Blair slipped back into a light sleep, still recovering from the curative violence of the nanites in his now fully restored and healthy body. Standing by the side of the bed, Jim continued to hold Sandburg's hand as he studied the relaxed features, feeling the balm of relief that Blair's colour was again natural, the dark smudges under the long, thick lashes gone... his breath easy and his full lips curled in a slight, peaceful smile as he dozed. Jim reached to lightly brush the tumbling curls back from his best friend's brow, and then his fingers curled to tenderly stroke Sandburg's cheek, lingering for a moment along Blair's jaw as if wishing to soothe away the faint shadow of the bruising and the ache he figured must also still remain.
Jim frowned, remembering how he'd had to hit Blair with his closed fist to knock Sandburg senseless, not once but several times over the course of the last two terrible days, and he swallowed back the bile that rose in his throat as he tightened his own jaw in sorrow and regret. There had been no other way to give Blair some measure of peace. The medication, as strong as it was, as often as it had been given, had not touched the horrific pain the younger man had been suffering, pain that could drive any man into madness. So Jim had hit him, to render him unconscious... it had been necessary, even kind, but Ellison's heart ached that such kindness had been required. He'd never forget the sick feeling of his fist connecting with Blair's jaw... never forget the grief of having to abuse to give relief.
Sighing, Jim turned away and slumped into the chair he'd drawn close, so that he could still retain a grip on his sleeping partner's hand. Blair was okay, would be perfectly fine in a matter of another few hours. Closing his eyes, listening to the beloved, necessary sound of Sandburg's heartbeat, feeling the warmth of his partner's hand under his own fingers, Jim let the relief and the glory of this miracle of life wash over him and heal his soul. God, he'd been so afraid when he'd turned and seen Sandburg crumpled on the ground... but that was nothing to his utter despair when he'd turned his friend and realized the wounds would be fatal. The terror of that moment... the blind rage and devastating grief at the inevitability of Sandburg's death had filled Ellison's being, tearing at his heart and shredding his soul. He'd never, ever, find the words to describe what those moments had felt like.
Jim wondered if such emotions be articulated, or if the feelings were too powerful, too all-encompassing, too unimaginable to ever be captured and harnessed by something as ephemeral and inadequate as simple words.
The thought that Sandburg's flame of brilliance, the fire of boundless, endless energy, the everlasting warmth of the friendship, the love, could be ripped from him, extinguished so suddenly, had left Jim reeling. Blair was his touchstone for balance and reason. His rock, the anchor that held him steady in this new world where he was only beginning to find his way and his place, that kept him from spiraling away into madness. To never hear that voice again... to never feel Sandburg's touch. To never see the light sparkling in his eyes, or that wide, open and joyous smile... to never hear the laughter... or the heartbeat...
Once again, Jim's eyes filled with tears as the ache of those moments, of that hideous possibility, filled his chest and stole his breath away. Trembling, he curled forward, sick at how close it had been, struggling for control, shuddering in his effort to hold back the sobs that filled his throat, choking him. His eyes pressed closed against the memories, the memories of Blair lying awash in his own blood, of Sandburg screaming until he was hoarse and had no voice, but was still wracked by unendurable pain. Jim shook his head as he tried to force away those hateful, intolerable, memories and forced himself to breathe, slowly, and ever more deeply.
It was over. Blair was fine. He wasn't going to die. The pain had been endured and was over. Sandburg was here, beside him, with him, wasn't leaving, wasn't going to just disappear, abandoning him to an existence that was empty, leaving him lost and alone in a world that wasn't his own. The pitiless cruelty of that, when they had only just found one another again, would have been more than Jim could have borne. Again, he let the tangible presence of his Guide sooth him, the sounds, the scents, the feel of his Guide and, straightening, opening his eyes, the sight of his Guide, lying there, peaceful, dreaming pleasant dreams... whole and alive.
'God, you are beautiful,Jim thought and then grimaced, almost embarrassed, at the thought. He didn't often think of other men as 'beautiful', but Sandburg was, in every sense of the word. Now as Jim fondly studied his sleeping partner, he reflected that Blair was certainly physically beautiful, but Ellison knew he'd been describing Sandburg's incredible generosity and compassion of heart and sensitive nobility of spirit. Frowning, he tried to think of a way of conveying what he meant more clearly, even if only to himself. 'Like an angel... he thought then whimsically. 'The most amazing human being I know.'
Ellison smiled softly as he again reached to lightly caress Blair's face, tracing his brow, his cheek... his lips. 'My angel,he thought, liking the notion, feeling that it fit their particular circumstances. 'My guardian angel... my angel of hope. Steadfast, brave, honest... you never fail me. You never abandon me, or leave me to wander eternally lost and alone. You seek me out when I'm in need and afraid. You offer all that you are, body, heart and soul, freely, without hesitation... without any apparent regret. Why Blair? What did I ever do to deserve you?'
Leaning back against the chair, his gaze on his partner's face, Ellison let his mind drift and wander back to his memories of the jungle.
Awakening suddenly, with startled awareness, Ellison rolled to push himself up in one fluid movement to crouch on one knee, ready for whatever threat might be lurking, whatever danger might exist. Even as he rolled, his mind was still filled with the sensory blast of light, sound and physical force, as the bomb had blown, driving him forward even as the heat seared his clothing and skin and sharp, ragged, deadly projectiles imbedded themselves in his head and back, blinding him with pain until darkness had captured him, and he hissed a harsh protesting, "No!"
Expecting the shattered remains of the bus, the moans and screams of the wounded, Jim froze into immobility at the silence... and his disbelieving awareness of the lush jungle that surrounded him. "What the hell?" he muttered, frowning, trying to remember how he'd gotten here, having no idea where 'here' was.
"Where am I?" he murmured then, standing slowly and turning to take in the environment.
For a moment, Ellison wondered if he was back in Peru, waking from a sleeping nightmare to a living one. If the explosion he remembered was in actuality the missile blowing the helicopter from the air... the screams he'd fully expected to hear those of his wounded and dying men. Frantic now, his gaze raked the forest and he listened, holding his breath, listened for any sound of other life.
But there was nothing.
No torn parachute or scattered debris.
No hint of smoke or fire in the air. No scent of blood.
No vestige of his team.
Looking down at himself, to check for injuries, though he felt fine, just a little chilled, Ellison gasped.
He was as naked as the day he'd been born.
"What the hell is going on here?" he hissed, his head lifting again, his eyes narrowing as he again studied his surroundings... and realized this wasn't Peru.
Certainly, it was a jungle, but the lush foliage and blooms were from all parts of the world, from Africa and Asia, as well as from South America. There was a quality of light that made it all seem cleaner, sharper, more vital and alive. The fragrances were rich, blending together, not clashing... creating an ambiance of sensory well-being. He could hear the rush of a river somewhere nearby, and the gurgle of a smaller stream, closer to hand, water chuckling over stones. As he listened, his senses reaching out, he could hear the melody of birds warbling and singing, a joyous sound. The earth around was grassy, a soft verdant clearing within the nameless jungle, bare of rocks or stones, with no pebbles to bruise his feet or his body when he lay upon it. Above, the sky was a clear azure, endless in its infinity.
Confused, disoriented, Ellison shook his head. How had he gotten here? Why did he feel this inner chill though the sun was warm on his body, the air dry and soft... the breeze gentle and refreshing against his skin?
Frowning, Jim moved toward the stream and the river further in the distance, to explore this place, to find some points of reference. To try to figure out how he'd gotten here. But he moved cautiously, silently, not knowing if danger lurked in this peaceful place that seemed a virtual paradise.
As Ellison slipped through the jungle, following the narrow paths of animals, reading the tracks of various small mammals as well as larger creatures, most notably the prints of a big cat and nearby, a large dog or wolf, he felt the knot of anxiety grow in his gut. None of this made any sense. Why couldn't he remember what had happened? How he'd gotten here? Swallowing with irritated nervousness, Ellison shook his head, struggling to remember.
But there was only the bus and the bomb.
And the look on Sandburg's face as Jim was blown down the aisle toward him. Hope in the kid's eyes. Hope turning to horror.
And then the damned darkness.
Again Jim looked down at his body, at his arms and legs, swiveling his head to try to see over his shoulder, reaching to touch what he couldn't see. There should be burns and terrible injuries. There should be broken bones.
But he was whole, well... fine except for that odd sense of an inner chill.
He found the stream and scouted along it to the river.
But there were none.
He stretched out his senses, his sight, his hearing, his sense of smell, surprised to find that they responded to his will, not spiking or overwhelming him, but under perfect control.
For all the good they did.
He heard nothing but the peaceful sounds of nature.There were rapids and a waterfall somewhere downstream... which meant a possible vantage point from which he might be able to see further. So he followed the river until he reached a rocky promontory. Climbing up, he stood at its crest and looked out over the valley, seeing a lake shimmering in the distance. Mountains rimmed the valley, snowcapped, austere and magnificent. High on their slopes, he could make out the growth of pine... pine? In the jungle?
Shaking his head, he zoomed his sight down along the far reaches of the valley, and then quartered it with his gaze. Seeking a drift of smoke, a thatched roof... tilting his head, he listened for the voices of other beings that walked on two legs and looked at the stars and wondered about the meaning of life.
But as hard as he tried, he could see nor hear any trace of other human beings. An eagle soared high over the valley, its whistle a lonely, eerie call. A white eagle, pure, its wings almost luminous in the light of the setting sun.
The chill inside deepened and clawed at him, making Jim shiver a little though the air remained warm. Licking his lips, feeling an odd desperation, he again raked the valley and the hills leading to the mountain reaches.
Finally, he had to accept there was no one else to be found.
'What the hell good is paradise, he thought with a sinking, hollow feeling, 'if it's empty and you're all alone?'
For weeks, Jim wandered the lush, peaceful valley. Sometimes, in the early dawn, there would be a light fog, but it would burn off under the heat of the sun. Sometimes, he swam, and found the fish as varied and inexplicable in their diverse origin as he'd found the vegetation and animal life. Sometimes, he sat in the mouth of the cave he'd found, staring out over his valley with a mountain guarding his back, searching... as if he were waiting.
Early on, Ellison noticed another strange phenomenon. He felt no hunger. Had no need to eat. Though days passed, he experienced no weakness.
And he began to wonder if he had died.
And this was... what? Heaven? Hell?
It looked like Heaven...
The more he explored, the more he appreciated the perfection of the place he now occupied. He climbed up over the western mountains and saw the sea in the distance, glittering in the sunlight, rolling eternally to the wide strip of sandy shore, foaming breakers crashing against the boundary of land and swirling up until they slipped back to the sea. Though he stayed there, watching the ocean for days and days, he saw no ships, saw no fishers on the rocks... saw no one walk that perfect beach.
... but it felt like Hell.
There was no purpose here, not even to survive. With no need of food, he had no need to hunt or fish. With a constant, ambient and comfortable temperature and threat-free environment, he had no need to protect himself from the elements or animals. Oh, he'd finally seen the black jaguar watching him... and a few times, he'd seen the wolf in the distance, acting as if it was lost and frightened, as if it were searching almost frantically for its own kind. A few times, the wolf had turned its head and looked into his eyes and yelped, as if in glad relief, and had turned to race toward him only to disappear into the heavy vegetation that blocked their view of one another... and then he'd hear a mournful, heart-wrenching howl of a soul lost and in despair.
More than once, an echoing cry keened from his own throat... but now he just sat silently and listened, his heart aching with the loneliness that was a haunting companion to his own.
The loneliness was the ultimate surprise.
Ellison had thought himself a loner, independent of the need for others, self-sufficient unto himself. But as the days drifted past, like dead leaves blown hither and yon by the wind, aimless, without volition, the loneliness grew along with the chill inside. Until he felt cold almost all the time. But it was a chill of his spirit not of his body. Once, he'd cursed the sheer comfort of this strange land... there was nothing to fight. Nothing to exert himself against. Nothing to resist.
He kept track of the passing of time, as a kind of tether on his sanity. Finding a sharp stone, he cut marks into the broad trunk of a tree near his cave. Weeks rolled into months... until more than a year had passed.
In the soft light of dawn of the first day of the new year, he'd climbed that promontory, the one he'd found the first day, and screamed out his frustration and his loneliness. He'd demanded answers, and heard his questions echo along the long valley, coming back to him from the mountains beyond. The echoes of his questions, but no answers. He'd slumped then, sinking to his knees, his arms wrapped around his chest, his head bowed as he'd wept.
And still the days drifted by. At night, sometimes he'd have a fire for the illusion of a companionable silence, the crackling of the wood, the scent of the smoke taking him back to other times and places. Sometimes he thought he saw visions in the flames, and he'd hear murmurs in the wind rustling through the branches above. Glimpses of a face, open and innocent, bright with affection, blue eyes dancing with life and wonder, a smile wide with joy... a soft, reassuring resonance of sound, whispers low, with the words just too indistinct to fathom. But a sound that settled his soul and drove back the chill.
And, sometimes, he would just stare up at the endless sky, at the cold, distant glitter of stars arranged in constellations he didn't recognize. This was an alien place for all its peace and security. It was a long, long way from home.
In those moments, he would strain to make out the words whispered to him on the wind, closing his eyes finally in an effort to hear them more clearly. But all he heard was the beloved timbre, the tones and cadence... and sometimes he wept for the loneliness he heard in that voice when he listened too hard and it came as clear as if ever did... hauntingly there, achingly distant, too far away to be understood.
But it was in those moments that he knew he'd not been completely abandoned and forgotten. That someone was searching for him, knowing him to be lost. Someone he needed and wanted to see, needed to touch so desperately the ache clawed within his chest and clogged his throat. In those moments, he could picture the face of his friend, the other half of his soul... the man who was missing, who held Jim's sanity and his heart in his hands and voice and eyes.
It was those moments that gave him hope... the hope that Jim felt that the other would find him, if he just held on, if he just didn't give up and give in to the madness that crouched on the edges of his thoughts, fanning his fear and his loneliness... if he just held on, however long it had to be, if he kept believing... then, one day, the man in his visions would find him, would call out for him and embrace him... and he'd never be alone again.
More weeks passed. More months. Waiting. Watching. Searching the paths of the jungle and the mountain heights. Wandering the valley.
It was a dawn like any other, heralding a day like any other. Endless. Aimless. Perfect. Empty.
A mist hung over the valley and wisps sank to shift over the ground below, almost obscuring the river and its grassy verge.
The world was silent... but Jim became aware of a sense of expectancy... as if everything was holding its breath. There was no wind, no sound of birds... today the world seemed to be waiting with him, with a hush of anticipation.
But then the jaguar growled, hissed and snarled... and its roar split the air. It sounded angry, enraged... as if it could kill in that moment.
And the wolf yipped in fear.
