The childish giggle reverberated through the loft, and Jim tried to ignore it. He'd hoped that his hallucinations might improve when morning came, but instead, they had grown steadily worse. Now, his imagination had gotten unleashed, and he was seeing things he didn't even recognize, not memories, but out-and-out delusions, like the curly headed boy, with the large, round blue eyes who was frolicking around the loft like it was his own personal playground.
"Come and find me!" the boy's thin, reedy voice called to him, as he darted between the sofas.
"No," he said.
"It's hide-and-seek. You have to look for me."
"No, I don't."
The child came from behind the sofa to stand in front of him. Jim was no expert on kids, but he thought the boy was probably four or five years old. He was definitely no one Jim had ever known, not some victim of a horrific crime he'd investigated, at least not that he could remember. That was a relief.
"You're no fun. Why don't you want to play?" the child asked, watching him curiously.
"I'm not feeling too well."
"'Cause he's not here, right?"
Jim didn't answer; he just pressed his lips together in a thin, stubborn line. This was one subject he had no intention of discussing, not even with his own diseased imagination. He shivered and wrapped his arms around himself. He hadn't moved in two days, not to eat, not to sleep, shower, change clothes, use the bathroom, not for any reason. He no longer had the strength. It was getting close now. He could feel himself gradually growing colder, hear his heart beat becoming sluggish. He didn't have the energy left to resist, and now he was just waiting for it to be over.
"You smell," the kid said, pointing an accusing finger at him.
"Really, really stinky. Hey, you've got poop in your pants!" The boy broke into peals of shrill laughter. "Look at the little baby, made a mess in his britches. Do you need a diaper? Huh, little baby?" The child's voice taunted him in the sing-songy rhythm of the kindergarten playground.
"If you don't get the hell away from me, I'll..."
"What? What are you gonna do? I don't think you're gonna do anything. I don't think you can or maybe you just don't want to. Why are you just sitting there anyway?" The boy glared at him, the thin arms crossed over his narrow chest. "I don't know why you let him get lost in the first place. Now we have to go find him and bring him back."
"I don't want to talk about Blair! Now, get out!"
"You're not real."
The child's face flushed with anger, and he stamped his foot. "Am too! I belong here as much as you do."
"Well, I don't want you around."
"You do, too. You'd be really lonely without me. You're just all grumpy, because he went away. If you're gonna go get him, you're really gonna have to stink less. People don't like it."
"I'm not going anywhere."
"Why not? Are you scared? Huh? Don't you want him back?"
"He doesn't...he doesn't want to be here," Jim said, his voice catching in his throat.
The child came closer, looking him hard in the eye. "Yeah, he does. But you made him go away. So now you have to let him know that it's okay to come back. See?"
"I don't know where he is."
"I do. I'll tell you when you don't smell anymore."
"You're just a hallucination."
"What's a ha-nu-ci-la-shun?"
"So are you gonna take a bath?"
"I guess so."
The little boy jumped up and down. "Yeah! Yeah! We're gonna go get him back! Yeah!"
Jim felt his entire body clench; all that enthusiasm reminded him so much of Blair. A jagged wave of agony tore through him. Oh God, he missed Blair.
The child drew even closer, and Jim could have sworn he felt the feathery light pressure of the small hand as it reached out to touch his shoulder. "Come on," the boy said quietly, almost solemnly. "He's waiting."
Blair could not stay still, no matter how hard he tried. He was so worried about Jim he practically vibrated with it, and the waiting, the not knowing, was every kind of hell rolled up into one.
It certainly hadn't improved his outlook when he talked to Simon and found out that Jim hadn't been to work in two days because his senses were really acting up. Simon had sounded so surprised that he didn't know where Jim was, that he wasn't home at the loft, that he hadn't known a thing about Jim's problem. That made him feel like shit. He should have been there for his Sentinel. He should never have let this whole thing get so out of hand. He'd known there was something serious going on with Jim. He'd just thought he could let Jim deal with it in his own time, at his own pace. He'd never guessed how much his partner was suffering.
Jim was supposed to be the one into denial, but he hadn't allowed himself to process what Jim had done, to see that he'd broken the bond between thembecause he just hadn't been able to handle it. But now Jim might...and oh God, he wished he'd done things so very differently.
No! He's going to be fine. You've got to stay centered, be positive. Simon will find him and bring him to San Francisco, even if he has to drag his ass down here against his will. You just don't mess with Simon. He's one determined police captain. Everything's going to be fine.
He only half believed it, but it helped to keep thinking it. Fake it 'til you make it. He'd read that somewhere, in some waiting room magazine, about projecting yourself with confidence in any situation. It was good advice. If he couldn't actually be certain, he could at least pretend.
Blair sat on the couch, poised by the phone, willing it to ring. Simon had gone over to the loft to check on Jim and promised to call as soon as he knew anything. Ring, damn you! Ring! The waiting was going to kill him. He tried every trick in the book to manage his anxiety. He counted to a hundred by threes and back down again. He did breathing exercise after breathing exercise. He recited the Greek alphabet in his head. None of it helped.
