Sentinel Fan Fiction Page || Fanfic -- Smarm
The Memory of Angels
Two fishing poles lay propped against makeshift forked sticks, their lines and red and white bobbers floating lazily in the calm lake. The sun shone warmly, filtering through the spreading boughs of the large oak trees standing on the mossy bank.
Following their intense conversation that morning, the two men had finally decided that since they didn't know where or how to begin "passing through the elements," it would be reasonable to wait a little longer and see if Incacha would reappear or if the program would give them further clues on how to proceed. So after changing clothes, Jim took Blair out to the lake for some fishing.
Blair leaned against the wide and surprisingly comfortable trunk of the largest tree, his shoulder barely brushing the shoulder of his partner. The younger man stared at the lake, mesmerized by the sparkles dancing across the glasslike surface of the water, the occasional water bug skittering by, a dragonfly buzzing and lighting momentarily on the tip of his pole. He listened to Jim's even breathing, watching the rise and fall of his chest. Turning his head slightly and carefully so as not to wake his friend, Blair smiled fondly at the closed eyes of the sleeping man sitting beside him. He looked so peaceful -- an appropriate reflection of the warm, lazy summer day around them. A smile flickered briefly across Jim's face, prompting the anthropologist to smile more widely to himself as he watched for brief glimpses into the pleasant dream the taller man was surely having.
This Jim was without a doubt the same man Blair had befriended and grown to admire -- yet he acted differently in many ways. Since their reunion in this flawless world, Jim had treated him with the same familiar tenderness Blair had come to love and expect. If anything, his emotions had been a little more intensely and frequently expressed than usual. But now that Blair understood Jim's perception of the reality -- that he'd been killed and separated from his partner for an extended and indefinite period, his displays of affection were more than understandable, and the feelings were mutual. But the main difference that stood out to Blair was how physically relaxed Jim was. He seemed to move more slowly, take his time. Sleep more. Blair glanced at the dozing Jim again. I've never seen him take a nap in the middle of the day before, except when he was really sick at home or confined to bed in a hospital, he thought. If I didn't know better, I'd think he was conserving energy. Blair shook his head mentally, silently explaining things to his friend. This place has really changed you, Big Guy -- in ways you don't comprehend right now. I know if you really understood, you'd want me to get us out of here. I've gotta find Incacha, Jim. Blair softly touched his sleeping friend's arm, running a finger lightly down the man's corduroy sleeve.
Blair arose slowly and noiselessly, making sure Jim didn't awaken. In minutes the younger man had disappeared into the forest.
Blair made his way through the thick stands of pine trees, feeling the needles crackle softly beneath his hiking shoes. He wondered how he expected to find Incacha again in this strange new reality. Dead or not, he just knew the old shaman held the answer, or at least part of it, to why he and Jim were here, and Incacha had all but told him that they wouldn't be leaving until they fulfilled their reason for being here. But how could he find him? Call his name out? The farther Blair walked, the sillier he felt when he heard nor saw any sign of the shaman. Maybe I should go to the same place I saw him before, reasoned Blair. Maybe...
Suddenly the ground beneath him gave way, and Blair felt himself sinking -- no, being pulled -- into soft mud. It happened so fast he forgot to scream, though panic washed over him in waves as Blair felt the merciless earth sucking his feet, then his legs, in more deeply, and even more deeply into itself. He could feel nothing solid beneath his feet. Desperately he flung an arm out, trying to grasp a low-lying branch just inches away from his hands, but the leaves barely brushed his fingertips -- so near, yet too far. "Don't panic, don't panic, Sandburg," he whispered to himself out loud. Don't struggle, it'll only make you sink faster. The thoughts rushed through his mind like a wildfire fueled by the wind. Someone or something doesn't want me to get out of here -- doesn't want Jim to get out of here. The mud surrounded his chest now, squeezing it from all sides, making it hard to breathe. Blair couldn't keep his fear under control any longer, and it spread from his eyes to the rest of his body. He struggled now, arms and legs pushing vainly against the viscous, murderous quicksand.
