The Sentinel by Jim Ellison
Author's disclaimer: What's theirs is theirs, what's mine is mine, what's Miriam's is Miriam's, and the rest belongs to the famous sci-fi author. That about covers everything.
Author's notes: Ok, this story is a sort of hommage to a famous science fiction author. If we tell you who it is, we'll ruin it. The answer is at the back of the story, for the curious. (g) Mild spoilers for TS by BS: in fact, the story is sort of our slant rhyme response to the ep. Enjoy. Feedback requested as always.
THE SENTINEL BY JIM ELLISON
Jim grinned as he typed; the irony was almost too much to stand. He wished that Rachel were home, so he could share this excellent joke with her; he wished that AT&T had bothered to lay sufficient telephone lines to Chile. Hell, he would have spent the fifteen bucks just to crow down the line to his former partner, to hear the outraged laughter in Sandburg's voice.
Jim crossed his arms and stared at the pilfered title; it was a definite improvement over the blinking cursor that had been torturing him for the entire morning. Now, at least there was text on the screen. But it wasn't really a beginning yet. And beginning was the problem. He had no doubts that he could write this — it was his life, after all, and he thought he could put words together competently enough when push came to shove. He just wasn't sure where to start. If he could decide where to start, he felt that it would all come pouring out of him, everything that had happened: Peru, Cascade, the arrival of Blair Sandburg, the tests, the discoveries they had made together...his entire life up until the point of the accident.
Thing was, the story kept backing up on itself in his mind. Peru was the natural starting place, but then it wasn't, because then he started thinking about Bud and the football game, and Blair Sandburg appearing in the doctor's office wearing a white coat and a borrowed nametag. And either of those were viable starting points, too. "I was born in a log cabin in Washington State," he thought wryly and then laughed. Nope. No need to go back quite that far.
He sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. The beginning. When was the beginning? He sighed and decided that he'd just have to pick a point and stick to it: he was the author, and the beginning was wherever he said it was. Right? Right. Damn AT&T anyway: if there were phone lines, he could call Sandburg and ask him about that, too.
All right: time to get on with it. He leaned forward over his laptop and wrote:
"My first thought was that I had been poisoned."
He stopped and grinned, pleased with himself — that was good, wasn't it? Dramatic and all that. Hell, it had been, even at the time. He'd thought he was poisoned — he'd been sure of it: his lungs had tightened up and his blood had rushed to his head, and there'd been dizziness and nausea as he'd grabbed a glass off a neighboring table and chugged the contents. Carolyn had just stared at him, bemused and frightened (and, because it was Carolyn, vaguely angry), and he'd genuinely thought that her strained face was the last thing he was ever going to see...
The memory was incredibly vivid, and Jim began typing furiously, wanting to get it all down, wanting to explain what had happened, how it had felt, what he'd seen. The stuttering waiter, the confused patrons at the other tables. Carolyn rushing out to the street, his frantic pursuit of her. He finished transcribing the conversation he'd had with his ex-wife on the dark, rainy street, and let his hands fall off the keyboard. There. He'd started. He glanced down at the page count and noted with satisfaction that he'd written six pages.
He looked out the window, thinking about getting another cup of coffee but not wanting to move away from the computer and lose his recently discovered momentum. Outside, they were working on that building, the crane lifting up and just out of sight. He shook his head, wondering when they'd finish with that thing. It seemed like it'd been under construction since they moved here. Probably a government contract.
He turned back to the computer: The next part was going to have to be meeting Blair Sandburg, but he had no idea how to explain that. Even the stuff about Carolyn, the restaurant, was all just leading up to Sandburg, and wouldn't have made sense without him. Okay. Just tell it like it happened. The doctor's office, the first set of tests, sitting half naked on the exam table. And then the door opening and —
He heard the keys jangle into the basket and smiled — a moment later he felt the warm cheek brushing his, the black curls falling into his face.
"I came to make you lunch," Rachel said, putting a hand on his shoulder and rubbing his neck lightly.
He turned his face and kissed her. "You didn't have to," he replied honestly. "I can manage just fine."
"Shhh," Rachel said, straightening up and kicking off her black pumps. She threw her purse and coat on the sofa, not bothering to use the coatstand. He didn't bother to ask her to hang it up properly as she'd only do it and forget about it the next time. "Don't say that — you're my excuse to leave work."
He watched her walk through the louvered swing doors to the kitchen, appreciating her slim shape, her pale skin, the natural redness of her lips. "Sorry," he called after her. "I don't want to mess with whatever scam you've got going."
"You'd better not," he heard her call back. "What do you feel like eating?"
"Anything. Whatever you give me," Jim replied, eyes drifting back to the computer screen.
"Lucky for you, anything's one of my specialties," Rachel answered. He heard her open the fridge door. "So how's it going?"
"It's going, actually," Jim answered, surprised and pleased by that truth. "I've started — I've really started this time."
Rachel's head appeared in the doorway; she looked unabashedly delighted. "Really?"
"Yeah." He glanced down at the screen and then smiled up at her. "Eleven whole pages."
"Wow. For that, you get dessert."
Jim mimed furious typing. "You didn't say there was a food reward." Rachel laughed and disappeared back into the kitchen. "Oh, and hey," Jim called after her, "do you have Blair and Sandra's address?"
"I think so," she called back distractedly. "Somewhere. Why?"
"I want to send him a postcard," Jim said. "I cribbed his title. Thought I'd torture him with it." He put the laptop to sleep and wheeled himself into the kitchen.
Rachel was spreading some mustard on rye bread. "I'm sure he'll appreciate it."
"He'll appreciate it, all right," Jim said, smirking. "And then he'll mail me a bomb."
Rachel laughed. "No, he won't. He loves you, he'll forgive you for this. You might even ask him to send you his notes — they might help."
"Maybe. I'll ask him, anyway," Jim said. Rachel set the table with plates and glasses, and then put out a platter of cold cuts and a tub of potato salad. Finally, she returned with a bottle of orange juice and slid into a chair across from Jim's wheelchair.
She poured him a large glass of juice. "How are you feeling, anyway?"
