cake

part ii

by Martha

soulcake@bellsouth.net

 

11: cascade, washington (1:15 wednesday morning)

The veggie half of the pizza hadn't been all that great. The sauce was salty and flavorless, the green pepper slices bitter and desiccated with thick, rubbery skins. And the mushrooms were definitely past their prime. Blair ate a piece anyway, wondering gloomily if they had replaced the cook when they replaced the counter help, then finished up with a couple of slices from Jim's half of the pizza. It probably wasn't any better, but under all the smoked and spicy meat, the uninspired tomato sauce hadn't seemed to matter.

It mattered now. All that meat and cheese he'd wolfed down anyway. Blair lay on his back in bed, his knees drawn up, feeling like he was trying to digest a bowling ball. Why the heck had he eaten all that? Not like he couldn't have predicted what so much grease would do to him. Man, especially after a day like today.

He curled over on this side, pulling his knees up again, and wrapped himself around the pillow. He moved slowly, trying to be quiet even though he knew perfectly well how useless it was. If Jim were tuned in, he would hear every whisper of the sheets, even the cotton batting yielding under Blair's shoulder and hip. (Yielding less and less these days, come to think of it. The old futon had seen better days.)

Never mind. He hoped Jim was sleeping. The man needed his rest.

And so did he, if he wanted to be any help at all to Jim tomorrow. He thought about the way he'd been acting the past twenty-four hours -- all spaced out and emotional, half crazy with shock and grief -- and found he really couldn't blame himself. No one could have walked the length of that hallway from Gwen Angelone's room to her mother's bedroom door last night without being changed by the experience. No one, except, perhaps, the monster who had killed them -- and that was an irony too black to think about right now. Especially alone in bed at this hour of the night.

OK, so he couldn't blame himself for being so shook by the way Gwen and Trish had died. But his feelings couldn't help them either. It was time to box them up and bury them somewhere deep, at least long enough to help Jim solve this case. Jim needed him so badly on this one. Every time he looked into Jim's haunted blue eyes he could see the plea there.

(You're always telling me I can do anything with these senses, Chief -- so for god's sake, show me how.)

And you can, Jim. You will get this guy. You've already found the surgical scrubs, right? No one else could have done that. The city garbage trucks would have been around any minute, and the evidence would have been gone for good if it wasn't for you. So you're gonna get this guy, and I'll do anything in the world to help. All I've got to do is stop hallucinating long enough to see straight, and we'll both be fine.

Blair opened his eyes fast in the darkness. He was not hallucinating. He'd been thinking about Jim all day, feeling guilty because he wasn't at Jim's side -- nothing all that strange, then, about looking up and imagining for a second that he'd actually seen Jim behind the flat of herbs this afternoon in the nursery. And last night, upstairs in the hall outside Gwen's bedroom. That was the exact same deal, sort of. The nightmare feeling of pursuit, the hall stretching endlessly before him -- it was just shock and horror. And so much grief. There were acts done in this world that made creation weep, and Blair had seen too many of them himself, even before Jim. There was no way to get used to them, and no way not to react. Just pay attention, understand that you're a little bit out of your head. And make sure you stay close to Jim. They would both get through this just fine.

He rolled over on his back again, slowly and quietly, reaching back under his head to plump the pillow and push it down to cradle his neck. Relax and get some sleep. That's all he needed to do tonight.

He closed his eyes, and immediately found himself once more walking down the upstairs hall of the Angelone home. Behind him Gwen lay dead in her own bedroom, surrounded by shelves of stuffed animals, blood spattered on the Hanson and 'N Synch posters taped to the expensive wallpaper. At the other end of the hall was the master bedroom where the body of her mother lay. Strewn near her covered face were a handful of her own teeth, white and blood red, the silver filling in one molar reflecting the overhead light.

Blair swallowed a groan and refused to banish the picture by opening his eyes. He had to beat this now or he'd have nightmares all night long, be a total basket case by morning. He had to be stronger than that.

He allowed himself to remain in the master bedroom of the Angelone's beautiful house. Jim was next to him. He turned his head slowly, taking his eyes away from the corpse on the bed, and looked up into Jim's drawn face. Grief hollowed his cheeks and shadowed his eyes, but when he looked down at Blair, some of the anguish seemed to leave him. Blair stepped closer, tucking his arm around Jim's waist, then turning him away from the bedroom door, away from the upstairs hall. They would go somewhere else together. Some place clean and good.

He felt the comfortable weight of Jim's arm around his shoulders, and the mist cleared for him. He saw a broad, grassy path wandering between flowering shrubs. Oaks and maples filtered the sunlight above. He recognized this place. It was the grounds around St. Sebastian. This would do, he thought happily. Oh yeah, this was perfect. They could walk here as long as they needed -- enjoying that vacation Jim had never gotten to take in real life. Just a long, slow stroll through the grounds. No need to talk. Simply enjoying a beautiful day and the serenity of James Ellison at peace with the world.

An easy stroll into sleep. This would work just fine.

Jim left his arm around Blair's shoulders and shortened his stride to match Blair's. He didn't speak. That was the way Jim was sometimes. When he was happy, when things were going fine, he would reach out and draw Blair close. Like he was worried that Blair was rushing through it all too fast, and Jim had to reach out and grab him, pull him back so they could be in Jim's world together. It was a good feeling, Blair thought happily, patting Jim's back to thank him. And god, what a fantastic day this was. Late spring, just like the last time they had been here, the flowers blooming everywhere. Walls of pale lavender and pink melted into the soft green of the unmown grass and the lush darkness of the leaves. There had been a recent rain. Blair could smell moisture in the air and feel the damp ground yielding under his feet. Everything was soft edged and so very calm.

Blair felt himself relaxing more completely into the fantasy. He thought briefly how pleasant it would be to go back some day and do this for real. It'd be good to see Marcus again. And Jim and Father Jeremy had developed more than a grudging respect for each other. Maybe they could stop over for a couple of days on the way up north for that fishing trip Jim had been talking about.

Only thing was, it was really a little too cool to be going barefoot. The lush grass was wet and so cold the bottoms of his feet were going numb. Blair didn't complain. Jim's arm was warm at his back, Jim's hand resting at the point of his shoulder, fingers drumming absently in an odd, irregular tattoo that drew Blair deeper and deeper into sleep. For an instant he recalled there was something behind him - something he should probably be concerned about, come to think of it - but he no longer could remember what that might be. Besides, he was with Jim, so he knew he was safe.

He looked up at Jim's face, and smiled to see the serenity there. Jim's eyes were half closed, a little half-smile touching his lips, utterly content. As though there were nothing else he could possibly want in the world.

A cooler breeze ruffled the hairs on the top of Blair's head, and he glanced skyward. Aw man, no wonder everything had seemed so lush and green. Another storm was rolling in. The last slivers of blue sky were a stony azure, the encroaching thunderhead black on gray. The air itself suddenly seemed weighted and thick, holding everything around them perfectly still. "Jim, man, I think we're about to get soaked," Blair pointed out, wondering why Jim hadn't said anything. He looked around for some place to get out of the rain, but they were deep in the woods by now, no hope for shelter for miles.

Unless --

He thought at first he was looking at the gray storm clouds through the trees, but no, those were rocks, tumbled boulders larger than houses lying at the base of a stony cliff face. Maybe they could find a cave or an overhang in the shelter of the cliff, some place to wait out the storm.

"Come on, this way," he said urgently, tugging at Jim's sleeve. Jim raised an eyebrow in a skeptical look that made Blair laugh. "Well anything's gotta be better than just standing here and getting soaked," he insisted. The rain was so close he could feel the humidity against his face like something alive as he took off jogging for the cliff face. Lightning cracked across the sky an instant later, close enough for him to feel a tingle that lifted the hairs on his arms and the back of his neck just before the deafening roar of thunder.

Jim staggered at his side.

"Jim!" Blair shouted and spun around, his feet slipping on the wet grass. Jim was stumbling, one hand pressed uselessly against the side of his head. "Oh, Jim," Blair moaned, reaching out for him, but Jim shook his head with clumsy determination, grabbed Blair's shoulder and pushed him forward.

"Don't stop!" he insisted, his voice a furious whisper. "Whatever happens, Sandburg, just keep going,"

Blair didn't argue. Not with that tone of voice from Jim. He turned and ran, hearing Jim close behind him, holding back a little in order to bring up the rear. Blair ran harder. The air stank of ozone. A fat drop of rain splatted on his shoulder. A second hit the top of his head. He was weaving through the rocks now, gray monoliths rising on every side. The ground was slick with pine needles that prickled against the bottom of his feet. They were running from something far worse than the storm. The hunter who'd picked up their trail in the upstairs hallway of the Angelone home was following them still, and there was no shelter, no safety here in the woods.

"Jim --" he said, turning helplessly to confront him. "What are we gonna do?"

Jim was in full survival mode, his expression fixed, hardly seeming to see Blair. He didn't speak but he clamped his hand down on Blair's shoulder and pushed him around to face the cliffs again. With his other hand he pointed upwards. Then Blair saw it too. A long horizontal crack in the stone face perhaps fifteen feet up, little more than a thin haft of darkness splitting the gray stone. But Jim's eyes could pierce the darkness, so it must be wide and deep enough to shelter them, if Jim said so.

They ran the rest of the distance together, Jim's hand knotted in the shoulder of Blair's shirt, urging him on, steadying Blair when his feet slipped on the needle-covered ground. As they reached the side of the cliff, Blair flung his arms up, grasping for purchase so he could begin to climb. An angled ledge broke the sheer face a few feet over his head. If he could just reach it -- "Jim, help me," he groaned, straining upwards, fingers scrabbling on rock.

Jim was already crouched at his side, his interlaced fingers cradling Blair's sole. "Ready?" he asked, and Blair nodded grimly, straining his eyes in the false dusk of the storm to see the handholds in the rock. Jim lifted him until he was high enough to find a shallow outcropping with his other foot. He jammed his fingers into the irregular crevasses just overhead and began to climb, trusting Jim to be right behind him. He found one foot hold and pushed himself further up, freeing his hand to grope across the rough surface. His straining fingers closed upon a knobby ledge and he hoisted himself another few feet, searching with his bare toes for the gaps in the rock where his fingers had been moments before. Cold, fat rain drops spattered down on his back one at a time. He had to hurry. They'd never make the climb once the rain began in earnest. He stretched higher, willing his blind fingers to find the cracks and ledges in the rock. As he dragged himself up, muscles in his hands and feet began to ache with the effort of clinging to the unyielding surface. He forced himself on anyway, and he didn't look back.

Then his hand reached over the lip of the narrow crack in the rock. He'd made it. He put his other hand over the edge, palms flat, and then, as though energized by the force of the storm howling behind them, levered himself up and over the edge.

He lay still for a moment, panting, his face against the cold rock. But only for a moment. Jim was right behind him. He had to keep going so Jim could climb up too. Blair felt cool air across his face, and it smelled of wet rock and dark places. The crevasse must be deep. He crawled on his belly away from the ledge so that Jim could follow him, wriggling deeper into the heart of the rock. The only sounds he could hear anymore were his own breaths echoing from the stone that pressed on him so close, and a thin trickle of running water. He followed the sound of the water, hunching his shoulders, straightening one arm before himself so he could squeeze through the passage as it grew narrower. Just a little further now. The cool air on his face drew him onward even as the stone walls closed in around him. He wedged himself through a split in the rock so narrow that the stony roof shredded the back of his shirt, and then all at once the walls fell away. He writhed out onto the floor of a vast cavern and lay quiet, allowing the silent immensity of the place to surround him.

No, not entirely silent. Trickling water was somewhere in front of him. He couldn't see the source of the water, but the quiet plashing of cold water on wet stones shone through the measureless dark like a shining rope of stars, crystalline clear, unimaginably beautiful. Blair got to his hands and knees, then sat back on his heels, enraptured. Jim had to hear this. He had to see this.

Jim.

Blair turned around. What the hell was wrong with him? Jim couldn't have followed him this deeply into the rock - the tunnel had barely been high enough for Blair to squeeze through. How could he have left Jim behind? This vast chasm of peace wasn't for him. He had to return to the storm raging outside. He had to get back to Jim.

But in the darkness, he couldn't find the passage that had brought him here. His groping fingers touched nothing but blank, solid rock. He spread his hands across the unyielding stone.

(Just stay calm, man. It has to be here.)

But it wasn't here. He got up on his knees, searching further, running his hands across the rock gently at first, and then with growing desperation. He hadn't gone anywhere. He hadn't moved. So how could the passage have vanished behind him? "Jim!" he screamed, and the immeasurable spaces around him swallowed his voice, just the way the stone cliff had swallowed him. "Jim, please!" He shouted over and over again, but his voice fell empty in the open cavern. He wasn't feeling his way across the rock wall behind him now, he was fighting to tear a passage through stone with his bare hands, clawing and scrabbling his fingertips bloody, and it wasn't any use at all. He collapsed against the rock wall, his bleeding fingers spread wide against the stone. His cries for Jim still echoed in the vast, sacred space.

Sacred?

Blair turned slowly. There was light here, shining out from the falling water up ahead. A shimmering filament touched his face just as the floor of the cavern fell out from under him, and he tumbled back into the waking world.

