The Last Experiment
Summary: It's Dissertation Eve, and all through the loft... Warnings: A/U (one alternative to TSbyBS); liberal use of the f-word and other assorted profanities. Rated strong PG for language.
Notes: My first Sentinel fic. Heartfelt thanks to Tipton, a/k/a Babs the Beta Trout, and merci beaucoup to my patron goddesses: MJ, Muse of Literature, and Vicky, Muse of Art.
Acknowledgements to two favorite pro authors: Stephen White for the eclipse metaphor, and Homer Hickam, Jr., for his definition of a hero. Also the poet Rumi for the heartbeat/drumsound imagery. Oh, and George Carlin, for the moose balls. :D
Feedback (including constructive criticism) is humbly begged for. Feedback feedback guaranteed.
Disclaimer: The characters are only mine in my personal Alternate Universe.
"When the wolf shows up, it is time to breathe new life into your life rituals. Find a new path, take a new journey, take control of your life. You are the governor of your life. You create it and direct it. Do so with harmony and discipline, and then you will know the true spirit of freedom." - Ted Andrews, Animal Speak
"HOLD THE ELEVATOR, DAMMIT!!!"
Jim Ellison stabbed at the "door open" button, allowing Lt. Jerome Jackson to squeeze past him into the crowded car. Jackson, cell phone to his ear, smacked the paneled door in frustration. "OK, honey. OK. Don't worry, I'm coming. Yes...NOW!" He punched the off key, and met Jim's inquiring gaze. "That was Trixie. She's having the baby a week early. Dammit."
Jim summoned up a smile for the agitated detective. "Congratulations, man. I'm sure everything will be OK. One week isn't too early."
"Yes, it is." Jackson extracted an envelope from his jacket pocket, and after a brief hesitation, extended it to Jim.
"Here, Ellison," he said with resignation. "Two center court tickets for tonight's game. "Three rows back," he added, voice catching as though he was the one having contractions. "All yours, courtesy of Jerry Jackson, Jr."
Jim looked from the envelope to the expectant father. "Thanks, but I can't make it."
Jackson stared at him in disbelief.
"My partner's having a dissertation," said Jim.
The Jags/Lakers game was set for an early tip-off, making the rush hour traffic even worse than usual. It was to be the first time the two teams had met since Coach Brianski left Cascade for Los Angeles. Brianski had joked at the press conference that LA was both warmer and safer. Jim just hoped the coach never had to put a semi-automatic in the hands of Dennis Rodman.
A car festooned with Lakers pennants suddenly veered across his lane to avoid missing the exit for the Coliseum. Jim swerved, cursed and laid on the horn.
Damn tourists...drive like maniacs...rent fucking cars...
He forced down his anger with difficulty, aware that the voice of reason was not his own.
Six months ago, an acquaintance at Alamo Rentals had asked Blair Sandburg to look at their operation to find ways to make renting a car more convenient for families - reasoning that, as a trained observer, an anthropologist could do the job just as well as an expensive market research firm. Blair had spent several weeks out at the airport, observing customers as they went through the rental process, and eventually turned in a list of recommendations that included diaper-changing stations, luggage lockers and a secure place for children to play while their parents were occupied. Jim teased Blair about his maternal instincts and grumbled about the time he didn't spend at the station - until he saw the size of Blair's paycheck. Alamo was delighted with the results and compensated Blair accordingly. Suddenly Jim had a new couch to replace the one he had not been comfortable on since Incacha's death, and Blair's Volvo was undergoing a slow transformation from a piece of junk to a classic car.
To Blair's surprise and delight, the innovative project was profiled in USA Today. Overnight, anthropology became the "hot" corporate major. At Rainier, five new sections of ANTRO 101 were added to accommodate the sudden demand. The R&D departments of every blue chip company were hot on the trail of trained observers -- and one Blair Jacob Sandburg in particular. Their answering machine was clogged with messages from hopeful recruiters. With only one Doctor of Anthropology for every 297 MBAs, Blair was not only flavor of the month, he was, as he cheerfully put it, "Cherry Garcia with whipped cream and sprinkles."
Which left only one problem. Blair did not yet have his doctorate.
Jim had a stop to make before heading home. Unaccustomed to leaving work on the dot, he did not realize the supermarket would be so crowded at that hour. Twenty minutes passed before he emerged from the Lombard Street Safeway, having gained new insight as to why formerly law-abiding citizens walked into crowded places and started shooting.
