The colors were incredible. Brilliant yellows melting into vibrant oranges, swirls of white cloud weaving in and out as the shades of color turned darker and day turned into night. Jim had never seen anything quite like it.
He wasn’t alone on the beach; there had to be at least a dozen other people scattered along the edge of the shore. Couples and families were settled comfortably into the sand, enjoying the fading heat of the late afternoon, but Jim knew that none of them would be able to see the sun the way he could.
He wished Sandburg could be here to see it, but of course, if they’d been together, Jim wouldn’t have been sitting on the beach in the first place.
It amazed him, really, that they’d never done this. All the tests on his senses over the years; tasting sour milk, identifying all the different flavors in one of Sandburg’s bizarre concoctions and yet they’d never simply sat side by side and watched the colors in a sunset.
But then that wouldn’t have been a practical use of their time and, God knew, Blair had found it difficult enough to convince Jim to take the tests in the first place, to waste one on something as frivolous as a sunset.
Maybe, Jim thought regretfully, if he had been more cooperative in the beginning, things could have ended differently. He would never know for sure.
As he stared into the darkening sky, Jim was dimly aware of someone calling to him from further down Pismo beach. Glancing over, he recognized Jack Blakelock, the motel manager, who waved briefly at Jim before heading back down towards the small motel he ran, just a few hundred yards from the beach itself.
For a moment, Jim was surprised that the man had recognized him, but then logic prevailed and he almost wanted to laugh at himself. He’d been staying at Jack’s motel for three weeks, spending almost every waking hour in exactly the same spot on the beach – of course people were going to begin to recognize him.
He shivered then, the heat of the sun no longer enough to ward off the chill in the sea air. Jim pulled his legs up towards his chest, resting his arms on his knees and resisting the urge to burrow his bare feet into the sand. Dressed only in jeans and a thin cotton shirt, he knew that the only way for him to stop shivering would be if he went inside, but it would most likely be a good few hours yet before he admitted defeat and returned to his barren motel room.
Last night he’d stayed here, leaning against the small outcropping of rock until well into the night, when the sky was a thousand shades of black and stars shone out of the depths like diamonds on black velvet. He’d gazed up at the heavens for so long that he’d eventually zoned, coming back to himself hours later, shivering violently with the cold as the water lapped around his feet.
Today he’d been more careful, never extending his senses far enough to risk zoning, although he could still see twice as much as anyone else on the beach. It still felt wrong, though. Nothing was as sharp as it used to be, as if he was staring through a camera lens with the focus just slightly off. Sounds were a little too harsh, colors too bright, and the sand beneath his feet was more of an irritant than an indulgent comfort. The gentle roar of the waves crashing against the sand blocked out some of the more distant sounds around him, acting like a white noise generator for his senses.
Jim was sure he’d learn to get used to it in time.
He’d always been fascinated with the night sky, and had spent many nights in Peru just staring upwards through the foliage, straining for a mere glimpse of the stars above. It didn’t seem to matter whether he was on a beach in Southern California or in a Peruvian jungle – either way the patterns of stars and constellations were different to those he’d watched from his balcony in Cascade, the difference bringing home to him just how far he’d run.
He still couldn’t quite believe that he’d done it. Jim Ellison – the army ranger who’d seen and done things during active service that 90% of the population would baulk at – running away from his own home like a frightened child.
But the loft had stopped being his home – his sanctuary – the moment the dissertation had hit the headlines, and he refused to live in a goldfish bowl.
God, they’d all been so naïve. How could they have really believed for a moment that Sandburg’s desperate press conference would fix anything? And yet, standing in the bullpen with an arm round his partner and the joyous laughter of his friends echoing in his ears, Jim had honestly thought they’d pulled it off.
It all seemed so simple. Blair had thrown away his career, so they’d schemed to offer him a new one, complete with the constant threat of death and his very own gun. Yep, that was going to solve everything.
The irony was that it had, at least at first. Blair had gone to the police academy in Portland, in the hope that leaving Cascade for a while would let things settle down enough that he’d be old news when he rejoined the Major Crimes Unit as Detective Ellison’s official partner.
