Blair wondered how many times in his life he'd complained about being cold. He estimated the number quite possibly in the millions. It made him laugh, a little bitterly. He'd never truly known before what it meant to be cold. He could see thatnow that he was a walking dictionary entry for the word, the cold a part of him, as real as his heart or bones or blood. Freezing. Icy. Wintry. Polar. These all described him. It was the kind of cold that came from within, that could not be warmed, that stubbornly resisted every hot shower, every cup of coffee, all the wool sweaters in the world.
It was the kind of cold that could kill.
He pulled his jacket closer around him. People stared at him as they passed. With all his layers, he looked so out of place. Everyone else was enjoying the balmy San Francisco afternoon, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, a few even sporting shorts. October was always warm here, something about the Bay Area's unique climatic configuration. Blair stopped for a moment and tilted his head back. The sun was so yellow and strong in the bright blue sky, but he couldn't feel it. The warmth wouldn't penetrate. He shivered and started walking again, picking up the pace, trying to thaw the icicles forming in his blood.
It had been almost two months since Jim last touched him, and he was like a drug addict without the drug, the horrible chill a form of withdrawal, every fiber of his being protesting the loss. You never really know what you have until you lose it. It seriously pissed him off that such a tired old cliche could be so heartbreakingly true. He had always enjoyed Jim's hands on him, from the very beginning, long before they'd become lovers; but it had taken this breach between them for him to fully realize what Jim's touching meant, how he'd soaked it in, letting it stoke something essential inside him, building up the fire of his life.
Two months. Two months was a hell of a long time when you were freezing to death. But in three days, that's exactly how long it would besixty-two days, 1,488 hours, 89,280 minutes, 5,356,800 secondssince they'd last touched, last slept in the same bed, last made love...well, sort of. And that was the problem. That's when it had all gone wrong, that night when the sex hadn't been love, when Jim hadn't been Jim. That was when the chill had first set in, the beginning of his own personal ice age.
It hadn't been love. That's what had really frightened him, more than any sense of danger or physical pain. It had never been that way between them before; no matter how turned on or desperate or primal they got, the love was always there, underlying the physical act, giving it depth and meaning, connecting their spirits as they joined their bodies. But not the last time. That night, there had been no fondness in Jim's eyes. There had been nothing in them at all really, just a terrible blankness, devoid of everything but the grim determination to complete the act. It hadn't even been lustful, just rough and mechanical, Jim's only objective seemingly to come in his ass.
It wasn't that Blair hadn't been willing; he loved the feeling of Jim inside him, craved it, granted his lover complete access to his body, happily so. At first, it had seemed like any other time they'd made love, which had been more and more frequently lately, his partner always so hungry for him, which was a huge turn on. It really had started out perfectly normally. Jim hadn't done anything barbaric; he hadn't dragged him by the hair up to bed or slammed into his unprepared body. No, he'd opened and lubed him as carefully as ever. It was only when Jim was buried deep inside him that he'd felt the change, sensed the loss of his Jim, understood that something had overtaken his lover.
His Jim would never have fucked him that way, so hard and methodically, without any concern for his pleasure, without so much as a glimmer of recognition or feeling. Not-Jim had reduced the sex act to its most biological componentsan erect cock thrusting in and out of a convenient hole. Not-Jim hadn't seemed to care who he was fucking. Not-Jim had made him feel indescribably dirty.
He hadn't felt frightened exactly. He had gone into a sort of shock instead, totally blindsided by his lover's bizarre behavior. This was Jim after all, the only man he'd ever given himself to, his Jim, who'd always been so meticulously careful with him, so very tender, so very much a Sentinel, watching over his Guide even when they were in bed together. He hadn't been able to take it in. His mind had balked at the impossible task of reconciling the not-Jim who could hurt him so callously with the man he knew so well, a man who would have sacrificed anything to protect him.
If Blair had ever had any doubts, he knew it hadn't been his Jim when his lover finally regained his senses. He could still picture the precise moment when Jim came to, the stunned expression, followed quickly by anguish, as Sentinel eyes took in the bruises on his hips, the tears on his face, his blood on them both. It was like watching his lover electrocuted as the jolt of realization hit him, that he was the one responsible for the damage.
Then Jim was gone again, zoned out, lost in darkness so deep and wide that his eyes went glassy, and Blair could actually feel his skin getting cooler. For one terrible moment, he'd truly feared the shock had killed him. The panic had grown as he struggled futilely to bring Jim out of it. He'd begged, shouted, commanded, cajoled, whispered words of love, anything and everything he could think of, all to no avail. He didn't know how long it had gone on, but eventually he'd become so tired that he'd collapsed onto Jim's chest, losing it completely.
It had taken a while for it to penetrate that Jim's heart rate had returned to normal, that his skin was once again warm to the touch. He hadn't fully realized Jim was back until he felt the large, familiar hand, still a little shaky, stroking his hair. Then he'd heard Jim mumbling beneath his breath. So sorry. Oh, God. Never again. Promise. Never gonna hurt you like that again, Chief.
Eventually, Jim had eased him off his chest and had gotten out of bed. Blair had expected him to head downstairs, to the bathroom, to the kitchen, something, but Jim had just stood there by the bed, saying nothing, staring down at him, intently, using his senses on him, as if trying to memorize him. That's when Blair's shivering had begun in earnest.
"How bad is it?" Jim had finally asked, his voice no more than a whisper.
"It only bled a little. I don't think it's a tear. If I'm careful the next couple of days, it should be fine."
"I'd like...if it's okay...could I take a look? I'd like to take care of it...you," Jim had said, hesitantly, unable to quite look him in the eye.
"Okay," he'd agreed.
Jim had headed for the stairs then, pausing a moment at the top of them to say, "I'm so sorry I hurt you, Blair. I swear to God that it will never happen again."
Jim had been as good as his word. Jim always was. He'd come back with the first aid kit and had sat down on the bed beside him, carefully, not wanting to alarm him or jar his injury. He'd used his Sentinel sight and his fingers, ever so gently, to make sure it was nothing more serious, to take care of it. Blair had begun to relax. His Jim was back, and he'd promised it wouldn't happen again.
He'd just never imagined it would mean...that had been the last time Jim touched him, even casually, even in passing, the change so abrupt and obvious that even the other detectives in Major Crimes remarked on it, wondering what had happened.
