Blair lay on his side, turned toward Jim, as close as he could get to his Sentinel without actually touching him. Jim's senses seemed much better, but Blair remained cautious. He wanted to go as slowly and carefully as possible with touch and taste. He didn't want his Sentinel to suffer any more than he already had.
The sun had broken through on the horizon several hours ago, and light now beamed strongly through the windows, moving slowly across the floor as the sun rose higher in the sky. It was going to be another beautiful day. He thanked God that his Sentinel was here to see it, beside him once more, where he belonged. That thought was pretty exhilarating, and even though he hadn't slept at all last night, he still felt rejuvenated, relieved, happy.
As Blair lay beside Jim, the urge to touch him was nearly overpowering. God, he'd missed him so much, not just the last four days, but those two long months when the bond between them had been broken. Now, he understood his strange lack of energy, the endless chill, the leaden apathy he'd been suffering all that time. It wasn't just depression, as he'd thought, but the actual physical effects of the severed connection with his Sentinel. He'd always known that the ties between Sentinel and Guide ran deep and were meant to last a lifetime, but it fascinated his scientist's brain to see nature taking such a firm hand to ensure that Watchman and Shaman stayed together, inextricably linked.
He had trouble believing it had only been four days since he'd last seen Jim. It felt like an eternity. He couldn't look at him hard enough. He wanted to take him in and consume him, feast on him, fill himself with his Sentinel. That's really why he hadn't gone to sleep last night. If he'd shut his eyes, even for a moment, that would have been one less moment he had to spend watching his beloved.
Jim was so very, very beautiful. He'd always loved the way Jim looked when he was at restso relaxed and trusting and open. It had been far too long since he'd been able to enjoy that. It was one of the many things he'd missed during their estrangement. Last night, as he'd lain there listening to his love's slow, steady breath moving in and out of his body, it was like he had become the Sentinel, watching over his mate, keeping him warm and safe and comfortable. It had felt like a sacred duty and a great privilege, and he'd at long last felt the ice thawing inside his chest, the frost giving way to the warming rays of love, the deep waters of his life running free and clear and untroubled again.
It was perhaps the most relieved he'd ever been in his life.
The long night had also given him plenty of time to think, and he'd put it to good use. Now that Jim was at peace once more, he realized what a very long time it had been since his partner had been truly relaxed. He tracked it back in his mind, and it was long before that night when the sex had just been sex. It had been building for months before that. He remembered how tense Jim was every night when they got home from work. They'd been putting in marathon hours for weeks on end, a run of bank robberies and then a series of harrowing child murders. Blair had just attributed Jim's tension to stress on the job. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable explanation at the time, but now he realized that it hadn't been the case at all.
He should have known all along. None of the things he typically suggested to help Jim relax had workednot guided meditation or back rubs, not herbal tea or hot showers together, nothing, except for sex. And even then, it wasn't just sex, but intercourse. Even after he'd blown Jim, he would still be wound tight as a spring with whatever strange tension was plaguing him. The only thing that seemed to bring any relief at all was for Jim to take him. He'd found it all rather flattering at the time. His partner couldn't do without him, wanted him so badly. Now that he was looking at in retrospect, it had been so unlike Jim, who had always been more romantic than predatory in his approach to sex. If Blair had been paying careful enough attention, he would have noticed the difference. He would have seen that his Sentinel felt out of control, but was too afraid to tell him, because it had to do with sex and Jim could still be rather hung up when it came to sexual matters.
Blair was so lost in his thoughts and self-recriminations that he didn't notice that his partner was awake and scrutinizing him, a furrow wrinkling his brow.
"Don't blame yourself. It's not your fault," Jim said, his voice still a little rough and unsteady from his ordeal.
Blair started slightly and found pale blue Sentinel eyes fixed on him, absorbing data, reading himand correctly, too. "How did you..."
"You get this particular expression on your face when you're beating yourself up about something."
Blair couldn't help smiling and snuggling a little closer. "Do you catalog all my expressions?"
"Yes," Jim said simply.
"So what does this one mean?"
A slight glimmer of mischief danced in Jim's eyes. "It's one of the rarest ones of all. It means you don't know what to say next."
"Hey!" Blair protested at Jim's teasing, with a smile, but then his expression turned serious." Maybe I do feel...I don't know, a little..."
"Awkward?" Jim suggested and Blair nodded. "Me too, Chief. Me too."
They both fell silent for a long moment.
"I'm sorry," they said in unison.
Jim shook his head. "I already told you it wasn't your fault. You don't have anything to be sorry for. I'm such an idiot. I really should have told you. I did finally figure that out, but by then, it was too late. You'd already gone. I'd already driven you away."
"I was always going to come back. I just needed some time to...I don't know, get my head together, I guess. But I would have come back, Jim. I swear. You have to believe me."
Jim nodded. "I do believe you, Chief. I just don't know why you bother sometimes."
Blair looked deeply into Jim's eyes. "Oh, I don't know, maybe because you're my life."
"You deserve better," Jim said, very softly, closing his eyes against the pain.
"Jim," Blair said, reaching for him, brushing his fingertips as lightly as possible across his cheek.
Jim jumped anyway, a tremor passing through his entire body.
"Oh God, I'm sorry!"
"No, it's okay, Chief. It doesn't hurt. It's just so powerful. I don't know how to describe it. It's like my senses are really, really glad to see you again. But it's okay. Please touch me. I want to feel you."
Blair didn't need more of an invitation than that. He moved closer, laying his head on the pillow beside Jim's, leaning in to his lover, absorbing Jim's heat and scent, letting his breath tease his Sentinel's sensitive skin. Jim groaned in the back of his throat.
Blair propped himself up on one elbow and looked down at him. "Are you sure it's..."
"Don't stop!" Jim said, frantically.
"Okay, okay," he said, moving his hand lightly, gently over Jim's belly, only the thin cotton of the shirt separating his hand from Jim's skin.
Jim's breath came in short puffs. "Yes, Chief. Feels so good."
Blair was seized by the desire to touch every inch of Jim's body, and he began at the top, running his fingers through Jim's spiky hair, tracing the whorls of his ears, running the back of his hand along Jim's stubble-roughened jaw, mapping all the planes and angles of his face with shaking fingers. Jim trembled violently, his skin flushed everywhere Blair touched him, but he begged and pleaded for more whenever Blair hesitated.
Blair got up on his knees, to gain better access, so he could continue his exploration, his reacquaintance with Jim's body. He put both his hands on Jim's throat, stroking beneath his chin with his thumbs. He could feel the action of the muscles as Jim swallowed and the dull thud of his heart beating. He moved on, tracing the collarbone, and then he used both hands to span Jim's broad, strong shoulders, massaging them gently. He slid his hands down his lover's arms, relishing the powerful feel of the muscles. He took both of Jim's hands, cradling them in his own, admiring the long, elegant fingers, as he always did. He lifted one of the hands to his mouth and kissed it, then looked at Jim questioningly. When his lover nodded, eyes wide and intent on him, he began sucking each finger in turn, deeply, thoroughly, erotically. Jim thrashed his head back and forth, making a series of high-pitched animal sounds in his throat, pounding his other hand into the mattress.
Blair moved back to his lover's chest and ran his hands up and down it, feeling Jim's wonderful heat even through his clothes. He ducked his head and placed a single, reverent kiss on his belly.
Jim's eyes were mere slits now, and his breathing came in fast, furious gulps. "Oh God, Chief. It's so good, so good. Almost too much."
"Do you want me to stop?"
Jim didn't seem to have enough breath to answer, but he shook his head wildly. Blair smiled and caressed his hips, kneading and stroking them, causing Jim to buck up, trying to rub himself against his Guide's body. Blair held him down and ignored his lover's hard cock. As much as he knew Jim was enjoying it, he didn't think they were ready for that much stimulation just yet. Besides, it was something of an ambition of his to make his lover come without even touching his erection.
He stroked both his hands down Jim's legs, lingering on his thighs, which he lovingly teased. Even through the thick khaki of his pants, Jim was extremely sensitive there, and he gasped as Blair touched him. Blair kept at it until his love was wild with want, and then he moved on, to explore the hollows of the backs of his knees, the corded muscles of his calves, the bones of his ankles. Jim's feet were bare, and he pulled them into his lap, resting them on his thighs. Jim was whimpering now, a sound of pure pleasure and need. Blair massaged his feet, tickling the soles lightly, kissing the insteps. He looked up to make sure Jim was watching and found blue Sentinel eyes trained on him, feverish with desire.