 

12: curitiba, parana, brazil (ten years ago)

"I knew that, slowly and gradually, experiences such as these were starting to ooze out like some insidious leakage from contemporary mankind, which had become saturated with its own numbers and with the ever-increasing complexity of its problems, as if its skin had been irritated by the friction of ever-greater material and intellectual exchange . . . . This was not the first occasion on which I had encountered those outbreaks of stupidity, hatred and credulousness which social groups secrete like pus when they begin to be short of space."
Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

There were six other people in the room with him. Four of them were boys younger than Blair. Twelve years old, maybe, or thirteen or fourteen, no older than that. Their faces and bodies were bruised, and their eyes were dead. One of the older men had a terribly wounded hand. It was bandaged in rags, but blood was dripping through, falling on the floor in irregular splats and drops. Blair thought it was probably a gunshot wound.

No one had spoken to Blair in all the time he had been here. He wasn't sure how long that was. No one would meet his eyes, even though the cinderblock room was so small Blair was crouched on the floor shoulder to shoulder with the man with the wounded hand, and every time Blair shifted his position, the other man groaned.

Blair had still been blindfolded when they brought him here, dazed and sick after the long journey on the floorboards of the Chrysler. They had dragged and carried him through heartbreakingly ordinary noises of traffic and human voices, into a stale place that smelled like sweat and bundled newspapers and burned coffee. He'd heard the long, iron shriek of a bolt sliding away and smelled the reek of imprisoned flesh as he was shoved forward. He fell against other bodies, and heard groans of complaint that weren't his own. Anonymous hands pushed him roughly aside, and then for a long time he'd lain curled on the floor, his legs under himself and his face against the concrete. Hemisfereo's voice was fading, and the murmur of flowing water was growing fainter as well. The pain in his side throbbed like the echo of his own heartbeat, and when it grew louder than the sound of water lapping at the banks of the swamp where Hemisfereo had died, Blair had finally pulled the blindfold away and struggled to sit up. No one helped him.

Blank faces stared at him, smeared with bruises, painted with dried blood. Blair smiled anyway, surprised by how much his mouth hurt. He reached up to touch his lower lip, and his fingertips came away stained with blood too. Probing carefully with his tongue, he found that one of his lower teeth was chipped and felt loose. Son of a bitch. Tears came to his eyes, and to cover them he asked quickly, "So where are we?"

No one answered him, except to drop their eyes.

"Is this a police station? Are we in Curitiba?"

One of the youngest boys looked back at him. Fear and pain had contorted his face into a sullen, aged mask.

"My name's Blair," he said anyway, and managed another smile. A more cautious one this time. His split lip stung like anything. "Do you know what we're here for? Have you been here long?"

The boy made an exclamation of disgust and spat at him. The spittle that ran down Blair's jeans was red with blood. "Hey, OK," Blair said weakly, raising one hand. "Forget I said anything." He shifted, trying to ease the ache in his side, and dropped his head back to rest against the cinderblock wall. He was wondering how long it would take the policieros to check out his ridiculous story. A couple of phone calls would do it. Maybe they already knew he was no ambassador's son. When evening fell, they would drive him back to the swamp and leave him to rest with a bullet in the back of his head beside Zenaida's father and grandfather forever.

Zenaida. The thought of that child was almost more than he could stand. He saw her playing on the dirt floor of Orinoco's home, so proudly wearing Blair's concert T-shirt. He'd talked her into accepting that bright cotton rag in exchange for the sacred image of her god, and then he'd led the murderers of her family straight to her doorstep. Blair moaned out loud because he couldn't help it, and tried to curl forward into himself. The pain in his ribs bit too hard, though, and he had to sit up, his back against the cold cinderblock, and face the other ones here. The ones who were waiting to die, just like him.

Not like him. They didn't deserve this fate.

But he didn't want to die, and he wondered, numbly, at the way he clung to a fantasy of being rescued, of somehow finding a way out of this. There was no good reason he wasn't dead already. He would be soon. Even the children here in the cell with him knew that. He couldn't even think of a good reason why he should deserve to live. Not with so much blood on his hands, he might as well have pulled the trigger himself, back there on the banks of the marsh.

No, there was at least one good reason to try to live anyway. Naomi. He imagined what they would tell her if he died -- how they would tell her -- and his throat ached with tears. She would come down here, he knew that. No power on earth could keep her away, not Naomi. And she would never stop looking for him. Not until she pulled his body from the swamp with her own hands. Or until the men who had killed her son got tired of her relentless and inconvenient questions, and killed her too.

Blair shook his head. He couldn't think about that, or he was going to lose his mind. He wiped his eyes roughly and turned to the man with the bandaged hand. "Com licença," he said softly. "I just want to know where we are. Is this really a police station?"

The other man stared straight ahead. He wouldn't even look at Blair.

"Come on," Blair persisted, "Are we under arrest? Can't you even tell me that much?"

He didn't answer. No one would answer.

OK, fine. He couldn't blame them for being afraid to talk to him. Look what being friendly had gotten Orinoco's family. He closed his eyes against the shudder of grief, then resolutely opened them again. No matter what, he couldn't just sit here and do nothing.

He looked at the door of their cell. It was metal, painted a muddy industrial green that was flaking away. A small, square window of wired glass was set near the top. All right, that was a place to start. Attract the attention of the guard, get out and talk to someone. If this were a police station, maybe they'd even let him use the phone. He braced himself against the cinderblock wall at his back and tried to stand, but the hurt in his side pulled at him with a sudden sharp tug. He sat back down, breathing hard. The sensation of something wrong inside was scarier than the pain. He touched his ribs, feeling gingerly under his ripped shirt, frightened of what he might find. He must have jostled the man with the wounded hand, moving around like that, because he groaned in protest.

"Sorry," Blair whispered. He couldn't find anything obviously wrong with himself - certainly not the smashed, splintered bones that the pain in his side made him imagine. Little hairline fracture, maybe. Bruises. He'd live. That chipped tooth really pissed him off though.

The anger was a good thing. He cradled it to himself as he curled forward onto his hands and knees. Naomi was right. Nobody dumber and more dangerous than men with guns and delusions of authority. What did they think they were accomplishing anyway? Killing a couple of farmers, kidnapping some clueless American kid. When Blair got out of this, he was going to make sure the story was heard. He couldn't bring his friends back, but he'd sure as hell do everything possible to make sure it didn't happen to anyone else. He waited until the pounding between his temples faded, then he pulled his legs under himself and knelt up cautiously. He felt the tug in his side again, sharper this time, and kept moving anyway until his vision went fuzzy, and he had to stop. Whew. OK. Just keep breathing. He could do this. He turned enough to brace one hand against the wall and forced himself to his feet. He had to lean on the wall for a moment to rest once he was standing. A couple of the boys in the cell with him watched the struggle with bleak interest. Blair shrugged at them, smiling as much as he could. "Hey, don't laugh," he said. "At least it's progress." He stepped carefully over the man with the wounded hand. The boy on the other side drew up his legs, clearing a place for Blair to stand. Blair didn't know if he were really trying to help, or was just afraid the crazy American would step on him if he didn't move. "Muito obrigado," Blair said anyway.

The boy raised his head and smiled up at him for just an instant, eyes crinkling almost shut above round cheeks. There were bruises around the child's throat, and Blair had to look away. What the hell kind of a place was this? Beating up children, throwing them in jail. He had to get out. They all had to get out of here. He stood on tiptoe and peered out through the dirty pane of glass. He couldn't see anything but a wall on the other side of a corridor painted the same color as the door.

He pounded on the glass with his fist. "Hey!" he shouted, his voice cracking. He tried again. "Hey, anyone out there?" The glass rattled a little, but he doubted his voice carried ten feet past the metal door. He banged on the door with the flat of his hand. "Hey! Can anyone hear me?"

Nothing. Blair pressed his cheek to the glass, trying to see more of the corridor outside their cell. There wasn't much more to see. To one side was another of the cinderblock walls. A short distance to the other side was another door like this one. No one would hear him if he screamed his head off in here.

Not a very comforting thought. He turned around, swaying on his feet. He didn't want to sit down again, not when just standing up had been such a struggle. His hand stung from banging on the metal, and shouting made him realize how thirsty he was.

Food and water. That was it. Surely someone would be around any time now with something for them to eat and drink. That's when he'd make his move. Convince them to let him use a telephone, say. He could call the mission and get them contact someone at the American consulate. Maybe it was a pretty feeble hope, but so far nothing better had suggested itself.

He ran his hand along the edge of the door. No doorknob on this side, of course, and the hinges were on the outside.

What was he thinking? Did he really think he could break out of here? He was having trouble standing up on his own two feet. What was he going to do - smash down the door, overpower a guard or two, run all the way back to the States? Great plan, Sandburg. You're practically home free.

He hardly realized that he'd given up until he was on the floor again, crouched with his back against the door and his knees drawn up to his chest. His mouth hurt. His ribs hurt. He was so thirsty.

And Hemisfereo was wrong. He didn't know how to sing the icaro, and the white souls who took care of the universe had left him here to die.

 

13: cascade, washington (2:00 wednesday morning)

Blair awoke with a gasp and lay very still, staring up at the ceiling and waiting for the last tatters of the nightmare to leave him. So much for the benefits of visualization meditation. God, what a dream. His fingertips still felt raw from clawing at the rock, and he had an almost overwhelming urge to make sure Jim was all right. He didn't know why he had dreamed of leaving Jim behind, but he thought maybe it was worse than dreaming about Gwen's murder would have been.

No, it had definitely been worse. His heart felt as raw as his fingertips. After another minute he pushed the comforter back, swung his feet around and sat up, still telling himself to relax and forget it. It was just a dream, after all. It didn't have to mean anything. But his bedroom felt claustrophobically small all the same. He rested his elbows on his knees and his head on his hands. When he closed his eyes he could hear the peaceful sound of water splashing down on smooth river stones.

The hell with this.

He got up. The loft was a little chilly -- Jim was happiest in sub-arctic conditions, per usual -- so he groped around in the dark for the flannel shirt he'd been wearing last night, found it wadded at the foot of the bed, and pulled it on. His legs were still cold, but putting on more clothes would be like admitting he couldn't sleep tonight, and that wasn't the deal at all. He just needed to clear his head. Get a drink of water and a little fresh air, maybe.

In his flannel shirt and boxers he padded out into the kitchen. It smelled like pepperoni and tomato sauce out here. By the city lights that shone in through the clerestory windows, he could see why. The pizza box was still sitting on the dining room table. That was how tired both of them had been when they went to bed last night -- too beat even to carry the box outside, even though Jim hated the smell of grease-soaked cardboard. Blair had to admit, sentinel or not, he wasn't too fond of it himself. He looked upstairs to where Jim lay sleeping, and realized he was still struggling with a pointless urge to go up and make sure Jim was all right.

Oh man, he had to get over it already. How could he expect to keep Jim calm and focused during this investigation when he couldn't even keep a handle on his own emotions? Well it stopped right now. Case closed, end of discussion. He'd carry the pizza box downstairs to the dumpster, then go back to bed and get some sleep, be ready to be Jim's partner in the morning, one hundred percent.

His sneakers were in a heap under the coat rack. He stuffed his bare feet into them, smashing the heel down on his right shoe in the process. Muttering under his breath, he lifted his foot and tried to fix his shoe one-handed without dropping the pizza box. He had to lean his shoulder against the door to keep his balance, and he suddenly smiled to himself as he finally managed to hook his index finger under the bent-down heel and drag it up. Oh yeah, no telling what Jim would do without Blair Sandburg's invaluable help.

Still grinning to himself, he released the chain and dead bolt and let himself out into the hall. It was even colder out here, and the night lighting seemed somehow bleaker even than the darkness inside the loft had been. Someone had been smoking in the stairwell, probably hours ago, but the smell lingered in the enclosed space. He took the stairs down to the ground level, running lightly and thinking that Jim would have fussed at him about his untied shoelaces. He shoved at the panic bar on the downstairs door with his free hand and let himself out into the night. A mist was drifting in from the waterfront, and there was no horizon, no stars nor sky. Just the orange glow from the city lights, a hazy ceiling that hung claustrophobically low and reminded Blair of the cave in his dreams. It must have rained earlier, too. The sidewalk was wet, and Blair could hear the trickle of water dripping from the roofs and downspouts. He let the door close gently behind himself, careful not to let it latch since he hadn't bothered to bring the key, and carried the pizza box around to the dumpster at the side of the building. Water was dripping from the fire escape and plinking drop by drop on the battered metal lid of the dumpster.

Plink, plunk. Plink, plunk.

What sad, hollow music that was. Blair shivered, chilled to the bone as he clutched the heavy lid and eased it upward. The water collecting on the lid rushed back to the hinges and poured off the side, splashing on the pavement. Blair stepped back quickly to avoid getting soaked. The nauseatingly warm smell of garbage drifted up into the cool night air, and Blair remembered yesterday morning with Jim, finding the blood-soaked surgical gown.

He dropped the box and let the lid down too quickly. It clanked with terrifying loudness, and Blair whirled to look behind him. There was no one else here -- he felt sure he wasn't wrong about the quality of loneliness on the street -- but he wasn't much reassured by it. Gwen's murderer was out here somewhere too, under the same closed-in orange sky. Could he sleep after what he'd done? Or was he awake too? Maybe playing it over and over again in his mind and enjoying the memories.

