Blair found Sam in the kitchen, pacing around the table, agitated, muttering to himself.
"Sam? Are you okay?"
Sam stopped and turned to face him. "No. I'm not. I don't understand any of this. And I hate it."
Blair put a hand on his shoulder. "I know, man. It's heavy stuff. Why don't you sit down and we'll talk? I'll put on some tea."
Sam nodded, sinking onto a nearby chair, suddenly very tired. He put his head in his hands. "You don't know her, so you have know way of gauging how unlike her this really is. We're talking about a woman who won't let me kill a bug. Oh, she's terrified of them, don't make a mistake. But we have to carefully shoo them out a window or carry them outside, set them free. Because she hates killing. And now she's sitting in there calmly making plans to murder another human being in cold blood. What happened to my Beth, Blair? What did those bastards do to the woman I know? The woman I love. The woman I married."
"All I can say is that I know from personal experience how going through an ordeal like this can change you. It takes a while to get back to your old life and your old self. And it's been less than three weeks for her. She's still your Beth. She just needs some time to remember what that means."
Tears came to Sam's eyes. "I know. I try to remember that. And she's been very strong, very brave in dealing with all this. Like she always is. That's one of the things I've always loved about her. That's always made me so proud of her. She's the strongest, bravest person I know. Blair, I know this whole, horrible thing is bound to have affected her. My God, what they did to her. I want to kill them for that. But this really is a whole side of her I've never seen before, and it scares me."
"That's how I felt when Jim was freaking out the first time Alex came to town, only we didn't know what was causing it then. Unfortunately, we really let that get between us. And it was almost the end of us. I'd really hate to see that happen to you and Elizabeth."
"My God, so would I, Blair. I love her. I'm committed to her. She's my wife, for God's sake. She's my Sentinel. Until this happened, I don't think I really understood exactly how important that is. I'm just not sure how to deal with it if this is what being a Sentinel means."
"I'm not saying it's not tough, man. Really, really tough. It can definitely get ugly. Instinct is a powerful thing, and Elizabeth's right. It's not civilized. But you have to think about all the buttons they pushed in her. They've threatened what she considers to be her tribe. And worse than that, they threatened her Guide. All those sick, twisted images they put in her head of your being hurt...well, that's enough to send any Sentinel off the deep end. As far as Sentinels are concerned, you just don't fuck with the Guide. It's a biological imperative at the most deep and primitive level. So it's no wonder Elizabeth feels compelled to make Alex pay."
"Beth has always listened to me before. She relies on my judgment. She might complain, but she always does what I think is right. Why not now?"
Blair shook his head. "I don't know, man. There just may be times when a Sentinel's biological programming overrides the bond with the Guide. And maybe..."
"What?" Sam asked, leaning forward.
"You might not want to hear this."
"Maybe it's for a reason. Think about what Guides do for Sentinels. We provide a sort of moral compass, keep them on the straight and narrow, help them figure out how best to use their skills to accomplish the greatest good. Maybe there are some situations that are so extreme, so primal they fall outside the moral arena, and Sentinels stop listening to their Guides at those times. Because the guidance we'd give them would be all wrong."
"Jesus, Blair, are you saying you think Beth's right?"
"No. I feel the same way you do. And I know Jim agrees with Elizabeth. He just doesn't want to say so in front of me. And I'll have to sort out how I feel about that and how I'm going to deal with it. But I am willing to explore the possibility that in this case my sense of ethics may be out of touch with the realities of the situation."
"I don't know. It just sounds too much like trying to rationalize something that's so obviously wrong."
"I know, Sam. But maybe we just have to take a leap of faith here. We're always asking our Sentinels to trust us. Maybe this time we just have to trust them."
"I hope to God I can do that, Blair."
"Me too, Sam. Me too."
From the moment Blair found out that Alex Barnes was back, he knew it would have repercussions. He just never expected her to be such a strong presence in their bed while he and Jim made love. She wanted to take Blair from me. Jim's words from earlier in the day chilled him. He was always urging Jim to listen to his instincts. He needed to start taking his own advice.
He had never wanted to touch her. Even when guiding her called for it, he didn't really want to, did it only grudgingly, a quick touch to her arm or the back of the head, to focus her. And that day in his office when she kissed him, he'd had the impulse to rub his face, to get it off. He should have known. With Jim, he'd never hesitated to touch. In fact, he'd felt compelled to put his hands on his partner, had been secretly glad for the excuse. It made such sense now. It was supposed to be a sexual connection. And Alex repelled him. And he should have known.
He pushed away the disturbing thoughts, determined not to let them interfere with their loving. He turned his attention back to Jim and concentrated on what his lover was doing to him. Jim was everywhere at oncehis hands running down Blair's arms, across his chest, lingering on his nipples, fluttering across his belly, raking the insides of his thighs, urging them apart. Jim's lips skimmed across Blair's shoulders, whispered against his ear, kissed the inside of his wrist, making Blair weak with want. Jim's tongue ran across Blair's lips, dipping and plunging inside, no gentle kiss, then licked a broad swath down his chest, across his stomach, doing things to his cock he'd never imagined Jim Ellison would begin to know how to do, things that felt so good. Jim loved him with his whole body, moving chest against chest, hip against hip, thigh against thigh. And then there were the teeth, the slight edge of them teasing a nipple, grazing Blair's lower lip, leaving a trail of bite marks down the curve of his neck, a bill board, a warning for anyone foolish enough to get too close. My Guide. My Guide. My Guide.
This was not the same sweet loving from the night before. This had the shadow of an evil, Guide-stealing Sentinel hanging over it. Jim held Blair's hips with grim determination, as he moved his body against Blair's. Every glance, every touch had that same edge to it, the frantic urge to claim, mark, possess. There was something stark and primal in Jim's expression, the ancient Sentinel getting the better of the modern man. Blair could almost see the same conversation he'd been reliving now playing over his lover's face, along with the residual fear from three months ago. She wanted to take you away from me. And this was Jim's answer, his attempt to bind Blair to him in a way that could never be broken.
"I want you," Jim said, his voice so rough with passion he almost didn't sound like the man Blair knew.
Blair could only nod. The dark desire in his lover's eyes left him breathless.
Getting permission unleashed something in Jim, the overpowering urge to take his Guide, take him hard, take him now. It gave Blair a whole new admiration for Sentinel protectiveness, understanding that it was only the powerful imperative to never hurt the Guide that kept Jim from slamming himself into Blair's unprepared body.
Blair found himself smiling at that, an expression of wicked delight. The dark desire was catching, and he felt it stir inside him now, too. Jim Ellisonthat stoic paragon of controlwas at the far reaches of restraint and quickly passing beyond its borders. And Blair was the intoxicant propelling him into the undiscovered country outside the limits of reason. That pleased Blair in a greedy, lascivious place so deep inside himself that he could not help spreading his legs wider, to give his lover a better look, adjusting the angle of his hips, to give his Sentinel better access, goading Jim just a little, playing a dangerous, thrilling game.
The look on Jim's face told him he understood exactly what Blair was doing, and he'd soon teach him a thing or two about teasing a Sentinel bent on mating, a Sentinel staking his claim, in the process of winning his territory.
Blair gained a whole new appreciation for Sentinel willpower as Jim somehow found the strength to pull himself away, to get the tube of lube he'd bought at the drug store that afternoon just in case, tearing his eyes away from the sweet spot between Blair's legs, the place he wanted to fuck so badly. Blair gave Jim enormous credit for being able to stop long enough to get what he needed to avoid hurting him.
