Unsleeping

by Martha Taylor, soulcake[at]bellsouth.net

Chapter 20

 

 
 
 
 
 

Jim knew better than to think an answer like that would hold Blair for long, but it seemed to ease Blair's mind for the moment. He looked searchingly up into Jim's face, still clutching Jim's free hand, then nodded and closed his eyes. His grip tightened fiercely, then relaxed, but he didn't let go.

Dogs were howling all over the city, long and mournful, and with every new siren, their howls redoubled. A news crew was interviewing a group of sorority girls near by, the girls' competing voices rising higher and higher until one of them shrieked, "I thought it was the end of the world!" with such shrill vehemence that everyone around her shut up.  At that, Blair smiled faintly without opening his eyes. His head rolled to the side, his hair soft against Jim's palm. Jim lifted his head an inch or two to free the few strands of Blair's hair caught against the back of his hand and the sidewalk, and Blair's eyes blinked open. "Jim," he whispered.

"Right here. Joel's gone to get help."

"I remember." Blair's cheek touched the inside of Jim's forearm, and his face felt too warm. There were probably bruises Jim couldn't see under the smeared dirt and blood. A second helicopter had joined the first one overhead.  Both of them were flying low, searchlights strafing the shattered street.  "You need to be careful, man," Blair said seriously. "Don' let the noise and lights 'n everything sneak up on you."

"I'm all right." Seeing a faint frown of concern on Blair's face, Jim amended, "I'm being careful."

"OK." Blair nodded, satisfied, just as Jim sensed the beginnings of another aftershock. He could smell it, the heat and stench of compressed earth, and he could feel it tingling on his skin as well, the electrostatic charge from stones grinding together.

"Here we go again," he muttered. He released Blair's hand and slid his arm behind Blair's shoulders in the same fluid movement. Blair gasped, almost laughing, and clutched the sleeves of Jim's sweater as the ground began to pitch and yaw.

The howling dogs fell eerily quiet as the earth shook, but people were screaming all around them.  Some guy sounded like he had lost it, shrieking himself hoarse behind Jim, while his friends yelled in vain, "Take it easy!" Buildings groaned, and bricks and roofing tiles crashed down. Jim tightened his arm around Blair's shoulders and tucked Blair's head to his chest, trying to shield him from the debris.

"Oh man," Blair complained, his voice hot against Jim's neck as the ground continued to roll. "Enough, already."

A little gray cat darted across the sidewalk near Jim and disappeared into the darkness on the other side of the street.  Jim knew how fruitless her search for safety was. Even after the shaking stopped, the other sounds would remain.  The ones that were miles away and almost infinitely quiet, but Jim was listening to them all the same, even past the roar of half a city falling into ruin. Something of Blair clung to those distant sounds as it had from the first, bright as a gold ribbon wound through the locks of a corpse long dead.  Maybe more like a noose than a ribbon, because it pulled tighter and tighter the more Jim tried to shake himself free.

He clutched Blair as the shaking finally came to an end with one last, hiccuping shudder. The night screamed around him, and Blair was holding on tight as well, saying, "Too much, it's just getting to be a little too much, here," and laughing like a man who was trying not to weep.

"Hey," Jim whispered, startled by the roughness in his own voice. He loosened his grip enough to stroke the back of Blair's head, his hand trembling. "Stay with me, Sandburg. Don't let it go now."

Blair nodded against his chest, taking gulping breaths. "Wha's going on, Jim?" He straightened a little, pushing his arms against Jim's chest and raising his head to look into Jim's eyes. "Something's wrong," he announced, seeming to find nothing obvious in that statement. "Is it your senses?" He touched Jim's face, fingers against Jim's temple. "The aftershocks? Do you need to dial it down?"

The last aftershock had started all the car alarms whooping again.  The night air smelled like gas, raw sewer and beer, and the newscaster interviewing the sorority girls sounded as though he was trying in vain to wrap it up.  Jim had lost track of the number of helicopters circling above. Blair was stuttering with cold and shock and nerves, but he somehow kept his hand from trembling as he laid his palm against Jim's cheek. "I know it's a lot bigger than anything we ever tried to get you ready for." His voice was quiet, trusting Jim to hear him. "But I'm right here, Jim. I can help, I know I can." His eyes were wide and imploring, and his body shook in Jim's arms. He cradled the back of Jim's head with his hand. "Tell me."