Blair pulled his open shirt together and crossed his arms hard over his chest, half jogging back around to the street door. Jim and Simon had argued about the killer's motives yesterday morning, back at the station. Simon was convinced the ferocity of the murders proved it was a contract killing. "Gruenditch's people are running into problems trying to collect old debts with their boss dead, and this was a warning. They made it sloppy to be sure everyone got the message."

"Come on, Simon, did you even look at the spray pattern? Someone did that with a six inch garden fork. A contract killer would have used a shotgun."

"So they hired a psycho on purpose. If the murders were intended to be some kind of sick publicity stunt, it was important to keep it on the front page as long as possible."

"I don't know if I can buy that. The guy just took too many risks, like all the time he spent on Trish. Even supposing her throat was cut too fast for her to scream, the force of the blows would have made some noise." Jim's eyes flickered to Blair for an instant. "I think Gwen was awake and heard some of it, and if she'd run, she might have escaped. You're gonna have a hard time convincing me that was the kind of man Gruenditch's people would hire to do a job."

For a moment Blair allowed himself to think about that -- Gwen waking up in the night and hearing those sounds coming from her parents' bedroom. Then the footsteps down the hall. Slow and steady. Coming for her.

Oh, Christ.

Blair stopped at the street door, swallowing hard and trying to banish the pictures. There was no point making himself crazy like this. He glanced over his shoulder once more and pulled the door open, letting himself back into the stairwell. The smell of cigarette smoke seemed stronger, and it suddenly occurred to him that he should have brought his keys. What was he doing leaving the door open in the middle of the night anyway? Just suppose Simon was right. The people who'd arranged for Gwen and Trish to die had even more reason to hate Jim.

A sudden, sick panic washed over Blair and he began to run, bounding up the stairs three at a time. God, he'd left the front door standing wide open too. He rounded the first turn and then the second, swinging himself around with one hand on the banister, and on the final landing from the third floor, he stepped on his shoelace and would have sprawled headlong if his foot hadn't come out of his shoe. He stumbled hard and kept going, one last flight, and as he neared the landing, he tried to take the last four steps at once. He missed and instead smashed his big toe against the riser so violently the whole world went red.

Oh damn oh damn oh damn. This was a bad one. Even before the pain started he knew it how bad it was. He was falling forward, holding his breath because when he started to breathe again he would feel it, and there was no doubt about it, it was gonna hurt like hell. He felt the dull impact of the floor against his knees and the heels of his hands and he curled over onto his side in a tight, tight ball, clutching his foot with both hands. Goddammit, what an idiot. What a stupid, clumsy -- He took an involuntary gasp of air, and oh shit, it hurt just as badly as he'd known it was going to. A shocking, infuriating pain that was all the more unbearable because it was just so fucking stupid. He rolled his head against the wooden floor, jaw clenched hard, enraged at his own clumsiness.

The smell of smoke was suddenly much stronger, and he realized that wasn't cigarette smoke at all. That was a fire. Wood charcoal. It billowed down the hall toward him, carrying other scents with it. Coffee beans and burnt chili peppers and what the HELL was going on here? He craned his neck, trying to see their door at the end of the hall. The door was opening, the smoke clearing. Light blazed out in the hall, and that confused him, because when he'd left, the hall had been light and the loft in darkness. An odd double shadow moved against the door, as though cast from a figure caught by twin spotlights. Blair swallowed a groan. There weren't two lights. There were two people stepping out of the light. Beautiful girl children, their skin as dark as their shadowed eyes, their faces still wet from the cistern where their mother had drowned them years ago. They were smiling, Adheo's twins, and Blair knew he was seeing them as the children they should have grown to be, if only he could have saved their innocent lives. Tears rose and blurred his vision. Their faces wavered, growing younger as though time were rushing away from him as he watched. He wanted to speak to them, to ask why they were here, but he couldn't bear to see them die again, so he squeezed his eyes shut and turned his face toward the floor. He didn't look up again until Jim slammed the door open wide and came running down the hall for him. "Sandburg, what in the hell --"

"Oh, man," he moaned as Jim knelt beside him. "Jim, they were right here. I saw them. They were right here."

"Hush, hush, easy, easy," Jim said, touching a finger to Blair's lips to silence him. His eyes were still bleared from sleep. He hadn't even stopped for his robe, and was crouching beside Blair in his boxers, goosebumps rising on his arms. He cocked his head to one side, listening. "But they're not here now?" he finally asked.

"No," Blair whispered.

"Who was it, Chief?"

"Adheo's baby girls. Jim, they came out the front door, they were looking at me, I saw them -"

Jim turned his head for a moment. "OK, take it easy," he said quietly. When he looked back at Blair his face was very gentle. He put his hand on Blair's shoulder. "It's all right now. You just take it easy for me, can you do that?"

Blair nodded, struggling to sit up. Jim wrapped his hand around Blair's wrist and gently drew him up, easing his shoulders around until he could sit with his back against the wall. Blair clutched at his foot with both hands, hissing. The pain was settling into a steady, hot throb that made him feel a little sick.

Jim eased his hands away. "Hold still," he said quietly. "Let me look."

Blair took a shuddering gasp of air. "I'm sorry," he groaned. "Stupid of me. Shouldn't have left the door unlocked."

"Don't worry about it." He closed his hand over Blair's foot, moving his thumb gently across the side of his toe. "I don't think it's broken. You want to try and stand up?"

"No," he whispered miserably. "Just a second, please, Jim? Just to catch my breath."

"No rush," Jim said. "Let's take it easy."

Blair nodded, trying to steady his breathing.

Jim patted his shoulder. "Where's your other shoe?"

"On the stairs, I think."

"Uh huh," Jim said. "Will you be OK while I get it? Hate to leave it for someone else to trip over."

"Yeah, I'm OK," Blair said, lying his head off and hoping Jim wouldn't call him on it. He didn't. He squeezed Blair's shoulder, then got up and ran carefully down the steps, his bare feet all but silent on the wood. It made Blair nervous when Jim rounded the corner of the first landing, and he sat up straighter, craning his neck to try to follow his progress.

He was back in a moment, Blair's running shoe in hand. "They put laces on these for a reason, you know," he said.

"Yeah," Blair agreed unhappily.

Jim crouched beside him, handed the shoe to Blair to hold, then wrapped his arm firmly around Blair's back, his hand under Blair's shoulder. "It's cold out here, so let's get back inside, OK? Count of three. One, two -" Jim rose to his feet, easing Blair up with him. "How's it feel?"

"It hurts like hell," Blair grunted, trying to take a step without putting any weight on his toe.

"I'm sure it does." He kept Blair tucked close for every hobbling step. "Sandburg, do you remember what you were doing out in the hall in the first place?"

It seemed like a weird way to ask the question. Why wouldn't he remember? "I wanted to carry the pizza box to the dumpster."

Jim kicked the loft door shut behind them and helped Blair the rest of the way to the sofa. "Just take it easy," he directed, as though Blair were capable of anything else right now. Jim grabbed a cushion from the other sofa and laid it flat on the coffee table, then put his hand under Blair's calf and coaxed him into lifting his foot and resting it on the cushion. "Hold still. I'll get some ice to put on it."

Blair wrapped his arms around his shoulders, shivering. "Too cold for ice."

"Believe me, you don't ice it, by tomorrow morning it'll be so swollen you won't be able to wear a shoe on that foot." He swept the blanket off the back of the sofa and tucked it around Blair. He stayed there for a moment longer, both hands on Blair's shoulders, watching his face. "The pizza box?" he said at last, looking so bewildered Blair wanted to laugh. "Couldn't it have waited until morning?"

Blair grinned a little. He couldn't help it. "Just trying to help, man."

Jim rolled his eyes to the heavens, smiling like he couldn't help it either, then he straightened up again, aiming a cuff at the side of Blair's head. "Trying to help. God help us both."

Blair tilted his head, trying unsuccessfully to duck. Jim was still chuckling as he went to the fridge and pulled out the ice cube tray. "Trying to help," Jim muttered again, and it suddenly occurred to Blair that Jim was taking this whole thing really well. Really remarkably, unbelievably well.

"Jim?" he asked cautiously. God, his foot was killing him. He tried to curl his big toe a little - Jim had said it wasn't broken after all- and the shock of new pain made him yelp.

Jim was dropping a handful of ice cubes into a ziplock baggie. "Just sit still," he said without turning around. "Where's the aspirin?"

"I'm pretty sure we're out."

"It was on the grocery list," Jim said mildly. He carried the ice pack and a dishtowel back to Blair and sat down beside him on the sofa.

"Yeah, but I got groceries at the co-op last week. They don't carry stuff like that."

"Or hamburger meat either, I suppose. So that explains why the freezer's full of polenta. Here, bend your knee," he directed, and lifted Blair's knee until the sole of his throbbing foot was flat on the cushion. He draped the towel over his foot and then gently laid the ice pack on top. "Better?"

"Yeah." Blair managed another grin. "Well, no, not really, but it beats lying out in the hall in my underwear."

Jim snorted. "So next time leave it until morning, OK, Sport?"

"Hey, no argument from me. I just don't want to hear any more complaints about my housekeeping. Jim -" he said seriously then. "Jim, I was thinking about something. What if Simon and Mr. Angelone are right, you know? About this having to do with you shooting Tom Gruenditch, and his organization not getting any respect anymore, now their boss is dead."

"It's not impossible, by any means," Jim said, just as seriously. "We don't have enough information dismiss any possibilities yet."

"Yeah, well, if that's right, if they're willing to kill a whole family, practically, just to make a point, then it just seems to me that - well, geez, Jim, they might come after you, too."

Jim nodded, still serious. "It's a valid concern. We should both be careful." His expression softened. "Is that why you were flying up the stairs like that?"

"Sort of." Blair closed his eyes. "And I smelled smoke in the hall. Did you smell it?"

"No."

"I thought it was a cigarette at first, but it wasn't. More like a cooking fire. You didn't smell it at all?" He risked opening his eyes to look at Jim's face.

"No," he told Blair patiently. "There wasn't any smoke, Chief. Not that I could smell."

Blair looked down at his hands. "That's when I saw Adheo's little girls, after I'd tripped on the step. The thing was, Jim, they weren't babies anymore. They were five or six years old. As old as they would be today if I hadn't let them die."

"Listen to me," Jim snapped. He reached out and cupped Blair's chin in his hand, drawing his face up and forcing Blair to meet his eyes. As sharp as Jim's voice was, his eyes were almost desperately gentle. "What happened to those baby girls was not your fault, anymore than what happened to Gwen was your fault."

That surprised him. "What are you talking about, man? Do you think - god, is there some sort of connection here?"

And suddenly there was, right there, right in front of him, just a hair's breadth out of reach. Blair could see the connection, he could feel it, he was so close to understanding everything his breath caught in his throat. He just needed a second to be still and concentrate, to let the pieces fall into place, but dammit, Jim was still talking and Blair couldn't block him out. "This case has everyone spooked," Jim was saying. "I know what's going on here, Sandburg, believe me."

The man was trying so hard to make everything all right, to keep everything manageable and sane, but what Blair was reaching for wasn't sane at all. "No you DON'T know," he told Jim furiously, working his hand out from under the blanket and making a gesture of frustration, trying to wave Jim away. He didn't really want Jim to leave. He just wanted him to shut up for a second so he could figure this out.

It was already too late. Jim let him go and turned away. "All right," he said quietly.

"No, Jim, wait, I didn't --"

He was afraid Jim was going get up and walk away, but he didn't. He only leaned forward on the couch, his forearms resting on his thighs, his hands hanging empty between his knees, and just sat there, his eyes fixed on the floor. "Then let me tell you what I do know, Sandburg. This case is too much for me. In the morning I'm going to ask Simon to reassign me."

 

14: curitiba, parana, brazil (ten years ago)

"We then discover that no society is fundamentally good, but that none is absolutely bad; they all offer their members certain advantages, with the proviso that there is invariably a residue of evil, the amount of which seems to remain more or less constant and perhaps corresponds to a specific inertia in social life resistant to all attempts at organization."
Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

After a time, Blair began to worry that the man with the gunshot wound in his hand might be bleeding to death. His blood was still oozing through the bandages and falling with irregular drops on the concrete floor. "Hey," Blair said at last. "Maybe you need to bandage that up a little tighter." He didn't particularly expect a response, and he didn't get one, except that one of the younger boys who had managed to drop off to sleep awoke and regarded him with dark, reproachful eyes. "Look, I don't mean to bother you," Blair persisted, "but I really think you oughtta stop the bleeding." He tried to lean over far enough to touch the man's shoulder, but the pain in his side stole his breath, and he had to sit back, panting, while he waited for the worst of it to subside.

When he was able to move again, he got slowly to his knees, then shuffled and crawled to the man's side, forcing the boys between them to pull their legs out of his way. They did, with muttered complaints. Once he was there he had to stop and rest again, sitting back on his haunches, head hanging down, breathing like he'd just run a marathon. The deep breaths hurt too. A renewed sense of his own vulnerability crept up on him as he rested, and he thought with a sort of detached, cold horror, that he was hurting like this because men with all the power and authority here wanted him to hurt. They could do whatever they wanted. Once Blair's flimsy story collapsed, they would probably avenge themselves for the extra trouble Blair had caused them, and there wasn't a damned thing Blair could do about it, not really.

His heart felt like ice in his chest. For a few moments he forgot all about the man bleeding to death at his side. He wanted to go back to the world where there were rules and safeguards. Where he was protected. Pretty damn ironic position for Naomi Sandburg's son, wasn't it? His mother had spent her whole life fighting against the very rules Blair longed for now. Despite everything, he felt a grim little smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. If he got out of this, he'd have to tell her how much he would have given for the sight for a plain old blue-suited cop from any old town in the States, donuts and beer belly and all.

