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Phantom Pain 2 -- Jim

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Phantom Pain 2 -- Jim

by April Valentine

Author's website:

I don't own the characters, I just use them for my own sick enjoyment.

Thanks to everyone who supported the writing and publishing of this story in my fanzine, "Warriors." The final part of the trilogy, "Phantom Pain -- Miracles" will appear in "Warriors 2", scheduled for MediaWestCon at the end of May, 2002. In the final story, there will be a happy ending with all issues resolved.

This takes place immediately following "Phantom Pain" and is Jim's perspective on the accident that caused
Blair to lose his legs. If you don't want to read about permanent injury to a major character, maybe you should skip this story.

This story is a sequel to: Phantom Pain

God, this has been one long day. But at least I'm finally home at last. Or what passes for home these days. It's different now -- even though it's the same place. Where it once was warm, now it's cold. Where it once was full of light and sound, now it's quiet. Not empty, though. Two people still live here. But the warmth is gone, the sound is muffled, the rooms seem dark. And not just because nobody living here is a Sentinel.

It's because of Blair. Because of the accident. Because he almost died, but I couldn't let him go. I saved his life. And every day since then I see the regret in his eyes when he looks at me. He doesn't thank me. He hates me for it. I hate myself for it too, but, God help me, I'm not sorry he didn't die. I couldn't live with myself if I'd let him die. As it is, I can barely look at myself in the mirror, can't forgive myself any more easily than he can forgive me. But he's alive. He's here, still with me, despite how I hurt him that day, despite all the other hurts between us.

He's not the same, not physically, not emotionally. And I'm responsible for both of those changes.

Half dreading the evening ahead, yet looking forward with masochistic anticipation as I always do to seeing his face again, to being in the same room with him, to hearing his voice, I climb out of the truck, taking with me the Chinese carry-out I picked up on the way home. Teriyaki stir-fry like we used to make together. He doesn't eat enough, though he occasionally cooks for me. I treasure those meals, pretending the last year never happened when we sit at the table together. I always say how good everything is, praise his efforts, hope to see a little light in his eyes. Sometimes my words do bring a glint to his eyes and a little bit of the old Blair shines through. He flushes at my compliments, sometimes almost smiles, then inevitably looks away and I see him going back to the shell he is now. When he looks back, the spark is gone again and I'm left with the loneliness of having him with me in body but not in spirit.

I've wondered, all this time, why he's still here. Why, if he hates me so much, he's never left. Maybe he can't leave me, any more than I could have left him up on the mountain.

Or maybe his staying is his way of punishing me.

If it is, I deserve it. And his punishment is better than what life would be if he were gone for good. If that's all he can give me, I'll take it. Because he doesn't just want to punish me. His heart is too good to do that, even wounded as it is now. He needs me, though he doesn't let me do enough for him now that he's physically recovered from the accident. He needs me and that's what I need.

I push the elevator button and lean back as it carries me up to our loft, too tired to take the stairs after a day of chasing some guy half my age through the streets, of waiting hours for forensics to do what I used to be able to do in moments with my senses. After the accident and the unpredictable sensory spikes alternating with numbness in my hands, blurred vision and temporary deafness that I had for weeks afterward, the enhanced senses became a thing of the past. I used to strain, when this close, to hear his heartbeat inside. I keep trying, hoping they'll come back, and I still listen outside the door, praying to be able to hear his heartbeat so I can tell him I need a guide again.

Today, like always, I can't hear a thing.

I unlock the door, knowing he'll be sitting in his usual place by the balcony. It's too cold tonight for him to sit outside but he'll want to watch the lights of the city. I'll paste on a smile, pretend everything is okay, and start telling him about my day as I set the table and dish up the food. He'll half listen, but I'll treasure anything he says, any glance he spares me, any bite of the food he eats. He's alive. I've got to hang on to that, 'cause one of these days, he's going to come out of his long depression and realize it too.

Until then...

I step inside. "Hey, Chief," I call out, dropping my keys in the basket, noting he's left the lights off again, "I brought Teriyaki." I set the bag down on the counter as I shrug out of my coat and hang it up.

I freeze, hands still on my jacket, needing no enhanced sensory powers to know something is wrong. Still, I try again before turning.


No answer. The loft is silent.

I flick on the light by the door and turn.

He's not by the balcony.

A quick glance shows he's not in his room.

He does go out sometimes, I try to tell myself.

No he doesn't. He could, but he never goes out. Not alone. Not unless I take him to therapy or on some outing I've concocted hoping to ease the boredom of his days. 'I'm tired, Jim,' he says all too quickly, and then I take him home.

I glance at the hooks on the wall. My coat is alone; his is gone. So is the chair, that piece of chrome and rubber I've come to hate as much as he does -- but he wouldn't leave without it, would he?

My stomach has sunk to my knees. Dread makes my thoughts swim and my movements sluggish. I scan the loft for any sign of him and see a piece of folded paper on the dining table.

I start walking numbly toward it, feeling like I'm stepping in molasses, like it's a hundred yards away. Reaching the table, I pick up the paper in shaking fingers.

