James Ellison stood in the thigh-deep water and let the icy sensation of the river rushing by his hip-waders almost overload his senses. He was alive, sight and touch engaged, volume turned up as high as he dared. The water swirled around his legs, unruly, defiant, unstoppable. The river roared, the intensity and vibration almost painful to his ultra-sensitive ears, even tuned just at the edge of his comfort level, crashing and hissing, untamed as it swept past him. The glacier waters, unleashed high in the mountains of North Cascades National Park, now hurtled west, pushing forcefully through the spring-green valley along the ancient path, winding ever seaward until, a hundred and fifty miles away, it surged through the city of Cascade itself and spilled its lifeblood into Puget Sound.
Ellison breathed in the crisp air, letting the different smells settle over him like a multicolored quilt. Pungent cedar--easy to pick out. Fir and hemlock teasing him, until he finally identified their fragrance mixed in with a thousand varieties of wild flowers. And, upriver, salmon cooking on an open campfire, bathed in lemon and some herb he couldn't quite identify. A new smell to add to his growing list.
He opened his eyes. Golden sunlight sparkled on the water, foaming to white toward the center of the river where the current flowed quicker. He looked one direction, his searching eyes touching on Simon Banks at their campsite a short way upstream, happily whistling to himself as he cooked the first catch of the trip, a salmon. Ellison zeroed in on the spice bottle in his hand. Ground coriander. He smiled, glad to see the tension easing from Simon's face as the police chief let go of the heavy burden of responsibility usually resting on those shoulders.
They had left the city at dawn, Simon and his son in their car, and Ellison in his truck with his partner, Blair Sandburg. Blair had talked the entire four-hour drive, but rather than being annoying, it was a sound Jim had grown to depend on, tuning in and out of the exuberant chatter as the mood dictated. When Blair wanted his attention, there would always be a light touch on his forearm, pulling the detective back from wherever his thoughts had segued. And, oddly enough, even when his focus drifted, he usually remembered what Blair had been talking about.
Arriving at the rangers' station just after twelve noon, they had parked their vehicles and hiked another two hours, heading to the river spot Simon had chosen. Blair and Daryl had soon gone ahead of them, making use of their pent-up energy from the drive, while Jim and Simon hiked in companionable silence at a more even pace. Occasionally, both police officers would smile as a whoop or holler could be heard ahead of them on the trail.
It felt good to be away from the city. They weren't exactly in the middle of nowhere, but it was great to pretend they were days away from it all, when a long weekend had to suffice. Tents went up, fishing gear came out, and by late-afternoon, Jim Ellison was where he wanted to be--in a quiet spot of the river, casting his line, and drifting with the moment, letting the last few months blow off him, soiled memory by soiled memory.
Beside him now, down river, Blair Sandburg stood motionless, spear in hand, long curling hair blowing around a face set in determination, eyes wide and unfocused as he stared beneath the surface of the water, caught up in the experience of aboriginal spear fishing. Mouth slightly open, teeth resting lightly on his bottom lip, Blair balanced the fishing spear in one steady hand, putting as much energy into standing immobile as he did in moving around.
After a moment, the young man blinked, suddenly aware he was being watched. He pulled his gaze away from his quarry, meeting Ellison's easy smile with one of his own. Blair's wildly expressive eyes rolled slightly, silently laughing, acknowledging the play-acting of his back-to-nature fantasy of man against the wilds; then, with equal abandon and comfort, he returned his concentration to the water around him.
The detective let his sight travel upward, picking out the faint plume of smoke that issued sporadically from Mount Baker's volcanic crater, far in the distance. The sun would be setting soon, early dusk bringing the flies to hover above the water, and the fish to capture the flies, and, with any luck, Jim Ellison to catch the fish.
He let his hearing drift now, sounds flickering in and out of range. Animals. Birds. The wind in the evergreen trees. Upstream, beyond their own campsite, maybe half a mile or more, several men, their voices gruff with age, talked among themselves of retirement and their beer cooling in the icy water. The sounds seemed to echo down the river-carved valley as he experienced them one-by-one. A fly buzzed by his ear, and he winced at the closeness.
The early evening breeze was soothing, lulling, playing over his senses like fingers on cool ivory keys. Sight, smell, hearing, even taste, was carried on its wings. It caressed his skin with its light, sensuous touch, kissing his bare neck, refreshing and intoxicating. He almost felt dizzy by it, and shook his head. You need to get out more, Ellison, he thought, letting the smile happen.
He looked over to his left again when Blair made a sudden, sharp movement, groaned, then once more became a living statue. Neither Blair nor Daryl wore hipwaders, considering the practical equipment too predictably middle-class, or more likely, too 'un-cool'. As if to prove their resiliency, the two had gone for a swim immediately upon their arrival at the river, cavorting around in the cold water as if the temperature of their swimming area was not a problem, despite the chattering teeth Jim could so clearly hear. The older men had let them be, waiting until they had made a pot of coffee and assembled their rods before insisting that Blair and Daryl get out of the water and let them get some fishing in. There were priorities to be considered and it was a fishing trip.
Jim had set himself up to catch some steelhead trout, while Simon had baited for salmon. Too hyper yet to settle down and fish, Blair and Daryl had disappeared off into the bush for a while, the anthropologist leading the way, but still limping slightly from the bullet wound in his leg a few weeks earlier. While he fished, Jim could track his partner easily with his hearing. Sandburg pointed out plants and insects, in amongst the inevitable stories, while Daryl listened to him with all the captivation of a young teenager for his private mentor. After Jim had passed the information on to Simon, the police chief had muttered that if anyone else had tried to teach Daryl any of it, it was unlikely he would have paid any attention to them, but Blair was up on a pedestal somewhere, not quite the disdainful 'older generation' that Jim and Simon were.
A short time ago, Blair had returned with his prized aboriginal fishing spear and had carefully waded out to a good spot, grimacing as the ice cold water soaked his jeans, but laughing it off when Ellison glanced his way. It was good to see Blair happy, carefree in this healing environment. Just as Jim had memories that needed to be worked out, so do the young anthropologist. The last year had been filled with new experiences, few of them pleasant. Imprisoned, threatened with death, trapped in an elevator, drugged, shot at, beaten. Two bullets stopped by a flak jacket, but still a serious enough injury with bruised ribs. One bullet through his leg. Three concussions--at least--one of them in woods not unlike the area they were now in, when Simon had been kidnaped a few weeks earlier.