He closed his eyes tightly and rubbed his temples. He was beginning to get a headache. He relaxed his body and put himself into a meditative trance, hoping this would calm him. A fragmentary picture flashed suddenly onto the movie screen in his mind. It was an image of himself, dressed in a dark suit, standing somewhere outside. In his imagination, he looked down at his feet and could see neatly trimmed grass and dirt. There were other people crowding around himSimon, Rafe, Megan, Brown, Samantha and so many others. But he couldn't find Jim. He kept looking around for his partner, searching, desperate for even a small glimpse of him.
His friends all surrounded him, had their hands on his arms, under his elbows, holding him up. But he didn't want them. He wanted Jim. The people surrounding him were all talking to him, but he couldn't understand their words. He tried so hard to ask them where his partner was, but there was such a burning, painful feeling in his throat. It was closed tight with some bleak emotion, and he couldn't get out any of the words he wanted so desperately to say.
The image shifted slightly, like a movie camera pulling back, revealing the wider scene, and he could finally see what lay before him. It was a low mound of fresh, dark earth, recently turned over, covered in arrangements and bouquets of flowers, all the beautiful colors. And he knew what it was, who it was. He'd finally found his partner. His Jim.
"NOOOOO!!!" he screamed at the top of his lungs, jolting himself out of the trance, gasping for breath.
"Are you all right?" a very soft, girlish voice asked him.
He looked up to find Elena, the young Guide, regarding him with large brown eyes filled with alarm. Clare, her Sentinel, was just a few steps behind her, and even though she was a study in coolness, he could see that she was also concerned.
Great! Now I'm scaring teenage girls. I really need to get it together, or I'm not going to be any good to Jim when we do find him.
He took a deep centering breath. "I'm fine. I just fell asleep and had a little bit of a nightmare. Sorry I startled you."
Elena drew closer. "You're worried about your friend, aren't you?"
He didn't trust himself to speak, so he nodded.
"Is there anything we can do to help?" she asked, touching his arm lightly, her voice filled with compassion.
"What exactly do you think we could do?" Clare asked, dismissively.
"Shut up! I am so sick of you and your attitude."
"Well, I'm sick of your kissing up to every grown-up in a five mile radius."
"I am not kissing up, just because I'm not a bitch like you. Just because I can think of somebody besides myself."
"Then you're a fool, because believe me, nobody is ever going to think about you. It's just not the way it works. It's a dog eat dog world out there, and naive little flowers like you get trampled on. Trust me."
"So I'm not a hard ass the way you are. As far as I'm concerned, that's a relief."
"No, you're more like a..."
"That's enough!" Elizabeth said, coming into the room. "I've had it with the bickering. Let's just try to give it a rest for five minutes. We have more important things to worry about right now."
Both girls looked chastened. "Sorry," Elena mumbled.
"Yeah," Clare said.
Elizabeth sighed. "It's all right. I'm sorry I raised my voice. We're just a little concerned about our friend right now."
"He's a Sentinel like us?" Clare asked.
"What's wrong with him?" the girl asked.
Blair felt himself clench, and Elizabeth put her hand on his shoulder. "He's having a problem with his senses, and we're concerned he may not realize how serious it is, that he needs help."
Clare paled visibly. "That happens?"
Elizabeth chose her words carefully. "It's not a common experience, and it's not something you should be worried about. Jim has been separated from his Guide, and it's had an ill effect on him."
"You're his Guide?" Elena asked Blair.
"Yes," he said, his voice a little shaky.
"I'm sorry about your Sentinel," Elena said.
"Thank you," he said.
"Why were you separated?" Clare asked.
Blair could feel himself panicking, not knowing how to answer that.
Elizabeth put her arm around the girl's shoulders. "It's a long story and private," she told her.
Clare's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Did you leave him?" she asked him and then turned back to Elizabeth. "I thought Guides weren't supposed to do that. That's what you said. Sentinels and Guides are together forever," the girl said, becoming upset.
"Blair didn't leave Jim," Elizabeth said. "And the fact that Sentinels and Guides have a lifelong commitment to one another doesn't mean that there will never be rough spots. There are problems in every relationship."
"Jim could die, couldn't he?" she demanded, fear seeping into her voice.
Blair grabbed onto the arm of the sofa, holding on so tight he knew his knuckles must be white. He could feel Elizabeth's Sentinel senses on him, taking in his vital signs, registering his distress. "As I said before, it is serious, and we do need to get him help."
"See? I knew it. That's what always happens when you trust people, when you let them get to you. It makes you weak. It puts you in danger," Clare said.
"That's not true," Elizabeth argued.
"If Jim had just taken care of his senses by himself, this never would have happened. He'd be fine now," Clare persisted.
"You always want to make everything the Guide's fault," Elena said. "But Sentinels aren't perfect. Maybe Jim didn't listen to Blair, and that's why it happened."