Jim realized he had no idea where he had parked the truck. Fortunately, that rarely posed a problem. Scanning the jammed lot, he spotted the familiar blue and white cab at the far end of the center aisle. Someone had anchored a flyer beneath the windshield wiper during his absence. He narrowed his eyes against the neon-pink brightness and read aloud:
"Repent, sinner. The end of the world is at hand."
Damn. Guess I shouldn't have gotten the twelve-roll package.
Jim stalked the length of the parking lot, quietly taking the Lord's name in vain all the way. Unlocking the door, he tossed his lightweight purchase onto the front seat and reached for the flyer. Spirits walking the earth? Been there. Prophetic visions? Done that. Doesn't make me fucking John the Baptist.
Blair Sandburg being offered a six-figure salary with a Fortune 500 company? Now there's indisputable proof that life as you know it is coming to an end.
The reverse side of the flyer held Sergeant Pepperoni coupons...with no expiration date.
Jim appreciated the irony, but he didn't want pizza for his last meal. Maybe he'd take Sandburg out for dinner. Get his mind off things. Get both their minds off it. Forget that the world was ending tomorrow.
Jim couldn't imagine Blair Sandburg driving off to the corporate wasteland in a rental car. And yet, he would not have believed that the quiet, driven man typing away on his dissertation night after night these past few months was the same free spirit who once refused to abandon the roller coaster for the merry-go-round.
Jim could not pinpoint the moment Blair had decided they were a lost cause. He had, to Jim's mingled relief and shame, initially rationalized his reaction to Alex Barnes as instinctive Sentinel behavior. In fact, Blair's first words following his near-fatal drowning had been to comfort and reassure Jim.
"You couldn't help yourself, man. You were operating on instinct. Marking your territory, as it were. If you start peeing on the furniture, though, I'm getting you fixed."
To Jim, the expression of understanding had sounded like an accusation.
"How can you be so forgiving? Rising from the dead give you a martyr complex?"
He'd regretted the harsh words almost immediately. Even now - even now - he was taking his self-anger out on his closest friend...and even from a hospital bed, Blair accepted and dissipated it. He did not deserve such loyalty; he had behaved no better than an animal.
He recalled Blair's cheerful demeanor in the days immediately following: his refusal to let Megan leave him behind in Cascade...his irrepressible midnight chatter in the church. He pictured Blair toasting the bride at the wedding reception they'd crashed in Sierra Verde, which had become an impromptu celebration of life for the four fugitives. And Jim was pretty sure that he and Megan had been conducting a little life-affirming ceremony of their own when he walked in on them at the hotel.
And yet Blair's exuberance had a manic edge, as though he was as easily intoxicated by the air he breathed as by champagne...and his nocturnal ramblings thinly disguised the fact that he was afraid to go to sleep...
And that was before Jim had betrayed his friend a second time with his mindless lust for Blair's would-be murderer.
"Blair...are you my Guide?"
The word had never been spoken between them before. Deeply troubled by Blair's sudden preoccupation, desperate for reassurance that their relationship was not damaged beyond repair, Jim had blurted out the question during the flight back from Mexico. After his vision in the temple pool, Jim was certain of Blair's place in his life. But it was not for him to say...the Guide was the seeker, and only the Guide could say when the search was over.
At first, Sandburg had closed up like a clam, saying only that he wouldn't have much business writing a supposedly objective scientific paper about Jim if he was. Then he suddenly began to elaborate, rapid-fire words laced with irony: "'Yes, Doctor Saunderson, my primary subject's senses are more acute at night because his spirit animal is a black panther. I know this because I'm the Shaman of the Great City of Cascade. Now on the other hand, a pink panther signifies that you're possessed by the ghost of Peter Sellers...'"
"Stop it, Blair..."
"'People with panther totems must learn to temper their responses, lest they unintentionally wound others more deeply than they mean to.' I know that Dr. Saunderson has a serious jones for me, but I could go in there bare-ass NAKED and not get away with shit like that, Jim! I mean, who'd believe it?"
"God, Blair...you know there's a direct correlation between how much I care for a person and how badly a fuck up a relationship."
"Know it? That's chapter fourteen. You must really love me, man." Blair pushed his seat back and closed his eyes, clearly signaling that the conversation was over - looking for the first time like a man who had nearly died.
The rejection cut like a knife, slicing Jim open, laying him bare.