He smiled at him and lifted one of Jim's feet. "This is what I want to do to you, lover," he whispered in a hoarse, seductive voice, before taking the big toe into his mouth. He licked and sucked it, swirled his tongue around it like it was a piece of candy, using the edge of his teeth to tease, making love to it with his mouth, like he'd done to Jim's cock so many times in the past.
It was more than Jim could handle after two months of Guide-less celibacy. He screamed at the top of his lungs and came in his pants.
Blair sat back and gently lowered Jim's foot back to his lap again. "I love you," he said.
Jim was still panting, coming down from the high of orgasm, but the light in his face said the sentiment was very much reciprocated.
"I really missed you."
"Missed you too, Chief," Jim managed to say.
Blair continued to gently stroke the feet in his lap. "You know, there's never any reason for you to have to struggle with something alone, no matter what it is or how much you're afraid it's going to hurt or upset me. I'm really pretty tough, you know. And you're very, very much worth it."
It was like watching a door open, the way Jim's expression changed, all the repressed emotions of the past two months tumbling out. Blair felt his heart constrict as he saw the full extent, the depth and breadth, of his Sentinel's sorrow. "I was ashamed," Jim whispered.
"It was so...brutal, how I was thinking of you. It didn't even feel like I was me anymore. It was like something had a grip on me. Something..."
Jim frowned, considering. "Worse than that. Inhuman. Like an animal."
Blair nodded, mulling that over. "And it started with wanting sex all the time?"
Jim blushed hotly and couldn't quite look Blair in the eye, but he nodded.
"Was it pheromones?" Blair asked.
Jim shook his head. "I don't think so, Chief. I'm used to your pheromones by now. Besides, they make me feel good all over, tingly, affectionate, not out of control. And this...whatever this is...it doesn't make me feel good."
Blair frowned, paying careful attention. "So does that mean you never felt satisfied when we had sex?"
Jim shook his head. "No matter how many times I had you, I just couldn't get enough. It was never enough. All I could ever think about was fucking you."
Blair looked at him pensively.
"What?" Jim asked.
"You never say that."
"What?" Jim asked again, even more puzzled.
"Fucking. That's one of the first things I noticed about you, because it was so not what I was expecting. I mean, you've been in the army, you're a cop, but you don't really curse very much. I've got a really foul mouth compared to you, man. I always liked that about you. It was just so Jim of you, so unstereotypical. It gives you...I don't know...a kind of dignity somehow."
"That's me, Chief. Mr. Dignity," Jim said, smiling softly.
Blair elbowed him lightly, but returned the smile. "Don't laugh! It's one of the things I love about you. Anyway, my point was that you never used to call it fucking. You rarely even refer to it as having sex. You almost always say making love when you're talking about us. In fact, you don't really like it when I call it fucking either. You cringe whenever I do. It's another one of those unexpected things about you, that you've got a romantic streak that's like a mile wide."
Jim pulled his lover closer. "I'm sorry, Chief. Maybe it's the fallout from the hallucinations, but I'm not seeing how this all relates. What does it matter what I call it?"
"Anytime a person acts outside their normal pattern it's significant. The question is why does it feel like fucking now rather than making love?"
Jim let out a half-strangled cry, and Blair could feel him flinch. "No, Chief, it's not like that. I didn't mean..."
He stroked his lover's arm. "I know," he said soothingly. "I know you love me. I didn't mean to upset you. I'm just trying to understand."
Jim shook his head. "But I haven't been acting very lovingly lately. You deserve so much better than that."
Blair touched his face and gazed into his eyes. "Something's been going on with you, Jim. Probably something to do with the Sentinel thing. We just need to figure it out, man, so we can fix it. No more blame, huh?"
"I don't know if...Blair, I need to ask you something," Jim said, his voice shaking.
Blair felt himself stiffen at the anguished tone of his Sentinel's voice and held onto him more tightly. "Of course, man. Anything."
"That night, that...the last time we were together...I don't really, I can't...it's all a big blank, a lot of it. Was it...were you...did I rape you, Blair?"
Jim gazed up at him with large, terrified eyes, shimmering with tears, agony etched into every line of his face.
"No!" Blair said, clutching Jim's hand, pressing it to his cheek. "How could you even think that?"
Jim lightly stroked his cheekbone. "What else could I think? I'll never forget what it was like to come to and find you pinned beneath me, trapped, and your blood...oh God, your blood, Chief," Jim said, his voice catching. "I couldn't remember...doing that to you, not any of it. I knew you wouldn't have let me do that without some kind of struggle, and I just went ahead anyway. We both know that's rape."
"I didn't struggle. I didn't tell you to stop," he said softly.
"My God, Blair, why not?" Jim demanded.
"I knew it wasn't you."
"It wasn't you, man. Not the real you. Not this you that I'm in bed with now. I could actually feel it when you changed that night. I mean, it was still you downstairs while we were fooling around on the sofa. It was you who led me upstairs, who took off my clothes, who got me ready. It was even you who entered me. But once you were all the way inside, it was like something took you over, some kind of compulsion, like you were a machine programmed to fuck and nothing else mattered."
Blair had never seen such unbearable pain on anyone's face. "You shouldn't make excuses for me, Blair. It was me there that night. I'm the one who hurt you. Nobody else. Oh God, it sounds so inadequate, but I really am so, so sorry for what I did."
"I know. You said so that night, and I already forgave you for it."
"Oh Jesus, Blair, how can you possibly forgive me after that? How can you ever trust me again?"
"Because you promised it wouldn't happen again, and I know you. It won't. That's why you nearly died yesterday, because you were keeping your word, keeping me safe."
"Pulling away from you was the hardest thing I've ever done, but I couldn't think of any other way to protect you. Even after I'd hurt you so badly, I still wanted to...well, you know."
"Before this, we didn't know what would happen if we broke the bond, but now we do. Remember what I said yesterday? You've gotta promise me, man, no matter how bad things ever get, no matter how scared you are, even if you think you're going to hurt me, you can't ever pull away from me like that. I won't lose you that way. I won't go through hell like that again. You know, I can't stand being cold, and I can't get warm without you. We're absolutely meant to be together, and there's nothing we can't overcome if we're open and honest with one another. But if you ever break our bond again, I'll kick your ass, I swear. Do you understand me?"
"Yes," Jim said, chastened, and a little in awe of his Guide's ferocity.
"Good," Blair said, curling back into Jim's arms, settling his head on his lover's chest. "Because kicking your ass would be so bad for my reputation as a peace-loving man."
Jim laughed, letting his fingers play through Blair's curls.
"Did I mention already how much I really, really missed this?" Blair asked him.
He could feel Jim's smile. "Maybe once or twice. I missed you too, so much. When I thought...well, there were a few moments when I didn't know if I was going to make it or not, and I really thought I was going to die without ever seeing you again."
Blair shivered and burrowed into his lover, soaking in the living warmth, trying to push back the nightmarish visions of what might have happened.
"Blair?" Jim said.
"You know that it's probably not gone, right? This weird...sexual thing, I mean. Once I've recovered and my senses are anchored to you again, I'll probably...it's going to start all over again."
Blair nodded. "Yeah, I know."
"So what do we do?"
Blair pulled himself up, so he could look into his Sentinel's face, blue eyes locking onto blue eyes. "We figure it out. We fight it, fix it, put an end to it. We get our life back, man."
Jim gazed up at him, brushing the hair back from his face, his expression serious and thoughtful, and finally he nodded. "I want our life back."
Blair smiled. "Me too, man. Me too."
Several days passed, and Jim had grown stronger, thanks to the generous efforts of everyone in the household. Blair had soothed and restored his senses. Elizabeth had monitored his physical condition and treated his dehydration. Sam had sat with him and told him funny stories to lift his spirits. Elena had brought him flowers and news, gossiping with him like they'd known each other forever. Clare had been more reticent, never venturing further than the doorframe, but she'd come by every few hours, like clockwork, just to check on him, to make sure he was okay.
After all that loving attention, he was feeling much bettersane, rested, well-fed, renewed. Best of all, he was reconnected with his Guide. Raw, uncomplicated joy pulsed through him at that thought. It wasn't that the dark urge had been vanquished. He still vaguely sensed it, banished to some far corner of his psyche, down for the moment, but certainly not out. Still, Blair had said it would be okay, and he had to trust in that. He had no intention of going back to either of the hells he'd so recently escaped, either the lunatic senses or the soul-annihilating separation from his Guide.
