Blair was coming home today. The Sentinel had missed his Guide, and Jim had missed his friend. Jim waited impatiently, surrounded by crowds and yet alone. He forced himself to outward stillness, amazed at how ridiculously excited he was that his partner was finally coming home after three long months. He glanced up at the display monitor; Sandburg's flight was due in ten minutes. Jim shifted awkwardly, too restless to stand here much longer and too disciplined to give in to the urge to pace. He scanned the crowd again, wondering if anyone noticed his tension, but he was ignored. He was alone. It was almost comical how that point had been driven home to him while Sandburg was away.
He sighed softly, then looked around to make sure no one noticed. He'd missed Blair so much. Everything was lonely, empty, when Blair was gone. The loft was a barren place, good for nothing more than sleeping, and even that came hard most nights. It was too quiet -- no CDs of tribal drums or Buddhist chants, no Discovery channel specials, no long-winded explanations of mundane things. It smelled wrong, too. No herbal teas, no algae shakes, no organic shampoos. Mostly though -- no Blair. After three months, his scent had faded even beyond the ability of Sentinel senses.
His heart pounded in his chest, the rapid staccato of beats almost painful in their intensity. The tightening in his chest made it hard to breathe, and he forced himself to slow down, breathe deeply, willing himself to some semblance of calm. He'd missed Blair. And he'd been lonely. Nothing had seemed right -- not for three whole months. Jim chuckled out loud at the thought, grateful he'd not voiced it aloud since he sounded like a petulant child who'd been denied a sweet. And he was. He was a child denied his sweet and Blair was the sweet he'd been denied. Was it his fault that when it came to Blair, he was fanatically possessive, protectively territorial, and obsessively insistent that the Guide belonged to him? Of course not. Sandburg would have some convoluted and involved explanation about territorial imperatives and primitive bonding rituals. Jim shrugged. It didn't really matter. All that mattered was that Jim had been lonely and Blair had been gone too long. But -- he looked at his watch again and then at the monitor -- in four minutes, he'd no longer be the child denied.
It was really strange when he tried to separate how he felt now. There was this primal urge coursing through him, threatening to eclipse the modern man. He just wanted to get to his Guide. No matter what. It was taking an enormous amount of energy to keep from stalking up the concourse, flashing his badge at everyone in his way and forcing his way onto the plane so that he could get to the Guide. That was where it all got mixed up in his head. Jim missed Blair. They were friends, buddies, pals. They hung out together, roomed together, spent time together. They were partners. They worked together and took care of each other. The loss of Blair from his life had left him bereft, and it was a loss the enormity of which he had never imagined when Blair had first mentioned the opportunity to go to Brazil and help map out the locations of some of the most isolated tribes in the country.
"Jim, man, it's an incredible opportunity. Funai -- that's the Brazilian Indian Agency -- is launching an expedition to search for isolated tribes living in the Amazon jungle and map their territory. They're looking for volunteers. It could be so incredible, man. The team they're putting together is going out on the Amazon, up several of the tributaries, all along the border of Colombia and Peru."
Jim had laughed, delighted at the excitement in his friend's voice. "How do they know where to look?" he'd asked, wanting only to keep Blair talking, to hear the rapturous joy that came from him when he talked about something he loved.
"Planes, man. Funai -- the Brazilian ..."
"Indian Agency. I know, Chief, I got it the first time."
"Oh. Yeah, well, Funai has these monitoring planes. They make sweeps looking for roads and huts and then an expedition can come in and map it out. They've gotten quite a list of sites, lots of indigenous population sightings in the last few years."
Sandburg bounced around the loft as he spoke. And Jim had smiled. "Any contact, Chief? You gonna get to visit with these indigenous populations?"
"Nah. Not this time. This is just about tracking and identification. Find 'em and then demarcate the territory. We're talking people that have been isolated for a loooooong time here, Jim." Sandburg bounced into his room, and Jim heard the sound of books being shuffled, pages being turned. Then he was back, plopping onto the sofa next to him, a large, heavy book dropped in his lap.
