Title: "Bag of Bones."
Summary: Nah -- it spoils things
Rating: PG-15 Horror
Warnings: itís a horror story.
Disclaimers: they're not mine.
"Bag of Bones" was previously published in "Cascade Beyond the Veil" No. 2. Before submitting the story to the guys at Skeeter Press, Olwyn was kind enough to beta itÖ. Believe it or not before Olwyn had a look at it Ė Blair swooned. Susan Williams further edited, corrected and hunted out the blatant Briticisms.
"Bag of Bones" is a stand alone story and has no links with the horror stories of the Library Series
Bag of Bones
"Professor Sandburg? Professor Sandburg?" a very familiar voice chirped.
Blair Sandburg sighed deeply; he had almost escaped from the anthropology building . He plastered an understanding smile on his face before turning to face the new, post-graduate research assistant, who he knew was going to beg for his help. "Itís Blair, Natalie. Iím a grad student, just like you."
Natalie Wardís heart was in the right place. She was diligent, studious and enthusiastic, but she applied her dynamism to the left side of widdershins. Give the woman a new acquaintance and she declared them to be her best friend in the next heartbeat. Ask for her help in a study and she was there from the start of day to the next crack of dawn. People either used and abused her, or dismissed her with casual contempt.
During the first six months of her post-graduate studies, she had declared herself to be suicidal on two separate occasions. Blair knew that he couldnít show the slightest interest in her or she would turn it into an infatuation. He had to be aloof and remote, to try not to let her latch onto him like an emotional leech.
"Yes, Natalie, what is the problem?"
She quivered in the utmost despair. "I came up with a project and I canít get anyoneÖ anyone to help. Jason, Vincent, Patrick and Louis said that theyíd come but they havenít shown up. If I donít have enough people to observe it wonít work," she finished, wailing.
"Enough? How many have shown up? What are you doing?"
Natalie focussed on the second question. "Ariel, Phoebe and Aruna, but I need at least four participants or it wonít work. And they have to be randomly selected."
"You havenít randomly selected me, Natalie," Blair pointed out. Jim was expecting him in less than half an hour; they had tickets to see the Jags at the dome.
"I have! I just ran around the department until I found someone who was still here."
"Please, Professor Sandburg, itís the third time Iíve tried to do this but everyone always has a reason for not showing up." She drooped visibly.
"How long?" Blair asked, and knew that he was lost.
"Oh, thank you!" Suddenly she was effusive. Blair was horribly reminded of a fluctuating metronome as her behavior swung from a sunken, morose mess into bouncing enthusiasm. "It will only take half an hour."
"Okay, Natalie. Half an hour it is." He guessed that it would be nearer to an hour. As he trailed after the enthusiastic Natalie, he rooted in his backpack for his cell phone to call Jim and ask him to pick him up so they could go straight to the game.
He knew the other three post-grad students. Aruna was in the process of writing his dissertation, while Ariel and Phoebe were halfway through their second years. He had dated Freebie Phoebe in the spring. She waved her fingers languidly at him as he edged through the door of the post-grad coffee room, and Blair saw the reason for his old girlfriendís total apathy.
In the center of the room, an old wooden ouija board sat on a low table. The shades were drawn. Candles were dotted through the room, adding to the ambience.
"Natalie," Blair began, his tone flat.
"You see," Natalie overrode the objection in his voice, "itís not about the ouija board, itís about what you feel about the ouija board. Your perceptions of the spirit world and how you access them through the medium Ė no pun intended Ė of the ouija board."
"And your role?"
"Iím going to observe you. I really appreciate this, Professor Sandburg, I really do," she enthused.
Reluctantly, Blair sat on the floor opposite Aruna Ė east to his west. Freebie and Ariel were at north and south, respectively. The board was simple, old gnarly wood with what looked like paper letters sealed to the wood by layers of varnish. A single shot glass was upended over the letter Ďní.
"What are we supposed to do?" Phoebe asked loudly.
"Um." Natalie lifted her head; she had been whispering into her handheld tape recorder. "Commune with the spirits." She returned to her dictaphone.
Aruna shrugged excessively, moving his shoulders up beside his ears before letting them drop. "My people donít use these things," he said, his Pakistani accent coming through strongly.
"Basically, we concentrate on the glass, and if the spirits are willing theyíll move the glass to the letters and spell us out a message." Ariel giggled. "I havenít done this since slumber parties in high school."
"Oh, my, I remember them. Up too late. Way too much chocolate. Lots of squealing," Phoebe reminisced. "And that was just the boys."
Blair stuck his tongue out at her, before continuing soberly, "Yeah, we played with these things a few times in the undergrad dorms. I never liked them." He touched the glass with a careful finger.
"Do you really think that spirits speak through the board, Blair?" Aruna, the mathematician, asked.
"I donít know. I personally think that Shakespeare got it right."
"What?" Ariel asked. "You mean: Ďthere are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy?í"
"Yeah," Blair said laconically.
They faced each other across the board, each as reluctant as the other. Then Blair grinned. He could do this. It might be educational. He was open to new experiences. His partner conversed with spirits, both on the "other side" and on the material plane. Maybe it was his turn?
"Itís pretty simple," Blair explained. "We all rest a finger gently on the glass, relax Ė meditate a little bit Ė and formulate a question. If the spirits are willing, the glass will move and spell out an answer."
"Okay, I will try," Aruna said deliberately, and placed his finger on the raised bottom of the glass.
With a dramatic sigh, Ariel touched the glass, intersecting Blair and Arunaís fingers. Phoebe cocked her finger like a pistol, blew over the tip and then joined her fellow travelers.
"We meditate?" Aruna clarified.
"Yeah, relax, think of a clear blue lagoon," Blair intoned. "The water is calm and flat."
"Sheesh," Phoebe snorted.
Blair rolled his eyes heavenward and Phoebe chewed the inside of her cheek, trying not to smile.
"Everyone close your eyes," Blair began again.
Meditation had come to him easily as a child, even though initially the time that he had been able to stay in the quiet place could be measured in heartbeats. As he had wended his way through high school and college, he had learned the benefits of prolonged meditation. It hadnít been until lifeís journey took him to Jimís side that he had to strive to find that quiet, contemplative pool. Deliberately, he slowed his breathing. He forgot about his fellow lab-rats.
The still silence of the "step to the side" of meditation enveloped him. The image in his mind was familiar; he imagined that he sat in the center of a dark ocean, where not even a wavelet lapped at his feet. A night sky filled with stars touched a far distant horizon. Naomi had told him that she pictured a four-poster bed, draped in saffron, orange and red, limned in soft golden light, when she began her meditation.
A wind picked up and a shiver rocked his bones. Disconcerted, Blair opened his eyes. His fellow students still sat in a cross. All had their eyes closed. Judging by the furrow between her brows, Phoebe was nowhere near mediation. Arunaís dark face was flat and emotionless. Blair sensed a certain amount of derision.
"Whatís our question?" Phoebe squeaked.
"Is anyone there?" Ariel asked facetiously.
"Fine," Aruna grated, "Is there anyone there?"
The glass jerked. Phoebe shrieked, jumping back.
Inexorably, the glass crawled across the board. Ariel had most of her hand caught in her mouth, her eyes wide in shock. Blair watched as the glass settled on the "w".
"W?" Aruna said, his eyes gleaming with interest. "This has to be a trick. Magnets or something?"
In fits and starts, the glass jerked its way to the letter "h".
Blair darted a glance at Natalie, who sat in the corner, her expression even more shocked than Arielís. The dictaphone lay at her feet in pieces. Madly, Blair realized that he hadnít heard it drop.
"O," Aruna announced. "Who?"
Blair swallowed audibly as the glass grated to the beginning of the alphabet.
"Whoa? Who a? That doesnít make sense." Aruna crouched down and peered under the coffee table. "How are you doing this, Natalie?"
Blair held himself still as the glass settled over the calligraphy "m".
Aruna lifted his head and glanced at the ouija board. "I missed it, where was it?"
The shot glass hit a knot in the board and wobbled. It jumped and moved on.
"You sick bitch." Ariel flung herself to her feet. "Natalie, you need help. You psycho." Spitting with fury, she stormed from the room.
"Whoami?" Aruna queried.
"Uh, a Native American name? Arenít mediums supposed to have Indian spirit guides?" A hint of a blush touched Phoebeís cheeks.
"Itís a question," Blair said as ice water dribbled down his back. "Itís going to move toÖ the letter 'n'."
The glass leaped, coming down on "n" with a shattering crack.
"Are you doing this, Blair?" Phoebe demanded, her eyes darted back and forth, to Blair, to the door, to the board.
Relentlessly, the glass scraped over the varnished wood, splinters rising in its wake. It settled over the "o".
"This ends now!" Blair cast the board away. It smashed against the wall before falling to the floor. Phoebe jumped, scurrying back on her hands up against the leg of a chair.
Blair found his feet.
Phoebe was half under the chair; Aruna watched him, open-mouthed. In the corner, Natalie had dissolved into a quivering mess of snotty tears.
Blair wheezed unevenly, close to hyperventilating. He stood among the splinters and varnished letters. Inexplicably, the glass had survived. It shook and then rocked. With a jump, it upended itself and continued across the floor.
The door slammed open. Detective Jim Ellison stood framed in the threshold. He had his Sig Sauer at the ready, held in both hands, sweeping over the roomís inhabitants in a slow, deadly, arc.
"What the fuck are you kids up to?" The gun barrel dropped to point at the floor. Composed, Jim sauntered into the room. He was a step away from holstering his weapon, but he kept the gun at the ready.
The glass scritched on the worn linoleum flooring. "No!" Blair stamped it into the next existence.
Jim blinked and then shook his head despairingly, his body language screaming, "kids". Sighing deeply, the detective holstered his gun.
"Fine, Iím booking." Phoebe escaped, pushing past Jim. Her voice drifted up the corridor. "That was too weird."
"Natalie," Aruna said tightly, "Ariel was right, you need help. This was stupid."
Blair didnít see him leave. He stared at the floor. The fragments of glass ground into the linoleum were moving, beginning to draw together. He ground his heel in, grinding the glass into dust.
"What were you doing?" Jim demanded.
