Thank you to Angela and Cindy for their generous help. Any lingering typos or inconsistencies are my own fault. Feedback gratefully received & more fanfic available at www.sandramcdonald.com
Blair threw up for the first time over San Francisco. Jim knew they were over San Francisco because his nap had been rudely disturbed by the pilot's cheerful, useless announcement of their location and altitude. After fourteen hours of flying or sitting in airports, Jim no longer cared. He only wanted to be home. He kept his eyes closed, hoping to sink back into sleep, but his Sentinel hearing flared with hyper-awareness of at least forty different snores, throbbing jet engines, idle chatter from the flight attendants ten rows away, the annoying tap-tap-tap of someone working on a laptop computer, a dozen different music channels playing through one hundred sets of earphones, and Blair being sick.
Jim opened his eyes. Blair sat hunched over his airsick bag, looking utterly miserable. The Sentinel tried not to squirm from the distressing smell and sound. "You all right, Blair?"
"No," Blair muttered, as if Jim had just asked the most stupid question in the world. His shoulders jerked up as he vomited again. His complexion seemed green in the glow of the overhead reading light. When the sickness passed he sagged back in his seat and muttered, "Sorry, man," to the passenger sitting in the window seat beside him.
The blond teenager flipping through a motorcycle magazine had been on the flight from Mexico City, too. Jim remembered seeing him seated next to the bathroom. He looked up sympathetically and said, "Not a problem. I've been there and gotten that T-shirt myself."
"Are you air sick?" Jim asked his partner.
"Yeah. It's nothing. It'll pass."
Jim wasn't so sure of that. Blair hadn't looked his best since at least Mexico City. He hit his call light. When a tall, gray-haired flight attendant responded he asked, "May I get a can of ginger ale for my friend here? And another one of those bags."
"More than one," Blair suggested.
"How's your stomach?" Jim asked. "You seem a little warm, Chief."
Blair didn't ask how Jim sensed his growing fever - minute waves of heat emanating to Jim's skin, or the dilation of his capillaries in his face? Instead he turned his gaze toward the window and dark night, muttering, "It's not too bad. Man, this sucks."
Jim checked his watch. They'd left Lima at ten a.m. eastern time, after spending two frustrating weeks trying to track down a man with Sentinel-like abilities. The man, a villager from a remote tribe in the Andes, had been reported in the newspapers as having amazing eyesight, hearing and taste. He'd turned out to be nothing more than a charlatan. Disappointed in the results of their search and in a hurry to get back to the real and civilized world, Jim had been more than happy to leave Peru.
The bumpy flight to Mexico City with two stops along the way on an ancient propeller plane had left him and Blair both bruised. The two-hour afternoon layover in the hot, overcrowded Benito Juarez airport had eaten at their nerves and patience. Los Angeles had been a nightmare of long lines, rude Customs and Immigrations officials, and a mad dash down thirty gates on Concourse A to make the connection to Cascade. They would make it home in another two hours, just past midnight local time. Jim looked around, hoping to spy two or three empty seats together for Blair to use, but every seat on the plane had been sold.
The flight attendant returned with ginger ale for Blair. Jim watched him sip it down and suggested, "Why don't you try to get some sleep? Time will go quicker."
"Yeah. Maybe." Blair reclined his seat. Jim had taken the precaution of grabbing blankets when they boarded and spread one now over his partner. Blair smiled at the kindness, a tired and queasy smile that emphasized the dark circles under his eyes, and made an obvious attempt at sleeping.
The teenager against the window finished his magazine and folded the cover shut. Jim's Sentinel vision caught the subscriber's name and address. Richard Ryan. 311 Culver Ave, apartment 107, Seacouver. Jim knew the address - not the best neighborhood in the Cascade/Seacouver twin city area, not by a long shot - and wondered how a teenager living there could afford to fly to and from Mexico City. He didn't think he'd ever seen him in a line up or mug shot, and the kid certainly looked clean-cut, but Jim's police instincts circled around the matter with idle curiosity.
Richie noticed Jim's attention but ignored it. He didn't like the looks of him - not the physical looks, but the general aura. Hard. Solid. No-nonsense. The man kept his body in shape and wore his hair shorter than even the military required. Not a soap salesman, not a car dealer, not a software engineer. A cop. His mentor Duncan MacLeod would probably have contradicted him, called him paranoid, but then again he and Duncan hadn't agreed on many things recently. Richie had spent enough time around police and probation officers to spy them from miles away. He leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. I don't want any trouble whatsoever, he said in his mind to the cop, as if ESP could save the day. You sit in your seat, I'll sit in mine, and in four hours we'll land and never see each other again.
Without actually meaning to, Richie fell into a light sleep. He could still hear the plane engines, but they took on a distant and unreal quality. Memories of his recent month in Mexico with Duncan's kinsman Connor rose to consciousness, swirled lazily and dissipated. At last grown tired of New York City, or at least needing a break from its crowds and relentless noise, Connor had fled to a mountainside hacienda outside Valle de Bravo that he'd owned since 1832. He'd issued invitations for both Duncan and Richie to join him. For Richie, the invitation had also included a plane ticket. Duncan had deferred, mumbling some feeble excuse about too much work to do, but Richie jumped on the plane twenty-four hours later.
Connor was just as dangerous and deadly as Duncan - even more so, Richie sometimes thought - but when he took a vacation, he really took a vacation. Duncan's idea of relaxation meant hiking twenty miles a day in the wilderness and sleeping on the ground. Connor's hacienda had fourteen rooms and eight servants, including the masseuse and driver. Duncan liked to commune with nature and rise at dawn. Connor had taken to sleeping in until noon and left communing as one of the gardener's duties. Duncan delighted in throwing himself in icy cold streams for bathing and catching his own dinner. Connor had just recently installed a Jacuzzi, and every evening meal had included three courses and special desserts devised by the Parisian chef he'd imported for the summer.
An elbow jammed into his side, yanking Richie to wakefulness. The passenger in the middle seat - what had the cop called him? Blake? Blair? - had shifted in his sleep. Richie gave him a dirty look but relented when he saw Blair's drawn and greenish complexion. The guy wasn't much older than Richie - well, not much older than Richie's actual age, not the one he presented to the world on a face frozen forever at nineteen. He had long hair, though not as long as Duncan's, and two small silver hoop earrings in his left earlobe. Richie knew that he and the cop were traveling together, although at first glance they didn't seem to have much in common. Blair didn't look like a cop, not even a narc. He looked like a hippie or something, with worn jeans, leather sandals, a handwoven-shirt, and a multi-colored vest.
Richie tried to nudge Blair's elbow out of his side. The cop noticed his dilemma and eased his friend away.
"Huh?" Blair asked, opening his eyes.
"Go to sleep, Chief," his friend replied. "You'll feel better."
Blair mumbled something and snuggled back down into his blanket.
"Sorry about that," the friend apologized, keeping his voice low.
"It's okay," Richie answered. "Like I said, it's happened to me too before. First long plane trip I took, I even threw up on the guy in front of me."
The man jerked his head toward his friend and said, fondly, "Don't give him any ideas."
"I won't, I promise."
"You're not helping, Jim," Blair muttered, his eyes still closed.
"When we get back to the loft," Blair added, "I'm going to crawl into bed for a week."
"Me too, Chief."