Knowing something was terribly wrong, Jim's gaze raked the jungle below until he finally spotted the wolf in the drifting mist on the bank of the river, less than a half mile away. Jim could see it, standing frozen, and then slowly backing away from something that wasn't there, or at least wasn't visible, casting quick glances over its shoulder, as if checking on another, anxious and afraid. Ellison tried to spot what was threatening the animal, but there was nothing visible, not to his eyes. But he felt a desperate fear for the creature and a sudden surge of impotent fury that he was too far away, that he could do nothing to help it. Something happened to the wolf then, something terrible, though Jim could see no wounds, but it suddenly howled as if it were dying, its body twisting in anguished pain until it lay still.
Stricken, appalled and horrified, Jim found himself racing down through the heavily forested hill, skidding and stumbling along the steep path in his mindless rush, driven by the irresistible need to go to the wolf, to help it if he could, to comfort it if that was all he could offer. He had a vague awareness that the jaguar was shadowing him silently, also racing down to the river. In what seemed only seconds, he was on level ground and pelting out of the foliage to the clear stretch of land beside the rushing water.
And he stopped, frozen in his tracks by the scene before him.
The wolf was crouched now, whimpering a little, staring at an empty space of grass. Hearing him, the animal looked up into his eyes, the dark, deep blue gaze holding his own... aware with a bright glow of intelligence and recognition. The animal yipped at him, the toss of its head and the outstretched, scratching paw signaling him to come closer. And then it turned to gaze again, with intent, almost desperate, focus upon that vacant patch of ground.
The jaguar came out of the shadows and paced gracefully to the wolf's side, nuzzling its neck, licking its face, and then the big cat turned cool eyes upon Jim and yowled, as if also beckoning him forward.
The mist swirled around them as Jim took one hesitant step forward and then another, his eyes irresistibly drawn to that space of air that so occupied the two wild creatures. He was unaware that he was holding his breath, or of the tension in his muscles. Soundlessly, he padded forward, his eyes riveted on that patch of floating mist that seemed to be gathering upon the ground at the wolf's feet.
Ellison's mouth dropped open in wordless surprise as the mist shifted and transformed... until it coalesced into a visible, recognizable form and the body of a man appeared, ghostly and insubstantial at first, but then becoming ever more solid and real. An unconscious man, curled on the ground, his face hidden by a long, curly mane of hair. A nude man, with unblemished skin and a thick dark matting of hair over his chest and just visible under the limp hand that draped over his groin, lay as if asleep not ten feet away.
With an inarticulate cry, Jim lunged across the space between them, falling upon his knees to gently turn the unconscious man and brush back the thick hair. Sensitive fingertips wonderingly traced the lines of that familiar face, while ears listened with a kind of awe to that surprisingly well-remembered, somehow essential, heartbeat. Tears blurred Ellison's eyes as he drew the younger man's head and shoulders up against his chest, cradling him in his strong arms. Overwhelmed to know he was no longer alone, achingly grateful that this man was someone he knew and trusted, Jim's lips brushed a benediction upon the newcomer's brow.
Long lashes fluttered as the hirsute chest expanded, taking in a deeper breath. As Sandburg woke, his face contorted in a grimace of terrible grief and he choked, "Maggie... Oh, God, Maggie... no."
"Hey, hey, easy," Jim murmured, alarmed by the pain in Sandburg's voice and expression.
The clear, infinitely blue eyes snapped open at the sound of Jim's voice, wide with shock as Blair's gaze locked with Jim's eyes and a look of startled recognition bloomed on his face... a look that swiftly changed to a bright, aching joy of relief and gratitude as the younger man's lips curled in a soft smile of wonder and then widened with incredible happiness. He shifted in Jim's arms, his own coming up and around to spontaneously hug Ellison tightly as he sighed, his voice catching with emotion, "I found you! Oh, God... I finally found you!"
Jim clutched Sandburg just as tightly, his own throat thick with the surge of relief that exploded in his chest. They clung together, so tightly it was if they wished they could each crawl inside of the other's being, merging completely, Ellison's face buried in that sweet-smelling hair. Finally, Jim murmured hoarsely the single thought that consumed him, though it made no sense and he knew it, "I've been waiting for you... waiting for what seemed like forever. What took you so long to find me, Chief? What took you so damned long?"
Blair shook his head as he pulled a little away, still stunned by having awakened to find Jim holding him, looking down at him with such wonder and relief. "Man... I didn't... I couldn't," he stammered, his voice catching with surprise as he looked around. "Where are we anyway?"
Jim gave him a quizzical look and shrugged. "I was hoping you might know," he sighed as he waved an almost negligent hand at their surroundings, too familiar with it all now to be in any kind of awe. "It's a kind of paradise, but there isn't anyone else here. Just the..."
But Jim's voice died as he looked around and discovered the jaguar and the wolf had disappeared. "...The animals," he finally finished. "There's a jaguar and a wolf. Some smaller animals, birds... lots of trees and flowers. Streams, this river... an ocean on the other side of the mountains. And stars I've never seen before. Wherever we are... it's a long way from where we were."
Sandburg pulled away and looked around, curious to examine this strange new world. Standing, Ellison held out a hand to help his friend to his feet. "This is... this is amazing," Blair breathed, shaking his head. "But, uh, unexpected..."
"So you do have some idea of where we are..." Jim pushed as he turned and started moving back along the river and up the slope to his cave above, too restless to stand still, too excited to not be alone any longer, to have Sandburg with him.
But Blair shook his head as he paced along beside him. "Sorry, man, I don't have clue, to tell you the truth," Sandburg replied, his eyes darting from place to place, taking it all in, noting the disparate but recognizable vegetation that couldn't be growing naturally and in harmony, not together, not on earth, anyway. "What's the last thing you remember?" Blair asked, seeking a place to begin, some point of common reference as he tried to figure out why Jim was here, and where 'herewas... or 'what' it was.
"The bomb on the bus," Jim replied soberly, looking away, and then back down at his companion. "And you. I remember seeing you just before the darkness. And then I woke up here. What happened? Was anyone else hurt?"
"Not as bad as you were, Jim," Sandburg replied, but his mind was elsewhere, trying to sort out the possibilities. Blair's gaze drifted as his thoughts tumbled over one another, as he sought to make sense of what had happened... what was happening. "It doesn't make sense..." he murmured. Biting his lip, his gaze sharpening again on his friend. He needed more information. "Where are we going?"
"I've got a cave up on this slope... great view," Jim replied as he turned to lead the way up a steep stretch, pausing from time to time to turn and help Blair follow behind him. It was clear to him that Sandburg was puzzling it out, that something was really unexpected about all of this. Shaking his head, Jim reflected that it was all unexpected and strange... but just not in the way Sandburg had seemed to expect. This place, wherever it was, whatever it was, was a surprise of some kind.
As he climbed, Ellison also realized that his own reactions and emotions on seeing Sandburg didn't make sense, not really. Oh, it was a huge relief to no longer be alone, and to have someone he recognized finally appear. But... Jim had been puzzled often as to why it was always Sandburg's face he saw in the flames, and in his mind when he heard on the wind the cadences and tones of a voice he couldn't quite make out. And now, he was trying to understand the vast relief he felt that it was Sandburg who had appeared out of the mist... Sandburg, not someone else. Not anyone else. It was Sandburg he'd been waiting for.
But... he'd only known the kid for a couple of days before that damned bomb had exploded. Sandburg was a stranger... wasn't he? And if he was, then why did he feel like a long lost brother? More than a brother. Someone essential.
Why did having Sandburg here make him feel whole again?
When they finally made it to the clearing outside the cave's entrance, Blair took a quick look down at the valley far below and swallowed as he hastily stepped back a couple of steps. "Oh, man... that's a long way down," he breathed, looking a little pale.But then before Jim could reply, he looked up and out over the vista that lay before them and his lips parted in wonder. "Jim... it's beautiful," he sighed.
"Yeah," Ellison echoed but he didn't bother looking out at the view that was eternally unchanging, and frankly, even a bit boring after the first year or so. Jim was too busy anyway just staring at Sandburg, at the wonder of having another living, breathing soul here with him.
Blair turned to him and smiled at the look of wonder on Jim's face as the older man just stood there, gazing at him. "It's been a long time, hasn't it? I'm sorry... it must have been so hard. I just didn't know where to find you..."
Blair's voice dropped as did his eyes. But Jim saw the deep sorrow there before Sandburg's gaze was veiled and felt a stab of confusion at Sandburg's words. The kid had said almost the same thing, down below when he'd first awakened... that he'd 'finally' found Jim, as if he'd been searching a long time. But why would he? It didn't make sense.
"You hardly even knew me," Jim reflected, his voice and expression reflecting his confusion. "Why did it bother you so much that you didn't know where I was? Chief... I'm really confused about all this. I feel like I know you as well, maybe even better, than I know myself. I've been waiting here for YOU, I know that, you specifically, and I knew if I held on and didn't give up, you'd eventually come... but I've never understood why I was so sure about that. We don't even know each other, not really..."
Sandburg's face paled and went still as he cut in, his eyes boring into Jim's gaze, "Jim, how long have we known each other?"
Startled by the question, wondering if Sandburg was maybe a bit confused by however he'd gotten here... God, it had looked like something right out of Star Trek, like a transporter beam. Pushing away the weirdness, not wanting to deal with it, at least not yet, Ellison shrugged as he replied, "Ah, I don't know, three, four days maybe?"
Ellison could see Sandburg almost flinch at his words, as if they had hurt. And he heard Sandburg sigh mournfully, and so softly that he almost missed it, "Ah, Jim..."
"What?" Jim asked, his eyes narrowing as he studied the younger man. "For God's sake, would you tell me what's going on here?"
Swallowing, Sandburg nodded his bowed head. Biting his lip as he raised his face to meet Jim's gaze, he pushed his hair back behind his ears, and then settled himself cross-legged on the ground, waving to the space next to him for Jim to join him.
Ellison, made uneasy by the glaze of tears he could see in Sandburg's eyes, dropped down beside his friend and held his tongue, swallowed his questions, and waited for Blair to explain. Though why Jim was so certain that Sandburg would be able to explain what was going on when he hadn't been able to do so even after almost two years, was a mystery... he just had the sense that if anyone could figure this out, Sandburg could.
Taking a breath, Blair began, "Jim, this is all going to sound pretty crazy to you, I think. And I don't have all the answers here, man... but I think I may have an idea about what's happened to us."
Sandburg paused, looking around with a peculiarly helpless look on his face, as if wondering where to start.
"Just spit it out, Chief," Jim encouraged. "Anything you have to say can't be any weirder than this, than being here in the first place. Wherever 'here' is..."
"Yeah, right, okay," Blair agreed, nodding as his wide gaze came back, and he smiled. "It doesn't really matter where 'here' is. You're here, and that's what matters."
"Sandburg... no riddles, okay? Just tell me what you think is going on," Jim implored, beginning to feel impatient with the oblique comments.
There was a flash of deep sorrow in Blair's eyes again, and then quietly, he began to share his theory, because that was all it was, and he knew it. But it was the only thing that made sense to him. "Jim, when I woke up in the hospital, after the bomb exploded, they told me you were dead. I wouldn't believe them, so they showed me pictures of the funeral, your funeral... it was a great funeral, man. I don't think you would ever have imagined how many people mourned you... it was like all of Cascade was there to honour you, to weep for your loss..."
Jim paled and looked away, feeling something clench inside. He'd wondered if he'd died. But he hadn't really believed it. The soft cadences of Sandburg's voice drew his attention back. Catching the reaction, regretting it, Sandburg hastened on to make it clear that he didn't think Jim had died. Indeed, he was increasingly convinced that Ellison was alive.
"But... I still couldn't believe it, Jim. You didn't feel dead to me. I know that sounds crazy... but I felt as if you were lost somewhere. God, sometimes I could swear I heard you calling to me... and I wondered if I was going crazy," Sandburg murmured, watching his friend closely. "And, now, well, I know you aren't dead. If you were, we wouldn't be here."
Ellison's gaze cut back to Sandburg then, his eyes narrowing at the odd words. Exasperated, not at all sure he wasn't dead, Jim demanded hotly, "How in the hell do you know that? Sandburg... I haven't had to eat since I got here and it's been almost two years. I must be dead. I didn't want to really believe that... but..."
Blair shook his head sharply. "No, man, no," he insisted. "This isn't where we go when we die. This... this is like some amazing waiting room, or something. Like it's been decorated with your memories of the wilderness, of every wilderness you've ever been in. A lot of it looks like Amazonian rainforest, but the pines on the mountains look like the forests outside Cascade... and some of the foliage is from Africa, and some is from Southeast Asia... it's a jumble, but a jumble that would seem familiar to you. For all I know, we might actually still be on Earth... specifically, we might be inside your head. What I do know is, your body isn't in any grave. You're not dead."
Ellison blinked and shook his head, suddenly remembering that this kid had never made a whole lot of sense. What the hell did Sandburg mean that they might be 'inside his head'? How nuts was that?
"So, now you're telling me that this is all some elaborate hallucination... and you're not really here at all. I just got tired of being in this nightmare alone?" Jim grunted, disgusted.
"Uh, uh," Blair replied. "Nope... I'm really here. I do know that. But it could still be a kind of mind map within your memory cells..."
Jim held up his hand as he shook his head sharply. "No," he stated flatly. "This is all not just inside my head. For one thing, if it was, we'd both be clothed, not running around like the charter members of some new nudist colony."
Blair blinked and then grinned cheekily. "Well... I had wondered about that..."
"Stop wondering, Junior," Jim grated. "You're not my type."
When Sandburg snickered and then laughed aloud, Jim wondered what he'd said that was so funny. Seeing the look of irritation on Ellison's face, Blair struggled to bring his mirth under control as he held up his hands. Still chuckling a little, he finally said, "Don't worry, everything's copascetic, man. It's just so great to hear that no-nonsense, straight to the shoulder, no-bull Ellison style of communication. I missed you, Jim."
There it was again... that sense that Sandburg had known him a long time and took that for granted, when that just wasn't the case. An odd shiver crept up his spine as Jim recalled how he'd thought of the strange weirdness and intensity of their relationship almost from the first moment, with the craziness of the senses and the kid's offbeat theory that he was some kind of sentinel, as being in 'the Sandburg zone'. Waving off the pointless banter, Jim returned to the issue at hand. "Look, let's focus here. We are not someplace inside my head. So, where are we? Why are we here? And how are we going to get back home? As far as all that goes, do you have any idea what you're talking about?" Jim finally asked.
"Yeah, I do, well, sort of," Sandburg replied patiently, sobering sharply with the realization of how strange it must all sound, must all seem, to his partner. "Jim, our souls are eternal. Only our bodies are mortal. So, our souls can inhabit many bodies over the span of time if we choose to return to a physical plane of existence. We just don't remember former lives when we take on another 'life'... it would get too confusing. Or, maybe, the choices we are faced with during the physical manifestation of life wouldn't seem to have the same importance to us if we knew we'd get another chance. I don't know. I just know that when we die... this isn't where we go."
"And you know that because..." Jim drawled, just a little sarcastically.
"Because, when we die, our souls remember all that went before," Blair explained calmly, though the slight tremble in his hands, and the catch in his breathing betrayed the depth of his emotions.
