The kid—Blair, Jim reminded himself—made him another cup of tea. And this time, in spite of the sock-smell, Jim inhaled the steam, thinking of Incacha and his crusty old cooking pot.
People started lining up for dinner, and a couple more of Vanetta's friends showed up to take over the serving. Still feeling shaky, Jim brought Blair downstairs to his room for more privacy.
It was weird having someone other than Joey in his room. Jim realized with some surprise that Blair was his first real guest. He was a little embarrassed at the starkness of his space, of the heavy black curtains and the shabby furniture. All signs of a man whose life had taken a strange and pathetic turn. But Blair seemed completely unaware of how sad it all looked. He grabbed the chair by Jim's desk, spun it around, and straddled it backward.
He was talking a mile a minute about Sentinels and arrow poisons and meditation techniques. Jim sat down on the bed, his back against the wall, and let the babble wash over him. He was completely done in.
Blair must've noticed him yawning, because he stopped mid-sentence and cocked his head.
"You look worn out. Let me get out of your hair for now. I'll come back tomorrow." Blair reached into his knapsack and pulled out a book. "I want you to read the chapter on meditation I've marked off. Using homeopathic remedies is only part of what you need to help you, Jim."
"Meditation? Not really my bag, Chief."
"It's gonna have to be." Sandburg's grin was unrepentant.
And charming as hell. Jim was going to have to watch that if they were going to be spending time together. He couldn't afford to get too close, to fall into an attraction. No matter how good-looking the kid was.
"And here's some more of the cimicifuga. But you shouldn't drink more than a cup or two a day. That's why we have to work on the meditation."
Blair got up to go. He'd slung his backpack over one shoulder and was halfway to the door before Jim roused himself.
"Just want to say...thanks. I think this is the first time in a month I'm going to bed without a headache."
Blair's smile could've powered the city of Cascade. And maybe the outlying suburbs to boot.
"Anytime, man. Anytime."
Blair was riding high on his success all the way back home. He'd found a Sentinel. Not only that—he'd broken through. Jim had listened to him. Hell, it seemed like Jim almost expected the news.
And that was weird. The Peru thing was a complete surprise. What were the chances of a soldier Sentinel landing in the same jungle where Burton had spent so much time doing his research?
Something about Jim's abbreviated story was ringing a bell. As soon as he got home, Blair booted up his laptop and did what he should have done the night before—he ran a news service search on James Ellison.
The first link that showed up almost made him swallow his own tongue. It was a cover story from News magazine. And there was Jim, looking young somehow, his haunted expression twisting Blair's gut in a knot.
"I had to wait eighteen months for my relief to show."
Jesus. Jim was that guy, the soldier who'd been left behind for a year and a half, presumed dead, abandoned in territory he'd had to defend against drug cartel mercenaries. Blair remembered reading about it and feeling a slight twinge of jealousy for the soldier who'd lived native for such a long time among the Chopec.
Probably Jim hadn't felt so lucky.
But he'd spoken of a shaman there. So he hadn't been alone to deal with the senses then. Blair wondered why they were causing him so much trouble now. Maybe without a shaman to help him, they'd simply become too much to handle.
Or maybe living in an urban environment was just too overwhelming for a Sentinel. The thought was more than a little disheartening. He had to find a way to help Jim. Blair knew he could.
He'd only gotten four hours of sleep the previous night, so he shut down and went to bed. His last thought as he slipped into sleep was he'd finally found his Holy Grail.
So what the hell did he do now?
The first thing Jim did the next morning was reschedule his medical appointment. Thankfully, the senses seemed to be behaving themselves this morning. Jim ate a quick breakfast and headed over to the hospital to check on Joey.
He found Paul there, slumped in the chair by his father's bed. The scene gave Jim a little bit of a twinge. The Army had notified Jim's father that he'd been found, but he hadn't heard a word from the old man. Apparently even being thought dead didn't buy him any forgiveness for straying from the accepted Ellison path.
"Paul," Jim whispered, touching his shoulder.
Paul jerked and looked up at him foggily, his glasses crooked on his face.
Jim smiled. "Wake up and get your ass home. I'll take this shift."
He said it softly, but Joey stirred and groaned.
"How're you feeling, Pop?" Paul asked warmly.
Joey gave them both what, under other circumstances, would've have been his usual grumpy bear look, but with the swelling and bruises on his face just looked pitiful.
"How do you think I'm doing? And what are you still doing here, boy? You should be home in bed with that pretty wife of yours."
"Helen will be by later to chew us both out," Paul said. "But right now I have to make rounds before I head home."