Richie's ears perked up. The two men lived together. He hadn't pegged them as that type, but as Connor often said, in the big wide world anything was possible.
The flight attendants banging the drink cart down the aisle reached their row. No food on this flight, which was a good thing. Richie had eaten a tray of alleged chicken on the way from Mexico City to L.A. and its greasy heaviness still hung heavily in his stomach. He asked for a Coke but passed on the peanuts, and settled back into the seat.
Next to him, Blair gave up trying to sleep. The growing sense of illness and discomfort in his gut wouldn't let him rest. He'd first started feeling nauseated on the flight from Lima, but hadn't said anything to Jim. Who wouldn't have felt sick on a turboprop bouncing up and down like naked girl's breasts in a nudist volleyball game? In Mexico City he'd purchased Pepto-Bismal from the airport gift shop to combat a growing stomachache. He'd swallowed some down in the bathroom, away from Jim. The last thing Blair wanted to do was hold up their flight back because of some nasty bug in the water or the stomach flu. In just a short time they'd be home in Cascade, and if he still felt sick in the morning he would go to the student clinic.
His stomach twisted. He took a steadying breath and let it out slowly. Jim had fallen asleep again. The man could sleep anywhere at any time, and their two weeks in Peru had been emotionally trying on him. The hope of finding just one other person in the entire world who could share Jim's Sentinel experience had been cruelly dashed, and no matter how hard he tired to hide, Blair knew Jim felt the blow. Blair felt guilty for ever bringing up the newspaper articles in the first place. He should have waited for some scientific confirmation before dragging Jim on some lunatic expedition across the equator - on Jim's credit card, no less.
The minutes crawled by so slowly Blair thought time itself had stopped. Waiting, waiting, waiting. More waiting. The roar of the engines beneath every tinkling glass and murmured conversation carried them inexorably forward in the dark sky, like a relentless tidal wave heading toward an ever-receding shoreline. The stale, hot air in the cabin made Blair claustrophobic, although he had to admit part of the problem might be in his body's own rising thermostat.
He wanted to go the bathroom and splash cold water on his face, but didn't want to wake Jim in the aisle seat. He fidgeted instead. He was tired enough that the magazine in his lap began to blur, and his glasses sat stowed impossibly far away under the seat in his carry-on bag. He grimaced as his stomach clenched again, and this time the teenager beside him asked, "Are you okay?"
"Yeah," Blair answered. "Must be something I ate in Mexico or Peru."
"Is that where you're coming from? Peru?"
"Lima. What about you?"
"Visiting a friend. What's in Lima?"
"Research." Talking didn't make Blair feel much better, but it did distract him slightly. "I'm an anthropologist."
"Oh." The teenager smiled. "I'm not anything. I go to school."
"Rainier or one of the state colleges?" Blair asked.
"Rainier. You too?"
"I'm a grad student in Anthropology. I teach 101 and 102."
"Cave men and stuff?"
Blair offered a tiny smile. "Something like that. I'm Blair Sandburg."
"Richie Ryan. Nice to meet you."
Blair lapsed into silence. Talking took too much energy. He shifted in his seat, but found it impossible to sit comfortably. Richie seemed locked in his own thoughts, peering out at the black sky. Jim snored softly. A click sounded through the dimmed cabin, and the pilot's voice squawked over the intercom.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Carlyle on the flight deck. It seems there's been some bad weather up in Cascade, and a thunderstorm has shorted out the runway lights at the airport there."
"Huh?" Jim asked, waking up with a snort and blinking in disorientation. "What's going on?"
Blair put a calming hand on his forearm and instructed, "Shush. Listen."
"Right now we're in contact with the tower in Cascade. There is a back-up system for the lights, but we'd prefer not to use it if at all possible. Right now we're looking at diverting into Seattle, in which case we'd put you on buses for Cascade to get you to your destination tonight. I'll let you know as soon as we work out a solution."
The cabin started buzzing with discussion and complaints. A man sitting two rows up rang his call light and berated the responding flight attendant by announcing he simply did not have time to go to Seattle. His ticket was to Cascade and he damn well was going to Cascade. Blair silently, wholeheartedly agreed with the sentiment if not the man's curtness. He felt as if some invisible and fraying rope that had been holding him together for this last leg of their journey had snapped another strand.
Jim cocked his head. His eyes seemed to shift slightly out of focus. Blair recognized the signs - Jim was concentrating on one of his other senses, probably eavesdropping on the conversation in the cockpit. After a few minutes Jim blinked and straightened in his chair, a resigned look on his face, and Blair knew that the plane was indeed diverting.
Richie grabbed his luggage off carousel A on the lower level of Sea-Tac airport, silently berating whatever gods of transportation and weather had shorted out the runway lights up in Cascade. Jet lag made him cranky, in no mood to take a two-hour bus ride from Seattle to Cascade. The alternative, staying in a hotel overnight at the airline's expense and catching a six a.m flight, had very little appeal either. With backpack over one shoulder and swordcase in hand, he shuffled toward the purple charter buses parked at the curb. The cool, damp night air beyond the sliding glass doors came as a marked contrast to the hot mountains back in Mexico, and Richie took a deep breath as a welcome home. He joined the line for the third bus and found himself behind Jim and Blair. Jim had taken custody of their luggage and wouldn't let Blair touch the bags.
"Quit fussing," Blair said peevishly.
"I think we should stay overnight," Jim responded. "You look awful."
"I'll look a lot less awful once we get home," Blair said. "I'm not staying overnight here. You can if you want to. I want to get home and get to my own bed, and no stomach bug is going to stand in the way of that."
"You're too stubborn for your own good, do you know that?"
"So you say. But there's an old American story about a pot calling a kettle black, ever hear it?"
Curbside attendants took their bags. Richie hated to turn over his swordcase but he knew it wouldn't fit under the seat or above on the rack. He went up the stairs expecting some kind of hard school bus seats, but instead found thirty rows of nicely upholstered blue seats, each side two seats wide. Piled luggage took up most of the last ten rows. Blair and Jim took seats on one side and Richie wound up sitting in the row in front of them. A grandmother carrying a very young baby took the aisle seat beside Richie. Great. He only hoped the baby stayed asleep, and didn't decide to cry all the way to Cascade.
The seats adjusted backward, and Blair immediately positioned his to full reclination. He bunched his vest under his head as a pillow.
Jim shrugged out of his own sweater and draped it over his partner.
Blair cracked open an eyelid. "Thanks, man."
Jim put his hand on Blair's forehead. "You definitely have a fever, Chief."
"Ninety nine degrees. Big deal."
"I'd say one hundred two."
"Let's not talk about it, okay? Two hours and we're home, man. This is not a problem."
Jim tried to use logic to combat the growing worry in his gut. Blair was right. In two hours they'd be home, and if he was truly sick Jim could take care of him in a familiar setting, with doctors they knew and trusted nearby. Still, Jim had to fight the urge to drag his partner off the bus and spend a nice, easy night in the airport hotel. He would trust that Blair knew his own body and not overreact like some protective parent.
