Blair's first awareness was of discomfort that edged rapidly towards pain. Dreamily, his mind tried to sort out the disjointed sensations.
Cold, yes, that was the worst. Someone had definitely left the a/c on too high last night. Stiffness next; god, he felt like someone had injected liquid concrete under his skin. Could a person really shatter into a million pieces just by moving?
The picture lodged in his mind like a headache, refusing to go away. Little bitty Blair-pieces, all jagged edges poking into each other, making him want to squirm away from them.
The image seemed to grow more real as he tried to push it away. Tiny shards dug into him, turning stiffness to pain, turning cold to pain, turning his world to one giant ache. Groaning, he pushed his face into the cool fabric covering his pillow. Maybe if he avoided think hard enough, it would all go away . . .
It didn't. If anything, it got worse. Resignedly, Blair forced his eyes opened, blinking against the dim light and the ache that seemed to be drilling through his forehead. The world around him was little more than a blur. He wondered absently where his glasses were, but it really didn't worry him enough to make him want to get up and find them. In fact, if he felt this bad lying still, he was pretty sure he'd never want to get up again.
Except . . . if he didn't get up soon, his mother was going to be very disappointed in him. She'd always bragged that he'd finished potty training at a remarkably early age.
Groaning again, Blair set his mind to moving. Nothing wanted to cooperate, but finally he managed to push himself up onto his elbow. There was a pile of pillows between him and the edge of the bed. Right, his arm. Jim had placed the pillows there so that Blair could keep his broken arm up while he slept. It occurred to him vaguely that maybe he should be wondering where Jim was, but the pressure on his bladder was getting more and more insistent, and he still had to figure out a way around these pillows.
He'd just about come up with a plan when he heard the door open. Jim walked in carrying a couple of paper bags and wearing the same distant expression he'd had on the night before. Blair, abruptly reminded of several things he'd been trying to forget, almost sank back into the bed. He couldn't even deal with the damn pillows right now, much less a seriously pissed Jim Ellison.
However, there was still the matter of his bladder . . .
"Need help?" Jim asked before he had a chance to, so all he had to do was give a short, painful nod and let Jim figure out the logistics of pillows and vertical alignment.
The man did it with annoying ease, merely pushing the pillows onto the floor before guiding Blair's feet around and his body up so that he was sitting on the edge of the bed. Blair thought irritably that he could have figured that out on his own, given another hour or two, but he didn't have a chance to say anything before Jim was boosting him up and steadying him on his feet.
The pounding in his head suddenly hit an all-time high, and he closed his eyes against it. He hadn't thought it was humanly possible to feel worse than he did when he woke up, but he'd been wrong.
"Bathroom?" Jim asked rhetorically, the steadying hands on his shoulders guiding him in, he assumed, the right direction. Blair didn't bother to nod, since Jim seemed to know the answer anyway and moving his head was the last thing he wanted to do at the moment. Instead, he concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, which was almost more than he could handle as it was.
He did crack an eye open when Jim pulled him to a stop, only to find himself facing Jim's chest. Well, fine, Blair thought irritably. If he doesn't want to come down here where I can see him, I'm sure not going to bother looking up. A small, logical voice in the back of his head pointed out that he was being ridiculous, but he figured he was entitled. Surely a man who'd been hit by a car deserved a little leeway in the childish department, didn't he?
He wasn't so far gone that he couldn't see the irony, though, when Jim reached down and started unbuttoning his jeans. There was no way he could manage it with one arm in a cast, but if he'd felt slightly less miserable, he would have been ready to die of embarrassment. As it was, he just felt another flash of annoyance, just on the principle of the matter.
Jim patted him on the hip, signalling an end to his assistance. "Okay, Sandburg, you're set. Have fun."
Blair moved stiffly into the bathroom, looking over his shoulder at the door, where Jim leaned unconcernedly. "You gonna watch?"
Jim sighed. "Just to make sure you don't fall on your face. Believe me, Sandburg, the way you look right now, no one's going to be jumping your bones."
"Way to give a guy a complex," Blair muttered. Emptying his bladder seemed to clear his brain a little; at least he was able to put two thoughts together and come up with a semi-coherent whole. "Where'd you go?"
"Found a grocery store. The pharmacy's closed on Sunday, but I got you some ibuprofen and both of us some breakfast."
Blair turned to the sink to wash his hands. "I'm not hungry."
Jim sighed not-quite-patiently. "You're not taking these pills on an empty stomach, Sandburg. The last thing I need is to have you puking all the way home."
Blair frowned at his reflection in the mirror. He did look like hell, scrapes and bruises coloring the left side of his face and his hair sticking at odd angles from being rained and slept on. Slowly, what Jim had just said penetrated. "You've got plane tickets?"
Jim's reflection shook its head. "Airport's still closed. I did manage to find a rental agency that still had cars available. We should be back in Cascade by late afternoon. You done?"
Blair's frown deepened as he turned automatically for Jim to button up his jeans. The idea of spending several hours on the road, feeling like he did, wouldn't have been appealing even if it hadn't meant spending them with his angry partner. "Why don't we just stay here until the airport opens?"
"Because they're predicting that this rain is going to keep up for at least another two or three days. If it's a choice between sitting in this meat locker of a hotel room for a couple of days or driving back to Cascade, I'm all for driving. Anyway, you need to get that arm checked out again, and I'd rather take you to someone we know than to another stranger." Jim took his good arm and led him back toward the bed. "On top of all that, Simon's going to be mad enough at how this thing went down without us being out of yelling range for too long."