That one had scared Jim the most. Within the space of six hours, Blair had a minor head injury from their jump from a cliff, he was attacked by two local rednecks and knocked unconscious, shot by an escaped convict, dragged from a smoke-filled mine, then caught in a dynamite explosion. They'd had to airlift Blair out and it was hours before Jim had been able to make it to the hospital to check on him.
Blair insisted he was fine now, but there was a hesitant distance in his Guide's eyes that troubled Jim. On the surface, maybe everything was fine, but inside . . . Well, Jim didn't know exactly what the problem was, or if time was the only cure.
Simon Banks carried his own scars from that encounter. Aside from some bad bruising and some minor cuts and scrapes, he wasn't physically injured, but the psychological terror was draining. Simon was the reason they were out here now. He needed to get away, doing something he enjoyed, and this time, Daryl had asked to come along, as if he realized how close his father had once again come to dying. Shortly after they had returned from the infamous Peru vacation, Simon had been accused of murder and injured while at his high school reunion. Daryl had found out about it all when a reporter stuck a mike in his face and asked how he felt about his father being shot and then burning down his hometown's largest hotel.
Jim touched on them each briefly--one beside him now, one at the campsite, and Daryl walking in between, stealthfully making his way along the banks of the river, probably getting ready to attack Blair in retaliation for an earlier sneak attack of Sandburg's. Simon, Daryl, and Blair--all in need of healing.
And me? He smiled grimly, then closed his eyes and let the gentle heat from the setting sun caress his eyelids. This is what I need. To feel again.
Blair looked over at the Sentinel, wondering idly how much Jim could see under the water and if there was some way that Ellison could tell him where the salmon actually were, or when one was coming his way.
Now that wouldn't really be fair, would it? Taking unfair advantage of the fish. But that wouldn't count, not really, since Jim's senses were natural-- a genetic throwback, maybe, but natural. It would just be a case of survival of the fittest. And he really wanted to catch at least one fish, to prove to them all that he could. Simon had brought in a good-sized salmon already, but Jim hadn't caught anything. Maybe there was time yet.
Blair watched Jim tilt his head back and let the sun warm his face. He loved seeing the big guy like this. So real. So . . . so there. In tune with everything. What would it have been like two or three hundred years ago, the two of them living off the land, Sentinel and Guide? Yeah, me with my lap top in my backpack, and Jim with his trusty truck. Okay, so maybe the living off the land part was a bit of a stretch, but not the rest of it. This was a fitting environment for a Sentinel, not the crime-ridden streets of Cascade. It was hard to imagine the waters of the clean, mountain-fresh, glacier-fed streams and river having to pass through the city, becoming polluted and contaminated before dumping its garbage into Puget Sound.
Whoa . . . not a cool thought. A major downer.
Cascade had a lot of beauty in it, he countered, attempting to get the bad taste out of his mouth. There were the coastal mountains, a powerful backdrop to the city. The bay. The parks and trees and flowers. The people, too. A lot of beautiful people . . . And a lot of real sickos, as well. It seemed some days that every weird psycho in the Pacific Northwest decided to vacation in Cascade. And I've met every one of them. He shivered, trying to put the memories behind him, yet again. How does Jim do this year after year and not let it eat away at him?
He gripped the wooden spear tighter. Sometimes he felt just on the edge of a very loud scream. A primal scream, of course. Just clearing the lungs and the nerves. Nothing unmanly about that. In fact, in many cultures, the louder the scream, the more macho the man was considered.
If he knew he could stop with just one scream, he would have gone ahead and done it. That was the problem. He had a nagging suspicion that if he ever let go, he'd dissolve into a million pieces, floating about the wind like the dandelion seeds he and Daryl had blown from their stems that afternoon.
He wasn't sure what his biggest fear was. There were actually so many to choose from. Most of them revolved around him screwing up somehow and letting Jim get killed or badly injured. Or even just letting Jim down by blowing it. Most of the time, things weren't his fault, but that rarely counted with most people. If you were involved, you were responsible. Jim didn't seem to hold to that philosophy, but Blair wasn't about to take a chance. Now, Simon . . . Yes, no doubt about it, Simon would hold him responsible for the next earthquake if the police chief could find a way. He really liked Simon, but the guy could be a major stiff about things sometimes.
He squinted at something just below the surface, trying to see below the glare of the setting sun's reflection on the water. Was that a--? He crouched lower, hardly noticing the cold water on his stomach. The salmon coming his way suddenly darted to the side and out of his path, and Blair sighed. Half an hour and he was out of patience already. He would have starved to death if he had lived two hundred years ago--who was he kidding?
He glared over at his partner. Jim was just throwing his line back in after checking the hook and lure. He hadn't caught anything, but the way Jim fished, actually catching fish wasn't important. It was standing around looking like you were catching fish while you were really just daydreaming that was his prime motivation.
A sudden sound behind Blair spooked him and he spun, an old memory of an alligator coming directly to the front of his mind as he saw something slither under the water toward him. Too big for a salmon. Way too big. He raised his spear and stepped backwards, getting ready to aim, but lost his balance when the riverbed dropped beneath his feet, sending him under the water. He coughed, sputtering to the surface as he regained his footing, then opened his eyes and looked directly into the setting sun, the sight blinding him.
A noise beside him. Jim came hurtling out of the water, screaming, covered in oil, just like on the rig. The water was on fire behind Jim; he could see a thousand flames flickering on the surface and Jim was covered in oil. He was going to burn alive. With a roar, Blair surged through the water and tackled the other man, sending him back below the black surface. He started beating out the flames when Jim's head surfaced-- No, it was Daryl now. Daryl was covered in oil and was on fire.
"Help! Over here! Help!"
Daryl was trying to run through the water to the shore and Blair ran behind him, heedless of the flames covering his own body. Daryl was just a kid. He would help. I have to get those flames out! Quickly! They're spreading! He knocked the teenager to the rocky shore, slapping at him with his hands, screaming for someone to help him. He was sobbing, alternating between anger and terror with what was happening. Why hadn't he noticed the water had become so black around him? The sun must have touched down on it, sending the golden flames across the surface of the water. What had happened to Jim? He had been there, hadn't he?
Oh, God. Jim had been burned alive.
Blair felt hands lifting him bodily up and away from where Daryl cowered on the ground, arms protecting his head and crying. Blair struggled to get back to him. "He's on fire! Help him! Would somebody please help him?" he screamed.
"He's okay, Chief. He's okay." Someone--Jim?--was trying to turn his face away from where Daryl lay, but he fought him.
"No, he's not okay!" Couldn't he see that? Simon was by his son now but Blair could still see the flames flickering over Daryl and he struggled to break free of the strong grasp. "He's on fire. Don't let him burn. They're trying to kill him," he gasped out.