"Jim!" He cried his friend's name hesitantly, almost guiltily at first, but then more urgently and loudly. "JIM! Somebody help, please!"
Futilely, Blair lifted his arms up as high as he could, trying to keep them above the rising liquid which laughed at him and patiently kept drawing its victim to his death. It was up to his neck now, choking him, suffocating him in an sadistically deliberate fashion. "JIMMM!" he cried again. He'll find me, save me...
It was his last thought before the mud closed over his face.
The familiar voice cut through Jim's dreams like a candle's flame in a moonless night, rousing him with its urgency. The man's eyes blinked open, adjusting to the brightness of the afternoon sun while his mind emerged from its trek through the dream world, but he didn't see the source of the voice. The lake and forest around him remained as serene as they had been when he'd fallen asleep.
Jim's arm moved beside him, to the spot where Blair had sat.
It was empty.
"Blair?" Jim murmured, rising to a standing position, scanning the lake's edge.
He heard it only once, then only faintly.
That was a couple minutes ago, thought Ellison frantically as he tore through the forest, trying to trace his friend's footsteps.
"Blair!" he called again as he ran, but there was no answer.
Then some slight movement, a hundred yards ahead, caught his eye. Easily he focused in as he continued to run forward.
In a split second his vision was there, watching as fingertips slipped below the surface, leaving no trace behind of the struggle that had passed before.
"Noooo!" Jim cried, pushing every muscle in his body to run faster, thoughts flying haphazardly through his mind, shouting at him, demanding what he would do, crying out for mercy, pleading that Blair would be okay, mourning the impending future should Blair be gone so soon after he had been restored to him.
Summoning every last bit of adrenaline, not caring that his muscles screamed out in pain, Jim sprinted the last few yards so quickly the branches of passing trees whipped in the passing vortex.
Panting heavily, he threw himself down at the edge of the expanding mud hole, pine needles sprinkled deceptively on top, where he knew the ground was still solid, the closest spot to the place he'd seen Blair disappear beneath the surface. He plunged his arm into the muck with a frantic vengeance, groping for anything -- an arm, a hand, a finger...
Realizing he couldn't reach Blair, wherever he was, Jim withdrew his arm, now coated with the deathly light brown mud, fighting the panic with every mental faculty he could summon. He struggled to keep his mind logical and focused, knowing Blair had only mere minutes, maybe seconds, before he would suffocate, not taking the time to reason whether or not it was possible to die again when you were already dead, not knowing what would happen if you could. He searched the forest around him, looking for something, anything, to hold on to, to help him.
Again, there was nothing.
He lifted his gaze to the bits of serene sky visible above through the trees. Please.
"HELLLLP!" he screamed.
The thought appeared in his mind, as if someone had whispered it. It was insane, illogical... suicidal.
Jump! It came more urgently.
Everything in him told him it was crazy, impossible, yet everything in him also knew it was the only way. At least we'll be together. I won't lose him again. I can't.
So Jim jumped, diving into the pit, not expecting to return.
The ooze dampened the groping and thrashing of Jim's arms and legs and he reached out blindly, feeling again for anything that could be his partner, but all he could feel was more mud closing around him, enveloping him in its powerful grasp with no intention of releasing him or his friend.
Blairrrr! he screamed silently, but had he opened his mouth, his words would have also been blocked by the mud.
The air in his lungs was almost gone now, and the burning feeling in his chest signaled his impending smothering.
Just as his mind fuzzed and flickered before falling into unconsciousness, he felt something...
Jim seized it with a force no natural phenomenon could break, drawing it to himself with the last bit of conscious energy he had left, just before...
... everything faded.
Shafts of sunlight broke through the breaks in the forest canopy, falling on Jim's closed eyelids. They flickered open with some effort, finally overcoming the sticky mud which attempted to seal them shut.
Jim's first thoughts were not of the fact that he was breathing and lying on firm ground, nor how he had managed to escape the fatal mud hole. His thoughts were of the hand he still clutched. Blair!
He sat up quickly, still holding his friend's hand, his heart filling with singular happiness and relief at the sound of Blair's heartbeat and breathing, still strong and steady in the chest of the mud-covered young man lying next to him.