Though he had forfeited the right to claim, he began to accept Blair's guidance unconditionally, hoping to convey his acceptance - his need - to his Guide without words. But his efforts were apparently too little, too late: at some point following his baptism in the fountain, Blair had lost his religion. The more Jim tried, the less receptive Blair became...and the harder he worked to finish his dissertation.
He'd finally acknowledged that Blair Sandburg held the light that illuminated the mysteries of his life. But now that Jim was ready to embark on that journey, it appeared that Blair had cashed in their tickets. After three years of unconditional friendship and loyalty and love, payment was due in full.
Jim had made a deal, and received far more than his due. How could he possibly renege on his promise? How could he deny his Guide...anything?
With his free hand, Jim dug into his jacket pocket and closed his fingers around a small piece of embossed metal, clutching it so tightly that the irregular edges cut into the flesh of his palm.
It was only as he turned the corner onto Prospect that Jim realized the pounding in his head was an external phenomenon. The beat intensified the further he drove, coalescing into music. He waited impatiently for a traffic light to change, forefingers unconsciously drumming a familiar rhythm on the steering wheel. A block more, and he was humming "Black Magic Woman" through clenched teeth.
Jim thought of poor Sandburg, who was no doubt trying to study or meditate or have a nice, quiet nervous breakdown or whatever the hell it is you do the night before your dissertation defense. Maybe he would pay an official visit on whoever was treating the neighborhood to this unscheduled public concert.
Perpendicular sunbeams poured between buildings and through intersections, bisecting the shadowy canyon of the street. The light strobed across Jim's face in a parody of one of Sandburg's more elaborate tests, and suddenly his need to get home before the light faded took on all the immediacy of a hypnotic suggestion.
So Jim dialed his hearing down all the way and listened instead to his sixth sense, the one he prized above all the others, because it was not a gift.
The stores fronting the loft were still open and his usual parking space was taken. Jim pulled instead into the alley behind the loft and gingerly squeezed the truck into a narrow space between Mrs. Ashe's Harley and two Chippendale chairs.
His neighbor Harve looked up from his work and waved cheerfully. A retired refinisher lacking either garage or basement, Harve simply adapted what little available space he had - the rear of his van, where he had built a narrow tool chest on one wall and a hinged workbench on the other. The far wall held a storage box adapted from the kitchen quarters of a 19th-century sailing ship. On Cascade's infrequent sunny days he pulled out and assembled sawhorses to set his current project on.
Harve was mouthing something inaudible, and Jim realized he still had his hearing turned down. He reached for the door handle and his mental dial at the same moment...and nearly fell out of the truck, buffeted by a tsunami of sound. He clamped his hands over his ears and stared up at the loft, where the windows rattled in their panes.
It seemed that he would be paying a visit on the music lover after all.
"Blood, Sweat and Tears?" Harve guessed.
"Probably," Jim groaned. He retrieved the grocery bag from the front seat and slammed the door hard.
Harve grinned broadly as he took in Jim's purchase. "Most people bring chips or beer to parties, Ellison," he yelled over the din. "And that must be one hell of a party going on at your place."
"Sorry for the racket, Harve," Jim said. "The kid must be blowing off steam."
"I'M SORRY ABOUT THE NOISE!"
"No problem." Harve pointed to his ear. "Got plugs in. Between Old Gray and the power tools, I just leave 'em in all the time. Hey, Jimmy, tell Sandburg that I replaced the broken handle on his...whatsit...'spirit altar'. He wouldn't let me fix the other damage. Listen, he's not practicing some kind of voodoo up there, is he? I wouldn't want to be part of anything like that. It's dangerous enough living in the same building with you guys, without bringing the wrath of the Almighty down on my head."
Jim peered in the back of the back of the van, which held a battered military-issue trunk. "Spirit altar? That's just my old Army foot locker."
He saw no point in revealing that Blair had recently attended the black rites of a local coven. Afterwards, Blair had emptied the hot water tank twice trying to scrub himself clean, cooked vegan meals for a week and even accompanied Harve and Edna to synagogue the following Sabbath. Jim smiled unconsciously, remembering Sandburg's struggle to keep the borrowed yamika atop his unruly mane.
Blair had to try everything...and Jim was as awed by his partner's bravery as he was terrified by his foolishness. He no longer discouraged Blair from taking such risks, fearful of losing that vestige which remained of his friend's old persona; but he remained deeply conflicted, his fierce protectiveness for his friend at war with itself.
"Sandburg asked me for it last week. I figure...um...he wants to start packing up his stuff."