As Jim lowered him to the bed, Blair looked away. He knew just how Simon felt. He wasn't exactly thrilled about how "this thing" went down, either. If Jim had just, for once, actually listened to him, actually gave some thought to his beliefs, maybe they wouldn't be here. Maybe he wouldn't feel like he'd been run over by a herd of elephants--or at least, one rather large Mustang.
Jim rustled one of the bags, breaking the suddenly loaded silence. "You want ham and egg or sausage?"
Blair looked distastefully at the breakfast biscuit he was holding out. The glint in Jim's eye hinted that he'd be more than willing to stuff the food down Blair's throat if he refused, so Blair simply shrugged. "Whatever, man."
Jim handed him one, then set a cup of juice on the nightstand and fished a pill bottle out of the second sack. Placing a couple of pills next to the juice, Jim said flatly, "Take them when you're done. It'll take the edge off, at least."
Normally Blair would have argued, but common sense overrode the impulse before it was really born. As bad as he felt, and with none of his usual remedies in reach, the ibuprofen was looking pretty good.
They ate in an uncomfortable silence that made Blair's skin crawl. Jim's face hadn't yet lost that remote look he got when he was truly angry at someone, like he was ignoring the offender so strenuously that he could literally look through him. Blair hated that look with a passion, hated the feeling that Jim could shut him out so thoroughly when every single thought Blair had that wasn't cataloguing a new ache was focused on his partner.
Even in the short year they'd known each other, Blair had grown used to the idea that, if he was nearby, Jim was at least marginally paying attention to him. It had always been a comforting thought, knowing that he always registered on someone's map of the universe. Now, he felt like he'd just been shown a huge overview of the galaxy, and the part of it that he occupied wasn't even on the map.
The feeling only added to the pain-born irritation that had been riding him since he'd woken up. He wasn't normally an aggressive person, but he found himself wishing that Jim would say something, anything, so that he could argue with it. At least then, Jim would have to pay some attention to him.
It didn't help at all that he actually was feeling better after eating. He'd had the urge to puke on Jim's shoes just to show the older man that he wasn't always right. It was only the knowledge that Blair would be cutting of his nose to spite his face, figuratively speaking, that kept him from seriously considering the plan.
"You about ready?" Jim asked finally. He glanced at his watch. "There's going to be a cab waiting for us in about ten minutes to take us to the rental agency."
Blair swallowed the last of his biscuit, then washed it down with the juice and pills. "I'm ready whenever you are."
Without another word, Jim shouldered his bag and Blair's, then took Blair's arm and guided him to the door. Blair was feeling much steadier than before, but he didn't argue over Jim's help. A stray memory had slipped into his mind from the night before as Jim had touched him. The feeling he'd had of disconnectedness from his sentinel was rushing back full-force, and somehow Jim's impersonal touch was only intensifying it. With a shudder, he pressed back against Jim's hand, wishing wistfully for the anchor it usually provided him.
Jim had to keep his eyes on the road. Anything else would have been suicide. The rain was still pouring down, and the winding highway that led through the mountains was slick and a little too steep for comfort. He'd extended his sight as far as he dared, trying to cut through the miasma of grey road and water and clouds that had taken over the countryside.
He didn't need to look to know what Sandburg was doing, though. The soft rushing inhale and exhale of breath, catching every now and then as pain made itself known again, told its own story, as did the slow, steady beating of the younger man's heart. Sandburg had drifted off not too long after they'd gotten on the highway, not even his white-knuckled nervousness over the road conditions enough to keep him awake.
Jim couldn't help but feel a little relieved. The air between them was so tense, he kept waiting for it to snap in two. He didn't need the added distraction to his driving. With Sandburg asleep, the subject of his stupidity yesterday couldn't come up, and Jim could tuck it away in the back of his mind to be dealt with later.
And it will be dealt with, he thought grimly. He still didn't know how, but he'd come up with something. As much as he didn't want to give up having the kid as his partner, he couldn't work with someone he couldn't trust. He'd either have to get Sandburg to understand his error and learn from it, or he'd have to send him away. He couldn't see any other alternative.
He'd already decided, sort of by default, that he wasn't going to tell Simon what happened. It wouldn't change anything if he did, wouldn't get Halger back or unbreak Sandburg's arm, and the kid didn't really deserve the trouble he'd get over what he'd done. Jim could believe Sandburg had let Halger go out of a misguided sense of loyalty to his mom's hippie beliefs and affection for the old man. He could even--somewhat--understand that Sandburg hadn't intended his actions to harm Jim. The kid had only wanted to help Halger.
That didn't change the fact that what he'd done was wrong. It didn't change the fact that it showed a fundamental lack of understanding of Jim's duties--even of Jim himself. And it sure as hell didn't change the fact that now Jim couldn't trust Sandburg's loyalty or his judgment.
Jim sighed, rubbing one hand tiredly across his eyes. It was a strain, trying to see the road through the constant deluge, and he'd been at it for . . . he spared a quick glance at the dashboard clock . . . more than an hour now. Between the tight focus of his eyes and the even tighter clenching of his teeth in concentration, his head was beginning to feel as if someone had wrapped a steel band around it.
If they'd only pass a decent place to stop, he'd be more than willing to take a break. The last place he'd seen had been about twenty minutes back, though, and at the time he'd decided to push on a little further. According to the road signs, there should be another little town about fifteen miles down the road, but at this rate, it would take more than half an hour to get there.