OK, maybe it wasn't always so simple. After all, he had grown up hearing about those five days in the fall of 1968, when Mayor Dailey had turned his good old middle American cops loose on the streets of Chicago. No one had been safe from them. Not campaign workers or delegates or reporters, least of all the protesters. Naomi had seen her friend Rennie Davis beaten senseless in Grant park, and when she tried to help him, the cops had turned on her as well. She'd ended up with a concussion and two broken fingers that had gone untreated the entire thirty-six hours she was in jail. Not so different, after all, from where Blair was now. He supposed if he were a real anthropologist, he would have been interested in the persistence of social patterns across times and cultures, but all he could think of was the funny outward crook on Naomi's left pinkie finger, a permanent reminder of her ordeal. It could have been worse. She'd been two months pregnant with Blair at the time.

Blair looked around himself, the thought of Naomi's strength giving him hope as well. He and Naomi had survived together some nineteen years ago. He would prove himself worthy of his mother's courage, and survive this now.

At the very least, he'd give it his best shot.

"Excuse me," he said, and laid his hand on the wounded man's shoulder. "I'm going to see if we can get the bleeding stopped, all right?"

The other man raised his eyes to Blair's and spoke softly, shaking his head. "This way is easier." His voice was slurred with exhaustion and pain, so Blair decided to pretend he had misunderstood.

"No, I'll be careful, I swear. Just let me look." He took the man's forearm and lifted it as gently as he could. The wounded man's head rolled back against the cinderblock wall, a grunt of agony escaping him. "I'm sorry," Blair whispered, and put his hand on the man's forehead, hoping the touch would be some reassurance. He looked down at the rough bandages. They were filthy, coarse-woven cloth, saturated with blood, tied as though the injured man had dressed the wound himself. Blair tried not to think about what the wound itself must look like. Especially since there was nothing he could do about it except try to stem the bleeding. He laid the man's hand down again. "By the way, my name's Blair," he said as he tried to pull his own T-shirt up over his head. It was the only thing he could think of to use as a bandage, and besides, it was already in shreds. But raising his arms hurt more than he had counted on, so he gave it up in favor of tearing strips away without taking it off. "Oh, right, I guess I told you that already. Como voc se chama?"

Dark eyes met his own.

"Right," Blair said. "Let's try it this way. Just stay with me and we'll see if we can get this wrapped up a little tighter." He lifted the man's hand and laid his forearm on his own raised knee, then wrapped a strip from his shirt over the sodden bandages, crossing them over the other man's palm, tightening carefully across the back of his hand. "Hang on now. You're doing great."

The man made a muttering sound, a groan so deep in his throat it was almost a growl, but he didn't pull away. Blair let out the breath he didn't realize he'd been holding. "What do you think? A couple more wraps?" He was already tearing another strip from his much abused shirt when he heard the shriek of the dead bolt behind him, and he froze, all his vows of courage bleeding away like a wound no bandage could staunch. He couldn't even turn his head to see who was there. His chest ached with terror, and his blood felt as though it was prickling in his veins, needles and pins working their way from the inside out. He wanted to throw up.

"Melton," a voice snapped. "Esteja acima." Get up.

That was no Brazilian name. They must mean him. But 'Melton'?

Oh shit. Richard Melton's son. That was him. He lurched to his feet with guilty haste and turned, arms crossed hard over his gut as though that could hold back the pain in his side. In the doorway stood a man dressed in blood and sweat-stained khakis. His face was hidden behind a mask of cotton sacking.

"Hey," Blair whispered, his mouth so dry he could hardly get the words out. "I was wondering if I could use the phone."

 

15: cascade, washington (2:10 wednesday morning)

The whole world stopped. Kind of amazing, really. And not just the whole world. The intricate clockwork of the entire universe snapped a cog and came groaning to a halt, and Jim didn't even seem to a notice. He just kept sitting there beside Blair, head down in defeat, hands dangling helplessly between his knees.

"Jim --?" Blair swallowed and tried again, reaching out to lay his hand on Jim's slumped shoulder, "Jim, I can't believe it. You're quitting? Why?"

Oh crap, he could have come up with a better way to ask that, but he was just too stunned to be tactful about it. Jim didn't seem to mind, though. He only sat up a little and clamped his hand on Blair's knee through the blanket. "I haven't been able to check my emotions on this one, Chief." His voice was quiet and matter-of-fact. "I'm too involved. It makes me a danger to myself, to the people around me, to the success of the investigation."

"Wait a minute, I know it's personal, but c'mon, Jim, it's always personal with you."

A bleak sort of smile lit Jim's eyes. "Is that the way it looks to you?"

"Don't act like it's some kind of newsflash, man. You treat every case this way whether you know the people involved or not. Like every crime that happens in Cascade was your fault -- or like maybe you could have prevented it if you'd been a better cop or something."

And there was no reason to have said that either, not the way it came out, but the words had escaped and were hanging between them before he could even try to stop them. Jim only laughed, a short, dry chuckle without much amusement in it. "Sounds like you've been watching me pretty close," he said.

"Well of course I have!" Blair snapped. "Not like that's the whole reason I'm here or anything." And then he couldn't believe he had said that too.

Jim only sighed and pushed himself up from the couch. "It's gonna be a long day tomorrow," he said, looking down at Blair but being careful not to really look at him. "You need help getting back to bed?"

"Jim --" he began. There were about a million things he needed to say, and he knew as sure as Jim's eyes were blue that Jim wouldn't hear any of them right now. Not after so many mistakes, one right after another. He could tell himself that he was getting everything so wrong just because his big toe was killing him, and because he was scared and confused and about half-way afraid he was losing his mind, and to top it all off, he really hadn't gotten enough sleep the last couple of nights, and all of that would be true. It didn't make things any better, though, so he only said, "Jim, come on." He closed his eyes for a moment before daring to look Jim in the face again. "Please."

Jim gazed over Blair's head, like there was something really fascinating about the wall. At least he wasn't walking away. Good thing, since Blair really didn't want to go chasing him around the loft tonight. Not the way his toe felt. His heart was another matter. "Jim, listen," he said. "I know I'm acting crazy tonight." He kept his voice low. "I guess everything's pretty crazy right now, but give me another chance. Please sit down and talk to me about this. Just tell me what's going on."

Jim swallowed. His lips were pressed together in a thin, tight line. It wasn't easy, but Blair waited for him without saying anything else. Because you wouldn't think it, would you? But for a man who claimed all he really wanted was a little peace and quiet, sometimes it turned out the only thing Jim really couldn't fight was silence. And sure enough, eventually Jim let out a long gust of air and said, "You want a beer, Sandburg?"

Blair snorted. "Oh yeah, like that's really what we need at two in the morning."

Jim cocked his head at him, careful not to smile. "Is that a yes or a no?"

Blair grinned back. "Yeah, Jim, get me a beer too if you're having one."

Jim detoured to the bathroom on the way, and snagged his bathrobe from the back of the door. Blair watched him, realizing he was still pretty numb with disbelief. Jim planning to quit the case? That was not James Ellison. No way. Not ever. He'd seen Jim continue an investigation under the threat of suspension -- heck, after actually being suspended. Nothing stopped him, not his senses being on the fritz or shutting down altogether. Even being blind had hardly slowed him down. No matter what else was going on, Jim never dropped a case. It just didn't happen.

Except once. The realization hit like a ton of bricks. Oh god, except once.

He must have started to shake or something because Jim snatched the beers out of the fridge like the building was on fire and neither one of them intended to leave it without a cold brew, and came charging back to the sofa. "You OK, Sandburg? Need me to take another look at that toe?"

"No." Blair reached out a hand for the bottle, and was glad to see it wasn't trembling. "It's OK. I'll live."

Jim sat down on the sofa beside him, holding his own beer in both hands, not drinking yet. "Only you, Chief." Blair supposed he was trying to sound exasperated, but it didn't come out that way. It sounded like a very quiet surrender.

Blair took a long drink. "So what's going on?" There, he thought his voice was pretty level. "Is it your senses?"

"I'm not sure." Jim set his own beer down on the coffee table. He hadn't had a sip. "I mean, all right, yeah, it's my senses, but it's subtle, you know? It crept up on me before I realized what was happening."

"Can you -- " Blair gestured helplessly with his free hand. "Well, can you describe it at all? Does it seem to you like your senses are shutting down, or is it something else?"

"No," Jim said softly. "They're not shutting down."

Blair heard the unspoken wish there. This would be easier for Jim if they were.

"What is it, man? I can't help unless you tell me."

Jim turned to smile at him, his expression so sad and so kind that Blair felt tears start to his eyes. The only time Jim had ever tried to quit a case? Why don't you tell us about it, Mr. Sandburg. Almost three years ago, now, when Jim's senses had reemerged during the Switchman bombings. There'd been no one to help him then, no one to explain to Jim what was really going on. Jim had thought he was losing his mind, and the day before Blair had finally found his Sentinel, Jim had asked Simon to take him off the case.

Blair took another long swallow, mostly to buy himself a little time. He had to calm down and go easy here. Find out what was wrong with Jim's senses, and then maybe he could take the next step and figure out why Jim felt as frightened and alone as he had three years ago. Why he thought there was no one in the entire world who could understand what was happening to him, even though Blair was sitting right next to him, right here on Jim's own couch, for god's sake.

"Easy, Chief," Jim said quietly, interrupting his thoughts. His hand was around the neck of Blair's beer bottle, gently tugging it away.

"What?"

"You're gonna break the bottle like that."

He relaxed his death grip on the beer and let Jim take it away from him. Deep breaths, he thought, closing his eyes. Just calm DOWN. Was it any wonder that Jim was freaking, the state Blair was in?

The soft touch startled him, and he opened his eyes. Jim had laid his closed fist gently against Blair's face, his knuckles over Blair's temple, the heel of his hand warm against his cheekbone. "Hey," he said quietly. "You sure you feel like talking about this tonight?"

Blair leaned into that careful touch, taking strength from it. Ironic, wasn't it? To need so much from the man he was trying to help. "I'm sure," he told Jim. "Tell me what's going on. Maybe it'll help us both out."

Jim smiled, but then he let his hand drop, and Blair missed the warmth of that touch so profoundly he had to stop himself from reaching out and putting Jim's hand back. The coolness he felt at Jim's absence spread across his face like frost silvering a windowpane. For an instant he could have wept with despair, the impression was charged with such violent emotion. It was like this afternoon in the nursery, when everything had seemed so sharp-edged, so significant and real. Everything such a lush riot of sensation. Gravel turning under the soft feet of that little white cat. The colors of the blooming shrubs in the first greenhouse, the almost unendurably sweet smell of the blooming viburnum he hadn't bought.

But thinking back on the afternoon, he was startled by how brittle his memories were. Flat and sheer, despite their richness. As though their very intensity, in fact, were a sign that it was all nothing but an elaborate façade - a cunning trompe l'oeil that was more beautiful than the reality it aped.

Something turned over in Blair's mind. You know, despite the illusion of life and depth, maybe it wasn't any more real than the painted canvas backdrop at the back of a stage. He wondered, suddenly and insanely, what he would have to do to get a peek around the backdrop.

Or maybe, maybe he'd been able to see past it all along.

He reached out and knotted his fist hard in the collar of Jim's robe. "Tell me what's up with your senses, man. Please."

Jim smiled down at the clenched fist. "Afraid I'm gonna be going somewhere without you, Chief?"

"Just making sure you don't," he told Jim, and didn't let go.

"OK," Jim said, in his humoring-the-crazy-person voice, but his eyes were still gentle. "You're right, Sandburg. It must be what's going on in my head. All the emotions tied up in this case. I thought I was detached enough to work with it, but I guess that's not true."

Blair nodded, mute encouragement for Jim to go on.

"It's like I'm still there," Jim finished quietly. "I can't get away."

"Away from the Gwen's house?" Blair asked. "From the bedroom?"

Jim started to nod. "Sort of, yeah. It's --" He gestured with one hand in front of his face, as though trying to clear a mist. He dropped his hand almost at once, accepting the futility of it. "I can still smell the blood and everything else."

Everything else. Blair thought he knew what that meant. All the smells of a human body torn open the way Gwen and Trish's had been. He could have wept for Jim, but he swallowed hard, and only said what he hoped could help. "How strong -- um, how intense, I guess, does it seem? Like the bodies are actually close by, right now?"

Jim thought about the question for a moment before he answered. "No," he said at last. "No, it's more subtle. When I concentrate on it, I can tell it's just a ghost. But when I think about something else, it creeps up on me again. Before I know it, it's just like last night." He reached up and put his hand over Blair's fist, where Blair was still gripping the collar of his bathrobe. "When we were standing by Fred Angelone's car."

"Right," Blair said softly. "I know. I remember. When you smelled the blood on the surgical scrubs. That was incredible, the way you were able to focus past all the blood in the house to pick up a scent all the way down the block."

Jim didn't look like he thought it was so incredible. His face was as gray as his bathrobe. He worked his fingers under Blair's clenched fist and gently, but inexorably pried Blair's fingers up, freeing himself.