Jim eased one slicked finger into Blair's body. And froze. He didn't expect me to be a virgin. Blair felt like laughing. It was suddenly all so clear to him, why he'd always kept this part of himself back. Even when he'd set out with the specific intention of getting fucked, somehow he'd always ended up directing the sex into other avenues, something, anything else. He'd never even let a woman touch him there. It's not that he'd gone around with the idea of his ass as some kind of prize or attached romantic notions to it, like he was waiting for Mr. Right. There had just been this lurking, wordless insistence that this would be significant sometime, that he would know the right moment when it came. And here it was. And he'd been right, so right, so glad to have waited.
Blair knew Jim too well not to understand the battle he was fighting with himself, not to be able to read the conflicting emotions written all over his face. There was the practical, careful, reasonable Jim who knew it would be a far better idea to take his lover for the first time when he was sane enough to do it gently, outside the terrible heat of this moment. There was the Blessed Protector that insisted Blair must be kept safe, even from Jim himself. But there was also the panther, not a rational, thinking man, but an animal spirit, who knew only what it wanted, what it needed. And it would not be denied.
And as much as Jim didn't want to hurt him, might not want to admit it even to himself, he was exulting in the knowledge that he would be the first, the last, the only. This sweet secret was his and his alone. And soon he would learn it, take it, reveal its mysteries, make it his own. That was an incredible aphrodisiac, and it had to be acted on. Now. Jim shook his head. "Have to. Have to do it. Have to take you. Make you mine."
"Yes." That was the only answer Blair could possibly have given. The dark desire had a hold of him. It glinted and preened and grinned, in triumph and greed. Like the panther, it knew only what it wanted. It also would not be denied.
Blair acquired an instant appreciation for something he never even knew existed: Sentinel patience. Jim took his time, teasing him, stroking him, opening him, lavishing careful attention on the entrance to his body, using his senses to judge, making Blair ready for him, making it good for Blair in the process. Blair felt a new respect for all the women he'd ever bedded. It was not an easy thing to allow yourself to be so open, so exposed, so vulnerable to another person. As Jim's fingers moved inside him, caressing him, stretching him, easing the way where his cock would soon follow, Blair understood at last what all the women and the few men he'd ever fucked had given him, how they'd allowed him inside them, inside, how they'd shared something that was so absolutely theirs with him. And he understood more than ever why this was the moment when he could finally do this, why he'd never been able to do it before. It was only with Jim that he could stand to be this vulnerable.
Jim knelt between Blair's outstretched thighs, taking his own cock in his hand. "I have to do this. I have to have you. Tell me it's all right."
Blair licked his lips, afraid, but also more turned on than he'd ever imagined possible. It was now or never. He nodded. "Do it. I want you to."
He tried to let go of the fear, stay loose, breathe out, bear down as Jim entered him, whatever he could think of to make the penetration easier. He hoped it wouldn't hurt. It did. And more than that, it just felt weird, unnatural, intrusive, something inside his body that wasn't part of him. Who ever thought that up? He closed his eyes tightly as he tried to adjust to the hot, urgent, spread-too-wide sensation shooting up his ass. Jim stilled, watching him with concern, stroking his hips, thighs, his flagging erection, murmuring sweet, broken phrases of affection, words of love and tenderness and comfort. For a moment, the panther was in retreat, and his considerate lover was in control, soothing him, ready to stop if it hurt too much. And the sensation began to shift, as he'd always heard it would. His body gave in to it, stopped feeling invaded, felt filled instead, complete in some strange way. It was still a thoroughly odd sensation, but now it bordered on pleasure. He pushed back against Jim, and that felt okay too. He nodded, and Jim began moving inside him again. And then it wasn't just okay. It was much, much better than that. It was still a hot, burning sensation, but the way pleasure can be hot and burning. And he began to move once more, meeting Jim, loving him back.
He could almost hear what Jim was thinking. Nobody takes my Guide. Mine. Mine. My Guide.
As he stroked Blair's cock in time to his thrusting, the magic words, the eternal rhythm unfolded. Mine. Now and always. Mine. Now and always. Mine. Now and always. Blair began to buck his hips more urgently, laying a claim of his own. My Sentinel. Mine. Only mine.
Jim's hands ran over Blair's hips and thighs with his answer. Yours. Only yours. So good to be yours.
And Blair understood at last what this was, the profundity of it all. This was the raw sensual power that made the world go around. This was the possessed urge to fuck like there was no tomorrow. This was mating, at its most pure, its most primitive. This was too damn good, and he was coming, God, he was coming. And Jim was coming too. And they were both screaming and howling and shrieking and wailing, along with various other sounds loud enough to wake the dead. And there was a message in that raw, primal noise. Ours. Together. Ours. Always and forever. And even though it was desperate and cacophonous and way off key, it was still the music of the ages.
After it was over and they'd disentangled their bodies, Jim lay with his head pressed against Blair's heart, listening to the beating gradually return to its normal rhythm.
"Sorry. Had to. Had to do it. Sorry. So sorry," Jim repeated over and again.
"Shhh. Shhh. Shhh," Blair soothed.
"I'm sorry," Jim offered one last time.
"I'm not," Blair said with finality.
Jim lifted his head. "Just tell me I didn't hurt you too badly."
Blair smiled and traced Jim's forehead, cheekbones, the bridge of his nose with his finger. "You didn't hurt me too badly."
"Shit, Blair!" Jim said in a panic, pulling back, checking his lover for blood or other visible signs of damage.
Blair burst out laughing. He wasn't sure why it seemed so hilarious. Maybe it was just the contrast between the demon that had fucked his brains out just a moment ago and his tender partner wracked by guilt over the possibility of having hurt him.
"Damn it, Blair!" Jim said, his face pale and worried, very much unamused.
"Relax, big guy. I'm just teasing you."
"Don't, Blair. Not about this," he said and then his voice grew softer. "I don't know why I did it like that. Especially your first time. Our first time together."
"Because you needed it. We needed it. Hell, I needed it."
Jim searched his face. "You'd tell me if I'd really hurt you, wouldn't you?"
Blair sighed. "Yes. And you didn't." He moved his ass gingerly. "It's just a little sore. I'll live. Although I might walk funny tomorrow."
Jim couldn't help smiling at that, despite himself. In some slightly twisted, deeply possessive part of his soul, it pleased him.
Blair glared at him dramatically. "God, Jim. Gloat a little, why don't you?"
Jim's smile just got larger.
Blair elbowed him, then went for the big guns: tickling. Now it was his turn to gloat, as Jim writhed beneath him, whimpering, pleading, laughing, trying to get away. Blair smiled. He could always count on Sentinel sensitivity.
Blair straddled his partner's hips, staring down at him. "Payback's a bitch, man."
Jim's eyes grew wide.
"Oh yes, my friend," Blair said.
Jim wiggled his hips suggestively against his lover, communicating his willingness.
"Geez, man. Give me a break. I want you, but sometime when my ass isn't too sore to move. Patience, baby. I want to give you my best, just the way you did me."
"I might not live."
Blair grinned. "You're going to have to toughen up, Sentinel."
"Bring it on, Shaman."
"Oh, I plan to, Jim. I definitely plan to."
Jim rested his hands on Blair's waist, caressing his hips, growing suddenly serious. "Do you know how much I love you?"
Blair leaned down to kiss him. "Yes. Just as much as I love you."