He sat on the terrace, at the patio table, drinking coffee, the first cup Elizabeth had allowed, worried what caffeine might do to his still vulnerable senses. It seemed impossible that any good could come from this whole agonizing situation, but strangely enough it had. Now that his senses had settled down, they felt new somehow, as if he were experiencing them for the first time, only with control. The effect was pure pleasure. Everything he saw or touched or tasted, heard or smelled, even the simplest things, they were all bold and bright now, larger than life, without being overwhelming, giving him the most intense sensual pleasure, putting him in a nearly euphoric state of mind.
The world was filled with wonders. That's what he kept thinking. Like the coffee he was drinking. It was just so damned good, as though he'd never truly tasted coffee before, had never paid close enough attention to it. He couldn't understand how he'd never before noticed that it had layers and nuances to its flavor. It tasted dark and rich, like the earth itself, but also smooth and glossy, with a hint of biting pepperiness that registered in the back of his throat. It was a marvel; it was absolutely delicious.
I guess I just spent so much time thinking of these senses as some kind of punishment or freak show that I never actually learned to enjoy them. Except with Blair. And even that went wrong somehow. I just hope to God I can do it differently this go around and actually learn from past mistakes. That would be a nice change, huh, Ellison?
Laughter rose up from the back lawn, and he smiled. That sound would be delightful under any circumstances, with or without Sentinel hearing. It reminded him of wind chimes, airy and delicate and joyous. Blair was playing Frisbee with Clare and Elena, and it was so good to see him happy again. Since they'd reconnected, it was like Blair had been reborn, freed, reenergized. The terrible sense of chill had passed, and the layers had come off. He was now dressed in a T-shirt and the old worn jeans Jim always loved to see on him, appreciating the way they molded to his form, showing off his body. Blair had even thrown off his shoes, and Jim found the vision of his love's naked feet running on the green grass one of the most erotic sights he'd ever witnessed.
That had definitely been the most pleasurable part of recovering his sensesrediscovering Blair, like it was the first time. His Sentinel sight marveled over him like he was a new toy, greedily taking in the sight of his lover's muscles beneath his clothes, the way his calves and thighs flexed and stretched as he ran for the Frisbee, the rippling play of biceps as he threw it. He'd always loved Blair's hair, but now he couldn't take his eyes off how it shimmered in the sunlight. He could see the individual strands, so many beautiful colorsmahogany and sable, deep auburn and burnished gold. The curls bounced around his face with every movement, like they were living things, blowing happily in the light breeze.
Blair at play was a joy to watch. He threw all the passion of his nature into the game, suddenly diving for a long shot, his lithe body stretching out gracefully, going after the Frisbee for all he was worth, skidding on his belly as he made a grab for it. Clare and Elena burst into laughter, their voices high and clear, and Blair joined in with them, still lying there on the ground, his chest rising and falling with exertion and mirth. The teenagers ran over to him and each offered a hand, helping him up. All their faces were alight with simple, innocent happiness. It really was like watching three children at playtwo lovely young girls and one heart-breakingly beautiful boy.
Jim could tell by the set of Blair's body that he was conscious of his attention, that he could feel the Sentinel senses at work on him. Perhaps it was the Guide instinct, or maybe Jim just wasn't being very subtle. But every now and then, Blair would smile up at him, and he could feel himself falling into that bottomless blue gaze. Just like the ocean, Blair's eyes had their depths; you only had to look closely enough to understand that.
Jim had never quite gotten over the incongruity of those ancient eyes, filled with wisdom so far beyond Blair's years, set in such a youthful, boyish face. There was always something just a little unfathomable in Blair's expression, despite his wonderful openness, something that came from deep inside him. Sometimes, Jim thought it was simply the power of that intricate, elegant mind shining through. Sometimes, he suspected it was more mysterious and complicated than that, the experience of many lifetimes already past, the accumulated wisdom of the ages.
I should never think of him as a boy. He's not. He's a man, a beautiful man. Jim revised himself. My beautiful man.
Blair ran up the lawn and bounced up the steps, over to the table where he was sitting.
"Hey man, why don't you come and play?"
Jim shook his head and reached for him. Blair was the only recreation he craved these days. His lover smiled, understanding perfectly, bending down to kiss him. It had taken some doing for Blair to convince him this was safe, that they were ready, but now that he'd tasted his Guide again, he longed for more. In fact, he'd developed a whole new appreciation for how subtle and complex his Guide's taste was, no two kisses ever quite alike, each one staggering in its own way. The one before breakfast had been sweet and rich, like a sinfully luscious dessert. The one as they'd sat together on the sun porch had been hot and peppery, Blair's lips and tongue a piquant pleasure.
But this one...well, it was the best so far, like a long drink of water when he'd been so thirsty, so clean and clear and restorative. He didn't want it to end and wound an arm around his Guide's waist. Blair braced his arms on the chair to keep from losing his balance, leaning further into the kiss, giving as good as he got. Jim sighed his satisfaction into his lover's mouth and could feel Blair react to that, opening his mouth wider, becoming more demanding.
How did I live without this for so long? No, not live, survive. I survived. But just barely.
Blair finally pulled back, out of breath. "We have an audience," he whispered.
They both looked over to see two sets of eyes watching them curiously.
"Man, you guys sure can hold your breath a long time," Elena observed, not without admiration.
Blair blushed, but Jim beamed happily. The giddy quality of his senses had put him in the best mood he could remember, and he felt like broadcasting his satisfaction to everyone.
"Hey big guy, I want to go out and do some shopping. Feel like coming?"
"No, that's okay. You go ahead. I'm still a little tired. I think I'll just stay put and soak in some more sun. It won't be long before we're back in Cascade, and I won't even remember what it looks like."
"I hear that, man. Okay, I'll be back in a couple of hours. You want anything?"
"Surprise me," he said, smiling broadly.
Blair got a positively mischievous look in his eye. "Don't forget you asked for it." He kissed Jim on the forehead. "See you in a little while."
"Blair...ummm, do you think? I mean, would it be okay if..." Elena stammered.
"You're welcome to come along."
She bounced with excitement, and Jim had to grin. It's got to be a Guide thing.
"Clare?" Blair offered.
The other girl shook her head, still lingering by the stairs, as if she wasn't quite sure about coming any closer.
"Do you want anything?" Elena asked her.
She shook her head again.
Elena smiled. "Maybe I'll surprise you too. How about that?"
"Okay," Clare said, almost shyly. "Thanks."
Elena looked pleased and a little surprised that Clare hadn't rejected her offer. "Okay, we'll see you guys later then."
"Bye," Jim said, in a husky tone.
"See you later, big guy."
Clare crept a little closer, and Jim pulled out a chair for her. "Why don't you sit down? You must be tired from the game."
"Okay," she said, still a little hesitant, but taking a seat anyway.
"Elizabeth tells me you're from Sacramento. So how do you like it here in San Francisco?" he asked her.
"It's all right. The city is nice. I get a little tired of the fog though."
"You haven't seen cloud cover until you've been to Cascade, where Blair and I live. The sky is steel grey about nine months out of the year. Blair just hates it."
"Umm...so do you and Blair, like, live together?"
He nodded. "Yes, we do."
"Five years now."
"And you love him?"
"Yes, I do, Clare. Does that bother you?"
It had never occurred to him to try to conceal his love for Blair from Clare and Elena, not that it would have been especially possible anyway. But, of course, there were plenty of people who would object to such open displays in front of the kids. He always thought of their love as so beautiful that he sometimes forgot there were people who saw it as something dirty and dangerous. Clare's parents might very well be such people. He had no idea what they'd taught her or what her reaction to his relationship with Blair might be.
I hope for her sake that she's open minded. It sure will make things easier for her down the road.
"I don't have a problem that you're two guys together. I have a lot of gay friends," she said and Jim felt relieved for her. "But I was just wondering if that's why he's your Guide, why you let him boss you around, because you're in love with him. I mean, if it wasn't a love thing, you wouldn't need to have him around, right? You wouldn't have to have a Guide."
"I'd still need him. He was my Guide before he was my lover, and he'd still be my Guide even if I'd never fallen in love with him at all, although I can't quite imagine that."