"I brought something to keep us busy, Joey," Jim said, stepping forward and pulling a deck of cards from his pocket. "Get ready to lose your shirt at rummy."
"Talk is cheap, Jimbo."
Paul laughed and dropped a kiss on his father's head. Jim politely turned his head away and opened the deck of cards.
"See you later, guys." Paul left. Jim heard him say hello to some nurse in the hallway and give her a subtle reminder that his father was the patient in 301.
Jim pulled the side table over Joey's bed and lowered it so it was practically in Joey's lap. The heart monitor wasn't beeping anymore; apparently they thought Joey was out of serious danger.
"So, gin rummy, huh? You think you stand a chance, Army?"
"Guess you're about to find out, old man." Jim shuffled and dealt.
Brown and Rafe stopped by in the afternoon to ask Joey some more questions. Joey spooned up his applesauce and tried to answer. Jim was impressed by the quiet questioning, the way Brown dug for details he was sure Joey didn't even know he had. Then Brown pushed aside the remains of Joey's lunch and opened a mug book on the table.
I could've been a detective, one of these guys. Talking to victims, hunting down clues.
The thought was depressing, but at least he was having a good day today. Jim sat back and did a quick systems check. For some reason his senses weren't—what was the word Blair had used last night?—spiking—like they normally did. Spiking is a damned good term for it. Sometimes it feels like an ice pick going straight into my skull.
As if thinking about Blair were a hidden signal, the guy suddenly appeared at the doorway. Vanetta came in with him, and suddenly the room was way too crowded. Brown and Rafe seemed to sense it, because they wrapped up with Joey and made polite goodbyes. Brown gave Jim a look before leaving, and Jim followed him out into the hallway.
"I think there's more to this than some rotten kids getting their jollies," Brown said with no preamble.
Jim was surprised at the confidence. "Yeah? What makes you think so?"
"Joey identified one of his attackers, Stanley Scalia. The guy is young, but he has a list of priors as long as your arm, most of it in contract stuff, enforcement, things like that. I think someone might've hired him."
"Jesus. Who? Why would they be interested in Joey?"
"That, my friend, is what Rafe and I are gonna find out."
"Count on it," Rafe said.
Jim was impressed by their quiet certainty. "Like I said, anything I can do, you let me know."
"I just might take you up on that." Brown gave him a clap on the arm, and then he and his partner took off.
Jim went back into the room. Vanetta was tsking over Joey's lunch and unwrapping some goodies she'd brought along with her. She was sitting in Jim's chair, and Blair had located another and was sitting next to her, talking to Joey. From the sound of it, Joey was grilling him on how things had gone with the dinner shift the night before.
"Have you eaten lunch, Jim?" Vanetta asked him sweetly. His surprise must have shown on his face, because she added, "I brought enough for both of you."
"That's...kind. Thank you, Vanetta."
She arched her eyebrow and passed him a thick turkey sandwich. Jim took a bite and for a moment his taste buds were in heaven; the next second they were on fire.
Hot—fuck! Spicy mustard? Jim tried to control his reaction, but the fire raged on his tongue, and finally he had to walk as quickly as he could to the bathroom to spit out the mouthful and rinse his mouth. He waited a moment before flushing the toilet as cover and coming back out.
Vanetta was chatting with Joey. If Jim didn't know any better, he'd almost think she was flirting with the old man.
Jim's eyes drifted over to Sandburg and found him staring at him from across the room. His mouth moved, and Jim heard him ask, "You okay?" He barely vocalized it, his voice so low he couldn't reasonably have expected Jim to hear.
Except he obviously did, because he gave a little smile when Jim jerked in reaction.
Jim felt suddenly cold and exposed. Sandburg knew about him. Knew that he was different, worse than a circus freak.
Jim edged toward the door. "Looks like you're in good hands, Joey. I've got an appointment, so I should go."
"Okay. Thanks, Jim. And don't forget you owe me a couple grand."
"Put it on my tab, old man."
Jim walked out. He heard Joey laugh and challenge Vanetta to try her luck against him in rummy. Then he heard sneakered feet squeaking behind him.
Turning, Jim gave Sandburg his best glare.
"What?" Sandburg raised his hands. "What'd I do?"
An orderly brushed by, and Jim backed up to let the man pass.
"You didn't do anything, Sandburg," Jim whispered tensely. "I have to go. I have a doctor's appointment."
Blair's eyes widened. "But, Jim, there's nothing wrong with you."
Jim laughed harshly. "Sure. Nothing. That's why I've dropped twenty pounds in the past six months, why I can't sleep, why sometimes my goddamned head hurts so bad a pillow feels like a block of cement."
