Four Years

By Gil Hale – corbidae@yahoo.com

(Previously Posted As Where Are They Now?)

Disclaimer: Characters from The Sentinel belong to Pet Fly Productions and are used without permission but with no intent to defraud.


Hacking his lungs up in the taxi, Blair looked at the bleak grey sky over Cascade and wondered if life could get much worse. A sudden pelting of rain mixed with hail lashing on the taxi window made him wince. In the distance, a siren wailed to him of a past he’d never managed to forget.

He’d sworn nothing would drag him back to Cascade. He’d ignored invitations to friends’ weddings, baby-namings, and retirements, had ignored the letters they wrote wanting to help him, and even the ones they wrote wanting him to help them. For weeks at a time, he’d managed not to think about the place, and over the years it had become a little easier.

But how could he refuse Ruth Stoddard, writing in careful, shaky handwriting to tell him that Eli longed to see him before a spreading cancer consumed the old professor completely?

The one thing he felt grateful for today was that no one he’d known was likely to recognise him if by some mischance he passed them at the hospital. He’d glanced in the mirror in the airport washroom, and thought, as he’d increasingly done recently, that he wasn’t sure he recognised himself any more.

He’d cut his hair four years ago, hacked it off savagely as if the ritual would help sever him from his old life, and for the same reason he’d never grown it back. When he looked in the mirror, he saw a face that was indefinably harder, eyes that preferred to stay behind tinted glasses—and right now, an unhealthy flush that ought to scare people away, though he knew it was only the old trouble with his lungs catching up with him again; he wouldn’t have risked bringing anything infectious to Eli.

The taxi swerved, and he caught sight of a line of familiar buildings. He’d expected to feel angry all over again when he saw Cascade, but instead it hurt so much he could hardly catch the little breath he had. All the furious, uncomprehending passion which had fired his departure seemed swallowed up in that huge painful emptiness.

He was shaking by the time he got out of the taxi at the hospital entrance. How stupid was that? He’d detached from this place, severed every link, built a whole new life—and a twenty minute taxi ride had wrecked him.

Pushing his own miseries aside, he went to find Eli and Ruth. Eli was shockingly gaunt and withered, but he greeted Blair with unchanged warmth. Seeing the way Eli brightened, and being welcomed with tearful pleasure by Ruth, Blair had to be glad Ruth’s letter had found Naomi and had been forwarded in time for him to make the arrangements to come.

“I’ve missed you, Blair,” Eli said, taking Blair’s hand with his own cold, desiccated one. “We didn’t try to contact you, we knew you wanted to make a completely new start, but I’ve often picked up a paper you’ve written, or seen a news bulletin and wondered if you were one of the team behind a report. You look well, Blair. Are you happy?”

“You know me, I like to be travelling,” Blair said, unable to lie to him directly. “And sometimes an anthropologist’s perspective helps.”

“I can’t imagine anyone better suited to work for the UN,” Eli said. “It’s not just your academic ability, Blair; you have the ethics and compassion to make a difference anywhere.”

Blair hadn’t found his ethics and compassion in as much demand as he might have hoped—an academic’s perspective on committees and infighting over grants tended to be just as useful, and in some cases of corruption he found himself thinking like the cop he’d never become. He hadn’t many illusions left. Changing the subject quickly, he thought of one of his more positive experiences. “I must tell you, Eli, about a trip I was recently able to make to Mozambique…” Mozambique had restored some of his rather battered faith in what could be done. He talked about that and other places Eli would have known, keeping the conversation firmly away from his own past present or future.

He stayed for much longer than he’d intended. Eventually Eli was clearly exhausted and too obviously hanging on for his next dose of pain medication; besides, Blair had started coughing too much to talk easily. He took Eli’s hand again before he went, and hoped that he could somehow communicate his real affection and his gratitude for all the professor’s help, and Ruth’s. “I know how very hard I would have found it at Rainier without you both in those first two years.”

Eli’s smile was twisted but very genuine. “It was a pleasure to teach you, Blair. You loved knowledge as much as you hated advice! That’s why when we give you this now, it only holds knowledge, not any suggestion as to what you should do with it.”