"But why bother?" Clare asked. "I mean, look what it got you. You almost died because of it."
Jim shook his head. "No, that wasn't Blair's fault, not in any way. His being my Guide wasn't what hurt me. It was my pulling away from him. I have some...I don't always communicate that well, especially when I get scared about something."
Clare's eyes grew wide. "You get scared?"
"I don't," she declared defiantly. "If you don't have anything you can't stand to lose, you never have anything to fear."
It sounded like a motto, like something she'd spent her young lifetime formulating, something she'd put a lot of faith in. Jim shook his head to himself. God, it sounded tragically familiar, and he felt a terrible, weighty sadness both for Clare and for the stubborn part of his own subconscious that still clung to such painfully wrong-headed logic.
"What good is a Guide anyway?" she demanded. "They're my senses. No one knows them better than I do. What's a Guide going to do for me?"
"You'd be surprised. Blair's taught me so many things. I never could have used my senses as effectively as I do without him."
Clare looked distinctly unimpressed.
"I'll show you," he said. "How about a contest?"
"What you do mean?" she asked, a little suspiciously.
"A little battle of Sentinel skill. What? Not up for it?"
"Bring it on," she said, throwing her shoulders back, meeting his challenge.
Jim smiled to himself. Oh yes, she really does remind me of myself, poor girl. But it does make it easier to push her buttons.
Jim stood up and moved to the end of the terrace, a spot with a good vantage. "Can you see the couple arguing by the clump of trees in the park over there?"
Clare joined him and searched the far-off horizon with her Sentinel sight. "Oh, yeah, okay, I see them. So?"
"What are they arguing about?"
"How am I supposed to know? They're half turned away, and I'm not that good at reading lips anyway."
"Don't watch. Listen."
Clare stared at him like he was crazy. "You've got to be kidding? They're too far away, and there's way too much other noise. It's not possible. I mean, I'm a Sentinel, not some freakin' psychic."
"It's not only possible, but if you know the right technique, it's actually fairly easy. Watch. I'm going to piggyback my hearing on my sight, so I can filter out all the background noise and tune into their conversation."
Jim concentrated, piggybacking his senses the way Blair had taught him, zeroing in on the couple, letting his sight guide his hearing toward the target.
"I can't believe you missed our anniversary to work late on some report," the woman complained.
"I already explained to you how important it was. My career is at stake here, Melissa," the man argued.
"You know, not everything is about you and your damned career. Just once, I'd like to come first with you."
"You do come first."
"Everything I do is for you."
The woman snorted in disgust and rollerbladed off in a huff, leaving her husband to scramble after her.
Jim reported the conversation to Clare, word for word.
"You can actually do that?" she asked, her guard slipping, her face lighting up with wonder.
"You can do it too."
She started to shake her head.
"Really," he said. "See those kids playing on the swings?"
"Okay, focus on them. Now, concentrate on joining your sight and your hearing, letting your hearing ride on top of your sight, so you can direct it where you want it to go."
"I don't think I can..."
"Yes, you can. Pay attention. Hearing on top of sight. Use it to direct your hearing to the kids on the swings."
He watched her as she tried it, her expression intent, her forehead scrunched up with the effort of her concentration. He saw the moment she got it, her face lighting up with pleasure.
"Oh my God! That's so amazing," she said.
Jim smiled. "Blair figured it out, trained me how to do it. When I'm out in the field he guides me through it, so I don't zone. We've discovered a lot of evidence and solved a lot of crimes using that technique."
She nodded, and for a moment, she actually looked seventeen years old, unguarded, curious, full of wonder. But it was only for a moment. She hastily snatched her senses back, tuning out the happy laughter of the children playing in the park. The mask she habitually wore quickly slid back into place, and he watched her close up again.
"It's not like I need to do stuff like that anyway," she said. "I'm not a cop or anything, and I don't plan to be either."
"Whatever you do with your senses, your Guide can help you use them better."
"I don't want a Guide. Why can't anybody get that through their thick heads around here?" she screamed, but Jim's Sentinel eyes could see her trembling.
Scared to death. Well, I ought to recognize it.
"I'm going in now," she said, hastily pushing back the chair.
"Clare, I'm..." But the slamming of the terrace door cut him off. "Ah, damn!"
"Whoa," Sam said, as he came out onto the terrace, carrying Carla. "What's up with Clare?"
Jim sighed. "We were talking, and I pushed a little too hard I guess."
"You were talking?" Sam asked, astonished, as he settled onto a chair. "As in whole sentences, strung together, coming out of Clare's mouth, that kind of talking?"
"It hasn't really been that bad, has it?"
"Actually, it has, I'm afraid. We've had a hard time reaching her. I think she relates better to you."
"I have the feeling we're a lot alike in many ways."
"I appreciate your trying to draw her out. Beth's a little worried about her. She's resisting her Guide."
"I just wish we knew how to help."
Jim nodded. He understood Clare's fear all too well. Five years of Blair in his life, two years as lovers, and he was still struggling with fear of his own, not sure why he kept making things harder than they needed to be. "It may be one of those things Sentinels just have to sort out for themselves," he finally said.
"Maybe that's true. It's just really hard to sit by and watch someone going through a hard time like that without doing anything about it."
Jim smiled. There really were universal Guide characteristicscompassion, empathy, the eagerness to help people in trouble. He'd seen so many of Blair's wonderful qualities in both Sam and Elena.
"Sam? Would it be okay if I held the baby?" Jim asked, surprising even himself.
Sam grinned. "Sure, Jim," he said, handing him Carla, showing him how to hold her. "You know, I wouldn't have taken you for a man with much of an interest in kids."
"I wouldn't have thought so either," Jim told him.
But it was a wonderful feeling to hold Carla. She was so tiny and warm, and she wriggled in his arms, kicking her feet and balling her hands into his shirt, making so many different baby sounds that he couldn't even begin to catalog them all. He wondered if each one had its own specific meaning. She's so new. That's what he kept thinking. She was so new she dazzled his senses; she smelled and felt and sounded so fresh and unspoiled, so perfect. He'd never expected holding a baby to be so such a moving experience, but it was.
Jim suddenly flashed on the boy from his visions. I don't know what it is with me. I've just got kids on the brain these days.
"What's it like, Sam?" Jim asked.
"Being a parent? Indescribable. Amazing. Terrifying. And as hard as it is for me, it's just that much harder for Beth."
"The Sentinel thing?"
"In combination with the mother thing. I mean, you know how anxious new moms can be. Well, imagine that the new mother is a Sentinel who can hear every minute fluctuation in the child's breathing and a doctor who can spin out medically correct imaginary ailments for each little wheeze and gurgle."
Jim shook his head. Sometimes he had to wonder why Guides ever hung in there. No matter how well-adjusted a Sentinel was, weirdness was just bound to follow in the wake of the whole heightened senses thing.
"Is she driving you crazy?"
"She probably would be if she weren't making herself so nuts. I doubt she gets an hour's sleep a night. She stays up all night listening to Carla. Finally, I just end up feeling bad for her and kind of worried that she's going to wear herself out."
"Just like Blair."
"He always ends up feeling bad for me, no matter what I've done or how it's affected him."
"Maybe that's part of being a Guide, being able to give that latitude, to really understand the ramifications of enhanced senses and how that can lead to extremes. I mean, the whole Sentinel thing is just this huge wild card. It causes problems and has consequences no one could ever foresee or prevent. Sentinels have to deal with it because they don't have a choice. They can't get away from their senses. But we Guides signed up for this. We always knew there would be problems, and we accepted that at the outset."
"Somehow that doesn't keep me from feeling shitty about what happened. I mean, Blair suffered, and I caused it."
"So why not try to separate it out? Figure out what part your choices actually played in the situation versus what was uncontrollable Sentinel stuff. Then work on what you can change and forgive yourself for the rest. That's really all anyone can ever do. It's pointless to feel guilty about circumstances you never would have chosen, that were always out of your hands."
Jim nodded absently. Maybe Sam was right. No, he knew he was right, and maybe, just maybe, he could take that good advice. He already knew how he was to blame. It was the same old pattern: encounter Sentinel weirdness, get scared, freak out, grow silent, shut Blair out.
Sam watched him closely, as if he could see the thoughts playing across his face. He leaned in a little closer. "The why of it is the important part. Why did you make the choices you did? Understanding that is the only way you'll ever be able to heal it."
