Plank

by Martha


And then a Plank in Reason broke—

Emily Dickinson

***

FIRST PLANK

I felt a Funeral in my Brain
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through—

***

Part 1

Blair knew the door wasn't locked. He could stand up and walk out if he wanted to. Yessir. Just get right up off this stinking mattress and get the hell out of here.

Jim's gonna be worried about you, man. You haven't been home in days.

"I'm all right, Jim. I just got a little side-tracked is all." He was whispering, but his voice sounded so loud in that sunny basement room.

Wait, that's right, he kept forgetting. Jim was pissed at him. Jim was totally, totally pissed. Probably be glad he was gone, come to think of it.

The room smelled like a grade school classroom, like grape juice and vanilla wafers, chalk boards and lemon floor wax, but the mattress Blair lay on was a little mildewed. Just enough so you'd notice, but not really all that bad. It didn't actually stink, but it would probably drive Jim crazy.

Funny how living with a Sentinel seemed to have heightened Blair's senses as well. These days he was always noticing things he never would have thought twice about before meeting Jim.

Blair drew his legs up, tucking his hands between his knees. Actually, the mattress was more than just a little mildewed. All the more reason to get up, wasn't it?

Oh well. He'd slept in worse beds. The afternoon slipped away as he lay there. He watched the square of sunlight on the floor lengthen and lose its right  angles. He wasn't hungry, couldn't imagine being much interested in food ever again, but lying here in this hot, airless room, he was getting thirsty.

He closed his eyes and imagined he was back at the loft. He knew exactly what he would do if he were there. He'd grab a bottle of water out of the fridge and drink it on the spot. He probably wouldn't even shut the refrigerator door because he knew he'd want another as soon as he'd finished the first. He'd probably drink it so fast the water would spill all down his chin, and he could imagine it running down his face, trickling down his throat and under the collar of his shirt, so cold it sent shivers up his spine.

And then Jim would say, "Funny thing, Sandburg, but the fridge seems to work better if you keep the door shut."

Blair opened his eyes. This is crazy, he thought. You want a drink of water, just go home and get yourself one. Apologize to Jim and get yourself a drink of water, for heaven's sake.

Suddenly it all seemed very simple and easy, and he couldn't understand why he had made such a complicated mess out of  things. Typical Sandburg, wasn't it?

He sat up slowly. Strange how much his arms were trembling. He sat still for a moment, thinking about things, deciding how badly he really wanted that drink of water.

He wanted it pretty bad, man.

The mattress was thrown on the floor, no bed frame, so it was an effort getting up. In the end he decided the hell with dignity and crawled over to the wall so he could support himself against it as he made his way to his feet.

All right. Way to go, Mr. Sandburg. You're making some major progress here. Just keep thinking about that bottle of water.

He leaned hard against the wall for a little bit longer, gathering his strength. Late afternoon sun was streaming through the high, dusty windows. A fly buzzed loudly on the sill, knocked and thrummed against the glass trying to escape.

"Know just how you feel, little buddy," Blair muttered, and suddenly a chill ran down his spine that had nothing to do with that imagined drink of cold water. He raised his head and pushed his hair out of his eyes. For the first time he began to suspect that getting away from here might be slightly more complicated than just opening the door and walking out.

Maybe he wasn't really so thirsty after all. Maybe all he really wanted to do was just lie back down on that musty old mattress and go back to sleep.

Oh, man. What a coward. Why did Jim put up with someone like him in the first place?

Besides, that was a nice try, Blair, but you know you've got it ass-backwards. Jim's not angry with you. You're the one who got angry at Jim.

It was hard to think about it now in this sunny room with the fly beating so relentlessly against the window. All his thoughts seemed to be moving slow and thick as cold honey, and that was strange, because the truth of the matter was, it was goddamned hot in here. But he certainly remembered how angry he had been. At least he hadn't stormed out to confront Jim at the station. He must have been hanging on to a tiny sliver of sanity, but it had been a tiny one for sure, because he'd begun raging at Jim as soon as he walked in the door. Circling like a hyena, picking away, keeping his voice low, trying his damnedest to hurt.

And had he been surprised to discover that he could hurt Jim? Well, yes, he supposed he had been. Jim was the strong one. Jim could take anything Blair dished out without raising a sweat. And at first, just like he was supposed to, Jim had only raised his hands in mock surrender, shaking his head, that tolerant smile on his face. But Blair didn't stop. Not this time. He just kept jabbing away, pick, pick, pick, hard as he could, nasty as he could be, and god help him, he'd been glad when that smile slipped off Jim's face, exultant when those hands finally dropped.

Blair opened his eyes. He had to get home right now, and not to get that drink of water either. He had to find a way to make Jim believe he hadn't meant any of it, not one single  word.

Which wasn't going to be so easy, 'cause at the time, he had meant it.

Oh, lord. Go home, Sandburg. Let Jim know how wrong you were. That's all you can do now. You can't take back the past, but you've got to let him know right now how badly you regret it.

Blair's new-found resolve got him all the way to the door. The top panel was pebbled glass, and though he practically put his nose against it trying to see what was on the other side, he couldn't make out anything. Thinking of Jim and the apology he owed him, he finally put his hand on the knob and tried to turn it. It stuck a little, and for an instant he was afraid it might be locked after all. But he took a deep breath, fighting the weakness and apathy that told him to just give it up already and go back to bed, and tried the knob again, jiggling it back and forth until he felt the click. The door swung open.

Blair whispered to the fly in the window, "Wish me luck, man," and stepped out into the empty corridor on the other side.

***

Part 2

It had been a difficult couple of weeks. He'd been living at the loft with Jim for about six months now, and most times things seemed to go pretty smoothly. Blair was trying to make things work, and darn it, he was trying hard. Harder than he'd ever worked at anything in his life, if he were honest about it.

But lately it didn't seem to matter, because almost every night for the two weeks he would wind up sitting on his bed in the evening, laptop open in front of him and his books and papers scattered around, not studying, not writing a word. Nope, he would be staring through the partially opened curtains over his bedroom door to where he could see Jim at the dining room table. And Jim was just sitting there too, most times with a bottle of beer he would hardly touch, sometimes with a book he wouldn't even bother to open. Just sitting there, thinking about something.

It was fast turning into their evening routine, and Blair hated it. He was dying to know what in the world Jim was thinking about night after night, but he was terrified to ask. He was deathly afraid that he already knew, and that hearing those words spoken out loud would make them irrevocable.

So he kept his head down, tried to remember to hang up his coat when he came in the door instead of throwing it on the sofa, tried to remember to wipe the crumbs from the countertop after he'd made himself a sandwich, tried to remember to clean his stubble out of the sink in the mornings, tried to remember when it was his turn to sweep and dry-mop the floors so Jim wouldn't have to remind him.

Jim didn't even seem to notice, and it was scaring the hell out Blair.

It'd have been nice to blame Naomi for the way he finally reacted. He would have had some justification, wouldn't he? It was a behavior he'd watched all his life, that elaborate dance of disconnection, bridges carefully burnt one by one. But that wouldn't be fair. He'd known exactly what he was doing. He'd been scared and mad, and he'd wanted to push Jim a little, just to see what would happen.

Stupid. Absolutely idiotic. He known that as well, but it hadn't stopped him, had it?

Jim had come padding downstairs that Tuesday morning, barefoot, tucking his shirt into his pants. Seeing Blair at the table still in his undershirt and boxers he said, "You planning on going in to the station like that? C'mon, Sandburg, get a move on."

Blair was hunched over his coffee cup, using his hair as a veil so he wouldn't see Jim's face. "I'm not going in today."

"Oh."

Blair listened to Jim walk past to the kitchen, heard him get something out of a cabinet, then open the refrigerator door, and finally he heard the glug of liquid pouring into a glass. Jim's morning glass of o.j. He didn't have to turn around to know that. It wasn't the grapefruit juice Blair sometimes bought just for the sake of a little variety, certainly none of the more exotic blends he carried home from the juice bar in that Seventh Street co-op. Nope, orange juice it was, as it had been every morning for Jim since the beginning of time and would certainly be every morning hereafter until the earth fell into the sun.

Blair nearly gave in then, but he bit his lip and didn't say a word. Jim sat down across from him at the table and asked calmly, "Got something to do on campus today?"

"Yeah, I do." Blair finally looked up. "You probably heard about it already. We're gonna be picketing the administration building to protest the regents' decision to shut down the Latino Studies Department."

"'We,' Chief? What does Latino Studies have to do with you?"

"You mean besides the fact that I have a lot of good friends in that department who are gonna be left high and dry if the university goes through with it? Man, you don't get it at all." Blair pushed himself away from the table to give himself more room to gesture. "The board of regents is just trying to save some money, and they think with the backlash against affirmative action these days they can start shutting down departments they never liked in the first place and nobody's going to care. If we let them get away with this, what's next? African-American studies? The Native American department? Women's studies? No, no way. They've gotta be stopped now, and if you can't see that, then—"

"Whoa, hold on. Fine. Maybe you're right. But marching around carrying signs or whatever you're planning to do isn't going to change anybody's mind. It's dangerous, short-sighted, and stupid. I don't want you involved."

"You have got to be joking. Are you seriously trying to tell me what to do here? I don't believe this."

But of course Blair believed it. He'd been with the man long enough to know exactly what Jim thought about civil disobedience. This isn't 1964, Chief, and we're not in Birmingham. Bull Connor isn't the chief of police. So there are better ways to air grievances than by endangering untrained civilians and tying up law enforcement personnel.

That's what Jim thought.

And if Blair had been thinking straight himself, he probably would have been pleased and rather touched that Jim felt proprietary enough to order him to stay away.

But he hadn't been thinking straight at all.

Jim was saying, "And if you have any influence with these friends of yours you'll tell them to stay away too, or better yet, call the whole thing off. It's going to be way too easy for these kids to get caught up in the mob mentality and let things get out control."

"Dammit, Jim, how condescending can you get?"

"Besides, Simon was telling me the university turned down the police commissioner's offer to loan them some personnel. The bottom line is, nobody's going to be there but under-trained campus cops who don't know the first thing about crowd control. People could get hurt, and I don't want you there, Chief."

"What the hell are you trying to say to me here? 'It's my house, so it's my rules?' Is that it? Because if that's the case, then maybe it's way past time for me to just—" But he couldn't even say it. He floundered and then shut up, waiting for Jim to be merciful and get it over with quick.

"I don't want to see you get hurt. That's all I'm saying here, Sandburg."

And that really was all he said. Blair couldn't believe it. Jim finished his orange juice, gulped down most of his coffee, then went back upstairs to finish getting ready. When he came down again, shoes on his feet this time, tucking his gun into his holster, and found Blair still sitting half-dressed at the dining room table, he observed quietly, "Definitely not coming in to the station today?"

"No."

"Have it your way."

And he left.

Blair stayed home. He didn't go to campus. He did turn on the local news that afternoon to see if there was any coverage of the protest on campus.

A thirty-second spot was all it rated. It had been pouring  down rain, and the station aired some footage of wet, bedraggled protesters huddling under umbrellas, and equally cold and wet-looking campus cops waiting on the other side of the street. Nothing happened. All Blair could glean from the coverage was that after an hour or so everyone got bored and went home.

"See, Jim. Told you," he said to the empty loft, but going to the protest wasn't the point, it never had been, and raising a fuss over it hadn't solved anything.

He would have to screw up his courage and just ask Jim  what was going on here, that's all there was to it.

But he couldn't make himself do it. Not that evening, nor the  next day when Blair went in to work with Jim just like nothing had happened. Nor the next, or the next, and Blair began to think that maybe he was just an idiot and had been imagining everything, and anyway, maybe Jim wouldn't notice if he put off cleaning the bathroom for another couple of days even though it really was Blair's turn, and he hadn't forgotten, he just didn't feel like doing it right away.

But then he found what Jim had been hiding from him for so many months.

***

Part 3

The hall on the other side of the door seemed very dark after the sunny basement room. Blair hesitated on the threshold to let his eyes adjust. He was near one end of a long hallway lined with doors, some open, some closed. The carpet on the floor was brown and rumpled, buckling at the walls and badly waterstained.

Probably flooded down here during those storms last winter, Blair thought idly. I bet that's why the mattress was mildewed too.

The corridor took a right turn at the far end. That must be the way out.

And there by the last door was a water fountain.

The relief that broke over him at the sight of that mundane object was so tremendous he started to shake. Up until that moment he hadn't realized how scared he really was. But a water fountain – that meant ordinary life and the company of people who were concerned enough about creature comforts to provide for a swallow or two of water when your throat was dry—

Hell, maybe there was even a bathroom around here somewhere.

He half-ran down the hall, all weakness and uncertainty forgotten. He supported himself with one hand and bent over the fountain, pressing the button on top of the spout with his clenched fist.

There was a crusting of lime and dust in the aluminum basin.

Oh, no. No.

The knob depressed without resistance, and nothing happened. Not one drop of water trickled up.

No, no, no. This was too damn much. He slammed his open hand against the side of the fountain and turned around, so infuriated he could have wept, and saw for the first time  that there were people in the room on the other side of the hall. Very young children, in fact, sitting cross-legged in a circle on the floor. There was one adult with them, a woman barely out of her teens with frizzy red hair that she wore in two braids. Her round face was covered with freckles from her forehead all the way down her throat, and her green eyes had gone wide with alarm at the sight of Blair.

Blair raised one hand and  tried to smile. "Hey. How you doin'?"

She put one hand to her throat, her eyes round as saucers.

"It's okay." Blair's own voice was so soft he didn't know if she could even hear him, but he figured it probably didn't matter. Didn't look like they were about to get into a big conversation anyway. "I was just leaving. Is this the way out? Up the stairs here?"

She just stared, blank and terrified.

What kind of a question was that, Sandburg? Of course it's the way out. "Be seeing you," he muttered, and went quickly on.

The stairs were wooden, defaced with worn rubber safety strips. The railing was wooden too, painted white, and Blair clutched it as he made his way up.

There was light from above, and the sound of voices. He had to stop at the landing to catch his breath, and he finally began to wonder what was wrong with him. A dozen stairs and he was so winded he felt like he could lie down and go to sleep forever.

Don't worry about it now. Just concentrate on getting to  Jim. Jim will take care of everything, even though you were such a major jerk.

He took the last of the stairs more slowly, stopping to rest often, thinking about what he would say to Jim  and about how good that drink of water was going to taste. The voices from above were growing louder. People were singing. He hadn't realized that's what they were doing at first. There was no accompaniment, and damn little tune actually, but they seemed to make up in enthusiasm what they lacked in musical skill. Hard to say how many there were. Twenty or thirty perhaps?

Why the hell do you care anyway?

He didn't, except that he realized he was getting a little scared again, and the last thing he needed to do was freak when he was so close to getting out of here.

The stairs came out in an empty foyer. On one side, double doors opened into a large space, a chapel or sanctuary of some kind Blair thought, catching a glimpse of a broken stained-glass window. He couldn't  see much else from where he stood. But the voices floating back to him were strident with belief, and he had the sudden, desperate urge to run back down the stairs and curl up on that mildewed mattress and just lie there until Jim came and found him.

Opposite the sanctuary doors was another set of double doors. These were closed, and Blair had no doubt they led to the outside world. So all he had to do was walk across the foyer, open those doors, and walk out into the sunlight. No problem.

Of course, to do that he would have to walk right past the sanctuary. The congregation had their backs turned to him, but the man in the pulpit would have a clear view.

He realized he was running his fingers over his lip, an unconscious reversion to a nervous childhood habit.

All right, Sandburg, he thought furiously. Shape up or ship out. You can do this. You owe Jim that apology big time, so you're going to walk across the foyer, open those doors, and leave all of this behind. Don't think about it. Just do it.

   Straightening his shoulders a little, trying to imagine the self-confident, utterly unafraid way James Ellison would accomplish this little task, he marched straight to those doors, resisting the temptation to look over his shoulder. He was so focused on not keeling over along the way he didn't even notice the length of chain and the Yale padlock until his hand was on one of the bars.

And at first he refused to consider what that meant. He pushed the bar anyway, trying to open the door. It yielded a few inches before the chain looped around both handles pulled taut. A streak of late afternoon sunlight spilled across the worn red carpet. The singing suddenly stopped.

Blair rested his head against the door, and then when he heard that compassionate voice calling his name, the last of his courage deserted him, and he slid to his knees. He wanted to weep, but he didn't even have the strength for that.

Someone was coming for him. He heard the footsteps, heavy, running a little, making the floorboards creak under the carpet. He just huddled closer to the doors. Pressing his eye to the slender opening between them, he could see outside to the cement sidewalk where weeds grew rank in the cracks.

The sidewalk was littered with spent casings.

Two pair of strong, gentle hands took his arms and pulled him to his feet. "Please," Blair whispered.  "Please don't."

The men who had come for him turned him around, supporting him between themselves, and half-carried him back across the foyer and into the sanctuary. Blair let his head fall forward so he would see nothing but the floor, not the congregation who were witness to his humiliation, and certainly not the man waiting for him behind the pulpit.

Please, Jim. Please don't be mad at me anymore, man. I was wrong, and I'm sorry. Can we please go home now?

They released him in front of the communion table. Blair didn't even try to stand up. He dropped to his hands and knees, some part of his mind registering the noisy silence of the people all around him as they shuffled on their feet, their little coughs, throats being discretely cleared. Must be that Sentinel effect again, realizing how loud a group of people would sound to Jim even if no one spoke a word.

