Disclaimer: The characters and places of The Sentinel do not belong to me, but to Pet Fly
A very special thanks goes to Mackie, the beta-queen, whose wisdom and experience far outdistances mine. And without whose touch, this story would be lacking. Also, thanks to my cyber-sis, Caroline, who shares her heart with me, and encourages me more than she'll ever know.
"Come on, Mark." Blair Sandburg stood at the front of his late afternoon Anthropology 101 class. His arms by his side, palms up to present a hopefully non-threatening posture to the young man standing before him, Blair moved to take a step. "Please put the gun down."
Mark's eyes widened further, and Blair stopped, knowing instinctively he had reached a certain invisible line the student had drawn around himself.
"No, Mr. Sandburg, I can't put it down. Then I wouldn't be able to do what I brought it here for." Mark's voice was strained, and Blair watched as the young man swallowed hard.
"What are you going to do, man?" Blair asked softly.
The distraught student's eyes flickered briefly to his fellow classmates, sitting hunched over in their seats. Most of them had their heads down, staring in rapt attention at their desktops, as if salvation would be found in the smooth, pressed wood. A few brave souls were sitting up, their focus on the dramatic tableau before them.
"I'm here to . . . " For an instant, Mark wavered, looking down at his feet. The hesitation was brief and unexpected, catching Blair unguarded. He cursed himself as the moment passed, a chance to take the gun stolen before he even realized it was his to grasp. ". . . to end it all," Mark continued, looking up into Blair's eyes.
"You don't have to do this, Mark." The teacher's thoughts tumbled desperately, trying to think of something helpful, something that would get through to his student and convince him to give up the gun. He knew the police were in the hall, staying out of sight, waiting for a chance to enter the room and defuse the situation. "We can find answers, together. I can help you, man, if you'll just let me." Blair cringed at the cliché sounding in his words. He hoped Mark understood the sincerity behind them.
The young man with the gun looked at Blair. He smiled, and reached out his empty hand to his teacher. Relief rose in Blair, making him feel almost lightheaded. Thankfulness crowded out caution as he brought his own hand up to grasp Mark's in a firm hold.
A jerk that jarred his arm and snapped through his shoulder pulled Blair violently forward. The young student brought the gun up to his own temple, and pressed his cheek to Blair's. He whispered, "Good-bye, Teach."
The words barely registered before the weapon exploded. The reverberation thundered loudly in the teaching fellow's ears, and came moments before Mark's head pounded painfully against Blair's cheekbone. Drops of moisture hailed across his face, then the force of the bullet tumbled them both to the floor.
For an immortal second, time stood still. Blair lay on the floor, his body trapped by Mark's weight. The clock ticked, the second passed, and sound blasted back into existence. Shocked screams filled the room as students sprang into motion and rushed for the door. Frantically pushing the unmoving body away from him, Blair struggled to sit up. Policemen scrambled through the classroom door, where they collided with panic-stricken students, their intentions conflicting with each other.
"Sandburg!" Jim's voice called to him, and Blair wanted to answer, but air was rushing in and out of his lungs too quickly to control. Finally free of the dead student, Blair stood up, staring down at the horribly raw and bloody remains of Mark's head.
"Blair." Firm hands grabbed his shoulders and forced him to turn away from the body. "Blair! Look at me!" Jim demanded. Whether it was the command itself or the authority in Jim's voice, Blair obeyed and turned away from the carnage, focusing on Jim. He knew the older man was talking to him, but words failed to register past the white noise rushing through his head.
Blair reached up and touched something wet on the side of his face. He looked at his blood-slicked fingers in confusion. Twisting in Jim's grip, his gaze returned to Mark. With sudden understanding, he knew the blood on his face and fingers was Mark's. The student's suicidal act replayed itself in his mind. His body finally caught up with his thoughts, and his knees folded, unable to bear the weight of the memories. He felt himself being lowered gently to the floor, then Jim's palm registered warm on his cheek. Awareness fled as Blair surrendered to shock.
Leaning over his partner, Jim felt his heart constrict in fright with the sight of the splattered blood on the side of Blair's face. Quickly, he moved his fingers over the dazed man's head, pushing through the dark brown ringlets to probe the scalp. Assured Blair was not injured, Jim withdrew one hand to reach into his back pocket for the bandanna he kept folded there. He slid his hand from where it rested in Blair's curls, and moved it further behind his friend's head, cupping the small skull to protect it from the hard surface of the floor. Bunching the material in his other hand, he gently wiped the evidence of a violent death from Blair's pale, still face. The dry cloth could do little in picking up the blood, but most of the other grisly residue was wiped away. Shifting his hand to Blair's chest, he glanced up to see if the EMTs had entered the room.