Blair still didn't know how to answer that question. He had no idea why Jim felt the need to withdraw from him so completely. He'd watched helplessly as all the walls they'd torn down during their two-year relationship went back up again. It had to be one of the worst days of his life when Jim asked him to leave their bed. The cold had set in for good then. He'd moved his things back downstairs and had retreated night after night to his old room, to try to make some sense of it, to toss and turn restlessly as he dreamed of a time when he was warm and human, before the glacier set in.
Blair pushed his hands deeper into his pockets, wishing he'd worn another layer of clothes. It was a longer walk to Elizabeth's house than he'd thought. On the map, it looked close by, but San Francisco was so hilly that walking anywhere took longer than expected.
Two years ago, he and Jim had met Elizabeth and her husband Sam under bizarre and less than happy circumstances. Elizabeth, also a Sentinel, had been kidnapped by a ring of criminals, led by Alex Barnes, and had been brought to an old, abandoned grain warehouse on the outskirts of Cascade. The kidnappers had ransacked her office and found her files on other Sentinels she'd been helping, along with the key to their identities that she kept hidden separately. All the other Sentinels had been kidnapped as well, and the criminals, one of whom was a psychiatrist stripped of his license for planting post-hypnotic suggestions in his patients' minds without their knowledge or permission, subjected all the captured Sentinels to extreme and invasive conditioning, trying to turn them into zombified super-assassins. But the Sentinels, genetically imprinted to protect not destroy, resisted at all costs, two of them even committing suicide to avoid being turned into killers. Finally, Elizabeth had managed to escape, and after a lot of searching and no little danger, they'd found and freed the other remaining Sentinels, and dealt with Alex Barnes, once and for all.
Since then, the four of them had kept in touch. Elizabeth seemed to have a unique role within the tribe of Sentinels, working with those who'd just gained their heightened senses, helping them manage until they found their Guides. With all Elizabeth's experience with Sentinels, Blair found her an invaluable resource for dealing with the vagaries of Jim's senses. It was only natural to turn to her now, when things had gotten so completely out of control. Plus, she was just a good listener, as fitted a psychiatrist, and he'd always felt comfortable confiding in her about his relationship with Jim.
Blair walked faster, anxious to get to Elizabeth's house and begin solving the problem. The city streets were full of color and life. People passed him in couples and small groups, talking and laughing, heading for restaurants and clubs, shops and bars. It was almost alien to him. He felt so far outside ordinary human companionship. He was so utterly alone.
Sam and Elizabeth lived in Pacific Heights, one of the nicest residential neighborhoods in the city. He looked for the right number. 224, 226, 230. The house was a large, white Victorian, lovingly cared for, just the kind of place he imagined them living. He walked up the long flight of steps to the front door and knocked. He could hear sounds coming from inside, footsteps, getting closer, and then the door opened.
"Blair," Sam said and smiled broadly. "Oh my God, what a wonderful surprise!"
Blair was cold and a little winded from his walk. His head had begun to swim, so he didn't quite catch what Sam said. He also missed the look of pleasure on his friend's face and heard only the surprise in his voice. "Oh, man. I'm sorry. I should have called. I just didn't think...maybe I should come back later? Would that be better..." he asked, beginning to back away.
"Hey, where are you going? At least come in and say hi to Beth. She'll be so excited to see you."
Blair tried to follow what he was saying, but it was as if the pressure and pain of the past two months had finally hit him. To make things worse, he couldn't remember the last time he'd had a good meal or gotten a full night's sleep. The dizziness overcame him, and his knees buckled.
"Blair!" Sam cried, grabbing him by the shoulders to steady him, helping him inside.
"Sorry, man. I'm a little worn out, you know?"
"You should really sit down. Let's go into the living room, and I'll get you something to drink. Beth's just putting the baby down for her nap. She'll be down in a minute."
"The baby. Oh man, you guys are probably really busy. I should definitely come back later. I don't know what I was thinking," Blair said, backing toward the door.
When he'd first thought of asking Sam and Elizabeth for help, it had seemed like such a good idea that he'd just packed a small bag and headed out. Now that he was here, he couldn't help feeling like he was intruding.
"Don't you dare leave before Beth gets to see you. She'll never forgive me. And honestly, Blair, I don't think you're in any kind of shape to be going anywhere."
"Are you sure, Sam? I don't want to...I shouldn't be..."
"Blair!" Elizabeth called as she came down the stairs. "It's so wonderful to see you. When did you get in? You should have called. We would have come to pick you up at the airport."
He turned to her, and she saw it in his face.
"Oh no! What's wrong? Is Jim okay? What's happened?"
"It's just so...oh God, I don't know what to do."
He could feel himself breaking apart; he'd been alone and lost in the frost-bitten wilderness far too long. It had eaten away at his strength, far more than he'd realized. He felt Elizabeth's arms go around him, and then she was rocking and soothing him. "Sssh. Sssh. Everything's going to be all right. I promise."
The steel bands that had been holding him together the last two months finally snapped, and he couldn't hold it in anymore. "I need help. Oh God, please, Elizabeth. Help me," he begged.
The first day Blair was gone, Jim had still managed to go into the station and put on a pretty convincing display of business as usual. Sure, he'd been grumpy as hell, sniping at pretty much everyone in his path, but it hadn't been so far outside the realm of what people expected from Jim Ellison that it had raised any eyebrows. The next day, well...the strain had begun to show then, the weirdness with his senses starting to careen out of control. He'd been a prick, to put it mildly.
Finally, he'd gone in to Simon's office and apologized, explaining the problem, at least as much of it as he could confide in his superior officer. Simon had understood and sent him home, assuming Blair was there, that he would figure out what was wrong with Jim and fix it, like he always did. He'd told Jim not to bother coming in again until Monday, wanting to make sure the Sentinel thing was under control before sending him back out onto the streetsfor his own good and everyone else's too. As Jim had waited for the elevator, he could hear Simon making his excuses for him, saying it was a virus, a fever, something he needed to go home and sleep off.
As if that were possible.
Instead, Jim had gone home yesterday and closed himself up in the loft like it was a vault. Or a grave. He'd shut and locked every window, closed every blind, chained the door. Then he'd retreated to the darkest corner of the living room and huddled there, trying to cut himself off from light and sound and memory, because it all hurt way too much.
