"So, Jim, how does it feel to be back in the jungle, man?" Sandburg asked.
Jim glanced up from the gun he was checking. "I've got other things on my mind, Chief." And I don't really want to talk about the Sentinel stuff right now.
"Well, it's just that we're going to be near the area where you developed your heightened senses, right?" the younger man pressed. Obviously, he wasn't listening, much less taking the hint.
"I've got other things on my mind," Jim repeated.
The pilot's interruption was welcome, refocusing their attention on the rescue mission. Or Blair's attention, at least. While one part of Jim's mind was as worried about Simon and Daryl as Sandburg was, most of his attention was still preoccupied with the proposed trip to Borneo. I don't understand it. One moment he's telling me that this expedition is a one of a kind opportunity, and the next he's saying that he's my backup, that he has to come with me. Damnit, Chief, make up your mind! You can't have it both ways!
And I thought this whole Sentinel thing was important to you. I thought our partnership, our friendship, was important to you. So why this whole thing about Borneo? I mean, I know that your studies are also important, but... what about this Sentinel stuff?
To make things even more puzzling, Blair hadn't said a word about Borneo since they'd gotten the call about Simon and Daryl. It was confusing the hell out of Jim. Maybe he's just put it on hold until we find them? he wondered, peering out the door of the airplane to get a look at the area. Maybe... Oh, hell, Ellison, face it. You have no idea what's going on in Sandburg's mind.
He managed to get rid of some of his frustration and anger with the entire situation by taking it out on the pilot, Vasquez - not the most admirable thing to do, admittedly, but Vasquez was being a prick. Well, Jim had been an Army Ranger - he wouldn't have any trouble parachuting in. And the jungle was familiar territory; between his experience and his senses, tracking Simon and Daryl should be easy enough.
"Good luck, Señor," Captain Sandoval said, as Jim finished putting the straps on.
"Thank you," Jim replied, and then got a look at his partner. Sandburg had his ubiquitous backpack strapped on to his chest, and was pulling on a parachute. What the...? "Sandburg, what the hell are you doing?"
He listened in disbelief as Sandburg gave him some cock and bull story about going skydiving with friends. Come on, Chief, you can't think I'm going to buy that, can you? I know perfectly well how terrified you are of heights. Besides, your heart's beating like a jackhammer. "This isn't some weekend la-di-da here, Chief. It's a jungle out there; you come along, you could get hurt."
Sandburg's expression was determined. "I'll take my chances."
Jim studied him for a moment. I don't get it. What is with you, Sandburg? Well, if the kid was that determined to come along, what the hell. He'd be able to keep an eye on him, make sure Sandburg stayed out of trouble. Giving him a nod, Jim led the way to the open door.
Jim grimaced as he eyed the ground in front of him. "Other people have been here," he said over his shoulder to Sandburg. "Lots of them. I just can't tell which trail is Simon and Daryl's." He stopped and glanced around in frustration.
"All right, well just take your time and concentrate," Sandburg said.
Jim didn't look at him, instead focusing his attention on trying to scan the area. "I am concentrating. It just feels like my senses are... confused, or something."
"All right," came Sandburg's voice from behind him. "Close your eyes, take a deep breath..."
Jim turned to him, irritated. "Look, c'mon, I just don't have time for this now, man."
Blair looked exasperated. "Well, do you want to find them or not? You gotta work with me."
And what am I supposed to do when you go to Borneo, huh, Chief? Jim wondered, as he looked around again, trying to focus his senses enough to pick up a hint of which trail was Simon and Daryl's. If I can't handle these senses myself now, then how am I supposed to deal with them once you're gone?
"Close your eyes," Sandburg continued, his voice changing to a calmer, deeper tone - the one that Jim tended to respond to instinctively, time and time again. It worked this time as well, as Jim found himself obeying the command before he could even think about it.
"Okay, now don't push it, just let it happen," Sandburg instructed.
Jim took a deep breath, trying to sort through the scents he took in, looking for the familiar smell of the cigars Simon smoked. But he found it impossible; there were so many scents, a number of them familiar from his previous time in the jungle, and all of them overlapping, confusing him. He slumped, letting his breath out in a sigh.
"Getting anything?" Sandburg asked after a moment.
