Summary: Three weeks after the drowning, Blair is drawn back to the fountain and Jim has to decide whether or not to finally take that trip with him. Warnings: This story is dark, intense, and creepy. Bad things appear to happen.
Author's Notes: Thanks to Arouette and Catyah for encouraging me, you two keep me going. Thanks to ALF for saving my sanity. Finally, thanks and huge squeezy hugs to Elmyraemilie and Sassyinkpen for outstanding betas; the story wouldn't be nearly as good without y'all.
Disclaimer: Anything Sentinel belongs to Pet Fly and Paramount.
A slow, maddening drip of water woke Jim up, teasing him out of sleep with rhythmic irritation.
His immediate reaction was annoyance. The kid left the water...damn. No that couldn't be it. Sandburg was gone. Had been for four days. He wasn't really gone, Jim insisted to himself. Just out of the loft. On vacation. Taking a little break.
Things had been difficult between them since Alex. Very difficult. It wasn't too surprising that Blair needed to take off for a day or two. Or four. Even if he had never done so before.
He checked the loft for any sign of Sandburg, but his scan came up empty. There were no sounds except the drip which seemed to be growing louder with each splash. There was nothing overtly unusual at all, except a faint hint of damp in the air.
He rolled out of bed, grabbing his gun out from under his pillow. The noise came from the bathroom, louder than seemed possible. He tried to dial down his hearing, to reduce the noise to a normal level, but his senses weren't responding.
His tread was light as he eased down the stairs. His senses were telling him that he was alone in the loft, but he wasn't prepared to trust his life to them. Not with Sandburg's steadying influence on them, on him, gone. Maybe gone for good. His mind scuttled away from that thought like an animal frightened of the light.
As he passed through the living room, he checked the French doors and the front door. Locked. Sandburg's room was filled with his familiar, alien clutter but it still seemed empty without him.
The drip was loud enough now to echo throughout the loft, so that the air never seemed completely devoid of noise. The sounds rolled and overlapped until they blended together in a continual thrum, insistent and infuriating. His head ached with the vibrations.
The door to the bathroom was mostly closed. Hadn't he left it open to air out after his shower? The light was off and the darkness was thick. He tried again with his hearing, attempting to filter out the echoes and focus on what else might be in the next room. He couldn't tell if it worked or not--the drips never faded into the background, but he thought he heard a windy, rushing noise like a breeze through trees. Or a white noise machine.
He flicked off the safety on his gun, took a deep breath, and kicked open the door.
As soon as the door opened, the dripping noise and all its overlapping echoes stopped, leaving his head spinning and his heart racing.
There was something in the tub, something that spilled over the edge. A dark shape that was somehow not illuminated by the glow that suffused the room, limning the softly lapping water and turning the drops that fell silently from the spigot into neon sapphires.
Before he got his hand on the light switch, his sight finally dialed up. The dark shape was revealed as Blair Sandburg, mouth agape, eyes closed. A yellow scarf was knotted around his neck, piercing the blue darkness. Piercing Jim's eyes.
"No!" Jim shouted, falling to his knees next to the tub. "No, this isn't possible. Lash is dead. I killed him." His voice fell from a shout to a near whisper.
This wasn't happening. It couldn't be. It was a bad joke; Blair was playing an evil trick on him to get him back for... He couldn't even finish the thought. When his hand made contact with the waxy, unresponsive flesh, he jerked it away with a whispered, "No."
Overcoming his revulsion, he felt for a pulse at Blair's neck. This couldn't be real. Couldn't be. The hideous yellow scarf kept him from finding the artery in Blair's neck, kept him from being sure. He tried to tear the cloth away, but it clung in sodden folds to his fingers, resisting him.
When he finally got past it, he found nothing but death.
Nothing. No vibration, no sound. No breath. No pulse. No Blair.
He rocked back onto his heels. He wanted nothing more than to pull Blair out of that tub, out of the fountain, out of danger. But his cop training said that he shouldn't interfere with the crime scene. Not any more than he already had.
Blair's face, so handsome and animated in life, was terrifying dead. Slack and soulless. Jim closed his eyes, blocking out the horror, grappling with grief he couldn't contain.
He opened his eyes a moment later with a faint hint of almost-hope. This wasn't real. Surely, Blair wasn't there. Not in the tub. Not... His faint hope was crushed, of course, and he berated himself for the thought. For the weakness it showed.
Emotions shoved ruthlessly aside, he examined Blair, looking for evidence on the body. There were no defensive wounds. None. Which didn't make sense. Blair had fought Lash, fought for his life, wrecked the apartment.
He turned back to Blair's face. The once blue eyes were open now, milky with hours of death, staring at him, staring into him.
Jim woke to the sound of a scream echoing in the loft. He looked around wildly. He was sitting up in bed, the covers rumpled and tossed around him. In bed? Gun forgotten, he ran to the bathroom. Even in the gloom, he could see that the tub was dry. He flicked the switch, flooding the room with golden, normal light. Empty. Absolutely empty.
He ran his fingers under the tub spigot. There was no sign that there had ever been a drip there.
"So, Jim," Simon asked as he walked into the loft, "do you mind telling me what I'm doing here at 4:45 in the morning?"
Jim closed the door behind his Captain and friend. "You know Sandburg's been gone right?" he said, gesturing toward the sofa.
"I know I haven't seen him around since the Ventriss case. I figured he was working on campus straightening out that mess," Simon said, sitting down on the larger sofa. "Is he really gone?"
Jim looked away, out toward the bay just visible through the French doors, and answered quietly, "Yeah. He took off the morning after the bust."
"No note?" Simon asked, pulling a cigar out of his pocket and putting it in his mouth unlit.
"No. He left a message on Wednesday, saying he was taking off for a day or two and not to worry," Jim said, softly.
"But you're worrying anyway?" Simon pulled the cigar out of his mouth and smiled. "Look Jim, cut the kid some slack, he's had a tough couple of months. He probably needs some time to...what's that word Naomi uses?"
"Process," Jim answered automatically, hoping the answer was that simple. "He said he'd be back days ago. You know how Sandburg is...he'd have called to let me know if he was going to be late. You know that."
With a nod, Simon said, "Yeah. Okay, so what do you want me to do? We can't make a missing persons report yet. They'll laugh us out of the station if we go to them with this."
Looking at his feet, uncomfortable, Jim said, "No, I know that. But I need you to do something for me." He walked to the table and picked up a cheap, spiral-bound steno pad. He handed it to Simon. "This is Sandburg's journal. He might have said something about his plans. Could you..." He straightened himself. The best way to sound confident, he'd learned from his father, was to look confident. "Could you read the last couple of entries? There might be useful information."
Simon looked at the pad in his hand, then up at Jim. "You want me to read Sandburg's diary? You're his friend. Why don't you do it?" He chomped on the cigar for a couple of seconds, then went on, "Why can't I do this at nine o'clock in my office with a cup of coffee in my hand?"
Jim could feel his jaw tense, but forced himself to speak through it, "I'm his roommate; it would be prying. You're looking for evidence in a possible missing persons case. It's important, sir." He looked away from his captain's face, hoping that explanation would be enough.
He was relieved when Simon grunted an assent, before saying, "Okay. That makes sense." He settled back on the sofa, opening the pad from the end until he found the start of the last entry. "Don't think that counts as an explanation of why I'm here now. But you can give me that later. Make coffee."
Jim knew there was no way he could ever explain to Simon why he'd called him, panicked, at four in the morning. No way he could explain that he'd dreamed of Sandburg dead. Dead in the blue light dreams that always meant something, whether he wanted them to or not. Dead again.
He pulled out the canister of coffee, grateful for something he could do.
Simon settled into reading with a bemused hum. Jim poured water into the coffee machine, fussed with filters and measuring spoons. He relaxed slightly when he heard Simon chuckle. That had to be a good sign.
By the time the machine was making steamy gurgling noises and warm aromas filled the air, Simon's chuckles had long ended. Pouring the coffee into two mugs, Jim winced when he heard a groan from the other man. He set Simon's mug down on the table at his elbow before sitting down at the other end of the sofa.
Simon looked up at him, his mouth set in a grim line, "You haven't read this?"
Waving the journal in his direction, Simon said, "You should." He tossed the pad onto the coffee table. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and dialed someone on his speed dial. "This is Captain Banks. I need two squads of uniforms. Dispatch one to the warehouse district. Tell them I'll meet them at the pond at 123rd and Longview." Jim winced when he recognized the address of Alfred's Pond. "Send the other to the north end of the Port. I want them to check the piers, and especially the water, carefully. They're to call me if they find anything." Jim stood, hands in fists at his side. "No, that's it. Have them call me once they're at the port. I'll give them more details then."