He'd never before considered whether it was possible to zone out on the absence, rather than the presence, of a stimulus, but now he knew the answer, at least when what was missing was his Guide. It amazed him how cold and empty the loft was without Blair, almost foreign, hardly home at all. He'd spent the last twenty hours turning that thought over in his mind, losing himself in the silence and dark that was life without his partner:in between bouts of hallucinogenic sensory spikes, the same ones he'd been experiencing for the last two months and that were now getting worse.
At least, it hadn't come as a shock that night when he'd come home to find the note. He'd been expecting it. He knew Blair wouldn't be able to withstand his ice man routine forever. Of course, he would leave eventually. Of course, there would be a note. This was Blair, who could not stand to part without words. This was Blair, who didn't have an unkind bone in his body, who would never want him to worryhis Blair, who would never have gone if Jim hadn't done something so unconscionable that he'd made it impossible for him to stay.
He tried to focus his vision, but the room swirled wildly, dripping in psychedelic colors, like a nauseating ride on an out of control Tilt-a-Whirl, a carnival gone mad inside his head. A dissonant jumble of sounds played in his ears, the volume rising and falling unpredictably, keeping him permanently on edge, never knowing when it was going to hit some painful new extreme. His sense of smell was traveling down memory lane, causing him to relive hundreds of scents he'd picked up at crime scenes over the years, blood and fear, gunpowder and decay, all sorts of disgusting things, reminders of gruesome death and grave danger.
Maybe if he'd told Blair about this thing with his senses when it first started, it wouldn't have reached this crisis point, and it certainly would have helped if he hadn't driven his Guide away. Everything is always worse without Blair beside me. Since he'd found the note, all five of his senses had gone haywire, flooding his brain with chaotic, misleading feedback, like tripping on every kind of heavy duty drugacid and PCP, meth and Goldenall at once, complete with flashbacks. His senses turned the loft into a veritable fun house of past nightmares, things seeming to pop out at him from its shadowy corners, all impossible, Lash's dentist chair and yellow scarves, a plummeting elevator, the spotted jaguar pacing ominously, a fountain bubbling with brackish water. Worst of all was Blair's face, the shocked and betrayed expression he'd woken up to find on it that night, after Jim had...done whatever he'd done to him.
He closed his eyes tighter and rocked slightly, trying to find some comfort huddled in his corner of the living room, cheek pressed against the smooth wall, looking for something to hold on to as wave after wave of false smells, sounds and impressions overtook him. He tried to keep reminding himself that it was all just one big hallucination, but somehow that didn't help very much. The phantom high pitches and bright lights still hurt his senses. The memories still tortured him.
Shoulda told Blair. Shoulda told Blair. Shoulda told Blair. He didn't know why the lesson Alex Barnes had taught him remained so hard to put into practice. He knew no good ever came from withholding things from his Guide. But in this case, how could he have told Blair when it had all started because of that night when he'd gotten so out of control? How could he have asked for help from his Guide after what he'd taken?
You should have told him when you first noticed the other thing. The other thing. That was the euphemism he used to describe the disturbing, compulsive thoughts he'd started having about Blair. Even he recognized it for the distancing mechanism it was. He would do anything to avoid claiming those subhuman impulses as any part of himself. It terrified and disgusted him that such dark urges lurked inside him, in the seamy underbelly of his soul, biding their time, plotting against him, just waiting to break free into the clear light of day and ruin his life.
He'd always known that he didn't deserve Blair. That painful understanding had nagged at him throughout their partnership. Every time he insulted his partner, hurt him, refused to listen, caused those eternally expressive eyes to fill with sadness and disappointment, it was simply more evidence of his unworthiness. The whole thing with Alex Barnes should have been enough for him. He should have taken a lesson from how badly he'd mistreated his Guide and how magnanimously Blair had forgiven him. How could he ever deserve to have a man of such compassion and grace in his life? He didn't, and these rabid, destructive sexual impulses were just the final confirmation.
He couldn't even quite remember when it had begun to shift; the onset had been insidious, a few more lustful thoughts than usual, nothing extreme or untoward, nothing he couldn't write off as some little spurt of libido. So he wanted Blair pretty much all the time? So? There was nothing terribly surprising about that. He loved Blair, found him attractive. Blair was his mate. It was natural, fitting, only right to want him.
It wasn't until the urge turned, mutated, became something twisted and compulsive, that he recognized how truly out of order his desire had become. He should have told Blair then, when he first knew something was wrong. He wished that he at least had a good excuse for not telling him; even the old standby, fear, would have been something. His true reason was lame beyond belief. He hadn't confided in his Guide this very important information, that he had ever reason to know since it intimately concerned him, because he'd been too damned embarrassed to say it out loud. I don't mean to alarm you or anything, Chief, but I'm so damned horny for you all the time that I can't see you or be with you or pretty much even think about you without wanting to yank your pants down and bend you over the nearest piece of furniture. Hope you don't mind that you've committed your life to a dirty old man who can't get his mind out of the gutter or off your ass.
Okay, so maybe he shouldn't have put it quite that way, but he definitely should have told Blair. Somehow the same old voodoo thinking had taken hold of him again, that if he didn't say it out loud then it would just magically go away. Of course, it hadn't. Of course, it had only grown worse. He could see that now, but at the time...at the time, it really had been like he was under the influence of drugs, his judgment and restraint all shot to hell. He'd wanted what he wanted when he wanted it. He'd grown sexually demanding, manipulative, his need far outside any normal bounds. Like any junkie, he hadn't been willing to admit he had a problem. He hadn't wanted to do anything that might jeopardize getting his fix.
To make things even more insane, none of the sex had been even remotely satisfying, despite the urgency of his need. It had not been like the old days, when he and Blair had made love, and they both went away from the experience feeling pleasured and sated. The dark need was never-ending and unquenchable, selfish and one dimensional. In the heat of its grasp, he never felt any of the tender feelings that usually went along with their sex. It was compulsive, and he could never get enough of Blair, never be inside him enough, fuck him long enough, come hard enough. He could never get his fill, never appease his appetite. The dark desire was a relentless master. It would not let him rest, so he would not let Blair rest.
