Shadows of the Past
"Ellison," the low voice said in a French accent. Jim's hand froze an inch from the light switch. He ran a dozen operations in his head in the three seconds before he answered. In every one Michael had back up and in every one someone ended up dead. More specifically, he and Blair ended up dead.
After that brief hesitation, Jim finished the gesture and flipped the light on.
"Wait here, Chief," Jim said as he put a hand on his partner's shoulder before stepping into the loft. The less Blair saw the better. Blair shot him a confused look and opened his mouth to argue, but then he stopped. Jim had no idea what made his talkative partner suddenly fall silent, but he thanked god for it.
"Have him come in," Michael said softly, but then Jim had never heard Michael speak any other way.
"He's not part of this." Jim replied just as quietly. He really didn't need to have Blair in the middle of whatever problems Michael had brought.
"Have him come in," Michael repeated. Jim would have argued except that two men now appeared at the far end of the hallway.
"Jim?" Blair asked uncertainly as he looked from the two armed men coming down the hall to Jim.
"Come on in, Chief," Jim said as he stepped into the loft. He kept his body between Blair and Michael. The agent stood next to the window looking exactly like he had looked on that mission seven years earlier: a phantom who put fear into the hearts of even the most jaded covert ops soldier.
"Put your weapons on the table," Michael suggested in a voice that hid the danger under that calm exterior.
"What's this about?" Jim asked. He hesitated for just a second, listening to the sounds of agents moving around the loft, in the hallway, and on the roof. When Michael didn't react, Jim carefully as walked over to the kitchen table. Only then did the agent answer.
"They want to talk to you." Michael said as he turned toward the window and Jim carefully pulled his weapon from this holster and set it on the table. He wasn't fooled by Michael's appearance of inattentiveness.
"Jim, man. What are you doing?" Blair whispered incredulously, and Jim could hear the desperation in his voice. He didn't answer as he reached down and pulled his back-up gun and knife out of his boot and set them on the table next to his main weapon.
"Let's get this over with, then. Blair, just stay here and don't call anyone," Jim said as he took a step away from the table and back toward the door. Glancing at his partner's suddenly mutinous expression, Jim growled an order. "I mean it. No one!" He had no illusions about being able to fight his way past Michael, and he didn't want anyone else getting pulled into this.
"He's coming," Michael said, his voice barely a whisper, but to Jim, those words seemed louder than alarm bells.
"Leave him out of this."
"I can't. I have orders."
Jim felt his stomach knot at those words. If Michael had orders to bring in Blair, then Jim couldn't do anything to change his mind.
"Turn around," Michael said while still looking out the window. Jim knew what was coming, but he could hear multiple footsteps on the fire escape and hear the heavy breathing of the two goons in the hall. Jim stood still, struggling with his instincts that said to grab the guide and run and his logic that said they would both be dead within three steps. "Please," Michael added as he turned to look at Jim. In those cold hazel eyes, Jim could see the agent's willingness to kill both him and Blair without remorse.
Slowly, Jim turned around. Without waiting for the order, he put his hands behind his back. Turning left him facing Blair who watched with wide eyes from next to the square pillar that divided kitchen from dining room. Jim felt warm hands deftly slipping wide plastic straps around his wrists before pulling the loops tight enough that Jim knew he couldn't escape, not that he had even considered the possiblity with Michael.
"Just give me a second to talk to Blair," Jim asked quietly. He waited silently until finally Michael's hand let go of his forearm.
Jim walked over to Blair whose eyes stayed focused on Michael. Using his hip and shoulder, Jim herded his partner to the far side of the kitchen by the refrigerator.
"Jim? What the hell is going on?" Blair finally hissed, those blue eyes snapping to Jim's face.
"Blair, just calm down and listen," Jim whispered as he felt his own guilt rise at the panicked look in those blue eyes. It was his job to protect Blair, and he had obviously failed in a monumental way.
"Who is that guy?" Blair demanded.
"Michael. Look, I can't even tell you what branch of the government he works for, but our paths crossed before Peru. He's the boogey man that makes covert agents turn on the lights and check under the bed." Jim didn't want to panic his partner even more, but he couldn't let Blair underestimate these people. "Chief, I've seen him take out a dozen armed terrorists by himself, and I've seen him shoot one of his own people in the back of the head for breaking a rule. Don't argue with him."
"Oh god. Jim. Shit. Okay, we can get through this." Blair ran his hand over his face and then pushed his hair back out of his face in a nervous gesture.
"Chief, tell them whatever they want to know."
"Wha--. Oh man, you so do not want these people to know about your senses. I..."
"No!" Jim cut Blair off before he could say more.
"The very fact they want you means they probably know most of it, but you need to tell them the truth about any question they ask. I know you'd try to hold out, but Chief, no one holds out against these people. They'll get the truth anyway, and I don't want you hurt."
"Forget it , Darwin," Jim snapped, cutting Blair off. Blair looked up in surprise and Jim had some hope that Blair was finally listening. "You give them everything you know, everything you suspect, you tell them every theory that every crossed your mind about Sentinels about me about any damn subject they ask about."
"It's time," that soft voice with its deceptively tender tone announced, and Jim clenched his teeth as he realized that his choices had disappeared the minute Michael had reappeared in his life. For one second he leaned his body into Blair, trapping him between Jim's body and the refrigerator in a mimic of a hug. It was all Jim had to offer.
"Just tell them what they want to know and they'll have no reason to hurt you," Jim whispered as he rested his forehead against Blair's, fearing that he was lying even as he said the words. A hand closed around his forearm, pulling him away from Blair, and Jim cooperated since fighting Michael wasn't really an option if he wanted his guide to survive this.
Michael moved him to the wall by the door before letting go, and Jim waited, focusing on his hearing as he placed the sounds of at least a dozen unfamiliar bodies outside the loft.
"Turn around." Michael's voice ordered, and Jim could hear Blair's heart start to speed up. He flashed on the memory of Blair duct-taped by a militant survivalist and chained by a psychopath and tied up by a killer. Now a government assassin was putting plastic cuffs on his guide, and Jim just wished Blair would have never found him. He would rather be in an insane asylum trying to rub his own skin off than have to listen to Blair's heart speeding out of control as Michael pulled him toward the door.
"Chief, calm down. Deep breaths," Jim said as Michael stopped with Blair so close that Jim could reach out with shackled hands and brush the edge of Blair's flannel shirt with his fingertips.
"Sure, I'll get right on that," Blair said sarcastically, and Jim closed his eyes in pain. He had put Blair in this spot.
"Michael, Blair has panic attacks sometimes. You need to be aware of his heart and breathing," Jim said as he faced the coats hanging on the hooks by the door. He wouldn't be surprised if they were gagged, and he didn't want Blair choking accidentally. However, Michael didn't answer as he opened the door and gestured with a hand.
Jim stepped into the hall, not surprised to find his neighbors missing as he walked toward the two goons from earlier. When he reached them, each one gripped an arm and walked him down the stairs. As their hands closed over his arms tight enough to leave bruises, Jim was grateful that Michael seemed to be handling Blair whose speeding heart he could hear behind him.
Once they reached the street, Jim found a black van with the back doors open and the street empty. He climbed up awkwardly with his hands cuffed, and two agents in back pulled him up. Once he sat on a steel bench bolted to the side, he could see Michael half lifting Blair into the back of the van.
One of the goons pulled a chain across Jim's waist, locking him to the wall, and then Michael put Blair next to him before putting a chain around Blair's waist. Jim pushed with his leg into Blair's leg, and his guide looked at him with wide, desperate eyes and a weak smile that was meant to reassure him. Jim felt another stab of guilt as a blindfold went over his eyes.
Jim pushed out with his thigh, telling Blair he was here. Then a prick at his neck warned him only seconds before he started losing consciousness. He was only barely aware as the van pulled away from the curb.
Jim woke up stomach down on a simple bunk in a stark white room. A set of empty white shelves stood against the wall opposite the bunk and the third wall had a heavy door with a thick security glass port hole. A second bunk stood against the fourth wall right next to a prison-style sink and toilet combo, and Jim couldn't help clenching his teeth when he saw the room empty.
Even though pacing wouldn't help anything, Jim stood and started pacing. The window in the door only gave him a view of the white wall on the far side of the hall, and when he reached out with his hearing, he could only hear the sounds of water rushing through pipes and the distant thumping of pumps below him. The walls were so thick that he couldn’t even tell if he was hearing a mechanical room nearby or if it was a white noise generated intended to thwart his senses.
His covert ops training came back to him, and he reviewed the information he knew. When his team had run into Michael's people in Eastern Europe, they hadn't fared well. Jim just thanked God that he came out alive and that he hadn't been promoted yet so that the screw up went on someone else's record. That is, assuming there was a record. Jim's team had received the best training available, and they still hadn't stood a chance.
Strangely, during debriefing, the intelligence officers had not been very interested in any details. So he knew he was with people who had training that made his own obsolete. He knew they had some understanding of his senses because they took Blair. He knew they were probably questioning Blair right now, and Jim could only pray that his partner didn't try and play tough guy. Just because he'd ordered Blair to tell them everything didn't mean he trusted his guide to give up without a fight
Jim paced from the door to the second bunk, covering the distance dozens of times before he heard footsteps in the hall outside his door. He stopped in the middle of the room, arms crossed over his chest as he waited for the group that had stopped outside his room. The lock clicked open, and when three guards walked in, Jim felt as though his chest was being physically crushed. They didn't have Blair with them.
He wanted to demand information about Blair, but every question he asked gave them more information. In covert ops, information was the currency, and Jim didn't plan on giving any of his way. Unfortunately, he didn't have any illusions about being able to hold out against these people either. Under other circumstances he might consider a self-induced zone, but as long as Blair was here....Jim ordered himself to stop considering the possibilities when it came to Sandburg. He'd gotten his guide into this, and he would get his guide out. So instead of going into a self-induced zone and denying these people the chance to interrogate him, he stood with crossed arms, waiting.
A woman walked in the door behind the three guards, and from the way the guards moved to the side to make way for her, Jim knew he was looking at someone powerful. Her hair fell in long, perfectly groomed curls, and her face was both stunning and cold. Jim waited.
As minutes warped into an eternity, she stood with only her eyes moving, taking in every detail of Jim until he struggled to keep from flinching away from the glance. It must've been nearly five minutes before the woman started speaking in cultured tones.
"Welcome to Section. My name is Madeleine, and with some cooperation your stay here could be a pleasant one." The words were clipped and direct, and Jim didn't think he'd heard quite such a politely phrased threat in all his life. Jim continued to wait since really nothing she had said had changed his situation in the least. Madeleine tilted her head curiously and gave him a small smile.
"None that I expect you to answer. Or if you did, none that I trust you to answer truthfully." Jim half expected her to react to such open defiance. But even if it cost him some pain, it would at least let him know where he stood with these people. It would tell him what to expect. But instead of reacting, her smile just widened.
"An honest answer, Captain Ellison. Now if you wouldn't mind accompanying us," she stepped to one side and waved her hand toward the door. Jim clenched his jaw as he considered his options. But the fact was, he didn't have any. Tightening his lips in frustration, he uncrossed his arms and started walking toward the door.
The guard on his left telegraphed his attack well ahead of time so that when Jim approached the man, he wasn't surprised to have the man grab his wrist and upper arm and used them to send him hurling towards the wall. Jim just caught himself using his free hand against the wall, and then stood with his cheek against the cold concrete as a second guard grabbed that arm.
Within three seconds Jim was cuffed and the heaviest guard took his arm. The original guard then walked ahead while Madeleine walked with the last guard behind. Jim was complimented. He'd been out of special ops long enough that he didn't think he rated this kind of attention. However it also meant these people were likely to be equally paranoid about everything. Like telling him where his guide had gone. Jim tried scenting the air, but all he could catch was the sharp scent of deodorizers and sanitizers and the occasional bitter odor of gunpowder. Even the damn guards smelled deodorized.
Jim didn't argue as he was led through a maze of corridors, but he did start forming a mental map as they led him in circles and ended up a couple of hallways over and a few floors up from his cell. Madeleine didn't ask if her ruse had worked, and Jim didn't bother telling her that he had a pretty good idea where he was in relation to his cell. Unfortunately, he also had a good idea that the internal security was such that he didn't have the skill or the equipment to break himself out.
And even if he could, he had no idea where to find Blair. As the guards opened another door, Jim tried the air again. This time the sharp, metallic odor of blood teased his senses. God, don't let that be Blair's, he silently prayed. Of course, an installation this size might have dozens of prisoners, but he didn't want to think of what would happen if Blair tried to hide something or mouthed off. With his stomach tightening at the thought that Blair couldn't help but mouth off, Jim allowed his guard to push him into a room with what appeared to be a dentist chair bolted in the middle.
"If you would have a seat," Madeleine said with a polite tilt of her head. Jim felt his own jaw pop as he ground his teeth a little too enthusiastically. The heavy vault-like door closed behind him and the guard behind him unlocked his cuffs before the guards backed off. Jim ignored the guards and focused his senses on Madeleine as he stepped forward and took a seat. Her heart beat remained steady, but as he and stepped forward, he had caught just a hint of a twitch in her eye. Possibly, he had surprised her by not fighting.
"Arms on the armrest, please," she said as she walked behind him. For him to put his arms down, he had to put his wrist under a metal strap, and he had no doubt what would happen next. Jim could feel his instincts scream at him to fight, to find the guide, to leave the guards permanently disabled. Instead of doing any of that, he put his arms on the armrest as asked. Sure enough, a clicking sound from behind warned him milliseconds before the restraints clamped down on his wrists.
Jim gnawed at the inside of his lower lip as the feeling of helplessness made his chest tighten. Even though he knew it was pointless, he couldn't help but flex his arms. The metal didn't yield.
"I will admit, I am curious about a number of rather surprising reports. Shall this we start with your debriefing after the Peru mission?" Madeleine asked as she tightened restraints around Jim's neck and forehead.
"You seem to be in charge here, lady," Jim pointed out even as Madeleine attached a number of sensors to him.
"Quite true." A guard handed her a file, and she opened it before flipping through few pages. "In your original debriefing, you reported that you had engaged enemy forces on no fewer than 15 separate occasions. Let us review the first."
Jim flinched as the guard pushed him into the room. Even telling the truth hadn't saved him from some punishing jolts to his system, electrical shocks and injections that left him writhing in pain. He definitely wasn't in any shape to fight them now. Jim stumbled forward, catching himself on the edge of the bed and then freezing, not sure that he wanted to move, not even enough to sit down on the cot.
The door closed with a dull metallic clang that suggested that nothing short of a nuclear explosion would open it without a key. Now that he was alone, Jim slowly shifted to the side--toward the bed. Every muscle ached from the electrical charges that had surged through his system even though he had no more information to share.
He clenched his teeth at the thought of what they had done to Blair especially given the man's ability to run his mouth. He remembered hearing Blair's voice echoing in this hearing as he mouthed off to Lash even though the serial killer had chained him to a chair. He'd vowed that day to never let Blair suffer like that again, but he had broken that silent promise a dozen times, and now he had broken it again. He'd failed Blair.
Jim slowly sank to the thin mattress and clenched his teeth again as the bile in his stomach threatened to erupt. The torture certainly wasn't the worst he'd endured, but it was the most painful... or maybe that was just because his control over his dials seemed to slip away leaving his system even more vulnerable to pain.
Jim looked up as the door lock thumped. The door opened, and two guards stepped in with a limp form held between them. Ignoring his own aches, Jim lunged forward only to find himself sent to the floor by the discharge of a stun gun that made every injection site flare and every muscle cramp in memory of the electrical torture he'd already endured.
As the gray faded from the edges of his vision, Jim glared up at Madeleine and struggled up to one elbow.
"Damn it, you didn't have to hurt him," Jim cursed as he reached out and pulled the unconscious body of his guide closer to him, a gesture that was as futile as the curse, but Jim couldn't ignore the need to get Blair away from this woman. Blair stirred fitfully, his head turning to the side so that Jim could see a fist-sized red mark on the side of his head.
"It was necessary to get a full psychological profile," Madeleine answered. Her gaze reminded Jim of Lash, the way she looked at Jim and Blair with that detached, curious expression. Blair stirred again, and Jim struggled up to bed, his muscles screaming with the effort as he pulled Blair closer so that the man's back was against Jim's left leg in a seated position.
"Look, just tell us what the hell you want," Jim demanded darkly despite the fact that he had absolutely no hope of intimidating this woman.
"I think you've already come up with that answer on your own."
"You want me to work for you."
"It would be in your best interest," she pointed out with a careless shrug even though her eyes never left him, that curious but detached expression remaining.
"And if I don't?"
"I think you've already come up with that answer as well. Which leads me to wonder why you're asking questions for which you already have answers." Her lips twitched up into a small smile as she cocked her head condescendingly. Jim's hands involuntarily closed into fists, and her guards shifted uneasily, but Madeleine herself simply stood watching without a hint of concern.
"What do you want done?" Jim asked, knowing that the question committed him to things he didn't want. However, the alternative included a quick bullet to the back of the head for him and Blair, and he couldn't risk that. If he could prove his value, he might be able to negotiate Blair free, and at this point, that was the best deal he could hope for.
"Michael will have the details," she said with a nod before turning and leaving, the guards following in her wake. Jim sat staring at the steel door trying to push his fear and anger and frustration and hatred to the back of his mind. Right now he needed a clear mind.
Bending down, he got his hands under Blair's arms and pulled. Blair groaned softly and made a gesture with his hand as though he was trying to brush away a fly.
"Just me, Chief. You're okay now," Jim lied. Normally he could handle Blair's weight, but with the aftershocks of the electricity still running through his body, every motion set his arms and back on fire as he pulled Blair up to the bunk, holding Blair in his arms when the smaller man started trembling.
"It's okay, Chief, just relax." Jim's legs complained at the weight of his guide resting in his lap, but Jim refused to move.
"Jim?" Blair asked, his voice rough, and considering how much screaming Jim had done, he imagined his own voice must sound the same.
"Yeah, it's me."
"Oh man, did you find the truck that hit me?" Blair's words temporarily robbed Jim of the ability to answer. He'd prepared himself for fear and for anger… either at their captors or at Jim for being the reason Blair got dragged into this mess. He hadn't expected Blair to be making jokes before his eyes even opened.
"Sorry, Chief. Didn't catch the license."
"And if I open my eyes, am I going to see white? Because I'm not really in the mood for white, ya know?" Blair's voice grew stronger even as he squirmed in ways that suggested his pain.
Jim didn't have an answer that Blair would like and so he remained silent, slowly rubbing Blair's arms to help the muscles relax since he suspected Blair had been subjected to the same questioning he had. Eventually, Blair's eyes blinked open, the blue irises surrounded by a cobweb of red veins.
"Ouch," Blair said quietly, and the understatement forced a smile out of Jim.
"Yeah, Darwin, that's one way to put it."
"Me too," Jim agreed.
"Oh man, where are your dials? Are you okay?" Blair demanded as he quickly pushed himself up with a grunt and an expression that pulled all of his features closer to the center of his face in a tight squint.
"I think I'm doing better than you are right now," Jim pointed out as he used his hands on Blair's arms to help support the weight.
"I'm fine," Blair protested, but he also didn't argue when Jim pulled him back to lean against the larger man's chest.
"Oh yeah, you're doing great, Darwin."
"Hey, for my first time being tortured, I think I'm holding up pretty well." Blair indignant tone and his improbable words made Jim laugh, but the sound soon turned into a sob, and Jim struggled to bring himself under control.
"You're doing great, Chief," Jim confirmed as soon as he could talk without having a tidal wave of pain overwhelm him, most of it coming from knowing he had caused Blair to get caught up in this. Blair's arms were warm under his hands, and Jim wondered if the kid was getting sick too. "You're going just great."
"I'd feel manlier if I hadn't just, you know, told them absolutely everything before begging them to stop."
"I told them everything too, Chief, so don't be so hard on yourself."
"Yeah, but I bet you skipped the begging part," Blair said as he slowly relaxed into Jim's grasp, sagging so that he leaned back into Jim's chest with a small sigh of either pain or relief from pain, Jim wasn't sure which.
"Only because I knew it wouldn't work, Chief. If I thought begging would have gotten them to stop, I would have begged."
"Yeah, what's up with that? I gave them every answer, and yeah, I gave them a piece of my mind along the way, but I didn't try to fight or hide anything. Why ask the same question fifty million times and shock me when I give the same answer?"
Jim hesitated. He had understood Madeleine's reasoning, but he wasn't sure Blair really wanted the truth.
"Man, that's the expression you get when you're about to do something stupid. I don't have the energy to deal with you in overprotective mode, so just spit it out," Blair complained as he twisted around to look up at Jim's face.
