Hush now, don't you cry
Wipe away the teardrop from your eye
You're lying safe in bed
It was all a bad dream
Spinning in your head
Your mind tricked you to feel the pain
Of someone close to you leaving the game of life
So here it is, another chance
Wide awake you face the day
Your dream is over...or has it just begun?1
Blair leaned both forearms on the handle of the grocery cart and watched with raised eyebrows as Jim dropped a couple of cans into the wire basket. "You've got to be kidding," he said. "Do you have any idea what's in that stuff?"
"Sure do, Chief," Ellison replied with unabated good humor. "Fat, sugar, salt, all the things that make food worth eating." He strolled farther down the aisle at a leisurely pace, the squeaking of the cart's wheels trailing like an echo in his wake.
"I never have understood how you can care enough about your health to spend time working out and then turn around and eat the junk you do." Blair picked up one of the cans and an expressive grimace crossed his face as he squinted at the list of ingredients. "I'm surprised you can't feel your arteries clogging up."
"Never tried." Jim turned, walking backward, letting his awareness expand and incorporate the feeling of the air around himself to warn of any impending collisions. It was becoming easier and easier to shift the focus and intensity of his perceptions and he had begun to experiment on his own, finding an unexpected pleasure in exploring and practicing his abilities. Not that he'd admit that to Blair, of course. "You going to coach me on feeling my own cholesterol balance for your next experiment?"
"Hey, when it comes to self-abuse you are on your own." Leaning to the side, he grabbed a couple packages of spinach noodles and added them to the pile in the cart.
"Don't you get tired of beans and noodles?"
Blair feigned aloofness. "Legumes and pasta are very in, man."
With a lopsided grin, Jim nodded. "For yuppies, Chief."
"Oh yeah?" Blair's eyes sparkled with mischief. "This from a guy who drives the next best thing to a minivan."
Ellison looked mildly offended. "I didn't hear you complaining when the camping gear stayed dry last time we drove out."
Giving the cart an extra push to keep it rolling, Blair raised both hands to shoulder level in surrender. "Hey, I'm not complaining. Dry is good, beats the hell out of cold and wet. Been there, done that, spent a week in shoes that squished."
A single shiver ran down Jim's skin at the memory. He wasn't as affected as Blair by cold, but he didn't enjoy it any more than his friend did. Turning the corner at the end of the aisle, they cruised back down the next, in no hurry to complete the chore of restocking the loft's supplies.
Coming to a halt, Jim waved at the rows of shampoo bottles. "Pick a new one," he directed.
"What?" Blair tilted his head, puzzled. "I've still got most of that bottle Molly gave me. I don't need more."
Jim crossed his arms on his chest, the stubborn line of his jaw giving his face an adamant expression. "I cannot take one more day of Victoria's Secret Gardenia-Green Apple, Chief. I have no idea what possessed her to give you that stuff, but I refuse to ask the coroner's office for another bottle of their odor-neutralizing spray so you can tell her whatever you like, but it's going in the trash tonight. Period."
Blair grinned. "Jeez, Jim, all you had to do was ask."
Relaxing as Blair picked an inoffensive variety off the shelf and tossed it into the cart, Jim snorted derisively. "What part of 'it makes my nose hairs curl up and die, use the spray' did you not understand was a complaint, Sandburg?"
"If I took everything you complained about straight to heart, I'd have moved out months ago," he pointed out quietly and, though there was a faint smile on his face, an underlying candor in his tone brought Jim up short.
"Blair?" he asked a bit uncertainly, his forehead creasing slightly in worried puzzlement. "Am I really that bad?"
Reaching across and cuffing him on the arm, Blair grinned, eyes wide and full of returned humor. "If you can ask the question, there's hope for you yet."
With a tilt of his head and an answering half-smile, Ellison accepted the dig without rancor. "All I want to know is when you," he tapped the backs of his fingers against Blair's cheek before the anthropologist had time to blink at the motion, "are going to ask if it's time to vacuum the floor." Turning, he headed down the aisle. "Then I'll know there's hope for you."
"Don't hold your breath!"
They had the groceries halfway unpacked when the phone rang. Moving aside to pick it up, Jim answered, the can he was carrying at the time bouncing in his palm a couple of times in idle tosses before his hand tightened on it, knuckles going white for a moment before he set it aside with careful deliberation. Shuffling the stuff in the cupboard around so he could fit the new supplies inside, Blair glanced over at Jim as the call ended. There was a grim tightness at the corners of his eyes that hadn't been there all afternoon, and Blair felt a small pang of disappointment at the loss of their day's happy peacefulness.
"You up to a road trip, Chief?" Pulling bottles of beer two at a time out of the packaging box they came in and distributing them in the scattered free spaces left on the top shelf of the fridge, Jim continued without prompting, "A hiker was found dead up near Winton. Another guy came on the scene while some sicko was butchering the corpse, and apparently startled him into running off. They're assuming it was murder and that the guy with the knife did it, but they haven't established the cause of death for certain yet."
Blair looked down at the shrink-wrapped package of T-bone steak he was holding and grimaced, handing it quickly to Jim. "Butchering?" he asked weakly, hoping it didn't mean quite what he thought it implied. The faint trace of thin red fluid left on his hand from the fresh meat was making him suddenly queasy.
The steak went into the meat drawer with uncommon alacrity. "Yeah, as in exactly what you're thinking it means. The sheriff up there isn't equipped for this sort of thing and asked for our help. Simon wants me to go up tonight and meet with the locals, see if there's any help we can offer."
"That's like two hours or so from here, isn't it?" Blair asked, trying to remember the route past the Wenatchee mountains.
"Closer to three, since I usually get stuck behind somebody in a Winnebago for most of the trip." Jim sighed, hands on his hips as he looked up the stairs as if too tired to climb them, then shook himself slightly and headed for his room to pack. "We'd better get started now and grab some dinner on the way. Plan on two nights out, Chief."
Tossing the rest of the groceries haphazardly into the cabinets, Blair pursed his lips unhappily before consciously releasing his disappointment. All the fresh stuff they'd gotten for the next couple days would be wasted and he'd been looking forward to allowing himself the luxury of spending some time cooking a really nice meal that evening, but he knew better than to protest when duty called Detective James Ellison. Had known better for long enough, he reflected, the expression of dissatisfaction changing to a small smile, that he no longer even felt the urge to try. Opening the fridge, he pulled the steak from the meat drawer and moved it up to the freezer compartment, wedging it in next to the two others already entombed there.
The Winnebago was huge, at least a twenty-five-footer, and it wallowed along at what felt like a snail's pace. Ellison was positive he had memorized all the souvenir decals decorating its back surface, and had progressed to wondering if it would be amusing to calculate how many gallons of gas had been guzzled by the vehicle if he assumed the most efficient routing through all the national parks represented and that it got half the gas mileage of his Expedition.
"These people are seeing the real America," Blair enthused, gesturing to incorporate the big RV into his monologue on cultural models of reality. "When you move too fast, you miss all the details. You know how you always remember the dumbest irrelevant part of something when you think about it years later? Our perception of existence is based on the little things."
Jim glanced in the rear view mirror and grunted irritably as a white Stealth nearly climbed his tailpipe in anticipation of the passing lane ahead. Its stereo pumping out a vigorous bass beat that could be heard inside the Expedition even though the windows were all rolled up, the sporty car shot past them the instant the road began to widen, around the Winnebago, and vanished into the next curve. Following the Stealth closely, an older sedan blocked Jim from pulling out but couldn't muster the acceleration necessary to make the pass as decisively and barely managed to clear the long, slow-moving RV before the double yellow lines resumed at the end of the short fifty yards of double lane. The motor home heaved itself back into the single lane ahead of them again, and their view narrowed back down to the rear of the Winnebago bracketed by the thick forest on either side of the mountain road. He flicked his gaze down at the speedometer and grimly figured the reading there was one of those little things he would remember later.
"Never a cop around when you need one," Blair observed with a smile, trying to lighten Jim's slowly lowering mood. As Jim shook his head, relaxing his grip on the wheel with a rueful sigh, Sandburg pointed to indicate the long-gone speeder and continued, "Now, that guy-"
"Woman," Jim corrected absently.
"Whatever. They're not experiencing life, only a series of moments when they can't avoid it any longer."
Giving Blair half his attention, Jim kept his eyes on the distance between the Winnebago and his own front bumper. Maybe if I concentrate on the direction the road goes, I can hear if there's anyone coming and pass this guy even without being able to see ahead far enough.... But Blair's voice distracted him, keeping his focus on where he was instead of where he wanted to go.
"See, to most primitive tribes the journey is all, but most of our civilization is doing their best to ignore it. These guys in the mobile homes, they see everything, they're like our ancestors who had to walk everywhere. They experience the trip, all the details on the way, the anticipation of arrival, and then the experience of arrival. That's the only way to connect with the real America."
Probably would have gotten us killed anyway. "So you're saying it's not so much where you're going as how long it takes you to get there?"
"Not exactly, the important thing is to enjoy the journey. The moment of getting there is over so soon, you know?"
"I can relate to that," Jim agreed, nodding slightly. "Does this mean you plan to spend the rest of your life studying me and never finish your paper?"
Blair turned slightly to stare at him, a series of conflicting responses fighting for dominance in his mind. Does this mean you want me done and out of your life? Or are you asking if I'm enjoying our work together? Are you hoping it doesn't ever end? Or are you afraid of what will happen when it does? That Jim might be wondering any of those things bothered him a little, but they were understandable questions. What Blair found more disconcerting was that he was genuinely worried about what Jim might come up with as possible answers.
Regret flashed across Jim's face, and he looked briefly over to the side, meeting the confusion in Blair's eyes with something akin to helplessness. "Sorry, Sandburg, that didn't come out quite right."
The confusion clouding Blair's expression cleared and he waved one eloquent hand in a dismissive gesture, his gaze becoming intent. "What's the matter, Jim? Something you're not telling me about this case?"
"No." He sighed, then shrugged as if embarrassed, eyes still fixed on the back of the motor home in front of them. "It's nothing, really. I was just looking forward to a quiet evening at home, catching the game and maybe having something nice for dinner. Not a road trip." He rolled his shoulders, grimacing at finding he was already stiffening up. "We'll probably get stuck spending both nights in the car and never come up with anything useful on the murder."
"Or you could pick up on something in the first ten minutes that solves the whole case and the guy is arrested before the evening news. We'll be heroes, treated to a night of wild debauchery at the town's expense, and then when we get back to Cascade, Simon will give you a week off for making the department look good besides."
"It could happen," Jim agreed with a straight face.
"It's totally possible!" Blair insisted with mock seriousness.
"Not if we don't get there before the evening news is over."
"Then you're going to have to pass this putz." When Jim turned a surprised look toward him, Blair just grinned and turned a little in his seat to face Jim, becoming intent as he concentrated on his favorite challenge: pushing the limits of his sentinel's abilities. "OK, keep your attention on where you are now, anchor the part of yourself that is driving, and then visualize the path of the road. Focus your hearing far enough ahead to hear any cars coming that you can't see, but keep your awareness here...."
"You're going to get us both killed," Ellison protested without heat.
"Nah. You just need to work on your multi-tasking. You can do this, Jim."
And since Blair said he could, he did.
Winton's main street was the highway, and it widened into four lanes for a mile or so to accommodate the traffic slowed by the three lights spaced evenly along the length of the commercial district. A small, blue sign pointed the direction to the police station just off the main drag, and Jim pulled up in front of the unobtrusive single-story building, parking next to a Jeep Cherokee marked as a sheriff's vehicle. Lights were on in the station's front windows and the door was unlocked even though it was well after dark. Blair trailed behind Jim as the taller man led the way inside and presented his badge and one of his business cards to the khaki-uniformed officer they found on duty behind the counter.
"Detective Ellison, we've been expecting you. I'm Dave Cavanagh, I talked to your Captain Banks." He leaned across the counter to shake hands with Blair, adding, "You must be his partner, Mr. Sandburg. I'm glad you both could make it up here so quickly."
"No problem, we're glad to help," Jim assured him, no trace of resentment in his demeanor. Still, he was all business, glancing around the small office and assessing his surroundings with slightly extended senses. "You don't have a forensics lab in this building," he said with utter certainty. "Where is the body being kept?"
"There's a small morgue at the emergency clinic," Cavanagh replied. "How did you know it wasn't here?"
"Don't mind him, he likes to do that Sherlock Holmes thing," Blair interjected easily, ignoring the raised eyebrow Jim was giving him. "Always making these amazing-sounding pronouncements that turn out to be simple deduction...."
"There weren't enough vent stacks on the roof to account for the plumbing to a laboratory," Jim offered, when the sheriff looked at him expectantly.
Cavanagh beamed at them. "No wonder your captain spoke so highly of you." Grabbing a set of keys from their hook on a board behind himself, he lifted the swinging panel and joined them on the outer side of the counter. "We can head over there right now if you'd like."
"We'll follow you," Ellison agreed, escorting Blair back out the door with a gentle push toward the Expedition. Its dark blue bulk seemed to fade into the quiet, high-altitude night around them and the engine was still ticking, not yet half cooled from the trip. "Sherlock Holmes, Sandburg?" he asked as he started up the engine.
"Well, you couldn't tell him you hadn't smelled it, I figured you'd come up with something." When Jim shook his head with a sigh of forced patience, he protested, "Hey, I was right, wasn't I?"
"That's not the point," Jim said, sounding exasperated.
"No, wait, don't tell me what the point is. This is one of your hang-ups, not mine. I do not need the Ellison Number Twelve lecture on the sacredness of truth." He chuckled, pure admiration shining in his expression. "Vent stacks! I can't believe he bought that. Where do you come up with this stuff?"
"This conversation is not over."
The drive to the storefront clinic was so short they could easily have walked the distance instead of moving the vehicle, but neither of them commented on it to the sheriff as he opened the front door to the tiny lobby. Heading straight back past both treatment rooms, Jim asked, "Has the victim been identified?"
"Yes." Perfectly willing to delay viewing the body, Cavanagh slowed significantly. "He was a local, Jeff Armie. Just an average guy who had an average life, he didn't cause trouble and wasn't into anything weird. Nothing I've come up with on him even hints he would know somebody who would do this sort of thing."
"Sorry to hear it." Jim's voice was professionally detached, but Blair could hear the genuine sympathy in it.
Apparently the sheriff could too, and gave Ellison a quiet thanks before continuing to lead them toward the back of the building. "The whole town's kind of shocked, Jeff wasn't particularly well known or anything but the fact he was a normal guy makes everyone feel like it could just as easily have been them instead." When they reached the laboratory area, Cavanagh flipped on the light switch as he entered the room ahead of them. Overhead a bank of fluorescents buzzed into life, shedding a pitiless bluish glare over the depressing room and its awful contents.
The body was arranged on the slab with all the pieces as close to where they should be as possible, but the expert cutting had left the mass too unstable to stick together very well, and it was more than obvious what had been happening when the murderer was interrupted. Blair blanched and turned quickly away to the side, one hand over his mouth and his eyes shut as he tried to control his reaction. He'd seen some pretty badly mutilated bodies in his time with Jim and had developed some ability to control outward manifestations of the automatic empathy he'd felt so strongly at first. This was different, somehow; there was something more deeply disturbing about the calculated thoroughness of the destruction than he had expected.
Reaching out to lay a reassuring hand on Blair's back, Jim left it there, unconsciously rubbing at the suddenly tense muscles under his touch as he kept his gaze steady, deliberately surveying the damage done to the murdered person. The tiny creases at the corners of his eyes deepened, betraying his calm detachment as a carefully maintained mask. In order to preserve the room's contents as long as possible the air conditioning had been cranked all the way down, and the back of his hand felt chilled while the palm remained warm against Blair's back.
Even the sheriff looked pale and uneasy, and obviously too much in sympathy with Blair's reaction to joke about weak stomachs. "Judging by the amount of blood at the site, we think he was killed where he was found, but there weren't any signs of a struggle."
"Have you established the precise cause of death yet?" Jim asked clinically, his eyes scanning the pieces as he tried to assemble the sequence of the destruction in his mind. The victim had been a healthy young male, well-muscled, and the obscenity of what had been done to him battered at the detective's composure.
"We're assuming the obvious at this point. Doctor Williams doesn't have a lot of forensic experience so we haven't attempted a full autopsy. I wasn't sure what help it would be to determine which wound was the fatal one, even if it could be figured out now."
Jim nodded his understanding. "Right, but the lack of a struggle at the scene indicates there should have been some disabling attack first, leaving marks that wouldn't fit the pattern of the organized butchering cuts."
"I wondered about that," Cavanagh agreed readily. "We got a pretty good description of the guy from our witness and it didn't match up particularly well with anyone in Armie's known circle of acquaintances, but it didn't have to be anyone he knew. He was a pretty decent, friendly type from all reports, and could have stopped to talk to somebody he met while hiking."
A touch of professional frustration colored Jim's voice. "Without any motive or suspect, the method is all we have to start investigating. There has to be something useful here."
"Try scent," Blair murmured in a voice so low only Jim could hear it, more a vibration than a vocalization.
Even so, it was enough to calm the growing irritation and smooth the incipient crease from between his brows. Acknowledging the suggestion with a stroke of his hand over Blair's upper back, Jim stilled the movement and anchored himself to Blair's heartbeat through that contact. Concentrating on the smells around him, he identified and set aside the myriad of odors common to such a place, eliminating them one by one until he had only the scents rising from the four human bodies present to contend with. His own and Blair's scents were so well—known it took no effort to banish them from his consciousness, and he did not require too much more time to assemble the pattern belonging to Cavanagh and add it to the discarded sensations. On the periphery of his awareness he could hear Blair saying something, distracting the sheriff from Jim's concentration, but it did not impinge on his focus or break his connection to his mainstay. The purpose of that extraneous input was understood on some deeper level and automatically relegated to the background as an item of no importance.
Rising from the body was the all too familiar stench of death, with all its ugly nuances and undertones. Grimly, he went through those odors next, tuning each out in turn. Finally only one was left, one that didn't belong to the normal scent pattern of either death or an average man. He didn't recognize the bitter chemical smell at all, but it raised the small hairs on the back of his neck. Opening eyes he hadn't realized he'd closed, he scanned the remains, letting his slow, deep breathing bring the strongest source to the fore and sweeping his sight into line with that point.
As if he could see through Jim's eyes and knew the moment of discovery, Blair shifted and cleared his throat. Jim blinked, coming out of his intense study, eyes still resting on the spot he had located.
"Can I....?" Blair's low—voiced request broke the silence.
"Yeah. Go." Jim gave him a small push toward the door with his fingertips, letting his hearing confirm for him that his partner made it safely to the front of the building and out the door. Tension accumulated over the drive and enhanced by the effort of concentration stiffened his own back, cramping the area between his shoulder blades with dull pain. Shifting, trying to stretch without being obvious, he felt a spiky knot of pain developing under his right shoulderblade, but the ache didn't show in his voice. "Sorry," he said mildly. "He's not used to this stuff yet."
"Don't be sorry, I'm not used to this either and I don't want to be," Cavanagh said honestly. "That's why I called you guys." He looked hopefully at the detective, his brown eyes showing an earnest hope that another amazingly accurate statement was forthcoming. "What do you think?"
"You need to get the toxicology screen pushed through as soon as possible," Jim stated positively. "The reason there was no struggle is that he had been hit with some kind of tranquilizer beforehand." He leaned over and pointed at the small puncture wound barely visible on the ravaged skin between raw cuts defacing the chest. Considering the amount of damage done to the body, it was not surprising the miniscule bruise had been overlooked. "Entry was here. Part of the question is whether that was sufficient to kill him, and the rest is whether we can trace the compound that was used."