"Nothing," Blair blurted. "Okay, we wereÖ" he glanced at Natalie, curled up in the corner. "We were playingÖ conducting an experiment with a ouija board."
"A ouija board?" Jim squatted and fingered a shredded piece of letter. "And you scared yourselves," he said disparagingly.
"Itís an ambience sort of thing." Blair scattered the remnants of the board out of Jimís reach with his foot. He caught Jim by the shoulder and tugged him to his feet. "Letís go, Jim. Letís get out of here. Weíve got a game to go to."
Jim let himself be manhandled to the door, amusement rattling through him.
"Weíre going to be late for the game, you know."
"Yeah, I know." He turned to speak to Natalie, but the grad student had left. Her dictaphone lay abandoned, smashed in pieces across the linoleum.
"And you almost missed a game for this?" Jim rolled his eyes heavenward. He flicked a sliver of varnished paper into the room as if he were skipping a pebble over a pond.
Heart in his mouth, Blair watched it ricochet off the wall to fall at his feet.
It was the letter "w."
Blair was halfway to the truck when he remembered the mess of guttering candles in the coffee room. Detective Jim "conscience the size of a planet" Ellison wouldnít let him leave the candles. And in all honesty he knew that they would, as Jim would say, constitute a fire risk.
"We have to go back to the room."
"What did you forget, Sandburg? Weíre going to miss the game."
"Itís the candles, Jim. We forgot to blow Ďem out."
Jim grumbled, but turned on his heel with parade precision.
When they opened the door to the post-grad room, it was couched in darkness; all the candles were dead.
"Someone must have blown them out." Jim cast a sentinel eye around the room and his nostrils flared.
"Yeah." Blair looked around the room. "Thatís theÖobvious explanation."
"What other explanation do you need?" Jim asked curiously.
"It was Lash, Jim," Blair blurted.
"What?" Jim spun on him.
"The ouija board--" Blair pointed to the scattered fragments, "--spelled out: ĎWho am I now.í You picked up the last letter."
The furrow between Jimís eyebrows deepened. "What are you on?"
"The glass moved. It said: ĎWho am I nowí."
Back ramrod straight, Jim regarded him as if he were a nasty bug found under a microscope. His nostrils flared, searching for an elusive scent, of what, Blair wasnít sure, but he guessed it might be drugs.
"Whose idea was this?" Jim cocked his head to the side, and Blair knew that he had reassured himself on a subconscious level. He tucked his hands behind his back, knowing Jimís tendency to concentrate on the pulse at a perpís wrist to judge honesty.
"What idea?" Blair asked as Jimís focus moved to the pulse at his throat with concentration of vampire intensity.
"Who set up the ouija board?" Jim asked with studied patience.
"Natalie. Natalie asked me to help at the last minute."
"You must have been set up," Jim said patiently. "Natalie? Natalie what?"
Jim prowled into the room. "Was this Natalie around when LashÖ?"
"No," Blair interrupted, "sheís new; she started a few months ago."
"Doesnít mean anything, itís probably a legend around here by now," Jim said absently. He ran his fingers over the windowsill. "Why would this woman fix this to happen?"
Blair spluttered. "She didnítÖ." He lapsed into silence. Maybe she had set up the ouija session. Everyone knew that Natalie Ward was a bit strange. And stranger things had happened than a person becoming fixated on a serial killer.
"This is the board?" Jim toed an edge, flicking it over. "Thereís no sign of electronic circuits or magnets. The glass moved?"
"The glass righted itself when I tossed it on the floor. It didnít stop until I stamped on it. If Natalie orchestrated that, I have no idea how she did it."
"Just because you donít know how she did it, doesnít mean that she didnít do it."
"I think that that was profound," Blair hazarded, with a ghostly grin.
"Come on, Chief, this is stupid. Weíre missing a game." Dismissing the whole affair with a wave of his hand, he stalked out of the room.
Blair cast a nervous glance at the dead candles. It really didnít make sense, but he had a serious case of the heebie jeebies. He was definitely going to have words with Natalie in the morning; he didnít appreciate her sense of humor.
Muttering imprecations under his breath, Blair tagged after his sentinel.
"Stupid game," Jim muttered violently.
Grinning lightly, Blair moseyed into the loft after the sentinel. The star player had blown the game in the last quarter. Jim had yelled advice, orders, plays, instructions and one final, terse insult a millisecond before the bell rang.
He'd been a miserable sentinel when he slumped out of the stadium. Blair had also been disappointed, but he knew that their team would survive to win another day. Jim was trapped in "My Team Lost" land.
Rooting around in the fridge, Jim emerged with two beers. He lobbed a bottle over to Blair in a gentle arc. In comradeship, the student had laid off the beers until they returned to the loft, knowing that Jim wouldnít chance one beer if he were driving.
Blair slumped on the couch and flicked through the TV channels, looking for something, anything to watch. Jim joined him.
"Anything on?" he asked around the mouth of the bottle.
"Nah, 43 channels and itís all repeats. You want to watch a movie? Iíve got ĎAliensí on tape."
"Not again." Jim sagged back on the cushions. "Put ĎSpace Above and Beyondí on and I can laugh at their military training."
"No, Iím not watching that with you, you completely spoil it. How aboutó" Blair settled on a channel, "óThe Empire Strikes Back?"
"Youíll watch anything," Jim complained, but he settled back to watch the space battles.
During the commercials, Blair noticed that Jim was rubbing the webbing between his finger and thumb almost compulsively.
"Whatís wrong, Jim?" he indicated with the bottle.
"Wrong?" Jimís hand dropped lifelessly onto his lap.
"Your hand. Youíre playing with it."
Jim glared at the offending limb. "Nothing," he said gruffly.
"Come on." Blair snorted. "Are your senses acting up?"
"I didnít notice until you mentioned it. Yeah," he said reluctantly. "ThereísÖ it feels like a stakeís stuck in it."
Blair leaned over and peered down his nose at Jimís hand. He made an abortive grab, but Jim pulled it out of reach. Fascinated, as always, Blair watched Jimís pupils constrict to mere pinpricks as he focused on his hand.
"Iíve got a splinter. Itís minuscule," Jim announced. In a smooth motion, he rose and moved over to the kitchen. Rummaging around under the sink, he pulled something out. Blair watched bemused as he ducked into the bathroom and returned with a stubby candle. Using the matches that lit the fire he set the wick alight. Blair watched as Jim sterilized the needle, holding it at the tip of the blue flame.
"Youíre going to let it cool down, arenít you, Jim?"
"No, Iím just going to gouge this piece of wood out with a scalding hot needle."
"Do you want me to do it?"
"No," Jim said shortly, and shifted around, obscuring his hand from Blair. The set of his shoulders tightened and he hissed.
"Come on, Jim. Turn the dial down and let me do it," Blair cajoled, with a hint of mockery.
"Ouch." Jim whined and then held the needle before his eyes. Blair couldnít see anything, but there was a bead of blood welling on the back of Jimís hand. The burgeoning drop grew and grew, until the meniscus broke. The perfect bead was lost and became a dribbling wound. The line of blood drained down his finger and a single drop grew. With a silent splash it fell, splattering on the carpet.
"Shit." Jim groused. "Nothing gets blood out."
Blair watched it, a pure, red bead. Physics won and it oozed into the carpet fibers.
"Salt," Blair said sagely. "A solution of salt and water Ė heavy on the salt Ė will bring out the blood."
Jim let his head fall forward under the pounding pressure of the water issuing from the showerhead. He loved getting clean. When the day was done and the sun had set, he liked a quiet time and he usually found it in the shower. There was something vaguely disgusting about slipping between clean sheets when you had spent the day in a sentinelís world.
A gush of cold air washed over him.
"Sandburg! I thought youíd finished in the bathroom. Shut the door." He didnít want to wrestle with the dial.
A form moved on the other side of the opaque shower curtain.
"Sandburg, what the hell are you looking for?"
The shadow moved aimlessly and Jim thought he heard him sorting through the bottles of shampoo and conditioner in the closet.
"If youíre checking your hair stuff before you go shopping tomorrow, you should have waited until I got out of the bathroom. Get out, Chief, youíre letting the cold air in." Grumbling, Jim grabbed his shampoo and lathered his short hair.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the blurry figure moving closer. The damn kid was going to pull some trick, more than likely to turn on the cold water. Jim yanked the shower curtain back.
"Get out, ChÖ." No one was there.
Perplexed, Jim stared until sudsy water seeped down his face and got in his eyes.
"Are you okay, Jim?" Blair called through the bathroom door. "Do youÖ umÖ need any help?"
"No." There was no one in the bathroom. He could have sworn that he had seen someone. Jim ducked his head back under the stream of water, washing off the shampoo. Next time, he was going to buy the no-more-tears formula.
"Are you sure?" The door handle twitched.
"Yes, I donít need any help," Jim clarified. Grumbling, he finished his shower. He hated it when his sentinel senses played tricks. He wasnít going to ask Blair about this one, but visual hallucinations were new. Unless it was the pantherÖ. Jim couldnít help himself, he peered around his tiny bathroom. But no cat prowled by the side of the bathtub.
Stepping out of the tub, he wrapped a towel around his waist and grabbed another to mop up the water that had inevitably ended up on the floor when he pulled the curtain back.
He emerged from the bathroom to find Blair hovering outside. He'd changed into his nightclothes, a baggy t-shirt and a dubious pair of greyish shorts, while Jim was showering.
"What?" Jim said defensively.
Blair shrugged, and then launched into a terse, "You were talking. Who were you talking to?"
"I thought I saw something out of the corner of my eye. I thought it was you." He pushed by the student.
Blair gave way with a confused shrug. Deliberately not looking at him, Jim strode down the short corridor and quickly jogged up the stairs to his loft bedroom. He knew Blair was still standing outside the bathroom and also knew that Blair was going to take one step forward to peer suspiciously into the bathroom.
Jim shrugged into his night-time gear of white shorts. That session in the bathroom had been a tad weird. He didnít like it when reality went astray. But people were allowed to see things out of the corners of their eyes. The cut on his hand stung, and he sucked at the tiny wound. Now that he was distracted, the newly laundered quilt beckoned. With a heartfelt sigh, he slipped under the soft cotton.
"Night, Jim." The soft voice brushed his ears.