Jim opened his eyes and shook his head. "No." Casting another quick look around, he started in the direction of the most obvious trail. If they didn't find anything this way, they could come back and try another.
"I don't understand this, man," Sandburg muttered from behind him, sounding frustrated. "Ah... okay, um... there's got to be an explanation for it... uh... Maybe it was the parachute jump - you know, the sudden change in air pressure!" The frustration was rapidly disappearing from his voice, and being replaced with the excitement that Jim recognized from all the tests Sandburg had made him go through - that of the scientist discovering a theory. "Or, uh, maybe it's the shock of being back in the jungle!"
Feeling unusually irritated by the anthropologist's sudden enthusiasm, Jim turned around to snap at him. But before he could say anything, a sudden hint of movement caught his eyes, and he saw the black panther running in the distance.
"What's wrong?" Sandburg asked from behind him, but Jim ignored him, focusing on the panther. There was something about it that forced his attention, that made him see it. He hurried past Sandburg, trying to get a better look. "What is it?"
Blinking, Jim felt confused; the panther had vanished again.
"Jim? Jim, are you all right? What's wrong?"
Turning back to face Sandburg, Jim shook his head. "Nothing's wrong. I'm fine. C'mon, let's go."
"You've found their trail?" Blair asked, coming to stand next to him, peering in the direction that the panther had disappeared.
Jim hesitated. He wasn't really sure that this was Simon and Daryl's trail - he just knew that he needed to follow the panther, that it was somehow important. But telling Sandburg about it... he didn't want to do that. He wasn't sure why - after all, he trusted the younger man, especially with anything about his senses... but if Blair was going to leave...
"I'm not sure," he said finally. "My senses still aren't really picking anything up, but something tells me that this is the way we should be going." There. Not a lie - but not the complete truth, either.
"Hmm... Maybe you're picking something up on a subconscious level," Blair said thoughtfully, as they started in that direction. "After all, we know that you don't necessarily have to sense things consciously to have them affect you - like pheromones."
Jim clenched his jaw in an effort not to comment on Sandburg's lack of tact, and just gave him a noncommittal shrug.
Blair frowned as he wrote down an account of what had happened since they'd landed in the jungle. Despite what Jim had said earlier, about nothing being wrong, Blair knew that there was something. There was no reason he could think of for Jim's senses to have gone on the blink like that - all the hypotheses he'd thrown out as they'd been walking were just guesses; guesses that he knew fell far from the mark.
Part of the problem was that Jim wasn't talking to him. He knew that the Sentinel had seen something in that clearing - Jim didn't seem to realize that Blair could often tell when he was using his senses.
In fact, Blair wasn't entirely sure how he could tell, it seemed to be an unconscious process.
He glanced up from his notebook, looking toward Jim. "How are your senses doing, man?"
Jim shrugged. "Momentary flashes, then they're gone," he replied.
Momentary flashes, huh? Was that what happened in the clearing? "Hey, at least that's one thing," Blair said out loud. "You haven't lost them completely." Closing the notebook, he looked up at Jim again.
"Look, when you were here five years ago, and you first discovered your abilities, did anything like this ever happen then?"
"Not that I can remember," the Sentinel replied, looking back at the flames.
"I don't know," Blair muttered, his hands darting around in an unconscious display of nerves as he tried to put things in order. "Maybe it's something in the food, or the water..." C'mon, Jim, I'm really reaching here. Give me a hint, will you?
Jim glanced at him for a moment. "Let's just drop the scientific stuff, okay?"
What? "Jim, if we can find out the cause, maybe we can fix it!" Blair exclaimed.
"Sandburg," Jim interrupted firmly. "Let it go! Maybe we should just get some sleep, all right?"
Blair stared at the Sentinel for a moment, feeling a confused mixture of anger, frustration and hurt. 'Maybe we should just get some sleep'?! Doesn't Jim understand how important this is? We need to get this fixed! But Jim didn't want to hear any of it.
"Whatever, man," he muttered sullenly, picking up his backpack and twisting around, putting his back to the fire and Jim. If Jim didn't want to talk about it, fine!
Dammit, what's wrong? Why isn't he telling me anything? Why won't he talk to me? He's acting almost like he did when we first met, for heaven's sake!
Blair swallowed as he slipped the notebook into his backpack and put it down on the ground to use as a pillow.