Leaving one arm around Blair's shoulders, Jim reached up and scrubbed his face with an open hand. "I'm supposed to be cold and unreadable," Jim said wryly.
"Not even, bucko, so spill."
"Madeleine is profiling us. Responses to pain, fear, being separated, being together. She'll record all our responses and then she'll use that to predict our behavior."
"Does that work?" Blair's voice took on a tone that told Jim that the man's academic curiosity had been triggered. Jim shook his head at his irrepressible guide.
"I'm not sure. I know some departments were working on it when I left special ops, but I don't know how accurate it is." Jim didn't comment on the fact that he had already revealed too much about Blair's importance to him. In hindsight, he should have left Blair on the floor, but he couldn't deny his own need to hold his guide and make sure he was safe and breathing. He needed to feel Blair's heat, Blair's heartbeat.
"I'm guessing they have it down because everything these people do is coming off as way too coordinated."
Jim didn't answer because he really didn't have one. Instead he tightened his arms around Blair and closed his eyes as he waited helplessly for whatever was going to happen next.
Still in that fuzzy, gray place that existed between asleep and awake, Jim heard the footsteps stop outside their cell door, and he opened his eyes immediately. At some time during the past few hours, Blair had tried to get up to go to the other bunk, and Jim had held tighter. They'd had a silent fight until Blair had given up, slumping down in Jim's embrace and now Jim woke with Blair curled against his stomach, Blair's head resting on his shoulder, and his drool leaving a damp patch on his t-shirt.
The lock on the door made an unusual whiny beep and then the door started creeping open with the sound of metal sliding against metal.
"Rise and shine, Junior," Jim said as he shook Blair's shoulder. Blair just shifted, throwing an arm around Jim's waist. "Come on, Chief. We have visitors." This time his words caused a single bloodshot eye to open and the arm retreated from Jim's waist.
"Always the morning person," Jim said as he pushed the tangled mane of hair out of Blair's face. "Someone's here," Jim added, and that got the second eye open as Blair started struggling up.
"I'm awake," he insisted in a voice still slurred with sleep.
Jim opened his mouth to point out that Blair never woke up without frightening amounts of caffeine, but the door swung open and Michael walked in. Jim was surprised to see the man alone, but then Michael had already proved he could take Jim and that was before the torture and hunger and lack of sleep had left Jim feeling significantly under par. It had also been when Jim was still in peak form and well armed, so Jim didn't have any illusions about his chances of success now.
"Follow me," Michael said in that soft voice that was at odds with the man's deadly nature. Blair looked to Jim, and Jim could only shrug as he stood to follow. The lack of guards and shackles and weapons made him feel like he should do something even though common sense told him he'd fail.
"So, where exactly are we following to?" Blair asked as Jim made sure to keep his guide behind his own body as they followed into the corridor. Michael didn't answer, and Blair started to dart forward. Picturing Blair trying to tug at the man or get in front of him, Jim reached out and grabbed his guide's shoulder rather than have Blair slammed against some wall.
"Shower and then breakfast before training," Michael finally said as he stopped at a door, slipping a swipe card into a slot before pushing the door open. Inside Jim could see an empty locker room, and he could feel Blair's muscles tense under his hand. He understood Blair's reluctance. For whatever reason, Blair normally hid under layers of clothing and even slept in a t-shirt, but communal showering was a way of life for soldiers and prisoners, so Jim needed to stop the objection before Blair could make enough fuss to attract a pair of guards who would strip and forcibly wash him.
"We are starting to smell a little ripe," Jim said with a wrinkle of his nose as he pushed on Blair's shoulder to get him moving.
"Oh man, are you having trouble with your sense of smell?" Blair immediately asked as Jim's misdirection successfully sidetracked him.
"Just dialing down to avoid the sour smell," Jim said truthfully. The smell of Blair's sweat--and his own-- was tainted with the sharp bitterness of fear and a medicinal sweetness left behind by the injections.
"We'll need fresh clothes then," Blair told Michael even as Jim pushed him through to the room. Michael didn't answer, but Jim had no doubt that either the agent or the microphones that monitored them would pick up the request.
"Man, now that you mention it, even I can smell myself. I should have suggested at least washing up in the sink. This really is kinda bad."
"No problem, Chief," Jim answered as he pulled the shirt over his head. He ignored Michael, and after a couple of seconds, Blair followed his lead. He didn't mention that the need to hold Blair had overridden every other need so that Jim had twitched even the one time Blair had gotten up to pee, and he hadn't relaxed until his guide was in his arms again. This would be a whole new chapter in Blair's dissertation, and he really didn't want to explain his sudden and unexpected need to have Blair close.
Once he started stripping, Blair finished as quickly as possible, grabbing a towel and darting through the archway to the shower room where Michael's eyes couldn't easily see him from the sink area. Jim followed, his sudden possessiveness forcing him into keeping his guide in sight. As Blair turned the water on in the communal shower area, his hairy back caught individual drops of water from the spray so that Sentinel vision could see a rainbow of water-jewels clinging to his back before he stepped under the full spray which washed away the optical illusion of jewels along with the smell of fear and medicine.
Jim tore himself away from the near-zone and went to a shower nozzle on the opposite wall.
"So, how screwed are we?" Blair barely whispered as he washed his hair with soap out of an unmarked bottle.
"Screwed enough that I have no doubt they're recording every word," Jim answered in a normal tone of voice. Blair looked at him sharply, and Jim could see the alarm and confusion in that expression.
"What are they..." Blair stopped.
"They have a job for me, and you're leverage."
"Oh man, I am so sorry," Blair offered as he turned, his upper body clothed in the scummy cheap soap that all institutions seemed to use. The scent already reminded him of every army base where he'd ever lived.
"Not your fault, Chief," Jim insisted without saying whose fault it really was. He assumed Blair had already figured that out. Instead he focused on cleaning the stink of fear and Madeleine's drug off his own skin, carefully bottling the guilt so that he could take it out later when he wasn't quite as worried about things like getting them out of this alive. Unfortunately, he had no idea how he was going to do that.
Jim listened as Blair mumbled too softly for even him to hear, and only then did he realize that the sounds of the washcloth sliding over Blair's skin had stopped. Blair had finished and now stood under the spray of hot water, waiting. As quickly as possible, Jim finished up and grabbed a towel to wrap around his waist as he went out to face Michael.
As he expected, the man stood waiting, leaning against the white tile of the outer bathroom area. The four sinks sitting on their silver pipes lined up in military precision under four perfectly square mirrors across from four stall doors painted in an off-white that looked nearly gray after all the stark white Jim had seen in the last few hours.
Michael gestured toward a rack where someone had draped white cotton clothing over the rod. Jim grabbed the entire pile, sorting out the smaller items and passing them over to Blair who shrugged into them without even fully drying off. By the time Jim pulled the white sweats over his Section-issued cotton briefs, Blair had dressed and was glaring at Michael. For his part, Michael continued to stand statue still and silent.
"Razors?" Jim asked without much hope as he pulled on his shirt and felt the fibers snagging on his morning stubble. To his surprise Michael walked to a narrow tall cupboard and used the pass card to unlock it before holding out an electric razor. Jim took it and held it out for Blair.
"Man, when I finish, that thing isn't going to be sharp enough to shave peach fuzz," Blair said with a smile as he ran a hand over his own thick dark stubble. "You go ahead first." The whole time Blair kept his arms crossed over his stomach, and the gesture revealed all the fear Blair kept out of his steady voice and resolute face. Without a word, Jim flicked it on and shaved, feeling each hair pulled and sliced. He used the sensation to reset his dial for touch until he could only feel the vibrations of the machine and not the painful tugs. When he finished, he handed over the electric shaver to Blair as he turned to Michael.
"What sort of training is on the schedule?" Jim asked as though he were talking to some army buddy. He didn't expect the familiarity to make Michael lower his guard completely; however, if he could get the man to see him as a fellow soldier, he might get a sliver of advantage or a flicker of hesitation on the trigger. It could prove to be the difference between life or death.
"You need to qualify on weapons and hand to hand. Some simulation scenarios. Training with our equipment and support personnel." Michael spoke in fragments, a distracted expression on his face as though the question had interrupted some important internal conversation. Jim seriously hoped that part of that conversation included guilt over kidnapping innocent anthropologists.
"How long's the ramp up?" Jim asked, referring to the period of time he had to develop the skills specific to whatever mission they had in mind.
"One week. Birkhoff has the details." Michael still sounded polite, but the tone made it clear that he was through talking. Jim swallowed his questions, and gathered Blair to his side with a single hand under the man's upper arm, pulling him close. Rationally Jim knew that Blair was just as vulnerable standing next to him, but emotionally he couldn't deny the need to put himself between his guide and this world, a world which Blair had no way of understanding.
Blair surrendered the shaver, and Michael locked it away before leaving the bathroom, leaving Jim and Blair to follow, the bathroom door clicking shut behind them. The soap had washed away the sour stink of old terror, but Jim could still smell wisps of fear from Blair as they walked the sharply antiseptic hallways. Silence broken only by the echo of their footsteps off the concrete finally gave way to the sounds of life. After getting off one elevator, Jim could hear the clicking of a woman's high heels against the concrete and smell the earthy musk of someone who had walked though the hallway recently after working up a sweat. His senses had never been this sharp, but then he had never been in so much danger and needed them so badly.
As the hallway ended in a large octagon of a room, Jim tightened his grip on Blair's arm as he followed Michael around two huddled groups whose dirt smudged faces and grass stained black outfits smelled of car exhaust and gunpowder. From the tight faces, he guessed their mission hadn't gone well.
Jim remembered all those years before when his team had been captured. He'd been walking point through a stand of trees made brittle by drought, following a gash in the earth that would have been a creek in better years. Because he was walking point, he scanned the ground carefully, well aware that both sides of this ugly civil war had mined the country side. But there were always signs, an unusual mound of earth, a strangely symmetrical pile of rocks, a tangle of tree limbs that didn't match the way the dried stream had deposited other debris.
He checked his map. They were an hour from the target, an international spokesman taken hostage by a group that claimed to represent the people but really represented the bank accounts of a small group of men. Still a lieutenant, Jim's job was to provide cover for the demolitions expert and rescue team following with the rest of the team.
A sudden burst of gunfire sent him flying to the ground as he pulled up his weapon and thumbed off the safety in one smooth motion. The trees remained silent, not even a bird moving as the forest fell silent. Jim pushed himself up on one knee as he searched for some sign. If it had been Jones getting twitchy on the trigger finger, Captain Horne would have already called the all-clear, but the radio remained eerily silent.
Even though he wanted to rush back to his team, Jim moved cautiously through the forest, remaining in each new hiding place for long minutes as he circled back. Sliding from the shadow of a dead tree to the side of a boulder tilting drunkenly, he spotted a patch where the dead green color didn't quite match the landscape. Jim focused until the patch moved, and he could make out a shoulder and the side of a painted face.
Jim crept silently through the deep shadows, keeping low to the ground until he was within yards of the silent guard. As the man had knelt up to try and look north, Jim leapt, his gun held out as a battering ram as he ruthlessly slammed the man's head into the solid trunk of a green giant. Jim didn't even have time to check the man for weapons before his own head exploded with and lights that existed only in his own mind blinded him.
When Jim blinked his way back to consciousness, he found himself tied hand and foot with plastic straps that dug into his skin. He glanced around without fully opening his eyes as he tried to figure out who had captured him. Michael stood over him, and Jim remained as silent as possible as he hoped for a chance to free himself.
"He hit me," a deep voice complained. Jim finally opened his eyes as a heavy boot slammed into his side hard enough to make his stomach cramp as he twisted in his bonds.
"You were warned," answered that calm voice and French accent that Jim had learned to fear over the next few hours. At first Jim thought the man meant him, but then he looked up to see Michael aim a small handgun at the head of his attacker, a man dressed like Michael with a bandage on the side of his face. Jim flinched as Michael pulled the trigger before the man had a chance to even fully turn, his skull fragmented as bits of bone and blood and brain exploded across the landscape and across Jim's team members who were tied nearby.
"Oh man, that's gonna break if you don't chill out," a voice interrupted his memory, and Jim found that he had involuntarily tightened his grip on Blair's arm as he followed Michael through an arch that led to another hallway. Jim wondered whether everyone who failed faced the same cold judgment Michael had shown that nameless soldier. He wondered whether he and Blair would face the same.
"Sorry," Jim offered as he let go of Blair's arm, slipped his arm over Blair's shoulders as he resisted the irrational urge to give Blair a nuggie. "We're going to be okay, Chief," Jim added. From the incredulous look Blair gave him out of the side of his eyes, he knew Blair doubted him, but Jim just tightened his arm around Blair's shoulders in silent promise. At the very least he was going to make sure Blair was alright no matter what he had to sacrifice.
"Fuck, my bruises are bruised," Blair complained as he threw himself on his bunk. Six days had transformed the room with a small television and Sentinel soft blankets in muted blues and a radio with headphones for Blair. It had also transformed Blair into a walking canvas of blues and purples and ugly green-black blotches.
"Oh, man. You don't get to just ignore me. I can annoy much better than you can ignore, so let's talk about this whole 'me covering your back' stuff."
"That's Michael's goal. He needs me to get whatever it is he wants to get. That makes me a tool worth protecting," Jim said with a sigh, realizing that Blair was right about the man's power to annoy him. "But I'll get you out safe and sound and without having to shoot anyone."
"I'm in the middle of this too, you know. Only I don't think you really know that."
"What?" Jim looked over at Blair who suddenly didn't seem to be making sense.
"Oh, man. You're talking about how you're going to get me out and about how they're after *you*," Blair waved a hand at the room in general as his voice rose in frustration. "You talk like I'm not here and this is all about you, but this is about us, man. Us."
"Chief, I know…"
"Obviously not. You're out there trying to show off your senses and still cover me. You're not focusing on the senses because you're too busy assuming I can't keep up my end of the simulation, and I can't cover you when you're trying to cover me. You know all that stuff Michael said about us needing to learn our parts…?"
"Chief, you're doing fine learning your part. We'll…"
"I *know* I'm doing fine. You're fucking up. You need to stop worrying about me and concentrate on the job," Blair's voice had taken on a sharpness Jim didn't usually hear from his guide.
"Man, I know I'm not the best person to cover your back and I'd be a lot happier knowing Michael would be there, but you have got to trust me."
Jim looked at his guide's suddenly agitated face, and he felt helplessness rip into him again as he realized he'd totally misread the situation. Taking a deep breath, he tried to fix what he had damaged. "Chief, I trust you more than anyone I've ever met."
"Then why do you keep leaving your post to cover me during these tests? I know I'm not in the same league with you or Michael…"
"I'd rather have you at my back any time," Jim interrupted him. "I just don't want you to feel forced to do something you don't want to do."
"Oh, it's too late for that. I crossed that line back when you made me eat at Wonderburger," Blair said with a mischievous grin, ending their fight as suddenly as it began. Or, Jim realized, ending the fight just as soon as he got through with his complaint. Jim grabbed his pillow and chucked it at his partner.
"Okay, okay. Message received. I'll stop trying to cover you," Jim surrendered, holding his arms up in defeat. Blair threw the pillow back, and Jim caught it easily.
"You worry about the senses, and I'll worry about you."
"Not a problem, Chief," Jim promised, not adding that he would keep worrying about Blair and would still try to prevent the man from shooting in real life even if he did back off in training, allowing Blair to take out the black-clothed opponents with blanks.
The door made a peculiar electronic chiming sound that announced the door opening. Jim got up expecting to find a service worker with dinner and a pack of ice for Blair's knee. Instead, Michael stood there with his slightly distracted expression, his strange way of not meeting a person's eyes.
"It's time," he announced, and Jim felt his body stiffen. "Both of you, follow me," Michael ordered without looking directly at either of them, his eyes scanning the room and the hall as if constantly checking for danger, even in the heart of his own home base. Jim looked over his shoulder, and Blair had a wide-eyed expression that didn't match his steady hands as he pulled the leg of his sweatpants down over his bruised knee. Blair stood up and walked toward the door on legs that remained steady despite the rising smell of fear. Only after Blair gave him a small thumbs up gesture did Jim realize that much of the fear smell came from his own body. Unable to ignore his instincts, Jim draped his arm casually over Blair's shoulders as they followed Michael out into the maze of hallways.
Soon they reached a new part of section, not near the prison cell or the training rooms Jim and Blair had seen so much of recently. Instead a large table dominated the center of this room. Birkoff whose voice so often fed them information during the simulations sat on one side of the table; Madeleine stood at the end. Michael took his place next to an older man with graying hair on the far side. Other than the ubiquitous and silent guards standing near the doors, the rest of the room was empty.
"Gentlemen," Madeleine offered with a small nod. Jim felt an insane urge to growl at the woman as he stepped forward to block her view of Blair. The sigh from behind suggested that he might be going a little overboard, but even Blair had admitted a day or two ago that the situation was putting far more pressure on Jim's Sentinel instincts than Jim the man could really control.
"Please, sit," Madeleine suggested calmly without reacting to the non-verbal threat. The table itself made a high-pitched noise like a printer gearing up to start printing, and Jim flinched as a holographic image appeared above the table, its ghostly edges slowly rotating.
"Yes, that might be interesting, but maybe we can focus on the actual compound?" Birkhoff, the tech genius who ran the computers and intel during the simulations, suggested as the ghostly image rotated slowly. Jim followed Blair to the edge of the table and studied the miniature mansion and the surrounding trees. His eyes started watering as his vision struggled to find the pattern in the light beams that created the tiny front lawn and wide porch even while seeing each individual beam of light with its tightly focused center fading out to a blur around the edge.
"Don't focus on the details. Relax and look at the house, not the light, man," Blair's voice suddenly pulled him back from the edge of a zone, and Jim nodded to let Blair know he was okay.
Jim turned his attention back to the briefing, and the main building now glowed in holographic red.
"This is where they're holding the missing operative," Michael said, his emotion once more unreadable. "Our mission has three ranked objectives: One, recover the operative; two, if she is dead, confirm it; three, if she cannot be rescued, cancel her," Michael explained. The agent fell silent and Jim watched as a flicker of pain crossed the man's expression. Birkoff picked up while Madeleine's coldly curious eyes watched everyone. Jim shifted so that he once again blocked her view of Blair.
"Heat and noise generators run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So we have no intel on movement inside the building, and access is limited to Viso's closest staff. Security will probably include heat sensitive triggers, keypad entry, handprint locks, and multiple guards," Birkhoff finished in a grim voice.
"Probably?" Jim asked -- that was one word he preferred to avoid in his briefings.
Birkhoff answered while Michael continued to stare at the holographic target. "Intel is difficult to gather. We have a palm print from one of his closest advisers, Peter Roberts. You'll have to use your senses to locate guards and then team will neutralize."
"So, we're going to wander around until we find a prisoner or get shot?" Jim crossed his arms and stared disbelievingly at Michael's impassive face. He'd never gone into an op so blind -- no wonder they needed his Sentinel abilities, but not even his advantage could deliver the miracle they seem to expect.
"No, you're going to track your guide's scent." Michael's voice was so soft, so calm that Jim didn't process the information at first. From Blair's suddenly wide eyes and the sharp bitter scent of fear, Blair caught the reference about as fast as Jim.
"Oh man, I did not sign up to be the sacrificial goat," Blair protested. Birkhoff gave a soft cough-laugh.
"Didn't think you've signed up at all," he said under his breath, and Blair glared at the man. Even after six days of training, or perhaps because a six days of training, the two men had developed an open animosity. This seemed rather strange since Jim had never seen anyone take such an instant dislike to Blair. Even people that Jim wanted to dislike Blair, like Kincaid or Lash, seemed to take an immediate interest in the man. Jim stepped in before a geek war started.
"I won't send Blair in there," he insisted as he narrowed his eyes in challenge.
"It is not negotiable," Michael said in that voice that politely promised death. Jim wasn't intimidated. Or rather, they were in such a bad spot already, that threats had lost their edge.
"No, it's not. You want my help, you leave him in the van with the whiz kid," Jim insisted as he jabbed his thumb toward Birkhoff.
"Without his scent to follow, we would have to search the entire facility."
"Then we search the whole fucking facility," Jim snarled at Michael even as he felt Blair's warm hand curl around his forearm, that touch trying to divert his anger.
"The likelihood of success on a full search is less than 7%."
"Which is still 7% better than the 0% chance your operative has of escaping on her own," Jim pointed out as he turned his attention to the rotating building covering over the table. He was far more willing to face his own death than risk Blair's. His aberrant genes had gotten them into this mess, and he would get them out -- or he would at least get Blair out. "And I want a guarantee that Blair goes free either way. He's not stupid. He understands the need to keep his mouth shut." Blair chose that moment to open his mouth to protest, and Jim glared down darkly at his partner who had the good sense to close his mouth without voicing the protest that Jim could see in his eyes.