"And you remember these previous lives?" Ellison challenged. When Blair nodded as he swallowed and bit his lip, Jim shook his head. "How can you remember when I can't?" he demanded, frustrated with what made no sense.
"Jim, I remember because..." Sandburg paused and took a breath, "because I'm dead."
Ellison gaped at Sandburg, all expression bleached from his face. And then he closed his eyes and shook his head, as if trying to clear away the confusion. Somehow, the words, 'Sandburg' and 'dead' didn't belong in the same sentence, not in Jim's mind anyway. Flinching away from the idea, he decided it was wrong, stupid even... either they were both alive and stuck somewhere or they were both dead. Not a great concept maybe, but a whole lot more understandable than one of them being alive and the other being dead, but both of them being here, now.
But, Sandburg had seemed so certain. So sincere... and really completely and weirdly calm about the idea of being dead.
His jaw tight with frustration at not understanding, suddenly restless and feeling a fierce anger rush through him at the younger man's words, at his declaration that he was 'dead', Jim surged to his feet to pace around the clearing.
Sandburg watched him, and again a spasm of something like deep sorrow sparked in his eyes, though he held himself quietly, waiting for Jim to work it through.
Finally, Jim paused and turned to look down at him, impatience in his eyes. "I'm not dead... but you are," he said disbelievingly. When Blair nodded, Jim rolled his eyes but continued, "And this isn't where souls go when they die... but you're here, now, with me."
Unable to resist, Blair grinned at the statement of the obvious. "So it would seem, big guy," he replied, his voice warm with amusement.
"I'm not really finding this amusing, Junior," Jim snarled angrily.
Contrite, Blair contained his amusement. "Sorry," he murmured.
"So..." Jim continued, returning to the matter at hand, trying to work it out in his head, "if you're dead, and I'm not in a grave, but here, but this is in another galaxy or something, and we both seem to have real bodies..." he threw up his hands in frustration. "I don't get it. I don't understand."
"I know," Sandburg sighed. "I don't really understand, either, not all of it, because I don't know where your body is. This," he waved at Ellison and then at himself, "this is the manifestation of our souls, in our last form, so that we can recognize each other, I guess. So that... well, so that you'd have the comfort of the familiarity of seeming to still be in your body. But I don't think you are... I think your injuries were so bad that you almost did die, and your soul started to leave... but got caught... sort of in a 'netherworld', an 'in-between' place."
"You're not helping, Chief," Jim growled. Blair shrugged and rolled his eyes. It was the best explanation of the inexplicable that he could offer. "Okay," Jim sighed, shaking his head and then pinning Blair with his gaze. "How about this. If you're dead, and your soul should have gone somewhere else, why are you here?"
"Because I was looking for you," Sandburg replied, stammering a little in his absolute sincerity. "I couldn't... I couldn't leave you behind. Leave you lost here... and alone. I couldn't stand that. I had to find you."
"Why?" Jim asked, feeling helpless, wishing desperately to understand, part of him still wanting to forget or ignore what Sandburg had said about being dead. But that wasn't easy when the kid kept insisting that he... well, wasn't alive anymore.
Sandburg swallowed again, and then replied very quietly, "Because I do remember, even if you don't..."
"What?" Jim cut in, his voice rising. "What do you remember?"
"Jim, we've been together..." Blair sighed, looking away out over the valley as he paused for a moment, wondering how much to say, and then continued, "...we've been... friends for a long time... longer than you can possibly imagine."
Throwing up his hands, Jim blurted, "Well, you've got that right. I can't imagine that. Sandburg... we only knew each other for less than a week!"
"In that life, Jim," Blair murmured. "Only in that life." Turning to face his friend, he continued slowly, as if trying to understand it all himself, "I think that's why I couldn't believe you were dead. Not when we'd only just met. It felt... wrong, like it shouldn't have happened."
"And now you remember all the rest, all the other lives we've lived and known each other?" Ellison pushed. "Because you think you're dead."
"Uh huh," Blair nodded. "Because I am dead." But again he looked away, as if wanting to hide the sorrow he knew had to be reflected in his eyes when he looked up at his friend. God... Jim didn't remember him, not really. Jim saw him as little more than a stranger. It hurt to know that. Hurt really badly.
Ellison snorted and shook his head. "I don't buy it, Chief. I... you're not dead."
Swallowing, Blair turned back to face his best friend. "Yeah, Jim, I am," he repeated wearily. "But that's okay. I've been dead before. It's not something terrible. To the contrary, it's a natural part of our total existence."
Jim just stared at the younger man for a long moment. This wasn't getting them anywhere, and there was no way to prove Blair was mistaken, not here, so deciding he'd believe what he wanted to believe, Ellison set the debate aside. Still... if Blair thought he knew things Jim didn't, it was worth trying to find out what those things were, in case that new knowledge helped somehow make sense of their current reality.
"Okay, so fill me in, Chief. Tell me about our previous lives... we don't have anything else to do," Ellison replied, moving to drop down again across from Sandburg, the burned out remains of an old fire between them.
Swallowing, Blair shook his head. "I can't," he whispered. "It wouldn't be... right. You're not finished with this life yet. The memories... the memories don't belong here..."
Ellison could hear the echo of pain in Sandburg's voice and he wondered at it... wondered what the kid wasn't telling him. His lips parted, the angry words ready to be spoken, to demand to know, but then Jim paused. Whatever it was, whatever the kid remembered was obviously hurting him now and the look of that anguish on the younger man's face made Ellison's heart clench... and the words, the anger, died in his throat. He couldn't bring himself to cause Sandburg more pain, not now, not tonight... not when something deep inside was still rejoicing with wild abandon that the kid was there, with him.
Even if the idiot did keep on insisting that he was dead. He wasn't... he couldn't be. The idea was unacceptable.
Biting his lip, Jim looked away out over the valley. And he decided he could wait. It wasn't like they were going anywhere ... and they might be here for quite a while yet. There was time to figure out this mystery.
He was a detective. He'd figure it out. It was just a matter of time.
Right now, there was something more important that needed to be said. Should have been said long before now. "Sandburg," Jim offered softly, his expression suddenly stripped of irritation and naked in his gratitude, "I'm glad... really glad... you're here."
"So'm I, Jim," Blair replied with heartfelt honesty.
Hesitating for a moment, reflecting on those first moments before Sandburg had regained full awareness of his surroundings, Ellison asked tentatively, "Chief... who's Maggie?"
Grief flooded Blair's eyes with such a profound sense of loss that Jim almost flinched at the sight of it. Turning his face away from Jim's concerned gaze, blinking rapidly as he clenched his jaw and his fists, struggling for control, Sandburg whispered hoarsely, "Not now, Jim... please, I can't... not right now..."
Stricken by the reaction to his question, the Sentinel sat at a loss for words, not sure now what to do or say. Finally, his throat tight at the pain he could read in every line of Sandburg's body, helpless to know how to relieve it, he stammered, "I'm sorry... I feel like I'm walking through a minefield here, Chief. I can see you're hurting but I don't know what you need... or how to help. Please... just... is there something I can do... ?"
Blair sniffed and brushed at his face. "No... don't be sorry," he sighed. "You didn't do anything wrong. And I'll tell you, just... later. Maybe, maybe if I just start from the beginning. I can tell you things about the lifetime you are currently living. You're right... you don't know anything about me, so maybe we should start by getting to know one another." Turning to face Jim, straightening his shoulders, Blair began, "My mother's name is Naomi..."
For the rest of that day, Blair told Jim his 'life story'. Very conscious that this was also a chance to build rapport and comfort between them, Sandburg went all out, regaling his friend with outrageously funny stories from his childhood on one commune or other, little vignettes from his experiences at school, travel fiascos, his impressions of the wondrous things he'd seen in the world as he traveled with his mother, how and when he became passionate about finding a Sentinel, and various anecdotes about some of his more entertaining part-time and summer jobs.
At first, Ellison didn't know what to make of a childhood so unlike his own. He tried to imagine never having a single, stable place to call 'home', however comfortable or uncomfortable it might be. And though Blair made light of never having known who his father was, Jim wondered if that hadn't been a sore spot. Naomi certainly sounded like a character... somewhat selfish and flighty in Jim's view, but it was clear the kid loved her and believed fervently that she loved him. And, Ellison supposed, that's what really mattered. He wished he could have been so certain of that kind of love from either of his parents.
But Sandburg's wacky and effervescent sense of humour soon captured him. The kid told a good story. As the hours passed, the tensions between them eased and they laughed long and hard as the day drifted along. Jim found that as he got to know more about the kid, the more he liked him... and began to understand his unconventional appearance, behaviours and beliefs. Sandburg was, in part, a kind of flower-child throwback. But he was a lot more than that. His stories and perspectives, his grasp of what moved and motivated other people, his patience for their frailties and follies all bespoke a compassionate, even wise, man, however young he might appear.
And Jim also came to understand that the kid really was brilliant.
Once again, he felt lucky that Sandburg had found him, traced him down to that hospital and had helped him understand his senses. Even luckier to have Sandburg with him now.
By the time Blair had worked the story along to where he and Jim had met, night had fallen and Jim had built a fire. For the first time in hours, Sandburg hesitated, and asked, "You sure you want to hear the rest of this tonight, Jim? To be honest, there's not a lot that's funny in the end of this particular story. It's pretty sad, actually."
Ellison thought about that, wondering if he really did want to know what had happened after he'd died or disappeared or whatever had happened. But... he couldn't not know. Curiosity was too much a part of his make-up. Besides, it might throw some light on the mystery of how Sandburg had gotten here.
"I think I need to hear it, Chief... if you don't mind telling it," Ellison finally replied.
"Okay, man," Sandburg acceded. For the next few minutes, he brought Jim up to date on the siege of the police headquarters by the Sunshine Patriots led by Garrett Kincaid. He was sorry about the pain it brought his friend to hear about the hostages being killed and Darryl Banks being so badly hurt.
"Who?" Jim asked, stunned. "Who was killed? Do you know?"
"I'm sorry, I don't know all their names. But I remember that one of them headed up the bomb squad, Captain Joel Taggart and Rhonda, Banks' secretary..." Blair reported gently, taking it slow as he watched Jim absorb the devastating news. "It was because of Joel and Rhonda that Darryl survived... they sheltered him as best they could from the barrage of bullets."
His throat tight, his eyes burning, Jim looked off into the night, wondering if he might have been able to help if he'd been there. Wondering who else had died that day. He was silent quite a while, but then he asked, his voice hoarse, "What else?"
"God, Jim, I really hate being the one to tell you all this," Blair murmured.
Shrugging, Ellison turned to face him. "There's no one else who can, Chief. Please... I want to know," Jim replied, his voice a little steadier.
"Okay," Sandburg acquiesced, going on to tell Jim about how his brother, Stephen, had been murdered at the racetrack at which he'd worked.
Jim just closed his eyes, and looked away, seeming to shrink a little into himself as he fought to find control over his emotions. He hadn't seen his brother in a long time and was surprised at how much it hurt to know he'd never see Stephen again... how angry it made him to know Stevie had been murdered in cold blood.
When he nodded, signaling his readiness for more, Sandburg told him Captain Simon Banks had gone missing in the jungles of Peru and was presumed dead. "I'm sorry, Jim... I guess he was a pretty good friend of yours. He, uh, he came to see me in the hospital, to tell me about your funeral. He was really broken up about it... and he seemed a good man."
"Yeah," Ellison sighed, bowing his head. So many gone, dead, so fast, in so short a time. It all seemed incredible, unbelievable. But there was more. Lifting his head, Jim said, "Tell me what happened to you."
"Well, after I finally recovered from the injuries from the bomb blast, I finished my doctorate, got a full time position at Rainier and got married," Sandburg replied, smiling softly in memory. Some of those days have been very good days indeed.
"Maggie?" Jim asked.
The smile faded as Blair stared into the fire. "Yeah, Maggie was my wife," he confirmed. "We'd been married almost a year. God, she was such a sweet, gentle, woman... so kind. So incredibly decent. We had our first child, a son we named James, not quite a month ago..."
"James?" Ellison repeated, his brows lifting in surprise.
"Yeah, Jim. I named my son after you," Blair confirmed with a half-smile.
Ellison shook his head, bemused that this kid, who hadn't been much more than a stranger, had honoured him that way. Once again, he felt the flicker of discomfort of knowing that their relationship was something more than he remembered or understood it to be. For a moment, he felt irritated that Sandburg wouldn't just level with him, but the kid quite evidently wasn't prepared to do that. Pushing the irritation aside, Jim refocused on Blair... this was his story, and something terrible had happened to him... and the story wasn't quite done. "What happened?" he asked.
Sandburg looked away as he recounted in a voice he tried to keep steady, "I caught one of my students cheating... and then found out he had raped another student, though she'd been intimidated and wouldn't press charges. The kid was rich, spoiled, and didn't seem to have a shred of conscience about any of it. I knew he was dangerous, and if I couldn't do anything to involve the law, I figured I could at least have him expelled. He, ah, he hired some muscle and had them bring me and Maggie to him. I don't think he'd actually ordered them to take Maggie, too... but they did. And then it was too late. He... he killed us, Jim," Blair murmured. "He shot us."
"Jesus, Sandburg," Jim gasped, trying to wrap his head around it... imagine what it would be like to remember your own death... if that's what this was.
A catch in his voice, Blair whispered, "She didn't deserve that... she... she was so innocent. And she was so scared. Not even for herself, so much, as for Jamie, knowing we were leaving him alone. God, if I could change anything... I'd change that." Sandburg had drawn into himself, shivering with the memory. He'd pulled his knees up tight against his chest, his arms wrapped around his legs and his head lowered in grief and guilt. "My fault," he murmured, his voice breaking. "Because I wouldn't let it go... because I wanted Ventriss punished... Maggie died. And Jamie... Jamie lost both of us. He won't ever know us, Jim Won't ever know how much we wanted him, loved him..."
Jim couldn't stand it, couldn't just sit there, remote and let the kid suffer the memories alone. Quietly, he rose and stepped around the fire, dropping down to wrap Sandburg in a tight hug, pulling the smaller man close against his chest. "I'm sorry," Ellison murmured. "I'm so sorry..."
Blair sniffed and nodded his bowed head, leaning into Ellison's strong embrace, comforted by it. "I love her, Jim... I love her so much..." he whispered. "It was so hard, you know... to let her go on without me. I could see she tried to understand why I wouldn't, couldn't go with her... why I had to find you... but I'm not sure she did, not really..."
Closing his own eyes, Jim swallowed against the lump in his throat as he laid his cheek against Sandburg's hair. He couldn't deny it any longer, couldn't pretend that Sandburg was confused. Though he didn't understand it, Ellison knew now that somehow Blair had died, and his soul had sent the soul of his beloved wife into eternity alone... because Blair couldn't leave him behind, lost and alone somewhere. Had had to find him, be with him. "I'm sorry," he said again, softly, his voice cracking.