"Maybe," Harve said doubtfully. "He told me he was going to sacrifice virgins on it. Ha! 'Good luck finding one,' I says to him. You know the old saying...the day a virgin graduates from Rainier, the statue of Sacagawea will sprout wings and fly away."
"I'm sure Sandburg will do his very best to make sure that doesn't happen," Jim replied, edging away, impatient to get up to the loft.
"Ah...speaking of which, Jimmy...the kid's got a girl up there. They were out on the balcony earlier. He could be squeezing the Charmin, too, if you know what I mean. You might wanna knock. Not that they're likely to hear you."
Great. Just great. "Thanks for the warning. Listen, how much does he owe you?" Jim asked abruptly, pulling out his wallet.
"No, no, put that away. A little graduation present. Just think, our Blair's gonna be a doctor!"
"His mother and I are very proud," Jim said listlessly.
"Maybe the poor kid will finally have a couple of nickels to rub together. Tell him if he's feeling grateful, I'll take the usual." For once, Harve was disinclined to elaborate; and if his furtiveness sounded an alarm in Jim's mind, it was drowned out by the noise coming from his loft.
"Um...OK, thanks." Jim glanced toward the west. "You'd best be packing it up. The sun's going down."
"There's still a couple hours of daylight left, Jim. Plenty of time."
Yes. Jim looked toward the sunset with its proverbial rays of hope. Maybe this is just an eclipse, he thought. A celestial event. I'm not some clueless Neanderthal who doesn't know why it's so dark in the middle of the day. I don't have to rush out and start sacrificing virgins. I can wait it out.
He headed for the door, unaware that he was gripping the small object in his jacket pocket like a talisman.
Jim was reaching for the doorknob when he remembered Harve's warning. He dialed out the music...there...voices, like weak radio signals obscured by static...a woman's delighted laughter and Blair's voice crooning encouragement: "Oh, baby...do it...you've got all the moves, sweetheart...all of them!"
Jim hesitated until he got a vivid mental picture of himself, listening at his own door and clutching a package of toilet paper. He flung open the door, prepared to yell loud enough to be heard across a crowded club in a Vice raid. "WHAT THE...heck...is going on here...!?!", he sputtered ineffectually, expletive deleted when he spied his elderly neighbor, Mrs. Ashe, ensconced in the yellow chair, clapping her hands.
The coffee table had been moved aside and the carpet had been rolled up to create a makeshift dance floor. In the center of the room a barefoot young woman was dancing. With her abundant red hair, emerald eyes and pale skin, she looked like an escapee from the company of "Riverdance" - but there was nothing remotely schooled or precise about her movements. She twirled and skipped with the awkward grace of a child.
Blair was seated on the back of the new couch like a pasha on his throne, hair loose and earrings flashing, smiling benevolently at his odd harem. Jim stared at him with equal measures of horror and delight, transfixed by the extent of Blair's transformation. Not until that moment had he realized just how much Blair had changedŠand how very much he missed his friend's infectious exuberance.
Jim had only a split-second to take in the unlikely scene before the noise overwhelmed him. He clamped his hands over his ears, gasping in pain. The tiny noise was lost in the music, and yet Blair suddenly looked sharply towards the door. Shocked blue eyes locked with his.
Sandburg mouthed the words "Jim" and "omigod". Scrambling to cut the power to the stereo, Blair flung out his arm, overbalanced and fell backwards off the couch, knocking over the end table and its knick-knacks on his way down. The sound of his impact created little more than a discordant note in the melody.
The young woman danced on, oblivious.
Mrs. Ashe, displaying the same savvy self-preservation instinct that had enabled her to survive the bombing of Paris during WWII, beat a hasty retreat, pecking Jim on the cheek on her way out the door.
A disembodied arm snaked slowly upward from behind the couch to switch off the stereo before falling back out of sight.
The dancer did not notice anything was amiss until the music stopped. "Blair, what...oh!" She ran to the couch, knelt on the cushions and peered over the back.
"Are you OK?" all three asked simultaneously.
Having ascertained Jim's well-being, Blair began to fear for his own. He climbed to his feet and blinked uncertainly, apparently trying to decide whether it was more dangerous to walk barefoot across broken glass or break house rule #538 by climbing over the sofa. "Jim...I'm sorry, I didn't think you'd be home this soon."
"Celebrating early, Chief?" Jim advanced on his roommate, intending to lift him clear of the glass.
