Sentinel Fan Fiction Page || Fanfic -- Smarm
Summary: Lost in a beautiful reality that fades their memories, Jim and Blair must reaffirm their friendship before they can return to their old lives.
Spoilers: brief mentions of several episodes, notably Switchman, Deep Water, Blind Man's Bluff, Hear No Evil, Warriors, and Remembrance.
Warning: A piece written for smarm aficionados, emphasizing heady, shameless *intensely heavy-duty smarm* and pure imagery. Did I mention smarm? Consider yourself warned. <g> This story was written solely to explore the deeply warm and beautiful friendship between Jim and Blair, something I've found very gratifying and fun. It's different than anything I've ever done, so please be nice <g>. The bad guys never show up, so don't look for 'em. Also, I disclaim any knowledge of how virtual reality actually works -- I'm pretty sure some of the VR stuff in this story is quite impossible with current technology; it was purely a plot device. Enjoy. Oh, yeah, one more thing: I promise that Jim and Blair ARE ALIVE at the end of the story.
Thank you, thank you to my wonderful beta henchwomen, Becky and Shiloh. Your beautiful writing is something I aspire to achieve. Without your friendship, encouragement, and threats <g>, I would not have finished this.
The gorgeous artwork is by Laurence.
The Memory of Angels
The afternoon sun shone through the windows of Simon Banks' office, casting harsh shadows on the figures of Megan Conner, who stood looking out one of the windows, and Captain Banks himself, seated at his desk. Both remained silent, staring forward, their faces reflecting fear and sadness as they waited for news from the search crew working on the rubble of the old, deserted building down the street. The crew was supposed to finish their search operation for victims by this afternoon. It had been two days of hard work, but by this afternoon, they would know for sure about Ellison and Sandburg.
The phone rang.
"Line 3, Captain." Rhonda's voice sounded quieter than usual. "It's Captain Miller from the search team."
Simon paused and swallowed before answering. "Thank you, Rhonda. Put him through," he said, his voice thick.
"Banks... Yes, Capt. Miller... I see... Yes... I appreciate the call. I know you and your men did all you could, Jon... Thanks."
The phone clicked as Simon replaced the receiver on the cradle. He reached up under his glasses with one hand to rub his eyes.
"They're gone," said Megan simply, still staring out the window.
"Yes," said Simon heavily. "The explosion generated such high temperatures -- everything was charred beyond recognition. The search crew didn't find anything."
"We saw them go in," Megan murmured. "We watched...
Holding a steaming mug of coffee, Jim Ellison moved the sliding glass doors aside with one hand and walked out onto the wooden deck. The deck overlooked the lake and snow-covered mountains forming the breathtaking scenery of his backyard. He leaned over the wooden railing, taking in a deep breath and letting the fresh air fill his lungs. The cool air swept away the trace smells of the delicious breakfast he'd recently consumed within the comfortable cabin, completely furnished with all the modern conveniences and surrounded by the pristine nature he loved so much.
Ellison scanned the lake, calm as glass in the early morning, reflecting the sun's rays and cloudless sky like a gigantic, flawless mirror. A hawk screamed as it soared effortlessly overhead. Warm rays and a cool breeze gently caressed his face. Jim wondered what part of the lake he should fish today. Perhaps he would try his luck in one of the feeder streams. A spirit of contentment and peace pervaded his soul -- a feeling to which he'd grown pleasantly accustomed. The stressful, worrisome, hyper-vigilant state of his previous life had faded to a dim memory in the past few days -- or was it years -- since he'd discovered this place. The undesirable things of the past now only occasionally intruded upon his psyche, and then only as vague, fleeting sensations which passed as quickly as they came.
The good memories, mostly of people he'd known long ago -- Simon, Rafe, Brown, Joel, Carolyn, Megan -- still floated about his mind, as the sweet scent of a flower quietly lingers in a room after it has been removed. Though their remembrance brought a warmness to his heart, they had become more of a pleasant feeling than a collection of specific, clear memories. The circumstances in which he had known them must have been less than happy, and he didn't prefer to remember such things, so incongruent were they with his serene surroundings. The details had faded quickly since he'd been here.
He was alone in a perfect world.
The natural utopia designed by some mysterious outside force -- someone or something which knew him very well -- surrounded him with glorious beauty, infinite tranquility. Jim Ellison had always been a solitary person by nature, so the absence of other humans didn't bother him much. Except for one...
Blair. A rare, transient twinge of sadness flitted through his heart like a sparrow hurrying past on a journey with an undetermined destination. Jim let his eyes fall closed, mentally collecting the memories of his dear friend from every corner of his soul. He did so as a blind and deaf man who frantically gropes for the hand and face of a loved one, seizing it and touching it, memorizing the sensation beneath his fingers, inhaling deeply, absorbing its essence before it slips away forever. I can't forget him. I won't forget him. He missed his friend, whose inner strength and beauty were gifts he never held back, but ones he shared completely and willingly no matter the cost.