Open it, I tell myself, trying to believe it will say he's gone down to the corner store or something equally innocuous.

It's his handwriting. My eyes register that but no words yet as I try to get my sight to focus.


My name leaps out at me and then the words, all of them, flow into my brain without conscious translation, their meaning forged like a brand on my soul.

I read it again but the message doesn't change. A third time and it crushes my heart with its truth. I'm crumpling the page in my hand but I can't change what it says. I want to tear it to shreds -- but I can't. That would be tearing up the last thing he gave me. Sick bastard that I am, I can't let it go.

I spread the wrinkled paper out on the table and bend to scan the words again, dreading what they say, praying to find some crumb of forgiveness in them all the same, some token comfort hidden between the lines.

I'm sorry. I have to go. This has gone on long enough and I'm tired of us hurting each other. Believe it or not, I've found a job. It's not in Cascade. I thought I'd try a fresh start.

Don't worry, I'll be fine. When I'm settled, I'll call.

No matter what, I want you to know --

I guess all I really can say is, I'm sorry.

Your friend,

'No matter what, I want you to know -- '

I cling to that phrase, filling in its blank with impossible choices.

'No matter what, I want you to know -- I'll be okay.'

If that was it, why wouldn't he just say it? I don't really think he thinks he'll be okay though, so no, that couldn't be it.

'No matter what, I want you to know -- I don't blame you.'

No. He couldn't say that here any more than his eyes could lie when he looks at me. He does blame me.

'I want you to know... I forgive you.'

Blame me, Blair, but forgive me... I wanted to say that to him a thousand times, wanted to beg him for his forgiveness, but I couldn't ask, didn't dare, didn't deserve...

'I want you to know, I still love you...'

I close my eyes tight and pretend those words, written in his hand, are really there. He might never be okay, he might always blame me, he might never forgive me but oh God, could he still love me? Could even one shred of the feelings he had for me still be there after everything else that's happened? Could what he told me and I told him up there on the mountain possibly still be true?

I open my eyes but no miracle has completed the sentence while I wasn't looking. It's still unfinished, as is so much between Blair and me. We had our chance, so many chances, but neither of us took them. And then one last chance came our way and the words were spoken... and then they were swept away like everything else the river tore from us that night on the mountain.

I can barely see the words he did write, my eyes are stinging, swimming.

God, was I just telling myself on the way home that at least he's never left me? Did I say that even if he stayed to punish me, I'd take that and be happy for it?

I ball up the letter that is all he left me with and stagger to his room, some immature part of me needing to see the empty hangers and shelves to know it's true. I stand in the tiny room with the letter clutched to my chest, looking around, half blind with distress. It's not entirely empty, but then it would have been hard for him to take everything by himself. His clothes are gone though, and a lot of the books and pictures.

Through the open closet door, I can see his prosthetics. He hates them. Always complains it hurts too much to wear them. Despite the degree of independence they would bring him, he prefers to use his chair.

The bedspread with its earth tones and native designs is still there. I stumble to the futon and sink down, my tearing eyes falling on a picture left on the side table.

It's the two of us, one that Simon took the day Blair graduated from the Academy. I've got my arm around him and he's standing beside me, grinning...

Standing... oh Blair...

I pull my legs up on the mattress. My head is on his pillow, the picture and his letter in my hand. Cold, I pull the bedspread over me, try to wrap myself in him.

His scent flows over me like it would if I still had my Sentinel abilities, so powerful I'm almost swept away. Dear God, he can't be gone...

He can't make it out there, he's too depressed, never could bring himself to work hard enough at his therapy, he needs me...

He doesn't need me. Doesn't want me. Can't bear to look at me knowing what I did to him...

Dear God, he can't have left me...

I never cried, not even when he did, not even when I saw the wreck I'd made of him, not even when he cursed me in his pain and his depression. Men don't cry, not men like me. Not hard men who believe surviving is worth it even if life has to change irrevocably. Not men who wait four years and more to admit that what they feel for their best friend, their partner, their guide -- is love.

I've never cried in all this time.

'No matter what, I want you to know --'

I'm crying.

A ringing phone wakes me and I scramble from the bed, old habits assuring I am fully awake in an instant. The phone is on the kitchen divider and I grab it up in desperation, barely able to mutter a hello.


Not his voice. Simon's.

Crushed with disappointment, I respond.

"Yeah, Simon? What can I do for you?"

"Ellison, do you know what time it is?" His bellow is familiar, a slight comfort in my suddenly unrecognizable world.

I look at the clock and the numbers register. "It's nine thirty, sir."

"Very good. Weren't you supposed to be here for that task force meeting at nine?"

His tone is supposed to inspire dread, but I'm numb. "I'm sorry, sir. I overslept."

"Jim, are you all right?" He must have finally noticed something in my voice.

I clear my throat. "Not really."

"Is it Sandburg?"

"Yes. He's gone," I say flatly.

"What?" He sounds astounded.

"He's left. I came home last night and found a note from him. He packed up and moved out."