"But I told you—I can help you."
"What, you're gonna make me a cup of tea? Make it all better?" Jim turned and walked away.
Blair followed, a jittering presence at his elbow. "It helped the other night, didn't it? And I told you, there's other stuff. Meditation techniques. Breathing exercises—"
The elevator was at the end of the hallway, but suddenly it zoomed in Jim's vision, the metal doors speeding toward him like a train. Jim winced and froze until they snapped back into the distance.
Jesus, it's like living in a cartoon universe. His head throbbed.
"—when the Chopec shaman was working with you?"
"I don't remember his name, but you told me you worked with a shaman."
"Incacha," Jim said absently. He got himself moving again.
"Yeah, Incacha. Did you have problems when he was helping you?"
Memories flashed in his head: Jim on point, leading a scouting party only to lurch off the trail to throw up; Incacha murmuring to him, his cool hand on Jim's forehead; Jim going into a daze, trapped by a sonic web of bird calls.
There were always so many things waiting throw him into that strange space—the not-thinking space, where he just experienced things in an endless, fractal loop. The world surrounding him was so complex, and even the simplest structures twisted into infinity.
"Jim?" Blair nudged him.
"Yes," Jim said.
Jim pushed the button for the elevator and turned. "Yes, Sandburg. There were problems. Even with Incacha, who was trained to handle fr—people like me. And I'm tired, you get it? I'm tired of being at the mercy of these damned senses. I want my fucking life back."
The elevator arrived and Jim stepped in, letting the doors close away Sandburg's pleading stare.
Dr. Gordon eyed Jim over his case folder. "You seemed pretty dead-set against the suggestion at your last appointment. Have your symptoms worsened?"
Jim rubbed his forehead. The glare of the fluorescents arced like halos around Gordon's head, the framed licenses on the wall, the edges of the painfully bright X-ray cabinet.
"Yes, I—can't eat. The nausea is much worse. And things smell wrong, taste wrong."
"We could try you on anti-nausea medication. Compazine has proven effective for chemotherapy patients."
Jim nodded wearily.
"Are you having difficulty right now? I notice you're squinting."
"The light. It's shimmering. Almost in a rhythm."
Gordon raised his eyebrows. "I agree if the symptoms are worsening we should try the electroshock. I don't need to tell you you're weighing in at eighty-five percent your normal body-weight per your Army records. We can't allow that to continue."
Jim shook his head. He couldn't remember the last time he'd kept a meal down. Those donuts he'd had? No, wait—he'd eaten breakfast this morning. Toast and eggs. He hadn't even noticed the lack of his usual nausea.
That tea Blair gave me last night...it helped. It did.
"—and since these visual and auditory hallucinations are happening more frequently—" Gordon droned on.
But Joey's wheezing wasn't a hallucination. Paul said if I hadn't found him so quickly he could have died from shock and lack of oxygen.
"I'll schedule you an appointment with the radiology clinic as soon as I can. I'll be the one to administer the procedure, of course. If we can get one of your senses functioning normally, we'll try the others."
I saw that gum wrapper from a hundred feet away. That wasn't normal. But it was real.
"I may...let me think about it a little longer," Jim said carefully. "I'm not sure I want to go this road just yet."
Gordon looked disappointed. "All right, Jim. But don't let it go too long. Don't be in denial about the seriousness of your condition."
It's not a condition, Jim wanted to say. Blair says I'm a Sentinel. He says this is normal for me. Blair says.
And, God, Jim wanted to believe.
Jim didn't have the energy to fill his Compazine prescription. He took the afternoon bus home and stumbled down the hall with barely a nod at Craig, who was busy cooking the evening meal. The smell of some kind of meat simmering on the stove sent Jim detouring into the john, where he heaved dryly into the toilet for a few minutes. There was nothing in his stomach to purge, but that didn't seem to make a difference.
His eyes were squinted shut, tears running down his face, as he did his usual swish and rinse. The baking soda taste was neutral enough and seemed to settle his stomach. He drank a little water and then eased the door open.
He kept his eyes closed as he lurched down the stairs to his room. A strangely familiar scent assaulted him as he opened the door.
Jim felt a hand close around his arm and tug him toward his bed. He followed blindly, his eyes still closed, trusting in the touch. Blair nudged him, and Jim let himself drop facedown, the bed frame creaking under his sudden weight.
Jim took a shuddering breath and buried his face in the clean scent of his pillow. Slowly, he became aware that Blair was whispering something; that his hand was resting in the center of Jim's back as if anchoring him to the bed.