The sheriff nodded, pleased his confidence had been rewarded so well. He didn't even appear curious about how the detective had spotted the tiny mark, apparently happy to accept Jim's superior experience in locating evidence to support his deductions. "I'll call in as soon as I get back to the station and have it put on priority, and I'll have to tell them to change the analysis, we were just doing a standard alcohol and drug screen. We should be able to get the preliminary results by early tomorrow afternoon."
"Good. We'll head out to the site tomorrow, I want to take a look at the area."
"No problem." Moving toward the door, he waited until Jim had gone through before turning the lights off. As they moved down the hallway and out of the building, he offered, "I can meet you for breakfast and give you a map and directions, unless you want to come back to the station and pick them up now."
Jim shook his head wearily, eyes tracking automatically to the side where Blair leaned against the wall, waiting for him. "Tomorrow morning is fine. Any recommendation on where to stay?"
The shorter man snorted and shook his head, pulling the clinic door closed behind himself and locking it. "Yeah, avoid the Running Waters motel. Problem is it's the only place in town. Personally, I'd rather sleep in my car." He eyed Jim's huge vehicle, dwarfing the Cherokee parked next to it. "You might consider it a viable option yourselves."
"Thanks, but Sandburg gets testy if we have to spend that much time in such close proximity without a shower." The quiet half-snort of amusement he heard from Blair made his own lips catch in a faint echoing smile that warmed his eyes a little bit. "It's the one we passed on the way into town, then?"
"Yup, can't miss it." Climbing into his car, Cavanagh backed out of the parking space and called in parting, "See you at eight tomorrow, at the Comstock. Best donuts in town." He pulled away and headed back toward the station, cheerily waving one last time through his half—opened window.
Turning to Blair, Jim studied the paleness of his skin, visible in the darkness to only a sentinel's sight and asked with quiet concern, "How are you doing?"
Blair shook his head, still occupied with taking deep, slow breaths. Jim waited until his Guide's respiration returned to normal, idly panning his vision down the road in either direction and reading the signs. He had located the motel two blocks down on the left and was grateful to note it was still sporting a vacancy sign, when Blair finally declared with feeling, "Oh, man, that is it. I'm going vegetarian."
"I've felt that way, Chief," Jim admitted seriously. "Sometimes I did give up meat for a while."
"Really?" Sandburg looked relieved. "But you got over it?"
"I did. Some don't. It's a personal thing." He tilted his head, watching the anthropologist, noting the fine sheen of perspiration on his face was already drying in the crisp mountain air. "Are you going to be okay with this?"
Hands raised in front of his chest, fingers spread as if pushing outward against something, Blair nodded tightly once, then took another deep breath and relaxed, curling his hands into his pockets and shrugging his shoulders as if to settle a weight on them. "Yeah. I can deal with it. I just needed a little time to assimilate, that's all." He flashed a quick grin at Jim. "Thanks for waiting."
A silent sadness bloomed in Jim's eyes even while he shrugged off the gratitude, but he headed toward the driver's side without turning again to meet Blair's questioning gaze. "Let's go see how bad the local accommodations can really be."
From the outside, the Running Waters motel was an unappealing place. The tiny, graveled court was surrounded on three sides by a rundown one—story building containing perhaps only a dozen rooms. The doors were spaced so closely together that it was obvious the rooms could not be large enough to meet prison code requirements for occupancy, and the collection of oversized and overloaded vacation vehicles crammed into the parking lot didn't leave a space large enough to wedge the Expedition in. Jim parked on the narrow shoulder of the highway in front of the wretched strip of struggling grass that served as the motel's front yard.
"Quaint," Blair said, a laugh in his voice, eyebrows rising in amusement.
"It's a dump," Jim observed with resignation. "But I'm too tired to care. Come on, Chief, let's experience the Real America, one tiny detail at a time." Opening the door, he climbed stiffly out of the driver's seat and spent a few moments stretching as if he had not had an opportunity to earlier, before he strode over to the battered screen door of the motel office. He was back outside seconds later, a pinched grimace on his face.
"What's wrong?" Blair inquired, pausing in his own stretching.
He waved a hand across in front of his face like a fan, then gestured back toward the office. "Could you check us in?" Pulling out his wallet, he passed his department credit card to Blair as he went by. "I'm not up to dealing with it right now."
Stepping across the threshold into the smoke-filled room, the slight puzzled frown cleared from his face as Blair understood Jim's reaction. The cigarette haze was thick enough to sting his eyes and catch at his throat with coarse, tarry fingers. Squinting into the murk which obscured details on the other side of the miniscule office, he said tentatively, "Hello?"
The frowzy woman behind the counter grunted without turning away from the small black and white TV's static-loaded picture. "Only got one room left, seventy-five dollars plus tax."
Blair goggled at the back of her head. "Seventy five bucks? Is that the special local murder rate?"
"Take it or leave it, sweetcheeks." She turned far enough to eye him apathetically and took another deep drag on her Marlboro butt.
"Ahhhh, we'll take it." The rate had to be over the per diem allowed for the county they were in, but he didn't relish the idea of sleeping in the back of the vehicle. Although if the room they got only had one bed, he suspected he'd be outside anyway.
Moving with glacial deliberation, she reluctantly stood up and pulled a registration card out from under the counter. "How long are you staying?"
"Two nights, I think, to start with. Not real sure how long we'll be here." His voice almost squeaked, he was trying so hard not to inhale any deeper than absolutely necessary.
"One night's charge for deposit, the rest on check-out." Slapping the tattered registration card down in front of him, she held out a hand for the credit card, then ran it through the imprinter while Blair was still trying to remember Jim's license plate number. Still without speaking, her eyes fixed to the side on the TV screen, she returned the Visa without checking it against the card he had filled out, blew another lungful of smoke at him, and dumped a key with a cheap brown plastic tag on the counter.
Fighting the urge to stop breathing entirely, Blair grinned weakly in thanks, scooped up the key, and made his escape.
Jim was standing by the Expedition, one hand massaging the back of his neck. When he glanced up, Blair noticed how tired he looked and held up the key ruefully, knowing the sentinel would not be pleased. "Last one, man."
"Perfect," Jim sighed.
"Wait until you hear the good news," he joked, handing over the credit card and receipt.
"Eighty-two seventy-five?! Chief, the per diem in this county is only fifty-three bucks a night, including tax. You know I have to cough up the difference unless I get a waiver signed before leaving Cascade. What did you do, book us the bridal suite?"
"Don't think so." Blair grinned. "If it is, I guess I can sleep in the truck tonight." Scanning the row of dilapidated green doors, he pointed to theirs, then ambled over to it. Unlocking the door, he reached in and flipped on the light switch, then suppressed a sigh. Damn, I hope he left a sleeping bag in the back after that last trip. No, this is Mr. Everything-in-its-place we're talking about, what was I thinking?
"I heard that." A gentle push propelled Blair into the tiny, dingy room. "Don't worry, Sandburg, I think we're safe enough with each other. If I can deal with it, you can."
"I could go ask if they have a rollaway," he offered.
"And where are you proposing to put it? There isn't enough room in here for the furniture they already have."
"I can't believe we're paying eighty-three bucks a night for this." The space between the walls and the two long sides of the one, large bed was less than two feet, which Blair decided was probably a mercy based on how ugly the visible carpeting was. "I'm afraid to look in the bathroom." A moment later his voice echoed off the tiled walls of the miniscule enclosure at the back of the room. "Wow! This is like totally antique!"
"I'm just glad we have one." Dropping his overnight bag next to the vintage television on the chipped dresser, Ellison rolled his shoulders wearily. "I'm too bushed to care how old it is, as long as we can get hot water out of the fixtures." He regarded the tattered brown coverlet on the bed with some suspicion, then tested the sagging mattress for bounce. "Perfect," he muttered under his breath.
The squealing of the faucets turning preceded the hollow sound of water running in the tub. Several minutes and splashings later, Blair reported regretfully, "Not after nine PM."
As tired as he was, Ellison found he could not fall asleep. Sandburg had curled up on his side with his back to Jim and was breathing quietly, not asleep quite yet but not fidgeting either. It hadn't taken Jim long to get used to the sounds Blair made in the loft and, like ignoring his presence there, it was easy to accept the closeness of the breathing body immediately next to him, so he couldn't blame his restiveness on being bothered by sharing the bed. It was mainly in his shoulders, which had never managed to lose their tension from the drive. His concentration over the body had locked them into sullen rebellion and even though he was relatively comfortable at last, instead of loosening up the hot, angry muscles seemed determined to ratchet tighter by the minute. There was a knot under his right shoulder blade that made every single position he tried more uncomfortable than the last, and the faint but omnipresent stink of stale cigarette smoke permeating the room was giving him a headache. Finally, with a sigh, Jim acknowledged defeat and sat up. "This isn't going to work," he said, his voice tired. Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he rested his elbows on his knees and rubbed at his eyes.
"I'm sorry," Blair mumbled, rolling to his back and looking over at him in the gloom.
"It's not you, Chief, I just can't relax." Can't take a hot shower either, he thought with frustration. "Maybe I'll go for a walk."
"You're already exhausted," Blair protested. "Making yourself more tired isn't going to help." Reaching over, he caught at Jim's arm before he could stand. "If you need to relax, I can help."
Jim turned his head and looked over his shoulder at his roommate, one eyebrow rising in amusement. Blair regarded him in confusion for a moment, his eyes wide and dark as he tried to make out the details of Jim's expression, then the anthropologist blushed furiously, the heat of it as obvious to the sentinel's extended tactile sense as the sight.
"I can't believe you even thought that!" the younger man sputtered indignantly.
Jim's mild amusement spread from his eyes and he smiled, shaking his head. "I didn't think anything, Chief; you assumed you knew what I was thinking."
Blair flopped back, looking martyred. "It is way too late to be playing these games with my head, man."
"Sorry," Ellison apologized, rubbing at his own temples with slow, pressured strokes. "I think I'm getting a little close to mugwump time here."
A tiny chuckle escaped him. "When you can't avoid going into hysterics when you say, 'How many mugs would a mugwump wump if a mugwump could wump mugs?' One of the first signs of dangerous fatigue."
"I'm almost tired enough to understand that, which is scary on its own," Blair admitted. In a rustling of covers he sat up, crossed his legs underneath himself, and put his hand on Jim's shoulder, pulling him backward and pushing at him until he was lying down again. Whether from tiredness or trust, Ellison didn't resist the direction. "Close your eyes," Sandburg instructed.
"I tried this," Jim objected with forced patience.
"Then you didn't do it right." Pulling the blankets back into place over his friend, Blair took a deep breath, then released it slowly, settling comfortably into his meditative position. "First, a couple breaths. Come on, you know the drill."
Acquiescing as rapidly as usual once his token protest had been ignored, Jim obeyed, closing his eyes and taking deep, slow breaths in time with Blair's guiding example.
"Good," Blair said, his voice dropping to its lower register, taking on a soothing cadence as he continued. "Concentrate on your right foot. There is a switch at your ankle. It controls all the energy to that foot. When you flip the switch down, your foot will feel heavy, and you won't be able to move it. It will be completely relaxed and separate from the rest of your body. When you're ready, turn the switch off and let me know."
For a couple moments Jim concentrated, building the mental image Blair had described for him, then he flipped the imaginary switch and said, "OK."
Leading Ellison through the rest of the exercise, Blair kept his voice calm and slow, knowing Jim was used to trusting him implicitly when he used his serious tone. In response, Jim's answers dropped in pitch, becoming murmurs and finally only deeper breaths that affirmed each step he had accomplished. When he reached the final illusionary switch at the top of Jim's head, Blair instructed him to slide deeper into the state of rest and accept sleep when it came. Voice lowered almost to a whisper, Sandburg described how relaxed and refreshed he would feel upon awakening. "And your dreams will all be good, filled with happiness and peace," he finished softly.
Soon Jim's breathing had the slow, regular pattern of sleep, but Blair remained sitting next to him for a while, at first not wanting to move too suddenly and disturb his careful work in putting his friend at ease. Idly contemplating Jim's reclining form next to him, a small, contented smile settled on his features. Helping Jim always made him feel good, and while they were long past keeping track of who did what favor for the other, he still felt he owed more than he had found a way to repay. That perpetual yet somehow pleasant sense of debt was one of the things he was learning to accept about his friendship with Jim, one of the ways it was different from any other friendship he had ever had. It was a very small price to pay for the pure sense of joy he often felt at realizing he and Jim were best friends.
I--will be watching over you
I--am gonna help you see it through
I--will protect you in the night
I--am smiling next to you...in Silent Lucidity
Two or three years ago, if someone had told him he'd be sharing a hotel room - a loft, a partnership, his life - with some subject he was studying and feeling this affection for the man, he would have laughed aloud. There was no way he could have anticipated meeting someone like Jim, or finding himself willingly bound to a partnership that went so far beyond the normal working definition.
His life had always been lived on the cusp of change, and ever since he had been old enough to wonder about the passage of time and the shape of his future, he would spend a few minutes every year or so thinking about where he had been, comparing it to where he had thought he would be, and visualizing where he believed he would go next. It was a sort of personal benchmark he indulged in, more for the private sense of amazement it gave him over how unpredictable life really was rather than any desire to set goals or make deliberate plans. Although he hardly ever ended up exactly where he had thought he would, he wasn't ever wrong about the type of life he'd be leading. Until now. The last time he had inspected his reality and his expectations, he had anticipated that in a year or two he might have another fellowship, might be doing field work in another distant country, and would be living the same essentially unattached existence he had been all along. Maybe a girlfriend, maybe not, they were nice to have but not a central part of his existence. Moving through people's lives like a fish in a river, he touched and was surrounded by the rest of humanity, but remained a separate entity independent of its flow, an observer who had the freedom to come and go as he pleased because they had no hold on him. Ellison had changed that by reaching out to hold him still for a time and, in the process, had changed Blair himself.
Shifting as his foot tingled with loss of circulation, Blair eased himself very slowly out of his semi-lotus and carefully prone, this time on his side facing Jim. Tucking the pillow comfortably in the crook of his arm and resting his head on it, he thoughtfully regarded the profile of his friend through sleepy, half-closed eyes. James Ellison had changed everything for him. For the first time ever, Blair's view of his own future was invested with more than merely curiosity and acceptance. He had quiet, deeply held hopes and sharp, desperate fears, and he regarded the change in his outlook with bemusement, not quite sure if he thought it was a good change, a bad change, or merely a difference.
After a lifetime of personal freedom, Blair found himself settled in a home that promised to be his for some time to come. Years, probably. Maybe longer, though he didn't want to spend the rest of his life in the loft; the prospect of that sort of permanence still felt too close to stagnation. But wherever he lived, he knew he would have this friendship, and he believed it would always mean as much to him as it did now, unlike all his previous friendships based on the familiarities of the moment. Ellison was more than a friend, he was a defining force, a pivotal point around which Blair orbited, content in his capture. For Blair, the definition of home wasn't the place he had grown up in or even where he currently stored his stuff, it was where he felt a sense of belonging that made returning from any absence a pleasure. For the longest time, that had been wherever Naomi was lodged, but now wherever Jim lived was the home his heart recognized, and that, at least, he felt certain was not subject to change. As for hopes and fears - perhaps it was good to finally be so connected to some part of life that it could touch him so deeply, whether for good or ill. The smile was still lingering on his face when he fell asleep.
He was in a crowd at a big party, and the buffet table was incredible. All the people present were friends of his and he vowed not to leave the gathering until every last one of them had gone, so as not to miss a moment of the fun. Turning to the group he was standing next to, he was about to propose another raid on the food spread when he noticed the odd red lines decorating the chest of the guy closest to him. Lines that broadened slowly as if crimson ink was spreading underneath the surface of his shirt....
A tiny hitch caught in Blair's even breathing, and he startled himself awake deliberately, knowing where the imagery in the dream had been heading and completely unwilling to be swept along into it. Not like I didn't expect that to show up sooner or later, he acknowledged to himself muzzily. The charnel house atmosphere of the small clinic still seemed to cling to him and the sight, smell, and knowledge of what he had been exposed to there began to creep out from the safe place he had hastily stuffed the impressions that evening.
Opening his eyes wide to banish the memories from his vision, he blinked and concentrated on trying to make out the profile occupying the pillow next to his. Ellison was stirring slightly, uneasily reacting to the change in the pattern of sound. Although a little conscious company to hold the anamnesis at bay was pretty tempting, there was no way Blair wanted to bother his friend with the abominations running loose in his head in the middle of the night. Reaching out, he laid his hand lightly on Jim's shoulder and murmured quietly, "Shhh, it's nothing. You're safe, stay asleep," and could not help feeling a bit of awe as Jim's agitation calmed in response to the reassurance he could only have picked up subconsciously. When Jim's disquiet had abated entirely, Blair sighed, his eyes drifting shut again as he pulled his hand back and tucked it under his chin. Taking another deep breath, he tried to recapture the mood of warm, safe affection that had filled him earlier, certain it was his best defense against nightmare.
The quiet sound of Jim's breathing close by helped, providing a fixed beacon of strength to navigate the shores of sleep. As he drifted back into his dreaming, Blair turned over, a muttered sound escaping him, and pressed his back against the bulwark of Jim's side. With that warm wall behind him, he spent the rest of the night free from the encroachment of horror.
A small travel alarm in the room next door went off and Jim allowed it to pull him toward wakefulness, establishing awareness of his surroundings as he surfaced from sleep. His whole body felt relaxed, the tension of the previous evening melted away during the night's rest despite the awful bed, and even the knot under his shoulder blade had dissolved. The cool air of the room chilled his shoulders above the sheet and blanket but his left side was distinctly warmer, heated by the length of Blair's back resting against him. For a few moments he let himself listen to the quiet thunder of his partner's heartbeat, the same steady sounds he had focused on last night as he had dropped through the levels of trance toward sleep. There was something unutterably comforting about that sound, perhaps simply the knowledge that it represented the steadying presence of his friend. More often than he had let on, concentrating on that single, regular beat to the exclusion of all else allowed him the mental space to bring the rest of his world under control.
The room had no clock but he'd left his watch propped up on the dresser facing the foot of bed, and he zoomed his sight in on its face. 0600. He let his head fall back to the flattened pillow for a moment. While he hadn't had nearly enough sleep, there wasn't really time to drop back off for more and still start the day at an acceptable hour. With a sigh, he closed his awareness down to a normal level and extricated himself gently from the slight weight that rested against him. It had been a while since he had awakened next to a warm body, and a small smile lifted the corners of his mouth as he rolled out his side of the bed. Never thought the next person I'd fall asleep next to would be Blair. Ellison, you need to get out more.
The fixtures were, indeed, of nearly antique vintage, but they performed adequately. Jim showered and dressed with quiet efficiency before mercilessly prodding Blair awake. "Better hurry," he advised him cheerfully. "The hot water turns off soon. I'm ready for breakfast, Chief."
Blair groaned, then rolled the rest of the way over onto his back and blinked up at the ceiling. A few seconds later he had gathered all the threads of memory together and assembled a world view to start the day with. "What's after breakfast?" he asked, pulling himself upright and then to his feet.
"Check if they've gotten the tox screen back yet, start some traces on it if they have, then visit the spot where the body was discovered to see if I can locate any trail to backtrack the killer to some other point that might tell us more."
"You sound positively perky," Blair observed, a hint of gratification in his tone as he pulled his shaving kit from his backpack and headed for the bathroom.
A half-smile warmed Jim's face, though Blair couldn't see it from around the corner. "Yeah." He raised his voice to be heard above the running water. "Slept great. Thanks."
"Part of the job description," Sandburg called back, before conversation became untenable.
To himself, Jim replied fondly, "Sure it is, Chief."