Jim took a sip of the juice and set it down gently on the glass table, grimacing. She'd bought the pulpy kind again. "I — " He felt fine, actually. Good. "I feel pretty good, actually. Maybe even well enough to go out." The flowers on the table were starting to wilt, but they could pick some up tonight. He'd buy her roses. She deserved roses. He reached across the table and took her hand. "You want to go out to dinner tonight?"
She squeezed his hand. "Maybe," she said, and he could see the worry on her beautiful face, underneath her warm smile. Maybe. Poor Rachel — worried about what the doctor would say, worried about him. But he felt good, he'd felt pretty good all day. Energized. He hadn't felt like that in a long time. Maybe it was the writing. "It's pretty damp outside," she added softly.
"It's Seattle. It's always damp outside. C'mon, I'll take you for a romantic dinner. My reward for working so hard today." The idea sounded better and better. He realized that he wanted to go outside, with Rachel beside him, it didn't matter where they went. The writing was started and he knew, finally, that it was going to happen. He didn't even need Sandburg's notes. He had it in his head, and this was going to be his story anyway.
"Maybe," Rachel said, pulling her hand out of his and reaching for her sandwich. "Let's play it by ear. How's the sandwich?"
He picked it up and took a bite. "Great," he mumbled, still chewing.
"They were out of the thin-sliced."
"It's fine — it's great." Rachel was still, after nearly a year, a little touchy about her cooking skills, or rather her lack of them, which was kind of funny, since he'd lived with Sandburg's idea of health food for three years, and spent most of his life eating army rations and tube steaks. Not to mention hospital food. After that, she could burn the hell out of grilled cheese sandwiches and overspice the chili all she wanted. There were at least a few benefits to having normal taste buds again.
"I bought the wrong kind of orange juice."
He picked up the glass and made a show of drinking it down. "I think I'm getting to like this kind, actually."
She smiled, clearly on to him. "And I thought I'd paint the living room bright orange," she added with mock sincerity.
He grinned back at her. "I like orange."
"I like you." She leaned forward and kissed him. "When did you become such a sweetie?"
When had he become such a sweetie? He had no idea how that had happened. Or when. He certainly hadn't been much of a sweetie before he'd been shot. And no sane employee of Cascade General would've called him that during his recovery period. His physical therapist had had a few choice names for him, and sweetie wasn't one of them. No, it was Rachel who'd sweetened him up, if he was sweet now, though he had his doubts about that.
He'd screwed up his first marriage, but he felt he'd gotten the hang of it now. You met someone, and somehow they saw the version of you they wanted to see. And if you loved them, you could let them have that version of you. And then maybe, a year later, you found that you actually were a sweetie. And maybe you didn't mind as much as you'd thought you would. No...things were different now, he was different now, and he wasn't complaining. No more wearing himself out on the streets, no more worrying about what was going to happen when he got too old for it, no more worrying about Sandburg.
So he'd retired a little early. It was going to happen anyway. He wasn't cut out for a desk job and he knew it. Simon had offered: his job was open, anytime he wanted it. But strangely enough he didn't miss being a cop.
He missed walking, though. That had been the hard part, accepting that he would never walk again — he'd raged against that. But once he had accepted it, everything else had just fallen into place, one thing following another. No walking meant no active duty, no active duty meant no danger, no danger meant no real need for a Guide, and no Guide meant, he'd discovered, no senses; the senses had started to fade a month after Blair and Sandra left for Chile. But he didn't miss being a Sentinel, either. Hell, he was an author now. He chuckled to himself, and Rachel raised an eyebrow, but he decided the joke was too complicated to explain.
"Do you want another sandwich?" she asked.
"No," he said, pushing his plate away. "I'm full." He looked at her affectionately. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." She got up, dirty plates in her hands, and glanced at the white kitchen wall clock. "I've got to run — my hour's almost up."
"Okay," he said, backing the wheelchair away from the table.
"And you've got writing to do, Mister." She dropped the dishes in the sink, ran some water over them quickly.
"Yes. Definitely," Jim agreed. He followed her out into the living room, rolled back toward his desk.
"You know, I can't wait to read it," Rachel said, slipping her pumps back on. "Me — myself, personally. There's so much about you I still don't know. So write it for me, will you?"
"Yes," Jim said. "I'll write it for you."
She beamed at him. "Good." She bent over him and kissed his lips, then picked up her handbag and her jacket. "Oh," she said, a moment later. "Mail. Here," and she pulled a packet of letters out of her bag and extended them to him. "See you later, okay?" she called, heading for the door. "I love you."
"Love you, too." He began glancing through the envelopes as the door clicked shut behind her. Bills. Bills. Junk. And damn if it wasn't Sandburg's handwriting on the next envelope — the damn kid, speak of the devil, always there before you even knew you wanted him.
He picked up a letter opener and neatly slit the envelope. Inside was a folded piece of paper and a photograph. He glanced at the photo first and grinned. Sandburg, not yet suntanned, but not sunburned either, and Sandra, standing in front of a tree. He turned the photo over, and found Sandburg had written, "Me and Sandra in front of a tree. Finish the rhyme yourself. PS. Not Chile any more — ha, ha!" He laughed, turned it over again and set it down to read the letter, which he expected would be more informative. Sandburg was fine, so was Sandra. Work was fine, too. The mosquitoes were killer during the rainy season, but otherwise, all was well. Jim sighed, looking out the window and seeing that it was raining here in Seattle as well. Big news.
Steeling himself to write again, reminding himself that he wanted to write this thing, he opened up the laptop and scrolled down to his place. But a few minutes later, he was still not ready to begin. He picked up the photo, looked at Blair, Sandra, and the tree. He reached for a small frame that was sitting on his desk, pulled out the Magritte postcard that Rachel had bought and framed for him, and replaced it with Sandburg's picture. Propping the photograph up on the desk, finally feeling ready to start, he went back to the computer and started typing.