"What the hell -- ?"

In as few words as possible, I tell him the rest. Simon's tone switches from annoyance to sympathy and says he'll make my excuses to the task force and reschedule the meeting. He gives me the day off. I start to refuse but he tells me he'll suspend me if he sees me at the station today.

"Take the day, Jim. Get your head together. You sound like you need to."

Finally, I agree.

Though how I'm supposed to get my head together about this, I have no idea. I'm actually surprised I slept so soundly and so long. I go to the bathroom, then start some coffee. There sits the teriyaki stir fry I brought home last night, still on the counter where I forgot it. I dump it in the trash, and while the coffee's perking, go through the fridge, tossing out other leftovers. That took a whole five minutes. Great.

When the coffee's done, I pour a mug and take it to the balcony, sitting it on the ledge. It's cold outside and I can't dial down my body's temperature receptors any more, but I deal with it. My insides are frozen anyway, might as well do the same to the outside of me. The sun is out; at least in its light there's a tiny bit more warmth than in the shade.

"Blair... " I breathe his name, refusing to accept his leaving. I need him, need him with me, whether he talks to me or not, whether he looks at me or not, whether or not he can walk. Whether or not he's whole.

Where is he today? What town, what state? What kind of job did he get? How did he travel? Who else did he tell? How is he feeling?


I roll my eyes at my own ego. Why not?

Why would anybody stay with a man who ruined his life?

I reach for my coffee but my hand shakes and the hot liquid splashes over my wrist and palm. Cursing, I drop the cup and hurry to the sink, turning on the cold water.

My hand is burned, scalded by the hot coffee. The cold water eases the sting but my hand is still red.

This pain is nothing compared to what Blair endured. In the accident. And after.

I look at my hands, hating the sight of them, my self-inflicted burn reminding me of the crazy thoughts I had in my head right after the accident first happened.

With my hands, I'd freed Blair from where he was trapped under the truck in the river bed. With my own hands, I'd severed his legs to free him, to keep him from drowning under the water that had already risen over his head.

After the accident, I wanted to comfort him, ease his pain. I wanted to do the necessary medical tasks instead of leaving them for an impersonal home health aid. He let me perform the medical tasks, but he couldn't seem to accept my comfort. The touch of my hands, which he'd always seemed to welcome, appeared to cause him pain now.

It was like he couldn't stand me to touch him with the hands that had maimed him.

I used to look at my hands and hate them too. I wished I could have cut them off instead of cutting off Blair's legs. I wished I could trade them, give them up, if only he could be whole again. I wanted rid of them.

I used to fantasize about sticking them into a tub of lye or acid. Used to have dreams where I had them hacked off in payment. Shouldn't these things be fair after all -- an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a leg?

Once I walked into the lab and saw Serena working with a sinkful of caustic chemicals. It was so hard to resist the urge to stick my hands in it I had to actually leave the room. I thought I was losing my mind.

Stupid, I know. It's not like my hands acted of their own volition, without my control. Not like they did the deed all by themselves without a tool. But that's how I felt right after the accident anyway. Not just right after; for months. Maybe I did lose my mind for a little while there.

God, it hurt. It hurt so bad to see Blair in the hospital, to see how he was suffering, to know it was my fault. He would rather have died; he told me so often enough. I let him yell at me all he wanted to. I was in pain, but his pain dwarfed mine. His suffering outstripped anything I could imagine.

My senses were all over the map but I tried to hide that from him so he didn't have to worry about me. After he got out of the hospital though, the spikes and the periods when certain senses didn't operate at all stopped and I was left the way I am now. No special senses. I'm not a freak any more. I'm just an ordinary man. Guess that's what was taken from me to make up for taking Blair's legs and if that's so then I'm okay with that. It's a fair trade, except for the fact that he thinks I don't need him any more.

But I do need him. More than he knows. More than I ever knew. I thought I knew before he left but this morning proves to me I need him even more. Even if he hates me, even if he barely speaks, I need him. I need to see him, to know he's safe, close by me. That he's alive. That's why I did it, after all. I didn't do it to cause him pain or anguish. I didn't do it to go against his wishes. He told me to leave, up on the mountain as the water was rising. He'd drown if I couldn't get him out from under the truck and we both knew it. He wanted me to let him go.

I've had to leave men before, had to accept I couldn't save every one. I left six men in jungle graves once and that wasn't the first time. Six men, good men, good friends I couldn't save.

But this wasn't just anyone, not just any friend.

This was Blair.

He taught me that being a Sentinel was genetic. It's a Sentinel's job to protect his tribe. Protecting the guide is the same thing or more, a genetic imperative. I couldn't give up, couldn't leave him. I could not let him die. I had to do whatever it took to save his life, even if it meant hurting him.

But I can't help feeling that to save his life, I ruined it.

I turn off the cold water and dry my hands on my pants, realizing I'm still dressed in yesterday's clothes. I should shower, get cleaned up.

Showering wasn't easy for Blair after the accident.

