by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

Chapter 19



They compromised. Blair bundled himself up in Jim's long leather coat, and Jim finally put his sweater back on. It was too cold for anyone to be going around bare-chested tonight, even the Sentinel of the Great City. Blair wished there was some way for him to clean and bandage the long cut on Jim's side. It didn't seem to be bleeding too badly, but it was hurting Jim. He heard Jim's gasp when he raised his arms to pull his sweater on. Or maybe it was his ribs, aching from where Seth, that son of a bitch, had kicked him.

"It's all right, Sandburg," Jim said gruffly, and blocked Blair's hands when Blair tried to lift the sweater to check. At the same time, Jim turned his hands and held Blair's fingers for a moment. "I'm all right."

Blair knew Jim wasn't all right, though. He could see again and he could hear, but he wasn't all right, not by a long shot. There was a tremor in Jim's hands that matched the one in his voice. He moved his head with the self-conscious care of a man just getting over a migraine, astounded by the fragile lack of pain. "OK," Blair said anyway, since there was no point in arguing about it, and when Jim freed his hands, he reached up and touched Jim's temple with two fingertips, rubbing gently for a moment before dropping his hand. "But you have to let me know the second your senses start acting up again. You promise?"

"I'm all right," Jim said again doggedly. "It was just shock. You told me that yourself."

There were harsh lights out on the street by now, stark white, bleeding past the jagged, broken shapes that used to be buildings. It was more difficult to see now than when there had been no lights at all. The shadows were impenetrably dark, and the light blinded Blair when he looked toward it. He shielded his eyes and told Jim, "Yeah, I know. A big shock, so it might still be messing with you. That's why I wanna know the minute anything starts to go wonky."

"You'll be the first to know," Jim said, humoring him. Blair didn't mind. That was the sound of Jim coming back to him. He reached out and grabbed the sleeve of Jim's sweater.

"Something else. You probably better keep an eye on me, too. Seth made me drink like a whole bottle of wine, and it's probably still affecting my judgment." Blair suddenly realized what he sounded like. "Right, the guy made me drink a bottle of wine. Who's going to believe that? Who's gonna believe any of this?"

Jim covered Blair's hand on his sleeve. "I believe you," he said.

Blair stumbled on, wanting to explain anyway. He couldn't start holding things back, not from Jim. And if he couldn't tell Jim now, when would he ever have the nerve again? "He said if I didn't drink it - aw, man, Jim, he's such a sick son of a bitch. Seth Lamb. He always sits in the front row in class." Blair broke off. What a stupid thing to be complaining about, huddled naked in Jim's leather overcoat, surrounded by the rubble of an earthquake. "It doesn't matter. He's dead. It doesn't matter where he sat." Blair could feel his eyes burning. The glare of the emergency lights hurt, and he shut his eyes and turned his face away. Car alarms were still whooping all around them, alarm sirens screaming - like there's anyone left who hasn't figured out there's a problem? - and the racket felt like it was piercing his eardrums. Jim must be going nuts.

"Jim," he said softly, concerned. "I know this is bad, but if you can just --"

He didn't finish, because Jim laid two fingers on his lower lip, gently and unerringly finding the small wound. "Your lip's cut," he said. "Was that the wine bottle?"

"Yeah," Blair said, his voice dropping so low it hurt the back of his throat. "It wasn't very good wine."

Jim snorted, not quite a laugh, and he patted Blair's face. "First things first, all right?"

"Yeah, I know. All right."

"If we wait for someone to find us, I'm afraid we'll be sitting out here all night."

Blair swallowed and nodded. "You're probably right."

"Can you walk?"

"I think so." It wasn't really a lie. He didn't want to hang around out here all night either.

"I'm thinking we ought to be able to get over the back wall and out to the alley. You game?"

"I'm there." Blair grasped Jim's forearms tightly. "Just help me up."

Jim didn't try to stand yet. "Hang on. You can't walk around here barefoot. There's broken glass and god knows what else on the ground. Hold on for me just a minute, and I'll find you some shoes."

"Where do you think we are," Blair protested, "Macy's shoe department? Where are you planning on getting a pair of shoes out here?" He realized what Jim intended as soon as the words were out of his mouth. "No," he said then. "Jim, no, I can't. I can't."

"You'd rather cut the bottoms of your feet to shreds? They're gone, Sandburg. They don't need their shoes anymore. You do."

Blair didn't let go of Jim's arms. "I know," he whispered. "But I just can't."