As soon as Simon shut his phone, Jim walked closer, using his vantage point to loom over the seated man. "What?"
Shaking his head, Simon said, "You stay here, Jim. You know how it is for the family members. Do I need to call Rafe or Brown to sit with you?" Jim shook his head, stunned. Simon rose to his feet. "I've got to go." He pointed to the notebook. "Read that. I should have some information for you in a couple of hours. I'll keep you posted."
Jim stood his ground, between Simon and the door. "What the hell's going on, Simon?"
Simon took the cigar out of his mouth and looked at Jim for a long moment with a horrible compassion in his eyes. He didn't want compassion, didn't want there to be any need for it. "He mentions the waterfront. Drowning himself. We have to look."
His world spinning, Jim stepped back. "You know him better than that. He wouldn't..." He couldn't make himself finish, because he'd seen that there was something wrong, something...hollow, about Sandburg since the fountain. And he'd just let it slide.
The painful compassion in Simon's face deepened and he put a big hand on Jim's shoulder for just a second before saying, "I'll call you." He turned and left. The door shut with a bang, leaving Jim alone.
After he'd listened to Simon drive away, Jim looked around the loft. Light puddled in the kitchen and living room, where he had turned on lamps, but the corners were shadowed. With an effort, he dialed up sight to the point that the shadows held no secrets from him. The steno pad lay on the table but Jim couldn't bring himself to read it. With his luck Blair would come in while he was reading and he'd have to explain what he was doing. That thought made him reach for the pad after all, the humiliation worth it to have Sandburg home again. He shook his head. He was being stupid.
He sipped his coffee for a few minutes, trying to plan. Simon was going to cover the waterfront on the theory that Blair was planning on killing himself. Jim gritted his teeth; that meant it was up to him to figure out where Sandburg really was. Simon was chasing a ghost. The word "ghost" tolled ominously in his mind and he caught a faint hint of the wet smell he'd sensed earlier, during his nightmare.
Start with the most likely places, he told himself. Sandburg might have gone to the University, might be staying in his office. Jim hadn't actually tried to contact him since he left. He shut down his surge of guilt by telling himself that he had been giving the man his space. Giving him a chance to calm down.
Until he had that awful vision.
He set his coffee down and called Blair's office. It was early, too early, but he could always apologize. Tell Sandburg to come home. Then everything would be okay. While he waited for the call to connect he noticed the water smell again, stronger. Not pond water. This water was chlorinated, though not very clean. He carried the phone with him to the bathroom. Even with all the lights on it seemed a little dark in there, but it was dry and the smell was fainter.
On the fourth ring, Sandburg's voice-mail picked up and invited him to "Leave a message and have a great day, man." Jim hung up before the beep. The sound of his guide's voice, even tinny and recorded, sharpened his senses and the smell of water was suddenly intolerable. He threw out his cup of coffee, checking the kitchen carefully for leaks. Under the sink. Under the refrigerator. The dishwasher. He turned and scanned the ceiling, maybe the roof was leaking.
He sneezed then gagged on the smell. The place had to be practically flooded. Maybe the hallway, or downstairs. He turned toward the door. Blair was there, lying on the floor, surrounded by a pool of water. His hair ran to the floor in wavy rivulets, adding to the shadowed puddle around him. The room was dark, all that was clear was Blair, caught in a shaft of blue-tinged moonlight--moonlight?--through one of the clerestory windows. He was wearing a jacket, the jacket Jim gripped when he pulled Blair out of the fountain.
That's not possible, Jim thought, he threw that out. I saw him. Said he couldn't wear it again.
Blair's shirt was open to the waist, the way the damned lazy EMTs hadn't done but should have. On his chest were red marks, burns from defibrillator paddles the EMTs hadn't actually used. But he couldn't hear a heartbeat. Couldn't feel any warmth.
This couldn't be happening. Couldn't be happening again. Wasn't happening. He dropped to his knees and put his hands on Blair's face, just like he did before. Hands on Blair's face and tried to summon his animal spirit, but the panther wouldn't come. He could feel the jungle, smell the plants, but the panther wouldn't come and the wolf was getting away into the light.
He pounded on Blair's chest, tried to breathe life into him, counted breaths, counted strokes of CPR to the chant, "This can't be happening, this can't be happening". He couldn't even take the time to call anyone. If he did Blair would surely die.
When his arms gave out and he couldn't find the strength between his choking gasps to breathe for Blair anymore Jim rocked back on his heels. Blair lay there, just as he had been and as he hadn't been. Jim saw for the first time cuts, bloody lines, across his torso. Three parallel wavy lines crossed from one side of his chest to the other. Thin slashes of red, barely visible through the chest hair. Watery blood traced a trail down his ribs to the floor.
Jim checked his hands. They were clean. There should be blood all over them, all over Blair, the way he'd been mauling him. Pounding on him. Trying to beat life back into him. But he wasn't dead, he couldn't be dead.
He looked back to Blair. But he was gone. There was nothing, nothing but dry wood floor warmed by the first pale light of dawn.
It took a moment for Jim to realize why dawn might be important. If Blair was in the fountain, not to drown himself, no, he wouldn't do that, but to revisit the scene, to meditate maybe, he'd be there at dawn. Jim knew it.
He grabbed his coat and, on impulse, a blanket. If Blair were wet he'd be cold. He didn't let himself think beyond that. Beyond the knowledge that he had to go. No reason to let his mind stray from getting out of the loft, to Rainier, to the fountain, as quickly as possible.
With every step, every breath, every heartbeat the light flickered from normal pre-dawn grey and incandescent gold to luminous blue. Shadows emerged and retreated. The feel of wetness in the air came and went with every movement, making him dizzy, nauseous.
Every flicker held an image of Blair, water dripping from his hair, mouth slack, eyes glazed. Standing, lying. Accusing Jim just by his presence. Jim refused to look at him; he just pressed his keys into his palm as he closed the door to the loft, grounding himself in the bite of metal against his flesh.
He thought of taking the elevator, but couldn't stand the thought of riding with flickering corpses and stench. The stairs would be faster anyway. He had to get to Rainier, had to get there now. He had a deadline, just barely enough time.
Partway down the first flight of stairs he heard a scream from the elevator shaft, a chorus of voices shouting for help.
He ran to the second floor landing and listened. Four voices, two women, two men. Hauntingly familiar. There were screams and shouts. "Get us out of here!"
"Jim, you're on the case right? You'll get me...us out of here, right?" Blair's voice, strained.
"Sandburg!" Jim shouted. "Sandburg?"
He waited for a response for two heartbeats, five, ten. There was nothing at all. Jim pounded on the doors of the elevator, pushed the button over and over again.
When Jim reached for his cell phone to call for backup, the rescue squad, anyone at all, there was an explosion followed by the metallic whiplash of elevator cable released of tension. Blair's voice ripped the air in a panicked scream, shrill and terrified. Then a crash like the world ending.
The silence that followed was so sharp it hurt his ears, hurt his skin.
Christ. The elevator. Blair.
He squeezed his eyes shut for a fraction of a second, then charged down the stairs headlong. Speed was of the essence if Blair, if any of the people in the elevator, had survived. He needed to get down there to help them.
The warm pre-dawn light didn't make it as far as the basement so it was grey down there, the shadows blue-black. The doors of the elevator were blown open, burst by the force of the impact, that much impact from a three story fall? Jim stopped at the edge so abruptly he swayed, almost falling into the cabin of the elevator.
Blair lay there, crumpled, bloody. His hair, beautiful hair, floated on a current of air, the only part of him moving. All else was blood and broken bones and that painful, painful silence.
"Jesus, Chief," Jim whispered. He hunkered down, covering his mouth with his hand, stomach boiling. He reached out for the nearest part of Blair, his hand, crushed by the fall into a grotesque shape. It was cold, not even a trace of residual body heat. How? He held the broken hand softly, trying to will warmth back into it.
Why wasn't anyone coming? That much noise should have woken up the entire building.
Looking away from Blair for just a minute, Jim pulled out his cell phone, tried to get backup. But there was no signal, not in the basement. He let go of the cold hand he was holding, walked toward the stairs, maybe he'd get something over there. In the distance he heard a dog, a wolf?, howl.
There was no signal anywhere. He was going to have to go upstairs.
He looked back at the elevator, to make sure there was nothing he needed to do before he left Blair, Blair's body he reminded himself, for a minute, just a minute.
The elevator doors were closed, solid.
Up at the top of the stairs the dawn was strengthening, sending its warmth even into the basement.
