Nature's Recollections

by Francesca

Author's disclaimer: Nothing's mine but the words...

Author's notes: Hang on — we're nearing the end of the arc but we're not quite there yet. Thanks Anne, thanks Jan — and for god's sake, guys, keep trusting me!

Tubes. Tubes and wires and electrodes — god, Blair. Jim pressed himself to the glass of the observation room, feeling desperate, watching as the group of scrub-clothed doctors worked over the unconscious body of his partner.

Two of them were working to dig the bullet out of Blair's shoulder; another two were checking that the all the tubes and wires were firmly in place. One tube up his nose, two more running into the crook of his left elbow. Blood, oxygen, adrenaline, anesthesia — all at the ready.

The observation room had been the compromise they had reached. The doctors had insisted that they had to remove the bullet; Jim had insisted that he wasn't going to leave Blair's side. Infection, they argued. Protection, he retorted. And so the compromise had been reached, and here he was in the observation chamber — an area usually restricted to visiting surgeons or advanced medical students.

Hands pressed up against the glass, unable to tear himself away.

He was dialed up, intent, aware of everything — as close to Blair as he could be without actually being in the room. Blair's heart was sounding stronger now; he was listening to it directly, not relying on the beeps and waves of the EKG. But Blair's lungs still weren't at full strength; his body still had to repair the alveoli which had burst under the stress of the water. The strained sound of Blair's breathing filled his ears, and his own lungs tightened in sympathy.

He watched as the surgeon held up the crushed metal of the bullet, examined it on the end of his tweezers, and tossed it into a tray. It went dink, softly, and Jim sighed with relief.

"Close!" the surgeon announced, and Jim watched as Blair's wound was sutured together. The injury was the opposite and reverse of his own — he had been shot in the right shoulder, Blair had been shot in his left. He had been shot from the front, Blair had been shot in the back — god, Blair should have known better than to turn his back on Alex Barnes. Or maybe, Jim reflected, leaning his forehead against the cool, hard glass, the problem was the other way around: that Blair hadn't turned his back on her, that Blair could never bear to turn his back on anybody.

He thought about Andrew Randall, the lanky red-haired bankrobber whom Blair had risked his life to save. In the dim reflection of the glass, he saw Randall falling to the ground, a hole blown through his chest. He saw Blair run into the crossfire — to give the bastard last rites, to be near him as he died.

It was funny, Jim thought, letting his vision go hazy, that the qualities you loved in a person were also the same qualities that drove you crazy. In Blair's case — it was altruism, selflessness, consideration for other people. They were going to get him killed — hell, they had gotten him killed.

But he wasn't going to think about that right now. Much better to think about other things.

What qualities did Blair love in him? Were they the same qualities that drove Blair crazy? He supposed that they were, but he couldn't for the life of him think what they were. Still, it was enough right now to know that Blair loved him. And Blair did love him — he was sure of that. Blair Sandburg loved him, and that was all he had to hold on to while he waited — that and a pane of cold, hard glass.

He focused his vision again and straightened up, abruptly — the orderlies were moving Blair from the operating table to a gurney. He stretched out his senses again: Blair's vitals were strong, Blair's lungs were struggling along valiantly. He wondered, idly, if holding Blair on the outside would be enough to heal Blair on the inside. He knew he could heal up that gunshot wound — the skin on Blair's shoulder blade would be unblemished and perfect well before his own wound fully scabbed over. But what about Blair's poor lungs? He couldn't exactly touch Blair's lungs...

The squeak of a gurney wheel brought him back to reality, and he pushed himself away from the glass and quickly headed toward the door. He had to get to Blair, find Blair's room. He hurried down the hallway and then rounded a corner.



Agent Paul Ziegler was standing in the corridor. He was wearing yellow nylon running gear and a pair of old track sneakers, and there was a red-purple bruise on his forehead, near his temple. He was clutching a nurse's arm and waving his identification; she was trying to get away from him.

Smart lady.

"Please, you've just to got to tell me." The agent's dirty blond hair was damp with sweat; his face was flushed with exertion. "Is he in surgery? Is he alive, for god's sake?"

The nurse shook her head, shooting him a look of vast disapproval. "I told you, I'm sorry. I can't give out any information — you're just not authorized."

"Just tell me he's alive," Ziegler demanded. "Just tell me that much. I've got to know — you don't understand, I've got to know!"

"Sir, I can't give out any information about our patients," the nurse repeated, sounding exasperated.

Ziegler seized on the word. "Patients. He's a patient. That means he's not dead, right? Dead people aren't patients, right?"

The nurse yanked her arm away from him. "I'm sorry," she said, and moved off down the hallway.

Ziegler stood there watching her go, looking helpless. "God," he muttered despondently, flipping his badge shut and roughly shoving it into his jacket pocket. "Dear God," — and it only took a few long strides for Jim to grab him and smash him hard against the wall.

Ziegler yelped and stared at him, expression instantly morphing from distress to surprise to fear. He raised his hands to defend himself, but Jim viciously shoved them down again and grabbed him by the throat.

"I'll kill you," Jim spat, tightening his hand around Ziegler's windpipe. "I'll fucking kill you. I'm gonna rip your fucking throat out."

"No, wait — !" Ziegler protested frantically. "I didn't mean to kill him! You have to believe me — I didn't mean to — "

"He's alive," Jim hissed into Ziegler's face. "You didn't get him — and you won't get him. Because now I've got you."

Despite the threat, despite the tightening hand on his throat, Ziegler looked...relieved. "I didn't mean it," Ziegler managed finally. "I didn't mean it — god, please listen! She wasn't supposed to! I didn't know she would — "

Jim clenched his hand, cutting off Ziegler's air supply. Ziegler gasped and stared at him with huge, terrified eyes, his fair skin turning bright red.