And when someone finally did speak, he thought his mind would break.

"Blair," said the man behind the pulpit.

Blair curled forward, hearing the whimper that escaped him but unable to stop it, and tried to hide his face in his hands.  But the man who had spoken wasn't behind the pulpit any longer. He was kneeling beside Blair, trying to coax Blair to raise his head and look at him. Blair  wouldn't do it. He knew it was worth more than  his soul to avoid it, but there were other hands on him then, and he couldn't fight them all. Strong fingers grasped his chin and lifted his head. He closed his eyes and someone slapped him. Not hard. Just enough to startle him, and before he knew it, he was looking straight into those luminous brown eyes where tears of disappointment sparkled.

"I'm sorry," Blair tried to say.

He wasn't sure he had actually spoken the words until the other said, "I know you are." The voice was breaking with sorrow, and Blair couldn't stand it. He began weeping too, bitter tears of guilt and misery. The other's face drew very close, kissed away one of Blair's tears, and Blair sobbed out loud.

"Hush, now. Hush." A finger touched Blair's lips. Those brown eyes regarded him with such woe that Blair wailed aloud in grief.

"Such a pity," he said. "Who would think an infidel and a dog would be as beautiful as Jesus?"

***

Part 4

That Monday Blair had stayed home so he could finish writing Buckner's grant proposal. He'd been putting it off for way too long, but after making such an idiot of himself last week he was nervous about telling Jim he couldn't go to the station with him.

But see, the deal was, he had taken an informal sabbatical from teaching to give himself time to figure out how to follow his Sentinel around eight hours a day and more without compromising his academic responsibilities. The extra time with Jim was great, and he was learning so much that, for right now, he hardly missed the classroom.

But in the meantime, money was pretty short this semester. He was squeaking by doing odd jobs around the department, grading exams, writing proposals, doing a little work as a research assistant, and so far it was working out okay. But if he screwed up and missed this deadline, Buckner would have a cow.  Plus, Blair would have blown one of his meager sources of income.

He was explaining all this at slightly frantic length to Jim, who finally cut him off by raising one hand and saying, "If you make it in today, great. Otherwise don't worry about it, Sandburg."

So he had been at home that morning when the call came from Professor Levi in the religion department. She'd heard Blair wasn't teaching this semester and was wondering if he would be able to help her out. She even had a little budget left for a research assistant, and would be able to pay him for his time if he had any to spare.

Well, no, he really didn't have time to spare, but the mention of money got his attention anyway.

The problem, she explained, had to do with one of her advisees, a doctoral candidate writing his dissertation on millenialist religious groups. For the past six months Clyde Sewell had been living with a small community in the mountains a couple of hours east of Cascade.

"And I'll be frank with you, Blair. I'm starting to worry about Clyde. When he first moved in with the New Jerusalem  group he was checking in with me via email at least three or four times a week. Lately, though, I've been hearing from him less and less, and given the nature of this group, I can't help but be a little concerned."

"Let me guess. New Jerusalem is organized around a charismatic leader, they're totally suspicious of the federal government,  and incidentally are predicting the apocalypse any day now."

"Bingo. I knew you were the right person to talk to."

"Any risk of violence, you think?"

"Oh, no, of course not. From everything Clyde's written they're dedicated pacifists."

Sure, Blair thought. And the People's Temple believed in racial harmony, and Manson's followers were really just a Beatles' fan club. All he said was, "But the length of time he's been there with a group that certainly exercises a high level of personal control – you're afraid he may be losing his objectivity?"

"To put it mildly. I'm concerned he may be undergoing a full-blown conversion experience."

Blair frowned, drumming his fingers on the arm of the chair. "Oh, man. Maybe you people play it a little differently, but I can tell you if this much. If Clyde was an anthro grad student, he would have been yanked out of there long before now."

"Well, I'm not willing to do that to Clyde, not without concrete evidence of a problem. He's been doing excellent work, and it took him months to gain full  acceptance."

"I'm not sure what you want me to do."

"Drive up there and talk to him. I'm familiar with your work with closed religious societies, particularly the Bwiti, so I know I can rely on your discretion. I'm sure you can assess the situation without compromising Clyde's position."

"I really don't know if that's the sort of judgement call I'd be willing to make after just a casual conversation."

"That's why I thought maybe you would be able to spend a few days at New Jerusalem and see for yourself what's going on."

"Um, Dr. Levi, I seriously doubt an outsider like me would even be allowed on the premises."

"No, it's all right. I've already emailed Clyde about the possibility of an observer, and he indicated to me that a guest of his would be welcome."

Blair found that difficult to believe, but at any rate, he certainly couldn't spend 'days' away from Jim. Not now, certainly not when he was already worried that Jim was reassessing the need for Blair's pervasive presence in his life. The religion department would have to deal with the problem of one of their own going native without Blair Sandburg's help.

He made his apologies to Professor Levi and went back to writing that grant proposal.

Actually, just thinking about Jim working alone today was worrying him. He needed to get this thing finished up so he could go to the station this afternoon.

Then he thought he better go to the station this afternoon whether he had finished writing the proposal or not, because there really wasn't much of a choice between Jim and Professor Buckner, was there?

For that matter, there wasn't really all that much choice between Jim and his dissertation. Or for that matter, between Jim and his Ph.D. It wasn't totally clear in Blair's mind yet, but now and again, from time to time, he couldn't help but notice that finding the proof of his dissertation's thesis seemed to have made the dissertation itself increasingly irrelevant.

But that was too big and too crazy to think about right  now.

First things first, Sandburg. Get that proposal written.

As it turned out, by eleven that morning it was practically done, and it looked pretty good if he did say so himself. All he needed to do was double check a reference to Eliade's Shamanism that he'd quoted from memory because he couldn't find his copy of the book. Maybe he would take one last quick look around the loft – he hated the idea of having to go all the way back to campus just to look up a book he knew was here somewhere.

So he checked the bookshelves in his room again, then he went through the shelves in the living room, and even the shelf of paperbacks up in Jim's bedroom. Then he checked under the sofa and the loveseat, behind the TV, under his own bed, and in the back of his closet. He even thumbed through the stack of magazines in the bathroom.

In the process he found a lost argyle sock, a two-month old bank statement, half a dozen overdue library books, and a rented video he'd had to pay for when he couldn't find it last month to return it. Dammit, eighty bucks on top of late charges, and it hadn't been like he could really afford a stupid expense like that this semester, could he? He shook the video cassette, snarling as though it had somehow been personally at fault for getting lost. Hadn't even been that great a movie, and now he was stuck with it.

No sign of the Eliade book, though. Blair stalked back to his bedroom and pulled every book off the shelves, thinking it might have gotten pushed to the back, or that he'd been looking at it so long he simply couldn't see it anymore. But when every book was piled in a  heap in the middle of the bedroom floor, he had to admit it simply wasn't here. He sat down heavily on the bed, glancing over at the clock. If he left now he could catch Jim at the station before he went to lunch.

Then he remembered he still had two or three boxes from the warehouse that he'd never unpacked. He and Jim had been going around to second-hand furniture places and keeping an eye on the classifieds, looking for another set of shelves for Blair's room, but nothing had really turned up yet, and in the meantime those boxes full of stuff he still had no place to put were stacked with the camping equipment in the storage closet.

That's where the book was. That had to be it. He'd  never unpacked it after the move.

Elated at having solved such an aggravating mystery, Blair went back and proceeded to haul sleeping bags, tarpaulins, the tent, backpacks, the stove, lanterns, and everything else out of the closet, not even annoyed that of course his boxes were in the very back under everything else.

Jim had boxes of his own stuff stored back here too. Blair pulled them out and set them aside without much thought until he noticed his name written on one in Jim's careful  block print. Blair Sandburg. He grinned at the full name. Like how many other Sandburgs do you know, Jim?

Taking his name as permission to investigate further, he eased the lid off and looked inside.

He saw the photographs first and was actually rather pleased. He'd missed those pictures. What had they been doing back here all this time?

But then he saw the rest of it. The large amethyst geode he had once used as a book end. One silver earring. The Zuni fetish in rose quartz, an embarrassing New Age fake that he treasured anyway because Naomi had given it to him when he earned his M.A.

He laid them all aside and gently lifted out the last thing  in the box, his corduroy jacket with a patch over the bullet hole in the sleeve. Hey, there were more patches now, Blair noticed with a strange sense of detachment. Three across the chest. Jim must have done that, because he had never seen them before. He ran his fingers over the new patches, and then, almost against his will, lifted the coat to his face and inhaled deeply.

It had been carefully cleaned, of course, probably at the same time it had been patched. It didn't smell like anything but dry-cleaning chemicals.

His hands were shaking. So was the rest of him. He dropped the coat and got to his feet. He couldn't stand to look at any of it, but neither could he force himself to put the terrible contents of that box away. He just turned his back on all of it and staggered into the living room.

Eventually he remembered Buckner's proposal. He managed to get online and email a draft to the professor as it was, to hell with getting the citation right. By that time his horror had given way to anger, and when Jim came sauntering in the front door that  evening, that anger blossomed into a perfect, pure white rage.

***

SECOND PLANK

And When they all were seated—
A service like a drum
Kept beating – beating—
Till it seemed my mind was going numb

***

Part 1

"There's your man," the CNN reporter told Jim. "Told you. He makes that beeline for the Port-O-Let at 5:00 A.M. every morning."

"I owe you one, Walker," Jim said, slapping his shoulder as he strode past, taking long steps to intercept his target. "Agent Gregory?" he called. "Excuse me, sir, may I have a word with you?"

The special agent-in-charge turned. He was a big, bluff man, not as tall as Jim, but considerably heavier, with a florid face and a white crewcut. "I don't talk to reporters. You people should know that by now."

"James Ellison, Cascade P.D.," Jim said, showing his badge. "I've been trying to speak to you for a couple of days now, sir."

"The Cascade Police Department?" Gregory frowned. "So that's your man in there?"

"Blair Sandburg. Yes sir. That's what I'd like to speak to you about."

"Sending a civilian into a tinderbox like this. Lord God Almighty. If this whole thing blows up in our faces I'm going to make damn sure the world knows why. My team's not taking the heat on this one."

Jim shoved his anger far away into a distant corner of his mind. "With all due respect, I thought you understood that Sandburg's presence in the New Jerusalem compound had nothing to do with his observer status with the department."

"Detective, at this point it really doesn't matter why he's in there, does it?"

Jim left his rage where it was, buried deep. "Blair Sandburg is here because of his knowledge of extremist sects like Luke's. I wanted to make you aware of the fact that in the course of his work with the Cascade Police Department, he's also had firsthand experience with hostage negotiations. So it seems to me, sir, that you've got an incredibly valuable asset inside New Jerusalem right now. I can't believe you wouldn't want to make use of that."

The agent regarded Jim critically, but at least he hadn't dismissed him outright. "So far I haven't seen any evidence that your Mr. Sandburg is playing on our team."

"We just need to find a way to contact him. That's why I'd like you to send me in with the lawyers going into the compound today."

"That's on a strictly need-to-know basis," Gregory snapped. "How the hell did you hear about it?"

"Sir," Jim said, astonished. He'd been warned the lines of communication were bad, but this was incredible. "Sir, your own negotiation team contacted the Cascade Police Department Wednesday morning. Just as soon as they realized that Sandburg had ties to the department. I've been working with them ever since."

Of course, by that time Blair had already been on the inside more than a week.

And lord, Chief, I'm sorry, Jim thought, though guilt had no place here, any more than his rage did. I just didn't know. I should have, but I didn't.

"I'll take the matter under advisement," Gregory was saying. "You realize, of course, there's no reason to believe Michael Luke will let you or anyone else speak to Sandburg. Hell, at this point we don't even know if your man is still alive."

***

Transcript of phone call to the Hawkins County Sheriff Station, Tuesday, April 17, 7:15 A.M.

911 OPERATOR:   May I have your address, please?

CALLER FROM NEW JERUSALEM COMPOUND: I don't know the damn address. I'm calling from Michael Luke's place. New Jerusalem. That place up Highway 51. Please, please you've got to tell them to call it off.

 911 OPERATOR: May I have your name, sir?

CALLER: Blair Sandburg. Please put me through to the sheriff or somebody. We've got to stop this.

911 OPERATOR: I'm sorry, what did you say your name was?

CALLER: Oh for pete's sake, my name doesn't matter. It's Sandburg. Blair Sandburg. I'm calling from New Jerusalem, and it looks like World War III out there. You've got to tell them to cut it out. Don't they know there are kids up here?

911 OPERATOR: Please state the nature of your emergency.

CALLER: The nature of the emergency? Are you out of your mind? Can't you hear it? Listen, I'm holding the phone out.

911 OPERATOR: Is that gunfire?

CALLER: Yes it's gunfire. Yes it's gunfire. They're shooting everything up.

911 OPERATOR: Please hold.

CALLER: Aw man, what are you trying to do to us here?

DEPUTY SHERIFF: This is Deputy Cooke. What's going on up there?

CALLER: Oh, thank god. You've got to tell them to stop shooting. There's kids up here, pregnant women. Please.

DEPUTY SHERIFF: Are you returning fire?

CALLER: I'm not returning fire. I'm hiding under the desk, for crying out loud.

DEPUTY SHERIFF: Are Luke's people returning fire?

CALLER: Yes, yes, yes. They think it's the goddamn end of the world. It's Armageddon up here, man.

DEPUTY SHERIFF: Jesus.

CALLER: He's not being a whole lotta help right now, so please, you've got to tell them to pull back before everything goes up in smoke. Who's out there? Is it the Feds? All I saw was the black jackets before everything hit the fan. Please, you've got to tell them to pull back before anyone else gets hurt.

DEPUTY SHERIFF: Are there casualties?

CALLER: People are hurt. I saw one of the guys on the outside. He's dead. I'm sure there's at least one man dead. Maybe more. Please listen to me. Luke's not going to surrender.

DEPUTY SHERIFF: Jesus. Lord God.

CALLER: You've got to get them to pull back. Please. They've got to—

 [Indistinguishable voices]

DEPUTY SHERIFF: Hello? Hello?

CALLER: [aside] Hey, Clyde, it's OK, man. I'm talking to the sheriff or somebody. He's gonna get the Feds to pull back so we can get this worked out. Clyde? Aw man. Please don't do that.

 

Tuesday, April 17, 7:17 A.M.: Connection terminated.

***

No excuses.

He should have known how badly something was wrong the moment he walked in the door and found Blair huddled on the sofa and radiating anger like a heat mirage. But he'd completely missed it. Of course, the kid had been moody for a week now, some days so cranky and ready for a fight that Jim simply kept his head down and steered clear as best he could. Then without warning the pendulum would swing back, and for a day or two, Sandburg would be so suspiciously accommodating and eager to please Jim could hardly recognize him. It was exhausting, but Jim was willing to put up with it, especially since he knew he was the reason for Blair's mercurial temperament these days.

(Sorry, Chief. Just bear with me a little longer while I work things out. Deal?)

Deal. Not that he'd said that out loud or anything. Blair was just supposed to understand the way he understood everything else. Sure, he was forever pestering Jim to open up, to talk about it, but then when Jim finally did, it seemed that Blair had already known what he was going to say before Jim said a word. That's how well Darwin understood him. And Jim had thought he had a pretty good handle on his partner as well.

Wrong.

How wrong could one man be in a single lifetime? He'd even tried to make a little joke out of it, seeing the mess strewn outside the back closet. He'd said something like, "Is that what you stayed home for today, Sandburg? To redecorate?"

Sandburg uncoiled himself from the sofa and came stalking over. Jim was just hanging his coat up, getting a beer out of the fridge, still on auto pilot, really. Yeah, sure, he'd known Blair was angry, but he'd had no clue what was coming.

"Goddamn you to hell, Ellison."

Blair was close. Close enough for Jim to feel the heat of his breath. Blair's eyes were dark, his expression absolutely resolute.

"Whoa, Chief." Jim put the beer down and spread his hands in a preemptive apology. "What's going on here?"

"I don't know, Jim. Suppose you tell me what's going on. I can't believe you, man. I cannot believe you."

"Take it easy. Slow down and tell me what's got you so upset."

"What's got me upset. I dunno, Jim. My humanity, I guess. Must've forgotten to check it at the door."

"For the last time, what in the name of—"

"The trophies, man," Blair said in that frightening voice, on the surface so level and controlled. "You kept Lash's trophies. How could you, Jim? How could you do that to me?"

***

Part 2

Oh yeah, Clyde Sewell was a goner. Blair had known it as soon as he laid eyes on the guy. He'd seen that look before. It was always a risk in fieldwork, and though the critical feathers had been flying since long before Come Of Age In Samoa, there was still no such thing as the perfect solution. Stay too detached from the society you were there to observe, and your hard-won objectivity might well blind you to what was really going on. But throw yourself into that world too enthusiastically, and there was a real possibility you'd never come out again.

Blair had always been lucky. One of Naomi's many gifts to him, along with her easy affability, was the ability to detach with a minimum of fuss when the time came.

The only question now was why Blair hadn't turned the car around and driven straight back to Cascade the minute he saw the light of a true believer shining in Clyde's eyes.

"What was I thinking, man?" Blair asked Clyde in quiet voice. "That I could try to argue you out of it? And you know what else I don't get? Why Dr. Levi sent me up here in the first place. I mean, she must have known what was going on if she'd stayed in contact with you at all. What good could she possibly have thought I could do?"