"Look," Sandburg said, pointing to a map, "this is the Amazon forest. Funai estimates some 53 Indian tribes live in isolation in Brazil, most of 'em right here." He ran a finger longingly over the page, then looked up. "The expedition is gonna travel about 4,000 kilometers over ten weeks, all in areas of the Amazon basin that are accessible only by boat." He hummed a happy little hum of excitement. "Can you imagine it, Jim? Can you?"
Jim laughed again. "You imagine it well enough for us both, Doctor Livingstone."
"It's not just mapping and tracking totally, though. There've been reports of illegal miners and loggers in the area." Sandburg hopped up again, too excited to sit. "And you know me, if there's a protest, I'm there. A chance to try and set things right."
"Sounds like important work, Chief." Jim leaned back, sipping from the cold beer bottle he held. "You got an invite?"
Blair swallowed, suddenly nervous. "Well, uh, yeah, I did. One of my old professors from U Wash -- he, uh, recommended me." He was studying Jim as he spoke.
"Sounds like a good opportunity, Sandburg," Jim said quietly. "I think you should go."
"Yeah." The bounce had disappeared and this time when Sandburg sat, it was on the other couch and it was far too quietly for Jim's liking. He wanted the bouncy Sandburg back -- the one who was too excited to sit and who kept tripping over his words as he tried to speak. "It is a good opportunity, but Jim, it's ten weeks."
"More like twelve," he'd said quietly, "when you add in travel and prep time."
"Three months." Blair looked up as if he hadn't really considered the concept of having to be away in order to avail himself of this 'good opportunity.' He shook his head. "Nah. It's too long. I can't be gone that long."
He'd hopped up and come to retrieve his book, but Jim had held onto it, his hand resting over Blair's in a very unequal struggle for control. "Wait a minute, Chief. Before you put this away, show me again where these tribes are ..."
And so it had gone most of the night. Blair getting excited, talking, explaining, teaching about the native populations of Brazil. Jim asking questions. Then Blair settling, talking about how long it was, how he couldn't go, why it wouldn't work. It had taken most of the night, but Jim had convinced him he needed to go. Needed to do this for himself. Needed to keep up with the research, participate in the expeditions, stay in the field work loop.
In the end, he'd almost convinced himself it would be all right. That it was just three months. That he was a big boy now, and he could take care of himself. That he didn't zone like he used to. That he could control the senses, stay on top of things. It had been a hard sell, to both Sandburg and himself, but he'd made it. He smiled as he thought back. The deciding factor was probably the weather. The promise of three months in jungle warmth as opposed to Washington winter was more than Sandburg could refuse.
Three months to be warm. Once Jim reminded him of that fact, the rest hadn't been all that hard after all.
People were coming down the concourse now, and he drew in a deep breath, searching for that unique Sandburg scent, but not finding it. Puzzled, he opened himself a little wider, reached out a little further but still got nothing. Could three months have made him forget? He shook his head. Not possible. Sandburg's scent was as imprinted in Jim's mind as ducklings on their mother. He'd never forget it, never fail to recognize it. He shrugged. Sandburg would get here when he got here. He couldn't make it happen any faster.
He'd wondered about his senses over these past three months. He'd had some trouble with spikes, some sensory overloads, and even a few zones. Two with Simon, one at the loft. He'd lost hours on that last one and he blushed to admit to himself it had happened when he'd picked up a flannel shirt of Blair's, held it to his nose, and breathed deeply. He'd been lost in traces of his Guide. That was why he knew now, he should be able to scent him.
He'd been so lonely. He'd gotten increasingly moody as the weeks wore on, his temper a fragile thing that flared without provocation. And afraid. When he'd seen Blair onto the plane three months ago, he'd been clutched by a moment of fear. What if something happens to him? What if he gets hurt? What if he needs me and I'm not there? What if he decides he wants to do this kind of thing all the time? What if he leaves me? What if he never comes back? It had taken every ounce of self-control he'd had not to race onto that plane and haul his Guide out, to keep him where he belonged -- by the Sentinel's side.
