It all happened in a split second--and in that fraction of a second reality fractured, divided, spiraled into a horrific, hallucinatory nightmare, an epic disjunction, an unbelievable, ungraspable disaster.
As Sandburg stepped in front of the bullet.
A moment ago, behind. And then, in a blur of soft, brown fabric, in front. Jerking. Seizing.
Taking the bullet.
The dark hair flying back, the sturdy body staggering back, under the force of it, slamming into him. Suddenly sinking. Down. Fast. Suddenly heavy, suddenly fragile.
And Ellison heard, dimly, another bullet, knew that someone--Rafe, Brown?--had killed the shooter, but although the shot was near, loud, he barely heard it. He barely heard anything.
There was only sight. There was only color. Red, pulsing--ridiculously bright, ridiculously red against the soft brown corduroy jacket, the jacket against the black, black tar of the street. He ripped off his own sweater, used it to apply pressure, to stop that horrible spurting.
Face slack, unable to register the magnitude of what he felt, the depth of his anguish, as he pressed the sweater against the wound in Sandburg's chest.
Somewhere: commotion. People running, talking. Someone would get an ambulance--his job was here, now, in the moment. With Sandburg. Be with him. Keep him alive, keep connected with him, keep him connected.
Shock, as it suddenly got so much worse, so very much worse, horrifyingly worse.
A glimpse, a recognition. The attitude: so familiar, so deadly. Far deadlier than the wound itself.
Sandburg--dear God, Sandburg! the mind boggled! the mind revolted at the notion! impossible! incredible!--
Sandburg was one of them.
God, impossible. Ellison found himself suddenly breathing raggedly, panicked worse than before, desperately frightened at the revelation.
Not Sandburg. No. No.
Jim pressed harder on the makeshift bandage. Admittedly you never knew who would be one of them. But Sandburg--no.
Sandburg opened his eyes.
(No, no! Don't speak! Don't say it!)
--and Jim was transported back, remembering the last time he had discovered one of them. August 7, 1985. A long time ago. Because it was so much more common the other way around, particularly in the military--rough, tough men who looked ready to die, who seemed ready to die, who declared, publicly and often, that they were ready to die.
Crying like babies confronted with the thing itself. Refusing. Please save me. Save me. Don't let me die. Hanging on, with desperate injuries, fighting tooth and nail. Clawing on to life, begging for it, desperate for it.
And then the others, the rare others--always surprising who, always surprising who they were (not Sandburg, no, please, not Sandburg, impossible!) --who didn't fight, who leaned into to it, who proved willing, eager even.
Lieutenant Marsh, remembered Ellison, clutching Sandburg in one arm, pressing down upon the bloody bandage with the other. One of them.
A gentle man in life. Quiet. Reliable. Sam Marsh. Never complained. Did his duty untiringly. With good humor.
Shot August 7, 1985. Just let go. No fight, no struggle. A smile, a wave--goodbye, Jim.
And Sandburg smiled at Ellison (Don't speak! Don't say anything! Dear God, please!) and murmured, comfortingly, "It's okay, Jim. It's okay, it's good. As good a way as any--"
And that was UN-AC-CEP-TA-BLE!!! Jim screamed in his mind. DAMMIT!! DAMMIT!! DAMMIT!!
HOW COULD HE GODDAMN MOTHERFUCKING BE ONE OF THEM!!
NOT OKAY! IT'S NOT OKAY! I'M NOT GIVING YOU YOUR PERFECT DEATH. YOU DON'T GET A PERFECT DEATH. THIS IS NOT AS GOOD A WAY AS ANY. NO WAY IS GOOD. THERE IS NO WAY THAT'S GOOD. NOT THIS. NOT YET.
"No," Ellison said to Sandburg, firmly, pressing on the wound.
YOU HAVE TOO MUCH ENERGY. TOO MUCH TO DO. YOU CAN'T WANT THIS. NOT YOU. IT ISN'T YOU. WHAT ABOUT THE SENTINEL PROJECT? WHAT ABOUT BORNEO? WHAT ABOUT YOUR TEN THOUSAND CAUSES--THE SOCCER LEAGUE YOU SAID YOU WANTED TO COACH--
(oh god is that what i'm arguing? the dissertation? coaching children? is that it, is that all i have to barter with for your life, is that what your life is, is that enough for you, to keep you, it isn't enough for you is it? is it? it isn't, is it? you're one of them aren't you why didn't i see? tired you must be so tired it must be so tiring being you)
"You have to hold on, Chief. You just have to, okay?" said Ellison.
