knuckles against the stubbled cheek. “Morning, Sunshine.”
A grin curved Blair’s mouth as he darted down for a quick kiss that grew lingering before he pulled back. “How’s your leg?” he asked and shifted to sit on the edge of the bed to delicately and very tenderly stroke the injured limb with his fingertips.
“It’s gonna ache for a while,” Jim replied stoically. “Don’t worry about it.”
“You need help getting up?” Blair asked through a yawn as he stood and stretched. Scratching his belly, he went on, “I thought I’d scramble some eggs. Gotta keep your strength up.”
Laughing, Jim pushed himself up and accepted Blair’s support as he stood. Gingerly, he put some weight on his leg and tried not to wince.
With a low order to, “Check your dial,” Blair got a firm grip around his waist and helped him hobble to the bathroom.
“I think I can manage from here, Chief,” he said as he gripped the doorframe.
Quirking a brow, Blair considered that before letting go. “When you’re ready to shower, give a yell.”
Liking that idea, Jim gave him a wide smile as he nodded. From the amused but quizzical expression on Blair’s face, he thought he must look a bit addled, but he didn’t care. He was happy. So happy. “Good idea.”
“You can get the bandage wet, right?”
“I need to change it anyway.”
“Okay,” Blair agreed as his hand dropped from Jim’s waist to linger a moment on his ass. Then, with a light smack, Blair stepped back. “I’ll get you some clean sweats,” he said, turning toward the stairs.
Very much enjoying the view, Jim watched him go before limping into the bathroom. He cranked on the faucet over the tub to get the water to warm up and, when he heard Blair coming back down the steps, he yelled, “I’m ready.”
A moment later, Blair appeared. Dumping the clean clothing on the counter by the sink, he said, “Hold on – just gotta relieve myself first.”
Unabashedly, Jim watched Blair deftly direct his cock, and thought about everything they’d done the night before. Struck by renewed desire, he had to swallow to moisten his suddenly dry mouth and throat. Lifting his eyes, he regarded Blair’s chest and lean arm, his strong neck. When his gaze met Blair’s, he rasped, “I love looking at you.”
Blair’s gaze swept over him and then back. “Feeling’s mutual, man,” he replied, sounding sultry. “You ready for that shower?”
“Uh, yeah.” God, he wondered, how did I live so long without this – why the hell did it take me so long to admit I wanted him? He could feel himself tremble with anticipation of Blair’s hands on his body in this new kind of intimacy. Washing him. Caring for him. Taking care of him. When had anyone ever taken care of him before? When had he ever trusted so completely as to allow it before?
Stepping past him, Blair got into the tub first, and then held out a hand. “Take your time and lean on me,” he instructed. “Once you’re in, I’ll turn on the spray. Just let me do all the work, okay? While you hold onto my shoulders and concentrate on not slipping.”
Blair washed his hair, taking time to knead his scalp and drawing a low moan of pleasure from him. And then those sturdy hands were laving his body with soap as the hot water pelted them both. Watching Blair’s face, Jim was struck by the intense expression of concentration and the very evident pleasure his lover was taking in ministering to his body. Blair’s hands swept over his chest and belly, under and along his arms, and then attended to his groin, all with the same focus, and Jim was struck by the bizarre notion that Blair seemed to be memorizing his body, how it looked and felt.
“I’m gonna kneel to do your legs and feet,” Blair murmured. “You might want to steady yourself with one hand on the wall and the other on my head.”
Jim balanced himself and then Blair dipped down; his touch was amazingly gentle as he washed the injured leg, as if he was taking special care around his wound. When Blair stood, he was closer, and he reached around Jim’s body to wash his back and the cleft of his ass. Jim felt his cock stir against Blair’s belly, but he couldn’t help it. This had to be one of the most sensuous experiences he’d ever had. Sure, he’d showered with others, often – but no one had ever given his body such undivided and caring focus, with very obviously no expectation of anything in return.
His hands still cupping Jim’s ass, Blair looked up, a smile playing over his lips as he pressed a little closer against Jim’s growing erection. “I don’t think you’re quite ready for water games,” he teased.
Bending his head, Jim kissed him, lightly at first, and then thoroughly. “Let me wash your hair,” he murmured against those luscious lips.
“You sure your leg isn’t ready for you to sit down?”
Blair searched his eyes and then handed him the shampoo before gripping his hips to hold him steady. In seconds, Jim had his fingers buried in the heavy curls, lathering and then firmly massaging Blair’s scalp.
Blair tilted his head back to keep the suds from dripping into his closed eyes. “Mmm, feels so good, man,” he groaned, his expression euphoric. “You realize this is gonna have to be a morning ritual from now on?”
Jim kissed him again, loving the taste of him, the scent of him, and the feel of Blair’s cock nudging his leg. Taking his time, he rinsed Blair’s hair and shampooed again, before rinsing and applying the conditioner. The steam intensified their musk, mingling it with the clean smells of soap and the herbal scents that he always associated with Blair. “I could wash your chest and back,” he offered hopefully when all the conditioner was rinsed away.
Once again, Blair studied him before nodding. “Go for it,” he agreed with a blissful smile.
When he finished, Blair helped him out of the tub, sitting him on the closed toilet seat before vigorously drying him. By the time Blair had dried himself and changed Jim’s dressing, it was clear that breakfast was just going to have to wait until they’d assuaged a more urgent hunger.
They had just finished a leisurely, late brunch, and Blair was clearing the dishes from the table and cleaning up the kitchen, when the wonder of it all hit Jim, leaving him breathless. In the past twenty-four hours, Blair had agreed to be his partner in all things, both at work and at home, for the whole of their lives. For so long, Jim had hidden his feelings, even tried to deny them, because he had believed all this was impossible. Until yesterday, he’d told himself it would be enough that if his first fervent wish that Blair would become his official partner could be fulfilled. But, unable to hold back any longer, unwilling and unable to pretend any more, he’d dared to voice the second and the more profound wish, the one he truly feared might destroy what they had.
As if he’d been waiting only for that moment of stumbling confession, Blair had showered him with love.
After having held it all inside for so long, the sheer speed and ease with which his most dearly held dreams had come true left him reeling with amazement.
Jim was grateful. Hell, he was nearly delirious with happiness.
But … he had to wonder: why had it been so easy? After all that had happened in the last several months, all the ways he’d screwed up, how had he gotten so damned lucky as to have Blair love him back? A week ago, he’d been a rampaging bull, furiously accusing Blair of betrayal, forcing his best friend to crucify himself publicly and forsake all his dreams. Okay, so he hadn’t asked for that, sure hadn’t expected it … but still, if their positions were reversed, would he have been so quick to accept a half-assed declaration of love with no question, no hesitation? Perplexed, he shook his head.
“What?” Blair asked, breaking into his thoughts.
“You look, I don’t know, worried, I guess. What’s bothering you?” Blair clarified as he wiped down the table. “Is it your leg? Maybe you should lie down on the couch for a while.”
“No, no, my leg’s fine,” he muttered, distracted by his questions. Waving to the closest chair, he said, “Sit down for a minute. I think … I think, maybe, there’s some stuff we need to talk about.”
His expression curious but unconcerned, Blair sat down and waited expectantly. After a moment, leaning one arm on the table, he probed, “What did you want to talk about?”
Jim covered Blair’s hand with his own and then lifted his eyes to meet Blair’s steady gaze. “I know you love me, Blair,” he began hesitantly. “But I don’t know why.”
“What?” Blair exclaimed, sounding and looking incredulous. “Where did that come from?”
“Chief, I’ve been such an ass. I accused you of terrible things and treated you like shit. And not just over the dissertation. When I think about Barnes ….” His throat tightened against the acid bile that rose with all those wretched memories, and his gaze fell away. “I should have trusted you. I shouldn’t have shut you out. And … and I guess I don’t understand how you can forgive me for all the mistakes I made, for everything I’ve messed up so badly.” Once again meeting Blair’s eyes, he asked, “How can you get past all that? How can you trust me enough now to … to love me the way you do?”
“Ah, Jim,” Blair sighed, his eyes welling with compassion … and something darker. Heavier. Sorrow? But he dipped his head, his hair covering his face like a curtain before Jim could be sure about what he’d seen.
Before he could ask, Blair slipped off his chair and dropped to one knee beside him. Lifting his head, his expression earnest and intense, Blair reached out to cup his cheek. “We could waste a lot of time going back over the past. We both made mistakes, Jim. We both screwed up. But … but I don’t want to do that, rake it all up. It happened, and we got through it because we do love one another. And, and, well,” he stammered, again looking away, “we don’t ever know what the future might hold, you know? I mean, now we’re both going to be cops and that’s, that’s a dangerous life.” His eyes sought Jim’s as he went on with hoarse fervor, “I’ve loved you so long, Jim. And I don’t want to waste a minute more, not a second, of being able to love you and be loved by you. Nothing else matters to me more than that. There is nothing in my life more important to me than you are.”
“But why?” Jim asked again, needing to know.
Blair’s thumb stroked his cheek as his lover looked deeply into his eyes. A slow smile grew on Blair’s face, and sparkled in his eyes. “I don’t know,” he replied. “You’re as stubborn as a mule and your rules are aggravating. You’re ten years older than me and your hair is thinning.”
When Jim flushed and started to pull away, Blair’s grip on his face tightened, and wonder crept into his voice as he continued, “I just can’t help myself. I look at you and I see this brave, decent man who risks everything he is on a regular basis for strangers, because it’s the right thing to do. A man who is so gentle with people who are hurt and afraid, with children, and yet asks nothing for himself. A man who makes me laugh, makes me feel good about who I am. A man who has been so hurt and betrayed in his life by those who should only have loved him, but who hasn’t let bitterness consume him or … or keep him from being able to love. A man who accepted me into his life and his home, who would protect me with his life, and who has saved my life more times than I can count – a man who is beautiful to me, inside and out – and I just can’t help myself. I am so gone on you that it’s pathetic. Why?” He shrugged. “I guess because you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me, the best man I’ve ever known. And I’m smart enough to know it. All I really know for sure is that when you said you love me the way I love you, you blew me away. I will love you beyond life, for all of eternity. And you know that’s true. When I was dead, I came back because – and only because – you called me.”
Blair blew a long breath and his gaze drifted to the window. “This time we have now is a gift, Jim. One we might never have had. Let’s just enjoy it, okay?” He sought Jim’s eyes and his tone was imploring as he asked, “Without doubts or worries? Let’s just enjoy it and be grateful.”
Blair’s words and manner evoked a maelstrom of emotion, leaving Jim shaky. He didn’t doubt that Blair loved him and the reasons his lover gave left him feeling humble. But there was darkness there, too, and aching sadness, an inescapable truth that they could lose what they had at any time – and that thought terrified him, leaving him chilled with foreboding. He didn’t want to think about the risks of their job and the dangers the future would hold. Didn’t want to admit that there weren’t any guarantees.
Abruptly, he gripped Blair’s shoulders and, heedless of his injured leg, drew him up and onto his lap. He embraced his love, as if he could hold off all uncertainty and threat and protect Blair from all danger.
But he couldn’t.
Burying his face against Blair’s throat, he let the warmth of Blair’s body and the beat of his pulse soothe him. Blair was right. What they had was precious and he’d never take it for granted again – or, God, he hoped he wouldn’t, even on days when he was tired and discouraged by the world around them. His embrace tightened when he remembered the fountain and what he might have lost, might never have known. Blair’s arms came around him, holding him with solid strength, grounding him.
“Okay,” Jim managed to rasp in answer to Blair’s poignant request. “Okay. I can do that. Enjoy and be grateful.” Pulling back, hoping Blair could see the love he felt, love that was too much for mere words to encompass, he added with a soft smile, “And if I start to slip, if I need it every once in a while, feel free to whack me upside the head and remind me, okay? Remind me how damned lucky I am.”
“You got it, man,” Blair agreed with a grin and a quick kiss. “But you know what? This position isn’t all that comfortable, and it can’t be good for your leg. What do you say we adjourn to the couch and neck in comfort?”
His smile widening, Jim loosened his embrace. “Sounds like a plan, Chief.”
Blair slid onto his feet and helped him stand. “Lean on me,” he offered, as he slipped his arm around Jim’s waist.
Jim put an arm around Blair’s shoulders, gladly accepting the proffered support. “Seems to me,” he observed fondly as they made their way across the floor, “I’ve been leaning on you for years.”
“‘Bout time you admitted that,” Blair groused. “All this time, I wondered if you even noticed.”
Jim lightly smacked the back of his head and grinned when Blair snickered light-heartedly. But then he said, “I always noticed, Chief. And I was always grateful. It’s just taken me a while to be man enough to admit it.”
Blair eased him down on the sofa, propped his leg on a cushion on the coffee table, and then settled down beside him. “I’m wise to you, you know? You’re just saying all this nice stuff because you think I’ll let you have your way with me.”
“Is it working?”
“Oh, yeah,” Blair murmured, as he nuzzled the sensitive skin behind Jim’s ear. “Big time.”
Chuckling with delight, Jim drew him close.
Blair waited until he was sure Jim had dozed off, and then carefully extricated himself from his lover’s arms. He’d persuaded Jim to take one of his pain-killers, with the hope that the medication would keep Jim deeply under long enough for him to do what had to be done. Standing, he looked down on his partner and tenderness very nearly overwhelmed him. God, he loved this man.
Blowing a long breath, he forced himself to turn away and pad to his room. Snicking the door shut, he settled at his desk and grimly turned on the laptop. For half an hour, he tapped out bullets that specified the equipment he’d need at the training center, and then he added a note about what would work best in terms of environment – a quiet, rural setting with individual cabins, equipped with white-noise generators, for the participants. He indicated he’d need a lab to test vision, hearing, taste, touch and smell, and a conference room large enough for group discussions. Finally, he stated his own needs for a private office for his records and individual counseling, as well as personal living quarters within the bounds of the center. Since he assumed he’d be reporting for duty with nothing of his own, he gave his sizes and requirements for clothing, books, CDs, a laptop, and the food he expected to find in the cupboards and refrigerator. If they were going to rob him of all he had, of his whole life, they could damned well make sure he was comfortable in his new world.
He was shaking by the time he saved the document and then attached it to the email he addressed to the coordinates Maybourne had given him. Gritting his teeth, determined to hold it together, he finished up the note by asking for more specifics as to when he’d need to ‘report’.
Nearly an hour after he’d begun, he sent the note and then deleted both the email and the document from his computer.
As the documentation sped through cyberspace, his control snapped. Swinging away from the desk, he bent over, crossed his arms tightly and gasped for breath. He didn’t know which emotion dominated. Anger, furious, blind anger for what he was being made to do. Despair, over all he was going to lose now that it was all finally, finally turning out the way he’d long hoped. Fear. Could he trust Maybourne to keep his word and ensure Brackett was kept locked away for good? Would Jim and Naomi be safe? And such grief, over what he was going to put them through, about having to lie to them in such a horrible and fundamental way.
Nausea surged and he scrambled to the bathroom. Even as he retched, he did his best to be quiet and fervently hoped Jim was deeply asleep, the medication holding him under. Tears stung his eyes and he gasped for breath. He hated this. Hated all of it. Everything.
Everything except what he and Jim now shared. He’d never dared hope that Jim could love him or want him. And now, so unexpectedly, to be loved with such tenderness and passion as Jim had shown him in the last twenty-four hours was a gift of such immensity that his heart felt it would burst from sheer joy. It was so perfect, so damned perfect. Finally, finally, when he’d thought he was on the brink of losing everything that held any meaning for him, he had all that he’d ever dreamed of within his grasp ….
Damn it. If he had a lifetime, it wouldn’t be enough to express in words and touch how much he loved Jim. Worse, he was going to become one more betrayal, one more person to whom Jim gave his trust and his love who would be taken away – one more deep and abiding scar on Jim’s heart. One more reason for Jim to give up the hope of loving and being loved. This was a nightmare. A fucking, hideous, hopeless nightmare!
Tears brimmed over his lashes and scalded his cheeks. Grief welled in his chest, choking his ability to draw in breath, and he thought his heart might shatter with the deep, abiding pain of knowing they had so very little time. Shaking so hard he could no longer stand, he sank to the floor and huddled against the wall. Sobs built in his chest and tightened in his throat.
Trembling, he clamped his jaw tight and lifted his fist to his mouth to hold back a scream of futile rage. Every muscle in his body tightened with his need to contain his fury at what was being done to them, both of them. He didn’t dare lose all vestige of control. He couldn’t afford to have Jim learn the truth.
“I have to be strong,” he panted through gritted teeth. “I can’t let my anger and grief ruin everything. Their lives depend upon me holding it together.”
Grimly, as he’d learned long ago to do when despair threatened to consume him, he began counting his blessings. For there were always blessings, always something good in the midst of the ashes. Always something of worth or learning to hold onto for balance and … and hope. For a moment, he floundered. Hope? Hope for what? For a reprieve. Yeah, right.
But before he again began to slide into the pit, he yanked himself back. He couldn’t wallow in his grief and bitterness. Jim wouldn’t sleep forever. Damn it, he could do this, could find the good and hold onto it like a lifeline. He had more than he’d imagined could ever be possible. So what if it was only for a little while?
By rights, he should have already been dead for months, his last shattering memories those of Jim pushing him away and wanting nothing more to do with him. He’d died believing Jim had hated him. But he’d gotten a second chance – hell, he’d gotten a miracle. And he’d almost blown that, almost lost it all over the damned dissertation. He’d been a fool to keep going with it, to write it, when he’d known in his heart that he didn’t want that life. Didn’t want to ever stop working with Jim. Couldn’t bear to even contemplate having to move on. But instead of having to leave with nothing remaining of worth in his life, Jim had exposed himself to those in authority to win the right to have Blair appointed his permanent partner. And Jim had found the courage to admit his deeper feelings, with no real hope they’d be reciprocated. Jim had given him everything, life, love, a future together.
Yes, yes, he had to give it all up. Yes, he had to move on and leave Jim behind. But … he’d leave knowing he was loved, with memories that were more precious than gold. How could he not be grateful for that, however unfair it all seemed? He wasn’t so innocent that he believed that life was a fairytale that assured happy endings. Life … life was about doing the best you could. About … about learning that what ultimately mattered most was love and, if you were very lucky, experiencing the giving and receiving of love in all its forms. He had been given that gift and he had within his power the ability to give love to Jim, without restraint. And though Jim might believe he was dead, and would be sorely hurt, he would never again believe he was incapable of being loved fully, completely, passionately and forever.
Drawing a shuddering breath, Blair told himself he’d make every damned second count. He’d do everything to ensure this was a magical time, a lifetime’s worth of loving and boundless joy. Gradually, by sheer dint of determination, he got himself under control. Rising stiffly, he splashed icy water on his face, brushed his teeth, gargled, and then cleaned the toilet, hoping the scent of the disinfectant solution was sharp enough to cover the sour odors. Kinda hard to claim that something I ate didn’t agreed with me, he thought with wry and weary bemusement, when we’ve eaten the same thing. Besides, he didn’t want Jim wondering if he was coming down with something. He didn’t want Jim worrying about anything.
They didn’t have time to waste on imaginary illnesses.
They didn’t have time for anything but the storing up of great memories.
Staring at his reflection in the mirror, he told himself that he had to get a grip. Had to get his act together. Couldn’t keep falling apart like this, no matter how hard it was or how much he hated himself for the lie that he was encouraging Jim to believe. The lie that they had a lifetime together.
Swallowing hard, he looked away from the pallid features and the dark shadows under haunted eyes.
His love wasn’t a lie. His love for Jim was the most honest and purest truth of his life. He just had to live that truth and … and rejoice in it, because what they had was a kind of miracle. He had to hold onto the wonder and the joy. The future was going to happen and there was nothing he could do to change it. Being miserable in advance wouldn’t help.
“Live in the now,” he ordered himself as he left the bathroom, for Jim and Naomi’s lives depended upon him carrying off the illusion of unfettered happiness. “Live only in the now.”
But when he padded out into the living room and gazed at Jim, sleeping so peacefully, he began to tremble again and his sight blurred. What Maybourne demanded was so unfair, so massively, hideously, unjust. They deserved years together, not a handful of days, mere weeks. And, God, the ending was going to rip them both apart.
When Jim frowned and stirred, obviously struggling against the drug that deepened his rest, Blair swept his hands across his eyes as he hastily turned away. Damn it, damn it! He had to do better than this.
“Chief?” Jim called in concern as he pushed himself upright. “What happened? What’s wrong?”
Blair froze. He couldn’t hide the scent of salt in the air or slow his hammering heart – couldn’t just pretend everything was fine. Jim would know he was lying. Drawing a shuddering breath, he turned to face his lover and then slowly paced toward him. He could see the concern on Jim’s face deepen, his eyes widen with alarm.
“It’s okay,” Blair said, wishing he could steady his voice and stop the tremors that shook his body. “Really,” he insisted, coming closer. “It’s just that … that I’ve wanted this so much, you know? Wanted to love you and be loved by you, like this, like what we finally have now. And, and I just wish it could last forever. ‘Cause even forever couldn’t ever be enough time.”
Jim’s expression softened. “C’mere,” he offered, lifting an arm.
Blair sank down beside him and leaned in close against his partner’s strength and warmth, his head pillowed on Jim’s shoulder. Jim encircled his shoulders and ran a gentle hand over his arm. “Shh,” he murmured in comfort, his lips nuzzling Blair’s brow. “Easy, babe. Easy.”
The tenderness wasn’t helping – was only intensifying Blair’s grief and tremors quaked through him. He grabbed a fistful of Jim’s shirt and held on. Cursing himself for a fool and panting for breath, he fought for control. Ruthlessly, he told himself he would not allow the tears that scalded his eyes to fall – and was mortified to feel the hot trickle on his cheeks. Jim was going to think he was a basket-case. And he almost lost it completely, almost laughed hysterically. Because that’s exactly what he was: a freaking basket-case. God, this was hard, so hard. He hated the lies, longed desperately to blurt out the truth. Wanted, wanted so bad … but he couldn’t. He had to hold it together. Had to, he chanted in his head, had to, had to just … breathe.
Gradually, the violent shuddering stopped and the tight band around his chest eased enough, at least, that he could stop gasping desperately for breath. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, his voice thick and hoarse. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I just … I just love you so damned much.”
“S’okay, Chief,” Jim soothed with rich and warm tones. “I want forever, too.”
Letting go of Jim’s shirt, Blair wrapped his arms around his beloved and closed his eyes. He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly as he concentrated on the feeling of Jim’s strong embrace, the steady rise and fall of Jim’s chest, the clean scent of Jim’s skin, and the tenderness of Jim’s lips on his temple. Warmth suffused him as he relaxed further. He let the world slip away until there was only the two of them, holding onto one another. “So beautiful,” he sighed. When he surrendered completely to the secure and safe refuge of Jim’s arms, exhaustion snuck up and captured him, drawing him down into the depths of sleep.
Once Blair had relaxed into sleep, Jim loosened the reins on his concern. Though deeply touched by Blair’s nakedly vulnerable expression of love, the fact that he’d awoken to find his partner so distraught alarmed him. Over the years, he’d seen Blair excited, joyful, frightened, hurt, furious, pensive, sorrowful, and overcome with passion … but he’d never seen Blair lose it so completely. The man might talk a good game about the importance of expressing feelings, of bringing them into the light, but Blair was nearly as constrained as he was when it came to losing emotional control. Frowning heavily, he remembered when he’d last seen Blair’s eyes spangled by tears over three years ago, when Maya had broken his heart. But that aching loss was nothing compared to how devastated and overwrought Blair had been in the last hour – his heart thundering, his breath tight in his chest, scarcely able to speak without sobbing, tears blinding him, shaking violently, holding on for dear life.
The kid was teetering on the edge of collapse.
And no wonder, Jim thought with a worried sigh, as he leaned his head back to rest on the sofa. Staring at the ceiling, he acknowledged that the last few weeks – hell, months – had been littered with minefields. Though Blair had done his best to stay focused and balanced, he’d taken hits that no man could simply shrug off. Blair had changed after he’d been murdered, angry at first and then becoming quieter, more somber, more contained. But Blair had persevered, had gotten past the horror, maybe by holding onto the miracle. Jim didn’t know. They’d never talked about it, not any of it. All he knew was that, somehow, his partner had set what happened in Mexico aside; had never once said anything about what it must have meant to him to find Jim on that damned beach with Alex, let alone all the rest of the craziness of that journey. Looking back, Jim understood that his own relief to never have to talk about all that had happened had blinded him to Blair’s unusual and unnatural silence. The hurts of that time must have struck deep for Sandburg to have clammed up completely like that.
Grimacing at his own utter obtuseness, Jim closed his eyes, and his lips thinned as he thought about the dissertation fiasco. The two people Blair loved most in the world – Naomi and himself – had sure done a number on the guy. Jim’s chest ached, as it did whenever he thought about that press conference, and about what Blair sacrificed for him. His partner’s trembling fear that what they had now wouldn’t last made all kinds of sense when stacked up against the reality of losing, in a matter of days, everything that Blair had dreamed about, worked hard to achieve, and had nearly had within his grasp. How much pain was Blair carrying around inside? How deeply had he been wounded by one betrayal after another?
Sure, he and Simon had done their best to pick up the pieces. And Jim believed Blair when he said that he was glad to accept the offer, that being partners was what he most wanted. But, the other stuff, how his lack of credibility and public reputation for being a fraud and a liar would be a problem, was something neither Jim nor Simon had thought a lot about. They’d just wanted to fix the mess, however they could, as fast as they could. Jim was ashamed by how relieved he’d been – and still was – that his secret was safe. Ashamed of how reluctant he was to consider that, maybe, he was going to have to come clean, at least downtown. Blair didn’t want that but it might be necessary. Sighing, he set that thought aside for the time being.
But, in thinking about the offer of the badge, he had to admit that Blair’s anxieties about how much time they’d have were legitimate. They might make it to retirement, but the work was dangerous. There were no guarantees. Were there ever guarantees? People who didn’t chase down violent criminals for a living still died every day in accidents or from illness. Worrying too much about the future could drive them both crazy. They needed to focus on what they had and enjoy that. That was all anyone could do. Jim was sure Blair knew that – the kid was fatalistic by nature – and wouldn’t be so fearful if he wasn’t already carrying the burdens of past disasters. If he hadn’t already died once, not all that long ago. If he hadn’t committed a kind of suicide just days before. Jim shuddered at the memories that filled his mind and determinedly pushed them away. That was the past. All that mattered now was their future.
Jim kissed Blair’s temple, and lightly stroked his sleeping partner’s arm. We need time, he decided. Time to just be together, to rest and have fun, and heal some of those wounds.
On balance, Jim thought it was a good thing that his partner would have a break between all that had happened and the start of a new career with the PD. Blair wouldn’t be able to take firearms or other essential Academy training for six weeks. Jim would be off work for two of those weeks with his bad leg … and he had months of vacation and comp time accumulated. There was no reason he couldn’t take some of that time now so he wouldn’t have to return to work until Blair started his training. They’d never taken any time to go off just by themselves. Worse, for too long, they’d avoided key issues between them and pretended things had been fine. As a result, they had come too damned close to losing everything far too many times.
Blair … Blair had gone through the fire for him. No wonder the kid was on the edge of crashing emotionally. He needed this time. They both did. Nodding to himself, he decided he’d call Joel, who was covering for Simon, and request the leave.
Settling comfortably against the couch, he smiled at the thought of six weeks with no demands and nothing to do but please themselves. They could go away someplace. Didn’t matter where. Just get in the truck and drive away from Cascade and nosy reporters, away from everything.
“Go away?” Blair echoed, blinking in surprise. His gaze dropped to the salad he was making, but his hands were frozen. What would Maybourne think? Would he suspect they were making a run for it? Planning to disappear?
“Yeah,” Jim was saying from where he sat at the table. “Neither one of us has had a holiday for years. We can go wherever you want.”
Slowly, he nodded. He’d give Maybourne his cell phone number. Assure the colonel they were just filling in time while Jim’s leg healed, before the courses at the Academy started. “Anywhere?” he asked, buying time to think.
“Well, maybe not Outer Mongolia,” Jim replied with a grin. “Someplace we can drive. We could cover a lot of ground in six weeks. Or just find a place to hunker down and enjoy. Whatever you want.”
He looked up to meet Jim’s gaze and was struck anew by the love that glowed there for him. Only for him. “Sounds like a great idea,” he agreed with a smile, unable to resist the warmth that suffused him. Not wanting to. “When do we leave?”
“First thing in the morning? Go where the wind blows us?”
“Sounds like a plan, man,” he affirmed with a decisive nod as he finished the salad. Carrying it to the table along with the bowl of stew, he added, “I’m not sure you’re up for hiking in the mountains, so let’s head down the coast to the beaches. Find us a nice little cottage, and stare at the sea for awhile. Once your leg is stronger, we can go on from there.” Giving Jim a lascivious wink as he sat down, he drawled seductively, “Or not. As the mood takes us.”
Chuckling, Jim beamed as he ladled the stew onto his plate.
That night, once Jim was soundly asleep, Blair stole down to his room and turned on his computer. His inbox showed a message from an email address he didn’t recognize, but the name, ‘Training Institute’, chilled his blood. For several seconds, he could only stare at it. Giving himself an impatient shake, he clicked to open it.
Useful input. Will search rural properties. Materiel requisitioned. Candidate identification has been initiated. Expected timeline remains unchanged.
Shaking his head, Blair reflected that the man didn’t waste any time. Or words. Hitting the reply button, he thought about what he wanted to say and then wrote: ‘Going on holiday with friend for up to six weeks. Will have cell phone but discussion would be overheard. Request no contact until I return.’
He saved the address but deleted the messages, and then opened his internet link to search for beach resorts and cottages along the Washington and Oregon coasts. Half an hour later, he was about to shut down the computer when a new email from ‘Training Institute’ came in: Understood. Good time to take R&R. Have fun.