But he'd refrained. Sandburg needed this. Hell, he deserved this. A chance to do something he loved with people who loved it too. An opportunity to talk about his passion with people who felt that passion. Time to be who he was -- Sandburg, the anthropologist -- not Jim's partner, or the Sentinel's Guide.
But the fear kept coming back. It made him tense. His head hurt. He couldn't concentrate. He'd lose focus -- not a zone, really, just like when you're reading and you lose your place. Only for him it happened everywhere. In conversations, he'd lose the thread. He'd be in the truck, driving, and suddenly realize he had no idea where he was. Questioning people. He'd look up and realize he didn't have a clue where he was or what case he was working on.
And the fear was oppressive. The longer Blair was gone, the more the fear ate at him. One time he was in a meeting, and the fear washed over him, so thick, so real, he bolted from the room without a word and raced to the bathroom, tears on his face, his stomach churning. He'd lost his breakfast, then stood there, limbs shaking, hands trembling, gasping for breath, trying in vain to remember what it was that Sandburg always told him. Breathe, Jim, breathe. It had finally come to him. That was what Sandburg was -- the air in his universe. Without him, he couldn't breathe.
He allowed himself one small shifting of weight from left foot to right and then weakened and lifted up on tiptoes to scan over the heads of the crowds. Still no Sandburg.
The voice startled him and he dropped back on his heels, embarrassed. He looked down to see a young woman, little more than a girl really, staring up at him.
"Are you meeting someone, Mr. Ellison?"
Jim frowned. "Do I know you?"
She bobbed her head, blond curls falling forward to partially conceal her face and Jim's gut tightened as he realized that was a familiar motion. Blair did that thing with his hair, making it fall forward to hide his face when he was uncomfortable. "I'm Amanda Winters. From Mr. Sandburg's 102 class."
Jim stared at her blankly.
"I went on the expedition. Mr. Sandburg put me in for it. Got me a spot."
Now Jim nodded. "I'm here to meet him."
Her eyes widened. "Meet him? Where did he go?"
Jim looked at the girl. She had to be bright for Sandburg to take her on this trip of his, but she wasn't coming across that way. He spoke slowly, enunciating carefully as if that might help her comprehension. "To Brazil. With you. To study the natives." He forced a smile, cocking his head to the left. "Remember?"
But she was shaking her head, her heart was racing, and her hand was coming up to her mouth. She was biting on her fist as she stared at him, and he had to clamp down on his own fear to keep from ripping her hand from her mouth and forcing her to speak. "What's wrong, Amanda?"
She shook her head, still biting her fist, and mumbled round the obstacle. " 'm sorry, Mr. Ellison." She turned and started to dart away, but he reached out and caught her before she got far, startling a cry of surprise from her.
"Where's Sandburg?" he demanded. "What happened?"
She was tiny in his grasp, not more than five feet tall and barely a hundred pounds. He loomed over her and could just imagine the picture it made to the people who were starting to gather. He heard comments, but shut them out, focusing only on Amanda. Her eyes were wide and horror-stricken as she stared up at him and she paled visibly. She was beginning to shake and he tightened his grip, causing her to strangle out a little cry. "I don't know."
The murmuring of the crowd was growing louder and he reached in his pocket with one hand, pulling his badge. Holding it up, he announced, "Police," and the crowds backed away, everyone returning to their nice, safe, normal world. The world that no longer existed for him. There was no nice, or safe, or normal. The fear was rising up, threatening to engulf him, and he still didn't know where his Guide was. "Where ... When did you see him?"
"On the plane." The girl was crying now, pulling at his fingers where they dug into her arm.
"The plane home?"
She stilled under his hand, tears spilling down over pale, pale cheeks, as she shook her head. "N-n-n-o," she whispered. "The plane down."
It broke into tiny little pieces of sharp, painful hurt and rained down on him, slicing him open from the inside out. He tried to breathe but there was no air. Sandburg was the air, and he was gone. He felt the ground give way and dropped to his knees, no longer sure of where he was or why he was there. He was rapidly losing the thread of who he was -- Jim Ellison, Cascade PD, was disappearing beneath the Sentinel of the Great City. And the Sentinel had lost his Guide.