It seemed monstrously selfish to demand help from Blair while his friend clung to him hurting, in shock, blood from his untreated wounds still wet on his arm. Jim couldn't resist that voice, though. He'd never been able to. And perhaps Blair really could banish those sounds from the hinterlands of sanity. "It's my senses," Jim began quietly, uncertainly, in the midst of the chaos all around them, sirens and voices and lights, all the sounds and smells of a city cracked open wide. "It has to be."

A stark white light suddenly washed across Blair's face. Blair winced in pain and turned his head, squeezing his eyes shut. The hands that had been touching Jim's head in careful encouragement slipped down and grabbed at Jim's sweater violently. "Jim," he moaned, "Not now,"

Another camera crew.  It seemed as though there were more newspeople than emergency personnel out on the street. In the impenetrable blackness behind the cruel white light, a voice Jim recognized said, "It's beautiful, beautiful. Blair -- it is Blair Sandburg, isn't it? -- if you could put your head on Jim's chest like before, and Jim I need you to sort of touch his hair like you were doing a moment ago for José to get his shot."

"But he hasn't got any pants on," complained another voice.

"We're covering a natural disaster," Wendy Hawthorne chirped. "Naked is good! Naked wins Pulitzers!"

"Oh my god," Blair whispered, his face turned away from the light. "Let me have your gun, Jim. Please, I know how to use it."

"I've got a wounded man here," Jim growled. Blair was right. A shame he didn't have his gun anymore. "Get that camera away from us."

Wendy half-knelt before the light, extending the microphone. Jim couldn't see her face in the glare behind her, but he could imagine it all too well. A carrion crow with long blonde hair and pretty eyes. During their one, disastrous date, he hadn't been able to stop thinking about the way those lovely eyes had battened on suffering as she interviewed his wounded men after the bank explosion.

"I'm talking to Detective James Ellison of the Cascade Police Department in the aftermath of the terrible Rainier quake. The injured man he's assisting is Blair Sandburg, a graduate student here at Rainier. Detective, can you give us your impression of what happened here tonight?"

"You still don't have a shred of decency, do you?" Jim tightened his arms around Blair's shoulders, keeping Blair's head tucked to his chest. "Get that mike the hell out of my face."

Wendy didn't miss a beat. "Mr. Sandburg, it looks like the nightlife on a university campus has gotten a lot more interesting since my school days. Just what were you doing on fraternity row on a Friday night wearing these --" Her hand darted out and grabbed Blair's outstretched ankle. The buckles on the leather shackle gleamed in the camera light. "-- and not much else?"

"Jesus, Wendy," her own cameraman complained. The light swung away, and Blair clutched at Jim with desperate urgency. "Let it go, man," he whispered intently. "It's not worth it. It's not worth it."

Jim wondered distantly, past the throbbing heat of rage thundering between his temples, just what it was Blair thought he might do. He didn't have his gun, and he couldn't let go of Blair to take a swing anyway.

Then Joel was back, looking like an avenging angel by the cameraman's light. He grabbed Wendy by the scruff of the neck and yanked her to her feet. "You're interfering with the operation of emergency personnel," he barked, dragging her back. "Get out of the way or you're going to jail."

"You have no right!" Wendy shouted, aggrieved and self righteous. "This isn't Azerbaijan, detective! You can't get away with this."

Blair was laughing in short, painful sobs, his head pressed against Jim's chest. "This is some crazy bad dream, right?" he whispered after a breathy gasp. "Please, man, this is too ridiculous to be anything but a bad dream."

"Give me a reason," Joel was saying, blocking Wendy with his body. His voice was low and dangerous. "Just give me a reason."

Another voice, Wendy's cameraman, said, "I'm not spending the night in jail for you, Wendy," and the violent white light swung away into the mad night along with Wendy's voice, rising and mingling with all the other sounds.

"I'm sorry, Jim." Joel was looming over them, his bulk a comforting shadow. "She never would have got near you guys if I'd seen her coming."

"I'm all right," Blair said. His arms were still wrapped very tightly around Jim. "We're all right."

"I've got bad news," Joel went on, crouching down beside them. "I can't get you an ambulance, Blair. There's not a free one between here and Tacoma."

"No ambulance," Blair said quietly and firmly. "I don't need an ambulance."  He raised his head and looked at Joel.  "Joel," he said, a funny tone in his voice, "What have you got in your pocket?"

Joel smiled a little ruefully.  He reached into the large patch pocket on the outside of his coat and drew out a shivering bundle of fur with a pink nose and shiny black eyes.  The little creature practically fit in the palm of his big hand. "I think it's a chihuahua," he said.  "I found her wandering around in the street after the first quake, and I didn't want her to get stepped on."  He cradled the dog against his chest, and she licked the tip of his forefinger.