"No." Michael said in a clipped tone, his French accent blurring the edges of the word.
"I won't put..." Jim stopped as Michael held up his hand. A hulking shadow detached from the wall, and Jim felt his guts tighten as Michael reminded him just how little power he possessed. Blair's hand tightened on his arm, fingers digging into the muscle of his forearm, and Jim dialed down his senses as the smell of fear drifted off both him and his guide.
"You will follow the plan or you are unnecessary," Michael said in a soft voice. Jim stared at the man in fury, his jaw aching from the force of clenching his teeth; however, he had no way to protect his guide here. Jim looked down in mute agony and found understanding in Blair's blue eyes. It didn't surprise him, but the sympathy and trust in the expression tore at his heart until Jim had order himself not to gather Blair into an embrace or disembowel Michael with his bare hands. Blair looked up at him for several seconds before looking across the table.
"What do I have to do?" Blair asked Michael, his voice clear and steady despite the pounding heart which Jim could hear echoing through the room.
"You'll set up camp here," Birkhoff answered and Jim looked up from Blair's curls in time to see the compound rotate, a spot outside the security fence illuminated with a ghostly red glow.
"Okay," Blair said uncertainly. "And then what?"
"Nothing," Michael offered in his cryptic way.
Jim looked at the agent for a long second before realizing what would happen if Blair camped that close. Viso and his goons couldn't risk making someone disappear without knowing whether or not the person would be missed, but they also couldn't risk a possible agent camping on their doorstep. They would have to investigate.
"They'll get worried, bring you in and secure you until they can do a background check." Jim knew he was right when Michael didn't correct him.
"And what's my cover?"
"That would be my department. You're going in as Blair Sandburg, doctoral student and hard-core hippy," Birkhoff offered.
"You just play innocent camper, raise a fuss when they try to chase you from public land, and then freak out like a complete innocent when they show weapons," Jim explained. He could already visualize the way this was going to go down.
"Oh man, that last part I can manage," Blair answered wryly, but Jim also noticed that the man didn't argue or plead or faint -- which most men would have done by now. Take Brown. Jim respected the man, but he suspected the man would have gone from joking to begging to fainting days earlier. Blair just kept his head above water and kept trudging on.
"We have no guarantee that they'll house Blair in the same part of the compound as your agent," Jim pointed out testily.
"The likelihood is that they will limit their exposure by keeping all hostiles in the same area," Madeleine interrupted. "We calculate a 38 percent chance of Blair being held within 100 yards of Nikita."
"Leaving a 62 percent chance that we're just fucked," Blair softly whispered.
"If anything happens to him," Jim didn't finish his threat, but if anything did happen to Blair, Jim figured Michael would put a quick bullet in the back of his head before he would allow him to follow up on that threat. Then again, if Blair died, Jim figured that might be the best ending he could hope for.
"We will retrieve the missing agent and we will escape," Michael answered calmly, and Jim wasn't sure whether the man was confident or just voicing a prayer.
Jim dialed his hearing all the way up, dismissing the squawking birds and the rustling of leaves under mice feet while listening to Blair's indignant voice.
By the time he had traveled a half dozen different hallways, Jim had a raging headache from trying to listen for enemy combatants at the same time he was trying to spot any possible booby traps and still follow the scent of Blair's fear.
"Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck," Blair breathed softly, and the girl looked at him with exhausted eyes that could barely stay open.
Guiding Blair in ahead of him, Jim settled against the plastic seat, pulling the belt over his waist as the five soldiers who had survived the attack took positions on the far side of the large helicopter, leaving Jim, Blair, Michael and Nikita sitting in the seat that faced forward. Blair pulled his own seatbelt on with shaking hands that might be either his fear of heights or the side effect of having just survived his first covert op. Even while feeling relieved at surviving this op, Jim wondered how many more Blair would see.
Only then did he realize that he could see through the darkness of night nearly as easily as daylight. Trees stood clearly outlined in green against the blue-grey of night. The edges of the mountains still had a faint halo of red from the sun which was not well below the horizon, and in the distance, he could see an owl gliding in lazy circles. He could only hope it would be an advantage for what he had planned. The helicopter flew into the darkness without lights, so Jim assumed everyone else was nearly blind, and the pilot only had access to radar, which had a limited usefulness.
Chapter Six :
Jim gasped as his body slapped into the cold, dark water, Blair's weight pushing him deeper into the currents. The sensation of thousands of needles dragging across his skin temporarily distracted him from the very real need to get to the surface. After a few moments that seemed closer to an eternity, he released his death grip around Blair's waist while keeping the man's jacket firmly gripped in a tight fist. He could feel Blair rising toward the surface far faster than he could weighed down by his pack, but without the pack, they had no chance of escape, so Jim just kicked his legs hard, forcing his body to fight against the water as he let go of Blair so his guide would have a better chance of reaching the surface.
He hadn't taken more than two or three strokes when he felt a hand grab the strap of his pack and pull up. Just as his lungs started to burn with the need for air, he muscles ache from the struggle, his head broke the surface and he found himself hurdling down the river, the currents pushing him in a lazy circle even as the shore sped past.
"Holy fuck, don't *ever* do that again," Blair cursed, and Jim smiled at the irrefutable evidence that his guide was fine. Well, as fine as he could be considering they were wet, cold and probably already had Section trying to track their position.
"Shore," Jim panted, struggling to keep himself above water with the pack still on his back. Blair must have recognized his problem because he flipped over onto his back and started kicking as hard as he could while still holding the pack's strap.
Even with both of them working, they managed to get several more miles down river before he could feel his heels hit the rock of the river bottom. The whole time, Jim scanned the river, terrified that their bodies would be smashed into some huge boulder while the current flung them helplessly down river, but their luck had changed and the river remained clear. By the time they reached shore, they both lay in the shallow water, clinging to the ground and breathing heavily.
"God I hate heights," Blair finally managed between pained gasps.
"Keep going, Chief," Jim answered as he struggled up to his knees. Even though the night wasn't particularly cold, in their wet clothes, the exposure posed a real threat. Blair made unhappy noises, but he struggled to climb over rocks eroded smooth by the river. Because drought had robbed the river of many sources of water, they had to stumble over several yards of uneven, loose rock that would normally make up the river bed.
While Jim meant to help his partner, he found himself leaning on as much as helping Blair. Together they struggled up hill to a spot some distance from the water under big trees with a wide canopy. Jim pulled the pack off his back, shivering as the wind stole his fading warmth. He needed to either get out of his wet clothes or get moving quickly enough to get his blood moving.
"Strip," Jim ordered between teeth clenched against chattering as he used his Sentinel vision to map their campsite in the pale glow of the half moon. Several large trees offered some coverage from fly-overs, and more importantly, blocked some of the wind with their branches, creating a whistling sound that Jim had to intentionally block out to avoid having it work like a white noise generator. The ground didn't have any tracks from dangerous animals, just a deer or two, and tall weeds offered some protection for their small campsite. While not a perfect spot, it offered more protection than any other spot Jim could see from his current vantage point.
"No way. I'm cold enough now," Blair protested as he huddled at the base of a tree where exposed roots created some shelter from the wind.
"Chief, if your skin gets softened and rubbed raw, especially on your feet, we're as good as dead. The clothes need to dry and your skin needs to dry out. So strip and wrap yourself in this until the clothes dry." Jim handed Blair a thin but dry blanket he pulled out of the water-tight pack. Blair gave him a mutinous glare, but he started pulling his boots off, his teeth chattering the entire time.
"Melissa Haut used this line on me when I was seventeen... you know, the huddling for warmth thing."
"What? You were lost in the woods?" Jim asked as he leaned against the tree and pulled off his own boots.
"Oh man, no way, but her apartment was like brrrrr," Blair looked up with a smile and Jim realized he'd been taken.
"Your nose is growing there, Chief."
"Hey, I don't lie… I only obfuscate."
"Not even," Blair shot back, and Jim found himself smiling at the familiar banter. Blair had now stripped off his shirt, dropping it on a low branch as he struggled to work his belt buckle with trembling fingers. Jim picked up the forgotten blanket from the ground and draped it over his guide's shoulders as the dim moonlight reflected off a tangle of limp curls.
"This is a heat shield. It masks body heat from sensors and can keep a person warm in a fairly harsh environment," Jim said as he took the silver oval and snapped it out to a dome. "It's pretty sturdy, but you can't go kicking it in your sleep."
"Small problem," Blair immediately answered, and Jim knew exactly what Blair was worried about. The man couldn't stay still in sleep any more than when awake. Hyperactivity ran through every cell in Blair's body.
"Loop your belt around your thighs and ankles to keep your legs bent," Jim suggested. "I have to go cover our tracks so finish stripping and then pull the shield over you."
Jim knew exactly what Blair would suggest. "Chief, without Sentinel vision, you're going to create more tracks than you can cover, so you stay here and rest up." Jim watched Blair's determination slowly fade as he realized that he couldn't help.
"If you need anything..."
"I'll call for help, promise," Jim assured his partner. Knowing that Blair wouldn't be comfortable undressing with an audience, Jim headed back down the slope looking for the raw materials he'd need to cover their tracks even while he listened to his guide settle down under the heat shield, mildly cursing the twigs and rocks that poked him.
Nearly an hour later, Jim wearily dragged back up the hill, still barefooted, but with his clothes nearly dried and stiff against his body. Some time soon he would have to wash his clothing because dirty, oily clothes didn't hold body heat; however, tonight covering their tracks had been a priority. Since he couldn't hide the fact that something had disturbed the riverbank, Jim had carefully staged a bear's favorite fishing spot complete with enough bones and chunks of fish to throw off any dogs. Jim's nose had certainly protested. By tomorrow noon, the riverbank would stink bad enough that bears just might be attracted to the place, but by then he and Blair would be gone, one way or another.
Taking a brief moment to study the stars and drive a small branch into the ground, Jim pulled his clothing off and then arranged them on branches so that the wind would finish drying them before morning. As much as he wanted to get some distance between himself and the river, he knew that sleep was as essential to survival as food and water. The forest remained eerily silent, so Jim guessed he had several hours to sleep before dawn would send them running.
When he pulled up the edge of the dome, the heat seeped out onto the surrounding ground, warming his feet while the rest of his naked body shivered in the cold night air, the wind bringing every hair on his body to attention as goose bumps covered his skin. Obviously Blair didn't understand the danger of overheating, but then Blair didn't seem capable of overheating. Summer heat that left every detective in the department wilting and snapping grouchily just made Blair insanely happy. Jim slipped under, tucking his own body around his guide who now shifted unhappily and mumbled something about the cold without truly waking up. Using a flat rock, he propped up one edge of the dome and trusted his hearing to warn them if heat-seeking helicopters started sweeping the area.
Jim flinched when Blair shifted, pressing a hip into Jim's cock hard enough to bring tears to his eyes.
"Shove over," Jim said, and Blair struggled to kick out in his sleep, the leather of the belt creaking as Blair shifted around. Jim caught a flailing arm, trapping it between their bodies as Blair finally twisted so that he faced Jim in the cramped space, his body folding into Jim with an arm thrown over Jim's side.
The warmth spread through Jim who finally felt his muscles, which had been tense with cold, relax as the smell and feel of his sleeping guide coaxed him into a light sleep even as he listened to the sound of an owl's wings beating through the air over them. Blair twitched a little, pressing closer and suddenly Jim could smell the soft musk that he so often scented in the apartment. He suddenly realized it was the smell of a safe and happy Blair, and Jim felt another twinge because Blair had no right to feel safe or happy, and Jim had done that to his partner.
Hours later, when Blair's breath caught sharply, Jim instantly woke up. Ignoring the feeling of dirt clinging to his body and his sore back's complaints, he listened for any sound that would explain the sharp smell of Blair's fear.
"Chief?" he whispered softly when he couldn't find anything. Blair's heart pounded loudly, the beat echoing off the inside of the dome.
"Jim?" answered a voice confused with sleep.
"You okay?" Jim asked as the smell of fear dulled even though the dome held the bitterness close.
"Yeah. Oh, man. Just a little freaked is all." Blair started to push himself up, and Jim tightened his arm, pulling Blair close to his chest to keep him from lifting the dome.
"I can't hear any danger, but you still don't want to lift the dome quickly. The change in temperature won't do either of us any good," Jim answered, and then he relaxed his hold when the scent of fear sharpened again.
"Right. No problem," Blair quickly agreed and Jim tilted just the edge of the dome up a little farther up. Instantly the smell of fear dissipated as the smell of pine and dirt and animal scat rushed in with the cold morning air. Now, instead of pulling away, Blair pressed himself closer to Jim's warmth.
"Oh shit. That's cold. Man, why couldn't I have worn clothes to bed?" he complained as he pressed into Jim's chest, pulling both of his hands between their bodies.
"If you had slept in them, the side you laid on would still be damp, and then we'd have a real problem. Besides, we have to keep the clothes as clean as possible. Dirty clothes don't hold heat," Jim explained briefly as he tilted the edge of the shelter up again, leaving Blair now huddled against him and shivering.
"Fuck logic, I'm cold," Blair said in a voice intentionally petulant, and Jim realized his guide was entertaining him.
"You'd think with all that hair, you'd be warm," Jim teased back, and a sharp finger stuck him in the stomach. He retaliated by tilting the edge of the dome up again.
"Such language, Chief." Jim got his answer in the form of another poke in the stomach. "Okay, I'm going for it," Jim warned his partner before tilting the dome again and rolling out into the brisk morning air. He had to admit that Blair had a point because his entire body instantly tightened into a shivering knot as he quickly but clumsily pulled his clothing on in the dim light of dawn, his breath leaving long trails of white clouds behind.
He was tying his boots before Blair's hand appeared out from under the dome, palm up. Jim didn't even need to ask, he tossed a pair of briefs so they landed on the upturned hand. Blair grabbed them and yanked them under the dome. When the hand appeared again, Jim tossed the green army surplus pants. Luckily Blair had been dressed like someone heading into the woods for a couple of weeks. Unfortunately, they had abandoned his pack with all his survival gear back in the compound.
"How much time do you think we have?" Blair asked as a tangled mat of hair decorated with leaf fragments and tiny twigs poked out from under the dome.
"Not much. We need to head south, down slope. We're more likely to find towns that way."
"How screwed are we?"
"Pretty screwed," Jim admitted. "If we can get to a safe phone line I have a couple of people I could call, but we can't risk any of the obvious people getting involved."
"No Simon," Blair said, and Jim could hear the tremor. Blair had moved around so much in his life that he had admitted to Jim that he liked having a stable group of friends. The man got positively giddy the first time he'd gotten an invitation to poker night not because he happened to be in the room but because Simon had gone out of his way to issue a curt "Poker, my place on Friday, Sandburg."
"No Simon," Jim agreed sadly. He would miss his cranky captain.
"So, who? Or is this one of those 'the less you know' situation because I think I've already proved that I can't hold up against torture." Blair shrugged, but Jim could see how much it disturbed Blair.
"Chief, enough. You've held up better than most men, so the self-flagellation is not needed."
"Self flagellation?" Blair looked up from lacing his boots, a look of amusement on his face. "Someone's been reading my books again."
"I did go to college, Sandburg. And you need to know the plan in case..." Jim didn't finish his thought, but Section wanted a Sentinel more than an anthropologist with a non-conformist background. If it came down to it...
"Oh, don't even go there. We're in this together." Blair said with crossed arms.
"Yeah, Chief, we are. But if it comes down to one of us making it or both of us going down, I'd rather one of us got out alive."
"You mean the way you tried to stay alive when Michael pulled the gun on me?" Blair asked in a tone of voice that dared Jim to explain that.
"I knew he wasn't going to pull the trigger," Jim lied easily. "But if something happens, you need to find a man named Henry Aplaner in Skokie just outside of Chicago. People call him 'Uncle John'; he's retired Special Forces." Jim had almost finished tearing down their small camp, brushing away tracks with a branch and tucking items away in the pack for the long hike before leaning it against the tree.
"Won't Section watch your old army buddies?" Blair asked, now trying to work the twigs out of his hair. Jim gestured for him to follow as he headed down toward the river.
"He wasn't exactly a buddy," Jim wondered how much of the past he wanted to share, but considering their situation, he figured Blair deserved some honesty. "A lot of young people go into the army looking for discipline and a way to find approval." Jim hesitated. Not everyone would be so understanding of this next part, and while he suspected Blair had a more open mind than most, their current sleeping arrangements made the next part awkward.
"Yeah, man, I can see how you would need that after your dad," Blair finally prompted him, and Jim steeled himself for definite shock and possible disapproval.
"Sometimes relationships develop from that need. It doesn't mean that two guys are..." Jim stopped. He didn't even have the words for it. He and Aplaner had a rather unique relationship.
"Gay?" Blair asked in a neutral voice. Jim glanced at his guide as he led them to the river by a winding route with enough hard rocks to prevent any tracks.
"Yeah. He was a captain on base, but he wasn't my captain and let's just say that we went out of our way to make sure our names weren't connected." Jim left it at that, leaving out the parts that would be more likely to shock his guide: the way Jim had needed a strong, supportive male, the way Jim had gone along with things he would never normally want or even allow. The way Jim had loved going along with those things under those circumstances.
"Oh man, are you sure he's going to want to hear from you after all this time?" Blair softened his words by putting a supportive hand on Jim's back as they closed the distance to the river.
Jim thought about those sharp brown eyes that had watched him from the edge of the practice field as he'd trained under the hot sun, ignoring him until night when large hands would pull him from the dark path behind the barracks into the small officer's quarters with the neat bunk and the shelf with training manuals neatly lined up. The man had been quick to point out Jim's flaws and quick to praise Jim when he'd done well and quick to promise protection from all the demons that had haunted Jim's adolescent nightmares.
When he'd gotten back from Peru, he'd lost himself. He hadn't been able to forgive himself for surviving when his men hadn't. If Veronica had tracked him down back then, he would have invited her to put a bullet between his eyes. Instead, a knock on the door had brought Aplaner, a little grayer, a little softer in the middle, but still with those same sharp eyes. Jim remembered the feeling of shock as those hands moved in without warning or permission, but they had taken the edge off the pain and guilt, allowing Jim to survive shame that had almost ripped him apart.
If Jim had to sacrifice himself, if he had to trust his guide to someone else, Henry Aplaner would be the man.
"He'll take us in," Jim said confidently. "And if we get separated, we'll meet up there." Jim didn't bother looking at Blair because he didn't want to see the expression whether it was mutinous or disbelieving. They had reached the edge of the water and Jim went on one knee, scooping handfuls up to his mouth.
"Aren't there... I mean, can't we get sick off that?" Blair asked as he went down to his own knees next to the running water.
"Yep. I don't have water purification equipment in my pack, so we're both going to have diarrhea and intestinal parasites in a few weeks. It's better than dehydration," Jim answered casually as he continued to drink. He watched as Blair shrugged and then lowered his mouth to the water, drinking directly from the river. He came up after just a few seconds.
"Drink more, Chief," Jim ordered. "We only have one canteen, and I don't know how many streams we're going to come across."
Blair lowered himself back to the water with a sigh. "I'm going to pee my way down the mountain," he muttered unhappily, but he continued drinking.
After he finished his own drink, Jim concentrated on the water, searching for that flash of shimmer like a gasoline streak floating through the water and casting back the light in subtle rainbows. Finding it, Jim struck out, keeping his feet on the dry rock while his upper body went into the river. His hands closed around a slick, writhing length of fish that he threw over his shoulder and up onto the dry rock.
Pulling himself up, he turned to find the fairly large fish flopping desperately on a gray rock now darkened with water spots. Jim grabbed the fish and used his fingers to dig into the flesh under the gills, ripping the fish's body in half.
"Okay, that's just disturbing," Blair complained, and Jim looked up to see him hugging his own stomach in distress.
"Yeah, but we need to make this look like a popular bear hunting spot. That means no tools since I haven't seen a bear use a sharp edged tool," Jim pointed out as he looked at the headless fish in his hand. "And we can't risk a fire either," he said sadly. He'd certainly done this before in training, but he had to admit he would rather have a Wonderburger right about now.
"I suppose I can think of it as sushi," Blair said uncertainly, and Jim used his fingers to pull at the ragged skin at the torn neck.
"That's the spirit," Jim said as he handed over a chunk of watery flesh. Blair took it, looking at the limp hunk uncertainly before popping it in his mouth. His entire face folded into an expression of disgust as his Adam's apple bobbed in a pained attempt to swallow.
"Mmm, good," Blair finally strangled out, and Jim laughed before dialing down his sense of taste and popping a piece in his own mouth. "You know, there are tribes in South America who considering it good luck to eat the catch straight from the river, especially the first fish a young boy catches," Blair offered.
"I just know the protein will keep us going."