"You know what? Right now, we need to focus on Jim and Blair, and this really isn't helping. So why don't we discuss it later?" Elizabeth said.
"Fine," Clare said, crossing her arms over her chest, defiant and angry. "But I'm never going to need anybody like that, and there's nothing you can do to make me." She stomped out of the room.
"Like I want to be your Guide. You couldn't even pay me!" Elena screamed after her.
"She doesn't mean it, Elena. She's just scared," Elizabeth tried to soothe her.
"She does too mean it. She doesn't like me!" the girl insisted, her lip trembling and tears beginning to form in her eyes. "And if she doesn't want me as her Guide, that's just fine then!" she said, storming off in the opposite direction that Clare had gone.
Elizabeth wilted onto the sofa beside Blair, rubbing her eyes tiredly. "I'm sorry about that."
He shook his head. "They're just kids."
"Teenagers," she corrected. "And everything's about them whether it actually is or not."
"It must be pretty scary for them. I mean, I'm not sure I would have wanted to know that this...whatever this is...could happen between Sentinels and Guides. I'm pretty sure it would have scared the pee out of me, and I'm an adult."
Elizabeth looked pensive. "Sam says I'm not patient enough with them. We had one spectacular fight over that."
Blair smiled slightly. "Now you've gone and blown my image of you guys. I thought you were 'Super Couple' and never fought."
Elizabeth smiled back at him. "Yeah, right. Actually, fighting is a healthy thing, or at least it usually is. It means both people are standing up for themselves in the relationship. But Sam and I got into it over the girls because he was right and I didn't want him to be. It hurt my professional pride and went against the grain of who I like to think I am that I wasn't being compassionate enough with scared young girls."
"I have a hard time believing that's true."
Elizabeth shook her head. "I don't know, Blair. Maybe it's just that I hated being a teenager so much. I guess I've kind of closed away that part of my life, which makes it really hard for me to relate to how Clare and Elena feel, even though logically I can understand it."
"I'm sure it doesn't help that it brings back all the stuff about Alex Barnes."
"No, it sure as hell doesn't. I know I said this before, but it makes me really worried about my own daughter. I mean, what kind of mother am I going to be if I can't relate to adolescents? Sometimes I really find myself wishing that Carla would never grow up, that she'd stay a baby forever."
Blair put a hand on her arm. "I think a lot of parents feel that way. It's a kind of nostalgia. And when they're little, it's easier to protect them."
Elizabeth nodded. "I just don't want Carla to have to struggle the way Clare and Elena are, but of course, I know it's not possible to prevent that."
"No, you're right. It's not," Blair said. "But I honestly do think that Clare and Elena will be fine. Clare really is just scared, like you said. And Elena is hurt that Clare won't accept herthe Guide instinct at workand that's probably very confusing, since she can't figure out why it's so important to her that a girl she doesn't even know like her."
"I think that's another reason I have trouble relating. I didn't have any problems accepting Sam. I just knew he was the one, that it was right. And I was so damned grateful to him for being able to help me with my senses, for giving me some control over them. I mean, Sam really saved me. It's always been such a simple formula for me: Guide equals a good thing."
Blair shook his head. "Not Jim. He fought me tooth and nail pretty much every step of the way for years. My helping him made him feel really out of control."
"But he was already out of control with his senses going crazy."
"Yeah, well, Jim's not always the most perfectly logical guy in the world. Now that I think of it, if he were here, he might actually be able to help Clare. I really think he could relate to her," Blair said and then the weight of the situation hit him again. He rubbed his face, the tension returning full force.
Where the hell are you, Jim?
The loud brrng of the phone nearly caused him to jump out of his skin. He grabbed it. "Hello?"
"Simon, thank God! Did you find him?"
"I'm afraid not. I found the front door unlocked and the loft empty. But everything's pretty much in place, and it doesn't look there was a struggle or anything."
Blair tried to be as calm as possible. "Simon, Jim's in real trouble. It's absolutely imperative that we find him."
"Okay, Sandburg, try to take it easy. I'm going to find him, I promise."
"Hey, man, I can't help it if I'm pretty fucking terrified here. Jim could be out there somewhere dying. Forgive if I'm not able to take it easy."
Simon's voice gentled. "I didn't mean you shouldn't be upset. We just need to stay calm, so we can find him."
He breathed deeply and worked to calm himself down. "I'm sorry, Simon. I didn't mean to take it out on you. I'm just really, really worried about him."
"It's okay, kid. I know it's tough on you. I'll put out an APB on Jim and contact all the local hospitals, see if he's turned up. Can you think of anywhere he might have gone that I could check out?"
"The only places I can think of are his favorite fishing hole and camping spots up in the forest. And I hope to God he hasn't gone out there," Blair said, the cold terror beginning to take him over once more, realizing that if Jim had retreated to the mountains to clear his head there was a good chance he'd never see him again.