"Her name's Bitsy," Blair said.  "She's gonna need a good home now, I think."

Joel stroked the top of the dog's tiny skull thoughtfully with the side of his finger before slipping it, unresisting, back into his pocket. Its short nose poked out into the night air for a moment, then disappeared.  Joel's pocket bulged and shifted as the dog settled itself, apparently perfectly at home.

"What's the ER situation?" Jim asked, though he suspected he already knew.

Joel pressed his lips tightly together. "You're looking at a long night."

"I don't wanna go to the emergency room," Blair announced. His voice got softer. "Please, Jim, you said we could just go home."

Jim looked at Taggart, who shrugged his shoulders, palms up. "Disaster triage protocols are in effect," he said.

"Oh, god," Blair whispered, trembling. "How bad was it?"

"We've got some casualties." Joel put his hand on Blair's shoulder. "I don't think anyone's got any final numbers yet. Jim," he continued, "He probably has a point about going home. It's gonna be tomorrow at the earliest before anyone can see him. Unless --" Joel broke off, his guileless face miserable. "Jim, Blair," he tried again, his voice breaking, "Unless there's physical evidence we'd lose by waiting."

It took Blair a moment to get it, but Jim knew the instant he did, because he went rigid in Jim's arms. "No," he said. "No, I don't need a rape kit. They didn't hurt me." He gasped, neither laughing nor crying. "Besides, they're all dead now."

Jim nodded to Joel in confirmation, and saw Joel's kind face go hard with cold satisfaction.

Blair's head fell against his chest, tension and alertness bleeding away from him, leaving only a warm, exhausted weight heavy in Jim's arms. "So can we please go home? Come on, Jim, you promised."

***

The seats were wrong. That was the first thing Blair noticed when he woke up. He had the muzzy idea they were going on a camping trip, driving through the night in order to be at the trail head by the crack of dawn. It was so dark, Jim's headlights looked like the only light in the whole world. Probably be a sky full of stars out there. They should stop somewhere before the sun came up, have a cup of coffee from the thermos, spend a little time just looking up at the sky. That was something he and Jim had in common. After you'd spent nights in the open air in foreign lands watching alien stars wheel overhead, the stars of home always looked like an old friend. Feeling sentimental and content, Blair reached out for Jim beside him, and Jim took his hand and held it, saying, "You doing OK? Just a little while longer now."

"Yeah," Blair said, even though the seats were wrong, fuzzy and plush under his bare butt. (And there was something a little odd about that, too, wasn't there?) Blair closed his eyes for a long moment, then looked at the dash in front of him, felt the soft headrest behind him, and said sadly, "This is Joel's Le Sabre."

Jim chuckled quietly. "I think Taggart's got a soft spot for you."

The sound of Jim's soft laughter made Blair smile too. "Letting you drive his car, you mean? Yeah, I guess he must." Blair closed his eyes again. He was so tired. "Are we going home?" He was still holding on to Jim's hand, childish as it was.

"Trying to get us there." Jim's voice was level and easy, but Blair could hear the undertone there.

"How bad is it, really?" he had to ask.

"I don't know," Jim said soberly. "A lot of buildings came down, and a lot of people got hurt. They're saying Rainier was at the epicenter."

"Oh my god," Blair whispered. It wasn't a complete surprise, but having his suspicions confirmed somehow made it even worse. The numbness in his heart became an ache. "I can't believe it," he said, although he did. "That place is practically my whole life."

Jim squeezed his hand. "I know," he said. "I'm sorry."

Jim's sympathy made him want to weep. He took a long shuddering breath, trying to hold it all together. Jim, at least, was going to be all right. That's all he needed to focus on right now, when there was nothing else he could do. No use worrying about the friends who might be hurt. No point in thinking about the years of research that could be lost. He squeezed Jim's hand back, seeking comfort in Jim's equally firm grip, and he thought ruefully it was a good thing they were in Joel's Buick. If they'd been driving home in Jim's truck, nothing would have stopped Blair from sliding over to curl next to Jim on the bench seat. Jim seemed like the last stable point in the entire universe. You couldn't even count on the stars, not really.  After all, they didn't even stand still in the sky.