Sandburg stirred next to him and made a soft sound that wasn't quite loud enough to be a whimper. Jim spared another quick glance to check him over. He didn't exactly look comfortable, curled up against the door with his injured arm clasped protectively against his body. There wasn't anything Jim could do for him at the moment, though, except let him sleep in the hopes that he wouldn't feel quite so miserable that way.
Maybe he should have gone ahead and made them stay at the hotel until the airport opened again, or at least until Sandburg was feeling a little better. Jim sighed. Not that there was any point in second guessing himself now. He'd just wanted to get back into familiar territory, where he didn't have to worry as much about Sandburg and could think things through without distraction. Getting home would be good for the younger man, too.
But only if we get there in one piece, he thought wryly, straining to discern if the road ahead was curving or if it was just disappearing into the deluge. The sudden flashes of lightening helped somewhat, but they also stole his night vision for a few precious seconds as his eyes adjusted to dark, light, and then dark again in rapid succession. Really need to find a place to pull over for awhile--somewhere where they DON'T have "Watch for flash flood and mudslide" signs every 50 yards.
Jim had been dividing his hearing between the gentle sounds of Sandburg's breathing and heartbeat and the soft whoosh of the windshield wipers, using them all as an anchor against zoning and as a reminder not to let his hearing level rise up to match his sight. Thunder boomed periodically, and he was getting enough of a headache from trying to see the road without adding that to his troubles.
It really would have helped to have Blair to talk him through all this. Jim had found that the kid's voice, or even just his hand on Jim's arm, was better protection against disaster than any deep breathing technique Blair could invent. The thought made him steal another quick glance at the younger man, and he felt his jaw clench even tighter. Right now, Sandburg's voice was more likely to be an irritation than a comfort, if just looking at him made Jim's blood pressure rise several notches.
Yeah, they were definitely going to have to do something about this. The whole reason their crazy partnership had worked for the past year was trust. Appearances to the contrary, Sandburg had proven himself completely reliable. Sure, he'd made mistakes from time to time, but any rookie did that, and Jim had always known his heart was in the right place, even if his head wasn't.
Jim had always figured that, different though they might be, he and Sandburg at least had the same value system, the same respect for the law and desire to help people, the same fundamental instinct to do what was right. That was what he placed his trust in. It allowed him to accept the advice of a hippie-looking kid who sometimes had more energy than common sense. More than that, it actually allowed him to give Sandburg control of his life from time to time.
If Jim had been wrong, if they were so different that they didn't even share the same values, how was he supposed to work with the kid, much less depend on him?
But, Jim thought tiredly, taking in the young, sleep-vulnerable face half-hidden by stringy curls, if I can't work with him, how'm I going to survive this without him?
An abrupt change in the road jerked his attention back to his driving. With a lurch that threw him forward and drew a sharp yelp out of Sandburg, the SUV ground to a halt. Jim could just barely make out the road ahead of them. It was covered in thick mud, spotted here and there with debris picked up on its slide down the mountainside.
Swearing softly and ignoring Sandburg's sleepy questions, Jim put the SUV in reverse and tried--slowly at first, then with increasing power as it didn't work--to back out of the mudslide. Even without getting out and looking, though, he could tell it wasn't going to be any use. They were well and truly stuck.
"Jim?" Sandburg's voice was growing more impatient. "What the hell happened, man?"
"Mudslide," Jim answered shortly. "Stay here. I'm going to see if I can't find something to put under the tires."
Sandburg reached over to fumble with his seatbelt. "I'll help."
Jim stopped him with a glare. "I said, stay here. You aren't in any shape to be slogging around in the mud."
"But . . ."
"Damn it, Sandburg, would it hurt you to do what I say once in awhile?"
Sandburg looked away, his face masked by the gloom and his hair. "Fine. You get wet. I'll just stay here and be warm."
"You do that." Jim took a deep breath, then with a grimace, opened the door and plunged out into the rain. Almost immediately, his feet sank past his ankles into the mud. Muttering a few more choice words, he focused on the ground around him, looking for branches or other likely debris to give the SUV some traction.
There wasn't anything nearby that was anywhere close to big enough, so he let his eyes scan upward, following the slope of the mountain that edged up against the road. Still nothing. Except . . . he strained harder, trying to see if that shadow was . . .
A sudden rumble made him clamp down instinctively on his hearing, fearing thunder. At the same time, he turned his sight up higher, the mental dial almost at its highest point. He was completely unprepared for the sudden blinding light
that stabbed through his brain with white-hot agony
as his knees hit the cold, sucking mud
and his hands clawed at his eyes
and a sudden crack of muted thunder made him jerk his hearing down to absolute silence for fear of another assault
as the agony faded a bit
there was a touch.
It was a hand, tugging gently on his, coaxing them away from his eyes. A familiar hand, one that knew not to grip too hard when his senses were so chaotic, one that smelled, even through the rain, of herbs and ink and iodine. Blair?
Cautiously, he began to listen again. Yes, there it was, the calm, soothing voice, the voice that could make his senses work again. Blair.
"Easy, Jim, easy. It's going to be okay. You've gotta let me see what you did, okay, buddy? Was it the lightning? C'mon, now, you're all right. Just let me see your eyes . . ."
It was a soothing, steady litany. Jim slowly lowered his hands, trying to find the speaker with his eyes, but the only thing there was a bright white light with a jagged dark streak running through it.
"Sandburg?" he asked hesitantly, reaching for where he thought the voice was coming from. "I can't see."