Jim didn't know why he had such a thing about slamming people into walls. Sometimes he got high on frustration and low on tolerance. Sometimes he just needed to do something about a situation, and banging a bad guy into a nearby wall...well, that was something. But then there were those occasions when a person was just such crud-sucking scum that they really and truly deserved it, when it was really the only appropriate response.
Such was the case with Officer Ramsey. Jim took him by the front of the shirt and propelled him back against the wall. He hit it with a loud "oof," getting the wind knocked out of him.
That was for Blair, for selling out to the bitch who almost killed him. And you're damned lucky he'd already left that morning, or we wouldn't be having this civilized conversation.
"Let's try this again, Ramsey. Where is Alex Barnes hiding? And who is the mysterious doctor from the roof?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, Detective." Ramsey was trying to sound matter-of-fact, putting on his best innocent face. But Jim could hear his fluttering pulse, giving away every one of his lies.
He grabbed Ramsey's collar and pounded him against the opposite wall. That was for nearly getting Sam killed, someone who it was your sworn duty to defend and protect, you fucking sell-out bastard.
Jim got in his face, mere inches away, looking Ramsey dangerously in the eye. Ramsey was trying not to seem intimidated, but everyone around the station knew Ellison's reputation. And Captain Banks seemed to have given him carte blanche do whatever he wanted. And shit! Ramsey hated to think what that meant.
"You know exactly what I'm talking about. We found a ten thousand dollar deposit to your checking account two days after the doctor gave us the slip on the roof. And you were on the security detail for Dr. Knowlton and Mr. Crawford, so of course you knew the location of the safe house. Plus, you just happened to be on duty at the time of the attack, handily out back where it was safe. And somehow you managed not to hear a thing as the whole place was torn apart by gunfire. At least, not until it was over, and you took out the perp before he could roll over on you," Jim said, every word slow and level and carefully articulated, the very soul of menace.
Ramsey's blood ran cold. He closed his eyes and shook his head. "You got it all wrong, Detective. I swear. God, you think I'd do something like that? No way, Detective. God as my witness."
Jim pulled him forward and pushed him back against the wall, forcefully, banging his head this time. That was for Elizabeth, for ratting her out to the people who'd already put her through hell. And for making her walk past a dead body yesterday when it could so easily have been her or her husband lying there.
"Ramsey, I'm not a patient man. Pretty much everyone around here knows that. And I can't tell you how fed up I am with you right now. And even though I'm not particularly religious, I have to tell you that I really don't like it when liars call on God. So if I were you, I'd start talking. And I'd make it the truth this time."
Jim tightened his grip on Ramsey's collar, not enough to cut off the flow of air completely, maybe just turn him blue a little. He could hear Ramsey's vital signs go off the chart, the strong smell of fear coming off him in waves. And that one's for me. Just because I hate dirty cops.
"Okay, okay, Detective. I did it. Okay? Let go now. I can't breathe," Ramsey gasped, trying to pull away.
Jim let him go with a final shove. "Where are they?"
Ramsey shook his head. "I don't know. I swear. It was all done over the phone. We did a drop with the money at Memorial Park. I never saw where they were hiding out."
"Who'd you deal with?"
"The doctor. From the roof. He never gave me any name other than Dr. Smith."
"You were in on it from the beginning?"
The cop shook his head. "I really did just get distracted up on the roof. But the next day I got a call from him. I'm into some dangerous people for a bunch of money. Gambling debts. The Jags had a really shitty season. And the doctor knew all about it and said he had a way out of it for me. All I had to do was give up the information and then look the other way."
"While two civilians and God knows how many of your fellow officers were gunned down," Jim said with disgust.
"Yeah, well. I didn't owe them people nothing, the doctor and her husband. And no cops were supposed to get hurt. That's what the guy promised. Besides, the people I'm into would have killed me without a second thought, just to send a message to other guys that can't pay. I had to look out for myself."
Jim fought the urge to pound him into the wall again. "And got a good cop killed in the process. Was shooting the wounded perp part of the deal?"
Ramsey nodded. "The doctor said for nothing to be left at the scene that could be traced back. I knew what that meant."
"Ramsey, you are the sort of no account cop that truly disgraces the uniform."
"Yeah, well, fuck you, Detective."
It took a supreme act of will to leave him standing, but Jim managed it, calling in the officers waiting outside to book him.
Simon came out of the observation room. "Well, we got Ramsey, but not the location of the warehouse. Was he telling the truth, Jim?"
Jim rubbed his eyes, the tension of the past few days beginning to catch up to him. "Afraid so, Simon. He doesn't know where it is." Jim pounded his fist on his desk. "Damn it! That was our best lead."
"Take it easy, Jim. We'll find her."
"We damn well better, Simon. We damn well better. And very, very soon."
It felt like being hit by a truck. Over and again. The horrible, unspeakable sensations kept slamming into her body, without mercy, without respite. Elizabeth lay curled in the big chair, her fetal position doing little to comfort her, as the waves of emotions and memories from the past month came rushing over her. This was true remembering, the circumstances and the feelings attached to them in one package. And it was every circle of hell all at once.
Her skin was like ice, and she thought she might throw up. Her senses were alive with all the repressed sensory input of the past month, distorted, out of control, gothic in their proportions. It made her head a screaming mad house, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. When she'd woken up in the horrible cage they'd kept her in, every nerve ending she had felt like it was on fire. Her whole body was an unbearable inferno. Drugs always wreaked havoc on her senses. She hesitated to take so much as an Advil unless it was absolutely necessary, and whatever they'd shot her up with made her want to claw her skin off, to break her body apart, anything to stop that horrible fiery sensation.
And now the burning was back, the memory too real, an actual physical sensation in her body. She struggled desperately to control it, to turn it down, make it bearable, but it didn't respond to any of the techniques Sam had taught her. And before she could even begin to adjust to it, she was broadsided by a wave of panic, more memory, the sick, chill feeling like a claw in her gut, her chest heaving, unable to draw a breath, her whole body shaking with remembered terror. Oh God. This was the way she felt every time they came to her cell, to drag her down the long corridor to the other place, the bad room, where horrible things happened to her. Going into that room was like losing herself. After they'd finished with her in there, she was reduced to something less than human, drooling, non-verbal, so awash in pain she didn't even know who she was, the self so fractured it was like a crystal vase shattered on a cement floor.
And then there was the omnipresent rage. She could still taste it, sharp and metallic in her mouth, just the way it had been that long, horrific month. Her mind had constantly hurt, her body always aching, but somehow her Sentinel spirit clung to its rebellion. Now matter how heavy and drugged her body felt, how wounded her consciousness, the warrior part of her plotted their deaths, saw them eviscerated and defeated at her hands, took immense pleasure in their imagined suffering. It was like a caged beast, wanting to lunge at their throats, kept back by the iron bars of drugs and restraints, venting its frustration, an insane roar in her head that never stopped.
Elizabeth closed her eyes tighter, tried to make herself smaller, clung to the arm of the big chair like it was a life preserver. The world tilted and trembled, everything askew, like there was nowhere solid to stand. She couldn't grab hold. Her memory was a slippery slope, and no matter how she scrabbled and clawed, she couldn't pull herself clear. There were still terrible things, predatory animals with glowing eyes, lurking in the darkness below her consciousness, waiting to pounce. No! She resisted. She threw up her will like a brick wall, trying to keep the excruciating memories at bay. They circled and danced around her, coming ever closer, just outside her field of vision. But there, just the same.