"A little late in the game to get squeamish," Jim complained.

"I know," Blair said again. He was trying so hard not to cry he felt as though the back of his throat was being torn to shreds. If he had to put the shoes of one of his dead tormentors on his feet - well, that would be it. It wasn't rational, Jim was perfectly right about that, but it didn't matter. The path of sanity was too narrow, and the surrounding countryside too savage. Wild rivers rushed away into bottomless chasms, steam frothing up, hiding the sheer cliff faces that went towering away overhead. He couldn't risk a step off his narrow track through the wilderness. He wanted to try to explain it to Jim calmly and sensibly, but all he managed to say was, "Please." He hated himself for the way he sounded, abject and pleading, as though he were still begging his former captors for mercy, but he couldn't seem to stop himself. "Please, Jim. Don't make me do this."

Jim got very still. Blair tried to see his face, but the light was behind Jim, haloing him in brilliance, and Blair couldn't even make out his eyes. "Jim," he whispered miserably, and Jim pulled himself free of Blair's desperate grasp, but only so he could put both hands on Blair's shoulders. Blair felt the heat and weight of his palms through the leather of the coat. The night was so loud. Static from police radios crackled, white noise filling up all the places where silence might have hidden, and somewhere not very far away, maybe just on the other side of the garden wall, a woman giggled drunkenly.

"No," Jim said, and his voice was ragged and harsh. "No, Sandburg, you don't talk to me that way. Not ever." His voice was so rough he sounded angry, but Blair knew better, even before Jim's arms went around his shoulders. Jim's hands knotted into hard fists at Blair's back, and Blair held himself rigid in Jim's embrace. He would not lose it now, not after so much, not when Jim was the one who was really hurt. He dropped his head onto Jim's shoulder and put his arms around him, careful of his hurting ribs, as Jim told him in a low voice that carried clearly through the chaos of the night, "Because if you want anything, Chief, you just tell me, and that's the way we'll do it. Just tell me. That's all you ever have to do."

Blair stopped trying to hold everything locked inside, and abruptly discovered there was nothing there he had to keep secret anyway. He laughed a little, even though it didn't come out quite right, not the way his eyes were streaming. "Sure, you say that now," he whispered. "I think I wanna see it in writing all the same."

Jim tightened his embrace gently, opening his clenched fists and spreading his hands over Blair's back, and Blair felt rather than heard Jim draw breath as raggedly as a man fighting tears. "Remind me when we get home," he growled.

"I will," Blair said, finally relaxing into Jim's embrace, awkward as it was with Jim half-crouching beside him on the ground.

"Let's see if you can stand up first." Jim patted Blair's back and then released him, tapping his knuckles gently against the side of Blair's head. Blair could hear the smile from Jim that he couldn't see. "Then you can worry about getting anything in writing."

"I knew it," Blair said. He scrubbed the back of his hand across his face, then took Jim's outstretched hands, bracing himself. "Trying to weasel your way out already."

As Jim stood, Blair straightened his knees, forcing himself up. Jim took most of his weight, and when he was finally upright, swaying a little, lightheaded from the exertion, he chuckled in triumph.

"Careful," Jim cautioned. "It's not a race."

"Does this look like running to you?" He walked his hands up Jim's forearms, clutching hard, and then tried to take a step. The spike of pain in his ankle was a brutal surprise. He shouted and would have fallen save for Jim's support.

"Careful," Jim snapped, his voice sharp with concern. He stepped around to Blair's side, tucking Blair's arm around his back, his own arm under Blair's shoulders. "Can you put any weight on that ankle at all?"

"I think so," Blair said, mostly because he couldn't stand the helplessness of admitting he probably couldn't. He tightened his grip around Jim's waist and took a dragging step. He was going to say something triumphant about how well he was doing, but he heard Jim hiss through clenched teeth, and stopped dead. "This isn't working," Blair said at once. "I'm hurting you." He let go his grip around Jim's waist, and stood balanced stork-like on one foot. His hurt ankle throbbed, dull and insistent. "We're not going to get anywhere like this."

"It'll work," Jim announced. He kept his arm around Blair's back, supporting him so firmly Blair suspected he would end up with bruises in the shape of Jim's fingers under his arm. "We just need to take it one step at a time. Or maybe," Jim went on more slowly, as if the idea had just occurred to him and he didn't much like it, "Maybe it would make more sense for you to wait here. I could be back with help in a few minutes."