The Comstock was small and crowded with boisterous locals, giving it a friendly, busy atmosphere that successfully counteracted the slightly cutesy decorations. Fortunately for Jim's sinuses, few of the occupants of the cramped dining room were smokers, and Dave Cavanagh waved from a booth to Jim and Blair as they got through the door. Sliding in on the other side of the formica-topped table from him, Jim squeezed himself into the corner next to the window to allow Blair to sit next to him. He inhaled appreciatively, eyes on the massive, half-eaten, glazed buttermilk donut sitting next to the sheriff's coffee mug.
Blair saw the direction of his gaze and elbowed him in the ribs. "Do not rhapsodize about the donuts," he requested, earning an amused glance from both cops at the table.
"Not a fan of the finer things in life?" Cavanagh asked Jim, a nod indicating Blair.
"Is it a genetic thing with you guys?" Blair asked curiously.
"Ignore him," Jim advised Cavanaugh, then bestowed one of his dazzling smiles on the waitress who'd just arrived. Unimpressed, she took their orders, poured coffee, and bustled off. They had barely exchanged pleasantries about the quality of the Running Waters motel before she was back with their food, and a brief quiet ensued while the three of them made short work of breakfast.
When the plates had been cleared away, Cavanagh pulled a file up from the seat next to himself and slid it across to Jim, then leaned back and picked up his coffee. He sipped at it, giving Jim time to glance through the folder's contents, then asked, "Anything else you need to see? The hiker who interrupted the murderer gave us a complete statement and we let him head back home after verifying his identity; if you want to interview him the phone numbers are on the transcript."
"No chance this guy..." he consulted the statement, "Deich, was involved?"
"Not if he was even half as shook up for real as he seemed to be. He was in a real panic when we got the call, and Jenny over at the clinic had to prescribe a sedative for him that evening."
Still paging through the sheets and scanning them, Jim nodded. "I'd like to talk to him, but I want to get out to the site where the body was found first."
Cavanagh looked slightly puzzled, but reached across and pulled a folded sheet from the back of the stack. "I put a quadrangle in, with the site marked, and this page has the directions on how to get to the trailhead from here, and then to the site. It's about two miles in and north of the main trail. Are you sure you don't want me or one of the guys to come out with you? I can spare Frank for a couple hours." It was clear that while he didn't want to insult Ellison, he was worried about the possibility of the two newcomers getting lost.
"That's not necessary, we're not looking for anything really specific and I'd hate to waste your time, or your deputy's, just babysitting us." Studying the map with experienced eyes, Ellison nodded to himself and folded it back up. "Any idea when the tox screen will come in?" Next to him, Blair was deciphering Dave's scrawled instructions with the ease of one who'd spent hours grading student essays.
"Around noon for the prelim. If you're still out I can call you as soon as I get it." Cavanagh polished off the last of his coffee and picked up his bill. He reached for Jim's, but the Cascade cop had already scooped up the two on his side of the table and shook his head, refusing to hand them over. The sheriff shrugged good-naturedly and stood up. "Forecast says it's going to be a great day for a hike. If you decide to camp out instead of coming back to the welcoming ambience of the Running Waters just be sure and call, or I'll send the troops out looking for you."
"Will do," Jim agreed with a smile, nudging his partner with an elbow to get up out of the seat as well.
"I think we should consider it," Blair offered, and grinned when Jim cuffed the back of his head as they moved toward the register.
"We are not sleeping in the back of the car, Sandburg."
The forecast had been correct, it was a beautiful day. An achingly deep, beautiful blue sky arched overhead, broken only by enough fluffy white clouds to make it interesting without carrying a hint of threat. The morning sunlight caught on the tops of the trees, unable to make its way down into the clean-smelling spaces between them except in wide, cleared areas the road passed through every few hundred yards. Driving through the alternating bands of brightness and relative dark would normally have given Jim the beginnings of a headache, but his mind was relaxed and his mood upbeat after the good breakfast, and his eyes adjusted effortlessly to the rapid changes.
They reached the trailhead in under an hour and parked in the small graveled lot, where only one other car testified to the presence of someone else taking advantage of the good weather. The royal blue flannel shirt Jim wore tucked into his jeans was more than enough insulation under his lightweight jacket, and he left the heavier leather coat in the car, knowing once they started walking the slight spring chill in the shade would only be refreshing. Blair made a similar decision, tossing his heavy coat into the back seat where it slid off of Jim's and landed in a crumpled pile on the floorboard. Paring down the stuff they wanted to take until everything fit comfortably in their jacket pockets, Jim and Blair headed off along the main trail, walking in peaceable companionship. The quiet of the forest worked its way into their souls, letting them forget for a brief while the reason they were out there.
The ground rose slowly and steadily as they hiked around the shoulder of the mountain, and Jim's longer stride put him in the lead by a few feet when the path began to narrow. The walk was pleasant despite their reason for being out, and it did not seem like long before they reached the branching point where a recently heavily-trodden path left the formal trail and headed off toward the murder location. A survey stake with a piece of hot pink plastic tape tied to it marked the intersection, and served as a forlorn reminder that the cool, secretive depths of the forest had witnessed an abomination.
Striking off along the slightly muddy track where the forest floor had been cut up and disturbed by the passage of many boots, they slowed down as the going became more uneven. The rest of the survey stakes that had marked the path had been removed, perhaps to discourage idle tourism to the site, but the trail was plain enough even to Blair's eyes.
Thinking about the path and what he knew had lain at the end of it brought unwanted images to mind, and the anthropologist deliberately turned his thoughts away from them, forcing himself to consider instead what he expected to accomplish on the trip and how he could assist Jim in his work.
As if aware he was the subject of conjecture, Jim broke the informal silence. "It worries me when you're too quiet, Chief."
"This is a great opportunity," Blair said, at first trying deliberately to pump up the excitement to draw Jim's interest but quickly tapping into his own genuine fascination. "You're going to be doing essentially the same task as the ancient sentinels, tracking through wilderness conditions, observing a faint trail in a non-urban setting. We ought to test some of your senses in relation to that lifestyle while we're here, it's not something you get to do very often." The memories of several stressful hunts through wilderness settings occurred to him. "OK, it's not something you get to do when guys aren't shooting at us or we're not chasing murderers at top speed," he amended. "This time we can take it easier and spend more time on working with the process instead of just trying for instant results."
"We do have a job to do out here, Sandburg." Striding ahead, Jim's face wasn't visible to Blair but there was a note of tolerance in his voice that almost invited a request.
"Wait! Slow down, man." Catching up to him, Blair caught at his arm to pull him to a halt. "It's not like the perp is waiting out here to be chased, and it's not going to rain so the crime scene won't change if we take a few minutes longer to get there. Cut me a break, Jim, we haven't had a chance like this to test your abilities outside the city for months."
The way Jim's eyes lingered across the scenery belied his hurry. His expression didn't hold the single-minded intensity Blair secretly called "Pursuit Mode", so his poorly feigned resistance didn't fool his partner. "All right," Jim conceded, "Just keep it quick and reasonable." The way his head tilted slightly and his eyes focused intently on Blair made it clear he had given over full control of the moment with confidence and was interested despite his protests to the contrary.
Bouncing on his toes for a moment, Blair considered, then decided. "Directions. Navigation would be critical for a tribal sentinel, especially in long range exploration or tracking. Close your eyes," he instructed, and when Jim obeyed Blair pulled at his arm, turning him around in place several times until he was convinced the older man no longer knew which direction he was facing.
"I'm gonna get dizzy and puke all over you, and you'll deserve it," Ellison complained, but he kept his eyes shut as he stood, swaying slightly in place.
"Yeah, you can try, but I'm faster than you think. Now, let's assume you'd normally be far enough from the village not to use hearing them as a landmark, so block off sound and concentrate on the feel of your surroundings. Reach out for the contrasts coming from different sides and categorize the changes, and tell me what it means about where you are."
Standing relaxed, Jim let the faint breeze that touched his skin come to the fore of his awareness, separating out and ignoring the sensations of his clothing until he had contained his sensitivity to his face and hands. He had to shake himself once to finally settle and dismiss the unwanted input, but after a few minutes he began to relay his experience in a soft voice. "It's cooler on my left, and the ground over there is wetter, there's more moisture in the air but it's not coming from an open water source. The trees are drier to my right, and I can feel a large, heated area, like a hillside reflecting back the sun. The sun is there," and he pointed with total sureness to its precise position in the sky through the trees that blocked out its direct rays, "so that means I'm facing east-south-east." He opened his eyes, blinking a couple times, unsurprised to find that the smaller, localized heat source he had cataloged without reporting aloud was Blair standing about six feet away.
Checking the small orienteering compass he had pulled from a pocket, Blair grinned, tucked it away, and started scribbling frantically in the small notebook he had somehow managed to cram into the same pocket when they left the vehicle. "This is great! I'll bet you could still tell the north and south-facing slopes apart in total darkness, just by the residual heat and moisture differences."
"I never get lost," Jim agreed with a straight face.
"I know." Blair grinned at him. "You only get temporarily disoriented."
"There's a big difference," Ellison insisted loftily.
"Oh, absolutely," Blair deadpanned, and Jim couldn't keep the amusement from showing in his eyes.
"We through here, Chief?" he asked, already turning to resume progress toward their destination. There'd be time later, on the walk back, for more theoretical trials and he knew Blair wouldn't let that other opportunity go to waste either. Jim let himself wonder what the next test might be, and found he even looked forward to it a little. His step was light as he moved up the path, enjoying the range of sensations his briefly intensified concentration had brought to the fore.
"For now," Blair agreed reluctantly as he stuffed the notebook back into his pocket, then had to jog a couple steps to catch up with Jim's determined pace. The diversion served its intended purpose, however, and his thoughts remained on the functional limits and applications of Jim's senses instead of the lingering horror that still edged his impressions of the previous day. He barely noticed the brilliant green tips on the trees where their new growth was just coming out, or the way dust motes danced in the slanting beams of light that reached further down through the tall trees as the sun rose toward its zenith.
The clearing opened up in front of them suddenly, the trail widening out into a small, flat area that smelled more of earth than of the trees. Shafts of sunlight reaching through the trees spotted the ground with brightness, drawing sharp highlights from the shreds of yellow police line tape that still littered the scene. Coming to a halt, the two of them were silent for a moment, as if entering a sacred place. Part of the thick carpet of pine needles had been torn up where samples had been taken, leaving bare ground exposed.
His voice hushed in unconscious reverence, Blair asked, "What can you pick up?"
"Blood," Jim answered, his voice closer to normal volume. He tried closing his eyes and drawing a deep breath, then released it with an angry sound. "Too many people have been here and I don't know them all."
Moving into the clearing, Blair studied the ground, then turned and looked back toward the direction they had come. "Everyone on the investigation team would have come in and left by the same route we did, right?"
The detective nodded, already moving out to the edge of the clearing and beginning to circle around it. "Good thinking, Chief."
"One of us has to do it." Ellison's amused snort reached him from behind a huge pine where the sentinel continued his outward spiral through the less disturbed undergrowth. Left alone in the open area, Blair tried to remain detached as he wandered around, but he could not help wondering what it would have been like to stumble onto the murder as it was taking place. Clumps of pine needles still glued together by blood made it too easy to imagine the scene, and he looked away from the evidence quickly, fixing his gaze on the trees instead and trying to spot Jim's dark green jacket as he moved further away into the woods. When Blair finally heard his name called, he was more than glad to leave that peaceful spot.
"Got it." Waiting until Blair joined him, Jim pointed to the broken fern he was standing by. "This single scent leads into the clearing and back out again, and splits here." He indicated one direction with a lift of his chin. "He came in from there; the second path has a trace of blood mixed with it and heads this way."
"This is so excellent!" Pulling the notebook back out of his pocket, Blair uncapped his pen with his teeth and mumbled around the cap as he wrote, "You are better than a bloodhound, man."
Rolling his eyes in an expressive grimace, Jim merely watched as Sandburg finished recording his observation. "Can we do what we came for now?" he asked with poorly restrained impatience.
"What? Oh, sure, of course."
Following the trail only he could sense, Jim moved slowly but steadily between the trees, pausing occasionally to note some visual confirmation his quarry had been present. Well aware of how faint the trace Jim followed was, Blair carefully kept himself downwind to avoid distracting the sentinel. They moved much slower than if they had been following a purely visible trail, but covered ground at a fairly good pace as they headed farther into the woods, occasionally crossing outcrops of weathered granite where the bones of the mountain range were not yet covered by soil and living things. Unaware of time passing as the sun approached and passed its zenith, neither even noticed missing lunch.
Another hour or so later, the trilling of the cell phone startled them both, sounding incongruous through the soft soughing of the trees around them. Straightening from his concentration over a small mark on the ground, Ellison pulled the phone from his pocket and answered. His brow creased as he listened and then he shifted, taking two steps to the right, then moving backward. "Sorry, can you repeat that?" he asked, and moved again, this time sliding a couple steps forward. He listened for a while, then replied, "Most of it. I'll pick up the rest of the details when we get back in.... No, probably not for a couple more hours at least." He tipped his wrist and checked his watch, eyebrows rising briefly when he noted the time. "I'll check in at four, we should be back at the main site by then." He waved his free hand imperiously at Blair, who raised his eyebrows and shrugged, hands outspread in non-comprehension. 'The map' Jim mouthed at him, and Blair quickly fished it out of his capacious pocket and passed it over. "Right....we're in the lower northwest corner of quadrant gamma one-three, heading north-northwest toward Cougar Mountain." His frown deepened and he moved again, turning as he did so. "No, Cougar....charlie oscar uniform....roger that." He flipped the phone closed and dropped it back into his pocket, the crease not leaving his brow entirely.
"What's the matter?" Blair asked, accepting the map back and refolding it with their current position topmost before stowing it in his pocket again.
"Ah, nothing unexpected, we're too far out for decent reception."
"I thought they had repeaters everywhere these days."
"Not really." Jim shrugged, his gaze passing above Blair's head as he scanned the woods around them.
"Any word on what you found last night?" Blair prodded.
"The tox screen came in, the killer had used a tranquilizer dart to immobilize the victim."
Blair grimaced. "This is one sick dude we're chasing."
"Got that right." Jim raised his head sharply, eyes focusing into the distance.
Noticing his shift in attention, Blair asked softly, "What is it?"
"He's out here. The scent is a lot stronger in the direction we're going, too much to be a residual." His head tilted slightly to the side as he shifted to listening, and for several moments the two of them were motionless.
Trying to hold his breath to be as quiet as possible, Blair finally ran too low on air and had to gasp for breath. "Why would he come back?" he wondered nervously, peering in the same direction Jim had been looking and trying to catch a glimpse of anything at all besides trees, even though he knew it was pointless.
"We may get a chance to ask," Jim replied grimly. "He's less than a mile away."
"Oh, man! This sucks! We should go back and get help."
"No way," Jim said flatly. "By the time we got back here he'd be long gone." His eyes had gone cold and his whole posture had changed to the intent, focused tension he took on when engaged in a pursuit. Even the planes of his face seemed sharper and harder, concentrating all his expression in his eyes.
Blair sighed to himself, recognizing that look and knowing it meant Jim would not be dissuaded from the chase by anything from rational arguments to natural disasters. "OK, I'm with you," he said. "Let's go get this guy. We can still make it back in time for the evening news, so we're not doing bad at all."
When Jim resumed following the trail, he was far more serious, and he moved with a combination of stealth and leashed power that gave him a dangerous air. Grimly quiet, Blair stayed behind and kept up with the pace the cop set, striking directly across country toward the source of the scent he had identified as belonging to the killer. All the questions Blair wanted to ask would have to wait, and he was pretty sure he didn't want to know the answers to several of them anyway. Trying to moderate his breathing, though it was more difficult at the higher elevation they had reached, he also kept a wary eye on where he placed his feet, too well aware that their quarry was close enough to be spooked by a careless step or word. Paying so much attention to how he was moving, he nearly walked into Jim's back when the bigger man stopped short at the edge of a small, open area.
"What is it?" Blair whispered cautiously.
"I can hear him not far ahead," Jim answered in an undertone. "He's holding still, it's hard to get a fix on where to look." He turned his head, scanning the woods ahead, trying to pinpoint the bearing toward the other person.
The faint popping sound caught Jim's attention and his head swiveled in the direction the sound had come from. It was followed by a faint hissing, nearly subliminal even to his hearing though it was rapidly getting louder, but he didn't have time to figure out what caused it. The drug-loaded dart struck him on the left just above the collarbone, lodging firmly in the muscle and emptying its toxic charge on impact.
"Ow!" Jim reached up and plucked out the small dart, staring at it in disbelief for a moment before a wave of dizziness made him stagger in place. A burning sensation was radiating outward from the puncture site, spreading rapidly as his blood carried the poison from that muscle throughout the neighboring ones. Tendrils of sharp cold trailed down his arm, up the side of his neck, and washed through the center of his chest as if a cup of icewater had been poured into his veins, and it was getting steadily more difficult to keep his balance. He took a deep breath, and his ribs hurt as if they'd been caught in a vise.
"You OK, man?" Blair asked, still keeping his voice low, glancing over with worry in his eyes when Jim swayed.
Fighting the urge to collapse, Jim focused his sight along the trajectory the dart had come from, searching through the trees for the source. He caught a flash of light and zeroed in on the end of a rifle scope looking back at him from only a hundred yards away. Feeling as if he were moving underwater, he reached to his back and, fumbling under his jacket with unaccustomed awkwardness, drew his gun from the holster, pulled it up to aim at the sniper, and squeezed off a shot. The trembling in his arm, muscles closest to the impact site seizing up and spasming uncontrollably, threw his aim off, and the shooter ducked behind a large rock as the slug buried itself harmlessly in a nearby tree. Jim felt his knees buckle and folded downward, cursing as he ended up kneeling on the ground, unable to force his legs to take his weight. His thighs were barely under his control, the long muscles trembling and threatening to dump him the rest of the way to the ground at any moment.
"Jim!" Blair reached for him, and as he leaned over a second dart whistled overhead and thunked into a tree behind them.
"Get down!" Twisting and grabbing Blair's jacket, Jim hauled him roughly to the ground, falling under him as they came down.
Sprawling awkwardly half-across Jim's body, Blair grunted in surprise, then squirmed off to the side, staying low. "Where is he?"
Jim fought the slowly spreading chill in his blood and lifted his head, concentrating. "A hundred yards, moving slowly to the west," he rasped, pointing in the direction they had been travelling. His finger shook, and he dropped it quickly, curling his hand into a weak fist.
"OK, he's got the drop on us, you're going to be down for a bit, so we hide, right?" Searching through the trees, Blair could see an outcropping of rocks about fifty yards away, and fortunately to the southeast, slightly down the slope of the mountain. It wouldn't provide the best of cover, but it looked like there was an open area in the center that might be more defensible than their current position. Being able to run downhill to it would be an asset too, he wasn't so sure he could drag Jim up a hill for that distance.
"Can you make it?" he asked worriedly, noticing the way Jim was struggling to keep his hold on his gun.
"Maybe," Jim answered honestly. The parts of him that didn't hurt were starting to feel cold and distant, and none of them responded to his commands to move the way they should have.
"We go together then." There weren't many obstacles between them and the outcrop, but that also meant there wasn't much cover so they wouldn't be able to dive behind something and rest once the traverse was begun. Blair took a deep breath, steeling himself for the effort.
"Don't argue with me, Jim. I am not listening to it." Fiercely intense, Blair stared unblinking back at him, defying whatever sacrifice Jim might have planned with every bit of the substantial determination he possessed.
With a fast but shaky nod, Ellison acquiesced to the inevitable. The cold, pointed spikes of pain driving into him were drawing involuntary tears to his eyes and he blinked them away irritably, forcing his body to obey as well as it could. He held his gun up to Blair, his hand shaking so badly he could not even holster it himself. "Let's not drop this on the way over," he suggested.