Dr. Knowlton! The memory tapped her on the shoulder and then moved out of reach again, playing with her.
Her heart raced.
The blackness closed over her head, like the deep, dangerous waters. She was being dragged down the corridor back to her cell. She was shattered, coming apart at the seams, the molecular bonds of her being critically weakened. Soon she would be just so much stellar dust. There was a dragging sound and something passing nearby. But there was nothing left of her, and it was so hard to look.
Dr. Knowlton! Help me! And then her eyes had met his. And even though she was stellar dust, some dim part of her brain registered it. He was familiar. She knew him.
Elizabeth sat bolt upright. "SAM!" She screamed for her husband at the top of her lungs. "BLAIR! SAM!" She screamed with the desperate, outraged, earth-shattering voice of a Sentinel whose tribe is in chains.
Well, at least we finally know something. Jim stared at the rap sheet that was far longer than his arm. The prints from the dead perp had turned up a record. No big surprise. Carl Wilkins had been a very bad boy, for a very long time, everything from petty theft to aggravated assault, a jagged history of criminal behavior since he was eighteen years old. And probably before that, but the juvenile record had been expunged. One of the charges that had been dropped caught Jim's eye: gun smuggling. Apparently, the DA in New York City hadn't had enough evidence to make it stick. Must have been Alex's partner. Makes sense that she'd have someone to help her plan the jobs and then sell the merchandise.
And she'd just abandoned him there at the house yesterday, doubled over in agony, while she made her getaway. She must have known Ramsey would come in and clean up the mess.Well, like they say, there's no honor among thieves.
"Jim!" Megan called excitedly, as she rushed into the bullpen. "We finally got a break on this thing. We found a truck driver who gave Dr. Knowlton a ride into the city. He picked her up on Route 12, several miles outside of town, near the turn off for the national forest."
"Elizabeth said it was out in the countryside somewhere and that she could see a line of trees and mountains in the distance. That fits. Good work, Conner."
Megan smiled. Praise from Jim Ellison was a rarity. "How do you want to proceed?"
"Let's go over maps of the area. Elizabeth said it was large, like a warehouse. It's pretty rural out there. There can't be that many industrial buildings in the vicinity."
"I'm on it," she said.
"Hey, Jim," Henri called from his desk. "Come take a look at this. This is what we got back on our Dr. Smith."
Jim joined him and took the printout. "Dr. Robert Graves. So our guy really is a doctor. A psychiatrist. Lost his license for malpractice. He did two years in San Quentin too. For insurance fraud and assault. Got paroled last year. Oh, shit!"
"What?" Henri asked, raising an eyebrow.
"He was paroled against the advice of the examining psychiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Knowlton."
"That's why he picked her?"
"It's at least how he knew her. Hey H., do me a favor and call the California AMA. See if you can get details about what got him kicked out."
"You got it," Henri said, reaching for the phone.
Jim's cell phone rang. "Ellison."
"Jim, it's Blair. We have a serious problem."
"This isn't the best time, Chief. We're finally getting some breaks in the case."
"That's great. Even better than you know actually. Listen, Jim, Elizabeth has been remembering more details, and there's a pretty good chance they have other Sentinels. She's pretty sure she saw one of her former patients there. She thinks Alex must have found her notes about the other Sentinels and the key to their identities that she had hidden in a separate place in her office. And used that information to go after them."
"Don't freak, big guy. From what she can remember, they seem to at least still be alive. But we really need to get them out of there. Quickly."
"We're on it, Chief. As soon as we have the location pinned down, we'll move on it."
"Jim, hold on. Elizabeth wants to talk to you."
"Jim?" Her voice was a distant ghost of itself. "I can help you. Blair said you've narrowed down the area. Take me out there. I know I'll remember."
Jim shook his head at the phone. "No," he told her firmly. "We're very close to figuring it out without getting you involved. We'll handle it, Elizabeth. We'll get them out of there alive, I promise."
"I need to come with you, Jim. They've been severely traumatized. They're my patients. They'll respond to me. And I...it's my fault this happened to them. I need to be there."
Jim hesitated. As a Sentinel, he understood all too well. As a cop, he knew it was the worst idea going. "I'll check it out with my captain. I can't promise anything."
"Thanks, Jim. I appreciate it."
"Put Blair back on."
"I need you to keep an eye on them for me, Chief. Don't let them do anything stupid."
"Got ya, big guy. Be careful, huh?"
"I love you," Blair said.
"Me too," he said and hung up.
"Jim," Megan called from her desk. "I think we've got it."
He looked at the map over her shoulder.
"There's pretty much nothing out here that fits the bill. Except this old grain warehouse. From what I can tell on the map, it's completely isolated, the perfect place to hold people against their will. Plus, it borders on the national forest. And it's only a little over a mile away from where the trucker said he picked up the doctor."
"That's gotta be it," Jim said. "Good work, Conner."
Twice in one day. Megan had to smile.
"Jim," Henri said, joining them at Megan's desk. "I couldn't get anything out of the people at the AMA. According to them, it's confidential unless we've got a court order. But I also found out that there were several civil suits filed against Dr. Graves. I called a couple of the plaintiffs, and they were more than happy to tell me all about it. Apparently, they went to him for hypnosis to help them quit smoking, and he used drugs and brainwashing techniques to get them to steal for him. It was only discovered after one of his patients was caught taking money from the store where she worked and went into a kind of trance. At the hospital, they found psychiatric drugs in her system, and eventually it all lead back to Dr. Graves."
"What a sick bastard," Jim said.
"You said it," Megan agreed.
"Let's go brief the Captain," Jim said.
They laid out what they had learned for Simon.
"Good work, people. At least this time Alex Barnes isn't going to get away with it."
"There is one complication, sir," Jim said.
Simon looked as if just the thought of a complication was enough to give him a headache.
"Dr. Knowlton remembers other people being held there. We think it's highly probable there are other victims."
Simon shot him a look, asking the one question he couldn't pose in front of the others.
"Yes, sir. I'm afraid so," Jim answered.
"Well, that does complicate things. We'll need surprise on our side. We don't want it turning into a hostage situation."
The three of them nodded.
"We need an airtight plan. We don't want any unnecessary bloodshed. But let's get those people out of there."
"You got it, Simon," Jim said, following Henri and Megan out of the office, his jaw set in grim determination.
Jim crouched in the weeds, outside the back entrance to the warehouse. He shifted, gun in hand, adjusting the straps on his kevlar vest. The place was surrounded by cops, armed to the teeth, poised to storm every door, every window, every conceivable way into the building. It was a risky operation. They couldn't take the chance of Alex hearing their radio communications, so they were running silent, having made the excuse to their fellow officers that they suspected some kind of sophisticated security measures that would detect their transmissions.
Everyone was in place now, and they were all just waiting for the sign from Simon to move in. Jim scanned the building with his hearing. There were definitely multiple heartbeats, but the size and emptiness caused a strange echo effect. So it was impossible to tell exactly how many people were inside or pinpoint where they were.
Megan knelt beside him, at the ready. The sign finally came around, and Jim nodded to Megan. They both moved forward. She trained her gun, while Jim kicked in the back entrance, and then they both raced inside.
It sounded and looked like bedlam. Jim had to turn down his hearing as far as he dared without his Guide there to keep him from zoning. Glass exploded everywhere, as teams of cops went in through the windows. There was the sound of wood straining and splintering as all the doors went crashing in and wave after wave of officers swarmed inside. The air was filled with the dull roar of voices screaming for everyone to get down, freeze, identifying themselves as police officers.