He steeled himself, then pushed the call button. The elevator arrived after a few seconds, the doors opening with their usual cheerful ding. His stomach turned again.
Jim walked out to his car, paying attention to nothing but the feel of the keys in his hand and the pressure of his feet on the ground, solid ground, underneath them.
He had to get to Rainier. Blair was there. Blair, Sandburg, needed him.
He focused his thoughts on the mechanics of driving. Key in ignition, turn. Clutch. First gear. Undivided attention like he was just learning to drive. No room for thought. No room for imagining what Blair might be up to. No chance to see another Blair, another corpse.
He pulled out of the parking lot in a squeal of tires and a puff of smoke. He needed to hurry, Blair could already be in the fountain. Already be...no, no. He wasn't. That wouldn't, couldn't happen.
Sit up straight and focus, he told himself. Foot on gas, brakes. Hands at ten and two just like Mr. Danvers taught him. Second gear. Third. Turn signal. Brake.
Jim wished for the speed he could get with the lights and sirens, but he left them off. The mars lights always cast a blue glow back into the truck.
Jim pressed the gas, went faster, hands at ten and two, grateful that it was still too early for much traffic. Blair's life depended on him getting to Rainier. Soon.
He stopped at a light and saw, in a glow of blue neon, the broken Blair from the elevator shaft dissolve into a thick, black puddle on the sidewalk. Another look and the sidewalk was clean.
Jim grabbed his cell phone, dialing without even looking at the buttons.
The phone was answered on the first ring and Jim immediately said, "Simon, he's at Rainier."
"Jim? Did you talk to him?" Simon asked, cautious relief evident in his voice.
It was an obvious question and Jim winced at his lack of an acceptable answer. "No. No. But he's there, I know it. He's going to..." He chopped off the sentence with a harsh click of his teeth. "I'm on my way there. Can you send back-up?"
"On the basis of your hunch? You're kidding me, right?" Simon asked. Jim could see the look on his face, eyebrows raised, lips clamped around his cigar.
"Please Simon, we've got to hurry. It's almost time. Almost the time." Jim looked at his watch. Too long, this was taking too long. He only had a few more minutes.
The truck squealed and rocked onto two tires as he threw it around the last turn into the campus without braking.
"Damn, Jim." Simon's voice was little more than a breath. "I'll leave Mathers in charge here. I'll be there ASAP."
Jim didn't respond, he just slapped the phone closed against his chest and flung it aside.
Too far, too far. Jim drove his truck over the curb and rode over the empty sidewalk toward Hargrove Hall and the fountain. He'd explain to campus security later.
The quad was empty, sunlight just warming the stone buildings. Shadows, normal shadows, cloaked the fountain, the grass.
Even though he could see that it was empty, the normal blackness not resisting his senses, Jim ran to the fountain. Went there first this time, like he should have before. Blair wasn't there, thank God. Just algae-colored water and a few glistening coins. No more flickering blue lights showing him Blair dying again and again.
Relief almost brought him to his knees, but Blair was somewhere, somewhere nearby, and needed him. He knew it, could feel it. He steadied himself, forced himself to turn toward the grey stone building.
Blair's office was dark, damn it. He focused his sight and hearing into the room. But it was empty of everything but bare furniture.
A flicker of light at ground level caught his eyes. Fire? He turned his attention there, to a cluttered basement storeroom. Candles, dozens of them. There was a faint, whispered mutter. His senses knew his guide's voice before his brain could process the information and he was running before he even knew what he'd heard.
Just inside the door to the building, Jim found Blair leaning on the wall, barely standing, barely holding on. Jim could feel heat radiating off him, basked in it for a moment, blessed living heat, before he realized there was too much. Blair was feverish, burning up. His eyes were glazed, not milky with death, but glassy with fever and the pupils were dilated, drugged looking. His heart raced.
When he saw Jim, Blair's face crumpled. He inhaled sharply, a disturbing wet sound, and started coughing. As soon as his strength was diverted from holding himself up he started to slide down the wall. Between the coughs, Jim could just make out, "No, no. Got to keep moving. Almost time."
Jim tucked his shoulder under Blair's arm, and held him up. Blair was so hot, Jim was sure he'd have seared marks on his skin where they touched. "Come on Chief, let's get you to the hospital," he said, voice shaking with the effort of shoving his emotions aside.
Blair struggled out of his arms, sagging as he lost the support, but staying upright. "No. Got to get to...almost time." Blair didn't even look at him, just shuffled to the door and leaned against it. His weight pushed it open and Blair fell through, stumbling out into the semi-light.
Jim caught up to him in three big strides. He wrapped one arm around Blair, catching him as he was about to fall down the steps. Blair struggled against him, pulling with all of his strength, little as it was, toward the fountain.
Jim guided Sandburg toward the truck, ignoring his protests. It was the fastest way to get him to the emergency room; faster by far than waiting for an ambulance. "Emergency room, Chief. Anything else can wait."
As he turned Blair away from the fountain, blue light flashed and Jim saw two huge shapes emerging from the water, reaching for Blair, reaching for him. They were dark and huge and hard to define, as though they were made out of water and seaweed. He couldn't see eyes, but they had long arms and fingers like tentacles that writhed toward them.
He turned his back on them, and kept his eyes on the golden sunlight warming the sidewalk ahead. Behind him he heard a roar and a snarl, but he didn't turn to look.
By the time they reached the truck, Blair was unconscious.
Jim buckled him into the passenger seat, grabbing his cell phone from where it lay in the footwell.
He couldn't help but look back at the fountain as he climbed into the truck and fastened his seat belt. It was like looking through a gateway into blue darkness. A sliver of nightmare jungle in the middle of the perfectly groomed, golden-lit square.
As he turned around and drove off the sidewalk, he dialed Simon again. "I found him. We're on our way to the hospital."
"Jesus, Jim. Did he...?" Simon didn't finish the question, but he didn't need to.
"No!" Jim denied too vehemently. "He's sick, feverish. He's burning up, Simon. Feels like his temp's up around 105. And his lungs sound bad. I'll be at Cascade General. Meet me there when you can. And have someone check out the rooms in the basement. He was down there."
He hung up the phone without waiting for a response and drove like demons were after them.
"He's sleepin' now, Detective Ellison, but you can go on in if you want," the nurse said, smiling at him. She handed him a clear plastic bag. "Here's his personal belongings."
Jim nodded and took he bag. He knew this nurse, remembered her from when Blair was here during the Golden overdose. He dug through his memory, finally pulling up a name, "Thanks, Glory. You'll be keeping an eye on him, then?"
She smiled, white teeth flashing, "Not as good as you, Detective, but I'll be here until tomorrow morning."
"Good," Jim said to her with a nod, then pushed open the door. Blair was pale, but solid and reassuringly alive. He had an oxygen mask on and an IV in the back of his right hand. Wires ran from his chest to a monitor that beeped overhead. Pulling up a chair, Jim sat heavily and rested his hand on Blair's arm. He felt cooler, still feverish but no longer blazing.
Jim sat there for an indefinite time, eyes closed, paying attention to nothing but the steadiness of Sandburg's heart, the worrying rattle of his lungs, the solidity of him, flesh and bone and skin under his hand.
Outside of the area of awareness he was allowing himself, shadows flickered and flashed, snarled and howled, but this living Blair was real. So he kept his attention there. Not quite zoning, but deliberately unaware of the rest of the world. Clinging to reality.
Jim didn't notice Simon's arrival until he felt a touch on his shoulder. He tensed, then relaxed when he picked up Simon's familiar scent--tobacco, coffee and Old Spice. Safe. Trusted. He shook himself out of his focus on Blair and, without looking away from his friend, took stock of his surroundings. The shadows had shifted well around the room; morning had turned into golden afternoon and Jim hadn't even realized it.
"How is he?" Simon asked, pulling up another chair.
Jim cleared his rusty throat, then said, "His fever's down. His lungs sound clearer than this morning, so the antibiotics seem to be working."
"Good." Simon looked at Blair, then back at Jim. "He was doing something strange in a store room. We found candles. Markings on the floor. One of the professors said it looked like a ritual of some sort." He paused, then went on, voice tight, "Jim, we found a mortar and pestle with traces of sedatives in it."
Jim rubbed his forehead with his free hand. " You can see what he took here." He handed Simon the clear bag from where it lay next to him and pointed. "Over the counter sleeping pill. Doctor says he didn't exceed the listed dose." He looked away from Blair for just a second and faced Simon. "He wasn't trying to kill himself, Simon." His shoulders were square and his voice firm. The best way to sound confident...
Simon looked into the bag, avoiding Jim's eyes. "So what was he doing?"