But Sandburg was smiling (oneofthem, oneofthem, nopleaseno) and he said, forcing the words out: "It's okay. Better than I. Thought. I'd get. Has meaning--"
NO NO NO, FUCKING NO--YOU ARE NOT GOING TO GET A PERFECT DEATH. YOU ARE NOT GOING TO DIE FOR ME, I WON'T LET YOU HAVE YOUR GODDAMN MARTYR COMPLEX OFF MY ASS--AT MY EXPENSE--NO NO--
(of course of course i'm fucking stupid stupid stupid--he jumped at it, jumped in with me, why? why? MEANING MEANING--ME--you did this Naomi you bitch you ideologue you convinced the fucking boy to think big, to be big, this poor small boy, so small, faced with such a big picture--you wanted a saint, Naomi, didn't you--this is what happens to saints, Naomi, this is what happens, Naomi, you didn't think of that, did you, Naomi, did you?)
And Ellison nearly jumped out of his skin as Sandburg clutched his arm and held on tightly and closed his eyes and he WASN'T FIGHTING WASN'T FIGHTING NEED TO FIGHT, THERE, SANDBURG--COME ON THERE, SANDBURG--DON'T DO THIS, SANDBURG!!!
And Jim dropped his head to Blair's ear and whispered, "Stay."
And Blair's eyes shot open, the calm disrupted.
And Jim said, "Stay with me."
And Jim could hear Blair's heart pound with sudden panic, sudden indecision, and he knew that Sandburg was pushing his words away, would push them away, would convince himself it would never be better than this--
And Jim said, "Blair, stay. Don't be a saint. I want you alive. I need you here."
"No," moaned Blair, closing his eyes again.
"Yes. There's Mexican food. I'll take you for Mexican food," hissed Jim, stupidly. "If you stay."
"No, please..." murmured Blair.
"I need you, Blair. I love you, Blair. It can always be like this. It can always be this good. This isn't the only way. For us. Do you understand me?" and then a white-coated medic was pushing at his shoulder and he shoved back, fighting for space. "Do you understand me, Sandburg? Tell me you fucking understand me!" and the medics had him and were loading him onto a stretcher. "You need to tell me that you fucking understand what I'm saying, here!" and Simon Banks was grabbing his arm and muttering and Ellison yanked himself away, listening for a word, any word, any murmur, and there wasn't, and he yelled after the stretcher. "YOU HEAR ME!! I KNOW YOU CAN HEAR ME!! YOU'RE NOT STUPID, SANDBURG--YOU KNOW WHAT I'M SAYING!!"
And then the ambulance doors were shut and Ellison strode up to them, pounded on them hard with his fist. "YOU BASTARD!" he yelled, "YOU HEAR ME!" and Simon grabbed his arm again, more firmly this time, as the ambulance pulled away and receded, siren wailing, down the block.
"I'll drive you to the hospital," said Simon, gently.
"Fuck him, Simon," hissed Jim, spinning around, trembling with rage, not knowing where to put himself, what to do with himself. "Fuck him. He wants-- He'd rather-- He--"
"Come on, I'll drive you to the hospital," repeated Simon.
"No, I'll drive myself--need to cool off. Need to be alone. Need to go," said Jim, and he raised his hands, making space, pushing Simon away, and he walked quickly to the truck, belted himself in. Pulled away.
And as he drove off, toward the hospital, he saw Blair smile in his mind, that terrifying smile, that smile that meant "goodbye, Jim" and he was furious, and he pressed harder on the pedal, and the truck sped faster, 45 mph, 50, 55, 60. And he was furious that he hadn't known, that he'd been living with the man for three years and hadn't known, had never even suspected, that the man was one of them.
Waiting to die. But waiting for a good death. A moral exit. A noble escape.
A way out, but done so that you could still look yourself in the face the next morning. Except you couldn't, because you weren't there anymore. Except Sandburg--Sandburg probably believed that you were.
65 mph. 70 mph. Jim was flying down the street, sailing past other cars, swerving around them, ignoring the honks of other drivers.
Except Sandburg probably believed in it. Some sort of afterlife. Karma. Reincarnation. Whatever-the-fuck. Some sort of cosmic get together where everyone said, "So who were you and what did you do and how did you die?" and Sandburg probably thought you got graded on your answer. "Hi, my name is Blair Sandburg and I spent my life overextended, working my ass off, giving of myself in a hundred ridiculous ways, and I died taking a bullet for my best friend, my Sentinel." Cue applause. That was a fucking A+ answer, there, wasn't it?
The truck was a blur, and Jim went past the hospital, enjoying the speed, not wanting to go to the hospital suddenly.
Not wanting to know yet. Not ready to deal yet.
If he'd survived, he'd be there.
Speed. The speed was so good.
And Sandburg would accept his A+ at the great cosmic get together and retire happily into a corner. Into the pearly gates. Get on line for the new body--maybe he'd get to be a dolphin, something really intelligent, this time. Waiting to get the prize from God and then maybe sleep a little. Sleep this life off, finally. Take a vacation. Go to Bermuda.