Maybe Jim has the right idea, he thought, lying down. After all, the last time we slept was on the flight to Lima; we followed that with the flight up here, and we've been hiking for most of the day. We're both tired as hell. Maybe that's it...
I hope that's it.
Taking a deep breath, Blair forced away the hurt he was feeling, knowing that if he didn't, he'd never be able to get to sleep. And if tomorrow was going to be anything at all like today had been, he was definitely going to need all the sleep he could get.
Curling up - the jungle was warm, but he still felt a bit chilled - Blair closed his eyes. "G'night, Jim," he mumbled softly, and drifted off to sleep.
Jim frowned as the night sounds of the jungle woke him up. He wasn't used to them any more; it had been five long years since he'd heard them.
Suddenly, he heard a low growl. That wasn't one of the usual sounds...
Opening his eyes, he pushed himself up as he saw the panther. Staring, he watched as it looked at him, and then turned and darted away.
Standing up, Jim looked around the campsite, suddenly alarmed. Blair's backpack was by the fire, where he'd been sleeping, but there was no sign of the younger man. He tried focusing his senses, listening for Blair's voice, or heartbeat, but he couldn't hear either. Was that because his senses were still screwed up, or because Blair wasn't nearby?
"Sandburg," he called, starting to feel panicked. Where is he? What's happened? "Sandburg!"
There was no response. Picking up the gun Captain Sandoval had given him, Jim started in the direction the panther had gone. "Sandburg!" he barked.
Lowering his voice, he added, "Dammit, Sandburg, where the hell are you?"
He stopped as he heard a snarl, and then watched in disbelief as the panther walked out from behind a tree, and then jumped on him. "Aahhh!"
Jim jerked awake with a start, sitting up, and then stared in a mixture of disbelief and relief as he saw Sandburg curled up nearby, sound asleep.
What the hell was that all about? It felt real, as though I was awake - hell, I thought I was!
And why wasn't Blair there? Why couldn't I find him?
Well, he's here now, Jim thought then, calming down, as he cast a quick glance around their campsite, looking for anything out of place... or any sign of the panther. There was nothing. And Blair was here, safe.
Shifting into a more comfortable position, Jim settled back down, closing his eyes. It was still a few hours until dawn, and the more sleep he got, the better.
Blair glanced around the village. The children were busy playing, Kimberly managing to keep them occupied, but there was no sign of Jim anywhere. Frowning, he looked around again. Where had he gone?
On the other side of the village from where they'd come in - where the children had been hiding until Kimberly called them - was a faint trail. Blair figured that it led to a nearby source of water, probably a stream or a river. It didn't take much thought to guess that Jim had gone in that direction, looking for a bit of privacy.
A few minutes later, Blair discovered that he'd been right on both counts; Jim was sitting on a large rock, looking out over a fast moving stream.
"Hey, Jim!" Blair called, surprised that the Sentinel hadn't already looked at him. The sudden jerk of Jim's head told him why - the older man hadn't heard him coming. Oh, wonderful... I just hope he'll talk to me about this now... I don't know how much more of his silence I can take. "You okay, man?"
Jim looked at him silently for a moment, and Blair could tell that he was trying to make up his mind about something. Finally, "My Sentinel abilities are gone. It's as if someone's just turned off a switch."
"Well, maybe it's just temporary," Blair offered.
Jim shook his head. "I never wanted this damn thing. All it's done is screw me up."
Blair stared at him in shock. Where the hell did that come from? "Yeah, well, it's also saved your life more than once!" he countered. "And the lives of a lot of other people too!" Including mine!
"Well, what good is it if I can't control it?" Jim demanded, angry.
"You can control it!" Blair replied forcefully. "It just takes time!"
"We don't have time! Simon and Daryl need help now!" Jim countered, practically shouting at him..
"Well, dammit, Jim, tell me what's going on!" Blair said, forcing his voice to remain calm despite the frustration he was feeling as Jim turned away from him. Why the hell did he keep refusing Blair's help with this? "I'm your partner!" Right, Jim? I am still your partner...
Jim looked at Blair for a moment, hearing the undertones of frustration and hurt in the younger man's voice. Partner, backup... you keep saying that. But what happens when we get back home, Chief? When your Dr. Stoddard asks for an answer about Borneo?