Only then did Jim realize that the mud hole was gone, and strangely enough they were no longer in that part of the forest, as if they had been transported to another place. He thought he recognized where they were -- the berry bushes covering one section, the old tree stump previously struck by lightning. But he and Blair were on the bank of a serene pool with a waterfall cascading into it. It was as if the waterfall and pool had simply been transplanted into that part of the forest. This was never here before, he thought.
These thoughts went through his mind rapidly, for he abandoned them to attend to someone else.
A few drops of wetness dribbled on his forehead -- it was the first sensation he felt when he awoke -- trickles running down the side of his face like streams of purifying forgiveness and healing, washing away the mud with amazing ease. He coughed and gasped once, then again, hearing a familiar voice call his name softly. His closed eyes squinted shut more tightly as the water trickled over his eyelids.
A hand ran shaky fingers along his face, interrupting the streams of water pouring from another cupped hand, touch mingling seamlessly with moisture, devotion merging with the pureness of the gesture.
"Blair. You're okay." The voice came again, speaking in tones of gentleness and relief. "Wait," it said. More water trickled over his eyelids, tickling them. He suddenly realized he was lying on solid ground, no longer being suffocated by quicksand. In the background he could hear the comforting sound of water gurgling and splashing.
"Okay, now," said the voice softly.
Blair's eyelids flickered open, focusing on a person leaning over him. He knew those light blue eyes which looked at him, glistening with happiness. He knew that smile which could light up places more brightly than any sun. But the rest of the man was quite muddy brown.
Blair coughed again. "Jim?" he rasped.
"Blair!" acknowledged the taller man, impulsively scooping his younger friend's upper body into a tight embrace. "You're okay. You're gonna be okay," he murmured, rocking him back and forth, just holding him.
Blair's arms closed around his friend as well, squeezing him, communicating his many emotions through his arms and hands. "I went to find Incacha," he began. "You came. I called for you, and you came."
"Shhh. I'll always come for you," murmured Jim as their cheeks pressed together, mixing grime and tears.
"I'm sorry, Jim. I didn't know -- I didn't see," whispered Blair, still holding on to Jim.
"Shhh. I know, I know, Chief. The only thing we need to be sorry for is not staying together. Blair --"
"Promise me you'll never leave me," murmured Jim. "I lost you once, and I couldn't bear it again."
"I promise," the younger man answered softly, sealing his promise by tightening his embrace. "You promise me the same?"
"Yes," said Jim, returning the extra squeeze.
Finally, they released each other, pulling apart only enough to see each other's faces.
Blair grinned. "You need a bath, Jim."
"Not as much as you do, mud puppy," said Jim, smoothing his mud-covered hair. "C'mon. There's a pool right over here..."
Mossy rocks and overhanging tree branches and vines completed the verdant waterfall spilling from a large break in the rocks into a small pond which occupied one of the most beautiful spots in the forest. Muddy shirts and pants discarded in the shallow end of the pool to soak, the two men waded into the pleasantly warm water clad in their boxers. Jim led Blair by the hand into the deep end of the pool where the water level reached their chests. They stood underneath the natural shower cascading down upon them from several feet above their heads. The laughter of the two friends merged with the sound of the waterfall as they splashed each other like children.
Much of the mud rinsed clean from them immediately, but Blair's curly locks still retained quite a bit despite standing directly under the stream of water. Putting his hands on Blair's bare shoulders, Jim turned the younger man around so he faced away from him. Instinctively, the taller man wrapped his arms around Blair, their wet, warm, and now clean skin pressing together. After a few seconds, Jim released Blair. He proceeded to run his fingers through the younger man's hair, gently parting the curls so the water could wash away the dirt.
Blair let his eyes fall closed, absorbing the sound of the waterfall, feeling the water pour over his body in a cleansing wave. But mostly he concentrated on the special feeling of Jim rubbing his hair and scalp, imparting a gentleness no one else could. The sensation sent pleasurable tingles and shivers running through his whole body, right down to his toes. The minutes passed rapidly as Blair surrendered fully to appreciating the sensitive fingers of his friend. When his hair was finally clean, Jim gave him another hug, then turned him around. They smiled at each other, enjoying the unmarred perfection and wonderfulness of the moment.