His groping hand was caught by Blair's, then gently transferred to Blair's shoulder before the younger man touched his face again, tilting it upward. "What do you mean, you can't see? Anything? Or just shadows? Did you get something in your eyes?"
"White light . . . and a dark line running through it. I had my sight dialed up when that lightning hit." He squeezed his eyes shut, but it didn't help. "I feel like it burned my eyes."
Blair patted his cheek. "That doesn't sound so bad. It just sounds like you've got a bad case of flash-blindness, you know, like when you look at a camera flash? Except your sight was on max, so it's a lot worse than just a regular camera. It should fade after awhile."
The younger man sounded hopeful, but Jim didn't miss the hint of doubt in his voice. "Are you sure? This isn't permanent?"
Blair hesitated, then answered so softly Jim almost couldn't hear him over the rain. "I don't know, Jim. There's no real way to tell without a doctor. But we've done this before, this whole blindness thing. We can get through it again."
Jim, reminded of the last time he'd been unable to see, felt a sharp clenching in his gut. If Sandburg had meant that to be reassuring . . .
Suddenly, his attention was ripped away from that memory. Even with his hearing muted to normal, he could hear a low rumble from somewhere up on the mountain. This time, he was sure it wasn't thunder.
"Sandburg . . ." grabbing the younger man's good arm, he tried to pull himself and Sandburg up at the same time. "Mudslide, coming fast. Get moving."
For once, Sandburg had nothing to say. He simply slid his shoulder under Jim's arm, pulled him onto his feet, and half-dragged him away. Disoriented by his inability to see, Jim stumbled along, straining with his ears and feet to discern any obstacles in his path. He could only hope Sandburg could see well enough to get them clear in time.
Above them, the rumble grew louder, the sound of tons of earth and water rushing down on them at breakneck speed. Jim was almost positive he could hear individual trees snapping under its weight. For a long, terrifying moment, he had no idea if they were heading away from it or toward it.
Then Sandburg pulled him to a stop, and he was able to place the rumble behind them--way too close for his comfort, but behind them nevertheless. Sandburg was pressed against his side, and he could feel the hard tremors rushing through the younger man's body. That was okay, though; they were setting up a nice counterpoint to the ones that were wracking his.
At last the sound of the mudslide faded away, and they were left standing in stunned silence, with only the persistent rush of rain to provide any noise. Then, in an awed and only slightly hysterical voice, Sandburg said, "Jim, I really hope you got that extra insurance."
The SUV hadn't stood a chance. It was directly in the flow of the worst of the slide, and it had gone over like a ton of bricks. Blair felt a momentary grief for his backpack, but he hadn't had anything terribly important in it anyway. When he thought about how he could have been in the vehicle, or Jim . . . a shuddery thankfulness washed through him, and he gripped his partner a little tighter.
He winced as Jim reciprocated with a gentle squeeze on his shoulder. He had some pretty major bruises there, but he wasn't going to complain. Given the alternative, he could live with a little pressure on his bruises.
"The SUV's gone?" Jim asked in his ear, and Blair remembered with a start that Jim couldn't see it for himself.
"Turned over on its side. Man, if you hadn't gotten out, or if I hadn't come around to check on you . . ."
"Well, it didn't happen, so don't borrow trouble, Sandburg." Jim's eyes moved restlessly. As close as they were standing, Blair could see the lines of tension around Jim's eyes as he tried to find something to focus on. It was a familiar look, one Blair had seen many times after Jim had gotten the Golden in his eyes.
He tried to push the memory out of his mind. He didn't have time to go through it all again, the horror of Jim's blindness and the terror of his own overdose. He needed his whole concentration on their situation now if they wanted to get out of it with no more casualties than an overturned SUV.
"So what do we do now?" he asked, more to get Jim's attention focused on the immediate problem than because he couldn't figure out the answer for himself.
"Looks like we've got two choices. Stand here and drown, or walk out." Jim rubbed at his eyes, and Blair resisted the urge to bat his hand down. "The last town we passed was about ten miles back, give or take. It wasn't much, but at least they should have shelter and phones."
"Sounds like a plan." Blair patted Jim's soaked back with more cheer than he'd felt all day. Sure, it was pure adrenalin that was keeping him on his feet right now, and there was no doubt he'd feel like collapsing later on. He had every intention of enjoying and using it while he could, though. "Only thing is, I can barely see two feet in front of me, let alone guiding you. You'd better stay close."
Jim nodded tightly. He wasn't very happy with the situation, obviously, but Blair didn't see any other way to handle it. So, with Jim's arm around his shoulders and his arm around Jim's waist, they set off back the way they'd come.
It was slow going. The asphalt was slick, what little shoulder there was pure goo, and the rain stung Blair's eyes and reduced his range of visibility to almost nothing. Blair's grip on Jim was awkward, partially due to Jim's back holster being right under his arm, and partially due to the uncomfortable way Blair's coat hung on him to allow for his broken arm. To make matters worse, Jim was moving so uncertainly, hesitating before each step as if he wasn't sure there'd be anything underneath his foot when he set it down.
Blair was sympathetic at first, but as the awkward gait started pulling at his sore muscles and the pain-masking adrenalin began to wear off, his temper grew much shorter.
"Damn it, Jim, what are you doing?" he snapped finally. "We're never going to get anywhere at this rate."
"I'm trying that stupid bat trick you taught me before," Jim snapped back. "The rain's got it all screwed up, though. Everything's distorted."