Then, with Sandburg safely out of town for six weeks of training, the jokes had begun. Whispered conversations spoken just loud enough for sentinel ears to hear; superman action figures left on his desk almost every morning. Nothing too over the top, but just blatant enough for certain members of the precinct to make it clear that, whatever the official line was, they knew the truth. He was watched wherever he went, dozens of people all waiting for him to do the impossible. Then, when that hadn’t happened, people had started pushing him, trying to force him into making a slip.
The jokes all came from other departments in the building – Major Crimes had closed ranks to protect its own, but after one particularly bad moment when a series of dog whistles had been set off outside the bullpen, deafening him and sending him to his knees in agony, Joel had finally broken his colleagues’ self-imposed silence. “Surely you weren’t honestly expecting this to go away?” he’d asked gently as he helped Jim into a nearby chair. “Everyone always knew there was something different about you, Jim. Blair’s dissertation just gave us a name for it, that’s all.”
It seemed that they’d not done a very good job of being discreet over the years.
Jim had understood then that it was never going to end. Things could never go back to the way they were, and Blair had thrown his life away for nothing. Less than an hour after Joel’s comment, Jim had driven out of Cascade like the hounds of hell were on his tail. As he drove, he’d convinced himself that it would only be for a few days, that he just needed a little time to get a grip on everything that had happened, but deep down, he’d known that it was over even as he’d stood in Simon’s office and requested the week’s leave, but he hadn’t then been ready to admit it.
Out here, hundreds of miles from anyone who had ever heard of sentinels, Jim found it easier to be honest about a whole lot of things. Which was why, two days after arriving at Pismo Beach, he’d withdrawn all the money he could from his bank account and mailed his police ID back to Simon with a brief letter of explanation.
He wasn’t going back.
That decision made, Jim had immediately felt calmer, more in control of his life, but there was still one major glitch in his plans.
Simon would have called Blair for certain, and Jim’s disappearance would be driving him crazy. But, however ashamed Jim felt about having run away, he couldn’t go back to Cascade. Not with all the knowing looks and snide remarks that would prevent him from doing his job, all the while being forced to watch Blair struggle to become something he’d never wanted to be.
At least this way Blair could choose his own path, could rebuild his life without having to sacrifice anything else to keep watch over an idiotic sentinel who was too stupid to admit his own feelings to himself until it was too late.
A stubborn sentinel who had cost his best friend everything he held dear was bad enough, but a stubborn sentinel who was also in love with said best friend? However hurt he knew Blair would be when he returned from the Academy to find Jim gone, Jim knew it would have been far, far worse if he’d stood mutely by and said nothing.
He wanted so badly to reach out and touch Blair, to hold him and tell him the truth, tell him just how fucking sorry he was and how much he loved him, how he’d loved him for months and it had been driving him out of his mind, making him crazy, defensive and irrational. He’d been so afraid of ruining everything if Sandburg discovered the truth that he’d overreacted, pushing Blair away at every opportunity because he was so afraid of letting down his guard. He simply couldn’t risk it, and the thought of having to hide his feelings for even one more day amid the insanity that his life had become was just too much for Jim to bear.
Then suddenly, as if someone had flicked a switch, Jim’s senses snapped back into place. The colors became distinct and orderly, the harsh, grating noise faded into a crystal clear symphony of sound, and Jim knew.
His own control over his senses was good; four years of practice had made sure of that, but when he was with Sandburg it was better. Only when he was with Sandburg.
With a soft groan he rested his head down on his knees, closing his eyes briefly with growing dread. Close by, footsteps whispered over the soft sand, drifting towards him, and then he heard it.
“You’re a hard man to find.” Blair’s voice was hard, unforgiving, and Jim took a deep breath before looking up. Blair was standing just a few feet away, untucked shirt flapping gently in the breeze, and for a moment Jim was transported to another beach, another time when that same hurt tone had been in Sandburg’s voice as the sun rose over golden sands. That had been back when the rift between them was just beginning, when Jim’s feelings had been muddled and confused – somehow it seemed fitting that, as the rift between them had started on a beach, now it was going to end on one.
“Some people might take that as a hint,” Jim said bluntly. He’d already made his decision. Now he had to see it through, however difficult that was going to be. “What are you doing here?”