And does it matter? he demanded of himself. I need my senses to find Simon and Daryl. And Blair's the only one who can figure this thing out...
Decision made, he turned back to face Blair. "I've been seeing something," he said slowly. "I don't even know if it's real."
"What have you been seeing?" Blair asked, his tone reassuring, drawing Jim out.
"A panther," Jim blurted out after a minute. "I saw it when we first landed. Ever since, I-I can feel it watching us, following us. I know it's there, but when I look, there's nothing."
His friend listened silently, not rejecting anything of what he was saying.
"Last night, I saw it in a dream. It was more real than any dream I've ever had," Jim continued. And you weren't there. That scared me more than the panther, Chief; the fact that you weren't there, and I couldn't find you - couldn't sense you, he thought; but he couldn't say it out loud.
"Well, the Indians would say the panther is your animal spirit, and it's trying to talk to you," Blair said thoughtfully, after a moment. "And a psychologist would say it's your unconscious mind trying to speak to you in symbols. Now either way, you've just got to stop fighting it, and see where it leads you."
He might have been intending to say more, but they were interrupted by the arrival of one of the children from the village.
It had been five years, and the children didn't speak quite the same dialect as Jim had learned among the Chopec, but he had no trouble understanding what the boy was saying. It must be Daryl, he thought, as he translated for Sandburg. Looks like the panther did lead us the right way... you were right again, Chief.
And I don't think I can handle this without you...
Daryl had been running and hiding for hours, and was counting himself very lucky. Well, lucky in terms of what's happened since those guys caught us, he thought ruefully. First of all both he and his dad had survived the truck turning over, and second, he'd managed to avoid getting re-captured so far.
Unfortunately, he was rapidly becoming exhausted, and he had no idea whatsoever where he was - much less where the camp was.
Suddenly, he heard voices nearby. But they weren't men's voices - in fact, they sounded more like kids.
Peeking out from behind a wide tree, he saw a group of young kids - none looking any older than he was - running around, playing. They looked like Indians to him - certainly nothing like the guys back at the camp.
Taking a deep breath, he decided to risk facing them. The worst thing that could happen was that he'd be re-captured. There seemed to be a much better chance that they'd be able to help him - at least as far as getting something to eat. He was starving!
Coming out from behind the tree, he waited until they noticed him, and then asked, "Hablo* Espagñol?"
The children stared at him, and then spoke amongst themselves in a language Daryl had never heard before. When one of the older ones gestured for him to follow them, he did so, figuring that at least it would be better than maybe running around in circles.
He was immensely relieved when they didn't lead him to the drug lord's camp, but to a small village. The only adult there was a blond woman - American, Daryl guessed - who looked up in surprise as the children ran over to her, talking rapidly. Then they pointed to him.
The woman looked at him curiously, then sent one of the children running off in the opposite direction from which they'd come and walked over to Daryl.
"Are you all right?" she asked, in English, to Daryl's relief.
He nodded slowly. "Yeah. Umm... where are we?" he added, glancing around. "I'm kinda... lost."
The woman chuckled. "We're in the middle of the jungle," she replied. "Come on over and sit down. I'm making some dinner; you look as though you could use some."
"I am kinda hungry," Daryl admitted, following her over. "Uh... I don't mean to be rude or anything, but who are you?"
"My name's Kimberly Ashe," the woman replied, as they sat down. "I'm a botanist with UCLA."
"Pleased to meet you," Daryl said politely. "My name's Daryl Banks."
Hoping that she might have a radio he could use to contact Captain Sandoval - it made sense that she would, after all, being an American in the middle of the jungle - he opened his mouth to tell her what had happened. Before he could start, however, he heard a familiar voice call out his name.
Turning around in surprise, he saw Detective Ellison and Blair standing in the middle of the village.
"Jim!" he exclaimed, getting up and running over. Before he could think about what he was doing, he gave his dad's best detective a tight hug. If anyone could save his dad, it was Detective Ellison. "They've got my dad!"
Blair stood in the middle of the small village, watching as some of the children played. If Simon and the children's parents hadn't been in danger, he would have found this thrilling; you could learn a lot about a culture by the way the children behaved.