"OK, Jim," Blair said, talking faster, worried now that Jim really was going to get up and walk away. "OK, I think I understand what's going on. Last night everything was turned up as far as it would go. You were in the middle of the investigation, adrenaline pumping, all that emotion -- you were tuned in, man, everything on red alert. All that's happening now is that you haven't re-set the dials yet. There's probably, I don't know, a few molecules stuck to your nose hairs or something." Blair grinned, slightly frantic. "And you're so online you can't stop smelling them. I know it's awful for you, it must make you feel like you're out of control, but really, it's nothing we haven't been through before, right? We can deal with this together."

"Sandburg --"

"Listen to me Jim, you're all worried that being focussed on something you were smelling a day ago means you might miss something you come across right now, but that's crazy. You're the one always telling me that you were a good cop before your senses came back, and I know that's true. Besides, it's not like your senses are totally out of whack. If you'll just calm down, let me work with you here together, we can --"

"No."

"What are you talking about 'no'? Come on, calm down and give me a chance here. I don't think you're even listening to me. This problem with your senses is no reason to quit the case. In fact, really, if you think about it, it could be an advantage to be so sensitive right now. All we need to do is work on redirecting your focus a little. It's nothing we haven't done before, Jim, you know that."

"Not this time, " Jim answered in a voice that was as calm and implacable as a hard snowfall during the night, the way it turned a once-familiar landscape so white and silent and strange.

"Jim," Blair said, hearing the tremor in his voice. "Jim, I don't understand."

"We're not going to be working on this, because I'm not going to be on this case anymore."

"You said that already. But this thing with your senses is not the end of the world. I can help you, I know I can."

"I believe you," Jim said softly. "But I don't want you to. That's why I'm quitting."

Oh. Well, that explained it then. Everything made perfect sense now. Jim was quitting because he was having trouble with his senses, and there was no one who could help. It was just like the Switchman bombings all over again, only this time there was no one to guide him, because Jim didn't want Blair's help.

And that was because his erstwhile partner had finally gone off the deep end.

"This case," Blair said, and was pleased at how steady his voice was, now that he'd figured everything out. "You think it's too much for me."

Jim was gentle with him, but he didn't try to guild the truth. "It is too much for you, Chief."

"Because I'm seeing things?" he asked bluntly.

Jim studied his face, and after a moment, gave a short, tight nod. "Nightmares - sleepwalking - Sandburg, I know it all seems real tonight." He hesitated, as though he expected Blair to jump in with some sort of protest, but Blair held his tongue, and it was Jim who finally said, "And you're right, in a way. It is real. That's why we're both going to step back from this case. You hearing me?"

Blair tried to manage some sort of a smile for Jim. "Yeah, man, I hear you." He bent forward over his knee and picked up the icepack and the towel. "Guess I'll be getting back to bed. I'm pretty tired."

Jim took the ice from him, startled. "Do you need a hand?"

"Nah, I'm fine." Blair put his foot on the floor and cautiously stood. It wasn't too bad until he tried to put his weight on it. "Aww, shit."

"Careful." Jim was right beside him. Blair braced himself for a moment, hanging on to Jim's forearm until the smeared, red blot of pain faded. OK, there. It wasn't that bad. He could hobble on the ball of his foot just fine.

"I got it," he said. "Sorry about getting you up." He limped to his room, shutting his bedroom door behind himself. Goddammit, not like there wasn't enough going on tonight without having to worry about his stupid toe. It felt as though it had swollen to about fifty times normal size. Feeling like he had a huge, red, hurting helium balloon stapled to his foot, he crawled into bed and stretched out on his back. Even the weight of the comforter was painful so he sat up again, groaning, and flipped back the corner to bare his foot. That was better, except now his foot was cold. Be a block of ice by morning. He rolled his head to the side. Light still filtered past the curtains on the door and bled in a pale yellow square around the blinds in the inner window. He imagined Jim making those lonely rounds by himself, locking the front door, pouring the two beers they hadn't drunk down the sink and rinsing out the bottles, turning out the lights, then climbing the stairs to bed. The reek of violent death would be dogging him every step of the way.

Blair realized he had knotted his hands into fists around the sheet, and he made himself let go. He heard a wet sort of clatter in the sink. Oh, he realized after a moment. The cubes from the icepack. He'd forgotten about those. Everything else went just as he'd imagined it. He heard water running, then the muffled clank of Jim stacking the beer bottles into the recycle bin.

There was the deadbolt being locked, and then, at last, the quiet sound of Jim ascending the stairs. One step squeaked a little, four or five steps up, and then when he was overhead, Blair heard the board near the head of Jim's bed that creaked when he stepped on it just the right way. Blair opened his eyes again. The lights were out now. He was alone in the darkness, but he didn't use his deep breathing to calm himself. He knew Jim would be listening, whether he meant to or not. Blair doubted Jim could help himself at times like this. Blair wasn't having a real easy time of it himself, come to think of it.

Mind over matter, Blair thought determinedly. He closed his eyes and made his way slowly across the borders of sleep, back to the blind cavern under the hill where water cascaded in darkness like a rope of stars binding heaven to earth.

  

16: curitiba, parana, brazil (10 years ago)

"The anthropologist is the less able to ignore his own civilization and to dissociate himself from its faults in that his very existence is incomprehensible except as an attempt at redemption: he is the symbol of atonement." Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

They didn't let him use the phone, and no one would explain to him why they were holding him here, or when he could leave, but at least nobody was hitting him. Blair sat at a chrome and formica table in a windowless room with a poured concrete floor that seemed to double as kitchen and interrogation chamber. There was a rusty refrigerator against one wall, and a low sink with the enamel worn off in long, dark smudges. The faucet was dripping. A bucket and mop were propped in the corner, the mop so mildewed he could smell it from across the room. The yellow formica on the table was peeling up, scratchy against his forearms, and his side was hurting him in this position, but he couldn't move to a more comfortable one because his hands were cuffed to a bolt of metal hammered through the center of the table. There were stains as dark as molé sauce or dried blood spattered across the formica.

The man sitting across from him wore a crisply starched shirt, and he was careful to keep his own dazzlingly white sleeves off the stained table. He spoke to Blair in English, asking if this were his first visit to Curitiba, and didn't Blair agree that the lava fields of the Sao Jeronymo Reserve were one of the great unspoiled wonders of the world?

Blair couldn't control his trembling, and his voice was just a whisper when he answered that yes, Sao Jeronymo was very beautiful.

There were two other men in the room. The same men who had fetched him from the cell. Probably two of the same men who had killed Hemisfereo and Orinoco. They were still wearing cotton sacks over their heads. Blair could occasionally see a flash of brown through the ragged eye holes, but it was hard for him to imagine that these butchers had eyes or faces at all. They were lounging against the back wall, murmuring to each other in voices too low for Blair to understand, obviously bored and out of sorts, sweat stains seeping across their khakis. The room was airless and hot. Blair felt trickles of sweat running down his own back, and trying to distract himself from his terror, he thought those two men must be half-suffocated with those cotton hoods over their heads.

"I didn't realize your father had such an interest in the Preserve," the man in the white shirt was saying.

"He didn't before, but he probably does now," Blair rasped, and then wondered if that had been a really stupid thing to say. His throat was so dry it hurt. "May I have a drink of water?"

"Yes, of course," said the other man politely, but he didn't get Blair anything to drink, and didn't gesture for either of the other two men in the room to do it either. "We're trying to contact your father now. I'm sure you'd like to speak to him."

Blair felt the hot flush of mingled fear and hope, and wondered if the man questioning him could see it.

"We're having some trouble getting through," the man in the white shirt explained, spreading his hands apologetically. "The phone lines to Sao Paulo may be down. But perhaps you have friends here that you would like us to contact for you?"

Blair could hardly breathe through the constriction of fear in his throat. Yes, he thought despairingly. Yes, please call the Glory of God Mission in the Tigaby village and tell anyone who answers the phone that I'm here, and they've hurt me, and please, come get me out of here, because I'm so damned scared.

"No," he breathed. "I don't know anyone else here. I want to talk to someone at the American embassy."

"You have no friends here at all?" The man raised one bushy salt-and pepper eyebrow and looked inquiringly at him.

Blair shook his head. "No," he insisted, hoping he wouldn't burst into tears as he said it. One of the men whose faces was masked straightened up, and Blair flinched, but he didn't so much as turn his head towards Blair. He simply crossed to the sink and turned the tap on. Water gushed into the basin with a hollow sound that soon became muffled as the basin filled. Blair wondered if he was going to get that drink of water at last.

"No one who you might consider a friend of your father, even?" His interrogator asked once more. "You're quite certain?"

"I'm certain," Blair said, tearing his eyes away from the surreal picture of the man with the covered face and the blood-stained clothes filling the sink with water as though he intended to wash a few breakfast dishes. Didn't look as though he were going to get his glass of water anyway. "I haven't done anything. I don't know anything. Please may I go now?"

The man reached out and patted Blair's face with paternal kindness. "We'll talk later."

Then he stood up and walked away. A brief, hot draft blew through the room when he opened the door, and a second, stronger one ruffled the hairs on the top of Blair's head when the door shut behind him. It was metal, just like the door of the cell where they had first held Blair, with a dirty glass inset over wire.

Blair looked down at his arms to avoid looking at the two men who were still in the room. He was trying not to think about what would happen next. He didn't know precisely what it would be, only that there was nothing he could do to stop it, and that he was so tired, and so afraid. He clenched his hands into fists, feeling the metal of the cuffs bite into his wrists. His side hurt so constantly he couldn't draw a deep breath. He probed carefully at his loose tooth with his tongue, still tasting blood in his mouth. Footsteps crossed the room to him, shuffling on the concrete floor, and he closed his eyes.

No good. The darkness was worse. He opened his eyes again and watched as one of the hooded men unlocked the handcuffs and threaded them back through the metal bolt in the formica table. The release made Blair's wrist ache, but when the man wrapped his callused, hot hand around Blair's forearm, the human touch, even under these circumstances, gave him a moment of hope.

"Please," Blair said as the hooded man pulled his hands around and cuffed them behind his back. The metal closing once more around his wrist hurt too. Blair raised his head, looking for the other man. He was standing behind Blair's left side, ready, as though Blair might suddenly make a run for it.

Or maybe he had no more illusions than Blair did about just how much resistance Blair was likely to offer. The nearer man put his hand under Blair's arm and tried to pull him to his feet, and when Blair couldn't manage it quickly enough on his own, his companion moved in and they dragged him up out of the chair together, supporting him when his knees buckled. Blair noticed, when he could breathe again, that his own eyes were level with the brown ones that flashed behind the hoods on either side of him. How strange. Last night in Orinoco's hut, back lit by the headlights, these men had seemed like such giants.

They pulled Blair across the room without speaking a word to him. Every step hurt and Blair's progress was painfully slow, but the two men didn't try to hurry him. Blair thought that was probably because it was too hot to make an unnecessary fuss about anything. The sink was full of water, a film of grease moving on its surface. The faucet was still dripping, and Blair saw his own face reflected back across the ripples. He felt his body fighting as the two men forced his head down, but it did not seem to have anything to do with him personally. After all, he was supposed to have died back there in the swamp with his friends, so how could it matter what happened to him now? He could smell the vegetable reek of the place still, and his head was filled with the roar of the night insects and the sound of Pastor Cleary's voice telling the congregation with a laugh that the Lord was ready for this one now. Blair's face broke the surface of the water, and eventually even his body stopped fighting.

 

17: casade washington (wednesday morning, before dawn)

Blair raised his head carefully, taking stock. He was crouched on the cold stone floor of the cavern under the cliff where the water ran out of the rock. He had been here before in dreams. He had been here before in the flesh. Jim had wanted him to forget, and for Jim's sake, he'd tried. He had tried as hard as he could, but it turned out he couldn't put it away forever.

His big toe was killing him. Felt like he'd stubbed the hell out of it.

Oh, Blair thought. He had. He'd been running up the stairs, trying to get to Jim, but now he couldn't remember if he had gotten there in time. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate.

I was running up the stairs, I remember that, I was running because Jim was in trouble. But did I get there in time? Is Jim all right?

(Dammit!)

Blair hissed at the sudden pain. It wasn't his big toe hurting. It was his throat, hurting so bad he could hardly swallow his own spit. Which had to mean that he hadn't made it up the stairs in time, and Jim wasn't all right at all.

Blair lurched to his feet in sudden terror, one hand on his aching throat, his other outstretched, groping for the wall of the cavern. It had to be close, right behind him. He could feel the cold radiating off the face of the ancient granite, but no matter how he reached, his straining fingers couldn't touch it, and he screamed aloud at the sheer maddening unfairness of it. Why did everything have to be so damned difficult? Especially now. Oh god, especially now.

He stopped looking for the wall of stone behind him because it didn't matter. Nothing did. He was too late. He hadn't saved Jim at all, and the sounds Blair vomited out of his mouth when he realized that weren't even human anymore. They were animal shrieks of grief and hurt coming over and over again until the entire cavern was filled by them. He staggered into the blind vastness with his hands clenched against his forehead.

(Was that really how it had been?) Blair wondered in agonized bewilderment. He had just stood there and watched as the thing in bloody scrubs ran up the stairs and found Jim sleeping? It was, oh lord help him, it was, it must have been, because he could smell the blood in his memory and see the glint of gardening tools that nobody had ever used to turn the soil. And then he heard the sounds, too late, oh too damned late, and he was running --

He still didn't have it right. Something was wrong with his memory, because when he concentrated the figure on the stairs changed and dwindled, collapsing in upon itself. Four-legged and fish-belly white, bounding from stair to stair, and the mere sight of it had blasted him with awe. This was not his world. This was not his place in it. He did not have to accept this. Jim had said so himself.