The teams quickly swept through the building, searching every room, every broom closet, every nook and crannylooking for victims, evidence and especially the suspects. Jim and Megan worked as a team. He took point, and she had his back. He kicked in a locked door, splintering the doorframe. Inside, there was a chair with restraints, a tray of evil-looking syringes, drugs locked in a cabinet. The hair prickled along the back of Jim's neck, and he went immediately cold all over his body. He knew without any doubt that this was the torture chamber Elizabeth had described. He swore he could feel the suffering of all the Sentinels who had been tormented here, as if their pain had sunk into the walls and floor, the paint and wood, leaving behind an indelible imprint of the nightmares endured here.
Megan tugged on his sleeve, a quizzical look on her face, and that pulled him back inside himself. He nodded, and they continued down the corridor, opening doors, busting them down when necessary, checking inside. Near the end of the long hall, they found their first kidnapped Sentinel, filthy, wild-eyed, shaking with cold, terrified, shackled like an animal to the cinderblock wall. The man was too disoriented to speak, but he made cowering motions, as if trying to beg them not to hurt him.
Jim knelt beside the man and put a gentle hand on his shoulder. "It's okay. We're cops. You're safe now."
At first the man tried desperately to move away, straining against the chains that held him in place, but as Jim continued talking to him in a low, soothing, gentle voice, understanding began to penetrate the fog.
The man grabbed Jim's hand. "T'ank Gawd. T'ank Gawd. T'ank Gawd," he managed to say through cracked lips, as tears began running down his cheeks.
"Let's get the bolt cutter in here," Jim called to his fellow officers. "We need to get this man loose and out to an ambulance."
Megan and Jim left the shaken Sentinel in the care of a pair of uniformed cops, who took over soothing him and worked on getting the chains off.
Jim heard a vague rattle off to the right and zeroed in on it, trying to filter out all the noise coming from the other teams of cops. He gestured to Megan to move in that direction, and she nodded back at him, inching forward, gun drawn, on full alert. He heard a different sound this time, like metal scraping against metal, something familiar. He tensed, gun in hand, as he tried to place the sound, as he worked on pinpointing the location. It was kind of a sliding, like something being pulled back. The bolt action on a semiautomatic rifle. And then he could hear air currents, like a trigger being pulled. In the split second it took him to react, he pushed Megan down, returned fire in the direction the sound had come from and fell to the ground himself. A hail of bullets passed over their heads, imbedding themselves in the wall behind them. Jim could hear the dull thud of a body as it hit the ground. A lifeless body. Thank God for Sentinel shooting. He helped Megan up to her feet, and they went in search of the perp. They found Dr. Smith, or Dr. Graves rather, crumpled on the ground, eyes wide and staring, a neat bullet hole in the middle of his forehead.
She whistled softly. "Nice work, Jimbo. Nice work."
"I try," he said.
"Get back!" a loud, eerily recognizable voice screamed from another part of the building.
"This way," Jim said to Megan.
They ran further into the heart of the building. Jim heard the commotion coming from above them and led Megan up a flight of stairs to a half floor on the second level. He grabbed Megan's arm and pulled her to the side, gesturing for her to stay quiet. At the other end of the room, Alex was engaged in a standoff with a half dozen cops. She had her back to the wall but was using one of the Sentinels as a shield, holding a gun to his head. If they tried to take her out, she would make sure her hostage went along with her, a boy of no more than nineteen or twenty, in the same bad shape as the man they'd found earlier, completely terrified.
"I need a diversion," Jim whispered to Megan.
She nodded and moved off the other side. There was a metal bucket and Megan kicked it, causing a loud, clatter. "Sorry, guys. It's just me," she said quickly, so her fellow officers wouldn't mistake her for another perp.
That distracted Alex just long enough for Jim to act. He closed one eye and targeted her gun hand with his Sentinel sight. He squeezed the trigger, and Alex screamed, instantly dropping the gun, her hand spurting blood.
"Move in. Move in. Move in," Jim screamed to the other cops.
But Alex proved she was nothing if not a formidable adversary. She pushed the young Sentinel forward, into the line of fire, so the CPD officers couldn't get off a shot without the risk of wounding him. And in the blink of an eye, she was gone, crashing through a second story window, jumping down to the roof of an extension below and then shimmying down a drainpipe, taking off into the woods once she hit the ground.
"Get the other victims out of here. Call for backup," Jim instructed Megan before jumping out the window after Alex, following the same route she had taken to the ground.
His nostrils flared. He could smell her, the sharp scent of adrenaline, the slight whiff of fear. He headed in the same direction, using all his senses to track her. It was if he was moving in time to some primitive music, pushing him along, an ever accelerating rhythm that fueled the chase. Protect the tribe. Protect the tribe. Protect the tribe. He felt himself merging with the tribal chant, moving outside himself, or perhaps deeper within himself, a kind of primal zone out, the ancient watchman unleashed and on the prowl.
Elizabeth had agreed to stay in the car, the only way Captain Banks would allow her to come along. She tried to stay in the car. She wanted to keep her word. She believed in staying in the car. Really. But she couldn't stay in the car. She couldn't. It was no longer a matter of personal will. Every cell in her body, every fiber of her being, every ounce of instinct commanded her: Out! Out! Get out of the car!
So she got out of the car.
Sam scrabbled across the seat, following her. "What are you doing, Beth? Where do you think you're going?"
"Claustrophobic. Couldn't stand it in there one more minute."
Blair got out of the car too. "We still need to stay put."
Elizabeth nodded. She understood. She knew perfectly well the gravity of the situation. The danger. She saw the reason in hanging back. Yes, staying put was just exactly the most sensible thing to do. Let the professionals handle it. That was definitely the wisest course. Sit back. Wait for it to all be over. Wait until the coast was clear and her skills as a doctor were needed. That's just exactly what she should do.
Should do, definitely. And if this were a time governed by reason, it was absolutely what she would have done. But it wasn't, and she couldn't. Couldn't manage it. Couldn't stand it. Couldn't wait. Couldn't fight her most powerful nature, which was not as a wife or doctor or civilian, but as a Sentinel, with her finely honed hunter's instinct and the imperative to protect.
She began to pace. Her senses were going off scale. Her nose trembled with the scents assaulting her. She felt certain she could hear the very molecules colliding in the air. And then the bad feeling was back, shooting through her body with the speed and fury of electrocution.
Her mind flashed on the dream, the jungle, the prey, the pursuit. And then she was running, just as she had been in the dream. Her rational mind had clicked off, and the primitive, reptilian part of her brain was in control, the domain of instinct and reaction. She was running and tracking and chasing, using her senses to find Alex, intercept her, take her down, because Elizabeth was a Sentinel and this was what Sentinels did.
"Beth! Beth! No!" Sam screamed at his wife and would have run after her if Blair hadn't grabbed him by the arm, stopping him.
"Let go of me, Blair! I have to go after her! Blair! Damn it!"
"No, man, no. Let her go. You can't help this time."
"But you saw her, Blair. My God, her eyes. They were so...vacant. She doesn't know what she's doing. Hell, I don't half think she knows who she is."
"She knows exactly who she is. She's a Sentinel."
"Well, fuck that! Fuck this whole Sentinel bullshit. She's my wife, Blair. I have to go after her."