But Simon and their parents were in danger, and the children and Daryl were counting on Jim - and him - to save them.
Well, Jim, at least. Blair wasn't sure what good he could do. Yes, he knew the jungle - but so did Jim. And with Jim's senses gone, the only reason he had for being here was the fact that he counted Simon a friend. He still wasn't sure that the feeling was mutual - Simon tolerated him, but that didn't necessarily mean that the big captain considered him a friend.
Either way, the fact remained that Blair simply did not have the skills required to rescue someone - much less a whole crowd of people - from a group of drug harvesters. And so far, nothing he'd suggested had helped Jim. Hell, I don't even know what's wrong with him!
Thinking about his friend, Blair turned and wandered over to where Jim was crouched down, investigating the contents of some of the huts.
"All right, I'm going into the jungle to scout the area," Jim said, standing up and slinging the rifle off his shoulder. "I want you to keep this just in case," he added, holding it out to Blair.
Blair stared at it for a moment.
"Go on," Jim prodded him.
Blair reached out and took the gun. Looking down at it, as though he'd never seen one before, he asked, "What about you?"
"I found these in one of the huts," Jim replied, slipping a crossbow over one shoulder and a blowpipe over the other. "This is all I'll need." Lifting a quiver full of arrows and darts off the frame of the hut, he continued, "These darts are tipped with curare. Not enough to be lethal," he added, showing one of them to Blair, "but enough to cause temporary paralysis."
Jim turned and started into the jungle.
Listening absentmindedly to the children behind him, Blair slowly put the strap of the gun over his shoulder. He had no idea why Jim thought it would do any good - after all, he wouldn't be able to hold off anyone who did try and attack - but if it made the Sentinel feel better...
Blair looked up to see that Jim had stopped near the edge of the clearing and was watching him.
"I'm glad you came."
Blair stared at the older man for a moment, thrilled. 'I'm glad you came.' It wasn't something that Jim would ever have said lightly - if there was one thing that Blair had learned about Jim, as a person, it was that the Sentinel wasn't comfortable dealing with anything that smacked of strong emotion. If Jim said it, he really, really meant it. Seriously.
Jim was glad he was here.
"Me too," Blair replied quietly. He had no reason to feel unneeded - Jim wanted him here.
The Sentinel nodded, and Blair watched as he turned and vanished into the jungle.
It wasn't particularly hard for Jim to follow the trail left by the men who'd invaded the village and taken the children, Kimberly, and Blair. He could have done it even without his Sentinel abilities - the mercenaries were careless, evidently believing that there was nothing out here in the jungle that could threaten them.
Which could definitely be an advantage. And considering the fact that he had a crossbow, a blowpipe, and a quiverful of darts and arrows, while they had at least 20 heavily armed men, he would need all the advantages he could get.
And they had Blair.
The last time he had felt this much terror, this much dread, was when Lash had kidnapped the younger man. Not even Carasco or Brackett had made him feel this scared for Blair's life. He couldn't explain it; it was almost as though all the confusion over his senses, the worry for Simon and Daryl, and the fear that Blair was going to leave for Borneo had all coalesced into one huge lump of terror as soon as he'd heard the attack on the camp.
Rather than hinder him, however, the fear seemed to sharpen his senses even more, focusing them on the trail of the men who'd taken his Guide.
That's what Brackett called him, Jim thought, moving as silently as the panther he had followed only half an hour or so ago. Despite the source, the term fit Blair in so many ways; he guided Jim through the use of his senses, guided him from zone-outs...
The sound of a truck shook him out of his thoughts, and he looked up. The trail had led him to a small logging road, and it sounded as though the truck was coming toward him, heading for the camp.
Crouching down, Jim got ready. When the truck reached him, he would slip under it, and get into the camp that way. And then...
Well, then these drug harvesters would learn exactly what it meant to face an angry Sentinel.
Blair tried his best to relax, but it was hard. He hated being tied up, especially since Lash - Don't think of him don't think of him don'tthinkofhim... - but at least it was only his hands, tied with rope. Lash had bound both his hands and his feet with chains, and he had been alone. Here, he and Daryl were tied together - it made a difference, having someone else sharing your situation. Made it less terrifying, somehow. And maybe, just maybe, Jim would be coming to rescue them; the Sentinel seemed to specialize in last minute rescues, especially where he was concerned.