Sandburg in a white lab coat, pretending to be Dr. McCoy. Sandburg in his office, explaining about Sentinels. Sandburg giving him the first glimpse of truth he'd ever had. Sandburg, disheveled and shaking, behind a stopped garbage truck, nervously explaining that Sentinels always had someone watching their backs because of the damn zone-out factor. And that brought Jim to a stop, because he was going to have to explain what a Guide was, who Sandburg was — what Sandburg was to him. Shit. So much for beginning at the beginning — he was going to have to skip ahead, because he suddenly wanted to explain about Guides, and how important they were, and the best way to do that was to talk about the day Sandburg died. He'd been planning to set that part aside until later, but somehow it felt right to talk about now, right after introducing Sandburg.
Well, hell, it was his story, and he could tell it any way he damn well pleased.
An hour later, he had written another seven and a half decent pages and he had gotten through the hard part: Sandburg dying, Sandburg dead and floating in the fountain, and pulling him out, and the heavy wet clothes, the heavy wet hair clinging to the damp, cold, dear face...
He glanced over at the photo, and then picked it up again, looking at it more carefully. There was something... he shook his head and set it down, telling himself not to procrastinate — to just get on with it already.
"What do you fear?"
Something... he looked over at the photo again, at Sandburg, at Sandra, at the goddamn tree in the middle of Chile. Sandburg was grinning out of the photograph, looking happy, his hair pulled back in a tie; he was wearing baggy khaki shorts and he was barefoot, wearing a dark blue shirt.
The shirt. No. He was misremembering.
He was procrastinating, he supposed.
But the shirt. Dark blue with stripes. So what if it was... Sandburg had to have had more than one blue shirt in the last four years — hell, he probably had a million of 'em. The kid had a closet full of t-shirts and plaid overshirts and it's not like he ever paid that much attention to Sandburg's clothes. Except the plaid. If he'd been smart he would have invested in plaid.
But damn, not that shirt. Sandburg hadn't even taken that shirt home from the hospital. He'd told them to burn it, give it away, whatever, cause he wasn't ever going to wear it again. He'd said the shirt had bad Karma, and he'd laughed when he said it, but Jim had gotten rid of his own shirt from that day as well, convinced on some level that Sandburg was right.
What the hell???
He picked up the photo again, turning on the desk lamp to see it better and then shaking his head at the irony. There. A shadow. He didn't notice it at first, and that made him look harder, questioning whether he did notice it, whether there was anything to notice, but yes, there it was. A shadow where there shouldn't be one, on Sandra but not on Sandburg.
Not on Sandburg. He turned the lamp off, looking at the picture again with just the light coming in through the window, trying to figure it out. It was still there, a definite shadow, just where it should be, cast by a branch of the tree. But there was no shadow where it should be, on Sandburg. Sandburg was in full light, and Jim traced with his finger where the shadow should've fallen, across Sandburg's arm, his untanned arm. Not a single mosquito bite on it, and pale as it was when he'd lived in Cascade.
He shook his head, blinking a few times, looking again, and he was right. Sandburg hadn't been bitten once, and it was the rainy season. He'd said it was the rainy season, and the mosquitoes were hell, and Sandburg always got eaten alive during the summers in Cascade.
How could he see that? He shouldn't be seeing that anymore. Because he wasn't a Sentinel: he needed a second opinion — he needed someone who wasn't a Sentinel to look at the picture. To tell him what he should or shouldn't see. The grain of the photograph, the fine hairs on Sandburg's arm, no bites. Not one bite. But he wasn't a Sentinel, not anymore, and there was that shirt with the stripes on the shoulders and no bites, and what the fuck did that mean?
And then with slightly shaking fingers he pulled the photo out of the frame again. And turned it over. And suddenly the words were jumping out of him. "P.S. Not Chile any more — ha, ha!"
He tightened his jaw and reached down and pulled opened his file drawer, and there was a manila file folder neatly labeled Sandburg, right where he remembered it being. Inside were all of Sandburg's letters since he'd left. Except suddenly they all seemed different — suddenly he felt like phrases were jumping out at him, off the page, as he flipped through them:
- "From our camp you can walk to the river and see the sunrise. Man,
it's beautiful — I wish you could see..."
"You should hear some of the stories they're telling me. Most of them are just that — but the shaman here has some herbs that — wait, you're a cop — Naomi always said, once a pig, always a pig <g> — so I won't go there <g>..."
"There aren't many conveniences here but you can walk to town in two to three days — that's where we get our mail, and they'll take phone messages for us. News is a little slow but it gets to us eventually; it takes time to get our letters out but you'll hear from us, don't worry..."
"...and in the middle of the ritual they passed around this root for us to chew on and let me tell you, if you tasted it, you'd freak 'cause it tastes like absolute shit — but man, it makes you think you can walk on water... though I assure you I only tried a little. And only in the interests of science <g>..."
"Plus, it turns out that the whole show ends with this ritual drumming, and it went all night long and most of the next day and they're even still drumming now as I write this, and hey, man, you think that city construction is bad, try sleeping through this noise..."
"I'm in better shape than I've ever been — ok, no ice cream is a definite bummer but you can walk six or seven miles without thinking, which does wonders for the old cardiovascular. Or so they say, anyway, not that I believe everything I read..."
"You can walk to the river" — he used to jog down by the docks — "you can walk to town" — "you can walk" — "without thinking" — "stories they're telling me" — "without thinking" —
Sandburg left that shirt at the hospital and he didn't bring it to Chile, but he wasn't — wasn't in Chile. So where —
" — you can walk — "
But he couldn't. He couldn't walk. Not since the bullet hit his spinal column — he hadn't been able to walk, hadn't been able to stand up by himself, was lucky he could even get it up, but it was low enough, the doctor said...
"You can walk" — he'd never be able to walk again, much less walk on water, whatever Sandburg might think. So he was here, and Sandburg was in Chile — but Sandburg wasn't in Chile —
He rubbed his eyes, looking out the window and not seeing anything at first but the rain, still coming down, "the rainy season," it felt like it'd been raining forever, and they were still working on that goddamn building, construction all over town, the jackhammers going in the rain, probably paying them overtime for that, so loud, loud like Sandburg's jungle drums, when the hell would they finish that building — probably a government project — probably —
The jackhammers had stopped.