At eleven p.m. the two buses ahead of them pulled away into traffic. Their own driver bounced up the stairs pulling and tugging on his brown company jacket. Skinny and gangly, he looked no older than twenty or twenty one years old. Some inherited gene had left him cursed with prematurely thinning brown hair, and his oily face bore ridges of hard, angry-looking pimples. Just a kid, really. Lately everyone in Jim's life seemed to be getting younger - bus drivers, waiters, barbers, even the cops at the station. The driver, whose emblazoned name read "Billy," slid behind the steering wheel, brought the bus engine to life, and slowly merged left into the glowing lights of airport traffic.
The charter buses drove on to I-5 and headed north past the Boeing plants. Rain began splattering against the windows and pattering on the roof. With very little traffic to fight, they made good time as the highway twisted past downtown. The Kingdome appeared to Jim's left, Seattle University to his right. They passed Lake Union and Jim smiled at an old memory of sailing on it with a redheaded woman he'd loved and lost. Most of the other passengers fell asleep, including Blair, but Jim stayed awake thinking about the years that had washed away from beneath him, never to be retrieved or relived again.
He'd been young and invincible once, ready to take on the world. What had he lost first? His stamina, his optimism, his hair? He felt battered, not invincible. When he'd joined the police force he'd had hopes of cleaning up the city. He'd settle now for cleaning up his own neighborhood. Some days he wanted to do nothing more than turn his back on the whole sordid mess of his fellow mankind and just go live in the woods, good old Jim Ellison in a cabin somewhere. He could use his Sentinel senses to live off the land and never have to worry about murderers, thieves, addicts, the broken criminal justice system, the rotating doors of prisons, or anything at all.
What about Blair, though? Would the younger man follow him into the mountains, content to do Sentinel research by counting how many fish Jim caught, how many birds he could identify in mountain valleys? Doubtful. And unfair to even contemplate. Jim owned the Sentinel abilities, had to live with them as part of his body and mind, but without Blair he wouldn't have had the faintest clue of how to use them. He still needed Blair to help him. Until the time they dissolved their professional relationship - a prospect Jim preferred not to think about - Blair owned the Sentinel abilities too.
Just past Everett the highway narrowed to one lane, and a long stream of lights in front of them indicated backed-up traffic for miles. Jim rubbed his eyes. Not now. The last thing they needed was to be stuck in traffic. But sure enough it took twenty minutes to cover the next two miles, and at that rate it would be dawn before they reached home. In an apparent move to escape the gridlock, their driver Billy took the next exit, skirted past Marysville, and headed up a dark country road toward Arlington. Jim approved of the move and hoped it would work.
Five miles later, Blair let out a tiny moan beside him. Jim felt his forehead - the fever had notched up another half-degree - and put his hand first against Blair's clammy cheek, then to his throat. His pulse was strong and faster than usual. Blair's eyes fluttered open, and Jim's chest tightened at the lost, hurt look in them.
"Jim?" Blair rasped out.
"Yeah. Right here." Jim knew it was too dark for Blair to see clearly, although his own enhanced vision worked perfectly. "How do you feel?"
"My stomach. . . hurts bad."
"Yeah?" Jim forced himself to sound only casually interested. If he panicked, Blair might panic too. "Where exactly does it hurt?"
"Umm . . . over here." Blair gestured toward the lower right quadrant of his stomach. Jim tried to touch too but Blair tensed and pulled back in the seat.
"You have to let me see. I'm going to lift up your shirt, too, okay? You know my touch works better without cloth in the way."
Blair hesitated but then nodded. Jim carefully undid his partner's buckle and the top of his jeans. He tugged Blair's shirt free and moved his hand up against his stomach.
"Your hand's cold!" Blair hissed.
"Sorry," Jim apologized. "I just hope no one sees us this way and gets the wrong idea, Chief."
Blair managed a small smile, which was Jim's intent. He ran his fingers lightly over his partner's belly. "When did the pain start?"
"A few hours ago."
"Is it getting better or worse?"
"Moving around or staying still?"
"Used to be . . . behind my belly button. Now it's over here more. What is it, Jim? My appendix?"
"Maybe," Jim said, deliberately vague. His sensitive fingertips could sense swelling beneath the smooth skin. The fever, vomiting, localized pain - all classic indicators of appendicitis. He pulled Blair's shirt back down and covered him with the sweater. "We'll get you checked out when we reach the next town, okay?"
"You're not giving me a warm and fuzzy here, Jim. You know I hate hospitals, and if I put in just one more claim against my student insurance I swear the university's going to expel me. Can't we just wait until we get home?"
"Sure we can, but you know how impatient I am." Jim didn't want to worry Blair with the full explanation, but if he did have appendicitis and the inflamed organ ruptured, the spread of infectious bacteria through his abdomen could be fatal. "Just relax, okay?"
Blair nodded. "I'm real thirsty. Can you get my water bottle from my bag?"
"Why don't we hold off on that, Chief? No food or drink until the doctor sees you." And if they had to rush Blair into surgery, it would be better if he had nothing in his stomach.
"Man," Blair growled. "I never should have mentioned it."
"Too late." Jim smiled at him cheekily. If he could keep Blair's spirits up, they might have a better chance at this. He didn't know if the next town even had a doctor, never mind a hospital. In the worse case scenario, though, the local or state cops could call in a life flight. "Let me go talk to the driver, okay?"
He dug in his pocket for his wallet and badge and started to climb to his feet. The slowing of the bus made him clutch the seat for support. Jim peered twelve rows up to the wet windshields and out to the dark road, but saw no reason Billy should be braking. Come to think of it, though, where were the other buses? Had only theirs turned off? He hoped nothing was wrong with the engine or tires.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Billy's voice squawked over the intercom. "We'll be stopping momentarily. Please stay in your seats."
"What's going on?" Blair asked, shivering beneath Jim's sweater.
"I don't know." Jim's cop instincts flared into overdrive. He wished he had his gun, but it was locked in his luggage at the back of the bus. He'd left his cellular phone back in Cascade, as it would have been useless in Peru. "I'll find out."
The bus stopped before Jim could move, though. The overhead lights flickered on, bathing the interior with cool blue light. The door swung open and a man dressed in a black jacket and jeans stepped up, his face covered with a red ski mask. He fired one shot into the roof from his Coonan .357 Magnum. The explosion drew screams from men and women who just seconds ago had been sleeping peacefully.
"Hand everything over!" the man shouted. "Wallets, jewelry, everything! Stay in your seats or I'll blow your fucking brains out!"
Jim sat down immediately. He didn't need to draw any attention to himself. Without being asked to, Billy shot out of his seat and took a sack from the robber. He started down the aisle, snatching wallets, rings, watches and other valuables from the passengers and yelling at them when they weren't quick enough.
"Give me that ring!" Billy yelled at one young woman. He practically ripped it from her finger. His voice shook. Was the gunman his brother, cousin, a high school buddy? They must have been desperate for money to pull this heist. In a situation like this the state troopers and FBI would descend like flies, earning media attention across the country. Billy would be easily identified from his employee file, and would find it impossible to hide in the state of Washington or maybe even the rest of the United States.
Unless, of course, all the passengers were dead. Unless no one could identify Billy as participating in the robbery.
Jim couldn't shake the feeling this was amateur hour, which worried him. Amateurs usually proved to be more dangerous than professionals - untrained, poorly organized and quick to panic Quite unexpectedly he thought of the infamous Chowchilla kidnapping, back in 1976. Twenty six school children and their school bus driver had been kidnapped, imprisoned in a black moving van and buried alive. For sixteen hours they'd scraped and clawed and dug their way out. Did Billy and his buddy know about Chowchilla? Had they learned from the mistakes of that crime?