Before this monstrous urge had taken control of him, he'd always concentrated on being a considerate lover, making sure he took care of Blair's needs as he got his own met, respecting his partner's other responsibilities and his boundaries. The dark passion erased all that. When Blair was too tired, he insisted. When Blair needed to spend time on his school work, he cajoled. When Blair just wanted to cuddle and fall sleep in his arms, he pushed the issue. The relentless urge to fuck his Guide would not be denied, and he'd done everything but out and out take him by force. At least until that night. That night, he'd...well, he didn't really know what he'd done. The veil of lust had obscured his senses and his memory. He still couldn't recall the actual intercourse. He couldn't remember if Blair had consented or if he'd struggled against it, crying out, begging Jim to stop, even as he'd continued to pound away at him.
But Jim did carry in his mind's eye a meticulously detailed picture of the aftermath of what he'd done, the haunted and forlorn expression on Blair's face, the trembling lower lip, the black fingermark bruises on his hips, the blood and come smearing his thighs.
After that, there was another blank, more missing time. He must have zoned on his own repulsion at the appalling way he'd mistreated his lover. When he'd come to again, he'd found Blair lying on top of him, sobbing, completely terrified. He'd hated himself then, for what he'd done to Blair, for not even being man enough to stay in the moment and deal with the consequences. He'd made up his mind then and there to never ever harm his partner again, to take care of him instead, to cage the raging beast inside him that had allowed him to hurt his Guide so shamefully.
At least Blair had agreed to let him take a look at the injury. That had given him a glimmer of hope. Blair had watched with large, solemn eyes as Jim checked him out, being as gentle as possible. Blair had been frighteningly silent the whole time, and that had pained Jim more than he could have imagined. It had been nearly impossible to keep his hands from shaking as he'd cleaned and tended the wound, which thankfully wasn't too serious.
I really might have raped him that night. I just don't remember. But I do know that I damaged him, hurt him inside, fucked him like an animal until he bled, and that makes me the worst kind of monster I can imagine.
When he'd come to his senses that night and discovered Blair pinned beneath him, bleeding, it still hadn't given him the courage to explain, to throw himself at Blair's feet and beg for forgiveness, the way he should have. Neither had he been brave enough to ask what had happened, too terrified of the truth, the story that he feared would sound like the painful recitations he heard down at the station, the unforgivable betrayal of sacred trust. But he had at least managed a silent promise, to himself and to Blair, that it would never happen again, and it hadn't.
It was not that the dark urge had gone away. He was constantly aware of it, a savage, snarling beast, just below the surface of his consciousness, looking for any small opening, a way to escape, to get back out into the world, to do more harm, to get what it wanted. He'd spent every second of every day forcing it down, holding it back, using a whip and chair, cold showers and bleak visions of life without Blair, all to keep it at bay, all to keep Blair safe and still part of his life.
But that safety had come with a high price tagfor both of them. Jim had found that the only way he could keep the unnatural desire even remotely under control was to withdraw from his Guide completely, not make love with him, not sleep in the same bed, not touch him at all. He'd gone down to the storage area in the basement and retrieved Blair's old bed, turning his partner's office once more into his bedroom, turning back the clock on their relationship, back to separate sleeping arrangements, just partners, in the non-romantic sense of the word.
The hardest part had been retraining his senses. They were anchored to Blair in some way; they wanted him, needed him. But somehow he'd managed to shut Blair out of his awareness, to wean himself off his Guide, learning to ignore his scent, tune out his voice, even finally to stop listening for his heart beat.
That's when his senses had rebelled against him in earnest, when he'd stopped filling them with Blair.
Blair had been stunned when Jim had asked him to move out of their bed. He'd stubbornly refused, protesting like crazy, but Jim had met his every argument, his every plea with relentless iciness. Blair was no match for the deep freeze. He'd finally given in and gone back to his old room, extremely reluctantly. Even then, he hadn't stopped trying to repair their relationship. He'd kept after Jim, every opportunity he got, asking questions, struggling to make Jim open up, trying to get close to him again, making every effort to understand.
So Jim had schooled himself to resist Blair in this way too, hardening himself against the man who meant more to him than life, meeting his every plea with the old silence and the stony look, things he'd thought he'd put away forever when they'd become lovers. He'd taught himself to watch television, look out the window, focus on Simon or the other Major Crimes detectives, stare into thin air if all else failed, anything but to look at Blair, into that beautiful face, those bottomless blue eyes, filled with the pain and sadness he'd put there.
The whole time, he'd known it would come to this someday. He'd known Blair couldn't stand to be ignored and locked out forever. He'd always expected to come home one evening to find a note, this note, because Blair was not as hard and cruel as he was, because Blair would not abandon him without at least a few words of explanation, without saying good-bye.
Things can't go on like this. I need some time away, to think, to figure things out. I'll come back when I can.
Three days, and still there had been no word from him. Jim had called the university only to find that Blair had arranged a leave of absence through the end of the semester. It was only a few weeks, but he didn't know if he could live that long without his Guide, his lover, the center of his universe. Even then, Blair might not come home to him. He might return to Cascade, without resuming his life with Jim.
He held onto the wall as another dizzying surge of hallucinations overtook him. It wouldn't matter anyway. By then, there would be nothing left of him, nothing to come back to.
Oh God, Chief, I really should have told you.
Elizabeth held her daughter in her arms, rocking gently in the old chair passed down to her by her own mother. She hummed softly to the baby, and Carla watched her intently, nursing hungrily, her large blue eyes moving in fascination over her mother's face.
"Oh yes, you're my little angel, aren't you? Yes, you are," she cooed to the baby.
Elizabeth snuggled Carla closer, but she couldn't keep her thoughts from drifting back to Blair. He'd been with them four days now, but she was no closer to understanding what had gone wrong between him and Jim. That first day, he'd been too exhausted and upset. She'd insisted that he have a little lunch and then go lie down. Along the way, she'd ascertained that Jim wasn't dead or in any imminent danger. She'd thought it best to wait until Blair had rested before getting the whole story. So she'd shown him to a guest room, and he'd slept until late the next morning.
He seemed a little better the next day, less worn out, calmer, but every time she tried to get him to talk, she could hear his heart speed up and his breath become ragged. Her Sentinel instincts made it very difficult for her to watch a Guide, any Guide, suffer, and every impulse in her wanted to push, to get him to tell her, so he wouldn't have to carry the burden alone. But she couldn't bring herself to add to his anxiety, so she took him outside to look at the garden instead, showed him her office, watched while he played with her daughter, anything to take his mind off his troubles for a little while.