Yep, when Clyde had met him at the gates of Michael Luke's place, his face shining with joy, ushered him in, taken his backpack, introduced him to his friends at New Jerusalem, told Blair over and over again how happy Michael was that one of Clyde's colleagues from the outside world was joining them here … Blair should have said adios on the spot and gotten his butt the hell back to Cascade. Just tell Dr. Levi that Michael Luke had gained a new convert, and in the process Rainier's Religion Department had lost one of their doctoral candidates. Sorry, man.

He hadn't done it. And why not?

Because he was mad at Jim and didn't want to go home, that's why not. Jeez, Sandburg, remind me here wouldya – where exactly were you hiding when they were passing out the brains?

But ohhhh, he'd been so angry. When Jim just didn't seem to get it – oh god, he'd lost it.

Jim had been saying something, trying to explain about the box he'd kept, all those odds and ends from the last life David Lash had tried to steal. "It was too soon for you to make a decision about this stuff, Blair. It would have been your emotions talking, not you. I wanted you to have the chance to decide what you wanted to do when you could think about it calmly, from a distance."

"I don't get you, man," Blair had said, keeping his voice calm. Wouldn't want Jim to think it was his emotions talking, would he? "I really just don't get you. What's your big hangup with my emotions anyway? Remember how you told me that because I dared to feel something that I was endangering other people? Remember how you told me I had to be an automaton like you if I wanted to hang with cops? Well, you know what? Maybe if you hadn't been working so damn hard at being such an emotional zombie yourself, maybe you would have noticed there was something screwy about Dr. Anthony Bates."

A hit, there. A palpable hit. Blair saw the muscle twitch in Jim's jaw.

"I knew right away there was something weird about the way Bates kept eyeballing me, and I'm not even a cop, I'm just a stupid, emotional human being. I didn't know what the hell was going on, I just guessed he was thinking about coming on to me or something. Did you and Simon even notice that much? Nope. That crazy sonuvabitch was sizing me up for my coffin right across the table, and you two were too busy trying to pin those news leaks on me to even notice."

The look on Jim's face when he'd said those unforgivable words.

The look in Jim's eyes.

"Oh man, Clyde, I knew right then I'd gone way over the line. But it was like I'd gone too far to stop then – even though it was totally untrue, totally unfair. You know what the truth was? Even though I was a little freaked by the way Bates kept looking at me – in a way I was kind of flattered too, because it was like Jim and Simon weren't taking me seriously at all, and who could blame them, the way I kept messing things up. But then Bates shows up, and he acts like I've really got a handle on things, like I'm really helping out, and that's all I ever wanted to do. Help Jim out. Help him solve the case.

"Is this making any sense at all to you, Clyde? Probably not. The deal was, that really wasn't Bates at all. We thought it was, but actually David Lash had already killed him and was just pretending to be Bates. That's what he did, man, he stole people's lives. He didn't just kill them. He stole who they were. That's what he tried to do to me, and that's why he took all this stuff of mine. This old pea coat I really used to like. Some pictures, you know, just odds and ends. Just stuff. I'm not really that much of a pack rat, but everybody has some little things they like to keep, right? Just those little things that sort of mark where you've been, remind you where you'd like your life to go. That's all."

He stopped, took a deep breath, gave a shaky little laugh. "Sorry, Clyde. I know I'm not making much sense here. I don't even remember what the point was, just, I guess when I found out Jim had saved all that stuff – those things Lash stole when he – well, I dunno. I think finding it like that, all out of the blue and everything – cause I was snooping, that's what I was doing. It wasn't like Jim had left it lying out in the middle of the living room floor. The only reason I found it was because I was poking around in Jim's things. And then I had the nerve to get mad at Jim? Oh, man.

"Anyway, I think it hit me so hard 'cause it was like coming face to face with my own corpse. I mean, Jim found me in time and everything was okay, but still, I don't know, Lash did kill something. That's so totally selfish, isn't? Lash killed four people dead, so I've got a lot of gall complaining, but I can't help it. He really did kill something I never was able to get back, and finding that coat and those pictures and stuff just reminded me so much of what he'd taken away from me. I couldn't deal with it. Something shut down, and I just lost it.

"Aw, Clyde, Jim must really hate me now, don't you think? The man saved my life, this is the way I thank him? Yelling at him, blaming him for things that totally weren't his fault. Jim tries to take the blame for everything that goes wrong on the planet anyway, what the hell was I thinking, trying to lay a guilt trip on him? I owe him everything, Clyde, everything. You don't even know.

"So I suppose you probably guessed by now, but that's the real reason I came up here. I said all those terrible things, then I was too stupid and too scared to apologize, so I just had to get out. I called your advisor and let her know I was driving straight up here that night. Surprised you too, didn't I? I know it was really sudden, but that's why, man. I packed a bag and told Jim something, I don't know what now. Oh that's a total lie, I know exactly what I told him. I said I had a chance to make a little extra cash doing some fieldwork, and at first I'd turned it down, but maybe it would be better if I got out of the loft for a few days after all.

"Jim didn't try to stop me. He didn't hardly say anything. He was sitting at the kitchen table. Just sitting there, looking like – Oh god, Clyde, how could I have walked out on him like that?

"Well, I did. I blamed him for everything and then just walked out.

"See, that's why I'd really like to go now. I've got so much to make up to him if he'll let me. I don't know if it's already too late, but I've gotta try.

"Yeah, I know, Michael's gonna be really disappointed in me, isn't he?"

Blair found he was trembling just imagining that disappointment. He started talking faster, trying to convince himself more than Clyde. "But he's gotta see, I've gotta make him understand that Jim comes first. I can't help it. Tell you what. I've got to go home and try to make things right with Jim, okay? But then I swear I'll come back. I swear, man. Maybe you could talk to Michael for me even? Put in a good word? What do you say?

"The Feds? Oh damn, I forgot about them. Isn't that my luck?  Isn't that just my luck? So what's Michael doing up here that got them so upset? Stockpiling weapons? Guess that's a given, huh, after that firefight. Converting semiautomatics? Geez, building bombs? Or was it something really stupid? Bad checks, illegal aliens, your own courts or something? Hey, it doesn't matter to me. Yeah, definitely the Feds sent in a little too much firepower, but you shouldn't have started shooting. That was such a bad move. The FBI always wins in the end, one way or another. You wrote your master's thesis on Waco, Clyde! You know how these things go down.

"If it hadn't been for the raid I would have headed right back to Cascade after breakfast the next morning. Sorry, man, but it's the truth. I already knew what a mistake I'd made, but whoa, then the Bradleys started rolling in, and it was just way too late."

***

Part 3

"Hi, this is Sherry. Who am I talking to this morning?"

"Hi, Sherry. It's Logan."

"Hey Logan. How you all doing in there this morning?"

"All right, I guess. How about you?"

"Oh, we're fine too. Getting a little tired of the local food is all. Isn't there any place to get breakfast around here besides McDonalds? If I see one more egg McMuffin I'm going to lose it, I swear I am."

"We don't want that to happen," Logan chuckled.

"No, we don't." Her laughter sounded genuine to  Jim Ellison. Logan's voice, broadcast through the impromptu communication center for the FBI negotiation team – the gymnasium of the local high school five miles down the road from New Jerusalem – was just as cheerful, and he seemed sincerely concerned about Agent Sherry Bartholomew's breakfast choices.

Jim had played this game himself too many times not to understand what was going on here.  Sure as hell didn't mean he had to like it, though.

"Have you tried the Denny's off the freeway? They got a real good deal on weekday breakfasts."

"Denny's? Aw, come on, Logan. Isn't there a place with some local color?"

"The closest we got to local color is Red's Diner and you don't want to go there, believe me."

"Why's that, Logan?"

"Cause the food sucks!" He cackled, and Sherry laughed along with him.

"Listen, Logan, you know we got that lawyer Michael wanted to talk to coming in just a couple of hours."

"Yeah, I know."

"I was wondering if maybe Michael would be willing to talk to me for just a minute about that."

"I don't think so. Michael's a little busy right now. We had a little bit of trouble yesterday afternoon he's had to take care of."

"Nothing serious, I hope."

"Nothing Michael can't take care of."

"Okay, then. I'll just go over the arrangements with you, all right? We want to be sure we've got everything worked out. We don't want any misunderstandings this morning, do we? You with me on this? We don't want anyone else getting hurt."

"Do you read the Bible, Sherry?"

"Yes I do, Logan."

"Do you believe what you read? Do you understand it? Because if you look at Deuteronomy 8, when you read there that the Lord God promises us we will take possession of the land—"

"Listen to me a minute, Logan. We can talk about that in a minute, but first I want to talk about the lawyers who are going to be coming in. I want to take this one step at a time, okay? Now we're gonna bring Keith Fennimore in at eleven o'clock on the dot. He's a good man, and I know he's going to be able to work something out with Michael. Eleven o'clock sharp, all right?"

"All right. That's what we planned."

"That's right. We're going to do everything exactly according to plan this morning. Now, Mr. Fennimore is going to have a couple of aides with him when he comes in. We've got a complicated legal situation here, and we want to be sure Michael has all the best advice."

"What aides?"

"Norris Comstock. He's another good attorney, Logan. And Jim Ellison." She glanced over her shoulder at Jim, giving him a hopeful thumbs up as she continued talking. "We just got him at the last minute. He was of counsel for the firm representing Randy Weaver during the Ruby Ridge testimony before Congress. We're darn lucky to get him at all. Michael's lucky that he's willing to be involved in this. So is that going to be all right?"

"I guess so. I'll have to check with Michael, but I guess so."

"When they come in they'll be bringing some milk for the kids, just like we agreed. And you're going to go ahead and send four of the kids out, all right? This is no place for children, and Michael understands that, just like we all understand that. That was our bargain for bringing in those lawyers, right? Michael's gonna let four of the kids leave."

"That's the bargain. Don't worry about that. Michael's a man of his word."

"I know that. I believe that. Listen, Logan, I want to ask you something else while things are going so good here, while we're communicating so well right now. There's a couple of students in there. You know who I mean, right? Clyde and Blair. Now, they don't really have anything to do with any of this, do they? They're just a couple of students who really need to be getting on back to school. I was just thinking, Logan, maybe when Michael sends those kids out, maybe he should just go ahead and send Clyde and Blair out, too. I understand Clyde has been with you for a good long time now, but he's got a career he's got to think about too, and I'm sure if you ask him about this, he'll tell you."

"Clyde won't be coming out, Sherry."

"Why's that, Logan?

"Clyde's dead. He put a gun to his head a week ago, the morning you people sent the tanks rolling in here."

Sherry sat back abruptly, pushing her hand through her short grey hair. Her face had gone white as a sheet. It was the first time Jim had seen her rattled since he'd gotten out here, and he couldn't blame her, because he felt a wave of despair wash over himself too, colder than the Pacific in December.

Sherry glanced over her shoulder at him again, and there was no hopeful smile this time. "I'm – very, very sad to hear that, Logan. I'm sure you and Michael and everyone else are saddened by his death, too. Logan, I want to ask you something now, and I want you to be frank with me, just like I'm being frank with you. What about Blair? Is Blair all right?"

"He's all right."

Jim slumped back in his chair with only momentary relief. Thinking of Blair in the hands of these smug bastards made him feel cold and sick, and he had a moment of intense empathy with Special Agent-in-Charge Gregory up there on the front lines. Right now he too wanted nothing more than to roar in there with cannons blazing and drag Blair out of the burning ruins by force. To hell with the rest of them. To hell with every last one of them. Sherry's voice was a little softer than it had been, but otherwise she was as calm and friendly as she had been all morning. "Okay, Logan, okay. So don't you think it would be a good idea then to send Blair out with the kids this morning? I know you don't want him to get hurt, so wouldn't it be a good idea to let him leave with the kids?"

"Blair doesn't want to leave."

"I'm a little surprised to hear that, Logan. I know he's got obligations back in Cascade. His school work's really starting to pile up on him."

"He doesn't care about that anymore."

"Now come on, Logan, do you have any idea what grad students are like? They're obsessed. Crazy about their studies. Are you positive he's not interested in his work anymore? Maybe if I could talk to him for just a minute."

"That's not possible. He's got too much to atone for."

Jim didn't realize he had gotten up until he was standing right beside Sherry's chair. She glanced up at him, one hand extended in a calming gesture. "Logan? Logan, what are you talking about? Why would Blair need to atone for anything?"

"You think we don't know who he is? Sherry, Sherry, Sherry."

"Blair's an anthropology grad student at Rainier University. That's who he is. That's all he is."

Logan laughed. "You think we're just a bunch of ignorant bible-thumpers, don't you? Well, maybe we are, but if you really read your Bible, Sherry, you would know that unless ye become like a little child again, ye shall not see the Kingdom of Heaven. Michael is as innocent as a lamb, but he knows the devil's abroad like a ravening lion, seeking whom he may devour."

"Logan, I think maybe you've got the wrong idea here."

"Poor Clyde blew his brains out when he realized he had invited Judas to the Last Supper."

"Whoa, Logan, wait a minute. Wait just a minute. If you think Blair had anything to do with the ATF raid, you couldn't be more wrong."

"Sherry, he even had his police ID on him. But all things work together for the glory of God. If even one of these lost ones can appear before the throne of our Father with his heart burned free of his sins, then how great will be the rejoicing of the angels in heaven. "

***

It was all because of that damn coat, Jim was thinking bleakly. If it hadn't been for that oversized, ratty-looking, Salvation Army Store corduroy coat, he would have done the right thing when Blair's personal possessions were finally released. He would have buried them in storage with the footlocker of gear from Jim's Ranger days, his and Carolyn's wedding china, and everything else that was too painful to live with but still too dear to abandon.

If Blair had ever asked about his things, then they could be retrieved, but if he never did, fine. Fine. There was no reason he should have to face Lash's taint again.

But that ugly corduroy coat.

Blair had shown up wearing it again maybe a week after the siege of the station. Not even a week. Not even that long, and the bullet hole in the shoulder had been patched. The tailoring job had probably cost Blair more than the ragged coat could have in the first place.

It made him look like such a little kid, anyway. At least a size or two too big for him, and the way he kept it on all the time, indoors or out – the professor had a thing about cold, apparently, and he acted like he fully intended to stay bundled up from October straight through to April. Jim would hardly have been surprised to find him sleeping in it.

And that look on his face when he showed up at the station wearing it. Knowing Jim would notice the patched sleeve, and so quietly confident Jim would know what it meant.

He'd been that confident right from the beginning. Even when Jim had him pinned against the wall, feet off the floor, nose to nose with him, threatening him with everything he could think of, he'd been just as sure of himself. Sure of Jim.

Well, he was right, Jim did know what that patched sleeve meant. For all his words, there were some things Blair didn't seem to be able to say out loud. The patch was his way of saying even if that had been a typical day – threatened, shot at, held hostage – he was going to stick it out with his Sentinel. Jim sat up straighter, rolled his neck from side to side, his muscles feeling stiff and sore. He hadn't slept very well the past two nights.

The bottom line was, he hadn't been able to bear the thought that Lash had stolen a part of Blair that Jim wouldn't be able to give back to him somehow, someday. Someday pretty soon at that, since he hadn't even wanted to put that damned coat in storage.

***

"Detective Ellison?"

He looked up. Agent Sherry Bartholomew was standing in front of him, her hands shoved deep into the pockets of her FBI windbreaker. Even though the afternoons were warm, and the redbud in front of the schoolyard shimmered with blossoms, the bite of winter was still in the air this morning.

Jim hoped Blair was warm enough. What coat had he taken with him when he left? He couldn't remember now.

"Ellison, are you all right?"

"I'll be all right," he made himself answer her.

She sat down beside him on the poured concrete bench. "In a way it's good news, you know. We weren't certain Blair was alive before now. And it sounds as though Michael has some incentive to keep him alive too, at least for the time being."

"To save his soul?" Jim said bitterly.

"I wanted to ask you something before I talked to Gregory," she said, staying calm. "Obviously there's no chance now that Michael is going to let Blair talk to you or anyone else when we go in." She turned her arm and looked at her watch. "We have to send someone we'll call 'Jim Ellison' since we've already made the arrangements, but really, there's no need now for you to go in personally. I don't need to tell you it's going to be a very dangerous, very volatile situation. There's no need to put yourself in the line of fire."

"I'm going in."

"All right," she agreed, mild and unsurprised as ever. She stood. "I'll go ahead and call it in, then. And Jim—"

It was the first time she'd called him by his first name. It got his attention, as it was evidently supposed to. She is good at this, he thought with a brief smile. "Yes?"

"Good luck."

***

THE THIRD PLANK

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of lead – again
Then Space began to Toll

***

Part 1

Blair was trying to remember if he'd saved the classifieds out of the Sunday paper last week. Darn it, he had promised Jim he would check to see if anyone was trying to unload some bookshelves. Probably too late now, but he'd promised, and he hated forgetting stuff like that. Besides, Jim was probably getting sick and tired of Blair's books taking up so much space in the storage closet.

Ow. Dammit. He had a hell of a cramp in his calf. In both calves, actually. Something about this concrete floor, probably. See, man, you could have been relaxing on the mattress, but no, you blew it just like always. Life gets a little too comfortable and you've gotta go and pull a Naomi, stir things up, get things moving again.

Thinking about those boxes in the storage closet made him feel anxious and unhappy, and he'd been trying to relax and not worry about things he couldn't change. He'd been trying to be a little more like Jim.

Damn damn damn. His muscles were clenching like fists. He curled up tight so he could reach back and try to massage his own calves, but his fingers had no strength.