Jim shook his head and let his gaze go back to Blair. "I don't know. He passed out just after I found him and hasn't woken up since."
Simon shifted the items around in the bag. "What's this?" he asked, then handed the bag back to Jim.
His finger was indicating a twist of cloth, shimmering water-blue fabric wrapped around something. "I don't know," Jim said, opening the bag. The bundle was heavy for its size, and tied tightly. Jim fumbled with the knots, the silk slipping through his fingers.
When he finally got it open, he found inside two smaller bundles one red and one black. Unwrapping the black fabric he found a crudely carved grey-stone figurine of a wolf. It was barely recognizable, only the perk of the ears and the line of the tail showing what it was. The red fabric contained a slightly less crude figure of a black jaguar. The tail was wrong, but the curve of the spine and the springiness of the limbs were exactly right. Where had Blair found these? What were they for?
When he touched the statues with his bare hand, the world shifted around him. All he could smell was wet jungle, all he could hear was danger hidden in the blue-black foliage. Next to him, Blair's breath faded out, his heart stopped. Panicked, Jim turned to him and saw Blair, IV and oxygen mask gone, mouth slack, lying on the bed. His skin was wet and the light gleamed off it in blue sparks.
Jim shifted the fabric and the statues into his right hand and with his left reached for a pulse. Blair's heartbeat and breath, colors, chilled hospital air, Simon's cologne--all of reality slammed into him. The change was so sudden it left Jim's head spinning and his stomach churning.
Simon was saying something, but Jim ignored him.
Guided by some impulse he didn't question, Jim spread out first the blue cloth, then the black, then the red on the table next to Blair's bed. He was nervous about handling the figurines again, going back to that place where Blair was cold and dead, but aside from a howl from a blue tinged shadow as he set them shoulder to shoulder on the cloths, all was normal.
"Jim! Jim, are you okay? What the hell are those?" Simon asked when Jim had backed away from the table. His voice was rough with concern and irritation.
Before Jim could answer, Blair, voice faint and raspy, muffled by the oxygen mask, answered from the bed, "Us. Red and black. Life and death." Jim whirled to look at him. Somehow he looked even more fragile and thin awake than he had asleep. More wounded somehow. Weighed down by the hospital trappings.
Jim sat back down, unable to support his weight under the onslaught of his emotions, relief, anger, worry, fear, love, stress. He modulated most of that out of his voice, keeping calm for Sandburg's sake. Sandburg looked like a whisper would break him, let alone a shout. "Hey, Chief. Welcome back," Jim said, resting his hand on the arm in front of him.
Blair's eyes flew open and his gaze locked with Jim's. When he spoke his voice was hardly more than a breath, "You...you were there. You know? You saw? Did we...?" The tumble of words triggered a coughing fit.
In the background, barely noticed, Simon slipped out the door of the room.
As Sandburg's coughing calmed, Jim said, "You're okay, Chief." It wasn't true, but he hoped that the words would help make it so.
Blair shook his head, controlling his breathing into shallow pants. "No, I'm not. You stopped me. Damn it, Jim, you stopped me," his voice crackled with anger and ached with sadness and Jim didn't know what to make of the combination.
"I don't even know what the hell you were trying to do," Jim said, irritation hardening his voice. "You drugged yourself and were heading toward the fountain. Of course I stopped you. You could barely walk and you were burning up. What did you expect me to do?"
Blair closed his eyes. "I didn't expect you to be there at all," he snapped. His words ended in a choked cough that was followed by a soft whisper, "But I hoped you would help." The quiet words were a gut-punch.
While Jim was reeling, the doctor came into the room, followed by Simon. "Hello, Mr. Sandburg. I'm Doctor Slaten. It's good to see you awake. You have a nasty bacterial pneumonia, probably as a sequel to your recent drowning. It's a good thing Detective Ellison brought you in when he did."
"When can I leave?" Blair asked. "I've got to go."
Simon caught Jim's eye from his position by the door and whispered, "What's going on?" Jim's only response was a shrug and a shake of the head.
"Well," the doctor answered, consulting his charts, "We'd like to keep you here for a day or two, just to replenish your fluids and bring your temperature down. If you continue to respond to the antibiotics, you'll be able to leave the day after tomorrow."
Blair shook his head and struggled to sit up. "Not good enough. I've got to be...," his words were interrupted by a cough. "I've got to get out of here."
Jim eased Blair back down onto the bed. "That's not going to be possible, Chief."
Blair fought against Jim's hands. "It's not up to you, Ellison," he snapped, voice fierce. But even that little bit of defiance exhausted him and he collapsed against the bed, overcome with a coughing fit so intense it looked painful.
While Blair was coughing, Jim said to the doctor, "I'll talk to him. See what I can do."
The doctor closed Blair's file with a decisive gesture. "He checked himself out AMA after his drowning. This is quite probably a result of that decision. If he leaves again, I hate to predict what could happen." He walked out the door without looking back at his patient.
Clearing his throat discreetly, Simon said, "I'm going to get back to the station, Jim. Consider yourself on leave for the next couple of days. If you need more time than that, let me know." He looked at the bed where Blair lay, breathing normally now, eyes closed. "Let him know I was here, will you? I'm not sure he ever saw me."
Jim nodded. "Yes, sir. I really appreciate all your help. Last night and today. I owe you one."
With a chuckle, Simon said, "Jim, for this you owe me more than one," and walked out the door.
Jim sat back down with an exhausted sigh. With the solidly normal presences of Simon and the doctor gone, the shadows growled at him and the fluorescent lights flickered blue overhead, specks of light through a jungle canopy. Blair, though, was reassuringly real, skin warm under Jim's hand. Warm and alive. And awake, though he was trying to pretend otherwise.
Rubbing his temple, Jim said, "Will you tell me one thing, Chief?" Blair didn't answer, but Jim went on anyway, "What were you..." He took a deep breath. He couldn't figure out how to ask what he needed to know. "You weren't planning to..." Fuck. He let anger take his voice and give shape to his words. "Do you really want me to help you kill yourself, for God's sake?" he snapped.
Blair opened his eyes wide. "Where the hell did that come from?" His voice was laced with more than a little irritation as well.
Blair's anger fed Jim's own, giving him strength. He rose to his feet to lean over Blair and said, "You drugged yourself and were going to the fountain where you fucking *died*. You were going to die there all over again." The anger left him in the horror of the thought, and he sat back down, saying, "I can't lo...go through that again."
Blair twitched his hand on the bed and Jim took it into his own. "No, Jim. No. That's not the plan. I need to do something in the fountain. So we, I, can move on. Will you help me?" He squeezed Jim's hand.
Jim rubbed his temple, trying to calm the throbbing of his head, and found himself saying, to his surprise, "What do you need me to do?"
As soon as the words were out of his mouth the scene shifted in a scream of blue. Blair's hand in his was wet, cold, limp. He jerked away. Blair lay on grass, wet hair trailing in streamers around him, mouth agape.
Fuck. Not again. Not dead again.
The blue light made the air thick, like water. He couldn't breathe, but he heard a voice, his voice, shouting, "This can't be happening." He looked around, there should be EMTs, Simon, Megan. People. There was no one there. They were alone. He was alone. He reached for Blair, hands on his chest, hands on his face. God. Nothing, nothing.
Out in the jungle the wolf howled and the jaguar roared from a different direction. Too far apart, the jaguar would never get to the wolf in time. All around them, him, were growls and snarls, the voices of unfamiliar threats.
He pounded on Blair's chest, beating a heart rhythm into him. Trying to save him. But this wouldn't work. It hadn't worked and he knew it. His hands were stained with blood from the three cuts across Blair's chest.
This wasn't the way.
But he didn't know what else to do. Couldn't do anything.
He looked back at Blair's face. Open blue eyes. Staring at him. Staring, but still dead.
Jim's horror struck gasp brought him the taste of the hospital, antiseptics and the breath of a thousand diseases. His eyes flew open to see Blair in his bed, alive, oxygen mask firmly in place.
Blair was looking at him, eyes huge and holding more questions than Jim could possibly have answered. Only one came out, though, "What the fuck was that?"
Jim clenched his teeth together to control the tossing of his stomach. He couldn't answer, not just yet, couldn't even think about it. He looked into the corner of the room, the same corner that had been shadowed and growling moments before. It was sunlit now, bright. But on the floor, half hidden by a chair, Jim thought he could see a pool of water that glinted blue in the sunlight.
He closed his eyes.
Once his stomach was under control, Jim looked back to Blair. He'd turned his head away from Jim, and his eyes were closed tight, and moisture stuck his lashes together. Jim sniffed. Salt. "You okay, Chief? Hurting? I could get the nurse."