"Try to keep calm, Sandburg. We'll do everything we can to find him. I put Rafe and Brown on it. Megan too. What do I do when we find him?"
"If he's in any kind of shape to travel, we need to get him down here to San Francisco. If not, then I'll be on the first flight to Cascade."
"Got it," Simon said.
"And Simon, could you...I really need to know whatever you find as soon as you find it. I just...I can't stand this not knowing. It's driving me crazy."
"I understand, Blair," Simon said softly. "I'll keep you informed. I promise."
Blair hung up, and Elizabeth put her hand on his arm to steady him.
"You heard?" he asked.
"What if they can't find him?"
"We can't think that way. Captain Banks is very good at what he does, and he knows Jim very well. If anyone can find him, he can."
"Oh God, I hope so, Elizabeth," he said, unable to contain the sob that escaped him. "Because if anything happens to him, it will be all my fault."
"You know that's not true."
"I just wish I was there for him, with him. I hate the thought of him alone and hurting."
She squeezed his arm. "I know."
"I want my Sentinel back, Elizabeth. I want things the way they were. I just hope it's not too late."
Every step Jim took was like trying to walk at the epicenter of an earthquake. The ground just wouldn't stay still beneath his feet. After a while though, he'd kind of figured out how to compensate for it, leaning into the twists and curves like he'd learned to do when he'd taken up riding motorcycles. For the most part, he thought he was managing not to look too much like a drunk or a crazy person, although the cab driver had given him a funny look. Of course, his eyes wouldn't focus correctly, and he'd just had to guess how much money to hand the man. He had the sneaking suspicion it was the biggest tip of the driver's career.
The airport teamed with activity, and the commotion was torture to his disordered senses. He stopped a moment and leaned against the wall, closing his eyes tightly, trying to dial everything down, attempting every exercise Blair had ever taught him for controlling his senses, all to no avail. It still hurt like hell. He really didn't know if he could do it or not, if he could make it.
"You're not just going to give up, are you?" a familiar voice demanded.
He opened his eyes and saw the boy standing next to him, one hand on his hip, obviously exasperated with him.
"Do you think this is easy?" he snapped.
The boy rolled his eyes. "You're supposed to be this big strong man, the Sentinel, and you're gonna let a little noise stop you?"
"I'm doing the best I can here, kid."
"Well, it's not good enough. We have to go find him, so you need to get on the plane."
"All right, all right. Geez, you're a bossy little kid. Did anybody ever tell you that?"
The boy smiled brightly. "I'm just like my daddy."
"I can't imagine what a stubborn son of a bitch he must be," Jim mumbled beneath his breath.
"I heard that!" the boy said.
"Yeah, yeah, whatever. Which way to the ticket counter?"
"Over there," the kid pointed.
"Okay. Thanks," he said.
He turned to head in that direction when he noticed an elderly woman staring at him. Oh, great! I'm talking to my hallucination in public. I'll be lucky if they even sell me a ticket.
Fortunately, he managed to hold it together long enough not to alarm the ticketing agent. Of course, the first plastic card he pulled out of his wallet was actually his insurance card, but he laughed it off as some subconscious fear of flying. The next one was a credit card, and the agent completed the transaction, handing him the ticket. He tucked it into his inside jacket pocket and began making his way to the gate.
"See?" the kid said, appearing again, walking with him. "It wasn't as hard as you thought, was it?"
"Kid, if you keep talking to me and I keep answering you, there's no way they're ever going to let me on that plane."
"They can't see me?" the boy asked.
Jim shook his head.
The child whooped with delight and began sticking out his tongue at everyone he passed, laughing and making fun of them. "This is great!"
"Behave yourself," Jim told him.
"Ahhh, you're not fun at all," the boy complained. "Just for that, I'm not going to keep you company. You can just take the boring old flight all by yourself."
And just as mysteriously as he'd appeared, the child was gone.
Jim shook his head. If I actually make it to San Francisco, it will be one hell of a miracle.
He carefully navigated his way to the gate, only bumping into one trash can in the process, which he thought was pretty good, considering every sense was misfiring like crazy and he was operating pretty much on guess work. He sank down onto a chair near the gate and waited until they called his flight.
Just hang on, Chief. I'm coming.
She hadn't been entirely sure that people would still be able to see her. She'd been dwelling amongst shadows and memories so long, seeing things, knowing things she never should have been able to, that she no longer felt real or solid to herself, rather like an apparition, something without form, something that could be looked right through. But they could, in fact, see her, and they noticed nothing out of the ordinary. To them, she was just another middle-aged woman, another ordinary face with its wrinkles and worry lines, another aging body in sensible shoes, so very unremarkable, another traveler at the busy airport, going somewhere, for some reason. No one cared.
Life was full of surprises. Perhaps more than anything else, it was shocking how misaligned the inner world and the outer appearance could be. It was troubling really. You could walk through the valley of death, survive trial by fire, journey to the edge of the earth and back, and no one would ever know unless you told them. They would never recognize you for who you truly were, because they got so lost in the misleading labyrinth of what you appeared to be.