Bananas. That's what you were supposed to eat to avoid muscle cramps, right? Extra calcium, extra potassium, that was the ticket here. But first he really wanted a drink of water.

"Hey, Clyde," he whispered. Was that his own voice? "Wow, I sound like hell, don't I?"

Then he heard the footsteps, and it seemed as though he could actually feel the split, almost see that cross section of his own addled brains sliced thick as a sirloin, mounted between panes of glass and preserved with formaldehyde for the edification of schoolchildren.

And here, class, you'll notice that on this side of Blair's brain he's got a pretty good idea of where he is and what's happening to him now. But on this side, well, kiddies, on this side, a week of starvation and sensory deprivation has certainly worked wonders, eh?

And Michael's unwillingness to spare the rod sure wasn't helping matters any.

His fractured thoughts shied away from that traitorous idea immediately. Michael stopped the pain, stopped the hunger, stopped the thirst. He owed everything to Michael.

Well, actually Blair suspected he didn't have that quite right, but the footsteps were so close now.

Oh man, Jim. Oh man, please.

A key turned in the lock. Hinges squeaked. Lights blazed out, and Blair hid his face in his hands. Not just because he was afraid. Not just because of how painful the light was after so many hours in the dark. The main reason he covered his eyes was because he knew there was something in the room with him that he absolutely did not want to see.

"Blair?" A hand touched his shoulder. "Come on, Blair." The voice was a little muffled. Blair didn't have to open his eyes to know that was from the bandana knotted over the speaker's nose and mouth.

Because of the smell. Blair hardly noticed it himself anymore.

"Try to sit up, Blair. You know we don't want to hurt you."

"I know," he whispered, and tried get up like they wanted him to.

The hands helped him. He wasn't sure how many people were in the room with him now. Two or three? Not many. Just enough to get the job done.

"Can you get your shirt off by yourself?"

He tried, but his hands were clumsy, his fingers thick and useless. Besides, he couldn't raise his arms over his head.

They helped him with that as well. He started to shiver from more than the cold after they peeled his shirt off, and he kept his eyes squeezed shut.

"Come on, Blair. You know this is for your own good. You know this is because Michael loves you."

He was tugged forward and urged to kneel. His arms rested on the seat of a low wooden chair. "Michael?" he whispered.

"Michael's not here. He's very disappointed in you. You know that, don't you, Blair?"

"I know," he said softly, and wrapped his hands tight as he could around the rungs of the chair back, bracing himself.

But it wasn't enough. His eyes flew open the first time the belt fell, and there was Clyde, propped against the wall just a short distance away, exactly where he'd been all along. Clyde, who had put the gun in his mouth when he found Blair on the phone that morning.

Blair heard a cry rising above the crack of leather, and it was a terrible sound. There was a child somewhere nearby, hurting and afraid. He remembered the children in the nursery presided over by the redheaded girl who was hardly more than a child herself. Was it one of them? Horrible, heartbreakingly pathetic. Why didn't someone try to help?

His hands tightened on the chair. He wanted to tell them they needed to look after the children first, but his mouth didn't work. Or rather, it did, but not the way he wanted it to. His throat was already full of sound.

Jim, you think you could help me out here, man? Because that isn't a crying child at all.

He rested his head on the seat of the hard wooden chair, hands gripping hard, and those noises that he couldn't stop continued to pour from his mouth. Clyde watched it all with such utter contempt. What was left of Clyde, anyway.

Blair didn't bother to shut his eyes again. It didn't help anymore.

He did try to steer his thoughts away, though. What would happen next was much worse than the belt, but maybe this time it would be different. He just needed to concentrate and try to be stronger this time around.

He should think about something else. He needed to take himself away from this reeking basement room, away from the leather falling with such tedious regularity. Two or three of Michael's lieutenants were behind him, he still hadn't figured out how many this time, and they traded the belt off so the rhythm never faltered.

So think about something besides the fact that you're weeping like a child in front of men who think of you as a heretic, a traitor, an infidel, a dog.

Don't think about the fact that you're taking it on your knees without moving a muscle to defend yourself.

Don't think about the fact that your hair is still matted with Clyde's blood and brains.

And most of all, don't think about what it will be like when Jim comes and holds you in his arms and tells you how badly you've disappointed him, how badly you've disappointed everyone.

No, no, no. That wasn't Jim. That wouldn't be Jim. You know that, man. Don't let them confuse you. Think about something else.

Slap, slap. Slap, slap. Dull as the pendulum in a grandfather clock. The flesh on his back twitched and rolled.

The cramps knotting both calves were a welcome distraction now.

The Roman soldiers stopped after just forty lashes, didn't they? Blair thought he would have had the balls to say that once. A long, long time ago.

Dammit, concentrate. Concentrate.

The Sunday classifieds. The bookshelves. He and Jim had been looking for another set of shelves for his bedroom for practically forever now, but it was tough to find good ones for a decent price. Both of them hated particleboard – Blair would almost rather go with shipping crates first like the good ole warehouse days – but it had been a few months now, and nothing had turned up yet.

Maybe he ought to round up Jim next Sunday and go back to that cool little junk store at the north end of Prospect where they had seen the pine wardrobe with all the shelves. It wasn't exactly what Blair had been looking for, but if it were still there, then it might be the way to go after all. See what Jim thought.

He really needed to get those boxes out of the storage closet.

Those boxes in the closet.

That one box with his name on it.

He'd forgotten again.

Ah, Jim. I totally didn't mean any of that. Well, I guess I did mean it, sort of, but I was so wrong. It's just I was a little surprised. Okay, a lot surprised. And you know how I get. My mouth just starts to run and anyway, I'd had like all afternoon to brood about it, just getting crazier and crazier—

Give it a rest, Sandburg. You didn't even know what crazy was back then.

Now this, this is crazy.

You know what's happening. You know what they're doing to you and why. Crude and brutal. Totally lacking any kind of imagination or finesse.

But oh god help him, it had worked.

Not this time, though. Dammit, not this time. It wouldn't have worked on Jim, and it wouldn't work on him, not again—

"Blair."

But at the sound of that voice, everything crumbled again.

He tried to get to his feet, lurching forward. The chair fell sideways and he pushed it frantically out of the way, crawling on his hands and knees when he couldn't stand. No one tried to stop him.

(Not again. Oh goddammit, not again!)

But it didn't matter that the tiny portion of his mind left to him wailed in furious betrayal. He reached Michael, wrapped his arms tight around his legs and just held on, rocking a little, moaning in relief.

Michael's hand came down and stroked his filthy hair. His voice was so kind. "I brought you something, Blair. A bite to eat. Something to drink. Would you like that?"

Oh yes. He nodded his head against Michael's legs. Michael bent down and pushed him away just a little, just so he could sit on the floor beside Blair, then gathered him to his chest again. "It's all right," he said as Blair's tears soaked his shirt. "Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him."

***

Part 2

Scrawled on the bathroom mirror in a dead woman's lipstick:

WHO

AM I

NOW?

Damn good question, Blair thought, but I don't know the answer to that anymore, so I guess I better pass.

The scratchy sleeves of Michael's woolen shirt were painful against his welted back, but Blair didn't mind, it was worth the pain to be cradled close, to hear those loving words of reprimand and the promise of food and water – sweeter than the actual nourishment would be.

He clutched at Michael's shirt, sobbing too hard to speak the words, but that was okay, Michael already knew what was in his heart.

Because the guy was definitely psychic, right? The fact that you crawled across the floor to wrap yourself around his knees wouldn't possibly clue anybody into your state of mind.

Maybe the better question would be: "What am I now?"

Because even good old Clyde with the back of his head blown away and the flies buzzing around so thick was more human than Blair Sandburg these days.

Poor little Sandburg.

His own voice inside his head, singsong, taunting.

Poor little Sandburg. Why'd you give in so fast?

But I didn't, he protested. I didn't. Look, look at my wrists. He opened his eyes and looked at the hands clutching Michael's shirt. The bruises and rope burns were still livid. See? See, Jim? They tied me up, they left me down here in the dark with Clyde for god knows how long. Hours. Days. Weeks. Months. Years, I think it may have been. That's why I'm so weak now. I'm such a very old man.

They hurt me, Jim. They hurt me over and over again. Not that it was so excruciating, or so unbearable – it was just so methodical. They didn't let me sleep. And they were so damn polite about it.

Then Michael would come and hold me. Bring me something to drink. Just a sip or two. But that's okay, I probably couldn't have handled more than that without losing my lunch.

Okay, I don't exactly remember the last time I had lunch, but you get the picture.

You must think I'm pretty pathetic, huh, Jim? Well, if it's any consolation, I think I'm pretty pathetic too.

But I need to cut that out. Really, man, just give it a rest. Shame is worse than pointless. It plays right into their hands. You're only flesh and blood. Not superman. Not James Ellison, after all.

But dammit, it had been so easy for them, hadn't it? Because let's face it, Sandburg, it hasn't been years. It probably hasn't even been that many days.

In fact, the only passage of time he was certain of was that one afternoon when he had watched the sun move across the floor of a room. Just a few hours, sure, but what a relief it had been to be freed from the ceaseless present.

They let me out, Jim. Let me rest for a while on a mildewed mattress – I was still in the basement, but at least there were windows, and the sun came shining in – I'd stopped fighting by then, see. They didn't need to hold me down anymore, and Michael wanted to reward me, but I screwed it up. I disappointed him just like I disappointed you, because all I could think about was getting back home. I didn't get very far, I know, but I owe you such an apology, Jim. I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry.

No go, Sandburg. No good. The apology doesn't mean anything until you figure out what you actually did wrong. You just haven't faced up to that, have you? No excuses, you've had plenty of time to think about it these past few years in the darkness, but you haven't done it yet, have you?

Why did you really get so angry at Jim?

Nice try, blaming it on Lash. After all, that psychopath carved a chunk right out of the middle of your psyche, and you'll probably never be able to asphalt over all the damage. Like a damned sinkhole, isn't it? Pave over it all you like, but a month or two later, there it is, swallowing cars again.

But that's not the real reason you flipped out when you found the box of trophies, is it? Not really. Sure, it was a nasty shock, but you know what the real problem is?

(Look, you mess with me, man, and you are never going to figure out what's up with you.)

(You need someone who understands your condition.)

(You think you know me?)

(You think you know me?)

(You think you know me …?)

(… I know more about you.)

"Here, Blair," Michael's voice finally reached him. "I brought this for you." Michael helped him sit up a little, still bracing him with one arm, but with the other he brought a can up to Blair's mouth.

Blair smelled the salty thickness of warm tomato juice and started to gag even before the liquid touched his tongue.

Michael's other hand came up, clutched a handful of hair close to the scalp, and dragged Blair's head back. The juice ran down his chin, lukewarm and thick, the smell of it filling his head. A little spilled down his throat. It was hot, spiked with tabasco sauce.

His empty stomach heaved.

That pine wardrobe would probably work out great. Take the doors off, that was the only thing, wouldn't need them. That's why they hadn't gotten it the first time, right? Jim didn't like the idea. Probably seemed wasteful or something to him, but Blair thought his real hang-up was the holes the screws and hinges would leave once the doors were removed. Jim would always know it wasn't just an ordinary bookshelf. He wouldn't be able to walk past Blair's room without seeing where the hinges used to be, and being reminded of the fact that they had taken off a perfectly good set of doors.

God, you're in bad shape, Sandburg.

He opened his eyes blearily, bile and tomato juice burning his throat.

You passed out there for a moment, didn't you?

Michael's face above him was so sad, so disappointed.

"Please," Blair whispered, thinking  it was probably the bravest thing he'd ever done in his life. "Please. Just some water."

Michael pushed him away.

Jim, please.

Michael got to his feet and stepped back. Blair dragged himself after him, pleading noisily, wordlessly. In response Michael knelt down in front of him and held something before his face. Blair reached for it.

A strip of beef jerky. He couldn't have eaten this if his life depended on it.

Guess what, man. It probably does.

"Michael," said the voice of someone else. "Michael, them lawyers are going to be here any minute now. We got to go."

***

Part 3

"Can you hear me, honey? Are you there, sweetie pie? It's Momma. Can you hear me?"

"I got to ride in the tank. Did you see me?"

"I saw you, honey."

"It was bumpy, but I wasn't scared."

"You are Momma's brave little man. Is everyone being nice to you?"

"Everyone's nice. I got some chocolate milk."

"Don't drink too much, now. You don't want to get sick." The woman broke off, a catch in her voice, then said, "You just remember, God's in heaven, and He loves you very much. I love you very much, too."

The child sitting on Agent Sherry Bartholomew's lap looked up at her, eyes suddenly big with uncertainty. Sherry patted his shoulder and nodded. "It's all right, William."

He stared solemnly for a moment more, then reached out for the microphone again, wrapping pudgy fingers around it. "Did you see me riding in the tank, Mommy?"

This is insanity, Jim thought, close to despair. He closed his eyes and bowed his head forward to rest in his hands. Even now, hours later, Blair's scent still lingered on the palm and fingers of his right hand.

On the other side of the gym, three agents were monitoring the transmissions coming from inside the compound. The cases of milk Jim and the two attorneys had carried in during the fruitless negotiations had been bugged, and now were transmitting loud and clear.

So far, all they had picked up was an irritated discussion between Michael Luke and two women about having blackeyed peas for dinner. It seemed there weren't any hambones to add for flavor. From the sound of things, the conversation was still going full steam. You'd never think the man was in an armed standoff with the federal government, the way he was fretting about his damned dinner.

I thought Armageddon was just around the corner, Luke. And you're worried about flavoring your peas?

Well, maybe that was why. Wouldn't want your last meal on earth to be a bland one, now would you?

I'll give you a last meal, you son of a bitch.

Jim saw again that lunatic's clean-shaven face and easy smile. Three of Michael Luke's lieutenants had been with him, stiff in off-the-rack business suits that had clearly been donned in some bizarre acknowledgement of the solemnity of the occasion, but Luke had been wearing blue jeans and a checkered wool shirt. Could have passed for Al Gore on the campaign trail, come to think of it, save for the lunatic gleam in his wide brown eyes. Six hours they had spent sitting on folding chairs set up on the sidewalk in front of the dilapidated church Michael Luke's group of believers had bought nearly a decade ago. Ramshackle additions extended on both sides of the original building. Jim had seen the satellite photos of the compound and knew there were tunnels and half-buried passages all around them, foxholes, sniper nests.

For six hours they had sat there and listened while Michael Luke expounded calmly and quite madly about the lost tribes of Israel, a grand jury made up of property-owning white males, the proper interpretation of the Second Amendment, the fluoridation of drinking water, and the coming apocalypse.

Six hours. Jim's cheeks were scratchy from sun and wind burn.

The FBI's sharpshooters in sniper nests of their own had kept their sights on Luke and his lieutenants the whole time.

Should have taken the bastards out when they had the chance, Jim thought, knowing full well he was being less than rational. Michael Luke had gunmen of his own in position, damn nervous ones, too. Jim could hear them shifting their weapons restlessly as the day dragged on.

Jim sat up, opened his eyes, tried to take deep, calming breaths like Sandburg had shown him. They didn't work. With every breath the rage built.

Reaching out to take Michael Luke's hand during the stilted introductions, the hair on the back of Jim's neck had stood on end before he even realized what it was he was sensing. For a split second he thought it was just the adrenaline of the moment.

They shook hands. "Jim Ellison," someone said.

Michael Luke's grip was as firm as used car salesman's, and Blair's scent was so strong Jim could practically feel it through the pores of his own hand. He tightened his grip momentarily, shocked, and Michael winced a little, then grinned and thumped Jim on the shoulder with his free hand.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Ellison. A real pleasure. I know the Lord is smiling down on us this morning."

The very fibers of that wool shirt, every hair on the man's head, the denim of his jeans, dammit, even his cotton socks and the laces of his shoes carried it. The smell was so hot Jim knew he must have been with Sandburg only minutes before. Must have been touching him, holding him—

The reek was overwhelming, so dark and sour Jim had to step away before he lost control.

Blair might well be dying.

And if he were, Michael Luke was the one killing him. Doing it an inch at a time. Probably enjoying it, the sick bastard. Jim should have ripped his goddamned head off on the spot and been done with it. Instead he had sat there hour after hour listening to the man who was murdering Sandburg hold forth like a demented child king to his captive court.

"Detective Ellison?"

Jim looked up. An agent whose name he had forgotten stood in front of him. "Yes?"

"There's a Donald Walker asking for you outside. One of the guys from CNN."

"I can't talk to him now."

"Detective, I'm afraid I'll have to insist."

Michael Luke's voice, filtered through the headphones, scratchy from the transmission was saying, "Now, Barbara, I'm not blaming you, but if that's the way it is, I think we'd be better off having lima beans. Aren't I right? Lee Anne, back me up here, would you?"

Jim stood up abruptly and walked out.

Walker was pacing back and forth under the redbud tree. The blossoms were the color of charcoal under the glare of the artificial lights. No way to see the stars through all the searchlights they had blazing out here.

"Ellison," Walker said, sympathy heavy in his voice. "How's it going in there?"

"Not good. What's up?"

"Phone call for you. You can take it over in the van."

"Phone call?"

"Your captain."

"Banks? What the hell does he want?"

"Jim." The reporter put a hand on his shoulder for a moment. "Jim, I'm afraid it's bad news."

Oh, no. Not now. Dammit, not now.

Nothing but problems, huh, Mom?  Guess now I understand how you used to feel about us.