"It's gonna be okay, Jim. You're gonna be fine."
Jim let out a weary sigh. Nothing was fine. Everything was frayed, his senses spinning and zooming and pulsing with his hoarse panting, with the rapid beating of his heart.
"Breathe with me, Jim. In—wait—out. Again. Come on."
Jim slowed his breathing, following the instructions.
"In—out. Good. Good."
"Better," Jim mumbled into the pillow.
"That's great. Keep doing it. I'm going to go upstairs and brew you some of the cimicifuga, okay?"
Jim nodded wearily, ashamed of showing such weakness, but helpless to do anything about it. He drifted, trying to control his breathing. Slowly, his senses settled and stopped their wild careening. A few minutes later Blair was back—patting him on the shoulder, urging him to sit up.
He held his breath and struggled upright. Blair grabbed his pillow and tucked it behind him so Jim could rest against the wall. Then Blair handed him a hot mug.
Jim held it close and drew the steam in through his nose and mouth. It smelled different for some reason, more green somehow. Jim frowned.
"I added some other herbs to help with the scent. You said it smelled like socks last night."
"Oh. Thanks," Jim muttered. He forced himself to take a sip. Not bad. When his stomach didn't rebel, he took another.
"Jim." Blair sat down on the bed next to his leg. "What you said today at the hospital about that treatment—"
"I don't think I'm gonna go through with it. I just—I'm sorry, Chief, but I got weirded out. I guess I freaked a little." He opened his eyes finally.
Sandburg was frowning at him. "What were you freaking about?"
Shrugging, Jim waved his cup, almost spilling the contents. "About all this—this Sentinel thing. The way you knew I'd hear you. The way you seemed to—I could tell you were excited about it. But I don't think it's exciting. I think it sucks."
Blair nodded slowly. "Yeah, I hear you. But, Jim, what I think is terrific is the future I see, okay? Not how you're feeling right now, but how you will be, when we've got all the kinks worked out. And we will. I'm gonna figure this out. I'm gonna help you."
Jim chewed that over. "Why?"
"Why? What do you mean?"
"Why help me. Why do all this?" Jim held up the mug in demonstration. "What's in it for you?"
"What—hell, everything! I mean, do you have any idea—? Of course you don't. Listen, man, I've been dreaming of this for years. The idea of meeting someone with all five senses enhanced, of working with them, learning what that could mean in a modern society...it's like, Holy Grail time, you know? I just knew someone like you was out there. You're the living embodiment of my pet theory."
It was too much. Sandburg was too much. Too goddamned enthusiastic, too admiring. And Jim couldn't think of a more pitiful object for Sandburg's enthusiasm.
I'm a wreck. I can't even pass by a pot of beef without upchucking. I can't walk down a hallway without closing my eyes. I'm a freak.
But he couldn't say that to Sandburg, who was glowing at him as if he really were that Holy Grail.
"It's your funeral," Jim said instead, and buried his nose in the steam again.
Blair laughed as if Jim were joking. "Man, I can't wait to see what you're capable of. But first, we have to get a handle on things." He got up and retrieved the book he'd left.
"All right." Jim sipped at his tea while Blair leafed through the tome.
"Did you do your reading?"
"Do—? No. Sorry."
"Okay, well, let's start with that. I'll go over it with you."
So Blair started reading to him parts of the chapter on meditation, at the same time writing up a cheat-sheet of meditation exercises. Then he wanted Jim to try one.
"No offense, buddy, but I don't think I can do that right now. My head—"
"Isn't the tea helping?"
"Yeah, it's helping, but I haven't eaten anything since breakfast."
"Shit! Sorry." Blair got up and dropped the book on the bed. "Let me go upstairs and get you something."
"I'm not an invalid, kid."
Blair cocked his head and gave him a grin. "I notice you only call me that when you're ticked off."
Bright guy. Too bright, really. And too damned good looking.
"Anyway, I'm hungry, too. I'll get us both something. And then we can do the first of these exercises, okay?"
Jim bowed to the inevitable. "Ten-four, Chief."
Blair realized he never should have left the night before. He should've stuck around and cemented things a little better, because Ellison had given him a complete heart attack this morning. Somehow Blair had managed to really step in the dog shit—Jim was carrying baggage about the senses, and Blair had pushed some panic button without even knowing it.
He'd left the hospital and given his afternoon lecture on full autopilot, three-quarters of his brain obsessing over where he'd gone so wrong, and trying to figure out how to fix it. No way was he going to let Jim go the Western medicine route, with its prescriptions and procedures that treated him as if being a Sentinel were a fucking disease.