Taken aback, Blair found himself holding a large manila envelope Ruth had placed into his hands. He wasn’t sure what it contained, but he could make a bitter guess. It was no time or place for him to refuse it though. He parted from them with a hug for Ruth and a careful embrace for Eli. The old man felt like brittle parchment and dry sticks, yet he was still vital. Blair hadn’t felt anything cut him so deeply in years as this parting, in fact he hadn’t thought he could feel that deeply any more. These days he kept his relationships to a cool and civilised level. Checked his feelings at the door… He suppressed the anger and bitterness that thought brought, and left Eli with gentler sorrow.

He hadn’t booked his return flight, luckily. He looked at the pouring rain, realised he hadn’t eaten and felt too sick to do so, and decided to try to sleep off his cough before he returned to the east coast. He couldn’t face staying in Cascade itself, which ruled out the hotels he might have considered. He settled for a reasonably priced motel on the edge of town, paid off his taxi and decided to stay in his room and close out the world.

Unfortunately, part of the world, in the shape of Eli’s manila envelope, was shut inside with him. He wondered about tossing it in the trash. Or perhaps setting a match to the corner of it. He hadn’t promised to read it. Whatever was inside might have the power to open up ugly sores and show that the wounds underneath hadn’t even begun to heal.

It would be about Jim.

He couldn’t even think Jim’s name without anger and loss and betrayal rising up to choke him. After all they’d both done, after the struggles through the sentinel stuff, the cop stuff, the friendship stuff… That life had seemed like the gold ring, his own personal grail, everything that mattered, and he still couldn’t handle the discovery it hadn’t meant anything at all.

Jim hadn’t even told him about the cataclysmic decision he’d made, that was perhaps the worst of it. He’d just done it and left it to Simon to explain and help Blair pick up the pieces. So Blair had come back from a couple of weeks’ expedition in Mexico to find Jim was gone. He was gone irretrievably, and—the one thing that could make that worse—had voluntarily informed the military of his sentinel abilities and offered to use them, guideless, in a war zone.

Blair’s disbelief and horror and outrage had been overwhelming, all the more because there was no chance to voice them, not to Jim. All Blair was left to do was accept it—or not. And he wouldn’t accept it. Like a house of cards, what he’d thought was his life had tumbled down around him.

It wasn’t just Jim he lost. Jim was gone beyond any chance of calling him or even hoping a letter might reach him, far beyond blame. But Blair could blame others and did: Simon, who had known for a week before he told him, and still supported Jim; Jack Kelso, who wouldn’t help Blair trace him and tried to argue the other side of the dispute; Megan—he’d no idea Megan had a brother in the Royal Australian armoured corps, but she had and they’d said things they’d probably both regretted too late.

Maybe he was still his mother’s son in more ways then he realised. Angry with all of them, his final act of protest had been to walk away from Cascade, and not look back. Only he’d let them know they could get in touch through Naomi if they had news that had to reach him—whatever Jim had done to destroy the illusion they shared some special link, Blair didn’t want to find out he was dead by hearing it on CNN.

A year at Columbia—as far from Cascade as he could conveniently get—had given him the chance to produce a number of anthropological papers. At first it was a coincidence that several touched on tribes caught in the world’s trouble spots, but the response to these from academic contacts and people organising liberal-issue conferences and rallies, had led ultimately to the opportunity of this consultancy post with the UN.

He couldn’t have been further from Jim if he’d tried—and in his most honest moments he knew he had tried, hard. In worse moments still, he hoped it had made Jim as profoundly miserable as he still felt.

The rain beat on the motel windows. Blair looked again at the envelope. There was absolutely no compulsion on him to open it. He didn’t have to destroy it; he could just leave it untouched. Okay it might haunt his thoughts and niggle at his rest like a splinter, but he’d slept badly for a long time now.

A bout of coughing shook him. Maybe it would have been an idea to pick up some fruit and tea while he still had the taxi—however little he felt like eating, it was the previous day since he’d swallowed anything. Between the cough and a sort of grey depression at the thought of Cascade, he hadn’t wanted anything on the flight. Well, going out in the rain would probably do him more harm than fasting a bit.

The possible contents of the envelope wouldn’t get out of his mind. The handwriting on it, that wasn’t Eli’s or Ruth’s. He thought he recognised it, but he couldn’t place it. Maybe the rain would ease up and he could go out and… and anything rather than sit here being tormented by a piece of stationary. Another glance out showed a heavy grey sky, grey concrete streaming with water, and rain that even a poet could only have described as pissing down.