Below him a book was quietly unfurled, papers whispering against each other. It sounded as if Blair was settling down to a study session. Jim smiled into his pillow and sought sleep.
The trees were deathly still; not even a breeze ruffled the desiccated leaves. The world hung like the dead leaves; poised on the brink of nothingness. The trees stood sentry on either side of a rough-hewn path strewn with stones and matter. The sentinel picked his way over dismembered bones, trying to leave no sign. Dead leaves fell in his wake. Nothing could move in this reality without leaving a mark.
"Bag of bones. Bag of bones." The dead leaves shivered.
The sentinel froze.
"Bag of bones. Bag of bones."
The voice was familiar but he couldnít place it. A flick of a tail disappearing between the trees caught his eye. Galvanized, the sentinel darted forward, greeted by the dying leaves.
"Bag of bones. Bag of bones."
He burst from the grove of trees into a dead courtyard. The scene before him was a travesty of ancient Machu Pichu. The bare carcass of long dead magnificence rose on either side of a well.
The voice came from the dark hole.
Breath caught in his throat, the sentinel crept forward.
"Bag of bones. Bag of bones."
He knew the voice. Now on his stomach, he slunk forward. Snipers waited on top of the obelisks, mines lay beneath him. Booby traps waited for the unwary.
"Bag of bones. Bag of bones."
At the edge of the pit, he froze. He did not want to look. He could not look. To look was to bring the death to reality.
He had to look; he was the sentinel. The great protector of the tribe had to face his fear; he had to be strong, he had to protect.
"Bag of bones. Bag of bones."
Heart clenched with fear, he looked into the charnel pit.
"Hello, Jim." A bright face, framed in ringlets, smiled up at him.
"Fuck!" Jim sat upright in his bed. He was cloaked in fear-driven sweat. What the fuck was that about?
"Jim?" A hiss of clothes, moving against flesh; bare feet padding across the floor; a hand braced against a wall and the soft pad of footsteps moved on wooden steps. He hoped that it was his friend. Springy, ungelled curls framing a rectangular face appeared at the top of the stairs. It looked too much like he was rising from the well.
Jimís indrawn breath sounded loud in the dead of night.
The shadowed figure froze. "You okay?" he whispered. "Are you awake?"
Jim scrubbed at his cheeks trying to place himself in the here and now.
"Did you have a dream?" he persisted.
"No," Jim snapped.
The figure shook his head sagely, the curls whispering as he moved, and ventured another step up the stairs. "What was it about?"
The sentinel watched him like a hawk as he emerged from the darkness below. Broad shoulders followed the familiar tentative smile; the sturdy chest and wiry arms came next. It looked like Blair, and with a discreet sniff, Jim ascertained that it smelled like Blair.
Something dragged up the stairs after him.
Hand, gun, aim; in one smooth motion Ė faster than thought Ė the detective snatched his gun from beneath its pillow and fired.
"Shit!" Blair threw himself off the stairs onto the floor of the master bedroom, barreling against the dresser with a heavy clump. "What the fuck are you doing?"
Jim launched himself onto the mass, intent on pinning it to the steps. As inevitably as a stone atop a mountain, the sentinel tumbled head over heels down the stairs, wrestling it all the way.
Tangled up in something heavy and warm that smelled of Blair, he came to a rib-grinding stop. Winded, he could only lie in a ball on the cold, wooden floor.
Blair clattered down the stairs. "Donít move. Are you all right?"
Blair thumped down on his knees beside him. Over and over, Blair instructed him not to move. The need to breathe became paramount and Jim arched, curving his back, fighting for air.
"Shit, man, youíll hurt yourself. Stay still until I check you out."
Jim struggled in the younger manís grip.
Warm hands clamped on either side of Jimís head, holding him still. Carefully his face was turned and his eyes captured. Jim looked up into Blair's clear blue eyes.
"You in there, Jim?" Blair said softly. "You awake? You killed my bathrobe, man."
Jimís brow furrowed in question.
"You were having a nightmare. You scared me right out of bed. You shot my robe." A forced smile twisted Blair's lips and he released his hold on Jimís head. The detective felt something tug at his hands. He gripped tightly.
"Come on, let go." Blair carefully teased at his fingers.
"No, itís the bag of bones."
"What?" Blair pulled a handful of black and white plaid robe before Jimís eyes. "No," he said with irritating patience, "it's a bathrobe."
"What?" Jim started to sit up, but a heavy hand dropping on his forehead kept his head on the floor.
"Stay still. Do you hurt anywhere?"
"No. I was just winded." Gripping Blairís wrist, he lifted the hand from his forehead.
"Are you sure?" Firm hands pressed gently on his ribs, drawing a grunt.
"Stop it!" Jim levered himself into a reclining position on one elbow. He fingered his ribs with his free hand. "Just bruised," he announced.
"What was that all about?"
"Nothing." Jim allowed Blair to help him to his feet. "It was just one of those disjointed nightmare-type dreams. Itís going now."
"Yeah, right," Blair said, his voice ripe with disbelief.
My friends are bags of bones.
Jim jerked backwards. "What did you say?" he demanded.
Blair blinked. "NothingÖwellÖ apart from Ďyeah, right.í Youíve hit your head. Come on," he wheedled, catching Jimís elbow, "sit down. Iím calling the paramedics."
Jim swung his arm out of Blairís grip. "Iím fine, Chief," he said tersely. "It was just a nightmare."
"You shot my robe," Blair reiterated. "Thatís not fine."
"I thought something was following you up the stairs."
"A bag of bones. Sheesh." Jim turned away from Blair, arrowing to the kitchen and the fridge. The beer was in his hand before he knew that he had twisted off the metal cap. It soothed his grated nerves. "What a--" He turned and Blair was at his elbow, staring up at him beseechingly.
"Come on, man, youíre scaring me."
Jim cuffed the side of Blairís head with easy familiarity. "It was just a dream, Chief."
"Some dream, man," Blair noted.
"You know, IÖ." Jim couldnít finish the sentence. He pushed by Blair, heading for the couch.
"Have more than your fair share of dreams," Blair supplied, following Jim into the main living area. "Your dreams are normally messages. You ignore them at your peril."
Jim slumped back on the cushions. "You sound like some bad soap opera."
"Maybe." Blair sat opposite him on the coffee table so that their knees met. "What was it about?"
"I donít know, Iím forgetting. You know what dreams are like."
"What do you remember?" Blair persisted.
"There was a ruined temple and a hole," Jim grated. "I heard a voice. It said "bag of bones." If thereís any message in that, I donít know what it is."
Balancing his elbows on his knees and cupping his chin in his hands, Blair leaned forward. Thoughts scrolled across his pensive face. His agile mind twisted Jimís words this way and that, striving to come to a conclusion.
"And thatís all that you remember?" Blair queried, skeptically.
"Yes," Jim said shortly.
"God, you take the cake sometimes." Blair launched himself to his feet. He began to pace. "I hate it when you do this, man. Your dreams are portents. Or subconscious messages birthed by your senses. If thereís something up, I want to know, instead of having to deal with the fallout. Jim, you shot at me!"
Jim shook his head, slowly, wretchedly. He took another swallow of his beer, determined to stay the spell of execution. Words did not come easily to his lips, yet his comrade in arms spoke with a glib tongue. Blair spoke words with blithe abandon and demanded to be fed with words to replace those he had used.
"I shouldnít have shot. I sawÖ Fuck." Jim downed the rest of the beer. "How can I explain something that I donít understand? I told you: there was a ruined temple, a voice, a wellÖ"
"You were in the well. And you were happy." Jim breathed out, hard. "You were happy, in with the bones."
"Eeeew." Blair shivered. "What does that mean?"
"How the hell should I know?" Jim blurted. "You asked so you could figure it out. I donít know."
Blair pondered, his fingers travelling to his mouth, where he sucked on them absently. "Maybe it doesnít mean anything."
Jim rolled his eyes heavenward. It just felt like a bad dream now; dwelling on it seemed like a waste of time.
"Iím going to bed." He stood, returning to the kitchen to rinse out his beer bottle and throw it into the recycle bin. He hurried back to bed, ignoring Blairís taciturn expression. Settling back under his luxurious quilt, he heard a quiet voice mutter,
"I can't believe you shot my favorite bathrobe."
Bag of bones.
Jim woke with a start. The words roved through his mind like a burrowing worm. Swearing under his breath, he cast off his quilt and got out of bed, determined to face the day. It didnít matter that it was an hour earlier than he normally rose.
He had woken intermittently throughout the night, his waking mind caught by the phrase. He stomped down the stairs, noisily. But Blair didnít wake. Cocking his head to the side he listened. Blairís breathing was steady and even; he was deeply asleep. Unable to resist the temptation to check on his partner, he peeked into the room. Blair was asleep on his back; his head tipped back so a soft snore underscored his calm breathing. A smattering of drool made his lips shine.
Jim sniffed discreetly; he smelled like Blair. He shook his head at his imagination. Why had he had to check that it was Blair lying in the bed?
He clattered around the kitchen until he was successful and Blair awoke. The student rolled out of his tiny bedroom, his face sleep-creased and his curly hair twisted into a ratís nest.
Grumpy, he ignored Jimís morning greeting and poured a cup of coffee. Blairís blood sugar plummeted during the night, probably because he twisted, wriggled, kept up hour-long conversations, squirmed and occasionally sleepwalked throughout the night. He was a busy soul during the midnight hours. Until Blair had some coffee and a bagel, he was a miserable roommate. Jim knew the rhymes and reasons of Blairís day, in the same way that Blair knew that by no stretch of the imagination could Jim ever be called a nightowl.
"What?" Blair grumbled.
"Do you remember what happened last night?"
"ĎCourse I do," Blair said sullenly. "If I had been a foot lower down the stairs, you would have shot me."
Jim froze; in the fever of the dream he had forgotten that fact. "Sorry, Chief."
"You owe me a bathrobe," Blair harrumphed. "You thought about your dream any more? 'Cause Iím stumped. Fuck, man, I passed out during that autopsy you made me sit through. I canít imagine that Iíd be happy in a well with a bag of bones."
"What?" Jim peered at him. "What did you say? Where did you hear those words?"
"You said them last night," Blair said indignantly.
"Oh." Jim covered his unease by gulping down his glass of orange juice.