"Jim's out there too. He'll help her. Together, they'll take care of it."
"They need us."
Blair shook his head, feeling strangely sure. "No. This is the one time they don't need us. I guess there are just some instances when Guides have to hang back. I don't know. I don't pretend to understand it. But I'm very, very certain. This is between Sentinels."
"You just don't want me to see what she's going to do," Sam accused.
Blair rubbed his temples, feeling suddenly very tired. "Maybe. And maybe I don't want to see what they're going to do.
The terrain was rough, uneven ground that could easily trip her, sudden outcroppings of rock to avoid, and a craggy incline just to her left which would send her plummeting with only one misstep. But there was primitive power in her. She maneuvered over and around the obstacles like she had been born to this place, like she ruled it. The dream and the reality merged into one. The forest was deep and dark like the jungle. The low branches of trees lashed her as she passed. And she had the mark on her, not paint, but purpose, the ancient Sentinel coming to life, filling her with overwhelming urgency and determination.
The personal self dissolved. There was no hurt or fear or anger anymore. There was no memory of the horrific month just past. It was all a matter of brutal logic, nature's mandate: the threat must be met, the Sentinel must protect, the tribe must survive.
Her primitive brain registered both of the other Sentinels. The enemy had doubled back, was coming straight towards her now, heading in the direction of the Guides. And there was the coppery smell of blood. One of them was injured, although she couldn't tell which. Adrenaline poured into Elizabeth's body, and she ran faster, grew more grimly determined. Protect the Guides. Protect the tribe. Protect the Guides. Protect the tribe. Not far behind the enemy she could sense Jim, fellow tribesman, ally. He, too, seemed to have the primal Sentinel spirit in him, and he was gaining on Alex, closing in.
Elizabeth came to a clearing in the trees, just as Alex appeared on the other side. The enemy whipped her head around wildly, almost reversing course, about to head back the way she'd come when she realized that Jim was too close, cutting off her escape route.
Alex turned back to face her and laughed. It was the most unnerving sound Elizabeth had ever heard, setting her on edge like a hundred sets of fingernails scraping down a chalkboard, filled with all the insanity of a malformed Sentinel who did not recognize her true purpose in life.
"You know, I should have just killed you the way Graves wanted," Alex said. "He hired me to get rid of you, so you wouldn't stand in the way of his parole. But the dim-wits on the parole board didn't listen to you anyway, so it wasn't necessary. And I'd realized what you were by then and saw an opportunity. Now it seems he was right. I should have just disposed of you in the first place. You were never very cooperative. None of you were. But at least now I'll get the chance to finish what I started."
Alex was taller and stronger than she was and much more experienced in fighting. And she was hurt, and that always made a rabid animal more dangerous. But the vestigial Sentinel knowledge was stirring in Elizabeth's cells, dormant synapses firing, long buried wisdom coming to the fore. Always use the opponent's force against them. Elizabeth moved to her left, positioning herself strategically.
Jim closed the gap and came into the clearing, trapping Alex between them. He pointed his gun at her. "Give it up, Barnes."
Alex snorted. "I don't think so, Ellison. I'm not stupid. I tried to kill your little friend. There's no way you'll let me live. And I'm not going down without a fight."
Rabid animals always had surprises up their sleeves, and Alex was no exception. Like a flash of lightning, she grabbed a nearby fallen limb with her good hand and used it with martial arts effectiveness to knock Jim's legs out from under him, sending the gun flying into the underbrush.
"Now, it's a more level playing field," the maniac Sentinel said, laughing and gloating.
Jim picked himself up. "You still have to get by one of us."
This was true. So Alex did what rabid animals always do when corneredshe lunged, going for the weaker adversary. But the wild instinct had served Elizabeth well and was still inside her. It pushed her to the side, urging her to kick out her legs, to catch Alex's knees, sending her flying. And as Alex went plunging over the side of the ravine, she spread her arms, her face twisting in lunatic determination, as if she would take flight, just to thwart them, just to win. But rabid animals only think they're exempt from the laws of nature. And gravity did its job, efficiently, dispassionately, as always. What goes up must come down. And Alex was no exception. In the exaggerated slow motion of the moment, Elizabeth and Jim could see her face as she realized it, the demented disbelief, the impotent rage, before she plunged back to earth, her body breaking on the rocks at the bottom of the steep gully.
And just as in her dream, there was no emotion in Elizabeth, no anger, no sense of vengeance, perhaps only a hint of relief, and the incontrovertible knowledge that this was simply what had to be, nature righting itself, ridding itself of a dangerous aberration. And she could see in Jim's expression that it was the same with him. And they both realized that it had never been up to them to pass judgment on Alex. That had come from a higher authority. They were simply its agents.
Jim fished his gun out from the tall grasses and nodded his head in the direction of the warehouse. Elizabeth fell in beside him, and they headed back to the crime scene, back to their Guides, to finish their work, rescuing their tribe.
Simon was trying to help the man, one of the Sentinels, but he couldn't convince him to get into the ambulance. The man's whole body went slack, becoming dead weight, passively resisting, sitting down right where he was, in the dirt, in the middle of the road.
"Oh God. Oh God. Oh God," the man sobbed, tearing at his salt-and-pepper hair. "I killed Tasha. I didn't mean to. I don't know how it happened. Oh God, but I've got her blood on my hands. See? And it won't come off. It never comes off. Because I killed her. Oh God, I killed her."
Elizabeth and Jim cleared the woods, picking up their pace when they saw the commotion. Simon couldn't believe how relieved he was. I may have been on the force for twenty years, but none of it has helped me handle Sentinels freaking out about their Guides.
Elizabeth ran up to her former patient, dropping to her knees beside him, taking his hand in hers. "No, Mark. You didn't hurt Tasha. I promise. She's alive and well. You'll see her soon."
"Dr. Knowlton?" he asked, sounding unsure, still very disoriented.
"Yes, Mark. It's me. And you're safe now. Everything you remember about hurting Tasha is a false memory implanted in your subconscious. None of it ever happened. I swear, Mark. None of it."
Mark frowned, trying to take it all in. "Not true? Tasha's not...she's not...you mean, I didn't..."
Elizabeth put her arm around the trembling man, trying to comfort him. "That's right, Mark. Tasha's just fine. You didn't do anything wrong. Everything's going to be all right now. We just want to get you to the hospital, so we can get the drugs out of your system. That's what's confusing you. So you need to let us help you. Okay? I promise nobody's going to hurt you. Take my hand, and we'll get you into the ambulance."
"Will you go with me?" he asked, still scared.
"Of course. When we get there, I'll call Tasha, although I have the feeling she's probably already on her way. Can you make it, Mark? Let me help you."
Elizabeth helped the disoriented Sentinel to his feet and began leading him toward the ambulance.
"I could have sworn I saw you in there, Dr. Knowlton, in the bad place. I thought they had you too."
"Let's get you settled now," she said, easing him onto a gurney, holding his hand until the EMTs lifted him into the back of the ambulance. When he was better, she would tell him the whole story. She would tell them all. They had a right to know. But for the moment, she wanted to help them put the terror behind them, to realize they were safe at last.
"Beth?" She heard a voice call from behind her.
"Oh God, Beth," he said, taking her into his arms, hugging her with all his strength. "Thank God you're all right."
She hugged him back, as hard as she could, so relieved to be with her Guide once more. It was her fervent hope never to be separated from him again. "I'm sorry, Sam. I'm really sorry. But I just had to. Couldn't help it. Had to."