Jim frowned, concentrating, trying to follow back the thread of his fear to its source, attempting to see where this impulse came from that made him pull away from his Guide when things got hard, when he started to struggle. But it was like trying to look through concrete or enter the heart of a void, something that thwarted even Sentinel sight. There was something standing in his way, and he couldn't get to the answer.
Sam patted him on the shoulder. "These things don't always come to mind immediately. Give it some time and thought. I'm sure you'll figure it out."
"Hey, no problem."
Carla started moving restlessly in Jim's arms. She curled up her hands into tiny fists and began rubbing her eyes, making cranky noises.
"Somebody needs a nap," Sam said. "Let me take her. I'll go put her down."
Jim handed her back to Sam, and he held his daughter against his shoulder, rubbing her back soothingly. "Yes, you're a tired little girl. You need to go to sleep now, don't you?" he crooned to her as he got to his feet and headed for the door.
"Hey Sam?" Jim said.
Sam smiled. "Any time, Jim."
Blair and Elena hit the stores in earnest, browsing, looking at pretty much everything, since neither one of them really knew what they wanted to get for their Sentinels.
"I'm glad Jim's feeling better," Elena said, picking up a carved, decorative box and putting it down again, determined to find the perfect surprise for Clare.
"Yeah, me too. This one was way too close."
"There've been other times like this?" she asked, her eyes wide with surprise.
"Let's just say that between the Sentinel thing and the law enforcement stuff, Jim and I lead very interesting lives."
"I thought it was pretty cool you were the one who saved the day. I like it when the Guide gets to do something important. I mean, the way it was described to me it sounds like Clare's going to have all the fun, while I just kind of offer advice and encouragement," she said, rolling her eyes. "That's like way boring, you know what I mean?"
"Trust me, Elena. A Guide's life is anything but dull."
She smiled happily. "Good."
Blair shook his head. Ah, youth!
"So how'd you guys meet? How'd you get into the Guide thing?" she asked.
"I was studying Sentinels, actually."
"You mean, you'd heard of them before? I got here to San Francisco, and the whole thing was news to me."
"I'd read about Sentinels when I was a kid and have been fascinated by them ever since. There's this explorer, Richard Burton, not the actor, who wrote extensively about them."
"There's a Richard Burton who's an actor? What's he been in?"
"Never mind," he said, suddenly feeling very old. "Anyway, so I read all Burton's stuff and when I got to grad school, I really wanted to study the whole Sentinel phenomenon, only I needed a subject. I was seeing this nurse at the hospital, and when Jim came in with his senses all going berserk, she called me."
"That's such a romantic story! It's like destiny or something. But what I want to know is how you got Jim to accept you?"
"Very slowly. When I first saw him in the hospital, I had to find a way to talk to him, so I stole a doctor's coat and snuck into his room. I gave him my card and told him this was someone who would understand what was happening to him. Of course, Jim being Jim, he noticed that I'd mispronounced the name on the name badge. Still, he did come to see me."
"I'll bet he was kind of pissed when he saw you were the same person from the hospital."
"Most definitely. Jim's kind of a suspicious guy. You may have noticed that. It's a police detective, Special Ops, tribal protector thing. That day in my office, he slammed me up against the wall and called me a neo-hippie witch doctor punk or something like that. I don't think you could say we exactly got off on the right foot."
Elena watched him intently. "So how did you get him to start trusting you?"
"Well, there was this garbage truck, and I kind of saved his life. After that, he pretty much accepted me. Not that we never had problems, not that he didn't resist sometimes, or a lot of the time actually. He did. Jim wasn't always that crazy about my way of doing things, especially all the tests. Actually, that still drives him crazy. It makes him feel like a lab rat instead of a person."
"But still, after that day with the garbage truck, he accepted you as his Guide?"
Blair nodded. "Pretty much."
Elena crumpled a little, starting to look dejected. She took out a scarf, examined it and tossed it back on the shelf. "Where's a garbage truck when I need one?" she muttered.
"Hey," he said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "She'll come around. Don't worry. She's just not used to having anyone. Jim was like that too, but he's learned to let me in. Well mostly. We're still working on it, but we're making progress."
"I hope that happens with me and Clare, but I really don't think she likes me too much."
"When a person's been let down a lot, sometimes they develop certain defense mechanisms to protect themselves. They learn to push people away before they can get too close, so they don't get hurt. They reject other people before they get rejected. Clare just needs time to see that you're not going anywhere, that she does need a Guide, and that you're not going to reject her."
"Man, it's like so complicated. My head is spinning."
"Sorry," Blair said, grinning ruefully. "That's another thing Jim has a problem with, when I go into lecture mode, which, okay, is fairly often. What I'm really trying to say is be patient and let her work things out for herself. She'll accept you eventually."
"I guess I can do that."
Blair moved to the next aisle, sorting through various porcelain figurines and other bric-a-brac. That is just so not Jim. He already complains about too much clutter around the loft.
Elena trailed behind him, not really looking at the merchandise. "Can I ask you...well, it's kind of a personal question?"
"When did you know that it wasn't just about being his Guide? When did you know it was more?"
"When did I fall in love with him?"
She smiled shyly. "Yeah."
"I think it was when he didn't throw me out of the loft when Larry wrecked it."
"When I first met Jim, I was doing an experiment with a Barbary ape named Larry, studying the effects of television violence on primates. After my place got blown up, Jim took us both in, and well, you know, Larry was an animal, not exactly tidy, and all that shit on TV did kind of do a number on him. He trashed Jim's apartment. I thought that would be the end of it. Jim is very careful with his stuff, most especially his home. He was pissed off and complained and muttered about throwing me out. But he didn't, and to be honest, I don't think he was ever really serious about it. I mean, because then Larry did it again, and Jim just helped me clean it up. Anybody else would definitely have tossed me out on my ass after that, so fast I got whiplash. I really think that was the beginning of it for me. I never felt that way before with anybody, like I could screw up and still be welcome and it wouldn't even be a question. I think I started loving him for that."
Elena smiled. "That's so sweet."
"Yeah, well..." Blair said, blushing slightly.
"What about Jim? When did he fall in love with you?"
Blair laid down the belt he was checking out and thought for a moment. "You know, I really don't know. I never asked him. We got together...well, it was after I got hurt working a case. Long story, pretty ugly. I don't really want to go into it. Anyway, I'm pretty sure that was only a catalyst. I'll have to ask him sometime when he first knew."
"You should," Elena advised him. "That's the kind of thing that's important to know."
Her earnestness made him smile. "I'll make sure I do then."
"Do you think Clare would like this?" she asked him, picking up a small embroidered silk bag.
"Yeah. That's nice."
"I don't know. I just want to get her something she'll really like."
"She will come around, Elena. I promise. You just need to be patient."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. But here's a question. Why is it the Guide that always has to be understanding?"
"Somehow it just seems to work out that way. The Sentinels have their hands full dealing with their runaway senses, and we have our hands full dealing with our recalcitrant Sentinels."
Elena giggled. "That's funny."
"Thanks," he said, smiling back at her.
"I like that. I'm going to have to remember it. Do you think..."
He waited a moment for her to finish the question, but she didn't, suddenly busying herself refolding a sweater she'd taken out to look at.
"What?" he prompted.
"Did you always know you were gay?" she finally asked, and Blair could tell it was much more than idle curiosity.
Ah, the bonding instinct's already at work. No wonder she's so upset Clare won't accept her.
"I pretty much always knew that gender wasn't much of an issue for me. I mean, it was the person I found attractive. I was never too hung up on whether it was a man or a woman."
"But what about Jim? He doesn't seem quite as...I don't know, flexible as that, you know?"
"Yeah, I do, and yeah, Jim comes from a pretty rigid family, not exactly the sort of environment that embraces homosexuality. But whatever misapprehensions he had about being with another man, he's managed to work through it. One of the things I've always appreciated about Jim is that he may be on the traditional side, but he's not narrow, by any means."
Elena watched him intently, soaking up the information like a sponge.
"Was there something else you wanted to ask?" he asked her.
"I kind of...I just can't help it. I feel...oh, it's no use. She can't even stand to be in the same room with me most days. There's no way she's ever gonna want to go there. I've tried to get over it. I really have. I just..."
"Is this the first time? Or have you had feelings like this for other girls?"
She couldn't meet his eye.
"It's all right," he said reassuringly.
"Yeah, I have. Not that I've done anything about it," she added hastily.
