The loft phone was ringing when Jim got home, and he left the door open behind himself, stretching his legs in long strides to reach the phone before the next ring sent the call to the answering machine. Before he could give his name, the caller greeted him with a cheerful, drunken-sounding, "Yo, dude!" The voice wasn't anyone he recognized, and he snapped irritably, "I think you have the wrong number."
"No way, dude. You're Ellison, right? And this guy here on the floor would be Sandburg, then, right? So, like, this is the right number, all right." Inane laughter followed the statement.
The caller wasn't drunk, Jim realized, merely terminally stupid. "What do you want?" he demanded, his knuckles whitening on the phone clenched in his hand.
"I want my partner, dude," the whiny, grating voice answered. "You let Beezer out of the joint now, or you don't have a partner either. That's like, fair, eh?"
"You know that isn't going to happen," Jim said firmly. "Give it up now, before anyone gets hurt."
There was a repeat of the inane, nasal laugh. "Too late, man. That guy, he's like, really hard to discourage, you know?"
The plastic of the phone casing made a protesting, cracking sound under the pressure. Jim forced himself to take a deep, slow breath and loosen his grip just a little. "That won't get you what you want. Let him go now, or you'll be in more trouble." Jim's mind was racing. The call had to have been made on Blair's cell phone, it had the loft number in the speed dial and that was the only way a loser like this guy could have reached Jim at home. He spared a moment of irritation that the idiot thug had at least had the sense not to call the station, where every line was recorded and could be traced quickly.
"Like, more trouble than this?" Another snuffling chortle. "I don't think so, dude. So, like, do you want him back, or what?"
"How do I know you really have him?" Jim stalled. "Let me talk to him."
"No can do." There was a note of chagrin. "He's, like, passed out or something."
Jim heard the sound of footsteps moving across a floor, but it wasn't a normal sounding floor. There was a hollow, woody echo, but layered with a whispery crunching noise, then the abrupt transition to a different surface entirely that was much quieter. So quiet Jim could hear Blair's harsh breathing over it, and beyond that, a low whistle as if the wind were circling a poorly sealed window.
The voice was painfully loud in his ear when it spoke again. "Nope, still out." A dull thud, the sound of air driven by force from a familiar throat, and Jim's vision went red despite his best attempt to keep control.
"Do that again, and you won't have time to regret doing something this stupid," he growled.
"Look, just get Beezer out, and bring him to... uh..." The rustling of paper being pulled from a pocket. "The intersection of Highway 12 and Route 53, and leave him there, and this guy will be okay. It's that simple, man."
The line went dead, and Jim stared at it in momentary amazement. No timeline, no guarantees... "I hate dealing with amateurs," he groaned.
On the other hand, anyone that dense was going to be easy to find. He already had a starting point, and the certain knowledge his quarry would not be far away. Grabbing his coat off the hook, he pulled the loft door closed behind himself and was dialing the station as he headed down the stairs. By the time he had his truck started, Simon knew where he was going and why, and had promised to have the locals informed so they would cooperate when Jim called them for back-up.
Blair was in hell, and it smelled like horse manure. His head pounded in a dull, steady beat and his jaw and ribs ached as if they'd been kicked. His hands were numb, circulation partially cut off by the thin, coarse rope that bound his wrists behind him. He was vaguely aware of someone coming closer and lay still, then something drove into his side, and he groaned, but could not stir himself to roll away from the blow.
"Nope, still out," said the voice.
A faint buzzing sound answered it, a far-away, tinny voice that he could not make out, except he knew at once who it was. Jim, he thought, and tried to come back to consciousness.
The closer voice said something about a highway, getting a Beezer to it, and somebody being okay. It was obvious he couldn't have meant Blair, who was quite certain he was definitely NOT okay.
Blair managed to emerge from the soft darkness in his mind and found himself lying face down in a patch of dry, dusty hay, hands tied behind himself, body bruised and sore. Oh, yeah, he remembered, I got grabbed by the dumber half of Beavis and Butthead. Outside of a 7-11 of all places. Knew I should've waited and bought gas in the morning. He'd gone along with the belligerent youth in order to avoid endangering the other people in the small store, but when the guy left him alone for a second, Blair had tried to slip out of his ropes. It might have been a good idea, but he hadn't been fast enough. Mr. Butthead the Evil Surfer Dude had a build like a weight lifter and apparently liked beating people up. At least he had seemed to be enjoying himself when he worked over Blair.
Trying to ignore the ache in his ribs, Blair concentrated on checking the tightness of his bonds and working up his energy through indignation. This guy is dumber than a brick. I can get away from him before Jim ever gets here. Come on, are you gonna let yourself be held hostage for something named 'Beezer' by some guy who doesn't watch the Love Boat because it goes over his head? He'd be the laughing stock of Major Crimes. On the other hand, he didn't want to hurt any more than he already did, and the penalty for another failed escape would certainly not be pleasant.
He heard Butthead leave the barn, or stable, or whatever the hell he was being held in. Then he heard the thug's car start, and drive off. Could it be this easy? Blair thought. He opened his eyes. No sign of the man. By bending at the waist and dragging his cheek painfully across the rough wooden floor until he could lever his weight onto his knees, he was able to reach a kneeling position. Then he rocked back on his heels and nearly fell over before his back slammed against the crude planking of the stall. He straightened up by bracing himself against the wall of the horse stall, feet precariously close to sliding in the loose hay as his center of gravity shifted, until he was standing.
"I'll just check things out," he said to himself, walking clumsily to the doorway. His bound hands threw his balance off and he was still dizzy from the blows he had taken, enough to know that falling over was a real danger and getting back up would be a challenge. Outside, he saw no sign of the jerk's classic, though heavily bondo-enhanced, Mustang. Way too cool a car for that moron. Probably stole it. On the other hand, he couldn't see a dust cloud on the road leading away, either. The way the sound of the engine had reverberated around the trees, combined with his own disorientation as he had lain on the floor, he wasn't sure at all which direction the car had gone.
Blair leaned sideways against the doorjamb. If he ran for the woods, he might get lost in the trees before Butthead returned. Once out there, he could somehow get his hands free, then try to guess which direction the highway was in. Or just hide and wait for Jim to show up. It was a pretty attractive plan, aside from the "running for the woods" part. He blinked, wobbling upright, determined to give it a try anyway.
The hand that landed heavily on his shoulder scared the shit out of him.