Blair's hand came up to grip the arm that held him. "I love her, Jim... but... but you are part of my soul," Sandburg murmured. "I know you don't understand, and I can't explain... but I could never be whole without you. I had to find you. I always have... I always will..."
Ellison didn't know how those words made him feel, not exactly. His emotions were all mixed up. Rage that Sandburg and his wife had been murdered clashed with the sick helplessness of being powerless to have prevented it, and an inarticulate fury that the kid had had to face that alone and unprotected. Guilt and grief warred with relief and gratitude that Sandburg had found him, had not forsaken him; sorrow mingled with a sense of affirmation, even a kind of joy that he didn't quite understand... he just knew that Blair's presence comforted him, made him feel complete.
Too many emotions, too powerful and overwhelming. Too much going on here that he didn't understand. His throat tight, Jim could only mutter with gruff sincerity, "Thank you."
The next day, Jim took Blair out exploring, to give him a better sense of the world around them. Wandering for weeks, they went further than Jim ever had on his own. Until Blair had shown up, Jim had been reluctant to venture too far from where he'd arrived in case someone else did come and he missed them.
And so they followed the shore of the sea for three weeks until they decided to climb back up over the mountains to see what was on the other side.
And they found themselves right back in their valley.
"What the...?" Jim exclaimed, unable to believe the evidence of his eyes.
"Interesting," Blair murmured, his eyes narrowing as he looked back down behind them to the endless reaches of the ocean and back along the beach from whence they'd come, the prints of their steps still a distant shadow on the pristine sand.
Turning to regard Sandburg, Ellison repeated, "Interesting? That's all you can say, that it's 'interesting'!"
"Mmm," Blair nodded as if preoccupied by some other thought. "Let's see what's on the other side of the mountains on the far side of the valley," he suggested, and then started down the rocky mountainside to the forest below.
Silent, looking around with frustrated disbelief, Jim followed. It took a week to cross the valley and climb the far mountains... and to see the sea on the other side.
The sea rolling endlessly, massively calm and unchanging. They climbed down and then followed that coast for two days before once again traversing the mountains... back into their valley.
"Well, I guess that makes it definite," Blair sighed.
"I'm glad this makes some kind of sense to you, Chief," Jim replied, disgusted, trying hard not to let the unsettled feeling in his gut erupt into fear. But... it was too strange. And couldn't be real. So maybe it was all a complex hallucination and Sandburg wasn't really here... maybe he was crazy, really crazy, and locked away in a straight-jacked somewhere.
Sensing Jim's deep disquiet, Sandburg unconsciously raised a hand to Jim's shoulder, and squeezed gently. "It is real, Jim," he murmured firmly. "I know it's weird, but you're not insane... you are not just imagining everything that's happening to you... to us."
Looking away, reluctant to accept the reassurance from what might only be a figment of his imagination, Jim tried to swallow the lump in his throat and breathe past the tension that constricted his chest like steel bands.
"Jim, look at me!" Blair commanded then, shifting around to stand in front of Ellison. "I promise you, man, you are not crazy!"
Cutting Sandburg a sideways look, his jaw tight, Ellison shook his head and sighed. "Easy for you to say," he muttered. "Aren't you the one who first suggested this could all be inside my head?"
"Yeah, I did, and it might be," Blair replied, rolling his eyes when Jim broke off eye contact and flinched away from him. "But... damn, it must have something to do with what's going on with your body! If I only knew where it was..."
"Well, that makes two of us, Junior," Jim growled as he started down through the forest back toward the cave. "But right now, I think you'd find it, me, in some padded cell."
"No," Blair refused to consider that. "No... I'm here. I know that. I found you and I know your soul is trapped here for some reason. I must be missing something, some clue..."
Ellison only grunted as he continued to stride away.
Jim hadn't been in the mood for conversation on the trip back and was still brooding as evening fell and Blair got the fire going before the sun was gone. As he rubbed the sticks together, he sighed, wishing this world, wherever or whatever it was, had come equipped with matches. Once the kindling caught and a curl of smoke appeared, he blew on the tiny embers gently, encouraging them, and then fed the small hungry flames slowly until finally the fire was well started. Sitting back, Blair crossed his legs, his elbows on his knees and his chin cupped in his hands as he regarded Ellison thoughtfully.
His Sentinel was sitting with his back against a tree, staring out over the valley. Jim's face was a mask, tight and emotionless. Sandburg sighed again, recognizing the expression. It was the 'I don't feel a thing or give a damn' look that Jim always wore when he was hurting the most. Turning back to the flames, Sandburg let his own thoughts drift, back to when he'd first been told that Jim had died of the injuries he'd sustained in the explosion.
"If you're alive, why would they fake your funeral?" he mused quietly, flicking a look at his partner.
Jim shrugged. What did it matter?
"It doesn't make sense, Jim," Sandburg persisted. "If you were still alive, why would the whole world be led to believe that you were dead? You were a hero... you'd saved all those lives in the bus. It wasn't like you were some criminal that needed to sneak out of town and let people think you'd died..."
"Maybe I'm a vegetable or something, and everyone's better off thinking I'm dead," Jim sighed wearily, drawn into the speculation despite himself. "What difference does it make now?"
Sandburg winced in sympathy at the pain in Jim's words and bit his lip as he thought about that possibility, however grim it was. But, he frowned... that didn't feel right either. Blowing out a breath, he tried to focus his thoughts, unconsciously murmuring in low, scarcely audible tones that Jim pretended to ignore.
"If you were so brain-damaged that the consensus had been that it was more merciful for people to believe you had died, then... what? Well, for one thing," he decided as he looked around at the complex environment around them, "all this would be a little too detailed and consistent over a long period of time to be playing out in your head. So... maybe we aren't in your head. Maybe your soul and mine have been taken somewhere safe to wait. But... wait for what? Wait until you wake up? Or eventually die? How long could that be?'
Scratching his cheek, pushing his hair back behind his ears, Blair lifted his face to the dying sun, enjoying the simple pleasure, the amazing beauty and uniqueness of the sunset. "The Universe is such a wondrous place," he mused then. "So complex and yet so simple. Unknowable, and uncountable, actions taking place simultaneously and over time, but nothing really, absolutely, random... nothing without some purpose. Some reason..."
That idea captured his attention. 'What reason could there be for you to be held here... waiting?' he wondered. 'If you weren't really supposed to die, and didn't die... then why did you get so badly hurt in the bomb blast? It would have been so simple if it had only been a second or two later that the bomb blew and then you wouldn't have been hurt so badly. But... seconds count. Seconds matter. Everything matters. And how could you be kept alive someplace indefinitely, until you're what? Needed again? Needed more than you were then?"
Blair felt a flash of excitement, certain he was onto something though he still didn't have all the pieces and maybe never would. Still... it was a theory, one they could work on together.
"Jim, I've got an idea," he offered, looking across the clearing at Jim who was still making like a rock that didn't feel, didn't care.
"Uh huh," Ellison grunted, his jaw tight and his lips compressed against the scream of frustration that was building in his chest. He hated this. Hated the idea that nothing about this was real. Hated not knowing why he was here, or how long he'd be stuck here. Hating most of all, afraid most of all, that this was all there was... that this was his reality for eternity. He fought that fear with all he had, because if he gave into it, he'd go mad. Bitterly, he wondered what difference it would make if he did give into the insanity that threatened on the edges of his mind.
The frustration and fear, the anger at his helplessness all made him acutely aware of that ever-present chill that was settled so deep inside, so much a part of him now that most of the time he ignored it, forgot it. Unconsciously, his right hand, fisted in his effort to contain his rage, had been rubbing his chest, worrying at the chill. When Sandburg had first arrived, the sense of it had abated, but now, now, it seemed to be growing within him, consuming him again from the inside.
Watching him, worried about him, Sandburg set out his speculations, so far as they went. "Okay, I don't think it makes any sense to think of you as some kind of vegetable, or to assume that you are locked in some elaborate, insane delusion. This world is too... detailed. It's too comfortable... everything necessary has been provided and there's a consistency, a solidity to it. It doesn't vary with your mood, or your level of attention. When you're asleep, this world is still here. So, I think it's real, well sort of. When I first came, I said it seemed like a waiting room for your soul... I think that's what it is. A place for your soul, and my soul, to be until it's time for you to return to your body, to your life."
"Sandburg," Jim retorted, his voice hard as he flashed a cold look at his partner and then returned his sightless stare to the valley beyond, "I've been here for more than two years. How the fuck long am I supposed to wait? What am I waiting for? Why the hell am I waiting at all?"
"Look, I know you're scared and that this doesn't make sense, but there has to be some purpose to it all, Jim, so work with me here, okay?" Blair persisted. "It's not like we've got anything better to do, right?"
Ellison took in a long slow breath and let it out just as slowly, his nostrils flaring a bit as he fought back the urge to tell Sandburg to take his theories and shove them where the sun don't shine. Swallowing, he closed his eyes and willed himself to calm down. The kid was right. They didn't have anything better to do. His hands came up to rub his face, and he stretched tight, taut muscles and then he rolled onto his feet and joined Blair by the fire. Sinking to the ground, once again rubbing his chest unconsciously, he sighed, "Okay, kid... what do you think it all means?"
But Blair's attention had been caught by the gesture he'd seen from time to time since he'd first arrived in this place, but which Jim had been making almost continuously since they'd been back at the cave... rubbing his chest with his fist or hand, over and over.
"Why are you doing that? Are you in pain?" Sandburg asked, frowning with concern.
"Rubbing your chest like that... you've been doing it for the last hour as if... as if something hurts inside," Sandburg replied.
Made aware of his unconscious gesture of trying to rub warmth back into his chest, Jim looked down at his hand, stilling what had been almost ceaseless movement. Shrugging, he mumbled, "It's nothing. Sometimes I just feel so cold inside. Like I'm freezing from the inside out..."
"How long have you been feeling that?" Blair asked sharply, wondering what it meant. He sure didn't feel anything like that, and never had, not once in all the times he'd been in the pure state of the soul.
"Pretty much since I first woke up and found myself here," Jim admitted carelessly. Shrugging, he discounted it as he always had. "It's not important. I've gotten used to it, I guess. Just sometimes... I'm more aware of it, that's all."
"Maybe it is important," Sandburg murmured, his eyes losing focus as he thought about it. "Jim... I've been trying to figure out why you're being held in a waiting place. As if you'll be needed more someday than you were needed, are needed, in Cascade now." Biting his lip, his gaze focusing on Jim's eyes, he continued, "And I've been trying to understand why, even how, it could be made to seem as if you'd died. Even if you were in a care home someplace, an institution, word would get out. It couldn't be kept secret. People, someone would talk. So, work with me here, okay?"
Nodding reluctantly, Jim acquiesced, "Okay. Well, let's see," he mused, moving into his detective mode, trying to put pieces together to solve a mystery. 'Cause that's pretty much what this was. "I've been hurt really badly, so badly it's credible to put out the idea that I died. So badly, according to your theory, my soul actually left my body. Right so far?"
When Blair nodded, Ellison continued, "But, I'm still alive, somewhere. Only not so alive that my soul has gone back... so my body, wherever it is, must still seem pretty lifeless and be kept going by some kind of life-support. That would presume that there was some hope of being able to revive me at some point... unless they're just keeping me alive to harvest my organs..."
Jim swallowed at that idea, beginning to wonder if one day this whole world would just suddenly blink out when he was finally allowed to die.
But Blair had noticed Jim was once again rubbing at his chest, and sitting hunched as if he was cold. The scientist's agile mind began to dance around and over the things Jim had said. 'keeping me alive,' 'some hope of reviving me at some point', 'some kind of life support'...
"Oh, shit," Blair murmured, awareness and understanding dawning in his face. "Oh, shit!" Why didn't I think of that? I am SO stupid. I could have asked him... I just never made the connection, I never thought..."
"What the hell are you going on about now?" Jim demanded, taken aback by Sandburg's sudden animation and babbling words. "Should have asked who what?"
"Your father. I should have picked up..."
"My father? When did you talk to my father? Why would you talk to him?" Ellison roared then, taken by surprise and not at all pleased to get this bit of news.
"When I researched your life, Jim," Blair replied, not really paying attention, his thoughts too caught by the immensity of the idea that had just occurred to him.
"You researched my life?" Jim shouted. "What the hell gave you the right to go prying around in my life, talking to my father and God knows who else, even though you knew I was dead!"
"I knew you weren't dead," Blair cried, finally aware of Jim's furious indignation. "I couldn't accept you were dead. It just couldn't be true. I felt it. I can't explain, but I couldn't just let you go... I had to know you, Jim. Don't you see? I had to do everything I could to know you, to find out all about you, because maybe that way I might find a way to find you... I know it sounds crazy, but I was obsessed, man. I didn't understand it myself, not then. I just knew I could not let you go!"
Shaking his head, swallowing against his anger, flushed, Jim retorted, "You had no right! You were nothing but a stranger! I can't believe you went to my father. God, I haven't even seen my father in more than twenty years!"
"I know," Blair replied, talking a mile a minute, "he told me... and he felt bad about that, Jim. He really did. He had all these scrapbooks of you, just filled with every newspaper article that had ever been written since you were a kid on your school's team. He had the Newsweek cover and article... everything. Just everything. He cried, man... he kept saying he was so sorry, that he'd made so many mistakes. He said you didn't know how much he loved you... but he hoped that someday you'd understand. And that's what I missed! Dammit, I missed it! He KNEW you weren't dead. He was the one who'd had you flown to Seattle, to the best surgical team available, but your wounds were too serious. They couldn't help you... he told me that. Shit, shit, shit... I should have listened better! I should have caught that!"
Ellison had gone white, his gaze unfocused as the words hit him like sledgehammers. His father had been proud of him? Had kept a scrapbook about him? Had loved him? Had cried?
"Jim! Jim! Come on, man, I need you here," Blair called out, regaining Ellison's fractured attention.
"Scrapbooks?" Jim repeated, dazed.
"Yeah, but that's not what's important right now, okay," Sandburg replied hastily, wanting to get back to the point. "Your dad is like megarich, right? He could make the arrangements, pay whatever it cost... to preserve you, to keep you alive, well sort of, anyway, until the time came when you could be revived."
"What the hell are you talking about, Sandburg?" Jim demanded, trying to make sense of his companion's excited babble.
"I'm talking about what happened to you... about what they did to you, Jim," Blair replied with exaggerated patience. "Listen up! If a body is hurt too badly to be fixed, but the technology might someday be available to fix it, what do you do, if you're as rich as Croesus, to preserve the body indefinitely?"
Pushing his fingers through his short hair, trying to calm himself, Jim shrugged. "You hook it up to life-support," he offered.
"Okay, for a few months, maybe a few years even... but indefinitely? No, that's not good enough," Blair countered. "Jim, why are you feeling such a deep chill, as if you were freezing from the inside out?"
Suddenly, Jim went perfectly still, a look of appalled awareness on his face. "Oh, no," he breathed with something akin to horror, "don't tell me that. Don't tell me that you think my father..."