"There's nothing wrong with how you feel, Elena, and there's nothing wrong with acting on it."
"Tell that to the kids I go to school with. There were these two girls, juniors, who started hanging out together all the time, you know, just the two of them. There was something...they were pretty physical with each other, a touch here, a little pat there, kind of leaning into one another when they walked down the hall, you know. One day, somebody caught them kissing, on the lips and all, in the parking lot. They ended up having to transfer to some other school 'cause they got harassed so bad."
"People can be very narrow minded, Elena. I can't say it's not so. But it doesn't make your feelings wrong in any way. It can be really hard in high school. I mean, I know from personal experience. I had a huge crush on this guy, a baseball player actually, at this school I was at in Texas. We're talking Texas here, in the 80s, no less. Anyway, I thought I was being pretty cool about it, but apparently not. It got all over school, and this guy, who I'd thought was so great, was suddenly in my face, threatening to beat the shit out of me if I ever laid a hand on him. Talk about being really disillusioned. Fortunately, my mom and I moved around a lot, and I didn't have to stay there too long after that. Anyway, my point is that high school doesn't last forever. Thank God. You get to choose your own life after that. You can find a place where you feel comfortable being exactly who you are, whatever that is."
"Do you think this makes me a lesbian, Blair?"
"I really don't know. I mean, feelings are always complicated and hard to figure out. Sometimes, teenage girls have very strong feelings for one another. Not that I'm trying to discount what you're feeling. I'm definitely not. I'm just saying it's probably a little early to draw conclusions. I guess I'm not sure those labels matter. I mean, it's kind of silly actually, trying to reduce something as complex as love to something so black and white, so simplistic. People look at Jim and me and see a gay couple, but that's hardly the whole of who we are. It doesn't even begin to describe all the things that we are to one another. We're not exactly your stereotypical gay men either. Honestly, I'm not sure what Jim would do with the soundtrack from a musical, certainly not listen to it. Finally, you just love who you love. If it weren't for prejudice, we wouldn't even bother with labels like 'gay' or 'straight', you know?"
"Is it hard?" she asked, looking worried.
"Honestly, yeah, sometimes it is. Some people are seriously unkind. But I've always found it to be more than worth it. I'd rather have a bumpy path in life with Jim, than clear sailing without him."
"Not that it really matters anyway," Elena said sadly. "She doesn't even like me as a friend."
"She likes you," Blair assured her. "She's just not quite ready to admit it yet."
The girl sighed. "At this rate, she might think I'm sort of okay by the time we're in the old age home together."
Blair grinned at her and put a hand on her shoulder. "Maybe it won't take quite that long."
"Oh my God! That's it!" she squealed.
"What? The bracelet?"
"Yes! Isn't it perfect?"
"It's beautiful," Blair agreed.
"Can I see that one?" Elena pointed it out to the salesman behind the counter.
The man removed the bracelet from the display case and laid it on the counter. It was an exceedingly simple design, silver, perhaps a half inch wide, in the shape of a 'v', with a single, luminous white stone set at the apex of the 'V'.
"It's a moonstone," Elena said.
"I've never seen one before. It's really beautiful."
Elena slipped the bracelet onto her wrist. "It's elegant, unfussy, lovely. It reminds me of Clare," she said, with a sigh. "And her birthday's in June. Moonstone is her traditional birthstone."
"You should get it for her then. I'm sure she'll love it," Blair prompted.
"How much is it?" she asked the salesman.
The man told her, and Elena smiled at him. "I recognize this design and craftsmanship," she said. "Native American, from New Mexico. In fact, I'm pretty sure I know which pueblo it comes from."
"You're familiar with Native American art?" the salesman asked, apparently surprised to find such expertise in someone so young.
"My father is Honduran, but my mother is Zuni, from the western part of New Mexico. I've spent a lot of time there."
"Then this should make the perfect gift for your friend," the salesman said, smiling at her encouragingly.
"Yes, and I plan to get it for her. But first, I need you to offer me a reasonable price."
The man turned red and let out a distressed, choking noise. "I'll have you know that all our prices are..."
"Way overinflated. I know how much the designers sell their jewelry for. Even if they pumped up the price for you, you're still marking it up three to four hundred percent."
"I wouldn't expect you to understand all the ins and outs of retail merchandising," the man said huffily. "But there are overhead costs to cover, as well as other expenses, and of course, we need to show a profit. Sir, I'm sure you understand."
Blair shook his head. "Sounds like my friend here has a point. I'm sure you don't want to get a reputation for ripping off your customers."
The man looked torn. "Yes, I, um, see your point, sir."
"Here, I'll give you this for it," Elena said, taking out several bills from her wallet, significantly less than the quoted price.
"Surely, you don't..."
"I'd hate to have to tell all the nice people in here how much you're overcharging them. Plus, we both know you're still making a really healthy profit. So, how about it? Is it a deal?"
"I'll need to check with the manager."
Elena smiled sweetly. "I'll be happy to wait."
He turned away with a disgusted look and stepped into the back room of the store to confer with his supervisor.
Blair whistled appreciatively. "Elena, you are some negotiator. I never would have suspected."
"Growing up, I spent a lot of time in Honduras. My dad wanted me to have a sense of my heritage, and bargaining is a way of life down there. Believe me, I learned from the master, my grandmother. The big joke in my family is that when my grandma finishes with the merchants at the market they're ready to pay her to take the stuff off their hands. Never pay retail. That's a family motto."
"It's cool you know so much about Native American crafts."
"Yeah, I also spent a lot of time in New Mexico. My mom wanted to make sure I knew I had two sets of grandparents. Mom's a potter, so I know a lot of artists. They taught me what to look for."
"Did you like learning about those different cultures?"
"Yeah, lots. I always find it so interesting to go to new places and see other ways of living. Both my parents like to travel, so I've been all over. I've been to all fifty states, all over Central America, through Europe, and last summer we spent travelling around southeast Asia. We went to Indonesia, Thailand, Hong Kong and Singapore. It was the coolest. I had a great time."
"Have you taken any classes in anthropology?" he asked.
She smiled. "I have. I liked it. I want to take more in college."
"It's a great field," he said.
"Don't you have to say that?" she asked, kidding him.
"Absolutely. It's in my contract. Always speak highly of the discipline. But seriously, you should really check it out."
She nodded. "I definitely plan to. I mean, I probably won't really know what I want to major in until I get to college and try things out. But right now, my top two choices are Anthro and Art History. Or maybe Central American history or the history of Native people in the U.S. I want to study something that relates to my heritage. That's important to me."
"Sounds exciting. I look forward to seeing what you decide."
The salesman came back out of the office. "All right, young lady, the bracelet is yours."
Elena clapped her hands happily. "Thank you!"
"Would you like it wrapped?" he asked her.
The salesman folded it in tissue paper and placed it in a box, putting a decorative sticker on top. He took the cash off the counter and rang up the purchase. He placed the box with the bracelet in it inside a small paper bag and handed it to her, along with the receipt.
"I hope your friend enjoys it," he said, magnanimously.
She smiled at him. "Me too. Thanks."
They left the store and started walking up the busy street again. "What do you want to get for Jim?" she asked.
"I don't know. So far, nothing's really said 'Jim' to me."
"Well, that shirt you bought looks really good on you. That's sort of like a gift for him."
He grinned. "I think that may be stretching it a little."
"Not if you get something for yourself that really turns Jim on."
"Geez, Elena, you're making me blush here."
She elbowed him playfully. "Ah, come on. You know I'm right."
"Well, maybe..." he said, and then a store caught his eye.
Yes, Elena, you're definitely right. I know exactly what I can get for me that's really a present for Jim.
"Over here," he said to her, putting a hand on her shoulder to guide her.
They hurried across the street and went into a popular bath and body shop that Blair frequented back in Cascade.
"You're going to get him soap?" Elena asked, skeptically. "I think that may give him the wrong message. It says less that you love him than that you think he needs better hygiene."
Blair shook his head. "No, I'm taking your advice. This is for me, not him," he explained, making a beeline for what he had in mind.
"All natural, scent-free body products," Elena read from the display.
"I've been experimenting with different kinds of soap and shampoo, looking for one that really is scent-free to a Sentinel. I got some samples of this a little while back, and Jim really liked it. I just never got a chance to go back and get more."
"I understand why a heavy scent would be bad for a Sentinel, but why no scent at all?" she asked.
