Struck by the opening door, the small bell hanging over the
doorway gave a small jingle. Pausing for a moment on the
threshold, the man looked upward in irritation and then continued
inside. The woman standing behind the counter glanced up and then
quickly looked away when the man turned his ice cold glare her
way. Grabbing a menu, she surreptitiously watched as he walked to
the back of the diner. Once he was seated, she hurried over to
take his order. Not able to meet
his eyes, she kept her attention on her pad as he pushed aside the unopened menu.
"Coffee. Black. Eggs. Scrambled. Bacon. Toast."
After writing down the order, the waitress snatched up the menu and hurried away. Later, she completely forgot about the quiet, intense man as the morning rush of truckers stopped in for breakfast. By the time the rush was over, he had gone. The only evidence of his stopping was the half-finished plate of food and an empty cup. That and the money to cover his bill. As she pocketed the large tip the man had left behind, she found herself wondering who he was and where he was going. There had seemed to be a sense of desperation about him. Like he was lost. Like he was in search of something.
Despite the heat, she shivered as she recalled the moment their gazes had locked. Never before had she seen such emptiness in someone's eyes. As she grabbed the coffeepot, she hoped that he would find his way. That he would find whatever it was he was seeking.
Astride his motorcycle, Jim quickly left the small diner behind as he sped down the highway. His speed nearing ninety, everything streaked by as he continued on his way. He was getting closer. He could feel it. His search might finally be over.
He didn't even slow down as he came to the intersection, just turned off onto the smaller, blacktop road. As he had since he started this journey, he let the feeling guide his actions. Let the feeling guide the direction he took. It was the same feeling that had been guiding him ever since that hellish day a month ago when he had returned to the loft and found it empty, the only remaining traces of Blair the short handwritten note lying on the table.
Simon had thought he was crazy and had tried to talk him out of leaving. For a little while, it had worked. He had listened to his captain's words and decided to give Blair time, thinking that maybe his guide would come back. But as the days passed, passed with no sign of Blair's return, Jim knew that he had to act.
He had tried one final time to explain it to Simon. To explain this feeling that had taken a hold of him from the second he realized Blair had gone. But it was hard to put it into words when he didn't even fully understand it himself. He had just felt this pull. Felt this pull at his gut that was telling him to go find Blair, to track down his guide.
Simon wouldn't accept his resignation, tossing it unread into the trashcan. Instead, the captain had given him an indefinite leave of absence. He didn't say goodbye to anyone as he left. It was strange, but at that moment, at that moment when he had been given leave, it seemed as if the sentinel in him had acknowledged that his duty to the tribe, to Cascade, was relieved.
The days since then had all run together. He drove, letting that feeling guide him, until he simply couldn't stay awake any longer. Then, he'd stop at the first motel he found, check into a room and
collapse onto the bed. He'd sleep for a while, wake up, find something to eat and then get back on the road again. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else registered. He was consumed by this driving compulsion to find Blair, to find his guide.
A spark of excitement flared within him when he noticed a town shimmered in the distance. The feeling intensified, hitting him like a punch in the stomach, as he approached the outskirts of the small, deserted looking town. Blair, his guide, was somewhere nearby. His search was finally over. Now came the hard part. Trying to convince Blair to accept him back.
Inside the rundown building, the man at the bar paused as he wiped down the dirty, stained surface. Slowly, his head came up. When the door opened, he was already watching, already waiting, and no expression showed on his face as Jim came inside.
Swallowing, his mouth suddenly gone dry, Jim simply stared for several seconds before he finally managed to speak. "Hey, Chief."
"What'll you have?"
Blair took a step back from the bar and crossed his arms over his chest. "In case you didn't notice, this is a bar. So either you're here for a drink or you're just loitering in which case I'll call the cops and have you thrown out."
"I'll I'll have a beer." When Blair turned away, Jim walked over and sat down on one of the barstools.
Beer in hand, Blair turned to face Jim again and paused for a moment when he noticed how close the other man was now. Swallowing hard, he put the beer down in front of Jim. "Do you want a glass?"
"No, the bottle is fine." Not sure what to say, not sure how to interpret Blair's reaction, or rather lack of reaction, to his presence, Jim took a drink. When he was finished, he set the bottle back on the bar, his hand still loosely gripping it. Nervously, he began to pick at the label. "You left."
"I'm surprised you even noticed."
Jim cringed at the sarcastic tone. "Did you really think I wouldn't?"
Blair just shrugged and moved away. Grabbing the rag, he began to wipe the bar again. "I thought you'd be relieved actually. You've got your loft to yourself again. No more messes in the bathroom. No more of my loud music or funky food to irritate you." His next words were soft. "No more me."