"Not anymore. You got the fire out, buddy." The calm voice was beside his ear, but he couldn't listen to it.
"You're wrong, Jim. He's still on fire."
"You put it out. It's over. Can you see that he's not on fire anymore? Look carefully now."
Jim was trying to sound so reasonable, but he obviously wasn't looking at the same thing Blair was. This time, with a well-placed kick, Blair was able to get free, and he raced across to where his jacket lay on a log. "The flames are all over his back now!" He tried to get back to the boy on the ground, but someone kept blocking his way. "Move, damn you! Can't you see? They're everywhere. The fire people . . . No. No fire people. It's . . . What's happening? Jim!" he wailed. "Daryl's going to die!" He whirled his jacket over his head, satisfied when it connected with something and it went down before him.
He stumbled over the rocks trying to get through the flames to where Daryl was, but he couldn't find him anymore. He kept running until his foot caught in a root and sent him sprawling across the ground, his head connecting with the hard surface, and darkness extinguishing the flames.
Simon helped his son to his feet, turning him around to make sure he was okay, then glancing over to where Ellison was checking out his partner. The detective also seemed satisfied that there were no serious injuries, and carefully turned Sandburg onto his back. "Jim?"
"He's okay. He'll have a bump on his head, but I think he's okay. His heart rate is still too high, but it's slowing."
"Good." Behind him, Simon could hear Daryl starting to curse and he turned his attention back to his son. "Are you okay, Daryl?"
The teenager wiped his eyes on the back of one river-wet sleeve, anger rising. "What the hell was that all about? Saying I was on fire? He's nuts. I thought he was joking but he wasn't, was he? He's fucking crazy. What got into him, anyway?"
I didn't want to ever have this conversation. "We'll talk later, Daryl. It's not what you think." Simon met Ellison's eyes, seeing the empathic concern across the detective's face. "Do you want to leave him here or move him back to camp?"
"Let's just wait until he comes to, and then he can walk back on his own." Ellison pulled off his hipwaders, looking about for Blair's jacket. When his partner had been swinging it around, the zipper had caught Jim on the side of his head, and the cut was still bleeding a bit. Ellison took the jacket now and wrapped it around Blair, trying to keep the breeze from cooling the young man down anymore than he already was.
"Come on, Daryl. Let's go back to camp and get a blanket." Simon looked back at his son, noticing that the teenager had regained his composure and was now staring at Blair, his brows furled in confusion.
"What happened, Dad? What's wrong with him? Why did he do that? I thought he said he was my friend."
Simon sighed and motioned for Daryl to go with him. "I'll tell you in a bit. Jim?" he asked, as he walked by. "If he wakes up, let him know it's okay. We understand."
"Understand what?" Daryl asked, looking from Ellison to his father to Sandburg. "Wait a minute. Is he unconscious? What's wrong with Blair? Should we go get an ambulance?"
Jim smiled at him, his face composed as it always was now when he spoke with innocents who had stumbled onto a crime scene. Or when he spoke with Sandburg after some of the more grisly parts of their jobs. "I'm sorry about what happened, Daryl, and I'm positive that Blair will be horrified when he realizes what he did. Yes, he's unconscious. He hit his head when he fell, but he'll be waking up soon. I hope you'll reassure him that everything's okay then, because he's going to feel a little confused for a while."
"What's wrong with him?" Daryl asked, eyes wide.
Ellison glanced over to Simon, asking permission, but the captain had to shake his head. "I'll tell him, Jim. Come on, Daryl. Let's go get a blanket for Blair."
"Just tell him the truth," Jim said softly, cradling Blair's head in his one hand as he checked him over again.
Simon headed back to their camp, Daryl following in his wake, tugging on his arm. "Dad? Talk to me."
What am I supposed to say to you? I don't want you to know anything about this. I don't want you to know about Golden or smack or crack or LSD anything else out there that we have to deal with.
"Daryl, about five months ago, Blair accidently ate a piece of pizza that had something called Golden on it."
"Golden? Whoa. That's one messed up drug." Daryl looked back over his shoulder at Jim and Blair.
Simon skidded to a halt, glaring down at his son. "How do you know about it? It's one of the new designer drugs that has hit Cascade."
"I'm not deaf and blind, Dad. I hear things. At school, they were talking about it. Someone knew someone who had taken it. Really freaked out." Daryl stopped. "I've never seen anyone freak out before. That's what happened?"
"Actually, it was a flashback. That's when--"
"I know what it means, Dad."
Why do you have to know stuff like this? Simon wondered, increasing his pace to the campsite. "Yeah, well, it's not a pretty sight, is it?"
Daryl shrugged. "Guess not."
Simon whirled on him. "Guess not? What kind of an answer is that? Did you see what that drug did to Sandburg?"
"Chill, Dad. I was there, remember?" To emphasize his point, Daryl started brushing off some of the stones and pebbles that had imbedded themselves on him.
Simon groaned and pulled his son into a quick hug, then took another good look at him. He had what would probably be bruises on his forehead. "Your mother will never let me take you anywhere again. First what happened at the station, then Peru, and now this. Daryl, I'm sorry he hurt you, son. You know Blair would never mean to hurt you."
"Yeah, I know. It's not his fault, right?"
"Right." They reached the campsite and Simon disappeared into his tent to get a blanket. When he came back out, Daryl was by the fire, warming his hands. "Listen, son, why don't you get out of those wet clothes? The temperature is starting to drop. Your mother will be even madder at me if you get a cold."
Daryl started to argue, then backed down and went into the tent. Simon returned to where Ellison still crouched over his partner, who lay immobile and pale on the ground, his hair feathered out on the ground around his head. Ellison took the blanket and wrapped it around Sandburg, tucking it under him so he wasn't lying on the damp shoreline stones.
"I get the feeling you were waiting for that to happen." Simon sat down on a log by them.
Ellison shrugged. "The doctor felt it might, considering the severity of his first reaction. It's been a few months, though, so I was starting to convince myself he was okay."
"I thought a flashback could happen any time, even years from now."
"I realize that, Simon. But you know how it is-- you like to think the past is over. In the past. Except when it comes back and haunts you." Ellison brushed his hand over his face, his eyes returning to Sandburg, who was beginning to stir. "He's going to be devastated by this, you realize."
"Well, it's something he's going to have to live with. We can't undo the past, as much as we'd like to." He studied the tension in the detective's shoulders, the tightness of the jaw. "We all paid dearly for that assignment."
"What do you mean?"