"Hey, Blair, man, you think they're going to let us go?" Daryl asked.
They wouldn't, of course. Both he and Daryl - especially Daryl - knew too much about the operation going on here to be allowed to live. But he didn't want to say that, not when Daryl was doing his best to stay brave. "I don't know, Daryl," he replied - not quite a lie, but close. An obfuscation.
There was a moment's pause, and then Daryl said softly, "I'm afraid my dad might already be dead."
The thought had occurred to Blair as well. It was entirely possible that Simon was dead, and that his and Jim's mission was too late to save their friend. But he couldn't afford to dwell on that thought; he had to hope that Simon was still alive. "We've got to stay strong," he said calmly. "It's what your father would want." And Jim's coming to get us; we've just got to stay cool 'til he gets here, he thought. He couldn't say why he was suddenly so certain that Jim was indeed nearby, but he was absolutely convinced of it.
A moment later, the tent door opened. Blair looked over, and his eyes widened in surprise. "Jim?!" Looks like I was right... My Blessed Protector to the rescue. He smiled in relief and a sudden satisfaction.
"Shhh," the Sentinel whispered.
"It's good to see you," Daryl said, as Jim came over and crouched down between the chairs they were tied to.
"We've got to move fast," Jim said quietly, pulling out a knife and starting to cut the ropes that bound them together. "Any idea where Simon is?"
Blair looked at him, wondering just when and why the Sentinel had taken the time to put warpaint on. Not that it really matters, Sandburg, he told himself firmly. All that matters is that he's here, just like you knew he would be...
"Probably in the underground drug lab," he said, as Jim finished cutting through the ropes. "That's where they took Kimberly and the kids."
Jim nodded, starting out of the tent. "Let's go," he hissed.
Beckoning to Daryl, Blair followed him, automatically slipping into his accustomed role as Jim's backup.
Simon was hot, tired and sweaty - and in a very bad mood. The drug harvesters were probably laughing their asses off about making a police captain work in their processing lab, but he didn't find it funny at all. No, and as soon as he got the chance, he intended to show these low-lifes just what they had let themselves in for!
At least Daryl had managed to escape; with luck - a lot of luck - his son would manage to find his way to someplace where he could get in touch with Sandoval.
An argument between one of the Indian children that had been brought down here about an hour ago and one of the guards caught Simon's attention, and he stepped forward angrily. "Hey, you want to mess with somebody, you mess with me," he said firmly. The guard paid almost no attention to him, and Simon glared at him furiously before bending down to pick up another bag of processed paste. Studying the guard for a moment, he wondered if it would be worth it to start a brawl - but unless something unexpected showed up, he wouldn't be able to win - and unless it got physical, there was no real point to risking his life by interfering.
Lifting the bag up, he started to turn around, and then stopped as he saw the burlap suddenly sprout a red-feathered dart. He looked up, following the path the dart had taken with his eyes, and stared.
Crouched over by the ladder was Jim Ellison.
He looked different, his face streaked with black greasepaint, carrying a blowpipe and what looked like some sort of crossbow slung over his back - in fact, right now, Ellison looked like something out of a jungle movie.
And he was the prettiest sight that Simon could imagine.
Looks like the 'something unexpected' just showed up, the captain thought with an internal grin. Time to take on the scum.
The fight was over surprisingly quickly. Simon found himself particularly impressed by the blond woman's backhand - she had a strong arm on her.
Picking up one of the guns, Simon checked the clip; and then spun and stared as he heard Ellison speak in the same language the Indians used.
Combined with the greasepaint and primitive weapons Ellison was using, it was a strong reminder of the fact that the other man wasn't just an ordinary police detective. He had been a highly skilled professional soldier, and he'd survived for eighteen months in this very jungle.
In fact, with that greasepaint and the bandanna, he looks like he did on the cover of Newsweek! Simon realized with a start. The only difference was that the Jim Ellison on the cover of Newsweek had looked lost and alone; the man standing in front of him now was confident and completely in control.
"Man, I am exhausted!" Blair muttered as they boarded the plane. "Don't wake me up 'til we reach Cascade, okay, Jim?"
"Sandburg, we change planes in LA," Simon pointed out.