Frightened but still firmly in control of himself, the anthropologist accepted the weapon and quickly slid it home at Jim's back. "What's the plan?" he asked tersely.
"He's still moving, but veering back toward us," Jim reported. "We go now or we're stuck here." He began struggling to get his feet under himself and Blair moved quickly to haul him upward, both arms wrapped around his waist. Once they were standing, crouched over, he pulled Jim's arm over his shoulders, wrapped his arm securely around Jim's back, and began moving toward the outcrop.
Jim's weight leaned heavily on him and without the terror inspired by knowing they were a target, Blair might not have had the strength to stagger, still half-crouched, over the rock-strewn ground. Moving as well as he could, Jim was only able to totter unevenly, relying on Blair's support to keep him on his feet and moving forward. Together they ran, engaged in a constant, barely controlled forward fall as they bolted for shelter. As they reached the edge of the outcrop, Jim's weight shifted further onto Blair as he began to lose the ability to keep his legs moving. They were barely up onto the first rounded boulder, able to see the small open area in the center of the outcrop, when the last of Jim's resistance to the creeping weakness deserted him. Knowing he was going down, he twisted away from Blair, yanking his arm free and tumbling to the ground, ending up only a few feet short of their goal.
Feeling him start to go over, Blair tried to hold on but he didn't have the leverage to prevent Jim from letting go. Skidding to a stop, he pivoted, reaching down and back for Jim, all his attention on getting him moved over the last little bit of distance separating them from safety.
The sound of a rifle bolt sliding home reached Jim, and he dragged his head up far enough to see their attacker taking aim again. As Blair jumped from the rock and reached his side the trigger slack was being taken up, and he rolled forcefully, shoving Blair away with enough energy to knock him sprawling. The dart smashed on the rock Blair had been in front of, splattering a clear liquid over Jim that stung his hands as it landed on bare skin.
Blair scrambled doggedly back to his side and hooked his elbows under Jim's armpits, his back screaming protest as he hauled up and backward, dragging the larger man over the last barrier. "Come on, damn it, you can do it, work with me, come on," he chanted in an urgent stream, the words less important than the rhythm of sound to synchronize their efforts.
Helping as well as he could, Jim managed to bend his knees enough to dig his heels in and push weakly, the struggle more a token of his unwillingness to give up than a substantial help. Time stretched, the woods around them silent and threatening, the oppressive quiet of imminent violence broken only by the sounds they made as they desperately pushed themselves toward safety. A small, almost frantic sob escaped Jim's throat as he heard the distinctive slide of metal on leather as a pistol was drawn. Even at that distance the clicking of a revolver's action through the trigger pull reached him and, gasping as if about to go underwater, he made one final, supreme exertion that propelled himself the last few feet. His weight went completely into Blair's keeping and the two of them tumbled backward off the top of the boulder and into the sheltered center of the outcrop.
A bullet pinged off the stone where he'd been a split-second ago, throwing sharp chips off the granite face, but the two of them barely heard the ricocheting slug whine into the distance. Lying on the dry, barren ground in a tangled heap, Jim and Blair were incapable of anything beyond breathing, not even able to extricate themselves from each other's limbs after the shock of the fall.
The first to catch his breath, Blair pulled his arms free gently, then wriggled out from underneath Jim's body and drew his legs free. "I can't believe we made it," he wheezed, sitting with his head between his knees, feeling a little queasy from the exertion at altitude. When the only reply was the continued, strained gasping as Ellison tried to recover, Blair twisted around to check on him.
Pale, a sheen of sweat on his forehead, the sentinel lay where he had fallen, arms twisted underneath himself. His eyes were closed and he was panting painfully, dust puffing under his cheek with each breath, moisture gathered along his lashes sparkling with odd clarity in the shadow of the rocks surrounding them.
"Jim?" Fear colored his voice and he was ashamed of it. "Are you OK?" Stupid, Sandburg, of course he isn't OK. "Forget I asked that." Shrugging out of his jacket, he rolled it up and gently lifted Jim's head, sliding the coat underneath as a pillow. Then he carefully tugged at his friend, straightening him into a more comfortable position, but careful to keep his own head well below the protective cover of the rocks no matter what he did. "Hey, there's good news, at least. He's out of darts and using real bullets." The feeble attempt at lightening the situation fell flat on his own ears, and he pushed nervously at his hair, tucking the loose strands back out of his face. "Come on, Jim, I don't know what to do here. You gotta give me a hint, OK?"
That wasn't entirely true, he realized immediately, he did know what he could do: his least favorite but most frequent chore. Blair pulled the cell phone from Jim's pocket and opened it, then punched the Talk button. A deep groan rolled in his throat at the "NO SERVICE" displayed on the read-out and he shook the unit in frustration. "No! Don't tell me that!"
"Keep it down, Chief," Jim warned quietly, his voice hoarse from the effort it had taken to get his breath back. His breathing sounded harsher than normal and he still looked terrible, but a little bit of color was slowly seeping back into his features. "Never let the enemy know you're in trouble."
"I think he already has a clue," Blair muttered darkly, and Jim smiled grimly in response.
"Leave it on," he said, gesturing with his chin at the phone Blair had powered off. "The interrogation signal can act as a beacon when they send out the search party after we miss the call-in." His success at keeping both his hope and despair out of his voice afforded a brief, bittersweet pride.
Blair nodded and hit the power button on the cell again before setting the unit aside. "Good, all we have to do is keep out of that nut's range until then. How long until that tranquilizer wears off and we can get moving again?" He absently cataloged their surroundings as he waited for an answer, appreciating the way the rounded granite boulders formed a natural fortress with only the one entranceway they had come through being approachable from outside. The flat, dirt-covered area in the center was only big enough for about four people to stretch out in, and the rocks were large enough to shade it all day long so the air held a deep chill despite the temperate weather and the ground under his butt felt ice-cold. His attention wavered as Ellison's silence stretched out and Blair turned on him in sudden fear and demanded urgently, "How long?"
Without replying, Jim tried to sit up, and Blair ended up helping, tugging and pushing until Ellison was sitting with his back against a fairly flat rock surface, legs stretched out in front of him. Picking up his coat and shaking the dust out of it, Blair put it back on, glad to have the slight additional insulation. The air had seemed pleasantly warm while walking in dappled sunlight, but sitting still in deep shade the sweat cooled on his skin rapidly, raising goosebumps. As if no interruption had occurred, he asked again, "How long?"
Confusion chased across Jim's features, followed by an affectionate resignation. "You don't give up, do you?"
"Nope. How long until this stuff wears off?"
"I can't say," Jim hedged, not meeting Blair's eyes.
"You can't say? What does that mean?" Moving closer, Blair stared at him, then reached over and laid the back of his hand against Jim's cheek, surprised at how cool it felt, and even more surprised when Jim didn't raise a hand to swat the solicitous contact away. "You're getting shocky. We don't even know how your body will react to normally harmless dosages; if this is something dangerous you could be in real trouble. Talk to me, Jim."
Looking into Blair's eyes, he tried to assume a casualness he didn't feel. "It doesn't matter." At least it was not a lie.
There was an odd hopelessness in his tone that set off warnings deep in Blair's mind. Grabbing the lapels of Jim's jacket, Blair pushed him back hard against the rock and stared into his face from a few inches away. "Don't you tell me that! What the hell did he hit you with?"
For a moment their eyes met, and something despairing moved through Jim's, sending a cold, terrified thrill through Blair. More softly, he asked again, "What did he use?"
Turning his head so he could not see Blair's face, Jim answered in a quiet monotone, "The toxicology screen found breakdown products from a complex neurotoxin similar to some snake venoms. The estimated dosage to the victim would have caused a loss of motor and autonomic control leading to death within approximately three hours." A lot of the lab report relayed to him had been conjecture, but the scent of the spilled poison on his skin was so reminiscent of a compound he had seen used before that Jim knew the analyst's conclusions had to be correct.
Blair's fists loosened, releasing his tight hold on Jim's lapels, and he suddenly found himself shaking uncontrollably. His own breathing sounded loud and uneven as he fought the sensation of being unable to get enough oxygen into his lungs.
Jim continued, almost conversationally, "I don't know why he's using such an exotic poison instead of a simple tranquilizer, although the degraded toxin wouldn't be harmful if ingested at a later date while most tranquilizers don't break down so thoroughly. The additional suffering may be part of the intended effect, since the victim would have been conscious but incapacitated and already in considerable pain before the murder was committed." When he let himself turn his face toward his friend again, he could see how the knowledge in his gaze tore at Blair's heart.
"Oh, my god," Blair moaned, his hands flattening out over Jim's chest as he leaned the last few inches forward to drop his forehead against Jim's. "How bad is it?"
"It hurts," Ellison acknowledged, his voice slightly roughened. The slight warmth of Blair's breath touching his face was a soft respite from the chill that was making his teeth ache with the urge to chatter.
For a moment longer Blair rested his forehead against Jim's as the world slid loosely around him, leaving him floundering for balance. When he sat back on his haunches, there was a lost look on his face. "Oh, god, Jim, what are we going to do? We have to get you out of here and to a hospital." His lips firmed in sudden determination. "I could...." but he didn't finish the thought, his mind finding the flaws in it before the words could leave him. No, he couldn't go for help. Assuming he could evade the sniper's shots, find his way back to the truck, go get help, and find his way back with the rescue team, what would be waiting for him on his return was unthinkable.
Blair shook his head vehemently, trying to banish the creeping image that came to him of Jim's body soaking the ground with blood, his chest ripped open by a butcher's series of deep gashes -- "I'm not leaving," he said fiercely, and saw both relief and unhappiness flash through the darkening teal eyes of his friend. Once the poison was through and the sentinel was gone.... Blair squeezed his eyes shut, feeling his heart constrict as it took its own death blow. Maybe he would leave then. Maybe he wouldn't care what happened. He couldn't think about it, couldn't conceive of what he would do because the mere idea of losing Jim blotted out all thought of the future.
His breath caught in a half-sob and he forced his eyes open again, looking through the haze of saltwater. "You got dirt on your face," he said very calmly, and reached up to brush at Jim's cheek. After two or three feathery strokes had removed the bit of dust on his skin, Blair's fingers rested against Jim's face one last time, lingering just long enough for Jim to tip his head slightly into the touch before it trembled and fell away.
"Hey, Chief." Jim's voice was gentle with compassion. "We'll figure something out, OK? Don't fall apart on me here. I'm going to need you all in one piece."
That was the one and only thing that could mean more to Blair than indulging in the reaction that coiled through his chest begging to be let out in a scream. "OK," he ground out, his voice as hoarse as if he had released the cry he felt waiting below his breastbone like a rising bubble that had to be forcibly kept down. Practical, he had to be practical for a while first. "We need to know where that maniac is right now. Can you concentrate well enough to tell me?"
After a sharp nod, Jim extended his hearing outward, trying to pick the sound of their enemy out of the rustling, sighing trees. The creases in his brow spoke of the effort he was making. "He's moving again." For a while he listened, his head cocked a little forward and to the side in characteristic pose, eyes closed. He was so still, his breathing so shallow Blair wondered if he might have passed out or begun to zone, and he gently rested his hand on Jim's shoulder, reminding him of his tie to the outside. Reminding himself of his tie to his friend.
A tie that was about to be broken permanently. So little time left. So little time together - less than two years and it was already over. For the rest of his life this would be the only time they had. Blair swallowed hard and his grip on Jim's shoulder grew tighter for a moment. "Where is he moving to?" he asked, keeping his voice low and even. Deliberately he loosened his hold, trying to force a calm over his movements that he didn't feel inside.
As if struggling for it, Jim took a slightly deeper breath and replied without moving, "Settling in, about seventy five yards away. Sounds like he's unwrapping something..."
Blair's stomach growled in sudden realization of how long it had been since breakfast, and Jim chuckled fleetingly. "I hear that," he agreed, though he remained in his listening posture and seemed inclined to keep focusing on the distant sounds of their pursuer.
Worried about the way Jim wasn't returning to his more immediate surroundings, Blair massaged the shoulder under his hand. "You'll know if he starts to move," he said reassuringly. His thumb caught a snag on the fabric of Jim's jacket just as Ellison flinched, and it took Sandburg a second to realize he had found the spot where the dart had hit. The wound had been so small it hadn't bled enough to stain the coat above. Jim had always been so resilient, able to ignore the physical punishment his job often entailed, that Blair had come to believe he could survive anything. That something so nearly invisible could cut him down in his prime was impossible to grasp. "Come on, let go of him," he whispered. "I'm still here."
Ellison blinked and straightened with an effort, his head tipping back against the rock he was leaning on. His eyes began to drift shut again, his breathing still too slow.
Shaking him a little urgently, Blair pleaded, "Come on, focus, Jim. You gotta stay with me here."
Jim smiled hazily, only a shadow of pain in his eyes betraying him as he tilted his head back down. "Nothing I'd like better, Chief." His smile altered, his gaze locking with Blair's. "There are some things you're going to need to know. The loft...."
Blair shook his head violently, interrupting him. "No. Don't do this, man. Don't go down that road, not yet."
Trying to be gentle, Jim insisted, "It has to be done. You know that as well as I do. We don't have that much time."
Don't you think I know that? "No! It's giving up. I won't do that, not yet. Not ever. Don't you know me better than that by now?"
"That's not the point! There's a difference between giving up and being practical."
"Not in this case. We've still got time, something can happen. Things can change. It's not over yet!" Not yet, please, god, not yet.
"It is for me." There was no vehemence in the statement, only a tired acceptance.
"I can't accept that. I won't. You can't make me." As if realizing how petulant he sounded, Blair looked briefly frustrated. What he felt was far from petty denial, it was a very deep fear of what admitting the truth would do to him.
"Reality is reality whether you accept it or not, Sandburg."
"Would you listen to yourself? You're telling me you give up on yourself and you want me to agree with you?"
"I'm asking you to face the facts, and give me the dignity of not pretending it isn't happening." In his eyes was his plea for help through all he had yet to face, and it broke Blair's stubborn resistance into its brittle component pieces.
"I don't want that to be all that's left for me to give you," he whispered miserably.
"You can't always get what you want. I don't want this! I want to stay." Suddenly too rough, his voice failed him. "I wanted...." Looking away, he caught his lower lip between his teeth for a moment and it gave Blair time to draw a deep, shaking breath.
"I wanted it to last forever too." Blair reached for Jim's hand and threaded his fingers through Jim's, holding on with a warm, careful grip. "I wanted to go on being your friend and having you around for the rest of my life." When he looked up from their interlocked hands, his eyes were silvery with tears. "Losing you so soon... it's not... Jim, please--"
Jim tugged weakly, pulling Blair toward him. The weight of Blair's head against his chest was a burden he wished he could carry forever. "I'm sorry," he whispered. I never thought knowing you could hurt us both so much.
A tiny hiccuping laugh caught in Blair's throat, mixed with the cough of a suppressed sob. "You're sorry," he mumbled, his grip tightening on Jim's hand. "How can you be so calm? I can't think even about this and you're acting like you accept it." Edged with anger, his bewilderment was still mostly composed of pain.
But I don't. How can I accept it? Letting go of the futile resentment at fate was so incredibly difficult, but he couldn't tell Blair that. Nothing was left to him to do except try to make the inevitable easier for them both, so he dredged up half a smile and answered softly, "I accepted it a long time ago. It's not something you can think about all the time, but you have to understand it can happen. That's the only way to avoid letting fear cripple you."
Blair had studied enough ritual approaches to combat and death to know that, and intellectually he accepted the value of that outlook. His own life's end was inevitable, but losing Jim had not been, and he couldn't find a way to accept it. There was no way to make it something he could accept. He found his head moving in a negative shake without his conscious volition, pressing against Jim's chest all the more strongly. "No," he said hoarsely. "That's not gonna work for me, man."
Jim shivered, though it was more an internal tremor than a visible movement. Even so, there was no way Blair could have failed to sense it and he leaned back, his grip on Jim's hand tightening briefly. "You're cold," he stated. Not waiting for confirmation, he released Jim's hand and began shrugging out of his jacket.
"Forget it," Ellison protested.
"Shut up." Sandburg draped his coat over Jim's upper body, tucking it in all around, ignoring how cold the rock behind Jim's back was against his knuckles as he pushed the coat as far as it would go around those broad shoulders.
"Don't need it," Ellison insisted through his teeth.
"Don't be an ass, Sandburg. What good can it do me?"
"Shut up," he replied more forcefully.
A tiny smile hitched at the corners of Jim's mouth, and his eyes drifted shut. Another shiver ran through him, stronger than the last, and he missed the warmth of Blair's hand, the weight of Blair's head upon his chest. He would have liked to offer to trade back the unfelt insulation of Blair's jacket for the warmth of his friend resting close against him, but instead he sighed faintly and accepted what he was given.
Settling next to him, shoulder pressed against his, Blair tried without looking obvious about it to get as much of himself in contact with Jim as possible. He didn't regret giving up his coat and wouldn't take it back under any duress, but it was still chilly enough to make him wish he'd brought the heavier one along on their hike. Which, he knew quite well, he would also have given to Jim, and spared a rueful smile for the fact he'd be in exactly the same position no matter what he'd brought. Even more, he missed the granola bar he was certain had been stashed in one of the other coat's pockets.
"Remind me again why we didn't bring sandwiches with us," he said, when the silence had shifted from restful and grown oppressive.
"Guess I figured you'd be able to forage in the wilderness," Jim mumbled. "Eat a pine tree or some other native foods." A hard shiver racked him and he bit back a hiss of pain the movement invoked. Somewhere far away, the hunting cry of a hawk cut through the mountain quiet, echoing faintly. The wild, lonely sound made the chill seem to bite deeper.
"Pine trees are completely overrated as a source of nutrition." Blair pressed closer to Jim's side. "And if I had one, I'd be burning it for heat instead of eating it." Practical. He had to keep thinking practically. "Jim, can you move at all? Maybe we can sneak out, cause a distraction or something and make a run for it...."
Jim shook his head weakly. "No. Not enough to walk, or even be any help if you tried to drag me. That stuff is all... through me, now."
"Because you exerted yourself to get here," Blair realized aloud, a sick feeling washing down his throat like bile. "I forced you to run. Oh, god, I'm so sorry, Jim! You would have had more time, we'd have more options-"
"Sandburg, stop it. We had no choice. I knew it then and you know it too. If we'd stayed in the open we'd both be dead by now." They'd come close enough as it was, and the thought of that possibility was a chill darker than the one already settling in his bones.
"No," Jim said sharply. "No second guessing. Not now and not ever, do you hear me?" He kept his gaze steady, his feelings kind beyond measure. However little he had left to give, it was still the most valuable gift he could leave Blair with. "Ever," he repeated. The firmness of his injunction was matched by a patience suddenly grown infinite, and eventually Blair nodded once.
"Ever," Sandburg repeated unhappily, wondering himself whether it would be possible to keep the doubts at bay. But he suspected Jim was well aware how difficult keeping that promise would be and might forgive him the occasional understandable lapse. Blair found himself suddenly wishing desperately he was religious enough to believe that, to truly take comfort in the idea some part of Jim would remain alive and aware forever. There was no certainty in him to draw on, no faith that could stand up to the conviction Jim was not just leaving him, but leaving all existence, forever. His friend was a living miracle, slowly being destroyed in front of his eyes, the fierce, pure fire in his soul being extinguished until the world would go on just as though it had never been. All Blair found within himself was the bleak knowledge that even if souls could journey onward, he would never be able to tell the difference; whether Jim's spirit lived or not, Blair would be without his friend for the rest of his life.
What will I be doing this time next year? Blair thought, and found that he was unable to care in the least whether he would even be alive in a year. He pressed himself closer to Jim's side, uninterested any more how cold or hungry he was, and tipped his head to the side so it laid on Jim's shoulder. "This totally bites, you know?"