We were supposed to be together, always. I thought... It was the last thing he remembered thinking a split second before the timer had wound down and he had realized that there was no way they'd make it out in time. In an instant, he'd hugged Blair to himself, reflexively trying to shield his partner from the inevitable fatal explosion, even though he knew beyond a doubt they would both be consumed instantly by the magnitude of the blast.
All moments forward from that point had existed in the present reality. At first, Jim had waited expectantly for his beloved friend to appear and render his paradise complete.
But Blair never came.
More than a million times it seemed, he'd wondered why. They'd been together before -- they'd been together at the end. Why. The separation played out as a strange mystery neither his mind nor his heart could understand, no matter how many times he tried.
One thing he did know. Memories were all he had left of the gentle, beautiful spirit that was Blair Sandburg, and every day they seemed more like grasping at the tenuous fragments of a dream upon awakening. The day he realized he couldn't quite remember the details of how they had met or why they had become partners was one of the most frightening things he'd ever experienced. Though all recollections of the former reality threatened to rise like wisps of smoke dispersing in the night air, Jim Ellison promised himself he would find a way to keep from losing the last piece he still had of his friend.
He refused to forget.
"We know who you are, Jim Ellison, Blair Sandburg. We know who you are!"
"We know --"
"Let's see what he can do." Evil laughter.
"No! Don't! Please -- don't take him away --"
The malignant shouts of their cruel captors rang in Blair Sandburg's head over and over with nightmarish repetition. Instead of being left to perish in the explosion, their deaths had been postponed for a different kind of torture. They had led Ellison off to "further explore his abilities" while discarding Blair in a separate, barricaded room to be kept for future testing if there was a need, and as effective collateral should their test subject prove to be anything less than fully cooperative. They'd taken Jim away to a place Blair didn't know, to do things to him Blair couldn't stop. The screams, the escape attempts -- they'd all been futile. Minutes had stretched into hours, then days.
Blair sat on the cold concrete floor, leaning against a wall. Gunfire broke the silence of the room and the hallway outside. The end's finally come, he thought. Then the lock clicked, the door to the white room swinging open slowly. Blair looked up, half-wondering if he had finally begun to hallucinate in the prolonged solitary confinement. A young, nerdish man stood in the doorway, a gun in his hand. The look on his face was strangely timid, slightly dazed. The hand holding the gun trembled slightly.
"I couldn't let them do it any more," he said quietly. "I took --" he paused. "They're gone. No more. It's safe to come out now."
"My friend -- where is he? Take me to him!" demanded Blair, his voice rising as adrenaline spiked within him.
"Jim!" screamed Blair as he and the young man burst into the room where the captors had held their quarry for experimenting. A horrifying number of wires and electrodes traveled from nearby computers and other machines to a device covering much of Jim's head, including his eyes and ears, and large unwieldy gloves covered both hands. A bag of liquid, presumably saline, hung on a nearby pole with a length of plastic tubing traveling into his arm. The detective lay motionless on the table, unresponsive to his partner's voice. The hard drive of the computers whirred almost non-stop, recording endless data from their subject and sending out equally complex sets of stimuli.
"It's virtual reality," said the boy at last. "They -- I -- helped them."
"Let's get this off him," said Blair through clenched teeth, reaching for the visor covering Jim's eyes. Gently he removed it, exposing his friend's blue eyes to his true surroundings.
Jim's eyes flickered as he looked at Blair.
"Jim. I'm here."
"Please," the tall man said, wetting his lips. "Please, could you find my friend? Blair Sandburg. Please, help me?" No recognition flashed through those eyes.
"Jim, it's me. I'm Blair. Don't you know me?" The younger man grasped his friend's arm, looking deeply at him, trying to trigger the memories that remained.
"Please, I need to find Sandburg," repeated Jim. "Will you help me?" he pleaded, as he would to a stranger.
"He doesn't know you. He hasn't come out of VR. He doesn't understand or remember," explained the boy.
"Then let me go to him. I'll find him," said Blair purposefully.
The boy looked at him uncertainly. "Are you sure? The same thing might happen to you."
"It doesn't matter. I've got to bring him back, no matter what it takes," said Blair quietly. "How much time do I have before he --"
"You have as much time as you want -- until you start to forget, too."
A few minutes later, Blair Sandburg lay on a table near his friend, himself donned with wires, electrodes, visor, gloves, headphones.
"I'm ready." Blair closed his eyes.
"Good luck," said the boy, activating Blair's equipment. In seconds, the young man had drifted to another reality.
As the boy turned away from the monitor, a flash of red face paint glinted briefly on the screen's reflective surface. He looked wisely, even solemnly, at the two men before intoning a short phrase with a voice that sounded much older than it had before.
"Let the journey begin."
Late afternoon sun sparkling on the lake caused Blair to squint when he opened his eyes. He looked around him, taking in the extreme beauty and serenity of his surroundings with awe and some surprise. He hadn't expected a VR program designed by kidnappers wanting to experiment on Jim to be this tranquil. On a hill behind him, a large cabin looked down on the meadow in which he stood. Save the occasional warbling of a bird and the flitting past of a butterfly, no other living things greeted him. As far as he could see, the lake shore and the rest of the wilderness within seeing distance were void of other people.