His voice gave out and he couldn't bring himself to say it.
But Blair nodded, his expression guarded. "I'm afraid we might be stuck here for a long time..."
"You can't be serious," Jim protested. "He wouldn't do that! It's... it's too crazy to consider..."
"Actually, it's not crazy at all," Blair replied. "Hopeful, certainly. Jim, I think your body has been frozen. I think it's in a cryochamber somewhere."
Jim just stared at Sandburg for a long moment, and then, without a word, he got up and walked away from their camp.
Sandburg let him go, knowing that Jim needed a little space and time to wrap his head around such an incredible idea. But it was the only thing that made any kind of sense. Gazing up at the silent stars, Blair murmured softly, his voice strained, "How long? How long are you going to make him endure this netherland... how long before he can't stand it any more?"
Suddenly Blair felt rage, hot, blind, rage, that the Universe would have done this to Jim. That his best friend would be made to suffer this way for endless, empty years. And then what? When he awoke? To what kind of world... a stranger, alone? "I don't understand, dammit," he grated as he slammed his fist against his leg. Tears blurring his eyes, he shouted at the heavens, "It's not fair! He doesn't deserve this! Nobody deserves a fate like that! It's too cruel! Why him? What do you need him so badly for in some distant time? I don't care what the purpose is, not this time... he's never, not ever, done anything to deserve this! It's not FAIR!"
It was hours before Jim returned, walking slowly through the night. When he looked up and saw that Sandburg was still by the fire, waiting for him, he paused, and then came forward to slump down onto the ground.
"How're you doing?" Sandburg asked quietly.
Shrugging a little, shaking his head, Jim replied dejectedly, "I don't know, Chief. I... I can't really imagine waking up someday, someplace, in the future..."
He paused and rubbed his face as if trying to wipe away the confusion. And then he murmured, "It seems too incredible. I can't believe that it's possible. Honestly? I think it's more likely that my body will die at some point before... But, then I think, what if it doesn't... what if this never ends? I can't stand that thought, Blair. I can't..."
Pushing his hands through his hair, Sandburg sighed, "I'm so sorry, Jim. I don't why this had to happen to you."
"Yeah," Ellison breathed out, accepting the sincere sorrow he could hear in Blair's voice, could see in his eyes. "The hardest part is knowing there's nothing I can do except wait. I have no control over any of this. I'm just trapped here..."
"I know," Sandburg murmured. Swallowing, he offered the only solace he could. "I won't leave you, Jim... at least you won't have to face this alone."
Thoughtfully, Ellison studied his companion, this stranger he hardly knew, but who claimed to have known him through time, life after life. Who had given up whatever the afterlife offered to be with him. To stay with him. Thinking back to the day Sandburg had 'arrived', Jim recalled the younger man's words, 'You're a part of my soul...'
"This can't be right, Chief," Jim reflected then, his voice distant as he thought about what Sandburg had chosen for his sake, what kind of friend that meant Blair was, whether Jim could remember why or not. "You said that we'd been through any number of lives together. But... you also say you're dead. So... how can I go back? If we're somehow partners that move through time together, then how can I go back without you?"
Surprised by the question, understanding it, Blair shook his head. "I don't know," he replied thoughtfully, struggling with the dilemma but remaining mystified. Jim was right. They'd never been parted long before, never lived virtually a whole life apart. Souls got to choose when they came back and why. That was the way it had always worked before. His anger flared again, hating the feeling of being manipulated, and he grated, "I'm fresh out of answers, or even theories, Jim. I have no fucking idea what's going on or why."
Neither man slept well that night.
Jim had to keep fighting back his fury and sense of helplessness. He'd rather be dead than face this for eternity. God, if what Sandburg hinted at, that there really was something else and they came back time and again, death was infinitely preferable to this empty, endless wasteland of time.
Blair struggled with how he might help Jim prepare for the time when he'd have to do whatever was coming on his own. Though he wasn't certain Jim would even recall this time when he awoke, Sandburg had to hope that he could yet do his friend some good, could give him skills that he could draw upon when he was alone in his resumed life.
The next day, Sandburg set out their agenda, their purpose for being in this void, for however long they would be there. "Jim, we're going to work on your senses," he stated.
"We are?" Jim replied, one brow arched, wondering where Sandburg was going with this.
"Yes, we are," the Guide replied. "We don't know why you've been put into a kind of stasis, but it must be because you're going to be needed to face some great challenge. When you are revived, you'll need to have control of your senses, be able to use them effectively without me there to help you. That's my role, usually... to help you understand them, to master them." Blair swallowed and looked away. That was only part of why he was the Guide to a Sentinel. The other part was to watch Jim's back, to protect him while Jim protected others. But he wasn't going to be there this time. So there was no point in telling Jim what he would be doing without.
And so it began. Finally, there was some purpose to this existence and the purpose gave Jim something to hold onto, to focus upon. It became less empty, had some meaning. And Blair drew comfort from his hope that it would have meaning... that this time together would help his Sentinel face a new, dangerous, world alone.
It wasn't always easy. Never before had either man experienced such isolation. Never before, even in Sandburg's memory, had they ever spent such a long period with no one else in their environment. Sometimes they needed space from one another, especially in the first year. Jim would get impatient and frustrated with the tests, and would take off, often for days. Or Blair would grow exasperated with being unable to reveal anything of what they really were to one another, having always to bite his tongue and swallow remarks about memories that it wouldn't be right to share with Jim so long as he was still, technically, living a unique life. So Sandburg would wander off, pleading the need for time to meditate or just to think.
"Dammit, Jim, would you just focus here... I'm only asking you to do something you've done at least a thousand times before! Think of yourself in a control booth, with the dials in front of you, one labeled for each of yours senses. I want you to turn up sight and then gradually add sound, and then turn sight back down, just keeping it high enough to hold the signal, but focus on the sound. What is so hard about that?" Sandburg demanded, frustrated that Jim wasn't getting it, and didn't seem to be trying all that hard. So the tests were a drag, so what? They had to be done... he had to learn this stuff!
"Well, maybe it's because I don't remember doing this 'at least a thousand times before'!" Jim shouted back. "Maybe it's because I think all this is pointless and I don't think I can do it! You're holding me up to some illusion of someone you say you know, but I don't remember any of that crap, and I'm not one hundred percent sure it's not all just in your head! I am not the man you keep thinking I am!"
Jim would have said more, would have given his frustration free rein, but he caught the look in Sandburg's eyes... and the words died in his throat.
Sandburg gaped at him, his face flushing and then going pale. He looked like he'd just been slugged and all the animation in his body, all the movement and all the sparkle in his eyes was abruptly extinguished. Swallowing, he nodded jerkily as he looked away. "You're right," he murmured, his voice tight with control. "I'm not being fair to you. I keep forgetting..."
He shook his head wearily and stood as he said, "We'll work on this later and take it slower. Right now, I think I need to give us both some space."
With that, he turned and moved quickly away, breaking into a lope and then running as if trying to escape something or... someone. Jim watched him go, held in place and silent by the look of anguish he'd seen in the kid's eyes as Sandburg had listened to Ellison's tirade, a look that was quickly veiled but had definitely been there. Ellison frowned and rubbed his chin. This wasn't working. He needed to know what they'd been to one another. It was like a perennial guessing game, only he wasn't allowed to know the right answers, even if he tripped over them inadvertently, while Blair was being continually hurt by something Ellison was or wasn't doing, something that didn't fit with a friendship that according to Sandburg had existed 'for longer than he could imagine'. A friendship that had transcended death and the love Blair had for the wife who'd been murdered with him. A friendship that had led Blair to not only come to this place but to stay here, when Jim presumed that the usual afterlife had something substantially more satisfying to offer.
Swallowing, Ellison rubbed the back of his neck and then stood to follow after Sandburg. He'd never done that before, respecting that they both needed some space alone once in a while... some privacy from time to time. But he'd really hurt the kid with his ill-considered and angry words, and Jim didn't like knowing that. He didn't want to hurt or harm Sandburg. If anything, Jim was aware of a profound need to somehow protect this bright spirit. He knew it didn't make sense. Protect Sandburg from what? For all his apparent innocence and vulnerability, the kid was the first one to say he was already dead. What could hurt someone who was dead?
"Words," Jim mumbled miserably to himself as he slowly followed the path Blair had taken down toward the river. "It seems words can hurt a soul, whether it's alive or dead." Words had never been his strong suit, and he'd always been better at the angry, the cold and the intimidating words than those that were softer. He'd learned long ago that he couldn't count on the soft words, couldn't rely on the truth of them. So he regarded them as suspect, and resisted using them for the same reason. Things changed, people changed and he'd found a defensive, guarded stance to be the safest in the long run.
Ellison had just reached a curve in the path that allowed a view down to the water, and he saw Sandburg climb up on a rock, poised and still, the sunlight outlining the planes and shadows of his body... and glinting in the tear on the kid's cheek. Then Blair leapt forward, diving into the water, his body balanced and hard, his form perfect as he cut the surface like a knife, smoothly, causing no splash and scarcely a ripple. A moment later, Blair's head broke the surface and he was swimming strongly, almost fiercely, working out physically whatever emotions were tormenting him.
Deciding to give Sandburg time to work off some steam, Jim squatted down on the path, and simply watched the younger man swim for half an hour. Finally, Blair climbed out and stood as if defeated, his shoulders slumped, his arms wrapped around his chest, his head bowed. The defeat of the pose, the isolated sorrow of it, pulled at Jim's heart and he found a lump in his throat, wondering what Blair was thinking just then, what he was feeling. Even as he wondered, Sandburg slipped to the ground, the view of him hidden now by the outcropping of rock by the water's edge.
Ellison stood and quietly followed the path downward. He'd apologize and they would begin the tests and the sensory exercises again. Sandburg was just trying to help him, Jim knew that. The frustration was his problem... frustration with the knowledge that this was something he knew how to do but had forgotten, frustration that it all seemed harder than he thought it should have to be, because he was too damned slow to just figure it out. The kid hadn't done anything wrong, hadn't deserved to be bellowed at.
Preoccupied with his own thoughts, Ellison didn't notice the quality of Sandburg's breathing until he'd almost stepped out of the shadows at the edge of the clearing. But the panting and low moans suddenly intruded into his consciousness as he looked up, his lips opening to call out and alert Blair to his presence... but his words caught in his throat as he saw what was happening.
Sandburg was on his knees, his head thrown back and his face to the sky, his eyes pressed tightly closed and his lips slightly parted as he pumped his erection hard, striving desperately for some form of relief. His face was flushed, as was his chest, his body still glistening and wet from the river, his hair flung back, the soaking curls tight as they brushed his shoulders. He was breathing hard, gasping a little... and then the surge of his climax rocked his body as his back arced and the moan of completion sighed past his lips, "Jim! Ah, God... Jim..."
One hand continued to lightly caress his spent shaft, while his other drifted over his face, throat and body, as if he were imagining another's touch, and then he slumped, his head dropping forward, his face obscured by his hair. As he sank back, sitting on his heels, his arms again wrapped tightly across his chest, he whispered brokenly, "I miss you, Jim... I miss you so bad it hurts..."
And then Sandburg doubled forward, the soft sounds of his weeping almost masked by the rush of the river's waters...
Ellison stepped back, deeper into the shadows, soundlessly, ashamed to have been unable to have moved away sooner. Ashamed that he had watched and listened to something so private... so painful. Shaking his head, astonished beyond emotion, he struggled with the pieces of a puzzle he'd not been aware was even in front of him, waiting to be solved.
The look on Sandburg's face and in his eyes when he'd awakened and realized who was holding him. The flash of disbelief and then the radiance of recognition, the relief... and the naked joy... as Blair had looked up at his face. The way the kid had turned into him, grabbing onto him and hugging him for all he was worth, pressing tightly against him. The ache and tremble in Sandburg's voice, as if he had found his life's greatest treasure, a treasure he'd feared lost and irreplaceable.
The flash of infinite sadness when Sandburg had realized that Jim didn't remember him as more than a helpful stranger. The hesitation over the word 'friends' when Blair had said how long they had known one another through the eternal span of time. Leaving the soul of a beloved wife to journey ahead alone, because Sandburg had had to find someone who was 'a part of his soul'. The same flash of pain whenever Jim reminded Sandburg that he was little more than a stranger, a welcome stranger, one to cultivate as a friend, but a stranger nonetheless who had no real right to intrude too deeply into Ellison's life or heart.
Dear God, they'd been lovers! Bound by a love so fierce that not even death could defeat it. A love so intrinsic and pervasive to their beings that the shroud of amnesia that cloaked all previous existence couldn't keep Sandburg from seeking him out, searching for him... or quell the trust Ellison felt for a brash, painfully exuberant kid that Jim knew he would have normally have avoided like the plague. And he remembered his own memories of visualizing Sandburg's face in the flames, of hearing the cadences of his voice in the wind... of waiting for Sandburg specifically, though he'd never understood why. His own relief when Blair's form materialized, his own sense of being whole again.
Stunned by the revelation, Jim faded back and away, skirting the clearing by the river, and heading out across the valley, deeper into his own private wilderness. Badly shaken, Jim didn't know what to think or feel. The reality was so far from anything he would have ever considered that he felt shell-shocked. At first, his own reactions preoccupied him. He'd never had any homosexual inclinations and felt a little queasy at the whole idea of what he and Sandburg had been to one another. He didn't understand it, had no reference points in terms of his own experience throughout the whole of his life. He felt suddenly adrift and uncertain, as if he'd never known himself... and since he was all he had in this netherworld, that left Ellison feeling lost in a way that was truly frightening.
He also didn't know how he would now relate with Sandburg, how he could pretend to an ignorance that was no longer true. But nor did he feel equal to revealing his knowledge and whatever might follow. He didn't want to hurt Sandburg anymore than he already had, however inadvertently, but nor did he know if he could ever imagine such relationship with the younger man.
His thoughts then turned to Blair and he felt a wave of sorrow for the pain Sandburg must be enduring. What must it be like to be isolated in a kind of paradise with the one being you loved beyond everything else in existence and not be recognized... to know your love has been forgotten and is not returned as it once was... to not be able to acknowledge how you feel, or what you need... to have to pretend during every waking hour? What kind of love endured through all of that, unwavering and ever constant? How could such inner anguish and loss be suffered so silently, in such lonely solitude?
Jim's eyes burned and a lump rose in his throat in his compassion for the anguish that must be torturing Sandburg every damned day. The compassion brought a surge of tenderness for the younger man, for the gifts of selfless and unconditional love Blair brought to their relationship each and every day despite their cost to him, without in any way revealing the true nature of his own memories, or desires. Once again the urge to safeguard and protect filled Ellison's being and startled him with their intensity. For the first time, he acknowledged that he did feel love for the younger man... just not... not that kind of love.