Yesterday, he'd lapsed into a profound silence, and she'd had a hard time engaging him at all. Finally, she'd just left him to his own devices, understanding that he was working out his ambivalence about confiding in her, dealing with his sense of betraying Jim's trust, a response she often saw in her patients, the desire for help at odds with the need to protect the privacy of loved ones. Blair had spent most of the day on the sun porch, staring out the window. It was a beautiful view, but she rather doubted he'd noticed, caught up in a tangle of thoughts. Still, she'd left him there; patience was a psychiatrist's most valuable tool.
While she fed her child, Elizabeth opened her hearing and listened to the sounds filling her house. Sam was in his office on the second floor. She could his heart beating, his breath, the staccato rhythm of his typing. Marta was in the kitchen, washing dishes, singing in Spanish. Elizabeth smiled. She regarded their housekeeper as something of a miracle, since she was one of the few people who could keep Carla calm and happy. The house was fairly quiet otherwise, so she assumed that Elena and Clare, the young Sentinel and Guide pair staying with them, had gone out.
Then there was Blair. She could hear him moving through the first floor, almost aimlessly. She listened as he paused at the bottom of the stairs, before beginning to climb, up to the second floor and then the third. She tracked him as he moved down the hall, looking for her. She adjusted the baby blanket, for modesty's sake.
"Elizabeth?" he called, appearing in the doorway. "Oh God, I'm sorry." He turned a deep red and was about to leave.
"It's okay, Blair. You can come in."
He peeked around the door. "Are you sure you don't mind?"
"I don't, if you don't."
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "Well, I guess...God, I'm supposed to be free and easy Naomi Sandburg's son."
Elizabeth couldn't help laughing. "You wouldn't be the first person who preferred not to know too much about breast feeding."
"I mean, I know it's really natural and the best thing for the baby and all. It's really great that you're doing it. You know, studies show the benefits last a lifetime. Breast-fed babies have stronger immune systems, a lower incidence of depression and a lot of other good things."
"Do you want me to come down to the living room when I'm finished, and we can talk there?" she asked, understanding that this rambling was his way of dealing with the awkwardness.
He thought a moment and finally shook his head. "I'd like to stay, if it's really okay."
"Make yourself at home."
There was another chair on the opposite wall, but he settled onto the floor instead, crossing his legs into a lotus posture to help center himself or maybe just out of habit.
"I think Carla's getting used to me," he said. "Maybe even likes me a little."
Elizabeth smiled at him. "She recognizes you, knows you're part of the tribe. I'm pretty sure she's tracking you the way she does me and Sam. She definitely heard you coming this way. I could tell."
"Does she have the same feeling for all Sentinels and Guides?"
Elizabeth considered the question. "Well, she can definitely tell Sentinels and Guides apart from other people, and she's always more comfortable with them. But she has a definite thing for Guides. I don't know how it works exactly, but I think Guides, even though they're not her Guide, help soothe her senses, the same way Sam and I seem to as her parents. She can be pretty fussy otherwise. In fact, there's nobody left in San Francisco who'll babysit for us. Thank God for Marta and working at home. That's really why we moved into the new house, so we'd have room for my office and Sam's. Plus, we have more space now for the Sentinels and Guides who come to us."
"Yeah, I kind of met Clare and Elena already."
Elizabeth sighed and shook her head. "I'm sure you did. Clare must dial her hearing down so far she's practically deaf to be able to scream like that."
Blair couldn't help grinning. "For teenage girls, they have pretty colorful vocabularies."
"They don't like each other. I have no idea what to make of that. To be honest, I didn't even think it was possible."
"It's never happened before?"
"Not like this. I mean, emotions always run pretty high around Sentinels and Guides finding each other, and it's not always pure happiness. Not everyone is thrilled to have their lives take such a huge, bizarre turn. But at the same time, the instincts are so powerful that it's not really something that can be resisted. Most of us don't want to anyway, because we truly like our partners. We're drawn to them. But these girls...they're not clicking at all."
"Are you sure it's the right Guide?"
"She showed up. Actually, she came to stay with us as part of this program that allows gifted students to study at Stanford for a semester. She's from back east. We're a host family. So it was the usual weird fate thing that brought her here. Plus, she has all the usual Guide characteristicsthe energy and curiosity, the verbal skills, the highly developed intuition, a flexible belief system that allows her to accept that Sentinels exist and that she has a role in it. I can't imagine that she's not the right Guide."
"So maybe they just need a little push. What do you usually do to get the pairs together?"
"Nothing, and that's the problem. All I've ever had to do was get out of the way and let nature take its course. Now that nature seems to have fallen down on the job, I don't have a clue what to do."
"Maybe it just needs some time. I mean, Jim and I weren't exactly trouble free at the beginning. Still not," he said, the weight of sadness returning to his voice.
He stared at his hands in his lap, and Elizabeth waited him out, knowing he would tell her when he was ready.
"So maybe Clare and Elena will still come around," he said, not yet ready to go into all that had happened between him and Jim. "It's not like Jim was exactly thrilled at the beginning that I was the one who could help him with his senses. I mean, we've told you the 'neo hippie witch doctor punk' story."
Elizabeth smiled. "Jim may not have liked feeling helpless, but he always knew he needed you. When you think back on how much he trusted you from the very beginning, it's really quite amazing, a true testament to the strength of the Sentinel/Guide bond. I mean, think about it, Blair. He confided in you about his senses and let you help him learn to manage them, allowed you to run all kinds of tests on him, got you a job working at the police department with him, introduced you to his friends, opened his world to you, moved you into his home, all in what? Two weeks?"
It was the first genuine smile she'd seen from him since he'd arrived. "My place blew up."
"Yeah, well, sometimes fate is a Sentinel and Guide's best friend."
Blair nodded, and then the smile disappeared. "I just wish..." he started to say but lost his nerve again. "I guess it doesn't help that Clare and Elena come from such different backgroundsyou know, different parts of the country, different cultural heritage, apparently different upbringings. That can be tough."
Elizabeth sighed to herself, but let him change the subject anyway, still thinking it best not to push. "It certainly puts another obstacle in the way, although it's no more than other Sentinels and Guides have overcome. When I really think about it, there aren't any pairs who are exactly what you might call compatible, at least not outwardly. I mean, Sam and I are complete opposites in so many ways. Maybe that's why it works. Maybe those differences are important."