“Simon’s worried about you,” Sandburg began hesitantly, and Jim could see those blue eyes examining him, trying to work out what had caused the sentinel’s flight. Wondering if this can be written off as a sensory spike, Chief? Jim wondered with fond exasperation. “He called me back from Portland,” Blair carried on, “when your badge showed up on his desk.”
Turning away from his former partner, Jim looked back out over the dark water, watching the waves tumbling over each other in a never-ending rhythm. There was nothing he could say.
“So what’s going on?” Blair asked again, crossing the final few feet that lay between them. When he moved to sit down next to Jim, mirroring Jim’s position leaning back against the hard rock with his legs stretched out in front of him, Jim sighed in frustration. Blair shouldn’t be here, and Jim wanted him to leave, to not drag this final goodbye out for a second longer than was necessary, but he shifted over in spite of himself, making room for Blair by his side as he always did.
Jim might understand what had to happen for the best, but he also knew what he wanted, and Sandburg sitting by his side was more than he deserved, and everything he dreamed of. But in so many ways, it was also his worst nightmare.
So he said nothing, and after a few moments of silence Sandburg spoke again, just as Jim had known he would.
“You know, it’s funny,” Sandburg began, and there was a trace of bitterness in the spat-out words. Jim tensed, waiting for the condemnation that he knew was coming. “When Simon rang and told me you’d gone,” Blair continued, “I didn’t believe him. I mean, anyone could have sent your shield back in an envelope, right? And the letter could have been forged, or you could have been forced to write it. I thought you’d been kidnapped,” and Jim flinched at that, turning his head down away from Sandburg. “And yet here you are sitting on a beach, working on your tan.”
“Oh yeah, the last couple of weeks have been one long holiday,” Jim snapped back.
“Well at least you weren’t running around wondering if your best friend was dead or alive!” Blair shot back. “For days after I got back to Cascade I kept expecting us to find your body in a dumpster somewhere!”
“Look, Sandburg,” Jim yelled, his temper flaring at the accusation inherent in Blair’s words. “I’m sorry that I worried you, but I’ve made my decision - I’m not going back. I thought I made that clear. What more do you want me to say?”
“I want you to tell me what the hell is going on!”
“I’ve had enough, that’s what’s going on.” Jim looked over at Sandburg then, easily recognizing the anger in Blair’s features. This was Sandburg at his fiercest. This was the Sandburg who had fought him so vehemently during the Ventriss case; all flashing eyes and tension, with barely suppressed anger bubbling just inches beneath the normally jovial surface. But there was desperation there as well, a nervousness revealed in the slightly trembling hands and the way Blair’s eyes watched him like a hawk.
“So that’s it? Conversation over?” Blair shook his head angrily, never taking his eyes off of Jim. “Simon tried to talk me out of it, reminded me of the time we followed you to Clayton Falls and the mess we made of things then, but I just wouldn’t listen. I was so sure that the Jim Ellison I knew would never have just walked out on his friends; not like that. Guess I didn’t know you very well after all.”
“Oh, don’t give me the martyr routine,” Jim replied hotly. “You have no idea what it’s been like at the station since you’ve been gone.”
“And whose fault is that?” Blair yelled back, before biting his lip and clenching his fingers into fists and forcing himself to take deep breaths instead of continuing the argument. One of his many meditation techniques to control anger - Jim had seen him use them a lot over the years they’d lived together. He was quite surprised that Blair hadn’t got up and walked away yet, or at least started pacing. Sandburg wasn’t as good at coping with his own anger as he was at defusing other people’s, and would normally deal with it simply by removing himself from the situation and working through his anger alone, without an audience.
However, apparently determined that Jim wasn’t going to run out on him again, Sandburg made no attempt to leave. After a few moments of silence, during which Jim turned his attention back to the crashing waves, Blair spoke again, his voice audibly calmer. “I should have heard it from you, Jim, but Simon told me all about what’s been going on at the station.” Then, he added wryly, “I didn’t give him much choice.”