***

The CNN trailer was empty, confirming Jim's suspicions. Walker gave him the phone and said, "If I can do anything, let me know."

Jim nodded absently.

"Ellison," he said into the receiver.

"Jim," Simon's voice was cautious. "How's it going up there?"

"Bad."

"Ah – any word from Sandburg yet?"

"No. Simon, I'm pretty busy right now. Is this about Mom?"

"Jim, I'm sorry. They contacted the station about an hour ago looking for you. I'm so sorry."

Jim rubbed his hand over his face. "It's not a surprise, sir.  She had a massive stroke about three weeks ago. I knew it was only a matter of time."

"Jim. Jim, I had no idea. You should have asked for some leave time."

"She never regained consciousness. She wouldn't have even known I was there."

Simon gave a noisy sigh. "Tell you what. I don't like the idea of you on the road this evening. Knowing you, you haven't gotten a decent night's sleep since you got up there anyway. I can be there in what, two or three hours? I'll come pick you up. Just give me directions."

"That won't be necessary, sir. I'm not leaving."

"What do you mean you're not leaving? Jim, your own mother—"

"Is dead. There's nothing I can do for her now."

"For god's sake, man."

"Thank you for calling, sir. I need to get back."

"Dammit, Jim, listen to me a minute. You didn't go see your own mother before she died, but you drop everything when that kid walks into a mess. What the hell is going on here?"

"Mom didn't need me. Sandburg does."

*** 

THE FOURTH PLANK

As all Existence were a Bell
And Being but an Ear—
And I and Silence, some strange race
Wrecked solitary here

***

Part 1

As if things weren't bad enough, there was something up with his senses.

They weren't cutting out on him. He hadn't zoned in weeks. It was nothing, in fact, that Blair had ever gotten around to tacking a label on. For that matter Jim couldn't really describe it himself. Not exactly a problem. Probably nothing dangerous or potentially debilitating. Hardly worth mentioning, really. Just the faint impression, from time to time, more and more frequently over the last forty-eight hours, that his hard-won illusion of control was slowly slipping away from him.

It was nothing dramatic. Okay, nothing he couldn't explain away even when it was dramatic, like feeling Blair's scent – hell, like touching a broken and cloudy fragment of the kid's very soul – when he had taken Michael Luke's hand. That was just shock and horror. No damn surprise there.

But there were other things. Nothing he could really put his finger on. Just the inescapable notion that somehow, for some reason, bit by bit and hour by hour, something he couldn't name was being lost.

The tip of an untied shoelace skittering off the waxed floor of the gym. The sweet, poison smell of the bait in the mousetraps down in the boiler room. The roar of the fluorescent lights. His certainty that all of it was utterly useless, and for that matter, less than a hairsbreadth from sheer madness.

Like the madness he'd heard in Sandburg's voice.

Jim's eyes flew open. It was only nine p.m., and he was stretched out on a folding cot in one of the classrooms down the hall from the negotiation cell in the school gym. He hadn't really slept for a couple of days now, and he had to get some rest, he knew that. He wouldn't be any good to Blair if he were dead on his feet from exhaustion. He took a few deep breaths and closed his eyes again, trying to clear his thoughts.

   You know, maybe he should have gone to Portland after all. Sat at Mom's bedside for three weeks and watched her die. Never mind that she'd been dead in Jim's heart for nearly two decades now, despite the formally cordial relations they had established since Jim's return from Peru. Still, maybe you don't break a bond like that and expect to get away scot-free. Sandburg would have had something to say about it.

Merely 'something'? Right, Jim. He would have filled all the empty spaces with his words. Badgering, cajoling, suggesting, pleading, arguing.

Understanding.

Accepting even if he didn't understand.

Jim had never given him the opportunity.

Steven's secretary had called Jim the day after the stroke, and when Jim didn't appear, a few days later he'd gotten the letter, no doubt typed by the same secretary. The tone was resigned and unapologetic. Just what Jim would have expected from him. Steven'd even had the secretary sign his name.

Twenty years later, Stevie, and you still hate my guts, don't you? Nice work, Mom, Pops. You both raised yourself up a helluva family.

He should have told Sandburg. Why hadn't he? Had those lonely evenings in the loft really been what he wanted?

Poor Blair, hiding in his room night after night – but not really hiding, Jim knew that. Sitting cross-legged on his bed with books and papers scattered around him was the perfect cover for keeping an eye on his research subject brooding at the kitchen table.

("What's the payoff?")

("My doctorate! I wanna write about you! You're my thesis!")

The frantic need in that upturned face. Those hands clutching at his shirt with such desperation. Jim had made one attempt to break free. He'd knocked Sandburg off and tried to walk away.

It was no coincidence he'd zoned minutes later and nearly gotten himself creamed by a garbage truck. Before and since he'd only zoned in moments of intense stress or fierce concentration, never while just strolling along.

But that was the thing. He hadn't been just strolling then, had he? His body may have been walking, but in his mind he was running hard, a last ditch effort to thwart what had to be. Jim had no belief in fate and no hope for a guiding hand. But that didn't change the fact that he needed that little neo-hippie witchdoctor punk. No wonder he'd yelled at the kid, slammed him against a wall. (Blair, I'm sorry.) James Ellison didn't need anyone. Not a partner, not a wife, not a brother, least of all not a mother or a father. So it had been one hell of a shock to findout he needed Blair Sandburg.

But afterward, getting up from the pavement, a crowd gathering, the driver of the truck swinging out of the cab to see what had happened, Sandburg still dancing and exclaiming, he had made the decision to stop running. Easy as that. Why run from something you couldn't hope to escape? Besides, running had almost gotten them both killed. So even if it did mean everything from Jim's tax returns to his shaving habits were likely to end up in the professor's dissertation, surely Blair understood by now that Jim wasn't going anywhere.

Except maybe he didn't. Kid might well be a genius, but he could still be a little slow on the uptake about some things. When  Jim had allowed the distance to grow up between them these past few weeks – you know, probably he had just expected Blair to figure it out, like he seemed to figure out everything else. Figure it out, or at least get exasperated enough to simply ask Jim what was going on and spare him the difficulty of broaching the subject on his own.

If it hadn't been for that corduroy coat, that probably was how things would have gone. Hell, maybe he'd be at his mother's funeral now with Blair at his side. Maybe even have a civil word for Steven.

It hadn't happened that way though. When Blair found Lash's trophies the distance between them had already been too great. Jim's fault. All Jim's fault. He hadn't been able to bridge the chasm fast enough to keep Blair from going.

So here they were under that damn garbage truck again, except this time, Blair wasn't getting up.

Jim swung his legs around and sat up on the cot. He had to stop thinking like that. Blair wasn't dead.

But that voice. The memory of it gnawed at him, wouldn't let him rest, wouldn't let him sleep. Jim could sleep on his feet in a moving troop carrier if he had to, but he couldn't manage it tonight.

They'd been sitting in front of the church listening to Luke rant for two, maybe two and a half hours before Jim heard it. He'd been probing carefully for Sandburg's presence the whole time, cautious, tentative, feeling as though he weren't really in control of his senses, afraid of zoning here when it might get them all killed. (And then what would happen to Blair?) He kept getting distracted by Blair's scent on Luke's clothing.

Then Blair had begun to talk. "I don't guess wood putty would do the trick either, huh, Jim? No matter how much I sanded over it, you'd still be able to see where the hinges used to be."

If Jim had bolted and run for that voice, they would all be dead now. But he hadn't, of course. A lifetime of training froze his joints, locked every muscle, kept his eyes trained on Michael Luke's face as though he were actually listening to that ridiculous lecture about the Seven Seals.

After a few minutes Blair whispered, "Aw, Clyde, just forget I said anything, okay? All that stuff about Jim. It's supposed to be a secret. Jim doesn't want me to tell anybody."

Then he was silent again. But not entirely. Once Jim had a fix on Blair he could hear his noisy, snuffling breaths, his heart tripping away so shallow and uneven and desperately fast. As though he were running a race he couldn't possibly hope to win.

Then at long last, in a pitiable attempt to sound casual when his voice was so quiet and broken, "So anyway, Jim, I was just thinking, anytime you're ready to go home, man, I'm with you. Just say the word."

***

Suddenly Jim was slammed back into the present, on his feet and running almost before he even knew why. He smashed open the classroom door, moving fast down the wide corridor lined with battleship gray lockers, the waxed linoleum gleaming underfoot, pushing his way through the swinging doors into the gym. The communications center was almost deserted this time of night. Almost, not entirely. The bones of a hastily abandoned poker game were flung across a folding table. A cluster of men were standing around the bank of reception equipment, and Michael Luke's voice was broadcasting loud and clear. An agent named Kirby motioned Jim over. He was very young, probably younger than Sandburg, with a blond flattop and a look of perpetual innocence that reminded Jim of Sandburg as well. How had he made it through Quantico with that expression intact?

"Hey, Ellison. Good timing. Luke's on the move. We may have finally hit the jackpot here."

Jim held up a hand, straining to hear. Michael Luke was talking fast and low, but it was a sound in the distant background that had wrenched Jim from bed.

"Lee Anne needs to keep those kids quiet. There won't be no singing tomorrow, Logan, you understand me? Make sure she knows to keep those kids quiet."

"Are you going to be talking to Agent Bartholomew in the morning? She wasn't real happy having to talk to me today. I know she really wants to talk to you. I think she wants to work something out."

"I don't work things out with the followers of Moloch."

"No, Michael. No, I didn't mean that. But I was thinking about the rest of the kids, and you know Mary's due any day now. We ain't got no midwife. What if something goes wrong?"

"Don't you know it's better for these little ones to be delivered into the bosom of our Lord than into the fiery arms of Baal?"

"Oh, my god," Kirby muttered to Jim, his innocent face dead white. "Does that mean what I think it does?"

Apparently Logan and Michael Luke were carrying the bug with them, because the sound Jim was really listening to was growing louder with every passing moment. Loud enough even for Kirby to hear it.

"Wait a minute. What is that?"

Everything seemed to be spinning away from him. Jim was no longer aware of the gymnasium, nor of Kirby at his elbow, far less the other members of the negotiation team's night watch. "What is that? Is that an animal? God Almighty, what are they doing in there?"

Scrapes and knocks, a dull thump. Then all at once the sound shimmered clean across the intervening space.

"Son of a bitch," Kirby moaned. "They're beating one of the children. That son of a bitch."

Not a child. A man bludgeoned back into childhood.

Jim didn't realize he had staggered. He was dimly aware that someone had taken his arm, that an unimportant voice kept trying to break through to him. "Ellison, what's wrong? Are you all right? Ellison!"

He wasn't sure what they were using. A strap, a belt, something that cracked, and each snap came across as an explosion of static. Exquisitely painful for Jim with his hearing turned up so high. He didn't care. He was glad for it, as though Blair would somehow know they were sharing the pain now.

Then the blows stopped. Blair's cries lost their sharp urgency, but didn't end until Michael spoke to him.

"Dear God," said someone near Jim. "That's your man in there."

"Blair," Michael Luke said with great tenderness. "Blair, the son of man will send forth his angels to gather the wheat into his barn. But the tares are bundled together then burned in the fire. That's how it's gonna be at the end of the world."

"Please," Blair whispered. "Please, Michael. I'm so thirsty."

"See what I've brought you, Blair? This is supposed to be for the children, but you're as precious to me as my own flesh and blood. Don't you know that a shepherd rejoices more when he finds the one lost sheep than he does for the ninety and nine who didn't go astray?"

Noisy shiftings. Cloth against cloth. Cloth against skin. Blair gasped softly, then coughed.

"Oh, Blair," Michael said. "That milk was for the children. You've wasted it."

"I'm sorry." Blair's voice was frantic. "Michael, I'm sorry. Please don't leave me. I can't stand to be alone anymore. I'm afraid I'm starting to lose my mind here. Michael, please." The door shut, the click of the latch sharp and metallic.

"Jim, for heaven's sake, man," Blair said.

There was a moment of silence.

"Jim? Aw, man. Jim?"

Blair's voice rose until it was a raw, ragged scream. Jim's name. Blair called for him over and over again, and at last Ellison's traitorous senses revolted. Suddenly he could no longer distinguish Blair's voice from all the rest of it, the life sounds of the agents in the room with him, their voices, their heartbeats, their breaths, everything else in the world, the night and the forest, and god help him trucks downshifting on the highway fifteen miles away, and the fasten-seatbelt signs going off in a passenger jet thirty-thousand feet overhead, a grasshopper's mandibles on a blade of grass, and the groan of the glacial ice. When Jim finally opened his eyes again he was flat on his back on the gym floor.

"Lie still," Kirby was saying. "We'll get an ambulance."

"I'm all right." Jim pushed aside the concerned hands and sat up. "Is the bug still in the room with Sandburg?"

"You're not all right, Ellison.  Don't try to get up."

"Dammit, can we still hear Sandburg?"

"Calm down. Yeah. It's still there."

"I can't hear it."

"We're not broadcasting it right now. It's all right. He's calmed down some. Are you all right? Do you know what happened?"

Jim got to his feet, Kirby and another man reluctantly giving him a hand. "Forgot to eat today. Guess it caught up with me." Jim didn't even know what he was saying, but there, now that he concentrated a moment he could hear the muffled sounds. Not quite sobs.

"Come on, then," Kirby was saying, that innocent face of his very stern now. "Lemme walk you over to the cafeteria. There's some pizza in the fridge still, or at least some peanut butter and jelly."

"I'm not leaving."

"The hell you're not. Gregory thinks the negotiation people are all a bunch of pussies anyway. If he hears about this, you'll be watching the rest of the show from the CNN trailer. Now come on, Ellison. You can't do your partner any good like this."

***

Jim heard the news at midnight. Sherry found him and told him personally. "Word's come back from Washington. Freeh and Reno listened to those tapes – Luke threatening the children, not to mention what they've been doing to your partner – and Gregory's been given the go-ahead. His ninjas will be rolling in at dawn."

***

Part 2

Jim didn't wait for dawn.

He'd been aware of the reek from a hundred yards out, but when he finally pried off the lock and opened the door, he couldn't help extending his senses for Blair.

The foetor of the corpse hit him like a blow. Sweeter than rotting hamburger meat. Unendurably vile. Jim braced himself with one hand against the wall and vomited.

Sandburg was huddled in a corner of the room like a diseased and dying animal.

"It's me, Chief," Jim whispered when he could speak. "It's just me."

***

"Captain Banks? Agent Sherry Bartholomew." She took his hand in a firm grip, tilting her head and falling back just a step so she could look him in the face. "I'm sorry you were kept waiting. Things are a little chaotic here tonight."

It was two in the morning, and Simon felt like there was more coffee than blood in his veins by this point. He managed a smile anyway. "Thank you for taking the time to see me."

"Well, I know Ellison could really use a friendly face. I understand his mother just passed away?"

Simon nodded a little. "I didn't like the way he sounded on the phone this evening."

"I know he'll be relieved you're here now. We've got some cots set up in the classrooms. I'll take you back."

"If he's asleep, I don't know if I should wake him." Simon glanced around. "Tell you what. If I could just leave word that I'm here, I'll go back and get a motel room in town."

"Good luck finding one within fifty miles, captain. "

"Bartholomew!"

The doors leading to the gym swung open violently, and Simon caught a glimpse of organized chaos. Knots of people, cables snaking thick across the floor.

"Bartholomew," said the young man with the blond flattop again, more urgently. "We got a hell of a situation here."

Simon was no sentinel, but he heard Jim's voice immediately, overlaid with static as it was, and so much quieter than the shouting agents.

Agent Bartholomew heard it too. "Oh, Christ," she said, and started to run.

***

"Chief." Jim crouched close, not touching Blair. "Can you look at me a minute, Sandburg?"

Blair whimpered, keeping his face hidden.

"I know," Jim said anyway, shifting closer. "It's all right. I'm here now."

"I'm sorry," Blair whispered. "Please, I'm so sorry."

"Hey, partner. C'mon now."

Blair was naked to the waist and shivering hard. Jim pulled out the small plastic bottle of water he'd carried with him and set it on the floor beside them. Then he eased his coat off. "You want to put this on for me?"

Blair didn't respond at all. Jim reached around and draped it over his shoulders. Gentle as he was, even the weight of the coat on his back brought Blair's head up with a gasp.

"I'm sorry, Chief."

He just stared at Jim, his eyes narrow with disbelief. "Oh," he said softly. Then he said, "No, man, I don't think so."

Now that Blair was actually looking at him, Jim allowed himself to cross the last distance, taking both of Blair's upper arms and holding on gently through the folds of the draped coat. "It's me, Blair. No one's going to hurt you." He felt the shudder, saw the spark he mistook for understanding in those skeptical eyes.

"Oh, Michael," Blair said, his voice breaking. "I'm so sorry."

Jim swallowed hard. "Sandburg, it's me. It's Jim."

Blair tried to pull away, his eyes wide and frightened now.

"Take it easy," Jim said. "It's all right. Listen to my voice. You know who this is. I'm not going to leave you."

Blair just looked at him, shivering.

"What's more, I'm not letting you leave either, you got that, Sandburg? Not again. Lord, kid, you can't even cross the street by yourself without walking into the middle of World War III, can you?"

Blair's eyes got bigger than ever, but the fear slowly left them. He brought one hand up and laid it on Jim's chest.  He took a deep breath. Then he touched Jim's face, rubbing his thumb back and forth across the cheekbone while Jim held very still. At last he ran his hand over Jim's cropped head. The corner of Blair's mouth quirked up. "Know something?" he said.