"If I don't throw it up," Blair muttered. Jim didn't even bother to answer since he found it difficult enough to swallow without thinking about vomiting.
"So, now we hit the road," Jim said as he tossed the remains of the fish in the river and bent down to wash his hands."
"And do we know how long this particular road is?" Blair asked as he did the same, rinsing away most of the foul smell before standing up.
"Nope. That's why you need to learn a few things. Last night I used the stars to plot our direction, so let's head back up to the campsite and I'll teach you how to avoid walking in circles," Jim said as he searched the ground for any tracks before herding his guide up the slope to the campsite.
"Goody," Blair answered.
"I guess I get to play teacher now," Jim smiled at the revenge as he scuffed out the patterns he could see in tiny ridges in the dirt as he backed his way up the slope after his partner. He thought he heard one more sarcastic 'goody' from the man, but then again, he might have been mistaken.
"You warm?" Jim asked, scenting the salt on the wind. He found himself thanking god that they weren't in the city because his senses seemed to be in a constant heightened state so that he could hear the birds building a nest above them and smell the droppings from a bear far off in the distance and see every needle on every pine tree. In nature the senses created a pattern that soothed him, and he remembered this feeling from Peru. If they'd been in the city, Blair would have had to sedate him by now.
"A little," Blair admitted. Jim intentionally slowed a little more. Just because Blair insisted on taking his turn with the pack didn't mean they had to travel as fast when he had it.
"Open your coat."
"It's cold," Blair complained.
"And you're sweating. If you sweat into those clothes, they'll get too dirty to keep you clean and you'll lose too much water." Jim stopped and turned around to make sure Blair followed his directions and opened his winter coat. "Let me have the pack."
"No way, man. You're just as tired as I am."
"But I'm not sweating precious water into my clothing."
"All right, all right, I'll open my coat," Blair groused as he unbuttoned his heavy coat. "We can't be too low on water--we keep drinking." Blair lifted the canteen and shook it, looking up in alarm when he felt the water sloshing around. "Um, we seem to be a little low on water."
"We can't let ourselves get dehydrated. It's better to drink a little as we go and hope to find a creek," Jim said absent-mindedly as he started walking again. Every once in a while he could catch a whiff of algae, so he suspected they would find water soon enough.
"Luck doesn't seem to be going our way," Blair dryly offered.
"I know, Chief, but we can't afford to get dehydrated and make stupid mistakes."
"And if we don't find a stream?"
"I keep catching a hint of water on the air, but the senses are a little overactive, so it may be a way off. It's still better to avoid dehydration for as long as possible." Jim said the words as casually as possible, but Blair's hiss of breath told him he hadn't said them casually enough.
"Overactive how?" Blair demanded, and his footsteps quickened until he was right behind Jim, a hand resting on Jim's back.
"I'm just hearing and smelling more than usual," Jim brushed off the comment, not wanting to explain how he could see the arching beauty in every translucent blade of grass. Besides, with the sound of Blair's heartbeat and the rustling of a pair of deer through the leaves several hundred miles to the north and the smell of decaying plants and fresh dirt, he had too much input to zone on just one sense.
"How much more?" Blair insisted, and Jim sighed knowing that Blair wasn't going to let him off without full disclosure. The man could give Section interrogators tips on persistence.
"A lot more, but all the senses are equally intense, so I'm not in danger of a zone," Jim said and hoped it was enough to satisfy his guide.
"Oh man, I wonder if it's the isolation from civilization or the danger Section poses. The senses might be much more powerful than we've given them credit for. But with the psychosomatic features, it might be really hard to isolate the true cause."
Jim didn't answer, but he had to smile at the irrepressible nature of his guide. Not even being hunted by Section could faze him for long. Jim was about to tease Blair when the man started talking again, this time his voice lowered into a near whisper, his words suddenly serious.
"How far behind do you think they are?" Blair asked, and Jim found himself scanning the sky at the question. Twice they had hidden under the heat shield while helicopters scanned the area, but so far the machines had moved on in a standard search pattern without any indication they had spotted anything.
"The longer it takes them to get a general direction on us, the wider the search area becomes."
"And the better our chances," Blair finished.
"Exactly. We'll change directions slightly tomorrow morning just to make sure that if they do find our tracks we aren't too easy to find."
"Cool. Have I mentioned lately that if I had to be chased by a super secret government agency, I'm grateful to have you around?" Blair's voice had that amused, slightly sarcastic tone that Jim associated with far happier times, Blair teasing him about the girl in records hitting on him or chastising him for telling a young woman that her perfume reminded him of his grandmother.
"Chief, I'm really sorry..."
"Stuff a sock in it," Blair quickly cut him off. "This isn't my favorite part of the whole Sentinel experience, but I'm not sorry I'm here. We'll get through this and be okay. And speaking of... where exactly are we going to go once we get to Uncle John's place?"
"How's Peru sound?" Jim asked as he scanned the slope below them. His vision narrowed the view down as efficiently as binoculars, focusing on the land so precisely that he could see a rock balanced on a flat, hard section of clay-dense soil or a single dandelion petal. The land to the west was rock and would cover their tracks, but some of the rocks looked dangerously loose. They really couldn't risk the chance of a twisted ankle. Jim headed to the east where the carpet of pine needles would show their tracks at least for a few hours until the wind that pulled at them rearranged the ground and covered their tracks.
"Do I have to wear those skimpy tribal outfits?" Blair asked with a snort, following without questioning Jim's choice of direction.
"Nah, you can be the shaman in beads and feathers," Jim quickly answered, leading them down the slope while watching the ground for depressions and hillocks that would reveal hidden dangers below the surface layer of debris. A bird screeched overhead and Jim froze as he searched for the reason for the bird's alarm. Blair's heart sounded a steady drum beat as he finally identified the sound of small claws against bark. Probably a raccoon after the eggs. Jim started walking again, and Blair picked up the conversation.
"Cool. Well, except that I don't know how to be a shaman."
"You'll figure it out," Jim answered confidently since Blair did seem able to handle most things without much help. Hell, half the time Jim fought him, and Blair still managed to figure out things about being a Sentinel that Jim didn't understand.
"Yeah, yeah. Just maybe not fast enough," Blair said softly, and Jim could hear the self-reproach, he just truly didn't understand why. Whatever the reason, a change of topic seemed in order.
"So, are you bothered by my past?" Jim asked, curious how the man he'd lived with for nearly three years would take his newly revealed sexual history.
"Oh man, lots of people experiment with sexuality during adolescence; that it doesn't even count. I once played doctor with a boy named Charlie. It's all normal psychosocial development."
"And if I said that Aplaner isn't confined to my adolescence?"
"Um. Oh." Blair fell silent, and Jim felt his stomach tighten at the disapproval implied by that silence.
"Watch your step," Jim said even though the ground over which they were walking didn't have any particular dangers. It just seemed easier than listening to Blair's silence.
"That's cool man. You've caught me a little off guard is all," Blair finally offered, his voice sounding a little strained even though Jim could tell from the steadily beating heart that he was speaking the truth. "I guess I just never considered that."
"Even after Brackett's innuendo when we first moved in?"
"I thought he was just being an ass because of my hair and earrings. I do have a lot of people who assume I swing both ways."
"I know you don't," Jim quickly assured his partner. He really shouldn’t have broached the subject, but then he picked scabs too. Somewhere he suspected he had a self-destructive streak that came out at the worst times.
"It's not that I'm *not* attracted both ways, because I fully believe that the human body is programmed to respond to any stimulation that feels good, and did you know that stud animals like boars and bulls have to be tested to make sure they respond to females because every once in a while they just don't? There's enough homosexual behavior in nature to prove that the act is natural. Bruce Bagemihl's Biological Exuberance includes homosexual behavior in nearly 500 animal species. Killer whales will practice sexual behavior in all male groups before going out to mate with females, and some never leave the male group, remaining homosexual their whole life. … and I lost my argument somewhere in all that," Blair finally admitted as he fell silent again.
"Sandburg, you don't have to work so hard at it. I'm fine with my own sexuality, and I'm not trying to jump your bones. If I haven't climbed in your bed in the last three years, I'm not likely to start doing it now," Jim growled, angry with himself for bringing up the topic, a topic which had caused Blair's heart to start pounding faster as a odor that wasn't quite fear drifted off him in waves.
"Oh. No, I never thought you would. Oh man, I'm fucking this up. You're trusting me with one of your defining secrets, and I'm babbling about killer whales."
"You're not fucking anything up," Jim argued.
"Yeah, man. I so totally am. I'm okay with you being bisexual, and I trust you. This is just a little weird."
"Weirder than running for our lives from a covert government agency?"
"Okay, not as weird as it would have been a week ago, but still weird. I guess I've just always thought of you as the big ladies' man, and this is just a little unexpected. I'm totally okay, and this weirdness is all about me, man. Totally my issue, and I own that."
Blair fell silent again, but pieces started connecting in Jim's mind, and he didn't like the picture at all.
"Water under the bridge, man."
Jim felt a nearly physical pull in his stomach as Blair confirmed his worst fear. "Fuck. Who." Jim stopped dead in his tracks, turning to look at his guide with a rising fury. Someone had hurt Blair, he could see the edge of that pain in the expression on Blair's face.
"Whoa there. Man, it was over a decade ago, and it really wasn't anything," Blair said with a small step backwards. Jim felt bile back up into his throat, the sharp acidic taste rising into his mouth as he scanned the woods with a fury he couldn't remember ever feeling.
"Who," he demanded, his eyes returning to Blair.
"This guy in this commune out east. He tried getting a little touchy, and I yelled for Naomi. It's okay, though, really."
"Fucking asshole," Jim said as he reached out to touch Blair's hair. He just needed to feel Blair whole and safe. Well, that and he needed to rip someone's arms off. Blair raised his own hand, and Jim went to pull back, afraid that Blair would push him away. Instead Blair curled his fingers around Jim's wrist, holding the hand in place so that Jim could feel the messy curls under his fingertips.
"Funny, Naomi said pretty much the same thing. She also broke a lamp over his head and threatened to rip his genitals off before chasing him out of the commune buck naked, and man, this was not a nudist kind of place." Blair laughed softly at the memory, and Jim could feel his anger start to ebb at the sight of that smile.
"Hey, he didn't exactly get far, and it was kinda neat to see how far Naomi would go to protect me. She meditated for a week over wanting to actually kill another human being, but then she decided that maternal instinct was a natural part of accepting her womanhood." Blair shrugged and gave a crooked smile. "It's part of my past, and since I like who I am now, I have to accept all the experiences that led me to become this person."
"I can't believe you aren't angry." Jim couldn't help himself any more, he curled his fingers around the back of Blair's neck and pulled the man into an embrace. "I'll kill him," Jim promised in a whisper as he wrapped both arms around Blair and held him tightly.
"And the fact that you look ready to do that is more than a little freaky. What are you feeling right now, Jim?"
Jim thought about that. He didn't usually like sharing his feelings, not even with Blair, but after Blair's confession he didn't feel like he had a right to hide his reaction. "Furious," he admitted. "If that man were here, I *would* kill him."
"We need to consider that this is part of the Sentinel deal."
"Sandburg," Jim opened his arms and stepped back so that he could look Blair in the eye. "I am about more than just my senses. I have a right to feel angry that someone tried to hurt a friend."
"Uh huh," Blair said suspiciously as he crossed his arms. "And when was the last time you got so angry that you honestly wanted to murder someone?"
Jim answered without even thinking. "When Yeagar tried to kill you, right after Incacha died." He remembered the panic and fury and blinding rage he'd felt when someone had taken Incacha from him. If Blair hadn't been there to stop him, he might have hurt the officers who'd simply come to get Incatcha's body. And if Blair and the whole city of Cascade with its laws and moral codes hadn't been there, he would have cheerfully snapped Yeager's neck when he caught him on the street. Even in his covert ops days, when killing had been more a part of his life than he wanted to remember, he hadn't ever *wanted* to kill, but that time, he desperately wanted to kill.
"Oh yeah, and that's not Sentinel related at all." Blair rolled his eyes dramatically, and suddenly Jim felt a wave of helplessness at the thought that his feelings might be nothing more than proof that he couldn't control his own life.
"We don't have time for this, let's get moving," Jim said as he turned his back and continued leading them down the mountain, the smell of crushed grass like sweet bread rising with each footstep. The smell made his stomach growl uncomfortably, but Jim ignored it. As long as their water supply remained limited, they couldn't afford to waste water digesting food, so he wouldn't stop to eat until they reached their next source of water. Giving the burdock plants they kept passing a hungry glance, Jim focused on the distant mountain top he was using for a walking marker.
"Sure, no time for talking as we spend hours just walking in a straight line doing nothing," Blair offered sarcastically, and Jim concentrated on ignoring both his guide and the tendrils of fury that still made him want to find that anonymous man and snap his neck.
For the next couple of hours, as the sun began to slide toward the horizon, Jim was so focused that the machine didn't immediately register on his senses. When the distinctive whir-whoosh sound finally triggered the warning center of his brain, he cursed their current position in the middle of a wide swath of land cleared of trees by some long past forest fire so that hip deep weeds that tangled around their feet. Unfortunately those weeds wouldn't protect them from anyone searching from overhead if they tried to hide here. Jim turned and yanked the straps of the pack off Blair, slinging it over one shoulder as he grabbed Blair's arm with his free hand and started running.
Without even asking, Blair ran beside him, his breath heavy as they raced for the tree line, their feet ripping the weeds out of the ground as the long blades tangled in their boots. Jim leapt over the half-burnt and rotting corpse of a fallen tree, dragging Blair over to the sound of soft curses as Blair struggled to get his shorter legs over the thing.
The mechanical sound continued to grow louder until Jim didn't dare keep running. When they reached the next deep shadow, Jim flung the pack down and snapped out the dome. Blair brushed twigs and leaves clear with sweeping arms before lying on the ground and tucking his knees up. Jim curled around his partner, pulling the dome all the way down around them. He had to tilt the structure up for a second so he could scrape the dirt with his boot to make the dome sit flat against the ground and then he lay quietly, panting through his mouth and tasting the pepper of Blair's fear as he listened to the helicopter come closer.
"Is that them?" Blair whispered roughly.
"Shh." Jim strained his hearing until the sound of the rotors roared in his ears and he had to fight to keep from flinching. As the roar came closer, nearly stopping overhead, Jim could catch snippets of conversation. A male voice asked for a second pass over the area, and a second voice agreed.
Jim had to fight down the growl that threatened to escape from his throat. He knew exactly what they were seeing: the trail of flattened and bent weeds that he and Blair had left behind as they made their mad dash for the trees. But at the time, he'd had a choice between leaving that obvious trail and being caught in the open with the dome as a visible as a signal flag. Now he just had to hope that someone on that helicopter came to the conclusion that they were seeing the tracks of some random hiker or grizzly bear or elk. Damn, he knew better, he shouldn't have tried to save time. They should've detoured around the open space. Jim tightened his grip on Blair's shoulders, lowering his forehead to a spot on Blair's back between his shoulder blades until he rested his head against his partner. He could feel Blair's heartbeat where their skin touched and smell his scent but with his head against Blair's back, he didn't have to see the fear or disappointment reflected in Blair's eyes.
"They'll go past, all the others did," Blair assured him in a Sentinel-soft whisper.
Jim fervently hoped so. Somehow, he didn't think they would get off so easily this time, though. The helicopter made another pass of the field, and Jim could hear the wind rushing by the dome even though they were far enough back into the woods that they weren't visible. If those two called for a ground search, Jim had no doubt about the outcome.
A heavy thud suggested to Jim that a person had just jumped from the low, hovering helicopter, and he sat up as much as he could in the confines of the small dome. Blair temporarily stopped breathing, and Jim could taste the panic growing in the small enclosed space. Then Blair's breath returned in heavy gasps that threatened to make his guide hyperventilate.
"Shhh," Jim crooned softly, and Blair lowered his head, resting his forehead on the back of his own hands as his breathing slowly evened out. The regular, slow pattern told him that Blair had retreated into meditation, and Jim absent-mindedly rubbed a shoulder though the heavy winter jacket, his glove sliding over the nylon making a small whistling sound that seemed unnaturally loud to Jim's ears. He stopped as he listened for the sound of the footsteps growing nearer or voices calling for backup or the helicopter lifting off. But none of that came. Somewhere out there, probably in that open patch of land, a Section agent stood and the helicopter hovered, and Jim knelt over his guide wondering what the hell he'd do when the enemy finally got around to searching under the trees. Technically, he knew what he'd do, he just wondered how to do it with Blair watching.
Chapter Eight :
Jim closed his eyes and let his head rest on Blair's shoulder as the sweat ran from his hairline, over his cheek and then dropped onto the back of Blair's neck. The cooling trail lasted only a brief moment in the insufferable heat of the dome.
Outside the shield, Jim could hear the forest slowly quiet as twilight fell. The helicopter had landed nearly an hour ago, but the voice on the radio had ordered the two men to hold position and watch for anything unusual, so they held position as Jim and Blair struggled to not do anything unusual. Beneath him, Blair breathed slowly, and Jim knew that he would have to lift the shield soon. If he didn't, not only were they going to sweat away the last of their precious water, but they were going to be suffering from heat stroke.
"Anything yet?" Blair asked in a hopeful voice. Jim just shook his head. Blair must have felt the movement against his back because he gave a heavy sigh and returned to the deep breathing that suggested meditation.
They were running out of time.
"I'm going to lift the shield," Jim whispered in Blair's ear, and the body that had been limp with fatigue and heat tensed immediately."
"Oh man, they'll see us," he said in a desperate voice.
"The heat flare will be too intense. They'll think it's a mistake. They'll hesitate," Jim practically panted in his guide's ear. The heat was starting to make his head feel light, as though his senses were floating just outside the dome, and that was not a good sign.
"You run into the woods, down the mountain, I'll run straight for it, and hopefully they'll think it's some sort of equipment glitch." Jim sent up a quick prayer that the men in the helicopter were naïve enough to believe just that. The plan wouldn't fool Michael for an instant, but then Michael wasn't standing in that field.
"And what exactly do you plan to do against two armed men?" Blair's voice demanded sharply even if he did still whisper.
"What I have to do," Jim said, unwilling to say any more than that. "Now get ready."
Jim listened to the world around them, but he could only hear the same sounds that he had heard for the last hour, the shifting of a body against a plastic seat, the movement of a squirrel on the tree above them, the electronic whirr of machines that searched for him and his guide. Bracing himself against the fear that made his chest tighten, Jim threw back the dome.
He gasped as the cold air hit his wet hair, instantly causing his whole body to tense and begin shivering. He hesitated for just a second, making sure that Blair took off through the trees, and then he dashed toward the helicopter sitting in that field. With the engines cold, they wouldn't be able to take off fast enough to escape him, not that they would try. He counted on their arrogance in believing themselves safe from two unarmed men.
The night had grown dark, a half moon low on the horizon made the black helicopter glow slightly in the light, and he could hear the equipment burst into suddenly life with a series of beeps that sent the two men inside the helicopter scrambling. The staccato clicks of switches and the slide of fabric over plastic and the click of a door latch told Jim everything he needed to know. Jim bent low he started moving forward as quickly as possible while using a serpentine path that hopefully wouldn't attract too much attention.
As he expected, the motor of the helicopter started whining at it warmed up, and a voice in the helicopter reported the anomalies in enough detail that Jim knew that Michael would recognize what had happened even if these two obviously didn't.
Now Jim saw a shadow, a dark, muted blur against the dark shiny surface of the machine. Jim forced his cold and trembling limbs to move faster as the man crept along the side of the helicopter, his weapon held straight down against his leg. The man's steady sweeping gaze suggested the darkness didn't bother him, and as the agent's head turned, Jim spotted the deformed profile, eyes and nose squared off by the goggles over his face.
Jim knew that equipment cut off peripheral vision, but he also knew that the minute the man's sweeping gaze turned toward him, he would appear a hot white silhouette in the dark. Launching himself forward, he sprinted toward the man silently in the dim light reaching the man just as those all-seeing eyes turned toward him.
The agent took a startled, awkward step backwards, raising his weapon at the same time, but Jim grabbed the man by the neck and slammed his head into the side of the helicopter hard enough to stun him. The body went instantly lax so that when Jim grabbed the weapon and let go of the man, he slid to the ground. Jim quickly knelt and grabbed for the back of the man's belt where he would keep extra ammo, finding what he needed with his fingers while still watching the side of the helicopter.
"Campbell?" a quiet voice hissed, and Jim wished he hadn't heard the name. He didn't want to know whose heartbeat now skipped dangerously as the body lay still in the grass. The second man didn't make the mistake of instantly coming out after his partner, but Jim heard the door on the far side of the helicopter snick open. Jim dropped to the ground, using the unconscious body as a shield as he sighted his weapon.