Less than a minute later, Blair blinked and opened his eyes. Disoriented with his surroundings, he lay still, hoping recognition would speak up and tell him why he was lying on the classroom floor, and why Jim was bent over him. He glanced to one side and saw the crumpled body of Mark, dark blood in a spreading pool under the destroyed head. Unwelcome memories made him cringe as the last few moments replayed themselves.
"I need the paramedics in here, now!" Jim looked down to check on his partner, and was surprised to find Blair's eyes open, looking up at him. "Blair? Can you hear me, buddy?"
"Yeah. Jim, help me up, man." The young man struggled to rise against the weight of Jim's hand bearing down on his chest. Jim shifted his hand to slide under his partner's back, and helped him sit up. "I don't need the paramedics. I'm all right." Blair kept his voice low and controlled, knowing that hysterics would not help his case.
"You passed out, Sandburg. Let them check you over."
Blair reached up and squeezed Jim's shoulder, both to comfort his friend and to anchor himself as he pulled to stand up.
"No. I just want to go home."
Persistence warred with acquiescence and lost. Blair looked bewildered, confused, but he didn't look as if he was in pain, so Jim gave in to his friend's request and waved off the paramedics as they entered the room. He indicated Mark with a glance, and even though they knew there was nothing to be done, the two men knelt next to the prone form to perform their duties.
Slipping an arm around Blair's shoulders, Jim firmly turned the shaken young man away from the grisly scene and led him out of the room. After making arrangements with his Captain, he steered Blair toward the truck. The trip to the loft was quiet; Blair was obviously not ready to talk, and Jim felt as if any conversation he started would fall flat, anyway. He knew his friend was busy processing the event, and he'd talk about it when he was ready.
Entering the loft, Blair headed straight for the bathroom. Jim heard the shower start, and went to the kitchen to put on a kettle of water to boil. Normally, his taste called for coffee, but after today's events, he knew Blair needed something a little more soothing, so he reached for the packet of chamomile tea. As he waited for the water to heat, his thoughts unintentionally turned back to the afternoon's events, and the fear that had shot through him with almost paralyzing strength when the gunshot had exploded in Blair's classroom. He had been positioned at the door, focusing on the young anthropologist's voice. Too shocked after the gunfire to concentrate his hearing and search for a heartbeat, he had rushed into the room, heedless of the consequences. Not a very professional act, but where his Guide was concerned, the Sentinel tended to follow his own rules.
The sound of the bathroom door opening distracted Jim from his thoughts. Blair emerged, a towel wrapped around his waist. Without a word, he went into his bedroom and shut the door.
After pouring the hot water into the mugs, he put the packets of tea in and waited for it to steep. When he judged the water to be dark enough, he removed the bags and took the cups to the couch. He waited, and sighed with relief as his usually unpredictable roommate finally came out of his room dressed in comfortable sweats, and sat next to him on the couch. Blair gratefully accepted the offered steaming mug, and took a cautious sip.
"How are you feeling?" Jim asked, keeping his eyes forward, a sixth sense telling him Blair would be uncomfortable trapped under his gaze at the moment.
"Numb," Blair took another sip of the tea, then placed the mug on the table before them. Letting his head fall back to rest on the couch, he mumbled, "I'm really tired."
"Then go to bed, Sandburg. We can talk about this in the morning." He paused, then decided to go on with what he was thinking. "You realize you'll have to go into the station tomorrow and give your statement."
Blair closed his eyes. "Uh-huh." He didn't even move enough to nod his head. Exhaustion had reached out and claimed him, and he wanted nothing more than to surrender. "Uh, Jim?" He opened his eyes and raised his head to look at his friend.
Jim turned to him, eyes opened a little wider than normal, eyebrows raised; all features geared to look as if he were eagerly awaiting a question, ready to provide an answer. Blair couldn't help it as the corners of his mouth turned up in a pleased grin. Sometimes Jim, the detective, became impatient with Blair, the observer, but, as a Sentinel, Jim was always willing to help his Guide. The transition from friend, to detective, to Sentinel was usually too concinnous to notice, but occasionally the difference between Jim's attitude as a detective, and his attention as a Sentinel was enlightening.