I head for the bathroom, trying to blot out thoughts of those days but it's impossible. I can see the stool he used in the shower, the grab bar I installed. I used to help him get from his chair to the stool, used to help him bathe when he was weak from pain and heartache. My heart ached too, seeing him like that, the way I hurt him.

I could lift him so easily.

I tried so hard to be gentle, to cause him no further pain. His eyes, when he could look at me, beseeched me. 'It hurts, Jim. Please don't hurt me. Don't let me fall.'

"I've got you, Chief," I'd say. In the early days, I'd help him wash, rub his back and shoulders, try to ease the tension in his muscles. Gradually, he'd relax. It felt good to know I was helping him, even a little.

I wanted so badly to hold him. My arms ached with the need, with the love I had for him, with the sorrow. And I knew he needed to be held. The old Blair would have let me, would have accepted what comfort I could offer, might even make a joke about hoping I wouldn't see him as a wimp for accepting it.

But this was the new Blair, the changed Blair, the Blair I made. He'd let me help, but only up to a point. Then he'd say thanks in a way that told me it was time to stop touching him, to keep my distance.

At first, I thought things would get better as he adjusted. He needed his space, needed to know he could be independent. He was young and strong and healthy. I kept waiting for him to bounce back. He wouldn't let this change him, wouldn't let a disability keep him from feeling like a whole man.

But that never happened.

The accident plunged Blair into a depression he's never emerged from. He lost his legs, but he also lost his spirit.

He wouldn't take the antidepressants the doctors prescribed, claiming to prefer natural remedies. But he didn't take those either. He went to physical therapy, did the minimum, but didn't push himself. He said the pain was too great.

He has phantom pain. The doctors told me it can last for years in some patients. The missing limbs hurt as though they're still there. It's real and I know it's as bad for Blair as the injuries themselves. When you hurt all the time, it's hard not to be depressed.

We underwent a weird role reversal. He became taciturn and argumentative. I became patient, understanding of his moods. I'd've waited forever for him to get better. I even tried talking to him, hoping to get his feelings out in the open, to help him work through them.

But that had changed too. Where he used to talk, now he was silent. I was the one who used to hold everything inside. He taught me not to do that, to open up to him when I hadn't been able to open up to anyone else. I wish I knew how he'd managed to teach me that, so I could teach it to him now.

Up on the mountain, when he told me to leave him, he'd spoken words I'd wanted to hear forever from him. 'Jim, I love you, man....'

I told him I loved him too.

And it hadn't been hard to say it at all.

I felt like a miracle had just happened. I'd wanted to hear him say those words to me, the words I couldn't get out on my own, the words I was too scared or too repressed to let myself think, even after all we'd been through up until then.

But he said them, finally, and my heart filled up, so full I thought anything was possible. I thought we'd be saying them every day for the rest of our lives.

But then the water washed over him and he was going to drown and I'd never be able to love him, to show him...

I remember going under, moving close, sharing my breath with him. He looked so surprised when I did that. The memory can almost make me smile.

I'd wanted our first kiss to be more than buddy breathing, but I'd been too hung up in my own fears to do it before then. I thought I'd be able to kiss him for real when I got him out of there.

The water was rising. It was cold and relentless. It was demanding, unforgiving. It was going to steal him from me unless I fought it with everything I had.

With every instinct I have, I fought it. I looked into his eyes, knowing he probably couldn't see mine in the dark, muddy water. His eyes said he knew he was dying, but I refused to allow it.

I fought my way up to the truck. I gasped for air and grabbed at the twisted metal of the wreckage. A long piece came off in my hands, so sharp it sliced my fingers.

Before I could think about it, I was under again. No time to tell him. No time to warn him. No way to prepare him for the pain. He was trapped face down, on his belly. He couldn't even see what I was about to do.

I performed a field amputation once but the man died. I didn't intend that to happen this time.

I gritted my teeth, felt the broken bones of his thighs. I'd checked him right after the accident and knew his legs were crushed pretty badly. Even if I could have gotten the truck off him, the doctors might not have been able to save his legs.

I gripped my make-shift scalpel, my hideous weapon that would save his life, and wielded it, bringing it down on his wounded legs, working frantically to free him once and for all.


The screams were so deafening they blocked out everything else. They were so terrifyingly guttural, so ear-splittingly pain filled, I could almost see them.

Red, the screams were red. The water was red. The world was red with his screams and his blood and his agony.

My hands were red with his blood. The rain couldn't wash it away, couldn't get the stains out of my clothes.

The red screams pushed me into a bizarre kind of zone-out, leaving me nearly catatonic, acting on instinct alone. I don't remember getting him out of the river, somehow applying turniquets, getting back up to the road, getting into the car of the hapless stranger who by some miracle was driving by when I emerged with my bleeding burden. I don't remember getting into the car, screaming for the driver to get us to a hospital. I don't remember screaming at all.

I open my eyes and the world comes slowly back into focus. I'm standing under the spray of the shower, not in the rain on the mountain. I'm not holding Blair, hemorrhaging, mutilated, in my arms. I must have been screaming, though, like I was that day. My throat aches with my screams. I'm shivering hard. The water's turned cold.