Protect the Guide!
Jim's head whipped around, eyes searching. His nostrils flared as he sought the scent of the Guide.
There was a noise, an insistent ringing sound and he patted himself until he found it. He lifted the black box and stared at it without recognition. A hand appeared and the box disappeared and then it was quiet.
Now he could listen.
He closed his eyes and began to filter out all the other
sounds, straining to hear just one voice.
There was a hand in front of his face, a voice hissing insistently into his ear. "Mr. Ellison!"
He jerked back with a start, surprised to find himself looking up at the young girl who had just told him Sandburg was missing. What was her name? He stared at her in confusion and then realized she was holding his phone. Why did she have his phone? He looked around again. Why was everyone so much bigger than he was? It took a few minutes, but he finally got it. He was on his knees. Figuring that out had exhausted him. He didn't have the energy to try and figure out why.
The girl was talking to him again, calling him Mr. Ellison. He shook his head. "Mr. Ellison's my dad," he mumbled.
"You have to come with me," she ordered, pulling on his arm to make him stand.
He looked up at her. He was too tired to go anywhere. She was really pretty. Blonde hair like spun gold. Lights dancing in it as she turned her head. Not as pretty as Sandburg's, of course ...
It shot through him again and he clutched his stomach, doubling over. The girl was still buzzing at him. Something about Simon on the phone. A car coming for him. Something downtown. He shook his head. He just couldn't focus on it all right now. He started to slump forward again, thinking maybe he could just lie down for a few minutes, take a little nap. It was suddenly very quiet, and he stopped sliding down, puzzled. He opened his eyes, and saw the girl again. Her mouth was moving and she looked really worried. Probably because she wasn't making any sound. To not make a sound when you talk, well, that would worry anyone. He reached up and patted her on the arm, said, "Don't worry. You'll be able to make sounds again soon." Only he didn't make any sound either. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. He straightened back up, kneeling upright in the middle of the concourse and looked around. People were moving, people were talking, but there was no sound anywhere. Damn! His hearing had gone.
He shook his head. Sandburg would fix it. He'd know what to do.
And it hit him again, the pain rippling through his body. The physical reaction as real as if he'd just been sucker punched. And then the hearing was back and everything was painfully loud. He winced and slapped his hands over his ears, struggling for a dial that seemed suddenly impossible to access. He needed his Guide!
"Come with me, Sir. Your Captain said he knows where Mr. Sandburg is. You have to come with me!" The girl was pulling him again and this time he rose at her insistence. He followed her down the corridor, his large hand nestled trustingly in her small one. She'd said the magic words. She was taking him to Sandburg. His head was pounding and the lights were all too bright, but he could handle it now because this girl -- Amanda? -- was taking him to Sandburg.
They got to the front of the airport just as a police car pulled up. One of the cops hopped out and opened the back door. Jim looked at Amanda in confusion. "Sandburg?" he asked.
"It musta been a misunderstanding, Mr. Ellison," she replied. "These guys are here to take you to get him."
He nodded once and then climbed into the car, actually thankful when the cop pushed his head down a little in a habitual action to keep him from banging the roof. He'd have probably knocked it if he hadn't been helped. The man shut the door and got back in the front, asking him something as he did so. Jim just shrugged. He didn't understand. The words were too loud and garbled and it hurt his ears. He needed to see his Guide.
The ride was too long. The road was bumpy, every dip and turn exaggerated a hundred fold to his magnified touch. His pants hurt. They were too rough, too tight, too hard. Breathing was difficult, like someone had caught his chest in a vise and tightened it until there wasn't room for the oxygen. It all hurt and he was so tired. Like he'd been running on empty for three months and now there wasn't anything left.
The car stopped and the same cop opened the door, but he didn't move. What did they want now? Someone was screaming, a painful, non-stop yowl that plucked at his nerves before it suddenly crashed into a recognizable sound.
That was his Guide!
Someone was making him scream!