The man's head appeared as he leaned out the bottom of the helicopter, his gun visible as a gleam in the moonlight, his arm blocking a clean shot to the head. Jim sighted down his weapon and waited. The man carefully turned, his face distorted by another chunky pair of goggles. As his head turned, his gun suddenly snapped to the figure in the grass and fired while at the same time, Jim pulled the trigger on his stolen gun. He hit the agent between the eyes and heard the thick heat sensitive equipment in those glasses shatter at the same time the body in front of him jerked at the impact of the bullet.
The smell of blood nearly choked Jim as he stood up and staggered back away from the heavy, brackish scent of the two bodies. He could hear one heartbeat still struggle with an irregular beat, and his guilt at taking yet another life rose a fraction. Well, it did until Jim considered that these same men wanted to kill Blair. They sat in the field hoping for a chance to kill or capture his guide, and Jim suddenly felt a fury rise up as he looked down at the dying beast at his feet. Wordlessly, he brought the gun up slightly so that it pointed at the prey. Jim could feel his arm tremble in the cold as he tightened his finger around the trigger.
"Jim?" a quiet voice called. Jim spun around and spotted Blair crouching down at the base of one of the trees at the edge of the clearing, his blind eyes searched the field randomly, and the sight of Blair so defenseless turned the dying man at his feet into a trivial annoyance not worth the bullet. He started across the field to his partner.
"I told you to run," he snarled, as he scanned the area with eyes that dismissed the darkness as easily as his conscience dismissed the heavy, wet breathing of the dying man on the ground.
"Oh yeah, you mean run blindly through the woods with no supplies and no idea where I'm going? I tried that, and when I tripped over our pack after running a perfect circle, I decided I'm not going anywhere without you," Blair sighed as he stood up and walked uncertainly forward toward Jim's voice. Sure enough, he dragged the pack behind him through the grass. Only when he stopped talking did Jim hear the teeth clattering together. Right. He had more important issues than yelling at his directionally impaired guide.
"Come on. We need to strip the helicopter of supplies." Jim closed the distance, and pulled Blair's shaking body to his side, wondering whether cold or adrenaline caused those tremors. Blair just followed uncharacteristically silent until they reached the helicopter. Jim pulled open the door, and the dome light in the helicopter seemed so bright that the beams of light stabbed outward like spotlights, making Jim flinch back away until a warm hand settled on his back.
"Dial it down, buddy. It's just normal light."
"Easy for you to say," Jim complained mildly as he squinted until he could force his heightened eyesight closer to normal even though the moon's reflections off the window of the open door still fragmented into a brilliant rainbow that reflected off the glass and onto Blair's hair and face.
"Nothing's easy for me to say right now," Blair pointed out, and Jim realized that Blair's body shivered in the cool night air, the shirt and pants damn with sweat and not holding in much heat at all. "So, any chance we can crank up the heater and fly home?" he asked with an expression equally hopeful and sarcastic.
"We'll be warm when the blow us out of the sky with a missile," Jim answered as he started the search. Section wouldn't send this out without serious equipment, and Jim started searching. The first blanket he wrapped around Blair's body, taking a moment to rub his own gloved but chilled hand up and down Blair's arms until the circulation improved enough that the shivering slowed.
"Thanks, man." Blair said as he clutched the blanket to him and leaned against the side of helicopter. Suddenly, Blair's body went stiff. "Oh man. I should not have looked down."
Looking down, Jim saw the man whose forehead had disappeared under the force of his bullet, most of the face mangled by flying glass and metal from the goggles. Part of his brain registered the horror of the sight, but a larger part could feel only satisfaction that an enemy that would have hurt his guide died before having the chance. With a grim smile on his face, he looked up and caught the expression of dismay on Blair's face. All satisfaction drained from him.
"He would have killed us," Jim pled for understanding.
"Yeah, I know. I'm okay," Blair answered even though he still looked ready to vomit as he looked at the faceless body. Jim stepped to the side so that he blocked the view, and Blair continued to stare in the direction of Jim's stomach for several seconds before shifting his gaze up to Jim's eyes.
"He was a killer. He tried to kill me." Jim knew he had no right to manipulate Blair's own protective feelings, but he couldn't risk losing Blair. He listened as Blair's speeding heart slowly returned to a more familiar pattern even though the salty scent of something even more disagreeable than fear lingered in the cold air the way his breath lingered in white puffs on the air.
"I know." Blair stepped forward and put a hand on Jim's arm, and the pressure of that hand on his arm said more than all Blair's words. Jim could feel his body relax under the knowledge that his guide wasn't going to abandon him. "I knew what you were planning."
Jim turned back to the helicopter and started handing out supplies: blankets, emergency rations, a flare gun, and a first aid kit. He handed each item to Blair who turned his back on the body and piling the items several feet away. "Stack this up with the other stuff," Jim said as he handed out a length of rope and a map that had been taped to the visor of the 'copter.
"I am not carrying all this crap," Blair commented as he slid past the body and added the items.
"No one is carrying," Jim said as he pulled the straps from the last item. Section obviously intended the agents to follow through the woods if needed.
"What's that?" Blair asked, and Jim ignored his partner as he struggled to single-handedly wrestle the motorbike out of the small space. "Oh man, is that what I think it is? Because I have to tell you I am entirely ready to not be walking any more."
Jim just continued to pull until the front wheel cleared the seat and he could pull the motorbike out, the tires bouncing on the ground as he lowered it by the handlebars.
"We're going to have to make some good time now. They'll be here any second. Spread a blanket out on the ground and put the first aide kit and rations in it. Roll it up…"
"And then tie the ends in a hobo pack that I can sling across one shoulder. On it." Blair finished the sentence and immediately started in on his project while Jim quickly searched the two bodies for additional weapons or information. The pilot had a panel like the one Michael often used in training, and Jim thumbed it on, wondering if he could glean any information before having to abandon the item. He wouldn't have taken the risk except that Section already knew their location because he'd failed to stop the pilot from transmitting the heat sensor data. He internally flinched at that failure.
When he flipped the switch, Birkoff's face immediately appeared in profile, a room of section Jim didn't recognize behind him.
"Did you identify the sou…" Birkoff broke off mid-word when he turned to find Jim's face on his screen. Jim studied the shadows on the wall behind Birkoff, the twitches of Birkoff's left eye, the hand frozen mid-typing over a keyboard.
"Leave us alone," Jim simply said. No threats or begging, just a simple statement.
"I can't do that," Birkoff said, his heart rate spiking so sharply that Jim could hear it through the panel.
"Then more people will die," Jim answered, and he could hear Blair take a deep breath behind him.
"You know you cannot win," said a French-accented voice as Michael stepped into range of the camera. Jim studied those cold features, but now he knew Michael's weakness.
"You have what's yours, and I have what's mine. Time to call a truce." Jim didn't push his threat any farther, but he could see from Michael's narrowed eyes that the man understood the other side of Jim's comment, the unspoken 'if you take what's mine, I'll take what's yours.'
"Oh shit. Man, shit, they'll know where we are," Blair nearly hyperventilated, and Jim let his hand rest on his guide's shoulder.
"They already knew, Chief. We need to move quickly, so wrap another blanket around you so that you don't get too chilled."
"But they'll track us," Blair objected even as he grabbed another blanket and tucked it up under his coat in front where it would help block the wind from riding the motorbike. Jim took the pack Blair had brought from the campsite, checking the heat shield which Blair had folded and slid into its sleeve on the underside of the pack. Rather than put the pack on his back, Jim slung it over one arm and pulled it around to the front. If they had to dump weight and move quickly, he would drop the pack and rely on the emergency rations in Blair's smaller bundle.
"First rule of escape is to evade the enemy; the second rule is to distract them." Jim took straddled the motorbike, kicking it into life before Blair climbed on behind him. The bottom of the pack rested on the gas tank, and Jim felt Blair's strong arms wrap around his waist. The wind whipped around his face, and between the wind and the extra weight, the gas would run out long before they reached a town, but it gave them a chance—and with Section resources heading this way, they had no chance without it.
"Okay, so distraction implies some sort of diversion."
"And we have one." Jim pushed the bike into gear and bounced across the field, Blair's arms tightening as he struggled to keep the skidding bike level. On the far side of the clearing, he stopped and took out the flare gun. Leaning back, he pointed it toward the helicopter.
"Whoa, man, hold on there. You could set a major fire," Blair protested, his hands digging into Jim's sides.
"I intend to." Jim said dryly. "It is a diversion."
"But, man, there could be campers up there and the environmental damage."
"Chief, this is the wrong season for hikers, and Section does not want to explain their presence to park rangers. They will either have to divert resources to stopping the fire themselves…"
"Or they'll have to get off the mountain because every radar unit in the area will monitor firefighting planes up here."
"Yep, and if the fire is large enough so many firefighters will come up that we'll just be two more people in the night. You see why this is a good idea?"
"Oh man, this is a horrible idea, it's just the best idea we have available."
"Exactly, Chief," Jim smiled as he took aim again. Blair muttered a warning for him to dial it down, and he did as he squeezed the trigger. The flare screamed from the gun with a unique whistle and then the helicopter exploded in a fiery ball that rose into the dark sky with a deafening crash. The red and orange and yellow of the exploding gas tank swirls and twisted like cats' lithe bodies ripping into each other in a fight. The entire sky seemed to glow for one second, and then the wind picked up the sparks and pushed them in a line across the grasses, the hungry flames licking the earth as they quickly scampered toward the trees on the far side of the clearing.
"At least I'm warm," Blair joked as the heat blast from the explosion enveloped them in the smell of burning rubber and hot metal.
"Keep your head down," Jim said as he stuffed the empty flare gun in his pocket and turned his attention back to the path ahead of them. Guiding the bike through the rough underbrush would challenge the most experienced rider, and now Jim had to do it in the dark with a passenger clinging behind him. Kicking the machine into gear, Jim used his feet to brace them until the bike sped into the forest, the engine whining unhappily under the weight and the need to maneuver around trees and fallen debris.
For one second, Jim thought he heard the sound of helicopters overhead, but the sound faded so quickly that Jim suspected he might have imagined it as they raced through the dark, following the Southern Cross at an angle that would both miss the nearest town and hopefully miss the Section agents who would definitely be covering that path.
For the third time, Jim felt the bike veering out of his control, both the wheels sliding too far left, and he leaned his weight so that they would slide into the fall rather than sail headlong into some tree. Blair's shaking arms tightened around his waist, that solid form almost becoming part of him as he adjusted his balance for both their weight.
Bringing the motorbike into a controlled slide, Jim ended up laying in a pile of pine needles, the scent irritating his nose as he listened to Blair's steady heartbeat. Either his friend was becoming far too used to the danger, or he was too tired to react any more.
"You okay?" he asked as he used the bike's silence to listen for any sign of pursuit. Around him, the forest rustled unnaturally, animals that would normally sleep through the night moving away from that crackling monster that Jim could faintly hear miles behind them.
"Other than scratched, bruised, exhausted and freezing, I'm peachy," Blair answered, and those arms slowly detached from Jim.
Jim pushed on the motorbike, lifting the machine carefully to avoid the hot muffler, and Blair scooted out from under slowly, the last of his reserves drained by the lack of sleep and cold, and yet he never complained as he rearranged the hobo's pack slung over his shoulder.
"I'll get the bike going." Jim stated the obvious, his own clear thoughts muddled by cold and the violent trembling of his hands. The sweat-damp clothing and the wind created by the bike's downhill flight had chilled him through until he had forced down the dial for touch until his fingers felt thick and clumsy as he struggled with the bike and the pack he still carried in front of his body. He wanted to get going again so that he would at least have Blair's warmth at his back, so he pulled the machine up and tried to start it. Unfortunately, the engine refused to turn over, grinding harshly without enough gas to actually start.
"Oh man, I guess that's the end of the free ride," Blair said softly, his voice quavering with a cold that made Jim want to curl around his guide, but they couldn't stop now. He could hear the high-pitched whine of a generator, an old generator with a belt that warbled an annoyingly high note that made his ears ache. Not Section equipment
"There's a house," Jim waved in the general direction.
"Please tell me I can crawl there without having to stand up," Blair said with a hint of humor, but Jim could also see the truth in the words as Blair leaned against a tree just to keep sitting up.
"I can hear the generator," Jim answered, realizing it wasn't really an answer since he could no longer track distance with his hearing, and he had admitted it to Blair. The offending generator could be 500 feet or two miles away.
"We are so testing your new limits when we get home," Blair said as he pulled himself up to his feet using the lower tree branches for leverage. Jim took two steps up the slope of the hill and held a hand out for Blair to take before the man fell forward on his face. He'd expected Blair to push it away and claim that he was fine, but instead Blair gripped his hand, holding on tightly and leaning heavily he struggled to get down the small incline littered with leaves and needles. Jim silently helped while Blair and an avalanche of debris finally reached the bottom.
Without another word, Blair started walking the direction the fallen bike still pointed, and Jim wished there were some way to put Blair back in his life at Rainer, to leave him and run on his own. However, Section would never let Blair go free because Jim wouldn't ever leave his guide behind, not even if it was for his own good. So Blair might have a long way to go before ever again calling a place home.
"I'm sorry I got you into this," Jim said softly. As much as he wanted to avoid the whole issue of his rising guilt, his guide deserved an apology.
"Don't be," Blair answered simply as he kept plodding forward. Blair sighed before continuing. "You're the first person since Naomi who's let me into their life." Blair stopped for a moment as though thinking and walking were too much to do at the same time. "You're the *only* person other than Naomi," he amended that with a shrug before he continued, his arms hanging limply at his sides.
"Chief." Jim stopped not sure how to answer that. He could hear the pain even under the tired and emotionless tone.
"Man, before you, I would cling to the edge of all these cultures, but I never fit in. I've never been invited to one of the other teacher's houses. When I started college, everyone avoided me because of my age… well, that and because I was a bit of a nudje there for a while, but now the older I get, the more students avoid socializing with me. I suppose I could cut my hair and try to fit in somewhere, but it wouldn't be the same. You and Naomi are the only ones to ever truly let *me* into your lives." Blair fell silent as he breathed heavily as though out of breath from the string of words, and Jim found he had no way to answer. He'd felt that rejection at home where his father and Stephen had eventually formed a sort of united front against him, but in the army and at work, he'd functioned as a part of a group.
However, when he thought back over the last couple of years, Blair hadn't brought any long-term friendships with him. College students wanting to just hang out with Blair hadn't invaded his home, and Blair hadn't spent too many evenings out unless except when it came to his ever-changing parade of ladies. He felt an instant wave of anger toward all the people who hadn't seen value in loving Blair. Then Jim's mind turned, and he realized that if Blair had found a place, a wife or even a group that demanded all his spare time, he would have given up his quest for a Sentinel. He had to admit to a small selfish part of him was grateful that their rejection had delivered Blair into his life. And that brought him back to the beginning: realizing that Blair's current suffering was his fault.
"Being in my life isn't the best place right now," Jim finally answered as they walked along the bottom of a dry ravine.
"Better than being out of your life," Blair answered. Jim had no answer to that, only an overwhelming feeling of gratitude that made his eyes sting because he knew that his father or Stephen or Carolyn or even Simon would never come to that conclusion—only Blair.
The moon hid behind the rising smoke of the fire, and Jim eventually slipped an arm around Blair, guiding his guide through the darkness as they stumbled toward that sound. With each step, Blair's body trembled under his arm even though he remained stubbornly silent, even when Jim now offered little tempting bits of information that should have sent his manic guide bouncing.
"Funny. I can almost see that sound we're following, like a trail of smoke that disappears if I don't concentrate." Jim watched as Blair ignored his words.
The silence from Blair worried Jim more than any amount of complaining, or in this case not complaining. Blair's heart still beat steadily, if anything more slowly than normal, as though meditating, and Jim feared hypothermia had more to do with it than Blair's intentional attempts to stay calm. Eventually, Blair's arm went around his waist, and Jim could feel the subtle pulls and pushes of Blair's muscles as he struggled to stay upright. He used his hold on Jim to keep his balance. Shock from the cold and dehydration probably added to the problem, and Jim could feel a rising desperation to get Blair somewhere safe, somewhere with water to rehydrate him and warmth to keep his body from going into shock.
"Almost there," Jim promised, and he realized his own boots were dragging badly enough that leaves piled up on top and behind them a trail announced to anyone with eyes that they were both ready to collapse. Jim closed his arm around the pack in front of him even as he considered dropping it. Blair didn't answer.
As they came around the edge of a hill, Jim suddenly flinched back as his world exploded into light that made his eyes immediately start to water as he dropped to his knees. Despite his squinting, the light stabbed at his eyes and caused his head to begin to sharply throb as he leaned forward and struggled to hold down what little food or water he had in his stomach.
"Fuck," he complained hoarsely as he held one hand up to his eyes.
"It's okay, man. It's a porch light. Come on, dial it down." Blair's words reached him even through the veil of pain. Jim struggled to follow the advice, his stomach nauseous as the light shone even through his closed eyelids as a series of dots that chased each other across his vision. "Dial it down. Concentrate on your other senses, feel my hand and listen to my voice, man. Come on, I know you're tired, but you can do this."
Jim could feel a pressure on his back, traveling up from the small of his back to his shoulders and leaving behind a trail of tingling skin until it moved back down again. Ignoring his vision, Jim lost himself in that sensation of his skin coming alive in warm tingling inches. He could feel the zone approaching, and he didn't fight the darkness that slowly fell over his vision.
"Oh man, not now. I can't exactly carry you," Blair's voice complained, and the dials Jim so often struggled with snapped back into place so that he could only feel Blair's hand and not the trail of tingling skin and he could see a small one or two room cabin with a yellow light shining over a plain door.
"I'm okay," Jim said as he struggled to get up, and only then did he realize he had taken Blair down to the ground with him so that one side of Blair's already messy hair was covered in leaves and the blanket pack he'd been carrying lay on the ground. Jim reached out to grab his own pack, the one from Section, but Blair's hand on his wrist stopped him.
"Let's just get us into the cabin, and we can worry about this stuff in the morning, hopefully one of us will be able to walk without falling down then." Blair gave him a half-smile and then struggled up to his feet, practically dragging Jim up with him.
"I don't need carrying, Sandburg." Jim couldn't see Blair as easily now with his dials returned to something closer to normal, but he could still recognize the bluish tint to Blair's lips that suggested his friend would be lucky to make it the last hundred feet to the cabin. He didn't need to waste his energy trying to carry Jim's weight.
"Grouchy asshole," Blair commented and continued pulling up until Jim got his own feet under him, and slipped an arm around Blair so that he could get the man into the heat. Together, they struggled over the lawn and up two solid wood steps. Jim didn't even bother to knock despite the wood smoke that suggested someone had recently started a fire.
Turning the large brass knob, he pushed his way in and let himself have one second of relief at finding a large empty room with a fire already burning. Blue denim-upholstered couches guarded either side of the fireplace, red and white quilts giving the place a patriotic color scheme. Deer and boar heads decorated one wall while a second had large colorful Indian blankets over the rough logs that made up the sides of the cabin. At one end, a small refrigerator and sink marked the simple kitchen; at the other, a bed stood with blue bedding pooled around the foot of it.
"Sit," Jim ordered as he pushed Blair toward one of the couches.
"Oh man, only if you do," Blair insisted as he made an awkward turn and tried to follow Jim. He didn't even make one step, but instead stood on the wood floor with one hand on a blue couch swaying slightly.
"I'm just getting water. Get out of the wet clothes," Jim said as he went to the sink set right under a window. He struggled to listen for whoever had started the fire, but the whine in the generator that fed the electric lights grew until it seemed to echo in his head, and no matter how Jim tried, he couldn't filter out the sound.
After trying three pine cupboard doors, he found a large pitcher, and he stuck it under the sink, standing and staring out the window and up to the red glow that created an irregular stain on the side of the mountain that reminded Jim of a coffee stain for some reason he couldn't quite figure out.
Water finally spilled over his hand, startling him, and Jim turned off the spigot, slurping out of the pitcher until the level was low enough for him to carry back to his guide. He turned and found Blair, stripped of his damp, dirty coat and shirt, and struggling to get his boots off as he leaned against the couch.
"For god's sake, Sandburg, sit." Jim put the pitcher down on the coffee table made of driftwood and deer antlers before grabbing Blair by the waist and pulling him around to the couch.
"Oh yeah," Blair said absentmindedly, and Jim could feel a dry sort of panic as he realized just how confused Blair seemed to be. They couldn't keep running like this… either of them.