He was trapped here with the damn envelope…

He took a hot shower, acknowledged to himself that he was feeling worse and his chest hurt all the time now, then curled up on the bed and shivered and tried to get CNN.

The envelope seemed to catch his eye every time he moved. He refused to open it though, until late in the evening he had a call on his cell phone from Ruth Stoddard. “I just wanted to thank you for coming, Blair. It meant such a lot to him, and gave him a real lift. It’s a long time since he’s been so much like his old self. The doctors are saying it won’t be very long, and I’ve watched him fading so fast this last week, but it was lovely to see him enjoy himself today.”

“I should have asked you, Ruth,” Blair said, trying to stifle a cough. “Do you have anyone to be with you?”

“Yes, my niece is staying; she’s a dear girl and very good to me. I’m just so grateful you came all that way when you weren’t well. Take care of yourself Blair, and thank you, from both of us.”

Somehow, although she hadn’t mentioned it, had other things altogether on her mind, Blair felt after that he had to open the envelope. Totally stupid, but it felt like a last thing he could do for Eli.

He tipped the papers from it out onto the bed, and as soon as he saw them he knew whose handwriting it had been. Jack Kelso. He should have guessed. And of the handful of sheets of paper, quite a lot looked like things Blair definitely shouldn’t have been reading.

It was an odd, almost random collection: newspaper cuttings, pages from the internet, a couple of personal letters, and photocopies of others and of reports that Jack must have called in a lot of favours to get access to. It had to be anything from the last four years that Jack had thought could conceivably relate to Jim and his sentinel abilities.

With cold hands and a feeling of sick depression rather than curiosity, Blair began to turn over the papers. They seemed to be roughly chronological. He wasn’t reading through them yet, just getting an idea of what was there, but details caught his eye as they must have caught Jack’s:

An ambiguously worded report about the raised success rate of the new approach to detecting Taliban hideouts; a letter that had obviously bypassed the censors in someone’s baggage, talking about a new guy in covert operations who had to be psychic; an intercepted communication from the Russians to the French about advanced listening technology the US seemed to be using in the field; newspaper reports of a targeted assassination and of the rescue too late of some tortured prisoners; roadside bombs detected and defused; a terrorist leader found in the desert… Through two wars and almost to the present. Blair’s opposition to so much of it made his hands stiff and clumsy as he turned the sheets over, and yet a part of him he hadn’t listened to in a very long time was whispering that even in this violence, Jim’s aim was to be the protector. Inaction killed a lot of people too; Blair saw it nearly every day. Genocide didn’t stop while you were talking to its perpetrators.

In the balance of things, he hoped to do more good than harm. Maybe Jim had hoped that too…

As the pile cleared, he picked up a stapled paper that stopped him dead. It was a couple of sheets of badly photocopied medical notes—hard to make out, incomprehensible to most lay readers, but not to Blair.

A patient hospitalised with moderate blast injuries… off the scale reactions to medications… bizarre allergies… unexplained catatonic state… equally unexplained recovery… The words burned themselves into his mind, with the painful recollection of long-ago hospital stays, anxious nights of waiting, arguments with unconvinced doctors.

His hand was shaking as he turned over the second sheet. In Jack’s writing on the back there was a scrawled note. “Left Puget-Sound AMA?’ and a date… six months ago?

Blair fumbled for his cell-phone, made clumsy with anger and intense concern. He dropped it, and had to make two attempts at dialling Jack Kelso’s number. It wasn’t late and Jack didn’t go far in an evening, but the few rings it took for him to pick up seemed interminable.

“Jack Kelso.”

“Why didn’t you let me know Jim had been hurt?”

“Blair?”

“I said why didn’t—”

“Because I wasn’t sure it was Jim. And I got the chart two months after whoever it was had walked out of Puget Sound. And not a single person seemed to have any idea Jim might be back near Cascade, including his family and Simon Banks—Banks thinks he’s in Jordan.”

“It was Jim,” Blair said through a prolonged coughing fit. “I recognise some of the drug reactions.”

“You don’t sound too good,” Jack said. “Where are you—in Cascade?”