"Where do you think you're going, dude?" said Butthead, his eyes narrowing in the piggish way that made him look even dumber, but far meaner, than he usually did.
"Uh...bathroom break?" Blair tried, and winced. Lame, Blair, very lame. He felt pretty groggy, and guessed running for the woods probably wouldn't have worked anyway.
"Yeah, right. Not." Butthead seized a handful of Blair's flannel shirt and dragged him over to a walled-off area with dusty shelves covered with old bottles and disturbing-looking metal things. "Luckily, I found something that'll come in handy." He shoved Blair onto a hard wooden bench. On the lower shelf nearby sat three tall bottles and an enormous syringe, the dust covering them marred by fresh fingerprints.
Blair went cold. "Oh, hey, wait a minute. No need for that, I'll be good. I just had to pee, you know?"
"Shut up," Butthead growled, and squinted at the labels. He dumped the stuff from two of the jars into the third, swirling the contents together in a viscous clear mix.
Oh, God, Blair thought. Who knew what the hell was in those things, and there was no way good old Butthead had checked the "sell by" dates. "Hey, there's no need for that," he said quickly. "I'm sorry, okay? Come on, you need me alive to trade for your friend, right?" Blair watched in growing horror as the man picked up the horse-sized syringe.
"Found a needle still wrapped up in its packaging," he said conversationally. "So you don't have to worry about germs, dude."
No, just about poison! Blair tried to steady his breathing. Even this guy couldn't be this stupid. He was trying to scare his captive into submission, that was all. "Come on, you don't want to do this," Blair tried. The jerk was between him and escape. No chance to run for it, not when he couldn't take a deep breath without a spike of red going through his vision. "I'll cooperate." Butthead dipped the needle in the clear liquid and pulled back the plunger. "Hey, come on, there could be air bubbles in there," Blair objected frantically. Okay, man, I'm cowed, knock off the act, okay?
Butthead shrugged, but he did tilt the syringe up and tap it, squirting out a little stream of who-knew-what. "This, like, won't hurt a bit," he said with a grin.
Blair panicked. He jumped off the bench and tried to dodge past the man, but Butthead stuck out one long leg and easily tripped him, sending him sprawling in the filthy hay. Part of him still hoped it was all a bluff to scare him, right up until the moment Butthead's knee pinned him to the ground and the needle sank into his arm.
The junction of Highway 12 and Route 53 was nothing more than two roads meeting in a slightly open area. They were both two-lane roads, and the stop sign was on Route 53. Jim pulled the truck over to the side of the road, onto the grassy shoulder, and turned off the engine.
He wasn't sure he'd find what he was looking for, but the bet had been good enough to take. If the idiot wanted the drop made here but didn't say when, he was going to be close enough to know or for his captive to walk to the hideout. It was just a matter of backtracking the intended route.
Getting out of the truck, he took in the clean, slightly damp air with a deep breath. It calmed him as little else had. His worry over Blair, and anger for what he had heard, were still there but under control. Everything was under control. He shook his head once, sharply, and concentrated on looking around.
A car had been parked on the shoulder of the other highway not long ago; he could see the deep marks where its tires had sunk into the soft turf. It had dug in heavily when it accelerated away, as if it had been floored just to see how large a divot could be created in the grass.
Jim squinted at the marks, gathering clouds overhead dulling the sunshine until the shadows changed from sharp-edged contrasts to soft, blurred patterns. With the smearing of the marks, he couldn't make out anything helpful. There was some oil where the engine would have been positioned; the car had a slow leak. He squatted down to take a closer look.
The smell was so surprisingly strong and clear it took him a moment to place it. Assailing his nose was the sweetish reek of old horse manure. Following the direction it came from, he spotted a small clump of hay stuck together with it, under a boot print where the car's door would have been. The sounds he had heard over the phone, the clumping footsteps and crunching whisper over hollow wood, suddenly made sense, and he knew he was right. But it wasn't enough to call in for back-up. Even Simon would tell him evidence this feeble wouldn't be worth calling "circumstantial."
He stood up and focused down the road in the direction the car had been pointing. Not too far down, he could make out another fresh oil spot glistening on the pavement. Maybe he was going to get lucky for a change.
Jogging back along the shoulder, he got into his truck and started it up. "You'd better be all right when I get there, Sandburg," he muttered to himself as he pulled onto the road.
Dust rose between the trees, and Lyle shook his head as he watched the disturbance approach the barn. Someone was coming, and it wasn't Beezer, who would be on foot if he was this early. That meant it had to be Ellison. Why it had to be Ellison was less important than the fact the cop had disobeyed his instructions. "What an idiot. Did he think I was, like, kidding or something?" Well, there was time to drag Ellison's little twerp partner into his car and get out before the vehicle on the access road got too close. He was going to have to get serious with Ellison, maybe send him a finger or something. Whatever. Lyle opened the door of the stall where he'd left Sandburg. He was gone.
"Ah, shit." Lyle glanced around and finally spotted the guy crouched in the deeper shadows of the corner. Guess I didn't give him enough, he thought, approaching. When Lyle was within three feet of Sandburg, the blue eyes which had been squeezed tightly shut flew open. "Come on, dude, we're leaving. Your partner decided to jack with me, so we're, like, outta here."
Sandburg let out a wild, inhuman scream and leaped up from his corner, running directly at Lyle. Lyle jerked back in reflex. "Oh, shit, he's wasted." And not a bit unconscious. This was not going well. Lyle grabbed Sandburg from behind as he passed, and suddenly found himself holding a living fury; feet and knees drove into Lyle's legs and a thrashing head with flying curly hair slammed him in the face.
"Fuck this," Lyle spit out, shoving Blair away from himself. "He can have you, man." He backed out of the stall and tried to shut the door, but Sandburg barreled into it, knocking it outward, sending Lyle sprawling to the floor. Sandburg kept going, running straight into the tack room, falling over a wooden saddle rack and bringing an entire pile of ancient leathers down on top of himself.
"I'm outta here," Lyle said, laughing. He wasn't getting his partner back, but it looked like Ellison wasn't, either. At least, not all of him. Good enough for now. He headed for the back door, chuckling. At least next time Ellison would take him more seriously.
The oil spots were easier to follow on the small dirt road, and Jim sped up a little as soon as he saw the old, decrepit barn looming ahead. It was exactly what he had been looking for, and the feeling of being totally right grew stronger.