Feeling ridiculous, I get the faucets turned off, and practically stumble out of the shower. I pass a towel over my dripping body, barely feeling it, numb from the chilled water. I must be losing it if I'm having flashbacks.

I need to get warm.

I was so cold, waiting at the hospital in my wet, bloodied clothes. Even when I finally changed into the dry ones Simon brought me, I couldn't shake the chill. And when Blair woke up hours later, after the doctors had tidied up my terrible operation and repaired the internal damage he'd suffered in the accident, I went cold all over again when I heard him start to scream.

Shaking, I find myself in his room again. I leave my damp towel on the desk chair and climb under the covers, grateful for the pile of them he always uses. The heavy quilted comforter, two thermal blankets underneath and flannel sheets will get me dry and warm. I pull his pillow to my chest and curl around it, wishing it was his body I am wrapped around.

The realization of how impossible that fantasy is nearly makes me sob again. Exhausted by the emotional storm I'm living, I sink into sleep or perhaps that strange, zoned-out catatonia, half flashback, half psychotic fugue...I really am losing my mind...

I'm back in the hospital corridor with Simon, barely able to look him in the eye, knowing I need to call Naomi, to tell her what's happened to her son when the screams begin again.

I'm moving toward them, throwing off Simon's anxious hand, needing to get to him before the nurses, before anyone else says a word.

I need to explain to him, to offer my confession, to beg his forgiveness. He's half sitting up in the hospital bed, his hair wild, his eyes horrified. He's looking down at himself, at his body concealed by the blankets.

At what's left of his body.

The blankets can't conceal what isn't there anymore.

After a moment of terrified hesitation, I launch myself toward him, wanting to hold him, to heal him, to ease his fear and confusion.

I'm mumbling empty words of solace, of admission, of contrition. In his shock and distress, he can't even hear me or comprehend.

"Jim? What did they do to me?"

"It was the only thing I could do, Blair. You were drowning. You'll be all right. You're going to make it. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

"You're sorry? Why? What -- ? Oh God, no... don't say that... don't tell me..."

I'm clutching his arms, peering into his face. The answer is written all over mine.

We're frozen there for an instant. He knows it was me. The understanding dawns in his hollow eyes, censure and betrayal darkening blue to almost black.

In my shame, I can't meet his eyes. I collapse on his bed, my head on his chest, my eyes squeezed shut against his pain and my own.

The silence is deafening. Worse than the screams. I'm holding him, trying with every fiber of my being to convey regret and comfort, but it's as if he's not there, can't respond, can't feel me. Doesn't want me.

I wait for his arms to wrap around me. For his fingers to brush across my hair. For his voice to tell me he understands.

That never happens.

I shouldn't be surprised. What did I expect? For him to wake up and say, "Thank you for cutting off my legs, Jim."?

I keep holding him, through the earthquake I can feel rocking my body, the bed, the universe. The only thing that's still is him. He's a statue, submitting to my embrace but not present emotionally.

"I'm so sorry," I whisper once more. The words are inadequate, but all I have. It will take time, I tell myself. "You were going to die."

"I was ready to die." The hollow words stop the earthquake, stop my heart, stop everything.

Cautiously, I look up, loose my frantic hold on him. "Don't say that. Please?" I run anxious fingers over his cheeks, his lips. "I couldn't let you die."

He just looks at me. A part of him is dead, I realize. Something in his irrepressible soul died up on that mountain, was left up there with his ruined legs.

Coward that I am, I close my eyes against the recrimination in his gaze. But instead of blackness, I'm faced with an image of my desperate surgery, flesh rended from bone, bones severed, blood like a river, him in my arms. I kick against the riverbed, break through the surface, our screams decanting into the raging wind and uncaring night. This is the nightmare I'll relive for the rest of my days.

But for Blair, it's no nightmare. It's real. He woke up to find half his body missing. He's hurt and he's scared and nothing I do or say is going to make this easier for him. I'd walk through fire for him and he'd've done the same for me. But now he can't walk at all. And that's my fault.

I tried to get the truck off him. All my strength, even fed with the adrenaline of panic, wasn't enough. I tried to dig him out from under. But the muddy riverbed filled itself in as fast as I could dig it away. I tried damming the water, but that only bought him a few minutes.

"I couldn't let you die." I hear my own voice, a rasp of denial. He has to understand. He told me he loves me. I said I love him.

Say it again, I tell myself. Say it now.

I force my eyes open, the words on the tip of my tongue.

His eyes stop them.

I've never seen such emptiness.

I left more than his legs up on that mountain. I cut out his soul, his heart. This is the man who saved my sanity. Who backed me up. Who was my partner. My friend.

This is the man who told the world he was a fraud for me.

This is the man who picked himself up after that and made the best of his life. He chose to stay with me, be a cop for me. This is the man who loved me even if I could never tell him I loved him.

I left more than his legs up on that mountain.

His eyes say it all. If you loved me, you'd have left me.

I love you. And I couldn't leave you. Are the words in my eyes, I wonder? Can he possibly understand?