I plan to, you bastard, Blair thought angrily as he deleted the message. Maybourne didn’t care if he had a good time. The ‘have fun’ was an order, pure and simple; a not so subtle reminder to not let anything slip.
But Blair couldn’t deny the relief he felt to know that the colonel would leave him alone until he was back in Cascade. He could relax while they were away and simply focus on Jim without constantly having to wonder when his chain would be yanked. Funny how good freedom could feel when it became something precious and fleeting. Breathing deeply, he relaxed his muscles and visualized the endless stretch of shoreline and the accommodation possibilities he’d found. As he contemplated the six weeks of heaven on earth, a spark of joy flared in his chest. Nurturing that spark, encouraging it to burn and grow, he pictured Jim walking on the beach, cheerful and relaxed, and then Blair imagined his partner in one of those cottages he’d found in his search, utterly sated by the love they would make.
For six weeks, they would be blissfully happy. A small smile tugged at his lips as he closed the laptop and padded back upstairs.
Jim shifted when he crawled back into bed. “Where were you?” his lover muttered, only half awake.
“Checking out cottages for our holiday,” he replied softly, and dropped a light kiss on the corner of Jim’s mouth.
“Mmm, good,” Jim mumbled as he drifted back to sleep.
Blair caressed his lover’s cheek before lying down, his head pillowed on Jim’s chest. Closing his eyes, he imagined the soothing sound of the surf and listened to the solid, steady beat of Jim’s heart.
By mid-morning the next day, they were cruising along Highway 1, the windows of the truck open to the bright balmy weather. The air was redolent of the indigo swells that rose into crested waves before surging onto the wide endless stretch of empty sand of the south Washington coast on their right. To the left, high above the road, rambling homes and resorts were perched on the top of steep cliffs. Behind the wheel, Blair was glad there was so little traffic on the narrow highway, unlike summer, when campers, pickups hauling trailers and cars choked the two lanes. This early in the season, they wouldn’t have any trouble getting a place to stay. He glanced at Jim, who was looking out at the ocean, and smiled to see his lover relaxed and at peace with the world. Reaching across the seat, he entwined his fingers with Jim’s.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Blair asked.
“Of all the beaches I’ve seen over the years,” Jim replied quietly, “I’ve never found one more beautiful than right here.” He gave a small shrug. “I’m not sure what it is about this coast. There’s a kind of wildness to it and yet … a serenity.” He looked at Blair. “Maybe it’s just that it’s so open and uncluttered.”
Blair’s gaze swept the open vista before them, and nodded reflectively. “I know what you mean,” he replied. “It’s peaceful. There’s no clamoring hoard of people, just … just the sand, the sea and the sky. There’s a timelessness about it.” He drew in a deep breath of the rich salt air and felt tight muscles begin to ease as he exhaled slowly. “Puts things in perspective.”
“Perspective?” Jim echoed.
“Yeah,” Blair returned thoughtfully. “You know how everyone thinks they’re pretty much the center of the universe? But, out here? That’s impossible. That ocean has been rolling up against that beach since long before we were born and will continue to do so long after we’re gone. In a way, I guess, it’s like sensing infinity. It’s humbling and a reminder that we’re just passing through. Whatever problems we may have will pass, so they’re not worth dwelling on – and, and whatever joy we feel needs to be celebrated and cherished.”
“Taking a cosmic perspective makes us all pretty insignificant, Chief,” Jim groused. “You make it sound like nothing we do matters.”
“I guess, but that’s not what I mean,” he replied. “It’s just that we get so busy, so caught up in stuff, that we can forget what’s really important. I guess I think of the oceans and mountain ranges as … as symbols of the eternal, symbols that call to our souls to draw us away from fear or anger or the clamoring confusion of our minds to the peace of knowing that day to day hassles aren’t what it’s all about.”
“Yeah, yeah. So what do you think ‘it’s all about’, Sandburg?” Jim challenged, sounding aggrieved.
Blair cut his partner a quick look and was relieved to see the smile twitching on Jim’s lips. Jim was playing with him, only pretending irritation to rattle his cage for the fun of it, because Jim knew that the quickest way to wind him up was to pretend sarcastic or irritable disagreement. “I think life’s about doing the best we can but not beating ourselves up when there are things beyond our control. I think it’s about being grateful for what we have. Being kind and compassionate. I think … I think, when you get right down to it, it’s about love, every guise and nuance of love. Love of family and friends. Love of the earth and all life upon it. Love of ideas that excite us and lead us down hidden, previously unknown pathways. Giving love and receiving it. Being in love with life.”
When Jim didn’t respond, only looked away, back at the sea, Blair asked, “Why? What do you think it’s all about?”
Jim sighed and his grip on Blair’s hand tightened. “I know what you’re saying, where you’re coming from,” Jim replied slowly. “But I guess I’ve always figured that love … love is a bonus. Not everybody is lucky enough to get that in life. And not everyone finds it easy to give, either. Not having it isn’t an excuse to give up, to quit trying to make things better. But when it seems like you’re surrounded by indifference or brutality or ugliness, it’s hard to imagine it’s all about love, Chief. It takes strength and determination to keep going, to not give up. So, so I guess I think it’s also about duty. About accepting responsibility and doing what needs to be done, because it’s the right thing to do.”
Jim’s words pierced Blair’s heart, and his throat tightened with emotion. “That’s love in its most pure form,” he murmured hoarsely. Abruptly pulling over to the side of the road, he turned to face his partner. “Jim, that’s the epitome of selfless love. Of … of giving yourself passionately to the best of your ability to make things better for the people around you, for the world in general, without expectation or even hope of recompense. It’s … it’s giving unconditionally, because it’s the right thing to do. I don’t know anyone who is a better of example of that kind of selfless love than you are.”
When Jim flushed and shrugged uncomfortably, Blair lifted Jim’s hand and kissed the lean skin reverently. “I’m sorry,” Blair said softly, “so sorry that you’ve had to suffer so much and been so alone in your life that you think love is some kind of bonus. I wish … I wish I could promise that you’ll never have to suffer again.”
Jim’s hand gently upped his cheek. “Nobody can promise that, Chief,” he replied evenly. “But because of you, I know now what love, real love, is. What it feels like. Might’ve taken half a lifetime to find that out, but what you give me, what you mean to me, is more than worth having had to wait so long.” Once again, Jim’s gaze drifted to the endless stretch of sand and sea. “If … if something happens to me,” he went on gruffly, “I want you to know that you’ve changed my life. Changed me. You’ve made me happier than I ever thought it possible to be.”
“I glad, Jim. Just … just know that it goes both ways, okay? ‘Cause you mean the world to me, man,” Blair said huskily as he shifted across the seat to slide his arms around Jim.
Hugging him, drawing him closer still, Jim kissed his brow. “I know you worry about the dangers of the job, Chief. But I’ll do all I can to keep us both safe.”
“I know. So will I. But sometimes things are just beyond our power. That’s why it’s so important to enjoy every moment we have. To cherish what means the most to us,” Blair insisted, his heart aching with the knowledge of what was to come. “I can and do promise you this, Jim. Whether we’re together or, or … apart, I will never stop loving you. Never. No matter what.”
“Same here, Blair,” Jim vowed, his embrace strong and loving. “No matter what.”
Wrapped in one another’s arms, they quietly watched the sea roll into shore.
They stopped in Newport, on the Oregon coast, for lunch, and on the window of the restaurant they spotted rental advertisements for cottages on the water. One in particular appealed to them both and, immediately, Jim pulled out his cell phone. He punched in the number as they went inside and made arrangements to see the place after they finished eating.
“All set,” he reported as he slid into the booth across from Blair. “If it turns out to be as good as it looks, how long do you think we should take it for?”
“A month,” Blair suggested. “That’ll give your leg a chance to fully heal and the quiet will do us both good. After that, maybe we’ll feel like heading further south. Spend a few days in San Francisco before going home. Take a ride on a cable car? Maybe sample the wine in Napa Valley on the way?”
“Sounds good, Chief,” Jim agreed with a grin as he perused the menu.
They found the cottage about ten minutes out of town, at the end of a rutted lane that wound between high dunes and through a stand of conifers. The light wind off the sea rustled through the boughs, scenting the air with salt and pine. Before getting out of the truck, they sat for a moment, drinking in the sight of the humble building nestled in the trees. Sunlight and shadow dappled the plain, white-washed planks, and the wide windows reflected the glittering sea. A narrow, covered porch adorned with well-worn wooden Adirondack chairs and a gas barbecue fronted the cabin. There was no grass beyond naturally growing tussocks here and there that waved gently in the breeze, and the earth was richly covered with decades of pine needles that had grown soft over time. Bordering the porch, there was a simple garden that was brightly alive with daisies and delphiniums. All they could hear was the wind creaking in the trees, the twitter of birds and the occasional cawing of a gull, and the hushed rush of surf on the sand.
They looked at one another and smiled with wordless understanding. Once they alighted from the truck, they ambled onto the warm sand to admire the broad expanse of the ocean. Leaning on his cane, Jim turned in a slow circle, noting the absence of any other nearby dwelling places. The wind riffled Blair’s hair as he looked up at the sky and the pillowy clouds drifting lazily to the east. Jim cocked his head and, a few moments later, Blair heard the low rumble of a car approaching along the lane.
Turning, they sauntered back toward the cottage to meet the renter, who had just pulled up and was getting out of a weathered jeep. The sturdy, middle-aged woman was dressed in worn jeans and comfortable shirt. She smiled at them and called out, “Mr. Ellison? I’m Courtenay Rollins.”
Jim reached out to shake her hand. “Call me Jim. And this is my partner, Blair Sandburg.”
“Mr. Sandburg,” she acknowledged, as they shook.
“Just Blair,” he replied with a smile.
“Blair, Jim, thanks for coming to see the place,” she replied. Turning toward the cottage, she gestured for them to follow her. “As you can see, it’s not fancy, but it’s solid. Come on in, and I’ll show you the rest of it.”
They mounted the two, shallow wooden steps and crossed the porch behind her, following her inside after she’d unlocked and opened the door. “There are just the two rooms,” she went on, “plus the bath. The furniture isn’t new, but it’s comfortable, and the place is stocked with linens and the basic kitchen utensils, like dishes and pots and pans. I’m sorry, as you can see, there’s no phone, television, microwave, or sound system. After the cabin was broken into a couple times, we gave up providing such lures to thieves. However, cell phones work out here and it’s easy and inexpensive to rent the other things in town.”
Jim nodded as he studied the polished pine floor, table and chairs, and kitchen cabinets along the back wall of the cottage. The refrigerator and stove weren’t new, but their surfaces were pristine and they looked well cared-for. In front of the broad windows, the teal colonial-style sofa, chairs and ottomans were flanked by sturdy pine tables and reading lamps. An oval braided rug lent warmth to the sitting area. There was a small bookcase loaded with mysteries, decks of cards and old board games along one wall, and a woodstove in one corner, with dry wood and kindling stacked beside it.
Blair had wandered through to check out the bedroom. When he reappeared with a broad smile that didn’t waiver after he checked out the bathroom, Jim said, “This looks like just what we wanted.”
“Yeah,” Blair agreed. “It is.”
Turning to Courtenay, Jim asked, “Is the place available for the month?”
“Absolutely,” she replied, adding as she headed out the door, “I’ll just get the rental agreement from the jeep.”
“Hey, check out the rest of the place,” Blair urged, eagerly waving Jim toward him.
Jim glanced into the bathroom on the way by, approving the clean porcelain fixtures, the simple cabinetry, and the large tub with shower fixtures, and gave a low whistle of appreciation when he entered the bedroom. The king-sized cannonball bed, constructed of dark pine and covered with a simple blue puffy duvet and pillows, jutted from the north wall. Brass lamps sat on the tables beside the bed, and a tall bureau stood against the opposite wall next to a large closet that held shelves of linen. Wide and deep, sliding windows on the other two walls looked out on the forest on one side and the beach on the other. Blair had already opened the window on the back and when he slid the other one wide, a breeze freshened the room.
“It’s perfect,” Jim murmured.
They heard Courtenay return and went back into the living area. Five minutes later, she had the signed documents and Jim’s check in hand, and they had the key to the cottage.
“Sit down and admire the view while I bring in our gear,” Blair directed fondly, with a meaningful glance at Jim’s injured leg. “And then we can go pick up some supplies.”
After he loped outside, Jim opened the window over the sink in the kitchen, and then cranked open the two windows that framed the wide span of glass that overlooked the sea. He eased himself down onto one of the armchairs and inhaled deeply. Looking around the room, he felt a glow of pleasure at its warm simplicity and reflected that the place was just what they both needed. Blair could rest here, and the peace of the place, the soothing sounds of the sea and the birds would restore his spirit, maybe bring some sparkle back into his too-somber eyes.
For the first week, they did little more than sleep, eat, read, go for short walks along the beach, and make love. Though the silences between them were comfortable, Jim was concerned by Blair’s lack of chatter. His partner wasn’t mute, and they talked about what they were reading or what they saw as they walked, but there was an absence of cheerful, aimless but entertaining chatter. He wondered what Blair was thinking during those times when his lover stared out at the sea or up at the stars in the clear night sky. But he knew Blair needed time to process things and, God knew, the man had reason enough to be processing. So he bided his time, hoping the silence and solitude would work its magic in helping his partner to come to grips with all the changes in his life. And he made love to Blair with impassioned tenderness in the big bed.
But when nearly a week had passed and Blair remained unnaturally quiet, Jim couldn’t help worrying or wishing he could make things easier for his lover. Blair was a great proponent of talking so, though Jim was less enamored with the idea of soul searching and working things out with words, he decided the silence had gone on long enough. That evening, as they sat on the porch and watched the sun set in a riot of blazing colour, he reached out to take Blair’s hand. “You okay?” he asked tentatively.
Though Blair nodded slowly and, with a small smile, said, “Sure, I’m fine,” the sudden tightening of his breathing and the tell-tale skip of his heart into a faster pace belied his words.
“No, you’re not,” Jim contested as gently as he knew how. “I know this has been a really tough time for you. It can’t have been easy to give up your life at Rainier, or to suddenly agree to an entirely new career, especially one that requires you to take weapons training. I’m just saying that, if you want to talk about it, I’m here and ready to listen.”
Blair’s gaze fell away and he went back to watching the sunset and the sea. Settling back in his chair, his grip tightened reassuringly around Jim’s fingers. “It was easier than you think,” he said quietly.
When he lapsed back into silence, Jim prompted, “C’mon, Chief. Talk to me. What have you been thinking all week when you stare at the water or up into the sky?”
Blair’s lips quirked, and he shifted to face Jim. “I’ve been thinking the Universe can be enormously kind. Jim, when I gave that press conference, I wasn’t upset about giving up everything at Rainier. But I was afraid that it might not be enough to … to fix things for you. And, and I was terrified that I’d lost what mattered most to me: your trust and the right to be with you on the job – and I was pretty sure that I’d even have to move out, so nobody would wonder why you put up with having me under the same roof.” Layering his other hand over their clasped fingers, he went on, “Sure … I wanted that doctorate for a very long time. I love learning and I loved teaching. But I don’t have to go to school or be part of a university community to learn. I love you, being with you, more than anything else in my life. I thought I’d lost everything, Jim, everything that mattered. And then you gave me everything I could ever want or hope for – just this, Jim, what we have right now, being your partner in everything, is all I’ve dreamed of for quite some time now. Being here with you feels like a miracle to me.”
Jim’s throat tightened with poignant gratitude for he could sense the truth of everything that Blair was saying. But his gut told him there was something else going on, something still deeply wrong. He could see love in Blair’s eyes and even a kind of happiness, but the shadows were still there, lurking, as if trying to hide from him. Mostly, he could only tell they were there because they hid the sparkle of vitality and inherent joy in life that was as much a part of his lover as was breathing. And when he moved, Blair often seemed stiff and weary; there was no bounce and damned little eagerness … except when they made love, and then he felt as if Blair was fully present, fully alive.
“What about having to carry? You once said you’d never do that,” he persisted.
“Yeah, I know,” Blair agreed. He sighed and looked up at the darkening sky. “I’ll never be wholly comfortable with guns. The idea that I might have to kill someone someday leaves me shaky inside. But … but I know it’s necessary. And it’s not like I haven’t handled weapons in the last few years or even shot at people who were shooting at us. I’m in favor of peaceful solutions but I’m not blind to the reality that that’s not always possible. Not with the characters we’ve confronted over the years. I decided some time ago that if I had to learn how to protect you, others, and even myself with a gun, then I would, especially if that was the only way I could get to be your partner for good.”
“I’m sorry, Chief,” Jim murmured. “I wish there was another way.”
“Don’t be sorry,” he replied firmly, though he still evaded Jim’s gaze. “I’ve been thinking for quite a while that it’s something I should learn and get good at, given the nature of the work you do. When it comes right down to it, I will always do everything in my power to keep you safe. Because … because nothing matters to me more than you do.”
Looking away, searching the night, Jim felt overwhelmed by Blair’s commitment to him – and lost, completely at sea, as to what the hell was worrying his partner so much. If Blair was doing what he wanted, if he had everything that he said mattered to him, then why the hell did he seem so haunted in unguarded moments, so constrained – and why wouldn’t he talk about it? “Then is it the whole credibility thing?” Jim asked with a frown, feeling as if he was floundering around in uncharted waters but more certain than ever that he wasn’t getting the whole story. “Are you worried about what others think, or about testifying in court?”
“No,” Blair said, though his tone sounded distant. “No, I can honestly say that I’m not worried about that at all.”
Jim’s frown deepened and his lips tightened on his urge to shout that that didn’t make any sense. Because it didn’t. After four years of working by his side, Blair had to understand the law enforcement culture and the role of defense attorneys well enough to know there would be backlash and some very tough times ahead. Hell, he’d said as much the day they’d been driving home after they’d offered him the badge – and then Blair had tried to downplay those issues and concerns almost immediately. However much Blair protested that he was fine, Jim’s instincts screamed that there was something badly wrong, something important that Blair wasn’t saying.
Baffled, Jim thought about the last few weeks, seeking understanding or at least some clue. He remembered how Blair had clung to him the day before they’d left Cascade, terrified that what they had couldn’t last. Biting his lip, Jim recalled that he’d thought it was because Blair had lost so much, been through so much, given up so much, and the kid hadn’t really had any permanence in his life to begin with. And the work was dangerous. Blair was smart enough to know there could be no guarantees. But he’d just said that giving up his academic career hadn’t mattered as much as maybe losing what they had, their friendship, their home together, and the right to work together. So was it just that fear of an unknown future, of the hazards they’d confront on the job that was bothering the kid? No. No, that didn’t feel right. Blair would talk about that sort of thing – hell, he’d be working out strategies to minimize the dangers. The Blair he knew would be dealing upfront with the credibility problem, not casting it aside as a non-issue.
Blair said he was happy, that what they had now was a kind of miracle … and though Jim knew he was telling the truth, he could still sense a deep, pervasive sadness in the man. What the hell was going on?
“Chief, it’s not that I don’t believe what you’re saying,” he ventured as anxiety tightened in his gut, “but I know you. I know there’s something you’re not saying. I wish you’d tell me what it is.”
Blair didn’t say anything for a long moment and, though the light was fast fading, Jim could easily read the flicker of emotions on his partner’s face and in his eyes. Emotion that only increased his certainty that there was something badly wrong, in large measure because Blair so quickly hid what looked like pain and grief behind a mask of bland neutrality.
Finally, Blair turned to him, and leaned forward as he said with utter sincerity, “Okay, I admit it. The future … well, there are things I’m not sure how I’ll be able to do. I don’t want to hurt you, Jim. I don’t want to let you down. And I sure don’t want to ever violate your trust again. But I can only promise that I’ll give you the best that’s in me for all the days that we’ll share. But … but I really don’t want you to worry about any of that now. I don’t want to talk about the future. More than anything, I want to enjoy this time with you. Can we do that? Can we just let the rest go and … and treasure this time together?”
Jim searched Blair’s eyes and nearly flinched at the naked plea for understanding and agreement that he read in their depths. “Yeah, yeah, we can do that,” he agreed and his heart twisted at the gratitude that flooded Blair’s eyes. “Chief … I’ll do everything I can to help you, okay? And, for what it’s worth, there’s no way you’ll ever let me down and I’ll never doubt you again.” When Blair’s gaze dropped, Jim reached out to cup his cheek. “We’ll leave it for now. But, when we get home, I hope you’ll let me in on the stuff that’s worrying you. We’re partners … there’s nothing you can’t tell me, nothing that we can’t work out together.”
Blair’s swallow was heavy, almost convulsive, and Jim could hear him trying to breathe evenly. “Blair, whatever it is that’s eating at you – one thing I know for sure. You’d never do anything to willingly hurt me, so don’t ever worry that I’d think you would.”
Nodding, Blair murmured hoarsely, “You’ve got that right.” He blinked rapidly to clear away the salty burn Jim could smell. Blair sniffed and cleared his throat, and then he looked up into Jim’s eyes. “I love you, man. For the rest of my life, I’ll dedicate my life to keeping you safe.”
“Hell, Chief, you’ve done that since the day we met and you pulled me under that garbage truck,” Jim replied stoutly. “You became my Blessed Protector quite some time before I became yours.”
“Yeah, I guess I did,” Blair returned with a wistful smile. He reached up to trace Jim’s lips, and then leaned forward to kiss him and murmur against his lips, “Come to bed. Let me love you.”
Jim nodded and, standing, he drew Blair up into his arms. Though he couldn’t quite quell the anxious foreboding that quivered in his chest, he told himself that it was natural for Blair to be nervous about the future. Whatever fears were haunting his beloved, they’d worked them out. With a last glance at the starry heavens, he offered up his own welling gratitude that they were together now in every sense of the word, and made his own vow to protect and love Blair with all that he was.
And then, his arm around Blair’s shoulders and Blair’s arm around his waist, they went into the cottage and closed the door against the night.
Jim was sleeping, his head pillowed on Blair’s shoulder, but sleep was eluding Blair. Staring out the window into the darkness, over and over he replayed their earlier conversation on the porch. Of course Jim sensed something was wrong. They knew each other too well, had been so close for so many years and, now, were a part of one another. He’d known when Maybourne had told him he was simply supposed to disappear that it wouldn’t work, that Jim wouldn’t buy it. Maybe he should have gone immediately. As hard as it would have been, at least his disappearance at that point would have been credible. Everyone would have assumed that he’d decided to cut his losses and start over somewhere else. If he’d been thinking straight, instead of being overwhelmed by shock and sick to his soul about what was being demanded, he would have realized that he should have just left with Maybourne.
But then he wouldn’t have known that Jim loved him. Blair smiled sadly as he very delicately stroked his fingertips through Jim’s hair. And Jim would never have known how very much he was loved. So he couldn’t regret that he’d stayed. Could never regret this time together.
Maybourne had seemed to think that faking his death would be easy. Not hardly. The colonel didn’t have a clue about Jim’s capabilities. Even without his senses, the man was an extraordinary detective. But Jim was so much more than that. And there’d be no body, so … would Jim accept whatever evidence was concocted? Especially now, when Jim’s radar was already quivering? When he knew there was something Blair wasn’t saying, something about the future that Blair just couldn’t talk about? God, the faked death had to be convincing or Jim wouldn’t give up. Not now. Not when they meant everything to one another. Jim would quit his job, if necessary, and search for the rest of his life, never knowing what had happened or why. God … Blair’s heart clenched and he pressed his eyes closed. Jim’s life would be ruined.
Or Jim would find him – or at least get close enough that Maybourne might turn Brackett loose. Jim wouldn’t even know the rogue agent was hunting him, and that would be to Brackett’s advantage. If Jim knew of the threat, then he could safeguard himself, and maybe Naomi, too. Blair shivered and pressed his lips to Jim’s brow. How could he keep this man and his mother safe? Could he rely upon Maybourne to make his death so convincing that Jim would never suspect the truth? Could he risk that?
Some best-case scenario. That Jim would truly believe he was dead. Sorrow suffused him and he pressed his lips together to keep them from trembling. If the situation was reversed and he thought Jim was dead – it would kill him. Oh, he might not fall over dead, but he’d be dead inside. Would it be any different for Jim? With all that Jim had already suffered in his life, all the losses he’d endured? How could he do that to Jim? Allow him to believe such a hideous lie? And what would the emotional trauma do to Jim’s senses? Would he lose control, like he had when Danny had died? And if he did, what then? Who would be there to help him? Simon and the others would do what they could, but would that be enough? If it wasn’t … if it wasn’t ….
Blair rubbed at his eyes. There was no ‘best-case scenario’. Whichever way he looked at it, Jim would be at risk. There had to be a way to mitigate the fallout. But he was damned if he could come up with any ideas. All he knew was that the way Maybourne wanted it to play out wasn’t going to work.
Exhausted, Blair wrapped his arms around Jim’s shoulders, and wished with all his heart that he could just tell Jim the truth. But he couldn’t. Jim would be enraged by the game Maybourne was playing and wouldn’t be swayed by the threats. He’d refuse to let Blair go, and would fight back. But fighting back meant one of three things: going public about his senses to diffuse the threat of exposure; either refusing to comply with a government order to report back for duty, which meant he would probably have to be on the run for the rest of his life, or accepting the order and losing the life he lived in Cascade; or taking his chances – and putting Naomi’s life on the line, as well – against Brackett.
Blair didn’t find any of those options acceptable.
But … what if Jim only learned the truth after Blair had already disappeared? He might still search. Knowing Jim, he probably would. But he’d be aware of the risks that Maybourne and Brackett presented and, maybe, to ensure Naomi’s welfare, he’d … he’d let it be. There’d be no point in going public if Blair was already gone. But at least he’d know Blair was still alive, so maybe his senses wouldn’t present such a problem.
Was there a way of leaving a message for Jim, to be read after his ‘death’? Without Maybourne finding out about it? The odds were, Maybourne would be watching closely and Blair wouldn’t put it past him to have the loft searched to find any clues that Blair might have left behind. If Jim didn’t appear to be grief-stricken, then the Colonel would again suspect that Blair had done something to compromise the secret operation. Any letters Blair wrote once he left would be examined before being mailed, he had no doubt of that. So he couldn’t wait until after he was gone to get a message to Jim. If he was going to do this, going to somehow let Jim know the truth, then it had to be well-hidden, and it had to be done either before or as soon as they were back in Cascade. After that, he could be pulled in at any time. But it would also have to be hidden in plain sight, for Jim to have a chance of finding it.
Which brought him back to the probability that Maybourne would have the loft searched.
If there was time, maybe he could contact a lawyer and leave a letter to be given confidentially to Jim if anything ever happened to him. If there was time. But there was no guarantee of that. Maybourne could pluck him out of Cascade at any moment after they got back.
Letters. How could he hide a letter? How could letters be hidden in plain sight? Letters that could be read by anyone if they were left lying around? Unless … unless ….
An idea flickered on the edge of his consciousness and was as quickly gone.
Scowling with frustration, he scrubbed his face and sighed. Okay, so the ‘how’ was a little murky. But there had to be a way. He had five weeks to figure it out. Biting his lip, he thought it was all still far from ideal but … but the decision to find a way to let Jim know the truth left him feeling a little better. At least he wouldn’t be leaving Jim with a lie. Jim would know that he hadn’t gone of his own free will but had been compelled and had felt he didn’t have a choice. There’d be hurt and sorrow, and they’d both suffer the loss of no longer being together, but it wouldn’t be a betrayal. And if Jim did try to find him, as Blair was pretty sure Jim would, at least he’d know the risks and could take precautions for his safety and Naomi’s. Far from a perfect solution, he knew, but it was the best option he had to ensure that Jim and his mother wouldn’t inadvertently be left at risk.
And, maybe, someday he’d win his freedom, if he trained someone else to do what Maybourne wanted of him, or if Maybourne retired … or whatever. Maybe they could both hold onto the hope that someday they could be together again.
Hope and memories would be all they’d have.
Wasn’t much, but hope was better than nothing. And now he had something to think about other than the coming separation and the sickening sense of being a total victim. He was taking back some control. Making decisions about how this was really going to play out. He might have to dance to Maybourne’s tune, but he’d dance his way.
With an ironic smile, Blair found that even the vestige of a half-assed plan helped him to relax and tension eased from his body. Just the idea that he could and would find a way to tell Jim the truth helped immeasurably. There’d be grief and pain, but there wouldn’t be lies and betrayal between them. The simple peace of that knowledge allowed his breathing to deepen and slow.
He was startled when Jim stirred and rolled onto his side to lean on his elbow and look down at him.
“Hey, sorry, man, if I woke you,” Blair murmured, squinting to see Jim in the darkness.
“I wasn’t asleep,” Jim told him quietly as he reached out to caress Blair’s stubbled cheek. “You figure out what you’re – we’re – going to do about whatever’s been bothering you?”
With a small snort, Blair shook his head. “I can’t get anything past you, can I?”
“Nope,” Jim affirmed with a small smile. But the smile disappeared when he insisted, “You will bring me up to speed when we get home, right? You’ll let me in on whatever it is?”
Nodding slowly, Blair replied, “Yeah, I will. Maybe not right away. But I definitely will.”
“Good,” Jim approved. “So you think we can get some sleep now?”
Blair’s grin widened. “Well … if that’s what you want. But since we’re both awake …?”
Jim grinned as he bent down to capture Blair’s lips with his own.
Over the next several days, while he walked on the beach or pretended to read, Blair pondered the challenge of leaving a message that Jim would find and understand but that no one else would. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that there was just no way to say, ‘I’m not dead,’ in anything that any eyes but Jim’s would read. And to say anything more circumspect would risk Jim not understanding. He wondered if there was a way of using Jim’s senses … like a recorded message that no one but Jim would hear. But when could he record it without Jim hearing? They were together all the time and this had to be done before they got back to Cascade. Scent and taste were of no use. Touch? Could he write something using only a pin, to leave slight indentations that Jim could feel? But … blank pages could so easily be overlooked. Invisible ink, maybe? Could Jim read that? Frustrated, he shook his head.