"Blair, visions like the one you had have changed the course of history, uprooted civilizations, formed the basis of entire cultures ... but I just think you should ask yourself how likely it is that the Cherokee Immortals emerged from the great beyond simply to tell one Blair Sandburg to drop out of grad school. Just seems to me like they'd have better things to do."

Jim was probably right about that. That wasn't what they had meant to tell him at all. Blair had simply gotten the message wrong. And it wasn't his throat hurting, either, it was a sluggish liquid fire burning up his arm and spreading through his veins. He could feel the rubber cord knotted painfully around his biceps, but when he put his hand over his arm, he touched nothing but his own bare flesh. He felt the sting of a phantom needle too, hurting him as it pushed deeper and deeper, and he slapped at his arm in growing panic, then stumbled to his knees. Worse than the dark heat lapping in his belly was the certainty that he'd gotten it so wrong, made the worst possible choice. He'd wanted to help Jim, and how had he gone about it? Lied to Jim, permitted the stone walls to close behind him while he drugged himself with poison. The vine of souls denatured. No wonder it had nearly killed him.

"He wants to know if you're going to be my spiritual guide in the city."

And no wonder Incacha had laughed.

"Tell him ... he learns from me, I learn from him -- it's more like a partnership."

Hell of a partnership. He had left Jim behind in the storm and come here alone. That couldn't be right, he knew that. "Jim," he whispered. "Jim."

His screams and cries had not broken the silence, but Jim's name, breathed out like a sigh, finally did. The quiet dark which had enfolded Blair began to recede, and he heard once more the white splash of water as it emerged from ancient stone, frothed bubbling and sharp upon the smooth rock and then rushed away to the very center of the world.

Blair shook his head muzzily. He felt like he was trying to clear the cobwebs after a long and difficult sleep, one of those afternoon naps that unexpectedly last clear through to the next morning. Soft lights danced in the periphery of his vision. He had risen, though he did not remember getting up, and the sound of the water was becoming clearer and sweeter to him. He could hear, Jim-like, the shattering of every droplet on the rocks below. The water shone in the darkness, a silvery rope with a thousand filaments, and he drifted closer. The lights fluttering around his head had become as brilliant as butterflies. He saw flashes of hue so beautiful they made him want to weep, red and orange and gold and green and a shade of blue more luminous than a calm sea in the noonday sun, as clear as Jim's blue eyes. He heard a sound above the rushing water like wings beating, and Blair followed, guided by a rope of stars that arched from the Milky Way, through the shadowlands of middle earth, to find its knotted end in hell. As he rose, he turned to look back at his crumpled body. He expected to see that he had left it in the cave, but instead he gazed down at the shadow of himself in his own bed, still sleeping on his back, one foot sticking out from under the covers.

He passed through his bedroom ceiling, up through the floor of the loft where Jim lay sleeping too. Jim was curled on his side in a tangle of yellow and blue linens, one hand bunched into a fist beside his face. His eyes were squeezed shut, as though that could possibly keep him from seeing the dark things haunting his dreams tonight. His face was tense with a sort of restless unease, and he was breathing in short, shallow gasps. Blair put out his hand, wanting desperately to take the bad dreams away and leave nothing but peace in their stead. Jim's face was warm under Blair's fingertips, his cheeks wet with tears or sweat, and at Blair's touch, his clenched fist fell open. His next breath was an easier one, his chest rising slowly.

Blair stroked Jim's face and told him, "Rest, Jim. I'll be back soon." The roar of the water filled his ears, but Blair remained until Jim's sleeping face relaxed into something like a smile. The tense coil of Jim's body slowly let go, and he rolled onto his back with a sigh, pushing the tangled sheets down and away from himself as he straightened his legs. One arm curled behind his head, and the other dropped onto his stomach. Jim's chest rose in another deep, long breath, lifting the hand that lay on his stomach. Blair pressed his lips to Jim's forehead in benediction and promise, before the pressure at his back finally swept him up and out into the sky.

It was nearly dawn, and as Blair soared upwards, he could see the dull, dark globe of the sun lurking sullenly at the horizon. Around him the stars were bright and beautiful, but his life was below, in the colorless city of the world. Everything was gray and flat and indistinct. The living and the dead, everyone Blair had ever known in this life, all of them were shuffling through the streets together. They walked with their faces down, too intent upon their phantom concerns to ever once glance up to the vault of heaven. Blair watched for a time, amazed to think he was just another of those dull ones, he and Jim and Naomi and every other bright spirit he had over loved. He wanted to shout aloud to them, but when he opened his mouth to speak, birds with shining feathers emerged instead of sound and scattered across the night sky, flying away from him until they were indistinguishable from the stars. He desperately wanted to follow, the urge burning in him like lust, but in the end, it was not really so hard to turn away. His place was in the shadows still, despite the bright reality beyond.

Besides, he'd promised Jim he would be right back.

He fell with numbing speed, the shadows rushing to claim him so eagerly he was astounded he had ever escaped them at all. The packed cotton batting in the futon was hard under his back. Man, he had to replace that -- maybe he could borrow the truck from Jim after he got next month's paycheck and go to one of those discount furniture places off Wilmington. Probably find a new one for under a hundred bucks, and it'd be worth it if it saved his back. And while he was borrowing the truck, he might as well borrow Jim too. No way he could wrestle the mattress up the stairs by himself. He smiled briefly, then felt the tears trickling down his face. He raised his hand and brushed them away, and realized his big toe was hurting, that Gwen Angelone and her mother were dead, and less importantly, that the world was not the same place it had been when he had gone to sleep a few hours before. He threw back the comforter and sat up in bed. Silvery pre-dawn light glimmered cold in his room. He stood cautiously, aggravated by how sore his stubbed toe was, and limped out of his bedroom. Jim wasn't up yet. Blair hesitated for a moment, hating to disturb Jim's rest when they had both gotten so little sleep last night. He finally decided this couldn't wait, not even another half hour or so when Jim's alarm would go off anyway.

He made his way up the stairs slowly, trying to be quiet for all the good it would do. He was certain Jim would hear him, and his sore toe made him so clumsy every last step seemed to creak under his weight. But when he was high enough to see Jim's bed, he found Jim was still asleep after all. He was sprawled defenselessly on his back, the sheets tangled around his knees. His flesh was alabaster in the gray light, shadows defining the muscles in his arms and chest, lying dark in the hollow of his throat, tracing the fine planes of his peaceful face.

Jim didn't awaken until Blair had reached his bedside. Then he opened his eyes calmly, and their blue was the only color in the whole room. "Chief?" he said.

Blair sat down on the edge of the bed, bending forward enough to put his hand on Jim's shoulder. "Jim," he said, surprised to hear his voice crack, when Jim's voice had been so calm. "I think we need to talk."

 

 

18. curitiba, parana, brazil (ten years ago) 

"He is an anthropologist, and chose to become one; he must therefore accept the mutilation inseparable from his vocation. He has preferred other societies and must suffer the consequences of his preference: his function will be simply to understand these other societies, in whose name he is unable to act."
Claude Levi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques

 "Can you stand up?"

Blair knew that voice. He tried to retreat from it, but the voice followed him, cruel in its insistence. "We do not have time for complications or difficulties. You have to help me."

Blair opened his eyes. His nose and throat were burning. There was an ache low in his chest that discouraged him from trying to breathe too deeply, and a pain in his side that thrust sharp and deep in time with his heartbeat. He was lying on a concrete floor, grit under his cheek. His face was wet, as well as his hair. He smelled of stale dishwater and cooking grease.

"Please," said the voice, more softly. "If you can get up now, I think they will let you walk out of here, but Lt. Joao is liable to change his mind at any moment." A gentle hand brushed his face, callused fingers drawing a light touch across his cheek. "And if he changes his mind about you, my boy, he's not likely to let me go either."

Oh damn, Blair thought. No more lives on my head. I'm so tired of this now. Couldn't they all just leave him alone? He closed his eyes, but the other one didn't leave. Instead he put his hand under Blair's shoulder and tugged at him, trying to pull him up.

"I know you can hear me," he said. Another hand slipped under Blair's cheek, lifting his face off the floor, and Blair opened his eyes once more, seeing the rough cotton weave of the other's sleeve. The hand under his face was so gentle that Blair felt tears begin to fall painlessly, rolling sideways down his face over the bridge of his nose. Seemed ridiculous to be crying. Anyone would think he'd have had more than enough of water by now.

"I don't want to die, young man, and neither do you. Come on. Sit up."

Blair sat up, pushing himself up with one hand on the floor. He heard the sounds he made as he did it, so loud they almost drowned out the quiet encouragements from the other man. He was unexpectedly strong, firm hands on Blair's shoulders easing him up, then holding him when the movement made Blair begin to cough. The pain was so black and hot he was afraid he was going to faint, but he opened his eyes and looked into Br. Marcus' face instead, and only nodded when Marcus said, "We're going to stand up now."

Marcus' broad face was set and stern, only his deep-set eyes betraying his emotion. His short curling gray hairs were plastered to his forehead. "And don't pass out," he murmured to Blair. "Or we'll never get out of here."

Blair was lightheaded and sick with pain, and he could still glimpse from the corner of his eye flashes of the same bright things he had seen when they held his head under water. Over and over again, until the moment when the desire to breathe overwhelmed whatever was left of rational thought. He thought he knew what Marcus was really asking him to do. Don't look anymore. Don't listen to the sounds -- running water and a hollow, breathy note that rang within, marrow deep.

He looked into Marcus' eyes, trying to focus long enough to make a decision. It was a lot to ask of him, but even in this state he understood the risk the monk had taken by coming here for him. All for a kid he'd met once and tried to warn. "I'm sorry," Blair whispered. He grabbed Marcus' forearms and held on hard, bracing himself so Marcus could help drag him to his feet. He coughed again and staggered, but Marcus had him now and was able to support him until the blackness retreated once more. When he could see again, he realized he was still in the kitchen. The hooded men were nowhere to be seen. The only other person in the room was a policia in a stained khaki uniform standing near the open door. Blair stared at him as Marcus wrapped his arm around Blair's back, his hand under Blair's shoulder, and urged him to take a step. Water was still running down the back of Blair's neck and down his face and throat.

As they made their slow way past the policia, Blair saw that his sleeves were wet past the elbow. Marcus blessed the man, and the policia said "Thank you, Brother," as he shut the door after them. Blair tried to watch where they were going, thinking that it was important to see everything, remember as much as he could, but the images slipped past like water rushing by stones in the river. He could smell stale coffee and the musty odor of old paperwork. A phone was ringing monotonously in another room. A typewriter clattered, stopped, then clattered again. Someone must have opened a door for them then, because a hot rectangle of sunlight slid over his bruised face, and Blair winced against it, feeling the heat and light like another blow.

"Just a few more steps," Marcus promised. He gathered Blair closer as they made their way across the last threshold, and braced him when Blair staggered under the impact of the open street. Loud, staticky music was playing nearby. Dogs were barking. Smells were heavy and thick in the hot midmorning air, gasoline, sewage, fried meat, diesel fumes, overripe fruit. A woman's voice was talking, loud and insistent, laughing. "O que os olhos no vem o cora o no sente," she said, shouting the old proverb with an air of settling the argument.

What the eyes don't see, the heart doesn't suffer.

Blair's head was pressed hard against Marcus' chest, his eyes closed, but he opened them at that, even though the sunlight hurt. The street underfoot was broken cement patched with asphalt, and Marcus had to half-lift him over the gutter running down the center of the street. Blair clenched his jaw against a scream. He couldn't even take a deep breath for fear of coughing again.

"It's all right," Marcus said quietly. A car was coming down the street towards them, Blair could hear it. "That's our ride, young man. Just keep walking, just another few steps --"

"No," Blair whispered, and then moaned in fury as he felt another cough claw its way up his throat. It doubled him over when it escaped, despite Marcus' attempt to hold him upright. His knees were on the concrete, and Marcus was trying to pull him up again, but it hurt so badly, and he was so tired, and everything was so wrong. "No," he hissed again, every cough a sledgehammer smashing against his chest and side. "Marcus, PLEASE."

He heard the engine idling, but he couldn't see it because his eyes were screwed shut against the pain. "Marcus, thank the Lord," said a voice Blair didn't know, and then there were more hands on him, hauling him upright.

Blair made himself open his eyes, swinging his head around to stare into a stranger's gray eyes. "No," he told the other man, since Marcus wouldn't listen. "There are other people in there. Kids younger than me. We have to help them."

"They're in God's hands, now," said the second man, just as implacable as Marcus. He put his palm on Blair's forehead for a moment, then let him go and pulled open the back door of a battered white VW van, patches of rust blooming red across the white paint. Naomi had driven one just like it for years. Blair stopped resisting, and allowed the two monks to lift him in. Marcus got in with him and helped him to the bench seat in back, cracked gray vinyl just like Naomi's van had been too. He heard the door slam behind them.

"We've got a long ride ahead of us," Marcus said. "Do you think you can make it?" Blair wondered vaguely why Marcus was bothering to ask. It wasn't as though he had any choice in the matter. He sat back against the seat slowly, feeling every change in position as though his ribs were teeth in a gear. Marcus sat beside him, his hand on Blair's shoulder as the van began to move. His voice was very gentle. "I mean, I would rather not stop for a doctor until we get to Paranagua."