But his eyes don't hold love now. That's gone, left on the mountain. Sacrificed to save his life.

I made my choice, did what I had to do. I'll live with the consequences.

I hear the door to his room open behind me. Footsteps and voices. I let him go, move aside. I hesitate at the foot of his bed.

The doctor is speaking to him. The nurse is checking his IV.

They'll explain, tell him his legs couldn't have been saved anyway. They'll ease his pain, answer his questions. He'll realize living is better than dying.

God, please let him realize that...

His eyes meet mine over the doctor's head and I know he wants me to leave the room.

I'll give you time, I tell him with my eyes.

It doesn't look like he can hear my unspoken words. Or he doesn't want to. Either way, the result is the same.

I leave the room, heartbroken for him, for me, for the life we had and the hope we lost, for the words we said that I already know will never be uttered again.

The world goes dark, a dungeon I deserve, and as I sink deeper into its prison, I promise myself that if I ever have the chance again, I'll say those words to him. Even if he can't say them back, I'll tell him I love him.

I emerge into the jungle. It's cool here, with the deep, forgiving blue of jungle night in my dreams. I'm dressed like a Sentinel and in this dream, I possess all my senses. The night air is sweet and fragrant, the breeze-blown leaves rustle softly. I can see forever, hear everything.

Deep in the forest, there is a clearing, a lake. I can see it miles ahead of me. In the moonlight, a man stands by the water. He sheds his clothes, revealing a body like a young god, lean and perfect, strong of chest and thigh, silver in the moonlight.

I begin moving, Sentinel silent, needing to reach him yet certain he'll run away if he senses my approach. As I move, he walks into the lake, ripples surrounding his steps, water lapping greedily at his gleaming skin. My heart is pounding, my mouth watering.

As I reach his clearing, he plunges into the water, cutting its surface with perfect strokes and kicks. I hide in the trees, watching him splash playfully, his hair long and free, curls springing up wildly despite the water's attempt to pull them straight. I long to run my fingers through them.

He tires of swimming, slowly paddling back toward the shore. He stands up, knee deep, droplets like diamonds scattered in the hair of his chest. He scans the clearing, eyes brilliant and knowing. He owns the lake and all he surveys. I want him to see me. To own me, too.

I step forward, revealing my presence. He smiles, unsurprised, unafraid. He walks out of the water. My eyes devour his beauty, looking with longing at the diamond drops left in the hair at his groin and down his thighs.

He holds out one hand to me and that is all the invitation I need. I move near and we stand eye to eye. He knows who I am, what I am. His understanding welcomes me and I sink gratefully to my knees before him, ready to worship, to idolize.

He touches my head, his fingers more gentle and knowing than anything I've ever felt. He slips free my bandanna, my quiver and bow, and they drop forgotten to the ground. His fingers touch my bare shoulders, healing my loneliness. I know without a single word exchanged that he is the mirror of my soul, the answer to all my questions, my mate.

He is my shaman, my guide, my god.

I lean forward, diffident but eager, and his smile encourages. I lick at the droplets of water sparkling across his chest, my tongue delicate, exploring. The exotic textures of soft hair and peaked nipples over lean muscle entice me, excite me, and I tongue my way down the concave expanse of his belly, hands shamelessly gripping his hips.

I drop lower, boldly open my lips for him. He accepts my mouth, sighing his pleasure, thrusting toward me as if in homecoming. I feel his fingers tighten on my shoulders, taste his fluid like nectar on my tongue. He smells of Peruvian balsam, rain water and an earthy musk that seduces my senses. I am totally open to him, willing to give all of myself, my only pleasure his response. My mouth relishes his hardness, eager and hungry to love in a fashion I never knew until now. My hands stroke up and down his sturdy thighs, my neck bends low as my tongue finds hidden recesses where his ecstasy lives. His sighs, his soft cries of enjoyment, teach me what I need to know. I could kneel here before him forever, praying to him in this way.

But there is more that he needs. He tugs at my body, stroking away my confusion, slipping off my loincloth, easing me down to a blanket of moss. He cools my heat with soothing water, massaging my back and my hips with his comforting hands. His fingers touch me as no one else could, tell me without words that I am, to him, as wonderful as he is to me. Now his lips replace his fingers, nibbling down my back, waking deeply hidden Sentinel nerve endings, arousing my animal passion, filling my mind and body with a need I've never known. His tongue knows my secrets, licks me wet with burning desire, his fingers ready me, and only when my body is absolutely begging for him does he fill me.

I shout my ecstasy to the sky and hear his answering cheer. He is the victorious warrior, I the plundered spoil of war. He is the hungry god made mortal, I am the fruit of his field, ripe for his taking. He rides me endlessly and I arch up into his thrusts, born to love him like this, realizing only now how incomplete a man I was before he was inside me this way. His hands stroke everywhere, over my hips, down my sides, underneath where he finds me hard and yearning for his touch.