Could that be enough? Or would their unavoidable proximity inevitably be too much for Blair, too painful to continue to endure? What would happen then? The kid seemed to be here by choice... would he choose to leave? The thought of the terrible isolation such abandonment would mean left Jim breathless. The very idea of being alone again, for an untold and unknown span of time left him reeling. Trembling at what that possibly eternal loneliness would be like, Jim wasn't sure he could survive it, not whole, not sane. But nor could Ellison imagine prostituting himself to satisfy Sandburg simply to keep him there. Jim knew that just wasn't something he was even capable of physically, let alone emotionally or intellectually. It was dishonest. Even if he could bring himself to do it, Blair deserved a whole lot better than manipulative lies.
Confused, unsettled, even afraid, Ellison wandered the reaches of the primal forest for the rest of that day and all of the night. The next morning, though he was no longer any closer to any answers, he turned his weary footsteps back toward the cave at the far end of the valley. The best he could do was to try to pretend ignorance for now. It would have to be enough.
Blair looked up, relief and apology in his eyes, when Jim finally returned to their camp. "Hey, man," he offered tentatively, "I didn't mean to drive you away yesterday. I am sorry, Jim... I've been pushing you too hard. We'll slow down to a pace you're comfortable with."
Ellison nodded, uncomfortably aware now of their nakedness, something he'd thought they'd both been ignoring until now. Looking away, he replied, "I just needed some time to... think. You're only trying to help me, I know that. I shouldn't have yelled at you."
"Don't worry about it, Jim. I probably deserved it..." Blair began, as he accepted the apology, ready to move on, but Ellison interrupted him.
Still staring out at the valley, Jim interjected, "No, you didn't deserve it." Shifting his gaze back to Sandburg's eyes, he continued quietly, "I don't know, I'm really sorry, but I don't remember why you'd do the things for me that you do. Why you choose to be here for who knows how long... why you dedicate yourself to helping me prepare for when my body is finally revived, assuming it ever will be... but, I am grateful. I don't express some things, some emotions, very well. But don't ever doubt that I am very grateful, every single day."
Blair's eyes narrowed, his teeth worrying at his lower lip, as he studied Jim. Finally, he nodded a little to himself, as if he'd figured something out to his satisfaction. "You don't have to be grateful, Jim," he said calmly. "I don't expect gratitude because if our situations were reversed, you'd be doing the same thing for me. This is the only place I want to be, so you don't ever have to think that I'll get tired of this some day, get bored or irritated or restless, or whatever. I'm here so long as you want and need me to be here. I'm not going anywhere."
Jim crossed his arms and looked down at the ground, struggling with the discomfort of being with someone who could apparently read him like a book and interpret his unspoken thoughts, motivations and fears. Jim had offered gratitude, so that Blair would know how much he was appreciated and never be tempted to leave. Sandburg had heard the underlying message, the fear of being abandoned alone here and had responded to that. In that moment, Ellison realized that it wasn't just his body that was naked... it was his soul that was stripped bare, at least it was so far as Sandburg was concerned.
"Jim?" Sandburg called softly, seeing the discomfort, wanting to alleviate it if he could.
Ellison sighed. Lifting his head to face the younger man, Jim sighed, "It's disconcerting to know that you seem to be able hear things I don't say, see things I'm not aware of showing. You know everything there is to know about me, warts and all... and yet, you choose to be here." Looking away, Ellison swallowed as he finished quietly, "It's hard when I don't know you as well... hard to know that sometimes, without meaning to, I think I hurt you."
"Jim," Sandburg replied after a moment, "you may think I know everything you think and feel, but I don't. I can't imagine how hard all this must be for you. You've been condemned to a kind of prison, however comfortable it may be, for no known reason. You are sentenced to solitary confinement for an unknown and possibly terrifying length of time. But, you know what? I can't begin to tell you how much I admire the way you've handled it all. You just take it and live with it, as best you can. I can't imagine the strength that that takes, or the courage. I just know that I see it in you every single day. And I am in awe, man."
Sandburg stood to move closer to Ellison as he spoke. He needed Jim to hear this and believe it. But he was careful not to get too close, not to crowd the wary Sentinel. "If I can help in any way, by being here, by giving you a better handle on your senses, I'm glad to do it," Blair said with raw sincerity, his anger at what had been done to Jim clear. "You don't deserve what has been done to you. Regardless of whether you only remember this life right now, I can tell you that you live each one the same. With compassion for others, and a driving commitment to protect and safeguard the innocent. With dignity and patience and decency. With the same courage and strength you're showing now. I'm here because... because you are the most extraordinary soul I've ever known and because I'm honoured to be your friend. There is nothing you could ever do or say that will ever change that. If you can, even though I'm not much more than a stranger to you right now, if you can, trust that I wouldn't ever do anything to hurt you or betray you. I know this is so hard, Jim... just... just try to trust me, okay?"
Jim nodded, touched by Sandburg's words, by the way Blair described him. A small smile danced around his lips as he looked at his friend. "Thanks, Chief. And, for what it's worth, I've trusted you as much or more than I've ever trusted anyone. I guess nearly being run over by a garbage truck is a good bonding experience, or something... but I do trust you."
It was as if the sun had come out at those words. Sandburg's face lit with radiant joy, his eyes sparkling and his smile blinding. "That's worth a lot, Jim. Thanks," he said, his voice lilting with happiness. "So, uh, does this mean you're ready to get back to work?"
Ellison snorted, but he had to grin back. "Yeah, Chief, I guess it does. You know... you're a real slave-driver."
"Oh, you have no idea," Blair chuckled as he turned to lead the way back to their places by the fire.
Despite himself, Jim found that he was looking at Sandburg in a different way. He was noticing the other man with a new awareness and couldn't help but see more than simple friendship in Sandburg's face... couldn't now miss the love that so clearly shone from Blair's eyes. Nor was he oblivious now to the way Sandburg moved, to the play of light on his skin as his muscles rippled when he moved with unconscious grace. Thoughtfully, he followed Sandburg, not really listening to the words about some test or other, but just hearing the voice and watching the animated gestures... the energy and enthusiasm. Jim wondered if anyone could feel such love radiating toward them and not be moved by it. He felt a powerful need to protect this extraordinary young man who gave so much, who gave his all, without any apparent regard for his own needs or safety, physical or emotional.
In that moment, Jim knew he'd give his life if that were the price to protect Sandburg. Would give it gladly.
Having survived the 'first encounter' with Sandburg without giving away his new awareness of what their relationship had been in another time and place, Jim decided he'd just try to ignore what he now knew, try to forget it. Carry on as usual.
He found he couldn't forget it. Couldn't forget the image of Sandburg's wet, glistening skin, or the way the sunlight had played over his body. Couldn't forget witnessing the moment of climax... most of all, couldn't forget that aching, haunting, moment when Blair had cried out hoarsely, almost sobbing his name. The memories tormented him particularly at night, both as he lay awake trying to fight them off and later, as he slept and was helpless to resist them.
Couldn't forget the erotic beauty of Sandburg in those moments... or the depth of the love and anguish he had witnessed. Love for him.
Nor could he forget it, not really, not at all, during the day. He couldn't look at Sandburg the same way as he had before. Couldn't not watch how he moved, or how the light played in his eyes, or how his face would suddenly be radiant with that killer smile. Couldn't seem to stop looking at that wild mane of curls that formed a halo when the sun was behind Blair...
Couldn't miss the way Sandburg sometimes looked at him, when he thought Jim was preoccupied with something else. The lost look of longing quickly veiled. The glances of admiration when Jim was moving, whether reaching for wood for the fire, the flickering light playing on his torso, or striding along a forested path...
The looks of desire that sometimes Sandburg wasn't fast enough to extinguish, or had been too slow to turn away... the looks of sudden, quickly stifled anguish, when Jim said something unintentional but that reminded him that his Sentinel did not remember, did not love him or need him in the way that Blair remembered so achingly.
And, as time went on, one day after another, Jim couldn't pretend he wasn't tuning into Sandburg's heartbeat, or listening to how he breathed, especially when he was asleep.
Nor could he shut away the memories of what he'd seen when Blair would go off by himself, needing respite from the pretence the younger man tried so hard to sustain... when he needed to lose himself in the memories and the fantasy of what had been, for whatever release that could give him...
But Jim was honest enough to admit that his friend wasn't doing anything differently... the looks weren't new, the need for some privacy not some sudden aberration. No, it was simply that Jim was seeing Sandburg clearly, was reading the love behind the friendship that the younger man freely showed, the longing and hurt in the swiftly shadowed or veiled eyes. In no way did Blair ever consciously reveal himself or his pain. Never did Sandburg signal how difficult the charade was for him to maintain.
Ellison was staggered by the immensity and strength of love that could sustain such selfless behaviour, overwhelmed that that love was felt for him.
Other sensory awarenesses began to impinge upon the Sentinel's consciousness. The nuances in Sandburg's voice, the different tones he used when teasing or laughing, or when he was intense and caught by some fascinating subject or when he was 'guiding' Jim through the exercises and tests to master his senses. Or when his voice softened, almost too ephemeral to be heard, when he spoke of whatever touched him deeply, like his sorrow about what Jim was having to endure, or when he'd wonder about his son, Jamie and how the child was being cared for... if Jamie was happy. Or the cold rage that sometimes echoed in his friend's voice when Blair remembered the bastards who had killed his innocent wife... or when they speculated about why Jim had been chosen for some reason unknown to either of them, unknowable, something that required him being held in this netherworld... rage at how Jim's life was being manipulated. Or how warm and supportive that voice could be when Jim grew discouraged and frustrated, or sometimes couldn't fend off the fear of what was happening to him.
Nor was it just Sandburg's voice. His scent also became something that Ellison found himself attuned to. Healthy, clean... scented lightly with the plants Sandburg used to bathe and wash his hair. And, sometimes, when he slept and was unaware of how his body was responding to the dreams that danced in his unconscious mind, of the muskiness...
And though Sandburg didn't touch him often otherwise, the younger man did use touch deliberately to ground Jim during their work with Ellison's senses. A touch on his shoulder or in the small of his back... the strong grip on his arm or wrist. A light brush of fingers on his hand. Except when Jim was hurting, and then it was a strong grip on his shoulder, or a compassionate, soothing, stroking of his back until his raw emotions had eased. There'd been no hug since the first moment of awakening when Sandburg had first arrived. But Jim found himself remembering it... dreaming of it.
Days eased into weeks, and Jim found himself touching Sandburg more often, needing to touch him. A touch of greeting in the morning, just a light gripping of Blair's shoulder, as Ellison passed to head to the river for his daily swim. A ruffling of the younger man's hair when teasing him... a hand to steady his friend as they wandered steep mountain paths. Ellison was conscious of the feel of Sandburg's skin, the flow of muscle beneath, the sturdiness of bone. And, finally, he had to admit to himself he'd begun looking for excuses to touch, to loop an arm around Sandburg's shoulder, to wrestle playfully when they were swimming.
And still Sandburg held himself back, never initiating except to 'guide' or support. Never responding with a touch of his own, or ever leaning into Jim when Ellison's arm circled his shoulder. Blair played his self-assigned part of trusted friend... steadfast in never abusing that trust, never taking advantage of a man he thought unaware of what had been. Sure he showed his love, but always in a manner that was platonic or at most fraternal... never anything more.
Ellison wondered at his own behaviours. Wondered if the long isolation and simple, sheer, physical need for some kind of intimacy with another human being was what was driving his heightened awareness of Blair's presence. Wondered if he was simply responding to the unconditional and unwavering love, like a blossom will respond and open to the warmth of the sun. Wondered if maybe he was just curious to know what it might be like to be loved by another man... to love another man. Wondered if he didn't just want to be kind, now that he understood Sandburg's need for him... wanted to somehow repay the kindnesses, the endless kindnesses, Sandburg showed him.
Wondered, finally, if despite all expectation, all past experience, all denial to the contrary, wondered if he was falling in love.
Wondered if he had the courage to admit it.
One night, as Jim lay awake listening to him breathe, Sandburg got lost in a dream, and whatever it was about, it was something scary... and then heartbreaking. Jim wondered if Blair was dreaming again of Maggie's death. God knew, the fact that he'd also died that day never seemed to haunt him the way her murder did. But, whatever it was, it was tormenting his friend, causing him to moan softly in protest, in anguish. And it got worse. Blair thrashed unconsciously, and cried out, "NO!"
And Jim couldn't just lie there and listen any longer. Rolling to his feet, he crossed the cave to where Sandburg slept against the far wall, and knelt beside his tormented friend, taking him gently by the shoulders to shake him lightly, as he called to him, "Chief! Hey, wake up, Sandburg! It's a dream... it's only a dream..."
Blair's eyes flew open and he gasped, shaking still with the vestiges of whatever horror had haunted him. "Jim!" he sobbed, tears glittering in his eyes.
'Hey, easy, you're all right," Jim soothed, pulling Blair up until he sitting, half supported still by Ellison's arm around his shoulder.
"I... Oh, God," Sandburg panted, trying to shake off the fractured images that refused to dissipate and leave him in peace.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Ellison offered, lightly stroking Sandburg's back.
Swallowing, Blair looked up into his eyes. Though the cave was dark, scarcely illuminated by the fragile light of the stars and the full moon in the clear sky outside, Jim could see Sandburg clearly... could see the pain, the grief, that still haunted the younger man from whatever terrible thing he'd been either imagining or remembering in the dream.
"I... was back in the bus... and you were... were hurt so bad... being flung toward me by the explosion. I remember hoping you were all right, you know? Not hurt too bad... but I saw... I saw the burns and the blood as you were flung sideways... and I knew... and then I woke up. In the hospital, and they told me you were dead... and I couldn't... couldn't believe it. I wouldn't... I kept telling them they were wrong... but the pictures... the pictures of the funeral... and I knew I'd lost you... and I couldn't stand it... God, Jim... I couldn't stand it..."
"Shh," Jim murmured, pulling Blair close, wrapping strong arms around him. "It's all right. You were right and they were wrong. I'm not dead... remember? You found me, Chief... you found me."
Sandburg took a shuddering breath and then another. Sniffing, he reached to wipe the moisture from his eyes, suddenly embarrassed as he pulled away. "Sorry, Jim... I didn't mean to wake you. I'm alright now, thanks," he said quietly, his head bowed.
Jim felt such tenderness then, wished so much he could do something to take all the pain away. Unconsciously, he reached up and stroked Sandburg's hair. "It's all right," he murmured. "I wasn't asleep."
Nodding, his head still bowed, Sandburg reiterated, "I'm alright now... I'll... I'll just go back to sleep." And he slid away from Jim's supporting arm, to lie down facing the wall.
Jim patted his shoulder, and then moved back to his own side of the cave.
But Ellison didn't sleep that night.
The nightmare's anguish had been about him. About Sandburg's fear for him... and the sense of overwhelming loss Blair had felt on being told he'd died.
The wide, anguished, grief-stricken gaze haunted Ellison... as did the feel of Blair in his arms, leaning into his chest, drawing support and comfort from his strength, his presence.