But things were copacetic now. Jim was eating—not quickly, true, but he was definitely getting the stew down—and after, Blair would walk him through a meditation. He needed to find a way to help Jim achieve basic control, because obviously that was the most significant problem.
Jim sighed and put down the bowl. He'd managed to eat about half of it.
"Okay." Blair rubbed his hands together. "I want you to lie down. We'll start with a relaxation exercise, and then try a visualization."
Jim frowned and mumbled something.
"What's that?" Blair cupped his ear.
"I said I hate this crunchy-granola stuff, Sandburg."
"Tough nuts," Blair said cheerfully. "You'd better get used to it. Because the alternatives are not pretty, Jim. And I know this will work."
Jim didn't grumble any further, but stretched out on the bed. Blair allowed himself exactly two seconds of staring at that long, hard body settling onto the mattress before he cleared his throat.
"I want you to focus on each of your limbs in turn. Start with your left leg. It's heavy, Jim. Heavy and warm. It's so heavy it's sinking into the mattress. At the same time, I want you to imagine the letters being typed on a page...left leg heavy, left leg heavy. Got it?"
"Got it." Jim frowned in concentration.
"Hey, no frowning. Relax. Relax and breathe. Left leg heavy. Left leg heavy."
"Left leg heavy," Jim repeated in a mumble. His chest expanded on a deep breath, and as he let it out, Blair saw his face smooth.
Blair looked at his watch, and after forty-five seconds he said, "Okay, now your right leg. It's heavy and warm."
"Heavy and warm," Jim said, barely audibly.
"Don't fall asleep on me." Although, really, the poor guy looked beat.
"I'm not," Jim protested.
They continued in sequence with each of his limbs, and then all of them together. The tension in Jim's face had relaxed, making him look defenseless.
"Okay," Blair said as softly as he could. "Now, focus on your skin, the heat between you and the bed, the feeling of your clothes touching you, the air on your face and arms. I want you to imagine in your mind's eye a slide lever, or a knob, like a volume dial. Can you do that?"
"Yeah...volume knob," Jim sounded drugged.
"Good. That knob represents your skin, the feeling on your skin, okay? Now I want you to turn it down until you can't feel the air, just your clothing."
There was a long pause. The frown reappeared faintly on Jim's forehead.
"You can, Jim. Feel the air, now make it feel dead."
After a long moment, the frown smoothed again.
"'S working. No air."
"Okay, now turn it down some more, until you can't feel your clothes touching you."
No frown this time, but a lightening of Jim's features. His mouth fell open. "Did it. I can't feel it. Weird. Like numb from the doctor." Jim raised his hand and pinched his own arm. "This is nuts."
"Nuts, but you did it, Jim." Blair had to bite down hard on sounding too excited. He wanted Jim to think this wasn't anything special, that of course it had worked, because nine-tenths of biofeedback control was believing you had it. "Open your eyes."
Jim opened his eyes and immediately winced them shut again.
"Okay, just open them a little bit, Jim, just a crack."
The blue of Jim's irises slitted up at him.
"Okay. Visualize not a volume knob, but a dimmer switch. The light is too bright. Dim the switch."
Jim's forehead creased, and then he cautiously opened his eyes wider, only to groan. "It's still crazy. Not too bright anymore, but everything keeps zooming in and out."
"Okay, okay. Think like a telescope, then. The big barrel ring. You control it. Turn it until my hand looks like it's a couple of inches across, and then lock it there." Blair held his hand out a few feet away. Jim stared at it, swallowed hard, and closed his eyes. Then he opened them again, his frown fierce.
It took a while, and Blair's arm was starting to get tired, but eventually Jim's face relaxed. "Got it," he said, wonder in his voice. "It's staying steady."
Blair couldn't even try to hide his excitement this time. "That's terrific, Jim. You did it first try. You're a natural, man."
And, really, it was remarkable how well Jim was doing. Maybe being a Sentinel also meant having a predisposition for control over his senses, because Blair had never seen anyone master a biofeedback technique so quickly.
"You did it, Chief." Jim's eyes moved to Blair's face. "What next?"
But Blair didn't want to push it; he wanted Jim to stop on a high note. "That's enough for now. We'll work on some more tomorrow."
"How's your head?"
Jim blinked, looking surprised. "It's good. It's real good...God, I can't believe—" His eyes squeezed shut suddenly, and he turned his face toward the wall. Blair saw a muscle in his jaw start to twitch.
Bending down, Blair grabbed his backpack. He pulled out his notebook and moved over to the desk to give Jim a little privacy. He could hear Jim breathing harshly behind him.