He flew out of the car, racing toward the sound and stopped in amazement at the sight before him. Huddled naked in a snowdrift, backed against a building, was his Guide, mouth open as he screamed in wordless fear. He clutched a dirty duffel bag to his chest, clinging to it as if he might draw warmth or comfort from its presence. Jim drew in a deep breath and finally -- finally -- he smelled Sandburg. But it wasn't right. There was something else mixed with the Blairscent. He worked at it carefully, cataloging the odors.
Reality crashed again and he pulled himself to a stop. Simon was suddenly there, blanket in hand, and Jim took it gratefully. "Get rid of these lights, Simon," he whispered. "They hurt my eyes and they're scaring him."
Simon nodded and within seconds the area was plunged back into a semi-darkness lit only by the streetlight on the corner. Jim moved forward slowly. "Sandburg," he called softly. "Hey, Chief? It's Jim."
There was a break in the screaming as the frightened man stared up at him.
"Yeah, Chief, it's me."
"Ambulance is on the way, Jim," Simon said. "We've got to get him out of the snow. It's 30 degrees out here. He's gonna freeze."
Jim waved a hand at him, hearing the words, but ignoring them. All that mattered was getting to his Guide. Protect the Guide.
"Blair," he whispered as he moved closer. "C'mon, buddy, it's Jim. Let's get you out of the cold, okay?"
"C-c-c-cold," Blair mumbled, looking around fearfully.
"Yeah, it's cold," Jim reiterated. "C'mere." He crept closer. "Let me put this around you, okay, Chief?"
"Jim, ambulance is here." The words were hissed in his ear, and as he watched, Sandburg drew further back, burrowing deeper into the snow. His teeth chattered and he shuddered convulsively.
"Damn it, Simon," Jim growled, "you're scaring him."
"You've got to get him out of the snow. Now, Jim. He's bleeding."
He breathed in again. The same odor of blood mixed with Sandburg's own unique scent. As he watched, Blair looked up, saw Simon, and began to keen.
"Hushhhhhh, hushhhhhh," Jim murmured. "It's okay, Chief. I'm here."
The head came up and dull blue eyes stared at him without recognition. The eyes lighted on the blanket, and for just a second, there was a spark in them, and then it died, too quickly to have ever been fully born. "C-c-c-c-cold," Blair whimpered. "C-c-c-c-old."
Jim moved forward again, almost within touching distance. "I'm just gonna wrap this around you, okay, Chief? I know it's cold. This will help warm you up." He moved forward once more, this time reaching Blair and wrapping the blanket around him. He was kneeling in snow that came nearly up to his groin but he didn't feel cold or wet. He felt inordinately happy and ridiculously pleased that he'd managed to get a blanket around his terrified partner. The resonance of his emotions was vaguely surreal.
"Ambulance, Jim. His lips are blue."
Jim growled wordlessly and Simon backed away. Reaching out, he wrapped his arms around Blair, pulling him forward to rest in his lap, mostly out of the snow. He pulled the blanket tighter, increasing his grip as the smaller man began to struggle. Jim leaned forward burying his head in Sandburg's neck. He breathed deeply, rubbing his face against the icy skin. Cold, but it finally smelled like Sandburg. He wanted nothing more than to stand his Guide up and sniff him up one side and down the other. He needed to see, and touch, and hear, and feel his Guide. One hand slipped inside the blanket, skin to skin, and he began to touch the younger man. His head was still buried against Sandburg's neck as he breathed deeply of the restorative scent of his Guide. Without conscious thought, his tongue slipped out, lapping at the pulse point in the neck. Salt. Sweat. Fear. Pain. He could taste it all.
Sandburg's struggling had stopped in some primal reaction to his Sentinel's needs. He curled inertly in Jim's lap, not helping as the big man touched and smelled and tasted him, but not objecting either.
It was this acquiescence that caused the problem.
Everyone else saw them sitting there quietly and assumed Jim had calmed down his friend and partner, and it was okay to approach. The EMTs came forward, reaching out to take Sandburg's arms and help him onto the waiting gurney, but at first touch, the small man exploded. He arched backward out of Jim's arms, screaming at the top of his lungs, his head slamming painfully into the wall of the building, and then the screaming stopped abruptly as Sandburg slipped down into unconsciousness.