The faint breath of Jim's chuckle moved across Blair's hair, and he felt Jim's cheek rest briefly on top of his head. "Yeah, Chief, it pretty much does."
Silence fell again, their breathing sounding almost loud in the stillness. Jim shivered periodically, and although he held his head up straight most of the time, every now and then he would let it tilt to the side until the side of his face pressed against the top of Blair's head. A couple flyaway hairs tickled at him when he did, but the warmth in the touch did more for him than the coat tucked around him, and eased the feeling that he ought to be doing something, saying something more. Blair wouldn't let him do what was necessary, not yet, and he didn't know what else to say.
It was clear Blair didn't know what to say to him either. In all the time they'd spent alone together, sitting on stakeouts and spending time camping, silence had never been a problem. They'd shared whatever they wanted to and accepted that not every moment had to have words in it. None of those peaceful times had prepared either one of them for the day when their time would be so limited, when every second that passed felt like a lost opportunity.
Maybe Blair had it right after all. Nothing that could be said would make up for how little time there was, not now. Jim remembered his mother's death, and how he had not known what to say to her, how inadequate words had ended up being when he had needed so badly to express his feelings. He hadn't known what to do then and had ended up simply holding her hand, trying to make that simple touch mean everything he'd failed to say for years.
Jim laid his cheek on the top of his friend's head and closed his eyes, waiting for the time when that would not be enough and words would be attempted again. All that was left to share was the friendship they had. He wondered if he would have the strength, when the time came, to let Blair know that had been enough.
"Hey!" The hail was obviously meant for them, and Jim's head snapped up as he automatically zeroed in on the source. "You two in there! There isn't any way out, you know!"
Blair stirred, reluctantly lifting his head from Jim's shoulder. He shifted, glanced to the side at Jim's intent expression, and when it didn't appear Jim was going to say anything, Blair called back, "So what's your point?"
"I only want one of you. Leave him and you can go."
"Forget it!" Back pressed against the rock next to Jim, Blair yelled his defiance at the open sky above them.
"Come on, he's no good to me dead!"
Blair shuddered, wishing he didn't realize what that meant. As if merely holding on could keep Jim from such a fate, his hand locked on Jim's wrist next to him, knuckles white from the force of his grip. His whole mind screamed You can't have him! but what he called aloud was, "Why don't you come and get him then?"
The quiet mountain air carried the dark chuckle of response, followed by another taunting call. "You can't save him, so why not leave him for me and save yourself?"
"Get bent, you sicko!"
A smile lifted the corners of Jim's mouth, then he shifted and muttered, "He's moving closer. You're going to have to discourage him."
"You think it will make a difference?"
"He already knows we're armed. He won't rush us if he knows we can still defend ourselves at close range."
"Why don't we lure him in and capture him? We can't just wait here...." until you die... Blair flushed slightly as he felt the faint prickle of tears rising, but kept eye contact with his friend, not letting his grip loosen.
Jim's gaze measured Blair's resolve calmly. "You'll have to do it all yourself. An ambush is cold-blooded combat, Blair. Can you handle that?"
The acceptance of complete responsibility for their defense scared him, but not half as much as the prospect of failing Jim's trust. He cleared his throat, making a perfectly voluntary choice. "It's him or you, right? No problem, man."
"Then if you have to, do it." Jim glanced down at his own wrist and shifted, catching Blair's hand in his for a moment. "But not until you have to. We'll miss the call-in and Cavanagh will come looking, and he's good enough to find us."
The disembodied voice carried a hopeful, wheedling tone. "You can't carry him out, you might as well leave before it gets dark...."
Twisting around, Blair yelled at their tormentor, "How do I know you won't just shoot me when I come out?"
"Trust me!" came the mocking reply, and Blair cursed under his breath.
The tiny smile always lurking at the corners of Jim's mouth made a fleeting appearance. "Trust yourself," he said in a low voice.
Nodding tightly, Blair snaked his hand behind Jim's back and took the gun from its holster, the weight of it warm in his hand from Jim's body. Despite his initial dislike of firearms, Jim had insisted he take some basic training in their use and safety, and it had come in handy more than once. Despite the experience and Jim's trust in his ability, his hands shook slightly as he pulled the hammer back on the big semi-auto. "What if I hit him?"
"Then one of our problems is solved," Jim told him with no trace of humor. "I hope you do hit him." Pain ratcheted the lines around his eyes a little deeper. "There-" His face turned slightly and he stared intently, eyes focused beyond the rock wall in front of him. "That direction, coming straight in. Fire!"
Popping up, gun held in the classic shooter's stance he'd been taught, Blair sent a single shot out in the indicated direction before dropping back to safety. There was an immediate echo as fire was returned, the two shots blending into one long rolling crack of artificial thunder. His ears still ringing from the noise, he looked to Jim for a hint of how successful he'd been.
After a moment Jim shook his head. "No such luck. But he's moving away again." He listened for another moment, then nodded. "Back to his waiting place. You can relax for now."
"Wish my eardrums knew that, they're still ringing." Shaking his head a little and squinting, Blair grimaced as he turned back toward Jim and carefully set the pistol down on the ground within reach. As the adrenaline surge began to wear off, he shivered, feeling the deep chill around them with renewed severity. It occurred to him to wonder just how much longer he could keep getting colder before he lost the ability to move well enough to defend them both. If his hands got much colder than they already were, he knew he could kiss off any chance of shooting accurately when the time came.
The same thought appeared to come to Jim. "You have to leave," he said without preamble, looking up with sudden intentness.
"What?" For a moment Blair honestly thought he had heard the words wrong.
"Go. Now, while he's not close enough to catch you."
The words still didn't make any sense, although he was pretty sure he was hearing them correctly. "Jim, I'm not leaving, remember? We already settled this." He knelt next to Jim, puzzled and worried. "You do remember that, right?"
"I'm not hallucinating," Jim said with forced patience. "Look, right now we're at a disadvantage, but at least we can keep tabs on his movements. When I'm gone, you'll be an easy target. You can't stay here until he comes for you, and without any idea where he is, your odds of getting out of this trap are minimal."
"You are hallucinating if you think I'm going to run off and leave you here to that maniac." Perversely reassured once he understood Jim's motivation, Blair shook his head in exasperation. "I'd rather take my chances with you than alone."
Eyes narrowed, Jim said with deliberate cruelty, "Don't you get it? I'm dead already. You don't have to be. Get out of here now."
Blair's eyes widened in momentary shock, then he laughed with gentle mockery, the openly affectionate expression on his face drawing all sting from the soft laugh. "Would you leave me?" he asked, and leaned forward to cover Jim's lips with his fingers to stop the answer. "I know what you're going to say, and I know what you would do." When he took his hand away, his eyes still held Jim's in silent demand for the truth. "What makes you think I don't?"
For a moment Jim's eyes filled with pain but then closed in silent acceptance. There was no time left to him for pretenses. He could feel the poison slipping insidiously through his body, shutting off his nervous system, leaving a cold, biting pain in its wake, a chill coiling around his bones and spreading back out to meet the cold coming inward. When he opened his eyes again, he tried very hard to smile. "Guess this means you can publish your paper."
For a moment Blair didn't seem to have heard him, then he sat back, hurt surprise making his voice rise. "How can you say that? Do you think I care about that now?"
"I thought it would make you happy to be able to finish it." Honest puzzlement creased his brow. "You deserve the credit for the work. I want you to have it. Do yourself and the world some good with what you've learned."
Pure outrage flared. "I don't want to do the world any good! I want to help you!"
"Why won't you leave, then? It's the only thing you can do for me now."
"That won't help either of us! Give it up!"
"Hey, calm down, Chief. 'Detach with love,' remember?" Dilated with deepening shock, his eyes were almost pure pupil, pain broadcast as clearly as a shout. Still, he tried to keep his voice light, free of the fear that moved through him like a river of grinding ice.
Blair stared at him, his face drained of color, eyes stricken. His breathing went ragged, catching in his chest, and Jim could hear the uneven way his heart tripped in its beat. "I'm sorry, Blair," he said very gently. Dredging the last of his strength from a reserve he hadn't been aware he possessed, he managed to lift his right hand and shift it far enough to let it fall against Sandburg's leg.
For a moment, Blair seemed to be in shock, unable to understand the gesture, but then he moved. With tender deliberation he enfolded Jim's hand in both of his, lacing their fingers together. "This isn't a joke," he whispered intently, a note of something near pleading in his voice.
The contrast of Blair's warm skin against his brought into sharp focus how cold he felt despite the second coat covering him, and he realized how chilled Blair had to be after nearly two hours without one. In his grasp he could feel the slight shifting of the fine bones in Blair's hand, the pulse of moving blood that echoed the heartbeat he heard next to him. "No, it's not a joke. I'm sorry," he repeated helplessly, not knowing what else to say.
"Jim, we have to get out of here," Blair insisted, feeling the panic rise again, hot in the back of his throat. "We don't have time to mess around with this." So much had gone by already, irretrievable seconds counted off their meager supply and dribbled into the hungry void.
"We don't have a choice either, Chief. Just keep your cool and you'll do OK."
"I don't care how I'll do! I care--" The tightening grip on his hand cut his incipient tirade short and he looked helplessly at Jim with anguished eyes. "I wish that bastard had hit me instead," he said fiercely, not caring how it sounded, only knowing it was the truth.
Jim saw the truth there and felt his own heart respond. "I'm glad he didn't," he replied, his touch and the look in his eyes steady though his voice was not, knowing for certain at that moment that if he had been given a choice, the outcome would have been the same. The knowledge gave him a sense of peace he hadn't realized he could find within and he added very gently, "We can't change what's happened to me. Right now the most important thing to me is making sure you'll get out of this." Intent, demanding, his gaze pinned Blair with merciless kindness. "Can you do that for me? Will you make the last thing I know for sure is that you'll be OK?"
How can I? How can I promise you something I don't believe myself? Conflict rippled through Blair's gut, leaving a trail of pain in its wake, sharp enough to drive tears to his eyes. "I will do what I can to stay alive," he finally promised in a harsh whisper. His free hand moved of its own accord, settling warm and nearly weightless across Jim's brow. "But I won't be OK," he said fiercely. "Don't ask me for that, Jim, I can't give it to you."
Answering what he saw instead of the words, Jim tightened his grip briefly, murmuring, "Thanks." For being my friend. For loving me so easily I learned to love others more easily myself. Did you know what you were teaching me? Do you know I loved you too? Eyes closing again, tiny creases of pain gathered at their corners, he kept his hold on Blair's hand, letting the soft pulse there soothe the ache inside. The delicate touch across his forehead seemed to draw the pain from his head, bringing him closer to a restful state, and letting him know Blair did understand everything that was necessary.
"Maybe there is a way we can change what happened to you," Blair said slowly. His grip on Jim's hand grew frantically tight and began to shake with his excitement, his other hand moving to gesture rapidly. His pulse accelerated, jarring Jim out of his deepening trance, and Ellison felt a trace of regret at losing the gentle contact on his head. "We can fight this, Jim, we can fight it inside you. You can control your autonomic system in ways nobody else can, it's part of how your senses work." Thinking out loud, wild hope leaped in his voice as he pursued the chain of reasoning. "Tune the pain out to where it's only barely there, then concentrate on where it exists, trace it to its source and study it, explore it, find out what it is. You can define it, and you should be able to make your body change the way it reacts to the poison if it's a neurotoxin - you're in control of your nervous system like nobody else."
"No," Jim blurted instinctively, not even conscious of his reasons himself at first.
"It's your only hope," Blair insisted, as if he had convinced himself already that the idea would work. His eyes sparkled with a feverish excitement that made it clear he needed to believe it would work. "Come on, what have you got to lose?"
"You." The rasped word seemed to hurt Jim's throat and he swallowed hard as he looked up, his eyes pleading, shadowed with fear. "If I can't get back," his grasp tightened on Blair's hand, "you'll be alone."
Understanding bloomed in Blair's eyes, silvering their gray-blue depths. "I'm losing you now," he said, the veneer of calm too thin for comfort. "I'm going to be alone unless this works, OK? So if there's a chance it might work, any chance at all, you have to take it, because the alternative isn't acceptable at all."
"I'm afraid," Jim admitted in a whisper barely loud enough to hear.
"I know." He rubbed his other hand up and down Jim's arm in silent encouragement, the touch warm even through the jacket and shirt. "I am too." Blair sighed, a shaky sound. "I need you to stay with me, Jim, more than anything else I can think of right now. That's why I can't let you give up. It means too much to me. You mean too much to me."
Jim's tactile sense was open all the way, drawing in every hint of warmth exuded from his friend's presence, trying to fight with every resource he could borrow against the cold slowly freezing his soul. Blair's words warmed him even more, drawing an answering ache of tenderness from him that closed around his throat, making his chest tight with the feeling of it.
Very softly, Blair used the only argument he had left: his faith, carried in his voice. "You can do this, Jim. I know you can."
The acquiescence was as natural to Jim as trusting Blair had always been. Closing his eyes, he took a couple deep, shaking breaths, closing down his outside input to the single point of contact with Blair's hand in his and shifting his concentration to within himself. At first the sharp, biting cold overwhelmed him, dragging him mercilessly toward surrender. His jaw flexed and tightened reflecting the tensing that rippled through his body in reaction.
Tempted to lay a comforting hand on him, Blair refrained, afraid to distract him as he looked inward. Instead he put all his energy into his voice, trying to draw Jim with him into the visualization by sheer force of will. "Track the effect to its source, and change the way your body perceives it." Please, please, this has to work.... Keeping the desperation out of his voice was difficult, and he didn't believe he was entirely successful. Falling silent, he watched the struggle reflected on Jim's face, his heart aching with the need to do something to assist, trapped and helpless within his own body. He'd never realized what a prison it could be.
Sinking into himself more slowly, Jim forced calm and distance over himself until he was almost a separate entity from the body he explored. The pain seemed to be everywhere at first, diffuse and all-consuming, an undifferentiated cloud with only random forms shifting randomly across its face. Jim watched, and flowed with the random motions, sinking into the chaotic cold until a pattern slowly emerged, rising like the shape of a tree seen through thick fog from shadow to solidity. It was a fine network of lines radiating throughout his body, everywhere at once, yet not in the same pathways where he could feel his blood moving, a steady ebb and pulse of fluid so full of life it had a granularity all its own. Before the fascination of watching it grew too great, he damped down on his awareness of his heart and circulation, following the other pathways instead, seeking their structure. When he found it, he realized they had known the answer from the beginning. The chilling numbness was advancing slowly, creeping along the tendrils of his nerves, crawling toward his spine, wrapping cold fingers around his muscles until they could no longer obey his commands to them. For a while he puzzled at it, narrowing his feeling until he had only the filaments of the nerves occupying him, but still not sure what to do about the cold they were transmitting.
Turn off the reaction - change your body's assimilation. Reject the poison. Blair's remembered words of confidence and trust carried the infinite reassurance Jim always found in that presence. Change it.... He pondered, and decided he had to fight the cold with warmth.
As Jim's breathing slowed, Blair's fear increased and he watched his friend's face with total absorption, monitoring him by the movement of his eyes under the shadowed lids. In time, Jim's breathing slowed further, becoming hard to detect, and Blair shifted closer, at first careful to avoid a distracting contact. The shivers that had coursed down Jim's body increased their violence, shaking that long, powerful frame until Blair shook in sympathetic tremors that had nothing to do with the chill the perpetual shade had given to his own skin.
Moved by a compassion beyond his resolve to ignore, Blair shifted forward, sitting down so he could pull Jim against him. Bracing his back against the rock, he slid Jim down, wrapping one arm around the back of his neck to support his head and adjusting the wrapping of the coat to keep it tucked in. He was rewarded almost immediately by a decrease in the intensity of the shivers moving through Jim, though the little heat gained by trading the rock for Blair's body couldn't have made such a great impression that quickly. Settling the heavier body against himself and folding Jim's arms up across his own chest, Blair kept watch over the sentinel, hands burrowed down under the jacket's light covering, one holding Jim's, the other splayed protectively over Ellison's chest. He couldn't detect the heartbeat there, the movement was too faint for his normal human senses to pick up through the contact, and he wished desperately for the ability to feel it, even just a little. The outside world meant nothing to him compared to that distant pulse he could see only in the faint, steady beat under the skin at Jim's temple and throat.
The warmth Jim felt was out of proportion to the actual heat of Blair's body. It was an internal feeling of contentment, a soft glow of affection that began deep within and radiated out from his heart. Drawing on the contact, he imagined Blair's warmth flowing across it, spreading, fighting the cold, a gentle glow melting the rime of frost away. As the chill was forced outward from his heart it was met by the incoming warmth of the touch that supported him, its power broken between Blair's strength and his presence in Jim's soul. Jim pushed harder, feeling the progressive heat of sensation returning to his body, forcing the cold to succumb, drowning it in the rush of vigor generated by Blair's support and his own love. Until at last the cold was gone and a languorous warmth suffused his whole body, soothing the places that had ached with pain before, gentling him to rest in victory.
He drifted. There was safety and happiness where he was, and he was aware of lying in the support of Blair's arms, the solid plane of Blair's chest under his cheek, the grip on his hand he couldn't find the strength to return. The murmur of Blair's voice washed over him, but he didn't hear words, only a tone. The voice was gentle but strained, and the stress in it began to draw him outward, seeking to return and find the cause, and make it go away. It wasn't until he could make sense of the words that he understood the cause, and knew there was nothing he could do about it.
"And you've been gone a long time, Jim, so I think you should probably try to come back now. I'm sorry I pushed you, I thought it was right, but if you don't wake up soon here I'm going to really start to worry...."
There was nothing Jim could do about anything, he realized with rising alarm. The deep lassitude dragged at him, weighing him down where it had made him feel safe and sheltered before. It had become a prison he didn't know how to escape.
"Jim, please." Blair tightened his arm around Jim's back, pressing the unresponsive form against himself as if to force life into it. With slow care he disengaged his hand from Jim's lax fingers, then moved it upward to rest on the broad, smooth brow. "Come on, man, time to come back now." Jim's breathing had become deeper, labored and faster as if he were surfacing from his inward concentration, but he didn't open his eyes or respond to the pressure on his hand when Blair shifted again and held those long fingers in a painfully tight grip.
His hand felt small wrapped around the wide, strong palm now lax in his hold. He had seen those hands wrapped tense around a steering wheel in total command, clenched in anger to strike, felt them moving with careful competence to bandage injury, watched as they released fish with gentle compassion. To have them stilled and weak in his grasp felt wrong at a level he couldn't bring himself to understand or accept.
"Shhh." Blair dipped his head and brushed his lips across Jim's forehead gently, comforting himself rather than healing the faint lines etched there. "Rest for now. It's OK. I've got you." Not for long. Not now. Blair's breathing caught and he deliberately steadied it, concentrating on the unfelt heartbeat beneath his hand, the slow rise and fall of the massive chest under his arm. Jim still lived. While he lived, Blair did.
Only last night he had wondered how long it would last, the happiness he had found in making his home where Ellison was. There had been a risk but it had seemed so far away. Not less than a day before everything that made his world was taken away from him, now such a short time remained before nobody would care if he used the rest of that gardenia-green apple shampoo or not. Nobody would care at all... The sob caught him by surprise, shaking him so that he rocked, anchored in place by Jim's weight holding him to the cold, uneven rock at his back.
Jim had anchored him since they had met. Blair could feel himself drifting rudderless already, a yawning emptiness opening within him where solid presence had been. The hole was so frighteningly large he knew he could collapse into it and disappear himself. Holding on like the drowning man he was, Blair fought a losing battle with his own despair, never knowing the man in his arms was losing an identical fight.