How did spies send seemingly innocuous messages that held a wealth of information? Simple, they used a code only they understood. Only Blair didn’t know any cryptic codes. Morse code, sure, but anyone in the military would know Morse, wouldn’t they? So anyone Maybourne might send to check out the loft to ensure no message was left would pretty quickly key in to a sheet of paper that was covered in Morse code. And the only method of encryption Blair knew anything about was how to encrypt a file on his computer, using a password that nobody else knew. And that wasn’t really encryption. That was just a sophisticated way to store files electronically. And how would Jim know to look – or what password to use? Still, using the computer was probably part of the solution. He could leave a clear message in an encrypted file.
That only left the problems of how to get Jim to look for the file in the first place … and how to convey the password to get into it. So he was back to having to leave a message in plain sight that no one else would understand. Oh and there was the problem of writing such a message in front of Jim, without Jim knowing what he was doing.
And he didn’t have his computer with him.
And his lack of success in trying to figure this thing out was really beginning to frustrate him.
Worse, he knew Jim was watching him and picking up on his persistent preoccupation and frustration. If he didn’t soon resolve this in his own head and let it go, Jim was going to lose patience with the idea of waiting until they were back in Cascade to get some answers.
Keep it simple, he told himself sternly one day, as he ambled along the beach beside Jim. Don’t make it so complex.
But it wasn’t a simple problem and getting it wrong could have disastrous consequences. How did one reduce complexity? By breaking it down into simpler elements. What elements did he have so far? An encrypted message on his laptop. His knowledge of Morse code. But he still had to leave some overt clue that Jim would be sure to get that would lead him to the computer. What could he be sure Jim would read? A letter. Good one, Einstein, he castigated himself. If Jim could read it, so could anyone else who searched the loft. So what kind of letter would the presumed searcher disregard or not read closely enough to see that there was something hidden within? Irritated with his inability to find a simple solution, Blair scuffled his feet and kicked at the sand.
Love Letters in the Sand ….
Excitement quickened and his mind raced over the possibilities. That could work. A series of letters that he could mail as their holiday progressed. Letters he could write in front of Jim, even teasing his lover that he’d have to wait to read them until they got home and the letters were delivered. And in one or more of the letters, he could insert some kind of simple message of dots and dashes that would lead Jim to the computer. It was obscure and innocuous enough that it might pass scrutiny by some third party. Hell, Jim might well miss the hidden messages, too. But … but if Jim thought he was dead, then he might want to read those letters again and again. And, eventually, Jim would pick it up, would see the repetitive pattern. He could even leave a message that built from one letter to the next. Once Jim spotted any one of the repetitive patterns, he’d figure it out, go back through all the letters and follow the message, like a trail of bread crumbs, to the computer.
So the bulk of the work could be done while they were away and all Blair had to do was leave the final, clear message on the computer. He could write that the night they got back home, after Jim was asleep. Then, even if Maybourne called him in the very next morning, it would be done. There’d be a way of Jim learning what had really happened.
Relief at having found a workable solution swept over him and then elation surged through him. Grinning, he couldn’t stop himself from doing a little, shuffling dance on the sand. Looking up, he caught Jim looking at him bemusedly.
“What was that all about?” Jim asked.
Sliding in close, wrapping his arms around Jim’s waist, he looked up and said with a wide smile, “I’ve just had a great idea! I’m going to write you love letters!”
“Wh-at? Love letters?” Jim echoed in confusion.
“Yeah, why not? Every week for the rest of our holiday, I’ll write you a letter and mail them. And you’ll get them when we get home – you know, sort of like souvenirs from our holiday.”
When Jim still looked askance at him, Blair teased, “Ah, come on! Where’s your sense of romance? Writing love letters is a great tradition that spans the ages, only because we live together, we wouldn’t usually send one another letters. I think it’s a fantastic idea. You’ll see. You’ll be glad to get them.”
“Romance, huh?” Jim grunted wryly. Gazing at him, searching his eyes and seeing something that evidently affected him deeply, Jim began to smile in the peculiarly vulnerable way that never failed to tug at Blair’s heart. Nodding, he hugged Blair and murmured into his hair, “You’re right, Chief. Sounds like a great idea. Maybe I should write you some letters, too.”
Blair’s throat thickened at the thought that he’d probably not see those letters for a very long time, if ever. But if, someday, he did win his freedom from Maybourne, those letters would be waiting for him, and he’d cherish them. “I’d like that,” he whispered huskily. “I’d like that a lot.”
“Well, then I guess we’d better go into town and buy some note paper,” Jim replied with a warm, indulgent chuckle, turning him back toward the cottage.
“Good idea, man,” Blair agreed with alacrity, anxious to set his plan into motion.
Sitting at the table, Blair gnawed on the end of his pen as he gazed across the room at Jim, who was studying the blank card in his hand, as if wondering what the hell to write on it. Though he couldn’t help smiling at his partner’s discomfiture with what Jim probably thought was a dumb idea, Blair was anxious about the task he’d set for himself. The letters had to be authentic, had to say what he really felt, while at the same time hiding clues. Taking a breath, he put pen to paper and wrote,
I know you probably think this exchange of letters is a bit over the top, but there are things that I want and need to say to you that I’m not sure you would be comfortable hearing in any other way. We’ve never talked a whole lot about our feelings and, over the years, we’ve gotten into trouble for being silent -.-.-.-- for not being straight with one another, especially over, well, stuff that’s hard to explain rationally or that’s too emotional. And sometimes, I guess you’ve been silent to protect me -.-.-.-- I understand that. Sometimes, that works both ways. Or, I hope it does. That, looking back, you understand that there were times when I thought it was important to keep things hidden from you in order to protect you. But I never wanted or intended to ever hurt you.
Oh, man, where do I start? I guess the first and most important place is to tell you that you’re -.-.-.-- you’re my world. My whole world. I guess that probably sounds crazy. Nobody should be that bound to another person that nothing else in life much matters -.-.-.-- but that’s how I feel. There is literally nothing I would not do for you -.-.-.-- nothing I would not give up for you. I know you probably don’t want to hear this. That you’re not comfortable when others make sacrifices for you. But understand the meaning of ‘sacrifice’, Jim. It’s about offering up something of immense value and import for something or someone who is worth it -.-.-.-- worth more than what is given, at least to the giver. So don’t begrudge me the right to give you the gifts I believe are worthy of you.
Hard to say this stuff -.-.-.-- hard even to write what I feel clearly. When I look back over what I’ve just written, I realize I’ve not said anything about why you have come to mean everything to me. But there’s no rush. We’ve got weeks of holidays left, so I’ll be sending you a number of letters that will be filled with words that will, hopefully, make sense to you. I guess the key will be to take this step by step. I hope you’ll be patient with me and read all the letters I send. And I hope that you’ll look past the words to read what I can’t express but that is written in my heart.
Love always and forever,
Blair frowned as he read over what he’d written. Was it too blatant? Or would all those dots and dashes simply look like an artful personal style of expressing hesitation to anyone casually glancing over the letter? Did the letter even make any sense? ‘Key’ was the shortest and easiest word to convey in one piece of code. If Jim saw and understood it, and then read the letter again from that context, then he’d know more coded messages were coming. It was the best he could do. Sighing, he folded it up and slipped it into an envelope.
Looking up, he saw Jim scowling heavily at whatever he’d scrawled on the card and Blair smiled wistfully, hoping he’d have the chance to read it some day. But he didn’t want this exchange of letters to be a hassle for Jim, or something that made him uncomfortable.
“Just because I want to do this doesn’t mean you have to,” he called softly.
“Huh?” Jim looked up. “No, I want to. Just … I don’t think I’m very good at this, Chief.”
“There’s no good or bad to this, Jim. Whatever you write will mean the world to me.”
Jim quirked a brow and gave a small, uncertain shrug. “I sure hope so,” he muttered, as he stuffed the card into its envelope.
Jim no longer needed his cane, and his leg had healed enough that the time had come to begin exercising the muscle. So they spent most of the third and fourth week of their sojourn by the shore taking long walks along the beach. Though he could tell Blair was still preoccupied by something, and it was damned hard not to simply shake whatever it was out of his lover, he was relieved that Blair did seem a bit better. Ever since the night when Blair had lain awake for a long time, and then abruptly began to relax, and then, a few days later, came up with his crazy idea of writing each other love letters, he’d seemed more himself.
Remembering that moment when he’d first seen some of that old teasing, lively sparkle in Blair’s eyes after months of its absence, Jim still felt a twist in his heart. Getting away from everything had been a good idea, he congratulated himself. Everything was going to be okay. They’d just needed the time to unwind and chill out.
When a thunderstorm rolled in fast early one afternoon while they were a good distance up the beach from the cabin, they had to run back to shelter. The wind was brisk and the rain cold on their skin after the warmth of the hot sun, and they were soaked by the time they scrambled up onto the porch and inside. Laughing, Blair raked his wet, heavy hair back from his face, and then gave an exaggerated shiver.
“Looking a little bedraggled, Chief,” Jim teased, chuckling as he shucked his sopping shirt.
Blair snorted as he pulled his own shirt off. “Man, it’s freezing!” he complained, but then he eyed Jim’s broad chest and heat rose in his eyes. “I say we take a hot shower to warm up,” he drawled seductively as his gaze lifted to meet Jim’s.
“Last one in makes dinner!” Jim called over his shoulder as he dashed to the bathroom.
Laughing, hampered by his effort to hurriedly peel off his wet jeans, Blair hopped and stumbled after him. By the time he made it to the bathroom, Jim had the water running and was stripping off his jeans. Blair slithered past him and stepped into the tub. “I win!” he called merrily.
Climbing in behind him, Jim wrapped his arms around his lover. “Maybe so,” he allowed, as he bent his head under the hot spray that splashed over them both. “But I got the prize.”
Rain was still pelting the cabin, and the wind was thrashing through the fir trees behind the cabin, when they finished cleaning up the kitchen after dinner. Jim knelt by the woodstove, to start a fire to fight off the damp chill of the evening, and Blair grabbed his stack of notepaper and envelopes from the top of the bookcase.
“Another love letter, Chief?” Jim asked, amused, looking up from his task of feeding kindling to the small flames.
“Uh huh,” Blair agreed as he moved to the table. “Gonna write what I love most about you.” He grinned when he saw Jim flush with warmth that had nothing to do with the fire he was building. “Don’t worry, man,” he soothed. “I’ll be gentle.”
Jim huffed a laugh as he shoved in a few small logs and then stood to retrieve the stack of blank cards he’d bought for his own missives. “What I love most about Blair Sandburg,” he muttered, deliberately loud enough for Blair to hear. “Yeah, this little card ought to give me enough space.”
“You wound me,” Blair reposted with mock umbrage. “Surely you’ll need at least two of those teeny cards.”
Settling into a chair, Jim appeared to give that some serious thought before he winked and said, “Maybe even three, Chief.”
Laughing softly, shaking his head, Blair bent to his task.
What do I love most about you? Man, I could fill a library in answer to that question, but I’ll try to keep this simple. I love most what you do your best to keep hidden ..-….-… your compassion. You try so hard to project this cold, aloof, remote image to the world, as if you are untouchable and untouched by all the shit that you have to deal with. But I know you. I know how deeply you do care and how hard you try to do your best every day to help those who are in trouble, and to bring to justice those who are a danger to our community. Sometimes, when you’re hurt and hiding it, I want so badly to take you into my arms to comfort you, but I know you need your space, your time, to come to grips with such hurts in your own way. So don’t think that icy manner you can project actually scares me off ..-….-… it’s just that I know that when you’re most hurt is also when you need to feel most strong and independent. But file this, Jim. I’ve got your number. I know you have a heart as big as that ocean out there and you hide what you feel only because you feel so much, so deeply. You might be able to fool most of the world, but you can’t fool me ..-….-… I’m the virtual stranger you brought into your home and allowed to make it my home, too, even when my perpetual mess, chatter, and clacking on my laptop late at night must have just about driven you crazy. I wish I could always be there to hold you when the bad times strike.
What else do I love? So, so many things. Your dry sense of humor cracks me up, even at times when I’m worried or scared. I admire your integrity and strength and courage so very much. You make me feel safe ..-….-… an odd thing for one man to admit to another, I guess. But I know you’d do anything to protect me, up to and including putting your own life on the line. Nobody has ever cared that much for me before and it never ceases to blow me away that you do. But, well, now that I’m going to be a cop, too, I’m so conscious that we’ll be confronting dangerous situations on a pretty regular basis. If something ever happens to me, I don’t want you to ever, not EVER, blame yourself. I am happiest when I am with you ..-….-… and would frankly be miserable without you in my life.
What else? Oh, you’ll love this ..-….-… your tenderness. Again, something kept well hidden from the world, but you’ve trusted me enough to show it to me. I do my best to show it to you, too, because you deserve it, deserve to know how I feel about you. You deserve to be loved, and loved well. Gosh, I sure hope nobody else ever reads this ..-….-… would ruin your tough guy image. But, since no one else will ever see these letters, let me also say right up front that I love the way you touch me ..-….-… my body, and my heart.
And I love all your pet names for me. Too many to list, I guess, but my favorite, the one I’ll always answer to when you call, is ‘Chief’. Don’t know why, but I really can’t resist you when you call me ‘Chief’. Use that name and I can promise you access to everything you want from me.
Well, I guess that’s enough baring of the soul for one letter. Don’t worry, I plan to send more so you will have no doubt about how I feel about you, how much I love you, and how much it means to me to be your partner. Have to say, it feels funny to write these letters out by hand when I’m so much more used to using the laptop, but there’s a kind of intimacy about this that really appeals to me. I hope that intimacy means as much to you as it does to me.
Blair chewed on his lip as he scanned the letter. ‘File’, like ‘key’, looked like little more than exaggerated ellipses and, for a moment, he wondered if Jim would figure it out. Glancing at his lover, his gaze narrowed as he thought about that. He’d bet that Jim would read and re-read these letters after his apparent ‘death’. And Jim never missed anything; that’s what made him such a great detective. He might not clue in right away, but he’d notice the differences between the two letters in terms of the dots and dashes used to separate thoughts. Would he get the references to the computer? Nodding to himself, Blair figured he would, as soon as he worked out the code for ‘file’. After that, the access message about ‘Chief’ should be clear enough for Jim to figure out that would be the username for the encrypted file. But the password was more problematical. ‘Partner’ just didn’t stand out the way it needed to. At least, not in this letter.
He scrubbed a hand over his face, worried that maybe he was being too cryptic … or maybe too obvious to anyone who was looking to see if he’d left clues behind. Damn, but he hated this. He wished he could just blurt it all out without this subterfuge. But he was already taking a big chance with these letters. He didn’t dare go any further, be any clearer. If anything ever happened to Jim or his mother just because he hated to leave Jim with a lie, he’d never forgive himself.
“Chief? You okay?” Jim’s voice cut across his anxious musings and jerked him back into the room.
When he looked at his partner, he saw Jim frowning with concern and staring at the letter in Blair’s hand. Damn it. Jim must have sensed his agitation and was wondering why a love letter was getting him all worked up. “I’m fine,” he replied hastily, as he folded and stuffed the letter into an envelope. “Just … just so much to say, you know? Don’t want to miss anything important.”
Giving him a quizzical look, Jim offered, “Writing these letters is supposed to be fun, right? Don’t get all bent out of shape over them, Blair. I, uh, I’m pretty sure I have a good idea about how you feel.” A slow smile twitched at the corners of his mouth. “Besides, if you forget something, I’m sure you’ll find another way to tell me whatever it is. You’re not exactly shy, you know – or tongue-tied.”
God, he loved this man, his kindness, his gentleness. “Damn,” he muttered and frowned at the envelope. “I forgot to put that in.”
Laughing, Jim stood to join him at the table. “So tell me now, squirt. What did you forget to write down?”
“You’d just be embarrassed, man,” Blair protested. “That’s why I’m writing this stuff. You hate it when I get all mushy.”
“Mushy, huh?” Jim echoed as he crossed his arms. “Well, I think I can take it. Lay it on me, sport.”
“Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Blair acquiesced. “I was just writing some of what I love most about you, right? And I forgot to mention your kindness and your gentleness.”
Jim’s brows shot up and he blushed. “Yep, too mushy,” he muttered with a sad shake of his head. “I’m gonna have to keep these letters under lock and key, aren’t I?”
“Probably,” Blair replied in all seriousness. “I think they’d seriously ruin your image, man.”
With a snort of laughter, Jim pulled Blair to his feet. “Tell you what, Sandburg, we’ll buy a safe and put your cards in it along with these letters.”
“Ooooo, mushy cards?” Blair teased, delighted.
“Very mushy,” Jim admitted ruefully, as he bussed Blair’s lips. “C’mon, babe. Let me show you a little kindness.”
Their fourth week at the cottage was characterized by the marathon jogs that Jim insisted they take every day, to build back their fitness levels. Or, build back his, Blair thought wryly as he panted to keep up. It just builds fitness, pure and simple, for me. Stumbling to a halt, puffing heavily, he bent over and braced his hands on his aching thighs. Running on sand was not as easy as on solid ground.
Jim slowed and turned back. “C’mon, Chief,” he cajoled. “You gotta do better than this if you’re going to get through the obstacle course at the Academy.”
“Right,” Blair huffed as he stiffly straightened his back. “S-something else I forgot to write in that letter,” he said, breathing heavily as he wiped the sweat from his brow. “I love your body, man. It’s … it’s really magnificent, you know? You’re, like, unstoppable. And strong. And … and ….”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jim retorted, running in place. “And you’re trying to distract me with flattery. C’mon, get that cute little ass in gear, Sandburg. It’s only another mile.”
“Cute?” Blair laughed as he forced himself to get going. “You think my ass is cute?”
“Stop talking, Chief,” Jim counseled sagely, pacing along side, but he grinned widely. “You don’t have the breath to waste.”
Blair grunted but, considering the advice to be sound, he concentrated on breathing as he chugged along. Man, his legs felt like rubber. He had to dig down deep, but he managed to make it to the cottage before stumbling to a halt and once again bending over to drag in air.
Jim, though far from winded, had dropped a little behind, and he now called out, “Very cute!”
Snickering, Blair straightened and then leaned on Jim as they climbed the steps to the porch. “You are such a sap … and slave driver. Definitely a slave driver.”
“Gotta keep that ass in shape,” Jim returned unrepentantly.
“Selfish bastard, too,” Blair huffed as he braced his side with one hand and drew in deep breaths.
“And you, my little guppy, stink,” Jim chuckled. “What do you say I show you a little of my famous gentleness by giving you a bath and massage to make sure those muscles don’t seize up?”
“I say that’s a damned fine idea,” Blair concurred with a grin. “But no bath for you,” he went on, his gaze dwelling on Jim’s chest. “You can stay all sweaty and I’ll imagine you’re my slave.”
“Your wish is my command,” Jim quipped as he lightly shoved Blair into the cabin.
“Damned straight,” Blair replied.
“Not yet, but getting there,” Jim growled seductively.
Blair burst out laughing and, pulling Jim by the hand, staggered toward the bathroom.
Well, we’re off to San Francisco in the morning, and I’m not sure we’ll have much time for writing letters there. Kinda looking forward to painting the town red and dancing till dawn! And since you’ve been determined to exhaust me by running up and down that beach all damned day, I’m just about dead on my feet, so I’ll keep this short. You’ve said these letters will be safely locked away, so I’m just going to say it straight out.
I love you. I love everything about you. And I love being your partner. Remember how in the beginning you didn’t want me to call myself that? But you did, almost the first day, call me your partner, I mean. And I loved it. And now, ‘partner’ has come to mean so much more. It’s become a kind of code or password that encompasses our work together, our friendship, and sharing a home and a life together.
‘Partner’ has come to be my favorite word in the dictionary. Being your partner is all I ever wanted, Jim. And so much more that I dared hope. You’ve fulfilled every dream I ever had, given me life, and become my world. I wish I had the eloquence to say all that is in my heart, but know that I’ve meant every word I’ve written in these letters. You’re the greatest gift of my life and I will always be grateful for your love.
Whatever the future holds, I will love you until I draw my last breath … and beyond, until the end of time.
An ellipsis written correctly – a last flag to go back and check out the others, to take a closer look, that he was certain that Jim wouldn’t miss or, if he did, the anomaly would nag at him until he figured it out. And he couldn’t say that ‘partner’ was the password any more clearly than this. Messages within messages, and he had, indeed, meant every word he’d written. Nodding to himself, Blair sealed the envelope and slipped it next to the others in his backpack. The only question now was whether to mail them or to leave them out where Jim would easily find them after … well, after. If he mailed them, they might arrive before Maybourne had called him in and he really couldn’t risk that. It had been more than a month since Maybourne had darkened his door … there couldn’t be much time left. Better to hold onto the letters. And then Jim would also read them in order, all at once. Or, at least, that’s what he figured Jim would do when ….
“Whatchya thinkin’, Chief?” Jim asked as he pulled two beers from the fridge.
Smiling up at him, Blair said, “I’m thinking about the great time we’re going to have in San Francisco.”
“Running up and down those hills, you mean? Yeah, that’ll be a great workout.”
“God save me from muscle-bound men made of iron,” Blair sighed as he twisted off the cap.
“Too late, Sandburg,” Jim replied, sounding pleased with himself. “You’re already mine.”
Blair’s eyes sparkled with devilment as he grinned and nodded slowly. “Yep, that I am. Lucky you.”
Jim laughed as he sipped at the bottle and nearly choked. Coughing, he looped an arm around Blair’s neck and hauled him close. “Lucky me,” he agreed, as he dropped a kiss on Blair’s head. “Lucky, lucky me.”
“And guess what?” Blair teased fondly. “You’re about to get a whole lot luckier.”
Jim clinked his bottle against Blair’s. “Drink up, Chief. Evening’s a’wasting. We got places to go, things to do.”
“Good thing we don’t have far to go,” Blair murmured as he kissed Jim, “to do those things.”
“Mmm,” Jim groaned softly, and then broke away to lead Blair to the sofa. There, he deftly plucked the bottle from Blair’s hand and set both beers on the coffee table, and took Blair in his arms. “So much to do,” he mumbled between kisses, “best we get started right away, huh?”
“Absolutely,” Blair moaned as he leaned his head back to give Jim access to his throat. Closing his eyes, he came close to purring at the feel of Jim’s hands and lips roaming his body. “I am like so down with that, man,” he gasped. Clasping Jim’s head, he lifted him back up to kiss him deeply, hungrily, as if he could never, ever get enough.
On the way south, Blair told Jim to take the scenic route along the old highway, through the Avenue of the Giants.
“These trees are so amazing,” Blair breathed as they drove along the curving road in the cool shadows of the massive ancient sequoias. “Some of them are more than two thousand years old. That’s the last centuries of the Roman Empire, and the birth of Christianity and Islam, the Dark Ages and Middle Ages. The discovery of the New World and the Renaissance … the American Revolution. Both world wars. Blows my mind to think these beauties lived through all that.”
Jim nodded as he peered through the windshield at the behemoths that surrounded them. “So, you chain yourself to any of these trees?”
“Ah, no, man. These guys are protected. Nah, it was one of their brothers, who had the bad luck to stand outside the park boundaries.”
“You manage to save him?”
Blair’s eyes clouded and he looked away as he shook his head.
Jim reached over to grip his shoulder. “You can’t save them all, Chief. You can only do your best.”
“I guess,” Blair sighed. “It just kills me, though, that some people can’t see value in beauty and history – too blinded by dollar signs.”
“Sometimes, it takes a while to see what’s priceless, Chief,” Jim returned quietly, with a quick glance at him. “Even when it’s right under your nose.” He paused and then went on, “Sometimes, it takes almost losing what matters most. But some of us get lucky, and we get a second chance.”
His throat too tight to speak, Blair reached up to cover Jim’s hand.
“I don’t say it enough, Blair, but you know I love you, right? More than … more than anything in my life.”
Nodding, he swallowed hard, and sniffed. “Yes, yes, I know.” He took a breath and added, “And I feel exactly the same way about you.”
Delighted to be in a city where two men could hold hands and kiss in public without anyone hardly even taking notice, they rambled around Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf, drinking in the ambiance of the port. When Jim brushed at his nose, Blair told him to, “Turn it down, man,” and, with an indulgent laugh, he did. They sampled the famous Irish coffee at the Buena Vista Café, rode the cable cars halfway to the stars, and had a nightcap while enjoying the view from the Top of the Mark on Nob Hill.
On their second evening in the city, they found a dark little jazz bar where they could slow dance the night away. Cherishing the opportunity to be intimate in public, they spent a part of every subsequent evening there before returning to their hotel room and the big bed they shared.
“I can’t remember ever being happier than I am now,” Jim said reflectively as, hand in hand, they strolled the grounds on Telegraph Hill on their last day in the city.
Blair didn’t know if his heart would burst or break as he drew Jim toward a bench in the shade of a sycamore, intent upon seizing the opportunity to give Jim one last, crucial clue. “Me, either,” he murmured as they sat down and looked around at the gardens and the tower above them. Jim looped his arm around his shoulders and they sat quietly, simply enjoying the peace of being together.
After a while, Jim asked, “So, tell me, why do they call this Telegraph Hill?”
Blair laughed and shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“What?” Jim exclaimed, feigning shock. “There’s a random piece of trivia that you don’t know?”
“Guess you got me, big guy,” Blair replied with a grin. “However, I do know something about telegraphing – or, at least, Morse code.”
“You’re kidding? When would you have picked that up?”
“Well, when I was doing my Masters, I wrote a paper on ham radio operators,” Blair told him. “It’s an amazing group of people, Jim. Individuals spread all over the world, most of whom will never meet, and yet they form the bonds of friendship, sharing interests and information – often volunteering their help in emergencies to pass word along to relatives or to call in help. Man, they have such a rich history and … and I was really impressed by how strongly they affiliate with one another even though they live such vast distances apart. Anyway, I learned Morse code then to, you know, show them I was interested and to ease my way into their ranks.”
Laughing, Jim shook his head. “You’re a regular chameleon, Chief.”
Shrugging, Blair looked up at the glistening white tower. “They have a really poignant tradition. You know that every individual has their own call sign, right?” When Jim nodded, he went on, “Well, when one of them dies, they put out a world-wide message under the banner of ‘The Silent Key’, and retire that handle in honor and memory of the lost member of their community. I always thought that was very … moving, I guess. Never forgot it.”
He felt the warmth of Jim’s hand cup the back of his neck in wordless comfort. When he thought about the letters in his backpack, his eyes stung but he blinked the grief away. Leaning sideways, he kissed Jim’s cheek. “You hungry?”
Jim smiled down at him. “I could eat,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes.
Maybourne scratched his cheek as he scanned the surveillance report. “Huh,” he muttered to himself. “Seems like ole Jimmy does know how much Blair loves him. Wonder if I should tell Lee? Nah,” he decided upon reflection. Placing the file in his desk drawer, he mused, “Always good to hold a few cards up the sleeve. Never know when they might come in handy.” Next, he flipped open the file on the new training facility, noting the progress made with considerable satisfaction. After putting that folder in the drawer, too, he locked it, and flipped through his desk calendar.
“Let’s see,” he murmured. “They left San Francisco yesterday. They should be back in Cascade tonight. Sandburg, I have to say, your timing is perfect.”
Picking up the phone, he said to his secretary, “Cindy, I need a flight tonight to Cascade, Washington. And a military, not commercial, flight back – three seats. Oh, and get me Sergeant Wolseley, would you? He’ll be going with me.”
Blair waited until Jim was snoring softly before he eased out of bed and padded downstairs. While he waited for the laptop to boot, he thought once more about what he had decided to write.
An hour later, he shut down the machine. Rifling quietly in his backpack, he drew out the letters and slipped them under the computer, so only the corners showed. For a moment, he hesitated. Did that look too much like he was trying to hide them? Would that raise suspicions if they were found by anyone but Jim? Maybe. Pulling them back out, he placed them on the desk in plain sight. Each one was only labeled, ‘Jim’, and they were all unsealed. Nodding, he figured that seemed innocuous enough.
He glanced at the new uniforms on the bed. Since they’d cut it close in terms of time, and he’d be starting at the Academy in the morning, they’d stopped by the supply depot to pick them up on the way home. His vision blurred as he thought about how close he’d come to being Jim’s official partner. Impatiently, he brushed at his eyes with trembling hands, and then headed back up to bed.
Curling around Jim, he hoped with all his heart that Maybourne wasn’t yet ready for him. Each single day had become so precious … and he couldn’t bear to have them come to an end.
The next morning, Jim whistled appreciatively when Blair came out of his old bedroom. “Gotta say, Chief, you look mighty fine in that uniform.”
Blair snorted and rolled his eyes. “Yeah, right,” he said disparagingly as he gratefully accepted the cup of coffee Jim handed to him. “Remind me to tell you how really glad I am that we get to work in our street clothes.”
Jim chuckled as he ushered Blair to the table, where their light breakfast of bagels was ready and waiting. “Well, it’s only for a couple weeks, till you qualify on the range and satisfy them that you already have all the basic knowledge you need and then some. After that, you’ll only need the uniform for special occasions. You know, like parades.”
“Buttons and bows,” Blair snickered as he lathered guava jelly on his bagel. “You military and paramilitary types just love ‘em, don’t you?”
“Who you calling ‘you’, Junior? You’re one of us now.”
“Maybe not quite, but I soon will be,” Blair agreed with a smile. “Just think, Jim, you won’t ever again be able to say, ‘Stay in the truck, Sandburg,’ or ‘you’re not a cop’.”