"A yin and yang kind of thing? Two different aspects of the same whole, completing one another."
Blair nodded, his eyes lighting up with intellectual curiosity, some of his old enthusiasm returning. "It makes sense actually. The Sentinel and Guide have such different roles, but it's a complementary kind of opposition. I mean, Jim and I are definitely not cut from the same cloth, but we still manage to...I'm sure Clare and Elena will figure it out."
Elizabeth rocked Carla gently. "I think the biggest problem for them is that Clare is a natural born Sentinelas opposed to those of us who developed later on, in response to some traumatic event. Clare's like Carla will be. She's always had her senses. She's had to learn to manage them on her own, to be her own Guide in a sense. From what I can tell, her family has never been especially attentive to her. Clare was having some problems in school, not actually related to her senses, and her parents brought her to see me. I figured out she was one of us, and when I suggested to her parents that Clare would be better off staying here for a while, they didn't even ask me why. They just fell all over themselves taking me up on the offer. That kind of indifference, neglect I'd actually call it, has only made Clare more independent spirited. So she really doesn't believe she needs a Guide."
"So does she?"
Elizabeth frowned and nodded. "Yes, I really think so."
Carla finished nursing, and Elizabeth rebuttoned her blouse. She lifted the baby onto her shoulder and tenderly patted her back while she rocked her. "I can't help thinking of her, you know who I mean. I still have nightmares sometimes, about what they did to me in that place. Or sometimes, I just see her face, that furious, demented expression, like she wasn't even human, as she went over the side of that ravine. But the worst times are when I dream there are more like her out there. I just can't let that happen. Making sure Sentinels properly bond with their Guides is an important part of preventing it."
"You're really worried about what will happen to Clare if she can't accept Elena?"
She nodded and pulled her baby closer. "It's too much for one person to handle alone, no matter how they got the senses or how well they can manage for a limited amount of time. Sooner or later, it's going to get out of control. Since I had Carla, I just can't help worrying...what if there are special problems with forming the bond for natural born Sentinels?"
Blair thought about it carefully. "Even if it is more difficult, that doesn't make it impossible. I mean, look at Jim. From what we can tell, he was a natural born Sentinel. I finally got to talk with his father about it, and he says Jim was a particularly cranky baby, even the slightest hint of noise would wake him up. They used to have to crawl out of his room when they put him down at night, so the floorboards wouldn't creak."
Elizabeth smiled tiredly. "That sounds like my little angel."
"And Jim turned out fine. He's got the imperative to protect the tribe in spades. I mean, he did end up repressing his abilities throughout part of his childhood and into adulthood, but he came from a rigid household where his father didn't understand what he was and urged him to hide his abilities so he wouldn't be labeled a freak. Even then, he didn't go bad like Alex. He was still able to accept me, after some initial resistance. There's no reason why a born Sentinel with parents who are Sentinel and Guide, who can help her develop and control her gift, should have any unsolvable problems or be at any higher risk for not bonding with the Guide than other Sentinels. And remember, Alex wasn't born a Sentinel. She became one."
Elizabeth nodded. "You're right. I know you are. Still, I can't help...oh God, Blair, I never had any idea what it was going to be like to be a parent, the sheer volume of things there are to obsess over. I never really knew what terror was before Carla was born."
Blair smiled at her reassuringly. "You're a great mother, and Sam's a great dad. Carla's going to be fine. She's going to grow up to be a wonderful person, just like her parents."
"Thanks," she said gratefully, kissing her baby's tuft of blond hair.
"Could I...would it be okay..." he asked, reaching out his arms.
"Of course," she said. "Come sit here. She likes to be rocked after she's eaten."
Elizabeth got up and let Blair sit down in the chair, settling her daughter in his arms. He started to rock, and Carla cooed softly at him.
Elizabeth beamed at them. "That's my little Sentinel, crazy about the Guides."
"Do you really think she likes me?" he asked, very pleased.
"She adores you. Believe me, you'd know if she didn't. In fact, I think you're quickly becoming her new favorite person. That's quite a compliment. My daughter has very discriminating tastes."
"Sometimes I wonder what it would be like, if Jim and I had a baby."
"You'd make wonderful parents."
"Like anyone's going to give two men a baby."
"There's always a way. If you're really serious, I'm counseling a gay couple, two men, who just adopted an older child. I'd be glad to find out for you how they did it."
"I kind of doubt Jim would be interested. He told me he never wanted kids when he and Carolyn were married. That's one of the things that broke them up."
"That was then, with someone else. Maybe it would be different now that he's with you."
Blair's face twisted in pain. "I can't even begin to think about that right now. I don't even know if there's going to be an us much longer."
Elizabeth knelt by the rocker and put a comforting hand on his arm. "You don't really believe that, do you? You and Jim are meant to be together forever. That's the way it is with Sentinels and Guides."
He squeezed his eyes tightly closed, but a few tears escaped anyway. "He stopped making love to me. He won't sleep in the same bed with me. He won't talk about it. He just...he doesn't want me anymore."
"I find that impossible to believe. When did it start? Something must have happened. What triggered it?"
Blair blushed furiously.
"So you do know, don't you, Blair?" Elizabeth asked gently.
He nodded. "It's kind of...I don't know how to..."
"It's okay. All you have to do is say it, whatever it is. You can tell me anything. There's nothing that will shock me, and I really do want to help."
He took a deep breath and cradled the baby a little closer. "Something happened...while we were making love. Well, while we were having sex. See, that's the problem. It was sex, not love, and that never happened before. Jim got kind of...well, he was rough, very rough, actually.
She squeezed his arm. "I'm sorry, Blair. I need to put this in clinical language to make sure I understand correctly. Jim had anal intercourse with you, and he was inappropriately forceful."
"Did he hurt you?" she asked, trying to keep the anger out of her voice. She'd promised to understand, and she was trained not to judge. But a Guide harmed by a Sentinel hit square in the middle of a genetic blind spot that was very difficult to reason with.
"Not seriously, but I did bleed a little. He wouldn't touch me after that."
Elizabeth went cold all over. "Oh no!" she said, the sick reverberation of memory passing through her.
"What?" Blair asked, his eyes wide and stricken.