Blair, unsure of Jim's intentions, flopped over the back of the couch. Taking the dancer by the shoulders, he pulled her up and turned her to face Jim. "Jim, this is Trina Williams. She's a biologist."
Jim took the hand Blair's human shield oh-so-tentatively extended. "Nice to meet you," Jim murmured. "Chief, this is an apartment building, not a dance club. You're gonna go deaf."
"Pardon me?" Trina asked politely.
He glared at the woman in irritation. She stared back in wide-eyed innocence.
"No! No, Jim...!!" Blair began to make frantic gestures behind Trina's back.
"I said, you're gonna go..."
Deaf, he processed belatedly.
"You clueless dork," said Blair. With a disgusted look at Jim, Blair moved forward into Trina's line of sight. "This is my roommate, Jim Ellison. His hearing is very acute," he explained, enunciating carefully. "But his comprehension needs some work."
"God, Trina, I'm sorry. I didn't realize you were hearing-impaired. I mean, you weren't signing or anything."
"That's because I'm not very good at it," she said, looking up at him through thick, sooty lashes. "I say the most obscene things. Unintentionally, of course."
Jim almost smiled. Sometimes he felt he should write his own dissertation: "The Natural Defense Mechanisms of Rainier University Graduate Students."
"And you were dancing - "
"Blair is teaching me how to dance by feeling the vibrations of the music through the floor." She threw Blair an affectionate glance and he beamed at her in return. "I conveniently forgot to tell him that I couldn't dance before I lost my hearing."
"We had to turn the music up loud enough for Trina to feel the beat," said Blair.
"I'd book you both for creating a public disturbance," Jim said gruffly, "...but no one should ever be busted for playing Santana." He allowed the smile to surface as the pair breathed a collective sigh of relief.
"Jim's a good dancer," Blair offered. "He could give you lessons."
"Uh, well...sure. I guess," Jim agreed slowly, caught off guard, wanting his friend to himself on this last night.
"All right...! You dial it down," Blair demanded of Jim. "Trina, you dial it up!" He crossed to the stereo.
"No, Blair," Trina said, picking up on Jim's reluctance. "Not tonight. Jim only just got home, and you have a big day tomorrow. Besides, I've already mashed your foot once...how will it look if you come hobbling in on crutches to defend your dissertation?"
Blair shrugged. "Maybe they'll have more sympathy for me."
"I'm serious, Blair. First impressions and all that. What are you going to wear?"
"What's wrong with what I have on?" Blair asked innocently, picking nonchalantly at a hole in his jeans.
Trina slapped his shoulder playfully. "You can't wear a plaid flannel shirt to your dissertation defense."
"You just eliminated his entire wardrobe," Jim said.
"Um...maybe a chambray dress shirt and jacket with Dockers or my Sunday-go-to-meetin' jeans? Hold on." Blair disappeared into his room, emerging after a moment holding the shirt under his chin for Trina's inspection.
"That's great. Brings out your eyes."
"I picture something in lime-green velvet with ruffles," Jim put in. Blair cheerfully flipped him off. "You been taking sign-language lessons from Trina, Chief?" "Hair tied back, glasses firmly in place," Blair continued running down his checklist of sartorial necessities.
"Glasses," Trina said doubtfully. "Do you have to?"
"Umm, only if I want to actually see what I'm doing."
"Well, at least wear your hair loose."
"Trina...we're talking about my life's work. My hair has nothing to do with it."
"Of course not. You're absolutely right. No problem. But...isn't Doctor Saunderson on your dissertation committee?
Blair sighed. "Yes...so?"
"Just...wear it down, OK?" Her smile faded, and she suddenly looked tired and dispirited. "You still have to play the game, Blair. Play it better than they do, just like you told me." She toed on her shoes and picked up her bag. "It was nice meeting you, Jim. Rain check on the dancing?"
"Sure. At least let me drive you home," Jim offered, a strange mixture of guilt and irritation warring for possession. "Blair's car's being fixed."
"No, no...the buses are still running."
"Do you have the fare?" Trina, who was fumbling with the broken zipper of her jacket, was unaware of the question. "Trina," Blair emphasized, ducking his head to meet her downcast eyes. "Do you have the fare?"
She bristled. "Of course I have the..."
"Jim, lend her the money, will you?"
Jim automatically pulled out his wallet and contemplated its diminished contents glumly. "Will this cover it?" he asked, holding out his last five. "I, ah...had to stop at the grocery on my way home," he explained, surreptitiously pushing his forgotten purchase behind the kitchen counter with his foot.