“Don’t remind me,” Jim replied with a shudder. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad you’ll soon be official. But it’s gonna take a while to get used to not being able to at least try to keep you behind me.” He gulped his coffee and urged, “Eat up, Chief. We’re running late.”
A few minutes later, they were at the door, ready to head out for the day. Jim caught Blair’s arm after he’d tucked his hair under his cap and settled it on his head, and gave him a kiss. “Love you, Chief. I hope everything goes great for you today.”
“Love you, too,” Blair replied with a brilliant smile. “Be careful when you’re out there without me, okay? Don’t pull any of that old ‘lone wolf’ shit.”
Blair gave him a quick hug, and then they were dashing down the steps. Outside, they ran through the rain to their vehicles, waving cheerfully as they pulled out to go their separate ways.
Blair was nearing the outskirts of town, just before the road would begin winding up the mountain to the Academy, when a dark sedan crowded close and then pulled in abruptly ahead of him. Biting back a curse, he hit the brakes and wondered what the hell was wrong with the other driver when the sedan slowed to a crawl. Peering into the car that was so close in front, he saw …
… Maybourne, waving at him to pull over into the small lot of the convenience store they were approaching.
“Ah, no,” he gasped, and his chest tightened. Breathing shallowly to control his urge to either scream in fury or weep, he followed the sedan and parked beside it. He shut down the engine and then, with impotent, useless rage, banged his fist against the steering wheel.
Maybourne rolled down his window and called, “Leave your keys there and get in.”
Stiffly, Blair nodded and got out of the Volvo. Another man in a cadet uniform got out of Maybourne’s car and hastened through the rain to slide into Blair’s vehicle. Fists clenched, Blair stood in the rain and watched him drive off. “Good bye,” he whispered brokenly, to his life. To Jim.
“Come on,” Maybourne yelled impatiently.
Blair swiped at the wetness on his cheeks, yanked down the brim of his cap, and climbed into the sedan. Stonily staring out the windshield, he crossed his arms to hide his trembling hands and hold in the shudders of pain.
Though he felt as if he’d just been gutted, he’d be damned if he’d let Maybourne see him cry with helpless grief or rage with equally futile impotence.
Jim rapped lightly on the open door and, when Simon looked up and smiled widely, he ambled inside to sit down.
“Hey, welcome back,” Simon said jovially. “I have to say you’re looking well rested. Good thing. Things are as busy as they ever are around here. You want some coffee?”
“Sure,” Jim nodded with a smile of his own. “I’m glad to see you looking like you’ve fully recovered.”
“Yeah, got back a week ago,” Simon replied as he poured Jim a cup and refilled his own. Getting up, he carried them around his desk and handed the cup to Jim before perching on the edge of his desk. “Sandburg off to school this morning?”
“Uh huh,” Jim acknowledged as he blew over the hot liquid. He chuckled and added, “He said he’s glad we work in civvies.”
Simon laughed. “I’ll bet he is.” He took a sip of coffee and then asked, “So, he’s okay with everything – most specifically the weapons training?”
“Yeah,” Jim sighed as he sat back. “He’s not jumping for joy, but he’s fine with it.”
Studying him, noting the change in mood, Simon set his mug on the desk and crossed his arms. “Spill it. What’s bothering you?”
Jim flicked a look at him and then gazed at the window. “Blair … Blair’s worried about the backlash, about his press conference and about getting fast-tracked to a detective slot. He’s worried about his credibility and what that might mean for us.”
Simon grimaced and rubbed his mouth. “Well, he’s probably right to be concerned about it. There’ll be some who’ll be none too pleased, that’s for sure. And it might be a while before we can risk putting him on the stand. But … it’ll pass. Just give it time.”
Jim frowned. “Do you ever think that maybe I should just come clean? About –”
“I know what you mean,” Simon cut in. “And, no, I don’t. We’ve kept it all under wraps for a lot of good reasons, not least of which is your safety in the field. Blair handled it. And we all got what we wanted, right? He’ll soon be official. Let it go, Jim. You know as well as I do that that’s what he wants.”
Shrugging, Jim shifted forward in his chair and took a deep gulp of coffee. “Yeah,” he said, as he stood. “I know. So, are my new cases on my desk?”
“Uh huh. Joel’ll be working with you until Blair reports for duty. He’ll bring you up to speed after you’ve had a chance to go through the files.”
“Okay,” Jim agreed and headed to his desk.
He’d been reading for about an hour, when Simon stormed out of his office, shouting, “Jim, you’re with me. Let’s go!”
Startled, Jim bounded out of the office behind his boss and into the stairwell. “What’s going on?” he called.
“Tell you on the way,” Simon yelled back. “Come on, hustle!”
They were speeding along the street, lights flashing, when Jim demanded, “Okay, we’re on the way. What’s going down?”
Simon’s expression was rigidly controlled as he flicked a glance at him. “There’s been an accident. Looks bad.” He hesitated and then said, “I just got the call from Dispatch. Sandburg’s car went off the cliff road on the way to the Academy.”
Jim felt the words like a punch in the gut. For a long moment, he could only blink and stare at Simon as he gasped for breath. “How bad?” he finally managed. His gaze jumping to the street, he demanded, “Why aren’t we headed to the hospital? They must have gotten him there by now, right? Right?”
Simon’s jaw clenched and his knuckles whitened on the wheel. Pressing his lips together, he simply shook his head tightly.
Sick fear grew and twisted in Jim’s belly. “What aren’t you telling me?” he demanded hoarsely, all too aware of the desperation that edged his tone.
Heaving a sigh, Simon replied, “Like I said, it looks bad. They haven’t found his body yet. That’s why we’re going out there. To look. To find him.”
Jim sagged against the seat and stared blindly out the window while he tried to get past the fear and think. The cliff road was nearly a sheer drop to the rocks and sea below. No body ….
He felt like he might vomit and covered his mouth with his hand. Tears stung his eyes but he ruthlessly blinked them away. Blair might have jumped clear or been flung a distance from the vehicle. He might be lying hurt on the rocks. He’d find him. Blair would be okay.
After a drop of more than three hundred feet? Onto rocks?
A shudder rippled through him, leaving him feeling chilled to the bone; he clenched his fists and held onto his refusal to believe that Blair … that Blair ….
He shook his head, unwilling to countenance the thought. His eyes sought the clouded sky. “I’ll find him,” he rasped.
Simon glanced at him with eyes filled with compassion. Reaching out, he briefly gripped Jim’s shoulder. “Hold on,” he encouraged. “We’ll be there soon.”
Jim gave a single, sharp nod and tried not to think about the fact that the accident had to have occurred more than an hour before, or imagine why the cops on the scene hadn’t yet found his partner.
The journey seemed interminable and only got slower when they started up the steep two-lane road to the scene of the accident near the crest. Traffic was backed up and barely moving. Finally, Jim couldn’t stand it. “Let me out,” he directed. “It’ll be faster on foot.”
Simon had barely touched the brake when he shoved open the door and leapt onto the road to race flat-out up the hill. Rounding a curve, he spotted two patrol cars, lights flashing, and a uniform directing traffic around the skid marks on the pavement that led to a ragged break in the low wooden guardrail that paralleled the narrow graveled shoulder. Jim scarcely noticed that two other cops were talking with a civilian in a trench-coat. Panting more from anxiety than effort, he looked out over the cliff and nearly reeled back when he saw the Volvo upside down and smashed on the rocks below, the sea heaving and crashing over it. The driver’s door was hanging open.
His gaze scoured the rocks ahead and behind the wreck, checked out the cliff but … nothing. He searched the sea and wasn’t aware that he was shouting, “SANDBURG! SANDBURG!!”
One of the cops came toward him, shaking his head, and tried to draw him back from the edge, but he shook the man off and yelled again. And again. Blair had to be there. Had to be. Oblivious to the rain that pelted down upon him, he narrowed his eyes and studied the smashed car. Shifted position and bent forward so that he could see inside. He didn’t see any blood but the raging sea would have washed it away. His nostrils flared as he sought his lover’s scent on the wind and he listened with his whole being for Blair’s heartbeat.
Nothing. He shook his head and told himself to concentrate. To try harder.
He had to get down there. Blair could be wedged inside the vehicle, unable to get out. Desperately, he sought a way down but, beyond the lip of rock that jutted out from the road for a few feet just below the highway, it was a sheer drop. Increasingly frantic, he looked and looked for rocks that would give him a hand-hold, but there was nothing.
“A rope,” he yelled at the uniform who lingered at his side. “I need a rope to get down there.”
“The Fire Rescue Squad has been and gone, Detective,” the cop told him with studied calm. “The vehicle’s empty.”
“What? But, he’s gotta be down there,” Jim gabbled, shaking his head. “I have to go down there.”
Simon appeared and looked over the edge. Looking sick, he pulled back and addressed the cop. “Bring me up to speed.”
“Simon, I’ve got to get to the car,” Jim said. “This guy says Blair’s not down there. But he has to be down there somewhere.”
“Just take it easy, Jim,” Simon told him and gripped his arm firmly. “Let’s get the facts, okay?”
“Facts?” he shouted, gesturing furiously down at the wreck. “It’s been nearly two hours! There’s no time to waste!”
“Jim! Calm down!” Banks ordered sharply. “I want to know what happened here.”
Jim angrily gritted his teeth and looked away, his gaze again searching the rocks, the water, his hearing stretching out, as he listened impatiently to the uniform’s report. The words reverberated in his head as he tried to find Blair’s heartbeat. But the crash of the waves foiled his efforts. Panic grew, crushing his chest, and he panted for breath.
“A witness, the driver of the car behind Sandburg, said another vehicle came up fast, passing them both and then, just before the curve up ahead, cut too fast and close in front of the Volvo, nearly sideswiping it. Sandburg apparently tried to brake and swerve out of the way, but his wheels skidded on the wet pavement and the car went over. I’m sorry, sir. I know he worked with MCU for a lot of years. The Rescue Unit’s been here and there’s no sign of him down there. With the waves so rough … well, he probably got washed out to sea. There’s a bad undertow around the point. Even if he survived the crash ….” The cop’s voice drifted off, and he shrugged helplessly.
Simon pressed his lips together and bowed his head, his shoulders slumping for a moment before he straightened. “And the other car. The one that swerved into Blair’s path?”
“Kept going. The witness didn’t get much of a look at it. Just a dark, late model sedan.” The cop looked at Jim and then back at Simon. “I’m sorry,” he said again before turning away.
“He’s not dead,” Jim insisted.
“Jim,” Simon said gently, drawing him back from the edge and then gripping his arms hard when he struggled to break free. “Jim! Can you see anything? Hear anything?”
“No, no, but that doesn’t mean –”
“Jim, he’s not down there,” Simon said slowly, carefully.
“What are you saying?” he demanded frantically. “I’m telling you, he’s not dead. Blair’s not dead. He can’t … he can’t ….” But his voice caught at the sight of tears in Simon’s eyes, and his own flooded as his knees gave way and he sagged to the ground. Doubling over, he moaned like a mortally wounded animal.
Dropping down beside him, Simon wrapped strong arms around him, pulling him close. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered.
“No, oh, no, no,” Jim keened raggedly, oblivious to everything but the horror and anguish of a reality too terrible to accept, a reality he had to deny or he’d go mad. “Oh, God. Blair.”
Simon held him until the shaking stopped, and then helped him to his feet. Dazed, Jim looked again at the wreck below, and then Simon pulled him away and back to the car.
He slumped in the seat and covered his face with his hands. Simon got in behind the wheel, but just sat there and gripped his shoulder.
“I love him,” Jim whispered, his feelings a jumbled mess of numb disbelief and sick, helpless loss too great to grasp.
“I know,” Simon murmured sorrowfully. “So did he. And he loved you, Jim.”
Sniffing, Jim scraped his face and sat back, leaned his head against the headrest and closed his eyes. “I can’t take it in. I can’t believe ….”
“You’re in shock.”
Not wanting to hear it, Jim straightened and demanded, “But what if he’s out there, hurt? We need to keep looking. I can’t give up. What am I doing sitting here!” He reached for the door handle but Simon tightened the grip on his shoulder.
“Jim, don’t … don’t do this. You saw the car. The waves crashing over it. I don’t want to believe it, either. But we both know that if you couldn’t see him or hear him or sense him … he’s not there. He’s gone, Jim. He’s gone.”
Jim angrily wheeled on his friend, wanting to protest, to deny … but, at the sight of the bleak grief in Simon’s eyes, the words died on his lips. He felt something break and shatter inside then, with pain greater than any he’d ever known, and he groaned as he sagged and bowed his head. Slowly, slowly, he nodded and felt a howl of raging grief build in his chest. Ruthlessly, he tried to lock down his emotions. He had to, had to shut that inconceivable, clawing pain away, or he really would go mad. He didn’t want to believe it. Deep down, still couldn’t even begin to accept it. But he couldn’t let himself fall apart. Not here. Not now.
Determined to hold himself together, he took a breath and straightened.
Simon awkwardly patted his shoulder, and then started up the engine. He drove around the accident site and a little further along to the pullout beyond the curve that gave him enough room to swing the car around and head back into town. “I’ll take you home,” he said. “And then I’ll go back and tell the others.”
Jim nodded but couldn’t speak. Staring at the sky, he willed himself not to cry. But his throat thickened and, wrapping his arms around himself, he could barely suppress the sob as tears leaked from his eyes.
Blair! his mind wailed into the silence. Ah, God … Blair ….
Maybourne had followed the Volvo up the hill toward the Academy, and Blair had wondered what was going to happen next. Just before the crest, Maybourne slowed, holding up the traffic behind them. They’d just come around the curve in time to see the Volvo accelerate and then brake hard, leaving skid marks on the wet pavement before the car and the mystery driver soared off the mountain road.
Blair had gasped in shock but Maybourne just chuckled. “There’s a lip of rock along this curve, just beneath the guardrail,” he had explained. “The sergeant will drop onto it as the car goes over. Don’t worry. He knows what he’s doing.” They’d turned around in the pullout just past the place where the car had gone over, and Maybourne had casually mentioned that the empty car parked there would be used by Sergeant Wolseley after he’d completed his task of faking Blair’s death.
Then they’d headed back into the city.
“What are we doing here?” Blair demanded, his tone brittle, when Maybourne pulled up on the street outside the loft more than an hour after the ‘accident’ had occurred.
“Ah, well, not that I don’t trust you,” Maybourne drawled as he fiddled with equipment on the seat between them, opening a small antennae device and pointing it at the balcony of the loft. He flicked a switch on the portable machine and they heard nothing but a slight hiss of static from the empty apartment. “But, before we fly back east, I need to assure myself that Detective Ellison is completely unaware of our arrangement.”
Blair’s lips thinned. “Why don’t you just go in and search the place to make sure I didn’t leave some hidden message for him?” he challenged.
Cocking a brow, Maybourne smiled and replied, “You’ve been with the man for the past six weeks. If you were going to tell him, you would have by now.” Sitting back, he advised, “We could be here a while, so you might as well relax. Unless you’d like me to bring you up to date on the new training center? I think you’ll be pleased with all the arrangements.”
Blair stared at him balefully and then, shaking his head, he turned away. He couldn’t care less about the center. Acid roiled in his belly and it was all he could do to keep from throwing up.
An hour and a half later, he saw Simon’s car park a few cars ahead and his throat tightened at the sight of Jim in the passenger seat. Crossing his arms, he tensed. He didn’t want to see this – but it might be the last time he ever saw Jim, so he couldn’t bring himself to look away.
When he pulled up outside the loft, Simon asked, “You gonna be okay until I get back?”
Jim sniffed and nodded numbly. His hand fumbled and finally found the door handle, and he pushed it open. Just before he climbed out, he grated, “I’m sorry, Simon. I know … I know you cared about him, too. I just … I just can’t ….”
“I know,” Simon rumbled. “It’s okay. You go on upstairs and lie down. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
“You don’t have to –”
“Yeah, I do. I don’t want to be alone right now, either, okay?”
Again he nodded and then got out of the car. Head bowed and shoulders slumped, feeling like an old, old man, he trudged slowly through the rain toward the entrance.
Tears stung Blair’s eyes when he saw how broken Jim looked. Unable to restrain himself, barely conscious that he was speaking aloud, his voice cracked as he whispered, “Ah, man, I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
Halfway to the building, Jim stalled and stiffened. When he began to turn toward them, Maybourne grabbed Blair’s shoulder to yank him down below eye level. Blair wanted to do nothing so much as fight free and launch himself out of the car. But he forced himself to stay still. As hard as it was, harder than anything he’d ever had to do in his life, for Jim’s safety and Naomi’s, he had to go through with the charade. He didn’t dare speak again and he wondered if Jim could hear his heart beating – but a horn blasted from somewhere nearby. Closing his eyes, Blair hoped Jim hadn’t had his hearing wide open.
After a long moment, Maybourne muttered, “Okay, he’s gone inside and the other guy has driven off.” When Blair straightened, the colonel continued, “His hearing is really phenomenal, isn’t it? Never thought he’d be able to hear a whisper from that far away.” Glancing at Blair, he muttered, “That was a stupid stunt, talking where he could hear you. You almost blew everything.”
Before Blair could respond, someone in a trench coat approached the car and rapped on Maybourne’s window. When he bent down, Blair saw that it was Wolseley, and the coat no doubt covered a very muddy cadet uniform.
Maybourne lowered the window and asked, “Any problems?”
“No, sir,” Wolseley reported. “I pretended to have witnessed the ‘accident’, just as you directed, but no one but you actually saw the car go over the side. From what I observed at the scene, the ruse worked. It was clear that Ellison and the man with him believe Mr. Sandburg to have been killed in the crash. Ellison fought for a while, wanting to go down and check the wreck. And then he just collapsed. Had to be helped back to the car.”
“Very good,” Maybourne acknowledged. “We’ll meet you at the terminal in an hour.”
Wolseley sketched a salute and turned away.
While he waited for the elevator, Jim rubbed his still blocked ears. He’d thought he’d heard Blair’s voice and, desperate for a miracle, hope flooding him, he’d turned to search the street. But there’d only been strangers hurrying by, most carrying open umbrellas, and cars parked along the curb. Only one, some distance behind Simon’s, was occupied. Jim had a vague impression of a blue air force uniform, but he hadn’t paid attention. He’d been reaching out with his hearing, and he’d thought – been almost sure – that he’d heard Blair’s heartbeat under the rush and swish of cars along the wet street. But a horn had blasted, nearly deafening him. As he’d flinched in pain, he’d realized that he was acting more than a little crazy. What would Blair be doing on the street? He wasn’t here. He was … he was ….
Jim had covered his eyes with one hand and wheeled back to the building. Needing to be alone, he stumbled in his urgency to get inside and nearly fell.
The elevator finally came and he staggered inside to lean against the wall. He felt … he didn’t know what he felt. Detached and numb, as if this was all just a terrible nightmare that couldn’t be real. But underneath that sense of disorientation and denial, black despair dug talons into his gut, so that he wanted to either rage in agony or crumble – maybe both.
Upstairs, he plodded along the hall and let himself into the apartment. For a moment, he just stood there, looking around, feeling lost and trying to get his bearings. His chest felt so tight he could scarcely breathe, and his throat was thick with unshed tears. Then, Blair’s room drew him irresistibly across the floor. He paused in the doorway before forcing himself to move inside to stand by the desk and stare at the laptop. That machine had been so much a part of Blair, practically another appendage. He’d rarely gone anywhere without it.
Jim traced his fingertips across the top and then the letters stacked to the side caught his eye. Frowning, he saw that the top one had his name on it – and then he remembered. The love letters. Blair hadn’t mailed them after all. His eyes burned as he recalled watching Blair at the table in their little cottage, his expression so intense as he’d scribbled the words. Jim reached out hesitantly, and then stopped. Another sob threatened when he realized that Blair would never get to see the cards he’d written, never read the words that Jim had painstakingly labored over, to get them right, to say as well as he could what Blair meant to him and how much Blair was loved.
If Blair couldn’t read those cards, what right did he have to read what Blair had written to him?
But … he couldn’t not read them. Blair would want him to read them. A tear trickled down his cheek as he gathered up the envelopes and left the room to plod upstairs.
Blair’s scent and that of the love they’d made that morning still permeated the air of the apartment and hung heaviest here, in their bedroom. Jim’s face crumpled when he saw the unmade bed. They’d lingered too long in one another’s arms that morning, and had had to rush to get dressed. Too long? Dear God, he wished they’d never left that bed. That Blair was still there, smiling up at him, reaching out to him.
Sniffing, he sat down on the edge of the bed and, one by one, he opened the letters and read them. It was hard, because the writing kept blurring before his eyes, and his chest felt as if it was imploding. But he persevered and then went back to the second last, and the line where Blair had written that he just had to call ‘Chief’ and Blair would always respond. Always.
Tears brimmed in his eyes and he drew a shuddering breath. “Chief?” he rasped, barely able to speak, as he looked around with wretched hopefulness. But he was alone, completely alone. Shaking his head at his foolishness, he sighed brokenly, “Ah, Chief ….”
Gripping the letters, he reached out for Blair’s pillow. Burying his nose in it, he curled on his side. He didn’t want to cry. Hell, he never cried. Raged. Got icy with grief. But he’d always denied himself the right to cry.
And he did not want to acknowledge that this was all real. That Blair was gone. But the devastating pain and bitter grief overwhelmed him. No longer constrained by his desperate control, heaving sobs broke from deep in his chest.
For a while, there hadn’t been much to hear from the apartment. Just a door opening, footsteps. A long silence and then more footsteps. The distant, faint crinkle of paper.
And then they heard the heartbroken plea, “Chief? Ah, Chief,” followed by the wracking, guttural, tearing sobs of a strong man undone by a grief too great to contain.
“Damn it! Stop! Just stop!” Blair yelled in fury and hideous sorrow as he slammed at and smashed the machine, breaking off the heartbreaking sounds. “Leave him alone. Just … just leave him alone.”
“Well, I think I heard enough,” Maybourne allowed complacently, apparently completely unmoved by the fact that he’d done untold damage to two innocent lives. “Nobody’s that good an actor. It’s clear that you didn’t clue him in.”
But Blair wasn’t listening. His fist pressed to his mouth, tears glimmering in his eyes, his gaze was locked on the balcony doors. In vain, he tried to see through their blank, mirror-like façade to the upper loft and his lover.
But he didn’t need to see to be able to picture Jim curled on their bed, the letters clutched in his fists.
Blair had never seen Jim cry, not one single tear.
Knowing that Jim was up there, calling out and weeping for him, damned near destroyed him.
Maybourne started the sedan and pulled into traffic. Though they quickly put the apartment building behind them, all Blair could see were those blind balcony windows. Despair gave way to incandescent fury. For the first time in his life, Blair wanted to kill so badly he could taste the bile of hatred and nearly choked on it. He shook with his impotent need to wreak violence and vengeance.
“Let it go, kid,” Maybourne counseled mildly. “He’ll get over it and your life back there is done. The sooner you accept the fact that there’s nothing you can do about it, the better off you’ll be.”
Blair’s gaze narrowed and his jaw clenched. He wouldn’t – couldn’t – speak. Rigid with rage and rendered inarticulate by the depth of his loathing, awash in guilt and grief, he sat with his arms tightly crossed and his hands fisted.
After the emotional storm ended, Jim laid stunned on the bed, unable to think, unwilling to imagine the desolate future. Time passed unnoticed as he listened numbly to the rain beating on the skylight. He wanted to believe that Blair was out there, somewhere, alive, but his rational mind wouldn’t allow his heart that solace. He’d thought, in the midst of his wild sorrow, that he’d heard Blair cry out to him to ‘stop’ … but his mind had shut down that hope with withering contempt. Belief in such impossibilities would lead to madness. This wasn’t the first time his life had gone to hell. He’d been hurt deeply before and he’d survived.
Not like this, his heart wailed. Never like this.
Breathing shallowly, he clutched Blair’s pillow for solace, and stared blindly into the dreary half-light of the rainy day. His eyes felt dry and scratchy and he blinked slowly, as if his body was too exhausted to manage even that small effort. The silence weighed upon him. Loneliness pervaded his being. He felt cold and lost. Empty.
He caught a distant scent of cigars and heard Simon come in quietly. Heard him turn on the tap and fill the coffee pot, rummage in the cupboard for the coffee, and turn on the machine.
Sighing heavily, Jim pushed himself upright and rubbed his face. He swallowed against the dry rawness of his throat and ran his fingers over his head, and had the oddest feeling of being not quite in his body. Standing, he mastered the slight sense of vertigo and carefully made his way downstairs.
He knew Simon was watching him, but he couldn’t look at his friend. Couldn’t handle the sadness and concern he knew he’d see in those too-knowing, too compassionate warm brown eyes.
“You okay?” Simon asked softly.
He shook his head. Moving into the kitchen, he took two mugs from the cupboard and placed them on the counter with the exaggerated care more reminiscent of a drunk than a sober man. “You?”
“No,” Simon sighed. “The others,” he started, but his voice cracked and he had to clear his throat. “When I told them, they cried, Jim. They all cried. It’s just so damned unfair.”
Still facing the cupboards, Jim’s lips thinned. He nodded jerkily and stuck his hands in his pockets to hide their trembling.
“I, uh, I called the Academy; told them why he never reported,” Simon went on doggedly. “And, and I talked to the Coast Guard. They’ll put out an advisory, but they think it’s unlikely that he’ll ever be found.”
Jim flinched and bowed his head, turning his face further away from Simon.
“Joel will organize the memorial service. You want me to call Naomi for you?”
Naomi. God, he hadn’t thought about her. Sorrow flared anew, consuming him and his knees nearly gave out. He had to lean his hands on the counter to stay upright. How could he tell her this? His heart cringed and rebelled in protest, but his mind knew its duty. “No, no, I’ll call her … or at least try to reach her. If she’s not still in LA, I don’t know where she might be.”
“Go sit down,” Simon directed kindly. “I’ll bring the coffee.”
Jim turned away. His muscles felt hard and unyielding as he moved stiffly across the floor. Easing down onto the couch, he sat staring at the floor, his hands loosely clasped between his knees. Simon placed a mug of coffee on the table in front of him, but he had no inclination to reach for it.
“You want to talk?”
“No,” he rasped. Leaning his head back against the cushion, he closed his eyes and wished he could so easily blot out the hateful knowledge that Blair was gone.
They sat in silence as the hours passed and the day darkened into dusk.
When the phone rang, Simon rose to answer it. He talked briefly, listened, thanked whoever it was. Distantly, Jim realized he couldn’t hear who was on the line, but he didn’t care.
Coming back into the living room, Simon settled again on the love seat. “That was Joel. The service will be held the day after tomorrow at two in the afternoon. He hopes it’s okay that he asked his pastor to conduct it in their church. Blair didn’t seem all that, uh, affiliated with his traditional heritage – or any other, for that matter.”
“That’ll be fine,” Jim replied, his voice empty of emotion. Making an effort to rouse himself, he straightened. “Blair would … Blair would appreciate Joel doing this for him.”
“Yeah, that’s what I figured, too,” Simon rumbled thickly.
Exhaling slowly, determined to keep it together, Jim pushed himself to his feet and went to the phone. He punched in the speed dial number Blair had programmed in case Jim ever had to reach Naomi, and waited through the distant ringing. This was Blair’s mother. Blair would want him to be gentle. And kind. He remembered that Blair had said he valued Jim’s gentleness and kindness. Shaking his head, he fought back the lump in his throat.
“Hello?” her musical voice lilted on the line.
“Naomi? It’s Jim,” he said, and took a breath to steady himself.
“Jim?” she exclaimed. He heard the first tinge of fear as she asked urgently, “Is everything alright?”
“I’m sorry, Naomi. I’d give anything not to have to tell you this.” He heard her gasp as he continued as gently as he could manage, “Blair was in a bad accident today. This morning. His car went off a cliff and crashed on the rocks. He’s … Blair’s … he’s gone, Naomi.” He hated that his voice cracked but he couldn’t help it. “Blair’s gone,” he whispered again as he fought back tears.
He heard her small wailing protests, “no, no, no,” and listened to her weeping. Taking a deep breath, he rubbed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. And he was pathetically grateful when Simon came to stand beside him, to grip his shoulder and lend support. “I’m sorry,” he said into the phone. “I’m more sorry than I can say.”
She sniffled and murmured brokenly, “I know, Jim. I know you loved him, too.”
“Yeah,” he rasped, his breathing increasingly ragged. “Is there someone I can call to be with you right now? You shouldn’t be alone.”
“No, that’s alright,” she replied, sounding distracted and somehow old and frail. “A friend is visiting. I’m not alone. What about you?”
“Simon is here.”
“Good. Let him help you, Jim,” she urged, tears in her voice. “Blair … Blair would ....”
“I know,” he supplied when her voice caught. Needing the painful conversation to be over, he told her, “The service is going to be the day after tomorrow. Let me know when you’re flying in.” And, though it was the last thing he wanted, he added, “You can stay here.”
“I’ll call you later,” she whispered, and then the line went dead.
He hung up and leaned his forehead against the cool wall. “I … I don’t know if I can do this, Simon.”
“We’ll help as much as we can,” Simon promised as he drew Jim around and, though Jim tried to resist, enfolded him in strong arms. “You won’t be alone, Jim. Even if you try, we won’t let you retreat from us. Blair would kick our asses if we did, and you know it.”
He shuddered and curled his fists into the back of Simon’s sweater. His hard-won control snapped again and he quaked with his loss and his unquenchable, overwhelming sorrow.
Simon spent the night on the sofa and stayed until Joel brought Naomi from the airport, late the next morning. She took one look at Jim and burst into tears. With tender care, he gathered her close and held her, giving what comfort he had to share.
Joel looked away, his hand covering his mouth. Simon’s face creased with grief and he shook his head wearily. “We’ll just leave you two alone for awhile. Give me a call if there’s anything you need.”