"This dreamís really gotten to you--" Blair wasnít completely firing on all cylinders since he hadnít yet had his caffeine fix, "--hasnít it? I canít figure out what it means, though."
"Whatís your schedule, today?" Jim asked, changing the subject with a total lack of grace.
"Uh." It took Blair a moment to catch up. "School. I have a couple of seminars to attend and I have some lab work data I need to analyze."
"Will you see that Natalie?"
Blair picked apart his bagel, and ate the cream cheese with his fingers. "No reason why I should. Unless she comes looking for me. Or I go looking for her."
"Donít," Jim said tersely.
"Donít?" Blair echoed derisively. "Come on, sheís harmless."
"No, I donít want you associating with her."
"Last time I checked, detective, you didnít rule my life."
"Look." Jim stood and jabbed a finger at his roommate. "Iíve got a--"
"Feeling?" Blair supplied and in the face of Jimís granite expression rephrased to a less emotional interpretation, "Wiggins?"
"What the hell does Ďwigginsí mean? Thatís one of your made-up words, isnít it?"
"It means a premonition."
"Okay," Jim said, suspicious, accepting the explanation. "Iím going to run her name through the DMV and the criminal database."
"Does the word Ďparanoidí mean anything to you?"
"Just remember that my sentinel senses have tagged her as a bad guy." Jim was proud that he had the last word.
As the senior detective of Major Crime, Jim could to a certain extent dictate his day. He had opted to spend a day on paperwork, while waiting for the CIA, FBI, Interpol and Scotland Yard to reply to his query regarding Natalie Ward. The detective was profoundly disgruntled when they came up empty.
He diligently set himself the task of filling out all the forms required by IA after necessary discharge of his weapon. Someone with a sick sense of humor had come up with that label.
Despite the jokes that were bandied about the bullpen, Jim did not need Blair to do his paperwork. When push came to shove, to have an able assistant adept in writing was an added bonus, but he had his degree, he was capable of writing a report or two or four. Undeniably they were terse and to the point, but Jim saw no point in being overly verbose. If he pursued a burglar and caught him by tackling him, that was what he reported.
"Bastard!" The insult spiraled across the bullpen.
Rafe and Henri were struggling with a smaller person. All Jim could see of the perp was a hand wrapped around Rafeís collar. The detectiveís Gucci jacket was twisted. A foot flailed out and caught Henri square in his abdomen. Air rushed out of the stocky detectiveís lungs in an audible whoosh. Henri fell back. Roaring, Rafe spun, trying to hold on to his squirming prisoner, a man with dark, curly hair.
"Leave him alone!" Jim vaulted over his desk, cursing. Joelís mouth dropped open at the display of acrobatics.
"What?" Rafe demanded, shocked.
Jim wrenched his partner out of Rafeís grasp.
"Leave him alone." Growling at all and sundry, he slung an arm around Blairís shoulders.
"What the hell are you doing?" Henri bounced into Jimís personal space.
Jim strong-armed Henri away with insulting ease.
"ELLISON!" Simonís voice rocked the room. Jim shook his head, trying to dispel the ringing in his ears. "What the hell are you doing?"
Blair was ripped away from his side and slung face first into a wall. Hands raised to tear and rend, Jim came to a screeching halt as a blade fell from Blairís hand. It impaled the floor, vibrating to some inner rhythm.
"Moron." Simon lifted Jimís jacket, teasing his shirt from his skin. Perplexed, Jim touched his side. Skin parted obscenely. In the razor sharp slit he could see skin, fat and muscle. Blood welled in the slash. Astonished, Jim realized that he was bleeding. Mouth open in shock, he gaped at his attacker.
"Sandburg?" he asked.
An unfamiliar face turned toward him. The young man shared the angles and assorted slopes of Blairís familiar features, but his skin was pockmarked and drawn with a longer chin and dull, dead eyes. A drug abuser.
"Bag that knife," Simon ordered. "Get it down to Serena to check for any blood other than Ellisonís." The captain wadded up his handkerchief and held it against Jimís side. "This is going to need stitches. What were you thinking?"
"I thought it was Blair." Jim shook his head. "I thought it was Blair."
"Are you drunk?" Henri flung at him as he manacled his prisoner.
"Weíre going down to the E.R.," Simon informed the detectives clustered around them. "Rhonda?"
The blonde secretary stepped forward. "Yes, sir?"
"Call the Chief and reschedule our meeting. Iím taking Ellison to Cascade General," he added unnecessarily. He firmly, but gently, guided Jim to the door. Docile, Jim went with him. He leaned into Simonís firm grip, cold and half-shocked. Warm blood trickled down his side, drying on the waistband of his slacks. He planted his hand over Simonís warm one to staunch the flow of blood.
"CaptainÖ" Rafe began.
Simon turned. "When I come back, I want an explanation of why that perp had a knife on him."
"Iím looking for Detective James Ellison." Blair's voice reverberated through the emergency room. It didnít take sentinel senses to hear the concern in the tenor voice.
"Iím in here, Chief," Jim called from his supine position on a gurney.
Blair wrenched the curtain back. "Rafe called me at Rainier. He said that youíd been knifed and he thoughtÖ" Blair sagged, suddenly enervated. He waved aimlessly at the stark examination room. "You all right?"
"Yeah." Ellison propped himself up on an elbow, wincing as the cut clamored painfully.
"Lie back." Blair was at his side faster than teleporting. Determined, he pushed Jim back until he lay flat. "Whereís the doctor? Why are you here on your own?" Gingerly, he fingered the skin on either side of the bright white bandage covering the wound.
"Shit, Chief, be careful. ItÖ." he couldnít say "hurts."
"Turn it down, man." Concerned sapphire eyes turned to him. "How serious is it? Rafe said I had to get here."
Jim snorted. "Rafe overreacted. The doctor says it will only need ten or so stitches. Itís just Ösore because theÖ"
"Youíre trying to be stoic and reserved. Turn the dial down. Where is it now?"
"Hey, you were the one who told me that pain was a good thing. It warns me when things are going wrong."
"Just because you had the dial on minus five during the only heat wave we had last summer. You went hyperthermic. If itís on five, turn it down to one. Is anything else wrong?" Words came like bullets.
Resigned, Jim closed his eyes. He focussed on the dial, wondering why he hadnít changed it earlier.
"Jim?" A sharp tap registered on his shoulder, and Jim realized that he had been in some sentinel space.
"So what happened?" Blair jumped up and perched on the edge of the gurney. Jim winced and Blair shrugged apologetically. "Why are they making you wait?"
"Which question do you want me to answer, Chief?"
"The doc had my records and went to talk with an anesthetist about the local before he stitched me up. He didnít want to put staples in, either."
"Sounds like a good doctor. Whatís his name?"
"Oh." Judging by his open-mouthed expression, he remembered the doctor from previous visits. "Iíve met him; nice guy. So what happened?"
"A druggie got into the bullpen with a knife. I walked into it."
"Was the knife clean? What about HIV, Hep-A?"
Jim winced. He had been relieved when Serena called the E.R. and told them no other blood had been found on the blade. In fact, Henriís perp had been fanatically clean about his knife and was still down in holding screaming for his "baby."
"Man, you have the worst luck."
"Itís only a scratch," Jim countered. "Ten stitches is nothing."
"Hey, I donít know, ten stitches sounds like a lot. It could have been me." Blair grinned, and his curls straightened and his eyes shifted to a dark, implacable black.
Jim launched himself off the gurney, away from the strange figure. Half collapsing, he caught the edge of a treatment tray, upsetting the contents.
"Jim!" The warped doppelganger skidded around the bed, reaching for him.
The detectiveís legs gave way and he sprawled on the cold tiles. He scrabbled away from outstretched, grasping hands.
Blair read his fear. "Ssssh, itís okay. Tell me whatís wrong, Jim. Then I can help you," he said, his voice soft as if gentling a skittish foal.
Jim blinked furiously. The concerned face peering at him was Blair's. He knew the beloved face well, each hollow and rise. He sometimes wondered if Blairís very soul had been imprinted on his. Tried and true conditioning made him shy away from such emotionalism.
"Sandburg?" he tried uncertainly.
"Yeah," Blair responded instantly. "What did you see?"
"My sightís screwy." He planted his palms over his eyes. "I see things that arenít there."
"Like what?" Blair asked softly.
"You," Jim grunted. "I thought that I saw you in the bullpen, thatís why I got too close to the druggie. And nowÖ"
"And now?" Blair probed, when Jimís voice trailed off.
Silence was never deafening for a sentinel. In every heartbeat, his world was filled with the rush of blood, the swish of alveoli, the churning of guts. The drone of electricity, the hiss of gas and the everything of the ever-present hum of life assaulted him. But now, his world was silent.
"To what?" Blair finally asked.
"It looked like you, but it wasnít."
"Whatís going on here?" A new voice interrupted them.
Jim jerked, scrabbling on the slippery floor to find his feet. Blair moved to help him. Grimacing, his hand clutching his wounded side, he tried to stand.
Dr. Stephens moved to assist them. "What happened?"
"I nodded off," Jim fudged, "I guess I turned over and fell off the bed."
Blair helped him up onto the gurney, swinging his legs on to the blankets, preventing him from using his abused stomach muscles.
"I should have put the rails up. I apologize, Detective Ellison."
Blair bestowed an absent pat on Jimís leg before turning on the doctor. "What local anaesthetic have you chosen?"
Jim walked stiffly into his home, Blair tagging at his heels. If he stopped, Blair would have run into the back of him.
"You sit down, Jim. Iíll get you a cup of chamomile tea. That will help."
Unerringly, he was steered to his yellow chair. Blair didnít lay a hand on him; his fingers hovered a thumb-length from his hips. The warmth emanating from his hands was palpable. Even if Blair was not touching him physically, he was in contact.
"Blair," he said firmly. "Itís only a little cut. I should be back at work. I donít know why Simon didnít insist."
"I told him your senses were acting up. He told me to bring you home."
"Jim, youíre hallucinating. Putting you on the streets would be insane."
Jim tucked his head down and grumbled, "Iím fine."
Before Jim could protest, he was sitting in his favorite chair. Blair did his characteristic focussed stare to check on his sentinel, before darting to the kitchen. Jim resigned himself to an evening of torture, being alternately questioned and pampered.