The window of the truck was open, and over the rattling of his own vehicle's progress he heard the grinding of a starter, then the throaty rumble of an older car missing its muffler. "No, you don't," Jim muttered, and sped up, the truck skittering on the washboarded road until it took all his strength to hold on to the steering wheel. As he reached the small open area around the barn, the other car came into sight, pulling around from behind the building. For a moment he thought the guy would slow down, and he pulled the truck to a skidding halt braced across the road's entrance into the clearing. In the next second he looked back at the approaching car and realized his mistake.
The idiot was speeding up, an expression of intent on his face that let Jim know the guy really was as stupid as that. "No!" he yelled fruitlessly, but he could see the thug actually believed he could bulldoze through the obstacle and escape. There wasn't time to move his vehicle again, to draw his gun, to do anything but get out of the truck before the impact. Jim pushed open the door in frantic haste and dove out, stumbling but staying on his feet and running madly. He heard the crash behind him, felt the blast of heat as the collision sparked a massive explosion, and was flung to the ground by the force of the blast. Roiling clouds of dirty smoke rose into the air, flattening out as they met the first incoming drops of rain that had been threatening. Jim rolled onto his back and looked at the wreck. He could tell from where he was there was no point in going to haul the guy out. A terrified moment later, it occurred to him that Blair could have been in the trunk of the car, and he scrambled to his feet, staring horrified at the still burning frame. "Blair?" he whispered, low and hoarse, and took one step closer, the heat pouring off the fire baking his face dry of the rain as fast as it fell on him.
Blair had escaped the Thing, a twisted demon out of the lore of some forgotten tribe, dead-gray, covered with sores that oozed venom. He was afraid he had gotten some of the poison on himself, because his blood was burning. Then he had fallen and the snakes were all over him, and the Thing was still out there, hunting for him, but somewhere in the distance he heard a familiar sound, the rattle of a '69 Ford pickup. A car as old as he was because Jim liked that year.
How Jim had gotten the truck into the jungle, Blair didn't wonder. If Jim saw a need to do it, he found a way. The snakes ceased to frighten him, and he stood up, shaking their dry, raspy bodies from himself. You're toast now, Blair thought at the demon. The Sentinel could kick any demon's butt, he had beaten the inhumanly sick David Lash and banished the Fire People. Jim could do anything at all.
The part of Blair's mind the drugs had not entirely taken over began to worry all the same. The demon was covered with venom, and Jim was sensitive to drugs. Jim was going to need him, need his shaman beside him in this battle. Blair staggered toward the place he thought the door was located.
Wooden boards stopped him, though his face felt fresh air, damp with the threat of rain. It was not a door after all, only a gap in the wooden boards that blocked off this part of the jungle. Through it Blair could see the blue-and-white truck bouncing toward him. Then he heard the demon. A throaty roar and the a mechanical scream of tortured souls heralded the demon's appearance, still patchy gray but so much larger than before, exploding from behind the barn in a blur as lightning flashed jagged across the sky.
"Jim, look out!" Blair screamed, but was unable to do anything but watch in horror as Jim's truck stopped right in the demon's path. The two met in a cataclysm of thunder and fire.
No NO NO NO! Time slowed down, the jungle faded into dull gray and the only thing Blair saw was the inferno of demon-fire that blossomed, absurdly beautiful, engulfing the truck and Jim with it. Shaking his head violently, he staggered back away from the wall, tripping over something and sprawling on his back in the nest of snakes. Dry and dusty, they clutched at him, tangling around his arms as he thrashed among them, trying to get back up.
A moment later he went still, lying quietly among them, no longer fighting for his life. What did it matter? Jim was dead. If Blair died now, it would only be fitting, simple justice, because he had awakened the demon and lured Jim here to his death. He gazed upward, eyes full and blind.
Part of him refused to believe it, refused to accept Jim was dead. Perhaps there was something worth saving... but the grief and shock ate through the confusion of the drugs and Blair knew with utter certainty he had suffered no illusion, no hallucination. No one could survive the explosion he had seen, the burst of pure hellfire that had rolled around the familiar cool colors of Jim's truck, turning them dead and black almost instantly. But he still had to get out there. His place was at Jim's side, no matter what. If he had to walk through fire to get there, he would, because Jim would do... would have done the same for him.
He staggered to his feet, and dead snakes fell from him to thump on the dry ground. Lightning flared, showing him the way to the doorway, and Blair went numbly, the beginning of a dull ache building in his chest, an ache that would never go away.
Orange hell-light flickered from the outer door and Blair trudged toward it, drawn by the fire that had consumed Jim's brightness and put it out. "Jim," he whispered, and staggered outside into the storm. Cold rain beat on his face, and suddenly Blair was running. "Jim, oh, god, I'm sorry, Jim!" He ran, aware he would pitch into the flames if he didn't stop. He didn't care. What was there to care about without Jim?
He closed his eyes and kept on.
Jim heard the voice, and relief washed through him warmer than the blaze in front. It lasted only a few seconds, as long as it took him to realize what Blair was doing.
"No!" The burning wrecks were between them, but he could see through the flames and the sight terrified him. Breaking into a run, he dashed to the side, around the flames, trying to intercept Blair, but it was clear he wouldn't be fast enough. Drawing a deep breath, he cut it shorter, closer to the wreckage, until he was leaping through the very edge of the flames, only luck keeping his coat from catching fire. The shortcut worked, putting him close enough to Blair to stop his headlong rush into the inferno. Running full tilt, Jim smashed into him, tackling Blair and somehow keeping his feet even in the impact, knowing if they fell they would be too close to the fire to escape injury. After dragging him back away from the wreck until the heat of it no longer scorched their skin, he took him by the shoulders and demanded, "What do you think you're doing?"
To Blair it looked like Jim had come from the wreck, walking whole through the fire. But since Jim could not walk whole through fire, nor have survived that wreck, he knew what it meant. His eyes filled with tears as he looked up at Jim's face. "I'm sorry, Jim."
"For practically running into the middle of a wreck? You should be!" Jim replied sharply, but even as he replied he had a feeling that wasn't what Blair meant. "Chief?" he asked more gently, surprised to see the tears standing in Blair's eyes.
"Oh, Jim, I am so sorry," Blair said, his gaze fixed desperately on Jim's face. "I wasn't there. I woke him up. I called him up and he killed you!"