"Sandburg may have eaten the pizza, but you and he pushed me to let you do the job, even with you blind, and I foolishly okayed it. That makes me ultimately responsible for what happened. And look what happened to us."
"What's so funny?" Simon asked.
"Just what you said. Sandburg's always going on about micro-cultures within society and non-familial groupings, and here we are both considering what happened to him as something that happened to ourselves. We need to tell him that."
"Yeah, well . . ."
Blair groaned, one hand moving up to his head. "Jim?"
"Right here, buddy."
"Wow, man . . . what hit me?" Blair struggled upward, pushing away Jim's light restraint. He moved back from them, sitting unsteadily.
"The ground. You tripped." Ellison said the last word carefully, waiting for a reaction that didn't take long to come. Blair stared up at him, then closed his eyes with another groan. "It's okay. We thought it might happen, and it did. We're all okay. We came through it fine."
"Daryl? Oh, God, Jim, what did I do to him?" Blair's eyes reopened and fixed on his partner, then he tore his gaze away and looked over to where Daryl was slowly making his way along the riverbank to them.
Simon knelt down beside them. "Sandburg, Daryl's fine. You didn't hurt him at all."
"He was on fire . . . Shit. I thought he was on fire, didn't I?" The intense blue eyes looked over to Ellison for help, and Simon cringed inwardly at the pain on the detective's face.
"It's not your fault, Chief. Remember that. We're not going to have to go through all this again, are we?"
Blair seemed mesmerized by the trickle of blood on Ellison's face. "The oil is leaking. Don't go too near the fire, Jim."
Ellison gave a little laugh. "He's not totally back with us yet." He stood up, then reached down to help Blair to his feet. "Let's go back to the camp and out of those wet clothes, then you can have a little zone-out time of your own."
"I'm okay. I'm okay," Sandburg said, but he willingly let Ellison lead him back to the camp.
Simon draped his arm over his son's shoulders. "Let's go see to dinner. I took the salmon off the grill just before this all happened."
It was still early in the evening, but the sun had already set, giving the area a timeless 'night' feel about it. While Blair fought off the dregs of the flashback, the others had quietly eaten dinner, Jim and Simon talking back and forth about whether to keep fishing where they were, or to try another location down river. They had tried to keep everything light and to put aside what had happened, but Daryl hardly noticed the conversation at all. His eyes had darted constantly to where Blair sat, his hands wrapped around his knees and his head down.
Halfway through their meal, Blair had gotten to his feet and mumbled an apology, retreating into the tent he was sharing with Jim. The others had continued eating, then washed up and secured the campsite for the night. There were always sightings of bears in the area, especially if food was left out. Finally, everything tidied, Simon and Daryl had withdrawn to their tent. Ellison could hear their voices talking quietly, probably still discussing what had happened. He didn't listen to the private conversation.
Why did this have to involve Simon's son? If had just been the three of them, it would have been easier to convince Blair that it was not an issue. Jim shook his head, staring into the fire. This camping trip was supposed to erase the bad memories of Simon's kidnaping, not stir up a whole new crop of them. Blair had had a difficult time on that trip, but he'd kept pushing himself to keep going, despite his own fear. Jim had been proud of the kid and had told him so. Simon had seen a bit of what Blair had gone through at the end, and had been equally impressed with how Blair had handled being shot and almost killed. Scared stiff didn't matter. That was natural. It was keeping his head and doing whatever he was able to that spoke volumes about his character.
Jim could hear Blair in the tent now, turning from side to side, trying to get comfortable, trying to will himself to sleep a little. If what the doctor had warned them about was any indication of what Blair was now going through, he'd quite probably be having brief flashes of his hallucinogenic trip, his exhausted mind, nerves, and muscles overstimulated by the sudden intrusion of one reality over another. The odds seemed to be much higher that if the original trip was a negative experience, the flashbacks would also be negative. And if it was true that stress triggered flashbacks, it was a wonder this was the first one he'd had.
What Blair needed was a safe environment to come down from it all, and lying in his tent, feeling guilty, all alone, and trying not to wake anyone, was not the answer.
"Sandburg." Ellison listened as his young friend gasped almost inaudibly, then lay motionless in the tent. "Blair," he said again, keeping his voice just loud enough for his partner to hear, "I know you're still awake. Why don't you come out here?"
"Why?" His partner's voice was even more quiet.
"I need to talk to you for a minute."
No response, except for an increase in the heartbeat.
"What are you doing awake, man? I thought I was supposed to be the one the doctor said would have trouble with insomnia after a flashback." Blair tried to laugh, but the sound didn't work.
"I've just been thinking and I'd like to talk with you."
A catch in his breathing. "I'm sorry about all this, Jim. I'm sorry. I would never have come if I had known this was going to happen. I'm just so sorry, man. I didn't know this--"
"Quiet." The slight command in Jim's voice was enough to bring the torrent of words to a halt, but not enough to bring Blair outside the tent. "Just come out here, will you?"
He heard Blair moving after a moment, slowly shifting in his sleeping bag as he crawled out of it. Head lowered, Blair stepped out into the star-lit night. Jim could see he was shaking, his nerves tight. "Come over here."
All that brought was more shaking, no actual movement forward. Arms wrapped around himself, Blair stared across to where Ellison sat by the fire. Jim wasn't sure if the young man appeared more like a child about to be hit, or someone watching their home burn to the ground, but the uncertainty and fear was profound. "What's wrong, Chief? Why are you afraid of me?"
"I'm not afraid of you," Blair responded quickly. "I'm not." But he repeated it a third time. "I'm not."
"Then what are you afraid of?" It took Sandburg a few minutes to come up with an answer, and Ellison watched the emotions trip over the familiar features, the shivering worsening.
"I hate this, Jim. I hate being . . . out of control. I hate Daryl seeing me like this. I hate Simon seeing me like this." His voice caught. "I hate you seeing me like this."
"Everyone hates being out of control, Chief. It's perfectly natural. Especially when it's something that's not your fault, that you have no say in. It makes you feel vulnerable and naked."
Blair was staring at him, eyes wary, still waiting for the bomb to fall. Then Sandburg's gaze transferred to the fire, as if half-expecting the flames to leap out at him and consume him.
"Come over here, around the campfire, and sit beside me."
Blair pulled his gaze from the flames, his eyes seeking a path. "I don't feel much like talking, Jim . . . Actually, could I borrow your truck? I'll go back to Cascade and you could get a ride back with Simon. Or if not, I'll just get my stuff together and hitch a ride in. I've got a lot of stuff to do. I should never have come-- I've got classes to prepare for-- Did I tell you I picked up two classes for the summer? They meet on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, eight to ten and ten to twelve. There's a staff meeting I should be at this coming Tuesday. I know we're supposed to be heading back on Monday, but if I go now, I'll have more time to get my stuff together for it. I--"
"Sandburg, just shut up and come over here."