"Iím not hallucinating. Iím seeing you as someone else."
"And what is your definition of hallucinating?"
Ignoring him, Jim grabbed the remote, switched on the television and surfed through the channels until he found "Charmed." He settled down to watch Phoebe. The plot was incidental; he liked the outfits.
"And you say that Iíll watch anything?" Blair sauntered over with two mugs. Jim smelled the appalling stench of chamomile.
"Chief." Jim pointed to the actress, who was running down a street, attributes bouncing.
"Oooh." Blairís attention was caught like a moth to a flame.
Jim grinned and accepted the mug from Blairís lax hand. Mission accomplished, Jim set his mug on the arm of his chair, waiting for the tea to cool enough so he could dump it in the plant pot beside his chair. The fern seemed to thrive on chamomile.
Jim settled into catching up on the next chapter of the latest Tom Clancy book. Blair slumped onto the couch, watching the program and sipping absentmindedly at his hot tea.
"How come Iíve never seen this?" he muttered at one point.
Shaking his head, Jim moseyed to the kitchen to help himself to a bottle of beer.
"Hey, youíre on antibiotics; you canít have any!"
"Nothing to excess, Chief. I can have a beer."
Blairís eyes narrowed, but he left his thoughts unspoken. With a sigh verging on the dramatic, he turned back to the television. There was a hole in the toe of Blairís sock. Jim found himself focusing on it, as Blairís foot twitched, always moving to the beat of his being. Finding the bottle opener, the sentinel cracked his beer and took his customary position leaning against the counter. Standing was easier on his abused stomach muscles. Blair cut a weighing glance in his direction, but returned to watching the shenanigans on the screen. And Jim, foolishly, thought that he had escaped.
"So who exactly are you seeing?" Blair's eyes never left the television screen.
Jim grumbled into his beer. He could swear to tiredness and troop up to his bedroom for a nap and Blair would leave him alone.
"I looked for Natalie today," Blair informed him. "She cried all over my jacket, man."
The ouija board, Jim remembered with something akin to ice congealing in his guts.
"I asked her about the board. She said that sheíd made it in woodworking in tenth Grade and itís never done that before. And you know that sheís never heard of Lash. So how did she do the Ďwho am Ií gag?" Blair continued wonderingly.
The world segued into monochrome. The spirit world of the sentinel cast its shadow over James Ellisonís sanctum, his loft, his bastion of safety from his violent world. Blair continued Ė the color leached from his skin and vibrant clothes, his mouth moving but no sound was to be heard Ė expounding on the weirdness of the night before.
Then Lash lay at his feet, five bullets nicely--so nicely--placed in his chest. His black eyes stared unseeingly at heaven as his soul descended to hell.
And the man lay on Jimís nice wooden floor.
Cold sweat rose on the sentinelís brow as a puddle of blood grew. The edges crept toward him, clamoring silently. Trapped, Jim couldnít move. He hated it; he was a man of action, he couldnít be undone by a memory.
Lash stood before him and Jim reacted. He punched the revenant square on the jaw, holding nothing back. The dead manís sapphire blue eyes widened in shock as his head rocked back on his neck. He dropped, felled by the blow.
Blair lay at his feet. For once, the description of a puppet with the strings severed was apt. Only someone who was unconscious could lie in such a disconnected sprawl.
Slowly, Jim unfurled his fist, and felt the individual bruises rising on each knuckle.
"Sandburg?" he tried through dry lips.
Knees turned to water, and he dropped to kneel at his friendís side. His senses were derailed: no heartbeat or warmth rose from Blairís skin. His senses were Ė and he coughed Ė normal. Blair lay so still, his arms spread out, one leg twisted under him, the other straight. His head was tipped back, his neck outstretched.
Tentatively, Jim reached out and with infinite gentleness laid a fingertip on the base of Blairís throat. A faint sheen of sweat made his skin feel clammy. It was cold. He felt and heard the beat at the same time.
Blair was alive. And Jimís heart beat in harmony.
Training took over and he ran through his ABCs. Airway, breathing and circulation. Sentinel hearing rushed back, the wave carrying Blairís even breathing.
But he hadnít moved a muscle. Jim had not even begun to count how long Blair had been unconscious. It was less than a minute, he reassured himself.
But he was still unconscious, his face slack like a dead thing.
"Fuck!" Hands fuelled by sentinel sensitivity carded through the thick curls, searching for a bump, a bruise, or worst of all a soft indentation. Blairís skull seemed intact, apart from a region of warmth blossoming where his head had impacted with the floor.
He could hear something; a slight bubbling sound Ė- air and water. Carefully, calmly, his Ranger background coming to the fore, he felt Blairís neck, searching for any fracture, before teasing open his mouth to check his airway. His fingers came back bloody.
Still in that cold, calm place, he shifted Blair onto his side. One hand cradling his head, the other raised and bent Blairís left leg to form a lever to smoothly roll him into the recovery position. With the utmost gentleness, he placed Blairís head on the floor. Blood drained from his slack mouth, pooling on the floor.
"Come on, Blair," Jim ordered. "Wake up."
"Ah, shit." Blair coughed wetly, spraying blood and phlegm against Jimís hand. "Aw, fuck, man." He coughed again.
"Blair." Jim crouched down until his chin touched the floor and he was in Blair's face.
The student started, blinking furiously. He gagged, spitting up blood. Flailing, he pushed at the floor, trying to get up. His movements were uncoordinated.
"Stay still, Blair. I want you to answer a question for me. Can you do that?"
"Aw, fuck, ma tongue."
"Blair, tell me your birthday."
"Eh?" His eyes opened, a startling blue against the pallor of his skin, then they closed. Bloody fingerprints marred his cheek, one in his five oíclock stubble, another against his lips.
"Blair, whatís your birthday?"
Grimacing, he worked his tongue in his mouth. "May twenty seventh," he said, the words rounded, as if he had a golf ball in his mouth. "Ah fuckiní bit ma tongue. Oh, God, it hurts. Oh, ma head."
"Blair," Jim said once and again, and caught his head between his large hands. "Open your eyes."
Blair obeyed with a swiftness that surprised the sentinel. Jim breathed a sigh of relief; the pupils were equal and responsive.
"You stupií bastard." Blair rolled onto his back.
Hands against his face, Jim tried to control Blairís movement. "Be careful," he admonished.
"What the fuckÖ did you do that for?" Almost immediately he had to turn back on to his side and cough up more blood. "Ma tongue."
"Let me see." Jim laid a finger on Blairís full bottom lip.
"Get off," Blair snapped, his ire obvious despite the fact that his words were muffled. "Help me up."
Reluctantly, Jim helped his patient into a sitting position. Blood drained down his chin, dribbling onto his white shirt. Jim backed off a fraction, ready to catch him if he toppled.
Blair worked his jaw, wincing.
"Careful, you might have a--"
"Shut the fuck up, Jim. What the hell did you do that for?"
Jim rocked back on his heels, knowing now was not the time to help. Cradling his jaw in one hand, Blair carefully opened his mouth, then gingerly felt inside.
Blair mumbled something that Jim was fairly sure was "ow." He seemed to be opening and closing his mouth without too much trouble, so Jim assumed that he hadnít broken his jaw.
"I thought you were Lash," Jim suddenly volunteered, surprising even himself.
Blair froze and speared him with bloodshot eyes. "Lah?" he mouthed around his fingers.
"Lash was there. IÖ hit him."
Blairís eyes almost crossed in consternation. Futilely, he tried to get his legs under him to rise. Jim moved, and with a hand under his elbow, helped him up. Gently, he deposited Blair on the sofa.
"Hang on." Before Blair could even begin to interrogate him, he escaped to the kitchen. Mind on his work, he filled a bowl with warm water, dish towels, grabbed a bag of frozen peas and got the first aid kit. Juggling his supplies he plonked himself on the coffee table opposite his guide.
"Let me see, Blair. Please," he said, the politeness dragged from him unwillingly.
Blairís hands dropped to his lap. Eyes hooded, he gave him permission.
As he ministered to his friend, Jim spoke, "I saw Lash when it was you. I saw someone who wasnít you but looked like you." He ascertained that Blairís jaw was bruised but not broken. It was likely that his brains had taken a good shaking, back and forward along the line of the blow; however, you couldnít tell that from just looking. "Follow my finger, Chief."
Grimacing, Blair obeyed, tracking his finger to the left and right.
"What abouí this mornígÖ last nightÖ whín you shot at me? Ö I Lash then?"
Jim shook his head. "Open your mouth, I need to see your tongue."
Blair half-stuck out his sore tongue. There was a good-sized gash on the side, seeping blood where he had bitten it.
"Uh mmu gooonin u eee iíuusss, im?"
"You might get away without stitches. I donít think they stitch your tongue. I think a trip to the E.R. is in order, just to let them check you over."
"Oo!" Blair glared.
"Chief, you were unconscious for over a minute."
"Aat auot ouu?"
"What about me? Iím fine."
Blair rolled his eyes heavenward. "Errr ight."
"E.R., Chief. No argument." He carefully pulled Blair to his feet.
"ere gooonin u alk. Ďen am gooonin u ick u."
"Yeah, Chief, you can kick me."
"And talk," Jim agreed reluctantly.
The scene was a mirror of their entrance three hours earlier. This time Blair walked stiffly, a prescription clutched in his hands. They had put a few stitches in his tongue, stitches that would dissolve in a couple of weeks. The local anaesthetic prevented any talking. Jim shepherded him to the couch, guiding him to the couch without laying a finger on him. Blair knew if he stumbled, Jim would catch him.
"Cup of chamomile, Chief?"
ĎBeer.í Blair mouthed.
"I have to keep an eye on you in case thereís complications from the head injury."
ĎBeer!í Blair demanded.
Sighing deeply, Jim nodded.
Blair reviewed his plan of action. He decided to wing it. Jim set a glass in front of him: half a bottle of beer. He grumbled inwardly, but acquiesced. Blair glared at Jim until he reluctantly sat.
ĎWell?í he mouthed.
"Canít we talk about this later?" Jim hedged.
Blair slammed his glass down on the coffee table, splashing beer everywhere. He patted his chest insistently, indicating vehemently that he had been shot, punched and put up with a lot of shit.