"What?" Jim asked, bewildered. Nothing Blair was saying made any sense, until he saw how widely dilated Blair's pupils were. His eyes were nearly solid black.
"He killed you," Blair said, unheeding of Jim's solid presence or the force that had pulled him away from immolating himself. "I let him do it. I killed you. I killed you, Jim." Then his knees buckled and he collapsed bonelessly.
Jim caught him halfway, too shocked at what he'd heard to do more than react instinctively. The rain was coming down harder, the initial tentative shower giving way to a determined thunderstorm. First things first. He bent his knees and slung Blair over his shoulders, then staggered toward the barn's open door. Once they were out of the rain he could call for help and assess the situation a little better.
It was a short distance, but he nearly slipped and fell before he made it, the ground going rapidly treacherous under the pounding rain. Inside, it was relatively peaceful. The rain drummed on the old roof, pattering down in a few spots where the shingles had rotted away, but there were some dry areas to sit in.
Gently he eased Blair off his shoulders, laying him on the floor and then kneeling next to him on one knee to check him over. Undoing the thin, cheap rope holding his hands behind his back was first, and it was in the process of that he found the bruised mark with the puncture site in the center of it. "Chief, what have you gotten yourself into now?" he murmured, and half-smiled at the imagined rejoinder. Blair would have said, "No, man, it's what got into me that's the problem." He could almost hear the laughter hiding under the words.
Once Blair was free and lying on his back, Jim reached into his coat pocket for his cell phone. It wasn't there. Absently, he patted the other side, expecting to find it. When it wasn't there either, a crease marred his brow, and he tried the first one again, pulling the coat over to look inside the pocket as if the phone could have gotten so lost in the pocket's depths he would need to see where to feel for it.
"What the?" It wasn't in any of his pockets. "Probably fell out when I was diving away from that maniac's demolition derby attack," he grumbled. That meant he had to go back out in the rain and search for it. He grimaced unhappily at the prospect, but stood up. "You stay out of trouble for a couple minutes," he directed Blair's unresponsive form, and jogged back quickly into the downpour.
Outside, Jim pulled his jacket over his head to protect himself from the driving rain. He scanned the path from the barn door to the wreck but found no sign of his phone. Sighing, he loped out and circled the still-smoldering lump of unnaturally joined vehicles. The smell of charred human flesh hit him as he reached the downwind side and he gagged, then quickly suppressed his sense of smell. At least that charred flesh wasn't Blair's, he thought with a wash of fierce relief. So quick, and it could have been all over. He supposed if the punk hadn't injected Blair with whatever poison he'd used, then Blair would have been with him in that bondo-covered Mustang, and would have burned to death in the wreck. Ironic. Not in the least comforting.
He saw no sign of his cell phone on the other side of the wreck, either. With a sense of foredoom, he looked into the open door of the truck. There, embedded in the smoldering remains of the seat was a melted lump of plastic that was just barely identifiable as having once been Jim's cell phone.
The loss of the phone itself was insignificant; the loss of his means to call for help for Blair was devastating. Grimacing, Jim turned and ran back for the barn. Rescue would come, but would Blair survive until it got to them? Briefly he considered leaving Blair to run for the highway on his own. The idea didn't last any longer than it took him to get back out of the rain.
When he got back the barn, Blair was no longer where Jim had left him. "Blair?" he called. "Sandburg! Where are you?" He listened for the sounds of his partner. Blair's labored, panicked breathing came in first, then the racing heartbeat. He had climbed up to the hayloft. Quickly, Jim scaled the rickety ladder. "Chief?" he said more softly. "Blair, it's me. It's Jim." He followed the sounds to the back corner of the hayloft and found his partner crouched there, arms wrapped over his head. Jim knelt in front of him. "Blair? Come on, buddy, it's me."
Still cowering in the corner, Blair looked up with frightened eyes. "What do you want from me, man?"
"I just want to help you," Jim said.
"But you're dead, you can't help me, you're dead." Blair began to rock back and forth in his corner. "You're dead, you were burned, you were ashes, but now you're alive again...."
Jim saw where the monotonous litany was going and moved to stop it. He dodged forward and grabbed Blair by the shoulders, insisting, "I'm real, Blair. I'm here. I'm not one of them. Do I feel like it? I'm here, I'm alive."
Blair shook his head sadly, even though he kept his gaze fixed carefully on Jim's face. "I saw it. Saw you die. I guess you're coming back because of unfinished business or something. I appreciate that, Jim, I really do, but I'd feel a whole lot better if you'd just go on to the other side, okay?"
Jim sighed. He could convince Blair he wasn't one of the Fire People, but convincing him Jim was alive was more than could be managed in Blair's delusional state.
Blair trembled in place, shivering, cold and miserable. "I'm sorry I got you killed. I'm sorry I woke the demon. Please, don't say that's why you're coming back now, I couldn't stand it. I couldn't handle knowing I had done that to you, not after everything you did for me."
Swallowing, Jim tried to speak, tried to say something, and nothing came from his tightened throat. Instead he just pulled Blair close and hung on to his shaking form. There was no way he could leave Blair alone in his condition, and no way the younger man was going to make the long walk through the rain to come with him in search of help on the highway. His vitals were strong, Jim would just have to hope they would stay so, because to get help he'd have to leave Blair alone with his despair and he wouldn't, he couldn't do that. "It's going to be okay, Blair," he finally managed to say, and hoped desperately he wasn't wrong.
Even though it was only mid-afternoon, the darkness of the storm and the thick coating of unidentifiable crud on the few windows made the barn's interior dark. Especially the loft, where the shadows were so thick it took a sentinel's sight to pierce them. He caught a whiff of old wool and horse sweat, and spotted the frayed corner of a horse blanket sticking out from under a fallen bale of hay. It looked like Blair had found as good a place to spend the duration as any in the barn; at least it was dry, aside from the places near the other end of the loft where the roof leaked.
Blair whimpered against him, and shivered again. Jim sighed and tightened his grasp. "You're okay, Sandburg," he said quietly. "Just hang in there." Because we don't have a choice, he reflected bitterly.
"I'm sorry," Blair murmured.
"It's okay," Jim said again, then gently tried to move Blair away from him so he could go get the blanket.
Blair clung tighter to him, something like a cry of pain escaping him. "I'm sorry!" he said again. "Please, don't go, I didn't mean it."
"Mean what?" Jim asked in confusion.
"That you should just move on. I don't want you to go." He looked up, the tears in his eyes not hiding the pain and confusion there. "If this is all that's left, I don't want to lose it too."