"I don't think I can do that, Jim. I'm sorry if I'm an embarrassment to you, or you're disappointed in me, or whatever, but I can't. Don't ask me to."
Ellison held out his left arm, gesturing as he spoke. "Just come around here, over to me. I need to talk to you. I've got something I'm trying to work out with this Sentinel stuff."
Sandburg froze and the shivering stopped for a moment. "What?"
"I heard you. I heard you. You want to talk about it now?" He was back to the wary look. A big breath, in and out, then he started moving, skittering around the campfire to fall to the ground next to Jim. "What's wrong? What's the problem, man?"
Ellison had figured out earlier what he wanted to say, but not how he wanted to say it, so he took a moment now to frame his thoughts, well aware of what his silence was doing to his friend. "Sandburg, would you say I was a man who liked to be in control?"
Blair let out a nervous laugh. "Liked to be in control? Needed to be in control, is more like it."
"Is that something most Sentinels would have in common?"
Blair shrugged. "I don't know, but that's a good assumption. It goes with the character. The self-confidence, the leadership ability. -- Why? Do you think you have a control problem, Jim? Besides the color-coded leftover containers, the growing list of house rules, and the general bossiness?"
Ellison shook his head, appreciating Blair's attempt at humor, considering what it must have cost him to come over and sit beside him. He scratched at his chin, as if he wasn't sure if he wanted to say something further or not. That always fixed Blair's attention. "Sometimes, I just wonder what's going on in my head, Sandburg. I find myself doing things that are so out of character for me."
"Like what?" Blair had edged closer, the shaking almost gone, eyes wide as he tried to understand, to fully comprehend the Sentinel's problem. There was almost a desperation in his look that never failed to astonish Ellison with the extent of the kid's desire to help. "What kind of things, Jim?"
"Well, to start, I never seem to worry about what happens to me when you hypnotize me, or put me in a suggestive state so you can talk me though a problem." Ellison took great care not to look at his partner. "Doesn't that seem strange to you? Me, a 'control freak', as you once called me, willingly putting myself in your hands where anything could happen? You could put false ideas in my head, or make me do embarrassing things, or any of a thousand other stunts. Yet I never stop to consider that."
"I'd never do that, Jim. I swear, man, I'd never do any of those things. You know that, don't you? I mean, maybe I'd think about doing something crazy, but I'd never actually do it."
"I know that. But isn't it strange that I so willingly give you control so easily? It's hardly been an issue for me at all."
Sandburg stared at him, his eyebrows drawing closer together. "I don't understand, Jim. That's what I'm here for. That's what I do, man. I help you when you've got a problem with your senses. Denying that would be defeating what I'm meant to do as your Guide."
"So . . . are you saying that being vulnerable depends on who you are vulnerable to?"
Blair swallowed, the eyes trapped. He wasn't dumb; he suddenly realized where this was all heading.
"Blair, there are times when I need to do what it is that I do. To protect. To guard. That's what you say that a Sentinel does, and I won't deny that. That's definitely what I feel. Denying that would be just as defeating, wouldn't it? Denying that would be defeating what I'm meant to do as your Sentinel."
The younger man turned away, trying not to look at Jim or the fire. "What do you want? Do you want me to break down and cry? Because that's where I'm heading right now, if you keep this up. I just need to work this out. I need some more space. I'm not some child who needs to be coddled."
"I never said that. I was talking about me here, though, Chief. Not you. I'm telling you what I need. Maybe I need to be in control here, and you need to let me. You're the one usually in control of this Sentinel/Guide thing, and I trust you with everything that I am. Maybe I need to have a turn. What if I think I know what needs to be done right now? Are you going to trust me with that?"
Blair looked back at him, almost staring at Jim as though he had never seen him before.
"Do you trust me, Blair?"
"What are you going to do?"
Jim shook his head. "Nothing I haven't done before with you. Do you trust me?" he repeated.
Blair's heart was racing and the shivering was back. "Why won't you tell me what you're going to do?"
"Do you ever tell me? Rarely. But I follow your instructions." Come on, Chief. Let it go.
"I need more information, here, Jim. Give me something more."
"I don't know." Blair grabbed at his head. "I'm not up to this right now. Just let me rest a bit and then we can talk, okay?"
"Nope. We do this now. You trust me now, when you're vulnerable, just like I have to trust you when I'm vulnerable. I'm not going to hurt you."
Still shaking, Blair finally nodded. "I know that. I know that. It's just . . . Okay. Fine. What do you want me to do?"
"Come over here." Jim shifted so that Blair could sit directly in front of him.
"Why so close?" Blair asked, but he came anyway, although every muscle in his body was clearly signaling his desire to turn and run.
Jim settled Blair sideways between his legs, arranging him the same way they had been immediately after Blair had freaked out in the police station garage. The detective was working from memory; he had been blind then from the effects of the Golden drug, but he had remembered the overwhelming need to absorb Blair's pain and confusion into himself.
He got comfortable now, resting his chin on top of Blair's head and drawing the shivering body closer yet. Blair's arms were crossed over his chest. Still, trying to protect himself, and Jim moved his right arm beneath them, not letting his partner close himself off at all.
"This is a little too weird, Jim," Blair muttered, trying to breathe properly and calm down.
"Trust me on this, Sandburg."
"Yeah, yeah. Now what?"
"Now you rest."
Blair tried to tilt his face up to look at him, but Jim's secure hold on his head with his left hand left the young man no maneuvering room. "Rest? If I couldn't sleep in the tent, how the hell am I supposed to go to sleep like this?"
"I didn't say that you had to sleep. I realize that may not be possible yet. But I want you to rest. To be still. To let go of it all." The shaking grew stronger. "You're not going to fall apart, Chief. I've got you."
"Easy for you to say. You don't have an octopus wrapped around you."
"This is stupid, Jim. Not one of your best ideas." Blair fidgeted, his heartbeat still fast. "What if Simon got up and saw you doing this? He'd really wonder then what was going on with us. He knows I'm nuts, and he'd think you were nuts, too. This is crazy, man."
When Simon spoke, Jim had to hold tight to keep Blair from bolting. "I don't know about that, Sandburg. I was there the first time, remember? Ellison kept you safe then, why not now?"
"I don't need to be kept safe. I'm fine. I just need a bit of time to get my head together." Blair was fighting him now, but he still had no room to do so.