"I had a flashback. Back to the basement of Lashís lair. Then he was lying on the flooró" Jim jerked his thumb over his shoulder, "óover there. You must have come over."
"But I-- you looked like Lash. It was Lash, I punched Lash. But his eyes turned blue and then you were lying on the floor."
Blair held up two fingers in question.
"Twice?" Jim hazarded. "Oh, yeah, Iíve seen you as Lash twice. Here and in the hospital. Then there was that perp in the bullpen. I thought he was you, then he wasnít."
ĎAnd the dream?í Blair asked, mouthing the words slowly.
"Nightmare?" Jim shrugged. "Look, why donít you grab a shower, wash that blood off your face? Iíll blend a fruit smoothie for you for dinner. Strawberries and bananas sound okay?"
Shaking his head sadly, Blair moseyed to the bathroom as Jim retreated to the dubious haven of the kitchen. Blair had no idea what had started this latest sentinel zone. Jim had cut his finger on a splinter; maybe there had been some sort of toxin in the varnish on the ouija board. He gazed at his face in the mirror; he was going to have a spectacular bruise on his chin. Gingerly, he stuck out his tongue. It looked as if a black spider had set up residence in his mouth.
Tiredly, he stripped and clambered into the shower. He allowed the hot water to pummel the back of his neck. Dispiritedly, he realized that he had no real idea what sentinel madness was plaguing his partner. It sounded like a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder flashback with added sentinel bells and whistles. But that didnít ring true.
The madness had all started when he had played with the ouija board. A shiver walked up his spine.
Seriously spooked, Blair rushed through his shower. He dried off, pulled on a clean pair of shorts then shrugged into his holed black and white checked bathrobe.
Jim had lit a fire in the center of the room. All the lamps were on, to chase away any shadows. The table was set. Jim had even set out the napkins, good silverware and matching dishes. The sentinel had striven for normality and failed completely. There was a steaming bowl of soup in his customary position. Blair slipped into his seat. He craned his head in question.
"I got it out of the freezer: chickpea and spinach. I pureed it." The sentinel moved stiffly, his body language screaming an apology he couldnít verbalize.
Reluctantly, Blair decided to give the guy a break while he thought. The soup smelled pretty good. Careful of his sore tongue, jaw, and head, he sipped. His mind spun.
Lash? he wondered. Jim was wired into the supernatural in ways that Blair both envied and feared. The sentinel didnít paint a good picture of the worlds beyond the veil. Or more accurately, Jim hated the whole experience.
Okay, he didnít know if Jim was off in some weird sentinel place or Ė and his mind shied away from the thought Ė Lash had crossed over.
His spoon clattered from his numb hand into the soup bowl. Lash? The psycho. The worst of the worst. What could they do? How could they even know if Lash was standing at the end of the table looking at them?
Bracing himself, Blair looked to the end of the table. He couldnít see anyone standing there, but that didnít mean that an ichor-dripping corpse wasn't gazing hungrily back at him.
"Blair?" Jim questioned softly. "Blair?"
He darted a glance at Jim. Jim had thought he was Lash, and had hit him. What would Jim do next? His voice had been taken from him, his first line of defense. How could he talk Jim out of any madness that overtook him?
His head was throbbing.
Blair could only hold out his hands in supplication. He had no idea what to do. He didnít even know if Lashís appearances were real.
"I think," Jim filled in the void of silence, "that itís-- something I ate."
Blair blew out a heartfelt sigh. Without a word, he stood and retreated to his room. Behind him, Jimís chair scraped on the floor.
His room was a mess, but he circumnavigated it with the ease of long practice. His filing system was sound; he only lost things when he cleaned up. He pulled out the third drawer. Tucked in the corner, between his tarot cards and a pair of balled up socks, was an unused present. Naomi had given it to him after her first visit. He hadnít touched it: firstly, because he hadnít needed it; and secondly, because allergy boy reacted so strongly to the contents.
It was simply wrapped, in beige tissue paper with a single piece of tape. The tearing paper sounded loud in the tiny room. Inside was a wooden box, inscribed with a silver star with a copper-embossed center. The edges were protected with brass lines stamped with diamonds. Blair suspected that his mother had made it with her own fair hands. A single, simple, clasp -Ė unlocked -Ė kept it closed. The inside was lined in red velvet -Ė his motherís favorite color. Sitting in the base was a thread-wrapped bundle of woody herbs.
Blair picked up the sage smudge stick. On the windowsill over his bed he kept a small ceramic bowl of sand he had collected from his favorite beach on one of the Hawaiian Islands.
With great deliberation, he marched back into their main living area. Jimís eyes were already tearing up. Blair set the bowl on the kitchen table. Jim opened his mouth to complain, but paused and then closed his mouth.
"Your mom said this stuff was cleansing," he said, half in question and half in protest.
Blair shrugged, implying that it wouldnít do any harm apart from making a certain sentinel sneeze his head off.
He grabbed the matches from their place above the stove. Holding the smudge stick above the bowl of sand, he lit it. It smoldered as he blew gently. A single line of smoke spiraled upwards. Jimís face was pink with the effort of trying not to sneeze.
Blair nodded once. This was his motherís purview, but he had learned at her knee. Bereft of his voice, he simply walked the edges of the room, pausing at the door, at the fireplace and moving to the balcony windows. He smudged his bedroom as Jim valiantly tried not to sneeze.
He asked for and obtained permission to trek up to Jimís bedroom and cleanse his sleeping area.
He couldnít feel anything; he didnít know if it was working. All he knew was that his head was thumping. Dutifully, he smudged the room.
An almighty sneeze rocked the apartment.
Smudging the bathroom seemed like a fairly stupid thing to do, but Blair was diligent. Jim simply sat at the kitchen table, tears streaming from his eyes. Blair finished back at the kitchen table and extinguished the stick in the prepared sand.
Apologetically, he handed the sentinel two antihistamines heíd grabbed from the bathroom cabinet during his cleansing.
Jim winced a travesty of a smile. Blair echoed it. He had no idea what to do next. Inspiration struck. He darted back into his room Ė ignoring the slight stumble due to the headache Ė and scooped up his address book and notepad.
Jim was just as he had left him: sitting stock-still. Blair found Naomiís portion of the address book and planted it face up before him. He pointed insistently to the penultimate number.
"You want me to call her?"
Blair punched the air. He hadnít even needed the notepad.
"Youíve got to be kidding. Sheíll think weíre nuts."
Blair humphed loudly; the guy really took the cake at times. Naomi was probably the only one who would believe them. He pointed insistently at the address book.
Keeping on eye on Jim, he backed to his cell phone. Still watching Jim, he grabbed it from the kitchen counter. He thumped it down beside the recalcitrant unbeliever. Blair could only glare. Jim was intractable. His body language, the way he wouldn't look at him, told Blair that he had lost the connection with the detective.
Blair picked out the numbers. The ringing sounded loud in the loft.
"Hello," Naomi said, sing-song.
Jim looked away, a slight smirk on his face.
Blair insistently shook the phone, but Jim ignored him; the man could be such a child at times.
"Ma," Blair could vocalize.
"Sweetie?" Naomi said immediately. "Are you all right?"
Jim couldnít ignore the fear in his best friendís motherís voice. "Hey, Naomi, itís Jim."
"Jim? Was that Blair?" she demanded.
"Yeah. Heís got laryngitis. He asked me to call you to see how youíre doing in--" Jim ran a finger down the address book to the post-it note with Naomiís current address, "--Chicago?"
"Laryngitis? Has he tried gargling with salt water?"
"No, I donít think so." Jim said placidly, but the flare in his eyes was angry. "Itís probably a good idea, Iíll pass the message on."
Fuck! In one sweeping motion, Blair grabbed Jimís cup of coffee from the kitchen table and flung it at the front door.
"Iíll have to call you back, Naomi. Someoneís at the door." Jim closed the connection with an easy click.
Blair slapped his hand, palm down on the table, demanding that Jim call her back.
"No, this is insane. Lash hasnít come back, itís impossible. Itís some kind of sentinel allergy. Iím going to bed." Jim pushed away from the table.
Blair almost tore at his hair in frustration. "Bag of bones," he croaked.
Jim turned dead flesh white.
Blairís bottom lip curled in a mocking smile. You canít ignore it, he mentally verbalized, when the very thought of it makes your blood turn to ice water.
"How come you believe this shit?" Jim demanded. "I put five bullets in the son of a bitch; he is not coming back."
Blair crossed his arms and cocked his head to the side.
"Itís your damn fault." Jim made a sudden about face. "You were playing with the ouija board."
Blair simply stood, waiting for Jim to work his way to the final step: resignation.
"Okay, assuming that Lash has come back, how do we get ridÖ." Jim ground his teeth together. "Iím going to bed." Shaking his head, he moved away and stomped up the stairs.
Blair was left, head hanging, standing alone in the living room with coffee dripping down the door.
Now what? Blair wondered. Jim saw other people as Lash and reacted accordingly. The next time he saw Lash, Blair might find five bullets in his chest. Or, Blair realized some innocent might end up dead. Why would Jim see others as Lash? Was Lashís restless spirit possessing his body?
Blair gazed up to the darkened loft, where he knew Jim lay, staring up at the ceiling.
He didnít feel as if heíd been taken over by --he could barely think the name-- Lash. Yet, Lash had coveted his identity. ĎWho am I now?í the psychopath had mocked the detective as he stalked his partner.
Did Lash have him now? Maybe he should handcuff himself to his bed to protect Jim?
But if Jim had been possessed by the revenant, Blair would be vulnerable to his every vicious move. Should he lock himself in his room to separate them?
His head was thumping, making it difficult to concentrate. Stuck in a quandary, Blair retreated to his room to think. The fire escape in the corner beckoned. Blair was halfway to the door before he realized that he had moved.
I could go and stay in my office at Rainier and then Jim would be safe, he rationalized. Separated, weíll both be safe.
As his hand touched the doorknob, realization smacked into him like a slap on the back his head.
No damn wraith's gonna force me out of my home. Blair made a parade turn that would have made Jim, the ex-Ranger, proud.