Maybe he's in the house, thought Blair excitedly, running up the hill to the large abode which he felt was surely inhabited by his friend. It looked exactly like the dream house Blair imagined his outdoor-loving sentinel would have built for himself, had Jim been able to acquire the necessary resources.
The lush grass-covered hill proved taller and longer than Blair had realized, and the young man was panting by the time he reached the crest of the slope. Anxiously he took the few steps up to the porch two at a time, finally reaching the screen-covered front door.
"Jim!" he called, pushing open the unlocked door.
Blair moved throughout the house, peeking into each nicely furnished room. "Jim, are you in here? It's Blair."
He found the bed in the master bedroom to be neatly made, and dishes washed and put away except for a dark green coffee mug sitting on the kitchen counter. The brick fireplace in the living room contained the remnants of a fire that had burned out hours ago, and the blue couch's cushions and books on the bookshelves lining one wall were all in their proper places. Every room was quite in order -- and quite unoccupied. The emptiness left him with a strange sensation, as though he could feel Jim's presence but simply couldn't see his physical form.
Glancing at the off-white painted walls, Blair noticed five framed watercolor paintings which decorated one of the walls. Beautifully done, each depicted a scene from nature. He wondered if they were actual places in the virtual reality. If only he knew how to find these places, perhaps he could find Jim...
The sun hung low enough in the sky to declare evening when Blair finally collapsed on a smooth granite rock at the lake's edge. The young man had searched in vain for the last four hours -- all the way around the lake, venturing up some of the feeder streams, hoping to find his partner engrossed in his favorite sport of fishing. He'd even tried exploring part of the thick evergreen forest gracing the edge of the far side of the lake. But Blair had found no trace of his friend despite using every tracking skill Jim had taught him on their trips into the wilderness outside of Cascade.
The anthropologist's shoulders hunched forward as he momentarily rested his face in his hands. Feelings of frustration, impatience, and exhaustion threatened to engulf his body and mind. No, those aren't even the worst of it -- it's the loneliness, the isolation, he thought. How his friend had gone this long without going crazy from the overwhelming solitude -- perhaps Jim was an even more solitary person than he'd previously realized.
Lifting his head toward the serene blue sky, he screamed, "JIMMMMM!..." The word floated lazily across the lake and dispersed into the air. Blair's voice betrayed the despair and anger burning within him at the mockingly tranquil surroundings that would surely suffocate him if he didn't find Jim soon. A stand of quail flew up suddenly beside him, startled by his outburst, but everything else seemed completely unperturbed.
He was utterly disgusted with this whole game. The task had certainly seemed achievable, if not relatively simple -- find Jim and get out. How big can this program be, anyway? Blair viciously shoved away the twinges of panic that accompanied the thought, but the realistic part of him insisted on contemplating the specter. What if I can't find him? What if I run out of time? What if --
Something touched his shoulder. Adrenaline flooded his body again as Blair surged to his feet, whirling at the sudden unexpected contact when he was supposed to be alone.
The red-painted face of a man looked at him kindly, his smile warm. Gracefully and slowly, he lowered his hand to his side as he waited for the younger man to calm down.
"Incacha?" whispered Blair, his eyes wide, questions flooding his mind. How --
"You have come, young shaman," said the Chopec leader. "I speak your language on the other side," he explained.
"The other side? But --"
"Enqueri. He is here," the older man interjected, as if stating a indisputable fact. "You must find him. Return him to the tribe."
"I know. I can't find him -- I've looked everywhere. You've gotta help me, Incacha," Blair implored.
"You must pass through the elements before the sentinel and the shaman can return," said the Chopec elder. "They will judge you to see if you are worthy of your destiny. Do not delay," he warned.
"The elements? I don't understand. Please --"
Incacha turned to walk away.
"No! Please!" Blair seized the man's painted arm. "Tell me where to go." The younger man's blue eyes pleaded with an eloquence the older shaman had not seen before.
Incacha smiled with pride at the sensitive young man, as a father looks at his son -- as mentor looks upon his protégé. Softly, he reached up, smoothing a wind-blown curl away from Blair's questioning face with one hand in a calming gesture of tenderness. "Water," he said, pointing to a nearby stream draining the lake.
Blair followed his gesture. The stream led through the forest beyond his vision. Relieved, he turned to thank the shaman.
But Incacha was gone.
The path was not particularly demanding, but the waning light of evening made it difficult to see beneath the thick forest canopy as Blair hurried through the forest as quickly as he dared, avoiding the roots and rocks along the bank of the gurgling stream. His eyes struggled to see in the darkness which increased with every minute.
There! he thought, relieved. The end of the forest portion of the path had finally appeared, with the evening light illuminating the natural portal. Anxiously, he ran the last few yards to the edge of the forest, emerging on the other side.