Blair didn't answer, just hunched in farther on himself until Jim was afraid he'd disappear altogether.
Jim rubbed his forehead. He was on a precipice as he had been with the warrior in Peru. Forward or back, those were his choices and only he could make the decision. He looked over the cliff for a moment then made the only decision he could make.
"That was your death, Blair. Again," he said quickly, hand on Blair's shoulder.
"Jesus," Blair said, turning to look at him. The unhealthy pallor of Sandburg's skin had bleached even further and his eyes burned red, but Jim couldn't tell if that was from illness or tears. "Again?"
Jim nodded. "Again. All day," he said, then propped his elbows on the edge of the bed so he could rest his forehead in his hands. "What did you see?" he asked. He was afraid of the answer, afraid to hear that Blair was sharing the visions of Jim completely unable to help him, unable to save him. Unable to do anything.
"I was standing by the fountain. A black jaguar, your jaguar, leapt out of my chest. Then all I could see was you..." His voice hitched and his heart sped up. He coughed and that triggered another fit that went on for a full minute.
When it was over, Jim offered water, but Blair refused, waving him weakly away. He sagged back against the pillows, worn out.
Jim sat back in his chair, eyes closed, hearing dialed down as far as he could without losing the sound of Blair's heart. He didn't want to know about the shadows that throbbed with menace. He needed to close them out, keep focused on Blair if he was going to be able to help his friend. To save him.
When the rhythm of Blair's pulse changed, Jim opened his eyes to see Sandburg's blue eyes staring at him. He forced a smile. "Good nap?"
Shaking his head, Blair said, "Not really. I was thinking about what you said, about seeing my...me." Jim sat up straight in his chair, head pounding again. "What...what do you..." Blair bit his lip, then blurted out, "What do you do when you see me...dying?" He swallowed hard. "In these visions."
"I try to revive you, what the hell do you think I do?" Jim asked, voice harsher than he intended it to be. He clenched his teeth together and braced for another question.
But there wasn't one. Blair just nodded and closed his eyes again. Not sleeping, not even resting now. He was thinking hard, and from the racing of his heart, Jim guessed they weren't good thoughts.
After at least ten minutes, Blair said, "I've got to get out of here. I've got to be back at the fountain before dawn or it will start all over again." He pushed himself up to a sitting position. "I can't go through it again."
"Can't go through what, Chief?" Jim asked. As soon as the final word passed his lips the world shifted around him and he was in the jungle again, crossbow in his hand. Blair's scream shattered the air into a million blue droplets and he took off running. Two, three steps and then he could see, could see what was happening.
Across a clearing he could just make out the fountain, almost hidden by a flurry of movement. There were screams and shouts and a gibbering howl that stopped Jim in his tracks. He could hear Blair's voice in the din, but he was barely visible, surrounded by black shapes, huge and amorphous. Made of shadow and water, they extruded and retracted arms, tentacles, ripping claws as they tore at Blair. Beat him. Pulled him between them.
Blair screamed in agony, in anger, and Jim felt a fierce flash of pride when he saw a line of burning blue stripe across one where Blair struck it. He was fighting back, hurting them.
Jim raised the crossbow, sighted. As he aimed at the wounded one, a claw whipped out from another and with the speed and power of a flash flood ripped Blair open from throat to pelvis. Blair's guts spilled out in a dirty tumble of pink and brown, lit with blue fire. Jim fired his shot, striking the injured one. It exploded in a black mist that obscured Blair, coalescing in the air around him. Muffling his screams.
Jim was jerked back to reality by a hand on his shoulder and a friendly voice nearby. "Detective Ellison, maybe you should go home and get some rest."
"Blair," his voice was rough and his tongue thick and slow. He looked past the nurse, who was taking Blair's temperature with an ear thermometer. Blair lay on the bed, pale and still. His heart rate was fast, racing, and Jim wondered that Glory hadn't noticed. The oxygen mask had been removed and was hanging by the bed.
"He's sleeping sound, didn't even wake when I took his blood pressure," Glory said, gathering up her kit. "Go on home, Detective. He'll be right."
As soon as she left the room, Jim put his hand on Blair's forehead. At the touch, Blair's eyes flew open, terrified until he saw Jim. He inhaled too sharply and triggered a coughing fit that seemed as though it would never end. Jim held him through it all, arm around Blair's shoulder, supporting him, making comforting noises. Jesus, he was grateful just to have Blair there, whole.
Slowly Blair's coughs eased, and Jim hoped that he would fall asleep, really asleep, not back into the blue jungle that was filled with nothing but danger for him. He settled Blair back in the bed, easing his hold now that the crisis was over.
Eyes closed Blair said, "You saw." There was no doubt in his voice, no question. He knew.
Jim was past denial, past looking back. He was over the precipice now and all he could do was hope to survive the landing. "I was there. I shot one of them," he said.
Blair blanched. "Thanks for trying to help. It'll be back next time, though." His skin looked clammy, pearled with sweat.
"Next time?" Jim asked, unable to control his horror at the idea that Blair had been suffering like that, screaming like that, alone. For how long?
"Yeah, they've been after me since I...died," Blair's voice cracked and the last word came out as a raspy whisper. "Every time I fall asleep. It's getting worse too," he whispered, looking embarrassed. "It's starting when I'm awake now. I'm losing it, Jim. I can't..." He opened his eyes and stared at Jim. "I can't take much more of this," he said, and his voice was shaky.
Jim pulled the chair up close and sat down, arm on the bed. Within a second, Blair had moved so that they were touching, arm to arm. Jim wished he was wearing short sleeves so he could feel Blair's living skin against his own.
Jim wanted to deny that what he had seen had any importance, any reality. But he couldn't. Not with Blair lying there next to him pale and shattered looking, wet with sweat, eyes bloodshot with lack of sleep. Sleep, God, how could Blair possibly sleep with those things waiting to, to...he swallowed convulsively again.
"What do they want, Chief?" he asked, not sure he wanted to hear the answer.
Blair winced. "They want me. My life. They feel cheated because I didn't die when I should have," his voice was soft and defeated.
A fierce energy rose in Jim, dark and potent and predatory. "They can't have you," he snarled in a voice that shook with power. Jim heard a roar from inside the room and was surprised that it didn't come from his own throat.
Blair heard it too though; his head whipped around to the table next to Jim, where the wolf and jaguar figurines were. Jim followed his gaze. The wolf was on its side, knocked over at some point during the afternoon. The jaguar seemed larger now, or maybe it was just catching the light strangely, almost glowing. Highlights on the shiny black rock pulsated with energy. He could feel Blair's gasp before it happened and Jim grasped his arm. "It's okay. Stay calm. You don't need another coughing jag, buddy."
Blair nodded and inhaled slowly, carefully. "I've been reading up on this," he said after a moment. Jim wondered what books Blair had found on the subject of blue visions and amorphous monsters with claws. "I think it's a shamanic initiation thing," Blair went on." The books say I need to offer them something. A substitute." He looked at the figurines again. "That's what those are."
Jim stood the wolf up and set it next to the jaguar again. The stone felt warm in his fingers and his skin tingled at the contact. "You carved them," he said, understanding some of what Blair had been up to while he was gone.
"Yeah. They suck but I'm hoping they'll be good enough. I mean I could have bought some that looked better, but surely the..." He paused, blinked. "I can't believe I'm talking about this with you." He looked at Jim, head cocked. "I can't believe you're listening."
Jim pinched the bridge of his nose. "I'm having a little trouble with that, too. But with the day I've had..." He looked up, met Blair's eyes squarely, and straightened his shoulders. "It's time for me to take that trip with you, Blair. Like it or not, ready or not, we're on it."
A flicker of something, sadness, pain, crossed Blair's face. Exhaustion, probably, Jim decided. With a serious nod, Blair said, "Water's gotten rough, my brother, and there are sharks in it now. Are you sure?" He sounded nervous, but met Jim's gaze steadily.
Jim clasped Blair's arm and Blair's hand wrapped around his forearm in return. An unbreakable bond. "I don't think either of us has a choice. And I won't let you face whatever this is alone."
Blair smiled faintly, his eyes shadowed. His gaze shifted to the window, where dark was gathering. "Thanks, man," he said softly. Jim squeezed his arm, the only way he could think of to tell Blair that thanks weren't necessary, weren't even appropriate, but stayed silent.
"So what do you need to do, Chief?" he asked after a moment, hoping he'd be able to accept the answer.