It took Blair a few minutes to transcribe their exercise, chart the timings, and note the visualization cues. By the time he was done, Jim had grown quiet. Blair turned and saw Jim had stood and was reaching up to open the heavy black curtains shrouding the small windows near the ceiling.
It was sunset, and a low gleam of light splashed in to paint the room gold. Jim turned around and met Blair's eyes, a slow smile spreading across his face.
Blair grinned back. He realized this was the first time he'd seen Jim smile. It sure was worth the wait.
"So, I, uh, guess I'll see you tomorrow," Blair said awkwardly. "I have classes all day, but I'll be back around four-thirty?"
"Yeah, tomorrow, Chief. And...thanks."
He hadn't needed to say it. Blair could feel Jim's gratitude rolling off him like a wave of pure energy.
Blair rode it out the door feeling on top of the world.
Jim sat back down on his bed. For the next hour he tested his newfound controls. It wasn't easy, that was for sure. He would reach, fumbling for where he thought they were, only to have nothing happen. But when he relaxed, he found them again, right there under his fingers almost. He practiced turning the sensitivity of his skin up and down, raising the hairs on his forearm by drawing a fingertip over it, then taming the goose bumps by spinning the knob back down.
Sight was much harder. There was more than one control, and Jim sensed there were at least a couple more he hadn't even found yet. But the zooming he could handle easily, and he found he could get even closer, from telescope to microscope. Fascinated, he stared at his own arm, at the base of a hair, where the follicle gaped like a pit...shadowed...hair shaft like a tree trunk—
Knock, knock. "—Mr. Ellison—?"
—overlapping scales edged with light—
"—Are you okay in there—?"
Shit. The room had grown dim. Hours must've passed. Jim rose stiffly and went to the door, opening it to see Craig's anxious-looking face.
"I, uh, I wanted to lock up, but I don't have the keys. Miss Van told me to have you do it, but I guess you were really sleeping, huh?"
"Sorry, Craig. I was...yeah, sleeping."
Craig's eyes didn't believe him. "O-okay, well—"
"I'll come lock up." Jim rubbed his hand over his face. It felt stiff. "Look, Craig, I just want to thank you for everything you're doing for Joey. I'm sorry I haven't been able to hold up my end—"
Craig waved his hand. "It's nothing, seriously. I owe Vanetta everything, you know? When my family got tossed on the street, she took care of me every afternoon after school while my mom went to work. In fact, Miss Van is the reason I became a chef."
"She's quite a lady."
"You got that right." Craig smiled cautiously. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine. Look, I think I'll be able to handle supper tomorrow if you need to take care of your own business."
"No, that's okay. I'm on lunches at the restaurant—"
"Really, Craig, I think we'll be fine. Tell you what—I'll call you if there's any problem."
"You sure?" Craig looked torn. "Because Miss Van would never forgive me if I let you guys down."
"You aren't. Don't worry."
"Okay, well. I guess I'll see when I see you. And if you ever want to eat out for a change, come by Chez Rafael's. We give good lunch."
As if I could afford it. But Jim nodded and followed Craig upstairs to see him out. The kitchen was dark, the lights low in the main room. The place felt empty and clean—ready for the next morning. When Craig hesitated in the doorway, Jim offered his hand. "Thanks again for everything, Craig."
Craig shook his hand and held it for a little too long, his fingers curled warmly against Jim's.
"No problem, Jim. Anytime."
Jim let go and closed the door slowly.
Well. That was interesting.
Truth was, the day had been more than interesting from start to finish, and Jim was almost half-asleep. And hungry again, too. He stopped by the fridge, grabbed one of the takeout containers, and ate the contents swiftly while standing by the sink.
He barely had the energy to brush his teeth, crawl into bed, and don his sleep mask and earplugs. But before he dropped off he stroked the skin on his arm—just a quick test to see if his control was real.
Smiling, Jim fell asleep.
The next morning he woke up early and ate a full breakfast—eggs, bacon, toast and a couple of cups of real coffee. He hadn't dared to have anything but decaf for months, but he was feeling brave and more than a little rebellious.
He was careful, though, to drink some of Blair's tea concoction as well.
Then, for the first time in three weeks, Jim went to the YMCA. He couldn't manage his full workout, but he did do two rounds in the weight room and a half-hour running on the treadmill. He was pouring sweat by the time he was done.
He loved every second of it.
Some of his elation must've been showing, because when he visited Joey, his boss gave him a double take.
"Hey. You're looking a little less like dog crap today, Jim."