Swallowing, Jim stared into the darkness and tried to breathe past the steel bands constricting his chest, tried to ignore the ache to hold Sandburg again... tried to pretend he didn't wish he was on the other side of the damned cave with Blair in his secure, protective, embrace.
Jim struggled with his feelings, told himself that it wasn't happening, that it was all his imagination.
But he knew it was a lie.
It wasn't that he loved Sandburg because he was a man, but that the fact of that Sandburg was another man seemed less and less relevant or important in the face of the fact that Jim did love him.
And wanted to let Sandburg know that he loved him.
It scared Jim. He didn't really know what to do... wasn't sure that the reality wouldn't hit him in the middle of his confession, and immobilize him... and only hurt Sandburg more deeply than he was being hurt each and every day by the belief that Ellison didn't love him, didn't need him, not that way.
But the need was growing.
The need to touch.
The need to hold and caress.
And be held... and caressed.
The need to love and be loved.
It was the middle of the afternoon, and the sun was hot on their bodies, the air fragrant with the scent of the blossoms in the jungle, rich with the earthy smell of the vegetation that surrounded them. They'd been working on Jim's sense of touch and taste for hours, and Blair noted that Jim seemed to be getting tired and distracted.
God knew, Blair thought wryly, he was distracted by having been touching Jim for hours, slipping different things into his hands for Ellison to detect what the objects were, or easing various bits of fruit, herbs and spices between Jim's lips, while the Sentinel sat with his eyes closed and his sense of smell dialed down.
"Time for a break, big guy," Sandburg decided, turning away. "I think I'll go for a walk and let you relax for a bit, okay?"
Jim, who was feeling decidedly breathless after such prolonged and intimate contact with his Guide nodded, not trusting his voice. There had been something decidedly sensuous and erotic about the act of being fed the small morsels of food by Blair.
Sandburg smiled softly and strode away, breaking into a lope as he reached the edge of the clearing and headed down the path toward the river.
For a moment, Jim remained where he was... but decided, finally, that he was a fool and it was time for a little courage and a lot of honesty. Rolling to his feet, he set off along the trail, following in the wake of his Guide. He heard the distant splash, and knew Sandburg was trying to cool off in the river. His steps hesitated, his courage faltering and he almost turned back to the clearing in front of their cave.
But then he cursed himself for a coward, and continued on down, slowly, uncertain but knowing he couldn't turn back. Not this time. Not as he'd turned back three times already in the past week.
By the time Ellison had reached the clearing by the river, Sandburg had left the water and was kneeling by the bank in the shadow of the stone that hid him from the path and clearing above. His bronzed body was glistening from the myriad of tiny droplets of water, and the curls were tangled from his quick swim. His head was bowed and his eyes tightly closed, his muscles tense as hugged himself, trying to resist the need for his fantasy of being touched by Jim... of being loved by Jim.
He looked so vulnerable that Ellison's heart ached. Taking a breath, Jim stepped out of the shadows and moved silently across the rich, moist earth until he was standing over his Guide. Blair stiffened, suddenly aware that he was no longer alone though Jim didn't know what had given him away... maybe the sound of his breathing, maybe his the scent of his body, of his arousal.
Startled by his sudden, silent approach, Blair floundered for a moment, then tried to recover, to slip back into the habitual pretence as his arms loosened and fell to his sides and he turned his bowed head to the water, to hide whatever vestige of need might still be visible in his expression or eyes.
"Decided you felt like a swim, too?" he asked, trying for an off-hand tone, but his voice was still hoarse with his need.
"Something like that," Ellison replied, his voice tight as he sank down to one knee beside his best friend and bent to lightly kiss the nape of his neck.
Blair froze, and his breath hitched. "Jim?" he breathed, startled, afraid to hope.
Lifting his head, Jim reached to stroke Blair's hair, letting his fingers tangle in the wet curls as he gently cupped Sandburg's chin with his other hand and drew his head up and around to meet his gaze.
Blair's eyes were wide and dark as he searched Jim's face. His lips parted, as if to speak, to question what was happening, but no words came, as if he were afraid that if he spoke the magic that had brought Jim here would disappear.
For a moment, Jim searched those eyes and read the hope there... and the fear of hoping for too much. Slowly, he bent to brush Blair's lips with his own, and then to capture them, one hand holding Blair's head steady while the other dropped to grip his friend's shoulder.
A moan low in his throat, Blair responded to the kiss, readily surrendering to the assault of Jim's tongue and then responding with his own, and, after a moment's hesitation, Sandburg's arms came up to circle Jim's back and pull him closer even as he leaned against that broad, strong chest.
His hands shifting again to cup Blair's face, Jim broke the kiss and lifted his head, though he didn't pull away from Sandburg's embrace. The younger man looked dazed, as if he couldn't quite believe what was happening but didn't want to question it. Drinking in the beauty of his Guide's open, guileless face, Jim tenderly stroked Blair's lips with his thumb as he murmured, "I love you, Blair... I want to show you how much I love you... show me how..."
Sandburg inhaled sharply, almost a sob and sudden tears glazed his eyes. But he pulled away, one hand reaching to cup his Sentinel's face. "Ah, Jim," he whispered. "I tried so hard not to show it, not to show how much I love you... need you. But, you don't have to do this... I know... I know you don't feel the same way..."
Ellison pressed gentle fingertips against Blair's lips as he responded. "Shh... don't apologize. You've given me no hints... you've protected me from knowing whatever it is that we've shared in other lives. But, I've... I've realized how much I do love you, too... and how much I want more than your steadfast friendship. I've... I've never... I don't know how... please... show me..."
A tear slipped over Sandburg's thick lashes and trickled down his cheek, until Jim's thumb tenderly brushed it away. For a long moment, Blair just gazed into Jim's eyes, searching for the lie, searching for the truth and then he sighed and the tension melted from his body. Rising a little on his knees, he lifted his lips to Jim's and kissed him long and slow, savouring it, lingeringly... and then hungrily.
And his hands started to move, to caress Jim's back and shoulders, to slip around to Ellison's chest and fondle his nipples. Pulling a little away, Blair breathed, "Lie back... let me love you..."
Jim allowed Blair to push him gently to the ground, and then Blair was dusting his face with butterfly kisses while sensitive fingertips massaged his scalp and stroked his ears lightly. The sensations were incredible... Sandburg blowing into his ear softly, then nuzzling a lobe, kissing the pulse beat in his throat, while hands stroked his shoulders, arms and chest, tongue licking at one nipple, then sucking until Ellison groaned and arced up, wanting more. Hands and lips tracing lines of love over his body, lovingly, almost reverently. Sandburg's scent filling the air around him, pervasive, erotic, and Jim inhaled deeply, wanting that scent to fill him.
And Blair's voice, panting with need and desire, aching with love, as he murmured, "I've loved you forever... from the beginning... when we were but souls in the void... and we chose to learn about life, together... mortal life... you wanted to be a protector... to keep others safe... you didn't care that it meant danger... or the pain of wounds... you wanted to help others, keep them secure... I... I... just wanted to protect you... so we were made, born... Sentinel and Guide... bonded spiritually... then physically... Oh, God... I love you... you don't know... don't know how much I need you..."
Each touch, each kiss, sent a sensuous thrill that filled Jim, sweeping over him, wave after wave of erotic and passionate sensation, until he lost himself in Blair... wanting him... needing this, needing this love so very much... until the love he felt in return blossomed and grew, filling his heart and soul, a flood of emotion finally, finally, bringing him home within this place and time, sweeping all else away, cleansing and renewing his spirit until all that mattered was their love for one another...
The Sentinel's hands stroked his Guide's body, shoulders, arms, back... tangled in his glorious hair, feeling his caress, kiss, touching Blair, hearing his heartbeat, his panting breaths and aching words... filled with his scent... until the Sentinel was no longer alone and so lonely, but felt love and loved... felt whole... complete.
And then the voice drifted away, muted into a low moan of longing... and Jim gasped as lips and tongue caressed and stroked his pulsing erection and bucked as the moist warmth covered him, sucking him in, deeply, so he was held tightly, while fingers gripped him and other fingers cupped and squeezed his sensitive balls, and then seared along sensitive skin... invading his being, stroking and...
Ellison cried out, his hips thrusting hard, frenzied by the blinding flash of pure, exquisite, delicious sensation that burst through his body, filling him, taking him to heights of passion he'd never known, never imagined... where there was only light and the utter bliss of love... he was enchanted, ennobled... transformed...
"BLAIR!" he cried out then, a shout of rapture, as his hips thrust and he burst with the emotions and sensations that filled him to overflowing. Gasping, he lay back, spent but feeling the glow of love, the glory of being loved, and his throat closed as tears of gratitude burned in his eyes. "Ah, Blair," he gasped, a choked whisper as he dragged in a breath and reached to draw his lover, the other half of his soul, up to lie over him, to cover and protect him, to soothe all the pain, heal all the aches of sorrow. Looking up into those depths of infinite blue, those wide, clear eyes that held his forever in the love they shone upon him, his lips trembled, overcome with the beauty of this man, this soul... who loved him so completely... and whom he loved with all his being. "Ah, Blair..." he sighed again, wishing he could find the words to express all that was in his heart.
"Shhh, Jim," Blair murmured, leaning down to kiss him gently, lovingly. "It's all right... I know... there are no words for what we feel... what we share... oh, God, Jim... thank you... thank you for loving me..."
Jim's arms came up around his best friend, his lover... the keeper of his soul... and pulled Blair down close, tight against his chest, cradling him with infinite, overwhelming love.
They lay together quietly, basked by the sun's warmth, serenaded by birdsong and the rippling of the river's rush, joyous... and at peace.
"I'm sorry," Jim murmured then quietly, stroking Blair's warm back. "I'm sorry I didn't remember..."
"You remember now," Blair whispered, kissing his throat. "That's all that matters..."
"Yes, I remember now," Jim echoed, tightening his grip and rolling gently until Blair was pinned beneath him. "I remember how to show you what I haven't the words to say..."
His head dipped to capture Blair's lips with his own... and then he showed Blair all that he did indeed remember...
Later, once the initial euphoria of re-discovery had passed, they climbed back up the trail to the clearing in front of the cave and built a fire before the sun's heat had been completely spent. When Jim looked up from his labours with the kindling, he found Blair's gaze upon him, steady and warm, peaceful and fulfilled. A soft smile played around his lips and for the first time Ellison realized the perpetual tension that had surrounded Sandburg since his arrival, unnoticed until now when it was gone. He smiled back, the light of the sun illuminating the tranquil expression on his own face and softly bathing the planes and angles of his body. In all his life, Jim couldn't recall this sense of balance inside, an ease of spirit that left him feeling steady and sure, strong enough to face anything life might throw at him.
"How did you remember... how did you know this about us?" Blair asked quietly, tilting his head, curious to know how the revelation had come about this time, in this unique existence.
Jim's eyes dropped and he flushed, a delicate glow of colour that made Blair grin as he studied his best friend, his partner and lover, the being who was the best part of his soul. Shrugging a little, Jim stood to circle the fire, to sit beside Blair and loop an arm around his back, drawing him close, needing the touch, needing to feel Sandburg's skin against his own. Clearing his throat, embarrassed to have to admit he'd literally stumbled into sudden awareness, he recounted, "A few weeks ago, I was worried about you when you took off at a run to get away, to get some space. I'd... I'd just yelled at you, frustrated that you knew me so well, but that to me you were still a stranger. I'd seen the hurt in your eyes... and I wanted to apologize. From the path above, I saw you dive into the river and swim hard, as if to work off some powerful emotion... and I wondered... wondered what I didn't know. What it was that was causing you such pain. Anyway, I wasn't sure if I should intrude, so I waited until you'd come out of the water and had disappeared from my sight behind that big rock you like to dive from... and I came to the edge of the clearing... and I saw you."
Swallowing again with the memory, Jim sighed, "You looked like a god, the sunlight glistening in the drops all over your body, and your head was thrown back, exalted... your eyes closed as you touched your body and imagined... imagined what we'd had together. I should have left, respected your privacy, but it was like I was frozen there, unable to move, unable to take my eyes off you. And... at the moment of release, you moaned my name... and then you said you missed me... and you curled forward and wept. I... I knew then, but I didn't know what to do... so I went off to think about it... thought about it all night..."
"I'm sorry..." Blair murmured. "I hadn't wanted to cause you such distress..."
Ellison shifted toward Sandburg and cupped his face, lifting Blair's face to his honest gaze. "No, God, no, don't be sorry," he said, his voice husky. "I wish I'd remembered from the beginning... more... I wish I'd acted on the knowledge sooner..."
Blair searched his eyes and then smiled. "It never happens that way," he explained. "We never remember what came before. We have to rediscover the love again, reaffirm it again, each and every time." His smile broadened as his eyes lost focus as he drifted into the memories. "It's been amazing, all the ways we've found what we have, what we are... wondrous and... beautiful..."
"Can you tell me?" Jim asked, his throat tight, wishing his memory wasn't so wretchedly incomplete.
But Blair shook his head. "No, I shouldn't," he sighed. "What do you remember?"
"Not much," Ellison replied, regret in his voice. "When you touch me, that's when there are memories, fleeting glimpses of other times, other places... but, more than that... nothing..."
Blair heard the sorrow in Jim's voice and his heart ached at the pain of what Jim was feeling... and sorrow of his own that Jim couldn't remember what wonderful lives they'd lived, what adventures they'd shared. Looking away into the setting sun, he wondered what it could hurt, now that Jim did remember at least that they'd been one for all time. And the odds were, Jim wouldn't remember any of this either, once he went through the trauma of revival. It would be like a rebirth of a kind. Swallowing, taking Jim's larger hand between his own, he began softly, "Sometimes, most times, we discover this when we first explore our true nature as Sentinel and Guide... after we've learned to trust one another, learned to love one another as friends, partners... closer than brothers. We finally figure out that our unique relationship requires a kind of sensory imprinting, a complete bonding of our hearts and souls, a celebration of our union of spirit with the union of our bodies... .we're usually pretty nervous, even afraid, neither of us remembering, each of us rediscovering it all again, fresh and new. Sometimes I lead... and sometimes you do... but we always come to the same place... we always find the joy and the peace in the love we have for one another..."
As Jim's arm tightened around him, Blair looked up at him with a broad smile, his eyes glowing as he offered, "I could show you... we could enact those moments again..."
Jim smiled then, too, with a quick thrill of delight. "Yeah? I think I'd like that," he murmured as he pulled Blair into a strong hug. "How many times will you help me remember?"
"All of them, Jim," Blair promised. And then he giggled as he added, "Uh, there were quite a few variations on the theme. This could take a while..."
"We've got nothing but time, Junior," Jim laughed fondly, ruffling Sandburg's hair. "Time and each other."