The rhythmic sound of waves crashing upon gigantic black monoliths standing in the twilight surf filled his ears. The cool, salty spray of tidal mist filled his nose, and the firm dirt beneath his feet abruptly transitioned into soft sand. The majestic, almost fantastical scenery took his breath away. Blair turned to look down the stretch of beach, hoping, wishing for his friend.
What he saw took away what little breath he had left.
Footprints with a particular long stride led about 200 feet away from him where a tall silhouetted figure stood on the sand, just out of reach of the waves caressing the beach. The ocean breeze blew at his shirt and pants, causing the folds of cloth to ripple with each gust. Holding a pair of shoes in one hand, the man looked out on the water as if deep in thought, searching his heart more than his surroundings for something lost...
... for something found. Blair felt his entire being fill with endorphinal, purely exhilarating happiness as he beheld the wonderfully familiar figure of his best friend. The long, seemingly futile search had ended. Frantically, he removed his own shoes and socks in preparation for his run in the sand, barely controlling the rising levels of impatience and excitement, never taking his eyes off the one person he wanted to see more than anyone, for fear his friend would disappear like some mirage in a desert.
Cool, wet sand sank between and around Jim's bare toes and feet as he closed his eyes and felt the sea breezes permeate his flannel shirt and rolled-up chinos. Something about this beach reminded him of a deserted stretch of rugged Washington shoreline he and Blair used to visit when they didn't feel like heading to the mountains. Something about being here made it easier to remember those times -- to remember Blair.
Why hadn't he come? The question, though it had changed from factual to rhetorical long ago, still asked itself whenever he came here. Maybe, by some stroke of luck, Blair survived the explosion, Jim reasoned for the thousandth time. He couldn't bear to think of the other explanation -- that maybe they had been separated for eternity by some very cruel twist of fate he hadn't been allowed to appeal. No.
Last night's dream had intensified Jim's feeling of loneliness. I dreamed I saw someone, he remembered vividly. The person felt so familiar, but I couldn't see a face. I asked -- pleaded -- begged -- the person to help me find Blair, but I never heard an answer...
If only he could see him, touch him, hear him, one last time. The last time they'd had together turned out to be so painfully, brutally short. No time to consciously commit his friend's essence to memory one final time. No time for goodbyes.
No time to say... I love you.
The ocean's mist condensed with the mist from Jim's eyes, its waves dashing loudly against the shore and covering his deeply painful breaths, silently understanding his grief and regrets, mercifully shielding him from the rest of the universe.
So effective were nature's protective gestures that Jim did not see or hear the approach of the friend he yearned for until the younger man was upon him, leaving a trail of wet footprint-shaped impressions to disappear into the sand behind him. He only felt Blair's arms and hands enveloping him in an intensely warm embrace, hearing him murmur, "Jim -- Jim, it's really you -- I found you..." over and over. He could feel Blair touching his face, his body, as though convincing himself that this really was his friend.
For a moment, Jim didn't move, afraid that it really was all a dream -- some cruel way for his imagination to reunite him with Blair only to have the illusion vanish in the next instant. But those thoughts lasted only a moment, for in the next he gave himself completely over to the present -- illusion or reality, it didn't seem to matter. He felt the missing half of his soul become complete once again as he responded to Blair's embrace and drew his partner as closely to himself as he could, burying his face in the top of Blair's head, kissing it once, inhaling his friend's uniquely familiar scent.
"Blair -- you finally came," he whispered. As he did so, the faded memories of their friendship he had struggled to hold on to came into focus at once with perfect clarity, as scattered notes come together in a flawless symphony, then blend into the background, graciously acquiescing to the beautiful sensations of the present. The warmth of their bodies mingled, calming him. It was all too powerful to be only a dream.
"I waited so long for you -- I thought I'd never see you again," Jim murmured, his eyes clouding with emotion. Hesitantly Jim reached up with one hand, feeling the stray curls on Blair's head brush lightly against his finger tips, evoking familiar, tingly sensations traveling up and down his body. He'd known only one person in the universe who could make him feel this whole, this wonderful, this loved. Jim let his hand sink more deeply into Blair's hair, stroking it, feeling handfuls of the soft damp texture pass through his fingers in a gentle caress. "I love you," he breathed.
This was real.
Blair clung to his tall friend, his face buried in Jim's chest, his ear close enough to hear Jim's heartbeat, strong and steady as it always had been. Feelings of ultimate safety, secure intimacy, and infinite friendship and love wrapped themselves around him in the form of Jim's arms intertwined with his own. Pure happiness and contentment flooded every inch of his being, rendering him immune to the marine winds and mists which had become colder and heavier as they stood together on the shore. "You knew I wouldn't stop until I found you," Blair murmured, letting the vibrations of his voice resonate against his partner's body. "I love you too, Jim," he said, rubbing his tall friend's back in soothingly slow circles, feeling Jim touch his head in the intimate way he sometimes chose to show affection.