"Please. Take it." Hell, take it all. Jim considered giving her his ATM card. Just go.
"Thanks," Trina said softly. Blair walked her to the door.
"Don't you give up, Trina. If you do that, you really will be handicapped. The world is full of people who've abandoned their hopes and dreams. Let them have the primo parking spaces and the sympathy because the poor bastards can barely get out of bed in the morning. Don't let that happen to you."
Trina gave him a crooked smile. "I hope your dream comes true tomorrow, Blair."
"It will. Guaranteed." Blair's smile was so bright that Jim had to close his eyes. If the power of that smile could be harnessed, it would light up all of Cascade.
"Remember the Alamo!" The pair of grad students saluted each other with raised fists.
"Take care, sweetie. Thanks for coming. I'll see you Saturday, OK?" Blair closed the door behind Trina softly, turned to Jim and began to sing. "I'm picking up good vi-bra-tions...she's giving me excit-a-tions..." He leered companionably, making a little motion with his fist. "So, Jim...how would you like to donate your body to science?"
"I thought I already had," Jim muttered, his attention drawn to Blair's room. Through the open doors, he glimpsed half-empty drawers, cardboard boxes and bare shelves. The clutter spilled over into the loft, where Blair's possessions occupied the countertops and dining table, not to mention a sizable chunk of the floor.
"There was a time when everything that was important to me fit into a cigar box," Blair explained cheerfully. "Amazing what a person can accumulate when they stay in one place too long."
"How is it my statue was the one thing that broke when your shit is scattered all over the place?" Jim snapped. Blair's eyes narrowed. "Now I know why you wanted the expensive toilet paper...something crawled up your ass and died."
Hell yes, he was mad. Mad because his personal hygiene was a topic of conversation. Mad because now he'd have that stupid Beach Boys song going through his head all evening. Mad that Blair was so fucking happy.
"Shouldn't you be getting out the dustpan, Crash Craddock?"
"Jim, you are anal-retentive. Literally." Blair gathered up broom and dustpan and began sweeping up the broken remains of a ceramic saxophonist. "There's a raftload of good dissertations to be had from you. Biology, medicine, psychology - a person could win the fucking Nobel Prize for that one. Think of all the unanswered questions..."
"The experiments are over, Chief." Jim straightened the rug and coffee table and checked their alignment with a critical eye.
"...like, if I were to poleax you with this broom handle, would the person who got your eyes have Sentinel vision?"
"What?" Jim asked defensively.
"I just want you to take Trina dancing, man. Not do the horizontal tango. She's had a hard time lately. She needs a life outside of academic work."
"And you're not up to it? That's got to be a first." He resented Blair's attempt to make provisions for him, when they both knew it was pointless.
"Jim, Trina and I are partnered in the Graduate Experience mentoring program. It wouldn't be ethical."
"You're her mentor?"
Blair shrugged. "Post-grad work can be tough, even without a physical handicap. There's never enough money. Not to mention the social isolation..."
"Sorry, Chief, but you're not exactly what I would call a solitary recluse."
"Not everyone is as lucky as I am."
Jim's jaw dropped. Sandburg was serious.
"I've got everything I need - well, except for a bed big enough for two people, but that's OK, I'm creative. Trina, on the other hand, will probably have to borrow a dress from the transvestite next door if you two go out."
"Oh, he's got excellent fashion sense," Blair deadpanned. "Seriously, though - it's hard to focus on your work when your fingers are so stiff with cold that you can't reach the number keys or you're so hungry that the cockroaches start to look appetizing. One of our grad students committed suicide a couple of years ago. He was despondent because his fate was in the hands of a single advisor who had a fundamental problem with the premise of his work. I don't want the same thing to happen to Trina."
"Christ, Chief." I am a selfish bastard, Jim berated himself. Get it through your head, Ellison...Planet Sandburg doesn't revolve around you. You're one of many. Blair's friendship was too valuable to hoard.
"After that, we went out on strike," Blair said.
"Your idea," Jim said with certainty.
Blair shrugged. "Conditions are better now. We're paid salaries and benefits like other university employees. There are committees to review our work. And this mentoring program. I do it because...well, there but for the grace of God, you know? God and you."
"OK, OK, Norma Rae. Don't make me break out the hip waders. I'll let Trina analyze my performance."
"I meant it, Jim. Starting tomorrow...everything begins. And you made it all possible."
