by Annabelle Leigh
It was a sort of music. His music. Like any theme song, it had meaning. It told a story, his story, the life and times of Blair Sandburg. If he concentrated hard enough, Jim could list its various components, the individual notes that formed the song. There was the percussive tapping of the computer keys as he typed away late into the night, setting the rhythm, the foundation for the song. Then there was the soft whooshing of pages as he read, like woodwinds, and the scratching of his pen, a string section, and the lyrical rise and fall of Blair's voice, recounting some adventure with a faraway tribe, forming the melody. Any part of the song might easily have sounded stray, incidental. But taken as a whole, it became a symphony, something complete, something purposeful.
Quite simply, it became a life.
Jim never realized that until the music was gone. After all, it was the kind of thing a person could easily take for granted, such a baseline part of daily existence. He had never stopped to listen to the song, had never consciously thought about it, really only heard it with part of himself. But still, it had always been there, day in and day out, hour upon hour. And the part of him that was attuned to it, though quiet and subterranean, was an important part, the place in him where he stood on solid ground, a wellspring of certainty, of things he could rely on, a sanctuary, where he returned again and again to renew his sense of self, to reestablish his faith in life. Now this place was disrupted and cloudy, uncertain, the ground shaky, his faith damaged.
Once Jim realized that Blair's music was gone, all his senses leaped into high gear, looking for other differences, more losses. Of course, he found them. In the evenings, Blair would come home from the firing range, instead of the classroom or the library. Gone was the bouquet of aged paper and chalk dust, ink and stale coffee that had always surrounded him. In its place now was gun oil and determination. And that made Jim unbearably sad, especially the determination part. It wasn't like Blair hadn't always been tenacious, to the point of stubbornness even. It was a hallmark of his personality. But in the past, it had come naturally, without effort. The scent he picked up these days was Blair trying too hard to make himself do something that just wasn't in him, to pick up a gun, to shoot it, to take that mantle of responsibility onto his shoulders, life and death, maybe, someday.
Yes, Blair had definitely been changed. And it was his life with Jim that had changed him. And Jim regretted that with all the passion he was capable of, even if it was too late now to do a damned thing about it.
He took a beer out of the refrigerator, twisted off the cap and headed toward the living room. He hesitated as he passed Blair's room, detoured briefly, to stand for a few minutes at the door and stare inside.
It was neat. Blair's room. Neat. Uncluttered. Vacuumed. No clothes abandoned on the floor. No books taking over the bed. Everything was carefully put away, in drawers, on the shelves. It had become apparent to Jim that what he'd always thought of as Sandburg's slovenliness was actually just Blair being busy, an endless stream of papers to grade and tests to write, all nighters spent bent over the computer, working on chapters of his dissertation, never enough time. Now, there was nothing but time. And Blair's roomthe entire loft actuallyhad never been cleaner.
A neat Blair. It occurred to Jim that you really should be careful what you wish for.
He backed out of the doorway and returned the beer to the refrigerator, no longer in the mood for it. He wandered over to the terrace doors, to stare out over the city. He could see a group of children playing on the swings in the park up the street, men working down on the docks, the vivid colors of produce at the farmer's market in the downtown square. He could hear the dull roar of traffic, the clanging of metal against metal coming from the construction site across the harbor, the underlying lub-dub of the water beating against the shore. He closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the cool glass. What good does it do a man to have ears that will hear for a thousand miles, if he cannot listen to the whispers of his own heart? He suddenly wished he'd listened to Blair more closely, more consciously. Maybe if he had, he would be able to summon up the sound of his Guide's voice at will, play it in his head, the way it had been before, like a keepsake.
Now when he tried, all he could hear was Blair at the press conference, the way his voice had cracked. My thesis, The Sentinel, is a fraud. He'd never heard Blair sound like that, except perhaps about Maya. And even that was different. It had been the sorrow of youth, the first loss, the pain as much a matter of surprise and disappointment as anything else. But Blair's sadness when he renounced his work was a seasoned grief, the product of experience, from a man who had seen the harsh things in life, who had suffered many losses, who could no longer be surprised.
When Jim had first met him, Blair had been so glib and enthusiastic and gravity-free, almost, that Jim had wondered if anything would ever stick to him. And now here was this profound, resonating sorrow, and Jim dearly wished that he'd never found the answer to his own question.
He started a little as he heard the key in the lock. He'd been so lost in his thoughts that he'd missed the sound of his partner coming up in the elevator. The door opened, and Blair walked into the loft, carrying bags of groceries. Jim glanced over his shoulder at his partner. Blair's hair was down, the curls flying away from his face. He shifted the bags in his arms as he closed the door behind him.
"Hey, man," Blair said.