If Blair hadn't been so deeply affected, Jim would have sighed in exasperation and gotten up anyway. But he couldn't ignore the grief he saw, or the hopeless need in the way Blair clutched at his soaking shirt as if hanging on to a lifeline.
"I'm not leaving," he said gently, and settled back down, scooting over to where he could rest his back against the prickly mass of a hay bale. Blair came with him, still holding to his shirt, then laying his head against Jim's chest as he curled up by his side.
"Was it bad?" Blair asked very quietly.
With kind patience, Jim asked, "Was what bad?"
"Dying. In a fire that way." He shivered again, and leaned harder against Jim's side. "I can't bear to think of you in pain like that."
Jim wasn't sure how to answer. He didn't want to feed Blair's delusion and upset him further, but he knew arguing him out of it was a lost cause guaranteed to cause more upset. Finally, he answered, "No, it didn't hurt."
Blair nodded gratefully. "I am so, so sorry, Jim." Silent tears began trailing down his cheeks. "How long can you stay?"
"As long as I can," Jim replied honestly this time. "As long as you need me to."
A tiny smile caught the corners of Blair's mouth, and he looked up, searching for Jim's face in the gloom. "Guess you're going to be stuck here a long time, then."
Jim smiled down at him. "You got that right, Chief."
Blair clung to Jim's shirt while Jim glanced around, looking for a more comfortable place to spend what would probably be most of the night. A spot between the aisles formed by the hay bales looked promising; there was even a pile of loose hay they could bed down on. Jim felt his nose itch, and firmly forced down his sense of smell. A sneezing fit triggered by the dusty scent of ancient hay would only make him more unable to cope with what he still needed to do. "Chief?" he said softly. "I'm going to get up for a moment." Jim felt the tension come back to his partner's body. The fist that clenched a handful of his shirt into a wrinkled lump tightened, and Blair's breathing quickened. "I'm not going far," Jim assured him. "I'll be right here, okay? You'll see me the whole time."
Blair visibly swallowed the fear he was feeling. "Okay, Jim," he said softly.
The look on his face, however, made Jim feel like he was abandoning a puppy in the street. He felt an irrational stab of guilt and tried to hurry, admiring Blair's courage even while the waste of it in fighting a delusion exasperated him. He heaved the hay bale off the blanket he'd spotted earlier. Dusty and smelling of horse, it was nevertheless wool and therefore useful.
"You know," Blair said conversationally, watching his every move, "I never thought you'd go before me."
Not that again, Jim thought. Blair's certainty that Jim was dead was beginning to unsettle him, as if it might be true and he just hadn't realized it himself. He didn't know how to convince his partner otherwise; everything he did only seemed to make things worse. Jim could think of nothing to say, but had some vague idea that if he kept Blair talking, he could get through to him. So he asked, "Why is that?" as he dragged the blanket over by the dead end of the aisle he had chosen and began scooping loose hay over the uneven boards of the floor between the bales.
Blair wrapped his arms around his knees and shrugged. "I don't know. You always seemed so... alive. Like there was so much life in you it would never get used up."
Jim made an aggravated sound as he pulled more loose hay into his chosen refuge. "I'm not superhuman, Sandburg."
"I know you aren't. But you are. Well, not really, but yeah, you still kind of are."
That made as much sense as everything else Blair believed at the moment. Jim shook his head, and listened again to Blair's heartbeat and respiration. Still strong, still steady. The drug was messing with his mind but not with his body. Yet. He angled a couple of hay bales across the tops of the ones on either side, making a comfortable little cave. Even if it dropped below freezing, which he had an instinct it was going to do, they should be comfortable enough through the night. He draped his jacket over the scratchy hay of his makeshift bedding and held out his hand to Blair. "Come on, Chief."
Blair stared at it as if it were his last hope in the world. "I can't believe you're gone, Jim. I can't believe you died because of me. All I wanted to do was help you with your senses, and now look what I've done."
Jim swallowed against the lump of pain that rose in his throat. "You've done a lot more than help me with my senses, Chief. Now let me help you. Give me your hand." When Blair hesitated, Jim smiled and used his best weapon. "You trust me, don't you?"
Nodding, Blair reached out. Jim pulled him to his feet in one swift move, and Blair's legs gave way. Good one, Ellison, he thought, catching Blair under the arms. Blair was a dead weight, limp as a sack of grain in his embrace. "Ooof! Come on, Chief, work with me here." He dragged one of Blair's arms across his shoulder.
"I'm tired, Jim," Blair said softly. Then he closed his eyes and tried to slide to the floor.
Jim just barely kept hold of him. "Sandburg!" He listened for Blair's heartbeat and found it slower, but not slow enough to mean the worst. Not as slow as it had been in the parking garage, the sound of so many people all around them and Simon's call for an ambulance ringing in his ears but not covering the fading, stumbling sound of Blair's weak pulse. Just remembering that sent a glacial chill down through Jim's marrow. He laid Blair on the wooden floor and lightly slapped his cheek. "Blair! Blair, come on. Wake up, buddy. Stay awake here." Panic made his own heartbeat into a deafening pounding in his ears.
Blair's eyes opened. He looked up, and smiled sadly. "Sure, Jim. Whatever you want. It's the least I can do now."
Jim felt a momentary desire to shake him until his teeth rattled and some sense filtered inward. He resisted the urge, instead lifting Blair halfway and hugging him fiercely, as if by that contact he could convince him of the reality of life. "What am I going to do with you?"
"Make me clean out the fridge?" Blair asked, resigned.
Jim let out a bark of laughter as he laid Blair back down carefully, keeping a grip on his shoulders to emphasize his presence. "Blair, if you hang on and stay with me, I'll clean out the fridge for the next year, no matter what god-awful organic stuff you leave decaying in there. Is that a deal?"
But Blair looked devastated. "You won't be there. To make me clean up. God, Jim, I wish I'd never complained about your house rules!"
"Damn it, Sandburg, I'm not dead! Look at me!" He seized Blair's chin in his hand. "I'm alive, do you hear me? I'm not dead!"
Blair shook his head as well as he could in Jim's grasp. "I saw it. I know I wasn't hallucinating that. I saw the explosion and if I'm seeing you now, it must be because I can't deal with the idea of losing you."