One day, after they'd been playing in the river, splashing and dunking one another, laughing until they cried with the silly merriment, Jim slogged up onto the shore, and then reached back to give Blair a hand up onto the bank. Once again, he was struck by Sandburg's incredible youthfulness. Though he was a man in his mid-twenties, he had the exuberance of a child, with all of a child's wonder and delight at the surprises the world might offer. He laughed with abandon and he glowed with energy; it fairly crackled from him. And, in his eyes there was a perennial innocence, as if none of the pain and the horror that he'd seen had touched him, not in any fundamental way... as if the pure essence of love burned within him, burned away the anguish and left behind hope and a profound belief in the possibility of the spirit for unimaginable greatness.
At times like this, just looking at Sandburg made Jim feel old. A chagrined look on his face as he plopped down on the grassy verge, Ellison looked up at his companion and asked plaintively, "Why aren't we the same age? Why am I so much older than you?"
Laughing lightly, Blair scratched his cheek and then pushed his wet hair behind his ears as he sat down beside his friend. "You aren't, not always. Our souls are the same age... all souls are eternal and everlasting. The first time we decided to try this mortal gig, we were born the same night in the same village, and were named brothers of the spirit. But, given your persistent choice to return as a protector, a watchman, a Sentinel... the words have changed over time... but given that, well, we tend to live exciting lives. And, inevitably, a lifetime came when we didn't perish together. One went first... and, oh, man, was that first time hard... you don't know how hard or at least you don't remember, and I'm kinda glad about that. In the early lives, neither of us lasted long without the other. But we finally decided that that wasn't right, that we weren't fulfilling all the responsibilities we'd accepted when we sought to be reborn. So, sometimes, one of us lives a lot longer than the other. Usually me," Blair shared with a grimace as a lost look came into his eyes with the memories of those times, those terrible, lonely times.
Jim's arm drew him close, giving silent comfort. "Anyway," Blair continued, "after that we started being born on a different schedule. Sometimes, if I went first, I came back first and watched for you, waited for you... well, not you specifically in that I couldn't remember you, but I knew... I've always known... to watch for you, to search until I find you. Other times, like the last time around, you went first, and so you came back first. It took me a while to catch up this time. I'm sorry... I hate it when we get born so far apart. You always have such a tough time of it, you know. Your senses play hell with you and your life until I finally find you and we start working it out again."
"Does every soul go through this endless cycle of lives?" Jim asked, sincerely curious.
"Nah, not as often as we have," Blair replied, shaking his head. "There is pain here, and grief, and sorrow. There's loss, and fear... and hate. None of that exists when we're united with the Universe. But," he sighed, looking around at their microcosm of a world, "we feel we're needed in the world, this world. You to protect the innocents, so that they'll have a good chance to live lives they can learn from and rejoice in. Me, to protect you, first and foremost, and second, to teach... to help others find their way back to the principles and reality of love, that it's love that is the most profound and fundamental foundation of our entire existence... love that gives us strength and illuminates the possibilities that each of us are... love that sooths and heals... love that transforms and creates... love that generates passion and enobles... it's all, always, about love. And so many forget that, almost everyone, at the moment of birth. It's as if each life journey is about rediscovering that truth, in different ways, for different reasons, but always learning it, and when each soul finds that truth, then, well... even when locked within a mortal body, that soul has found joy, and peace."
Jim mused about that for a while, and then something that Blair had said caught his attention. "You said that we feel needed in 'this world'. Are there other worlds?"
"Oh, yeah, Jim... more than there are numbers to count... the Universe is a big place, expanding all the time, eternally and, well, there are other Universes, too... the possibilities really are, truly, infinite, man," Blair smiled, his eyes dancing with the magic and wonder of it all.
Gazing down at Blair's face, illuminated by the fire now that evening had settled upon them and the sun had disappeared, Jim felt blessed to have been matched with this single, incomparable soul. A lump rose from his full chest into his throat and his eyes glazed as he whispered, "God, I love you so much."
"As I love you, with all that I am," Blair murmured back.
Time passed, but it no longer hung heavy on their hearts. To the contrary, each day was a new day of complete happiness in each other's presence. They came to cherish the dawn, moved by inexpressible gratitude that they'd been given this time together. Time to be completely and fully together, with nothing else to distract and annoy, no grief or sorrow to tinge their joy in one another.
But each night as they slipped into slumber, entwined together, each wondered how many more dawns they would be able to greet together before Jim was yanked back into his life... and Blair's soul was freed to rejoin the Universe.
After ten years, they stopped bothering to keep a record of the passing of time. It was too unnerving to cope with the concept of eternally not knowing if it would be another day or another century. All they knew was that it was apparently going to be a long time before Jim was finally revived... and that was just fine with them.
As the years rolled past, their comfort in one another's presence grew ever easier, and then beyond that to something both found essential. There was a joy in their friendship, and their bond grew stronger than it had ever been. Jim's mastery of his senses continued to grow, from the simple concepts of managing imaginary dials, to being able to play his senses like a conductor plays an orchestra, drawing some elements forward while muting others, having all rise in crescendo or only a single, focused, ethereal note linger on the air.
Decades went by, the valley unchanging. But the men changed, though physically they grew no older. Their love and connectedness deepened, grew richer until each was truly half of a greater whole. They came to understand one another so well that words were scarcely needed, almost as if they'd become both empaths and telepaths, but it was nothing supernatural. Simply their profound awareness and understanding of one another.
An affinity of being.
Until the passage of time no longer mattered to them. They had found their peace within their friendship and eternity was simply today, simply being united... the glint of a grin or the joy of mingled laughter. They teased gently, and sometimes outrageously. They talked of their philosophies of life, of the meaning of their existence, the purpose of being. They walked the reaches of their world, and swam its rivers and lakes, rejoicing finally in simply being together in a place of beauty and peace.
Until, one night, Blair had a dream.
And when he awoke, he knew that everything was about to change drastically.
And he wept for the pain of it.
The Sentinel was awakened by the sounds of Blair's distant weeping. Jerking into wakefulness, he looked quickly around the camp and then realized that the sound was not close by. Rolling smoothly to his feet, he jogged down the now well-beaten path to the river, slowing as he spotted Sandburg perched on a rock, curled forward as if in great pain.
"God, Blair, what's wrong?" he cried out, frightened, as he loped forward to kneel by his Guide's side.
His breath hitching with his distress, Sandburg shook his head, unable to speak yet.
"Take it easy, Chief, deep, slow, breaths," Jim coached, stroking Blair's back as he reached to tilt Sandburg's head up. The younger man's face was wet with the tears that tracked slowly down his cheeks and Jim gently wiped them away. "Tell me what's wrong..."
Sniffing, Blair took a few shaky breaths as he gripped Jim's shoulder for strength. Swallowing, he sniffed again and pushed his hair back off his brow. "I... I had a dream last night and I... I know now where your body is being kept..."
Jim frowned as he searched Sandburg's anguished gaze. "Okay," he murmured. "So... how bad is it? Am I in trouble? Going to die? That's not so bad... we both know that now."
Shaking his head, Blair blinked against the burning tears that still blurred his eyes. "No, you don't understand. I have to find you... back there. I have to..."
But his voice caught again, as he thought about what it all meant. What Jim would have to endure.
"You have to find me... okay, I get that, Chief," Jim repeated, needing more, not understanding why Blair was so upset... so stricken that he was trembling like a leaf and looked as if his heart were breaking.
"Jim, oh, God, how do I tell you this," he groaned, turning away, his face a mask of despair.
"Blair, you have to help me here... I'm not getting the problem," Ellison encouraged.
"I know," Sandburg sighed and then straightened his shoulders as he turned back to face the being he loved beyond all others. "Jim... to find you means that I have to return to life."
Ellison's face broke into a surprised smile at that idea. "But, that's great, Chief!" he exclaimed. However, when Blair continued to gaze mournfully at him, he asked more tentatively, "Isn't it?"
"Yeah, I guess, in some ways," Sandburg allowed. "It means that when you're revived, I'll be there and I can help you, watch your back... be part of your life again. But... for that to happen, Jim, I first have to be born. I have to grow up, become a man again. I won't have any memory of any of the time we've spent here. I'll have to 'find' you somehow without consciously knowing where to look. Don't you see? I have to... I have to leave you here... alone... for years."
"Oh," Jim gasped as the meaning of it all hit him and he paled. Years. Alone. Here. Swallowing, aware that he was trembling now, too, Ellison asked, "When? When do you have to go?"
"I don't know, but soon," Sandburg whispered, devastated by the idea of condemning Jim to such solitude for untold years. They had no way of knowing how long it would be... so Jim couldn't just count them down. He'd have to endure, waiting with no knowledge of what was going on, or how much longer it might be. "Oh, God, Jim... I don't want to leave you like this... I hate this!"
Tears again filled Sandburg's eyes and spilled onto his cheeks. His chest tightened and he had to struggle to draw in breath. "I'm so sorry," he wept. "I'm just so damned sorry..."
"Hey, easy," Jim replied, reaching to pull Sandburg into his arms, hating to see Blair hurting so badly. Stroking Blair's back, trying to comfort him, Jim murmured, "It won't be so bad... I'll be able to remember having you here, and I'll know that you're some place you need to be, to bring me back. I'll be okay."
"I promise you," Blair vowed, his arms embracing Jim tightly, "I promise you... I will bring you back! I won't leave you here! Remember that!"
"I will, Chief," Jim assured him hoarsely, his own heart aching at the prospect of losing his Guide, of being cast adrift without him for untold years. "I trust you, Blair. And I believe in you. I won't forget... and I won't give up. I promise you that."
"I don't want to leave you," Blair wept, feeling as if his soul was being shredded.
"You don't have a choice, Chief," Jim replied, trying hard to keep his own tears from falling, trying to keep his voice steady. There would be plenty of time to weep later... years worth of time. "Neither of us has a choice here. We never did... only... only you had a choice, to come to me in the first place. To find me and stay with me. You've kept me sane, Blair... you've given me hope. You've already saved me once, Chief, just by being here. I guess now, you're going to have to go and save me again."
"I love you, Jim," Blair whispered. "I won't let you down."
"I know, Chief," Jim murmured into his Guide's hair. "I love you, too."
"NO! Not yet!"
Even as he cried out, and tried to hold on, even as Jim reached for him, Blair's form shimmered and faded, as if he was being pulled away.
"BLAIR!" Jim screamed then, not ready to let go... not ready...
But Sandburg was gone, like a wisp of fog burned away by the sun's heat.
As if he'd never been.
Ellison stared at the empty air, unable to grasp it, trying to make sense of it.
And then the ache of the emptiness inside grew to consume him, and he felt anguish such as he'd never known before. His lips trembled as he hugged himself tightly, in a vain effort to hold the sob inside. He pressed his eyes closed against the scalding tears...
"Ah, Blair..." he choked out, bereft and alone.
Curling forward, hunched into himself, the Sentinel wept.
The wolf had come to him, and had stayed, after Sandburg had been torn away so suddenly. But though the wolf was a comfort, a companion of the spirit, it wasn't the same. Ellison ached to hear Blair's voice, to see his smile and sparkling eyes, longed for the sound of his heartbeat, for his touch. Jim took to using the same plants Blair had used to bathe and wash his hair, but that wasn't the same either... the scent was wrong, empty somehow.
He ached with the loneliness until he began to talk to Blair, hoping that maybe some sense of the meaning at least, some part of the love, would cross the vast reaches of time and space and resonate in Blair's heart. And that helped... for a while.
Jim came to understand the anguish Blair must have felt when he'd first appeared here, to feel such love and have no way to show it, to share it. To hold it, aching, inside... having only memories for warmth and comfort.
Over and over, he played out his memories of the time they'd spent together, losing himself for hours at a time, wondering if he'd zoned on the images, the sounds that echoes in his head, the phantom touches. Once again, he took to carving notches on a tree... and then another tree... and another. Schooling himself to patience, he tried to imagine Blair as an infant, and then a toddler, running around, driving everyone crazy with questions. Then a boy, discovering the world and the mysteries that always captured his imagination. As the years went by, he knew Blair had become a youth and he wondered if that youth had yet begun to search for a Sentinel. More years, until enough time had passed that Blair, wherever he was, whatever he was doing, was now officially and legally a man.
And Jim started the notches on another tree.
It was hell.
The only thought that ever brought him peace was the knowledge that Blair was not suffering as he was. Reborn, Sandburg would have forgotten their time here, would have forgotten all that they were to one another, how empty it was when the other was not there. But Jim came to understand the constant feeling of never really belonging for so much of his life, his defensiveness and even hostility... a kind a low burning anguish of frustration, his soul hungering for someone his heart and mind did not remember. He understood now, as he hadn't when Blair had arrived so many years ago, the obsession the younger man had felt when Jim had apparently been killed. The obsession to know everything about him... the unshakable belief that Jim wasn't dead but lost... and was waiting to be found.
As he was waiting again now.
The empty years passed with agonizing slowness while Jim endured. Sometimes with angry fury at how very long it was taking. Sometimes with a depth of pain such that he could scarcely breathe. Sometimes he wondered if Sandburg would remember him, find him, be able to revive him, and even began to doubt a little... and those were the most dangerous times. Because his mind would flinch and his courage would falter and he'd slip ever closer to madness.
But then he'd dream. And in his dreams, Sandburg came to him and they'd talk, and laugh. The first time was less than three years after Blair had been torn away from him. And it gave him hope that maybe Sandburg was beginning to remember him... enough to dream about him, anyway.
And he'd wake to face the dawn, his strength renewed.
"I remember, Chief," he'd assert to the rising sun. "I remember your promise. I trust you. I'll hold on... I promised you that. I won't ever give up on you. I'll hold on."
But one day, the aching weariness was heavy on his heart, the anguish and gaping grief at their separation was more than he thought he could endure any longer. And that morning, he faced the sun, tears on his cheeks, as he whispered, "I'm not giving up... I'll come when you call me, I promise you that. But... but I can't stand it any longer, Chief... I can't keep going, day after day, without you. So... I'm going to let myself zone, Blair... to wait until you call..."
The lonely Sentinel sat down up the promontory of rock, facing the rising sun, remembering the way they had greeted the dawn. He'd not see another until they saw it again, together... .
Pain... he felt pain... but he let it go. It wasn't important. It didn't matter... .
The perpetual inner chill gave way to a comfortable warmth, but that was irrelevant.
But there was a distant whisper, a murmur that came and went... and he stirred, his heart quickening, until it faded and he went still again...
Something jolted and pulled at him. But... it wasn't enough...
Only for his Guide... he was waiting for Blair to call him and he would wait until the man who held Jim's soul in his heart summoned him.
And then... one day... he heard his Guide calling, calling desperately... needing him. Oh, God, the pain in Blair's voice... and the fear... he had to wake... had to respond... his Guide needed him...
...It was time, finally time to awaken...
His Guide was calling for him...
Reaching forward to stroke Blair's brow, Ellison whispered, "I might not remember all the lives we've ever lived together, but I finally remember the jungle, Chief... I believed in you, never stopped believing in you. Only you. And you found me, just like you promised. Now it's my turn to promise you... I'll never leave you, Chief, never give up on you... I'll try to never, ever, let you down. I hope you know that I love you, Blair Sandburg. You are the best part of my soul."