"Don't. Just don't, okay." Blair slapped his hand down on the bar. "Just go, Jim. There's nothing more to say. You've got your space back. You've got your nice, orderly life back. So just go back to it and leave me the hell alone!"
"I'm not going anywhere and I'm sure as hell not going to leave you alone," Jim yelled back as he stood up. Slowly, he stalked down to the end of the bar. "And if you think there's nothing more to say then you're wrong. You had your say. You made sure of that, didn't you? Taking off and just leaving that letter behind. You made sure that I wouldn't get a chance to "
"A chance to what?" Blair demanded, cutting Jim off. "To ask me to stay? Like I'm really supposed to believe that you wanted me to stay? Yeah, right. You never wanted me there in the first place and the only reason you let me stay is that you needed my help. But now, now you've got control of your senses and you don't need me anymore."
"Of all the How can someone so smart be so stupid?" Jim threw up his hands in exasperation. "I'll always need you!"
"Shut up, Blair."
Shocked, Blair's mouth snapped shut.
"That's better." Now standing in front of Blair, Jim leaned forward and placed his hands on the bar. "It's my turn now, Sandburg. This time, I'm the one that's going to talk and you're going to stand there and listen, understand?" Jim waited until Blair gave him a small nod. "Good. I'm not exactly sure where to begin. There's so much that we need to talk about; so much we need to settle. There is one thing I need you to get through that stubborn head of yours though." Jim looked into Blair's eyes. "I need you. I want you in my life. Am I getting through to you here?"
"Yeah." Blair bowed his head. "But I don't know if it's enough, Jim. I There's so much hurt and hard feelings involved. I I can't go back to the way it was. I won't do that to myself. Or to you. Neither one of us deserves that."
"Then we'll make sure it's different this time," Jim promised. "I'll do whatever it takes, Chief. I don't want to lose you."
"What if what if I said that I don't want to go back to Cascade?"
Jim took a deep breath. "I'd say okay."
Blair's head jerked up. "What?"
"You heard me, Sandburg."
"I heard you but I'm having a hard time believing it."
"What's so hard to believe? You said yourself that a sentinel needs someone to watch his back, needs his guide. Well, I'm a sentinel and you're my guide. I need you."
"No, you don't." Blair came out from behind the bar and began pacing. "God, Jim, if there's anything I've learned over the past few months, it's that you don't need me. Hell, you've been using your senses all the time without me there to help you. You've got control. Burton was wrong. A sentinel may need someone in the beginning, to help him learn control, but once that control is attained then the need for a guide is eliminated." Coming to a stop, Blair looked over and gave Jim a small, sad smile. "It's okay, Jim. I know this is just that Ellison guilt at work here. You don't have to feel guilty."
"What are you talking about?"
"I've done a lot of thinking since I left and I finally figured it all out."
"And just what exactly did you figure out?"
Blair gestured between himself and Jim. "These these problems between us, they all started when Incacha died."
Though Jim flinched when he heard Blair say the dead Shaman's name, he remained silent and let his guide continue.
"See, since the beginning, you've resented me." Blair began pacing again as he talked. "Resented the fact that you were dependent on me when it came to your senses. When Incacha showed up, you were really starting to get a handle on your senses. Well except for a few minor setbacks, that is. But then, when he died and passed on the way of the Shaman to me, some part of you must have thought that by doing so, he altered things between us. That he changed the balance of
power between us, so to speak. That when I was passed the way of the Shaman, I was also passed control over you because that's how it was between the two of you when you were with the Chopec. So, in response, you felt you had to reassert your control. That's when things started to change. By the time I noticed; we were so far away from how we should have been. From how we were. We should have dealt with it then. I should have confronted you about it but I I was afraid to. Things were strained between us and I thought that if I pushed it, you'd want me to leave. Then everything just seemed to hit us at once. By the time by the time everything happened with with Alex Well, you know what happened. You kicked me out. She killed me." Talking about the female sentinel brought all of his hurt feelings to the surface, causing Blair to lash out. "But that didn't bother you too much, huh? Sure as hell didn't stop you from making that little rendezvous on the beach. Tell me something, Jim. How different was it? Tell me how much kissing her was different from when you were trying to breathe life into my dead body?"
"That's okay. I'm sure there's not much comparison there. After all, I couldn't shove my tongue down your throat like she did. Let's just move on, okay. Let's get on to the really good part. My dissertation. Or at least the good part for me. `Cause I'm sure that for you, nothing comes close to how much you liked making out with my killer."