Simon laughed. "Sandburg, I haven't noticed you as ever having your head on straight, so why should I be wondering about it now? Just trust him. He trusts you."
"Well, maybe he could trust me that I'm okay. What about that? Huh?" Blair called out as Simon returned to his tent.
"Shhh," Ellison whispered. "You'll wake Daryl."
"Don't shush me!"
"Just for a little while, Chief. For me. Just sit here and be quiet and let me do what I feel I have to do, okay?"
Blair suddenly stopped moving. "It's not going to work, Jim," he said softly.
"What isn't going to work?"
"Whatever you want from me. I don't know how to do that. I don't know what you want from me."
"Listen carefully, buddy. I just want you to sit quietly and relax. That's it. Give me fifteen minutes of your time. That's not so much, is it?" Jim looked up as Simon and Daryl slipped out of their tent and headed down along the river's edge. Simon flashed a hand signal that said they'd be gone for thirty minutes, and Jim nodded, smiling faintly. "Just sit still and rest for a bit."
Fifteen minutes. He shivered. It wasn't really so long. All the experiments he had done on Jim, couldn't he just cooperate for a few minutes?
Blair fought the urge to squirm, to fling off the hands that had trapped him. He'd sit quietly and give Jim his fifteen minutes. Not a minute more, but he could have fifteen. Probably only fourteen by now. Maybe if he counted the seconds off, it wouldn't--
"I didn't say anything," Blair muttered.
"Just relax, buddy. Everything's okay."
Everything's not okay, Jim. I messed up today, in case you didn't notice. I freaked out and tried to beat up a police captain's son. I thought he was on fire and he wasn't. That's not okay, Jim. And it'll probably happen again. And again. I'm a major liability now. No way will Simon let me go on the field with you. What if I go nuts during a bust? Or on a stakeout? You don't get it, do you, Jim? It's over.
"Shhh. Just take it easy. Let it go. Let it go."
Let what go? There's nothing to let go here, Jim. I'm fucked up. No good. End of road for Tonto. When is it going to hit you that you've got to find yourself a new partner? Simon will haul you in when we get back and let you know what your options are, but I can bet that I'm not one of them. Maybe I can still help you with your senses and stuff. Maybe I can even go with you to the office and help with paperwork. But that's it. Blair Sandburg can no longer be trusted. He sees Golden fire people stalking Cascade. Better call the fire department, man.
"Shhh. I'm here, Chief. Let it go, buddy. I'm here."
You don't get it, Jim. Blair could feel the tears welling up in his eyes. Jim just wasn't realizing what was happening. It was over.
He took a deep breath and let it out, holding his eyes open wide until they dried up. He was not going to cry. Absolutely. No way.
He'd do this for Jim, this sitting thing. Fifteen minutes. Maybe Jim would feel better, feel he was doing something. The campfire crackled and Blair shivered again, the reaction setting off another bout of the shakes. Ain't nothing going to help here, Jim. Any minute now I'm gonna see the Golden fire people again, probably over seven feet tall and doing the watutsi. It's over; the fat lady is singing.
Well, one thing wasn't over yet; he had only used up maybe another two or three minutes at the most. Damn. At least ten more minutes of this. He squirmed, trying to make himself more comfortable. His head hurt. Aching and pounding. He felt like someone had stomped on it.
"Rest . . ." Jim's voice said, softly, and the hand on his forehead began a slow massage on his temples, easing the tightness.
"How did you know I have a headache?" Blair asked, trying to look up and see Jim's face.
"Damn it, man, I'm just trying to ask a question here . . ."
"Trust me, Chief." Jim gently pushed Blair's head against his shoulder and resumed the massage. "Shhh."
I'm trying, Jim. I want to trust you. He closed his eyes and tried to let go of some of the tension in his body, but his stomach felt like it was tied in a thousand knots. He could hear the fire snapping behind him, the smell of burnt wood. Something flickered at the edge of his vision. I've got my damned eyes closed and I still can see them. He remembered very little of what had happened before at the police garage. Just being scared. And angry that they would hunt him down and try to hurt Jim. The Golden fire people. No! Don't be a jerk, Sandburg. There aren't any Golden fire people. That's what Jim had said to him. Well, sort of . . . No, he couldn't remember Jim saying anything like that. It wasn't the kind of thing Jim would say.
He could feel Jim's hand massaging his forehead. He was starting to feel numb all over, his head heavy. His throat hurt, though. When did that start? Probably will get pneumonia from sitting around soaking wet before. I've already missed too many classes this year. I can't miss the meeting on Tuesday. Two classes-- Was I crazy? Why did I sign up for two classes? I should have just agreed to one class, not two. One class would have been okay, although when you're shot through the leg it doesn't matter how many classes you have to teach, you're going to miss them all for a while. Is Jim going to make me go back to the hospital? That would be so not cool. The doctors. All their questions and poking and prying. Shining lights in my eyes all the time. "I can't sleep in the hospital, Jim."
"I can't. It's not going to happen."
His throat still hurt. It felt like there was some big lump caught in it. It was hard to swallow. Great . . . I'm getting sick. Sure, why not? I can't do this anymore. He couldn't swallow. His chest hurt, too. His ears were ringing slightly. He felt the palm of Jim's hand over his heart, the warmth working its way through his flannel shirt to calm the pain. To break it up. Into little pieces. His throat hurt. His head hurt.
He was crying.
God, Jim, don't let go.
Ellison felt the tears dripping down onto his hands, knowing his partner's misery was in each one of them. "Blair, remember what the doctor said. Your emotions are going to be a little sensitive for a while, a little exaggerated. Try to go with the moment here. Keep in mind that the things you are feeling are a little out of proportion to how things actually are, okay? I know it and you know it. Go with it. Don't try to fight how you feel."
A very small nod was followed by some major shivering, and Jim wrapped himself more securely around his partner. "Let it go, Blair. Let me carry the ball for a while. You've done great, but you need to relax. Simon and Daryl have gone for a walk and won't be back for a while. We've got time." He kept talking, feeling Blair listening. "You need to have a break. I've got the ball. It's secure. It's safe. I'm not going to let you fumble it, but you have to give me all the responsibility for this, for just a little while. Can you do that?"
At first, there was no response, just the tears and the intermittent shaking. Blair leaned against him, resigned to sitting in such close proximity, and he could feel Blair quit fighting. Jim tried to relax, to remind himself that Blair was breathing, even if he was still. He hadn't been breathing in the police garage, though. That feeling, holding him while he stopped breathing, was the single most horrifying thing Jim had lived through. He couldn't see; he couldn't do anything when they had pulled Blair from his grasp. He could hear them working on him, but he couldn't see. Having four other hyper-senses did nothing for him, when all he wanted to do was see what was happening.