Jim grinned cheerfully. "I wish I could say the same to you, old man, but it'd be a downright lie. And you know my mom taught me never to lie."
Joey barked a laugh. "And what did your daddy teach you?"
"How to kick your ass at rummy, of course."
Of course, he didn't. Joey not only looked better, but he obviously was feeling better, as well. Hopefully he'd be ready to go home soon.
Vanetta showed up promptly at noon and effected a rapid substitution of Joey's lunch with her own homemade sandwiches. This time the spicy mustard didn't faze Jim at all; he just dialed down his tongue, which was a strange sensation in and of itself, a little like going to the dentist. Though the sandwich didn't taste very good as a result, he got it down, and for a change it stayed down.
Jim was smiling quietly to himself at this stupendous achievement when Vanetta turned to him and asked, "How are you today, Jim?"
There was something funny in her tone, a note of concern.
"I'm just fine, Miss Van. And how are you?"
She frowned, her papery white skin folding into tiny, even wrinkles on her brow. "Don't try to snow me, young man. Craig told me you weren't feeling well last night."
Jim shrugged. "Ah. Well, I'm feeling fine today. Really." More seriously, he said, "And thanks for sending him to us. We couldn't have kept the Kitchen open the last few days without him."
Her eyes brightened mischievously. "I declare, Mr. Ellison, you can be almost charming at times."
Jim felt heat rise on his neck and heard her chuckle.
"I guess I'll leave you in Miss Vanetta's hands, Joey," Jim said, standing. He stifled a grin, ignoring Joey's slightly panicked look. "When is Paulie letting you out of here?"
"He says not until tomorrow," Joey grumbled.
"Blair has a car. Maybe he'll bring me to pick you up."
"You know—Sandburg," Jim said.
"Oh, I know his name," Joey said. "I'm just surprised you do." It was his turn to smirk, and Jim left hastily. He could hear their laughter as he walked down the hallway.
He went outside and stood on the sidewalk for a moment, at loose ends for the first time in a long time. His senses were behaving, and even if they weren't, he now knew how to control his sight well enough to get home safely.
It was such a liberating feeling that he felt dizzy. What to do? He could go anywhere he wanted.
He found himself wishing Blair were with him. They could go to the bookstore, maybe; he'd bet even dollars that Sandburg was a bookstore addict. And then maybe Blair would want to go to a café.
That's what Jim ended up doing. He bought a couple of books—one of them a pretty good spy novel—and sat down with a cup of coffee and a donut. He didn't try to muck with his senses. The space-out he'd fallen into the night before had convinced him not to fly solo just yet. But his senses didn't need fiddling, and sitting outside in the spring weather and sipping his coffee he felt more alive than he had for months.
And I have Blair to thank for it.
Blair's day seemed to drag endlessly. Spring fever had hit, and his students were acting as dull as tree stumps. Obviously their minds were on a subject more compelling than trading customs on the Kalahari.
And Blair was no better, because all he could think of was Jim and the trust he'd put in Blair—how he'd put his whole life into Blair's hands.
The implications for their future partnership thrilled him. But he found himself wishing Jim would trust him with even more—maybe even with that beautiful body of his. Although, Blair had no way of knowing whether Jim even liked guys that way, let alone if he would be interested in him.
But thinking about it sure made his office hours pass quickly, even if he ended up with an uncomfortable boner he had to hide under his desk.
At four o'clock on the dot he stuffed some materials in his backpack and headed out the door, locking it behind him. Usually at this point he would head up to the teacher's lounge and see if there was anyone around to hang with, but not today.
Jim was waiting for him.
Blair discovered he was almost out of gas, and so he was a little late turning onto McAllister. Joey's Kitchen already had a small line forming along the window front and around the alley. Folks always lined up early. Not that Joey ran out that often, but the servers did tend to spoon out bigger portions earlier in the shift. It was a phenomenon Blair had noted, part of him wondering if he was seeing survival of the fittest in microcosm—first come, biggest serving.
He parked in the alleyway by the back door and let himself in with a knock. Jim turned from the prepping table and gave him a purely happy grin.
Blair's breath left him in a little shock. The power of that smile—
"Hey, Chief. You're just in time." Jim turned back to the prep table. "Observe," he threw over his shoulder, "as your patient performs a death-defying feat."
Blair came around the side of the table just as Jim lifted a chopping knife and proceeded to decimate a yellow onion with deadly precision.
Then Jim put down the blade and spread his hands in showman's gesture. His smile disappeared abruptly. "A week ago I couldn't have stood within ten feet of a chopped onion to save my life," he explained earnestly.