Blair's affectionate gaze was deep and blue, and Jim felt as though he was drowning in it, choking on it, unable to cry for help. "Just bring the kids over to see their Uncle Jim when I'm in the old Sentinels' home," he finally managed. "And smuggle in condoms and Wonderburgers and six-packs."
There, he thought with relief. I've said it out loud. Acknowledged that Blair has his own life to live.
Blair crossed to their old Kelvinator, giving it an absent kick to start the compressor, and returned with a bottle of Corona and a bowl of salsa. "Take your medicine, Uncle Jim."
"Thanks, Chief." Chief. Somehow, he'd known from the first who was really in charge. "Why is it I always do whatever the hell it is you want me to?" Jim asked.
Blair shrugged. "Just another manifestation of the famous Sandburg Charm, in and of itself worthy of a dissertation. Don't feel bad - you held out a lot longer than anyone else."
"So what's Trina's dissertation on?" he asked aloud.
"The effect of visual signals on the mating habits of male anurans."
"Hmm. Maybe I can help her out with that."
"I think you'd seriously skew her data."
"Because I'm a Sentinel?"
"No...because you're not a frog." Blair burst out laughing. "I didn't know the Rangers had an amphibious unit, man." He rummaged through his backpack and came up with a crumpled flyer. "She'll be here next Saturday." He tossed the flyer in Jim's general direction on his way back to the kitchen.
"Earth Knack," Jim read.
"A primitive skills gathering next weekend at the U. A workshop focusing on ancestral talents. Tanning hides with animal brains. Making clay pots over a cow-dung fire - like the one that salsa is in."
Jim paused in the act of raising a salsa-laden nacho to his lips and carefully laid it back down.
"You could do a crossbow demonstration. I'll even let you shoot an apple off my head."
Jim caught his breath, the innocent words instantly calling to mind the nightmare image of Blair lying dead on the jungle floor. "You couldn't stand still long enough."
If word got out about his abilities, the crowd of onlookers would be curious to see Blair's "Sentinel". Fuck that. I may be a genetic throwback, but I don't have to perform like a circus animal.
"Well then, why don't you whomp up a bucket of the world-famous Ellison secret sauce and come help us barbecue roadkill?"
"Dear Lord. Is that even legal?"
"Yep. Looked it up at the station. Highway deaths are the surest source of meat."
Jim was startled at the idea of making plans with Blair beyond tomorrow. He felt his spirits lifting. He won't know the committee's decision right away, he thought optimistically. I've got a few more days. And he would spend them doing whatever Blair wanted...even if it was pretty weird. Hell, weird shit was his life.
Jim studied the flyer, which included a small campus map indicating the location of the gathering. In the corner was a tiny square labeled "B.S. Mem Ftn". "Chief?" he asked quietly. "What is this?"
Blair came to stand behind the sofa, looking over Jim's shoulder. "Um. It's the fountain behind Hargrove Hall...some of the students call it the 'Blair Sandburg Memorial Fountain'. There's even a plaque."
Jim's rebelling stomach gave another turn. "That's sick."
"Maybe," Blair agreed, then smiled faintly. "Flattering, though. If you want to get laid, you throw a coin and make a wish."
Jim gaped. "And the University just lets them get away with it?"
"Are you kidding? They'll be able to finish constructing the new wing of the anthropology museum with the proceeds."
"To be named 'The Sandburg Gallery', presumably," said Jim, appetite waning.
"Yes. With you stuffed and mounted in the foyer." Blair paused, taking in Jim's expression. "C'mon, Jim. An permanently erect phallic symbol perpetually spewing the stuff of life into the ether...there are worse ways to be immortalized, right?" There was an awkward silence. "Listen, Chief, why don't we go grab a bite to eat, while I still have some semblance of an appetite? My treat."
"Ah. Well. I fixed dinner earlier. It's in the fridge. Just have to heat it up." Blair shrugged. "It was something to do, you know?" he confided, betraying his first sign of nerves.
"I thought you'd have to study today or something."
"Jim, it's not like taking SATs or trying out for Jeopardy, for God's sake. You can't *study* for it," Blair replied testily.
"OK, OK...whatever works for you. We can chow down, watch the game..."
"So...you doing OK?"
"Yeah, OK, you know...still have butterflies in my stomach instead of bats."
"You'll wow 'em, Chief. Guaranteed. You're the smartest guy I've ever known. Not to mention your fascinating subject material."
"You know, my childhood heroes weren't the ones who could fly, or see through walls or do magic. My heroes won because they were smarter than the bad guys. They had more courage and they knew more about real stuff. Guys like you."