The "stupid bat trick" was actually one of Blair's favorites, not only because he thought it was pretty damn clever, but also because he had a vague, disjointed memory of using it to save himself from the Fire People. He didn't much appreciate it being called "stupid," particularly by the other person it had benefitted. He manfully resisted the urge to ask why Jim was trying to use it if it was so stupid, however, and tried a more mature approach.
"Then quit trying. Let me see for you. I'm not going to walk you into a tree or anything, man. Give me a little trust here."
Jim's withdrawal was so immediate that it almost left Blair gasping. The older man didn't let go, but he did stiffen and pull away, as if trying to put as much space between himself and Blair as he could. Blair felt a sudden, blinding flash of hurt that turned to anger so fast he almost didn't recognize it. He clamped down on it hard. He wasn't about to let Jim know he could affect Blair that much.
"So, how far do you think we've come?" he continued, keeping his voice light and chatty, like he was talking to a stranger. He let the words flow, filling the distance between them--not to bridge it, but to cover it up. "Maybe half a mile? I hope you were right about how far that town was, 'cause otherwise, we're going to be walking till we're both old and grey."
Jim muttered something noncommittal, but Blair wasn't really listening. He kept up the light chatter for a bit, but he was starting to hurt too much to keep his mind on what he was saying. His head was pounding again, his arm felt . . . well, broken, and he was actually colder than he'd been last night. He wished fervently for Jim's ability to dial down pain and discomfort. For that matter, he'd settle for the bottle of ibuprofen in his abandoned backpack.
More than anything, though, he wanted to ask Jim where the hell he got off acting like he was the only injured party here. Sure, it was--sort of--Blair's fault that they were missing their prisoner. Blair wasn't stupid enough to think that Jim was going to be happy about Nathan escaping, or even that he would just forgive and forget that Blair had been involved.
He had thought, for some reason, that Jim would at least understand why he'd done it. Jim was one of the most highly principled men he knew. Blair had been sure he'd understand Blair's need to follow his conscience, even if he didn't approve of the path it took.
Instead, Jim was acting as if Blair's actions had been a personal betrayal--as if he'd helped Nathan escape deliberately so that he could hurt Jim. Well, fine, if Jim was that egotistical, Blair wasn't going to waste time trying to convince him otherwise. At least, not until he felt well enough to batter down the walls that protected Fort Ellison and make his partner see reason.
Blair's momentary inattention cost him. The asphalt was slippery, and edged up against a steep drop on the side on which they were walking. Blair had put himself on the outside, since he could see the edge. When he slipped, he didn't have the strength to catch himself, and Jim was too disoriented to stop him from falling.
It happened too fast for Jim to stop it.
They'd been making, as near as he could tell, good progress. He'd begun to think they wouldn't be able to keep it up much longer, though. Sandburg's steps had slowed and become more unsteady the further they walked, and his shivers had grown so bad Jim could feel them vibrating through his own body.
Aside from a headache, Jim felt fine. He could have kept going for hours, his never-quite-forgotten army training reasserting itself as he slipped into mindless marching mode.
The steady pace and Sandburg's idle prattling almost had him in a zone-not one of the crazy sensory whiteouts, but the kind soldiers and athletes entered when their bodies were working without their minds. It was his only excuse for being so inattentive twice in as many days.
It was just so sudden. One second, Sandburg was beside him. The next, Jim was throwing himself on the ground and reaching frantically for the fingers that were almost beyond his grasp.
Jim was lying half on the road, half on the dirt slope that sided it. He had a precarious grasp on the younger man's fingers, but he could feel the mud sliding under both himself and Sandburg.
"Sandburg? You still with me?" he gasped, trying to dig his feet into the ground to anchor himself.
The rain-filled silence seemed to last forever before Sandburg replied in a strained voice, "Yeah, I think. Damn, that hurt."
"Can you climb back up?"
There was another pause. "I don't think so. There's nothing to brace my feet against." There was a third, shorter pause, this time accompanied by an alarming wriggling. Jim tightened his grip. "Anyway, I think I'm stuck on something."
"Stuck? On what?" Jim mentally cursed his vision, straining against the dark-streaked brightness for some sight of Sandburg.
"How'm I supposed to know? I've got my face stuck in the mud," Sandburg snapped. His voice, from what Jim could hear over the rain, had that edge to it that meant he was in a lot of pain. Jim took a deep breath, trying to focus himself. If only he could see!
"See if you can't wiggle free. I'm going to try to pull you up."
Cautiously, Jim reached down with his free hand. As he stretched further down the slope, he could feel himself slip forward slightly. He swore under his breath, bracing his feet more firmly against the asphalt. Closing his hand around Sandburg's wrist, he tugged experimentally.
"What?" Jim asked sharply. "What is it, Sandburg?"
"I'm still caught," Sandburg gasped. "My cast . . . there's some sort of bush or tree down here. Don't pull."
"I'm coming down."
"Wait, Jim." Sandburg's voice held note of panic that halted Jim in his tracks. "You can't see. If you come down here, we're both likely to end up at the bottom."
"You got a better idea?" Jim snapped. He could feel his jaw tightening as frustration mingled with his worry.
"Just listen to me, okay?" Blair's voice dropped in pitch, the tension disappearing. Jim had to focus harder to hear him, but as he did, the background noise of the storm seemed to disappear. "Your eyes--I think you can see, if you just kind of push it a little. You know how you can make yourself see when you've got camera spots in front of your eyes? This is a lot worse, of course, but I think it'll work the same way. It's just like before, with the Golden . . ."
"I have been trying, Sandburg. Do you think I want to be blind?" Jim squinted downward, straining so hard he could feel the muscles in the back of his head tighten.