Even as those thoughts slid one after another through Jim's mind, he slipped the badge from his wallet and buried it in the gap between his and Blair's seats. He pulled Blair's watch and wallet free to spare his partner any unnecessary movement. Billy reached Richie and the gray-haired woman ahead of Jim.
"Hand over the diamond earrings, bitch," Billy snapped. With the baby in her arms, she couldn't move fast enough. He yanked one out of her ear, bringing a cry of pain, and Richie rose up angrily in his seat.
"Hey! Pick on someone - "
The gunman fired. From twenty feet away. With unerring accuracy. The bullet hit Richie square in the chest, blasting a hole from front to back. Blood, flesh, fluid and tissue exploded outward to splatter on Jim and Blair and three other rows of hostages. The sideways impact - the gunman stood braced by the driver's seat, and Richie had been turned toward the aisle - threw the teenager against the window. His skull shattered the glass into a spiderweb of thousands of tiny cracks. For a second Richie's body hung, suspended in grisly suspension, and then it sagged down slowly.
Screams. Chaos. Jim sat frozen and stunned. Even with all of his training and experience, the sudden slaughter made it impossible for him to do anything other than stare at the bloody corpse of Richie Ryan.
"Shut up!" the gunman yelled at the terrified passengers. "Shut the fuck up!"
The words rang in Jim's ears from far away, but it took the stench of gunpowder and blood to rip him back to reality. Richie's head and arm hung over the edge of his reclined chair into Blair's lap. "Jesus, Jim," Blair gasped, fighting down obvious spasms of pain as he tried to ease Richie into a better position. "We've got to help him!"
"Blair, it's too late - "
" - get a bandage or something - "
"Chief." Jim grabbed Blair's hand and held it. "It's too late. He's dead."
Under the threat of more bullets the passengers quieted down. Jim could hear someone weeping steadily. The baby cried at the top of its lungs. Billy stared at Richie's body, his own face a deathly- white mask. Whatever the young robber had planned on, Jim reasoned, murder hadn't been part of it.
"Get his stuff!" the gunman ordered.
Billy didn't move.
"Shit," Billy muttered. He pulled Richie's watch from his lifeless wrist before moving across the aisle and collecting more wallets, wedding rings, a gold necklace. He came back to snatch Jim and Blair's wallet with badly trembling hands. Blair doubled over in his seat, clutching at his stomach with a loud groan.
"What's wrong with him?" Billy demanded.
Jim forced himself to answer calmly and loudly. "He's sick. He needs a doctor and a hospital."
The gunman heard every word. "Like that other stupid sonovabitch, huh? A doctor and hospital aren't going to do him any good."
"He has appendicitis," Jim continued. He didn't have much hope the gunman would listen to reason so he fixed his gaze on Billy alone. "He needs surgery or he might die. If that happens, you'll be up for another count of murder."
"You think we're worried about murder?" the gunman asked.
Jim allowed his gaze to flicker forward, then back to Billy. The feel of Blair hunched up against his side in terrible pain threatened to distract him. He blotted out the sounds of his partner's distressed breathing and groans. "It could be the difference between life in prison or the death penalty," he offered. "Just turn yourselves in now and let the police get him to the nearest hospital."
The gunman took two steps down the aisle. "Fuck that. Maybe I should just put him out of his misery, huh? How about that?"
Blair clutched at Jim's blood-stained shirt and tried to muffle himself, but his trembling body shook against Jim's as if caught in some raging inner storm. Jim put a hand on his head and pulled him closer, determined to protect him any way he could. He wondered how much Blair heard and understood. He was tempted to tell the man that if he killed Blair he better damn well kill Jim too, or Jim would hunt him down and tear him to bloody shreds in the most heinous way possible. But he didn't think offering up that scenario would help his case at the moment.
"There's no need for this to go any further," Jim reasoned. "He can't hurt you. You've gotten what you came for."
"Not nearly," the gunman snorted. "Not by a long shot, asshole."
Billy's head snapped around - he obviously didn't know about any additional goals of this robbery - and his jaw clenched. "They're getting off," he said to his partner. He turned back to Jim. "Get him off. You're going too."
"Make one move and I'll shoot," the gunman said immediately.
Jim didn't move.
Billy turned. "They're getting off," he insisted. His voice shook but somewhere underneath rang a stubborn will and defiance. "You already killed one person, and I'm not going to let it become two."
The gunman swore but motioned at Jim with his weapon. "Okay, hero, do it. But do it fast."
Jim hesitated fractionally. He owed it to the other passengers to see to their safety and well-being. They didn't know he was a cop, and he suspected his life would very shortly be over if the gunman found out, but didn't duty demand that he stay with the hostages? To do all he could to help free them, and not selfishly think of only his own partner?
Somewhere, someone in the back muttered in disgruntlement, "Hey, I need a hospital too. Let me off." But only a Sentinel could hear the bitter words.
Blair moaned against his side again, and the sound swept away Jim's resistance. He stood, hooked his arm under the younger man and carefully pulled him free of the seat and the lingering weight of Richie's corpse. Blair could barely keep his legs under him as Jim maneuvered him down the aisle. The gunman backed up into the driver's seat to cover them with his Magnum. Jim could feel every hostage's eyes on him and half-expected a shot in the head as he passed, but nothing happened. He pulled Blair down the stairs into the rainy night and then wondered, dismally, if he'd just put them in a better or worse position.
"Now get up here and pull off the other one," the gunman ordered. "I'm not driving around with any stinking corpse."
Jim eased Blair to the side of the road. His Guide curled up into himself, shivering and spasming. Jim climbed back up into the bus to retrieve Richie's body. He couldn't meet the stricken, fearful gaze of the grandmother beside the corpse. She tried to soothe the squealing baby.
"Shut that kid up!" the gunman yelled.
"I'm trying!" she cried.
Richie's bloody, torn body weighed more than Jim expected. He staggered under the weight but got it down the stairs and outside. Wind whipped at him from all directions as he put Richie on the hard ground. He saw Billy move, pick up something and hand it to the gunman. A moment later a small bundle came flying out the door. Jim lunged for the baby like his old hero Joe Namath going for a long pass, and landed hard on his stomach with the prize held over his head.
The gunman laughed as he closed the bus door. Seconds later the engine rumbled to life, and the vehicle lumbered down the road with a dozen terrified, envious faces peering at Jim from behind the rain-streaked windows.
He lay still for a moment, the wind knocked out of him and his chest and stomach aching from impact. The wailing child finally made him roll up to a sitting position. With Sentinel vision he inspected the baby. A boy, judging by the blue blanket, and unharmed. No more than a month or two old, and screaming as if his heart had been cut out. Jim wrapped it under his shirt and the baby latched onto his right nipple.
"Wrong person, buddy," he squeaked out, and tried to disengage the infant. It persisted on sucking on him, but at least it wasn't crying anymore.
Shit. Okay, he could live with the small, strange pain. He crawled past Richie's lifeless corpse to Blair.
"Chief?" Jim sought out his carotid pulse. Blair's skin might as well have been ice, although his forehead felt searing to the touch. "Can you hear me?"