The last remnants of dirt and grime finally gone, Jim and Blair moved out of the way of the direct path of the waterfall where the roar of the falls dimmed to a level where they could hear each other speak.
Guiding Jim with a hand on his arm toward a granite ledge at the shallow end of the pool, Blair smiled as he said, "Sit here, Jim."
The younger man reached out with both hands, placing them on Jim's shoulders. Slowly, practiced fingers began to rub tired muscles. Like so many times before, the tenseness in the taller man's body relaxed almost instantly, responding instinctively to the familiar, calming touch of his friend. The residual muscle soreness and remnants of mental stress fell away, dissolved by the trusting contact between the two friends and carried away by the water. Jim shut his eyes, smiling to himself, turning up every touch sensor in his body, completely opening his senses to Blair, savoring the moment. They passed the minutes in silence, listening to the water flow around them, simply enjoying the experience and privilege of ministering to each other's needs.
For them, time stood still.
Eventually, Blair's touch lightened and slowed, his fingertips making smooth circles as they passed superficially over Jim's neck, shoulders, and arms. The sentinel and guide focused completely on the sheer feeling of rejuvenation as fingertips made contact with bare skin. When the massage slowed to a stop, the taller man reached up with his right hand, covering Blair's hand still resting on his left shoulder.
"You were right, Blair," Jim spoke, finally breaking the silence.
"About what, Jim?" asked the younger man.
"The program. What this place is," said Jim, turning around to face his partner and motioning for Blair to sit beside him on the ledge.
Blair's forehead furrowed slightly. "What do you mean?"
"Virtual reality -- I think you were right about the virtual reality," said Jim, his eyes meeting those of his friend.
"But I thought you said --"
"I know. But this place," Jim gestured to the forest pool and waterfall, "I've been to this part of the forest before. This pool and waterfall -- and that mud hole -- they were never here. It was just trees. It's like they just... appeared. Something about you being here changed things. Your presence must have triggered something in the program."
"Whoa, Jim, wait a second," blurted Blair, suddenly recovering from hearing Jim's words. "I've been thinking, and you're the one who's right, not me. I don't know where that whole wild explanation came from -- I was overwhelmed with everything, you know? I'd never... died... before. I must have been going through some kind of traumatic denial --"
"Blair!" Jim cried, seizing his friend's arm. "All that stuff you told me about being hooked up to a virtual reality machine -- you mean you don't remember?"
The confused look on Blair's face told him everything he needed to know.
The younger man shook his head slightly. "The last thing I remember -- was being in the explosion."
"C'mon, Chief. We'd better get out of this water before we turn into raisins," Jim joked, taking Blair's hand and leading him out of the pool. His words were light, but his blue eyes betrayed the twinges of fear he felt at hearing Blair's words -- the kind of fear one feels when he realizes a fateful prophecy has just been fulfilled. They paused at the edge of the water where their clothes floated, but Jim continued to stare ahead, not noticing the late afternoon sun filtering through the trees, drying their bare skin. "Your memories -- they're gone -- just like you said it would happen," he murmured.
Blair looked up at the taller man concernedly. "What are you talking about? You mean I knew this would happen?"
"Yes," answered Jim as the two men crouched down to retrieve and wring out their clothes. "Tell me, Blair, what do you remember? Anything?"
"Well, I remember you," offered the younger man as he twisted a shirt and water dripped generously from it. "I remember being in an explosion with you... then we were here."
"What about Incacha? Do you remember seeing Incacha -- what he said to you?" pressed Jim, a pair of soaked jeans lying limp in his hands.
"He remembers, but he does not understand," said a familiar voice.
The heads of the two friends jerked up at the sound and beheld the mysterious man standing before them.
"Incacha!" exclaimed Jim, standing to his feet and helping Blair up by the hand as well.
"Please," asked Blair, "help us -- help me understand what I do not know."