But the remembered sound of Blair's voice was in his head — Blair was the voice of his conscience, chiding him, remonstrating. Breathe, Blair was saying. Just breathe, Jim...there you go. He nodded to himself and to Blair and took a deep breath — then eased his grip and allowed Ziegler to breathe.

But not too much.

Ziegler sucked in huge lungfuls of air, Jim's palm still hard against his throat, then exhaled them with a rush of words. "Please, you've got to listen. You've got to. She wasn't supposed to hurt him, I swear — she wasn't supposed to hurt him! She was just supposed to talk to him, get information — "

Jim leaned forward angrily, until they were nose to nose. "She was a hardened criminal. She'd been convicted of manslaughter. You sent a hardened criminal after my partner — "

"She was a basket case!" Ziegler cried. "She was incapacitated! Weak! Controllable!" He stopped suddenly, took in another desperate breath. "I didn't know he would help her! Don't you see? He helped her, he gave her control back!"

Jim leaned forward and braced himself against the wall with his other hand; his head was spinning.

Ziegler took a few more hasty breaths, then rushed on. "Don't you see, I didn't know! I just thought he was an expert. I didn't know he that he would — that he could — that he was a — "

"Guide," Jim said distinctly, giving the word the finality of a death sentence.

Ziegler nodded rapidly. "Guide," he repeated. "I didn't know he was a Guide. But she got stronger each time she saw him — and then I couldn't control her and she — "

His rage was spiraling out of control again, and he tightened his hands on Ziegler's jacket. "You're saying this was his fault?"

"Yes," Ziegler hissed. "No," he amended immediately. "Not his fault — just — "

"You bastard," Jim whispered furiously. "You fucking bastard..."

Ziegler cringed, twisting his head away — apparently preparing to be punched. "I don't mean it like that! I'm not saying it was his fault. Just that — she wasn't capable of hurting anyone. Not when I sent her! She'd been in the prison hospital, she could barely move, barely speak — "

"Shut up," Jim snarled, almost inaudibly. God, he didn't think he'd ever been this angry, didn't think he'd ever felt anything like this hot rage coursing through him. Someone had tried to kill his guide — had killed him — and only the thin memory of Blair's voice in the back of his head kept him from giving in to his impulses, from strangling the lying son of a bitch and dragging the body to Blair's feet.

For the first time in his life, he was seriously considering murder: murder like you read about, murder like he'd spent his life trying to stop.

He took another deep breath, and reluctantly tuned back in to Ziegler's ramblings. " — an incapacitated person," Ziegler was explaining quickly, sweating and white-eyed, a defendant on the stand. "She wasn't functional — she had headaches, she was scratching her own skin off! Even the slightest sounds caused her pain..."

Despite himself, despite what Alex had done to Blair, despite everything rational in him — he felt a stab of sympathy. He had been there, he knew exactly what Paul Ziegler was describing. And without Blair to help him...where the hell would he have ended up?

"I swear to you, Detective," Ziegler said urgently, "she was powerless in the state she was in. If he'd yelled for help he would have disabled her — she couldn't have handled the noise." He paused, and then looked at Jim with wonder. "A few days with him and suddenly she's coherent, she's capable, she's — "

Jim shook him suddenly, angrily, knocking his head hard against the wall; this was all getting a little close to the bone. "You listen to me. I can connect you to Alex Barnes. Alex Barnes tried to murder Blair Sandburg. You know what that makes you? Accessory to murder — and maybe more, if I can prove that you sent her to kill him — "

"But I didn't!" Ziegler swore. "I didn't want to hurt him — I don't want to hurt you, either. I just wanted — I just needed — "

"What?" Jim demanded.

"Information," Ziegler said instantly. "Leverage," Ziegler confessed a moment later, raising clear blue eyes to Jim's. "Something clear and incontrovertible, something persuasive." He stopped, took a deep breath. "Because I need you to help me."

This was so unexpected, so ridiculous, so un-fucking-believable, that Jim let go of Ziegler's shoulders and took a step back in disbelief. "You want me to help you? You want me to help you? I wouldn't help you if you were dying in the street!"

Ziegler closed his eyes for a moment, reached back to steady himself against the wall. "Okay," he murmured, opening his eyes. "I understand that. I'd say the same thing if I were you." And suddenly Ziegler was unzipping his nylon track jacket, pulling out a manila envelope, extending it to Jim with shaking fingers. "So don't help me. But help them."

Jim took another step back, refusing the envelope. "I don't think you understand," he said, coldly. God, it was hard, it was so fucking hard to control his urges, but he had to do it. For Blair — who was gonna take care of Blair if he was arrested for murder? "I'm putting you under arrest. I'm gonna send you away for the rest of your fucking life!" he added savagely. "You'll be lucky to see daylight — "

Ziegler seemed to screw up his courage. "If you do, I'll expose you. I'll tell everyone what you are."

Jim laughed and shook his head. "You try it. It'll be the last thing you ever do." He raised one splayed hand, put it on Paul Ziegler's chest, and pressed him back into the wall. "I'll survive being exposed," he said softly, dangerously. "So will Blair. But you won't, I promise you."

Ziegler swallowed hard. "Can't we just stop fighting?"

"'Can't we all just get along?'" Jim mimicked. "No," he answered, showing his teeth to Ziegler. "I'm afraid we can't."

"Look at the file," Ziegler pleaded. "Just look at the file — then decide whether or not you'll work for me."

"I'll never work for you." He wrenched Ziegler's arm behind his back, taking pleasure in his cry of pain, and began to march him down the hallway toward the waiting room.

"God, just look at it," Ziegler begged. "Just have a look. Just — "

Jim pushed him through the swing doors and then roughly shoved him toward a surprised-looking Simon Banks.

"Jim," Simon said, standing up.

"Cuff him," Jim said brusquely. "Hold him here."