But he could see past the rain, he could see the guy at the corner running the jackhammer, running the jackhammer, so why couldn't he hear —
He had dialed it down. Filtered it out. And he could see the guy in his yellow rain slicker, how far could he see — he could see the building behind the building — and the one behind that — he could see —
He was a Sentinel.
Sentinel means Guide — he had his senses, he had his senses back! — and now he needed his Guide, needed his Guide, needed to find Sandburg —
The phone. He had to reach Sandburg — he had to — he reached for the phone, getting as far as touching it, but he couldn't make himself pick it up.
This was stupid. This was ridiculous. Sandburg was (not) in Chile. He couldn't be reached ("they'll take phone messages") — pick up the phone — he couldn't pick up the phone — why not? — Sentinel means Guide — he had to call Sandburg —
He was sweating, going to throw up, he was dizzy — (I've been poisoned) — no, got to call — he blinked a few times and forced himself to pick up the phone — pick up the — he lifted the receiver and there was no dialtone.
There had to be a reason — a power outage, the storm knocked some cables down (rainy season), that was all. He could check the payphone downstairs. There had to be a payphone on the street.
Or a cellphone — somebody had a cellphone — danger — Sentinel means Guide, Guide means danger — he was a cop — he could call the police station — get someone to pick him up — call Rachel —
His heart was pounding and sounded distant to his ears — a sensory spike — distant, out of his body — he was sweating and cold and dizzy... But his arms were still strong, the muscles were still strong, and he wheeled himself to the door, through the door, down the hall, to the elevator.
And saw the handwritten sign: Out Of Order. The elevator was out of order. The phones were out of order. Fine. Fine. So he'd get down the stairs. Rachel and he had talked about this, about how he could lever himself down the stairs in an emergency — danger — he could lever himself down — you can walk —
You're a Sentinel. You're a cop. You can walk.
But I can't.
And he was standing, his heart pounding but it sounded far away, like it wasn't his heart — it wasn't his heart — he knew that heartbeat as well as his own, heard it for three years, heard it when Sandburg was pressed against him, in bed —
He stood up and started down the stairs, taking them two at a time, following the sound of that heartbeat and tuning out everything else.
Blair Sandburg sat at the table serving as a makeshift desk in his otherwise bare cell and stared down at the paper in front of him. "It's crowded here," he wrote carefully, and then laughed at the irony of that, "but that's the downside of community, you know? But you can walk off into the jungle by yourself if you need privacy." He flung the pen down and sighed, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes. You can walk on water, you can walk on air, I could have danced all night — how many different ways were there to say this? They were going to catch on, already — they were going to catch on before Jim did, and then god knows what would happen. God knows what they'd do.
He sighed, and began to hum to himself. You can dance if you want to, you can leave your friends behind — (Get on the clue bus, Jim!) — because your friends don't dance and if they don't dance, well — they're no friends of mine. He stretched his arms upwards, still humming, and then gave a stifled scream of frustration.
And then the lights went out.
He blinked into the sudden darkness.
I saaaaay — WE CAN GO IF WE WANT TO, IF WE DON'T NO BODY WILL — and shit, he had to get the fuck outta here, because Jim had bought him minutes? seconds? and he scrambled up onto the desk in the darkness, hyperaware that for the moment, only for the moment, he was out of the view of the omnipresent cameras — and shit, the duct above his head was just a bit too high, a tad too high, damn his ancestry — and he jumped up and felt his fingertips touch the ceiling and so, shit, it could be done, couldn't it?
He grinned and gently moved his foot forward, and felt the monitor of the computer they had given him, and you know, it was a real shame, because it was a nice piece of machinery, but, you know, fuck it. He took a deep breath and then stepped on to the monitor with one foot and launched himself upwards and grabbed for the air duct and got purchase just as he felt the monitor go CRUNCH under his weight.
Ha. The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg. Fuck you, assholes!
And his fingers were screaming, the muscles of his arms were screaming as he hauled himself up into the tight space — but his mind was racing, his brain was singing:
Ssss Aaaa Ffff Eeee Tttt Yyyy Safetyyyyy Dancccccce!
Well, Jim thought, regarding the smashed fuse closet critically, they were gonna have a hell of a time fixing that. He nodded to himself and then cocked his head — they were coming, that was the downside of this, they knew where he was and they were coming down here, coming to get him.
He tightened his fingers around the mop handle, now splintered from its impact with the fuse closet, and thought furiously. He could hear Sandburg — Sandburg was on the move. Now he just had to get himself out of here alive. He moved toward the bank of dead elevators, nearly blissed out on the responsiveness of his leg muscles, which moved when he told them to, which tightened and pulsed and propelled him forward, and he broke out into a run just for the sheer fucking joy of it.
And, okay, because they were coming. And because he could hear the muted, deadly clicks as they armed their weapons.
But mostly for the joy.
Jim stepped into the first of the empty cars and looked up, then used the sharp end of the handle to pry loose the emergency exit hatch. Carefully, gently, he lifted it up and moved it to the side (he could hear them, they were coming) and then he tossed the mop up for future use and jumped up himself. He had just barely fitted the cover back into place when he heard the security team swarm into the basement.
He grinned at their cries of dismay as they discovered the fuse closet. Delightful. And his leg muscles were cramping as he crouched there, silently.
What a great fucking day this had turned out to be.
Okay, this is interesting, Blair thought, frowning as he reached the end of the ventilation duct. He settled down on his stomach, propped his head on his hand and contemplated the vent ahead of him. Okey dokey, so okay, that's somewhere, just wish I knew where.
Bright side: it wasn't his cell. Hallelujah and amen to that.
He shimmied forward and pressed his face to the metal grille, hoping to see something in the darkness beyond. And then he swallowed hard: a flashlight beam was bouncing down the hallway toward him. He listened intently, but heard only one set of footsteps. That was something, anyway. That was good.
Moving slowly, trying to be quiet, he worked his body around in the narrow space so that he was facing the vent feet first. He tensed his body and waited, heart pounding in the darkness.