The words caused something to twist in Jim's chest. "People die, Chief," he said, a little too harshly. "If there's one thing I've learned it's that people die, and it doesn't matter how much you care about them. You've lost other people and survived. Losing me isn't going to send you over the edge."
"I used to have nightmares," Blair said, his eyes full of pain. "After Lash almost got me. I didn't dream that he killed me. I kept dreaming he'd killed you. That you came to get me and he killed you. And it was worse, Jim, worse than any death he could have given me."
"No," Jim said, reflexively denying Blair's words. "Come on, Sandburg, we didn't even know each other that well back then." But even as he said it, he knew he was lying. The terror he'd felt coming back to the trashed loft had almost crippled him. Only his knowledge that Lash probably hadn't killed Blair yet, that he had a chance to find him in time, had kept him going. He had known Blair would do everything in his power to hang on until rescue arrived, the state of the loft had told him how much resistance Sandburg could put up when pressed. "Promise me you won't give up!" he said suddenly. "Give me your word. Promise me you'll keep fighting here."
"Is that... your last wish?" Blair's voice cracked pitifully.
"Yes!" Jim nearly shouted. "Yes, it's my last wish, damn it, now promise!"
"I... I promise," Blair said softly, his eyes growing much too bright. "I won't give up without you, Jim. I'd like to. It would be a lot easier than facing things without you. But I promise."
An iron-cold fear loosened in his chest. The promises Sandburg made, he kept. He cupped Blair's cheek in his palm, the slight burr of whisker shadow scraping his skin. "That promise holds for life, you know."
"That's cruel, Jim," Blair said angrily. "Would you promise the same thing?"
"Yes," Jim said, knowing what he was doing, knowing if Sandburg died before he did he was damning himself to a life of pain and emptiness, but willing to do it if it kept Blair alive for one minute, one second longer now.
"But you're already dead," Blair said, and shook his head. "It's too late for that, man. You're gone already."
"There's gone, and then there's gone," Jim said. "You never know."
The hope that dawned in Blair's face was achingly pure, and the swift despair that replaced it tore something out of Jim's heart. "Not fair, Jim. Not fair at all."
"Life isn't fair," Jim said, hating himself for the cold cliché. He softened, patting Blair's cheek gently before he pulled his hand away. "Don't give up on me yet. You promised, remember?"
Blair nodded sadly with resignation. "I promised."
Jim smiled. "Okay, partner. Now whaddaya say we get comfortable until you're feeling better and we can get out of here?" At Blair's apathetic nod of agreement, he crawled into the nest of hay he'd made, lying down on his jacket, and pulled Sandburg in after him. There wasn't much room between the hay bales, but that didn't particularly bother Jim. Blair evinced no inclination to let him get too far away, and he wanted to keep Sandburg close. In case his vitals dropped. In case he got scared again. In case this was the last time he ever had to spend with Blair, but that was a possibility he did not let occupy his mind for long.
Blair lay down in the narrow space, his back to the bale behind him, his arms tucked up against his chest as if he was trying to prove he could make it without holding on to Jim any longer. Taking advantage of the momentary freedom, Jim leaned back out of the cramped nest and dragged the horse blanket in after them, though he could only bring himself to drape it over their legs. Any closer and the smell would overpower even his deliberately reduced senses. When he lay back down, he found the aisle they were in was too narrow for him to do anything but lie on his side, facing Blair. The angle Blair's neck was at, his head resting on the thin layer of straw beneath them, looked hideously uncomfortable. "You're going to get a crick in your neck," he said kindly.
Blair shrugged, as well as he could with one shoulder mashed into the hard floor. "Pretty minor problem in the overall scheme of things, Jim." His saddened eyes tracked up, staring hard at Jim's face as if trying to memorize it, as if he didn't have enough memories stored to hold him for as long as he would need them.
The intensity of the stare unnerved Jim after a few seconds, and he shifted abruptly, sliding his arm out, lifting Blair's head, and pulling him close enough to lay cushioned with Jim's biceps for a pillow. "Minor problems, I can fix," he said a little defensively.
One of Blair's hands hesitantly uncurled from his own chest and stole the short distance to Jim's, re-establishing his hold on the abused shirtfront. The other followed seconds later. He pulled himself closer then, until he was pressed against Jim entirely. "Don't go," he said very quietly. "Not without me."
Sighing, Jim wrapped his free arm around Blair's shoulders and anchored him there. "I can't promise that, Blair. I never could before, and I can't now."
Blair's breath caught in a quiet sob, and he bent his neck to press his face against Jim's collarbone. "I loved you, Jim," he whispered brokenly. "You did know that, didn't you?"
His own eyes stinging, Jim held him closer. "I knew that," he said hoarsely, not at all surprised to find he really had known it for quite some time. "I always knew that." He smoothed his hand across the rippling tangle of hair, and sighed, the breath catching in his throat. "Just rest," he whispered, and held Blair a little tighter. "It will all be okay, I promise." Blair just shook his head a little, and clung more desperately to Jim, and kept making those terrible, heartbreaking sounds of grief. There was nothing Jim could do but hold him warm within the circle of his arms, and wait for it to pass. "Shhh, Blair, please, don't." The words seemed so inadequate, but Jim didn't know what to say that could lift the delusion and cure his grief. He cradled Blair closer, trying to calm him by stroking his hair gently.
After a while either it worked or Blair simply ran out of the energy to grieve any longer. He lay quietly, clinging to Jim's shirt as if he could hold him there forever by it. "We had it good, didn't we?" he asked very softly. "I mean, you always seemed okay with me being there and everything." He shivered, and Jim leaned against him, trying to cover him from the damp chill beginning to pervade the barn, not knowing what else to do. "I wanted to remember it that way, anyhow," Blair finished miserably.
"You're remembering it right, Chief," Jim sighed. "Hang on to that, and try to rest. Everything will be better in the morning."
"Promise?" Blair asked very quietly, and alarm bells rang in Jim's mind at the tone.
"Yes," he said firmly. "Blair, you made me a promise, and I'm holding you to it. But I'll make you one in return. Trust me this once, believe that I love you enough not to lie to you now or any other time, and I swear you will be okay again." He shifted back a little, trying to look down into Blair's face, but Blair only curled against him harder, refusing to give up his hold. "Do you trust me?" Jim asked him, and Blair nodded wordlessly. "Do you believe me?" he asked more quietly, then, "Blair? Do you know I love you too? You have to do this for me, I couldn't bear it if you didn't."