Ziegler straightened up, rubbed his arm, assumed an air of wounded dignity. "My name is Paul Ziegler," he said to Simon Banks. "I'm with the FBI."

Simon's eyes narrowed. "I know who you are, Agent Ziegler." He turned to Jim: "Jim, what's this about?"

"I need you to keep him in custody until Blair's awake. I suspect," Jim said in a voice as jagged as broken glass, "that when Blair gives his information we're going to want to interview Agent Ziegler..."

Ziegler paled — then nodded and brushed his dirty blond hair away from his forehead with a weary swipe of his hand. "All right, Detective. You win. You don't have to cuff me — I'll cooperate. Just — take this," he begged, extending the manila envelope to Jim again. "Please? It's all I ask — just look at it."

Jim snatched the envelope out of his hand. "Simon — keep an eye on him," he muttered.

Simon nodded grimly, and shoved Ziegler down in a chair. "Sure, Jim. Okay."

Jim gently pushed the door open, not wanting to disturb Blair's rest. Blair was lying on the bed, unconscious — god, he looked so weak, so fragile. Jim moved quietly to the side of the bed, dropping the envelope onto a chair. Blair was so dammed pale. Lying there, muscles limp, nearly as white as the backdrop of sheets. One tube in his nose, two more inserted in his arm. Pulse ox on his index finger, EKG wires everywhere. Hair lank around his face — god, Blair still looked...drowned.

He sat down carefully on the side of the bed and raised his hand to touch Blair's pasty, cold face. Blair didn't stir, didn't react, and he leaned down and placed a quick soft kiss on Blair's mouth. He moved his hand down to Blair's shoulder, ghosted lightly over the bandage there. He'd have to wait until later, when they'd be certain to be alone for a while. Then he could take the bandage off, really get to work on the wound. His fingertips drifted further down, to the faint design carved over Blair's heart. "Pusakulay," he whispered, hearing Ziegler's voice in his head.

I didn't know he was a Guide.

He leaned over Blair again, this time touching his mouth to the scarring over Blair's heart. Blair's pounding heart — he could feel it in his mouth, feel it as he traced the oval with his tongue. Blair tasted of chemicals, of chlorine, of copper, of metal —

He sat up quickly as the door opened, as a nurse wheeled in a basin of water, a large bath-sponge. "Sorry," she apologized, drawing the cart up. "I need to get him cleaned up — we didn't have time before."

Jim nodded vaguely, then stood up, glancing briefly at her name tag: Mary O'Neill, R.N. "I'll do it."

Nurse O'Neill frowned at him. "I'm sorry, that just isn't possible. You don't know — "

"I was a medic in the army," Jim said quietly. "I know what to do."

She shook her head slowly. "It's not procedure, I'm sorry."

"He's my partner."

"I could get into trouble."

"He's my partner," Jim repeated, saying it the way he would have said "lover". He extended his hand for the sponge, willing her to understand, willing her to acquiesce.

She sighed, hesitated, then slowly picked the sponge up off the cart, and handed it to him. "For god's sake, don't tell anyone," she hissed. "They'll have my head."

"Thank you," Jim murmured. "I won't tell, I promise."

She nodded wearily and turned to leave. "Ring if you need anything — any assistance at all."

"Will do," Jim replied gratefully.

He pushed the cart close to the bed and dropped the dry sponge into the water before turning to strip Blair of his gown. He turned Blair carefully onto his side, careful of the wound, careful of the tubes, and washed his back from neck to thigh. Dried him carefully, then settled him on his back again. Lifted one arm — washed him from fingertips to armpit, daring to get slightly rougher in the soft tangle of dark armpit hair. Lifted Blair's other arm, did the same, even more cautiously — this was the arm with the IVs. Then neck, chest, abdomen, groin — carefully washing the creases where thigh met hip, carefully washing the soft, small penis nestled in Blair's pubic hair. Finally, long swipes over hips, thighs, knees, legs, feet — -god, anything to get the smell of chemicals off him, the smell of chlorine and copper and metal. It was better, now, he thought, throwing the sponge back into the basin, but it was still there — still in Blair's hair, crucially. In the limp, lank hair hanging around his lover's face — but there wasn't anything he could do about that right now.

Or not much — he fished in his jeans pocket, pulled out one of Blair's hair ties. He seemed to have one in every pocket now — he was perpetually pulling them out of Blair's hair and then finding them when he dug for change or for his wallet, strands of dark hair still wrapped around them. He used the tie to pull Blair's hair away from his face — that was better, he decided. Blair didn't look so drowned now, so weighed down by chemicals and water...

He sighed, shoved the cart away, sat down heavily in the chair next to Blair's bed. He heard the crackle of paper — he was sitting on Ziegler's envelope. He fished it from underneath his ass, stared at it, turned it over in his hands.

Bastard. Fucking bastard, he thought angrily, looking from the yellow envelope to his lover's pale, drowned face and back again. Not if he was the last person on earth, he vowed. Not if the world's survival depended on it.

He tossed the envelope onto the bedside table and then leaned forward, fingers laced together. He had better things to do — he had a vigil to keep, he had to wait for Blair to wake up.

Blair came to consciousness only gradually, and Jim tracked each quivering surge upwards, moving to sit on the edge of the bed when he thought Blair was close, when he thought Blair might finally break through. And then finally Blair did break through — finally Blair's eyes fluttered and opened, and Blair's eyes were lighter then he remembered them, as if even that cerulean blue had been diluted, somehow, by the rushing force of the water.

Blair's pale blue eyes blinked rapidly, focused on him, seemed to darken slightly with emotion. Otherwise, Blair was totally still, as if he couldn't muster the energy to move, even a little.

"Hey," Jim murmured, reaching out to squeeze Blair's hand. "Hey there..."