"I need to be at the fountain tomorrow morning at the same time she killed me. Dawn, just at dawn. To give them, those." He gestured toward the jaguar and the wolf, now looking like nothing more than poorly carved soapstone, all the energy gone from them. "Hopefully they'll leave me alone after that."
"Okay. Do you need to do any preparation? Simon said they found evidence of a ritual in one of the storerooms," Jim asked, voice tight. Jesus, he hated shit like this. How could Sandburg talk about this crap like any of it made sense? He heard a roar from outside in the darkening night. Blair swiveled his head to look and Jim touched his shoulder, saying, "It was a jaguar. It's okay."
Relaxing, Blair said, "I don't know if I need to do all that again. I don't know if I ever needed to do it, Jim. I'm way out of my depth here, learning something that should be taught master to apprentice from goddamned books." His voice rose as he spoke until he was almost shouting the last words, which then collapsed into a coughing fit. When it passed a few moments later, he whispered, "Sorry, man." He rubbed his forehead with the hand that wasn't still holding Jim's arm. "I don't think we have to do anything before."
Jim nodded. "Okay. Then we can stay here for most of the night."
"No. I've got to get out of here. You said you would help me," Blair said, struggling, trying to pull away from Jim's grasp.
Jim held tight, saying, firmly, "I will. But whatever's going to happen out there, you'll need your strength. The antibiotics are helping already, I can tell. And your fever's going down. We don't have to be there for nearly 12 hours, so heal as much as you can."
Blair lay back on the bed but his muscles quivered with tension. "What if I need the fever to get into the spirit world? What if I can only communicate with the...them because I'm sick? If I get well, I might be lost."
"There's got to be a way, Chief," Jim said, voice tight. "We're not saving you from those fucking...things only to lose you to pneumonia."
Sandburg patted his hand. "Okay. Let me think." He lay back against the bed, regulating his breathing into a deep slow, pattern that pulled Jim along with it.
As his breathing deepened the air became wet and steamy, thick and Jim fought against it, gasping for air. He turned to Blair, sure that he was having trouble breathing the sticky air, but he wasn't there. Jim whirled around, scanning the jungle with his senses. No Blair.
He ran back down the path he'd been walking. Blair was back there somewhere. Jim rounded a tree and saw Blair lying on the ground, naked except for a yellow scarf around his neck.
Jim shouted, a wordless yell of fury, and ran to Blair, dropping to his knees beside him. This was wrong, all wrong. This had never happened, couldn't have happened.
He looked around them and saw indistinct figures at the edge of the trees. Vague, shadowy. The creatures again. The yellow scarf unwound from around Blair's neck and was pulled back into the body of one of the monsters, disappearing into its shapeless mass. It turned to Jim with a leering gash splitting the blackness where a face might have been. Eyes appeared to stare hungrily at Blair.
Jim shuddered with revulsion and, without rising from his crouch, moved between the thing and Blair. With all the authority he could muster, he said, "You're not getting him."
He heard laughter from all around him. Spinning he saw more shadowed things. Laughing and gibbering and creeping, oozing, flowing toward them. "He's already ours, Sentinel." "We have him." "You can't stop us." "He'll give himself to us." A dozen voices whispered and cackled and shouted, the noise overwhelming him.
He tried to keep them all in sight, in his line of vision, but he couldn't--there were too many, constantly moving, surrounding him, surrounding them.
"After we take him," a voice dripping with malice said in Jim's ear, "you're next." Jim gasped and whirled, catching only a fleeting glimpse of a heavy, liquid shape before he was snatched back into the hospital by Sandburg's hand on his arm.
"Jim?" Blair said, "are you okay?" He looked frightened and his heart was racing.
Jim petted his shoulder for a second, guilty for having worried him. He tried to explain, but words were hard to come by. "I...," he rubbed his temple, "Did you see?"
Blair shook his head, "It was all black. I just heard you yelling and...and noises, gibbering and squeaking and something like words, another language maybe." He closed his eyes and turned his head away. "It sounded like insanity," he whispered, voice weary.
Jim didn't say anything. What was there to say?
If Sandburg was wrong, if they were wrong, then both of them were slipping into madness together. If they were right...madness might be the least of their problems.
Jim squeezed Blair's hand.
There was nothing to do but wait for dawn.
The night passed in a slow crawl. Every visit from Glory, gratingly chirpy in her insistence that Jim should go home, every sound of footsteps in the hallway, every beep from Blair's monitors wore at Jim's nerves, eroding his control over his senses and his emotions. He wanted to yell and rage and storm around the room, to weep, to gather Blair up and keep him in safety, to hide under the bed. It took almost all he had to sit quietly in his chair, offering Blair water when he needed it.
With his control over his emotions strung so tight, he was unable to keep his grip on the real world, so he was continually battered by flickers of the blue jungle, sounds and smells that shouldn't be there, couldn't be there. He spent minutes watching a jungle bird, the Chopec called it taraqchi, fly around the room before it perched on the IV stand. It disappeared when he looked away to give Blair more water. Beeps turned into roars. He heard so real a growl from the hall that he expected a monster to walk through the door instead of the technician, there to take a blood sample.
The knowledge of what was waiting for them if they slept, insanity, water and death, kept them both awake. The knowledge that there was nothing they could do to plan or prepare kept them quiet.
Sandburg broke the silence around two in the morning. His voice was rough when he tried to speak but he waved away water when Jim offered it. "I don't want you to come with me, man," he said, voice ragged.
Almost deafened by triumphant screams from the rainy night, Jim said, simply, "Tough."
Blair took Jim's hand in his. "No, I'm serious, Jim. I don't want you...there. I think..." He squeezed, then said, "After they get me, they'll go after you."
Jim held Blair's hand so hard he could feel the bones shifting and roared, "They can't have you!" He heard the flapping and squawking of jungle birds startled into flight by the jaguar's cry.
When the echoes died away, Jim came back to himself. He eased his grip on Sandburg's hand, feeling carefully for broken bones and immeasurably grateful to find none. "This is not something we're discussing, Chief." He released Blair's hand gently, patted it, then said, "They're not going to get either of us."
With an indescribable expression--pleasure, anger, relief, sorrow, a dozen other conflicting emotions--quirking his lips and wrinkling his forehead, Blair settled back into his watchful waiting.
The haunted quiet settled over them again with a grating buzz of jungle insects.
When the time came to leave, Jim took out Blair's IV as gently as he could, pressing a gauze square over the wound. "Here, Chief, hold this," he said, putting Blair's other thumb over the square. He found a roll of medical tape in a drawer and taped the gauze down, smoothing it carefully.
"Thanks, Jim," Blair said, softly, not quite meeting his eyes.
Jim ruffled Blair's hair, then dropped the plastic bag with his possessions on the bed. "Here are your clothes," he said as gently as possible, "Put your pants on. When I turn the ECG off, someone's probably going to come check on you so leave that alone until we're ready to go. You can put on your shirt in the elevator. We don't want to get held up on the way out."
Jim walked openly out of the room and pushed the elevator call button. When it arrived he ducked inside and pressed the stop button.
Back in the room, Blair was dressed, except for his shirt; the hospital gown lay in a puddle on the floor. The ECG pads were still on his chest and the wires connected him to the monitor like an umbilicus. He gathered up fabric and figurines from the table. "We're going to need these," he said, as he stuffed the whole bundle into his coat pocket.
Jim nodded. The package of sleeping pills lay on top of the plastic bag. "What about those?"
Blair shook his head. "I don't...," he started then shrugged. "I don't know. I don't think I need them."
"Okay. You ready?"
"Yeah, it's time," Blair said, voice soft.
Before Jim could switch off the monitor, there was a commotion from further down the hall, squealing machinery and shouts of "Code blue" and "Get the crash cart!" Grateful for the cover, Jim offered a quick hope for the person in danger, then switched off the machine and pulled the pads off Blair's chest.
He turned to look at the nurses' station as they passed. He could see a red blinking light with Blair's room number under it, but there was no one there to see. Perfect.
Blair started coughing once they were in the elevator, but the coughs had passed before the elevator reached the ground floor. They were able to cross the lobby and exit past the security station without raising so much as a glance from the guard.
Once outside the door, Jim turned to Blair, "So, Chief, you up to walking to the truck with me, or do you want to wait here while I go get it?"
Blair didn't say anything in answer, but turned and walked toward the parking lot, his hands in his jeans pockets. Jim smiled and walked beside him, glad not to be letting Sandburg out of his sight.
That trip to Rainier was the worst drive Jim ever had. The roads were wet, reflecting the streetlights and illuminated signs on their path. Despite his efforts to hold onto reality, the blue jungle flickered in and out around him, paved city streets going to rutted jungle tracks, the sounds of the few other cars becoming howls and hisses. In the far distance, in the direction of the University, he could hear the roar of a waterfall, growing steadily louder as they approached.