"Um, well...Jim kind of prefers...he likes to be able to smell me, you know what I mean?"
Elena's eyes got big and were filled with curiosity. "Yeah, I think so. Wow. That's really...natural."
Blair paused for a moment. Elena was only seventeen, somebody's little girl, and maybe he shouldn't be sharing these kinds of details with her. Maybe he should be more discreet. No. Naomi was always open and honest about sex, and it didn't hurt me. In fact, it helped me feel more comfortable with my own sexuality, and that's been important in dealing with the Sentinel thing. It's going to be important for Elena too. I'm not going to lie to her or cut corners off the truth. If she asks me a question, I'm going to answer it honestly.
Elena grinned at him, mischief dancing in her eyes. "So is tonight the special night when Jim gets his gift?"
He returned her smile. "It is, if I have anything to say about it."
"Well, Blair, I think you found the perfect thing for him. I just know he's really going to like it."
"I hope you're right."
Blair also picked up a bottle of massage oil, a subtle blend of chamomile and lemon balm, a delicate scent Jim enjoyed, and paid for all of it at the register. The woman behind the counter handed him the bag, and he and Elena headed out the door.
I really do hope you enjoy your present, big guy, because I'm definitely in the mood for a gift that gives back.
Jim spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in the sun on the terrace, just thinking. The yellow warmth of the sunshine relaxed him so that he could mull over what Sam had said rather than obsessing about it. The ordinary ebb and flow of life inside the house helped too, providing soothing background noise for his musings.
It was funny that he found that busy buzz comforting rather than distracting. He'd never lived with so many people before, except for his six weeks of basic training, and he'd been so unnerved back then, terrified really, that the whole thing passed in a blur. He did remember that it had never been still in the barracksa low, dull roar constantly throughout the day and a residual sense of tension in the air at night, even as they slept, so thick and strong it was like a sound in its own right.
He'd been searching for connection with other people all his life, some sense of belonging. That's really what had prompted him to join the military. As a child, he'd felt so isolated and alone, just the three of them rattling around in that large house after his mother left, divided from one another, more like strangers than family.
Unfortunately, the army hadn't turned out exactly as he'd hoped. The aloneness hadn't receded; beneath the surface, he'd quickly discovered the many divisions that came between his fellow recruits, just the way they had in his family. Oh, he'd made friends, but none of it had lasted. Maybe he would still have been in touch with some of the guys killed in Peru, but the others, they'd just faded away somehow. The differences they'd once been able to overlook only became exaggerated as they got older and moved on in life, their paths diverging in wildly different directions.
When Blair came along, it was his first taste of belonging, at last someone who accepted him wholly, just as he was, family in the truest sense of the word. And here at Elizabeth and Sam's house, amongst all the other Sentinels and Guides, he'd found what it meant to be part of a community. They really were his tribe, not the one he protected, but the one that protected him, helped him, understood him, embraced him for exactly who and what he was.
In his father's house, he'd had to contort himself in so many different ways just to try and please the old man, and still he'd never managed it. In the army, he'd lived in fear of getting caught some night, out behind the barracks or in the latrine, those clumsy, super-heated fumblings in the dark that he'd worked so hard to convince himself were nothing, just an aberration brought on by the lack of female company. Somehow, he'd managed to block out of his mind the lingering sense of disappointment he'd always felt about his entanglements with women. It hadn't been much different in the PD, pretending to himself, his co-workers, worst of all to Carolyn, that he was something he wasn't, until the Sentinel thing made that impossible, until Blair came along and he didn't have to pretend ever again.
It was astonishing and a little sad that it was only in the last five years, out of forty, that he'd begun to let his authentic self out. It was only now that it felt at all safe to do so. It was only because he'd finally found his tribe that it was even possible. What an amazing thing to happen halfway into a life.
Jim became so engrossed in his thoughts that he didn't even hear when Blair and Elena returned. It wasn't a zone exactly, more like an extremely focused state of awareness, deep inside himself, trying to work out those answers Sam had suggested he needed to find. It was only when Elena came out to the patio to call him in to dinner that he was jolted out of his ruminations. He got up from the table, stiff from sitting so long, and laughed at himself a little. And I think Blair gets lost in his thoughts. He went inside and washed up for dinner.
With all of them sitting around the large dining room table, it was like being at the Walton's for dinnerwell, a loud, fractious, Sentinel and Guide version of it. Elizabeth and Sam sat with Carla between them in her high chair, adding her happy, gurgling baby noises to the exuberant pitch of conversation. Clare and Elena sat next to one another. Clare was wearing her new bracelet, trying not to look too pleased with it. Still, Jim could tell she liked it from the way she kept looking down at her wrist and fiddling with the bracelet, admiring it. Elena was trying not to appear too proud of herself, probably worried that she'd spoil the moment, trying not to set off one of Clare's mood swings. But she was thrilled that Clare obviously liked her gift, and she didn't have much luck hiding her pleasure. A wide, bright smile kept breaking through, despite her best efforts.
He and Blair were seated together, and he had a hard time tearing his eyes away from him long enough to pay attention to the dinner conversation. He stopped trying to fight it, and just let the buzzing voices wash over him as he lost himself in wave after wave of his Guide. Blair was wearing the shirt he'd bought while out shopping. Jim had never seen him look more beautiful. The new shirt was silk, midnight blue, so much the color of his eyes. The soft fabric flowed sensually over his body, rippling like water with every movement, accentuating the smooth play of muscles beneath it. Blair had left just the top button undone, and depending on how he moved, Jim could get a glimpse of his skin. It was like watching the promised land winking at him, teasing, that inviting triangle of flesh right at the hollow of Blair's throat, where even from a foot away he could see the pulse beating.
Elizabeth loved candles, and the candelabra in the center of the table was ablaze, bathing everything in a soft, warm glow. Jim couldn't take his eyes off the way the light shimmered in Blair's hair like some kind of angel vision. Blair was freshly showered, but there was no whiff of chemicals from shampoo or soap. Jim smiled to himself. Now, he knew what else Blair had purchased while he was out, the scent-free bath products that left his lover's natural odor uncovered, just the way he liked it. His smile broadened. Oh yes, it was a seduction. That was his surprise.
Jim realized he should probably be concerned about renewing their sexual relationship. He knew they should probably proceed with caution, that he should put on the brakes, look away, anything to break the mood, the sexual tension building between them. But he couldn't. He was too mesmerized by the sight of a sensual Blair putting all his many charms on display. It had been too long, and he'd missed his Guide too much. Plus, for the first time in his life, his senses felt like a wonderland, and he wanted more than anything to savor the experience by making love with his Guide.
"Jim showed me the coolest thing today," Clare said.
Jim heard his name and forced himself to pay attention.
"What'd you call it again?" she asked him.
"Piggybacking one sense onto another. In this case, hearing on top of sight," he said.
"You taught Clare how to do it?" Blair asked him.
"I could focus on specific people's conversations all the way over in the park," she said. "Do you know how far away that is?"
"Far," Elizabeth said. "That's a really interesting technique. I'd love to hear more about it."
Blair launched into an explanation of how it worked and how they'd kind of stumbled onto it while they were investigating the death of another officer, unfortunately killed by some of their own, dirty cops who'd turned to trafficking the drugs they were entrusted to keep off the streets. At Clare and Elena's urging, he lingered on the part where they were involved in the helicopter chase, painting in all the details, pacing his narrative for maximum suspense, keeping them all glued to their seats, dying to hear how it all worked out.
Jim's mind wandered. He already knew the story after all. Hell, he'd lived it. Everyone was caught up in Blair's artful storytelling anyway, and no one seemed to notice he wasn't paying attention. He focused on Blair. His lover swamped his senses. He lost himself in his Guidehis scent, the waves of warmth coming off his body, the swirls and eddies of air around his hands as he gestured, the beating of his heart, the sound of his words. It didn't really matter to him what Blair said. It was enough just to listen to the musical rise and fall of his voice, the low, rumbling bass notes of his laugh, the windy rush of breath in and out of his body.
Then Blair put a hand on his arm and told him to eat, probably a little worried that he'd zoned. He smiled at his lover to reassure him and picked up the heavy silver fork. His taste buds exploded with pleasure. Food had never been so good before. Marta was an excellent cook, and she'd prepared them a traditional Mexican meal.