“No,” Blair said, which was probably technically truthful, though he didn’t care anyway. “I’m on my way back home.”

“Eli told me a week ago that if you came he would give you that envelope. He had me collecting it from early on; thought that one day it would be the right time. Guess he’s run out of time… Anyway, I wanted to add some caveats. A lot of the time, those were responses to feelers I’d put out. Some of them won’t have anything to do with Jim, maybe most of them. Eli just thought that maybe one day you’d want to know.”

“Like when I found out he was dead?” Blair said. “No, sorry, Jack. I know you’d have told me if you were sure. But this means Jim was hurt and then he just disappeared.”

“He signed out AMA. That doesn’t amount to disappearing. He may be back with the military.”

“But you don’t think so.”

Jack sighed. “No, as a matter of fact, I don’t. But I’m still sure it wasn’t a good idea to send a complicated story via Naomi. You haven’t been the easiest person to reach.”

He didn’t add ‘or to talk to about Jim’ but Blair knew that was true as well. Even now, he couldn’t feel anything but anger and hurt at the thought of how Jim had left, but today, seeing Eli dying, seeing these reports that said Jim in so many ways, good and bad, he couldn’t forget that even if it hadn’t mattered as much as he thought that they’d been sentinel and guide, they had once been some sort of friends.

Another coughing fit left him almost breathless. “I’ll have to go, get a coffee or something,” he said.

“You’re not in Cascade?” Jack repeated.

“No.”

“Good—because while I was trying to find out if it could have been Jim in that hospital, and if he’d been back in Cascade or in touch with any of his old friends, I picked up that I wasn’t the only one asking around, and I don’t think the others were necessarily as friendly. You’re better out of it. Take care, kid.”

“You too, Jack,” Blair said blankly. Half a day in Cascade, and already someone was warning him he might be in danger? Screwed up and miserable as he felt, that was almost enough to raise a laugh.

It wasn’t funny though, not really, he thought as he ended the call. It would have been all too easy to follow him from the hospital, and of course he’d used his own name—as you do when not in Cascade—to sign in. He was out of practice with this sort of thing. Four years… In four years he’d not met any serial killers, not outside certain governments anyway, and not once had he been threatened by criminals, rogue agents or drug dealers.

He swept the papers up and back into the envelope. The sane thing to do would be to call a taxi and fly back to New York. Why should he care if Jim was here? Even if he did, what could he do about it? Looking for Jim, already a bad idea, was a worse one if some other undefined danger was searching Jim out.

Four years. The number became a sort of refrain in his hot and troubled thoughts. He’d had four long years of not thinking about Jim, of not remembering being a reject as a guide and a friend and even as someone to trust. Jim had thrown him out of his life with even more finality this last time, because the decision had been taken in cold blood, and for four years Blair had mentally returned the compliment. It seemed wrong a few hours could undo that so completely.

He sat there, annoyed with himself for being unable to make up his mind either to go or to stay. His ideas spun in a way that he knew was being made worse by the fever he was running and the constant pain in his chest. He felt too sick to make a rational choice of what to do. Maybe he should just wait and see if something outside of himself made the decision for him…

Proving that Fate had a psychopathic sense of humour, the moment when he thought that was exactly the one when all plans were taken violently out of his hands. A noise outside gave him far too little warning, then the door to his motel room crashed back violently against the wall, and two burly men were in his room before it had even rebounded.

Blair sat there and coughed at them, disbelief or lack of oxygen somehow making him more annoyed than afraid. What could he do anyway? Once, he’d have had some bright ingenious idea of a way to take them on. At the very least he’d have had enough breath to start talking himself out of trouble. But then, once, he’d have cared…

“Where’s Ellison,” the first man demanded, like the ghost of kidnappings past. Faint accent, Blair noted, voice of someone who meant his threats.

“Like I should know.” That wasn’t clever. That wasn’t the diplomacy he’d been employing in his new career with at least a bit of success. He was inviting a violent response.

Proving him right, the man hauled him roughly to his feet and smacked him back against the wall. Definitely Cascade, Blair thought dizzily. Four years of not being pushed into walls… The sudden movement had made his head spin. Maybe if he got lucky he’d pass out before they could do anything too painful to him.

They? He realised that over his attacker’s shoulder he was staring at an empty room. He hadn’t time to follow this thought through, because the question was being yelled in his face again, this time with a spray of saliva. “I said, where is Ellison?”