"Oh, no, you don't," Jim said. "Just hold up a minute, Sandburg. If you want to hash this out then we're going to do it right. You're not going to just dump all of this on me without giving me a chance to have my say."
"Fine. Talk then."
"I guess you're right. Things did start to change when Incacha died. But not for the reason you think. God, Blair, do you think I didn't realize you really had the control in this relationship? And I'm not taking about at the station or how things were around the guys. I mean between the two of us. You never had to fight for control. I gave it up to you from the day you moved into the loft. Hell, even before that. I gave it up to you from the very beginning. The reason I changed after Incacha died is because I felt guilty. Guilty because seeing him brought up a lot of memories. And you know what I realized? As much as I came to respect him, as much as I came to accept his guidance, I was never able to give to him what I gave to you so easily, what I gave to you so willingly. I was never able to give him complete control over me. Not like I did like I do to you."
"You heard me! You've got total control over me. What? Do you need me to prove it? Is that what it will take?" Jim moved forward quickly and fell to his knees in front of Blair. He spread his arms wide and threw his head back, exposing his throat. "My life is yours. Yours to take, yours to spare. The choice is yours."
Blair took several stumbling steps backwards, wanting to put some distance between the two of them. "G... get up, Jim." His voice and body both trembled. Jim remained on the floor. "I mean it, man. Stop it right now. Get up!" When the other man still didn't move, Blair fell to the floor also. He drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. "Why? Why did you have to come? Why are you doing this to me? I can't... You should have just let me go. Why
couldn't you have just let me go?"
Not able to ignore the raw emotion in his guide's voice, Jim finally moved. Sitting back on his heels, he looked at Blair. "I couldn't." His voice was low and husky. "I tried. I tried to give you time. I thought that you'd come back on your own. I just ... I just couldn't deal with the possibility that you wouldn't come back. But the more time that passed, the more I began to realize that you weren't coming back. And I... I couldn't stand the ... the feeling that brought out in me. I had to come find you and set things right between us."
"Because you actually think that a sentinel needs a guide, right?"
"Yes, I do. That is part of the reason I came for you. The sentinel in me felt compelled, felt driven, to find you. To find my guide. But that's not all. It was also me. Jim Ellison, the man, felt compelled to find you. To find my friend. To find my partner."
"You're the best friend I've ever had, Jim. I'm closer to you than I've ever been to anyone but..."
"But what, Blair?" Jim whispered as he began to crawl towards Blair. "Talk to me."
Keeping his head down on his knees, Blair didn't notice Jim's approach.
Now beside Blair, Jim reached out a hand and cupped the side of Blair's head. With gentle pressure, he urged Blair's head up.
"How do I know that what you said is true?"
"What you said, the part about Jim Ellison, the man, wanting to find me. As much as I like the thought of you, the sentinel, needing me to be your guide, I just ... Believe me, that would have been enough in the beginning. It would have been more than enough. I would have been so happy to know that you needed me to be your guide. But now, now I just want... I want to believe it's true that you need me. That's it's you, the man, that needs me, that wants me back. I want *you* to need me, Jim. Not for the sentinel stuff and not for the police stuff. I want you to need me just for me." Blair smiled and gave a watery chuckle. "I guess I'm not making too much sense, huh?"
"Actually, you are." Jim rubbed his thumb along Blair's cheek, spreading the moisture there. "Part of the reason I was so damn angry is that I felt like that too. I thought that you were only with me because I'm a sentinel. That you would never stick around if I didn't have the senses. That I wasn't enough for you. I though that you could never want just me. After everything with In... Incacha, after I started to get a handle on my senses, you started spending a lot more time at the university. I thought it was because of what you had said, about having more than enough information for your dissertation. I figured that justified my fears. You had everything you needed, all the information you needed on my senses, so you didn't see any need to stick around anymore. I kept expecting you to tell me that you were leaving. That you didn't need me for your dissertation any more and you were moving on."
"And then the whole dissertation mess happened."
"Yeah, it did," Jim replied, "and it just confirmed my worse fears; that you were only interested in the senses."
"I still don't understand how you could actually believe that, Jim. That I could just sell you out like that. How could you think that I was capable of doing something like that?"
"Because it hurt less."
"What do you mean?"
"If I believed that you were only ever with me because of the senses, then I wouldn't have to believe that someone else who I thought loved me ended up betraying me." Jim tilted his head to the side and smiled tenderly at Blair. "I could live with the knowledge that you had never really cared for me, but the one thing I couldn't bear was the thought that you loved me and still betrayed me anyway. I couldn't go through that kind of betrayal again, Blair. I made it through it all the times before, all the other times I've been betrayed. But I couldn't handle it if it was you."