Blair swallowed. He wasn't going to blurt out his panic this time, but there was just no way in hell he was going to let Jim leave him behind. "No," he said quietly. "That's not gonna work for me. Not for either one of us. What happens if your senses cut out on you again?"

Under normal circumstances that wasn't an argument that would make much of an impression on Jim. Jim didn't fight him on it now though. "Whenever you're ready," was all he said.

Blair took a deep breath and put his arm back around Jim's waist. He would walk out of here. He could walk out of here; it was just a question of mind over matter. For some reason that wasn't a very encouraging thought. He blinked against the broken, harsh white light out on the street, and imagined he saw a dark cityscape, spires that glowed with an impossible black radiance shivering before a starless sky. He opened his eyes fast. "Jim," he said at the same time Jim said, "Brace yourself, Chief, here it comes."

He dragged Blair into his arms, heedless of Blair's yelp of surprise, and then the whole world shifted, the ground under Blair's feet rising, then shuddering from side to side in hard, sudden jolts. Jim stood firm, feet planted wide apart, only a sudden quickness in his breath betraying how badly the aftershock spooked him too. In the distance voices rose in panic. Something very big fell with a splintering crash, and a man's voice rang out, terrified, drunk, and laughing as he yelled, "Holy shit!"

"Yeah, no kidding," Blair whispered, huddling in Jim's arms. The earth was quiet again. The shaking couldn't have lasted more than a few seconds, but it felt like a lifetime. He couldn't make himself unwrap his arms from around Jim's back. "Is that what it was like before?"

He felt Jim nodding. "Pretty much. More violent, and it went on longer the first time. You don't remember?"

"No." Blair opened his eyes and looked over Jim's shoulder. "Not exactly. It's like I wasn't all there."

Got THAT right, don't you, Sandburg? said an ugly, terrified voice deep, deep inside his mind. "Jim, please," he burst out, before he could stop himself. "Let's just go home."

"That's the plan," Jim said gently. "As soon as you're ready."

A goal, Blair thought, mentally shaking himself. That's what he needed here. A place he wanted to get to. He made himself skip over everything else - how long it was going to take to walk down the alley to the main street, how long it would take to get home if the destruction were as wide-spread as he feared, how in the world Jim intended to get him over the garden wall in the first place, and only thought about being at home in the loft. Taking a shower, better yet. Scrubbing this filth from his body. Or a long bath, maybe, since he couldn't imagine standing up for any length of time. He could soak in the tub for hours, draining the water when it started to cool and filling it up again. He'd sit in there all night if he wanted to.

Keeping that vision firmly in mind, he managed to let Jim go. "I'm ready." He rested his hand on Jim's shoulder for balance as Jim moved to his side, and then tucked his arm around Jim's waist, feeling the comfortable weight of Jim's arm at his back. "Let's get out of here."

"Just watch your step," Jim said. Blair looked down obediently, and all he could see were streaks of white light and long black shadows. The shadows of him and Jim looked like Giacometti figures moving clumsily over the ragged ground. Three Legged Race with Sentinel, Blair thought to himself with a secret grin. One of the sculptor's lesser known works. Another step, another. He swung his bad leg forward with Jim's stride, and then when he had to step with his left foot, he leaned hard against Jim, allowing Jim to take his weight as he brought his other foot forward. Slow and not particularly steady, but Jim was infinitely patient.

Blair could feel broken paving stones under his feet, the loamy, cold dirt, and the thick softness of unmown grass. He hoped the stones with the symbols carved on them had been broken into a million pieces. Not a very scholarly attitude, but that was just too damned bad.

Jim guided them sideways across the garden to the far back corner. The back wall had fallen outward, leaving a narrow triangular gap. Jim could probably step sideways right through it. Blair was less sanguine about his own chances. "I'll go through first," Jim said. "Then I can reach back and help you over."

Leaving him alone in the garden, Blair thought, though he didn't say it out loud. It wasn't like Jim was really leaving him. He'd just be on the other side of the wall, and only for a moment or two. Blair could do this. He put his free hand out, intending to balance himself against the wall, but Jim stopped him. "Careful. I don't think it's a good idea to put any weight on that wall."

"Oh." Blair dropped his hand. "Yeah. Good point." He couldn't help feeling wretchedly vulnerable, though, standing there half naked, balanced on one leg, the bodies of his tormenters behind him in the shadows.

"Ready?" Jim asked.