"It's just...when I was at that place and they made me think I'd hurt Sam, I had this violent reaction when I thought I'd spilled his blood. It was actual physical pain, truly excruciating. When I was first trying to sort out the memories, I thought it was something they'd done to me, some other kind of torture. But then it started to seem like it had come from inside me, that it was connected to believing I'd hurt my Guide, to seeing his blood on my hands."
"While Jim was...doing that to me, it was like it wasn't even him. But afterwards, when he came back to himself, I saw something run through him, like a jolt of electricity, and I'd never seen him in greater pain."
Elizabeth nodded. "Yes, that's exactly what it felt like, like being electrocuted. And you say he hasn't touched you since then?"
A few more tears fell. "He withdrew from me completely. One day, I came up behind him in the kitchen, and I startled him. I was able to sneak up on a man who's a former Army Ranger, a cop and a Sentinel, for God's sake. He didn't even hear me, that's how tuned out to me he was."
Elizabeth stood up abruptly and began to pace. "Oh, shit! He wouldn't have been stupid enough to...but of course, he would. He hurt you, and he couldn't risk doing it again. Damn it, Jim!"
"Okay, Elizabeth, you're scaring the shit out of me here. What are you talking about?"
"I'm sorry, Blair, but Jim's in trouble. When the two of you completed the bond, Jim filled his senses with you. He anchored himself to you. When he became worried about your safety, he ripped his senses away from you, and now he won't be able to control them. We need to get to him. We need to get the two of you back together. Before it's too late."
All the color drained out of Blair's face, and he handed Carla back to her. "Are you saying Jim could...oh my God, this has been going on for two months. I can't believe I didn't sense anything."
Elizabeth shook her head. "Don't blame yourself. He broke the bond, and I'm sure that affected your ability to read him."
"Oh God, he broke the bond. Of course. I guess I just didn't want to see it, but that is what he did, isn't it? But why? Why would he do that?" Blair asked, his voice shaking.
"Only Jim can tell us that. But I'm certain there's something more going on here than we know about. Something's really wrong with him. I mean, the last thing on earth Jim Ellison would ever do if he had any control over himself at all is hurt you."
"But Elizabeth, it was way beyond a lack of control that night. It was like...he didn't even seem quite human."
Elizabeth nodded, mulling over that information. "We really need to find him, as soon as possible. I tried to call him at home all day yesterday, but I never got any answer."
Blair stared at her.
"Sorry," she said. "I thought maybe I could get Jim to tell me what happened. You wouldn't talk, and I was worried about you."
"It's okay," Blair finally said. "I guess I would have done the same thing. But you never reached him?" The panic returned to his voice.
She shook her head. "Maybe he's at the station. We should call Captain Banks."
"Yeah, maybe Simon knows where he is. Or at least he can find out."
"We need Jim here, even if he doesn't want to come."
"Simon can be very persuasive."
"Good, because Jim's life could depend on it."
The autumn sky had already turned a deep slate gray, in anticipation of winter. She should have felt cold, would have been freezing, if she'd been able to feel anything at all. The wind whistled in the trees outside the old, abandoned grain warehouse, a sound that reminded her of lost souls, a lone pioneer stranded in a snowstorm on the empty prairie, a pilgrim wandering in the wildernessthe very essence of abandonment and mournfulness.
The air was growing chill, and its icy fingers wriggled and squirmed their way through the many gaps and chinks in the building's deteriorating walls. Sometimes, she could feel gusts of air blowing up and down the long corridors, as if there were ghosts out walking the halls. She wished with all her heart that it were ghosts; she had come in search of the dead, a Guide following after her lost Sentinel. But she had not been reunited with him, as some part of her had hoped. Instead, she had found only echoes of the past, the tragic story of everything that had happened in this bleak, comfortless place, her husband's tomb.
How do you return to the ordinary world, to the old life when you were once the chosen, touched by destiny, picked out from all the rest to be part of the great mystery of the cosmos?
She had been struggling with this question without answer for two long years, since that day when the world had ended, when she just knew without even hearing the news, feeling the death as if it were her own cells expiring one by one, darkness descending over her like a veil, the blood freezing in her veins like ice on a winter pond. That's why she never minded the cold here in this place where her life had been shattered, because now, without her mate, her Sentinel, she was made of something far colder and harder than the thickest glacier. Mere weather couldn't touch her. Nothing could.
It made her bitter sometimes that no one truly understood her loss. Oh, there were other people who mourned for her husband. He was a good man, and there had been many people who had come to the funeral, many who were grieved by his untimely and unnecessary death, many who had offered their sincere condolences. A true tragedy to lose such a man...a blow to the whole community. But they didn't really know him, not any of them. For so many reasons, it never would have been possible to reveal to them the true miracle of what he wasSentinel, protector, watchman. So neither could they appreciate the sacred bond between the two of them, inseparable dyad, Sentinel and Guide, two parts of the same glorious whole. So there was no one with whom she could share the full extent of what she had lost.
At the beginning, she'd been determined to go on, the way he would have wanted, her only remaining goal in life to honor his memory and his spirit. She'd tried to pull together the threads of her life, to keep herself somewhat intact, but she just kept unraveling anyway. For a short time, she'd been able to manage some semblance of normalcy. She'd gotten up every morning to go to work. She'd sorted the books at the library and answered questions about how to research family trees, trying not to look like a natural disaster. She'd cleaned the house and eaten meals even when she wasn't hungry. She'd accepted other people's sympathy and their inevitable pity. At first, she'd been able to put a brave face on her widowhood, to make people more comfortable. For a while, she'd been able to conceal her misery, to pretend she hadn't been reduced to rubble.
But all that make-believe had taken its toll after a while; somewhere along the line, she'd just run out of steam. Her mind wandered when library patrons asked her where to find reference materials. She burst into tears at the slightest thing: a man she passed on the street who reminded her of her husband, seeing couples so obviously in love shopping at the grocery store together or strolling through the mall, hearing her husband's name used for some character on a television show. She'd tried too hard not to cry for far too long, and now the tears would not be denied, needing little or no provocation. She began to make the people around her nervous, the black depth of her grief scaring them. Her co-workers stopped inviting her to lunch. The couples she and her Sentinel had once been friendly with, the people with whom they'd shared dinners and ball games and New Year's Eve dances, stopped calling. The children at the library started going to anyone else on staff to ask their questions, avoiding her at all costs, hurrying past her with downturned eyes, as if she were the bogey man.