Jim ran his senses over himsame heart beat, same scent, same everythingbut there was still something missing, something different. It was something subtle and elemental, the sense of Blair's usual energy, diminished now, the urgent purposefulness replaced by something heavy, a sense of waiting around, time hanging on him, at loose ends, nowhere to go, nothing in particular to do.
"I picked up some more of that flavored coffee you like," Blair called to him, starting to put the food away.
"I was thinking of making chili for dinner. That sound good?"
Jim turned back to the view, but his attention remained on Blair. He could hear his partner unloading the bags, stacking cans in the cupboard, opening and closing the refrigerator door. He could feel the gentle shifts in the air currents as Blair moved around the kitchen. He could hear the soft intake and exhale of his breath. Even with his back turned, he could feel the laser points of Blair's eyes boring into his back and the weight of Blair's consideration, trying to figure out his weird behavior. He knew even before his partner took the first step that he would come to join him by the windows.
"Something interesting going on out there?" Blair asked, his voice close now, right beside Jim.
He shook his head, turning to face Blair, although not quite able to look him in the eye. "No. Just thinking. You know."
"Mmm. You've been doing a lot of that lately."
"I've had some stuff on my mind."
"Is that why you've barely said a dozen words to me in days now?"
Jim felt a pang of guilt. "I wasn't ignoring you."
Blair smiled gently. "I didn't really think you were. Figured you were just preoccupied. Want to share?"
"It's nothing, Blair," he denied, partly out of habit, partly out of fear. He kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, the moment when Blair would finally admit that it hadn't been worth it, that he blamed Jim for causing him to lose everything that had ever meant anything to him.
"We both know it's not nothing."
Jim sighed. "I don't want to talk about it."
"See? I knew it wasn't nothing. It's never nothing when you don't want to talk about it. Are you mad at me?"
"God, no. Of course not."
"I just wondered. I mean, you seem to go out of your way to avoid me. Hell, you'll barely even look at me. Like now, for instance."
Jim stared down at the rug, unable to help it. "I'm sorry," he said, in a small voice, ashamed all over again.
"Don't be sorry. Explain."
"I guess I just don't...I'm not sure how to face you, Blair."
"I never meant it to be this way."
"Oh," Blair said, his voice filled with new understanding. "I know that, Jim. It's not your fault."
"But you did it for me. And you lost everything."
Blair smiled, a little sadly. "Nothing lasts forever, man."
Jim shook his head. "Don't say that."
"It's just the way life is."
"But everything's changed. You've changed. I never wanted you to change."
Blair frowned. "Changed how?"
"Everything," Jim said, frustrated, scared. "You don't even make the same sounds anymore. All the computer key clicking and page turning and pen scratching, all the usual Blair noise, it's just gone. Poof! That's the end of it. And that's just sound. It's all different, everything I'm so used to about you. And I hate that. I can't even begin to express how much I hate it."
Maybe Blair would have laughed, even teased his partner about this unexpected sentimentality, the depth of his attachment to the trivia of Blair's daily life, if the circumstances had been different, if Jim's voice hadn't been raw and filled with grief.
"Nobody ever stays the same, Jim. It just doesn't work that way."
"I don't accept that."
"But you have to."
Jim looked out over the city. "You deserved better."
"I appreciate your saying that. But this was the way it was meant to be. Nothing in this universe happens randomly. That's why some things end. So other things can begin. Good-bye Dr. Sandburg. Hello Detective Sandburg. Unless, of course, you don't really want me to be your permanent partner. Is that what this is all about?"
"You know it's not," Jim said, pausing a moment to collect his thoughts. "When I was angry that my secret was out, I just wanted you to fix it somehow. But then when you did, I realized it was the last thing I wanted. I didn't understand how much it would take away from you. I wasn't prepared for that."
"I was. Or at least, I should have been."
"You can't mean that, Chief."
"But I do, Jim. The handwriting has been on the wall for such a long time now, all the way back to Lee Brackett. I even saw it, I think, in some walled-up part of my brain. I just didn't let myself consider what it would mean for me, for my future."
"Maybe you should have. Maybe things would have been different if you had."
Blair shook his head. "Even if my foresight had been perfect, I would have made all the same choices. It would have ended just the same way."
"Then why continue? Why not bail two and a half years ago when you first realized you were never going to get what you wanted out of this?"
"Who says I haven't gotten exactly what I wanted?"
"It was always supposed to be about the dissertation. That was the deal."
Blair sighed. "Maybe that was the deal three years ago. But we both know it hasn't been the point for a long time now. I told you that. Repeatedly. You just never would let yourself believe it."