So caught up in experiencing the wonderful physical contact and closeness of each other, neither Jim nor Blair noticed the rapidity with which dark clouds covered the full moon lighting the beach, until rain began to fall, replacing the mist with more substantial precipitation. In moments, the rainfall progressed to a downpour, soaking their clothes, penetrating right down to their skin. Instinctively, they hugged each other even more closely, embracing each other with wet hands and arms, preventing the mingled warmth of their bodies from escaping into the storm. Blair felt Jim breathe more deeply and rapidly against him -- is he crying? he wondered. Daring to glance up against the rain drops pelting his face, Blair's eyes met Jim's. He thought his friend's eyes looked brighter than usual, but he couldn't tell if the drops streaming generously down Jim's face were from the sky or from his heart. Slowly, the younger man reached up and wiped away a few drops from his partner's face with his fingers, even though the sky hurried to replace them with others. Jim smiled warmly down at Blair and gave him an extra squeeze. His young friend instantly returned the unspoken pledge of devotion to their friendship and thankfulness for their long-awaited reunion.
Tears, rain, or both -- it didn't matter.
"Guess we should get back, Jim?" Blair said, looking up at him again when he felt the cold foamy salt water of the rising tide lap at his feet.
"Good idea, Chief," agreed Jim. "Here, I know the way. C'mon." The clouds had rendered the previously moonlit night almost pitch black, and Jim grasped Blair's hand in his own, leading him down the beach, back toward the forest. Laughing, they ran through the sand, pausing momentarily at the opening to the forest to replace their shoes. Blair felt himself flying through the dark forest, never worrying whether they were going in the right direction, knowing his friend saw the way as easily as if they walked in broad daylight. Jim's hand held his own in a firm grasp, and Blair felt confident and unafraid, trusting Jim completely to lead them back home. In a matter of minutes, they emerged at the other side of the forest. The storm hadn't reached there yet, and the moon reflected its light on the placid lake and the cabin on the hill.
Drawing him into the warm, dry cabin and still holding his hand, Jim led him into the larger bedroom, pulling open a drawer, yanking out some dry warm clothes and handing them to Blair. "You're soaked, Chief. Take those clothes off and put these on," he ordered.
Blair grinned, realizing that in his friend's instinctual switch to protector mode, Jim had forgotten that he was also soaked. Blair could also sense the reluctance with which Jim finally forced himself to release Blair's hand, as if he were terribly afraid that should he let go, Blair would disappear. "Don't worry, Jim. I'm not leaving you," he said softly, meeting his tall friend's eyes and reassuring him with an extra squeeze.
The dry t-shirt, warm socks, and cuddly, too-large sweats felt good against Blair's toweled-dry skin as he shuffled out to the kitchen after changing. He saw that Jim had managed to peel off his own wet clothing and change into a dark green v-necked sweater and jeans. Jim stood at the kitchen island, pouring two cups of hot chocolate and adding marshmallows on top. His damp, combed hair was the only visible evidence remaining from their previous drenching. The tall man broke into a wide smile at the sight of his partner, who hadn't disappeared after all. Jim seized one of the mugs and hurried over to Blair, trembling slightly as he pressed the mug into his friend's hands while reaching around Blair's shoulder with his other arm.
"Feel better, Chief?" said Jim, picking up his own mug before leading Blair to the couch where a fire already sparked and crackled within the fireplace.
"Yeah. It's been awhile since I've been that wet," Blair chuckled, thinking of a certain nocturnal trek they'd made through a different forest the year before, tracking a criminal -- the man's name escaped him at the moment.
"This place is great, Jim," he continued, impressed with its comfortable homeyness, much enhanced with Jim here. "I came here this afternoon, but you were already gone." Blair swallowed, remembering the loneliness he'd felt during the long hours before he'd finally found Jim. "I thought maybe you were -- that something had happened to you," the young man said quietly.
Jim swallowed himself, finally realizing his friend's misguided perception of this new reality. He doesn't know. "Blair," he said gently, putting his arm around his friend's smaller shoulders, drawing him closer. Blair adjusted his position on the couch, moving nearer to snuggle against the crook of Jim's arm. "Blair, this isn't what it seems," he began.
"I know, Jim. I've been meaning to talk to you about that -- it's why I came," said the younger man, searching Jim's eyes, wondering how best to tell him that they could go back to their old lives, barely suppressing the part of him that wanted to blurt out the news like an eager child. "You like it here, huh, Jim?"
"Everything I ever wanted was here when I came, Chief --" said Jim, "-- except one thing." He turned to face his friend, his eyes meeting Blair's. The partner he saw -- damp curls, oversized navy sweats bunching up around his body -- seemed especially innocent, even vulnerable, as they gazed at each other. Jim wanted desperately to protect him from the sadness Blair would surely feel when he finally realized that he had passed to the other side. He swallowed slowly, brushing Blair's face once slowly with the back of his hand. "Some days were so hard -- I missed you so badly, Blair. Sometimes I didn't know if I could go on. And when I started to forget..." Jim's voice broke off, trembling, unable to maintain eye contact with his friend.
Blair's eyes softened as he felt the waves of guilt and fear radiating from his friend. Wanting to soothe Jim's emotional anguish, he reached out to stroke his cheek gently in an empathic gesture of one feeling the pain of his brother. "Jim," he spoke softly. "You didn't forget me, and I know you never will. Just like I'll never forget you. We might be separated for awhile, but we'll never forget each other -- no matter what happens."