"Ready," Blair lied as gamely as he could, and Jim stepped through the gap in the wall. For just a moment he moved to the side, beyond Blair's immediate view. An irrational, irresistible panic welled up, and Blair tried to tried to shuffle closer to the gap in the wall. The pain in his ankle made him groan, and immediately Jim was back, leaning in, careful not to touch either of the teetering stone walls. "Did you hear that?" he demanded.

There was an edge in Jim's hoarse voice Blair hadn't noticed before. "I'm sorry," Blair said quickly, reaching for Jim's outstretched hand. "That was just me."

"No, not you," Jim interrupted, almost angry. "That other sound."

Which didn't narrow it down all that much. "Jim, there are sirens and shit all over the place. What sound do you mean?"

Jim looked at him. The emergency lights shone full on his face, stark, deadly white. His pupils were shrunk to pinpoints. "Jim," Blair whispered. He managed to grab the sleeves of Jim's sweater and hold on tight. Jim looked like a man ready to bolt right out of his skin. "Is it something with your senses? Another aftershock coming? Tell me what's going on. C'mon, I can't do anything if you won't tell me what's wrong."

Jim's head was cocked, as though he were listening intently for something. From the expression on his face, Blair would have guessed it was a sound Jim did not want to hear. Almost against his will, Blair glanced back over his shoulder, toward the collapsed house and dead students. The lights blinded him and he couldn't see a damned thing. "Please Jim," he said, turning back, trying to make Jim hear him instead. "I need you to help me get out of here. Then we can figure out what's going on."

Jim shook himself a little. His eyes seemed to clear. "You're right," he said calmly. "We don't want to be around this wall when the next aftershock hits. Just step through like I did, your bad ankle first. I've got you."

"Yeah," Blair said, relieved. "OK, I'm coming." Jim's arms were rigid, locked and immovable. Hanging on tightly, Blair turned sideways and stepped through. For a moment while he straddled the broken wall, Jim was supporting almost all of his weight. He felt suspended and helpless. If there were another aftershock right now, that would be all she wrote. With a grunt, Blair pushed himself over, and then the terrible old house and its evil garden were behind him. "Oh, man," he wheezed, clutching Jim's upper arms through his sweater, dropping his head to rest against Jim's chest. "Oh MAN."

"Don't get too comfortable," Jim said, but he stroked the back of Blair's head all the same. "We're not home yet."

Blair raised his head carefully. He was dizzy and cold, his fingers and toes felt heavier than lead, and his stomach was roiling sickly. "Jim," he said, having to shape his words carefully. "What did you hear?"

Jim looked down at him. Blair was balancing himself by hanging onto Jim's elbow, and Jim reached up with his free hand and touched the side of Blair's face. The broken wall blocked most of the glaring emergency lights, and Blair could see Jim's expression clearly. He looked as white faced and fragile as Blair had known he would be.

"It's been a hell of a night," Jim said, his voice hardly above a whisper. Blair couldn't disagree with the sentiment but it didn't come close to answering his question. He started to ask again, but then Jim's head came up sharply. "Hey!" Jim shouted, raising his hand and gesturing. "I've got a wounded man here. We need help."

Blair turned, Jim slipping his arm under Blair's shoulder to help him. Coming up the alley toward them, illuminated in fits and starts by the emergency lights, was a small knot of people, three or four at the most. One of their number held a flashlight whose beam skittered along the pavement in front of them.

"OK!" a young voice yelled back. "OK, just hang on. We're coming." The flashlight swung up, finding them in the darkness of the alley, and lightheaded or not, Blair suddenly realized what he looked like. Hoping to god none of their erstwhile rescuers had ever had an anthro class, he turned away from the light and tried to button up Jim's coat. His fingers were clumsy, and Jim said, "Steady," and buttoned the coat himself. By then the others had reached them, and Blair simply tried to shut down the part of his brain that worried about what he looked like and what they must think.

It wasn't easy when the bulky dark shape holding the flashlight gave a low whistle of awe and let the flashlight play up to Blair's face. "Dude," he said. "What happened to you?"

"He's got a sprained ankle," Jim said. "He can't walk. If one of you get on his other side, I think we can make it to the street."

"Oh, hey, yeah, no prob." The voice with the flashlight handed the light to one of his friends and wrapped Blair's arm around his neck without hesitation. Jim took his other arm. "Ready, Chief?"

"Right, right, let's go," Blair muttered. He would get to that long soak in the tub a little bit faster, that's all this meant. Personal mortification didn't matter.

The strain on his upper arms made his sore shoulders ache. The pavement was buckled and cracked, littered with gravel, and Jim said, "Be careful. Watch out for broken glass."