Yes, life was always surprising, so very unpredictable. A few weeks ago, she never would have guessed any of thisthat she could clean up so well, that she'd have the wherewithal to manage this far, making her way into town, hailing a cab, being able to string enough words together for people to understand her. But here she was, and the world was just the same as she'd left it. Her absence from life had been as unremarkable as her reappearance in it.
She clutched her ticket in her hand and put her small suitcase on the conveyor belt to send it through the x-ray machine. It still amazed her that she'd had no problem making the reservation or getting the ticket. She'd just given the man her money, and he'd given her the paper envelope with everything she needed inside it. She didn't know why there was a small part of her that expected to be rejected, disapproved, sent away. Some nagging little voice just wouldn't stay quiet.
Maybe I really shouldn't be going back there. Maybe that's not the right answer. Maybe I need to try again to get on with my life and let all of that go. She shook her head violently, ruthlessly pushing away the doubt. The security guard stared at her oddly for a moment, but let her pass anyway. It's not a crime to be a little unusual. Still, I need to be more careful. Remember, appearances are important.
After her Sentinel had died, she'd had no desire to go back, to see the others, to communicate with Dr. Knowlton. The doctor had called numerous times, left messages, written her letters, but she'd never answered any of them. She just couldn't face her. She wasn't sure what she would do or say if she did. She knew Dr. Knowlton hadn't purposefully betrayed them, hadn't given those people the information on her husband, that the doctor had, in fact, suffered the same torment as her own beloved Sentinel.
But she was still alive and with her Guide, whole, part of the tribe, with everything ahead of her. That was what she could never forgive the doctor for, or any of them really. It made her feel like even more of an outcast than she already was. They had what she wanted so badly, the vital connection that was the only thing that could warm the sick chill inside her, the one thing she would never have again.
Stop it. You don't know that for sure. There could still be a chance. I could still be a Guide again. It's not too late. It can't be.
She needed to go back to the beginning, to where it had all started, to the source. It brought back memories of her first such journey. It had all been such a mystery then, thrilling, a little confusing. She hadn't had any idea what was pulling her, but it had been irresistible, a siren voice, calling her to her Sentinel. She'd never been to a city before. She'd barely been out of the little town where she'd been born, just four years away at the state college a few towns over, a vacation or two to the lakes up north, and once to the mountains in the bordering state. But she'd never been anywhere like San Francisco.
The bus ride had taken three days. She'd been fascinated the whole way, watching the country change, the flat grassy plains giving way to mountains and lakes, becoming dusty deserts, and finally, at the end of the long ride, the ocean on the horizon, so blue and vast, a sight she'd never expected to see for herself. She'd gotten off the bus in San Francisco and had been dizzied by the sheer volume of life around her, all its endless variety, the kids with their wild, spiky hair in every conceivable color, the beautiful young men with their arms twined around the waists of other beautiful young men, the busy wharf area with the strong smell of fish in the air, the cable cars with people hanging off them just like she'd seen in the movies.
It was so unlike anything she'd ever experienced. It was so much more than she could have imagined. Right then and there, even before she'd found her Sentinel, it was as if a door opened before her, revealing a whole landscape of possibilities that had been hidden before, her first inkling that there was so much more to the world, to life, to the universe than anyone had ever led her to believe.
Looking back on it, she realized that it probably should have seemed terrifying or at least overwhelming. But she'd been starry eyed and innocent, so very young in experience, if not in body; knowing no one and nothing about the city hadn't deterred her. She'd come simply because the instinct had called her. She had no plans, nowhere to stay. She didn't even have a map and had no idea where to get one. But the irresistible impulse was still inside her. It was like a homing beacon, and suddenly she'd just had the urge to walk. So she'd walked and walked and walked. She hadn't known where she was going, but her feet seemed to be taking her in a specific direction. They'd carried her onward, purposefully, unhesitatingly, until finally she'd arrived outside Dr. Knowlton's office, just knowing that destiny was waiting for her inside, even if she hadn't really understood what that meant at the time.
She hadn't truly gotten it until she walked through the door into Dr. Knowlton's waiting room and found her Sentinel there, expecting her. The recognition had been like a fireworks display lighting up the sky on the Fourth of July. This was what she'd been looking for all her life, at long last. He'd stood there in the middle of the room, staring at her as if he'd never truly seen before, and she'd realized that something was wrong. She hadn't paused, hadn't stopped to call for help. The Guide instinct had already been inside her, and she'd simply stepped forward and put her hand on the side of his head. If she closed her eyes and concentrated, she could still feel what that was like, the frisson of heat passing between them, the surge of super-charged energy, the connection already forming as she brought her Sentinel out of a zone for the first time.
She'd realized even then that the indescribable pulse that passed between them was a form of communication, of communion. It carried so many thingsa sense of belonging, the meaning of family, overriding purpose, erotic longingthe many things that would bind them together, that would remake their individual existences into one, unified life.