After a while, it had seemed pointless to get out of bed at all, so she'd lain there day after day, staring into space, wondering. She could not imagine why she was still alive. Her absolute lack of purpose terrified her. She spent hour after hour, week after week, contemplating the curtains, lost in an emptiness so profound it consumed her. She would probably still be there, lying curled up tight in a fetal ball, in the ratty flannel nightgown that had become her second skin, if the money hadn't run out.
That's what finally brought them back, those old friends, the impending financial collapse. They came as a group, four of them, all men, more her Sentinel's friends than her own. They felt a sense of duty, she imagined, to help the grief-maddened widow before she lost everything her husband had worked so hard for. They laid it all out for her, very carefully, explaining her own circumstances to her in great detail and simple language, with more than a little condescension, certain they knew better than she did, which was probably true.
They'd been to see her former boss at the library, and she could still have her old job back. She could sell the house and move to a smaller place. She could liquefy some of the investments meant for retirement, just until she got over the rough patch. She'd listened and nodded, accepting everything they suggested, leaving it all in their hands. It made no difference. She didn't care what they did or how she lived. She didn't care what she kept or how much she lost. Her Sentinel had been everything; these things meant nothing.
How do you go back to being ordinary when you have lived an extraordinary life?
She'd floated through an entire year like that, doing what other people told her, smiling her false, dead smile, taking their helpful suggestions, like a robot, not caring, completely numb. It was only as the second anniversary of her Sentinel's death approached that she'd felt it stirring inside her, this terrible restlessness, the hunted, haunted feeling. It finally occurred to her that maybe she was still alive because she didn't fully understand what had happened to her mate; there had been no closure. If only she could go to the place where it had happened, perhaps she would feel something, have some sense of his final moments. Maybe she could lie down on the very spot and experience what he'd gone throughonly this time she'd die along with him, and then they could be together again, like they were always meant to be.
She hadn't told those well-meaning people, her keepers, that she was leaving or where she was going. She'd just gone, without a word, abandoning everything in that life without a single regret. One way or another, she knew she'd never need any of it ever again.
Now she spent her days wandering this desolate, forlorn building like a phantom. It had been weeks and weeks since she'd arrived, although she'd lost track of exactly how many. She'd searched every inch of the warehouse, and she'd finally found the place where it had happened. She could tell because it was always the coldest spot in the entire structure, glacial even before the weather turned. It was also the darkest part of the building. In fact, no matter how sunny it was outside the light just never seemed to penetrate that shadowy corner. Even at the sun's zenith, it was as black as an abyss.
Whenever she lay there on the hard, cold concrete floor, she saw odd flashes in her head, heard strangled sounds, the reverberations of her love's terrible suffering. She formed them like puzzle pieces into a picture of her Sentinel's last moments on earth. She could feel his desperation, feel him losing control, feel the rising terror and the grim determination. In her mind's eye, she saw him make the decision, use the last bit of his strength and sanity to find a suitable weapon, steel himself to do what had to be done. She watched helplessly as his life drained from him, her beloved sacrificing himself so his gift couldn't be used against the people it was intended to protect. She grieved as she imagined what he must have felt, how terrified, how cold, how utterly alone, as he passed into that final darkness.
She wasn't there when he needed her. That's the thought that constantly pulsed through her mind, a disconsolate mantra. She'd always prized the depth and strength of his need for her. She'd relied on it. No one else had ever wanted her that way, with such totality, hungry for everything she was, needing everything she could give, returning it all, in equal measure. That all-consuming need of his had always made her feel safe; it was the gravity that held her to the earth, that gave each day, each moment meaning. Without it, she was freefalling through space and time, with nothing and no one to hold on to. If she'd never known what it was to have such connection, she would never have missed it. Before him, she'd thought she was satisfied; she hadn't known enough to be able to tell the difference. But now she knew, and she felt the loss, with excruciating vividness, as if she were the one with heightened perception.
And she was still alive. She had no idea why.
Since the day of her Sentinel's funeral, she had been counting down, marking off the days, certain it would only be a matter of time. She had even planned it. She'd stockpiled the pills her doctor had prescribed to help her sleep, keeping them side-by-side in the kitchen cabinet with the unopened bottle of bourbon she'd picked up one afternoon at the liquor store. Every morning, she'd opened the cabinet and stood there for a good long time, fifteen minutes, half an hour, two hours on one occasion, just staring at her supplies, and every time, she'd shut the door again, leaving them inside.
She'd wanted to be dead, longed to be at peace, but she just couldn't do it. There was something inside hera sense of self-preservation or some leftover religious feeling, somethingthat prevented her from just doing it. There was a part of her that wanted to live, that kept whispering not yet. She'd thought it would all come together when she found the place where her Sentinel had died, when she'd lain on the same spot and experienced his death. But now she'd done this, and the irresistible pulse inside her that insisted on surviving just kept beating on and on.
How can you settle for existing when you've known what it is to truly live?
She watched the sun sinking low on the horizon, the long shadows falling over the mountains, the last glimmers of daylight dying in the trees. She'd already had her tin of soup, heated up on the camp stove she'd bought in town when she figured out this wasn't going to be her final resting place. She slipped into the sleeping bag and zipped it up, laying her head on the backpack she used for a pillow. She stared at the ceiling. Why? It was the same question she always asked. She had never believed in coincidence or accidents. She felt there must be a reason why she was still here. There must be some purpose. There must be something left undone, something ahead of her, if only she could figure out what.
Maybe you can't go back to the old life once you know the difference. Maybe that's just not possible. But maybe there is another way besides dying. Maybe you could go on living the extraordinary life.
That thought reverberated through her. Of course. She just hadn't seen it before, so lost in all that blinding grief.
Maybe there is another.
For the first time in two years, she could feel her body vibrating with life, the first stirring of warmth returning to her frozen soul. She had not been there for her Sentinel when he needed her, but perhaps she was being given a second chance. Perhaps there was another of their kind out there who was as lost and alone as she was, who would need her like her husband once had, who would give her a reason to keep on living. But how? Where?
Go back to the beginning.
The realization jolted through her like electricity. She kicked off the sleeping bag in a frenzy and jumped up, gathering her meager belongings in a mad dash. She should have thought of it before. Of course. Of course. Why hadn't she seen it?
She would go back to where it had all started. She would begin again.