Jim couldn’t hold back a chuckle. Yep, that was his Blair, all right. He was quite content to come across like a mild-mannered anthropologist when it suited him, but when he wanted information, he turned into a pit-bull with a bone, refusing to let a subject rest until he’d found out exactly what he wanted to know and converted everybody else to his way of thinking in the process
“What I don’t understand,” Blair went on, “is why you didn’t talk to me about it. I called you every night, and told you all about what was happening at the Academy, how my classes were coming along. We talked about your senses. So don’t tell me there was never an opportunity for you to mention that you were having trouble. Surely if the last few months have showed us anything, it’s how fucked up things get when we don’t communicate.”
“You had enough to worry about with the Academy,” Jim replied, nervously running his hand through the dry sand by his side.
“Oh, and getting a phone call from Simon to tell me that you’d disappeared wasn’t going to worry me?” Then Sandburg stilled for a second, eyes turning distant for a moment as something occurred to him. Whatever it was, he evidently didn’t like it, because the eyes he turned back on Jim were wide with alarm. “You didn’t think I’d come looking for you, did you?” he asked, his voice dropping to a horrified whisper. “Jesus Jim, have things become that bad between us that you didn’t know I’d find you?”
Suddenly absurdly curious, it was on the tip of Jim’s tongue to ask exactly how Blair had tracked him down, but before he could give voice to the words, he realized just how ridiculous that was. It didn’t matter how Sandburg had done it. Hell, if the guy had convinced Interpol itself to track him down it wouldn’t really have surprised Jim. Blair was nothing if not resourceful, and he seemingly had contacts everywhere.
No, all that mattered was that Blair had tracked him down, just like Jim had somehow always known that he would. It was ironic, really. Jim had run specifically so that he didn’t have to deal with it anymore – so he wouldn’t have to be the strong one, the one who could cope with anything that life threw at him. And yet somewhere, deep down inside himself, he’d always known that Blair would find him.
There was a part of Jim that was glad Blair was here; a part of him that may even have subconsciously planned all of this somehow, knowing that Blair was going to track him down, and that Jim would have to face the very thing he was running from. That was probably why he hadn’t rejected his sentinel senses the way he always had in the past when things got tough. Not just because, in these last lonely weeks, they’d been his only tangible link to Blair, but because he’d known that leaving Cascade wouldn’t bring an end to it.
But in spite of all that he couldn’t see a way that they could work this out. Working with Jim had destroyed everything Blair had been, until there was almost nothing left of the excitable, outgoing man who had pushed the sentinel out of the way of a garbage truck all those years ago. No-one could live in the world Jim inhabited and not be damaged by it, and seeing the physical proof of just how much Blair had been changed by riding with Jim was too much. It had to end, but at least this way, they could say goodbye.
This was Blair’s chance to be free again, to finally stop having to suppress everything that he was to fit in with Jim’s blinkered, confining world.
But if this was how it was going to end, if this was where the journey finally came to a stop, then for once in his life, Jim was going to honest. With himself, and with Blair - about everything.
“I knew,” he whispered back, the words thick with pain and barely louder than a breath, but Blair heard them anyway. Jim was aware of Blair staring at him, his expression stricken, until finally he sighed, dropping his elbows down on his thighs and resting his head in his hands, his entire body radiating misery.
“After everything that’s happened, Jim, how could you just leave me?” The pain and hurt in Blair’s voice cut through Jim like a knife, the knowledge that he was responsible for that hurt doing more damage than a thousand bullets.
Ashamed, the words fell over themselves, and Jim spoke without thought. “How could I stay?” he asked, his voice breaking on each word. “Jesus, Sandburg, you threw your life away for me and it didn’t help. What was I supposed to say? ‘Hi, Chief, how’s the academy? Oh, and by the way, I’ve just thrown away on a whim everything you destroyed your life to try and protect.’ Yeah, I can really see you sticking around after that.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
“Well you shouldn’t be,” Jim protested, feeling like the last man on a sinking ship. He was trying to give Blair back his life, why did the man have to make it so hard? “I can’t stay at the station - neither of us would ever get a moment’s peace. With me out of Cascade and out of the limelight you can rebuild your life, go back to school, do anything you want without always having to fit round me!”
“Don’t you think that’s up to me to decide?”