"It hurts," Blair managed through clenched teeth. "Make it stop!"
"I would if I could, buddy. Just hold on. You're going to be fine."
Jim stood up, braced against the wind driving wetness into his hair, face, clothes. He scanned the woods of pine and fir with his Sentinel vision. It was conceivable the gunman had walked from the nearest town to this spot, but not very likely. He had to have had a car or motorcycle. Jim found nothing, though, no mode of transportation stashed in the trees or brush. He concluded there had to be at least another person involved, someone who had dropped the gunman off at this spot to wait for Billy to pull over.
No car. No way out. Jim beat down a wave of frustration. He had to focus and concentrate. He closed his eyes and stretched his Sentinel hearing out in every direction. Millions of drops of rain beat against his eardrums like drumsticks. No, filter those out. Blair's heartbeat, his own, the baby's. Useless. Thousands of crickets under leaves, thousands more worms slithering up out of muddy holes. Branches slicing against the sky. Thunder that might have been twenty or thirty miles away, but so loud and unexpected he dropped to his knees in agony.
"Jim!" Blair yelled.
Nearly deafened, Jim rocked against the pain and moaned.
"Jim!" Blair snagged his arm and pulled him close. "It's okay, man! Turn your hearing down!"
"It's down," he mumbled. Tears and rain blurred his vision. God that had hurt. "It's down," he repeated, as much for Blair's benefit as his own.
"Don't . . . scare me, man," Blair said. "I'm scared enough . . . already."
Jim squeezed Blair's hand. "It's going to be okay. I think I heard something, right before the thunder. Let me find it again."
He reached out again, more cautiously this time, and pinpointed the sound again. "I hear a woman."
"A woman?" Blair asked. His teeth chattered. "Out here? Man . . . you've got a one-track mind!"
Jim ignored the jibe. "She's on the phone, talking to someone about her husband. She's thinking of leaving him. The house is . . . that way. About three miles. We can do it, Chief."
Blair shook his head. "Can't."
"I'm not leaving you alone," Jim said adamantly, even as the baby decided he wasn't getting what he needed from Jim's bare breast and started crying.
"Jim, listen to me," Blair said, his words almost drowned out by the wails. "You can't carry me and that kid. I think my insides will burst if you even try. I can't walk . . . it hurts to even . . . breathe. Just go . . . and bring back help. It won't take long."
"Chief . . . " Jim said helplessly. Blair was right. But that didn't make the task any easier.
Jim reached out with his hearing to listen to Blair's heartbeat. He heard his own, the baby's, Blair's - and one other, from just a few feet away, from Richie's corpse.
The sound startled him so badly he yelped.
"What's wrong?" Blair demanded.
Jim scrambled to the teenager's side. Impossible that he could be alive! Jim had heard no pulse or rattle of lungs from Richie - not on the bus, and not when he'd carried him out. No one could survive a wound like the one Richie had. But as Jim touched the body he heard heartbeat and breathing. His Sentinel vision picked out the mess of gore on Richie's chest, but the grisliness obscured the wound itself.
Richie coughed - a weak, screeching, agonized sound.
"Christ," Jim muttered. He put his hand to Richie's face. "Kid? You hear me?"
Richie's eyes fluttered open.
"What . . . happened?" he coughed out.
"No, don't talk," Jim said. "Just stay still. You were shot."
And you were dead, he almost added, but didn't. He'd heard of rare medical cases where someone's heart started beating again of its own accord, but he'd never seen it happen. Even if Richie had been shot next to a trauma ward, with the finest surgeons in the world at hand, he would have had little chance of surviving that blast to his chest. That he was alive now, even able to talk, was a miracle that couldn't last long.
"Wet . . . " Richie complained.
"I know," Jim said helplessly. He had nothing to cover Richie or Blair with but his own shirt, and he needed that for the baby. He had nothing to staunch Richie's bleeding, but he'd probably lost more than enough blood already to make the attempt useless anyway.
Something heavy fell against Jim's side, and he caught Blair before he sagged completely to the ground. His partner had dragged himself over to see Richie. The burden of the two injured men pressed on Jim's heart like a twenty ton weight, making it hard for him to breathe.
"Go," Blair said. "We'll be okay. Just . . . hurry."
"Blair . . . "
"I know," the younger man said. "Me . . .too."
"I'll be back," Jim swore, squeezing Blair's shoulder, touching Richie's head. The teenager's eyes slid closed. Blair bit down a groan of pain and curled tighter into himself.
Jim took two steps and almost turned back, but instead he forced his feet into a run. He sprinted as fast as he could down the slick highway, both arms crossed against the baby nestled to his chest.
Had to get help. He had to get help.
He could only pray Blair would still be alive when he returned.
Richie hated coming back to life.
Better than not coming back to life, he knew, but nothing hurt more than that first shriek of air into a still chest, the slam of hot blood through a heart content to rest. Fireworks exploded up and down his muscles - neurons firing, he supposed, dimly recalling high school science lessons. Then again, he and his friend Angie had spent most of their classes whispering and writing notes back and forth, so maybe "neurons" didn't really exist except on Star Trek.
He rolled on his side, overcome with pain spiraling up his chest from one white-hot spot just below his sternum. What the hell? He tried to remember if someone faster and better with a sword had caught up to him at last, but instead focused on fragmented memories of a bus and a bullet. Oh, yeah. He'd been shot in front of thirty witnesses. Say goodbye to Richie Ryan. He'd have to move, change his name, create a whole new identity. Duncan would not be pleased at all.
Someone groaned, bringing his attention around. A body, against him. Cold and wet and shivering. Richie tried to see by flashes of intermittent lightning. "Blair?" he asked.
"Lie still, man," Blair forced out. "Jim . . . will be back. Bringing. . . help."
Richie sat up. He felt whole. Not fine, but whole. He fingered the smooth skin and full hair on his chest. Just like new. Nothing like an Immortal warranty. He would have been happy with a shelter, dry clothes and shot of something alcoholic, but first things first. "What's wrong with you?" he asked Blair.
"Appendix . . . hurts like hell."
"I bet," Richie sympathized. He'd had appendicitis when he was fourteen. His foster family had delayed medical care for two days, treating him in the meantime with antacids and aspirin. He remembered thrashing with pain in the car when they finally took him in. His appendix had ruptured on the operating room table, and the doctor said he was lucky to have lived. He couldn't imagine having died then, and becoming an Immortal trapped forever in a fourteen-year-old's body. Nineteen was bad enough.
He knew better than to try and carry Blair to safety - he didn't know which way to go in any case, and he didn't know how long he could bear the weight. Instead he pulled him into his lap, trying to share a tiny bit of body warmth and shelter him against the rain.
"You're hurt, man . . . " Blair protested. "You need to . . . rest."
"I'll be okay," Richie reassured him. He was okay. Just embarrassed at his own stupidity. He'd never considered the robbers would up and shoot him. Duncan would say he'd been too impetuous, too rash. Maybe. He'd deal with the lecture later. "Don't talk, okay? Save your strength."
Blair didn't answer.
Richie held him tighter. He had only met him a few hours ago but he liked him well enough, and hated to see anyone in suffering and in pain. Especially a mortal who would not be as lucky as Richie when it came to returning from the dead. The wind and rain whipped at Richie, drenching him to the skin. He remembered Connor's tales of the highlands of Scotland, and how he'd stumbled out of a drunk celebration after his first victorious battle to stand alone as the wild elements raged against him.