And the beam got brighter and closer — and closer still — and then it lit up the front of the vent, the dirty blue suede of his sneakers —
— and he thrust out with his legs, putting everything he had into it, and the metal grille burst away from the wall, and solidly connected with someone's head — and carried away by the momentum he had generated and the downward slope of the duct he went hurtling out and crashed on top of the whole mess, grille, guy, and all.
He landed with a loud ooof! and rolled to his feet, blood pumping, ready to fight or run or whatever — but the crumpled body before him wasn't moving. Blair hesitated for a minute and then heaved the heavy metal vent off the uniformed body. The guard was out cold, and Blair took his flashlight and his wallet and his gun and moved down the hallway, looking for a way out.
He found the door to the stairwell and cracked it open slightly — then shut it immediately. It was a fucking discotheque of flashlight beams in there — flashlight beams and stomping feet and that wasn't gonna do it, nope, no way.
He crossed the hallway and cracked open the door on the other side. The office was empty — and that was a relief. Blair shut and locked the door, then pondered his options. Stairs were out, practically speaking. Elevators were out, literally speaking. So much for vertical motion. But vertical motion was what he needed unless he wanted to spend the rest of his life wandering the 7th floor like some strange nomad.
Blair blew out a nervous breath. Okay. He was a smart guy. Time to think outside the box, here.
And then he blinked and wandered over to the window. Outside the box. Shit.
He glanced nervously down at the scaffolding lining that side of the building. Shit. Well. There had to be some value to all of this random government construction.
He squeezed his eyes shut, reminded himself sternly that he'd done this before, never mind that it hadn't worked out well the last time around, besides there wasn't any choice and —
Hell, get on with it, Sandburg. He grimaced and slid the window open.
At least the fucking rain had stopped.
"He's not here!" a voice bellowed. "Blue team — take the first floor. Red team — second floor! Alternate until you find him. Maintain radio contact at all times!"
Jim shook his head sadly. Dead standard procedure — you'd think whoever was in charge could show an ounce of imagination. It was the same thing all over — people rising to their own level of incompetence.
Damn country was going to hell in a handbasket.
He waited to hear exactly how many men this guy was gonna leave stationed down here on the garage level. Which turned out to be exactly none.
What morons. Goddamn embarrassing. Well, that explained what the fuck they were doing, stationed here in the dangerous wilds of Seattle.
Be somewhat less than you can be. Your country sort of needs you. In Seattle. He snorted and gracefully dropped back down through the top of the elevator, taking his trusty mop handle with him.
Plain sailing from here, he thought, crossing the basement stealthily. Door. Hallway. Garage. And your choice of escape vehicle. He grinned and considered his options momentarily before choosing a battered old pickup, figuring that it would blend right the hell in with all the construction vehicles outside. He noted with satisfaction that it was a '69, and then he smashed the window in.
He roughly brushed the safety glass off the seat and then raised the mop handle and smashed the ignition switch. The mechanism immediately broke apart, and he climbed into the driver's seat and fumbled with the exposed wiring — and in a moment the truck's engine blazed to life.
He quickly shifted the truck into reverse and pulled out of the parking spot. And as he pulled around toward the exit he saw that there were two armed guards stationed by the gate, but it didn't matter now; he was behind a lot of heavy machinery; plus '69 was a good year, automotively speaking; and you know, if these guys would just stop trying to kill him for a minute he could have given them a couple of tips on military strategy, but it was ultimately their loss. He floored it and smashed through the wooden barricade, sending one guard reeling backwards. The other, slightly higher on the food chain, fired a storm of bullets at him, shattering the passenger size window. But that was it, he was blurring past them, he was on the street, he was out, he was free.
And then he made a right; and a right; and a right; and stopped short and waited.
Now this was hilarious — Teams Blue, Red, and Chartreuse were convening around the garage door, clucking over his escape, staring wistfully off in the wrong direction while he watched from twenty yards behind them. He crossed his arms and tsked. Pathetic.
And he couldn't help but look up as the lub-dub of Sandburg's heart grew louder, and louder, and louder still, and on instinct he looked back over his shoulder just in time to see Blair blur past the back window and fall into the flatbed with a thump!
And he jumped nervously in his seat, and frowned, and stared out the back window, not knowing what the fuck exactly you were supposed to do when your partner fell out of the sky, but then he saw Sandburg's arm stretch up and hell, Sandburg was giving him the thumbs up. Hold on, pal, he thought silently, and he slowly moved the truck out into traffic, trying to be discreet, keeping one eye on the rearview mirror and one on the idiot convention that seemed to be disbanding under new orders.
He winced at Sandburg's sharp inhalation as the truck hit a pothole. Hang on, Sandburg. Hang on, baby. Hang on.
Traffic was miserable what with all of the lunch hour suits wanting frappacinos. He drove through Seattle's business district, marveling that he was here, really here. It had occurred to him even that might be a lie. They could've been in Cascade still — or Chile, for that matter.
Confident that the Chartreuse team hadn't the wherewithal to track them, he pulled into the first clean gas station he saw. Before the truck had even come to a full stop, Sandburg was sitting up and rubbing his elbow.
Jim quickly got out of the cab and walked around to the back, unhitching the door and helping Sandburg slide out and stand up beside him. He looked his partner over carefully, noting the bruises on his forearms and the painful-looking scrapes on his hands. A more thorough check would have to wait until later.
"Man, what took you so long?" Sandburg snorted. "I was hanging there for like 15 minutes waiting for backup."
"I had some errands to run," Jim replied, his lips twisting into a smile.
"Yeah. Nice wheels. I'll give you this much: you're consistent in your taste." Sandburg grinned at him, and he laughed. For a moment, they just stood there and watched each other, both of them aware that they wanted to touch and couldn't, not here. Finally, Jim shrugged and jerked his head toward the restrooms. "If you've gotta go, now would be a good time."
"Um... okay. Hang on. You filling her up?"
"I have no money, so no, I'm not. We've got half a tank full; we're all right for now."
Sandburg reached behind himself, wincing slightly as he did so. He'd banged that elbow pretty good, but it wasn't broken. "Got that covered."