"I know," he said, stroking her hair.
"I didn't kill her. She made a move at me and went over an embankment. That's how she died. I swear."
"I believe you," he murmured against her ear. "I trust you to do what's right. I always have. It just took me a little while to realize it."
"Thank you," she said softly.
He pulled back. "It looks like you have more patients to take care of," he said, gesturing toward the warehouse entrance where the police were bringing out another Sentinel, a tall, dark-skinned woman with close cropped hair.
"Dr. Knowlton! Dr. Knowlton!" the woman called to her frantically.
Elizabeth moved quickly to her side. "It's all right, Sarita. Sssh. Everything's going to be okay now."
Sarita thrashed her head wildly from side to side. "No! You don't understand. Oh God, I did something so horrible, Dr. Knowlton. I don't know how I could have. I...I killed..."
Sarita dissolved into tears, and Elizabeth hugged her. "No, you didn't, Sarita. You didn't hurt Abby. She's just fine, and I'm sure on her way to Cascade, even as we speak. We'll have you reunited in a matter of no time. I promise."
Jim stood off to the side, watching as Elizabeth comforted each of the Sentinels in turn, as they were escorted from the building. They were all tremendously relieved to see a familiar face, someone they trusted, someone who had helped them in the past. Once she got them to understand they hadn't killed their Guides, that their Guides were just fine, they all visibly calmed down and allowed the EMTs to attend to them. As he watched his fellow Sentinels, Jim held Blair close to him, an arm across his shoulders, not caring who might see or what they might think. It had been the kind of day that put things into perspective. Holding tight to his Guide was the only important thing.
"It's okay, big guy," Blair said in the soothing voice. "I'm not going anywhere."
Jim could only nod. There was too much emotion in his throat to speaka knot of sorrow and relief and longing. He pulled Blair even closer.
"There's something I have to do, Chief."
"It's not exactly..."
Jim nodded, unable to meet his eyes.
"But it is the right thing to do, isn't it, Jim?"
"And you promised Elizabeth?"
"I'll go with you," Blair said.
"Chief" Jim started to protest, but Blair held up his hand.
"We're in this together," he insisted.
Jim nodded again. When Blair was right, he was right.
They found what they were looking for in a small office at the rear of the cavernous building. Dr. Graves may have been twisted, but he was also a trained scientist. He kept impeccable records, both paper files and on the computer, a detailed history, written in the most clinical language imaginable, of all the truly horrific things he'd done to the kidnapped Sentinels.
Blair leafed through the file folders. "It's amazing, Jim. No matter how extreme or violent or intensive the brainwashing was, none of the Sentinels could be conditioned. That's a super human level of resistance. It's nearly unimaginable that they could all fight it like that."
"What do you think, Chief? That Sentinels just can't be turned bad?"
Blair frowned, thinking it over. "Maybe it's a testament to the power of biology. I mean, Graves wasn't just trying to get them to go against a system of ethics they'd learned, but to fly in the face of instinct, to do the exact opposite of what's programmed into every cell, the accumulation of thousands of years of evolution. That's no easy task."
"So I guess Alex truly was an aberration."
Blair nodded. "So it seems." And then he gasped.
Blair looked up from the page he was reading. "It seems when faced with overwhelming odds the Sentinels all chose to..."
Jim's expression urged him on. But Blair hesitated to say it, knowing it would upset his lover.
"What, Blair?" Jim asked again, more insistently.
"Well, apparently rather than allow themselves to be used to harm other people, the Sentinels opted instead...there were numerous attempts and..."
The pain in Jim's eyes, almost stopped him, but he knew his partner would demand to know it all.
"Two of them were successful. I'm sorry, Jim. Two of the Sentinels managed to kill themselves. They were breaking down. Couldn't fight it anymore. I guess it was pretty much the only option they felt they had left."
Grief slammed into Jim like a runway train, hitting him in the solar plexus, knocking the breath out of him, almost causing him to double over in pain. Blair was quickly by his side, supporting him, rubbing his back, murmuring reassurances in his ear.
"I'm so sorry, man. Oh Jim. God, I'm sorry. Are you still with me, big guy? Man, don't zone on me."
"I'm still here, Blair," he managed to say.
Blair navigated him to a chair. "That's good, Jim. Breathe. Take it easy, big guy. You'll be all right."
Jim shook his head, tears welling up in his eyes for the fallen Sentinels, his kinsmen, even though he'd never met them, not that it mattered. This was much larger than any personal connection. The tribe had been diminished, and he was diminished in some way, as well.
He took another deep breath, pushed his feelings aside, leaving them to deal with later, when his work here was finished, when he was at home, secure, in his own bed, in his Guide's arms.
"Let's get this over with," he said, standing up, pulling over a metal trash can.
Blair nodded and began loading the files into it.
"No evidence," Jim said, lighting a match, tossing it in, watching the blueprints of the torment inflicted on his fellow Sentinels go up in smoke.
"Burn, baby, burn," Blair said very softly and Jim nodded.
"Chief? I hate to ask you this but..."
"I'm on it, man," Blair said, moving to the computer, knowing Jim would need his technical know-how to delete the electronic files and make sure they stayed that way.
Jim watched him work. "I'm going to reformat the hard drive. That'll completely wipe out all traces of what was on it," Blair explained.
"Done," Blair said.
"Good job, Chief," he said, putting a hand on his partner's shoulder.
"Anytime you need evidence destroyed, I'm your man," he joked.
"Don't let it become a habit," Jim warned, with mock seriousness, and then Blair felt him tense up.
A moment later their captain stood in the doorframe, taking in the residual smoke and ashes in the trash can, Blair seated at the computer looking guilty, Jim's completely neutral expression, which never signified anything good.
He entertained a number of possible responses. Most included some kind of yelling; a few involved doing actual bodily harm to his best team. But finally he just sighed and said, "I don't even want to know what you did." And he turned on his heel and left.
Blair let out his breath. Jim smiled. "I think in this case Simon's afraid to argue with Sentinel logic."
"Hey man, let's not push our luck," Blair said.
"I'm with you, Chief. Let's get out of here."
"And go home."
"That's the best idea I've heard in a long time," he said, putting an arm around his Guide, steering him out of the building, away from the nightmares that had occurred there, and into the pale gold light of the fine autumn day.
Blair could feel Jim's soft, warm breath against the back of his neck. They had made love a little while ago, and Jim had fallen asleep, holding him, his chest pressed against Blair's back, arms encircling him. Blair lay in bed, listening to his love's calm, even breath, the most beautiful, lulling sound in the world. He could easily fall asleep himself, but he held out. This moment was too sweet to give up without a fight. It was as if the whole world were blanketed in stillness and peace, and he was so content. It was one of those rare moments in life when it was hard to imagine how things could be more perfect. He wanted to linger, luxuriate, enjoy it, for all it was worth
Since they had come home again to the loft, together, reunited, a couple, Blair had never known such sweet satisfaction. It felt so good to be home. He and Jim had spent the first week christening the apartment anew, redoing it in small ways, making it a new place for their new life. Blair had moved his things into the upstairs bedroom, and they'd been at work turning his old room into a study. They'd rearranged the living room furniture and changed some of the decorations. It was important to them both that it at least look different than the place where they had lost each other. Blair had burned sage throughout the loft, saying a simple prayer as he went, calling down the Spirit's blessing on their home and their union. And they'd made it their mission to love each other in every room, on the couch, on the floor, on the kitchen table, on the steps, in the shower, anywhere and everywhere, a solemn ritual, a joyful escapade, chasing away the ghosts, leaving behind the imprint of their love and passion in place of the harsh words and disconnection and bad memories that had come between them.