"What's that?"

Blair gave a little hiccup that could have been a laugh. "I'm really, really glad to see you, man."

Jim wrapped his arms around him and carefully pulled him in. "Same here, Chief."  Blair winced but pressed close just the same, clutching convulsively at the back of Jim's shirt. After a moment he began to weep without tears. Hoarse cries tore their way out of his chest. Jim could feel him swallowing, trying to suppress them.

"You can let it out. It's all right."

"Jim," he tried to say at last.

"You're doing great. You're doing just fine."

The head pressed so hard against his shoulder shook in denial."No, but Jim—"

"Easy now. It can wait. Whatever it is, it can wait."

After a time the sobs died away. Eventually Blair sat up a little so he could look into Jim's face. "What took you so long?" No accusation in that voice. Just bewilderment.

"Up to now, I thought I could do you more good on the outside."

"Oh," Blair said, accepting that with such trust Jim's arms tightened until Blair groaned in protest.

"I brought some water. Here." Jim scooted around so he could rest his back against the wall. Then he pulled Blair up and reached for the bottle of water, managing to unscrew the cap without removing the gentle arm around Blair's shoulders.

"Just a sip now. Careful—" He pulled the bottle away when Blair tried to drink too greedily. "Careful." He felt the muscles spasm in Blair's gut, a whimper of panic, and then Blair threw up.

"Aw, Jim," he moaned, terrified.

"Easy, easy." Jim set the bottle well out of the way and just held him, stroking Blair's arm, one hand on the back of his head, telling him everything was all right, everything was fine, and when Blair finally grew calmer, he poured a little of the water into the palm of his own cupped hand and held it to Blair's lips.

Blair swallowed carefully, then tensed, but this time he managed to keep it down. "More?" he whispered.

"Just a little for now, okay?" Jim poured a little more water into his hand, and again Blair drank. He sighed with relief, relaxing against Jim, his shivers finally beginning to subside. Jim smoothed his wet hand over Blair's forehead, brushed the week's growth on his cheeks and throat. The bristles were so long they were beginning to feel silky. "I don't know about this Robinson Crusoe look."

Blair chuckled weakly. "Soon as you get me out of here, it's gone."

"Just don't ruin my razor doing it."

"No way, man." He pressed closer with a sigh, one hand on Jim's chest, his forehead resting against Jim's cheek. "Jim?" he said at length.

"Yeah?"

"Can we go home now?"

"Not just yet. Soon."

"Jim?"

"Yeah?"

"What the hell are we waiting for?"

"The cavalry, I'm afraid."

"Hmm," Blair mumbled, accepting that, and Jim finally took a good look around.

Flies were everywhere, thickest on the corpse, the incessant thrum of their wings enough to drive anyone to despair. The reek of decay and human waste was thick as fog. Food wrappers and a few cans and bottles were on the floor. Cheese crackers, dried meat, tomato juice, Big Value Strawberry Soda.

Jesus.

For some reason that can of off-brand soda broke through his defenses in a way nothing else had, not even the contusions striping Blair's back, the fear in his partner's eyes or the confusion in his mind.  The rage came back. So hot. So black.

He squeezed his eyes shut. It was happening again. All the barriers falling, his senses taking in everything everywhere in the world. It started with the heart sounds of the monsters who had done this to Blair sleeping in the rooms above, then further out, the ones half-dozing at their posts, then the FBI snipers and the generators powering communications in the trailers just beyond the front lines, keyboards clicking in news vans—

"Jim!"

The sound of Blair's voice brought him back instantly. He opened his eyes and looked into Blair's.

"Jim?"

"We'll talk about it later." Jim spotted the cardboard milk carton. So the Feds already knew what was going on. Just as well. "Easy now," he said, reaching around Blair to pull his cell phone out of the inner coat pocket. "It's okay."

He dialed, then told the agent who answered the phone, "This is Jim Ellison. Please let me speak to Agent Bartholomew."

She was on the line almost immediately.

Good. Obviously they did know what was going on.

He waited out the expected tirade, then said only, "Sandburg's in pretty bad shape. I can't get him out past the guards the way I got in, so we'll be waiting for you. We're in the cellar under the east wing. I'll leave the line open in case you need to reach me."

There didn't seem to be anything else to say, even though Agent Bartholomew said plenty. But the bottom line was, the Hostage Rescue Team knew as well as Jim did that Blair would have been an easy target for Luke's rage when the assault started. But not now. Jim was here, and Blair would be anything but alone and defenseless.

"We'll be waiting for you," he said again and set the phone aside.

"Jim?" Blair said.

"Yeah?" he answered, expecting to be asked about that conversation.

"I could really use a shower."

Jim laughed. "Yeah, Chief, you could, actually."

"Sorry, man."

"Don't worry about it. Rest. It'll all be over soon."

"Okay."  Blair sighed deeply. His head, resting against Jim's face and neck, seemed to grow heavier. He jerked once, then slipped away into sleep.

***

Part 3

Blair's sleep wasn't a peaceful one.  He twitched like a dreaming cat, flinching and moaning. Jim held him close, talking softly the whole time, no idea what he was saying, really, just hoping the sound of his voice and the warmth of his body could comfort Blair even in sleep.

And he was damning himself with every breath.

Why the hell hadn't he gotten here sooner? Jim had been on the scene almost three days now. Just twenty-four, thirty-six hours earlier and maybe Blair wouldn't have been so sick and weak. He might have had the strength to walk out of here. They could have escaped together.

Instead he'd left Blair here to starve. Allowed him to be beaten over and over again, day after day, while Jim played the HRT's stupid, fatal games. Bad enough the Feds were shooting craps with Blair's life, what else could he have expected? But Jim had been blowing on the dice right there beside them.

Jim shook his head slightly, closed his eyes.

All right, Ellison, he thought. Enough is enough. Sandburg needs you, and he needs you with both feet on the ground and your head screwed on straight, not half-eaten up with guilt and regrets. So just give it a rest. You did what you thought you had to, and there are no guarantees in life, don't you know that by now? It might not have been so easy to get in three days ago. The siege was taking its toll on Michael Luke's men, and three days ago he might not have made it past them. He might not have been able to get Blair out even if he had gotten in.

Besides, if anything had happened to Jim, there wouldn't have been anybody on the outside for Blair. Hell, as far as the agent-in-charge was concerned, Blair was practically one of Luke's followers himself.

But the filthy body he cradled in his arms was so broken and weak. And Sandburg had waited for him for so long. Believing Jim would come for him as soon as he could.

"I'm here, Blair," he whispered, almost despairing, rocking him gently. "I'm right here now."

He hoped Blair would be able to sleep the rest of the night, but hardly an hour had passed before he woke again with a start. He sat up as much as he could, stared wide-eyed at Jim for a moment, then looked around himself.

"Aw, man," he moaned, his voice still very soft, but far steadier than before. "We're still here."

"'Fraid so."

"Shit."

Jim grinned a little. "Sounds like you're feeling better."

"Well, I'm not," he muttered. "What are you looking at?"

"You, Chief."

"Well, knock it off," he whispered, scowling. "Is there any more water?"

"Some. You wanna shift a little here, Sandburg? I lost all the feeling in my legs a long time ago."

Blair realized he was sprawled on Jim's lap, and tried to get up. Jim grabbed his arms to keep him from hurting himself. "Easy. You're not ready for the decathalon yet. Here." He helped Blair shift to one side. "That okay?"

"Yeah," Blair lied, his eyes dark with pain. "You said there was some water?"

"Just a sip," Jim cautioned, giving him the bottle.

Blair lifted it to his lips with a violently trembling hand. Jim watched closely, but Blair didn't ask for help, and so he didn't offer any. Blair managed to swallow at last, though most of it seemed to spill down his chin, then carefully handed the bottle back. "Thanks."

"No problem."

Blair looked around himself again, then closed his eyes. His head dropped. The coat slipped off one shoulder. Jim reached out and adjusted it. "You want to put this on better?"

"No, I'm fine." Blair raised his head, grinned momentarily. "Nah, I'm really not, am I? I just can't seem to think straight."

Jim grinned back. "Since when is that news?"

"Oh yeah, Jim. Thanks. Real funny." His head began to droop again, and this time he went with it, hunching over as though he intended to curl up on the floor.

"C'mere, Chief."

Blair hesitated for just a moment, but then scooted over so he could tuck himself into a tight ball against Jim. Jim thought he was falling asleep again, but then Blair whispered miserably, "I guess you really hate me now, huh?"

Jim smoothed the lank hair back. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"All this time I've been thinking and thinking what I would say to you, and now that you're finally here, I can't remember any of it. It's like my mind's broken or something. But man, I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry."

"Shut up, Sandburg," Jim said tenderly. "This may not have been the way I was planning to spend my weekend, but you've got nothing to apologize for, so I don't want to hear it. Just relax. Try to get some sleep."

"But, Jim—"

"Easy." He slid his hand to the nape of Blair's neck, gently massaging, listening closely for a hint of discomfort or pain. But Blair just sighed, so Jim pressed more firmly, stroking the base of his skull with his fingertips, keeping a steady pressure with the heel of his hand. One of Blair's hands had been clenched into a tight fist against Jim's thigh, but it slowly relaxed and opened as Jim soothed him.

"Easy, Chief. Doing great there. Easy."

Blair's breathing began to even out. His head slipped down a little more. Sounding on the verge of sleep he asked in a calm, quiet voice, "Maybe we could go check out that wardrobe next Sunday?"

"Sounds great," Jim assured him.

"The deal with the doors. Is that gonna be all right?"

Jim had no idea what he was talking about. "Yes," he told Blair softly. "It's going to be all right."

"Thanks, man."

Then Blair was silent for a long time before he said, "I think I forgot to save the classifieds out of the Sunday paper."

"Not a problem."

"Sorry about that. Next week I won't forget."

"Don't worry about it."

"'Mmm not," he mumbled.

Another long silence. Blair didn't sleep, but he seemed calmer for a time. Then the hand resting on Jim's leg began to move restlessly, plucking at the fabric. "Jim?" he asked in that soft, tentative  voice that was so unlike Blair Sandburg.

Jim spread his hand across the back of Blair's bowed head. "Whatever it is, it's all right. "

"I know. I know," he said, his voice getting even quieter. "But I was just thinking. If it's okay with you, if you're not still mad at me, maybe – Maybe we could go home now? "

"Soon. Just as soon as we can."

Blair sobbed in frustration, clenched a fistful of Jim's shirt and yanked hard, as if it were the only way he could be sure Jim was listening to him.

"You keep saying that!  Jim, I want to go now. What if Michael comes back?"

"I'll take care of Michael Luke."

Blair laughed miserably, then turned his face against Jim's chest as if trying to hide. "You don't understand."

"Believe me, I do."

"I tried so hard to be like you, but it didn't work for me. I couldn't be as strong as you."

"It's all right. He'll never lay a hand on you again. Blair, I promise."

Blair began to weep, softly this time, slow hot tears that ran down his cheeks and soaked into the front of Jim's shirt. Jim simply held him, one hand laid on top of Blair's fist as he kept clutching and releasing Jim's shirt over and over again.

"Don't want—" Blair gasped out miserably.

"Hush. You don't need to say anything."

"But I don't want you to see me that way. Please, Jim. Please, take me home."

"Soon."

"Stop treating me like a child!" Blair groaned in fury, pulling out of Jim's embrace. "What the hell are we waiting around here for?"

"All right, Blair. Calm down. Take it easy."

"Damn you, you tell me what's going on first." His eyes blazed above hollow cheeks, feverishly bright. "You tell me what's going on, Jim, then I'll decide if I feel like taking it easy or not."

"Listen to me, Chief," Jim said, trying to be gentle. "We're in a bad situation here, and you're no good to either one of us right now if you can't keep your cool."

Blair flinched back, fighting so hard for control that Jim could hardly bear to watch. But it was a battle Blair won for himself. He swallowed, his eyes darting away for just an instant, then fixing on Jim. "Right," he said as calmly as he could manage over the quaver in his tone. "Right, man. Sorry."

"All right." He touched Blair's cheek with the back of his fingers, not quite a cuff. "All right, this is what's happening. The FBI is tired of waiting around for Michael Luke. They're going to storm the compound before dawn."

"What? Jim, you're kidding me, right? Is this for real?"

"As real as it gets. I wish I could get you out first, but I'm afraid that's not really an option. We'll just have to ride out the storm."

"Wait a minute – Jim, they can't. They can't. There's kids here. Pregnant women. What are they thinking?"

"It's because of the kids that they're coming in, Chief. Michael Luke's been threatening them."

"No, he hasn't. He wouldn't do that."

"I heard it myself," Jim said, his heart breaking at Blair's defense of the man.

"No," Blair insisted, shaking his head, tears springing to his eyes. "No, Jim, you didn't. I'm telling you, he would never hurt the children. He would never threaten them."

"It's all right. Take it easy."

"No, it's not all right! I don't believe this! Wasn't anybody paying attention during Waco?" Blair covered his face with his hands, moaning. "Oh, god, Jim. Oh, god. They're going to kill them all."

"It's not going to be like Waco, believe me. They've got fire engines right behind the front line. And the HRT will be coming in fast, right after the tear gas. They won't wait around for a mass suicide."

"Oh, my god." Blair hunched forward, his hands still over his face. "Oh, Jesus. They're all gonna die. All those kids."

"Michael Luke's made his decision. The FBI can't just sit back and wait for him to slaughter the children."

Blair looked up again, breathing hard, trembling with emotion and exhaustion. "Jim, you're not listening to me. Michael Luke would not hurt those kids. He fathered most of them! He loves them, I know he does. He's not going to hurt his own children."

"Blair—" Jim said gently, taking his head in both hands for a moment. "Chief. He called you his child too. And look what he's done to you."

"Okay." Blair took a deep breath, held it for a moment. Released it. "Okay. I guess you think I'm out of my head right now."

"All I know is what I can tell by looking at you, Sandburg. And it looks to me like you wouldn't have survived many more days of Michael Luke's love."

"But Jim, I'm an apostate. Michael thought I'd been converted, and he was just about right, except the first time they left me alone I tried to escape. So he had to take sterner measures. He was trying to save my soul, and to a man like that, the concerns of the flesh are secondary. You know, if your eye offends you, pluck it out."

"If the concerns of the flesh are so secondary, what's he doing fathering all those children?"

"Dammit, Jim," Blair clenched one hand into a fist and beat it weakly against Jim's arm. "Can you please just listen to me? Please, man. Please."

"I'm sorry." Jim covered Blair's fist with his own hand, gently held it. "All right. I'm listening."

"You said you heard Luke threatening the kids. What did he say? I mean, what did he literally word-for-word say?"

"I don't—"

"I bet I can tell you. Was it something about the bosom of Abraham? The fiery arms of Baal? Worshippers of Moloch? Something along those lines? I'm right, aren't I?"

"Yeah, Chief. Something like that."

"Well see, that's exactly what I'm talking about. I mean, this is the whole reason Michael Luke and his people are out here, 'cause they believe that living in the outside world endangers your soul. That's all he's saying. And from his point of view if the children are going to be taken forcefully from him, then it's better their bodies die than their souls end up damned to hell."

"He's already let some of the children leave, Chief. If it's such a big deal to him then—"

"Not his biological children, I'm sure. Were any of them his own kids? Do you know?"

"No, I don't."

"Does the FBI?"

"I don't know. I don't know if anyone thought to ask who the fathers were."

Blair swore in a weak voice. The argument was exhausting him. "Goddammit, Jim, it's Waco all over again. David Koresh didn't abuse his own children. He loved them so much he killed them himself rather than risk their damnation. Jim, I'm not saying it's rational! But it's what we're dealing with here. If the Feds start shooting, Michael Luke won't hesitate either. He'll kill every one of the kids. No way the Feds could move fast enough to stop him."

Tears welled up again in Blair's eyes. "I can't believe the FBI's own advisers aren't telling them the same exact thing. Who've they got? Do you know? Peter Whaley from Rochester? Shelton and Poindexter? They're at Baylor right now, aren't they? If the FBI had listened to them in the first place, Waco never would have gone down the way it did."

"I don't know, Blair."

"Please tell me they didn't call Professor Levi. Talk about clueless!" He laughed, half hysterical. "I wouldn't be here right now if it wasn't for her."

"These are academics you're talking about? No, Blair, I'm almost certain there's no one like that here."

"Oh god, Jim, then no wonder they don't understand what Luke's talking about. Jim, Jim, they've got to get somebody out here who understands him. Somebody with some background – you can't treat this like a hostage situation! They're not a bunch of bank robbers holed up in a warehouse or something. They're absolute believers. They would rather die than be forced out. They will die if the FBI comes in. They'll think it's Armageddon. The armies of Satan. That's what they're out here waiting for in the first place."

Blair sagged forward on the verge of utter collapse, but he latched onto Jim with everything he had left, clinging to his shirt, pleading with those damned eyes.

"You better be right about this," Jim said gruffly, knowing he was. Even if Blair were half out of his mind, Jim still trusted him with his life. With the lives of everyone else here as well. "Here. Lean on me." He pulled Blair forward until he was resting against his chest,  head heavy on his shoulder, then reached for the cell phone.

"Jim," Blair whispered, his breath feverishly hot against the side of Jim's neck. "You tell them. You tell them, go ahead, screw this up and kill all the kids, and we'll all be reading Frontline's transcripts on the web for the next decade. The conspiracy buffs were startin' to get tired of Waco anyway."

***

"Chief."