Blair pushed his Sentinel/Guide thoughts aside. "You mind if I crash on the couch for awhile? I think I might be more comfortable out here."
Realizing Blair didn't want to be alone, Jim relented immediately. "Okay with me, kid. I'm just gonna straighten up the kitchen, then I thought I'd watch a little TV. Think you can sleep through that?"
"Sure," Blair agreed.
Jim stood up and reached for Blair's empty mug. He took the two cups into the kitchen while half listening to the rustling sounds coming from the couch as Blair pulled the afghan over himself and settled down to sleep.
The comfortably familiar sounds of Jim working in the kitchen provided a soothing lullaby, and Blair found himself sinking into sleep's dark arms almost as soon as he closed his eyes.
Keeping half his attention on his roommate, Jim finished in the kitchen and picked up the phone to call Simon. Tucking the phone between his shoulder and chin, he crossed his arms and leaned back against the counter, waiting for his captain to answer.
"Banks," Simon's customary bark vibrated in the earpiece, but Jim had anticipated the growl and compensated.
"Ellison here, Captain."
"Jim, how's Sandburg?"
He smiled at the concern that changed his captain's voice. "He's dealing with it, Simon. Do you have any background on the kid who killed himself?"
The Captain's sigh hissed over the phone. "Yeah. Mark Pittman, age 22. His girlfriend, Holly Claypool, was also a student at Rainier."
" 'Was', sir?"
"Last month, Miss Claypool found out she was pregnant. According to her roommate, Holly's parents are very conservative. They were so disappointed in their daughter, they pulled all their financial support, and wanted nothing to do with Holly or the baby."
"Sounds like her parents are pretty unforgiving."
"Apparently Holly thought so, too. She committed suicide three days ago -- overdosed on her roommate's sleeping pills."
Jim grimaced in sorrow. "Her death must have pushed Pittman over the edge, made him freak out like he did."
"That's not all, Jim. During the autopsy, the M.E. discovered that Holly had miscarried that morning. She never told anyone she'd lost the baby. A few of Holly's friends we questioned told us Holly's parents caused a huge scene at the funeral. They blamed Pittman for their daughter's death. Practically called him a murderer."
"The kid's been carrying the guilt around for three days. He just happened to be in Blair's class when it all came apart for him," Jim speculated.
"Sandburg has a really strange sense of timing." Jim could practically hear Simon's grimace over the phone.
"I hear ya, Simon," Jim agreed. On the very edge of his awareness, he heard a change in Blair's breathing. Automatically, the Sentinel focused his hearing, allowing the sense to pull into a pinpoint, converging and aiming for his Guide's heartbeat. The thump that had been so regular, barely noticeable as a background rhythm in the middle of all the other soft sounds in the loft, squeezed in on itself and started a frantic staccato beat.
Quickly finishing his conversation with Simon, Jim put the phone down and went to Blair. He sat quietly on the opposite couch, monitoring his sleeping roommate. Although the young man's heartbeat and breathing were harsher, Blair lay relaxed, his body molded to the couch. Jim waited, hoping that whatever dream had hold of Blair would let go and allow the weary teacher a peaceful sleep.
Blair was back in the classroom. He looked around in confusion, searching his memory for how he had returned. A figure standing amid the desks captured his attention, and all former thoughts fled as he recognized Mark. Blair's eyebrows tried to meet in a frown, and his lips parted soundlessly in question. He moved toward the student, more a turn that a step, then froze when he saw the gun, held limply in Mark's hand by his side.
"Why didn't you try and stop me?"
The voice jerked Blair's attention from the gun to the younger man's face. He reached up in irritation to tuck an errant curl behind his ear, using the gesture as a screen to hide the panic he felt.
Without preamble or warning, Mark purposefully brought the gun up to his temple.
The suddenness of the act made fear and dread bloom in Blair. He brought both hands up in front of him in a pleading gesture, and reinforced the entreaty with his voice. "Mark, please, don't." Emotion choked him off, and Blair swallowed desperately, impatient with himself. "Don't . . . please . . . " He realized with growing panic that no words of wisdom were coming to his rescue. He impressed students, colleagues, Jim's co-workers, and even the stranger on the street with his amazing wellspring of both trivial and sometimes relevant information. So why couldn't he think of one positive thing to tell Mark to convince him that suicide was not the answer? His brain had fled, leaving him speechless.