"Well, keep trying." Blair's voice was calmer than his words. "And let go of my hand. I'm going to try to get myself loose."
Was that a shadow? Movement where Blair's body should be?
"I think I see something."
"Good, Jim, good. Just keep trying to force it to work."
Blair wiggled his fingers in Jim's hand, but Jim tightened his hold. "Be still a minute. It's getting clearer, just give me a second."
His headache was building, but the whiteness had become a stormy greenish grey, and he could see a vague, Blair-shaped outline.
"There's part of a tree sticking out of the mud next to you. Your cast is caught between two of the branches."
"I noticed that," Sandburg said dryly. His mud-streaked face was turned up toward Jim, but Jim had a feeling that he wasn't seeing much more than Jim was at the moment. "Now that you're seeing again, you want to get me out of this?"
"I'll think about it." Jim grinned in spite of the pain in his head. "It looks like there's a stump or something just below your feet. Can you reach it?"
Sandburg stretched downward, then stopped with a soft grunt of pain. "No way, man. It's too far down."
"All right. Stay as still as you can, okay? I'm coming down."
Jim cautiously let go of Sandburg's hand, ready to grab it again in a second if the younger man started to slide. Maneuvering carefully, he worked his feet around to where they were pointed downhill. The slope was at an almost perfect forty-five degree angle--a tough climb in good weather, but not impossible. In the rain, it was more like a slide at a water park.
If he dug his heels in, though, and caught a hold on the branch that had trapped Sandburg . . .
"Ow! Damn it, Jim, watch where you're putting your feet!"
"Sorry," Jim muttered, lowering himself past Sandburg to stand on the exposed stump. It gave Jim a decent vantage from which he could attack the branches that had pinned Sandburg's cast.
He pressed himself up against Sandburg's back, partially for balance and maximum reach and partially to keep Sandburg from sliding again once his arm was loose. He had to push Sandburg's jacket, which had somehow gotten bunched up around his shoulders, out of the way. Jim could feel the shudders wracking the smaller body next to his; pain, cold, and fatigue were taking a bigger and bigger toll as the day wore on.
"Take it easy, now," Jim murmured, automatically reassuring as he assessed the problem. "You'll be out of this in no time. It looks like all I've got to do is break off one of these lower limbs, here, and . . ." with an awkward twist, he snapped the branch off, "you'll be free."
Sandburg's breathing spiked sharply, his heart pounding even harder than it had been.
"Sandburg? How you doing?"
"Damn it, Jim . . ." Sandburg pulled his injured arm closer to his body, sagging slightly so that Jim was supporting some of his weight.
Jim slid an arm around his chest to keep him from sagging further. "You ready to get back on the road?" He could feel Sandburg's nod against his chest. "Okay, then, I'm going to give you a boost. It's not that far up, and it flattens out a bit once you get a little higher. Be careful of your arm."
Jim shifted his grip and pushed, lifting Sandburg as carefully as he could. He could feel the younger man struggling to get a foothold. Jim thought he had one for a second, but then Sandburg came crashing back down, nearly knocking Jim off his precarious perch.
Locking his body against the sudden jolt, Jim grabbed at the younger man, trying to keep them both from falling.
"Damn it, Sandburg," he gasped, his heart pounding faster than the other man's.
Sandburg flinched away from Jim's iron grip. "Jesus, Jim, that hurt. Be careful, will you?"
A red-hot burn of frustration rushed through Jim's veins. Without thinking, he snapped, "If you hadn't gotten us into this, it wouldn't be a problem. Now try again."
There was an instant of complete stillness, then without a word, Sandburg grabbed the branch next to him and pulled himself upward. Jim pushed him from behind, and this time, Sandburg went over the top in a rush of mud and curses. Jim used the branch as a lever to pull himself up as well, and collapsed on the side of the road next to the younger man.
They sat quietly for a few minutes, the only sound between them a harsh gasping for air and the omnipresent rain. Jim squinted at Sandburg. He was still having to force his eyes to focus beyond the bright blur that wanted to cloud everything, but at least he could see well enough to distinguish the younger man from his surroundings.
Sandburg looked worse than bedraggled. His hair hung in limp, muddy strands, and the dirt on his skin was streaking in the rain. His cast was a sodden mess. The bruises on his face stood out sharply. He was shivering violently, his eyes closed and a pained expression on his face.
Jim felt a flash of guilt over snapping at him. Not that it wasn't his fault, but Jim could have waited for a better time to bring it up. Nothing like kicking a man when he was already down.
"We need to get going," Jim said finally, unable to stand the silence anymore.
Sandburg just nodded and started to push himself to his feet. Jim stood and pulled him up gently, steadying him as he swayed a bit.
"Easy, there." Shifting his grip to Sandburg's shoulder, Jim surveyed their surroundings, trying to get his bearings. "I guess we go this way, right? And stay closer to the middle of the road this time."
This time it was Jim leading Sandburg as they made their way through the rain. Sandburg hadn't said anything since they'd gotten back on the road. Jim was finding his silence unnerving, and even more so because he didn't know if it was due to anger or discomfort. At least when Sandburg was chattering incessantly, he had some idea of what the younger man was thinking.
The middle of the road wasn't the place to sort it out, though. They'd have to find somewhere warm and dry--and preferably close--to stop. He'd wanted to make it back to the last town, but now he wasn't sure that Sandburg could go that far. Not when he was already stumbling more than the poor visibility could account for, and especially not when his body temperature had already risen enough that Jim could feel it through his coat.