Better than the early mornings and the teaching and the tutoring and the committee meetings and the station and the cases and the paperwork and the bullshit and the endless community service and volunteer work and the writing writing writing always and then the grading into the endless hours of the night. Wasn't it.
Oh yes. Better to lie on the beach in the intergalactic Bermuda down there at the end of the tunnel and maybe replay the last few moments, the good moments, where it was all meaningful, finally--where you had saved Jim's life and he had held you close until you had finished bleeding your life'sblood all over his gray sweater.
Oh yeah. That was better than the small office and the small room and the small computer and the small bed and the small, lonely hours of the morning. Oh yeah. No contest.
Except it shouldn't have been like that. He should have thrown Sandburg's laptop into the garbage. Tossed out the overbooked calendar. Fed him. Taken him to bed. Kissed him, loved him. Held him close. Before he was bleeding. Warmed him up. It was warm in Bermuda. It was cold in Cascade. It was cold in the loft. It was cold at the station--
All those shirts.
That was it. He should have known from the shirts.
And Jim made a hard left, cut across three lanes of traffic, and sped down the deserted street, under the bridge and--bracing himself--bracing--
--smashed the truck hard into a thick concrete pylon.
The jolt felt so good, the jolt felt like coming, and the truck bounced back a little and groaned and then the engine erupted in a cloud of steam and Jim just stared at the rising steam and sighed and sat back in his seat, surveying the crumpled front end of the truck and he felt great.
He raised his arm and brushed his sleeve over the small gash in his forehead, noting that there wasn't much blood, and then he unbuckled his seat belt and shoved the door open and got out of the truck--then stopped, laughed, as he realized that he had, out of habit, taken the truck's keys out with him, and he looked at the keys affectionately and then tossed them onto the front seat.
And then he turned and walked up the street, ignoring the wail of still faraway sirens coming to investigate. He walked away. He just walked away. He just walked.
"Jesus, Jim!" said Simon, and that was a relief, wasn't it, because Simon wouldn't still be at the hospital if Sandburg was--if he wasn't--well, it was a relief, anyway.
"Hi, Simon," said Jim.
"Where the hell--what the hell--where the hell have you been!" yelled Simon. "I have an APB out on you--the truck!--do you have any idea how long--"
"I took a walk," replied Jim. "Is he awake? Can I see him?" he said, walking down the hallway toward Sandburg's room, not waiting for an answer.
"Jim!" hissed Simon, but Jim ignored him and pushed at the door to Sandburg's room, swung the door in.
Sandburg turned his head toward the door as he came in and his eyes narrowed and Ellison could see immediately that he was still weak, still unwell--but he was alive, clearly. Clearly alive. Clearly going to make it. Properly bandaged, the fluorescent green of the machine dancing in the proper pattern, the metallic beep beeping hard and strong.
"Hi," said Jim.
"Hi," replied Blair, and voice was scratchy.
"So you made it," said Jim.
"Yep," rasped Blair.
"Good," said Jim, nodding at him. "That's good."
Yeah," said Blair, nodding--but his eyes said differently, and Jim's heart sank.
It hadn't mattered. What he said hadn't mattered. He had missed his chance, waited too long, and now it didn't matter. It was too late: Sandburg had glimpsed--and lost-- the perfect death. What could ever be as good? Why would he settle for a life of imperfection?
"Dammit," hissed Jim, suddenly, explosively. "I can't say I'm sorry, Blair! Is that what you want me to say? 'So sorry you're still alive?'"
"What are you talking about?" asked Blair, but he knew, his eyes knew, and he turned away.
"You know what I'm talking about," said Jim, tightly. "I can see it. The disappointment."
"I don't know what you mean."
"You know," said Jim, aching with the certainty of it.
"How did you hurt your head?" asked Blair.
"If you don't know, then why are you pissed?" asked Jim, refusing to be deterred.
"I'm not pissed," Blair retorted.
"You are. Of course you are. I know I am," said Jim, lowering his voice as he approached the bed. "You're disappointed, aren't you? Must have been a real bummer waking up, wasn't it?"
"You're crazy," said Blair, but he looked away again.
"I fucked it up," pressed Jim, softly. "Made you bobble the ball. You lost your perfect death."
"You tricked me," spat Blair, and then he looked surprised, looked like he wanted to snatch the words back.
"I didn't trick you," said Jim.
"You did, and I fell for it. I can't believe you played me like that."
"You wanted me to wave goodbye, is that it?" snarled Jim.