No battle here. No drunken Scottish warriors slamming down tankards of ale. If Richie concentrated hard enough he thought he could hear them, though - shouts ringing across centuries, warriors calling from their graves.
No, not shouts. Not warriors. Just the storm, battering through these ancient woods.
He went to check his watch, but it had disappeared. He kept internal track of the minutes, scanning the highways periodically. Which way had Jim gone? Minutes dragged by. Almost an hour must have passed before he saw a pair of headlights appear in the far distance
"Blair?" he asked the bundle in his lap.
"Help is here, okay? But I can't stay with you. There's too much stuff I can't explain. You're going to be fine."
Richie eased the unconscious man away and staggered to his feet on thighs that felt like cold blocks of lead. He waved his arms at the car and waited until it started to slow. Then he backed away, into the darkness, into the woods, away from any connections to the man he'd been just an hour ago.
On a good day on the police academy track, wearing his favorite Adidas sneakers, Jim could clock a mile in just over seven minutes. This hardly qualified as a good day, and his leather shoes split before the first mile as he ran for all his worth down the midnight-black, storm-swept road cradling a screaming twelve- pound infant.
He could have left the kid behind with Blair and Richie, although neither man could possibly care for him or adequately shelter him against the cold. No, better this way, even though he had to support the baby's head as well as body against injuries from the jarring. At the same time each minute of delay decreased Blair's chance for survival. That ticking timebomb in his abdomen could go off at any second. Richie had no hope whatsoever - only some fluke of nature had brought him back from death, and those heinous injuries had probably drained the life out of him within seconds of Jim's departure.
Three miles. He made it in just over thirty minutes. The house proved to be a small Cape Cod nestled one hundred feet from the road. One small light burned in a corner. In his fatigue and haste he'd lost concentration on the female resident's voice, but as he gasped for breath he swung out his Sentinel hearing and caught snatches of words. He threw himself against the front door, pounding as hard as he could.
"Police emergency!" he yelled. "Open up!"
From inside he heard "What the - Mom? Someone's pounding at my door!"
"Police!" he repeated. "Open up!"
For the love of God, open up, he almost said. He clutched the door frame to keep himself upright. When it swung open he stumbled into a dark hall. Odors of cinnamon and soiled cat litter assailed him, and a light switching on overhead blinded him for a moment.
"Stay where you are!" the woman yelled. "I've got a gun!"
Jim blinked up into the barrel of a Ladysmith .38 Special. He struggled to breathe past the squeezing sensation of red-hot hands wrapped around his lungs.
"I'm a cop," he gasped. "Call the police! And an ambulance. There's been a hijacking down the road - "
The owner of the gun, a petite brown-haired woman in a blue terrycloth robe, backed away toward the cordless phone sitting on the hall stand. A shining red light indicated the line remained open, that her Mom could probably hear every word. "If you move I'll shoot you," she warned.
All he'd wanted was a nice, quiet flight from Los Angeles to Cascade. Not so much to ask. Jim sagged to his knees, unable to hold himself up, and the baby let out a weak cry from inside his shirt. He ripped the fabric open and carefully put the wet, shivering infant on the floor.
"Please," he said. "If you can't help me, help him."
The gun slowly dropped away.
The owner's name was Mandy Hargrove. She wrapped the baby in dry cotton bathtowels and produced two wool blankets to drape across Jim's shaking shoulders before calling 911. Jim got on the line, explaining the situation as best he could without sounding too hysterical. He described Blair and Richie's location and begged for an ambulance. The dispatcher hadn't heard anything about a bus hijacking, and seemed inclined to think the call was a hoax. But Mandy returned from the kitchen, snatched the phone back and told the dispatcher in no-nonsense terms that it was no hoax at all.
"Irene, if you don't get someone out here immediately you won't have a job in the morning," Mandy said sternly. "I'll see to that."
She hung up.
"I need to borrow your car," Jim said, fighting down a wave of shivers. Now that adrenaline had fled from him, he felt icy cold and immensely weary. "I have to get back to my friend."
Mandy nodded. "I have a Buick in the garage. I'll get you the keys. But first, drink some of this hot coffee down. You won't get far in your condition if you don't."
Jim gulped at the coffee, burning his mouth but bringing welcome hotness down his chest into his belly. Minutes later he gunned down the highway in Mandy's rusty, battered, exhaust-belching Buick, the most marvelous car ever to come off an assembly line.
Amazed at how short three miles could be when driving and not running, he prayed over and over that Blair hadn't died. He saw someone standing by the side of the road -
But Jim's Sentinel vision didn't lie. Despite his horrible injuries Richie had climbed to his feet and stood waving his arms for help. As soon as Jim started to brake, Richie backed away into the darkness. Jim pulled the Buick to a squealing halt and leapt out into the foul night. He found Blair, crumpled and unconscious, his pulse thready and fast, breathing erratically. No sign of Richie.
Where could he be?
"Richie!" Jim yelled. What the hell . . .
Despite his exhaustion, he opened his Sentinel hearing and vision, and located the teenager running away from him, stumbling through the brush in the blackened forest. He couldn't get far, not without being able to see much, but he seemed desperate to put as much distance as possible between himself and Jim.
The kid should be dead, not running.
Spinning police lights and the wail of an ambulance brought Jim's attention back to the road. The two police officers who climbed out approached warily with their hands on their holsters, probably supposing he was some kind of dangerous lunatic let loose on an isolated country road, but the paramedics took one look at Blair and immediately started treating him.
"It's his appendix," Jim said. "You've got to get him to a hospital."
Too busy trying to save Blair's life, neither answered him.
The first cop, a burly African-American with a full beard and mustache, wore a brass nametag on his jacket that read Leeson. Suspiciously he asked, "The call came in that there were two victims - someone else was shot?"
"Yeah," Jim said, turning back to the woods, scanning for any signs of Richie. He had stopped, either out of weariness or fear, not more than a half mile away. "He's badly injured. He must have stumbled away, trying to get help."
"And what about some bus being hijacked? What's all that about?"
"A charter bus from Sea-Tac to Cascade," Jim said. Belatedly, through the tapioca that had replaced his brain, he realized he'd better identify himself. "My name is James Ellison, and I'm a detective with the Cascade PD. My badge number is 714. I'd show it to you, but it's on the bus. My captain's name is Simon Banks, and I'll give you his phone number. There are thirty passengers onboard that charter. The driver pulled over here and let his buddy climb onboard . . . "
With his eyes glued on Blair and the feverishly working paramedics he tersely outlined the whole nightmare. Another police car appeared, and the cops started beating the bushes looking for Richie. Jim supposed they wouldn't have even believed that Richie existed if flashlights hadn't picked out blood and rainwater pooled off the road where the teenager had lain. The paramedics loaded Blair into the ambulance and offered to take him too. Jim hesitated. He'd already abandoned the bus passengers. Could he abandon Richie too?
"How is he?" he asked.
"He's going to have to go into surgery right away," one of the paramedics answered.
"Is there anything I can do to help him?"
"Think positive thoughts, pal. He's in bad shape. Are you riding with us or not?"