He gripped the steering wheel tightly, hoping to keep himself locked in reality enough that he didn't miss a light or have an accident. As he had that morning, he held his attention on the mechanics of driving, pressure of foot on gas, on brakes, clutch, hands at ten and two. Didn't matter what was past the headlights anyway, buildings or trees, people or.... He refused to think about that.
It was harder than it had been the morning before. Things slithered across the road just beyond the headlights, leaving slick trails that made the truck shift and slide. The steering wheel under his hands, hands at ten and two, changed from hard plastic to vines to coarse spun Chopec ropes and back to plastic again.
At a light, he turned to check on Blair. His skin was grey with bluish highlights, all other color leached out of him. He was leaning on the window, eyes closed, arms wrapped around his chest. If it weren't for the support of his seatbelt, he'd have fallen over. He looked like hell. Jim didn't have to stretch with his senses to hear Blair's breathing; air was rattling in and out of his lungs audible even to normal hearing. Alive then, thank God.
Jim tapped Blair's knee. "Hey, Chief, you with me?"
Blair made a hazy noise and opened his eyes. "Yeah. I'm not sure where we are though." He closed his eyes again with a wince.
Jim looked out beyond the road illuminated by the headlights of the car and saw, for a moment, stone ruins covered with lianas and ferns. Then he was back in reality, approaching the last turn before the university. Finally. "We're almost to Rainier, buddy," Jim said. "You ready?"
Blair pushed himself upright and wiped his eyes. "You can see where we really are?" he asked, his voice tired.
Jim clenched his teeth, navigating around a fallen stone that became a slow moving car as he passed it. "Mostly. Enough. We're turning onto Chancellor Street now." The car became a stone again and the road became rough, jostling both of them. Afraid they were off the road and crossing over the campus lawn, Jim slowed, pressure of foot on brake enough reality to get him through the last turn, then there was nothing but straight up onto the sidewalk and park a few feet away from two vine-covered tropical trees where there were normally stone buildings. "We're here," he said, putting the truck into park and turning on the mars lights.
Blair nodded, then pulled the bundle of fabric out of his pocket. "Let me get this ready before we go in there," he said, wrapping the black jaguar carefully in the red fabric. As he worked he murmured softly, "Red for the life giver. The Sentinel's life. A gift for the water." His eyes were closed but his fingers were sure, folding the fabric with precision until he had a neat little bundle of red silk.
That done, Blair turned to the wolf. "Black for the empty one. The Guide's death. A gift for the water." Jim gasped, but Blair didn't react, he just twisted a corner of black fabric around the wolf's neck before wrapping it up with the same care he'd used on the jaguar. While he worked he repeated, "Red for the life giver. Black for the empty one. Red for the life giver. Black for the empty one. Red for the life giver. Black for the..."
The words were chilling Jim, freezing his blood. Something wasn't right. Not right at all. Through the arch of the jungle trees, Jim could see black and shapeless things oozing out of the fountain and flowing toward them, gaining strength as they formed, feeding on Blair's words.
With each repetition Blair's voice grew louder until, as he wrapped the smaller bundles in the blue cloth it seemed to Jim that Blair was shouting, shrieking, "Red for the life giver. Black for the empty one." His voice echoed, shaking the blue trees around them, rippling the raindrops on the truck's windshield.
"Damn, Blair, what the fuck is that?" Eyes ahead, trying to find a safe path to the fountain, Jim shook Blair's shoulder. His skin was cold and his clothes were damp and Jim could smell water and death on him.
Jim turned to look, tearing his eyes away from the coalescing horrors ahead only to see a horror to his side. Blair dead, bloated and greenish grey, with patches of sloughed off skin. He looked like...like a weeks dead corpse. Like he would if he'd stayed in.... Jim wrenched open the door of the truck barely in time to vomit onto the dead black leaves outside. Leaves where there should have been grass and pavement.
He staggered out of the truck as Blair's chant gave the things form and set the jungle to screaming and howling. All the beings that sleep at night woke up, coming to the kill. Holding himself up on the truck, Jim fought against the pressure of Blair's shouted words, which battered him with the strength of a gale, and wrenched open the truck door. The air was foul with death and decomposition.
"...the empty one. Red for the life..." Jim put his hand over Blair's mouth, the skin cold under his hand, and stopped the flow of words. Jim clenched his teeth against the stench, against the sight of Blair, dead and drowned and gone but still moving.
As soon as he made contact, Blair turned toward him, dead eyes opaque and shrunken in his bloated face, and nodded once. He offered Jim the bundle, saying with a whisper that skittered over Jim's nerves like rat claws, "Carry this." Jim took the bundle. It was easier to obey than to hear that voice again..
He helped Blair out of the truck, his skin screaming at the touch, and supported him as they walked through the arched trees into the indigo beyond.
Blair was silent, not even a heartbeat or breathing to show his presence, just the smell of death and a cold that seemed to be sucking heat from the very air around him. But the jungle echoed with Blair's chant, unseen voices repeating, "Black for the empty one. Red for the life giver. Black for the..."
Jim turned to Blair, who seemed not to be hearing at all; he kept his head down and walked toward the fountain as though it was calling him home. Around them the formless horrors, so clearly visible from the truck, had faded back into the shadows of trees and fallen stones, only manifest in glimpses of toothed maw or writhing appendage. A scrap of yellow fabric on a branch before them was whisked away as they approached, only to reappear draped over a stone a few feet ahead.
"Red for the life giver." The echo was stronger now; not an echo anymore, but new voices repeating the horrible chant. All wrong. Even with his hearing dialed down, Jim could feel the words on his skin, like the lapping of water. Or like a million biting insects, each syllable taking a piece of him away.
The fountain appeared before them, suddenly right at their feet. Blair stepped over the side into the water. Jim heard the splash as he stepped in, but the liquid looked opaque, black, thick. It crawled slowly up Blair's legs, the water itself coalescing into a new shape around him.
"...the empty one. Red for the..." Blair took up the chant with the rest of the jungle, with the horrors now surrounding him, pulled out of blue light and nothing into forms almost recognizable. The yellow scarf appeared around Blair's neck, wrapped tightly. Behind him something briefly took the form of a decaying spotted jaguar before dissolving again into shapelessness.
One by one, each of the shapeless, unspeakable things approached Blair and flowed over him, adding themselves to the water that was still creeping up him, halfway up his thighs now, covering him, or pulling him down. Jim couldn't be sure.
"...life giver. Black..."
He stepped forward, reached for Blair but before he could touch, Blair turned to him, eyes now shockingly alive in his corpse face. "Give them the offering now, Jim." He looked to the last of the creatures, a solid glimmer of black at the edge of the pool, and said, "A gift for the water."
The words were spoken softly, but echoed like a shout. The formless shadow looked at Blair with eyes of cobalt hunger. It was motionless, but Jim saw, felt, a possibility of claws and threat. Layers of unreality merged and shifted and without any of them moving, Jim saw Blair ripped open again, gutted, and screaming.
In the background, the voices were howling, "Black for the empty one. Black for the empty one."
Jim shouted, "No!" and threw the bundle into the fountain. It sat on top of the black water, not sinking, for several seconds.
The cobalt fire eyes turned to Jim with a malicious grin that made his blood thicken in his veins and said, voice dripping, "A gift for the water." Then it turned back to Blair and began to merge over him, into him, the dirty blue-pink guts that both were and weren't there turning black where it touched.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Jim heard a scream from the panther to his left. There was light, suddenly, like a gateway into an even further beyond and the wolf was getting pulled toward it by black tentacles. The panther clawed and bit at the tentacles, teeth and claws and eyes flashing in the light.
Something was horribly wrong.
Jim reached into the water, feeling for the bundle, just out of sight in the black water. The water was cold, so cold it burned and Jim had to dial up his touch so he would know if he'd found what he sought. Dial up until he felt the cold in his muscles and his bones. He was losing his hand, he knew it, it was going to be frozen and dead and shattered before he found the bundle, but he couldn't, wouldn't, give up.
Beside him Blair was struggling against the enveloping ooze, fighting weakly, but it was almost over him. The blackness covered him up to his throat, his jaw, his mouth.
Finally, finally, just as the filthy ooze was filling Blair's mouth, and the wolf was whining and the jaguar screaming in the distance, Jim found the bundle and managed to pull it out of the water. "NO!" He shouted to the thing, no longer rising over Blair, but not retreating either. "I am the Life Giver, and I say NO!" The jungle fell completely silent, even the echoes and reverberations of sound suddenly and unnaturally still.