Blair's eyes closed, then opened, as if he were having trouble keeping them open, trouble staying awake. Jim watched as Blair tried to orient himself, as Blair marshaled the strength to take one slow, deliberate breath —

— and then began to sputter and choke, muscles seizing, face turning red, and Jim knew what to do, knew what to do, he had been a medic, but now there were people in the room doing it for him — injection, oxygen, mask — swarming over Blair — and he found himself shoved aside. He felt like screaming, like doing damage to someone or some thing. Shoved aside, only able to watch, as eventually Blair calmed and sort of collapsed back into himself, until he was all dark hair and plastic mask and huge blue eyes.

"It's okay," Mary O'Neill said to him quietly, on her way out the door. "That's normal, he just overreached himself. Overdid it in the oxygen department — he's gonna have to breathe more shallowly than he's used to for a while."

"Right," Jim muttered. "Right," and she patted his arm as she left.

Blair stared up at him from the bed — he was physically still, utterly immobile, but his eyes wanted to talk, were talking —

"Shhh," Jim whispered, sitting down next to him again. "Don't try."

Blair squeezed his eyes shut — god, it must be devastating to Blair, not to be able to talk.

"You heard what the nurse said?" Jim asked quietly, raising his hand to touch Blair's forehead. "About breathing shallowly?" Blair opened his eyes again — he hadn't heard, his eyes were saying. Such talkative eyes... "You've got to recover a bit and then breathe very carefully," Jim explained. "It's like the worst asthma attack of your life — did you have asthma as a kid?" Blair nodded slightly, and wrinkled his nose. "Well, it's gonna feel like that for a bit — but you'll heal. I'll help heal you."

Blair nodded again, the plastic oxygen mask bobbing slightly as he did. Jim caught, out of the corner of his eye, the slightest twitching of Blair's fingers and turned to look at them. A small movement, as if Blair couldn't quite control his hands yet — but the meaning was crystal clear: Come here. Hold me.

He looked up at Blair's face quickly and said, "Yeah. Yeah. Yes." But it wasn't so easy to decide how to do that — he wanted to be close, but didn't want to put any pressure on Blair's lungs. Finally he sat down in a chair next to the bed, and leaned over to hold Blair's midsection, resting his head on Blair's abdomen.

Slowly, moving by degrees, Blair's left hand crept into his hair, tubes and all. Found a purchase. Fingers tightened. Blair held on.

He dozed, lulled to sleep by the sound of Blair's heart beating, by the gentle rustling inhalations and exhalations of Blair's battered lungs. He woke up to the soft shuffling sound of the nurse's feet, approaching — jerked his head up, flinched.

Blair's fingers were knotted in what was left of his hair — and Blair wasn't letting go. He found that sometime, while he slept, he'd slid his hands up over Blair's chest. All well and good — Sentinel instinct, probably — but they left him no leverage to get up unless he pushed down on Blair's lungs, which he wasn't gonna do.

The footsteps got closer, and closer, as he tried to yank his hair out of Blair's fingers. "Blair, let go," he whispered urgently. "Let go — come on — please." He shifted, and managed to get one hand free, tried to pry Blair's fingers off. The door was opening, opening — and with a yank that probably cost him a ridiculously high percentage of his total hair quotient, he bolted upright, and took a step away from the bed.

Ow. God.

"How's he doing?" Mary O'Neill asked cheerily.

He tried to melt into the background, one hand instinctively going to soothe the back of his head, which was aching. "Uh...okay, I think," he muttered. "He was awake for a while, and then he fell back asleep — "

"That's probably for the best," she said, coming over to pull the clipboard off the foot of Blair's bed. "He's gonna need his rest — his body's been through a hell of a lot of stress."

You don't know the half of it, lady, Jim thought despondently.

"I gotta do my checks now," she said, looking him up and down. "Why don't you run down to the cafeteria — get yourself a cup of coffee."

"No," Jim said, shaking his head. "I'm not leaving him."

O'Neill looked him up and down. "You need a cup of coffee."

"I'm not going," Jim insisted.

"And there's a Captain Banks wanting to talk to you," she added significantly, apparently aware that she was playing a trump card.

Jim gritted his teeth. "All right. All right, all right — I'll be back in five minutes."

"And get yourself a cup of coffee," O'Neill repeated, turning to attend Blair.

His hand was on the doorknob when she suddenly called out, "Wait, Detective!" He turned instantly, concerned about Blair, only to find Ziegler's yellow envelope extended to him. "Is this yours?"

He savagely tore the envelope from her hand. "Yeah, it's mine," he grumbled, and went off to find Simon Banks.

Simon was standing outside the door of the waiting room — alone.

"Where is he?" Jim asked angrily. "You didn't let the bastard walk out of here, did you?"

Simon raised huge palms and placed them on Jim's shoulders, like he was trying to gentle a rearing horse. "No, no — he's in there. I've got a uniform on him."

"Good," Jim spat softly. "Good. Because — "

"But I can't keep him sitting here forever, Jim," Simon said. "Right now, he's not objecting — he's just waiting there. Probably just as eager as us to hear what Sandburg's gonna say," Simon added, with a snort. "But really, I've got nothing to keep him on. If he protests, I really can't hold him."

"Goddammit, Simon!" Jim hissed. "We've got nothing to hold him on because he conspired to kill the only witness! And Blair — " He stopped, steadied himself. "Blair woke up for a bit, but he can hardly breathe, let alone talk..."

Simon closed his eyes, shook his head regretfully. "God damn..."

"Just hold on to him, Simon," Jim said with muted urgency. "Do whatever you have to — but don't let that bastard out of here. If he balks, arrest him — I'll take the heat."