The breathing in his arms altered slightly, and Jim slammed back into the present with a momentary surge of panic. The quiet tears had turned into a sob, and then another. As if a huge weight was lifted off Ellison's chest, he took a deep, ragged breath, and placed his cheek back on top of Blair's head, feeling each gut-wrenching sob echo silently through his partner's chest, each hot tear that fell from his eyes. Blair's hands clutched at his arm now, but he was not trying to pull it away; he was trying to hang on.
There we go. You're not broken, Chief. I didn't break you down. I let you go free.
The sobs died down and switched to an equally silent crying that seemed to be pouring from Blair's heart. Instead of trying to hide his face in his hands, Blair turned his face into Jim's chest, burrowing into the safety net there.
"I've got you, buddy," Jim whispered. "I'm not letting go." That seemed to bring on another wave of tears, but soon the body in his arms began to relax, bit by bit. Cried out, exhausted, tired of fighting, all of those things. But Jim knew that beneath it all, Blair understood this time. It was a safety issue. There was a safe place to deal with whatever he needed to deal with, and that place was exactly where he was right now, with Jim.
"I won't be able to keep you safe all the time. There are things out there that are beyond my control. But I want you to know that I will do my best. And I need you to work with me on this. I need you to respect my need to protect. I know what that costs you, but I feel my Sentinel abilities strongest when you're around, so you're going to have to deal with this protection need of mine. My need to guard you and make sure you're safe. Occasionally the need to hold you and know that you're all right. Believe me, it's for me more than it is for you. I need to feel that you're okay."
"I feel like crawling under a rock and hiding," Blair whispered, his eyes tightly closed.
"How about just sitting here with your Blessed Protector for a while?"
"Are my fifteen minutes up yet?" A soft laugh accompanied the question.
"Not yet. I'll let you know. Just sit and be quiet."
Simon Banks let his arm drop to rest on his son's shoulders as they walked back to the campsite. It had been a long, difficult evening to what had started out as a relaxing day of hiking and fishing with friends. He knew that Daryl was trying hard to take it all in stride, to be cool about it, but the intensity behind his stare as they approached the two men sitting by the fire, showed that the whole experience was still unnerving him.
Hell, it's unnerving to me, and I understand what happened, Simon thought. He looked at them now, the police detective and his partner, and while the silence and stillness of the younger man was a far cry from the hysterical screams that had cut through the riverside a few hours earlier, the empty staring eyes said that all was not yet well. But it was a damn sight better than it was before.
Ellison still sat back against a log, his arms completely surrounding his partner. Blair was a no longer the hunched ball he'd been when they left, facing away from the fire, his wrists crossed firmly over his chest. Instead, he was sitting sideways now between Ellison's bent legs, head resting against the taller man's shoulder, his body relaxed and peaceful. His eyes were open, but Simon doubted he was aware of much yet.
There was no doubt that Ellison had heard them returning, not with the super-hearing the man possessed, but the detective made no motion to talk to them, nor to offer any explanations nor reassurances. His attention was totally focused on restoring his partner.
"Come on, Daryl," Simon said to his son, softly, steering him back to their tent.
Daryl stopped and looked back, giving a little nod, as though figuring something out. "Like David and Jonathan," he said softly.
"Who are they? Friends of yours?"
The dark eyes rolled up at him, looking at him as though he was only slightly above an imbecile. How the hell did the kid do that so easily? "From Sunday School, Dad. David and Jonathan."
"Oh. Right. Uh . . . King David, right?"
"And . . . Jonathan was . . ." Simon knew he was trawling for answers to something his son assumed he knew.
"This prince whose father was trying to kill David."
Well, that made sense. No . . . actually it didn't make sense. "How do Jim and Blair remind you of two warring kings?"
"They were best friends. I remember hearing about them while ago at church, thinking they were really strange. They, like, declared their love for each other, and said they'd die for each other, and they loved each other more than women, and all that kind of shit. That their love was somehow sacred or something. But it didn't seem like they were about to jump into bed with each other or anything. They just cared. It was weird." Daryl shrugged. "It didn't make any sense before. Just made me feel uncomfortable. Kinda looking around at the other guys and imagining how they'd react if I said anything like that. But it's like that with them, isn't it? The same kind of love as David and Jonathan. Kinda cool."
Simon felt the tears in his own eyes, and he blinked them back, looking up. "Yeah, son. I guess it's the same. Kinda cool."
Daryl turned away suddenly, and ducked into the tent. Once inside, the teenager dropped down to his sleeping bag. "Shit, Dad. It's hard to believe that's Blair. He looks like a zombie."
"He'll be okay. When we get up in the morning, he'll probably be back to normal. Remember what we talked about?" Father and son had been walking along the lake shore for a while, talking--really talking--about some pretty heavy things. Blair's flashback, a relic from the infamous "Golden" drug spiked on his pizza five months before. Drugs in general. Then drugs in specific, drugs that Daryl was hearing about, that his friends were using. The laws. The gangs, the drug dealers, the crime lords. The whole sordid scene. Prostitutes and addicts. White collar users and recreational drugs. The teenager asked questions and Simon did his best to answer them--not tough-nosed as a cop, but as a tenderhearted father.
"Are you sure he'll be okay?" Daryl's eyes were fastened on a spot on his sleeping bag, his finger picking at the irregularity in the fabric. "He sounded awful before. The stuff he was doing . . ."
"Blair was scared. Terrified, remember? He thought you were on fire. And then later he thought there were beings trying to kill you both. He had every reason to scream."
"I know." Daryl threw himself back to his pillow. "Shit." He stared up at the roof of the tent. "Shit, Dad. Why would someone do that to Blair? He's not a cop." The eyes widened suddenly as a thought occurred. "You could have eaten the piece of pizza." Daryl looked over at him, meeting his eyes suddenly, and Simon's heart almost broke at the horror on his child's face.
"I could have," he admitted. He didn't know what else to say. He couldn't lie to Daryl about this.
The whole, overwhelming concept was a little too close to home now and Daryl sat up and impulsively through his arms around his father's neck. "Shit, Dad." The word was so expressive in a teen's mouth.
"Yeah. I know, son." They stayed that way for a few seconds before Daryl drew away, self-conscious and needing space suddenly, and Simon released him immediately. "Get some sleep. I'm going to check and see if Jim needs anything."