"The understanding is within you," said the shaman solemnly, "but the meaning has been hidden from you. The sentinel and the shaman-guide must complete this journey through courage, not strength -- through faith, not knowledge -- through trust, not remembrance."
Jim and Blair fell silent, considering the shaman's words. Finally, Jim spoke quietly. "How -- who saved us from the mud hole?"
"Your connection was judged worthy by the earth," he said simply. "That is all you must know, sentinel."
"But how are we gonna know what to do?" asked Blair.
"You have passed through the first two elements and have been judged worthy," said Incacha. The earth has given you rebirth, that you may never forget your beginnings. The water has gifted you with power to forgive yourselves and each other that you may find peace. Now you must pass through the last two. Either receive their blessings or be consumed."
"We'll do it, but at least tell us why?" said Jim.
Incacha turned to the younger man. "Young shaman -- what is your answer?"
Blair swallowed before answering, carefully considering his words. "To teach us the importance of our bond."
"The young shaman is correct. Your power is not inherent in your gift of senses, sentinel, nor in your ability to guide, shaman. It is in your bond, your sacred connection with each other. Forget this, and you will fail. Remember this, and you will have power to do good, to conquer any obstacle, to survive against all odds, to follow your destiny.
"You must wait here tonight. The morning will bring you your next test." The shaman gestured to something behind the two men. Jim and Blair looked saw that dry, warm clothing, towels, and food had appeared on the large rocks.
When they looked back, Incacha had disappeared.
A small fire burned in the clearing, sending sparks up into the evening air, imparting a smoky flavor to the air and the food. Their meal finished, Jim and Blair sat around the fire, resting and waiting for the evening light to vanish.
The taller man looked at his friend. Shoulders hunched, Blair was staring into the fire, but his thoughts were clearly elsewhere. His heartbeat came more quickly and his breathing more deeply now -- signs of anxiety Jim had learned to recognize long ago.
"Chief," said Jim. Not surprisingly, Blair didn't respond immediately and the other man had to repeat himself. "Chief," he said again.
"Huh?" the anthropologist finally responded, looking up.
"You've been awfully quiet since Incacha left. You okay?"
"Yeah... No. I don't know!" Blair burst out, a hand moving to his forehead as he clutched it in frustration, his voice rising and his breathing accelerating. "I -- I can't remember anything, Jim! People, places -- they're all gone. What's happening to me?!?!"
Jim jumped up, moving quickly to Blair's side and sitting down against the same large boulder Blair leaned against. The younger man had obviously realized how many memories had slipped away. "Tell me what you do remember, Chief," said Jim quietly, his tone as soothing as possible.
"Nothing, man, nothing! Just the explosion, then I was here..." he trailed off. His brain felt overwhelmed by the emptiness -- a void which threatened to drive him crazy, such a stark contrast to the extraordinary amounts of knowledge he was accustomed to having.
"No, Chief. What do you remember about who you are?" Jim said gently, trying to redirect him.
"I -- I guess I remember being some kind of student, studying all the time. But then I also remember being at a police station a lot, and I don't know why! I mean, if I was a student, what would I be doing at a police station?" Blair's voice was still frustrated.
"You are a student, Blair. A graduate student in anthropology, to be exact," said Jim. "That's good. As for the police station, well -- what do you remember about me -- about us?"
Blair looked at Jim, his dark blue eyes sad, almost hopeless. "I keep thinking, man. But the only thing I know for sure is that we're good friends. I can't remember anything else -- what your job was, how we met -- nothing!"
Jim's heart melted. He hated seeing Blair so frustrated. Putting his arm around the smaller man's shoulders, Jim pulled Blair close. "Shh, Blair, it's okay. I remember, and I'll help you remember, too." He spoke in calming, low tones, and he felt Blair relax a little against him.
"Tell me?" asked the younger man quietly.
Jim gave him a squeeze. "Okay, but it's a long story. We've had so many adventures together -- grown a lot. It wasn't that way at the beginning." A smile appeared on the older man's face. "For one thing, we're a lot more than friends."
Blair's eyes widened, his voice bordering on shocked, though he didn't move away. "We are?"