Jim raised an eyebrow, waiting as Sandburg dug his fingers into his back pocket. "There," Sandburg said, handing over a brown leather wallet.
Jim took it and opened it up. "Harry Jameson. Looks like a prince of a guy. Hope he... oh, good. Went to the bank this morning." He pulled out a wad of crisp new bills, counting them out. Two hundred dollars and some rumpled singles. That would last them until they got a hold of Simon Banks.
"And here," Sandburg added, stepping closer, creating a small, private space between them. Jim frowned as Sandburg produced a revolver from behind his back. Jim quickly slid it against the small of his own back, and tugged his shirt out to cover it.
"Don't drop it," Sandburg said, under his breath.
"Very funny," Jim muttered. "You should've gotten two while you were at it."
Sandburg took a casual step backwards. "Next time make me a list."
He started off toward the men's room and Jim called after him, "So who's our pal Harry?"
Sandburg turned around and shrugged, grinning. "He had sort of a bad day. We bumped into each other on the way out."
Jim grinned back and waved Sandburg on. The kid was getting cocky. When things settled down — (if they settled down? can't worry about that yet) — he'd have to remind him that he was still a rookie.
Damned good rookie, though.
He filled the tank up and cleaned the windshield as well. He wasn't sure how far they'd have to drive once they set off. He was carefully brushing broken glass into the trash as Sandburg returned.
"So...um...what's our next move?" Sandburg'd cleaned the scrapes on his hands and he smelled like gas station soap and sweat. Jim didn't answer right away. They needed to think this through. Hell, part of him was still back there in his apartment waiting for his wife to come home. He shook his head, not wanting to think about that — not ready to start thinking about who Rachel Ellison really was. He wanted to ask Sandburg about Sandra, but that would keep. First things first.
"We need to buy some time. Get in, Chief."
Sandburg blinked at him and he realized he'd sounded gruffer than he'd meant to. He took as deep a breath as he could, ignoring the smells of gas and auto fluids. He got in the car and Sandburg was already buckling up and settling in. He pulled back into traffic, distracted from the big problems by the little ones — finding a way out of the city.
He followed the signs onto the highway, keeping an eye out for exits and hotel advertisements, finally deciding that they could just pull off when he felt like they'd gone far enough.
But he wasn't sure how far away "far enough" was, and so he kept driving. Sandburg was quiet beside him, and he reached over and turned on the truck's a.m. radio, He realized that he hadn't listened to the radio since he'd been — what — captured? Kidnapped? He sighed and switched the radio back off.
He turned to look at Sandburg, who was studying him quietly. "Hey Jim?" Sandburg asked suddenly. "What's the last thing you remember?"
Jim blinked, frowned, and thought about it. Before Rachel, before the accident — hell, there had been no accident... "I don't know. I forget."
Blair rolled his eyes. "No, no. You're not with me, here. What's the last thing you remember?"
"That you remember? Do you remember?"
"I — what?"
Blair sighed and opened his mouth again.
Jim shook his head, annoyed and edging on angry. "Look, I don't know — I can't remember what I remember, okay?"
Blair looked like he was trying not to laugh, and that got to Jim and he laughed and the tension was broken.
"Only you could forget what you remember." Blair laughed softly and shook his head.
"I've got a talent for repression," Jim replied ruefully. "And that's with stuff that really happened."
"Oh, great. Just great." Blair covered his face with his hands. "Some therapist is gonna send their kids to college on you."
"I don't need a therapist," Jim said, grinning. "I've got a Guide, right?"
"Terrific. That, he remembers." Blair glared at him, but there was amusement in his eyes. "Yeah, well I'm charging double for sorting your head out this time."
"Tell you what," Jim said. "You tell me what you remember, and then I'll charge you double."
"I remember everything," Sandburg said quietly, looking away, out his window.
Jim frowned and was trying to formulate a response when Sandburg suddenly pointed at a small sign for a motel. Jim nodded and moved the truck into the right lane, then pulled off at the next exit. They obeyed a sign which directed them to turn right and then followed the winding, countrified road for two or three miles.
Jim was beginning to consider turning back when he spotted the motel sign nearly obscured by a tree.
They pulled slowly into the nearly empty, gravel-covered lot and parked. Blair waited by the truck while Jim went into the office and spent some more of Harry Jameson's money on a room. After a minute or two Jim came outside and waved the key at him. Blair nodded and crossed the lot to meet Jim in front of Room 5.
Jim unlocked the door and Sandburg pushed past him, flopping down onto one of the double beds. "Man, I could sleep for a week."
Jim shut the door behind him, looking Sandburg over quietly before moving to sit next to him on the bed. He reached out and ran a hand down Blair's arm, wanting to check him for injuries, but also wanting to touch him, finally. "Could you?"
"What?" Blair asked, softly.
"Sleep for a week," Jim reminded him, continuing to run his hands down Sandburg's body, from his shoulders to his fingertips.
Sandburg rolled over onto his back. "We have to talk."
"Sure, Sandburg. So talk." He moved his hands to Sandburg's chest.
"I need to tell you what I remember..."
Jim let a finger slip under the waistband of Blair's jeans, flicking the button open and reaching for the zipper when Sandburg's hand came up and swatted his. "Stop."
"No, man. I'm not sure." Sandburg petted the hand he'd slapped and Jim waited, not sure whether he should override Sandburg's urge to chat with his own stronger urge not to. He didn't want to talk about this, and he did want to remind himself of reality, which was here, dressed in a flannel shirt and ripped jeans, smelling like gas station soap and sweat and the wrong shampoo and underneath it all, pheromones and musk.
This was reality, and he was grounded by it, reassured by it. And he was afraid that if they talked about what had happened, if he really allowed himself to remember, this reality might slip away again. He told himself he was being paranoid, but still, the feeling edged up on him — the feeling that this wasn't over, that this too could be a ruse, that Sandburg could disappear, and he might be back there, or somewhere else entirely.