"I just need to get these off," Blair said weakly as he pushed at his boots, finally getting one off before starting to work on the laces of the second one. Jim slipped out of his own gloves, coat and shirt before getting out of his boots far more quickly, his ability to turn down his sense of feeling allowing him to avoid the nasty tingling sensation that had set into his limbs. Getting up, he grabbed the quilt from the second couch, and then after a moment's hesitation, went over and grabbed the bedding as well. As much as he liked the idea of sleeping in the bed, they both needed to stay closer to the fire.
Heading back to the couch with his armload, he could see Blair sitting, looking vaguely confused as he gazed at the fire and rubbed a hand over his hairy chest.
"Get some water in you, Chief," Jim said softly, truly concerned now that he could see the pale face and blue tinged lips that suggested Blair probably should have fallen down unconscious a while back. Blair reached for the pitcher on the coffee table, and Jim dropped the bedding as he sat next to Blair, making sure he didn't drop it or pour the water all over himself with fingers grown numb with the cold.
Jim looked around again for a telephone or radio. Even if it meant Section tracking the transmission, he would have called, but the lack of any sort of communications device stole that option, and Jim could only keep his guide hydrated and warm as he hoped Blair could pull through on his own. Despite the derisive whispers in some parts of the station, Blair was a lot tougher than he looked.
Blair finished drinking, and Jim took the pitcher. He took a second long drink, feeling his stomach tighten at the uncomfortable fullness, but he knew he needed the water. While they could have lasted days if needed, the sweating had pulled every available drop out of him until he could feel his dry tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth.
"Hey, slow down before you drench yourself," Blair commented, and Jim lowered the pitcher, feeling the twin rivulets of water dribbling down either side of his mouth. "We're quite the pair, huh?" Blair asked as he started untangling the blankets and quilt and sheet.
"We just need to rest up," Jim answered as he leaned forward and put the nearly empty pitcher down. He braced his hands on his knees to get up and go to the second couch, but Blair reached out and grabbed his leg, tugging at him, and he let his guide push him onto the couch.
"Pillows. I've never appreciated pillows so much," Blair said, handing a pillow over as Jim squirmed down into place on the large couch. He pulled the handgun out of his waist and shoved it between the seat and back before stuffing the pillow under his head.
"In the army, I sometimes went months without them on missions," Jim said as he let himself relax. The owner of the cabin or Section or the rangers would show up eventually, and Jim would have to face them with only one handgun and a single extra clip, but he would worry about that later.
"That sucks, man." Blair said, as he arranged himself on the outside edge, his body pressing into Jim. Then he pulled the mass of bedding over them. Jim felt Blair shifting until he finally put an arm around his restless guide and bodily lifted him until he first rested completely on top of Jim and then fell over to the other side where he lay wedged between the back of the couch and Jim's body.
"Oh man, I'm going to crush you," Blair said softly. Jim just picked up the second pillow which had fallen to the floor and shoved it in between his head and the couch so Blair had a place to rest his head.
"Go to sleep, Sandburg," he said, enjoying the weight of his partner resting against his side. It reminded him that he hadn't totally failed. Feeling Blair's heartbeat, he knew that he still had a chance to fix this and give Blair a life back, not the life Blair had before, but Blair was nothing if not adaptable. He could feel Blair's body slowly relax into his, their cocoon under the blankets warming until both their limbs stopped shaking.
"I'm glad I'm not alone out here," Jim whispered once Blair's breathing had slowed into the soft, natural pattern of sleep.
"Me too," Blair muttered back, barely forming the sounds as he almost immediately started to snore softly. Jim lay staring at the beamed ceiling for some time, listening to the fire crack and waiting for the next disaster to threaten them, but for now, the forest remained quiet, and the worst thing within range of his senses was a whining generator belt. Eventually, Jim's eyes burned with the effort to keep them open, and he finally closed them, the warmth and the steady sound of Blair's heart coaxing him into sleep.
Chapter Ten :
Jim woke instantly, his body warm, his guide sprawled over him and snoring, and every sense on alert. Without opening his eyes or giving any other sign, he scanned the room with his hearing, and the distinct sounds of three heartbeats immediately warned him that they had company. For one blind moment he feared Michael sat watching them, a sensation reinforced by the scent of gun oil, but he couldn't detect any trace of the strong soap that clung to Michael. Instead he could smell tobacco and male sweat, or the dried remains of it anyway.
Blair shifted, throwing out an arm so that the blankets over them shifted down, and Jim used the motion as an excuse for a slow, languorous shift—one that allowed him to get his arm under his partner and jam his hand down between the seat and the back of the couch. Gun oil meant gun, and he wanted the cold steel of his own weapon in his hand before he faced an unknown opponent.
"Oh man," Blair whispered, and Jim had to push down an urge to throttle his partner.
"Hands where I can see them," a low voice with a bit of a trembling warble ordered. Blair pushed back the covers and started sitting up, putting the heel of his hand in Jim's chest hard enough that Jim couldn't believably fake sleep any more. Opening his eyes, he turned to see an older man, thin with several days' growth on his face and graying hair cut close.
"You too," the man said as he swung the shotgun toward Jim. Shotgun. It meant that the guy could fire in their general area and take down both him and Blair. Of course, if it was packed for bird, they probably wouldn't die, but Jim couldn't exactly take that risk.
"Hey, if this is your place, we'll just clear out. No harm, no foul, well except for a dirty sheet." Blair offered as he raised his hands to shoulder level. Using Blair's body as cover, Jim pulled out the handgun and slipped it into a fold in the blankets behind Blair before raising his own hands in surrender.
"Who the hell are you?" the man asked. Jim opened his mouth to answer, but Blair beat him to the punch.
"I'm Alec Summers, and this is Jack Kelso, and we normally don't go breaking into houses, but we had some trouble getting off the mountain last night." Jim listened to Blair's heart rate continue with its quick but steady rhythm and he had to give the man credit for obfuscating with the best. Although this actually came closer to outright lying.
"You were up there last night, when the fire started?" the man narrowed his eyes.
"Oh shit, yeah. Woke us up and then this big ass tree fell, and for about two seconds, I thought I was about to do the ashes to ashes thing literally. We lost one of the motorbikes, both tents, and my pack up there somewhere, and I don't think our stuff's going to be recovered any time soon."
"So, that bike in the dry creek bed's yours?" the man asked, a slight Minnesota accent coloring his 'yours'.
"It ran out of gas," Jim offered.
"I noticed. That gear scattered over my lawn yours too?"
"Scattered?" Blair turned toward the door as though he could see through the wood. "Oh man, some animal got into the gear."
"Not much we can do about it now, Alec" Jim answered as he watched the gun that remained trained on them.
"So, you two idiots start that fire?" The man sounded angry now, and Jim flinched as the gun came up a fraction of an inch. At least when he dealt with professionals he could predict their next move, but this situation could get out of hand fast.
"No way," Blair said as he spun back around, temporarily forgetting and putting his hands on his knees before he spotted the gun and raised them again. "We were just camping and this huge explosion woke us up and then the fire just seemed to be like… bam… everywhere at once."
"Damn government. They fly out of Malmstrom or Mountain Home or Dugway. There's not a damn bit of land left where a man can get totally away. One of their planes must have gone down up there, which would explain the way half the mountain burned before anyone could get up there: jet fuel." Jim watched the gun lower just a little, and he lowered his hands slightly. Just a bit of distraction, and he could safely reach his own weapon.
"Man, we were looking for a weekend away from the stress, and this wasn't on the agenda," Blair gave a small laugh and settled back on the couch, sitting right on Jim's handgun. Jim gave Blair his best intimidating glare, feeling the helpless edge of panic pressing in toward him, but Blair only blinked up innocently for a moment before turning his attention back to the man who actually did have the gun in his hands.
"So, fire chased you off?"
"Worse than that. My tent and pack went up when I was trying to wake Jack here," Blair nudged him, and Jim nodded once, acknowledging the name, "and then when we were trying to get down off the mountain, I felt my bike going out from under me on a slope, and I had to ditch it."
"And the fire was so close we were sweating before we could get into the open, sweating too much considering we couldn't save the canteens and the night got cold once we broke free of the smoke and heat," Jim added. "We didn't know when the winds would change and sent the fire back our way, so we kept riding until we both had borderline hypothermia." Jim lied on the last part. The two days they had been on the mountain, the wind had come steadily from one direction. If he had to guess, Jim would say this area had a constant wind pattern, which was why he risked setting the fire in the first place.
"You might have been borderline, I was just plain old hypodermic," Blair interrupted. "I've never been so cold in all my life, and man, I hate cold."
"Well, I suppose you did go for the blankets and water instead of the beer." The shotgun lowered until it pointed at the floor in front of Jim and Blair. "The name's Rob. Rob Cowler." The man didn't hold out his hand, and Jim didn't move off the couch. Despite the man's casual clothing, green checked shirt and worn jeans, and despite his casual attitude, something screamed military, and Jim lowered his hands carefully, wishing he could toss his guide's big ass off the couch and grab the weapon.
"I didn't care about the water or the beer, I just wanted to get warm," Blair offered. "When Jack said that a camping trip would help me unwind, he obviously didn't take into consideration planes falling out of the sky."
"Not really something I expected to happen, Chief."
"Yeah, well next time, I'm taking the trip up to the monastery. This is just too much relaxation for me to take."
"You invited yourself along. I expected a nice, private, quiet hike through the woods," Jim answered, and Rob's arms relaxed.
"Details, man. When I tell mom you nearly got me killed…"
"I got you off the mountain, short stuff," Jim shot back, quickly recognizing Blair's tactics. The more they sniped at each other, the more comfortable Rob got, and the lower the gun barrel tilted.
"Brothers?" Rob asked with a smile.
"Oh please, I'd have to beach my gene pool," Blair said, but he said it with a smile that took the sting out. Jim didn't bother to answer, going instead for his strong suit, the physical. He reached over and bopped Blair on the back of the head hard enough to send his head forward. "Bully," Blair accused him.
"Cousins," Jim answered as he looked back at Rob who now openly smiled.
"Got a brother myself," Rob nodded knowingly. Every training manual Jim had ever read suggested that in a hostage situation, the prisoner should try to make the gunman relate to him. That way, the gunman would hesitate to kill someone with whom he shared some connection. Jim had just never seen anyone establish that bond as fast as Blair had. Five minutes into the conversation, Rob tucked the shotgun under his arm and stood up.
"Anyone for coffee?" he asked.
"Oh man, yes!" Blair enthusiastically replied without getting up from the couch. Jim nudged him with a meaningful look down toward the cushion, but Blair just crossed his arms and stared back.
"Do you have a bathroom?" Jim finally asked.
"Outhouse. Out the front door and to the right."
"Thanks," Jim said as he stood up and felt an irritating twitch at leaving his guide in the room with Rob. However, he couldn't protect his guide without a weapon, so if he couldn't get back the first handgun, he would just have to go search for the second one he recovered from the helicopter—the one he had slipped into the pack.
"Sit tight, Junior." Jim grabbed his shirt and slipped it on before dropping a hand onto Blair's shoulder for a moment, feeling the heat from Blair's body. At least in the short term, they had won. Blair was safe and warm and Jim had at least a few minutes where he didn't expect Section to come bearing down on them. As he opened the door to the cabin, he could hear two or maybe even more planes over the mountain, and a distant rumbling of heavy trucks on some nearby road, the whine of tires across asphalt unmistakable, even though he could barely hear the whine in the distance. Strangely enough, he couldn't hear animals moving through the trees, so either the fire had chased off the local wildlife or he was having trouble with his hearing... again.
Jim looked across the land in front of the cabin, spotting pieces of equipment strewn from one end to another. Some animal had unwound his rope, and it trailed from the tree line all the way to the side of the porch. The silver of a flashlight winked at him from under a bush, and the precious heat shield lay partially opened and torn by small claws. Walking closer, Jim guessed raccoon. Following the trail of ruined equipment, he eventually found the green pack lying on the ground at the foot of the tree.
Feeling a spike of triumph, Jim trotted across the grass and knelt down next the nylon remains, checking for the one inner zipper with the safely catch... where he hidden the second gun from the man who Jim had shot. Pulling the cloth to him, he started twisting the pack back into shape in order to reach the inner pocket.
"Looking for something?" a low, tremulous voice asked.
Jim spun on one knee without standing up and found himself looking up at Rob who leaned against the side of the cabin. Jim cursed his out of control hearing while putting his best non-threatening smile on his face.. the one he used against clueless FBI agents and mourning victims.
"Just checking the damage," Jim answered as he stood and brushed the grass from his pants.
"I pulled this out last night." Rob pulled the handgun from his pocket and tossed it to Jim. Once he caught it, he quickly realized the gun was too light. Tilting it up, he could see that someone had taken out the clip and probably removed the single bullet from the chamber as well.
"Guess I dropped it," Jim casually stuck the weapon in his pocket without commenting on the missing bullets.
"You'd be a fool to come up here without some sort of protection, but I have to think about my own safety. So, I figure I'll give you back the bullets when we reach town."
"Not a problem." Jim eyed the man who still had the shotgun tucked under his arm and had an even stronger feeling that the man was more than just a random hunter. "Just wanted to make sure I didn't leave it laying around out here."
"Yeah." Rob looked at him so closely that Jim could feel his muscles tense. "Outhouse is over there, so join us for breakfast when you're done." Rob waved in the general direction, and Jim glanced over toward the small wood shack without truly taking his eyes off the man. Rob continued to look at him for several seconds before he turned around and headed back into the cabin.
Jim could feel a growing suspicion growing in his gut, but he also trusted Blair to keep the other weapon safe, so after a quick trip to the outhouse, he headed back into the warm cabin, the smell of waffles and coffee greeting him.
"Oh man, Jim, you have to try these," Blair said with childlike enthusiasm around a mouthful of waffles. Jim couldn't contain a smile, even if he did want to throttle his guide, and he noticed that Rob had a similar smile on his own face. Really, Jim figured he shouldn't be surprised at Blair's ability to get into the man's good graces. If Blair could charm Simon into letting him stay over two years after the ride-along pass expired, Blair could charm anyone. Jim amended that thought to almost anyone when he considered Michael's cold stone eyes.
"Two or three?" Rob asked, and Jim looked at the plate of waffles.
"Three please," he asked as he sat at the table, struggling to catch a whiff of gun oil that would tell him whether Blair had the weapon or had abandoned it in the couch. And if it was the latter… Jim gave his partner a withering look.
"The bacon'll be ready in a minute." Rob used a fork to slide three waffles onto a thick ceramic plate before handing it over. Jim took it with a nod of thanks and sat in a chair that put his back to the door and himself between Blair and this do-gooding hunter. "I can pack you some lunches before I drop you off in town. Bad luck, all your ID being in the packs. The bank in town is a little slow, so it may take a while for them to fax the right authorizations to get access to your accounts."
Jim nodded wordlessly, focusing on keeping enough food in his mouth to prevent him from contradicting one of Blair's elaborate lies.
"Rob's going to give us a lift into town. Lucky thing we found a good guy, huh, Jack?" Blair reached over and Jim thought the man wanted to pat his leg. Instead something hard and cold slid out of Blair's shirt sleeve and pressed into his leg.
"Yeah, lucky," Jim said as he took the gun and quickly tucked it into the waist of his heavy pants. Rob turned around with a plate of bacon, and Jim quickly moved his hand up to the table. "Thanks," he offered as he speared several thick slices.
True to his word, Rob stocked them with sandwiches and jerky and bottles of water stuffed into their coat pockets before hustling them out to an old green truck with one chipped white front fender. He quickly clipped the shotgun next to a rifle in the gun rack in the back window. At the passenger side, Jim hesitated, torn between putting himself in the middle and protecting his guide from the nearest threat, namely Rob, and putting himself on the outside where he could shield his partner.
He put out a hand, holding Blair back from the open door, and Blair just stood waiting silently. After a second, Jim slipped into the truck first. Despite all his help, Rob still set off alarms, and Jim wanted himself between Blair and the man. Blair scooted in after him, and without commenting on the moment of indecision on Jim's part, Rob started the truck. With a heavy roar of an oversized engine, the truck rolled over potholes as he drove the narrow track away from the cabin and toward the highway.
"Thanks Rob," Blair offered as the truck pulled to a stop in front of a red-brick bank with a curved wooden sign giving the owner's name. The downtown huddled together with the buildings connected in long rows and a grey asphalt main street wide enough for four cars to pass.
"You bet'cha," he answered shortly, his eyes still on the road. "I figure anyone who pulls the name Jack Kelso out of the air is running from something bigger than some backwoods sheriff.
Jim clenched the weapon he had shifted to his coat pocket, and Blair physically jerked in shock.
"But... I mean..." Blair stuttered, and Jim started sweeping the area for some sign that Rob had tipped someone off. Cars passed them without the drivers paying any attention, and the people on the street wandered without pattern. More importantly, Rob continued to sit with both hands clearly visible on the steering wheel.
"I read Kelso's book, and you two showing up after the government crashed a plane into the mountain... it just seems like a little too much coincidence, especially since 'Jack' there practically screams soldier from every cell."
"He kinda does, doesn't he?" Blair said with a nervous laugh, and Jim pushed back slightly against his partner, silently begging the man to open the door because he wasn't comfortable having this conversation in such an enclosed space. Hell, he wasn't comfortable having this conversation at all.
"Yeah, he does," Rob agreed, his accent temporarily thickening as his eyes dilated despite the fact the light levels hadn't changed. "But you seem a little out of place. Whatever's going on, stick with 'Jack' here because anything bad enough to make him twitchy as a rabbit in a fox den has to be bad."
"Oh man, you have no idea."
"Chief," Jim interrupted him. Blair fell silent and Rob looked over for the first time. Jim recognized the expression--he'd seen it often enough in the mirror. "If they come looking for us," Jim paused, weighing the options, "Just tell them everything. You don't want to go up against these guys and it won't help us in the long run," he finally finished. He got the feeling this man would lie for them, and that was the best reason to not ask it of him.
"If you're sure?"
"Yeah." Jim took several seconds to study his unexpected ally. The man finally nodded. "Chief, we need to get going now." Jim gave Blair a harder push, and this time Blair responded by pulling open the truck door and sliding out. Jim quickly followed, scanning the street with his hearing even as he checked the wind for any scents. It seemed clear, and he went to close the truck door.
"Here," Rob held out the clip he'd removed from the one weapon. Jim reached out took it, surprised at the papery feeling on his fingers. Looking down, a few twenty dollar bills had been folded around the clip.
"Rob," Jim started.
"No. Just take it," Rob insisted, pushing the item to Jim until Jim finally closed his hand around it and backed out of the truck.
"Thanks," he said as he closed the truck door. Rob held up a single hand in farewell and then merged back into the lazy small-town traffic.
"So, where to now?" Blair asked.
"Chicago," Jim answered. Sixty dollars would have to get them half way across the country because Michael would have cut off all access to any of their funds. Hell, he didn't even trust the ten thousand he had hidden in his escape fund. Jim took a deep breath of pine and sawdust and car exhaust and animal droppings. It smelled like an ordinary small town, and Jim could only pray that appearances didn't deceive in this case.
"Okay, I actually meant the 'right now' type of where to," Blair said as he rolled his eyes and gestured up and down the street.
"Train tracks," Jim said distractedly as he searched the air for that subtle scent.
"You can smell tracks?" Blair asked in an awed whisper, following when Jim started walking north in the brisk air.
"I can smell the iron and the faint traces of coal smoke."
"Oh man, this is so cool. I've never seen you like this. Are you having any trouble with the senses up this high?" Blair darted ahead, and Jim had to smile at how Blair could recover with one meal and a good night's sleep.
"The hearing's a little unpredictable," he admitted once they had turned down a virtually deserted street. Not only am I having trouble telling distances, but sometimes I can't hear things close up."
"Far-sighted hearing, which would make it far-hearing I guess." Blair had that distracted tone that suggested he was thinking about a dozen things at once. "It could be a matter of focus... trying too hard to identify threats far out. Do you completely lose the close hearing?"
Jim looked around suspiciously before continuing.
"The close hearing will be set at normal, but I'll still be able to hear insects crawling over the forest floor hundreds of yards away."
"Oh man, two types of hearing. So let's start by assuming that you can control them separately since you have different levels set on each. Okay, focus on the hearing dial. You got it?"
Jim closed his eyes for a half second until he could feel the familiar control in his mind. "Yeah, got it," he said as he opened his eyes before he fell off a curb.
"Okay, I want you to visualize a second circle around the first, like on a car stereo. The main dial controls the close hearing. Where is it set?"
Jim took a second to take a few deep breaths and feel that dial before answering. "Six."
"Great. Now feel at the base of the dial for that second ring. It's set a lot higher. How high is it set?"
Jim stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, frowning as he felt for the second control. He could almost feel the cool plastic of a dial in his fingers as he touched the ridge at the base of the dial. Struggling to get a hold on it, he clenched his fingers in frustration. "We don't have time for this, Sandburg," he finally snapped as he started walking down the street, his long legs covering the ground fast enough that Blair had to trot to keep up.