"And there's no way I'm carrying you anywhere," Jim added, tousling Sandburg's hair with one hand.
"Fine, wake me up in LA. But don't be surprised if I fall asleep again," Blair returned, fighting back a yawn. Then he shot a quick look around the plane, and lowered his voice. "Jim, remember to keep your hearing turned down," he whispered, Sentinel-soft.
"And how am I supposed to do that when you keep whispering at me?" Jim countered, grinning slightly as he sat down next to Sandburg, in the aisle seat. Simon and Daryl sat across the aisle, and Jim's grin widened as he saw Daryl close his eyes - it looked as though both younger members of the group were about to crash.
"Just do it, okay?" Sandburg ordered. "Or you're going to get blasted when the engines start."
Jim nodded in acknowledgement, and obediently turned down his hearing - at least, mostly.
Ever since that strange encounter in the dream-jungle, when his senses had come back to him, Jim had found that he had more control than ever over them. It was quite a pleasant feeling.
He'd also found that, from the moment he'd rescued Blair and Daryl from that tent, he'd been constantly aware of a low-level thumping noise in the background; one he found oddly soothing. It had taken him a little while, but he'd finally figured out that he was hearing Blair's heartbeat.
It felt... strange. If he concentrated, he could hear Simon's heartbeat, or Daryl's - in fact, Blair had taught him to use the sounds of heartbeats to identify how many people there were in a given area. But to be always aware of Blair's... even with his hearing turned down...
Something had changed while they'd been in the jungle. In fact, more than one thing had changed.
From the moment they'd re-surfaced, in Cascade, his senses had scared him. They'd forced him to change, to become even more different from most of his acquaintances than his military and Covert Ops background had already made him; forced him into a partnership with a loud, hyperactive hippie who had unusual ideas of what constituted food; had controlled what he saw, what he heard, what he ate... everything.
But when they'd disappeared, in the jungle, it had left him feeling less in control, and oddly disconnected from the world around him. He had become used to sensing things that no one else could; when that ability - that power - vanished, Jim had realized just how accustomed he'd gotten to them.
Combined with the need to save Simon, that realization had convinced him to accept the... spirit's?... offer. He'd made the choice to remain a Sentinel.
And what about Blair?
The student was a part of this whole Sentinel thing, whether he realized it or not. Blair was his partner, his Guide - the title seemed to be more and more appropriate every time Jim thought about it - and his friend. It was an equal partnership - or perhaps the balance of power was tilted more toward Sandburg. He could leave.
Jim couldn't. He needed Blair, and this whole rescue mission had just emphasized how much. If he'd come by himself, he wouldn't have had the faintest clue what to do. As soon as he'd told Blair about the panther, the younger man had told him exactly what he needed to do - see where it led him. Blair always had answers to problems with - or posed by - his senses. And whether he knew what he was doing or was just pulling the answers out of thin air, it didn't really matter; all that counted was that he was always right.
And this new thing, this constant awareness of Blair's heartbeat, his presence... had Blair made a choice as well?
"Jim? You with us, man?" The worry in the younger man's voice was unmistakable; he thought that Jim might be zoning.
He turned to look at Sandburg, smiling in reassurance. "I'm fine, Chief; just thinking about something."
Blair studied him for a moment, and then nodded in satisfaction. "'Kay," he replied, yawning again. "Well, I'm going to sleep."
Jim opened his mouth, meaning to ask Blair about what choice he might have made, and then shut it again. Sandburg was tired; his question could wait for later. "Sweet dreams," he said quietly.
Blair nodded; and then, as his eyes slid closed, he murmured, "G'night, Jim."
Oddly reassured by the familiar ritual, Jim took a book out of his carry-on, leaned back in his seat and opened it. It was going to be a long flight home; he might as well get some reading done.
There were only a few messages on the answering machine; Jim let Blair listen to them as he dumped the mail on the table and walked over to the fridge. He needed a beer.
"This is Janet from Dr. Stoddard's office. Dr. Stoddard needs a final answer about Borneo. If you're still interested, please call us at 555-4678."
Jim felt a shiver of fear go through him as he heard the woman's voice. He hadn't had the chance to ask Blair what he had decided - it was still possible that he wanted to go.