This time, when Blair nodded and sighed, Jim felt the relaxing of his muscles that signaled surrender, and knew he had succeeded. "Thank you," he breathed gently, folding himself further around Blair, as if he could tuck him entirely within the span of his own ribcage and hold him safe there next to his heart.
Blair fell into a light, restless sleep, his body shuddering and jerking every so often as the drugs worked their way through his system. Jim didn't let himself fall completely asleep, but he dozed lightly, his senses alert to any change in his environment. Outside the storm slowed but did not cease, rain continuing to alternately patter and pound down on the roof overhead. The wind swept around the barn, poking cold fingers in through the wide cracks in the walls but prevented from reaching them with its full touch by thick walls of hay.
Jim began to feel as though he and Blair were the only two people left alive in the world. Half-dreaming, he sensed the world outside dissolving, melting away a piece at a time until the only things left were this barn and the two souls sheltered within. All of it went, all the people he'd known and cared about, Simon, Carolyn, Steven; one by one they vanished into the void and he couldn't do a thing to stop it. His arms tightened around Blair in half-conscious protection. Not him too, not this time. If the strength of his arms wasn't enough, the strength of his love would have to be.
But the void crept closer, its cold leeching the warmth from them both. It was getting in, Jim thought, cold trickles of terror beginning to crawl through his body. It was getting in and no strength was enough to keep the freezing emptiness at bay. His own breathing grew ragged, and so did Blair's, and Jim thought his friend was just sharing his fear until Blair convulsed in his arms, crying out a weak protest before he dragged in a deep, ragged breath. Twisting and shaking, Blair threw his head back and screamed. The sound overwhelmed Jim, cutting through his head and piercing his chest with a cold steel blade of panic. "Blair!" he shouted helplessly.
Blair's eyes opened, shadowed gray in the inky darkness even Jim's sight could only see through dimly. "Jim...?" he whispered. Then his face contorted as another spasm ripped through his body. "Oh, Jim!"
"Sandburg! Hang on!" Jim tried to hold him still. Blair's heartbeat was racing, his skin growing clammy. Jim could almost feel the pain himself. Blair doubled up, curling around a core of agony that jerked all his muscles tight. There wasn't room for it, but he did anyway, and Jim sat up with him, refusing to let go. "Come on, Blair, hang in there," he begged. But even as he pleaded he could feel Blair's strength draining away, could almost feel it pass through him on its way to the emptiness outside.
Blair was lost. Lost in the pain. Lost in the betrayal. He was even more certain the Jim that held him was a figment of his own imagination, because this one had promised he would be okay, and the real Jim would never break a promise. And he was really, really far from okay right now. The pain felt like ice, ice cold enough to burn, liquid nitrogen in his bloodstream. It felt like acid, dissolving him from the inside.
"Hang on, Blair, hang on, buddy," said Jim's voice, but that only made him realize how much worse the pain in his heart was. Blair could ignore that voice, because it was nothing more than delusion. The delusion of a mind too weak to deal with the death of a man, a man who, no matter what he sometimes seemed, had only been human after all. He left me alone, Blair thought, beyond fairness in his anguish. He left me alone with this, and there's no reason to keep fighting it any more. Fighting only hurt more, and prolonged the pain. Nothing it brought him was worth the effort it took.
All men are mortal, he thought faintly, remembering the tired old example of deductive logic. Jim Ellison was a man. Therefore, Jim was mortal. Flesh and blood, he could die as easily as anyone. He had died. He always would have, it was only a matter of time and place. But the clear understanding and acceptance took too much of Blair's strength to sustain. It left him, slipping away with all his warm memories and black despair followed. He was a man too, every bit as mortal as Jim, and he had never been more aware of it. You couldn't keep your promise, Jim, he thought as another biting cold wave of the sick pain went through him. I know you wanted to. So did I. But it looks like I won't be able to, either.
Jim felt it when Blair gave up. "No!" It wasn't through his heightened senses, at least not any of the five he knew best, but something in him felt Blair's surrender the moment it happened. "Damn it, Sandburg, don't you leave me!" He tried to hang on, but what left Blair wasn't anything physical strength could keep back. Jim knew he had one chance, just one, to keep Blair from slipping away forever. Blair's body was limp, boneless, and Jim hugged it to him in helpless desperation.
"Don't leave me," he whispered, and something broke inside him. "You can't leave me, you can't do it, Blair, I...." He sucked in a breath that shuddered in his chest. "I love you. I love you, Chief, and more than that...." He closed his eyes and said the thing he found hardest to admit even to himself. "I need you," he said. "I need you, Blair." It hurt, a pain like something breaking up inside him, breaking up... or breaking free. "I need you. I can't do it alone. I always thought I could if I had to, and God, I was wrong, I was so wrong." Tears streamed down his cheeks, their tracks cold and clean. "I need you with me," he said, rocking back and forth slightly, his arms tight around Blair as if still hoping to capture his soul before it could flee. "I pretend I have the strength to let you go, I pretended to when you wanted to go to Borneo, but I was lying to myself, Chief. Because I had to. Because I couldn't keep you, not if it wasn't best for you."
The truth of that had been a weight in his heart at the time, limiting his ability to speak out. The only limit now was the time he had left before he couldn't change what was happening, and he didn't know if that point had already passed or not but he had to believe it hadn't. "I don't want you to leave me. Not because of the senses. I haven't ever told you that, have I? Even though you told me. You let me know I was more important than the research. When I lost my senses, when you said I sure wouldn't need you around without them, I wanted to tell you, but I was afraid. Do you believe that? I was scared. Scared shitless to admit I needed someone that badly when they could turn around and leave." He buried his face in the tangled, curly hair resting against his throat. "I'm admitting it now. I can't be alone anymore. I need you, I can't get along without you. It doesn't even matter if you don't want to stay forever, just don't go now, not like this. I'll beg if I have to. Please don't go. Please, Blair. Please don't go."
Jim's pleading voice broke in a sob, the first one catching deep in his chest and closing his throat so that he gasped for breath. In his arms Blair was still trembling, shivers of pain traveling through him as his life faded. With every shallow breath he died a little more, and with him, Jim's soul. The irony of it made Jim's stomach curl on itself in sick rejection. Blair had mourned the death of his best friend, but it would be Jim who left this place alone for the rest of his life. A life he had promised he wouldn't throw away, and now couldn't face.