Blair laughed, embarrassed but clearly pleased. "You're not going to start singing 'The Wind Beneath My Wings', are you?"
Jim shook his head, smiling. "Nope."
"Thanks, man. Oh, ah...for the support. And for not singing," he and Jim finished simultaneously.
"So, Chief, what's for dinner? Deep dish moose balls?"
"How'd you guess? Actually, we're having pizza."
"Not Sergeant Pepperoni's?" asked Jim with alarm. Blair gave him a curious look.
"Nooo. Focaccia pizza with pears, walnuts and gorgonzola."
"Oh, great." Jim collapsed against the counter with a sigh. "I had a craving."
Blair waved dismissively in Jim's direction. "You'll love it, man. Trust me."
"A man who would put a piece of dried cow flop in his mouth?"
"Give it a rest, man. I thought it was a piece of bone. Bone sticks to the tongue. Perfectly acceptable field technique."
Blair switched on the oven and took the assembled pizza from the fridge. "I started to fix it before I realized we were out of gorgonzola. Luckily, Jean had some."
Jim sighed. Sandburg and Ashe were the only two people he knew who would consider gorgonzola a staple food item. "Can I at least have cheddar on my half?"
"Cheddar...?! That's vanilla cheese, Jim."
"At least it doesn't smell like dirty socks. Look, maybe I'll just polish off the leftover Thai, huh?"
"Y'know, it's an ironic fact of nature that some of the most toothsome, refined foods derive from molding, fermented, putrefied ingredients," Blair said conversationally as he moved around the kitchen. "A sweet, nutty chunk of gorgonzola cheese, for example. Or the fish sauce in good Thai food. I mean, who'd have believed that the yellow liquid tearing from a vat of salted, decomposing anchovies could be so tasty?"
"It's just getting more and more appetizing, Chief."
"There are brownies for dessert," Blair consoled.
"Just like mom used to make."
A sharp laugh. "Not my mom. Hers were laced with pot...not the ones she gave to me!" he added indignantly at Jim's shocked expression.
"By the way, Betty Crocker...Harve's fixed the trunk. We should probably go down and get it before we eat." Because I'm sure to be indisposed after this little feast.
"Great! I'll be able to get most of this stuff out of your way tonight."
Yeah. Great. "By the way, he said to tell you he wanted 'the usual'...?!"
"That dog! I just made him up a batch last week. Man," Blair laughed. "OK...um...you see my box of dried herbs anywhere?"
"On top of the TV."
"Thanks," Blair retrieved the box and rummaged through the contents, finally extracting a plastic zipper-lock bag. He poured the herbs into a mortar and to Jim's consternation topped it off with a generous portion of $10-a-quarter-ounce saffron from the spice rack.
Blair waved aside his objection. "You know this jar's been sitting here untouched ever since the infamous Curry Incident of '98." Taking up the pestle, Blair began pulverizing the mixture energetically.
Jim sneezed. "What is that...the appetizer?"
"Ah...ha...for Harve, maybe."
"Get serious, Sandburg. What is that stuff?"
"Two parts rose petals, two parts hibiscus flower and one part saffron."
"Homemade Viagra. An aphrodesiac, Jim," he elaborated. "Harve puts it in Edna's frozen yogurt."
"You're kidding me."
"Is it safe?" Blair laughed. "For Edna. I personally think Harve's playing with fire."
"Don't take me there, Sandburg. Stuff really works?" Jim asked doubtfully.
"Don't get any ideas. God...with your senses? No man, woman or farm animal in Cascade would be safe. And here I'd be at Ground Zero." Blair deftly funneled the powdered mixture into a jar.
"Don't you have to perform some sort of ritual over it? You know...to connect with the spirit of the plant?"
Blair looked at him thoughtfully, took a deep breath and held his hands over the herbs. "Eeenie weenie, chili beanie...the spirits are about to speak..."
"I think the eeenie weenie is the real problem, Karnac."
Blair doubled over with laughter, then high-fived Jim, who grinned with pleasure. This was his Blair. These were the moments he wanted to remember.
"Hey, can you make homemade Propeicia?"
"Ah, God." Blair collapsed against the counter in mirth-induced exhaustion. "Don't worry, man, the ladies look a lee-tle bit lower than your hairline." He shoved the pizza in the oven and smacked Jim in the middle of the chest with the back of his hand. "C'mon, let's go get the trunk."
Concluded in Part Two...