Nothing had ever been that right before. Or since.
Now she was going back to the source. Now she was trying to get it back again, that exquisite sense of wholeness. She knew no one else could ever be the Sentinel she had lost. She realized she would always mourn for him. But perhaps there could still be restoration for her weary heart. Perhaps, there was a reason, after all, why she was still alive. There just had to be. Perhaps she had not been cast out of the magic circle after all, but only moved to another place within it. Perhaps the darkness wasn't a life sentence, and she could step back into the light and heat once more.
She was certain there was a Sentinel out there, one who was vulnerable, a Sentinel in need, with only a tenuous connection to a Guide. Her instincts twitched and quivered with that knowledge. It was just like it had been years before, that first time the irresistible impulse had come over her. Something was pulling her. There was something she needed to do.
"Flight 237 to San Francisco now boarding through Gate 12," a woman's voice announced over the intercom.
She picked up her suitcase and folded her jacket over her arm, heading for the gate to board the plane. Yes, it was just like the other time, and she'd do the same thing she had back then. She'd heed the call, follow the voice, go to the source.
And just maybe, she'd find a second chance to live the extraordinary life.
If Jim had thought the commotion at the airport was disturbing, it was nothing compared to the roar and bustle of the city streets. His whole body felt like it was on fire, his senses consumed by holocaust. Worse yet, they had turned inward, and he was minutely aware of the motion of his own blood, the terrible heat generated by his cells, the sound of his bones and cartilage flexing and scraping as he walked. He swore he could even sense the action of his synapses as they fired. It was all far, far more than he'd ever wanted to know about himself.
He stopped a moment to lean against the brick face of the building he was passing. It wasn't just rough against his skin; every minute indentation felt massive and cratered, like the surface of the moon. He closed his eyes and tried to breathe deeply. It took more effort than he could manage. He was way beyond exhausted now.
How many times had he thought he would die without Blair? How many times had those very words floated through his head? It was many, many more than he could count. There was the Golden incident when he'd been ten different kinds of terrified for his Guide. The whole time he was trying to talk Blair into giving him the gun he was so supremely conscious of all the cops with weapons trained on Blair, just waiting to take him out at the least wrong move. These were some of the same guys he'd overheard complaining about the long-haired hippie who wasn't even a cop and working with one of their own like he owned the place. He knew there were at least a few of them who'd think it was good riddance if something happened to his partner.
Even after he'd gotten the gun away, the ordeal had been far from over. He'd never forget sitting there on the cold concrete floor, cradling Blair in his arms, unable to even see him, waiting for the ambulance, or later in the hospital, how he'd sat by Blair's bedside, holding his hand, just praying he would wake up again, his same self, undamaged.
He didn't make a habit of praying. In fact, before Blair had come into his life, he couldn't remember ever having paid much attention to God. But whenever his partner was in trouble, he wasn't above a little bargaining. Just let him live. Please God. I'll die without him. It was his mantra. He'd thought it when Lash had taken him and that mountain man lunatic had shot him during the standoff with Quinn, when Gustavo Alcante had threatened to burn him, when Blair was trapped on the elevator, when he'd found him in that god-forsaken fountain. I'll die without him.
In fact, wasn't that really why he'd slammed Blair up against the wall that day in his office so long ago, way back at the very beginning? It hadn't been that he'd disbelieved or mistrusted him. No. In fact, that had been the problem. He'd walked into the room that day and every last instinct he had exploded with a sense of destiny. His heart had done a vertical leap inside his chest, out of recognition and sheer joy. He'd just known he was looking at the rest of his life standing there before him, this long-haired, counter-culture-embracing child of the revolution, this beautiful, intelligent, soul-stopping man he could never, ever, not even on his best day, hope to deserve.
He'd had two choices that day: get into Blair's face like a macho asshole, the safe route, or get into his pants, what he'd really wanted, the not-nearly-so-safe but tons-more-fun choice. It wasn't the last time he'd made the same bad decision. He'd never wanted to need anyone that badly, like Blair was oxygen and he was...well, a carbon-based life form. He'd made a career out of resisting his Guide, arguing with him, refusing his help, failing to thank him for all his efforts and his endless devotion, pushing him away when he got spooked by the Sentinel thing, when he felt overwhelmed by how dependent he'd become on his Guide. Even after they'd become lovers, after he'd understood the bond between Sentinels and Guides, after they'd committed their lives to one another, he'd retained some of that stark terror at the dizzying depth of his own need.
Now, as he held onto the side of the building with the last of his strength, his fear struck him as incredibly stupid. He'd let it get in the way far too often. He'd allowed it to come between them. And now he really was going to die without Blair. He was going to die alone and friendless in a city he didn't know, like some drifter who'd fallen through the chinks of life. He felt his knees buckling, and he didn't have the strength to resist. He sank to the ground, his face still pressed to the wall. I should never have let it come to this, Chief. I should have trusted you. I should have accepted that you're the most important thing in the world to me. I should have talked to you, told you about all this shit I've been going through. I should have had faith that you'd understand.