"Jim. He's a federal agent. He could ruin you — he could sue you for wrongful arrest — "

"He's not gonna sue me for nothin'," Jim retorted angrily. "Because he's guilty — he knows it and I know it. I can tie him to a woman called Alex Barnes. Alex Barnes kill — tried to kill," he amended instantly, "Blair. It's open and shut — just wait for Blair's statement."

"All right, all right," Simon said with a sigh. "If you're that sure..."

"I'm absolutely that fucking sure," Jim said firmly. "Just give me a little while longer."

Rather than face Mary O'Neill's recriminating stare, he went down to the cafeteria and got a huge styrofoam cup of coffee — to go. While he was putting cream into the cup he sloshed some of the coffee onto Ziegler's envelope, and only then became aware of the fact that he was still carrying it. Cursing, he grabbed a bunch of paper napkins and rubbed at it until it was dry. And then, suddenly possessed by the desire to get rid of the fucking thing, he sat down at a metal table with his coffee and roughly tore the envelope open.

He pulled out a wad of paper and a group of paperclipped glossy 8'' X 10'' photographs. He turned the stack over and frowned. The top picture showed a young man, maybe twenty or twenty-one, dead on a carpeted floor near a dark oak table. His outstretched hand was still grasping a telephone; the back of the young man's head had been staved in. Jim studied the picture and then flipped to the next one.

Another young man — also dead — this time on what appeared to be the brightly painted yellow line of a parking lot. Again, the back of the head was staved in, though the head was turned toward the side, allowing Jim to see the face. Blond, this one. Fair. With a face that was bloodied and bruised.

Three more photographs, three more dead men. Similar ages, similar heights, similar builds — all face down, all with the backs of their heads smashed in, looking like rotted fruit. One sprawled on asphalt, one on an unidentifiable stretch of green grass, the third at the base of a tree.

Five in all.

Jim took a deep breath, then flipped the pictures over. Neatly printed labels on the back, bearing the FBI seal. Names, dates, places — god, these photographs were old. Christophe Bering, Los Angeles, CA, 1978 — 1978? Instinctively, Jim turned the photo to take another look at Christopher, dead at the base of a tree, and noted the vividly patterned nylon shirt. No '70s nostalgia, that — that shirt was the real dammed thing. Antonio Molina, Miami, FL — 1978. Zachary Myers, Cleveland, OH — 1978. Michael Chumard, New Orleans, LA — 1978. Andrew Ziegler, Bethesda, MD — 1978.

Jim groaned. Andrew Ziegler. Despite himself, he turned the picture over and searched for a family resemblance. Hard to tell — but yeah, there was the same fair skin, the same dammed dirty-blond hair. He closed his eyes and calculated: the dead boy in the picture looked to be roughly twenty-one, the year was 1978, so he was born in roughly...mmm, '57.

The thought gave him pause — the boy in the picture, had he lived, would be forty-three — three years older than he was now.

Brother? Cousin? Ziegler's brother, most likely. He dropped the photographs with a sigh, and picked up the packet of papers.

The same kind of information as on the back of the photographs, but expanded — in depth. Andrew Ziegler, born December 14, 1959 — god, he was only nineteen. Parents: Jochan and Katya Ziegler. Brother Paul, goddammit. Murdered September 15, 1978 in Bethesda, Maryland...

Suddenly Jim began to shove the papers and the photographs back into their yellow envelope. It didn't bear thinking about. He wasn't going to help Paul Ziegler — not if he was the last man on earth. The murders were twenty-two years old, anyway. The trail had gone cold, any leads had long sputtered out. The whole case was dead as a doornail.

Blair was alone, and awake, when Jim came back into his room. Blair was staring down at his fingers, at what sentinel eyesight instantly told him were strands of his own sandy-brown hair. Blair looked up at him as he entered the room, then reached up with shaking hands to push the plastic oxygen mask off his face.

Jim took two quick steps forward. "No, no — don't."

"S'okay," Blair rasped. "I can talk."

"You shouldn't," Jim admonished, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "You should save your strength, you should — "

"Need to talk." Blair turned his attention back to the strands of hair he was holding — he had wound them around his index finger. "Hate being quiet," he added, without looking up.

Jim forced a smile, but he felt keyed-up, nervous — terrified, really. Because Blair looked — like he was made of glass. Carefully blank, as if any other expression other than this careful blankness would shatter his face. "How are you feeling?" he asked.

"Okay." Blair was still staring at his fingers. "A little weird," he added a moment later.

"Yeah," Jim said, trying to keep his voice sounding something like normal. "Me too."

"I'm sorry about this." Blair rubbed Jim's hair meditatively between thumb and forefinger. "It must have hurt."

"It didn't," Jim lied.

"I remember everything," Blair continued in that same quiet, carefully blank tone. "Everything." He stopped, looked up at Jim. "I was this wolf, and I was running toward a black jaguar. We collided... and then, this big burst of light..." Blair stopped, took a few careful, shallow breaths. "You came after me."

"Yeah." He wanted to reach out for Blair, to touch Blair — but how could he, now? He'd break him — Blair would just fracture into pieces in his hands.

Another shallow breath. "You came after me and brought me back."

His own chest was tight — anxiety? sympathy? "Yeah. Yeah, of course."

Blair was utterly, completely still; only his mouth moved, his mouth barely moved. "I felt you. When we collided."

"I felt you, too," Jim said quietly.

"That was the good part. That was the best part. That was...beautiful," Blair managed, sounding short of breath. "That was the most beautiful thing — "

Blair coughed suddenly, wetly, lungs rattling — and Jim rose off the bed, ready to administer CPR, call the nurse, yell for help.

But Blair just concentrated and exhaled, slowly, settling down again. "It's okay," he rasped. "It's getting better."

"Jesus Christ," Jim muttered, sinking back down onto the edge of the bed. "Jesus Christ, I — "

"It's okay," Blair assured him, reaching out to touch his hand.