"I know you didn't really betray me, Blair. I know that now," Jim interrupted. "And I heard what you said before, but I know that we can make this work. Alex, the dissertation, all of that is in the past. Can't we just leave it there and go on with our future? Like I said, I don't want to lose you. I want you in my life."
"It's not that easy for me. You hurt me a lot, Jim."
"I know." Jim bowed his head.
"And I don't know if I'm going to be able to get past all of that hurt." When Jim still didn't look up, this time it was Blair who reached out and gently guided his head upward until they were looking into each other eyes. "But I'm willing to try."
"Yeah, I am. I don't know what's going to happen now, but this separation has made me realize something."
"As much as it may hurt when we're together, it hurts even more when we're apart. I I can't even begin to tell you how tough this has been. Every day, I've wanted to go back to you. But but I wasn't sure if you wanted me back."
"I did," Jim pulled Blair to his chest and hugged the younger man to him. "I wanted to come after you as soon as you left but I didn't think you wanted me to."
Blair sniffled as he buried in face in Jim's neck. "We're quite a pair, huh?"
"A pair of idiots, you mean." Both men chuckled softly. Jim eased Blair back until he could look into his guide's eyes. "Don't ever leave me again, you hear."
"I won't," Blair promised. "Never again, I swear."
Jim stood up, bringing Blair along with him. "So, what now?"
"It's getting late and my regular customers should be showing up soon." Blair walked over to the bar and grabbed the rag. Throwing it over at Jim, who just barely managed to catch it, he ordered, "You finish wiping down the bar while I start getting things set up."
Obeying, Jim grumbled under his breath as he walked over and began wiping down the bar. From the corner of his eye, he watched as Blair filled a glass with water and set it down on the bar. Just as he started to say something, the door opened and he saw a man walk in.
"Hey, Hal," Blair called out in greeting.
"Hi, Blair." Hal walked over and sat down. Then, he looked over at Jim. "Who's this? Are you all right? This guy isn't causing you any problems is he?"
"No, everything is fine, Hal. This is Jim."
"Jim? The guy you've talked about?"
"Yeah." When Hal started to stand up, Blair placed a restraining hand on his arm. "It's okay, Hal."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, I am." Blair smiled over at Jim. "I think everything's going to be okay from now on."
Satisfied, Hal sat down and then picked up the glass of water. As he took a drink, Blair asked, "So how is everything at home?"
After taking a sip, Hal set the glass back down. "I don't know, Blair. Maggie is glad that I've stopped drinking and we haven't had a fight in a week. But Max is still having problems. I can't get that kid to listen to a word I tell him."
Blair grabbed a glass and began wiping it. "It's going to take some time, Hal. Max just needs to see that you really have changed. He's been through a lot and it's only natural that he's going to be doubtful."
"Yeah, and waiting for me to screw up and start drinking again."
"Do you blame him?"
Hal hung his head down. "No. It's not like I've given him any reason to think that I'm going to change. But but he's my son and I love him. It's hard dealing with his attitude though."
"Look, why don't you have him come by tomorrow and I'll have a talk with him."
"Yeah." Blair set the glass down and picked up another. "It may help if he can talk with someone who isn't family. Someone who can see every side of the situation."
Blair smiled. "No problem, Hal." Involved with Hal, Blair didn't notice the speculative look Jim was giving him.
As the evening progressed, Jim helped Blair at the bar and continued to watch the younger man. Time after time, he saw Blair offer guidance and counseling to people who came into the bar. Whether it was just listening to their troubles or offering friendly advice, Blair spent time with each person, helping them in any way that he could.
After seeing the last person out of the bar, Blair started to clean up.
Coming to stand behind Blair, Jim put his hands on the younger man's shoulders. "You know, I think I could like this town. Well, once I get to see more than just the inside of the local bar, that is. You're going to have to give me a tour, introduce me around."
"We're staying here?"
"For a while. If that's what you want."
Blair nodded. "I do. I've gotten to know most of the people and well, I think I've been able to help them some. I'd like to stay, for a little while at least, and see things through here."
"Then that's what we'll do." Jim squeezed Blair's shoulders. "After all, I can't take you away from here now. Especially since they need a Shaman so much."
"What did you say?"
"You heard me," Jim said. "They need a Shaman right now and I don't mind sharing. Just as long as you remember that although you're helping them, you're still *my* Shaman."
"I always have been and I always will be."
Blair leaned back into Jim's chest. Feeling the heat from the
older man radiating along his back, he vowed that he wouldn't
ever let go again. That no matter what may happen in the future,
he would always keep holding on.
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