The sound and feel of Blair's steady pulse was a quiet beacon, lending Jim a measure of stability in the spiraling suction pulling him inward. He focused on that guiding beat, trying to tie his own life to the evidence of his friend's presence. All the myriad quiet sounds of the forest around them, the feel of the still air and the smell of cold dirt and rock, everything else had faded away until there was only the contrasting warmth of Blair's touch and the regular heartbeat under his ear. Nothing in the world existed but himself, Blair, and the sensory link between them.
Jim pulled himself determinedly along that link, reaching out and forward, trying to draw himself back to the world along the pathway of that one contact with reality. But deep within, tiny slivers of the cold remained, pricking him with sharp reminders of his mortality that reflected Blair's grief and despair, sabotaging Jim's fragile connection to the hope of life until he lost his momentum outward. The weight of the impossible dragged him back time and again into the darkness, until he had no more strength to try fighting free and could only be still, listening to his link to the world with fading desperation.
He shuddered, his body tensing unevenly, shivers rippling through his frame as he struggled to come back. Blair ran one hand up and down Jim's arm reassuringly, but as Ellison's shivers grew fainter and his breathing more shallow, Blair realized he had finally failed his friend and could not repair the damage he had guided Jim into inflicting on himself. He stilled his attempt to reach through and shifted to pull Jim closer against him. Leaning his cheek on Jim's temple, the soft, short brush of hair was a faint, unnoticed tickle against his skin no more important than the sharpness of the cold gnawing at him where his back rested on the rough granite boulder.
"Shhhh," Blair murmured. His voice dropped to the deeper, calmer register that was so oddly unlike his usual lighthearted tenor, yet sounded so much more like his true voice. "Rest now, Jim. You gave me so much. Not just a place to live. Not even the whole sentinel study thing. When I found you I thought I knew what I had, but I was so wrong. The best part of my life was getting to know you, and you didn't have to let that happen - we didn't have to be friends. I'm so glad we were. I'll never forget you or stop feeling lucky to have been your friend. Losing you hurts more than anything I could have imagined, but I'll always be glad I knew you. Wherever you're going, take that with you. Take my love with you forever."
The voice reached Jim, carrying its farewell. Blair's grief touched Jim more than his own fear, and that was what finally broke the thin iron control he had been keeping wrapped around himself since the moment the dart struck. Jim felt his strength crumble and give way, as slow, massive, and inexorable as a glacier breaking apart when it reached the sea. The tears that prickled behind Ellison's eyes were for the sake of his friend, not himself, and he couldn't hold them back, not any longer. Once, after his divorce, he'd wondered, if he were to die, would there be anybody in the world who would honestly grieve his passing or remember who he had been. At the time nobody had really known who he was, the man behind the cop a mystery to all his acquaintances, and the answer to his question had depressed him. Now that it was so clear he would be remembered and mourned with all the depth and power one soul could bring to a lifetime alone, he could only regret ever having desired such a memorial to his life.
It was a memorial he didn't want, and one he could do nothing to prevent. Nothing except not die... not give up. There had been a change in the way the poison was working within him as he had fought it before, he could feel it, and it gave him a seed of hope. Blair had been right, his instinct for how Jim's senses worked as keen as ever. The solution had to be within his grasp, if he used his courage and pursued it all the way, deeper than he had gone before, to the very ends of his every cell. Accepting that, Jim said his silent goodbye to the world and the friend holding him close, certain only that he was going to try with all his heart to succeed, not sure that he would win. I will take your love with me, Blair. I wish I had been able to give you mine before it was too late.
Letting go of the outside was easier than he expected. Concentrating on anchoring himself with Blair's presence as he had before, he felt that well-known heartbeat surrounding him, reverberating in counterpoint to his own, the way their lives had balanced each other from the very beginning. With that as his touchstone, he went back into himself, seeking out the places within, where the last of the poison still worked and lingered in tiny seeds of cold death.
With a final shiver, Jim went still, breath ghosting out of him so quietly he hardly seemed to be breathing at all any longer. Blair felt the change, and knew his vigil was near its end.
"I'll be here, Jim, I'll be with you. You're not alone any more." He pressed his lips to the smooth forehead, his face crumpling with grief so he could barely complete the trembling kiss.
The cracking sound of a breaking stick broke the silence as sharply as a shot. Blair went perfectly still, his breath freezing in his throat as he listened. In his arms was the slow, deathly faint rasp of Jim's breathing, and all around him the living quiet of the mountain.
The hunter was coming for his prey. A feral possessiveness tightened Blair's hold on Jim, before he very deliberately loosened his grip. "Wait for me," he whispered, no more than the faintest sound from his lips. As he shifted slowly, laying Jim down with infinite care, the rustle of his clothes moving sounded loud in his ears above the rush of his own breathing. A branch creaked wetly, brushing back through its fellows as it was released, and Blair tilted his head in unconscious imitation of Jim's listening position. With both hands he smoothed his hair back behind his ears, ignoring the subtle hiss of his fingers moving through it.
Dismissing Jim's gun with a glance, Blair slid over toward the low spot in the surrounding wall of rock. Surprise was his only advantage, and his enemy already knew he was armed, and would be ready for a standard ambush. There wasn't enough room to arrange any defense once the wall was no longer between him and his nemesis. Gliding forward, his feet placed with the stealth he'd had to learn to accompany the Nambikwara warriors on hunting parties, he made no sound at all as he crouched in waiting behind the low spot that was the only easy entrance to their refuge.
Blair let his eyes unfocus and quietly took a couple deep breaths. For a moment he let his concentration shift, gaze drifting over the long, still lines of his partner, and the sight drove a spoke of ice through his heart. He let it fuel a deep, unspeakably great anger that left him calm, feeling as if he were suspended in crystal. Everything around him had a sharp-edged clarity, the air so preternaturally clear around him he knew he could see every single separate pine needle on the trees around him if he cared to try, and he felt time stop, leaving him free to move with total deliberation.
Another small twig snapped, very close, followed by a half-second hiss of frustration. There was a quiet wind he hadn't noticed before, when his whole mind had been concentrated on what was sheltered behind their fortress walls. The trees murmured with it all around him, the susurration of their needles faint in a low background sound that almost swallowed the stealthy noise of an inexpert hunter creeping closer. Blair listened, imagining for a moment that his friend's sentinel senses had passed to him, so easy was it to separate the approaching rustle and footstep of Jim's murderer from the rest of the world's input. Blair's head turned to the side, filling his sight with Jim one more time even while his body tensed for action. In the deep shadows of the late spring afternoon, the granite boulders protecting them loomed over Ellison's prone form like gravestones. It hadn't been long ago he had promised Jim this place wouldn't see both their deaths; it was time to keep that promise, the one that had meant more to Jim than any other. The scraping of a boot being placed on the rock came from only a few feet away, followed by a huffing breath being drawn in preparation, and Blair coiled himself, utterly ready.
The man came over the top of the rock in a clumsy rush, pistol held out straight-armed in front of him as if it could see the way ahead. Boiling up out of his ambush in an explosion of pure rage, Blair screamed aloud as he attacked. His inarticulate yell broke the quiet of the forest with appalling suddenness and gave him enough of an added edge that the startled hunter was only beginning to bring his gun to bear in the right direction when Blair rammed into him. Blair grabbed the barrel of the revolver in both hands and wrenched it sideways, twisting ferociously and throwing his full weight down and to the side.
The force yanked the hunter's finger tight on the trigger and the gun bucked, the barrel flashing hot in Blair's hand as it discharged. The bullet buried itself in the ground a few feet from Jim's recumbent body, throwing up a tiny spurt of dust that hung in the air unnoticed. Still pushing with his weight and holding the gun pointed away from himself, Blair threw his shoulder forward, then twisted at the waist and kicked fiercely. The gun went off again, and the ricochet off the surrounding rocks screamed past them on its way back out into the forest.
Ducking instinctively, the hunter's hold loosened for a second, and Blair pulled and kicked again, aiming to crack the kneecap backward. He caught the man slightly above the knee and used the strength of his leg to straighten his body against that leverage, the extension of his arms making it impossible for the other man to keep holding on to the gun.
"Shit!" The expletive formed out of a sharp grunt of pain as the intruder let go of the revolver. It went off one final time as it was dragged from his grasp, sending the shot high over the surrounding rocks into the sky. Still holding it by the barrel, hands stinging from the heat and shock of the discharges, Blair fell and twisted, rolling away.
Dropping his shoulder with a swift rotation of the joint, the hunter was pulling the rifle slung there around to bear when Blair rolled to his haunches and reversed the front-heavy .45 at him. "Hold it right there." Sandburg's voice was harsh, his breathing labored. His eyes were wide and wild, but the gun in his hands was steady.
Crafty eyes, muddy gray in the lowering light and squinting with contempt, surveyed the anthropologist. "You never killed anyone," sneered the surprisingly dumpy man. His breath reeked of wintergreen chewing tobacco and dark stains marred his teeth, matching the brown of the plaid flannel shirt he wore.
"I never wanted to before." Gathering his balance, Blair rose without his aim wavering. "Put the rifle down slowly." He watched unblinking as his order was followed, the front sight of the pistol perfectly constant on its target.
"Push it away with your foot," he directed next, and when compliance was slow, he pulled back the hammer with his thumb. "Hope the single-action trigger pull on this isn't too light, in case I get upset."
With a little more alacrity, the rifle was pushed to the limit of reach of the man's leg.
"Fine. Now, put both hands on top of your head and back up. Sit on that rock." The barrel didn't waver, nor did he shift his eyes to the side.
"Isn't this a bit much?"
"Shut up and do it." Blair didn't try to be deliberately intimidating. The cold rage that had given him so much strength stayed with him, leaving him utterly indifferent to whether he was obeyed or not. That nearly reptilian detachment was more convincing than any threat, and the nameless hunter sullenly did as he was told, awkwardly dropping into place on the indicated boulder.
Careful to keep his balance, Blair dragged the rifle closer to himself with one foot until it was far enough away from his prisoner that he could safely bend and pick it up. Dragging it by the barrel, he pulled it farther, laying it at Jim's side. The flat, dull eyes of the hunter followed his every movement, but the man didn't tense or shift, still too wary of the gun pointed at him to attempt an escape yet.
They were both wondering the same thing, Blair decided, momentarily stumped. How was a sad, tired anthropologist going to hold a desperate, cold-blooded killer prisoner for an indeterminate length of time, and could he manage it until rescue came, if indeed it was going to come at all? He knew he couldn't stay totally vigilant for hours more; when the rage-fueled adrenaline rush slowed and the hovering grief moved in he would not stay alert, nor able to concentrate on keeping tabs on an enemy. Even now his attention was trying to wander, the desire to be with Jim every last second they had left growing stronger than his compulsion to keep an eye on the man he had captured.
The first step was obvious. Eyes still locked on the other man, Blair knelt on one knee and slid one hand under Jim's left hip. Creature of habit that he was, Jim was carrying the handcuffs in his back pocket. Blair spared a second of fond amazement, silently asking Jim what he had thought he might need them for out in the woods. The thought of Jim's smiling answer that they were, in fact, needed at this very moment drove a long, thin needle of pain through the center of his chest. The metal of the cuffs was warm from Jim's body and Blair clutched them tightly, as if he were holding a small piece of Jim's life force resident in his possession. "Lie flat on the ground, face down."
"Make me." Sullenly defiant, the hunter sounded like he was testing the resolve of his captor.
Sliding the handcuffs into his front breast pocket for a second, Blair braced the pistol with both hands, taking careful aim. "Glad to," he said with grim pleasure, but before he could squeeze off a shot, the man was moving, sliding down the rock and leaning forward to lay on the pale dirt. Circling him carefully until he could approach from an angle where his legs couldn't be struck, Blair moved with all the considered caution he would have used on an angered rattlesnake. Remembering everything Jim had taught him and everything he had seen during the many arrests he had been present at, he immobilized the man by kneeling in the center of his back and pulling his arms down one at a time to snap the loops of the cuffs onto his wrists.
His technique was good enough to pass. "Pig!" the hunter huffed into the dust, his face pressed to the ground under Blair's weight.
It wasn't worth a reply. Blair shoved himself back off the man, his skin crawling from even that much contact, and circled back to his position by Jim's side. He knew he had to keep a sharp watch on his prisoner, but despite the way it made him feel, he couldn't keep his eyes from drifting to Jim's still form laid out on the ground. Though the sight dug tiny, sharp claws into his heart every time, he couldn't give up that perception of his beloved friend. All the empty years looming ahead would be bereft of even this much closeness.
He'd known it would hurt; last night his thoughts had skittered around this very eventuality and the cold, deep reaction he'd had to the mere prospect had surprised him with its intensity. That anticipation had been nothing next to the real thing. It was clear to him now that he'd really had no idea just how much of his life was nothing more nor less than Jim's life. Now Jim lay silent on the cold, dusty ground, and Blair knew it was his own heart, his own life that lay there. He sat down next to Jim, the gun hanging loosely in his hand, and wondered why he had bothered working so hard at keeping a promise that was sure to be broken soon. "I'm sorry, Jim," he whispered. "It's just not working out for me here." Even Jim would have to admit that after Blair tried as hard as he could, there would be no reason to keep denying the inevitable.
"Can I get up now?" the hunter demanded a few minutes later. Still face-down on the ground, he twisted his neck upward, trying to see where Blair was.
"I don't care," Blair answered listlessly, then roused a little. "But if you try it, don't go any farther than that rock you were sitting on before."
Blair ignored that, the muttered complaints that followed as the guy rolled over and levered himself awkwardly to his feet, and only looked up sharply when the man wavered a bit, planting his feet more widely as if considering something other than sitting down again. "Don't even try it." Blair pointed the gun again, then waved with the barrel toward the rock. "Sit over there and be quiet."
"Don't you want to know my name?"
"Or why I need to hunt?"
"I don't care. Shut up."
"Or what? You'll make me?"
Too weary to even marvel at how juvenile the exchange was becoming, sick of everything in the world and so full of pain he couldn't even think any longer, Blair raised the pistol again and lobbed a single shot past his prisoner's ear. It surprised him as much as it did his prisoner, and for a second Blair wasn't completely sure whether he had aimed to miss the man or not. Nor could he really muster the energy to care.
The hunter sat down quickly on the rock and regarded him, a calculating look on his face. Under that hostile scrutiny, Blair felt a little strange as he propped the gun on his bent knee and let his free hand settle on Jim's shoulder. It wasn't enough, not nearly, but it was all he could do at the moment and still retain some appearance of trying to keep his promise to Jim. Blair would do what he had to in order to ensure his own survival for a little while longer. Whether or not he was able to keep his word forever, he knew he couldn't betray it while Jim still was with him.
"He shouldn't be dead yet. Ought to be conscious." Beady shark-eyes squinted hungrily at Jim's body, and Blair had to resist the urge to get up, go over, and hit the man to make him stop defiling Jim with that look. It was as filthy as a slug crawling across the pale skin of his friend. "Should have had another hour or so before he's too far gone for use."
"If you say one more thing, I will kill you, no matter what he would have wanted," Blair said calmly, and the conviction in his voice was unambiguous. In his mind was the equally clear realization it was his help that had put Jim under faster, against the sentinel's protest. A sharp, hard knot formed high in his chest, a pearl of pain building around the knowledge of what he had done.
The voracious look turned back toward Blair, assessing him impersonally and finding him wanting. A sneer lifted the hunter's lip. "He's a goner. Doesn't matter any more what he wanted. You couldn't do it anyway."
"Your memory isn't any better than your breath." Deliberately aiming the pistol at him, Blair let his finger tighten on the trigger. So easy, it would be so easy to avenge Jim. He deserved that much closure, at least. Jim would understand, he had nearly done the same thing in the Wilkinson Tower when that bomb went off.
"It's good enough to remember how many rounds I had in that gun, boy." Baring his stained teeth in an unpleasant parody of a grin, he scooted his center of balance forward and then straightened up to standing with only a little effort.
Panic washed hotly through Blair and he scrambled upward, barely getting to his feet in time to meet the rushing body that slammed into him. Too late, he pulled the trigger, and the gun was knocked from his hand even as the hammer fell on an empty shell. The dull click of the impacting firing pin was lost in the grunt as his breath was driven from him and he staggered back an awkward step, wondering even at that moment what purpose the attack could have. A second later he realized the answer, as the hunter turned away from him and jumped over Jim's body, turning himself so he could reach for Jim's gun, lying forgotten on the other side. He scrabbled at it, unable to see exactly where his hands were behind his back.
"No!" Diving across at him, Blair tackled the hunter, knocking him sideways out of his crouch. The man lashed back with one booted foot as he landed on his butt, catching Blair with a painfully hard blow to his shin. A second later he twisted with unexpected agility and rolled away, nearly on top of the semi-automatic already, fingers reaching for it.
Aware of the pain in his shin only distantly, Blair pivoted and dove, coming up with the rifle as the hunter began to rise off his own knees. Without the room or time to aim it as a threat, he held it by the barrel and stock and swung the butt against the hunter's temple. The man dropped the gun he had just gotten hold of and swayed on his haunches. For a moment it looked like he would fall across Jim, but Blair growled and kicked at the hunter's shoulder, toppling him in the other direction.
Reversing the rifle to point it at the dazed, panting man, Blair sighted down the barrel at him. It was so tempting.... His awareness of the stillness of Jim's form became acute and in the silence he couldn't hear Jim's voice any longer. Nothing told him not to make the world a cleaner, better place by removing this particular piece of scum from the gene pool. No urgent call to reason, no gentle reminder of mercy, no approving nod with a quick half-smile - everything Jim could give him had already been given. The mystery they had built together was nothing but ruins now, and he would never know what it might have become.
Barely hauling the barrel up in time, he fired the first shot at a low angle into the trees. The next two shots went higher as the arc of the swing peaked. In the semi-darkness the muzzle flash lit up the small area around him like an orange strobe, and the salty, acrid smell of burned gunpowder filled the air. Blair's finger tensed on the trigger, ready to pull it again just for the roar and the hard kick of the gun, as if the sound and fury of it gave voice to the scream he held inside. By the time his hearing returned fully, the rolling echoes of the shots had faded away from the mountainsides, leaving a silence slightly too complete to be natural.
The temptation to end the threat permanently was so great that Blair shook, knuckles white where he clenched the rifle. It might have been in self defense, he could always say so and in a way it would even be true. Nobody would blame him at all, not even a little bit, if they suspected he had deliberately avenged the death of his best friend.
Nobody but himself, and his memory of Jim. With a strangled noise of frustration, Blair dropped the gun and took a step closer. He bent and hauled the man roughly upright, pulling him away from Jim, toward the low spot in the rocks, not caring at all about his prisoner's moans or weak struggling. When the guy's knees gave way and he started to fall, Blair uttered a vicious curse and pushed him harder.
Once over the rocks, it was about thirty feet to the nearest tree. The hunter started to struggle more determinedly about halfway there and Blair silently punched him in the jaw to discourage him. When they reached the first tree at the edge of the forest's border around the open area, a pine with a diameter of about a foot, Blair unlocked one side of the cuffs. Unceremoniously yanking his groggy prisoner's arms around the tree's girth, he relatched the cuff tightly. He took a second to check the fit of the other bracelet and, satisfied that he himself could not have wriggled out of them, left the half-conscious man hugging the tree and, without another backward glance, walked back to the pile of rocks he had come to think of as a fortress. In the shadows of falling evening, they loomed like some ancient stronghold, dark and jagged against the shaded blues of the sky.
The air was clean and cool and sweet, and he took a deep breath, smelling the slightly damp pine scent of the forest surrounding him. Jim would have been able to tell him of other types of trees, would have detected the hint of gunpowder left from the shots that had been fired, and known which direction led quickest to flowing water. Blair felt his eyes tear up and pulled in another, deeper breath, fighting the urge to give in. Suddenly all he could smell was the saltiness of his own need to cry.