"Christ almighty," Jim repeated, staring down at Blair's hand, gripping it tightly, feeling the rough strands of his own hair tied round Blair's fingers.

"That was the good part," Blair repeated blankly, clutching at Jim's hand. "That was the good part, you know? The other part — The other — "

Jim suddenly understood what Blair was trying to tell him, what Blair was going to say, and he knew that Blair wanted to talk about it, needed to talk about it — but god, he didn't want him to, didn't think he could take it if he did. "No, don't — " Jim said, before he could stop himself. "Don't. Please."

But Blair kept talking in that weak, blank voice. Blair wasn't really even looking at him, Blair was looking through him — grasping his hand and looking straight through him.

"The other part is the part I can't get my head around." Blair was breathing more quickly now, but he was still on top of it, still remembering to breathe shallowly. "The water. The feel of it. Like liquid concrete. Thick." Blair sounded strangled, but he kept talking, forcing the words out. "Hard. Pouring. Covering me, sealing me in. Burying me — "

"No," Jim hissed. "Don't — please — " and then he leaned forward and pulled Blair's cheek hard against his chest, fingers clutching at Blair's stiff, chlorinated hair, wanting him to stop talking, just stop talking, please.

" — alive," Blair choked, and he could feel Blair's fingers scrabbling at his shirt, gripping the fabric tightly, holding on. "That's the part that — I remember. I don't want to remember, I don't want to — "

"Shhh" Jim pleaded.

" — remember everything," Blair managed to finish, and then he lay still against Jim's chest, quietly shaking.

And when Blair grew still and dropped back off into sleep, Jim carefully lay him down on the mattress and slipped out of the room. He needed to hit something. He was going to find Ziegler. He would hit Ziegler, who above all people deserved to be hit. Knock his teeth into the back of his throat. Hit him till the blood ran down his —

— and he was at the waiting room door, actually outside it, clenching his fists. Ziegler was inside there. Ziegler and Simon and a uniformed police officer. He listened: Ziegler shifted in his chair, clanked —

Good. Simon had Ziegler handcuffed to the chair.

And he could see, in his mind, what was going to happen. He could see himself bursting in and launching himself on Paul Ziegler, could see Ziegler shrinking back and then desperately trying to yank himself free. Could see the handcuff biting into Ziegler's wrist. Could imagine precisely how much damage he could inflict on Ziegler before the hands gripping his shoulders, back, chest became insistent — Simon's hands, the officer's hands — and there would be a moment, just a moment, where he'd have to fight them too, or else he'd have to let himself be pulled away from Ziegler's fucking bloody face —

He wheeled, forced himself away from the door, and strode furiously toward the men's room at the end of the hall. He burst in, found it empty, paced in front of the white porcelain sinks wildly —

— and then let out a howl of rage and punched the mirror, hard, with his bare fist. Watched as the glass under his hand crunched inward into a silver ball, watched as the cracks flew out around it like slow motion lightening, stretching and stretching till they covered the entire surface. Took a step back and watched as the entire mirror shuddered, quivered, and then shattered — as the large jagged pieces fell forward and crashed onto the floor, smashing into bits on the white tile floor. As two dimensions blossomed into three.

He turned and ripped the stainless steel paper towel dispenser off the wall, hurled it across the room, watching with satisfaction as it crashed, dented, fell to the floor. He was panting hard, now, blood pumping hard through his body, and he looked around for something else to destroy or damage. But the room was pretty utilitarian, and there wasn't much else. He felt trapped, caged; he felt like he wanted to run for it but he couldn't run for it because there was Blair, upstairs, hooked up to a monitor and tied down to the bed with tubes. He couldn't run without Blair. Without Blair, he could do nothing at all.

He slammed himself into a stall, angrily shot the metal bolt home, and leaned back against the door. Fumbled roughly with his pants, unzipped himself, took himself in hand. He was rock hard — hard with blood and adrenaline and fear. Inarticulate, inchoate fear — and Blair wanted to talk about it, but he didn't, he couldn't, he couldn't even bear to hear Blair talk about it, to be Blair's sounding board. He'd failed Blair in that way, too.

He squeezed his erection tightly in his fist and closed his eyes, letting his head fall back against the thin blue stall door. Unbidden, sick pictures floated behind his eyelids. He was tied to their bed at home, spread-eagled with thick, plastic airtubes wound around his wrists and ankles. Blair was kneeling behind him, above him, licking down the center of his spine.

He stroked himself once — then harder, faster — his mind rebelling at the picture but also glorying in it. Glorying in it, too.

Blair licked down the center of his spine, then knelt between his legs, held him open. Jim struggled, tugging at the coil of plastic tubes, wanting to break free, not ever wanting to break free.

He stroked faster still, feeling himself grow harder, wetter — his fist was gliding now; he could really work up some speed. Blair behind him, Blair fucking him hard — god, he wished it was he who was tied down, he was tied down, he was tied down if Blair was tied down, he was tied to Blair always and forever —

— and on the next upward stroke he squeezed himself hard behind his cockhead and came hard into his cupped fist. His body tensed, tensed — and then relaxed, so hard that his knees nearly buckled, so hard that he had to focus on not sliding to the floor. He inhaled deeply, taking in the sharp scent of his own come. So strange to smell himself — himself and no Blair. Sex without Blair — he couldn't imagine such a thing anymore. Sure, he remembered something — remembered occasional wrangles in the dark, a vague, disassociative sense-memory of limbs and pressure. But that wasn't sex. Sex was — something else, now. Since Blair. Sex with Blair was something else.

He straightened up, ripped a wad of toilet tissue from the holder, cleaned himself roughly and tucked himself back into his pants. He pulled the stall door opened and stopped short, vaguely shocked at the mess he had made. God. He crossed to the sink, hearing the crunch of broken glass under his shoes. He turned on the cold water tap, bent to wash his hands, his face, his neck.