The muted sound of rain drops pelting the roof and windows gradually filled the house as the two men sat quietly on the couch, Jim's arm around Blair's shoulder, finishing their hot drinks, warming themselves in front of the crackling fire, soaking up each other's presence, relishing the physical connection they'd been deprived of for too long. Neither man had felt so contented in ages. Blair finally broke the silence. "Jim -- we need to talk about why we're here -- what this place really is."
"I know, Chief," answered Jim. "But it can wait 'till tomorrow. It isn't every day that you switch realities, and it's late -- you look exhausted."
"But --" A large yawn from Blair ended the potential disagreement before it had a chance to start.
Pushing aside the overpowering urge to keep Blair beside him the whole night, Jim helped his sleepy partner to his feet and walked him down the hall to the other bedroom. Blair yawned again after crawling into the bed and allowing Jim to pull the down comforter over him. "Thanks, man," he murmured. Vaguely he realized how heavy his eyelids had become.
"'Night, Chief," Jim said softly, reaching over to turn off the small bedside lamp. He paused in the darkness, absently smoothing away a wrinkle on the comforter. Blair's breathing had already become slower and more even. Hesitantly, Jim reached out and smoothed back a curl from Blair's forehead, smiling to himself as he turned to exit the room.
An hour later, Jim rolled over for what seemed like the thousandth time. He'd been unable to fall asleep, tossing and turning, unsuccessfully trying to find a comfortable position, unwilling to admit why he couldn't succumb to a restful night's sleep. Sitting up, he rubbed his face with both hands, then grabbed his robe from the nearby chair, pulling it on. Quietly, Jim padded down the hall to Blair's room, silently pushing the door ajar. Immense relief flooded him at the sight of his partner sleeping peacefully, the blankets rising and falling in the regular pattern of Blair's respirations. For a moment, Jim leaned against the door jamb, watching his friend sleep, listening to his breathing and heartbeat. The whole thing seemed silly, but Jim felt the overwhelming need to reassure himself with sensory evidence that Blair's presence hadn't been just a dream from which he would awaken in the morning. In his sleep, Blair rolled over from his back to his side. You'll wake him, Ellison, warned a rather irrational part of him. Reluctantly, Jim took one last look at his sleeping friend, then retreated from the room.
The whispered voice came from behind the tall man seated on the couch in front of the cooled embers in the fireplace, still dressed in his robe. Jim turned, thinking perhaps his mind was creating voices from the dripping eaves outside the house.
Blair stood a ways behind him at the hall's entrance to the living room, comforter wrapped around him, hair a little rumpled, face a little sleepy.
"Did I wake you?" asked the older man worriedly.
"No, no. I just -- wanted to see you..." Blair trailed off.
"Come, sit," Jim said quietly, motioning to the space on the couch next to him. Willingly, Blair shuffled over to sit next to his friend, adjusting the comforter so it covered both of their laps.
"How'd you know?" murmured Jim, relaxing as he felt Blair's warm body lean against his own.
"I know you, Jim." Blair curled his arm around Jim's, resting his head comfortably against his partner's shoulder.
Within minutes, Blair had resumed his even, slow breathing.
Jim gently kissed his friend's head before letting his own tired eyes close, finally able to drift off to a land of peaceful dreams.
The light of false dawn had appeared quietly and unassumingly in the living room's large windows when Blair rolled slightly in his sleep, his face shifting to rest against Jim's chest. Perhaps it was the firm warmth beneath his head or the rising and falling with each breath, but something nudged its way into the anthropologist's resting mind, timidly encouraging him to wake. His eyes fluttered open as he squinted at his dimly lighted surroundings, foggily watching the last vestiges of his dream world fade away into the early morning. Where am I... he thought. Then he remembered it all in a flash. The capture, the separation, the virtual reality, the reunion -- Jim. Blair lifted his head from his friend's chest, reaching up under the blankets with one hand to rest it softly over Jim's heart, carefully so he wouldn't wake him. It had been very late -- or rather, early -- when Blair had joined Jim on the sofa and Jim had finally been able to fall asleep.
As Blair gazed at his peacefully sleeping friend, tender feelings of unshakable devotion traveled through him, warming him, prompting him to smooth back a few misplaced hairs from Jim's forehead. This journey had been unlike anything he'd imagined, but he felt his world righted again as he touched his sleeping friend. Never had Blair Sandburg been so sure that they truly belonged together, always -- sentinel and guide, brother and friend, in life and death -- no matter what realities they would encounter in their lifetimes. He knew with more certainty than ever before that no price would be too high, no journey to difficult, no sacrifice too large, to maintain their bond -- one that went far beyond the outer reaches of human thought.