The hateful blue eyes materialized out of the blackness covering Blair's mouth. "Then give us something else, Sentinel," it said, through a mouth that appeared in Blair's chest.
The black water moved toward Jim, and he backed away, clutching the bundle to his chest, where it ached against him, hard and cold and powerfully wrong. Looking around, frantic--damn it, he needed Blair for this--he saw the wolf on the ground, dying again, with the jaguar next to it.
Wolf and Jaguar.
Wolf and Jaguar.
"Yes. Something else." He unwrapped the bundle, using his teeth to unravel the tight, water soaked knots, since his hand was still frozen and dead. The water tasted foul, rotted and stagnant, but he went on, unwrapping first the blue cloth, then the black, one, freeing the wolf figurine, carefully unwrapping the cloth from around it's neck.
In the fountain, Blair began to emerge from the black covering him. His eyes became visible first and he looked at Jim. It wasn't a plea for help, he was offering his strength. Offering the strength that had brought him back here, back to face these monsters, back to try and fight for his life by the strange rules of this place.
When Blair looked at him, Jim understood. They were stronger together. Yes. Yes. Jim unwrapped the jaguar from the red fabric and brought the two figurines together in his hand.
As soon as they touched, the blackness surrounding Blair exploded into a thick miasma, only to coalesce again a few feet away with a hiss of disappointment. "Very good, Sentinel," it said in its liquid, sneering voice, "But it won't do. We want more. We want some of him."
"Yes. I know what you want," Blair said, voice deep and strong like Incacha's had always been. Jim turned to Blair, who still stood in the fountain though he was free of the blackness that had covered him. The water stayed away, not touching him at all. His hair floated on currents of crackling energy.
"Blair, no!" Jim shouted, but his words were stopped in the air by Blair's raised hand.
"It's okay. I know now," he reached out his hand toward Jim. Jim stepped forward and offered him the wolf and jaguar, now wrapped tightly in the red fabric, though Jim couldn't remember doing that. Blair smiled at him and wrapped his square hand over Jim's unfrozen one and the figurines, holding on tightly to both.
With his free hand, Blair struck across his own bare chest, leaving three perfectly parallel wavy gashes that dripped blood.
The thing moved forward, a thick black tongue reaching out as it approached. Blair took the bundle from Jim's hand, shifting it into his bloodied palm without losing his grip on Jim. He wiped the blood off his chest with it. "Blood for life," he said, offering the bundle to the form before them.
The blue fire eyes leapt and danced at the sight, then flickered in Jim's direction. "What of him?" it asked, thin voice dripping and splashing around them.
Blair shook his head. "No. He doesn't want this and you have no hold on him." The strength left his voice and suddenly he sounded weary and sad. His voice and his stance weakened, faltered.
The blackness drew itself up, gaining strength from Blair's weakness, and moved toward him again. Jim stepped into the fountain and stood next to Blair. "What do you want from me?"
Blair whirled on him in shock. "Jim, no." he shook his head. "You don't know what you're doing. You'll never get away from here," he waved, taking in the jungle, the wounded wolf, now standing next to the jaguar, the ruined temple around them. "Not entirely. You'll always be part of this place."
Jim remembered the feeling of the jaguar jumping into him, the surge of energy, of power, of strength. He remembered the feeling of bringing Blair back from the dead, jaguar and wolf merging and becoming so much more. No more denials, he thought, and squeezed Blair's hand, saying, softly, "I already am."
He turned to the shadow, looming over them and asked again, "What do you want from me?"
"The same as from him," it said, shrinking again, sidling up to them. "But from here." It lashed out with its razor sharp talon and ripped across Jim's frozen hand.
Jim screamed as his frozen, dead hand came back to life, sense of touch fully open to the burning slashing pain. His hand felt like it had been ripped apart. Across the back of it were three perfectly parallel wavy lines cut almost to the bones. He curled around the injury, cradling his hand to his chest while he mentally scrambled for control.
Blair gently took his hand, and the pain retreated, became bearable, at his touch. He blotted off the blood with the red silk, staining it. Inside the fabric, the stone figurines shifted and moved.
Blair turned to the shape in front of them, which lazily licked blood off its talons with a pointed tongue, and said voice clear and strong, "Red for the living ones. Blood for the living ones." Then he dropped the bundle into the water, where it sank slowly, the blue light giving the red fabric an eerie shimmer. As it sank, Blair threw his head back and shouted, "It is finished!"
The jungle was silent for a moment, the very air stunned by his words, before the echoes rolled back to them as if from a very great distance. In the silence, the horror before them melted into the ground, disappearing with a final flash of blue and a scrap of yellow fabric fluttering in the new breeze.
When the echoes of his shout had faded, the jungle around them began to dwindle, retreating before the golden, normal, sunlight slowly spreading across the courtyard. The trees and fallen stones fading out into grass and walkways. Hargrove Hall, solid and familiar, emerged from the fading blueness. The yellow scarf on the ground turned into a piece of golden paper advertising a Calculus 102 review session on Thursday. Day after tomorrow.
Reassuring as the transformation back to the familiar was, Jim could still smell Blair's blood. He could smell his own as well, feel pain in his hand, but he set that aside as completely unimportant. He turned to Blair, who swayed slightly where he stood. His shirt was closed, but Jim could see blood stains from the three cuts across his chest.
Jim's attempts to open Blair's shirt were hampered by Blair's efforts to get a look at his hand. After a moment of struggle, Blair smacked Jim's good hand away, saying in an exasperated voice, "Stop that. I know what I did to myself and it's not that bad. Do you trust that..." he waved his hand toward where the thing had disappeared "not to have really hurt you?"
With the reminder of the attack, Jim's ability to ignore the pain slipped and he clenched his teeth together, holding in an embarrassing sound.
Blair snorted. "Thought so." He held Jim's hand for a moment then looked around them; traces of the jungle lingered where they stood in the still-shadowed fountain. "Come on, let's get you into the light. That'll probably make a difference." Jim grunted but allowed himself to be led.
They helped each other out of the fountain and crossed a few feet of grass. As the sunlight hit his hand, the pain receded noticeably, and Jim took a deep breath that tasted of his own blood.
Once they were fully in the light, Blair blotted Jim's hand with his handkerchief. Across the back of it were three cuts, deep enough that they would certainly scar, bleeding profusely. Blair wrapped the handkerchief around it and said, "That needs stitches, my friend, but you'll be okay." He turned toward the truck.
Jim held his shoulder. "One second, Chief, let me get a look at you." Blair nodded, then stood still while Jim unbuttoned his shirt. The cuts on his chest were seeping blood, but didn't appear deep or dangerous. Jim used his own handkerchief to blot at the blood, buying time to think of a way to ask a question he wasn't sure he wanted an answer to. "How did we get hurt?"
Blair's forehead wrinkled. "You were there, Jim. You know." His breath became quicker and he seemed on the edge of a coughing fit.
Nodding reluctantly, Jim patted Blair's back for a second until his breathing steadied. "Yeah. I was there. But that wasn't real." They started to walk toward the truck, shoulder to shoulder, steadying each other.
"It is real. It's just a different sort of reality," Blair said in his teacher voice. "When Alex drowned me, I was really dead and you really brought me back. The EMTs may not know how it happened, but their report shows that it did. This morning, we were really cut and those injuries are going to have to heal in their own time. They're as real as the fact that I'm not dead."
Off to the side, the panther and wolf appeared, walking along with them for a few steps before disappearing into a wrinkle of blue light.
"Right. Okay," Jim said through gritted teeth. "But what would someone else have seen?"
Shrugging, Blair said, "I don't know. Maybe you scratched yourself on the fountain. Maybe I used my pocket knife. It doesn't matter." Blair's sigh ended in a cough. "We're going to have to talk about this. You know that, right?" He pulled away from Jim and walked a few feet away, arms wrapped around himself against the cold.
Jim reached for him and pulled him close again, warming him up. Warming them both up. "Yeah. I know." He huffed out a breath. "You know I'm going to hate it, right?"
Blair chuckled. "Duh. Of course you will. But you'll do it."
"Later," Jim said, voice as gruff as he could make it, "Right now you're going back to the hospital, Junior. And this time you're going to do everything the doctor tells you."
Blair beamed at him for a second with one of those smiles that had warmed Jim's life since the day they met. Laughing, he said, "I am, am I? What about you?"
Ignoring the question, Jim slung his arm around Blair's shoulder, unable to contain a smile when Blair's hand rested on the small of his back. Familiar, comfortable. They'd walked like this a hundred times before Alex, but this was the first time since.
It was going to be okay now.