“Dammit, Sandburg,” Jim snapped, pulling himself to his feet and staring down at his friend. “Do you have to make everything so difficult? I’m trying to give you the chance to start again.”
Strangely calm, now, Blair squinted slightly as he looked up at Jim. Then he climbed gracefully to his feet, never taking his eyes from Jim’s face. “And what if I’m exactly where I want to be, Jim?” he asked softly. “What then?”
In response, Jim took a step forward into Blair’s space, arms raised and Blair tensed, frowning slightly as he began to say something, but Jim wasn’t listening. Then Jim had one hand on Blair’s cheek, and one on the back of his neck, pulling them together. Blair gasped once before Jim’s lips descended on his.
The kiss was raw, passionate, fuelled by Jim’s anger and frustration, and his desperate knowledge that this was the end. Even as he kissed Blair he was all too aware that Blair had frozen in his arms, stunned into immobility by Jim’s actions.
Jim made sure that the kiss lasted just long enough to ensure that Blair would know exactly what he meant by it, so that he couldn’t misinterpret it or write it off as some weird sentinel thing. Then he released Blair, pushing him away slightly and stepping back himself, fighting his almost primal urge to continue the kiss, to gather Blair into his arms and never let go.
He was expecting Blair to end their discussion once and for all by turning his back on Jim and walking away. But Blair had made a career out of surprising Jim, and instead of leaving he did something else entirely.
“Sandburg,” Jim growled, his anger flaring all over again. “If you think this is funny…”
Blair shook his head, holding a hand up to stop Jim from finishing the sentence. “I don’t,” he said with a smile. “But man, if that was supposed to get me to walk off in disgust, you are way off base.”
Jim opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. They’d gone so far off the script here, he wasn’t even sure what kind of response he was supposed to make.
Blair carried on speaking. “There’s a reason why I delayed writing my dissertation for so long, Jim. Why I hung around the bullpen helping you with your paperwork almost every day when I always had hours worth of university paperwork of my own that needed doing. Most days you didn’t need me to help you with your senses, you must know that. Didn’t you ever wonder why?”
“Research for your thesis…” Jim began, trailing off when Blair’s face fell, the disappointment and hurt that had been visible when he’d first arrived on the beach creeping back onto his face.
“I thought we settled this years ago, man,” Blair said sadly. “If all I wanted out of this was a dissertation, I’d already gathered more than enough research when I was offered that trip to Borneo, and I would have ended our partnership then. For that matter, if my dissertation was all that mattered to me, I’d have taken the money Sid Graham offered. Not every grad student gets offered millions of dollars for his research,” he added with a wry grin.
“How can you stand there and say that?” Jim asked, voice thick with emotion. “After everything I cost you…” Jim began.
Blair interrupted with an impatient shake of his head. “You have got to get past this,” he pleaded. “You didn’t cost me anything. I wish it hadn’t ended the way it did, but my time at Rainier was always going to end eventually. I loved teaching, you know that, but surely you can remember how all the politics used to drive me crazy! Even if I’d been given my doctorate and graduated the way I was supposed to, I couldn’t have continued working at Rainier and riding with you forever. Sooner or later, I was always going to have to choose, and I made that choice a long time ago.”
“And then I made it *again*, standing on that podium. Sure, it hurt that you thought I could betray you like that, but don’t ever think that you forced me into making that statement. That was my decision. Rainier was part of my life for a fifteen years; my time there helped to make me who I am, but it’s over now.” With that Blair stepped forward, capturing both of Jim’s hands in his. “I’m right where I want to be.”
There was silence between them then, the soft whisper of the sea the only background as Jim looked at his partner. Incredibly, there was no trace of deceit in Blair’s face, and Jim finally began to realize that Blair meant every word he said.
“Are you going to let me finish a sentence now?” Jim asked softly, and Blair grinned at him.
“Not until you start listening to me,” he replied, tightening his hold on Jim’s wrists as his thumbs brushed over the palms of Jim’s hands in a gentle caress.
In reply, Jim pulled Blair to him, wrapping his arms around Blair’s back and holding him close, bending his head to whisper into Blair’s ear. “I hear you. Finally, I hear you.”