The cold, suddenly unfriendly mountain breeze raised goosebumps on his arms under the sleeves of his shirt and his steps quickened until he was running. He leaped over the low barrier, unable to avoid feeling a wild hope he would find Jim awake, sitting up and waiting for him. In his mind he could see the small smile of welcome that would lift the corners of Jim's mouth, hear the pleasure that would warm his voice as he said hello, feel the relief of knowing Jim would be happy to see him return. Blair's breath caught as he drew it for a greeting, and felt the sharp stab of reality hitting him in the chest.
Jim was quiet and still, stretched out where he had been before, his eyes closed, and if his chest was moving it was so faintly it could not be easily seen. His breathing hard and uneven, Blair stood there for a moment, staring down at Jim before dropping to the cold ground beside him. He folded his legs under himself and sat, staring sightlessly at the loss of all his hope. Finally, he lifted Jim's hand from where it lay, curled his fingers around it and let it rest on Jim's chest, riding the slight rise and fall of his slow breathing.
Blair sighed, acknowledging the ache in his throat was going to have its way soon. Without thinking ahead, he let his thoughts take voice. "I wanted to stay, I was willing to do it." The injustice of having made his choice at last but being refused the chance to live it twisted inside him and his voice rose. "You said you wanted to stay, and you left anyway! Don't do this to me... you can't do this! I did everything right!"
Everything but what he needed the most. His other hand moved restlessly in the air for a moment before drifting like a snowflake to land gently on Jim's brow. His voice was as soft as his touch. "I hope I did everything right, I wanted to. I always wanted to stay, but you could see that, you knew." It hadn't been a question between them, not really. At least, that was the way he felt about it, and he had always been able to sense an answering agreement in Jim even though he had rarely said it aloud. Now the words seemed too pale, but Blair spoke them anyway, his throat closing on them. "My heart will always stay with you, and you in mine." He fell silent, locking the feel of Jim still alive deep into his mind to fight the images he knew would be haunting him for as long as he lived. The knowledge he was in control of how long that would be was a grim, secret comfort he held out of sight, trying not to draw on its promise too soon. There would be plenty of time later to take it out and examine it more closely; all the time in the world.
A lifetime, if he chose it. Those years stretched long and empty ahead of him, an unbearable prospect of thousands of days when there would be nothing left but his memories of Jim. Every time he might draw breath to laugh, the memories would be waiting there, ambushing him from within. How could they not? His entire life and outlook had been made different by knowing this one man. Jim had made a difference in Blair's life and in many others with his compassion and determination to do the right thing. Those people would remind him of Jim too, wearing the touch of his influence like a subtle perfume that only Blair could smell, elusive but unforgettable. But Blair didn't want to have traces of Jim's life forever reminding him of what had been, he wanted to have Jim, vibrant and active beside him. The flush of anger crept through him again, then folded under the weight of his despair. This is so goddamned unfair. How am I supposed to get over losing you?
He shifted his hand, gently stroking over Jim's brow until the soft bristle of cropped hair brushed his palm, tickling as it resisted laying flat under his faint touch. "Jim, you are my heart. I need you not to leave, OK?"
Jim heard the voice whispering into the emptiness he wandered through, as if brought on the carrier wave of the heartbeat forming his lifeline. For a while he had lost contact with it and failure had closed around him, dark and cold as the death patiently waiting for him to give in. But he'd remembered his promise to Blair, accepted the fear as part of the price he had to pay, and gone inward to find the last remnants of icy pain coiled around the core of his body. Tendrils of it had twined around his spine and woven themselves through the very center of his brain, like a grasping wisteria making itself an intrinsic part of any structure in its path. Calm then, he'd pulled at it patiently, the touch of his concentration withering its hold, breathing Blair's name on it, talisman of the force that made him strong. Unaware of anything else but the task, he worked steadily until there was nothing left of the poison to be found.
When the warmth he'd carried into himself had reached to every corner and made it his own again, he'd reached out instinctively, searching for the anchor that kept him grounded, flying outward to find it and meet it. Farther and farther from the void within that had held him so long, the world expanding around him, opening new horizons as he rose from the infinitely small, until he began at last to surface from the world within and re-entered the larger world where the struggle to awaken he had abandoned before waited for him again.
The tremble of Jim's hand in his seemed to signal the end, and Blair tightened his hold fractionally, holding on for the last moment of life as he knew it. "Jim..." he whispered, unable to bring himself to say goodbye. Jim's chest moved visibly as he struggled for a deeper breath, as if trying to speak a final word. Leaning all the way over, Blair rested his head on Jim's chest, hoping to hear the vibrations of that last word, unwilling to miss it even while afraid of hearing the last beat of that great heart, knowing the sound of Jim's last breath rattling from his lungs would be the soundtrack to every nightmare to come.
The fight was so easy this time, all Jim's effort driven by the breaking voice that called his name, spoke of commitment, and asked him to stay. The chill which had held him powerless was gone and he bent the last of his strength unimpeded toward rejoining his friend. All his will and desire drew him toward the life waiting for him in the world, his heart straining with the need to be there, to comfort the anguish he heard so clearly. When the warmth he had held so dear inside could be felt from without, he tried to touch it.
With every iota of Blair's concentration fixed on listening to the pulse and breath that moved in Jim's chest, he wasn't aware of the slight play of muscles shifting beneath his cheek until he felt the sudden weight descending clumsily on his head. He startled violently at the touch, his head jerking up so that Jim's hand slid loosely off. The limp fingers trailed through his hair, catching on a tangle and holding him in place, suspended a few inches above his friend, unable to think at all for several moments. He couldn't believe Jim had the strength to move unless it meant he was reviving, but to give in to that hope and be wrong would complete the destruction already so well under way.
It was almost completely dark and stars were beginning to fill the sky overhead, but Blair's eyes were adapted well enough to still see what he wanted to. He stared at the pale, shadowed planes of Jim's face, able to see the working of his throat as he struggled to pull in another breath, to keep living. It was so like Jim, that indomitable will to keep going, the unyielding courage to expend the last of his strength in every fight.
Blair couldn't help the tears that fell then, at knowing what end Jim fought so fiercely against and how hopeless the battle was. He wanted to tell Jim to rest this time, to let go of the pain willingly and take the respite he deserved, to go in peace with love. But he couldn't bring himself to do it. He couldn't let Jim go, couldn't encourage him to leave, and the worst part was that reluctance wasn't for Jim's sake but grown entirely from his own selfish need.
"Stay with me." He didn't realized he had said it aloud at first, but Jim's hands twitched, and his effort to breathe grew more determined, more forceful. Blair tilted his head back down, resting his cheek on the fingers that had tangled in his hair, and waited, not knowing what he waited for. "Stay," he breathed again, never having wanted anything more in his life than he wished for that one favor.
It was like awakening after a long, deep sleep. Jim's body felt heavy and distant, his breath so shallow he was light-headed, and he tried to pull in more air, his ribcage held by a weight settled on his chest. The coherent integration of feeling returned slowly, bringing the sensation of warmth and the knowledge he did not want to move that weight, not yet. Dampness touched his skin where his fingers were caught in the smooth, soft knots of hair, salt tears sticking the strands together under Blair's cheek.
"Chief." His voice was hoarse, very quiet and weak, but softly loaded with affection all the same.
Blair's head snapped up, eyes wide with disbelief and wild, springing hope. "Jim?" His hands tightened on the one of Jim's he still clasped, the grip painfully strong for a moment before he registered what he was doing and loosened his hold slightly.
Bright in the darkness he could penetrate with ease, Jim saw the tear tracks on Blair's face, the last ones he'd shed clumping his lashes together around eyes that were a pellucid blue. Ellison's breathing caught on the lump in his throat and he had to struggle to pull in another breath past it, and then to let it go evenly. Slowly, uncertainly, his motor control returning with frustrating sluggishness, he lifted his free hand and rested it, trembling with weakness, over Blair's hold on the other one. "Hey there," he husked.
"Hey yourself." Blair smiled tremulously, then abandoned all pretense and wrapped one arm around Jim's neck, freeing the other so he could worm it underneath Jim's back to hold him close. "Oh, god, Jim...." Curling, Blair's fingers locked in the fabric of Jim's coat despite the pressure against his knuckles on the sharp-edged pea gravel underneath their combined weight, and he shook with the force of his reaction, unsure himself whether he was sobbing or laughing or just trying to keep breathing. In his joy Blair wasn't conscious of the cold any longer, or of anything but Jim's arms wrapped around him and holding him so tightly in return. After a while he noticed the way he had his cheek pressed hard against Jim's, and some time after that his awareness expanded to the fact his weight had to be half-crushing the air from Jim's lungs as he lay across that broad chest, but it was a very long time before Blair cared enough about any of those things to change them.
Besides, none of it bothered Jim either. Not enough to make him loosen his embrace, or roll his head away from the contact even a little. If anything, he pressed back, letting the touch say all he couldn't yet and might not ever find the words for. Though he had bitterly regretted not being able to speak before, now the ability had returned but the urgency had fled, leaving him only willing to convey what he had wanted to with the same language he had always used. The idiom of Jim's heart had always been touch rather than speech, so he held Blair to him, pressed his cheek to Blair's, and only breathed, "Thank you."
When Blair did finally let go and begin to sit back up, Jim let him, releasing his own hold though he eased his arms down by letting his hands run across Blair's shoulders. The soft flannel caressed his palms, reminding him of all the other sensations he had set aside. In a rush of sound and color and feeling the world surrounded him, as if it had been waiting to make its appearance. Everything from the grit of the dirt beneath him to the sound of two squirrels chasing each other home through the trees seemed present at once, a vast tapestry of detail in which he and Blair were tiny, diminishing figures. He closed his eyes, glad he was already lying down, dizzy and a little sick with the influx of perceptions.
As if Jim had reeled while standing, Blair was instantly aware of the sentinel's distress. His hands descended on Jim's, his voice was pitched low and comforting as he urged, "Relax, let it in slowly, then control it. Choose what you want to sense."
Nodding once tightly, Jim sorted through the sensations, deliberately setting aside the distant ones that meant nothing to him. He let what was important center around the beat of Blair's heart, there with him as it had been when he needed it most, the pivot around which everything else revolved. The flood of input untangled itself into a manageable stream, became integrated into a single, cohesive impression, and resolved into the sight of Blair bending over him, worry creasing his brow.
"Thanks." It was a pretty lame thing to say, Jim knew, but he also knew Blair would know what he meant.
"Oh, man." Blair sniffed hard, and dragged his sleeve across his eyes. He cleared his throat and glanced around, as if trying to remember where he was and how he had gotten there. "Oh, man," he repeated more quietly, and when he looked back at Jim there was an expression of disbelief on his face. He leaned back a little, now sitting next to Jim with only one hand still resting possessively on Jim's chest.
There was so much in his voice, layers of fear and anger Jim didn't understand. "What?" he demanded, though the sound was a weak croak rather than his usual peremptory bark of command.
"I thought... it was so long, and I didn't know," Blair answered, then seemed to hear himself and realize he wasn't making any sense. He looked down at Jim and smiled nonsensically. "I'm sorry, I'm just so glad, you know?"
It was impossible not to smile back up at him, though Jim hoped he was not grinning as foolishly as Blair was. He suspected he might be. "I know." There was still something odd about the way Blair looked at him, so he asked more calmly, certain there was something he needed to know, "What did I miss?"
"Oh, man," he said one more time, his eyes looking strange enough to begin to frighten Jim. "That guy, he was here." Blair shuddered, the immediate past coming back in flashes of violence. "He attacked and I had to hit him."
Jim's head rolled as he tried to see around and behind Blair, and he struggled to sit up but his muscles were so uncooperative he couldn't begin to make it upright. Couldn't do more than barely lift his head before giving up and asking urgently, "Where?"
"On the head." Blair was beginning to tremble, reaction combining with cold. "I hit him on the head."
"No," Jim said gently, relaxing, and he covered Blair's hand with his own again, waiting until the warmth of his touch brought attention back to him. "Where is he now?"
Blair looked at him blankly, then down at his hand where it was held. "Out there," he said in a monotone. "Handcuffed to a tree."
The relief of knowing they were safe gave way quickly to amazement, and then Jim laughed. It was curtailed by a sharp chill that shook him hard, but he was grinning even while he shivered. "Good job," he said approvingly, then shivered again. It wasn't the painful, bone-deep chill that had sapped his life before, but it wasn't pleasant either, and he grimaced in discomfort.
Shaking himself out of his introspection, Blair leaned forward, squinting at Jim in the darkness. "You're cold," he stated, and promptly began shifting, moving around to settle his back against the flat side of the rock he had used before. He lifted and pulled Jim off the ground, grunting with the effort but so careful not to handle him roughly. With a bit of maneuvering he finally was able to settle Jim into his lap so the larger man rested against his chest, Blair's coat still draped over and then tucked in around Jim. To keep it in place, Blair wrapped his arms around Jim and held him with a care that was nearly tender. Somehow one hand ended up cradling Jim's head, idly petting his hair, the light, repetitive touch soothing both of them. After a while, Blair asked quietly, "How? I'm not complaining, but what happened?"
"I did what you said." Jim sighed, his head resting heavily against Blair's breastbone. "Just took me two tries to get it right."
Blair's hand stilled as he absorbed that, then he gave a watery-sounding chuckle. "You about gave me a heart attack." He whapped the side of Jim's head so lightly it was barely a brushing touch of the fingers, more caress than disciplinary measure. "Next time, do it right the first time."
His eyes still closed, a contented smile formed on Jim's face and he agreed tiredly, "Will do."
They fell silent then and, for a short while, Jim slept. Confusing, vivid dreams came quickly, enhanced by the slight chill left over from his ordeal. He twitched in Blair's arms, and Sandburg held him a little closer, breathing a quieting sound into his hair. Jim woke with a sharply indrawn breath, his whole body tensing at first but calming immediately as he assimilated his surroundings.
"You were dreaming," Blair said, his voice as gentle as his touch.
"That totally sucked," Jim mumbled, showing no signs of wanting to move from where he was curled warm against Blair. Blair's surprised laugh shook Jim, making him smile to himself.
"Yeah," Blair agreed, "a lot of today pretty much sucked big time." He rested his cheek on the top of Jim's head and sighed. "But it's a lot better now."
"Mushball," Jim murmured, utterly immovable all the same, eyes drifting shut again, face pressed to the flannel of Blair's shirt. The short nap was soft on his skin, fuzziness dulling the ribs of the weave, but what he felt most strongly was the heart beneath.
"So sue me," Sandburg said amiably. This time the gentle whap was a little more pronounced. "You're no stoic yourself."
Ellison's plaintive "Ow" left them both smiling a bit foolishly, ridiculously happy just to be alive and infinitely comfortable in their closeness. If it occurred to either of them that there might be a more efficient way to stay warm until rescue, neither cared to make the suggestion.
Even though Blair was staring off into the darkness, he didn't hear the approaching footsteps until they were almost upon him. The gritty sound of boot soles scraping on rock broke into his thoughts at the same time Jim rasped, "Someone's coming." Sandburg let go of Jim with one hand and scrabbled for the gun, bringing it to bear just as a figure topped the low part of the rock wall. A flashlight caught him, blinding him, and in his shock at being pinned in the beam he almost pulled the trigger.
"Whoa, don't shoot! It's me, Dave Cavanagh."
Blair lowered the gun, surprise and relief making his hand shake with reaction. "How did you find us?" he blurted. He squinted up at Cavanagh in the gloom, barely able to see his features above the glare of the flashlight's beam except for the flash of his smile.
"Zeroed in on the signal from your active cell phone." He held up a small, electronic tracking device, the LED display pegged out at full red. "Once we figured you were having problems, we headed for your last known position. Those three shots you fired gave us the general direction to start in and we picked up the interrogation chirp pretty quickly."
Before he had even finished the explanation, Blair was no longer listening. "Can you get a med-evac chopper in here?" he asked urgently. "Jim was hit by one of those darts and almost died."
"I don't need a chopper," Jim protested feebly. "I'm fine." As if trying to prove it, he began to struggle upright away from Blair.
"You are not." Releasing his hold on Jim, Blair helped him to sit up, then maneuvered himself out of the way and firmly pushed Jim back to lie flat on the ground. "Shut up and lie still," Blair ordered, ignoring the irritated glare he got for his efforts.
"I do not need a chopper," Jim insisted again, but he laid still under the light pressure of Blair's hand on his chest.
Cavanagh gave Blair another half-seen smile. "My jeep can get within a couple hundred yards of here pretty fast. We can get him to the clinic in town and if Jenny thinks he needs to be hospitalized, we can arrange transport from there."
"That will be fine," Jim announced firmly.
"No, it's not," Blair said just as firmly. He appealed to Cavanagh, "That poison nearly killed him, he needs to go to a real hospital right away."
"Sandburg." Jim wrapped one hand around Blair's wrist, tugging it away from the center of his chest. Instead of pushing Blair away when he yielded, Jim slid his hand down to hold Blair's, and said gently, "Blair, if I'm not dead by now, it's not going to kill me. Please, let's not make too big a deal out of this." The undertone was clear, and Blair nodded numbly in agreement.
With a slightly puzzled look, Dave pulled his radio from his belt and keyed it a couple times, then hailed one of his men and got a swift answer. "Yeah, Joe, it's Dave. I've found them, get Frank and drive up road 15-L about two miles. Come up the slope due west to a large outcrop, we'll be waiting there." The hollow voice on the other end asked if the rest of the search teams should be recalled and he replied, "Yeah, but leave somebody at the trailhead to bring in their vehicle. And call Dr. Williams and tell her to meet us at the clinic." On the returned "Roger that" he clipped the radio back on his belt and moved over to set his flashlight on a flat spot on a rock, the beam pointing upward as a beacon for his men.
"How are we going to get out of here?" Blair asked, still somewhat dazed. The vertical beam of light left a pale backwash around them that sharpened the shadows, drawing harsh black triangles in the hollows of Jim's throat and eyes. "I can walk but I'm not sure Jim can go very far, and we can't carry that guy too."
"That guy?" Cavanagh glanced around, then asked cautiously, "What guy?"
Something like hysterical laughter bubbled up inside Blair, and he shook with the effort of keeping it from escaping.
"Your perp," Jim rasped unexpectedly. "Blair caught him."
At the sheriff's surprised look, Blair shrugged uncomfortably and lifted his chin toward the low spot in their wall. "He's handcuffed to a tree a few yards out there."
Wordlessly, Cavanagh picked up the flashlight and left, returning a few minutes later and replacing it on the flat spot. "He's unconscious." Leaning back against a tall rock, he crossed his arms and looked at the two of them, still huddled on the ground. "So what happened? How did you find this guy?"
"He found us," Blair said after a few moments of silence indicated Jim wasn't going to answer. "Jim found a trail from the crime site and we were following it, when he fired at us. Hit Jim, nearly hit me, then he ran out of darts and started using bullets." He rubbed at his eyes tiredly with one hand, the other still holding Jim's with possessive care. "We barely got to this shelter alive and Jim was paralyzed by the poison. Then it was just a matter of waiting him out, but he attacked after a while. I had to hit him." He stumbled to a halt, even the compressed version of the past few hours bringing too much emotion back at once.
Hearing the strain in his voice, Dave didn't press for more details. He waited patiently, occasionally leaving the two of them to go check on the prisoner, until shouted greetings from fifty yards down the slope announced the arrival of his deputies.
The two local men arrived shortly thereafter, their flashlights swinging long shafts of illumination around the clear area. Cavanagh quickly assigned the heavier-set Frank to mirandize and frog-march the recovering, semi-conscious hunter down the hill, and brought Joe over to meet Jim and Blair.