He pauses as if in thought, then withdraws from my body, wringing a cry of disappointment from my throat. He turns me carefully, as though I could break, then straddles me, his eyes looking into mine so deep I know he sees my soul. I can hide nothing from him, not my imperfections nor my sins, not my weaknesses nor my longings, but his eyes say I am beautiful all the same. He runs a sensuous hand over my features, delicately skimming my lips. My tongue chases his fingertips, sucking them in, making them wet and slippery, watching as his eyes close in surprised pleasure at my wanton ways.

He opens his eyes so his gaze can lock with mine and withdraws his dripping fingers, reaching under me to slide them into my aching channel, giving me sweet suggestions of fulfillment. His hardness replaces his fingers and I yell my thanksgiving, relishing his dominion over my body and spirit. His fingers wrap around me, spawning unimagined delight, pulling me with him to the stars. I look up at him, watch the ripple and play of his muscles, his chest heaving in unrestrained power, his thighs bunching and pistoning, his hips flexing and sleek with every forceful intrusion of his flesh into mine. I wrap my own legs around his waist, trap him to me, begging for more, wanting everything from him, wanting to give him all of myself.

He freezes above me, his eyes open and clear and full of love. I long to feel his seed pumping into me, my body is already singing its release, spilling my fluids over his pumping hand. He is there now, with me, I can see his climax dawning, the perfect bliss I've given him unmasking him to me. I know him, everything about him, and there is nothing to fear for he knows me, always has and always will.


I cry out his name, a prayer on my lips, a resolution to my life's puzzle. A horrid, metallic sound splits the air, a rattling chain, a scuffing thud, a rusty scrape. A scream cuts off before it can truly begin.

I open my eyes, find myself no longer naked, the possession of my forest god, the well-loved Sentinel of a young and virile guide. I'm a hunter again, dressed in camouflage and carrying a heavy gun, my sweat stinking in the freshness of the pine forest. I squint into the bushes where I heard the sound. I can hear something whimpering, just up ahead.

I move in stealthily, eyes penetrating the forest gloom. There, I can see the animal. It's on its side, struggling to move but unable to get up. I step closer. It's a wolf, its gray coat picking up rays of broken sunlight filtering through the trees. It yelps in pain and its eyes meet mine.

I can see what happened now and my heart twists in misery. The wolf has been caught in an ancient hunter's trap. Its heavy, rusted edges have crushed his rear legs. I can see blood. I know the animal's once nimble legs are broken beyond repair. He looks at me, begging me for mercy.

I raise my gun, take careful aim. Through the cross hairs of my weapon, I can see the wolf's eyes, pleading for release.

My hands start shaking, my vision blurs. I hear another cry of pain, almost human in its intensity and feeling. My finger trembles on the trigger. All I can do for the wolf is give him what he needs.

The world darkens, the sunlight fades and I'm surrounded by an unreal blue-suffused darkness. I lower the rifle, rub at my streaming eyes, then sight through it once again.

As I watch in horror, the wolf's shape changes, morphing into human form, recalling a memory I haven't thought about in years.

Blair is on the ground, naked and shivering, his eyes begging me for help I cannot give him.

His legs are crushed and broken by a hunter's metal trap. And he wants me to shoot.

I open my eyes and find myself sitting up in Blair's bed, screaming. I'm soaked with sweat, shaking like a flag in a hurricane. I try to get a grip on reality and only gradually realize the phone is ringing.

I stagger from the room, pick it up from the table and sink weakly into a chair as I thumb it on.



My world rights itself for an instant in the music of his voice. I swallow hard and manage to answer.

"Blair... " His name is the only word my heart can form.

I hear a sigh through our connection and I grip the phone in sweat-slick hands, unwilling to miss a single nuance. "You know," he says conversationally, "I don't think you've called me 'Sandburg' once since the accident."

"Really?" My voice sounds like a steak knife running over a screen door. I try clearing my throat, somehow loathe to let him know where I was emotionally before his call came. "I was asleep. Sorry, I guess I'm a little groggy right now." I lurch to my feet and find a glass in the drainer. I run some water and fill it, gulp it down to wet my dried-out throat. Finished drinking, I feel a bit more human. "Does that bother you?" I find myself asking, referring to his opening statement. Does it feel too intimate when I call you Blair now? Do you need the distance implied when I use your last name?

"No," he says and his voice has dropped to a whisper, warming perceptibly. "It doesn't bother me."

I close my eyes, feeling like he's touched me. My skin prickles with the sensation of his voice so close and yet so far away. "Where are you?" I ask the question that's been gnawing at me.

"I'm in Baltimore, Maryland." That sounds like the other side of the world to me. "I got a job teaching Beginning Anthropology at the city's university." He pauses. "I'm in a little apartment they found for me close to the building where my classes will be. I think I'm going to like it, Jim."

There is a sense of eagerness in his voice that I haven't heard in months. As much as it hurts that he never sounded that way before he left, I'm glad to hear it.

"You're a born teacher. You'll do fine." I mean it sincerely. "I think going back to teaching is a wonderful idea. I just," I elaborate, unable to help myself, "wish you'd've decided to do it here."