The mole sauce on the chicken...well, it made his mouth happy. It was a marvel of subtlety and sophistication, a delicate blend of flavors that would have been inedible if the balance was even slightly off. Marta had achieved perfection. The deep chocolate bitterness was smoothed by the delicate play of spices, cinnamon definitely, and something else too, anise maybe. The meaty richness of almonds and sesame seeds tamed the sharp bite of chilies. Marta served the chicken with a healthy portion of avocado rice, something he'd never seen before, a delicious combination that went perfectly with the mole sauce. He ate happily, lingering over every bite, wondering how he'd missed out on such pleasures for so long.
The luscious flavors reminded him of the many kisses he'd shared with Blair that day and that there was still so much more of his Guide that he had yet to taste again. The thought filled him with anticipation, like a promise, a reward, a great gift that was his for the taking, at least if the way Blair kept fondling his thigh beneath the table was any indication.
This is too good. Nothing can be this good, and no one could possibly deserve it.
The rest of the evening seemed to pass as if by magic, the time just dissolving somehow. Dinner came and went; coffee and dessert were served and cleared away again. Jim floated on the tide of it all, his Guide the only thing that really registered in his awareness, the anchor that kept him grounded. Now that Jim had him back, he needed to keep a hand on him at all times, making sure that strong, compact body stayed pressed close to his.
Eventually, the evening was over. People began to stand up and drift away, to their own rooms, to the den to watch television, outside to the terrace for a breath of fresh air. His Guide had grown quiet, watching him with large, solemn eyes. Finally Blair stood up and held out his hand. Jim took it without hesitation, letting his lover lead him upstairs to their room. Any concerns or doubts he'd ever had fell away from him. He went with his Guide willingly, eagerly, his heart thudding in his chest. Let the Guide guide. That thought echoed inside him along with his runaway pulse.
Once inside their room, Blair undressed them both, quickly, efficiently. By now, Jim was swimming in a sea of sensory input, and he let Blair take charge, content simply to float on a cloud of his love's essence.
Finally, Blair stood before him naked, his shoulders thrown back, posing for him, letting feverish Sentinel eyes rake over his bare flesh. "We haven't completely reformed our connection yet," Blair told him. "You haven't finished tasting me."
Jim growled, a deep, raw sound in the back of his throat.
Blair smiled, his eyes filled with desire. "That's right, lover. It's time to reclaim your territory."
"Are you sure?" Jim had to ask, had to make sure.
"I want to make love with you."
Blair grabbed his arm and pulled him close, pressing their naked bodies together, causing them both to gasp. "Nothing too major tonight, okay? Just us, together again, the way we should be."
Jim stroked both his hands through Blair's hair. The curls felt so warm and alive, twining around his fingers. He kissed his lover's forehead. "Yes, please, I want that."
Blair took his hand and led him to the bed. They lay down together, facing one another, still holding hands. Blair's eyes flickered over him in appraisal. Jim could not control his breathing as he felt his lover's gaze moving sensually down his body. Just the thought of making love with Blair once more had been enough to make him hard, and now his Guide's lovingly appreciative glance made him even harder.
Blair looked deeply into his eyes, questioningly, and he nodded. Yes, he was ready, so very eager to love and be loved. He leaned in for another of his Guide's kisses, this one tasting of spice and bitter chocolate, wine, tenderness. He stroked Blair's tongue with his own, teasing and exploring, mapping all the minute gradations in the flesh, feeling the rough rise of taste buds, the dip at its center, the strong muscle on the underside. His Guide was an endless mystery; there was always something new to learn about him. He wanted to know everything, hungry for each new revelation, every small morsel of information. More than anything else, he craved the intimacy that came from such knowledge.
He moved Blair onto his back and held himself above him, looking down at his Guide. Blair watched him intently, blue eyes locked onto him, reaching up to trace the bones of his face with shaking fingers. Jim pressed a kiss to his lover's palm as it passed by his lips, and Blair smiled at him sweetly, apparently understanding all that simple gesture was meant to convey.
For the first time in his life, Jim felt the true gift of his senses, without worry, without resisting them. Lying naked with Blair, their bodies pressed together so tenderly, he understood, at long last, the meaning of ecstasy, the measure of joy. It was the sharp, rich scent of his lover's arousal, telling him just how much Blair wanted him. It was every whimper, groan, gasp, begging little whisper that escaped his Guide's lips, each one an expression of love and desire. It was the exquisite intimacy of bare flesh brushing against bare flesh, the living, pulsing warmth of naked skin trembling beneath questing fingers. It was the sight of a wanton, passion-drunk Blair stretched out beneath him, arching like a cat into his caresses, twisting and writhing with want. It was the delicate taste of the inside of a wrist, the salty pleasure of collarbone and chest, the sugary brown sweetness of aroused nipples, the earthy richness in the crease between thigh and groin, the welcome bitterness of precum dripping from his lover's cock.
It was Blair, filling his awareness, imprinted on each one of his senses, the most valuable gift he'd ever received, the everlasting bond of Sentinel to Guide, sacred birthright.
In some part of his heart, Jim understood perfectly how important this was. He took his time as he relearned his Guide, not wanting to rush any kiss or caress, refusing to shortchange any of his senses or miss out on touching and tasting any part of Blair's body. It was a fact-finding mission after all, and he acquired much new knowledge. One of Blair's nipple, the right, was more sensitive than the otherhe'd known that before. But one of his elbows, the left, tasted minutely saltier than its mate. That was a new discovery.
"Jim, please..." Blair moaned, thrashing his head from side to side, begging Jim to finish it.
"Yes," Jim agreed, unbearably hard himself, more than ready for release.
Blair spread his legs wide, and Jim moved on top of him, positioning himself, gently pressing their erections together. Like coming home. Nothing had ever felt so good, so right. Finally, he was back where he belonged. He reached between their bodies, using their own juices, spreading the slickness between them, easing the way. Blair began to move, impatient, thrusting against Jim's body, groaning loudly, desperate for more. Jim thrust back, matching him stroke for stroke, both of them reclaiming the rhythm of their mutual pleasure.
It had been too long, and neither of them could last or even wanted to. Jim felt the wet warmth of Blair's orgasm against his stomach and that prompted him to follow his Guide over the edge, his throat dry with excitement and emotion, his whole body shaking. This was what he'd been missing all those times when he'd fucked Blair silly only to feel so empty and unsatisfied. Finally, he was making love to his Guide again, reforging their amazing connection, their bond, his one hope, the only thing that could turn the nightmare of heightened senses into this unique power and joy.
With whatever small corner of his mind that was still operational, he thought to relieve his lover of the burden of his weight, rolling over onto his back, pulling Blair against his side.
They lay entangled in each other's arms, and Jim blinked back the tears. "I missed this," he told Blair. "I missed you."
Blair smiled and snuggled closer. "Me too."
Jim pressed a kiss to his lover's forehead. "I'm so sorry I wasn't there for you all those months. I'm sorry we lost that time. It's been so long, too long, since I loved you, really loved you. I can't tell you how much I regret that, Chief."
"I'm just glad to have you back," Blair said, laying his head on Jim's chest.
Jim tightened his arms around Blair, cradling him. "I'm still worried," he admitted. "Even though this was so wonderful, I just keep waiting for the other thing to come back." As he said the words, he could feel the sick sense of dread seeping into his veins.
"I know. I'm worried too. But we'll figure it out. We'll take care of it. I was thinking maybe..."
"I don't know how you'll feel about it."
"If you've got some ideas, I want to hear them, Chief."
"I was thinking it might be helpful if you talked to Elizabeth about it."
Jim felt his color rise. "Umm...didn't you already tell her?"
"I told her what I knew before you got here. I'm sorry. I was worried about you. I didn't know what else to do."
Jim shook his head. "You don't have anything to apologize for. You did the right thing. So you told her about that night?"
Blair nodded. "And about what happened afterwards, that you stopped touching me. She was the one who realized you'd broken the bond and that you were in trouble."
"And you think it could help if I told her the rest of it?"
"She's had experience with lots of Sentinels. Maybe she's heard of something like this before. I think it's the best place to start, if you're up to it."
Jim watched Blair carefully, seeing the urgency in his face, even though he was trying to hide it. "Yes, I can do that. I just hope she can help with this...whatever this thing is. I don't ever want to hurt you or cause you to leave again."
Blair caressed his arm. "Have some faith, Jim. We're Sentinel and Guide. Destiny is on our side."