"Yeah, I see," said the kid on Blair's other side. His breath reeked of beer.

One of his friends called from behind, "Do even you believe this? How big a quake do you think it was?"

A woman's voice said, "Have any of you heard from anyone on campus? My room mate was at a recital at Hembree Hall, and that place is only like a million years old. I bet you anything it fell. I bet you anything." Her voice rose, wavering, and broke.

She was right. It was a terrifying thought. Half the Rainier campus was unreinforced masonry and stonework; very scenic, and about as stable as a house of cards. How much of the campus was left? Blair had a sudden memory of he and Jim watching poor Eddie scarf a hamburger, telling them that garbled story about Rainier as a nexus for catastrophe. He remembered Susan's insistence he had the ability to see this place as it really was.

Well, obviously this proved she had been wrong. In his worst nightmares, he had never envisioned anything like this.

"I'm sure she's all right, Angie," said the kid who was helping Blair, his voice unexpectedly gentle. "Just try not to worry about it until we can find her."

They kept talking, asking Jim about the quake and what was happening, and Blair felt a tinge of amused pride, seeing how Jim was recognized as an authority figure without ever identifying himself - or even being seen in decent light for that matter, so it couldn't have been the hair. Eventually, though, Blair began having trouble following the conversation. He was sick and exhausted and of all the stupid things, ravenously hungry. He seriously doubted whether he'd be able to keep anything down if he actually tried to eat.

"Was it my fault?" he asked Jim suddenly. He was getting tired of holding his hurt ankle up, swinging it back and forth as they half-carried him along. He felt like the pendulum on a gigantic human clock. One that probably kept pretty shitty time.

"Was what your fault?" Jim said.

"You know." It was such an effort to put it into words. He wanted to just curl up somewhere and go to sleep. Even the bath could wait until later. "The earthquake. When I laughed, I saw the towers moving."

"Oh, whoa, did he get hit on the head too?"

"Take it easy, Chief," Jim said softly. "You're a hell of a guy, but not even you can make the earth move."

Blair laughed a little because he didn't want Jim to worry. "You so sure about that, man? Not like you ever gave me a chance."

"Yeah," Jim said, his tone warm with amused affection, "I think he got hit on the head too."

Blair wanted to whap him, but both his arms were captive. His underarms were as sore as his ankle. "How much longer?" he asked quietly, wishing there weren't an audience for everything he said to Jim.

"Not much further. You're doing great."

"I'm just hanging here," Blair muttered.

"I don't believe it," said the second girl. "Is that Mr. Sandburg?"

Oh, of course, Blair thought bleakly. Dumb to have hoped for even a moment that he might have gotten out of this unrecognized. He was trying to think of a plausible denial when he realized the ground under his feet had changed. The pavement was smoother and the sounds of catastrophe were all louder. The ball of his foot was scraped half raw, and now that the garden was far behind him, Jim's idea about the shoes sounded a lot better. How long had they been walking anyway? He raised his head to ask Jim, and the light was everywhere.

"Aw, man, Jim," he complained, turning his face away. He took one more step, and that was it. He just couldn't go any farther. His knees buckled, but he couldn't fall. The strain across his shoulders was more than he could bear. Everything was more than he could bear. He heard the helicopter overhead, the search light strobing across them all. So many voices, so many sounds. His face was painted with ashes and blood, and Jim must be going crazy in this madness.

"Jim," he said, trying to be calm, but it came out as a sob or a laugh all the same, "I really think it's time to go home."

"Easy," Jim said, and to Blair's unspeakable relief, Jim unhooked Blair's arm from around his neck. Someone supported his back as he was lowered with great gentleness to the sidewalk. Blair blinked, risking a glance up, and found Joel Taggart bending over him.

"Joel?" he whispered.

"Jim's right," Joel said, and he sounded like he was crying. Blair raised his hand to touch Joel's face, but Joel caught his hand and folded it back down over his chest. "Just rest easy. I'll get help."

Joel stumbled to his feet and out of Blair's line of vision. Blair rolled his head to the side and found Jim beside him. After another moment he realized it was Jim's hand cushioning his head from the hard concrete. He needed to talk to Jim, make sure this thing with his senses was just temporary, that he was all right. Blair blinked, trying to concentrate, and finally managed to ask, "You OK?"

He couldn't see if Jim smiled, but he felt Jim's hand on his face. "I'm OK," Jim said.


Chapter 20
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