“Right here.”

It was so startling Blair could hardly take it in, and yet at the same time it seemed the most natural thing in the world. There was Jim, solid, real, different enough after four years to prove he was no apparition caused by stress or a fever. He’d appeared from nowhere to demolish the bad guy with ruthlessly efficient enthusiasm. Blair had only looked away from the door for a second. He’d forgotten how fast Jim could move. Four years of not being rescued…

It took Jim maybe another fifteen seconds to dump the guy who’d been shouting in Blair’s face. Presumably he’d already dealt with the other one. He didn’t even seem to be panting, unlike Blair whose breath was wheezing stickily in and out.

For much longer than it had taken Jim to clear the room, they stood and stared at each other. Blair’s eyes, working better than his brain, took in a thinner, more drawn face, a new scar, a bit less hair… and blue eyes searching his face with an intensity that belonged to the dead time when he’d been guide and friend and someone who could be trusted.

“What’s with the hair?” Jim said, then caught hold of him in a hug so fierce that it made Blair cough helplessly into his shoulder and wonder if he was losing his mind.

“I think they were alone, but we’d better get out of here,” Jim went on, as if he’d last seen Blair yesterday. “I called the PD before I came in. They’ll pick these two up and hold them till the proper authorities can question them.”

He glanced around the room, picked up Blair’s case and bundled into it everything that didn’t look as if it belonged to the motel, then bundled Blair himself out and across the parking lot to a Ford truck. Blair felt slightly hysterical laughter welling up. Kelso had really gone about it wrong. Should have just looked for the truck…

“We’ll get you somewhere warm and dry,” Jim said. “You need antibiotics.”

“Jim—”

“Later, chief.”

“No!” Blair said, so explosively that the rest of his angry sentence was lost to a coughing fit that doubled him up and left him gasping, by which time Jim was driving too fast through the rain. With the bit of breath he finally regained, he said, “Four fucking years and you want to pretend nothing’s happened!”

“No, I want to make sure no one’s tailing us, especially anyone ready to use a gun.”

Between the truth of this, and the lack of air in his lungs and the way Jim was swerving the truck up and down a series of side streets, Blair had to be furious in silence for a few minutes, and shortly after that they made another violent turn and rattled into a yard. Jim hastily garaged the truck and Blair found himself being helped out and into a small nondescript house, somewhere in some quiet residential street.

The blinds were closed, and Jim must still have been sentinel enough to see in the darkness. Blair stumbled over something, maybe his feet, and would have fallen but for a strong arm holding him up. “Sorry, chief. I’m too used to being on my own.”

Jim helped him onto a couch and switched on a small lamp. The dim light revealed a room that was as Spartan as the loft had once been. Jim went through to the kitchenette and switched on the kettle, then brought a throw from somewhere. He felt Blair’s forehead in a way he’d long since forfeited the right to do, but Blair felt too sick and overwhelmed to protest.

“You’re running one hell of a fever,” Jim said. “How long have you had the chest infection? Never mind. I’ve got antibiotics here. You haven’t developed any allergies since…” He stumbled at what he’d been going to say.

Blair went on for him. “Since you decided you didn’t want a guide or… partner or…” Shit, he wasn’t going to let it show how much he’d been hurt.

Jim walked away, but only to bring Tylenol and amoxicillin, with tea and a couple of plain biscuits. Blair found that even lifting the cup seemed an effort. A huge weariness had overtaken him, damping his anger, smothering his furious need to make Jim stop acting as if nothing was different.

Jim propped him up with one arm, steadied the cup with his other hand. Blair couldn’t find the energy to fight. He swallowed the tablets, and the tea warmed him a little. His head dropped back against Jim’s shoulder and his fingers unravelled from the cup.

“You don’t take what you value most into a war zone,” Jim said quietly. “It’s a long story chief, and I’m not saying you won’t still be pissed—still have a right to be pissed—when you hear it, but let’s save it for when you’re a degree or two nearer well, okay?”