Waiting until Sandburg turned the machine off, Jim held out a bottle of beer. "Guess you should call 'em back," he said, handing it to his... partner? Is he still that? Has he decided what to do? He raised his own bottle to his lips and took a sip, trying his best to hide his fear behind an expression of casual interest.
The younger man twisted off the top, letting the hiss of escaping air fill the silence for a moment. When he spoke, his voice was softer than normal, almost hesitant. "Well, actually, I've already decided not to go."
He's decided... not to go? He's not going?! Jim blinked, caught between surprise and delight, and swallowed.
"This Sentinel thing... you know, it's more than just a research project. It's about friendship." Blair chuckled, the sound self-deprecating. "I just didn't get it before."
He's not going. He's staying! Jim couldn't stop the smile that crossed his face - and when he saw Blair's reaction, he was glad that he hadn't. What Blair had just said was... incredible. It was a commitment, from the most commitment-shy person Jim had ever met.
His response was directed more toward the unspoken meaning than the spoken words. "Okay."
Blair had made his mind up before they'd even left the drug harvesters' camp - in fact, he'd made it the moment Jim had released Daryl and him; but he hadn't been sure what to expect when he told Jim about his decision. It very definitely had not been this.
The smile that crossed Jim's face when he told the Sentinel that it was about friendship was one of absolute delight, warm and accepting. He'd never seen Jim look so... open before.
He really didn't want me to go, Blair realized. He hadn't been certain; as soon as he'd told Jim that the position in Borneo would be for a minimum of a year, the older man had shut down - but Blair really hadn't known what that meant. And Jim had denied that he was upset...
Of course he did, Blair scolded himself, as Jim started toward the balcony, still smiling. This is Jim Ellison we're talking about here, Sandburg! You know: anal, control freak, stoic... Of course he's going to deny being upset.
I wonder if that's why he was acting so strangely in Peru...
Then he focused his attention back on the present, that thought reminding him of what he wanted to discuss with the Sentinel now that the Borneo question was out of the way.
Taking a sip from his beer, he leaned against the doorframe, watching Jim look out over the city. The Sentinel standing guard over his tribe, he thought absently, as he always did when Jim did this. Whenever Jim was troubled by something, or after they'd come off a difficult case, he would often stare out the windows, or stand on the balcony looking into the distance for hours on end. Blair wasn't sure whether it was a Sentinel thing, a Jim thing, or both, but it always seemed to help centre the older man.
"You know, you were really something out there in the jungle, man. I've never seen you so focused. So in control," he said casually, as Jim took a sip of his beer. "It was pretty amazing.
"You never did tell me how you got your powers back," he added.
Jim sounded vaguely amused as he replied, "They just came back."
Blair chuckled, pushing away from the doorframe and walking outside to stand beside his friend. "Why do I get the feeling like you're not telling me everything?" he asked, looking up at Jim.
"Because I just don't have the energy to talk about it right now," Jim replied calmly.
So, does that mean you'll tell me later? Blair wondered. He doubted it - he'd probably have to push. But not right now; it was enough that Jim had admitted that there was more to it. Pushing would only irritate him, and Blair really didn't want to do that at the moment.
"We're home. Let's enjoy it," the Sentinel added.
Blair nodded, basking in the acceptance Jim was offering with those two simple words: 'we're home'. It meant that Jim had understood what he was saying earlier, with his decision about Borneo and his explanation. "Welcome home, partner," he said, pleased, tapping Jim's beer bottle with his own in a toast.
Jim was about to look back over the city when he heard something from inside - a soft, pleased growl.
Turning around, he saw the panther standing on the upper level of the loft; the golden eyes held a satisfaction that echoed Jim's feelings precisely.
Nodding to the panther in acknowledgement, Jim watched as it faded into the shadows of the loft, and then turned back to the view outside.
He could feel the warmth of Blair's presence; the younger man's heartbeat filled the companionable silence between them, helping him relax even further.
Eventually, he'd have to tell Blair precisely what had happened in the dream-jungle. Sooner or later, his Guide was going to drag it out of him anyway. And he wanted to know when Blair had made his decision, and whether it had anything to do with this new awareness; but that was for later. For now, he was simply content to have his friends safe and to be at home, in the company of his Guide.
And in the shadowed loft, golden eyes gleamed in pleasure as the panther purred.