Jim nodded, watching mutely as his friends left the apartment, though he was desperate not to be left alone with Blair’s mother. He didn’t want Blair to be dead, either. So much for what he wanted or didn’t want.
He guided her into the living room and got her settled in the chair. “Can I make you a cup of tea?” he offered.
She dabbed at her eyes and nodded. “I’d appreciate that, thank you.”
It gave him something to do, at least for a few minutes. Once the tea had steeped, he poured two mugs and carried them from the kitchen. He handed one to her, and then sank down on the sofa.
“Tell me more about what happened,” she said. “About the accident.”
He shrugged. “There’s not much to tell. It was raining and the road was slippery. He was on his way to the Academy – it was going to be his first morning there. Another car passed on the curve and then cut him off so sharply that Blair braked and swerved. His car skidded out of control on the wet pavement and … and crashed through the guardrail.” He stopped and then forced himself to go on, for her sake if not for his, because he could too easily visualize Blair’s last moments of terror and crushing pain. Had he died in the crash or drowned? Jim flinched away from the question, unable to deal with it. “It would have been fast, Naomi. So fast. He wouldn’t have suffered.”
Her gaze fell away as she nodded and then sipped gingerly at the hot tea. When she didn’t say anything, he grated with bitter regret, “I know you feared that being a cop, even being around cops, would cost him his life. I’m … I’m sorry you were right. If it wasn’t for me, he’d never have been on that road.”
“Don’t say that, Jim,” she retorted, her tone fierce. “Don’t you ever blame yourself for this. Blair loved you and he was doing what he wanted to do. There was nothing that he wanted more than to be your partner. I hate that he’s gone, but it was an accident. Just a terrible, horrible accident. If anyone is to blame, it’s that driver that cut him off. Does anyone know who that was?”
“No,” Jim gusted with a sharp shake of his head as he leaned forward and cradled the mug of tea in his hands, needing the warmth to counter the persistent chill that had enveloped him. “We’ll probably never know.”
She studied him with wide, solemn eyes, and then leaned forward to set her mug on the coffee table. Entwining her fingers on her knee, she asked, “Jim … were you and Blair happy? Had you … had you worked out what happened between you?”
His throat thickened. Unable to reply immediately or meet her solemn gaze, he nodded. Finally, he said, “Yes, we, uh, we worked everything out. Everything.” His voice caught and he cleared his throat. Flicking a look at her, he struggled to go on. “The last six weeks were … were magic, Naomi. We went away together, spent a month by the ocean. Some time in San Francisco. The last … last morning, he hugged me and gave me a big smile before he left for the Academy. We were … we were happy.”
Her expression softened. He caught her lifting her eyes to the upper bedroom and he flushed. Seeing that, she smiled poignantly. “I’m glad,” she said simply, and then sighed. “Maybe it was meant to be.”
“What?” he demanded, furious that she could say such a thing. No way could any of this, this abomination be ‘meant to be’!
Her hands fluttered, and then she moved to sit beside him. Taking his stiff hand in her own, she said quietly, “The last time Blair and I talked, he told me he drowned several months ago. That he’d died, but you brought him back.”
Jim flinched, but she wouldn’t let him pull away. “Jim, he told me he was so glad you had wrought that miracle because, just before, the two of you had fought. He said his last thoughts had been how much he hated that you’d parted in anger, and he told me how he would have hated to have had it all end like that between you.”
Looking away, but still clutching his hand tightly, she went on, “Blair believed that all things happen for a purpose. I think … I think he believed that he was allowed to come back so that the two of you would have another chance to … to make things right between you. He told me what he most wanted was to be your partner, only he was afraid that wouldn’t be possible. The next day … the next day you gave him that. You gave him what he most wanted. And, Jim? Since you called, I’ve thought a lot about that last talk we had, that last evening. Looking back, remembering everything he said, how he recalled special times we’d shared … well, I think he may have sensed that he didn’t have much time. That what happened months ago was only a reprieve that wouldn’t last forever.”
He clenched his jaw and shook his head. He didn’t want to talk about this.
But she went on relentlessly in her gentle voice, “Jim, this is a terrible loss. I can’t … I can’t hardly even think about it.” She frowned, evidently struggling for her own control. “But I know Blair would have been extraordinarily happy to live his life by your side – to have everything good between you. He’d want you to have those memories, not harsh ones. Not bitter ones. You were the most important person in his life and he loved you more than anyone, even me.” She sniffed and blinked back the moisture that glistened in her eyes. “He wouldn’t ever want to leave you, but if it had to happen, he’d be glad the two of you had time to be together. To be happy with one another. Jim, you must know how very much he loved you.”
Looking away, once again waging a struggle with emotions that threatened to unman him, he nodded. “I just hope,” he husked, “that he knew how much I love him.”
“I’m sure he did,” she soothed. “And if he didn’t before, he knows now.”
“Now?” he echoed, a frown puckering his brow. “There is no ‘now’.”
Smiling with ethereal serenity that set his teeth on edge, she disagreed. “The soul is immortal, Jim. Only his body is gone. We may not be able to see him, but Blair is here with us.”
“No,” he disputed, but without heat, only out of the hollowness he felt. “No, I’d be able to feel him if he was here. I can’t explain it but I’m sure I’d sense him, be able to see him. He’s not here, Naomi. I don’t know where he is … but he’s not here.”
Perplexed by his certainty, she frowned again. “Knowing Blair,” she muttered to herself, “he might already have been born into another body. But … no,” she argued with herself. “No, I’m sure he wouldn’t abandon you. He loved you too much. In some way, your souls are entwined. He’ll be with you for the rest of your life.”
God, he couldn’t stand this, this utter certainty she had when he knew, he knew, goddamnit, that Blair wasn’t with him. Couldn’t stand this endless discussion about what? Blair’s spirit? How did it help? What difference did it make? Anger surged. Pulling away from her, he stood to pace in agitation. He hated this mystical shit, always had. He wanted to deny it, but he couldn’t. Between experiencing the jungle at the fountain when Blair had come back to him, and having met Molly, he knew without doubt that there was more than could be explained by what passed as real life – knew that the soul did go on. Part of what had ripped him apart the day before was that Blair hadn’t come when he’d called out for him. He’d half – more than half – believed Blair would appear before him. That wouldn’t be enough, not nearly enough, but he ached to see Blair again. Ached to talk with him, to touch him and hold him.
Stopping to stare out the window, he felt shame to know that he did feel as if Blair had abandoned him. It wasn’t rational and wasn’t fair to Blair’s memory, but that’s how he felt. Why hadn’t Blair appeared to him? Had it been that easy to let go? To flash out into the cosmos or wherever unbridled souls no longer tied to mortal flesh went?
He heard her rise and come to stand beside him. Felt the warmth of her hand on his back and he tried not to stiffen or flinch away.
“Trust him, Jim. And believe in him,” she urged. “Blair would never abandon you. He’d give up everything else, but he’d never give up on you. You know that don’t you? After all that’s happened between you? You must know that. If he’s not here, it’s because something is keeping him away.”
“What could keep him away?” he asked, albeit reluctantly, but he wanted to believe her. Wanted that so badly.
“I don’t know,” she replied as she gently rubbed his back. “I can’t imagine any force greater than the love he felt for you. It was a … a tangible thing. A power of its own. Irresistible.”
Jim searched the sky as he thought about what she’d said, her utter conviction, and struggled against his rational mind that told him it was all crazy. Taking a deep breath, he let it out slowly, and tried to let his taut muscles relax. Did he believe in Blair? Did he trust him enough to believe he’d be there if he could? Jim nodded to himself. Yes. Yes, he did believe that – and with that sure knowledge, he felt a kind of peace. Blair would never abandon him, not willingly. He knew that with unshakeable certainty.
But, then, the questions remained. Why couldn’t he sense anything of Blair? Why was he so certain that Blair was nowhere nearby?
Because, very simply, Blair just wasn’t there.
Wasn’t with him.
And that left him wondering why.
He puzzled over the questions for the rest of the afternoon and evening, even while listening to Naomi regale him with stories of Blair’s childhood and youth, and he told her stories in his turn. He was surprised that they were able to find comfort in one another and he smiled with rueful wistfulness as he climbed the stairs to his bed that night. Blair would be glad that he and Naomi had finally found common ground and were getting along.
He picked up the letters that were lying crumpled on the night table and tenderly smoothed them out. And then he read them again, slowly this time, savoring the words, imagining Blair’s voice in his mind.
“I love you, too, Chief,” he whispered as he delicately ran his fingers over the written words. “More than I thought I could ever love anyone. I miss you, buddy. It hurts bad, Blair. Really bad. I wish …. I wish I could see you. Why aren’t you here, babe? Why aren’t you here?”
Lying down, he read the letters again and then set them aside. Turning off the light, he lay on his back, staring up at the night sky. What would hold Blair’s spirit away from him? “Chief?” he ventured again, into the darkness. Frowning, he rolled on his side and punched the pillow.
He stared at the letters for a long time as he remembered their last weeks together. There was something niggling at the back of his mind, something he couldn’t quite bring forth. Something that he was missing. Sighing, telling himself he was too tired to think straight, he closed his eyes.
Something about the letters. Something about ….
But the thought drifted away as sleep stole over him.
Blair stood at the window of the high-rise hotel overlooking Washington D.C., but his thoughts were on the other side of the continent. He couldn’t stop thinking about Jim, and the sounds of his partner’s terrible grief. Helplessly shaking his head, he turned away from the view he hadn’t really seen, and huddled on the bed.
Tomorrow, Maybourne was taking him to the new center, a former holiday retreat someplace in the Virginia hills. According to the colonel, the trainees would be arriving the day after. Blair sighed as he thought about those strangers who were tormented by out-of-control senses. Whether they were sentinels or not, it wasn’t their fault that Maybourne had manipulated him into doing this. He couldn’t vent his anger and anguish on them.
Somehow, he had to find it in himself to care about them. He had to want to help them, or he’d be no good to them. Worse, he might only deepen whatever fears they had about something being wrong with them, something that they probably felt branded them as nutcases. Maybourne had shrugged as he’d relayed the information that nothing physically wrong had been found to account for their stated problems, so they’d all been diagnosed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder – a condition that many physicians thought was illusory, a psychological manifestation of fear and the inability to countenance the jobs those men and women had sworn to do.
Blair grimaced. Just what they needed. To have their doctors as much as call them cowards. He shook his head. And remembered how scared Jim had been when they’d first met. How certain Jim had been that he was probably going insane. These strangers needed help every bit as much as Jim had. And, in a way, they were Jim’s … brothers and sisters in arms. Men and women his lover would identify with and understand. What if Jim had been one of them? What if he’d stayed in the military and only now had a chance to find out he wasn’t crazy, but that his senses were awesome gifts?
Blowing out a long breath, Blair murmured, “For you, Jim. I’ll take as good care of these people as I can. Because any one of them could have been you.”
Closing his eyes, he thought about Jim, imagined him at home in the loft. Wondered how Jim was doing. And wished with all his heart that he could be there to give solace and relief.
Jim would eventually figure out the clues he’d left in the letters. But he didn’t know if that would help or only make things worse for his lover. Maybe he should have left it alone. Maybe Maybourne had been right, that it would have been kinder to let Jim go on believing he was dead, so Jim could mourn him and then get on with his life. Had leaving the truth behind been for himself more than Jim?
He didn’t know. He only knew that, if it was him, believing Jim was dead would be more devastating than he could ever even begin to deal with. There’d be no end to the mourning, no refuge from the grief. But, even if they couldn’t be together, he’d feel some relief knowing Jim wasn’t dead, but alive, somewhere. And he’d never give up hoping they’d find a way, somehow, to be together again. That hope alone would be reason enough for him to go on.
When the memory of Jim’s wrenching sobs again filled his mind, he had to fight his own urge to weep. But that awful memory finally convinced him that, yes, he’d done the right thing. Jim would want to know. Would be relieved to know. Blair smiled ruefully, thinking that the knowledge, in its own way, might drive Jim a little nuts if he couldn’t figure out where Blair was – but the terrible, aching pain of loss wouldn’t be the same. There wouldn’t be the same emptiness and sense of futility.
And there’d be the cold comfort of hope to cling to when the empty days seemed to stretch into infinity and the silent loneliness of the nights became too much to bear.
Joel introduced Jim and Naomi to his pastor a half hour before the other mourners would be arriving. They both thanked him for his willingness to host the memorial service for a man who had not been a member of his congregation. Pastor Knowles assured them that there was no need for thanks and kindly ushered them to the front pew.
“Joel has told me about the format for services for members of the law enforcement community,” he said, “so the rituals today will be familiar to you, Detective Ellison.” Turning to Naomi, he went on, “And I understand that you and your son shared beliefs that are somewhat different from mine. I will try to respect that in my commentary.”
“Thank you,” she replied with dignity. “Blair and I, well, we believe that there are countless ways to find our way to the grace and love of the living Universe.”
He smiled and nodded. “In truth, I believe you’re absolutely right. God loves us so well that he speaks to us in many voices to help us understand his word and accept his love of us.”
Jim looked away, his shoulders twitching uncomfortably. Much as he’d like to believe that, he was far from sure there was any Supreme Entity who cared a damn about what happened to anyone. But he refrained from comment. There was something beyond this life; he knew that with absolute certainty. If this service would bring Naomi and others comfort, well, that was a good thing. For himself, there would be no comfort from anyone or anything short of Blair coming back to him, to show him that Blair really was okay. And was still with him. He sighed as his gaze wandered aimlessly around the sanctuary and he wondered again why Blair hadn’t come to him. And he wondered bitterly if this so-called loving Universe was what was keeping Blair away.
To calm himself, he turned his thoughts to Blair’s letters, and felt a rush of gratitude that Blair had come up with the idea of writing them. As well as he could conjure Blair’s voice in his mind, the concrete words gave him a different, more tangible comfort in the assurance of how much Blair had loved him. Did love him. Wherever he was. Frowning, he again felt some thought teasing in the back of his mind. There was something about the letters ….
Frustrated, he let it go and redirected his thoughts to what he wanted to say when it came his time to speak about the man who had so changed and enriched his life.
More mourners arrived, Simon, with a very solemn Darryl, and the rest of the gang from MCU, a few others from the PD … most of them support staff from Records, Forensics and Administration but there were other cops, too. Dan Wolf came in, with Serena. Jim recognized Dr. Eli Stoddard, Jack Kelso, and a few other faces from Rainier, people Blair had worked with, who had been friends. Surprisingly, or maybe not, Jim thought, there were quite a few people they’d encountered during one or another of the cases they’d worked on over the years. He was surprised to see his father and Steven enter and, turning away, was glad they chose seats in the back. The last time he’d spoken to either of them had been when the … he shut his mind down. He didn’t want to think about that time not quite two months ago.
When the music started, he was startled that it wasn’t some funereal dirge on the organ, but the sort of music Blair had liked to listen to when he’d been meditating. Blair would appreciate the thoughtfulness. Catching Joel’s eye, Jim nodded and smiled gratefully.
Pastor Knowles rose to stand in front of the altar. “Welcome,” he called out. “And thank you, for coming to celebrate Blair Sandburg’s life.” His voice became more intimate as he went on, “I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing Blair, but I’ve heard a good deal about him. I wish I had known him. I think we would have found much to talk about. While he and I might share different spiritual and philosophical traditions, I suspect that we would agree that, ultimately, we are loved by a compassionate God, and that nothing happens randomly in our Universe. There is always a reason, a purpose, though it might be, and often is, beyond our ability to grasp or understand. From all I’ve heard about Blair, he sounds like a singular and very special human being. One who had rich gifts of intelligence, compassion, and humor, as well as courage, and a rare integrity. I can feel the love that you hold for him and the love that you remember he shared with you. I can’t deny our sense of tragedy when someone so beloved is taken from us, in a senseless accident, too young, too soon. But I can tell you that I am certain that God is well pleased with this young son, and will have gathered him close, to bless his spirit with peace. Take comfort in that knowledge, and in the joy of your memories of this unique and wonderful man.” He paused and then offered, “Please, those of you who wish to share your memories of Blair, please come forward.”
Jim had to fight to remain in the sanctuary, to not storm out in blind, anguished rage. Comfort? What comfort? There was no comfort. The image of Blair being drawn into some golden place to rest in peace for all eternity was not his Blair. But he forced himself to sit and listen, and he drew Naomi close to comfort her when her tears overflowed.
Many people spoke and most, like Simon, said something about how they regretted they hadn’t told Blair how much they’d appreciated him and valued him. They all said they’d miss him and, in one way or another, that the world was less bright without him. As he listened, Jim bowed his head and fought to retain control of his emotions.
And then it was his turn, the last to speak before the service ended. Naomi patted his arm as he rose to climb the two shallow steps and stand to face them all. He could see and smell and hear people weeping, and the cloying scent of the flowers in the hall was choking. In his mind, he could so clearly hear Blair say, “Turn it down, man. Just turn it down.”
He swallowed to moisten his bone dry throat. “Blair Sandburg was, is, my best friend, the best friend any man could have, and a far better friend than I deserved. He was also my partner.” His voice cracked and he paused to steady himself. “There are very few people who know how much Blair meant to me, and how, how empty my life is and how difficult it will be, without him by my side. He was the best man I ever met. Pastor Knowles said he had courage. Yeah, yeah, he did. Untrained and unarmed, he followed me into danger more times than I can count, to back me up, because it was the right thing to do. He wasn’t fearless – to act without fear isn’t courage. He knew his vulnerabilities, but they never stopped him. He was the bravest man I’ve ever known. And the most gentle and compassionate. He gave unstintingly of himself to anyone who had need of him.”
Jim took a deep breath and sighed as he shook his head. “Truthfully? I can’t really accept that he’s dead. That that brilliant mind, that brimming exuberance and energy is gone. I don’t know how to go on without him. Can’t grasp that I’ll never hear his voice again. All I know is that he would want and expect me to keep doing my best. To honor him, I can do no less. But I’ll miss him until I take my last breath.” He hesitated, reluctant to bare himself so completely, but he owed it to Blair to say it straight out. “And I will love Blair Sandburg beyond even death.”
He sniffed and swiped at his nose, looked out over the somber congregation, and then glanced at Pastor Knowles. “The Pastor has given us a comforting image of Blair reposing in peace.” Jim shook his head and a small, wounded smile touched his lips. “But, really, can you imagine Sandburg sitting still for that?”
Startled laughter rippled through the sanctuary.
“No, I didn’t think so,” Jim continued wryly. “He had too much energy, too much curiosity and sheer vitality. No, no … Blair isn’t lying on some cloud, contemplating eternity. He’s out there, figuring out how it all works, making suggestions about what colors should be employed in sunsets and flowers and mountain lakes, arguing that angels should get a lot more active in the affairs of men and women, to bring relief and help and support to those in need. He’s debating the ethical value and validity of free will in how we all act out our lives and the choices we make, arguing from the perspective of those who are vulnerable, who have no input to those choices but who suffer because of them. Blair … Blair’s still doing all he can, wherever he is, to make everything a little better than it is today, contributing all he is to making a difference for the good. And in his spare time, he’s out there, checking out the rest of this immense universe, thrilled to his boots to finally have the chance to see it all. That’s the image I have of Blair, my Blair. A shining spirit too brilliant and vigorous to be bound.”
Lifting his hands and pressing his fingertips together to hold himself steady, he concluded, “Naomi, Blair’s mother, and I want to thank every one of you for being here today. Blair would be so touched by your words and to see how much you care about him. But … but he wouldn’t want a lot of weeping and mourning. Blair … Blair would want you to remember him with laughter and with joy. So, when you remember him, remember his energy, his smile and the sound of his laughter. Remember how he touched your heart and made your world a little, maybe even a lot, better. Remember his gift of friendship. Most of all, remember his joy, and his unending love affair with life.”
He still saw tears, but he also saw smiles, and he nodded to himself as he returned to his seat. Blair would want the smiles, and would be proud of him, that he’d done his best when his own heart was shattered, to bring that comfort to all the rest.
The reception in the church basement was excruciating to him. The noise, the smell of over-cooked coffee and too strong tea, the perfumes and colognes, the voices raised in loud reminiscence, all scourged his erratic senses until he felt raw. He tried, he really tried to endure it, but it was too much. Too damned hard.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly to Naomi. “I have to get out of here.”
She nodded with understanding. “Of course. I’m ready to leave, too. And I need to soon go to the airport for my flight home.”
“You’re leaving already?” he asked, surprised and ashamed of the relief he felt as he escorted her outside. Simon trailed along behind, having noticed their departure.
“Yes, in about two hours.”
Only when they reached the sidewalk did Jim remember that he hadn’t driven to the service; that Joel had picked them up.
“My car is just over here,” Simon called out. “I’ll take you home.”
“Thanks,” Jim sighed and ushered Naomi into the back seat.
As they drove away, Simon said quietly, “You did good today, Jim. Blair would have appreciated everything you said, and then some. I think, most of all, he would have liked the fact that you got us to laugh.”
Jim nodded but continued to stare out at the passing street.
“You’re right, Simon,” Naomi chimed in from the back seat as she reached forward to pat Jim on the shoulder.
He barely restrained the sigh that threatened. He knew they were trying their best to cheer him up, but it was a lost cause. To shift their attention, he said, “Naomi’s going home today.”
“So soon?” Simon exclaimed, with a glance at her over his shoulder. “Are you going to be alright? Blair wouldn’t want you to be alone right now.”
“I’ll be fine, Simon, thank you,” she replied. “I … well, like Jim, I can’t really quite believe yet that he’s gone. It just doesn’t seem possible. Especially now, when he was so happy to know he’d be working with you both officially. But I have to believe that there is some purpose to it all, some compelling reason he had to leave us or he wouldn’t have gone. He just would not have gone. I have to hold onto that and, and just keep telling myself how incredibly lucky I was to have him, even if it was for far too short a time.”
Simon frowned and Jim figured his friend was remembering the twisted wreck and thinking that Blair hadn’t had much choice in the matter. Or maybe Simon was thinking about how Naomi was scarcely ever around, and had been far from a constant presence in Blair’s life. Jim’s jaw flexed and he swallowed the resentment he felt about her wistful, earth mother, routine. What did it matter, if it brought her comfort? Blair wouldn’t begrudge it, so why should he? But, despite himself, he found himself agreeing with her that Blair wouldn’t have gone without some compelling reason. No matter how bad that wreck was, Blair would have found a way to hold on, to survive. He was just too damned stubborn to quit.
So what could have made him go? When he had wanted what they had so much?
Simon and Naomi continued to talk around him, leaving him to his silence. And he was very grateful when Simon offered to take her to the airport. More than anything, other than the ever-present desire to have Blair back, Jim craved being alone.
Alone to think about Blair and to reread those letters, while he remembered their last, wonderful weeks together.
Maybourne dropped him off with an off-hand comment about making himself at home and the assurance that his ‘students’ would be arriving the next day, all twenty of them.
Relieved to be free of the odious colonel, he looked at the lodge, and found the weathered wood and stone oddly comforting. Though it was a struggle, he forced himself to focus on the now, to get past his anger and grief, and to concentrate on ensuring he was ready for the arrival of his … what? Students? Possible sentinels?
Turning away from the entrance, he wandered around the building to check out the grounds, and approved of the peaceful ambiance of the place. Surrounded by tree-covered hills, he could see and hear nothing but the wind rustling through leaves, cheerful birdsong and, from somewhere close by, the gurgle and chuckle of water flowing over rocks. His charges would hear more, of course, but he hoped they’d find the environment restful, healing. There were twenty individual cabins, and he supposed it was no coincidence that that would be the number in the group. Checking each cabin in turn, he noted they all had a white noise generator, as he’d stipulated, so the students would be able to sleep without the distraction of heightened sounds. The accommodations weren’t luxurious, but the beds looked comfortable and were made up with soft, silk sheets and cotton blankets. Each cabin had two armchairs, as well as a straight chair, desk and chest of drawers.
Once he was assured the basic needs of his group had been met, he went into the main lodge and made his way to the kitchen, where he found a chef industriously stocking shelves with food stuffs.
“Hi, I’m Blair Sandburg,” he offered, holding out his hand.
The stocky, middle-aged, African-American man shook hands and said, “Sergeant Milt Freeborne. Pleased to meet you, sir.”
“Just ‘Blair’, okay?” he countered with a smile. Looking around, he went on, “Looks like you’ve got everything you need – will there be daily help to assist with food preparation?”
“Yes si-Blair. Two local women have been hired and a third will work part-time on the weekends.”
“And who replaces you on your time off?”
“Oh, I’ll prepare meals ahead, no problem,” Milt replied jovially.
Leaning back against the central work table, Blair asked, “Did the colonel advise you that our residents have special food needs?”
“No,” Milt replied with surprise. “Allergies? That sort of thing?”
“In a way,” Blair agreed. “They may all be sensitive to spicy foods, especially at the beginning. Part of my job is to, um, de-sensitize them to some extent. So, for the first week, anyway, we should stick to pretty bland foods, and let them add spices to their individual tastes.”
“No problem,” Milt said with a shrug. “What about you? Any food preferences?”
“Basically, just healthy stuff. I can’t take a lot of grease or fat.”
“No, just lean meat, fish, chicken, the usual – ostrich,” he added with a small grin.
“High in protein and very nutritious,” Milt approved. “What time do you want the meals served?”
“Seven to eight AM, noon to one, and six to seven in the evening. Maybe have some snacks, popcorn, beer, nuts, maybe even ice cream, for them to help themselves to when they want. I … I’d like to create as comfortable an atmosphere for them as I can.”
“Not like boot camp, huh?” Milt laughed.
“Nah,” Blair chuckled. “They’ve already jumped through those loops.” Straightening, he ambled toward the door. “Catch ya later, Milt. If I can help with anything, let me know.”
He checked out the dark, windowless conference room next and sighed at the formality of the large oval table surrounded by what at least looked like comfortable chairs. But it was better than a classroom, and he supposed the certain cool rigidity of the room would fit their concept of appropriate discipline, or whatever.
The lab had all the equipment he’d ordered, to help him test and assess their senses.
His office was, surprisingly, fairly pleasant. Two walls were lined with bookcases, and most of the books he’d requested were already in place. The modular desk and file cabinets looked efficient and the laptop was state-of-the-art. The phone had both internal and external lines. Evidently, Maybourne trusted him not to make inappropriate calls – or maybe the calls were being monitored. Hell, who would he call? He was ‘dead’, after all. The three chairs all looked more than adequate to their need. A large window on the outside wall looked out on a vista of forested hills and, he was pleased to see, it could be opened to let in fresh air.
Finally, he climbed the broad staircase just off the reception area and central hall of the lodge, that led to an upper corridor lined with guest rooms and, eventually, his suite of rooms. He quirked a brow in surprise when he saw the solid, leather furniture; Maybourne sure hadn’t spared anything for his comfort. There was a thirty-two inch television, a good quality sound system, and lots of CDs of the sort he enjoyed. He had his own small kitchen, stocked with what he’d said he wanted for breakfast and snacks. The refrigerator held bottles of water, various juices and beer. The bedroom was just as well-appointed, and the closet was filled with more clothing than he’d owned in his life. Snorting at the extravagance with what was taxpayers’ money, he returned to the living room and put on a environmental CD of a rippling creek, wind and birdsong overlaid with a simple, haunting flute.
Dropping into an armchair, he stared out the wide picture window at the hills that rolled into the distance.
“Home sweet home,” he muttered and tried, really, really tried to appreciate the place and not hate it all with every fiber of his being. As the day waned, he combed his fingers through his hair and rose to light several of the candles that covered virtually every surface. And then he dropped into a lotus position, closed his eyes and deepened his breathing, hoping meditation would help him find his balance … so that he’d be of some earthly use to the men and women he’d meet on the morrow.
Much as he treasured the letters, there was something about them that Jim was beginning to find more than a little irritating. Blair spoke of love in the letters, and even joked that they’d be hidden away from prying eyes, but the notes had still been written as if Blair feared someone else would see them; they could almost be read as if written as a dear friend rather than as a lover. Because of the diss? Because Blair never again would risk hurting him by inadvertent disclosure? As if the physical love they shared was something that had to be hidden? Frowning, Jim noticed another oddity. There wasn’t a single mention of his senses in any of the letters, not one, though his senses were so much a part of their history, their shared memories. Jim appreciated the subtlety and care, but he regretted it at the same time. He would have preferred total candor and intimacy in those letters, not just words that were true but also relatively circumspect.
Tossing the pages on the coffee table, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes to call up his still vivid memories of their holiday. The visions of their love-making were precious but too sharply and touchingly emotional to endure. So he concentrated instead on what they did, what they talked about, recalled the giant sequoias and the places they saw in San Francisco.
He played over the memories like another man might count worry beads, finding them reassuring and soothing, pleasant if … if poignant. He thought about how Blair had seemed so preoccupied and worried about something and wished fervently that he’d tried harder to find out what it was. He hated to think that Blair had died with some anxiety haunting him. Hated even more that Blair hadn’t felt comfortable in sharing whatever it was. Man, the kid had sure been worried about the dangers of the job and what it might mean for them in the long run … if they even had a long run. If one or both didn’t get killed on the job. Frowning, he reflected now that those worries had been uncomfortably prophetic, and he pushed those memories away.
Instead, he conjured up the day Blair had again surprised him with the esoteric range of his knowledge and experience. Somehow, in all the years they’d been together, he’d never suspected that Sandburg had knowledge of Morse code. He was going to miss that, that constant fun of new discovery as he plumbed the depths of Blair’s mind and whimsy. And the kid could be affected by the damnedest things. Imagine him being so moved, and understanding so deeply the import of the ‘silent key’ ritual. Hell, he’d seemed almost on the verge of tears at one point. Blair’s capacity to embrace and respect the customs of others, to grasp the significance and meaning, had been profound, even a bit awesome. Sighing, Jim freely acknowledged that Blair had been so much better at the emotional stuff, so much more open, than Jim knew he’d ever be. He’d never told Blair how much he appreciated that about him, and he hoped that the odd, too rare gesture – like the way he’d placed his hand on the back of Blair’s neck to comfort his sorrow in remembering the silent key tradition – had been understood and appreciated for the depth of feeling such gestures represented.