“No,” Blair said, though his eyes were trying to close and he felt as if he’d been drowned all over again. He shuddered. Where had that comparison come from? “Why? Why didn’t you tell me? Not one word in four—”

“Fucking years,” Jim finished for him as he coughed. “It’s a list of bad excuses and things I can’t tell you.” He sounded weary too, but he shifted slightly, so Blair was leaned comfortably back. “You’re better sitting up while your chest’s so thick.” His arm was warm around Blair’s shoulders.

The gestures were how Jim communicated best, not with words, but Blair still had to know why. “I was your guide,” he said, going to the heart of it.

“Are.”

“What?”

“You are my guide. I don’t think it’s something that can stop, like a marriage; it’s more like a blood relationship.”

How could Jim say something so hugely comforting in such a matter of fact way—and if he believed it, why had he just ditched the guide and gone?

“Then… why?”

“Bad timing. Bad judgment. Being half a world away and always focused on the job. It was months before I found out what a disastrous mistake it had been to leave Simon to tell you, and then I thought I’d be back before long and it would be easier to put right face to face. But there was more war, shit happened, I thought you were doing stuff you’d always wanted to do—I made a run of wrong calls.”

“Only one thing I always wanted,” Blair said. “And for four years I thought I’d lost it—worse, that I’d never really had it.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

They were silent a while. The tablets or the tea or something had eased Blair’s chest a little. Couldn’t be too comfortable for Jim being used as a backrest, but he didn’t seem inclined to move.

“It was a friend,” Jim said abruptly. “I heard the day after you’d gone to Mexico. An old friend, back from when I was in the Rangers. He was held with some others somewhere up in Northern Afghanistan. I knew as soon as I heard the situation I’d have a chance of getting him out. I made the decision in a hurry, went to one of the few guys I trusted, showed him what I could do, and I was on a plane inside the week. Maybe if it’d gone okay… I don’t know. I found them but it was too late and they’d died hard. So I stayed and fought a war. And then another. I should have put things right with you long ago.”

There was so much pain in his voice that Blair’s anger bled away a little, but his own hurt was raw too. “I know I was totally pissed off with you, but I’d have listened if you’d called, and nothing would have stopped me coming if I’d known you’d been injured.”

“I tried to call, when I was somewhere I could do it from, which wasn’t often. I just couldn’t go through Naomi, Chief. She wouldn’t have handled it and nor would I. I got a hold of a couple of numbers that might have worked, but you were out of the country both times I got through, and, well, it wasn’t the sort of thing I could leave a message about.” He paused. “I kept telling myself it was going to be just one more mission, then I’d be back, even when that ‘one more’ had turned into twenty. There’s no excuse really. It… I got lost in it all. I didn’t forget you. I used what you’d taught me—things I could call up the memory of your voice saying. It saved my life a lot of times. But that sort of covert ops, it’s intensive, I never thought about the time passing or that you might feel…”

“Like we never were sentinel and guide? Like we never actually knew each other?” Blair didn’t want the bitterness to spill out any more, but it had been too painful for too long.

“My mind told me you were getting further away with every month, but it was hard to believe that when every time I used my senses it was like you were there.”

“That’s not how those medical notes read.”

“The hospital was different. For a while there, I was just lost,” Jim said. “Don’t know if it was the senses or… I spotted a bomber too late, he took out a lot of women and kids, and I took a few hits. The docs thought it was the stress of that, but I remember the dials being haywire.”

He was silent for a long moment, and Blair couldn’t speak. He knew what it would have cost Jim to feel he’d failed to protect the vulnerable. That and the senses, no wonder he’d shut down.

“By the time I knew what was going on, those guys you saw tonight had tracked me down, and I decided to get out fast and go to ground. They’re Russian agents. The cold war may be officially over, but it doesn’t mean they haven’t got their own agenda. I got across a Russian ‘adviser’ in Syria, and he saw me as some unfinished business. Once our guys have questioned those two, I hope it will be finished. I don’t think I can live like this much longer.”

Blair blinked away the sting of tears, for Jim, for himself, for a screwed up world which never seemed to give either of them a break.

“I’ve had a PI watching you these last three months,” Jim finished. “I didn’t know how far back these guys would research me. When he found you were coming to Cascade, I did a bit of investigating of my own at this end. I hadn’t known Eli Stoddard was ill—I’m sorry about him, he’s a good man. Anyway, I followed you from the hospital and so did they, and you know the rest.”