Blair stirred restlessly, trying to hold on to the dream.

He and Jim were on the balcony watching the sunset. Okay, yeah, the dinner dishes were still piled up in the sink, but they could wait half an hour, right? Blair wouldn't forget. No way. He'd said he would do them, hadn't he? But it was so nice just being here next to Jim, no need for words, the buildings of downtown Cascade burnished orange against the darkening sky.

"Come on, Chief. Rise and shine."

Blair opened his eyes. Jim was holding him close. Well, that was something new, wasn't it? Sleeping in his sentinel's arms. He laughed a little, and the sound was so raspy and weak he hardly recognized himself. "Jim?"

Jim was smiling at him, but there was something in his eyes—

Blair turned his head and saw Clyde watching them both.

Oh god.

"Jim," he whispered. "What's happening?"

"It's morning, Blair."

Blair sniffed experimentally. No tear gas. No smoke.  "So it's over?" he said, hardly daring to hope.

Jim's eyes. Jim's sad, blue eyes.

"You're starting to scare me here, man."

Jim hugged him even closer, too close for him to see those eyes anymore, hurting his back a little, actually. Blair started to protest, but then Jim said, "Yeah, Chief, it may be over. Michael Luke's on his way."

 ***

THE FINAL PLANK

And then a Plank in Reason broke—
And I dropped down, and down—
And hit a world at every plunge
And Finished knowing – then—

***

Part 1

When Blair realized what was going to happen, he screamed in despair.

Jim was saying something Blair couldn't hear over his own shouts, the roaring in his ears and the blackness in his heart. He wrapped his arms around Jim's neck even though he knew he should be pushing him away and tried to ask him, "What are you doing here? Jim, why are you still here?"

"Blair," Jim said. "Chief."

"No, damn you, no no no." He tried to get his legs under himself so he could pull Jim up and get him moving, get him the hell out of here before it was too late, but he might just as well have tried to pull the moon out of the sky. "Come on, man."

"Stop it, Blair. Hold still." Jim grabbed his shoulders hard, and it hurt badly enough to shock Blair into silence. He didn't realize his eyes were shut until he opened them and looked into Jim's face.

Jim slid his hands off his shoulders and took his upper arms, gently now. "Listen to me, partner. I promised I wouldn't let Michael Luke hurt you again, and I meant it."

How could the man be so dense? Blair could have shrieked with frustration, but he made himself calm down and talk quietly because he knew Jim wouldn't listen to yelling, and this was important, this was Jim's life they were trying to save here.

"Jim, man, it isn't because of me. It's you. The only reason you're here is because the FBI was going to attack this morning. But since they didn't, you've got to get out. You can't protect me anymore. The siege could go on for months – you can't possibly hold off all of Michael Luke's men by yourself. So please, man, I want you to get up and get out before Michael Luke arrives. Okay, Jim? Okay?"

There. Cool as a cucumber. How could Jim fail to see how logical he was being about this?

Jim smiled, put his hand on the back of Blair's head and pulled him forward until their foreheads touched.

And just held him.

"Jim—"

"I owe you one, Sandburg. No matter what happens. You understand me?"

"No," Blair whispered, but he was lying.

Jim chuckled a little, and Blair closed his eyes. The footsteps were so close now Blair could hear them himself. There were only moments left. Too late. Too late for anything except to make sure Jim knew. "It's all right. Jim, it's all right, isn't it?"

"Yeah, Chief." One hand at the back of Blair's head, the other arm gentle around his shoulders. "We're all right."

Jim had broken the lock getting in, so Blair missed the click of the turning key, the release of the latch. The hinges still squeaked, though. Despair ghosted through his mind, chilled his heart and twisted  his bowels, but he was stronger than the despair now.

There were other people in the room, and ratcheting sounds that made Blair think with sudden absurdity of Linda Hamilton's pump action shotgun in T2.

He laid his head on Jim's shoulder and closed his eyes.

In a voice that was heavy with disappointment, Michael Luke said, "I bet you never even met Randy Weaver, did you?"

"No," Jim said. "I never had the pleasure."

"Your name really Ellison?"

"Yes."

"You FBI?"

"No. Cascade PD."

"What are you doing here in the Lord's house, Mr. Ellison?"

"I came to take Sandburg home."

"This is his home now."

Footsteps crossed the floor. Pressed so close to Jim, Blair felt the slight tensing of Jim's muscles, but the arm around his shoulders continued to rest easily there. "Keep back," Jim said calmly.

"I just want to ask him a question. Surely you can't object to that, can you?"

"Don't come any closer."

"All right. Take it easy, Mr. Ellison. Just take it easy. We're all children of the Lord here. Blair, you hear me, son? You tell your friend that's the truth. You don't have no use for the world anymore, do you? You belong with the people of God now."

Jim's arm was so warm across his bruised shoulders.

"What about this, Blair? How does this sound to you? Mr. Ellison don't belong here, we both know that. You tell him to go on his way, and he walks right out of here, back to the Cities of the Plain. If that's where he wants to be, then we'll let him go. You hear me, Blair? He'll just walk right on out of here."

Blair raised his head to look at Michael. He was crouching on the floor not five feet away, gazing at him with the brown eyes that had been Blair's entire world for so long now.

How easy the decision was. Blair didn't even have to think about it.

"No," he said calmly.

Michael blinked. "Now, son, that's a hard saying. We got no place here for the idolater and the man of the flesh. You send Mr. Ellison away, or we'll do what we got to do to keep the temple holy."

Blair took a deep breath, spoke slow and clear as he could. "Don't tell him to leave me, because where he goes, I will go, and where he lodges, I will lodge, his people shall be my people, and his God my God."

Michael stood up, his face a stony blank.

"And where he dies, that's where I'll die and that's where you'll bury me. God take me now if anything but death ever parts us."

"Oh, my son," Michael said at long last. "You knew all along, didn't you, that I was given the keys to the kingdom? Whatever I bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever I loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."

Blair felt himself trembling hard. Strange, because he felt so calm, his arms around Jim's neck still, his face laid next to Jim's, their hearts beating closer than lovers'.

Michael turned and walked away.

"Get back," Jim said in a level voice. "I can do it." To Blair he said, "Let me go."

"Jim—"

"It's all right." He unwrapped Blair's arms and pushed him away so he could get to his feet. Blair cried out in panic, but then Jim's hands were on him again, gripping his arm, his thigh. The walls slid down as Jim lifted him.

Blair squeezed his eyes shut against the vertigo. Blood was pounding behind his forehead and between his temples. He hoped he wasn't going to be sick again. One dangling foot brushed against the door frame as Jim carried him out, and Blair cautiously opened his eyes again.  His face was against the back of Jim's arm, and they were ascending into the light. He could feel the cold draft of fresh air against his own naked back. Jim's coat. What had happened to Jim's coat?

Oh, no. He must have dropped it when Jim picked him up.

Jim would hate that. Jim hated losing his things.

Jim, I'm sorry.

It was getting colder and brighter with every step. One arm was hanging free, blood flowing to his fingertips, making them tingle. He managed to bring his hand up a little and curl it around the waistband of Jim's slacks.

"Just hang on, partner," Jim said quietly. "Almost home now."

***

Part 2

The grave marker was a flat rectangle set flush with the grass. Except for the name and the punctuating dates, it was no different from any of the others. Tens of thousands stretching down the hillside in rows that undulated with the sweep of the landscape. Up and around the next hillside, and the next, and the next.

Gray clouds hung low. The wind smelled like rain.

Blair pushed his hands deeper into his coat pockets, trying not to shiver. Paper crinkled in the left pocket. It was the map he had picked up at the cemetery office so they could find Jim's mother in this city of the dead.

Jim stood a few feet away. His eyes were fixed in the mountains on the eastern horizon, and he hadn't even looked at the marker.

Blair wondered who had seen to the funeral arrangements. Could Jim have done it all long distance? He'd been at the hospital every spare hour, and many more, Blair suspected, that weren't so spare. He hadn't even told Blair about the funeral until Simon let something slip during a visit.

Something twisted, way far down. Blair tried to ignore it.

Jim looked back at him. "You shouldn't be out here in this wind. Let's head back."

"I'm fine," Blair said. "Take as much time as you need. Jim, I'm okay."

"I'm done here, Chief." Jim draped his arm over Blair's shoulders and turned him away from the grave. "Let's get out of here before it starts to rain. What do you say we head back and grab some dinner?"

"Jim—" Blair started, but he knew Jim was right. He was cold and so miserably tired he could hardly see straight. Besides, they would be here a few more days yet. Maybe tomorrow, after a good night's sleep, he would have the strength to coax Jim back. At least get him to open up more about his mom.

He had ventured to ask Jim if he had any other family in Portland as Jim was packing for the two of them this morning, and Jim had said 'no' with a finality that seemed to end the possibility for further discussion.

At least for right now.

So in the meantime, if Jim wanted to keep fussing over Blair rather than face the reality of his mother's death – well, that was one way to deal with grief. Maybe the easiest way for Jim right now. Probably the reason he had stayed in Cascade instead of going to his own mother's funeral.

Guilt twisted again, and Blair pushed the feeling irritably aside. It had been Jim's decision to stay in Cascade. So don't even start, Sandburg. Just leave it alone. You've got no reason to feel guilty about those hours Jim spent in the hospital with you.

He'd tried to send Jim home more than once, and every time Jim had simply told him that if he'd been home he would be watching the game anyway, so what was the difference if he watched it here in the hospital room with Sandburg?

It made a difference to me, Blair thought.

Maybe that's what was giving him trouble now. Knowing how desperately he needed Jim. How selfishly glad he had been that Jim had spent so many hours in the hospital. He still felt that way, even now, even knowing what Jim had missed in order to stay at his bedside.

Blair smiled bleakly to himself. Pathetic, aren't you? It's not enough that Jim risks everything to save your sorry hide, you can't even bear to let him out of your sight long enough to attend his own mother's funeral.

"Something funny, Sandburg?" Jim slipped his hand around to the back of Blair's neck.

"No, of course not," Blair said quickly. "Just a little tired, I guess."

Jim's hand on Blair's neck tightened gently. "Should have left you back at the room," he said.

"No!" It came out too loud. "No, I want to be here, Jim. It—" he stumbled over his words, then couldn't believe, after all this, that he could balk at telling Jim something so elementary. "This means a lot to me. I want to be with you for this. I want to be here for you."

"I know, Chief," Jim said simply. "Thank you."

Blair was shaking with exhaustion by the time they reached the truck. Jim opened the door for him and gave him an arm up. He swung the door shut for Blair, got in himself and started the engine, cranking the heat before saying, "Actually, it's been kind of a long day. What do you say we just go back to the hotel and see what room service has to offer?"

"No, I'm fine, Jim, really. That Hungarian place you were telling me about sounds great. I'd really like to go."

Jim eyed him skeptically. "You look like you'd fall asleep in your goulash, Sandburg."

Blair managed a grin. "No way, man. I'm fine."

"I'm sure you are. But I still think we'd be better off getting you back to the hotel. We can hit Gyor's tomorrow."

"No, Jim, please, I'm serious. I really want to go."

Jim was scowling good-naturedly as he put the truck in gear. "You're the boss."

Blair rested his head against the seatback. "Can I have that in writing?" He closed his eyes as Jim slowly negotiated the winding road out of the cemetery, waiting for Jim's answer.

He was still waiting when he felt Jim's hand on his knee, shaking him gently. "Come on, Lightning. Up and at 'em."

Blair opened his eyes and stretched cautiously. By the time he had fumbled for his seatbelt and managed to get it unhooked, Jim was already on his side of the truck to give him a hand out. Still, when Blair's heels hit the ground he felt the jarring all the way up his backbone. He sighed, frustrated by his weakness, and leaned against the side of the truck until the dizzy spell passed. He knew what Jim was thinking, but to hell with it. He was unlikely to convince Jim he was really all right if he fainted in the parking garage.

Parking garage. Dammit. Jim had brought them back to the hotel after all. "Aw, Jim," he said, raising his head to meet Jim's concerned look. "I told you. I want to go out to eat. I don't want you to miss a good dinner because of me."

Blair hadn't been expecting that smile. It started with Jim's eyes, then spread across his whole face. He put his hands on Blair's shoulders and squeezed. "You're really a piece of work, aren't you?"

"Uh, that's what they tell me," Blair said cautiously, not entirely sure what was going on.

"Can you make it on your own, or do I need to call the front desk for a wheelchair?" The grin threatened to split Jim's face.

"I'm warning you, man—"

"Come on, Sandburg. We're just going to get you settled, then I'll get take-out from Gyor's and bring it back to the room for us. Will that work?"

"Yeah." Blair finally let himself smile back. "Yeah, that'll work."

To make Jim happy, Blair lay down when they got to the room – on top of the covers, though – and he didn't protest when Jim turned out the light on his way out the door. But after giving Jim plenty of time to get back to the parking garage and away, Blair got up and flipped the light right back on.

The state he was in, if he lay there for much longer, he was sure to drop off. He wanted to be awake when Jim got back. He knew Jim would probably let him sleep, and he couldn't bear to think of Jim eating take-out Hungarian by himself in a hotel room, tonight of all nights.

Blair would stay awake. He would stay awake, and he would wait for Jim, and they would have dinner together.

He wandered to the windows and looked out. The river wound darkly below, reflecting the city lights. On the far shore Blair could see the lamps lining the path through the park. Maybe that would be something to do tomorrow morning if the weather was nicer, and if Jim didn't want to go back to the cemetery. Walk through the rose gardens, talk about things – Jim's mother, his family.

That would work.

Feeling better, Blair pulled his backpack out and retrieved the folder of department mail Jim had picked up for him. Time to face the music. Get something accomplished this evening, and you'll feel more like yourself, right? Maybe even be able to help Jim out here.

He sat down at the little desk, pushed aside the few sheets of hotel stationery, and began to sort through the accumulated mail. Fortunately most of it was junk.  He snagged the plastic trashcan with his foot and dragged it into reach, and eighty-sixed all the flyers advertising lectures that had already happened, film festivals he'd missed, wine-and-cheese receptions he would have managed to miss even if he had known about them, book sales, grad student union meetings, recitals, all of it. Weeks of a life that hadn't worked out quite like he'd planned.

The trash can was filling up. He stomped the papers down with his foot and kept going. There were several dozen phone messages too, some from undergrads, more from other graduate students, a few from professors. The older ones were all university-related; then a long, rather ominous pause, and then a spate of welcome-backs and get-well-soons. Blair smiled. Nice of them.

Then he read the first message from a reporter. Don Hass, in fact. Obviously thinking he deserved first crack at this story for old times' sake. Blair crumpled it up and dropped it in the trash can, feeling the flush creep up his face. There were more. The Cascade evening paper, Portland, Seattle. Whoa – Time Magazine. CNN.

My fifteen minutes of fame.

They all went in the trash. Blair sat with his head in his hands for a few moments. He had known, really, that Jim must have been shielding him from the unwelcome attention, but he'd done such a damned good job of it  Blair hadn't really given it much thought.

No wonder Jim had brought Blair along to Portland. Not because he needed Blair's support or his friendship, but because keeping the press away while they were in Cascade had turned into such a full-time job.

Blair regretted that thought immediately. It wasn't true, and he knew it. It was just that he was having a little trouble with perspective these days.

So just cut yourself some slack, man, take it easy, concentrate on getting better, and leave the head games at home for now.

Or back at New Jerusalem.

Deep breath. Let's not go there. Not now, alone in a strange hotel room.

He felt his heartbeat speeding up nevertheless, the prickle of heat up the back of his neck. It's all right, he told himself. Calm down. Just calm down. Jim will be back any minute. You can handle this. This is not a problem.

He reached for the next piece of mail, an envelope with "Department of Religion" stamped above the inter-campus return-mail address.

Blair tore it open without giving himself time to think, and found a handwritten letter on Rainier letterhead. His eyes skipped down to the signature line.

Professor Levi, of course.

He read the letter the first time without comprehending a word. He laid it down on the desk, swallowed, and tried again.

It was an apology because his research assistant check was being held up. Her fault, Professor Levi explained ruefully, not the bursar's. In all the chaos, she'd forgotten to turn the paperwork in. She was being deluged with reporters and was sure Blair would understand. Anyway, he should be getting his check the first of next month for sure. Just let her know if there was any problem. By the way, perhaps he would be interested in co-authoring an article on his experiences? And lastly, she had thought he would like to have this.

Blair checked the envelope again. There was a square of newsprint he hadn't noticed the first time. He shook it out and unfolded it.

A photograph cut out of the newspaper. AP. Dateline Hawkins, Washington.

It was a picture of Jim. Blair could tell that much, at least. But there seemed to be some critical problem with the connection from Blair's visual perceptors to his brain. No matter how he stared at that photograph, he couldn't figure out what Jim was doing, far less why the picture would be in the paper.

He made himself think about this logically, forcing the pieces to fall into place. It had to have something to do with the siege, right? So those buildings behind Jim, blank, white geometric shapes, that had to be the New Jerusalem compound.

Of course. Of course that's what it was. Once he had pieced it together he recognized the background, but he still couldn't figure out what Jim was doing. His face was set, obviously unaware of the photographer. Probably taken with a telephoto, right?  But what the hell was he doing? He looked as though he had some sort of ungainly animal draped over his shoulders.

Oh.

Blair squeezed his eyes shut, opened them again.

What did you think it was, man? Should have read the caption to begin with. Explained it all right there.