Remembering, he thought Blair had seemed to understand, and the sorrow in the man’s eyes as he’d recounted the tradition had faded. The silent key, a tradition and ritual of death. Sighing, Jim rubbed his eyes. It was evocative and moving, painfully so now.
And then he stiffened and sat up.
He’d read that … something like that … in Blair’s letters. Or was it just the resonance of words, not ‘silent key’ exactly. Frowning, he picked up the letters and shuffled through the pages until he found the word ‘silent’ – and, right beside it, ‘key’ was spelled out in Morse.
“What the hell?” he gaped, his eyes narrowing as he re-examined the letters. That was it. That’s what had been nagging at him. Those long weird ellipses and dashes, when Blair never used anything like that in his writing.
And they all spelled out words. ‘Key’. ‘File’.
Blair had been doing more than writing him love letters.
Sandburg had been sending him a covert, coded message.
Blair’s voice echoed in his mind, once again promising to let him know what was wrong when they got home.
And suddenly, Blair’s care in what he revealed – and hadn’t – in the letters made sense. He had been afraid someone else might read them, someone illicit … someone dangerous.
Someone who might use their relationship, or his sensory skills, against them.
“Son of a bitch,” he growled. “Maybe it wasn’t an accident, after all. Damn it – if someone killed you, Chief, I’m gonna find the bastard and rip him apart.”
Again and again, Jim read the letters, searching for the message hidden within. He blinked and his lips parted when it all finally clicked.
Standing, he hurried to Blair’s room and powered up the laptop. It took him a few minutes, but he found the prompt to enter in the username ‘Chief’ and the password, ‘partner’, to access an encrypted file.
The page opened, and he stared at the first line.
‘Jim, I’m alive.’
His breath caught and, for a moment, he couldn’t breathe. He started to shake with relief so exquisite it was painful. He rubbed his mouth, and his eyes, got his breathing under control … and started to read.
‘Jim, I’m alive.
Whatever happened, however it was made to look like I died, it was all faked. God, I hope you won’t hate me for what I’ve done. But, please, please believe me – I had NO choice but to go along with this godawful charade.
After the press conference, I was approached by someone who didn’t believe a word of it. He wanted a ‘guide’ to help train potential sentinels. Jim, he threatened to either expose you or … well, bottom line, if I didn’t comply with his demands, he threatened to have you and Naomi murdered. Believe me, the threat was entirely credible. He brought the assassin with him when he came to the loft the day before you got out of the hospital. I trust you, man, and I’d bet on you against anyone in an even half-fair fight. But … you wouldn’t even know this guy was coming. And how could I risk Mom’s life?
I’ve known since then that I’ll have to go when he calls. And I’ve known that he will be faking my death. He said it would be kinder, so you and Mom wouldn’t always be wondering where I was and if I was okay. Maybe he’s right. It’s probably best to let Naomi believe the lie. But I can’t stand lying to you. I can’t just disappear without you knowing that if there was any way, I would have told you … dying would be easier than leaving you will be. But his terms were that nobody could know. I was afraid if I told you, you’d want to try to fight this somehow. But it’s too big, Jim. They hold power, real power. I can’t … I can’t risk you. I can’t risk you being hurt or having your life destroyed.
So I agreed to his terms and I’ll train his sentinels, if he really has any. Maybe they’ll turn out to only have a few enhanced senses. Whatever. They’ll meet his requirements for what he wants from them. I don’t think they’re bad people, Jim. In fact, I think they may be very good people, people like you, who have no idea why their bodies seem to have turned on them.
It’s been so hard to not tell you all this. I wasn’t sure if … well, if I should admit to you that I love you the way I do. But I had to take the chance when you offered it, the chance to show you how very much you mean to me, and how much I love you. I’m sorry if all this has just hurt you more, if it would have been easier on you if we’d just stayed friends, but I wanted the time we’ve spent together. I guess it’s selfish but I want to have those memories. The past four years have been awesome, but these past six weeks have been so incredible, so wonderful … everything I ever dreamed being with you would be, and more. You are so precious to me, Jim. So infinitely precious.
I have every faith that you’ll figure out the clues I left, but I want you to know that those letters weren’t just a way to get the truth to you. I meant every word that I wrote. I just wish I could have written more – like the fact that I’ve never felt so alive or so exquisitely happy as when we were together – but I was afraid this guy might search the loft and read them, just to check if I’d left any message for you behind.
I also know you well enough to expect your first impulse will be to try to find me. And you’re good enough that you just might. Hell, if this was a bet, I’d definitely bet on you. I can’t help you, can’t tell you where they’re taking me, because I don’t know.
But be careful, Jim. Be very careful. Naomi’s life and yours rest on them not knowing you’re even looking. I have no doubt that they’ll be watching, at least for a while. If you decide it’s best to just leave it alone, easier to go on pretending I’m dead and gone, I’ll understand, because even if you find me, I won’t be able to leave with you. Not so long as the threat to you and Mom remains. I despise these guys, Jim. I abhor what they are doing to us. But they scare me. They really, really scare me, and I don’t dare defy them. It’d kill me if they went after you and Mom. Just kill me.
I hope you don’t see all this as just one more betrayal. I really hope that you’ll understand that I didn’t want to mislead or lie to you. But I did. And if you can’t forgive that, again, I understand. Trust is a fundamental thing for you and … I’ve breached it too many times. I’d rather die than hurt you, but it seems I go on hurting you over and over.
Jim, I wish I could have seen another way. I wish … I wish so much that I didn’t have to leave you. I love you. More than life, more than anything. But I have to go, probably very soon. If … if I can ever figure out a way to get free, if circumstances change and the threat is gone, I will come back to you.
But it could be years, Jim, if ever, and I don’t expect you to wait for me. If you have a chance to find love, to have someone wonderful in your life, take it. I want you to be happy.
I … I have to finish this before you wake up. I’m sorry, Jim. More sorry than I can say. All I wanted was to be your partner, at work and in life. To be the best I could be for you. Please don’t let what I’ve done sour you on others, on our friends, or the possibility of love in your life. You deserve to be loved, Jim. To have someone who cherishes you as I wanted to.
Be careful, man. Don’t take stupid chances. Make sure you work with backup. The sentinel file is still on this computer – share it with anyone you want, to help them give you the support you need.
I have to go.
Good bye, Jim. Take good care of yourself.
All my love, always,
Erupting with emotion, Jim stood so fast the chair crashed back on the floor, and he slammed his fist into the wall. He wanted to shake the living crap out of Blair for so willingly sacrificing himself – again. What would it take for that man to understand that his life, his hopes, his needs, had value? That he didn’t always come second, regardless of the threats to Jim or his mother or whomever.
“Shit!” Jim cursed fiercely. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you give me a chance to fix this before it went this far!” A tight knot grew in Jim’s gut. He knew why. The bastard had threatened exposure, and Blair knew all too well how Jim reacted to that. Hell, the kid had already given up his career and his good name. Why the hell not toss the rest of his life into the sacrificial pit to protect Jim’s privacy? Like that was any kind of even trade. It was bullshit. And it had to stop. Blair couldn’t keep being held hostage to his fears. “Damn it,” he groaned and sagged onto the edge of the futon.
Bracing his elbows on his knees, he pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes. His anger was misdirected and inappropriate, spawned by his unresolved feelings about the press conference. In agreeing to submit to the coercion and threats, Blair was only being true to his principles. He’d never put his life before the lives of people he loved. He’d do whatever it took to protect his mother … and his best friend, let alone his lover. Jim mourned the fact that Blair hadn’t trusted him enough to tell him any sooner – or even to make it clearer as to who had taken him. Blair knew his first reaction would be to fight back, to hell with the consequences. And Blair hadn’t been willing to take that risk. Hell, he made it clear he wouldn’t even accept a rescue. Blair put their lives ahead of his own, and ahead of the love between them.
No … that wasn’t fair, was it? Blair had done what he had out of love.
“Ah, Chief,” he moaned, his hands covering his face. “Hate you? Not hardly. Shake the living stuffing out you when I find you? You betcha.” He straightened the overturned chair and settled down to read the note again, grimacing at the pain and wrenching sorrow that radiated from it. Sandburg, for a genius, you can sure be an idiot sometimes, he thought, shaking his head. What the hell were you thinking? Trying to deal with this all on your own. Damn it, Chief. You should have told me.
Blair was afraid he might see this as another kind of betrayal. That, more than anything else, told Jim that Blair really didn’t trust him. Really didn’t believe that Jim loved him enough to put him first. And why would he? When had he ever put Blair first? There was always something more important. His job. His secret. His fears. Or … surely Sandburg wouldn’t have thought Jim would bail on him rather than fight back? Would run scared again and want to protect his secret more than he cared about Blair’s life? But hadn’t he hinted at that in the note? Hadn’t he said he’d understand if Jim thought it would be too much hassle to go after him? Jim’s hands shook and bile rose to burn the back of his throat.
Crap. He had to get it together. He couldn’t afford to let emotions get in the way of fixing this mess. The important thing – dear God, the miracle here – was that Blair was alive.
With a determined act of will, Jim locked down his anxieties about what the whole thing meant about how things stood between him and Blair. He didn’t have time for self-recriminations or regret. They could deal with everything else after he found out who had taken his partner and neutralized the threats. Whoever had done this wasn’t going to get away with it.
For the third time, he read the note, this time coldly and analytically, as a detective rather than as an abandoned and bereaved lover. His icy rage built at the way they’d manipulated Blair, but he didn’t let the emotion distract him – just used it to fuel his focus. Stringently methodical, he ran through the facts, such as they were, to piece together possible scenarios that might both lead him to motive and to the perpetrators of the kidnapping.
Why had Blair been taken?
To train sentinels. Sentinels who weren’t ‘bad people’; were maybe even ‘good’ people, people like him. Jim frowned at the distinction between the man who manipulated and the individuals to be trained. Means and ends, he thought. The ‘means’, the bullying of Blair into leaving, were distinct from the ‘ends’, the training of individuals who may be acting for the good and who were probably ignorant of how Blair had been ‘persuaded’ to help them.
Sentinels … plural, but how many? The whole thing had the trappings of a fairly big, even audacious operation. Who would have access to a bunch of possible sentinels? “Gotta be military,” he muttered. Who else has access to that many people with an innate need to protect their society, even at the possible cost of their own lives? Makes some sense that latent sentinels would be people who choose to train as warriors to protect their nation and society – not ‘bad people’ like members of organized crime, but ‘maybe even good’. People Blair would say might be like me.
Why had Blair found the threats so credible as to be compelled to go without putting up a fight? They’d been up against killers before. What made this one different? More frightening?
‘Assassin’ was a loaded word, cold and far more precise than the more prosaic ‘killer’. Had Blair used it deliberately or unconsciously? Had he meant to leave another clue? The assassin had been brought here, to the loft, to make the point that the threat was real and very deadly. But maybe it was more than that. Maybe Blair recognized the man, and that’s why he’d been brought in the first place. Maybe Blair had simply used the word that best fit that man. And Blair was afraid that Jim ‘wouldn’t even know that this guy was coming’. Jim frowned at that, puzzled by Blair assessment of the danger. This note gave fair warning. Why wouldn’t Blair assume he’d not only be on guard but actively trying to lock the creep up? Who might he not realize could be a risk?
Rubbing his chin, Jim thought it out. Someone Blair knew was deadly, someone Blair recognized personally … but also someone Blair thought Jim might not consider.
Blair only knew two assassins and Jim hoped one of them, Yuri, was long dead. And, come to think of it, Blair had never seen Yuri, had never met him.
Had to be Brackett.
Brackett – who also knew about sentinels and guides. Maybe he wasn’t just paid help. Maybe he was an intrinsic part of the plot to kidnap Blair. Hell, maybe he was the one who had set Blair up in the first place.
And Brackett had a pretty good alibi. He was supposed to be securely locked up in a federal institution – so he wouldn’t be someone Jim would automatically think of as a threat. But was Brackett still imprisoned? And even if he was back in his cell, did he have access to a free pass whenever it was needed? What would Brackett get out of being involved in this? Revenge? Nah. The guy was too cool, too professional for personal grudges. Maybe he was trading Blair for a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Nodding to himself, Jim thought that made sense. He had to find out if Brackett was still incarcerated.
Okay, so who’s Brackett’s control?
Someone who wanted trained sentinels – and evidently had the resources to set up some kind of secret school to do so. Someone who could fake a death. Someone who had the resources to search the loft … and put watchers on his tail.
Someone with power, or access to power. ‘Real’ power that so badly intimidated Blair – a man who rarely allowed anyone or anything to intimidate him – that even in the encrypted message, he hadn’t named any names or organizations that would have made finding him a helluva lot easier. Blair had gone so far as to suggest that Jim just forget it all and not search for him. Snorting, Jim shook his head. Yeah, right, like that would ever happen. But Blair was no fool. If he said the threat was real, that this power was dangerous, then Jim believed him.
It all added up to a big organization that had resources, power – and access to a fair number of potential sentinels.
Military? CIA? Some foreign power?
Jim chewed on his lip and decided there wasn’t enough to go on. Nor could he blunder around asking pointed questions and pushing for answers without risking deadly fallout.
He needed help.
Jim glanced at his watch and then reached for the phone on the desk. After punching in the number, he waited impatiently for the call to be answered – and then he quickly hung up. What if the phone was being monitored? He thought he’d know, be able to hear the tell-tale static on the line, but he didn’t want to take that chance. His senses had been wonky, cutting in and out, spiking and then disappearing, since Simon had brought him home from the site of the accident. Besides, it was possible that the loft was under surveillance with sound equipment that didn’t need something as crude as a tap on the line. Jim’s breath caught at the thought, and he tried to remember what he’d said out loud when he’d first read the encrypted message. If there was a directional microphone pointed at the windows, he may already have revealed too much. He had to be more careful.
Briskly, he closed down the file and turned off the computer before striding out of Blair’s old room and grabbing his jacket and keys. Once in the truck, he drove around aimlessly, watching for a tail, but he didn’t see one. Satisfied that he was unobserved, he pulled up beside the next telephone booth he spotted.
Dropping a quarter in the slot, he punched in the number. Looking around, monitoring the environment, he waited for an answer. “Jack? Jim Ellison. I need to see you. Right now, if possible.”
“Is this about –”
“Yeah,” he cut in to keep the conversation vague. “I’ve just found out that nothing is what it seemed.”
“Good. I wasn’t happy with the way things seemed. Come on over.”
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
Only as he was driving to Kelso’s apartment did Jim realize that he was speeding toward a discussion that might well require more personal disclosure than he’d ever been prepared to make, except to Simon and their superiors. And, well, Blair himself. Could he get away with scamming over the reason Blair had been taken? His knuckles tightened on the steering wheel. His gut-level response to revealing himself as a freak of nature hadn’t changed, not one whit, despite his angst about his inability to confront that fear, and the price Blair paid to keep the heat off him.
“Guess this is it, Chief. This is where the rubber hits the road.” He’d try to soft-pedal it but he wouldn’t sacrifice his chances of finding Blair by hiding critical information that might help Kelso search for answers. Blair’s safety and freedom had to be his priority. God knew, it wasn’t Blair’s.
God damn those bastards who had done this. He wanted to rip them apart with his bare hands! His fury and frustration, and his bitter regret that Blair hadn’t trusted him enough to tell him what was going down became a surging maelstrom that rose to choke him. He couldn’t stand the thought that Blair might be lost to him forever. Christ, how could Blair not know how he felt? How much he needed … wanted ….
Without warning, his senses spun out of control. The setting sun blinded him and the roar of traffic around him climbed to deafening proportions. His gut rebelled at the sickening stench of exhaust fumes that thickened the air and his hands felt numb, like blocks of wood. Cursing viciously, he wheeled to the side of the road and hit the brake.
“Not now, dammit!” he raged, impotent tears stinging his eyes. “Jesus, Sandburg, I’ve got to get control!”
Panting, struggling to contain the turbulent emotions that possessed him, he slammed his fist against the steering wheel before crossing his arms tightly and bowing his head. He couldn’t afford emotions. They just got in the way. He had to push them down, set them aside, shelve them, whatever. But, dammit, they’d taken Blair. And he’d gone with them! Hadn’t fought back. Hadn’t trusted him. What if he never found him? Where was he? What if he did fight? Was he hurt? Oh, God, what if all those sentinels were like Alex!
Easy, man, geez, just take it easy. Deep breaths … slowly, slow and deep. That’s it. You know how to do this, Jim. C’mon, let it go. Relax … just relax and breathe. Yeah, yeah, that’s it. Now, find your dials. One by one, bring them back into line ….
Blair’s voice faded from his mind and, exhausted, he sagged into the support of the seat. His emotions still roiled close to the surface, too close. Fear still shuddered in his body, resonating with his rage. He had to get a grip. There wasn’t time for this. Glancing at his watch, he checked the traffic and resumed his journey to Kelso’s place. He could do this. He could hold it together. He had to.
Once they were ensconced in the former agent’s soundproofed and windowless study, and he felt like he was finally doing something that would help his partner, Jim relaxed marginally. He leaned urgently toward the agent as he said, “Jack, I’ve just found out that Blair is alive. The ‘accident’ was faked by persons unknown to facilitate his disappearance. They, uh, want him to teach in some secret school they’re establishing.”
“Jim, sorry, but that sounds far-fetched,” Kelso challenged. “Blair is good, even brilliant, but he’s just one of any number of former doctoral students. Why would anyone go after him, especially after he put his integrity in question a couple months ago?”
Still reluctant to be entirely candid unless there was no other choice, Jim evaded eye contact as he replied, “All I know is that whoever it is didn’t believe his press conference and they want him to train sentinels. Blair was coerced into cooperating by threats against his mother’s life and mine.”
Jack Kelso frowned thoughtfully. “Why wouldn’t they believe the press conference? It was pretty convincing – and anyone who checked would know Blair was tossed out of graduate school and lost his job on the faculty because of his fraudulent act.”
Grimacing, Jim sighed. This was it. He had to bite the bullet. Blair had to come first. “I think Brackett is involved,” he growled angrily, and then leashed his fury at the rogue agent. Distancing himself from the facts, his tone was flat and cold as he explained, “Brackett knows that Blair’s theories about sentinels are right. Plus, he knows the ‘guide’ is key to helping a sentinel control and manage the senses.” Shifting uncomfortably, he elaborated, “A sentinel just does his or her thing without really knowing how or why things work. The guide figures that out and, uh, watches the sentinel’s back because a sentinel can … can zone – get mentally lost – when concentrating too hard on one sense to the exclusion of the others. Sandburg … Sandburg might be the only person in the world who has the qualifications to train sentinels.”
“I see,” Jack murmured, his astute gaze fixed on Jim. “So … there was truth in that paper that Blair declared was fictional and fraudulent. Truth he didn’t want the whole world to know. Given what you describe as intimate and detailed knowledge, I’d have to surmise that Blair is the guide to a sentinel. The press conference was a blind – to protect you.”
Sighing, feeling exposed, Jim nodded grudgingly. There was no way around it – if he wanted Jack’s help, then he couldn’t play silly-assed games with the truth. “Yeah.”
“Can’t say as I’m all that surprised,” Kelso said with a smile and the tone of a man whose beliefs had just been vindicated. “That press conference never made any sense to me. I just couldn’t see Blair pulling an unethical stunt like that. Why would he? With his talent and brilliance he didn’t need to use subterfuge to get his doctorate.” Giving Jim a speculative look, Kelso scratched his cheek. “And after what you said at the service today, it seemed pretty clear that –”
“Yeah, well, Sandburg did what he thought he had to do for altruistic reasons,” Jim cut in, vastly uncomfortable with discussion about either the press conference or the memorial service, “both about fixing the leak of his dissertation and in allowing these jerks to railroad him into complying with their demands. He’s never had the first clue about self-preservation.”
“Protecting someone you feel responsible for and care about is a powerful motivator,” Jack observed mildly. “Sometimes self-preservation isn’t the first priority. You know that.”
Jim angrily clenched his jaw and fists against the frustration and helplessness he felt. Of course he knew that! It was his place to do the protecting. He was the sentinel, the warrior. Blair was taking too damn many hits to protect him, and he didn’t like it. Not one bit. That’s not the way it was supposed to work. The senses were his problem. Hell, if he’d owned up to them in the first place, Blair wouldn’t be at risk now. There’d be no secret, no leverage – everything could have been above-board, including any request to assist in the training of sentinels for government purposes.
But he couldn’t afford to get mired in the muck of guilt and regret. He had to stay focused or he’d be useless to his partner. “Look, can we get back to how to find Sandburg?” Jim redirected harshly. “I can’t go poking around without raising a lot of red flags. I was thinking that you might be able to get information I can’t. Like about where they might have set up shop to train these possible sentinels. Even if it’s under wraps, identifying candidates, setting up a facility – somebody has to have noticed something.”
“Of course,” Jack agreed with easy equanimity, though his steady gaze was sharp and assessing. “You’re thinking domestic, right? Military, CIA, rather than some foreign power?”
“Yeah,” Jim acknowledged, running a hand over his head in an effort to relax. “Blair recognized the ‘assassin’ who is being held over him as a threat. I figure it has to be Brackett. Getting him out of prison and back in again with no hassle indicates a home-grown operation.”
“Would have to be someone with clout to spring Brackett from maximum security for a field trip,” Kelso mused.
“That’s assuming that Brackett is still behind bars. Do you know that for sure?”
Jack shook his head. “No, but I think I would have heard if he slipped under the radar again.”
“Okay, well, I guess that’s one of the first things to check. Jack, Blair’s note stresses that whoever is behind this has a lot of power,” Jim supplied. Shaking his head, anger and concern again distracting him, he grated, “This bastard scared Sandburg. Scared him bad. And Blair’s not someone who scares easily.”
“Threatening loved ones usually has a salutary effect.” When Jim glared at him, concern and compassion filled Jack’s face, and he nodded somberly. “Okay, so we need to proceed carefully. That means that it may take me a few days to dig up anything useful. But I’ll keep at it until I do. Do you think you’re being watched?”
“Maybe, not sure,” Jim muttered. “How will we make contact when you’ve got something?”
“Can we use a third party who might attract less attention? Someone who has ready access to you without raising any eyebrows?”
“My boss, Simon Banks. He’s, uh, he’s a good friend and he’s the only person who knew any of the facts about … about my senses until it all blew up two months ago.”
“If Banks is the only one who knew anything, how did Brackett find out?”
“Four years ago, Sandburg and I weren’t involved in that whole scenario just because of my job,” Jim explained wearily. “Brackett had read the reports of my debriefings after Peru, and he’d also read some of Sandburg’s earlier papers postulating the existence of sentinels. Brackett put two and two together and came after us deliberately, to coerce me into helping him pull off the heist of the prototype. He, uh, he’d done enough of his own research that he had a better grasp of the role of the guide at the time than even Blair or I did.”
“Huh,” Jack grunted, and then he ruefully shook his head. “Brackett’s good, no doubt about it. Too bad he only plays the game by his own rules for his own gain.”
Not in the mood to extol Brackett’s talents, Jim stood to grab a pen and a slip of paper from the desk. He jotted down Simon’s numbers – office, cell, and home – and handed it to Jack. “You get a lead,” he ordered with brusque urgency, “you call anytime – day or night.”
Jack nodded and slipped the paper into the pocket of his cardigan. Looking up at Jim, he said reassuringly, “There’s time to do this right, Jim. They need Blair, so he’s in no immediate danger, and neither are you or his mother if we stay below the radar. I know it’s not easy, but try to be patient.” He paused and then added in a cautionary tone, “And remember – so far as anyone can know, Blair is dead. If anyone suspects you believe any differently, the game is blown.”
“I know that,” he retorted with savage impatience. When Jack just gazed at him, Jim straightened and consciously relaxed his stance. Grudgingly, he rubbed his mouth and nodded. “You’re right. I’m wound too tight.”
Jack wheeled his chair close enough to grip Jim’s arm. “I understand,” he said solemnly. “You want him back safe and sound, as soon as possible. But depending on how far this goes and who’s involved, that might not be easy to accomplish.”
“I’m not just going to leave him buried wherever the hell he is!” Jim flared. “One way or another, I’m going to get him out of there.”
“I get that, okay?” Jack countered sternly. “But we could be up against national security protocols, and you do know what that means, right?”
Jim’s throat tightened. “Yeah,” he gusted, “I know what that means. If exposed, minimize collateral damage and bury it deep.” He took a deep breath and nodded sharply. He’d come to Jack because he knew he needed the man’s help. Kelso was the best shot he had at finding Blair. And Jack was absolutely right. Blair was in no immediate danger, but that could change fast if Jim wasn’t very careful. Lifting his hands, he agreed, “Okay, okay. We play it your way. Patience, right? Low profile. Play the bereaved partner and just do my job.”
“And let me do mine.” A smile of approval twitched in the corners of Jack’s mouth. “You were good at black ops. You’ll see – it’s like riding a bicycle. You never forget how.”
Jim slapped Kelso’s shoulder as he turned toward the door. “Thanks, Jack. I’ll bring Simon up to speed and we’ll wait for your call.” Pausing in the doorway, he slumped and his control slipped. Looking back over his shoulder, he asked, “Just try to make it as quick as you can, okay?”
“You have my word.”
Jim studied him, and the sincerity and compassion in the man’s eyes touched him deeply. Jack cared about Blair and he would, absolutely, do his best. “That’s good enough for me,” he said with hoarse gratitude as he turned away.
Jim wrapped on the front door and watched the street while he waited for Simon.
“Jim! Hey, come on in,” his friend exclaimed, opening the door wide. As he stepped over the threshold, Simon carefully asked, “How’re you doing? I called a little while ago and was worried when you didn’t answer.”
Jim nodded uncomfortably as he stretched his senses out. “Darryl’s gone back to his Mom’s place?” he asked, verifying that no one else was there just in case his senses were still wonky.
“Yeah, I went back to get him after I dropped Naomi off at the airport, and took him back to Joan’s place,” Simon replied, leading the way to the kitchen. “You want a coffee? Maybe a beer – or something stronger?”
“No, I’m fine, thanks.” When Simon gestured for him to have a seat at the table, he blurted, “Simon … Blair’s alive.”
“What?” Simon gasped, his eyes widening in astonishment … and then narrowing equally quickly. “Jim, maybe you better sit down.”
“No, no, I’m not losing my mind, here. And it’s not a case of denial. Sandburg left an encrypted file for me on his computer. He left me clues.” Waving off the details, he went on, “It’s complicated, but … the point is someone coerced him into going and faked his death so we wouldn’t know.”
“To train sentinels.”
“Sentinels,” Simon echoed flatly and rolled his eyes. Sitting down, he directed, “Maybe you better start at the top. Who took him?”
“I don’t know yet, but I’ve got some ideas.” Jim settled onto the chair across the table and summarized the situation as concisely as he could.
“So we’re supposed to just act like he’s really dead, while Kelso goes fishing for information,” Simon said when Jim had finished, and frowned as he thought about what he’d just learned. “If I’ve got this straight, you think Brackett and someone else put the screws to Blair, threatening to out you, or kill you and Naomi, if he didn’t comply. And that so far as Blair knew when he left you that note, this might be some kind of life servitude.”
“Yeah, that’s about it,” Jim agreed unhappily. “He left the note the night before he disappeared.”
Simon’s gaze dropped as he nodded. “Jim …” he hesitated and then went on, “has it occurred to you that maybe Blair was in that car when it went over?”
“No, I told you, they faked his death so we wouldn’t look for him.”
“Yes, I heard you. But, but from what you’ve said, Blair was between a rock and a hard place. What if … what if he decided that if he was dead, there’d be no threat to you and his mother? What if a fast exit was preferable to being a virtual prisoner for the rest of his life, training possible sentinels to do who knows what? He might have felt that it would be better all round if he just … just ….”
“No!” Jim shouted as he lurched to his feet to pace around the kitchen. “No, he wouldn’t do that. Blair would never kill himself.”
“Look, I don’t want to destroy your hope –”
“I’m telling you, he’s alive.”
“You can’t know that, not for sure,” Simon cajoled. “Think about it. Can you imagine Blair being party to something that might be profoundly unethical – what if these sentinels are being trained to be assassins? Would he be able to bring himself to help them? Sure, to save your life and Naomi’s he might initially agree … but could he live with himself? With the pressure? Jim, we have to consider this. Going off that cliff might have seemed to be the only way out of a hopeless situation.”
Jim whirled away and braced his arms on the counter as he fought the urge to slug Simon for suggesting that Blair might really be dead. That he’d choose to kill himself. “I know he’s alive,” he grated insistently, with a gut level assurance that had nothing to do with hope.
“How do you know?”
“Simon, think about it. There was a witness, right? So if it was an accident, then he didn’t kill himself. But that’s not the point. I know he’s not dead. Because … because I heard him. Heard his voice,” he said with soft astonishment. He’d forgotten. Turning to Simon, he went on, “When you dropped me off that morning. I heard him – but I … I thought I was losing it. Damn it! I could have stopped this then!”
Simon sat back. “So that’s what that was about. I was watching you and I remember you swinging around, searching the street. I wondered then what you were looking for. Obviously, you didn’t see him.”
“No, but I thought for a minute that I also heard his heart beating.” Exasperated with himself for having failed to trust his senses, his brow puckered as he dredged up the vague memories of those moments. “There were strangers rushing along the street. And cars parked at the curb, all of them empty except … except one.” He looked up, his piercing gaze finding Simon’s. “The guy was in a uniform. Air Force, I think.”