Hell, he'd have to take credit for this little disaster. When the hospital found this mess, they'd probably call the police. Much better to just admit guilt, offer to pay. How much could a wall mirror and a paper towel dispenser cost, anyway? Cheaper than fucking therapy, that was for sure.

He crossed back to the bathroom stall to dry his face and hands with toilet paper, then threw the soggy mess away. He tried to shove the broken glass to one side with his foot, so that nobody who stumbled in unawares would be hurt. He had to find the janitor, report this, fess up. That was the ticket, that was the way to hold on to sanity right now. One small task at a time. Get a uniform to guard this place. Go find the janitor. Get back to Blair, wait for Blair to be well enough to give his statement.

Nail Agent Paul Ziegler to the fucking wall.

You have the right to remain silent.

He went into the waiting room, saw three heads jerk up to stare at him. Simon's face — broadcasting concern. The uniform's — polite interest. And Ziegler's — the emotions on Ziegler's face were stronger, darker, rapidly shifting. Fear. Anxiety. Anticipation.

Simon stood, crossed over to him. "What's the word?" he asked in a low voice.

Jim dropped his voice to match Simon's. "No word. It's still too soon."

Frustration crossed Simon's face. "Dammit. He's doing okay?"

Jim nodded, once, jerkily. "As well as can be expected. Better than expected."

Simon nodded at this. "We can't hold him forever, Jim."

Jim shot Ziegler a look — Ziegler was staring at them, no doubt trying to overhear their conversation. "Is he complaining?"

"Oddly enough — no," Simon admitted, darting his own look at Ziegler. "He just sits there. Waiting. I don't quite understand it."

"I told you," Jim said, feeling his hands clench into fists. "He knows he's guilty."

"Maybe," Simon said, with a shake of his head. "Though guilty people aren't usually so damn courteous."

Jim waved that away; he wasn't gonna think about that now. "Simon, I need to borrow Peterson."

Simon's eyes narrowed. "What for?"

"I, uh — " Jim felt his face growing hot. "I sort of smashed up the men's room." Simon fixed him with a stare that was half-irritation, half sympathy. "There's, uh, a lot of broken glass in there — I wanted somebody stationed outside until I can get a janitor to — "

"Dammit, Jim," Simon chided.

"It was that or his face, Simon," Jim said, meeting Simon's eyes. "I swear to god — it was that or his fucking face..."

Simon nodded grimly. "Okay, okay," he said, and waved the uniformed officer over. "Peterson!" Peterson approached them, and Simon gave him his orders.

Ziegler watched as Peterson left the room; his face was ablaze with curiousity. Jim took a few steps toward him, unable to resist. "You're not off the hook."

Ziegler nodded slowly. "No, I didn't think I was."

"He's getting better," Jim taunted. "The minute he gives his statement — "

"Did you look at my file?" Ziegler interrupted.

"Fuck your file!" Jim exploded. Ziegler recoiled, seeming shocked. "Fuck you and your file." Jim stepped closer, reminding himself that he couldn't, shouldn't do anything — that there was nobody to protect his Guide if he did. "You think," Jim said, lowering his voice to a dangerous whisper, "that I'm gong to spend my time working some goddammed twenty-year old murder case?" Ziegler flinched at that description. "I'm a cop. I've got active killers to track down — I've got plenty of work right here."

"But you're the only one," Ziegler whispered urgently, "the only one who could possibly — "

"Yeah. And fuck you," Jim spat with deep, mean satisfaction. "You lose, asshole."

Ziegler's face grew hard. "That's what you think."

"I've got you. Minimum — accessory before the fact. Conspiracy to commit murder."

"You arrest me, I'll expose you. I've got your partner on tape, laying out the whole fucking phenomenon." Ziegler stopped, flashed a tight grin. "After all, I'll have to present a defense."

Jim moved closer still, till he was looming over Ziegler. "He'll deny it. But you just go on ahead. Go on TV — try to convince people I'm a Sentinel. Maybe when you're in jail you can still freelance for the National Enquirer."

"You think so fucking small," Ziegler sneered. "Fuck TV — there are people out there who'll be mighty interested in the likes of you. And him," Ziegler added, staring at Jim significantly.

Jim leaned over. "Is that before or after they find your body?"

"I've got hard evidence. A ton of it. There's a lab cell somewhere with your name on it, Ellison. Maybe if you're fucking nice to me, I can get you guys adjoining suites."

Jim wasn't going to touch him. Wasn't going to touch him, because if he did, he was gonna kill him right here, and he was gonna have to be cagier than that when he killed him. "You'll have to find us first."

"Oh, I can find you. Or I can find people who can find you," Ziegler added brazenly. "You've got some family around, don't you? A father? A kid brother?"

"You're dead," Jim whispered to him, and then turned away and strode toward the door. He nodded at Simon, trying to project mere coplike irritation, trying to keep his cool, trying hard not to let anyone see that his hands were twitching with rage.

"I had a brother!" Ziegler yelled after him. "You dickwad!" Jim kept walking. "I had a fucking older brother — read the file!!!"

"I'm gonna get me some air," Jim muttered to Simon.

The swinging door smashed hard into the wall behind it as Jim slammed his way through.

Jim. He stopped pacing outside behind the alley. Blair's voice. Blair's real voice in his head — but god, how faint it sounded. Jim, what the hell? Blair said straight into his head. You're scaring me here, man — what the hell's going on?

Jim stopped, slumped against the hard cinderblock wall of the hospital. Goddammit, he'd tried to protect Blair from all this, tried to protect Blair from him, from the viciousness of his thoughts and emotions. But he hadn't even considered what he was broadcasting — Blair was conscious now, and picking everything up, the emotions anyway. Fear. Rage. Despair.