"It's wasn't--fair!" said Blair, raggedly. "The way you played me--though, all right, I can't really blame you!" He stopped, coughed, took a deep breath. "I guess I would have done the same thing. To stop you. Any means necessary--I would have promised you anything." He stopped, took another breath. "Yeah, I'm pissed. I'm pissed that you stopped me. I'm pissed that--that I'm so readable. I'm pissed that you knew. You knew--you knew everything--and you knew how to stop me--"
"I've seen it before," said Jim.
"Well. I should have guessed. Death's your business in a way, isn't it," Blair said, sharply. "Well. So do I get the Mexican food, at least?"
"What?" asked Jim, incredulously.
"You promised me Mexican food," said Blair. "If I stayed. And here I am--so you win. What the hell are you so pissed about, anyway? You won, didn't you?"
"It doesn't feel like it," said Jim, jaw clenched. "It doesn't feel like winning--what with you sitting here, looking like you do. Watching you grieve over your perfect death, your missed opportunity, knowing that nothing I can do, that nothing I can offer you makes any difference--"
And Blair's face changed. "But--but--" he sputtered.
"Finding out that you'd rather die for me than live with me--that doesn't feel like winning to me, Sandburg," continued Jim, angrily.
"But you didn't mean--" interrupted Blair, struggling to sit up, face contorting with pain as he tried.
"It feels a lot like losing, actually," said Jim. "It feels a lot like losing you, like losing whatever chance we might have had to--"
"Jim shut up!" yelled Blair as loudly as he could, which actually wasn't very loud, because he was weak and his throat was raw and it was the sad, strained quality of the yell that made Jim fall silent.
Blair was breathing hard, now, trying to speak. "Jim," he said finally, having caught his breath. "I thought... I thought... I mean, it was a ploy, wasn't it?"
"A ploy?" asked Jim, exasperated.
What you said...about...us. About it, you know, being good. About there being another way. I mean you said that because--you said it to distract me, didn't you?--you said it to tempt me--to stop me from--to convince me to--I mean: you didn't mean it, did you?"
"So you did hear," said Jim softly. "You did understand."
"I heard," said Blair. "I understood. I didn't--I don't--believe it."
"You think I'd lie about that?" asked Jim, stunned.
"Yes," said Blair earnestly. "Yes. I'd assume so. I did assume so. I would have. If I were you. If I'd been smart enough to think of it."
"You're really fucked up, do you know that?" asked Jim, conversationally.
"Yeah," agreed Blair. "Yeah, I know. I do know."
"Okay," said Jim, feeling like someone had released a pressure valve in his brain, feeling the tension drifting away. He rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. "Let's try this again."
"If it wasn't--if it wasn't a ploy," Blair burst out, "then where the hell were you yesterday? Why weren't you here? I called for you--wanted you--Simon made some lame excuse--"
Jim held up his hand. "Wait. Stop. Slow down."
"--about you being at the station, having business, not to worry--what could I think? And plus you never once hinted, never once indicated--and believe me--" Blair stopped, sucked in a painful gasp, rushed on, "I was looking, wanting--how could I believe it, once I was in my right mind? I don't want pity Jim--I'd rather be dead if this is pity, I swear to you--"
And Jim got up, and sat on the edge of the bed, and slid an arm under Sandburg's back, holding him as he had the day before, and he leaned over Blair, staring at him intently, intensely, as he had the day before, and he said: "I need you, Blair. I love you, Blair. It can always be like this. It can always be this good. Do you understand me?" and Blair stared up at him and his expression was a mixture of fear and longing. "Do you understand me, Blair? Tell me you understand me."
"I understand you," whispered Blair, and Jim lowered his face and pressed his lips lightly to Blair's forehead.
"Do you believe me now?" Jim murmured against the soft skin.
"I...I believe," sighed Blair. "Yes," and Jim bent his head and kissed Blair once, gently, on the lips, savoring their fullness, their generosity, their sweetness..
"Tell me this is good," Jim breathed into Blair's mouth.
"It's good, Jim," replied Blair, dizzy with proximity, dizzy with desire. "So, so good."
"Tell me this has meaning," whispered Jim intently, moving close and touching Blair's mouth with his own, then pulling away--kissing, withdrawing--deliberately teasing, cajoling, seducing.
"Yes," hissed Blair, and then he slid a hand to Jim's neck and pulled his mouth down to meet his own. Having captured Jim's lips, he surrendered himself and opened his mouth--and Jim slid his tongue into him, tasting him, invading him. Jim savored the new intimacy, thrilled to the pounding of Sandburg's pulse--which speeded, speeded, under the ministrations of his tongue, under the gentle touch of his hands--Blair was warming, warming underneath him.
Eventually he let his mouth drift over Blair's face, kissing his cheek, tonguing his ear, before moving to pull away--
--and he felt Blair clutch his arm and whisper, "Jim, stay. Please stay with me. Stay."