Jim burst into chuckles, cuffing him lightly on the side of the head. "Not that way, silly. We have a special bond, the one Incacha was talking about. Did you know what he was talking about when he said 'sentinel' and 'guide'?"
"No," admitted Blair. "I felt like I was supposed to know, but I didn't."
Jim sighed. How do you tell someone who they are when they have a personality and character as beautiful and complex as Sandburg's? Where to start? At the beginning, I guess. "I was a detective in the Cascade, Washington police department -- Major Crimes. Before that I'd been an army ranger, covert ops. In my last mission, my men and I got shot down and stranded in the jungles of Peru. They all died except for me. It took eighteen months before I was rescued. You explained all this to me when we met -- that somehow the prolonged isolation brought back these heightened senses I'd had when I was a kid, though I didn't know it at the time."
"What kind of heightened senses are we talking about?" Blair asked, his voice returning to that of the eager, curious anthropologist.
"I have a gift -- I can see better, hear better -- all five senses. I was a sentinel, you called it..."
And so the evening light disappeared with the two men sitting by the fire, Jim telling Blair the wonderful, mysterious story of how they'd met.
It was without a doubt one of the most beautiful -- and unforgettable -- bedtime stories ever told.
"... you mean I still stuck with you, even after you threw me up against a wall!?!" said Blair incredulously, but he grinned as he spoke.
Jim laughed. "You don't know how many times I ask myself that same question, Chief."
"So what was the nasty name you called me, anyway?"
"C'mon, Jim. I have to know. For all I know, it could be crucial to my role as a guide," insisted Blair.
"I doubt that, Chief. It's not something I'm very proud of," hedged Jim.
"Please, Jim. C'mon, man. I won't be mad, I promise."
"Okay, okay. I believe my exact words were, 'you neo-hippie witch doctor punk'."
Blair's eyes widened. "Whoa!"
"Well, you did call me a caveman," Jim defended.
"Man, that bond thing Incacha was talking about must be true, otherwise how could we have gotten past that?" Blair's eyes twinkled.
Jim grinned sheepishly. "Yeah, that and the fact that you turned out to be a rather irrepressible, intrepid person -- not easily fazed by danger, nor untamed sentinels with their senses on the fritz. It was sure lucky for me, too. I was a loner, had no close friends, so it took some time for me to get used to having a partner again. But you stuck with me..."
"...what do you mean I'm a trouble magnet?" demanded Blair.
"That's just what everyone at the department calls you, Chief."
Blair's eyes brightened suddenly. "I remember something -- you always call me 'Chief' because it's the same name somebody called you when you were little, right?"
Jim smiled. "That's right, Chief. See, you remembered! At least I call you Chief when I'm not calling you Junior, Sparky, Romeo, or something else."
Both men laughed.
"Why do they call me a trouble magnet?" insisted Blair.
"Well, you just seem to get into trouble a lot. One time, you went to get some artifact appraised in this high-rise building and ended up getting stuck in an elevator -- with a bomb..."
"... after Incacha died, he passed on the way of the shaman to you. His death was a big blow to me, but you helped me through it, forced me to listen to you and listen to myself," said Jim. "I didn't make it easy for you, but you never gave up on me."
"So how did you get your senses back, Jim?" asked Blair, eager for the rest of the story.
"You helped me get them back. It was amazing, the way you showed me how to connect with the mystical world and my spirit guide. I'll never understand how you come up with these things..."
"... so that was how you helped me -- guided me, I guess -- to remember the phone conversation and solve the case about Jack. That was a hard time for me, but you were there the whole way," said Jim. "Don't know if I ever told you how much I appreciated that. Thanks, Chief."
"You're welcome, partner," said Blair, smiling at his friend.
A few moments passed in silence.
"Wait, Jim! That's it! You said it!" Blair grabbed Jim's arm, turning to face him, his eyes twinkling with excitement. "That's gotta be why you remember everything and I can't!"
"What? What?" laughed Jim as Blair shook his arm with every word, managing to bounce where he sat on the forest floor.
"The story you just told me about your old partner, how we solved the case -- you used sense memory. You must be using your sentinel abilities now -- the sense memory -- to remember everything!" said Blair excitedly.