Blair stared down at the mound of chopped onion on the cutting board. The extremity of Jim's prior situation hit him like a blow. Jim couldn't chop an onion. Jim had been reduced to a shaking mess just from smelling his friend Eddie across the room.
"That's terrific, Jim," Blair said. "Hey, wait a minute—we didn't work on smell!"
"I know!" Jim's grin reappeared, an even flash of white. "I've been 'sperimenting, Professor."
"I promise, it was just a little. Just so I could get dinner prepped. And I have to tell you about what happened last night after you left..."
Blair joined Jim across the prep table and listened while Jim told him about his weird trance the night before. The description rang a bell.
"Jim, I think that's called a zone-out. It happens when you focus on one sense to the exclusion of all the others. We'll work on that tonight, I promise."
Jim nodded. He seemed unconcerned, relaxed, as he went about preparing dinner. The personality change was striking. Blair found himself wondering what Jim had been like before Peru. Had he been this easygoing, regular guy? A guy who would make jokes about horsemeat and tease Blair when he caught him stealing some carrots from the salad?
Sarah showed up at six o'clock. Blair did the introduction since Jim hadn't met her before. She was a fellow anthropology student, but her purpose in being there was just to volunteer. She had a mentally ill brother who was homeless for a while, and she'd tagged along with Blair the first time he came to the Kitchen.
Jim's face closed up when she arrived, his quiet, watchful mask back on. It saddened Blair a little seeing it happen, but at the same time he felt a guilty warmth when he realized what it meant. Jim had opened up for him.
They served the crowd with their usual efficiency. A small disagreement broke out when they ran out of pudding, but Jim ducked into the freezer and came out with some ice cream for a substitute.
After dinner, clean up went quickly with three pairs of hands, and soon Sarah had taken off with their thanks, and Jim was leading Blair back downstairs to his little room.
Blair dropped his backpack on the desk and pulled out his notebook. He turned to find Jim standing in the middle of the room, a white paper bag in his hand. He was wearing an uncertain expression.
"Uh. I got you something." Jim lifted the bag. "I don't know if—well, you can exchange it if it's not your thing."
Blair stepped forward and took the bag. "Nice preamble. Now shut up and let me see my present."
Jim gave an amused snort as Blair opened the bag. He'd suspected it from the shape, and it was—a book, hardcover. Bury Me Standing, by Isabel Fonseca.
"It's about the Gypsies of Bulgaria and Poland," Jim said. "They're kind of like the homeless, in a way—completely disenfranchised, searching for somewhere to be..." His voice dropped. "I dunno, it made me think about the paper you're working on. I thought maybe—"
"It's great. It's perfect." It was, too. The link would never have occurred to Blair, but it had to Jim. Blair raised his head and looked at him. Really looked at him. "This is...you're amazing."
Jim flushed bright red and turned away, muttering something too low for Blair to hear.
"What's that?" Blair bounced on his toes. "Can't quite hear you, boss."
"I said, maybe we should get to work, Sandburg. It's getting late." Jim's ears were still pink.
Blair grinned and re-bagged his book. He carefully set it in his pack before picking up his notebook.
"Okay. So, you were bad lab rat today, what with experimenting on yourself on your own, but I'm going to forgive you this once. Still, we'd better work on sense of smell next so you can chop onions any old time you want."
They got to work. First with the relaxation exercise, then with the sensory controls. They got through smell okay, but Jim had some real problems with sound.
"Come on," Blair said for what felt like the hundredth time. "It should be pretty easy. In this case the volume knob really is a volume knob."
"But it's not behaving." Jim sounded frustrated. "In fact, it's worse now that I'm actually focusing on listening. I swear I can hear things that are happening blocks away—"
Jim cut himself off and jolted upright, suddenly stiff as a ramrod. Then he bolted from the bed with blinding speed and was through the door before Blair could blink.
"Jim!" Blair ran after him, his blood thrumming with a sudden rush of adrenaline and fear. Jim had been moving with the deadly speed of a predator.
He found Jim standing stock still just outside in the alleyway, head tilted as if listening. When Blair came up behind him he turned. His eyes were fierce in the flood of light coming from the kitchen.
"Call 911," he said tensely. "Do it now. Something bad's going down on McAllister, maybe two blocks east."
Then Jim was just...gone.
Blair grabbed the phone by the door and dialed 911. The dispatcher must've thought he was crazy, since he didn't have anything concrete to report except that a friend had heard a dangerous disturbance on McAllister, two blocks east of Grant, and was investigating.
Blair gave his full name and dropped the phone before the dispatcher could respond.
Heart pounding, he went after Jim.