Blair leaned against the chain link fence, barely listening as Jim muttered at the padlock that held the gate together. The maintenance shed that the fence surrounded looked like heaven in the rain-dimmed illumination from the spotlight overhead, and he really didn't care how Jim went about getting them in to it. At this point, he would have been okay with Jim simply pitching him over the fence and then climbing over himself . . . which, from the assessing expression Jim was turning on him, might just happen.
"I'm going to have to shoot it off. I didn't want to destroy any more than I had to, but . . ." a rain-muffled bang drowned out his words, ". . . least we'll get inside. I'll leave some money to pay for it when we go."
Blair shook his head wearily. That was so Jim.
"C'mon, Sandburg, let's get inside."
Jim's arm went around his shoulders again, guiding him toward the building. Another shot took care of the lock on the shed, and they were finally inside and out of the rain.
The shed was corrugated metal on a slab of concrete, big enough to hold a massive grader, as well as several smaller pieces of equipment. There was a huge vehicle door next to the one that they'd entered by. It also, luckily, had electricity. After a few seconds' search, Jim found the switch and illuminated the room.
Most of the shed was taken up with equipment. The only space that looked clear enough to sit on was the floor around the grader, but Blair was okay with that. He lowered himself slowly to the concrete, wincing as its cold seeped through his wet jeans. At least it was dry.
He leaned back against the machine, closing his eyes as water dripped past them from his hair. He could hear Jim prowling around, no doubt trying to find something useful for their predicament. If he was lucky, maybe Jim would find an extra-large cup of coffee and some mega-strength painkillers . . .
He hadn't realized he was drifting off until Jim's voice jerked him back.
"Hey, Sandburg, look what I found." Jim came around the corner of the grader with his hands full. "Looks like they must keep emergency supplies here. There's not much, but I did find some bottled water, crackers and candy bars, and . . ." he held up his prize, "more importantly, this."
'This' was a stack of the thin space blankets like the type they used on camping trips--not thick enough to provide any cushioning, but warm nevertheless. Blair decided that he truly had died and gone to heaven.
"How about you stand up and let me spread a few of these on the concrete? It'll be a little warmer that way." Jim reached down to give him a hand, and Blair took it reluctantly. He'd almost rather be cold than have to move again.
A sudden rush of dizziness hit him as he stood. He swayed, clutching at Jim's supporting hand desperately as he felt his knees start to give out.
"Whoa, Sandburg, easy there." Jim dropped the blankets and caught him easily by the shoulder, avoiding his broken arm. "Take a deep breath and don't pass out on me now, okay? You're doing fine, just take a breath . . . and another . . . that's right."
Blair did as he was told, closing his eyes and breathing deeply, focusing on the steadiness of Jim's grip rather than the swaying of the floor. Jim's hand left his shoulder and came up to touch his face--it should have been a reassuring gesture, but it felt so impersonal that for a second, Blair thought he was going to throw up. If you hadn't gotten us into this . . .
"Better?" Jim asked. His hands disappeared without waiting for an answer, and Blair heard the soft pop of fabric being shaken out.
He wanted to say no, he wasn't better. He was hurt and angry and so tired he was almost willing to let it all go just so he could get some sleep. If it wasn't dealt with now, though, when they were both stuck in one place with no where to run, when Blair himself was too exhausted to lose his temper and Jim wouldn't completely go ballistic because Blair looked too pitiful to be yelled at . . . If he'd had the energy, he would have grinned. At least there was something to be said for looking like he'd mud-wrestled a Mack truck.
"Okay, you can sit down now."
Blair let himself be guided over to the blankets, keeping his eyes closed against the waves of nausea that threatened. He tilted his head back against the grader again, grateful for its stillness.
"Here you go. It's not exactly health food, but it's better than nothing."
Blair reluctantly opened his eyes to accept the food and bottle of water being held out to him. He wasn't hungry, but he didn't want to create a conflict over something so minor when there was so much more to deal with. Besides, as much as he hated to admit it, eating breakfast that morning had helped.
He glanced over at Jim. The older man had found a seat on a tool chest and was already tearing into the package of crackers, a preoccupied look on his face. The silence was so thick between them that it almost killed the words in Blair's throat, but he'd always been more stubborn than that.
"Jim, we need to talk."
Jim looked up . . . not at him, but through him, in that way he had when he wanted to avoid something. "Don't you think this should wait until we're both a little more . . . " he paused, his eyes doing an impersonal scan of Blair's injuries, "coherent?"
Blair sighed. "I think the longer we wait, the harder it'll be."
Jim shrugged. "What's there to talk about, really? You helped Nathan Halger escape. We both know that was wrong, but there's nothing we can do about it. Talking won't change that."
An almost blinding flash of anger surged through Blair, and if he'd had the strength to react to it, he probably would have said a lot he might have regretted later. As it was, he just set the water bottle down a bit harder than necessary and said in a low voice, "We know it was wrong?"
"You helped a criminal escape arrest, Darwin. Surely you can't have missed the fact that that's illegal."
"'Illegal' and 'wrong' aren't automatically the same thing, Jim. Did it ever occur to you that it might be more wrong to put Nathan in jail?"
Now Jim did look at him. Blair hadn't seen that much scorn directed at him since the first day they'd met. "Why? Because you've got some hippie philosophy that says all government is evil?"