Once out into the main room, indecision rocked him again. Momentum took him to the foot of the stairs leading to Jimís loft bedroom. One foot on the bottom stair, he paused. Jim had attacked him. Even if he had thought that it was Lash, Jim had still punched him in the face. The ex-Ranger was capable of killing him with a single blow.
He had cleansed the loft with sage -- that thought sent him up three stairs. The fact that he had been unable to say the words that his mother had taught him as a child brought him to a halt on the sixth stair.
A shiver walked up his spine.
Jim froze, listening. Something was coming up the stairs. Step by measured step. A thump was followed by a slither. Two things were coming up the stairs.
He held his breath, the better to listen without his breath whistling in his lungs.
The barest whisper in the cold, dead air sang, "Bag of bones. Bag of bones."
Moving soundlessly, Jim drew a long, serrated knife from beneath his pillow. A legacy of evil days with covert ops, it settled comfortably into his hands. He sat upright with glacial slowness, all the while listening for the sounds upon the stairs.
The slither sounded again without the measured step. The second noise was lower down the stairs than the first subtle creak.
Slowly, ever so slowly, the sentinel set one foot on the floor beside his bed. He made nary a whisper. Balanced lightly on the balls of his feet, he crouched, poised to react to whatever came so haltingly up the stairs. He glanced to his second pillow, under which rested his Sig Sauer. But he had more than once almost killed his attentive guide. Firing rounds was not the answer. Facing this evil head-on was the resolution that his nature demanded.
The slither was a harbinger of terror.
"Bag of bones. Bag of bones."
In his mindís eye, he saw Blairís bright, impish face looking up at him from the charnel pit. Blair had been happy among the bones. It looked like Blair, smelled like Blair, sounded like Blair, but it couldnít be Blair.
"Who am I now?" had been Lashís taunt. The psychopath had coveted Blairís gregarious nature. And now Jim saw Blair in others and Lash in Blair. His dreams were warnings, his guide told him that, in the dark, beer-filled nights when Blair talked and Jim listened in silence. In the wake of the séance, Lash had latched onto Blair, intent on achieving that which he desired.
Slither. Slither. Slither.
The noise filled his ears.
Jim slinked forward, braced on his fingers and the balls of his feet, his knife held between his teeth. It was coming up the stairs. As silent as a dark night, he reached the top step and looked out.
"Jim!" Blair shrieked. "Ow, fuck, my tongue."
The sentinel reached out, grabbed his guideís collar and yanked him into his arms. Blair barely had time for a shocked bleat as Jim tucked him into a neat ball and settled over him. He held his guide beneath him, arched on hands and knees, keeping him safe from whatever was stalking him.
Poised, Jim listened, but the slither was silent. He took the knife from his teeth, ready to rend and tear.
"Jim, what the hell are you doing?" Blair snarled.
"Quiet," Jim ordered.
The noise was unmistakable. The slither was somehow behind him. Lithely, Jim spun around to face the depths of his bedroom. Senses pinging, he settled back over his partner in a protective stance.
"Bag of bonesÖ"
Eyes narrowed, Jim scanned the room. Sentinel pupils expanded, harvesting the meager moonlight. The world turned silvery. There, couched in shadows lurking beside his bed, lay a moldy, wrinkled bag. Strange angles roved beneath the canvas sacking. Worst of all was the thin strand that stretched from the writhing bag to the man held beneath him. The umbilical cord shone, reflecting the silvery moonlight.
"Jim?" Blair asked softly. A gentle palm was laid on his chest. "Whatís happening?"
"Itís here," Jim breathed.
"What?" Blair whispered in response to Jimís hushed tone.
Leaning on one hand, Jim reached out and touched the cord with the tip of his knife. Blair went rigid beneath him, his back arching. Jim heard each individual vertebra grating.
"My friends are bags of bones."
Lash was dead, a pile of bones in a pauperís grave. His victims rested in graves ranging from ornate mausoleums to similarly poor graves. They were the bags of bones. But Blair was still alive, and Blair wasnít one of Lashís victims.
Jim pushed down on his knife, severing the cord with one easy motion. Blair screamed, and convulsed as if strafed by lightning. With a final, quiet cough, he sagged, limply unconscious.
The howl of a jaguar echoed through the loft. The spiraling call scratched through Jimís bones. His reaction was visceral. Hair rose on the back of his neck and goosebumps raced across his skin. His spirit guide had been notably absent since this nightmare began.
The cord snaked from side to side, the end of it gaping like an open mouth, sucking, searching, seeking its goal.
Jim leaped from his guideís body, both hands clenched around the hilt of his foot-long knife. He brought it down, thudding into the bag. The blade pierced the center, and the bag screamed. It thrashed, wrapping around his hands. The bag felt obscenely of decaying human skin. The cord jerked on the floor, trying and failing to reach Blair. It jumped, and wrapped around Jim's wrists, flaying his flesh. The cord, the string that bound the bag closed, latched onto his pulse. Racked with disgust, Jim pulled it off his skin with one hand, all the while keeping the bag of bones pinned to the floor.
Half of him wanted to run from the room; the louder, more insistent part demanded to know what was within the bag. Jim ripped the bag with his knife, freeing the contents. Grey-green, moldy bones scattered across the floor. A broken rib lay beside his knee. What looked like a piece of skull with an eye socket gazed blindly up at him.
Jim caught the bag in his hands and tore it from head to toe. This was Lash, this empty bag that tried to fill itself with otherís lives, bodies and souls.
"You canít have him!" Jim bellowed. "My guide. My responsibility."
The spirit guideís roar resonated with his vow.
He held the torn remnants of the bag. Veins shifted and a dark, negative image rose on the skin. Lashís face laughed at him, the likeness a mocking parody of the image on the Turin Shroud.
"My friend." Lash smiled. "Jim, Iím your very own Blair."
Repulsed, Jim almost hurled the revenant aside. It wriggled in his hands, and dangling shreds reached up and caressed his skin.
Frantically, the sentinel looked about, searching for a way to destroy the shroud. He possessed no religious artifacts. Blairís cleansing sage had evidently not worked.
The fire in the center of the loft was the obvious solution. Fervently, Jim bounded down the stairs three at a time. He hit the floor, bending his knees to absorb the force of his jump. A heartbeat later, he skidded to a halt beside the guttering fire. Only embers glowed. He pinned the writhing shroud to the floor with his knees. Keeping one hand entwined in the disgusting tatters, he threw wood into the warm embers. A couple of fire lighters followed the wood. It was a haphazard fire; only the fact that the base was still warm held the promise that it would ignite. The shreds realized his intent and screamed. The shriek rocked the sentinel and he almost let go of the bag. They wrestled. The tatters tried to get away, forcing Jim to grab the shreds with both hands.
"Sandburg! Blair, wake up." He had little hope that his guide would wake; he had seemed solidly unconscious after the cord was severed.
"What?" As if by magic, Blair appeared at the top of the stairs. His hair was wild and his eyes glazed; he had been thrown sideways into a dazed, concussed place.
Jim was amazed that Blair could stand upright, but the detectiveís practical nature was at the fore. "Get down here, now."
"íK, Jim." Blair took one step and then tumbled head over heels all the way down to land in a heap at the bottom.
"Blair?" Jim made to move to his side, and Lash squirmed, almost freeing himself.
"Iím fine." Blair blinked furiously as he sat upright.
"Get over here, light the fire. Now!"
Doggedly, Blair struggled onto his hands and knees. Once, twice, three times, an arm or a leg gave way and he flopped face first onto the floor. Lash jumped when Jim was distracted after one stumble, forcing him to concentrate on the hideous skin. He grabbed a fragment that was threatening to pull away from the main body. He forced the pieces into a tight ball and braced the squirming rags between his knees. The sentinelís skin crawled as bile rose in his throat. He could feel warm, cloying fingers clawing at his soul.
"Jim?" Blairís soft voice interrupted him. "What are you doing?" His blue eyes looked hopelessly confused.
"Light the fire, Blair. Now! So I can burn Lash to hell."
"Jim." Blair laid a gentle hand on Jimís shoulder. "Thereís nothing there." His tone was incredibly soft and understanding: placate the madman.
Jim glanced at the thing in his hands. He could see it Ė it was there. He didnít want to think about the impossibility of their situation.
"Blair, do you trust me?"
"Always, man," Blair said earnestly.
"Light the damn fire."
"Okay." Hands shaking, he struggled with the matches beside the fire. "I donít feel very well."
"You can do it, Chief."
"Yeah." His brow was furrowed with concentration as he strove to strike the match.
"Hurry, Chief," Jim cajoled as Blair dropped a second match.
"Ignition!" Blair smiled wildly and tossed the lit match in the fire. Amazingly, it landed on one of the white fire starters. The side of the cube turned orange, then brown before igniting. Flames gushed high, catching another fire starter. The heart of the fire glowed.
Too soon, Jim threw the bag onto the fire. Lash made a mad dash and Jim pinned him to the embers with a fire poker. Lash squealed, and the high-pitched shriek made Jimís ears bleed. The flames guttered; one cube was smothered by a flailing tatter.
"Donít go out!" Jim demanded of the fire.
Lash laughed and reached for another cube. Jim flicked the fire starter out of Lashís reach with the tip of his finger.
"Here, Jim." It was the only warning that he had. Blair dumped an entire bottle of fine Scottish malt whisky on the fire. The whoosh of flame singed the eyebrows off Jimís face. He fell back onto his elbows, away from the blaze. Lash writhed in the column of fire before him. Screaming and howling, it was Lash in his own form: fine, pale hair; skinny body; and insane black eyes. He danced to some mad rhythm, stomping at flames that he couldnít put out.
And then he began to burn from the inside out. The skin on his face bubbled as flames roved beneath. Fire shot from his nails.
Distantly, Jim could hear Blair yelling. But he was caught by the scene before him as Lash collapsed in on himself, desiccating as the fire burned him from within. Skin burned away and there was nothing beneath. Like a burning house, he fell apart, revealing a hollow structure devoid of any content.
"No. No. I need my friends!" Lashís disembodied voice begged. "Let me have my friends."
"Never," Jim vowed.
The final ashes spat and spluttered before they burst into flames.
It was an ignominious end as the psychopath whispered away to nothing, burned by the cleansing fires.
The fire died in Lashís wake, leaving nothing but a destroyed fire hood and a smoke blackened ceiling.