All right, Blair thought, not knowing whether he had answered out loud or not. He turned his head to watch the world slide past. White stucco. Yellow brick. Shop signs advertising Coca-cola. The side of a red bus. The pavement was rough, and every pothole hurt as the van bounced over them. "Would it help to lie down?" Marcus asked.

Blair shook his head and whispered, "They're dead. Orinoco and Hemisfereo. They killed them. I'm so sorry."

"Blair," Marcus said. "Listen to me."

He didn't want to. In his shame he didn't even want to look at Marcus, but the monk put his hand on Blair's face and carefully turned his head so that he had no choice. "Orinoco isn't dead. Some of the brothers are taking him and his wife and granddaughter to Mato Grosso. "

Blair stared at him. "What are you talking about?" he demanded, starting to cough again, but he clung to Marcus, shaking and gasping until the worst of it passed and he could tell Marcus the rest. "They shot him. I was right there. They shot him -- and drove us out into the jungle -- and they shot Hemisfereo and threw them into the water -- Marcus, they were going to kill me too, but I didn't want to die."

Marcus said, "Be quiet. Listen to me." He put his fingers over Blair's mouth to silence him, and when he took his hand away, his fingers were red with blood from Blair's split lip. "Lt. Joao's men have been using that place as a dumping ground for months. Orinoco had managed to get to shore by the time Maria Amelia and I got there. He's a tough old man, Blair. I think he has a good chance of making it."

"Hemisfereo?" Blair asked softly. He knew it was impossible, but there had been so many impossible things tonight. He had been wrong about so much. Please, just one more miracle. Surely that wasn't too much to ask.

"His soul is at peace, Blair."

"No," Blair said. It hurt all over again, worse than ever. "No, Marcus, please, it was so stupid. I told them my father was the American ambassador. That's the only reason they didn't kill me too."

"Oh my dear young man," Marcus' face crinkled into the saddest smile Blair had ever seen. "So that's why Joao let us go. He must have been trying to figure out if anyone knew where you were and what had happened to you." Marcus brushed his hand over Blair's wet hair. "Then I show up asking about an American boy and he panicked. Do you know what he told me? That you had been attacked by bandits and didn't remember your own name."

Blair hissed in anger and despair. "It's not true. You know it's not true. We have to make somebody listen."

"No," Marcus said. "The only thing we have to do is get you as far away as we can before Joao finds out you made a fool of him."

Blair half turned, despite the pain, and wrapped both fists in the front of Marcus' robe. Why was it so hard to make him understand this? He was a man of God, for pity's sake. "But it isn't right. It isn't fair."

He wanted an argument or an explanation, but Marcus only said, "I know."

"You don't understand," Blair insisted. "I saw everything." He let Marcus go and put one hand over his own heart, trying to contain the ache. "I'm still seeing it."

Marcus didn't answer. He only watched Blair with patient grief, and when Blair's head dropped, he pulled him forward until his head came to rest against his chest, and held Blair while he wept.

 

19. cascade washington (5:40 wednesday morning)

Jim had been dreaming such dreams. They clung to him still as he opened his eyes to find Blair at his bedside. "Chief." Blair had been in his dreams, hadn't he? But his memory of them slipped away even as he tried to claim them.

"We need to talk," Blair was saying, his voice hoarse with sleep. The mattress yielded under Blair's weight as he crawled on the bed and put his hand on Jim's shoulder.

Talk. All right. When Blair was around, there usually was something that needed talking about. "OK," Jim agreed drowsily. He could feel a faint headache building from the back of his scalp, and the faintest tingle of a crick on the right side of his neck. Sandburg smelled of sleep, the warm-under-the-blanket scent of Blair just out of bed in the morning, his hair mussed and a little sweaty from the pillow, a faint musk of perspiration between his legs and under his arms. Blair started to lift his hand from Jim's shoulder, but Jim caught him, wrapping his own fingers around Blair's palm and drawing their hands down together to rest on his chest. He wanted to keep Blair near because the slaughterhouse reek was here as well, faint, but as close as it had been from the beginning. Scenting it around the corners of Blair's life made him feel weak with despair, and it was too damned early in the morning for that. He had to resist the urge to drag Blair down to him, because he thought perhaps he could lose the smell of death by burying his face in Blair's hair. "What time is it?" he asked Blair instead.

Blair smiled down at their clasped hands and Jim wondered, as he often did, just how much Blair knew about what he was thinking. Usually safest to assume that Blair knew everything. "Beats me," Blair said. He turned his head to look at the clock on the nightstand, his hair slipping over his shoulder and hiding his face. When he looked back at Jim he tucked his hair back behind his ear with his opposite hand, so he didn't have to free his hand from Jim's hold. "About twenty till six, looks like."

"How's your toe feel?"

"Sore. Don't ask me how I'm going to get a shoe on it."

"Probably would have been a good idea to keep ice on it a little longer last night," Jim said, wondering if this was really the conversation Blair wanted to be having at this hour of the morning.

"Yeah, I know, you told me. Guess my head wasn't screwed on too straight last night." Blair was watching him as though expecting an agreement from Jim, or more probably, some sort of a confession that Jim hadn't been thinking too clearly either. Jim couldn't give it to him, though. After a few hours of sleep he knew more certainly than ever that he'd made the right decision. He had no place investigating the Angelone murders. Not when they had hit Sandburg so hard.

Hit Sandburg so hard? Come off it. Blair was handling things as well as ninety percent of the veterans on the force. He would bet even Simon'd had some pretty grisly nightmares last night. The truth of the matter was Jim couldn't handle it. He wasn't in control. There had been something wrong from the very start in this investigation, and the lingering reek of death was only a symptom of something much worse. Whatever it was, Jim knew he had already let Sandburg get much too close.

Blair was still smiling down at him. His hand was open under Jim's, fingers spread warmly across Jim's chest. Jim was thinking about yesterday morning at the Angelone house. He had used Blair's touch and Blair's presence over and over again to keep himself from being lost in that miasma of blood and violent death, and now he couldn't shake the conviction that he'd been drawing Blair deeper each time he reached out for him, like a drowning man pulling his would-be rescuer under the waves in his panic.

It made no sense. Blair said he could handle this case, and although last night's nightmares and sleepwalking bothered Jim, they weren't any reason, really, to take such drastic measures. Blair had been dealing with blood and mayhem since the Switchman case -- what made this so different? He couldn't explain it to himself, and when he pressed, trying to make his way through the veil, he was stopped time and again by that image of Blair. It was an image he thought he understood. Just the old fear, surely, that one day Blair wouldn't duck fast enough, that Jim wouldn't be there to knock him out of the way of the bullet. But this was more stark, darker, and it wasn't going away, even with his decision to drop the case.

(oh damn)

Jim shut his eyes against the image when he realized he had summoned it once again, but of course that just made it clearer than ever. Blair, not dead, though he should have been, standing before Jim with his hands crossed over the gaping blackness in his naked breast. Just like Gwen and Trish, their hearts torn from their bodies. The reek of blood was everywhere, and still Blair insisted on keeping his hands crossed over his chest, as though that could hide the unspeakable truth from Jim. The vision had been hovering on the edges of Jim's consciousness all along -- he thought he had caught the first glimpse even before they reached the Angelone house.

"Hey," Blair's voice was softly amused. "You falling asleep on me?"

Jim opened his eyes quickly, trying to blink away the darkness "No," he said hoarsely.

"So you still planning to ask Simon to reassign you?"

"Yes," Jim said, and then, in a futile attempt to deflect whatever arguments Blair had no doubt been marshalling all night, went on, "There's nothing to talk about. Go back to bed, Chief. You could get in a couple more hours sleep before you have to go in to school."

Blair smiled again, and Jim realized he was still holding Blair's hand pressed to his own chest, and he belatedly let go. Grinning, Blair trailed his fingertips up Jim's throat and flicked his chin. "Gotcha." Jim tried to bat him away and Blair pulled his hands back in mock surrender for a moment, but then he planted his fist on the bed near Jim's side and looked at him seriously. The right side of Blair's face was still flushed from the pillow, a wrinkle on the pillowcase showing on his cheek. "How'd you sleep last night?" Blair asked.

"You wake me up half an hour before the alarm to ask that?"

"I really wish you'd think about this, man. I don't think dropping the case will help anything. It won't make whatever it is that you're so scared of go away, and it sure won't catch the guy who did it any faster."

"You're probably right." No point in arguing about it, anyway.

"But you haven't changed your mind, have you?"

Jim shook his head, rolling it carefully on the pillow to avoid aggravating his incipient headache.

"OK," Blair said, suspiciously agreeable. He leaned over Jim and grabbed a free pillow. He was still wearing the unbuttoned flannel shirt he'd had on when he went limping to bed last night, and the ends trailed over Jim's belly. He dropped the pillow beside Jim's head, and stretched out on his side next to Jim, one arm doubled up under the pillow, so close his elbow brushed Jim's shoulder. "There's something I want to ask you about Incacha," he announced.

Jim rolled his head to the side and looked at him. "Incacha?"

"Right," Blair agreed, seeming to see nothing odd about the circumstances or the conversation. "Even with all the stuff you've told me, Jim, and everything I've been able to read, there's still a lot I just don't know. Elizabeth Broussard's gonna be a guest lecturer at the University of Seattle starting next fall, and I've been planning to go up and talk to her then, but I'm thinking now I should have gone ahead and flown out to Georgetown as soon as I heard she was in the states."

Jim blinked. "Is this what passes for pillow talk in your world, Sandburg?"

Blair grinned at him for a quick instant. "Come on, I know, I've mentioned her to you before. She lived with the Chopec for almost six years before the Shining Path moved into the area. The only person besides you who even spent close to that much time was this French guy back in the thirties, and they weren't clued in at all yet about how important ayahuasca visions really were to Chopec cosmography back then."

He broke off and looked at Jim expectantly until Jim finally gave in and said, in some bewilderment, "Are you asking me a question?"

"Well, yeah, sort of," Blair seemed faintly disappointed. "See, what it looks like to me is the Chopec view of reality has a lot in common with other, better documented tribes, like the Huichol and the Jivaro."

"I wouldn't know. That's your field, Chief." How did you talk about a view of reality anyway? Things did, or did not exist. The fact that he was having a little trouble these days telling the difference was reason enough to let someone else handle the Angelone case.

"No, I think you do know," Blair said earnestly. "How did you get your Chopec name, anyway?"

"Incacha gave it to me."

"I know, but how did he get it? He didn't just make it up out of the air, did he?

That's exactly how he got it, Jim thought, but he didn't say it out loud. It seemed somehow disrespectful to his memory of Incacha.

Incacha had been too weak to rise from his bed after three days of sickness and fasting, dosing himself repeatedly until Jim had begun to worry that the young shaman wouldn't survive his quest. At length he had come swimming back out of the seas of hallucination to grasp Jim's arm and tell him, ecstatically, that he was Enqueri. It was as though Jim had not truly existed for him until that moment, the joy shining out of his flashing brown eyes so much like Blair's that Jim felt the ache of his loss again like a physical pain. How alike they were, after all. Both men so foolishly eager to face death on his behalf, and why? To give Jim Ellison meaning, existence, purpose. A name. Enqueri. Sentinel. "Blair, listen to me," he said, instead of answering Blair's question. "Whatever's going on here, I don't want you involved. It's not worth it. Not this time."

"Hey, come on, take it easy," Blair said. He nudged Jim's shoulder with his elbow. "I'm not talking about the investigation. Just wanna ask you a simple question is all."

Jim wondered if Blair even believed that himself.

"Incacha went looking for that name, right? He ate or drank the extract from Banisteriopsis or Diploterys cabrerana or something related, and it made him see visions. Hallucinate. That's when he came up with your name, right? It came to him while he was having vivid hallucinations."

"Yes." Jim rolled his head back and looked at the ceiling. "Incacha told me that a man with green feathers on his back and a beak instead of a mouth came down out of the sky and gave him my true name."

"See, that's what I'm talking about," Blair insisted. "And that was absolutely real to Incacha, wasn't it? Even more real than the physical world."

"It was more important to him," Jim agreed quietly. "He was willing to die to see it."

"And that's exactly what I mean, Jim. That's the whole deal. For people like the Chopec, those hallucinations weren't hallucinations at all. Incacha believed he was seeing a real place and talking to the beings who actually lived there. Whatever you wanna call that place, heaven, hell, the spirit plane, whatever -- it's absolutely real to them, it intersects the physical world and affects the stuff that happens here -- in lots of ways it's even more important than our world. It's like the ordinary, waking world is the dream, and not the other way around. I'm just extrapolating from what I know about other tribes, but I'm right, aren't I? It was that way for Incacha, wasn't it? "

"Yes," Jim said warily. He was beginning to see, he thought, where Blair was headed with this, and it wasn't anywhere Jim wanted to go. He also knew he'd have an easier time stopping a runaway train than deflecting Blair Sandburg once he'd made up his mind about something.

Sighing, he stared up at the ceiling, and quietly told Blair what he thought Blair wanted to know.