Cascade Police Detective James Ellison exiting the New Jerusalem compound with Blair Sandburg thrown over his shoulders like a slaughtered deer.

Blair folded up the picture with the note from Professor Levi and tucked them both back into the envelope. Then he went and curled up on the bed nearest the window and lay there with his back to the door.

He didn't budge when he heard the door open at long last and smelled the warm scent of food. Instead, he closed his eyes, and hoped  Jim would think he was asleep.

***

Part 3

Jim didn't say anything. Blair listened to paper bags crinkling as Jim set their dinner down. His footsteps crossed the room. They stopped momentarily, then came the rest of the way to the bed. Blair felt his shoulders shrink a little, as if he were expecting a blow.

Jim shook a blanket out over him, then sat down on the side of the bed behind him. "Hungry?" Jim asked.

Okay, so much for pretending to be asleep. Like he could have expected to fool Jim in the first place. Blair opened his eyes, but otherwise didn't move. "Not really. Sorry."

"Nothing to be sorry about."

He expected Jim to get up and eat his own dinner, but Jim showed no inclination to leave. Instead, he settled back, swinging his feet up and resting his back against the headboard.

Blair could see the room behind him reflected in the dark window. The second bed nearer the door, the alcove that led to the bath. And Jim sitting calmly at his back, as if quite prepared to wait there all evening. "Your dinner's getting cold, man."

Jim's hand came down and rested  on Blair's shoulder. "Try to get some sleep. I'll be right here."

It's okay, Jim. That's what Blair meant to say. I'm perfectly okay.

He also meant to say: Eat your dinner before it gets cold. I'll just catch a little shut-eye. Tomorrow we'll take that walk in the park like I was thinking about, and if you want to talk about your mom, that would be fine. I'd love to hear about your family, Jim. Anything you feel like talking about, I'm here for you.

What emerged instead was a moan of grief.

Trying to stifle the sound, Blair curled into himself until his forehead was pressed to his knees. He was dimly aware of Jim's hands on him, trying to get him to straighten up, to sit up maybe, Blair didn't know, and it didn't matter. He couldn't release anything at all or he would lose everything. His eyes were shut and his arms were wrapped around his shins, trying to hold the pieces of himself together as he mourned for Clyde, and for the ATF agent whose name Blair didn't know, who had bled to death on the cracked sidewalk not ten yards away on the other side of the window.

But mostly, he grieved for that ragged, helpless animal Jim had found in the cellar under New Jerusalem and carried into the light of damnation. He wondered, miserably, if Jim really understood what Michael Luke had done when he let Blair go. Loosed on earth, loosed in heaven. Cast out and damned. Oh god, Jim you should have left me there.

He would never be the same person he was. Too much was broken, too much was lost.

He seemed to weep forever, but it couldn't have been all that long. He simply wasn't that strong. Eventually his arms relaxed their grip and his knees slipped down.

A warm hand touched his head. Blair relaxed a little, concentrating on that warmth. Jim didn't say anything, didn't try to pull Blair closer. Just smoothed his hand across Blair's head, and the gentle motion slowly drew more and more of Blair's attention. There was so little of himself left, but Jim was here for him anyway, and he couldn't push him away.

The bedspread under Blair's cheek was coarse, the pillow beneath it stiff foam that propped his head at an uncomfortable angle. But he didn't move, not wanting to jeopardize Jim's touch. Blair's legs felt heavy, but the rest of him seemed lighter than air, and he realized with a sense of dim astonishment that he was falling asleep. He struggled against it momentarily, but in the end, exhaustion won out. The bed felt as if it had begun to rock gently to and fro. Blair scooted back just the tiniest bit as sleep claimed him, just enough so he could feel Jim's leg against his back, a bulwark against the waves. He would close his eyes. Rest for just a few minutes and collect his thoughts.

***

He awoke hours later to a room that smelled strongly of cold garlic chicken, lit only by the flickering of a TV set with the sound turned down all the way. Blair rolled over with a groan and found Jim still sitting beside him, grinning down at him. "Sorry, Chief. Didn't mean to wake you."

"You didn't." Blair struggled to sit up. Jim eased an arm behind his shoulders and helped him.

"How you doing?"

"I'm just gonna brush my teeth and go to bed, I think."

"Okay."

Blair got to his feet, wobbling a little. He felt Jim's eyes on him, but Jim let him make it across the room by himself. He slid the bathroom door shut. Jim had unpacked his shaving kit for him and left it sitting on the side of the sink. Blair dug out the toothbrush and the tea-tree oil toothpaste that Jim gave him such a hard time about, and attacked his teeth with vigor. He'd had a bad taste in his mouth for days. It tasted like the hospital. Antiseptic. Chemical.

He leaned over and spat into the sink. Then squeezed more toothpaste onto the brush and started again. The third time it occurred to him that Jim was probably listening to this, and he made himself cut it out. He really wanted a shower, but he didn't think he had the energy for that tonight. Maybe in the morning.

He slipped his jeans off, then his flannel shirt, and the jersey under that, shivering when he was down to boxers and a tee. He splashed some water on his face and scrubbed it dry, then wadded his discarded clothes together in a pile and kicked them into the space between the commode and the shower stall. Then, thinking of Jim again with a smile, he picked them up again and carried them out of the bathroom.

The room was empty. Blair stopped dead, clutching the bundle of clothes to his chest, feeling wretchedly vulnerable in his underwear. The covers had been turned back on his bed, the television flipped off. The bedside lamp was shining.

But Jim wasn't here.

Come on, Sandburg, what is your problem? He just went down the hall to get some ice or something. He'll be back any second. Just any second now. And what's he going to think of you when he finds you like this?

That thought was enough to get Blair moving again. He pitched his bundle of clothes into the floor of the open closet and scooted to bed, curling up on his side facing the door this time, and pulling the covers well up over his shoulder. And waited for Jim.

Come on, man.

He couldn't bring himself to close his eyes. He was wound up so tight he nearly jumped out of his skin at the sound of a door slamming shut a floor or two above him. The walls were thick and did a pretty good job of muffling sound, but the way Blair felt, he thought he would have been happier in a Day's Inn with cardboard walls and all the sounds other people's lives buzzing right through them.

There was a rustle at the door. Blair's heart started to race.

Would you please just take it easy. It's only Jim sliding in the cardkey.

It didn't matter. The click of the lock was still more than he could bear. He sat up straight in bed, clutching the blankets to himself like a shield.

Jim, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry.

Blair didn't know if was the just the way he looked, or if Jim were actually picking up his accelerated heartbeat – it would be interesting to know – have to remember to ask him about it sometime – but Jim shut the door behind himself fast and crossed the room in a few long strides.

"Hey, Chief." His voice was so gentle. "It's just me."

"I know."

Jim sat down on the edge of the bed. "I was pitching the leftovers from dinner. I should have waited and told you what I was doing. I just wasn't thinking."

"Jim, it's fine. I'm fine."

"I didn't save you any. The sauce started to congeal once it got cold."

Blair made the face that was expected of him, and Jim grinned back. "We can call room service if you're hungry."

"I'm not."

"You gotta eat."

"I'll have a big breakfast, promise. But I'm kind of tired. I think I really just want to get some sleep."

Jim clamped his hand on Blair's knee through the covers and shook it gently. "Not going to get much sleep sitting up in bed."

"All right, look, I'm lying down," Blair said, without moving. Jim didn't move either. He was still smiling, but Blair looked at his face again, more closely this time, really seeing Jim maybe for the first time in days.

"Jim," he said softly, overwhelmed by what he found there. "Ah, man, Jim." He had no idea what to say. His hands were talking for him, making useless, helpless gestures, palms up, fingers spread wide. He silenced them by laying them on Jim's shoulders.  "Jim—" he started again, wanting so badly to help, and not having the faintest idea how. "Jim, your mother—"

But Jim said, "You know what I keep thinking about, Chief?"

Blair didn't trust himself to say anything, so he just shook his head cautiously.

"Hearing about the ATF raid on New Jerusalem the morning it happened. I was at the station. Simon and me, some of the guys. Angry and kind of sad, hearing that agents were down, but mostly just shaking our heads because the Feds had botched another one. And I had no idea you were in there." 

"Jim, I hadn't told you where I was going. There was no way you could have—"

"I didn't know until the Feds finally tracked down who you were, and someone got around to calling Simon." Jim shook his head. "This is a little hard for me, Chief. I'm having a little trouble working my way through this. It reminds me a little too damn much of not hearing the beeper go off in my locker."

"What?" Blair was lost. Then he realized what Jim was talking about. "Oh. Aw, Jim. You mean when I tried to call you. When Lash broke in. But Jim, come on, that was not your fault. That wasn't your fault, and neither was this. You know that. Come on."

Jim's smile tightened. His eyes were looking at a point somewhere over Blair's shoulder.

This wasn't right. Somehow, Blair wasn't doing it right here.

Then the world finally shifted. Not a lot, but it was enough.

There was no way to mend the broken planks, so maybe he should just stop trying. He'd never be the same Blair Sandburg he'd been before Michael Luke. Much less before David Lash.

Or even James Ellison.

Especially James Ellison.

Okay. So he was in freefall now with the ground nowhere in sight, but you know what, man? It's not the fall that kills you, it's that sudden stop at the end. So he should tell Jim the truth, not what the old Blair Sandburg would have assumed a man like Jim would need to hear after visiting his mother's grave.

Blair took a deep breath and prayed he wasn't screwing this up. He was lost; he had no right to offer absolution. But it turned out Jim needed it from him anyway. "Jim," he said at last. "It's all right. Everything is. Keeping my jacket and my stuff for me. Not knowing I was at New Jerusalem. Not getting me out faster. Everything. I understand, and it really is all right."

The big shoulders under Blair's hands slumped a little, and Jim looked at him, the gratitude in his eyes so naked that Blair trembled inside. For a moment he thought maybe he wasn't strong enough for this after all. But Jim's hand came up, patted his cheek, then slipped back to knot in the hair at the nape of Blair's neck, gently supporting him until he was sure.

"Let's go home in the morning," Jim said.

***

Part 4

"I don't understand it," Blair said fretfully. "They must have moved it or something. Maybe there's some warehouse space around back."

Jim followed a few steps behind, having to turn sideways to slip past the ranked sideboards, chests-of-drawers, mantles, and headboards. "Chief, I don't want to be a pessimist, but it's been a while. Maybe they sold it."

"No way." He looked over his shoulder at Jim, grinning, but there was something very serious in his eyes. "No, I'm sure they didn't. You know how sometimes you're just sure of something, you can't explain it, you just know?"

Sure do, Jim thought. "Did you ask the guy up front yet?"

"Not yet. Look, here's that mahogany plant stand we looked at before – see, Jim, I still think it would look great in front of the window with a big Boston fern on it."

"And I still can't see the sense of a plant stand that'll be ruined if you get a drop of water on it."

"Ahh—" Blair waved one hand dismissively at him and went back to his search, having to crawl over a vast leather ottoman that blocked the passage between a double rank of armoires. Jim heard him gasp a little when he straightened up again, and he tried to catch up.

"Easy, there, Sandburg."

"Come off it, Jim," he grumped without looking back this time. "Quit babying me. Man, I don't see that wardrobe anywhere though. It must be in back, do you think? Come on. Let's ask."

This time Jim was ready for him, and gave him a hand as he crawled over the ottoman. Blair scowled, but he didn't refuse the help.

"Hey," Blair said. "'Scuse me. Excuse me." He waved the clerk down from halfway across the crowded store, slipping around an oak sideboard and nearly tripping over a pair of huge brass andirons.

"Blair—" Jim cautioned fruitlessly, and was ignored.

The clerk was a smiling man in his sixties with a soft, gray ponytail hanging long down his back. He pushed his bifocals up on his nose and watched with amused interest as Blair described the pine wardrobe at his usual length and with something very near his old enthusiasm. Apparently, though, he was just enjoying the show, because he waited until Blair had finally run out of ways to describe the little pediment on the top and the great shelves and that bottom drawer and is it a wardrobe or an armoire, and what was the difference, anyway, and it wouldn't like, ruin it or anything if they took the doors off, would it? – before breaking the news.

"I know just the piece you're talking about. A real bargain, too. A group of college kids bought it for their house just a week, two weeks ago, maybe."

"What?"

"We've got some other nice pieces though. Not quite the bargain that one was, but nice as can be, round against the back wall there. You see? Under the chandeliers."

"Yeah," Blair said without looking back. "Great. I guess I really – right. Thanks anyway."

He stumbled out of the store and made it all the way to the sidewalk before collapsing as though his strings had been cut. He sat down hard on the curb, his shoulders hunched and his head in his hands.

Jim sat down beside him. After a moment he touched Blair's bowed head with the back of his hand so Blair would know he was there, then just waited for him. After a time Blair sniffled a little and wiped his nose with his sleeve.

"Here." Jim handed him a handkerchief.

"Thanks." Blair took it and just held it clutched tight in his hand. He couldn't look at Jim yet. "Sorry."

"Don't be."

"So they sold that stupid wardrobe. Big deal. We'll find something else, right?"

"That's right. There's no rush."

"No, I wanna go ahead and get this taken care of. I know you must be getting sick of all my stuff stacked up in the closet." He sat up straight with a little groan.

"Easy—"

"Jim." Blair turned to look at him. The cheekbones and chin were still a little too sharp, but the circles under his eyes were fading, and for the most part the spark was in them again. Not now, though.

"What is it?" Jim asked softly.

"Something I really need to tell you. About finding Lash's trophies, and the way I got so mad at you."

"Blair, you don't need to say anything. I'm the one who—"

"Jim, please. Did you know it was all I thought about the whole time I was in there? It made me half-crazy, going over and over it, trying to figure out why I freaked so bad, why I tried to hurt you so much."

Jim reached out and took one of Blair's hands in both of his own, but he let him keep talking.

"But now, you know, I think that wasn't such a bad thing. Not blowing up at you, I mean, but being so obsessed about it afterward. I mean, half-crazy means you're at least half sane too, right? Anyway, I finally figured it out. Keeping my stuff like you did – but not giving it to me when you knew I couldn't handle it yet – man, you were, it's like you were trying to take care of me, weren't you?"

"Didn't do a very good job of it, did I?" Jim said quietly.

"Don't say that. Just listen to me a minute. You were trying to take care of me – you were watching me, trying to figure me out, figuring out what was going on in my head – but don't you see? That's my job. I'm here to watch you, not the other way around."

Jim almost smiled a little. "Not sure I see the problem, Chief."

"It's the problem Clyde killed himself over."

Jim sat back, the smile gone fast. "I think you need to explain this to me."

"I just mean, getting too involved with your research subject. Losing your objectivity. It's such a tightrope, man, getting close enough to see what's going on, or at least trying to, without totally losing yourself in the process. I mean, sure, Clyde's an extreme case, but when I found the box in the closet and realized that you knew me probably better than I knew you – aw, Jim, I'm sorry, your mother was dying, and I didn't even know that."

"You didn't know because I hadn't told you."

"No. I knew something was up. But I was so wrapped up in being your partner, in being your – well, in wanting to be your friend – that I just thought it must have something to do with me."

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but what I'm hearing from you is that friendship was such a threat to your research that it scared the hell out of you. Is that about the size of it?"

"No! No, that's not it at all." Blair tried to tug his hand free from Jim's gentle grasp, but Jim refused to release him. "All right, yeah," Blair said at last. "Yeah, maybe it did. And I was trying so hard to keep the two separate that I couldn't manage either one. A bad anthropologist and a bad friend."

"That's not true."

"Yes, it is."

"No, it isn't. Sandburg, listen to me. If those people end up walking out of New Jerusalem alive one day it'll be because of you. Because the anthropologist in you had the training and the knowledge to know what was going on."

"No, it'll be  because they finally got someone out there who understands what the hell Luke's talking about, that's all."

Jim kept talking as though Blair hadn't interrupted. "And the only reason you and I are here right now is because of what you were able to tell Michael Luke. Crazy as that bastard is, he heard you when you told him our friendship was more important than either of our lives."

For a moment Blair looked as though he were going to start crying again. Instead he smiled. Tentatively at first, then when Jim grinned back at him, broadly as well. "Guess I could have asked you what you thought about that first, huh?"

"No need, Chief. You had it right."

Blair's eyes widened. For a split second he looked absolutely terrified. But then he surged forward, wrapping his arms around Jim with clumsy strength, and held on as tight as he had in the cellar under New Jerusalem.

He was smiling when he finally let Jim go, a little abashed, maybe, but his face shining with pride.

Jim patted his knee and started to get up.  "So you up to hitting another antique store this afternoon or you want to call it a day?"

Blair looked up at him, making no move yet to get up off the curb. "Well, if you really don't mind all that stuff just piled up in the closet for a little while longer, I think I'd like to just go home."

  

TONIGHT ON FRONTLINE: One hundred and fifteen days after the botched ATF raid that resulted in the death of two agents and a civilian, the siege at New Jerusalem finally ended this morning when Michael Luke left the compound with the last of his followers and surrendered to agents on federal weapons charges.

FRONTLINE has learned that much of the credit for the peaceful resolution of the siege goes to Special Agent-in-Charge Dennis Gregory, who reportedly resisted pressure from Washington to take more forceful measures in  the first weeks of the siege. "If we'd gone in there with tear gas we'd have had another Waco on our hands," Gregory explained at this afternoon's press conference. "And I just wasn't willing to do that. Not with the lives of all those children on the line."

End.

Chapter headings are all from Emily Dickinson's I felt a funeral in my brain.

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