Jim stared at his friend, amazed and wondering why he hadn't thought of that himself. "I think you're on to something, Chief. That would explain why I couldn't remember things before you came here. I couldn't do it without you here to guide me."
"That's gotta be it, Jim," Blair said. "But what I don't understand is why neither of us can remember whatever supposedly happened after the explosion and before we came here -- the virtual reality thing I was talking about yesterday."
"I honestly don't know, Chief. Don't worry, I'm sure we'll figure it out sooner or later, or one of us will remember. Maybe you will, since I never remembered it and apparently you did, for a little while," reasoned Jim.
"Why do you still believe what I said about the virtual reality -- even though you can't remember anything about it?" the younger man asked.
Jim paused, considering the question. "It was something about the way you said it -- you were so sure about it. You wouldn't accept my explanation that we'd died, you told me you were going to forget, and you begged me to trust you. I guess it just took me awhile to figure that out. Even though I don't have all the facts, I know you well enough to trust what you said. Isn't that what this whole thing is about?"
"Yeah, I guess," said Blair, smiling. "Hey, maybe we could try something now -- see if you can use sense memory to remember," suggested the anthropologist.
Jim smiled fondly at his guide. "Okay, whatever you say, Chief." Jim leaned back and closed his eyes automatically, assuming the relaxed stance Blair had taught him so often before.
Blair rested his hand on Jim's arm, rubbing it slightly. He lowered his voice to a calming tone. "Just concentrate on my voice. Relax, Jim -- that's it. Now go back to the building we were in. You hear the timer..."
... I seize Blair, hugging him to myself, knowing we're about to die...
... Serene, blue sky appears. I look around. The lake, the cabin...
Jim's eyes flew open.
"Did you see it? Anything?" asked Blair anxiously.
"No, Chief -- just the explosion, then I was here."
"Don't worry," Blair assured him confidently. "I know you -- we -- can do this. Try again..."
Minutes passed, but every time was like the last. No matter what either man did, Jim could not remember anything between the explosion and arriving in their current reality, whatever it was.
"I'm sorry, Blair," Jim said for what seemed like the hundredth time. "I just can't remember right now. Maybe we should get some sleep -- try this again tomorrow. What do you say?"
Blair didn't look up, but he couldn't hide the feelings of disappointment and guilt. "It's not your fault, Jim. It's mine."
"Blair -- what are you talking about?" asked Jim. Kindly, he reached out and tipped Blair's chin up, revealing his younger friend's sorrowful gaze.
"Jim, it's not you, man. You're doing everything right. You remember how to do everything right. But I still can't remember anything --"
"Don't worry -- you'll remember," said Jim in an attempt to reassure him, but Blair shook his head.
"But what if I don't? What if I've forgotten how to do -- how to be a shaman, a guide? What if it never comes back? I'm scared, Jim! What if you zone and I can't remember how to bring you out of it? What if --"
"Blair! Listen to me!" Jim begged, grasping the younger man with both hands, looking deeply into his eyes. "None of this is your fault. You're doing everything right, just like you always used to help me with my senses -- I remember that, I promise. And we are going to pass these tests, together, like we always do everything else. Maybe something in this program is preventing us from remembering what happened -- I don't know. The important thing is the bond, remember? As long as we're committed, we're not gonna fail. Do you trust me on that, Blair?" asked Jim, almost pleadingly.
The younger man finally nodded. Jim pulled him into a hug, Blair wrapping his arms around Jim's neck.
"I'm sorry, Jim," he murmured.
"Shh, shh, it's okay," said Jim, rocking Blair as he held him closely. "We're in this together. Now what do you say we get some sleep so we're rested up for whatever happens."
"Sounds good," agreed the anthropologist.
As the fire's last embers cooled away, the stars appeared one by one, blinking in the dark night sky, silently standing guard over the two men who lay sleeping peacefully. Side by side, Blair's back rested securely against Jim's chest, the taller man's arm and hand curling around his partner's, the eternity of their friendship echoed that of the heavens above.
Concluded in Part Three...