Looking up, blinking in the light that accidentally brushed his features, Blair asked plaintively, "How far is it?"
Joe pointed directly down the slope and told him reassuringly, "There's a logging access road right down there, we were following it to get this close to your position. Half a mile, tops."
Blair nodded, but his body was on autopilot while his mind tripped over itself in shock. He'd never even thought to check the map for an easy way out of their position. The fingers of his free hand clenched on the jacket over Jim's chest. It hadn't been an option. He'd done what he had to, what he'd wanted to, the only thing he could have done. But the road had been so close....
"Don't, Chief." Jim's low voice interrupted his thoughts and his other hand closed, warm over Blair's, holding both for a moment in gentle remonstrance. "You promised, remember?"
"Yeah," he agreed hoarsely, consciously loosening his grip, turning his palm to clasp Jim's hand in return. He held on for a minute before clearing his throat a little self-consciously, then he let go both hands and moved them to Jim's shoulders, beginning to ease him upright. "Think you can walk that far, man?"
Nodding, Jim pushed himself vertical, the jacket covering him sliding down into his lap. Bracing with one arm straight behind himself, he lifted the coat and handed it to Blair. "Thanks."
Accepting it wordlessly, Blair pushed his arms into the sleeves, only becoming aware then of how chilled his skin was in contrast to the warmth of Jim's body lingering in the material. With Dave's help, Blair hoisted and levered Jim to his feet and stood bracing him while he swayed, still dizzy and uncoordinated. "Are you sure about this? We could bring in a stretcher," he said worriedly as Jim leaned heavily on him.
"I'm sure," Jim grunted stubbornly, taking an unsteady step forward. "Let's go."
The dubious glance Dave and Joe shared wasn't wasted on Blair, but he also wanted to leave that place very badly so he stayed by Jim's side as he navigated the few feet to the low spot in the rocks. Once there it took Joe's help to get the groggy detective over the barrier, and the slow, stumbling trip down the mountainside to the logging road made Blair ache inside. Jim was trying so hard to pull himself together, but his eyes were dilated nearly as far as they could go, all black pupil reflecting the early evening darkness, and he winced every time the beams of the flashlights carried by Joe and Dave swung too near him. By the time they reached the vehicles, Blair was shaking with fatigue and a painful, angry tenderness for his friend.
It seemed like a short ride back, compared to all the time it had taken them to walk out into the forest, but Blair knew he was confounding the time spent there with the time it had taken to arrive there. Everything was all mixed up in his mind, a jumble of grief, fear, hope, anger, and relief, moving chaotically like the sand caught in a breaking surf, too fast to follow. Cavanagh's Cherokee bounced along the rutted dirt road, transmission grinding in low gear and the headlights swinging across the trees in front. Blair hung on to the door with one hand, the other gripping the shoulder of Jim's coat with white-knuckled fierceness. He couldn't brace Jim against the jarring of the ride, the stiff suspension made every rock they passed over a separate experience, but he couldn't let go either. Letting go was something he'd come far too close to that afternoon and he wasn't ready to do it again, even in such a small way, not quite yet.
When they came to a stop as the road flattened out and became smoother, Blair looked up in surprise, automatically checking on Jim. In the dark interior, he could barely see the glint of eyes slitted half-shut in pain or weariness, and he finally loosened his grip on Jim's coat, patting the rumpled material clumsily. Under his touch, Jim shivered once.
A figure came toward them and resolved into a man walking across the trailhead parking lot, now empty except for Jim's vehicle. Cavanagh turned in his seat to look back at Jim and Blair. "Davis can bring your truck back to town." When Jim only looked back at him in dull curiosity, he added reassuringly, "He can meet us at the clinic and walk back to his car from there."
As if it had taken him a minute to understand what was expected of him, Jim slid his hand into his pocket and fished out the keys. They rattled metallically in his hand, giving away the tremor before he could hand them over.
Davis reached in through the window past Dave's shoulder and accepted them. "Been wanting to test drive one of those. See you in town." He grinned and bounced the keys in his hand once before jogging over toward the Expedition. Cavanagh put the Jeep back in gear, easing them down the short access road from the trailhead to the highway with the smoothness of one who knew very well where each of the potholes lurked.
Blair was barely aware of the hum of the tires on pavement in the background, lulling his thoughts into a dull monotone of exhaustion. Time ceased to have meaning and he was half asleep when the Jeep pulled up in front of the little clinic they had visited only 24 hours ago. The doctor's car was already in the parking lot, the lights of the building turned on in anticipation of their arrival. With a peculiar sense of distance, Blair realized he had reached out and re-established his hold on Jim's shoulder some time during the ride. Cavanagh swung into the spot by the front door and hopped out of the car, waving to Frank and Joe as they passed on their way to the station with the suspect. Seconds later Davis pulled the Expedition into the lot and parked it next to the Cherokee, handing the keys to Dave with a half wave to Jim. "Handles nicely," he said, before turning to walk off toward the nearby station.
Jim shifted toward the door on his side, pulling weakly on the latch to release it. The motion tugged at Blair's hold on him and Jim turned his head, a faint, tired smile momentarily lightening his features. "I'm not going anywhere without you," he said, and the understanding visible in his eyes even in the shadowed interior of the vehicle reassured Blair more than anything else.
"And don't you forget it," Blair returned seriously, but he disengaged his fingers from the fabric all the same, surprised at how cramped they had become in such a short time. "Hang on a sec, I'll come around. You're liable to fall flat on your face and break something if you try to get out on your own." Sliding out, he hurried around the back of the square—cut Jeep, arriving at Jim's side in time to steady him as he straightened up, standing on the pavement with one hand still clutching the car's doorframe. "You never listen, do you?"
Leaning on Blair, one arm across his shoulders for support, and walking slowly toward the door, Jim shrugged and answered, "I always hear you." Blair tightened the arm he had around Jim's waist and reached for the handle on the clinic door with his free hand.
Doctor Williams met them inside, ushering them toward the first small examining room off the hallway while she continued to study the forensics report on the sample of Armie's blood. "According to this, the dosage would have been fatal in about three hours. When were you hit?"
Jim glanced aside at Blair, then shrugged a little uncomfortably. "Around three this afternoon, maybe."
"We sort of lost track of time while we were out there," Blair volunteered.
She looked up dubiously at Jim, then waved him to sit down and shook her head over the faxed bloodwork report. "I don't have the equipment to do the test for this stuff here, but I'll take a sample of your blood and have it couriered down to Electro-Analytical tonight and they can turn it around by noon tomorrow." She frowned a little, raising her eyes to study Jim, who looked back at her with the patient calmness of near-exhaustion. "Could you have gotten a lower dosage than Jeff?"
Jim's brow furrowed. "I don't know." As she began collecting the syringe and tubing from the cabinet, he struggled out of his jacket. "Maybe. The dart had to punch through my coat." He fumbled at the cuff button of his shirt sleeve, his fingers slow and clumsy.
"Here," Blair murmured, stepping forward to help. He hadn't been asked to leave and he wasn't offering, and Jim didn't seem to mind him being there. As he rolled Jim's sleeve back with even, sure movements, he gave Jim a small, approving smile. The more doubts they raised about how bad it had been, hopefully the fewer questions there would be about his unexpected survival.
The doctor raised a slightly questioning eyebrow at Blair's continued presence, but didn't remark on it. He faded back a couple feet, hovering anxiously but trying to be unobtrusive as she slid a thermometer into Jim's mouth and took his blood pressure. "What symptoms did you have, and how do you feel now?"
The look in Jim's eyes was suddenly guarded, his voice colored with a trace of something dark and lonely. "I was cold, and couldn't move, and then I passed out for a while." Though he could hear Blair's half-caught deeper breath behind him, he kept his attention on her with a deliberate effort and finished as evenly as he could, "Now I just feel kind of sick, and I get chills every so often." There was the brief sound of fabric moving and a tiny breeze on the back of his neck as Blair started to reach for him, then aborted the motion.
Nodding, she tied off the yellowed tubing around his biceps and expertly slid the needle into the inside hollow of Jim's left elbow. "Sounds like a partial dosage effect to me. Near as I can tell, if you're not dead by now, you'll be OK."
Blair winced at her words, and asked, "Isn't there some kind of antidote?"
"Not that I have handy, and probably not at all." She painted a smear of iodine over the needle puncture and pressed a cotton ball to it, letting Jim hold it in place while she peeled a Band-Aid out of its wrapper. "There isn't anything I can give you to change whatever natural process of recovery is going on, and I don't think trying painkillers to treat any symptoms is a good idea. There were some tranquilizer-like elements in the mix and the combined effects could be worse for you than just riding out the rest of it the way you have been." Plain features soft with sympathy, she added, "I'm really sorry, Detective, but I can't do much besides tell you to drink plenty of fluids and get enough rest."
The corners of Jim's eyes crinkled slightly, the nearest he could manage to smiling in response. He dipped his head forward a little and massaged the back of his neck with his right hand, grimacing a little. "Thanks." He reached for his jacket but Blair caught his arm first, rolling the sleeve back down and buttoning it quickly. Jim rolled his eyes and pulled his arm away, faintly embarrassed.
Dr. Williams smiled at him as she stood up. "Don't knock it, you're lucky to be alive and I expect you'll still experience some residual effects for the next twelve hours or so at least. I meant that part about getting some rest." She picked the file back up, then lifted a business card from the counter and handed it to him. "If anything changes during the night, call me immediately. We can get you halfway down the hill to meet a chopper from Cascade if we have to, but right now it really doesn't look to me like you need anything but some more time to get over this."
Nodding, Ellison tucked the card into his breast pocket and reached for his jacket, glaring a warning at Blair when he moved closer as if to help Jim put it on. Blair raised his hands in momentary surrender, but hovered at his friend's side all the same as Jim pushed his arms into the coat, every motion an effort of will.
Williams ducked her head to hide a smile, then invited them with a gesture to precede her out of the room. "I have to head over to the station to take a look at the suspect. I understand he was hit pretty hard." Her voice was professionally neutral but her suddenly cool gaze questioned each of them in turn.
Blair turned, anger flaring in his eyes and tightening the lines of his mouth. "Not hard enough," he said defiantly. Moving slowly beside him toward the door, Jim raised one hand, his whole posture wearily bespeaking a request for forbearance. Sandburg subsided, taking a deep breath before meeting her eyes again and adding more quietly, "Yeah, it was pretty hard."
Cavanagh met them in the hallway, hat still in his hand and a hopeful crease worrying at his forehead. "You OK?" he asked, breaking the tension around them. His sincerity was so touching that both Jim and Blair smiled at him, albeit somewhat tiredly.
"Going to be, at least," Jim said, reaching out to shake his hand. "Thanks for coming after us so fast, we owe you one."
"It's the other way around, actually. I don't know how to thank you." Escorting them back through the lobby, Dave held the door open for them and then leaned in front of Blair and opened the Expedition's passenger door. "The town will probably want to throw you a party." He shook his head, not noticing the fleeting smile Jim and Blair exchanged. "One day here and you guys wrap it up. You two deserve a week off at public expense for this, but I don't think Cascade can spare you."
"They probably can't even afford the travel expenses," Blair griped as he stood by the open door. Jim braced one hand on Blair's shoulder as he climbed into the vehicle, Sandburg balancing his stance to compensate for the pressure without missing a beat in the conversation. "We're way over per diem already and we didn't even eat anything except breakfast today. Do they always gouge so badly at the Running Waters?"
Cavanagh grinned as he handed the car keys to Blair. "Only when it looks like you can afford it. I'll have a word with Jean and I'm sure she'll be able to adjust the rate to something more reasonable. When you check out, remind her I told you so."
"I'm still not looking forward to another night there." Ignoring Jim's irritated objection that he could do it himself, Blair pushed the door closed and began to move around the front of the big vehicle.
The sheriff managed to look sympathetic even while his grin got slightly wider. "A few rocks out in the middle of the woods do start to look pretty good after a night in that place, don't they?"
Blair couldn't help grinning over his shoulder in reply. "At this point the back of the truck sure does, even without a shower."
"So you're planning on heading out tomorrow?"
Pausing with one hand on the driver's side door, Blair shrugged. "If Jim's feeling better we might as well go home, and if he's not, we ought to get back and have him checked out at the hospital. Could you have the doctor tell the lab to fax those results to us at the Cascade station as soon as they're available?"
"Sure thing." Standing on the doorframe of his Jeep, Cavanagh called, "Call me in the morning before you go? We can talk about scheduling your depositions." When Blair nodded, the sheriff gave him one last friendly wave and a half-salute to Jim through the window.
Jim lifted his hand in acknowledgement, then tipped his head back to rest against the seat. "Are you going to stop for dinner?" he asked listlessly as Blair started the engine.
"Nah, unless you want something. My stomach is still all tensed up." If he got hungry later, there was always that granola bar stashed in his heavy coat, and he was pretty sure there was at least one more in the bottom of his backpack. "You want anything?"
"Sleep," Jim replied shortly, and remained quiet for the short drive back to the Running Waters.
Exhausted, his head still heavy and shot with pain, Jim barely had the energy to walk from the Expedition to their motel room. His feet dragged on the gravel parking lot, and it took a conscious effort not to trip over the low cement curb where the walkway began. As if he knew how every jarring movement hurt the sentinel, Blair had driven very carefully from the clinic and dashed ahead of Jim to open the room door, hovering as if trying to deflect any painful input before it could reach him. There was a haunted look in Blair's eyes that lent his face a grave, sad look even when he smiled.
The room was cold and Jim shivered, too tired to damp down his reaction. He was tired enough that the aging, lumpy bed looked almost unbearably inviting, and he sat wearily on the edge of it as if hoping forlornly to gather the energy to undress. In the dingy light of the low-wattage overhead lamp, the room appeared smaller and more depressing than it had the night before. Jim felt a surge of homesickness that surprised him with its strength, and half-opened his mouth to ask Blair if he minded making the drive back to Cascade right away instead of staying another night in Winton.
But that was ridiculous, so he closed his mouth again and began struggling out of his coat, tossing it at the dresser when he was finally free of it and not caring that it slid off on to the floor. Going over to pick it up was so far beyond him he couldn't even feel guilty about not wanting to go move it. Getting his shoes off took an inordinately long time and left him feeling even more exhausted, when he hadn't really believed that would be possible.
"Come on, let me give you a hand."
Jim looked up, oddly surprised to find Blair standing expectantly in front of him. "I don't need help undressing myself," he said crossly, glaring upward, as irate at his feeling of being so remote from his surroundings as he was at the idea of still being helpless.
"I'm not offering to help you undress," Blair replied patiently. "I'm offering to help you stand up while you do it yourself." He continued to hold out his hand. "Your nervous system is still out of whack, you can't expect it to recover that fast. Don't push it when you don't have to."
"I'm sorry," Jim said wearily, reaching up to accept the assistance. "After today, you'd think I'd be better at admitting how much I need your help." Moving stiffly and leaning on the support he was given, he managed to get his jeans off before collapsing back onto the bed. He held up his wrists and let Blair undo his cuff buttons again without even a token grimace, though he did open the rest of them on his own and tossed the shirt off in the same direction his coat had gone. "I feel like I spent the whole day being useless." Easing down stiffly and pulling the covers over himself, he lay staring up at the stained plaster of the ceiling.
"You weren't useless, Jim." Blair sidled around the bed from Jim's side to his own and began to pull off his own shirt. "And of course you need me. I'm your partner, right? I wouldn't be much good if you didn't need me."
For a moment it looked like Jim would answer, but he merely sighed instead, his broad chest rising and falling with the deep breath.
Concerned, Blair asked, "Are you OK? Really?"
"Yes, really." The flat reply was utterly unconvincing, and Jim rolled away for a moment, reaching to turn off the lamp on the table by his head.
"Look, we were both kind of out there emotionally for a while. Takes some time to get past that, you know?" Holding his shirt balled up in both hands, Blair stared down unseeingly at it and cleared his throat. "Hey, about that stuff I said...."
Jim's head turned on the pillow, voice soft as he asked, "You didn't mean it?"
Blair paused a moment, looking back at the grave lines of Jim's face, fighting the heat he could feel rising in his own skin. Oh, what the hell, it's not like I can lie to him anyway. "Yeah," he admitted in a small voice. "I did mean it."
Jim's eyes shone at him, their depths warm. "Good. Because if our positions had been reversed, I would have said pretty much the same stuff, and I'd hate to think you wouldn't understand me the way I understand you." The slightest emphasis on 'understand' translated it to the word Blair had used instead.
Blair gaped like a fish out of water for a moment, his eyes going comically wide at hearing the admission, then his whole face lit with a bright, affectionate smile. "I do understand you," he said, utterly serious behind his joy.
"I count on it, Chief." He closed his eyes, a small, drowsy smile lingering on his face. "See you in the morning."
And I count on that. "Good night, Jim."
If you open your mind for me
You won't rely on open eyes to see
The walls you built within
Come tumbling down, and a new world will begin
Living twice at once you learn
You're safe from pain in the dream domain
A soul set free to fly
A round trip journey in your head
Master of illusion, can you realize
Your dream's alive, you can be the guide but....
Tired as he was, Jim slept poorly, images and fears from the day crowding through his mind despite his attempts to blank them out. In frequent wakeful moments, he felt a vague envy at the way Sandburg had managed somehow to fall into a solid sleep, but it was commingled with relief that at least one of them would be rested enough to make the drive home the next day. Aside from the stiffness in his muscles he continued to feel slightly sick, as if he were just coming down with a bad flu, and the prickly, overly sensitive touchiness all over his skin made concentration on the relaxation exercise of the previous night impossible for him.
For brief periods Jim managed to doze lightly, never deep enough to call it sleep though several hours passed when he was not entirely conscious of the time going by. Groggy and still plagued by the headache, he sighed quietly, resisting the urge to toss onto his side, knowing it wouldn't help him get any more rest but would be likely to break Blair's much-needed sleep.
Beside him, Blair muttered, sounding as if he were protesting something, then drew a quick, deeper, uneven breath. Recognizing the sound of nightmare, Jim rolled to his side and reached the short distance to put his hand on Blair's shoulder, intending to wake him. But he didn't need to, the mere touch calmed his partner, his breathing losing its ragged edge almost immediately. For several minutes Jim remained that way, remembering how the touch of his friend's hand had given him comfort during his ordeal, wondering slightly to find the trust extending so mutually back to him; and then wondering again that he could have doubted it. In all the long day, the only moments he wanted to remember were those where Blair's compassion had touched him with the knowledge their friendship was deeper and truer than any he had ever known.
A chill moved through him like a snake, slithering along his nerves and through his gut, leaving him feeling queasy and faint. Pure instinct took over and he let his arm drape down around Blair's chest, until his palm was over Sandburg's heart, needing to feel the steady beat there with all his being the way he had felt it that afternoon. It was the beacon that had brought him back from beyond hopelessness, and once again it grounded him, bringing warmth to the corners of himself he had no conscious control over.
Blair sighed, murmuring wordlessly in his sleep, the rhythm of his breathing changing as he moved toward waking at the disturbance. Jim froze in place, flushing as he realized what he had done without thinking. Carefully he edged away, trying to lift his arm from around Blair without further disquieting him.
Blair's hand settled over Jim's, holding it in place and he shifted, his weight tilting back slightly against Jim. Their fingers interlaced gently, so naturally, and Blair murmured sleepily, "Stay."
The tension flowed from Jim's back and he curled his left arm under his head, letting his own weight settle in counterbalance against Blair's, his eyes drifting shut as the last of the chill was banished by the contact. Palm against their heartbeat, he slept.
I--will be watching over you
I--am gonna help you see it through
I--will protect you in the night
I--am smiling next to you...in Silent Lucidity
© 1990 Tri-Ryche Corp. Screen Gems-EMI Music Inc.