"It doesn't have to be over yet. It's up to you to decide."
The child's voice startled him out of his half-conscious delirium.
"I can't make it," Jim told him sadly.
"Yes, you can. You just have to stand up now. If you die, it's because you gave up, not because it was your time. They told me so."
Jim shook his head. "I'm sorry, kid. Whoever they are, this time they're wrong."
The little boy sighed dramatically. "They're never wrong. You're just stubborn."
He smiled. The kid didn't pull any punches. He had to admire that in a pint-sized hallucination.
"You can still be with him. You can still tell him all the things you wish you had," the boy said, tugging at his sleeve. "You just have to find him, and you're so close now. Please."
The last word was said in a quavery voice, and Jim managed to focus his vision long enough to see that the boy's eyes were filling with tears and were very scared. He sighed heavily. Even though the child was only a figment of his own imagination, he couldn't turn off his overblown sense of responsibility. The last thing he wanted was to make a kid cry.
"Okay," he said, making one last effort of will and pulling himself to his feet.
The boy sniffled slightly, but was smiling now. "See! I knew you could do it," he said, clapping his hands together with happiness. "Come on, it's this way. Just another block now. You can do it!"
"All right, kid. Go on. I'm coming."
The boy danced around by his side, taking his hand and skipping. "See? Aren't you glad you didn't give up? It's not so bad, right?"
"Sure, kid, whatever you say," Jim lied. Every step, even the slightest movement, was hell on earth.
"It's that one," the boy said, pointing to a large, white, three-story Victorian.
Jim hesitated. He had no way of knowing if this was really the right house or if Blair was even there. In his confusion, he'd trusted in the boy implicitly, even though he was finally nothing more than a product of his own delusions. It was only now that he realized how truly foolish that had been.
"Go on," the boy nudged him slightly. "They're waiting for you inside."
Jim thought a moment. Weird shit is always happening with this Sentinel thing. Maybe this is some kind of spirit vision, help from a higher source. Besides, I'm too tired to go any further. He stumbled and lurched up the steep flight of stairs, weaving back and forth as he went, needing every ounce of concentration just to stay on his feet. He was about to bang on the door when it suddenly opened, and he was falling forward into darkness.
He expected to hit something hardwood or tile, marble or brick. Instead, he found himself cushioned against something warm and softand delicious smelling. Blair had caught him before he hit the ground. He nuzzled closer, trying to bury his face in the folds of his Guide's shirt, the sweet curve of his neck, the heavy, thick fall of his hair, the Blair-scent a balm to his riotous senses. Thank you, God. Thank you for letting me find him.
"Jim? Jim! Are you all right? Oh my God! Come on, say something."
Jim could clearly hear the panic in Blair's voice, but when he tried to open his mouth, tried to form words and speak them, nothing came out. His mind was a jumble from the bedlam of his senses, and he had to battle just to retain consciousness.
"Let's get him upstairs and put him to bed."
He recognized the low, level tone of Elizabeth's voice.
"Come on, Jim," Blair said, struggling to get them both to their feet.
"Let me help you," Sam said, his slight Southern accent echoing in Jim's head.
The two men heaved him up off the floor, supporting his weight between them, and moved him toward the staircase.
"Is he going to be all right?" a voice asked, one he didn't recognize, young and female.
"Yes, Elena, he's going to be fine," Elizabeth said. "We just need to get him reconnected with his Guide."
"He doesn't look fine," a different young voice said, in a challenging tone.
It made Jim smile. Whoever this girl was, she seemed to have a "prove it to me" philosophy that he recognized all too well.
"He's been through a lot, Clare. But now that he's here, we can help him."
"Yeah, right, whatever you say," the girl answered, clearly not accepting Elizabeth's explanation.
Jim closed his eyes. Must be a young Sentinel and Guide pair and quite a challenge it seems. Elizabeth and Sam really have their hands full with all four of us here.
The trip up the stairs was one of the more harrowing adventures of his life. His equilibrium was completely shot, and he had no idea which way was up. There was more than one scary moment when he leaned back when he thought he was leaning forward, and all three of them nearly went tumbling down the stairs. The inside of his head was filled with a loud pounding noise, like high tide beating against the shore, accompanied by a symphony of jackhammers. His sense of touch had completely conked out, and that made it even more difficult to climb the stairs.
"Hang on, man. We've got you now. We're going to get through this together," Blair said, his tone low and calm, the Guide voice, right next to his ear.
"We're almost there. You can do it, Jim," Sam encouraged him, also using the Guide voice.
It's like a Guide sandwich. The thought cracked him up, but when he tried to laugh, it came out as something much more agonized than that, the low, wounded wail of a dying animal.
"Shit! We need to get him to bed. Now!" Blair said, beginning to panic.
"In here," Elizabeth said.