And there was nothing he could do, no way he could stop it. Goddamm this whole thing. Goddammit, goddammit, goddammit!

Jim. Blair's voice — Blair was picking up on his terror, on his desperation, even now. Whatever it is, we can deal with it. Whatever problem it is —

And he couldn't help himself, he sat down carelessly on the curb and dropped his head into his hands. The wave of emotion slammed into him — god, the total fucking humiliation of Blair trying to comfort him from the fucking fourth floor! Blair who could barely breathe, wasting his energy on this! He felt gripped with shame — a shame made all the worse by the fact that Blair would know he was shamed, would feel that shame the way he'd felt everything else.

And Blair must have understood not only the shame, but that he was responsible for a part of it by comforting him — because abruptly Blair stopped comforting him. Hey, take your time, man. Blair's voice sounded breezy, now. Hang out, do your thing — but get your ass back to up to me as soon as you can, okay?

He felt another wave of emotion — love, longing, affection for Blair. Blair was so fucking smart. Blair had all the possible moves covered — even half-dead, even tied to a bed with tubes and wires. Hang out. Get your ass back up to me. Just the right fucking tone, so fucking smart — and at least Blair would be feeling this, too, getting this reverence and admiration as part of the whole Jim Ellison Emotional Cocktail.

He rubbed roughly at his eyes — he had to fucking pull himself together. For Blair — Blair'd sat by his bedside at every possible moment, whereas he — he was just too much of a basketcase to get close. He was afraid of infecting Blair with his fury when Blair needed to be resting, needed to be calm, needed to be healing.

Breathe, he told himself, but the voice still was Blair's — Blair's remembered voice in his head. "Breathe," Blair's deep voice rumbled. "Relax, Jim. Focus."

He listened — he tried.

"Detective Ellison! Detective Ellison!"

Jim looked up, saw a scrub-clad orderly waving at him from the metal door down the alleyway, and instantly got up off the curb. "Is everything all right? Is Detective Sandburg okay?"

"Detective Sandburg is fine," the orderly assured him. "It's Captain Banks — he's looking all over for you."

Jim pushed past him into the building. "Why?"

"I'm not sure," the orderly admitted, trailing behind him. "But he's got everybody scouring the place." Jim paused at the elevator, stabbed the up button. "Your partner's feeling better," the orderly added. "He's seeing visitors now."

Jim wheeled on him. "Visitors? You mean Captain Banks?"

"Captain Banks, yeah," the orderly said with a nod. "And the other guy."

Fury. Dread. Oh, Jesus — oh, Jesus Fucking Christ. "What other guy?"

"I don't know," the orderly said, taking a nervous step away from him. "Some other guy. The other guy who was sitting with you guys — "

The elevator door chimed, and opened, and Jim darted in, pressed the button for Blair's floor, pressed close. How the fuck could Simon let this happen?! How the fuck could Simon let Ziegler see Blair?!

Knowledge crashed in on him a second later. The envelope. Ziegler's fucking envelope. He'd brought it back up to Blair's room, he'd left it on the bedside table —

The image of Blair reading that file, seeing those photographs, reading those case reports was enough to make him sprint down the hallway to Blair's room as soon as the elevator doors opened again. He dodged nurses and doctors, dodged metal carts and wheelchairs — and nearly smashed into Simon Banks, who was standing outside of Blair's room, looking deeply unhappy.

Impulsively, unable to control himself, Jim grabbed the lapels of Simon's brown tweed jacket. "How could you, Simon? How the fuck could you let that man in there?!"

Simon grabbed his wrists with deadly strong hands, yanked them down and away. "Sandburg said so. Sandburg called the bastard in and told me to leave! I argued with him — but you of all people know, Jim, how persuasive — "

Jim turned, pushed the door open, nearly hitting Ziegler, who was right on the other side, coming out. "You fucking asshole!" Jim yelled, and this was it, this was the end of his rope right here.

Because he had Ziegler's nylon jacket in his hands and he was gonna kill him — right now! — right here! — consequences be dammed! And it was just as he had forseen it — the struggle, Simon's huge arms wrapping around him, yanking him back, and Simon shouting, "Get me an officer! Get me Officer Peterson!" and Ziegler turning red as Jim tried to choke the motherfucking life out of him.

Another set of arms, pulling him back, pulling Ziegler away from him, out of his grasp. Simon's voice, yelling, "Jim! Get a hold of yourself! Calm the fuck down!" And more faintly, more importantly, Blair's voice in his ears, in his head: No, Jim — don't.

And then it was over, and Peterson was dragging a bedraggled Ziegler back down the hallway, back toward the waiting room. Simon was behind him, panting, muttering, "Jesus, Jim, for God's sake!" He pushed into Blair's room, Simon right on his heels — and goddammit, Blair was sitting up, staring at him with those wide, drowned-blue eyes, the contents of Ziegler's yellow envelope strewn all over his bed.

"Why?" Jim demanded, trying to rein in his fury; his fury wasn't for Blair. "Why the hell did you want to see that bastard?"

Blair didn't answer him — Blair looked away.

He felt Simon's comforting hand on his shoulder, shrugged it off as he stepped forward. "Don't you understand? He's responsible for all this! He sent Alex Barnes to you — he sent a killer to you! For god's sake, Blair..."

Simon Banks moved past him toward the bed, and Jim saw that he had a notebook in his hand. "Look, Sandburg," Simon said quietly, "maybe if you're feeling well enough now, you can give us your statement. If you just tell us what happened, we can get the APBs out, we can get the ball rolling on Barnes and Ziegler. What do you say?"

The question had come from Simon Banks, but Blair's answer, when it came, was directed to Jim. Blair stared at him and took another shallow breath, wide eyes full of emotion.

Love. Devotion. Fortitude.


"I... can't remember," Blair said finally, and the faint words just hung in the air between them.  

The End