"Oh." Blair stood over Jim with the loftís fire extinguisher. "That was exciting." His eyes rolled back in his head and he keeled over backwards. Jim hadnít a hope in hell of catching him, but unconscious before he hit the ground, he seemed to fall lightly.
Jim tried to crawl to his friend, but as soon as his hands touched the floor he realized that he had singed his hands. The skin on his cheeks and forehead felt tight, as if sunburned. Shuffling on his knees, he crossed to Blairís side.
"Hey, kid." He laid the back of his hand on Blairís cheek. "You want to wake up for me?"
Obediently, Blair blinked. His broad brow furrowed in question.
"Lash is gone," Jim supplied.
"How?" Blair uttered, before turning onto his side and rolling up into a tight ball.
"I threw him in the fire." Jim looked over his shoulder to the damped down fire. "He burnt up."
Blair simply moaned.
Jim grabbed his friend by the shoulder and pulled him into a sitting position. Bracing Blair against his body, he ran his fingers over the back of his head, checking for any new bruises and contusions.
"There was nothing in the fire," Blair whispered into Jimís chest. "Nothing there at all."
"I saw it," Jim said bleakly. "I saw Lash in the fire. I picked him up and threw him in."
Blair lifted his head, and worked his sore jaw carefully. "How can you pick up a ghost?"
Jim shrugged. "Where does it say I canít?"
Blair gazed at him owlishly, then shrugged, mirroring Jimís motion. "Good point."
"Come on, Chief." Ignoring his burned hands, he hauled Blair to his feet.
"What? Where are we going?"
"Back to the E.R.; get you checked out--" Before Blair had a chance to protest, he revised his sentence, "--Both of us checked out. Itís going to be fun explaining this one to the doctor. And then I think we should stay in a hotel."
Jim caught Blair by the chin and directed his gaze to the destroyed fireplace and smoke-damaged ceiling.
"Yeah, good idea," Blair said, abstracted.
Jim guided Blair to the doorway, grabbing their wallets from the kitchen table en route. He wriggled his feet into his loafers, which sat neatly under his coat hanging beside the doorway. His night time wear of sweats would be sufficient for a trip to the E.R. Blair would garner a few glances in his checked bathrobe.
"Hang on, I need my journal. I so have to write this down." Blair stepped away from Jimís side.
"Later, Blair." Jim swung Blair neatly around so he was back, tucked under his arm. "Weíve got a later now."
"íK, Jim. What exactly do you think you threw in the fire?"
"How can you pick up something as intangible as a ghost? Although, maybe ghosts are tangible?"
"The doctorís not going to be very pleased with us, is he? He told us to take it easy. You didnít pop your stitches, did you?" Blair lifted Jimís shirt up, hunting for flesh.
Jim batted his hands away. "Get off."
"Hey, I just realized the local anaesthetic they used on my tongue wore off."
"Hey, isnít adrenaline a wonderful thing?"
Jim locked the door behind them. With any luck, the staff at Cascade General would decide to keep Blair overnight and then he could get some peace.
They did keep Blair overnight, after Jim spun some tale about a dizzy spell and that he had fallen down a flight of stairs. The physician had also listened to Jimís explanation of his own wounds, that he had been at the bottom of the stairs with a hot cup of coffee when Blair took a tumble.
Jim suspected that the doctor had heard taller tales during his years in the E.R.
Jim shepherded his younger partner along the corridor to their home. Now that the adrenaline had long since worn off and bruises had blossomed over his body, he shuffled slowly. Jim too was walking like a stiff old man, but he had a longer stride.
Blair was silent. When he did speak, he had a gentle lisp courtesy of his sore tongue. Without a word, Jim unlocked the door to their home. It swung open slowly. Neither seemed particularly eager to enter.
Blair looked inside and shrugged a shoulder in question. Dutifully, Jim listened. He couldnít hear anything wrong. Taking point, he entered, scanning the loft with sentinel vision. He dialed his sense of smell almost down to nothing, trying to avoid the smoke stench. Other senses still primed, he crossed to the balcony windows and flung them open.
"Weíre going to have to redecorate."
"You think?" Blair grated sardonically as he pulled his new jacket -- courtesy of Jimís credit cards Ė tighter around his body.
Blair didnít venture any farther into the apartment.
"Iím going to look upstairs," Jim informed him, before walking arthritically up to his bedroom. He knew what he was looking for: the bones.
There should be a fragment of skull beside the bed and a scatter of ribs and other unmentionable bits and pieces across the floor.
The room was devoid of any macabre skeleton pieces. It just looked as if he had left without making the bed, which in the scheme of things was rather unusual. The carpet beside his bed was rucked up. Unhesitatingly, he slipped it back Ė but there was nothing beneath.
"Jim?" Blair croaked.
The sentinel looked over the banister. "What?"
"Anything, you know, weird?"
"Nah. Just theÖ" He pointed at the gutted fireplace.
Blair moved from the front door into the kitchen. He grabbed the kettle and clutched it, before almost scurrying to the faucet.
Jim skirted along the side of his bed to keep an eye on him.
"So Lash has gone?" Blair asked as he filled the kettle.
"If he was ever here."
"What?" Blair looked up at him shocked. "Did you imagine that?" He pointed to the black hole in the center of their home.
"Donít do this, Jim." Blair backed along the counter, so he had a better view of the sentinel above. "You saw something. Denying it wonít change anything."
"You said yourself it doesnít make any sense." The sentinel stepped back so Blair couldnít see him anymore. There was no sign of Lashís presence. His senses werenít prodding at him either; he didnít feel the need to check that it was indeed Blair standing downstairs.
"Jim?" Blair laboriously made his way up the stairs. "What is it? Did you see something?"
Jim hemmed and hawed, "I saw something on the floorÖ before. Itís gone now."
Blair paused on the penultimate step, not venturing any farther into Jimís domain. "Like what?"
As inscrutable as the stone statues on Easter Island, Jim regarded his guide. He saw something close to resignation cross his friendís face.
"Youíre going to deny that it all happened, arenít you?" Blair said sadly.
"Deny that what happened?" Jim said with black humor.
Jimís characteristic "heh heh heh" bubbled out of nowhere.
Blair actually bristled. "I didnít see any of this shit, you did. You said you picked Lash up and threw him in the fire. And now youíre going to pretend it didnít happen--"
"Chief," Jim interrupted, "how the hell are we supposed to blindly accept that this shit happened? Whereís the evidence?"
"Thereís a fire disaster in the middle of the loft." Blair jerked his finger vehemently at the burned spot.
"Yeah, but you never saw anything and the bones arenít scattered on my bedroom floor."
"What? The bones of what?"
"Of Lashís victims," Jim supplied absently, as he crouched and peered under the bed.
"Youíre going to do it, arenít you? Youíre going to listen to your head instead of your heart. And just forget all this."
"Forget what?" Jim smiled ghoulishly.
"Stop it," Blair spat, his ire not muted by his lisp. "You ever consider that maybeÖ Lash hasnít gone?"
Jim froze, the color leached from his face. He rose to his feet stiffly.
"Yeah, you didnít think of that, did you?" Blair said, his tone rife with derision.
"And how," Jim attacked, "do we figure out that this is over? Thereís nothingÖ"
"You accept that this happened. In here." Blair finally stepped into Jimís bedroom proper. He laid a gentle hand over Jimís heart. "And then you ask yourself if it's over."
Jim folded his arms over his chest, displacing Blairís hand. He was a motion from canting his hip to the side. Blair simply waited, unimpressed by his sentinelís performance.
Sighing deeply, fighting every step of the way, Jim deliberately inhaled a deep meditative breath, as Blair had drummed into him.
In the space of a heartbeat, the black jaguar spirit guide appeared. It lounged on the queen-sized bed dominating the room, evidently enjoying the mess of pillows and quilts. Mischievously, it rolled over, almost purring with pleasure. Jim just knew that it was shedding hair. The jaguar paused in its play, and as inscrutable as ever, it lifted a regal head to catch him in its gaze before whispering away.
Jim scrutinized the bed, looking for any physical evidence of the catís presence. There wasnít any. He looked to Blair, who was waiting patiently for the pronouncement. A trickle of perspiration on his temple displayed Blairís unease.
"Yeah, Chief, itís over."
Blair blew out a relieved sigh. "Thank God."
"You never change." Jim threw a gentle arm over his partnerís shoulders. "No more ouija boards, okay?"
"You got it." Blairís brow furrowed. "Iíve got to do some reading. Is Lash just hovering somewhere, waiting to come back? I mean, that was amazing, scary as hell, but amazing. We were haunted."
"I think halfway-possessed is a better description. Lash was trying to get you."
Blair shot him a shocked glance. "What? I was actually possessed? I thought maybe you were. I thought it all through and I didnít feel possessed. I figured that he was after you. What did I do? Did I try to hurt you? I never did anything different. I know I didnít do anything. Did I do anything?"
"Calm down." Jim leaned forward, into Blairís personal space.
"I thought LashÖ I donít knowÖ I thought that he had followed us, latched onto us after the ouija board."
"Well," Jim tried and then scratched his head in frustration. "It was like he was yourÖ"
"Yes?" Blair prodded furiously.
"It was like he was your backpack; you were carrying him with you."
Blairís eyes widened in horror.
"But youíre not owned by a backpack, you own the backpack. Oh, thatís not a good simile."
"Simile, schmimile," Blair half-joked.
"He didnít succeed, Blair," Jim said gravely, in the face of his guideís evident fear. "He didnít even succeed once. He was just kind of hovering around us, trying to find an edge. He didnít have a hope in hell."
A shiver walked up Blairís spine, rocking him to the core. "You sure itís over?" he finally whispered.
"Yeah." Jim looked back to where his spirit guide had sprawled so contentedly. "Itís over."
"What if he comes back?"
Jim breathed in deliberately and deeply. "Iíll send him straight back to hell."
"Good," Blair said emphatically.
"Right. First things first," Jim announced, the beginnings of a grin on his face.
"What?" Blair demanded, thrown by the mercurial changes in mood.
"Well, it will be overÖ" Jim slowly turned Blair to face the destruction that was their living room.
"Itís only fair, you knowÖ"
"You were the one who was playing with the ouija board."
"It will be over after youíve cleaned the loft."