The world tilted, as Blair and Sam turned him to the left and guided him into a bedroom. He could feel the surface beneath his feet change from the smooth, polished slickness of hardwood floors to the soft nubbiness of a rug.
Sunlight flooded the room at a low angle through the windows, right into his eyes. "Ahhhh!" he screamed, shutting his eyes tight, hiding his head in his hands.
"I got it," Elizabeth said, pulling the blinds.
The room listed, and he felt the soft springiness of the mattress beneath his back. He curled into a fetal ball. The room echoed with a low, keening noise, which he finally realized was coming from him, but he didn't know how to stop it.
"What do we need to do?" Blair asked, with urgency.
"You need to stay with him. He needs to reattach his senses to you to get them grounded. But start off easy and take it slowly. Too much input could be a shock to his system, and I don't think he can take too much more of that right now."
"I can do that." He heard his Guide say, and then the mattress dipped slightly. He could sense the weight and heat of Blair's body on the other side of the bed.
"Begin with hearing and smell. They seem to be functioning the best right now," Elizabeth said. "Leave touch and taste for last. They'll be harder to handle."
"That makes sense," Blair agreed.
Jim could feel his Guide watching him, even if his own vision wasn't working well enough for him to focus on Blair's face.
"Did you hear that, Jim? We're going to work on getting your senses back on line. I'm going to hold off touching you for a while, even though there's nothing I'd like more right now than to take you in my arms. But I don't want to make this worse. I don't want to hurt you. Do you understand?"
He wanted to answer, but the words still wouldn't form on his lips. So he tried grunting instead, hoping it sounded like an acknowledgment.
"That's great, Jim. You're doing good. We're going to have you as good as new before you know it," his Guide said.
"I'm going to get a pitcher of water and a cup," Elizabeth said. "He looks like he might be a little dehydrated. Get him to drink as much as possible, but just little sips at a time. I'll also bring up some soup. If his senses have been like this for a couple of days, I doubt he's had much to eat."
"What else should I do?" Blair asked, sounding scared.
"Just what you're doing now. That's what he needs, to be with you. As he seems to be getting better, you can add more stimuli."
"How will I know when he's ready?"
"You're his Guide, Blair. Rely on your intuition. You'll know better than anyone else possibly could. We'll give you some privacy now. I'll be back in a few minutes with the water and the soup. If you need anything, all you have to do is call. I'll hear you. Or Clare will."
Jim heard the soft whooshing of the bedroom door as it closed. He felt Blair settle back down on the bed, close but just outside touching range, not that he really had the strength to reach for his Guide anyway. Now that he was beside Blair again, his senses, his whole body, felt itchy, like a wound in the process of healing, like the pins-and-needles sensation he got when the blood returned to his leg after it had fallen asleep. It didn't hurt exactly. It was just a crawling, restless, stinging kind of discomfort. At least the hallucinations were gone; that was a huge relief.
"I missed you, Jim," Blair said. "And, God, when I figured out that something was really wrong, I was so unbelievably worried. Elizabeth didn't know if...God, I'm just so glad to see you. You know how much I love you, right? The past few months have been sheer hell, man. I can take a lot of things in life, but I can't take your not touching me. I can't have that. You've always touched me, way before we slept together, before we even fell in love. Or maybe we've always been in love. I don't know. Sometimes, it kind of seems that way. Anyway, when you're better and we've had a chance to talk all this out and get it all straight, I'm going to make you promise me, man. You never ever stop touching me again. Got it, big guy? I really mean it. Whatever the problem is, we can fix it. Just don't tune me out. Okay?"
Jim made the grunting sound again, and he could feel Blair's smile, even if he couldn't see it.
"Good, big guy. I'm glad you see it my way."
Jim felt the soft puffs of air on his face from Blair's words. He could sense the comforting heat emanating off him and leaned into it, seeking more of his Guide. Blair-scent enfolded him, sweat and spice, salty sweetness, plain and sturdy like all the best scentsthe good earth after a summer rain, sun-dried sheets, cinnamon baking in an oven.
Best of all, he could hear his Guide's heart beating, the rhythm that ruled his life, that created order out of chaos, that provided solace when all other comfort failed. God, how he had missed that simple sound, which to him was the very soul of the cosmos.
As he listened to the sweet music of his Guide's pulse, he realized the full extent of his own exhaustion. It wasn't just the past two days when he hadn't slept. It was the last two months, the entire time he'd been separated from his Guide, not allowing himself to attune his body and mind to the life rhythm, that lovely sound, that made it possible for him to really rest. He felt so enormously relieved that the deprivation was finally over. He had his Guide back. His senses could have their fill of him. There would never be the need to deny them again. He would find some way to take care of the other problem. Never, never again would he break the connection with the man who was destined for him always and forever.
Jim smiled to himself at that thought, because it sounded so much like something Blair would come up with. Blair was big on destiny, and maybe he'd been right all along. Certainly, something mysterious had led him back to his Guide. He let himself get lost in the tidal beating of Blair's heart, sleep blessedly overtaking him.