"Don't worry about it. We'll get it," Blair assured him.
"It's my hearing that's fucked up, there's no 'we' in that."
"Asshole," Blair muttered softly, but a warm hand landed on his back, and Jim slowed slightly as he heard Blair start to breathe heavily. They continued walking like that until a turn in the road brought them face to face with a railroad crossing.
"We're going to have to catch the train here," Jim said as he looked around. A low wood rail fence would give them a place to sit without looking out of place. Heck, in their scruffy coats and heavy boots, they'd hopefully look like a couple of locals. A hard packed dirt road running parallel to the tracks would give them a place to run and grab a handhold. Jim just hoped once they climbed to the top he could find an unlocked latch because he did not want to risk another case of hypothermia.
"It's going to stop here?" Blair asked as he looked around.
"No, but it's where we're going to jump on," Jim said as he walked over and settled in on the wide wood beam that made the top rail of the low fence.
"Oh man, this is such a bad idea," Blair grumbled as he followed Jim across the weedy grass to lean against the fence.
"Yeah, but it's the best option we have," Jim answered as he felt the morning sun warming his back. Blair rested against the fence close enough that Jim could feel his body heat against his right side and feel the vibration in the fence as Blair bounced in nervousness. However Blair didn't comment, and Jim closed his eyes and struggled to grasp that second dial for hearing that he could sense but not yet control. As he worked, the sounds of the forest around him faded in and out: two squirrels chattering angrily, a stream tripping over rocks, a group of kids laughing at the faint sound of a television cartoon from a house somewhere out of sight.
Jim nearly dozed until the sun warmed the top of his head, and Blair relaxed lazily against him, the energy of earlier gone in a half doze as the curly head leaned against his shoulder.
At first the rattling sound didn't register since the regular pattern of it blended into the beating Blair's heart and the ticking of his own watch. Eventually, though, Jim realized that he was hearing the train run the track.
"Junior, wake up. Ride's here," Jim said as he nudged his guide.
"Man, 'bout damn time," Blair grouses as he stretched without moving away. Jim slung an arm over the shorter man's shoulders.
"Every moment of boredom is a good moment," he reminded Blair. Blair became suddenly still, his muscles tightening under Jim's arm, and Jim could have kicked himself for bringing up the subject. Nice.
"Just a bit addicted to the adrenaline, I guess," Blair finally shrugged, and Jim pulled his arm back. Pushing away from the fence, Jim bent over and did a runner's stretch of his legs.
"Better get ready for a dash. We miss, and we're both going to be scraped up," Jim pointed out. Blair plopped down in the middle of the weeds and started stretching his hamstrings.
"I so do not need that right now."
"And our chariot approaches," Jim said as the squat engine now appeared in around the corner. Jim walked over to Blair and held out a hand to help him up. He didn't want the conductor noticing them and calling in for help with two stowaways. Section would pick that call up in about 30 seconds. So, until the engine passed, Jim leaned casually against the fence, one arm around Blair's back as he kept Blair facing away from the train.
Blair tried to squirm around to look, but Jim tightened his grip.
"Hey, watch the goods," Blair complained as Jim pushed him tight to the fence.
"Just keep focused on the trees," Jim said, already smiling at his answer to his guide's next question.
"Why?" Blair asked.
"Because this way the conductor sees a tall good looking guy and a short girl with curly hair," Jim said with a wicked grin. He then omphed heavily as a sharp elbow dug into his stomach.
"I am not a girl!"
"You are from behind," Jim smirked.
"You are so paying for that," Blair threatened, and Jim just smirked even wider. However he also noticed that Blair stayed facing the trees. "Jerk."
"But Sweetheart," Jim started unable to keep his voice from breaking with laughter.
"Oh, that's really nice. I don't even get my own endearment. You call me the same thing you call your truck. I might be able to explain your divorce, Ellison," Blair shot back, but now Jim could hear the laughter in his tone as well. Jim looked toward the train and the engine now turned a bend out of sight so that in front and in back cattle and freight cars stretched the length of the tracks.
"Okay, it's time," Jim said as he released Blair and started moving toward the train. From a distance it seemed to move in slow motion, but up close, the cars went by at a blur.
"Oh shit. There's no way I can make that train," Blair breathed with barely contained panic.
"I'll get on first and help you up."
"Unless it slows--" Blair's voice cut off suddenly, but Jim ignored it as he focused his hearing on something on the very edge of his awareness. A calm voice sent men to the edges of town looking for a green pickup truck. Jim suddenly lost the thread as the train's whistle slammed into his ears and sent him stumbling back.
Blair's hands at his waist steadied him, and he looked down into worried blue eyes. "What is it?"
"Michael," Jim answered simply. He watched as Blair's eyes darkened as the pupils dilated in fear.
"Fuck," he whispered.
"He's looking for Rob, so I don't think he's certain we're here," Jim said.
"But he'll check the trains," Blair said, looking toward the train that came toward them in seeming slow motion.
"We can't stay here. We'll get off as soon as we get enough distance," Jim decided. Blair just nodded slowly, but Jim couldn't tell if that was agreement or shock.
"They're never going to stop, are they?" Blair asked desperately.
"I'll find a way to make them stop," Jim promised. He had no idea how he was going to accomplish that, but he would take the haunted fear out of Blair's eyes if he had to strangle every member of Section to do it. "Right now, let's just catch that train before our time runs out."
Chapter Eleven :
Jim watched the fields clip by, the nude stubbled ground broken by thin roads probably used by tractors more than cars. They had passed a few roads, and in the distance he could see lights blinking on the top of square grain elevators and water towers. He could feel a rising need to get off the train. If Section tracked Rob down, they had to suspect this train as the fastest means of escape. Of course, Rob might not be that easy to track, Jim thought as he considered the man's haunted gaze.
"Jim?" Blair asked. Jim leaned a little farther into Blair. He couldn't say the words, so offered the only comfort he could even as he felt Section's noose tightening. "Oh man, we'll be fine," Blair added. Jim looked across the empty field with no cover and the tiny towns in the distance. If Michael tracked them to this train...
"Oh man, you're freaking me out with the quiet."
"It's fine," Jim said as he looked out across the landscape
"Oh yeah, that's believable," Blair said sarcastically. "What's wrong?"
"Just..." Jim waved out toward the landscape. They stood balanced on the connector between two cars, the square car ahead of them blocking the wind and a handhold providing some stability.
"Not many places to hide, huh?" Blair offered as he pushed his hair back out of his face.
"We seem to be heading toward Billings. We can lose ourselves in the city, and he'll have to check every train, every car, every bus to try and find us," Jim answered. Blair struggled to pull his trapped arm out from between his body and the metal handrail. The hand then snaked around Jim's waist, under the coat, and Jim let his eyes fall shut as the motion of the train lulled him.
"Yeah. He'll never find us once we reach Billings," Blair agreed, and neither of them mentioned the miles of empty field between them and that city.
Jim pulled a piece of jerky out of his pocket and chewed it slowly even thought it tasted like sand in his mouth. Eventually they sat in the narrow space, Blair tucked into the corner formed by the side of the car and the handrail and Jim pressed to his side, Blair's arm still around his waist. With nothing more to do but hope, Jim let his senses slide out over the landscape as time became an illusion.
Hours later, the train slowed as the lights of a city appeared over the dark horizon, a glow of lights that created a dome over the land. Jim flinched as the sharp sounds of civilization assaulted him, car horns and screeching tires, and he had never heard a more welcome sound.
"Wake up, Chief. We're here." Blair squirmed a bit as he came awake.
"Billings?" he muttered as he struggled to sit up. Jim put a hand under Blair's arm and helped pull him upright.
"I think so. It's a big city, and there can't be many of those around here."
"Man, I just want to get out of the cold," Blair said, and Jim could feel an exaggerated shiver even as he pulled Blair closer.
"Some tired trucker might offer us a trade: a ride for driving."
"And I'm hoping you're talking about my truck driving abilities because there is no way I'm riding in any truck you're driving," Blair immediately shot back.
Jim didn't answer as leaned around the edge of the boxcar, checking for a safe place to jump as the train started its long braking process, the wheels screeching against the rails. Blair would have to jump blind, and he didn't want to put his partner head first into some sign. Pulling Blair away from the hand rail, he watched as the train stormed toward a field of weeds.
"Get ready," he said, Blair's hair whipping his face as he held his guide close to the edge.
"Oh man, I can't see shit."
"I can," Jim answered and then he shoved Blair from the train, jumping a split second later and rolling as he hit the ground. His skin instantly started to itch as the weeds ripped and tore under him, smearing him with green juice that made hives appear.
"Fuck. I think I sprained my wrist," Blair cursed from a short distance away.
"Better than your ankle, Chief." Jim flinched at his own words, and then pushed himself up from the ground to go over and check on Blair. Crouching down, he put on hand on Blair's shoulder and reached out for the wrist which Blair held to his chest. "Let me see."
"Ow." Blair complained as Jim took the wrist and carefully felt around the joint, each bone and muscle and ligament clear to his sensitive fingers.
"It's a sprain. It's already swelling."
"I think that's what I just said," Blair muttered.
"Well, it's time to hit the road." Jim got a hand under Blair's elbow and helped pull him up to his feet.
"Man, I can hardly wait until Peru. A nice quiet jungle with jungle heat and not a train in sight... or a helicopter or black vans or motorbikes. I think I'm just ready to give up on anything with a motor," Blair said as he flexed his wrist gingerly
"Once we get to Henry Aplaner, we'll be as good as there," Jim promised. Despite Blair's enthusiasm, he couldn't seem to forget what Blair would be leaving behind, like Naomi and his job and a doctorate the man had more than earned after three years of putting up with a cantankerous Sentinel. However, Blair's voice had no deceptive wavering as he talked about South America the same way a child described Christmas. When Jim had walked away from his first family he had never expected to find the type of love his father had denied him, and yet here was Blair walking away from everything without even a complaint.
"I've always wanted to get in depth into a culture, you know, really feel a part of it. I wonder how long it will take for me to learn Chopek?"
"Knowing you, you'll be talking their ears off in no time flat," Jim laughed lightly as he used his hearing to track the unique sounds of a dozen different businesses. Focusing in on the one he wanted, he nodded to the east. "Truck stop's that way," he said as he used a hand on Blair's shoulder to guide the man through the dark.
"Oh man. We are retesting all your senses when we get settled, you know this, right?" Blair asked as he headed across the field following Jim's touch.
"Sure, Chief," Jim answered as he searched the area with his senses.
"Is that 'sure, Chief' in the 'only if you can pin me down' way or the 'I'll whine like a little girl but do it if I have to way'?"
Jim could hear the smile in Blair's tone of voice. "You didn't used to be so suspicious, Chief." Jim had intended his comment to be a joke, but the minute the words came out, he bit his tongue. Maybe the fatigue was catching up with him because he couldn't seem to keep his thought or his tongue away from the very topics he wanted to avoid. Mercifully, Blair didn't answer and they continued across the field silently, their boots crunching the autumn dried grasses and weeds as they walked.
Three fields, two barb wire fences and several scratches later, the two walked into the pools of light formed by the lamps illuminating a field of trucks, many idling, the engines rumbling in a way that made Jim think of a growling animal, or rather several growling animals hunkered down and watching with headlight eyes.
Jim nodded toward a low building of glass and brick before sticking his hands deep in his pockets in an attempt to not manhandle his guide. The type of men who drove big trucks wouldn't approve of that type physical touching, at least not in public. However Jim suspected that like the military, the rules were different in public and in private.
"Any clue about where to start?" Blair whispered as he pulled a rubber band out of a pocket and started pulling at his hair. Jim reached over and plucked a round prickly sticker off Blair's coat.
"Not a clue," he admitted. He tried to focus in on the conversations he could hear around him, but so many people had so many separate conversations, that trying to listen gave him a vague feeling of dizziness.
"Well then, time to let a master work," Blair said with a smile as he brushed the dust from his coat with an exaggerated motion. Giving Jim a quick waggle of his eyebrows, he ambled toward the café with a careless stride.
"Oh great, with your luck we're going to end up catching a ride with a serial killer," Jim complained softly to his partner's back.
"I heard that," Blair shot back over his shoulder before pulling open the glass door with the sign advertising the 2.99 breakfast special.
Despite Jim's fears, it only took Blair an hour to talk his way into the truck of one Curly Anderson who didn't actually have any curls but rather a short cropped crown of hair that circled a huge bald spot. Add in a Kiss t-shirt and a pair of cargo pants with grease on the cuff and Curly looked like an average truck driver. As Blair sweet talked the man with talk of driving a big rig for his uncle, Jim slipped onto a stool a couple of seats down and smelled the air, searching for gun oil or powder or that antiseptic soap that called up memories of government showers.
By the time Blair finished the story of his uncle's truck and the load of pigs, Curly seemed ready to take on a second driver with his recently retired cousin from the Army, and Jim nodded his own approval of Blair's choice. And so, a few hours after dropping off a train, they headed east on the 94, trading Blair's driving skills for an untraceable ride all the way to Chicago. In fact, until Curly turned in his driving log with Blair Sandburg's name and commercial driver's license number, Section had no paperwork at all to follow. Jim figured by the time Section geeks found one log out of hundreds of thousands, they would be Ecuador hiking toward the hills of Peru.
Blair hummed a little triumphant song as he shifted the truck into a higher gear on the open highway, leaning comfortably into the huge wheel, and Jim smiled. With heater running, Curly asleep in the back, and a bag of popcorn perched on the dash, Blair looked as if all was right with his world. Jim let his eyes droop as he dozed to make up for the sleepless night balanced on the back of a train car. With the sound of the wheels clacking over the grooves in the highway, he could almost imagine they were in Sweetheart, heading up to the mountains for some time off from work.
Jim wondered briefly why they hadn't gotten away more often. Things always seemed so urgent, but they'd spent quite a while away from Cascade, and Jim hadn't heard anything about the west coast blowing up. The world hadn't ended, and he was now realizing the world wouldn't end when they reached Peru and he returned to protecting the tribe from poachers and rabid animals and unexpected thunderstorms.
The world wouldn't end if he and Sandburg spent a few long afternoons lying by the side of a river fishing. He remembered the few fishing trips they had managed in their years together, Blair insisting that spear-fishing predated poles and represented the true spirit of the sport. His hair hanging in wet clumps after his attempt to spear a fish sent him off balance in the stream, his arms wind-milling wildly until finally he'd fallen on his ass. Indulging in that memory, Jim allowed himself to drift on the edge of sleep.
"Oh man, something's up," Blair hissed later… much later, and Jim's eyes popped open in time to read the temporary orange signs squatting at the side of the road. "Curly?" Blair called a little louder, and the answering grumble from behind the curtain made it clear that Curly did not want to wake up yet. "Man, we got trouble here," Blair said louder, and a head instantly poked out from between the curtains.
"What?" he asked, still rubbing his eyes as he tried to wake up.
"They're pulling all traffic off to the side."
"Huh." Curly pushed the curtain back and started pulling on a plain white t-shirt as he looked at the signs and the brake lights as two lanes of highway started merging into one. "They have these mandatory pull off's all over Texas and New Mexico. Haven't seen one up here before." Curly absent-minded scratched his crotch, obviously not worried about the detour.
Blair shifted and started braking as they approached the line of cars waiting to pull off the highway as the signs directed them. The line of traffic backed up far enough that the actual way station wasn't even in view yet. "I don't have my license with me." Blair's eyes widened in panic, and Jim knew that the man wasn't worried about a license.
"Oh fuck. But the numbers, they'll clear when I turn in my paperwork?" Curly now pushed up between the two front seats, crouching down to stay at eye level, and Jim could feel the threads of panic at having someone between him and his guide.
"Totally. My license is good, man, but I cannot get a ticket for driving without ID, and I can't get hauled in until they find proof that I'm actually me." Blair's voice now had a higher, strained tone, and Curly scrubbed his face with the same hand that had just used to scratch his crotch.
"When we come to a stop up here, we can switch places. I'll take the next leg of driving." Curly didn't sound happy, but then the man had only gotten a few hours sleep. Jim looked at the morning sun and he realized with a bit of shock that it had only been two and a half days since he pushed Blair out of the helicopter in a bid for freedom, which would make today Thursday. Jim looked at the thin tree cover in the distance. If they had to run, this would be a bad place for it. The truck slowed until it finally shuddered to a stop behind a green station wagon full of children.
"Okay, out of there," Curly said, and Blair put the truck into park and slid over until he crowded close to Jim, and now Jim could smell the fear. Ironically, he couldn't ever smell himself, but he guessed that he smelled just as acrid since he could feel his heart pound in growing panic.
"Stay or go?" Blair asked in a whisper that wouldn't have carried an inch, but Jim heard it anyway. Jim put his hand out on the door handle as Curly settled into the driver's seat and threw the truck back into gear with a little hop forward.
"Man, that log will show I was driving, so maybe I'd better make myself scarce," Blair said with a vague gesture toward the driving log with Blair's name in black block letters.
Curly looked over suspiciously, but Blair shrugged innocently as he rescued his coat with one hand. Without waiting for any more questions, Jim popped the door open. Blair practically climbed over him to get to the outside handrail and jump down to the step. The truck inched forward with the traffic, and Jim closed a strong fist around Blair's arm to keep him steady until the truck stopped again. Then Blair jumped down to the ground and jogged away from the truck. Jim quickly followed, slamming the door closed behind him before hurrying after Blair who stood on the shoulder of the highway.
Shrugging into his coat, Jim started walking toward the distant trees. Hopefully trees meant water. Given enough water, he could forage off the land well enough to support himself and his guide. Mentally checking supplies, Jim counted one sandwich, one bottle of water, two pieces of jerky, two guns with clips, duct tape, matches, a lighter, a small square of plastic sheeting all stuffed into various pockets.
"Do you think it's them?" Blair asked as he followed a step behind.
"Just keep walking, Chief," Jim answered as he sped up slightly. He could hear the whip-whoosh, but that didn't mean anything particularly sinister. A local station could be covering the traffic jam caused by the inspections. Picking up his pace into a steady jog, he extended his hearing until every sound snapped into clear focus at once. Dismissing complaining motorists and whining children, he focused on the one sound he had feared hearing.
While still running, he pulled the second weapon, checking the clip before thrusting it at Blair. He had expected some sort of protest, but Blair took the gun and shoved it deep into a coat pocket. After hearing Michael's voice shouting over the sound of the helicopter blades, Jim reached out and grabbed Blair's arm before he started dashing for the distant trees. They still had a chance if the helicopter continued random sweeps... if it didn't have heat-seeking equipment... if they could find some sort of rock cover that would hide their body heat.
The helicopter turned the sound of the blades changed pitch at the same time they reached the first tree. Jim didn't bother stopping as he continued his headlong dash for deeper cover. Blair breathed like a steam engine, strangled, wet breaths. The land suddenly tilted, and both of them went scrambling down a grassy slope, Blair's body tumbling into his near the bottom, and before they could untangle their limbs, the helicopter passed them overhead. Jim felt a sharp pain rip through his arm.
"Oh fuck," Blair cursed, reaching over and grabbing something. When Blair pulled, Jim clutched his guide and gave a curse of his own. The pain rippled through him, and Blair held out a silver cartridge with a sharp spike on one end and a red ball of fluff on the other.
"Keep going, Chief," Jim pushed Blair away as he felt the sedative start to flow through him. His vision flared, turning the world into a jigsaw puzzle of glowing pieces before everything started going dim. Blair's face shimmered, the light dancing unnaturally over the horror-struck expression. "GO!" Jim yelled.
"Jim!" a strangled call sounded like it was coming from the far end of the tunnel. Jim felt hands at his shoulders, and it was only then that he realized that he was on his knees.
"Damn it, just go," Jim begged, hearing his own words slur. The hands disappeared and Jim prayed that the kid listened to him as he sank into the dark.
Chapter Twelve :
Jim woke to something wet sliding across his arm, and he flinched at the touch. In the jump from the train, he had fallen on that arm, and the coat sleeve pushed up so that the bare skin had skidded across the ground, not hard enough to scrape skin, but enough for the broken leaves to irritate his skin. Now something smooth and cool ran across his skin of his arm again. Jim opened his eyes, but the world still had that jigsaw effect where objects glowed in opalescent colors, but now the center of the glow showed empty black.
"Blair?" Jim struggled to say, his tongue thick in his mouth, and his head throbbing in time with his heart. The featureless form said something, but the sound blended into a single distorted noise that reminded Jim of Charlie Brown's teacher from the old cartoons. His vision reminded him of when he and Stephen would scribbled big swatches of color on paper with crayons and then covered the whole page with black, hiding the bright colors. Then he had shown his brother how to use dull tipped scissors to carve a picture, the bright colors showing through. The black figure outlined in those pulsing multicolored lines wandered away for a moment.