Blinking back tears, Blair opened his eyes again and looked out at the city streets. There were other cars on the road, stopping nervously at the dark intersections. The police radio in Joel's car hummed with the endless litany of disaster. They needed Jim out there, Blair knew it, and he was trying to steel himself to say that Jim could just drop him off at the loft, maybe help him up the stairs, but really, man, he'd be all right, but he couldn't begin to force the words past his lips.

His ankle hurt. His forearm was burning, and he felt filthy, inside and out. And he was so thirsty. In a sudden, terrible flash of memory, he saw Monica bending low over him. The bathroom tiles had been cold and painfully hard against his shoulders and the back of his head, against his thighs and buttocks and even the heels of his feet. While he lay stretched before her, trembling helplessly in cold and exposure and fear, she had lowered her hand and touched the dripping brush to his forehead.

"Jesus," Blair whispered, flinching from the memory, and he scrubbed at his forehead with his free hand.

"Chief," Jim said urgently, and he let Blair go to grab his arm above the wrist. "It's all over now. You're safe."

"I know," Blair whispered, letting his head drop back again. God, he wished they were home already. He wished he was in the bath, washing every inch of himself clean with his own soap. Then he'd let the water run out and do it all over again if he wanted to. It was a gas water heater, so it didn't matter that the lights were out. He'd sit in the tub soaking in blissfully hot water all night long if that's what it took to get clean. The way he felt now, it probably would.

This was all a little too much like another night ride home. After the ER, after David Lash. After all the noise and lights and chaos, after all the other people poking and prodding at him and asking him if he was OK, it had all wound down to just this: Jim driving the two of them home in the dark, in near silence, Jim's presence at his side saying more than words.

"I knew you'd find me," Blair told him quietly. He hadn't said that the last time. Then, he really hadn't known Jim would find him. When Lash had begun wrapping the chains around his legs, he had assumed he was going to die. Growing up with Naomi had taught him that well-meaning people would do the best they could, but that when you came right down to it, good intentions were usually just about as lovely and effective as a set of Waterford crystal under the millstone of reality.

Except for Jim. Jim didn't make plans and hope for the best, he acted. He simply was. And learning who Jim was in the years since David Lash had changed Blair somehow. Changed the way he thought about his life, his world, and especially his future. It turned out that once in a lifetime, you might find someone who would always be there, no matter what. And if that was so, then maybe permanence wasn't simply stagnation, and maybe home was more than the address you wrote down on the green mail-forwarding card for the Post Office.

Jim would always be here. Just like tonight. "I knew you'd find me," Blair said again, mostly because it felt good to say it out loud, and also because it was the truth. In the darkness of the car he felt rather than saw Jim shake his head and shrug a little, but Jim's hand slid down Blair's arm to once more clasp Blair's hand.

OK, so there was more going on tonight. Things were never that simple. Everything didn't end when you left the scene of the crime. There was all the stuff that made Blair's stomach turn over when he even tried to think about it, like the shapes he had seen in the grout of the bathroom tile overhead while Monica painted blood on his belly. But he wouldn't think about all that now, just like he wouldn't think about what was left of his school. He and Jim were alive and whole. That was about all he could handle, and right now that was plenty.

He turned his head to watch the city in darkness pass them by. A dark city, he thought for a moment, his heart in his throat, but he turned to look back at Jim's silhouette beside him, and the instant passed. Once an ambulance came screeching past them, an explosion of light and noise in the unlit streets. There was less destruction on this side of town, which gave Blair hope. Knots of people were standing on the sidewalks, sharing their stories of the quake with neighbors. He heard loud, excited voices as they passed, but there were no shouts of fear or hysteria. Every block took them farther away, and with every mile, Blair found he could release more and more of the events of the past day. Maybe it was just exhaustion catching up for good this time, but whatever it was, Blair didn't question it. He sagged back against the plush seat and let it swallow him up.

His eyes slid shut and the world turned gray. Mostly gray. There was a dull red haze where his ankle throbbed in time with his heartbeat, and a slash of orange the color of burning embers where Susan had cut him with the razor. Jim was beside him, and Blair tried to focus on that as his mind and body drifted. Warm blue, the color of a peaceful sea. The color of Jim's eyes. The color of safety and peace, and the promise Jim had made with his actions, never with words, that he would always be there to take Blair home.

Then a ripple crossed the surface of those peaceful blue depths. Blair drew closer, worried, trying to see what could trouble such placid depths, but the soft gray world contracted around him and forced him awake. He opened his eyes to find the car was stopped, the passenger side door open. Jim was leaning in, one hand on Blair's shoulder. "Swing your legs out," he was saying. "Careful of that ankle."
 
 

***

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