As Blair's body shuddered, his grip began to loosen on Jim's shirt and his head lolled aside. Jim cried aloud in despair, a keening wail of unbearable grief. Of all the loss and anguish he had known in his life, nothing had ever cut so deep or made him so certain he would not survive it.
He'd keep his word - his weapon wouldn't be turned on himself, his own hand would be stayed by the promise he'd made. But as his cry caught in another sob and transmuted to a deep, terrible moan, he knew the truth and welcomed it. The job would be his road to destruction and he would take that road as hard and fast as he could. I will be with you, Blair, he vowed. Wait for me.
Agony moved through Blair and he fled deeper into the darkness, letting it chase him without caring where he went. Cold began to seep through him and he lost track of the warmth he had been holding onto, regretfully letting go.
He heard Jim's voice pleading with him, needing him, and joy colored the darkness. I'm coming, Jim, he thought. I'll be there soon. I need you too and it's really cool that I won't have to wait. I know you didn't want this so soon, but I don't mind, really. I wouldn't have been happy alone. Not after knowing you. Even the pain was fading, left behind as he slipped toward death, looking forward to the light he knew would greet him when he found Jim again, the joy of sharing the spirit of love he had always seen in Jim's kind eyes. Until he heard the sound.
It cut through his peace and took away his joy. No, he didn't want to hear that sound, it was the one thing that could hold him, pull him back, make him feel the pain again for the sake of making the sound stop. He had to make it stop, because Jim's pain was the one thing that hurt worse than his own.
He didn't quite understand, he knew Jim was waiting for him ahead, not behind, but the sound and the way it pulled at his soul could not be denied. Confused, he sank back toward the sound... and the pain. It exploded in his body. It ripped through him like a knife of ice, flaying him open to the cold, sickening tremors that still rocked through his weakened muscles, his burning flesh. But Jim was somewhere beyond.
He wouldn't, he couldn't draw back. He didn't understand, Jim was dead, Jim should be beyond pain, beyond mourning, but still Blair heard the moans of unbearable anguish and loss. He could not leave that behind him. No, never, no matter what he felt himself. A wisp of a thought flashed through his mind, of spirits trapped on Earth, pale shades left to wander lost and alone. No! he cried inside himself. No, that couldn't happen to Jim, not because of his need for Blair. Frantically, Blair clawed his way back into the pain, trying to get through it, to get to Jim. As long as Jim's spirit lived, Blair's spirit belonged with it. As long as Jim wandered, he would not wander alone.
It fought him, that clinging wall of weakness and cold death. Blair growled in the back of his throat and attacked it, feral in his need to break past. It surrounded him with smothering strength, constricting, terrible, but he threw himself at it, willing to feel it, to absorb it if he had to. With infinitely open acceptance, he took the pain into himself, put himself into the pain. And in the unbelievable agony of a single instant, he was nothing but pain: his pain, Jim's pain, the pain of the universe itself, the grief of every soul that had ever been ripped apart at the place where it joined another.
And then, he was beyond it.
Blair convulsed in his embrace, and Jim helplessly tried to pull him closer, knowing he could no more hold onto Blair's life with his hands than he could tear his own from his breast to give it to him, and still unable not to try anyway. At the hoarse cry ripped from Blair's throat by his agony, Jim groaned in anguish. "Please, Blair..." He buried his face against Blair's neck, breath coming hard as he fought the sobs rising in his chest, though another deep groan tore at his throat as he felt Blair's whole body shudder against him. Losing him, losing him before he'd even gotten him back, it was too cruel to bear. "No..." he moaned again, and held Blair as tightly as he could, until he could feel the struggle to draw breath in the rise of his ribs.
Blair shook, and gasped for air, and cried out Jim's name. Then his whole body curled slowly forward into Jim's embrace, hands twitching unevenly, gathering purpose, clutching at the front of Jim's shirt. "Jim, don't... I'm here," he whispered, voice cracking with a hoarseness that carried the echo of his earlier cries.
For answer, all Jim could do was nod, his tear-streaked skin sliding against the slight stubble under Blair's chin. Jim held his breath, waiting, unable to draw breath if he'd tried, his chest immobile as stone. He couldn't bring himself to believe this was more than the final moments of awareness before he lost Blair forever, that momentary preternatural clarity he had seen happen in combat when men were mortally wounded. He didn't want to watch it happen now, but he couldn't turn his senses away, not when every measured second was one more beat of Blair's heart, a sound and a feeling that had always been precious, but now were beyond price as they slipped away as inevitably as sand through his fingers. He was not prepared at all to hear Blair's voice repeat more strongly, "Jim...?" Hope flared despite his best effort not to succumb.
"Jim..." Blair whispered, his voice weak, but full of wonder. "Oh god, Jim, are you alive?"
Am I alive...? Jim wondered faintly. "It depends," he said hoarsely. "Are you?"
"Yeah, yeah... I think so..." Blair's body trembled once, and Jim felt terror like a dizzying crescendo in his blood, but the heartbeat against his chest quickened, grew stronger. "But Jim, you...I saw you...god, am I going nuts?" Blair pressed his hands against Jim's chest as if trying to feel the heartbeat there, then pulled his arms from between their bodies, wrapped them around Jim, and held on with a fierce, utterly desperate strength.
Jim's arms tightened convulsively, holding Blair as close as he dared. "If you're going nuts, Chief, then we're going together." That, Jim thought, was the key. The promises they both had made dissolved in the light of that realization. Feeling a sob rise in his throat, this one a cry of joy, Jim said, "No matter where we go, Blair, it has to be together."
Blair opened his mouth to protest, but the words never left his lips. Instead he laid his cheek against Jim's and let the pulses in their throats blend into one; one heart, one life, one soul.
Jim held him, and felt that resonance, his heart beating in tune with Blair's, his whole being coming into alignment with its guiding force, the life he held within his embrace. Even his breath seemed drawn through the grace of Blair's will. His chest rose against Blair's, his eyes closed as he let every shred of his own being go, knowing it would be residing beside him forever, held safe within Blair's loving heart. Jim knew peace, and when he opened his eyes and drew back just a little, he saw that same peace in Blair's eyes, and knew he carried an equally precious burden given just as freely in return. It was all he had ever needed. With infinite tenderness, Jim touched his lips to the center of Blair's forehead, the lightest, blessing touch.
Smiling back at him with utter contentment, gaze locked on his eyes, Blair nodded and agreed, "Together."
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