"I came to you for help, Mr. Sandburg. But all you did was watch me die. Why?"
"I . . . ," Blair ground his teeth in frustration, and felt his chest tighten as he fought down the desperation filling his heart.
"You could have helped me, Mr. Sandburg."
As if he had sentinel vision, Blair watched the tendons in Mark's index finger tighten as the appendage bent, preparing to pull the trigger. Suddenly, Mark swung the gun from his temple, and pointed the weapon at Blair. The gun went off with a loud boom, shaking his entire body.
With a yell, Blair sat up. His upper arms were squeezed with bruising strength, and he opened his eyes to see his Sentinel. Face tight with concern, mouth open from shouting his Guide's name, Jim stared at him.
"Blair? You with me buddy?"
Concentrating on slowing his breathing, Blair simply nodded. He felt the pressure on his biceps ease as Jim loosened his grip, though he remained in contact. The calm string of words continued, tying Blair to the present and pulling him from the past he'd envisioned in the dream.
"Easy now, settle down."
"Nightmare." Blair spared a breath to wheeze out the obvious, then patted Jim's hand and pulled away. The pounding in his chest and at his temples from a heart that still thudded with fright was evidence enough of the bad dream without having to give voice to it, but Blair felt a need to explain his behavior. He knew his Sentinel could hear the beat of his heart as if it were a telegraphed message for help. He caught himself reaching up to feel of his chest, even though he knew there would be no gaping wound exposing his heart. The nightmare had felt so real.
"Blair?" The soft query from the other end of the couch brought his head up and dispelled the heavy shadow of the dream that still clouded his mind. He looked into the blue eyes of his friend.
"I'm all right. Thanks, Jim." But he knew he wasn't. Now that his breathing was returning to normal, and his heartbeat had slowed to its normal rhythm, he hoped Jim believed the little white lie. Wishing he had the nerve to look at his roommate and check his progress, Blair was surprised when Jim pushed himself up from the couch.
"How 'bout some more tea, Chief? I know I could use some." The older man busied himself in the kitchen, making more noise than was necessary.
Blair looked down at his clasped hands nestled in his lap and felt the gentle smile that willingly came to his face. He appreciated the time Jim was giving him; time to shake off the fear of the dream and anchor himself in the warm depth of friendship that flowed around him. Blair sometimes forgot the concern and tenderness hidden inside his friend until a situation arose that pulled the stoic mask from Jim's face.
A few minutes later, Jim returned to the couch and handed Blair a cup of tea. The two men sat in comfortable silence, sipping the dark blend. Then Jim cleared his throat.
"I talked to Simon while you were asleep."
Blair looked up, unsure of where Jim was heading. "Yeah? What'd he say?"
"He gave me some background information on Mark."
As if the name was a signal, Blair flinched. He leaned over and put his cup on the table in front of him, his need for the soothing beverage gone.
"Did you know Mark's girlfriend, Holly Claypool?"
Blair shook his head, unable to look at his roommate. The low, gentle tone his friend used was somehow making him feel worse instead of better. For some reason, he wanted to be yelled at.
"Holly was pregnant, Blair."
Letting the words pound against his head like strikes from a hammer, the guilt ridden young man almost missed it. His head came up, then twisted to look at Jim. " 'Was'? She's not pregnant anymore?"
"No. She lost the baby three days ago, then committed suicide." The words fell like rocks from Jim's lips and crumbled into accusations around Blair's feet. There was nothing that could put them back together, no way to fix it, and the quagmire of hopelessness pulled at Blair's soul.
"Oh god, Jim." He looked over at his Blessed Protector. Jim put down his cup and scooted closer. He placed a gentle hand on the side of Blair's neck, brushing his thumb tenderly across the soft skin of the young man's face. The sweet gesture broke through the rest of Blair's defenses and he squeezed his eyes shut against the swift pain that shot through his chest. Tears swelled out from between the lids and slid down his cheeks. A breath caught in his throat, and he pressed his lips together to keep the sob from escaping.
"Blair, it wasn't your fault." Jim moved his hand down to his loftmate's shoulder and waited for the other man to open his eyes. Blue eyes awash with tears opened wide. "There was nothing you could have done, Chief. Mark had already made up his mind before he stepped into your classroom."