Blair shook his head, frustrated. "How about because he was a sixty-year-old man who's going to be dead in a year from lung cancer? Or the fact that he hasn't set off a bomb anywhere in over two years, since his hands started shaking and he got scared he'd hurt someone?" His anger was making his head pound worse and his ribs ache from the sharp breaths he was taking, but the pain only served to spur him on. "Forget about the fact that he was only trying to do good in the first place. Forget about the fact that he was rebelling against what he saw as a corrupt system. The law isn't always right just because it's the law, Jim."
There was plenty more he wanted to say, but he didn't have any more breath to say it with. Jim was at least looking at him now, but from the concerned, intent look on his face, Blair had a feeling he hadn't heard much of what Blair had actually said.
"Calm down, Sandburg. You're not doing yourself any good getting excited," Jim said soothingly, confirming Blair's suspicions. Then, to Blair's surprise, he added, "Right or wrong, it's my job to uphold the law. It's the courts' job to decide if there's extenuating circumstances to change how the law works, not mine. And I can't do my job if I can't trust my partner."
Blair felt a shiver run through him that wasn't all rain and cold concrete. He'd have thought he'd be getting warm by now, but somehow the cold only seemed to be settling into his bones and growing. "Does that mean it's over?" he asked, failing miserably at keeping the emotion out of his voice.
Jim actually winced. "I don't know."
Blair closed his eyes again, wishing absently that he could quit shivering. "It wasn't you, you know," he said tiredly. It was important that Jim understand that, at least. "When I saw Nathan start to get loose, all I could think about was how he deserved a chance to spend the end of his life with his kids and grandkids. I wasn't trying to betray you or anything. For some reason," he couldn't stop a hollow laugh, "I sort of thought you'd understand."
Sandburg's temperature had gone up at least another degree, Jim noted absently as he studied the younger man's wan features. At best, he was going to come out of this with a bad cold. Jim would have to make sure he got to a doctor as soon as they reached civilization.
"There's consequences to whatever you do, Sandburg. For me, for you . . . it's going to go harder on Halger now when he gets caught. He . . ."
"He won't get caught," Sandburg interrupted tiredly. "He was careless before, didn't realize they were still looking for him. He won't be caught again."
It wasn't worth arguing over, so Jim let it drop. "Whatever. The point is, I can't take you with me on the job if I can't trust you, at the very least, to obey the law."
Glassy blue eyes opened to give him a disconcertingly direct stare. "I can't do something I know is wrong, Jim, not even for you. If you want some sort of pod-person for a partner, someone who agrees with you about everything, I guess you will have to get someone else."
Jim couldn't quite stop a chuckle. "If there's one thing you've never been accused of, Sandburg, it's being a conformist."
A tired smile touched the younger man's mouth as his eyes slid closed again. He was still shivering badly, and Jim noted with a frown that he hadn't touched his food yet.
"Eat up, Chief. I had to work hard to get you that food."
Blair grimaced, but obediently took one of the crackers out of the package Jim had opened for him earlier and stuck it in his mouth. Jim sighed as he watched Blair eat. The annoying fact was that Blair had a point. Jim could no more expect Blair to go against his conscience than he would let Blair force Jim to go against his. Of course, he couldn't really think of a time when Blair would try; the younger man was very 'live and let live' when it came to differing opinions.
Jim had worried that he couldn't trust Blair because their value systems were too different, but at the root, they weren't. Both believed strongly in doing what they thought was right. The problem was that Blair's definition of 'right' came from his heart, and Jim's came more from his head. In a perfect world, Blair's definition was the best; it gave everyone the benefit of the doubt and forgave transgressions freely.
But this isn't a perfect world, Chief. The law isn't perfect, but it's a damn sight better than anarchy. Most of the time, I'd trust your heart over my head in an instant, but not when it goes against everything that I believe is right.
"Blair," Jim said quietly, and bit back a smile as Sandburg gave a guilty start and shoved another cracker in his mouth. "At least, if you find yourself with a . . ." he tried to think of a good way to phrase it, "a 'conflict of interest,' could you take yourself off the case?"
Blair looked at him, swallowing the cracker dryly. "I could do that," he answered somberly.
"Good." This time Jim let himself smile, and was answered with a shy one from his partner.
Blair set the crackers aside and settled back against the grader again. There was a short silence between them, this one more comfortable than any in the past few days. Jim was just about convinced that Blair was asleep when the younger man said softly, "I'm sorry." Tired eyes met his bravely, then dropped back down. "Not for what I did, but for the trouble. We're going to be in a lot of trouble with Simon, aren't we?"
"Simon's never going to know," Jim answered, keeping any emotion out of his voice. There was no point in stirring just-stilled waters.
Blair shot him a hard look, then sighed. "I'm sorry." He closed his eyes and turned his head away, looking somehow more cold and miserable than before.
Blair was almost asleep when a hand touched his face, bringing him back just enough to hear a quiet voice tell him to scoot forward. He did, only belatedly wondering why the voice had disturbed him just as he was getting far enough into sleep that the pain wasn't noticeable anymore.
The question was answered as Jim settled himself into the space created between Blair and the grader. Blair felt a gentle hand guiding his head back toward Jim's warm chest as more blankets were pulled up over the two of them.
Settling back gratefully into the warmth, Blair wondered drowsily if Jim had ever considered a future as a heating pad. Not only was he warm, but Blair had yet to meet an electrical device that could run its fingers through his hair and soothe away the last vestiges of headache with its touch. Turning almost instinctively toward the touch, Blair found Jim's heartbeat right next to his ear, its soft thudding whisking away his wispy thoughts and cradling him gently into the darkness.