Every single instinct screamed at him to go with his Guide. But all he could do at the hospital would be fidget and worry, and pace up and down the waiting room. Meanwhile, a critically wounded teenager needed rescuing in the woods, and Jim's Sentinel senses might be his only hope.
"I'll stay and help with the search," he said. "Just take good care of my partner, okay? I need to borrow a flashlight."
Leeson found him a flashlight and a spare slicker from the trunk of one of the black-and-whites. Despite being cold and soaked, Jim traipsed into the woods and followed his senses. Branches tore at his legs, and sodden undergrowth sucked at his already ruined shoes. Jim couldn't understand what was going on in the teenager's mind or, even more inexplicably, how the hell he'd managed to come so far with that hole in his chest and his skull probably fractured from the impact with the bus windows.
"Richie?" he called out. Judging by his pounding heartbeat - a strong, pounding heartbeat, Jim noted in disbelief - the teenager couldn't be more than fifty feet away. Jim's flashlight picked out the tree and the tip of Richie's sneaker. The teenager cowered behind it. "Richie, why are you hiding? I know you're there. Come out and let me help you. You're injured."
Silence from the tree. The worst of the storm had passed, leaving scattered gusts of wind and drops of rain.
"Let me help," Jim urged.
Nothing. Jim started forward. Richie dashed away from the tree, intent on further escape, but stumbled over fallen branches and went down hard into the wet leaves. He lay breathing hard, his energy apparently spent, shaking from cold and perhaps even fear.
Jim crouched down, afraid to touch him, and played his flashlight over the teenager. Relief made him go weak, and he almost sagged to the ground too. "It's okay, " he said raggedly. "I'll get you some help."
"You don't understand," Richie said, his voice muffled against the leaves.
"What don't I understand? You're hurt. I don't know how the hell you've made it this far, but you're a tough kid, you know that? You're going to be okay."
Richie rolled over. Sat up. Opened his shirt, so that Jim could see solid flesh and muscle where a .357 Magnum bullet had once wreaked devastating and fatal damage.
"You don't understand, Jim," the teenager said hoarsely. "I already am okay."
Blair had two choices: Wheel of Fortune or the local news. No other station came through clearly on the overhead TV in his hospital room at Everett Community Health Center. In the first two days after surgery, when he was drifting in and out in a haze of pain and drugs, he didn't care much about television. Jim and Simon came and went like apparitions. Doctors and nurses, never the same ones, came to poke, prod and otherwise bother his poor body. He understood that they'd yanked out his appendix and that he now had some kind of low-grade infection, but remembered nothing about an ambulance ride or emergency surgery. He did remember Richie Ryan, dying on the bus, but somehow alive and talking on the side of the road in the storm as they waited for Jim. He attributed the latter part to pain-induced hallucinations.
Hallucinations which might have been easier to justify if the police had found Richie's body. But they hadn't. Blair didn't understand that at all. No body? Where could it have gone? How far could a corpse get? Even Jim hadn't been able to find it.
Wheel of Fortune. The local news. Wheel of Fortune. The local news. Click click click. Dinner had come and gone, and his bedside clock read six-fifteen. Wind and rain rattled the window beside his bed, and he shivered out of remembered cold. The infection left him feeling both sick and restless. He contemplated snagging his IV bottle and trying for a walk down the hall, a fairly ambitious plan considering he hadn't even made it out of bed yet on his own. Besides, the nurses had told him CNN reporters had camped out in the lounge, waiting to interview him. They'd already snagged many of the other passengers, some of whom had signed lucrative deals for interviews, books and movie options.
They'd all been rescued nine hours after the ordeal had begun. The two hijackers, both local boys with extensive records who were deeply in debt to a local drug lord, had been responsible for the whole thing. Kevin Arlinson, a curb attendant for the airline, had learned about the charter bus, phoned his buddy and ambushed the real driver. His friend Paul Corbin had his girlfriend drop him by the side of the highway where, high on crack and carrying that .357 Magnum, he'd boarded the bus and shot Richie Ryan.
Shot him. Killed him.
Where the hell was Richie's body? Why couldn't Jim find it? Blair had tried to press him during Jim's visit that afternoon, but his partner had seemed reluctant to discuss the issue even with Simon present.
Or especially with Simon present? That didn't make sense. Simon knew all about Jim's abilities. Yet Blair had been left with the distinct impression his partner wasn't telling him everything.
He hated Vanna's pink dress. He hated the letter boxes that lit up when she touched them, as if her old job of spinning them around had been so arduous that technology had to give her a helping hand. Blair switched back to the local news. More about the bus. Arlinson and Corbin had driven it to a remote gully. While Arlinson was out phoning in a ransom demand to the airline, two passengers risked their lives and overpowered Corbin. Two others had hiked twelve miles to the nearest town to get help. Arlinson had been picked up by the FBI three hours later. All the passengers were fine, including the nine-week-old baby who'd been thrown off the bus into Jim's arms.
Everyone but Richie Ryan.
Thirty people told the police he'd been shot. No one could find the body.
Blair turned off the TV and started to doze. Not hard considering the amount of drugs running around his system. The sensation of someone holding his hand woke him. Jim sat by the bedside, looking exhausted and sad in the weak yellow light from the overhead lamp. Darkness had fallen beyond the windows and in most of the room. Jim pulled his hand away as Blair blinked groggily, as if afraid of being too demonstrative.
"You should be sleeping," Blair replied. "You look tired."
"I'm going back to the hotel in a few minutes. Just wanted to see how you were doing. The doctor said your fever's going down."
Blair grimaced. "I guess. Did you find . . ."
"No. We didn't find Richie's body."
"But, Jim - "
"Blair, listen to me. We're never going to find Richie's body."
Jim sighed and ran his hand across his head, tugging lightly on the short outcrop of hair. "This is between you and me and Richie, okay?"
"Huh? Jim, you're not making sense. Richie's dead. Did you hit your head? Do you feel okay?"
Jim put his hand across Blair's mouth. "Just listen, okay?"
Blair nodded slowly.
"Richie's not dead, Chief. He hasn't got a scratch on him. Not a single scratch. Everything healed. Kind of like my Sentinel abilities give me an edge on senses - well, he has some special ability that fixes up his body."
Blair pulled Jim's hand from his mouth. "But he was . . . dead. That's more than just 'fixing up,' you know?"
"I know. And I know how crazy it sounds. But I found him that first night, while you were being rushed to surgery. I saw his healed wounds with my own eyes, Blair."
Jim slumped back in his chair and fell into silence. Blair thought about what he'd said. Okay, maybe it made sense in some weird way. Genetic predisposition to - what? Instantaneous healing? Hard to do with lungs and heart blown away, but he put his incredulity on hold for a minute. Jim had seen Richie whole and alive, and Jim couldn't be discounted. Blair hadn't encountered any specific anthropological literature about people who could heal themselves, but he bet Jim Foley over in the Religion department could cite legends - Blair realized he'd gone off on a mental tangent, and wrenched himself back to the subject at hand.
"Jim - if he's alive - then where is he?"
"Where would you, be, Chief, if you had this special ability and thirty people just saw you get killed?"
"I guess I wouldn't be walking up to reporters," Blair admitted. "Is he okay, though? He's not still in the woods, is he?"
"No. At least, I don't think so. He had me call a friend of his at a bar in Seacouver to come pick him up. I don't know where he is now."