In two strides, he was across the room and grabbing the phone from the wall. “Jack,” he said tersely, “I just remembered. The day I thought Blair died, when I got home, for a moment, I thought I heard his voice. When I looked around, I didn’t see him and thought I was half-crazy. But … but there was a guy in a blue uniform sitting in a car parked at the curb. Yeah, Air Force. That’s what I thought at the time, anyway, but didn’t really register it. Uh huh. Okay. I’m at Simon’s place so he’s up to speed. Right. Thanks.”
After he hung up, he saw that Simon was still looking askance at him. “Don’t you see? It fits. The military is somehow involved in this – that’s gotta be where they’re finding these possible sentinels. It’s too much of a coincidence that I’d hear Blair’s voice and see a military officer just sitting there. He was probably staking the place out to see how I was reacting to Blair’s death. To make sure I didn’t know it was a scam.”
Simon’s expression was guarded. “Okay, we’ll play this out. But, Jim … I have some idea of what Blair means to you and how hard his death hit you – both the other day and months ago, at the fountain. If it turns out you’re wrong, and he’s not alive, I’m worried about what that will do to you.”
Jim searched his eyes and then, sagging a little, he looked away. “It can’t be any worse than what I’ve been feeling since Monday morning, Simon,” he said quietly, stricken by the thought that Simon could be right. But he couldn’t let himself believe that. Couldn’t even consider the possibility. “There was no body. And I did hear his voice. He’s alive. And I have to find him.”
Sighing, Simon nodded. “Okay. Okay. I believe you. He was still alive after we saw that wreck. Which, by the way, puts a whole new light on that very helpful witness who didn’t see much of anything useful. Because, if Blair’s not dead, and he didn’t go over that cliff – then what the hell was that witness talking about?”
“You’re right. I need to –”
“No, you need to go on behaving as if you believe Blair is gone,” Simon ordered. “I’ll pull the file and do some quiet checking of my own.” But then, a smile started to grow even as he heaved a breath that sounded suspiciously like a sob. “Hot damn,” he gasped as he looked up at Jim. “Sandburg’s alive.” Shaking his head, he pressed his lips together and hastily swiped at his eyes.
“Yeah, I know,” Jim offered awkwardly, moved and grateful to see his friend’s surge of emotion, glad to not be the only basket-case in the room. “We may need to start calling him Miracle Max.”
Simon snorted a laugh as he swiped at his eyes. “Only partly dead. Not completely dead,” he snickered, mimicking Billy Crystal’s sing-song delivery.
Jim chuckled and started to laugh, and then couldn’t stop. Staggering to his chair, he dropped into it and wiped tears of amusement from his eyes. He just felt so damned relieved and happy and beside himself with downright joy. Blair wasn’t dead. He was alive. They were going to find him and bring him home.
When they finally settled down, Simon got up to pour them a celebratory drink. “To Blair,” he said, clinking Jim’s glass. “You know, it’s not going to be easy … pretending. Not letting the others in on it.”
“No, no it isn’t, and I wish we could take the chance of clueing them in. But we can’t risk it. We don’t know who might be watching.” Jim replied regretfully. He took a sip and then set the glass on the table. “I’m tired of the secrets, Simon. I think … I think when all this is over, the three of us need to sit down and figure out some other options. There’s got to be a better way than Blair being held hostage to silence.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Simon allowed but gave him an inscrutable look. “But some secrets are worth keeping. Time enough to figure all that out later.” Leaning his elbows on the table, he added, “If you’re right, the real trick, once we find him, is going to be taking on the military and maybe the government to get him back.”
“Ah, I don’t know,” Jim returned. “Nobody knows better than I do that there are some bad guys in command positions. But I can’t believe this is a sanctioned military or government operation. I think we’ve got someone in Intel who thinks he’s found a neat new gambit and has enough power and autonomy to play it out. But what he’s doing, whoever he is, is illegal. Once he knows the jig is up, and that I’m willing to push it to the wall – go for full disclosure rather than continue to aid and abet the power of the secret – he’ll probably fold and scramble to cover his ass rather than risk jail time.”
Sitting back, he went on edgily, “It’s the timing that’s the issue. If the ‘control’ finds out we’re on to him, and he’s ruthless enough, he could close down the training center and bury Blair with it – and then deny everything. But it’s Brackett that really worries me. He’s the loose cannon in this operation. About the only thing predictable about him is that he’ll do whatever it takes to meet his own goals.”
“You think he’s running around loose?”
“I don’t know – Jack’s checking on that – but Brackett has got to be the connection, the one who convinced whoever that Blair was worth grabbing. It only makes sense that he’d try to make a deal that included being able to walk. But … Blair’s note stressed that the ‘assassin’ was a continuing threat.” Looking up at Simon, he asked, “If you were running this op, and Brackett was your ace in the hole to ensure compliance, would you let him loose?”
Simon shook his head. “No, no I wouldn’t trust him to stay handy. He’d vanish faster than smoke in a strong wind.”
“Yeah, that’s what I figure, too. So, if he thought he was buying his freedom by tossing Sandburg to the dogs, and that fell through, he’s got to be pissed. And it ups the ante. Means he could still be on the leash. If we tip our hand, and the price of his freedom is a killing spree, then ….”
Simon’s cheeks puffed and then he blew a long breath. “Guess we better not tip our hand.”
“Just in case, I have to make damned sure that Naomi is safe.”
“You gonna tell her about Blair?”
“No. Not sure she could stop herself from publicly rejoicing.”
“Then how do you plan to keep her under wraps?”
Jim snorted. “Give me a break. I’m still getting used to the idea that Houdini is still alive. The idea of trying to keep track of that man’s mother boggles the mind.” He took another sip of the whiskey and sighed heavily. “With my luck, she’s already halfway to Tibet or some other equally remote place, and I’ll never find her.”
Simon glanced at the clock on the wall. “Do you know her number? Maybe you should call her now.”
“I’ve got it at home,” he replied as he stood. He tossed back the rest of the whiskey and set the glass on the table. “Once Jack has something, he’ll call you. Until then,” he sighed as he turned to leave, “I guess it’s a waiting game.”
As soon as he got back home, Jim called Naomi. “Hey,” he said, “just wanted to make sure you got home alright.”
“Thank you, Jim, I’m fine,” she replied, sounding tired. “How are you holding up?”
“Oh, well, you know,” he muttered, his gaze roaming the apartment. “The silence is hard.” Taking a breath, he continued, “Look, Naomi, I … well, I think Blair would want us to stay in touch, you know? He’d want me to, to make sure you’re okay. So, uh, would you call every once in a while? Let me know when you’re going to be traveling? And where?”
“That’s very sweet, Jim, but you don’t have to worry about me,” she demurred.
“No, please, I want to stay in touch. I … it’s important to me, Naomi.”
“All right,” she agreed. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it will make it easier somehow. Make us each feel less alone.” Her voice caught and trembled as she continued, “I miss him. I miss knowing he’s in the world.”
His throat tightened and he closed his eyes as he bowed his head, hating the need to leave her grieving. “I know.” He rubbed his mouth and then offered, “He’d want you to remember the good stuff, not … not the last few days. He wouldn’t want you to be unhappy.”
She sniffed and gave a watery laugh. “You’re so right,” she allowed. “You knew him so well.” She sighed and then said, “He wouldn’t want you to be unhappy, either, Jim. I guess we both just have to let go of the pain and remember his spirit is still bright and strong.” She hesitated and then went on with determined compassion, “I’m sure he’s near you. If he can, I’m certain he’ll reach out to you. He loved you so much.”
“His spirit loves both of us,” he replied to give her comfort and because he couldn’t bring himself to use the past tense. “You need to get some rest. I’ll call you again in a few days, okay?”
“Yes. Thank you, Jim. I … I appreciate you wanting to stay in touch. Good night.”
“Good night, Naomi.”
He heard her sob Blair’s name before he broke the connection. Closing his eyes, he fought the anger that surged through him. Anger at Blair for putting them through this. For not having trusted him enough to tell him the truth. For not giving him the chance to help. For lying to him, making him believe what they had would last ….
And anger at himself, for somehow not being the man Blair could rely upon, count on, no matter what. He should have known something was wrong, should have realized they needed to talk about the silences, the re-directions, the sad, haunted looks he’d caught sometimes. Jumbled memories tumbled into his mind, of Blair writing those coded love letters, of Blair looking at him enigmatically, wistfully, while Jim had struggled over his own notes. Now Jim understood the sad shadows darkening Blair’s eyes, and the sharp knowledge of the grief and pain his partner had borne alone tore him apart.
“Dammit, Chief, I hate this,” he groaned as he slid down the wall and, elbows braced on his knees, he pressed his fisted hands against his eyes. He despised feeling so helpless. And he hated knowing there was nothing he could do but wait for Jack to figure out what was going on. Belatedly realizing that someone might listening, he pressed his lips together. You could have told me, he thought, his chest aching. You should have told me.
The dark, late model sedan led the military bus into the circular drive in front of the lodge. Blair waited on the verandah until both vehicles had stopped, and then went down the steps to the edge of the graveled drive.
Maybourne got out of the sedan and smiled complacently as he waved at the men and women getting off the bus. “I’ve brought your first contingent,” he called cheerfully.
Blair nodded but otherwise ignored the colonel. He waited, silent, until the twenty newcomers garbed in various military uniforms were assembled in two lines, standing at parade rest, their gazes locked on some invisible point in the air and their rucksacks slung over their shoulders.
“Good morning,” he greeted them. “I’m Blair Sandburg and I’ll be working with you for the next few weeks.” A few flicked glances at him, and then returned to staring at nothing, and none of their faces gave anything away. But they looked tired and discouraged despite their military bearing. Sighing, he lifted his hands, and said, “This is not a military facility. While you’re here, I want you to make yourselves comfortable – and I want you to feel free to ask questions and challenge whatever I say.”
Maybourne grimaced. “Mr. Sandburg is a civilian but he’s the expert here and you’ll pay attention to him. He’s going to be your guide.”
“No, not guide,” Blair interjected firmly. “No, I’ll be your teacher. And the most important thing for you to understand right now is that what is happening to you is natural and normal – and is NOT some psychological escape mechanism that somehow means you’re trying to shirk your duty, or are cowards, afraid of going back into active service.” He saw a few of them dart quick looks at both him and Maybourne, clearly picking up on the tension between them. “Behind the lodge,” he went on, “you’ll find twenty cabins. Go get settled and then come back here, to the conference room just off the lobby, in half an hour.”
Stoically and still silent, they turned away and jogged around the side of the building.
“Why did you say you’re not their guide?” Maybourne demanded.
“Because I’m not,” Blair replied shortly. “Look, I can help them better understand and gain some control of their senses, but I won’t be going into action with them. You’re going to have to find people to match up with each of them to provide the backup they’ll need in the field.”
“You didn’t say anything about this before,” Maybourne challenged irritably. “Why can’t you just, uh, calibrate their senses and be done with it?”
“Because it doesn’t work that way,” he retorted. “They’ll each need a partner, someone to watch their backs and to help them focus when the sensory input is overwhelming.” Blair frowned and looked away. He wasn’t going to tell this jerk about the zone-out factor or the danger of being incapacitated by spiking, overloaded senses. No way would he give the creep that kind of power over those men and women.
“How will these ‘guides’ know what to do?” Maybourne asked with a heavy scowl.
“I’ll write some guidelines and you can bring them here for an orientation toward the end of next week,” Blair replied dismissively, turning away to go back into the building. “Look for people who are calm, compassionate. Medics, maybe, who have seen combat so they’re used to the dangers. Pull them from the same service branches as these guys are from, so there’ll be no problem reassigning together in the future.”
Maybourne rolled his eyes and followed Blair into the lodge. “Hold up,” he called. “We’re not done here.” When Blair gave him a stony look, he smiled coldly. “Thought you might want to hear about your memorial service. Lots of people came – and all of them seemed really broken up, your ‘sentinel’, especially. Said he can hardly believe you’re dead. And he said some pretty nice things about you, how brave you were, how compassionate. And that he’d love you beyond death. All very touching.”
Blair turned his face away and closed his eyes as he fought for control. God, he loathed this man with every fiber of his being. “Fine, you’ve told me,” he grated, and then looked up defiantly. “You can go now.”
“Uh, uh,” Maybourne contested. “I want to sit in today, hear what you have to say.”
“No,” Blair refused, coldly adamant. “What I have to say to them, and what they say to me, is strictly confidential. I’ll help these people, but not with you anywhere nearby. You make my skin crawl, Maybourne. I despise you and being around you makes me sick to my stomach. I will not perform like a trained monkey for you – nor will I put any of them in the position of having to do so. So get out. If I need anything, I’ll let you know.”
Maybourne scratched his cheek and grinned. “Well, that’s certainly clear enough. Fine, fine, so long as you deliver, I’ll be satisfied. I’ll send in the ‘guides’ next week – there’re certainly enough rooms in the lodge to accommodate them.”
Blair nodded and turned away. Going to the conference room, he closed the door firmly and only relaxed once he heard the sounds of the vehicle engines start up and then diminish as they drove away.
Captain Josh Makins frowned against his persistent headache as he stowed his gear and thought about what he’d just inadvertently heard. There was sure no love lost between that sleazy Colonel Maybourne and this Sandburg – and it sounded like the guy was serving under duress, which didn’t seem right. But Sandburg was a civilian who couldn’t just be ordered around, so why would he be here if he didn’t want to be? Shrugging, Makins figured he’d misunderstood or missed something in the conversation. It wasn’t any of his business.
But he couldn’t help wondering what was all that stuff about sentinels and guides? And what did it have to do with him and the rest who had been ordered to report to this backwater lodge?
Regardless of what was going on between the colonel and Sandburg, the civilian sounded like he knew what he was talking about. Confident. No bullshit.
For the first time in weeks, Josh felt an easing of the anxious knots that twisted in his gut. Maybe, he muttered to himself, he wasn’t going nuts after all. Maybe there really was some kind of explanation other than post-traumatic stress disorder for the weird ways his body had been betraying him.
In the next cabin, Sergeant Carrie Shaw fiddled with the strange device on the bedside table and gasped in relief when the thunderous crashing of the wind in the trees and the shrill screeching of birds suddenly disappeared. The absence of wrenching pain was so sudden and unexpected that tears blurred her eyes and she trembled as she sagged into one of the armchairs. Fisting her hands, she fought the urge to scratch off her skin to stop the relentless itching that gave her no peace. Dragging in deep breaths, she hoped with nearly hysterical desperation that this Sandburg would have answers that none of the doctors she’d seen could supply.
Gritting her teeth, she thought of the service revolver in her duffel bag. She couldn’t take this physical insanity much longer. She just couldn’t.
Her gaze fell upon the magic little machine that had given her respite from the pitiless noise that battered her nearly continuously. If this Sandburg had other tricks like this one, maybe there was still a chance of something resembling a normal life for her.
Lieutenant Marcus Green paced the narrow confines of his cabin with the mindless restlessness of a caged tiger. At least the scents that surrounded him here were those of clean pine and earth, and not the choking exhaust fumes and garbage and … no, he couldn’t think about those smells or nausea would spike again. He was hungry but even the thought of the awful taste of food left him queasy. He had to eat, though, and soon, because he was growing weaker with each passing day. He drew a shuddering breath and, craving more of the rich forest scents, he slammed out of his cabin to stand under the nearby trees, inhaling deeply.
Turning, he looked at the lodge and wondered about the anger he’d heard in Sandburg’s voice during the brief conversation with Maybourne. Marcus knew who Sandburg was – or at least, knew this was the guy who had claimed to be a liar and a fraud in a press conference about two months ago. None of the news clips had made much sense to him – what the hell were sentinels and who cared anyway? But the sounds he’d heard during the transmission, the thunderous pounding of Sandburg’s heart, and the glisten of unshed tears he’d seen so clearly in the man’s eyes, spangled rainbows that caught the light from the camera – had unnerved him and etched those seconds forever in his memory.
Was the guy a fraud, as he’d claimed? What the hell was truth anyway? The doctors told Marcus that he was conjuring up all these weird physical symptoms to avoid returning to active duty, implying he was afraid – some kind of coward – but he knew that wasn’t true. He was afraid, sure, but not of his job. He was terrified of what was going on with his body because he didn’t understand it and, worse, he couldn’t figure out how to control it.
With a kind of sick dread, he had wondered if he was losing his mind, like one of his uncles had, years ago. God help him, he sure didn’t want to end up a raving lunatic, locked away in some dismal, windowless, padded room. But maybe, just maybe, this Sandburg would have some answers.
Glancing at his watch, he decided enough time had passed and he could find his way to the conference room. Eager for answers, he broke into a jog. Behind him, he could hear cabin doors open and close, and the crunch of other booted feet hurrying along the gravel path to the lodge.
Lieutenant Ansel Adams didn’t want to be there. The whole setup seemed pretty weird and he didn’t much care for clandestine operations at the best of times. Disgruntled, he followed the others to the lodge. He was paid to follow orders, so that’s what he’d do.
Blair had opened the door after Maybourne left, and was waiting for them. Standing at the far end of the large oval conference table of highly polished dark wood, he observed them as they entered and waved them to seats. Seventeen men and three women, all of them looking fit, if a bit haggard, and all still garbed in various blue, green and tan shades of khaki. He saw some angry-looking rashes, and all of them bore the tell-tale lines and shadows around their eyes that spelled headaches of monumental proportions.
Despite his sense of being there under duress, he felt compassion for them, and couldn’t quite stifle a surge of amazed excitement. All of these young men and women could be sentinels! Taking a breath, he told himself to settle down and not let his inherent awe and enthusiasm overwhelm the calm he wanted to project. No way did he want all twenty of these imposingly athletic soldiers, sailors, marines, rangers, and airmen vying for the right to slam him into the walls, as Jim had done when they’d first met.
The thought of Jim sent a spike of grief lancing through his heart, even as a wistful, sad smile flickered over his lips.
As soon as they were settled and looking at him, he began, “Thanks for being so prompt. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover this morning. First, because I know you’re anxious for answers, I’ll give you some background information about what I think may be happening to you. We’ll do a simple exercise that will, hopefully, help you gain some relief from senses that may be driving you a bit crazy right now. Then, after lunch, we’ll get to know one another, exchange names, that sort of thing, and I’ll begin working with you individually.”
At the mention of senses, several of the warriors quirked an interested brow or sharpened their study of him.
“Okay,” he went on, “it’s my understanding that you have been selected for this program because you have experienced a recent heightening of sensory awareness. Let’s see who is experiencing what. How many of you have trouble with your vision? Things seeming too close, that you shouldn’t be able to see at all, or so large that the details are shocking – like the pores on someone’s skin looking like craters on the moon? Or so bright that your eyes water and it physically hurts?”
After a moment of hesitation, everyone raised a hand. He nodded. “And how many of you are having trouble with hearing? Sounds too loud, again painfully so? Or hearing just cuts out, and it’s like you’re deaf?” Again, everyone responded.
“Uh huh,” he grunted. “Let’s speed this up. Is there anyone who isn’t experiencing overwhelming senses of taste and smell, so violent that ordinary spices burn your mouth or odors make you nauseous?” Not a hand lifted. “Anyone who doesn’t find the material of those uniforms you’re wearing irritating, causing a rash?” Again, not a hand lifted and he had their full attention. Some were leaning toward him, desperate for answers.
“All right, I’m betting that these problems only showed up after you’d spent several days, maybe longer, in isolated circumstances under dangerous conditions.” When heads nodded guardedly, he went on, “And, sometimes, what’s really scary is that you seem to get lost, frozen, as if under some enchanted spell, and you don’t know why, and the tests for epilepsy and other brain exams have all been negative – haven’t turned up any reason.”
“Excuse me, Professor,” one of the men interjected, “but you could have gotten all that information from our medical files.”
“I could have … sorry, I don’t know your name,” Blair agreed as he studied the rawboned man with fine features and ebony skin.
“Lieutenant Marcus Green, Navy SEAL, sir.”
“I’m Blair – not ‘sir’ – and with your permission, I’ll call you Marcus, alright?” When the sailor nodded, Blair continued, “I haven’t seen any of your files. I only knew you were all having some sensory issues that were severe enough at times to be disabling because that’s why you were chosen to participate in this program.” When they looked skeptical, he told them with sober deliberation, “I won’t lie to you, ever, because we are going to have to trust one another to get anywhere. What you say to me stays between us – I’ll be making no notes on your official personnel files, except to release you when you feel you’re ready for active duty.”
“So how do you know all this stuff?” Marcus asked. “Was that news story a couple months ago some kind of scam, or what?”
“Oh, you saw that,” Blair replied with a sigh. He bit his lip as he pushed his hair behind his ears. “Well, that’s not a surprise, I guess. A lot of people across the country must have seen it.”
“What press conference?” a woman with short, ash blond hair asked. “Er, I’m Sergeant Carrie Shaw, Army.”
“A couple months ago, a paper I was working on about modern-day sentinels was released without my permission,” he explained, hoping to keep it simple. “The media attention was compromising the work of a detective in Cascade, Washington, which allowed an international assassin to escape arrest and that resulted in two friends and colleagues being severely wounded, nearly killed. I decided the fastest, easiest way to pull the plug on the media feeding frenzy was to deny the validity of the whole paper. And that’s what the press conference was about.”
He took a breath and continued, “However, the substance of the paper was about men and women who possess extraordinary sensory acuity. In tribal cultures all throughout history, these individuals are called sentinels or watchmen or guardians, and it’s their role to protect the tribe by predicting weather patterns, shifts in game, encroaching enemies, and so on. They are consummate warriors. In such cultures, where they are known and respected, such individuals are given support and training from childhood. However, in our more modern civilizations, we’ve ‘forgotten’ that such gifts can occur naturally in the population, the heightened senses transmitted genetically from one generation to another. Oftentimes, I suspect that many modern sentinels learn to suppress their sensory advantage during childhood, so they won’t be taunted or teased or treated as if they are different or strange. However, I’ve found that significant periods of isolation in tense, potentially dangerous or threatening circumstances reactivate the senses. When that happens, modern sentinels who don’t understand what’s happening to them try to find a physical cause, like an illness, a change in body chemistry, or a psychological reason, like post-traumatic stress, to account for what they perceive as problems. But your senses are not ‘problems’. They are awesome gifts of nature. All you need is help to understand them and to learn how to control them. That’s what we’ll be doing here.”
“So this detective you mentioned in the news – he’s a sentinel?” Marcus probed.
Blair’s gaze dropped and he hesitated. “I won’t lie to you, but I also won’t discuss my … my sentinel with you. He’s … he’s a very good friend, and he deserves the same degree of personal privacy that I will accord each of you.”
“What’s a guide?” a burly man with black curly hair and olive complexion asked. “Uh, I’m Master Corporal Tony Lucelli, Air Force.”
“Tony, a guide is someone who works with you as a partner, someone who helps you focus your senses in particularly overwhelming situations, and who will watch out for you when you’re in danger of slipping into a zone-out – those lapses when you concentrate so fully on one sense that you lose track of everything else. At times like that, you can be very vulnerable to attack.”
“So, from what you and the colonel were talking about, we’ll all be assigned guides?”
Blair smiled and shook his head. “I can see that there will be few secrets amongst us, unless and until you all learn some control. There are white noise generators in each of your cabins that will shut off extraneous noises from outside, to allow you to sleep. And I have one in the lab, for when we’re doing one on one work, as well as in my office, which I’ll activate when we’re having personal conversations. I also have one in my personal quarters. But, yeah, the colonel will be sending people who will work with you as guides. You’ll meet them next week.”
“Wouldn’t it just be easier to turn the damned things off?” a tall, lean man with green eyes and sandy hair demanded. “I’m Captain Josh Makins, Army Rangers.”
“Sorry, Josh, your senses are online and there is no way I know of to turn them off except by a fierce act of will,” Blair answered, compassion in his voice as he recalled how often Jim had ardently wished for the same option. “Look, I know hyperactive senses can be a bear, and I know that right now they are pretty damned scary. But, think about it for a minute! Why would you want to turn them off? Given the roles you each play, particularly in covert operations or missions where you are going into hostile territory, your senses will give you an awesome edge. You can see in the dark without infrared equipment, hear enemy patrols from a significant distance, overhear conversations with no need of artificial devices, smell dangerous agents in the environment, taste whether food or drink is safe or not, and so on – you will be the equivalent of the tribal sentinels, going in first under the most dangerous of circumstances to assess situations, obtain intelligence, conduct delicate and dangerous operations. You have inherent and innate assets that far exceed whatever the enemy can bring to bear against you. I promise you, they won’t seem such a burden and curse once we’ve spent some time together.”
“How can you be so sure?” Marcus asked belligerently.
“Because I’ve done this before, with a sentinel who came on-line just the way you guys did, and who thought he was going insane,” Blair responded matter-of-factly. “And now his control is awesome and he has chosen, twice, to keep his abilities when he was given the chance to walk away from them.”
“So there is a way to turn them off,” Josh persisted.
Once again, Blair raked his hair back as he wondered what he could say that these very pragmatic people would accept. Pulling out the chair in front of him, he slipped into it and leaned forward, his hands clasped on the table. For a long moment, he studied the table, avoiding all of their gazes, and then he looked up and around at each of them. “Nearly a year ago, I drowned – was murdered, actually. I was cold and dead. But the sentinel I was working with was able to call upon our spirit guides to bring me back to life. I know how impossible that sounds. And I know that the idea of a spiritual aspect to all this is probably something you’d rather not hear about – and no doubt have difficulty believing. But … but my sentinel worked with a shaman in Peru years before we ever met and he was introduced to aspects of reality that most of us never experience in our so-called modern, scientific society. The spirit world offered him a chance to decide whether or not he wished to continue to be a sentinel. And that shaman told him that a sentinel would be a sentinel so long as he or she chose to be one. So, yeah, I guess, in a metaphysical way, there is a means of denying your gifts, of turning away from your birthright. But I don’t know how to take you into that world, or how to give you that choice.”
They gaped at him and some rolled their eyes before shaking their heads and looking away. He sighed and lifted his hands. “All I can tell you is that all that really happened. Whether you choose to believe me or not is up to you.” Straightening, his tone more directive, he decided it was time to get back to their tangible issues. “Right now, the first thing you all need to learn how to do is to control the intensity of your senses. You can turn them up or down, for comfort or to draw on more refined capability.”
He consciously lowered his tone and slowed his delivery as he went on, “I want you to close your eyes and relax in your chairs. Good. Now, take slow, deep breaths and then exhale slowly. Again … good. And once more. And again … that’s right.” He waited and observed them as their bodies began to relax. “Okay, now I want you to picture five dials, like radio dials, in your head. Each dial represents a sense and ranges from one, low intensity, to ten, high intensity. I suspect at least one dial and probably more are turned too high. One at a time, turn each dial down, notch by notch, to four or five, until you feel comfortable. Your skin isn’t itching. Smells aren’t offensive. Sound isn’t grating on your ears. Light isn’t burning your eyes. Once you have each dial turned down to a comfortable level, take another deep breath, let it out slowly and … relax.”
Most seemed to get the concept right away. In a few, short minutes, the tension had eased from their faces and bodies and they smiled with no little wonder and relief. But some, like Carrie, were evidently having difficulty, so he patiently worked them through the process, one dial at a time, until each one of them had achieved success.
Carrie heaved a massive sigh and a tremulous, soft, “Wow … it works!”
“Yeah, it does. So you see, the senses can be managed. You do have a means of control. They do not control you,” he encouraged with a warm smile, and then glanced at the clock on the wall. “It’s nearly time for lunch in the dining room. But first, I want you to all go back to your cabins and get out of those uniforms. The material is too stiff and rough for your skin. While you’re here, I want you to wear comfortable, soft clothing – natural fibers are best. If you don’t have cotton or silk, let me know, and I’ll arrange to have new stuff brought for you. After lunch, we’ll get started on individual work. Okay? Any questions?”
“More a comment,” Josh said. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea to just ignore rank here. There’s a certain protocol, not to mention issues of discipline and respect to consider.”
Blair nodded. “I understand all that,” he replied. “And I’m sure you will all remember appropriate military protocols when you leave here. But while you’re here, you’re not Captain or Corporal – you’re all sentinels. All starting out at the same place and learning together. All equal in your capacity and potential, not to mention your current confusion. You’ve all got enough to deal with in learning how to manage and control your senses without worrying about who is supposed to salute whom. You’re one of the ranking officer in this group, Josh, and I can’t dictate this equality. But I’d appreciate it if you’d support me in it.”
Josh held his steady gaze, and then he nodded. “You make a reasonable case, Professor. Makes sense. Thanks for sharing your views and, yes, okay, I’ll support you. Rank stops and starts at the edge of the driveway. Fair enough?”
“More than fair. Thanks.”
Once they had all trooped out, he sagged in the chair and covered his face with his hands. God, twenty sentinels! He hadn’t expected they’d all have five hyperactive senses. “Incredible,” he muttered and leaned back. There’d been a time when he’d have been beside himself with excitement to encounter so many sentinels in one place, and to have the opportunity to work with them. Now, he wasn’t exactly sure how he felt. There was too much resentment, anger and grief at having been forced to give up a life he’d loved eating at him to feel much of anything else. But he couldn’t deny that he felt a degree of satisfaction in his ability to help them – and to see the relief on their faces when they’d gained some measure of personal control.
Chewing on his lip, he reflected that none of them seemed to exhibit any territoriality, and that was a bit puzzling, given how aggressively antagonistic Jim had been when Alex had invaded his turf. Frowning, he scratched his cheek. Maybe that was the key. This lodge was his turf, not theirs, so they felt no need to ‘protect’ it from other sentinels. Or maybe it was just that they were all still so overwhelmed that the territoriality aspect hadn’t yet emerged. It was something he was going to have to watch out for.