"It was mostly during times of crisis for the Chopec. There were a lot of those while I was with them. The guerilla fighting in the area had interrupted the movement of game, and food could get pretty scarce. There were intermittent skirmishes with the Huni Kui, their ancestral enemies. And then nearly a quarter of the tribe was lost during an epidemic before I'd even been there two months." The memories came flooding back as they always did when Blair pushed at the barriers, less of a shock than in the early days of remembrance, but still overwhelming in their immensity. He remembered Incacha singing the death chant for his wife and daughter, both taken by the sickness within a few hours of each other. Jim had been huddling away from the fire, feverish himself, and wondering, with a sort of stupefied, guilty horror, if he might have been the carrier. Incacha's song was a low, constant groan, so piercing Jim had been able to feel it vibrating in the bones of his face.

He turned his head to look at Blair again, pulling himself back to the present with the sight of him. Blair was still curled on his side, his fist was over his mouth and the side of his index finger pressed hard against his upper lip. His eyes were rapt.

"Incacha would make a kind of thick tea from a vine they called nixi honi," Jim went on, reluctantly. "Vision vine. The preparation would take as long as three or four days, finding the vine, scraping the bark from it, macerating the bark in water, reducing it over the fire for hours at a time. Then when it was finally ready Incacha would drink it, and keep drinking it until he found the answer he and the tribe were looking for. He'd be sick as a dog-- " Jim found himself trailing off for a moment as another memory came to him. "Sick as you were, Chief." He heard how soft his voice had grown. His responses were still slow this morning -- not enough sleep, he supposed -- and he felt so vulnerable with these old memories churning in his belly. "As sick as you got when you let that quack friend of yours in New Hope give you yage."

"Right," Blair said, his voice sounding strained. "That would be typical. There are a lot of physiologically active chemicals in yage or ayahuasca besides the harmaline and DMT." His eyes, so eager before, dimmed suddenly, and his mouth twisted, as though he too were trying to clamp down on grief before it could escape him. "It's part and parcel of the experience, Jim." He was very quiet now, and no longer meeting Jim's eyes. "The shaman gets so sick he feels like he's dying. It frees his spirit for the soul flight into the next world." Blair forced himself to smile, then, and when he did, a single tear escaped. "That's why I was so scared when Incacha passed the way of the shaman on to me. Can you blame me, man?"

Oh no. Oh no, runaway train or not, they were not going there. Jim abruptly sat up in bed. "You're wrong, Blair. You've got this absolutely wrong. Incacha understood how different your life was from his. He never meant for you to follow his path so closely. He freed me from my responsibility to the Chopec. He didn't intend to bind you."

"He didn't have to." Blair was still curled on his side, looking up at Jim with eyes that were almost black in the predawn light. "He knew I already understood."

"All right, stop," Jim said. "Just stop it right there. Whatever lunatic idea you're cooking up in those addled brains of yours, you're going to forget it right now. You are not Chopec. Incacha's way is not your way. For chrissakes, I'd expect an anthropologist of all people to know that. You try doping yourself the way Incacha did, and the only vision you're going to see is the inside of an emergency room."

Blair grinned. "Threats, tough guy?"

"Dammit, Sandburg, don't you remember what yage did to you? What the golden did? I'm not spending another night at your hospital bed listening to the ventilator breathe for you. Nothing is worth that. Nothing."

"Hey wait, I'm sorry." Blair sat up quickly. "I'm sorry. I'm with you here."

Jim closed his eyes. He couldn't seem to think when he was looking Blair in the face this morning. Or maybe he was thinking all too clearly. Blair's hand was still warm on his forearm, and Jim covered Blair's hand with his own, his eyes still closed. "Then you want to explain why you woke me up at this hour of the morning to talk about the nature of reality, Sandburg? Or is it more fun if I just keep guessing?"

"I don't think so," Blair chuckled softly. "Your guesses are sounding hazardous to my health."

Jim opened his eyes. Blair was sitting with one leg drawn up, his elbow propped on his knee, and his chin resting on his hand. His other leg was stretched out straight, foot turned up and his stubbed toe so purple-red Jim thought he could probably feel the heat of the inflammation from here. Blair's open shirt shadowed his bare chest, but Jim could see well enough to know there were no scars, no wounds. Of course there weren't. It was just this case, spooking both of them. He never should have let Blair become so deeply involved. Maybe the only thing to do now was to figure out a way for them both to leave town for a little while. Put some distance between them and this damned bloody mess of an assignment. It would be rough on Simon, but he would just have to understand, this time there simply wasn't a choice.

"How long has it been bothering you, Jim?"

Blair's soft voice startled him out of his thoughts. "How long has what been bothering me?"

"This, man." Blair turned his hand, clasped Jim's wrist, and drew Jim forward until his hand lay flat against the center of Blair's chest. The curling mat of hair was soft under his palm, and Blair's flesh was warm and smooth, unbroken, his heart beating strongly underneath. Jim had not realized how badly he needed the reassurance of that touch until Blair guided him to it. His head dropped in relief, and he left his hand there for long moments, until Blair released him. Jim reluctantly allowed his own hand to fall.

"It's OK, Jim," Blair said quietly, then laughed again, that soft chuckle in a voice still a little scratchy from sleep. "No, I know, it isn't OK right now, that's the whole problem, but I'm OK, and I'm going to stay that way. We both are. The thing is, there's something going on here. I don't understand it, not all the way, but ignoring it won't help. It's just gonna get worse. That's the one thing I'm pretty sure of. Look at you -- you don't feel any better even though you decided to drop the case, do you?"

Jim shook his head slightly, pinned by Sandburg's searching blue eyes.

"I know you think I'm the last person in the world who has any business lecturing anybody on the nature of reality, and who knows, you're probably right. And about Incacha and his nixi honi tea -- yeah, Jim, I know there's a physiological explanation for what was going on. The indole ring in harmaline looks a heck of a lot like serotonin, so it's no wonder he would get high as a kite when he was drinking that stuff. And he had a cultural context that told him how he was supposed to interpret the pretty picture show in his head. The days he took preparing the drug, the fact that he knew he was doing this to help his people, and that he believed there were entities who would assist him and keep him safe while he was tripping -- all that stuff kept him sane, let him understand what was happening to him no matter how wild things got. When I was out of my head on golden, I didn't have anything like that to ground me. I didn't even know I'd been drugged until those burned people started coming out of the walls --" Blair's voice faltered. "I didn't know even then. I just thought the world had turned inside out. Same thing when I was in that cave with a broken hand and my senses all fried from Paul's drug. I was totally lost, just reaching out for anything I could to make sense out of a complete neurotransmitter soup." Blair stopped again to take a long, shuddering breath, trying to hang on to that patented I've-got-it-all-under-control-now Sandburg aplomb. "It's all chemical. I know that. I know it, but you know what? So's friendship." He met Jim's eyes again, steadier now. "So's love. So's everything. We've talked about this before, and I know neither one of us really likes the answer very much, but when you come right down to it, there's no such thing as consciousness apart from the chemical reactions that create it."

Jim wasn't sure he was following any of this, but he latched on to what he wanted to believe was the most important. "You're telling me you understand that the visions aren't real. Not the one you had last night when you fell out in the hallway and thought you saw the twins. Not any more real than the things you saw on golden or when you were stranded in that cave. Just the brain playing tricks. None of it was real."

Blair was nodding solemnly, with the air of guiding Jim along in a great discovery. "That's right. But you know what the crazy thing is? Things that aren't real matter anyway. Incacha was right. They're maybe the most important things of all."

"You lost me at that last fork in the road."

"I don't think so," Blair's voice was steadier and more sure. "Otherwise why were you so scared that maybe something had stolen my heart out of my chest?"

"What are you talking about?" Jim whispered, even though the denial seemed pointless.

"Jim," Blair's voice was as gentle as his eyes. He put his hands on Jim's shoulders, half turned on the bed to face him. "What happened to Gwen and Trish. The way their bodies were mutilated. It's reminded you of something that wasn't real, that couldn't have existed." All at once, Sandburg's air of calm evaporated like steam from the first cup of coffee in the morning that, come to think of it, Jim could really use about now. Anything to stop what Blair was about to tell him. He did not want to hear this. Whatever it was, he was absolutely certain he did not want to know. Blair was breathing hard, his chest rising and falling with the effort to calm himself, but somehow he managed to keep his voice level and reassuring, even though his face was flushed with sudden emotion. "You remember, Jim, going out to the point one really cold, rainy morning during the Singleton trial?"

Jim didn't realize he was trembling until he raised his hand and saw how badly it shook. He laid his palm against the side of Blair's face anyway, trapping a few locks of Blair's tangled hair between Blair's scratchy cheek and his own hand. "I remember," he said.

"I'm sorry," Blair said. "You don't have to think about it if you don't want to. Probably a lot better if you don't. I just --"

"Blair." A moment before he'd wanted to run from this, but that wasn't an option, it never had been. "Chief, please."

There wasn't much left of it a year later, just the memory of the two of them on the beach, sleet pattering down, bouncing on the rocky strand and stinging his face. Blair had been cranky and shivering, running to catch up, complaining on and on about the weather. He had good reason to, considering there really wasn't any excuse to be out here this time of year, this hour of the morning, in this kind of weather.

No excuse, except Jim had needed the time and the uncomfortable place to be sure he remembered. The gates of hell had swung open wide for James Ellison, and Cerebus had come roaring out with the rain, grabbed a leg and chomped down hard. Growling and snarling, worrying him to the ground, and he would have dragged Jim straight back down to hell with him, except for Blair. Blair had saved him by interposing his own body between Jim's and that black hound of hell. Yeah, it was all metaphor and simile, Jim had known that even at the time, but whatever had really happened during those three lost days was too dark and slippery for Jim to hold onto. That morning on the beach he had stopped trying, because Blair told him it was all right, and he'd kept only the symbols. Like the black jaguar that slunk from the corner of his thoughts when he tried to be someone other than the man these senses had made him. Not real, but desperately important all the same. So there wasn't any big cat. Jim was still a Sentinel. And Blair still bore scars from a fight that could not have happened. If Jim looked carefully in the morning, right after Blair had shaved, he could see the tiny puckers of flesh, white against the olive skin of his throat.

"Talk to me, Jim." Blair's voice was worried. "Tell me what you're thinking."

Jim slid his hand down Blair's face and tipped Blair's chin back to bare his throat. Blair's eyes went wide, but he didn't resist. Morning bristles shadowed his neck. Jim could see the traces anyway. He touched them with his fingertips, faint pearls of scarred flesh.

"You nearly died," Jim said quietly. He felt very calm and suspected it was the numbness of shock. "And now you think it's happening again."

He could see Blair had not expected him to say that. The color drained from Blair's face. He opened his mouth, starting to speak, and then clamped it shut again. He wrapped his hand around Jim's fingers and pushed Jim's hand away, not ungently, but with a sort of brusqueness wholly at odds with the deliberate way he'd approached every previous step of this morning's strange journey. "No," he said at last in a strangled voice. "Not the same as before. I don't believe it. We're all right, you and me. We have to be." He did not sound all right, though, and he scooted across the bed, away from Jim and swung his feet around to the floor. "Sorry about waking you up, man," he muttered as though talking to himself. "Guess I really need to think stuff out some more. How about if I get the coffee started?" He stood too quickly, evidently forgetting his stubbed toe, and stumbled hard.

"Watch it," Jim rolled on his hip and sat up after him. He managed to snag Blair's wrist. "Don't fall down the stairs."

Blair went stock still, only his shoulders trembling, standing to take the weight off his foot. He didn't pull away again. He continued to stand there, breathing with his mouth open a little, gazing away across the open space beyond the loft, allowing Jim to hold his wrist. "Hey," Jim said at last. He could feel the upside-down lightness in his stomach too, and a sick, flushed heat making his face burn. "I know, Chief. I'm scared, too."

"Jim," Sandburg blurted out. He turned fast and blundered into Jim's arms. Jim caught him, awkwardly trying to stand up, but Blair was already too close for Jim to get to his feet, so Jim drew him in while still sitting on the side of the bed, Blair's thighs between his own and his arms securely around Blair's waist. Blair made a sound somewhere between a sob and a laugh. He held Jim's head in both hands and then put his arms around Jim's neck, lowering his head until Jim could feel the ends of Blair's hair prickling. He laid his head against Blair's chest and felt Blair's heart thundering hard against his temple. Blair's open shirt hung to either side of his head, warm from the heat of body.

"Oh man," Blair whispered at last. "I'm sorry, I'm OK. Just sort of snuck up on me there. I'm OK." He gave no indication of letting Jim go. "We are OK, I'm sure. The mistake I always made before was trying to do it on my own."

"You're not alone," Jim said. He spread his hands over Blair's back, willing his touch to be the reassurance Blair needed, and then said, because he had to ask, "Guess it would be too easy to simply get out of town for a few days, huh?"

Blair almost laughed. Jim felt his chest rise, and heard the gust of air that was close to a chuckle. "Nice idea, man," Blair said in a very, very quiet voice. "But I'm pretty sure it wouldn't help."

"Yeah, that's what I was afraid of," Jim said. He squeezed Blair tighter for a moment, then relaxed his arms in case Blair wanted to be released from the embrace. Instead he felt Blair curling closer over him, dropping his head to rest his cheek on Jim's head. Jim felt the soft tangles spilling down the back of his own neck. "So what's next?" Jim asked. Blair's heartbeat was already calmer against his face.

There was a pause. "Breakfast, I think," Blair finally said. "I'm afraid it's gonna be a long day."

 

 

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