"So what then? I still don't understand. Why did you keep going? Why aren't you devastated by what's happened? Hell, it was your degree, not mine, and I can't think about your standing up there at that press conference, calling all your hard work a lie, giving up your whole, entire, damned life without feeling sick at heart."
"I never said it was easy. In fact, it was the hardest fucking thing I've ever had to do. Do you know how it felt to stand there with the cameras rolling, knowing that millions of people were watching, and to have to say that you don't exist, that you're not the miracle you are? Do you know how much I hated myself for sounding like your damned father, denying you, denying who and what you really are?"
"You're not like my father," Jim protested quietly. "You really did do it to protect me. You sacrificed for me."
Blair shook his head. "No, if I sacrificed anything, I did it for us."
"I don't understand, Chief. What's in it for you?"
"Everything. Don't you see that, Jim? It's what I've been trying to tell you. Do you know how I figured out that this was the right thing to do? It was when I understood that I don't want to study you, don't want to analyze the Sentinel phenomenon. I haven't wanted that in forever. Maybe I never did. From the very beginning, I didn't stay on the sidelines, watching, the way I was supposed to, the way any good anthropologist would have. I threw myself right into the middle of it. I went native in the most spectacular way, pretty much from day one. Because my dream about Sentinels was never to stand by and catalog it, but to be part of it."
"As a Shaman?"
Blair nodded. "And your Guide."
"And my partner?"
Blair's mouth quirked into a little smile. "As long as you'll have me."
"Always. You know that. And as my best friend, Chief?"
"Yes. Yes, Jim. Always. You know that."
There was still more. Jim also knew that. He could see it in the bright, opaque sparkle in his partner's eyes. But there was something aching and closed up in his throat, regret at what had been lost, an unbearable hope about what might yet be, and he couldn't form the words, couldn't ask the question.
Blair watched him, knowingly, his face practically shining, with something Jim had never seen before, not to this extent at least, only hints here and there. With just a little application of imagination, he could pretty well have guessed what it was. This was still Blair, after all, who didn't keep his mysteries, who allowed Jim to penetrate his secrets, to use his senses on him, to catalog and decipher him, to know him.
"See, man. I'm not really so changed. Those things that you've been missing, those details...they were only ever the surface of the story. Things like that never stay the same. They come and go all the time. That's life. But the heart of the matter, a person's essential self, that never changes. And that's also life."
Jim stared down at the floor, wanting to believe Blair, but not quite able to overrule the evidence of his senses.
Blair stretched out his arms to him. "Come over here and check it out for yourself."
"Just come here."
Blair said it in the Guide voice, and the Sentinel in Jim responded, covering the few feet of distance between them, closing the gaps, repairing the breach. Blair enfolded him in his arms and held on tight.
"What do you sense?" he asked his Sentinel.
"Uh...you, I guess."
Jim closed his eyes and concentrated. "Your scent."
"What do you smell?"
Jim breathed in deeply. "Shampoo. Sweat. Warmth."
"What else, Jim?"
Jim could feel his own face becoming hot, as he stuttered, "Uh...it's, well..."
"Just say it."
"Need. You smell like need. Like want."
"Is that any different?"
"No," he said softly, into his Guide's hair.
"What do you hear?"
"Your heart. Your breath. Your body."
"And is that any different?"
Jim held onto his Guide more tightly. "No."
"What do you feel?"
The Sentinel moved sensitive hands over his Guide's body, taking in the unique topography of bone and muscle and sinew.
"Your strength. Your heat. Your life."
And as Jim rested his cheek against the top of Blair's head, as he stroked his hands down his partner's back, as he noted the familiar and natural way Blair's body nestled against his, as he opened his senses to his Guide, allowing them to be filled and soothed and satisfied, he could feel something inside him reaching out to Blair, entangling itself in him, joining them, making them one.
"You feel the other thing, too?" Blair asked, as if he were inside Jim's head, living his thoughts.
"Yes. We belong together."
"And that's not different either."
For a moment, Jim lost himself in the intricate curves of their connection, tracing its Byzantine twists and turns, until finally he came face to face with what had always been there, at the heart of everything.
"You love me," he told Blair, his voice filled with wonder.
He could feel Blair's smile against his shoulder. "Only since forever."
"And I love you," Jim said, no less astonished, his voice raw with unexpected joy.
"Yes, you do."
"And that's why you did it."
Blair's arms tightened around Jim's neck, and his smile grew broader. "Finally, he gets it."
The musical part of Jim's brain began to compose a new song, a more complex orchestration, two voices now, two lives, an inseparable duet.
"You're a part of me," he said to Blair.
"We're a part of each other."
"That's what you were protecting."
"You. Me. Our life."
"And that's the one thing that will never change," Jim said, letting out his breath in relief. "Now I understand."
Back to the Library.