Jim sighed once, but settled quickly into a deeper sleep again, unconsciously responding to Blair's barely audible "shhh" and soothing, slight touches. Jim's lips curved up into a slight smile, evoking a smile from his younger friend in the process. As Blair watched, he wondered what Jim was dreaming. He'd never seen him this contented or relaxed -- so free of the constant hyper-vigilant state the detective had seemed to maintain on a continuous basis whether awake or asleep. Last night, Jim was so entirely happy, so obviously free from burdens and pressures, remembered the younger man. Without question, Blair's arrival had finally completed Jim's nirvana. Blair felt a slight twinge of guilt, knowing his purpose was to return both of them to a world filled with worries, violence, and sadness -- regretfully, a world which needed Jim Ellison, sentinel, and Blair Sandburg, shaman-guide, to continue their roles as protectors and defenders of the innocent. Though Blair had always known Jim considered it his responsibility to protect the younger man from harm, at that moment Blair realized what it was really like to feel those thoughts for Jim. Tucking the comforter more snugly around both of them again, Blair leaned back against Jim, deciding to prolong his friend's much-needed, much-deserved rest for as long as he could.
Quiet clinking of utensils and pans and the smells of brewing coffee, scrambled eggs, and french toast wafted from the kitchen into the living room, calling quietly to the tall man still sleeping, reclining against one corner of the couch with a thick comforter tucked around him. Eyes still closed, Jim inhaled deeply and smiled to himself, knowing that his partner must be downstairs, cooking in the loft's kitchen... but only for a moment. Jim's eyes flew open, welcomed by the bright morning sun, his mind struggling at first to separate the details of the present from those of the past. The loft was a lifetime ago -- so was Blair... No, wait -- Blair was here, now, for real! Jim threw off the comforter and hurried to the kitchen, bumping into a wall corner on the way in his just-awakened, slight clumsiness and eager haste.
Blair was scooping steaming scrambled eggs from the frying pan into a serving dish. A strangely nice feeling of deja vu enveloped Jim as he remembered Blair's many cooked breakfasts.
Pausing to look up when he heard Jim enter the kitchen, the younger man broke into a wide smile -- a wonderful welcoming smile that made Jim feel warm all over and prompted him to ask himself why he had never really appreciated Blair's smile before. Jim broke into one of his own brilliant smiles, walking over to stand behind his partner, observing Blair's culinary progress over one shoulder. Impulsively, Jim reached around Blair's shoulders from behind with both arms and gave him a hug. The younger man laughed as he awkwardly tried to finish scooping the last of the eggs into the plate.
"You beat me to it, Chief," said Jim fondly as the men carried the food to the already-set table and sat down. "Guess I overslept."
"Don't worry about it, man -- I wanted to cook. Didn't want my gourmet skills to get too rusty -- it's been a few days since I cooked us breakfast, you know," grinned Blair as he served himself two pieces of french toast.
"Trust me -- getting used to you cooking breakfast again will not be a problem," Jim assured, pouring two glasses of orange juice from the carafe. He paused, one glass in midair, surveying the table's bounty and the one person in the world who made it complete.
"Yeah, yeah. I figured it wouldn't be too hard on you. Go ahead and eat, Jim -- I promise I went easy on the pepper," teased Blair.
Jim handed him a glass of orange juice, feeling Blair's fingers brush against his own. "Chief -- it's so nice -- not to have to eat alone any more."
Blair smiled, meeting Jim's eyes. "Yeah. I know."
The two men spent the rest of breakfast talking about the surrounding land. Jim related his observations of the weather patterns, the better streams and types of game fish he'd caught, the places he knew Blair would want to hike. The younger man listened with rapt attention to Jim's vivid descriptions of the wilderness, feeling building anticipation at wanting to explore it himself. Vainly he attempted to push that desire aside and subject it to the most important reason for coming here. The men were carrying their dishes to the kitchen sink when Blair finally got around to broaching the other matter.
"Jim -- I've been meaning to ask you something," said Blair as he set the plates down on the counter.
"What is it, Chief?" asked Jim.
"Those paintings on the wall in the living room -- do you know where those scenes are from?" said Blair.
"I don't know -- I never really looked closely at them before," admitted Jim as the two men walked to the room to stand in front of the paintings.
The first painting was a little larger than the other four and set apart somewhat from the others. Both men smiled, immediately recognizing the scene. It depicted a beach along an ocean, large boulders sitting in the surf and a high cliff bordering the other side.
The beach. My beach. Our beach, thought Jim. He wondered who could have drawn such an accurate likeness. The artist had skillfully captured not only the physical characteristics, but the emotional essence of the place as well.
"It's the beach where I found you," said Blair as he broke into a smile, his voice pleased and full of recognition.
With awe, Jim silently touched the edge of the painting lightly with one finger.
Jim and Blair turned their attention to the other four, smaller pictures. The first picture displayed a portion of the forest, evergreens surrounding a small clearing with their peaceful and shady boughs. The second picture showed a waterfall cascading into a large pool, a majestic mountain soared in the third picture, and the fourth painting displayed a cozy campfire.
"I don't recognize any of these places from anywhere I've explored around here," Jim said, shaking his head, but Blair was only half-listening to the other man.