There was utter weariness in his voice now. Blair stopped trying to blink away the tears; he turned his face against Jim’s sweater so they were invisible. “I missed you,” he said. He hadn’t admitted that simple truth to himself in four long years.

“Yeah.” Jim paused, then went on, “I probably never told you this, but in Peru that time…” No need to ask which time, they were both thinking of that previous disaster. “In the temple, I’d have lost it in the baths I think, like Alex, only I could see you in my mind—a guide, a light, I don’t know, something like that. It kept me sane anyway. It was the same all the time I was out in the Middle East… The connection seemed so close. I guess that’s why I thought you were mad at me for going it alone, not that you felt… well, anything less than what you are.”

Blair rubbed furiously at his face but he guessed he was going to soak Jim’s sweater anyway. He didn’t really care. There was a lot of hurt to wash away.

“I’m not going back in,” Jim said quietly. “The guy who got me in, saw that I was out free and clear—officially the senses were finished off in that last blast.”

Some last spark of energy in Blair couldn’t let this pass. “Officially?”

He felt Jim’s shrug; he waited in vain for a verbal answer. It would have infuriated him an hour ago. Now, he just let the shrug speak—they’d been here before, Jim’s senses had been shut down, but never, so far, truly gone. Injury, guilt, weariness, who knew what else might be involved in some complex interplay of body and mind, heart and soul? Not the sentinel, anyway. But perhaps the guide…

Blair was too tired for coherent thought, but half-dreamed images took its place, some real moments from the past, some imagined futures, most of all, a replay of Jim’s quiet, exhausted matter-of-fact voice giving reality to things Blair had never had the confidence even to hope. A guide, a light, a relationship as fundamental and unchangeable as the genetic code… The startling, huge relief to discover he’d somehow been ‘there’ for Jim even when he’d been angry and lonely and a continent or more away…

He knew, in a vague way which didn’t break through his present comfort, that the morning would bring all sorts of problems that had to be thought about, probably while Blair was feeling tired and cranky and Jim was again acting as if four years was just a blip in the scheme of things. But for now, only one thing mattered. The gold ring was real; the holy grail no myth. His sentinel might be human and flawed, but he had still been protecting his tribe in the best way he could… including Blair. ‘You don’t take what you value most into a war zone’. Had Jim really said that? It was like warmth on frozen skin or water after months of drought.

Next to him, Jim moved suddenly, a tiny start, but one which broke the drowsy stillness.

“What is it?” Blair asked softly, but knowing somehow.

“I can hear your heart beating.”

“You’re still a sentinel,” Blair said, with complete certainty.

“You’re still my guide,” Jim said, then with more question in his voice, “I mean, wherever you are, chief, but…”

“I’m still your guide,” Blair said firmly. “We can work out the wherevers in the morning.”

“I haven’t called Simon; I’m discharged from the army; if you want, I can come and kick some UN butt for you?”

That wouldn’t have been a tempting thought if he hadn’t been so nearly asleep… But appealing though the image was, something that had reawakened in Blair said no, it wasn’t the way. He was the guide. He would know what was… when he could keep his eyes open and talk without coughing. For tonight, it was simply to rest and start healing, for both of them. He wanted to let the past go; the future would become clear as they stepped into it.

He imagined the four years, a mess of violence and grief and pain and bloodshed for Jim, a weight of loss and confusion and pain for Blair, imagined it rolled into one huge ball of misery and pushed inch by painful inch to some Andean peak overlooking a mist-filled valley. It could stand and stay like some unwholesome blot, or it could be pushed away into infinity and be gone.

Maybe Jim had been an asshole; maybe Blair had been a wuss; maybe neither of them had had a clear choice till now? He didn’t need to know the answers, only to act. He thought it would be an effort, but it only took a touch… The ball plunged into the mist and he stood up free to look over the soaring landscape.

When he woke, he was tired and cranky and Jim was in stoic cop mode, but it didn’t matter. Something fundamental had shifted back into place. They were sentinel and guide, together, and it changed the world. When they’d finished bickering over breakfast, and then giving Simon Banks the biggest shock he’d had in a long time, they didn’t even have to discuss what they did next. Jim turned the truck towards the hospital; Blair took out his cell phone and called Ruth Stoddard.

The joy on Eli’s ravaged face when he saw them belonged to life everlasting.

~ End ~