"Jim — "
He looked up and saw that he was gripping Sandburg's hand too tightly. He eased up, offering a weak smile, and said again, "So talk." And Sandburg, needing very little encouragement to do what he had clearly been wanting to do since he fell back into Jim's life, started talking.
"First of all, I want to tell you that I'm sorry."
Jim frowned. "You're sorry? Why are you sorry?"
"The diss. The whole mess of it," Sandburg said, and Jim could see the blood rushing to Sandburg's face, hear the way his partner's heart was pounding with embarrassment and grief.
"You fixed that," Jim said, feeling confused. "You did everything you could. You retracted, you destroyed your notes..." He stopped and frowned, hearing Rachel's voice in his mind: You might ask him to send you his notes. "Shit," he muttered. "They didn't believe you."
"They didn't, no," Sandburg said, squeezing his eyes shut. "I told them — I've been telling them — that I destroyed everything, and plus it wasn't true anyway. I told them that none of it was true — I've been telling them."
"But they didn't believe you," Jim said quietly.
"No. No, they didn't. And then you were fucking going apeshit — you were, like, a Blessed Protector on speed — and they couldn't control you, they couldn't keep you down, and then they had the idea, you know?" Sandburg opened his eyes and Jim could see the pain in them. "They had this idea about how to immobilize you, and get you to cooperate besides."
And it was all falling into place now — they'd immobilized him, all right, and they'd quieted his Protector instincts by convincing him that Sandburg was exactly where Jim had probably always subconsciously thought he belonged — on an expedition, with a beautiful woman, living happily ever after without him.
Except here was Sandburg — right here — and god only knows what Sandburg had been going through while he was upstairs living in comfort with Rachel, writing out the story of his life like a good little boy. And he couldn't help himself: he leaned over and kissed Sandburg gently, not trying to start things back up again, or stop Sandburg from talking, but just because he had to.
It was Sandburg who turned it into something else, grabbing the back of his head like he was threatening to go somewhere, pulling him down on top of him so fast Jim gasped, trying to keep up. When he let go again, Jim pulled back slowly, reluctantly.
Sandburg just grinned and started talking again, as if he hadn't stopped.
"They made me write letters. Did you get my letters?"
Jim nodded slowly.
"But did you get my letters?" Blair asked, abruptly switching emphasis.
"Um...yeah," Jim said, awkwardly. "Eventually."
"Glad you got a decoder ring with your Ovaltine," Blair teased. "What finally clued you in?"
"The last photograph. The one with you and Sandra."
"Ah. 'Not Chile any more?' I was really proud of that."
"Yeah. But I mean — I only noticed that because the shirt was wrong."
Blair frowned. "Shirt?"
"Yeah. The shirt. In the picture," Jim explained. "That was — that was the shirt from the fountain, you know? And then there was the shadow."
Blair opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again. "The shadow?"
"On your arm. And no bites," Jim continued, trying to clarify.
Blair shook his head and laughed. "I guess I missed the decoder ring update. What shadow? What bites?"
Jim smiled, back on familiar territory and taking some pleasure in gaining ground. So he was a little slow on the letters. He got the photo.
"The photo was a fake. You weren't even tanned. Or mosquito bitten. And you always get bitten. Plus they did a sloppy job on the shadows," Jim explained.
Blair nodded. "So the photo did it." He looked a bit deflated, and Jim clarified again.
"The photo made me look at the letters. And the letters... smart. That was really smart, getting all that past the censors.."
"I didn't know if you'd get what I was trying to tell you. I mean, I wasn't sure if any of it made sense. But I figured... covert ops, right?" Jim noted that Blair said it like he wasn't sure what it meant, exactly.
"Right," Jim replied, just to affirm whatever Sandburg was thinking. Sandburg looked relieved.
"So what happened? When you figured it out?"
Jim frowned. "It was like waking up, I guess. Like... like being turned on — " Blair laughed and Jim smiled and slapped at his leg. "Turned on like a computer. You know, all systems go? The senses came on line — and then I heard you in the building."
"What was I doing?"
"I heard your heart." Jim said it and the words hung between them for a minute and then Jim was embarrassed, realizing what he'd just said. It sounded so dammed romantic and he remembered Rachel calling him a sweetie and he shuddered.
Blair blinked at his expression. "What is it?"
"Rachel...my so-called wife...she — " Jim shook his head and decided to just spit it out. "She used to call me sweetie." He said the word with distaste.
Blair burst out laughing. "Well, that should have clued you in right there," Blair said, shaking a finger at him. "You know you're in an alternate reality when..."
Jim laughed but shivered a little, the other reality still too real for him to joke about yet. He had been married. Somehow, that bothered him more than the wheelchair. He realized he didn't mind never walking again, but losing Sandburg and not knowing he'd lost him...
Because losing Sandburg had meant losing himself, all of himself, entirely. Not just his senses, or his legs, but his past and his future. His connection to himself, to men, to sex. To who he was and what he wanted out of life.
But now Sandburg was back and desire was back — he felt desire coursing through him, real and throbbing and familiar.
I want, therefore I am.
He looked at Sandburg, who was, he admitted, a real mess, disheveled, with bruisy smudges under his eyes, curls sagging and frizzing — but the right curls —
He reached out to touch them, his other hand straying back to Sandburg's waistband, to his zipper, pulling it down as he pulled Sandburg closer, tipping his head up and kissing him hard.
Sandburg tried to help, awkwardly struggling to shove his jeans over his hips. Not letting go of Blair's curls, Jim groped blindly for Blair's cock, groaning into Blair's mouth as his hand closed around it. Yes, god yes, this was what he wanted. Needed.
And he could feel Blair's dick growing in his hand, growing larger and harder till it was filling his hand, and he pressed it against Blair's belly and rubbed the underside roughly with his palm, enjoying its shape and length and heat and the way Blair had started to moan beneath him.
He moved his mouth off Blair's and found his ear, kissed it softly. "I want you," he whispered.
"Yes. Okay." Blair was breathing hard.
"I want you," Jim said again, tightening his fist around Blair's cock for emphasis.
Blair's hands were sliding down his back. "Yes," Blair muttered, and his voice was a deep, male rumble that made Jim shiver. "Yes. Where?"