It was only after they'd finished that Blair finally realized what had been missing all those months after he'd come home from the hospital. Although he'd been back at the loft, he'd never been home. He had never once felt at ease since the night Jim had packed his stuff and thrown him out, because the breach had still been between them. And home wasn't the loft. It was Jim. He could never feel settled, never be easy within himself as long as they were estranged from one another.
Now that the ordeal with the other Sentinels was behind them, he'd started reading more of Elizabeth's work. It had given him insight into his own reactions in the aftermath of the fountain and why things were finally beginning to feel different. He could see now how the whole horrible situation with Alex had shaken the very underpinnings of his world. He'd come away from the terror at the fountain with his life but none of the things he depended on: his relationship with Jim, his belief in Sentinels, his faith in justice. That's why it had been so hard to make himself go down to the station, why he'd had to struggle to keep going with his research and his studies. At the center of his life was a bleak void, a lack of meaning so profound it threatened to consume him, a critical failure that made him feel dangerously close to collapsing in upon himself. And as nightmarish as it had been for Alex to come back, it had strangely turned out to be his saving grace. It had brought him back to Jim. It had restored his faith in Sentinels. It had at long last reconnected him to life.
After the shootout with Alex and Dr. Graves, he, Jim, Elizabeth and Sam had all gone to the hospital with the seven injured Sentinels. Elizabeth had managed to help calm them and ease the discomfort of their erratic senses, until their Guides arrived, all just showing up, somehow knowing, just the way Sam had found Elizabeth. Once the Sentinels were reunited with their Guides, their recovery accelerated rapidly. When they were stable and cognizant of their surroundings, Elizabeth told them the whole story, a difficult task, since she blamed herself.
"I knew I saw you there," Mark had said, the Sentinel she'd remembered passing in the corridor.
She had only nodded, too choked by guilt to speak.
He had put a hand on her arm. "I'm going to tell you what you once told me. Sometimes, it can be easier to blame yourself for what you never could have prevented than to accept that evil exists in the world. But it's important to realistically assess what you could have actually known and down versus what you only wish you could have done. And then you have to forgive yourself for all of it. Dr. Knowlton, I saw you there. I saw how you looked. This terrible thing happened to you too. And you're no more to blame for it than any of the rest of us."
Somehow that had unleashed Elizabeth's buried pain, and she had broken down at last, crying with the other Sentinels, letting the grief out, beginning to let it go. When the Sentinels were released from the hospital, some of them went back to San Francisco with her, so they could continue to be together, to sort out what had happened to them, to work on healing as a group. Others had just wanted to go home and had left Cascade to return to their normal lives alongside their Guides. Elizabeth had destroyed every last vestige of her records on Sentinels as soon as she got back to her office. Now there was nothing left to indicate who any of them were, and they all just had to hope they would never again be put into such terrible jeopardy.
Blair folded his arms over Jim's, stroking the soft skin on the backs of his hands. He had been waiting so long to feel like his old self again, and now he realized that would never happen. He knew something now that he could never unknow. He understood himself for the finite, mortal being he was. There was no turning back from that. In some ways, it had been the end of innocence, the loss of that very young belief that nothing could ever touch him. But it had also been the beginning of experience. In place of the old Blair was a new Blair, more solid, richer in wisdom. And in place of the old life was one informed by a sense of gratitude, by the knowledge that every moment was precious, rich in opportunity and so very ephemeral. He had never been more wide awake in his life.
Some of the strange reactions he'd had to nearly dying were receding. And others were being transfigured into a celebration of life, like this not wanting to sleep thing. At first, right after he was released from the hospital, he'd had this desperate feeling, this unbearable, impossible wish that it would always be daylight and he could always be awake. He never again wanted to slip into that dark, cold place he'd managed to escape from, against all odds. But now he had turned a corner on the fear, and he didn't mind the night so much. It was no longer a symbol, simply the end of another day. He still found himself wishing a little wistfully that he could always be awake, and he would have stayed up as late as possible every night if it weren't for Jim's not-so-subtle urging for him to rest. He was at an itchy stage of recovery, and he was so restless, wanted so badly to possess life, couldn't get enough of it. There was so much he wanted to do, wanted to know, wanted to be. And he intended to have it all.
Elizabeth had sent him a poem that one of her patients had given her, something that had helped her put things into perspective, something she thought might help Blair too:
by Adrienne Rich
it will not be simple, it will not be long
it will take little time, it will take all your thought
it will take all your heart, it will take all your breath
it will be short, it will not be simple
it will touch through your ribs, it will take all your heart
it will not be long, it will occupy your thought
as a city is occupied, as a bed is occupied
it will take all your flesh, it will not be simple
You are coming into us who cannot withstand you
you are coming into us who never wanted to withstand you
you are taking parts of us into places never planned
you are going far away with pieces of our lives
it will be short, it will take all your breath
it will not be simple, it will become your will
He had memorized it and let it play in his head like music as he went about his day. This life of his had been hard fought for, and he wanted to hold onto this shining moment of wisdom as long as possible, this understanding of what all the struggle was for. And the poem coalesced that knowledge for him. The thing he could never unknow was that it would be short. It would end. Everything did. He was working to make peace with that inherent sorrow. But more and more, he felt that it truly was possible to live with the full force of his heart, his thought, his breath, his flesh. This new life of his afforded him a unique opportunity to channel all that energy into his love, his work, his studies, his responsibilities as Shaman. He could not imagine a more amazing gift than that, a very great blessing, born of fear and suffering and sorrow, his worst moment miraculously transformed into a life and purpose more vital than anything he could have ever imagined.
He snuggled closer to Jim and let consciousness slip away at last, falling into a light sleep. In his dreams, he walked serenely through the jungle, safe, protected, at home. His path took him to the place which had become so familiar by now, where he understood, at long last, he'd always belonged. He approached the temple, without trepidation, with perfect calm and confidence. He touched the place in the facade where there was an opening, for those who could see it. The door swung open, and he went inside. It was cool and white and still, the center of the universe, timeless and unchanging. He found the spirit that bore his likeness lounging on one of the benches, naked and alive with energy, a force of nature.
"You know now that you will always return to this place?" the spirit asked him.
He nodded. "It's where I belong."
The spirit regarded him thoughtfully. "Do you understand what it means to be truly naked?"
Blair blushed slightly. "I'm not sure."
"Yes, you are. You have only to set the knowledge free."
"I guess...no more barriers."
The spirit smiled. "Those who have learned the mystery no longer require protection. They can meet the world with true openness and gain all its secrets. When you hide nothing, nothing will be hidden from you. Your journey is only beginning, Shaman."
As the spirit spoke, Blair felt compelled to draw closer, as if he could not look hard enough. He gazed deeply into those other eyes, which in some uncanny way really were his, and he saw many ancient mysteries, the secrets of the cosmos, things he would never be able to take with him back into the waking world, but which would be his to discover, at some point, all in good time.
He jolted awake with a start, feeling a weight hovering over him and warm breath stirring against his lips, staring up into a different gaze, no less intense, pale blue depths he could lose himself in, for a lifetime.
He parted his lips. Yes, he was really beginning to like this dream.