"I should have said something, Jim. If only I'd known . . ."
"How could you have known?"
Blair shook his head, dropping his eyes to his lap.
"Blair, look at me." As if the weight of his guilt rested on his shoulders, Blair slowly lifted his head. "You did all you could, Chief. At least he died knowing someone cared. You did your best, and that's the most you can do."
"My best wasn't good enough, man." Blair sighed and leaned back against the couch, pulling away from Jim's hand. Feeling infinitely weary, he scrubbed his hands over his face, wiping away the tears. "You ever wonder if the day will come when your best isn't good enough?"
The question was quiet, unguarded, yet it evoked powerful memories in Jim. Faces of friends who's deaths he believed rested on his shoulders, simply because his best hadn't been good enough, slipped through his mind: the men who'd trusted their lives to him on their mission to Peru; Danny Choi; his partner, Jack; Brody, a rookie who wanted to impress his hero; and Incacha, a man who saved his life and his sanity. Jim shook his head, letting the weight of his present responsibility push away his past failures.
"No, Chief, that's something I don't allow myself to think about."
Curiosity came to Blair's rescue and pushed away some of the guilt. He looked up at Jim, automatically tilting his head with inquisitiveness. "Why?"
The Sentinel fought against the urge to stand up and pace. Thoughts of this magnitude required action, but Blair needed to hear this, so he stayed put on the couch beside his friend.
"The day my best isn't good enough is the day I lose you." The confession drained him, leaving him feeling vulnerable, exposed. Bringing his feelings out in the open was always a struggle. "I can't think about that, Blair. All I can do is protect you the best way I know how, and always know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that'll be enough. The alternative is unacceptable."
For an instant, Blair was speechless. He knew the Guide was important to the Sentinel, but he hadn't let himself imagine that he was that important to Jim. The idea that someone other than his mother cared that much about him exploded in his mind. The warmth of that thought cleared away more of the cold grief and guilt.
"Not gonna happen, man."
Jim looked up, confused. "What?"
"Your best will always be good enough, Jim. Didn't I ever tell you the Legend of the Sentinel?" Jim shook his head, and Blair took that as encouragement to continue. "See, Burton had this theory that a sentinel gets his abilities, or power, if you will, from the positive forces of the universe."
"Whoa, Chief. You're starting to sound like Obi-Wan here."
Blair glared at Jim and continued as if he hadn't been interrupted. "Good always wins in the end, Jim. Look at history, even though some battles are lost, and many times it looks like evil will conquer, something always happens to turn the tide. This applies in wars, cosmic justice, and even religions. Many beliefs are based on this fact, both pagan and Christian."
"Okay, Ghandi, so what does this have to do with sentinels?"
"Everything! Burton had a theory that even when all seemed lost, the sentinel would always win. All the forces of the universe would bind together and come to his defense. Whether that meant causing a great wind to come up to prevent his fall from a cliff, or lightening from heaven striking down his enemy. Ya see, most people would call it coincidence, but Burton didn't believe in coincidence, he believed in good being more powerful that evil, and therefore, always winning."
"Well, Burton believed in a lot of things that don't make sense, Junior. While I'd like to believe that good will always win, it just doesn't always happen that way."
Blair sighed and stood up. "Yeah, I hear ya, man." He reached down to pick up the two cups and walked into the kitchen. "Actually, I made it all up." He turned from the sink to watch Jim's reaction to his confession.
Smiling, Jim stood to face Blair. "I never woulda guessed it. But why the obfuscation, Chief?"
Blair spread his hands and hunched his shoulders in a shrug. "I don't know. I guess I did it because I couldn't bear to think of you wondering if your best will one day not be good enough." He walked over to the Sentinel and stood in front of him. "Your best will always be good enough for me, Jim."
Jim reached out to squeeze Blair's shoulder. "Thanks, Chief."
Blair smiled, then, before his head could convince him otherwise, he slid his arms around his friend and pulled him into a hug. He felt Jim hesitate, then big arms encircled his torso, and warmth spread throughout his body as the larger man returned the hug.
After a moment, the two men separated, each giving the other a pat on the back. Blair went to his bedroom and he heard Jim's soft footsteps going up the stairs. He knew the demons from the day's events weren't totally gone, but knowing his Sentinel was close by, doing his best to protect him from harm, kept the demons silent, and would allow him to sleep tonight.