There's something about those last four pictures, Blair thought over and over, his hand touching his chin indicating that he was deep in thought. The paintings triggered something in his mind, but he couldn't figure out what. Was it something to do with Incacha? Was it...
"Wait a second," the younger man murmured, in the way he spoke when he was thinking out loud. "He said the we had to pass through the elements... The four elements. Yes! That's it!"
Jim turned to face Blair, his brow furrowing a little at his partner's mutterings, but enjoying them at the same time, realizing again how much he'd missed so many of the younger man's endearing idiosyncracies. "Chief, what --" began Jim.
The anthropologist seized one of Jim's arms, grinning at his taller friend, his eyes twinkling as they always did when he made a discovery and was barely able to contain his excitement. "Jim! I figured it out! The four elements -- earth, water, air, and fire -- that's what these paintings are showing! That's how we get out of the program, Jim!"
"The program?" questioned Jim.
"I can explain," said Blair. He grinned, pulling Jim to the couch where they both sat down. "Jim, this may sound a little weird, but this place -- everything -- it's all part of a virtual reality program. I had to enter the program to help you get out."
"What are you saying?" asked Jim, his face belying true confusion now.
Blair's eyes brightened further, gesturing with his hands as he spoke. "What I'm saying is that everything you're seeing, feeling, sensing -- it's all part of an extremely complex computer program."
Jim shook his head at what seemed to him like an unusual explanation. "Blair, everything here is real. Yes, it's a different reality, but it's no computer program."
Now it was Blair's turn to be confused. "What do you mean?"
"It's the other side, Blair."
"The other side of what? No, Jim, you don't understand," Blair said, shaking his head vehemently, blurting out the explanation for Jim's words that reflexively occurred to him. "You've just forgotten, that's all --"
"Blair!" Jim said, gripping his friend's arm. "We're -- dead," he said slowly, emphasizing each word, hoping it would sink in. "This is the other side."
Blair sighed, trying to control his feelings of agitated frustration, shutting his eyes momentarily in an attempt to gather his thoughts, then opening them to look at Jim again. "Jim, I was there. I saw you hooked up to the virtual reality computers and machines. You're -- still -- alive! I'm still alive! You've gotta believe me!"
"No, Blair," said Jim calmly and with certainty. "I remember the explosion in the warehouse. I remember -- dying. It was hard to accept or understand at first, but I finally did," He looked at Blair concernedly. He'd known Blair wouldn't take the revelation easily.
"Jim, the part you don't remember is that we didn't die in the explosion," Blair continued, his voice rising in urgency. "Some men grabbed us and pulled us into a hole the instant before the explosion. They took us through some tunnels underneath the building -- they took you away -- to experiment on you. They knew you were a sentinel."
Jim frowned at the thought. "My senses? How could they have known?"
"I -- don't -- know, Jim," said Blair, gesturing with both hands, emphasizing each word. "They put me in another room, away from you. I only know what I heard." Blair paused, noticing the skeptical expression on his friend's face, but he rushed on. "Some guy got rid of our captors and let me out of the room they were holding me in. We found you hooked up to VR and tried to get you out from it, but you didn't know me. I had to go in to find you."
"Then why don't I remember any of that stuff after the explosion?"
"I'm not sure -- maybe it's some kind of post-traumatic amnesia. We don't have much time, Jim -- we have to leave before it's too late. Jim, you have to trust me if we're gonna get out of here. Please!" Blair's eyes pleaded as he looked up his friend.
"Chief, you have to admit this all sounds kinda weird." Jim offered, his voice lower and more calm. "Don't you think --"
"I don't think, Jim, I know," said Blair, his eyes communicating the intensity of his convictions.
The taller man sighed inwardly, wishing that his friend would believe him. Gently, Jim covered one of Blair's hands with his larger one. "Chief, I know something, too. What you're going through right now -- I went through the same thing, thought the same thoughts when I first arrived here. Eventually, you'll understand. It was hard at first." Blair was obviously experiencing a confused, though perfectly understandable, manifestation of denial -- a temporary state Jim had gone through himself before accepting the truth about what really happened. "I waited a long time for you to come, and everything will be okay now that we're together. You don't have to worry about anything any more. You're safe here."
"That may be, but we don't belong here, Jim. I found out one other thing before I entered this program." Blair's voice became more earnest as he looked at Jim. "Staying in VR too long can make you forget everything about the real world -- make you forget how to come back. That's why you didn't come out when we tried to disconnect you. It could be only a matter of time before the same thing happens to me. We need to get out of here before I -- before both of us forget everything!"
Jim considered Blair's words. His explanation was plausible, Jim had to admit, though he still felt it was highly unlikely. And losing a lot of his memories from his past life was true, but the arrival of his guide had somehow brought back many of his memories with Blair in greater clarity than before.
Blair was speaking again. "I saw Incacha yesterday, before I found you. He told me where to find you. He said something about passing through the elements before we could leave here, go back. But he left before I could ask him more."
"Blair," said Jim, grasping Blair's shoulders with both hands, gently turning his friend to face him.
Continued in Part Two...