Daryl nodded, pulling off his boots and his jeans and crawling into the sleeping bag, his back turned to his father.
Simon waited a moment, until he had himself a bit more together, before he went out of the tent. Ellison had shifted position slightly, but still sat the way he had that day in the police station garage, his body wrapped protectively around his partner, shielding him from the madness of the outside world.
"You okay, Jim?"
"Yeah." Ellison looked up and smiled. "David and I will just sit here a little while longer. He's almost asleep."
Simon chuckled. "Daryl's obviously better read than his father. I couldn't figure out what he was talking about at first."
"It's a good analogy. I'll have to mention it to Sandburg sometime, if the need arises. He usually gets flighty if I get emotional on him."
"You work the extremes with your emotions, though, Jim. You either walk around with a blank, ultra-calm look on your face, or else you're . . . I don't know . . . Remember when Tommy died? Or even sitting like this in the station garage. You didn't care what anyone else thought. Sandburg's different. He cruises through life with his emotions visible, always on low throttle, so he gives the appearance of being more emotional than you. But he's better at hiding them, submerging them, when he wants to, when they get too much for him."
"He thinks you're going to take away his Observer's pass because of this."
"Because he had a flashback? I knew the possibility existed before and I let him stay. Now that I see that you can handle it, it's no different from before. No, I've felt like pulling it at times, but that's because he can be damned infuriating, not because of something that happened to him in the line of duty."
"Hear that, Chief?" Jim asked, looking down.
Blair blinked sleepily, but didn't say anything.
"He's drifting. Maybe I will use your help, Simon. Help me get him into the tent without dropping him. I think my legs have fallen asleep. He's heavier than he looks."
"May I remind you this was your idea?" Blair mumbled, lifting his head from Jim's shoulder. "Just get me to my feet and steer me in the right direction."
"Will do, Chief."
It was raining lightly the next morning when Jim woke. He glanced at his watch, but 5:30 a.m. was too early to get up on a day off, and he closed his eyes again. The wet canvas smell of the tent wasn't entirely unpleasant. He was warm enough, especially with his loftmate sleeping pressed up against his back. Blair hated being cold.
So what were you doing swimming in the river, Chief?
In the next tent, he could hear Simon softly snoring, and he touched on Daryl's restful breathing. Both had slept soundly through the night. Even Blair had slept most of it, just occasionally waking, disoriented, then rolling over and going back to sleep.
Half an hour later, Jim was still awake and it had stopped raining. A good time to fish. He slipped from his sleeping bag, pulled on his jeans and shoes, then eased out of the tent. Already the clouds were breaking up in the north and the radio's promise of good weather for the weekend seemed to be a possibility.
He made use of a tree nearby, then set about gathering some wood from under their tarp to get a fire going. Twenty minutes later, he had a drinkable thermos of coffee, and he was already set to go, hipwaders, a hat full of lures, and fishing gear.
He wandered down the shore until he reached a good location, still within normal hearing of the campsite, in case someone called out for him and he needed to answer them. Blair was still sleeping. He listened for a few minutes, satisfied with the regularity and ease, and turned his attention back to the water. It was time to get on with life. His Guide would be fine. They were on the right path again.
The water beckoned, clear and cold. He could see the individual stones on the riverbed, beneath the current. The first few steps in were always the most difficult. His boots were slightly damp from getting them wet inside the day before; he had practically raced through the water to get to Blair and had managed to get a fair amount of water into the hipwaders. It wasn't uncomfortable, and he played with his touch sensitivity dial until he had toned down the coolness of the water. The lure was already on his hook; he cast out into the river and juggled the rod under one arm as he opened the thermos and poured himself some coffee, finally settling into the moment.
There were low clouds hovering in the mountains, but their peaks were already clear. The rest would burn off by midmorning. Mount Baker was silent in the distance, no plumes of smoking issuing from it. The air was heavy with moisture and dew. He sipped at the coffee, enjoying Simon's choice of blend. It was a roast he hadn't heard of before, and he carefully breathed in its fragrance, letting the similarities and differences of the blend register on each of his senses.
A tug on his line and he returned his attention to the matter at hand. Five rewarding minutes later, and he had a small trout in his basket. One more, and he would have breakfast to bring back to the others. He put on another lure and recast the line.
"How's the big game hunter?"
Ellison turned his head, glancing behind him to his partner. Blair stood behind him on the shore, bundled in his coat, his hands around a mug of coffee. "Good morning, Chief. Here to do some fishing?"
"Maybe a little later," Blair grinned at him. "A little too cold for my taste."
"How are you feeling?"
"Generally or specifically?"
Blair nodded, shrugging self-consciously. "Okay, I guess. I've got a bit of a headache, but I guess that's to be expected."
"With a bump like that, it is."
"Uh, where'd I get it from? Did I piss you off more than usual and you hit me?"
"You fell, remember?"
"I fell? Oh. Right. How's your cheek? It got scratched by my jacket zipper, didn't it? I seem to recall--"
"Forget it. It's fine. I put some stuff on it last night and I can hardly see it today."
"Good." Blair stood nodding, still clutching his mug of coffee.
Ellison smiled and looked back at him. "You look like one of the little plastic dogs that sit in the rear windows of old cars, their heads bobbing."
"Thanks, Jim. I appreciate that," he said sarcastically.
"No problem." He stole another look at Blair, noting the slight tremble still in his hands. "Maybe when you get back from your hike with Daryl, you can show me how that fishing spear works."
"The hike? Is that still on?" Blair seemed honestly surprised.
"Unless you don't want to go anymore. Daryl asked about it again last night."
"The hike? Like, Simon won't freak out or something?"
"Not if you're back before dinner. He wants a little more help tonight."
Blair could hardly breathe normally. "So, Jim . . . are you saying that Simon is okay with me going on a hike alone with his kid?"
"They're both okay with the idea, Chief."
"And you?" The voice was strained, nervous.
"If you want to waste a good fishing day by hiking, go ahead. Maybe when you get back later, we can do a little of that spear fishing. We need to head out Sunday by midmorning at the latest, so this might be our last chance for you to show me how it's done."
Blair was at the very edge of the water. "We're staying?"
"Of course we're staying. Haven't you been listening? How about it? Show me how that spear fishing works?"
"Sure." Blair smiled and the sun broke through the clouds at the same instant. "Hey, Jim."
"Thanks. For all that stuff; for you guys believing in me. And . . . for the fifteen minutes."
"You survived intact, I see."
Blair nodded. "I don't think I could handle a steady diet of it, but if it makes you feel better, big guy, then I'll do my best."
"You always do, Chief."
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