Pushing himself to his feet, he wandered into the dining room. Though he still had no appetite, he knew he had to eat. Scolding himself for his continuing despondency, telling himself that it wasn’t like he was being held prisoner in some hell-hole or being tortured and abused, reminding himself that what he was doing was what he’d wanted for nearly half his life, he straightened his shoulders and called a greeting to Sergeant Freeborne.
“The buffet looks great – and there’s sure plenty of food! Thank you, Milt. The others will be here in a few minutes.”
“Blair, let me introduce you to my two local helpers, Mary Sams and Jenny-Lou Sommers,” Milt replied with a wide smile as he gestured to the two women. Mary, a sturdy middle-aged woman, wore the apron and cap of the assistant cook, and Jenny-Lou was a lithe young woman sporting pigtails and jeans, who evidently helped with the setup and cleanup of the communal meals.
“I’m pleased to meet both of you,” he said with a smile that he hoped seemed sincere. All the self-talk hadn’t done a damned thing to ease the feeling that he was dying inside.
But Blair figured his cheerful act needed a fair amount of work when Milt’s smile dimmed and the older man gripped his shoulder supportively as he murmured, “Make sure you eat something, son – you’re looking a little peaked.”
“Jim, what are you doing here? I thought you had a few more days off,” Joel exclaimed with evident concern when they ran into each other in the corridor outside Major Crime.
Shrugging and looking way, he replied, “Sitting at home all morning was driving me nuts. I, uh, I need to get back to work.”
“Yeah, I hear you,” Joel sighed with sorrowful compassion. “Listen, if there’s anything I can do – that any of us can do – to help, you let us know, okay?”
“I will, Joel, thanks. And thank you for arranging the service. Blair would really appreciate it, and I’m grateful to you for taking care of everything.”
Joel’s eyes glistened and, evidently struggling with his emotions, he looked away, nodding wordlessly. He was so obviously hurting that Jim surprised himself by reaching out to wrap the big man in a hug. “I know,” Jim rasped. “It’s hard.”
Joel sniffed and, swiping his eyes, he drew away. Clearing his throat, he apologized, “I’m sorry, man. I’m supposed to be comforting you. But … it’s just so damned unfair. Blair was, well, he was special. Nothin’ seems the same without him. I miss him, Jim. I miss him bad.”
His eyes downcast, Jim nodded. He hated not being able to ease Joel’s grief with the truth; the pretence made him feel dirty and dishonest. Joel, and the others, deserved better. But there was no way around it, at least not yet. “Would mean a lot to Blair to know that,” he offered, and promised himself that he’d make sure Blair did know it, hopefully someday soon. “I miss him, too,” he added, his voice strangled and tight.
“I’m just heading to the breakroom, an’ I’ll bring you back a coffee,” Joel rallied in the face of Jim’s apparent pain, as he clapped Jim on the shoulder and turned away.
Steeling himself for the coming encounters with the rest of his colleagues, Jim squared his shoulders and strode into the bullpen. God, he hoped Jack would come up with some definite information soon. The waiting – the not knowing – was driving him crazy.
Blair started the afternoon with a roll call, to put names to faces, and then set them to work writing personal journals to detail their sensory experiences such as when their hyperactive senses manifested, under what circumstances, what tests they’d undergone, what their spikes felt like, which sense or senses aggravated them the most, and so on. He explained that he wanted them to make entries in the journal at least once each day to note what they were learning, what worked for them, their questions and concerns, and what they each most wanted to learn how to do with their senses and under what circumstances.
“Just in general,” he added with a quizzical smile. “I know some of you, maybe all of you have classified duties and I wouldn’t want you to have to kill me after you’ve told me how your senses could be most useful in your jobs.”
Josh snorted and several others chuckled. It was enough. He felt as if he was beginning to break the ice with them.
“While you’re writing in your journals, I’ll be working with each of you, one at a time, to begin testing the range of your senses, so we know what we’re dealing with and what your potential is. Josh, you mind being the first one up?”
“Happy to,” the Captain replied. Standing, he followed Blair from the room.
Blair took Josh to the lab and, as they entered, he turned on the white noise machine.
“Why the soundproofing?” Josh asked curiously.
“I want everyone to feel safe to say exactly what they want, and describe what’s happening, without worrying about whether everyone else is listening in,” Blair replied with a shrug. “This is tough stuff and you’re all doing a great job pretending you’re holding it together. And maybe some of you are. But I bet some are close to crumbling from the pain and discomfort, and the fear of wondering if it will always be this bad. It won’t. But it’s going to take some time for everyone to know that, to believe it.” Gesturing at the machines and the samples in glass beakers on the counter, he added, “And some of these tests aren’t pleasant. Some may be a bit painful. I don’t want anyone feeling like they have to maintain some kind of macho act and just endure. I need to know what the limits of comfort are and people need the safety valve of being able to bitch at me for being put through all of this.”
Josh gave him a wry smile. “Sounds like you’re talking from experience.”
Blair’s eyes darkened and he looked away. “I am,” he said hollowly. “I know this is all far from easy or pleasant. But what I’ve learned through trial and error will help me make it all easier for you guys.”
Leaning against the counter that lined one side of the room under a bank of cupboards, Josh crossed his arms. “I heard what Maybourne said this morning. About the ‘memorial service’. What’s going on here? Why are you doing this? And did the good colonel give you any choice?”
“Oh, he gave me choices,” Blair replied, trying hard not to sound bitter, but knowing he was failing.
“Maybourne works for NID. They don’t have the best rep for ethical action,” Josh said flatly. “If he’s holding you here against your will, that’s illegal. You don’t have to stand for it.”
Blair’s lips thinned and he shook his head as he waved Josh toward a seat before the light spectrometer. “You guys all need help and I’ve got the knowledge and skills to help you master your senses. I take that seriously, Josh, because you’ve all taken an oath to protect our country with your lives. And your lives will be endangered if you go back on duty without knowing how to handle yourselves. I’ll do my best for all of you. You don’t have to worry that I’ll only give a half-assed effort here.”
“I’m not worried about that – and you didn’t answer my questions.”
“I can’t answer them,” Blair replied with studied calm. “Other lives are in the balance. Let it go, Josh. Regardless of the circumstances, I’m … I’m glad to help you and the others. So let’s get started.”
Josh shrugged as he settled on the stool behind the machine. “Okay, Professor. But if you decide you’d like some help, just say the word. I don’t dedicate my life to freedom lightly – and I don’t much care for Colonel Maybourne.”
Blair gave him a bleak smile. “No? Well, you might want to modify your views. After all, it’s because of Maybourne that you and the others no longer have to worry about whether or not you’re losing your minds or if your life will be a living hell.”
“I’m all in favour of the ends, here, Blair. It’s the means that worry me.”
“Thanks, Josh. But, seriously, this isn’t your battle.” Blair calibrated the machine and explained that he wanted Josh to look past the lights and colors that would begin flashing at irregular intervals. Blair wanted to determine his range of vision on the light spectrum as well teach the man how to focus his sight despite external distractions. “Let’s get to work.”
Jim tried, but he just could not concentrate. All he could think about was that Blair hadn’t trusted him enough to tell him the truth soon enough to do anything about it. And his gut was in knots, all tied up with worry about where his partner was, and if he was all right.
“Jimbo, are you sure you’re ready to be back at work?” Megan asked softly, startling him out of his dark thoughts.
“I can do my job,” he snapped and then grimaced with regret. He wiped a hand over his face and sighed. “I’m sorry, Connor. You’re probably right, but being here is easier than listening to the silence in the loft.”
She studied him soberly, and then nodded. “You don’t need to carry it all alone, you know. If you want to talk or ….” Her voice petered out. “No, I guess that’s not your style, is it, mate?”
Looking away, he shook his head.
“Anything you need, and anything I can do to help you, I will,” she promised. “Sandy would expect no less and, well, we’re all ready to support you as best we can. We know it’ll never be the same, but ….”
“I hear you,” he cut in, still avoiding her gaze. He couldn’t talk about it, couldn’t deal with the sympathy, and loathed the fact that they were all being kind and were all grieving, and he couldn’t do a damned thing about it. Lies. God damn it, he was so sick of the lies. Not just the current lie, but all of them. For years, he’d been lying to his colleagues, by omission if not commission. And they all knew it. They knew that press conference was a pile of shit, that Blair had sacrificed himself and lied to protect him. He knew they knew it. How could they all still be so kind? So compassionate? How could they stand the sight of him? Swallowing hard, he said with a deep-seated grief for the past that he knew she would misread, “And I appreciate it. I really do. I … I just need some time.”
“Jim! You got a minute?” Simon called from his office doorway.
Feeling perversely as if he’d been saved by the bell, and anxious to learn if Jack had called, Jim jumped to his feet. As he rounded the desk, he laid a light hand on her shoulder. “I know you’re grieving, too. If you ever want to talk ….”
She gave him a sad smile. “Thanks,” she murmured.
He hurried to Simon’s office and closed the door.
“Jack just called,” Banks said as he waved Jim to a chair. “Brackett is still in Leavenworth.”
“Has he found out anything else?”
“Not yet,” Simon replied heavily. He reached for a file behind him on the desk and flipped it open. “I’ve discovered something, though it’s not much help. This is the accident report. I checked on the eye witness who saw Blair’s car go over the edge. There’s no such person. He had to be part of the setup.”
“Damn it,” Jim muttered, disgusted. “If I’d talked to him myself, I might have picked up that he was lying.”
“Jim, none of this is your fault.”
“Isn’t it?” he retorted angrily, pushing himself up to pace in agitation. “Isn’t it all my fault? If I’d been straight with people from the beginning about my senses, none of this would have happened. Hell, Blair would be here, would have presented his paper and gotten his doctorate. There would have been no press conference. He wouldn’t have attracted the attention of whoever has him now. They wouldn’t have been able to coerce him into going along with this sick charade. And why didn’t I notice something was wrong, huh? Hell, I spent the past six weeks with the man and I knew something was worrying him – but did I push to find out what? No. It was easier to let it ride, to just assume it was natural jitters about becoming a cop. And if I hadn’t lost it at the scene, and later at the apartment, we might have nailed the bastards doing this before … before they took him away.”
Simon rolled his eyes and crossed his arms. “Oh, come on, don’t take more than your share,” he thundered heatedly. “There were a lot of good reasons to keep quiet about your senses, and there still are. And I didn’t see you put a gun to his head to force him into that press conference. Blair made his own choices – and he chose, albeit for pretty compelling reasons, to keep you in the dark about this latest mess. You are not responsible for the acts of unprincipled and unethical people – it’s not your fault that some creep in the government or military or whatever decided that they needed what Blair could give them. Hell, Jim, you might as well blame Blair for everything that’s happened because he spent most of his life searching for sentinels, and for insinuating himself into your life so he could study you and help you. They didn’t take him because you’re a sentinel. They took him because of what he knows, because of his skills. Even if you’d gone public long ago, or owned up to the senses when the story broke, they probably would have still come after him because he’s got what they want. That’s it, that’s all.”
Leaning on the window sill and staring blindly out at the street, Jim grated grudgingly, “Okay, fine, you may be right.” Straightening, he turned to face Simon. “But you know what? That’s not good enough. The facts are that he didn’t trust me enough to tell me, and that if I hadn’t wanted so badly to keep it all a secret, they wouldn’t have had leverage over him.”
“What? You don’t think threatening to kill his mother and you was sufficient leverage? Get real, Jim. All this assessment of blame and whining about why it’s your fault doesn’t change any of the facts. This bastard, whoever he is, had Blair by the short and curlies. They wanted someone who could train sentinels for them, pure and simple. From what you told me last night, they didn’t give him any choice but to play by their rules.”
When Jim only glared at him, Simon sighed and shook his head. Rounding his desk, he poured two cups of coffee and set one on the edge of his desk for Jim before sitting down. “Look,” he offered in a calmer tone, “yesterday you found out he’s still alive. Hold onto that. This isn’t over. We’ll find him and we’ll find a way to bring him home.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Jim agreed wearily. Moving away from the window, he picked up the steaming mug and sat down. “It’s just that ….”
“He didn’t trust me, Simon. Not enough to risk telling me sooner. And I’m having a hell of a time getting past that.”
“Well, I guess that’s something the two of you will have to work out once he’s back home.”
Jim nodded and sipped on the coffee. Leaning back in the chair, he said quietly, “I want to start making some changes.”
“Like telling the others everything about my senses,” he replied, gesturing toward the bullpen. “They deserve to know the details.”
“Fine,” Simon agreed. “The more they understand, the better backup they’ll be able to give you in the field. But I don’t want it going further than that. Not yet, anyway. We don’t need any leaks – and we sure in hell don’t need another media circus. For Blair’s sake as much as yours, we need to keep a low profile.”
“Blair left a copy of his paper on his laptop. I’ll bring it in tomorrow and print it. And we’ll take it from there.”
“Okay. Anything else?”
Jim leaned forward and cradled the mug in his hands. “Simon … you should know that Blair and I –”
Banks held up his hand, palm out, as he sharply cut in, “Whoa, just hold on a minute. I think I may know what you’re about to tell me, and I’m not sure this is the time or place.”
When Jim looked up and frowned, he went on gently, “Jim, what I know or suspect as your friend is separate from what I know for a fact as your boss. I’m assuming you and Blair will still want to work together when we get him back, right?” At Jim’s nod, he said, “Then let’s not forget departmental regs, okay? Let’s just leave it that I have a pretty good idea of how much you and Blair mean to each other.”
“Like everyone else has had ‘a pretty good idea’ for years now?” Jim slammed, stung. The deep ache in his gut, the suffocating hurt in his chest – he needed Blair, hungered for him, and was so damned terrified of never seeing him again. He wanted to rage and weep and … he felt like he might explode. He needed, badly, to talk about Blair, to acknowledge what Blair meant to him, everything that Blair was in his life. Not talking about him felt perversely like a denial of Blair, of his love for his partner, and he couldn’t do that, couldn’t, not now, not when talking about the man was the only way he had of holding onto him, of keeping him present and knowing what they had was real. He’d never felt like this before, this need to share his loneliness and despair, and he couldn’t believe Simon was shutting him out.
Simon didn’t snarl back. His expression softened with compassion so tangible that Jim felt his eyes sting, and his throat tightened. “No, not like that,” Simon said quietly. “I know there was nothing between the two of you, despite the fact that I think everyone was sensing the truth of how you both felt but hadn’t acknowledged. But I never saw you as happy as you were the morning you came back from leave – and even when Blair was lying dead beside that fountain, I’ve not seen you as broken as you were the day of the crash. And I could see what it meant to you last night, when you realized by some miracle he was still alive.” He paused and looked away. “I know, Jim. But, as your boss, I can’t acknowledge that.”
Jim sagged and bowed his head. He should have thought of that. Life partners weren’t supposed to be partnered at work. It was too great a risk in dicey situations where personal emotion had no place. He was just going to have to hold it all inside, just like he’d always done. Always … before Blair had come into his life and taught him to open up and showed him that it was okay to need someone else. But he wasn’t the same man as he’d been, wasn’t the inveterate loner anymore. It scared him, because he no longer knew how to survive this way.
“It’s late enough to call it a day,” Simon offered gently. “How about the two of us go grab a couple of cool ones someplace quiet? Some place where two old friends can just talk.”
Jim’s eyes blurred with the gratitude of knowing it was, indeed, safe to let go of the control that was fast shattering. Pressing his lips together to stop their traitorous trembling, he nodded. Clearing his throat, blinking hard, he looked up at his friend. “Yeah. Yeah, okay.”
“C’mon, let’s get out of here,” Simon said as he locked away his files.
Alone in the conference room, Blair rubbed his temples. Maybourne had called him at lunch, to cheerfully tell him that his mother was back home and, though she looked understandably sad and wan, she seemed to be in otherwise good health. The Colonel added, with a salacious twist in his tone, that his partner had returned to work that morning. Blair hadn’t been able to speak. Had just hung up the phone. But he’d gotten the message. Maybourne was keeping tabs on Naomi and Jim, and was letting him know that he could reach out and touch them – or have Brackett do so – at any time.
It had taken everything Blair had to go back into the conference room to assign his students their work, and then to do the testing all afternoon. Thank God, Josh, Marcus, Tony and eight of the others had weathered the discomforts well, so all he’d had to do was concentrate. Though Josh’s questioning had left him feeling raw and helpless.
But Carrie had lost it and he was annoyed with himself for not having noticed the tell-tale trembling and shallow breathing until she’d broken down into a storm of tears. He found out that she was having trouble managing the dials and her skin rash was unbearable. After getting her calmed down enough to listen to him, he’d again worked her through her dials and had given her a natural, hypoallergenic lotion as well as a box of oatmeal bath flakes. He’d sent her directly back to her cabin before returning to the conference room.
He needed a break from the ever-present anxieties and the rigorous concentration of the long afternoon. So, when he rejoined the others, he asked them to leave their journals for his quick review, told them he’d finish the rest of the individual testing that evening, and sent them off to enjoy the late afternoon sunshine.
Ignoring the headache that thumped behind his eyes, trying to wall off the fury and fear he’d felt since Maybourne’s call, he moved around the table, scanning the journal entries and making note of any needs or concerns listed. Marcus hadn’t mentioned his uncle during their session that afternoon; nor was he the only one who had a relative who had exhibited unusual sensory acuity and/or what was thought to be mental instability requiring institutionalization, usually with a diagnosis of catatonic schizophrenia. Blair shook his head and wondered how many others were out there, around the world, suffering because no one understood them and their needs, their amazing potential to contribute in so, so many different areas of human endeavor. He started a separate list of the relatives mentioned, intending to ask if they were still alive. There had to be a way to help them, too.
Chewing on his lip as he wrote, he decided he had to find a way to get more information out to the public. But he didn’t know how to go about it. He couldn’t publish under his own name and credentials. Even without the need to continue to protect Jim and now all these other nascent sentinels, he was supposed to be dead. Sighing, frowning against the headache that was worsening, he let it go for the time being.
Let it go.
His new mantra. Let it go. Let it go. Let it go, echoed in his mind, drumming along with the pounding in his skull. Let the anger go, and the grief. Let the pain go … along with the dreams, and hopes for what his life might have been.
Let it go. Let it go. Providing he did what he was told, Jim and Naomi should be safe.
But he couldn’t stop his memories of Jim’s slumped figure or the gut-wrenching grief he’d heard. Nor could he stop his imagination from picturing Jim at the memorial service. Jim, and his mother, and all their friends. Did Jim know yet, that he was still alive? Or did the love of his life still believe him dead and gone?
Well, he was gone, wasn’t he? His life with Jim was over and done.
In a paroxysm of helpless fury, he slammed his fists on the conference table and then leapt up to pace, back and forth, back and forth, to work off the rage.
He had to get it together, had to. Couldn’t do what he had to do, couldn’t be any good to these men and women with half his mind and all his heart consumed by anguish.
He needed to give himself time to adjust. It had only been days, right? But how much time was it going to take? Would he finally get to a point where the pain was only a dull ache and not this constant ripping at his guts?
Slumping against the wall, his face in his hands, he fought the lump that built in his chest and threatened to choke him. “Ah, Jim,” he whispered brokenly. “Ah, God, Jim.”
Sitting on the verandah, soaking up the slanting rays of the sun, Josh and Marcus heard the tortured whispers.
“Something’s not right about all this,” Marcus muttered.
“Yeah, I know,” Josh agreed with a scowl. “I tried to talk to him about it this afternoon, but he only said other lives were on the line and it wasn’t my fight. He as much as admitted, though, that Maybourne forced him into this.”
“You believe what he said this morning – about his sentinel bringing him back from the dead?” Marcus asked with a sidelong look.
Josh shrugged. “I think he believes it.”
“I believe it,” Marcus admitted then, his gaze roaming the forested hills. “I saw that press conference a couple months ago. At the time, I figured it was true, except I could see the tears in his eyes and I could hear his heartbeat going a mile a minute. But I wrote it off as nerves and guilt for doing what he claimed. I mean, who would believe all that sentinel stuff anyway?”
Josh snorted and shook his head. “If you asked me yesterday, I would’ve said the whole thing sounded nuts. But … those dials work. And there’s no doubt that he knows what he’s doing, that he’s worked with someone else like us.”
“Yeah. And he misses his sentinel like blazes, that’s clear. What kind of power does it take? What kind of love, to bring someone back from the dead?”
“Same kind of love that leads a man to give up everything, even go along with pretending he’s dead, to protect the ones who really matter,” Josh replied hollowly, despising the picture of events that was shaping up.
“You think we should do something about it?”
“I think we need to keep our ears open and dig up more information; we don’t know what Maybourne is holding over him. If we’re not careful, we could make things worse,” Josh cautioned. “But, yeah, at some point? I think we need to see if anything can be done.”
“You can count me in,” Tony said as he came around the corner of the lodge. “Something about all this stinks.” Dropping onto a step, he added, “I think pretty much everyone feels the same about the bits we’ve overheard. That man in there is hurting bad and doing his damnedest to not show it, but his heart is going too fast, his breathing is tight, and there’s a fine tremor in his hands. He’s going to have a heart attack if something doesn’t give soon.”
When the other men didn’t say anything, Tony sighed and shook his head. “But, man, despite all that, he’s sure working hard for us. I gotta say, going through those tests once is a pain. He might not have to deal with the sensory end of them, but he’s got to be focused, with no breaks, for all of us – and he’s already given me, and I suspect everyone, some great suggestions for control. Don’t know about you and the rest, but I thought life as I’d known it was over before I came here. I sure appreciate the help and I’m looking forward learning everything he can teach me. Feels like I should give something back, you know? I feel like I owe the guy.”
The other men nodded their agreement. Tony was right. They’d all picked up enough to know Blair was scared of something and hurting as bad as anyone they’d ever seen. And yet, he was helping them, all of them, doing his best by them. Though they were just getting to know the guy, they knew he was important to them, maybe more important than anyone had ever been in their lives. Knowing he was in trouble was like an itch they couldn’t scratch, doubly annoying because they were people of action, used to doing what needed to be done.
But what needed to be done to make things right for Blair?
Simon and Jim nursed icy bottles of beer in a dark corner of the bar a couple blocks from the loft.
“How did it go with Naomi last night?” Simon asked.
“About like you’d expect,” Jim replied morosely. “For all her talk about the immortality of the soul, she’s taking it hard.” Looking across the table at Simon, guilt in his eyes, he admitted, “I hate this. Lying to her, to Joel, Megan and the others. Makes me feel like shit.”
“Yeah, I know,” Simon agreed with a grimace. “I don’t like it, either, but we don’t have much choice, not until we know who’s involved and whether we’re all being watched.” He took a sip of beer, and then ventured, “So, you and Sandburg … something’s changed, right?”
His gaze shifting away, Jim nodded. “Yeah, everything’s changed.” He hesitated and then admitted, “Guess you could say that we were on our honeymoon.” Sighing, he leaned back in the booth and picked at the label on the bottle. Flicking a glance at Simon, he asked, “You okay with this? If it makes you uncomfortable ….”
“Oh, hell, Jim,” Simon grunted, “it’s been obvious since damned near the first day that the two of you were strongly affiliated. Maybe it has something to do with the sentinel thing, I don’t know. But I do know – and so does everyone else who knows the two of you – that you guys love each other. Not only have you bickered like an old married couple for years but … well, it took something pretty damned powerful to bring Blair back at the fountain, and he sacrificed himself for you on national television. And, yeah, I know you both very much enjoy the company of women but … but there’s an affinity between the two you … hell, I can’t really explain it but, damn, you guys lean into one another, always have. Have no personal space. And you never did. The only thing that surprises me, I guess, is that it took so long to get physical about how you feel.”
Jim frowned and rubbed his mouth as he struggled with how to put what he felt into words. “I don’t know if I can explain it, Simon, but it’s more than just physical. I … I feel whole now, as if some part was missing and I didn’t know it until I found it. I didn’t know it was possible to be that happy. And … and losing him like this, not knowing where he is or if he’s okay – it’s driving me crazy. The fact that he agreed to do this to protect me and his mother, that he … I don’t know. He gives too much, you know? He doesn’t count himself, his needs, his life in the balance.”
Simon shrugged. “He loves the both of you. He’d do anything to keep the two of you safe, you know that.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Jim agreed. “I just wish he’d get it into his thick skull that he doesn’t have to take on the world all by himself, you know? And … and, God, I miss him so bad.” His throat closed and he couldn’t speak – had to fight back the emotion that filled his chest.
“We will find him, Jim,” Simon assured him. “And we’ll do whatever it takes to fix things so that he can come back home.”
“What if we can’t?” he argued. “We don’t know what kind of power and influence the perp has.” Setting the bottle down, he leaned his elbows on the table. “You won’t want to hear this but, if it turns out to be necessary, I’ll go on the run with him. I’ll do whatever it takes to get him back and be with him.”
“That’s a last resort and I hope it won’t be necessary,” Simon replied. “All we can do is take this a step at a time and see how it plays out.”
“Okay, today, we’re going to get out of this room and get some fresh air,” Blair told them first thing the next morning. “I want you to count off, one, two, one, two, around the table.” Once they’d numbered into pairs, he explained, “Every pair is going to be a team today, one watching the other exercising the senses, because you’re all likely to fall into a zone at least once.” Everyone in the room stiffened in resistance. “Hey, don’t worry about it when it happens – it’s natural. The watcher will call me and I’ll show you how to bring someone out of a zone, so you can see that there’s no mystery about it. It’s really just a matter of engaging other senses to draw a person back from being too deep in just one. While we’re outside, I’ll be giving you sight, hearing, and scent tasks to carry out, to get used to stretching your senses. If things go well, by the end of the day you may already be piggybacking one sense onto another to extend your reach.”
“Piggy-backing?” Ross, another airman, echoed with a look of confusion.
With a smile, Blair reassured him, “It’ll make more sense – no pun intended – when you’re doing it. Seriously, don’t worry. This is the fun part of learning about your senses and seeing what they can do. Milt has made up lunch bags and we’ll pick them up in the dining room on the way out. Come on – let’s go for a hike in the forest.”
Once Jim had made the copies of Blair’s paper, Simon called everyone, including Rhonda, into his office. Perhaps it was the grim expression on his face that kept them silent as they took seats around the conference table and looked from him to Jim with curious expressions.
“Jim, this is your show,” he said, once they were all settled.
Jim nodded. “I’ve made a file here for each of you; please take one and pass the rest on,” he instructed as he placed two stacks at each end of the table. “Inside, you’ll find a copy of Blair’s dissertation. Every word of it is true.”
Henri frowned as he took a folder and flipped it open. “Why’re you giving this to us now, huh? It’s a bit late, isn’t it?” he demanded.
“Brown!” Simon snapped. “That’s enough.”
“No, no, that’s alright, Simon. H’s got a right to be angry. You all do,” Jim hastily intervened. Sighing, he sat down beside Simon and clasped his hands together. “I should have been straight with all of you a long time ago. Sure as hell should have come clean when the story broke. But … but I had my reasons. Maybe not good ones, not good enough anyway.” He paused and rubbed his mouth.
“Ah, I’m sorry, Jim,” Brown offered, sounding contrite and embarrassed about his outburst. “I just, well, I just feel so bad about Hairboy, you know?”
Jim nodded. “I know,” he replied, his voice low with his effort to keep it steady. Taking a breath, he lifted his eyes to meet their gazes. “You’ve all guessed the truth, I know that. But you deserve to know the facts about what I can do. And, and, frankly … I can’t do it alone. Blair helped me focus. Helped me when I’d zone, uh, get lost in a single sense – it’s all there in the paper.” His gaze dropped, but then he straightened his shoulders and faced them. “I need you to know about all this, so that you can help me when we’re working on cases together.”
“We’ll all do what we can, Jim. You know that,” Joel assured him, and the rest nodded solemnly.
“Thanks, Joel, all of you.” Jim licked his lips and seemed about to say something, only to hesitate. He glanced at Simon and then said, “Blair … Blair did everything he could to help me keep it all a secret. To protect me. He, uh, well, we both worried about the information getting into the wrong hands and having it used against me. That’s the main reason we never told you. But Blair deserves to have you all know the truth; to know what an important role he played in my life. He … he saved my sanity and he saved my life, more times than I can tell you. I should have said something when he gave that press conference. I should have come clean then. But … things were happening so fast. I talked to him about it that day that, that Simon offered … but he didn’t want me to. And then, and then …” Jim’s voice cracked and he pressed his lips together as he bowed his head.
“I think we all understand, Jim,” Simon said quietly as he laid a hand on Jim’s shoulder. Turning to the group, he went on, “Jim’s not the only one who didn’t say anything. I’ve known since Blair first started here, but I agreed that the secret was worth keeping. At first, well, because it all just seemed so incredible, and Jim and Blair were still trying to figure it all out. Then, later …” he shrugged. “Things were going fine. There didn’t seem to be any need to talk about it.” He shook his head. “I, too, wish we’d shared all this with you when we knew the story was about to break. But we can’t undo the past.”
Megan sniffed and dabbed at one eye. “Blair would be … Blair would be stoked that you’re doing this, Jim. Glad, I mean. He’d … he’d want you to let us all help you.”
Jim looked up at her and then away. A small, sad smile quirked the corner of his mouth. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Blair wouldn’t want me to try to do this on my own.” He gazed at all of them in turn. “He’d be really grateful to all of you, for being willing to help me. And so am I. Once you’ve read the paper, if you have any questions, just let me know and I’ll do my best to answer them.”
Simon looked around at his people and decided there was no need to caution them to keep the files locked away. They’d rally around Jim and would protect him; would protect his secret. Even if they still held some anger toward Jim, they’d do it for Blair. “Okay, that’s it for today,” he said, ending the meeting. “Let’s get back to work.”