When the dark figure returned, it held something cold to Jim's lips. Jim reached out and grabbed the arm, praying that it would be a stranger, that some Section medic tended him because he wanted his guide safely on his way to Chicago. His fingers found a muscled arm, thick with hair. And as he moved his hand down, the wrist was slightly swollen with a mushy feeling to the tissue.
Jim could feel tears heat his nearly useless eyes as his sense told him exactly who now sat next to him on the bed. The hand pushed forward with the glass, and Jim drank some water before the glowing vision dimmed and he fell back toward sleep.
Jim didn't know how much time had passed, but he woke with a hard wall pressing into his right side, and a warm body leaning against his left one. Blindly reaching out, Jim's hand found a head with masses of curls laying on his shoulder. Jim slowly opened his eyes and white walls with a white ceiling replaced the pulsing jigsaw puzzle of earlier.
"Oh man, why the hell didn't you tell me you had an allergic reaction?" Blair demanded as he twisted around and peered intently at Jim's forearm. Jim could feel snakes of panic and dread wind around his heart.
"Why the hell are you here?" he demanded. Blair gave up studying the arm and sighed before pushing himself up so that he was sitting on the edge of Jim's bunk. Someone (probably Blair) had shoved all the pillows from both bunks under his upper body and the sheet from the other bunk lie in a damp heap on the floor. Jim sat up and put a hand on Blair's shoulder.
"What happened?" he asked.
"You were in some sort of shock. I couldn't leave you," Blair said in a voice barely above a whisper, and the snakes around Jim's heart tightened. Blair had given up his freedom, and now neither one of them had a chance.
"There's not a way out of this, is there? Oh man, our goose is cooked." Blair whispered. Jim twisted around so he sat cross legged on the bunk, staring at Blair's back. Since he didn't have any answer that would reassure his partner, he just squeezed Blair's shoulder in the only form of comfort he knew how to offer. False promises wouldn't help, and Blair was too smart to fall for them.
"I'm sorry, Chief. I never should have pulled you into this shit." Jim finally answered.
"No regrets, man. Okay, I regret us coming home that night, but other than that..." Blair's voice trailed off with a strangled sound and Jim could smell the salt. He wanted to tell Blair to go ahead and cry. He wanted to tell Blair that most men would cry when faced with their own death. He wanted to cry himself, but his emotions were strangely distant, as though the snakes had eaten his heart so that the agony of a moment ago had dimmed into a dull, numb ache.
"How will they..." Blair stopped again, but Jim heard the question anyway.
"They aren't into torture for torture's sake. We don't have anything more to tell them, so they'll make it quick," Jim lied. He hoped that Blair would get a quick death; he prayed for that. However, he had no doubt that the doctors would be more interested in a live Sentinel specimen than in a body to dissect. He just didn't want Blair to think about that now.
Jim tightened his hand on Blair's shoulder, and Blair's muscles slowly sagged, his back curving as his head fell into his hands. Jim could feel the trembling, and he struggled with the knowledge that he had failed one more person in his life. Blair would never get his dissertation or have a family or even see the sun again.
"Chief," Jim started to say, but then he didn't even have the words to apologize for such a huge fuck up.
"Man, I wouldn't trade the last three years for anything," Blair assured him. Blair moved, and Jim let go. He had thought that maybe Blair wanted some space, some small bit of privacy, but instead he scooted back until his back was against the wall, and then he moved closer until their shoulders touched.
Jim felt that offer of comfort and he knew without a doubt that he didn't deserve it. He took it anyway. Sliding closer to Blair, he wrapped his arms around that solid body that had endured so much to try and protect him.
"Oh man, keep the guilt down, huh?" Blair said with a half laugh, but Jim could smell a hint of salt from unshed tears.
"No problem, Chief," Jim answered as he let his cheek rest on the top of his partner's head. They sat there holding on to each other, and Jim allowed himself to nearly zone on what would probably be the last loving touch he would ever feel in a life that might still be unmercifully long. Blair's fist closed around Jim's shirt, and the salt-smell returned. Jim just held on, his eyes closing as he felt the tremors run through Blair's body even though any sobs were too soft even for Sentinel ears.
Eventually, the door swung open almost silently, but Jim still opened his eyes immediately. Three men stood there in street clothes, guns in their holsters. Michael wasn't one of them, but then again, Michael probably had more important business. Two would-be escapees were just a loose end to tidy up. Blair sat up, his body instantly tight.
"Ellison," one of the men said, and Jim pushed himself forward off the edge of the bunk. For one second Blair's hand clung to his shirt, and he stopped and turned to his partner's pained face.
"Chief," Jim strangled the word and then fell silent. He couldn't say anything else, so that one word would have to do. Jim started standing, and Blair finally let go as Jim walked toward the trio. One of the men pushed Jim face first into the wall, and he didn't fight back despite the fact that the man's stance left him vulnerable for a sweeping kick. It might give Jim some satisfaction to get in one or two last hits, but he had no illusions about the lengths they would go to in order to punish him. He could hear Blair's heart beating, and Jim seriously considered that the man might have a heart attack before anyone got around to killing him.
Jim's hands were shackled and then they pulled him away from the wall. Jim turned and took a final look at Blair sitting on the white bunk with his arms wrapped around his own waist. The open sobs that Blair had held for so long now shook his body as Jim was pulled from the room.
After that Jim didn't notice anything else. He went where they pushed him and stopped when they didn't. They had traveled through any number of corridors before they stopped outside a room where one of the men used a swipe card to open a door. The door opened and Jim started forward before freezing in place. The sight inside that sterile room made him temporarily hesitate, his body stopping even though his mind had already come to terms with this end. In the center of the room, a table with various straps and restraints waited, and the guard had to give him an extra push to get him in the room.
Jim waited as the guard removed the cuffs, the two extra guards taking up positions on either side of the door through which Jim had just come while a door on the far end opened to let in an older gentleman who looked thin enough for Jim to break in half. Unfortunately, he wasn't going to get the chance.
"Take your shirt off please. Stomach down on the table and grab the handholds at the end of the table." The doctor gave his orders and then started opening cabinet drawers and pulling out instruments, ignoring him like the lab specimen he had become. Knowing he had no choice, Jim began unbuttoning his shirt as he struggled with his own growing fear. There wasn't any chair, so when Jim had taken off his shirt, he stood with it in his hand trying to figure out where to put it. One of the guards held out his hand, and Jim surrendered his shirt as he went to lie on the table.
The plastic under his stomach was so cold that Jim felt a tremor go through his body, but complaining hardly seemed worth the effort. Instead he shifted himself until he could grab both handholds and put his head down on the raised portion of the bed. The far door opened to admit a younger man who looked nearly as frail as the doctor, and Jim waited as this second man started tightening the restraints around Jim's body.
The wide straps at his wrists and elbows held his arms above his head and then the man started pulling straps across Jim's back and waist and legs. Jim used the time to control his breathing and dial down his sense of touch. Whatever was going to happen, Jim didn't want to feel it. Instead he focused on the memory of Blair. No matter how much he tried to think of the laughing grad student who had bounced into his life, his brain insisted on summoning the image of Blair lying injured on the ground from another of Michael's practice sessions and Blair sitting on the white bunk in the white room crying. Jim didn't realize that tears were slowly escaping from his own eyes until he smelled the tears from his own body.
A sharp prick in his back told him that the doctor had injected something, and Jim waited for the pain. Instead a cold numbness slowly spread out from the prick. A third medical person came in, a woman this time, pushing a large machine with a screen and computer dials. Jim turned his head the opposite direction so he wouldn't have to watch as they invaded his body.
Strong hands started prodding at his back, and Jim could feel where the local anesthetic started as the sensation of touch totally disappeared. Jim had forgotten to turn down his hearing, so the popping sound of his own skin breaking startled him. Only the tight straps held him still as he quickly searched for control of his hearing as the slick sounds of his flesh and blood assaulted his ears. Jim found the dial just as the instrument found bone, scraping across the surface of Jim's shoulder blade.
Dialing down ruthlessly, Jim grabbed for the other dials as well. He twisted them all so that they were as low as possible. He lay in a half-darkness where sounds existed only at a distance as the doctors worked on his body. His body. Jimmy-boy, time to admit it's not yours any more, he told himself. It's their body, and he was just the mind stuck in it.
"Fascinating. The nerve ganglia are definitely atypical," whispered a voice on the far side of that sensory tunnel. At least someone was enjoying himself. Jim lowered his hearing another notch so that he could only hear a vague buzzing noise as the doctors discussed his atypical body. Jim felt himself starting to float on the lack of input, a strange sort of sleepiness creeping over him without any sensory data coming in. It was almost a zone, but without the focus on one sense, without the link to the world. Jim vaguely wondered if he couldn't trick them out of their guinea pig this way as he drifted away.
With all his senses dialed down, it took Jim a second to register the familiar scent. The grey world where he lived suddenly took on color as a voice drifted in with the scent.
"Oh man, Jim, you gotta follow my voice back. Jim? Man, if you ditch me here, I will so follow you to the next world and kick your Sentinel ass." Guide voice. Angry guide voice. Jim struggled to make sense of the grey world which now started sprouting sharp edges as vision started coming on line.
"Jim. Come on now, you're freaking me out. Come on back. What the hell did you assholes do to him?" Jim assumed the last one was directed at someone else. However, his guide sounded so panicked that he struggled against the grey cotton that wrapped around him, blanketing him from the world.
"Chief?" he muttered through a dry mouth, his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth.
"Oh shit. Jim. Thank god." Jim could now feel as a warm hand ran up and down his arm. That was his first hint that he had been taken from the operating table. Jim squinted his eyes, seeing first the white of the walls and ceiling and then turning his head to see Blair kneeling next to him, hair pulled back in a ponytail and his glasses on.
"What?" Jim hadn't expected to wake up, but to wake up with Blair still alive and looking more than a little angry--that didn't seem possible.
"You're okay, just bring the dials under control, Jim." Blair's voice had that calm thread that always reached him no matter how far he zoned. However, under that thin veneer of stillness, Jim could hear the anger and fear in the way Blair's voice was a little higher than normal, in the way the syllables came out sharper and more clipped than normal.
"You could have killed him. What the hell were you thinking?" Jim rolled onto his side, his body complaining about the movement. He felt like he'd just done all six weeks of basic training in about five hours.
"His zone was self-inflicted," Madeleine's voice insisted. Jim didn't bother to turn and look at her since the woman only seemed to have the one expression. He really didn't want to see that expression right now. Instead he pushed himself up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed.
"Except the surgery wasn't self-inflicted, was it? Did you even tell him what you were doing? Did you let him lie there thinking you were going to cut him up? Did you tell him what you were doing? You assholes." Blair's voice rose to a shout, and Jim let his head fall into his palms as he braced his elbows on his knees. Part of him said that he needed to calm his guide down before Blair totally pissed off people with the power of life and death. Another part of him just focused on getting his senses out of control as his sense of touch reeled out of control.
"He was told just as much as you were," Madeleine answered, and Jim really looked at his partner then. Whatever they'd done to Jim, they'd done to Blair, too. Blair's glasses partially concealed the dark circles under his eyes and his complexion had a pasty tone that Jim had originally missed. Had they operated on them? Jim found that thought gave him the focus to push back the pain and control the dials.
"You manipulative sons of bitches," Blair's complexion now started going from pasty to red. "Why would you do that to him?"
Jim opened his mouth to point out that they had tortured Blair the same way, but Blair was already going again.
"What point were you trying to prove? What possible reason could you have?"
A long silence answered Blair, and Jim watched as his partner's fury slowly evaporated into a weariness that made Jim ache to hold Blair and protect him from the world. Of course he was the one who brought this misery into Blair's life, so that irony wasn't lost on him.
"You want us to be grateful?" Blair nearly whispered his sudden realization. That whisper turned into a hoarse shout almost immediately. "Well you can just go fuck yourselves. I refuse to be manipulated into thanking you for not killing me on that table. You can spin this however you want, but you're not giving us back our lives, you fucking stole them." Something desperate and harsh in Blair's voice made Jim look up.
"What's going on?" Jim asked as he sat up.
"They put tracking devices in us," Blair said. Blair had been standing between him and Madeleine, but now his guide sat down next to him on the bunk so that Jim had a clear view of those cold eyes.
Tracking devices. Jim closed his eyes and concentrated. He could feel the tunnel that had been cut into his back, but he couldn't tell if something had been left behind or not; he was too sore. "The devices ensure that we can find you should you be forcibly removed from our control or if you should make a poor choice," Madeline said softly. "Any attempt to remove or alter then would result in a team being sent to immediately retrieve you; however, we are giving you your lives back." Her voice was just so damn pleasant that Jim had to wonder what was up with these people. Michael and Madeline both had this strange politeness that seemed at odds with their murderous natures. "You'll be taken back to your loft. We'll call if we need you."
The words sank into Jim slowly, disbelief turning to horror as he realized what she meant, what Blair had meant.
"I won't be one of your attack dogs," Jim growled, well aware than he could be signing their death warrants with those words; however, he didn't think either he or Blair would survive very long in Michael's world anyway.
"We think of you more as one of our search and rescue dogs," Madeleine corrected him with an expression that almost hinted at a smile. "You are not the first Sentinel in our employ, and we are aware of the emotional limitations of your abilities."
Jim looked over to Blair and saw his own shock mirrored in that face.
"Other Sentinels?" Blair breathed.
"Of course the others were far less reliable and their senses more limited. The companion's influence on a Sentinel's control has been grossly underestimated." Madeline took a step into the room, and Jim felt an overwhelming urge to send the woman slamming into a wall. He wanted to know if she would keep that same expression if she was the one in pain.
"But even with Captain Ellison's improved control, he still is limited by instincts which make him unsuitable for permanent employment. So you are free to return to Cascade with the understanding that if you try and run you will be returned here for further training." Jim curled his fists as the urge to hit Madeline intensified. Blair slipped a hand around his forearm, holding him in place.
"Training," Blair said, his voice making that word a curse and a question and a challenge all at once. Madeleine didn't answer.
"So you're holding the leash," Jim said, and he could feel his resentment for the entire Section eclipse his hatred for Madeline in particular.
"I'll leave you to consider the alternatives while Birkoff arranges transportation." Madeleine walked out of the room, but the heavy door didn't close. Jim sat in numbed shock as he tried to make sense of her words. Before he could, Michael appeared in the open frame.
Jim looked up but didn't talk as Michael stepped into the room.
"Oh man, you people suck," Blair finally announced. Michael actually did smile at that.
"I have been accused of far worse," Michael answered dryly. "If you're needed, I will call for Aiden. If you get the call, go immediately downstairs and wait to be picked up."
"Yeah, that'll go over well with Simon. Hey, we have to go do secret agent stuff, so we're going to disappear for a while," Blair snapped, but Jim didn't blame his guide. Considering what they'd been through, he was just happy Blair wasn't slugging him for dragging him into this mess.
"The commissioner will receive paperwork regarding a federal taskforce for which your services will be required from time to time and the confidentiality required of such a position."
"You've thought of everything," Jim said as he rolled his shoulder, feeling the entry point of the surgeon's knife.
"We're all on leashes," Michael answered, his voice dropping into a slightly lower pitch that made Jim look up sharply, "but considering the amount of interest some parties were beginning to show in your remarkable performance, you may find comfort in the protection of a leash," Michael offered, and Jim only glared in return.
"Classic attempt at getting a victim to identify with the abuser. Man, that is uncool. And manipulative."
"And true," Michael added softly when Blair stopped. "We are not the only ones to suspect we have misunderstood the nature of both Sentinel and their companions or the only ones to have an interest in correcting that misunderstanding." Michael turned from Blair to Jim, and for one second, Jim could swear he saw actual human emotions behind that mask. "There are sharks in the water. Sharks who find your extraordinary control interesting. Who find your… guide… interesting. We can protect you from them." Michael said in a voice that Jim found himself believing. "You help protect Section, and Section will protect you."
"That's the most blatant attempt at manipulating Jim's Sentinel instincts I've ever seen."
"And it's true, Chief," Jim said as he listened to the steady heartbeat of the man in front of him. "We always knew this was a danger, ever since Brackett."
"So we're doing this?" Blair asked incredulously, and in the question, Jim could hear Blair's trusting acceptance of whatever decision Jim made. Considering where Jim's decisions had led them so far, Jim wasn't sure he wanted to make this choice alone. But the discussion to run or go along would have to wait until they weren't in the middle of Section.
"We're doing this," Jim affirmed. Michael gave a short nod.
"Man, I hope you know what you're doing," Blair complained Sentinel-soft.
"Not a clue, Chief. I'm making it up as we go along," Jim admitted as he stood up. Blair stood with him, though.
Michael gestured toward the door, and Jim put his hand on Blair's back as he started for the door. When Blair's hand came to rest on his back in return, Jim thought they just might get through this… whatever "this" turned out to be, just as long as he had his guide. Besides, Michael had already confirmed Section's weakness: they didn't understand the advantage Blair gave to him and to his senses. In this type of game, information was everything, and he would use any tool to keep his guide safe.
"Let's go home," Jim said as he followed Michael out into the hallway, Blair's hand still making a warm spot on his back.
Michael studied the sharp lines mowed into the grass of Rainier. The perfect, even pattern carved into green fascinated him. The job for which he'd sent would spoil the pattern: ruin the illusion of quiet safety. To the north, a blonde student who enthusiastically chewed her gum plopped down on the lawn, her long legs folding under her Indian style. Nikita didn't even glance toward the van, but Michael trusted her to have the scene and his position fully mapped.
Blair bounced down a sidewalk, the red highlights in his hair bobbing with each step. The last time Michael had seen the young student, he'd looked worn, and more than a little pissed. Now he smiled with enthusiasm as he talked with his companion.
In the security of the van, Michael allowed himself to consider Blair and Nikita. So alike. Both valued loyalty above even self preservation. He remembered when the helicopter had landed on that Montana field. Ellison had writhed in silent agony, and Blair hadn't even looked up as the agents had surrounded them with weapons drawn. He'd knelt next to his partner, holding one hand and muttering words too quiet for Michael to hear.
Finally, Blair looked up with tears falling.
"Fix this. You won, okay, now fix whatever the fuck you've done to him," he'd screamed over the sound of the helicopter blades beating the air.
One of the soldiers had grabbed Blair's arm, pulling at him, and Blair had clung to his partner, silently fighting. However, when the medic had bent down, giving Ellison the shot that made his body go still, Blair had gone equally still. He'd stood, shell-shocked and compliant as hands searched him, finding the gun he hadn't even tried to use.
And now Michael watched as Blair smiled, talking with such enthusiasm that his hands flew. Waiting for Blair to separate from his companion, Michael turned his attention to Nikita. Sprawled in the grass, she scratched absent-mindedly, and Michael wondered if she would have become a college student if Section hadn't stolen her out of her life. Of course, maybe her willingness to help others would have made her a target for something more dangerous than Section.
Nikita shifted so that the sunlight through the tree branches created a tiger-striped pattern over her legs, but Michael's attention immediately returned to the target as Blair angled off, heading east through an avenue of tall oaks that blocked out the sun. The op called for a public hit, something flashy enough to send a warning to other curious eyes that might watch from the shadows, so Michael slipped on a coat.
As he stepped out into the sun with a weapon tucked invisibly into a fold of the coat, he suffered an unusual moment of conscience. Looking at Nikita and remembering the loyalty of Blair, he found himself envying their certainty. He didn't want to bring them more pain, but he still stepped away from the van and took a path across the lawn toward his target.
As the van rolled away from the curb, Michael wondered if Blair would cry at the funeral. He wondered what the man would think when he learned the truth. Walking steadily, he reached the courtyard with the fountain. A few college students chatted in a far corner, and the Michael slowed to give his distraction time to move in.
A young man with stringy hair came sailing into the courtyard on a skateboard. As he went to jump a low set of stairs, the skateboard darted out from under him, sending him flying to the damp ground. He cursed loudly, and the students all turned to watch, laughing as he picked himself up.
Pulling out the weapon, Michael placed two silent shots in his target's heart, and the body slid off the fountain's edge with a dying sigh, folding in on itself as it collapsed to the ground. Michael continued walking toward the van that waited at the pick up location. Nikita had already disappeared; the skateboarder rode quickly down the sidewalk in the opposite direction.
Michael heard the first scream as the van door thumped closed. Someone had discovered Alex Barnes' body.
As the van pulled away from the curb, Michael wondered again how Blair was going to react. As they left the manicured lawns of Rainier behind, Michael just hoped he wouldn't have to visit Blair again too quickly.
When aliens come to earth seeking sanctuary, the NID and a team from the Stargate Command are racing to find out why. Section's solution is to send their own team to find out first.