"Man, we've got to find him! Imagine the possibilities, the implications - if he has some kind of special ability, and others could be taught to do the same - "
"Blair, he doesn't want to be found. He doesn't want to be studied like some kind of lab rat." Jim rubbed his eyes. "Just like I don't."
The words stung, as surely as if someone had taken a skewer to the incision in Blair's stomach. He turned his head away to look at his IV bag. "Is that what I do?" he asked faintly. "Treat you like a lab rat?"
"No." Jim's answer came firmly and swiftly. His hand landed on Blair's shoulder and gave a reassuring squeeze. "Look at me, Chief. I didn't mean to imply anything like that. I'm sorry."
"No, it's just me. I'm a little dopey right now."
"Some would say you're a little dopey all the time, partner."
"Ha ha." Blair studied Jim's worn face. "Go get some rest, Jim. You're not superhuman. You must be running on empty."
Jim shook his head. "Nah. I'm okay. I feel kind of useless, actually. I was afraid that this whole thing would turn out tragically, and I'd blame myself for not being there to help the others - but it turns out they didn't need me much after all, right?"
"I needed you."
Jim didn't look cheered up.
"If I'd had to wait nine hours for surgery, I'd be dead now, right?"
"Don't think about it."
"I can't stop thinking about it," Blair said. "I'd be dead. You took care of me. You put me before everyone else. That's a pretty heavy responsibility for both of us."
The corner of Jim's mouth quirked up. "You're too damn smart, you know that?"
"So they say." Blair refused to be baited by Jim's diversionary tactic. "Jim, let me ask you something. Do you regret getting us off that bus? Do you wish we'd stayed?"
"No," Jim said. He said it instantly, with full confidence. "I just wish . . . I wish that I hadn't had to choose."
"I wish you hadn't had to choose, either. But life's full of choices, man." Blair felt too tired to think anymore, but with a major effort he pulled together his fragmenting thoughts. "Thank you for saving my life. And thank you for not getting killed in the process."
Silence between them once more. Words spoken covered for sentiments unspoken. Jim patted his arm again and stood up.
"Get some sleep, Chief. I'll see you tomorrow."
"Good night, Jim."
"Yeah?" He forced his eyes open.
"You believe me, right? About Richie and everything?"
"Of course I believe you, Jim."
Jim smiled wearily and left him to sleep.
Duncan threw up for the first time over the Rockies. Richie knew they were over the Rockies because he could see them out his window, jagged snow-capped peaks stretching for miles and miles beneath a perfect blue sky. He fished his empty airsick bag out of the seat pocket in front of him and passed it to his friend. "I thought you never got airsick," he said.
"I never drank chocolate mocha peppermint coffee before, either," Duncan said sourly. "That stuff was awful."
"You didn't say so when you were drinking it down."
"I'm saying it now that it's coming back up. Next time you try to persuade me to stop at a specialty coffee store on the way to the airport, the answer is no."
Richie's good mood dissipated somewhat as he looked back out the window. The Cessna that Duncan had chartered had eight seats, six of them empty. They hadn't dared risk a commercial flight, not with Richie's face and name plastered from coast to coast on every newscast as the missing victim of the hijacked bus. He said, "Yeah, well, I guess there aren't that many specialty coffee stores in Jacksonville, Florida."
"You'd be surprised," Duncan said.
"You sure it's a good place to start over?"
"It's as good a place as anywhere else. It's a very large city, and after a few weeks or so you should be able to blend in. The media will fix on some other tragedy or story. Jacksonville has plenty of schools and universities, and Connor's got you set up with an old friend of his working at a garage. You can lay low for a few decades or so, and maybe stay out of the limelight for a change..."
Richie rubbed a worn spot on the right knee of his jeans. "You've been pretty cool about this, you know. Better than I thought you'd be."
"Cool about you dying in front of all those people?"
"Yeah. Last time, in Paris, you were a little - stern."
"Well, I'm not thrilled this time, either. But it beats the alternative."
"Mac - thanks. For this plane, and helping me get started over, and for everything. When I went to Mexico . . . " Richie took a deep breath. Sometimes voicing his feelings to Duncan took more courage than raising a sword against an Immortal come to fight to the death. "When I went to Mexico, it was because I thought we needed time apart. That you were sick of me or something."
The dark-haired Highlander didn't answer for a moment. "We did need time apart. And maybe we still do. You need to find more teachers, and I need to move past everything bad that's happened these past few years. That whole thing with the demon last spring, when I hallucinated that I'd killed you . . ."
Duncan stopped, his hands curling into fists and his face shading into dismay. Richie patted his arm in concern. "Hey. It's cool, remember? That was just a nasty little nightmare. You can't get rid of me that easy!"
"I don't want to get rid of you at all," Duncan said softly. "But you know you have to leave this time, and not come back."
"I know." He had a new driver's license and credit cards in his wallet. A new name to call his own. He thought of his mortal friends and grimaced with regret. Angie, Nikki, the guys at the dojo - they all believed him dead, and had left condolence cards and flowers with Duncan. He'd read them several times, touched by the words and sentiments. Angie's tear-stained note had made him cry himself.
"I wished I'd told him just once that I loved him," she'd written.
Angie. He had to leave her behind, along with the rest of his Seacouver life. The loss of her hurt like a knife in the chest.
Duncan sighed beside him. "As for helping you move - well, who knows what kind of trouble you'd get in if I sent you off on your own without any support whatsoever? Look what happened on a simple bus ride!"
"Simple bus ride?" Richie sputtered. "There was nothing simple about it! Though I'll tell you something, Mac - the way that cop found me was incredible. Jim just tracked me through the woods like he had super hearing or sight or something - "
"That's impossible. He probably just got lucky. Or you were making enough noise to attract anyone's attention."
"You weren't there! You didn't see him in action! I swear there's something strange about that guy."
"You're sure you can trust him? I mean, you practically told him everything."
Richie shook his head. "Not everything. I didn't tell him about Quickenings or the Prize or anything. Just that I had some weird genetic mutation that let me heal quickly, which is kind of true."
Duncan didn't answer.
"Mac, what else was I going to do? Kill him to protect myself? Not my style, and not yours either."
"He's a police detective. The newspapers have all said it. Detectives have a habit of not giving up on mysteries that intrigue them."
"So what would you have done?"
Duncan hesitated. "I don't know."
"Well, then," Richie said, and pushed his seat back. "I did the best I could, and that's what I have to live with. End of story."
Quiet fell between them. Sunshine shafted through the Cessna windows as the plane carried them eastward to Richie's new life. He closed his eyes and tried to think positively. He'd only been to Florida once, but liked the open skies and balmy weather. Duncan had said he'd visit, and Connor owned a condo at Disney World that Richie could borrow at any time. He couldn't ignore his sadness about leaving Seacouver but he'd long ago learned that an Immortal's life was full of swordplay and regrets, and not necessarily in that order.
"It's John now," he reminded his friend absently.
"You'll always be Richie to me. Do me a favor?'
"Sure." Richie braced himself. He never knew what Duncan might ask of him, but he owed so much to his mentor that he could rarely refuse him anything. "What is it, Mac?"
"Pass me another airsick bag. And never, ever, mention chocolate mocha peppermint coffee to me again."
"That's two favors," Richie grinned, and easily complied.
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