His silence seems long but it's probably only a few seconds. "I couldn't go back to Rainier, Jim. You know that. And every other school in the state would have been the same. I checked for jobs on the internet. Surprise, University of Baltimore wanted me. Guess they've either got short memories here or they're desperate for teachers for their undergraduate program."

I ignore that statement. "You could have told me. I would have..."

"What? Helped me pack? Or would you have tried to convince me not to go?" His voice is gentle, his questions realistic. I hang my head. "I'm sorry I had to leave you a note. I know it must have upset you to come home and find me gone. But I had to do it that way, Jim. You know that, don't you?"

I want to speak but there seems to be a band around my throat, tightening, cutting off my oxygen.

"Are you okay, Jim?" His solicitude nearly breaks me in two.

I rub at my neck, fighting for air. "I'll be fine," I respond, unable to lie completely. I'm not fine now and don't really know if I will be. I can't imagine life without him. But then, he knows that already, doesn't he? He's seen just what I'd do to keep him alive and with me.

"Jim?" His voice softens even more, playing over my strung out nerves like they were a panther's arched back and static filled coat. I want the touch at the same time I fear it. "I need to tell you something. Okay?"

You don't need my permission, I want to snap, unable to stand the tension any longer. "Sure," I answer, my tone the polar opposite of my thoughts.

Blair pauses and I hear him draw a deep breath. I picture him clutching the phone to his ear the same way I am, three thousand miles away.

"I don't hate you, Jim," he whispers as though it is a secret.

"What?" I gasp. This time my voice breaks but I don't care.

"I. Don't. Hate you." He lets the words hang so I can comprehend them.

They say so much. And still so little.

"Blair..." I begin tentatively, not knowing where to go from here.

"I just don't like myself very much right now," he continues as if unaware of my hesitation. "It wasn't good, me being around you like this."

"You didn't have to go." I'm ready to beg him, to sob for him.

"Yes, I did." He sighs deeply, his breath a hiss, and I fear he is in physical pain again, knowing how his missing legs torment him with the burning tingle of peripheral neuropathy when he's upset. After a moment, he continues, his voice steady. "I think this is my last chance," he tells me. "If I'm going to make it, I mean."

I know now what he is saying. I don't like it, but I know.

"You can come home any time you want to," I offer like a prayer. "You can call me if you need to talk."

"I know," he answers, and I don't want to ask whether he's responding to my last statement or my first.

"Aren't there some things here you're going to need?" I ask, being practical my only hope of wading through these emotional waters. "You left a lot here." "I know. I flew, so I couldn't carry too much."

"Do you want me to ship some things to you?" I'll do anything for you, I tell myself, except send everything that's here. If I do that, you'll never need me again.

He pauses and I gather he's thinking. "You know, maybe you could take some time off -- if it wouldn't be too much trouble -- and drive out. You know, bring the stuff to me and kinda...visit."

"Uh..." I'm overwhelmed. Shocked. His request is like a lifeline to me. "Sure. Simon owes me some time off. When...?"

"Let's wait till the weather clears up," he says quickly. "You shouldn't drive in the middle of winter."

"It's not..." I look out the windows, hating the gray January light.

"Give me a few weeks to get settled. I'm fine with what I've got for now. The place is furnished. I need... I need to get used to things first."

Understanding, I agree. "Okay. Let me know when and send me a list."

"You sure it won't be too much trouble?" He sounds uncertain.

"Blair... "

"There you go again, not calling me Sandburg." There's a tenderness in his voice.


"That's better." And now there is almost a chuckle in his tone.

"It won't be too much trouble." I make it a promise. Anything, I think, as long as I know you don't hate me.

"Okay." He clears his throat. "I should go. I've got lessons to plan and stuff." "Can you give me your number?" I ask hopefully.

He hesitates. "Let me call you, okay?" There's no malice in his tone but I back off anyway. "I mean, I know you could probably find me here if you want to. But I... like I said, I need to do some stuff on my own right now."

"I know," I tell him, wanting my words to be a benediction for him. "You can do it, Blair."

"Thanks, man." He sounds relieved. "I'll call you soon, okay?"

"Whenever you want," I assure him, already feeling empty.

"Take care, Jim."

"You too."

The connection ends and I'm holding a silent phone, sitting naked and chilled in my silent loft. He brought chaos and sunshine to this place when he came five years ago. He left it dark and hollow when he went away yesterday. I wanted to erase the last year with its pain and its silence, but I hadn't wanted him to leave. I'd been afraid I'd never hear from him again.

Now he'd called, throwing out hope to me like a windfall. Hope that I might get the chance to tell him how I feel. Hope that he will someday get better, too. He sounded, not like the old Blair, but not the way he'd been this last year either. He sounded like he was going to try. Like he was going to try to live. I treasured what he'd said, trying to get through my head that he meant just that and nothing more.

He didn't say he didn't blame me. He didn't say he wasn't still sorry I did it. He didn't say he loved me.

He said he didn't hate me.

I think I might be able to live on that, for a little while at least.

End Phantom Pain 2 -- Jim by April Valentine:

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