"I want you in my mouth." He could feel Blair's cock throbbing in his hand, and he smiled into the cloud of dark hair — into what were the right curls, finally. "I want to suck you," he whispered, and wetly licked at Blair's ear. "Can I suck you?"
And it was like the words threw Blair into motion — Blair surged upward and clutched at him with strong fingers, and kissed him hard, hungrily, for an answer, and they fell over backwards and for a few moments they were rolling around on the bed, scrabbling at each other, kissing and biting whatever body parts they could reach, and tearing at their clothes, and Jim could hear Blair's heart pounding, pounding in that familiar, welcome way.
And when they finally fell into a new position Jim found his face between Blair's legs, and he grabbed at Blair's thighs and pulled him close and pulled Blair's erection into his mouth. Jim felt his whole body relax, not realizing until he did so that he'd been tensed since he'd first gotten up from the wheelchair, some part of him running on adrenaline the whole time, and now he relaxed into this, feeling his limbs tremble as he clung close to Blair.
He sucked hard, imprinting taste and smell and texture again, telling himself that it had only been two weeks, not one year, since he'd been with Blair — but still, the urgency didn't lessen. He pulled hard, drawing a moan out of Blair, who wriggled against him, thrusting into his mouth with matching urgency.
He tried to remember, not breaking his rhythm, what it had felt like to do this with a woman, with Rachel. If he had. If it had happened. He had memories of it, anyway, but they were like all his other memories of her, suspect and hazy, already seeming like a dream. It was all empty images, not hard and full like Blair's cock in his mouth, stealing his breath, making him hard in sympathy with Blair's thrusts until Blair suddenly jerked out of his mouth, leaving him gasping and wanting. Then, before he could react, he felt Blair shift slightly, and then the wet warmth of Blair's mouth on him, surrounding him.
Distracted by his own body, by Blair's mouth and tongue, he had to concentrate. He was prepared to dial it down if it kept him from his first pleasure: Blair in his mouth, the taste of Blair at his mercy.
He nuzzled the crisp dark curls at Blair's groin, caressed Blair's cold, smooth hips with his hands, then gently pulled Blair's cock into his mouth again.
It was like nothing else between them, but like everything else, moving together, tied together by sensation, the pleasure arcing between them like one unbroken circuit. He sucked and Blair responded in kind, until it felt auto-erotic, so fucking male, in his mouth, on his cock, his hands gripping Blair's ass, his fingers slipping inside him.
And then Blair thrust his hips forward and he just opened everything up, all his senses, and he was being fucked everywhere at once — the air rushing against his skin, caught up in the currents of their bodies, the wet slickness of sweat between them and the aching friction of skin on skin, hair, the pull of muscle and the tense heat of Blair's body pressed close against his own...
He felt it building, the pleasure close enough to pain to be unbearable, but still he held back, feeling the pleasure build in Blair, waiting for it to overtake him, and then there was the brush of Blair's hand over his balls, the soft pressure sliding back to press against him, opening him up, and then Blair was inside him, stroking across him, inside and out, and he let go, opened up too wide, feeling himself come open, come apart, come hard.
And Blair tensed then, seconds behind him, shuddering into him, coming in short bitter bursts against his tongue, and Jim tasted the pleasure as his own, sighing to himself as his own body collected and centered, still trembling with aftershocks, and he felt Blair slump against him, moving in closer, if that were possible.
He moved his hands, wanting to hold Blair, but he couldn't draw himself around without losing contact. And so he settled for just resting there between Blair's thighs, and he could hear Blair humming softly to himself, a soft song of happiness, and he could hear his name whispered to him, feel the gentle, soft kiss on his cock. And then nothing, as Blair promptly fell asleep, and there were only soft exhalations of air against him, the susseration of breath and heartbeat.
Not wanting to move, but needing to get up and take a leak, he gently disengaged from Sandburg's tangled limbs. When he came back, Sandburg was still curled into the bed, and Jim stood in the doorway for a second, watching him. Sandburg was a mess, but now he seemed wanton, extremely sexy, and not at all innocent in sleep. Jim grinned and softly walked back to the bed, sliding down beside Sandburg, kissing him on the mouth softly, tasting himself on Blair's parted lips.
Blair stirred, inhaling once, and then his eyes opened halfway. He looked sleepy and well-fucked, as well he should.
Jim moved his mouth to Blair's forehead, dropped a gentle kiss there, at the hairline. "Mmmm?"
Blair's voice was deep and barely audible, even to his sensitive ears. "Jim, I love you."
Jim moved his lips back to Blair's mouth, kissed him again. "Love you, too, Chief." Blair kissed him back and then slung a careless arm around his neck, yanking him closer. Jim closed his eyes and let himself relax against Blair's body.
"Jim," Blair said a few minutes later, and his voice was stronger now — stronger and more anxious at the same time.
"We're really here, right?" Blair fidgeted nervously and Jim stilled him by slipping an arm around his waist. "I mean, we're not back there and just thinking that we're here, right?"
"We're here," Jim confirmed quietly, not opening his eyes.
"Ok," Blair said. "Right. Of course." He settled deeper into Jim's arms. Then cleared his throat. "Uh... how do you know that?"
Jim sighed and opened his eyes. "Because we're in a buttload of trouble," he replied, irritably.
Blair was frowning. "What?"
"The men in black are after us," Jim explained. "And our total assets equal $145 dollars, one gun, and a stolen truck." He paused for impact, and then snorted. "Believe me, Blair, this is our life, all right."
Blair blinked and then flashed him a brilliant smile. "Ah-ha! Right! Well! Glad to hear it — that's a load off my mind." Blair sighed happily and snuggled against Jim's side.
James Joseph Ellison: This Is Your Life! Jim shook his head bemusedly and started to laugh. He looked down at his partner and kissed the top of his head impulsively. Blair was way too weird for fiction: this was real life here, for sure.
The Sentinel by Jim Ellison. A work of non-fiction.
Cause, hell, you couldn't make this shit up.
Afternote: If you guessed Phillip K. Dick, give yourself ten points. <g>